2671362Down the Coast of Barbary — Chapter VIIIH. Bedford-Jones


“I’ll learn to conjure and raise devils, but I’ll see some issue of my spiteful execrations!”

DOCTOR SHAW did not regain control of his terrified horse until he pounded up alongside the two Spahis, who held between them the reins of Mistress Betty.

Vainly had she ordered them to return and fight, vainly threatened them, vainly entreating them, all but swearing at them in an agony of supplication. They, dour, bearded Turks, shrugged their shoulders and pricked westward. So when Shaw came up with the three, and the girl saw that he was alone, she turned upon him fiercely.

“Where is Captain Spence?”

“When I left he was still fighting.”

The divine gave no explanation of his desertion.

“Oh!” cried the girl. “Oh—coward that you are, to leave him! Shame upon you!”

The Spahis grinned in the moonlight. They did not understand the words, but had no need to. Shaw, who still carried his naked rapier in his hand, wiped and sheathed it.

“My dear madam,” he said, the cool stiffness of his voice giving no hint of the tears that were upon his cheeks, “Patrick Spence is very dear to me. But it is I who bear the letter to the Governor of Udjde. It is I who am charged with a commission involving the fate of empires and of religions—”

“And you save your craven neck for that reason!” burst forth the girl, bitterly.

“Even so, and it pleases you,” rejoined Shaw’s emotional voice. “Unless I reach Udjde, our friend Mulai Ali falls into a trap back yonder, and receives no aid. In this event Pasha Ripperda remains sole ruler of Morocco. In such case, the Barbary States combine against Spain, who will be alienated from her allies; and the Moors will begin a holy war for the reconquest of the peninsula. It is very logical that—”

“A murrain on your logic!” snapped Mistress Betty. “Patrick Spence is worth more than all your fine plans and schemes!”

“So speaks the woman, mulier saeva,” reflected Dr. Shaw. “The cruel woman who recks empire less than the little finger of a man! Truly says Clemens Alexandrinus that—”

His voice ended, however, in a choked silence and a gulp. Here, perhaps, Mistress Betty perceived that in him was a greater tenderness than appeared, and guessed that his desertion of Spence might have other reason than cowardice or logic, for after this she rode on in silence.

They rode into Udjde in the morning with a great and haughty shouting on the part of the Spahis, and demands to see the amel immediately. Udjde, amid its wide orchards and olive groves, the most fertile oasis in all the Nagad steppe, opened itself to them by way of the Bab el Khemis.

Amid a continually growing concourse of horsemen, curious townfolk, and men of the famed Barbary tribes, they rode to the kasbah in the south quarter of the town. Thirty minutes later a hundred men of the ancient Lamta tribe were spurring madly eastward along the caravan road to the Cisterns.

Dr. Shaw found himself and Mistress Betty given commodious quarters in the citadel and hospitably entertained by the amel, or governor—an old, hoary Moor who had managed to live long by dint of guile and not too high ambitions.

During most of the day the worthy doctor rested. Toward evening he was summoned to dine with the governor, with word that news of Mulai Ali was expected at any time. Mistress Betty, being a woman, was forced to remain in her own apartment with the female slaves allotted her.

Garbed in clean linen, Shaw was conducted to the private quarters of the governor, whom he found alone. While a bountiful repast was served, the two fell to discussing affairs in Morocco. The governor was certain that once Mulai Ali could get into the country his star would quickly blaze above that of his cousin Abdallah.

“All men turn to the new master,” he said sagely, stroking his white beard with his left hand, while his right plunged into the food. “El Magrib is ripe for revolt—but Abdallah is strong, and stronger yet is Ripperda, in whose hands is the power.”

“If Mulai Ali comes will you declare for him?” asked Shaw.

“Yes, and my warriors will ride to Fez with him. Know you who that renegade was—him with the red beard, whom you called Barbarroja?”

Shaw shook his head. The old governor chuckled as at a good jest.

“He serves the Sherif Abdallah and carries with him the royal signet. And the other of whom you told me this morning, the man in the black burnoose, Gholam Mahmoud, is the agent of Pasha Ripperda. He, he! No wonder those twain laid in ambush for Mulai Ali!”

Before Shaw could reply to this disclosure—indeed, for a moment he sat agape at hearing the truth about Barbarroja—a slave hurriedly entered and knelt. In his hands was a pigeon, which he presented to his master. Knowing that the force sent to the Cisterns had taken carrier pigeons, the quicker to inform the governor of what took place there, Shaw leaned forward anxiously as a tiny roll was taken from beneath the bird’s wing.

The old Moor opened it, read a scrawl of Arabic, and turned pale.

“God, God, and God the Compassionate, the Merciful!” he ejaculated. “This is from a friend in Adjerud. It warns me that Pasha Ripperda is on his way here with his bodyguard of renegades. He should arrive to-morrow.”

Shaw gave a start.

“Ripperda—with his bodyguard! No troops?”

The old Moor shook his head. He was extremely agitated; the very fact of Ripperda’s coming had thrown him into consternation.

At this instant a second slave dashed in and presented a second bird. With trembling fingers the governor detached the missive. He read it, then crumpled the thin paper in his hand and sat staring before him, like a man who sees utter disaster ahead. In reality, his fertile old brain was scheming and planning, but Shaw did not know this.

“What is it?” demanded the divine eagerly. “News from Mulai Ali?”

For a long moment the Moor made no response. He stared straight before him, as though the question had been unheard. Shaw, unable to bear the suspense, reached out for the paper, but the Moor hastily tore it across.

“Catch Ripperda when he comes!” exclaimed Dr. Shaw swiftly. “You see your chance? Catch him at the city gates, capture him, raise the flag of Mulai Ali—”

The old Moor turned, lifted his head, regarded Shaw steadily.

“Ali,” he said slowly, “is dead. The red-beard has done his work. The troops reached the place too late—Ali had been stricken by a bullet.”

Shaw quivered under the blow. Then, silently, he resumed his seat and folded his hands on the table. Mulai Ali dead! Everything was lost. He did not observe that, while speaking, the eyelids of the Moor had fluttered slightly—an involuntary lowering of the lids, which is nature’s signal of a lie issuing from the lips.

Swiftly the governor clapped his hands. A slave brought writing materials, and the old Moor dashed off several notes, which he sealed and dispatched. Then the captain of the troops, a splendid Berber of the hills, strode in and received rapid orders.

“The Pasha Ripperda arrives tomorrow. Prepare rooms in the citadel for his use. In the name of Allah, greet him as one who is the right hand of our lord the sherif!”

Again the two men were alone. The old governor turned to Shaw with a quiet gesture.

“You have eaten my salt. I cannot protect you against Ripperda. What wish you to do?”

Dr. Shaw had gathered his wits by this time, and his brain was working shrewdly.

“My friend Spence was not mentioned in that message? Then let us hope that he is alive. I shall remain here. Ripperda will not harm us, for I have a nominal errand to the sherif—regardless of his name! And I must await news of my friend, also. We shall remain here.”

The Moor nodded. His eyes were narrowed in calculation, anxiety sat beneath the lids.

“May Allah further your undertakings! I have my own head to look after.”

Dr. Shaw took the hint, rose, and departed to tell Mistress Betty his news. In another portion of this town was a house, outwardly inconspicuous, inwardly a mass of sumptuous furnishings. Many slaves were here, white and black; the harem was large.

In a small room sat the master of this house, upon a thick rug before a writing table such as scribes use. A tiny shaded lamp burned before him; his face was invisible, only his sinewy arms showing in the circle of light. He clapped his hands, and a slave entered.

“When a man comes showing the signet of the sherif, bring him to me at once.”

Alone again, the man went on writing. As his right arm moved in the light, one could see a design upon the skin—the figure of a dolphin, tattooed there. This man was Gholam Mahmoud.

Suddenly, almost without a sound, the door opened. A man clad in a dark burnoose came into the room; he threw back the hood and disclosed the flaming beard of Barbarroja. A weary oath broke from him as he sank down on the rug.

“Diantre! Get me some wine. I had to shout for half an hour before they would open the city gates—even the signet of the sherif barely satisfied the dogs. Allah upon them! I rode my horse to death and walked the last two miles of the way here.”

A slave brought wine. Barbarroja twice drained a goblet, then sighed contentedly.

“You should have stayed with me.” He grinned at his host. “You lost money, caballero! That is what comes of running after women. As it is, the reward is mine.”

“Reward!” Gholam Mahmoud started. “Then—Mulai Ali—”

“Is dead.”

Barbarroja twirled his mustache grandly.

“I do not say it was well done, nor am I proud of the matter, however, Allah knows I need the money! His Spahis fought off my men, and while they fought, I gained place in the rear—and put a bullet in his back.”

“Where is his head, then?” sneered the other.

“Bah! The event will prove my words. Any news of the man Spence?”

“None. He is lost. The others readied here safely. Why are you interested in him?”

“Because,” said Barbarroja coolly, “I have just learned that Spence carries the leather box behind his saddle. That makes you jump, eh? Well, it is the truth. Ripperda’s casket!”

Gholam Mahmoud snapped out an oath. Then: “Have you any scheme, any way to find him?”

Barbarroja chuckled. “Spence cannot go far alone, and dare not go back to Tlemcen; so he must come west. In that event, he will be picked up somewhere in this district. We have only to wait until he is brought to the governor. When he comes we take the casket—and you negotiate its sale to your master Ripperda. You comprehend? It is simple.”

Gholam Mahmoud smiled his twisted smile.

“And suppose Pasha Ripperda comes here?”

“Let him come!” Barbarroja shrugged, but his eye was startled. “Do you expect him?”

“Perhaps tonight; certainly tomorrow.”

Dios! Very well.”

The Spaniard made a grandiloquent gesture.

“I am a generous man. I shall allow you to share the credit of killing Mulai Ali; tell the pasha we did it together. The sherif’s reward goes to me, however. This will rehabilitate your credit with Ripperda, who will then gladly pay a big sum for the casket. You understand?”

Gholam Mahmoud regarded him sneeringly for a moment.

“I understand that in all this there is no mention of the woman whom I desire. If we are to work together, let the conditions be fulfilled—or I shall obtain the woman for myself! If you want the money, turn over the woman to me, and do it quickly. She is here now.”

Barbarroja pawed at his great beard, and considered this demand.

“Agreed,” he said, and yawned. “You shall have her tomorrow. Give me a place to sleep, caballero, and Allah will bring all things to pass!”

Gholam Mahmoud himself conducted his guest to a room on the upper floor.

Once alone, Barbarroja did not sleep, though he was worn and haggard. Instead he sat for a while staring into the lantern, and plucking at his huge beard. He was sore put to it.

“They will all be warned against me now, since that old goat of a governor knows me all too well,” he reflected. “And the governor will avenge the death of Mulai Ali on me, if he catches me. How, then, shall I get the woman for yonder lecherous viper? Get her I must!

“If that devil of a Spence returns—ha! Old Shaw is the one to work upon, and I owe him a turn for the sorry trick he played me at the Cisterns. Shaw is the one—and it must be done speedily, before Ripperda comes, before that devil Spence turns up! Tomorrow, early.”

He sat for a while longer, then blew out the lantern. Presently his chuckles died away into a droning snore.