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   Chapter 29 AT THE GATE HOUSE

The Quest of the Sacred Slipper By Sax Rohmer Characters: 7755

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

From sunset to dusk I lurked about the neighbourhood of the Gate House with my beautiful accomplice-watching and waiting: a man bound upon stranger business, I dare swear, than any other in the county of Kent that night.

Our endeavour now was to avoid observation by any one, and in this, I think, we succeeded. At the same time, Carneta, upon whose experience I relied implicitly, regarded it as most important that we should observe (from a safe distance) any one who entered or quitted the gates.

But none entered, and none came out. When, finally, we made along the narrow footpath skirting the west of the grounds, the night was silent-most strangely still.

The trees met overhead, but no rustle disturbed their leaves and of animal life no indication showed itself. There was no moon.

A full appreciation of my mad folly came to me, and with it a sense of heavy depression. This stillness that ruled all about the house which sheltered the awful Sheikh of the Assassins was ominous, I thought. In short, my nerves were playing me tricks.

"We have little to fear," said my companion, speaking in a hushed and quivering voice. "The whole of the party left England some days ago."

"Are you sure?"

"Certain! We learned that before Earl made his attempt. Hassan remains, for some reason; Hassan and one other-the one who drives the car."

"But the slipper?"

"If Hassan remains, so does the slipper!" From the knapsack, which, as you will have divined, did not contain a camera, she took out an electric pocket lamp, and directed its beam upon the hedge above us.

"There is a gap somewhere here!" she said. "See if you can find it. I dare not show the light too long."

Darkness followed. I clambered up the bank and sought for the opening of which Carneta had spoken.

"The light here a moment," I whispered. "I think I have it!"

Out shone the white beam, and momentarily fell upon a black hole in the thickset hedge. The light disappeared, and as I extended my hand to Carneta she grasped it and climbed up beside me.

"Put on your rubber shoes," she directed. "Leave the others here."

There in the darkness I did as she directed, for I was provided with a pair of tennis shoes. Carneta already was suitably shod.

"I will go first," I said. "What is the ground like beyond?"

"Just unkempt bushes and weeds."

Upon hands and knees I crawled through, saw dimly that there was a short descent, corresponding with the ascent from the lane, and turned, whispering to my fellow conspirator to follow.

The grounds proved even more extensive than I had anticipated. We pressed on, dodging low-sweeping branches and keeping our arms up to guard our faces from outshoots of thorn bushes. Our progress necessarily was slow, but even so quite a long time seemed to have elapsed ere we came in sight of the house.

This was my first expedition of the kind; and now that my goal was actually in sight I became conscious of a sort of exultation hard to describe. My companion, on the contrary, seemed to have become icily cool. When next she spoke, her voice had a businesslike ring, which revealed the fact that she was no amateur at this class of work.

"Wait here," she directed. "I am going to pass all around the house, and I will rejoin you."

I could see her but dimly, and she moved off as silent as an Indian deer-stalker, leaving me alone there crouching at the extreme edge of the thicket. I looked out over a small wilderness of unkempt flower-beds; so much it was just possible to perceive. The plants in many instances had spread on to the pathways and contested survival with the flourishing weeds. All was wild-deserted-eerie.

A sense of dampness assailed me, and I raised my eyes to the low-lying building wherein no light showed, no sign of life was evident. The nearer wing presented a verandah apparently overg

rown by some climbing plant, the nature of which it was impossible to determine in the darkness.

The zest for the nocturnal operation which temporarily had thrilled me succumbed now to loneliness. With keen anxiety I awaited the return of my more experienced accomplice. The situation was grotesque, utterly bizarre; but even my sense of humour could not save me from the growing dread which this seemingly deserted place poured into my heart.

When upon the right I heard a faint rustling I started, and grasped the revolver in my pocket.

"Not a sound!" came in Carneta's voice. "Keep just inside the bushes and come this way. There is something I want to show you."

The various profuse growths rendered concealment simple enough-if indeed any other concealment were necessary than that which the strangely black night afforded. Just within the evil-smelling thicket we made a half circuit of the building, and stopped.

"Look!" whispered Carneta.

The word was unnecessary, for I was staring fixedly in the direction of that which evidently had occasioned her uneasiness.

It was a small square window, so low-set that I assumed it to be that of a cellar, and heavily cross-barred.

From it, out upon a tangled patch of vegetation, shone a dull red light!

"There's no other light in the place," my companion whispered. "For God's sake, what can it be?"

My mind supplied no explanation. The idea that it might be a dark room no doubt was suggested by the assumed role of Carneta; but I knew that idea to be absurd. The red light meant something else.

Evidently the commencing of operations before all lights were out was irregular, for Carneta said slowly-

"We must wait and watch the light. There was formerly a moat around the Gate House; that must be the window of a dungeon."

I little relished the prospect of waiting in that swamp-like spot, but since no alternative presented itself I accepted the inevitable. For close upon an hour we stood watching the red window. No sound of bird, beast, or man disturbed our vigil; in fact, it would appear that the very insects shunned the neighbourhood of Hassan of Aleppo. But the red light still shone out.

"We must risk it!" said Carneta steadily. "There are French windows opening on to that verandah. Ten yards farther around the bushes come right up to the wall of the house. We'll go that way and around by the other wing on to the verandah."

Any action was preferable to this nerve-sapping delay, and with a determination to shoot, and shoot to kill, any one who opposed our entrance, I passed through the bushes and, with Carneta, rounded the southern border of that silent house and slipped quietly on to the verandah.

Kneeling, Carneta opened the knapsack. My eyes were growing accustomed to the darkness, and I was just able to see her deft hands at work upon the fastenings. She made no noise, and I watched her with an ever-growing wonder. A female burglar is a personage difficult to imagine. Certainly, no one ever could have suspected this girl with the violet eyes of being an expert crackswoman; but of her efficiency there could be no question. I think I had never witnessed a more amazing spectacle than that of this cultured girl manipulating the tools of the house breaker with her slim white fingers.

Suddenly she turned and clutched my arm.

"The windows are not fastened!" she whispered.

A strange courage came to me-perhaps that of desperation. For, ignoring the ominous circumstance, I pushed open the nearest window and stepped into the room beyond! A hissing breath from Carneta acknowledged my performance, and she entered close behind me, silent in her rubber-soled shoes.

For one thrilling moment we stood listening. Then came the white beam from the electric lamp to cut through the surrounding blackness.

The room was totally unfurnished!

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