Terence O'Rourke/Part 2/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI

THE CONSPIRATORS

The palace of Constantine Pasha had been built with a truly Oriental eye toward the intricate and devious; to O'Rourke it seemed a maze, vast and well-nigh endless.

Following mam'selle, his goddess incarnate, and with Viazma close behind him, he passed through what seemed an interminable succession of empty, echoing rooms and long, re-sounding corridors—a honeycomb of desolation and of paled magnificence, dusty and grim; now in dense darkness, now spotted with the light of the moon, which by this time was riding high in the serene heavens.

There was little opportunity for conversation; indeed, not a word had been spoken. O'Rourke had ample food for hard thinking. What was in mam'selle's heart? What in Viazma's mind? Where were they leading him—or misleading him? What chance would he have to escape through this uncharted wilderness of rooms, should the coming events make flight advisable?

Abruptly, without warning, the woman drew aside a heavy curtain; a glare of light dazzled O'Rourke's eyes; almost blindly he strode on, into a great room, Viazma following.

As he paused, he heard the woman's voice.

"Messieurs," she announced clearly, "I bring you—victory! Messieurs, permit me to introduce to you Monsieur le Colonel O'Rourke, future Pasha of Egypt's victorious armies!"

"Is this acting?" dumbly wondered O'Rourke.

He looked around, engagingly smiling his embarrassment.

The center of the room was held by a table, spread as though for a feast; around it were ranged ten chairs—two unoccupied. Standing behind the others were eight men.

O'Rourke glanced from face to face, recognizing some, passing over others as unknown to him—seeing in all the head and forefront of the great conspiracy.

He saw Prince Aziz, tall and straight as an arrow, surveying him through keen, bead-like, black eyes.

He saw, slouching at the foot, or at the head, of the table—fat, gray, heavy of eye and heavily jowled, spineless and plump—a mass of flesh animated by notoriety: the man who had once brought disaster upon Alexandria, and death and defeat to thousands of patriotic Egyptians at Tel-el-Kebir, Ahmed Arabi Pasha.

He saw men high in the ministerial and executive councils of the land, and but two Europeans among the lot, barring himself—Viazma and a French consul-general.

As for the others, they were for the most part Egyptians, Arabs, men of Bedouin blood, with one great Greek cigarette manufacturer.

There was a murmur of complimentary applause. O'Rourke bowed. His gaze instinctively sought that of Prince Aziz, whose rival he was suddenly become; and he read therein a temperate hostility.

Arabi's eyes, too, met those of the Irishman. He nodded to him carelessly, in a negligent fashion that made O'Rourke's blood boil.

"We may welcome O'Rourke Pasha, indeed," said the intriguer. "Has he taken the oath, Monsieur le Prince?"

"Not yet," responded the Russian.

"There is yet time," said the woman. "Monsieur O'Rourke has pledged me his word. For the present it is sufficient."

"It is understood that he does not leave, of course, without taking the oath," Aziz insisted surlily.

"Oh, that is very true," some one agreed. "Let us return to the point at issue, messieurs."

"A place for O'Rourke Pasha," Viazma suggested.

"He is welcome to my chair, messieurs," said the woman. "I have important matters to look to, but will rejoin the council before long."

She threw O'Rourke a lightning glance; and he gathered, but with some distrust, that she was plotting an escape for him.

"But that chair is at the head of the table," interposed the Greek manufacturer, with a doubtful glance to Arabi Pasha.

"Precisely," assented O'Rourke promptly. With two steps, he advanced and took the chair in question. It was the one nearest the door. What matter if Arabi Pasha objected?

The rest were seating themselves. O'Rourke put himself into the chair weightily, his eye on the Greek merchant's greasy face.

"Where O'Rourke sits," he told him with meaning, "is the head of the table."

The remark passed unregarded, save by the Greek and Prince Viazma, who took the vacant place at O'Rourke's left. A buzz of discussion, in a babel of Arabic, Greek, and French, had started up; O'Rourke caught the name of Lord Cromer several times, but paid it little heed. He was occupied in furtively taking in the essential features of the scene. He must get away without compromising himself by an oath of allegiance to the conspiracy.

But that was not to be an easy matter, he plainly saw.

It was the last course of what had seemingly been a banquet. From the table the cloth had been removed. The majority of the conspirators were smoking. Glasses, brandy and champagne bottles ornamented the board, together with bottles of soda. What servants had attended the guests were withdrawn; at least, but two lingered in the room, and they at the farther end, behind Arabi Pasha's chair.

And that was all. The conspirators were nine to one, if O'Rourke should dare a hostile move. And should he succeed in making an escape from the apartment, he would be lost in the labyrinth that lay beyond.

Nevertheless, he evolved a scheme—desperate enough in all conscience, but offering some advantages, since escape was imperative, and he held no warrant for mam'selle's fidelity to himself.

"The fool that I was to have permitted meself to be drawn into this!" he swore inwardly.

The man at his right was absorbed in discussion; Viazma, on his left, was plying a busy champagne glass—making up for lost time. O'Rourke, for the moment, was observed of none.

It was an opportunity that might not again offer itself; it must be instantly improved, or let pass forever.

"God knows 'tis taking me life in me hands!" thought the Irishman. "But—"

He tipped back in his chair, his eyes fixed on the face of Arabi, who was leading the argument that centered about him, and carelessly crossed his arms; his hand slipped unobserved into the pocket of his dress coat, his fingers closing upon the butt of his revolver.

When he sat forward again—and, again, without attracting remark—the weapon was in his lap, firmly clutched and aimed for the heart of Viazma.

O'Rourke leaned forward and touched the Russian diplomatist on the shoulder, thus gaining his attention. The prince turned in his chair to face him; if O'Rourke had planned the maneuver, Viazma could have executed it in no more perfect accord with the Irishman's wishes.

"What is it, mon ami?" the Russian wished to know, pleasantly, smirking in his pointed beard.

"Viazma," said O'Rourke in a conversational undertone, "if ye say one word, upon me honor as a gintleman, I'll kill ye. Observe in me lap the revolver. Don't move, don't say a word above your usual tone."

The Russian became as pale as though already he were a dead man. At heart Viazma was a coward.

"What is it you wish?" he asked, controlling his voice only because he knew that it must be steady if he would live.

O'Rourke smiled upon him winningly, with the corner of his eye noting that the discussion was waxing fast and furious, and that they were noticed by none.

"Your revolver," he told Viazma; "ye will put your hand into your pocket, take the gun out be the muzzle, and pass it to me, butt first, under cover of the table."

Viazma laughed hollowly.

"This will cost you your life," he said, as who should say, "It is a pleasant evening, monsieur." "I can afford to humor you," he added.

"Ye can't afford to do anything else," assured him O'Rourke with force.

Again the Russian cackled feebly—acting for his life, and knowing it well. Obediently and unobtrusively his hand performed the actions dictated by the Irishman. In ten seconds the Russian's weapon lay upon O'Rourke's knee.

"And now what?" Viazma wished to know nervously.

"Sit around, face to the table. Say nothing to your friend on your left in a tone that I cannot hear. If ye do—well, a word to the Russ, me friend, should be sufficient."

Viazma slowly did as he was bid; but almost immediately afterwards the necessity of watching him was over and done with.

For out of the uproar of voices that of Prince Aziz rose dominant.

"Messieurs," he cried, standing and surveying the table, "silence, if you please." It was accorded him. "We are all agreed, I believe," he went on, "at least upon one point—the assassination of Lord Cromer is to be the signal for our uprising."

"That is so," a voice coincided.

"It remains, then, but to settle one thing—the date of the assassination. On the principle that the sooner the better, I appoint to-morrow evening, when the British representative takes his daily constitutional on the Gizereh Drive. Are we agreed?"

"We are," came from each individual sitter—save O'Rourke, upon whose silence none commented.

"I am the chosen instrument, as you all know," continued the Egyptian prince. "Messieurs, fill up your glasses. I give you a toast." He paused.

"A health," he cried, raising aloft his glass, "to the men who strike the first blows for Egypt! And—death to Lord Cromer!"

The conspirators arose, filling the room with loud manifestations of their approval.

Aziz tipped his glass to his lips. As he did so, O'Rourke, who had arisen with them, took his life in his hands and fired. The crack of the shot and the simultaneous crash of the wine-glass as it was shattered in the prince's fingers wrought an instantaneous silence where a moment before there had been loud acclamations.

In the momentary stupefaction that seized upon the conspirators, numbing them mind and body, for the instant, O'Rourke leaped to the doorway.

He held a revolver in each hand. Possibly to each of the nine about the table it seemed as though one muzzle was trained upon his head alone. They stood helpless for a space. O'Rourke, chancing to observe Arabi's face, could have laughed because of its whitish tinge.

"Ye will please not move, messieurs," he announced loudly. "I have the drop on ye all, and the man who thinks I cannot see him move will find out his mistake. Messieurs, allow me to give ye a bit of advice: Don't drink that health ye've left untasted. In the long run 'twill be the most unhealthy drink ye ever put in your bellies!"

His shoulders touched the jamb of the doorway.

"Messieurs," he said, "I wish ye the divvle of an uneasy night's rest!"

The Irishman, his eyes keenly alert, held the threshold. Once across that, it would be a flight for his life—hide and seek, he forecast it. "And 'tis the O'Rourke that'll be It, for once," he commented.

But he had reckoned without the spirit of one man—Prince Aziz, who seized upon what he thought was the Irishman's moment of relaxed vigilance.

O'Rourke, however, saw the Egyptian's hand go to his breast pocket; he saw also the shimmer of the nickel-plated weapon as it flashed into sight.

At once, without hesitation, he shot him through the head.

"Let that warn ye!" he cried. "The man who pursues me will get the selfsame dose!"

And he was gone, with one backward jump that took him through the doorway and clear of the portière. He faced around, dashing on to the spot where an oblong of grayish-black told him there should be a second door; he found it, gained through and collided with a man who had been running as hastily toward the banquet hall as O'Rourke was endeavoring to get away from it.

That man was the Nubian. He recoiled from O'Rourke; and the Irishman's eye, which seemed to have something of the faculty of a cat's in the dark in time of danger, caught the gleam of steel as the Nubian drew a dagger.

The inevitable followed. It seemed imperative. He pistoled the fellow ruthlessly.

The delay, infinitesimal as was the part of a second it had occupied, was more than serious. The dining hall was in chaos; the shrill, infuriated howls of the conspirators filled the building with an indescribably terrifying clamor.

O'Royrke glanced over his shoulder. The doorway was blocked with a struggling mass of men, fighting to be the first to get through and after him. He chuckled.

"Faith, so long as they keep that up," he said, "I'm atisfied!"

And he dashed on. The conspirators disentangled themselves and took up the chase. At first well bunched, it was no trouble at all for the Irishman to locate them, and to double away.

But, as he blundered headlong through empty suite after suite of rooms, he became naturally confused; door after door invited him to safety, and he tore through, only to find that he was apparently no nearer the end than at first. In no place did he seem able to discover a passage or a door leading to the outer air.

Once, indeed, he dashed through an arched opening into the court. But a dark figure crouching in the shadow of the acacia fired upon him, and incontinently O'Rourke turned tail and took up the thread of his endless weaving in and out through the echoing rooms of the palace of Constantine Pasha.

The conspirators scattered; and then it was more troublesome to divine each man's whereabouts, and to avoid him. But for the circumstance that they, too, were confused and led astray by the sound of their own comrades' flying footsteps, O'Rourke might easily enough have been run to earth.

He heard, once, a shot and a reply, and smiled grimly to think that two had mistaken one another for himself. He hoped their aim had been more accurate than that of the man beneath the acacia.

But, at last, they began to close in upon him; up to a certain point he had endeavored to keep to the ground floor, knowing beyond doubt that all doors leading to the street would be found there. But gradually they forced him from one room to another, until at last he was obliged to put the butt of his weapon into the face of a too-fortunate pursuer—thereby rendering him speechless with a broken jaw—and to take a staircase to the upper story in four jumps.

And then, again, began the gradual closing-in process. Once above the ground floor O'Rourke confined his efforts to an attempt to regain the room wherein he had been received by the goddess of Egyptian night, knowing that from there led a staircase to the lower private entry, where a door would give him exit to the street.

For all he could determine to the contrary, however, that room had never existed, save in his fancy; suite after suite he tried, desperately, only to find one passage after another closed to him; until, at last, he stood cornered, choking for breath and disheartened, in an open closet.

On either side he could hear the trampling feet of the conspirators, as they searched and prodded each several recess to poke him forth from hiding. He dared not move a pace out of his refuge; and if he remained he was foredoomed to discovery.

And then—well, then there would be trouble, indeed. "A shindy," he called it, with a rousing of his blood at the thought of battle. He was, for a little space, debating the advisability of sallying out and changing rôles with his enemies, becoming the hunter instead of the hunted.

It seemed at the time quite feasible, when all else seemed hopeless. He wetted his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. "It might be done," he whispered encouragement to himself. "It might be done."

He had nine bullets left; there were eight pursuers; he dared not miss one single shot. Beyond doubt, the others were all well armed—some, doubtless, with two revolvers, even.

No; it would be madness, folly! But, then, everything he had done that night had been madness and folly; not a single action that he could recall had been of a nature that could be characterized as anything but insane.

And the chase was fearfully near at hand. He drew himself together. It was now too late to take the initiative; they were in the next room.

He poised one revolver. The first to pass, across the moonlit lattice by the door was to die. It might keep the rest back for a little time; and—anything might happen in a little time.

He held the gun ready—and heard, leading the others, the rustle of the woman's skirts.

Mam'selle passed across the luminous lattice and came straight toward him. Afterward he wondered if she had really seen him from the first, or in some other way been made acquainted with his hiding place.

For she passed almost directly to the recess—the sole place in the room admitting of even a temporary concealment—put out her hand and touched his face, drew it back without a sound, and turned her back to him.

"The next room, perhaps, messieurs!" she cried breathlessly. "Hasten! Ah, hasten!"

O'Rourke did not stir. He waited patiently—though patience was no virtue; there was no alternative in his case. He waited. Mam'selle had gone on with the others, yet presently he heard—as he had known he would presently hear—the tap-tap of her little slippers and the soft frou-frou of her garments.

She entered through the door by which she had left, stood for an instant looking out through the lattice, drawing her skirts tightly about her with one hand, the other being pressed to her lips, as though she feared to give them play for utterance. Without glancing in»his direction, she whispered hoarsely: "Monsieur!"

"Mam'selle!" he responded, advancing.

"Quick!" she cried. "The next room but one. I will follow. They have gone through to the other wing. For two seconds, only, we are safe."

Without demur the man obeyed.

Tiptoeing lightly, he gained the farther room that she had indicated; and she moved as lightly behind him, almost without a sound. And, then, in silence, she drew him by the hand to the rear wall, where she pushed aside some rotting draperies and disclosed the door that he had sought and, even in this very room, had missed.

In deference to her silent command, he stepped boldly down into darkness, upon a winding staircase of wrought iron; as he descended, he heard her shut the door behind them and shoot home a bolt.

Below, still mutely, she guided him through total darkness to a second door; it likewise was bolted, and the bolts had rusted into a firm resistance.

But O'Rourke's strong fingers forced them back; he found a latch, lifted it, and the door swung open, the blessed moonlight flooding the little entry.

O'Rourke drank in the good, clean air in great gulps. For the first time, the woman spoke.

"It is a secret entry," she said. "The door above is bolted, and there is no door upon this floor. You are safe to rest yourself for a moment, O mon colonel; but do not endanger yourself further by lingering."

Her tone was cold, her words seemed forced and stilted. And she stood in shadow, where he might not see her.

"I go," he responded softly, "in one moment. I have something to say, mam'selle."

"Say it," she said brusquely, "and go, monsieur—go!"

"Very well. I'm returning to Shepheard's. To-morrow I shall stay in me room, armed, all the day. I shall eat nothing that me body-servant does not himself prepare."

There was a pause while he hesitated.

"That were wise," the woman approved listlessly.

"In the evening," he continued, "I shall send word of what I have to-night learned to the authorities."

She did not reply.

"I tell ye this, mam'selle, in gratitude. If it were possible, for me to keep silence and retain me honor; if it were possible, for me to keep silence and do me duty by me fellow men—believe me, mam'selle, I would do that. It is not possible. This monstrous crime that is here plotted must be crushed. … And so I give ye time, mam'selle, to get ye to safety."

"My thanks, monsieur," she returned, without emotion.

Still the man lingered.

"I—I killed Prince Aziz, I fear," he said. "I could not help it. It was his life or mine."

"I fear … you did … not," she replied, faltering. "He may live … I am betrothed to him and—and I do not love him, monsieur!"

O'Rourke hesitated; there seemed to be nothing more to be said, and yet he felt that there was, to the contrary, much that might be said, were he but able to find the words to say it in. At length, diffidently, he put out a hand, caught the woman's, and bent to kiss it. She stood passive; her fingers rested unresisting on his broad palm. The clear moonlight fell softly upon the dazzling whiteness of her countenance; her eyes were fixed upon him steadfastly, with a regard inscrutable, profound, bewildering; even in the deep shadow's that lay beneath her brows, he could see that they burned with a curious, almost an uncanny glow. He felt oddly drawn towards her, irresistibly tempted to clasp her in his arms … With an effort he recollected himself.

The woman saw his lips move mutely; they framed a word she did not hear, nor would have recognized had she heard. "Sure," O'Rourke comforted himself, "'tis a most potent talisman and powerful to make me immune to strange beauties." And he repeated inwardly the syllables of the name of her to whom he had sworn loyalty. "Beatrix! … Beatrix! … Beatrix!"

And suddenly he found himself stumbling off down the rough-cobbled thoroughfare, his brain all a-whirl and the heart of him like a live coal burning in his breast. After a few yards he came to the entrance to a tortuous, reeking alleyway, leading off towards the European quarters; and it seemed best that he should trust himself to its dark mercies rather than stick to the beaten ways and run the chance of being overtaken by the conspirators. "'Tis no use," he philosophized benevolently, "killing the lot of them outright. 'Tis no butcher ye are, Terence."

In a shadow he halted, turned and looked back at the high, blind yellow walls of the Palace Constantine—unmarred in all their visible extent by balcony or window or other opening save that little postern door whence he had escaped. And now even that was closed.

Dawn was breaking when he reached Shepheard's, undeterred. He roused Danny and stirred him to action, with liberal profanity. "'Tis in Alexandria we must be be noon," he informed the bewildered red-headed one. "I'll wire Doone Pasha of this business from there. 'Tis a sight easier than 'twould be to keep a whole skin in Cairo! … A prince of Egypt, shot down be me own hand, d'ye understand, me bye? Faith, 'twill be many a long day ere Egypt is favored with the prisince of the O'Rourke again, let me tell ye!"