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- Queen Sheba's Ring - 50/54 -
suppose I must suck it, that's all. Oh! if only the luck would turn, if only the luck would turn!"
Three more days went by without any sign of Higgs's aspiration being fulfilled. On the contrary, except in one respect, the luck remained steadily against us. The exception was that we got plenty to eat and consequently regained our normal state of health and strength more rapidly than might have been expected. With us it was literally a case of "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."
Only somehow I don't think that any of us really believed that we should die, though whether this was because we had all, except poor Quick, survived so much, or from a sneaking faith in Maqueda's optimistic dreams, I cannot say. At any rate we ate our food with appetite, took exercise in an inner yard of the prison, and strove to grow as strong as we could, feeling that soon we might need all our powers. Oliver was the most miserable among us, not for his own sake, but because, poor fellow, he was haunted with fears as to Maqueda and her fate, although of these he said little or nothing to us. On the other hand, my son Roderick was by far the most cheerful. He had lived for so many years upon the brink of death that this familiar gulf seemed to have no terrors for him.
"All come right somehow, my father," he said airily. "Who can know what happen? Perhaps Child of King drag us out of mud-hole, for after all she was very strong cow, or what you call it, heifer, and I think toss Joshua if he drive her into corner. Or perhaps other thing occur."
"What other thing, Roderick?" I asked.
"Oh! don't know, can't say, but I think Fung thing. Believe we not done with Fung yet, believe they not run far. Believe they take thought for morrow and come back again. Only," he added sadly, "hope my wife not come back, for that old girl too full of lofty temper for me. Still, cheer up, not dead yet by long day's march, and meanwhile food good and this very jolly rest after beastly underground city. Now I tell Professor some more stories about Fung religion, den of lions, and so forth."
On the morning after this conversation a crisis came. Just as we had finished breakfast the doors of our chamber were thrown open and in marched a number of soldiers wearing Joshua's badge. They were headed by an officer of his household, who commanded us to rise and follow him.
"Where to?" asked Orme.
"To take your trial before the Child of Kings and her Council, Gentile, upon the charge of having murdered certain of her subjects," answered the officer sternly.
"That's all right," said Higgs with a sigh of relief. "If Maqueda is chairman of the Bench we are pretty certain of an acquittal, for Orme's sake if not for our own."
"Don't you be too sure of that," I whispered into his ear. "The circumstances are peculiar, and women have been known to change their minds."
"Adams," he replied, glaring at me through his smoked spectacles, "If you talk like that we shall quarrel. Maqueda change her mind indeed! Why, it is an insult to suggest such a thing, and if you take my advice you won't let Oliver hear you. Don't you remember, man, that she's in love with him?"
"Oh, yes," I answered, "but I remember also that Prince Joshua is in love with her, and that she is his prisoner."
THE TRIAL AND AFTER
They set us in a line, four ragged-looking fellows, all of us with beards of various degrees of growth, that is, all the other three, for mine had been an established fact for years, and everything having been taken away from us, we possessed neither razor nor scissors.
In the courtyard of our barrack we were met by a company of soldiers, who encircled us about with a triple line of men, as we thought to prevent any attempt of escape. So soon as we passed the gates I found, however, that this was done for a different reason, namely, to protect us from the fury of the populace. All the way from the barrack to the courthouse, whither we were being taken now that the palace was burned, the people were gathered in hundreds, literally howling for our blood. It was a strange, and, in a way, a dreadful sight to see even the brightly dressed women and children shaking their fists and spitting at us with faces distorted by hate.
"Why they love you so little, father, when you do so much for them?" asked Roderick, shrugging his shoulders and dodging a stone that nearly hit him on the head.
"For two reasons," I answered. "Because their Lady loves one of us too much, and because through us many of their people have lost their lives. Also they hate strangers, and are by nature cruel, like most cowards, and now that they have no more fear of the Fung, they think it will be safe to kill us."
"Ah!" said Roderick; "yet Harmac has come to Mur," and he pointed to the great head of the idol seated on the cliff, "and I think where Harmac goes, Fung follow, and if so they make them pay plenty for my life, for I great man among Fung; Fung myself husband of Sultan's daughter. These fools, like children, because they see no Fung, think there are no Fung. Well, in one year, or perhaps one month, they learn."
"I daresay, my boy," I answered, "but I am afraid that won't help us."
By now we were approaching the court-house where the Abati priests and learned men tried civil and some criminal cases. Through a mob of nobles and soldiers who mocked us as we went, we were hustled into the large hall of judgment that was already full to overflowing.
Up the centre of it we marched to a clear space reserved for the parties to a cause, or prisoners and their advocates, beyond which, against the wall, were seats for the judges. These were five members of the Council, one of whom was Joshua, while in the centre as President of the Court, and wearing her veil and beautiful robes of ceremony, sat Maqueda herself.
"Thank God, she's safe!" muttered Oliver with a gasp of relief.
"Yes," answered Higgs, "but what's she doing there? She ought to be in the dock, too, not on the Bench."
We reached the open space, and were thrust by soldiers armed with swords to where we must stand, and although each of us bowed to her, I observed that Maqueda took not the slightest notice of our salutations. She only turned her head and said something to Joshua on her right, which caused him to laugh.
Then with startling suddenness the case began. A kind of public prosecutor stood forward and droned out the charge against us. It was that we, who were in the employ of the Abati, had traitorously taken advantage of our position as mercenary captains to stir up a civil war, in which many people had lost their lives, and some been actually murdered by ourselves and our companion who was dead. Moreover, that we had caused their palace to be burned and, greatest crime of all, had seized the sacred person of the Walda Nagasta, Rose of Mur, and dragged her away into the recesses of the underground city, whence she was only rescued by the chance of an accomplice of ours, one Japhet, betraying our hiding-place.
This was the charge which, it will be noted, contained no allusion whatever to the love entanglement between Maqueda and Oliver. When it was finished the prosecutor asked us what we pleaded, whereon Oliver answered as our spokesman that it was true there had been fighting and men killed, also that we had been driven into the cave, but as to all the rest the Child of Kings knew the truth, and must speak for us as she wished.
Now the audience began to shout, "They plead guilty! Give them to death!" and so forth, while the judges rising from their seats, gathered round Maqueda and consulted her.
"By heaven! I believe she is going to give us away!" exclaimed Higgs, whereon Oliver turned on him fiercely and bade him hold his tongue, adding:
"If you were anywhere else you should answer for that slander!"
At length the consultation was finished; the judges resumed their seats, and Maqueda held up her hand. Thereon an intense silence fell upon the place. Then she began to speak in a cold, constrained voice:
"Gentiles," she said, addressing us, "you have pleaded guilty to the stirring up of civil war in Mur, and to the slaying of numbers of its people, facts of which there is no need for evidence, since many widows and fatherless children can testify to them to-day. Moreover, you did, as alleged by my officer, commit the crime of bearing off my person into the cave and keeping me there by force to be a hostage for your safety."
We heard and gasped, Higgs ejaculating, "Good gracious, what a lie!" But none of the rest of us said anything.
"For these offences," went on Maqueda, "you are all of you justly worthy of a cruel death." Then she paused and added, "Yet, as I have the power to do, I remit the sentence. I decree that this day you and all the goods that remain to you which have been found in the cave city, and elsewhere, together with camels for yourselves and your baggage, shall be driven from Mur, and that if any one of you returns hither, he shall without further trial be handed over to the executioners. This I do because at the beginning of your service a certain bargain was made with you, and although you have sinned so deeply I will not suffer that the glorious honour of the Abati people shall be tarnished even by the breath of suspicion. Get you gone, Wanderers, and let us see your faces no more for ever!"
Now the mob gathered in the hall shouted in exultation, though I heard some crying out, "No, kill them! Kill them!"
When the tumult had died down Maqueda spoke again saying:
"O noble and generous Abati, you approve of this deed of mercy; you who would not be held merciless in far lands, O Abati, where, although you may not have heard of them, there are, I believe, other peoples
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