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When the invitation came from my old friend Hilton to spend a week "roughing it" with him in Warwickshire I accepted with alacrity. If ever a man needed a holiday I was that man. Nervous breakdown threatened me at any moment; the ghastly experience at the Gate House together with Carneta's grief-stricken face when I had parted from her were obsessing memories which I sought in vain to shake off.
A brief wire had contained the welcome invitation, and up to the time when I had received it I had been unaware that Hilton was back in England. Moreover, beyond the fact that his house, "Uplands," was near H--, for which I was instructed to change at New Street Station, Birmingham, I had little idea of its location. But he added "Wire train and will meet at H--"; so that I had no uneasiness on that score.
I had contemplated catching the 2:45 from Euston, but by the time I had got my work into something like order, I decided that the 6:55 would be more suitable and decided to dine on the train.
Altogether, there was something of a rush and hustle attendant upon getting away, and when at last I found myself in the cab, bound for Euston, I sat back with a long-drawn sigh. The quest of the Prophet's slipper was ended; in all probability that blood-stained relic was already Eastward bound. Hassan of Aleppo, its awful guardian, had triumphed and had escaped retribution. Earl Dexter was dead. I could not doubt that; for the memory of his beautiful accomplice, Carneta, as I last had seen her, broken-hearted, with her great violet eyes dulled in tearless agony - have I not said that it lived with me?
Even as the picture of her lovely, pale face presented itself to my mind, the cab was held up by a temporary block in the traffic - and my imagination played me a strange trick.
Another taxi ran close alongside, almost at the moment that the press of vehicles moved on again. Certainly, I had no more than a passing glimpse of the occupants; but I could have sworn that violet eyes looked suddenly into mine, and with equal conviction I could have sworn to the gaunt face of the man who sat beside the violet-eyed girl for that of Earl Dexter!
The travellers, however, were immediately lost to sight in the rear, and I was left to conjecture whether this had been a not uncommon form of optical delusion or whether I had seen a ghost.
At any rate, as I passed in between the big pillars, "The gateway of the North," I scrutinized, and closely, the numerous hurrying figures about me. None of them, by any stretch of the imagination, could have been set down for that of Dexter, The Stetson Man. No doubt, I concluded, I had been tricked by a chance resemblance.
Having dispatched my telegram, I boarded the 6:55. I thought I should have the compartment to myself, and so deep in reverie was I that the train was actually clear of the platforms ere I learned that I had a companion. He must have joined me at the moment that the train started. Certainly, I had not seen him enter. But, suddenly looking up, I met the eyes of this man who occupied the corner seat facing me.
This person was olive-skinned, clean-shaven, fine featured, and perfectly groomed. His age might have been anything from twenty-five to forty-five, but his hair and brows were jet black. His eyes, too, were nearer to real black than any human eyes I had ever seen before - excepting the awful eyes of Hassan of Aleppo. Hassan of Aleppo! It was, to that hour, a mystery how his group of trained assassins - the Hashishin - had quitted England. Since none of them were known to the police, it was no insoluble mystery, I admit; but nevertheless it was singular that the careful watching of the ports had yielded no result. Could it be that some of them had not yet left the country? Could it be--
I looked intently into the black eyes. They were caressing, smiling eyes, and looked boldly into mine. I picked up a magazine, pretending to read. But I supported it with my left hand; my right was in my coat pocket - and it rested upon my Smith and Wesson!
So much had the slipper of Mohammed done for me: I went in hourly dread of murderous attack!
My travelling companion watched me; of that I was certain. I could feel his gaze. But he made no move and no word passed between us. This was the situation when the train slowed into Northampton. At Northampton, to my indescribable relief (frankly, I was as nervous in those days as a woman), the Oriental traveller stepped out on to the platform.
Having reclosed the door, he turned and leaned in through the open window.
"Evidently you are not concerned, Mr. Cavanagh," he said. "Be warned. Do not interfere with those that are!"
The night swallowed him up.
My fears had been justified; the man was one of the Hashishin - a spy of Hassan of Aleppo! What did it mean?
I craned from the window, searching the platform right and left. But there was no sign of him.
When the train left Northampton I found myself alone, and I should only weary you were I to attempt to recount the troubled conjectures that bore me company to Birmingham.
The train reached New Street at nine, with the result that having gulped a badly needed brandy and soda in the buffet, I grabbed my bag, raced across - and just missed the connection! More than an hour later I found myself standing at ten minutes to eleven upon the H-- platform, watching the red taillight of the "local" disappear into the night. Then I realized to the full that with four miles of lonely England before me there hung above my head a mysterious threat - a vague menace. The solitary official, who but waited my departure to lock up the station, was the last representative of civilization I could hope to encounter until the gates of "Uplands" should be opened to me!
What was the matter with which I was warned not to interfere? Might I not, by my mere presence in that place, unwittingly be interfering now?
With the station-master's directions humming like a refrain in my ears, I passed through the sleeping village and out on to the road. The moon was exceptionally bright and unobscured, although a dense bank of cloud crept slowly from the west, and before me the path stretched as an unbroken thread of silvery white twining a sinuous way up the bracken-covered slope, to where, sharply defined against the moonlight sky, a coppice in grotesque silhouette marked the summit.
The month had been dry and tropically hot, and my footsteps rang crisply upon the hard ground. There is nothing more deceptive than a straight road up a hill; and half an hour's steady tramping but saw me approaching the trees.
I had so far resolutely endeavoured to keep my mind away from the idea of surveillance. Now, as I paused to light my pipe - a never-failing friend in loneliness - I perceived something move in the shadows of a neighbouring bush.
This object was not unlike a bladder, and the very incongruity of its appearance served to revive all my apprehensions. Taking up my grip, as though I had noticed nothing of an alarming nature, I pursued my way up the slope, leaving a trail of tobacco smoke in my wake; and having my revolver secreted up my right coat-sleeve.
Successfully resisting a temptation to glance behind, I entered the cover of the coppice, and, now invisible to any one who might be dogging me, stood and looked back upon the moon-bright road.
There was no living thing in sight, the road was empty as far as the eye could see. The coppice now remained to be negotiated, and then, if the station-master's directions were not at fault, "Uplands" should be visible beyond. Taking, therefore, what I had designed to be a final glance back down the hillside, I was preparing to resume my way when I saw something - something that arrested me.
It was a long way behind - so far that, had the moon been less bright, I could never have discerned it. What it was I could not even conjecture; but it had the appearance of a vague gray patch, moving - not along the road, but through the undergrowth - in my direction.
For a second my eye rested upon it. Then I saw a second patch - a third - a fourth!
There were six gray patches creeping up the slope toward me!
The sight was unnerving. What were these things that approached, silently, stealthily - like snakes in the grass?
A fear, unlike anything I had known before the quest of the Prophet's slipper had brought fantastic horror into my life, came upon me. Revolver in hand I ran - ran for my life toward the gap in the trees that marked the coppice end. And as I went something hummed through the darkness beside my headsome projectile, some venomous thing that missed its mark by a bare inch!
Painfully conversant with the uncanny weapons employed by the Hashishin, I knew now, beyond any possibility of doubt, that death was behind me.
A pattering like naked feet sounded on the road, and, without pausing in my headlong career, I sent a random shot into the blackness.
The crack of the Smith and Wesson reassured me. I pulled up short, turned, and looked back toward the trees.
Nothing - no one!
Breathing heavily, I crammed my extinguished briar into my pocket - re-charged the empty chamber of the revolver - and started to run again toward a light that showed over the treetops to my left.
That, if the man's directions were right, was "Uplands" - if his directions were wrong - then . . .
A shrill whistle - minor, eerie, in rising cadence - sounded on the dead silence with piercing clearness! Six whistles - seemingly from all around me - replied!
Some object came humming through the air, and I ducked wildly.
On and on I ran - flying from an unknown, but, as a warning instinct told me, deadly peril - ran as a man runs pursued by devils.
The road bent sharply to the left then forked. Overhanging trees concealed the house, and the light, though high up under the eaves, was no longer visible. Trusting to Providence to guide me, I plunged down the lane that turned to the left, and, almost exhausted, saw the gates before me - saw the sweep of the drive, and the moonlight, gleaming on the windows!
None of the windows were illuminated.
Straight up to the iron gates I raced.
They were locked!
Without a moment's hesitation I hurled my grip over the top and clambered up the bars! As I got astride, from the blackness of the lane came the ominous hum, and my hat went spinning away across the lawn !- the black cloud veiled the moon and complete darkness fell.
Then I dropped and ran for the house - shouting, though all but winded - "Hilton! Hilton! Open the door!"
Sinking exhausted on the steps, I looked toward the gates - but they showed only dimly in the dense shadows of the trees.
I dropped flat in the portico as something struck the metal knob of the door and rebounded over me. A shower of gravel told of another misdirected projectile.
Crack! Crack! Crack! The revolver spoke its short reply into the mysterious darkness; but the night gave up no sound to tell of a shot gone home.
"Hilton! Hilton!" I cried, banging on the panels with the butt of the weapon. "Open the door! Open the door!"
And now I heard the coming footsteps along the hall within; heavy bolts were withdrawn - the door swung open - and Hilton, pale-faced, appeared. His hand shot out, grabbed my coat collar; and weak, exhausted, I found myself snatched into safety, and the door rebolted.
"Thank God!" I whispered. "Thank God! Hilton, look to all your bolts and fastenings. Hell is outside!"
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