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In Which We Return to Korzeniowski's Superlative Account of the Misdeeds of the Sorcerer and his Loyal But Stupid Apprentice as the Desperate Twain Continue their Attempts to Evade the Forces of Justice; Indeed, Now Compound Their Crimes with Further Acts of Malice and Chicanery. Herewith, the Conclusion of Korzeniowski's tale.


The Last of the Line
By Korzeniowski Laebmauntsforscynneweëld
(concluding portion)

"Going up that road," continued Barley, "was like entering a vegetarian's nightmare, a semi-insane cacophony of ferns and cycads and mosses and vines and—most of all—the trees; endless trees! Huge, but numberless—like an army of leafy kings looming over us in judgment. Impenetrable, silent—but not the silence of peace, no, it was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over the vengeful aspect of its inscrutable intention to prosecute enigmatic purposes aimed at unknowable ends.

"Trees, trees, trees, trees, trees—at their foot, hugging the narrow path, crept the little coach, timid, tentative, a fearful mouse creeping about the catacombs of the Temple—no, not even!—rather, a sightless worm slithering under the shadows cast by the sarcophagi of mummified emperors. It made you feel very small, very alone, very lost—but glad to be lost; hoping not to be noticed by anything—very insignificant, completely insignificant; insignificance defined as never before—and glad of it—wanting to be insignificant!—yearning for microscopic status!—very—"

"Will you get on with it, Barley?" growled the Director. "Pretty soon you'll be babbling about the heart of darkness and God knows what else."

"Well, yes,—but! In any event. Around midday a roll of drums—fear! prehistoric the fear and the cause of it—did it mean war?—or peace?—prayer?—well!—we could not tell; but the drum roll passed, fell behind; became distant; more hours passed.

"Just then it happened. It must have been four in the afternoon; the sun's rays filtered through the forest at a pronounced angle, although it was still daylight. The dwarf had been staring out the window all day; long after the rest of us had turned away from the overpowering stillness, he continued to peer into the gloom. Several times he tugged at the wizard's sleeve to point out some feature of the forest that the gnome found of especial interest—he alone of us seemed enraptured, oblivious to the looming sense of disaster. Now again the dwarf tugged at his master's sleeve; nothing to note—but perhaps it was the look in his eyes, impossible to recapture. Whatever it was, I was moved to peer out the window. For a moment I saw nothing; nothing—a gloom; massed trees; immensity of forest. Then—a hint of motion; vagueness—I thought, an animal disturbed by the passing coach; but then, just then—suddenly—like the veil of fog stripped for an instant from the unremarked wave just when it crests; an empty casket just then mysteriously filled—I peered right through the dimness and the shrouding branches, became still—what was it? My blood congealed in my veins.

"The coach came to a sudden halt. The passengers were thrown about in confusion; before we could untangle ourselves the doors were flung wide; the driver and the guard piled in; slammed the doors behind; scrambled into the baggage racks above the seats; cowered behind the luggage. And now—this very moment—it was as if a wind swept away the gloom and for the first time we saw the forest clearly, saw it for what it was. Screams of horror rent the still arboreal air; the passengers swarmed with panic—Sir Carayne shouting at the guard and driver, ordering them to their duty; but they just burrowed deeper into the baggage. There was nothing to be done—we stared at one another with frozen eyes; immobilized—lost, doomed—gripped in terror.

"Just then the wizard looked up from his parchment and peered out the window. 'Forest snarls!' he exclaimed. 'And most magnificent specimens of the breed!' To our astonishment, he opened the door and stepped down. 'Come, dwarf, this opportunity cannot be lost. It is extraordinarily rare that one has the opportunity to examine the forest snarl in his natural state; and there is no other, for the beasts cannot be kept in captivity.' The dwarf, normally so timid, immediately followed his master, almost—I would have said—eagerly. Hastily we slammed the door behind them. The monsters beyond drew near; just then, from the forest, moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.

"She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flap of barbarous ornaments, carrying her head high—her hair in the shape of a helmet—her breasts high—her buttocks high—everything high! She had brass leggings, brass gauntlets, brass breastplates, brass bellyband, brass buttplates—a tawny flush on her dusky cheek; a set of six necklaces of beads and cowry shells on her sultry neck—charms, bizarre things hanging from every part of her voluptuous body—you'd hardly think she could walk—but what a body!—did I mention that?—she was savage and superb and wild-eyed and magnificent and unblushing and brazen-faced and immodest and—

" 'What a piece!' cried Sir Carayne. A vast and guttural roar rose from the great throats of every snarl lurking in the forest. The knight blanched and fell back; all concupiscence fled from his face—mine too—then—suddenly; she opened her arms and threw them rigid over her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky; the swift shadows darted out from the trees, onto the path, gathering the coach in their embrace. Then, staring directly at the wizard, she asked—'What do you seek?'

" 'I myself, madame,' we heard the wizard speak, 'wish to advance my knowledge of the lore of snarls. There is a great mystery which surrounds these beasts, which I have not yet fathomed. It emerges even in the most ancient texts.'

"Silence; then—astonishing! The monsters suddenly circled the dwarf, sat back on their huge haunches, gazed down at the gnome with an intensity impossible to describe. They whined softly in their throats, as if puzzled and confused. For his part, the little runt stared back, completely unafraid—or so it seemed. Then, the woman spoke again. 'If you would know about the snarls, ask them,' she said to the wizard; a motion of her hand—the largest of the monsters left the circle around the dwarf and padded over to stand, like a statue, before the sorcerer.

The giant creature spoke, the voice issuing with a strange timbre—hoarse, bestial, yet not without a palpable strength, an immensity, like the forest itself. 'So—you would know about snarls?'

" 'Certes!' spoke the sorcerer. 'From whence do you come?'

" 'We have always lived in the forest.'

"The wizard cleared his throat. 'Sirrah snarl—'

" 'Forest snarl,' growled the beast. 'I am a forest snarl—not a desert snarl, not a mountain snarl, not a swamp snarl—a forest snarl; my gorge rises when the distinction is lost.'

" 'Most certainly!' spoke the mage. 'As it happens, the sharp distinction between greater and lesser breeds of snarls has long been one of my philosophy's principal tenets.' He cleared his throat again. 'Sirrah forest snarl, I have learned in my studies that there can be more than one meaning to the same word, a different purport poured into the same verbal vessel, if you will—nevertheless, it is possible—'

" 'Cut to the chase,' growled the snarl. A hideous purple tongue licked its immense jaws. 'If you will pardon the expression.'

"Another clearing of the wizard's throat. 'Quite so. Then, let me ask—how long is "always"?'

" 'Wizard, we were here in the time of Joe.'

" 'Blasphemy!' cried out the cleric, who suddenly lunged from the seat where he had been cowering and leaned out the window. 'O gross animism! Idolatry! J—nay, I cannot speak his name—this creature is a concoction of heathen fantasies! The legend is an abhorrence before God!' He stretched forth a hand to the woman. 'Repent, urchin of the forest! Repent! For while an anarchist beast has no soul and may utter abominations with wild abandon, you stand in mortal peril—nay, immortal peril! Take heed! For the wrath of—'; a snarl glided to the coach and rose up before the parson; two gruesome paws seized the door. The monster was mute; but its gaze was enough to send the parson reeling back, ashen-faced. 'Shut up, you fool,' hissed La Contessa.

"The wizard made to continue his questioning, but the woman cut him short. 'Begone, sirrah. The snarls grow restless; of all human flesh, my friends find that of clerics sweetest—they say the sanctimony adds flavor to the meat.' She turned slowly away and passed into the forest; once only her eyes gleamed back. Then all was silence; the snarls vanished as if by magic—but I saw the huge one stop for a moment in front of the dwarf, and lick his face with that horrid purple tongue.

" 'Come, dwarf,' spoke the wizard. 'We shall pursue our investigations upon some other occasion.' The two returned to the coach. Meanwhile Sir Carayne, his courage of a sudden regained, roared at the driver and the guard. 'Get out, you dogs!' He yanked the shivering fellows out of the baggage rack and booted them out the door. 'Back to your posts! Knaves! Deserters!' They made no protest; clear enough it was their only thought to depart the area at once. In a moment the coach was clattering down the path at a reckless pace.

"Most of us—you can imagine—were overjoyed to see the incident past; not so the mage. 'You, sirrah,' he stormed at the cleric, 'have by your folly impeded the progress of science!' The cleric, who had been blubbering in terror since hearing of the dietary preference of snarls, burst forth in reply—'My God-given duty it is to forestall paganry! The very mention of J—nay, that cursed name!—uttered, the very name alone is grounds sufficient for inquisition!'

" 'Bah!' oathed the wizard. 'Maunderings of a puerile fool! How can one avoid discussion of Joe? Is not every noteworthy geographic feature twixt land and sea named after him? Do we not refer to that great ocean around whose vast expanse almost all civilized lands exist by the name of Joe's Sea? Are not the very mountains which form the spine of Grotum—and upon whose crest, I might mention, perches the Temple of the Ecclesiarchs—named Joe's Mountains?'

" 'Not by the Ecclesiarchs!' cried the parson. 'Those mountains are properly named the Prominences of Holiness—and the sea is named the Ocean of Devotion. So hath the church decreed!'

" 'Bah!' oathed the wizard. 'None but superstitious mummers use those preposterous names! Joe's Sea and Joe's Mountains—such are the names used by illuminati and common folk alike.' He turned to Il Conde and his wife. 'You are gentle folk. I ask you—what do you call the aforementioned geographic items?'

" 'Joe's Sea and Joe's Mountains,' replied La Contessa promptly. 'Everybody does—but I always thought they were just names; do you mean that they are actually named after somebody—I mean, somebody real?'

" 'Milady!' wailed the cleric, aghast. 'Think upon your soul! Think upon the gates of Paradise closed before your beseeching pleas! Think—'

" 'Oh, shut up, you old bore! I want to hear about Joe. Tell me!'—This last to the wizard; the parson lapsed into a pained silence; his hands covered his ears.

" 'In reply to your query, madame,' spoke the wizard, 'it is difficult to speak with precision. Of all legends and myths, none is so fascinating as that of Joe—none so full of weird portent; none so pregnant with veiled surmise.'

"He paused for a moment; then continued. 'By my studies, I have deduced that he was the first of the Grotum People, that long-since-vanished race of primevals believed to have inhabited this land at the dawn of time. For years, the opinion advanced by Leakey Laebmauntsforscynneweëld—that the Grotum People were an offshoot of the human family which died out without issue—was accepted by all students of paleoanthropology without question. In recent years, however, Leakey's cousin Johanson Laebmauntsforscynneweëld has argued that the Grotum People were, in fact, the direct ancestors of modern humanity, and has even advanced a handful of fossil remains to substantiate his claims.'

" 'I myself accept neither of these views, for I tend rather to agree with the more ancient view of the venerable F. Mayer Laebmauntsforscynneweëld that all these purported "vanished species" and "extinct races" are confused myths of deformed, but human, personages. Thus even the existence of this legendary race of proto-humans, these "Grotum People," remains, to my mind, unproved. But this is not the sole mystery surrounding the matter—by no means! For, if the Grotum People did exist, they disappeared most strangely—overnight, it would seem; with no apparent reason. Other than Johanson's questionable fossils, the only record exists in the folklore of primitive savages—and in the shorter tales told by night round gypsy campfires, in the darkness of troglodyte caves, in the tenement cellars of dwarves; and, of course, in the ravings of revolutionists and such-like heteroclites; even there, little is said, for little is known.'

" 'On one point all legends agree—the Grotum People were giants, much larger than modern folk; though given, it would appear, to great hairiness and frightful deformities. Beyond that, the stories are obscure, apocryphal, fragmented, contradictory—opaque in all aspects. Only a single substantive scrap of verse remains extant concerning the life of Joe himself; this, a chant sung by the wild men of the Sssuj at the initiation rites of puberty.'"

"Oh, Mrs. Lang—" whispered the Director of Companies; Barley coughed—hurried on—

" 'Would milady care to hear this chant?' asked the wizard. 'Certes!' came her answer.

" 'I have had my apprentice commit it to memory—no small feat, I assure you!—though less so on this occasion than usual, I will grant the dolt that. Dwarf, recite Joe's Chant!' The gnome sat up straight on the edge of the seat, his legs dangling. His beady little eyes glazed with effort; then, in a shrill voice, the following—

One day Joe was loping along
and all the people came up to him.
All this loping along is killing us,
We need something to keep us going,
they said

So Joe invented food.
But one day Joe was loping along
and all the people came up to him.
All this loping along is boring,
There must be something else to do,
they said.

So Joe invented fucking.
But one day Joe was loping along
and all the people came up to him.
Ever since you invented food and fucking,
there's too many people and not enough food,
they said.

So Joe invented work.
But one day Joe was loping along
and all the people came up to him.
Ever since you invented work,
everything's too hard to keep straight,
they said.

So Joe invented bosses.
But one day Joe was loping along
and all the bosses came up to him.
The people won't listen to our bossing,
and they tell us we're full of shit,
they said.

So Joe invented cops.
But one day Joe was loping along
and the bosses and cops came up to him.
We've got to have some cover,
So the people'll stop calling us hogs,
they said.

So Joe invented priests.
But one day Joe was loping along,
and all the priests came up to him.
We've almost got everything perfect,
But we still need that last big push,
they said.

So Joe invented God.
But one day Joe was loping along,
and God came up to him.
Ever since you invented Me,
you're nothing but a dangerous nuisance,
He said.
So God froze Joe in a flash ice age.

" 'How fascinating!' exclaimed La Contessa. 'A crude verse,' grumbled Il Conde, 'utterly lacking in rhyme or cultured meter.' The wizard shrugged. 'As to that, milord, 'tis true enough. But what would you? The savages of the Sssuj are well known to be bestial. Think of the ingratitude with which they have greeted all attempts to bring the benefits of civilization into their midst—merchants and traders broiled and baked—entire armies tossed into the stew pot! And what of the fate of Father Cosmo?—too horrid to contemplate!'"

"Oh, Mrs. Lang—" whispered the Director of Companies; Barley coughed—hurried on—

"Silence followed; the coach clattered and battered down the path—the natural darkness of the forest deepened; twilight drew near; then, just as the last rays of the sun flickered out like emblems of hope snuffed by an immutable fate, we burst out of the forest gloom; a great interminable plain stretched before us—barren beyond belief, but it was a welcome relief from the Grimwald—a cheer went up.

"The coach continued its mad pace down the road, which seemed now to have straightened to an unswerving line, as if drawn by a great rule for an obscure purpose. Suddenly—it was dark now—we stopped; no inn was to be seen. Perhaps, I thought, it is a ways off down the road—it was impossible now to see more than a few feet. But it wasn't so; the driver clambered down, came to the window; 'might's well get some sleep,' he said. 'There's no hostel in these parts—not till we get to the Caravanserai tomorrow; you'll have to sleep in the coach.'

" 'What about our evening repast?' demanded the knight. 'Dunno,' replied the driver indifferently. 'Brought m'own.' He vanished into the darkness. 'Insolence!' bellowed Sir Carayne; he turned fiercely on the messenger. 'You, sirrah! You are an agent of this company—what is the meaning of this outrage?'

"The messenger looked up from his case, now open on his knees; a small sandwich in his hands—clearly he had traveled this route before! 'The GGNESW etc. is in no way at fault,' he sneered. 'You have no grounds for complaint. Shelter is provided by the stout walls of this coach'—not without humor, this man, I now perceived—'and, as for food, you should have thought upon it earlier and brought your own, as I have done; failing that, nothing prevents you from foraging—though, I should tell you, they do not call this region the Drear for nothing.'

"The messenger ate his meal in silence; the rest of us, grumbling, settled down to sleep. There was nothing to be gained by blundering about a pitch-black wilderness hunting for rabbits—so much was clear.

"We set out at dawn the next morning. There was still a long day's journey before us if we were to reach the Caravanserai by nightfall. As the sun rose, we gazed over this new stretch of territory.

"What a cursed wasteland! I still shiver to think of it; behind, on the horizon, the dark mass of the Grimwald could be seen for some little while—ugly as it was, I was almost sorry to see it slip out of sight. Now nothing surrounded us but the Drear. The Drear! Never, I think, have I seen a place so aptly named! Nothing; nothing-ness—that's it! It was the most barren desert conceivable, inscrutable in its immensity, but without the searing heat that makes most deserts such a reassuringly palpable experience. Parallels everywhere, the land and the sky, the four points of the compass—a sameness!—to all points and every place between stretched this flat—utterly flat!—spread of naked soil. Hard, crusted dirt; nothing else—quite literally, nothing else; and gray!—not brown; can you imagine that? Gray soil, not brown soil—inscrutable, unknowable—of course, no trees!—but neither was there vegetation of any kind; not a bush, not a shrub, not a flower, not a weed, not a blade of grass. Even the soil itself was of that same opaque uniformity; upon that vast plain not a rock stood higher than a clot of earth.

" 'A pleasing symmetry, is it not?' commented the wizard; but his apprentice averted his gaze. No one responded—silence; so it went for several hours. Then, shortly after noon, the first break in the monotony appeared; Sir Carayne, leaning out the window—suddenly he cried—'Look! Up ahead!—a boulder!' We rushed to the window. Sure enough!—ahead, barely on the horizon, a boulder stood by the roadside. Not an especially large boulder, mind you—rather small, totally unremarkable, in fact; but in the midst of that wasteland it was a beacon in the darkness—an oasis—a work of art! We sat back in our seats, laughing a bit—so great the despondency of that place! The coach rolled on; then, suddenly—

" 'Stand and deliver!'

"The coach screeched to a halt. We rushed to the windows—who had cried out?—we wondered; but nothing; nothing was to be seen but the boulder, next to which the coach was drawn—and it was far too small for a man to hide behind. Except for that, the Drear stretched away in its awful solitude, unbroken in every direction.

"The messenger sighed and resumed his seat. 'It is Rascogne de Sevigneois,' he said gloomily. 'Who?' we demanded. 'Rascogne de Sevigneois, the highwayman; it can be no other.' 'But there is no one to be seen!' protested Sir Carayne. 'He is a master of disguises,' replied the messenger.

"In confirmation, at that very moment the mysterious voice was heard again. 'It is I, Rascogne de Sevigneois, cunningly disguised as a small boulder!' We rushed to the window anew—sure enough; imagine our astonishment! There—where we had thought to see a small gray boulder—stood instead a horseman—brightly caparisoned in scarlet cloak, emerald breeches, ruffled shirt, floppy feathered hat; a rapier scabbarded to his side. The fellow was short, very muscular; swarthy of complexion; his face adorned by an aquiline nose and dazzling white teeth, grinning at us from beneath a monstrous pair of waxed mustachios. He sprang from his horse and bounded over to the coach. Doffing his hat with a flourish, he opened the door.

" 'Alight, my good people! Commerce awaits us!'

"The driver and the guard—the latter dropping his crossbow as if it were a hot poker—climbed down from the coach and stood to one side; they seemed not overly aroused—plain as day, they had no intention of resisting the brute. 'Knaves!' roared the knight, shaking his fist at the two. Then, glaring fiercely at the highwayman—he flung himself out of the coach, his broadsword clutched in a meaty fist. 'Know, footpad,' he bellowed at Rascogne—the rascal's grin growing more impudent by the second as he bounded about, from level soil to coach top to saddle to ground—'that here you deal not with a brace of scurvy coachmen, but with a belted knight of the realm!' And with that, Sir Carayne swung a terrific blow at the robber. But he misjudged the character of the foe—for in a movement too quick for the eye to follow, the highwayman drew his rapier and deflected the broadsword with the greatest of ease.

" 'Aha!' cried the rogue. 'A duel! A merry duel!' He bounded from the ground to the saddle to the top of the coach to the ground to the top of Sir Carayne's head to the ground to the saddle and back to the ground again; his dark eyes gleamed with amusement. 'You seek to undo Rascogne de Sevigneois! Take, then, varlet, this!' His rapier blurred—in a trice Sir Carayne was disarmed; his belt sliced in two, causing his trousers to fall; and—imagine his chagrin—there, carved upon his chain mail tunic, the words—'Rascogne de Sevigneois finds thee an ill-bred lout.'

"Discretion overcoming the point of honor, Sir Carayne desisted from further combat. Retrieving his sword, he scabbarded it; then—was forced to clutch his trousers to his waist. The highwayman stretched out his palm; angrily, the flower of the Crapaude tossed over his purse; then—stalked off a ways and glowered at the horizon. Rascogne bounded over to the coach. 'Come, come!' he cried, 'Rascogne awaits!' He held the door open courteously.

"There being nothing else to do, we descended from the coach. The messenger was the first one out, followed by the parson; the wizard and his apprentice came next, the latter toting his gigantic sack; then myself, followed by Il Conde and La Contessa. The latter, however, had no chance to set foot on ground. For, no sooner had her voluptuous figure filled the doorway of the coach than the highwayman's dark features reddened with passion. His eyes gleamed; his teeth sparkled like diamonds. 'Such beauty has not been seen on the Drear in many a day!' exclaimed the villain. La Contessa blushed under his admiring regard. Uttering no further words, Rascogne drew forth a bottle of champagne and two glasses from beneath his cloak; sprang into the coach—the door slammed shut. A boisterous laugh; some murmured words; the popping of a cork; the clink of glasses; some murmured words; a baritone and a soprano voice mingling in gay repartee—then—suddenly the coach was rocking madly on its springs; 'Aha! Furious passion!' came the robber's voice from within.

"At this further outrage, Sir Carayne exploded with rage anew. 'Villain, wouldst do so?' Again he drew his sword and—clutching his pants with the other hand—hobbled to the coach. Rascogne's insolent face appeared above the windowsill. 'Aha!' he cried. 'The gallant knight seeks to throw Rascogne off his stroke! A futile endeavor, clod of a swordsman, I assure you—both my blades are unmatched in their skill!'

"It could not be gainsaid; the coach continued its furious rocking even as the knave effortlessly disarmed Sir Carayne once again, this time carving on the steel of the knight's blade the words—'This rusted kitchen knife is of the same mettle as its owner's member.' Sir Carayne flung himself to the ground, gnawing the earth in bitter humiliation; La Contessa's cries grew louder from within. 'I say,' grumbled Il Conde peevishly, 'I believe that rascal is seducing my wife.' His rheumy eyes squinted suspiciously at the coach, whose bounces now took it quite off the ground. Suddenly a great sigh came from within; all motion ceased; then, a moment later, the highwayman's voice—'Ah, sweet aftermath of love;' the clink of glasses; murmuring voices; then, La Contessa's voice—'Perhaps?' 'Aha!'—this the villain—'let it not be said that Rascogne de Sevigneois left such a fair lady in distress!' A moment later the coach was back at its rocking.

"Disgusting!" bellowed the Director. "Praise God Mrs. Lang wasn't there to witness it! Her pure soul—perhaps she herself!—her alabaster body—ravished—oh God!" His face filled with horror; though it was difficult to discern his features in the tropical nightfall. "Yes, well," said Barley, "they're a passionate lot, the Groutch. In any event, this escapade went on for quite some time—there seemed no end to the energy of the twain. Actually, I became quite concerned for the state of the coach, for that dilapidated vehicle was taking a beating which made the rigors of the past days' journey pale in comparison. At length, however, all was done; the coach remained intact. Stroking his mustachios complacently, the highwayman appeared in the doorway; he sprang to the ground—bounded over to us. 'And what have you to offer me?' he purred. From the window of the coach La Contessa's hand emerged, holding a bejeweled purse. 'Here, dear robber.' But the knave would have none of it—'Nay! Nay! Sweet lady, the pleasure of your smile is quite reward enough!' At this, Sir Carayne could contain himself no longer. Once again he hurled himself upon the dastard, hacking and hewing most vigorously with his sword—but in vain; for the scoundrel, leaping and capering about, voicing scurrilous taunts and gibes, committed the greatest indignities with his rapier upon the person of the knight. Again Sir Carayne flung himself to the ground, resuming his trenchwork.

"Rascogne bounded over to me. Without a word, I handed over my purse. The rascal sprang over to the messenger. 'Ah, my good messenger—we meet again! Your purse, if you please.' 'I never carry one, as you well know,' responded the gloomy voice. 'Your satchel, then!' 'It is empty, as you well know,' responded the gloomy voice, showing the bare contents of the case cuffed to his wrist. 'I have afflicted you so much, then?' asked the rogue, grinning from ear to ear. 'For the moment,' responded the messenger, a bit of heat entering his voice. 'But soon you will be apprehended by the Consortium Constabulary!'

" 'Ah, yes,' jeered Rascogne. 'The famed and feared Agent Grimstalk! But, tell me, how long have he and his dreaded cohorts been hot on my trail?' The messenger scowled; said no more.

"Rascogne then leapt to the cleric. 'And you, sir?' The parson spread his hands, smiling in the manner of one weary of the world and its wicked ways. 'Good sir,' he said, 'I am, as you can see, a man of the cloth. Therefore have I taken a vow of poverty; my sole earthly wealth, the poor clothes you see on my back. You may, if your faith be little, search my pockets to verify the truth.' The highwayman snorted. For the first time, his face clouded with anger. 'Ah, villain, wouldst trifle with me? Deceiver of the poor, meddler with their superstitions, well do I know the wealth you have garnered like the faithful reiver your raiment names you!' His sword flicked out; sliced the collar from the cleric's neck—a small torrent of gems spilled out from hidden pouches. 'Be glad, priestly buzzard, that I dispatch you not to that very place you preach of!' The cleric quailed, but Rascogne turned away and sprang over to the wizard and his apprentice.

"And you, sir?'

"The wizard coughed apologetically. 'I have a small purse, sirrah, of great value to me—not, as it happens, for its intrinsic worth, the which is small, but for its value relative to my present state of wealth, the which is meager. This, however, I cede to you—for, in truth, I am a philosophe, and as such my desire for worldly possessions is faint at all times and subject, moreover, to sudden change; such a change, I might add, as the one which has this very moment o'ertaken me.' He handed over his purse. 'You may also,' he continued, placing his hand upon the dwarf's quivering brow, 'take my apprentice to be your servant—and I will aver, sirrah, that though he is stupid and malformed, my apprentice is capable of carrying great burdens and suffering much deprivation as well, docilely and without excessive complaint.' Again, the apologetic cough; a slight straightening of the shoulders. 'Do not, however, I pray thee, take these my scrolls and tablets, nor these my tomes and talismans, nor these my artifacts and relics; for these are my very life and soul, without which I should be as a man lost on a chip in an endless ocean.'

"The highwayman spat fiercely upon the ground. 'A pox on your sheepskins and toys, pedant—products of an unenlightened age! And as for this, your supposed servant—though more likely, judging from his appearance, some evil imp retrieved from a dank and moldy place—I am more moved to skewer him with my rapier, thereby cleansing the earth of one of the many blots upon its surface. But, I will satisfy myself with your purse;' he snatched said object from the wizard's grasp.

"But then—most unexpected! The wretched gnome hopped forward and kicked the robber's shin. Then—kicked it again, and yet again! 'Just you try it!' he shrilled. 'You just try and stick me with that big knife! I have friends! Snarls, they are—and big ones—and one of them's huge! They'll eat you right up when they find out!'

"I was absolutely astonished—first, at the dwarf's unlikely humor; but then—and more so—at the robber's response; for though Rascogne had drawn his blade, and I imagined the apprentice already buried, he stopped; frowned—for the first time a look of something other than utter surety on his face; then—'Snarls?' he demanded. 'You—a snarl-friend?' 'Well, I am, too!' insisted the dwarf. 'Tell him, master!'

" 'Most strange,' muttered the highwayman. He snapped his fingers at the wizard—'Is this true, what he says?'

" 'As to that,' responded the mage, 'the snarls did seem preoccupied with him—'

" 'The big one licked my face!' cried the dwarf.

" '—but I do not think, at least, judging by the literature—'

" 'Enough!' interrupted Rascogne. 'I did not ask for a lecture. Still, 'tis odd, most odd.' He inspected the dwarf closely, frowning all the while; then—'I shall have to think on this,' he announced. Suddenly, his face cleared. 'Ah—but I forget me! Business first! And my business is not finished.' And with that he turned and sprang over to the side of Il Conde, hand outstretched again.

"Il Conde peered up at him, leaning his frail weight upon his cane. 'You are a scoundrel, I believe,' he whined. 'People think I am nothing but an old fool, who can't see his nose in front of his face; but I have been watching you, sirrah, watching you carefully, and it is my firm conviction that you have, very recently in fact, taken liberties with my wife. Five times, if I am not mistaken.' The highwayman grinned impudently. 'Alas,' here Il Conde shook his ancient head, 'I am an old man, feeble in my limbs; I can assure you, sirrah, were I but fifty years younger you would be in a fine kettle of fish—be sure of it! But, as it is—'

"Grumbling, Il Conde brought forth his purse with a trembling hand, veined and liver-spotted with age. The purse was quite large; Rascogne smiled broadly as he emptied its contents into his hand. 'Quite a catch, here!' he cried. 'Doubloons! Dinars! Drachmas! Shekels! Every manner and variety of fine coin! And—but what's this?' He gazed with puzzlement at a small coin, whose worn and shabby surface contrasted sharply with its gleaming fellows. Il Conde peered more closely; suddenly—his entire body became rigid; his rheumy eyes gaped wide. 'My Ruiz!' he gasped, reaching forth to retrieve it from the robber's hand. Rascogne laughed and sprang backward. 'Aha! The octogenarian seeks to regain his lost treasure! Nay, nay, not so, graybeard! Paltry though it is, this little coin as well must join my booty!'

" 'Monster! Fiend!' wailed Il Conde. 'Unhand that coin!' The ancient threw himself upon the ruffian, belaboring wildly with his cane. 'My Ruiz! My Ruiz!'

"Then—imagine this! Naturally enough, we thought to see Rascogne deal with the old fool as easily as he had done earlier with Sir Carayne; but it was not so, not at all!—so overwrought was Il Conde at the loss of his prized Ruiz that he wielded his cane with a maddened frenzy that should soon have maimed any but the greatest of swordsmen. Rascogne's grin was soon replaced with astonishment, then, as he gave ground before Il Conde's onslaught, to that intent concentration which is the hallmark of all masters of the fencing art.

" 'O doughty dotard!' he exclaimed, parrying the whirling cane, 'O grim gaffer! Well struck—oh, well struck! And yet again!' The highwayman leapt back and forth, his rapier flashing in complex twirls and sweeps; Il Conde's implacable advance continued on tottering legs. 'My Ruiz, my Ruiz,' he wheezed. Never have I seen such a duel! Only Rascogne's genius with a blade sufficed to stave off the oldster's assault; sweat poured down his swarthy, corded neck. He was hard-pressed—more, he was in desperate straits! And now!—Il Conde had him pinned against the side of the coach—there was nowhere to retreat! Now were Rascogne's advantages of sound legs and functioning lungs of little avail—it was sword against cane at close quarters! Slash—stroke—lunge—parry! We were gripped in an intense excitement; the robber was lost!—it was plain to see—the end near, his strength failing at last under the inexorable rain of blows from Il Conde's cane. But then!—I had heard tell of it—dismissed it as a ridiculous fable—Rascogne executed the dégage sixte-carte du droite arriere à la potage de St. Germain! Il Conde was disarmed—the highwayman's swordpoint at his throat! The old nobleman wept bitter tears. 'My Ruiz, my lost Ruiz,' he sobbed.

"Rascogne gasped a breath; sheathed his rapier. 'O valiant vieillard!' he cried, clasping the ancient to his breast. 'Never have I had such a match! Never such an opponent! Never crossed sword with such a cane!' He released Il Conde and drew forth the contested coin. 'Such art deserves its reward!—here, sirrah, take your coin in token of my esteem.' 'My Ruiz,' cried the nobleman, snatching the coin. He tottered off, clutching the piece. 'My Ruiz, my Ruiz,' we heard his faint whisper.

"Just at that moment a distant cry was heard. 'It is Rascogne de Sevigneois! Hold, villain!' Turning, we saw a large body of horsemen, some twenty in number, appear on the western horizon. They drew their swords; galloped hotly toward us. 'Aha!' cried Rascogne. 'A chase! A merry chase!' With a laugh and a shout, the rogue sprang on his horse and galloped off, flourishing his hat at his pursuers. These worthies pounded past the coach a moment later. Grim of face, stern of demeanor, garbed all in black, their capes streamed behind them as they thundered off in the hunt. In a moment, highwayman and pursuers alike had disappeared over the eastern horizon.

" 'It's the Maréchal du Boeuf and the King's Men!' exclaimed the messenger, excitement tingeing his voice. 'Which King?' asked the cleric. 'Nobody remembers,' came the gloomy reply.

"Before long we were on our way. There was no conversation in the coach; the only sound, Il Conde's murmurs and chuckles as he fondled his precious Ruiz. La Contessa slept in contented exhaustion; while Sir Carayne glowered at her the whole way, picking dirt from his teeth. The messenger's gloomy countenance was as always—but matched now by the cleric and the wizard; the former, raining down heavenly curses—the latter, sorcerous hexes—upon the highwayman. The dwarf, on the other hand, seemed rather cheerful.

"We reached the Caravanserai with the setting sun. Its lingering rays lit up the white stone walls of the oasis. The minarets gleamed for a moment; then, twilight overtook them as well. The gates of the Caravanserai swung wide; before long we had pulled up into the courtyard of the depot—and debarked. The last I saw of the Rebel and his companion was the wizard's back and the dwarf's little legs, twinkling under his great sack, as they vanished into the darkness."

Barley ceased, and sat apart, silent and indistinct, with the poise of a mystic. For a time, no one moved, or spoke; then—

"We have lost the flow of ambition," said the Director of Companies. "We are caught within the tides." Another silence—then: "Curse the Rebel."

I raised my head; the tranquil lagoon at the uttermost end of the earth lapped somber under an overcast night's sky; the future was barred by a black bank of clouds.

Suddenly the native boy put his insolent head up through the hatch, and said in a tone of scathing contempt —"Missus Lang—she alive." He held up a letter.

"What's that?" demanded the Director, leaping to his feet. "Give me that, you savage!" He seized the envelope; tore it open. "A light! A light!" The accountant hastily lit a lamp; held it by the Director's side—he began reading the letter.

"It's from Mrs. Lang!" Never have I heard such joy in a human voice. "She's alive. She—she's coming back to me! She was in Ozar, found out where I am—she's coming to see me!" He read on, as in a frenzy—suddenly, a great groan of anguish. "Oh God, no!" Never have I heard such despair in a human voice.

"What is it?" asked the lawyer. "She—she's remarried," whispered the Director. "She's taken a new husband—how could she?—all these years I waited—the money I spent—" Then, a moment later, another great cry. "A mate! She's taken a mate!—a great horrid savage from the Sssuj!" Never have I heard such outrage in a human voice. "And children! And grandchildren! She's bringing the whole filthy brood here! Oh God!"

He tore the letter in half, clutching a piece in each hand; his eyes rolled wildly—his face gleamed in the lamplight, contorted like a demon. "No! No! I cannot!—instead—yes, I will!" Never have I heard such resolve in a human voice; he ate the letter; then—he was always a man of action—he flung himself headlong into the lagoon; the dark waters roiled for a moment beneath the Tremolino's stern.

"Stop!" I shouted—rushed to the rail; made ready to dive after him—Barley's hand held me back. "Let him go," he said softly; "it's better so." He was right—I looked to the others; all nodded. Slowly we resumed our seats.

Some silent moments later—it was now pitch-black, moonless night—I heard the lawyer say, "Quite a little tale there; by the way, whatever happened to that wizard?" By the dimness of the lamplight, I could barely make out Barley's shrug.

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