Read CHAPTER XVII of Dragon's blood, free online book, by Henry Milner Rideout, on ReadCentral.com.

LAMP OF HEAVEN

The white men peered from among the oil-jars, like two of the Forty Thieves. They could detect no movement, friendly or hostile: the black head lodged there without stirring. The watcher, whether he had seen them or not, was in no hurry; for with chin propped among the weeds, he held a pose at once alert and peaceful, mischievous and leisurely, as though he were master of that hollow, and might lie all night drowsing or waking, as the humor prompted.

Wutzler pressed his face against the earth, and shivered in the stifling heat. The uncertainty grew, with Rudolph, into an acute distress. His legs ached and twitched, the bones of his neck were stretched as if to break, and a corner of broken clay bored sharply between his ribs. He felt no fear, however: only a great impatience to have the spy begin, rise, beckon, call to his fellows, fire his gun, hit or miss.

This longing, or a flash of anger, or the rice-brandy working so nimbly in his wits, gave him both impulse and plan.

“Don’t move,” he whispered; “wait here.” And wriggling backward, inch by inch, feet foremost among the crowded bellies of the jars, he gained the further darkness. So far as sight would carry, the head stirred no more than if it had been a cannon-ball planted there on the verge, against the rosy cloud. From crawling, Rudolph rose to hands and knees, and silently in the dust began to creep on a long circuit. Once, through a rift in smoke, he saw a band of yellow musketeers, who crouched behind some ragged earthwork or broken wall, loading and firing without pause or care, chattering like outraged monkeys, and all too busy to spare a glance behind. Their heads bobbed up and down in queer scarlet turbans or scarfs, like the flannel nightcaps of so many diabolic invalids.

Passing them unseen, he crept back toward his hollow. In spite of smoke, he had gauged and held his circle nicely, for straight ahead lay the man’s legs. Taken thus in the rear, he still lay prone, staring down the slope, inactive; yet legs, body, and the bent arm that clutched a musket beside him in the grass, were stiff with some curious excitement. He seemed ready to spring up and fire.

No time to lose, thought Rudolph; and rising, measured his distance with a painful, giddy exactness. He would have counted to himself before leaping, but his throat was too dry. He flinched a little, then shot through the air, and landed heavily, one knee on each side, pinning the fellow down as he grappled underneath for the throat. Almost in the same movement he had bounded on foot again, holding both hands above his head, as high as he could withdraw them. The body among the weeds lay cold, revoltingly indifferent to stratagem or violence, in the same tense attitude, which had nothing to do with life.

Rudolph dropped his hands, and stood confounded by his own brutal discourtesy. Wutzler, crawling out from the jars, scrambled joyfully up the bank.

“You have killed him?” quavered the dry little voice. “You are very brave!”

“No, no,” cried Rudolph, earnestly. “He was, already.”

By the scarlet headgear, and a white symbol on the back of his jacket, the man at their feet was one of the musketeers. He had left the firing-line, crawled away in the dark, and found a quiet spot to die in.

“So! This is good luck!” Wutzler doffed his coolie hat, slid out of his jacket, tossed both down among the oil-jars, and stooping over the dead man, began to untwist the scarlet turban. In the dim light his lean arms and frail body, coated with black hair, gave him the look of a puny ape robbing a sleeper. He wriggled into the dead man’s jacket, wound the blood-red cloth about his own temples, and caught up musket, ramrod, powder-horn, and bag of bullets. “Now I am all safe,” he chuckled. “Now I can go anywhere, to-night.”

He shouldered arms and stood grinning as though all their troubles were ended.

“So! I am rebel soldier. We try again; come. Not too close behind me; and if I speak, run back.”

In this order they began once more to scout through the smoke. No one met them, though distant shapes rushed athwart the gloom, yelping to each other, and near by, legs of runners moved under a rolling cloud of smoke as if their bodies were embedded and swept along in the wrack: all confused, hurried, and meaningless, like the uproar of gongs, horns, conches, whistling bullets, crackers, and squibs that sputtering, string upon string, flower upon rising flower of misty red gold explosion, ripped all other noise to tatters.

Where and how he followed, Rudolph never could have told; but once, as they ran slinking through the heaviest smoke and, as it seemed, the heart of the turmoil, he recognized the yawning rim of a clay-pit, not a stone’s throw from his own gate. It was amazing to feel that safety lay so close; still more amazing to catch a glimpse of many coolies digging in the pit by torchlight, peacefully, as though they had heard of no disturbance that evening. Hardly had the picture flashed past, than he wondered whether he had seen or imagined it, whose men they were, and why, even at any time, they should swarm so busy, thick as ants, merely to dig clay.

He had worry enough, however, to keep in view the white cross-barred hieroglyphic on his guide’s jacket. Suddenly it vanished, and next instant the muzzle of the gun jolted against his ribs.

“Run, quick,” panted Wutzler, pushing him aside. “To the left, into the go-down. Here they are! To your left!” And with the words, he bounded off to the right, firing his gun to confuse the chase.

Rudolph obeyed, and, running at top speed, dimly understood that he had doubled round a squad of grunting runners, whose bare feet pattered close by him in the smoke. Before him gaped a black square, through which he darted, to pitch head first over some fat, padded bulk. As he rose, the rasping of rough jute against his cheek told him that he had fallen among bales; and a familiar, musty smell, that the bales were his own, in his own go-down, across a narrow lane from the nunnery. With high hopes, he stumbled farther into the darkness. Once, among the bales, he trod on a man’s hand, which was silently pulled away. With no time to think of that, he crawled and climbed over the disordered heaps, groping toward the other door. He had nearly reached it, when torchlight flared behind him, rushing in, and savage cries, both shrill and guttural, rang through the stuffy warehouse. He had barely time, in the reeling shadows, to fall on the earthen floor, and crawl under a thin curtain of reeds to a new refuge.

Into this a cubby-hole where the compradore kept his tally-slips, umbrella, odds and ends the torchlight shone faintly through the reeds. Lying flat behind a roll of matting, Rudolph could see, as through the gauze twilight of a stage scene, the tossing lights and the skipping men who shouted back and forth, jabbing their spears or pikes down among the bales, to probe the darkness. Their search was wild but thorough. Before it, in swift retreat, some one crawled past the compradore’s room, brushing the splint partition like a snake. This, as Rudolph guessed, might be the man whose hand he had stepped on.

The stitches in the curtain became beads of light. A shadowy arm heaved up, fell with a dry, ripping sound and a vertical flash. A sword had cut the reeds from top to bottom.

Through the rent a smoking flame plunged after the sword, and after both, a bony yellow face that gleamed with sweat. Rudolph, half wrapped in his matting, could see the hard, glassy eyes shine cruelly in their narrow slits; but before they lowered to meet his own, a jubilant yell resounded in the go-down, and with a grunt, the yellow face, the flambeau, and the sword were snatched away.

He lay safe, but at the price of another man’s peril. They had caught the crawling fugitive, and now came dragging him back to the lights. Through the tattered curtain Rudolph saw him flung on the ground like an empty sack, while his captors crowded about in a broken ring, cackling, and prodding him with their pikes. Some jeered, some snarled, others called him by name, with laughing epithets that rang more friendly, or at least more jocular; but all bent toward him eagerly, and flung down question after question, like a little band of kobolds holding an inquisition. At some sharper cry than the rest, the fellow rose to his knees and faced them boldly. A haggard Christian, he was being fairly given his last chance to recant.

“Open your mouth! Open your mouth!” they cried, in rage or entreaty.

The kneeling captive shook his head, and made some reply, very distinct and simple.

“Open your mouth!” They struck at him with the torches. The same sword that had slashed the curtain now pricked his naked chest. Rudolph, clenching his fists in a helpless longing to rush out and scatter all these men-at-arms, had a strange sense of being transported into the past, to watch with ghostly impotence a mediaeval tragedy.

The kneeling man repeated his unknown declaration. His round, honest, oily face was anything but heroic, and wore no legendary, transfiguring light. He seemed rather stupid than calm; yet as he mechanically wound his queue into place once more above the shaven forehead, his fingers moved surely and deftly. Not once did they slip or tremble.

“Open your mouth!” snarled the pikemen and the torch-bearers, with the fierce gestures of men who have wasted time and patience.

“The Lamp of Heaven!” bawled the swordsman, beside himself. “Give him the Lamp of Heaven!”

To the others, this phrase acted as a spark to powder.

“Good! good!” they shrilled, nodding furiously. “The Lamp of Heaven!” And several men began to rummage and overhaul the chaos of the go-down. Rudolph had given orders, that afternoon, to remove all necessary stores to the nunnery. But from somewhere in the darkness, one rioter brought a sack of flour, while another flung down a tin case of petroleum. The sword had no sooner cut the sack across and punctured the tin, than a fat villain in a loin cloth, squatting on the earthen floor, kneaded flour and oil into a grimy batch of dough.

“Will you speak out and live,” cried the swordsman, “or will you die?”

For a second the Christian did not stir. Then, as though the option were not in his power,

“Die,” he answered.

The fat baker sprang up, and clapped on the obstinate head a shapeless gray turban of dough. Half a dozen torches jostled for the honor of lighting it. The Christian, crowned with sooty flames, gave a single cry, clear above all the others. He was calling as even Rudolph knew on the strange god across the sea, Saviour of the Children of the West, not to forget his nameless and lonely servant.

Rudolph groaned aloud, rose, and had parted the curtain to run out and fall upon them all, when suddenly, close at hand and sharp in the general din, there burst a quick volley of rifleshots. Splinters flew from the attap walls. A torch-bearer and the man with the sword spun half round, collided, and fell, the one across the other, like drunken wrestlers. The survivors flung down their torches and ran, leaping and diving over bales. On the ground, the smouldering Lamp of Heaven showed that its wearer, rescued by a lucky bullet, lay still in a posture of humility. Strange humility, it seemed, for one so suddenly given the complete and profound wisdom that confirms all faith, foreign or domestic, new or old.

With a sense of all this, but no clear sense of action, Rudolph found the side-door, opened it, closed it, and started across the lane. He knew only that he should reach the mafoo’s little gate by the pony-shed, and step out of these dark ages into the friendly present; so that when something from the wall blazed point-blank, and he fell flat on the ground, he lay in utter defeat, bitterly surprised and offended. His own friends: they might miss him once, but not twice. Let it come quickly.

Instead, from the darkness above came the most welcome sound he had ever known, a keen, high voice, scolding.

“What the devil are you firing at?” It was Heywood, somewhere on the roof of the pony-shed. He put the question sharply, yet sounded cool and cheerful. “A shadow? Rot! You waste another cartridge so, and I’ll take your gun away. Remember that!”

Nesbit’s voice clipped out some pert objection.

“Potted the beggar, any’ow see for yourself go-down ’s afire.”

“Saves us the trouble of burning it.” The other voice moved away, with a parting rebuke. “No more of that, sniping and squandering. Wait till they rush you.”

Rudolph lifted his head from the dust.

“Maurice!” he called feebly. “Maurice, let me in!”

“Hallo!” answered his captain on the wall, blithely. “Steady on, we’ll get you.”

Of all hardships, this brief delay was least bearable. Then a bight of rope fell across Rudolph’s back. He seized it, hauled taut, and planting his feet against the wall, went up like a fish, to land gasping on a row of sand-bags.

“Ho, you wandering German!” His invisible friend clapped him on the shoulder. “By Jove, I’m glad. No time to burble now, though. Off with you. Compradore has a gun for you, in the court. Collect a drink as you go by. Report to Kneebone at the northeast corner. Danger point there: we need a good man, so hurry. Devilish glad. Cut along.”

Rudolph, scrambling down from the pony-shed, ran across the compound with his head in a whirl. Yet through all the scudding darkness and confusion, one fact had pierced as bright as a star. On this night of alarms, he had turned the great corner in his life. Like the pale stranger with his crown of fire, he could finish the course.

He caught his rifle from the compradore’s hand, but needed no draught from any earthly cup. Brushing through the orange trees, he made for the northeast angle, free of all longing perplexities, purged of all vile admiration, and fit to join his friends in clean and wholesome danger.