I thought of the eyes which had seemed to look up from the black well of the staircase—I thought of the horrible end of this man whose book lay upon the table . . . and I thought I heard a faint sound outside my study door!
The key of Deeping’s safe, and his letter to me, lay close by my hand. I slipped them into a drawer and locked it. With every nerve, it seemed, strung up almost to snapping point, I mechanically pursued my reading.
“At the time of the Crusades,” wrote Deeping, “there was a story current of this awful Order which I propose to recount. It is one of the most persistent dealing with the Hashishin, and is related to-day of the apparently mythical Hassan of Aleppo. I am disposed to believe that at one time it had a solid foundation, for a similar practice was common in Ancient Egypt and is mentioned by Georg Ebers.”
My door began very slowly to open!
Merciful God! What was coming into the room!
So very slowly, so gently, nay, all but imperceptibly, did it move, that had my nerves been less keenly attuned I doubt not I should have remained unaware of the happening. Frozen with horror, I sat and watched. Yet my mental condition was a singular one.
My direct gaze never quitted the door, but in some strange fashion I saw the words of the next paragraph upon the page before me!
“As making peculiarly efficient assassins, when under the influence of the drug, and as being capable of concealing themselves where a normal man could not fail to be detected—”
(At this moment I remembered that my bathroom window was open, and that the waste-pipe passed down the exterior wall.)
“—the Sheikh-al-jebal took young boys of a certain desert tribe, and for eight hours of every day, until their puberty, confined them in a wooden frame—”
What looked like a reed was slowly inserted through the opening between door and doorpost! It was brought gradually around . . . until it pointed directly toward me!
I seemed to put forth a mighty mental effort, shaking off the icy hand of fear which held me inactive in my chair. A saving instinct warned me—and I ducked my head.
Something whirred past me and struck the wall behind.
Revolver in hand, I leapt across the room, dashed the door open, and fired blindly—again—and again—and again—down the passage.
And in the brief gleams I saw it!
I cannot call it man, but I saw the thing which, I doubt not, had killed poor Deeping with the crescent-knife and had propelled a poison-dart at me.
It was a tiny dwarf! Neither within nor without a freak exhibition had I seen so small a human being! A kind of supernatural dread gripped me by the throat at sight of it. As it turned with animal activity and bounded into my bathroom, I caught a three-quarter view of the creature’s swollen, incredible head—which was nearly as large as that of a normal man!