Chapter IX. Second Attempt on the Safe
 

"You see," said Bristol, "the Hashishin must know that the safe won't remain here unopened much longer. They will therefore probably make another attempt to-night."

"It seems likely," I replied; and was silent. Outside the open windows whispered the shrubbery, as a soft breeze stole through the bushes. Beyond, the moon made play in the dim avenue. From the old chapel hard by the sweet-toned bell proclaimed midnight. Our vigil was begun. In this room it was that Professor Deeping had met death at the hands of the murderous Easterns; here it was that Marden and West had mysteriously been struck down the night before.

To-night was every whit as hot, and Bristol and I had the windows widely opened. My companion was seated where the detective, Marden, had sat, in a chair near the westerly window, and I lay back in the armchair that had been occupied by West.

I may repeat here that the house of the late Professor Deeping was more properly a cottage, surrounded by a fairly large piece of ground, for the most part run wild. The room used as a study was on the ground floor, and had windows on the west and on the south. Those on the west (French windows) opened on a loggia; those on the south opened right into the dense tangle of a neglected shrubbery. The place possessed an oppressive atmosphere of loneliness, for which in some measure its history may have been responsible.

The silence, seemingly intensified by each whisper that sped through the elms and crept about the shrubbery, grew to such a stillness that I told myself I had experienced nothing like it since crossing with a caravan I had slept in the desert. Yet noisy, whirling London was within gunshot of us; and this, though hard enough to believe, was a reflection oddly comforting. Only one train of thought was possible, and this I pursued at random.

By what means were Marden and West struck down? In thus exposing ourselves, in order that we might trap the author or authors of the outrage, did we act wisely?

"Bristol," I said suddenly, "it was someone who came through the open window."

"No one," he replied, "came through the windows. West saw absolutely nothing. But if any one comes that way to-night, we have him!"

"West may have seen nothing; but how else could any one enter?"

Bristol offered' no reply; and I plunged again into a maze of speculation.

Powerful mantraps were set in such a way that any one or anything, ignorant of their positions, coming up to the windows must unavoidably be snared. These had been placed in position with much secrecy after dusk, and the man on duty at the gate stood with his back to the wall. No one could approach him except from the front. My thoughts took a new turn.

Was the girl with the violet eyes an ally of the Hashishin? Thus far, although she so palpably had tricked me, I had found myself unable to speak of her to Bristol; for the idea had entered my mind that she might have learned of the plan to murder Deeping without directly being implicated. Now came yet another explanation. The publicity given to that sensational case might have interested some third party in the fate of the stolen slipper! Could it be that others, in no way connected with the dreadful Hassan of Aleppo, were in quest of the slipper?

Scotland Yard had taken care to ensure that the general public be kept in ignorance of the existence of such an organization as the Hashishin, but I must assume that this hypothetical third party were well aware that they had Hassan, as well as the authorities, to count with. Granting the existence of such a party, my beautiful acquaintance might be classified as one of its members. I spoke again.

"Bristol," I said,"has it occurred to you that there may be others, as well as Hassan of Aleppo, seeking to gain possession of the sacred slipper?"

"It has not," he replied. "In the strictest sense of the expression, they would be out for trouble! What gave you the idea?"

"I hardly know," I returned evasively, for even now I was loath to betray the mysterious girl with the wonderful eyes.

The chapel bell sounding the half-hour, Bristol rose with a sigh that might have been one of relief, and went out to take the report of the man on duty at the gate. As his footsteps died away along the elm avenue, it came to me how, in the darkness about, menace lurked; and I felt myself succumbing to the greatest dread experienced by man - the dread of the unknown.

All that I knew of the weird group of fanatics - survivals of a dim and evil past - who must now be watching this cottage as bloodlustful devotees watch a shrine violated, burst upon my mind. I peopled the still blackness with lurking assassins, armed with the murderous knowledge of by-gone centuries, armed with invisible weapons which struck down from afar, supernaturally.

I glanced toward the corner of the room where the safe stood, reliquary of a worthless thing for which much blood had been spilled.

Then sounded footsteps along the avenue, and my fear whispered that they were not those of Bristol but of one who had murdered him, and who came guilefully, to murder me!

I snatched the revolver from my pocket and crossed the darkened room. Just to the right of one of the French windows I stood looking out across the loggia to the end of the avenue. The night was a bright one, and the room was flooded with a reflected mystic light, but outside the moon paved the avenue with pearl, and through the trees I saw a figure approaching.

Was it Bristol? It had his build, it had his gait; but my fears remained. Then the figure crossed the patch of shrubbery and stepped on to the loggia.

"Mr. Cavanagh!"

I laughed dryly at my own cowardice, but my heart was still beating abnormally.

"Here I am, Bristol, in a ghastly funk!"

"I don't wonder! They may be on us any time now. All's well at the gate, but Morris says he heard, or thought he heard something at the side of the chapel opposite, a while ago.

"Wind in the bushes?"

"It may have been; but he says there was no breeze at the time."

We resumed our seats.

"Bristol," I said, "now that the danger grows imminent, doesn't it seem to you foolhardy for us thus to expose ourselves?"

"Perhaps it is," he agreed; " but how otherwise are we likely to learn what happened to Marden and West?"

"The enemy may adopt different measures to-night."

"I think not. Our dispositions are the same, and I credit them with cunning enough to know it. At the same time I credit ourselves with having kept the existence of the steel traps completely secret. They will assume (so I've reasoned) that we intend to rely entirely upon our superior vigilance, therefore they will try the same game as last night."

Silence fell.

The moon rays, creeping around from the right of the avenue, crossing the shrubbery and encroaching upon the low wall of the loggia, now flooded its floor. Against the silvern light, Bristol appeared to me in black silhouette. The breeze, too, seemed now to blow from a slightly different direction. It came through the windows on my right, beyond which lay the unkempt bushes which extended on that side to the wall of the grounds.

So we sat, until the moonlight poured fully in upon Bristol's back. So we sat when the clock chimed the hour of one.

Bristol arose and once more went out to the gate. He had arranged to visit Morris's post every half-hour. Again I experienced the nervous dread that he would be attacked in the avenue; but again he returned unscathed.

"All's well," he said.

But from his tones I knew that he had not forgotten that it was at this hour Marden and West had suffered mysterious attack.

Neither of us, I think, was disposed to talk. We both were unwilling to break the silence, wherein, with all our ears, we listened for the slightest disturbance.

And now my attention turned anew to the course of the slowly creeping moon rays. In my mind an idea was struggling for definition. There was something significant in the lunar lighting of the room. Why, I asked myself, had the attack been made at one o'clock? Did the time signify anything? If so, what? I looked toward Bristol.

His figure, the chair upon which he sat, were sharply outlined by the cold light. The wall behind me, and to my left, was illuminated brilliantly; but no light fell directly upon me.

The idea was taking shape. From the loggia and the avenue Bristol, I reasoned, must be clearly visible. From the shrubbery on the south, through the other windows could I be seen? Yes, silhouetted against the moonlight!

A faint sound, quite indescribable, came to my ears from somewhere outside-beyond.

"My God!" whispered Bristol. "Did you hear it?"

"Yes! What?"

"It must have been Morris! - "

Bristol was half standing, one hand upon the arm of the chair, the other concealed, but grasping his revolver as I well knew. I, too, had my revolver in my hand, and as I twisted in my seat, preparatory to rising, in sheer nervousness I dropped the weapon upon the carpet.

With an exclamation of dismay, I stooped quickly to recover it.

As I did so something whistled past my ear, so closely as almost to touch it-and struck with a dull thud upon the wall beyond!

"Bristol!" I whispered.

But as I raised my eyes to him he seemed to crumple up, and fell loosely forward into the patch of moonlight spread upon the floor! "God in heaven!" I said aloud.

In a cold sweat of fear I crouched there, for it had become evident to me that, as I bent, I was entirely in shadow.

There was a rustling in the bushes on the left; but before I could turn in that direction, my attention was claimed elsewhere. Over into the loggia leapt an almost naked brown figure!

It was that of a small but strongly built man, who carried a short, exceedingly thick bamboo rod in his hand. My fear was too great to admit of my accurately observing anything at that time, but I noticed that some kind of leather thong or loop was attached to the end of the squat cane.

The panic fear of the supernatural was strongly upon me, and I was unable to realize that this Eastern apparition was a creature of flesh and blood. With my nerves strung up to snapping point, I crouched watching him. He entered the room, bending over the body of Bristol.

A hot breath fanned my cheek!

At that my overwrought nerves betrayed me. I uttered a stifled cry, looking upward . . . and into a pair of gleaming eyes which looked down into mine!

A second brown man (who must have entered by one of the windows overlooking the shrubbery) was bending over me!

Scarce knowing what I did, I raised my revolver and blazed straight into the dimly-seen face. Down upon me silently dropped a naked body, and something warm came flowing over my hand. But, knowing my foes to be of flesh and blood, feeling myself at handgrips now with a palpable enemy, I threw off the body, leapt up and fired, though blindly, at the flying shape that flashed across the loggia - and was lost in the shadow pools under the elms.

Upon the din of my shooting fell silence like a cloak. A moment I listened, tense, still; then I turned to the table and lighted the lamp.

In its light I saw Bristol lying like a dead man. Close beside him was a big and heavy lump of clay. It had been shaped as a ball, but now it was flattened out curiously. Bending over my unfortunate companion and learning that, though unconscious, he lived, I learnt, too, how the Hashishin contrived to strike men insensible without approaching them; I learnt that the one whom I had shot, who lay in his blood almost on the spot where Professor Deeping once had lain, was an expert slinger.

The contrivance which he carried, as did the other who had escaped, was a sling, of the ancient Persian type. In place of stones, heavy lumps of clay were used, which operated much the same as a sand-bag, whilst enabling the operator to work from a considerable distance.

Hidden, over by the ancient chapel it might be, one of this evil twain had struck down Morris, the constable; from the shelter of the trees, from many yards away, they had shot their singular missiles through the open windows at Bristol and myself. Bristol had succumbed, and now, with a redness showing through his close-cut hair immediately behind the right ear, lay wholly unconscious at my feet.

It had been a divine accident which had caused me to drop my revolver, and, stooping to recover it, unknowingly to frustrate the design of the second slinger upon myself. The light of the lamp fell upon the face of the dead Hashishin. He lay forward upon his hands, crouching almost, but with his face, his dreadful, featureless face, twisted up at me from under his left shoulder.

God knows he deserved his end; but that mutilated face is often grinning, bloodily, in my dreams.

And then as I stood, between that horrid exultation which is born of killing and the panic which threatened me out of the darkness, I saw something advancing . . . slowly . . . slowly . . . from the elmen shades toward the loggia.

It was a shape-it was a shadow. Silent it came - on - and on. Where the dusk lay deepest it paused, undefined; for I could give it no name of man or spirit. But a horror seemed to proceed from it as light from a lamp.

I groped about the table near to me, never taking my eyes from that sinister form outside. As my fingers closed upon the telephone, distant voices and the sound of running footsteps (of those who had heard the shots) came welcome to my ears.

The form stirred, seeming to raise phantom arms in execration, and a stray moonbeam pierced the darkness shrouding it. For a fleeting instant something flashed venemously.

The sounds grew nearer. I could tell that the newcomers had found Morris lying at the gate. Yet still I stood, frozen with uncanny fear, and watching - watching the spot to which that stray beam had pierced; the spot where I had seen the moon gleam upon the ring of the Prophet!