Down the Coast of Barbary/Chapter 6
“It will toast cheese, and it will endure cold as another man’s sword will.”
SPENCE at once sent Barbarroja and a Spahi on the back trail to meet Dr. Shaw. He himself spent most of the day resting or talking with Mistress Betty. He could not restrain his admiration for the way in which she had controlled her fate.
Her father had taught her to draw a horoscope with some skill. When he spoke of getting his own drawn, however, she laughed and looked at him for a moment.
“Are you serious, my dear captain?”
“Middling so,” acknowledged Spence whimsically. “If the future can be read—”
“Your future, sir, can better be lead in your face than in the stars—a future of much calm strength, of firmness, of self-mastery. But tell me! How long do we remain here?”
“Until we get word from Shaw and Mulai Ali. We shall meet them outside town. We dare not linger here in Tlemcen, lest messengers from Hassan Bey raise the pursuit after us. And I have found that Gholam Mahmoud has indeed been here.”
He said nothing of his misadventure, lest he alarm her, but recounted what Barbarroja had said about seeing the former Janissary. The girl frowned over this.
“We are in a strange vortex of intrigue,” she mused. “Mulai Ali, if he reaches Morocco, can gain the throne; the present sherif is hated by the whole land, for he is a mere tool in the hand of Ripperda. This renegade grandee of Spain must be a snaky sort of man!”
“He has qualities,” admitted Spence, and told of his meeting with the famous Ripperda. “From the note we captured we can guess that this Gholam Mahmoud means to assassinate Mulai Ali, if possible. I find that from here we must go to Udjde, passing the Cisterns on the way. We may have trouble there, but we shall have to see what Mulai Ali decides.”
It was afternoon when the messengers returned. Barbarroja bowed grandly to the girl, twirled his mustache, and delivered himself of his report. Mulai Ali and his party were waiting outside the city for Spence. The American turned to the girl.
“How soon can you leave?”
“Now.” Smiling she reached for her white burnoose.
“Then I’ll have the horses saddled at once.”
Fifteen minutes later they rode out of Tlemcen by the north gate, unquestioned.
For an hour they cantered easily through a fertile champaign, more than once meeting parties of soldiery, wild, uncouth, mountaineers of the west, who exchanged a sulky marhaba with Barbarroja and passed on. At length they came to their companions, who were camped in a grove of trees beside a rivulet.
Dr. Shaw came forth to meet them, anxiety and delight in his countenance. Laughing, Spence swung from the saddle, and then presented his astonished friend to Mistress Betty.
“Dr. Shaw is entirely unaware of your story,” he concluded, “so I shall leave him with you for explanations while I speak with our leader.”
He swung off to join Mulai Ali. Looking back, he saw the divine helping Mistress Betty to dismount, and chuckled at the expression on his friend’s face.
Mulai Ali was sucking at a water pipe that bubbled and hissed like a lading camel under a wide tree. Spence made a brief report of their journey, and handed over the note which he had captured.
The somber eyes of Mulai Ali glowed hotly at hearing of Gholam Mahmoud, and burned again as they read the note. Spence lighted his pipe from the perfumed bowl of the chibouk.
“Great is God, and infinite; God, God, and God, the compassionate!” exclaimed Mulai Ali after a little silence. “He ordereth all things; the ways of men are plain before him.”
“True enough,” said Spence. “I suppose you left Arzew before our flight was discovered?”
Mulai Ali nodded.
“Although, as Allah knows, I had nothing to do with the escape of his astrologer, Hassan will suspect and send after us. We must ride on. We cannot avoid the Cisterns if we are to reach Udjde. Since we cannot go back, we must go forward.”
The Moor was silent again, evidently pondering some plan. At length Mulai Ali smiled.
“Here is the situation. This accursed Gholam Mahmoud will ambush me at the Cisterns, being charged with my death. Let him do it, and Allah upon him. Where Ripperda is no man knows; he is like a flea—he may be in Tlemcen tomorrow! But the danger is directed against me. You and the others have nothing to fear. The ambush will not be set against you.
“Therefore, all of you ride forward, taking Barbarroja and two of the Spahis. Ride to Udjde; the governor is my kinsman, and I will give you a letter to him. Tell him that I shall remain at the Cisterns, awaiting help from him. The Spahis will go with me, following you slowly. There are ancient ruins at the Cisterns, and we can easily defend ourselves there until help comes from Udjde. You understand?”
Spence nodded. This plan assured Mistress Betty a modicum of risk, and suited him well.
“The leather box is safe?”
“Yes. Will you not take and keep it yourself, now—”
“No! The relics of the Moorish kings in that box will swing every chieftain in Morocco behind me. The copies of secret Spanish treaties are invaluable. The casket is safer with you; the stars declare that your fate and that of the astrologer are bound up with mine. It is evident that Allah, who alone knoweth all things, has so ordained the matter.”
“Very well,” Spence nodded. “Write your letter, and I’ll tell the others of the plan.”
He rejoined Dr. Shaw and the maid, whom he found seated beneath a tree in earnest discussion. They listened in silence to Mulai Ali’s plan, and Shaw nodded quick assent.
“A good plan, Patrick! It assures little risk to any of us. We shall start at once.”
“Then I shall go and thank Mulai Ali for his kindness,” said the girl, and rising, departed.
Spence met the eyes of Dr. Shaw, and smiled.
“I suppose you’re going to rake me over the coals for my imprudence, doctor?”
“Tut, tut, Patrick! You did exactly right, my boy! Do you know she is a most amazing young woman? I was just expounding to her my theory in regard to the euroclydon of Saint Paul’s history, as opposed to the Vulgate reading; as you know, Saint Luke was present—”
“My dear doctor,” intervened Spence, “you must give me your views on that point later. At present you had best gird up your loins and get ready. Our business makes us set out at once and ride hard to Udjde. Suppose you get Mulai Ali’s letter, while I rouse the men.”
Dr. Shaw sighed and obeyed placidly.
Spence found Barbarroja relating, with huge gusto, horrible tales of the Beni Snouss and other desert tribes through whose country they must pass later; the credulous Spahis listened agape, swallowing all his fancies. Spence angrily ordered him to saddle up.
“We are to ride ahead of the others. You will guide us. Two of the Spahis go also. Hasten!”
He turned to saddle his own horse, and did not observe that Barbarroja gazed after him with fallen jaw, as though completely taken aback by this information.
Within twenty minutes the start was made—Spence and Barbarroja leading, Shaw and Mistress Betty following, the two Spahis bringing up the rear with Yimnah. The party would reach the Cisterns some time that night.
Spence had no talk with Dr. Shaw until later. He noted that Barbarroja had lost his bold and jaunty air, seemed silent and uneasy, and often pawed his huge beard as though in deep thought; nor did the man respond to conversation. Spence thought little of it.
At the halt for sunset prayer, in which all save the three Christians joined, Dr. Shaw drew his horse alongside that of Spence.
“Patrick, I am told by Mistress Elizabeth that when you engaged this ruffianly red-beard, you told him you would discuss wages with him at Tlemcen. What agreement reached you?”
“Eh? Why, none! I forgot it.”
Shaw shook his head.
“That looks bad, my son! If the man were what he seemed—well, well, let be. I gather that we reach the Cisterns tonight, and halt until morning?”
“No halts,” said Spence curtly. “We must save Mulai Ali’s neck, and that means hard riding. It’s only fifty miles to Udjde, our horses are in good condition, and we must push on.”
“But stop a few moments at the Cisterns,” pleaded the doctor anxiously. “I have heard of notable inscriptions there, on a pillar near the wells. The moon will be at the full tonight, and I can copy it in a few moments.”
Smiling, Spence agreed. So small a boon, which meant so much to Shaw, could not be denied.
After the prayer and a brief repast, they went on again at a brisk pace. An hour after nightfall the moon rose, full and glorious, lightening all the cold countryside with silver brilliance. Muffled against the cold, the party pressed their horses vigorously.
It lacked an hour of midnight when they approached El Joube, or the Cisterns.
There was no native village here; only a bleak hillside, covered with ancient ruins, where two brackish wells supplied water for travelers. The moon was at her zenith. The place, with its white marbles and broken columns, and jackals howling afar, was the very epitome of desolation. Spence sighed in relief when he saw that the camping ground was empty. Evidently they were ahead of any ambush. Mulai Ali might have come with them after all.
“No unsaddling!” ordered Spence. “We stop for food and water, then on again. May I spread cloaks on the ground for you, Mistress Betty?”
Shaw, forgetting all else, was already scrambling away amid the ruins.
Spence laid out his burnoose for the girl, fed his horse, and joined her with dates and couscous. Presently he lighted his pipe, and was getting it to draw when he heard the voice of Shaw from the tumbled ruins, excitement in its tone.
“Patrick! Come here at once and see what I have found!”
Laughing, Spence essayed to find the divine. This was no small matter, but, after circling a huge cistern, and stumbling over heaps of ruins, he came upon Shaw. The latter was seated before a broken pillar, notebook in one hand, sword in other; with the rapier he was scratching lichens from an inscription—the use to which he most often put the weapon. Dr. Shaw looked up excitedly.
“Patrick! Let me read you this remarkable inscription:
“Q. POMPEIO CN. F. QVIRIT. CLEMENTI
PA—DIIVR EX TESTAMENTO.
Q. POMPEIO F. QVIR. ROGATI FRATRIS SUI
POMPEIA A. P. MABRA POSVIT.”
“Does that suggest nothing to you, Patrick? Does it betray no significance?”
Spence laughed. “Only that somebody wasted a lot of time. What’s the big find, doctor?”
“Man, man! Do you not realize that this broken inscription refers to the grandson and great-grandson of Pompey himself? Finding them buried here beneath us, what a force and beauty are lent to the sublime epigram of Martial! Think of them being entombed here.”
“I’m cold,” said the practical Spence. “I’m thinking a lot more of ourselves than of Pompey’s family. If you’ve finished copying those letters, suppose we move on.”
The other rose.
“Patrick, I saw some men watching me from behind those stones—I said nothing of it, lest they interrupt before I had copied the words.”
Spence stifled a curse.
“Come along, then! We’ve done enough talking—hello! Who’s this?”
A swaggering figure approached them at this instant. It was Barbarroja, one hand at his hilt, the other twirling his mustaches. Beyond, Spence saw that Mistress Betty and the others were already mounting. Yimnah was lying down, drinking from the well.
“A word with you, señores!” exclaimed Barbarroja. “I have an offer to make you.”
“Confound you!” snapped Spence. “What are you talking about?”
“Why, truce! Terms, capitulation, armistice! In a word, peace or war!”
“Are you mad?” demanded Dr. Shaw, peering at the renegade. Barbarroja chuckled.
“Not quite, señor. Listen! There is a company of men hidden here. At a call from me, they will attack. Now let us speak together—terms! My friend, who captains those hidden men, desires the person of the lady yonder. Now, how much is she worth to you? A word, and I can get you away from here without molestation.”
“Villain!” cried Dr. Shaw, and hurled himself forward. So unexpected was his attack, that Barbarroja was taken unawares. The amazed Spence saw his companion twine both hands in the flaming beard and jerk the ruffian forward. A wild howl of pain broke from the renegade, to be quenched in a groan as the lusty divine kicked him amidships and stretched him senseless on the stones.
“That’s the way to deal with such gentry!” panted Shaw. “Now, to horse, Patrick!”
From the Spahis broke a shout of warning. A spattering of musket fire leaped from the hillside; men shouted, a ring of dark figures appeared, closing on the party. Spence and Dr. Shaw ran forward, trying to gain the horses.
“Ride, Shaw!” shouted Spence. “Ride with Mistress Betty and send aid! They’ve got us.”
The ring of figures closed in upon them. Steel flashed in the moonlight.