Chapter XXXIII. How We Were Reinforced
 

Hilton, I learned, was living the simple life at "Uplands." The place was not yet decorated and was only partly furnished. But with his man, Soar, he had been in solitary occupation for a week.

"Feel better now?" he asked anxiously.

I reached for my tumbler and blew a cloud of smoke into the air. I could hear Soar's footsteps as he made the round of bolts and bars, testing each anxiously.

"Thanks, Hilton," I said. "I'm quite all right. You are naturally wondering what the devil it all means? Well, then, I wired you from Euston that I was coming by the 6:55

"H Post Office shuts at 7. I shall get your wire in the morning!"

"That explains your failing to meet me. Now for my explanation!"

"Surrounding this house at the present moment," I continued, "are members of an Eastern organization - the Hashishin, founded in Khorassan in the eleventh century and flourishing to-day!"

"Do you mean it, Cavanagh?"

"I do! One Hassan of Aleppo is the present Sheikh of the order, and he has come to England, bringing a fiendish company in his train, in pursuit of the sacred slipper of Mohammed, which was stolen by the late Professor Deeping - "

"Surely I have read something about this?"

"Probably. Deeping was murdered by Hassan! The slipper was placed in the Antiquarian Museum - "

"From which it was stolen again!"

"Correct - by Earl Dexter, America's foremost crook! But the real facts have never got into print. I am the only pressman who knows them, and I have good reason for keeping my knowledge to myself! Dexter is dead (I believe I saw his ghost to-day). But although, to the best of my knowledge, the accursed slipper is in the hands of Hassan and Company, I have been watched since I left Euston, and on my way to "Uplands" my life was attempted!"

"For God's sake, why?"

"I cannot surmise, Hilton. Deeping, for certain reasons that are irrelevant at the moment, left the keys of the case at the Museum in my perpetual keeping - but the case was rifled a second time - "

"I read of it!"

"And the keys were stolen from me. I am utterly at a loss to understand why the Hashishin - for it is members of that awful organization who, without a doubt, surround this house at the present moment - should seek my life. Hilton, I have brought trouble with me!"

"It's almost incredible!" said Hilton, staring at me. "Why do these people pursue you?"

Ere I had time to reply Soar entered, arrayed, as was Hilton, in his night attire. Soar was an ex-dragoon and a model man.

"Everything fast, sir," he reported; "but from the window of the bedroom over here - the room I got ready for Mr. Cavanagh - I thought I saw someone in the orchard."

"Eh?" jerked Hilton - "in the orchard? Come on up, Cavanagh!"

We all ran upstairs. The moonlight was streaming into the room.

"Keep back!" I warned.

Well within the shadow, I crept up to the window and looked out. The night was hot and still. No breeze stirred the leaves, but the edge of the frowning thunder cloud which I had noted before spread a heavy carpet of ebony black upon the ground. Beyond, I could dimly discern the hills. The others stood behind me, constrained by the fear of this mysterious danger which I had brought to "Uplands."

There was someone moving among the trees!

Closer came the figure, and closer, until suddenly a shaft of moonlight found passage and spilled a momentary pool of light amid the shadows, I could see the watcher very clearly. A moment he stood there, motionless, and looking up at the window; then as he glided again into the shade of the trees the darkness became complete. But I watched, crouching there nervously, for long after he was gone.

"For God's sake, who is it?" whispered Hilton, with a sort of awe in his voice.

"It's Hassan of Aleppo!" I replied.

Virtually, the house, with the capital of the Midlands so near upon the one hand, the feverish activity of the Black Country reddening the night upon the other, was invested by fanatic Easterns!

We descended again to the extemporized study. Soar entered with us and Hilton invited him to sit down.

"We must stick together to-night!" he said. "Now, Cavanagh, let us see if we can find any explanation of this amazing business. I can understand that at one period of the slipper's history you were an object of interest to those who sought to recover it; but if, as you say, the Hashishin have the slipper now, what do they want with you? If you have never touched it, they cannot be prompted by desire for vengeance."

"I have never touched it," I replied grimly; "nor even any receptacle containing it."

As I ceased speaking came a distant muffled rumbling.

"That's the thunder," said Hilton. "There's a tremendous storm brewing."

He poured out three glasses of whisky, and was about to speak when Soar held up a warning finger.

"Listen!" he said.

At his words, with tropical suddenness down came the rain.

Hilton, his pipe in his hand, stood listening intently.

"What?" he asked.

"I don't know, sir; the sound of the rain has drowned it."

Indeed, the rain was descending in a perfect deluge, its continuous roar drowning all other sounds; but as we three listened tensely we detected a noise which hitherto had seemed like the overflowing of some spout.

But louder and clearer it grew, until at last I knew it for what it was.

"It's a motor-car!" I cried.

"And coming here!" added Soar. "Listen! it's in the lane!"'

"It certainly isn't a taxicab," declared Hilton. "None of the men will come beyond the village."

"That's the gate!" said Soar, in an awed voice, and stood up, looking at Hilton.

"Come on," said the latter abruptly, making for the door.

"Be careful, Hilton!" I cried; "it may be a trick!"

Soar unbolted the front door, threw it open, and looked out. In the darkness of the storm it was almost impossible to see anything in the lane outside. But at that moment a great sheet of lightning split the gloom, and we saw a taxicab standing close up to the gateway!

"Help! Open the gate!" came a high-pitched voice; "open the gate!"

Out into the rain we ran and down the gravel path. Soar had the gate open in a twinkling, and a woman carrying a brown leather grip, but who was so closely veiled that I had no glimpse of her features, leapt through on to the drive.

"Lend a hand, two of you!" cried a vaguely familiar voice - "this way!"

Hilton and Soar stepped out into the road. The driver of the cab was lying forward across the wheel, apparently insensible, but as Hilton seized his arm he moved and spoke feebly.

"For God's sake be quick, sir!" he said. "They're after us! They're on the other side of the lane, there!"

With that he dropped limply into Hilton's arms!

He was dragged in on to the drive - and something whizzed over our heads and went sputtering into the gravel away up toward the house. The last to enter was the man who had come in the cab. As he barred the gate behind him he suddenly reached out through the bars and I saw a pistol in his hand.

Once - twice - thrice - he fired into the blackness of the lane.

"Take that, you swine!" he shouted. "Take that!"

As quickly as we could, bearing the insensible man, we hurried back to the door. On the step the woman was waiting for us, with her veil raised. A blinding flash of lightning came as we mounted the step - and I looked into the violet eyes of Carneta! I turned and stared at the man behind me.

It was Earl Dexter.

Three of the mysterious missiles fell amongst us, but miraculously no one was struck. Amid the mighty booming of the thunder we reentered the houses and got the door barred. In the hall we laid down the unconscious man and stood, a strangely met company, peering at one another in the dim lamplight.

"We've got to bury the hatchet, Mr. Cavanagh!" said Dexter. "It's a case of the common enemy I've brought you your bag!" and he pointed to the brown grip upon the floor.

"My bag!" I cried. "My bag is upstairs in my room."

"Wrong, sir!" snapped The Stetson Man. "They are like as two peas in a pod, I'll grant you, but the bag you snatched off the platform at New Street was mine! That's what I'm after; I ought to be on the way to Liverpool. That's what Hassan's after!"

"The bag!"

"You don't need to ask what's in the bag?" suggested Dexter.

"What is in the bag?" ask Hilton hoarsely.

"The slipper of the Prophet, sir!" was the reply.