He turned, lifted his hand and called to the gunners:
"No mistakes now, men! No accidents! The first man that pulls a trigger at these people, I'll shoot down with my own hand!"
The lieutenant touched the Master's arm.
"We must give them a return salute, my Captain," he said in Arabic. "To omit that would be a grave breach of the laws of host and guest—almost as bad as violating the salt!"
The Master nodded.
"That is quite true, Lieutenant," he answered. "Thank you for reminding me!"
Once more he turned to the gunners.
"Load with blanks," he commanded, "and aim at an elevation of forty-five degrees. Hold your fire till I give the word!"
"It is well, Effendi!" approved the lieutenant, his eyes gleaming with Gallic enthusiasm. "These are no People of the Black Tents, no Beni Harb, nor thieving Meccans. These are men of the very ancient, true Arabic blood—and we must honor them!"
Already the rushing powder-play was within a few hundred yards. The roar of hoofs, the smashing volleys of fire, raging of the kettle-drums, wild-echoing yells of the white company deafened the Legionaries' ears.
What a sight that was—archaic chivalry in all the loose-robed flight and flashing magnificence of rushing pride! Not one, not even the least imaginative of the Legion, but felt his skin crawl, felt his blood thrill, with stirrings of old romance at sight of this strange, exalting spectacle!
In the van, an ancient horseman with bright colors in his robe was riding hardest of all, erect in his high-horned saddle, reins held loose in a master-hand, gold-mounted rifle with enormously long barrel flourished on high.
Tall old chief and slim white horse of purest barb breed seemed almost one creature. Instinctively the Master's service-cap came off, at sight of him. The lieutenant's did the same. Both men stepped forward, cap over heart. These two, if no others, understood the soul of Arabia.
Suddenly the old Sheik uttered a cry. An instant change came over the rushing horde. With one final volley, silence fell. The kettle-drums ceased their booming. Every rider leaned far back in his pearl-inlaid, jewel-crusted saddle, reining in his horse.
And in a moment, as innumerable unshod hoofs dug the heavy turf, all that thundering host—which but a second before had seemed inevitably bound to trample down the Legion under a hurricane of white-lathered horses and frenzied, long-robed men—came to a dead halt of silence and immobility.
It was as if some magician's wand, touching the crest of an inbreaking storm-wave, had instantaneously frozen it, white-slavering foam and all, to motionless rigidity.
Ahead of all, standing erect and proud in his arabesque stirrups, with the green banner floating overhead, the chief of this whole marvelous band was stretching out the hand of salaam.
"Fire!" cried the Master.
BARA MIYAN, HIGH PRIEST
The crash of six machine-guns clattered into a chattering tumult, muzzles pointed high over the heads of the Jannati Shahr men. Up into the still, hot air jetted vicious spurts of flame.
The Legion's answer lasted but a minute. As the trays of blanks became empty, the tumult ceased.
Silence fell, strangely heavy after all that uproar. This silence lengthened impressively, with the massed horsemen on one side, the Legionaries on the other. Between them stretched a clear green space of turf. Behind loomed the vast bulk of Nissr, scarred, battle-worn, but powerful. Away in the distance, the glinting golden walls shimmered across the plain; and over all the Arabian sun glowed down as if a-wonder at this scene surpassing strange.
Forward stepped the Master, with a word to Leclair to follow him but to stand a little in the rear. The old Sheik dismounted; and followed by another graybeard, likewise advanced. When the distance was but about eight feet between them, both halted. Silence continued, broken only by the dull drone of one engine still running on board the ship, by the creaking of saddle-leather, the whinny of a barb.
Lithe, powerful, alert, with his cap held over his heart, the Master stood there peering from under his thick, dark brows at the aged Sheik. A lean-faced old man the Sheik was, heavily bearded with white, his brows snowy, his eyes a hawk's, and the fine aquilinity of his nose the hallmark of pure Arab blood.
Hard as iron he looked, gravely observing, unabashed in face of these white strangers and of this mysterious flying house. The very spirit of the Arabian sun seemed to have been caught in his gleaming eyes, to glitter there, to reflect its pride, its ardor. He reminded one of a falcon, untamed, untamable. And his dress, its colors distinguishing him from the mass of his followers, still further proclaimed the rank he occupied.
His cherchia of jade-green silk was bound with a ukal, or fillet of camel's-hair; his burnous, also silk, showed tenderest shades of lavender and rose. Under its open folds could be seen a violet jacket with buttons of filigree ivory. He had handed his gun to the man behind him, and now was unarmed save for a gadaymi, or semicircular knife, thrust into his silk sash of crimson, with frayed edges.
A leather bandolier, wonderfully tooled and filled with cartridges, passed over his right shoulder to his left hip. His feet, high-arched and fine of line, were naked save for silk-embroidered babooshes.
The Master realized, as he gazed on this extraordinary old man, whose dignity was such that even the bizarre melange of colors could not detract from it, that he was beholding a very different type of Arab from any he yet had come in contact with.
The aged Sheik salaamed. The Master returned the salutation, then covered himself and saluted smartly. In a deep, grave voice the old man said:
"A'hla wasa'halan!" (Be ye welcome!)
"Bikum!" (I give thee thanks!) replied the Master.
"In Allah's name, who are ye?"
"Franks," the Master said, vastly relieved at this unexpected amity. Strange contrast with the violent hostility heretofore experienced! What might it mean? What might be hidden beneath this quiet surface?
Relief and anxiety mingled in the Master's mind. If treachery were intended, in just this manner would it speak.
"Men of Feringistan?" asked the aged Sheik. "And what do ye here?"
"We be fighting-men, all," replied the Master. He had already noted, with a thrill of admiration, the wondrous purity of the old man's Arabic. His use of final vowels after the noun, and his rejection of the pronoun, which apocope in the Arabic verb renders necessary in the everyday speech of the people, told the Master he was listening to some archaic, uncorrupted form of the language. Here indeed was nobility of blood, breed, speech, if anywhere!
"Fighting-men, all," the Master repeated, while Leclair listened with keen enjoyment and the Legion stood attentive, with the white-burnoused horsemen giving ear to every word—astonished, no doubt, to hear Arabic speech from the lips of an unbeliever. "We have traveled far, from the Lands of the Books. Is it not meritorious, O Sheik? Doth not thy Prophet himself say: 'Voyaging is victory, and he who journeyeth not is both ignorant and blind?"'
The old man pondered a moment, then fell to stroking his beard. The act was friendly, and of good portent. He murmured:
"I see, O Frank, that thou hast read the Strong Book. Thou dost know our law, even though thou be from Feringistan. What is thy name?"
"Men know me only as The Master. And thine?"
"Bara Miyan (The Great Sir), nothing more."
"Dost thou wish us well?" the Master put a leading question.
"Kull'am antum bil khair!" (May ye be well, every year!) said the old Sheik. The Master sensed a huge relief. Undoubtedly—hard as this was to understand, and much as it contradicted Rrisa's prediction—the attitude of these Jannati Shahr folk was friendly. Unless, indeed, all this meant ambush. But to look into those grave, deep eyes, to see that furrowed countenance of noble, straight-forward uprightness, seemed to negative any such suspicion.
"We have come to bring ye wondrous gifts," the Master volunteered, wanting to strike while the iron was hot.
"That is well," assented Bara Miyan. "But never before have the Franks come to this center of the Empty Abodes."
"Even Allah had to say 'Be!' before anything was!" (i.e., there must be a first time for everything).
This answer, pat from a favorite verse of the Koran, greatly pleased Bara Miyan. He smiled gravely, and nodded.
"Allah made all men," he affirmed. "Mayhap the Franks and we be brothers. Have ye come by way of Mecca?"
"Yea. And sorry brotherhood did the Mecca men offer us, O Sheik! So, too, the men of Beni Harb. Together, they slew five of us. But we be fighting-men, Bara Miyan. We took a great vengeance. All that tribe of Beni Harb we brushed with the wing of Azrael, save only the Great Apostate. And from the men of the 'Navel of the World'—Mecca—we exacted greater tribute than even death!"
The Master's voice held a quiet menace that by no means escaped Bara Miyan. Level-eyed, he gazed at the white man. Then he advanced two paces, and in a low voice demanded:
"Abd el Rahman still lives?"
"He lives, Bara Miyan."
"Where is the Great Apostate?"
"In our flying house, a prisoner."
"Bismillah! Deliver him unto me, and thy people and mine shall be as brothers!"
"First let us share the salt!"
Speaking, the Master slid his hand into the same pocket that contained the Great Pearl Star, and took out a small bag of salt. This he opened, and held out. Bara Miyan likewise felt in a recess of his many-hued burnous. For a moment he hesitated as if about to bring out something. But he only shook his head.
"The salt—not yet, O White Sheik!" said he.
"We have brought thy people precious gifts," began the Master, again. Behind him he heard an impatient whisper—the major's voice, quivering with eagerness:
"Ask him if this place is really all gold! Faith, if I could only talk their lingo! Ask him!"
"I shall place you under arrest, if you interfere again," the Master retorted, without turning round.
"What saith the White Sheik?" asked Bara Miyan, hearing the strange words of a language his ears never before had listened to.
"Only prayer in my own tongue, Bara Miyan. A prayer that thine and mine may become akhawat"
[Footnote 1: Friends bound by an oath to an offensive and defensive alliance.]
"Deliver unto me Abd el Rahman, and let thine imams (priests) work stronger magic than mine," said the old Sheik with great deliberation, "and I will accept thy gifts and we will say: 'Nahnu malihin!' (We have eaten salt together!) And I will make thee gifts greater than thy gifts to me, O White Sheik. Then thou and thine can fly away to thine own country, and bear witness that there be Arabs who do not love to slay the Feringi, but count all men as brethren.
"But if thou wilt not deliver Abd el Rahman to me, or test thy magic against my magic, then depart now, in peace, before the setting of the sun. I have spoken!"
"Take him at his word, my Captain!" murmured Leclair. "We can get no better terms. Even these are a miracle!"
"My opinion, exactly," replied the Master, still facing Bara-Miyan, who had now stepped back a few paces and was flanked by two huge Arabs, in robes hardly less chromatic, who had silently advanced.
"I accept," decided the Master. He turned, ordered Enemark and L'Heureux to fetch out the Apostate, and then remained quietly waiting. Silence fell on both sides, for a few minutes. The Arabs, for the most part, remained staring at Nissr, to them no doubt the greatest miracle imaginable. Still, minds trained to believe in the magic carpet of Sulayman and quite virgin of any knowledge of machinery, could easily account for the airship's flying by means of jinnee concealed in its entrails.
As for the Legionaries, their attention was divided between the strange white host, still sitting astride those high-necked, slim-barreled Nedj horses, and the luring glimmer of the golden walls. In a few minutes, however, all attention on both sides was sharply drawn by the return of the two Legionaries with the Apostate.
Without ado, the lean, wild man of the Sahara was led, in wrinkled burnous, with disheveled hair, wild eyes, and an expression of helpless despair, to where the Master stood. At sight of the massed horsemen, the grassy plain—a sight never yet beheld by him—and the distant golden, glimmering walls, a look of desperation flashed into his triple-scarred face.
The whole experience of the past days had been a Jehannum of incomprehensible terrors. Now that the climax was at hand, strength nearly deserted him even to stand. But the proud Arab blood in him flared up again as he was thrust forward, confronting Bara Miyan. His head snapped up, his eyes glittered like a caged eagle's, the fine, high nostrils dilated; and there he stood, captive but unbeaten, proud even in this hour of death.
Bara Miyan made no great speaking. All he asked was:
"Art thou, indeed, that Shaytan called Abd el Rahman, the Reviler?"
The desert Sheik nodded with arrogant admission.
Bara Miyan turned and clapped his hands. Out from among the horsemen two gigantic black fellows advanced. Neither one was Arab, though no doubt they spoke the tongue. Their features were Negroid, of an East African type.
The dress they wore distinguished them from all the others. They had neither tarboosh nor burnous, but simply red fezes; tight sleeveless shirts of striped stuff, and trousers of Turkish cut. Their feet were bare.
Strange enough figures they made, black as coal, muscled like Hercules, and towering well toward seven feet, with arms and hands in which the sinews stood out like living welts. Their faces expressed neither intelligence nor much ferocity. Submission to Bara Miyan's will marked their whole attitude.
"Sa'ad," commanded Bara Miyan, "seest thou this dog?"
"Master, I see," answered one of the gigantic blacks, speaking with a strange, thick accent.
"Lead him away, thou and Musa. He was brought us by these zawwar (visitors). Thy hands and Musa's are strong. Remember, no drop of blood must be shed in El Barr. But let not the dog see another sun. I have spoken."
[Footnote 1: Literally "The Plain." This name, no doubt, originally applied only to the vast inner space surrounded by the Iron Mountains, seems to have come to be that of Jannati Shahr itself, when spoken of by its inhabitants. El Barr is probably the secret name that Rrisa would not divulge.]
The gigantic executioner—the strangler—named Sa'ad, seized Abd el Rahman by the right arm. Musa, his tar-hued companion, gripped him by the left. Never a word uttered the Apostate as he was led away through the horsemen. But he gave one backward look, piercing and strange, at the Master who had thus delivered him to death—a look that, for all the White Sheik's aplomb, strangely oppressed him.
Then the horsemen closed about the two Maghrabi, or East Africans, and about their victim. Abd el Rahman, the Great Apostate, as a living man, had forever passed from the sight of the Flying Legion.
His departure, in so abrupt and deadly simple a manner, gave the Master some highly conflicting thoughts. The fact that no blood was ever to be shed in this city had reassuring aspects. On the other hand, how many of these Maghrabi stranglers did Bara Miyan keep as a standing army? A Praetorian guard of men with gorilla-hands like the two already seen might, in a close corner, prove more formidable than men armed with the archaic firearms of the place or with cold steel.
A sensation of considerable uneasiness crept over the Master as he pondered the huge strength and docility of these two executioners. It was only by reflecting that the renegade Sheik would gladly have murdered the whole Legion, and that now (by a kind of poetic justice) he had been delivered back into the hands of the Sunnites he had so long defied and outraged, that the Master could smooth his conscience for having done this thing.
The direct, efficient way, however, in which Bara Miyan dealt with one held as an enemy, urged the Master to press forward the ceremony of giving and taking salt.
At all hazards, safeguards against attack must be taken. Once more the Master addressed Bara Miyan:
"Effendi! Our gifts are great to thee and thine. Great, also, is our magic. Let thine imams do their magic, and we ours. If the magic of El Barr exceeds ours, we will depart without exchange of gifts. If ours exceeds thine, then let the salt be in our stomachs, all for all, and let the gifts be exchanged!
"Thy magic against our magic! Say, O Sheik, dost thou dare accept that challenge?"
The old man's head came up sharply. His eyes gleamed with intense pride and confidence.
"The magic of the unbelievers against that of the People of the Garment!" (Moslems!) cried he. "Bismillah! To the testing of the magic!"
ON, TO THE GOLDEN CITY!
The Spartan simplicity of the proceedings impressed the Master far more than any Oriental ceremony could have done. Here was the Olema, or high priest and chief, of a huge city carved of virgin gold, coming to meet him on horseback and speaking to him face to face, like a man.
It was archaic, patriarchal, dramatic in the extreme. No incensed courts, massed audiences, tapestried walls, trumpeting heralds, genuflexions, could have conveyed half the sense of free, virile power that this old Bara Miyan gave as he stood there on the close turf, under the ardent sun, and with a wave of his slim hand gave the order:
"The magic! To the testing of the magic!"
Thoroughly well pleased with progress thus far, the Master turned back to give final instructions to his men and to examine the apparatus. This was in perfect condition, all grouped with controls centered in one switchboard and focussing-apparatus so that Brodeur, in charge, could instantly execute any command.
Bara Miyan, clapping his hands again, summoned three horsemen who dismounted and came to him. By the emerald color of their head-fillets and jackets, as well as by their tonsure, the Master recognized them as mystics of the class known as Sufis.
That he was about to face a redoubtable test could not be doubted. Long experience with Orientals had taught him the profundity of their legerdemain, practically none of which ever has been fathomed by white men. The Master realized that all his powers might be tried to the utmost to match and overcome the demonstration of the Jannati Shahr folk.
While Bara Miyan stood talking to the three Sufis, the Master was in a low voice instructing his own men.
"Everything now depends on the outcome of the approaching contest," said he. "These people, irrespective of what we show them, will probably evince no surprise. If we allow any sign or word of astonishment to escape us, no matter what they do, they will consider us beaten and we shall lose all. There must be no indication of surprise, among you. Remain impassive, at all costs!" He turned to Brodeur, and in French warned him:
"Remember the signals, now. One mistake on your part may cost my life—more than that, the lives of all the Legion. Remember!"
"Count on me, my Captain!" affirmed Brodeur. The masked woman, coming to the Master's side, said also in French:
"I have one favor to ask of you!"
"Your life is worth everything, now. Mine, nothing. Let me subject myself—"
He waved her away, and making no answer, turned to the Olema.
"Hast thou, O Bara Miyan," he asked in a steady voice, "a swordsman who can with one blow split a man from crown to jaw?"
"Thou speakest to such a one, White Sheik!"
"Take, then, a simitar of the keenest, and cut me down!"
The old man turned, took from the hand of a horseman a long, curved blade of razor-keenness and with a heavy back. The Master glanced significantly at Brodeur, who knelt by the switchboard with one steady hand on a brass lever, the other on the control of a complex ray-focussing device.
Toward Bara Miyan the Master advanced across the turf. He came close. For a moment the two men eyed each other silently.
"Strike, son of the Prophet!" cried the Master.
Up whirled the Olema's blade, flickering in the sun. The metallic click of the brass switch synchronized with that sweep; Brodeur shifted the reflector by the fraction of a degree.
Bara Miyan's arm grew rigid, quivered a second, then dropped inert. From his paralyzed hand the simitar fell to the grass. Brodeur threw off the ray; and the Master, unsmiling, stooped, picked up the blade and with a salaam handed it back, hilt-first, to the old man.
Only with his left hand could Bara Miyan accept it. He spoke no word, neither did any murmur run through the massed horsemen. But the shadow of a deep astonishment could not quite veil itself in the profound caverns of the old man's eyes.
"Strike again, Bara Miyan," invited the Master. "The other arm, perhaps, may not have lost its cunning!"
The Olema shook his head.
"No, by Allah!" he replied. "I know thy magic can numb the flesh, and it is a good magic. It is strong. But by the rising of the stars—and that is a great oath—the bullets of our long rifles can pierce thine unbelieving body!"
"Then bring six of thy best riflemen and station them a dozen paces from me," the Master challenged. "Let them look well to their cartridges. It is not I who load the guns with bullets made of soft black-lead, as the Effendi Robert-Houdin did long ago to the confusion of the Marabouts in Algeria. No, let thy men load their own rifles. But," and his voice grew mocking, "let their aim be good. Death is nothing, O Bara Miyan, but clumsy shooting means much pain."
His tone galled the aged Sheik, despite that impassive exterior. Bara Miyan beckoned, and with a command brought six riflemen from their horses.
"Load well, and shoot me this Frank!" exclaimed the Olema. A fire was burning in his eyes.
"Aywa!" (Even so!) replied one of the riflemen. "Allah will make it easy for us!"
"Have no fear, Bara Miyan," another said. "Not so easily shall El Kisa (the People of the Garment) be overcome by the Feringi!"
Tension held Arabs and Legionaries, alike. All remained calm, though had you watched "Captain Alden," you would have seen her fingers twisting together till the blood almost started through the skin.
The Master walked a few paces, turned and faced the squad.
"Ready, men of Jannati Shahr?" asked he, with a smile.
"We are ready, Unbeliever!"
Up came the rifles. Brodeur turned a knurled disk, and from one of the boxes on the grass a sudden, whining hum arose, like millions of angry hornets.
"Fire!" repeated the Master.
Six rifle-hammers fell with dull clicks. Nothing more.
The Master smiled in mockery.
"O Bara Miyan," said he, "let thy men reload and fire again! Perhaps the sweat of a great anxiety hath wet their powder!"
"Thou must indeed be Khalil Allah" (a friend of Allah), he admitted. "No doubt thou art a great caid in thy own country. It is strong magic, Frank. But now behold what mine imams can do!"
The riflemen, disgruntled but still, Arab-like, holding their impassivity, returned to their horses and mounted again. At another call of Bara Miyan, three imams came from among the horsemen. They were dressed alike, in brilliant saffron gandouras, with embroidered muslin turbans from under which hung daliks, or sacred plaits of hair; and each carried a plain white cloth in his hand.
In complete silence they showed the Legionaries both sides of these cloths, then spread them on the grass. In not more than two minutes, a slight fluttering became visible. This increased and grew more agitated. One by one, the imams gathered up the cloths, opened them and exhibited three bluish-black birds with vivid scarlet crests.
The Master nodded.
"It is an old trick," said he, indifferently. "I have seen hawks, much larger, come from under smaller cloths even in the great suk (market-place) at Cairo."
Bara Miyan made no answer. The imams drew knives from their belts of plaited goat-hide, and without more ado severed the birds' heads.
This the Legionaries saw with perfect distinctness. The blood on the feathers was entirely visible. The bodies quivered. Calmly the imams, with reddened hands, now cut wings and legs from the bodies. They laid these dead fragments on the blood-stained cloths in front of them.
"Let every Frank behold!" exclaimed the Olema. The Legionaries drew near. The imams gathered up the fragments in the cloths.
"Now," said the Master, "thine imams will toss these cloths in the air, and three whole birds will fly away. The cloths will fall to earth, white as snow. Is that not thy magic?"
Bara Miyan glowered at him with evil eyes. Not yet had his self-control been lost; but this mocking of the unbeliever had kindled wrath. The Master, however, wise in the psychology of the Arab, only laughed.
"This is very old magic," said he. "It is told of in the second chapter of Al Koran, entitled 'The Cow;' only when Ibrahim did this magic he used four birds. Well, Bara Miyan, command thine imams to do this ancient magic!"
The sharp click of a switch on the control-board sounded as the imams picked up the little, red-dripping bundles. Silently they threw these into the air and—all three dropped back to earth again, just as they had risen.
A growl burst, involuntarily, from the Olema's corded throat. The growl echoed through the massed horsemen. Bara Miyan's hand went to the butt of his pistol, half glimpsed under his jacket. That hand fell, numb.
"Look, O Sheik!" exclaimed the Master, pointing. The Olema turned; and there on the highest minaret of gold, the green flag had begun smoldering. As Brodeur adjusted his ray-focusser, the banner of the Prophet burst into bright flame, and went up in a puff of fire.
Only by setting teeth into his lip could the Sheik repress a cry. Dark of face, he turned to the Master. Smiling, the Master asked:
"Perhaps now, O Bara Miyan, thou wouldst ask thine imams to plant a date-stone, and make it in a few minutes bear fruit, even as the Prophet himself did? Try, if thou hast better fortune than with the birds! But have care not to be led into committing sin, as with these birds—for remember, thou hast shed blood and life hath not returned again, and El Barr is sacred from the shedding of blood!"
His tone was well calculated to make the lesson sink well to the Olema's heart—a valuable lesson for the Legion's welfare. But the Olema only replied:
"The blood of believers is meant. Not of animals—or Franks!"
"And wilt thou make further trial with me?" demanded the Master.
"No, by the Prophet! It is enough!" The Master's soul warmed toward the honesty of this bluff old Arab. "Thy magic is good magic. Give me thy salt, Frank, and take mine!"
The Master signaled to Brodeur as he drew forth his bag of salt. He stretched it out in his open palm; and all at once, bag, hand, and arm up to the elbow enveloped themselves in a whirling mist and vanished from sight, even as the Master's whole body had vanished in the cabin when Leclair had tried to arrest him.
The Sheik's eyes grew white-rimmed with astonishment. Vaguely he groped for the Frank's hand, then let his own fall limp.
"Allahu akbar!" he gasped.
The Master nodded at Brodeur. The droning of the apparatus ceased, and again the hand became visible.
"Faith!" the major's voice was heard. "We've landed half a dozen home runs, and they've never even got to second!"
"Come, O Bara Miyan!" the Master smiled. "Now we will put away the things of magic, and talk the words of men. Here is my salt!"
The Sheik gingerly accepted a pinch, and with much misgiving put it into his mouth. He produced salt of his own, which the Master tasted.
"It is done," said the Master. "Now thou and I are akhawat. Nahnu malihin." (We have eaten salt.)
"But only from this mid-day till noon of the morrow," the Olema qualified the bond.
"Even so! Remember, though, that the salt is now in the stomachs of all thy people, both here and in the city, as it is in the stomachs of all my men!"
"I will remember."
"And now, O Bara Miyan, I will show thee the very great gifts that I have brought thee!"
The Olema nodded, in silence. A great dejection held him and his men. The Master dispatched half a dozen men for the Myzab and the Black Stone, also for three sticks of a new explosive he had developed on the run from the Sahara. This explosive, he calculated, was 2.75 times more powerful than TNT.
"Men," said he to the remaining Legionaries, "be ready now for anything. If they show fight, when they realize we have touched the sacred things of Islam, let them have it to the limit. If the salt holds them, observe the strictest propriety.
"Some of us may go into the city. Let no man have any traffic with wine or women. If we commit no blunder, in less than twenty-four hours we shall be far away, each of us many times a millionaire. Watch your step!"
The six men returned, carrying the blanket that contained the sacred things. At the Master's command, they laid the heavy bundle on the grass before the Olema and his beaten men.
"Behold!" cried the Master. "Gifts without price or calculation! Holy gifts rescued from unworthy hands, to be delivered into the hands of True Believers!"
And with swift gestures he flung back the enveloping folds of the blanket, as if only he, the Master, could do this thing. Then, as the Myzab and the Stone appeared, he drew from his pocket the Great Pearl Star, and laid that also on the cloth, crying in a loud voice:
"O, Bara Miyan, and people of Jannati Shahr, behold!"
An hour from that time, the Master and seventeen of the Legionaries were on their way to the City of Gold.
The stupefaction of the Arabs, their prostrations, cries, prayers would delay us far too long, in the telling. But the Oath of the Salt had held; and now reward seemed very near.
There could be no doubt, the Master reflected as he and his men galloped on the horses that had been assigned to them, with the white-robed and now silent horde, that the reward—in the form of exchange gifts—would be practically anything the Legionaries might ask and be able to carry away.
Treachery was now not greatly to be feared. Even had the salt not held, fear of the explosive would restrain any hostile move. One stick of the new compound, exploded at a safe distance by wireless spark, had utterly demolished the stone which had been brought from the watercourse.
The plain statement given Bara Miyan that the Myzab and the Black Stone must be left on the grass until the Feringi had again flown away toward their own country, had duly impressed the Arabs. They had seen two sticks of the explosive laid on the holy objects, and well had understood that any treachery would result in the annihilation of the most sacred objects of their faith.
The Master felt, as well he might, that he absolutely held the whip hand of the Jannati Shahr people. Elation shone in his face and in the faces of all. The problem now had simplified itself to just this: What weight of jewels and of gold could Nissr, by jettisoning every dispensable thing, whatsoever, carry out of El Barr, over the Iron Mountains and the Arabian Desert, back to the civilization that would surely make peace with the Legion which would bring such incalculable wealth?
Even the Master's level head swam a little, and his cool nerves tingled, as he sat on his galloping white horse, riding beside the Olema, with the thunder of the rushing squadrons—Arabs and his own men—like music of vast power in his ears.
He did not, however, lose the coldly analytic faculty that weighed all contingencies. The adventure still was critical; but the scales of success seemed lowering in favor of the Legion. The feel, in his breast pocket, of the leather sack containing Kaukab el Durri, which he had again taken possession of after the magic tests, gave added encouragement. This, the third gift, was to be delivered only at the last moment, just before Nissr should roar aloft.
"I think," reflected the Master, "the Pearl Star is an important factor. It certainly will put the final seal of success on this extraordinary bargain."
While his thoughts were busy with the pros and cons of the soul-shaking adventure now coming to its climax, his eyes were busy with the city wall and towers every moment closer, closer still.
The Master's knowledge of geology gave him the key to the otherwise inexplicable character of Jannati Shahr. This gold, in incredible masses, had not been mined and brought hither to be fashioned into a great city.
Quite the contrary, it formed part of the cliffs and black mountains themselves. Some stupendous volcanic upheaval of the remote past had cleft the mountain wall, and had extruded through the "fault" a huge "dyke" of virgin metal—to use technical terms. This golden dyke, two and a half to three miles wide and of undeterminable length and depth, had merely been formed by strong, cunning hands into walls, battlements, houses, mosques, and minarets.
It had been carved out in situ, the soft metal being fashioned with elaborate skill and long patience. Jannati Shahr seemed, on a larger scale and a vastly more magnificent plan, something like the hidden rock-city of Petra in the mountains of Edom—a city wholly carved by the Edomites out of the solid granite, without a single stone having been laid in mortar.
Wonderful beyond all words as the early afternoon sun gleamed from its broad-flung golden terraces and mighty walls—whereon uncounted thousands of white figures had massed themselves—the "Very Heavenly City" widened to the Legionaries' gaze.
On, up the last slope of the grassy plain the rushing horsemen bore. Into a broad, paved way they thundered, and so up, on, toward the great gate of virgin gold now waiting to receive them.
INTO THE TREASURE-CITADEL
Well might those Legionaries who had been left behind to protect Nissr and the sacred gifts have envied the more fortunate ones now sweeping into Jannati Shahr. The rear guard, however, formed no less essential a part of the undertaking than the main body of the Legion.
This rear guard consisted of Grison, Menendez, Prisrend, Frazier, and Manderson. Their orders were as follows: If the main body did not return by midnight, or if sounds of firing were heard from the city, or again if they received direct orders via the Master's pocket wireless, they were at once to load the machine-guns on board the liner. They were to carry Myzab on board, also, and with the wireless spark detonate the explosive which would reduce the Black Stone to dust.
This accomplished, they were to start the engines and, if possible, make a getaway—which might be feasible for five men. If they succeeded, they were to wheel over the city and drop the second kappa-bomb, also all the remaining explosive, by way of punitive measures. Well-placed hits might wipe out most of the city and, with it, the population which had broken the Oath of the Salt.
The main body of the Legion would, of course, also perish in this debacle if still alive; but the probability existed that before Nissr could take the air, all would be dead.
The program was explicit. All five men of the rear guard fully understood its every detail and all had sworn to carry it out to the letter. Their morale remained perfect; their discipline, under the command of Grison—left alone as they were in the midst of potentially hostile territory and with overwhelming masses of Mohammedans close at hand—held them as firmly as did that of the advance guard now whirling up the wide, paved road to the gleaming gate of Jannati Shahr.
This band of hardy adventurers, stout-hearted and armed with service-revolvers, remained rather closely grouped, with the Arabs flanking and following them. At their head rode old Bara Miyan with the Master, who well bestrode his saddle with burnished metal peaks and stitching of silver thread. After them came the three imams, Major Bohannan, Leclair, and "Captain Alden."
The "captain's" mask seemed somewhat to impress the Arabs, who whispered among themselves concerning it. But not one suspected the sex of this Frank. The "captain" rode as gallantly as any, and with a firm hand reined her slim, white horse.
As the on-thundering swarm of horsemen approached the pointed arch, some sixty feet wide by ninety high, its intaglios and complex arabesques flashing with millions of sunlit sparkles, a clear, sustained chant drifted out over city and plain—the cry of some unseen muezzin, announcing news of great import to Jannati Shahr. Came an echoing call of trumpets, from far, hidden places in the city; and kettle-drums boomed with dull reverberation.
"Labbayk, Allahuma!" shouted Bara Miyan, announcing with praise to Allah his entrance into the City of Gold. A long, great shouting answered him from the massed thousands of white figures on the walls.
The Master saw innumerable dark faces peering down from snowy burnouses and haiks. He saw the gleam of steel. Not one of the figures on the wall was veiled. Not one woman, therefore, had as yet been permitted to leave the perfumed dimness of the harems, even for this stupendous event in the city's history. So far as the Master could judge, Captain Alden, lithely galloping close behind him, was the only woman visible in all that multitude.
With a bold clatter of hoofs, now loudly echoed and hurled back by the walls, the cavalcade burst up to the city like the foam-crest of a huge, white wave. For a moment, as the Master's horse whirled him in under the gate, he cast a backward glance at the plain and along the battlements.
That glance showed him a small, white-clad band of Arabs trudging afoot over the green expanse—the men who, dismounting, had given their horses to the Legionaries. It showed him the pinions of Nissr gleaming like snow on the velvet plain; showed him, too, the vast sweep of the city's walls.
Those walls, no less than a hundred feet high, were cunningly loopholed for defense. They presented a slightly concave facade to the plain, and slanted backward at about the angle of the Tower of Pisa.
Through their aureate glimmer, dazzling in the direct rays of the sun now well past its meridian, a glimpse of a flashing river instantaneously impressed itself on the Master's sight, with cascading rapids among palm-groves, as it foamed from beneath the city walls. Then all was blotted out by the gleaming side of the stupendous archway.
Up into a broad thoroughfare that rose on a steep slant—a thoroughfare very different from the usual narrow, tortuous alleys of Arabian cities—the swarm of horsemen swept, with a dull clatter of hoofs on the soft yellow pavement that gave almost like asphalt. The utter lack of any ruts well proved that wheeled vehicles were here unknown. Nothing harder than unshod horses, than goats and sheep, and the soft pads of camels had ever worn these gleaming ways.
The brush of a Verestchagin, a Gerome, a Bida, skilled in the colors of the Orient, would have been needed to paint even an impressionistic coup d'oeil of this scene surpassing strange, now opening out before the Legionaries' eyes. Its elements were golden houses with door and window-frames of cedar, sandal, and teak; fretwork golden balconies overhanging streets and gardens where delicate palm-fronds swayed—balconies whence no doubt kohl-tinted eyes of women were peering at the strange men in khaki, as henna-dyed fingers pulled aside silken curtains perfumed with musk and jasmine; mosques and minarets carven of the precious metal; dim streets, under striped silk awnings; a world of wonder to the Legion.
The Master saw, as the cavalcade swept along at unabated swiftness, glimpses of terraced roofs and cupolas tiled with blue and peacock hues; open-fronted shops hewn out of the all-present gold and displaying wares whereof the purchase-price could not be imagined since gold was everywhere; bazaars heaped with babooshes, cherchias, and robes of muslin, wool and silk, with fruits and flowers, tobacco, spices, sweetmeats, and perfumes, and with strange merchandise unknown.
He caught swift vision of a wide mirbad, or open court for drying dates; and then, through a low, golden arch, a camel-yard with a vast number of kneeling, white dromedaries. And everywhere he saw innumerable hosts of the people of Jannati Shahr.
The streets themselves were clear of people as the cavalcade thundered on and on with many turnings; but every doorway, shop, arch, roof, terrace, and tower was packed with these silent, white-clad folk, bronze-faced and motionless, all armed with pistols, rifles, and cold steel.
What some poet has called "a joyous fear" thrilled the Legion. No, not fear, in the sense of timidity, but rather a realization of the immense perils of this situation, and an up-springing of the heart to meet those perils, to face and overcome them, and from out their very maw to snatch rewards beyond all calculation.
Even the Master himself, tempered in the fires of war's Hell, sensed this tremendous potentiality of death as the tiny handful of white men galloped on and on behind Bara Miyan. Here the Legion was, hemmed and pent by countless hordes of fanatics whom any chance word or look, construed as a religious insult, might lash to fury. Five men remained outside. The rest were now as drops of water in a hostile ocean. In the Master's breast-pocket still lay Kaukab el Durri—and might not that possession, itself, be enough to start a jihad of extermination?
Was not the fact of unbelieving dogs now for the first time being in the Sacred City—was not this, alone, cause for a massacre? What, in sober reason, stood between the Legion and death? Only two factors: first, the potential destruction of the Myzab and the Black Stone in case of treachery; and second, two tiny pinches of salt exchanged between the Master and old Bara Miyan!
The situation, calmly reviewed, was one probably never paralleled in the history of adventure—more like the dream of a hashish-smoking addict than cold reality.
Very contending emotions possessed the hearts of the Legionaries, in different reactions to their diverse temperaments. Only a vast wonder mirrored itself in some faces, a kind of numb groping after comprehension, a failure to believe such a thing possible as a city of pure and solid gold.
Others showed more critical interest, appreciation of the wonderful artistic effects of the carven gold in all its architectural developments under the skilled chisels of the Jannati Shahr folk.
Still others manifested only greed. The eyes of such, feverishly devouring walls, cornices, pillars, seemed to say:
"God! If we only had the smallest of these things, what a fortune that would mean! What an incredible fortune!"
Each man, reacting under the overwhelming stimulus of this wonder city, in his own expression betrayed the heart and soul within him. And thus, each absorbed in his own thoughts and dreams, silently the Legionaries pondered as they galloped through the enchanted streets.
Some fifteen minutes' riding, with no slackening of the pace and always on an upward grade toward what seemed the central citadel of Jannati Shahr, brought the party to an inner wall, forty feet high and pierced by a triple-arched gate surmounted by a minaret of golden lacery.
Through the center arch rode Bara Miyan, now reining into a canter. The imams and the Legionaries followed, and with them about fifty of the Arabs, of superior rank. The rest drew rein outside, still in complete silence.
The lessened cavalcade now found itself in what at first glance seemed an enchanted garden. Not even a feeling of anxiety caused by the silent closing of the hugely massive golden gates that, as they passed through, immediately blocked the triple exit, could divert the Legionaries' minds from the wondrous park confronting them.
Date and cocoa-palms with shadowy paths beneath them; clear rills with bamboo thickets along their banks and with tangles of white myrtle, red clouds of oleanders that diffused an almond perfume, delicate hybiscus, and unknown flowers combined to weave a magic woof of beauty, using the sifted sunlight for gold threads of warp.
Unseen water-wheels splashed coolly; vivid butterflies flickered through masses of greenery among the acacia, mimosa, lote and mulberry trees. And there were color-flashing parrots, too, a-wing and noisy in the high branches; and apes that swung and chattered; and round the high, golden walls of the citadel, half visible through the cloud of green and party-colored foliage, whirls of pigeons, white as snow, flicked against the gold.
The Legionaries were hard put to it to obey the Master's order never to express surprise or admiration. But they kept silence, though their eyes were busy; and presently through another smaller gate they all clattered into a hosh, or court, facing what obviously must have been the central citadel of Jannati Shahr.
Bara Miyan pulled sharply on the red, silver-broidered reins and cut back the frothing lip of his barb. With a slide almost on its haunches, along the soft, golden pavement, the horse came to a quivering stand. All halted. And for a moment, the stamping of the high-nerved horses' hoofs echoed up along the tall citadel with its latticed windows and its machicolated parapet a hundred and fifty feet in air.
"Well ridden, O Frank! Well ridden by thee and by all thy men of Feringistan!" exclaimed Bara Miyan, with what seemed real friendliness, as he sat there on his high saddle, gravely stroking his beard. "It was a test for thee and thine, to see, by Allah! if the men of the unbelieving nations be also men like us of Araby!
"We of the Empty Abodes are 'born on horseback.' But ye, white as the white hand of Musa (Moses) have houses that, so I have heard, move on iron roads. And I see now ye have flying houses. Wherefore horses are not dear to you, as to us. But I see that ye can ride like men. Well done! Salaam!"
The Master returned a "Bikum!" of thanks. He would have been glad to wipe his forehead, streaming with sweat; and so, too, would the others. But pride restrained them. Not for them such weakness as the use of a handkerchief, in presence of these half-hundred grave-eyed, silently observing men of Jannati Shahr.
"Faith, though," the major whispered to "Captain Alden," close behind him, "of all ways to take a walk, my favorite way not to is on an Arab horse with a saddle like the Inquisition! Tomorrow, oh, my poor bones, tomorrow!"
Bara Miyan was speaking again, while the Master, Leclair, and his orderly, Lebon—who alone of the Legionaries understood Arabic—listened closely.
"Now that we have eaten salt and are akhawat brethren," said he, "we must break bread together. Let thyself and all thy men partake of food with us, O Frank! Then we will speak of the present, we shall bestow on thee. Bismillah! Dismount, White Sheik, and enter!"
The Master bowed, and swung himself from his horse. All did the same, Legionaries and Arabs alike. And for a moment they stood there in the sunlight before the long colonnade that occupied the lower story of the citadel; while from beneath that colonnade issued a dozen or fifteen of the black, muscular Maghrabi men, two of whom—in the role of official stranglers—they had already seen. These powerful half-savages took the horses away, the hoofs clacking hollowly on the golden pavement.
Bara Miyan led the way in under the colonnade, which, though of gold like all else in this, wonder city, still offered grateful shade. The perpetual glare of the golden roadways, houses, towers, balconies—even covered as many were with floating curtains of muslin or silk—had been trying to eyes and nerves. Infinitely preferable would stone or wood have been, for dwellings; but as Jannati Shahr was, so the Legion had to take it. And doubtless long generations of familiarity with it had made it wholly normal, pleasant, and innocuous to these super-Arabs.
The Jannati Shahr men began kicking off their babooshes and sliding their naked feet into light slippers, rows upon rows of which stood under the portico. The Master and Leclair quickly put off their shoes and took slippers; the others followed suit. But not without unwillingness did the Master make the change.
"This will put us at a very serious disadvantage," thought he, "in case it comes to fighting. These people are used to going almost barefooted. We are not. Still, there's no help for it. But I'd like infernally well to keep my shoes!"
All he said was:
"Remember now, men, no women and no wine! If this city is like the usual Arab towns, there will be neither in sight. But if not, and temptations arise, remember my orders! No drop of any kind of liquor—and no flirtation. I'll deal summarily with any man who forgets himself. There's everything at stake now, in the next hour or two. We can't jeopardize it all for any nonsense!"
The major groaned, inwardly. Thirsts were on his Celtic soul that longed for dalliance with the Orient; but he well knew that tone of voice, and sadly resigned himself to abstinence.
"Keep your revolvers loose in the holsters, men," the Master added, as Bara Miyan gestured toward the slowly opening entrance of the citadel—a massive door as all doors seemed in Jannati Shahr; a door of gold reinforced with huge teak beams. "Watch for any sign of treachery, but don't shoot until I give the order. Then, shoot to kill! And whatever you do, stick together. Don't separate, no matter what the provocation! Now, follow me!"
A strange feeling of anxiety, almost of fear, had taken hold on the Master's heart. This fear was not in the least for himself or any of the men. Hard-bitted adventurers all, they had gone into this expedition with their eyes open, well knowing that some must inevitably die before its close. They had gambled at dice with Fate; and, losing, could have no complaint.
It was all for "Captain Alden" that the Master's anxiety was now awakened. Here was a woman, not only exposed to risks of death, but also of capture by Orientals—and what it might mean to a white woman to be seized for some hidden harem in Jannati Shahr the Master knew only too well. He found a moment's pause to speak in a low tone to the "captain," unheard by any of the others.
"Remember the mercy-bullet!" said he. "If anything happens and there's any risk of capture—remember, the last one for yourself!"
"If the worst comes," she whispered, "we can at least share death together!"
He gazed at her a moment, not quite fathoming her words, but with an inexplicable tightening round the heart.
"We can at least share death together!"
Why should those words so powerfully affect him? What were these uncomprehended, new emotions stirring in his hard soul, tempered by war and by unnumbered stern adventurings?
The Master had no skill in self-analysis, to tell him. Leader of others, himself he did not understand. But as that night aboard Nissr, when he had laid a hand on the woman's cabin door, something unknown to him seemed drawing him to her, making her welfare and her life assume a strange import.
"Come, O Frank!" Bara Miyan was saying. The Olema's words recalled the Master to himself with a start. "Such food and drink as we men of El Barr have, gladly we share with thee and thine!"
The old man entered the dark doorway of the citadel, noiselessly in soft sandals. Beside him walked the Master; and, well grouped and flanked and followed by the Arabs in their white robes—all silent, grave, watchful—the Legion also entered.
Behind them once more closed the massive doors, silently.
The eighteen Legionaries were pent in solid walls of metal, there in the heart of a vast city of fighting-men whose god was Allah and to whom all unbelievers were as outcasts and as pariah dogs—anathema.
THE MASTER'S PRICE
A dim and subtly perfumed corridor opened out before them, its walls hung with tapestries, between which, by the light of sandal-oil mash'als, or cressets, the glimmer of the dull-gold walls could be distinguished.
Pillars rose to the roof, and these were all inlaid with mother-of-pearl, with fine copper and silver arabesques of amazing complexity. Every minutest architectural detail had been carved out of the solid gold dyke that had formed the city; nothing had been added to fill out any portion. The imagination was staggered at thought of the infinite skill and labor required for such a task. The creation of this city of El Barr seemed far beyond the possible; yet here it was, all the result of the graver's chisel.
[Footnote 1: If any reader doubts the existence of El Barr, as a city of gold carved from a single block, on the ground that such a work would be impossible, I refer him to an account of Petra, in the National Geographic Magazine for May, 1907. Petra, in all details, was carved from granite—a monolithic city.]
Blase as the Legionaries were and hardened to wonders, the sight of this corridor and of the vast banquet-hall opening out of it, at the far end, came near upsetting their aplomb. The major even muttered an oath or two, under his breath, till Leclair nudged him with a forceful elbow.
Not thus must Franks, from Feringistan, show astonishment or admiration.
"May the peace be upon thee," all at once exclaimed Bara Miyan, gesturing for the Master to enter the vast hall. "Peace, until the rising of the day!"
"And upon thee, the peace!" the Master answered, with the correct Arabic formula. They entered, and after them the other Legionaries and the sub-chiefs of Jannati Shahr.
The banquet-hall was enormous. The Master's glance estimated it as about two hundred and fifty feet long by one hundred and seventy-five wide, with a height from golden floor to flat-arched roof of some one hundred and twenty-five. Embroidered cloths of camel's-hair and silk covered the walls. Copper braziers, suspended from the pillars, sent dim spirals of perfumed smoke aloft into the blue air.
About sixty feet from the floor, a row of clerestory windows, unglazed, admitted arrows of sunlight through a golden fretwork; and these arrows, piercing the incense vapor, checkered intricate patterns on the enormous, deep-piled Persian rugs of rose, lilac, and misty blue.
Tables and chairs, of course, there were none. A dakkah, or platform, in horseshoe shape, at the far end, covered with rugs and cushions, and with water-jars, large copper fire-pans, coffee-pots of silver, and shishahs (water-pipes) told where the feast was to be offered.
From a side door, as a silken curtain was drawn back, some fifteen slave-girls entered—whiter than their masters and in tight jackets and loose, silk trousers. These girls brought copper basins of rose-water for the Arabs' "lesser ablution" before a meal. Bara Miyan smiled slightly as he gestured the Legionaries also to wash hands and faces; but the Master, little relishing the idea of using this same water after the Arabs, shook his head.
Not thus slyly could the Olema inflict humiliation on unbelievers. A hard look crept into the Master's eyes. This covert insult, after the exchange of salt, boded very ill.
In silence the Legionaries watched the Arabs dry their hands and faces on towels given them by the slave-girls, who then noiselessly withdrew. All the Arabs prostrated themselves and prayed. The Master was the only one who noticed one significant fact: that now the kiblah, or direction of prayer, was not to the north-west, where lay Mecca, but—judging by the sun—was almost due west, toward the spot where lay the Black Stone. This reassured him once more.
"They recognize the Stone, right enough," thought he. "As long as nothing happens to that, we hold the whip-hand of them. Our only real danger is that something might happen to it. But a few hours, now, will end all this. And in a few hours, what can happen?"
The Arabs ceased their droning supplications to Allah, which had been rising with hypnotically soothing murmurs through the incensed air, and now followed Bara Miyan toward the raised platform. The old Sheik beckoned his guests. All disposed themselves comfortably among the cushions. The Legionaries ignored what seemed a disposition on the part of the Arabs to separate them—to scatter them along the platform.
"Keep together, men," the Master commanded. "Group yourselves closely here, in the middle. Say nothing. Watch everything. Make no move without specific orders. If it comes to a fight, and I am killed, Leclair will command you. His knowledge of Arabic temporarily ranks him above Bohannan. Don't shoot unless it comes to hard necessity; but if you do shoot, make every bullet count—and save the last one for yourselves!"
Bara Miyan clapped his hands. Through two arched doorways, to right and left, entered a silent file of the huge, half-naked Maghrabi men. All were unarmed; but the muscles of their heavy shoulders, the gorilla-like dangle of their steel-fingered hands produced an effect more ominous even than the gleam of simitars in the dim cressets' light would have been.
Along the walls these black barbarians disposed themselves, a full hundred or more, saying nothing, seeming to see nothing, mere human automata. Bohannan, seated cross-legged between Captain Alden and the Master, swore an oath.
"What are these infernal murderers here for?" growled he. "Ask the Sheik, will you? I thought you and he had eaten salt together! If this isn't a trap, it looks too damned much like it to be much of a picnic! Faith, this is a Hell of a party!"
"Silence, sir!" commanded the Master; while Leclair, at his other side, cast a look of anger at the Celt. "Diplomacy requires that we consider these men as a guard of honor. Pay no attention to them, anybody! Any sign of hesitation now, or fear, may be suicide. Remember, we are dealing with Orientals. The 'grand manner' is what counts with them. I advise every man who has tobacco, to light a cigarette and look indifferent. Verb sap!"
Most of the Legionaries produced tobacco; but the Olema, smiling, raised a hand of negation. For already the slave-girls were entering with trays of cigarettes and silver boxes of tobacco. These they passed to the visitors, then to the Arabs. Such as preferred cigarettes, suffered the girls to light them at the copper fire-pans. Others, choosing a shishah, let the girls fill it from the silver boxes; and soon the grateful vapors of tobacco were rising to blend with the spiced incense-smoke.
A more comfortable feeling now possessed the Legionaries. This sharing of tobacco seemed to establish almost an amicable Free Masonry between them and the Jannati Shahr men. All sat and smoked in what seemed a friendly silence.
The slave-girls silently departed. Others came with huge, silver trays graven with Koran verses. These trays contained meat-pilafs, swimming in melted butter; vine leaves filled with chopped mutton; kababs, or bits of roast meat spitted on wooden splinters; crisp cucumbers; a kind of tasteless bread; a dish that looked like vermicelli sweetened with honey; thin jelly, and sweetmeats that tasted strongly of rosewater. Dates, pomegranates, and areca nuts cut up and mixed with sugar-paste pinned with cloves into a betel leaf—these constituted the dessert.
The Arabs ate with strict decorum, according to their custom, beginning the banquet with a Bismillah of thanks and ending with an Al Hamd that signified repletion. Knives and forks there were none; each man dipped his hand into whatever dish pleased him, as the trays were passed along. The Legionaries did the same.
"Rather messy, eh?" commented the major; but no one answered him. More serious thoughts than these possessed the others.
After ablution, once more—this time the white men shared it—tobacco, pomegranate syrup, sherbet, water perfumed with mastich-smoke, and thick, black coffee ended the meal.
The Master requested khat leaves, which were presently brought him—deliciously green and fresh—in a copper bowl. Then, while the slave-girls removed all traces of the feast, all relaxed for a few minutes' kayf, or utter peace.
Utter peace, indeed, it seemed. Nothing more soothing could have been imagined than the soft wooing of repletion and of silken cushions, the dim sunlight through the smoke of incense and tobacco, the gentle bubbling of the water-pipes, the half-heard courting of pigeons somewhere aloft in the embrasures of the clerestory windows.
All possibility of warfare seemed to have vanished. Under the magic spell of this enchanted, golden hall, even the grim Maghrabis, black and motionless along the tapestried walls, seemed to have sunk to the role of mere spectators.
The Arabs' glances, though subtly curious, appeared to hold little animosity. Now that they had broken bread together, cementing the Oath of the Salt, might not hospitality have become inviolable? True, some looks of veiled hostility were directed against "Captain Alden's" strangely masked face, as the woman sat there cross-legged like the rest, indifferently smoking cigarettes. For what the Arab cannot understand is always antipathetic to him. But this hostility was not marked. The spirits of the Legion, including those of the Master himself, rose with a sense of greater security.
Even Bohannan, chronic complainer, forgot to cavil and began to bask in contentment.
"Faith, but this is a good imitation of Lotus-land, after all," he murmured to Janina, at his side. "I wouldn't mind boarding at this hotel for an indefinite period. Meals excellent; waitresses beat anything on Broadway; atmosphere very restful to wandering gentlemen. Now if I could only get acquainted with one of these lovely Fatimas, and find out where the bar is—the bar of El Barr! Very good! Faith, very good indeed!"
He laughed at his own witticism and blew perfumed smoke toward the dim, golden roof. But now his attention was riveted by the silent entrance of six dancing-girls, that instantly brought him to keen observation.
Their dance, barefooted and with a minimum of veils, swayed into sinuous beauty to the monotonous music of kettle-drums, long red flutes and guitars of sand-tortoise shell with goat-skin heads—music furnished by a dozen Arabs squatting on their hunkers half-way down the hall. The gracious weaving of those lithe, white bodies of the girls as they swayed from sunlit filigree to dim shadow, stirred even the coldest heart among the Legionaries, that of the Master himself. As for Bohannan, his cup of joy was brimming.
The dance ended, one of the girls sang with a little foreign accent, very pleasing to the ears of the Master and Leclairs the famous chant of Kaab el Ahbar:
A black tent, swayed by the desert wind Is dearer to me, dearer to me Than any palace of the city walls. Dearer to me!
And the earth met with rain!
A handful of dates, a cup of camel's milk Is dearer to me, dearer to me Than any sweetmeat in the city walls. Dearer to me!
And the earth wet with rain!
A slender Bedouin maid, freely unveiled Is dearer to me, dearer to me Than harem beauties with henna-stained fingers. My Bedouin maid is slim as the ishkil tree. Dearer to me!
And the earth wet with rain!
Black tent, swift white mare, camel of Hejaz blood Are dear to me, are dear to me! Dearest is my slim, unveiled one of the desert sands! Dearest to me! Ibla her name is; she blazes like the sun, Like the sun at dawn, with hair like midnight shades, Oh, dear to me! Paradise is in her eyes; and in her breasts, enchantment. Her body yields like the tamarisk, When the soft winds blow over the hills of Nedj! Dearest to me!
And the earth wet with rain!
[Footnote 1: W'al arz mablul bi matar. A favorite refrain for songs among the Arabs, to whom rain represents all comforts and delights.]
A little silence followed the ending of the song and the withdrawal of the girls and musicians. The major seemed disposed to call for an encore, but Janina silenced his forthcoming remarks with a sharp nudge. All at once, old Bara Miyan removed the amber stem of the water-pipe from his bearded lips and said:
"Now, White Sheik, thou hast eaten of our humble food, and seen our dancing. Thou hast heard our song. Wilt thou also see jugglers, wrestlers, trained apes from Yemen? Or wilt thou take the kaylulah (siesta)? Or doth it please thee now to speak of the gifts that my heart offers thee and thine?"
"Let us speak of the gifts, O Bara Miyan," answered the Master, while Leclair listened intently and all the Arabs gave close heed. "We have not many hours more to stay in this paradise of thine. We must be away to our own Feringistan, in our flying house. Let us speak of the gifts. But first, I would ask thee something."
"Speak, in Allah's name, and it shall be answered thee!"
"The salt is still in thy stomach for us?"
"It is still in my stomach."
"Thou dost swear that, O Bara Miyan, by a great oath?"
"By the rising of the stars, which is a great oath!"
"And by the greatest oath, the honor of thy women?"
"Yea, Frank, by the honor of my women! But thou and thine, too, have covenants to keep."
Old Bara Miyan bent shaggy white brows at the Master, and peered out intently from under the hood of his burnous. The Master queried:
"What covenants, great Olema?"
"These: That no harm shall befall Myzab and the Great Pearl Star and the Black Stone, before thou and thine fly away to the Lands of the Books. Then, that no blood of our people shall be shed in El Barr, either the city of Jannati Shahr or the plain. These things thou must understand, O Frank. If harm befall the sacred relics, or blood be shed, then the salt will depart from my stomach, and we will be kiman, and the thar will be between thine and mine. I have spoken!"
[Footnote 1: Kiman, of hostile tribes.]
[Footnote 2: Thar, the terrible blood-feud of the Arabs.]
The Master nodded.
"These things be very clear to my heart," he answered. "They shall be treasured in my memory."
"It is well. Now speak we of the gifts."
The fixed attention of the Arabs told the Legionaries, despite their ignorance of Arabic, that at last the important negotiation of the reward was under way. Pipes and cigarettes smoldered, unsmoked; all eyes turned eagerly toward the Master and Bara Miyan. Silence fell upon the banquet-hall, where still the thin, perfumed incense-smoke writhed aloft and where still the motionless Maghrabi men stood in those ominous lines along the silk-tapestried walls.
"And what things," began the Olema, "doth thy heart desire, in this city of Jannati Shahr? Tell thy wish, and perchance it shall be granted thee!"
The Master paused, deliberately. Well he understood the psychological value of slow action in dealing with Orientals. Bargaining, with such, is a fine art. Haste, greed, eagerness defeat themselves.
Contemplatively the Master chewed a khat leaf, then smiled a very little, and asked:
"Is it permitted to tell thee that this gold, of which thou hast carved thy city—this gold which to thee is as stones and earth to the people of Feringistan—hath great value with us?"
"It is permitted, O Frank. This thing we already know." The old man frowned ominously. "Dost thou ask gold?"
The Master nerved himself for the supreme demand, success in which would mean fortune beyond all calculation, power and wealth to shame all plutocrats.
"Gold?" he repeated. "Yea, that is what we ask! Gold! Give unto us what gold our flying house can carry hence to our own land beyond the salted seas, and we will depart. Before the rising of the stars we will be gone. And the peace be unto thee, O Bara Miyan, master of the gold!"
Tension as of a wire about to snap contracted the Master's nerves, strong as they were. Leclair leaned forward, his face pale, teeth set hard into his lip.
"Yea, gold!" the Master repeated with hard-forced calm. "This is the gift we ask of thee, for the Myzab and the holy Black Stone and Kaukab el Durri—the gift of gold!"
"SONS OF THE PROPHET, SLAY!"
The Olema shook an emphatic head of negation. "Yafta Allah!" he exclaimed, using the absolute, decisive formula of refusal in Arab bargaining. "This gold of ours is sacred. The angel Jibrail himself struck the Iron Mountains with his wing, at the same hour when the Black Stone fell from Paradise, and caused the gold to gush out. It is not earthly gold, but the gold of angels.
"Not one grain can be taken from El Barr. The curses of Jehannun, of Eblis, rest on Arab or Ajam who dare attempt it. Surely, such a one shall be put to the sword, and his soul in the bottom pits of Hell shall be taken by the feet and forelock and cast into the hottest flames! That soul shall eat of the fruit of the tree Al Zakkum, and be branded forever with the treasure he did attempt to ravish from us!"
"Remember, great Olema, we did bring thee the Myzab and Kaukab el Durri, and the holy Black Stone!"
"I remember, White Sheik, and will reward thee, but not with gold!" The old man's face was stern, deep-lined, hard; his eyes had assumed a dangerous glitter. "Thou hast a good tongue, but though it speak from now till the angel Al Sijil roll up all the scrolls of life, it shall not avail.
"Ask some other thing; and remember, if thou dost try by any magic to remove even a sand-grain of this gold, the salt will be no longer between thee and me. This must be added to the two things I have already told thee of, that would take away the salt!"
Narrowly the Master eyed him, then nodded. Huge though this rebuff had been, and great as the loss must be, the Master realized the utter impossibility of coming to any terms with Bara Miyan on a gold basis. All the fanaticism of these people would resist this, to the death. Even to insist further might precipitate a massacre. Therefore, like the philosopher he was, he turned to other possibilities, considering what was best to be done.
The Olema spoke again, pausing now and then as he puffed reflectively at his water-pipe. Said he:
"I will tell thee a great secret, O Frank. In this city lie the lost books of the Arwam (Greek) wise men and poets. When the Alexandrian library was burned by Amrou, at Omar's order, the four thousand baths of the city were heated for six months by ancient scrolls. I have heard that ye Feringi have greatly mourned the loss of the Arwam learning and poetry. Not all this treasure was lost, White Sheik!"
The Master started, peered at Bara Miyan and forgot to chew his soothing khat leaves.
"And then—?" asked he.
"Some twenty thousand of the most precious parchments were privately carried by our Sufis to Medina, and thence, after many years, to Jannati Shahr. Here they still lie, in perfect form, clearly to be read. This is a treasure that would set the world of the Feringi ablaze and make thee as a god among thy people. Ask this gift, O Frank, and it shall be granted thee! For the mere asking, this treasure shall be thine!"
The Master shook his head. Deeply as he understood the incalculable value of the lost books of antiquity, he well knew that to offer his Legion such a booty would be all in vain. Men who have suffered and bled, risked all, seen their comrades die, and even now stand in the shadow of death—hoping some vast, tangible loot—are not proper material for discussion of literary values.
"Yafta Allah!" the Master exclaimed, with emphasis equal to the Olema's. "No, Bara Miyan, this cannot be."
"Our dancing and singing maidens are like a flame of Paradise. Their enchantments make the heart of man glad with perpetual springtime. Choose, O Frank, two handmaids for thyself and for each of thy men, and let them be yours to go with you to your own country and to be your chattels and your sweet delights!"
The eyes of "Captain Alden" narrowed with sudden, painful emotion as she peered at the Master. With some smattering of Arabic, she may have caught something of the sense of this offer. But the Master, unmoved by this second offer of Olema's, merely shook his head again, saying:
"No, Bara Miyan. Though thy women be fair as the dawn over the Sea of Oman, and soft-eyed as the gazelles in the oasis of the Wady el Ward (Vale of Flowers), not for us are they. We seek other rewards. Therefore will I ask thee still another question."
"Thy question shall be answered, O Frank!"
"Is it true that the Caliph el Walid, in Hegira 88, sent forty camel-loads of cut jewels to Mecca?"
"That is true."
"And that, later, all those jewels were brought hither?"
"Even so! It is also true that two Franks in Hegira 550, digged a tunnel into the Meccan treasury from a house they had hired in the guise of Egyptian Hujjaj. They were both beheaded, White Sheik, and their bodies were burned to ashes."
"No doubt," the Master answered, nonchalantly. "But they had brought no rich gifts to the Meccans. Therefore, now speaking of these forty camel-loads of cut jewels, O Bara Miyan—"
"It is in thy mind to ask for those, White Sheik?"
"Allah giveth thee two hearts, Bara Miyan, as well as the riches of Karun. Surely, 'the generous man is Allah's friend,' and thy hand is not tied up."
[Footnote 1: "To have two hearts" (dhu'kulbein) signifies to be prudent, wise. Karun is the Arabic Croesus. "Thy hand is tied up" is equivalent to calling a man niggardly.]
The Olema, a quick decision gleaming in his eyes—though what that decision might be, who could tell?—put down the amber mouthpiece and with an eloquent, lean hand gestured toward a silk-curtained doorway at the right of the vast hall.
"Come with me, then, White Sheik!" said he, arising and beckoning his white-robed sub-chiefs. He raised a finger in signal to the Maghrabis, though what the signal might mean, the Legionaries could not know. "Come, with all thy men. And, by Allah! I will show thee the things whereof thou dost speak to me. I will show thee all these things—and others!
In silence the Legionaries followed old Bara Miyan through the curtained doorway; and after them came the sub-chiefs. The Maghrabi stranglers, noiseless and bare-footed, fell in behind; a long ominous line of black human brutes, seeming hardly above the intellectual level of so many gorillas.
Stout-hearted as the Legionaries were, a kind of numbing oppression was closing in upon them. City battlements and double walls of inner citadel, then massive gates and now again more doors that closed behind them, intervened between them and even the perilous liberty of the plain of El Barr. And, in addition to all this, some hundreds of thousands of Arabs, waiting without, effectually surrounded them, and the Maghrabi men cast their black shadow, threatening and ominous, over the already somber enough canvas.
A web, they all felt, was closing about them that only chance and boldness could unravel. Everything now hung on the word of an aged fanatic, who for any fancied breach of the Oath of Salt might deliver them to slavery, torture, death.
"Remember, men," the Master warned his men as they penetrated the dim, golden-walled passage also lighted with sandal-oil mash'als—"remember the mercy-bullets. If it comes to war, none of us must be taken prisoner!"
To the Olema he exclaimed, in suave tones:
"Dakhilak, Ya Shayk! (Under thy protection, O Sheik!) Let not the laws of hospitality or the Oath of Salt be forgotten!"
The Olema only smiled oddly, in the dim and perfumed obscurity of the passageway, along which the slither of the many sandaled feet on the gold pavement made a soft, creeping sound. Nothing more was said—except for some grumbled mouthings of Bohannan—during the next few minutes.
The passage seemed enormously long to the Master as, flanked by Leclair, "Captain Alden," and the major, he peered curiously at its smooth, dull-yellow walls all chased with geometrical patterns picked out in silver and copper, between the dull-hued tapestries, and banded with long extracts from the Koran inlaid in Tumar characters of mother-of-pearl.
Several turnings, and three flights of steps descending through the solid gold "dyke" that ran down into the bowels of the earth no one could even guess how far, served still more to confuse the Legionaries' sense of direction and to increase their conviction that, in case of any outbreak of hostilities, they would find themselves trapped more helplessly than rats in a cage.
It is no aspersion on their bravery to say that more than one among them had already begun inwardly to curse this wild-goose chase into Jannati Shahr. It all had now begun to assume absolutely the appearance of a well-formulated plan of treachery. Even the Master gave recognition to this appearance, by saying again: "Be ready for a quick draw. But whatever you do, don't be the aggressor. Watch your step!"
The passage suddenly reached its end. Another heavy door of the yellow metal swung back, and all issued into a hall even more vast than the one they had quitted.
No windows here admitted light. The air, though pure enough as from some hidden source of ventilation, hung dead and heavy. Not even the censers, depending from the dim roof, far above, could freshen it; nor could the cressets' light make more than a kind of ghostly aura through the gloom.
By this dim half-illumination the Master beheld, there before him in the middle of the tremendous golden pavement, a strange, pyramidal object rising four-square in the shape of an equilateral triangle—just such a triangle as was formed by the locations of Mecca, Bab el Mandeb, and El Barr.
This pyramid, polished and elaborately engraved, towered some ninety feet above the floor. It was pierced by numbers of openings, like the entrances to galleries; and up the smooth face nearest the entrance to the hall, a stairway about ten feet wide mounted toward the apex.
Completely finished all save the upper part, which still remained truncated, the golden pyramid gleamed dully in the vague light, a thing of awe and wonder, grimly beautiful, fearsome to gaze up at. For some unknown reason, as the Legionaries grouped themselves about their Master, an uncanny influence seemed to emanate from this singular object. All remained silent, as the Olema, an enigmatic smile on his thin, bearded lips, raised a hand toward the pyramid.
"This thing, O Frank, thou shouldst see," he remarked dryly. "Above all, the inner chambers. Wilt thou go with me?"
"I will go," the Master answered. "Lead the way!"
The Olema beckoned one of the Maghrabis, who delivered a torch of some clear-burning, resinous, and perfumed material into his hand.
"Come," bade the old man, and gestured toward the steps of gold.
Together, in silence, they mounted toward the dim, high-arched roof. From near the top, the Master, glancing down, could see the white-robed mass of the Arabs, the small, compact group of his own men; and, behind them all, the dim, black lines of the stranglers. But already the Olema was gesturing for him to enter the highest of the galleries.
Into this, carved in the virgin metal, both made their way. The torchlight flung strange, wavering gleams on smooth walls niched with dark embrasures. At the further end of the passage, the Olema stopped.
"Here is a new trophy, just added to all that Allah hath placed in our hands," said he, gravely. "There are some three-and-twenty places yet left, to fill. Wilt thou see the new trophy?"
The Master nodded silently. Raising the torch, the Olema thrust it into one of the embrasures. There the Master beheld a human skull.
The empty eye-sockets, peering out at him, seemed to hold a malevolent malice. That the skull had been but freshly cleaned, was obvious.
"Abd el Rahman?" asked the Master.
"Yea, the Apostate," answered Bara Miyan. "At last, Allah hath delivered him to us of El Barr."
"Thou hast used a heavy hand on the Apostate, O Sheik."
"We of Jannati Shahr do not anoint rats' heads with jasmine oil. Tell me, Frank, how many men hast thou?"
"Three-and-twenty, is it not so?"
"Yea, it is so. Tell me, Bara Miyan, this whole pyramid—"
"This is the Pyramid of Ayeshah that I have heard strange tales of?" the Master demanded, feeling even his hard nerves quiver.
"The Pyramid of Ayeshah."
"No myth, then, but reality," the Master commented, fascinated in spite of himself. "Even as the famous Tower of Skulls at Jerba, in Tunis!"
"Thou hast said it, O Frank. Here be more than ten-score thousand skulls of the enemies of Islam, of blasphemers against the Prophet, of those who have penetrated the Empty Abodes, of those who have sought to carry gold from El Barr. It is nearly done, this pyramid. But there still remain three-and-twenty vacant places to be filled."
For a long minute, the eyes of the Master and of Bara Miyan met, in silence, with the torch-flare glinting strange lights from them. Then the Olema spoke.
"Hast thou seen enough?" demanded he.
"Mine eyes are filled."
"And dost thou still ask rewards of gold?"
"Nay, it is as I have already told thee; let the cut jewels of the Caliph el Walid suffice!"
"It is well spoken. Let us descend."
In silence, again, they left the gruesome gallery and went down the stairway with the Olema's torch leaving vague, fantastic wreaths of odorous smoke curling up along the polished, dull-yellow slant of the pyramid. Back on the floor again, the Master said to his men:
"This pyramid is filled with skulls of men who have tried to carry gold from El Barr. For the present, we must dismiss gold from our minds. Common prudence dictates that we abandon all idea of gold, take whatever reward we can get, and leave this city at once.
"The gold is of no importance, whatever. On the way back over the outer foothills of the Iron Mountains, many outcrops of gold exist. Nissr can poise above some of these; and a few hours' labor will load her with all the gold we can carry. There can be no sense in trying to get any here. It would simply add to our peril.
"Everything is therefore quite satisfactory. But watch every move. If nothing breaks, in two hours from now we should be on our way. Again I caution you all, keep silent and make no move without my orders. The prize is at our very finger-tips. So long as we shed no blood and as nothing happens to the Myzab and the Black Stone, we are safe. But remember—be careful!"
The Olema touched him on the elbow.
"Now," the old man asked, "now, O Frank, wouldst thou see the cut jewels of the Caliph el Walid?"
"Come, then!" And Bara Miyan gestured toward another door that led, at the left, out of the Chamber of the Pyramid.
Again the strange procession formed itself, as before, with the gorilla-like Maghrabi stranglers a rear guard. A few minutes through still another passage in the gold brought them to a door of ebony, banded with silver. No door of gold, it seemed, sufficed for this chamber they were about to enter. Stronger materials were needed here.
This door, like the others, swung silently on its massive hinges.
"Come, O Master of the fighting-men of Feringistan!" exclaimed the Olema. "In Allah's name, take of the gifts that I have already offered thee, and then in peace depart!"
Before the Master could reply, a shuddering concussion shivered through the solid gold all about them. The tremor of this shock, like that of an earthquake, trembled the cressets on the walls and made the huge ebony door, ajar into a dim-lighted hall, groan on its hinges.
Stupefied, Legionaries and Arabs alike, stared silently under the vague gleam of the torches.
Then, far and faint, as though coming along tortuous passages from distances above, a muffled concussion smote their ears. The shock of the air-wave was distinctly felt, eloquent of the catastrophe that in a second of time had shattered every plan and hope.
As if an echo of that thunderous, far explosion, a faint wailing of voices—echoing from very far above—drifted eerily along the passage; voices in blended rage and fear, in hate, agony, despair.
"God above—!" the major gulped. "Captain Alden" whipped her pistol from its holster, not a fraction of a second before the Master's leaped into his hand. The torchlight flickered on Leclair's service-revolver, and was reflected on the guns of every Legionary.
"If that's the explosive," Bohannan cried, "faith, we're in for it! Is it the explosive that's blown Hell out o' the Black Stone?"
A wild cry echoed down the passage. The Olema, his face suddenly distorted with a passion of hate, snatched a pistol from beneath his burnous.
"The dogs of Feringistan have spat on all Islam!" he screamed, in a shrill, horrible voice. "The Black Stone is no more! Vengeance on the unbelieving dogs! Allah il Allah! Kill, kill, and let no dog escape!
"Sons of the Prophet! Slay me these dogs! Kill!"
WAR IN THE DEPTHS
Horrible, unreal as a fever-born nightmare in its sudden frenzy, the Arab's attack drove in at them. The golden passageway flung from wall to wall screams, curses in shrill barbaric voices, clangor of steel whirled from scabbards, echoes of shots loud-roaring in that narrow space.
Bara Miyan's pistol, struck up by the woman's hand, spat fire over the Master's head just as the Olema himself went down with blood spurting from a jugular severed by the major's bullet. The Olema's gaudy burnous crimsoned swiftly.
"Got him!" shouted Bohannan, firing again, again, into the tangle of sub-chiefs and Maghrabi men. Adams pitched forward, cleft to the chin by a simitar.
The firing leaped to point-blank uproar, on both sides. The men of Jannati Shahr numbered more pistols, but the Legionaries had quicker firers. Arabs, Legionaries, Maghrabis alike falling in a tumult of raw passions, disappeared under trampling feet.