Chapter VI. The Ring of the Prophet
 

Here is no doubt," said Mr. Rawson, that great personal danger attaches to any contact with this relic. It is the first time I have been concerned with anything of the kind."

Mr. Bristol, of Scotland Yard, standing stiffly military by the window, looked across at the gray-haired solicitor. We were all silent for a few moments.

"My late client's wishes," continued Mr. Rawson, "are explicit. His last instructions, evidently written but a short time prior to his death, advise me that the holy slipper of the Prophet is contained in the locked safe at his house in Dulwich. He was clearly of opinion that you, Mr. Cavanagh, would incur risk - great risk - from your possession of the key. Since attempts have been made upon you, murderous attempts, the late Professor Deeping, my unfortunate client, evidently was not in error."

"Mysterious outrages," said Bristol, "have marked the progress of the stolen slipper from Mecca almost to London."

"I understand," interrupted the solicitor, "that a fanatic known as Hassan of Aleppo seeks to restore the relic to its former restingplace."

"That is so."

"Exactly; and it accounts for the Professor's wish that the safe should not be touched by any one but a Believer - and for his instructions that its removal to the Antiquarian Museum and the placing of the slipper within that institution be undertaken by a Moslem or Moslems."

Bristol frowned.

"Any one who has touched the receptacle containing the thing," he said, "has either been mutilated or murdered. I want to apprehend the authors of those outrages, but I fail to see why the slipper should be put on exhibition. Other crimes are sure to follow."

"I can only pursue my instructions," said Mr. Rawson dryly. "They are, that the work be done in such a manner as to expose all concerned to a minimum of risk from these mysterious people; that if possible a Moslem be employed for the purpose; and that Mr. Cavanagh, here, shall always hold the key or keys to the case in the museum containing the slipper. Will you undertake to look for some - Eastern workmen, Mr. Bristol? In the course of your inquiries you may possibly come across such a person.

"I can try," replied Bristol. "Meanwhile, I take it, the safe must remain at Dulwich?"

"Certainly. It should be guarded."

"We are guarding it and shall guard it," Bristol assured him. "I only hope we catch someone trying to get at it!"

Shortly afterward Bristol and I left the office, and, his duties taking him to Scotland Yard, I returned to my chambers to survey the position in which I now found myself. Indeed, it was a strange one enough, showing how great things have small beginnings; for, as a result of a steamer acquaintance I found myself involved in a dark business worthy of the Middle Ages. That Professor Deeping should have stolen one of the holy slippers of Mohammed was no affair of mine, and that an awful being known as Hassan of Aleppo should have pursued it did not properly enter into my concerns; yet now, with a group of Eastern fanatics at large in England, I was become, in a sense, the custodian of the relic. Moreover, I perceived that I had been chosen that I might safeguard myself. What I knew of the matter might imperil me, but whilst I held the key to the reliquary, and held it fast, I might hope to remain immune though I must expect to be subjected to attempts. It would be my affair to come to terms.

Contemplating these things I sat, in a world of dark dreams, unconscious of the comings and goings in the court below, unconscious of the hum which told of busy Fleet Street so near to me. The weather, as is its uncomfortable habit in England, had suddenly grown tropically hot, plunging London into the vapours of an African spring, and the sun was streaming through my open window fully upon the table.

I mopped my clammy forehead, glancing with distaste at the pile of work which lay before me. Then my eyes turned to an open quarto book. It was the late Professor Deeping's "Assyrian Mythology," and embodied the result of his researches into the history of the Hashishin, the religious murderers of whose existence he had been so skeptical. To the Chief of the Order, the terrible Sheikh Hassan of Aleppo, he referred as a "fabled being"; yet it was at the hands of this "fabled being" that he had met his end! How incredible it all seemed. But I knew full well how worthy of credence it was.

Then upon my gloomy musings a sound intruded-the ringing of my door bell. I rose from my chair with a weary sigh, went to the door, and opened it. An aged Oriental stood without. He was tall and straight, had a snow-white beard and clear-cut, handsome features. He wore well-cut; European garments and a green turban. As I stood staring he saluted me gravely.

"Mr. Cavanagh?" he asked, speaking in faultless English.

"I am he."

"I learn that the services of a Moslem workman are required."

"Quite correct, sir; but you should apply at the offices of Messrs. Rawson & Rawson, Chancery Lane."

The old man bowed, smiling.

"Many thanks; I understood so much. But, my position being a peculiar one, I wished to speak with you - as a friend of the late Professor."

I hesitated. The old man looked harmless enough, but there was an air of mystery about the matter which put me on my guard.

"You will pardon me," I said, "but the work is scarcely of a kind - "

He raised his thin hand.

"I am not undertaking it myself. I wished to explain to you the conditions under which I could arrange to furnish suitable porters."

His patient explanation disposed me to believe that he was merely some kind of small contractor, and in any event I had nothing to fear from this frail old man.

"Step in, sir," I said, repenting of my brusquerie - and stood aside for him.

He entered, with that Oriental meekness in which there is something majestic. I placed a chair for him in the study, and reseated myself at the table. The old man, who from the first had kept his eyes lowered deferentially, turned to me with a gentle gesture, as if to apologize for opening the conversation.

"From the papers, Mr. Cavanagh," he began, "I have learned of the circumstances attending the death of Professor Deeping. "Your papers" - he smiled, and I thought I had never seen a smile of such sweetness - "your papers know all! Now I understand why a Moslem is required, and I understand what is required of him. But remembering that the object of his labours would be to place a holy relic on exhibition for the amusement of unbelievers, can you reasonably expect to obtain the services of one?"

His point of view was fair enough.

"Perhaps not," I replied. "For my own part I should wish to see the slipper back in Mecca, or wherever it came from. But Professor Deeping - "

"Professor Deeping was a thorn in the flesh of the Faithful!"

My visitor s voice was gravely reproachful.

"Nevertheless his wishes must be considered," I said, "and the methods adopted by those who seek to recover the relic are such as to alienate all sympathy."

"You speak of the Hashishin?" asked the old man. "Mr. Cavanagh, in your own faith you have had those who spilled the blood of infidels as freely!"

"My good sir, the existence of such an organization cannot be tolerated today! This survival of the dark ages must be stamped out. However just a cause may be, secret murder is not permissible, as you, a man of culture, a Believer, and" - I glanced at his unusual turban - " a descendant of the Prophet, must admit."

"I can admit nothing against the Guardian of the Tradition, Mr. Cavanagh! The Prophet taught that we should smite the Infidel. I ask you-have you the courage of your convictions?"

"Perhaps; I trust so."

"Then assist me to rid England of what you have called a survival of the dark ages. I will furnish porters to remove and carry the safe, if you will deliver to me the key!"

I sprang to my feet.

"That is madness!" I cried. "In the first place I should be compromising with my conscience, and in the second place I should be defenceless against those who might - "

"I have with me a written promise from one highly placed - one to whose will Hassan of Aleppo bows!"

My mind greatly disturbed, I watched the venerable speaker. I had determined now that he was some religious leader of Islam in England, who had been deputed to approach me; and, let me add, I was sorely tempted to accede to his proposal, for nothing would be gained by any one if the slipper remained for ever at the museum, whereas by conniving at its recovery by those who, after all, were its rightful owners I should be ridding England of a weird and undesirable visitant.

I think I should have agreed, when I remembered that the Hashishin had murdered Professor Deeping and had mutilated others wholly innocent of offence. I looked across at the old man. He had drawn himself up to his great height, and for the first time fully raising the lids, had fixed upon me the piercing gaze of a pair of eagle eyes. I started, for the aspect of this majestic figure was entirely different from that of the old stranger who had stood suppliant before me a moment ago.

"It is impossible," I said. "I can come to no terms with those who shield murderers."

He regarded me fixedly, but did not move.

"Es-selam 'aleykum!" I added ("Peace be on you!") closing the interview in the Eastern manner.

The old man lowered his eyes, and saluted me with graceful gravity.

"Wa-'aleykum!" he said ("And on you!"). I conducted him to the door and closed it upon his exit. In his last salute I had noticed the flashing of a ring which he wore upon his left hand, and he was gone scarce ten seconds ere my heart began to beat furiously. I snatched up "Assyrian Mythology" and with trembling fingers turned to a certain page.

There I read-

Each Sheikh of the Assassins is said to be invested with the "Ring of the Prophet." It bears a green stone, shaped in the form of a scimitar or crescent.

My dreadful suspicion was confirmed. I knew who my visitor had been.

"God in heaven!" I whispered. "It was Hassan of Aleppo!"