The lane-like path stopped at a rickety sort of wharf, and at their approach a black head bobbed quickly up from a waiting boat. It was the little boy who had shadowed the Captain that day—reporting his arrival at the Khedivial palace—and he climbed out now and sat on the wharf, watching curiously while Billy and his guide bestowed themselves in the long canoe, and pushed silently away.
It was an eerie backwater in which they were paddling, a sluggish stream which moved between dark houses. Sometimes it scraped against their sides and lapped their balconies; sometimes it was held in check by walls and narrow terraces. For Billy the water between the dark houses, the mirrored stars, the unexpected flare of some oil lamp and its still reflection, the long windings and the stagnant smells held their suggestions of Venice for his senses, and he thought the business he was going about was very similar to the business which had brought so many of the gentry of Venice to sudden and undesired ends.
The flies were horribly thick here. They settled upon the faces and arms of the paddlers, totally unapprehensive of rebuff. Billy’s flesh crawled. He finished the swarm with a ringing slap that brought a low caution from his guide.
Now the canal was wider and shallower. The houses receded, and a field or so appeared, and frequent walls hedged the way. Then suddenly the houses came down again to the water, and the ruins of old mosques and palaces lined the banks for a time; to be replaced by walls again. The windings were interminable, and just when he was thinking that his silent guide was as confused as he was, the man made a sudden gesture to the right bank where a tiny strip of land showed above the water clinging to a high brick wall, and with careful, soundless strokes they brought the canoe up to that land.
Billy looked at his watch. It was nearly ten. Hurriedly he climbed out, taking out the stout, notched pole and the knotted rope with the iron hook at the end which he had prepared. The message which had been so unintelligible to him was very simple. “Escape by canal to-night—come to garden at ten,” had been the words, and Billy, on hearing the description of the canal from the one-eyed man, had felt he understood.
“You’re sure this is the place?” he demanded, and on the man’s much injured protestation, “Because if it isn’t I’ll wring your neck instead of Kerissen’s,” he cheerfully promised and set his pole against the wall, showing the man how to steady it. It was not the best climbing arrangement in the world, but time had been extremely limited, and the one-eyed man not inclined to pursue any investigations which would advertise their expedition.
Wrapping the rope about his shoulders, he started to pull himself up that notched pole the Arab was holding against the wall, feeling desperately for any hold for toes and fingers in the rough chunks between the old bricks, and breathing hard he reached the top and threw one leg over. He felt something grind through the serge of his trousers and sting into the flesh.