Chapter XXXIV. My Last Meeting with Hassan of Aleppo
 

I felt dazed, as a man must feel who has just heard the death sentence pronounced upon him. Hilton seemed to have become incapable of speech or action; and in silence we stood watching Carneta tending the unconscious man. She forced brandy from a flask between his teeth, kneeling there beside him with her face very pale and dark rings around her eyes. Presently she looked up.

"Will you please get me a bowl of water and a sponge?" she said quietly.

Soar departed without a word, and no one spoke until he returned, bringing the sponge and the water, when the girl set to work in a businesslike way to cleanse a wound which showed upon the man's head.

"She's a good nurse is Carneta," said Dexter coolly. "She was the only doctor I had through this" - indicating his maimed wrist. "If you will fetch my bag down, there's some lint in it."

I hesitated.

"You needn't worry," said Dexter; "as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. You've handled the bag, and I'm not asking you to do any more."

I went up to my room and lifted the grip from the chair upon which I had put it. Even now I found it difficult to perceive any difference between this and mine. Both were of identical appearance and both new. In fact, I had bought mine only that morning, my old one being past use, and being in a hurry, I had not left it to be initialled.

As I picked up the bag the lightning flashed again, and from the window I could see the orchard as clearly as by sunlight. At the farther end near the wall someone was standing watching the house.

I went downstairs carrying the fatal bag, and rejoined the group in the hall.

"He will have to be got to bed," said Carneta, referring to the wounded man; "he will probably remain unconscious for a long time.

Accordingly, we took the patient into one of the few furnished bedrooms, and having put him to bed left him in care of the beautiful nurse. When we four men met again downstairs, amazement had rendered the whole scene unreal to me. Soar stood just within the open door, not knowing whether to go or to remain; but Hilton motioned to him to stay. Earl Dexter bit off the end of a cigar and stood with his left elbow resting on the mantelpiece.

His gaunt face looked gaunter than ever, but the daredevil gray eyes still nursed that humorous light in their depths.

"Mr. Cavanagh," he said, "we're brothers! And if you'll consider a minute, you'll see that I'm not lying when I say I'm on the straight, now and for always!"

I made no reply: I could think of none.

"I'm a crook," he resumed, "or I was up to a while ago. There's a warrant out for me - the first that ever bore my name. I've sailed near the wind often enough, but it was desperation that got me into hot water about that!"

He jerked his cigar in the direction of his grip, which lay now on the rug at his feet.

"I lost a useful right hand," he went on - "and I lost every cent I had. It was a dead rotten speculation - for I lost my good name! I mean it! Believe me, I've handled some shady propositions in the past, but I did it right in the sunlight! Up to the time I went out for that damned slipper I could have had lunch with any detective from Broadway to the Strand! I didn't need any false whiskers and the Ritz was good enough for The Stetson Man. What now? I'm 'wanted!' Enough said."

He tossed the cigar - he had smoked scarce an inch of it - into the empty grate.

"I'm an Aunt Sally for any man to shy at," he resumed bitterly. "My place henceforth is in the dark. Right! I've finished; the book's closed. From the time I quit England - if I can quit - I'm on the straight! I've promised Carneta, and I mean to keep my word. See here - "

Dexter turned to me.

"You'll want to know how I escaped from the cursed death-trap at Hassan's house in Kent? I'll tell you. I was never in it! I was hiding and waiting my chance. You know what was left to guard the slipper while the Sheikh - rot him - was away looking after arrangements for getting his mob out of the country?"

I nodded.

"You fell into the trap - you and Carneta. By God! I didn't know till it was all over! But two minutes later I was inside that place - and three minutes later I was away with the slipper! Oh, it wasn't a duplicate; it was the goods! What then? Carneta had had a sickening of the business and she just invited me to say Yes or No. I said Yes; and I'm a straight man onward."

"Then what were you doing on the train with the slipper?" asked Hilton sharply.

"I was going to Liverpool, sir!" snapped The Stetson Man, turning on him. "I was going to try to get aboard the Mauretania and then make terms for my life! What happened? I slipped out at Birmingham for a drink - grip in hand! I put it down beside me, and Mr. Cavanagh here, all in a hustle, must have rushed in behind me, snatched a whisky and snatched my grip and started for H-!"

A vivid flash of lightning flickered about the, room. Then came the deafening boom of the thunder, right over the house it seemed.

"I knew from the weight of the grip it wasn't mine," said Dexter, "and I was the most surprised guy in Great Britain and Ireland when I found whose it was! I opened it, of course! And right on top was a waistcoat and right in the first pocket was a telegram. Here it is!"

He passed it to me. It was that which I had received from Hilton. I had packed the suit which I had been wearing that morning and must previously have thrust the telegram into the waistcoat pocket.

"Providence!" Dexter assured me. "Because I got on the station in time to see Hassan of Aleppo join the train for H-! I was too late, though. But I chartered a taxi out on Corporation Street and invited the man to race the local! He couldn't do it, but we got here in time for the fireworks! Mr. Cavanagh, there are anything from six to ten Hashishin watching this house!"

"I know it!"

"They're bareheaded; and in the dark their shaven skulls look like nothing human. They're armed with those damned tubes, too. I'd give a thousand dollars - if I had it! - to know their mechanism. Well, gentlemen, deeds speak. What am I here for, when I might be on the way to Liverpool, and safety?"

"You're here to try to make up for the past a bit!" said a soft, musical voice. "Mr. Cavanagh's life is in danger."

Carneta entered the room.

The light played in that wonderful hair of hers; and pale though she was, I thought I had never seen a more beautiful woman.

"Tell them," she said quietly, "what must be done."

Soar glanced at me out of the corner of his eyes and shifted uneasily. Hilton stared as if fascinated.

"Now," rapped Dexter, in his strident voice, "putting aside all questions of justice and right (we're not policemen), what do we want - you and I, Mr. Cavanagh?"

"I can't think clearly about anything," I said dully. "Explain yourself."

"Very well. Inspector Bristol, C.I.D., would want me and Hassan arrested. I don't want that! What I want is peace; I want to be able to sleep in comfort; I want to know I'm not likely to be murdered on the next corner! Same with you?"

"Yes - yes."

"How can we manage it? One way would be to kill Hassan of Aleppo; but he wants a lot of killing - I've tried! Moreover, directly we'd done it, another Sheikh-al-jebal would be nominated and he'd carry on the bloody work. We'd be worse off than ever. Right! we've got to connive at letting the blood-stained fanatic escape, and we've got to give up the slipper!"

"I'll do that with all my heart!"

"Sure! But you and I have both got little scores up against Hassan, which it's not in human nature to forget. But I've got it worked out that there's only one way. It may nearly choke us to have to do it, I'll allow. I'm working on the Moslem character. Mr. Hilton, make up a fire in the grate here!"

Hilton stared, not comprehending.

"Do as he asks," I said. "Personally, I am resigned to mutilation, since I have touched the bag containing the slipper, but if Dexter has a plan - "

"Excuse me, sir," Soar interrupted. "I believe there's some coal in the coal-box, but I shall have to break up a packing-case for firewood - or go out into the yard!"

"Let it be the packing-case," replied Hilton hastily.

Accordingly a fire was kindled, whilst we all stood about the room in a sort of fearful uncertainty; and before long a big blaze was roaring up the chimney. Dexter turned to me.

"Mr. Cavanagh," said he, "I want you to go right upstairs, open a first-floor window - I would suggest that of your bedroom - and invite Hassan of Aleppo to come and discuss terms!"

Silence followed his words; we were all amazed. Then -

"Why do you ask me to do this?" I inquired.

"Because," replied Dexter, "I happen to know that Hassan has some queer kind of respect for you - I don't know why."

"Which is probably the reason why he tried to kill me to-night!"

"That's beside the question, Mr. Cavanagh. He will believe you - which is the important point."

"Very well. I have no idea what you have in mind but I am prepared to adopt any plan since I have none of my own. What shall I say?"

"Say that we are prepared to return the slipper - on conditions."

"He will probably try to shoot me as stand at the window."

Dexter shrugged his shoulders.

"Got to risk it," he drawled.

"And what are the conditions?"

"He must come right in here and discuss them! Guarantee him safe conduct and I don't think he'll hesitate. Anyway, if he does, just tell him that the slipper will be destroyed immediately!"

Without a word I turned on my heel and ascended the stairs.

I entered my room, crossed to the window, and threw it widely open. Hovering over the distant hills I could see the ominous thunder cloud, but the storm seemed to have passed from "Uplands," and only a distant muttering with the faint dripping of water from the pipes broke the silence of the night. A great darkness reigned, however, and I was entirely unable to see if any one was in the orchard.

Like some mueddin of fantastic fable I stood there.

"Hassan!" I cried - "Hassan of Aleppo!"

The name rang out strangely upon the stillness - the name which for me had a dreadful significance; but the whole episode seemed unreal, the voice that had cried unlike my voice.

Instantly as any magician summoning an efreet I was answered.

Out from the trees strode a tall figure, a figure I could not mistake. It was that of Hassan of Aleppo!

"I hear, effendim, and obey," he said. "I am ready. Open the door!"

"We are prepared to discuss terms. You may come and go safely" - still my voice sounded unfamiliar in my ears.

"I know, effendim; it is so written. Open the door."

I closed the window and mechanically descended the stairs.

"Mind it isn't a trap!" cried Hilton, who, with the others, had overheard every word of this strange interview. "They may try to rush the door directly we open it."

"I'll stand the chest behind it," said Soar; "between the door and the wall, so that only one can enter at a time.

This was done, and the door opened.

Alone, majestic, entered Hassan of Aleppo.

He was dressed in European clothes but wore the green turban of a Sherif. With his snowy beard and coal-black eyes he seemed like a vision of the Prophet, of the Prophet in whose name he had committed such ghastly atrocities.

Deigning no glance to Soar nor to Hilton, he paced into the room, passing me and ignoring Carneta, where Earl Dexter awaited him. I shall never forget the scene as Hassan entered, to stand looking with blazing eyes at The Stetson Man, who sat beside the fire with the slipper of Mohammed in his hand!

"Hassan," said Dexter quietly, "Mr. Cavanagh has had to promise you safe conduct, or as sure as God made me, I'd put a bullet in you!"

The Sheikh of the Hashishin glared fixedly at him.

"Companion of the evil one," he said, "it is not written that I shall die by your hand - or by the hand of any here. But it has been revealed to me that to-night the gates of Paradise may be closed in my face."

"I shouldn't be at all surprised," drawled Dexter. "But it's up to you. You've got to swear by Mohammed - "

"Salla-'llahu 'aleyhi wasellem!"

"That you won't lay a hand upon any living soul, or allow any of your followers to do so, who has touched the slipper or had anything to do with it, but that you will go in peace."

"You are doomed to die!"

"You don't agree, then?"

"Those who have offended must suffer the penalty!"

"Right!" said Dexter - and prepared to toss the slipper into the heart of the fire?

"Stop! Infidel! Stop!"

There was real agony in Hassan's voice. To my inexpressible surprise he dropped upon his knee, extending his lean brown hands toward the slipper.

Dexter hesitated. "You agree, then?"

Hassan raised his eyes to the ceiling.

"I agree," he said. "Dark are the ways. It is the will of God. . ."

Dimly the booming of the thunder came echoing back to us from the hills. Above its roll sounded a barbaric chanting to which the drums of angry heaven formed a fitting accompaniment.

I heard Soar shooting the bolts again upon the going of our strange visitor.

Faint and more faint grew the chanting, until it merged into the remote muttering of the storm-and was lost. The quest of the sacred slipper was ended.