The Quest of the Sacred Slipper by Sax Rohmer - HTML preview
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At four o'clock in the afternoon I had heard nothing further from Bristol, but I did not doubt that he would advise me of his arrangements in good time. I sought by hard work to forget for a time the extraordinary business of the stolen slipper; but it persistently intruded upon my mind. Particularly, my thoughts turned to the night of Professor Deeping's murder, and to the bewitchingly pretty woman who had warned me of the impending tragedy. She had bound me to secrecy - a secrecy which had proved irksome, for it had since appeared to me that she must have been an accomplice of Hassan of Aleppo. At the time I had been at a loss to define her peculiar accent, now it seemed evidently enough to have been Oriental.
I threw down my pen in despair, for work was impossible, went downstairs, and walked out under the arch into Fleet Street. Quite mechanically I turned to the left, and, still engaged with idle conjectures, strolled along westward.
Passing the entrance to one of the big hotels, I was abruptly recalled to the realities - by a woman's voice.
"Wait for me here," came musically to my ears.
I stopped, and turned. A woman who had just quitted a taxi-cab was entering the hotel. The day was hot and thunderously oppressive, and this woman with the musical voice wore a delicate costume of flimsiest white. A few steps upward she paused and glanced back. I had a view of a Greek profile, and for one magnetic instant looked into eyes of the deepest and most wonderful violet.
Then, shaking off inaction, I ran up the steps and overtook the lady in white as a porter swung open the door to admit her. We entered together.
"Madame," I said in a low tone, "I must detain you for a moment. There is something I have to ask."
She turned, exhibiting the most perfect composure, lowered her lashes and raised them again, the gaze of the violet eyes sweeping me from head to foot with a sort of frigid scorn.
"I fear you have made a mistake, sir. We have never met before!"
Her voice betrayed no trace of any foreign accent!
"But," I began - and paused.
I felt myself flush; for this encounter in the foyer of an hotel, with many curious onlookers, was like to prove embarrassing if my beautiful acquaintance persisted in her attitude. I fully realized what construction would be put upon my presence there, and foresaw that forcible and ignominious ejection must be my lot if I failed to establish my right to address her.
She turned away, and crossed in the direction of the staircase. A sunbeam sought out a lock of hair that strayed across her brow, and kissed it to a sudden glow like that which lurks in the heart of a blush rose.
That wonderful sheen, which I had never met with elsewhere in nature, but which no artifice could lend, served to remove my last frail doubt which had survived the evidence of the violet eyes. I had been deceived by no strange resemblance; this was indeed the woman who had been the harbinger of Professor Deeping's death. In three strides I was beside her again. Curious glances were set upon me, and I saw a servant evidently contemplating approach; but I ignored all save my own fixed purpose.
"You must listen to what I have to say!" I whispered. "If you decline, I shall have no alternative but to call in the detective who holds a warrant for your arrest!"
She stood quite still, watching me coolly. "I suppose you would wish to avoid a scene?" I added.
"You have already made me the object of much undesirable attention," she replied scornfully. "I do not need your assurance that you would disgrace me utterly! You are talking nonsense, as you must be aware - unless you are insane. But if your object be to force your acquaintance upon me, your methods are novel, and, under the circumstances, effective. Come, sir, you may talk to me - for three minutes!"
The musical voice had lost nothing of its imperiousness, but for one instant the lips parted, affording a fleeting glimpse of pearl beyond the coral.
Her sudden change of front was bewildering. Now, she entered the lift and I followed her. As we ascended side by side I found it impossible to believe that this dainty white figure was that of an associate of the Hashishin, that of a creature of the terrible Hassan of Aleppo. Yet that she was the same girl who, a few days after my return from the East, had shown herself conversant with the plans of the murderous fanatics was beyond doubt. Her accent on that occasion clearly had been assumed, with what object I could not imagine. Then, as we quitted the lift and entered a cosy lounge, my companion seated herself upon a Chesterfield, signing to me to sit beside her.
As I did so she lay back smiling, and regarding me from beneath her black lashes. Thus, half veiled, her great violet eyes were most wonderful.
"Now, sir," she said softly, "explain yourself."
"Then you persist in pretending that we have not met before?" "There is no occasion for pretence," she replied lightly; and I found myself comparing her voice with her figure, her figure with her face, and vainly endeavouring to compute her age. Frankly, she was bewildering - this lovely girl who seemed so wholly a woman of the world.
"This fencing is useless."
"It is quite useless! Come, I know New York, London, and I know Paris, Vienna, Budapest. Therefore I know mankind! You thought I was pretty, I suppose? I may be; others have thought so. And you thought you would like to make my acquaintance without troubling about the usual formalities? You adopted a singularly brutal method of achieving your object, but I love such insolence in a man. Therefore I forgave you. What have you to say to me?
I perceive that I had to deal with a bold adventuress, with a consummate actress, who, finding herself in a dangerous situation, had adopted this daring line of defence, and now by her personal charm sought to lure me from my purpose.
But with the scimitar of Hassan of Aleppo stretched over me, with the dangers of the night before me, I was in no mood for a veiled duel of words, for an interchange of glances in thrust and parry, however delightful such warfare might have been with so pretty an adversary.
For a long time I looked sternly into her eyes; but their violet mystery defied, whilst her red-lipped smile taunted me.
"Unfortunately," I said, with slow emphasis, "you are protected by my promise, made on the occasion of our previous meeting. But murder has been done, so that honour scarcely demands that I respect my promise further - "
She raised her eyebrows slightly.
"Surely that depends upon the quality of the honour!" she said.
"I believe you to be a member of a murderous organization, and unless you can convince me that I am wrong, I shall act accordingly."
At that she leaned toward me, laying her hand on my arm.
"Please do not be so cruel," she whispered, "as to drag me into a matter with which truly I have no concern. Believe me, you are utterly mistaken. Wait one moment, and I will prove it."
She rose, and before I could make move to detain her, quitted the room; But the door scarcely had closed ere I was afoot. The corridor beyond was empty. I ran on. The lift had just descended. A dark man whom I recognized stood near the closed gate. "Quick!" I said, "I am Cavanagh of the Report! Did you see a lady enter the lift?"
"I did, Mr. Cavanagh," answered the hotel detective; for this was he.
In such a giant inn as this I knew full well that one could come and go almost with impunity, though one had no right to the hospitality of the establishment; and it was with a premonition respecting what his answer would be, that I asked the man -
"Is she staying here?"
"She is not. I have never seen her before!" The girl with the violet eyes had escaped, taking all her secrets with her!