THE TALE OF THE SLAVE TRADER

Days succeeded during which the party marked time. Mr. Hampton was
resolved to take no further steps until first having a talk with the
wounded Athensian. He was showing signs of recovery, and was being fed
broth at intervals, but was delirious. Should he return to his senses,
Mr. Hampton planned to question him in his own tongue. From Professor
Souchard he had acquired an elementary vocabulary in that language as
taught the latter by the Athensian exiles in Korakum.

In the meantime, after exhausting the possibilities of the oasis and its
small vegetable farms and flocks of sheep and goats, which had been left
behind by the raiders, the boys found time hanging pretty heavy on their
hands.

Frank had more to occupy him than his comrades, as he was intent on
making good on his boast that the radio station could be repaired.
Almost every waking hour he spent in this occupation.

Ali’s stories of African life helped somewhat to while away the time for
all. This swarthy-cheeked, hawk-nosed Arab had poked his nose into every
corner of northern Africa. And, when one considers that the Sahara
Desert alone is more than 3,250,000 square miles in extent, or the size
of all of the continent of Europe, that meant Ali had done a lot of
poking. He was intimately acquainted with the life of every
Mediterranean city from Tangiers and Morocco to Port Said. He had
crossed the desert by every camel route. He knew the great mountain of
Asben in the middle of the Sahara. He had travelled to Timbuktu. He had
penetrated to Lake Schad and the sources of the Nile, and had voyaged on
the Niger. In a word, Ali was a mine of information on northern Africa.

Putting two and two together, he was able even to say he had heard of
the Athensians before the Professor brought their existence to his
attention. Not that he heard of them by that name, however. He told
about it at the camp fire one night, while Jack threw on the blaze
several handsful of dried coarse grass and the light leaped high,
bringing out the curious faces of the boys and Mr. Hampton and the
impassive features of the Arabs.

It was from another Arab, a slave trader who had been to Gao, that Ali
had the tale. This man Ali encountered at a desert oasis one night. It
had been years before.

“We were the first travellers who had visited that oasis in a long
time,” said Ali. “Some of these isolated oasis are the homes of robbers
who raid caravans. But like Sheik Abraham, this sheik was a harmless and
pleasant old fellow. He made us feel welcome. We sat on little grass
mats on each side of him in front of his tent. Before us was a blazing
fire on which his favorite wife now and then, would throw a stick of
wood or some grass. She was young, veiled, and her hands were
elaborately tattooed. Silver bracelets and ankle-rings jingled at every
step. Yes, evidently she was the old patriarch’s favorite wife.

“It was very pleasant sitting there, and the woman brought us bowls of
_kous-kous-soo_ and tiny brass cups of sweet Moorish coffee on a tray.
After eating, we lighted cigarettes and began to talk. We felt it was
our duty to tell strange stories of our adventures in order to repay our
host’s courtesies. He was a man who did not travel, and it was our duty
to entertain.”

All paused a long time, staring impassively into the fire. At length he
resumed:

“Well, the talk passed from this to that, and presently this slave
trader began to tell of a strange people from whom every year came to
the slave marts of Gao a delegation seeking strong men.

“‘With them,’ he said, ‘comes a man who can speak to Frenchman, Arab,
Berber, Tuareg, all the peoples of the desert, in his own tongue, a man
who speaks many Negro dialects, too. He is the leader. There are two
minor chieftains and a guard of two score men armed with short swords,
lances and Arab rifles. The rifles have very long barrels and much
silver work on the stocks. They are worth a great deal of money.

“‘On the outskirts of Gao this party encamps, while a picked force of
ten warriors accompanies the three leaders into the slave bazaars. As
you know, we dealers traffic in all sorts of human cattle. We have
Negroes from many different tribes, captured in battle and sold us by
the victors. Arabs, Tuaregs, Berbers, also come to us from those who
have captured them in the fight. Even white men, Frenchmen and
Spaniards, captured in Morocco and Algiers and Tripoli by fierce
tribesmen, like the Riff tribes who are forever fighting the Spaniards
in the Atlas mountains, reach us for sale into slavery—’”

“Oh, come, now, Ali,” interrupted Mr. Hampton, good-naturedly, “that’s a
bit too thick.”

Ali shrugged. “Many things go on in Africa which the whites cannot
stop,” he said, simply. “It is true, this I tell you.”

“But white men,” protested Mr. Hampton.

“What think you, then, becomes of the men taken prisoner from the French
and Spanish and Italian foreign legions when detachments are trapped in
the desert?” asked Ali. “They are not butchered. No, they are too
valuable. Some desert sheik or the kaid of some desert city buys them
for slaves.”

“All right,” said Mr. Hampton. “Go on.”

He was quite convinced, yet he knew enough of the mystery of this vast
land to many parts of which white men never even had penetrated to this
day, to realize what Ali described was not impossible.

“‘Then,’ said this slave trader,” continued Ali, “‘these strangers
select the very strongest and youngest of the men, be they white, black
or brown. Unless a man is of exceptional strength he is not chosen.
Sometimes they select only two or three, sometimes a dozen.

“‘Only once have I been at Gao when these strangers appeared. Much had I
heard about them. My curiosity was excited. That time I had among my
slaves a very strong man, a man of the Kongs. He was a full six feet
tall, beautifully proportioned, with a fine intelligent head and a brown
body like mahogany. He was only twenty-one.

“‘The leader of the strangers came to me and pointed out this man. He
spoke in Arabic. He wanted to know the Kong’s antecedents, and I said he
had been taken in battle only after he had slain five Bakus, being
finally entrapped in a net thrown over his head and arms.




“‘He took the Kong without even asking my price, which was high. As he
turned to go, I said on the impulse, “Whence come you?” He stared at me
haughtily. For a moment I thought either he would not answer or else
would order his guards to cut me down. Then he laughed, a wild, reckless
laugh. My blood chilled. “I come from the country of the past and of the
future,” said he. Then he was gone.

“‘I made inquiries. But from none could I learn more than I have told.
Slave traders come and go. Within the memory of the oldest of us,
reaching back fifteen or twenty years, this stranger had come once each
year to the slave marts. For how long before that he had come, I do not
know. None ever had pursued him into the east, to see whence he came.
That is all.’

“So,” concluded Ali, “I have since been thinking. That man was a big
chief among the Athensians, if not the greatest leader himself. Who he
is, how he has acquired a knowledge of many languages, I do not know.
That he and his people are white, of course, is not so marvellous, as
the Berbers and Arabs are white races, and so are the Kabyles who
inhabit the mountains of Morocco.”

Mr. Hampton nodded. “An offshoot of the white race which has maintained
a splendid isolation in those mountains south of us, undoubtedly. Yet
how this leader acquired his knowledge of civilization puzzles me. And
why, Ali, are these annual expeditions to Gao made? And only the
strongest slaves selected?”

Ali shrugged. “It is for Allah to say,” he replied, and lapsed into
silence. Evidently, for that night, the loquacious Ali had said all he
intended to say.

His story, however, furnished Mr. Hampton with food for reflection and
on several occasions he discussed the matter with the boys. Especially,
did he note that the slave trader’s account, as repeated by Ali,
betrayed that the Athensians possessed rifles. This made them more
dangerous enemies.

“In fact, boys,” he concluded, one day, after a lengthy discussion, “I
have become pretty firmly convinced that these Athensians cannot be
peacefully approached as had been our original intention. Therefore, we
shall have to abandon the expedition. I shall wait a few days more to
see whether this man recovers sufficiently to be moved, and then, if we
can gain nothing from him in response to questioning, we shall set out
to return.”

“What,” cried Jack in dismay, “leave without attempting to learn what we
came all this way to discover?”

His father nodded gravely. “Professor Souchard and Ben Hassim have been
slain,” he said. “Sheik Abraham and all his tribe have been carried into
slavery. Quite evidently, the Athensians want no intruders and we would
only imperil our lives by pursuing our investigations further.”

“But what’ll you do, Dad?”

“I shall lay the matter before the French and British governments. Now
that the Great War is over, it may receive attention. They can send
embassies, supported with sufficient power to compel recognition. Then,
it is possible, the Athensians will yield on being shown no menace to
their freedom threatens, and may admit scientists to their mountains to
study the ruins of Korakum and the library of Athensi, if such really
exists.”

“Dad,” asked Jack, after a pause, “I know I’ve spoken of this before,
but I can’t get it out of my mind. Isn’t it possible the Professor may
have been deluded, that all he told you was a creation of fancy?”

“No, there was this raid on the oasis, the description of the raiders,
this wounded captive, and Ali’s story of the annual visit of the
Athensians to the slave marts of Gao.”

“Granted all that,” Jack stubbornly objected, “yet it does seem nothing
short of miraculous that a city such as Athensi should exist unknown to
the rest of the world.”

“Well, but, Jack,” interrupted Bob, while Mr. Hampton approvingly
nodded, “look at Llassa, the Secret City of Thibet. Only one white man
has ever penetrated it and lived to tell the tale. And that is in the
heart of Asia, the oldest continent known to civilization, while here is
Athensi in the heart of a continent which is still in many parts
unexplored.”

Jack threw up his hands in token of surrender. “All right, old thing,”
he said. “I’m just as keen as you to carry this through, and I was just
arguing. I do wish father would continue with it, but I suppose his plan
is the best.”