Puslapio vaizdai

Millard, laughingly, and Sears turned a meditative glance about the place.

"You are kind of like rats in here." "And what possible difference could it make, having that arch in your pictures?"

Sears took his time in answering, his gaze bent inward as though upon some private problem of his own.

"I don't know yet," he said at last, "but it will be there if we need it."

The day dragged on with its mob of warriors, camp-followers, and all the hangers-on of a Sudanese semi-potentate. Amid it Sir Everard moved rather like a statue of himself, adept in every turn of this African diplomacy. A perfect picture of a perfect soldier he made, and there were moments when Millard found himself oppressed by a strange fear. The man was extraordinarily complete, and too much completing is often the ending as well.

Not until the shadows began to creep across the fore-court did the girl dance before massed ranks of the retinue, Djemal seated by Sir Everard's side, with flutes sounding thinly through thudding tom-toms, and the girl posturing against the yellow wall, with flaring skirt, girt breasts, and unbound waist, like some poisonously scarlet desert flower. It was to Sir Everard that she danced, whirling in the last passion of the music, flinging herself on her knees before the general, violently supplicating. His hand was already raised to plaster a gold piece on her damp forehead when she spoke, her words covered by the drums, and Millard saw Sir Everard's hand stiffen in surprise. Only an instant, then the general hid it with a laugh and a sentence of appropriate Arab ribaldry. But Millard had caught a nod of assent and a strange look-a

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With the sunset Djemal rode out again, and the night shut down as black and hot as the lid of a stove, sickly with breaths from the monsoon breaking a thousand miles to the south.

Hollis and Le Marchant, dropping the day's smiles like masks, yawned weary satisfaction at Djemal's visit.

"They see we are here to stay. The old boy knows which side his bread is buttered."

"And he swings half this country, too; there will be no Nationalist rubbish up here."

"Pack of damn' rebels."

Oppressed by the heat, Millard found himself unable to join their chorus; there was an inner unease that sent him wandering on the walls. It was incredible that any one should want to keep such a place, yet that golden window in the tower, lonely and aloft, told of Sir Everard sitting at his task of holding it by the mere magic of his presence. It was that lighted oblong which was the real symbol of their grasp upon the place, not the fort guns or the thin line of transport, with the guarded wells strung like beads upon it.

Later on a moon, now past the full, hunched itself above the world's rim, looming saffron and distorted through the haze. In its wan light the fort seemed to hang suspended above nothing in particular. Something moved, and Millard, shooting out an instinctive hand, grasped an arm.

"This is sure' one sweet night," came Sears's voice.

They moved on side by side, each drawing vague satisfaction from the presence of another as uncomfortable as himself. The fore-court was a smear of gray, dark solidities melting to shadow as they stepped into them. Only that golden-lighted window seemed entirely real. A splash of moonlight now lay across the tower side, and its pale reflection on the steps disclosed a mounting figure.

Millard was about to cry out, then restrained himself. Whoever it was must have passed the white sentry on guard at the foot of the steps, and orders must have been given. In the dimness it was impossible to see, but there were other senses besides sight. Millard caught the swish of a skirt, the unmistakable clink of anklets.

"So that's the way of it," said Sears, and Millard, in involuntary loyalty to the general, found himself investing the moment with a mantle of sanction. "She has private information for Sir Everard."

"Well," Sears shrugged as though tilting the whole affair into some pit of disregard,-"whatever it is, I guess it does n't go on the films."

"And of course that 's all you care about," Millard half sneered.

"That's all I 'm here for."

Alone again, Millard found himself oppressed and ill at ease. In the tower the light burned steadily, but in his mind thronged unbidden apprehensions as to just what it might be shining upon in that upper chamber. At last he crossed the fore-court, mechanically returning the salute of the sentry as he mounted the steps. It was inexcusable thus to seek the general without summons and with no other reason than a vague and womanish fear. But his feet seemed to have

volitions of their own, bearing him steadily upward. At the bend of the steps he came upon Sir Everard's Seedee boy servant, crouching sleepily over a water-pipe.

"David, is the sirdar alone?" Millard asked.

"Yes, sa-ar."

"That woman has gone?"

"Yes, sa-ar; ten minute' she be gone. I wait for call."

Millard sprang on up the steps. At the top the heavy door was ajar, swinging at a push, disclosing the barren room under its hot lamplight. Great moths beat against the ceiling as though in fright, and there sounded the chirping of a cricket hidden in some crevice.

Sir Everard sat in his accustomed chair, one arm resting upon his writingdesk, motionless, serene at first sight, though his whole figure was horridly sunk in upon itself, as though its apparent bronze had crumpled. A soft drip, drip spread in a blackish stain upon the floor, the gleam of a knifehilt was under his breast, and that cricket shrilled away like the voice of a fool in a place of dread.

Millard's hands caught at his own throat, choking back the cry that came swelling up. In one flashing instant he saw that since it was Sir Everard who, dead or alive, really held Koom Katia, then it must be Sir Everard who continued to hold it.

§ 7

It was Sir Everard's orders that Millard called down the steps to the drowsy servant, his tones quiet and alert, with no trace of dismay-orders that brought Hollis, Le Marchant, and the ranking surgeon at once to the tower. In the hot lamplight of the

chamber they gathered, linked by the knowledge that they alone possessed, and issued other orders in the name of that silent figure that sent the sentry and the servant David off on a four-day errand to rail-head and surrounded the entire oasis of Koom Katia with a ring of steel that none might pass.

There was just a chance that the dancing girl might be trapped within the cordon thrown about the mudwalled rabbit warren of a town. With the dawn the house-by-house search began. The crackle of wireless from Cairo brought warnings of grim possibilities should Sir Everard's death become known; and if that girl had made good her flight, the news must be already wide upon the face of the plain. Millard wished that Hamid were there, for his native knowledge would have been invaluable in that search; but the fellow was masquerading unreachably off at El Kebar, gathering information for a man whose ears were forever sealed.

Then suddenly Hamid came. How he had returned so quickly or how he had passed the cordon Millard forebore to ask, too relieved to see him in red tarboosh, with cane and cigarette, pushing his way through the throng with a single disdainful finger. As usual, he was all at once there, as though he had merely stepped from some convenient doorway, and his blithe ignorance of all that had happened was irresistibly remindful of that cricket chirping in the bloodied


"What's this?" he laughingly asked as he sauntered up. "Are you playing 'button, button' with Koom Katia?"

"It is Sir Everard's orders."
"Orders-from Sir Everard!"

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"Yes, murdered by Sheik Djemal's dancing girl.”

"And it was I who brought Djemal to him!" Hamid cried.

Millard let that pass. There would be grilling enough for Hamid when general headquarters began their investigation; those millstones of his mixed ancestry would grind in upon him then. Picked out by crude sunlight against that hopeless plain, with his English trimness upon his halfEgyptian body, he looked like one who did not quite fit into either world.

"They are sending Hewitt with reinforcements from Khartum," Millard went on. "Until he arrives, Sir Everard must be alive. Five days-time enough for the Nationalists to wipe us all out if the truth becomes known."

"That girl will spread the news." "If she got away," Millard grimly amended. "If they don't attack us, we can be pretty sure she is trapped in the oasis here; and then-"

Millard's silence of completion was as relentless as the blaze of the sun on the land around them, a land stripped of all pity, its only issues life and death. The fate of that woman was sealed by the harsh line of his lips.

"If only I had been here instead of at El Kebar!" Hamid fretted. "If I could have seen her, I 'd know her again under any disguise."

"By George!" Millard gazed at the other in the light of a dawning idea. "Come with me to the fort. We'll see."

It was to Sears's quarters that he went. The room was stifling with reflected glare, littered with odds and ends of camera-craft. Sears himself lay sprawled upon the cot, teasing his ukulele to sobs of sentiment. In all that fort, now seething with rumor, he seemed the only one at real ease.

"Those pictures you took yesterday, how soon can they be developed?" Millard asked, and the other's glance met his in guarded understanding.

"You mean the flash-lights I took in the tower last night at Sir Everard's orders?"

ing his tumbled hair back from his forehead.

"You mean that I am responsible for it?" he asked.

"Those pictures would never have been made had I been here."

Picking again at the strings, Sears considered Hamid, then came a nod of non-committal agreement.

"Maybe a lot of things would n't have happened if you'd been here," he said, and turned to Millard. "Can I speak with you?"

There was antagonism in the air as Hamid began an exit carefully casual; then he wheeled, his high-built, narrow face alight with purpose.

"Look here, Millard, that girl must have got away. Suppose I go out after her. I could probably pick up her trail and-"

"My orders from Cairo are to permit absolutely no one to leave the

"No, the ones you took of the danc- fort." ing girl."


That was Hamid, and it sounded almost a cry as it cut across the drone of flies and the practised throbs of "The Rosary" from under Sears's fingers.

"You mean that you took pictures of Djemal's visit after my warning!" Hamid pursued accusingly.

"It was for Sir Everard to give orders about that," Millard answered.

Hamid moved jerkily about, his habitual nonchalance cracking like a thin veneer above inner commotion.

"I warned him-probably they found out about those pictures, and that had something to do with it all. Sir Everard promised me he 'd make that fellow keep his infernal camera out of it."

With a last thrum of his ukulele Sears picked himself off the cot, toss

"You mean that I am under arrest?" Hamid stormed.

"No one is under arrest yet; we may all of us be so before this is over."

Hamid left. Watching his retreating figure, Millard remembered that the death of a chief is often the fall of his favorites. Deprived of Sir Everard's backing, Vansittart seemed to have already shrunk; there was something almost furtive in his retreating figure, shut in by those walls. Yet the fellow was rather fine in his way, too; there was no knowing what Fehmy Pasha might not have offered him to join the Nationalist cause. Possibly the governorship of the Sudan itself, with opportunities for its unbridled toll and loot; yet he had chosen to stick to the now tottering cause of his father's people.

"That guy would sure' have done a

heap if he'd been here," Sears mused as he also watched Hamid crossing the fore-court. "You can have those pictures to-night."

"Could you run them in the lantern that was brought up to amuse the men?"

Sears nodded an absent assent as he crossed to the camera and laid his hand upon it. At the accustomed touch a new authority seemed to come to him, and there was again that effect of one viewing things from some totally different point of view.

"I'll print two sets of positives," he answered, apparently to himself, "one the way it was, and the other the way it might have been."

"You are a most extraordinary person," said Millard. "What do you expect to gain from printing a picture the way it was not?"

From his vantage-point behind the camera Sears's glance came again, a glint of narrow-lidded gray as blankly impartial as the lens itself as it followed Hamid's figure.

"Well, we might find out what would have happened if that bird had really been here."

"How can you make Vansittart here when he was really off at El Kebar?"

Millard's tone was sharp, irritated by the other's constant mystery. Yet he saw that Sears was unaware of being mysterious; it was simply that in his own queer way he regarded things as being all along just the pictures in which they ended. But there was more mystery than ever in his reply.

"Did n't I tell you I had left a hole in my films?"

With that Millard had to be content, seeing that to Sears it was somehow the crux of the whole matter. For the rest of the day Sears's door remained

locked, a place of hot torment in which, half stripped for hopeless coolness, he plied arcane arts in the gloom of a red lamp. A sweating travesty of deity he might have been, making things that were not as though they


§ 8

It was past midnight when he emerged, reeling, haggard with heat, but upon him the light of a triumph accomplished. Tilting the contents of a canvas water-cooler over his head and chest, with wet fingers he caught at a cigarette and said;

"All set; let 's go."

At Millard's summons they came: Hollis, Le Marchant, the surgeon, and Vansittart, the four holders of the secret of Sir Everard's death, gathering uncomfortably like conspirators in the empty mess-room, whose blank wall was to serve as a screen. Silently they waited, oppressed by the potencies of the lantern, looming monstrous and inert, while all about them the fort lay like some super-heated catacomb of uneasy sleep.

Under Sears's touch the lantern sprang to an uncanny, sputtering life, casting an oblong of purple-white light as empty as the first day. There was something almost terrifying about it, that blank light was so horribly unconcerned as to what might come to fill it. When it came, it was almost worse, all the too well remembered happenings of yesterday flickering unsubstantially by in a ghastly effect of life. As he watched Djemal's motley crew come pouring through the arch, Millard felt again that cracking as though the back of his mind were about to fall out. Great God! where on earth were they coming from, pour

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