THE FLYING LEGION
BY GEORGE ALLAN ENGLAND
Published July, 1920
I A Spirit Caged.
II "To Paradise—or Hell!"
III The Gathering of the Legionaries.
IV The Masked Recruit.
V In the Night.
VI The Silent Attack.
VII The Nest of the Great Bird.
VIII The Eagle of the Sky.
IX Eastward Ho.
X "I Am the Master's!"
XI Captain Alden Stands Revealed.
XII The Woman of Adventure.
XIII The Enmeshing of the Master.
XIV Storm Birds.
XV The Battle of Vibrations.
XVI Leclair, Ace of France.
XVII Miracles, Scourge of Flame.
XVIII "Captain Alden" Makes Good.
XIX Hostile Coasts.
XX The Waiting Menace.
XXI Shipwreck and War.
XXIII A Mission of Dread.
XXIV Angels of Death.
XXV The Great Pearl Star.
XXVI The Sand-Devils.
XXVII Toil and Pursuit.
XXVIII Onward Toward the Forbidden City.
XXX Over Mecca.
XXXI East Against West.
XXXII The Battle of the Haram.
XXXIII The Ordeal of Rrisa.
XXXIV The Inner Secret of Islam.
XXXV Into the Valley of Mystery.
XXXVI Journey's End.
XXXVII The Greeting of Warriors.
XXXVIII Bara Miyan, High Priest.
XXXIX On, to the Golden City!
XL Into the Treasure Citadel.
XLI The Master's Price.
XLII "Sons of the Prophet, Slay!"
XLIII War in the Depths.
XLIV Into the Jewel-Crypt.
XLV The Jewel Hoard.
XLVI Bohannan Becomes a Millionaire.
XLVII A Way Out?
XLVIII The River of Night.
XLIX The Desert.
L "Where There Is None but Allah."
LII "Thalassa! Thalassa!"
LIII The Greater Treasure.
The Flying Legion
A SPIRIT CAGED
The room was strange as the man, himself, who dwelt there. It seemed, in a way, the outward expression of his inner personality. He had ordered it built from his own plans, to please a whim of his restless mind, on top of the gigantic skyscraper that formed part of his properties. Windows boldly fronted all four cardinal compass-points—huge, plate-glass windows that gave a view unequaled in its sweep and power.
The room seemed an eagle's nest perched on the summit of a man-made crag. The Arabic name that he had given it—Niss'rosh—meant just that. Singular place indeed, well-harmonized with its master.
Through the westward windows, umbers and pearls of dying day, smudged across a smoky sky, now shadowed trophy-covered walls. This light, subdued and somber though it was, slowly fading, verging toward a night of May, disclosed unusual furnishings. It showed a heavy black table of some rare Oriental wood elaborately carved and inlaid with still rarer woods; a table covered with a prayer-rug, on which lay various books on aeronautics and kindred sciences, jostling works on Eastern travel, on theosophy, mysticism, exploration.
Maps and atlases added their note of research. At one end of the table stood a bronze faun's head with open lips, with hand cupped at listening ear. Surely that head must have come from some buried art-find of the very long ago. The faint greenish patina that covered it could have been painted only by the hand of the greatest artist of them all, Time.
A book-case occupied the northern space, between the windows. It, too, was crammed with scientific reports, oddments of out-of-the-way lore, and travels. But here a profusion of war-books and official documents showed another bent of the owner's mind. Over the book-case hung two German gasmasks. They seemed, in the half-dusk, to glower down through their round, empty eyeholes like sinister devil-fish awaiting prey.
The masks were flanked by rifles, bayonets, knives, maces, all bearing scars of battle. Above them, three fragments of Prussian battle-flags formed a kind of frieze, their color softened by the fading sunset, even as the fading of the dream of imperial glory had dulled and dimmed all that for which they had stood.
The southern wall of that strange room—that quiet room to which only a far, vague murmur of the city's life whispered up, with faint blurs of steamer-whistles from the river—bore Turkish spoils of battle. Here hung more rifles, there a Kurdish yataghan with two hand-grenades from Gallipoli, and a blood-red banner with a crescent and one star worked in gold thread. Aviator's gauntlets draped the staff of the banner.
Along the eastern side of this eyrie a broad divan invited one to rest. Over it were suspended Austrian and Bulgarian captures—a lance with a blood-stiffened pennant, a cuirass, entrenching tools, a steel helmet with an eloquent bullet-hole through the crown. Some few framed portraits of noted "aces" hung here and elsewhere, with two or three photographs of battle-planes. Three of the portraits were framed in symbolic black. Part of a smashed Taube propeller hung near.
As for the western side of Niss'rosh, this space between the two broad windows that looked out over the light-spangled city, the Hudson and the Palisades, was occupied by a magnificent Mercator's Projection of the world. This projection was heavily annotated with scores of comments penciled by a firm, virile hand. Lesser spaces were occupied by maps of the campaigns in Mesopotamia and the Holy Land. One map, larger than any save the Mercator, showed the Arabian Peninsula. A bold question-mark had been impatiently flung into the great, blank stretch of the interior; a question-mark eager, impatient, challenging.
It was at this map that the master of Niss'rosh, the eagle's nest, was peering as the curtain rises on our story. He was half reclining in a big, Chinese bamboo chair, with an attitude of utter and disheartening boredom. His crossed legs were stretched out, one heel digging into the soft pile of the Tabreez rug. Muscular arms folded in an idleness that irked them with aching weariness, he sat there, brooding, motionless.
Everything about the man spelled energy at bay, forces rusting, ennui past telling. But force still dominated. Force showed in the close-cropped, black hair and the small ears set close to the head; in the corded throat and heavy jaws; in the well-muscled shoulders, sinewed hands, powerful legs. This man was forty-one years old, and looked thirty-five. Lines of chest and waist were those of the athlete. Still, suspicions of fat, of unwonted softness, had begun to invade those lines. Here was a splendid body, here was a dominating mind in process of going stale.
The face of the man was a mask of weariness of the soul, which kills so vastly more efficiently than weariness of the body. You could see that weariness in the tired frown of the black brows, the narrowing of the dark eyes, the downward tug of the lips. Wrinkles of stagnation had began to creep into forehead and cheeks—wrinkles that no amount of gymnasium, of club life, of careful shaving, of strict hygiene could banish.
Through the west windows the slowly changing hues of gray, of mulberry, and dull rose-pink blurred in the sky, cast softened lights upon those wrinkles, but could not hide them. They revealed sad emptiness of purpose. This man was tired unto death, if ever man were tired.
He yawned, sighed deeply, stretched out his hand and took up a bit of a model mechanism from the table, where it had lain with other fragments of apparatus. For a moment he peered at it; then he tossed it back again, and yawned a second time.
"Business!" he growled. "'Swapped my reputation for a song,' eh? Where's my commission, now?"
He got up, clasped his hands behind him, and walked a few times up and down the heavy rug, his footfalls silent.
"The business could have gone on without me!" he added, bitterly. "And, after all, what's any business, compared to life?"
He yawned again, stretched up his arms, groaned and laughed with mockery:
"A little more money, maybe, when I don't know what to do with what I've got already! A few more figures on a checkbook—and the heart dying in me!"
Then he relapsed into silence. Head down, hands thrust deep in pockets, he paced like a captured animal in bars. The bitterness of his spirit was wormwood. What meant, to him, the interests and pleasures of other men? Profit and loss, alcohol, tobacco, women—all alike bore him no message. Clubs, athletics, gambling—he grumbled something savage as his thoughts turned to such trivialities. And into his aquiline face came something the look of an eagle, trapped, there in that eagle's nest of his.
Suddenly the Master of Niss'rosh came to a decision. He returned, clapped his hands thrice, sharply, and waited. Almost at once a door opened at the southeast corner of the room—where the observatory connected with the stairway leading down to the Master's apartment on the top floor of the building—and a vague figure of a man appeared.
The light was steadily fading, so that this man could by no means be clearly distinguished. But one could see that he wore clothing quite as conventional as his master's. Still, no more than the Master did he appear one of life's commonplaces. Lean, brown, dry, with a hawk-nose and glinting eyes, surely he had come from far, strange places.
"Rrisa!" the Master spoke sharply, flinging the man's name at him with the exasperation of overtensed nerves.
"M'alme?" (Master?) replied the other.
"Bring the evening food and drink," commanded the Master, in excellent Arabic, guttural and elusive with strange hiatuses of breath.
Rrisa withdrew, salaaming. His master turned toward the western windows. There the white blankness of the map of Arabia seemed mocking him. The Master's eyes grew hard; he raised his fist against the map, and smote it hard. Then once more he fell to pacing; and as he walked that weary space, up and down, he muttered to himself with words we cannot understand.
After a certain time, Rrisa came silently back, sliding into the soft dusk of that room almost like a wraith. He bore a silver tray with a hook-nosed coffee-pot of chased metal. The cover of this coffee-pot rose into a tall, minaret-like spike. On the tray stood also a small cup having no handle; a dish of dates; a few wafers made of the Arabian cereal called temmin; and a little bowl of khat leaves.
"M'alme, al khat aja" (the khat has come), said Rrisa.
He placed the tray on the table at his master's side, and was about to withdraw when the other stayed him with raised hand.
"Tell me, Rrisa," he commanded, still speaking in Arabic, "where wert thou born? Show thou me, on that map."
The Arab hesitated a moment, squinting by the dim light that now had faded to purple dusk. Then he advanced a thin forefinger, and laid it on a spot that might have indicated perhaps three hundred miles southeast of Mecca. No name was written on the map, there.
"How dost thou name that place, Rrisa?" demanded the Master.
"I cannot say, Master," answered the Arab, very gravely. As he stood there facing the western afterglow, the profound impassivity of his expression—a look that seemed to scorn all this infidel civilization of an upstart race—grew deeper.
To nothing of it all did he owe allegiance, save to the Master himself—the Master who had saved him in the thick of the Gallipoli inferno. Captured by the Turks there, certain death had awaited him and shameful death, as a rebel against the Sublime Porte. The Master had rescued him, and taken thereby a scar that would go with him to the grave; but that, now, does not concern our tale. Only we say again that Rrisa's life lay always in the hands of this man, to do with as he would.
None the less, Rrisa answered the question with a mere:
"Master, I cannot say."
"Thou knowest the name of the place where thou wast born?" demanded the Master, calmly, from where he sat by the table.
"A (yes), M'alme, by the beard of M'hamed, I do!"
"Well, what is it?"
Rrisa shrugged his thin shoulders.
"A tent, a hut? A village, a town, a city?"
"A city, Master. A great city, indeed. But its name I may not tell you."
"The map, here, shows nothing, Rrisa. And of a surety, the makers of maps do not lie," the Master commented, and turned a little to pour the thick coffee. Its perfume rose with grateful fragrance on the air.
The Master sipped the black, thick nectar, and smiled oddly. For a moment he regarded his unwilling orderly with narrowed eyes.
"Thou wilt not say they lie, son of Islam, eh?" demanded he.
"Not of choice, perhaps, M'alme," the Mussulman replied. "But if the camel hath not drunk of the waters of the oasis, how can he know that they be sweet? These Nasara (Christian) makers of maps, what can they know of my people or my land?"
"Dost thou mean to tell me no man can pass beyond the desert rim, and enter the middle parts of Arabia?"
"I said not so, Master," replied the Arab, turning and facing his master, every sense alert, on guard against any admissions that might betray the secret he, like all his people, was sworn by a Very great oath to keep.
"Not all men, true," the Master resumed. "The Turks—I know they enter, though hated. But have no other foreign men ever seen the interior?"
"A, M'alme, many—of the True Faith. Such, though they come from China, India, or the farther islands of the Indian Ocean, may enter freely."
"Of course. But I am speaking now of men of the Nasara faith. How of them? Tell me, thou!"
"You are of the Nasara, M'alme! Do not make me answer this! You, having saved my life, own that life. It is yours. Ana bermil illi bedakea! (I obey your every command!) But do not ask me this! My head is at your feet. But let us speak of other things, O Master!"
The Master kept a moment's silence. He peered contemplatively at the dark silhouette of the Arab, motionless, impassive in the dusk. Then he frowned a very little, which was as near to anger as he ever verged. Thoughtfully he ate a couple of the little temmin wafers and a few dates. Rrisa waited in silent patience.
All at once the Master spoke.
"It is my will that thou speak to me and declare this thing, Rrisa," said he, decisively. "Say, thou, hath no man of the Nasara faith ever penetrated as far as to the place of thy birth?"
"Lah (no), M'alme, never. But three did reach an oasis not far to westward of it, fifty years ago, or maybe fifty-one."
"Ah, so?" exclaimed the Master, a touch of eagerness in his grave, impassive voice. "Who were they?"
"Two of the French blood, Master, and one of the Russian."
"And what happened to them, then?"
"Thou dost mean, thy people did slay them?"
"They died, all three," repeated Rrisa, in even tones. "The jackals devoured them and the bones remained. Those bones, I think, are still there. In our dry country—bones remain, long."
"Hm! Yea, so it is! But, tell me, thou, is it true that in thy country the folk slay all Nasara they lay hands on, by cutting with a sharp knife? Cutting the stomach, so?" He made an illustrative gesture.
"Since you do force me to speak, against my will, M'alme—you being of the Nasara blood—I will declare the truth. Yea, that is so."
"A pleasant custom, surely! And why always in the stomach? Why do they never stab or cut like other races?"
"There are no bones in the stomach, to dull the edges of the knives, M'alme."
"Quite practical, that idea!" the Master exclaimed. Then he fell silent again. He pressed his questions no further, concerning the great Central Desert of the land. To have done so, he knew, would have been entirely futile. Beyond a certain point, which he could gauge accurately, neither gold nor fire would drive Rrisa. The Arab would at any hour of night or day have laid down his life for the Master; but though it should mean death he would not break the rites of his faith, nor touch the cursed flesh of a pig, nor drink the forbidden drop of wine, nor yet betray the secret of his land.
All at once the Arab spoke, in slow, grave tones.
"Your God is not my God, Master," said he, impersonally. "No, the God of your people is not the God of mine. We have our own; and the land is ours, too. None of the Nasara may come thither, and live. Three came, that I have heard of, and—they died. I crave my Master's bidding to depart."
"Presently, yea," the Master answered. "But I have one more question for thee. If I were to take thee, and go to thy land, but were not to ask thy help there—if I were not to ask thee to guide me nor yet to betray any secret—wouldst thou play the traitor to me, and deliver me up to thy people?"
"My head is at your feet, M'alme. So long as you did not ask me to do such things as would be unlawful in the eyes of Allah and the Prophet, and seek to force me to them, this hand of mine would wither before it would be raised against the preserver of my life! I pray you, M'alme, let me go!"
"I grant it. Ru'c'h halla!" (Go now!) exclaimed the Master, with a wave of the hand. Rrisa salaamed again, and, noiseless as a wraith, departed.
"TO PARADISE—OR HELL"
For a time the Master sat in the thickening gloom, eating the dates and temmin wafers, drinking the coffee, pondering in deep silence. When the simple meal was ended, he plucked a little sprig of leaves from the khat plant in the bowl, and thrust them into his mouth.
This khat, gathered in the mountains back of Hodeida, on the Red Sea not far from Bab el Mandeb, had been preserved by a process known to only a few Coast Arabs. The plant now in the bowl was part of a shipment that had been more than three months on the way; yet still the fresh aroma of it, as the Master crushed the thick-set, dark-green leaves, scented the darkening room with perfumes of Araby.
Slowly, with the contemplative appreciation of the connoisseur, the Master absorbed the flavor and the wondrous stimulation of the "flower of paradise." The use of khat, his once-a-day joy and comfort, he had learned more than fifteen years before, on one of his exploring tours in Yemen. He could hardly remember just when and where he had first come to know the extraordinary mental and physical stimulus of this strange plant, dear to all Arabs, any more than he definitely recalled having learned the complex, poetical language of that Oriental land of mystery. Both language and the use of khat had come to him from contact with only the fringes of the country; and both had contributed to his vast, unsatisfied longing to know what lay beyond the forbidden zones that walled this land away from all the world.
Wherever he had gone, whatever perils, hardships, and adventures had been his in many years of wandering up and down the world, khat, the wondrous, had always gone with him. The fortune he had spent on keeping up the supply had many times over been repaid to him in strength and comfort.
The use of this plant, containing obscure alkaloids of the katinacetate class, constituted his only vice—if you can call a habit such as this vice, that works great well-being and that leaves no appreciable aftermaths of evil such as are produced by alcohol or drugs.
For a few minutes the Master sat quite motionless, pondering. Then suddenly he got up again, and strode to one of the westward-looking windows. The light was almost wholly gone, now. The man's figure, big-shouldered, compact, well-knit, appeared only as a dim silhouette against the faded blur in the west; a blur smoky and streaked with dull smudges as of old, dried blood.
Far below, stretching away, away, shimmered the city's million inconsequential lights. Above, stars were peeping out—were spying down at all this feverish mystery of human life. Some of the low-hung stars seemed to blend with the far lights along the Palisades. The Master's lips tightened with impatience, with longing.
"There's where it is," he muttered. "Not five miles from here! It's there, and I've got to have it. There—a thing that can't be bought! There—a thing that must be mine!"
Among the stars, cutting down diagonally from the north-west, crept a tiny, red gleam. The Master looked very grim, as his eyes followed its swift flight.
"The Chicago mail-plane, just getting in," he commented. "In half an hour, the Paris plane starts from the Cortlandt Street aero-tower. And beyond Paris lies Constantinople; and beyond that, Arabia—the East! Men are going out that way, tonight! And I—stick here like an old, done relic, cooped in Niss'rosh—imprisoned in this steel and glass cage of my own making!"
Suddenly he wheeled, flung himself into the big chair by the table and dragged the faun's head over to him. He pressed a button at the base of it, waited a moment and as the question came, "Number, please?" spoke the desired number into the cupped hand and ear of the bronze. Then, as he waited again, with the singular telephone in hand, he growled savagely:
"By Allah! This sort of thing's not going to go on any longer! Not if I die stopping it!"
A familiar voice, issuing from the lips of the faun—a voice made natural and audible as the living human tones, by means of a delicate microphone attachment inside the bronze head—tautened his nerves.
"Hello, hello!" called he. "That you, Bohannan?"
"Yes," sounded the answer. "Of course I know who you are. There's only one voice like yours in New York. Where are you?"
"No! Prison? For the Lord's sake!"
"No; for conventionality's sake. Not legally, you understand. Not even an adventure as exciting as that has happened to me. But constructively in jail. De facto, as it were. It's all the same thing."
"Up there in that observatory thing of yours, are you?" asked Bohannan.
"Yes; and I want to see you."
"At once! As soon as you can get over here in a taxi, from that incredibly stupid club of yours. You can get to Niss'rosh even though it's after seven. Take the regular elevator to the forty-first floor, and I'll have Rrisa meet you and bring you up here in the special.
"That's a concession, isn't it? The sealed gates that no one else ever passes, at night, are opened to you. It's very important. Be here in fifteen minutes you say? First-rate! Don't fail me. Good-bye!"
He was smiling a little now as he pressed the button again and rang off. He put the faun's head back on the table, got up and stretched his vigorous arms.
"By Allah!" he exclaimed, new notes in his voice. "What if—what if it could be, after all?"
He turned to the wall, laid his hand on an ivory plate flush with the surface and pressed slightly. In silent unison, heavy gold-embroidered draperies slid across every window. As these draperies closed the apertures, light gushed from every angle and cornice. No specific source of illumination seemed visible; but the room bathed itself in soft, clear radiance with a certain restful greenish tinge, throwing no shadows, pure as the day itself.
The man pulled open a drawer in the table and silently gazed down at several little boxes within. He opened some. From one, on a bed of purple satin, the Croix de Guerre, with a palm, gleamed up at him. Another disclosed an "M.M.," a Medaille Militaire. A third showed him the "D.F.C.," or Distinguished Flying Cross. Still another contained aviator's insignia in the form of a double pair of wings. The Master smiled, and closed the boxes, then the drawer.
"After these," he mused, "dead inaction? Not for me!"
His dark eyes were shining with eagerness as he walked to a door beside that through which the Arab had entered. He swung it wide, disclosing an ample closet, likewise inundated with light. There hung a war-worn aviator's uniform of leather, gauntlets, a sheepskin jacket, a helmet, resistal goggles, a cartridge-belt still half full of ammunition, a heavy service automatic.
For a moment the man looked in at these. A great yearning came upon his face. Caressingly he touched the uniform, the helmet. He unhooked the pistol from where it hung, and carried it back to the table.
There he laid it down, and drew up his chair in front of it. For a moment, silence fell as he remained there studying the automatic—silence save for the faint, far hum of the city, the occasional melodious note of steamer-whistles on the river.
The Master's face, now that full light brought out its details, showed a white scar that led from his right ear down along jaw and throat, till the collar masked it. Gray hairs, beyond those of his age, sprinkled his temples. Strangely he smiled as he observed the nicks and deep excoriations in stock and barrel of the formidable weapon. He reached out, took up the gun once more, weighed it, got the feel of it, patted it with affection.
"We've been through some wonderful times together, old pal, you and I," said he. "We thought it was all over, didn't we, for a while? But it's not! Life's not done, yet. It's maybe just beginning! We're going out on the long trek, again!"
For a while he sat there musing. Then he summoned Rrisa again, bade him remove the tray, and gave him instructions about the guest soon to arrive. When Rrisa had withdrawn, the Master pulled over one of the huge atlases, opened it, turned to the map of Arabia, and fell into deep study.
Rrisa's tapping at the door, minutes later, roused him. At his order to advance, the door swung. The Arab ushered in a guest, then silently disappeared. Without a sound, the door closed.
The Master arose, advancing with outstretched hand.
"Bohannan! God, but I'm glad to see you!"
Their hands met and clasped. The Master led Bohannan to the table and gestured toward a chair. Bohannan threw his hat on the table with a large, sweeping gesture typical of his whole character, and sat down. And for a moment, they looked at each other in silence.
A very different type, this, from the dark, sinewed master of Niss'rosh. Bohannan was frankly red-haired, a bit stout, smiling, expansive. His blood was undoubtedly Celtic. An air of great geniality pervaded him. His hands were strong and energetic, with oddly spatulate fingers; and the manner in which his nails had been gnawed down and his mustache likewise chewed, bespoke a highly nervous temperament belied by his ruddy, almost boyish face. His age might have been thirty-five, but he looked one of those men who never fully grow up, who never can be old.
"Well, what's doing now?" demanded he, fixing blue eyes on his host. He produced a cigarette and lighted it, inhaled smoke deeply and blew a thin gray cloud toward the ceiling. "Something big, eh? by the way you routed me out of a poker-game where I was already forty-seven dollars and a half to the good. You don't usually call a fellow, that way, unless there's something in the wind!"
"There is, now."
"So?" The newcomer's eyes fell on the pistol. "Yes, that looks like action, all right. Hope to heaven it is! I've been boring myself and everybody else to death, the past three months. What's up? Duel, maybe?"
"Yes. That's just it, Bohannan. A duel." And the Master fixed strange eyes on his companion. His muscular fingers fell to tapping the prayer-rug on the table, drumming out an impatient little tattoo.
"Duel? Lord's sake, man! With whom?"
"With Fate. Now, listen!" The Master's tones became more animated. A little of the inward fires had begun to burn through his self-restraint. "Listen to me, and not a word till I'm done! You're dryrotting for life, man. Dying for it, gasping for it, eating your heart out for it! So am I. So are twenty-five or thirty men we know, between us, in this city. That's all true, eh?"
"Yes! We wouldn't have to go outside New York to find at least twenty-five or thirty in the same box we're in. All men who've been through trench work, air work, life-and-death work on various fronts. Men of independent means. Men to whom office work and club life and all this petty stuff, here, is like dish-water after champagne! Dare-devils, all of them, that wouldn't stop at the gates of Hell!"
"The gates of Hell?" demanded Bohannan, his brow wrinkling with glad astonishment. "What d'you mean by that, now?"
"Just what I say! It's possible to gather together a kind of unofficial, sub rosa, private little Foreign Legion of our own, Bohannan—all battle-scarred men, all men with at least one decoration and some with half a dozen. With that Legion, nothing would be impossible!"
He warmed to his subject, leaned forward, fixed eager eyes on his friend, laid a hand on Bohannan's knee. "We've all done the conventional thing, long enough. Now we're going to do the unconventional thing. We've been all through the known. Now we're going after the unknown. And Hell is liable to be no name for it, I tell you that!"
The Celt's eyes were alight with swift, eager enthusiasm. He laid his hand on the other's, and gripped it hard in hot anticipation.
"Tell me more!" he commanded. "What are we going to do?"
"Going to see the stuff that's in us, and in twenty-five or thirty more of our kind. The stuff, the backbone, the heart that's in you, Bohannan! That's in me! In all of us!"
"Great, great! That's me!" Bohannan's cigarette smoldered, unheeded, in his fingers. The soul of him was thrilling with great visions. "I'm with you! Whither bound?"
The Master smiled oddly, as he answered in a low, even tone:
"To Paradise—or Hell!"
THE GATHERING OF THE LEGIONARIES
One week from that night, twenty-seven other men assembled in the strange eyrie of Niss'rosh, nearly a thousand feet above the city's turmoil. They came singly or in pairs, their arrival spaced in such a manner as not to make the gathering obvious to anyone in the building below.
Rrisa, the silent and discreet, brought them up in the private elevator from the forty-first floor to the Master's apartment on the top story of the building, then up the stairway to the observatory, and thus ushered them into the presence of the Master and Bohannan. Each man was personally known to one or the other, who vouched absolutely for his secrecy, valor, and good faith.
This story would resolve itself into a catalogue were each man to be named, with his title, his war-exploits, his decorations. We shall have to touch but lightly on this matter of personnel. Six of the men were Americans—eight, including the Master and Bohannan; four English; five French; two Serbian; three Italian; and the others represented New Zealand, Canada, Russia, Cuba, Poland, Montenegro, and Japan.
Not one of these men but bore a wound or more, from the Great Conflict. This matter of having a scar had been made one prime requisite for admission to the Legion. Each had anywhere from one to half a dozen decorations, whether the Congressional Medal, the V.C., the Croix de Guerre, the Order of the Rising Sun, or what-not.
Not one was in uniform. That would have made their arrival far too conspicuous. Dressed as they were, in mufti, even had anyone noted their coming, it could not have been interpreted as anything but an ordinary social affair.
Twenty-nine men, all told, gathered in the observatory, clearly illuminated by the hidden lights. All were true blue, all loyal to the core, all rusting with ennui, all drawn thither by the lure of the word that had been passed them in club and office, on the golf links, in the street. All had been pledged, whether they went further or not, to keep this matter secret as the grave.
Some were already known to each other. Some needed introduction. Such introduction consumed a few minutes, even after the last had come and been checked off on the Master's list, in cipher code. The brightly lighted room, behind its impenetrable curtains, blued with tobacco-smoke; but no drop of wine or spirits was visible.
The Master, at the head of the table, sat with his list and took account of the gathering. Each man, as his name was called, gave that name in full, briefly stated his service and mentioned his wound.
All spoke English, though some rather mangled it. At any rate, this was to be the official language of the expedition, and no other was to be allowed. The ability to understand and obey orders given in English had, of course, to be one essential requisite for this adventurous band of Legionaries.
When all the credentials had been proved satisfactory, the Master rapped for order. Silence fell. The men settled down to listen, in tense expectancy. Some took chairs, others occupied the divan, still others—for whom there were no seats—stood along the walls.
Informal though the meeting still was, an air of military restraint and discipline already half possessed it. The bright air seemed to quiver with the eagerness of these fighting-men once more to thrust out into the currents of activity, to feel the tightening of authority, the lure and tang of the unknown.
Facing them from the end of the table, the Master stood and spoke to them, with Bohannan seated at his right. His face reflected quite another humor from that of the night, a week before, when first this inspiration had come upon him.
He seemed refreshed, buoyant, rejuvenated. His eyes showed fire. His brows, that had frowned, now had smoothed themselves. His lips smiled, though gravely. His color had deepened. His whole personality, that had been sad and tired, now had become inspired with a profound and soul-felt happiness.
"Gentlemen all, soldiers and good men," said he, slowly. "In a general way you know the purpose of this meeting. I am not given to oratory. I do not intend making any speech to you.
"We are all ex-fighters. Life, once filled with daring and adventure, has become stale, flat, and unprofitable. The dull routine of business and of social life is Dead Sea fruit to our lips—dust and ashes. It cannot hold or entertain us.
"By this I do not mean that war is good, or peace bad. For the vast majority of men, peace is normal and right. But there must be always a small minority that cannot tolerate ennui; that must seek risks and daring exploits; that would rather lay down their lives, today, in some man-sized exploit, than live twenty-five years longer in the dull security of a humdrum rut.
"Such men have always existed and probably always will. We are all, I believe, of that type. Therefore you will all understand me. I will understand you. And each of you will understand the rest.
"Major Bohannan and I have chosen you and have invited you here because we believe every man in this room is precisely the kind of man I have been defining. We believe you are like ourselves, dying of boredom, eager for adventure; and willing to undergo military discipline, swear secrecy, pledge honor and risk life itself, provided the adventure be daring enough, the reward promising enough. If there is anyone here present who is unwilling to subscribe to what I have said, so far, let him withdraw."
No one stirred. But a murmur arose, eager, delighted:
"Go on! Go on—tell us more!"
"Absolute obedience to me is to be the first rule," continued the Master. "The second is to be sobriety. There shall be no drinking, carousing, or gambling. This is not to be a vulgar, swashbuckling, privateering revel, but—"
A slight disturbance at the door interrupted him. He frowned, and rapped on the table, for silence. The disturbance, however, continued. Someone was trying to enter there against Rrisa's protests.
"I did not bring you up, sir," the Arab was saying, in broken English. "You cannot come in! How did you get here?"
"I'm not in the habit of giving explanations to subordinates, or of bandying words with them," replied the man, in a clear, rather high-pitched but very determined voice. The company, gazing at him, saw a slight, well-knit figure of middle height or a little less, in aviator's togs. "I'm here to see your master, my good fellow, not you!"
The man at the head of the table raised a finger to his lips, in signal of silence from them all, and beckoned the Arab.
"Let him come in!" he ordered, in Rrisa's vernacular.
"A, M'alme" submitted the desert man, standing aside and bowing as the stranger entered. The Master added, in English:
"If he comes as a friend and helper, uninvited though he be, we welcome him. If as an enemy, traitor, or spy, we can deal justice to him in short order. Sir, advance!"
The stranger came to the foot of the table. Men made way for him. He stood there a moment in silence, dropped his gauntlets on the table and seemed peering at the Master. Then all at once he drew himself up, sharply, and saluted.
The Master returned the salute. A moment's silence followed. No man was looking elsewhere than at this interloper.
Not much could be seen of him, so swaddled was he in sheepskin jacket, aviator's helmet, and goggles. Leather trousers and leggings completed his costume. The collar of the jacket, turned up, met the helmet. Of his face, only the chin and lower part of the cheeks remained visible.
The silence tautened, stretched to the breaking-point. All at once the master of Niss'rosh demanded, incisively:
"Your name, sir?"
"Captain Alfred Alden, of the R.A.F."
"Royal Air Force man, eh? Are you prepared to prove that?"
"If you're not, well—this won't be exactly a salubrious altitude for you."
"I have my papers, my licenses, my commission."
"With you here?"
"Very well," answered the Master, "I will examine them in due time. English, American, or—?"
"I am a Canadian." answered the aviator. "I have seen nearly two years' active service. I rank as an ace. I bear three wounds and have been cited several times. I have the Distinguished Service Cross. What more need I tell you, sir?"
His voice was steady and rang true. The Master nodded approval, that seemed to echo round the room in a buzz of acceptance. But there were still other questions to be asked. The next one was:
"How did you come here? It's obvious my man didn't bring you up."
"I came in my own plane, sir," the stranger answered, in a dead hush of stillness. "It just now landed on the roof of this building. If you will draw the curtains, there behind you, I believe you can see it for yourself."
"I heard no engine."
"I volplaned in. I don't say this to boast sir, but I can handle the average plane as accurately as most men handle their own fingers."
"Were you invited to attend this meeting by either Major Bohannan or by me?"
"No, sir, I was not."
"Then, why are you here?"
"Why am I here? For exactly the same reason that all the rest are here, sir!" The aviator swept his arm comprehensively at the ranks of eagerly listening men. "To resume active service. To get back to duty. To live, again! In short, to join this expedition and to share all its adventures!"
"Hm! Either that, or to interfere with us."
"Not the latter, sir! I swear that!"
"How did you know there was going to be an expedition, at all?" demanded the Master, his brows tensed, lips hard, eyes very keen. The aviator seemed smiling, as he answered:
"I know many things. Some may be useful to you all. I am offering you my skill and knowledge, such as they may be, without any thought or hope of reward."
"Because I am tired of life. Because I want—must have—the freedom of the open roads, the inspiration of some great adventure! Surely, you understand."
"Yes, if what you say is true, and you are not a spy. Show us your face, sir!"
The aviator loosened his helmet and removed it, disclosing a mass of dark hair, a well-shaped head and a vigorous neck. Then he took off his goggles.
A kind of communal whisper of astonishment and hostility ran round the apartment. The man's whole face—save for eyeholes through which dark pupils looked strangely out—was covered by a close-fitting, flesh-colored celluloid mask.
This mask reached from the roots of his hair to his mouth. It sloped away down the left jaw, and somewhat up the cheekbone of the right side. The mask was firmly strapped in place around the head and neck.
"What does all this mean, sir?" demanded the Master, sharply. "Why the mask?"
"Is that a necessary question, sir?" replied the aviator, while a buzz of curiosity and suspicion rose. "You have seen many such during the war and since its close."
"Badly disfigured, are you?"
"That word, 'disfigured,' does not describe it, sir. Others have wounds, but my whole face is nothing but a wound. No, let me put it more accurately—there is, practically speaking, no face at all. The gaping cavity that exists under this mask would certainly sicken the strongest men among you, and turn you against me.
"We can't tolerate what disgusts, even if its qualities be excellent. In exposing myself to you, sir, I should certainly be insuring my rejection. But what you cannot see, what you can only imagine, will not make you refuse me."
The Master pondered a moment, then nodded and asked:
"Is it so very bad, sir?"
"It's a thing of horror, incredible, awful, unreal! In the hospital at Rouen, they called me 'The Kaiser's Masterpiece.' Some of the most hardened surgeons couldn't look at me, or dress my—wound, let us call it—without a shudder. Ordinary men would find me intolerable, if they could see me.
"Unmasked, I bear no resemblance whatever to a man, but rather to some ghastly, drug-inspired dream or nightmare of an Oriental Dante. The fact that I have sacrificed my human appearance in the Great Cause cannot overcome the shrinking aversion that normal men would feel, if they could see me. I say only this, that my mutilation is indescribable. As the officer and gentleman I know you to be, you won't ask me to expose this horror!"
THE MASKED RECRUIT
A little silence lengthened, while the strange aviator continued to peer out with strangely shining eyes through the holes of his mask. The effect of that human intelligence, sheltered in there behind that expressionless celluloid, whose frail thinness they all knew covered unspeakable frightfulness, became uncanny.
Some of the men eased the tension by blowing ribbons of smoke or by relighting tobacco that had gone out while the stranger had been talking. Others shifted, a bit uneasily. Voices began to mutter, pro and con. The Master suddenly knocked again, for silence.
"I am going to accept this man," said he, sharply. "You notice I do not put this to a vote, or consult you about it. Nor shall I, in anything. The prime condition of this whole undertaking, as I was saying when Captain Alden here arrived, is unquestioning obedience to my authority.
"No one who is unwilling to swear that, need go any further. You must have confidence in my plans, my judgment. And you must be willing to obey. It is all very autocratic, I know, but the expedition cannot proceed on any other basis.
"You are to go where I will, act as I command, and only regain your liberty when the undertaking is at an end. I shall not order any man to go anywhere, or do anything, that I would not do myself. On this you can rely.
"In case of my death, the authority falls on Major Bohannan. He is today the only man who knows my plans, and with whom I have had any discussion. If we both are killed, then you can elect your own leader. But so long as either of us lives, you have no authority and no redress. I hope that's perfectly understood. Does any man wish to withdraw?"
Not one budged. All stood to their decision, hard as rock.
"Very well," said the Master, grimly. "But remember, disobedience incurs the death penalty, and it will be rigorously enforced. My word is to be supreme.
"Such being the case, I decide to take this man. His skill as an aviator cannot be denied. We shall need that. His ability to endure suffering and still remain efficient seems proved. That may be valuable; probably will be.
"I shall examine his credentials. If he turns out to be a spy—well, life will be short, for him."
He addressed himself to the masked aviator, who was still standing in an attitude of military attention.
"You are now one of us, sir. You become the thirtieth member of a little group of as brave men, as daring and determined fighters as can be found in America or in the world—all tried and tempered by the fires of war; all decorated for conspicuous valor; all ready to follow me to the ends of the earth and die, if need be; all eager to share in an undertaking as yet unknown to them, but one that promises to be the most extraordinary adventure ever undertaken on this planet. You understand all that, sir?"
"Raise your right hand, sir."
The aviator obeyed.
"All the others, too!"
Every hand went up.
"Swear allegiance to me, fidelity, secrecy, courage, obedience. On the thing you hold most dear, your honor as fighting-men, swear it!"
The shout that answered him, from every throat, made the eagle's nest ring with wild echoes. The Master smiled, as the hands sank.
"With men like you," said he, "failure is impossible. The expedition is to start at once, tomorrow night. No man in it has now any ties or home or kin that overbalance his ties to me and to the esprit de corps of our body.
"The past is dead, for you. The future is all a mystery. You are to live only in the present, day by day. And now for some practical details.
"The means of transport you do not know. The perils and rewards are problematical. Of the former there will be enough; as for the latter, those lie on the knees of the gods. There will be no payment for any man. Not a cent of money is involved in this service.
"Commissary will be furnished. Each man is to wear his campaign equipment—his uniform and such kit as he can store in a rucksack. Bring small-arms and ammunition. In addition, I will furnish bombing material and six Lewis guns, with ammunition, also other materials of which I shall now say nothing. These things will be transported to the proper place without labor on your part. I think I have made the outlines of the matter reasonably clear to every man present."
"Our orders, sir?" asked a voice with a French accent, down the table. "Are we to have no precise orders before leaving this room?"
"You are. Each man will receive his own, sealed, before leaving. I am now about to give them out, in alphabetical rotation. This will dismiss the meeting. You will withdraw as inconspicuously as you came. Remember, you are to become as cogs in the machine that I have devised. At the exact place, hour, minute, and second you are to do exactly the thing ordered, and nothing else. Neglect, disobedience, or failure will positively not be condoned, but will be punished as I see fit, even to the death penalty.
"Come forward now, as I call your names, and receive what I shall give you."
He opened a drawer in the table, took out many small boxes and arranged them before him. Each box was carefully wrapped in stout paper, securely tied, and sealed with red wax.
Standing there, firm, impassive, with narrowed eyes, he began reading the names:
As each man's name was uttered he came down along the table, took the box extended to him, thrust it into his pocket, saluted stiffly, and withdrew in silence. At the end of a few minutes, no one was left but the Master, Bohannan, and the man in the celluloid mask.
"Have you no orders for me, sir?" asked the aviator, still erect in his place at the far end of the table. His eyes shone out darkly through his shield.
"All the others—"
"You are different." The Master set hands on his hips, and coldly studied this strange figure. "The others have had their orders carefully worked out for them, prepared, synchronized. You have come, so to speak, as an extemporization, an auxiliary; you will add one more unit to the flyers in the expedition, of which there are nine aces, including Major Bohannan here. The others are now on their way to their lodgings, to study their instructions, to memorize, and prepare to carry them out. You are to remain here, with Major Bohannan and with me."
"Until what time, sir?"
"Until we start. You will be under continual surveillance. If you make any attempt to communicate in any way with anyone outside my apartment, it will be the last thing you will ever do. You will receive no other warning. Tomorrow night you will accompany us. Till then, you remain my—guest."
The aviator nodded.
"Very well, sir," he accepted. "But, my machine?"
"I will attend to your machine."
"I should hate to leave it there on the roof."
"It will not be left on the roof."
"I don't understand, exactly—"
"There will be very many things you do not understand before this expedition is over and done with. I need say no more."
Sharply he clapped his hands, thrice. In a moment, Rrisa appeared at the door. The Master spoke a few guttural, aspirated words of Arabic. Rrisa beckoned the stranger, who obeyed.
At the exit he faced about and sharply saluted. The Master returned it. Then he vanished, and the door noiselessly closed behind them.
The Master turned to Bohannan.
"Now," said he, "these few last details. Time is growing very short. Only a few hours remain. To work, Major—to work!"
At this same moment Auchincloss had already arrived at his rooms in the McAlpine; and there, having carefully locked his door, had settled himself at his desk with his sealed box before him.
For a moment he studied it under the electric light. Then, breaking the wax with fingers tensed by eagerness, he tore it open. He spread the contents on his blotting-pad. There was a small pocket-compass of the best quality, a plain-cased watch wound up and going, a map and a folded sheet of paper covered with typewriting. Auchincloss fell to reading:
You are to learn your specific orders by heart, and then destroy this paper. You are to act on these orders, irrespective of every other man. You are not to communicate the contents of this paper to any other. This might upset the pre-arranged plan. You might try to join forces, assist each other, or exercise some mistaken judgment that might result in ruin. Each man is to keep his orders an absolute secret. This is vital.
Each man, like yourself, is provided with a map, a watch, and a compass. These watches are all self-luminous, all accurately adjusted to synchronize to the second, and all will run forty-eight hours.
Tomorrow, proceed inconspicuously to Tenafly, New Jersey, and hire a room at the Cutter Inn. Carry your kit in a suit-case. At 7:30 p.m., go to Englewood. Go up Englewood Avenue toward the Palisades, turn left (north) along the road near edge of cliff; proceed half a mile and enter woods at your right. There you will find path marked "A" on your map. Put on rucksack and discard suit-case, which, of course, is to have no identifying marks. Proceed along path to point "B," and from under board you will find there take box with weapon enclosed. Box will also contain vacuum searchlight and directions for use of weapon, exact time, direction, and elevation for discharging same, and further instructions how to proceed. Act on these to the second. If interfered with, kill; but kill quietly, so as to avoid giving the alarm.
I expect every man to do his duty to the full. There will be but one excuse for failure, and that is death.
IN THE NIGHT
The night was moonless, dark, warm with the inviting softness of late spring that holds out promises of romance. Stars wavered and wimpled in the black waters of the Hudson as a launch put out in silence from the foot of Twenty-seventh Street.
This launch contained four men. They carried but little baggage; no more than could be stowed in a rucksack apiece. All were in their old service uniforms, with long coats over the uniforms to mask them. All carried vacuum-flashlights in their overcoat pockets, and lethal-gas pistols, in addition to ordinary revolvers or automatics. And all were keyed to the top notch of energy, efficiency, eagerness. The Great Adventure had begun.
In the stern of the swift, twenty-four cylinder launch—a racing model—sat Captain Alden and Rrisa. The captain wore his aviator's helmet and his goggles, despite the warmth of the night. To appear in only his celluloid mask, even at a time like this when darkness would have hidden him, seemed distasteful to the man. He seemed to want to hide his misfortune as fully as possible; and, since this did no harm, the Master let him have his way.
The bow was occupied by the Master and by Major Bohannan, with the Master at the wheel. He seemed cool, collected, impassive; but the major, of hotter Celtic blood, could not suppress his fidgety nervousness.
Intermittently he gnawed at his reddish mustache. A cigar, he felt, would soothe and quiet him. Cigars, however, were now forbidden. So were pipes and cigarettes. The Master did not intend to have even their slight distraction coming between the minds of his men and the careful, intricate plan before them.
As the racer veered north, up the broad darkness of the Hudson—the Hudson sparkling with city illumination on either hand, with still or moving ships' lights on the breast of the waters—Bohannan murmured:
"Even now, as your partner in this enterprise—"
"My lieutenant," corrected the Master.
"As second in command," amended Bohannan, irritably, "I'm not wholly convinced this is the correct procedure." He spoke in low tones, covered by the purring exhaust of the launch and by the hiss of swiftly cloven waters. "It looks like unnecessary complication, to me, and avoidable danger."
"It is neither," answered the man at the wheel. "What would you have done? What better plan could you have proposed?"
"You could have built your own flyer, couldn't you? Since money's no object to you, and you don't even know, accurately, how much you've got—nobody can keep track of figures like those—why risk legal interference and international complications at the start, by—"
"To build the kind of flyer we need would have taken six or seven months. Not all my money could have produced it, sooner. And absolute ennui can't wait half a year. I'd have gone wholly stale, and so would you, and all of them. We'd have lost them.
"Again, news of any such operations would have got out. My plans would possibly have been checkmated. In the third place, what you propose would have been tame sport, indeed, as a beginning! Three excellent reasons, my dear Major, why this is positively the only way."
"Perhaps. But there's always the chance of failure, now. The guards—"
"After your own experience, when that capsule burst in the laboratory, you talk to me about guards?"
"Suppose one escapes?"
The Master only smiled grimly, and sighted his course up the dark river.
"And the alarm is sure to be given, in no time. Why didn't you just buy the thing outright?"
"It's not for sale, at any price."
"Still—men can't run off with three and a half million dollars' worth of property and with provisions and equipment like that, all ready for a trial trip, without raising Hell. There'll be pursuit—"
"What with, my dear Bohannan?"
"That's a foolish statement of mine, the last one, I admit," answered the major, as his companion swung the launch a little toward the Jersey shore. "Of course nothing can overhaul us, once we're away. But you know my type of mind weighs every possibility, pro and con. Wireless can fling out a fan of swift aerial police ahead of us from Europe."
"How near can anything get to us?"
"I know it all looks quite simple and obvious, in theory. Nevertheless—"
"Men of your character are useful, in places," said the Master, incisively. "You are good in a charge, in sudden daring, in swift attack. But in the approach to great decisions, you vacillate. That's your racial character.
"I'm beginning to doubt my own wisdom in having chosen you as next in command. There's a bit of doubting Thomas in your ego. It's not too late, yet, for you to turn back. I'll let you, as a special concession. Brodeur will jump at the chance to be your successor."
His hand swung the wheel, sweeping the racer in a curve toward the Manhattan shore. Bohannan angrily pushed the spokes over again the other way.
"I stick!" he growled. "I've said the last word of this sort you'll ever hear me utter. Full speed ahead—to Paradise—or Hell!"
They said no more. The launch split her way swiftly toward the north. By the vague, ghostly shimmer of light upon the waters, a tense smile appeared on the steersman's lips. In his dark eyes gleamed the joy which to some men ranks supreme above all other joys—that of bending others to his will, of dominating them, of making them the puppets of his fancy.
Some quarter hour the racer hummed upriver. Keenly the Master kept his lookout, picking up landmarks. Finally he spoke a word to Captain Alden, who came forward to the engines. The Master's cross-questionings of this man had convinced him his credentials were genuine and that he was loyal, devoted, animated by nothing but the same thirst for adventure that formed the driving power behind them all. Now he was trusting him with much, already.
"Three quarters speed," ordered the Master. The skilled hand of the captain, well-versed in the operation of gas engines, obeyed the command. The whipping breeze of their swift course, the hiss at the bows as foam and water crumbled out and over, somewhat diminished. The goal lay not far off.
To starboard, thinning lights told the Master they were breasting Spuyten Duyvil. To port, only a few scattered gleams along the base of the cliff or atop it, showed that the sparsely settled Palisades were drawing abeam. The ceaseless, swarming activities of the metropolis were being left behind. Silence was closing in, broken only by vagrant steamer-whistles from astern.
A crawling string of lights, on the New York shore, told that an express was hurling itself cityward. Its muffled roar began to echo out over the star-flecked waters. The Master threw a scornful glance at it. He turned in his seat, and peered at the shimmer of the city's lights, strung like a luminous rosary along the river's edge. Then he looked up at the roseate flush on the sky, flung there by the metropolis as from the mouth of a crucible.
"Child's play!" he murmured. "All this coming and going in crowded streets, all this fighting for bread, and scheming over pennies—child's play. Less than that—the blind swarming of ants! Tomorrow, where will all this be, for us?"
He turned back and thrust over the spokes. The launch drew in toward the Jersey shore.
"Let the engines run at half-speed," he directed, "and control her now with the clutch."
The aviator's voice was sharp, precise, determined. The Master nodded to himself with satisfaction. This man, he felt, would surely be a valued member of the crew. He might prove more than that. There might be stuff in him that could be molded to executive ability, in case that should be necessary.
The launch, now at half-speed, nosed her way directly toward the cliff. Sounds from shore began to grow audible Afar, an auto siren shrieked. A dog barked, irritatingly. A human voice came vaguely hallooing.
Off to the right, over the cliff brow, a faint aura of light was visible. The eyes of the Master rested on this a moment, brightening. He smiled again; and his hand tightened a little on the wheel. But all he said was:
"Dead slow, now, Captain Alden!"
As the cliff drew near, its black brows ate across the sky, devouring stars. The Master spoke in Arabic to Rrisa, who seized a boat hook and came forward. Out of the gloom small wharf advanced to meet the launch. The boat-hook caught; the launch, easing to a stop, cradled against the stringpiece.
Rrisa held with the hook, while Bohannan and Alden clambered out. Before the Master left, he bent and seemed to be manipulating something in the bottom of the launch. Then he stepped to the engine.
"Out, Rrisa," he commanded, "and hold hard with the hook, now!"
The Arab obeyed. All at once the propeller churned water, reversed. The Master leaped to the wharf.
"Let go—and throw the hook into the boat!" he ordered.
While the three others stood wondering on the dark wharf, the launch began to draw slowly back into the stream. Already it was riding a bit low, going down gradually by the bows.
"What now?" questioned the major, astonished.
"She will sink a hundred or two yards from shore, in deep water," answered the Master, calmly. "The sea-cock is wide open."
"A fifteen thousand dollar launch—!"
"Is none the less, a clue. No man of this party, reaching the shore tonight, is leaving any more trace than we are. Come, now, all this is trivial. Forward!"
In silence, they followed him along the dark wharf, reached a narrow, rocky path that serpented up the face of the densely wooded cliff, and began to ascend. A lathering climb it was, laden as they were with heavy rucksacks, in the moonless obscurity.
Now and then the Master's little searchlight—his own wonderful invention, a heatless light like an artificial firefly, using no batteries nor any power save universal, etheric rays in an absolute vacuum—glowed with pale virescence over some particularly rough bit of going. For the most part, however, not even this tiny gleam was allowed to show. Silence, darkness, precision, speed were now all-requisite.
Twenty-four minutes from leaving the wharf, they stood among a confused, gigantic chaos of boulders flung, dicelike, amid heavy timbers on the brow of the Palisades. Off to the north, the faint, ghostly aura dimly silhouetted the trees. Far below, the jetty river trembled here, there, with starlight.
They paused a moment to breathe, to shift straps that bound shoulders not now hardened to such burdens. The Master glanced at the luminous dial of his wrist-watch.
"Almost to the dot," he whispered. "Seventeen minutes to midnight. At midnight, sharp, we take possession. Come!"
They trailed through a hard, rocky path among thick oak, pine, and silver-birch. Now and then the little greenish-white light will-o'-the-wisped ahead, flickering hither, yon. No one spoke a word. Every footstep had to be laid down with care. After three minutes' progress, the Master stopped, turned, held up his hand.
"Absolute silence, now," he breathed. "The outer guards are now within an eighth of a mile."
They moved forward again. The light was no longer shown, but the Master confidently knew the way. Bohannan felt a certain familiarity with the terrain, which he had carefully studied on the large-scale map he and the Master had used in planning the attack; but the Master's intimate knowledge was not his. After two and one-half minutes, the leader stopped again, and gestured at heavy fern-brakes that could just be distinguished as black blotches in the dark of the woods.
"The exact spot," he whispered. "Take cover, and follow your memorized orders!"
He settled down noiselessly into the brakes. The others did likewise. Utter silence fell, save for the far, vague roar of the city. A vagrant little breeze was stirring the new foliage, through which a few stars curiously peeped. The four men seemed far, very far from any others. And yet—
Were there any others near them? the major wondered. No sign, no sound of them existed. Off to northward, where the dim glow ghosted up against the sky, an occasional noise drifted to the night. A distant laugh diffused itself through the dark. A dog yapped; perhaps the same that they had heard barking, a few minutes before. Then came the faint, sharp tapping of a hammer smiting metal.
"They're knocking out the holding-pins," thought the major. "In a few minutes it'll be too late, if we don't strike now!" He felt a great temptation to urge haste, on the Master. But, aware of the futility of any suggestion, the risk of being demoted for any other faux pas, he bridled his impatience and held still.
Realizing that they were now lying at the exact distance of 440 yards from the stockade that protected the thing they had come to steal—if you can call "stealing" the forced sale the Master now planned consummating, by having his bankers put into unwilling hands every ultimate penny of the more than $3,500,000 involved, once the coup should be put through—realizing this fact, Bohannan felt the tug of a profound excitement.
His pulses quickened; the tension of his Celtic nerves keyed itself up like a banjo-string about to snap. Steeled in the grim usages of war though he was, and more than once having felt the heart-breaking stress of the zero hour, this final moment of waiting, of suspense before the attack that was so profoundly to affect his life and the lives of all these other hardy men, pulled heavily at his nerves. He desperately wanted a smoke, again, but that was out of the question. It seemed to him, there in the dark and stillness, one of the fateful moments of time, pregnant with possibilities unlimited.
The Master, Alden, Rrisa, mere vague blurs among the ferns, remained motionless. If their nerves were a-tingle, they gave no hint or sign of it. Where might the others of the Legion be? No indication of them could be made out. No other living thing seemed in the woods encircling the stockade. Was each man really there and ready for the predetermined role he was to play?
It seemed incredible, fantastic, to suppose that all these adventurers, each separate and alone, each having no contact, with any other, should all have taken their assigned posts. That each, with luminous watch on wrist, was even now timing himself, to the second, before striking the single note calculated to produce, in harmony with all the rest, the finished composition. Such an assumption partook more of the stuff of an Arabian Nights tale than of stern reality in this Twentieth Century and on the outskirts of the world's greatest city.
The Master, crouching, whispered:
"Two minutes more! Keep your eyes on your watches, now. Get your lethal guns ready! In 120 seconds, you will hear the first capsule burst. Ten seconds after that, Alden, fire yours. Ten later, yours, Bohannan. Ten later, yours, Rrisa. Listen hard! Hold steady!"
The silence drew at them like a pain. Rrisa breathed something in which the words: "La Illaha ilia Allah" transpired in a wraith of sound. Alden nestled closer into the ferns. Bohannan could hardly hold his poise.
All three now had their capsule pistols ready. The self-luminous compass and level attached to each gun gave them their exact direction and elevation. Glimmering watches marked the time, the dragging of the last few seconds.
The Master drew no weapon. His mind, directing all, observing all, was not to be distracted by even so small a detail as any personal hand in the discharge of the lethal gas.
If he felt the strain of the final moment, on which hung vaster issues than mere life or death, he gave no indication of it. His eyes remained fixed on the watch-dial at his wrist. They were confident, those eyes. The vague shimmer of the watch-glow showed them dark and grave; his face, faintly revealed, was impassive, emotionless.
It seemed the face of a scientist, a chemist who—having worked out his formula to its ultimate minutiae—now felt utter trust in its reactions, now was only waiting to observe what he well knew must inevitably happen.
"Thirty seconds more," he whispered, and fell silent. Presently, after what seemed half an hour: "Fifteen!"
Another long wait. The Master breathed:
"In just five seconds the first capsule will burst there!" He pointed with assurance. "In two—in one—"
THE SILENT ATTACK
At the exact instant when the second hand notched to the minute's edge, and in precisely the spot indicated, a slight, luminous spot became dimly visible above the trees. The spot took uncertain form high above the ghost-glow rising from the unseen stockade. For an instant it hung suspended, pale-greenish, evanescent.
Then, as a faint plop! drifted to the watchers—a sound no louder than a feeble clack of the tongue—this indefinite luminosity began to sink, to fade, falling slowly, gradually dissipating itself in the dim light over the stockade.
The Master nodded, smiling, with never any hint of praise or approbation. The fulfilment of his order was to him no other than it is to you, when you drop a pebble into water, to hear the splash of it. That his plan should be working out, seemed to him a perfectly obvious, inevitable thing. The only factor that could possibly have astonished him, just now, would have been the nonappearance of that slight, luminous cloudlet at the precise spot and moment designated.
Neither Bohannan, Alden, nor Rrisa was watching the slow descent of the lethal gas. All three had their eyes fixed on their own lethal-gas pistols and on their watches. At mathematically the correct second, Bohannan discharged his piece, correctly sighting direction and elevation.
As he pressed trigger, a light sighing eased itself from the slim barrel. Something flicked through the leaves; and, almost on the instant, the phenomenon of the little phosphorescent spot repeated itself, though in a different place from the first one. Captain Alden's and Rrisa's shots produced still other blurs of virescence.
Then, as they all waited, crouching, came another and another tiny explosion, high aloft, at precisely ten-second intervals. Here, there, they developed, until twenty-nine of these strange, bubble-like things had burst above and all about the huge enclosure. Then darkness and silence once more settled down.
Nothing seemed to have happened. Night still reigned, starry with glimpses of sky through wind-swayed trees. One would have said everything still remained precisely as it had been before.
Yet presently, within the stockade or near it, a certain uneasy melange of sounds began to develop. Here a cry became audible, there a command. A startled voice called an order, but suddenly fell silent, half-way through it. The worrying of the dog ceased with eloquent suddenness. A curse died, unfinished.
And silence, as perfect as the silence of the unseen watchers strung all about the periphery of the stockade, once more dominated the night.
For precisely ten minutes, nothing broke that silence—minutes during all of which the Master remained calmly waiting, with grave confidence. Bohannan shuddered a little. His Celtic imagination was at work, again. Uncanny the attack seemed to him, unreal and ghostlike. So, perhaps, might strange, unbelievable creatures from some other planet attack and conquer the world, noiselessly, gently, irrevocably.
This assault was different from any other ever made since man and man first began battling together in the dim twilights of the primeval. Not with shout and cheer did it rush forward, nor yet with venomous gases that gave the alarm, that choked, that strangled, that tortured.
Silence and concealment, and the invisible blight of sleep, like the greater numbing that once fell on the hosts of Sennacherib, enfolded all opposition. All who would have stood against the Legion, simply sighed once, perhaps spoke a few disjointed words, then sank into oblivion.
So far as anyone could see, save for the bursting of twenty-nine insignificant little light-bubbles, in mid-air, nothing at all had happened. And yet tremendously much had happened, inside the huge stockade.
Ten minutes to a dot had drifted by, seeming at least six times as long, when all at once the Master stood up.
"The gas has dissipated enough now," said he, "so that we can advance in safety. Come!"
The three also arose, half at his command, half from the independent impulses given them by their watches as these came to the designated second for the forward movement. The Master blew no whistle, gave no signal to the many others scattered all through those darkly silent woods; but right and left, and over beyond the stockade, he knew with the precision of a mathematical equation every man was at that exact moment also arising, also obeying orders, also preparing to close in on the precious thing whereof they meant to make themselves the owners.
Forward the Master made his way, with the three others of his immediate escort. Though there no longer existed any need of silence, hardly a word was spoken. Something vast, imminent, overpowering, seemed to have laid its finger on the lips of all, to have muted them of speech.
The vacuum-lights, however, were now freely flashing in the little party, as it advanced directly toward the stockade. The men clambered over rocks, through bushes, across fallen logs. Rrisa stopped, suddenly, played his light on a little bundle of gray fur, and touched it with a curious finger. It was a squirrel, curled into a tiny ball of oblivion.
Alden's foot narrowly missed the body of a sleeping robin. An owl, lodged in the fork of a tree, moved not as the men passed. It, too, was whelmed in deep, temporary Nirvana.
The party's next find arrested them, with a thrill of genuine emotion, a triumph that could not be denied some few half-whispered exclamations of exultation from the Master's three companions. He himself was the only one who spoke no word. But, like the others, he had stopped and was pointing the beam of his light on the figure lying inert among broken bushes.
With his toe he touched this figure. His light picked up the man's face from the gloom. That face was looking at him with wide-open eyes. The eyes saw nothing; but a kind of overwhelming astonishment still seemed mirrored there, caught in the last moment of consciousness as the man had fallen.
The effect was startling, of that sleeping face, those open eyes, that lax mouth. The man was breathing easily, peacefully as a tired child. The Master's brows contracted a little. His lips tightened. Then he nodded, and smiled the ghost of a smile.
"Lord!" exclaimed Bohannan, half awed by the weirdness of the apparition. "Staring at us, that way—and all! Is he asleep?"
"Try him in any way your ingenuity may suggest," answered the Master, while Alden blinked strangely through his eyeholes, and Rrisa in Arabic affirmed that there is no God but Allah. "Try to force some sense-impression to his brain. It is sleep, but it is more than that. The best experiment for any doubting Thomas to employ is just to waken this guard—if possible."
Bohannan shook his head.
"No," he answered, "I'm not going to make a fool of myself. There's no going against any of your statements. I'm beginning to find that out, definitely. Let's be on our way!"
The Master spoke a few quick words of Arabic to his orderly. Rrisa knelt by the prostrate man. Then, while the Master kept the light-beam on him, Rrisa unbuckled the guard's belt, with cartridges and holster containing an ugly snouted gun. This belt the Arab slung round his own body. He arose. In silence, leaving the unconscious man just as he had fallen, they once more pushed onward.
Lights were beginning to gleam ahead, now, in what appeared to be a long, high line. The trees half hid them, but moment by moment they appeared more distinctly. Meantime, too, the glow over the stockade was getting stronger. Presently the trees ceased; and there before them the men saw a wide, cleared space, a hundred feet of empty land between the woods and a tall, stout fence topped with live wires and with numerous incandescents.
"Nice place to tackle, if anybody were left to defend it!" commented Bohannan. None of the others answered. The Master started diagonally across the cleared space, toward a cluster of little buildings and stout gate-posts.
Hardly had they emerged from the woods, when, all up and down the line, till it was broken by the woods at both ends where the stockade joined its eastern and western wall, other men began appearing. And all, alike, converged toward the gate.
But to these, the little party of four gave no heed. Other men absorbed their interest—sleeping men, now more and more thickly scattered all along the stockade. Save for a slight, saline tang to the air—an odor by no means unpleasant—nothing remained of the lethal gas.
But its victims still lay there, prone, in every possible attitude of complete and overpowering abandonment. And all, as the party of four passed, were quickly disarmed. Up and down the open space, other Legionaries were at the same work.
The Master and his companions reached the gate-house first of any in the party. The gate was massive, of stout oaken planks heavily strapped with iron. About it, and the gate-house, a good many guards were lying. All showed evidence of having dropped asleep with irresistible suddenness.
Some were gaping, others foolishly grinning as if their last sensation had been agreeable—as indeed it had been—while others stared disconcertingly. The chin of one showed an ugly burn where his Turkish cigarette had sagged, and had smoldered to extinction on the flesh.
One had a watch in his hand, while another gripped a newspaper. In the gate-house, two had fallen face downward on the table that occupied the center of the rough room; checker-pieces lay scattered from the game they had been playing. Several men sprawled just outside the little house, on the platform. Under the incandescents, the effect grew weird.
Bohannan shuddered, as he glanced from one to another, then up at some of the approaching men of the expedition. Rrisa affirmed that Mohammed was indeed the prophet of Allah, and that the ways of the Nasara were most strange.
"Good!" exclaimed the Master, with his first word of approval. Even his aplomb was a little shaken by the complete success of the attack. "It's all working like a clock."
"How about disarming these men, sir?" queried Captain Alden.
"No. They fall under the orders of another group."
"The way is clear, then—"
"Absolutely! These men will sleep almost precisely thirty minutes. The way is clear ahead of us. Forward into the Palisade!"
THE NEST OF THE GREAT BIRD
As the little group of four penetrated into the enclosure which but a few moments before had been guarded all round its perimeter by a small army of determined men, more and more of the Legionaries began to concentrate toward the entrance.
Silently they came, with almost the precision of automata in some complex mechanical process. All were obeying the Master's will, because obedience was sweet to them; because it spelled adventure, freedom, life.
Now and then one stopped, bent, arose with some added burden taken from a fallen guard. Not one guard was to be injured in any manner. Human life was not to be taken. But nothing in the way of armament was to be left, by way of possible danger to the Legion. And already the telephone-wires had been effectively cut.
All the approaching Legionaries wore rucksacks, and all were in their respective uniforms, though every man still wore a long coat that concealed it. A few groups of two appeared, bearing rather heavy burdens.
The Master smiled again, and nodded, as he paused a moment at the gate to peer down, along the line of the clearing between stockade and forest.
"Here come some of the machine-guns," said he. "I shall be vastly surprised if one man or one single bit of equipment fails to appear on schedule time. Nothing like system, Bohannan—that, and knowing how to choose your men!"
He turned, and the other three followed him into the enclosure. Outside, all was developing according to plans and specifications. They four were to be pioneers into the jealously guarded space that for so long had been the mystery of the continent, yes, of the civilized world.
The whole enclosure was well lighted with a profusion of electric lamps. At first view, quite a bewildering mass of small buildings appeared; but second glance showed order in them all. Streets had been laid out, as in a town; and along these streets stood drafting-sheds, workshops, storehouses, commissary offices, dwellings for the workers, guards, and bosses. A well-built cottage on the main, forward-going road that led from the gate to an inner stockade, was probably headquarters for the chief engineers.
Not one sign of conscious life appeared. Men were lying here, there, in the roadways, in the porches, in the shadow of the power-plant where dynamos were still merrily singing. Few were armed. Most of them here were workers, judging by their garb and by the tools still in some hands.
The four pioneers gave them no heed, but pushed steadily on. In the road lay a couple of pigeons, farther on a sparrow, and still farther a sleeping dog, showed how complete had been the effect of the lethal pellets.
The inner stockade was now close. It stood about twice as high as the outer, was also topped with live wires and lights, and was loopholed for defense. This formidable barrier was pierced by a small gate, flanked by two machine-guns. On the gate-post was affixed an elaborate set of rules regarding those who might and might not enter. The Master smiled dryly, and opened the gate.
Even from without, the loom of the monstrous airship had been visible. The eye could hardly at first glance take in the vastness of this stupendous thing, that overshadowed all the central portion of the huge enclosure. It gave a sense of power, of swift potentialities, of speed unlimited. It stood there, tense, ready, waiting, with a hum of engines audible in its vast heart, a thing almost of life, man's creation but how illimitably greater than man!
For a moment, as this tremendous winged fabric came to the Master's view, he halted, and a look of exultation, pride, and joy came over his face. But only for a moment. Quite at once his dark eyes veiled themselves with their habitual impassivity. Once more he strode forward, the others following him.
Now that they were inside the second barrier—where sleeping men were scattered more thickly than ever—they stood under the very wings of the most stupendous hydroplane ever conceived by the brain of man or executed by the cunning of his hand.
That this hydroplane had been almost on the moment of departure for its trial trip, was proved by the sleepers. Two were on the gangplank leading up to the entrance door in the fuselage. A number who had been knocking out the last holding-pins of the last shackles that bound it to its cradle, had fallen to earth, their sledge-hammers near at hand.
In the pilot-house, a figure had collapsed across the sill of an observation window. And the engines, purring softly, told that all had been in readiness for the throwing-in of the clutches that would have set the vast propellers spinning with roaring speed.
"Yes, they were certainly just on the dot of getting away," said the Master, nodding as he glanced at his watch. "This couldn't be better. Gas, oil, stores, everything ready. What more proof do you require, my dear Bohannan, of the value of exact coordination?"
The major could only answer: "Yes, yes—" He seemed quite amazed by this extraordinary mechanism—gigantic, weird, unreal in the garish electric lights. Rrisa was frankly staring, for once shaken out of his fatalistic Mussulman tranquillity.
As for Captain Alden, he stood there a compact, small figure in his long coat with the rucksack strapped to his shoulders, peering up with the eye of the connoisseur. His smile was of contentment absolute.
"My beauty—ah, my beauty!" he was murmuring.
Then, in the presence of this mighty thing, silence fell on all. The major set hands on hips, blinked, puckered his lips, and silently whistled. His expression was half incredulous, half enthusiastic.
What Alden was thinking revealed itself by the sparkle of his eyes through the holes of the mask behind the goggles. Expressionless though that terribly mutilated face had to remain, you could sense in the man's whole attitude the exultation of the expert ace as he beheld the perfect machine.
The droning of the engines came distinctly to them all, a low, steady, powerful note, beautiful in its steady undertones of strength. Behind the little group, a few involuntary exclamations of astonishment and joy became audible, as some of the Legionaries came into the second enclosure.
Without, blows on metal sharply resounded. The Master smiled again, as he realized his orders were going on with exact precision.
"That's the wireless they're putting out of commission," thought he, glancing at his watch again. "No mere untuning of wave-lengths. Good, old-fashioned hammer-blows! This station won't work again for a while!"
Bohannan, meantime, was trying to get some general impression of the giant plane. Not all the Master's descriptions of it, to him, had quite prepared him for the reality. Though he well knew all the largest, biggest machines in the world, this stupendous creation staggered him. By comparison with the Handley-Page, the Caproni, the D.H.-4, the Gotha 90-120, the Sikorsky, it spread itself as an eagle spreads beside a pigeon.
It lay in a kind of metallic cradle, almost like a ship ready for launching on its ways. Ahead of it, metal plates stretched away like rails, running toward the lip of the Palisades. Its quadruple floats, each the size of a tugboat and each capable of being exhausted of air, constituted a potential lifting-force of enclosed vacuums that very largely offset the weight of the mechanism. It was still a heavier-than-air machine, but the balance could be made nearly perfect. And the six helicopters, whose cylindrical, turbine-like drums gleamed with metallic glitters—three on each side along the fuselage—could at will produce an absolutely static condition of lift or even make the plane hover and soar quite vertically.