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'almé?" (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'almé, 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'almé, by the beard of M'hámed, 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'almé," 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'almé, 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'almé! 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'almé, 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'almé—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'almé."
"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'almé. 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'almé, 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.