2670273Down the Coast of Barbary — Chapter IIIH. Bedford-Jones


“He cheats the stars, and they him, and both cheat fools, ’tis all one to me!”

SPENCE with the leather box sewn in canvas and lashed at his saddle, rode westward with his friend and their escort. He was agreeably amazed by the ease and comfort of their journey, which followed the Chelif Valley road to Arzew.

Under the auspices of the swaggering Spahis, the guest house in each town was commandeered. In order to avoid the war zone about Oran, the route lay from Arzew to Tlemcen, thence to Fez by the ancient route of caravans and armies.

On the morning of the day they neared Arzew, Mulai Ali joined them. He rode toward their party, superbly mounted on a white Arab bearing the circle-bar brand of the Beni Rashid tribe. He was dressed in the richest of pale green and pink silks. From the gold-twisted fillet at his brow to the red Moroccan boots, he looked the chieftain. He was alone.

“Well met, Señores!” He greeted Spence and Dr. Shaw in Spanish.

“All is safe?” “All is safe,” said Spence, knowing that the query referred to the leather box.

“You ride like a king,” said the divine, perplexed, “yet we thought to find you in danger and disguised! What means it, Mulai Ali?”

“A good omen!” The Moor laughed. “Ripperda has not yet rejoined the army before Oran. Hassan Bey has made me welcome at Arzew. Before Ripperda learns I am there, I shall be gone. After leaving Arzew we must push hard for the south.”

“Then,” said Dr. Shaw, “you aim to enter Morocco by the back door and seize the throne while Ripperda and the army lie before Oran?”

“Exactly.” Mulai Ali lifted his hand and pointed. “Here comes Hassan Bey to meet you!”

Arzew opened before them, with its extensive groves, its rocky precipices, its ruins. A dust cloud upon the road resolved itself into a hundred horsemen headed by Hassan Bey—a hard-fighting old Turk whose wine-frosted nose showed small regard for religious precepts.

With a great firing of guns and clamor, the parties met. Escorted by this guard of honor, Spence and Dr. Shaw entered the town. The bey had made ready quarters for them in the kasbah, or citadel, and received them with an entertainment that was lavish. The feast lasted far into the night.

In the morning Spence wakened to find Mulai Ali present. The Moor and Dr. Shaw were engaged in a discussion of religious points, which ended when the worthy divine sallied forth to inspect the ruins and make notes. Mulai Ali remained while Spence broke his fast.

“Well,” asked the Moor, “and did you see the man in the black burnoose?”

Spence looked up sharply and described the attempted murder. “Who is the man, then?”

“His name is Gholam Mahmoud. He was once a Janissary; he is now one of Ripperda’s bodyguard of renegades. We shall probably find him ahead of us on the road.”

“H-m! You seem little concerned,” said Spence with a shrewd glance.

“The event is in the hands of God, the compassionate! I saw the astrologer last night, and go this morning to receive my horoscope.”

“Good! This astrologer is a slave, eh? An old man? And English?”

Mulai Ali smiled in a singular fashion.

“Yes, captured by Hassan from an English ship, and kept here secretly. Hassan is afraid of the astrologer, yet refuses to sell the slave to me. I have need of the stars to guide me, and should like to have the slave in our company, if possible.”

“Oh!” Spence studied the other man, and chuckled. “You will aid him to escape, then?” “

After I have eaten the salt of Hassan?” The Moor gestured in dissent. “I could not do this. Of course, a Christian has no scruples, and might manage it.”

Spence broke into a laugh.

“Certainly, I have no scruples! Let us be frank, Mulai Ali. You want me to steal this astrologer for you?”

“Let us ask the stars about it,” said the other evasively.

Clearly, the Moor would not speak frankly; yet eagerness struggled against gloom in his eyes. The man was strongly tempted, thus to split hairs with his religious scruples.

“I will attend to it,” said Spence curtly. “When can we see the astrologer?”

“Now.” A curious smile stole into the bearded features. “You are ready?”

Spence nodded, rose, and followed. They descended to the kasbah courtyard, where their Spahis and the garrison Janissaries were fraternizing. Hence, Mulai Ali passed into the gardens adjoining, the guards saluting him respectfully. They came to a square, commodious tower of stone, centered in a small grove of pomegranates.

Before the doorway of this tower squatted a huge black eunuch, half asleep, across his knees the glistening blade of a broad scimitar. Sighting them, he sprang up and saluted Mulai Ali, then loosened the bar of the door and stood aside. Plainly, Mulai Ali had unquestioned access to Hassan’s astrologer.

“After you, señor,” said the Moor.

Spence found himself in a well-lighted room, hung with gorgeous stuffs. Upon a stone stairway to the right appeared an old hag, who addressed them in Spanish.

“It is too early, señores—”

“Say that Mulai Ali the Idrisi is here,” spoke up the Moor curtly. “And with him a Christian, who seeks guidance from the stars. Hasten, slave!”

Mumbling imprecations, the hag scuttled up the stairs. In a moment she was back again and beckoning them to follow.

They entered a chamber which had evidently been long occupied by gentry of the same profession. A stuffed crocodile, moth-eaten and musty, hung on wires from the ceiling; about the room were skulls, stuffed birds, instruments inherited from the Moors of elder years.

Above a curtained doorway hung a handsome pentacle of brass; beside it was the Arabic nine-squared diagram, the Haraz al Mabarak—a very ornate piece of work in wood, the ciphers inlaid with silver.

The astrologer appealed suddenly before them. If he had stared before, now Spence stared with twofold amazement. No doddering old man was this astrologer—no man at all—but a woman, wearing a white burnoose. As he stared at her, so she stared at him, her eyes wide; dark eyes, set in a face that was suddenly white. Her hands gripped the curtain beside her in a tense grasp.

“We are here, señorita,” said Mulai Ali courteously. “I have told my friend, Captain Spence, that you are the most wonderful woman in the world. If my horoscope is finished, the fact will soon be proved to his satisfaction.”

The astrologer trembled slightly, then forced herself to speak.

“I have it here—if you will be seated—”

Spence controlled himself to silence, bowed, and seated himself.

Upon him was dumb amazement as the woman came forward. Woman? Nay, but a girl, and no Moor, either, but English! Despite the suspense, the emotion, that had gripped her, she was now completely mistress of herself. And she was beautiful, Spence realized; not with the coldly perfect lines of classic beauty, but with character that made for personality. Dark eyes, dark hair, a sweetly girlish face—and an astrologer withal! Here was a marvel!

“I have written it in Castilian,” she was saying, giving Mulai Ali a scroll, which evidently held the horoscope. “You may study it at leisure—and it may be unpleasant.”

“Allah controls all,” said the Moor impassively. “Will my enterprise succeed?”

“It may. You are ruled by Taurus, which augurs well, though Mars and Scorpio have a strong influence. Tell me, señor! If you abandon this enterprise, you will live long and happily, a man of wealth, but holding no position or rank. Will you abandon it?”

A flash lighted the eyes of the Moor.

“And if I hold to it?”

“Then you will not live long—ten years, at a venture. They will be crowded with great events: wars, conquests, triumphs! Your fortune will increase to the end. You will sit upon a throne. But the end—ah! I know not the customs of your country; but it is cruel.”

A harsh laugh broke from Mulai Ali.

“But I know them. Well, then—I have to choose between a long life of obscurity or a short life of greatness, at the end of which I shall be sawn asunder or burned to death by the Spaniards. Is that it?”

The girl inclined her head gravely.

“That is it.”

“By Allah, ten years is enough for any man! I have chosen. Now, señorita, this is the Captain Spence of whom we have spoken. Speak quickly, lest Hassan suspect that we remain overlong with you.”

The girl turned to Spence, her eyes alight. “You will help me?” she said. “I am English. I was traveling to Venice with my father, a student of astronomy, when the pirates captured me. Him they killed—since then I have struggled against disaster—”

“Madam, I am wholly at your service,” said Spence quietly. “Your name?”

“Elizabeth Parks.”

“Then, Mistress Betty, have no more fear!” Spence laughed with assumed lightness. “You shall go with us into Morocco, if that be possible. Can you trust any here?”

“None,” she said, her lips atremble. “There was talk of the bey’s harem—but I knew enough of the stars to make him fear me. It was my only chance. I managed to avert danger—”

“Fear not,” said Spence. “We must depart now, but you shall hear from us. I take the responsibility on my own shoulders, Mulai Ali. You agree?”

“Very well.”

The Moor made a gesture.

“You trust us, señorita?

The girl smiled suddenly. “Have I not read of you in the stars?”

Spence brought her fingers to his lips, and with smiling assurance, departed, her eyes haunting him. He followed Mulai Ali to the garden, then, at a word, walked off among the trees and left the Moor talking with the black eunuch.

This amazing and unexpected meeting had overwhelmed him. He could realize how this quick-witted and desperate girl had seized one slim hope of escaping the harem, how she had worked upon the besotted and superstitious Hassan Bey until he feared her more than he desired her.

“By Heavens, what a woman!” thought Spence.

He turned as the Moor came toward him.

“Well, señor, what think you of the bride I promised?”

“I do not steal brides, Mulai Ali. I help her, because she is a woman. I desire no wife, however.”

“You might do worse,” said the other. “I have arranged with that eunuch, her sole guard. He will leave her with us and accompany us into Morocco.”

“Can you trust him?”

The Moor smiled.

“He would rather be chief eunuch of a Sultan’s harem than a slave in Arzew.”

Spence studied the Moor.

“You seem confident, my friend! Yet you have no army. Ripperda’s assassins are seeking you—”

“Allah rules all things; who would dispute the ways of God? If a thing is ordained, it will come to pass.

“Besides,” added Mulai Ali dryly, “I am not without friends. Do you fear to accompany me, who go alone to seek a throne?”

“Fear?” Spence laughed, and put out his hand. “Luck be with you, and my aid!”

“Good. You and the astrologer must leave here to-night and ride ahead. We follow in the morning—you must warn Dr. Shaw to be ready. Come and give your orders.”

He led the way to the courtyard, summoned two of the Spahis, and ordered them to do as Spence commanded. The American issued curt orders, which the Moor affirmed with a nod.

If the Spahis were surprised, they made no comment, their obedience to Mulai Ali was implicit. Spence fancied that they, too, looked forward to high commands in El Magrib when Mulai Ali won his venture.

“If you’ll instruct that black eunuch what to do,” said Spence to the Moor, “you may then leave all to me and dismiss the affair as settled. I know no Arabic, and I fancy the eunuch has no Spanish.”

Mulai Ali nodded his assent, and departed.

Spence returned to his quarters and waited until Dr. Shaw returned. Then he informed the divine as to their divided journey. He said nothing about Mistress Betty; not that he doubted the hearty coöperation of his friend, but Shaw rather fancied his character of envoy, and would be spared by ignorance a good deal of worry.

“You can leave early in the morning, doctor?” he concluded.

“Certainly. I have carefully copied the inscription on the hypogeum, and there is little else to tempt me. Why are you thus going ahead, Patrick? I like it not.”

Spence chuckled. “Private affairs,” he said cheerfully. “Hassan is giving a feast to-night; kindly make no remark upon my disappearance, but get off early in the morning with Mulai Ali. Ride swiftly to Tlemcen. We’ll meet there. Believe me, it is better that you know nothing of my errand just yet.”

“Very well, very well,” assented Shaw, not without a sigh. “But, Patrick, if there is anything forward that smacks of fighting, I pray you not to let my cloth prevent me from having some share! I am an excellent hand with the rapier, as you know—”

Spence clapped him on the shoulder.

“Cheer up, Shaw! I promise that you’ll have fighting in plenty before you ever see Algiers again! And now give me a spare flint or two for my pistols, and I’ll ask no more.”