He went back now for his ladder, and on the right side of the banquet hall, up under the arched roof, he discovered the wooden grating where Fritzi had described it. Against this wall he placed his ladder and climbed to the top, from which he could reach up and clasp the spindles of the grating above him.
He drew himself swiftly up to this, and the end of his pole was dislodged by his departure and fell to the inlaid pavement with a bang that seemed to him to carry to the farthest echoes of the sounding court. Instantly there was an answering clatter of steps.
Like a monkey Billy clung to the grating, thrusting his toes desperately into the first openings they could find, hanging on with his hands for dear life, holding himself as close up in the darkness as he could, and nearly twisting his neck off in the effort to watch what was going on below him.
The steps sounded nearer and nearer, and a huge Nubian in baggy bloomers and a short jacket was outlined in the court. His bare feet were thrust into clattering English shoes. He peered about him for a time, with one hand pointing the muzzle of a revolver. Billy caught the unpleasant gleam of it; then the man stepped in underneath the arches of the hall and made a slow way across it.
Directly in his path lay that fatal pole. It lay along the shadow of a column, but its end protruded beyond that shadow and would surely catch his eye. Billy tried to free his right hand to get at a gun of his own. To be caught ridiculously like this, clutching like a monkey on a stick——!
Another man, shorter and bent, in a long robe and carrying a lantern, now emerged from that door along whose closed edge Billy had noticed the crack of light, and the Nubian diverged toward him. The pole was unnoticed and the two joined forces and made a slow circle in the garden. Billy remembered that dangling rope, and with a thumping heart he hoped that it would hang unregarded in that shadowed angle, overrun with vines.
Apparently it did, for he heard the footsteps passing on without a stop as he clung there to his grating, his muscles cramped, his sockets strained. Slowly the two recrossed the hall, talking together in low gutturals and not apparently of unpleasant things, for a note of laughter sounded. They lingered in parley in the court, but by the time that he thought that he could not hang on a minute longer and would drop like a peach from the wall, they separated and each moved slowly away. The man with the lantern shut the door after him and all was darkness there and the great Nubian was blotted out beneath the arches of the vestibule.
The fear that Falconer was in the palace alone made Billy desperate. Clinging with his feet and his left hand, he drew out a clasp knife with a razor edge and hacked furiously at the delicate spindles and frail carved work of the screen till he could thrust one arm through the opening. The work was easier then, but he had to resist the temptation to seize the brittle stuff and break it in pieces, for fear the splintering sound would be too sharp.