The Quest of the Sacred Slipper by Sax Rohmer - HTML preview
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Quitting the wayside station, and walking down a short lane, we came out upon Watling Street, white and dusty beneath the afternoon sun. We were less than an hour's train journey from London but found ourselves amid the Kentish hop gardens, amid a rural peace unbroken. My companion carried a camera case slung across her shoulder, but its contents were less innocent than one might have supposed. In fact, it contained a neat set of those instruments of the burglar's art with whose use she appeared to be quite familiar.
"There is an inn," she said, "about a mile ahead, where we can obtain some vital information. He last wrote to me from there."
Side by side we tramped along the dusty road. We both were silent, occupied with our own thoughts. Respecting the nature of my companion's I could entertain little doubt, and my own turned upon the foolhardy nature of the undertaking upon which I was embarked. No other word passed between us then, until upon rounding a bend and passing a cluster of picturesque cottages, the yard of the Vinepole came into view.
"Do they know you by sight here?" I asked abruptly.
"No, of course not; we never made strategic mistakes of that kind. If we have tea here, no doubt we can learn all we require."
1 entered the little parlour of the inn, and suggested that tea should be served in the pretty garden which opened out of it upon the right.
The host, who himself laid the table, viewed the camera case critically.
"We get a lot of photographers down here," he remarked tentatively.
"No doubt," said my companion. "There is some very pretty scenery in the neighbourhood."
The landlord rested his hands upon the table.
"There was a gentleman here on Wednesday last," he said; "an old gentleman who had met with an accident, and was staying somewhere hereabouts for his health. But he'd got his camera with him, and it was wonderful the way he could use it, considering he hadn't got the use of his right hand."
"He must have been a very keen photographer," I said, glancing at the girl beside me.
"He took three or four pictures of the Vinepole," replied the landlord (which I doubted, since probably his camera was a dummy); "and he wanted to know if there were any other old houses in the neighbourhood. I told him he ought to take Cadham Hall, and he said he had heard that the Gate House, which is about a mile from here, was one of the oldest buildings about.")
A girl appeared with a tea tray, and for a moment I almost feared that the landlord was about to retire; but he lingered, whilst the girl distributed the things about the table, and Carneta asked casually, "Would there be time for me to photograph the Gate House before dark?"
"There might be time," was the reply, "but that's not the difficulty. Mr. Isaacs is the difficulty."
"Who is Mr. Isaacs?" I asked.
"He's the Jewish gentleman who bought the Gate House recently. Lots of money he's got and a big motor car. He's up and down to London almost every day in the week, but he won't let anybody take photographs of the house. I know several who've asked."
"But I thought," said Carneta, innocently, "you said the old gentleman who was here on Wednesday went to take some?"
"He went, yes, miss; but I don't know if he succeeded."
Carneta poured out some tea.
"Now that you speak of it," she said, "I too have heard that the Gate House is very picturesque. What objection can Mr. Isaacs have to photographers?"
"Well, you see, miss, to get a picture of the house, you have to pass right through the grounds."
"I should walk right up to the house and ask permission. Is Mr. Isaacs at home, I wonder?"
"I couldn't say. - He hasn't passed this way to-day."
"We might meet him on the way," said I. "What is he like?"
"A Jewish gentleman sir, very dark, with a white beard. Wears gold glasses. Keeps himself very much to himself. I don't know anything about his household; none of them ever come here."
Carneta inquired the direction of Cadham Hall and of the Gate House, and the landlord left us to ourselves. My companion exhibited signs of growing agitation, and it seemed to me that she had much ado to restrain herself from setting out without a moment's delay for the Gate House, which, I readily perceived, was the place to which our strange venture was leading us.
I found something very stimulating in the reflection that, rash though the expedition might be, and, viewed from whatever standpoint, undeniably perilous, it promised to bring me to that secret stronghold of deviltry where the sinister Hassan of Aleppo so successfully had concealed himself.
The work of the modern journalist had many points of contact with that of the detective; and since the murder of Professor Deeping I had succumbed to the man-hunting fever more than once. I knew that Scotland Yard had failed to locate the hiding-place of the remarkable and evil man who, like an efreet of Oriental lore, obeyed the talisman of the stolen slipper, striking down whomsoever laid hand upon its sacredness. It was a novel sensation to know that, aided by this beautiful accomplice of a rogue, I had succeeded where the experts had failed!
Misgivings I had and shall not deny. If our scheme succeeded it would mean that Deeping's murderer should be brought to justice. If it failed-well, frankly, upon that possibility I did not dare to reflect!
It must be needless for me to say that we two strangely met allies were ill at ease, sometimes to the point of embarrassment. We proceeded on our way in almost unbroken silence, and, save for a couple of farm hands, without meeting any wayfarer, up to the time that we reached the brow of the hill and had our first sight of the Gate House lying in a little valley beneath. It was a small Tudor mansion, very compact in plan and its roof glowed redly in the rays of the now setting sun.
>From the directions given by the host of the Vine pole it was impossible to mistake the way or to mistake the house. Amid well-wooded grounds it stood, a place quite isolated, but so typically English that, as I stood looking down upon it, I found myself unable to believe that any other than a substantial country gentleman could be its proprietor.
I glanced at Carneta. Her violet eyes were burning feverishly, but her lips twitched in a bravely pitiful way.
Clearly now my adventure lay before me; that red-roofed homestead seemed to have rendered it all substantial which hitherto had been shadowy; and I stood there studying the Gate House gravely, for it might yet swallow me up, as apparently it had swallowed Earl Dexter.
There, amid that peaceful Kentish landscape, fantasy danced and horrors unknown lurked in waiting. . .
The eminence upon which we were commanded an extensive prospect, and eastward showed a tower and flagstaff which marked the site of Cadham Hall. There were homeward-bound labourers to be seen in the lanes now, and where like a white ribbon the Watling Street lay across the verdant carpet moved an insect shape, speedily. It was a car, and I watched it with vague interest. At a point where a dense coppice spread down to the roadway and a lane crossed west to east, the car became invisible. Then I saw it again, nearer to us and nearer to the Gate House. Finally it disappeared among the trees.
I turned to Carneta. She, too, had been watching. Now her gaze met mine.
"Mr. Isaacs!" she said; and her voice was less musical than usual. "His chauffeur, who learned his business in Cairo, is probably the only one of his servants who remains in England."
"What!" I began - and said no more.
Where the road upon which we stood wound down into the valley and lost itself amid the trees surrounding the Gate House, the car suddenly appeared again, and began to mount the slope toward us!
"Heavens!" whispered Carneta. "He may have seen us - with glasses! Quick! Let us walk back until the hill-top conceals us; then we must hide somewhere!"
I shared her excitement. Without a moment's hesitation we both turned and retraced our steps. Twenty paces brought us to a spot where a stack of mangel wurzels stood at the roadside.
"This will do!" I said.
We ran around into the field, and crouched where we could peer out on the road without ourselves being seen. Nor had we taken up this position a moment too soon.
Topping the slope came a light-weight electric, driven by a man who, in his spruce uniform, might have passed at a glance for a very dusky European. The car had a limousine back, and as the chauffeur slowed down, out from the open windows right and left peered the solitary occupant.
He had the cast of countenance which is associated with the best type of Jew, with clearcut aquiline features wholly destitute of grossness. His white beard was patriarchal and he wore gold-rimmed pince-nez and a glossy silk hat. Such figures may often be met with in the great money-markets of the world, and Mr. Isaacs would have passed for a successful financier in even more discerning communities than that of Cadham.
But I scarcely breathed until the car was past; and, beside me, my companion, crouching to the ground, was trembling wildly. Fifty yards toward the village Mr. Isaacs evidently directed the man to return.
The car was put about, and flashed past us at high speed down into the valley. When the sound of the humming motor had died to something no louder than the buzz of a sleepy wasp, I held out my hand to Carneta and she rose, pale, but with blazing eyes, and picked up her camera case.
"If he had detected us, everything would have been lost!" she whispered.
"Not everything!" I replied grimly - and showed her the revolver which I had held in my hand whilst those eagle eyes had been seeking us. "If he had made a sign to show that he had seen us, in fact, if he had once offered a safe mark by leaning from the car, I should have shot him dead without hesitation!"
"We must not show ourselves again, but wait" for dusk. He must have seen us, then, on the hilltop, but I hope without recognizing us. He has the sight and instincts of a vulture!"
I nodded, slipping the revolver into my pocket, but I wondered if I should not have been better advised to have risked a shot at the moment that I had recognized "Mr. Isaacs" for Hassan of Aleppo.