"I admire your spirit, Major," interrupted the other, with undertones of mockery, "but it's of the quality that, after all, can't accomplish anything. It's the kind that goes against artillery with rifles. Six guns against perhaps six hundred—and we're not built for rapid maneuvering. That swarm could sting us a thousand times while we were giving them the first round. No, no, there's nothing for it now, but the neutralizer!"
"My will is made, anyhow," growled Bohannan. "Faith, I'm glad it is!"
The Master gave no reply, but took from the rail the little phone that hung there, and pressed a button, four times. He cupped the receiver at his ear.
"You, Enemark?" asked he, of the man at the neutralizer far down in the penetralia of the giant air-liner. "Throw in the first control. Half-voltage, for three minutes. Then three-quarters, for two; and then full, with all controls. Understand?"
"Yes, sir!" came the crisp voice of Enemark. "Perfectly!"
The Master hung up the receiver, and for a moment stood brooding. An intruding thought had once more forced itself into his brain—a thought of "Captain Alden." In case of capture or destruction, what of the woman? Something very like a pang of human emotion pierced his heart. Impatiently he thrust the thought aside, and turned with a quiet smile to Bohannan.
The major, red with excitement and impatience, still had a hand on the machine-gun. He was patting it slightly, his face eloquent of longing and regret.
"Still pinning your faith to steel-jacketed streams of bullets, are you, as against ion-jacketed streams of vibrations?" the Master rallied him. "We shall see, immediately, whether you're right or I am! Bullets are all well enough in their place, Major, but electrons are sometimes necessary. Vibrations, Major—I pin my faith to vibrations."
"Vibrate all you want to!" exclaimed the Celt, irefully, his eyes on the thickening swarm of flyers, some of them now plainly visible in detail against the aching smears of color flung across the eastern reaches of cloudland. "Vibrate away; but give me this!" He fondled the gleaming gun as if it had been a pet. "I tell you frankly, if I were in charge here, I'd let the vibrations go to Hell and begin pumping lead. I'd have all gun-crews at stations, and the second we got in range I'd open with all six Lewises!"
"Yes, and Nissr would go crumpling down, a minute later, a blazing sieve fore-and-aft—wings, tanks, fuselage, everything riddled with thousands of bullets. Vibration is the trick, I tell you. It's everything.
"All life is vibration. When it ceases, that is death—and even dead matter vibrates. All our senses depend on vibration. Everything we feel, see, hear, taste, comes to our knowledge through vibrations. And the receptive force in us is vibration, too. The brain is just one great, central ganglion for the taking in of vibrations.
"The secret of life, of the universe itself, is vibration. If we understood all about that, the cosmos would have no secrets from us. So now—ah, see there, will you? See, Major, and be convinced!"
He pointed eastward, into the blazing sunrise. The out-fling of his arm betrayed more human emotion than he had yet shown. Exultation leaped to his usually impassive eyes. Surely, had not this expedition—which he had hoped would give surcease from ennui and stir the pulses—had it not already yielded dividends? Had it not already very richly repaid him?
"See there, now!" he cried again, and gripped the rail with nervous hands.
"Lord above!" ejaculated the major, squinting through his binoculars.
"Astonished, eh?" demanded the Master, smiling with malice. "Didn't think it would work, did you? Well, which do you choose now, Major—bullets or vibrations?"
"This—this is extraordinary!" exclaimed Bohannan. His glasses traveled to and fro, sweeping the fringelike fan of the attackers, still five or six miles away. "Faith, but this is—"
The binoculars lowered slowly, as Bohannan watched a falling plane. Everywhere ahead there in the brazier of the dawn, as the two men stood watching from the wind-lashed gallery of the on-roaring liner, attackers were dropping. All along the line they had begun to fall, like ripe fruit in a hurricane.
Not in bursts of flame did they go plunging down the depths, gyrating like mad comets with long smoke-trailers and redly licking manes of fire. Not in shattered fragments did they burst and plumb the abyss. No; quite intact, unharmed, but utterly powerless they fell.
Some spiraled down, like dead leaves twirling in autumnal breezes, with drunken yaws and pitches. Others in long slants volplaned toward the hidden sea, miles below the cloud-plain. A few pitched over and over, or slid away in nose-dives and tail-spins. But one and all, as they crossed what seemed an invisible line drawn out there ahead of the onrushing Eagle of the Sky, bowed to some mysterious force.
It seemed almost as if Nissr were the center of a vast sphere that moved with her—a sphere through which no enemy could pass—a sphere against the intangible surface of which even the most powerful engines of the air dashed themselves in vain.
And still, as others and still others came charging up to the attack like knights in joust, they fell. One by one the white wool cushions of the cloud, gold-broidered by the magic needles of the sun, received them. One by one they faded, vanished, were no more.
So, all disappeared. Between a hundred and a hundred and twenty-five planes were silently, swiftly, resistlessly sent down in no more than twenty minutes, while the watchers stood there in the gallery, fascinated by the wondrous precision and power of this new and far-outflung globe of protection.
And again the blood-red morning sky grew clear of attackers. Again, between high heaven's black vault and the fantastic continent of cloud below, nothing remained but free vacancy. The Master smiled.
"Vibrations, my dear Major!" said he. "Neutralize the currents delivered by the magnetos of hostile planes to their spark-plugs, and you transform the most powerful engines into inert matter. Not all the finely adjusted mechanism in the world, nor the best of petrol, nor yet the most perfect skill is worth that," with a snap of the strong fingers, "when the spark dies.
"My device is the absolute ruler of whatever spark I direct it against. Our own ignition is screened; but all others within the critical radius become impotent. So you recognize, do you not, the uselessness of machine-guns? The groundlessness of any fears about the Air Patrol's forces?"
"Lord, but this is wonderful!" Bohannan ejaculated. "If we'd only had this in the Great War, the Hun would have been wiped out in a month!"
"Yes, but we didn't have it," the Master smiled. "I've just finished perfecting it. Put the last touches on it hardly twenty-four hours ago. If there's ever another war, though—ah, see there, now! Here comes one lone, last attacker!"
He pointed. Far at the edge of empty cloudland, now less blood-stained and becoming a ruddy pink under the risen sun, a solitary aerial jouster had grown visible.
The last attacker appeared a feeble gnat to dance thus alone in the eye of morning. That one plane should, unaided, drive on at Nissr's huge, rushing bulk, seemed as preposterous as a mosquito trying to lance a rhinoceros. The major directed a careful lens at this survivor.
"He has his nerve right in his baggage with him," announced the Celt. "Sure, he's 'there.' There can be no doubt he's seen the others fall. Yet—what now? He's turning tail, eh? He's on the run?"
"Not a bit of it! He's driving straight ahead. That was only a dip and turn, for better air. Ah, but he's good, that fellow! There's a man after my own heart, Major. Maybe there's more than one, aboard that plane. But there's one, anyhow, that's a real man!"
The Master pondered a moment, then again picked up the phone.
"Enemark?" he called. "That you?"
"Hello! Yes, sir! What orders, sir?"
"Cut off the ray! Quick, there!"
"Yes, sir!" And through the phone the Master heard the snick of a switch being hastily thrown.
"What's the idea, now?" demanded the major, astonished. "Going to let that plane close in on us, and maybe riddle us?"
The Master smiled, as he made answer:
"I'll chance the bullets, this time. There's a man on board that plane. A man! And we—need men!"
The Master smiled, as he made answer:
"I'll chance the bullets, this time. There's a man on board that plane. A man! And we—need men!"
LECLAIR, ACE OF FRANCE
Swooping, rising, falling like a falcon in swift search of quarry, the last plane of the Azores squadron swept in toward the on-rushing Eagle of the Sky.
Undismayed by the swift, inexplicable fall of all its companions, it still thrust on for the attack. In a few minutes it had come off the port bows of the giant air-liner, no more than half a mile distant. Now the watchers saw it, slipping through some tenuous higher cloud-banks that had begun to gather, a lean, swift, wasplike speedster: one of the Air Control Board's—the A.C.B.'s—most rapid aerial police planes. The binoculars of the Master and Bohannan drew the machine almost to fingers' touch.
"Only one man aboard her, with a machine-gun," commented the Master, eyes at glass, as he watched the flick of sunlight on the attacker's fuselage, the dip and glitter of her varnished wings, the blur of her propellers. Already the roaring of her exhaust gusted down to them.
"Ah, see? She's turning, now. Banking around! We may catch a burst of machine-gun fire, in a minute. Or, no—she's coming up on our tail, Major. I think she's going to try and board us!"
"You going to let her?" protestingly demanded Bohannan. His hand twitched against the butt of the Lewis. "In two seconds I could sight an aft gun, sir, and blow that machine Hell-for-leather!"
"No, no—let that fellow come aboard, if he wants," the Master commanded. And with eager curiosity in his dark eyes, with vast wonder what manner of human this might be who—all alone after having seen more than a hundred comrades plunge—still ventured closing to grips, the Master watched.
The air-wasp was already swerving, making a spiral glide, coming up astern with obvious intentions. As the two men watched—and as a score of other eyes, from other galleries and ports likewise observed—the lean wasp carried out her driver's plan. With a sudden, plunging swoop, she dived at the Eagle of the Sky for all the world like a hawk stooping at quarry.
A moment she kept pace with the air-liner's whirring rush. She hovered, dropped with a wondrous precision that proved her rider's consummate skill, made a perfect landing on the long take-off that stretched from rudders to wing observation galleries, atop the liner.
Forward on Nissr the wasp ran on her small, cushioned wheels. She stopped, with jammed-on brakes, and came to rest not forty feet abaft the Eagle's beak.
Quite at once, without delay, the little door of the pilot-pit in the wasp's head swung wide, and a heavily-swaddled figure clambered out. This figure stood a moment, peering about through goggles. Then with a free, quick stride, he started forward toward the gallery where he had seen Bohannan and the Master.
The two awaited him. Confidently he came into the wind-shielded gallery on top of Nissr's port plane. He advanced to within about six feet, stopped, gave the military salute—which they both returned—and in a throaty French that marked him as from Paris, demanded:
"Which of you gentlemen is in command, here?"
"Moi, monsieur!" answered the Master, also speaking French. "And what is your errand?"
"I have come to inform you, in the name of the A.C.B.'s law, recognized as binding by all air-traffic, that you and your entire crew are under arrest."
"Indeed? And then—"
"I am to take charge of this machine at once, and proceed with it as per further instructions from International Aerial headquarters at Washington."
"Very interesting news, no doubt," replied the Master, unmoved. "But I cannot examine your credentials, nor can we negotiate matters of such importance in so off-hand a manner. This gallery will not serve. Pray accompany me to my cabin?"
"Parfaitement, monsieur! I await your pleasure!"
The stranger's gesture, his bow, proclaimed the Parisian as well as his speech. The Master nodded. All three proceeded in silence to the hooded companion-way at the forward end of the take-off, that sheltered the ladder. This they descended, to the main corridor.
There they paused, a moment.
"Major," said the Master, "pardon me, but I wish to speak to our—guest, alone. You understand."
The major's glance conveyed a world of indignant protest, but he obeyed in silence. When he had withdrawn into the smoke-room, where a brooding pipe would ill divert his mind from various wild speculations, the Master slid open his own cabin door, and extended a hand of welcome toward it.
"Apres vous, monsieur!" said he.
The A.C.B. officer entered, his vigorous, compact figure alive with energy, intelligence. The Master followed, slid the door shut and motioned to a chair beside the desk. This chair, of metal, was itself placed upon a metal plate. The plate was new. At our last sight of the cabin, it had not been there.
Taking off goggles and gauntlets, and throwing open his sheepskin jacket, the Frenchman sat down. The Master also plate was new. At our last sight of the cabin, it had not been there.
Taking off goggles and gauntlets, and throwing open his sheepskin jacket, the Frenchman sat down. The Master also sat down at the desk. A brief silence, more pregnant than any speech, followed. Each man narrowly appraised the other. Then said the newcomer, still in that admirable French of his:
"You understand, of course, n'est-ce pas? that it is useless to offer any resistance to the authority of the A.C.B."
"May I take the liberty of inquiring what your credentials may be, and with whom I have the great pleasure of speaking?" returned the Master. His eyes, mirroring admiration, peered with some curiosity at the dark, lean face of the Frenchman.
"I," answered the other, "am Lieutenant Andre Leclair, formerly of the French flying forces, now a commander in the International Air Police."
"Leclair?" demanded the Master quickly, his face lighting with a glad surprise. "Leclair, of the Mesopotamian campaign? Leclair, the world-famous ace?"
"Leclair, nothing else. I deprecate the adjectives."
The Master's hand went out. The other took it. For a moment their grip held, there under the bright white illumination of the cabin—for, though daylight had begun fingering round the drawn curtains, the glow-lamps still were burning.
The hand-clasp broke. Leclair began:
"As for you, monsieur, I already know you, of course. You are—"
The Master raised a palm of protest.
"Who I am does not matter," said he. "I am not a man, but an idea. My personality does not count. All that counts is the program, the plan I stand for.
"Many here do not even know my name. No man speaks it. I am quite anonymous; quite so. Therefore I pray you, keep silent on that matter. What, after all, is the significance of a name? You are an ace, an officer. So am I."
"True, very true. Therefore I more keenly regret the fact that I must place you under arrest, and that charges of piracy in the high air must be lodged against you."
"Thank you for the regret, indeed," answered the Master dryly. Save for the fact that this strange man never laughed and seldom smiled, one would have thought the odd twinkle in his eye prefaced merriment. "Well, what now?"
The Frenchman produced a silver cigarette-case, opened it and extended it toward the man now technically his prisoner. As yet he had said no word concerning the tremendous execution done the air police forces. His offer of the cigarettes was as calm, as courteous as if they two had met under circumstances of the most casual amity. The Master waved the cigarettes away.
"Thank you, no," said he. "I never smoke. But you will perhaps pardon me if I nibble two or three of these khat leaves. You yourself, from your experience in Oriental countries, know the value of khat."
"I do, indeed," said the other, his eyes lighting up.
"And may I offer you a few leaves?"
"Merci! I thank you, but tobacco still satisfies." The Frenchman lighted his cigarette, blew thin smoke, and cast intelligent, keen eyes about the cabin. Said he:
"You will not, of course, offer any resistance. I realize that I am here among a large crew of men. I am all alone, it is true. You could easily overpower me, throw me into the sea, and voila—I die. But that would not be of any avail to you.
"Already perhaps a hundred and fifty air police have fallen this morning. It is strange. I do not understand, but such is the fact. Nevertheless, I am here, myself. I have survived—survived, to convey organized society's message of arrest. Individuals do not count. They are only representatives of the mass-power of society. N'est-ce pas?"
"Quite correct. And then—"
"Sooner or later you must land somewhere for petrol, you know. For essence, eh? Just as sea-pirates were wiped out by the coming of steam-power, which they had to adopt and which forced them to call at ports for coal, so air-pirates will perish because they must have essence. That is entirely obvious. Have I the honor of your signed surrender, my dear sir, including that of all your men?"
"Just one question, please!"
"A thousand, if you like," smiled the Parisian, inhaling smoke. His courtesy was perfect, but the glint of his eye made one think of a tiger that purrs, with claws ready to strike.
"What," demanded the Master, "is your opinion of the peculiar and sudden fall of all your companions?"
"I have no opinion as to that. Strange air-currents, failure of ignition due to lack of oxygen—how do I know? A thousand things may happen in the air."
"Not to more than a hundred planes, all in a half-hour."
The Frenchman shrugged indifferent shoulders and smiled.
"It does not signify, in the least," he murmured. "I am here. That suffices."
"Do you realize that I, perhaps, have forces at my command which may negative ordinary conditions and recognized laws?"
"Nothing can negative the forces of organized society. I repeat my request, monsieur, for your unconditional written surrender."
The Master's hand slid over the desk and rested a moment on a button there. A certain slight tremor passed through the Frenchman's body. Into his eyes leaped an expression of wonder, of astonishment. His mouth quivered, as if he would have spoken; but he remained dumb. The hand that held his cigarette, resting on his knee, relaxed; the cigarette fell, smoldering, to the metal plate. And on the instant the fire in it died, extinguished by some invisible force.
"Are you prepared to sign a receipt for this airship, if I deliver her over to you, sir?" demanded the Master, still speaking in French. He smiled oddly.
No answer. A certain swelling of the Frenchman's throat became visible, and his lips twitched slightly, but no sound was audible. A dull flush mounted over his bronzed cheek.
"Ah, you do not answer?" asked the other, with indulgent patronage. "I assume, however, that you have the authority to accept my surrender and that of my crew. I assume, also, that you are willing to sign for the airship." He opened a drawer, took a paper, and on it wrote a few words. These he read over carefully, adding a comma, a period.
Leclair watched him with fixed gaze, struggling against some strange paralysis that bound him with unseen cords of steel. The Frenchman's eyes widened, but remained unblinking with a sort of glazed fixity. The Master slid the paper toward him on the desk.
"Voila, monsieur!" said he. "Will you sign this?"
A shivering tremor of the Frenchman's muscles, as the ace sat there so strangely silent and motionless, betrayed the effort he was making to rise, to lift even a hand. Beads of sweat began to ooze on his forehead; veins to knot there Still he remained seated, without power to speak or move.
"What? You do not accept?" asked the Master, frowning as with puzzlement and displeasure. "But, allons donc! this is strange indeed. Almost as strange as the fact that your whole air-squadron, with the sole exception of your own plane, was dropped through the clouds.
"I have no wish unnecessarily to trouble your mind. Let me state the facts. Not one of those machines was precipitated into the sea. No life was lost. Ah, that astonishes you?"
The expression in the Frenchman's face betrayed intense amazement, through his eyes alone. The rest of his features remained almost immobile. The Master smiling, continued:
"The fleet was dropped to exactly one thousand feet above the sea. There the inhibition on the engines was released and the engines began functioning again. So no harm was done. But not one of those machines can rise again higher than one thousand feet until I so choose.
"They are all hopelessly outdistanced, far down there below the cloud-floor. Midges could catch a hawk as readily as they could overhaul this Eagle of the Sky.
"Nowhere within a radius of twenty-five miles can any of those planes rise to our level. This is curious, but true. In the same way, on much the same principle, though through a very different application of it, you cannot speak or move until I so desire. All your voluntary muscles are completely, even though temporarily, paralyzed. The involuntary ones, which carry on your vital processes, are untouched.
"In one way, monsieur, you are as much alive as ever In another you are almost completely dead. Your fleet has enjoyed the distinction of having been the very first to serve as the object of a most important experiment. Likewise, your own person has had the honor of serving as material for another experiment, equally important—an experiment whose effect on your body is similar to that of the first one on the air-fleet.
"You can hear me, perfectly. You can see me. I ask you to watch me closely. Then consider, if you please, the matter of placing me under arrest."
His hand touched a small disk near the button he had first pressed; a disk of some strange metal, iridescent, gleaming with a peculiar greenish patina that, even as one watched it, seemed to blend into other shades, as an oil-scum transmutes its hues on water.
Now a faint, almost inaudible hum began to make itself heard. This hum was not localized. One could not have told exactly whence it came. It filled the cabin with a kind of soft murmuring that soothed the senses like the drowsy undertone of bees at swarm.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the pupils of Leclair's eyes began to dilate with astonishment. Immovable though he still remained, the most intense wonder made itself apparent in his look. Even something akin to fear was mirrored in his gaze. Again his lips twitched. Though he could form no word, a dry, choking gasp came from his throat.
And there was cause for astonishment; yes, even for fear. A thing was beginning to take place, there in the brightly lighted cabin of Nissr, such as man's eye never yet had beheld.
The Master was disappearing.
MIRACLES, SCOURGE OF FLAME
His form, sitting there at the desk—his face wearing an odd smile—had already begun to grow less distinct. It seemed as if the light surrounding him had faded, though everywhere else in the cabin it still gleamed with its accustomed brilliance. And as this light around him began to blur into a russet dimness, forming a sort of screen between him and visibility, the definition of his outlines began to melt away.
The Master still remained visible, as a whole; but the details of him were surely vanishing. And as they vanished, faintly a high-light, a shadow, a bit of metal-work showed through the space where he sat. He seemed a kind of dissolving cloud, through which now more and more clearly objects beyond him could be distinguished. Impossible though this seemed, it was indubitably true.
As he disappeared, he kept speaking. The effect of that undiminished voice, calm, slow, resonant, issuing from that disintegrating vapor, stirred the hair on the captive Frenchman's neck and scalp.
"Vibration, mon cher monsieur," said he, "is everything. According to the researches of the Ecole Polytechnique, in Paris—no doubt you, yourself, have studied there, n'est-ce pas?—vibration of the first octave from 2 to 8 per second, give us no sense-impression. From the fourth to the fifteenth octave, 16 to 32,768 per second, we get sound. The qualities of the 16th to the 24th are—or have been, until I investigated—quite unknown. The 25th to the 35th, 33, 554, 432 to 34, 859, 738, 868 vibrations per second, give us electricity. Thence to the 45th, again unknown.
"The 4th to the 48th give us heat. The 49th gives light The 50th, chemical rays, vibrating 1, 125, 899, 906, 842, 624 per second. The 51st to the 57th have never been touched by anyone save myself. The X-ray group extends from the 58th to the 61st octave. The 62d, with 4, 611, 686, 427, 889, 904 vibrations per second, is a field where only I have worked. And beyond these, no doubt, other octaves extend with infinite possibilities.
"You will note, monsieur," he continued, while the dun penumbra still more and more withdrew him from Leclair's sight, "that great lacunae exist in the scale of vibratory phenomena. Some of the so-called lower animals take cognizance of vibrations that mean nothing to us. Insects hear notes far above our dull ears. Ants are susceptible to lights and colors unseen to our limited eyes. The emperor-moth calls its mate—so says Fabre—by means of olfactory vibrations totally uncomprehended by us. The universe is full of hues, tones, radiant phenomena that escape us, because our senses are not attuned to them."
Steadily he spoke, and steadily the humming drone that filled the cabin kept its undertones that lulled, that soothed. The Frenchman, staring, hardly breathed. Rigid he sat and pale, with sweat now slowly guttering down his face, his jaws clamped hard and white.
"If the true nature of the universe could suddenly be revealed to our senses," went on the Master, now hardly more than a dull blur, "we could not survive. The crash of cosmic sound, the blaze of strange lights, the hurricane forces of tempestuous energies sweeping space would blind, deafen, shrivel, annihilate us like so many flies swept into a furnace. Nature has been kind; she has surrounded us with natural ray-filters of protection."
His voice now seemed issuing from a kind of vacancy. Save for a slight darkening of the air, nothing was visible of him. He went on:
"With our limited senses we are, in a way, merely peeping out of little slits in an armored conning-tower of life, out at the stupendous vibratory battles of the cosmos. Other creatures, in other planets, no doubt have other sense-organs to absorb other vibratory ranges. Their life-experiences are so different from ours that we could not possibly grasp them, any more than a blind man could understand a painting.
"Nor could those creatures understand human life. We are safe in our own little corner of the universe, comfortably sheltered in our vestments of clay. And what we cannot understand, though it is all perfectly natural, we call religion, the supernatural, God."
From a great vacancy, the Master's words proceeded. Leclair, tugging in vain at the bonds that, invisible yet strong as steel, held him powerless, stared with wild eyes.
"There is no supernatural," said the now disembodied voice. "What we call spirit, psychic force, hypnosis, spiritualism, the fourth dimension, is really only life on another scale of vibration. If we could see the whole scale, we would recognize it as a vast, coherent, perfectly natural and rational whole, in which we human beings fill but a very insignificant part. That, monsieur, is absolutely true!
"I have investigated, I have ventured along the coasts of the unknown vibratory sea, and even sailed out a little way on the waters of that unknown, mysterious ocean. Yet even I know nothing. What you are beholding now is simply a slightly new form of vibratory effect. The force that is holding you paralyzed on that chair is still another. A third, sent down the air-squadron. And—there are many more.
"I am not really vanishing. That is but an illusion of your senses, unable to penetrate the screen surrounding me. I am still here, as materially as ever. Illusion, mon cher monsieur, yet to you very real!"
The voice seemed moving about. The Frenchman now perceived something like a kind of moving blur in the cabin. It appeared a sort of hole of darkness, in the light; and yet the light shone through it, too.
Every human eye has a blind spot in the retina. When things pass over this blind spot, they absolutely vanish; the other eye supplies the missing object. To the French ace it seemed that his eyes were all blind spots, so far as the Master was concerned. The effect of this vacancy moving about, shifting a chair, stirring a book, speaking to him like a spirit disembodied, its footfalls audible but its own self invisible, chilled the captive's blood. The Master said:
"Now I have totally disappeared from your eye or any other material eye. I cannot even see myself! No doubt dwellers on some other planet would perceive me by some means we cannot imagine. Yet I am materially here. You feel my touch, now, on your shoulder. See, now I put out the lights; now I draw aside this curtain, and admit the golden morning radiance. You see that radiance, but you do not see me.
"A miracle? Pas du tout! Nothing but an application of perfectly natural laws. And so—well, now let us come back to the matter under discussion. You have come hither to arrest me, monsieur. What do you think of arresting me, now? I am going to leave that to your own judgment."
His voice approached the desk. The chair moved slightly, and gave under his weight. Something touched the button on the desk. Something pressed the iridescent metal disk. The humming note sank, faded, died away.
Gradually a faint haze gathered in the chair. Dim, brownish fog congealed there. The chair became clouded with it; and behind that chair objects grew troubled, turbid, vague.
The ace felt inhibitions leaving him. His eyes began to blink; his half-opened mouth closed with a snap; a long, choking groan escaped his lips.
"Nom de Dieu" he gulped, and fell weakly to rubbing his arms and legs that still prickled with a numb tingling. "Mais, nom de Dieu!"
The Master, now swiftly becoming visible, stood up again, smiled, advanced toward his guest—or prisoner, if you prefer.
A moment he stood there, till every detail had grown as clear as before this astounding demonstration of his powers. Then he stretched forth his hand.
"Leclair," said he, in a voice of deep feeling, "I know and appreciate you for a man of parts, of high courage and devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death. The manner in which you came ahead, even after all your companions had fallen—in which you boarded us, with the strong probability of death confronting you, proves you the kind of man who wins and keeps respect among fighting men.
"If you still desire my arrest and the delivery to you of this air-liner, I am at your complete disposal. You have only to sign the receipt I have already written. If—" and for a moment the Master paused, while his dark eyes sought and held the other's, "if, monsieur, you desire to become one of the Flying Legion, and to take part in the greatest adventure ever conceived by the mind of man, in the name of all the Legion I welcome you to comradeship!"
"Dieu!" choked the lieutenant, gripping the Master's hand. "You mean that I—I—"
"Yes, that you can be one of us."
"Can that be true?"
The Master's right hand closed firmly on Leclair's. The Master's other hand went out and gripped him by the shoulder.
To his feet sprang the Frenchman. Though still shaken and trembling, he drew himself erect. His right hand loosened itself from the Master's; it went to his aviator's helmet in a sharp salute.
"J'y suis! J'y reste!" cried he. "Mon capitaine!"
The day passed uneventfully, at high altitudes, steadily rushing into the eye of the East. In the stillness and solitude of the upper air-lanes, Nissr roared onward, invincibly, with sun and sky above, with shining clouds piled below in swiftly retreating masses that spun away to westward.
Far below, sea-storm and rain battled over the Atlantic. Upborne on the wings of the eastward-setting wind, Nissr felt nothing of such trivialities. Twice or thrice, gaps in the cloud-veil let dim ocean appear to the watchers in the glass observation pits; and once they spied a laboring speck on the waters—a great passenger-liner, worrying toward New York in heavy weather. The doings of such, and of the world below, seemed trivial to the Legionaries as follies of dazed insects.
No further attack was made on Nissr, nor was anything seen of any other air-squadron of International Police. The wireless picked up, however, a cross-fire of dazed, uncomprehending messages being hurled east and west, north and south—messages of consternation, doubt, anger.
The world, wholly at a loss to understand the thing that had come upon it, was listening to reports from the straggling Azores fleet as it staggered into various ports. Every continent already was buzzing with alarm and rage. In less than eighteen hours the calm and peaceful ways of civilization had received an epoch-making jar. All civilization was by the ears—it had become a hornet's nest prodded by a pole no one could understand or parry.
And the Master, sitting at his desk with reports and messages piling up before him, with all controls at his finger-tips, smiled very grimly to himself.
"If they show such hysteria at just the initial stages of the game," he murmured, "what will they show when—"
The Legion had already begun to fall into well-disciplined routine, each man at his post, each doing duty to the full, whether that duty lay in pilot-house or cooks' galley, in engine-room or pit, in sick-bay or chartroom. The gloom caused by the death and burial at sea of Travers, the New Zealander, soon passed. This was a company of fighting men, inured to death in every form. And death they had reckoned as part of the payment to be made for their adventuring. This, too, helped knit the fine mass-spirit already binding them together into a coherent, battling group.
A little after two in the afternoon, Nissr passed within far sight of the Azores, visible in cloud-rifts as little black spots sown on the waters like sparse seeds on a burnished plate of metal. This habitation of man soon slipped away to westward, and once more nothing remained but the clear, cold severity of space, with now and then a racing drift of rain below, and tumbling, stormy weather all along the sea horizons.
The Master and Bohannan spent some time together after the Azores had been dropped astern and off the starboard quarter. "Captain Alden" remained in her cabin. She reported by phone, however, that the wound was really only superficial, through the fleshy upper part of the left arm. If this should heal by first intention, as it ought, no complications were to be expected.
Day drew on toward the shank of the afternoon. The sun, rayless, round, blue-white, lagged away toward the west, seeming to sway in high heaven as Nissr took her long dips with the grace and swiftness of a flying falcon. Some time later the cloud-masses thinned and broke away, leaving the world of waters spread below in terrible immensity.
As the African coast drew near, its arid influences banished vapor. Now, clear to the up-curving edge of the world, nothing could be seen below save the steel-gray, shining plains of water. Waves seemed not to exist. All looked smooth and polished as a mirror of bright metal.
At last, something like dim veils of whiteness began to draw and shimmer on the eastern skyline—the vague glare of the sun-crisped Sahara flinging its furnace ardor to the sky. To catch first sight of land, the Master and Bohannan climbed the ladder again, to the take-off, and thence made their way into the starboard observation gallery. There they brought glasses to bear. Though nothing definite could yet be seen through the shrouding dazzle that swaddled the world's rim, this fore-hint of land confirmed their reckonings of latitude and longitude.
"We can't be more than a hundred and fifty miles west of the Canaries," judged the major. "Sure, we can eat supper tonight in an oasis, if we're so minded—with Ouled Nails and houris to hand round the palm-wine and—"
"You forget, my dear fellow," the Master interrupted, "that the first man who goes carousing with wine or women, dies before a firing-squad. That's not the kind of show we're running!"
"Ah, sure, I did forget!" admitted the Celt. "Well, well, a look at a camel and a palm tree could do no harm. And it won't be long, at this rate, before—"
A sudden, violent concussion, far aft, sent a quivering shudder through the whole fabric of the giant liner. Came a swift burst of flame; black, greasy smoke gushed from the stern, trailing on the high, cold air. Long fire-tongues, banners of incandescence, flailed away, roaring into space.
Shouts burst, muffled, from below. A bell jangled madly. The crackle of pistol-fire punched dully through the rushing swiftness.
With a curse the major whirled. Frowning, the Master turned and peered. Nissr, staggering, tilted her beak sharply oceanward. At a sick angle, she slid, reeling, toward the burnished, watery floor that seemed surging up to meet her.
A hoarse shout from the far end of the take-off drew the Master's eyes thither. With strange agility, almost apelike in its prehensile power, a human figure came clambering up over the outer works, clutching at stays, wires, struts.
Other shouts echoed thinly in the rarefied, high air. The climber laughed with savage mockery.
"I've done for you!" he howled exultantly. "Fuel-tanks afire—you'll all go to Hell blazing when they explode! But first—I'll get the boss pirate of the outfit—"
Swiftly the clutching figure scrabbled in over the rail, dropped to the metal plates of the take-off—now slanting steeply down and forward—and broke into a staggering run directly toward the gallery where stood Bohannan and the Master.
At the little ladder-housing sounded a warning shout. The head and shoulders of Captain Alden became visible there. In Alden's right hand glinted a service-revolver.
But already the attacker—the stowaway—had snatched a pistol from his belt. And, as he plunged at full drive down the take-off platform, he thrust the pistol forward.
Almost at point-blank range, howling maledictions, he hurled a murderous fusillade at the Master of the now swiftly falling Eagle of the Sky.
"CAPTAIN ALDEN" MAKES GOOD
The crash of shattered glass mingled with the volley flung by the murderously spitting automatic of the stowaway. From the forward companion, at the top of the ladder, "Captain Alden" fired—one shot only.
No second shot was needed. For the attacker, grunting, lunged forward, fell prone, sprawled on the down-slanting plates of the take-off platform. His pistol skidded away, clattering, over the buffed metal.
"As neat a shot as the other's was bad," calmly remarked the Master, brushing from his sleeve some glittering splinters of glass. A lurch of Nissr threw him against the rail. He had to steady himself there, a moment. Down his cheek, a trickle of blood serpented. "Yes, rather neat," he approved.
He felt something warm on his face, put up his hand and inspected red fingers.
"Hm! A sliver from that broken shield must have cut me," said he, and dismissed it wholly from his mind.
Major Bohannan, with chromatic profanity, ran from the gallery. "Captain Alden" drew herself up the top rounds of the ladder, emerged wholly from the companion and likewise started for the wounded interloper. Both, as they ran aft toward the fallen man, zigzagged with the pitch and yaw of the stricken airship, slipped on the plates, staggered up the incline.
And others, from the aft companion, now came running with cries, their bodies backgrounded by the leaping flames and smoke that formed a wake behind the wounded Eagle of the Sky.
Before the major and Alden could reach the stowaway, he rallied. Up to hands and knees he struggled. He dragged himself away to starboard. Trailing blood, he scrambled to the rail.
The major snatched his revolver from its holster. Up came the "Captain's" gun, once more.
"No, no!" the Master shouted, stung into sudden activity. "Not that! Alive—take him alive!"
The stowaway's answer was a laugh of wild derision; a hideous, shrill, tremulous laugh that rose in a kind of devilish, mockery on the air of that high level. For just a second the man hung there, swaying, at the rail. Beyond him, up the tilt of the falling Nissr, brighter flames whipped back. Came a burst of smoke, another concussion, a shuddering impact that trembled through the whole vast air-liner. White-hot fire ribboned back and away, shredded into little, whirling gusts of incandescence that dissolved in black smoke.
"Take me alive, eh?" the stowaway shouted, madly. "Ha-ha! I see you! You're all dead men, anyhow! I'll go first—show you I'm not afraid!"
With astonishing agility he leaped. Hands on rail, with a last supreme burst of the energy that innervated his dying body, he vaulted clear. Out and away he hurled himself. Emptiness of space gathered him to its dizzy, vacant horror.
The Master, quite unmindful of the quickening bloodstream down his face and neck, looked sharply—as if impersonally interested in some problem of ballistics—at the spinning, gyrating figure that with grotesque contortions plummeted the depths.
Over and over, whirling with outflung arms and legs, dropped the stowaway. Down though Nissr herself was plunging, he fell faster. Swiftly his body dwindled, shrinking to a dwarf, an antlike thing, a black dot. Far below on the steely sea-plain, a tiny bubble of white leaped out, then faded. That pinpoint of foam was the stowaway's grave.
"Very good," approved the Master, unmoved. He lurched against the rail, as a sudden maneuver of the pilot somewhat flattened out the air-liner's fall. The helicopters began to turn, to buzz, to roar into furious activity, seeking to check the plunge. The major came staggering back. But quicker than he, "Captain Alden" was at the Master's side.
"He shot you?" the woman cried, pointing.
"Bah! A splinter of glass!" And the Master shook off the blood with a twitch of his head. "That was a neat bull's-eye you made on him, Captain. It saves you from punishment for forgetting you were under arrest; for climbing the ladder and coming above-decks. Yes—I've got to rescind my order. You're at liberty. And—"
"And I stay with the expedition, sir?" demanded Alden, her hand going out in an involuntary gesture of appeal. For the first time, she was showing eagerness of a feminine sort. But she suppressed it, instantly, and stood at attention. "If I have done you any service, sir, reward me by letting me stay!"
"I will see. There may be no expedition to stay with. Now—"
"Life-belts, sir? And take to the small planes?" came a voice from the companion-way. The face of Manderson—of him who had found the stowaway—appeared there. Manderson looked anxious, a trifle pale. Aft, more figures were appearing. In spite of the iron discipline of the Legion, signs of disorder were becoming evident. "We're hard hit, sir," Manderson reported. "Every man for himself, now? Orders, sir?"
"My orders are, every man back to his post!" cried the Master, his voice a trumpet-call of resolution. "There'll be no sauve qui peut, here!" He laid a hand on the butt of his pistol. "Back, every man of you!"
Came another dull, jarring explosion. Nissr reeled to port. The Legionaries trickled down the companion-ladders. From somewhere below a cry rose: "The aft starboard float—it's gone! And the stabilizer—"
Confused sounds echoed. Nissr sagged drunkenly, lost headway and slewed off her course, turning slowly in the thin, cold air. Her propellers had been shut off; all the power of her remaining engines had now been clutched into the helicopter-drive.
The Master, indifferently smearing off the blood from his neck, made his way toward the forward companion. He had to hold the rail with one hand, for now the metal plates of the observation gallery were sharply canted. Nissr had got wholly out of control, so far as steerage-way was concerned; but the rate of her fall seemed to have been a trifle checked.
Alden and the major followed their chief to the companion. All three descended the ladder, which hung inward and away from them at a sharp angle. They reached the strangely inclined floor of the main corridor, and, bracing themselves against the port wall, worked their way aft.
Not all the admirable discipline of the Legion could prevent some confusion. Such of the men as were on duty in pilot-house, pits, wireless, or engine-room were all sticking; but a number of off-duty Legionaries were crowding into the main corridor. Among them the Master saw Leclair and Rrisa. No one showed fear. The white feather was not visible; but a grim tension had developed. Death, imminent, sobers the boldest.
From the engine-room, shouts, orders, were echoing. The engine-room door flung open. Smoke vomited—thick, choking, gray. Auchincloss reeled out, clutching at his throat.
"What chance?" the Master cried, staggering toward him.
"If—the fire spreads to the forward petrol-tanks, none!" gasped the chief engineer. "Aft pit's flooded with blazing oil. Gorlitz—my God!"
"What about Gorlitz?"
"Burned alive—to a crisp! I've got four extinguishers at work. Two engines out of commission. Another only limping! And—"
He crumpled, suddenly, dropping to the metals. The Master saw through the clinging smoke, by the dimmed light of the frosted disks, that the skin of the engineer's face and hands was cooked to a char.
"If he's breathed flame—" began the major. Alden knelt beside him, peered closely, made a significant, eloquent gesture.
"Volunteers!" shouted the Master, plunging forward.
Into the fumes and smother, half a dozen men fought their way. From the bulkheads they snatched down the little fire-grenades. The Master went first. Bohannan was second, with Rrisa a close third. Leclair in his forward rush almost stumbled over Alden. The "Captain," masked and still unrecognized as a woman by any save the Master, was thrust back from the door by the Celt, as she too tried to enter.
"No, not you!" he shouted. "You, with only one arm—faith, it's worse than useless! Back, you!" Then he and many plunged into the blazing engine-room.
Thus they closed with the fire-devil now licking ravenous tongues about the vitals of Nissr.
An hour from that time, the air-liner was drifting sideways at low altitudes, hardly five hundred feet above the waves. A sad spectacle she made, her wreckage gilded by the infinite splendors of the sun now lowering toward the horizon. Her helicopters were droning with all the force that could be flung into them from the crippled power-plant. Her propellers—some charred to mere stumps on their shafts—stood starkly motionless.
Oddly awry she hung, driven slowly eastward by the wind. Her rudder was burned clean off; her stern, warped, reeking with white fumes that drifted on the late afternoon air told of the fury that had blazed about her. Flames no longer roared away; but the teeth of their consuming rage had bitten deep. Where the aft observation pit had been, now only a twisted net of metal-work remained, with all the plate-glass melted and cracked away. The body of Gorlitz, trapped there, had mercifully fallen into the sea. That ghastly thing, at any rate, no longer remained.
Four Legionaries were in the pilot-house: the Master, Bohannan, Leclair, and "Captain Alden." For the most part, they held silence. There was little for them to say. At length the major spoke.
"Still sagging down, eh?" he commented, his eyes on the needle of the altimeter. "Some situation! Two men dead and others injured. Engines crippled, propellers the same, and two floats so damaged we couldn't stay on the surface if we came down. Well, by God!"
Leclair looked very grim.
"I regret only," said he in broken English, "that the stowaway escaped us. Ah, la belle execution, if we had him now!"
The Master, at the starboard window, kept silence. No one sat at the wheel. Of what use could it have been? The Master was looking far to eastward, now with the naked eye, now sweeping the prospect with binoculars. He was studying the African coast, clearly in sight as a long, whitish line of sand with a whiter collar of foamy surf, fifteen miles away.
A few gulls had begun to show—strange, small gulls, yellow-beaked and swift. Off to northward, a native dhow was beating down-wind with full-bellied lateen sail, with matting over its hatches. Heat was beginning to grow intense, for no longer was Nissr making a gale that cooled; no longer was she at high, cold levels. Africa, the tropics, had suddenly become real; and the sudden contrast oppressed them all.
Through the shimmering, quivering air, an arid pallor extended up the eastern sky; a pale, milky illumination, dull-white over the desert, that told of the furnace into which Nissr was drifting—if indeed she could survive till she reached land. The glasses showed tawny reaches of sand, back a little from the coast; and beyond these, low hills, or rather rolling dunes, lay empurpled by vibrant heat-hazes.
"It won't be much like navigating over that Hell-spot, three or four miles in the air," muttered Bohannan. He looked infinitely depressed. The way he gnawed at his red mustache showed how misadventure had raveled his nerve.
No one answered him. Leclair lighted a cigarette, and silently squinted at Africa with eyes long inured to the sun of that land of flame. Alden, at the other window, kept silence, too. That masked face could express no emotion; but something in the sag of the woman's shoulders, the droop of her head, showed how profound and intense was her suffering.
"Faith, are we going to make it, chief?" asked the major, impatiently. Not his the temperament that can wait in silence. He made a singular figure as he lounged there at the pilot-house window, huge elbows on the sill. One hand was wrapped in bandages, well saturated with croton-oil. Chars and burns on his uniform showed where blazing petrol from the final explosion had spattered him.
His eyes, like the Master's, were bloodshot, inflamed. Part of his red crop of hair had been singed off, and all his eyelashes were gone, as well as half his bushy red brows. But the ugly set of his jaw, the savage gleam of his eyes showed that no physical pain was depressing him. His only trouble was the thought that perhaps the expedition of the Flying Legion had ended before it had really begun.
"What chance, sir?" he insisted. "It's damned bad, according to my way of thinking."
"What you think and what you say won't have any weight with this problem of aerial flotation," the Master curtly retorted. "If we make land, we make it, that's all, sir." He relapsed into silence. Leclair muttered, in Arabic—his words audible only to himself—an ancient Islamic proverb: "Allah knows best, and time will show!" Then, after a moment's pause, the single word: "Kismet!"
Silence again, in which the Master's brain reviewed the stirring incidents of the past hour and a half—how the stowaway had evaded Dr. Lombardo's vigilance and (thoroughly familiar with every detail of Nissr) had succeeded in making his way to the aft port fuel-tank, from which he had probably drained petrol through a pet-cock and thereafter set it afire; how the miscreant had then scrambled up the aft companion-ladder, to shoot down the Master himself; and how only a horrible, nightmare fight against the flames had saved even this shattered wreck of the air-liner.
It had all been Kloof's fault, of course, and Lombardo's. Those two had permitted this disaster to befall, and—yes, they should be punished, later. But how? The Master's mind attacked this problem. Each of the four Legionaries in the pilot-house was busy with his own thoughts.
On and on toward the approaching shores of Africa drifted the wounded Eagle of the Sky, making no headway save such as the west wind gave her. Steadily the needle of the altimeter kept falling. The high-pitched drone of the helicopters told that the crippled engines were doing their best; but even that best was not quite enough.
Like a tired creature of the air, the liner lagged, she sank. Before half the distance had been covered to that gleaming beach, hardly six hundred feet lay between the lower gallery of Nissr and the long, white-toothed waves that, slavering, hungered for her gigantic body and the despairing crew she bore.
Suddenly the Master spoke into the engine-room telephone.
"Can you do any better?" exclaimed the chief. "This is not enough!"
"We're doing our best, sir," came the voice of Frazier, now in charge.
"If you can possibly strain a point, in some way, and wring a little more power out of the remaining engines—"
"We're straining them beyond the limit now, sir."
The Master fell silent, pondering. His eyes sought the dropping needle. Then the light of decision filled his eyes. A smile came to his face, where the deep gash made by the splinter of glass had been patched up with collodion and cotton. He plugged in on another line, by the touch of a button.
"Simonds! Is that you?"
"Yes, sir," answered the quartermaster, in charge of all the stores.
"Have you jettisoned everything?"
"All we can spare, sir. All but the absolute minimum of food and water."
"Overboard with them all!"
"And drop the body of Auchincloss, too. This is no time for sentiment!"
"My order, sir!"
Five minutes later, cases, boxes, bales, water-tanks, began spinning from open ports and down through the trap-door in the lower gallery. Then followed the seared corpse of Auchincloss, a good man who had died in harness, fighting to the end. Those to whom the duty was assigned of giving his metal-weighted body sea burial turned away their eyes, so that they might not see that final plunge. But the sound of the body striking the waves rocketed up to them with sickening distinctness.
Lightened a little, Nissr seemed to rally for a few minutes. The altimeter needle ceased its drop, trembled and even rose .275 degrees.
"God! If we only had an ounce more power!" burst out the major, his mouth mumbling the loose ends of that flamboyant mustache. The Master remained quite impassive, and made no answer. Bohannan reddened, feeling that the chief's silence had been another rebuff. And on, on drifted Nissr, askew, up-canted, with the pitiless sunlight of approaching evening in every detail revealing—as it slanted in, almost level, over the far-heaving infinitudes of the Atlantic—the ravages wrought by flame.
Bohannan could not long be silent. The exuberance of his nature burst forth with a half-defiant:
"If I were in charge, which I'm not, I'd stop those damned helicopters, let her down, turn what power we've got into the remaining propellers, and taxi ashore!"
"And probably sink, or break up in the surf, on the beach, there!" curtly rejoined the Master. "Ah! What?"
His binoculars checked their sweep along the coast, which in its absolute barrenness looked a place of death for whatever might have life there.
"You see something, mon capitaine?" asked Leclair, blowing smoke from his cigarette. "Allow me also to look! Where is it?"
"Just to north of that gash—that wady, or gully, making down to the beach. You see it, eh?"
Slowly the French ace swept the glasses along the surf-foamed fringes of that desolation. Across the lenses no tree flung its green promise of shade. No house, no hut was visible. Not even a patch of grass could be discerned. The African coast lay stretched out in ivory nakedness, clean, bare, swept and garnished by simooms, by cruel heat, by the beatings of surf eternal.
Back of it extended an iron hinterland, savage with desert spaces of sun-baked, wrinkled earth and sand here and there leprously mottled with white patches of salt and with what the Arabs call sabkhah, or sheets of gypsum. The setting sun painted all this horror of desolation with strange rose and orange hues, with umbers and pale purples that for a moment reminded the Master of the sunset he had witnessed from the windows of Niss'rosh, the night his great plan had come to him. Only eight days ago, that night had been; it seemed eight years!
Carefully Leclair observed this savage landscape, over which a brilliant sky, of luminous indigo and lilac, was bending to the vague edge of the world. Serious though the situation was, the Frenchman could not repress a thought of the untamed beauty of that scene—a land long familiar to him, in the days when he had flown down these coasts on punitive expeditions against the rebellious Beni Harb clans of the Ahl Bayt, or People of the Black Tents. Africa, once more seen under such unexpected circumstances, roused his blood as he peered at the crude intensity of it, the splendid blaze of its seared nakedness under the blood-red sun-ball now dropping to rest.
All at once his glass stopped its sweep.
"Smoke, my Captain!" he exclaimed. "See, it curls aloft like a lady's ringlet. And—beyond the wady—"
"Ah, you see them, too?"
The major's glass, held unsteadily in his unbandaged hand, was now fixed on the indicated spot, as was "Captain Alden's."
"I see them," the Master answered. "And the green flag—the flag of the Prophet—"
"The flag, oui, mon capitaine! There are many men, but—"
"But what, Lieutenant?"
"Ah, do you not see? No horses. No camels. That means their oasis is not far. That means they are not traveling. This is no nomadic moving of the Ahl Bayt. No, no, my Captain. It is—"
"A war-party. What you in your language call the—the reception committee, n'est-ce pas? Ah, yes, the reception committee."
"And the guests?" demanded the major.
"The guests are all the members of the Flying Legion!" answered the Frenchman, with another draw at his indispensable cigarette.
THE WAITING MENACE
"Ah, sure now, but that's fine!" exclaimed the major with delight, his eyes beginning to sparkle in anticipation. "The best of news! A little action, eh? I ask nothing better. All I ask is that we live to reach the committee—live to be properly killed! It's this dying-alive that kills me! Faith, it tears the nerves clean out of my body!"
"That is a true Arab idea, Major," smiled Leclair. "To this extent you are brother to the Bedouin. They call a man fatis, as a reproach, who dies any other way than fighting. May you never—may none of us—ever suffer the disgrace of being fatis!"
"There's not much danger of that!" put in the Master. "That's a big war-party, and we're drifting ashore almost exactly where they're waiting. From the appearance of the group, they look like Beni Harb people—'Sons of Fighting' you know—though I didn't expect we'd sight any of that breed so far to westward."
"Beni Harb, eh?" echoed the Frenchman, his face going grim. "Ah, mes amis, it is with pleasure I see that race, again!" He sighted carefully through his glass, as Nissr sagged on and on, ever closer to the waves, ever nearer the hard, sun-roasted shores of Africa. "Yes, those are Beni Harb men. Dieu! May it be Sheik Abd el Rahman's tribe! May I have strength to repay the debt I owe them!"
"What debt, Lieutenant?" asked the chief.
Leclair shrugged his shoulders.
"A personal matter, my Captain! A personal debt I owe them—with interest!"
"You will have nearly a score and a half of good fighting men to help you settle your account," smiled the Master. Then, to Bohannan: "It looks now, Major, as if you'd have a chance to try your sovereign remedy."
"Faith! Machine-guns, eh?"
"Yes, provided we get near enough to use them."
"No vibrations this time, eh?" demanded the Celt, a bit of good-humored malice in his voice. "Vibrations are all very well in their way, sir, but when it comes to a man-to-man fight—"
"It's not that, Major," the chief interrupted. "We haven't the available power, now, for high-tension current. So we must fall back on lesser means.
"You, sir, and Lieutenant Leclair, get the six gun-crews together at their stations. When we drift in range, give the Beni Harb a few trays of blanks. That may scatter them without any further trouble. We want peace, but if it's got to be war, very well. If they show real fight, rake them hard!"
"They will show fight, surely enough, mon capitaine," put in Leclair, as he and the major made their way to the oddly tiptilted door leading back into the main corridor. "I know these folk. No blank cartridges will scatter that breed. Even the Turks are afraid of them. They have a proverb: 'Feed the Beni Harb, and they will fire at Allah!' That says it all.
"Mohammed laid a special curse on them. I imagine your orderly, Rrisa, will have something to say when he learns that we have Beni Harb as opponents. Now, sir, we shall make all haste to get the machine-guns into action!"
Major Bohannan laughed with more enjoyment than he had shown since Nissr had left America. They both saluted and withdrew. When the door was closed again, a little silence fell in the pilot-house, the floor of which had now assumed an angle of nearly thirty degrees. The droning of the helicopters, the drift of the sickly white smoke that—rising from Nissr's stern—wafted down-wind with her, the drunken angle of her position all gave evidence of the serious position in which the Flying Legion now found itself. Suddenly the Master spoke. His dismissal of Bohannan and Leclair had given him the opportunity he wanted.
"Captain Alden," said he, bruskly, with the unwillingness of a determined man forced to reverse a fixed decision. "I have reconsidered my dictum regarding you."
"Indeed, sir?" asked the woman, from where she stood leaning against the sill of the slanted window. "You mean, sir, I am to stay with the Legion, till the end?"
"Yes. Your service in having shot down the stowaway renders it imperative that I show you some human recognition. You gained admission to this force by deception, and you broke parole and escaped from the stateroom where I had imprisoned you. But, as you have explained to me, you heard the explosion, you heard the outcry of pursuit, and you acted for my welfare.
"I can weigh relative values. I grant your request. The score is wiped clean. You shall remain, on one condition."
"And what is that, sir?" asked "Captain Alden," with a voice of infinite relief.
"That you still maintain the masculine disguise. The presence of a woman, as such, in this Legion, would be a disturbing factor. You accept my terms?"
"Certainly! May I ask one other favor?"
"Spare Kloof and Lombardo!"
"I know their guilt, sir. Through their carelessness in not having discovered the stowaway and in having let him escape, the Legion came near sudden death. I know Nissr is a wreck, because of them. Still, we need men, and those two are good fighters. Above all, we need Lombardo, the doctor I ask you to spare them at least their lives!"
"That is the woman's heart in you speaking, now," the chief answered, coldly. His eyes were far ahead, where the war-party was beginning to debouch on the white sands along the shore—full three hundred fighting-men, or more, well armed, as the tiny sparkles of sunlight flicking from weapons proved. As Nissr drew in to land, the Beni Harb grew visible to the naked eye, like a swarm of ants on the desert rim.
"The woman's heart," repeated the Master. "That is your only fault and weakness, that you are a woman and that you forgive."
"You grant my request?"
"No, Captain. Nor can I even discuss it. Those two men have cut themselves off from the Legion and signed their own death warrant. The sentence I have decided on, must stand. Do not speak of this to me again, madam! Now, kindly withdraw."
"Yes, sir!" And Alden, saluting, approached the door.
"One moment! Send Leclair back to me. Inform Ferrara that he is to command the second gun-crew."
"Yes, sir!" And the woman was gone.
Leclair appeared, some moments later. He suspected nothing of the subterfuge whereby the Master had obtained a few minutes' conversation alone with "Captain Alden."
"You sent for me, sir?" asked the Frenchman.
"I did. I have some questions to ask you. Others can handle the guns, but you have special knowledge of great importance to me. And first, as an expert ace, what are our chances of making that shore, sir, now probably five miles off? In a crisis, I always want to ask an expert's opinion."
Leclair peered from under knit brows at the altimeter needle and the inclinometer. He leaned from the pilot-house window and looked down at the waves, now hardly a hundred feet below, their foaming hiss quite audible. From those waves, red light reflected as the sun sank, illuminated the Frenchman's lean, brown features and flung up wavering patches of illumination against the pilot-house ceiling of burnished metal, through the tilted windows that sheerly overhung the water.
"Eh bien—" murmured Leclair, noncommittally.
"Well, can we make it, sir?"
The ace inspected the vacuum-gauges, the helicopter tachometers, and shrugged his shoulders.
"'Fais tout, toi-meme, et Dieu t'aidera,'" he quoted the cynical old French proverb. "If nothing gives way, there is a chance."
"If we settle into the sea, do you think that with our damaged floats we can drive ashore without breaking up?"
"I do not, my Captain. There is a heavy sea running, and the surf is bad on the beach. This Rio de Oro coast is cruel. Have you our exact position?"
"Almost exactly on the Tropic of Cancer, half-way between Cape Bojador to north of us, and Cape Blanco, to south."
"Yes, I understand. That brings us to the Tarmanant region of the Sahara. Fate could not have chosen worse for us. But, c'est la guerre. All I regret, however, is that in a crippled condition we have to face a war-party of the Beni Harb. Were we intact, and a match for them, how gladly would I welcome battle with that scum of Islam! Ah, the canaille!"
SHIPWRECK AND WAR
"You call them dogs, eh?" asked the chief. "And why?"
"What else are such apostate fanatics? People who live by robbery and plunder—people who, if they find no gold in your money-belt, will rip your stomach open to see if you've swallowed it! People who boast of being harami (highwaymen), and who respect the jallah (slave-driver)!
"People who practice the barbaric thar, or blood-feud! People who torture their victims by cutting off the ends of their fingers before beheading or crucifying them! People who glory in murdering the 'idolators of Feringistan,' as they call us white men! Let me advise you now, my Captain, when dealing with these people or fighting them, never use your last shot on them. Always keep a mercy-bullet in your gun!"
The Master pondered a moment or two, as Nissr drifted on toward the now densely massed Arabs on the beach, then he said:
"You seem to know these folk well."
"Only too well!"
The Master's next words were in the language of the desert:
"Hadratak tet kal'm Arabi?" (You speak Arabic?)
"Na'am et kal'm!" affirmed the lieutenant, smiling. And in the same tongue he continued, with fluent ease: "Indeed I do, Effendi. Yes, yes, I learned it in Algiers and all the way south as far as the headwaters of the Niger.
"Five years I spent among the Arabs, doing air-work, surveying the Sahara, locating oases, mapping what until then were absolutely unknown stretches of territory. I did a bit of bombing, too, in the campaign against Sheik Abd el Rahman, in 1913."
"Yes, so I have heard. You almost lost your life, that time?"
"Only by the thickness of a semmah seed did I preserve it," answered the Frenchman. "My mechanician, Lebon, and I—we fell among them on account of engine trouble, near the oasis of Adrar, not far from here. We had no machine-gun—nothing but revolvers. We stood them off for seven hours, before they rushed us. They captured us only because our last cartridges were gone."
"You did not save the mercy-bullet that time, eh?"
"I did not, Effendi. I did not know them then as I do now. They knocked us both senseless, and then began hacking our machine to pieces with their huge balas (yataghans). They thought our plane was some gigantic bird.
"Superstition festers in their very bones! The giant bird, they believed, would ruin their date crops; and, besides, they thirsted for the blood of the Franks. As a matter of fact, my Captain, these people do sometimes drink a little of the blood of a slaughtered enemy."
"True, I tell you! They destroyed our plane with fire and sword, reviled us as pigs and brothers of pigs, and named poor Lebon 'kalb ibn kalb,' or 'dog and son of a dog.' Then they separated into two bands. One band departed toward Wady Tawarik, taking Lebon. They informed me that on the morrow they would crucify him on a cross of palm-wood, head downward."
"And they executed Lebon?"
Leclair shrugged his shoulders.
"I suppose so," he answered with great bitterness. "I have never seen or heard of him since. As for me, they reserved me for some festivities at Makam Jibrail. During the next night, a column of Spanish troops from Rio de Oro rushed their camp, killed sixty or seventy of the brown demons, and rescued me. Since then I have lusted revenge on the Beni Harb!"
"No wonder," put in the chief, once more looking at the beach, where now the war-party was plainly visible to the naked eye in some detail. The waving of their arms could be distinguished; and plainly glittered the blood-crimson sunset light on rifle-barrels, swords, and javelins. The Master loosened his revolver in its holster. "About twenty minutes from now, at this rate," he added, "some of the Beni Harb will have reason to remember you."
"Yes, and may Jehannum take them all!" exclaimed the Frenchman, passionately. His eyes glowered with hate as he peered across the narrowing strip of waves and surf. "Jehannum, where every time their skins are burned off, as the Koran says, new ones will grow to be burned off again! Where 'they shall have garments of fire fitted upon them and boiling water poured upon their heads, and they shall be beaten with maces of iron—"
"And their tormentors shall say unto them: 'Taste ye the pain of burning!'" the Master concluded the familiar quotation with a smile. "Waste no time in wishing the Beni Harb future pain, my dear Lieutenant. Jehannum may indeed reserve the fruit of the tree Al Zakkum, for these dogs, but our work is to give them a foretaste of it, today. Kismet seems to have willed it that you and the Beni Harb shall meet again. Is it not a fortunate circumstance, for you?"
"Fortunate, yes," the Frenchman answered, his eyes glowing as they estimated the strength of the war-party, now densely massed along the shining sands, "But, thank God, there are no women in this party! That would mean that one of us would have to kill a woman—for God help a woman of Feringistan caught by these jinnee, these devils of the waste!"
Silence again. Both men studied the Beni Harb. The Frenchman judged, reverting to his native tongue: "Certainly more than three hundred of these 'abusers of the salt,' my Captain. And we are hardly thirty. Even if we reach land, we must soon sink to earth. Without food, water, anything—ce n'est pas gai, hein?"
"No, it is not gay," the chief answered. "But with machine-guns—"
"Machine-guns cannot fight against the African sun, against famine, thirst, delirium, madness. Well—'blessed be certainty,' as the Arabs say."
"You mean death?"
"Yes, I mean death. We always have that in our grasp, at any rate—after having taken full toll of these devils. I should not mind, so much, defeat at the hands of the nobler breed of the Arabian Peninsula. There, in the Ruba el Khali itself, I know a chivalric race dwells that any soldier might be proud to fight or to rule over. But these Shiah heretic swine—ah, see now, they are taking cover already? They will not stand and fight, like men!"
[Footnote 1: Ruba el Khali (The Empty Abodes), a name applied by the Arabs to the Peninsula, especially the vast inner region never penetrated by any white man.]
Scornfully he flung a hand at the Beni Harb. The fringes of the tribe were trickling up the sands, backward, away, toward the line of purple-hazed dunes that lined the coast. More and more of the war-party followed. Gradually all passed up the wady, over the dunes and vanished.
"They are going to ambush us, my Captain," said Leclair. "'In rice, strength; in the Beni Harb, manhood!'"
Nearer the land, ever sagging down but still afloat—though now at times some of the heavier surges broke in foam over the rail of the lower gallery—the Eagle of the Sky drifted on, on. Hardly a half-mile now lay between air-liner and shore. Suddenly the Master began to speak:
"Listen, Lieutenant! Events are at a crisis, now. I will speak very plainly. You know the Arabs, good and bad. You know Islam, and all that the Mohammedan world is. You know there are more than 230,000,000 people of this faith, scattered from Canton to Sierra Leone, and from Cape Town to Tobolsk, all over Turkey, Africa, and Arabia—an enormous, fanatic, fighting race! Probably, if trained, the finest fighting-men in the world, for they fear neither pain nor' death. They welcome both, if their hearts are enlisted!"
"Yes, yes, I know! Their Hell yawns for cowards; their Paradise opens to receive the brave! Death is as a bride to the Moslem!"
"Fanatics all, Lieutenant! Only a few white men have ever reached Mecca and returned. Bartema, Wild, and Joseph Pitt succeeded, and so did Hurgronje, Courtelmont, Burton, and Burckhardt—though, the Arabs admit only the two last.
"But how many hundreds have been beheaded or crucified? No pilgrimage ever takes place without a few such victims. A race of this type is a potential world-power of incalculable magnitude. Men who will die for Islam and for their master without a quiver—"
"My Captain! What do you mean?"
The lieutenant's eyes had begun to fill with flame. His hand tightened to a fist.
"Mon Dieu, what do you mean? Can it be possible you dream of ruling the races of Islam?"
Something whined overhead, from the beach now only about a quarter-mile distant. Then a shot from behind the dunes cracked out across the crumbling, hissing surf.
"Ah," laughed Leclair, "the ball has opened, eh? Well this is now no time for talk, for empty words. I think I understand you, my Captain; and to the death I stand at your right hand!"
Their palms met and clasped, a moment, in the firm grip of a compact between two strong men, unafraid. Then each drew his pistol, crouching there at the windows of the pilot-house.
"Hear how that bullet sang?" questioned the Frenchman. "It was notched—a notched slug, you understand. That is a familiar trick with these dog-people of the Beni Harb. Sometimes, if they have poison, they dip the notched slug in that too. And, ah, what a wound one makes! Dum-dums are a joke beside such!"
Another shot sounded. Many cracked out along the dune. All up and down the crest of the tawny sand-hills, red under the sun now close to the horizon, the fusillade ran and rippled. On Nissr, metal plates rang with the impact of the slugs, or glass crashed. The gigantic Eagle of the Sky, helpless, received this riddling volley as she sagged ashore, now almost in the grip of the famished surf.
"Yes, the ball is opening!" repeated Leclair, with an eager laugh. His finger itched on the trigger of his weapon; but no target was visible. Why waste ammunition on empty sand-dunes?
"Let it open!" returned the chief. "We'll not refuse battle, no, by Allah! Our first encounter with Islam shall not be a surrender! Even if we could survive that, it would be fatal to this vast plan of mine—of ours, Lieutenant. No, we will stand and fight—even till 'certainty,' if Allah wills it so!"
A sudden burst of machine-gun fire, from the upper starboard gallery, crashed out into the sultry, quivering air. The kick and recoil of the powerful Lewis sent a fine, swift shudder through the fabric of the wounded Eagle.
"There goes a tray of blanks," said the Master. "Perhaps that will rout them out, eh? Once we can get them on the run—"
Leclair laughed scornfully.
"Those dog-sons will not run from blanks, no, nor from shotted charges!" he declared. "Pariahs in faith, despoilers of the Haram—the sacred inner temple—still this breed of Rafaz (heretic) is bold. Ah, 'these dogs bare their teeth to fight more willingly than to eat.' It will come to hot work soon, I think!"
Keenly he scanned the dunes, eager for sight of a white tarboosh, or headgear, at which to take a pot-shot. Nothing was visible but sand—though here, there, a gleam of steel showed where the Arabs had nested themselves down in the natural rampart with their long-barreled rifles cuddled through carefully scooped rifts in the sand.
Again the machine-gun chattered. Another joined it, but no dust-spurts leaped from the dune, where now a continual play of fire was leaping out. The Beni Harb, keenly intelligent, sensed either that they were being fired at with blanks, or that the marksmanship aboard the air-liner was execrable. A confused chorus of cries and jeers drifted down from the sand-hills; and all at once a tall, gaunt figure in a brown and white striped burnous, with the hood drawn up over the head, leaped to sight.
This figure brandished a tremendously long rifle in his left hand. His right was thrust up, with four fingers extended—the sign of wishing blindness to enemies. A splendid mark this Arab made. The Master drew a fine bead on him and fired.
Both he and Leclair laughed, as the Arab pitched forward in the sand. Unseen hands dragged the warrior back, away, out of sight. A slug crashed through the upper pane of the port window, flattened itself against the main corridor door and dropped to the sofa-locker.
The Master reached for the phone and switched in the connection with the upper starboard gallery.
"Major Bohannan!" he ordered. "No more blanks! The real thing, now—but hold your fire till we drift over the dune!"
"Drift over!" echoed Leclair. "But, monsieur, we'll never even make the beach!"
"So?" asked the chief. He switched to the engine-room.
"Frazier! Lift her a little, now! Rack everything—strain everything—break everything, if you must, but lift her!"
"Yes, sir!" came the engineer's voice. "I'll scrap the engines, sir, but I'll do that!"
Almost as if a mocking echo of the command and the promise, a dull concussion shuddered through Nissr. The drone of the helicopters sank to a sullen murmur; and down below, waves began combing angrily over the gallery.
"Ah, nom de Dieu!" cried Leclair, in sudden rage at seeing his chance all gone to pot, of coming to grips with the hated Beni Harb. From the penetralia of the air-liner, confused shouts burst forth. The upper galleries grew vocal with execrations.
Not one was of fear; all voiced disappointment, the passion of baffled fury. Angrily a boiler-shop clatter of machine-guns vomited useless frenzy.
Wearily, like a stricken bird that has been forced too long to wing its broken way, the Eagle of the Sky—still two hundred yards from shore—lagged down into the high-running surf. Down, in a murderous hail of fire she sank, into the waves that beat on the stark, sun-baked Sahara shore.
And from hundreds of barbarous throats arose the killing-cry to Allah—the battle-cry of Beni Harb, the murder-lusting Sons of War.
"La Illaha illa Allah! M'hamed rasul Allah!" Raw, ragged, exultant, a scream of passion, joy, and hate, it rose like the voice of the desert itself, vibrant with wild fanaticism, pitiless and wild.
The wolflike, high-pitched howl of the Arab outcasts—the robber-tribe which all Islam believed guilty of having pillaged the Haram at Mecca and which had for that crime been driven to the farthest westward confines of Mohammedanism—this war-howl tore its defiance through the wash and reflux of the surf.
The pattering hail of slugs continued to zoon from the sand-hills, bombarding the vast-spread wings and immense fuselage of Nissr. For the most part, that bombardment was useless to the Beni Harb. A good many holes, opened up in the planes, and some broken glass, were about the Arabs' only reward.
None of the bullets could penetrate the metal-work, unless making a direct hit. Many glanced, spun ricochetting into the sea, and with a venomous buzzing like huge, angry hornets, lost themselves in quick, white spurts of foam.
But one shot at least went home. Sheltered though the Legion was, either inside the fuselage or in vantage-points at the gun-stations, one incautious exposure timed itself to meet a notched slug. And a cry of mortal agony rose for a moment on the heat-shimmering air—a cry echoed with derision by fifteen score barbarians behind their natural rampart.
There was now no more shooting from the liner. What was there to shoot at, but sand? The Arabs, warned by the death of the gaunt fellow in the burnous, had doffed their headgear. Their brown heads, peeping intermittently from the wady and the dunes, were evasive as a mirage.
The Master laughed bitterly.
"A devil of a place!" he exclaimed, his blood up for a fight, but all circumstances baffling him. A very different man, this, from the calm, impersonal victim of ennui at Niss'rosh, or even from the unmoved individual when the liner had first swooped away from New York. His eye was sparkling now, his face was pale and drawn with anger; and the blood-soaked cotton and collodion gave a vivid touch of color to the ensemble. That the Master had emotions, after all, was evident. Obvious, too, was the fact these emotions were now fully aroused. "What a devil of a place! No way to get at those dog-sons, and they can lie there and wait for Nissr to break up!"
"Yes, my Captain, or else starve us where we lie!" the lieutenant put in. "Or wait for thirst and fever to do the work. Then—rich plunder for the sons of theft!"
"Ah, Leclair, but we're not going to stay here, for any such contingency!" exclaimed the chief, and turned toward the door. "Come, en avant! Forward, Leclair!"
"My Captain! You cannot charge an entrenched enemy like that, by swimming a heavy surf, with nothing but revolvers in hand!"
"Can't, eh? Why not?"
"The rules of war—"
"To Hell with the rules of war!" shouted the Master, for the first time in years breaking into profanity. "Are you with me, or are you—"
"Sir, do not say that word!" cried the Frenchman, reddening ominously. "Not even from you can I accept it!"
The Master laughed again, and strode out into the main corridor, with Leclair close behind him.
"Men!" he called, his voice blaring a trumpet-call to action. "Volunteers for a shore-party to clean out that kennel of dogs!"
None held back. All came crowding into the spacious corridor, its floor now laterally level but sloping toward the stern, as Nissr's damaged aft-floats had filled and sunk.
"Revolvers and lethal pistols!" he ordered. "And knives in belts! Come on!"
Up the ladder they swarmed to the take-off gallery. Their feet rang and clattered on the metal rounds. Other than that, a, strange silence filled the giant air-liner. The engines now lay dead. Nissr was motionless, save for the pitch and swing of the surf that tossed her; but forward she could no longer go.
As the men came up to the top gallery, the hands of the setting sun reached out and seized them with red ardor. The radiance was half blinding, from that sun and from light reflected by the heavily running waves, all white-caps to shore. On both aileron-tips, the machine-guns were spitting intermittently, worked by crews under the major and Ferrara, the Italian ace.
"Cease firing!" ordered the Master. "Simonds, you and Prisrend deal out the lethal guns. Look alive, now!"
Sheltering themselves from the patter of slugs behind stanchions and bulwarks, the Legionaries waited. The sea wind struck them with hot intensity; the sun, now almost down, flung its river of blood from ship to horizon, all dancing in a shimmer of heat.
By the way Nissr was thumping her floats on the bottom, she seemed about to break up. But, undismayed, the Legionaries armed themselves, girt on their war-gear and, cool-disciplined under fire, waited the order to leap into the sea.
Not even the sight of a still body in the starboard gallery—a body from under which a snaky red line was crawling, zigzagging with each pitch of the liner—gave them any pause. This crew was well blooded, ready for grim work of give-and-take.
"A task for me, sir!" exclaimed "Captain Alden," pointing at the body. The Master refused.
"No time for nursing, now!" he negatived the plea. "Unless you choose to remain behind?"
"Can you swim with one arm?"
"With both tied!"
"Very well! All ready, men! Overboard, to the beach! There, dig in for further orders. No individual action! No charge, without command! Overboard—come on—who follows me?"
He vaulted the rail, plunged in a white smother, surged up and struck out for shore. Rrisa was not half a second behind him. Then came all the others (save only that still figure on the buffed metals), a deluge of leaping, diving men.
The surf suddenly became full of heads and shoulders, vigorous arms, fighting beachward. Strong swimmers every one, the Legion battled its way ashore, out from under Nissr's vast-spreading bulk, out from under her forward floats. Not one Legionary but thrilled with the killing-lust, the eager spur of vengeance for Kloof, first victim of the Beni Harb's attack.
Along the dune, perhaps five hundred yards back of the beach, very many heads now appeared. The Arabs well knew themselves safe from attack, so long as these hated white swine of Ajam were in the breakers. Golden opportunity to pick them off, at ease!
[Footnote 1: Arabs divide the world into two categories; themselves, and Ajam, or all non-Arabs.]
A long, ragged line of desert men appeared, in burnouses and benishes, or loose floating garments, and all heavily armed. The last bleeding rays of the sunset flickered on the silver-mounted rifles as they spat fire into the heat-quivering air.
All about the swimmers, waterspouts jetted up. Two men grunted, flailed wild arms and sank, with the water about them tinged red as the sunset. Another sank face downward, a moment, then with only one arm, continued to ply for land, leaving a crimson trail behind.
None of the untouched Legionaries took any heed of this, or stopped their furious swimming to see what damage had been done or to offer help. Life was at stake. Every second in the breakers was big with death. This was stern work, to be put through with speed. But the faces of the swimming men grew hard to look upon.
The Master and Leclair were first to touch foot to the shelving bottom, all churned up by the long cavalry-charges of the sea-horses, and to drag themselves out of the smother. Rrisa and Bohannan came next, then Enemark, and then the others—all save Beziers and Daimamoto, French ace and Japanese surgeon, whose work was forever at an end. Enemark, engineer and scientist, shot through the left shoulder, was dragged ashore, strangling, by eager hands.
"Down! Down!" shouted the Master. "Dig in!"
Right well he knew the futility, the suicidal folly of trying to charge some three hundred entrenched men with a handful of panting, exhausted soldiers armed only with revolvers.
"Take cover!" his cry rang along the beach. They obeyed. Under a galling fire that flung stinging sand into their faces and that took toll of two more Legionaries, wounded, the expedition dug for its very life.
The best of strategy! The only strategy, the Master knew, as—panting a little, with thick, black hair glued by sea-water to his head—he flattened himself into a little depression in the sand, where the first ripple of the dunes began.
Hot was the sand, and dry. Withered camel-grass grew in dejected tufts here, there, interspersed with a few straggles of half a. A jackal's skull, bleached, lay close to the Master's right hand. Its polish attested the care of others of its kind, of hyenas, and of vultures. Just so would a human skull appear, in no long time, if left to nature's tender ministrations. Out of an eyehole of the skull a dusty gray scorpion half crawled, then retreated, tail over back, venomous, deadly.
Death lurked not alone in sea and in the rifles of the inhabitants of this harsh land, but even in the crawling things underfoot.
The Master paid no heed to shriveled grass, to skull, or scorpion. All his thoughts were bent on the overcoming of that band of Islamic outcasts now persistently pot-shotting away at the strange flying men from unknown lands "that faced not Mecca nor kept Ramadan"—men already hidden in swiftly scooped depressions, from which the sand still kept flying up.
"Steady, men!" the Master called. "Get your wind! Ready with the lethal guns! Each gun, one capsule. Then we'll charge them! And—no quarter!"
Again, silence from the Legion. The fire from the dunes slackened. These tactics seemed to have disconcerted the Beni Harb. They had expected a wild, only half-organized rush up the sands, easily to be wiped out by a volley or two from the terribly accurate, long-barreled rifles. But this restraint, this business-like entrenching reminded them only too forcibly of encounters with other men of the Franks—the white-clad Spanish infantry from Rio de Oro, the dreaded piou-pious, zouaves, and Legion Etrangere of the French.
Firing ceased, from the Beni Harb. Silence settled on both sides. From the sea, the noise of waves breaking along the lower works of Nissr mingled with the hiss and refluent slither of the tumbling surf on the gleaming beach. For a while peace seemed to have descended.
A purple shade settled over the desert. The sun was nearly gone, now, and dusk would not be long in closing its chalice down over the light-wearied world. Leclair, entrenched beside the Master, whispered:
"They do not understand, these dog-brothers—may Allah make their faces cold!" He grinned, frankly, with sparkling eyes and white teeth. "Already we have their beards in our hands!"
The Master's only answer was to draw from his pocket an extra lethal gun, hand it over and, in a whisper, hastily instruct the Frenchman how to use it. Then he cried, loudly:
"Ready, men! Fire!"
All along the line, the faint, sighing hiss of the strange weapons sounded. Over the top of the dune little, almost inaudible explosions began taking place as—plop! plop! plop!—the capsules burst. Not now could their pale virescence be seen; but the Master smiled again, at realization that already the lethal gas was settling down upon the horde of Shiah outcasts.
To Leclair he whispered in Arabic an ancient saying of the desert folk: "'Allah hath given skill to three things, the hands of the Chinese, the brains of the Franks, the tongues of the Arabs!'" He added: "When the gas strikes them, they would think the Frankish brain more wonderful than ever—if they could think at all!"
He slid his hand into the breast of his jacket, pulled a little cord and drew out a silver whistle, the very same that he had used at Gallipoli. As he slid it to his lips, they tautened. A flood of memories surged over him. His fighting-blood was up, like that of all the other Legionaries in that hasty trench-line along the white sand-drifts.
A moment's silence followed. Outwardly, all was peace. No sound but the waves broke the African stillness. A little sand-grouse, known as kata by the Arabs, came whirring by. Far aloft, a falcon wheeled, keen-eyed for prey. Once more the deadly scorpion peeped from the skull, an ugly, sullen, envenomed thing.