ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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 Moullah’s household. It was just when hope itself was yielding to numb despair that the sought–for 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 moullah’s type. His daughter, a finely–built girl of fifteen, had been spoken of by some parasite, and she was summoned forthwith to the despot’s seraglio. Now, the negro, who belonged to one of the numerous Hausa tribes, while ready enough to enlist under the prophet’s banner, was far from gratified by the prospect of becoming his holiness’ father–in–law. 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 moullah’s 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 far–seeing. He reads men’s 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 moullah’s 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.
Warden’s 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 Moullah’s 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 girl’s 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 Warden’s disposal was limited. So many shrewd eyes watched the Nila Moullah’s 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 moullah’s 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 terror–stricken that she offered the most serious obstacle to Warden’s 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, well–paid hirelings whom the Blue Man could safely order to kill any obnoxious members of his own tribe. Were they Arabs, they might have suspected Warden’s 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.
Warden’s 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 Moullah’s 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 prophet’s 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 ghoulish–looking figure seated cross–legged on a praying–carpet. Two red–rimmed, 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 Man’s 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 Warden’s 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 hearer’s 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, heart–searching 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 Seyyid’s 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 moullah’s legs and arms with leather thongs, using the wholly baffling slave–knot, which must be cut ere its victim can be freed. Soon the whining plaint of camels roused from their accustomed sleeping–place was audible. The animals were led into the courtyard, and their attendants received the dreaded moullah’s 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 teacher’s 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 Man’s shoulder–blades. 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 would–be prophets died suddenly before order was restored and a new r?gime was firmly established. It was no man’s 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.