"Oh, you villain!" he cried furiously. "Hold your tongue, you miserable creature! Be silent! Better die—a thousand times better die!"
But it was too late, and already they could all see the base design by which the coward hoped to save his own life. He was about to betray the women. They saw the chief, with a brave man's contempt upon his stern face, make a sign of haughty assent, and then Mansoor spoke rapidly and earnestly, pointing up the hill. At a word from the Baggara, a dozen of the raiders rushed up the path and were lost to view upon the top. Then came a shrill cry, a horrible strenuous scream of surprise and terror, and an instant later the party streamed into sight again, dragging the women in their midst. Sadie, with her young, active limbs, kept up with them, as they sprang down the slope, encouraging her aunt all the while over her shoulder. The older lady, struggling amid the rushing white figures, looked with her thin limbs and open mouth like a chicken being dragged from a coop.
The chief's dark eyes glanced indifferently at Miss Adams, but gazed with a smouldering fire at the younger woman. Then he gave an abrupt order, and the prisoners were hurried in a miserable, hopeless drove to the cluster of kneeling camels. Their pockets had already been ransacked, and the contents thrown into one of the camel-food bags, the neck of which was tied up by Ali Wad Ibrahim's own hands.
"I say, Cochrane," whispered Belmont, looking with smouldering eyes at the wretched Mansoor, "I've got a little hip revolver which they have not discovered. Shall I shoot that cursed dragoman for giving away the women?"
The Colonel shook his head.
"You had better keep it," said he, with a sombre face. "The women may find some other use for it before all is over."
The camels, some brown and some white, were kneeling in a long line, their champing jaws moving rhythmically from side to side, and their gracefully poised heads turning to right and left in a mincing, self-conscious fashion. Most of them were beautiful creatures, true Arabian trotters, with the slim limbs and finely turned necks which mark the breed; but among them were a few of the slower, heavier beasts, with ungroomed skins, disfigured by the black scars of old firings. These were loaded with the doora and the waterskins of the raiders, but a few minutes sufficed to redistribute their loads and to make place for the prisoners. None of these had been bound with the exception of Mr. Stuart—for the Arabs, understanding that he was a clergyman, and accustomed to associate religion with violence, had looked upon his fierce outburst as quite natural, and regarded him now as the most dangerous and enterprising of their captives. His hands were therefore tied together with a plaited camel-halter, but the others, including the dragoman and the two wounded blacks, were allowed to mount without any precaution against their escape, save that which was afforded by the slowness of their beasts. Then, with a shouting of men and a roaring of camels, the creatures were jolted on to their legs, and the long, straggling procession set off with its back to the homely river, and its face to the shimmering, violet haze, which hung round the huge sweep of beautiful, terrible desert, striped tiger-fashion with black rock and with golden sand.
None of the white prisoners, with the exception of Colonel Cochrane, had ever been upon a camel before. It seemed an alarming distance to the ground when they looked down, and the curious swaying motion, with the insecurity of the saddle, made them sick and frightened. But their bodily discomfort was forgotten in the turmoil of bitter thoughts within. What a chasm gaped between their old life and their new! And yet how short was the time and space which divided them! Less than an hour ago they had stood upon the summit of that rock, and had laughed and chattered, or grumbled at the heat and flies, becoming peevish at small discomforts. Headingly had been hypercritical over the tints of Nature. They could not forget his own tint as he lay with his cheek upon the black stone. Sadie had chattered about tailor-made dresses and Parisian chiffons. Now she was clinging, half-crazy, to the pommel of a wooden saddle, with suicide rising as a red star of hope in her mind. Humanity, reason, argument—all were gone, and there remained the brutal humiliation of force. And all the time, down there by the second rocky point, their steamer was waiting for them—their saloon, with the white napery and the glittering glasses, the latest novel, and the London papers. The least imaginative of them could see it so clearly: the white awning, Mrs. Shlesinger with her yellow sun-hat, Mrs. Belmont lying back in the canvas chair. There it lay almost in sight of them, that little floating chip broken off from home, and every silent, ungainly step of the camels was carrying them more hopelessly away from it. That very morning how beneficent Providence had appeared, how pleasant was life!—a little commonplace, perhaps, but so soothing and restful. And now!
The red head-gear, patched jibbehs, and yellow boots had already shown to the Colonel that these men were no wandering party of robbers, but a troop from the regular army of the Khalifa. Now, as they struck across the desert, they showed that they possessed the rude discipline which their work demanded. A mile ahead, and far out on either flank, rode their scouts, dipping and rising among the yellow sand-hills. Ali Wad Ibrahim headed the caravan, and his short, sturdy lieutenant brought up the rear. The main party straggled over a couple of hundred yards, and in the middle was the little, dejected clump of prisoners. No attempt was made to keep them apart, and Mr. Stephens soon contrived that his camel should be between those of the two ladies.
"Don't be down-hearted, Miss Adams," said he. "This is a most indefensible outrage, but there can be no question that steps will be taken in the proper quarter to set the matter right. I am convinced that we shall be subjected to nothing worse than a temporary inconvenience. If it had not been for that villain Mansoor, you need not have appeared at all."
It was shocking to see the change in the little Bostonian lady, for she had shrunk to an old woman in an hour. Her swarthy cheeks had fallen in, and her eyes shone wildly from sunken, darkened sockets. Her frightened glances were continually turned upon Sadie. There is surely some wrecker angel which can only gather her best treasures in moments of disaster. For here were all these worldlings going to their doom, and already frivolity and selfishness had passed away from them, and each was thinking and grieving only for the other. Sadie thought of her aunt, her aunt thought of Sadie, the men thought of the women, Belmont thought of his wife—and then he thought of something else also, and he kicked his camel's shoulder with his heel, until he found himself upon the near side of Miss Adams.
"I've got something for you here," he whispered. "We may be separated soon, so it is as well to make our arrangements."
"Separated!" wailed Miss Adams.
"Don't speak loud, for that infernal Mansoor may give us away again. I hope it won't be so, but it might. We must be prepared for the worst. For example, they might determine to get rid of us men and to keep you."
Miss Adams shuddered.
"What am I to do? For God's sake tell me what I am to do, Mr. Belmont! I am an old woman. I have had my day. I could stand it if it was only myself. But Sadie—I am clean crazed when I think of her. There's her mother waiting at home, and I—" She clasped her thin hands together in the agony of her thoughts.
"Put your hand out under your dust-cloak," said Belmont, sidling his camel up against hers. "Don't miss your grip of it. There! Now hide it in your dress, and you'll always have a key to unlock any door."
Miss Adams felt what it was which he had slipped into her hand, and she looked at him for a moment in bewilderment. Then she pursed up her lips and shook her stern, brown face in disapproval. But she pushed the little pistol into its hiding-place, all the same, and she rode with her thoughts in a whirl. Could this indeed be she, Eliza Adams, of Boston, whose narrow, happy life had oscillated between the comfortable house in Commonwealth Avenue and the Tremont Presbyterian Church? Here she was, hunched upon a camel, with her hand upon the butt of a pistol, and her mind weighing the justifications of murder. Oh, life, sly, sleek, treacherous life, how are we ever to trust you? Show us your worst and we can face it, but it is when you are sweetest and smoothest that we have most to fear from you.
"At the worst, Miss Sadie, it will only be a question of ransom," said Stephens, arguing against his own convictions. "Besides, we are still dose to Egypt, far away from the Dervish country. There is sure to be an energetic pursuit. You must try not to lose your courage, and to hope for the best."
"No, I am not scared, Mr. Stephens," said Sadie, turning towards him a blanched face which belied her words. "We're all in God's hands, and surely He won't be cruel to us. It is easy to talk about trusting Him when things are going well, but now is the real test. If He's up there behind that blue heaven—"
"He is," said a voice behind them, and they found that the Birmingham clergyman had joined the party. His tied hands clutched on to his Makloofa saddle, and his fat body swayed dangerously from side to side with every stride of the camel. His wounded leg was oozing with blood and clotted with flies, and the burning desert sun beat down upon his bare head, for he had lost both hat and umbrella in the scuffle. A rising fever flecked his large, white cheeks with a touch of colour, and brought a light into his brown ox-eyes. He had always seemed a somewhat gross and vulgar person to his fellow-travellers. Now, this bitter healing draught of sorrow had transformed him. He was purified, spiritualised, exalted. He had become so calmly strong that he made the others feel stronger as they looked upon him. He spoke of life and of death, of the present, and their hopes of the future; and the black cloud of their misery began to show a golden rift or two. Cecil Brown shrugged his shoulders, for he could not change in an hour the convictions of his life; but the others, even Fardet, the Frenchman, were touched and strengthened. They all took off their hats when he prayed. Then the Colonel made a turban out of his red silk cummerbund, and insisted that Mr. Stuart should wear it. With his homely dress and gorgeous headgear, he looked like a man who has dressed up to amuse the children.
And now the dull, ceaseless, insufferable torment of thirst was added to the aching weariness which came from the motion of the camels. The sun glared down upon them, and then up again from the yellow sand, and the great plain shimmered and glowed until they felt as if they were riding over a cooling sheet of molten metal. Their lips were parched and dried, and their tongues like tags of leather. They lisped curiously in their speech, for it was only the vowel sounds which would come without an effort. Miss Adams's chin had dropped upon her chest, and her great hat concealed her face.
"Auntie will faint if she does not get water," said Sadie. "Oh, Mr. Stephens, is there nothing we could do?"
The Dervishes riding near were all Baggara with the exception of one negro—an uncouth fellow with a face pitted with small-pox. His expression seemed good-natured when compared with that of his Arab comrades, and Stephens ventured to touch his elbow and to point to his water-skin, and then to the exhausted lady. The negro shook his head brusquely, but at the same time he glanced significantly towards the Arabs, as if to say that, if it were not for them, he might act differently. Then he laid his black forefinger upon the breast of his jibbeh.
"Tippy Tilly," said he.
"What's that?" asked Colonel Cochrane.
"Tippy Tilly," repeated the negro, sinking his voice as if he wished only the prisoners to hear him.
The Colonel shook his head.
"My Arabic won't bear much strain. I don't know what he is saying," said he.
"Tippy Tilly. Hicks Pasha," the negro repeated.
"I believe the fellow is friendly to us, but I can't quite make him out," said Cochrane to Belmont. "Do you think that he means that his name is Tippy Tilly, and that he killed Hicks Pasha?"
The negro showed his great white teeth at hearing his own words coming back to him. "Aiwa!" said he. "Tippy Tilly—Bimbashi Mormer—Boum!"
"By Jove, I've got it!" cried Belmont. "He's trying to speak English. Tippy Tilly is as near as he can get to Egyptian Artillery. He has served in the Egyptian Artillery under Bimbashi Mortimer. He was taken prisoner when Hicks Pasha was destroyed, and had to turn Dervish to save his skin. How's that?"
The Colonel said a few words of Arabic and received a reply, but two of the Arabs closed up, and the negro quickened his pace and left them.
"You are quite right," said the Colonel. "The fellow is friendly to us, and would rather fight for the Khedive than for the Khalifa. I don't know that he can do us any good, but I've been in worse holes than this, and come out right side up. After all, we are not out of reach of pursuit, and won't be for another forty-eight hours."
Belmont calculated the matter out in his slow, deliberate fashion.
"It was about twelve that we were on the rock," said he. "They would become alarmed aboard the steamer if we did not appear at two."
"Yes," the Colonel interrupted, "that was to be our lunch hour. I remember saying that when I came back I would have—O Lord, it's best not to think of it!"
"The reis was a sleepy old crock," Belmont continued, "but I have absolute confidence in the promptness and decision of my wife. She would insist upon an immediate alarm being given. Suppose they started back at two-thirty, they should be at Halfa by three, since the journey is down stream. How long did they say that it took to turn out the Camel Corps?"
"Give them an hour."
"And another hour to get them across the river. They would be at the Abousir Rock and pick up the tracks by six o'clock. After that it is a clear race. We are only four hours ahead, and some of these beasts are very spent. We may be saved yet, Cochrane!"
"Some of us may. I don't expect to see the padre alive to-morrow, nor Miss Adams either. They are not made for this sort of thing either of them. Then again we must not forget that these people have a trick of murdering their prisoners when they see that there is a chance of a rescue. See here, Belmont, in case you get back and I don't, there's a matter of a mortgage that I want you to set right for me." They rode on with their shoulders inclined to each other, deep in the details of business.
The friendly negro who had talked of himself as Tippy Tilly had managed to slip a piece of cloth soaked in water into the hand of Mr. Stephens, and Miss Adams had moistened her lips with it. Even the few drops had given her renewed strength, and now that the first crushing shock was over, her wiry, elastic, Yankee nature began to reassert itself.
"These people don't look as if they would harm us, Mr. Stephens," said she. "I guess they have a working religion of their own, such as it is, and that what's wrong to us is wrong to them."
Stephens shook his head in silence. He had seen the death of the donkey-boys, and she had not.
"Maybe we are sent to guide them into a better path," said the old lady. "Maybe we are specially singled out for a good work among them."
If it were not for her niece her energetic and enterprising temperament was capable Of glorying in the chance of evangelising Khartoum, and turning Omdurman into a little well-drained broad-avenued replica of a New England town.
"Do you know what I am thinking of all the time?" said Sadie. "You remember that temple that we saw—when was it? Why, it was this morning."
They gave an exclamation of surprise, all three of them. Yes, it had been this morning; and it seemed away and away in some dim past experience of their lives, so vast was the change, so new and so overpowering the thoughts which had come between. They rode in silence, full of this strange expansion of time, until at last Stephens reminded Sadie that she had left her remark unfinished.
"Oh yes; it was the wall picture on that temple that I was thinking of. Do you remember the poor string of prisoners who are being dragged along to the feet of the great king—how dejected they looked among the warriors who led them? Who could—who could have thought that within three hours the same fate should be our own? And Mr. Headingly—" She turned her face away and began to cry.
"Don't take on, Sadie," said her aunt; "remember what the minister said just now, that we are all right there in the hollow of God's hand. Where do you think we are going, Mr. Stephens?"
The red edge of his Baedeker still projected from the lawyer's pocket, for it had not been worth their captor's while to take it. He glanced down at it.
"If they will only leave me this, I will look up a few references when we halt. I have a general idea of the country, for I drew a small map of it the other day. The river runs from south to north, so we must be travelling almost due west. I suppose they feared pursuit if they kept too near the Nile bank. There is a caravan route, I remember, which runs parallel to the river, about seventy miles inland. If we continue in this direction for a day we ought to come to it. There is a line of wells through which it passes. It comes out at Assiout, if I remember right, upon the Egyptian side. On the other side, it leads away into the Dervish country—so, perhaps—"
His words were interrupted by a high, eager voice, which broke suddenly into a torrent of jostling words, words without meaning, pouring strenuously out in angry assertions and foolish repetitions. The pink had deepened to scarlet upon Mr. Stuart's cheeks, his eyes were vacant but brilliant, and he gabbled, gabbled, gabbled as he rode. Kindly mother Nature! she will not let her children be mishandled too far. "This is too much," she says; "this wounded leg, these crusted lips, this anxious, weary mind. Come away for a time, until your body becomes more habitable." And so she coaxes the mind away into the Nirvana of delirium, while the little cell-workers tinker and toil within to get things better for its homecoming. When you see the veil of cruelty which nature wears, try and peer through it, and you will sometimes catch a glimpse of a very homely, kindly face behind.
The Arab guards looked askance at this sudden outbreak of the clergyman, for it verged upon lunacy, and lunacy is to them a fearsome and supernatural thing. One of them rode forward and spoke with the Emir. When he returned he said something to his comrades, one of whom closed in upon each side of the minister's camel, so as to prevent him from falling. The friendly negro sidled his beast up to the Colonel, and whispered to him.
"We are going to halt presently, Belmont," said Cochrane.
"Thank God! They may give us some water. We can't go on like this."
"I told Tippy Tilly that, if he could help us, we would turn him into a Bimbashi when we got him back into Egypt. I think he's willing enough if he only had the power. By Jove, Belmont, do look back at the river."
Their route, which had lain through sand-strewn khors with jagged, black edges—places up which one would hardly think it possible that a camel could climb—opened out now on to a hard, rolling plain, covered thickly with rounded pebbles, dipping and rising to the violet hills upon the horizon. So regular were the long, brown pebble-strewn curves, that they looked like the dark rollers of some monstrous ground-swell. Here and there a little straggling sage-green tuft of camel-grass sprouted up between the stones. Brown plains and violet hills—nothing else in front of them! Behind lay the black jagged rocks through which they had passed with orange slopes of sand, and then far away a thin line of green to mark the course of the river. How cool and beautiful that green looked in the stark, abominable wilderness! On one side they could see the high rock—the accursed rock which had tempted them to their ruin. On the other the river curved, and the sun gleamed upon the water. Oh, that liquid gleam, and the insurgent animal cravings, the brutal primitive longings, which for the instant took the soul out of all of them! They had lost families, countries, liberty, everything, but it was only of water, water, water, that they could think. Mr. Stuart in his delirium began roaring for oranges, and it was insufferable for them to have to listen to him. Only the rough, sturdy Irishman rose superior to that bodily craving. That gleam of river must be somewhere near Halfa, and his wife might be upon the very water at which he looked. He pulled his hat over his eyes, and rode in gloomy silence, biting at his strong, iron-grey moustache.
Slowly the sun sank towards the west, and their shadows began to trail along the path where their hearts would go. It was cooler, and a desert breeze had sprung up, whispering over the rolling, stone-strewed plain. The Emir at their head had called his lieutenant to his side, and the pair had peered about, their eyes shaded by their hands, looking for some landmark. Then, with a satisfied grunt, the chief's camel had seemed to break short off at its knees, and then at its hocks, going down in three curious, broken-jointed jerks until its stomach was stretched upon the ground. As each succeeding camel reached the spot it lay down also, until they were all stretched in one long line. The riders sprang off, and laid out the chopped tibbin upon cloths in front of them, for no well-bred camel will eat from the ground. In their gentle eyes, their quiet, leisurely way of eating, and their condescending, mincing manner, there was something both feminine and genteel, as though a party of prim old maids had foregathered in the heart of the Libyan Desert.
There was no interference with the prisoners, either male or female, for how could they escape in the centre of that huge plain? The Emir came towards them once, and stood combing out his blue-black beard with his fingers, and looking thoughtfully at them out of his dark, sinister eyes. Miss Adams saw with a shudder that it was always upon Sadie that his gaze was fixed. Then, seeing their distress, he gave an order, and a negro brought a water-skin, from which he gave each of them about half a tumblerful. It was hot and muddy, and tasted of leather, but oh how delightful it was to their parched palates! The Emir said a few abrupt words to the dragoman, and left.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Mansoor began, with something of his old consequential manner; but a glare from the Colonel's eyes struck the words from his lips, and he broke away into a long, whimpering excuse for his conduct.
"How could I do anything otherwise," he wailed, "with the very knife at my throat?"
"You will have the very rope round your throat if we all see Egypt again," growled Cochrane savagely. "In the meantime—"
"That's all right, Colonel," said Belmont. "But for our own sakes we ought to know what the chief has said."
"For my part I'll have nothing to do with the blackguard."
"I think that that is going too far. We are bound to hear what he has to say." Cochrane shrugged his shoulders. Privations had made him irritable, and he had to bite his lip to keep down a bitter answer. He walked slowly away, with his straight-legged military stride.
"What did he say, then?" asked Belmont, looking at the dragoman with an eye which was as stern as the Colonel's.
"He seems to be in a somewhat better manner than before. He said that if he had more water you should have it, but that he is himself short in supply. He said that to-morrow we shall come to the wells of Selimah, and everybody shall have plenty—and the camels too."
"Did he say how long we stopped here?"
"Very little rest, he said, and then forward! Oh, Mr. Belmont—"
"Hold your tongue!" snapped the Irishman, and began once more to count times and distances. If it all worked out as he expected, if his wife had insisted upon the indolent reis giving an instant alarm at Halfa, then the pursuers should be already upon their track. The Camel Corps or the Egyptian Horse would travel by moonlight better and faster than in the day-time. He knew that it was the custom at Halfa to keep at least a squadron of them all ready to start at any instant. He had dined at the mess, and the officers had told him how quickly they could take the field. They had shown him the water-tanks and the food beside each of the beasts, and he had admired the completeness of the arrangements, with little thought as to what it might mean to him in the future. It would be at least an hour before they would all get started again from their present halting-place. That would be a clear hour gained. Perhaps by next morning—
And then, suddenly, his thoughts were terribly interrupted. The Colonel, raving like a madman, appeared upon the crest of the nearest slope, with an Arab hanging on to each of his wrists. His face was purple with rage and excitement, and he tugged and bent and writhed in his furious efforts to get free. "You cursed murderers!" he shrieked, and then, seeing the others in front of him, "Belmont," he cried, "they've killed Cecil Brown."
What had happened was this. In his conflict with his own ill-humour, Cochrane had strolled over this nearest crest, and had found a group of camels in the hollow beyond, with a little knot of angry, loud-voiced men beside them. Brown was the centre of the group, pale, heavy-eyed, with his upturned, spiky moustache and listless manner. They had searched his pockets before, but now they were determined to tear off all his clothes in the hope of finding something which he had secreted. A hideous negro with silver bangles in his ears, grinned and jabbered in the young diplomatist's impassive face. There seemed to the Colonel to be something heroic and almost inhuman in that white calm, and those abstracted eyes. His coat was already open, and the Negro's great black paw flew up to his neck and tore his shirt down to the waist. And at the sound of that r-r-rip, and at the abhorrent touch of those coarse fingers, this man about town, this finished product of the nineteenth century, dropped his life-traditions and became a savage facing a savage. His face flushed, his lips curled back, he chattered his teeth like an ape, and his eyes—those indolent eyes which had always twinkled so placidly—were gorged and frantic. He threw himself upon the negro, and struck him again and again, feebly but viciously, in his broad, black face. He hit like a girl, round arm, with an open palm. The man winced away for an instant, appalled by this sudden blaze of passion. Then with an impatient, snarling cry, he slid a knife from his long loose sleeve and struck upwards under the whirling arm. Brown sat down at the blow and began to cough—to cough as a man coughs who has choked at dinner, furiously, ceaselessly, spasm after spasm. Then the angry red cheeks turned to a mottled pallor, there were liquid sounds in his throat, and, clapping his hand to his mouth, he rolled over on to his side. The negro, with a brutal grunt of contempt, slid his knife up his sleeve once more, while the Colonel, frantic with impotent anger, was seized by the bystanders, and dragged, raving with fury, back to his forlorn party. His hands were lashed with a camel-halter, and he lay at last, in bitter silence, beside the delirious Nonconformist.
So Headingly was gone, and Cecil Brown was gone, and their haggard eyes were turned from one pale face to another, to know which they should lose next of that frieze of light-hearted riders who had stood out so clearly against the blue morning sky, when viewed from the deck-chairs of the Korosko. Two gone out of ten, and a third out of his mind. The pleasure trip was drawing to its climax.
Fardet, the Frenchman, was sitting alone with his chin resting upon his hands, and his elbows upon his knees, staring miserably out over the desert, when Belmont saw him start suddenly and prick up his head like a dog who hears a strange step. Then, with clenched fingers, he bent his face forward and stared fixedly towards the black eastern hills through which they had passed. Belmont followed his gaze, and, yes-yes—there was something moving there! He saw the twinkle of metal, and the sudden gleam and flutter of some white garment. A Dervish vedette upon the flank turned his camel twice round as a danger signal, and discharged his rifle in the air. The echo of the crack had hardly died away before they were all in their saddles, Arabs and negroes. Another instant, and the camels were on their feet and moving slowly towards the point of alarm. Several armed men surrounded the prisoners, slipping cartridges into their Remingtons as a hint to them to remain still.
"By Heaven, they are men on camels!" cried Cochrane, his troubles all forgotten as he strained his eyes to catch sight of these new-comers. "I do believe that it is our own people." In the confusion he had tugged his hands free from the halter which bound them.
"They've been smarter than I gave them credit for," said Belmont, his eyes shining from under his thick brows. "They are here a long two hours before we could have reasonably expected them. Hurrah, Monsieur Fardet, ca va bien, n'est ce pas?"
"Hurrah, hurrah! merveilleusement bien! Vivent les Anglais! Vivent les Anglais!" yelled the excited Frenchman, as the head of a column of camelry began to wind out from among the rocks.
"See here, Belmont," cried the Colonel. "These fellows will want to shoot us if they see it is all up. I know their ways, and we must be ready for it. Will you be ready to jump on the fellow with the blind eye? and I'll take the big nigger, if I can get my arms round him. Stephens, you must do what you can. You, Fardet, comprenez vous? Il est necessaire to plug these Johnnies before they can hurt us. You, dragoman, tell those two Soudanese soldiers that they must be ready—but, but". . . his words died into a murmur, and he swallowed once or twice. "These are Arabs," said he, and it sounded like another voice.
Of all the bitter day, it was the very bitterest moment. Happy Mr. Stuart lay upon the pebbles with his back against the ribs of his camel, and chuckled consumedly at some joke which those busy little cell-workers had come across in their repairs. His fat face was wreathed and creased with merriment. But the others, how sick, how heart-sick, were they all! The women cried. The men turned away in that silence which is beyond tears. Monsieur Fardet fell upon his face, and shook with dry sobbings.
The Arabs were firing their rifles as a welcome to their friends, and the others as they trotted their camels across the open returned the salutes and waved their rifles and lances in the air. They were a smaller band than the first one—not more than thirty—but dressed in the same red headgear and patched jibbehs. One of them carried a small white banner with a scarlet text scrawled across it. But there was something there which drew the eyes and the thoughts of the tourists away from everything else. The same fear gripped at each of their hearts, and the same impulse kept each of them silent. They stared at a swaying white figure half seen amidst the ranks of the desert warriors.
"What's that they have in the middle of them?" cried Stephens at last. "Look, Miss Adams! Surely it is a woman!"
There was something there upon a camel, but it was difficult to catch a glimpse of it. And then suddenly, as the two bodies met, the riders opened out, and they saw it plainly.
"It's a white woman!"
"The steamer has been taken!"
Belmont gave a cry that sounded high above everything.
"Norah, darling," he shouted, "keep your heart up! I'm here, and it is all well!"
So the Korosko had been taken, and the chances of rescue upon which they had reckoned—all those elaborate calculations of hours and distances—were as unsubstantial as the mirage which shimmered upon the horizon. There would be no alarm at Halfa until it was found that the steamer did not return in the evening. Even now, when the Nile was only a thin green band upon the farthest horizon, the pursuit had probably not begun. In a hundred miles, or even less, they would be in the Dervish country. How small, then, was the chance that the Egyptian forces could overtake them. They all sank into a silent, sulky despair, with the exception of Belmont, who was held back by the guards as he strove to go to his wife's assistance.
The two bodies of camel-men had united, and the Arabs, in their grave, dignified fashion, were exchanging salutations and experiences, while the negroes grinned, chattered, and shouted, with the careless good-humour which even the Koran has not been able to alter. The leader of the new-comers was a greybeard, a worn, ascetic, high-nosed old man, abrupt and fierce in his manner, and soldierly in his bearing. The dragoman groaned when he saw him, and flapped his hands miserably with the air of a man who sees trouble accumulating upon trouble.
"It is the Emir Abderrahman," said he. "I fear now that we shall never come to Khartoum alive."
The name meant nothing to the others, but Colonel Cochrane had heard of him as a monster of cruelty and fanaticism, a red-hot Moslem of the old fighting, preaching dispensation, who never hesitated to carry the fierce doctrines of the Koran to their final conclusions. He and the Emir Wad Ibrahim conferred gravely together, their camels side by side, and their red turbans inclined inwards, so that the black beard mingled with the white one. Then they both turned and stared long and fixedly at the poor, head-hanging huddle of prisoners. The younger man pointed and explained, while his senior listened with a sternly impassive face.
"Who's that nice-looking old gentleman in the white beard?" asked Miss Adams, who had been the first to rally from the bitter disappointment.
"That is their leader now," Cochrane answered.
"You don't say that he takes command over that other one?"
"Yes, lady," said the dragoman; "he is now the head of all."
"Well, that's good for us. He puts me in mind of Elder Mathews who was at the Presbyterian Church in Minister Scott's time. Anyhow, I had rather be in his power than in the hands of that black-haired one with the flint eyes. Sadie, dear, you feel better now its cooler, don't you?"
"Yes, auntie; don't you fret about me. How are you yourself?"
"Well, I'm stronger in faith than I was. I set you a poor example, Sadie, for I was clean crazed at first at the suddenness of it all, and at thinking of what your mother, who trusted you to me, would think about it. My land, there'll be some head-lines in the Boston Herald over this! I guess somebody will have to suffer for it."
"Poor Mr. Stuart!" cried Sadie, as the monotonous droning voice of the delirious man came again to their ears. "Come, auntie, and see if we cannot do something to relieve him."
"I'm uneasy about Mrs. Shlesinger and the child," said Colonel Cochrane. "I can see your wife, Belmont, but I can see no one else."
"They are bringing her over," cried he. "Thank God! We shall hear all about it. They haven't hurt you, Norah, have they?" He ran forward to grasp and kiss the hand which his wife held down to him as he helped her from the camel.
The kind grey eyes and calm sweet face of the Irishwoman brought comfort and hope to the whole party. She was a devout Roman Catholic, and it is a creed which forms an excellent prop in hours of danger. To her, to the Anglican Colonel, to the Nonconformist minister, to the Presbyterian American, even to the two Pagan black riflemen, religion in its various forms was fulfilling the same beneficent office—whispering always that the worst which the world can do is a small thing, and that, however harsh the ways of Providence may seem, it is, on the whole, the wisest and best thing for us that we should go cheerfully whither the Great Hand guides us. They had not a dogma in common, these fellows in misfortune; but they held the intimate, deep-lying spirit, the calm, essential fatalism which is the world-old framework of religion, with fresh crops of dogmas growing like ephemeral lichens upon its granite surface.
"You poor things!" she said. "I can see that you have had a much worse time than I have. No, really, John, dear, I am quite well—not even very thirsty, for our party filled their water-skins at the Nile, and they let me have as much as I wanted. But I don't see Mr. Headingly and Mr. Brown. And poor Mr. Stuart—what a state he has been reduced to!"
"Headingly and Brown are out of their troubles," her husband answered. "You don't know how often I have thanked God to-day, Norah, that you were not with us. And here you are, after all."
"Where should I be but by my husband's side? I had much, much rather be here than safe at Halfa."
"Has any news gone to the town?" asked the Colonel.
"One boat escaped. Mrs. Shlesinger and her child and maid were in it. I was downstairs in my cabin when the Arabs rushed on to the vessel. Those on deck had time to escape, for the boat was alongside. I don't know whether any of them were hit. The Arabs fired at them for some time."
"Did they?" cried Belmont exultantly, his responsive Irish nature catching the sunshine in an instant. "Then, be Jove, we'll do them yet, for the garrison must have heard the firing. What d'ye think, Cochrane? They must be full cry upon our scent this four hours. Any minute we might see the white puggaree of a British officer coming over that rise."
But disappointment had left the Colonel cold and sceptical.
"They need not come at all unless they come strong," said he. "These fellows are picked men with good leaders, and on their own ground they will take a lot of beating." Suddenly he paused and looked at the Arabs. "By George!" said he, "that's a sight worth seeing!"
The great red sun was down with half its disc slipped behind the violet bank upon the horizon. It was the hour of Arab prayer. An older and more learned civilisation would have turned to that magnificent thing upon the skyline and adored that. But these wild children of the desert were nobler in essentials than the polished Persian. To them the ideal was higher than the material, and it was with their backs to the sun and their faces to the central shrine of their religion that they prayed. And how they prayed, these fanatical Moslems! Rapt, absorbed, with yearning eyes and shining faces, rising, stooping, grovelling with their foreheads upon their praying carpets. Who could doubt, as he watched their strenuous, heart-whole devotion, that here was a great living power in the world, reactionary but tremendous, countless millions all thinking as one from Cape Juby to the confines of China? Let a common wave pass over them, let a great soldier or organiser arise among them to use the grand material at his hand, and who shall say that this may not be the besom with which Providence may sweep the rotten, decadent, impossible, half-hearted south of Europe, as it did a thousand years ago, until it makes room for a sounder stock?
And now as they rose to their feet the bugle rang out, and the prisoners understood that, having travelled all day, they were fated to travel all night also. Belmont groaned, for he had reckoned upon the pursuers catching them up before they left this camp. But the others had already got into the way of accepting the inevitable. A flat Arab loaf had been given to each of them—what effort of the chef of the post-boat had ever tasted like that dry brown bread?—and then, luxury of luxuries, they had a second ration of a glass of water, for the fresh-filled bags of the newcomers had provided an ample supply. If the body would but follow the lead of the soul as readily as the soul does that of the body, what a heaven the earth might be! I Now, with their base material wants satisfied for the instant, their spirits began to sing within them, and they mounted their camels with some sense of the romance of their position. Mr. Stuart remained babbling upon the ground, and the Arabs made no effort to lift him into his saddle. His large, white, upturned face glimmered through the gathering darkness.
"Hi, dragoman, tell them that they are forgetting Mr. Stuart," cried the Colonel.
"No use, sir," said Mansoor. "They say that he is too fat, and that they will not take him any farther. He will die, they say, and why should they trouble about him?"
"Not take him!" cried Cochrane. "Why, the man will perish of hunger and thirst. Where's the Emir? Hi!" he shouted, as the black-bearded Arab passed, with a tone like that in which he used to summon a dilatory donkey-boy. The chief did not deign to answer him, but said something to one of the guards, who dashed the butt of his Remington into the Colonel's ribs. The old soldier fell forward gasping, and was carried on half senseless, clutching at the pommel of his saddle. The women began to cry, and the men, with muttered curses and clenched hands, writhed in that hell of impotent passion, where brutal injustice and ill-usage have to go without check or even remonstrance. Belmont gripped at his hip-pocket for his little revolver, and then remembered that he had already given it to Miss Adams. If his hot hand had clutched it, it would have meant the death of the Emir and the massacre of the party.
And now as they rode onwards they saw one of the most singular of the phenomena of the Egyptian desert in front of them, though the ill-treatment of their companion had left them in no humour for the appreciation of its beauty. When the sun had sunk, the horizon had remained of a slaty-violet hue. But now this began to lighten and to brighten until a curious false dawn developed, and it seemed as if a vacillating sun was coming back along the path which it had just abandoned. A rosy pink hung over the west, with beautifully delicate sea-green tints along the upper edge of it. Slowly these faded into slate again, and the night had come. It was but twenty-four hours since they had sat in their canvas chairs discussing politics by starlight on the saloon deck of the Korosko; only twelve since they had breakfasted there and had started spruce and fresh upon their last pleasure trip. What a world of fresh impressions had come upon them since then! How rudely they had been jostled out of their take-it-for-granted complacency! The same shimmering silver stars, as they had looked upon last night, the same thin crescent of moon—but they, what a chasm lay between that old pampered life and this!
The long line of camels moved as noiselessly as ghosts across the desert. Before and behind were the silent, swaying white figures of the Arabs. Not a sound anywhere, not the very faintest sound, until far away behind them they heard a human voice singing in a strong, droning, unmusical fashion. It had the strangest effect, this far-away voice, in that huge inarticulate wilderness. And then there came a well-known rhythm into that distant chant, and they could almost hear the words—
We nightly pitch our moving tent, A day's march nearer home.
Was Mr. Stuart in his right mind again, or was it some coincidence of his delirium, that he should have chosen this for his song? With moist eyes his friends looked back through the darkness, for well they knew that home was very near to this wanderer. Gradually the voice died away into a hum, and was absorbed once more into the masterful silence of the desert.
"My dear old chap, I hope you're not hurt?" said Belmont, laying his hand upon Cochrane's knee.
The Colonel had straightened himself, though he still gasped a little in his breathing.
"I am all right again, now. Would you kindly show me which was the man who struck me?"
"It was the fellow in front there—with his camel beside Fardet's."
"The young fellow with the moustache—I can't see him very well in this light, but I think I could pick him out again. Thank you, Belmont!"
"But I thought some of your ribs were gone."
"No, it only knocked the wind out of me."
"You must be made of iron. It was a frightful blow. How could you rally from it so quickly?"
The Colonel cleared his throat and hummed and stammered.
"The fact is, my dear Belmont—I'm sure you would not let it go further—above all not to the ladies; but I am rather older than I used to be, and rather than lose the military carriage which has always been dear to me, I—"
"Stays, be Jove!" cried the astonished Irishman.
"Well, some slight artificial support," said the Colonel stiffly, and switched the conversation off to the chances of the morrow.
It still comes back in their dreams to those who are left, that long night's march in the desert. It was like a dream itself, the silence of it as they were borne forward upon those soft, shuffling sponge feet, and the flitting, flickering figures which oscillated upon every side of them. The whole universe seemed to be hung as a monstrous time-dial in front of them. A star would glimmer like a lantern on the very level of their path. They looked again, and it was a hand's-breadth up, and another was shining beneath it. Hour after hour the broad stream flowed sedately across the deep blue background, worlds and systems drifting majestically overhead, and pouring over the dark horizon. In their vastness and their beauty there was a vague consolation to the prisoners; for their own fate, and their own individuality, seemed trivial and unimportant amid the play of such tremendous forces. Slowly the grand procession swept across the heaven, first climbing, then hanging long with little apparent motion, and then sinking grandly downwards, until away in the east the first cold grey glimmer appeared, and their own haggard faces shocked each other's sight.
The day had tortured them with its heat, and now the night had brought the even more intolerable discomfort of cold. The Arabs swathed themselves in their gowns and wrapped up their heads. The prisoners beat their hands together and shivered miserably. Miss Adams felt it most, for she was very thin, with the impaired circulation of age. Stephens slipped off his Norfolk jacket and threw it over her shoulders. He rode beside Sadie, and whistled and chatted to make here believe that her aunt was really relieving him by carrying his jacket for him, but the attempt was too boisterous not to be obvious; and yet it was so far true that he probably felt the cold less than any of the party, for the old, old fire was burning in his heart, and a curious joy was inextricably mixed with all his misfortunes, so that he would have found it hard to say if this adventure had been the greatest evil or the greatest blessing of his lifetime. Aboard the boat, Sadie's youth, her beauty, her intelligence and humour, all made him realise that she could at the best only be expected to charitably endure him. But now he felt that he was really of some use to her, that every hour she was learning to turn to him as one turns to one's natural protector; and above all, he had begun to find himself—to understand that there really was a strong, reliable man behind all the tricks of custom which had built up an artificial nature, which had imposed even upon himself. A little glow of self-respect began to warm his blood. He had missed his youth when he was young, and now in his middle age it was coming up like some beautiful belated flower.
"I do believe that you are all the time enjoying it, Mr. Stephens," said Sadie with some bitterness.
"I would not go so far as to say that," he answered. "But I am quite certain that I would not leave you here."
It was the nearest approach to tenderness which he had ever put into a speech, and the girl looked at him in surprise.
"I think I've been a very wicked girl all my life," she said after a pause. "Because I have had a good time myself, I never thought of those who were unhappy. This has struck me serious. If ever I get back I shall be a better woman—a more earnest woman—in the future."
"And I a better man. I suppose it is just for that that trouble comes to us. Look how it has brought out the virtues of all our friends. Take poor Mr. Stuart, for example. Should we ever have known what a noble, constant man he was? And see Belmont and his wife, in front of us there, going fearlessly forward, hand in hand, thinking only of each other. And Cochrane, who always seemed on board the boat to be a rather stand-offish, narrow sort of man! Look at his courage, and his unselfish indignation when any one is ill used. Fardet, too, is as brave as a lion. I think misfortune has done us all good."
"Yes, if it would end right here one might say so; but if it goes on and on for a few weeks or months of misery, and then ends in death, I don't know where we reap the benefit of those improvements of character which it brings. Suppose you escape, what will you do?"
The lawyer hesitated, but his professional instincts were still strong.
"I will consider whether an action lies, and against whom. It should be with the organisers of the expedition for taking us to the Abousir Rock—or else with the Egyptian Government for not protecting their frontiers. It will be a nice legal question. And what will you do, Sadie?"
It was the first time that he had ever dropped the formal Miss, but the girl was too much in earnest to notice it.
"I will be more tender to others," she said. "I will try to make some one else happy in memory of the miseries which I have endured."
"You have done nothing all your life but made others happy. You cannot help doing it," said he. The darkness made it more easy for him to break through the reserve which was habitual with him. "You need this rough schooling far less than any of us. How could your character be changed for the better?"
"You show how little you know me. I have been very selfish and thoughtless."
"At least you had no need for all these strong emotions. You were sufficiently alive without them. Now it has been different with me."
"Why did you need emotions, Mr. Stephens?"
"Because anything is better than stagnation. Pain is better than stagnation. I have only just begun to live. Hitherto I have been a machine upon the earth's surface. I was a one-ideaed man, and a one-ideaed man is only one remove from a dead man. That is what I have only just begun to realise. For all these years I have never been stirred, never felt a real throb of human emotion pass through me. I had no time for it. I had observed it in others, and I had vaguely wondered whether there was some want in me which prevented my sharing the experience of my fellow-mortals. But now these last few days have taught me how keenly I can live—that I can have warm hopes, and deadly fears—that I can hate, and that I can—well, that I can have every strong feeling which the soul can experience. I have come to life. I may be on the brink of the grave, but at least I can say now that I have lived."
"And why did you lead this soul-killing life in England?"
"I was ambitious—I wanted to get on. And then there were my mother and my sisters to be thought of. Thank Heaven, here is the morning coming. Your aunt and you will soon cease to feel the cold."
"And you without your coat!"
"Oh, I have a very good circulation. I can manage very well in my shirt-sleeves."
And now the long, cold, weary night was over, and the deep blue-black sky had lightened to a wonderful mauve-violet, with the larger stars still glinting brightly out of it. Behind them the grey line had crept higher and higher, deepening into a delicate rose-pink, with the fan-like rays of the invisible sun shooting and quivering across it. Then, suddenly, they felt its warm touch upon their backs, and there were hard black shadows upon the sand in front of them. The Dervishes loosened their cloaks and proceeded to talk cheerily among themselves. The prisoners also began to thaw, and eagerly ate the doora which was served out for their breakfasts. A short halt had been called, and a cup of water handed to each.
"Can I speak to you, Colonel Cochrane?" asked the dragoman.
"No, you can't," snapped the Colonel.
"But it is very important—all our safety may come from it."
The Colonel frowned and pulled at his moustache.
"Well, what is it?" he asked at last.
"You must trust to me, for it is as much to me as to you to get back to Egypt. My wife and home, and children, are on one part, and a slave for life upon the other. You have no cause to doubt it."
"Well, go on!"
"You know the black man who spoke with you—the one who had been with Hicks?"
"Yes, what of him?"
"He has been speaking with me during the night. I have had a long talk with him. He said that he could not very well understand you, nor you him, and so he came to me."
"What did he say?"
"He said that there were eight Egyptian soldiers among the Arabs—six black and two fellaheen. He said that he wished to have your promise that they should all have very good reward if they helped you to escape."
"Of course they shall."
"They asked for one hundred Egyptian pounds each."
"They shall have it."
"I told him that I would ask you, but that I was sure that you would agree to it."
"What do they propose to do?"
"They could promise nothing, but what they thought best was that they should ride their camels not very far from you, so that if any chance should come they would be ready to take advantage."
"Well, you can go to him and promise two hundred pounds each if they will help us. You do not think we could buy over some Arabs?"
Mansoor shook his head. "Too much danger to try," said he. "Suppose you try and fail, then that will be the end to all of us. I will go tell what you have said." He strolled off to where the old negro gunner was grooming his camel and waiting for his reply.
The Emirs had intended to halt for a half-hour at the most, but the baggage-camels which bore the prisoners were so worn out with the long, rapid march, that it was clearly impossible that they should move for some time. They had laid their long necks upon the ground, which is the last symptom of fatigue. The two chiefs shook their heads when they inspected them, and the terrible old man looked with his hard-lined, rock features at the captives. Then he said something to Mansoor, whose face turned a shade more sallow as he listened.
"The Emir Abderrahman says that if you do not become Moslem, it is not worth while delaying the whole caravan in order to carry you upon the baggage-camels. If it were not for you, he says that we could travel twice as fast. He wishes to know therefore, once for ever, if you will accept the Koran." Then in the same tone, as if he were still translating, he continued: "You had far better consent, for if you do not he will most certainly put you all to death."
The unhappy prisoners looked at each other in despair. The two Emirs stood gravely watching them.
"For my part," said Cochrane, "I had as soon die now as be a slave in Khartoum."
"What do you say, Norah?" asked Belmont.
"If we die together, John, I don't think I shall be afraid."
"It is absurd that I should die for that in which I have never had belief," said Fardet. "And yet it is not possible for the honour of a Frenchman that he should be converted in this fashion." He drew himself up, with his wounded wrist stuck into the front of his jacket, "Je suis Chretien. J'y reste," he cried, a gallant falsehood in each sentence.
"What do you say, Mr. Stephens?" asked Mansoor in a beseeching voice. "If one of you would change, it might place them in a good humour. I implore you that you do what they ask."
"No, I can't," said the lawyer quietly.
"Well then, you, Miss Sadie? You, Miss Adams? It is only just to say it once, and you will be saved."
"Oh, auntie, do you think we might?" whimpered the frightened girl. "Would it be so very wrong if we said it?"
The old lady threw her arms round her. "No, no, my own dear little Sadie," she whispered. "You'll be strong! You would just hate yourself for ever after. Keep your grip of me, dear, and pray if you find your strength is leaving you. Don't forget that your old aunt Eliza has you all the time by the hand."
For an instant they were heroic, this line of dishevelled, bedraggled pleasure-seekers. They were all looking Death in the face, and the closer they looked the less they feared him. They were conscious rather of a feeling of curiosity, together with the nervous tingling with which one approaches a dentist's chair. The dragoman made a motion of his hands and shoulders, as one who has tried and failed. The Emir Abderrahman said something to a negro, who hurried away.
"What does he want a scissors for?" asked the Colonel.
"He is going to hurt the women," said Mansoor, with the same gesture of impotence.
A cold chill fell upon them all. They stared about them in helpless horror. Death in the abstract was one thing, but these insufferable details were another. Each had been braced to endure any evil in his own person, but their hearts were still soft for each other. The women said nothing, but the men were all buzzing together.
"There's the pistol, Miss Adams," said Belmont. "Give it here! We won't be tortured! We won't stand it!"
"Offer them money, Mansoor! Offer them anything!" cried Stephens. "Look here, I'll turn Mohammedan if they'll promise to leave the women alone. After all, it isn't binding—it's under compulsion. But I can't see the women hurt."
"No, wait a bit, Stephens!" said the Colonel. "We mustn't lose our heads. I think I see a way out. See here, dragoman! You tell that grey-bearded old devil that we know nothing about his cursed tinpot religion. Put it smooth when you translate it. Tell him that he cannot expect us to adopt it until we know what particular brand of rot it is that he wants us to believe. Tell him that if he will instruct us, we are perfectly willing to listen to his teaching, and you can add that any creed which turns out such beauties as him, and that other bounder with the black beard, must claim the attention of every one."
With bows and suppliant sweepings of his hands the dragoman explained that the Christians were already full of doubt, and that it needed but a little more light of knowledge to guide them on to the path of Allah. The two Emirs stroked their beards and gazed suspiciously at them. Then Abderrahman spoke in his crisp, stern fashion to the dragoman, and the two strode away together. An instant later the bugle rang out as a signal to mount.
"What he says is this," Mansoor explained, as he rode in the middle of the prisoners. "We shall reach the wells by mid-day, and there will be a rest. His own Moolah, a very good and learned man, will come to give you an hour of teaching. At the end of that time you will choose one way or the other. When you have chosen, it will be decided whether you are to go to Khartoum or to be put to death. That is his last word."
"They won't take ransom?"
"Wad Ibrahim would, but the Emir Abderrahman is a terrible man. I advise you to give in to him."
"What have you done yourself? You are a Christian, too."
Mansoor blushed as deeply as his complexion would allow.
"I was yesterday morning. Perhaps I will be to-morrow morning. I serve the Lord as long as what He ask seem reasonable; but this is very otherwise."
He rode onwards amongst the guards with a freedom which showed that his change of faith had put him upon a very different footing to the other prisoners.
So they were to have a reprieve of a few hours, though they rode in that dark shadow of death which was closing in upon them. What is there in life that we should cling to it so? It is not the pleasures, for those whose hours are one long pain shrink away screaming when they see merciful Death holding his soothing arms out for them. It is not the associations, for we will change all of them before we walk of our own free-wills down that broad road which every son and daughter of man must tread. Is it the fear of losing the I, that dear, intimate I, which we think we know so well, although it is eternally doing things which surprise us? Is it that which makes the deliberate suicide cling madly to the bridge-pier as the river sweeps him by? Or is it that Nature is so afraid that all her weary workmen may suddenly throw down their tools and strike, that she has invented this fashion of keeping them constant to their present work? But there it is, and all these tired, harassed, humiliated folk rejoiced in the few more hours of suffering which were left to them.
There was nothing to show them as they journeyed onwards that they were not on the very spot that they had passed at sunset upon the evening before. The region of fantastic black hills and orange sand which bordered the river had long been left behind, and everywhere now was the same brown, rolling, gravelly plain, the ground-swell with the shining rounded pebbles upon its surface, and the occasional little sprouts of sage-green camel-grass. Behind and before it extended, to where far away in front of them it sloped upwards towards a line of violet hills. The sun was not high enough yet to cause the tropical shimmer, and the wide landscape, brown with its violet edging, stood out with a hard clearness in that dry, pure air. The long caravan straggled along at the slow swing of the baggage-camels. Far out on the flanks rode the vedettes, halting at every rise, and peering backwards with their hands shading their eyes. In the distance their spears and rifles seemed to stick out of them, straight and thin, like needles in knitting.
"How far do you suppose we are from the Nile?" asked Cochrane. He rode with his chin on his shoulder and his eyes straining wistfully to the eastern skyline.
"A good fifty miles," Belmont answered.
"Not so much as that," said the Colonel. "We could not have been moving more than fifteen or sixteen hours, and a camel does not do more than two and a half miles an hour unless it is trotting. That would only give about forty miles, but still it is, I fear, rather far for a rescue. I don't know that we are much the better for this postponement. What have we to hope for? We may just as well take our gruel."
"Never say die!" cried the cheery Irishman. "There's plenty of time between this and mid-day. Hamilton and Hedley of the Camel Corps are good boys, and they'll be after us like a streak. They'll have no baggage-camels to hold them back, you can lay your life on that! Little did I think, when I dined with them at mess that last night, and they were telling me all their precautions against a raid, that I should depend upon them for our lives."
"Well, we'll play the game out, but I'm not very hopeful," said Cochrane. "Of course, we must keep the best face we can before the women. I see that Tippy Tilly is as good as his word, for those five niggers and the two brown Johnnies must be the men he speaks of. They all ride together and keep well up, but I can't see how they are going to help us."
"I've got my pistol back," whispered Belmont, and his square chin and strong mouth set like granite. "If they try any games on the women, I mean to shoot them all three with my own hand, and then we'll die with our minds easy."
"Good man!" said Cochrane, and they rode on in silence. None of them spoke much. A curious, dreamy, irresponsible feeling crept over them. It was as if they had all taken some narcotic drug—the merciful anodyne which Nature uses when a great crisis has fretted the nerves too far. They thought of their friends and of their past lives in the comprehensive way in which one views that which is completed. A subtle sweetness mingled with the sadness of their fate. They were filled with the quiet serenity of despair.
"It's devilish pretty," said the Colonel, looking about him. "I always had an idea that I should like to die in a real, good, yellow London fog. You couldn't change for the worse."
"I should have liked to have died in my sleep," said Sadie. "How beautiful to wake up and find yourself in the other world! There was a piece that Hetty Smith used to say at the College: 'Say not good-night, but in some brighter world wish me good-morning.'"
The Puritan aunt shook her head at the idea. "It's a terrible thing to go unprepared into the presence of your Maker," said she.
"It's the loneliness of death that is terrible," said Mrs. Belmont. "If we and those whom we loved all passed over simultaneously, we should think no more of it than of changing our house."
"If the worst comes to the worst, we won't be lonely," said her husband. "We'll all go together, and we shall find Brown and Headingly and Stuart waiting on the other side."
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders. He had no belief in survival after death, but he envied the two Catholics the quiet way in which they took things for granted. He chuckled to think of what his friends in the Cafe Cubat would say if they learned that he had laid down his life for the Christian faith. Sometimes it amused and sometimes it maddened him, and he rode onwards with alternate gusts of laughter and of fury, nursing his wounded wrist all the time like a mother with a sick baby.
Across the brown of the hard, pebbly desert there had been visible for some time a single long, thin, yellow streak, extending north and south as far as they could see. It was a band of sand not more than a few hundred yards across, and rising at the highest to eight or ten feet. But the prisoners were astonished to observe that the Arabs pointed at this with an air of the utmost concern, and they halted when they came to the edge of it like men upon the brink of an unfordable river. It was very light, dusty sand, and every wandering breath of wind sent it dancing into the air like a whirl of midges. The Emir Abderrahman tried to force his camel into it, but the creature, after a step or two, stood still and shivered with terror. The two chiefs talked for a little, and then the whole caravan trailed off with their heads for the north, and the streak of sand upon their left.
"What is it?" asked Belmont, who found the dragoman riding at his elbow. "Why are we going out of our course?"
"Drift sand," Mansoor answered. "Every sometimes the wind bring it all in one long place like that. To-morrow, if a wind comes, perhaps there will not be one grain left, but all will be carried up into the air again. An Arab will sometimes have to go fifty or a hundred miles to go round a drift. Suppose he tries to cross, his camel breaks its legs, and he himself is sucked in and swallowed."
"How long will this be?"
"No one can say."
"Well, Cochrane, it's all in our favour. The longer the chase the better chance for the fresh camels!" and for the hundredth time he looked back at the long, hard skyline behind them. There was the great, empty, dun-coloured desert, but where the glint of steel or the twinkle of white helmet for which he yearned?
And soon they cleared the obstacle in their front. It spindled away into nothing, as a streak of dust would which has been blown across an empty room. It was curious to see that when it was so narrow that one could almost jump it, the Arabs would still go for many hundreds of yards rather than risk the crossing. Then, with good, hard country before them once more, the tired beasts were whipped up, and they ambled on with a double-jointed jogtrot, which set the prisoners nodding and bowing in grotesque and ludicrous misery. It was fun at first, and they smiled at each other, but soon the fun had become tragedy as the terrible camel-ache seized them by spine and waist, with its deep, dull throb, which rises gradually to a splitting agony.
"I can't stand it, Sadie," cried Miss Adams suddenly. "I've done my best. I'm going to fall."
"No, no, auntie, you'll break your limbs if you do. Hold up, just a little, and maybe they'll stop."
"Lean back, and hold your saddle behind," said the Colonel. "There, you'll find that will ease the strain." He took the puggaree from his hat, and tying the ends together, he slung it over her front pommel. "Put your foot in the loop," said he. "It will steady you like a stirrup."
The relief was instant, so Stephens did the same for Sadie. But presently one of the weary doora camels came down with a crash, its limbs starred out as if it had split asunder, and the caravan had to come down to its old sober gait.
"Is this another belt of drift sand?" asked the Colonel presently.
"No, it's white," said Belmont. "Here, Mansoor, what is that in front of us?"
But the dragoman shook his head.
"I don't know what it is, sir. I never saw the same thing before."
Right across the desert, from north to south, there was drawn a white line, as straight and clear as if it had been slashed with chalk across a brown table. It was very thin, but it extended without a break from horizon to horizon. Tippy Tilly said something to the dragoman.
"It's the great caravan route," said Mansoor.
"What makes it white, then?"
It seemed incredible, and yet it was true, for as they drew nearer they saw that it was indeed a beaten track across the desert, hollowed out by long usage, and so covered with bones that they gave the impression of a continuous white ribbon. Long, snouty heads were scattered everywhere, and the lines of ribs were so continuous that it looked in places like the framework of a monstrous serpent. The endless road gleamed in the sun as if it were paved with ivory. For thousands of years this had been the highway over the desert, and during all that time no animal of all those countless caravans had died there without being preserved by the dry, antiseptic air. No wonder, then, that it was hardly possible to walk down it now without treading upon their skeletons.
"This must be the route I spoke of," said Stephens. "I remember marking it upon the map I made for you, Miss Adams. Baedeker says that it has been disused on account of the cessation of all trade which followed the rise of the Dervishes, but that it used to be the main road by which the skins and gums of Darfur found their way down to Lower Egypt."
They looked at it with a listless curiosity, for there was enough to engross them at present in their own fates. The caravan struck to the south along the old desert track, and this Golgotha of a road seemed to be a fitting avenue for that which awaited them at the end of it. Weary camels and weary riders dragged on together towards their miserable goal.
And now, as the critical moment approached which was to decide their fate, Colonel Cochrane, weighed down by his fears lest something terrible should befall the women, put his pride aside to the extent of asking the advice of the renegade dragoman. The fellow was a villain and a coward, but at least he was an Oriental, and he understood the Arab point of view. His change of religion had brought him into closer contact with the Dervishes, and he had overheard their intimate talk. Cochrane's stiff, aristocratic nature fought hard before he could bring himself to ask advice from such a man, and when he at last did so, it was in the gruffest and most unconciliatory voice.
"You know the rascals, and you have the same way of looking at things," said he. "Our object is to keep things going for another twenty-four hours. After that it does not much matter what befalls us, for we shall be out of the reach of rescue. But how can we stave them off for another day?"
"You know my advice," the dragoman answered; "I have already answered it to you. If you will all become as I have, you will certainly be carried to Khartoum in safety. If you do not, you will never leave our next camping-place alive."
The Colonel's well-curved nose took a higher tilt, and an angry flush reddened his thin cheeks. He rode in silence for a little, for his Indian service had left him with a curried-prawn temper, which had had an extra touch of cayenne added to it by his recent experiences. It was some minutes before he could trust himself to reply.
"We'll set that aside," said he at last. "Some things are possible and some are not. This is not."
"You need only pretend."
"That's enough," said the Colonel abruptly.
Mansoor shrugged his shoulders.
"What is the use of asking me, if you become angry when I answer? If you do not wish to do what I say, then try your own attempt. At least you cannot say that I have not done all I could to save you."
"I'm not angry," the Colonel answered after a pause, in a more conciliatory voice, "but this is climbing down rather farther than we care to go. Now, what I thought is this. You might, if you chose, give this priest, or Moolah, who is coming to us, a hint that we really are softening a bit upon the point. I don't think, considering the hole that we are in, that there can be very much objection to that. Then, when he comes, we might play up and take an interest and ask for more instruction, and in that way hold the matter over for a day or two. Don't you think that would be the best game?"
"You will do as you like," said Mansoor. "I have told you once for ever what I think. If you wish that I speak to the Moolah, I will do so. It is the fat, little man with the grey beard, upon the brown camel in front there. I may tell you that he has a name among them for converting the infidel, and he has a great pride in it, so that he would certainly prefer that you were not injured if he thought that he might bring you into Islam."
"Tell him that our minds are open, then," said the Colonel. "I don't suppose the padre would have gone so far, but now that he is dead I think we may stretch a point. You go to him, Mansoor, and if you work it well we will agree to forget what is past. By the way, has Tippy Tilly said anything?"
"No, sir. He has kept his men together, but he does not understand yet how he can help you."
"Neither do I. Well, you go to the Moolah, then, and I'll tell the others what we have agreed."
The prisoners all acquiesced in the Colonel's plan, with the exception of the old New England lady, who absolutely refused even to show any interest in the Mohammedan creed. "I guess I am too old to bow the knee to Baal," she said. The most that she would concede was that she would not openly interfere with anything which her companions might say or do.
"And who is to argue with the priest?" asked Fardet, as they all rode together, talking the matter over. "It is very important that it should be done in a natural way, for if he thought that we were only trying to gain time, he would refuse to have any more to say to us."
"I think Cochrane should do it, as the proposal is his," said Belmont.
"Pardon me!" cried the Frenchman. "I will not say a word against our friend the Colonel, but it is not possible that a man should be fitted for everything. It will all come to nothing if he attempts it. The priest will see through the Colonel."
"Will he?" said the Colonel with dignity.
"Yes, my friend, he will, for, like most of your countrymen, you are very wanting in sympathy for the ideas of other people, and it is the great fault which I find with you as a nation."
"Oh, drop the politics!" cried Belmont impatiently.
"I do not talk politics. What I say is very practical. How can Colonel Cochrane pretend to this priest that he is really interested in his religion when, in effect, there is no religion in the world to him outside some little church in which he has been born and bred? I will say this for the Colonel, that I do not believe he is at all a hypocrite, and I am sure that he could not act well enough to deceive such a man as this priest."
The Colonel sat with a very stiff back and the blank face of a man who is not quite sure whether he is being complimented or insulted.
"You can do the talking yourself if you like," said he at last. "I should he very glad to be relieved of it."
"I think that I am best fitted for it, since I am equally interested in all creeds. When I ask for information, it is because in verity I desire it, and not because I am playing a part."
"I certainly think that it would be much better if Monsieur Fardet would undertake it," said Mrs. Belmont with decision, and so the matter was arranged.
The sun was now high, and it shone with dazzling brightness upon the bleached bones which lay upon the road. Again the torture of thirst fell upon the little group of survivors, and again, as they rode with withered tongues and crusted lips, a vision of the saloon of the Korosko danced like a mirage before their eyes, and they saw the white napery, the wine-cards by the places, the long necks of the bottles, the siphons upon the sideboard. Sadie, who had borne up so well, became suddenly hysterical, and her shrieks of senseless laughter jarred horribly upon their nerves. Her aunt on one side of her, and Mr. Stephens on the other, did all they could to soothe her, and at last the weary, overstrung girl relapsed into something between a sleep and a faint, hanging limp over her pommel, and only kept from falling by the friends who clustered round her. The baggage-camels were as weary as their riders, and again and again they had to jerk at their nose-ropes to prevent them from lying down. From horizon to horizon stretched that one huge arch of speckless blue, and up its monstrous concavity crept the inexorable sun, like some splendid but barbarous deity, who claimed a tribute of human suffering as his immemorial right.
Their course still lay along the old trade route, but their progress was very slow, and more than once the two Emirs rode back together, and shook their heads as they looked at the weary baggage-camels on which the prisoners were perched. The greatest laggard of all was one which was ridden by a wounded Soudanese soldier. It was limping badly with a strained tendon, and it was only by constant prodding that it could be kept with the others. The Emir Wad Ibrahim raised his Remington, as the creature hobbled past, and sent a bullet through its brain. The wounded man flew forwards out of the high saddle, and fell heavily upon the hard track. His companions in misfortune, looking back, saw him stagger to his feet with a dazed face. At the same instant a Baggara slipped down from his camel with a sword in his hand.
"Don't look! don't look!" cried Belmont to the ladies, and they all rode on with their faces to the south. They heard no sound, but the Baggara passed them a few minutes afterwards. He was cleaning his sword upon the hairy neck of his camel, and he glanced at them with a quick, malicious gleam of his teeth as he trotted by. But those who are at the lowest pitch of human misery are at least secured against the future. That vicious, threatening smile which might once have thrilled them left them now unmoved—or stirred them at most to vague resentment. There were many things to interest them in this old trade route, had they been in a condition to take notice of them. Here and there along its course were the crumbling remains of ancient buildings, so old that no date could be assigned to them, but designed in some far-off civilisation to give the travellers shade from the sun or protection from the ever-lawless children of the desert. The mud bricks with which these refuges were constructed showed that the material had been carried over from the distant Nile. Once, upon the top of a little knoll, they saw the shattered plinth of a pillar of red Assouan granite, with the wide-winged symbol of the Egyptian god across it, and the cartouche of the second Rameses beneath. After three thousand years one cannot get away from the ineffaceable footprints of the warrior-king. It is surely the most wonderful survival of history that one should still be able to gaze upon him, high-nosed and masterful, as he lies with his powerful arms crossed upon his chest, majestic even in decay, in the Gizeh Museum. To the captives, the cartouche was a message of hope, as a sign that they were not outside the sphere of Egypt. "They've left their card here once, and they may again," said Belmont, and they all tried to smile.
And now they came upon one of the most satisfying sights on which the human eye can ever rest. Here and there, in the depressions at either side of the road, there had been a thin scurf of green, which meant that water was not very far from the surface. And then, quite suddenly, the track dipped down into a bowl-shaped hollow, with a most dainty group of palm-trees, and a lovely green sward at the bottom of it. The sun gleaming upon that brilliant patch of clear, restful colour, with the dark glow of the bare desert around it, made it shine like the purest emerald in a setting of burnished copper. And then it was not its beauty only, but its promise for the future: water, shade, all that weary travellers could ask for. Even Sadie was revived by the cheery sight, and the spent camels snorted and stepped out more briskly, stretching their long necks and sniffing the air as they went. After the unhomely harshness of the desert, it seemed to all of them that they had never seen anything more beautiful than this. They looked below at the green sward with the dark, star-like shadows of the palm-crowns; then they looked up at those deep green leaves against the rich blue of the sky, and they forgot their impending death in the beauty of that Nature to whose bosom they were about to return.
The wells in the centre of the grove consisted of seven large and two small saucer-like cavities filled with peat-coloured water, enough to form a plentiful supply for any caravan. Camels and men drank it greedily, though it was tainted by the all-pervading natron. The camels were picketed, the Arabs threw their sleeping-mats down in the shade, and the prisoners, after receiving a ration of dates and of doora, were told that they might do what they would during the heat of the day, and that the Moolah would come to them before sunset. The ladies were given the thicker shade of an acacia tree, and the men lay down under the palms. The great green leaves swished slowly above them; they heard the low hum of the Arab talk, and the dull champing of the camels, and then in an instant, by that most mysterious and least understood of miracles, one was in a green Irish valley, and another saw the long straight line of Commonwealth Avenue, and a third was dining at a little round table opposite to the bust of Nelson in the Army and Navy Club, and for him the swishing of the palm branches had been transformed into the long-drawn hum of Pall Mall. So the spirits went their several ways, wandering back along the strange, un-traced tracks of the memory, while the weary, grimy bodies lay senseless under the palm-trees in the Oasis of the Libyan Desert.
Colonel Cochrane was awakened from his slumber by some one pulling at his shoulder. As his eyes opened they fell upon the black, anxious face of Tippy Tilly, the old Egyptian gunner. His crooked finger was laid upon his thick, liver-coloured lips, and his dark eyes glanced from left to right with ceaseless vigilance.
"Lie quiet! Do not move!" he whispered, in Arabic. "I will lie here beside you, and they cannot tell me from the others. You can understand what I am saying?"
"Yes, if you will talk slowly."
"Very good. I have no great trust in this black man, Mansoor. I had rather talk direct with the Miralai."
"What have you to say?"
"I have waited long, until they should all be asleep, and now in another hour we shall be called to evening prayer. First of all, here is a pistol, that you may not say that you are without arms."
It was a clumsy, old-fashioned thing, but the Colonel saw the glint of a percussion cap upon the nipple, and knew that it was loaded. He slipped it into the inner pocket of his Norfolk jacket.
"Thank you," said he; "speak slowly, so that I may understand you."
"There are eight of us who wish to go to Egypt. There are also four men in your party. One of us, Mehemet Ali, has fastened twelve camels together, which are the fastest of all save only those which are ridden by the Emirs. There are guards upon watch, but they are scattered in all directions. The twelve camels are close beside us here—those twelve behind the acacia tree. If we can only get mounted and started, I do not think that many can overtake us, and we shall have our rifles for them. The guards are not strong enough to stop so many of us. The water-skins are all filled, and we may see the Nile again by to-morrow night."
The Colonel could not follow it all, but he understood enough to set a little spring of hope bubbling in his heart. The last terrible day had left its mark in his livid face and his hair, which was turning rapidly to grey. He might have been the father of the spruce well-preserved soldier who had paced with straight back and military stride up and down the saloon deck of the Korosko.
"That is excellent," said he. "But what are we to do about the three ladies?" The black soldier shrugged his shoulders. "Mefeesh!" said he. "One of them is old, and in any case there are plenty more women if we get back to Egypt. These will not come to any hurt, but they will be placed in the harem of the Khalifa."
"What you say is nonsense," said the Colonel sternly. "We shall take our women with us, or we shall not go at all."
"I think it is rather you who talk the thing without sense," the black man answered angrily. "How can you ask my companions and me to do that which must end in failure? For years we have waited for such a chance as this, and now that it has come, you wish us to throw it away owing to this foolishness about the women."
"What have we promised you if we come back to Egypt?" asked Cochrane.
"Two hundred Egyptian pounds and promotion in the army—all upon the word of an Englishman."
"Very good. Then you shall have three hundred each if you can make some new plan by which you can take the women with you."
Tippy Tilly scratched his woolly head in his perplexity.
"We might, indeed, upon some excuse, bring three more of the faster camels round to this place. Indeed, there are three very good camels among those which are near the cooking fire. But how are we to get the women upon them?—and if we had them upon them, we know very well that they would fall off when they began to gallop. I fear that you men will fall off, for it is no easy matter to remain upon a galloping camel; but as to the women, it is impossible. No, we shall leave the women, and if you will not leave the women, then we shall leave all of you and start by ourselves."
"Very good! Go!" said the Colonel abruptly, and settled down as if to sleep once more. He knew that with Orientals it is the silent man who is most likely to have his way.
The negro turned and crept away for some little distance, where he was met by one of his fellaheen comrades, Mehemet Ali, who had charge of the camels. The two argued for some little time—for those three hundred golden pieces were not to be lightly resigned. Then the negro crept back to Colonel Cochrane.
"Mehemet Ali has agreed," said he. "He has gone to put the nose-rope upon three more of the camels. But it is foolishness, and we are all going to our death. Now come with me, and we shall awaken the women and tell them."
The Colonel shook his companions and whispered to them what was in the wind. Belmont and Fardet were ready for any risk. Stephens, to whom the prospect of a passive death presented little terror, was seized with a convulsion of fear when he thought of any active exertion to avoid it, and shivered in all his long, thin limbs. Then he pulled out his Baedeker and began to write his will upon the flyleaf, but his hand twitched so that he was hardly legible. By some strange gymnastic of the legal mind a death, even by violence, if accepted quietly, had a place in the order of things, while a death which overtook one galloping frantically over a desert was wholly irregular and discomposing. It was not dissolution which he feared, but the humiliation and agony of a fruitless struggle against it.
Colonel Cochrane and Tippy Tilly had crept together under the shadow of the great acacia tree to the spot where the women were lying. Sadie and her aunt lay with their arms round each other, the girl's head pillowed upon the old woman's bosom. Mrs. Belmont was awake, and entered into the scheme in an instant.
"But you must leave me," said Miss Adams earnestly. "What does it matter at my age, anyhow?"
"No, no, Aunt Eliza; I won't move without you! Don't you think it!" cried the girl. "You've got to come straight away or else we both stay right here where we are."
"Come, come, ma'am, there is no time for arguing, or nonsense," said the Colonel roughly. "Our lives all depend upon your making an effort, and we cannot possibly leave you behind."
"But I will fall off."
"I'll tie you on with my puggaree. I wish I had the cummerbund which I lent poor Stuart. Now, Tippy, I think we might make a break for it!"
But the black soldier had been staring with a disconsolate face out over the desert, and he turned upon his heel with an oath.
"There!" said he sullenly. "You see what comes of all your foolish talking! You have ruined our chances as well as your own!"
Half-a-dozen mounted camel-men had appeared suddenly over the lip of the bowl-shaped hollow, standing out hard and clear against the evening sky where the copper basin met its great blue lid. They were travelling fast, and waved their rifles as they came. An instant later the bugle sounded an alarm, and the camp was up with a buzz like an overturned bee-hive. The Colonel ran back to his companions, and the black soldier to his camel. Stephens looked relieved, and Belmont sulky, while Monsieur Fardet raved, with his one uninjured hand in the air.