2670271Down the Coast of Barbary — Chapter IH. Bedford-Jones


“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say
What manner of man art thou?”

IN In the grounds of a villa outside Algiers, in the year 1730, two men were sitting on a low stone garden seat beneath an orange tree.

“A horse’s head?” said Patrick Spence, and frowned. “With no inscription?”

“It needs none.”

Dr. Shaw peered at the bronze coin in his hand, brushing the fresh earth from it lovingly. As his spade and the dirt on his strong brown forearms testified, Spence had been at work in the garden when the coin turned up. He drew at his pipe with the quiet satisfaction of one who has labored hard. He had the piercing, far-seeing eyes of a sailor.

Dr. Shaw had walked from the city. He wore a camel-hair burnoose, which kept the intense sunlight from his lean, spare frame; he was a tall man, erect and muscular. One sensed something sweet and kindly in his smile as he regarded the coin.

“This horse’s head is inscription enough, Patrick,” he mused. “It shows the coin to be of Punic times. I have not a few of them. You will recall the lines:

“Locus in urbe fuit media, laetissimus umbra,
Quo primum jactati undis—”

The younger man broke in upon the sonorously rolling lines with a laugh.

“No, no, doctor! The little Latin I ever knew was forgot in the vortex of navigation. You Oxford men always seem ready to spout Greek and Latinity—but we haven’t time for much of that in America. And you’d better take off that burnoose or you’ll sweat to death before you know it.”

Absent-mindedly, Dr. Shaw loosened his garment. His eyes lifted to the sea.

“A sweet spot, Patrick!”

The American nodded. Well outside the tottering walls of Algiers, along the pleasant northern hill-slopes, the white blaze of sunlight was here broken by gardens and villas bordering a winding road. The scent of orange-flowers clustered thickly, the flashing red of pomegranates glimmered among the greenery; here were groves and fountains, flowers and running brooks, in sharp contrast to the squalid heat and crowded city streets.

“Something like this had Virgilius in mind,” observed Shaw, “when he spoke of the old Corycian gardener and his wondrous fruit! By the way”—he glanced at his burnoose—“this garment is most interesting, Patrick!

“It must have been shaped after the cloak of the little god Telesphorus, straight about the neck, with a Hippocrates’s sleeve for cowl. It answers, I take it, to the pallium, or the cucullus of the Gauls, mentioned by Martial, or to the cloaks wherein the Israelites folded up their kneading troughs, as do the Moors to this day—”

The younger man leaped to his feet.

“Hello!” he cried sharply. “Shaw, something’s happened! Here’s one of the consulate Negroes on the run!”

A man became visible running along the road. He was a black man. His nearly naked skin glistened with sweat. Panting, he turned in at the gate and came to them with a hasty salutation. He addressed Shaw in a chatter of Arabic.

“Bless my soul!”

The good doctor turned. He acted as interpreter, chaplain, and general factotum to the English consulate.

“They want me at once—I know not what has happened! Patrick, remain here, if you will. I am most anxious to have those specimen roots from Egypt laid under the soil before the sun withers them, if it be not imposing on your—”

“It’s the least I can do,” said Patrick Spence. “I’ll be glad to keep busy. Don’t forget the tobacco you promised to bring me! Be sure to get Virginia leaf from that shop next the consulate. All the others sell only Turkish, and I like not the stuff.”

The Rev. Thomas Shaw, D.D., F. R. S., fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford, strode away hastily with the Negro. He turned to wave his hand, then vanished from sight.

Patrick Spence knocked out his pipe and leisurely refilled it. He strolled down to the open gates, where the bale of Egyptian roots had been left by a muleteer, and smiled to himself at thought of his friend.

“A rare man enough,” he mused. “Except when the classics fasten on his tongue, he has no more of the parson about him than I have. Lord knows that’s little enough, at present!”

He stood between the open gates and looked out at the sea, in sight over the winding road. A wistful hunger grew in his eyes at sight of a speck of white far out.

“I’d like to be aboard her and heading for Boston town. But here I am, penniless and dependent upon a consul’s charity—hello! We have strangers among us, it seems!”

Coming toward him along the road were two riders, and the gray eyes of Spence dwelt curiously upon them. He knew that these must be new arrivals in Algiers. Attracted first by their remarkable costumes, it was their faces which finally drew the keen interest of the American.

The man was robed in a burnoose of snowy white. Against this, about his neck, hung a most amazing thing—the glorious collar of the Golden Fleece, a jewel worn by kings alone! The woman beside him wore a silken dress of apricot hue; a huge sun-hat shaded her head.

The man’s face was, or had been, extremely handsome. Once it had been full and rotund. Now it was thin and gaunt, lined with folds of empty skin, half hidden by a mustache and goatee of grayish black. Suffering lay in that face, and strange inward pain.

The black eyes that blazed like jewels held weird fires in their depths; they fascinated Spence, repelled him. No common man, this, who wore that collar of the Fleece! A prince at the least!

The woman—well, once she, too, had been handsome. Her face was tired, her eyes weary. In her gaze, Spence read things that moved him to pity; yet he knew that he liked her.

Following this pair, well in the rear, appeared a company of horsemen, in the gay robes of Moroccan Moors. Spence did not care to be spat upon as a Christian, and was about to withdraw when he saw the lady rein in her horse, smiling at him.

He saluted, sailor fashion, and the horseman inclined his head; slight as was that gesture, it was filled with a high courtesy.

“Good morning, sir,” said the man, in English. “You certainly have a superb view here.”

“Few compare with it,” was the quiet reply of Spence. “Only one can surpass it—the view of one’s own home shores.”

The lady turned her face away, as though the words had burned her. The man looked at Spence from those remarkable eyes that flamed like living gems.

“Ah!” he said. “You are an Englishman?”

“I am from Boston, in America,” and Spence smiled. “Since I was born there, I take some pride in calling myself an American.”

The other plucked at his goatee, a thin smile in his jaded features.

“I congratulate you, sir, who have found for yourself a new country. It argues well for your capabilities. I have made the effort more than once without success; yet men are accustomed to speak well of my mental quality.”

“That could not remain in doubt,” said Spence, “after a moment of converse with you.”

At this compliment the lady smiled, leaned over in her saddle, and spoke under her breath. The horseman smiled again; yet in his eyes lay an indefinable torment.

“I do not easily forget so kindly a speech from so courteous a gentleman,” he said. “If you ever come into Morocco, señor American, pray consider me your friend and debtor.”

He inclined his head again and passed on. After them spurred the Moors.

Two or three, officers of the Algerian garrison, flung Spence a word of greeting. So, then, that strange couple had come from Morocco! A Spaniard, doubtless; he had said “señor.”

Spence remained at the gate, smoking, musing, forgetting the bale of herbs. In a whole month no English ship had come to set him on his way home again. His own stout Boston ship had been crippled by Tunisian corsairs, smashed by hurricanes, sunk.

His ship and all he owned were gone—the savings of ten years swept away. His men were gone. Alone, he had been picked up by an English frigate and landed here at Algiers. At thirty he was facing life anew, empty handed. It galled him sorely to depend on charity.

Thanks to Shaw and good Edward Holden, the consul, Patrick Spence found Algiers friendly, for Englishmen were highly favored here. Yet how to get on home again?

As he stood thus musing, he was aware of a man walking toward him. He recognized a Moor who occupied the adjoining villa, which belonged to the Dey of Algiers. Who he was, Spence had not the least idea. He was tall, athletic, of severely ascetic features, thinly bearded; his eyes were deep and somber.

As he came, his gaze was fastened on Spence. In one hand he carried a box of leather, a foot long, six inches wide and deep, fastened with strips of brass.

“I seek you,” he said abruptly. “You are El Capitan Spence?”

From the man’s face, voice, bearing, Spence instantly knew that this was no common man.

“I am, señor,” he answered in Spanish. “May I offer you hospitality—”

“There is no time.” The Moor flung a quick glance around, then his eyes fastened upon Spence again. “Know you who I am?”

“No, señor.”

“I am Mulai Ali the Idrisi—like yourself, a fugitive. Know you a man named Ripperda?”

Spence shook his head. A sardonic smile touched the bearded lips of the Moor.

“Then you are better off than I. Now, I know your story, and I bring you a message from the astrologer of Arzew.”

“A message—for me?” Spence did not hide his astonishment.

“Aye, I know what manner of man you are; from the stars, I know that your fate is twined with mine. You are to be trusted. Do you believe in the stars?”

“When they guide my ship, yes,” said Spence. “As arbiters of destiny—decidedly no.”

“But I do,” said the other. “Señor, the stars have linked us together. Do you wish to make money—large sums?”

Spence eyed him shrewdly.

“Not enough to deny my religion.”

The Moor broke into a laugh.

“Ah, I have no love for renegades. Now listen. I need a friend at once—one whom I can trust; if this box remains in my hands an hour longer it spells my death.

“When I was last at Oran, the astrologer of Arzew told me about you. Your fate lies with mine. You are the one man I can trust. If you will give me your help and friendship, I offer you three things: of money, as much as you desire; of power, more than you dream; and for a wife, the most wonderful woman in the world.”

Patrick Spence thought he was dreaming. Yet he would have been a poor seaman had he not been able to think swiftly. This blunt speech, this haste, showed a crisis. He seized it.

“I do not sell my friendship,” he answered, “either for money or power. As for a wife, I desire none.”

The Moor stared at him.

“You refuse my offer?”

“Yes. If my help will avail you, I give it freely—but I will not sell it.”

“By Allah, you are a man!” The dark eyes flashed suddenly. “Will you go to Morocco with me? Think well! The stars have promised me success. Perhaps your friend, Dr. Shaw, will go also. Yet death may lie ahead. Will you go?”

Spence shrugged.

“Yes, I will go.”

“Good! Take this box and guard it. And here is the message from the astrologer: Beware of a man who wears a black burnoose. Adios!

Mulai Ali hastily thrust into Spence’s hands the box and a folded paper. Then he turned abruptly and strode away at a rapid pace, unusual in a Moor. Spence stared after his figure in bewildered amazement, then knocked out his pipe and pocketed it.

“What the devil!” he exclaimed whimsically. “A man wearing the Golden Fleece offers me hospitality in Morocco. Then comes this chap, who seems to know all about me, and offers me a job! And who’s this astrologer person?”

He opened the paper and started. English characters met his eye.

To Captain Spence of Boston:

Mulai Ali has told me of you, as have others. You may trust him absolutely. I have persuaded him that you can help him—because I need your help. I am a slave.

If he makes promises, he can fulfill them, Tell the consul at Algiers that I have woven a net to catch Ripperda. If you be the true man I think you, then come with Mulai Ali and help me.

This note was unsigned.

“Ripperda! Who is the fellow?” mused Patrick Spence, frowning. “And I am to beware of a man who wears a black burnoose—plague take it all! Am I mad or dreaming?”

He filled his pipe again. He had been long enough in Algiers to know that the place was a hotbed of intrigue. Spanish armies were holding Oran against the Moors and the land was in turmoil. It was not so strange that he, a Christian, should have been picked on as trustworthy.

Yet, oddly enough, he found his thoughts dwelling not so much upon this astrologer, who was a slave, nor upon the Moor, who was a fugitive, as upon that man who wore the Golden Fleece. He was surely some great man—yet he craved a kind word, a compliment, as a hungry dog craves a bone! Who was he?

The sun went westering. Later came Thomas Shaw to the villa again, and with him, to spend the night, the consul, Edward Holden.

And they brought an explanation to Patrick Spence—an amazing explanation.