Chapter XXVIII. Carneta
 

I am entirely at your mercy; you can do as you please with me. But before you do anything I should like you to listen to what I have to say."

Her beautiful face was pale and troubled. Violet eyes looked sadly into mine.

"For nearly an hour I have been waiting for this chance - until I knew you were alone," she continued. "If you are thinking of giving me up to the police, at least remember that I came here of my own free will. Of course, I know you are quite entitled to take advantage of that; but please let me say what I came to say!"

She pleaded so hard, with that musical voice, with her evident helplessness, most of all with her wonderful eyes, that I quite abandoned any project I might have entertained to secure her arrest. I think she divined this masculine weakness, for she said, with greater confidence -

"Your friend, Professor Deeping, was murdered by the man called Hassan of Aleppo. Are you content to remain idle while his murderer escapes?"

God knows I was not. My idleness in the matter was none of my choosing. Since poor Deeping's murder I had come to handgrips with the assassins more than once, but Hassan had proved too clever for me, too clever for Scotland Yard. The sacred slipper was once more in the hands of its fanatic guardian.

One man there was who might have helped the search, Earl Dexter. But Earl Dexter was himself wanted by Scotland Yard!

>From the time of the bank affair up to the moment when this beautiful visitor had come to my chambers I had thought Dexter, as well as Hassan, to have fled secretly from England. But the moment that I saw Carneta at my door I divined that The Stetson Man must still be in London.

She sat watching me and awaiting my answer.

"I cannot avenge my friend unless I can find his murderer."

Eagerly she bent forward.

"But if I can find him?"

That made me think, and I hesitated before speaking again.

"Say what you name to say," I replied slowly. "You must know that I distrust you. Indeed, my plain duty is to detain you. But I will listen to anything you may care to tell me, particularly if it enables me to trap Hassan of Aleppo."

"Very well," she said, and rested her elbows upon the table before her. "I have come to you in desperation. I can help you to find the man who murdered Professor Deeping, but in return I want you to help me!"

I watched her closely. She was very plainly, almost poorly, dressed. Her face was pale and there were dark marks around her eyes. This but served to render their strange beauty more startling; yet I could see that my visitor was in real trouble. The situation was an odd one.

"You are possibly about to ask me," I suggested, "to assist Earl Dexter to escape the police?"

She shook her head. Her voice trembled as she replied -

"That would not have induced me to run the risk of coming here. I came because I wanted to find a man who was brave enough to help me. We have no friends in London, and so it became a question of terms. I can repay you by helping you to trace Hassan."

"What is it, then, that Dexter asks me to do?"

"He asks nothing. I, Carneta, am asking!"

"Then you are not come from him?"

At my question, all her self-possession left her. She abruptly dropped her face into her hands and was shaken with sobs! It was more than I could bear, unmoved. I forgot the shady past, forgot that she was the associate of a daring felon, and could only realize that she was a weeping woman, who had appealed to my pity and who asked my aid.

I stood up and stared out of the window, for I experienced a not unnatural embarrassment. Without looking at her I said -

"Don't be afraid to tell me your troubles. I don't say I should go out of my way to be kind to Mr. Dexter, but I have no wish whatever to be instrumental in" - I hesitated - "in making you responsible for his misdeeds. If you can tell me where to find Hassan of Aleppo, I won't even ask you where Dexter is - "

"God help me! I don't know where he is!"

There was real, poignant anguish in her cry. I turned and confronted her. Her lashes were all wet with tears.

"What! has he disappeared?"

She nodded, fought with her emotion a moment, and went on unsteadily,

"I want you to help me to find him for in finding him we shall find Hassan!"

"How so?"

Her gaze avoided me now.

"Mr. Cavanagh, he has staked everything upon securing the slipper - and the Hashishin were too clever for him. His hand - those Eastern fiends cut off his hand! But he would not give in. He made another bid - and lost again. It left him almost penniless."

She spoke of Earl Dexter's felonious plans as another woman might have spoken of her husband's unwise investments! It was fantastic hearing that confession of The Stetson Man's beautiful partner, and I counted the interview one of the strangest I had ever known.

A sudden idea came to me. "When did Dexter first conceive the plan to steal the slipper?" I asked.

"In Egypt!" answered Carneta. "Yes! You may as well know! He is thoroughly familiar with the East, and he learned of the robbery of Professor Deeping almost as soon as it became known to Hassan. I know what you are going to ask - "

"Ahmad Ahmadeen!"

"Yes! He travelled home as Ahmadeen - the only time he ever used a disguise. Oh! the thing is accursed!" she cried. "I begged him, implored him, to abandon his attempts upon it. Day and night we were watched by those ghastly yellow men! But it was all in vain. He knew, had known for a long time, where Hassan of Aleppo was in hiding!"

And I reflected that the best men at New Scotland Yard had failed to pick up the slightest clue!

"The Hashishin, of whom that dreadful man is leader, are rich, or have supporters who are rich. The plan was to make them pay for the slipper."

"My God! it was playing with fire!"

She sat silent awhile. Emotion threatened to get the upper hand. Then -

"Two days ago," she almost whispered, "he set out-to . . . get the slipper!"

"To steal it?"

"To steal it!"

"From Hassan of Aleppo?"

I could scarcely believe that any man, single-handed, could have had the hardihood to attempt such a thing.

"From Hassan, yes!"

I faced her, amazed, incredulous.

"Dexter had suffered mutilation, he knew that the Hashishin sought his life for his previous attempts upon the relic of the Prophet, and yet he dared to venture again into the very lions' den?"

"He did, Mr. Cavanagh, two days ago. And - "

"Yes?" I urged, as gently as I could, for she was shaking pitifully.

"He never came back!"

The words were spoken almost in a whisper. She clenched her hands and leapt from the chair, fighting down her grief and with such a stark horror in her beautiful eyes that from my very soul I longed to be able to help her.

"Mr. Cavanagh" (she had courage, this bewildering accomplice of a cracksman), "I know the house he went to! I cannot hope to make you understand what I have suffered since then. A thousand times I have been on the point of going to the police, confessing all I knew, and leading them to that house! O God! if only he is alive, this shall be his last crooked deal - and mine! I dared not go to the police, for his sake! I waited, and watched, and hoped, through two such nights and days . . . then I ventured. I should have gone mad if I had not come here. I knew you had good cause to hate, to detest me, but I remembered that you had a great grievance against Hassan. Not as great, 0 heaven! not as great as mine, but yet a great one. I remembered, too, that you were the kind of man - a woman can come to . . . "

She sank back into the chair, and with her fingers twining and untwining, sat looking dully before her.

"In brief," I said, "what do you propose?"

"I propose that we endeavour to obtain admittance to the house of Hassan of Aleppo - secretly, of course, and all I ask of you in return for revealing the secret of its situation is - "

"That I let Dexter go free?"

Almost inaudibly she whispered: "If he lives!"

Surely no stranger proposition ever had been submitted to a law-abiding citizen. I was asked to connive in the escape of a notorious criminal, and at one and the same time to embark upon an expedition patently burglarious! As though this were not enough, I was invited to beard Hassan of Aleppo, the most dreadful being I had ever encountered East or West, in his mysterious stronghold!

I wondered what my friend, Inspector Bristol, would have thought of the project; I wondered if I should ever live to see Hassan meet his just deserts as a result of this enterprise, which I was forced to admit a foolhardy one. But a man who has selected the career of a war correspondent from amongst those which Fleet Street offers, is the victim of a certain craving for fresh experiences; I suppose, has in his character something of an adventurous turn.

For a while I stood staring from the window, then faced about and looked into the violet eyes of my visitor.

"I agree, Carneta!" I said.