Not even the Master's aplomb could suppress a strange gleam in his eye, could keep his face from paling a little or his lips from tightening, as he now beheld the inmost shrine of two hundred and thirty million human beings. Nor did any of the Legionaries, bold as they were, look upon it without a strange contraction of the heart. As for the Apostate Sheik, that old jackal of the desert was crouched in his place of confinement, with terror clutching at his soul; with visions of being torn to pieces by furious Sunnite mobs oppressing him.
And Rrisa, what of him? Shut into his cabin, with the door locked against intrusion, he was lying face downward on the metal floor, praying. For the first time in the world's history, a Moslem's kiblah, or direction of prayer, was directly downward!
"Reverse!" ordered the Master. Nissr hovered exactly above the Haram enclosure. "Lower to five hundred feet, then hold her!"
The air-liner sank slowly, with a hissing of air-intakes into the vacuum-floats, and hung there, trembling, quivering with the slow back-revolution of her screws, the swift energy of her helicopters. The Master put her in charge of Janina, the Serbian ace, and descended to the lower gallery.
Here he found the crew assembled by Bohannan and Leclair ready for the perilous descent they were about to make.
He leaned over the rail, unmindful of the ragged patter of bullets from below, and with a judicial eye observed the prospect. His calm contrasted forcibly with the frenzied surging of the pilgrim mobs below, a screaming, raging torrent of human passion.
Clearly he could discern every detail of the city whereof Mohammed wrote in the second chapter of the Koran: "So we have made you the center of the nations that you should bear witness to men." He could see the houses of dark stone, clustering together on the slopes like swallows' nests, the unpaved streets, the Mesjid el Haram, or sacred square, enclosed by a great wall and a colonnade surmounted by small white domes.
At the corners of this colonnade, four tall white minarets towered toward the sky—minarets from which now a pretty lively rifle-fire was developing. A number of small buildings were scattered about the square; but all were dominated by the black impressive cube of the Ka'aba itself, the Bayt Ullah, or Allah's house.
The Master gave an order. Ferrara obeying it, brought from his cabin a piece of apparatus the Master had but perfected in the last two days of flight over the Sahara. This the Master took and clamped to the rail.
"Captain Alden," said he, "stand by, at the engine-room phone from this gallery, here, to order any necessary adjustments as weights are dropped or raised. Keep the ship at constant altitude as well as position. Major Bohannan and Lieutenant Leclair, are your crews ready for the descent?"
"Yes, sir," the major answered. "Oui, mon capitaine," replied the Frenchman.
"Tools all ready? Machine-guns installed? Yes? Very well. Open the trap, now, and swing the nacelle by the electric crane and winch. Right! Steady!"
The yells of rage and hate from below were all this time increasing in volume and savagery. Quite a pattering of rifle-bullets had developed against the metal body of the lower gallery and—harmlessly glancing—against the fuselage.
Smiling, the Master once more peered over. He seemed, as indeed he was, entirely oblivious to any fear. Too deeply had the Oriental belief of Kismet, of death coming at the appointed hour and no sooner, penetrated his soul, to leave any place there for the perils of chance.
The swarming Haram enclosure presented one of the most extraordinary spectacles ever witnessed by human eyes. The strangeness of the scene, witnessed under the declining sun of that desert land, was heightened by the fact that all these furious Moslems were seen from above. Men cease to appear human, at that angle. They seem to be only heads, from which legs and arms flail out grotesquely.
The Haram appeared to have become a vast pool of brown faces and agitated white ihrams (pilgrim robes) of weaving brown hands, of gleaming weapons. This pool, roaring to heaven, showed strange, violent currents in flow and refluent ebb of hate.
To descend into that maelstrom of frenzied murder-lust took courage of the highest order. But neither Bohannan nor the Frenchman had even paled. Not one of their men showed any hesitancy whatever.
"Ready, sir," said the major, crisply. "Faith, give the signal and down we go; and we'll either bring back what we're going after, or we'll all come back and report ourselves dead!"
"Just a minute, Major," the Master answered. He had opened a small door of the box containing the apparatus he had just clamped to the rail, and had taken out a combination telephone earpiece and receiver. With this at mouth and ear, he leaned over the rail. His lips moved in a whisper inaudible even to those in the lower gallery with him.
An astonishing change, however, swept over the infuriated mob in the Haram and throughout the radiating streets. One would have thought a bolt from heaven had struck the Moslems dumb. The angry tumult died; the vast hush that rose to Nissr was like a blow in the face, so striking was its contrast with the previous uproar. Most of the furious gesticulation ceased, also. All those brown-faced fanatics remained staring upward, silent in a kind of thunder-struck amazement.
EAST AGAINST WEST
The major, peering down through the trap, swore luridly. Leclair muttered something to himself, with wrinkled brow. "Captain Alden's" eyes blinked strangely, through the holes of the mask. The others stared in frank astonishment.
"What the devil, sir—?" began the major; but the chief held up his hand for silence. Again he spoke whisperingly into the strange apparatus. This time a murmur rose to him; a murmur increasing to a confused tumult, that in an angry wave of malediction beat up about Nissr as she hung there with spinning helicopters, over the city.
The Master smiled as he put up the receiver in the little box and closed the door with a snap. Regretfully he shook his head.
"These Arabic gentlemen, et al," he remarked, "don't seem agreeably disposed to treat with us on a basis of exchanging the Sheik Abd el Rahman for what we want from them. My few remarks in Arabic, via this etheric megaphone, seem to have met a rebuff. Every man in the Haram, the minarets, the arcade, and the radiating streets heard every word I said, gentlemen, as plainly as if I had spoken directly into his ear. Yet no sound at all developed here."
"The principle is parallel to that of an artillery shell that only bursts when it strikes, and might be extremely useful in warfare, if properly developed—as I haven't had time, yet, to develop it. No matter about that, though. My proposal has been rejected. Peace having been declined, we have no alternative but to use other, means. There is positively no way of coming to an agreement with our Moslem friends, below."
As if to corroborate his statement, a rifle-bullet whistled through the open trap and flattened itself against the metal underbody of the fuselage, over their heads. It fell almost at "Captain Alden's" feet. She picked it up and pocketed it.
"My first bit of Arabia," said she. "Worth keeping."
The firing, below, had now become more general than ever. Shrill cries rose to Allah for the destruction of these infidel flying dogs. The Master paid no more heed to them than to the buzzing of so many bees.
"I think, Major," said he, "we shall have to use one of the two kappa-ray bombs on these Arabic gentry. It's rather too bad we haven't more of them, and that the capsules are all gone."
"Pardon me, my Captain," put in Leclair, "but the paralysis-vibrations, eh? As you did to me, why not to them?"
"Impossible. The way we're crippled, now, I haven't the equipment. But I shall nevertheless be able to show you something, Lieutenant. Major will you kindly drop one of the kappa-rays?"
He gestured at two singular-looking objects that stood on the metal floor of the lower gallery, about six feet from the trap. Cubical objects they were, some five inches on the edge, each enclosed in what seemed a tough, black, leather-like substance netted with stout white cords that were woven together into a handle at the top.
Strong as Bohannan was, his face grew red, with swollen veins in forehead and neck, as he tried to lift this small object. Nothing in the way of any known substance could possibly have weighed so much; not even solid lead or gold.
"Faith!" grunted the major. "What the devil? These two little metal boxes didn't weigh a pound apiece when—ugh!—when we packed 'em in our bags. How about it, chief?"
The Master smiled with amusement.
"They weren't magnetized then, Major," he answered. "Shall I have someone help you?"
"No, by God! I'll either lift this thing or die, right here!" the Celt panted, redder still. But he did not lift the little cube. The best he could do was to drag it, against mighty resistance, to the edge of the trap; and with a last, mighty heave, project it into space.
As it left the trap, Nissr rocked and swayed, showing how great a weight had been let drop. Down sped the little, netted cube, whirling in the sunlight. Its speed was almost that of a rifle-ball—so far in excess of anything that could have been produced by gravitation as to suggest that some strange, magnetic force was hurling it earthward, like a metal-filing toward an electro-magnet. It dwindled to nothing, in a second, and vanished.
All peered over the rail, eager with anticipation. No explosion followed, but the most astonishing thing happened. All at once, without any preliminary disturbance, the ground became white. A perfect silence fell on the Haram and the city for perhaps half a mile on all sides of the sacred enclosure Haram and streets, roof-tops, squares all looked as if suddenly covered with deep snow.
This whiteness, however, was not snow, but was produced by the ihrams of the pilgrims now coming wholly to view.
Instead of gazing down on the heads of the multitude—all bare heads, as the Prophet commands for pilgrims—the Legionaries now found themselves looking at their whole bodies. Every pilgrim in sight had instantaneously fallen to the earth, on the gravel of the Haram, along the raised walks from the porticoes to the Ka'aba, on the marble tiling about the Ka'aba itself, even in the farthest visible streets.
The white-clad figures lay piled on each other in grotesque attitudes and heaps. Even the stone tank at the north-west side of the Ka'aba, under the famous Myzab, or Golden Waterspout on the Ka'aba roof, was heaped full of them; and all round the sacred Zem Zem well they lay in silent windrows, reaped down by some silent, invisible force.
In the remote suburbs and out on the plain, the Legionaries' binoculars could still see a swarming of white figures; but all the immediate vicinity was now wholly silent, motionless. To and fro the Master swept his glasses, and nodded with satisfaction.
"You have now fifteen minutes, men," said he, "before the paralyzing shock of that silent detonation—that noiseless release of molecular energies which does not kill nor yet destroy consciousness in the least—will pass away. So—"
"You mean to tell me, my Captain, those pilgrims are still conscious?" demanded Leclair, amazed.
"Perfectly. They will see, hear, and know all you do. I wish them to. The effect will be salutary, later. But they cannot move or interfere. All you have to look out for is the incoming swarm of fanatics already on the move. So there is no time to be lost. Into the nacelle, and down with you!"
"But if they try to rush us you can drop the other bomb, can't you?" demanded the major, as they all clambered into the nacelle.
The Master smiled, as he laid his hands on top of the basket and cast his eyes over the equipment there, noting that machine-guns, pick-axes, crowbars, and all were in position.
"The idea does you credit, Major," said he. "The fact that the other bomb would of course completely paralyze you and your men, here, is naturally quite immaterial. Let us have no more discussion, please. Only fourteen minutes, thirty seconds now remain before the Hujjaj will begin to recover their muscular control. You have your work cut out for you, the next quarter-hour!"
The Master raised his hand in signal to Grison, at the electric winch A turn of a lever, and the nacelle rose from the metals of the lower gallery. It swung over the trap and was steadied there, a moment, by many hands. The raiding-party leaped in.
"Lower away!" commanded the chief
Smoothly the winch released the fine steel cable, with a purring sound. Down shot the nacelle, steadily, swiftly, with the major, Leclair, and the others now engaged in the most perilous, dare-devil undertaking imaginable.
Down, swiftly down, to raid the Bayt Ullah, the sacred Ka'aba, holy of holies to more than two hundred million Moslem fanatics, each of whom would with joy have died to keep the hand of the unbelieving dog from so much as touching that hoar structure or the earth of the inviolate Haram.
Down, swiftly down with picks and crowbars. Down, into the midst of all that paralyzed but still conscious hate, to the very place of the supremely sacred Black Stone, itself.
THE BATTLE OF THE HARAM
The raiding-party, beside its two leaders, consisted of Lombardo, Rennes, Emilio, Wallace, and three others, including Lebon. The lieutenant's orderly, now having recovered strength, had pleaded so hard for an opportunity to avenge himself on the hated Moslems that Leclair had taken him.
As for Lombardo, he had downright insisted on going. His life, he knew, was already forfeited to the expedition—by reason of his having let the stowaway escape—and, this being so, he had begged and been granted the favor of risking it in this perilous undertaking.
Such was the party now swiftly dropping toward the Haram where never yet in the history of the world two English-speaking men had at one time gathered; where never yet the speech of the heretic had been heard; where so many intruders had been beheaded or crucified for having dared profane the ground sacred to Allah and his Prophet.
To the major, peering over the side of the nacelle, it seemed as if the Haram—central spot of pilgrimage and fanatic devotion for one-seventh of the human race—were leaping up to meet him. With dizzying rapidity the broad square, the grim black Ka'aba, the prostrate white throngs all sprang up at the basket. Fascinated, the major watched; his eyes, above all, sought the mysterious Ka'aba. Excitement thrilled his romantic soul at thought that he was one of the very first white men in the world ever to behold that strange, ancient building.
Clearly he could see the stone slabs cemented with gypsum, the few stricken pigeons lying there, the cords holding the huge kiswah, or brocaded cloth, covering "Mecca's bride," (the Ka'aba). The Golden Waterspout was plainly visible, gleaming in the sun—a massive trough of pure metal, its value quite incalculable.
Now the Ka'aba was close; now the nacelle slowed, beside it, in the shadow of its grim blackness. The major got an impression of exceeding richness from the shrouding veil, which he saw to be a huge silken fabric, each side like a vast theater curtain of black, with a two-foot band a little more than half-way up, the whole covered with verses from the Koran worked in gold.
The nacelle sank gently on to a heap of motionless pilgrims, canted to the left, and came to rest. Not a groan, curse, or even a sigh escaped the desecrated Moslems forever defiled by the touch of the infidels' accursed machine.
The effect was horribly uncanny—of all those brown men, open-eyed and conscious, but perfectly unable to move so much as an eyebrow. Such as had fallen with their eyes in the direction of the nacelle, could see what was going on; the others could only judge of this incredible desecration by what they could hear. The sound of foreign voices, speaking an unbelievers' tongue in the very shadow of the Ka'aba, must have been supremely horrible to every Mohammedan there.
"Out, men, and at it!" the major commanded, as he scrambled from the nacelle, slid and stumbled over the Moslems, and reached hands for the tools passed out to him. Leclair followed. Men and tools were swiftly unloaded, leaving only Wallace and Emilio at their guns, as agreed.
"Faith, but this is some proposition!" grunted the major, as the seven men trampled over the prostrate bodies, without any delay whatever to peer at the Haram or the Ka'aba.
"The stone's there, men, at the south-east corner! Get busy!"
No exhortation was necessary. Every man, nerved to the utmost energy by the extreme urgency of the situation, leaped to work. And a strange scene began, the strangest in all the history of that unknown city of mysteries. The little troop of white men in uniform stumbled over the bodies and faces of their enemies along the Ka'aba, past the little door about seven feet from the ground, and so, skirting the slanting white base, two feet high, came to the Hajar el Aswad, or Black Stone, itself.
Above, in the burning Arabian sky, the air-liner hovered like a gigantic bird of prey, her gallery-rails lined with motionless watchers. The Master observed every move through powerful glasses. Over his ears a telephone headpiece, which he had slipped on, kept him in close touch with the men in the nacelle, via the steel cable. This cable formed a strand between East and West; if any evil chance should break it, life would end there and then for nine members of the Legion, brave men all.
That their time was short, indeed, was proved by the vague, hollow roar already drifting in from the outskirts of the city, and from the plain whence, crowding, struggling into the city's narrow ways, a raging mass of pilgrims was already on the move. A tidal-wave, a sea of hate, the hundred thousand or more Hujjaj as yet untouched by the strong magic of the Feringi, were fighting their way toward the Haram.
The time of respite was measured but by minutes. Each minute, every second, bore supreme value.
"There she is, men!" the major shouted, pointing. And on the instant, driving furiously with pick-axe, he struck the first blow.
Plainly, about three feet below the bottom of the silken veil and four feet above the pavement, there indeed they saw the inestimably sacred stone, which every Moslem believes once formed a part of Paradise and was given by Allah to the first man. To the Legionaries' excited eyes it seemed to be an irregular oval, perhaps seven inches in diameter, with an undulating surface composed of about a dozen smaller stones joined by cement and worn blackly smooth by millions of touches and kisses.
It was surrounded by a border of cement that looked like pitch and gravel; and the major noted, even as he drove his pick into this cement, that both the stone and the border were enclosed by a massive circle of gold with the lower part studded full of silver nails.
Only these hasty observations, and no more, the Legionaries made as they fell with furious energy to the task of dislodging the venerable relic. To all but this labor they were oblivious—to the heat and stifle of that sun-baked square, the mute staring of the paralyzed Hujjaj, the wafting languor of incenses from the colonnades, the quiet murmur of waters from the holy well, Zem Zem.
The scene, which ordinarily would have entranced them and filled them with awe, now had become as nothing. Every energy, every sense had centered itself only on this one vital work of extracting the Black Stone from the Ka'aba wall and of making a swift getaway with it before the rising murmur of rage, from without the area of paralysis, should sweep in on them with annihilating passion.
"Here, Emilio—drive your pick here!" commanded the major, his red face now dark crimson with heat and excitement as well as with the intense force wherewith he was wielding his implement. Cement flew in showers at every stroke, out over the sweating Legionaries and the prostrate Moslems near the stone. The white men slid and stumbled on limp bodies, trampled them unheedingly, and of the outstretched pilgrims made as it were a kind of vantage-post for the attack on the inmost citadel of Islam.
"Work quick, Major!" came the Master's voice, seemingly at Bohannan's elbow. "There's a fearful drove of the rascals coming. You'd better get that stone out and away in double-quick time!"
The major replied nothing, but his pick-axe flailed into the cement with desperate energy. Emilio and others seconded him, while Rennes and Wallace dug, kneeling, with their crowbars. The blows echoed with staccato rapidity through the sacred Haram, which now had begun to fill with the confused roar of the on-coming mobs from the Ma'abidah suburb and the Plain of Mina, from Jebel Hindi and the Sulaymainyah quarter.
"You have about five minutes more," the Master spoke again. "If necessary, we will open on them with machine-guns, from the ship, but I'd like to avoid bloodshed if possible. Do the best you can!"
Bohannan had no breath for answering. Every ounce of energy of all seven men was being flung into that mad labor. Sweat streamed into their eyes, half blinding them; they dashed it off, and struck again and again. The cement crumbled and gave; the heavy gold band commenced to bend; Rennes got his crowbar into an advantageous leverage and gave a mighty heave.
The stone seemed to cry aloud, with a dry, harsh screaming sound of outraged agony, as it yielded. It was only the sundering of the mortar, of course; but a chill ran up the major's spine, and goose-flesh prickled all over him. Furiously the Legionaries worked the stone back and forth; a shower of mortar fell on the workers' feet and on the upturned, staring faces of the paralyzed Moslems trampled by the horrible contamination of heretical boots—perhaps even pigskin boots!—and then, all at once, the Hajar el Aswad slid from the place where it had lain uncounted centuries.
Cursing with frantic excitement, the Legionaries tugged it from the wall, together with its golden band. Above them the kiswah bellied outward, swaying in the breeze. No Moslem has ever admitted that the Ka'aba veil is ever moved by any other thing than the wings of angels. Those of the Faithful who now beheld that movement, felt the avenging messengers of Allah were near, indeed; and a thousand unspoken prayers flamed aloft:
"Angels of death, Azrael and his host, smite these outcasts of Feringistan!"
The prayers seemed more likely of fulfilment from the hands of the oncoming hordes already streaming into the converging streets to the Haram. As the stone came clear, into the hands of the invaders, a dank, chill blast of air blew from the aperture against the white men's faces. It seemed to issue as from a cavern; and with it came a low, groaning sound, as of a soul in torment.
A shadow fell across the Haram; the light of the sun was dulled. The sudden crack of a rifle-shot snapped from the arcade, and a puff of rock-dust flew from the corner of the Ka'aba, not two feet from the major's head.
"Come on, men!" cried the major. "Away!"
Some latent mysticism had been stirred in him; some vague, half-sensed superstition. Nothing more natural than that a cold draught should have soughed from the pent interior of the temple, or that the air-liner, slowly turning as she hung above the Haram, should with her vast planes have for a moment thrown her shadow over the square. But the Celt's imaginative nature quivered as he gripped the stone.
"You, quick, on the other end!" he cried to Emilio. "You, Lombardo, steady her! So! Now—to the nacelle!"
The rifles were opening a lively fire, already, as the men staggered over the prostrate Moslems, reached the nacelle and with a grunt and a heave tumbled the Hajar el Aswad into it. They scrambled after, falling into the shelter of the basket.
Into the arcade, at the north-east corner and half-way along the western side, two furious swarms of white-robed Hujjaj were already debouching, yelling like fiends, firing as they came. The uproar swelled rapidly, in a swift-rising tide. The Haram grew all a confusion of wild-waving arms, streaming robes, running men who stumbled over the paralyzed forms of their coreligionists. Knives, spears, scimitars, rifles glinted in the sun.
The whine and patter of bullets filled the air, punctured the kiswah, slogged against the Ka'aba. Lebon and Rennes, turning loose the machine-guns, mowed into the white of the pack; but still they came crowding on and on, frenzied, impervious to fear.
Up rose the nacelle, as the major wildly shouted into the phone. It soared some forty feet in air, up past the black silken curtain, then unaccountably stopped, level with the Ka'aba roof.
"Up! Up!" yelled Bohannan, frantically. The spud of bullets against the steel basket tingled the bodies of the men crouching against the metal-work.
All at once Dr. Lombardo stood up, pick-axe in hand, fully exposed to rifle-fire.
"Down, you blazing idiot!" commanded the major, dragging at him with hands that shook. The doctor thrust him away, and turned toward the Ka'aba, the roof of which was not three feet distant.
"The golden spout—see?" he cried, pointing. "Dio mio, what a treasure!" On to the edge of the nacelle he clambered.
"Don't be a damn fool, Doctor!" the major shouted; but already Lombardo had leaped. Pick in hand, he jumped, landing on the flat roof of the temple.
Ferocious howls and execrations swelled into a screaming chorus of hate, of rage. Unmindful, the Italian was already frantically attacking the Myzab. Blow after blow he rained upon it with the sharp, cutting edge of the pick, that at every stroke sank deep into the massive gold, shearing it in deep gashes.
A perfect hail of rifle-fire riddled the air all about him, but still he labored with sweat streaming down his face all blackened with dirt and cement. From Nissr, far above, cries and shouts rang down at him, mingled with the sharp spitting of the machine-guns from the lower gallery. The guns in the nacelle, too, were chattering; the Haram filled itself with a wild turmoil; the scene beggared any attempt at description, there under the blistering ardor of the Arabian sun.
All at once Dr. Lombardo inserted the blade of the pick under the golden spout, pried hard, bent it upward. He stamped it down again with his boot-heel, dropped the pick and grappled it with both straining hands. By main force he wrenched it up almost at right angles. He gave another pull, snapped it short off, dragged it to the parapet of the Ka'aba, and with a frantic effort swung it, hurled it into the nacelle.
Down sank the basket, a little, under this new weight.
The doctor leaped, jumped short, caught the edge of the basket and was just pulling himself up when a slug caught him at the base of the brain.
His hold relaxed; but the major had him by the wrists. Into the nacelle he dragged the dying man.
"For the love o' God, haul up!" he shouted.
The basket leaped aloft, as the winch—that had been jammed by a trivial accident to the control—took hold of the steel cable. Up it soared, still pursued by dwindling screams of rage, by now futile rifle-fire. Before it had reached the trap in the lower gallery, the main propellers had begun to whicker into swift revolution, all gleaming in the afternoon sun. The gigantic shadow of the Eagle of the Sky began to slide athwart the hill-side streets to south-eastward of the Haram; and so, away.
Up came the nacelle through the trap. The davit swung it to one side; the trap was slammed down and bolted. Out of the nacelle tumbled the major, pale as he had formerly been red, his face all drawn with grief and pain.
"The damned Moslem swine!" he panted. "Faith, but they—they've killed him!" He flung a passionate hand at the basket, in which, prone across the golden spout, the still body of Lombardo was lying. "They've killed as brave a man—"
"We all saw what he did, Major," the chief said quietly. "Dr. Lombardo owed us all a debt, and he has paid it. This is Kismet! Control yourself, Major. The price of such brave adventure—is often death."
They lifted out the limp form, and carried it away to the cabin Dr. Lombardo had occupied, there to wait some opportune time for burial in the desert. Mecca, in the meanwhile, was already fading away to north-westward. The heat-shimmer of that baked land of bare-ribbed rock and naked, igneous hills had already begun to blur its outlines. The white minarets round the Haram still with delicate tracery as of carved ivory stood up against the sky; but of the out-raged people, the colonnades, the despoiled and violated Ka'aba, nothing could any more be seen.
Southward by eastward sped Nissr; and with her now was departing the soul of Islam. In her keeping lay three things more sacred than all else to Mohammedan hearts—Kaukab el Durri, the Great Pearl Star; Ha jar el As wad, the Black Stone; and Myzab, the Golden Waterspout.
Awed, silenced, the Legionaries stood there in the lower gallery, peering into the blood-stained nacelle. Hard-bitten men, all, and used to the ways and usages of war; yet factors were present in this latest exploit that sobered and steadied them as never before.
The Master, still unmoved, merely smiled a peculiar smile as he commanded:
"Major, have the stone and the golden spout carried to my cabin. And, if you please, no remarks!"
Bohannan picked a few men to fulfil the order. Then he asked and received permission to retire to the smoke-room, for a pipe and a quiet half-hour, after having washed the dust and grime of battle from his hands and face. The major's Celtic nerves needed tobacco and reflection as they had rarely needed them.
The Master, climbing up the ladder to the main gallery, left Leclair and a few off-duty men in the lower one. Two or three approached the French ace, to hold speech with him about the exploit at the Ka'aba, but he withdrew from them to the extreme rear end of the gallery and remained for a long time in silent contemplation of the fading city, the Plain of Mina, and Mount Arafat, beyond.
As the vague purple haze of late afternoon deepened to veils that began to hide even the outlines of the mountain, he leaned both elbows on the rail and in his own language whispered:
"Nom de Dieu! The Pearl Star—the Golden Waterspout—the sacred Black Stone!" His face was white with pride and a fire of eagerness that burned within. "Why, now we're masters of all Islam—masters of the treasure-houses of the Orient!
"Mais—nom de Dieu!"
THE ORDEAL OF RRISA
Alone in his cabin with the waterspout of massive gold and with the sacred Black Stone, the Master sat down in front of the table where they had been laid, took a few leaves of khat, and with profound attention began to study the treasures his bold coup had so successfully delivered into his hands.
The waterspout, he saw at once, would as a mere object of precious metal be worth a tremendous sum. It was of raw gold, apparently unalloyed—as befitted its office of carrying the water from the roof of the Ka'aba and throwing it upon Ishmael's grave, where pilgrims have for centuries stood fighting to catch it. Its color verged on reddish; all its lateral surfaces were carved with elaborate arabesques and texts from the Koran. The bottom bore an inscription in Tumar characters, easily decipherable by the Master, stating that it had been sent from Constantinople in the year of the Hegira 981, by Shafey Hanbaly, the Magnificent.
"A great treasure," pondered the Master. "An almost incalculable treasure, in itself; but less so, intrinsically, than as an object of Moslem veneration. In either case, however, enormously valuable."
He examined it a moment or two longer, noting with care the gashes and deep cuts made by the frantic strokes of Dr. Lombardo's pick-axe. What his thoughts might have been regarding the doctor's tragic death, none could have told. For with a face quite unmoved, he turned now to the examination of the world-famous Black Stone.
This object, he saw, possessed no value whatever, per se. Aside from its golden encircling band studded with silver nails, its worth seemed practically nothing. As it lay on the table before him, he realized that it was nothing but a common aerolite, with the appearance of black slag. Its glossy, pitchlike surface, on the end that had been exposed from the wall, was all worn and polished smooth by innumerable caresses from Moslem hands and lips.
"Very hygienic," the Master thought. "If there was ever a finer way devised for spreading the plague and other Oriental diseases, I can't very well imagine what it could be!"
A bit of the stone had been broken off by Leclair's crowbar. The Master's trained, scientific eye saw, by the brightly sparkling, grayish section of the break, that iron and nickel formed the chief elements of the stone. Its dimensions, though its irregular form made these hard to come by, seemed about two and a half feet in length, by about seven or eight inches in breadth and thickness. Its weight, as the Master stood up and lifted it, must have been about two hundred pounds. No doubt one man could have carried it from its place in the Ka'aba to the nacelle; but in the excitement of battle, and impeded by having to stumble over prostrate Moslems, the major had considered it advisable to ask for help.
"Mineralogically speaking, this is a meteor or a block of volcanic basalt," judged the Master. "It seems sprinkled with small crystals, with rhombs of tile-red feldspath on a dark background like velvet or charcoal, except for one reddish protuberance of an unknown substance. A good blow with a hammer would surely break it along the original lines of fracture—and this is well worth knowing and remembering".
"Well, so far so good," he concluded. "The Air Control Board hasn't got us, yet. Neither have the Mohammedans. True, we've lost a number of men, but that was to have been expected. That's inevitable, and we still have enough. I hardly see that we have so very much to complain of, so far."
He turned, pulled a blanket from his berth and carefully spread it over the loot on the table. Then he pushed the button communicating with the cabin wherein Rrisa was still quivering as a result of having heard the fusillades and the terrific tumult—unseen though they had been to him—at Mecca.
In a couple of minutes the faithful orderly appeared, salaamed, and stood waiting with a drawn, troubled face.
"Allah m'a!" the Master greeted him, in Allah's name inquiring for his good health. "I have something important to ask thee. Come in. Come in, and close the door."
He spoke in Arabic. The orderly, in the same tongue, made answer as he obeyed:
"The Master hath but to talk, and it is answered, if my knowledge can suffice." His words were submissive; but the expression was strange in his eyes, at sight of the blanket on the table. That blanket might hide—what might it not hide? The light in his gaze became one the Master had never yet seen there, not even in the sternest fighting at Gallipoli.
"Mecca lieth behind us, Rrisa," the Master began. "Thou hast seen nothing of it, or of what happened there?"
"Nothing, M'alme. I was bidden remain in my cabin, and the Master's word is always my law. It is true that I heard sounds of a great fighting, but I obeyed the Master. I saw nothing. The Sheik Abd el Hareth, did you deliver him into the hands of the Faithful?"
"No, Rrisa. They refused to accept him. And now I have other plans for him. It is well that thou didst see nothing, for it was a mighty fighting and there was death both to them and to us. Now, my questions to thee."
"Tell me this thing, first. Is it indeed true speaking, as I have heard, that the Caliph el Walid the First, in Hegira 88, sent to Mecca an immense present of gold and silver, forty camel-loads of small cut gems and a hundred thousand miskals in gold coin?"
"It is true, Master. Save that he sent more; nearly two hundred thousand miskals. He also sent eighty Coptic and Greek artists to carve and gild the mosques.
"One Greek sculptured a hog on the Mosque of Omar, trying to make it into a kanisah (unclean idol-house). My people discovered the sacrilege, and"—he added with intent—"gave that Greek the bowstring, then quartered the body and threw it to the vultures."
"That is of no importance whatever, Rrisa," answered the Master with an odd smile. "What thy people do to the unbeliever, if they capture him, is nothing to me. For—dost thou see?—they must first make the capture. What I would most like to know is this: where is all that treasure, now?"
"I cannot tell you, Master."
"No, Master, not at Mecca."
"M'alme! My lips are sealed as the Forbidden Books!"
"Not against the commands of thy sheik—and I am thy sheik!"
Rrisa's lips twitched. The inner struggle of his soul reflected itself in his lean, brown face. At last he aroused himself to make answer:
"The treasure, Master, is far to the south-east—in another city."
"Ah! So there is another city far out in Ruba el Khali, the Empty Abodes!"
"Yea, M'alme, that is so."
"Then the ancient rumor is true? And it is from near that city that thou didst come, eh? By Allah's power, I command thee to tell me of this hidden city of the central deserts!"
"This thing I cannot do, my sheik."
"This thing thou must do!"
"O Master! It is the secret of all secrets! Spare me this!"
"No Rrisa, thou must obey. Far inside El Hejaz (the barrier), that city is lying for my eyes to behold. I must know of it. Thy oath to me cannot be broken. Speak, thou!"
The Master made no gesture with his hands, did not frown or clench his fists, but remained impassively calm. His words, however, cut Rrisa like knives. The orderly remained trembling and sweating, with a piteous expression. Finally he managed to stammer:
"M'alme, in our tongue we have a proverb: 'There are two things colder than ice—a young old man and an old young man.' There is still a colder thing—the soul that betrays the Hidden City!"
"Speak Rrisa! There is no escape for thee!"
"My sheik, I obey," quavered the unfortunate orderly, shaken with a palsy of fear. Without a quiver, the Arab would rush a machine-gun position or face a bayonet-charge; but this betrayal of his kin struck at the vitals of his faith. Still, the Master's word was law even above Al Koran. With trembling lips he made answer:
"This city—spare me uttering its name, Master!—lies many hours' journey, even by this Eagle of the Sky, beyond the Iron Mountains that no man of the Feringi hath ever seen. It lies beyond the Great Sand Barrier, in a valley of the Inner Mountains; yea, at the very heart of Ruba el Khali."
"I hear thee, Rrisa. Speak further. And let thy speaking be truth!"
"It shall be truth, by the Prophet's beard! What doth the Master ask of me?"
"Is it a large city, Rrisa?"
"As the Jebel Radhwa!" (Mountain of Paradise).
"Thou hast been in that secret city, Rrisa?"
"Once, Master. The wonderful sight still remaineth in mine eyes."
"And, seeing the Iron Mountains again, thou couldst guide us thither?"
"Allah forbid! That is among the black deeds, Master! 'The grave is darkness and good deeds are its lamps; but for the betrayer, there shall be no light!' Wallah, Effendi! Do not make me your guide!"
"I have not said I intended to do so, Rrisa. I merely asked thee if thou couldst!" The Master's voice was silken, fine, penetrant. "Well, Rrisa, tell me if thou couldst!"
"Yea, Master. Ya gharati! (O my calamity!) It is true I could." The words issued from his unwilling throat as if torn out by main force. "But I earnestly beg of you, my sheik, do not make me do this thing!"
"Rrisa, if I command, thou must obey me! 'There is only one thing can ever loose the bonds I have knotted about thee."
"And that is certainty (death), Master?"
"That is certainty! But this, to the oath-breaker and the abuser of the salt, means a place among the mujrim (sinful). It means Jehannum, and an unhappy couch shall it be!"
Rrisa's face grew even more drawn and lined. A trembling had possessed his whole body.
"Master, I obey!" he made submission, then stood waiting with downcast eyes of suffering.
"It is well," said the chief, rising. He stood for a moment peering at Rrisa, while the hum and roar of the great air-liner's mechanism, the dip and sway of its vast body through the upper air, seemed to add a kind of oppressive solemnity to the tense situation. To the cabin wall the Master turned. There hung a large-scale map of the Arabian Peninsula. He laid a hand on the vast, blank interior, and nodded for Rrisa to approach.
"Listen, thou," said he. "Thy knowledge is sufficient. Thou dost understand the interpretation of maps, and canst read latitude and longitude. Mark here the place of the Hidden City!"
"Of the Bara Jannati Shahr, Master? Ah no, no!"
"So then, that is its name?" the chief demanded, smiling.
"No, M'alme. Thou dost know the Arabic. Thou dost understand this means only, in thy tongue, the Very Heavenly City."
"True. Well, let it pass. Very Heavenly City it shall be, till the real name becomes known. Come now, mark the place of the Hidden City and mark it truly, or the greatest of sins will lie upon thy soul!"
The Arab advanced a brown, quivering hand.
"Give me a pencil, Master, and I obey!" he answered, in a voice hardly audible.
THE INNER SECRET OF ISLAM
The chief handed him a pencil. Rrisa intelligently studied the map for nearly two minutes, then raised his hand and made a dot a few miles north-east of the intersection of fifty degrees east and twenty degrees north. The Master's eye was not slow to note that the designated location formed one point of a perfect equilateral triangle, the other points of which were Bab el Mandeb on the south and Mecca on the north.
"There, M'alme," whispered the Arab, in a choking voice. "Now I have told you the secret of all secrets, and have lost my soul. I have revealed the inner mystery of Islam, that to this day no man of the Feringi hath ever known. I am a very great man of sin, and should have first torn out my tongue.
"But my life is in your hands, Master, and I have shared your salt. Allah knows I was forced to speak. Shal'lah! (It is Allah's will!) Allah will weigh my heart and will forgive, for he is the Compassionate, the Merciful! I beg you, Master, now let me go!"
"Soon, Rrisa," the chief answered, turning away from the map. "But first there is something of highest import I must show thee."
"And what may that be, my sheik?" the Arab queried, his widening eyes fixed on the blanket that covered the loot from Mecca. Instinctively he sensed that some horrible sight was about to be presented to him. His face paled even more. He licked dry lips with a tongue equally dry, and leaned against the table to steady himself. "What have you now to show me, O M'alme?"
"Listen!" the chief commanded sternly. "The Meccans are a people corrupt and accursed. 'Their hearts are black as their skins are white.' They live by fleecing the Hujjaj, by making sale and barter of relics, by turning the holy places into marts of trade. All this is well known throughout Islam. Ah, the degenerate breed of the sons of the Prophet!"
"That is true, Master. And what then?"
"Is it not a fact that they could not even safeguard the Kaukab el Durri from the hand of the Great Apostate Sheik? How much less, then, could they protect their other and more sacred things, if some Shiah dog should come to rob them of the things they value?
"Would it not be better that such things should be carried far from danger, to the hidden, inner city? I ask thee this, Rrisa; would it not be better far?"
"And what is the meaning of my master's strange words?" ventured Rrisa, a sort of dazed horror dawning in his eyes. "The other and more sacred things of Islam—are they there under that cloth, O Master?"
"Thou hast said it, Rrisa! Now, behold them!"
With a quick, dramatic gesture, well-calculated to strike at the roots of the superstitious Arab's nature, he flung away the blanket. To Rrisa's horrified gaze appeared the Myzab and the sacred Black Stone.
"Ya Allah!" gulped the orderly, in a choking whisper. His face became a dull gray. His eyes, rimmed with white, stared in terror. His teeth began to chatter; and on his forehead appeared little glistening drops.
"O Master, that is not—."
"Truly, yea! The Golden Waterspout, Rrisa, and the Black Stone itself! I am carrying them to the Very Heavenly City, far in the Iron Mountains! They shall be given to the Great Olema, there, who is more fit to guard and keep them than the Sheriff of Mecca or than his sons Feisal and the two Alis. No harm shall befall them, and—"
"And your hand—the hands of other Feringi who are not my masters—have touched these things?" stammered Rrisa. "O my calamity! O my grief!"
"Thou canst go now, Rrisa," the Master said. "Go, and think well of what I have told thee, and—"
But Rrisa, falling prone to the metal of the cabin floor, facing the Black Stone, gave vent to his feelings and burst into a wild cry of "La Illaha—" and the rest of the immemorial formula.
The Master smiled down at him, quizzical and amused yet still more than a little affected by the terror and devotion of his orderly. Wise, he waited till Rrisa had made the compulsory prayers of Labbayk, Takbir, and Tahiti, as all Moslems must do when coming near the Black Stone. Then, as the orderly's voice suddenly died away, he bent and laid a hand on the quivering Arab's shoulder.
"Come, come, Rrisa," said he, not unkindly. "Be thou not so distressed. Is it not better that these very precious things be kept in greater safety at the Jannati Shahr? Come, Rrisa! Arise!"
The orderly made no move, uttered no sound. The Master dragged him up, held him, peered into his face that had gone quite ashen under its brown.
"Why, Lord! the man has fainted dead away!" exclaimed the Master. He gathered Rrisa in his powerful arms, carried him to his own cabin and laid him in the berth, there; then he bathed his face with water and chafed his hands and throat.
In a few minutes, Rrisa's eyes vaguely opened. He gulped, gasped, made shift to speak a few feeble words.
"Master!" he whispered.
"Well, what dost thou wish?"
"One favor, only!"
"And what is that?"
"Leave me, a little while. I must be alone, all alone with Allah—to think!"
The Master nodded.
"It shall be as thou wishest," said he. "Think, yes. And understand that what I do is best for all of Sunnite Islam! As for the Shiah dogs, what hast thou to trouble about them?"
Saying no more, he withdrew to his own cabin, wrapped the Myzab and the Stone in the blanket and laid them carefully under his berth. Opening his desk-drawer, he assured himself the Pearl Star was still there. This done, he turned again to the map, carefully studied the location of the point Rrisa had designated, and—going to the pilot-house—gave directions for a new course to "Captain Alden," now at the wheel.
This course, he calculated by allowing for wind and lateral drift, would carry Nissr directly toward the site of the still half-mythical Iron Mountains and the Bara Jannati Shahr.
He now returned to his cabin, locked himself in and—pondering over a few khat leaves—passed the remainder of the afternoon sunk in deep abstraction.
Evening and night still found him in profound thought, while the giant air-liner steadily rushed into the south-east, bearing him and the Legion onward toward dim regions now veiled in purple darkness under strange stars.
At nine o'clock he ordered Nissr stopped, and had the body of Dr. Lombardo sent down with six men in the nacelle, for burial. No purpose could be served by keeping the body, and all unnecessary complications had to be dispensed with before the morrow. Lombardo, who had fully atoned for his fault by having given his life in the service of the now depleted Legion, was buried in his service-uniform, in a fairly deep grave on which the Legionaries heaped a great tumulus of sand. The only witnesses were the Arabian Desert stars; the only requiem the droning of the helicopters far above, where Nissr hung with her gleaming lights like other, nearer stars in the dense black sky.
By ten o'clock, the air-liner had resumed her course, leaving still another brave man to his last sleep, alone. The routine of travel settled down again on the ship and its crew of adventurers.
At half-past eleven, the Master issued from his cabin. All alone, and speaking with no man, he took a quarter-hour constitutional up and down the narrow gallery along the side of the fuselage—the gallery on which his cabin window opened. His face, by the vague light of the glows in this gallery, looked pale and worn; but a certain gleam of triumph and proud joy was visible in his dark eyes.
All about him, stretched night unbroken. Far behind, lay vast confusions involving hundreds of millions of human beings violently wrenched from their accustomed routines of faith and prayer, with potential effects beyond all calculation. Ahead lay—what?
"It may be glory and power, wealth past reckoning, incredible splendor," thought the Master, "and it may be ignominy, torture, death. 'Allah knows best and time will show.' But whatever it may be—is it completion? The human heart, alone—can that ever be complete in this world?"
He bent at the rail, gazing far out into the vague emptiness through which the air-liner was pushing.
"Come what may," he murmured, "for tonight, at any rate, it is peace. 'It is peace, till the rising of the dawn!'"
In a strange mood, still holding no converse with any man, he returned to the main corridor and went toward his cabin. His way led past the door of "Captain Alden." There he paused a moment, all alone in the corridor. The lights in the ceiling showed a strange look in his eyes. His face softened, as he laid a hand on the metal panels of the door, silently almost caressingly.
To himself he whispered:
"I wonder who she really is? What can her name be—who can she be, and—and—"
He checked himself, impatiently:
"What thoughts are these? What nonsense? Such things are not for me!"
Silently he returned to his cabin, undressed, switched off the light and turned into his berth, under which lay the incalculable treasures of Islam. For a long time he lay there, thinking, wondering, angry with himself for having seemed to give way for a single moment to softer thoughts than those of conquest and adventure.
Gradually the cradling swing, the quivering power of the airship, lulled his fevered spirit. Sleep won upon him, dulled the excitements of the past twenty-four hours, sank him into oblivion. His deep, regular breathing sounded in the gloom of the cabin that contained the Great Pearl Star, the Myzab, the sacred Black Stone of infinite veneration.
An hour he slept. On, on roared Nissr, swaying, rising, falling a little as she hurled herself through the Arabian night toward the unknown Bara Jannati Shahr, hidden behind the Iron Mountains of mystery as yet unseen by any unbelieving eye.
Peace, all seemed peace, for one dark hour.
But as the hour ended, a shadow fell along the narrow gallery outside the cabin window. A silent shadow it was, that crept, paused, came on again. And now in the dark, had there been any eye to see, the shadow would have been identified as a barefoot man, lithe, alert, moving silently forward with the soundless stealth of an Arab versed in the art of asar, or man-stalking.
To the Master's window this shadow crept, a half-invisible thing in the gloom. It paused there, listening to the deep, regular breathing within. Then a lean, brown hand was laid on the sill. It still seemed to hesitate.
Something gleamed vaguely in that hand—a crooked jambiyeh, needle-sharp at the point, keen-edged and balanced for the stroke that silently slays.
Motionless, unbreathing even, the shadow waited a long minute. Then all at once over the sill it writhed, quick, lithe as a starved panther.
Dagger in hand, the shadow slid to the berth where lay the Master of the Legionaries. There Rrisa paused, listening to the slow respiration of the White Sheik with whom he had shared the inviolable salt, to whom he owed life itself.
Up, in the gloom, came the dagger-blade.
Over the unconscious Master it poised, keen, cold, avenging in the dark of the cabin where lay the three supreme treasures of all Islam.
INTO THE VALLEY OF MYSTERY
The upraised blade, poised for swift murder, did not descend. With a groan from the heart's core, Rrisa let fall his trembling hand, as he recoiled toward the vague patch of starlight that marked the cabin window.
"Bismillah!" he whispered hoarsely. "I cannot! This is my sheik—'and thrice cursed is the hand that slays the sheik.' I cannot kill him!"
For a moment he remained there, pondering. Swift, passionate thoughts surged through his brain, which burned with fever. In Rrisa's fighting-blood the supreme battle of his whole existence was aflame—duty of annihilating the violator of his Faith combating duty of loyalty absolute to one whose salt he had eaten, to one who had preserved his life.
So, in the dark he stood there, a shadow among shadows. He peered about with white-rimmed eyes, striving to discover where now the Myzab and the sacred Black Stone might be. The dim bulk of the blanket under the berth came to his senses. He knelt, touched the blanket, felt the hard solidity within.
Torn with anguish of a great conflict, he pondered, smearing the sweat of agony from his hard-wrinkled forehead. Better was it to fling these holy things from the cabin window, out into the night? Better the certainty that the desert sands, far below, would inevitably drift over them, forever burying them from the sight of his people; or better the chance that the Master, after all, really intended to deliver them back into Moslem hands at Bara Jannati Shahr?
"Allah, oh, guide thy servant now!" the orderly prayed with trembling lips. "Allah, show thou me the way!"
The Master, stirring in his sleep, sighed deeply and let his right hand fall outside the berth. Rrisa, fearful of imminent discovery, made up his mind with simple directness. He salaamed in silence, all but brushing the Master's hand with his lips.
"Wa'salem!" (Farewell!) he breathed. Then he got up, turned, laid his dagger on the table and slid out through the window as soundlessly as he had come. He crossed the marrow gallery in the gloom, and mounted the rail beyond which yawned black vacancy.
For a moment he stayed there, peering down first at the impenetrable abysses below, then up at the unmoved stars above. The ghostly aura of light in the gallery showed his face wan, deep-graven with lines, agonized, ennobled by strong decisions of self-sacrifice.
"Thou, Allah," he whispered, "dost know life cannot be for both my Master and thy servant, after what thy servant hath seen. I offer thee my life for his! Thou wilt judge aright, for thou knowest the hearts of men and wilt wrong no man by the weight of a grain of sand. Thou art easy to be reconciled, and merciful! There is no God but Allah, and M'hamed is his Prophet!"
With no further word, he leaped.
Just a fraction of a second, a dim-whirling object plummeted into space. It vanished.
As best he understood, Rrisa had solved his problem and had paid his score.
The Master wakened early, with the late May sun already Slanting in from far, dun and orange desert-levels, gilding the metal walls of his cabin. For a few moments he lay there, half dreamily listening to the deep bass hum of the propellers, the slight give and play of the air-liner as she shuddered under the powerful drive of her Norcross-Brail engines.
His thoughts first dwelt a little on yesterday's battle and on the wondrous treasure now in his hands. Then they touched the approaching campaign beyond the Iron Mountains in regions never yet seen by any white man's eye, and for a while enveloped some of the potentialities of that campaign.
But "Captain Alden" recurring to his mind, drove away such stern imaginings. The Master's lips smiled, a little; his black eyes softened, and for a moment his face assumed something that might almost have made it akin to those of men who feel the natural passions of the heart. Never before, in all his stern, hard life, had the Master's expression been quite as now.
"Who can she be, I wonder?" he mused. "A woman like that, possessed of that extraordinary beauty; a woman with education, languages, medical skill; a woman with courage, loyalty, and devotion beyond compare, and with all the ardor for service and adventure that any man could have—who can she be? And—damn it, now! Who am I, to be thinking of such nonsense, after all?"
His eyes fell on the table. Something lay there, agleam with the sunlight flicking blood-red spots from a polished metal surface. What could this thing be? Surely, it had not lain there, the night before.
The Master wrinkled heavy brows, focussing his sight on this metal object. Puzzled, not yet able to make it out clearly, he raised himself on his elbow and looked with close attention at the mysterious object.
Suddenly he leaped from the berth, strode to the table and caught up—Rrisa's dagger.
"Allah! What's this?" he exclaimed. "Rrisa—he's been here—and with a knife?—"
For a second or two he stood there, staring at the jambiyeh in his grip. His powerful frame tautened; his thick, corded neck swelled with the intensity of his emotion as his head went forward, staring. His jaw set hard. Then with a kind of half-comprehension, he turned quickly toward the window.
Yes, there were traces on the sill, that could not be mistaken. The Master's keen eyes detected them, under the morning sun. He stepped to his desk, dropped the dagger into a drawer, and pressed the button for his orderly.
No one appeared. The Master rang again. Quite in vain. With more precipitation than was customary with him, he dressed and went to Rrisa's cabin.
Its emptiness confirmed his suspicions. Returning along the outer gallery, a little pale, he reached the railing opposite his own window. Here a scratch on the metal drew his attention. Closely he scrutinized this scratch. A hint of whitish metal told the tale—metal the Master recognized as having been abraded from a ring the Master himself had given him; a ring of aluminum alloy, fashioned from part of a Turkish grenade at Gallipoli.
The Master's face contracted painfully. In his mind he could reconstitute the scene—Rrisa's hands gripping the rail, his climb over it, his leap. For a moment the Master stood there with blank eyes, peering out over the burning, tawny desolation of the great sand-barrens that stretched away, away, to boundless immensity.
"Yes, he is surely gone," he whispered. "Shal'lah! Razi Allahu anhu!" (It is Allah's will; may Allah be satisfied with him!) "What would I not give to have him back!"
The trilling of his cabin phone startled him to attention. He entered, took the receiver and heard Leclair's voice from the pilot-house:
"Clouds on the horizon, my Captain. And I think there is a mountain range coming in sight. Would you care to look?"
The Master, very grim and silent, went into the pilot-house. He had decided to make no mention of what had happened. The suicide must pass as an accident. He himself must seem to have no knowledge of it. Morale forbade the admission either of treachery or self-destruction, for any member of the Legion.
The sight of vague, pearl-gray clouds on the far south-east horizon, and of a dim, violet line of peaks notched across the heat-quivering sky in remotest distances, struck him like a blow in the face. Clouds must mean moisture; some inner, watered plain wholly foreign to the general character of the Arabian Peninsula. And the peaks must be the Iron Mountains that Rrisa had told him about. They seemed to rebuff him, to be pointing fingers of accusation at him. Had it not been for his insistence—
"But that is all nonsense!" he tried to assure himself, as he took his binoculars from the rack and sighted at the forbidding, mysterious range. "Am I responsible for a Moslem's superstitions, or his fanatic irrationality?"
The Master's own narrow escape from death disturbed him not at all. He hardly even thought of it. All he strove for, now, was to exculpate himself for Rrisa's death. But this he could not do.
A sense of blood-guiltiness clung about him like a garment—the first that he had felt on this expedition. His soul, unemotional, practical, hard, was at last touched and wounded by the realization that Rrisa, pushed beyond all limits of endurance, had chosen death rather than inflict it on his sheik. And the thought that the faithful orderly's body was now lying on the flaming sands, hundreds of miles away—that it was already a prey to jackals, kites, and buzzards—sickened his shuddering heart and filled him with remorse.
"Allah send a storm of sand—jinnee to bury the poor chap, that's all I can wish now!" he pondered, as he studied the strange yellowish and orange tints in utmost horizon distances. The air, over the shimmering peaks, seemed of a different quality from that elsewhere. To north, to west, the desert rim of the world veiled itself in magic blue, mysteriously dim. But there, it glowed in golden hues. What, thought the Master, might be the meaning of all this?
The Master had no time for speculation. The urgent problem of locating the Bara Jannati Shahr, beyond that inhospitable sierra, banished thoughts of all else. He inspected his charts, together with the air-liner's record of course and position. He slightly corrected the direction of flight. "Captain Alden" was already in the pilot-house, with Leclair. The Master summoned Bohannan tersely, and briefly instructed him:
"You understand, of course, that we may now be facing perils beyond any yet encountered. We have already upset all Islam, and changed the kiblah—the direction of prayer—for more than two hundred million human beings. The 'fronting-place' is now aboard Nissr."
[Footnote 1: So long as the Black Stone was at the Ka'aba, this building was the only spot in the world where the kiblah was circular, that is, where Moslems could pray all around it. The Legion's theft of the stone had completely dislocated all the most important beliefs and customs of Islam.]
"The most intense animosity of religious fanaticism will pursue us. If the news of our exploit has, in any unaccountable way such as the Arabs know how to employ, reached Jannati Shahr, we are in for a battle royal. If not, we still have a chance to use diplomacy. A few hours now will determine the issue.
"We are approaching what will probably be the final goal of this expedition; a city beyond unknown mountains; a city that no white man has ever yet seen and that few have even heard of. What the conditions will be there no one can tell; but—"
"Not even Rrisa?" put in the major. "Faith, now's the time, if ever, to consult that lad!"
"Correct, for once," assented the Master. With purpose to deceive, he phoned for Rrisa. No answer coming, he got Simonds on the wire and ordered him to find the orderly. The investigation thus started would, he knew, soon bring out the fact of the orderly's disappearance. This line of action fairly started, he went on formulating his plans:
"Major, look well to your guns. For once you may have a chance to use them. I have put my various pieces of apparatus in good condition, and have improvised some new features. In addition, we have the second kappa-bomb."
"But I trust we shall not be driven to a fight. If diplomacy can win, there will be no bloodshed. Otherwise, our only limit will be the total destruction of these unknown people, or our own annihilation. It's a case, now, of win what we are after, or end everything right there, beyond those mountains!"
He ascended to the upper port gallery, and concentrated himself on observation. A certain change in the desert was becoming noticeable, as the air-liner flung herself at high speed into the south-east. At times there must be a little rainfall here, or else some hidden source of water, for a scrub, of dwarf acacia, of camel-grass, and tamarisk had begun to show.
But as the black, naked mountains drew near, this gave place to flats white with salt, to jagged upcroppings of dull, yellowish rock—how little they then suspected its true nature!—and to detached cliffs sharp as a wolf's teeth, with strata of greenish schist.
It was at 9:30 a.m. of May 28, that Nissr tilted her planes and soared abruptly over the first crags of the Iron Mountains. At a height of forty-five hundred feet she sped above them, the heat of their sun-baked blackness radiating up against her wings and body. No more terrible desolation could be imagined than this rock fortress, split with chasms and unsounded gorges, where here and there more of the yellow outcrops showed. No life appeared, not even vultures. For more than an hour, Nissr's shadow leaped across this utter solitude of death.
The Master summoned Leclair, Bohannan, and "Captain Alden," and for some time gave them careful instructions which none but they were allowed to hear.
All this time, the strange, yellowish sheen against the heavens was increasing. What might lie beyond the mountains—who could tell? But that its nature was wholly different from anything any white man ever had beheld seemed obvious.
Quite suddenly, at 10:05, the Master's binoculars detected a break far to southward, in the craggy wall of rock. He ordered Nissr's beak turned directly thither. Swiftly the Eagle of the Sky held her course, speeding like an arrow. And now a vast, open plain was seen to be spreading away, away to indeterminable distances; a plain the further limits of which veiled themselves in bister and dull ocher vapors.
The aureate shimmer on the sky kept steadily increasing, from a point somewhat to the left of Nissr's line of flight. What this might be, none could guess. None save the Master. More agitated than any had ever seen him, he stood there at the rail, lips tight, hands clutching the binoculars at his eyes.
"By Allah!" the major heard him mutter. "It can't be true—the thing I've heard. Only a fable, surely! And yet—"
Now the vast plain was coming clearly to view. It appeared fully under cultivation with patches of greenery that denoted gardens, palm-groves, fruit-orchards; all signs of a well-watered region here at the center of the world's most appalling desert.
This in itself was a thing of astonishment. But it faded to insignificance as all at once a far, dazzling sheen burst on the watchers. Up against the sky a wondrous, yellow blaze seemed to be burning. Enormously far away as it still was, it filled the heart of every observer with a strange, quick thrill of wonder, of hope. Something of wild exultation seemed to leap through the Legionaries' veins, at sight of that strange fire.
Leclair glanced at the Master. The dark, taciturn man, for all his self-control, had set teeth into his lip till the blood was all but starting.
On, on swooped Nissr. Now the plain was widening. Now, off at the left, behind the shimmer of the wondrous sight that seemed a fantastic city of dreams, long black cliffs had become visible—surely some spur of the Iron Mountains, making to southward at the eastern edge of the plain. This line of crags faded, in remote distance, into the brown vapors that ringed the mystic horizon.
"The city?" asked Bohannan. "That—can't be the city, can it, now? Faith, if it is, we're too late. Damn me, sir, but the whole infernal place is on fire! Just our rotten luck, eh?"
The Master made no reply. As if he would devour the place with his eyes, he was leaning over the rail, boring through those powerful glasses at the dazzle and bright sheen of the wonder-city now every moment becoming more clearly visible.
That it was in truth a city could no longer be doubted. Long walls came to view, pierced by gates with fantastic arches. Domes rose to heaven. Delicate minarets, carved into a fretwork of amazing fineness, pointed their fingers at the yellow shimmering sky. The contrast of that brilliance, with the soft green gardens and feathery palm-groves before, the grim black cliffs behind, filled the Legionaries with a kind of silent awe.
But most wonderful of all was the metallic shimmer of those walls, domes, minarets, under the high sun of this lost Arabian paradise. So amazing was the prospect that, as Nissr hurled herself in over the last ranges of the mountains and shot out across the open plain itself, only one man found words.
This man was Leclair. Close beside the Master, he said in Arabic:
"I too have heard, my Captain. I too know the story of the Bara Jannati Shahr—but I have always thought it fable. Now, now—."
"Faith!" interrupted the major, with sudden excitement. He smote the rail a blow with an agitated fist. "If that doesn't look like gold, I'm a—."
"Gold?" burst out the Master, unable longer to control himself. "Of course it's gold! And we—are the first white men in all the world to look on it—the Golden City of Jannati Shahr!"
Stupefaction overcame the Flying Legion. The sight of this perfectly incredible city, which even yet—despite its obvious character—they could not believe as reality, for a little while deprived all the observers of coherent thought.
Like men in a daze, they stood watching the far-distant mass of walls, buildings, towers, battlements all agleam with the unmistakable sheen of pure metal. The human mind, confronted by such a phenomenon, fails to react, and for a while lies inert, stunned, prostrate.
"Gold?" stammered the major, and fell to gnawing his mustache, as he stared at the incredible sight. "By God—gold? Sure, it can't be that!"
"It not only can be, but is!" the Master answered. "The old legend is coming true, that's all. Have you no eyes in your head, Major? If that shine isn't the shine of gold, what is it?"
"Yes, but the thing's impossible, sir!" cried Bohannan. "Why, man alive! If that's gold, the whole of Arabia would be here after it! There'd be caravans, miners, swarms of—"
"It's obvious you know nothing of Moslem severity or superstition," the Master interrupted. "There is no Mohammedan beggar, even starving, who would touch a grain of that metal. Not even if it were given him. There's not one would carry an ounce away from the Iron Mountains. This whole region is under the ban of a most terrific tabu, that loads unthinkable curses on any human being who removes a single atom of any metal from it!"
"Ah, that's it, eh?"
"Yes, that's very much it! And what is more, Major, no word of this ever gets out to the white races—or hardly any. Nothing more than vague rumors that barely amount to fairy stories. Even though I forced Rrisa to tell me the location of this city, he wouldn't mention its being gold, and I knew too much to ask him or try to make him. Why, he'd have been torn to bits before he'd have betrayed that Inner Secret. So now you understand!"
"I see, I see," the major answered, mechanically. It was plain, however, that his mind had received a shock from which it had not yet fully recovered. He remained staring and blinking, first chewing at his mustache and then tugging it with blunt, trembling fingers. Now and then he shook his head, like a man just waking from a dream and trying to make himself realize that he is indeed awake.
The others, some to a greater degree, some to a less, shared the major's perturbation. A daze, a numb stupefaction had fallen on them. The Master, however, soon recalled them to activity. Not much time now remained before Nissr must make her landing on the plain near the Golden City. None was to be wasted.
Vigorous orders set the Legionaries to work. The machine-guns were loaded and fully manned; several pieces of apparatus that the Master had been perfecting in his cabin were brought into the lower gallery; everyone was commanded to smarten his personal appearance. The psychology of the Oriental was such, well the Master knew, that the impression the Legion should make upon the people of this wonder-city could not fail to be of the very highest importance.
The plain over which Nissr was now sweeping, with the black mountains left far behind, seemed a fairyland of beauty compared with the desolation of the Central Arabian Desert.
"This is surely a fitting spot for the exact geometrical center of Islam," the Master said to Leclair, as they stood looking down. "My measurements show this secret valley to be that center. Mecca, of course, has only been a blind, to keep the world from knowing anything about this, the true heart of the Faith. The Meccans have been usurping the Black Stone, all these centuries, and these Jannati Shahr people have submitted because any conflict would have betrayed their existence to the world. That is my theory. Good, eh?"
"Excellent!" the lieutenant replied. "There must be millions of Mohammedans, themselves, who have hardly learned of this valley. Certainly, very few from the outside world ever have been able to cross the Empty Abodes, and reach it.
"These people here evidently represent a far higher culture than any other Moslems ever known. Who ever saw a finer city—even not considering its material—or more wonderful cultivation of land?"
His eyes wandered out over the plain, which lost itself to sight in the remote south. Roads in various directions, with here and there a few white dromedaries bearing bright-colored shugdufs (litters), showed there was travel to some other inhabited spots inside the forbidding mountain girdle.
Here, there, herds of antelope and flocks of sheep were grazing on broad meadows, through which trickled sparkling threads of water, half glimpsed among feathery-tufted date-palms. Plantations of fig and pomegranate, lime, apricot, and orange trees, with other fruits not recognized, slid beneath the giant liner as she slowed her pace. And broad fields of wheat, barley, tobacco, and sugar-cane showed that the people of the city had no fear of any lack.
Birds were here—pelicans, cranes, and water-fowl along the brooks and gleaming pools; swift little yellow birds with crownlike crests; doves, falcons, and hawks of unknown species. Here was life abundant, after the death of the Empty Abodes. Here was rich color; here arose a softly perfumed air, balmy, incensed as with strange aromatics. Here was peace—eternal kayf—blessed rest—here indeed lay a scene that gave full explanation of the ancient name "Arabia Felix."
And at the left, dominating all this beauty, shone and glimmered in the ardent sun the wondrous Golden City of Jannati Shahr.
Nissr had already begun to slant to lower levels. Now at no more than twenty-five hundred feet, with greatly reduced speed, she was drifting down the valley toward the city, the details of which were every moment becoming more apparent. Its size, the wondering Legionaries saw, must be very considerable; it might have contained three or four hundred thousand inhabitants. Its frontage along the black mountains could not have been less than two and a half miles; and, as it seemed to lose itself up a defile in those crags, no way at present existed of judging its depth.
The general appearance was that of stern simplicity. A long wall of gleaming yellow bounded it, from north to south; this wall being pierced by seven gates, each flanked by minarets. Behind the wall, terraces arose, with mesjid (temple) domes, innumerable houses, and some larger buildings of unknown purpose.
The powerful glasses on Nissr showed fretwork carving everywhere; but the main outlines of the city, none the less, gave an impression of almost primitive severity. No touch of modernity affected it. Everything appeared immensely archaic.
"The Jerusalem of Solomon's day," thought the Master, "must have looked like that—barring only that this is solid gold."
Out from the city, a little less than two-thirds of the way down, issued a rather considerable stream. It seemed to come from under the wall fronting the plain. Its course, straight rather than sinuous, lay toward the south-west, and was marked by long lines of giant date-palms and pale-stemmed eucalyptus trees, till it lost itself in brown distances.
"Faith, but that looks like lotus-eating, all right," said the major, notching up his cartridge-belt another hole. "That looks like 'A book of verses underneath the bough,' with Fatima or Lalla Rookh, or the like, eh?" He drew at a cigarette, and smiled with sweet visionings of Celtic exuberance. "A golden city! Lord!"
"You'll do no dallying 'with Amaryllis in the shade,' in this valley!" the Master flung at him. "Nor any lotus-eating, either. To your stations, men! Wake up! Forget all about this gold, now—remember my orders! That's all you've got to do. The gold will take care of itself, later. For now, there's stern work ahead!"
The Legionaries assumed their posts, ready for whatever attack might come. They still moved like men in a trance. Whether they could quite even realize the true character of Jannati Shahr seemed doubtful. The Inca's room of gold stunned Pizarro and his men. How much more, then, must a whole city of gold numb any concrete thought?
Down, still down sank Nissr, now beginning to circle in broad, descending spirals, seeking where she might land. The roar of the propellers lessened; and at the same time, the increasing hum of the helicopters made itself heard, counterbalancing the loss of lifting power of the planes, yet gradually letting the air-liner sink. Came, too, a sighing hiss of the air-intakes as the vacuum-floats filled.
High noon was now at hand. The sun burned, a copper ball, in the very forehead of a turquoise sky. A light breeze, lazying over the plain, stirred the fronded tufts of the date-palms' thick plantations. Beyond a massy grove, stretching for nearly two miles out from the northernmost gate of the city, a grassy level quite like a parade-ground invited the liner to rest.
As she sank still lower, the Master's glass again picked up the city wall and ran along it. Here, there, white dots were visible; human figures, surely—the figures of men in snowy burnouses, on the ramparts of heavy metal.
The Master smiled, and nodded.
"My men think they are surprised," he mused. "What will these Jannati Shahr men think, when I have opened my little box of tricks and shown them what's inside?"
He pressed a button on the rail. A bell trilled in the pilot-house; another in the engine-room. The Norcross-Brails died to inactivity.
With a last long swoop, an abandonment of all the furious energies that for so long had been hurling her over burning sand and black crag, Nissr slanted to the grassy sward. A sudden, furious hissing burst out beneath her, as the compressed-air valves were thrown and the air-cushions formed beneath her thousands of spiracles. Then, with hardly a shudder, easily as a tired gull slips down into the quiet of a still lagoon, the vast air-liner took earth.
She slid two hundred yards on her air-cushions, over the close-cropped turf, slowed, came to rest there fronting the northern gate of Bara Jannati Shahr. And the shimmer of those golden walls, one mile to east of her, painted her all a strangely luminous yellow.
Journey's end, at last!
THE GREETING OF WARRIORS
Without delay, everything was put in complete readiness for whatever eventualities might develop. If these strange people meant peace and wanted it, the Legion would give them peace. If war, then by no means was the Legion to be unprepared.
The gangplank was put down from the starboard port in the lower gallery. The helicopters were cut off. Nothing was left running but one engine, at half-speed, to furnish current for the apparatus the Master had decided to use in dealing with the Jannati Shahr folk in case of need—some of this having been evolved on the run from Mecca.
Four hampers were carried down the gangplank and set on the grass, about fifty feet ahead of Nissr's huge beak, that towered in air over the men like an eagle over sparrows. These hampers contained the chosen apparatus. Wires were attached, and run back to the ship, and proper connections made at once by Leclair and Menendez, under the Master's instructions.
The machine-guns were dismounted and taken "ashore," to borrow a nautical phrase. These were set up in strategic positions before the liner, and full supplies of ammunition both blank and ball were served to them.
About a quarter of a mile to north of Nissr's position, one of the small watercourses or irrigating ditches that cut the plain glimmered through a grove of Sayhani dates. To this ditch the Master sent two men in search of the largest stone they could find there. When they returned with a rock some foot in diameter, he ordered it placed half-way between Nissr and the palm-grove.
[Footnote 1: Sayhani (the Crier), so called because one of these palms is fabled to have cried aloud in salutation to Mohammed, when the Prophet happened to walk beneath it.]
These preparations made, the Master lined up his Legionaries for inspection and final instructions. Standing there in military array, fully armed, they made rather a formidable body of fighters despite their paucity of numbers. Courage, eagerness, and joy—still unalloyed by all the fatigues and perils of the long trek after adventure—showed on every face. Even through the eyeholes of "Captain Alden's" mask, daring exultation glimmered.
The dead, left behind, could not now depress the Legionaries' spirits. To be on solid earth again, in this wonderland with the Golden City fronting them, quickened every man's pulse.
What though they were but a handful, ringed round by grim, jagged mountains, beyond which lay hundreds of leagues of burning sand? What though an unknown people of great numbers already had begun to stir in that vast hive of gold? What though all of Islam, which had already learned of the sacrilege the accursed Feringi had wrought, was lusting their blood? Nothing of this mattered. It was enough for the Legionaries that adventure still beckoned onward, ever on!
The Master, standing there before them, called the roll. We should listen, by way of knowing just how the Legion was now composed. It consisted of the following: Adams, "Captain Alden," Bohannan, Bristol, Brodeur, Cracowicz, Emilio, Enemark, Frazier, Grison, Janina, Lebon, Leclair, L'Heureux, Manderson, Menendez, Prisrend, Rennes, Seres, Simonds, Wallace. All the wounded had recovered sufficiently to be of some service. The dead were: Travers, who had died on the passage of the Atlantic; Auchincloss and Gorlitz, burned to death; Kloof, Daimamoto, Beziers and Sheffield, killed by the Beni Harb; Lombardo, killed by the Meccans; Rrisa, suicide.
In addition to these, we must not forget the Sheik Abd el Rahman, still locked a prisoner in the cabin that for some days had been his swift-flying prison-cell of torment.
The Master had just finished checking his roster, when quite without any preliminary disturbance a crackle of rifle-fire began spattering from the city. And all at once, out of the gate opposite Nissr, appeared a white-whirling swarm of figures, at the same time that a green banner, bearing a star and crescent, broke out from the highest minaret.
The figures issuing in a dense mass from the gate were horsemen, all; and they were riding full drive, ventre a terre. Out into the plain they debouched, with robes flying, with a green banner, steel flashing, and over all, a great and continual volleying of rifle-fire.
This horde of rushing cavaliers must have numbered between five and six hundred; and a fine sight they made as the Master got his binoculars on them. Here, there, a bit of lively color stood out vividly against the prevailing snowy white of the mass; but for the most part, horses and men alike came rushing down like a drive of furious snow across that wondrous green slope between the palm-groves and the city wall.
As they drew near, the snapping of burnouses and cherchias in the wind, the puffs of powder-smoke, the glint of brandished arms grew clearer; and now, too, the muffled sound of kettle-drums rolled down-breeze, in booming counterpoint to the sharp staccato of the rifles.
Furious as an army of jinnee with wild cries, screams, howls, as they stood in their stirrups and discharged their weapons toward the sky, the horsemen of Jannati Shahr drove down upon the little group of Legionaries.
The major loosened his revolver in its holster. Others did the same. At the machine-guns, the gunners settled themselves, waiting the Master's word of command to mow into the white foam of that insurging wave—a wave of frantic riders and of lathering Nedj horses, the thunder of whose hoofs moment by moment welled up into a heart-breaking chorus of power.
"Damn it all, sir!" the major exclaimed. "When are you going to rip into them? They'll be on us, in three minutes—in two! Give 'em Hell, before it's too late! Stop 'em!"
Leclair smiled dryly behind his lean hand, as the Master emphatically shook a head in negation.
"No, Major," he said. "No machine-guns yet. You and your eternal machine-guns are sometimes a weariness to the flesh." He raised his voice, above the tumult of the approaching storm of men and horses. "I suppose you've never even heard of the La'ab el Barut, the powder-play of the Arabs? They are greeting us with their greatest display of ceremony—and you talk about machine-guns!"