Chapter XXXI. The Pool of Death
 

Not a sound broke the stillness of the Gate House. It was the most eerily silent place in which I had ever found myself. Out into the corridor we went, noiselessly. It was stripped, uncarpeted.

Three doors we passed, two upon the left and one upon the right. We tried them all. All were unfastened, and the rooms into which they opened bare and deserted. Then we came upon a short, descending stair, at its foot a massive oaken door.

Carneta glided down, noiseless as a ghost, and to one of the blackened panels applied an ingenious little instrument which she carried in her knapsack. It was not unlike a stethoscope; and as I watched her listening, by means of this arrangement, for any sound beyond the oaken door, I reflected how almost every advance made by science places a new tool in the hand of the criminal.

No word had been spoken since we had discovered this door; none had been necessary. For we both knew that the place beyond was that from which proceeded the mysterious red light.

I directed the ray of the electric torch upon Carneta, as she stood there listening, and against that sombre oaken background her face and profile stood out with startling beauty. She seemed half perplexed and half fearful. Then she abruptly removed the apparatus, and, stooping to the knapsack, replaced it and took out a bunch of wire keys, signing to me to hand her the lamp.

As I crept down the steps I saw her pause, glancing back over her shoulder toward the door. The expression upon her face induced me to direct the light in the same direction.

Why neither of us had observed the fact before I cannot conjecture; but a key was in the lock!

Perhaps the traffic of the night afforded no more dramatic moment than this. The house which we were come prepared burglariously to enter was thrown open, it would seem, to us, inviting our inspection!

Looking back upon that moment, it seems almost incredible that the sight of a key in a lock should have so thrilled me. But at the time I perceived something sinister in this failure of the Lord of the Hashishin to close his doors to intruders. That Carneta shared my doubts and fears was to be read in her face; but her training had been peculiar, I learned, and such as establishes a surprising resoluteness of character.

Quite noiselessly she turned the key, and holding a dainty pocket revolver in her hand, pushed the door open slowly!

An odour, sickly sweet and vaguely familiar, was borne to my nostrils. Carneta became outlined in dim, reddish light. Bending forward slightly, she entered the room, and I, with muscles tensed nervously, advanced and stood beside her.

I perceived that this was a cellar; indeed, I doubt not that in some past age it had served as a dungeon. From the stone roof hung the first evidence of Eastern occupation which the Gate House had yielded; in the form of an Oriental lantern, or fanoos, of rose-coloured waxed paper upon a copper frame. Its vague light revealed the interior of the hideous place upon whose threshold we stood.

Straight before us, deep set in the stone wall, was the tiny square window, iron-barred without, and glazed with red glass, the light from which had so deeply mystified us. Within a niche in the wall, a little to the left of the window, rested an object which, at that moment, claimed our undivided attention the sight of which so wrought upon us that temporarily all else was forgotten.

It was the red slipper of the Prophet!

"My God!" whispered Carneta - "my God!" - and clutched at me, swaying dizzily.

A few inches from our feet the floor became depressed, how deeply I could not determine, for it was filled with water, water filthy and slimy! The strange, nauseating odour had grown all but unsupportable; it seemingly proceeded from this fetid pool which, occupying the floor of the dungeon, offered a barrier, since its depth was unknown, of fully twelve feet between ourselves and the farther wall.

There was a faint, dripping sound: a whispering, echoing drip-drip of falling water. I could not tell from whence it proceeded.

Almost supporting my companion, whose courage seemed suddenly to have failed her, I stared fascinatedly at that blood-stained relic. Something then induced me to look behind; I suppose a warning instinct of that sort which is unexplainable. I only know that upholding Carneta with my left arm, and nervously grasping my revolver in my right, I turned and glanced over my shoulder.

Very slowly, but with a constant, regular motion, the massive door was closing!

I snatched away my arm; in my left hand I held the electric torch, and springing sharply about I directed the searching ray into the black gap of the stairway. A yellow face, a malignant Oriental face, came suddenly, fully, into view! Instantly I recognized it for that of the man who had driven Hassan's car!

Acting upon the determination with which I had entered the Gate House, I raised my revolver and fired straight between the evil eyes! To the fact that I dropped my left hand in the act of pulling the trigger with my right, and thus lost my mark, the servant of Hassan of Aleppo owed his escape. I missed him. He uttered a shrill cry of fear and went racing up the wooden stair. I followed him with the light and fired twice at the retreating figure. I heard him stumble and a second time cry out. But, though I doubt not he was hit, he recovered himself, for I heard his tread in the corridor above.

Propping wide the door with my foot, I turned to Carneta. Her face was drawn and haggard; but her mouth set in a sort of grim determination.

"Earl is dead!" she said, in a queer, toneless voice. "He died trying to get - that thing! I will get it, and destroy it!"

Before I could detain her, even had I sought to do so, she stepped into the filthy water, struggled to recover her foothold, and sank above her waist into its sliminess. Without hesitation she began to advance toward the niche which contained the slipper. In the, middle of the pool she stopped.

What memory it was which supplied the clue to the identity of that nauseating smell, heaven alone knows; but as the girl stopped and drew herself up rigidly - then turned and leapt wildly back toward the door-I knew what occasioned that sickly odour!

She screamed once, dreadfully - shrilly - a scream of agonizing fear that I can never forget. Then, roughly I grasped her, for the need was urgent - and dragged her out on to the floor beside me. With her wet garments clinging to her limbs, she fell prostrate on the stones.

A yard from the brink the slimy water parted, and the yellow snout of a huge crocodile was raised above the surface! The saurian eyes, hungrily malevolent, rose next to view!

The extremity of our danger found me suddenly cool. As the thing drew its slimy body up out of the poor I waited. The jaws were extended toward the prostrate body, were but inches removed from it, dripped their saliva upon the soddened skirt - when I bent forward, and at a range of some ten inches emptied the remaining three loaded chambers of my revolver into the creature's left eye!

Upchurned in bloody foam became the water of that dreadful place . . . . As one recalls the incidents of a fevered dream, I recall dragging Carneta away from the contorted body of the death-stricken reptile. A nightmare chaos of horrid, revolting sights and sounds forms my only recollection of quitting the dungeon of the slipper.

I succeeded in carrying her up the stairs and out through the empty rooms on to the verandah; but there, from sheer exhaustion, I laid her down. I had no means of reviving her and I lacked the strength to carry her farther. Having recharged my revolver, I stood watching her where she lay, wanly beautiful in the dim light.

There was no doubt in my mind respecting the fate of Earl Dexter, nor could I doubt that the slipper in the dungeon below was a duplicate of the real one. It was a death-trap into which he had lured Dexter and which he had left baited for whomsoever might trace the cracksman to the Gate House. Why Hassan should have remained behind, unless from fanatic lust of killing, I could not imagine.

When at last the fresher night air had its effect, and Carneta opened her eyes, I led her to the gates, nor did she offer the slightest resistance, but looked dully before her, muttering over and over again, "Earl, Earl!"

The gates were open; we passed out on to the open road. No man pursued us, and the night was gravely still.