The Messageñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“Something of the kind has happened,” admitted the Under Secretary.
“Ah, then, he really is in Africa, and if I write – ?”
“I am sorry, but I fear I have misled you. He is not in Nigeria. When last I heard of him he was at Rabat.”
“Where is that?” she cried, genuinely surprised.
“On the West Coast of Morocco.”
“But what is he doing there?”
The Under Secretary pressed the tips of his fingers closely together.
“It is difficult to say,” he replied.
“Surely you will tell me. I have a right to know,” she pleaded. “I understand the position on the Benu? River. I am the daughter of a West African Governor. I am one of the few women in England who can grasp the seriousness of any plot which brings together the men of Oku and the trusted confidant of a meddlesome foreign potentate. Captain Warden was sent to the Protectorate to carry out your instructions, and that is the very reason I wish to write to him. I have news of the utmost importance.”
“Connected with the sailing of the Sans Souci from Hamburg?”
The question was so unexpected that Rosamund looked at the Under Secretary with more shrewdness than her fine eyes had displayed hitherto. He was making a little circle of dots with a pencil on a blotting–pad. Neither by voice nor manner did he display any surprise at her reference to the men of Oku.
“Yes, that is one of the items,” she said.
“And the others?”
“But you are telling me nothing,” she pouted.
“Forgive me. I hate the necessity that imposes restraint. Now, Mrs. Laing, enlighten me on one point, and I shall acquaint you with such few details of Captain Warden’s recent movements as are in my possession. What interest had he in Rabat?”
“I – really – don’t know.”
The protest was honest. This fashionable lady was speaking the truth.
“Who, in your opinion, might know?” he persisted.
Rosamund was not prepared for that. Her mind flew instantly to Evelyn Dane. Of course she would not mention the girl’s name; the mere thought of Evelyn cast a shadow over her mobile face.
“I haven’t the faintest notion,” she said.
The accompanying smile was forced, and the Under Secretary was not in the least deceived.
“Of course, if you cannot tell me why Captain Warden should go ashore at Rabat no one can, I suppose,” and Rosamund caught the pleasing hint of her dominance in all that affected the man she loved.
“You keep on referring to this place that I have never before heard of,” she cried. “Is he still at Rabat? I have ascertained that he is not at Lagos, or in Southern Nigeria, because I cabled for information.”
“When last I heard of Captain Warden he was at Rabat,” said the Under Secretary. “He is not there now. Indeed, I cannot tell you where he is. If the earth had opened and swallowed him, he could not have disappeared more completely.”
Rosamund gasped, and was somewhat inclined to storm, but not another syllable would the Under Secretary add to his amazing statement, though he undertook to communicate with her immediately when news of Warden’s whereabouts reached him.
In the meantime, she had to be content with knowledge that was no knowledge, and that only added to her perplexity. On the way to the hotel she stopped her carriage at a map–seller’s and bought a map of Morocco, and a book which revealed many things about Rabat, but no one thing calculated to explain why Warden had gone there.
In some sense, the Under Secretary was more puzzled than Rosamund. He turned to his notes and pored over them. One paragraph stood out boldly.
“Captain Warden, when at Cowes, met a young lady, Miss Evelyn Dane, engaged as companion to Baumgartner’s daughter. He took her in a dinghy to the Sans Souci, and this slight chance led to the discovery that the yacht was in charge of a shore watchman.”
The Under Secretary actually rumpled his hair with those immaculate fingers of his.
“I am lost in a fog,” he confessed ruefully. “Mrs. Laing is not engaged to Warden – Lady Hilbury herself told me so only this morning. Warden is the last man alive to discuss Government affairs with Mrs. Laing or any other woman. Why, then, does she pretend that he did the very thing he did not do? And who is this girl, Evelyn Dane, to whom he telegraphed from Ostend and London before sailing in the Water Witch? Can she shed light on the dark places of Rabat? It is worth trying. The Sans Souci arrives at Madeira to–morrow. I shall instruct some one to call on Evelyn Dane, and find out how far she is mixed up in the wretched muddle. Confound Rabat, and the Benu?, and the men of Oku, and may Baumgartner be blistered! I shall not get a day’s hunting before the frost sets in.”
THE BLUE MAN – AND A WHITE
When Warden came to his senses he found himself lying in impenetrable darkness. A half–formed belief that he was blind impelled him to put his hands to his face. Then he awoke to realities. His wrists were bound tightly, movement was painful and almost impossible, yet he seemed to be strapped to something that moved. By using his eyelids he soon succeeded in convincing himself that his eyes were uninjured, but the cold sweat of fear induced by that first horrible suspicion revived him more speedily than any stimulant. Straining his cramped limbs to test both his bonds and his injuries, he was not long in reaching a fairly accurate estimate of a disastrous plight. His head and left shoulder were stiff and sore, and he believed he had been rendered unconscious by a blow that caused a slight concussion of the brain. There was a bitter taste in his mouth which he recognized as poppy–juice, a preparation of opium widely used in Northern Africa as a soothing tonic. This, in itself, was somewhat reassuring. It suggested a crude effort to revive him. Again, though tied hand and foot, he was lying comfortably, and the irregular swaying motion which puzzled his waking thoughts was quickly explained by the shuffling of sandals and the occasional grunting comments of the men who carried the palanquin, or litter, in which he was pent.
But how account for the darkness? Turn and twist as he would, there was no glimmer of light, and the most closely–woven fabric that ever left a loom could not altogether shut out the rays of the tropical sun rising over Morocco when last he saw its beams. Then a gust of cool air blew in on his clammy cheek through a slit in the litter–cloth, and the astounding knowledge that it was already night was forced on him. Now, he was almost certain that he suffered from no injury grave enough to entail fifteen or twenty hours of complete insensibility, and the only reasonable conclusion was that he had been drugged.
That was a displeasing explanation of the taste of poppy–juice, but he felt too sick and weary to care very much what strange hazard had brought him to his present state. It sufficed that he was a captive, that the Water Witch would sail without him, that he would be discredited in his service for missing an appointment of the utmost importance. These ills were obvious. No matter what other misfortunes the immediate future might have in store, his visit to Hassan’s Tower had proved unlucky in all save its direct object, the recovery of the ruby.
Perhaps even that slight recompense for these positive evils had been taken from him. His revolver was gone, and the chisel, as he could determine by rolling a little from side to side. Probably his pockets were emptied long since. He tried to raise his body ever so slightly, but failed, yet he fancied he could feel the pressure of the ring against his ribs. And in fact it was still in his possession, for those who had robbed him, though they unfastened his waistcoat to learn if he wore a money–belt, had missed the hidden pocket. He was deadly tired. The nauseating drug with which he had been dosed was still powerful enough to render him almost incapable of reasoned thought. After the effects of the first thrill of restored vitality had passed, he listened idly to the pattering feet and muttered talk of his bearers. Then he resigned himself to fate, and fell asleep.
When next he awoke he was still in the palanquin. But the curtains were drawn apart, it was daylight, and a Moor was unfastening his bonds. The man spoke to him in a jargon that was incomprehensible. Warden sat up. He felt cold and stiff, and a twinge of pain in his shoulder drew from him a stifled exclamation in English.
The Moor spoke again. This time it was dimly discernible that he was asking in execrable French if Monsieur wished to eat and drink.
Warden answered him in the same language.
“Why am I here?” he said, glancing round a rough camp pitched in the shade of a grove of tall trees.
“You must address the ever–to–be–honored Nila Moullah.1
Pronounced “Neela Mool–la,” and meaning literally, “Blue Priest.”
[Çàêðûòü] I am only a servant,” was the reply.
“I am not French,” began Warden, “I am an Englishman.”
The man growled an oath in Arabic, and repeated the request about food. It was useless to question him.
“What is on the menu?” said Warden, with a wry smile.
He was not to be starved, it seemed. Perhaps some explanation of his present predicament would soon be forthcoming. At any rate, his wits would be clearer after a meal. He had eaten nothing during twenty–four hours at the lowest reckoning. He saw now that a new day was well advanced. The trees opposed a dense screen to the sun, but that luminary was high in the heavens, and he was sure he had not dreamed of the night journey in the palanquin. A dozen Moors, all armed to the teeth, lolled on the grass or sat on the gnarled roots of trees in the glade that sheltered the bivouac. At some little distance there was a palanquin similar to his own, save that its trappings were more gaudy, and the bearer–poles were painted a bright blue. The curtains were closed, but the color of the paint, added to the title of the moullah to whom the Moor referred him for information, accentuated a notion slowly taking shape in his brain. He had not forgotten the extraordinary being who gazed at him so threateningly from the top of the tower. It was a fair assumption that the man had dropped a stone on him at the very instant he took the downward leap that would have secured his safety. Was he a prisoner in the hands of this fanatic? And for what purpose was he brought into the interior?
That he was far away from the coast was determined by many signs. The keen, invigorating mountain air, the hardy types of trees and shrubs, the absence of the myriads of insects that would have made a grove on the plains a place of anything but rest at that hour – these things were an open book to one accustomed to life in the jungle. He reflected bitterly that if he had practised the first rudiments of the scout’s art the previous day, he would now, in all likelihood, be on board the steamer. Then he remembered the ring, and pressed a hand to his breast while ostensibly rubbing his injured shoulder. Yes, it was there – the one article left him. Watch, money, revolver, even a handkerchief and a box of matches, were stolen, but the ring remained. He wondered dully how the Blue Priest would have accounted for the piece of tattooed skin – with its Arabic–Latin quotation from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews and its Portuguese announcement of the secret hoard of Hassan’s Tower – if it had happened to be in his pocket. But it reposed in a portmanteau in his cabin, together with the canvas bag containing the gourd. When he was missed, would the skipper examine his baggage to discover some clue to his identity? If so, that weather–beaten tar’s remarks when he looked at the face of M’Wanga, one–time king of Benin, would be interesting.
The Moor came back with a dish of pillau, chicken stewed with rice. It was exceedingly appetizing. Some coarse bread and a bowl of goat’s milk completed a meal that was almost sumptuous. He ate heartily, and his spirits rose with each mouthful. The nondescript warriors who formed his escort paid little heed to him, even when he rose and stretched his limbs in a stroll round the palanquin. A man unacquainted with native ways might have drawn a favorable augury from their indifference – not so Warden, to whom it gave sure proof that his escape was deemed impossible.
At a little distance was a larger gathering, mainly servants and coolies. Here, too, were tethered some camels and hill ponies. The strength and equipment of the party betokened a much more serious purpose than the capture of a stray European; yet he seemed to be the only prisoner; the others were Moors, Arabs, and negroes, the soldiers and hangers–on of a fighting caravan.
A croaking voice from behind the curtains of the gaily caparisoned palanquin suddenly brought the armed Moors to their feet. One of them, who spoke good French, bade Warden come nearer, the litter–cloth was thrust aside, and the blue man of the Hassan Tower was revealed. Huddled up at the back of the cramped conveyance, he looked more like a strange beast than a man. If his appearance was forbidding when seen in Warden’s upward glance from the base of the tower, it was positively repulsive at this nearer and more leisurely point of view. The dye applied to skin and hair gave him a grotesque, almost maniacal aspect. His elfin locks were matted. His face and limbs had a peculiarly dead aspect, since the blue pigment had dried in dull scales that counterfeited the leathery surface of a mummy’s body. The sunken black eyes, gleaming out of bloodshot sockets, alone told of life. He reminded Warden of some cannibal ju–ju man from the trackless swamps of Nigeria. That such a loathsome creature should command the fearful respect of several distinguished–looking Mohammedans would be inconceivable were it not for the hush that fell on them when they heard his voice, and the alacrity with which they obeyed his order to produce the Giaour.
Now, the singular fact that the two men who had spoken to him used the French language was not lost on Warden. It argued that they and their companions hailed from the Sahara border rather than the coast. If that were so, his capture was a fantastic mistake. They could have no possible grievance against him. A germ of hope sprang up in his heart, but the Nila Moullah soon destroyed it.
“Bid the Frank do homage,” he grunted in Arabic.
“Kneel!” said the interpreter.
“I am rather stiff in the joints,” said Warden, speaking composedly, “but I shall be glad to sit down and talk with the distinguished moullah if that is agreeable to him.”
He squatted on the ground, but two men seized him roughly and tried to force him to his knees. He resisted with a mad fury that was more creditable to his pluck than to his intelligence – yet there are indignities that cannot be borne, and this was one. Though handicapped by a crippled shoulder and the enervating effect of the drug, though he was grappled with before he could rise – and the Moors were men of bone and sinew – he fought so fiercely that both of his assailants were prostrate at the same time as himself. A coward’s blow ended the unequal tussle. A heavy whip cut him ferociously across the eyes, and half–blinded him, and he was flung violently face downward in front of the Blue Man, who muttered:
“Let the Kaffir dog lie there till he learns obedience.”
Thinking he was subdued, the Moors relaxed their grip. Then Warden sprang to his feet. If death were at hand, in dying he would at least rid tortured humanity of an oppressor. But the Nila Moullah seemed to guess his thought, and shrieked to his guards that they should hold fast the Nazarene. They pinioned his arms again, and the French–speaking Moor asked him why he had dared to disturb a place made holy by the presence of the moullah.
Nearly incoherent with pain and anger, Warden managed to answer that he had done harm to none, that he was not even a resident in Rabat, having landed at the port little more than an hour before he visited the Tower.
“Ah, he is not one of the accursed brood at Rabat? So much the better! They will fall like ripe pears at the time of plucking,” snarled the occupant of the litter.
Since the words were Arabic, Warden understood, but the instinct of self–preservation bade him conceal the fact. Nevertheless, he forced his lips to utter a dignified protest.
“I am an Englishman,” he said, “and my disappearance will be reported. Inquiry will be made – it is known that I went to the Hassan Tower – and your large caravan cannot travel without exciting comment. You will certainly be pursued and attacked, whether I am living or dead. Yet I am not vindictive. Set me free, bring me back to Rabat in time to join my ship, and I shall lodge no complaint against you, nor claim my money and other belongings.”
“What sayeth the unbeliever?” demanded the moullah.
He was told, with fair accuracy, and seemed to find humor in Warden’s words.
“Slaves do not parley with their masters,” he announced, grinning vindictively at his captive. “Tie him in the litter. If he speaks, gag him. To–morrow he can carry a load with the rest.”
It needed all of Warden’s philosophy to keep him from going mad during that dreadful journey across Morocco. The Nila Moullah’s orders were literally obeyed. After the second day’s march, when sixty miles of hilly country intervened between Rabat and the caravan, the Englishman was deprived of his palanquin and became a beast of burden. Still, he lived, and was fed, and he prayed that he might retain his reason. The belief that he knew no Arabic enabled him to gather some scraps of information. The Blue Priest of El Hamra was preaching a new jehad, but, unlike others of his kidney, he was a born organizer. Instead of stirring up a minor rebellion which would be snuffed out either by the Sultan of Morocco or by one of the European powers, he was gradually making himself known throughout the length and breadth of the land. In his own stronghold of Lektawa, on the very confines of the Great Desert, he was building up an army of fanatics. Meanwhile, his repute was such that he levied heavy contributions in money and kind on the more fertile seaboard provinces. When the time was propitious he would descend on Morocco, enslave or kill every Christian, loot every port, and establish himself another Mahomet. Till then, he was content to pose as a saint.
Such a programme is nothing new in the Mussulman world. Since the inspired camel–driver of Mecca was rapt half–way to Paradise in his coffin, nearly five hundred mahdis have each and all claimed to be the one, true, and much–predicted “holy man” destined to lead Islam to complete victory over Christendom.
These impostors are infinitely worse than a pestilence. They resemble it in their unexpected outbursts and phenomenal areas of activity, but they scourge Moslemin mankind with a virulence unknown to cholera or small–pox. It was Warden’s grievous misfortune that he had blundered into Hassan’s Tower while the Blue Man of El Hamra was meditating an attack on the purse of the faithful of Rabat, and the chance thus offered of securing a Christian captive to grace the prophet’s return to Lektawa was too tempting to be neglected.
Fate oft chooses her victims with savage recklessness, but Warden felt, as he crossed the Atlas Mountains by way of the Beni Musa pass, that some influence more far–seeing than fate was leading him along the path trodden by Domenico Garcia after the ruby was hidden in the tower. He had no manner of doubt that the Portuguese artist and pirate was taken into the heart of Africa by this very route. The belief sustained him in those too frequent moments when sheer weariness of spirit whispered of self–destruction. He refused to end his sufferings in that way. If rabid fanaticism could sway a whole Mohammedan race, he, at least, placed his trust in a higher and holier creed. Not till grim death bade him lay down his arms would he abandon the struggle. Never a day passed that he did not plan a means of escape, but every scheme promised failure, and he did not mean to fail, for failure meant death. So he trudged on manfully, his only friend a stalwart negro who spoke the Hausa language, and ever the road led to the southeast – to the desert – to the great unknown land.
His boots gave out; his clothes were torn to rags; he was compelled to adopt the garments and many of the habits of those with whom his lot was cast. But he kept the ruby safe, for none thought of searching him now, and he was given a certain measure of liberty once the Atlas range was passed. Towns and villages became more scattered. The country was so wild that any attempt to travel by other road than the long–established caravan track would mean easy re–capture. To go back was equally impossible. Every community in the Nila Moullah’s own territory was gratified by the spectacle of a Giaour among the Mahdi’s train. The people would crowd round him, and jeer at him, for no better cause than that he was one of the hated white race. Many of them had never before seen a white man, but that did not count – they cursed him roundly for the sake of the legends they had heard of the arrogance with which the Prophet’s followers were treated by Nazarenes in their own lands.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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