But now the past had been atoned for. The bravery of the son expiated the old father's crimes. When Albert returned home, Mercedes enjoyed new life at his side. But alas! The proud hopes soon vanished. All news from Albert ceased, and at the end of three months Mercedes, in despair, had written to the Count of Monte-Cristo.
Three months before Albert had been captured by the rebels, and incarcerated in the dungeon in which he still was. Not a human voice was ever heard. The black slave who served him with coffee could not be induced to say a word to him. Mercedes had told him the story of the Count of Monte-Cristo; he knew that Edmond Dantes had spent fourteen years in the Chateau d'If, and trembled when he thought of it. Yet if he were only able to escape! But Albert soon became convinced that this was impossible. There was no way out of these gloomy walls. He then made up his mind to starve himself, and for several days he had eaten nothing, so that he was astonished at finding himself still alive. When the slave withdrew on this particular day, Albert felt his head turn and he muttered half aloud:
"Mother, mother, forgive me, but I cannot do otherwise."
At this moment a loud noise was heard, and the assassins led by the marabout entered Joliette's dungeon.
He resolved to die bravely as became a French soldier.
Heavy blows were rained against his cell, and at the same moment Joliette heard a voice call to him:
"Captain, captain! Do not despair—help is at hand!"
Just then his cell door was burst open and the murderers rushed in.
THE LION IN CONFLICT WITH THE LION
We must go back with our story four days. Sixty leagues from Uargla an immense caravan was encamped. Not a tree or a green leaf could be seen for miles around, and yet it was here that Monte-Cristo cast his tent. Hardly had he arrived at Bona than he regained the vigor of his youthful days, and two hours after his landing Monte-Cristo was already on his way to the desert with a well-organized caravan. One hundred energetic men accompanied him, and his train consisted of two hundred horses and eight hundred camels. He and Spero were at the head of the party; Bertuccio, Jacopo and Coucou followed behind. Before he had left the ship, the count had called his son aside, and putting a map before him, he pointed with his finger to Uargla and said:
"This is the place we must go to—in Uargla we shall find what we are looking for."
Monte-Cristo knew that in the centre of the desert the queen of the oases, Uargla, lay, and that it was the principal refuge of sedition. He had known that Abd-el-Kader's imprisonment was but the commencement of a long and bloody war. The name given him by the Zouave, Mohammed ben Abdallah, he knew to be that of a treacherous villain. How did it happen, then, that Monte-Cristo had not recognized in the Arab who enjoyed his hospitality Mohammed ben Abdallah? The count had been rewarded for his generosity by having his cabin broken open, the contents of his safe scattered about, and being told to beware of the Khouans.
What the Fenians are to Ireland, the Thugs to India, the Khouans are to Arabia. They formed a brotherhood whose object was the murder and annihilation of all Europeans and Christians. Monte-Cristo knew the savage nature of these enemies. He was now within four days' journey of Uargla, and began to hope that perhaps he would find what he was seeking. When night came, Monte-Cristo withdrew with Spero to his tent. The count wrote to Haydee. A courier went north every day, but Monte-Cristo had not yet been able to send Mercedes any consolation. Spero, tired out by the fatigues of the day, had fallen asleep, and the father often gazed with pleasure at the finely chiselled face. How many dreams and hopes rested on this son! Yes, when he gazed at Spero, he had to confess that he had dealt too harshly with Morcerf. If he had been a father at that time, he would have hesitated before he had carried out his plan of vengeance. Ah! he must hurry and bring back to Mercedes her son, so that the punishment should not fall on Spero's head.
Suddenly Spero uttered a cry in his sleep, and looked wildly about him.
"No, no; let me go! Papa, help—they are carrying me away—help me!"
Monte-Cristo, frightened, bent over the sleeping boy.
"What is the matter, Spero?" he asked, tenderly; "have you been dreaming?"
"Oh, how glad I am it was only a dream! I will tell it to you."
"Speak, Spero, I am listening. You know," he consolingly added, "dreams are untrue."
"Yes, you have often told me that, and yet—"
The child paused and looked timidly in the corner of the tent.
"Why do you look so timidly over there?" asked the count, anxiously.
"Papa, do not laugh at me," whispered Spero, "but I do not think I was asleep. A little while ago, I saw the curtains of the tent part and a dark form appeared at the aperture."
"When was it, Spero?"
"At the moment when you laid the pen down and came to me."
"You saw me then? You were not sleeping?"
"I do not know, papa; I have read of the eye of the serpent, which frightens the little birds and prevents them from making a single movement. I could not move, and the two men drew near me. They pressed their long hands upon my forehead and wished to drag me off. Then finally I screamed and they disappeared."
Monte-Cristo embraced the excited child and reassuringly murmured:
"Keep quiet, Spero, I am with you."
Monte-Cristo looked thoughtful. Suppose his boy should be taken from him? No, it was nonsense. Spero must have been dreaming.
"Spero," he said, turning to the child, "I shall watch over your slumbers! Lie down again and have no fear. Come, I will kiss you; think of your mother and go to sleep."
The boy smiled now and his pale cheeks grew rosy. His father's voice gave him courage, and, laying his head upon Monte-Cristo's shoulder, he fell asleep, murmuring: "Dear, dear mother."
When he was fast asleep, Monte-Cristo gently withdrew his arm and softly walked to the corner of the tent. The cloth of which the tent was made was very strong and thick, and withstood the rays of the sun and the rain. When the count let his hand glide over it, he almost uttered a cry of astonishment. Spero had not been dreaming! The tent had been cut from top to bottom as if with a sharp sword.
Who had any interest in breaking into his tent? Did they wish to kill him or Spero?
The count turned deadly pale. He had tried to reassure Spero by telling him that dreams were untruths, but he himself felt disturbed. Throwing the curtains of the tent aside, Monte-Cristo went out into the night. The pale moonlight shone full upon the dark rocks. With the sharp glance of an eagle Monte-Cristo gazed about. It seemed hardly possible to him that two men had gone through the camp unhindered and undisturbed, and yet it was so. The cut in the canvas was the best proof of this. Shaking his head, the count returned to the tent and mended the tear in the cloth with fine wire thread. Thereupon he shoved the table near the wall and began to write. Spero could sleep peacefully; his father was watching. Haydee had intrusted the child to him, and he had to bring it back to her in safety. Suddenly he was aroused by the roar of a lion. The count seized a gun, flung his arm about Spero, whom he would not have left alone for the world, and hurried out. The Arabs, stricken with terror, had fled in all directions.
"Let no one stir!" shouted the count above the din. "I will answer for your life, but you must obey my orders."
"Here I am," said Coucou, coming forward. "Master, let me follow you. I know the lion and understand how to fight him."
"Master, take my life, but spare your own," implored Jacopo.
"Jacopo, Coucou," said the count, "I intrust Spero to you, and let no one fire until I do. The first shot belongs to me. If I should miss the lion, then you can take your turn."
A new uproar was heard, followed by the report of a gun.
"A man seems to have attacked the beast," said the count, running in the direction whence the sound proceeded.
To his horror he saw a man lying on the ground, and the lion standing over him with one paw on his breast. It was Bertuccio, Benedetto's foster-father. Carefully, fearlessly, looking into the yellow eye of the king of beasts, Monte-Cristo advanced. The lion growled. The slightest movement would have caused Bertuccio's death. With a bound it sprang at the count. Quick as thought the latter fired. With a roar of pain the majestic beast turned in the air and fell to the ground, dead. The next minute the count knelt at Bertuccio's side. The latter was unconscious. The count raised his pale face, and, dashing some water over it, gradually restored the old man to his senses.
"Bertuccio," he softly said, "do you know me?"
"Yes, master. Ah, the lion has finished me! Its claws were buried like daggers in my breast."
"Have you nothing to say to me? Have you no wish to be carried out? Speak, you know I am your friend."
"Quick, quick!" he whispered, breathlessly; "one more—drop—Spero—you—"
"Drink!" said the count, placing a bottle to his lips.
"Master, beware of your enemies. I saw them, I followed them, and then I met the lion."
"Enemies, you say? How many were there?"
"Two. They were Arabs. Ajassuas, as I believe. Oh, beware of them!"
"Bertuccio, since twenty years you have been a faithful friend to me. Speak, and I swear on my honor I will do what you say."
"My dear master—it is—about—that wretch."
"You speak of Benedetto?"
"Yes. I would have killed him then if you had not held me back, but yet I am glad I did not do it. I ask you as a favor to—"
"To let Benedetto live, if he should ever cross your path. He must not die by your hand."
"I swear not to kill him, Bertuccio; by the head of my child."
Bertuccio muttered his thanks, and passed silently away.
"The lion has conquered the lion," whispered a voice close to the count.
Monte-Cristo turned around and saw a delicate young girl in a white bernouse.
"Who are you?" he gently asked.
At the count's question, the girl passed her small white hand slowly across her forehead, and in a low voice said:
"I am she who no longer has any family, for her family has been tortured; she has no native country, for it has exiled her; no friend, for her only one is in the power of his enemies."
"Then your name is Medje?" exclaimed the count in a sudden fit of joyful inspiration.
"Yes, I am Medje," she proudly answered, throwing back her veil and revealing a countenance of superb beauty.
Coucou now hastened up, and as he beheld the young Arabian, he excitedly exclaimed:
"Medje, commander, it is Medje. Ask her where her 'little papa' is."
Medje turned deathly pale as she heard these words.
She stretched her arms toward the south and mournfully said:
"Little papa is down there, in the sultana's dungeon."
"Do you mean Captain Joliette, whom you call little papa?" asked Monte-Cristo.
"And the sultana is Uargla, the mysterious city?"
The young girl shivered as she replied:
"Yes, Uargla. There he suffers and there, too, he will be killed."
Monte-Cristo waved back those around, and then asked her in a whisper:
"Why did you come here?"
"To look for you."
"For me? Do you know me?"
"Somebody has told you my name?"
"Explain yourself more plainly."
"I will tell you everything, but let these men go away."
"Follow me," said the count.
The count ordered Coucou to take charge of the dead lion, and of Bertuccio's body, which would be buried in the morning. He then gazed intently at the girl, and recognized two pale six-cornered stars in dead gold color on her cheeks. This filled him with new hope.
"Poor Bertuccio," sighed the Jackal, "he was a good comrade."
"And a faithful soul," added Monte-Cristo.
Spero came running up, and winding his arm around his father's neck, whisperingly asked:
"Papa, why could I not accompany you?"
"My child, it was a fight with a lion."
"You were not afraid? Why should I have been?"
The handsome boy now, for the first time, perceived Medje, who smiled at him.
"Who is that, papa?" he asked in a whisper.
"A friend, Spero; offer her your hand."
The boy obeyed and Medje raised his hand to her lips, murmuring:
"Son of him who kills lions, may God measure your years by the kisses which your father gives you."
Monte-Cristo clasped his arms around Spero's shoulders and, accompanied by him and Medje, approached the tent. But before he reached it an Arab excitedly ran toward him with outstretched arms.
"Oh, master, hear me. Do not let this woman cross the threshold of the camp."
"Did you not see the sign on her cheek? She is accursed."
Involuntarily Medje covered her face with her hands.
Monte-Cristo angrily retorted:
"Silence. The weaker have a right to the hospitality of the stronger."
"Oh, my lord. Heed my warning. She is a witch, an accursed fortune-teller. You will be sorry if she enters the camp. She will cast a spell over camels and men."
"All the same, leave me. Medje has placed herself under my protection and I will not deceive her confidence."
The Arabian girl clung weeping to the count.
"Do not grieve," he said, "you have mentioned a name which renders you holy in my eyes."
He then turned to the Arab, and sternly continued:
"You may have your liberty if you desire. But if you have not only spoken in your own name but also in that of your comrades, tell them that Monte-Cristo, the lion-tamer, is afraid of nobody. They may all leave. The desert with its terrors cannot alter my will."
The other Arabs, who had drawn near, heard these words, and enthusiastically exclaimed:
"We will not leave you, lion-killer."
The count nodded and, addressing the Corsican, said:
"Give him double what he claims. In my home no attention is paid to magic; we honor God and laugh at demons."
He slowly entered his tent, and gazing at Spero and Medje, in a friendly tone of voice said:
"Do not be afraid, I am protecting you. Draw nearer, Medje, and answer my questions."
The young girl bowed low in token of obedience, and the count began:
"So you know Captain Joliette?"
"Yes, he saved my life, and thereby became my lord and master."
"You know who has captured him?"
"Yes, they are the enemies of my race as they are of yours. They are called the Ajassuas and fear nothing and nobody—oh, they are the emissaries from the regions below!"
"Are they masters of Uargla?"
"And you assert that Captain Joliette is still alive?"
"Yes, he still lives, I swear it; but he is suffering untold tortures in a damp, dark, subterranean dungeon. Oh, would I could suffer his anguish and terrors for him; he has saved me, and now that he should miserably die!"
Hot tears ran over Medje's brown cheeks, and her small hands were clasped convulsively. Monte-Cristo watched her narrowly, and Coucou's tale that the Arabian girl had disappeared almost at the same time as the captain again came into his mind.
"You love Captain Joliette?" he asked.
"Does not the weak child love its father who guides its tottering footsteps? Yes, I love him whose name you have mentioned. He is the strong trunk which gives support to the clinging vine."
"And why do the Arabs refuse to permit you to remain in camp? Your cheeks bear the sign of an accursed caste, the brand of the murderous Khouans."
Medje's face became fiery red.
"Hear me," she said, "before you condemn me. You will be just to me not only on account of your brother but also for the sake of this child."
She pointed to Spero, who had again fallen asleep, and Monte-Cristo, frightened in spite of himself, said:
"Speak. I will not interrupt you again."
"My father," began Medje hastily, "was a mighty Kabyle chief. He was a wise man and his tribe was industrious and prosperous.
"Then came the day when your countrymen, the French, set foot on our sacred shores. My father summoned his tribe to arms, and took part in the battle against the invaders. During a bitter fight between the Europeans and the Arabs a traitor showed the enemy a secret path through the defile, and, taken by surprise, my father saw himself surrounded by the enemy. Our troops had been so decimated by the murderous fire that scarcely more than a hundred remained. A marabout who was in the camp induced them to seek refuge in a cave, and hardly had my father entered it with his troops when the treacherous marabout betrayed his hiding-place to the enemy. They stationed themselves before the opening and fired in on the helpless Arabs, who were caught like rats in a hole.
"In less than half an hour only half of the number were still surviving, and the French called upon them to surrender. My father, all bleeding from his wounds, had an interview with the French general, in which he offered his own life and pledged that none of the tribe of Ben-Ali-Smah would ever again take up arms against the French. This he did on condition that his men were to be let go free. The general accepted the offer and my father took the solemn pledge; then he bared his bosom to be shot.
"But the Frenchman was a noble man, and, taking my father's hand, said that France sought friends and allies in Africa, not slaves. He did not want his life, but his friendship. We lived very happy and peaceful after that, only we were called renegades by the other tribes, and especially the Khouans, that murderous class which believes that it pleases Allah if they shed their fellow beings' blood.
"Five years had elapsed, and I was then twelve years old, when my father gave a great feast in honor of a celebrated French commander who visited our settlement. Suddenly, at midnight, when the festivities were over, and we were all lying in a deep sleep, the Khouans made an attack on our village. My father was assassinated and my mother and I taken prisoners. We were carried into the desert with other prisoners of my tribe. Reaching an oasis, the captives were tied to the trunks of trees, and their limbs hacked off by the murderous Khouans with their yataghans. My mother was one of those tortured to death in this way. Her last words were: 'Medje, avenge us, and remember your father's oath.' I swooned as she died. I was recalled to life by sharp pain on my cheeks. With a shriek I opened my eyes, and saw standing before me a man holding a white-hot iron in his hand, with which he had just branded me.
"'By Allah,' he exclaimed, 'I forbid you to touch this maiden; she carries the sacred sign.'
"All stepped reverently back, and while the terrible pain forced the hot tears out of my eyes they fell on their knees before me and murmured unintelligible words. The man who had saved me was a powerful sheik of the Khouans. I did not then understand the motive of his action. Some old women took me in charge, and I was conveyed still further into the desert. From time to time I fell into a semi-comatose condition, and while my limbs became convulsed I uttered incoherent words, which the old women proclaimed to be prophecies. Much later I discovered that they had put me in this terrible condition by means of opiates. That is how they wanted to make me a Khouan priestess.
"Finally, when I was sixteen years of age, the sheik who had saved my life wanted to make me his wife. He was my father's and mother's assassin, and I hated him. To escape his odious addresses, I plunged a dagger in my breast. I would rather die than belong to him. For weeks I lay between life and death, and when I recovered I determined to flee. A midnight attack on the Ajassuas tribe, as the Khouan caste was termed, gave me the opportunity. I made good my escape, and wandered on and on until I sank senseless from exhaustion on the ground.
"When I recovered my senses I found myself in an oasis near a rippling brook, the clear, cool water of which slaked my thirst, and the fruit of a date-tree stilled my hunger. Guiding myself by the stars I took a northern direction, hoping to find some Frenchman who had been my father's friend. Suddenly, however, I saw a panther's eye gleaming at me from the bushes. I wanted to cry for help, but I could not. The next minute I felt the sharp claws of the wild beast on my back and with a groan sank to the ground.
"I awoke under the kind care of a man who was binding the wound on my shoulder. That man who had saved me from the panther's clutches was Captain Joliette. Days of ineffable bliss followed. The captain took me into his French camp and surrounded me with every care and attention. I called him my 'little papa.' Oh, how I love him! I could place my hands under his feet. He became my teacher, and I soon learned to speak his language. The other soldiers were also kind to me and especially Coucou, who has now recognized me again. The days I spent in the French camp were as if spent in paradise. But alas, misfortune soon threw its black shadow over me.
"One night I awoke in my tent on account of a strange noise. For an instant I saw the black face and gleaming eyes of an Ajassua, then they disappeared and I discovered that the canvas of my tent had been slit from top to bottom with a keen dagger."
As Medje related this incident Monte-Cristo could not repress a slight shudder. Had not Spero had the same experience, and was not the canvas of his tent slit in the same manner? What if the same danger threatened him?
"I could not sleep any more," continued Medje, "and as soon as day came I hastened to the captain's tent. He was on the point of starting out on an expedition with twenty men. I begged him on my knees not to leave me alone behind, but he only laughed at my fears, kissed me on the forehead, and rode off at the head of his small detachment.
"The day seemed to me interminable. When night came and the captain did not return I became terribly anxious. I rushed to the outer posts and gazed fixedly down the roadway. Suddenly I felt myself thrown to the ground, a gag forced in my mouth, my hands and feet were bound with silken cords, and then powerful hands lifted me up on the back of a horse which dashed off at headlong speed.
"How long the mad ride lasted I cannot tell. Finally the gag was taken from my mouth, and through the folds of my veil I recognized the sheik of the Ajassuas, who was bending over me.
"'This time you shall not escape from me,' he declared, and the ride was continued for three days and three nights before we came to a final halt.
"I found myself in Uargla, that terrible city in whose streets blood flows in streams. I was brought into a solid tower of Kiobeh, and the fearful attendants, who saw in me a priestess of Allah, again surrounded me.
"At first I refused all food, wishing to starve to death, but I laid aside this idea, as I had a presentiment that I would still be of some service to my friend. Two days later I heard a terrible noise in the street, and hastening to the grated window of my cell, gazed out.
"I saw a sight which froze my blood with horror. Dark forms clad in long brown cloaks carried a bier made of twigs of trees, and on it, pale, bleeding, and with closed eyes, lay my protector, Captain Joliette.
"I shook my prison bars; I wanted to get out and die with my friend. In vain; the grating did not shake or give way. At this instant I felt myself pulled back, and the man who had dared to make love to me stood before me.
"'Medje,' he said, 'the Frenchman who stole you is in our hands.'
"'And you will kill him, coward,' I cried.
"'No, not yet,' he replied with a smile; 'look!'
"I did so, and saw the captain carried on the bier through the low iron gate.
"'They will put this Christian, as you call him, in a dark cell and keep him there month after month until he longs for death.'
"'And what will you do with me?' I asked.
"'Keep you for myself.'
"I then made an infamous bargain; God forgive me for doing so. I told him I would be his if he would set the captain at liberty. He hesitated at first, but finally accepted. I made him take a solemn oath, and he, in turn, obliged me to do the same.
"'Leave me,' I then said, 'and when you have fulfilled your word, return.'
"He went, and I stood at the window hour after hour. The fatal door did not open. On the fourth day I learned the reason. An order had been issued prohibiting the setting at liberty of any prisoner, and the man to whom I had sworn the oath had quarrelled with the others on account of the order, and had been killed. My hope to serve my friend was blasted. A strange rumor next reached me that a marabout was preaching immediate massacre, and I knew not whether Captain Joliette was alive or dead. I could now walk about Uargla where I pleased, and I determined one evening to wrap myself in my veil and take advantage of the strange superstition in which I was still held. The sentinel trembled when he saw me. I approached him and said some strange words which came into my head. He threw down his weapons and fled. I passed out of Uargla and strayed into the desert. Allah has guided my footsteps to you. You will save him, I feel it, I know it."
"May Heaven grant your wishes!" said Monte-Cristo, as, leaving the tent, he summoned Jacopo and ordered him to get ready to depart at once.
"Hurrah! we're off at last!" cried Coucou, throwing his cap in the air.
At this instant a discharge of musketry was heard. Monte-Cristo hastened in the direction of the sound, followed by Coucou and about fifty men. The camp appeared to be surrounded, yet, at a shrill cry, which seemed to be a signal, the horsemen suddenly wheeled about and dashed away.
What did it mean? A sudden thought darted through Monte-Cristo's brain. He rushed back to his tent. The couch was empty—Spero was not there! The terrible truth burst on his mind. The attack had been only feigned. The bandits had stolen his boy!
The strong man wept; but, as a hot tear fell on his hand, he shook his head like a lion aroused from his sleep, and shouted:
"To horse! To horse! To Uargla!"
"DO NOT DIE, CAPTAIN!"
We left Captain Joliette at the moment when the savages commanded by the marabout entered his cell, and a voice had called to him:
"Do not die, captain!"
"Kill him! kill him!" shouted the crowd.
The marabout now advanced toward the captain, and, placing his lean hand on the prisoner's shoulder, said:
"There is but one God, and Mahomet is his prophet!"
The effect of these words on the populace was most magical. They all fell back and opened a space for the approach of a motley group of horsemen.
"The Khouans! the Khouans!" was whispered from one to the other.
They all crowded around and kissed the mantle of the chief.
"You are all cowardly murderers!" cried Albert. "Make an end of it."
"You want to die?" said the chief. "All right; but I warn you that your agonies will be terrible!"
Upon a wink from the chief the captain was tied to a post.
"Bring out the other prisoners!" commanded the Arab chieftain.
They were thirty in number, all French soldiers, and upon the direction of the chief they were led past the post to which Albert was tied.
"Long live our captain!" they cried, as they caught a glimpse of his uniform.
Tears started in Albert's eyes, and he loudly joined in the cry.
The rear of the procession was brought up by a strange-looking person. His walk betrayed the Parisian boulevardier, and the remnants of his clothing confirmed the opinion. When he passed the marabout he cried aloud in French:
"You old fool, you, what are you staring at? You don't want me to admire your ugly face, do you?"
The marabout, who did not understand French, looked at him in astonishment, while the soldiers burst out laughing.
The stranger looked sharply at Albert, and said:
"Captain, by all the saints, you must not die."
"What?" exclaimed Albert, surprised, "it was you who—"
"Yes, I, Gratillet, journalist, Beauchamp's friend and your friend," continued Gratillet. "Captain, we must escape out of this to-night; to-morrow it might be too late."
Albert was encouraged by the journalist's words, and began to hope. But just then a wild tumult arose; the Arabs, yataghans in hand, rushed upon the three nearest prisoners, and literally chopped them in pieces. Having tasted blood, they butchered right and left. Only a few prisoners still remained, and among them was the reporter.
Albert, in a daze, gazed at the massacre and the pools of blood which already threatened to reach his feet.
Gratillet now fell. No shot had struck him. Horror had no doubt put an end to the poor fellow's life.
Before Albert had time to realize the imminent danger of his situation, the scene changed as if by magic. The sheik and his subjects, followed by the marabout, took to their horses and suddenly disappeared. None of them thought of their principal victim, and the captain tried in vain to guess the riddle.
Darkness set in, and by the dying rays of the sun Albert saw a cavalcade coming up the road to Uargla. At the head of the procession rode a tall man, whose green turban denoted that the wearer had made a pilgrimage to Mecca, for only those who visit the Kaaba have the right to decorate themselves with the sacred emblem.
Who could this man be? Albert had never seen him, and yet the green turban appeared to him to be a sign of approaching rescue.
The man who wore this green turban was Maldar. He had been gone a year, and his return had been the signal for the revolt to break out. All the prisoners that were taken he had ordered to be confined until his return from Mecca. He was very angry when he heard that the prisoners had been massacred.
"Unfaithful, traitorous people!" he exclaimed at the mosque at Uargla. "Who told you to disobey my orders?"
The Khouans begged pitifully for mercy.
"Allah demands obedience," continued Maldar; "and now bring the young prisoner, who is waiting in front of the mosque, for the sentence."
The sheik departed, and soon returned with Spero, who was tightly bound. The lad was pale, but courage shone from his dark eyes.
"Come nearer," said Maldar, "and tell me your name."
"Why do you wish to know, and by what right?" asked Spero, folding his arms.
Maldar gnashed his teeth.
"By right of the strong, and with the right to punish you for the sins of your country. What is your name?"
"Spero means hope. Tell me now the name of your father?"
"My father is the Count of Monte-Cristo!"
"I know. Your father is one of those brainless fools who imagine every one must bend the knee to them. What rank does he occupy in your country?"
"He is a prince who governs the souls of men."
"Your father is rich—very rich?"
"What does that concern you?"
"You are brave, and your father must love you."
Spero did not answer, but his eyes sparkled when Maldar spoke his father's name.
"I will know how to strike your proud father; he shall grovel in the dust at my feet. I—"
He stopped short. A new idea seemed to have taken possession of him.
"All the prisoners are dead, are they not?" he asked, turning to a sheik.
"No, master, one still lives, a French officer."
In spite of his self-control, Spero gave a cry of astonishment, for he knew that it was to rescue the captain that Monte-Cristo had set out for Africa.
"Go," said Maldar, "bring the prisoner here."
The sheik left, and Maldar walked up and down with his big strides.
"Master!" cried the sheik, running in breathlessly.
"Captain Joliette is gone."
"Gone!" screamed Maldar in a rage. "Within one hour he must be brought back to the Kiobeh. If not you must answer with your head; and now bring the lad to the iron chamber, and see that he does not escape!"
By what miracle had Albert escaped?
The reader will recollect that Gratillet had fallen into the sea of blood which had streamed from the wounds of the victims. As soon as the Khouans had gone a flock of vultures immediately encircled the scene of the massacre and began to hover about the dead bodies.
Albert was leaning with closed eyes against the post, when a well-known voice angrily cried:
"Captain, let us think now of our rescue."
It was Gratillet.
"Let me die," murmured Albert, wearily. "I do not care to live any more."
"You are talking nonsense. Die, forsooth! Shake off your torpor and be a man."
"Through what miracle did you recover your life?"
"None, I tell you. I never was dead; only shamming. Oh, if I only had a knife."
While Gratillet was talking he worked at Albert's cords with his teeth and nails, and finally succeeded in freeing him.
"And now," he said, "let's decamp, and that as soon as possible."
The two men were soon on the road, the journalist peering about and keeping up a lively conversation.
"Here is a narrow pathway!" exclaimed the reporter suddenly. "Captain, lie down on the ground near me, and we can continue our little walk on all-fours."
Albert followed the journalist's orders, and the next minute was lying on the ground near his companion.
"Well done," said Gratillet. "Now we must be very careful, for it is pitch dark and banisters are unknown in Uargla. Ah, now I know where the pathway comes from. It is a ditch which gets the rain from the rocks."
"Do you need a cord?" asked Albert. "If so, I have a scarf which answers the same purpose."
"Is it strong?"
"Best of wool and perfectly new."
"How long is it?"
"Then give it to me."
Albert handed it to him and he bound it about his arms. This done, Gratillet swung himself over a precipice and began his dangerous journey.
"Flying is not so bad after all," said the reporter. "It is doing splendidly and I—"
The scarf broke and Gratillet fell to the bottom, carrying Albert along, who had held one end of it.
At the same moment the discharge of musketry was heard. Had they escaped from Scylla to fall into Charybdis?
AT THE FOOT OF THE KIOBEH
"Forward—to Uargla!" Monte-Cristo had exclaimed when he became aware of the loss of his son. Medje urged her horse close to that of the count; he noticed her, and a dark suspicion took possession of him.
"Go back, you traitress!" he angrily exclaimed. "You have delivered my son over to the Khouans."
A deadly pallor overspread Medje's fine features, and sobbing bitterly she let her head fall on the horse's neck.
"Oh, master!" she said, "why do you accuse me?"
"Pardon me, child," said Monte-Cristo gently; "sorrow for the loss of my dear son has made me crazy. Oh, if I could only find him again."
"Courage, dear master, courage! Our horses are as swift as the wind. You will conquer the Khouans. The lion-killer is invincible!"
After an exhausting ride of three long hours they beheld the minarets of Uargla. Monte-Cristo divided his men in two companies; one he commanded with Jacopo and Medje, the other he placed in charge of Coucou. Their muskets were loaded, and hardly had the count arranged his plan of attack, than the gates of Uargla were opened and a band of horsemen rode forward to meet him. The Frenchmen allowed the Arabs to approach close to them and then fired their first salvo. A second one followed, and through the narrow streets the Count of Monte-Cristo and his men entered Uargla. A scene of indescribable confusion ensued. The Arabs fled in all directions.
In the meantime Coucou at the head of his little company had entered through the eastern door, and, having to avenge the murder of his friends, he struck blows to the right and left.
"This for Jacques! This for Pierre! This for Jean! Back, you brown devils!"
When Monte-Cristo had reached the foot of the Kiobeh, Medje said:
"It is here."
"Light the torches!" commanded Monte-Cristo.
It was done.
"In the name of Allah, the merciful and charitable God," exclaimed the count.
Three times he repeated the words. For a time all was silent. After a while the door of the fortress opened and Maldar appeared on the threshold.
"Who are you, who comes here as an enemy?"
"Let us not fight with words," replied Monte-Cristo. "It was your people who first attacked us."
"Blood has flowed," replied Maldar, coldly; "and it falls back upon your head."
"Your people have made prisoners; sneakingly surprised people at night and carried them away. What have you done with these prisoners?"
"They are dead."
"All dead?" exclaimed Monte-Cristo, trembling. "Woe to you, if you have spoken the truth."
"You are false servants of the prophet," cried Medje, "and Allah's eternal curse will rest upon you. Have you heard?" she added, turning to Monte-Cristo's companions; "the wretch says he has murdered all the prisoners."
"In the devil's name!" exclaimed Coucou. "He shall pay for that."
"You acknowledge that you were cowardly enough to murder defenceless men," said Monte-Cristo, after a pause, to Maldar; "have you been so base as to kill an innocent child?"
"Are you speaking of your own son?"
"Yes. Is my son dead?"
"Your son still lives," replied Maldar.
Monte-Cristo uttered a cry. His son lived and was behind these walls.
"You are Maldar. You have enjoyed my hospitality. What crime have I committed that you should punish me through my child?"
"The crime of your race! You are a son of France."
"You say I am a son of France. Have you not served that country too?"
"Only dissimulation. I waited for a favorable opportunity."
"What will you do with my son?"
"The decision depends on you."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Come with confidence to us," replied Maldar, earnestly. "In the citadel I will discuss your son's ransom with you."
"Do not go, master," cried Coucou; "they are laying a trap for you."
Monte-Cristo strode, nevertheless, toward the door.
MONTE-CRISTO BECOMES EDMOND DANTES
"Maldar," the count cried aloud, "I am here."
The door was opened. Monte-Cristo went into a large courtyard. Maldar was waiting for him.
"Here I am," said the count. "You have called me about the ransom for my son. What is the sum you ask?"
"I did not say it should be money."
"Then take my life—anything you wish."
"What I want of you is neither gold nor your life. I know who you are, and the position you occupy in your country. Your countrymen have confidence in you, and I—"
"Go on—go on," urged Monte-Cristo.
"Have patience. Come here and write."
Maldar went toward a table upon which were writing materials, and, pressing a pen in Monte-Cristo's hand, he shoved a piece of paper toward him.
The count was silent, and seated himself at the table.
"I, the Count of Monte-Cristo," the Arabian began to dictate, "inform the Governor of Themcen that I am at Uargla, and have won the confidence of the Sultan Maldar. More than one hundred French prisoners are in the Kiobeh. The Khouans are not numerous and do not anticipate an attack. The defile of Bab-el-Zhur is easy to reach and only poorly defended. A force of bold soldiers could secure possession of the city in an easy manner. Success is certain."
Monte-Cristo, without hesitation, had written the words down, and the Arabian, looking sharply at him, continued:
"Put your name under what you have just written—"
"One word more," interrupted the count. "I understand your aim. You want to lead a French detachment in ambush?"
"Yes. For the head of your son, I require those of a hundred Frenchmen."
"Spero," cried the count, "my darling boy, should I, your father, ensnare one hundred Frenchmen into an ambush? I have written the letter, the signature alone is missing; hear me, while I read it to you."
Monte-Cristo, in a trembling voice, read the letter.
"Spero, my son, choose between life and death. Shall I sign the letter?"
"You cannot hear his voice," said Maldar; "but wait a moment, and I will have him brought here."
He motioned with his hand. The door was thrown open, and the next minute Spero lay in his father's arms.
"Speak, Spero, what shall I do?"
The boy took the paper and tore it into pieces.
"Let them kill us," he said, firmly.
When Maldar heard these words, he gave a wild yell and sprang upon the boy.
"Wretched worm!" he hissed; "are you aware that I can break every bone in your body?"
Saying this, Maldar drew a long pistol from his belt and pointed it at the boy's face. Quick as thought Monte-Cristo seized the Arab by the throat, and threw him among the Khouans.
"Fire—fire!" shouted Maldar.
The men obeyed, but not a bullet entered the room.
"Put your arms about my neck, Spero," said the count, "and have no fear. Away with the Count of Monte-Cristo," he added in a vibrating voice; "Edmond Dantes, arise from out of the past, and help a father to rescue his son."
He placed himself in a winding of the narrow stairs. Here no ball could reach him. A Khouan appeared, but the iron bar with which Monte-Cristo had armed himself descended on his head with terrific force. A second and third received the same reception. Maldar, wild with rage, continually screamed:
"Kill him, in the name of Allah!"
Monte-Cristo was struck by a ball, and a dagger was thrust in his foot. But he paid no attention to it. He dared not retreat if he wished to save Spero. His arm threatened to become lame, his powers were fast failing him, and he thought all was up with him. Suddenly he heard loud curses uttered in the French language. He recognized them as belonging to Coucou and Jacopo. Thank God! they had remembered him and effected an entrance.
"Count of Monte-Cristo!" came a loud voice through the night.
Not believing his ears, the count walked to the edge of the roof, and saw a sight which nearly caused him to lose his senses. At the foot of the tower a troop of horsemen had gathered. The voice he had heard belonged to a woman, and by the light of the lightning he recognized Miss Clary Ellis, the young girl he had seen at Mercedes' house.
"Count of Monte-Cristo!" Clary exclaimed, in a clear, bright voice, "courage! Help is coming."
"Count of Monte-Cristo," came from another voice, "thanks, in the name of my mother."
Breathless, with his arm about Spero's neck, the count leaned against the wall, and he whom nothing surprised uttered an exclamation of astonishment when he looked down.
A man was climbing up the smooth wall. So interested were the count and Spero in the picture that they did not hear the stealthy steps behind them. Maldar was the man, and he had stretched forth his hands toward the boy. The count perceived him in the nick of time, and clutching him by the throat, threw him headlong down into the courtyard. The next minute the bold climber had jumped over the wall and anxiously cried:
"Count of Monte-Cristo, we must first rescue the child."
He took a long rope and bound it round Spero's waist. Then he let the boy gently over the parapet.
"Papa," came Spero's voice from below, "I am safe."
The stranger pulled the rope up anew, and said as he turned to the count:
"It is your turn now."
"Oh, never mind me; in case of necessity I will jump off. But be quick, we have no time to lose."
Monte-Cristo grasped the cord and was let down by the stranger. Looking up, he saw his rescuer sliding down the wall. As soon as he had touched the ground, the count went to him and, shaking him by the hand, said:
"You have saved my life, sir, and that of my son. Tell me your name, please, that I may know to whom I owe our rescue."
"I am a French colonist, count, and my name is Fanfaro."
Coucou and Albert now ran up to the count.
"The gentleman is evidently a monkey?" he asked the Zouave.
Mademoiselle Clary now approached the count.
"How thankful I am," she said, "to have arrived so opportunely."
"And what brought you here?" asked the count.
"I swore to follow you," replied Clary, blushing, "but was delayed so many times, that I gave up all hope of rescuing your son. Fortunately I came across Monsieur Fanfaro. To him belongs the credit and—"
"And now, I thank God, the matter is over," interrupted Madame Caraman.
"And it was for me, count, that you incurred all these dangers?" asked Albert.
Monte-Cristo looked tenderly at the young man.
"I thank God I found you," he said, extending his arms to the young man.
"And now," Albert said, "let me present you to my other rescuer."
Gratillet advanced and, bowing gracefully, said:
"Count, excuse me, please, if my clothes are not exactly fashionable, but we have had no time to make our toilet."
Albert and the journalist, instead of having fallen down a precipice, had fallen into a lake. When Monte-Cristo heard Gratillet's name, he uttered a cry of surprise.
"Monsieur Gratillet," he said, "are you not a friend of Beauchamp?"
"Yes, his friend and reporter."
"But where is Jacopo?" asked the count, looking about for the Corsican.
"Jacopo is dead," said the Zouave; "a bullet shot him through the heart."
Monte-Cristo hurried with Coucou and Albert to the spot where Jacopo had fallen. Suddenly he struck his forehead.
"What has become of Medje?" he asked.
"Medje?" asked Albert.
"Yes, she brought us here, and—merciful Heaven! here she lies," the count exclaimed.
Medje was lying motionless on the ground, with a dagger wound in the shoulder.
"Poor Medje!" said Albert.
"Little father," whispered Medje when she had regained consciousness.
She stroked Albert's hand. Then her dark eyelashes closed over her eyes. Medje was dead.
Monte-Cristo and Albert rode slowly near Fanfaro, while Coucou and Gratillet kept the ladies company. The Zouave spoke continually with Madame Caraman.
"Tell me," said Coucou, "how did you come to Africa?"
"Because my lady wished it."
"That is a bitter disappointment. I had imagined that it was on account of—"
"You—you stupid fool!"
"I will be good, Madame Caraman, if you will tell me how you came to Uargla."
"We followed the Count of Monte-Cristo."
"You are in love with him."
"We followed the count because we wished to aid him in rescuing Captain Joliette."
"But tell me about the Americans."
"They deserted us as soon as we reached the land. The Arabs had previously stolen our camels."
"Infamous race," growled Coucou.
"We were thus all alone in the desert. We suffered from hunger and thirst, and had we not fortunately reached the oasis on the second day, we would probably lie now buried in the desert. At the oasis we made the acquaintance of Monsieur Fanfaro, a handsome man of forty."
"You noticed that," said the Zouave, ironically.
"Monsieur Fanfaro brought us to his farm, where his wife, a charming woman, received us. Between ourselves, I do not think Fanfaro has ever been a rope-dancer. His manners and features show he must be of good family, and I am tempted to call him a second Monte-Cristo."
This Fanfaro, as Madame Caraman had rightfully said, was a remarkably distinguished-looking gentleman. Monte-Cristo looked attentively at the colonist; he guessed that there was some mystery surrounding the man, and that something had caused him to seek a home in the desert. Finally they all reached the oasis, and Monte-Cristo breathed more freely. Three persons came to meet the travellers: a woman, who led a child by the hand, and a strangely formed creature which hopped about and looked more like a frog than a human being.
"What is that?" asked the count.
"Oh," replied Fanfaro, laughing, "that is Bobichel."
"Yes, he was once a clown when I was an acrobat. He amuses my little son now, by imitating the frog."
Bobichel uttered a cry of joy as he saw the party approach.
"Thank God, master," he gleefully cried, "that you are home again. Caillette, Firejaws!" he cried aloud, "he is just returned!"
A woman and a giant hurried at Bobichel's call.
Fanfaro jumped from his horse, and embraced his wife and daughter.
"Irene, have a bed prepared. The child will be intrusted to your care."
Madame Caraman carried Spero into the house. Monte-Cristo examined the patient carefully, and breathed more lightly.
"A few days' rest will set him all right again," he said, turning to Fanfaro, "and if we can make use of your friendship—"
"Count, what I possess is yours. But let me introduce you to the colony," said Fanfaro.
Upon his call his wife appeared, a charming brunette about thirty years of age.
"Madame Fanfaro," said the colonist, "followed me to the desert."
"This is Firejaws, the king of athletes. And now it is the turn of Bobichel, the clown."
"It looks to me like a fairy tale," said the count. "Were you really a tight-rope walker and acrobat before?"
"Yes, count, and I am the only one of us who has given up the profession for good."
Monte-Cristo gazed interestedly at the speaker and his wife. Fanfaro, as we have before observed, was a fine-looking man, and Madame Irene looked like a marquise.
"Monsieur Fanfaro," said Monte-Cristo at table one day, "I do not know who you are, but I drink to your health and that of all the other members of the colony. May God always protect you and yours!"
"Oh, Monsieur Fanfaro," exclaimed Madame Caraman, "won't you tell us your history? I am curious to know it."
"What does Irene say to the proposition?" asked Fanfaro tenderly.
"Oh, I am satisfied," replied the handsome woman, laughing.
"Good, then I shall begin," said Fanfaro.
And while Spero slept Fanfaro began to relate the story of his life. As it is long, we shall narrate it in Part II. of "The Son of Monte-Cristo."
"THE SON OF MONTE-CRISTO" (END OF PART ONE)