Louis Tracy.

The Message





Warden bore this contumely with infinite patience. He knew that the desert folk were repaying some of the wrongs their ancestors had endured from generations of Portuguese and Spanish freebooters. But at least he laid to heart the knowledge that he could never return by the way he had come unless he were still a slave. He would be recognized instantly, and clubbed to death like a mad dog.

Despite his hardships, he was soon restored to perfect health. The winter season, such as it is in the Sahara, was approaching. The air was invigorating, and the rough food, mainly grains and fruit, was wholesome and nutritious. Yet, when Lektawa was reached, his case looked desperate indeed. Day followed day, and week followed week, without any prospect of relief, and he became more and more a mere appanage of the Nila Moullahs household. It was just when hope itself was yielding to numb despair that the soughtfor opportunity presented itself. It came like a meteor falling from the midnight sky, and Warden, ever on the watch, was ready to avail himself of the light it shed on his dark calvary.

Some Mohammedan festival had led to a good deal of revelry and gormandizing when Warden, at the close of a tiring day, found his negro friend sitting at the door of his hut in an attitude of deep dejection.

What has happened? he asked.

The man, moved by the familiar accents of his native tongue, gave way to tears. His plaint was common enough in communities ruled by a truculent savage of the moullahs type. His daughter, a finelybuilt girl of fifteen, had been spoken of by some parasite, and she was summoned forthwith to the despots seraglio. Now, the negro, who belonged to one of the numerous Hausa tribes, while ready enough to enlist under the prophets banner, was far from gratified by the prospect of becoming his holiness fatherinlaw. A doubtful privilege at the best, it was shared by many, and a goodly number had been beheaded to prevent further unpleasantness when the lady failed to recognize the moullahs attractiveness as a husband. Moreover, the Hausa girl herself rebelled against her lot, and was nearly wild with terror at the thought of it. Warden could hear her sobbing inside the hut, while her father muttered his anger to one whom he knew instinctively he might trust.

Somehow, Warden felt that his chance had come. He dared all in the next instant.

Were in I your place, he said, that dog should never claim my daughter. I would kill him first.

The Hausa shivered with anxiety. What would be his fate if others were aware that he even listened to those bold words without denouncing the man who uttered them.

You know him not, Seyyid, he said, and the fact that he used the word for master to a slave showed how deeply he was stirred. He is invulnerable and farseeing. He reads mens thoughts; he can kill with a look. Even you, a Nazarene, could not resist him.

That is what he tells the fools who choose to believe him.

I was made a prisoner because a stone struck me insensible. If he is so powerful, why did he hide me in a litter until he was far from Rabat? Now attend to me, Beni Kalli. I shall save you and your daughter if you do exactly as I bid you.

The man raised his eyes. Here was a new tone in the Christian who had endured insult and blows with meekness, except on that solitary occasion when the Blue Priest ordered him to kneel before him.

Speak, Seyyid. At least I shall not betray you, he muttered.

You must get me some Arab clothing which I can put on in your hut when it is dark. Then I shall take your daughter to the moullahs house. At that hour he will be alone in an inner room, and the fact that I bring the girl will procure me admission

But you will be discovered at once. How should a man be an Arab who speaks no Arabic?

Do I not? laughed Warden, going off instantly into the sonorous language of the desert. I can accomplish that and more, Beni Kalli, if you follow my plan.

The Hausa sprang to his feet in amazement.

Master! he cried, you know Arabic better than I, who have lived here many years.

He thought the Nazarene was a wizard. Thenceforth he was ready to fall in with any proposal he made.

Wardens scheme was feasible. Beni Kalli, afraid to be skeptical, yet only half convinced at first, quickly saw that its very daring commended it. Moreover, time pressed. He must either sacrifice his daughter or adopt some such heroic alternative as that suggested by one whom he already recognized as a leader of men. Immediate decision was called for. To defy the Nila Moullahs will meant simply that the malcontent would be beheaded forthwith.

I am between the lion and his prey, said Beni Kalli valiantly. So I face the lion. Have it as you will, Seyyid. I am at your command.

His proverb was well chosen. Never did people in dire straits adopt bolder strategy than that which Warden had in mind. He had often weighed it and found it practicable, but hitherto it had proved impossible owing to the secrecy with which the prophet surrounded his daily life. When traveling, the Blue Man usually remained in his litter. At Lektawa he gave audience unseen. None could gain admission to his compound without stating their business and revealing their identity; he lived alone and hidden, like a spider in the dark recesses of his murderous web. Now that safeguard, previously unsurmountable, vanished by reason of the girls presence. For the rest, Warden relied not only on his own audacity, but on the assured cowardliness of a crafty tyrant.

There is an hour in the desert the hour following sunset when night wraps the earth in blackness as in a pall. It is due to the rapid fall in temperature and the resultant condensation of surface moisture taken up by the air. But it soon passes. If there is a moon, the landscape becomes a radiant etching in black and silver; even when the moon is absent, the light of the stars makes traveling safe. Therefore, the time at Wardens disposal was limited. So many shrewd eyes watched the Nila Moullahs dwelling that if success were to attend the coup it must be carried out during the forty minutes of darkness.

And there was much to be done in that brief period. As soon as the rapidly advancing gloom permitted, Warden and the girl crossed the open space in the center of which stood the moullahs abode. The Englishman was so bronzed by exposure to the elements that the hood of a burnous was scarcely needed to conceal his face. The young negress, a comely statue of ebony draped in white cotton, was so terrorstricken that she offered the most serious obstacle to Wardens project. But that could not be helped. He depended on her to draw those ferret eyes off himself for the one precious moment he needed. After that, he trusted utterly to his own resources.

There was no trouble at the entrance to the compound. The guards were Moors recruited from the seaboard provinces, wellpaid hirelings whom the Blue Man could safely order to kill any obnoxious members of his own tribe. Were they Arabs, they might have suspected Wardens accent, but the patois they used was almost unintelligible among the desert folk. So Warden spoke with a harsh distinctness.

Go, one of you, he said, and tell the glorious successor of the Prophet that the daughter of Beni Kalli awaits his pleasure.

The chief man among the guards came forward and peered at them. His glance fell on the shrinking form by the side of this stalwart Bed?wi.

Tis well, he said. Even now the Holy One asked why she tarried. Who art thou, brother?

What, then, must the renowned son of Mahmoud suffer further delay? cried Warden, even more loudly.

He risked a good deal, because some true Arab might be within earshot, and there are gutturals in the nomadic language of Northern Africa that no European throat can reproduce.

But his fearlessness was justified. A snarling voice reached them where they stood.

Bring the girl hither, it growled, and the two were allowed to pass instantly.

Wardens heart throbbed a little faster as he half dragged the cowering negress across the courtyard. She knew what was going to happen, and had been coached as to her behavior, but she was only a child, and her fear was great for her father and herself. She could not believe that this gaunt Christian, the man whom she had seen working daily among the Nila Moullahs slaves, could really accomplish the task he had undertaken. So she whimpered with fright, and would have run back shrieking if Warden had not caught her arm and whispered a few words of encouragement.

The prophets habit of concealing himself as much as possible from his adherents was now more helpful than a hundred armed men. He was supposed to pass day and night in meditation. None had ever seen him eat or sleep. To carry out this pose he seldom appeared from behind the thick mats which veiled the front of the room he occupied.

A lamp was burning within. When Warden lifted a corner of one of the mats, he saw a grotesque and ghoulishlooking figure seated crosslegged on a prayingcarpet. Two redrimmed, glittering black eyes gazed fixedly at him, and a hand sought under a cushion for a weapon, since none dared to pass that screen without direct instructions. Warden turned quickly, and pushed the girl forward.

Beni Kalli was slow in fulfilling your wishes, O worthy of honor, he exclaimed, bowing low yet advancing the while, and never relaxing his grip on the unhappy negress. Her manifest reluctance explained his action. The Blue Man appreciated the rough ways of an Arab.

There are means to make him speedy, he chuckled, rising.

That was what Warden wanted. In raising himself, the moullah was momentarily off his guard. In the next instant he was lying with his face on the floor; a strong hand was across his mouth pulling his head back until his neck was almost dislocated, while the blade of a sharp knife rested most suggestively across his throat.

Turn the lamp low, said Warden to the girl. His voice was quiet and reassuring, but she was so completely unnerved that she nearly put out the light, which would have been awkward. Happily, she avoided that blunder.

Now listen, you dog! muttered Warden, slightly relieving the tension on the Blue Mans spinal column. Do as I bid, and I shall spare your life. Say but a word, utter the least cry, save as I direct, and your head will leave your miserable body. Do you understand, sug?

He used the concluding epithet purposely. It is more opprobrious in Arabic than its English equivalent cur. It showed how fully he was the victor in this unexpected strife, and he emphasized the warning with a more decided pressure of the sharp blade in the region of the jugular vein. The moullah could not have been more at his mercy were he manacled. He was flat on the ground, sprawling with arms and legs like some ugly frog, and Wardens right knee was jammed in the small of his back. There was naught to be done but yield, and, when permitted to speak, he murmured humbly that he would obey.

Say Seyyid, you swine! said the Englishman.

Seyyid! gurgled the other.

Pay heed, then, continued Warden, with a grim earnestness that left no doubt in his hearers mind that he would not hesitate to slit a throat if need be. The least alteration of my commands shall forfeit thy life. Call the leader of the guard, and tell him to summon hither Beni Kalli, who is to be admitted alone and without question. Tell him also to bring into the compound the three best camels you possess, with store of food and water for a journey. Beni Kalli is to come at once, and the camels are to be ready within ten minutes. Shout now he will hear thee.

Thus far, the conditions did not sound onerous, and the Blue Man complied with them to the fraction of a syllable. An anxious, heartsearching five minutes followed. Warden did not fail to impress on the quaking wretch in his grasp that he was receiving more clemency than he deserved, and warned him sternly against ever again treating a European with contumely. He could feel the thrill of mortal terror that shook the moullah when he learnt the identity of his assailant.

It was good that the tyrant should know what fear was, yet the time passed with leaden feet until Beni Kalli, more than doubting that the Seyyids scheme had failed, lifted a mat and thrust an awestricken countenance within. The girl uttered a cry of relief at the sight of her father, but Warden silenced her with a word.

He nodded to the Hausa, who immediately began to tie the moullahs legs and arms with leather thongs, using the wholly baffling slaveknot, which must be cut ere its victim can be freed. Soon the whining plaint of camels roused from their accustomed sleepingplace was audible. The animals were led into the courtyard, and their attendants received the dreaded moullahs exceedingly curt order that they were to be handed over to Beni Kalli, his daughter, and the Arab, Abdul ben Izzuf, for a journey which they were taking on his business.

And that was the last word the Blue Man of El Hamra ever uttered. Warden, it is true, kept his promise, and left him gagged and bound, unable to move or utter a cry, but otherwise uninjured. He lay there all night and all the following day, and his views concerning Nazarenes must have been most unedifying. After sunset it occurred to some one that even a prophet might fall ill. One who was in some sense his confidant and disciple volunteered to look behind the screen, when he could obtain no answer to his repeated requests for an audience. He was greatly shocked at seeing his revered teachers plight. In fact, he thought the moullah was dead. Most amazing thing of all, the famous blue robe had vanished. Its disappearance suggested that the time was ripe for the advent of a new prophet, and he proclaimed loudly that the Nila Moullah had been slain in a combat with the devil. To make sure, being of decisive habit, he planted a dagger firmly between the Blue Mans shoulderblades. Although the corpse was warm when the guards came running at his outcry, none dared touch the body of one who had wrestled with Satan. It was evident at least that the disciple could not have trussed his spiritual guide so thoroughly in a few seconds, and the theory of diabolic agency was confirmed thereby.

Affairs became lively in Lektawa for a week or two. Several wouldbe prophets died suddenly before order was restored and a new r?gime was firmly established. It was no mans affair to discover what had become of the Nazarene slave or Beni Kalli and his daughter, so no effort was put forth toward that end. Had the fugitives known the outcome of their bold deed they might have spared themselves much anxiety. But that could not be. They fled along the caravan route that crosses the Western Sahara, and looked ever for the dust of a pursuing kafila. The Blue Man of El Hamra was in their thoughts, waking or dreaming, and many a league separated them from Lektawa ere their fear abated and they gave heed to the troubles that lay in front rather than to the vengeance that might be rushing on them from the rear.

CHAPTER XII
EVELYN HAS UNEXPECTED VISITORS

On a moonlit night in January, Evelyn Dane was sitting in the veranda of the big Englishlooking hotel which has brought more than a hint of Brighton to the sea front of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. A dance was in progress within, and the jingle of a polka mixed curiously with the continuous roar of a heavy surf. But Evelyn was in no mood for dancing. While she was dressing for dinner that evening the boom of a gun from the harbor announced the arrival of a foreign warship. Soon afterward she learned the ships name, and from that moment she was on the tiptoe of expectation, for the captain of H. M. secondclass cruiser Valiant supplied the one remaining link between her present embittered life and the rosecolored romance of a day at Plymouth.

Two months earlier, Captain Mortimer came to her in Funchal, Madeira, with a message that thrilled her with hope. The Foreign Office had requested him, he said, to forward any information she could give which might help to explain why Captain Warden should vanish so mysteriously at Rabat.

The inquiry was a private one. She must mention it to none, but it was deemed so important by the authorities in Whitehall that the Valiant was sent specially to Madeira to make it. There was not much that she could tell him. Her sole knowledge of Rabat was gleaned from Domenico Garcias message. She remembered the text with sufficient accuracy but what a queer jumble of fact and fable it sounded! Even she herself, though she had actually seen the carved gourd bobbing about in the Solent, fancied now that the tattooed parchment supplied a farfetched excuse for Wardens disappearance.

Nevertheless, the sailors words had driven some of the hardness out of her heart. She was beginning to think that Mrs. Laings story was true that Warden was really her rivals promised husband that he had not dared even to write again when he knew that Rosamund was at Lockmerig. But when this courtly officer assured her that Captain Warden had undoubtedly sailed for West Africa two days after the Sans Souci quitted the lock, she realized that, in some respects, her doubts were unwarranted. It was amazing that her lover had not announced his departure, but the ways of Governments are strange, and his fall from grace was by no means so great as she had been forced to believe. And then her tiny bit of blue sky was darkened by a new cloud. Although the captain of the Valiant, out of sheer kindliness, concealed the sinister outcome of Wardens visit to the Morocco town, his very reticence induced anxiety. He was greatly interested in Garcias allusion to Hassans Tower, listened carefully to Evelyns story of the gourd, and, before departing, asked her to let him know at Lagos if she left Madeira. That was all. She had been eight weeks in Las Palmas without ever a word of her lover. The gloom in her soul deepened ever, until the clamor of the cruisers salute awoke the echoes.

Hence, Evelyn was one of the few people in the capital city of the Canary Islands who could supply a reason for the presence of the Valiant other than the need of fresh supplies of a vessel on the West African station. Nor was she wrong in the assumption that Captain Mortimer might call on her without delay. She had been seated not many minutes in the veranda, and had successfully held at bay only two of the halfdozen Spanish officers who wished to dance with her, when the sailor himself approached, and lifted his cap with a pleasant smile.

You remember me, Miss Dane? he began.

Yes. I knew the Valiant had arrived, and I felt so sure you would look me up that I have refused all invitations to the ballroom.

An expression of surprise flitted across the mans frank face. Evidently, he had placed Evelyn in another and higher category than the flippant young ladies who dominate the winter society of Madeira and Gran Canaria. To his thinking, when last he interviewed her, Warden, the man to whom she was engaged, was undoubtedly dead. By this time, even a heedless girl might have suspected the truth, and he was not prepared to find Wardens sweetheart so obviously indifferent to his fate as to plunge into all the gaiety of the Las Palmas season.

He knew nothing of the agony of suspense, the poison of doubt, the selfhumiliation and passionate despair of those dreary weeks, nor did he appreciate her position in the Baumgartner household. But he was hurt, and his manner proved it. Men who are called on at times to face death in their countrys service like to believe that their womenfolk are eager for news of them. So Mortimer was disappointed in Evelyn.

I fear I shall be regarded as an intruder by some of the young gentlemen I see pirouetting inside, he said. But I shall not detain you long. I promised to let you know if any further news was forthcoming as to Captain Wardens whereabouts. When we met at Funchal I feared the worst. Now I have good reason to believe he is alive.

She leaped to her feet. Her cheeks blanched, but those blue eyes of hers blazed with sudden fire.

You have heard of him? You know where he is? she gasped, all aquiver with excitement.

The sailor was mystified. Nevertheless, her manifest interest almost brought back the sympathetic note to his voice almost, but not quite, and she was aware of the altered tone.

You are asking too much, he said with a little laugh. Africa does not yield her secrets so readily, I assure you. Still, I have a rather complicated yarn for you. Shall we sit here, or would you care for a stroll in the garden? I take it we are less likely to be disturbed there.

Now it was Evelyns turn to be puzzled.

It was no disloyalty to the memory of one who once had been her lover, but the absolute necessity of chaperoning Beryl Baumgartner during her mothers indisposition that made dancing a possibility that night.





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