Again that knowing nod and the quick assent. Then the girl burst into low-toned speech, glancing back constantly through the door she held nearly shut behind her. Billy was forced to shake his head. It was one thing to have picked up a little casual Arabic, and another, and horribly different, thing to comprehend the rapid outpourings behind that muffling veil.
Baffled, he went hurriedly on with his own questionings. Was this lady safe? Again the nod and murmur of assent. Did she want help? Vehement the confirmation. He repeated, with careful emphasis, “I will reward you well for your help,” and this time the direct simplicity of her reply was entirely intelligible:
“One pound.... Two,” he added, as she shook her head.
“Four,” she demanded.
It was maddening to haggle, but it would be worse to yield.
“Two—and this,” said Billy, drawing out the gold and some silver with it.
She gave a frightened upward glance at the windows over them and stepped closer. “I take it,” she said. “Listen—” and that was all that Billy could understand of the swift words she whispered to him.
“Slower—slower,” he begged. “Once more—slower.”
She frowned, and then, very slowly and distinctly, she articulated, “T’ala lil genaina ... ’end eltura.”
He wrote down what he thought it sounded like. “Go on.”
“Allailade,” she continued.
“That’s to-night,” he repeated. “What else?”
“Assaa ’ashara,” she added hurriedly, and then, intelligible again, “Now, quick, the money.”
“Hold on, hold on.” He was in despair. “Go over that again, please,” and hastily the girl whispered the words again and he wrote down his corrections. Then with a flourish he appeared to finish the sketch and held out the gold and silver to her, saying, “Thank you,” carelessly.
Quick as a flash she seized the money, leaving a little crumpled ball of white linen in his hand, and then, apparently by lightning, she secreted the gold, and with the silver shining in her dark palm she came closer to him, urging him for another shilling, another shilling for having a picture made. In an undertone she demanded, “Is it yes? Shall I say yes to the lady?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Billy, desperately, to whatever the unknown message might be. “Take a note to her for me?” he demanded, starting to scribble one, but she drew back with a quick negation, and as a sound came from the palace she slipped back through the door and was gone like a shadow when a blind is thrown open.
Only the crumpled little ball of linen remained in Billy’s hand. He straightened it out. It was a lady’s handkerchief, a dainty thing, delicately scented. In the corners were marvels of sheer embroidery and among the leaves he found the initial he was seeking. It was the letter B.
As he stared down on it, that tiny, telltale initial, his face went white under its tan and his mouth compressed till all the humor and kindliness of it were lost in a line of stark grimness. And then he swung on his heel and packed up his painting kit in a fury of haste, and with one last, upturned look at those mocking windows, he was off down the road like a shot.