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- Queen Sheba's Ring - 3/54 -
"With a howl of rage, for I had desecrated their sanctuary, they sprang at me. To save my life, coward that I was, I fled back through the gates. Yes, after all those years of seeking, still I fled rather than die, and though I was wounded with a spear and stones, managed to reach and spring upon my horse. Then, as I was headed off from our camp, I galloped away anywhere, still to save my miserable life from those savages, so strongly is the instinct of self-preservation implanted in us. From a distance I looked back and saw by the light of the fired tents that the Fung were attacking the Arabs with whom I had travelled, I suppose because they thought them parties to the sacrilege. Afterwards I heard that they killed them every one, poor men, but I escaped, who unwittingly had brought their fate upon them.
"On and on I galloped up a steep road. I remember hearing lions roaring round me in the darkness. I remember one of them springing upon my horse and the poor beast's scream. Then I remember no more till I found myself--I believe it was a week or so later--lying on the verandah of a nice house, and being attended by some good-looking women of an Abyssinian cast of countenance."
"Sounds rather like one of the lost tribes of Israel," remarked Higgs sarcastically, puffing at his big meerschaum.
"Yes, something of that sort. The details I will give you later. The main facts are that these people who picked me up outside their gates are called Abati, live in a town called Mur, and allege themselves to be descended from a tribe of Abyssinian Jews who were driven out and migrated to this place four or five centuries ago. Briefly, they look something like Jews, practise a very debased form of the Jewish religion, are civilized and clever after a fashion, but in the last stage of decadence from interbreeding--about nine thousand men is their total fighting force, although three or four generations ago they had twenty thousand--and live in hourly terror of extermination by the surrounding Fung, who hold them in hereditary hate as the possessors of the wonderful mountain fortress that once belonged to their forefathers."
"Gibraltar and Spain over again," suggested Orme.
"Yes, with this difference--that the position is reversed, the Abati of this Central African Gibraltar are decaying, and the Fung, who answer to the Spaniards, are vigorous and increasing."
"Well, what happened?" asked the Professor.
"Nothing particular. I tried to persuade these Abati to organize an expedition to rescue my son, but they laughed in my face. By degrees I found out that there was only one person among them who was worth anything at all, and she happened to be their hereditary ruler who bore the high-sounding titles of Walda Nagasta, or Child of Kings, and Takla Warda, or Bud of the Rose, a very handsome and spirited young woman, whose personal name is Maqueda----"
"One of the names of the first known Queens of Sheba," muttered Higgs; "the other was Belchis."
"Under pretence of attending her medically," I went on, "for otherwise their wretched etiquette would scarcely have allowed me access to one so exalted, I talked things over with her. She told me that the idol of the Fung is fashioned like a huge sphinx, or so I gathered from her description of the thing, for I have never seen it."
"What!" exclaimed Higgs, jumping up, "a sphinx in North Central Africa! Well, after all, why not? Some of the earlier Pharaohs are said to have had dealings with that part of the world, or even to have migrated from it. I think that the Makreezi repeats the legend. I suppose that it is ram-headed."
"She told me also," I continued, "that they have a tradition, or rather a belief, which amounts to an article of faith, that if this sphinx or god, which, by the way, is lion, not ram-headed, and is called Harmac----"
"Harmac!" interrupted Higgs again. "That is one of the names of the sphinx--Harmachis, god of dawn."
"If this god," I repeated, "should be destroyed, the nation of the Fung, whose forefathers fashioned it as they say, must move away from that country across the great river which lies to the south. I have forgotten its name at the moment, but I think it must be a branch of the Nile.
"I suggested to her that, in the circumstances, her people had better try to destroy the idol. Maqueda laughed and said it was impossible, since the thing was the size of a small mountain, adding that the Abati had long ago lost all courage and enterprise, and were content to sit in their fertile and mountain-ringed land, feeding themselves with tales of departed grandeur and struggling for rank and high- sounding titles, till the day of doom overtook them.
"I inquired whether she were also content, and she replied, 'Certainly not'; but what could she do to regenerate her people, she who was nothing but a woman, and the last of an endless line of rulers?
"'Rid me of the Fung,' she added passionately, 'and I will give you such a reward as you never dreamed. The old cave-city yonder is full of treasure that was buried with its ancient kings long before we came to Mur. To us it is useless, since we have none to trade with, but I have heard that the peoples of the outside world worship gold.'
"'I do not want gold,' I answered; 'I want to rescue my son who is a prisoner yonder.'
"'Then,' said the Child of Kings, 'you must begin by helping us to destroy the idol of the Fung. Are there no means by which this can be done?'
"'There are means,' I replied, and I tried to explain to her the properties of dynamite and of other more powerful explosives.
"'Go to your own land,' she exclaimed eagerly, 'and return with that stuff and two or three who can manage it, and I swear to them all the wealth of Mur. Thus only can you win my help to save your son.'"
"Well, what was the end?" asked Captain Orme.
"This: They gave me some gold and an escort with camels which were literally lowered down a secret path in the mountains so as to avoid the Fung, who ring them in and of whom they are terribly afraid. With these people I crossed the desert to Assouan in safety, a journey of many weeks, where I left them encamped about sixteen days ago, bidding them await my return. I arrived in England this morning, and as soon as I could ascertain that you still lived, and your address, from a book of reference called /Who's Who/, which they gave me in the hotel, I came on here."
"Why did you come to me? What do you want me to do?" asked the Professor.
"I came to you, Higgs, because I know how deeply you are interested in anything antiquarian, and because I wished to give you the first opportunity, not only of winning wealth, but also of becoming famous as the discoverer of the most wonderful relics of antiquity that are left in the world."
"With a very good chance of getting my throat cut thrown in," grumbled Higgs.
"As to what I want you to do," I went on, "I want you to find someone who understands explosives, and will undertake the business of blowing up the Fung idol."
"Well, that's easy enough, anyhow," said the Professor, pointing to Captain Orme with the bowl of his pipe, and adding, "he is an engineer by education, a soldier and a very fair chemist; also he knows Arabic and was brought up in Egypt as a boy--just the man for the job if he will go."
I reflected a moment, then, obeying some sort of instinct, looked up and asked:
"Will you, Captain Orme, if terms can be arranged?"
"Yesterday," he replied, colouring a little, "I should have answered, 'Certainly not.' To-day I answer that I am prepared to consider the matter--that is, if Higgs will go too, and you can enlighten me on certain points. But I warn you that I am only an amateur in the three trades that the Professor has mentioned, though, it is true, one with some experience."
"Would it be rude to inquire, Captain Orme, why twenty-four hours have made such a difference in your views and plans?"
"Not rude, only awkward," he replied, colouring again, this time more deeply. "Still, as it is best to be frank, I will tell you. Yesterday I believed myself to be the inheritor of a very large fortune from an uncle whose fatal illness brought me back from South Africa before I meant to come, and as whose heir I have been brought up. To-day I have learned for the first time that he married secretly, last year, a woman much below him in rank, and has left a child, who, of course, will take all his property, as he died intestate. But that is not all. Yesterday I believed myself to be engaged to be married; to-day I am undeceived upon that point also. The lady," he added with some bitterness, "who was willing to marry Anthony Orme's heir is no longer willing to marry Oliver Orme, whose total possessions amount to under £10,000. Well, small blame to her or to her relations, whichever it may be, especially as I understand that she has a better alliance in view. Certainly her decision has simplified matters," and he rose and walked to the other end of the room.
"Shocking business," whispered Higgs; "been infamously treated," and he proceeded to express his opinion of the lady concerned, of her relatives, and of the late Anthony Orme, shipowner, in language that, if printed, would render this history unfit for family reading. The outspokenness of Professor Higgs is well known in the antiquarian world, so there is no need for me to enlarge upon it.
"What I do not exactly understand, Adams," he added in a loud voice, seeing that Orme had turned again, "and what I think we should both like to know, is /your/ exact object in making these proposals."
"I am afraid I have explained myself badly. I thought I had made it clear that I have only one object--to attempt the rescue of my son, if he still lives, as I believe he does. Higgs, put yourself in my position. Imagine yourself with nothing and no one left to care for except a single child, and that child stolen away from you by savages. Imagine yourself, after years of search, hearing his very voice, seeing his very face, adult now, but the same, the thing you had dreamed of and desired for years; that for which you would have given
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