Again I doubted the wisdom of Bristol’s plan. Had I not fled to the Astoria to escape from the dangerous solitude of my rooms? That he was laying some trap for the Hashishin was sufficiently evident, and whilst I could not justly suspect him of making a pawn of me I was quite unable to find any other explanation of this latest move.
I was torn between conflicting doubts. I glanced at my watch. Yes! There was just time for me to revisit the bank ere joining Bristol at my chambers! I hesitated. After all, in what possible way could it jeopardize his plans for me merely to pretend to bring the keys?
“Hang it all!” I said, and jumped to my feet. “These maddening conjectures will turn my brain! I’ll let matters stand as they are, and risk the consequences!”
I hesitated no longer, but passed out from the hotel and once more directed my steps in the direction of Fleet Street.
As I passed in under the arch through which streamed many busy workers, I told myself that to dread entering my own chambers at high noon was utterly childish. Yet I did dread doing so! And as I mounted the stair and came to the landing, which was always more or less dark, I paused for quite a long time before putting the key in the lock.
The affair of the accursed slipper was playing havoc with my nerves, and I laughed dryly to note that my hand was not quite steady as I turned the key, opened my door, and slipped into the dim hallway.
As I closed it behind me, something, probably a slight noise, but possibly something more subtle—an instinct—made me turn rapidly.
There facing me stood Hassan of Aleppo.
I KEEP THE APPOINTMENT
That moment was pungent with drama. In the intense hush of the next five seconds I could fancy that the world had slipped away from me and that I was become an unsubstantial thing of dreams. I was in no sense master of myself; the effect of the presence of this white-bearded fanatic was of a kind which I am entirely unable to describe. About Hassan of Aleppo was an aroma of evil, yet of majesty, which marked him strangely different from other men—from any other that I have ever known. In his venerable presence, remembering how he was Sheikh of the Assassins, and recalling his bloody history, I was always conscious of a weakness, physical and mental. He appalled me; and now, with my back to the door, I stood watching him and watching the ominous black tube which he held in his hand. It was a weapon unknown to Europe and therefore more fearful than the most up-to-date of death-dealing instruments.
Hassan of Aleppo pointed it toward me.
“The keys, effendim,” he said; “hand me the keys!”
He advanced a step; his manner was imperious. The black tube was less than a foot removed from my face. That I had my revolver in my pocket could avail me nothing, for in my pocket it must remain, since I dared to make no move to reach it under cover of that unfamiliar, terrible weapon.