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 Gradually a greater amount of liberty was given to Gervaise. Escape from Tripoli was deemed impossible, especially as he was supposed to be entirely ignorant of Arabic. He was, indeed, scarcely regarded now as a slave by the head mason, and instead of being clad in rags was dressed like other overseers. He was no longer obliged to walk with the gang to and from the palace, and was at last granted permission to go into the town for an hour or two after his work was over, instead of returning direct to the prison. The first time this permission was given to him he placed himself on the road by which Ben Ibyn would leave the town, choosing a quiet spot where the meeting would not be observed. Gervaise had for some time taken to staining his face, hands, and legs with walnut juice, beginning with a weak solution, and very gradually increasing the strength until he had reached a shade approximating to that of the lighter coloured portion of the population. The head mason had on one occasion noticed it, and said, “The sun is darkening your skin, Gervaise, until you might verily pass as a Moor.” Gervaise detected an expression of doubt in the tone the officer had spoken to the interpreter, and replied at once, “It is not altogether the sun. Since I have obtained permission to come to my work alone, I have taken to slightly darkening my skin, in order to go to and fro unmolested, and free from the insults that the boys and beggars hurl at Christians.”
The master mason nodded approvingly when the answer was translated to him.
“It is a wise step,” he said; “for truly the hatred of Christians is very strong among the lower classes, especially since it became known that the galleys that sailed from here nearly two years ago were, with all the fleet from which so much was expected, utterly destroyed. It is well, then, that you should pass unnoticed, for were there a tumult in the street you might lose your life, and I should lose the best labour overseer I have ever had.”
Thus, then, as Gervaise walked through the streets on the first occasion of obtaining his liberty, he attracted no attention whatever. When he saw Ben Ibyn approaching he stepped out to meet him. The merchant looked in his face, but for a moment failed to recognise him, then he exclaimed suddenly, “It is Gervaise! Ah, my son, I am indeed rejoiced to see you. We have spoken of you so often at home, and sorely did my wife and daughters grieve when you were torn from us. I did not dare to send any message to you, for the sultan pretended great anger against me, and used the opportunity to squeeze me hardly; but I have frequently made inquiries about you, and was glad indeed to find that even in prison you received promotion; had it been otherwise—had I found that you were in misery—I would have endeavoured, whatever the risk, to aid you to escape.”
“I have indeed nothing to complain of, and was sorry to learn that you had suffered on my account. Have you ever learned how it came about that I was denounced?”
“No, indeed; I would have given much to know, and assuredly the dog, whoever he was, should have been made to suffer.”
“It was Hassan. The villain met me when I was with the gang, and boasted that it was he who had sent me there. He had told the news to some official, who had, of course, repeated it to the sultan; doubtless he concealed his own share in the matter, otherwise he too would, next time he returned here, have had to pay for his part in it.”
“I will make him pay more heavily than the sultan would,” Ben Ibyn said sternly; “I will speak to my friends among the merchants, and henceforth no Berber will buy aught from him; and we have hitherto been his best customers. But let us not waste our time in speaking of this wretch. How comes it that you are walking freely in the streets of Tripoli? I can see that your face is stained, although you are no longer a Nubian.”
Gervaise told him how it was that he was free to walk in the city after his work was done.
“I shall now,” he went on, “be able to carry out any plan of escape that may occur to me; but before I leave, as I shall certainly do ere long, I mean to settle my score with Hassan, and I pray you to send one of the men who were with me in the galley, and whom you took into your employment, directly you hear that his ship is in harbour. Do not give him either a note or a message: bid him simply place himself in the road between the prison gate and the palace, and look fixedly at me as I pass. I shall know it is a signal that Hassan is in the port.”
“Can I aid you in your flight? I will willingly do so.”
“All that I shall need is the garb of a peasant,” Gervaise said. “I might buy one unnoticed; but, in the first place, I have no money, and in the second, when it is known that I have escaped, the trader might recall the fact that one of the slave overseers had purchased a suit of him.”
“The dress of an Arab would be the best,” the merchant said. “That I will procure and hold in readiness for you. On the day when I send you word that Hassan is here, I will see that the gate of my garden is unbarred at night, and will place the garments down just behind it. You mean, I suppose, to travel by land?”
“I shall do so for some distance. Were I to steal a boat from the port, it would be missed in the morning, and I be overtaken. I shall therefore go along the coast for some distance and get a boat at one of the villages, choosing my time when there is a brisk wind, and when I may be able to get well beyond any risk of being overtaken. Now, Ben Ibyn, I will leave you; it were better that we should not meet again, lest some suspicion might fall upon you of having aided in my escape. I cannot thank you too much for all your past kindness, and shall ever bear a grateful remembrance of yourself and your family.”
“Perhaps it were better so,” Ben Ibyn said; “for if the Moors can find any excuse for plundering us, they do so. Have you heard the news that the Sultan of Turkey's expedition for the capture of Rhodes is all but complete, and will assuredly sail before many weeks have passed?”
“I have not heard it,” Gervaise replied; “and trust that I may be in time to bear my share in the defence. However, the blow has been so often threatened that it may be some time before it falls.”
“May Allah bless you, my son, and take you safely back to your friends! Be assured that you shall have notice as soon as I know that Hassan has returned, and you shall have the bundle with all that is needful, behind my gate.”
Another two months passed. Gervaise looked in vain for Ben Ibyn's messenger as he went to and from the palace, and chafed terribly at the delay, when, for aught he knew, the Turkish fleet might already have brought Mahomet's army to Rhodes. At last, as he came back from work, he saw with intense satisfaction one of the men, whose face he recognised, leaning carelessly against the wall. The man gave no sign of recognition, but looked at him earnestly for a minute, and then sauntered off up the street. Gervaise went up into the town as usual, walked about until it became quite dark, and then went to the gate that led into the merchant's garden. He found that it was unfastened, and, opening it, he went in and closed it behind him. As he did so he started, for a voice close by said,
“Master, it is I, the messenger whom you saw two hours since. Ben Ibyn bade me say that he thought you might require some service, and, knowing that I could be trusted, bade me wait for you here. He thought that you might possibly need a messenger to Hassan.”
“The very thing,” Gervaise exclaimed. “I have been puzzling myself in vain as to how I could get speech with him in some quiet place; but with your assistance that will be easy; but first let me put on this disguise.”
This was easily effected, even in the dark. A loose flowing robe of white cotton, girt in at the waist, a long bernouse with hood to cover the head, a sash with a dagger, and a scimitar, completed the disguise.
“Here is a pouch,” the man said, “with money for your journey, and a long sword, which he says you can hang at your back beneath your bernouse.”
Gervaise gave an exclamation of pleasure. By its length and weight he was sure that the weapon must have been the property of a Christian knight.
“Shall I carry the message this evening?” the man asked. “It is early still, and it were best that you should not linger in the city, where there is sure to be a strict search for you in the morning.”
“But perhaps he may recognise your face?”
“It is blackened, my lord, and I am dressed as you were when with Ben Ibyn.”
“Let us settle our plans, then, before we sally out from here; we could not find a safer place for talking. What message, think you, would be the most likely to tempt Hassan to come ashore? You do not know what spoil he has brought?”
“No; besides, if a merchant wanted to buy he would go on board to inspect Hassan's wares. We must have something to sell. It must be something tempting, and something that must be disposed of secretly. I might tell him that my employer—and I would mention some merchant whose name would carry weight with him—has received from the interior a large consignment of slaves, among whom are three or four girls, who would fetch high prices in Egypt, and as he believes they have been captured from a tribe within the limits of the sultan's territory, he is anxious to get rid of them, and will either dispose of them all cheaply in a lot, or will hand them over to him to take to Egypt to sell, giving him a large commission for carrying them there and disposing of them.”
“I do not like tempting even an enemy by stories that are untrue,” Gervaise said doubtfully.
“I have no scruples that way,” the man said, with a laugh; “and it is I who shall tell the story, and not you.”
Gervaise shook his head.
“Could you not say that you came from one who owes him a heavy debt and desires to pay him?”
“I do not think that would bring him ashore. Hassan doubtless trades for ready money, and must be well aware that no one here can be greatly in his debt. No, my lord; leave the matter in my hands. I will think of some story before I go on board that will fetch him ashore. But first we must settle where I am to bring him; there are some deserted spots near the wall on the east side of the town.”
“I know where you mean,” Gervaise agreed; “let us go in that direction at once, for the sooner you are off the better.”
In half an hour a spot was fixed on, near some huts that had fallen into ruin. Here Gervaise seated himself on a sand heap, while the man hurried away. The moon had just risen, it being but three days since it was at its full. The night was quiet; sounds of music, laughter, and occasional shouts came faintly from the town. Seated where he was, Gervaise could see the port and the ships lying there. Half an hour later he saw a boat row off to one of them, which he had already singled out, from its size and general appearance, as being that of Hassan; ten minutes later he saw it returning. At that distance separate figures could not be made out, but it seemed to him that it loomed larger than before, and he thought that certainly one, if not more, persons, were returning with his messenger. Presently he heard men approaching; then Hassan's voice came distinctly to his ears.
“How much farther are you going to take me? Remember, I warned you that unless I found that my journey repaid me, it would be bad for you.”
“It is but a few yards farther, my lord. There is my master the sheik of the Beni Kalis awaiting you.”
Gervaise rose to his feet as Hassan and two of his crew came up.
“Now,” the former said roughly, “where have you bestowed these captives you want to sell me?”
“Will you please to follow me into this courtyard?” Gervaise said. He had, while waiting, reconnoitred the neighbourhood, and found an enclosure with the walls still perfect, and had determined to bring Hassan there, in order to prevent him from taking to flight. Hassan entered it unsuspectingly, followed by his two men. Gervaise fell back a little, so as to place himself between them and the entrance. Then he threw back the hood of his bernouse.
“Do you recognise me, Hassan?” he said sternly. “I am the captive whom you beat almost to death. I told you that some day I would kill you; but even now I am willing to forgive you and to allow you to depart in peace, if you will restore the amulet you took from me.”
The corsair gave a howl of rage.
“Christian dog!” he exclaimed. “You thought to lead me into a trap, but you have fallen into one yourself. You reckoned that I should come alone; but I suspected there was something hidden behind the story of that black, and so brought two of my crew with me. Upon him, men! Cut him down!” So saying, he drew his scimitar, and sprang furiously upon Gervaise. The latter stepped back into the centre of the gateway, so as to prevent the men, who had also drawn their swords, passing to attack him from behind. He had undone the clasp of his bernouse, and allowed it to fall to the ground as he addressed Hassan, and his long sword flashed in the moonlight as the corsair sprang forward.
Hassan was a good swordsman, and his ferocious bravery had rendered him one of the most dreaded of the Moorish rovers. Inferior in strength to Gervaise, he was as active as a cat, and he leapt back with the spring of a panther, avoiding the sweeping blow with which Gervaise had hoped to finish the conflict at once; the latter found himself therefore engaged in a desperate fight with his three assailants. So furiously did they attack him that, foot by foot, he was forced to give ground. As he stepped through the gateway one of the pirates sprang past him, but as he did so, a figure leapt out from beyond the wall, and plunged a dagger into his back, while at the same moment, by cutting down another pirate, Gervaise rid himself of one of his assailants in front; but as he did so, he himself received a severe wound on the left shoulder from Hassan, who, before he could again raise his weapon, sprang upon him, and tried to hurl him to the ground.
Gervaise's superior weight saved him from falling, though he staggered back some paces; then his heel caught against a stone, and he fell, dragging Hassan to the ground with him. Tightly clasped in each other's arms, they rolled over and over. Gervaise succeeded at last in getting the upper hand, but as he did so Hassan twisted his right arm free, snatched the dagger from Gervaise's girdle, and struck furiously at him. Gervaise, who had half risen to his knees, was unable to avoid the blow, but threw himself forward, his weight partly pinning the corsair's shoulders to the ground, and the blow passed behind him, inflicting but a slight wound in the back; then, with his right hand, which was now free, he grasped Hassan by the throat with a grip of iron. The pirate struggled convulsively for a moment, then his left hand released his grasp of his opponent's wrist. A minute later Gervaise rose to his feet: the pirate was dead.
Gervaise stooped and raised the fallen man's head from the ground, felt for the chain, pulled up Claudia's gage, and placed it round his own neck; then he turned to his guide.
“I have to thank you for my life,” he said, holding out his hand to him. “It would have gone hard with me if that fellow had attacked me from behind. I had not bargained for three of them.”
“I could not help it, my lord. It was not until Hassan had stepped down into the boat that I knew he was going to take any one with him; then he suddenly told two of his men to take their places by him, saying to me, as he did so, 'I know not whether this message is a snare; but mind, if I see any signs of treachery, your life at any rate will pay the forfeit.' I knew not what to do, and indeed could do nothing; but, knowing my lord's valour, I thought that, even against these odds, you might conquer with such poor aid as I could give you.”
“It was not poor aid at all,” Gervaise said heartily. “Greatly am I indebted to you, and sorry indeed am I, that I am unable to reward you now for the great service that you have rendered me.”
“Do not trouble about that, my lord. I am greatly mistaken if I do not find in the sashes of these three villains sufficient to repay me amply for my share in this evening's work. And now, my lord, I pray you to linger not a moment. The gates of the town shut at ten o'clock, and it cannot be long from that hour now. But first, I pray you, let me bind up your shoulder; your garment is soaked with blood.”
“Fortunately my bernouse will hide that; but it were certainly best to staunch the blood before I start, for it would be hard for me to get at the wound myself.”
The man took one of the sashes of the corsairs, tore it into s............
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