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The Key by A. E. W. Mason

 

MATTIE DRIVER sat on a bench under the palmetto trees of Alicante fingering a solitary peseta in one of his pockets. It is a common saying that no one can really starve in Spain, but Mattie had an uncomfortable suspicion that unless he could rub his one peseta into two and then those two into four, he was shortly going to disprove that saying. It was such a wonderful morning too. It was an affront to the simple sybaritism of Mattie Driver that he should be uncomfortable on such a morning. The month was June. The sunlight sparkled on the sapphire of the Mediterranean and made the stone pavements a blaze of gold; under the palmetto trees it was cool and pleasant; and on the landward side of this avenue, that very good Club and those very good restaurants deployed their invitations. It would have been so pleasant to have eaten his breakfast in one of them, and thereafter to have helped the sun down the sky with discourse to each new-comer of the stirring and calamitous events which had hurled him out of Morocco and flung him up like a string of seaweed on the beach at Alicante. But Mattie Driver had just one peseta in his pocket, and no amount of turning and returning would make it into two. Another miracle, however, happened.

A voice spoke behind his back.

"Hombre!"

Mattie recognized the voice and his heart jumped. It might be that someone wanted him after all. Mattie was twenty-three years old and hungry with all the health of those twenty-three years. But he was prudent and he dared not break into his solitary peseta. He turned, however, without haste.

"Senor Fontana," he said easily. "Your duties are over?"

Fontana, a semi-youthful, clean-shaven man in dingy striped flannel trousers and more or less white canvas shoes with patent leather tips, flourished a straw hat and sat down by Mattie's side.

"For the moment—yes. It is the hour of luncheon."

Fontana was one of those curious nondescripts to be found at Spanish ports, half of him a Marine and an Official, the other half ship's agent, trader, speculator, a kind of waterside odd-job man. Mattie when he had landed at Alicante from the little Almeria steamer at seven o'clock that morning had remarked him at once; and his knowledge of the world, helped by a facility quite Spanish to engage the most complete of strangers at once in intimate conversation, had led him to expose his distressful case and ask for any job of work which might offer. Here already was the reply.

"Senor Driver, I have a friend who would esteem your help," said Fontana. "He invites you to lunch with him so that you may talk over this little affair quietly."

Mattie Driver looked at the Club-house.

"No, not there," said Fontana, "nor at the Reina Christina Hotel. You would not be quiet there. The little affair is not, it is true, of great importance, but it is—curious."

Fontana dwelt a little on that adjective and, as it were, underlined it by his smile. It was an intriguing word and Fontana's smile was a promising smile. Mattie rose to it eagerly.

"Shall I lead the way?" Fontana asked.

"I shall be obliged," said Mattie.

The two men walked beneath the palmettos past the Yacht Club and reached a corner where a road joined the esplanade. At this corner a small restaurant stood in a garden.

"The food here is excellent," said Fontana, and at this moment Mattie received his first impression that his little affair was certainly curious and might not be so unimportant as his genial friend was pretending. Fontana's friendliness did not surprise him in that friendly country. Any Spaniard will go out of his way to do a stranger a good turn, so long as it actually does not cost him money. But just as they stepped out from the avenue to cross the garden restaurant Fontana laid a hand upon Mattie's arm and glanced swiftly up and down the road.

"He has no doubt already arrived," said Fontana, but Mattie was not at all deceived by that explanation. The glance of apprehension, the swift grip of his arm, now as swiftly relaxed, meant a fear lest they were being watched. Mattie was a man of an adventurous spirit and had he needed any other persuasion than his poverty, he would have found it in Fontana's fear. He was still more thrilled when in a corner of the empty garden he was set face to face with a small, slender, elderly gentleman, scrupulously dressed, who wore a little white pointed beard and a white moustache, and appraised him with eyes of steel.

"Let me present you to each other," said Fontana, all pleasure and smiles. "This is my friend Senor Juan Gomez, a merchant of Cordoba."

"Retired," Gomez added.

"It must be pleasant to be able to retire," said Mattie Driver, without a hint of disbelief in the truth of Fontana's description.

"On the other hand, it must be still more pleasant to have your youth," replied Senor Gomez, and upon this small change of compliments, Fontana took his leave.

"You will do me the honour to lunch with me, I hope," said the older man; and though the hors-d'oeuvres of black olives, and sardines, and radishes in thin little white dishes arranged on a tablecloth scrupulously clean, invited him overwhelmingly, Mattie sat down to the meal in extreme discomfort. His clothes were not to blame. It was a rule of Mattie Driver's simple philosophy that once your clothes were disreputable the game was up, but that until then hope lurks round every corner. He had been careful to snatch the best of his wardrobe from the holocaust of his fortunes, and he sat here in a blue suit as neat as Don Juan's. No, it was the actual personality of his host which sent little thrills of warning tinkling along all his nerves.

Juan Gomez, however, did not approach his business until the luncheon was finished. Up till then, he was the cultured host talking easily of the great cities to which his business had carried him.

"Cordoba, of course, you know like the palm of your hand," said Mattie Driver.

"Since I lived there for so many years," answered the merchant with a shrug of the shoulders. "It is for that reason, no doubt, that I have not talked of its wonders. You know Corboda?"

"No;" and Senor Gomez began to discourse upon Cordoba until the coffee was on the table and Mattie sat with a big Gener cigar between his lips and a glass of Fundador at his elbow. Then Gomez changed his note. They had the garden to themselves. Gomez did not lower his voice, but he spoke abruptly and with an air of relief that all the preliminary banalities were at last at an end.

"Fontana tells me, Senor Driver, that some reverse of fortune, such as may happen to any of us, has for the moment embarrassed you."

"Yes. Raisuli was my friend. With his surrender I lost everything."

Mattie had been born at Larache on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, of English parents long established there. He had never once been in England, though he had crossed many times to Spain. He was in many respects more like a Moor than an Englishman; he had a Moor's cunning, a Moor's good humour, and at the age of twenty, when he found himself with a little money and no parents, he knew his world and its opportunities. He knew it from the Atlas Mountains to the Straits of Gibraltar. He established himself at Alkasar, became Raisuli's agent, acquired flocks which were tended for him by Raisuli's chiefs, and was well on the way to a fortune when Abd-el-Krim from the Riff country upset Raisuli altogether and captured with him all his treasure and belongings. Mattie found himself in a day reduced to penury. A few weeks of vain effort to re-establish himself under the new rigid arrangements of the Spanish consumed the little store of actual money which he possessed. He had fled across the water to Spain, had travelled from Algeciras to Malaga, from Malaga to Almeria, from Almeria to Alicante in search of a fresh opportunity and had come now to his last peseta.

The merchant from Cordoba listened to the story in silence. Then leaning forward a little he said with a smile:

"Romance still lives then, though we poor drab stay-at-homes see little of its colour. So swift a rise to fortune!"

"So still more swift a decline," added Mattie ruefully.

"What you have once done you can do again. Let us think of the swift rise, my friend," and Gomez's voice became silky. "To achieve that your methods must have been a little—shall we say?—informal."

"I had only one method," answered Mattie, "—to keep my given word to the minute and in its uttermost detail."

"Claro," Juan Gomez agreed. "That is what I mean. For to keep your word thus with Senor B. the landed Sheikh, Senor X. the Jew trader might perhaps suffer?"

Mattie thought over the problem.

"Yes," he confessed, "I suppose I was never much troubled by the woes of the X's."

Gomez smiled and showed the strong white teeth of a young man.

"We cannot afford to be. I asked you that question, because in this little affair which I shall put before you, I propose to be Senor B. and not Senor X."

Mattie nodded his head.

"That is understood, of course."

"Good!" Gomez knocked the ash from the end of his cigar. "I shall ask you to return to Morocco but to a safer district. You know, perhaps, the Kasbah of Taugirt?"

Mattie was a little startled.

"In the Atlas Mountains?"

"Yes," said Gomez.

"I know it."

"Perhaps then you know the Kaid of Taugirt himself?"

"I do."

Juan Gomez laughed cheerfully, a curious little tittering laugh.

"I am lucky, my young friend. I had not hoped for such good fortune."

Mattie, on the other hand, frowned dismally.

"Wait a moment, Senor Gomez!" he said abruptly. "I am not so sure of your good fortune. For I gather that the Kaid of Taugirt is to be our Senor X."

"That may be," said Gomez simply.

Mattie was torn in two. It was true that in the ordinary way of business he was not greatly troubled by minute scruples. But he liked Moors better than Spaniards, anyway, and the Kaid of Taugirt infinitely more than this wicked old scoundrel from Cordoba. He had a picture of the kindly old gentleman keeping guard in his great Kasbah with its turrets and its crenellated walls over one of the high passes of the Atlas like some great Baron of old days on the Marches. On the other hand, he had one peseta in his pocket only and it would not turn into two.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked sullenly.

Gomez leaned forward and clapped him on the shoulder.

"It is not so serious, my young friend! No harm will be done to anyone—not even to Senor X. Listen! There is a great key in the Kasbah of Taugirt, a great key with many complicated wards. It hangs on a nail, I think, in the big patio."

Mattie looked swiftly up.

"It is treasured?"

"It certainly will not be given to you."

"Therefore I must steal it?"

"Let us say that you must not ask for it. Yet I want that key."

"Why?"

Juan Gomez raised his hands in amusement.

"My young friend, consider! If I were prepared to give explanations, I should not have sought for a complete stranger down to his last peseta to help me. Nor should I offer for this little service the high reward which I am willing to pay."

"Yes?" said Mattie, looking quickly up. "How much is that?"

"Twenty thousand pesetas. Five thousand now for your expenses, fifteen thousand when you hand me the key."

It was certainly a handsome sum for a little villainy. But Mattie had a very strong conviction that the villainy was really colossal. And not only colossal, but very devious and subtle. He was much better informed than the merchant from Cordoba imagined; yet he was as a child in the dark. He contemplated Senor Juan Gomez with respect—and with an inward reservation that he might have to tread a measure with him requiring considerable dexterity.

Gomez took a note-case from his pocket and counted out on the table four notes of a thousand pesetas each and ten notes of one hundred.

"Senor B. keeps his word," he said with a laugh, as he pushed the notes across the table. Mattie could not resist them.

"I have to go from here to Casablanca, from Casablanca to Marrakesh, from Marrakesh up into the Atlas. It will be four weeks before I bring back the—tribute from Senor X. How shall I find you again?"

"You will announce your arrival to Fontana," said Gomez. He paid the bill, ordered another Fundador for Mattie Driver, and rose from his chair.

"You will give me ten minutes, if you please," and there was a note of authority in his voice now as though he spoke to a servant. Mattie was not offended. He was suddenly afraid. It seemed to him that his whole body was just a house ringing with alarm-bells. More than the ten minutes had elapsed before he realized that he was smoking a very good cigar in a very pleasant garden and that June in Alicante was the nearest thing to the Heavenly Choirs which earth could provide.

Mattie, however, had eaten of the Cordoba merchant's salt and had taken the Cordoba merchant's money. He travelled by the air-service the next morning from Alicante to Casablanca and a week later climbed one morning with his little mule train up to the great Kasbah of the Kaid of Taugirt. The Kaid rode forward to meet him seated on a high red saddle on a white mule. From afar he cried out in a voice of welcome:

"Mattee!" and he led Mattie Driver through his great courtyard into the hall. It was a place of tiles, and pillars painted and decorated, and a fountain playing in a marble basin.

"I saw you from afar with the glasses you gave to me," said the old gentleman, to whom in more prosperous days Mattie had presented a Ross binocular. "Now how can I serve you?"

"I was in Marrakesh," replied Mattie, "and I had a wish to see you again, and I had some days to spare from my affairs."

The Kaid's eyes narrowed a little and his face became a mask. But he asked no further questions and busied himself with brews of tea. Four years had passed since Mattie had come to these lonely regions and the Kaid discoursed warmly of the French and their friendship. Meanwhile Mattie's eyes wandered around the court and in a little while he saw it, a great shining key like silver, hanging from a nail against a pillar where all eyes might see it.

"You will stay with me for a week? I will have a hunt for the third day. It may be that we shall find a moufflon."

But Mattie shook his head.

"Sid Mohammed-el-Hati, on the morning of the third day I must be on my way back to Marrakesh."

"It shall be as you wish," said the Kaid. "Meanwhile my house is yours, Mattee—and all that it holds."

Mattie slept in a room of honour with a window opening upon the south and a door leading on to the balcony above the patio. And at one o'clock in the morning on the second night of his visit, when the whole Kasbah slept, he crept down into the patio. Through the open roof the moonlight poured down upon the tiles. Even in the darkness under the balcony the great key gleamed upon the pillar like a jewel. Mattie lifted his hand to it, and a light suddenly shone behind him. Mattie turned silently and swiftly. An electric torch exposed him from head to foot, and concealed the man who held the torch. Then the light went out and from the mouth of an alcove the old Kaid spoke very gently.

"You too, Mattee? I told you that my house was yours and all it holds. Why creep down the stairs, then, like a thief in the middle of the night?"

Mattie stood rooted to the ground in shame, whilst the Kaid lit the candles in a branched silver candelabrum which stood upon the floor of the alcove.

"I wouldn't have had this happen for worlds," said Mattie slowly.

"Yet it has happened," answered Sid Mahommed-el-Hati. "Let us talk."

He sat down crosslegged upon a long cushion and beckoned to Mattie to sit beside him. Mattie, however, stood in front of his host.

"'You too,'" he quoted. "Then others have preceded me?"

"One," replied the Kaid. "He came last year, and at this time. He was a stranger. He had a story that he was travelling to Tafilet. He stayed one night. In the morning my key was gone. I sent after him, not on the road forward to Tafilet but on the road backward to Marrakesh. In his luggage my key was found. He was brought back to me. He was very poor, it seemed. He had been offered much money for my key. I let him go."

The old Kaid stopped and once more beckoned to Mattie Driver to sit down at his side; and this time Mattie obeyed.

"So you too, Mattee, are now very poor," continued the old man.

Mattie nodded his head, and in a voice full of shame he explained the pass to which he had come. The extremes of fortune bring no surprises to a Moor who may be a Prime Minister one day and a beggar without his eyes the next.

"And you want my key, Mattee?"

The Kaid did not wait for an answer. He crossed the moonlit patio and lifted the key from its nail. He brought it back into the alcove and he balanced it between his fingers, the light from the candles rippling along its stem and its wards, until it seemed a thing alive which moved.

"Not a speck of rust. Not a flaw in its metal," the old man continued. "Yet it has hung upon that pillar for three hundred and fifty years. We call it the Key of Paradise. For it opens the door of my house in Spain."

Mattie Driver had expected just this statement. Here and there about Morocco, in Rabat as in the Atlas, in Fez as in Marrakesh, in the great houses of the Nobles hung similar keys. Their ancestors, driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella, had carried their house keys away with them against the time when they would return to Spain and fit them into the locks again. Even now their descendants keep alive that faith.

"Perhaps even I—" said the old Kaid, and he broke off with a laugh. "But if so, the time must come soon, Mattee, very soon," and he sat absorbed like a man gazing upon a treasure.

"And where is this house of yours, Sid Mohammed-el-Hati?"

"At Elche."

Mattie drew a deep breath. He was thinking.

"Yes, this is a bigger piece of villainy than I dreamed of. But I don't understand it. I think I am afraid."

Aloud he said:

"Elche is that old Moorish town with its famous date palms thirty kilometres or so from Alicante."

"Yes," said the Kaid. "My house stands on the river bank in a great garden. I have never seen it."

"And who occupies it now?" Mattie asked.

"The Conde de Torrevieja;" and with a cry Mattie sprang to his feet.

"I was sure of it. Listen, Sid Mohammed! A man calling himself Juan Gomez, a merchant of Cordoba, hired me to steal your key. But I had seen his picture in the newspaper El Liberal—an evil little white-bearded rogue, as supple as steel, and not over that name. But over what name I could not remember until now. He is the Conde de Torrevieja."

He stared down at the lighted candles in perplexity.

"He wants the key which opens the house in which during the summer he lives—a second key—safe in a castle of the Atlas Mountains. Why? He wants it secretly too—so secretly that he sends two men to steal it. Why?"

"That, Mattee, you shall find out," said the old Kaid slowly. "For I shall lend you my key. I ask you to bring it back to me as clean and bright as it is now."

He was speaking a parable, as Mattie Driver very well understood, and he held up the key between his two hands for Mattie to take it.

But Mattie's alarm-bells were all ringing more noisily than ever. He saw the old Kaid sitting in his white robes, as motionless as an image. He saw the shining key, the candles burning steadily in the silver candelabrum at his feet; he was aware of this lonely castle in the hills, and of the shadowy pillared hall. But all these things were as unsubstantial as the visions of a dream through which he saw looming up terrifically a veiled and monstrous enigma.

In the end, however, Mattie took the key and returned to Alicante, but in a less noticeable way by boat and rail. He slipped quietly into the town one evening, with a week in hand, and betook himself to an hotel. He had still fifteen hundred pesetas left and he was in no hurry to connect up with Fontana.

"It strikes me," he said to himself, "that Senor B. is giving me the baby to hold, and I should like to see what make of baby it is."

But Mattie had no luck. As he strolled under the palmettos in front of the Club and listened to the band on that very night, Fontana brushed past him and said in a low voice without turning his eyes in his direction:

"Follow!"

Reluctantly Mattie followed in his steps. On the dark side of a Square at the back of the esplanade away from the lights and the music, Fontana stopped and waited.

"You have been quick, my friend, and I hope successful," he said, as Mattie joined him.

"Yes."

Fontana patted him on the back.

"I knew, of course, that you had returned this evening, but I was afraid, since you were here a week before your time. It is encouraging to offer a little help and find oneself so justified. You will be glad to have finished with our small affair and to receive your reward. You shall receive it to-night."

Fontana was all joviality and goodwill, but he allowed Mattie no time for deliberation. He hurried on with his instructions. It was something which Mattie was to fetch, he understood. He did not want to know what it was. Heaven be thanked, he was not curious. All that he wanted was now and then to do a good turn for someone on the rocks. The point was, Mattie had fetched it and the good Juan Gomez was anxious to have it—was, indeed, at this moment waiting for it at his house in Elche—oh, a mere hop, skip and jump of thirty kilometres—an hour in a motor-car—and it was not yet eleven.

"But I must go back to my hotel first to fetch—"

Mattie began and was at once interrupted.

"Yes, yes, no doubt. To fetch what you have to fetch! See how wonderfully everything agrees. Whilst you fetch what you have to fetch, I will get a car and send it here to this quiet Square. At one o'clock you will be back in your hotel, your little mission accomplished, and tomorrow you start life again a capitalist. Bravo!"

Fontana shook Mattie warmly by the hand, gazed at him in delighted admiration, and added:

"It will be best that the car should not go to the house. You have understood, of course, that Juan Gomez does not wish for the limelight, the old fox," and with a chuckle he poked Mattie in the ribs. "You cannot mistake the house," and he proceeded to give the same description of the house at Elche which Mattie had already heard at the Castle in the Atlas Mountains. Though in the one case the details had been given from a traditional knowledge with a real passion of desire; in the other merely as a means of leading a stranger straight to his goal.

"But by the time I arrive there, Gomez will be in bed," Mattie expostulated.

Fontana laid his forefinger cunningly along the side of his nose.

"He will be expecting you. I telephoned to him, as soon as I knew of your return;" and without waiting for any further objections, Fontana stepped out across the Square and disappeared into the mouth of a narrow street.

Mattie was all for running home to his hotel and putting his head under the bedclothes. But fifteen thousand pesetas were fifteen thousand pesetas. Moreover, his elementary ideas of Law and Justice were based upon the Moorish system as he knew it. He saw no reason why, if he failed Gomez, Gomez should not pay the Governor something, get him clapped into prison and kept there. He went to his hotel and fetched the key. He was going to keep his word with Senor B. But he meant also to keep it with Senor X. That key must be returned bright and clean to the Kaid of Taugirt. It must be the instrument of no crime; it must help no dishonourable scheme.

It was eleven o'clock when Mattie returned to the Square. Every house was dark, the roadway quite deserted. But the side-lamps of a motor-car were burning on the spot where he and Fontana had stood.

"You are waiting for me? You know where to go?"

"Elche," said the driver.

Mattie got in. The car ran parallel with the coast until the salt-pans were reached, and at that point, just after it had turned inland, the engine stopped. Mattie sat on a pile of stones at the roadside, watching the pyramids of salt glimmering in the summer night and hoping that the damage was too important for the chauffeur to repair. But in twenty minutes the car was ready again, and it ran so smoothly over the last part of the journey, that Mattie suspected there never had been any damage at all. What if the accident were just a trick to delay him, so that he might reach the house on the river bank at a moment exactly prearranged? Mattie was in the mood to turn back at all costs when the car reached the outskirts of the village, swung to the left, and stopped before the mouth of a lane between hedges which ran downhill to the river bank.

"It is here, man," said the chauffeur.

"You will wait for me," said Mattie Driver.

"Perfectly," replied the chauffeur. He extinguished his lamps as Mattie entered the lane. A hundred yards on Mattie came upon the house, a solid block of a house flush with the lane and at the side towards the river massive old date-palms standing up behind high garden walls.

There was not a light in any of the windows upon the lane, not a sound from any room. Mattie's feet sank without noise into a carpet of deep sand. He seemed to have come to some derelict, forgotten mansion in a wilderness. Yet somewhere in the depths of it, the disturbing little Count of Torrevieja was waiting for him, a pile of notes under one hand, the other stretched out for the key.

"Well, the sooner I get it all over the better," said Mattie, and taking the key from his pocket in his right hand he slid his left over the surface of the door in search of the keyhole. The door was a massive barrier of walnut wood and bolts and bars and hung upon hinges which would stop a battering-ram. Yet, as Mattie touched it, it swung open smoothly and noiselessly. A child could have opened it; and it opened upon a cavern of blackness.

Mattie drew back with a little gasp. He was now thoroughly frightened. Why was the house in darkness when he was expected? What trick was being played on him by that old spider of a Torrevieja? Why should he carry on in an affair so suspicious? Ah, there was an answer to that question—fifteen thousand pesetas.

Mattie stepped cautiously across the threshold and, realizing that he might be visible against the glimmer of the open night to anyone watching within the hall, he drew the door close to behind him. Then he waited and he listened. The house was as still as a tomb.

But at last far away he saw a single perpendicular thread of faint light, as though across a vast hall a door stood just ajar. But whether his eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness and the door had always stood ajar, or whether it had only just been silently opened, he could not tell. He moved very cautiously across the floor. He imagined himself to be in some old patio which had been roofed in during a later century and he held out his hands in front of him, lest he should clatter against a pillar. He touched one and then another and so came to the angle in which the door was placed. It opened inwards and at the corner of a room. The chink was so narrow that Mattie could see nothing through it but a strip of wall-panelling. He bent his head forward and listened. He heard nothing—not even a sound of breathing. The lighted room seemed as empty as this black cavern of a hall.

Very carefully Mattie pushed the door. It yielded but with a tiny whine of the hinges which sent his heart fluttering into his mouth. But even then, no cry, no question was uttered, and there was no sound of any movement of alarm. The room then was empty. Mattie opened the door wide, with an eye upon the crack at the hinges, lest anyone should be concealed behind the panels. But that space was empty; so was the room itself—so far as he could see. But it was a bedroom with a great four-poster bed, round which the curtains were drawn as though someone slept there—or as though someone watched there, holding his breath. Mattie's eyes wandered to a long cheval-glass which stood opposite to him in a recess by the bed and became fixed in a stare. He shivered as he looked. It seemed to him that all the ice in the world was trickling down his spine and he felt his hair lift upon his head. He saw himself and behind him, to the left of the door, the dressing-table and upon the dressing-table the solitary candle which lit the room. It gleamed like a star in the depths of the mirror and threw its pale radiance down upon a litter of broken jewel-cases and fragments of jewels: here a chain from which a pendant had been wrenched, there a gold setting from which the stones had been roughly forced. There had been a robbery in the house that night. That was why he had found the door open. The thief had noiselessly escaped that way. Then—then—what lay hidden behind the curtains of the bed?

Mattie was drawn across the room as a needle is drawn by a magnet. He pulled one of the curtains aside and dropped it again, and stood holding his breath. There was someone there—in the bed—asleep. Yes—no doubt asleep. Yet Mattie looked again towards the dressing-table. All that violence, that destruction, must have been accompanied by noise. Mattie pushed the curtain aside again. The bedclothes were drawn over the sleeper's head and there was no stir, no rise and fall, as there must be, however slight, if the sleeper breathed at all. Whoever lay in that bed was dead. Mattie approached the head of the bed and his eyes once more encountered the mirror. They met in the mirror another pair of eyes. The Count of Torrevieja, late Juan Gomez, merchant of Cordoba, was standing in the doorway, his eyes bright and sharp as a bird's, a smile of satisfaction upon his lips, a glittering sword in his hand. As Mattie turned, the Count raised his voice in a scream.

"Murder! Help! Romero, Felipe, hurry!" and as he screamed he sprang towards Mattie.

Mattie had no weapon, but as the point of that glittering sword darted towards his breast, he swung the curtain of the bed and caught it in the folds. Already in the room above a clamour arose, there was a rushing of feet. Before Torrevieja could disengage his sword, Mattie's hand was in and out of his pocket. It held now the heavy key and with it he struck twice at Torrevieja's head; at the second blow the Spaniard fell.

Mattie leaped across him as he lay. Candles gleamed upon the stairway as he raced across the hall. He had no thought of the pillars now. He reached the door. Once more it swung inwards without noise. In a second he was outside. He drew the door to as the shouts and the stamping of feet resounded through the hall. He had a moment whilst the servants rushed into the bedroom—more than a moment perhaps—yes, more than a moment. For they would wait until the old man recovered his senses and could give his orders. Mattie fitted the key into the lock and locked the door. Then he took the key out again and ran. For a while the house was still. Then the cries, the shouts, broke out again, and lights leaped from window to window as though the whole great building was in flames. Mattie reached the mouth of the lane. His motor-car had gone.

In a few minutes that door would be opened; Torrevieja's men would spread over the country; the whole district would be raised in pursuit of him, the ruined adventurer from Morocco, who had stolen from his friend the Kaid of Taugirt the key of Torrevieja's palace at Elche and had crossed into Spain to rob and murder!

Mattie ran and ran.

Months afterwards a haggard bearded man dragged himself up to the Kasbah of Taugirt and was admitted to the presence of the Kaid. From his ragged clothing he drew a bright and shining key.

"There is, however, some rust upon it," said Mattie. "It is the blood of the worst scoundrel I ever met. I would that I had hit harder and killed!"

"Mattee, explain this to me," said the Kaid, as he hung once more the key upon its nail in the patio. Mattie Driver told his story and at the end he produced a cutting from a Spanish newspaper.

"It Is now certain that the murder and attempted robbery of the Condesa de Torrevieja must be classed amongst the unsolved mysteries of crime. It is thought that the murderer must have hidden himself in the house during the day; but the police have no clue to his identity and the fact that he had not the time to take any of the Condesa's jewellery with him makes his discovery now almost impossible. The Count of Torrevieja, who was prostrated by grief, intends to travel for a year. He, of course, inherited all the great wealth of his Argentine wife."

Mattie read the extract to Sid Mohammed-el-Hati and resumed:

"Torrevieja meant, of course, to kill me there and then with his sword. If his men had taken me prisoner, I should not have been in any better case. For who would have believed my story? Fontana would have denied it, you may be sure, the driver of the car too, if he had been found. I was caught in the room with the key of the house in my pocket, and the Countess's jewels in a bag and the Countess murdered in her bed. But since I got away, the Count will not speak of that key. He has all he wants, you see. If I were sought out and brought to trial, and told my story, it would not save me, no, but here and there his enemies might begin to talk, there would come a shadow over his name. So he leaves me alone. But I wish that I had struck harder with your key."

The Kaid looked up at his key.

"Mattee, we are in God's hands," said he.

 
 
 

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