Terence O'Rourke/Part 1/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII

HE PROVES HIMSELF MASTER OF MEN

Presently, the boat scraped and bumped against the side; the first to ascend was Soly, the second the Tawarek.

O'Rourke was awaiting him at the head of the gangway, respectfully, as befitted the welcomer of a man of rank and place in his country—as the Irishman suspected the visitor to be. To none else than a head man, he considered, would such an errand be intrusted—a matter which affected the interests of a whole tribe.

Nor was he wrong, as he realized when the Tawarek stalked past him without deigning him a glance or a word. The man Soly himself had jumped at once to the threshold of the saloon door, where he stood at attention, his keen eyes furtively alternating between the faces of the Irishman, the native envoy and those in the interior of the cabin.

To him, evidently content to recognize in the man who spoke his native Tamahak his only friend, the Tawarek went direct, and when the soldier stepped to one side, accepted the implied invitation and entered the saloon.

O'Rourke followed,—himself a large man, but dwarfed for the moment by the huge stature of the enormous Tawarek.

Fully six feet six inches in height (a tallness not unusual among his kin, however), and broad and heavy in proportion, he stood with his shoulders well back and proudly, as became a free lord of the Sahara, one who neither bows the knee nor pays tribute to any man—as are the Tawareks all, even the most beggarly of them.

His burnoose was richly embroidered with gold, and of the finest silken mesh, heavily lined for a protection against the cold of the desert nights. This he presently threw aside, disclosing a costume of yellow silk over a shirt and baggy trousers ending somewhat below the knee, both of white; across his shoulders and about his waist ran a sash belt, into which were stuck handily heavy cavalry revolvers of a now obsolete type, but for all that deadly weapons in competent hands.

For a headdress he wore a turban of white, with a flap of black silk hanging down across his forehead to his brows; and sharply across the middle of his face was a second cloth; the two leaving but his eyes and a portion of the bridge of his nose visible. But those eyes were keen, straightforward, quick; deeply set and wrinkled about with that network of fine lines which comes from steady gazing over plains glaring in the full of the noonday sun.

O'Rourke stepped to his side; for a moment the two men stood, eying one another with respect,—men, both of them, of giant build and free carriage, in contrast striking to the others in the saloon: to the weaklings, Mouchon and D'Ervy; to Monsieur le Prince, padded, emaciated: to the weary-eyed Lemercier, posing himself with an assumption of the dignity that should become an emperor,—perhaps really believing in his heart that he wore the majesty of men born to rule. Only Chambret approached either O'Rourke or the Tawarek in size or dignity of address; and Chambret was discreetly effacing himself, as far as possible from the center of the group.

After a brief interchange of glances, the Tawarek bowed his head slightly, in lordly salutation of O'Rourke, acknowledging the one man whom he had failed to look down. The Irishman smiled, and motioned towards a chair, which the Tawarek accepted with suspicions that were evidenced by the excess of precautions he took in seating himself.

So far, no words had passed. Soly had entered upon a gesture from O'Rourke, and stood at. one side, leering, ready when called upon to play his rôle of interpreter.

A blaze of electric light was in the cabin; the Tawarek blinked in its glare, then set himself to study the faces of these men who were invading his land—the land sacred to him by the rights of occupation dating back into the fogs of antiquity.

His sharp, bold eyes flitted from face to face, challenging, reading, rejecting with disdain all save O'Rourke and Chambret. In the end it was to O'Rourke that he turned and addressed himself in a few words of Tamahak, his voice low and pleasantly modulated, his words deferentially spoken.

To Lemercier O'Rourke looked. "Your majesty," he said, keeping straight and serious the mouth that always was tempted to twitch at the corners when he used the title which Leopold had arrogated unto himself: "your majesty, 'tis meself that's had some experience with these men in the Soudan, as ye know. Have I your permission to treat with him?"

"Yes," granted Lemercier graciously.

"What does he say, Soly?" inquired the Irishman, turning to the guest.

The soldier interpreted: "He says that he is Ibeni, chieftain of all the Tawareks hereabouts. He says, monsieur, that if harm comes to him his people will rally in force and sweep your dead bodies into the sea."

"The hell he does!" commented the Irishman, without moving a muscle of his face for the Tawarek to read. "Tell him that he is as safe here as in his own camp."

Soly interpreted again; the Tawarek replied at length.

"He says, mon général, that he desires to know who you may be, what your purpose here, how long you intend to stay; and by what right you invade the lands of the Tawareks without arranging to pay tribute to the tribe."

"Tell him," replied O'Rourke, "that we are Frenchmen by birth, for the most part, subjects by inclination of Leopold Premier, l'Empereur du Sahara."

"Tell him that we come to make oases in the desert by digging wells, that we purpose to build up here a land as fertile as the Soudan or Senegal, and to establish a port for the trade of caravans and ships. Tell him that we shall stay as long as the sun hangs in the sky; and as for tribute, tell him to go to— No," he interrupted himself laughingly; "don't tell him that. Your majesty"—turning to le petit Lemercier—"for the sake of peace, let me advise that ye pay the tribute demanded by this man. I promise ye that it will not be large."

Lemercier coughed, hesitated, glanced at his mentor, Monsieur le Prince. The latter's expression negatived the proposition decidedly.

"No tribute," announced the emperor.

"If Monsieur the Prince will permit me to disagree," disputed O'Rourke suavely; "he is in the wrong. The United States Government, your majesty, pays the Indians for the lands it takes from them. We have to consider that these Tawareks regard the Sahara as their land as jealously as the American Indians held theirs. What tribute he exacts will amount to little in Monsieur l'Empereur's estimation, but it will insure peace, and it will insure the unmolested passage of caravans through the territory of the Empire of the Sahara. I presume your majesty does not contemplate a chicken-hearted withdrawing of his hand at this late day?"

"Most certainly not," declared Lemercier, flushing under the sting in the Irishman's irony.

"And I am sure that Monsieur le Prince does not wish a repetition of this evening's excitement. Let me promise ye, messieurs, that if tribute be not paid to these men, pirates though they be, each day will see a duplicate of the skirmish of to-day. Ye will need regiments, messieurs, rather than tens, of men, if this is to be your method of conquering—"

"Enough," interrupted le petit Lemercier—avoiding the eyes of Monsieur le Prince, however; "tell him that we will pay in reason."

"Ask him how much," O'Rourke instructed Soly, who had meanwhile been steadily translating to the Tawarek.

"One thousand francs in gold yearly," was the reply; "for that he assures you safety and freedom from molestation from his or other tribes."

"We will pay it," said Lemercier, smiling at the insignificance of the sum.

O'Rourke could not repress a triumphant glance at Monsieur le Prince.

"Your majesty has the gold handy, I have no doubt?" he suggested.

"Get it, D'Ervy," commanded his majesty.

That individual went upon his errand, returning with the money in a canvas bag; it was handed the Tawarek, who accepted as his by right, and placed it in a fold of his burnoose.

With a few more words he rose as if to go.

"He places the countryside at your disposal, messieurs," interpreted the man Soly; "he says that, in the morning, he and his men will be far from the oasis El Kebr, as he calls it. He bids you good-evening, intrusting you to the care of Allah."

"One moment," O'Rourke told him; "inform Monsieur Ibeni, or whatever his name is, that in token of our good-will we wish to make him a little present."

He drew from his holster a revolver of the latest type—a quick-firing, hair-trigger, hammerless forty-four caliber.

The eyes of the masked chieftain glistened covetously as they fell upon this weapon whose range and worth his tribe had cause to bear in mind.

With one movement of his arm O'Rourke swung the weapon above his head, pointing it through the open skylight, and pulled the trigger. The six shots rang as one prolonged report.

In an instant the ship was in an uproar; the men came running from their quarters; Soly, by O'Rourke's orders, reassured them, motioning them back from the companionway.

Even Madame la Princesse had been startled; she opened the door of her stateroom and stepped into the saloon, pale and tigbt-lipped with anxiety.

O'Rourke was apprised of her entrance by the eyes of the Tawarek, who, it may be, had never before seen a woman of civilization—though there is little likelihood of that. But certainly he had never looked upon a woman more fair nor one more sweetly beautiful. Her experience of the evening had set its mark transiently upon her face, ringing her eyes with dark circles that served but to accentuate their loveliness. And the glance of the Tawarek lightened and grew more bold as it fell upon her.

She moved slowly toward the group about the native.

"Messieurs," she said, a bit unsteadily, looking from face to face, "is—is there anything amiss?"

"Only me folly, madame," replied the Irishman bowing gallantly; "'tis meself that should have remembered the shots would alarm ye. I crave madame's pardon. I was but demonstrating the beauties of this revolver to monsieur the Tawarek; I fired it for that purpose and for another—to prevent his using it if perchance he were inclined to be treacherous ere leaving us. Soly, find a box of cartridges for this gentleman."

He broke the weapon at the cylinder, ejecting the still vaporing cartridges, whipped a silk handkerchief through the barrel, and handed the revolver to the Tawarek.

Soly returned with the cartridges; the chieftain accepting both with words of gratitude. His mask concealed whatever facial expression he may have had, and it was only from his eyes that they might guess something of his emotions; for his gaze had not left madame since she had appeared in the saloon. Even as he took his leave, which he did with a scant bow to O'Rourke and a total ignoring of the remainder of the party, he continued to watch Madame la Princesse until he had reached the foot of the companionway, when he turned, made her a low obeisance, and vanished, accompanied by O'Rourke.

The commander-in-chief was occupied on deck for several minutes, seeing the Tawarek over the side, and watching the boat on its journey to and from the beach. He then had the men dismissed from their places at the guns, and before returning to the saloon he sent away the man, Soly, to his quarters, and said a low word to three grave Turcos. These nodded comprehension, and placed themselves at no great distance from the saloon companionway.

When he rejoined the council, his princess had left the saloon for her stateroom; chairs were drawn up around the central table, champagne was being served by the steward and partaken of by Monsieur l'Empereur, Monsieur le Prince, D'Ervy, and Mouchon. Chambret sat some distance apart, thoughtfully consuming a cigarette.

Lemercier looked up and indicated a chair; his attitude was not one of great welcome for the commander-in-chief of his forces, however; it was momentarily becoming more evident to the Irishman that in his own case Prince Felix had been successful in his attempt to turn le petit Lemercier's favor to displeasure.

For the present, however, he was disposed to pass this over. He had planned his battle; in his mind he had already won it. It remained but for matters to come to an issue between himself and Prince Felix.

"We were saying, monsieur," said Monsieur le Prince languidly to O'Rourke, "that, since our little affair with your friends, the Tawareks, is settled, our next move should be to address a note to the Powers, proclaiming the sovereignty of Leopold as the first Emperor of the Sahara."

"To the contrary," objected O'Rourke; "your first move is to establish your base, to found your capital city; then to encourage or in some way to procure a respectable colonization. An empire of some forty population is an absurdity on the face of it. Do ye seriously expect the Powers to recognize such a comic opera affair?"

There fell a moment's silence; Monsieur le Prince was anything but pleased; the look he gave the Irishman was evidence enough of the esteem in which he held him. But O'Rourke only smiled benignly upon the prime minister.

As for his majesty, Leopold, his face had lengthened with disappointment; shallow though he was, yet he had occasional glimmerings of common sense, even as he exhibited occasional flashes of spirit. He could but recognize the justice of O'Rourke's pronouncement; and he was not alone fain to bow to superior wisdom, but also generous enough to acknowledge it. Therefore he ignored the black looks of Monsieur le Prince and agreed with the Irishman.

"Another thing," propounded the latter: "Your first duty, your majesty, is not to your empire. 'Tis to humanity. Two of those who fought for ye this day lie wounded unto death in the sick bay; they need immediate attention from a skilled surgeon if their lives arc to be saved. Las Palmas is not so distant that ye cannot spare time to go there," he concluded. "I make so bold as to advise an early start—this very night, in fact."

This was the opening that Monsieur le Prince had been awaiting. He interrupted Lemercier's reply.

"They were paid to take the risk," he said coldly; "let them die. We cannot permit ourselves to be put back for a matter so slight."

"Your majesty," broke in Chambret, "I have been in the sick bay; I can bear witness to the urgency—"

"One moment." Prince Felix fixed his gaze, sardonic and cruel, upon Chambret. "May I inquire, your majesty, when this conceited upstart became a member of your council, entitled to a voice therein?"

O'Rourke motioned the furious Chambret to silence.

"I will save his majesty the trouble of answering ye, Monsieur le Prince," he said calmly. "Monsieur Chambret to-day was appointed me aide, me second in command, and me successor in event of any misfortune of mine. As such, he is entitled to all rights as a member of the council."

"Appointments are not valid unless ratified by the council," objected Prince Felix, choking down his rage.

"It is not legal under your code, perhaps, monsieur," admitted O'Rourke fairly. "Ye will recall, however, that the Empire of the Sahara has no code as yet. The appointment is made by me, by me authority, and will stand, I warn ye, monsieur, whatever your objections!"

Monsieur le Prince rose slowly from his chair, toying with his wineglass.

"Monsieur," he drawled, his eyes narrowing, his white teeth showing through his snarl, "your words verge perilously upon insolence."

"If that be insolence," retorted O'Rourke sweetly, "ye' can make the most of it! … Be careful, monsieur! If ye throw that glass at me, I'll have ye put in irons!"

"Canaille!"

O'Rourke moved to one side, quickly; the wineglass shattered to a thousand fragments upon the wall behind him.

"Ye fool!" he cried, almost laughing. Now he had his man where he wanted him; he turned towards the companionway and whistled.

Upon that signal the three Turcos entered, and dashed down the steps, to halt at the bottom and salute O'Rourke.

"Arrest that man!" he told them, indicating Monsieur le Prince.

Lemercier, who had seemed stunned by the sudden turn of affairs, jumped to his feet with a cry of protest; but before it had passed his lips Prince Felix was helpless between two Turcos, a third at his back pinioning his arms.

"O'Rourke—" began le petit Lemercier, his face white with wrath.

"Leave me alone, your majesty. Men, hold him. If he struggles overmuch—ye know how to discourage him."

Prince Felix leaped forward furiously; and the yell, compounded of rage and pain, that burst from his lips as the Turcos hauled him back, attested to the truth in O'Rourke's suggestion.

"You will suffer for this!" Monsieur le Prince shrieked.

"Oh, I hear ye."

Lemercier sprang before O'Rourke, gesticulating wildly, trembling with his anger and excitement. "Monsieur," he spluttered, "I demand an explanation. I insist that Prince Felix be released at once."

"Tell them so, then," said O'Rourke calmly.

Lemercier turned to the Turcos reluctantly. "I command you to release him!" he quavered.

The Turcos remained motionless, watching O'Rourke; his majesty repeated his demand, with no more result. He wheeled again upon O'Rourke.

"What do you mean?" he cried. "This is rebellion—this is—"

"I mean this," said O'Rourke slowly, his eyes shining: "I mean that I am master here, and that I brook no interference. I mean that 'tis the O'Rourke who holds the balance of power, for the men are serving me first, yourself next, monsieur. They take me commands while I live; for they know me, and that I stand by them. One moment more—let me finish. I mean that I am in your pay, your majesty, for the express purpose of making ye an emperor; 'tis meself that believes it can be done, with square, honest dealing; I believe that your scheme is practicable—though Monsieur le Prince does not in the black heart of him. And I mean, further, that I am going to do my damnedest, monsieur, to put ye on a throne, in spite of the hostility of Monsieur le Prince, who would make of ye the laughing-stock of Europe, and who eventually would kill ye to enjoy your fortune be inheritance. I'll do it, furthermore, in spite of the conspiracies of Messieurs Mouchon and D'Ervy, his tools." He paused for breath, then raised his voice again:

"We're south of Gibraltar, messieurs, and in this land every man is his own law! Here, for the time being, I am the law, your majesty. And, if ye show a disposition to turn back from your enterprise, monsieur—for now me own honor and reputation are at stake—by God! I'll make ye an emperor in spite of yourself!"

He paused, breathless with his own vehemence, looking in triumph at the group before him; at Monsieur le Prince, who, while well-nigh frothing at the mouth with rage, was yet unable to free himself; at Mouchon and D'Ervy, who had drawn back, panic-stricken; at Chambret, his face glowing with delight; at the impassive Turcos; finally, at his majesty.

Leopold was staring blankly at him, like one dreaming; he passed his hand over his eyes, dazedly, as one who wakens suddenly, when O'Rourke had made an end to his speech.

With the shadow of disillusionment fading, with the light of hope and faith again dawning upon his face, he watched the Irishman intently, as though striving to read his inmost thoughts. And by some intuitive power he must have been convinced of the honest purpose of O'Rourke; or else what common sense he had must have told him that there was but one course now open—to trust the adventurer.

Abruptly he stepped forward, and seized the hand of O'Rourke. "Monsieur," he said simply, "I take you at your word—and shall hold you to it."

O'Rourke smiled his thanks. "You'll not regret it," said he; then, to the Turcos: "Release monsieur."

For he felt that he was safe now—that he had broken the sway of the favorite, Monsieur le Prince, Felix de Grandlieu.