"I want to look at the hour-glass you have in the window," he said.
"Ah, yes," replied the curiosity dealer; "the cheap watch has driven the hour-glass out of the commercial market, and we rarely pick up a thing like that nowadays." He took the hour-glass from the shelf in the window, reversed it, and placed it on a table. The ruddy sand began to pour through into the lower receptacle in a thin, constant stream, as if it were blood that had been dried and powdered. Eastford watched the ever-increasing heap at the bottom, rising conically, changing its shape every moment, as little avalanches of the sand fell away from its heightening sides.
"There is no need for you to extol its antiquity," said Eastford, with a smile. "I knew the moment I looked at it that such glasses are rare, and you are not going to find me a cheapening customer."
"So far from over-praising it," protested the shopman, "I was about to call your attention to a defect. It is useless as a measurer of time."
"It doesn't record the exact hour, then?" asked Eastford.
"Well, I suppose the truth is, they were not very particular in the old days, and time was not money, as it is now. It measures the hour with great accuracy," the curio dealer went on—"that is, if you watch it; but, strangely enough, after it has run for half an hour, or thereabouts, it stops, because of some defect in the neck of the glass, or in the pulverising of the sand, and will not go again until the glass is shaken."
The hour-glass at that moment verified what the old man said. The tiny stream of sand suddenly ceased, but resumed its flow the moment its owner jarred the frame, and continued pouring without further interruption.
"That is very singular," said Eastford. "How do you account for it?"
"I imagine it is caused by some inequality in the grains of sand; probably a few atoms larger than the others come together at the neck, and so stop the percolation. It always does this, and, of course, I cannot remedy the matter because the glass is hermetically sealed."
"Well, I don't want it as a timekeeper, so we will not allow that defect to interfere with the sale. How much do you ask for it?"
The dealer named his price, and Eastford paid the amount.
"I shall send it to you this afternoon."
"Thank you," said the customer, taking his leave.
That night in his room Bertram Eastford wrote busily until a late hour. When his work was concluded, he pushed away his manuscript with a sigh of that deep contentment which comes to a man who has not wasted his day. He replenished the open fire, drew his most comfortable arm-chair in front of it, took the green shade from his lamp, thus filling the luxurious apartment with a light that was reflected from armour and from ancient weapons standing in corners and hung along the walls. He lifted the paper-covered package, cut the string that bound it, and placed the ancient hour-glass on his table, watching the thin stream of sand which his action had set running. The constant, unceasing, steady downfall seemed to hypnotise him. Its descent was as silent as the footsteps of time itself. Suddenly it stopped, as it had done in the shop, and its abrupt ceasing jarred on his tingling nerves like an unexpected break in the stillness. He could almost imagine an unseen hand clasping the thin cylinder of the glass and throttling it. He shook the bygone time-measurer and breathed again more steadily when the sand resumed its motion. Presently he took the glass from the table and examined it with some attention.
He thought at first its frame was ebony, but further inspection convinced him it was oak, blackened with age. On one round end was carved rudely two hearts overlapping, and twined about them a pair of serpents.
"Now, I wonder what that's for?" murmured Eastford to himself. "An attempt at a coat of arms, perhaps."
There was no clue to the meaning of the hieroglyphics, and Eastford, with the glass balanced on his knee, watched the sand still running, the crimson thread sparkling in the lamplight. He fancied he saw distorted reflections of faces in the convex glass, although his reason told him they were but caricatures of his own. The great bell in the tower near by, with slow solemnity, tolled twelve. He counted its measured strokes one by one, and then was startled by a decisive knock at his door. One section of his brain considered this visit untimely, another looked on it as perfectly usual, and while the two were arguing the matter out, he heard his own voice cry: "Come in."
The door opened, and the discussion between the government and the opposition in his mind ceased to consider the untimeliness of the visit, for here, in the visitor himself, stood another problem. He was a young man in military costume, his uniform being that of an officer. Eastford remembered seeing something like it on the stage, and knowing little of military affairs, thought perhaps the costume of the visitor before him indicated an officer in the Napoleonic war.
"Good evening!" said the incomer. "May I introduce myself? I am Lieutenant Sentore, of the regular army."
"You are very welcome," returned his host. "Will you be seated?"
"Thank you, no. I have but a few moments to stay. I have come for my hour-glass, if you will be good enough to let me have it."
"Your hour-glass?" ejaculated Eastford, in surprise. "I think you labour under a misapprehension. The glass belongs to me; I bought it to-day at the old curiosity shop in Finchmore Street."
"Rightful possession of the glass would appear to rest with you, technically; but taking you to be a gentleman, I venture to believe that a mere statement of my priority of claim will appeal to you, even though it might have no effect on the minds of a jury of our countrymen."
"You mean to say that the glass has been stolen from you and has been sold?"
"It has been sold undoubtedly over and over again, but never stolen, so far as I have been able to trace its history."
"If, then, the glass has been honestly purchased by its different owners, I fail to see how you can possibly establish any claim to it."
"I have already admitted that my claim is moral rather than legal," continued the visitor. "It is a long story; have I your permission to tell it?"
"I shall be delighted to listen," replied Eastford, "but before doing so I beg to renew my invitation, and ask you to occupy this easy-chair before the fire."
The officer bowed in silence, crossed the room behind Eastford, and sat down in the arm-chair, placing his sword across his knees. The stranger spread his hands before the fire, and seemed to enjoy the comforting warmth. He remained for a few moments buried in deep reflection, quite ignoring the presence of his host, who, glancing upon the hour-glass in dispute upon his knees, seeing that the sands had all run out silently reversed it and set them flowing again. This action caught the corner of the stranger's eye, and brought him to a realisation of why he was there. Drawing a heavy sigh, he began his story.
* * * * *
"In the year 1706 I held the post of lieutenant in that part of the British Army commanded by General Trelawny, the supreme command, of course, being in the hands of the great Marlborough."
Eastford listened to this announcement with a feeling that there was something wrong about the statement. The man sitting there was calmly talking of a time one hundred and ninety-two years past, and yet he himself could not be a day more than twenty-five years old. Somewhere entangled in this were the elements of absurdity. Eastford found himself unable to unravel them, but the more he thought of the matter, the more reasonable it began to appear, and so, hoping his visitor had not noted the look of surprise on his face, he said, quietly, casting his mind back over the history of England, and remembering what he had learned at school:—
"That was during the war of the Spanish Succession?"
"Yes: the war had then been in progress four years, and many brilliant victories had been won, the greatest of which was probably the Battle of Blenheim."
"Quite so," murmured Eastford.
"It was the English," Casper cried, "That put the French to rout; "But what they killed each other for, "I never could make out."
The officer looked up in astonishment.
"I never heard anything like that said about the war. The reason for it was perfectly plain. We had to fight or acknowledge France to be the dictator of Europe. Still, politics have nothing to do with my story. General Trelawny and his forces were in Brabant, and were under orders to join the Duke of Marlborough's army. We were to go through the country as speedily as possible, for a great battle was expected. Trelawny's instructions were to capture certain towns and cities that lay in our way, to dismantle the fortresses, and to parole their garrisons. We could not encumber ourselves with prisoners, and so marched the garrisons out, paroled them, destroyed their arms, and bade them disperse. But, great as was our hurry, strict orders had been given to leave no strongholds in our rear untaken.
"Everything went well until we came to the town of Elsengore, which we captured without the loss of a man. The capture of the town, however, was of little avail, for in the centre of it stood a strong citadel, which we tried to take by assault, but could not. General Trelawny, a very irascible, hotheaded man, but, on the whole, a just and capable officer, impatient at this unexpected delay, offered the garrison almost any terms they desired to evacuate the castle. But, having had warning of our coming, they had provisioned the place, were well supplied with ammunition, and their commander refused to make terms with General Trelawny.
"'If you want the place,' said the Frenchman, 'come and take it.'
"General Trelawny, angered at this contemptuous treatment, flung his men again and again at the citadel, but without making the slightest impression on it.
"We were in no wise prepared for a long siege, nor had we expected stubborn resistance. Marching quickly, as was our custom heretofore, we possessed no heavy artillery, and so were at a disadvantage when attacking a fortress as strong as that of Elsengore. Meanwhile, General Trelawny sent mounted messengers by different roads to his chief giving an account of what had happened, explaining his delay in joining the main army, and asking for definite instructions. He expected that one or two, at least, of the mounted messengers sent away would reach his chief and be enabled to return. And that is exactly what happened, for one day a dusty horseman came to General Trelawny's headquarters with a brief note from Marlborough. The Commander-in-Chief said:—
"'I think the Frenchman's advice is good. We want the place; therefore, take it.'
"But he sent no heavy artillery to aid us in this task, for he could not spare his big guns, expecting, as he did, an important battle. General Trelawny having his work thus cut out for him, settled down to accomplish it as best he might. He quartered officers and men in various parts of the town, the more thoroughly to keep watch on the citizens, of whose good intentions, if the siege were prolonged, we were by no means sure.
"It fell to my lot to be lodged in the house of Burgomaster Seidelmier, of whose conduct I have no reason to complain, for he treated me well. I was given two rooms, one a large, low apartment on the first floor, and communicating directly with the outside, by means of a hall and a separate stairway. The room was lighted by a long, many-paned window, leaded and filled with diamond-shaped glass. Beyond this large drawing- room was my bedroom. I must say that I enjoyed my stay in Burgomaster Seidelmier's house none the less because he had an only daughter, a most charming girl. Our acquaintance ripened into deep friendship, and afterwards into——but that has nothing to do with what I have to tell you. My story is of war, and not of love. Gretlich Seidelmier presented me with the hour-glass you have in your hand, and on it I carved the joined hearts entwined with our similar initials."
"So they are initials, are they?" said Eastford, glancing down at what he had mistaken for twining serpents.
"Yes," said the officer; "I was more accustomed to a sword than to an etching tool, and the letters are but rudely drawn. One evening, after dark, Gretlich and I were whispering together in the hall, when we heard the heavy tread of the general coming up the stair. The girl fled precipitately, and I, holding open the door, waited the approach of my chief. He entered and curtly asked me to close the door.
"'Lieutenant,' he said, 'it is my intention to capture the citadel to- night. Get together twenty-five of your men, and have them ready under the shadow of this house, but give no one a hint of what you intend to do with them. In one hour's time leave this place with your men as quietly as possible, and make an attack on the western entrance of the citadel. Your attack is to be but a feint and to draw off their forces to that point. Still, if any of your men succeed in gaining entrance to the fort they shall not lack reward and promotion. Have you a watch?'
"'Not one that will go, general; but I have an hourglass here.'
"'Very well, set it running. Collect your men, and exactly at the hour lead them to the west front; it is but five minutes' quick march from here. An hour and five minutes from this moment I expect you to begin the attack, and the instant you are before the western gate make as much noise as your twenty-five men are capable of, so as to lead the enemy to believe that the attack is a serious one.'
"Saying this, the general turned and made his way, heavy-footed, through the hall and down the stairway.
"I set the hour-glass running, and went at once to call my men, stationing them where I had been ordered to place them. I returned to have a word with Gretlich before I departed on what I knew was a dangerous mission. Glancing at the hour-glass, I saw that not more than a quarter of the sand had run down during my absence. I remained in the doorway, where I could keep an eye on the hour-glass, while the girl stood leaning her arm against the angle of the dark passageway, supporting her fair cheek on her open palm; and, standing thus in the darkness, she talked to me in whispers. We talked and talked, engaged in that sweet, endless conversation that murmurs in subdued tone round the world, being duplicated that moment at who knows how many places. Absorbed as I was in listening, at last there crept into my consciousness the fact that the sand in the upper bulb was not diminishing as fast as it should. This knowledge was fully in my mind for some time before I realised its fearful significance. Suddenly the dim knowledge took on actuality. I sprang from the door-lintel, saying:—
"'Good heavens, the sand in the hour-glass has stopped running!'
"I remained there motionless, all action struck from my rigid limbs, gazing at the hour-glass on the table.
"Gretlich, peering in at the doorway, looking at the hour-glass and not at me, having no suspicion of the ruin involved in the stoppage of that miniature sandstorm, said, presently:—
"'Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you it does that now and then, and so you must shake the glass.'
"She bent forward as if to do this when the leaden windows shuddered, and the house itself trembled with the sharp crash of our light cannon, followed almost immediately by the deeper detonation of the heavier guns from the citadel. The red sand in the glass began to fall again, and its liberation seemed to unfetter my paralysed limbs. Bareheaded as I was, I rushed like one frantic along the passage and down the stairs. The air was resonant with the quick-following reports of the cannon, and the long, narrow street was fitfully lit up as if by sudden flashes of summer lightning. My men were still standing where I had placed them. Giving a sharp word of command, I marched them down the street and out into the square, where I met General Trelawny coming back from his futile assault. Like myself, he was bareheaded. His military countenance was begrimed with powder-smoke, but he spoke to me with no trace of anger in his voice.
"'Lieutenant Sentore,' he said, 'disperse your men.'
"I gave the word to disband my men, and then stood at attention before him.
"'Lieutenant Sentore,' he said, in the same level voice, 'return to your quarters and consider yourself under arrest. Await my coming there.'
"I turned and obeyed his orders. It seemed incredible that the sand should still be running in the hour-glass, for ages appeared to have passed over my head since last I was in that room. I paced up and down, awaiting the coming of my chief, feeling neither fear nor regret, but rather dumb despair. In a few minutes his heavy tread was on the stair, followed by the measured tramp of a file of men. He came into the room, and with him were a sergeant and four soldiers, fully armed. The general was trembling with rage, but held strong control over himself, as was his habit on serious occasions.
"'Lieutenant Sentore,' he said, 'why were you not at your post?"
"'The running sand in the hour-glass' (I hardly recognised my own voice on hearing it) 'stopped when but half exhausted. I did not notice its interruption until it was too late.'
"The general glanced grimly at the hour-glass. The last sands were falling through to the lower bulb. I saw that he did not believe my explanation.
"'It seems now to be in perfect working order,' he said, at last.
"He strode up to it and reversed it, watching the sand pour for a few moments, then he spoke abruptly:—
"'Lieutenant Sentore, your sword.'
"I handed my weapon to him without a word. Turning to the sergeant, he said: 'Lieutenant Sentore is sentenced to death. He has an hour for whatever preparations he cares to make. Allow him to dispose of that hour as he chooses, so long as he remains within this room and holds converse with no one whatever. When the last sands of this hour-glass are run, Lieutenant Sentore will stand at the other end of this room and meet the death merited by traitors, laggards, or cowards. Do you understand your duty, sergeant?'
"General Trelawny abruptly left the room, and we heard his heavy steps echoing throughout the silent house, and later, more faintly on the cobble-stones of the street. When they had died away a deep stillness set in, I standing alone at one end of the room, my eyes fixed on the hour-glass, and the sergeant with his four men, like statues at the other, also gazing at the same sinister object. The sergeant was the first to break the silence.
"'Lieutenant,' he said, 'do you wish to write anything——?'
"He stopped short, being an unready man, rarely venturing far beyond 'Yes' and 'No.'
"'I should like to communicate with one in this household,' I said, 'but the general has forbidden it, so all I ask is that you shall have my body conveyed from this room as speedily as possible after the execution.'
"'Very good, lieutenant,' answered the sergeant.
"After that, for a long time no word was spoken. I watched my life run redly through the wasp waist of the transparent glass, then suddenly the sand ceased to flow, half in the upper bulb, half in the lower.
"'It has stopped,' said the sergeant; 'I must shake the glass.'
"'Stand where you are!' I commanded, sharply. 'Your orders do not run to that.'
"The habit of obedience rooted the sergeant to the spot.
"'Send one of your men to General Trelawny,' I said, as if I had still the right to be obeyed. 'Tell him what has happened, and ask for instructions. Let your man tread lightly as he leaves the room.'
"The sergeant did not hesitate a moment, but gave the order I required of him. The soldier nearest the door tip-toed out of the house. As we all stood there the silence seeming the deeper because of the stopping of the sand, we heard the hour toll in the nearest steeple. The sergeant was visibly perturbed, and finally he said:—
"'Lieutenant, I must obey the general's orders. An hour has passed since he left here, for that clock struck as he was going down the stair. Soldiers, make ready. Present.'
"The men, like impassive machines levelled their muskets at my breast. I held up my hand.
"'Sergeant,' I said as calmly as I could, 'you are now about to exceed your instructions. Give another command at your peril. The exact words of the general were, 'When the last sands of this hour-glass are run.' I call your attention to the fact that the conditions are not fulfilled. Half of the sand remains in the upper bulb.'
"The sergeant scratched his head in perplexity, but he had no desire to kill me, and was only actuated by a soldier's wish to adhere strictly to the letter of his instructions, be the victim friend or foe. After a few moments he muttered, 'It is true,' then gave a command that put his men into their former position.
"Probably more than half an hour passed, during which time no man moved; the sergeant and his three remaining soldiers seemed afraid to breathe; then we heard the step of the general himself on the stair. I feared that this would give the needed impetus to the sand in the glass, but, when Trelawny entered, the status quo remained. The general stood looking at the suspended sand, without speaking.
"' That is what happened before, general, and that is why I was not at my place. I have committed the crime of neglect, and have thus deservedly earned my death; but I shall die the happier if my general believes I am neither a traitor nor a coward.'
"The general, still without a word, advanced to the table, slightly shook the hour-glass, and the sand began to pour again. Then he picked the glass up in his hand, examining it minutely, as if it were some strange kind of toy, turning it over and over. He glanced up at me and said, quite in his usual tone, as if nothing in particular had come between us:—
"'Remarkable thing that, Sentore, isn't it?'
"'Very,' I answered, grimly.
"He put the glass down.
"'Sergeant, take your men to quarters. Lieutenant Sentore, I return to you your sword; you can perhaps make better use of it alive than dead; I am not a man to be disobeyed, reason or no reason. Remember that, and now go to bed.'
"He left me without further word, and buckling on my sword, I proceeded straightway to disobey again.
"I had a great liking for General Trelawny. Knowing how he fumed and raged at being thus held helpless by an apparently impregnable fortress in the unimportant town of Elsengore, I had myself studied the citadel from all points, and had come to the conclusion that it might be successfully attempted, not by the great gates that opened on the square of the town, nor by the inferior west gates, but by scaling the seemingly unclimbable cliffs at the north side. The wall at the top of this precipice was low, and owing to the height of the beetling cliff, was inefficiently watched by one lone sentinel, who paced the battlements from corner tower to corner tower. I had made my plans, intending to ask the general's permission to risk this venture, but now I resolved to try it without his knowledge or consent, and thus retrieve, if I could, my failure of the foregoing part of the night.
"Taking with me a long, thin rope which I had in my room, anticipating such a trial for it, I roused five of my picked men, and silently we made our way to the foot of the northern cliff. Here, with the rope around my waist, I worked my way diagonally up along a cleft in the rock, which, like others parallel to it, marked the face of the precipice. A slip would be fatal. The loosening of a stone would give warning to the sentinel, whose slow steps I heard on the wall above me, but at last I reached a narrow ledge without accident, and standing up in the darkness, my chin was level with the top of the wall on which the sentry paced. The shelf between the bottom of the wall and the top of the cliff was perhaps three feet in width, and gave ample room for a man careful of his footing. Aided by the rope, the others, less expert climbers than myself, made their way to my side one by one, and the six of us stood on the ledge under the low wall. We were all in our stockinged feet, some of the men, in fact, not even having stockings on. As the sentinel passed, we crouching in the darkness under the wall, the most agile of our party sprang up behind him. The soldier had taken off his jacket, and tip-toeing behind the sentinel, he threw the garment over his head, tightening it with a twist that almost strangled the man. Then seizing his gun so that it would not clatter on the stones, held him thus helpless while we five climbed up beside him. Feeling under the jacket, I put my right hand firmly on the sentinel's throat, and nearly choking the breath out of him, said:—
"'Your life depends on your actions now. Will you utter a sound if I let go your throat?'
"The man shook his head vehemently, and I released my clutch.
"'Now,' I said to him, 'where is the powder stored? Answer in a whisper, and speak truly.'
"'The bulk of the powder,' he answered, 'is in the vault below the citadel.'
"'Where is the rest of it?' I whispered.
"'In the lower room of the round tower by the gate.'
"'Nonsense,' I said: 'they would never store it in a place so liable to attack.'
"'There was nowhere else to put it,' replied the sentinel, 'unless they left it in the open courtyard, which would be quite as unsafe.'
"'Is the door to the lower room in the tower bolted?'
"'There is no door,' replied the sentry, 'but a low archway. This archway has not been closed, because no cannon-balls ever come from the northern side.'
"'How much powder is there in this room?'
"'I do not know; nine or ten barrels, I think.'
"It was evident to me that the fellow, in his fear, spoke the truth. Now, the question was, how to get down from the wall into the courtyard and across that to the archway at the southern side? Cautioning the sentinel again, that if he made the slightest attempt to escape or give the alarm, instant death would be meted to him, I told him to guide us to the archway, which he did, down the stone steps that led from the northern wall into the courtyard. They seemed to keep loose watch inside, the only sentinels in the place being those on the upper walls. But the man we had captured not appearing at his corner in time, his comrade on the western side became alarmed, spoke to him, and obtaining no answer, shouted for him, then discharged his gun. Instantly the place was in an uproar. Lights flashed, and from different guard-rooms soldiers poured out. I saw across the courtyard the archway the sentinel had spoken of, and calling my men made a dash for it. The besieged garrison, not expecting an enemy within, had been rushing up the stone steps at each side to the outer wall to man the cannon they had so recently quitted, and it was some minutes before a knowledge of the real state of things came to them. These few minutes were all we needed, but I saw there was no chance for a slow match, while if we fired the mine we probably would die under the tottering tower.
"By the time we reached the archway and discovered the powder barrels, the besieged, finding everything silent outside, came to a realisation of the true condition of affairs. We faced them with bayonets fixed, while Sept, the man who had captured the sentinel, took the hatchet he had brought with him at his girdle, flung over one of the barrels on its side, knocked in the head of it, allowing the dull black powder to pour on the cobblestones. Then filling his hat with the explosive, he came out towards us, leaving a thick trail behind him. By this time we were sorely beset, and one of our men had gone down under the fire of the enemy, who shot wildly, being baffled by the darkness, otherwise all of us had been slaughtered. I seized a musket from a comrade and shouted to the rest:—
"'Save yourselves', and to the garrison, in French, I gave the same warning; then I fired the musket into the train of powder, and the next instant found myself half stunned and bleeding at the farther end of the courtyard. The roar of the explosion and the crash of the falling tower were deafening. All Elsengore was groused by the earthquake shock, I called to my men when I could find my voice, and Sept answered from one side, and two more from another. Together we tottered across the debris-strewn courtyard. Some woodwork inside the citadel had taken fire and was burning fiercely, and this lit up the ruins and made visible the great gap in the wall at the fallen gate. Into the square below we saw the whole town pouring, soldiers and civilians alike coming from the narrow streets into the open quadrangle. I made my way, leaning on Sept, over the broken gate and down the causeway into the square, and there, foremost of all, met my general, with a cloak thrown round him, to make up for his want of coat.
"'There, general,' I gasped, 'there is your citadel, and through this gap can we march to meet Marlborough.'
"'Pray, sir, who the deuce are you?' cried the general, for my face was like that of a blackamoor.
"'I am the lieutenant who has once more disobeyed your orders, general, in the hope of retrieving a former mistake.'
"'Sentore!' he cried, rapping out an oath. 'I shall have you court- martialled, sir.'
"'I think, general,' I said, 'that I am court-martialled already,' for I thought then that the hand of death was upon me, which shows the effect of imagination, for my wounds were not serious, yet I sank down unconscious at the general's feet. He raised me in his arms as if I had been his own son, and thus carried me to my rooms. Seven years later, when the war ended, I got leave of absence and came back to Elsengore for Gretlich Seidelmier and the hour-glass."
As the lieutenant ceased speaking, Eastford thought he heard again the explosion under the tower, and started to his feet in nervous alarm, then looked at the lieutenant and laughed, while he said:—
"Lieutenant, I was startled by that noise just now, and imagined for the moment that I was in Brabant. You have made good your claim to the hour-glass, and you are welcome to it."
But as Eastford spoke, he turned his eyes towards the chair in which the lieutenant had been seated, and found it vacant. Gazing round the room, in half somnolent dismay, he saw that he was indeed alone. At his feet was the shattered hour-glass, which had fallen from his knee, its blood-red sand mingling with the colours on the carpet. Eastford said, with an air of surprise:—
THE WARRIOR MAID OF SAN CARLOS
The young naval officer came into this world with two eyes and two arms; he left it with but one of each—nevertheless the remaining eye was ever quick to see, and the remaining arm ever strong to seize. Even his blind eye became useful on one historic occasion. But the loss of eye or arm was as nothing to the continual loss of his heart, which often led him far afield in the finding of it. Vanquished when he met the women; invincible when he met the men; in truth, a most human hero, and so we all love Jack—the we, in this instant, as the old joke has it, embracing the women.
In the year 1780 Britain ordered Colonel Polson to invade Nicaragua. The task imposed on the gallant Colonel was not an onerous one, for the Nicaraguans never cared to secure for themselves the military reputation of Sparta. In fact, some years after this, a single American, Walker, with a few Californian rifles under his command, conquered the whole nation and made himself President of it, and perhaps would have been Dictator of Nicaragua to-day if his own country had not laid him by the heels. It is no violation of history to state that the entire British fleet was not engaged in subduing Nicaragua, and that Colonel Polson felt himself amply provided for the necessities of the crisis by sailing into the harbour of San Juan del Norte with one small ship. There were numerous fortifications at the mouth of the river, and in about an hour after landing, the Colonel was in possession of them all.
The flight of time, brief as it was, could not be compared in celerity with the flight of the Nicaraguans, who betook themselves to the backwoods with an impetuosity seldom seen outside of a race-course. There was no loss of life so far as the British were concerned, and the only casualties resulting to the Nicaraguans were colds caught through the overheating of themselves in their feverish desire to explore immediately the interior of their beloved country. "He who bolts and runs away will live to bolt another day," was the motto of the Nicaraguans. So far, so good, or so bad, as the case may be.
The victorious Colonel now got together a flotilla of some half a score of boats, and the flotilla was placed under the command of the young naval officer, the hero of this story. The expedition proceeded cautiously up the river San Juan, which runs for eighty miles, or thereabouts, from Lake Nicaragua to the salt water. The voyage was a sort of marine picnic. Luxurious vegetation on either side, and no opposition to speak of, even from the current of the river; for Lake Nicaragua itself is but a hundred and twenty feet above the sea level, and a hundred and twenty feet gives little rapidity to a river eighty miles long.
As the flotilla approached the entrance to the lake caution increased, for it was not known how strong Fort San Carlos might prove. This fort, perhaps the only one in the country strongly built, stood at once on the shore of the lake and bank of the stream. There was one chance in a thousand that the speedy retreat of the Nicaraguans had been merely a device to lure the British into the centre of the country, where the little expedition of two hundred sailors and marines might be annihilated. In these circumstances Colonel Poison thought it well, before coming in sight of the fort, to draw up his boats along the northern bank of the San Juan River, sending out scouts to bring in necessary information regarding the stronghold.
The young naval officer all through his life was noted for his energetic and reckless courage, so it was not to be wondered at that the age of twenty-two found him impatient with the delay, loth to lie inactive in his boat until the scouts returned; so he resolved upon an action that would have justly brought a court-martial upon his head had a knowledge of it come to his superior officer. He plunged alone into the tropical thicket, armed only with two pistols and a cutlass, determined to force his way through the rank vegetation along the bank of the river, and reconnoitre Fort San Carlos for himself. If he had given any thought to the matter, which it is more than likely he did not, he must have known that he ran every risk of capture and death, for the native of South America, then as now, has rarely shown any hesitation about shooting prisoners of war. Our young friend, therefore, had slight chance for his life if cut off from his comrades, and, in the circumstances, even a civilised nation would have been perfectly within its right in executing him as a spy.
After leaving the lake the river San Juan bends south, and then north again. The scouts had taken the direct route to the fort across the land, but the young officer's theory was that, if the Nicaraguans meant to fight, they would place an ambush in the dense jungle along the river, and from this place of concealment harass the flotilla before it got within gunshot of the fort. This ambuscade could easily fall back upon the fort if directly attacked and defeated. This, the young man argued was what he himself would have done had he been in command of the Nicaraguan forces, so it naturally occurred to him to discover whether the same idea had suggested itself to the commandant at San Carlos.
Expecting every moment to come upon this ambuscade, the boy proceeded, pistol in hand, with the utmost care, crouching under the luxuriant tropical foliage, tunnelling his way, as one might say, along the dark alleys of vegetation, roofed in by the broad leaves overhead. Through cross-alleys he caught glimpses now and then of the broad river, of which he was desirous to keep within touch. Stealthily crossing one of these riverward alleys the young fellow came upon his ambuscade, and was struck motionless with amazement at the form it took. Silhouetted against the shining water beyond was a young girl. She knelt at the very verge of the low, crumbling cliff above the water; her left hand, outspread, was on the ground, her right rested against the rough trunk of a palm-tree, and counter-balanced the weight of her body, which leaned far forward over the brink. Her face was turned sideways towards him, and her lustrous eyes peered intently down the river at the British flotilla stranded along the river's bank. So intent was her gaze, so confident was she that she was alone, that the leopard-like approach of her enemy gave her no hint of attack. Her perfect profile being towards him, he saw her cherry-red lips move silently as if she were counting the boats and impressing their number upon her memory.
A woman in appearance, she was at this date but sixteen years old, and the breathless young man who stood like a statue regarding her thought he had never seen a vision of such entrancing beauty, and, as I have before intimated, he was a judge of feminine loveliness. Pulling himself together, and drawing a deep but silent breath, he went forward with soft tread, and the next instant there was a grip of steel on the wrist of the young girl that rested on the earth. With a cry of dismay she sprang to her feet and confronted her assailant, nearly toppling over the brink as she did so; but he grasped her firmly, and drew her a step or two up the arcade. As he held her left wrist there was in the air the flash of a stiletto, and the naval officer's distinguished career would have ended on that spot had he not been a little quicker than his fair opponent. His disengaged hand gripped the descending wrist and held her powerless.
"Ruffian!" she hissed, in Spanish.
The young man had a workable knowledge of the language, and he thanked his stars now that it was so. He smiled at her futile struggles to free herself, then said:—
"When they gave me my commission, I had no hope that I should meet so charming an enemy. Drop the knife, senorita, and I will release your hand."
The girl did not comply at first. She tried to wrench herself free, pulling this way and that with more strength than might have been expected from one so slight. But finding herself helpless in those rigid bonds, she slowly relaxed the fingers of her right hand, and let the dagger drop point downward into the loose soil, where it stood and quivered.
"Now let me go," she said, panting. "You promised."
The young man relinquished his hold, and the girl, with the quick movement of a humming-bird, dived into the foliage, and would have disappeared, had he not with equal celerity intercepted her, again imprisoning her wrist.
"You liar!" she cried, her magnificent eyes ablaze with anger. "Faithless minion of a faithless race, you promised to let me go."
"And I kept my promise," said the young man, still with a smile. "I said I would release your hand, and I did so; but as for yourself, that is a different matter. You see, senorita, to speak plainly, you are a spy. I have caught you almost within our lines, counting our boats, and, perhaps, our men. There is war between our countries, and I arrest you as a spy."
"A brave country, yours," she cried, "to war upon women!"
"Well," said the young man, with a laugh, "what are we to do? The men won't stay and fight us."
She gave him a dark, indignant glance at this, which but heightened her swarthy beauty.
"And what are you," she said, "but a spy?"
"Not yet," he replied. "If you had found me peering at the fort, then, perhaps, I should be compelled to plead guilty. But as it is, you are the only spy here at present, senorita. Do you know what the fate of a spy is?"
The girl stood there for a few moments, her face downcast, the living gyves still encircling her wrists. When she looked up it was with a smile so radiant that the young man gasped for breath, and his heart beat faster than ever it had done in warfare.
"But you will not give me up?" she murmured, softly.
"Then would I be in truth a faithless minion," cried the young man, fervently; "not, indeed, to my country, but to your fascinating sex, which I never adored so much as now."
"You mean that you would be faithless to your country, but not to me?"
"Well," said the young man, with some natural hesitation, "I shouldn't care to have to choose between my allegiance to one or the other. England can survive without warring upon women, as you have said; so I hope that if we talk the matter amicably over, we may find that my duty need not clash with my inclination."
"I am afraid that is impossible," she answered, quickly. "I hate your country."
"But not the individual members of it, I hope."
"I know nothing of its individual members, nor do I wish to, as you shall soon see, if you will but let go my wrist."
"Ah, senorita," exclaimed the young man, "you are using an argument now that will make me hold you forever."
"In that case," said the girl, "I shall change my argument, and give instead a promise. If you release me I shall not endeavour to escape—I may even be so bold as to expect your escort to the fort, where, if I understand you aright, you were but just now going."
"I accept your promise, and shall be delighted if you will accept my escort. Meanwhile, in the interest of our better acquaintance, can I persuade you to sit down, and allow me to cast myself at your feet?"
The girl, with a clear, mellow laugh, sat down, and the young man reclined in the position he had indicated, gazing up at her with intense admiration in his eyes.
"If this be war," he said to himself, "long may I remain a soldier." Infatuated as he certainly was, his natural alertness could not but notice that her glance wandered to the stiletto, the perpendicular shining blade of which looked like the crest of a glittering, dangerous serpent, whose body was hidden in the leaves. She had seated herself as close to the weapon as possible, and now, on one pretext or another, edged nearer and nearer to it. At last the young man laughed aloud, and, sweeping his foot round, knocked down the weapon, then indolently stretching out his arm, he took it.
"Senorita," he said, examining its keen edge, "will you give me this dagger as a memento of our meeting?"
"It is unlucky," she murmured, "to make presents of stilettos."
"I think," said the young man, glancing up at her with a smile on his lips, "it will be more lucky for me if I place it here in my belt than if I allow it to reach the possession of another."
"Do you intend to steal it, senor?"
"Oh, no. If you refuse to let me have it, I will give it back to you when our interview ends; but I should be glad to possess it, if you allow me to keep it."
"It is unlucky, as I have said; to make a present of it, but I will exchange. If you will give me one of your loaded pistols, you may have the stiletto."
"A fair exchange," he laughed, but he made no motion to fulfil his part to the barter. "May I have the happiness of knowing your name, senorita?" he asked.
"I am called Donna Rafaela Mora," answered the girl, simply. "I am daughter of the Commandant of Fort San Carlos. I am no Nicaraguan, but a Spaniard And, senor, what is your name?"
"Horatio Nelson, an humble captain in His Majesty's naval forces, to be heard from later, I hope, unless Donna Rafaela cuts short my thread of life with her stiletto."
"And does a captain in His Majesty's forces condescend to play the part of a spy?" asked the girl, proudly.
"He is delighted to do so when it brings him the acquaintance of another spy so charming as Donna Rafaela. My spying, and I imagine yours also, is but amateurish, and will probably be of little value to our respective forces. Our real spies are now gathered round your fort, and will bring to us all the information we need. Thus, I can recline at your feet, Donna Rafaela, with an easy conscience, well aware that my failure as a spy will in no way retard our expedition."
"How many men do you command, Senor Captain?" asked the girl, with ill- concealed eagerness.
"Oh, sometimes twenty-five, sometimes fifty, or a hundred or two hundred, or more, as the case may be," answered the young man, carelessly.
"But how many are there in your expedition now?"
"Didn't you count them, Donna? To answer truly, I must not, to answer falsely, I will not, Donna."
"Why?" asked the girl, impetuously. "There is no such secrecy about our forces; we do not care who knows the number in our garrison."
"No? Then how many are there, Donna?"
"Three hundred and forty," answered the girl.
"Men, or young ladies like yourself, Donna? Be careful how you answer, for if the latter, I warn you that nothing will keep the British out of Fort San Carlos. We shall be with you, even if we have to go as prisoners. In saying this, I feel that I am speaking for our entire company."
The girl tossed her head scornfully.
"There are three hundred and forty men," she said, "as you shall find to your cost, if you dare attack the fort."
"In that case," replied Nelson, "you are nearly two to one, and I venture to think that we have not come up the river for nothing."
"What braggarts you English are!"
"Is it bragging to welcome a stirring fight? Are you well provided with cannon?"
"You will learn that for yourself when you come within sight of the fort. Have you any more questions to ask, Senor Sailor?"
"Yes; one. The number in the fort, which you give, corresponds with what I have already heard. I have heard also that you were well supplied with cannon, but I have been told that you have no cannonballs in Fort San Carlos."
"That is not true; we have plenty.
"Incredible as it may seem, I was told that the cannon-balls were made of clay. When I said you had none, I meant that you had none of iron."
"That also is quite true," answered the girl. "Do you mean to say that you are going to shoot baked clay at us? It will be like heaving bricks," and the young man threw back his head and laughed.
"Oh, you may laugh," cried the girl, "but I doubt if you will be so merry when you come to attack the fort. The clay cannon-balls were made under the superintendence of my father, and they are filled with links of chain, spikes, and other scraps of iron."
"By Jove!" cried young Nelson, "that's an original idea. I wonder how it will work?"
"You will have every opportunity of finding out, if you are foolish enough to attack the fort."
"You advise us then to retreat?"
"I most certainly do."
"And why, Donna, if you hate our country, are you so anxious that we shall not be cut to pieces by your scrap-iron?"
The girl shrugged her pretty shoulders.
"It doesn't matter in the least to me what you do," she said, rising to her feet. "Am I your prisoner, Senor Nelson?"
"No," cried the young man, also springing up; "I am yours, and have been ever since you looked at me."
Again the girl shrugged her shoulders. She seemed to be in no humour for light compliments, and betrayed an eagerness to be gone.
"I have your permission, then, to depart? Do you intend to keep your word?"
"If you will keep yours, Donna."
"I gave you no promise, except that I would not run away, and I have not done so. I now ask your permission to depart."
"You said that I might accompany you to the fort."
"Oh, if you have the courage, yes," replied the girl, carelessly.
They walked on together through the dense alleys of vegetation, and finally came to an opening which showed them a sandy plain, and across it the strong white stone walls of the fort, facing the wide river, and behind it the blue background of Lake Nicaragua.
Not a human form was visible either on the walls or on the plain. Fort San Carlos, in spite of the fact that it bristled with cannon, seemed like an abandoned castle. The two stood silent for a moment at the margin of the jungle, the young officer running his eye rapidly over the landscape, always bringing back his gaze to the seemingly deserted stronghold.
"Your three hundred and forty men keep themselves well hidden," he said at last.
"Yes," replied the girl, nonchalantly, "they fear that if they show themselves you may hesitate to attack a fortress that is impregnable."
"Well, you may disabuse their minds of that error when you return."
"Are you going to keep my stiletto?" asked the girl, suddenly changing the subject.
"Yes, with your permission."
"Then keep your word, and give me your pistol in return."
"Did I actually promise it?"
"You promised, Senor."
"Then in that case, the pistol is yours."
"Please hand it to me."
Her eagerness to obtain the weapon was but partially hidden, and the young man laughed as he weighed the fire-arm in his hand, holding it by the muzzle.
"It is too heavy for a slim girl like you to handle," he said, at last. "It can hardly be called a lady's toy."
"You intend, then, to break your word," said the girl, with quick intuition, guessing with unerring instinct his vulnerable point.
"Oh, no," he cried, "but I am going to send the pistol half-way home for you," and with that, holding it still by the barrel, he flung it far out on the sandy plain, where it fell, raising a little cloud of dust. The girl was about to speed to the fort, when, for the third time, the young man grasped her wrist. She looked at him with indignant surprise.
"Pardon me," he said, "but in case you should wish to fire the weapon, you must have some priming. Let me pour a quantity of this gunpowder into your hand."
"Thank you," she said, veiling her eyes, to hide their hatred.
He raised the tiny hand to his lips, without opposition, and then into her satin palm, from his powderhorn, he poured a little heap of the black grains.
"Good-bye, senor," she said, hurrying away. She went directly to where the pistol had fallen, stooped and picked it up. He saw her pour the powder from her hand on its broad, unshapely pan. She knelt on the sand, studied the clumsy implement, resting her elbow on her knee. The young man stood there motionless, bareheaded, his cap in his hand. There was a flash and a loud report; and the bullet cut the foliage behind him, a little nearer than he expected. He bowed low to her, and she, rising with an angry gesture, flung the weapon from her.
"Donna Rafaela," he shouted, "thank you for firing the pistol. Its report brings no one to the walls of San Carlos. Your fortress is deserted, Donna. Tomorrow may I have the pleasure of showing you how to shoot?"
The girl made no answer, but turning, ran as fast as she could towards the fort.
The young man walked toward the fort, picked up his despised weapon, thrust it in his belt, and went back to the camp. The scouts were returning, and reported that, as far as they could learn, the three hundred and forty Nicaraguans had, in a body, abandoned Fort San Carlos.
"It is some trick," said the Colonel. "We must approach the fortress cautiously, as if the three hundred and forty were there."
The flotilla neared the fort in a long line. Each boat was filled with men, and in each prow was levelled a small cannon—a man with a lighted match beside it—ready to fire the moment word was given. Nelson himself stood up in his boat, and watched the silent fort. Suddenly the silence was broken by a crash of thunder, and Nelson's boat (and the one nearest to it) was wrecked, many of the men being killed, and himself severely wounded.
"Back, back!" cried the commander. "Row out of range, for your lives!" The second cannon spoke, and the whole line of boats was thrown into inextricable confusion. Cannon after cannon rang out, and of the two hundred men who sailed up the river San Juan only ten reached the ship alive.
The Commandant of the fort lay ill in his bed, unable to move, but his brave daughter fired the cannon that destroyed the flotilla. Here Nelson lost his eye, and so on a celebrated occasion was unable to see the signals that called upon him to retreat. Thus victory ultimately rose out of disaster.
The King of Spain decorated Donna Rafaela Mora, made her a colonel, and gave her a pension for life. So recently as 1857, her grandson, General Martinez, was appointed President of Nicaragua solely because he was a descendant of the girl who defeated Horatio Nelson.
THE AMBASSADOR'S PIGEONS
Haziddin, the ambassador, stood at the door of his tent and gazed down upon the famous city of Baalbek, seeing it now for the first time. The night before, he had encamped on the heights to the south of Baalbek, and had sent forward to that city, messengers to the Prince, carrying greetings and acquainting him with the fact that an embassy from the Governor of Damascus awaited permission to enter the gates. The sun had not yet risen, but the splendour in the East, lighting the sky with wondrous colourings of gold and crimson and green, announced the speedy coming of that god which many of the inhabitants of Baalbek still worshipped. The temples and palaces of the city took their tints from the flaming sky, and Haziddin, the ambassador, thought he had never seen anything so beautiful, notwithstanding the eulogy Mahomet himself had pronounced upon his own metropolis of Damascus.
The great city lay in silence, but the moment the rim of the sun appeared above the horizon the silence was broken by a faint sound of chanting from that ornate temple, seemingly of carven ivory, which had bestowed upon the city its Greek name of Heliopolis. The Temple of the Sun towered overall other buildings in the place, and, as if the day- god claimed his own, the rising sun shot his first rays upon this edifice, striking from it instantly all colour, leaving its rows of pillars a dazzling white as if they were fashioned from the pure snows of distant Lebanon. The sun seemed a mainspring of activity, as well as an object of adoration, for before it had been many minutes above the horizon the ambassador saw emerging from the newly opened gate the mounted convoy that was to act as his escort into the city; so, turning, he gave a quick command which speedily levelled the tents, and brought his retinue; into line to receive their hosts.
The officer, sent by the Prince of Baalbek to welcome the ambassador and conduct him into the city, greeted the visitor with that deferential ceremony so beloved of the Eastern people, and together they journeyed down the hill to the gates, the followers of the one mingling fraternally with the followers of the other. As if the deities of the wonderful temples they were approaching wished to show the futility of man's foresight, a thoughtless remark made by one of the least in the ambassador's retinue to one of the least who followed the Baalbek general, wrought ruin to one empire, and saved another from disaster.
A mule-driver from Baalbek said to one of his lowly a profession from Damascus that the animals of the northern city seemed of superior breed to those of the southern. Then the Damascus man, his civic pride disturbed by the slighting remark, replied haughtily that if the mules of Baalbek had endured such hardships as those of Damascus, journeying for a month without rest through a rugged mountain country, they would perhaps look in no better condition than those the speaker then drove.
"Our mules were as sleek as yours a month ago, when we left Damascus."
As Baalbek is but thirty-one miles north of Damascus, the muleteer of the former place marvelled that so long a time had been spent on the journey, and he asked his fellow why they had wandered among the mountains. The other could but answer that so it was, and he knew no reason for it, and with this the man of Baalbek had to content himself. And so the tale went from mouth to ear of the Baalbek men until it reached the general himself. He thought little of it for the moment, but, turning to the ambassador, said, having nothing else to say:
"How long has it taken you from Damascus to Baalbek?"
Then the ambassador answered:
"We have done the journey in three days; it might have taken us but two, or perhaps it could have been accomplished in one, but there being no necessity for speed we travelled leisurely."
Then the general, remaining silent, said to himself:
"Which has lied, rumour or the ambassador?"
He cast his eyes over the animals the ambassador had brought with him, and saw that they indeed showed signs of fatigue, and perhaps of irregular and improper food.
Prince Ismael himself received Haziddin, ambassador of Omar, Governor of Damascus, at the gates of Baalbek, and the pomp and splendour of that reception was worthy of him who gave it, but the general found opportunity to whisper in the ear of the Prince:
"The ambassador says he was but three days coming, while a follower of his told a follower of mine that they have been a month on the road, wandering among the mountains."
Suspicion is ever latent in the Eastern mind, and the Prince was quick to see a possible meaning for this sojourn among the mountains. It might well be that the party were seeking a route at once easy and unknown by which warriors from Damascus might fall upon Baalbek; yet, if this were the case, why did not the explorers return directly to Damascus rather than venture within the walls of Baalbek? It seemed to Prince Ismael that this would have been the more crafty method to pursue, for, as it was, unless messengers had returned to Damascus to report the result of their mountain excursion, he had the whole party practically prisoners within the walls of his city, and he could easily waylay any envoy sent by the ambassador to his chief in Damascus. The Prince, however, showed nothing in his manner of what was passing through his mind, but at the last moment he changed the programme he had laid out for the reception of the ambassador. Preparation had been made for a great public breakfast, for Haziddin was famed throughout the East, not only as a diplomatist, but also as physician and a man of science. The Prince now gave orders that his officers were to entertain the retinue of the ambassador at the public breakfast, while he bestowed upon the ambassador the exceptional honour of asking him to his private table, thus giving Haziddin of Damascus no opportunity to confer with his followers after they had entered the gates of Baalbek.
It was impossible for Haziddin to demur, so he could but bow low and accept the hospitality which might at that moment be most unwelcome, as indeed it was. The Prince's manner was so genial and friendly that, the physician, Haziddin, soon saw he had an easy man to deal with, and he suspected no sinister motive beneath the cordiality of the Prince.
The red wine of Lebanon is strong, and his Highness, Ismael, pressed it upon his guest, urging that his three days' journey had been fatiguing. The ambassador had asked that his own servant might wait upon him, but the Prince would not hear of it, and said that none should serve him who were not themselves among the first nobles in Baalbek.
"You represent Omar, Governor of Damascus, son of King Ayoub, and as such I receive you on terms of equality with myself."
The ambassador, at first nonplussed with a lavishness that was most unusual, gradually overcame his diffidence, became warm with the wine, and so failed to notice that the Prince himself remained cool, and drank sparingly. At last the head of Haziddin sank on his breast, and he reclined at full length on the couch he occupied, falling into a drunken stupor, for indeed he was deeply fatigued, and had spent the night before sleepless. As his cloak fell away from him it left exposed a small wicker cage attached to his girdle containing four pigeons closely huddled, for the cage was barely large enough to hold them, and here the Prince saw the ambassador's swift messengers to Damascus. Let loose from the walls of Baalbek, and flying direct, the tidings would, in a few hours, be in the hands of the Governor of Damascus. Haziddin then was spy as well as ambassador. The Prince also possessed carrier pigeons, and used them as a means of communication between his armies at Tripoli and at Antioch, so he was not ignorant of their consequence. The fact that the ambassador himself carried this small cage under his cloak attached to his girdle showed the great importance that was attached to these winged messengers, otherwise Haziddin would have entrusted them to one of his subordinates.
"Bring me," whispered the Prince to his general, "four of my own pigeons. Do not disturb the thongs attached to the girdle when you open the cage, but take the ambassador's pigeons out and substitute four of my own. Keep these pigeons of Damascus separate from ours; we may yet have use for them in communicating with the Governor."
The general, quick to see the scheme which was in the Prince's mind, brought four Baalbek pigeons, identical with the others in size and colour. He brought with him also a cage into which the Damascus pigeons were put, and thus the transfer was made without the knowledge of the slumbering ambassador. His cloak was arranged about him so that it concealed the cage attached to the girdle, then the ambassador's own servants were sent for, and he was confided to their care.
When Haziddin awoke he found himself in a sumptuous room of the palace. He had but a hazy remembrance of the latter part of the meal with the Prince, and his first thought went with a thrill of fear towards the cage under his cloak; finding, however, that this was intact, he was much relieved in his mind, and could but hope that in his cups he had not babbled anything of his mission which might arouse suspicion in the mind of the Prince. His first meeting with the ruler of Baalbek after the breakfast they had had together, set all doubts finally at rest, because the Prince received him with a friendship which was unmistakable. The physician apologised for being overcome by the potency of the wine, and pleaded that he had hitherto been unused to liquor of such strength. The Prince waved away all reference to the subject, saying that he himself had succumbed on the same occasion, and had but slight recollection of what had passed between them.
Ismael assigned to the ambassador one of the palaces near the Pantheon, and Haziddin found himself free to come and go as he pleased without espionage or restriction. He speedily learned that one of the armies of Baalbek was at the north, near Antioch, the other to the west at Tripoli, leaving the great city practically unprotected, and this unprecedented state of affairs jumped so coincident with the designs of his master, that he hastened to communicate the intelligence. He wrote:
"If Baalbek is immediately attacked, it cannot be protected. Half of the army is on the shore of the Mediterranean, near Tripoli, the other half is north, at Antioch. The Prince has no suspicion. If you conceal the main body of your army behind the hills to the south of Baalbek, and come on yourself with a small: retinue, sending notice to the Prince of your arrival, he will likely himself come out to the gates to meet you, and having secured his person, while I, with my followers, hold the open gates, you can march into Baalbek unmolested. Once with a force inside the walls of Baalbek, the city is as nearly as possible impregnable, and holding the Prince prisoner, you may make with him your own terms. The city is indescribably rich, and probably never before in the history of the world has there been opportunity of accumulating so much treasure with so little risk."
This writing Haziddin attached to the leg of a pigeon, and throwing the bird aloft from the walls, it promptly disappeared over the housetops, and a few moments later was in the hands of its master, the Prince of Baalbek, who read the treacherous message with amazement. Then, imitating the ambassador's writing, he penned a note, saying that this was not the time to invade Baalbek, but as there were rumours that the armies were about to leave the city, one going to the north and the other to the west, the ambassador would send by another pigeon news of the proper moment to strike.
This communication the Prince attached to the leg of one of the Damascus pigeons, and throwing it into the air, saw with satisfaction that the bird flew straight across the hills towards the south.
Ismael that night sent messengers mounted on swift Arabian horses to Tripoli and to Antioch recalling his armies, directing his generals to avoid Baalbek and to join forces in the mountains to the south of that city and out of sight of it. This done, the Prince attended in state a banquet tendered to him by the ambassador from Damascus, where he charmed all present by his genial urbanity, speaking touchingly on the blessings of peace, and drinking to a thorough understanding between the two great cities of the East, Damascus and Baalbek, sentiments which, were cordially reciprocated by the ambassador.
Next morning the second pigeon came to the palace of the Prince.
"Ismael is still unsuspicious," the document ran. "He will fall an easy prey if action be prompt. In case of a failure to surprise, it would be well to impress upon your generals the necessity of surrounding the city instantly so that messengers cannot be sent to the two armies. It will then be advisable to cut off the water-supply by diverting the course of the small river which flows into Baalbek. The walls of the city are incredibly strong, and a few men can defend them successfully against a host, once the gates are shut. Thirst, however, will soon compel them, to surrender. Strike quickly, and Baalbek is yours."
The Prince sent a note of another tenor to Damascus, and the calm days passed serenely on, the ambassador watching anxiously from his house- top, his eyes turned to the south, while the Prince watched as anxiously from the roof of his palace, his gaze turning now westward now northward.
The third night after the second message had been sent, the ambassador paced the long level promenade of his roof, ever questioning the south. A full moon shone down on the silent city, and in that clear air the plain outside the walls and the nearer hills were as distinctly visible as if it were daylight. There was no sign of an approaching army. Baalbek lay like a city of the dead, the splendid architecture of its countless temples gleaming ghostlike, cold, white and unreal in the pure refulgence of the moon. Occasionally the ambassador paused in his walk and leaned on the parapet. He had become vaguely uneasy, wondering why Damascus delayed, and there crept over him that sensation of dumb fear which comes to a man in the middle of the night and leaves him with the breaking of day. He realised keenly the extreme peril of his own position—imprisoned and at the mercy of his enemy should his treachery be discovered. And now as he leaned over the parapet in the breathless stillness, his alert ear missed an accustomed murmur of the night. Baalbek was lulled to sleep by the ever-present tinkle of running water, the most delicious sound that can soothe an Eastern ear, accustomed as it is to the echoless silence of the arid rainless desert.
The little river which entered Baalbek first flowed past the palace of the Prince, then to the homes of the nobles and the priests, meandering through every street and lane until it came to the baths left by the Romans, whence it flowed through the poorer quarters, and at last disappeared under the outer wall. It might be termed a liquid guide to Baalbek, for the stranger, leaving the palace and following its current, would be led past every temple and residence in the city. It was the limpid thread of life running through the veins of the town, and without it Baalbek could not have existed. As the ambassador leaned over the parapet wondering whether it was his imagination which made this night seem more still than all that had gone before since he came to the city, he suddenly became aware that what he missed was the purling trickle of the water. Peering over the wall of his house, and gazing downward on the moonlit street, he saw no reflecting glitter of the current, and realised, with a leap of the heart, that the stream had run dry.
The ambassador was quick to understand the meaning of this sudden drying of the stream. Notwithstanding his vigilance, the soldiers of Damascus had stolen upon the city unperceived by him, and had already diverted the water-course. Instantly his thoughts turned toward his own escape. In the morning the fact of the invasion would be revealed, and his life would lie at the mercy of an exasperated ruler. To flee from Baalbek in the night he knew to be no easy task; all the gates were closed, and not one of them would be opened before daybreak, except through the intervention of the Prince himself. To spring from even the lowest part of the wall would mean instant death. In this extremity the natural ingenuity of the man came to his rescue. That which gave him warning would also provide an avenue of safety.
The stream, conveyed to the city by a lofty aqueduct, penetrated the thick walls through a tunnel cut in the solid stone, just large enough to receive its volume. The tunnel being thus left dry, a man could crawl on his hands and knees through it, and once outside, walk upright on the top of the viaduct, along the empty bed of the river, until he reached the spot where the water had been diverted, and there find his comrades. Wasting not a thought on the jeopardy in which he left his own followers, thus helplessly imprisoned in Baalbek, but bent only on his own safety, he left his house silently, and hurried, deep in the shadow, along the obscure side of the street. He knew he must avoid the guards of the palace, and that done, his path to the invading army was clear. But before he reached the palace of the Prince there remained for him another stupefying surprise.
Coming to a broad thoroughfare leading to the square in which stood the Temple of Life, he was amazed to see at his feet, flowing rapidly, the full tide of the stream, shattering into dancing discs of light the reflection of the full moon on its surface, gurgling swiftly towards the square. The fugitive stood motionless and panic-stricken at the margin of this transparent flood. He knew that his retreat had been cut off. What had happened? Perhaps the strong current had swept away the impediment placed against it by the invaders, and thus had resumed its course into the city. Perhaps—but there was little use in surmising, and the ambassador, recovering in a measure his self-possession, resolved to see whether or not it would lead him to his own palace.
Crossing the wide thoroughfare into the shadow beyond, he followed it towards the square, keeping his eye on the stream that rippled in the moonlight. The rivulet flowed directly across the square to the Temple of Life; there, sweeping a semicircle half round the huge building, it resumed its straight course. The ambassador hesitated before crossing the moonlit square, but a moment's reflection showed him that no suspicion could possibly attach to his movements in this direction, for the Temple of Life was the only sacred edifice in the city for ever open.
The Temple of Life consisted of a huge dome, which was supported by a double circle of pillars, and beneath this dome had been erected a gigantic marble statue, representing the God of Life, who stood motionless with outstretched arms, as if invoking a blessing upon the city. A circular opening at the top of the dome allowed the rays of the moon to penetrate and illuminate the head of the statue. Against the white polished surface of the broad marble slab, which lay at the foot of the statue, the ambassador saw the dark forms of several prostrate figures, and knew that each was there to beg of the sightless statue, life for some friend, lying at that moment somewhere on a bed of illness. For this reason the Temple of Life was always open, and supplicants prostrated themselves within it at any hour of the night or day. Remembering this, and knowing that it was the resort of high and low alike, for Death respects not rank, Haziddin, with gathering confidence, entered the moonlit square. At the edge of the great circular temple he paused, meeting there his third surprise. He saw that the stream was not deflected round the lower rim of the edifice, but that a stone had been swung at right angles with the lower step, cutting off the flow of the stream to the left, and allowing its waters to pour underneath the temple. Listening, the ambassador heard the low muffled roar of pouring water, and instantly his quick mind jumped at an accurate conclusion. Underneath the Temple was a gigantic tank for the storage of water, and it was being filled during the night. Did the authorities of Baalbek expect a siege, and were they thus preparing for it? Or was the filling of the tank an ordinary function performed periodically to keep the water sweet? The ambassador would have given much for an accurate answer to these questions, but he knew not whom to ask.
Entering the Temple he prostrated himself on the marble slab, and remained there for a few moments, hoping that, if his presence had been observed, this action would provide excuse for his nocturnal wanderings. Rising, he crossed again the broad square, and hurried up the street by which he had entered it. This street led to the northern gate, whose dark arch he saw at the end of it, and just as he was about to turn down a lane which led to his palace, he found himself confronted with a fourth problem. One leaf of the ponderous gate swung inward, and through the opening he caught a glimpse of the moonlit country beyond. Knowing that the gates were never opened at night, except through the direct order of the Prince, he paused for a moment, and then saw a man on horseback enter, fling himself hurriedly from his steed, leaving it in care of those in charge of the gates, and disappear down the street that led directly to the Prince's palace. In a most perturbed state of mind the ambassador sought his own house, and there wrote his final despatch to Damascus. He told of his discovery of the water-tank, and said that his former advice regarding the diverting of the stream was no longer of practical value. He said he would investigate further the reservoir under the Temple of Life, and discover, if possible, how the water was discharged. If he succeeded in his quest he would endeavour, in case of a long siege, to set free Baalbek's store of water; but he reiterated his belief that it was better to attempt the capture of the city by surprise and fierce assault. The message that actually went to Damascus, carried by the third pigeon, was again different in tenor.
"Come at once," it said. "Baalbek is unprotected, and the Prince has gone on a hunting expedition. March through the Pass of El-Zaid, which is unprotected, because it is the longer route. The armies of Baalbek are at Tripoli and at Antioch, and the city is without even a garrison. The southern gate will be open awaiting your coming."
Days passed, and the ambassador paced the roof of his house, looking in vain towards the south. The streamed flowed as usual through the city. Anxiety at the lack of all tidings from Damascus began to plough furrows in his brow. He looked careworn and haggard. To the kindly inquiries of the Prince regarding his health, he replied that there was nothing amiss.
One evening, an urgent message came from the palace requesting his attendance there. The Prince met him with concern on his brow.
"Have you had word from your master, Omar, Governor of Damascus, since you parted with him?" asked Ismael.
"I have had no tidings," replied the ambassador.
"A messenger has just come in from Damascus, who says that Omar is in deadly peril. I thought you should know this speedily, and so I sent for you."
"Of what nature is this peril?" asked the ambassador, turning pale.
"The messenger said something of his falling a prisoner, sorely wounded, in the hands of his enemies."
"Of his enemies," echoed the ambassador. "He has many. Which one has been victorious?"
"I have had no particulars and perhaps the news may not be true," answered the Prince, soothingly.
"May I question your messenger?"
"Assuredly. He has gone to the Temple of Life, to pray for some of his own kin, who are in danger. Let us go there together and find him."
But the messenger had already left the Temple before the arrival of his master, and the two found the great place entirely empty. Standing near the edge of the slab before the mammoth statue, the Prince said:
"Stand upon that slab facing the statue, and it will tell you more faithfully than any messenger whether your master shall live or die, and when."
"I am a Moslem," answered Haziddin, "and pray to none but Allah."
"In Baalbek," said the Prince, carelessly, "all religions are tolerated. Here we have temples for the worship of the Roman and the Greek gods and mosques for the Moslems. Here Christian, or Jew, Sun- worshipper or Pagan implore their several gods unmolested, and thus is Baalbek prosperous. I confess a liking for this Temple of Life, and come here often. I should, however, warn you that it is the general belief of those who frequent this place that he who steps upon the marble slab facing the god courts disaster, unless his heart is as free, from treachery and guile as this stone beneath him is free from flaw. Perhaps you have heard the rumour, and therefore hesitate."
"I have not heard it heretofore, but having heard it, do not hesitate." Saying which, the ambassador stepped upon the stone. Instantly, the marble turned under him, and falling, he clutched its polished surface in vain, dropping helplessly into the reservoir beneath. The air under his cloak bore him up and kept him from sinking. The reservoir into which he had fallen proved to be as large as the Temple itself, circular in form, as was the edifice above it. Steps rose from the water in unbroken rings around it, but even if he could have reached the edge of the huge tank in which he found himself, ascent by the steps was impossible, for upon the first three burned vigorously some chemical substance, which luridly illuminated the surface of this subterranean lake. He was surrounded immediately by water, and beyond that by rising rings of flame, and he rightly surmised that this substance was Greek fire, for where it dripped into the water it still burned, floating on the surface. A moment later the Prince appeared on the upper steps, outside the flaming circumference.
"Ambassador," he cried, "I told you that if you stepped on the marble slab, you would be informed truly of the fate of your master. I now announce to you that he dies to-night, being a prisoner in my hands. His army was annihilated in the Pass of El-Zaid, while he was on his way to capture this city through your treachery. In your last communication to him you said that you would investigate our water storage, and learn how it was discharged. This secret I shall proceed to put you in possession of, but before doing so, I beg to tell you that Damascus has fallen and is in my possession. The reservoir, you will observe, is emptied by pulling this lever, which releases a trap- door at the centre of the bottom of the tank."
The Prince, with both hands on the lever, exerted his strength and depressed it. Instantly the ambassador felt the result. First, a small whirlpool became indented in the placid surface of the water, exactly in the centre of the disc: enlarging its influence, it grew and grew until it reached the outer edges of the reservoir, bringing lines of fire round with it. The ambassador found himself floating with increased rapidity, dizzily round and round. He cried out in a voice that rang against the stone ceiling:
"An ambassador's life is sacred, Prince of Baalbek. It is contrary to the law of nations to do me injury, much less to encompass my death."
"An ambassador is sacred," replied the Prince, "but not a spy. Aside from that, it is the duty of an ambassador to precede his master, and that you are about to do. Tell him, when you meet him, the secret of the reservoir of Baalbek."
This reservoir, now a whirling maelstrom, hurled its shrieking victim into its vortex, and then drowned shriek and man together.