"What has come over you, Suvaroff?" questioned the man. "You are making our flesh creep!"
"Oh, pardon me!" cried Suvaroff. "I shall not trouble you further!"
And with that he packed up his violin and left. He did not go back to the cafe, even at the appointed hour. Instead, he wandered aimlessly about. All day he tramped the streets. He listened to street-fakirs, peered into shop-windows, threw himself upon the grass of the public squares and stared up at the blue sky. He had very little personal consciousness; he seemed to have lost track of himself. He had an absurd feeling that he had come away from somewhere and left behind a vital part of his being.
"Suvaroff! Suvaroff!" he would repeat over and over to himself, as if trying to recall the memory of some one whose precise outline had escaped him.
He caught a glimpse of his figure in the mirror of a shop-window. He went closer, staring for some moments at the face opposite him. There followed an infinitesimal fraction of time when his spirit deserted him as completely as if he were dead. When he recovered himself he had a sense that he was staring at the reflection of a stranger. He moved away, puzzled. Was he going mad? Then, suddenly, everything grew quite clear. He remembered the Italian, the accordion, the hunchback. Characters, circumstances, sequences—all stood out as sharply as the sky-line of a city in the glow of sunset.... He put his fingers to his pulse. Everything seemed normal; his skin was moist and cool. Yet last night he had been very ill. That was it! Last night he had been ill!
"What strange dreams people have when they are in a fever!" he exclaimed for the second time that day. He decided to go home. "I wonder, though," thought he, "whether the Italian is still playing that awful instrument?" Curiously enough, the idea did not disturb him in the least. "I shall teach him a Russian tune or two!" he decided, cheerfully. "Then, maybe his playing will be endurable."
When he came again to his lodgings he was surprised to find a knot of curious people on the opposite side of the street, and another before the entrance. He went up the stairs. His landlady came to meet him.
"Mr. Suvaroff," she began at once, "have you not heard what has happened? The man in the next room to you was found this morning—dead!"
He did not pretend to be surprised. "Well," he announced, brutally, "at least we shall have no more of dreadful music! How did he kill himself?"
The woman gave way to his advance with a movement of flattering confusion. "The knife was in his side," she answered. "In his side—toward the back."
"Ah, then he was murdered!"
He was mounting the second flight of stairs when his landlady again halted him. "Mr. Suvaroff," she ventured, "I hope you will not be angry! But his mother came early this morning. All day she has sat in your room, weeping. I cannot persuade her to go away. What am I to do?"
Suvaroff glared at her for a moment. "It is nothing!" he announced, as he passed on, shrugging.
The door of his room was open; he went in. A gnarled old woman sat on the edge of the bed; a female consoler was on either side. At the sight of Suvaroff the mourner rose and stood trembling before him, rolling a gaudy handkerchief into a moist bundle.
"My good woman," said Suvaroff, kindly, "do not stand; sit down."
"Kind gentleman!" the old woman began. "Kind gentleman—"
She got no further because of her tears. The other women rose and sat her down again. She began to moan. Suvaroff, awkward and disturbed, stood as men do in such situations.
Finally the old woman found her voice. "Kind gentleman," she said, "I am a poor old woman, and my son—Ah! I was washing his socks when they came after me.... You see what has happened! He was a good son. Once a week he came to me and brought me five dollars. Now—What am I to do, my kind gentleman?"
Suvaroff said nothing.
She swayed back and forth, and spoke again. "Only last week he said: 'There is a man who lodges next me who plays music.' Yes, my son was fond of you because of that. He said: 'I have seen him only once. He plays music all day and night, so that he may have money enough to live on. When I hear him coming up the stairs I take down my accordion and begin to play. All day and night he plays for others. So I think, Now it will be nice to give him some pleasure. So I take down my accordion and play for him!'... Yes, yes! He was like that all his life. He was a good son. Now what am I to do?"
A shudder passed over Suvaroff. There was a soft tap upon the door. The three women and Suvaroff looked up. Flavio Minetti stood in the doorway.
The three women gave the hunchback swift, inclusive glances, such as women always use when they measure a newcomer, and speedily dropped their eyes. Suvaroff stared silently at the warped figure. Minetti leaned against the door; his smile was at once both cruel and curiously touching. At length Minetti spoke. The sound of his voice provoked a sort of terror in the breast of Suvaroff.
"I have just heard," he said, benevolently, "from the proprietor of the wine-shop across the way, that your neighbor has been murdered. The landlady tells me that his mother is here."
The old woman roused herself. "Yes—you can see for yourself that I am here. I am a poor old woman, and my son—Ah! I was washing his socks when—"
"Yes, yes!" interrupted the hunchback, advancing into the room. "You are a poor old woman! Let me give you some money in all charity."
He threw gold into her lap. She began to tremble. Suvaroff saw her hands greedily close over the coins, and the sight sickened him.
"Why did you come?" Suvaroff demanded of Minetti. "Go away! You are not wanted here!"
The three women rose. The old woman began to mumble a blessing. She even put up her hand in the fashion of bestowing a benediction. Suvaroff fancied that he saw Minetti wince.
"He was a good son," the old woman began to mutter they led her out. At the door she looked back. Suvaroff turned away. "Once a week he came to me and brought me five dollars," she said, quite calmly. "He was a good son. He even played his music to give pleasure to others. Yes, yes! He was like that all his life...."
When the women were gone, Suvaroff felt the hunchback's hand upon his. Suvaroff turned a face of dry-eyed hopelessness toward his tormentor.
"Did you not sleep peacefully last night, my friend?" Minetti inquired, mockingly.
"After the thud I knew nothing," replied Suvaroff.
"He fell from his chair."
"Of course. That was to be expected. Just so."
"You see for yourself what you have done? Fancy, this man has a mother!"
"See, it is just as I said. Already you are dragging this dead thing about, chained to your wrist. Come, forget it. I should have killed him, anyway."
"That is not the point. The point is—My God! Tell me, in what fashion do these people laugh at you? Tell me how it is done."
"Laughter cannot be taught, my friend."
"Then Heaven help me! for I should like to laugh at you. If I could but laugh at you, all would be over."
"Ah!" said the hunchback. "I see."
* * *
At the end of the week Minetti came to Suvaroff one evening and said, not unkindly: "Why don't you leave? You are killing yourself. Go away—miles away. It would have happened, anyway."
Suvaroff was lying upon his bed. His face was turned toward the wall. He did not trouble to look at Minetti.
"I cannot leave. You know that as well as I do. When I am absent from this room I am in a fever until I get back to it again. I lie here and close my eyes and think.... Whenever a thud shakes the house I leap up, trembling. I have not worked for five days. They have given up sending for me from the cafe. Yesterday his mother came and sat with me. She drove me mad. But I sat and listened to her. 'Yes, he was a good son!' She repeats this by the hour, and rolls and unrolls her handkerchief.... It is bad enough in the daytime. But at night—God! If only the music would play again! I cannot endure such silence."
He buried his face in the pillow. Minetti shrugged and left.
In about an hour Suvaroff rose and went out. He found a squalid wine-shop in the quarter just below the Barbary Coast. He went in and sat alone at a table. The floors had not been freshly sanded for weeks; a dank mildew covered the green wall-paper. He called for brandy, and a fat, greasy-haired man placed a bottle of villainous stuff before him. Suvaroff poured out a drink and swallowed it greedily. He drank another and another. The room began to fill. The lights were dim, and the arrival and departure of patrons threw an endless procession of grotesque silhouettes upon the walls. Suvaroff was fascinated by these dancing shadows. They seemed familiar and friendly. He sat sipping his brandy, now, with a quieter, more leisurely air. The shadows were indescribably fascinating; they were so horrible and amusing! He began to wonder whether their antics would move him to laughter if he sat and drank long enough. He had a feeling that laughter and sleep went hand in hand. If he could but laugh again he was quite sure that he would fall asleep. But he discovered a truth while he sat there. Amusement and laughter were often strangers. He had known this all his life, of course, but he had never thought of it. Once, when he was a child, an old man had fallen in the road before him, in a fit. Suvaroff had stood rooted to the spot with amusement, but he had not laughed. Yet the man had gone through the contortions of a clown.... Well, then he was not to be moved to laughter, after all. He wearily put the cork back in the bottle of brandy. The fat bartender came forward. Suvaroff paid him and departed.
He went to the wine-shop the next night—and the next. He began to have a hope that if he persisted he would discover a shadow grotesque enough to make him laugh. He sat for hours, drinking abominable brandy. The patrons of the shop did not interest him. They were squalid, dirty, uninteresting. But their shadows were things of wonder. How was it possible for such drab people to have even interesting shadows? And why were these shadows so familiar? Suvaroff recognized each in turn, as if it were an old friend that he remembered but could not name. After the second night he came to a definite conclusion.
"They are not old friends at all," he said to himself. "They are not even the shadows of these people who come here. They are merely the silhouettes of my own thoughts.... If I could but draw my thoughts, they would be as black and as fantastic."
But at another time he dismissed this theory.
"No," he muttered, "they are not the shadows of my thoughts at all. They are the souls of these men. They are the twisted, dark, horrible souls of these men, that cannot crawl out except at nightfall! They are the souls of these men seeking to escape, like dogs chained to their kennels!... I wonder if the Italian had such a soul?..."
He rose suddenly. "I am wasting my time here," he said, almost aloud. "One may learn to laugh at a shadow. One may even learn to laugh at the picture of one's thoughts. But to laugh at a soul—No! A man's soul is too dreadful a thing to laugh at." He staggered out into the night.
On his way home he went into a pawn-shop and bought a pistol. He was in a fever to get back to his lodgings. He found Minetti waiting for him. He tried to conceal the pistol, but he knew that Minetti had seen it. Minetti was as pleasant as one could imagine. He told the most droll stories of his life in London. It appeared that he had lived there in a hotbed of exiled radicals; but he, himself, seemed to have no convictions. Everything he described was touched with a certain ironic humor. When he rose to go he said, quite simply:
"How are things? Do you sleep nights now?"
"No. I never expect to sleep again."
Minetti made no comment. "I see you have bought a pistol," he observed.
"Yes," replied Suvaroff.
"You have wasted your money, my young friend," declared the hunchback. "You will never use it."
With that Minetti left the room. Suvaroff laid the pistol on the table and threw himself upon the bed. He lay there without moving until morning.... Toward six o'clock he rose. He went over to the table and deliberately put the pistol to his temple. The coldness of the muzzle sent a tremor through him.... He put down the weapon in disgust.
* * *
Suvaroff stayed away from the wine-shop for two nights, but finally the memory of its fascinating shadows lured him back. The fat bartender saw him enter, and came forward with a bottle of brandy. Suvaroff smiled grimly and said nothing. He turned his back upon the company and began to watch the shadows enter and disappear. To-night the puppets seemed more whimsical than grotesque, and once he nearly laughed. A shadow with an enormous nose appeared; and a fly, as big as a bumblebee, lit upon the nose and sat rubbing its legs together in insolent content. A hand, upraised, struck at the fly. The nose disappeared as if completely annihilated by the blow, while the fly hovered safely aloof. Feeling encouraged, Suvaroff took another drink. But the more he drank the less genial were the shadows, and by midnight they all had become as sinister and terrible as ever.
On the way home to his room Suvaroff suddenly remembered that he had a friend who was a druggist.
"Perhaps he can give me something to make me sleep," Suvaroff muttered.
But the drug-store was closed. Suvaroff climbed wearily up the stairs of the Hotel des Alpes Maritimes. Minetti was sitting on the steps near the third landing.
"I was preparing to go home," said the hunchback. "What kept you so late?"
"I went around another way," answered Suvaroff. "I thought I might get something from a druggist friend to help me sleep."
They stood before the door of Suvaroff's room. Suvaroff opened the door and they went in.
"Sleeping-powders are dangerous," observed Minetti, throwing his hat upon the bed.
"So I fancied," replied Suvaroff, dryly.
"Where do you spend your nights?" Minetti demanded suddenly.
Suvaroff sat down. "Watching shadows in a wine-shop."
"Ah—a puppet show!"
"No, not exactly. I will explain.... No; come to think of it, there is no explanation. But it is extremely amusing. To-night, for instance, I nearly laughed.... Have you ever watched shadows upon a wall? Really, they are diverting beyond belief."
"Yes. I have watched them often. They are more real to me than actual people, because they are uglier. Beauty is a lie!"
A note of dreadful conviction crept into the hunchback's voice. Suvaroff looked at him intently, and said, quite simply:
"What a bitter truth you are, my friend!"
Minetti stared at Suvaroff, and he rose. "Perhaps I shall see you at your puppet show some evening," he said. And, without waiting for a reply, he left the room.
Suvaroff lay again all night upon his bed staring in a mute agony at the ceiling. Once or twice he fancied he heard the sounds of music from the next room. His heart leaped joyfully. But almost instantly his hopes sank back, like spent swimmers in a relentless sea. It seemed as if his brain were thirsting. He was in a pitiless desert of white-heated thought, and there was not a cloud of oblivion upon the horizon of his despair. Remembrance flamed like a molten sun, greedily withering every green, refreshing thing in its path. How long before this dreadful memory would consume him utterly?
"If I could only laugh!" he cried in his agony. "If I could only laugh!"
* * *
All next day Suvaroff was in a fever; not a physical fever, but a mental fever that burned with devastating insistence. He could not lie still upon his bed, so he rose and stumbled about the city's streets. But nothing diverted him. Before his eyes a sheet of fire burned, and a blinding light seemed to shut out everything else from his vision. Even his thoughts crackled like dry faggots in a flame.
"When evening comes," he said, "a breeze will spring up and I shall have some relief." But almost at once he thought: "A breeze will do no good. It will only make matters worse! I have heard that nothing puts out a fire so quickly as a shower. Let me see—It is now the middle of August.... It does not rain in this part of the world until October. Well, I must wait until October, then. No; a breeze at evening will do no good. I will go and watch the shadows again. Shadows are cool affairs if one sits in them, but how...."
And he began to wonder how he could contrive to sit in shadows that fell only on a wall.
How he got to the wine-shop he did not know, but at a late hour he found himself sitting at his accustomed seat. His bottle of brandy stood before him. To-night the shadows were blacker than ever, as if the fury of the flames within him were providing these dancing figures with a brighter background.
"These shadows are not the pictures of my thoughts," he said to himself. "Neither are they chained souls seeking to escape. They are the smoke from the fire in my head. They are the black smoke from my brain which is slowly burning away!"
He sat for hours, staring at the wall. The figures came and went, but they ceased to have any form or meaning. He merely sat and drank, and stared.... All at once a strange shadow appeared. A shadow? No; a phantom—a dreadful thing! Suvaroff leaned forward. His breath came quickly, his body trembled in the grip of a convulsion, his hands were clenched. He rose in his seat, and suddenly—quite suddenly, without warning—he began to laugh.... The shadow halted in its flight across the wall. Suvaroff circled the room with his gaze. In the center of the wine-shop stood Flavio Minetti. Suvaroff sat down. He was still shaking with laughter.
Presently Suvaroff was conscious that Minetti had disappeared. The fire in his brain had ceased to burn. Instead his senses seemed chilled, not disagreeably, but with a certain pleasant numbness. He glanced about. What was he doing in such a strange, squalid place? And the brandy was abominable! He called the waiter, paid him what was owing, and left at once.
There was no mist in the air to-night. The sky was clear and a wisp of moon crept on its disdainful way through the heavens.
"I shall sleep to-night," muttered Suvaroff, as he climbed up to his room upon the third story of the Hotel des Alpes Maritimes.
He undressed deliberately. All his former frenzy was gone. Shortly after he had crawled into bed he heard a step on the landing. Then, as usual, sounds began to drift down the passageway, not in heavy and clattering fashion, but with a pattering quality like a bird upon a roof. And, curiously, Suvaroff's thoughts wandered to other things, and a picture of his native country flashed over him—Little Russia in the languid embrace of summer—green and blue and golden. The soft notes of the balalaika at twilight came to him, and the dim shapes of dancing peasants, whirling like aspen-leaves in a fresh breeze. He remembered the noonday laughter of skylarks; the pear-trees bending patiently beneath their harvest; the placid river winding its willow-hedged way, cutting the plain like a thin silver knife.
A fresh current of air began to blow upon him. He heard the creak of a rusty hinge.
"He has opened the door," Suvaroff whispered. His teeth began to chatter. "Nevertheless, I shall sleep to-night," he said to himself reassuringly.
A faint footfall sounded upon the threshold.... Suvaroff drew the bedclothes higher.
THE EMPEROR OF ELAM
[Note 8: Copyright, 1917, by The Century Company. Copyright, 1918, by H. G. Dwight.]
BY H. G. DWIGHT
From The Century Magazine.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes, ix, 11.
The first of the two boats to arrive at this unappointed rendezvous was one to catch the eye even in that river of strange craft. She had neither the raking bow nor the rising poop of the local mehala, but a tall incurving beak, not unlike those of certain Mesopotamian sculptures, with a windowed and curtained deck-house at the stern. Forward she carried a short mast. The lateen sail was furled, however, and the galley was propelled at a fairly good gait by seven pairs of long sweeps. They flashed none too rhythmically, it must be added, at the sun which had just risen above the Persian mountains. And although the slit sleeves of the fourteen oarsmen, all of them young and none of them ill to look upon, flapped decoratively enough about the handles of the sweeps, they could not be said to present a shipshape appearance. Neither did the black felt caps the boatmen wore, fantastically tall and knotted about their heads with gay fringed scarves.
This barge had passed out of the Ab-i-Diz and was making its stately enough way across the basin of divided waters below Bund-i-Kir, when from the mouth of the Ab-i-Gerger—the easterly of two turbid threads into which the Karun above this point is split by a long island—there shot a trim white motor-boat. The noise she made in the breathless summer sunrise, intensified and reechoed by the high clay banks which here rise thirty feet or more above the water, caused the rowers of the galley to look around. Then they dropped their sweeps in astonishment at the spectacle of the small boat advancing so rapidly toward them without any effort on the part of the four men it contained, as if blown by the breath of jinn. The word Firengi, however, passed around the deck—that word so flattering to a great race, which once meant Frank but which now, in one form or another, describes for the people of western Asia the people of Europe and their cousins beyond the seas. Among the friends of the jinn, of whom as it happened only two were Europeans, there also passed an explanatory word. But although they pronounced the strange oarsmen to be Lurs, they caused their jinni to cease his panting, so struck were they by the appearance of the high-beaked barge.
The two craft drifted abreast of each other about midway of the sunken basin. As they did so, one of the Europeans in the motor-boat, a stocky black-moustached fellow in blue overalls, wearing in place of the regulation helmet of that climate a greasy black beret over one ear, lifted his hand from the wheel and called out the Arabic salutation of the country:
"Peace be unto you!"
"And to you, peace!" responded a deep voice from the doorway of the deck-house. It was evident that the utterer of this friendly antiphon was not a Lur. Fairer, taller, stouter, and older than his wild-looking crew, he was also better dressed—in a girdled robe of gray silk, with a striped silk scarf covering his hair and the back of his neck in the manner of the Arabs. A thick brown beard made his appearance more imposing, while two scars across his left cheek, emerging from the beard, suggested or added to something in him which might on occasion become formidable. As it was he stepped forward with a bow and addressed a slim young man who sat in the stern of the motor-boat. "Shall we pass as Kinglake and the Englishman of Eothen did in the desert," asked the stranger, smiling, in a very good English, "because they had not been introduced? Or will you do me the honor to come on board my—ark?"
The slim young man, whose fair hair, smooth face, and white clothes made him the most boyish looking of that curious company, lifted his white helmet and smiled in return.
"Why not?" he assented. And, becoming conscious that his examination of this surprising stranger, who looked down at him with odd light eyes, was too near a stare, he added: "What on earth is your ark made of, Mr. Noah?"
What she was made of, as a matter of fact, was what heightened the effect of remoteness she produced—a hard dark wood unknown to the lower Karun, cut in lengths of not more than two or three feet and caulked with reeds and mud.
"'Make thee an ark of gopher wood,'" quoted the stranger. "'Rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and thou shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.'"
"Bitumen, eh?" exclaimed the slim young man. "Where did you get it?"
"Do you ask, you who drill oil at Meidan-i-Naft?"
"As it happens, I don't!" smiled the slim young man.
"At any rate," continued the stranger, after a scarcely perceptible pause, "let me welcome you on board the Ark." And when the unseen jinni had made it possible for the slim young man to set foot on the deck of the barge, the stranger added, with a bow: "Magin is my name—from Brazil."
If the slim young man did not stare again, he at least had time to make out that the oddity of his host's light eyes lay not so much in the fact of their failing to be distinctly brown, gray, or green, as that they had a translucent look. Then he responded briefly, holding out his hand:
"Matthews. But isn't this a long way from Rio de Janeiro?"
"Well," returned the other, "it's not so near London! But come in and have something, won't you?" And he held aside the reed portiere that screened the door of the deck-house.
"My word! You do know how to do yourself!" exclaimed Matthews. His eye took in the Kerman embroidery on the table in the centre of the small saloon, the gazelle skins and silky Shiraz rugs covering the two divans at the sides, the fine Sumak carpet on the floor, and the lion pelt in front of an inner door. "By Jove!" he exclaimed again. "That's a beauty!"
"Ha!" laughed the Brazilian. "The Englishman spies his lion first!"
"Where did you find him?" asked Matthews, going behind the table for a better look. "They're getting few and far between around here, they say."
"Oh, they still turn up," answered the Brazilian, it seemed to Matthews not too definitely. Before he could pursue the question farther, Magin clapped his hands. Instantly there appeared at the outer door a barefooted Lur, whose extraordinary cap looked to Matthews even taller and more pontifical than those of his fellow-countrymen at the oars. The Lur, his hands crossed on his girdle, received a rapid order and vanished as silently as he came.
"I wish I knew the lingo like that!" commented Matthews.
Magin waved a deprecatory hand.
"One picks it up soon enough. Besides, what's the use—with a man like yours? Who is he, by the way? He doesn't look English."
"Who? Gaston? He isn't. He's French. And he doesn't know too much of the lingo. But the blighter could get on anywhere. He's been all over the place—Algiers, Egypt, Baghdad. He's been chauffeur to more nabobs in turbans than you can count. He's a topping mechanic, too. The wheel hasn't been invented that beggar can't make go 'round. The only trouble he has is with his own. He keeps time for a year or two, and then something happens to his mainspring and he gets the sack. But he never seems to go home. He always moves on to some place where it's hotter and dirtier. You should hear his stories! He's an amusing devil."
"And perhaps not so different from the rest of us!" threw out Magin. "What flea bites us? Why do you come here, courting destruction in a cockleshell that may any minute split on a rock and spill you to the sharks, when you might be punting some pretty girl up the backwaters of the Thames? Why do I float around in this old ark of reeds and bulrushes, like an elderly Moses in search of a promised land, who should be at home wearing the slippers of middle age? What is it? A sunstroke? This is hardly the country where Goethe's citrons bloom!"
"Damned if I know!" laughed Matthews. "I fancy we like a bit of a lark!"
The Brazilian laughed too.
"A bit of a lark!" he echoed.
Just then the silent Lur reappeared with a tray.
"I say!" protested Matthews. "Whiskey and soda at five o'clock in the morning, in the middle of July—"
"1914, if you must be so precise!" added Magin jovially. "But why not?" he demanded. "Aren't you an Englishman? You mustn't shake the pious belief in which I was brought up, that you are all weaned with Scotch! Say when. It isn't every day that I have the pleasure of so fortunate an encounter." And, rising, he lifted his glass, bowed, and said: "Here's to a bit of a lark, Mr. Matthews!"
The younger man rose to it. But inwardly he began to feel a little irked.
"By the way," he asked, nibbling at a biscuit, "can you tell me anything about the Ab-i-Diz? I dare say you must know something about it—since your men look as if they came from up that way. Is there a decent channel as far as Dizful?"
"Ah!" uttered Magin slowly. "Are you thinking of going up there?" He considered the question, and his guest, with a flicker in his lighted eyes. "Well, decent is a relative word, you know. However, wonders can be accomplished with a stout rope and a gang of natives, even beyond Dizful. But here you see me and my ark still whole—after a night journey, too. The worst thing is the sun. You see I am more careful of my skin than you. As for the shoals, the rapids, the sharks, the lions, the nomads who pop at you from the bank, et cetera—you are an Englishman! Do you take an interest in antiques?" he broke off abruptly.
"Yes—though interest is a relative word too, I expect."
"Quite so!" agreed the Brazilian. "I have rather a mania for that sort of thing, myself. Wait. Let me show you." And he went into the inner cabin. When he came back he held up an alabaster cup. "A Greek kylix!" he cried. "Pure Greek! What an outline, eh? This is what keeps me from putting on my slippers! I have no doubt Alexander left it behind him. Perhaps Hephaistion drank out of it, or Nearchus, to celebrate his return from India. And some rascally Persian stole it out of a tent!"
Matthews, taking the cup, saw the flicker brighten in the Brazilian's eyes.
"Nice little pattern of grape leaves, that," he said. "And think of picking it up out here!"
"Oh you can always pick things up, if you know where to look," said Magin. "Dieulafoy and the rest of them didn't take everything. How could they? The people who have come and gone through this country of Elam! Why just over there, at Bund-i-Kir, Antigonus fought Eumenes and the Silver Shields for the spoils of Susa—and won them! I have discovered—But come in here." And he pushed wider open the door of the inner cabin.
Matthews stepped into what was evidently a stateroom. A broad bunk filled one side of it, and the visitor could not help remarking a second interior door. But his eye was chiefly struck by two, three, no four, chests, which took up more space in the narrow cabin than could be convenient for its occupant. They seemed to be made of the same mysterious dark wood as the "ark," clamped with copper.
"I say! Those aren't bad!" he exclaimed. "More of the spoils of Susa?"
"Ho! My trunks? I had them made up the river, like the rest. But I wonder what would interest you in my museum. Let's see." He bent over one of the chests, unlocked it, rummaged under the cover, and brought out a broad metal circlet which he handed to Matthews. "How would that do for a crown, eh?"
The young man took it over to the porthole. The metal, he then saw, was a soft antique gold, wrought into a decoration of delicate spindles, with a border of filigree. The circlet was beautiful in itself, and astonishingly heavy. But what it chiefly did for Matthews was to sharpen the sense of strangeness, of remoteness, which this bizarre galley, come from unknown waters, had brought into the familiar muddy Karun.
"As a matter of fact," went on the Brazilian, "it's an anklet. But can you make it out? Those spindles are Persian, while the filigree is more Byzantine than anything else. You find funny things up there, in caves—"
He tossed a vague hand, into which Matthews put the anklet, saying:
"Take it before I steal it!"
"Keep it, won't you?" proposed the astonishing Brazilian.
"Oh, thanks. But I could hardly do that," Matthews replied.
"Why not?" protested Magin. "As a souvenir of a pleasant meeting! I have a ton of them." He waved his hand at the chests.
"No, really, thanks," persisted the young man. "And I'm afraid we must be getting on. I don't know the river, you see, and I'd like to reach Dizful before dark."
The Brazilian studied him a moment.
"As you say," he finally conceded. "But you will at least have another drink before you go?"
"No, not even that, thanks," said Matthews. "We really must be off. But it's been very decent of you."
He felt both awkward and amused as he backed out to the deck, followed by his imposing host. At sight of the two the crew scattered to their oars. They had been leaning over the side, absorbed in admiration of the white jinn-boat. Matthews' Persian servant handed up to Magin's butler a tray of tea glasses—on which Matthews also noted a bottle. In honor of that bottle Gaston himself stood up and took off his greasy cap.
"A thousand thanks, Monsieur," he said. "I have tasted nothing so good since I left France."
"In that case, my friend," rejoined Magin in French as good as his English, "it is time you returned!" And he abounded in amiable speeches and ceremonious bows until the last au revoir.
"Au plaisir!" called back Gaston, having invoked his jinni. Then, after a last look at the barge, he asked over his shoulder in a low voice: "Who is this extraordinary type, M'sieu Guy? A species of an Arab, who speaks French and English and who voyages in a galley from a museum!"
"A Brazilian, he says," imparted M'sieu Guy—whose surname was beyond Gaston's gallic tongue.
"Ah! The uncle of America! That understands itself! He sent me out a cognac, too! And did he present you to his dame de compagnie? She put her head out of a porthole to look at our boat. A Lur, like the others, but with a pair of blistering black eyes! And a jewel in her nose!"
"It takes you, Gaston," said Guy Matthews, "to discover a dame of company!"
When the white motor-boat had disappeared in the glitter of the Ab-i-Diz, Senhor Magin, not unlike other fallible human beings when released from the necessity of keeping up a pitch, appeared to lose something of his gracious humor. So, it transpired, did his decorative boatmen, who had not expected to row twenty-five miles upstream at a time when most people in that climate seek the relief of their serdabs—which are underground chambers cooled by running water, it may be, and by a tall badgir, or air chimney. The running water, to be sure, was here, and had already begun to carry the barge down the Karun. If the high banks of that tawny stream constituted a species of air chimney, however, such air as moved therein was not calculated for relief. But when Brazilians command, even a Lur may obey. These Lurs, at all events, propelled their galley back to the basin of Bund-i-Kir, and on into the Ab-i-Shuteit—which is the westerly of those two halves of the Karun. Before nightfall the barge had reached the point where navigation ends. There Magin sent his majordomo ashore to procure mounts. And at sunset the two of them, followed by a horse boy, rode northward six or seven miles, till the city of Shuster rose dark above them in the summer evening, on its rock that cleaves the Karun in two.
The Bazaar by which they entered the town was deserted at that hour, save by dogs that set up a terrific barking at the sight of strangers. Here the charvadar lighted a vast white linen lantern, which he proceeded to carry in front of the two riders. He seemed to know where he was going, for he led the way without a pause through long blank silent streets of indescribable filth and smells. The gloom of them was deepened by jutting balconies, and by innumerable badgirs that cut out a strange black fretwork against amazing stars. At last the three stopped in front of a gate in the vicinity of the citadel. This was not one of the gateways that separate the different quarters of Shuster, but a door in a wall, recessed in a tall arch and ornamented with an extraordinary variety of iron clamps, knobs, locks, and knockers.
Of one of the latter the charvadar made repeated use until someone shouted from inside. The horse-boy shouted back, and presently his lantern caught a glitter of two eyes in a slit. The eyes belonged to a cautious doorkeeper, who after satisfying himself that the visitors were not enemies admitted the Brazilian and the Lur into a vaulted brick vestibule. Then, having looked to his wards and bolts, he lighted Magin through a corridor which turned into a low tunnel-like passage. This led into a sort of cloister, where a covered ambulatory surrounded a dark pool of stars. Thence another passage brought them out into a great open court. Here an invisible jet of water made an illusion of coolness in another, larger, pool, overlooked by a portico of tall slim pillars. Between them Magin caught the glow of a cigar.
"Good evening, Ganz," his bass voice called from the court.
"Heaven! Is that you?" replied the smoker of the cigar. "What are you doing here, in God's name? I imagined you at Mohamera, by this time, or even in the Gulf." This remark, it may not be irrelevant to say, was in German—as spoken in the trim town of Zurich.
"And so I should have been," replied the polyglot Magin in the same language, mounting the steps of the portico and shaking his friend's hand, "but for—all sorts of things. If we ran aground once, we ran aground three thousand times. I begin to wonder if we shall get through the reefs at Ahwaz—with all the rubbish I have on board."
"Ah, bah! You can manage, going down. But why do you waste your time in Shuster, with all that is going on in Europe?"
"H'm!" grunted Magin. "What is going on in Europe? A great family is wearing well cut mourning, and a small family is beginning to turn green! How does that affect two quiet nomads in Elam—especially when one of them is a Swiss and one a Brazilian?" He laughed, and lighted a cigar the other offered him. "My dear Ganz, it is an enigma to me how a man who can listen to such a fountain, and admire such stars, can perpetually sigh after the absurdities of Europe! Which reminds me that I met an Englishman this morning."
"Well, what of that? Are Englishmen so rare?"
"Alas, no—though I notice, my good Ganz, that you do your best to thin them out! This specimen was too typical for me to be able to describe him. Younger than usual, possibly; yellow hair, blue eyes, constrained manner, everything to sample. He called himself Mark, or Matthew. Rather their apostolic air, too—except that he was in the Oil Company's motor-boat. But he gave me to understand that he was not in the Oil Company."
"I saw for myself that he knows nothing about archaeology. Who is he? Lynch? Bank? Telegraph?"
"He's not Lynch, and he's not Bank, and he's not Telegraph. Neither is he consul, or even that famous railroad. He's—English!" And Ganz let out a chuckle at the success of his own characterization.
"Ah! So?" exclaimed Magin elaborately. "I hear, by the way, that that famous railroad is not marching so fast. The Lurs don't like it. But sometimes even Englishmen," he added, "have reasons for doing what they do. This one, at any rate, seemed more inclined to ask questions than to answer them. I confess I don't know whether it was because he had nothing to say or whether he preferred not to say it. Is he perhaps a son of Papa, making the grand tour?"
"More or less. Papa gave him no great letter of credit, though. He came out to visit some of the Oil people. And he's been here long enough to learn quite a lot of Persian."
"So he starts this morning, I take it, from Sheleilieh. But why the devil does he go to Dizful, by himself?"
"And why the devil shouldn't he? He's out here, and he wants to see the sights—such as they are. So he's going to take a look at the ruins of Susa, and at your wonderful unspoiled Dizful. Shir Ali Khan will be delighted to get a few tomans for his empty house by the river. Then the 21st, you know, is the coronation. So I gave him a letter to the Father of Swords, who—"
"Thunder and lightning!" Magin's heavy voice resounded in the portico very like a bellow. "You, Ganz, sent this man to the Father of Swords? He might be one of those lieutenants from India who go smelling around in their holidays, so pink and innocent!"
"What is that to me?" demanded the Swiss, raising his own voice. "Or to you either? After all, Senhor Magin, are you the Emperor of Elam?"
The Brazilian laughed.
"Not yet! And naturally it's nothing to you, when you cash him checks and sell him tinned cows and quinine. But for a man who perpetually sighs after Europe, Herr Ganz, and for a Swiss of the north, you strike me as betraying a singular lack of sensibility to certain larger interests of your race. However—What concerns me is that you should have confided to this young man, with such a roll of sentimental eyes as I can imagine, that Dizful is still 'unspoiled'! If Dizful is unspoiled, he might spoil it. I've found some very nice things up there, you know. I was even fool enough to show him one or two."
"Bah! He likes to play tennis and shoot! You know these English boys."
Magin considered those English boys in silence for a moment.
"Yes, I know them. This one told me he liked a bit of a lark! I know myself what a lark it is to navigate the Ab-i-Diz, at the end of July! But what is most curious about these English boys is that when they go out for a bit of a lark they come home with Egypt or India in their pocket. Have you noticed that, Ganz? That's their idea of a bit of a lark. And with it all they are still children. What can one do with such people? A bit of a lark! Well, you will perhaps make me a little annoyance, Mr. Adolf Ganz, by sending your English boy up to Dizful to have a bit of a lark. However, he'll either give himself a sunstroke or get himself bitten in two by a shark. He asked me about the channel, and I had an inspiration. I told him he would have no trouble. So he'll go full speed and we shall see what we shall see. Do you sell coffins, Mr. Ganz, in addition to all your other valuable merchandise?"
"Naturally, Mr. Magin," replied the Swiss. "Do you need one? But you haven't explained to me yet why you give me the pain of saying good-bye to you a second time."
"Partly, Mr. Ganz, because I am tired of sleeping in an oven, and partly because I—the Father of Swords has asked me to run up to Bala Bala before I leave. But principally because I need a case or two more of your excellent vin de champagne—manufactured out of Persian petroleum, the water of the Karun, the nameless abominations of Shuster, and the ever effervescing impudence of the Swiss Republic!"
"What can I do?" smiled the flattered author of this concoction. "I have to use what I can get, in this Godforsaken place."
"And I suppose you will end by getting a million, eh?"
"No such luck! But I'm getting a piano. Did I tell you? A Bluethner. It's already on the way up from Mohamera."
"A Bluethner! In Shuster! God in heaven! Why did you wait until I had gone?"
"Well, aren't you still here?" The fact of Magin's being still there, so unexpectedly, hung in his mind. "By the way, speaking of the Father of Swords, did you give him an order?"
"I gave him an order. Didn't you pay it?"
"I thought twice about it. For unless you have struck oil, up in that country of yours where nobody goes, or gold—"
"Mr. Adolf Ganz," remarked the Brazilian with some pointedness, "all I ask of you is to respect my signature and to keep closed that many-tongued mouth of yours. I sometimes fear that in you the banker is inclined to exchange confidences with the chemist—or even with the son of Papa who cashes a check. Eh?"
Ganz cleared his throat.
"In that case," he rejoined, "all you have to do is to ask him, when you meet him again at Bala Bala. And the English bank will no doubt be happy to accept the transfer of your account."
Magin began to chuckle.
"We assert our dignity? Never mind, Adolf. As a matter of fact I have a high opinion of your discretion—so high that when I found the Imperial Bank of Elam I shall put you in charge of it! And you did me a real service by sending that motor-boat across my bow this morning. For in it I discovered just the chauffeur I have been looking for. I am getting tired of my galley, you know. You will see something when I come back."
"But," Ganz asked after a moment, "do you really expect to come back?"
"But what else should I do? End my days sneezing and sniffling by some polite lake of Zurich like you, my poor Ganz, when you find in your hand the magic key that might unlock for you any door in the world? That, for example, is not my idea of a lark, as your son of Papa would say! Men are astounding animals, I admit. But I never could live in Europe, where you can't turn around without stepping on some one else's toes. I want room! I want air! I want light! And for a collector, you know, America is after all a little bare. While here—!"
"O God!" cried Adolf Ganz out of his dark Persian portico.
As Gaston very truly observed, there are moments in Persia when even the most experienced chauffeur is capable of an emotion. And an unusual number of such moments enlivened for Gaston and his companions their journey up the Ab-i-Diz. Indeed Matthews asked himself more than once why he had chosen so doubtful a road to Dizful, when he might so much more easily have ridden there, and at night. It certainly was not beautiful, that river of brass zigzagging out of sight of its empty hinterland. Very seldom did anything so visible as a palm lift itself against the blinding Persian blue. Konar trees were commoner, their dense round masses sometimes shading a white-washed tomb or a black tent. Once or twice at sight of the motor-boat a bellam, a native canoe, took refuge at the mouth of one of the gullies that scarred the bank like sun-cracks. Generally, however, there was nothing to be seen between the water and the sky but two yellow walls of clay, topped by endless thickets of tamarisk and nameless scrub. Matthews wondered, disappointed, whether a jungle looked like that, and if some black-maned lion walked more softly in it, or slept less soundly, hearing the pant of the unknown creature in the river. But there was no lack of more immediate lions in the path. The sun, for one thing, as the Brazilian had predicted, proved a torment against which double awnings faced with green were of small avail. Then the treacheries of a crooked and constantly shallowing channel needed all the attention the travelers could spare. And the rapids of Kaleh Bunder, where a rocky island flanked by two reefs threatened to bar any further progress, afforded the liveliest moments of their day.
The end of that day, nevertheless, found our sight-seer smoking cigarettes in Shir Ali Khan's garden at Dizful and listening to the camel bells that jingled from the direction of certain tall black pointed arches straddling the dark river. When Matthews looked at those arches by sunlight, and at the queer old flat-topped yellow town visible through them, he regretted that he had made up his mind to continue his journey so soon. However, he was coming back. So he packed off Gaston and the Bakhtiari to Sheleilieh, where they and their motor-boat belonged. And he himself, with his servant Abbas and the charvadar of whom they hired horses, set out at nightfall for the mountain citadel of Bala Bala. For there the great Salman Taki Khan, chieftain of the lower Lurs, otherwise known as the Father of Swords, was to celebrate as became a redoubtable vassal of a remote and youthful suzerain the coronation of Ahmed Shah Kajar.
It was nearly morning again when, after a last scramble up a trough of rocks and gravel too steep for riding, the small cavalcade reached a plateau in the shadow of still loftier elevations. Here they were greeted by a furious barking of dogs. Indeed it quickly became necessary to organize a defence of whips and stones against the guardians of that high plateau. The uproar soon brought a shout out of the darkness. The charvadar shouted back, and after a long-distance colloquy there appeared a figure crowned by the tall kola of the Brazilian's boatmen, who drove the dogs away. The dialect in which he spoke proved incomprehensible to Matthews. Luckily it was not altogether so to Abbas, that underling long resigned to the eccentricities of the Firengi, whose accomplishments included even a sketchy knowledge of his master's tongue. It appeared that the law of Bala Bala forbade the door of the Father of Swords to open before sunrise. But the tall-hatted one offered the visitor the provisional hospitality of a black tent, of a refreshing drink of goats' buttermilk, and of a comfortable felt whereon to stretch cramped legs.
When Matthews returned to consciousness he first became aware of a blinding oblong of light in the dark wall of the tent. He then made out a circle of pontifical black hats, staring at him, his fair hair, and his indecently close-fitting clothes, in the silence of unutterable curiosity. It made him think, for a bewildered instant, that he was back on the barge he had met in the river. As for the black hats, what astonished them not least was the stranger's immediate demand for water, and his evident dissatisfaction with the quantity of it they brought him. There happily proved to be no lack of this commodity, as Matthews' ears had told him. He was not long in pursuing the sound into the open, where he found himself at the edge of a village of black tents, pitched in a grassy hollow between two heights. The nearer and lower was a detached cone of rock, crowned by a rude castle. The other peak, not quite so precipitous, afforded foothold for scattered scrub oaks and for a host of slowly moving sheep and goats. Between them the plateau looked down on two sides into two converging valleys. And the clear air was full of the noise of a brook that cascaded between the scrub oaks of the higher mountain, raced past the tents, and plunged out of sight in the narrower gorge.
"Ripping!" pronounced Matthews genially to his black-hatted gallery.
He was less genial about the persistence of the gallery, rapidly increased by recruits from the black tents, in dogging him through every detail of his toilet. But he was rescued at last by Abbas and an old Lur who, putting his two hands to the edge of his black cap, saluted him in the name of the Father of Swords. The Lur then led the way to a trail that zigzagged up the lower part of the rocky cone. He explained the quantity of loose boulders obstructing the path by saying that they had been left there to roll down on whomever should visit the Father of Swords without an invitation. That such an enterprise would not be too simple became more evident when the path turned into a cave. Here another Lur was waiting with candles. He gave one each to the newcomers, leading the way to a low door in the rock. This was opened by an individual in a long red coat of ceremony, carrying a heavy silver mace, who gave Matthews the customary salutation of peace and bowed him into an irregular court. An infinity of doors opened out of it—chiefly of the stables, the old man said, pointing out a big white mule or two of the famous breed of Bala Bala. Thence the visitor was led up a steep stone stair to a terrace giving entrance upon a corridor and another, narrower stone stair. From its prodigiously high steps he emerged into a hall, carpeted with felt. At this point, the Lurs took off their shoes. Matthews followed suit, being then ushered into what was evidently a room of state. It contained no furniture, to be sure, save for the handsome rugs on the floor. The room did not look bare, however, for its lines were broken by a deep alcove, and by a continuous succession of niches. Between and about the niches the walls were decorated with plaster reliefs of flowers and arabesques. Matthews wondered if the black hats were capable of that! But what chiefly caught his eye was the terrace opening out of the room, and the stupendous view.
The terrace hung over a green chasm where the two converging gorges met at the foot of the crag of Bala Bala. Matthews looked down as from the prow of a ship into the tumbled country below him, through which a river flashed sinuously toward the faraway haze of the plains. The sound of water filling the still clear air, the brilliance of the morning light, the wildness and remoteness of that mountain eyrie, so different from anything he had yet seen, added a last strangeness to the impressions of which the young man had been having so many.
"What a pity to spoil it with a railroad!" he could not help thinking, as he leaned over the parapet of the terrace.
"Sahib!" suddenly whispered Abbas behind him.
Matthews turned, and saw in the doorway of the terrace a personage who could be none other than his host. In place of the kola of his people this personage wore a great white turban, touched with gold. The loose blue aba enveloping his ample figure was also embroidered with gold. Not the least striking detail of his appearance however, was his beard, which had a pronounced tendency toward scarlet. His nails were likewise reddened with henna, reminding Matthews that the hands belonging to the nails were rumored to bear even more sinister stains. And the bottomless black eyes peering out from under the white turban lent surprising credibility to such rumors. But there was no lack of graciousness in the gestures with which those famous hands saluted the visitor and pointed him to a seat of honor on the rug beside the Father of Swords. The Father of Swords furthermore pronounced his heart uplifted to receive a friend of Ganz Sahib, that prince among the merchants of Shuster. Yet he did not hesitate to express a certain surprise at discovering in the friend of the prince among the merchants of Shuster one still in the flower of youth, who at the same time exhibited the features of good fortune and the lineaments of prudence. And he inquired as to what sorrow had led one so young to fold the carpet of enjoyment and wander so far from his parents.
Matthews, disdaining the promptings of Abbas—who stood apart like a statue of obsequiousness, each hand stuck into the sleeve of the other—responded as best he might. In the meantime tea and candies were served by a black hat on bended knee, who also produced a pair of ornate pipes. The Father of Swords marvelled that Matthews should have abandoned the delights of Shuster in order to witness his poor celebrations of the morrow, in honor of the coronation. And had he felt no fear of robbers, during his long night ride from Dizful? But what robbers were there to fear, protested Matthews, in the very shadow of Bala Bala? At that the Father of Swords began to make bitter complaint of the afflictions Allah had laid upon him, taking his text from these lines of Sadi: "If thou tellest the sorrows of thy heart, let it be to him in whose countenance thou mayst be assured of prompt consolation." The world, he declared, was fallen into disorder, like the hair of an Ethiopian. Within the city wall was a people well disposed as angels; without, a band of tigers. After which he asked if the young Firengi were of the company of those who dug for the poisoned water of Bakhtiari Land, or whether perchance he were of the People of the Chain.
These figures of speech would have been incomprehensible to Matthews, if Abbas had not hinted something about oil rigs. He accordingly confessed that he had nothing to do with either of the two enterprises. The Father of Swords then expatiated on those who caused the Lurs to seize the hand of amazement with the teeth of chagrin, by dragging through their valleys a long chain, as if they meant to take prisoners. These unwelcome Firengis were also to be known by certain strange inventions on three legs, into which they would gaze by the hour. Were they warriors, threatening devastation? Or were they magicians, spying into the future and laying a spell upon the people of Luristan? Their account of themselves the Father of Swords found far from satisfactory, claiming as they did that they proposed to build a road of iron, whereby it would be possible for a man to go from Dizful to Khorremabad in one day. For the rest, what business had the people of Dizful, too many of whom were Arabs, in Khorremabad, a city of Lurs? Let the men of Dizful remain in Dizful, and those of Khorremabad continue where they were born. As for him, his white mules needed no road of iron to carry him about his affairs.
Matthews, recalling his own thoughts as he leaned over the parapet of the terrace, spoke consolingly to the Father of Swords concerning the People of the Chain. The Father of Swords listened to him, drawing meditatively at his waterpipe. He thereupon inquired if Matthews were acquainted with another friend of the prince among the merchants of Shuster, himself a Firengi by birth, though recently persuaded of the truths of Islam; and not like this visitor of good omen, in the bloom of youth, but bearded and hardened in battles, bearing the scars of them on his face.
Matthews began to go over in his mind the short list of Europeans he had met on the Karun, till suddenly he bethought him of that extraordinary barge he had encountered—could it be only a couple of days ago?
"Magin Sahib?" he asked. "I know him—if he is the one who travels in the river in a mehala not like other mehalas, rowed by Lurs."
"'That is a musk which discloses itself by its scent, and not what the perfumers impose upon us,'" quoted the Father of Swords. "This man," he continued, "our friend and the friend of our friend, warned me that they of the chain are sons of oppression, destined to bring misfortune to the Lurs. Surely my soul is tightened, not knowing whom I may believe."
"Rum bounder!" said Matthews to himself, as his mind went back to the already mythic barge, and its fantastic oarsmen from these very mountains, and its antique-hunting, history-citing master from oversea, who quoted the Book of Genesis and who carried mysterious passengers with nose-jewels. But our not too articulate young man was less prompt about what he should say aloud. He began to find more in this interview than he had expected. He was tickled at his host's flowery forms of speech, and after all rather sympathized with the suspicious old ruffian, yet it was not for him to fail in loyalty toward the "People of the Chain." Several of them he knew, as it happened, and they had delighted him with their wild yarns of surveying in Luristan. So he managed no more than to achieve an appearance of slightly offended dignity.
Considering which, out of those opaque eyes, the Father of Swords clapped those famous hands and commanded a responsive black hat to bring him his green chest. At that Matthews pricked up interested ears indeed. The chest, however, when set down in front of the Father of Swords, proved to be nothing at all like the one out of which the Brazilian had taken his gold anklet. It was quite small and painted green, though quaintly enough provided with triple locks of beaten iron. The Father of Swords unlocked them deliberately, withdrew from an inner compartment a round tin case, and from that a roll of parchment which he pressed to his lips with infinite solemnity. He then handed it to Matthews.
He was one, our not too articulate young man, to take things as they came and not to require, even east of Suez, the spice of romance with his daily bread. His last days, moreover, had been too crowded for him to ruminate over their taste. But it was not every day that he squatted on the same rug with a scarlet-bearded old cutthroat of a mountain chief. So it was that his more or less casual lark visibly took on, from the perspective of this castle in Luristan, as he unrolled a gaudy emblazonment of eagles at the top of the parchment, a new and curious color. For below the eagle he came upon what he darkly made out to be a species of treaty, inscribed neither in the Arabic nor in the Roman but in the German character, between the Father of Swords and a more notorious War Lord. And below that was signed, sealed, and imposingly paraphed the signature of one Julius Magin. Which was indeed a novel aspect for a Brazilian, however versatile, to reveal.
He permitted himself, did Guy Matthews, a smile.
"You do not kiss it?" observed the Father of Swords.
"In my country," Matthews began—
"But it is, may I be your sacrifice," interrupted the Father of Swords, "a letter from the Shah of the Shahs of the Firengis." It was evident that he was both impressed and certain of impressing his hearer. "He has promised eternal peace to me and to my people."
The Englishman in Matthews permitted him a second smile.
"The Father of Swords," he said, "speaks a word which I do not understand. I am a Firengi, but I have never heard of a Shah of the Shahs of the Firengis. In the house of Islam are there not many who rule? In Tehran, for instance, there is the young Ahmed Shah. Then among the Bakhtiaris there is an Ilkhani, at Mohamera there is the Sheikh of the Cha'b, and in the valleys of Pusht-i-Kuh none is above the Father of Swords. I do not forget, either, the Emirs of Mecca and Afghanistan, or the Sultan in Stambul. And among them what Firengi shall say who is the greatest? And so it is in Firengistan. Yet as for this paper, it is written in the tongue of a king smaller than the one whose subject I am, whose crown has been worn by few fathers. But the name at the bottom of the paper is not his. It is not even a name known to the Firengis when they speak among themselves of the great of their lands. Where did you see him?"
The Father of Swords stroked his scarlet beard, looking at his young visitor with more of a gleam in the dull black of his eyes than Matthews had yet noticed.
"Truly is it said: 'Fix not thy heart on what is transitory, for the Tigris will continue to flow through Baghdad after the race of Caliphs is extinct!' You make it clear to me that you are of the People of the Chain."
"If I were of the People of the Chain," protested Matthews, "there is no reason why I should hide it. The People of the Chain do not steal secretly through the valleys of Pusht-i-Kuh, telling the Lurs lies and giving them papers in the night. I am not one of the People of the Chain. But the king of the People of the Chain is also my king. And he is a great king, lord of many lands and many seas, who has no need of secret messengers, hostlers and scullions of whom no one has heard, to persuade strangers of his greatness."
"Your words do not persuade me!" cried the Father of Swords. "A wise man is like a jar in the house of the apothecary, silent but full of virtues. If the king who sent me this letter has such hostlers and such scullions, how great must be his khans and viziers! And why do the Turks trust him? Why do the other Firengis allow his ships in Bushir and Basra? Or why do not the People of the Chain better prove the character of their lord? But the hand of liberality is stronger than the arm of power. This king, against whom you speak, heard me draw the sigh of affliction from the bosom of uncertainty. He deigned to regard me with the eye of patronage, sending me good words and promises of peace and friendship. He will not permit the house of Islam to be troubled. From many we have heard it."
"Ah!" exclaimed Matthews. "Now I understand why you have not kept your promises to the People of the Chain!" And he rubbed his thumb against his forefinger, in the gesture of the East that signifies the payment of money.
"Why not?" demanded the Father of Swords, angrily. "The duty of a king is munificence. Or why should there be a way to pass through my mountains? Has it ever been said of the Lur that he stepped back before a stranger? That is for the Shah in Tehran, who has become the servant of the Russian! Let the People of the Chain learn that my neck does not know how to bow! And what guest are you to sprinkle my sore with the salt of harsh words? A boy, who comes here no one knows why, on hired horses, with only one follower to attend him!"
"Salman Taki Khan," he retorted, "it is true that I come to you humbly, and without a beard. And your beard is already white, and you can call out thirty thousand men to follow you. Yet a piece of gold will make you believe a lie. And I swear to you that whether I give you back this paper to put in your chest, or whether I spit on it and tear it in pieces and throw it to the wind of that valley, it is one."
To which the Father of Swords made emphatic enough rejoinder by snatching the parchment away, rising to his feet, and striding out of the room without a word.
The festivities in honor of the Shah's coronation took place at Bala Bala with due solemnity. Among the black tents there was much plucking of plaintive strings, there was more stuffing of mutton and pilau, and after dark many a little rockets, improvized out of gunpowder and baked clay, traced brief arabesques of gold against the black of the underlying gorges. The castle celebrated in the same simple way. The stuffing, to be sure, was more prolonged and recondite, while dancers imported from Dizful swayed and snapped their fingers, singing for the pleasure of the Father of Swords. The eyes of that old man of the mountain remained opaque as ever, save when he rebuked the almoner who sat at meat with him for indecorously quoting the lines of Sadi, when he says: "Such was this delicate crescent of the moon, and fascination of the holy, this form of an angel, and decoration of a peacock, that let them once behold her, and continence must cease to exist in the constitutions of the chaste."
This rebuke might have been called forth by the presence of another guest at the board. Be that as it may, the eyes of the Father of Swords glimmered perceptibly when they rested on the unannounced visitor for whom he fished out, with his own henna'ed fingers, the fattest morsels of mutton and the juiciest sweets. I hasten to add that the newcomer was not the one whose earlier arrival and interview with the Father of Swords has already been recorded. He was, nevertheless, a personage not unknown to this record, whether as Senhor Magin of Brazil or as the emissary of the Shah of the Shahs of Firengistan. For not only had he felt impelled to bid good-by a second time to his friend Adolf Ganz, prince among the merchants of Shustar. He had even postponed his voyage down the Karun long enough to make one more journey overland to Bala Bala. And he heard there, not without interest, the story of the short visit and the sudden flight of the young Englishman he had accidentally met on the river.
As for Matthews, he celebrated the coronation at Dizful, in bed. And by the time he had slept off his fag, Bala Bala and the Father of Swords and the green chest and the ingenious Magin looked to him more than ever like figures of myth. He was too little of the timber out of which journalists, romancers, or diplomats are made to take them very seriously. The world he lived in, moreover, was too solid to be shaken by any such flimsy device as the one of which he had happened to catch a glimpse. What had been real to him was that he, Guy Matthews, had been suspected of playing a part in story-book intrigues, and had been treated rudely by an old barbarian of whom he expected the proverbial hospitality of the East. His affair had therefore been to show Mr. Scarlet Beard that if a Lur could turn his back, an Englishman could do likewise. He now saw, to be sure, that he himself had not been altogether the pattern of courtesy. But the old man of the mountain had got what was coming to him. And Matthews regretted very little, after all, missing what he had gone to see. For Dizful, peering at him through the arches of the bridge, reminded that there was still something to see.
It must be said of him, however, that he showed no impatience to see the neighboring ruins of Susa. He was not one, this young man who was out for a bit of a lark, to sentimentalize about antiquity or the charm of the unspoiled. Yet even such young men are capable of finding the rumness of strange towns a passable enough lark, to say nothing of the general unexpectedness of life. And Dizful turned out to be quite as unexpected, in its way, as Bala Bala. Matthews found that out before he had been three days in the place, when a sudden roar set all the loose little panes tinkling in Shir Ali Khan's garden windows.
Abbas explained that this was merely a cannon shot, announcing the new moon of Ramazan. That loud call of the faith evidently made Dizful a rummer place than it normally was. Matthews soon got used to the daily repetitions of the sound, rumbling off at sunset and before dawn into the silence of the plains. But the recurring explosion became for him the voice of the particular rumness of the fanatical old border town—of fierce sun, terrific smells, snapping dogs, and scowling people. When the stranger without the gate crossed his bridge of a morning for a stroll in the town, he felt like a discoverer of some lost desert city. He threaded alleys of blinding light, he explored dim thatched bazaars, he studied tiled doorways in blank mud walls, he investigated quaint water-mills by the river, and scarce a soul did he see, unless a stork in its nest on top of a tall badgir or a naked dervish lying in a scrap of shade asleep under a lion skin. It was as if Dizful drowsed sullenly in that July blaze brewing something, like a geyser, and burst out with it at the end of the unendurable day.
The brew of the night, however, was a different mixture, quite the rummiest compound of its kind Matthews had ever tasted. The bang of the sunset gun instantly brought the deserted city back to life. Lights began to twinkle—in tea houses, along the river, among the indigo plantations—streets filled with ghostly costumes and jostling camels, and everywhere voices would celebrate the happy return of dusk so strangely and piercingly that they made Matthews think of "battles far away." This was most so when he listened to them, out of sight of unfriendly eyes, from his own garden. Above the extraordinary rumor that drifted to him through the arches of the bridge he heard the wailing of pipes, raucous blasts of cow horns, the thumping of drums; while dogs barked incessantly, and all night long the caravans of Mesopotamia jingled to and fro. Then the cannon would thunder out its climax, and the city would fall anew under the spell of the sun.
The moon of those Arabian nights was nearing its first quarter and Matthews was waiting for it to become bright enough for him to fulfill his true duty as a sightseer by riding to the mounds of Susa, when Dizful treated Matthews to fresh discoveries as to what an unspoiled town may contain. It contained, Abbas informed him with some mystery after one of his prolonged visits to the bazaar, another firengi. This firengi's servant, moreover, had given Abbas explicit directions as to the whereabouts of the firengi's house, in order that Abbas might give due warning, as is the custom of the country, of a call from Matthews. Whereat Matthews made the surprising announcement that he had not come to Dizful to call on firengis. The chief charm of Dizful for him, as a matter of fact, was that there he felt himself free of the social obligations under which he had lain rather longer than he liked. But if Abbas was able to resign himself to this new proof of the eccentricity of his master, the unknown firengi apparently was not. At all events, Matthews soon made another discovery as to the possibilities of Dizful. An evening or two later, as he loitered on the bridge watching a string of loaded camels, a respectable-looking old gentleman in a black aba addressed him in French. French in Dizful! And it appeared that this remarkable Elamite was a Jew, who had picked up in Baghdad the idiom of Paris! He went on to describe himself as the "agent" of a distinguished foreign resident, who, the linguistic old gentleman gave Matthews to understand, languished for a sight of the new-comer, and was unable to understand why he had not already been favored with a call. His pain was the deeper because the newcomer had recently enjoyed the hospitality of this distinguished foreign resident on a little yacht on the river.
"The unmitigated bounder!" exclaimed Matthews, unable to deliver himself in French of that sentiment, and turning upon the stupefied old gentleman a rude Anglo-Saxon back. "He has cheek enough for anything."
He had enough, at any rate, to knock the next afternoon, unannounced, on Matthews' gate, to follow Matthews' servant into the house without waiting to hear whether Matthews would receive him, to present himself at the door of the dim underground serdab where Matthews lounged in his pajamas till it should be cool enough to go out, to make Matthews the most ceremonious of bows, and to give that young man a half-amused, half-annoyed consciousness of being put at his ease. The advantage of position, Matthews had good reason to feel, was with himself. He knew more about the bounder than the bounder thought, and it was not he who had knocked at the bounder's gate. Yet the sound of that knock, pealing muffled through the hot silence, had been distinctly welcome. Nor could our incipient connoisseur of rum towns pretend that the sight of Magin bowing in the doorway was wholly unwelcome, so long had he been stewing there in the sun by himself. What annoyed him, what amused him, what in spite of himself impressed him, was to see how the bounder ignored advantages of position. Matthews had forgotten, too, what an imposing individual the bounder really was. And measuring his tall figure, listening to his deep voice, looking at his light eyes and his two sinister scars and the big shaved dome of a head which he this time uncovered, our cool enough young man wondered whether there might be something more than fantastic about this navigator of strange waters. It was rather odd, at all events, how he kept bobbing up, and what a power he had of quickening—what? A school-boyish sense of the romantic? Or mere vulgar curiosity? For he suddenly found himself aware, Guy Matthews, that what he knew about his visitor was less than what he desired to know.
The visitor made no haste, however, to volunteer any information. Nor did he make of Matthews any but the most perfunctory inquiries.
"And Monsieur—What was his name? Your Frenchman?" he continued.
"Gaston. He's not my Frenchman, though," replied Matthews. "He went back long ago."
"Oh!" uttered Magin. He declined the refreshments which Abbas at that point produced, even to the cigarette Matthews offered him. He merely glanced at the make. Then he examined, with a flicker of amusement in his eyes, the bare white-washed room. A runnel of water trickled across it in a stone channel that widened in the centre into a shallow pool. "A bit of a lark, eh? I remember that mot of yours, Mr. Matthews. To sit steaming, or perhaps I should say dreaming, in a sort of Turkish bath in the bottom of Elam while over there in Europe—"
"Is there anything new?" asked Matthews, recognizing his caller's habit of finishing a sentence with a gesture. "Archdukes and that sort of thing don't seem to matter much in Dizful. I have even lost track of the date."
"I would not have thought an Englishman so—dolce far niente," said Magin. "It is perhaps because we archaeologists feed on dates! I happen to recollect, though, that we first met on the eighteenth of July. And to-day, if you would like to know, is Saturday, the first of August, 1914." The flicker of amusement in his eyes became something more inscrutable. "But there is a telegraph even in Elam," he went on. "A little news trickles out of it now and then. Don't you ever catch, perhaps, some echo of the trickle?"
"That's not my idea of a lark," laughed Matthews.
Magin regarded him a moment.
"Well," he conceded, "Europe does take on a new perspective from the point of view of Susa. I see you are a philosopher, sitting amidst the ruins of empires and wisely preferring the trickle of your fountain to the trickle of the telegraph. If Austria falls to pieces, if Serbia reaches the Adriatic, what is that to us? Nothing but a story that in Elam has been told too often to have any novelty! Eh?"
"Why," asked Matthews, quickly, "is that on already?"
Magin looked at him again a moment before answering.
"Not yet! But why," he added, "do you say already?"
His voice had a curious rumble in the dim stone room. Matthews wondered whether it were because the acoustic properties of a serdab in Dizful differ from those of a galley on the Karun, or whether there really were something new about him.
"Why, it's bound to come sooner or later, isn't it? If it's true that all the way from Nish to Ragusa those chaps speak the same language and belong to the same race, one can hardly blame them for wanting to do what the Italians and the Germans have already done. And, as a philosopher sitting amidst the ruins of empires, wouldn't you say yourself that Austria has bitten off rather more than she can chew?"
"Very likely I should." Magin took a cigar out of his pocket, snipped off the end with a patent cutter, lighted it, and regarded the smoke with a growing look of amusement. "But," he went on, "as a philosopher sitting amidst the ruins of empires, I would hardly confine that observation to Austria-Hungary. For instance, I have heard"—and his look of amusement verged on a smile—"of an island in the Atlantic Ocean not much larger than the land of Elam, an island of rains and fogs whose people, feeling the need of a little more sunlight perhaps, or of pin-money and elbow-room, sailed away and conquered for themselves two entire continents, as well as a good part of a third. I have also heard that the inhabitants of this island, not content with killing and enslaving so many defenseless fellow-creatures, or with picking up any lesser island, cape, or bay that happened to suit their fancy, took it upon themselves to govern several hundred million unwilling individuals of all colors and religions in other parts of the world. And, having thus procured both sunlight and elbow-room, those enterprising islanders assumed a virtuous air and pushed the high cries—as our friend Gaston would say—if any of their neighbors ever showed the slightest symptom of following their very successful example. Have you ever heard of such an island? And would you not say—as a philosopher sitting amidst the ruins of empires—that it had also bitten off rather more than it could chew?"
Matthews, facing the question and the now open smile, felt that he wanted to be cool, but that he did not altogether succeed.
"I dare say that two or three hundred years ago we did things we wouldn't do now. Times have changed in all sorts of ways. But we never set out like a Caesar or a Napoleon or a Bismarck to invent an empire. It all came about quite naturally. Anybody else could have done the same. But nobody else thought of it—at the time. We simply got there first."
"Ah?" Magin smiled more broadly. "It seems to me that I have heard of another island, not so far from here, which is no more than a pin-point, to be sure, but which happens to be the key of the Persian Gulf. I have also heard that the Portuguese got there first, as you put it. But you crushed Portugal, you crushed Spain, you crushed Holland, you crushed France—or you meant to. And I must say it looks to me as if you would not mind crushing Germany. Why do you go on building ships, building ships, building ships, always two to Germany's one? Simply that you and your friends can go on eating up Asia and Africa—and perhaps Germany too!"
Matthews noticed that the elder man ended, at any rate, not quite so coolly as he began.
"Nonsense! The thing's so simple it isn't worth repeating. We have to have more ships than anybody else because our empire is bigger than anybody else's—and more scattered. As for eating, it strikes me that Germany has done more of that lately than any one. However, if you know so much about islands, you must also know how we happened to go into India—or Egypt. In the beginning it was pure accident. And you know very well that if we left them to-morrow there would be the devil to pay. Do we get a penny out of them?"
"Oh, no!" laughed Magin. "You administer them purely on altruistic principles, for their own good and that of the world at large—like the oil-wells of the Karun!"
"Well, since you put it that way," laughed Matthews in turn, "perhaps we do!"
Magin shrugged his shoulders.
"Extraordinary people! Do you really think the rest of the world so stupid? Or it is that the fog of your island has got into your brains? You always talk about truth as if it were a patented British invention, yet no one is less willing to call a spade a spade. Look at Cairo, where you pretend to keep nothing but a consul-general, but where the ruler of the country can't turn over in bed without his permission. A consul-general! Look at your novels! Look at what you yourself are saying to me!"
Matthews lighted a pipe over it.
"In a way, of course, you are right," he said. "But I am not sure that we are altogether wrong. Spades exist, but there's no inherent virtue in talking about them. In fact it's often better not to mention them at all. There's something very funny about words, you know. They so often turn out to mean more than you expected."
At that Magin regarded his companion with a new interest.
"I would not have thought you knew that, at your age! But after all, if you will allow me to say so, it is a woman's point of view. A man ought to say things out—and stick by them. He is less likely to get into trouble afterward. For example, it would have been not only more honest but more advantageous for your country if you had openly annexed Egypt in the beginning. Now where are you? You continually have to explain, and to watch very sharply lest some other consul-general tell the Khedive to turn over in bed. And since you and the Russians intend to eat up Persia, why on earth don't you do it frankly, instead of trying not to frighten the Persians, and talking vaguely about spheres of influence, neutral zones, and what not? I'm afraid the truth is that you're getting old and fat. What?" He glanced over his cigar at Matthews, who was regarding the trickle of the water beside them. "Those Russians, they are younger," he went on. "They have still to be reckoned with. And they aren't so squeamish, either in novels or in life. Look at what they have done in their 'sphere.' They have roads, they have Cossacks, they have the Shah under their thumb. And whenever they choose they shut the Baghdad train against your caravans—yours, with whom they have an understanding! A famous understanding! You don't even understand how to make the most of your own sphere. You have had the Karun in your hands for three hundred years, and what have you done with it? Why, in heaven's name, didn't you blast out that rock at Ahwaz long ago? Why haven't you made a proper road to Isfahan? Why don't you build that railroad to Khorremabad that you are always talking about, and finish it before the Germans get to Baghdad? Ah! If they had been here in your place you would have seen!"
"It strikes me," retorted Matthews, with less coolness than he had yet shown, "that you are here already—from what the Father of the Swords told me." And he looked straight at the man who had told him that an Englishman couldn't call a spade a spade. But he saw anew how that man could ignore an advantage of position.
Magin returned the look—frankly, humorously, quizzically. Then he said:
"You remind me, by the way, of a question I came to ask you. Would you object to telling me what you are up to here?"
"What am I up to?" queried Matthews, in astonishment. The cheek of the bounder was really beyond everything! "What do you mean?"
"I am not an Englishman. I mean what I say."
"No you're not!" Matthews threw back at him. "No Englishman would try to pass himself off for a Brazilian."
Magin smiled again.
"Nor would a German jump too hastily at conclusions. If I told you I was from Brazil, I spoke the truth. I was born there, as were many Englishmen I know. That makes them very little less English, and it has perhaps made me more German. Who knows? As a philosopher sitting with you amidst the ruins of empires I am at least inclined to believe that we take our mother country more seriously than you do yours! But to return to our point: what are you doing here?"
"I'm attending to my business. Which seems to me more than you are doing, Mr. Magin."
Matthews noticed, from the reverberation of the room, that his voice must have been unnecessarily loud. He busied himself with the bowl of his pipe. As for Magin, he got up and began walking to and fro, drawing at his cigar. The red of it showed how much darker the room had been growing. It increased, too, the curious effect of his eyes. They looked like two empty holes in a mask.
"Eh, too bad!" sighed the visitor at last. "You disappoint me. Do you know? You are, of course, much younger than I; but you made me hope that you were perhaps—how shall I put it?—a spirit of the first class. I hoped that without padding, without rancor, like true philosophers, we might exchange our points of view. However—Since it suits you to stand on your dignity, I must say that I am very distinctly attending to my business. And I am obliged to add that it does not help my business, Mr. Matthews, to have you sitting so mysteriously in Dizful—and refusing to call on me, but occasionally calling on nomad chiefs. I confess that you don't look to me like a spy. Spies are generally older men than you, more cooked, as Gaston would say, more fluent in languages. It does not seem to me, either, that even an English spy would go about his affairs quite as you have done. Still, I regret to have to repeat that I dislike your idea of a lark. And not only because you upset nomad chiefs. You upset other people as well. You might even end up by upsetting yourself."
"Who the devil are you?" demanded Matthews, hotly. "The Emperor of Elam?"
"Ha! I see you are acquainted with the excellent Adolf Ganz!" laughed Magin. "No," he went on in another tone. "His viceroy, perhaps. But as I was saying, it does not suit me to have you stopping here. I can see, however, that you have reason to be surprised, possibly annoyed, at my telling you so. I am willing to be reasonable about it. How much do you want—for the expenses of your going away?"
Matthews could hardly believe his ears. He got up in turn.
"What in hell do you mean by that?"
"I am sorry, Mr. Matthews," answered the other, slowly, "that my knowledge of your language does not permit me to make myself clear to you. Perhaps you will understand me better if I quote from yourself. I got here first. Did you ever put your foot into this country until two weeks ago? Did your countrymen ever trouble themselves about it, even after Layard showed them the way? No! They expressly left it outside of their famous 'sphere,' in that famous neutral zone. And all these centuries it has been lying here in the sun, asleep, forgotten, deserted, lost, given over to nomads and to lions—until I came. I am the first European since Alexander the Great who has seen what it might be. It is not so impossible that I might open again those choked-up canals which once made these burnt plains a paradise. In those mountains I have found—what I have found. What right have you to interfere with me, who are only out for a lark? Or what right have your countrymen? They have already, as you so gracefully express it, bitten off so much more than they can chew. The Gulf, the Karun, the oil-wells—they are yours. Take them. But Baghdad is ours: if not today, then tomorrow. And if you will exercise that logical process of which your British mind appears to be not altogether destitute, you can hardly help seeing that this part of your famous neutral zone, if not the whole of it, falls into the sphere of Baghdad. You know, too, that we do things more thoroughly than you. Therefore I must very respectfully but very firmly ask you, at your very earliest convenience, to leave Dizful. I am quite willing to believe, however, that your interference with my arrangements was accidental. And I dislike to put you to any unnecessary trouble. So I shall be happy to compensate you, in marks, tomans, or pounds sterling, for any disappointment you may feel in bringing this particular lark to an end. Do you now understand me? How much do you want?"
He perceived, Guy Matthews, that his lark had indeed taken an unexpected turn. He was destined, far sooner than he dreamed, to be asked of life, and to answer, questions even more direct than this. But until now life had chosen to confront him with no problem more pressing than one of cricket or hunting. He was therefore troubled by an unwonted confusion of feelings. For he felt that his ordinary vocabulary—made up of such substantives as lark, cheek, and bounder, and the comprehensive adjective "rum"—fell short of coping with this extraordinary speech. He even felt that he might possibly have answered in a different way, but for that unspeakable offer of money. And the rumble of Magin's bass in the dark stone room somehow threw a light on the melancholy land without, somehow gave him a dim sense that he did not answer for himself alone—that he answered for the tradition of Layard and Rawlinson and Morier and Sherley, of Clive and Kitchener, of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, of all the adventurous young men of that beloved foggy island at which this pseudo-Brazilian jeered.
"When I first met you in the river, Mr. Magin," he said, quietly, "I confess I did not realize how much of the spoils of Susa you were carrying away in your chests. And I didn't take your gold anklet as a bribe, though I didn't take you for too much of a gentleman in offering it to me. But all I have to say now is that I shall stay in Dizful as long as I please—and that you had better clear out of this house unless you want me to kick you out."
"Heroics, eh? You obstinate little fool! I could choke you with one hand!"
"You'd better try!" shouted Matthews.
He started in spite of himself when a muffled boom suddenly answered him, jarring even the sunken walls of the room. Then he remembered that voice of the drowsing city, bursting out with the pent-up brew of the day.
"Ah!" exclaimed Magin strangely—"The cannon speaks at last! You will hear, beside your fountain, what it has to say. That, at any rate, you will perhaps understand—you and the people of your island." He stopped a moment. "But," he went on, "if some fasting dervish knocks you on the head with his mace, or sticks his knife into your back, don't say I didn't warn you!"
And the echo of his receding stamp in the corridor drowned for a moment the trickle of the invisible water.
The destiny of some men lies coiled within them, invisible as the blood of their hearts or the stuff of their will, working darkly, day by day and year after year, for their glory or for their destruction. The destiny of other men is an accident, a god from the machine or an enemy in ambush. Such was the destiny of Guy Matthews, as it was of how many other unsuspecting young men of his time. It would have been inconceivable to him, as he stood in his dark stone room listening to Magin's receding stamp, that anything could make him do what Magin demanded. Yet something did it—the last drop of the strange essence Dizful had been brewing for him.
The letter that accomplished this miracle came to him by the hand of a Bakhtiari from Meidan-i-Naft. It said very little. It said so little, and that little so briefly, that Matthews, still preoccupied with his own quarrel, at first saw no reason why a stupid war on the Continent, and the consequent impossibility of telegraphing home except by way of India, should affect the oil-works, or why his friends should put him in the position of showing Magin the white feather. But as he turned over the Bakhtiari's scrap of paper the meaning of it grew, in the light of the very circumstances that made him hesitate, so portentously that he sent Abbas for horses. And before the Ramazan gun boomed again he was well on his way back to Meidan-i-Naft.