An old woman, from whose hand a basket of provisions had fallen, was struggling in the grasp of a tall Oriental! He was evidently trying to stifle her screams and at the same time to pinion her arms behind her!
I perceived that there was more in this scene than met the eye. Oriental footpads are rarities in the purlieus of Waterloo Road. So much was evident; and since I carried a short, sharp argument in my pocket, I hastened to advance it.
At the sight of the gleaming revolver barrel the man, who was dressed in dark clothes and wore a turban, turned and ran swiftly off. I had scarce a glimpse of his pallid brown face ere he was gone, nor did the thought of pursuit enter my mind. I turned to the old woman, who was dressed in shabby black and who was rearranging her thick veil in an oddly composed manner, considering the nature of the adventure that had befallen her.
She picked up her basket, and turned away. Needless to say I was rather shocked at her callous ingratitude, for she offered no word of thanks, did not even glance in my direction, but made off hurriedly toward Waterloo Road.
I had been on the point of inquiring if she had sustained any injury, but I checked the words and stood looking after her in blank wonderment. Then my ideas were diverted into a new channel. I perceived, as she passed under an adjacent lamp, that her basket contained provisions such as a woman of her appearance would scarcely be expected to purchase. I noted a bottle of wine, a chicken, and a large melon.
The nationality of the assailant from the first had marked the affair for no ordinary one, and now a hazy notion of what lay behind all this began to come to me.
Keeping well in the shadows on the opposite side of the way, I followed the woman with the basket. The lane was quite deserted; for, the disturbance over, those few residents who had raised their windows had promptly lowered them again. She came out into Waterloo Road, crossed over, and stood waiting by a stopping-place for electric cars. I saw her arranging a cloth over her basket in such a way as effectually to conceal the contents. A strong mental excitement possessed me. The detective fever claims us all at one time or another, I think, and I had good reason for pursuing any inquiry that promised to lead to the elucidation of the slipper mystery. A theory, covering all the facts of the assault incident, now presented itself, and I stood back in the shadow, watchful; in a degree, exultant.
A Greenwich-bound car was hailed by the woman with the basket. I could not be mistaken, I felt sure, in my belief that she cast furtive glances about her as she mounted the steps. But, having seen her actually aboard, my attention became elsewhere engaged.
All now depended upon securing a cab before the tram car had passed from view!
I counted it an act of Providence that a disengaged taxi appeared at that moment, evidently bound for Waterloo Station. I ran out into the road with cane upraised.