The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 10

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Warden did not find Rabat so intolerable as the captain of the Water Witch led him to believe. Its streets were more regular and cleaner, or less dirty, than those of the average Moorish town. Its people seemed to be devoted to commerce—probably because they are not pure–blooded Moors, but of Jewish descent. That, at least, is the argument advanced by a man from Fez or Tafilat when he wants a heavier dowry with a Rabati bride.

From the roadstead, once the troublesome bar was crossed, the town looked attractive. Its white houses were enshrined in pretty gardens. Orchards, vineyards, and olive–groves brightened the landscape. To the north, on the opposite bank of a swift river, cultivated slopes stretched their green and gold to the far–off Zemmur mountains. A picturesque citadel, built by a renegade Englishman in the bad old days, commanded the harbor, and a spacious landing–place showed that the Rabatis opposed no difficulties to the export of their Morocco leather, carpets, Moorish slippers, and pottery.

The Water Witch entered the river soon after dawn, and Warden was assured that she would not be able to clear her shipments until next forenoon at the earliest. He went ashore and was agreeably surprised at finding quite a large number of British and other European merchants’ offices near the quay, while the shields of several Vice–Consuls and Consular Agents bespoke some semblance of law and order.

In a word, Rabat looked settled and prosperous. It was utterly out of keeping with the picture conjured up by the tattoo marks made by Domenico Garcia on the skin of Tommaso Rodriguez. Still the Hassan Tower was no myth. It was pointed out to him by an Englishman who had walked to the wharf to watch the landing of the ship’s boat.

Pausing only to buy a strong chisel in a native shop, Warden strolled at once in the direction of the tomb. He would neither delay his search for the ruby, nor give much time to it. If he failed to identify the exact spot described in the parchment, or was unable to discover anything after a speedy examination, assuredly he would not spend several hours in tearing ancient masonry to pieces. Since leaving England, Warden had become a different man. Always a good–humored cynic, he was now perilously near the less tolerable condition of cynicism without good humor. Intellect began to govern impulse. Though his brain was wearied with endeavor to find a reasonable explanation of events, he was almost convinced that Evelyn must at least have committed the indiscretion of gossiping about her adventures in the Isle of Wight. If only she had written! His heart kept harping on that! Why had she flown away with her employers without ever a sign that her thoughts were with the man she loved?

He wondered if Peter Evans had found her. If so, there would be news at Cape Coast Castle, for he had given his bankers explicit directions, and a member of the firm was a personal friend who would attend to cablegrams and letters.

The Hassan Tower stood on a height not far beyond the outermost city wall, Rabat being dignified with two lines of fortifications, built by Christian slaves centuries ago. Indeed, when Warden climbed the hill of which it formed the pinnacle, he realized that it was a landmark shown on a chart he had examined the previous evening. Square and strong, built to defy destruction, and rearing its one hundred and fifty feet of exquisitely fretted stonework from a tangled undergrowth of stunted vegetation, it seemed, in some proud and curiously subtle way, to promise the fulfilment of Domenico Garcia’s bequest.

Great marble columns, many erect, but the majority overthrown, indicated the quadrangle of what was meant to be a gigantic mosque. Warden passed quickly through these and other ruins; he caught a hint of an aqueduct, looked into a deep excavation evidently designed as a cistern, and then, with somewhat more rapid pulse–beat, and a certain awed wonderment dominating his mind, made straight for the causeway that led to the “door three cubits from the ground.”

To his chagrin, though the inclined plane itself might be ridden by a man on horseback, the arched door was solidly built up. Here was an unforeseen check. It was one thing to be conscious of a cooling of the ardor that vowed the adornment of Evelyn’s fair hand with a “gem of great price,” but it was none the less baffling and exasperating to be at the foot of the tower and meet an apparently insuperable obstacle of this nature. Was he brought to Rabat by the most extraordinary series of events that could well have befallen him, only to find blind fate smiling maliciously? The thought was not to be borne. Somehow, anyhow, that tower must be entered, or the spirit of the hapless Garcia would haunt him for ever.

He looked around, thinking his Arabic would serve him in good stead were there a goat–herder or other tender of flocks near at hand. But he was quite alone on the tiny plateau. A couple of great storks which had built their nest on top of the tower looked down at him with wise eyes. Hundreds of pigeons fluttered about the summit or clung to the ridges of fretted stone, while the only window visible above the doorway was a hundred feet from the base.

But a soldier knows that every position, however impregnable in front, may be turned from the flanks. Before formulating any method of attack, he decided to survey the stronghold from all points of view, and, because Garcia mentioned the “third window on the left,” he went to the left. On that side there were only two windows, each twenty feet or more above his head, and Warden was nearly six feet in height. Then he reflected that the Portuguese, writing his sorrowful legend “to pleasure that loathly barbarian, M’Wanga, King of Benin,” would surely count from the inside of the tower.

On he went, noting each cranny and fissure in the weather–beaten mass, until he reached the opposite side. Here were three windows, and, most gratifying of discoveries, he saw that the Arabs had contrived a means of entry and egress through the center window by scooping away the mortar between the huge blocks of granite used for the foundation story. Débris had accumulated close to the wall in such quantity that the window–sill was not more than fourteen feet from his eyes. To an active, barefooted Moor, with toes and fingers like the talons of a vulture, the climb would present no difficulty whatever. To a man whose nails were well kept, and whose toes would speedily be lacerated if not protected by boots, the scaling of the rough wall was no child’s play. But Warden began to crawl upwards without a moment’s hesitation.

He knew that the ascent would be easy compared with the return, while a fall meant the risk of a bad sprain, so he memorized each suitable foothold as he mounted, and often paused to make sure of the deepest niches. It must be confessed that no thought of other danger entered into his calculations. His military training should have made him more wary, but what had either experience or text–book to do with this quest of a jewel, hidden for safety in a Moorish tomb so many years ago?

And he was armed, too, quite sufficiently to account for any prowling thieves who might be tempted to attack a stranger. A service revolver reposed in one pocket, and the chisel in another—but there did not seem to be the remotest probability of human interference; he had not seen a living thing save the birds since he breasted the hill.

When his hands rested on the broken stonework of the window he was naturally elated. Soon his eyes drew level with it, and he could peer into the interior. It was all one great apartment, not lofty, though an arched roof gave an impression of height. A staircase led to the upper stories, but it was broken. Desolation reigned supreme. Some startled pigeons flew out with loud clutter of wings at the sight of him. Then he raised himself steadily up, and leaped inside, while the walls echoed the noise of his spring with the hollow sound of sheer emptiness.

There was plenty of light, but, after a first hasty glance, he gave no further scrutiny to his surroundings. Were he spying out the land in an enemy’s country, he would have looked at the littered floor to find traces of any recent visitor. Most certainly he would not have begun operations in Garcia’s hiding–place without first visiting the upper rooms. But he was too eager and excited to be prudent. Evelyn seemed to be very near him at that moment. He remembered how her impetuous attempt to throw the calabash into the Solent had led to the discovery of Garcia’s amazing manuscript, and there was the spice of true romance in the fact that now, little more than two months later, he should actually be standing in “the tomb of the infidel buried outside the wall” of Rabat. His fingers itched to be at work. He was spurred by an intense curiosity. He felt that the finding of the ruby would lend credence to an otherwise unbelievable story. It connected Oku and the wild Benuë of two and a half centuries ago with Cowes and the Solent in Regatta Week. It made real the personality of a long–forgotten tyrant, who perchance lived again to–day in one of those three negroes he had seen in Figuero’s company. No wonder, then, that Warden was impatient. Ten seconds after he had reached the interior of the building, he was bent over the “deep crack between the center stones” of the window described by Garcia.

There could be no doubting now which window the scribe meant. It stood next to that by which Warden had entered, and, sure enough, just in that place the stones were more than ordinarily wide apart. The word “crack” was ambiguous. It might be applied more accurately to a break in one particular stone, but Warden was no adept in the Portuguese tongue, and the dictionary–maker might be translating “interstice,” or “crevice,” or “division,” when he wrote “crack.” At any rate, the “center stones” were sound, but the mortar between them was partly eaten away, and Warden saw at once that in order to make good his search one of the stones must be prised out bodily. A crowbar would have ended the job in a minute when once the chisel had cut a leverage, but, in the absence of a crowbar, he set to work with the chisel.

The mortar became flint–like when the deodorizing influence of the weather ceased to make itself felt. Nevertheless, the amateur house–breaker labored manfully. Half an hour’s persistent chipping and twisting of the tool was rewarded by a sullen loosening of the stone.

Then he lifted it out of its bed, and there, nestling between it and its fellow, hidden beneath a layer of dust and feathers, lay a ring!

Now, Domenico Garcia spoke of a “ruby,” not of a ring, but it needed no skilled eye to detect the cause of that seeming discrepancy. The ring was a crude affair, made of gold, it is true, but fashioned with rough strength merely to provide a safe means of carrying the great, dark stone held in its claws. Garcia did not waste words. To him the ring was naught, so why mention it?

The gold was discolored, of course, and the ruby did not reveal its red splendor until Warden had cleansed it with his handkerchief and breathed on it repeatedly to soften the dirt deposited on its bright facets by thousands of rainstorms. Then it was born again before his eyes. With a thrill of pity rather than gratification he gazed on its new and glowing life. “Friend, I am many marches from Rabat but few from death!” said the man who placed it there, thinking that perchance he “might escape.” Now his very bones were as the dust which had shrouded it during all those years, yet the wondrous fire in its heart shone forth as though it had left the lapidary’s bench but yesterday. Warden even smiled sadly when he realized that, no matter how his wooing fared, such a huge gem could never shine on Evelyn Dane’s slim finger. It was large enough to form the centerpiece of some stately necklace or tiara. He knew little about the value of precious stones, but this ruby was the size of a large marble. He had once seen a diamond that weighed twenty–four carats, and the ruby was much the larger of the two. He fancied he had read somewhere that a flawless ruby was of considerably higher intrinsic worth than a diamond of the same dimensions. The diamond he had in mind was priced at three thousand pounds. If, then, this ruby were flawless, its appearance in England would create something of a sensation.

And Garcia’s story was true—that was the most astounding part of the business. The magnificent jewel winked and blinked in the sunlight. It might almost be alive, and telling him in plain language that the gods do not lead men into strange paths without just cause.

Suddenly he caught a blood–red flash that reminded him of the uncanny gleam in the eyes of the face on the gourd. The thought was disquieting, but he laughed.

“I am becoming a mere bundle of nerves,” he said aloud. “The sooner I get soaked with quinine the fitter I shall be. It must be the malaria in my system that makes me see things. Really, the proper thing to do now is to give that beastly mask to the head ju–ju man at Oku. Then it will be off my hands, and he will own the boss fetish of the whole West Coast.”

He was about to pocket the ring when the question of its subsequent disposal occurred to him. It was such a remarkable object that any one who saw it could not fail to question him as to its history. Under existing circumstances, he did not court inquiry in that shape, and the queer notion came that, in all likelihood, its prior owner carried it slung round his neck.

“Yes, by Jove, and the cord strangled him,” murmured Warden. Nevertheless, not being in the least superstitious, he might have adopted that plan of concealing it if he possessed a stout piece of cord or strong ribbon. But his pockets contained neither one nor the other, and a sharp pang came with the recollection that, in a case of similar need not so long ago, Evelyn’s hussif held a neat coil of tape that would have suited his purpose exactly.

Inside his waistcoat, however, was a secret pocket for carrying paper money. It was provided with a flap and a button, and would serve admirably as a hiding–place until he was able to entrust the ruby to a bank for transference to London. So there it went, making a little lump over his heart, and reminding him constantly that Domenico Garcia had not deceived him. He was about to climb down again when his glance fell on the displaced stone. As a tribute to poor Garcia’s memory, he put it back in its bed, and even took the trouble to pour a few handfuls of dust and loose mortar into the joints, so that none might know it had ever been removed. While thus occupied, his attention was momentarily drawn to a pair of storks circling lazily above the tower. He wondered if they were the same placid couple that had watched him earlier. No bird is more wide–awake than the stork, despite its habitual air of sleepy indifference, and Warden fancied that the noise he made must have disturbed the two sentinels on the top of the building.

The hill–side was absolutely deserted. Far below nestled the white mass of the town, its long, low, whitewashed rectangles broken only by clumps of trees and an occasional dome or minaret. Near the quay lay the Water Witch. Her cranes were busy, two strings of coolies were rushing back and forth across a broad gangway, and the first mate was directing operations from the bridge. Warden smiled. He had heard the flow of language at the “Chief’s” command when some incident on ship–board demanded the reading of the Riot Act, and he could well imagine the way in which those scampering Arabs were being incited to strenuous effort.

It was peaceful up here in the tower—so cool and remote from the noisy life of the port that he was tempted to linger. But if he would regain the shelter of some café in the town ere the sun became unbearably hot, he must be on the move. So, with a sigh for the unhappy Garcia’s fate, and a farewell glance at the vaulted room which had witnessed that by–gone tragedy, and perhaps many another, he began the descent. Thanks to the precautions taken during the climb, he found no great difficulty in placing his toes in the right niches. He was already below the level of the window, and was halting with both feet wedged into a broader crevice than usual while he changed his hand hold, when something, whether mere intuition or a slight sound, he never afterward knew, caused him to look straight up. Leaning over the top of the ruin, and in a direct line above his head, was a Moor of fantastic appearance. A blue cotton garment of vivid hue seemed to have lent its dye to the man’s face and hair. Had he been soused in a bath of indigo he could not have been colored more completely. Though this extraordinary apparition was fully one hundred and thirty feet above Warden’s head, there was no mistaking the malice that gleamed from the dark eyes gazing down on the Nazarene. Under such conditions thought is quick, and Warden was sure that he had unwittingly invaded the sanctuary of a Mohammedan fanatic. He was minded to whip out the revolver and fire a shot that would at least scare this strange being back into his eyrie. But a British sense of fair play stopped him. The blue man, howsoever wild–looking, had not interfered with or molested him in any way. He himself was the intruder. The fact that he was undeniably startled did not justify the use of a bullet, even for scaring purposes. The best thing to do was to reach the ground as speedily as might be, risking a jump when he was low enough to select a particular stone on which to alight. His dominant feeling at the moment was one of pique that he had failed to interpret correctly the flight of the storks. If the zealot on top of the tower meant mischief it would have been far better to have met him in one of the upper rooms than to be at his mercy while clinging like a fly to the face of the wall.

He was within ten feet of the pile of rough stones, and was about to drop on one larger than its fellows—in fact, he was already in the air, having sprung slightly outward, when a crushing blow on his head and left shoulder flung him violently on to the very slab of granite he was aiming for. The shock was so violent that he felt no pain. Consciousness was acute for a fraction of a second. He understood that a heavy stone had fallen or been dropped purposely from the summit of the tower, and that his change of position, helped perhaps by the arched crown of his pith hat, had prevented it from striking directly on top of his head. But that was all. He lay there, with his back propped awkwardly against the tower, staring up at the sky. He saw nothing but the bright dome of heaven. It seemed to be curiously near, and its glowing bounds were closing in on him with the speed of light. Then the veil fell, and there was merciful darkness.

Consternation reigned in Rabat next morning. The Captain of the Water Witch began the disturbance over night, but when daylight brought no tidings of the missing Englishman, the British Vice–Consul talked most unfeelingly of a visit by the West Coast Squadron. A worried and anxious Bey, well aware that Morocco had troubles in plenty without Rabat adding to the store, protested that the Nazarene must have been spirited away without human agency. The Bey was not listened to, so he tried honestly to find out what had become of Warden. The only ascertainable facts were that the Giaour had bought a chisel, and was seen going to the tower of Hassan, the way to which was shown to him by one of his own countrymen. The hour was early, soon after sunrise. Since then he had seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. The Bey’s myrmidons told how they had searched the Tower, and found that the Giaour had climbed into its interior. He had used the chisel and displaced a stone, apparently without object. But the place was now quite empty, though some one had ground corn and millet recently in an upper chamber.

Now, the Bey knew quite well that the Blue Man of El Hamra made the Tower his headquarters when he visited Rabat periodically to collect subscriptions for the Jehad that was to drive every foreigner out of the sacred land of the Moors. But he kept silent on that matter, for he feared the Blue Man even more than the British Fleet. Nevertheless, he caused inquiries to be made, though no one had met the tinted prophet of late.

In a country where there are no roads, nor any actual government beyond the sphere of each chief town, official zeal does not travel far. The Water Witch sailed to Cape Coast Castle, and reported the disappearance of Mr. “Alfred Williams” to an officer who came out to meet her in the Governor’s own surf–boat. A cruiser hastened to Rabat, and trained a gun on the principal palace, whereupon the Bey went aboard in person to explain that none could have made more genuine effort than he to find the lost Nazarene, either dead or alive. And perforce he was believed. Even the British Vice–Consul could not charge him with negligence, though not one word had he said to any European concerning the Blue Man of El Hamra.

The cruiser flitted back to Cape Coast Castle, and thence to Lagos, and there was much wonderment in the small circle that knew the truth. Yet no man is indispensable, whether in West Africa or London, and another Deputy Commissioner was gazetted for the special duty of dealing with native unrest in the Benuë River district. The facts were communicated to Whitehall, and an official from the Colonial Office called on an Under Secretary in the Foreign Office to explain why Captain Forbes was acting in the capacity for which Captain Arthur Warden seemed to be so peculiarly fitted.

“It is a queer business,” said the Under Secretary. “What do you make of it?”

“I believe he was worried about a woman,” began the other.

“What? In Rabat?”

“No, no, in London. Only this morning I received a letter from a Mrs. Laing, who says she is exceedingly anxious to ascertain Captain Warden’s address. Now, Lady Hilbury wrote two days ago with the same object, and, of course, I returned a polite message to the effect that he was engaged on Government service.”

“Mrs. Laing!” mused the Under Secretary. He unlocked a diary, and ran back through its pages. “I thought I remembered the name,” he continued. “She was staying with the Baumgartners at Lochmerig before they went to Hamburg in their yacht.”

He was silent for a few seconds. His nails seemed to need instant examination. Apparently satisfied by the scrutiny, he went on:

“I rather liked that youngster. He struck me as the sort of man who would go far. Have you replied to Mrs. Laing?”

“No.”

“Then please ask her to come here next Tuesday about three o’clock. Just quote her letter, and allow it to be assumed that her inquiry concerning Captain Warden may be answered. I hope you don’t mind my stepping in in a matter affecting your Department?”

The Colonial man laughed.

“My dear fellow,” he said, “I have a whole regiment of lady visitors and correspondents whom I shall gladly hand over to you.”

Thus it came to pass that Rosamund’s furs and frills graced the same chair in the Foreign Office that Warden had sat in when he interviewed the Under Secretary. She was charmingly anxious in manner. Though of high rank in the Government, the Under Secretary was young enough to be impressionable; he was clearly a dandy; such men are the easiest to subjugate.

“In the first place, Mrs. Laing,” he said, when she explained her earnest wish to communicate at once with Captain Warden, “you will not misunderstand me if I ask what measure of urgency lies behind your business with him. We officials, you know, like to wrap ourselves in a cloak of mystery with red tape trimmings. Yet I promise you I shall match your candor if possible.”

“Well—perhaps I ought to begin by saying that—if not exactly engaged—Captain Warden and I are very dear to each other. We were engaged once, years ago. But I was young. I was forced into marriage with another, who is now dead.”

Rosamund made this ingenuous confession with the necessary hesitancy and downward eye–glances. The Under Secretary was sympathetic, and delighted, and envious of Captain Warden’s good fortune. There could be no doubt about these things, because he said them.

“That being so, I know a good deal of his private affairs,” said Rosamund demurely. “I knew, for instance, that he might be summoned to West Africa at any moment, but he is such a scrupulously precise man where duty is concerned that he would actually go away without telling me anything about it if ordered not to take any one into his confidence.”

“Something of the kind has happened,” admitted the Under Secretary.

“Ah, then, he really is in Africa, and if I write——?”

“I am sorry, but I fear I have misled you. He is not in Nigeria. When last I heard of him he was at Rabat.”

“Where is that?” she cried, genuinely surprised.

“On the West Coast of Morocco.”

“But what is he doing there?”

The Under Secretary pressed the tips of his fingers closely together.

“It is difficult to say,” he replied.

“Surely you will tell me. I have a right to know,” she pleaded. “I understand the position on the Benuë River. I am the daughter of a West African Governor. I am one of the few women in England who can grasp the seriousness of any plot which brings together the men of Oku and the trusted confidant of a meddlesome foreign potentate. Captain Warden was sent to the Protectorate to carry out your instructions, and that is the very reason I wish to write to him. I have news of the utmost importance.”

“Connected with the sailing of the Sans Souci from Hamburg?”

The question was so unexpected that Rosamund looked at the Under Secretary with more shrewdness than her fine eyes had displayed hitherto. He was making a little circle of dots with a pencil on a blotting–pad. Neither by voice nor manner did he display any surprise at her reference to the men of Oku.

“Yes, that is one of the items,” she said.

“And the others?”

“But you are telling me nothing,” she pouted.

“Forgive me. I hate the necessity that imposes restraint. Now, Mrs. Laing, enlighten me on one point, and I shall acquaint you with such few details of Captain Warden’s recent movements as are in my possession. What interest had he in Rabat?”

“I—really—don’t know.”

The protest was honest. This fashionable lady was speaking the truth.

“Who, in your opinion, might know?” he persisted.

Rosamund was not prepared for that. Her mind flew instantly to Evelyn Dane. Of course she would not mention the girl’s name; the mere thought of Evelyn cast a shadow over her mobile face.

“I haven’t the faintest notion,” she said.

The accompanying smile was forced, and the Under Secretary was not in the least deceived.

“Of course, if you cannot tell me why Captain Warden should go ashore at Rabat no one can, I suppose,” and Rosamund caught the pleasing hint of her dominance in all that affected the man she loved.

“You keep on referring to this place that I have never before heard of,” she cried. “Is he still at Rabat? I have ascertained that he is not at Lagos, or in Southern Nigeria, because I cabled for information.”

“When last I heard of Captain Warden he was at Rabat,” said the Under Secretary. “He is not there now. Indeed, I cannot tell you where he is. If the earth had opened and swallowed him, he could not have disappeared more completely.”

Rosamund gasped, and was somewhat inclined to storm, but not another syllable would the Under Secretary add to his amazing statement, though he undertook to communicate with her immediately when news of Warden’s whereabouts reached him. In the meantime, she had to be content with knowledge that was no knowledge, and that only added to her perplexity. On the way to the hotel she stopped her carriage at a map–seller’s and bought a map of Morocco, and a book which revealed many things about Rabat, but no one thing calculated to explain why Warden had gone there.

In some sense, the Under Secretary was more puzzled than Rosamund. He turned to his notes and pored over them. One paragraph stood out boldly.

“Captain Warden, when at Cowes, met a young lady, Miss Evelyn Dane, engaged as companion to Baumgartner’s daughter. He took her in a dinghy to the Sans Souci, and this slight chance led to the discovery that the yacht was in charge of a shore watchman.”

The Under Secretary actually rumpled his hair with those immaculate fingers of his.

“I am lost in a fog,” he confessed ruefully. “Mrs. Laing is not engaged to Warden—Lady Hilbury herself told me so only this morning. Warden is the last man alive to discuss Government affairs with Mrs. Laing or any other woman. Why, then, does she pretend that he did the very thing he did not do? And who is this girl, Evelyn Dane, to whom he telegraphed from Ostend and London before sailing in the Water Witch? Can she shed light on the dark places of Rabat? It is worth trying. The Sans Souci arrives at Madeira to–morrow. I shall instruct some one to call on Evelyn Dane, and find out how far she is mixed up in the wretched muddle. Confound Rabat, and the Benuë, and the men of Oku, and may Baumgartner be blistered! I shall not get a day’s hunting before the frost sets in.”