2670675Down the Coast of Barbary — Chapter VH. Bedford-Jones


“Wert thou the devil, and wor’st it on thy horn, it should be challenged!”

AFTER nightfall the party rode into Tlemcen, a great circuit of ruins inclosing a small walled space, perched disconsolately amid remnants of forgotten kingdoms. Barbarroja undertook to lead them to a quiet tavern, where they would meet no unpleasant questioning.

A cunning rogue was this, and evidently known to the city guards, whom he passed with a friendly hail. He led them through filthy, narrow streets, and near the ruinous mosque of El Haloui, knocked at a small doorway. A cautious wicket opened, and presently the door was swung ajar by a greasy fellow whom Spence took for a Levantine renegade.

The place proved decent enough. For Mistress Betty was secured in an upstairs chamber; a room opening from this, with a balcony overlooking the street, served Spence and Yimnah. A third room sufficed Barbarroja and the Spahis. Returning from his inspection, Spence joined the party below.

Leaving the three men to unsaddle he led the girl and Yimnah up the narrow stairs that ascended from the courtyard. The host waited at the head of the stairs to light them.

As they came to the upper gallery encircling the courtyard Mistress Betty stumbled. She caught the arm of Spence to save herself, but the cowl of her burnoose was jerked away, revealing in the lantern-light her features. And, in the shadows behind their host, Spence caught sight of another face turned upon them—a ghastly face, twisted awry, with a purple birthmark like a patch over the right eye.

A startled oath broke from Spence. He dashed the greasy host aside and leaped forward; adroitly, the Levantine tripped him. As he fell he saw that face fade into the darkness.

Regaining his feet he hurled himself into the obscurity. From ahead he heard running feet, then the slam of a door. Realizing that his pursuit was folly, Spence returned to the Levantine, took the man by the throat, and shook him savagely.

“Lead me to that man, Gholam Mahmoud!” he cried, hoarse with anger. “Quickly!”

The Levantine blurted out that he knew nothing of such a man, there were many in the tavern, how should he know which was meant? He knew no such name. Mistress Betty, who had caught up the fallen lantern, interposed.

“We are in no position to seek trouble, Captain Spence. I pray you, let this matter drop, at least until our friends arrive!”

Spence released the host.

“You are right,” he said. “Yet that man was watching us, and saw your face when you stumbled. However, let it be!”

Disposing the girl in her quarters, Spence joined Yimnah in the outer chamber and wearily flung himself on his pallet.

He could swear that he had seen the face of Gholam Mahmoud, the confidential agent of Ripperda, the man against whom Mulai Ali had warned him. Spence knew he had not erred. As he thought of how those distorted, coldly lustful features had peered at the face of Mistress Betty, those predatory and malignant features, the American gripped his nails into his palms with impotent rage. But finally he slept.

In the thin grayness of morning Spence wakened to lie drowsily, eyes half closed. The drone of Yimnah’s snores filled the room. Through this drone pierced a thin nasal cry from the minaret of the nearby mosque. “Come ye to prayer! Come ye to salvation! Devotion is better than sleep—”

“Here am I at thy call, oh, God!” muttered the eunuch, and stirred to his prayers.

Spence rose, slipped on his shoes. He went to the balcony that overhung the street, opened the lattice, and stepped outside for a breath of the morning air, tipped with mountain frost.

As he stood thus, drinking deeply into his lungs the keen air, he heard the creak of the tavern door from below. He glanced idly downward, wondering who was astir at this hour of prayer. He sighted a figure—and started suddenly. A black burnoose! As though drawn by the slight movement above, the figure looked upward. From Spence broke a savage cry.

“Ha, devil!”

He was only ten feet above the street level, and unhesitatingly bestrode the balcony. The rotten wood crashed away beneath him, yet he alighted on his feet and flung himself at Gholam Mahmoud. The latter, however, had already taken warning and was gone.

Darting back into the doorway the man slipped through and slammed the door in the face of Spence. The American burst it open ere it could be bolted, and dashed into the courtyard. He saw the renegade ahead of him, leaping for the staircase.

Sure of his prey, Spence gave no heed to the men around, but drove after Gholam Mahmoud. The latter reached the stairs slightly in the lead, took them two at a leap. Near the top he hurled a pistol under his arm; the heavy weapon struck Spence in the breast and threw him out of his stride for an instant.

Aided by this respite the renegade gained the gallery and took to his heels. Pursuer and pursued were silent, for death lay between them. Three strides in the lead, Gholam Mahmoud sprang into a doorway, slammed the door, shot the bolt home.

With a curse, Spence gathered momentum and hurled himself bodily at the wood. The door splintered splintered visibly. Drawing back, he flung forward again. With a rending crash, the door was carried off its hinges, and Spence went staggering into the room beyond. He found it empty.

Ahead Spence descried another door, through which the renegade must have gone. He did not pause, but flung himself bodily at it, and struck the door with all his weight in the blow. Where he had expected resistance he found none.

The door drove open, lightly and freely. This unlooked-for give threw Spence off balance, sent him reeling into the room beyond. Something struck him a crashing blow behind the ear, and he fell in a limp heap—unaware even who had struck him.

“Neatly taken on the wing!” Barbarroja stepped forward, viewed the senseless figure complacently, and twirled his immense mustache. “There was a proper blow! Hold! Not so fast—”

He whirled suddenly, caught the arm of Gholam Mahmoud, stayed the dagger thrust meant for the unconscious Spence.

The two men glared into each other’s eyes for an instant.

“He is mine!” snarled Gholam Mahmoud.

“Not at all,” retorted Barbarroja coolly. “He is mine, and I am entirely ready to enforce the claim with three inches of steel in your ribs, caballero! I do not want the fool killed, just yet. Suit yourself whether we are to talk profitably, or to fight!”

The other calmed himself by an effort. Barbarroja released him.

“Now let us bind and gag him, wrap his head in a cloth, and throw him in the next room. Then we may talk in peace.”

“He is a devil!” snapped Gholam Mahmoud.

The other twirled his mustache and laughed. “I am something of a devil myself, as my master, the Sherif Abdallah, is aware. You and your master, Pasha Ripperda, are devils twain; but there are many ranks of devils, no less than of angels. So look to it! Now let us attend to him, and then have our talk.”

Spence disposed of, Barbarroja whirled jauntily upon the sulky Gholam Mahmoud.

“You have desired to see me? I am here. My master, the sherif, is in Fez. Your master, Pasha Ripperda, is somewhere up north like a lion on the prowl. Let us talk, and make history!”

Gholam Mahmoud scowled. Stripped of his black burnoose, this white man with the Persian name showed himself to be a bony man of huge strength. His naked arms were in full sight. To an intelligent eye one of those arms betrayed a terrible and significant thing.

Upon the right arm was boldly tattooed the figure of a dolphin!

In that design showed the whole history of the man—his birth, education, achievements, his past and present! To all the Moslem world, this symbol spoke louder than letters of gold.

It told that this man was born a Christian, made captive in youth, and educated in the schools of the Janissaries; that so great was his ability as to win place in the Thirty-first Orta, or cohort, stationed around the Sultan. This entire body were the picked men of Islam, and upon the right arm of each man was tattooed the insignia of their cohort—the proudest token of the Sultan’s army, the dolphin crest!

This man stood and scowled at Barbarroja, his twisted features malignant.

“We might work together,” he said. “We have heard of each other. I am on business of my master, Ripperda; you are on business of the sherif. Does our business lie with the same man?”

“It does,” affirmed Barbarroja. “Your Ripperda has burned his fingers with Mulai Ali, eh? And perhaps your master wants to regain a certain little box of leather?”

At this Gholam Mahmoud started.

“Ah! Does the sherif know about that casket?”

Barbarroja grinned.

“No, but I do! What use informing the sherif of everything? I shall take the casket to him—”

“What, you have it?”

“No, no, but I have it under my thumb. Come, let us be frank. Will your Ripperda Pasha pay well for the casket, caballero? I need money. Come, speak frankly! Let us join forces.”

“Good,” said Gholam Mahmoud. “My orders are to kill Mulai Ali before he reaches Udjde, and to regain the box of leather. Ripperda will destroy Mulai Ali utterly.”

“Having changed his mind”—Barbarroja chuckled—“our affairs coincide, caballero! My master, the sherif, is particular about keeping his seat on the throne. So, then! You wish to kill Mulai Ali because Ripperda has changed his mind; I wish to kill Mulai Ali because the sherif has not changed his mind. Is that plain?”

“Plain as your beard.” The other smiled sourly. “This Captain Spence—”

“Is my affair; leave him to me.” Barbarroja yawned. “He will join Mulai Ali later, perhaps to-night. Now, shall we work together or not?”

“Yes,” said Gholam Mahmoud curtly.

“And what gain we by this mutual good will? How burns your end of the candle? Speak up!”

Gholam Mahmoud smiled evilly. “I need no money. I will take the woman in your party.”

“Oh, dios de mi alma, but I understand now! You wish her?”

“Exactly. Who is she?”

“Devil take me if I know. Since she is not the wife of Spence she must be the daughter of Shaw, the English envoy. Well, take her, if you like! But where do I come in by this door of good luck?”

“Milk Ripperda,” said Gholam Mahmoud brusquely. “Kill Mulai Ali and the others, take the woman and the box. Let my master, Ripperda, ransom the box, eh? Money to you, woman to me.”

Por dios, it is agreed!” thundered Barbarroja grandly. “Upon the word of a caballero! How to do the work? I have the sherif’s seal and no lack of men to obey me. Do you set the trap, and I will lead the partridges into it.”

They conferred together.

An hour later Barbarroja strolled into the other room, humming a gay air. He affected to be seeking some lost article, muttering about it between snatches of his song, and cursing the Moors for thieves. He stumbled over a prostrate form in the corner, and swore.

“Here is another of the drunken dogs—by the saints! If these are not the boots of the Captain Spence—holy mother! The valiant captain trussed and gagged like a goose—”

With a monstrous show of surprise he cut Spence loose. His amazement was so unbounded that Spence broke into a harsh laugh as he rose.

“Did you never see a bound man before, fool? Listen! Have you seen a man here—a man with a twisted face, marked at birth over the right eye?”

“Aye!” Redbeard scratched his nose. “I saw such a one half an hour ago—he was just leaving the inn, mounted on a good horse, too—”

Spence swore, perceiving that black burnoose had escaped him. He hastened back to the rooms he had quitted, rubbing his sore wrists and feeling anything but joyful. He found the canvas-covered box intact with his saddlery.

It would not have pleased him to know how Barbarroja was laughing at the moment. This redbeard much enjoyed his little joke, and fancied himself a fellow of infinite wit, a fancy which was destined to work him some ill before long.