The thought occurred to all three almost at the same instant of time; though Terence was the first to give speech to it.
"By Saint Patrick!" he exclaimed, "let's take to the wather! Them breakers'll give us a good hiding-place. I've hid before now in that same way, when taking a moonlight bath on the coast of owld Galway. I did it to scare my schoolfellows—by making believe I was drowned. What say ye to our trying it?"
His companions made no reply. They had scarce even waited for the wind-up of his harangue. Both had equally perceived the feasibility of the scheme; and yielding to a like impulse, all three started into a fresh run, with their faces turned towards the sea.
In less than a score of seconds, they had crossed the strip of strand; and in a similarly short space of time were plunging—thigh deep—through the water; still striding impetuously onward, as if they intended to wade across the Atlantic!
A few more strides, however, brought them to a stand—just inside the line of breakers—where the seething waters, settling down into a state of comparative tranquillity, presented a surface variegated with large clouts of floating froth.
Amidst this mottling of white and black, even under the bright moonlight, it would have been difficult for the keenest eye to have detected the head of a human being—supposing the body to have been kept carefully submerged; and under this confidence, the mids were not slow in submerging themselves.
Ducking down, till their chins touched the water, all three were soon as completely out of sight—to any eye looking from the shore—as if Neptune, pitying their forlorn condition, had stretched forth his trident with a bunch of seaweed upon its prongs, to screen and protect them.
THE PURSUERS NONPLUSSED.
Not a second too soon had they succeeded in making good their entry into this subaqueous asylum. Scarce had their chins come in contact with the water, when the voices of men—accompanied by the baying of dogs, the snorting of maherries, and the neighing of horses—were heard within the gorge, from which they had just issued; and in a few minutes after a straggling crowd, composed of these various creatures, came rushing out of the ravine. Of men, afoot and on horseback, twenty or more were seen pouring forth; all, apparently, in hot haste, as if eager to be in at the death of some object pursued,—that could not possibly escape capture.
Once outside the jaws of the gully, the irregular cavalcade advanced scatteringly over the plain. Only for a short distance, however; for, as if by a common understanding rather than in obedience to any command, all came to a halt.
A silence followed this halt,—apparently proceeding from astonishment. It was general,—it might be said universal,—for even the animals appeared to partake of it! At all events, some seconds transpired during which the only sound heard was the sighing of the sea, and the only motion to be observed was the sinking and swelling of the waves.
The Saaeran rovers on foot,—as well as those that were mounted,—their horses, dogs, and camels, as they stood upon that smooth plain, seemed to have been suddenly transformed into stone, and set like so many sphinxes in the sand.
In truth it was surprise that had so transfixed them,—the men, at least; and their well-trained animals were only acting in obedience to a habit taught them by their masters, who, in the pursuit of their predatory life, can cause these creatures to be both silent and still, whenever the occasion requires it.
For their surprise,—which this exhibition of it proved to be extreme,—the Sons of the Desert had sufficient reason. They had seen the three midshipmen on the crest of the sand-ridge; had even noted the peculiar garb that bedecked their bodies,—all this beyond doubt. Notwithstanding the haste with which they had entered on the pursuit, they had not continued it either in a reckless or improvident manner. Skilled in the ways of the wilderness,—cautious as cats,—they had continued the chase; those in the lead from time to time assuring themselves that the game was still before them. This they had done by glancing occasionally to the ground, where shoe-tracks in the soft sand—three sets of them—leading to and fro, were sufficient evidence that the three mids must have gone back to the embouchure of the ravine, and thither emerged upon the open sea-beach.
Where were they now?
Looking up the smooth strand as far as the eye could reach, and down it to a like distance, there was no place where a crab could have screened itself; and these Saaeran wreckers, well acquainted with the coast, knew that in neither direction was there any other ravine or gully into which the fugitives could have retreated.
No wonder, then, that the pursuers wondered, even to speechlessness.
Their silence was of short duration, though it was succeeded only by cries expressing their great surprise, among which might have been distinguished their usual invocations to Allah and the Prophet. It was evident that a superstitious feeling had arisen in their minds, not without its usual accompaniment of fear; and although they no longer kept their places, the movement now observable among them was that they gathered closer together, and appeared to enter upon a grave consultation.
This was terminated by some of them once more proceeding to the embouchure of the ravine, and betaking themselves to a fresh scrutiny of the tracks made by the shoes of the midshipmen; while the rest sat silently upon their horses and maherries awaiting the result.
The footmarks of the three mids were still easily traceable—even on the ground already trampled by the Arabs, their horses, and maherries. The "cloots" of a camel would not have been more conspicuous in the mud of an English road, than were the shoe-prints of the three young seamen in the sands of the Saaera. The Arab trackers had no difficulty in making them out; and in a few minutes had traced them from the mouth of the gorge, almost in a direct line to the sea. There, however, there was a breadth of wet sea-beach—where the springy sand instantly obliterated any foot-mark that might be made upon it—and there the tracts ended.
But why should they have extended farther? No one could have gone beyond that point, without either walking straight into the water, or keeping along the strip of sea beach, upwards or downwards.
The fugitives could not have escaped in either way—unless they had taken to the water, and committed suicide by drowning themselves! Up the coast, or down it, they would have been seen to a certainty.
Their pursuers, clustering around the place where the tracks terminated, were no wiser than ever. Some of them were ready to believe that drowning had been the fate of the castaways upon their coast, and so stated it to their companions. But they spoke only conjectures, and in tones that told them, like the rest, to be under the influence of some superstitious fear. Despite their confidence in the protection of their boasted Prophet, they felt a natural dread of that wilderness of waters, less known to them than the wilderness of sand.
Ere long they withdrew from its presence, and betook themselves back to their encampment, under a half belief that the three individuals seen and pursued had either drowned themselves in the great deep, or by some mysterious means known to these strange men of the sea, had escaped across its far-reaching waters!
A DOUBLE PREDICAMENT.
Short time as their pursuers had stayed upon the strand, it seemed an age to the submerged midshipmen.
On first placing themselves in position, they had chosen a spot where, with their knees resting upon the bottom, they could just hold their chins above water. This would enable them to hold their ground without any great difficulty, and for some time they so maintained it.
Soon, however, they began to perceive that the water was rising around them,—a circumstance easily explained by the influx of the tide. The rise was slow and gradual: but, for all that, they saw that should they require to remain in their place of concealment for any length of time, drowning must be their inevitable destiny.
A means of avoiding this soon presented itself. Inside the line of breakers, the water shoaled gradually towards the shore. By advancing in this direction they could still keep to the same depth. This course they adopted—gliding cautiously forward upon their knees, whenever the tide admonished them to repeat the manoeuvre.
This state of affairs would have been satisfactory enough, but for a circumstance that, every moment, was making itself more apparent. At each move they were not only approaching nearer to their enemies, scattered along the strand; but as they receded from the line of the breakers, the water became comparatively tranquil, and its smooth surface, less confused by the masses of floating foam, was more likely to betray them to the spectators on the shore.
To avoid this catastrophe—which would have been fatal—they moved shoreward, only when it became absolutely necessary to do so, often permitting the tidal waves to sweep completely over the crown of their heads, and several times threaten suffocation.
Under circumstances so trying, so apparently hopeless, most lads—aye, most men—would have submitted to despair, and surrendered themselves to a fate apparently unavoidable. But with that true British pluck—combining the tenacity of the Scotch terrier, the English bulldog, and the Irish staghound—the three youthful representatives of the triple kingdom determined to hold on.
And they held on, with the waves washing against their cheeks—and at intervals quite over their heads—with the briny fluid rushing into their ears and up their nostrils, until one after another began to believe, that there would be no alternative between surrendering to the cruel sea, or to the not less cruel sons of the Saaera.
As they were close together, they could hold council,—conversing all the time in something louder than a whisper. There was no risk of their being overheard. Though scarce a cable's length from the shore, the hoarse soughing of the surf would have drowned the sound of their voices, even if uttered in a much louder tone; but being skilled in the acoustics of the ocean, they exchanged their thoughts with due caution; and while encouraging one another to remain firm, they speculated freely upon the chances of escaping from their perilous predicament.
While thus occupied, a predicament of an equally perilous, and still more singular kind, was in store for them. They had been, hitherto advancing towards the water's edge,—in regular progression with the influx of the tide,—all the while upon their knees. This, as already stated, had enabled them to sustain themselves steadily, without showing anything more than three quarters of the head above the surface.
All at once, however, the water appeared to deepen; and by going upon their knees they could no longer surmount the waves,—even with their eyes. By moving on towards the beach, they might again get into shallow water; but just at this point the commotion caused by the breakers came to a termination, and the flakes of froth, with the surrounding spray of bubbles, here bursting, one after another, left the surface of the sea to its restored tranquillity. Anything beyond—a cork, or the tiniest waif of seaweed—could scarce fail to be seen from the strand,—though the latter was itself constantly receding as the tide flowed inward.
The submerged middies were now in a dilemma they had not dreamed of. By holding their ground, they could not fail to "go under." By advancing further, they would run the risk of being discovered to the enemy.
Their first movement was to get up from their knees, and raise their heads above water by standing in a crouched attitude on their feet. This they had done before,—more than once,—returning to the posture of supplication only when too tired to sustain themselves.
This they attempted again, and determined to continue it to the last moment,—in view of the danger of approaching nearer to the enemy.
To their consternation they now found it would no longer avail them. Scarce had they risen erect before discovering that even in this position they were immersed to the chin, and after plunging a pace or two forward, they were still sinking deeper. They could feel that their feet were not resting on firm bottom, but constantly going down.
"A quicksand!" was the apprehension that rushed simultaneously into the minds of all three!
Fortunately for them, the Arabs at that moment, yielding to their fatalist fears, had faced away from the shore; else the plunging and splashing made by them in their violent endeavors to escape from the quicksand, could not have failed to dissipate these superstitions, and cause their pursuers to complete the capture they had so childlessly relinquished.
As it chanced, the Saaeran wreckers saw nothing of all this; and as the splashing sounds, which otherwise might have reached them, were drowned by the louder sough of the sea, they returned toward their encampment in a state of perplexity bordering upon bewilderment!
ONCE MORE THE MOCKING LAUGH.
After a good deal of scrambling and struggling, our adventurers succeeded in getting clear of the quicksand, and planting their feet upon firmer bottom,—a little nearer to the water's edge. Though at this point more exposed than they wished to be, they concealed themselves as well as they could, holding their faces under the water up to the eyes.
Though believing that their enemies were gone for good, they dared not as yet wade out upon the beach. The retiring pursuers would naturally be looking back; and as the moon was still shining clearly as ever, they might be seen from a great distance.
They feel that they would not be safe in leaving their place of concealment until the horde had recrossed the ridge, and descended once more into the oasis that contained their encampment.
Making a rough calculation as to the time it would take for the return journey,—and allowing a considerable margin against the eventuality of any unforeseen delay,—the mids remained in their subaqueous retreat, without any material change of position.
When at length it appeared to them that the "coast was clear," they rose to their feet, and commenced wading towards the strand.
Though no longer believing themselves observed, they proceeded silently and with caution,—the only noise made among them being the chattering of their teeth, which were going like three complete sets of castanets.
This they could not help. The night breeze playing upon the saturated garments,—that clung coldly around their bodies,—chilled them to the very bones; and not only their teeth, but their knees knocked together, as they staggered towards the beach.
Just before reaching it, an incident arose that filled them with fresh forebodings. The strange beast that had threatened to intercept their retreat over the ridge, once more appeared before their eyes. It was either the same, or one of the same kind,—equally ugly, and to all appearance, equally determined to dispute their passage.
It was now patrolling the strand close by the water's edge,—going backwards and forwards, precisely as it had done along the saddle-shaped sand wreath,—all the while keeping its hideous face turned towards them. With the moon behind their backs, they had a better view of it than before; but this, though enabling them to perceive that it was some strange quadruped, did not in any way improve their opinion of it. They could see that it was covered with a coat of long shaggy hair, of a brindled brown color; and that from a pair of large orbs, set obliquely in its head, gleamed forth a fierce, sullen light.
How it had come there they knew not; but there it was. Judging from the experience of their former encounter with it they presumed it would again retreat at their approach; and, once more drawing their dirks, they advanced boldly towards it.
They were not deceived. Long before they were near, the uncouth creature turned tail; and, again giving utterance to its unearthly cry, scampered off towards the ravine,—in whose shadowy depths it soon disappeared from their view.
Supposing they had nothing further to fear, our adventurers stepped out upon the strand, and commenced consultation as to their future course.
To keep on down the coast and get as far as possible from the Arab encampment,—was the thought of all three; and as they were unanimous in this, scarce a moment was wasted in coming to a determination. Once resolved, they faced southward; and started off as briskly as their shivering frames and saturated garments would allow them.
There was not much to cheer them on their way,—only the thought that they had so adroitly extricated themselves from a dread danger. But even this proved only a fanciful consolation; for scarce had they made a score of steps along the strand, when they were brought to a sudden halt, by hearing a noise that appeared to proceed from the ravine behind them.
It was a slight noise, something like a snort, apparently made by some animal; and, for the moment, they supposed it to come from the ugly quadruped that, after saluting them, had retreated up the gorge.
On turning their eyes in that direction, they at once saw that they were mistaken. A quadruped had produced the noise; but one of a very different kind from the hairy brute with which they had parted. Just emerging from the shadow of the sand-hills, they perceived a huge creature, whose uncouth shape proclaimed it to be a camel.
The sight filled them with consternation. Not that it was a camel; but because, at the same time, they discovered that there was a man upon its back, who, brandishing a long weapon, was urging the animal towards them.
The three midshipmen made no effort to continue the journey thus unexpectedly interrupted. They saw that any attempt to escape from such a fast-going creature would be idle. Encumbered as they were with their wet garments, they could not have distanced a lame duck; and, resigning themselves to the chances of destiny, they stood awaiting the encounter.
A CUNNING SHEIK.
When the camel and its rider first loomed in sight,—indistinctly seen under the shadow of the sand dunes,—our adventurers had conceived a faint hope that it might be Sailor Bill.
It was possible, they thought, that the old man-o-war's-man, left unguarded in the camp, might have laid hands on the maherry that had made away with him, and pressed it into service to assist his escape.
The hope was entertained only for an instant. Bill had encountered no such golden opportunity; but was still a prisoner in the tent of the black sheik, surrounded by his shrewish tormentors.
It was the maherry, however, that was seen coming back, for as it came near the three middies recognized the creature whose intrusion upon their slumbers of the preceding night had been the means, perhaps, of saving their lives.
Instead of a Jack Tar now surmounting its high hunch, they saw a little wizen-faced individual with sharp angular features, and a skin of yellowish hue puckered like parchment. He appeared to be at least sixty years of age; while his costume, equipments, and above all, a certain authoritative bearing, bespoke him to be one of the head men of the horde.
Such in truth was he,—one of the two sheiks,—the old Arab to whom the straying camel belonged; and who was now mounted on his own maherry.
His presence on the strand at this, to our adventurers, most inopportune moment, requires explanation.
He had been on the beach before, along with the others; and had gone away with the rest. But instead of continuing on to the encampment, he had fallen behind in the ravine; where, under the cover of some rocks, and favored by the obscure light within the gorge, he had succeeded in giving his comrades the slip. There he had remained,—permitting the rest to recross the ridge, and return to the tents.
He had not taken these steps without an object. Less superstitious than his black brother sheik, he knew there must be some natural explanation of the disappearance of the three castaways; and he had determined to seek, and if possible, to discover it.
It was not mere curiosity that prompted him to this determination. He had been all out of sorts, with himself, since losing Sailor Bill in the game of helga; and he was desirous of obtaining some compensation for his ill-luck, by capturing the three castaways who had so mysteriously disappeared.
As to their having either drowned themselves, or walked away over the waste of waters, the old sheik had seen too many Saaeran summers and winters to give credence either to one tale or the other. He knew they would turn up again; and though he was not quite certain of the where, he more than half suspected it. He had kept his suspicions to himself,—not imparting them even to his own special followers. By the laws of the Saaera, a slave taken by any one of the tribe belongs not to its chief, but to the individual who makes the capture. For this reason, had the cunning sexagenarian kept his thoughts to himself, and fallen solus into the rear of the returning horde.
It might be supposed that he would have made some of his following privy to his plan,—for the sake of having help to effect such a wholesale capture. But no. His experience as a "Barbary wrecker" had taught him that there would be no danger,—no likelihood of resistance,—even though the castaways numbered thirty instead of three.
Armed with this confidence, and his long gun, he had returned down the ravine; and laid in wait near its mouth,—at a point where he commanded a view of the coast line, to the distance of more than a mile on each side of him.
His vigil was soon rewarded: by seeing the three individuals for whom it had been kept step forth from the sea,—as if emerging from its profoundest depths,—and stand conspicuously upon the beach.
He had waited for nothing more; but, giving the word to his maherry, had ridden out of the ravine, and was now advancing with all speed upon the tracks of the retreating mids.
A QUEER ENCOUNTER.
In about threescore seconds from the time he was first seen pursuing them, the old sheik was up to the spot where our adventurers had awaited him.
His first salute appeared to be some words of menace or command,—rendered more emphatic by a series of gestures made with his long gun; which was successively pointed at the heads of the three. Of course, none of them understood what was said; but his gesticulations made it clear enough, that he required their company to the Arab encampment.
Their first impulse was to yield obedience to this command; and Terence had given a sign of assent, which was acquiesced in by Colin. Not so Master Blount, in whom the British bulldog had become aroused even to the showing of his teeth.
"See him hanged first!" cried Harry. "What! yield up to an old monkey like that, and walk tamely to the camp at the tail of his camel? No such thing! If I am to become a prisoner, it will be to one who can take me."
Terence, rather ashamed at having shown such facile submission, now rushed to the opposite extreme; and drawing his dirk, cried out,—
"By Saint Patrick! I'm with you, Harry! Let's die, rather than yield ourselves prisoners to such a queer old curmudgeon!"
Colin, before declaring himself, glanced sharply around,—carrying his eye towards the embouchure of the ravine, to assure himself that the Arab was alone.
As there was nobody else in sight,—and no sound heard that would indicate the proximity of any one,—it was probable enough that the rider of the maherry was the only enemy opposed to them.
"The devil take him!" cried Colin, after making his cautious reconnaissance. "If he take us, he must first fight for it. Come on, old skin-flint! you'll find we're true British tars,—ready for a score of such as you."
The three youths had by this time unsheathed their shining daggers, and thrown themselves into a sort of triangle, the maherry in their midst.
The old sheik—unprepared for such a reception—was altogether taken aback by it; and for some seconds sate upon his high perch seemingly irresolute how to act.
Suddenly his rage appeared to rise to such a pitch, that he could no longer command his actions; and bringing the long gun to his shoulder, he levelled it at Harry Blount,—who had been foremost in braving him.
The stream of smoke, pouring forth from its muzzle, for a moment enveloped the form of the youthful mariner; but from the midst of that sulphury nimbus came forth a clear manly voice, pronouncing the word "Missed!"
"Thank God!" cried Terence and Colin, in a breath; "now we have him in our power! He can't load again! Let's on him all together! Heave ho!"
And uttering this nautical phrase of encouragement, the three mids, with naked dirks, rushed simultaneously towards the maherry.
The Arab, old as he may have been, showed no signs either of stiffness or decrepitude. On the contrary he exhibited all the agility of a tiger-cat; along with a fierce determination to continue the combat he had initiated,—notwithstanding the odds that were against him. On discharging his gun, he had flung the useless weapon to the ground; and instead of it now grasped a long curving scimitar, with which he commenced cutting around him in every direction.
Thus armed, he had the advantage of his assailants; for while he might reach any one of them by a quick cut, they with their short dirks could not come within thrusting-distance of him, without imminent danger of having their arms, or perchance their heads, lopped sheer off their shoulders.
Defensively, too, had the rider of the maherry an advantage over his antagonists. While within distance of them, at the point of his curving blade, seated upon his high perch, he was beyond the reach of their weapons. Get close to him as they might, and spring as high as they were able, they could not bring the tips of their daggers in contact with his skin.
In truth, there seemed no chance for them to inflict the slightest wound upon him; while at each fresh "wheel" of the maherry, and each new sweep of the scimitar, one or other of them was in danger of decapitation!
On first entering upon the fight, our adventurers had not taken into account the impregnable position of their antagonist. Soon, however, did they discover the advantages in his favor, with their own proportionate drawbacks. To neutralize these was the question that now occupied them. If something was not done soon, one or other—perhaps all three—would have to succumb to that keen cutting of the scimitar.
"Let's kill the camel!" cried Harry Blount, "that'll bring him within reach; and then—"
The idea of the English youth was by no means a bad one; and perhaps would have been carried out. But before he could finish his speech, another scheme had been conceived by Terence,—who had already taken steps towards its execution.
It was this that had interrupted Harry Blount in the utterance of his counsel.
At school the young Milesian had been distinguished in the exercise of vaulting. "Leap-frog" had been his especial delight; and no mountebank could bound to a greater height than he. At this crisis he remembered his old accomplishment, and called it to his aid.
Seeking an opportunity,—when the head of the maherry was turned towards his comrades, and its tail to himself,—he made an energetic rush; sprang half a score of feet from the ground; and flinging apart his feet, while in the air, came down "stride legs" upon the croup of the camel.
It was fortunate for the old Arab that the effort thus made by the amateur saltimbanque had shaken the dirk from his grasp,—else, in another instant, the camel would have ceased to "carry double."
As it was, its two riders continued upon its back; but in such close juxtaposition, that it would have required sharp eyes and a good light to tell that more than one individual was mounted upon it.
Fast enfolded in the arms of the vigorous young Hibernian, could scarce be distinguished the carcass of the old Arab sheik,—shrunken to half size by the powerful compression; while the scimitar, so late whistling with perilous impetuosity through the air, was now seen lying upon the sand,—its gleam no longer striking terror into the hearts of those whose heads it had been threatening to lop off!
HOLDING ON TO THE HUMP.
The struggle between Terence and the sheik still continued, upon the back of the maherry. The object of the young Irishman was to unhorse, or rather un-camel, his antagonist, and get him to the ground.
This design the old Arab resisted toughly, and with all his strength, knowing that dismounted he would be no match for the trio of stout lads whom he had calculated on capturing at his ease. Once a pied he would be at their mercy, since he was now altogether unarmed. His gun had been unloaded; and the shining scimitar, of which he had made such a dangerous display, was no longer in his grasp. As already stated it had fallen to the ground, and at that precious moment was being picked up by Colin; who in all probability would have used it upon its owner, had not the latter contrived to escape beyond its reach.
The mode of the sheik's escape was singular enough. Still tenaciously holding on to the hump, from which the young Irishman was using every effort to detach him, he saw that his only chance of safety lay in retreating from the spot, and, by this means, separating the antagonist who clutched him from the two others that threatened upon the ground below.
A signal shout to the maherry was sufficient to effect his purpose. On hearing it, the well-trained quadruped wheeled, as upon a pivot, and in a shambling, but quick pace, started back towards the ravine, whence it had late issued.
To their consternation Colin and Harry beheld this unexpected movement; and before either of them could lay hold of the halter,—now trailing along the sand,—the maherry was going at a rate of speed which they vainly endeavored to surpass. They could only follow in its wake,—as they did so, shouting to Terence to let go his hold of the sheik, and take his chance of a tumble to the ground.
Their admonitions appeared not to be heeded. They were not needed,—at least after a short interval had elapsed.
At first the young Irishman had been so intent on his endeavors to dismount his adversary, that he did not notice the signal given to the maherry, nor the retrograde movement it had inaugurated. Not until the camel was re-entering the ravine, and the steep sides of the sand dunes cast their dark shadows before him, did he observe that he was being carried away from his companions.
Up to this time he had been vainly striving to detach the sheik from his hold upon the hump. On perceiving the danger, however, he desisted from this design, and at once entered upon a struggle of a very different kind,—to detach himself.
In all probability this would have proved equally difficult, for, struggle as he might, the tough old Arab, no longer troubling himself about the control of his camel, had twisted his sinewy fingers under the midshipman's dirk-belt, and held the latter in juxtaposition to his own body, supported by the hump of the maherry, as if his very life depended on not letting go.
A lucky circumstance—and this only—hindered the young Irishman from being carried to the Arab encampment; a circumstance very similar to that which on the preceding night had led to the capture of that same camel.
Its halter was again trailing.
Its owner, occupied with the "double" which it had so unexpectedly been called upon to carry, was conducting it only by his voice, and had neither thought nor hands for the halter.
Once again the trailing end got into the split hoof—once again the maherry was tripped up; and came down neck foremost upon the sand.
Its load was spilled—Bedouin and Hibernian coming together to the ground—both, if not dangerously hurt, at least so shaken, as, for some seconds, to be deprived of their senses.
Neither had quite recovered from the shock, when Harry Blount and Colin, coming up in close pursuit, stooped over the prostrate pair; and neither Arab nor Irishman was very clear in his comprehension, when a crowd of strange creatures closed around them, and took possession of the whole party; as they did so yelling like a cohort of fiends.
In the obfuscation of his "sivin" senses, the young Irishman may have scarcely understood what was passing around him. It was too clear to his companions,—clear as a catastrophe could be to those who are its victims.
The shot fired by the sheik, if failing in the effects intended, had produced a result almost equally fatal to the three fugitives,—it had given warning to the Arabs in their encampment; who, again sallying forth, had arrived just in time to witness the "decadence" of the camel, and now surrounded the group that encircled it.
The courageous representative of England and the cool young Scotchman were both taken by surprise, too much so to give them a chance of thinking either of resistance or flight; while the mind of the Irish middy, from a different cause, was equally in a hopeless "muddle."
It resulted in all three being captured and conducted up the ravine towards the camp of the wreckers.
OUR ADVENTURERS IN UNDRESS.
Our adventurers made their approach to the douar,—for such is the title of an Arab encampment,—with as much unwillingness as Sailor Bill had done but an hour before. Equally sans ceremonie, or even with less ceremony, did they enter among the tents, and certainly in a less becoming costume,—since all three were stark naked with the exception of their shirts.
This was the only article of clothing their captors had left upon their backs; and so far as comfort was concerned, they would have been as well without it: for there was not a thread of the striped cotton that was not saturated with sea-water.
It was a wonder that even these scanty garments were not taken from them; considering the eagerness with which they had been divested of everything else.
On the instant after being laid hold of, they had been stripped with as much rapidity, as if their bodies were about to be submitted to some ignominious chastisement. But they knew it was not that—only a desire on the part of their captors to obtain possession of their clothes—every article of which became the subject of a separate contention, and more than one leading to a dispute that was near terminating in a contest between two scimitars.
In this way their jackets and dreadnought trowsers—their caps and shoes—their dirks, belts, and pocket paraphernalia—were distributed among nearly as many claimants as there were pieces.
You may suppose that modesty interfered to reserve to them their shirts? Such a supposition would be altogether erroneous. There is no such word in the Bedouin vocabulary—no such feeling in the Bedouin breast.
In the douar to which they were conducted were lads as old as they, and lasses too, without the semblance of clothing upon their nude bodies; not even a shirt,—not even the orientally famed fig-leaf!
The reason of their being allowed to retain their homely garments had nothing to do with any sentiment of delicacy. For the favor,—if such it could be called,—they were simply indebted to the avarice of the old sheik, who, having recovered from the stunning effects of his tumble, claimed all three as his captives, and their shirts along with them!
His claim as to their persons was not disputed; they were his by Saaeran custom. So, too, would their clothing, had his capture been complete; but as there was a question about this, a distribution of the garments had been demanded and acceded to.
The sheik, however, would not agree to giving up the shirts; loudly declaring that they belonged to the skin; and after some discussion on this moot point, his claim was allowed; and our adventurers were spared the shame of entering the Arab encampment in puris naturalibus.
In their shirts did they once more stand face to face with Sailor Bill, not a bit better clad than they: for though the old man-o'-war's-man was still "anchored" by the marquee of the black sheik, his "toggery" had long before been distributed throughout the douar; and scarce a tent but contained some portion of his "belongings."
His youthful comrades saw, but were not permitted to approach him. They were the undisputed property of the rival chieftain,—to whose tent they were taken; but not until they had "run a muck" among the women and children, very similar to that which Bill had to submit to himself. It terminated in a similar manner: that is, by their owner taking them under his protection,—not from any motives of humanity, but simply to save his property from receiving damage at the hands of the incarnate female furies, who seemed to take delight in maltreating them!
The old sheik, after allowing his fair followers, with their juvenile neophites, for some length of time to indulge in their customary mode of saluting strange captives, withdrew the latter beyond the reach of persecution, to a place assigned them under the shadow of his tent. There, with a sinewy Arab standing over them,—though as often squatted beside them,—they were permitted to pass the remainder of the night, if not in sleep at least in a state of tranquillity.
THE CAPTIVES IN CONVERSATION.
This tranquillity only related to any disturbance experienced from their captors. There was none.
These had been on the eve of striking their tents, and moving off to some other oasis,—previous to the last incident that had arisen.
As already stated, the two sheiks, by a mutual understanding, had been about to shake hands, and separate,—the son of Japhet going north, to the markets of Morocco, while the descendant of Ham was to face homeward to his more tropical and appropriate clime,—under the skies of Timbuctoo.
The "windfall" that had so unexpectedly dropped into the douar; first in the shape of Sailor Bill,—and afterwards, in more generous guise, by the capture of the three "young gentlemen" of the gunroom,—had caused some change in the plans of their captors.
By mutual understanding between the two sheiks, something was to be done in the morning; and their design of separating was deferred to another day.
The order to strike tents had been countermanded: and both tribes retired to rest,—as soon as the captives had been disposed of for the night.
The douar was silent,—so far as the children of Ham and Japhet were concerned. Even their children had ceased to clamor and squall.
At intervals might be heard the neigh of a Barbary horse, the barking of a dog, the bleating of a goat, or a sound yet more appropriate to the scene, the snorting of a maherry.
In addition to these, human voices were heard. But they proceeded from the throats of the sons of Shem. For the most part they were uttered in a low tone, as the three midshipmen conversed seriously and earnestly together; but occasionally they became elevated to a higher pitch, when Sailor Bill, guarded on the opposite side of the encampment—took part in the conversation, and louder speech was necessary to the interchange of thought between him and his fellow-captives.
The Arab watchers offered no interruption. They understood not a word of what was being said, and so long as the conversation of their captives did not disturb the douar, they paid no heed to it.
"What have they done to you, Bill?" was the first question asked by the new comers, after they had been left free to make inquiries.
"Faix!" responded the sailor, for it was Terry who had put the interrogatory: "iverything they cowld think av—iverything to make an old salt as uncomfortable as can be. They've not left a sound bone in my body; nor a spot on my skin that's not ayther pricked or scratched wid thar cruel thorns. My carcass must be like an old seventy-four after comin' out av action—as full av holes as a meal sieve."
"But what did they do to you, Bill?" said Colin, almost literally repeating the interrogatory of Terence.
The sailor detailed his experiences since entering the encampment.
"It's very clear," remarked the young Scotchman, "that we need look for nothing but ill-treatment at the hands of these worse than savages. I suppose they intend making slaves of us."
"That at least," quietly assented Harry.
"Sartin," said the sailor. "They've let me know as much a'ready. There be two captains to their crew; one's the smoke-dried old sinner as brought yer in; the other a big nayger, as black as the ace o' spades. You saw the swab? He's inside the tent here. He's my master. The two came nigh quarrelling about which should have me, and settled it by some sort o' a game they played wi' balls of kaymal's dung. The black won me; an' that's why I'm kep by his tent. Mother av Moses! Only to think of a British tar being the slave o' a sooty nayger! I never thought it wud a come to this."
"Where do you think they'll take us, Bill?"
"The Lord only knows, an' whether we're all bound for the same port."
"What! you think we may be separated?"
"Be ma sang, Maister Colin, I ha'e ma fears we wull!"
"What makes you think so?"
"Why, ye see, as I've telt ye, I'm booked to ship wi' the black,—'sheik' I've heerd them ca' him. Well: from what I ha'e seed and heerd, there's nae doot they're gaein' to separate an' tak different roads. I did na ken muckle o' what they sayed, but I could mak oot two words I hae often heerd while cruisin' in the Gulf o' Guinea. They are the names o' two great toons, a lang way up the kintry,—Timbuctoo and Sockatoo. They are negro toons; an' for that reezun I ha'e a suspeshun my master's bound to one or other o' the two ports."
"But why do you think that we are to be taken elsewhere?" demanded Harry Blount.
"Why, because, Master 'Arry, you belong to the hold sheik, as is plainly a Harab, an' oose port of hentry lies in a different direction,—that be to the northart."
"It is all likely enough," said Colin; "Bill's prognostication is but too probable."
"Why, ye see, Maister Colin, they are only land sharks who ha'e got hold o' us. They're too poor to keep us; an' wull be sure to sell us somewhere, an' to somebody that ha'e got the tocher to gie for us. That's what they'll do wi' us poor bodies."
"I hope," said Terence, "they'll not part us. No doubt slavery will be hard enough to bear under any circumstances; but harder if we have to endure it alone. Together, we might do something to alleviate one another's lot. I hope we shall not be separated!"
To this hope all the others made a sincere response; and the conversation came to an end. They who had been carrying it on, worn out by fatigue, and watchfulness long protracted,—despite the unpleasantness of their situation,—soon after, and simultaneously, yielded their spirits to the soothing oblivion of sleep.
THE DOUAR AT DAWN.
They could have slept for hours,—twenty-four of them,—had they been permitted such indulgence.
But they were not. As the first streaks of daylight became visible over the eastern horizon, the whole douar was up and doing.
The women and children of both hordes were seen flitting like shadows among the tents. Some squatted under camels, or kneeling by the sides of the goats, drew from these animals that lacteal fluid that may be said to form the staple of their food. Others might be observed emptying the precious liquid into skin bottles and sacks, and securing it against spilling in its transport through the deserts.
The matrons of the tribes—hags they looked—were preparing the true dejeuner, consisting of Sangleh,—a sort of gruel, made with millet meal, boiled over a dull fire of camel's dung.
The Sangleh was to be eaten, by such of them as could afford it, mixed with goats' or camels' milk,—unstrained and hairy,—half curdled into a crab-like acidity, the moment it entered its stinking receptacle.
Here and there men were seen milking their mares or maherries,—not a few indulging in the universal beverage by a direct application of their lips to the teats of the animal; while others, appointed to the task, were preparing the paraphernalia of the douar, for transportation to some distant oasis.
Watching these various movements, were the three mids,—still stripped to their shirts,—and the old man-o'-war's-man, clad with like scantiness; since the only garment that clung to his sinewy frame was a pair of cotton drawers neither very clean nor very sound at the seams.
All four shivered in the chill air of the morning; for hot as is the Saaera under its noonday sun, in the night hours its thermometer frequently falls almost to the point of freezing!
Their state of discomfort did not hinder them from observing what was passing around them. They could have slept on; but the discordant noises of the douar, and a belief that they would not be permitted any longer to enjoy their interrupted slumbers, hindered them from reclosing their eyes. Still recumbent, and occasionally exchanging remarks in a low tone of voice, they noted the customs of their captors.
The young Scotchman had read many books relating to the prairies of America, and their savage denizens. He was forcibly reminded of these by what he now saw in this oasis of the sandy Saaera; the women treated like dogs, or worse,—doing all the work that might be termed labor,—tending the cattle, cooking the meals, pitching or striking the tents, loading the animals,—and themselves bearing such portions of the load as exceeded the transport strength of the tribal quadrupeds,—aided only by such wretched helots as misfortune had flung in the way of their common masters. The men, mostly idle,—ludicrously nonchalant,—reclining on their saddle-pads, or skins, inhaling the narcotic weed, apparently proud in the possession of that lordship of wretchedness that surrounded them.
Colin was constrained to compare the savage life of two continents, separated by an ocean. He came to the conclusion, that under similar circumstances, mankind will ever be the same. In the Comanche of the Llano Estacado, or the Pawnee of the Platte, he would have found an exact counterpart of the Ishmaelitish wanderer over the sandy plains of the Saaera.
He was allowed but scant time to philosophize upon these ethnological phenomena. As the douar became stirred into general activity, he, along with his two companions, was rudely started from his attitude of observation, and ordered to take a share in the toils of the captors.
At an earlier hour, and still more rudely, had Sailor Bill received the commands of his master; who, as the first rays of the Aurora began to dapple the horizon, had ordered the old man-o-war's-man to his feet, at the same time administering to him a cruel kick, that came very near shivering some of his stern timbers.
Had the black sheik been acquainted with the English language,—as spoken in Ratcliff Highway,—he would have better understood Sailor Bill's reply to his rude matutinal salutation; which, along with several not very complimentary wishes, ended by devoting the "nayger's" eyes to eternal perdition.
AN OBSTINATE DROMEDARY.
The morning meal was eaten as soon as prepared. Its scantiness surprised our adventurers. Even the more distinguished individuals of the horde partook of only a very small quantity of milk, or sangleh. The two sheiks alone got anything like what might have been deemed an ordinary breakfast; while the more common class, as the half-breeds—hassanes—and the negro slaves had to content themselves with less than a pint of sour milk to each, half of which was water—the mixture denominated cheni.
Could this meal be meant for breakfast? Harry Blount and Terence thought not. But Colin corrected them, by alleging that it was. He had read of the wonderful abstemiousness of these children of the desert: how they can live on a single meal a day, and this scarce sufficient to sustain life in a child of six years old; that is, an English child. Often will they go for several successive days without eating and when they do eat regularly, a drink of milk is all they require to satisfy hunger.
Colin was right. It was their ordinary breakfast. He might have added, their dinner too, for they would not likely obtain another morsel of food before sundown.
But where was the breakfast of Colin and his fellow-captives? This was the question that interested them far more than the dietary of the Bedouins. They were all hungering like hyenas, and yet no one seemed to think of them—no one offered them either bite or sup. Filthy as was the mess made by the Arab women, and filthily as they prepared it,—boiling it in pots, and serving it up in wooden dishes, that did not appear to have had a washing for weeks,—the sight of it increased the hungry cravings of the captives; and they would fain have been permitted to share the scanty dejeuner.
They made signs of their desire; piteous appeals for food, by looks and gestures; but all in vain: not a morsel was bestowed on them. Their brutal captors only laughed at them, as though they intended that all four should go without eating.
It soon became clear that they were not to starve in idleness. As soon as they had been started to their feet each of them was set to a task; one to collect camels' dung for the cooking fires; another to fetch water from the brackish muddy pool which had caused the oasis to become a place of encampment; while the third was called upon to assist in the loading of the tent equipage, along with the salvage of the wreck,—an operation entered upon as soon as the sangleh had been swallowed.
Sailor Bill, in a different part of the douar, was kept equally upon the alert: and if he, or any of the other three, showed signs of disliking their respective tasks, one of the two sheiks made little ado about striking them with a leathern strap, a knotty stick, or any weapon that chanced to come readiest to hand. They soon discovered that they were under the government of taskmasters not to be trifled with, and that resistance or remonstrance would be alike futile. In short, they saw that they were slaves!
While packing the tents, and otherwise preparing for the march, they were witnesses to many customs, curious as new to them. The odd equipages of the animals,—both those of burden and those intended to be ridden,—the oval panniers, placed upon the backs of the camels, to carry the women and younger children; the square pads upon the humps of the maherries; the tawny little piccaninnies strapped upon the backs of their mothers; the kneeling of the camels to receive their loads,—as if consenting to what could not be otherwise than disagreeable to them,—were all sights that might have greatly interested our adventurers, had they been viewing them under different circumstances.
Out of the last mentioned of these sights, an incident arose, illustrating the craft of their captors in the management of their domestic animals.
A refractory camel, that, according to usual habit, had voluntarily humiliated itself to receive its load, after this had been packed upon it, refused to rise to its feet. The beast either deemed the burden inequable and unjust,—for the Arabian camel, like the Peruvian llama, has a very acute perception of fair play in this respect,—or a fit of caprice had entered its mulish head. For one reason or another it exhibited a stern determination not to oblige its owner by rising to its feet; but continued its genuflexion in spite of every effort to get it on all-fours.
Coaxing and cajolery were tried to no purpose. Kicking by sandalled feet, scourging with whips, and beating with cudgels produced no better effect; and to all appearance the obstinate brute had made up its mind to remain in the oasis and let the tribe depart without it.
At this crisis an ingenious method of making the camel change its mind suggested itself to its master; or perhaps he had practised it on some former occasion. Maddened by the obstinacy of the animal, he seized hold of an old burnouse, and rushing up, threw it over its head. Then drawing the rag tightly around its snout, he fastened it in such a manner as completely to stop up the nostrils.
The camel finding its breathing thus suddenly interrupted, became terrified; and without further loss of time, scrambled to its feet—to the great amusement of the women and children who were spectators of the scene.
WATERING THE CAMELS.
In an incredibly short space of time the tents were down, and the douar with all its belongings was no longer to be seen; or only in the shape of sundry packages balanced upon the backs of the animals.
The last operation before striking out upon the desert track, was the watering of these; the supply for the journey having been already dipped up out of the pool, and poured into goat-skin sacks.
The watering of the camels appeared to be regarded as the most important matter of all. In this performance every precaution was taken, and every attention bestowed, to ensure to the animals a full supply of the precious fluid,—perhaps from a presentiment on the part of their owners that they themselves might some day stand in need of, and make use of, the same water!
Whether this was the motive or not, every camel belonging to the horde was compelled to drink till its capacious stomach was quite full; and the quantity consumed by each would be incredible to any other than the owner of an African dromedary, Only a very large cask could have contained it.
At the watering of the animals, our adventurers had an opportunity of observing another incident of the Saaera,—quite as curious and original as that already described.
It chanced that the pool that furnished the precious fluid, and which contained the only fresh water to be found within fifty miles, was just then on the eve of being dried up. A long season of drought—that is to say, three or four years—had reigned over this particular portion of the desert, and the lagoon, formerly somewhat extensive, had shrunk into the dimensions of a trifling tank, containing little more than two or three hundred gallons. This, during the stay of the two tribes united as wreckers, had been daily diminishing; and had the occupants of the douar not struck tents at the time they did, in another day or so they would have been in danger of suffering from thirst. This was in reality the cause of their projected migration. But for the fear of getting short in the necessary commodity of fresh water, they would have hugged the seashore a little longer, in hopes of picking up a few more "waifs" from the wreck of the English ship.
At the hour of their departure from the encampment, the pool was on the eve of exhaustion. Only a few score gallons of not very pure water remained in it—about enough to fill the capacious stomachs of the camels; whose owners had gauged them too often to be ignorant of the quantity.
It would not do to play with this closely calculated supply. Every pint was precious; and to prove that it was so esteemed, the animals were constrained to swallow it in a fashion, which certainly nature could never have intended.
Instead of taking it in by the mouth the camels of these Saaeran rovers were compelled to quench their thirst through the nostrils!
You will wonder in what manner this could be effected? inquiring whether the quadrupeds voluntarily performed this nasal imbibing?
Our adventurers, witnesses of the fact, wondered also—while struck with its quaint peculiarity.
There is a proverb that "one man may take a horse to the water, but twenty cannot compel him to drink." Though this proverb may hold good of an English horse, it has no significance when applied to an African dromedary. Proof. Our adventurers saw the owner of each camel bring his animal to the edge of the pool; but instead of permitting the thirsty creature to step in and drink for itself, its head was held aloft, a wooden funnel was filled, the narrow end inserted into the nostril, and by the respiratory canal the water introduced to the throat and stomach!
You may ask, why this selection of the nostrils instead of the mouth? Our adventurers so interrogated one another. It was only after becoming better acquainted with the customs of the Saaera that they acquired a satisfactory explanation of one they had frequent occasion to observe.
Though ordinarily of the most docile disposition, and in most of its movements the most tranquil of creatures, the dromedary, when drinking from a vessel, has the habit of repeatedly shaking its head, and spilling large quantities of the water placed before it. Where water is scarce,—and, as in the Saaera, considered the most momentous matter of life,—a waste of it after such a fashion could not be tolerated. To prevent it, therefore, the camel-owner has contrived that this animal, so essential to his own safe existence, should drink through the orifices intended by nature for its respiration.
A SQUABBLE BETWEEN THE SHEIKS.
The process of watering the camels was carried on with the utmost diligence and care. It was too important to be trifled with, or negligently performed. While filling the capacious stomachs of the quadrupeds, their owners were but laying in a stock for themselves.
As Sailor Bill jocularly remarked, "it was like filling the water-casks of a man-of-war previous to weighing anchor for a voyage." In truth, very similar was the purpose for which these ships of the desert were being supplied; for, when filling the capacious stomachs of the quadrupeds, their owners were not without the reflection that the supply might yet pass into their own. Such a contingency was not improbable, neither would it be new.
For this reason the operation was conducted with diligence and care,—no camel being led away from the pool until it was supposed to have had a "surfeit," and this point was settled by seeing the water poured in at its nostrils running out at its mouth.
As each in turn got filled, it was taken back to the tribe to which it belonged; for the united hordes had by this time become separated into two distinct parties, preparatory to starting off on their respective routes.
Our adventurers could now perceive a marked difference between the two bands of Saaera wanderers into whose hands they had unfortunately fallen. As already stated, the black sheik was an African of the true negro type, with thick lips, flattened nostrils, woolly hair, and heels projecting several inches to the rear of his ankle-joints. Most of his following were similarly "furnished," though not all of them. There were a few of mixed color, with straight hair, and features almost Caucasian, who submitted to his rule, or rather to his ownership, since these last all appeared to be his slaves.
Those who trooped after the old Arab were mostly of his own race, mixed with a remnant of mongrel Portuguese,—descendants of the peninsular colonists who had fled from the coast settlements after the conquest of Morocco by the victorious "Sheriffs."
Of such mixed races are the tribes who thinly people the Saaera,—Arabs, Berbers, Ethiopians of every hue; all equally Bedoweens,—wanderers of the pathless deserts. It did not escape the observation of our adventurers that the slaves of the Arab sheik and his followers were mostly pure negroes from the south, while those of the black chieftain,—as proclaimed by the color of their skin,—showed a Shemitic or Japhetic origin. The philosophic Colin could perceive in this a silent evidence of the retribution of races.
The supply of water being at length laid in, not only in the skins appropriated to the purpose, but also within the stomachs of the camels, the two tribes seemed prepared to exchange with each other the parting salute,—to speak the "Peace be with you!" And yet there was something that caused them to linger in each other's proximity. Their new-made captives could tell this, though ignorant of what it might be.
It was something that had yet to be settled between the two sheiks, who did not appear at this moment of leave-taking to entertain for each other any very cordial sentiment of friendship.
Could their thoughts have found expression in English words, they would have taken shape somewhat as follows:—
"That lubberly nigger," (we are pursuing the train of reflections that passed through the mind of the Arab sheik,) "old Nick burn him!—thinks I've got more than my share of this lucky windfall. He wants these boys bad,—I know that. The Sultan of Timbuctoo has given him a commission to procure white slaves,—that's clear; and boy slaves if he can,—that's equally certain. This lot would suit him to a T. I can tell that he don't care much for the old salt he has tricked me out of by his superior skill at that silly game of helga. No; His Majesty of the mud-walled city don't want such as him. It's boys he's after,—as can wait smartly at his royal table, and give eclat to his ceremonial entertainments. Well, he can have these three at a price."
"Ay, but a big price," continued the cunning old trafficker in human flesh, after a short reflection, "a wopping big price. The togs we've stripped from them were no common clothing. Good broadcloth in their jackets, and bullion bands on their caps. They must be the sons of great sheiks. At Wedmoon the old Jew will redeem them. So, too, the merchants at Suse; or maybe I had best take them on to Mogador, where the consul of their country will come down handsomely for such as they. Yes, that's the trick!"
At this parting scene the thoughts of Fatima's husband were equally occupied with trading speculations, in which he was assisted by the amiable Fatima herself.
Translated also into English, they would have read as follows:—
"The Sultan would give threescore of his best blacks for those three tripe-colored brats."
"I know it, Fatty dear; he's told me so himself."
"Then why not get them, and bring 'em along?"
"Ah, that's easy to say. How can I? You know they belong to the old Arab by right,—at least, he claims them, though not very fairly, for if we hadn't come up in good time they would have taken him instead of his taking them; no matter for that, they're his now by the laws of the Saaera."
"Bother the laws of the Saaera!" exclaimed Fatima, with a disdainful toss of her head, and a scornful turning up of her two protruding teeth; "all stuff and nonsense! There's no law in the Saaera; and if there was, you know we're never coming into it again. The price you'd get for those three hobbledehoys would keep us comfortable for the balance of our lives; and we need never track the Devil's Desert again. Take 'em by force from old Yellow-face, if you can't get 'em otherwise; but you may 'chouse' him out of them at a game of helga,—you know you can beat him at that. If he won't play again, try your hand at bargaining against your blacks; offer him two to one."
Thus counselled by the partner of his bosom, the black sheik, instead of bidding the saleik aloum to his Arab confrere, raised his voice aloud, and demanded from the latter a parley upon business of importance.
THE TRIO STAKED.
The parley that followed was of course unintelligible to our adventurers, the Boy Slaves.
But although they did not understand the words that were exchanged between the two sheiks, they were not without having a conjecture as to their import. The gestures made by the two men, and their looks cast frequently towards themselves, led them to believe that the conversation related to their transference from one to the other.
There was not much to choose between the two masters. Both appeared to be unfeeling savages, and so far had treated their captives with much cruelty. They could only hope, in case of a transfer taking place, that it would not be partial, but would extend to the trio, and that they would be kept together. They had been already aware that old Bill was to be parted from them, and this had caused them a painful feeling; but to be themselves separated, perhaps never to meet again, was a thought still more distressing.
The three youths had long been shipmates,—ever since entering the naval service of their country. They had become fast friends; and believed that whatever might be the fate before them, they could better bear it in each other's company. Companionship would at least enable them to cheer one another; mutual sympathy would, to some extent, alleviate the hardest lot; while alone, and under such cruel taskmasters, the prospect was gloomy in the extreme.
With feelings of keen anxiety, therefore, did they listen to the palaver, and watch the countenances of their captors.
After a full half-hour spent in loud talking and gesticulating, some arrangement appeared to have been arrived at between the two sheiks. Those most interested in it could only guess what it was by what followed.
Silence having been partially restored, the old Arab was seen to step up to the spot where the slaves of the black sheik were assembled; and, after carefully scrutinizing them, pick out three of the stoutest, plumpest, and healthiest young negroes in the gang. These were separated from the others, and placed on the plain some distance apart.
"We're to be exchanged," muttered Terence, "we're to belong to the ugly black nagur. Well, perhaps it's better. We'll be with old Bill."
"Stay a wee," said Colin; "there's something more to come yet, I think."
The black sheik at this moment coming up, interrupted the conversation of the captives.
What was he going to do? Take them with him, they supposed. The old Arab had himself led out the three young "darkies"; and the black sheik was about to act in like manner with the trio of white captives.
So reasoned they; and, as it was a matter of indifference to them with which they went, they would offer no opposition.
To their chagrin, however, instead of all three, only one of them was led off; the other two being commanded by gestures to keep their ground.
It was O'Connor to whom this partiality was shown; the black sheik having selected him after a short while spent in scrutinizing and comparing the three. The Irish youth was of stouter build than either of his shipmates; and this, perhaps, guided the black sheik in making his choice. By all appearances, the conditions of the exchange were to be different from what our adventurers had anticipated. It was not to be man for man, or boy for boy; but three for one,—three blacks to a white.
This was, in reality, the terms that had been agreed upon. The avaricious old Arab, not caring very much to part with his share of the spoil, would not take less than three to one; and to this the black sheik, after long and loud bargaining, had consented.
Terence was led up, and placed alongside the three young darkies, who, instead of taking things as seriously as he, were exhibiting their ivories in broad grins of laughter, as if the disposal of their persons was an affair to be treated only as a joke!
Our adventurers were now apprehensive that they were to be separated. Their only hope was that the bargaining would not end there; but would extend to a further exchange of six blacks for the two remaining whites.
Their conjectures were interrupted by their seeing that the "swop" was not yet considered complete.
What followed, in fact, showed them that it was not a regular trade at all; but a little bit of gambling between the two sheiks, in which Terence and the three young blacks were to be the respective stakes.
Old Bill was able to explain the proceedings, from his experience of the preceding night; and as he saw the two sheiks repair to the place where his own proprietorship had been decided, he cried out:—
"Yere goin' to be gambled for, Masther Terry! Och! ye'll be along wid me,—for the black can bate the owld Arab at that game, all hollow."
The holes in which the helga had been played on the preceding night were now resorted to. The proper number of dung pellets were procured, and the game proceeded.
It ended as the old man-o'-war's-man had prognosticated, by the black sheik becoming the winner and owner of Terence O'Connor.
The Arab appeared sadly chagrined, and by the way in which he strutted and stormed over the ground, it was evident he would not rest satisfied with his loss. When did gamester ever leave gaming-table so long as a stake was left him to continue the play?
Two of the midshipmen still belonged to the old sheik. With these he might obtain a revanche. He made the trial. He was unfortunate, as before. Either the luck was against him, or he was no match at "desert draughts" for his sable antagonist.
It ended in the black sheik becoming the owner of the three midshipmen, who, restored to the companionship of Sailor Bill, in less than twenty minutes after the conclusion of the game, were trudging it across the desert in the direction of Timbuctoo!
In their journey over the sea of sand, our four adventurers formed part of a company of sixteen men and women, along with six or seven children.
All were the property of one man,—the huge and dusky sheik who had won Sailor Bill and the three middies at "desert draughts."
It soon became known to his white captives that his name was Golah, a name which Terence suggested might probably be an African abbreviation of the ancient name of Goliah.
Golah was certainly a great man,—not in bone and flesh alone, but in intellect as well.
We do not claim for him the gigantic mind that by arranging a few figures and symbols, by the light of a lamp in a garret, could discover a new planet in the solar system, and give its dimensions, weight, and distance from the dome of St. Paul's. Neither do we claim that the power of his intellect, if put forth in a storm of eloquence, could move the masses of his fellow-creatures, as a hurricane stirs up the waters of the sea; yet for all this Golah had a great intellect. He was born to rule, and not a particle of all the propensities and sentiments constituting his mind was ever intended to yield to the will of another.
The cunning old sheik, who had the first claim to the three mids, had been anxious to retain them; but they were also wanted by Golah, and the Arab was compelled to give them up, after having been fairly beaten at the game; parting with his sable competitor in a mood that was anything but agreeable.
The black sheik had three wives, all of whom possessed the gift of eloquence in a high degree.
For all this a simple glance from him was enough to stop any one of them in the middle of a monosyllable.
Even Fatima, the favorite, owed much of her influence to the ability she displayed in studying her lord's wishes to the neglect of her own.
Golah had seven camels, four of which were required for carrying himself and his wives, with their children, trappings, tent utensils, and tents.
The three other camels were laden with the spoils which had been collected from the wreck.
Twelve of the sixteen adults in the company were compelled to walk, being forced to keep up with the camels the best way they could.
One of these was Golah's son, a youth about eighteen years of age. He was armed with a long Moorish musket, a heavy Spanish sword, and the dirk that had been taken from Colin.
He was the principal guard over the slaves, in which duty he was assisted by another youth, whom our adventurers afterwards learnt was a brother of one of Golah's wives.
This second youth was armed with a musket and scimitar, and both he and Golah's son seemed to think that their lives depended on keeping a constant watch over the ten slaves; for there were six others besides Sailor Bill and his young companions. They had all been captured, purchased, or won at play, during Golah's present expedition, and were now on the way to some southern market.
Two of the six were pronounced by Sailor Bill to be Kroomen,—a race of Africans with whose appearance he was somewhat familiar, having often seen them acting as sailors in ships coming from the African coast.
The other slaves were much lighter in complexion, and by the old man-o'-war's-man were called "Portugee blacks." All had the appearance of having spent some time in bondage on the great Saaera.
On the first day of their journey the white captives had learnt the relations existing between the majority of the company and the chief Golah; and each of them felt shame as well as indignation at the humiliating position in which he was placed.
Those feelings were partly excited and greatly strengthened by hunger and thirst, as well as by the painful toil they had to undergo in dragging themselves over the sandy plain beneath a scorching sun.
"I have had enough of this," said Harry Blount to his companions. "We might be able to stand it several days longer, but I've no curiosity to learn whether we can or not."
"Go on! you are thinking and speaking for me, Harry," said Terence.
"There are four of us," continued Harry,—"four of that nation whose people boast they never will be slaves; besides, there are six others, who are our fellow-bondsmen. They're not much to look at, but still they might count for something in a row. Shall we four British tars, belong to a party of ten,—all enslaved by three men,—black men at that?"
"That's just what I've been thinking about for the last hour or two," said Terence. "If we don't kill old Golah, and ride off with his camels, we deserve to pass every day of our lives as we're doing this one—in slavery."
"Just say the word,—when and how," cried Harry "I'm waiting. There are seven camels. Let us each take one; but before we go we must eat and drink the other three. I'm starving."
"Pitch on a plan, and I'll pitch into it," rejoined Terence. "I'm ready for anything,—from pitch and toss up to manslaughter."
"Stay, Master Terence," interrupted the old sailor. "Av coorse ye are afther wantin' to do somethin', an' thin to think aftherwards why ye did it. Arry, my lad, yer half out o yer mind. Master Colin be the only yin o' ye that keeps his seven senses about him. Suppose all av ye, that the big chief was dead, an' that his son was not alive, and that the other nager was a ristin' quietly wid his black heels turned from the place where the daisies hought to grow,—what should we do thin? We 'ave neyther chart nor compass. We could'ner mak oot our reckonin'. Don't ye see a voyage here is just like one at sea, only it be just the revarse. When men are starvin' at sea, they want to find land, but when they are starvin' in the desert they want to find water. The big nager, our captain, can navigate this sea in safety,—we can't. We must let him take us to some port and then do the best we can to escape from him."
"You are quite right," said Colin, "in thinking that we might be unable to find our way from one watering-place to another; but it is well for us to calculate all the chances. After reaching some port, as you call it, may we not find ourselves in a position more difficult to escape from,—where we will have to contend with a hundred or more of these negro brutes in place of only three?"
"That's vary likely," answered the sailor; "but they're only men, and we 'av a chance of beatin' 'em. We may fight with men, and conquer 'em, an' we may fight with water an' conquer that; but when we fight against no water that will conquer us. Natur is sure to win."
"Bill's right there," said Terence, "and I feel that Nature is getting the best of me already."
While they were holding this conversation, they noticed that one of the Kroomen kept near them, and seemed listening to all that was said. His sparkling eyes betrayed the greatest interest.
"Do you understand us?" asked old Bill, turning sharply towards the African, and speaking in an angry tone.
"Yus, sa,—a lilly bit," answered the Krooman, without seeming to notice the unpleasant manner in which the question had been put.
"And what are you listening for?"
"To hear what you tell um. I like go in Ingleesh ship. You talk good for me. I go long with you."
With some difficulty the sailor and his companions could comprehend the Krooman's gibberish. They managed to learn from him that he had once been in an English ship, and had made a voyage along the African coast, trading for palm-oil. While on board he had picked up a smattering of English. He was afterwards shipwrecked in a Portuguese brig. Cast away on the shores of the Saaera, just as our adventurers had been, and had passed four years in the desert,—a slave to its denizens.
He gratified our adventurers by telling them that they were in no danger of having to endure a prolonged period of captivity, as they would soon be sold into liberty, instead of slavery. Golah could not afford to keep slaves; and was only a kidnapper and dealer in the article. He would sell them to the highest bidder, and that would be some English consul on the coast.
The Krooman said there was no such hope for him and his companions, for their country did not redeem its subjects from slavery.
When he saw that Golah had obtained some English prisoners, he had been cheered with the hope that he might be redeemed along with them, as an English subject, to which right he had some claim from having served on an English ship!
During the day the black slaves—well knowing the duty they were expected to perform, had been gathering pieces of dried camels' dung along the way; this was to supply fuel for the fire of the douar at night.
Soon after sunset Golah ordered a halt, when the camels were unloaded and the tents set up.
About one quarter the quantity of sangleh that each required, was then served out to the slaves for their dinner, and as they had eaten nothing since morning, this article of food appeared to have greatly improved, both in appearance and flavor. To the palate of our adventurers it seemed delicious.
Golah, after examining his human property, and evidently satisfied with the condition of all, retired to his tent; from which soon after issued sounds that resembled a distant thunder-storm.
The black sheik was snoring!
The two young men—his son and brother-in-law—relieved each other during the night in keeping watch over the slaves.
Their vigil was altogether unnecessary. Weak, and exhausted with hunger and fatigue, the thoughts of the captives were not of the future, but of present repose; which was eagerly sought, and readily found, by all four of them.
A DAY OF AGONY.
An hour before sunrise the next morning, the slaves were given some cheni to drink, and then started on their journey.
The sun, as it soared up into a cloudless sky, shot forth its rays much warmer than upon the day before, while not a breath of air fanned the sterile plain. The atmosphere was as hot and motionless as the sands under their feet. They were no longer hungry. Thirst—raging, burning thirst—extinguished or deadened every other sensation.
Streams of perspiration poured from their bodies, as they struggled through the yielding sand; yet, with all this moisture streaming from every pore, their throats, tongues, and lips became so parched that any attempt on their part to hold converse only resulted in producing a series of sounds that resembled a death-rattle.
Golah, with his family, rode in the advance, and seemed not to give himself any concern whether he was followed by others or not. His two relatives brought up the rear of the kafila, and any of the slaves exhibiting a disposition to lag behind was admonished to move on with blows administered by a thick stick.
"Tell them I must have water or die," muttered Harry to the Krooman in a hoarse whisper. "I am worth money, and if old Golah lets me die for want of a drop of water, he's a fool."
The Krooman refused to make the communication—which he declared would only result in bringing ill treatment upon himself.
Colin appealed to Golah's son, and by signs gave him to understand that they must have water. The young black, in answer, simply condescended to sneer at him. He was not suffering himself, and could have no sympathy for another.
The hides of the blacks, besmeared with oil, seemed to repel the scorching beams of the sun; and years of continual practice had no doubt inured them to the endurance of hunger and thirst to a surprising degree. To their white fellow-captives they appeared more like huge reptiles than human beings.
The sand along the route on this, the second day, was less compact than before, and the task of leg-lifting, produced a weariness such as might have arisen from the hardest work. Added to the agony of their thirst, the white sufferers dwelt frequently on thoughts of death—that great antidote to human miseries; yet so constrained were their actions by force of circumstances, that only by following their leader and owner, Golah, could they hope to find relief.
Had he allowed them to turn back to the coast, whence they had started, or even to repose for a few hours on the way, they could not have done so. They were compelled to move on, by a power that could not be resisted.
That power was Hope,—the hope of obtaining some sangleh and a little dirty water.
To turn back, or to linger behind, would bring them nothing but more suffering,—perhaps death itself.
A man intent on dying may throw himself into the water to get drowned, and then find himself involuntarily struggling to escape from the death he has courted.