The Country of the Knife/Chapter VI

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WHEN THE DOOR in the archway burst inward under the impact of Gordon's iron-hard shoulders, he tumbled backward into a dim, carpeted hallway. His pursuers, crowding after him, jammed in the doorway in a sweating, cursing crush which his saber quickly turned into a shambles. Before they could clear the door of the dead, he was racing down the hall.

He made a turn to the left, ran across a chamber where veiled women squealed and scattered, emerged into a narrow alley, leaped a low wall, and found himself in a small garden. Behind him sounded the clamor of his hunters, momentarily baffled. He crossed the garden and through a partly open door came into a winding corridor. Somewhere a slave was singing in the weird chant of the Soudan, apparently heedless of the dog-fight noises going on upon the other side of the wall. Gordon moved down the corridor, careful to keep his silver heels from clinking. Presently he came to a winding staircase and up it he went, making no noise on the richly carpeted steps. As he came out into an upper corridor, he saw a curtained door and heard beyond it a faint, musical clinking which he recognized. He glided to the partly open door and peered through the curtains. In a richly appointed room, lighted by a tinted skylight, a portly, gray-bearded man sat with his back to the door, counting coins out of a leather bag into an ebony chest. He was so intent on the business at hand that he did not seem aware of the growing clamor below. Or perhaps street riots were too common in Rub el Harami to attract the attention of a thrifty merchant, intent only on increasing his riches.

Pad of swift feet on the stair, and Gordon slipped behind the partly open door. A richly clad young man, with a scimitar in his hand, ran up the steps and hurried to the door. He thrust the curtains aside and paused on the threshold, panting with haste and excitement.

"Father!" he shouted. "El Borak is in the city! Do you not hear the din below? They are hunting him through the houses! He may be in our very house! Men are searching the lower rooms even now!"

"Let them hunt him," replied the old man. "Remain here with me, Abdullah. Shut that door and lock it. El Borak is a tiger."

As the youth turned, instead of the yielding curtain behind him, he felt the contact of a hard, solid body, and simultaneously a corded arm locked about his neck, choking his startled cry. Then he felt the light prick of a knife and he went limp with fright, his scimitar sliding from his nerveless hand. The old man had turned at his son's gasp, and now he froze, gray beneath his beard, his moneybag dangling.

Gordon thrust the youth into the room, not releasing his grip, and let the curtains close behind them.

"Do not move," he warned the old man softly.

He dragged his trembling captive across the room and into a tapestried alcove. Before he vanished into it, he spoke briefly to the merchant:

"They are coming up the stairs, looking for me. Meet them at the door and send them away. Do not play me false by even the flick of an eyelash, if you value your son's life."

The old man's eyes were dilated with pure horror. Gordon well knew the power of paternal affection. In a welter of hate, treachery, and cruelty, it was a real and vital passion, as strong as the throb of the human heart. The merchant might defy Gordon were his own life alone at stake; but the American knew he would not risk the life of his son.

Sandals stamped up the stair, and rough voices shouted. The old man hurried to the door, stumbling in his haste. He thrust his head through the curtains, in response to a bawled question. His reply came plainly to Gordon.

"El Borak? Dogs! Take your clamor from my walls! If El Borak is in the house of Nureddin el Aziz, he is in the rooms below. Ye have searched them? Then look for him elsewhere, and a curse on you!"

The footsteps dwindled down the stair, the voices faded and ceased.

Gordon pushed Abdullah out into the chamber.

"Shut the door!" the American ordered.

Nureddin obeyed, with poisonous eyes but fear-twisted face.

"I will stay in this room a while," said Gordon. "If you play me false-if any man besides yourself crosses that threshold, the first stroke of the fight will plunge my blade in Abdullah's heart."

"What do you wish?" asked Nureddin nervously.

"Give me the key to that door. No, toss it on the table there. Now go forth into the streets and learn if the Feringi, or any of the Waziris live. Then return to me. And if you love your son, keep my secret!"

The merchant left the room without a word, and Gordon bound Abdullah's wrists and ankles with strips torn from the curtains. The youth was gray with fear, incapable of resistance. Gordon laid him on a divan, and reloaded his big automatic. He discarded the tattered remnants of his robe. The white silk shirt beneath was torn, revealing his muscular breast, his close-fitting breeches smeared with blood.

Nureddin returned presently, rapping at the door and naming himself.

Gordon unlocked the door and stepped back, his pistol muzzle a few inches from Abdullah's ear. But the old man was alone when he hurried in. He closed the door and sighed with relief to see Abdullah uninjured.

"What is your news?" demanded Gordon.

"Men comb the city for you, and Ali Shah has declared himself prince of the Black Tigers. The imams have confirmed his claim. The mob has looted Alafdal Khan's house and slain every Waziri they could find. But the Feringi lives, and so likewise does Alafdal Khan and three of his men. They lie in the common jail. To-morrow night they die."

"Do your slaves suspect my presence?"

"Nay. None saw you enter."

"Good. Bring wine and food. Abdullah shall taste it before I eat."

"My slaves will think it strange to see me bearing food!"

"Go to the stair and call your orders down to them. Bid them set the food outside the door and then return downstairs."

This was done, and Gordon ate and drank heartily, sitting cross-legged on the divan at Abdullah's head, his pistol on his lap.

The day wore on. El Borak sat motionless, his eternal vigilance never relaxing. The Afghans watched him, hating and fearing him. As evening approached, he spoke to Nureddin after a silence that had endured for hours.

"Go and procure for me a robe and cloak of black silk, and a black helmet such as is worn by the Black Tigers. Bring me also boots with lower heels than these-and not silver-and a mask such as members of the clan wear on secret missions."

The old man frowned. "The garments I can procure from my own shop. But how am I to secure the helmet and mask?"

"That is thy affair. Gold can open any door, they say. Go!"

As soon as Nureddin had departed, reluctantly, Gordon kicked off his boots, and next removed his mustache, using the keen-edged dagger for a razor. With its removal vanished the last trace of Shirkuh the Kurd.

Twilight had come, to Rub el Harami. The room seemed full of a blue mist, blurring objects. Gordon had lighted a bronze lamp when Nureddin returned with the articles El Borak had ordered.

"Lay them on the table and sit down on the divan with your hands behind you," Gordon commanded.

When the merchant had done so, the American bound his wrists and ankles. Then Gordon donned the boots and the robe, placed the black lacquered steel helmet on his head, and drew the black cloak about him; lastly he put on the mask which fell in folds of black silk to his breast, with two slits over his eyes. Turning to Nureddin, he asked:

"Is there a likeness between me and another?"

"Allah preserve us! You are one with Dhira Azrail, the executioner of the Black Tigers, when he goes forth to slay at the emir's command."

"Good. I have heard much of this man who slays secretly, who moves through the night like a black jinn of destruction. Few have seen his face, men say."

"Allah defend me from ever seeing it!" said Nureddin fervently.

Gordon glanced at the skylight. Stars twinkled beyond it.

"I go now from your house, Nureddin," said he. "But lest you rouse the household in your zeal of hospitality, I must gag you and your son."

"We will smother!" exclaimed Nureddin. "We will starve in this room!"

"You will do neither one nor the other," Gordon assured him. "No man I gagged ever smothered. Has not Allah given you nostrils through which to breathe? Your servants will find you and release you in the morning."

This was deftly accomplished, and Gordon advised:

"Observe that I have not touched your moneybags, and be grateful!"

He left the room, locking the door behind him. He hoped it would be several hours before either of his captives managed to work the gag out of his mouth and arouse the household with his yells.

Moving like a black-clad ghost through the dimly lighted corridors, Gordon descended the winding stair and came into the lower hallway. A black slave sat cross-legged at the foot of the stair, but his head was sunk on his broad breast, and his snores resounded through the hall. He did not see or hear the velvet-footed shadow that glided past him. Gordon slid back the bolt on the door and emerged into the garden, whose broad leaves and petals hung motionless in the still starlight. Outside, the city was silent. Men had gone early behind locked doors, and few roamed the streets, except those patrols searching ceaselessly for El Borak.

He climbed the wall and dropped into the narrow alley. He knew where the common jail was, for in his role of Shirkuh he had familiarized himself with the general features of the town. He kept close to the wall, under the shadows of the overhanging balconies, but he did not slink. His movements were calculated to suggest a man who has no reason for concealment, but who chooses to shun conspicuousness.

The street seemed empty. From some of the roof gardens came the wail of native citterns, or voices lifted in song. Somewhere a wretch screamed agonizingly to the impact of blows on naked flesh.

Once Gordon heard the clink of steel ahead of him and turned quickly into a dark alley to let a patrol swing past. They were men in armor, on foot, but carrying cocked rifles at the ready and peering in every direction. They kept close together, and their vigilance reflected their fear of the quarry they hunted. When they rounded the first corner, he emerged from his hiding place and hurried on.

But he had to depend on his disguise before he reached the prison. A squad of armed men rounded the corner ahead of him, and no concealment offered itself. At the sound of their footsteps he had slowed his pace to a stately stride. With his cloak folded close about him, his head slightly bent as if in somber meditation, he moved on, paying no heed to the soldiers. They shrank back, murmuring:

"Allah preserve us! It is Dhira Azrail-the Arm of the Angel of Death! An order has been given!"

They hurried on, without looking back. A few moments later Gordon had reached the lowering arch of the prison door. A dozen guardsmen stood alertly under the arch, their rifle barrels gleaming bluely in the glare of a torch thrust in a niche in the wall. These rifles were instantly leveled at the figure that moved out of the shadows. Then the men hesitated, staring wide-eyed at the somber black shape standing silently before them.

"Your pardon!" entreated the captain of the guard, saluting. "We could not recognize-in the shadow-We did not know an order had been given."

A ghostly hand, half muffled in the black cloak, gestured toward the door, and the guardsmen opened it in stumbling haste, salaaming deeply. As the black figure moved through, they closed the door and made fast the chain.

"The mob will see no show in the suk after all," muttered one.