Deafening grew the uproar of howls, curses, shots. The smell of dust and blood mingled with the aromatic perfume of the cressets.
The Master was shouting something, as he emptied his automatic into the pack of white-robed bodies, snarling brown faces, waving arms. But what he was commanding, who could tell?
Like a storm-wave flinging froth ashore, the rush of the Moslems drove the Legionaries—fewer now—back into the treasure-chamber. The Master, violent hands on "Captain Alden," swung her back, away; thrust her behind him. Her eyes gleamed through the mask as she still fired. The Master heard her laugh.
From dimness of gloom, within the doorway, two vague figures rained dagger-blows. Janina, mortally stabbed, practically blew the head off one of these door-keepers.
Cracowicz got the other with a blow from the butt of his empty pistol—a blow that crushed in the right temporal bone. Then he, too, and three others, fell and died.
Outside, in the passage, the Maghrabis were wringing the necks of the wounded white men. The dull sound of crushed and broken bones blent with the turmoil.
"The door—shut the door!"
The Master's voice penetrated even this Hell-tumult. The Master flung himself against the door, and others with him.
The very frenzy of the attack defeated the Arab's object, for it drove the survivors back into the treasure-crypt. And in the narrow doorway the white men could for a moment hold back the howling tides of fury.
With cold lead, butts, naked fists, the remaining Legionaries smashed a little clearance-room, corpse-heaped. They stumbled, fought, fell into the crypt.
The heavy door, swung by panting, sweating men—while others fired through the narrowing aperture—groaned shut on massive hinges.
As the space narrowed, frenzy broke loose. Arabs and Maghrabis crawled and struggled over bodies, flung themselves to sure immolation in the doorway. As fast as they fell, the Legionaries dragged them inside. The place became an infernal shambles, slippery, crimson, unreal with horror.
For one fate-heavy moment, the tides of war hung even. Furiously the remaining Legionaries toiled with straining muscles, swelling veins, panting lungs, to force the door shut, against the shrieking, frenzied drive of Moslem fanatics lashed into fury by the thar, the feud of blood.
"Captain Alden" turned the tide. She snatched down one of the copper lamps that hung by chains from the dim ceiling of the treasure-crypt. Over the heads of the Legionaries she flung blazing sandal-oil out upon the white-robed jam of madmen.
The flaming oil flared up along those thin, white robes. It dripped on wounded and on dead. Wild howls of anguish pierced the tumult. In the minute of confusion, the door boomed shut. Bohannan dropped a heavy teakwood bar into staples of bronze.
"God!" he panted, his right eye misted with blood from a jagged cut on the brow. Shrieks of rage, from without, were answered by jeers and shouts of exultation from the Legionaries.
"Nom de Dieu!" gasped Leclair. His neck was blackened with a powder burn, and the tunic was ripped clean off him. Not one of the Legionaries had uniforms completely whole. Hardly half of them still kept their slippers.
Torn, barefooted, burned, bleeding, decimated, they still laughed. Wild gibes penetrated the door of the treasure-crypt, against which the mad attack was already beginning to clash and thunder.
"Faith, but this is a grand fight!" the major exulted. "It's Donnybrook with trimmings!" He waved his big fists enthusiastically on high, and blinked his one good eye. "If a man can die this way, sure, what's the use o' living?"
"Steady men! Steady!" the Master cautioned, reloading his gun. "No time, now, for shouting. Load up! This fight's only begun!"
Already, as they recharged their weapons, the door was groaning under the frantic attack of the Arabs and Maghrabis. Wild curses, howls to Allah and to the Prophet, came in dull confusion through the massive plates. A hail of blows besieged them. The bronze staples began to bend.
"Come, men!" commanded the Master. "No chance to defend this position. They'll be in, directly. There are thousands of them in reserve! Away from here!"
"Where the devil to?" demanded the major, defiantly. "Hang to it—give 'em blue Hell as they come through!"
The Master seized and flung him back.
"If you're so keen on dying," he cried, "you can die right now, for insubordination! Back, away from here, you idiot!"
The major obeyed. The others followed. Already the door was creaking, giving, as the Legionaries—now hardly more than a dozen in number—began the first steps of their retreat, that should rank in history with that of Xenophon's historic Ten Thousand.
The Greeks had all of God's outdoors for their maneuvers. These Legionaries had nothing but dark pits and runways, unexplored, in the bowels of a huge, fanatic city. Thus, their retreat was harder. But with courage unshaken, they turned their backs on the yielding door, and set their faces toward darkness and the unknown.
Two of their number lay dead inside this chamber where the Legionaries now were. Nothing could be done for them; the bodies simply had to be abandoned where they lay. Eight were dead in the passage outside the chamber, their corpses mingled with those of Arabs and Maghrabis.
In the chamber, as the Master glanced back, he could see a heap of bodies round the door. These bodies of attackers who had been pulled inside and butchered, made a glad sight to the Master. He laughed grimly.
"We're more than even with them, so far," he exulted. "We've beaten them, so far! The rest will get us, all right enough, but Jannati Shahr will remember the coming of the white men!"
The survivors—the Master, Bohannan, "Captain Alden," and Leclair and nine others—were in evil case, as they trailed down the low-roofed chamber lighted with copper lamps. More than half bore wounds. Some showed bleeding faces, others limp arms; still others hobbled painfully, leaving bloody trails on the floor of dull gold. Curses on the Arabs echoed in various tongues. This first encounter had taken frightful toll of the Legion.
But every heart that still lived was bold and high. Not one of the little party entertained the slightest hope of surviving or of ever beholding the light of day. Still, not one uttered any word of despair or suggestion of surrender.
Everything but a fight to the finish was forgotten. Only one man even thought of Nissr and of what probably had happened out there on the plain. This man was Leclair.
"Dieu!" he grunted. "An accident, eh? Something must have gone wrong—or did the brown devils attack? I hope our men outside made good slaughter of these Moslem pigs, before they died. Eh, my Captain?"
"Is it not possible that Nissr and our men still live? That they will presently bombard the city? That they may rescue us?"
The Master shook his head.
"They may live," he answered, "but as for rescuing us—" His gesture completed the idea. Suddenly he pointed.
"See!" he cried. "Another door!"
INTO THE JEWEL-CRYPT
It was time some exit should be discovered. The tumult had notably increased, at the barred entrance. The staples could not hold, much longer.
The Legionaries pressed forward. At the far end of the chamber, another door was indeed visible; smaller than the first, low, almost square, and let into a deep recess in the elaborately carved wall of gold.
Barefooted, in their socks, or some still in slippers, they reached this door. A little silence fell on them, as they inspected it. One man coughed, spitting blood. Another wheezed, with painful respiration. The smell of sweat and blood sickened the air.
"That's some door, all right!" judged Bohannan, peering at its dark wood, heavily banded with iron. "Faith, but they've got a padlock on that, big enough to hold the Pearly Gates!"
"It is only a question, now, of the key," put in Leclair, with French precision.
"Faith, here's a trap!" the Irishman continued. "A trap, for you! And thirteen rats in it! Lucky, eh?"
"In Jananti Shahr," the memory of a sentence flashed to the Master, "we do not anoint rats' heads with jasmine oil!" But all he said was: "Light, here! Bring lamps!"
Three Legionaries obeyed. The flare of the crude wicks, up along the door, showed its tremendous solidity.
"A little of our explosive would do this business," the Master declared. "But it's obvious nothing short of that would have much effect. I think, men, we'll make our stand right here.
"If we put out all lights, we'll have the attackers at a disadvantage. We can account for fifty or more, before they close in. And—'Captain Alden,' sir! Where are you going? Back, here!"
The woman gave no heed. She was half-way to the entrance door, round the edges of which already torch-light had begun to glimmer as the attackers strained it from its hinges.
Amazed, the Legionaries stared. The Master started after her. Now she was on her knees beside one of the dead Maghrabis—the one killed by Janina. She found nothing; turned to the other; uttered a cry of exultation and held up a clumsy key.
Back over the floor of gold she ran. Her fingers held a crimson cord, from which the key dangled.
"Those two—they were guardians of this vault, of course!" she cried. "Here is the key!"
A cheer burst from the Legionaries. The Master clutched the key, pressed forward to the inner door. A terrible intensity of emotion seized all the survivors, as he fitted the key to the ponderous lock.
"God!" the Irishman grunted, as the wards slid back. The padlock clattered to the floor. The hasp fell. In swung the door.
Through it pressed the Legionaries, with lamps swinging, pistols in hand. As the last of them entered, the outer door collapsed with a bursting clangor. Lights gleamed; a white-robed tumult of raging men burst through. Shots crackled; yells echoed; and the sound of many sandaled feet, furiously running, filled the outer chamber with sounds of ominous import.
"Ah, sacres cochons!" shouted Leclair, emptying his pistol at the pursuers. The Master thrust him back. The door clanged shut; down dropped another bar.
Bohannan laughed madly. The fighting-blood was leaping in his veins.
"Oh, the grand fight!" he shouted. "God, the grand old fight!"
Confused voices, crying out in Arabic, wheeled the Master from the door.
This inner chamber, very much smaller than the outer, was well lighted by still more lamps, though here all were of chased silver.
At the far end, four dim figures were visible. Black faces peered in wonder. The Legionaries caught sight of giant simitars, of fluttering white robes as the figures advanced.
"By Allah!" a hoarse shout echoed. "Look, Mustapha! The Feringi!"
In the shadows at the other end, the amazed Maghrabi swordsmen hesitated one precious moment. White-rimmed eyes stared, teeth gleamed through distorted lips.
These gigantic mudirs, or Keepers of the Treasure, had expected the opening of the door to show them the Feringi, indeed, but preceded by Bara Miyan and surrounded by men of Jannati Shahr.
Now they beheld the dogs of unbelievers all alone, there, with guns in hands, with every sign of battle. They had heard sounds of war, from without. Their dull minds, slowly reacting, could not grasp the significance of all this.
"The Feringi, Yusuf," cried another voice. "And they are alone! What meaneth this?"
"M'adri" (I know not), ejaculated still another. "But kill—kill!"
Their attack was hopeless, but its bravery ranked perfect. Their shouting charge down the chamber, sabers high, ended in grunting sprawls of white. Not half-naked like the low-caste Maghrabi outside, but clad in Arab fashion, they lay there, with Legionaries' bullets in breast and brain.
The Master smiled, grimly, as he walked to one of the bodies and stirred it with his naked foot. He swung above it a silver lamp he had pulled down from the wonderfully arabesqued wall.
"Four scimitars added to our equipment will be useful, at close quarters," he opined very coolly, unmindful of the dull uproar now battering at the inner door. "Pick up the cutlery, men, and don't forget the admirable qualities of the arme blanche!"
Himself, he took one of the long, curved blades. The major, Leclair, and Ferrara—an expert swordsman he had been, in the Italian army—possessed themselves of the others.
Bohannan whistled his scimitar through the air.
"Very fine I call it!" he exclaimed, with a joyful laugh. "Some little game of tag, what? And our Moslem friends are still 'it!' We're still ahead!"
"And likely to be, till our friends bring powder, mine that door, and blow it in!" The Master added: "We've still a few minutes—maybe more. Now, then—"
A shrill cry in French, from Lebon, drew all eyes away to the left of the small chamber.
"Voila!" the lieutenant's orderly was vociferating. They saw his distorted, torture-broken hand wildly gesticulating toward the floor. "My Lieutenant, behold!"
"In the name of God, what now?" Leclair demanded, scimitar in hand. The silver lamps struck high-lights from that gleaming blade, as he turned toward his orderly. Never had he seen the man seized and shaken by excitement as at this moment. "What hast thou found, Lebon? What?"
"But behold—behold!" choked the orderly. Articulation failed him. He stammered into unintelligible cries. The Legionaries crowded toward him. And in the dumb stupefaction that overcame them, the roaring tumult at the door was all forgotten. The sentence of death hanging above them, faded to nothing.
Even the Master's cold blood leaped and thrilled, at realization of what he was now beholding as the silver lamps swung from out-stretched hands. Bohannan, for once, was too dazed for exuberance.
Only the Master could find words.
"Well, men," said he, in even tones. "Here it is, at last. We're seeing something no Feringi ever saw before—the hidden treasure of Jannati Shahr!"
THE JEWEL HOARD
Men do strange things, at times, when confronted by experiences entirely outside even the limits of imagination. At sight of the perfectly overwhelming masses of wealth that lay there in square pits chiseled out of the solid gold, most of the Legionaries reacted like men drunk or mad.
The hoard before them was enough to unbalance reason.
Leclair began to curse with amazing fluency in French and Arabic, while his orderly fell into half-hysterical prayer. Bristol—stolid Englishman though he was—had to make a strong effort to keep his teeth from chattering. The two Italians, one with an ugly wound on the jaw, burst out laughing, waving their arms extravagantly. Simonds shouted jubilation and began to jump about in the most extraordinary fashion. Wallace sat down heavily on the floor, held his lamp out over one of the pits and stared with blank incomprehension.
As for the major, he dropped to his knees, threw down his weapons and plunged his arms up to the elbows in the sliding sparkle of the gems. To have heard him babble, one would have given him free entrance into any lunatic asylum.
The only two who had remained appreciably calm were "Captain Alden" and the Master. But even they, as fully as all the rest, forgot the impending menace of attack. For a moment, even their ears were deaf to the muffled tumult outside the door, their senses dulled to every other thing in this world save the incredible hoard there in the golden pits before them.
Pain, exhaustion, defeat ceased to be, for the Legionaries. Ruin and the shadow of Azrael's wing departed from their minds. For, bring what the future might, the present was offering them a spectacle such as never before in this world's history had the eyes of white men rested on.
Not even a man in extremis could have turned away his gaze from the unbelievable masses of shimmering wealth in those square pits of gold.
Fairy tales and legends, "Arabian Nights," and all the mystic lore of the East never conjured forth more brain-numbing plenitudes of fortune, nor painted more stupefying beauty, than now gleamed up from those eight excavations hewn in the dull, soft metal.
"Nom de Dieu!" Leclair kept monotonously repeating. "Mais, nom de Dieu! Ah, the pigs—ah, the sacred pigs!"
Disjointed words from the others—cries, oaths, jubilations—filled the low-arched chamber, mingling in the stuffy air with lamp-smoke and the dull scent of blood and dust and sweat.
Wheezing breath, wordless cries, grunts, strange laughter sounded. And, withal, the major's hands and arms in one of the pits made a dry, slithering slide and click as he kneaded, worked, and stirred the gems, dredged up fistfuls and let them rain down crepitantly, again.
The sight was one very hard to grasp with any concrete understanding, harder still to render in cold words. At first, it gave only a confused impression of colors, like those in some vivid Oriental rug. The details escaped observation; and these changed, too, as the swaying of the lamps, in excited hands, shifted position.
A shimmer of unearthly light played over the pits, like the thin, colored flames at the edge of a driftwood fire. Soft, opalescent gleams were blent with prismatic blues, greens, crimsons. Melting violets were stabbed through by hard yellows and penetrant purples. And here an orange flash vied with a delicate old rose; there a rich carnation sparkled beside a misty gray, like fading clouds along the dim horizons of fairyland.
The Master murmured: "It's true, then—partly true. Rrisa knew part of it!"
"Not all?" asked the woman.
"I hardly think the Caliph el Walid's gold was ever brought to Jannati Shahr," he answered. "Coals to Newcastle, you know. And these jewels are not all uncut. Some are finely faceted, some uncut. But in the main Rrisa spoke the truth. He told what he believed."
"Yes," assented the woman. Then she added: "Spartan simplicity, is it not? No elaborate coffers. Not even leather sacks. Just bins, like so much wheat."
"The shining wheat of Araby!"
"Of the whole Orient!"
They fell silent, peering with fixed attention. And gradually some calm returned to the others. At the door, too, the turmoil had ceased. No doubt the Jannati Shahr men, baffled, had sent for much gunpowder to blow in the massive planking. That silence became ominous.
Still the Legionaries could take no thought of anything but the Caliph el Walid's hoard. As they stood, squatted, or knelt around the pits—pits about two and a half feet square and deeper than the deepest thrust of any arm—it seemed to them that bottomless lakes and seas of light were opening down, down below them into unfathomed depths of beauty.
Such beauty caused the soul to drink nepenthes of forgetfulness. Hardships, wounds, blood, pain, menace of death faded under that spell. That the Legionaries were trapped at the bottom of a vast rabbit-warren, with swarms of Moslem ferrets soon to rush upon them, now seemed to have no significance.
Tranced, "indifferent to Fate," the adventurers peered on greater wealth of jewels than ever elsewhere in this world's history had been garnered in one place. The liquid light of the hoard flashed strange radiances on their tanned, deep-lined faces, now smeared with sweat and dust, with powder-grime and blood. Their eyes were beholding unutterable rainbows, flashings and burning glows like those of the Moslem's own Jebel Radhwa, or Mountain of Paradise.
Each of these jewels—several million gems, at the least computation—what a story it might have told! What a tale of remotest antiquity, of wild adventures and romance, of love, hate, death! What a revelation of harem, palace, treasury, of cavern, temple, throne! Of Hindu ghat, Egyptian pyramid, Persian garden, Afghan fastness, Chinese pagoda, Burmese minaret! Of enchanted moonlight, blazing sun, dim starlight! Of passion and of pain!
On what proud hand of Sultan, emir, cadi, prince, had this huge ruby burned? On what beloved breast or brow of princess, nautch-girl, concubine—yes, maybe of slave exalted to the purple—had that fire-gleaming diamond blazed?
From Roman times, from Greek, from ancient Jerusalem, from the fire-breathing shrines of Baal at long-dead Carthage, perhaps, this topaz might have come. This sapphire might have graced the anklet of some beauty of old Nile, ages before King Solomon wielded the scepter, ages even before the great god Osiris reigned.
That amethyst might have been loot of the swift black galleys of Tyre, in joyous days when men's strong arms took what they could, of women or of gems, and when Power was Law!
Imagination ran riot there, gazing down upon those jewel-pits. In them lay every kind of precious stone for which, from remotest antiquity, men had cheated, schemed, lied, fought, murdered. The jewels showed no attempt at sorting or classification. With true Oriental laissez-faire, they were all mingled quite at random; these gems, any chance handfuls of which must have meant an incalculable fortune.
BOHANNAN BECOMES A MILLIONAIRE
Like men in a dream, after the first wild emotions had died, the Legionaries peered down into this sea of light. Smoke from the lamps rose toward the dim, low-arched roof. Blood from the Maghrabi's wounds slowly spread and clotted on the golden floor.
Without, a confused murmur told of resuming preparations to smash in the door. And through it all, the dry clicking of the gems made itself audible, as the major sifted them with shaking fingers.
"Well, men," the Master laughed dryly, "here they are! Here are the jewels of Jannati Shahr. Old Bara Miyan would probably have given us a peck or two of them, for Myzab and the Great Pearl Star and the Black Stone, if those hadn't been destroyed—"
"How do you know they've been destroyed?" the major cried. "How do you know but what we'll be rescued, here?"
"If the bombardment had been going to begin, I think we'd have heard something of it, by now. My judgment tells me there'll be no explosive dropped on Jannati Shahr.
"We've got to fight this thing through, unaided. And at any rate, we don't have to limit ourselves to a peck or two of jewels. We've got them all, now—or they've got us!"
The irony of his tone made no impression on Bohannan. His mercurial temperament seemed to have gone quite to pieces, in view of the hoard. He cried:
"Come on, then, boys! Fill up!"
And with a wild laugh he began scooping the gems, hap-hazard, into the pockets of his torn, battle-stained uniform. Jewels of fabulous price escaped his fingers, like so many pebbles in a sand-pit, and fell clicking to the golden floor. With shaking hands the major dredged into the pit before him, mad with a very frenzy of greed.
"Stop!" cried the Master, sternly. "No nonsense, now!"
"What?" retorted Bohannan, angrily. His bruised, cut face reddened ominously.
"Drop those jewels, sir!"
"Principally because I order you to!" The Master's voice was cold, incisive. "They're worthless, now. No make-weights! We can't have make-weights at a time like this. To think of jewels at such an hour! Throw them back!"
A flash of rage distorted the major's face. His blue eyes burned with strange fire.
"Never!" he shouted, crouching there at the brink of the jewel-pit. "Call it insubordination, mutiny, anything you like, but I'm going to have my fill of these! Faith, but I will, now!"
"I don't give a damn! Jewels for mine!" His voice rose gusty, raw, wild. "I've been a soldier of fortune all my life, and that's how I'm going to die. Poor, most of the time. Well, I'm going to die rich!"
His philippic against poverty and discipline tumbled out in a torrent of wild words, strongly tinged with the Irish accent that marked his passionate excitement. He sprang to his feet, and—raging—faced his superior officer. He shouted:
"Sure, and I've knocked up and down this rotten old world all my life, a rolling stone with never enough to bless myself with. And I've gone, at the end, on this wild-goose chase of yours, that's led you and me and all of us to a black death here in the bottom of a damned, fantastic, Arabian city of gold!
"That's all right, dying. That was in the bargain, if it had to be done. Two-thirds of us are dead, already, a damn sight better men than I am! We've been dying right along, from the beginning of this crack-brained Don Quixote crusade. That's all right. But, faith! now that it's my turn to die, by the holy saints I'm going to be well paid for it!"
Bohannan, eyes wild, struck his heaving breast with a huge fist and laughed like a maniac.
"That's all right, you reaching for your gun!" he defied the Master. "Go ahead, shoot! I'm rich already. My pockets are half full. Shoot, damn you, shoot!"
The Master laughed oddly, and let his hand fall from the pistol-butt.
"This," said he quite calmly, "is insanity."
"Ha! Insanity, it is? Well then, let me be insane, can't you? It's a good way to die. And I've lived, anyhow. We've all lived. We've all had a Hell of a run for our money, and it's time to quit.
"Shoot, if you want to—a few minutes more or less don't matter. But, faith, I'll die a millionaire, and that's something I never expected to be. Fine, fine! Give me a minute more, and I'll die a multi-millionaire! Sure, imagine that, will you? Major Aloysius Bohannan, gentleman-adventurer, a multi-millionaire! That's what I'll be, and the man don't live that can stop me now!"
With the laugh of a madman, the major fell to his knees again beside the pit, plunged his hands once more into the gleaming, sliding mass of wealth, and recommenced cramming his pockets.
The Master laughed again.
"It's quite immaterial, after all," said he. "I led you into this. And now it's very nearly a case of sauve qui peut. The sooner your pockets are full, to the extreme limit, the sooner something like reason will return to you. Jewels being of interest to a man at death's door—it's quite characteristic of you, Bohannan. Help yourself!"
"Thanks, I will!" Bohannan flung up at him, blood-drabbled face pale and drawn by the flaring lamplight. "A multi-millionaire! Death? I should worry! Help myself? Faith, I just will, that!"
"Anyone else, here, feel so disposed?" the Master inquired. "If so, get it over and done with. We've got fighting ahead, and we'd better quench whatever thirst there is for wealth, first."
No one made any move. Only Bohannan's mind had been unsettled by the hoard, to the extent of wanting to possess it. Now that death loomed, empty pockets were as good, to all the rest, as any other sort.
"You're all a pack of damned fools!" Bohannan sneered. "You could die richer than Rockefeller, every man-jack of you, and you—you don't want to! Sure, it's you that's mad, not me!"
No one answered. They all stood peering down at him, their faces tense, wounded, dirty; their eyes gleaming strangely; the shadow of Azrael's wing already enfolding them. Then, a few detached themselves from the little group and wandered off into the gloom, away from the pits. Leclair muttered:
"I prefer loading my automatic, to loading my pockets! Odd, the major is, eh? Ah well, a chacun sa chimere!"
"Everybody's weapons fully loaded?" the Master demanded. "Be sure they are! And don't forget the mercy-bullets, men. These Arabs are rather ingenious in their tortures. They make a specialty of crucifying unbelievers—upside down. That sort of thing won't do, for us not for fighting-men of the Legion!"
Bohannan, laughing, stood up. Every pocket was a-bulge with incalculable wealth.
"Now I'm satisfied," he remarked in more rational tones. "I reckon I must be worth more money, as I stand here, than any human being that ever lived. You're looking at the richest man in the world, gentlemen! And I'm going to die, the richest. If that's not some distinction, what is? For a man that was bone-poor, fifteen minutes ago! Now, sir—"
A sudden cry interrupted him. That cry came from "Captain Alden."
"Here! Look here!"
"What is it?" demanded the Master. He started toward her, while outside the door sounded dull commands, as if the Arabs-now organized to effective work-were already preparing to blow open the last barrier between them and their victims.
"What now?" the Master repeated, striding toward her.
"See! See here!"
A WAY OUT?
The woman stood pointing into a black recess at the far end of the crypt. All that the Master could discern there, at first, was a darkness even greater than that which shrouded the corners of the vault.
"Light, here!" he commanded. Ferrara swung a lamp, by its chain, into the recess. They saw a low, square opening in the wall of dull, gleaming metal.
"A passage, eh?" the Master ejaculated.
"Maybe a cul-de-sac," she answered. "But—there's no telling—it may lead somewhere."
"By Allah! Men! Here—all of you!"
The Master's voice rang imperatively. They all came trooping with naked or slippered feet that slid in the wet redness of the floor. Broken exclamations sounded.
Seizing the lamp, the Master thrust it into the opening, which measured no more than four feet high by three wide. The light smokily illuminated about three yards of this narrow passage. Then a sharp turn to the right concealed all else.
Whither this runway might lead, to what peril or what trap it might conduct them, none could tell. Very strongly it reminded the Master of the gallery in the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, which he had seen twelve years before—the gallery which in ancient days had served as a death-trap for treasure-seekers.
That gallery, he remembered, had contained a cleverly hidden stone in its floor which once on a time had precipitated pilferers down a vertical shaft more than a hundred feet, to death, in the bowels of that huge, terrifying mausoleum.
Was this passage of similar purpose and design? In all probability, yes. Oriental ways run parallel in all the lands of the East.
Nevertheless, the passage offered a means of escaping from the crypt. And there, with the dead Maghrabi mudirs, the Legionaries could not stay. In a few minutes now, at most, the men of Jannati Shahr would be upon them.
"Faith, what the devil now?" exclaimed Bohannan, now seeming quite rational, as he peered into the cramped corridor. "Where to Hell does this lead?"
"Just where you've said, to Hell, it's far more than likely," the Master retorted. "Come, men, into it! Follow me!"
He stooped, lamp in one hand, simitar in the other, and in a most cramped posture entered the passage. After him came Leclair, the woman, Bohannan, and the others.
The air hung close and heavy. The oppression of that stooping position, the lamp-smoke, the unusual strain on the muscles, the realization of a whole world of gold above and all about them, seemed to strangle and enervate them. But steadily they kept on and on.
The turning of the passage revealed a long, descending incline, that sloped down at an angle of perhaps thirty degrees. A marked rise in temperature grew noticeable. What might that mean? None could imagine, but not one even thought of turning back.
The walls and floor in this straight, descending passage were now no longer smooth, arabesqued, polished. To the contrary, they showed a rough surface, on which the marks of the chisel could be plainly seen as it had shorn away the yielding metal in great gouges. Moreover, streaks of black granite now began to appear; and these, as the Legionaries advanced, became ever wider until at last the stone predominated.
The Master understood they were now coming to the bottom of part of the golden dyke. Undeviated by the hard rock, the tunnel continued to descend, with here and there a turn. Narrowly the Master scrutinized the floor, tapping it with the simitar as he crept onward, seeking indications of any possible trap that might hurl him into bottomless, black depths.
Quite at once, a right-angled turning opened into a small chamber not above eight feet high by fifteen square. In this, silent, listening, the sweating fugitives gathered.
The temperature was here oppressive, and the lamps burned blue with some kind of gas that stifled the lungs. Gas and smoke together, made breathing hard. A dull, roaring sound had begun to make itself vaguely audible, the past few minutes; and as the Legionaries stood listening, this was now rather plain to their ears.
"This is a devil of a place for a multi-millionaire, I must say!" Bohannan exploded. Simonds laughed, with tense nerves. One or two others swore, bitterly cursing the men of El Barr.
The Master, "Captain Alden," and Leclair, however, gave no heed. Already they were peering around, at the black walls where now only an occasional thread of gold was to be seen.
Five openings led out of this singular chamber, all equally dark, narrow, formidable.
"This seems to be a regular labyrinth, my Captain," said Leclair, in French. "Surely a trap of some kind. They are clever, these Arabs. They let the mouse run and hope, then—voila—he is caught!"
"It looks that way. But we're not caught yet. These infernal passageways are all alike, to me. We must choose one. Well—this is as good as any." He gestured toward an aperture at the left. "Men, follow me!"
The passage they now entered was all of rock, with no traces whatever of gold. For a few hundred feet its course was horizontal; then it plunged downward like the first.
And almost immediately the temperature began to mount, once more.
"Faith, but I think we'd better be getting back!" exclaimed the major. "I don't care much for this heat, or that roaring noise that's getting louder all the time!"
"You'll follow me, or I'll shoot you down!" the Master flung at him, crouching around. "I've had enough insubordination from you, sir! Not another word!"
The stooping little procession of trapped Legionaries once more went onward, downward. The muffled roar, ahead of them, rose in volume as they made a final turning and came into a much more spacious vault where moisture goutted from the black walls. A thin, steamy vapor was rising from the floor, warm to the bare feet.
A moment the Legionaries stood there, blinking in the vague lamplight, glad of the respite that permitted them to straighten up and ease cramped muscles.
"No way out of here!" Bohannan grumbled. "Sure, we're at the end o' nowhere. Now if we'd only taken another passage—"
Nobody paid him any heed. The major's exhibition of irrational greed had lost caste for him. Even Lebon, the orderly, curled a lip of scorn at him.
All eyes were eagerly searching for some exit from this ultimate pit. Panting, reeking with sweat, fouled with blood and dirt, the doomed men shuffled round the vault, blinking with bloodshot eyes.
No outlet was visible. The vault seemed empty. But all at once, Bristol uttered a cry.
"Wine-sacks, by the living jingo!" he exclaimed.
"Wine-sacks—in a Moslem city?" demanded the Master. "Impossible!"
"What else are these, sir?" the Englishman asked, pointing.
The Master strode to the corner where he stood, and flared his lamp over a score of distended goat-hides.
"Well, by Allah!" he ejaculated.
"Sacrificial wine," put in Leclair, at his elbow. "See the red seals, with the imprint of the star and crescent, here and here?" He touched a seal with his finger. "Rare old wine, I'll wager!"
"Wine!" gulped the major, whose excitable nerves had been frayed to madness. "Wine, by God! Faith, but it's the royal thirst I have on me! Who's got a knife?"
The Master thrust him back with such violence that he slipped on the wet floor and nearly fell.
"You'll get no knife, sir, and you'll drink no sacrificial wine!" he cried, with more of anger in his voice than any of the Legion had yet heard. "The jewels—yes, I gave you your fool's way, on those. But no wine!
"We of the Flying Legion are going to die, sober men! There'll be no debauchery—no tradition handed down among those Moslem swine that they butchered us, drunk. If any of you men want to die right now, broach one of those wine-sacks!"
His simitar balanced itself for action. The glint in his eye, by the wavering lamp-shine, meant stern business. Not a hand was extended toward the tautly distended sacks.
Bohannan's whispered curse was lost in a startled cry from Wallace.
"Here's something!" he exclaimed. "Look at this ring, will you?"
They turned to him, away from the wine-bags. Wallace had fallen to his knees and was scraping slime from the wet floor—the slime of ages of dust mingled with viscid moisture from the steam that, thinly blurring the dark air, had condensed on the walls and run down.
Emilio thrust down the lamp he held. There on the stone floor, they saw a huge, rust-red iron ring that lay in a circular groove cut in the black granite.
This ring was engaged in a metal staple let into the stone. And now, as they looked more closely, and as some Legionaries scraped the floor with eager hands, a crack became visible in the floor of the vault.
"Look out, men!" the Master cautioned. "This may be a trap that will swing open and drop us into God knows what! Stand back, all—take your time, now! Go slow there!"
They heeded, and stood back. The Master himself, assuming all risks, got down on hands and knees and explored the crack in the floor. It was square, with a dimension of about five feet on the edge.
"It's a trap-door, all right," he announced. "And we—are going to open it!"
"One would need a rope or a long lever to do that, my Captain," put in Leclair. "It is obvious that a man, or men, standing on the trap, could not raise it. And it is too large to straddle."
The Master arose, stripped off his tunic and passed it through the ring. He twisted the tunic and gave one end to the lieutenant. Himself, he took the other.
"Get hold, everybody!" he commanded. "And be sure you're not standing on the trap!"
All laid hold on the ends of the coat. With a "One, two, three!" from the Master, the Legionaries threw all their muscle into the lift. "Now, men! Heave her once more!"
The stone gave. The Legionaries doubled their efforts, with panting breath, feet that slipped on the dank floor, grunts of labor.
Up swung the stone, aside. It slid over the wet rock. There, in its place, gaped a black hole that penetrated unknown depths.
Steam billowed up—or rather, vapor distinctly warm to the touch. And from very far below, much louder boomed the roar of rushing waters. The Legionaries knew, now, what had caused the dull, roaring sound. Unmistakably a furious cascade was boiling, swirling away, down there at undetermined distances of blackness.
The boldest men among the little group of fugitives felt the crawl and fingering of a very great dread at their hearts. Behind them lay the labyrinth, with what pitfalls none could tell and with the Jannati Shahr men perhaps already penetrating into the crypt. Around them loomed the black, wet walls of this lowest stone dungeon with but one other exit—the pit at their feet.
The Master threw himself prone on the slippery floor, took one of the lamps and lowered it, by the chain, to its capacity. Smoke and vapor arose about his head as he peered down.
"Well, what is it?" demanded Bohannan, also squinting down, as he bent over the hole. "What do you see?"
"Nothing," the Master answered. "Nothing definite."
He could, in fact, be sure of nothing. But it seemed to him that, very far below, he could make out something like a swift, liquid blackness, streaked with dim-speeding lines of white that dissolved with phantasmagoric rapidity; a racing flood that roared and set the solid rock a-quiver in its mad tumult.
"Faith, an underground river of hot water!" ejaculated the Irishman with an oath. "Some river!"
"Warm water, at any rate," the Master judged, getting up again. A strange smile was in his eyes, by the smoky lamplight. "Well, men, this is our way out. The Arabs are not going to have any slaughter of victims, here. And what is more, they'll capture no dead bodies of white men, in this trap! There'll be at least ten skulls missing from that interesting golden Pyramid of Ayeshah!"
"For God's sake!" the major stammered. "What—what are you going to—do, now? Jump down that shaft?"
"Exactly. Your perspicacity does you credit, Major."
"Sure, you'll never catch me jumping!"
"Gentlemen," the Master said, in a low, quiet voice, "I regret to state that we have one coward among us."
THE RIVER OF NIGHT
The major's clenched fist was caught as it drove, by a scientific guard from the Master's right. The Master dropped his lamp, and with a straight left-hander sprawled Bohannan on the slimy pave. Impersonally he stood over the crazed Celt.
"Will you jump, voluntarily," demanded he, "or shall we be under the painful necessity of having to throw you down that pit?"
Enough rationality remained in the major to spur his pride. He crawled to his feet, chastened.
"You win, sir," he answered. "Who goes first?"
A dull reverberation shuddered the rock, the air.
"Vive Nissr!" exulted Leclair. "Ah, now our men, they attack the city!"
"I'm sorry to disillusion you," the Master answered, "but my explosive produces an entirely different type of concussion. What we have just heard is the blowing-in of the treasure-crypt door. There's no time to lose, now. Who jumps, first?"
"Wait a minute!" cried "Captain Alden." Her eyes were gleaming through the mask, with keen excitement. "Why neglect any chance of possibly surviving?"
"What do you mean?" the Master demanded.
"Emptied, inflated, and tied up again, they'll float us! It's the oldest kind of device used in the Orient!"
"By Allah, inspiration! Quick, men, the wine-skins!"
Himself, he set the example. Knife in hand, while Emilio held the lamp for him, he crumbled the seals on one of the goat-skins, then cut the leather thong that secured the neck, and quickly unwound it. He dragged the sack to the black pit and tipped it up.
With a gulp and a gurgle, the precious old wine, clear ruby under the dim light, gushed away down the steaming shaft that plunged to the River of Night.
"Oh, faith now, but that's a damned shame, sir!" Bohannan protested, rubbing an ugly welt on his brow. His voice was thick, dull, unnatural. Madness glimmered in his blinking eyes. "With the blessed tongue of me parched to a cinder! And wine like that! Here, sir—take a handful of diamonds, or whatever, and give me just one little drink!"
'"'Bristol! Restrain that man!" the Master ordered. "If you can't handle him, get help!"
As a couple of Legionaries laid hands on the major, another voice spoke up. It was that of Ferrara, the Italian ace:
"The major is right, sir, in spite of all! Good wine in our throats would make death less bitter. 'We who are about to die, salute thee'—and ask wine!"
The Master peered sharply from beneath black brows. Discipline seemed crumbling. Now at what might be, perhaps, the last minute of his command, was the Master's word to be made light of? Were his orders to be gainsaid?
"No wine!" he flung at all of them, his voice tense as wire. "Who says we are about to die? Why, there may be a fighting chance, even yet! This underground river may come to light, somewhere. And if it does, it may bear us back to day, again.
"But the confusion of wine may just turn the scale against our getting through. No wine! We started on that basis. That's the basis we're going through on. No wine, I say—no wine!"
Murmurs answered him, but no man dared rebel. Discipline still gripped the Legionaries. The Master drove them to labor. "Come, quick now! Prepare a sack, apiece! I'll show you how!"
He set lips to the emptied skin, and with many lungfuls of strong breath inflated it. The leather thong tightly wrapped the neck. He doubled that neck over, and took more turns with the thong, then tied it in a tight square knot.
"Get to work, men!" he ordered. "To work!"
They obeyed. Even the major, brain-shaken as he was, fell in with the orders. The floor, all round the black pit, ran red with precious wine, a single cupful of which would have delighted the heart of the world's most Lucullian gourmet.
Up from that floor and from the jetty, steaming walls of the pit drifted ambrosial perfume that evoked visions of ancient vineyards where, under the Eastern sun, bloomy clusters of grape—mayhap even the very grape sung by the Tent-maker—hung ripening.
Still, none stooped to the mouths of the wine-skins, to taste. None drank from cupped palm. Dry-mouthed, hot, panting, the Legionaries still obeyed. And thus the rare wine of Araby ran guttering to the unseen blackness of the mystery river far below.
The Master, hands on hips, watched this labor; and as he watched he laughed.
"Whatever comes to us, men," judged he, "we are here and now doing great evil to the men of El Barr. My only regret is that we haven't time to return up through the labyrinth, to the jewel-crypt, fill the skins with jewels and dump them all down this shaft like the wine. These Moslem swine would then remember us, many a long day. Ah, well, some day we may come back—who knows?"
He fell silent, while the last of the skins were being filled and lashed. The last, that is to say, needed by the Legionaries. Ten in all, were now blown up and securely tied. But a good many more still remained full of the rare wine.
With his simitar, the Master slashed these quickly, one by one.
"They took our blood," he cried. "We have taken theirs—and their wine, too. And have destroyed Myzab and the Black Stone, no doubt. Well, it's a bargain!"
"C'est egal!" exclaimed Leclair. "More than that, eh, my Captain?"
The Master returned to the shaft, his bare feet red through the run and welter of the wine on the stone floor.
"Now men," said he, crisply, as he flung down the pit his simitar which could have no further use, "this may be the final chapter. Our Legion was organized for adventure. We've had it. No one can complain. If it's good-bye, now—so be it.
"There may be a chance, however, of winning through. Hold fast to your goat-skins; and if the hidden river isn't too hot, and if there's head-room, some of us may get through to daylight. Let us try to reassemble where we find the first practicable stopping-place. If the Jannati Shahr men are waiting for us, there, don't be taken alive. Remember!
"Now, give me your hand, each one, and—down the shaft with you!"
Simonds went first, boldly, without a quiver of fear. Silently and with set jaw, he shook hands with the Master, clutched a distended wine-bag in both arms, and quickly leaped.
His body vanished, instantly, from sight. Steam and darkness swallowed it. Far below, a dull splash told of his disappearance.
Lebon followed, after having given his torture-twisted hand to his beloved lieutenant, as well as to the Master.
"Notre Pere qui etes aux cieux!" he stammered, as the pit received him.
Then went Wallace, Ferrara, and Emilio. Of these three, only the last showed anything resembling the white feather. Emilio's face was waxen, with staring eyes reflecting unspeakable horror, as he took the leap into the River of Night. But he went mutely, with no outcry.
Bristol, sheathed in imperturbable British aplomb, remarked:
"Well, so long, boys! This is jolly beastly, eh? But we'll meet on that beautiful shore!"
Then he, too, jumped into the black.
Leclair, inappropriately enough, leaped with a shout of: "Vive la France!"
Now only Bohannan, "Captain Alden," and the Master were left.
"You're next, Major!" the Master ordered, pointing at the inexorable black mouth of the pit, whence rose the thin, wraith-spirals of vapor.
"I'm ready!" exclaimed the major. "Sure, what's better than a hot bath after the heavy exercise we've been having?" His voice rose buoyantly over the drumming roar of the mysterious, underground torrent. "Ready, sir! But if you'll only give me one wee sup of good liquor, sir, I'll die like an Irishman and a gentleman—of fortune!"
"No, liquor, Major," the Master answered, shaking his head. "Can't you see for yourself all the wine-sacks are cut?"
"Cut, is it? Well, well, so they are!" The major blinked redly. Obviously his confused mind had not grasped the situation. "Well, sure, that's a pity, now." And he fell to gnawing that tawny mustache of his.
"Come Major, you're next!" the Master bade him. "Take your wine-skin and jump!"
Clarity of mind for a moment returned to Bohannan. Gallantly he shook hands with the Master, saluted "Captain Alden," and picked up his wine-sack.
"It's a fine whirl we've had," he affirmed, with one of his old-time smiles, his teeth gleaming by the light of the silver lamp in the Master's hand. "No man could ask a better."
I'd rather have seen what I've seen, and done what I've done, and now jump to Hell and gone, than be safe and sound this minute on Broadway.
"Please overlook any little irregularities of conduct, sir My brain, you know, and—well, good-bye!"
Calmly he picked up his sack and without more ado jumped into the void.
"Now," said the Master, when "Captain Alden" and he remained alone. "Now—you and I!"
"Yes," the woman answered. "You and I, at last!"
The Master set down his lamp on the floor all wet with condensed vapor and wine. He loosened the buckles of her mask, took the mask off and tossed it into the pit.
"Finis, for that!" said he, and smiled strangely. "You aren't going to be handicapped by any mask, in whatever struggle lies ahead of us. If you get through to the world, and to life again, you get through as a woman.
"If not, you die as one. But the disguise is done with, and gone. You understand me!"
"Yes. I understand," she answered, and stood peering up at him. Not even the white welts and ridges cut in her flesh by the long wearing of the mask could make her face anything but very beautiful. Her wonderful eyes mirrored far more, as they looked into this strange man's, than would be easy to write down in words.
"I understand," she repeated. "If this is death, I couldn't have dreamed or hoped for a better one. In that, at least, we can be eternally together—you and I!"
Silence fell, save for the shuddering roar of the black river, that rose with vapors from the dark pit. Man and woman, they searched out each other's souls with their gaze.
Then all at once the Master took her hand, and brought it to his heart and held it there. The lamp-shine, obliquely striking upward from the floor, cast deep shadows over their faces; and these shadows seemed symbolic of the shadows of death closing about them at this hour of self-revelation.
"Listen," said the Master, in a wholly other voice from any that had ever come from his lips. "I am going to tell you something. At a moment like this, a man speaks only the exact truth. This is the exact truth.
"In all the years of my life and in all my wanderings up and down this world, I have never seen a woman—till now—whom I felt that I could love. I have lived like an anchorite, celled in absolute isolation from womankind. Incredible as it may seem to you, I have never even kissed a woman, with a kiss of love. But—I am going to kiss you, now."
He took her face in both his hands, drew it up for a moment, gazed at it with a fixity of passion that seemed to burn. The woman's eyes drooped shut. Her lips yearned to his. Then his stern arms in-drew her to his breast, and for a moment she remained there, silently.
All at once he put her from him.
"Now, go!" he commanded. "I shall follow, close. And wait for me—if there is any waiting!"
He picked up one of the two remaining wine-sacks, and put it into her hands.
"Cling to this, through everything!" he commanded. "Cling, as you love life. Cling, as you share my hope for what may be, if life is granted us! And—the mercy-bullet, if it comes to that!
She smiled silently and was gone.
The Master, now all alone, stood waiting yet a moment. His face was bloodless. His lower lip was mangled, where his teeth had nearly met, through it.
Already, a confused murmur of sound was developing, from the black opening of the passage that had led the Legionaries down to this crypt of the wine-sacks and the pit.
He smiled, oddly.
"Many a corpse has been flung down this oubliette," said he. "I hate to go, without emptying my pistol into a few more of the Moslem swine, and dropping them down here to join my people. But—I must!"
He bent, gathered together the silver lamps left by his men, and threw them all into the abyss. Blackness, absolute, blotted the reeking chamber from his sight.
The faintest possible aura of light began to loom from the mouth of the passage. More distinctly, now, the murmur of Arab voices was becoming audible.
The Master leaped.
Far below, at the bottom of the pit, as the Arabs burst into the wine-vault, sounded a final impact of some heavy body striking swift water that swept it instantly away.
Then silence filled the black, rock-hewn chamber in the labyrinthine depths of Jannati Shahr.
Four men, one woman.
Save for these five living creatures, all was death. All was that great emptiness which the Arabs call "La Siwa Hu"—that is to say, the land "where there is none but He."
Over terrible spaces, over immense listening silences of hard, unbroken dunes extending in haggard desolation to fantastic horizons of lurid ardor, hung a heat-quivering air of deathlike stillness. Redder than blood, a blistering sun-ball was losing itself behind far, iron hills of black basalt. A flaming land it was, naked and bare, scalped and flayed to the very bones of its stark skeleton.
Heavily, and with the dazed look of beings who feel themselves lost yet still are driven by the life within them to press on, the five fugitives—pitiable handful of the Legion—were plodding south-west, toward the sunset.
The feet of all were cut and bleeding, in spite of rags torn from their tattered uniforms and bound on with strips of cloth; for everywhere through the sand projected ridges of vertical, sharp stone—the black basalt named by the Arabs Hajar Jehannum, or "Rock of Hell." As for their uniforms, though now dry as bone, the way in which they were shrunken and wrinkled told that not long ago they had been drenched in water of strongly mordant qualities.
Each figure bore, on its bent back, a goat-skin bag as heavily filled with water as could be carried. Strongly alkaline as that water was, corroding to the mouth and nauseous to the taste, still the refugees were clinging to it. For only this now stood between them and one of the most hideous deaths known to man—the death of thirst in the wilderness.
The woman's face, in spite of pain, anxiety, weariness, retained its beauty. Her heavy masses of hair, bound up with cloth strips, protected her head from "the great enemy," the sun. As for the others, they had improvised rough headgear from their torn shirts, ingeniously tied into some semblance of cherchias. Above all, the Legionaries knew that they must guard their heads from the direct rays of the desert sun.
In silence, all plodded on, on, toward the bleeding sphere that, now oblate through flaming mists, was mercifully sinking to rest. No look of surprise marked the face of any man, that "Captain Alden" was in reality a woman. The Legionaries' anguish, the numbing, brutalizing effects of their recent experience had been too great for any minor emotions to endure. They had accepted this fact like all others, as one of a series of incredible things that had, none the less, been true.
For a certain time the remnant of the Legion dragged itself south-westward, panting, gasping, wasting no breath in speech. Leclair was first to utter words.
"Let us rest a little while, mon capitaine," said he in a hoarse, choking voice. "Rest, and drink again. I know the desert. Many hundreds of miles lie between us and the coast. Nothing can be gained by hastening, at first. All may be lost. Let us rest, at all events, until that cursed sun has set!"
In silence the Master cast down his water-bag, at the bottom of the little, desolate valley of gravel through which the fugitives were now toiling. All did the same, and all sat down—or rather, fell—upon the hot earth.
Very different, now, this land was from what it had seemed as they had soared above it, at cool altitudes, in the giant air-liner; very different from the cool, green plain of El Barr, behind the grim black line of the Iron Mountains now a dim line off to eastward.
The sprawling collapse of the Legionaries told more eloquently than any words the exhaustion that already, after only four hours' trek, was strangling the life out of them.
For a while they lay there motionless, unthinking, brutalized by fatigue and pain. With their present condition as an earnest of what was yet to come, what hope had any that even one of them would live to behold the sparkle of the distant Red Sea? Even though unmolested by pursuit from Jannati Shahr or by attack from any wandering tribes of the Black Tent People, what hope could there be?
Gradually some coherence of thought returned to the Master. He sat up, painfully, and blinked with reddened eyes at the woman. She was lying beside her water-bag, seemingly asleep. The Master's face drew into lines of anguish as he looked at her.
With bruised fingers he loosened the thong of his own water-bag, and tore still another strip from his remnant of shirt. He poured a little of the precious water on to this rag, lashed the water-sack tight again, and with the warm, wet rag bathed the woman's face, brow, and throat.
Her closed lids did not open. No one paid any attention. No one even stirred. The cloth grew dry, almost at once, as the thirsty air absorbed its moisture. The Master pocketed it. Elbows on knees, head between hands, he sat there pondering.
In thought he was living over again the incredible events of the past hours, as they had been presented to his own experience. He was remembering the frightful, dizzying plunge down the black pit into the steaming waters of the River of Night—waters which, had they been but a few degrees hotter, would incontinently have ended everything on the instant.
He was recalling, as in a nightmare, his frenzied battle for life, clinging to the inflated goat-skin—the whirl and thunder of unseen cataracts in the blind dark—the confusion of deafening, incomprehensible violences.
He was bringing back to mind the long, swift, smooth rushing of mighty waters through midnight caverns where echoes had told of a rock-roof close above; then, after an indeterminate time of horror that might have been minutes or hours, a weltering maelstrom of leaping waters—a graying of light on swift-fleeing walls; a sudden up-boiling gush of the strangling flood that whelmed him—and all at once a glare of sun, a river broadening out through palm-groves far beyond the Iron Mountains.
All these things, blurred, unreal, heartshaking as evil visions of fever, the Master was remembering. Then came other happenings: a long drift with resistless currents, the strange phenomenon of the lessening stream that dwindled as thirsty sands absorbed it, and the ceasing of the palms.
Last of all, the river had diminished to a shallow, tortuous delta, where the Master's numbed feet had touched bottom. There he had dragged himself ashore, with his goatskin, far more dead than living. And there, for a time he knew not, consciousness had wholly ceased.
A dull, toneless voice sounded in the Master's ears. Bohannan was speaking.
"Faith, but it's strange how even the five of us found each other, out there in the sand," said the major. "What happened to the rest of us, God knows—maybe!" He choked, coughed, added: "Or to the boys with Nissr. God rest their souls! I wish I had a sackful of that wine!" After a long pause: "Don't you, now? What?"
The Master gave no heed. He was trying to ease the position in which the woman was lying. His jacket was off, now, and he was folding it to put under her head.
At his touch, she opened vague eyes. She smiled with dry lips, and put his hand away.
"No, no!" she protested. "No special favors for me! I'm not a woman, remember. I'm 'Captain Alden,' still—only a Legionary!"
"If you favor me in any way, to the detriment of any of the others or your own, I won't go on! I'm just one of you. Just one of the survivors, on even terms with the rest. It's give-and-take. I mean that! You've got to understand me!"
The Master nodded. He knew that tone. Silently he put on his jacket, again.
The lieutenant's orderly, Lebon, groaned and muttered a prayer to the Virgin. Leclair sat up, heavily, and blinked with sand-inflamed eyes.
"Time to drink again, n'est-ce pas, my Captain?" asked he. "Drink to the dead!"
"I hope they are dead, rather than prisoners!" exclaimed the Master. "Yes, we'll drink, and get forward. We've got to make long strides, tonight. Those Jannati Shahr devils may be after us, tomorrow. Surely will, if they investigate that delta and find only a few bodies. They'll conclude some of us have got through. And if they pick up our trail, with those white dromedaries of theirs—"
"The sacred pigs!" ejaculated Leclair. "Ah, messieurs, now you begin to know the Arabs as I have long known them." With eyes of hate and pain he peered back at the darkening line of the Iron Mountains.
Bohannan, already loosening the neck of his goat-skin, laughed hoarsely.
"No wine!" he croaked, "and the water's rationed; even the stinking water. But the food isn't—good reason, too; there isn't any. Pockets full of gems!" He slapped one hard pocket. "I'd swap the lot for a proper pair of shoes and a skin o' that wine! Faith—that wine, now—"
The woman suddenly sat up, too, one hand on the hot gravel, the other raised for silence.
"Hark!" she whispered. "Sh!"
"What now?" demanded the Master.
"Nom d'un, nom!" And the lieutenant drew his gun.
The five fugitives stiffened for another battle. They looked well to their weapons. The Master's weariness and pain were forgotten as he crawled on hands and knees up the side of the little wady. The sound of distant camel-bells, a thin, far quiver of sound, had now reached his ears and those of the other men, less sensitive than the woman's.
Over the edge of the wady he peered, across a wa'ar, or stony ground covered with mummified scrub. Beyond, a blanched salt-plain gleamed hoar-white in the on-coming dusk; and farther off, the dunes began again.
Strangely enough, the Master laughed. He turned and beckoned, silently. The others joined him.
"From the west!" he whispered. "This is no pursuit! It is a caravan going to Jannati Shahr!"
Bohannan chuckled, and patted his revolver.
"Faith, but Allah is being good to us!" he muttered. "Now, when it comes to a fight—"
"Ten dromedaries—no, nine—" Leclair judged.
"And six camel-drivers," put in the woman, gun in hand. "A small caravan!"
"Hold your fire, all!" commanded the Master. "They're headed right across this wady. Wait till I give the word; then rush them! And—no prisoners!"
"WHERE THERE IS NONE BUT ALLAH"
An hour after sundown, four Legionaries pushed westward, driving the gaunt, mange-stained camels. In the sand near the wady lay buried Leclair and all the camel-drivers, with the sand smoothed over them so as to leave as little trace as possible.
Leclair had come to the death of all deaths he would have most abominated, death by ruse at the hands of an Arab. Not all his long experience with Arabs had prevented him from bending over a dead camel-driver. The dead man had suddenly revived from his feigned death and driven a jambiyeh into the base of the lieutenant's throat. That the lieutenant's orderly had instantly shattered the cameleer's skull with a point-blank shot had not saved Leclair.
The four survivors, in addition to burying all the bodies, had buried the copper bars the caravan had been freighting to Jannati Shahr. They had saved the scant food and water of the drivers, also their clothing, slippers, daggers, long rifles, and ammunition.
Now, dressed like Arabs—the best of all disguises in case of being sighted by pursuers or by wandering Black Tent tribes, from far off—they were trekking westward again, riding four of the camels and leading the others.
For a week of Hell the failing beasts, already half dead of thirst when captured, bore them steadily south-west, toward the coast. Twice there rose spirals of smoke, in the desert distances; but whether these were from El Barr pursuers or were merely Bedouin encampments they could not tell.
Merciless goading kept the camels going till they dropped dead, one by one.
By the end of the fourth day only three remained. Lebon methodically cut up every one that perished, for water, but found none in any stomach.
The fugitives sighted no oasis. They found no wady other than stone-dry. By day they slept, by night pushed forward. Day by day they grew weaker and less rational. The increasing nerve-strain that possessed them was companioned by the excruciating torture of their bodies racked by the swaying jolt of camel-riding.
But they still kept organization and coherence. Still, guided by the stars that burned with ardent trembling in the black sky, they followed their chosen course.
Morning heat-mist, noontide glare, wind like a beast with flaming breath, a sky terrible in its stainless beauty, an inescapable sun-furnace that seemed to boil the brains in their skulls—all these and the mockery of mirages that made every long white line of salt efflorescence a lake of cooling waters, brought the four tortured Legionaries close to death.
Awaking toward evening of the fifth day, the Master discovered one of the three camels gone—the one on which he had been riding with the woman, lest she fall fainting to the sand. With this camel, Major Bohannan had likewise disappeared. His big-shouldered, now emaciated figure in its dirty-white burnous was nowhere visible. Only prints of soft hoof-pads, leading off to north-eastward, betrayed the line of flight.
The Master pondered a while as he sat there, dazed, blinking at the desert all purple, gold, and tawny-red. His inflamed eyes, stubbly beard and gaunt cheeks made him a caricature of the man he had been, ten days before. After a little consideration, he awakened the woman and Lebon.
The verdict on Bohannan was madness, mirage, desertion.
For two days the major had been babbling of wine and water, been beholding things that were not, been hurling jewels at imaginary vultures. Now, well, the desert had got him.
To pursue would have been insanity. They got the two remaining camels up, by dint of furious beating and of hoarse eloquence in Arabic from the Master and Lebon. Once more, knowing themselves doomed, they pushed into the eye of the flaming west, over the savage gorgeousness of the Empty Abodes. In less than an hour the double-laden camel fell to its knees and incontinently died.
Lebon dismounted from the one surviving animal, and stepped fair into a scorpion's nest. The horrible little gray creature, striking up over its back with spiked tail, drove the deadly barb half an inch into the orderly's naked ankle.
The Master scarified, sucked, and cauterized the wound. Nothing availed. Lebon, in his depleted condition, could not fight off the poison. Thirty minutes later, swollen and black, he died in a frothing spasm, his last words a hideous imprecation on the Arabs who had enslaved and tortured him-a curse on the whole race of Moslems.
Shaken with horror, the woman and the man buried Lebon, loaded the remaining water-bags, the guns and food on to the one camel and dragged themselves away on foot, driving the spent beast. Obviously this camel could not go far. Blindness had stricken it, and its black lips were retracted with the parch of thirst.
They gave it half a skin of water, and goaded it along with desperation. Everything now depended on this camel. Even though it could not carry them, it could bear the burden of their scant supplies. Without it, hope was lost.
All that night they drove the tortured camel. It fell more and more often. The Master spared it not. For on its dying strength depended the life of the woman he loved.
The camel died an hour before dawn. Not even vultures wheeled across the steely sky. The Master cut from its wasted flanks a few strips of meat and packed them into one of the palm-stick baskets that had held the cameleers' supplies. With them he packed all the remaining food—a few lentils, a little goat's-milk cheese, and a handful of dates fried in clarified butter.
This basket, with a revolver and a handful of cartridges, also the extra slippers taken from Leclair and the orderly, made all the burden the woman could carry. The Master's load, heavier far, was one of the water-skins.
This load, he knew, would rapidly lighten. As it should diminish, faster than the woman's, he would take part of hers. Thus, as best they could, they planned the final stage of their long agony.
Before starting again, they sat a while beside the gaunt, mangled camel, held council of war and pledged faith again. They drank a little of the mordant water that burned the throat and seemed in no wise to relieve the horrible thirst that blackened their lips and shriveled all their tissues.
"I think," the Master gasped, "we can make an hour or so before the sun gets too bad." He squinted at the crimson and purple banderoles of cloud through which, like the eye of a fevered Cyclops, the sun was already glowering. Already the range of obsidian hills ahead of them, the drifted sands all fretted with wind-waves, the whole iron plain of the desert was quivering with heat. "Every hour counts, now. Before we start, let us agree to certain things."
She nodded silently, crouching beside him on the sand. He drew an emaciated arm about her and for a moment peered down into her face. But he did not kiss her. A kiss, as they both were—some fine delicacy of the soul seemed telling him—would have been mockery.
"Listen," he commanded. "We must strictly ration the food and water. You must help me keep to that ration. I will help you. We must be careful about scorpions. Above all, we must beware of mirages. You understand?"
"I understand," she whispered.
"If either of us sees palms or water, that one must immediately tell the other. Then, if the other does not also see them, that is a mirage. We must not turn aside for anything like that, unless we both see it. I am speaking rationally, now that I can. Remember what I say!"
Silently she nodded. He went on:
"Now that we can still think, we must weigh every contingency. Our only hope lies in our helping each other. Alone, either of us will be led away by mirages in a little while. That kind of death must be spared us. We both live or die, together."
She smiled faintly, with parched lips.
"Do you think I would leave you," she asked, "any more than you would leave me? The pact is binding."
He pressed her hand.
"Come," said he. "Let us go!"
Once more they got to their feet, and set out to south-westward, over a scorching plain of crumbling, nitrous mud-flakes. Laden as they were, they could barely shuffle one foot after the other. But blessed lapses of consciousness now and then relieved their agony.
Conscious or not, the life within them drove them onward, ever onward; slow, crawling things that all but blindly moved across the land of death, La Siwa Hu—"where there is none but Allah."
How that day passed, they knew not. Nature is kind. When agony grows too keen, the All-mother veils the tortured body with oblivion.
Over blood-colored stretches swept by the volcano-breath of the desert, through acacia barrens and across basaltic ridges the two lonely figures struggled on and on. They fell, rested, slept a nightmare sleep under the furious heat, got up again and dragged themselves once more along.
Now they were conscious of plains all whitened with saltpeter, now of scudding sand-pillars—wind-jinnee of the Empty Abodes—that danced and mocked them. Again, one or the other beheld paradisical, gleaming lakes, afar.
But though they had lost the complete rationality that would have bidden them lie quiet all day, and trek only at night, they still remembered the pact of the mirages. And since never both beheld the same lake, they held each other from the fatal madness that had slain Bohannan.
Their only speech was when discussing the allurements of beckoning waters which were but air.
At nightfall, toiling up over the lip of a parched, chalky nullah that sunset turned to amethyst, a swarm of howling Arabs suddenly attacked them. The Master flung himself down, and fired away all his ammunition, in frenzy. The woman, catching his contagion, did likewise.
No shots came back; and suddenly the Arabs vanished from the man's sight. When he stumbled forward to the place where they had been, he discovered no dead bodies, not even a footprint.
Nothing was there but a clump of acacias, their twisted thorns parched white. They had been shooting at only fantasms of their own brains. Now, even the mercy-bullets were gone.
Bitterly the man cursed himself, as he thrust the now useless pistol back into its holster. The woman, however, smiled with dry lips, and from her belt took out a little, flattened piece of lead—the bullet which, fired at Nissr from near the Ka'aba, had fallen at her feet and been picked up by her as a souvenir.
"Here is a bullet," said she chokingly. "You can cut this in two and shape it. We can reload two shells with some of the Arab powder. It will do!"
They laughed irrationally. More than half mad as they now were, neither one thought of the fact that they had no percussion-caps.
Still laughing, they sat down in the hot sand, near the clawlike distortions of the acacias. Consciousness lapsed. They slept. The sun's anger faded; and a steel moon, long after, slid up the sky.
Next day, many miles to south-westward of the acacias, Kismet—toying with them for its own delectation—respited them a little while by stumbling them on to a deserted oasis. They turned aside to this only after a long, irrational discussion. The fact that they could both see the same thing, and that they had really come to palm trees—trees they could touch and feel—gave them fresh courage.
Little enough else they got there. The cursed place, just a huddle of blind, mud huts under a dozen sickly trees, had been swept clean some time ago by the passage of a swarm of those voracious locusts known as jarad Iblis (the locusts of Satan).
Nothing but bare branches remained in the nakhil, or grove. Nothing at all was to be found in the few scrubby fields about the well now choked with masses of the insects. Whoever the people of this squalid settlement had been, all were gone. The place was almost as bare as if the sun's flames, themselves, had flared down and licked the village to dust and ashes.
All the sufferers found, of any worth, was a few handfuls of dry dates in one of the hovels and a water-jar with about two quarts of brackish water.
This water the Master discovered, groping half blind through the hut. Stale as it was, it far surpassed the strongly chemicalized water of the River of Night, still remaining in the goat-skin. It smote him with the most horrible temptation of his life. All the animal in his nature, every parched atom of his body shouted.
"Take it! Drink, drink your fill! She will never know. Take it, and drink!"
He seized the water-jar, indeed, but only to carry it with shaking hands to her, where she lay in the welcome shadow of the hut. His lips were black with thirst as he raised her head and cried to her:
"Here is water—real water! Drink!"
She obeyed, hardly more than half conscious. He gave her all he dared to have her drink at once, nearly half. Then he set down the jar, loosened the sack from his shoulders which were cut raw with the chafing of the thongs, and bathed her face with a little of that other water which, though bad, still might keep life in them.
"This may be an insane waste," he was thinking, "but it will help revive her. And—maybe—we shall find another, better oasis."
Out across the plain he peered, over the sun-dried earth, out into the distances shrouded with purple mists. His blurred eyes narrowed.
"Why, my God! There's one, now!" he muttered. "A green one—cool—fresh—"
The Master laid the woman down again in the shadow, got up and staggered out into the blinding sun. He tottered forward, laughing hoarsely.
"Cool—fresh—" The words came from between parched lips.
All at once the oasis faded to a blur in the brilliant tapestry of the desert that beckoned: "Come to me—and die!"
The Master recoiled, hands over eyes, mouthing unintelligible words. Back beside the woman he crouched, fighting his own soul to keep it from madness. Then he heard her voice, weak, strange:
"Have you drunk, too?"
"You are not—telling me the truth."
"So help me God!" His fevered lips could hardly form the words. "There, in the hut—I drank. All I needed."
She grew silent. His conscience lapsed. They lay as if dead, till almost evening, under the shelter of the blessed shadow.
The rest, even in that desolation, put fresh life into them. At nightfall they bound up their feet again, ate the dry dates and again set their blistered faces toward the Red Sea.
The woman's basket was now light, indeed, across her shoulders. Not all her begging had induced the Master to let her carry the water-jug there. This, too, he was carrying.
All night long, stopping only when one or the other fell, they ploughed over basalt and hornblende schist that lacerated their feet, over blanched immensities under the steel moon, across grim, black ridges and through a basin of clay, circled by hills.
Strange apparitions mocked and mowed before them, but grimly they gave no heed. This, they both realized in moments of lucidity, was the last trek. Either they must find the sea, before another night, or madness would sink its fangs into their brains. And madness meant—the end.
Their whole consciousness was pain. This pain localized itself especially in their heads, round which some jinnee of the waste had riveted red-hot iron bands. There was other pain, too, in the limping feet cased in the last of the babooches, now stiffened with blood. And in the throat and lungs, what was this burning?
Another of those horrible, red mornings, with a brass circle of horizon flaming all around in the most extraordinary fireworks topped by an azure zenith, found them still crawling south-westwards making perhaps a mile an hour.
Disjointed words and sentences kept framing themselves in the man's mind; above all, a sentence he had read long ago in Greek, somewhere. Where had he read that? Oh, in Xenophon, of course. In The Retreat of the Ten Thousand. The Master gulped it aloud, in a dead voice:
"Most terrible of all is—the desert—for it is full-of a great want."
After a while he knew that he was trying to laugh.
"A great want!" he repeated. "A great—"
Presently it was night again.
The Master's mind cleared. Yes, there was the woman, lying in the sand near him. But where was the date-stick basket? Where was the last of the food? He tried to think.
He could remember nothing. But reason told him they must have eaten the last of the food and thrown the basket away. His shoulders felt strangely light. What was this? The water-bag was gone, too?
But that did not matter. There had been only a little of that chemicalized water left, anyhow. Perhaps they had drunk it all, or bathed their faces and necks with it. Who could tell? The water-sack was gone; that was all he knew.
A great fear stabbed him. The water-jar! Was that still on his back? As he felt the pull of a thong, and dragged the jar around so that he could blink at it, a wonderful relief for a moment deadened his pain.
"Allah iselmak!" he croaked, blessing the scant water the jar still held. He realized the woman was looking at him.
"Water!" he whispered. "Let us drink again—and go on!"
She nodded silently. He loosed the thong, took the jar and peered into its neck, gauging the small amount of water still there. Then he held it to her lips.
She seemed to be drinking, but only seemed. Frowning, as she finished, he once more squinted into the jar with bleared eyes. His voice was even, dull, ominous as he accused:
"You drank nothing. You are trying to save water for me!"
She shook her head in negation, but he penetrated the lie. His teeth gleamed through his stubble of beard, and his eyes glinted redly under the hood of his ragged burnous as he cried:
"Will you drink?"
"I tell you—I have drunk!"
Slowly he tilted the jar toward the thirsty sands.
"Drink, now, or I pour all this on the ground!"
Beaten, she extended a quivering hand. They shared the last of the water. The man took less than a third. Then they set out again on the endless road of pain.
Was it that same day, or the next, that the man fell and could not rise again? The woman did not know. Something had got into her brain and was dancing there and would not stop; something blent of sun and glare, sand, mirage, torturing thirst. There was a little gray scorpion, too—but no, that had been crushed to a pulp by the man's heel. Or had it not? Well—
The man! Was there a man? Where was he? Here, of course, on the baked earth.
As she cradled his head up into her lap and drew the shelter of her burnous over it, she became rational again. Her hot, dry hand caressed his face. After a while he was blinking up at her.
"Bara Miyan! Violator of the salt!" he croaked, and struck at her feebly. And after another time, she perceived that they were staggering on and on once more.
The woman wondered what had happened to her head, now that the sun had bored quite through. Surely that must make a difference, must it not?
A jackal barked. But this, they knew, must be illusion.
No jackals lived so far from any habitation of mankind. The man blinked into the glare, across which sand-devils of whirlwinds were once more gyrating over a whiteness ending in dunes that seemed to be peppered with camel-grass.
Another mirage! Grass could grow only near the coast. And now that they had both been tortured to death by Jannati Shahr men and been flung into Jehannum, how could there be any coast? It seemed so preposterous.
It was all so very simple that the man laughed—silently.
Where had that woman gone to? Why, he thought there surely had been a woman with him! But now he stood all alone. This was very strange.
"I must remember to ask them if there wasn't a woman," thought he. "This is an extraordinary place! People come and go in such a manner!"
The man felt a dull irritation, and smeared the sand out of his eyes. How had that sand got there? Naturally, from having laid on one of those dunes. There seemed to be no particular reason for lying on a dune, under the fire-box of an engine, so the man sat up and kept blinking and rubbing his eyes.
"This is the best mirage, yet," he reflected. "The palms look real. And the water—it sparkles. Those white blotches—one would say they were houses!"
Indifferent, yet interested, too, in the appearance of reality, the man remained sitting on the dune, squinting from under his torn burnous.
The mirage took form as a line of dazzling white houses along a sea of cobalt and indigo. And to add to the reality of the mirage, some miles away, he could see two boats with sails all green and blue from the reflection of the luster of the water.
The man's eyes fell. He studied his feet. They were naked, now, cut to the bone, caked with blood and sand. Odd, that they did not hurt. Where were his babooches? He seemed to remember something about having taken some ragged ones from the feet of some woman or other, a very long time ago, and having bound his own upon her mangled feet.
"I'll ask the people in those houses, down there," thought he; and on hands and knees started to crawl down the slope of the dunes toward the dazzling white things that looked like houses.
Something echoed at the back of his brain:
"You must ask her if this is real! Unless you both see it, you must not go!"
He paused. "There was a woman, then!" he gasped. "But—where is she now?"
Realization that she had disappeared sobered him. He got up, groped with emaciated hands before his face as he turned back away from the white houses and stumbled eastward.
All at once he saw something white lying on the sand, under a cooking glare of sunlight. Memory returned. He fell on his knees beside the woman and caught her up in quivering arms.
After a while, he noticed there was blood on her left arm. Blood, in the bend of the elbow, coagulated there.
This puzzled him. All he could think was that she might have cut herself on her jambiyeh, when she had fallen. He did not know then, nor did he ever know, that he himself had fallen at this spot; that she had thought him dying; that she had tried to cut her arm and give him her blood to drink; that she had fainted in the effort. Some last remnants of strength welled up in him. He stooped, got her across his shoulder, struggled to his feet and went staggering up the dune.