More by an instinct, than from any correct appreciation of the danger, all four fell back from the narrow trench in which they had been standing,—each, as he best could, retreating up the declivity of the sand-hill.
Scarce were they able to obtain footing in their new position, when the sounds they had heard not only became louder and nearer, but the creature that had been causing them paused close to their feet,—so close that most of them could have touched it with their toes.
For all that, not one of the party could tell what it was; and after it had passed,—on its way down the ravine,—and was once more lost to their view amid the swirling sand, they were not a bit further advanced in their knowledge of the strange creature that had come so near crushing out their existence with its ponderous weight!
All that they had been able to see was a conglomeration of dark objects,—resembling the head, neck, body, and limbs of some uncouth animal,—while the sounds that proceeded from it were like utterances that might have come from some other world; for certainly they had but slight resemblance to anything the castaways had ever heard in this—either upon sea, or land!
For some length of time they stood conjecturing,—the boys with clasped hands,—Old Bill near, but apart.
During this time, at intervals, they continued to hear the sounds that had so astonished them—the stamping, the snorts, and the screaming, though they no longer saw the creature that caused them.
The sand gully opened towards the sea, in a diagonal direction. It could not be many yards to the spot, where it debouched upon the level of the beach; and the creature that had caused them such a surprise—and was still continuing to occupy their thoughts—must have reached this level surface: though not to suspend its exertions. Every now and then could be heard the same repetition of dull noises,—as if some animal was kicking itself to death,—varied by trumpet-like snorts and agonizing screams, which could be likened to the cry of no animal upon earth.
But that the castaways knew they were on the coast of Africa,—that continent renowned for strange existences,—they might have been even more disposed to a supernatural belief in what was near them; but as the minutes passed, and their senses began to return to them, they became more inclined to think that what they had seen, heard, and felt, might be only some animal—a heavy quadruped—that had trampled over them in their sleep.
The chief difficulty in reconciling this belief with the actual occurrence was the odd behavior of the animal. Why had it gone up the gorge, apparently parenti passu, to come tumbling down again in such a confused fashion? Why was it still kicking and stumbling about at the bottom of the ravine,—for such did the sounds proclaim it to be doing?
No answer could be given to either of these questions; and none was given, until day dawned over the sand-hills. This was soon after; and along with the morning light had come the cessation of the simoom.
Then saw the castaways that creature that had so abruptly awakened them from their slumbers,—and, by so doing, perhaps, saved their lives. They saw it recumbent at the bottom of the gorge, where they had so uneasily passed the night.
It proved to be—what from the slight glimpse they had got of it, they were inclined to believe—an animal, and a quadruped; and if it had presented an uncouth appearance, as it stepped over them in the darkness, not less so did it appear as they now beheld it, under the light of day.
It was an animal of very large size,—in height far exceeding a horse,—but of such a grotesque shape as to be easily recognizable by any one who had ever glanced into a picture-book of quadrupeds. The long craning neck, with an almost earless head and gibbous profile; the great straggling limbs, callous at the knees, and ending in broad, wide splitting hooves; the slender hind-quarters, and tiny, tufted tail,—both ludicrously disproportioned,—the tumid, misshapen trunk; but, above all, the huge hunch rising above the shoulders, at once proclaimed the creature to be a dromedary.
"Och! it's only a kaymal!" cried Old Bill, as soon as the daylight enabled him to get a fair view of the animal. "What on hearth is it doin' 'ere?"
"Sure enough," suggested Terence, "it was this beast that stepped over us while we were asleep! It almost squeezed the breath out of me, for it set its hoof right upon the pit of my stomach."
"The same with me," said Colin. "It sunk me down nearly a foot into the sand. Ah, we have reason to be thankful there was that drift-sand over our bodies at the time. If not, the great brute might have crushed us to death!"
There was some truth in Colin's observation. But for the covering of sand,—which acted as a cushion,—and also from that which formed their couch yielding beneath them, the hoof of the great quadruped might have caused them a serious injury. As it was, none of them had received any hurt beyond the fright which the strange intruder had occasioned them.
The singular incident was yet only half explained. They saw it was a camel that had disturbed their slumbers; that the animal had been on its way up the ravine,—perhaps seeking shelter from the sand-storm; but what had caused it to return so suddenly back down the slope? Above all, why had it made the downward journey in such a singular manner? Obscure as had been their view of it, they could see that it did not go on all-fours, but apparently tumbling and struggling,—its long limbs kicking about in the air, as if it was performing the descent by a series of somersaults.
All this had been mysterious enough; but it was soon explained to the satisfaction of the four castaways, who, as soon as they saw the camel by the bottom of the gorge, had rushed down and surrounded it.
The animal was in a recumbent position,—not as if it had lain down to rest, but in a constrained attitude, with its long neck drawn in towards its forelegs, and its head lying low and half-buried in the sand!
As it was motionless when they first perceived it, they fancied it was dead,—that something had wounded it above. This would have explained the fantastic fashion in which it had returned down the slope,—as the somersaults observed might have been only a series of death struggles.
On getting around it, however, they perceived that it was not only still alive, but in perfect health; and its late mysterious movements were accounted for at a single glance. A strong hair halter, firmly noosed around its head, had got caught in the bifurcation of one of its fore-hoofs, where a knot upon the rope had hindered it from slipping through the deep split. This had first caused it to trip up, and tumble head over heels,—inaugurating that series of struggles which had ended in transporting it back to the bottom of the ravine,—where it now lay with the trailing end of the long halter knotted inextricably around its legs.
A LIQUID BREAKFAST.
Melancholy as was the situation of the self-caught camel, it was a joyful sight to those who beheld it. Hungry as they were, its flesh would provide them with food; and thirsting as they were, they knew that inside its stomach would be found a supply of water!
Such were their first thoughts as they came around it.
They soon perceived, however, that to satisfy the latter appetite it would not be necessary for them to kill the camel. Upon the top of its hump was a small, flat pad or saddle, firmly held in its place by a strong leathern band passing under the animal's belly. This proved it to be a "maherry," or riding camel,—one of those swift creatures used by the Arabs in their long rapid journeys across the deserts; and which are common among the tribes inhabiting the Saaera.
It was not this saddle that gratified the eyes of our adventurers, but a bag, tightly strapped to it, and resting behind the hump of the maherry. This bag was of goat-skin, and upon examination was found to be nearly half-full of water. It was, in fact, the "Gerba," or water-skin, belonging to whoever had been the owner of the animal,—an article of camel equipment more essential than the saddle itself.
The four castaways, suffering the torture of thirst, made no scruple about appropriating the contents of the bag, and, in the shortest possible time, it was stripped from the back of the maherry, its stopper taken out, and the precious fluid extracted from it by all four, in greedy succession, until its light weight and collapsed sides declared it to be empty.
Their thirst being thus opportunely assuaged, a council was next held, as to what they should do to appease the other appetite.
Should they kill the camel?
It appeared to be their only chance; and the impetuous Terence had already unsheathed his midshipman's dirk, with the design of burying it in the body of the animal.
Colin, however, more prudent in counsel, cried to him to hold his hand,—at least until they should give the subject a more thorough consideration.
On this suggestion they proceeded to debate the point between them. They were of different opinions, and equally divided. Two,—Terence and Harry Blount,—were for immediately killing the maherry, and making their breakfast upon its flesh; while the sailor joined Colin in voting that it should be reprieved.
"Let us first make use of the animal to help carry us somewhere," urged the young Scotchman. "We can go without food a day longer. Then, if we find nothing, we can butcher this beast."
"But what's to be found in such a country as this?" inquired Harry Blount. "Look around you! There's nothing green but the sea itself. There isn't anything eatable within sight,—not so much as would make a dinner for a dormouse!"
"Perhaps," rejoined Colin, "when we've travelled a few miles, we may come upon a different sort of country. We can keep along the coast. Why shouldn't we find shell-fish,—enough to keep us alive? See,—yonder's a dark place down upon the beach. I shouldn't wonder if there's some there."
The glances of all were instantly directed towards the beach,—excepting those of Sailor Bill. His were fixed on a different object; and an exclamation that escaped him—as well as a movement that accompanied it—arrested the attention of his companions, causing them to turn their eyes upon him.
"Shell-fish be blow'd," cried Bill, "here's something better for breakfast than cowld oysters. Look!"
The sailor, as he spoke, pointed to an oval-shaped object, something larger than a cocoa-nut, appearing between the hind legs of the maherry.
"It's a shemale!" added he, "and's had a calf not long ago. Look at the 'eldher,' and them tits. They're swelled wi' milk. There'll be enough for the whole of us, I warrant yez."
As if to make sure of what he said, the sailor dropped down upon his knees by the hind-quarters of the prostrate camel; and, taking one of the teats in his mouth, commenced drawing forth the lacteal fluid which the udder contained.
The animal made no resistance. It might have wondered at the curious "calf" that had thus attached himself to its teats; but only at the oddness of his color and costume; for no doubt it had often before been similarly served by its African owner.
"Fust rate!" cried Bill, desisting for a moment to take breath. "Ayqual to the richest crame; if we'd only a bite av bred to go along wi' it, or some av your Scotch porritch, Master Colin. But I forgets. My brave youngsters," continued he, rising up and standing to one side, "yez be all hungrier than I am. Go it, wan after another: there'll be enough for yez all."
Thus invited, and impelled by their hungry cravings, the three, one after another, knelt down as the sailor had done, and drank copiously from that sweet "fountain of the desert."
Taking it in turns, they continued "sucking," until each had swallowed about a pint and a half of the nutritious fluid when, the udder of the camel becoming dry, told that her supply of milk was, for the time, exhausted.
THE SAILOR AMONG THE SHELL-FISH.
It was no longer a question of slaying the camel. That would be killing the goose that gave the golden eggs. Though they were still very hungry, the rich milk had to some extent taken the keen edge off their appetites; and all declared they could now go several hours without eating.
The next question was: where were they to go?
The reader may wonder that this was a question at all. Having been told that the camel carried a saddle, and was otherwise caparisoned, it will naturally be conjectured that the animal had got loose from some owner, and was simply straying. This was the very hypothesis that passed before the mind of our adventurers. How could they have conjectured otherwise?
Indeed it was scarce a guess. The circumstances told them to a certainty that the camel must have strayed from its owner. The only question was: where that owner might be found.
By reading, or otherwise, they possessed enough knowledge of the coast, on which they had been cast away, to know that the proprietor of the "stray" would be some kind of an Arab; and that he would be found living—not in a house or a town—but in a tent; in all likelihood associated with a number of other Arabs, in an "encampment."
It required not much reasoning to arrive at these conclusions; and our adventurers had come to them almost on that instant, when they first set eyes on the caparisoned camel.
You may wonder that they did not instantly set forth in search of the master of the maherry; or of the tent or encampment from which the latter should have strayed. One might suppose, that this would have been their first movement.
On the contrary, it was likely to be their very last; and for sufficient reasons,—which will be discovered in the conversation that ensued, after they had swallowed their liquid breakfasts.
Terence had proposed adopting this course,—that is, to go in search of the man from whom the maherry must have wandered. The young Irishman had never been a great reader,—at all events no account of the many "lamentable shipwrecks on the Barbary coast" had ever fallen into his hands,—and he knew nothing of the terrible reputation of its people. Neither had Bill obtained any knowledge of it from books; but, for all that,—thanks to many a forecastle yarn,—the old sailor was well informed both about the character of the coast on which they had suffered shipwreck, and its inhabitants. Bill had the best of reasons for dreading the denizens of the Saaeran desert.
"Sure they're not cannibals?" urged Terence. "They won't eat us, any how?"
"In troth I'm not so shure av that, Masther Terry," replied Bill. "Even supposin' they won't ate us, they'll do worse."
"Aye, worse, I tell you. They'd torture us, till death would be a blissin'."
"How do you know they would?"
"Ach, Masther Terry!" sighed the old sailor, assuming an air of solemnity, such as his young comrades had never before witnessed upon his usually cheerful countenance; "I could tell yez something that 'ud convince ye of the truth av what I've been sayin', an' that'll gie ye a hidear av what we've got to expect if we fall into the 'ands av these feerocious Ayrabs."
Bill had already hinted at the prospective peril of an encounter with the people of the country.
"Tell us, Bill. What is it?"
"Well, young masthers, it beant much,—only that my own brother was wrecked som'ere on this same coast. That was ten years agone. He never returned to owld Hengland."
"Perhaps he was drowned?"
"Betther for 'im, poor boy, if he 'ad. No, he 'adn't that luck. The crew,—it was a tradin' vessel, and there was tin o' them,—all got safe ashore. They were taken prisoners as they landed by a lot o' Ayrabs. Only one av the tin got home to tell the tale; and he wouldn't a 'ad the chance but for a Jew merchant at Mogador, that found he had rich relations as 'ud pay well to ransom him. I see him a wee while after he got back to Hengland; and he tell me what he had to go through, and my hown brother as well: for Jim,—that be my brother's name,—was with the tribe as took 'im up the counthry. None o' yez iver heerd o' cruelties like they 'ad to put up with. Death in any way would be aisy, compared to what they 'ad to hendure. Poor Jim! I suppose he's dead long ago. Tough as I be myself, I don't believe I could a stood it a week,—let alone tin years. Talk o' knockin' about like a Turk's head. They were knocked about, an' beat, an' bullied, an' kicked, an' starved,—worse than the laziest lubber as ever skulked about the decks o' a ship. No, Masther Terry, we mustn't think av thryin' to find the owner av the beest; but do everythink we can to keep out o' the way av both him and his."
"What would you advise us to do, Bill?"
"I don't know much 'bout where we be," replied the sailor; "but wheresomever it is, our best plan are to hug by the coast, an' keep within sight o' the water. If we go innard, we're sure to get lost one way or t' other. By keepin' south'ard we may come to some thradin' port av the Portagee."
"We'd better start at once, then," suggested the impatient Terence.
"No, Masther Terry," said the sailor; "not afore night. We musn't leave 'eer till it gets dark. We'll 'ave to thravel betwane two days."
"What!" simultaneously exclaimed the three midshipmen. "Stay here till night! Impossible!"
"Aye, lads! an' we must hide, too. Shure as ye are livin' there'll be somebody afther this sthray kaymal,—in a wee while, too, as ye'll see. If we ventured out durin' the daylight, they'd be sure to see us from the 'ills. It's sayed, the thievin' schoundrels always keep watch when there's been a wreck upon the coast; an' I'll be bound this beest belongs to some av them same wreckers."
"But what shall we do for food?" asked one of the party; "we'll be famished before nightfall! The camel, having nothing to eat or drink, won't yield any more milk."
This interrogative conjecture was probably too near the truth. No one made answer to it. Colin's eyes were again turned towards the beach. Once more he directed the thoughts of his comrades to the shell-fish.
"Hold your hands, youngsthers," said the sailor. "Lie close 'eer behind the 'ill, an' I'll see if there's any shell-fish that we can make a meal av. Now that the sun's up, it won't do to walk down there. I must make a crawl av it."
So saying, the old salt, after skulking some distance farther down the sand gully, threw himself flat upon his face, and advanced in this attitude, like some gigantic lizard crawling across the sand.
The tide was out; but the wet beach, lately covered by the sea, commenced at a short distance from the base of the "dunes."
After a ten minutes' struggle, Bill succeeded in reaching the dark-looking spot where Colin had conjectured there might be shell-fish.
The old sailor was soon seen busily engaged about something; and from his movements it was evident, that his errand was not to prove fruitless. His hands were extended in different directions; and then at short intervals withdrawn, and plunged into the capacious pockets of his pea-jacket.
After these gestures had been continued for about half an hour, he was seen to "slew" himself round, and come crawling back towards the sand-hills.
His return was effected more slowly than his departure; and it could be seen that he was heavily weighted.
On getting back into the gorge, he was at once relieved of his load, which proved to consist of about three hundred "cockles,"—as he called the shell-fish he had collected,—and which were found to be a species of mussel.
They were not only edible, but delicious,—at least they seemed so to those who were called upon to swallow them.
This seasonable supply did a great deal towards allaying the appetites of all; and even Terence now declared himself contented to remain concealed, until night should afford them an opportunity of escape from the monotony of their situation.
KEEPING UNDER COVER.
From the spot, where the camel still lay couched in his "entetherment," the sea was not visible to one lying along the ground. It was only by standing erect, and looking over a spur of the sand-ridge, that the beach could be seen, and the ocean beyond it.
There would be no danger, therefore, of their being discovered, by any one coming along the strand—provided they kept in a crouching attitude behind the ridge, which, sharply crested, like a snow-wreath, formed a sort of parapet in front of them. They might have been easily seen from the summit of any of the "dunes" to the rear; but there was not much likelihood of any one approaching them in that direction. The country inward appeared to be a labyrinth of sand-hills—with no opening that would indicate a passage for either man or beast. The camel, in all probability, had taken to the gorge—guided by its instincts—there to seek shelter from the sand-storm. The fact of its carrying a saddle showed that its owner must have been upon the march, at the time it escaped from him. Had our adventurers been better acquainted with Saaeran customs, they would have concluded that this had been the case: for they would have known that, on the approach of a "shuma"—the "forecasts" of which are well known—the Bedouins at once, and in all haste, break up their encampments; and put themselves, and their whole personal property, in motion. Otherwise, they would be in danger of getting smoored under the settling sand-drift.
Following the counsels of the sailor—whose desert knowledge appeared as extensive as if it, and not the sea, had been his habitual home—our adventurers crouched down in such a way as not to be seen by any one passing along the beach.
Scarcely had they placed themselves in this humble attitude, when Old Bill—who had been keeping watch all the while, with only the upper half of his head elevated above the combing of the sand-wreath—announced, by a low exclamation, that something was in sight.
Two dark forms were seen coming along the shore, from the southward; but at so great a distance that it was impossible to tell what sort of creatures they might turn out.
"Let me have a look," proposed Colin. "By good luck, I've got my glass. It was in my pocket as we escaped from the ship; and I didn't think of throwing it away."
As the young Scotchman spoke, he took from the breast of his dreadnought jacket, a small telescope,—which, when drawn out to its full extent, exhibited a series of tubes, en echelon, about half a yard in length. Directing it upon the dark objects,—at the same time taking the precaution to keep his own head as low down as possible,—he at once proclaimed their character.
"They're two bonny bodies," said he, "dressed in all the colors of the rainbow. I can see bright shawls, and red caps, and striped cloaks. One is mounted on a horse; the other bestrides a camel,—just such a one as this by our side. They're coming along slowly; and appear to be staring about them."
"Ah, that be hit," said Old Bill. "It be the howners of this 'eer brute. They be on the sarch for her. Lucky the drift-sand hae covered her tracks,—else they'd come right on to us. Lie low, Masther Colin. We mayn't show our heeds over the combin' o' the sand. They'd be sure to see the size o' a saxpence. We maun keep awthegither oot o' sicht."
One of the old sailor's peculiarities—or, perhaps, it may have been an eccentricity—was, that in addressing himself to his companions, he was almost sure to assume the national patois of the individual spoken to. In anything like a continued conversation with Harry Blount, his "h's" were handled in a most unfashionable manner; and while talking with Terence, the Milesian came from his lips, in a brogue almost as pure as Tipperary could produce.
In a tete-a-tete with Colin, the listener might have sworn that Bill was more Scotch than the young Macpherson himself.
Colin perceived the justice of the sailor's suggestion; and immediately ducked his head below the level of the parapet of sand.
This placed our adventurers in a position at once irksome and uncertain. Curiosity, if nothing else, rendered them desirous to watch the movements of the men who were approaching. Without noting these, they would not be able to tell when they might again raise their heads above the ridge; and might do so, just at the time when the horseman and the rider of the maherry were either opposite or within sight of them.
As the sailor had said, any dark object of the size of a sixpence would be seen if presented above the smooth combing of snow-white sand; and it was evident to all that for one of them to look over it might lead to their being discovered.
While discussing this point, they knew that some time had elapsed; and, although the eyes they dreaded might still be distant, they could not help thinking, that they were near enough to see them if only the hair of their heads should be shown above the sand.
They reflected naturally. They knew that these sons of the desert must be gifted with keen instincts; or, at all events, with an experience that would enable them to detect the slightest "fault" in the aspect of a landscape, so well known to them,—in short, that they would notice anything that might appear "abnormal" in it.
From that time their situation was one of doubt and anxiety. They dared not give even as much as a glance over the smooth, snow white sand. They could only crouch behind it, in anxious expectation, knowing not when that dubious condition of things could be safely brought to a close.
Luckily they were relieved from it, and sooner than they had expected. Colin it was who discovered a way to get out of the difficulty.
"Ha!" exclaimed he, as an ingenious conception sprang up in his mind. "I've got an idea that'll do. I'll watch these fellows, without giving them a chance of seeing me. That will I."
"How?" asked the others.
Colin made no verbal reply; but instead, he was seen to insert his telescope into the sand-parapet, in such a way that its tube passed clear through to the other side, and of course commanded a view of the beach, along which the two forms were advancing.
As soon as he had done so, he placed his eye to the glass, and, in a cautious whisper, announced that both the horseman and camel-rider were within his "field of view."
THE TRAIL ON THE SAND.
The tube of the telescope, firmly imbedded in the sand, kept its place without the necessity of being held in hand. It only required to be slightly shifted as the horseman and camel-rider changed place,—so as to keep them within its field of view.
By this means our adventurers were able to mark their approach and note every movement they made, without much risk of being seen themselves. Each of them took a peep through the glass to satisfy their curiosity, and then the instrument was wholly intrusted to its owner, who was thenceforth constantly to keep his eye to it, and observe the movements of the strangers. This the young Scotchman did, at intervals communicating with his companions in a low voice.
"I can make out their faces," muttered he, after a time; "and ugly enough are they. One is yellow, the other black. He must be a negro,—of course he is,—he's got woolly hair too. It's he that rides the camel,—just such another as this that stumbled over us. The yellow man upon the horse has a pointed beard upon his chin. He has a sharp look, like those Moors we've seen at Tetuan. He's an Arab, I suppose. He appears to be the master of the black man. I can see him make gestures, as if he was directing him to do something. There! they have stopped,—they are looking this way!"
"Marcy on us!" muttered old Bill, "if they have speered the glass!"
"Troth! that's like enough," said Terence. "It'll be flashing in the sun outside the sand. That sharp-eyed Arab is almost sure to see it."
"Had you not better draw it in?" suggested Harry Blount.
"True," answered Colin. "But I fear it would be too late now. If that's what halted them, it's all over with us, so far as hiding goes."
"Slip it in, any how. If they don't see it any more, they mayn't come quite up to the ridge."
Colin was about to follow the advice thus offered, when on taking what he intended to be a last squint through the telescope, he perceived that the travellers were moving on up the beach, as if they had seen nothing that called upon them to deviate from their course.
Fortunately for the four "stowaways," it was not the sparkle of the lens that had caused them to make that stop. A ravine, or opening through the sand-ridges, much larger than that in which our adventurers were concealed, emboucheed upon the beach, some distance below. It was the appearance of this opening that had attracted the attention of the two mounted men; and from their gestures Colin could tell they were talking about it, as if undecided whether to go that way or keep on up the strand.
It ended by the yellow man putting spurs to his horse, and galloping off up the ravine, followed by the black man on the camel.
From the way in which both behaved,—keeping their eyes generally bent upon the ground, but at intervals gazing about over the country,—it was evident they were in search of something, and this would be the she-camel that lay tethered in the bottom of the sand-gorge, close to the spot occupied by our adventurers.
"They've gone off on the wrong track," said Colin, taking his eye from the glass as soon as the switch tail of the maherry disappeared behind the slope of a sand-dune. "So much the better for us. My heart was at my mouth just a minute ago. I was sure it was all over with us."
"You think they haven't seen the shine of the lens?" interrogated Harry.
"Of course not; or else they'd have come on to examine it. Instead, they've left the beach altogether. They've gone inland, among the hills. They're no longer in sight."
"Good!" ejaculated Terence, raising his head over the ridge, as did also the others.
"Och! good yez may well say, Masther Terence. Jist look fwhot fools we've been all four av us! We never thought av the thracks, nayther wan nor other av us!"
As Bill spoke, he pointed down towards the beach, in the direction in which he had made his late crawling excursion. There, distinctly traceable in the half-wet sand, were the marks he had made both going and returning, as if a huge tortoise or crocodile had been dragging itself over the ground.
The truth of his words was apparent to all. It was chance and not their cunning that had saved them from discovery. Had the owner of the camel but continued another hundred yards along the beach, he could not have failed to see the double "trail" made by the sailor, and of course would have followed it to the spot where they were hidden. As it was, the two mounted men had not come near enough to note the sign made by the old salt in his laborious flounderings; and perhaps fancying they had followed the strand far enough, they had struck off into the interior,—through the opening of the sand-hills, in the belief that the she-camel might have done the same.
Whatever may have been their reason, they were now gone out of sight, and the long stretch of desert shore was once more under the eyes of our adventurers, unrelieved by the appearance of anything that might be called a living creature.
THE "DESERT SHIP."
Though there was now nothing within sight between them, they did not think it prudent to move out of the gorge, nor even to raise their heads above the level of the sand-wreath. They did so only at intervals, to assure themselves that the "coast was clear"; and satisfied on this score, they would lower their heads again, and remain in this attitude of concealment.
One with but slight knowledge of the circumstances—or with the country in which they were—might consider them over-cautious in acting thus, and might fancy that in their forlorn, shipwrecked condition they should have been but too glad to meet men.
On the contrary, a creature of their own shape was the last thing they desired either to see or encounter; and for the reasons already given in their conversation, they could meet no men there who would not be their enemies,—worse than that, their tyrants, perhaps their torturers. Old Bill was sure of this from what he had heard. So were Colin and Harry from what they had read. Terence alone was incredulous as to the cruelty of which the sailor had given such a graphic picture.
Terence, however rash he was by nature, allowed himself to be overruled by his more prudent companions; and therefore, up to the hour when the twilight began to em-purple the sea, no movement towards stirring from their place of concealment was made by any of the party.
The patient camel shared their silent retreat; though they had taken precautions against its straying from them, had it felt so inclined, by tying its shanks securely together. Towards evening the animal was again milked, in the same fashion as in the morning; and, reinvigorated by its bountiful yield, our adventurers prepared to depart from a spot, of which, notwithstanding the friendly concealment it had afforded them, they were all heartily tired.
Their preparations were easily made, and occupied scarce ten seconds of time. It was only to untether the camel and take to the road, or, as Harry jocosely termed it, "unmoor the desert ship and begin their voyage."
Just as the last gleam of daylight forsook the white crests of the sand-hills, and went flickering afar over the blue waters of the ocean, they stole forth from their hiding-place, and started upon a journey of which they knew neither the length nor the ending.
Even of the direction of that undetermined journey they had but a vague conception. They believed that the coast trended northward and southward, and that one of these points was the proper one to head for. It was almost "heads or tails" which of them they should take; and had they been better acquainted with their true situation, it might as well have been determined by a toss-up, for any chance they had of ever arriving at a civilized settlement. But they knew not that. They had a belief—the old sailor stronger than the rest—that there were Portuguese forts along the coast, chiefly to the southward, and that by keeping along shore they might reach one of these. There were such establishments it is true—still are; and though at that time there were some nearer to the point where their ship had been wrecked, none were near enough to be reached by the starving castaway, however perseveringly he might travel towards them.
Ignorant of the impracticability of their attempt, our adventurers entered upon it with a spirit worthy of success,—worthy of the country from which they had come.
For some time the maherry was led in hand, old Bill being its conductor. All four had been well rested during the day, and none of them cared to ride.
As the tide, however, was now beginning to creep up into the sundry inlets, to avoid walking in water, they were compelled to keep well high up on the beach; and this forced them to make their way through the soft yielding sand, a course that required considerable exertion.
Ore after another now began to feel fatigue, and talk about it as well; and then the proposal was made, that the maherry—who stepped over the unsure surface with as much apparent lightness as a cat would have done—should be made to carry at least one of the party. They could ride in turns, which would give each of them an opportunity of resting.
No sooner was the proposition made than it was carried into execution. Terence, who had been the one to advance it, being hoisted in the hump of the camel.
But though the young O'Connor had been accustomed to the saddle from childhood, and had ridden "across country" on many an occasion, it was not long before he became satisfied with the saddle of a maherry. The rocking, and jolting, and "pitching," as our adventurers termed it, from larboard to starboard, fore and aft, and alow and aloft, soon caused Terence to sing out "enough"; and he descended into the soft sand with a much greater desire for walking than the moment before he had had for riding.
Harry Blount took his place, but although the young Englishman had been equally accustomed to a hunting-saddle, he found that his experience went but a little way towards making him easy on the hump of a maherry; and he was soon in the mood for dismounting.
The son of Scotia next climbed upon the back of the camel. Whether it was that natural pride of prowess which oft impels his countrymen to perseverance and daring deeds,—whether it was that, or whether it arose from a sterner power of endurance,—certain it is that Colin kept his seat longer than either of his predecessors.
But even Scotch sinews could not hold out against such a tension,—such a bursting and wrenching and tossing,—and it ended by Colin declaring that upon the whole he would prefer making the journey upon "Shank's mare."
Saying this he slid down from the shoulders of the ungainly animal, resigning the creature once more to the conduct of Old Bill, who had still kept hold of the halter.
The experience of his young companions might have deterred the sailor from imitating their example; more especially as Bill, according to his own statement, had never been "abroad" a saddle in his life. But they did not; and for special reasons. Awkward as the old salt might feel in a saddle, he felt not less awkward afoot. That is ashore,—on terra firma.
Place him on the deck of a ship, or in the rigging of one, and no man in all England's navy could have been more secure as to his footing, or more difficult to dispossess of it; but set sailor Bill upon shore, and expect him to go ahead upon it, you would be disappointed: you might as well expect a fish to make progress on land; and you would witness a species of locomotion more resembling that of a manatee or a seal, than of a human biped. As the old man-o'-war's-man had now being floundering full five weeks through the soft shore-sand, he was thoroughly convinced that a mode of progression must be preferable to that; and as soon as the young Scotchman descended from his seat, he climbed into it.
He had not much climbing to do,—for the well-trained maherry, when any one wished to mount him, at once knelt down,—making the ascent to his "summits" as easy as possible.
Just as the sailor had got firmly into the saddle, the moon shone out with a brilliance that almost rivalled the light of day. In the midst of that desert landscape, against the ground of snow-white sand, the figures of both camel and rider were piquantly conspicuous; and although the one was figuratively a ship, and the other really a sailor, their juxtaposition offered a contrast of the queerest kind. So ludicrous did it seem, that the three "mids," disregarding all ideas of danger, broke forth with one accord into a strain of loud and continuous laughter.
They had all seen camels, or pictures of these animals; but never before either a camel, or the picture of one, with a sailor upon his back. The very idea of a dromedary carries along with it the cognate spectacle of an Arab on its back,—a slim, sinewy individual of swarth complexion and picturesque garb, a bright burnouse steaming around his body, with a twisted turban on his head. But a tall camel surmounted by a sailor in dreadnought jacket and sou'-wester, was a picture to make a Solon laugh, let alone a tier of midshipmen; and it drew from the latter such a cachinnation as caused the shores of the Saaera to echo with sounds of joy, perhaps never heard there before. Old Bill was not angry, he was only gratified to see these young gentlemen in such good spirits; and calling upon them to keep close after him, he gave the halter to his maherry and started off over the sand.
For some time his companions kept pace with him, doing their best; but it soon became apparent, even to the sailor himself, that unless something was done to restrain the impetuosity of the camel, he must soon be separated from those following afoot.
This something its rider felt himself incapable of accomplishing. It is true he still held the halter in his hand, but this gave him but slight control over the camel. It was not a mameluke bitt—not even a snaffle—and for directing the movements of the animal the old sailor felt himself as helpless as if standing by the wheel of a seventy-four that had unshipped her rudder. Just like a ship in such a situation did the maherry behave. Surging through the ocean of soft sand, now mounting the spurs that trended down to the beach, now descending headlong into deep gullies, like troughs between the ocean waves, and gliding silently, gently forward as a shallop upon a smooth sea. Such was the course that the sailor was pursuing. Very different, however, were his reflections to those he would have indulged in on board a man-o'-war; and if any man ever sneered at that simile which likens a camel to a ship, it was Sailor Bill upon that occasion.
"Avast there!" cried he, as soon as the maherry had fairly commenced moving. "Shiver my old timbers! what do yez mean, you brute? Belay there! belay! 'Ang it, I must pipe all 'ands, an' take in sail. Where the deevil are ye steerin' to? Be jabers, yez may laugh, young gentlemen, but this ain't a fair weather craft, I tell yez. Thunder an' ouns! it be as much as I can do to keep her to her course. Hulloo! she's off afore the wind!"
As the rider of the maherry gave out this declaration, the animal was seen suddenly to increase its speed, not only in a progressive ratio, but at once to double quick, as if impelled by some powerful motive.
At the same time it was heard to utter a strange cry, half scream, half snort, which could not have been caused by any action on the part of its rider.
It was already over a hundred yards in advance of those following on foot; but after giving out that startling cry, the distance became quickly increased, and in a few seconds of time the three astonished "mids" saw only the shadow of a maherry, with a sailor upon its back, first dissolving into dim outline until it finally disappeared behind the sand dunes that abutted upon the beach.
THE DANCE INTERRUPTED.
Leaving the midshipmen to their mirth, which, however, was not of very long duration, we must follow Sailor Bill and the runaway camel.
In reality the maherry had made off with him, though for what reason the sailor could not divine. He only knew that it was going at the rate of nine or ten knots an hour, and going its own way; for instead of keeping to the line of the coast,—the direction he would have wished it to take,—it had suddenly turned tail upon the sea, and headed towards the interior of the country.
Its rider had already discovered that he had not the slightest control over it. He had tugged upon the hair halter and shouted "Avast!" until both his arms and tongue were tired. All to no purpose. The camel scorned his commands, lent a deaf ear to his entreaties, and paid not the slightest heed to his attempt to pull up, except to push on in the opposite direction, with its snout elevated in the air and its long ungainly neck stretched forward in the most determined and provoking fashion.
There was not much force in the muscular efforts made to check it. It was just as much as its rider could do to balance himself on its hump, which, of course, he had to do Arab-fashion, sitting upon the saddle as on a chair, with his feet resting upon the back of the animal's neck. It was this position that rendered his seat so insecure, but no other could have been adopted in the saddle of a maherry, and the sailor was compelled to keep it as well as he could.
At the time the animal first started off, it had not gone at so rapid a pace but that he might have slipped down upon the soft sand without much danger of being injured. This for an instant he had thought of doing; but knowing that while "unhorsing" himself the camel might escape, he had voluntarily remained on its back, in the hope of being able to pull the animal up.
On becoming persuaded that this would be impossible, and that the maherry had actually made off with him, it was too late to dismount without danger. The camel was now shambling along so swiftly that he could not slip down without submitting himself to a fall. It would be no longer a tumble upon soft sand, for the runaway had suddenly swerved into a deep gorge, the bottom of which was thickly strewed with boulders of rock, and through these the maherry was making way with the speed of a fast-trotting horse.
Had its rider attempted to abandon his high perch upon the hump, his chances would have been good for getting dashed against one of the big boulders, or trodden under the huge hoofs of the maherry itself.
Fully alive to this danger, Old Bill no more thought of throwing himself to the ground; but on the contrary, held on to the hump with all the tenacity that lay in his well-tarred digits.
He had continued to shout for some time after parting with his companions; but as this availed nothing, he at length desisted, and was now riding the rest of his race in silence.
When was it to terminate? Whither was the camel conducting him? These were the questions that now came before his mind.
He thought of an answer, and it filled him with apprehension. The animal was evidently in eager haste. It was snuffing the wind in its progress forward; something ahead seemed to be attracting it. What could this something be but its home, the tent from which it had strayed, the dwelling of its owner? And who could that owner be but one of those cruel denizens of the desert they had been taking such pains to avoid?
The sailor was allowed but little time for conjectures; for almost on the instant of his shaping this, the very first one, the maherry shot suddenly round the hip of a hill, bringing him in full view of a spectacle that realized it.
A small valley, or stretch of level ground enclosed by surrounding ridges, lay before him; its gray, sandy surface interspersed by a few patches of darker color, which the moon, shining brightly from a blue sky, disclosed to be tufts of tussock-grass and mimosa bushes.
These, however, did not occupy the attention of the involuntary visitor to that secluded spot; but something else that appeared in their midst,—something that proclaimed the presence of human beings.
Near the centre of the little valley half a dozen dark objects stood up several feet above the level of the ground. Their size, shape, and color proclaimed their character. They were tents,—the tents of a Bedouin encampment. The old man-o'-war's-man had never seen such before; but there was no mistaking them for anything else,—even going as he was at a speed that prevented him from having a very clear view of them.
In a few seconds, however, he was near enough to distinguish something more than the tents. They stood in a sort of circle of about twenty yards in diameter, and within this could be seen the forms of men, women, and children. Around were animals of different sorts,—horses, camels, sheep, goats, and dogs, grouped according to their kind, with the exception of the dogs, which appeared to be straying everywhere. This varied tableau was distinctly visible under the light of a full, mellow moon.
There were voices,—shouting and singing. There was music, made upon some rude instrument. The human forms,—both of men and women,—were in motion, circling and springing about. The sailor saw they were dancing.
He heard, and saw, all this in a score of seconds, as the maherry hurried him forward into their midst. The encampment was close to the bottom of the hill round which the camel had carried him. He had at length made up his mind to dismount coute que coute; but there was no time. Before he could make a movement to fling himself from the shoulders of the animal, he saw that he was discovered. A cry coming from the tents admonished him of this fact. It was too late to attempt a retreat, and, in a state of desponding stupor, he stuck to the saddle. Not much longer. The camel, with a snorting scream, responding to the call of its fellows, rushed on into the encampment,—right into the very circle of the dancers; and there amidst the shouts of men, the screeches of women, the yelling of children, the neighing of horses, the bleating of sheep and goats, and the barking of a score or two of cur dogs,—the animal stopped, with such abrupt suddenness that its rider, after performing a somersault through the air, came down on all-fours, in front of its projecting snout!
In such fashion was Sailor Bill introduced to the Arab encampment.
A SERIO-COMICAL RECEPTION.
It need scarce be said that the advent of the stranger produced some surprise among the Terpsichorean crowd, into the midst of which he had been so unceremoniously projected. And yet this surprise was not such as might have been expected. One might suppose that an English man-o'-war's-man in pilot-cloth, pea-jacket, glazed hat, and wide duck trousers, would have been a singular sight to the eyes of the dark-skinned individuals who now encircled them—dressed as all of them were in gay colored floating shawl-robes, slipped or sandalled feet, and with fez caps or turbans on their heads.
Not a bit of a singular sight: neither the color of his skin, nor his sailor-costume, had caused surprise to those who surrounded him. Both were matters with which they were well acquainted—alas! too well.
The astonishment they had exhibited arose simply from the sans facons manner of his coming amongst them; and on the instant after it disappeared, giving place to a feeling of a different kind.
Succeeding to the shouts of surprise, arose a simultaneous peal of laughter from men, women, and children; in which even the animals seemed to join—more especially the maherry, who stood with its uncouth head craned over its dismounted rider, and looking uncontrollably comic!
In the midst of this universal exclamation the sailor rose to his feet. He might have been disconcerted by the reception, had his senses been clear enough to comprehend what was passing. But they were not. The effects of that fearful somersault had confused him; and he had only risen to an erect attitude, under a vague instinct or desire to escape from that company.
After staggering some paces over the ground, his thoughts returned to him; and he more clearly comprehended his situation. Escape was out of the question. He was prisoner to a party of wandering Bedouins,—the worst to be found in all the wide expanse of the Saaeran desert,—the wreckers of the Atlantic coast.
The sailor might have felt surprised at seeing a collection of familiar objects into the midst of which he had wandered. By the doorway of a tent,—one of the largest upon the ground,—there was a pile of paraphernalia, every article of which was tropical, not of the Saaera, but the sea. There were "belongings" of the cabin and caboose,—the 'tween decks, and the forecastle,—all equally proclaiming themselves the debris of a castaway ship.
The sailor could have no conjectures as to the vessel to which they had belonged. He knew the articles by sight,—one and all of them. They were the spoils of the corvette, that had been washed ashore, and fallen into the hands of the wreckers.
Among them Old Bill saw some things that had appertained to himself.
On the opposite side of the encampment, by another large tent, was a second pile of ship's equipments, like the first, guarded by a sentinel who squatted beside it: the sailor looked around in expectation to see some of the corvette's crew. Some might have escaped like himself and his three companions by reaching the shore on cask, hoop, or spar. If so, they had not fallen into the hands of the wreckers; or if they had, they were not in the camp—unless, indeed, they might be inside some of the tents. This was not likely. Most probably they had all been drowned, or had succumbed to a worse fate than drowning—death at the hands of the cruel coast robbers, who now surrounded the survivor.
The circumstances under which the old sailor made these reflections were such as to render the last hypothesis sufficiently probable. He was being pushed about and dragged over the ground by two men, armed with long curved scimitars, contesting some point with one another, apparently as to which should be first to cut off his head!
Both of these men appeared to be chiefs; "sheiks" as the sailor heard them called by their followers, a party of whom—also with arms in their hands—stood behind each "sheik"—all seemingly alike eager to perform the act of decapitation.
So near seemed the old sailor's head to being cut off, that for some seconds he was not quite sure whether it still remained upon his shoulders! He could not understand a word that passed between the contending parties, though there was talk enough to have satisfied a sitting of parliament, and probably with about the same quantity of sense in it.
Before he had proceeded far, the sailor began to comprehend,—not from the speeches made, but the gestures that accompanied them,—that it was not the design of either party to cut off his head. The drawn scimitars, sweeping through the air, were not aimed at his neck, but rather in mutual menace of one another.
Old Bill could see that there was some quarrel between the two sheiks, of which he was himself the cause; that the camp was not a unity consisting of a single chief, his family, and following; but that there were too separate leaders, each with his adherents, perhaps temporarily associated together for purposes of plunder.
That they had collected the wreck of the corvette, and divided the spoils between them, was evident from the two heaps being kept carefully apart, each piled up near the tent of a chief.
The old man-o'-war's-man made his observations in the midst of great difficulties: for while noting these particulars, he was pulled about the place, first by one sheik, then by the other, each retaining his disputed person in temporary possession.
From the manner in which they acted, he could tell that it was his person that was the subject of dispute, and that both wanted to be the proprietor of it.
THE TWO SHEIKS.
There was a remarkable difference between the two men thus claiming ownership in the body of Old Bill. One was a little wizen-faced individual, whose yellow complexion and sharp, angular features proclaimed him of the Arab stock, while his competitor showed a skin of almost ebon blackness—a frame of herculean development—a broad face, with flat nose and thick lubberly lips—a head of enormous circumference, surmounted by a mop of woolly hair, standing erect several inches above his occiput.
Had the sailor been addicted to ethnological speculations, he might have derived an interesting lesson from that contest, of which he was the cause. It might have helped him to a knowledge of the geography of the country in which he had been cast, for he was now upon that neutral territory where the true Ethiopian—the son of Ham—occasionally contests possession, both of the soil and the slave, with the wandering children of Japhet.
The two men who were thus quarrelling about the possession of the English tar, though both of African origin, could scarce have been more unlike had their native country been the antipodes of each other.
Their object was not so different, though even in this there was a certain dissimilation. Both designed making the shipwrecked sailor a slave. But the sheik of Arab aspects wished to possess him, with a view to his ultimate ransom. He knew that by carrying him northwards there would be a chance to dispose of him at a good price, either to the Jew merchants at Wedinoin, or the European consuls at Mogador. It would not be the first Saaerian castaway he had in this manner restored to his friends and his country—not from any motives of humanity, but simply for the profit it produced.
On the other hand, the black competitor had a different, though somewhat similar, purpose in view. His thoughts extended towards the south. There lay the emporium of his commerce,—the great mud-built town of Timbuctoo. Little as a white man was esteemed among the Arab merchants when considered as a mere slave, the sable sheik knew that in the south of the Saaera he would command a price, if only as a curiosity to figure among the followers of the sultan of some grand interior city. For this reason, therefore, was the black determined upon the possession of Bill, and showed as much eagerness to become his owner as did his tawny competitor.
After several minutes spent in words and gestures of mutual menace, which, from the wild shouts and flourishing of scimitars, seemed as if it could only end in a general lopping off of heads, somewhat to the astonishment of the sailor, tranquillity became restored without any one receiving scratch or cut.
The scimitars were returned to their scabbards; and although the affair did not appear to be decided, the contest was now carried on in a more pacific fashion by words. A long argument ensued, in which both sheiks displayed their oratorial powers. Though the sailor could not understand a word of what was said, he could tell that the little Arab was urging his ownership, on the plea that the camel which had carried the captive into the encampment was his property, and on this account was he entitled to the "waif."
The black seemed altogether to dissent from this doctrine; on his side pointing to the two heaps of plunder; as much as to say that his share of the spoils—already obtained—was the smaller one.
At this crisis a third party stepped between the two disputants—a young fellow, who appeared to have some authority with both. His behavior told Bill that he was acting as mediator. Whatever was the proposal made by him, it appeared to satisfy both parties, as both at once desisted from their wordy warfare—at the same time that they seemed preparing to settle the dispute in some other way.
The mode was soon made apparent. A spot of smooth, even sand was selected by the side of the encampment, to which the two sheiks, followed by their respective parties, repaired.
A square figure was traced out, inside of which several rows of little round holes were scooped in the sand, and then the rival sheiks sat down, one on each side of the figure. Each had already provided himself with a number of pellets of camels' dung, which were now placed in the holes, and the play of "helga" was now commenced.
Whoever won the game was to become possessed of the single stake, which was neither more nor less than Sailor Bill.
The game proceeded by the shifting of the dung pellets in a particular fashion, from hole to hole, somewhat similar to the moving of draughts upon the squares of a checker-board.
During the play not a word was spoken by either party, the two sheiks squatting opposite each other, and making their moves with as much gravity as a pair of chess-players engaged in some grand tournament of this intellectual game.
It was only when the affair ended, that the noise broke forth again, which it did in loud, triumphant shouts from the conquering party, with expressions of chagrin on the side of the conquered.
By interpreting these shouts, Bill could tell that he had fallen to the black; and this was soon after placed beyond doubt by the latter coming up and taking possession of him.
It appeared, however, that there had been certain subsiding conditions to the play, and that the sailor had been in some way or another staked against his own clothes; for before being fully appropriated by his owner he was stripped to his shirt, and his habiliments, shoes and sou'-wester included, were handed over to the sheik who had played second-best in the game of "helga."
In this forlorn condition was the old sailor conducted to the tent of his sable master, and placed like an additional piece upon the pile of plunder already apportioned!
SAILOR BILL BESHREWED.
Sailor Bill said not a word. He had no voice in the disposal of the stakes,—which were himself and his "toggery,"—and, knowing this, he remained silent.
He was not allowed to remain undisturbed. During the progress of the game, he had become the cynosure of a large circle of eyes,—belonging to the women and children of the united tribes.
He might have looked for some compassion,—at least, from the female portion of those who formed his entourage. Half famished with hunger,—a fact which he did not fail to communicate by signs,—he might have expected them to relieve his wants. The circumstance of his making them known might argue, that he did expect some sort of kind treatment.
It was not much, however. His hopes were but slight, and sprang rather from a knowledge of his own necessities, and of what the women ought to have done, than what they were likely to do. Old Bill had heard too much of the character of these hags of the Saaera,—and their mode of conducting themselves towards any unfortunate castaway who might be drifted among them,—to expect any great hospitality at their hands.
His hopes, therefore, were moderate; but, for all that, they were doomed to disappointment.
Perhaps in no other part of the world is the "milk of human kindness" so completely wanting in the female breast, as among the women of the wandering Arabs of Africa. Slaves to their imperious lords,—even when enjoying the sacred title of wife,—they are themselves treated worse than the animals which they have to manage and tend,—even worse at times than their own bond-slaves, with whom they mingle almost on an equality. As in all like cases, this harsh usage, instead of producing sympathy for others who suffer, has the very opposite tendency; as if they found some alleviation of their cruel lot in imitating the brutality of their oppressors.
Instead of receiving kindness, the old sailor became the recipient of insults, not only from their tongues,—which he could not understand,—but by acts and gestures which were perfectly comprehensible to him.
While his ears were dinned by virulent speeches,—which, could he have comprehended them, would have told him how much he was despised for being an infidel, and not a follower of the true prophet,—while his eyes were well-nigh put out by dust thrown in his face,—accompanied by spiteful expectorations,—his body was belabored by sticks, his skin scratched and pricked with sharp thorns, his whiskers lugged almost to the dislocation of his jaws, and the hair of his head uprooted in fistfuls from his pericranium.
All this, too, amid screams and fiendish laughter, that resembled an orgie of furies.
These women—she-devils they better deserved to be called—were simply following out the teachings of their inhuman faith,—among religions, even that of Rome not excepted, the most inhuman that has ever cursed mankind. Had old Bill been a believer in their "Prophet," that false seer of the blood-stained sword, their treatment of him would have been directly the reverse. Instead of kicks and cuffs, hustlings and scratchings, he would have been made welcome to a share in such hospitality as they could have bestowed upon him. It was religion, not nature, made them act as they did. Their hardness of heart came not from God, but the Prophet. They were only carrying out the edicts of their "priests of a bloody faith."
In vain did the old man-o'-war's-man cry out "belay" and "avast." In vain did he "shiver his timbers," and appeal against their scurvy treatment, by looks, words, and gesture.
These seemed only to augment the mirth and spitefulness of his tormentors.
In this scene of cruelty there was one woman conspicuous among the rest. By her companions she was called Fatima. The old sailor, ignorant of Arabic feminine names, thought "it a misnomer," for of all his she-persecutors she was the leanest and scraggiest. Notwithstanding the poetical notions which the readers of Oriental romance might associate with her name, there was not much poetry about the personage who so assiduously assaulted Sailor Bill,—pulling his whiskers, slapping his cheeks, and every now and then spitting in his face!
She was something more than middle-aged, short, squat, and meagre; with the eye-teeth projecting on both sides, so as to hold up the upper lip, and exhibit all the others in their ivory whiteness, with an expression resembling that of the hyena. This is considered beauty,—a fashion in full vogue among her countrywomen, who cultivate it with great care,—though to the eyes of the old sailor it rendered the hag all the more hideous.
But the skinning of eye-teeth was not the only attempt at ornament made by this belle of the Desert. Strings of black beads hung over her wrinkled bosom; circlets of white bone were set in her hair; armlets and bangles adorned her wrists and ankles, and altogether did her costume and behavior betoken one distinguished among the crowd of his persecutors,—in short, their sultana or queen.
And such did she prove; for on the black sheik appropriating the old sailor as a stake fairly won in the game, and rescuing his newly-acquired property from the danger of being damaged, Fatima followed him to his tent with such demonstrations as showed her to be, if not the "favorite," certainly the head of the harem.
STARTING ON THE TRACK.
As already said, the mirth of the three midshipmen was brought to a quick termination. It ended on the instant of Sailor Bill's disappearance behind the spur of the sand-hills. At the same instant all three came to a stop, and stood regarding one another with looks of uneasiness and apprehension.
All agreed that the maherry had made away with the old man-o'-war's-man. There could be no doubt about it. Bill's shouts, as he was hurried out of their hearing, proved that he was doing his best to bring to, and that the "ship of the desert" would not yield obedience to her helm.
They wondered a little why he had not slipped off, and let the animal go. They could not see why he should fear to drop down in the soft sand. He might have had a tumble, but nothing to do him any serious injury,—nothing to break a bone, or dislocate a joint. They supposed he had stuck to the saddle, from not wishing to abandon the maherry, and in hope of soon bringing it to a halt.
This was just what he had done, for the first three or four hundred yards. After that he would only have been too well satisfied to separate from the camel, and let it go its way. But then he was among the rough, jaggy rocks through which the path led, and then dismounting was no longer to be thought of, without also thinking of danger, considering that the camel was nearly ten feet in height, and going at a pitching pace of ten miles to the hour. To have forsaken his saddle at that moment would have been to risk the breaking of his neck.
From where they stood looking after him, the mids could not make out the character of the ground. Under the light of the moon, the surface seemed all of a piece,—all a bed of smooth soft sand! For this reason were they perplexed by his behavior.
There was that in the incident to make them apprehensive. The maherry would not have gone off at such a gait, without some powerful motive to impel it. Up to that moment it had shown no particular penchant for rapid travelling, but had been going, under their guidance, with a steady, sober docility. Something must have attracted it towards the interior. What could that something be, if not the knowledge that its home, or its companions, were to be found in this direction?
This was the conjecture that came simultaneously into the minds of all three,—as is known, the correct one.
There could be no doubt that their companion had been carried towards an encampment; for no other kind of settlement could be thought of in such a place. It was even a wonder that this could exist in the midst of a dreary, wild expanse of pure sand, like that surrounding them. Perhaps, thought they, there may be "land" towards the interior of the country,—a spot of firm soil, with vegetation upon it; in short, an oasis.
After their first surprise had partially subsided, they took counsel as to their course. Should they stay where they were, and wait for Bill's return? Or should they follow, in the hope of overtaking him?
Perhaps he might not return. If carried into a camp of barbarous savages, it was not likely that he would. He would be seized and held captive to a dead certainty. But surely he would not be such a simpleton, as to allow the maherry to transport him into the midst of his enemies.
Again sprang up their surprise at his not having made an effort to dismount.
For some ten or fifteen minutes the midshipmen stood hesitating,—their eyes all the while bent on the moonlit opening, through which the maherry had disappeared. There were no signs of anything in the pass,—at least anything like either a camel or a sailor. Only the bright beams of the moon glittering upon crystals of purest sand.
They thought they heard sounds,—the cries of quadrupeds mingling with the voices of men. There were voices, too, of shriller intonation, that might have proceeded from the throats of women.
Colin was confident he heard such. He was not contradicted by his companions, who simply said, they could not be sure that they heard anything.
But for the constant roar of the breakers,—rolling up almost to the spot upon which they stood,—they would have declared themselves differently; for at that moment there was a chorus being carried on at no great distance, in a variety of most unmusical sounds,—comprising the bark of the dog, the neigh of the horse, the snorting scream of the dromedary, the bleat of the sheep, and the sharper cry of its near kindred the goat,—along with the equally wild and scarce more articulate utterances of savage men, women, and children.
Colin was convinced that he heard all these sounds, and declared that they could only proceed from some encampment. His companions, knowing that the young Scotchman was sharp-eared, made no attempt to question his belief; but, on the contrary, gave ready credence to it.
Under any circumstances it seemed of no use to remain where they were. If Bill did not return, they were bound in honor to go after him; and, if possible, find out what had become of him. If, on the other hand, he should be coming back, they must meet him somewhere in the pass,—through which the camel had carried him off—since there was no other by which he might conveniently get back to them.
This point determined, the three mids, setting their faces for the interior of the country, started off towards the break between the sand-hills.
BILL TO BE ABANDONED.
They proceeded with caution,—Colin even more than his companions. The young Englishman was not so distrustful of the "natives," whoever they might be, as the son of Scotia; and as for O'Connor, he still persisted in the belief that there would be little, if any, danger in meeting with men, and, in his arguments, still continued to urge seeking such an encounter as the best course they could pursue.
"Besides," said Terence, "Coly says he hears the voices of women and children. Sure no human creature that's got a woman and child in his company would be such a cruel brute as you make out this desert Ethiopian to be? Sailors' stories, to gratify the melodramatic ears of Moll and Poll and Sue! Bah! if there be an encampment, let's go straight into it, and demand hospitality of them. Sure they must be Arabs; and sure you've heard enough of Arab hospitality?"
"More than's true, Terry," rejoined the young Englishman. "More than's true, I fear."
"You may well say that," said Colin, confirmingly. "From what I've heard and read,—ay, and from something I've seen while up the Mediterranean,—a more beggarly hospitality than that called Arab don't exist on the face of the earth. It's all well enough, so long as you are one of themselves, and, like them, a believer in their pretended prophet. Beyond that, an Arab has got no more hospitality than a hyena. You're both fond of talking about skin-flint Scotchmen."
"True," interrupted Terence, who, even in that serious situation, could not resist such a fine opportunity for displaying his Irish humor. "I never think of a Scotchman without thinking of his skin. 'God bless the gude Duke of Argyle!'"
"Shame, Terence!" interrupted Harry Blount; "our situation is too serious for jesting."
"He—all of us—may find it so before long," continued Colin, preserving his temper unruffled. "If that yelling crowd—that I can now hear plainer than ever—should come upon us, we'll have something else to think of than jokes about 'gude Duke o' Argyle.' Hush! Do you hear that? Does it convince you that men and women are near? There are scores of both kinds."
Colin had come to a stop, the others imitating his example. They were now more distant from the breakers,—whose roar was somewhat deadened by the intervention of a sand-spur. In consequence, the other sounds were heard more distinctly. They could no longer be mistaken,—even by the incredulous O'Connor.
There were voices of men, women, and children,—cries and calls of quadrupeds,—each according to its own kind, all mingled together in what might have been taken for some nocturnal saturnalia of the Desert.
The crisis was that in which Sailor Bill had become a subject of dispute between the two sheiks,—in which not only their respective followers of the biped kind appeared to take part, but also every quadruped in the camp,—dogs and dromedaries, horses, goats, and sheep,—as if each had an interest in the ownership of the old man-o'-war's-man.
The grotesque chorus was succeeded by an interval of silence, uninterrupted and profound. This was while the two sheiks were playing their game of "helga,"—the "chequers" of the Saaera, with Sailor Bill as their stake.
During this tranquil interlude, the three midshipmen had advanced through the rock-strewn ravine, had crept cautiously inside the ridges that encircled the camp, and concealed by the sparse bushes of mimosa, and favored by the light of a full moon, had approached near enough to take note of what was passing among the tents.
What they saw there, and then, was confirmatory of the theory of the young Scotchman; and convinced not only Harry Blount, but Terence O'Connor, that the stories of Arab hospitality were not only untrue, but diametrically opposed to the truth.
There was old Bill before their faces, stripped to the shirt,—to the "buff,"—surrounded by a circle of short, squat women, dark-skinned, with black hair, and eyes sparkling in the moonlight, who were torturing him with tongue and touch,—who pinched and spat upon him,—who looked altogether like a band of infernal Furies collected around some innocent victim that had fallen among them, and giving full play to their fiendish instincts!
Although they were witnesses to the subsequent rescue of Bill by the black sheik,—and the momentary release of the old sailor from his tormentors,—it did not increase their confidence in the crew who occupied the encampment.
From the way in which the old salt appeared to be treated, they could tell that he was regarded by the hosts into whose hands he had fallen, not as a guest, but simply as a "piece of goods,"—just like any other waif of the wreck that had been washed on that inhospitable shore.
In whispers the three mids made known their thoughts to one another. Harry Blount no longer doubted the truth of Colin's statements; and O'Connor had become equally converted from his incredulity. The conduct of the women towards the unfortunate castaway—which all three witnessed—told like the tongue of a trumpet. It was cruel beyond question. What, when exercised, must be that of their men?
To think of leaving their old comrade in such keeping was not a pleasant reflection. It was like their abandoning him upon the sand-spit,—to the threatening engulfment of the tide. Even worse: for the angry breakers seemed less spiteful than the hags who surrounded him in the Arab camp.
Still, what could the boys do? Three midshipmen,—armed only with their tiny dirks,—what chance would they have among so many? There were scores of these sinewy sons of the Desert,—without counting the shrewish women,—each armed with gun and scimitar, any one of whom ought to have been more than a match for a "mid." It would have been sheer folly to have attempted a rescue. Despair only could have sanctioned such a course.
In a whispered consultation it was determined otherwise. The old sailor must be abandoned to his fate, just as he had been left upon the sand-spit. His youthful companions could only breathe a prayer in his behalf, and express a hope that, as upon the latter occasion, some providential chance should turn up in his favor, and he might again be permitted to rejoin them.
After communicating this hope to one another, all three turned their faces shoreward, determined to put as much space between themselves and the Arab encampment as night and circumstances would permit.
A CAUTIOUS RETREAT.
The ravine, up which the maherry had carried the old man-o'-war's-man, ran perpendicularly to the trending of the seashore, and almost in a direct line from the beach to the valley, in which was the Arab encampment. It could not, however, be said to debouch into this valley. Across its mouth the sand-drift had formed a barrier, like a huge "snow-wreath," uniting the two parallel ridges that formed the sides of the ravine itself. This "mouth-piece" was not so high as either of the flanking ridges; though it was nearly a hundred feet above the level of the beach on one side, and the valley on the other. Its crest, viewed en profile, exhibited a saddle-shaped curve, the concavity turned upward.
Through the centre of this saddle of sand, and transversely, the camel had carried Bill; and over the same track the three midshipmen had gone in search of him.
They had seen the Arab tents from the summit of the "pass"; and had it been daylight, need have gone no nearer to note what was being there done. Even by the moonlight, they had been able to make out the forms of the horses, camels, men, and women; but not with sufficient distinctness to satisfy them as to what was going on.
For this reason had they descended into the valley,—creeping cautiously down the slope of the sand-wreath, and with equal caution advancing from boulder to bush, and bush to boulder.
On taking the back track to regain the beach, they still observed caution,—though perhaps not to such a degree as when approaching the camp. Their desire to put space between themselves and the barbarous denizens of the Desert,—of whose barbarity they had now obtained both ocular and auricular proof,—had very naturally deprived them of that prudent coolness which the occasion required. For all that, they did not retreat with reckless rashness; and all three arrived at the bottom of the sloping sand-ridge, without having any reason to think they had been observed.
But the most perilous point was yet to be passed. Against the face of the acclivity, there was not much danger of their being seen. The moon was shining on the other side. That which they had to ascend was in shadow,—dark enough to obscure the outlines of their bodies to an eye looking in that direction, from such a distance as the camp. It was not while toiling up the slope that they dreaded detection, but at the moment when they must cross the saddle-shaped summit of the pass. Then, the moon being low down in the sky, directly in front of their faces, while the camp, still lower, was right behind their backs, it was not difficult to tell that their bodies would be exactly aligned between the luminary of night and the sparkling eyes of the Arabs, and that their figures would be exhibited in conspicuous outline.
It had been much the same way on their entrance to the oasis; but then they were not so well posted up in the peril of their position. They now wondered at their not having been observed while advancing; but that could be rationally accounted for, on the supposition that the Bedouins had been, at the time, too busy over old Bill to take heed of anything beyond the limits of their encampment.
It was different now. There was quiet in the camp, though both male and female figures could be seen stirring among the tents. The saturnalia that succeeded the castaway had come to a close. A comparative peacefulness reigned throughout the valley; but in this very tranquillity lay the danger which our adventurers dreaded.
With nothing else to attract their attention, the occupants of the encampments would be turning their eyes in every direction. If any of them should look westward at a given moment,—that is, while the three mids should be "in the saddle,"—the latter could not fail to be discovered.
What was to be done? There was no other way leading forth from the valley. It was on all sides encircled by steep ridges of sand,—not so steep as to hinder them from being scaled; but on every side, except that on which they had entered, and by which they were about to make their exit, the moon was shining in resplendent brilliance. A cat could not have crawled up anywhere, without being seen from the tents,—even had she been of the hue of the sand itself.
A hurried consultation, held between the trio of adventurers, convinced them that there was nothing to be gained by turning back,—nothing by going to the right or the left. There was no other way—no help for it—but to scale the ridge in front, and "cut" as quickly as possible across the hollow of the "saddle."
There was one other way; or at least a deviation from the course which had thus recommended itself. It was to wait for the going down of the moon, before they should attempt the "crossing." This prudent project originated in the brain of the young Scotchman; and it might have been well if his companions had adopted the idea. But they would not. What they had seen of Saaeran civilization had inspired them with a keen disgust for it; and they were only too eager to escape from its proximity. The punishment inflicted upon poor Bill had made a painful impression upon them; and they had no desire to become the victims of a similar chastisement.
Colin did not urge his counsels. He had been as much impressed by what he had seen as his companions, and was quite as desirous as they to give the Bedouins a "wide berth." Withdrawing his opposition, therefore, he acceded to the original design; and, without further ado, all three commenced crawling up the slope.
A QUEER QUADRUPED.
Half way up, they halted, though not to take breath. Strong-limbed, long-winded lads like them—who could have "swarmed" in two minutes to the main truck of a man-o'-war—needed no such indulgence as that. Instead of one hundred feet of sloping sand, any one of them could have scaled Snowdon without stopping to look back.
Their halt had been made from a different motive. It was sudden and simultaneous,—all three having stopped at the same time, and without any previous interchange of speech. The same cause had brought them to that abrupt cessation in their climbing; and as they stood side by side, aligned upon one another, the eyes of all three were turned on the same object.
It was an animal,—a quadruped. It could not be anything else if belonging to a sublunary world; and to this it appeared to belong. A strange creature notwithstanding; and one which none of the three remembered to have met before. The remembrance of something like it flitted across their brains, seen upon the shelves of a museum; but not enough of resemblance to give a clue for its identification.
The quadruped in question was not bigger than a "San Bernard," a "Newfoundland," or a mastiff: but seen as it was, it loomed larger than any of the three. Like these creatures, it was canine in shape—lupine we should rather say—but of an exceedingly grotesque and ungainly figure. A huge square head seemed set without neck upon its shoulders; while its fore limbs—out of all proportion longer than the hind ones—gave to the spinal column a sharp downward slant towards the tail. The latter appendage, short and "bunchy," ended abruptly, as if either cut or "driven in,"—adding to the uncouth appearance of the animal. A stiff hedge of hard bristles upon the back continued its chevaux de frise along the short, thick neck, till it ended between two erect tufted ears. Such was the shape of the beast that had suddenly presented itself to the eyes of our adventurers.
They had a good opportunity of observing its outlines. It was on the ridge towards the crest of which they were advancing. The moon was shining beyond. Every turn of its head or body—every motion made by its limbs—was conspicuously revealed against the luminous background of the sky.
It was neither standing, nor at rest in any way. Head, limbs, and body were all in motion,—constantly changing, not only their relative attitudes to one another, but their absolute situation in regard to surrounding objects.
And yet the change was anything but arbitrary. The relative movements made by the members of the animal's body, as well as the absolute alterations of position, were all in obedience to strictly natural laws,—all repetitions of the same manoeuvre, worked with a monotony that seemed mechanical.
The creature was pacing to and fro, like a well-trained sentry,—its "round" being the curved crest of the sand-ridge, from which it did not deviate to the licence of an inch. Backward and forward did it traverse the saddle in a longitudinal direction,—now poised upon the pommel,—now sinking downward into the seat, and then rising to the level of the coup,—now turning in the opposite direction, and retracing in long, uncouth strides, the path over which it appeared to have been passing since the earliest hour of its existence!
Independent of the surprise which the presence of this animal had created, there was something in its aspect calculated to cause terror. Perhaps, had the mids known what kind of creature it was, or been in any way apprized of its real character, they would have paid less regard to its presence. Certainly not so much as they did: for, instead of advancing upon it, and making their way over the crest of the ridge, they stopped in their track, and held a whispered consultation as to what they should do.
It is not to be denied that the barrier before them presented a formidable appearance. A brute, it appeared as big as a bull—for magnified by the moonlight, and perhaps a little by the fears of those who looked upon it, the quadruped was quite quadrupled in size. Disputing their passage too; for its movements made it manifest that such was its design. Backwards and forwards, up and down that curving crest, did it glide, with a nervous quickness, that hindered any hope of being able to rush past it—either before or behind—its own crest all the while erected, like that of the dragon subdued by St. George.
With all his English "pluck"—even stimulated by this resemblance to the national knight—Harry Blount felt shy to approach that creature that challenged the passage of himself and his companions.
Had there been no danger en arriere, perhaps our adventurers would have turned back into the valley, and left the ugly quadruped master of the pass.
As it was, a different resolve was arrived at—necessity being the dictator.
The three midshipmen, drawing their dirks, advanced in line of battle up the slope. The Devil himself could scarce withstand such an assault. England, Scotland, Ireland, abreast—tres juncti in uno—united in thought, aim, and action—was there aught upon earth—biped, quadruped, or mille-pied—that must not yield to the charge?
If there was, it was not that animal oscillating along the saddle of sand, progressing from pommel to cantle, like the pendulum of a clock.
Whether natural or supernatural, long before our adventurers got near enough to decide, the creature, to use a phrase of very modern mention, "skedaddled," leaving them free—so far as it was concerned—to continue their retreat unmolested.
It did not depart, however, until after delivering a salute, that left our adventurers in greater doubt than ever of its true character. They had been debating among themselves whether it was a thing of the earth, of time, or something that belonged to eternity. They had seen it under a fair light, and could not decide. But now that they had heard it,—had listened to a strain of loud cachinnation,—scarce mocking the laughter of the maniac,—there was no escaping from the conclusion that what they had seen was either Satan himself, or one of his Ethiopian satellites!
THE HUE AND CRY.
As the strange creature that had threatened to dispute their passage was no longer in sight, and seemed, moreover, to have gone clear away, the three mids ceased to think any more of it,—their minds being given to making their way over the ridge without being seen by the occupants of the encampment.
Having returned their dirks to the sheath, they continued to advance towards the crest of the transverse sand-spar, as cautiously as at starting.
It is possible they might have succeeded in crossing, without being perceived, but for a circumstance of which they had taken too little heed. Only too well pleased at seeing the strange quadruped make its retreat, they had been less affected by its parting salutation,—weird and wild as this had sounded in their ears. But they had not thought of the effects which the same salute had produced upon the people of the Arab camp, causing all of them, as it did, to turn their eyes in the direction whence it was heard. To them there was no mystery in that screaming cachinnation. Unearthly as it had echoed in the ears of the three mids, it fell with a perfectly natural tone on those of the Arabs: for it was but one of the well-known voices of their desert home, recognized by them as the cry of the laughing hyena.
The effect produced upon the encampment was twofold. The children straying outside the tents,—like young chicks frightened by the swooping of a hawk,—ran inward; while their mothers, after the manner of so many old hens, rushed forth to take them under their protection. The proximity of a hungry hyena,—more especially one of the laughing species,—was a circumstance to cause alarm. All the fierce creature required was a chance to close his strong, vice-like jaws upon the limbs of one of those juvenile Ishmaelites, and that would be the last his mother should ever see of him.
Knowing this, the screech of the hyena had produced a momentary commotion among the women and children of the encampment. Neither had the men listened to it unmoved. In hopes of procuring its skin for house or tent furniture, and its flesh for food,—for these hungry wanderers will eat anything,—several had seized hold of their long guns, and rushed forth from among the tents.
The sound had guided them as to the direction in which they should go; and as they ran forward, they saw, not a hyena, but three human beings just mounting upon the summit of the sand-ridge, under the full light of the moon. So conspicuously did the latter appear upon the smooth crest of the wreath, that there was no longer any chance of concealment. Their dark blue dresses, the yellow buttons on their jackets, and the bands around their caps, were all discernible. It was the costume of the sea, not of the Saaera. The Arab wreckers knew it at a glance; and, without waiting to give a second, every man of the camp sallied off in pursuit,—each, as he started, giving utterance to an ejaculation of surprise or pleasure.
Some hurried forward afoot, just as they had been going out to hunt the hyena; others climbed upon their swift camels; while a few, who owned horses, thinking they might do better with them, quickly caparisoned them, and came galloping on after the rest; all three sorts of pursuers,—foot-men, horsemen, and maherrymen,—seemingly as intent upon a contest of screaming, as upon a trial of speed!
It is needless to say that the three midshipmen were, by this time, fully apprised of the "hue and cry" raised after them. It reached their ears just as they arrived upon the summit of the sand-ridge; and any doubt they might have had as to its meaning, was at once determined, when they saw the Arabs brandishing their arms, and rushing out like so many madmen from among the tents.
They stayed to see no more. To keep their ground could only end in their being captured and carried prisoners to the encampment; and after the spectacle they had just witnessed, in which the old man-o'-war's-man had played such a melancholy part, any fate appeared preferable to that.
With some such fear all three were affected; and simultaneously yielding to it, they turned their backs upon the pursuit, and rushed headlong down the ravine, up which they had so imprudently ascended.
A SUBAQUEOUS ASYLUM.
As the gorge was of no great length, and the downward incline in their favor, they were not long in getting to its lower end, and out to the level plain that formed the sea-beach.
In their hurried traverse thither, it had not occurred to them to inquire for what purpose they were running towards the sea? There could be no chance of their escaping in that direction; nor did there appear to be much in any other, afoot as they were, and pursued by mounted men. The night was too clear to offer any opportunity of hiding themselves, especially in a country where there was neither "brake, brush, nor scaur" to conceal them. Go which way they would, or crouch wherever they might, they would be almost certain of being discovered by their lynx-eyed enemies.
There was but one way in which they might have stood a chance of getting clear, at least for a time. This was to have turned aside among the sand ridges, and by keeping along some of the lateral hollows, double back upon their pursuers. There were several such side hollows; for on going up the main ravine they had observed them, and also in coming down; but in their hurry to put space between themselves and their pursuers, they had overlooked this chance of concealment.
At best it was but slim, though it was the only one that offered. It only presented itself when it was too late for them to take advantage of it,—only after they had got clear out of the gully and stood upon the open level of the sea-beach, within less than two hundred yards of the sea itself. There they halted, partly to recover breath and partly to hold counsel as to their further course.
There was not much time for either; and as the three stood in a triangle with their faces turned towards each other, the moonlight shone upon lips and cheeks blanched with dismay.
It now occurred to them for the first time, and simultaneously, that there was no hope of their escaping, either by flight or concealment.
They were already some distance out upon the open plain, as conspicuous upon its surface of white sand as would have been three black crows in the middle of a field six inches under snow.
They saw that they had made a mistake. They should have stayed among the sand-ridges and sought shelter in some of the deep gullies that divided them. They bethought them of going back; but a moment's deliberation was sufficient to convince them that this was no longer practicable. There would not be time, scarce even to re-enter the ravine, before their pursuers would be upon them.
It was an instinct that had caused them to rush towards the sea—their habitual home, for which they had thoughtlessly sped—notwithstanding their late rude ejection from it. Now that they stood upon its shore, as if appealing to it for protection, it seemed still desirous of spurning them from its bosom, and leaving them without mercy to their merciless enemies!
A line of breakers trended parallel to the water's edge—scarce a cable's length from the shore, and not two hundred yards from the spot where they had come to a pause.
They were not very formidable breakers—only the tide rolling over a sand-bar, or a tiny reef of rocks. It was at best but a big surf, crested with occasional flakes of foam, and sweeping in successive swells against the smooth beach.
What was there in all this to fix the attention of the fugitives—for it had? The seething flood seemed only to hiss at their despair!
And yet almost on the instant after suspending their flight, they had turned their faces towards it—as if some object of interest had suddenly shown itself in the surf. Object there was none—nothing but the flakes of white froth and the black vitreous waves over which it was dancing.
It was not an object, but a purpose that was engaging their attention—a resolve that had suddenly sprung up within their minds—almost as suddenly to be carried into execution. After all, their old home was not to prove so inhospitable. It would provide them with a place of concealment!