"Sacred name of a dog!" he cried. "Is there no end to it, then? Are we never to come out of the hands of these accursed Dervishes?"
"Oh, they really are Dervishes, are they?" said the Colonel in an acid voice. "You seem to be altering your opinions. I thought they were an invention of the British Government."
The poor fellows' tempers were getting frayed and thin. The Colonel's sneer was like a match to a magazine, and in an instant the Frenchman was dancing in front of him with a broken torrent of angry words. His hand was clutching at Cochrane's throat before Belmont and Stephens could pull him off.
"If it were not for your grey hairs—" he said.
"Damn your impudence!" cried the Colonel.
"If we have to die, let us die like gentlemen, and not like so many corner-boys," said Belmont with dignity.
"I only said I was glad to see that Monsieur Fardet has learned something from his adventures," the Colonel sneered.
"Shut up, Cochrane! What do you want to aggravate him for?" cried the Irishman.
"Upon my word, Belmont, you forget yourself! I do not permit people to address me in this fashion."
"You should look after your own manners, then."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, here are the ladies!" cried Stephens, and the angry, over-strained men relapsed into a gloomy silence, pacing up and down, and jerking viciously at their moustaches. It is a very catching thing, ill-temper, for even Stephens began to be angry at their anger, and to scowl at them as they passed him. Here they were at a crisis in their fate, with the shadow of death above them, and yet their minds were all absorbed in some personal grievance so slight that they could hardly put it into words. Misfortune brings the human spirit to a rare height, but the pendulum still swings.
But soon their attention was drawn away to more important matters. A council of war was being held beside the wells, and the two Emirs, stern and composed, were listening to a voluble report from the leader of the patrol. The prisoners noticed that, though the fierce, old man stood like a graven image, the younger Emir passed his hand over his beard once or twice with a nervous gesture, the thin, brown fingers twitching among the long, black hair.
"I believe the Gippies are after us," said Belmont. "Not very far off either, to judge by the fuss they are making."
"It looks like it. Something has scared them."
"Now he's giving orders. What can it be? Here, Mansoor, what is the matter?"
The dragoman came running up with the light of hope shining upon his brown face.
"I think they have seen something to frighten them. I believe that the soldiers are behind us. They have given the order to fill the water-skins, and be ready for a start when the darkness comes. But I am ordered to gather you together, for the Moolah is coming to convert you all. I have already told him that you are all very much inclined to think the same with him."
How far Mansoor may have gone with his assurances may never be known, but the Mussulman preacher came walking towards them at this moment with a paternal and contented smile upon his face, as one who has a pleasant and easy task before him. He was a one-eyed man, with a fringe of grizzled beard and a face which was fat, but which looked as if it had once been fatter, for it was marked with many folds and creases. He had a green turban upon his head, which marked him as a Mecca pilgrim. In one hand he carried a small brown carpet, and in the other a parchment copy of the Koran. Laying his carpet upon the ground, he motioned Mansoor to his side, and then gave a circular sweep of his arm to signify that the prisoners should gather round him, and a downward wave which meant that they should be seated. So they grouped themselves round him, sitting on the short green sward under the palm-tree, these seven forlorn representatives of an alien creed, and in the midst of them sat the fat little preacher, his one eye dancing from face to face as he expounded the principles of his newer, cruder, and more earnest faith. They listened attentively and nodded their heads as Mansoor translated the exhortation, and with each sign of their acquiescence the Moolah became more amiable in his manner and more affectionate in his speech.
"For why should you die, my sweet lambs, when all that is asked of you is that you should set aside that which will carry you to everlasting Gehenna, and accept the law of Allah as written by his prophet, which will assuredly bring you unimaginable joys, as is promised in the Book of the Camel? For what says the chosen one?"—and he broke away into one of those dogmatic texts which pass in every creed as an argument. "Besides, is it not clear that God is with us, since from the beginning, when we had but sticks against the rifles of the Turks, victory has always been with us? Have we not taken El Obeid, and taken Khartoum, and destroyed Hicks and slain Gordon, and prevailed against every one who has come against us? How, then, can it be said that the blessing of Allah does not rest upon us?"
The Colonel had been looking about him during the long exhortation of the Moolah, and he had observed that the Dervishes were cleaning their guns, counting their cartridges, and making all the preparations of men who expected that they might soon be called upon to fight. The two Emirs were conferring together with grave faces, and the leader of the patrol pointed, as he spoke to them, in the direction of Egypt. It was evident that there was at least a chance of a rescue if they could only keep things going for a few more hours. The camels were not recovered yet from their long march, and the pursuers, if they were indeed close behind, were almost certain to overtake them.
"For God's sake, Fardet, try and keep him in play," said he. "I believe we have a chance if we can only keep the ball rolling for another hour or so."
But a Frenchman's wounded dignity is not so easily appeased. Monsieur Fardet sat moodily with his back against the palm-tree, and his black brows drawn down. He said nothing, but he still pulled at his thick, strong moustache.
"Come on, Fardet! We depend upon you," said Belmont.
"Let Colonel Cochrane do it," the Frenchman answered snappishly. "He takes too much upon himself this Colonel Cochrane."
"There! There!" said Belmont soothingly, as if he were speaking to a fractious child. "I am quite sure that the Colonel will express his regret at what has happened, and will acknowledge that he was in the wrong—"
"I'll do nothing of the sort," snapped the Colonel.
"Besides, that is merely a personal quarrel," Belmont continued hastily. "It is for the good of the whole party that we wish you to speak with the Moolah, because we all feel that you are the best man for the job."
But the Frenchman only shrugged his shoulders and relapsed into a deeper gloom.
The Moolah looked from one to the other, and the kindly expression began to fade away from his large, baggy face. His mouth drew down at the corners, and became hard and severe.
"Have these infidels been playing with us, then?" said he to the dragoman. "Why is it that they talk among themselves and have nothing to say to me?"
"He's getting impatient about it," said Cochrane. "Perhaps I had better do what I can, Belmont, since this damned fellow has left us in the lurch."
But the ready wit of a woman saved the situation.
"I am sure, Monsieur Fardet," said Mrs. Belmont, "that you, who are a Frenchman, and therefore a man of gallantry and honour, would not permit your own wounded feelings to interfere with the fulfilment of your promise and your duty towards three helpless ladies."
Fardet was on his feet in an instant, with his hand over his heart.
"You understand my nature, madame," he cried. "I am incapable of abandoning a lady. I will do all that I can in this matter. Now, Mansoor, you may tell the holy man that I am ready to discuss through you the high matters of his faith with him."
And he did it with an ingenuity which amazed his companions. He took the tone of a man who is strongly attracted, and yet has one single remaining shred of doubt to hold him back. Yet as that one shred was torn away by the Moolah, there was always some other stubborn little point which prevented his absolute acceptance of the faith of Islam. And his questions were all so mixed up with personal compliments to the priest and self-congratulations that they should have come under the teachings of so wise a man and so profound a theologian, that the hanging pouches under the Moolah's eyes quivered with his satisfaction, and he was led happily and hopefully onwards from explanation to explanation, while the blue overhead turned into violet, and the green leaves into black, until the great serene stars shone out once more between the crowns of the palm-trees.
"As to the learning of which you speak, my lamb," said the Moolah, in answer to some argument of Fardet's, "I have myself studied at the University of El Azhar at Cairo, and I know that to which you allude. But the learning of the faithful is not as the learning of the unbeliever, and it is not fitting that we pry too deeply into the ways of Allah. Some stars have tails, oh my sweet lamb, and some have not; but what does it profit us to know which are which? For God made them all, and they are very safe in His hands. Therefore, my friend, be not puffed up by the foolish learning of the West, and understand that there is only one wisdom, which consists in following the will of Allah as His chosen prophet has laid it down for us in this book. And now, my lambs, I see that you are ready to come into Islam, and it is time, for that bugle tells that we are about to march, and it was the order of the excellent Emir Abderrahman that your choice should be taken, one way or the other, before ever we left the wells."
"Yet, my father, there are other points upon which I would gladly have instruction," said the Frenchman, "for, indeed, it is a pleasure to hear your clear words after the cloudy accounts which we have had from other teachers."
But the Moolah had risen, and a gleam of suspicion twinkled in his single eye.
"This further instruction may well come afterwards," said he, "since we shall travel together as far as Khartoum, and it will be a joy to me to see you grow in wisdom and in virtue as we go." He walked over to the fire, and stooping down, with the pompous slowness of a stout man, he returned with two half-charred sticks, which he laid cross-wise upon the ground. The Dervishes came clustering over to see the new converts admitted into the fold. They stood round in the dim light, tall and fantastic, with the high necks and supercilious heads of the camels swaying above them.
"Now," said the Moolah, and his voice had lost its conciliatory and persuasive tone, "there is no more time for you. Here upon the ground I have made out of two sticks the foolish and superstitious symbol of your former creed. You will trample upon it, as a sign that you renounce it, and you will kiss the Koran, as a sign that you accept it, and what more you need in the way of instruction shall be given to you as you go."
They stood up, the four men and the three women, to meet the crisis of their fate. None of them, except perhaps Miss Adams and Mrs. Belmont, had any deep religious convictions. All of them were children of this world, and some of them disagreed with everything which that symbol upon the earth represented. But there was the European pride, the pride of the white race which swelled within them, and held them to the faith of their countrymen. It was a sinful, human, un-Christian motive, and yet it was about to make them public martyrs to the Christian creed. In the hush and tension of their nerves low sounds grew suddenly loud upon their ears. Those swishing palm-leaves above them were like a swift-flowing river, and far away they could hear the dull, soft thudding of a galloping camel.
"There's something coming," whispered Cochrane. "Try and stave them off for five minutes longer, Fardet."
The Frenchman stepped out with a courteous wave of his uninjured arm, and the air of a man who is prepared to accommodate himself to anything.
"You will tell this holy man that I am quite ready to accept his teaching, and so I am sure are all my friends," said he to the dragoman. "But there is one thing which I should wish him to do in order to set at rest any possible doubts which may remain in our hearts. Every true religion can be told by the miracles which those who profess it can bring about. Even I who am but a humble Christian, can, by virtue of my religion, do some of these. But you, since your religion is superior, can no doubt do far more, and so I beg you to give us a sign that we may be able to say that we know that the religion of Islam is the more powerful."
Behind all his dignity and reserve, the Arab has a good fund of curiosity. The hush among the listening Arabs showed how the words of the Frenchman as translated by Mansoor appealed to them.
"Such things are in the hands of Allah," said the priest. "It is not for us to disturb His laws. But if you have yourself such powers as you claim, let us be witnesses to them."
The Frenchman stepped forward, and raising his hand he took a large, shining date out of the Moolah's beard. This he swallowed and immediately produced once more from his left elbow. He had often given his little conjuring entertainment on board the boat, and his fellow-passengers had had some good-natured laughter at his expense, for he was not quite skilful enough to deceive the critical European intelligence. But now it looked as if this piece of obvious palming might be the point upon which all their fates would hang. A deep hum of surprise rose from the ring of Arabs, and deepened as the Frenchman drew another date from the nostril of a camel and tossed it into the air, from which, apparently, it never descended. That gaping sleeve was obvious enough to his companions, but the dim light was all in favour of the performer. So delighted and interested was the audience that they paid little heed to a mounted camel-man who trotted swiftly between the palm trunks. All might have been well had not Fardet, carried away by his own success, tried to repeat his trick once more, with the result that the date fell out of his palm, and the deception stood revealed. In vain he tried to pass on at once to another of his little stock. The Moolah said something, and an Arab struck Fardet across the shoulders with the thick shaft of his spear.
"We have had enough child's play," said the angry priest. "Are we men or babes, that you should try to impose upon us in this manner? Here is the cross and the Koran—which shall it be?"
Fardet looked helplessly round at his companions.
"I can do no more; you asked for five minutes. You have had them," said he to Colonel Cochrane.
"And perhaps it is enough," the soldier answered. "Here are the Emirs."
The camel-man, whose approach they had heard from afar, had made for the two Arab chiefs, and had delivered a brief report to them, stabbing with his forefinger in the direction from which he had come. There was a rapid exchange of words between the Emirs, and then they strode forward together to the group around the prisoners. Bigots and barbarians, they were none the less two most majestic men, as they advanced through the twilight of the palm grove. The fierce old greybeard raised his hand and spoke swiftly in short, abrupt sentences, and his savage followers yelped to him like hounds to a huntsman. The fire that smouldered in his arrogant eyes shone back at him from a hundred others. Here were to be read the strength and danger of the Mahdi movement; here in these convulsed faces, in that fringe of waving arms, in these frantic, red-hot souls, who asked nothing better than a bloody death, if their own hands might be bloody when they met it.
"Have the prisoners embraced the true faith?" asked the Emir Abderrahman, looking at them with his cruel eyes.
The Moolah had his reputation to preserve, and it was not for him to confess to a failure.
"They were about to embrace it, when—
"Let it rest for a little time, O Moolah." He gave an order, and the Arabs all sprang for their camels. The Emir Wad Ibrahim filed off at once with nearly half the party. The others were mounted and ready, with their rifles unslung.
"What's happened?" asked Belmont.
"Things are looking up," cried the Colonel. "By George, I think we are going to come through all right. The Gippy Camel Corps are hot on our trail."
"How do you know?"
"What else could have scared them?"
"O Colonel, do you really think we shall be saved?" sobbed Sadie. The dull routine of misery through which they had passed had deadened all their nerves until they seemed incapable of any acute sensation, but now this sudden return of hope brought agony with it like the recovery of a frost-bitten limb. Even the strong, self-contained Belmont was filled with doubts and apprehensions. He had been hopeful when there was no sign of relief, and now the approach of it set him trembling.
"Surely they wouldn't come very weak," he cried. "Be Jove, if the Commandant let them come weak, he should be court-martialled."
"Sure we're in God's hands, anyway," said his wife, in her soothing, Irish voice. "Kneel down with me, John, dear, if it's the last time, and pray that, earth or heaven, we may not be divided."
"Don't do that! Don't!" cried the Colonel anxiously, for he saw that the eye of the Moolah was upon them. But it was too late, for the two Roman Catholics had dropped upon their knees and crossed themselves. A spasm of fury passed over the face of the Mussulman priest at this public testimony to the failure of his missionary efforts. He turned and said something to the Emir.
"Stand up!" cried Mansoor. "For your life's sake, stand up! He is asking for leave to put you to death."
"Let him do what he likes!" said the obstinate Irishman; "we will rise when our prayers are finished, and not before."
The Emir stood listening to the Moolah, with his baleful gaze upon the two kneeling figures. Then he gave one or two rapid orders, and four camels were brought forward. The baggage-camels which they had hitherto ridden were standing unsaddled where they had been tethered.
"Don't be a fool, Belmont!" cried the Colonel; "everything depends upon our humouring them. Do get up, Mrs. Belmont! You are only putting their backs up!"
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders as he looked at them. "Mon Dieu!" he cried, "were there ever such impracticable people? Voila!" he added, with a shriek, as the two American ladies fell upon their knees beside Mrs. Belmont. "It is like the camels—one down, all down! Was ever anything so absurd?"
But Mr. Stephens had knelt down beside Sadie and buried his haggard face in his long, thin hands. Only the Colonel and Monsieur Fardet remained standing. Cochrane looked at the Frenchman with an interrogative eye.
"After all," said he, "it is stupid to pray all your life, and not to pray now when we have nothing to hope for except through the goodness of Providence." He dropped upon his knees with a rigid, military back, but his grizzled, unshaven chin upon his chest. The Frenchman looked at his kneeling companions, and then his eyes travelled onwards to the angry faces of the Emir and Moolah.
"Sapristi!" he growled. "Do they suppose that a Frenchman is afraid of them?" and so, with an ostentatious sign of the cross, he took his place upon his knees beside the others. Foul, bedraggled, and wretched, the seven figures knelt and waited humbly for their fate under the black shadow of the palm-tree.
The Emir turned to the Moolah with a mocking smile, and pointed at the results of his ministrations. Then he gave an order, and in an instant the four men were seized. A couple of deft turns with a camel-halter secured each of their wrists. Fardet screamed out, for the rope had bitten into his open wound. The others took it with the dignity of despair.
"You have ruined everything. I believe you have ruined me also!" cried Mansoor, wringing his hands. "The women are to get upon these three camels."
"Never!" cried Belmont. "We won't be separated!" He plunged madly, but he was weak from privation, and two strong men held him by each elbow.
"Don't fret, John!" cried his wife, as they hurried her towards the camel. "No harm shall come to me. Don't struggle, or they'll hurt you, dear."
The four men writhed as they saw the women dragged away from them. All their agonies had been nothing to this. Sadie and her aunt appeared to be half senseless from fear. Only Mrs. Belmont kept a brave face. When they were seated the camels rose, and were led under the tree behind where the four men were standing.
"I've a pistol in me pocket," said Belmont, looking up at his wife. "I would give me soul to be able to pass it to you."
"Keep it, John, and it may be useful yet. I have no fears. Ever since we prayed I have felt as if our guardian angels had their wings round us." She was like a guardian angel herself as she turned to the shrinking Sadie, and coaxed some little hope back into her despairing heart.
The short, thick Arab, who had been in command of Wad Ibrahim's rearguard, had Joined the Emir and the Moolah; the three consulted together, with occasional oblique glances towards the prisoners. Then the Emir spoke to Mansoor.
"The chief wishes to know which of you four is the richest man?" said the dragoman. His fingers were twitching with nervousness and plucking incessantly at the front of his covercoat.
"Why does he wish to know?" asked the Colonel.
"I do not know."
"But it is evident," cried Monsieur Fardet. "He wishes to know which is the best worth keeping for his ransom."
"I think we should see this thing through together," said the Colonel. "It's really for you to decide, Stephens, for I have no doubt that you are the richest of us."
"I don't know that I am," the lawyer answered; "but in any case, I have no wish to be placed upon a different footing to the others."
The Emir spoke again in his harsh rasping voice.
"He says," Mansoor translated, "that the baggage-camels are spent, and that there is only one beast left which can keep up. It is ready now for one of you, and you have to decide among yourselves which is to have it. If one is richer than the others, he will have the preference."
"Tell him that we are all equally rich."
"In that case he says that you are to choose at once which is to have the camel."
"And the others?"
The dragoman shrugged his shoulders.
"Well," said the Colonel, "if only one of us is to escape, I think you fellows will agree with me that it ought to be Belmont, since he is the married man."
"Yes, yes, let it be Monsieur Belmont," cried Fardet.
"I think so also," said Stephens.
But the Irishman would not hear of it.
"No, no, share and share alike," he cried. "All sink or all swim, and the devil take the flincher."
They wrangled among themselves until they became quite heated in this struggle of unselfishness. Some one had said that the Colonel should go because he was the oldest, and the Colonel was a very angry man.
"One would think I was an octogenarian," he cried. "These remarks are quite uncalled for."
"Well, then," said Belmont, "let us all refuse to go."
"But this is not very wise," cried the Frenchman. "See, my friends! Here are the ladies being carried off alone. Surely it would be far better that one of us should be with them to advise them."
They looked at one another in perplexity. What Fardet said was obviously true, but how could one of them desert his comrades? The Emir himself suggested the solution.
"The chief says," said Mansoor, "that if you cannot settle who is to go, you had better leave it to Allah and draw lots."
"I don't think we can do better," said the Colonel, and his three companions nodded their assent.
It was the Moolah who approached them with four splinters of palm-bark protruding from between his fingers.
"He says that he who draws the longest has the camel," said Mansoor.
"We must agree to abide absolutely by this," said Cochrane, and again his companions nodded.
The Dervishes had formed a semicircle in front of them, with a fringe of the oscillating heads of the camels. Before them was a cooking fire, which threw its red light over the group. The Emir was standing with his back to it, and his fierce face towards the prisoners. Behind the four men was a line of guards, and behind them again the three women, who looked down from their camels upon this tragedy. With a malicious smile, the fat, one-eyed Moolah advanced with his fist closed, and the four little brown spicules protruding from between his fingers.
It was to Belmont that he held them first. The Irishman gave an involuntary groan, and his wife gasped behind him, for the splinter came away in his hand. Then it was the Frenchman's turn, and his was half an inch longer than Belmont's. Then came Colonel Cochrane, whose piece was longer than the two others put together. Stephens' was no bigger than Belmont's. The Colonel was the winner of this terrible lottery.
"You're welcome to my place, Belmont," said he. "I've neither wife nor child, and hardly a friend in the world. Go with your wife, and I'll stay."
"No, indeed! An agreement is an agreement. It's all fair play, and the prize to the luckiest."
"The Emir says that you are to mount at once," said Mansoor, and an Arab dragged the Colonel by his wrist-rope to the waiting camel.
"He will stay with the rearguard," said the Emir to his lieutenant. "You can keep the women with you also."
"And this dragoman dog?"
"Put him with the others."
"Put them all to death."
As none of the three could understand Arabic, the order of the Emir would have been unintelligible to them had it not been for the conduct of Mansoor. The unfortunate dragoman, after all his treachery and all his subservience and apostasy, found his worst fears realised when the Dervish leader gave his curt command. With a shriek of fear the poor wretch threw himself forward upon his face, and clutched at the edge of the Arab's jibbeh, clawing with his brown fingers at the edge of the cotton skirt. The Emir tugged to free himself, and then, finding that he was still held by that convulsive grip, he turned and kicked at Mansoor with the vicious impatience with which one drives off a pestering cur. The dragoman's high red tarboosh flew up into the air, and he lay groaning upon his face where the stunning blow of the Arab's horny foot had left him.
All was bustle and movement in the camp, for the old Emir had mounted his camel, and some of his party were already beginning to follow their companions. The squat lieutenant, the Moolah, and about a dozen Dervishes surrounded the prisoners. They had not mounted their camels, for they were told off to be the ministers of death. The three men understood as they looked upon their faces that the sand was running very low in the glass of their lives. Their hands were still bound, but their guards had ceased to hold them. They turned round, all three, and said good-bye to the women upon the camels.
"All up now, Norah," said Belmont. "It's hard luck when there was a chance of a rescue, but we've done our best."
For the first time his wife had broken down. She was sobbing convulsively, with her face between her hands.
"Don't cry, little woman! We've had a good time together. Give my love to all friends at Bray! Remember me to Amy McCarthy and to the Blessingtons. You'll find there is enough and to spare, but I would take Roger's advice about the investments. Mind that!"
"O John, I won't live without you!" Sorrow for her sorrow broke the strong man down, and he buried his face in the hairy side of her camel. The two of them sobbed helplessly together.
Stephens meanwhile had pushed his way to Sadie's beast. She saw his worn earnest face looking up at her through the dim light.
"Don't be afraid for your aunt and for yourself," said he. "I am sure that you will escape. Colonel Cochrane will look after you. The Egyptians cannot be far behind. I do hope you will have a good drink before you leave the wells. I wish I could give your aunt my jacket, for it will be cold to-night. I'm afraid I can't get it off. She should keep some of the bread, and eat it in the early morning."
He spoke quite quietly, like a man who is arranging the details of a picnic. A sudden glow of admiration for this quietly consistent man warmed her impulsive heart.
"How unselfish you are!" she cried. "I never saw any one like you. Talk about saints! There you stand in the very presence of death, and you think only of us."
"I want to say a last word to you, Sadie, if you don't mind. I should die so much happier. I have often wanted to speak to you, but I thought that perhaps you would laugh, for you never took anything very seriously, did you? That was quite natural of course with your high spirits, but still it was very serious to me. But now I am really a dead man, so it does not matter very much what I say."
"Oh don't, Mr. Stephens!" cried the girl.
"I won't, if it is very painful to you. As I said, it would make me die happier, but I don't want to be selfish about it. If I thought it would darken your life afterwards, or be a sad recollection to you, I would not say another word."
"What did you wish to say?"
"It was only to tell you how I loved you. I always loved you. From the first I was a different man when I was with you. But of course it was absurd, I knew that well enough. I never said anything, but I tried not to make myself ridiculous. But I just want you to know about it now that it can't matter one way or the other. You'll understand that I really do love you when I tell you that, if it were not that I knew you were frightened and unhappy, these last two days in which we have been always together would have been infinitely the happiest of my life."
The girl sat pale and silent, looking down with wondering eyes at his upturned face. She did not know what to do or say in the solemn presence of this love which burned so brightly under the shadow of death. To her child's heart it seemed incomprehensible—and yet she understood that it was sweet and beautiful also.
"I won't say any more," said he; "I can see that it only bothers you. But I wanted you to know, and now you do know, so it is all right. Thank you for listening so patiently and gently. Good-bye, little Sadie! I can't put my hand up. Will you put yours down?"
She did so and Stephens kissed it. Then he turned and took his place once more between Belmont and Fardet. In his whole life of struggle and success he had never felt such a glow of quiet contentment as suffused him at that instant when the grip of death was closing upon him. There is no arguing about love. It is the innermost fact of life—the one which obscures and changes all the others, the only one which is absolutely satisfying and complete. Pain is pleasure, and want is comfort, and death is sweetness when once that golden mist is round it. So it was that Stephens could have sung with joy as he faced his murderers. He really had not time to think about them. The important, all-engrossing, delightful thing was that she could not look upon him as a casual acquaintance any more. Through all her life she would think of him—she would know.
Colonel Cochrane's camel was at one side, and the old soldier, whose wrists had been freed, had been looking down upon the scene, and wondering in his tenacious way whether all hope must really be abandoned. It was evident that the Arabs who were grouped round the victims were to remain behind with them, while the others who were mounted would guard the three women and himself. He could not understand why the throats of his companions had not been already cut, unless it were that with an Eastern refinement of cruelty this rearguard would wait until the Egyptians were close to them, so that the warm bodies of their victims might be an insult to the pursuers. No doubt that was the right explanation. The Colonel had heard of such a trick before.
But in that case there would not be more than twelve Arabs with the prisoners. Were there any of the friendly ones among them? If Tippy Tilly and six of his men were there, and if Belmont could get his arms free and his hand upon his revolver, they might come through yet. The Colonel craned his neck and groaned in his disappointment. He could see the faces of the guards in the firelight. They were all Baggara Arabs, men who were beyond either pity or bribery. Tippy Tilly and the others must have gone on with the advance. For the first time the stiff old soldier abandoned hope.
"Good-bye, you fellows! God bless you!" he cried, as a negro pulled at his camel's nose-ring and made him follow the others. The women came after him, in a misery too deep for words. Their departure was a relief to the three men who were left.
"I am glad they are gone," said Stephens, from his heart.
"Yes, yes, it is better," cried Fardet. "How long are we to wait?"
"Not very long now," said Belmont grimly, as the Arabs closed in around them.
The Colonel and the three women gave one backward glance when they came to the edge of the oasis. Between the straight stems of the palms they saw the gleam of the fire, and above the group of Arabs they caught a last glimpse of the three white hats. An instant later, the camels began to trot, and when they looked back once more the palm grove was only a black clump with the vague twinkle of a light somewhere in the heart of it. As with yearning eyes they gazed at that throbbing red point in the darkness, they passed over the edge of the depression, and in an instant the huge, silent, moonlit desert was round them without a sign of the oasis which they had left. On every side the velvet, blue-black sky, with its blazing stars, sloped downwards to the vast, dun-coloured plain. The two were blurred into one at their point of junction.
The women had sat in the silence of despair, and the Colonel had been silent also—for what could he say?—but suddenly all four started in their saddles, and Sadie gave a sharp cry of dismay. In the hush of the night there had come from behind them the petulant crack of a rifle, then another, then several together, with a brisk rat-tat-tat, and then after an interval, one more.
"It may be the rescuers! It may be the Egyptians!" cried Mrs. Belmont, with a sudden flicker of hope. "Colonel Cochrane, don't you think it may be the Egyptians?"
"Yes, yes," Sadie whimpered. "It must be the Egyptians."
The Colonel had listened expectantly, but all was silent again. Then he took his hat off with a solemn gesture.
"There is no use deceiving ourselves, Mrs. Belmont," said he; "we may as well face the truth. Our friends are gone from us, but they have met their end like brave men."
"But why should they fire their guns? They had . . . they had spears." She shuddered as she said it.
"That is true," said the Colonel. "I would not for the world take away any real grounds of hope which you may have; but on the other hand, there is no use in preparing bitter disappointments for ourselves. If we had been listening to an attack, we should have heard some reply. Besides, an Egyptian attack would have been an attack in force. No doubt it is, as you say, a little strange that they should have wasted their cartridges—by Jove, look at that!"
He was pointing over the eastern desert. Two figures were moving across its expanse, swiftly and stealthily, furtive dark shadows against the lighter ground. They saw them dimly, dipping and rising over the rolling desert, now lost, now reappearing in the uncertain light. They were flying away from the Arabs. And then, suddenly they halted upon the summit of a sand-hill, and the prisoners could see them outlined plainly against the sky. They were camel-men, but they sat their camels astride as a horseman sits his horse.
"Gippy Camel Corps!" cried the Colonel.
"Two men," said Miss Adams, in a voice of despair.
"Only a vedette, ma'am! Throwing feelers out all over the desert. This is one of them. Main body ten miles off, as likely as not. There they go giving the alarm! Good old Camel Corps!"
The self-contained, methodical soldier had suddenly turned almost inarticulate with his excitement. There was a red flash upon the top of the sand-hill, and then another, followed by the crack of the rifles. Then with a whisk the two figures were gone, as swiftly and silently as two trout in a stream.
The Arabs had halted for an instant, as if uncertain whether they should delay their journey to pursue them or not. There was nothing left to pursue now, for amid the undulations of the sand-drift the vedettes might have gone in any direction. The Emir galloped back along the line, with exhortations and orders. Then the camels began to trot, and the hopes of the prisoners were dulled by the agonies of the terrible jolt. Mile after mile, mile after mile, they sped onwards over that vast expanse, the women clinging as best they might to the pommels, the Colonel almost as spent as they, but still keenly on the look-out for any sign of the pursuers.
"I think . . . I think," cried Mrs. Belmont, "that something is moving in front of us."
The Colonel raised himself upon his saddle, and screened his eyes from the moonshine.
"By Jove, you're right there, ma'am. There are men over yonder."
They could all see them now, a straggling line of riders far ahead of them in the desert.
"They are going in the same direction as we," cried Mrs. Belmont, whose eyes were very much better than the Colonel's.
Cochrane muttered an oath into his moustache.
"Look at the tracks there," said he; "of course, it's our own vanguard who left the palm grove before us. The chief keeps us at this infernal pace in order to close up with them."
As they drew closer they could see plainly that it was indeed the other body of Arabs, and presently the Emir Wad Ibrahim came trotting back to take counsel with the Emir Abderrahman. They pointed in the direction in which the vedettes had appeared, and shook their heads like men who have many and grave misgivings. Then the raiders joined into one long, straggling line, and the whole body moved steadily on towards the Southern Cross, which was twinkling just over the skyline in front of them. Hour after hour the dreadful trot continued, while the fainting ladies clung on convulsively, and Cochrane, worn out but indomitable, encouraged them to hold out, and peered backwards over the desert for the first glad signs of their pursuers. The blood throbbed in his temples, and he cried that he heard the roll of drums coming out of the darkness. In his feverish delirium he saw clouds of pursuers at their very heels, and during the long night he was for ever crying glad tidings which ended in disappointment and heartache. The rise of the sun showed the desert stretching away around them with nothing moving upon its monstrous face except themselves. With dull eyes and heavy hearts they stared round at that huge and empty expanse. Their hopes thinned away like the light morning mist upon the horizon.
It was shocking to the ladies to look at their companion, and to think of the spruce, hale old soldier who had been their fellow-passenger from Cairo. As in the case of Miss Adams, old age seemed to have pounced upon him in one spring. His hair, which had grizzled hour by hour during his privations, was now of a silvery white. White stubble, too, had obscured the firm, clean line of his chin and throat. The veins of his face were injected, and his features were shot with heavy wrinkles. He rode with his back arched and his chin sunk upon his breast, for the old, time-rotted body was worn out, but in his bright, alert eyes there was always a trace of the gallant tenant who lived in the shattered house. Delirious, spent, and dying, he preserved his chivalrous, protecting air as he turned to the ladies, shot little scraps of advice and encouragement at them, and peered back continually for the help which never came.
An hour after sunrise the raiders called a halt, and food and water were served out to all. Then at a more moderate pace they pursued their southern journey, their long, straggling line trailing out over a quarter of a mile of desert. From their more careless bearing and the way in which they chatted as they rode, it was clear that they thought that they had shaken off their pursuers. Their direction now was east as well as south, and it was evidently their intention after this long detour to strike the Nile again at some point far above the Egyptian outposts. Already the character of the scenery was changing, and they were losing the long levels of the pebbly desert, and coming once more upon those fantastic, sunburned, black rocks, and that rich orange sand through which they had already passed. On every side of them rose the scaly, conical hills with their loose, slag-like debris, and jagged-edged khors, with sinuous streams of sand running like water-courses down their centre. The camels followed each other, twisting in and out among the boulders, and scrambling with their adhesive, spongy feet over places which would have been impossible for horses. Among the broken rocks those behind could sometimes only see the long, undulating, darting necks of the creatures in front, as if it were some nightmare procession of serpents. Indeed, it had much the effect of a dream upon the prisoners, for there was no sound, save the soft, dull padding and shuffling of the feet. The strange, wild frieze moved slowly and silently onwards amid a setting of black stone and yellow sand, with the one arch of vivid blue spanning the rugged edges of the ravine.
Miss Adams, who had been frozen into silence during the long cold night, began to thaw now in the cheery warmth of the rising sun. She looked about her, and rubbed her thin hands together.
"Why, Sadie," she remarked, "I thought I heard you in the night, dear, and now I see that you have been crying."
"I've been thinking, auntie."
"Well, we must try and think of others, dearie, and not of ourselves."
"It's not of myself, auntie."
"Never fret about me, Sadie."
"No, auntie, I was not thinking of you."
"Was it of any one in particular?"
"Of Mr. Stephens, auntie. How gentle he was, and how brave! To think of him fixing up every little thing for us, and trying to pull his jacket over his poor roped-up hands, with those murderers waiting all round him. He's my saint and hero from now ever after."
"Well, he's out of his troubles anyhow," said Miss Adams, with that bluntness which the years bring with them.
"Then I wish I was also."
"I don't see how that would help him."
"Well, I think he might feel less lonesome," said Sadie, and drooped her saucy little chin upon her breast.
The four had been riding in silence for some little time, when the Colonel clapped his hand to his brow with a gesture of dismay.
"Good God!" he cried, "I am going off my head."
Again and again they had perceived it during the night, but he had seemed quite rational since daybreak. They were shocked therefore at this sudden outbreak, and tried to calm him with soothing words.
"Mad as a hatter," he shouted. "Whatever do you think I saw?"
"Don't trouble about it, whatever it was," said Mrs. Belmont, laying her hand soothingly upon his as the camels closed together. "It is no wonder that you are overdone. You have thought and worked for all of us so long. We shall halt presently, and a few hours' sleep will quite restore you."
But the Colonel looked up again, and again he cried out in his agitation and surprise.
"I never saw anything plainer in my life," he groaned. "It is on the point of rock on our right front—poor old Stuart with my red cummerbund round his head just the same as we left him."
The ladies had followed the direction of the Colonel's frightened gaze, and in an instant they were all as amazed as he.
There was a black, bulging ridge like a bastion upon the right side of the terrible khor up which the camels were winding. At one point it rose into a small pinnacle. On this pinnacle stood a solitary, motionless figure, clad entirely in black, save for a brilliant dash of scarlet upon his head. There could not surely be two such short sturdy figures, or such large colourless faces, in the Libyan Desert. His shoulders were stooping forward, and he seemed to be staring intently down into the ravine. His pose and outline were like a caricature of the great Napoleon.
"Can it possibly be he?"
"It must be. It is!" cried the ladies. "You see he is looking towards us and waving his hand."
"Good Heavens! They'll shoot him! Get down, you fool, or you'll be shot!" roared the Colonel. But his dry throat would only emit a discordant croaking.
Several of the Dervishes had seen the singular apparition upon the hill, and had unslung their Remingtons, but a long arm suddenly shot up behind the figure of the Birmingham clergyman, a brown hand seized upon his skirts, and he disappeared with a snap. Higher up the pass, just below the spot where Mr. Stuart had been standing, appeared the tall figure of the Emir Abderrahman. He had sprung upon a boulder, and was shouting and waving his arms, but the shouts were drowned in a long, rippling roar of musketry from each side of the khor. The bastion-like cliff was fringed with gun-barrels, with red tarbooshes drooping over the triggers. From the other lip also came the long spurts of flame and the angry clatter of the rifles. The raiders were caught in an ambuscade. The Emir fell, but was up again and waving. There was a splotch of blood upon his long white beard. He kept pointing and gesticulating, but his scattered followers could not understand what he wanted. Some of them came tearing down the pass, and some from behind were pushing to the front. A few dismounted and tried to climb up sword in hand to that deadly line of muzzles, but one by one they were hit, and came rolling from rock to rock to the bottom of the ravine. The shooting was not very good. One negro made his way unharmed up the whole side, only to have his brains dashed out with the butt-end of a Martini at the top. The Emir had fallen off his rock and lay in a crumpled heap, like a brown and white patchwork quilt, at the bottom of it. And then when half of them were down it became evident, even to those exalted fanatical souls, that there was no chance for them, and that they must get out of these fatal rocks and into the desert again. They galloped down the pass, and it is a frightful thing to see a camel galloping over broken ground. The beast's own terror, his ungainly bounds, the sprawl of his four legs all in the air together, his hideous cries, and the yells of his rider who is bucked high from his saddle with every spring, make a picture which is not to be forgotten. The women screamed as this mad torrent of frenzied creatures came pouring past them, but the Colonel edged his camel and theirs farther and farther in among the rocks and away from the retreating Arabs. The air was full of whistling bullets, and they could hear them smacking loudly against the stones all round them.
"Keep quiet, and they'll pass us," whispered the Colonel, who was all himself again now that the hour for action had arrived. "I wish to Heaven I could see Tippy Tilly or any of his friends. Now is the time for them to help us." He watched the mad stream of fugitives as they flew past upon their shambling, squattering, loose-jointed beasts, but the black face of the Egyptian gunner was not among them.
And now it really did seem as if the whole body of them, in their haste to get clear of the ravine, had not a thought to spend upon the prisoners. The rush was past, and only stragglers were running the gauntlet of the fierce fire which poured upon them from above. The last of all, a young Baggara with a black moustache and pointed beard, looked up as he passed and shook his sword in impotent passion at the Egyptian riflemen. At the same instant a bullet struck his camel, and the creature collapsed, all neck and legs, upon the ground. The young Arab sprang off its back, and, seizing its nose-ring, he beat it savagely with the flat of his sword to make it stand up. But the dim, glazing eye told its own tale, and in desert warfare the death of the beast is the death of the rider. The Baggara glared round like a lion at bay, his dark eyes flashing murderously from under his red turban. A crimson spot, and then another, sprang out upon his dark skin, but he never winced at the bullet wounds. His fierce gaze had fallen upon the prisoners, and with an exultant shout he was dashing towards them, his broad-bladed sword gleaming above his head. Miss Adams was the nearest to him, but at the sight of the rushing figure and the maniac face she threw herself off the camel upon the far side. The Arab bounded on to a rock and aimed a thrust at Mrs. Belmont, but before the point could reach her the Colonel leaned forward with his pistol and blew the man's head in. Yet with a concentrated rage, which was superior even to the agony of death, the fellow lay kicking and striking, bounding about among the loose stones like a fish upon the shingle.
"Don't be frightened, ladies," cried the Colonel. "He is quite dead, I assure you. I am so sorry to have done this in your presence, but the fellow was dangerous. I had a little score of my own to settle with him, for he was the man who tried to break my ribs with his Remington. I hope you are not hurt, Miss Adams! One instant, and I will come down to you."
But the old Boston lady was by no means hurt, for the rocks had been so high that she had a very short distance to fall from her saddle. Sadie, Mrs. Belmont, and Colonel Cochrane had all descended by slipping on to the boulders and climbing down from them. But they found Miss Adams on her feet, and waving the remains of her green veil in triumph.
"Hurrah, Sadie! Hurrah, my own darling Sadie!" she was shrieking. "We are saved, my girl, we are saved after all."
"By George, so we are!" cried the Colonel, and they all shouted in an ecstasy together.
But Sadie had learned to think more about others during those terrible days of schooling. Her arms were round Mrs. Belmont, and her cheek against hers.
"You dear, sweet angel," she cried, "how can we have the heart to be glad when you—when you—"
"But I don't believe it is so," cried the brave Irishwoman. "No, I'll never believe it until I see John's body lying before me. And when I see that, I don't want to live to see anything more."
The last Dervish had clattered down the khor, and now above them on either cliff they could see the Egyptians—tall, thin, square shouldered figures, looking, when outlined against the blue sky, wonderfully like the warriors in the ancient bas-reliefs. Their camels were in the background, and they were hurrying to join them. At the same time others began to ride down from the farther end of the ravine, their dark faces flushed and their eyes shining with the excitement of victory and pursuit. A very small Englishman, with a straw-coloured moustache and a weary manner, was riding at the head of them. He halted his camel beside the fugitives and saluted the ladies. He wore brown boots and brown belts with steel buckles, which looked trim and workmanlike against his khaki uniform.
"Had 'em that time—had 'em proper!" said he. "Very glad to have been of any assistance, I'm sure. Hope you're none the worse for it all. What I mean, it's rather rough work for ladies."
"You're from Halfa, I suppose?" asked the Colonel.
"No, we're from the other show. We're the Sarras crowd, you know. We met in the desert, and we headed 'em off, and the other Johnnies herded 'em behind. We've got 'em on toast, I tell you. Get up on that rock and you'll see things happen. It's going to be a knockout in one round this time."
"We left some of our people at the Wells. We are very uneasy about them," said the Colonel. "I suppose you haven't heard anything of them?"
The young officer looked serious and shook his head. "Bad job that!" said he. "They're a poisonous crowd when you put 'em in a corner. What I mean, we never expected to see you alive, and we're very glad to pull any of you out of the fire. The most we hoped was that we might revenge you."
"Any other Englishman with you?"
"Archer is with the flanking party. He'll have to come past, for I don't think there is any other way down. We've got one of your chaps up there—a funny old bird with a red top-knot. See you later, I hope! Good day, ladies!" He touched his helmet, tapped his camel, and trotted on after his men.
"We can't do better than stay where we are until they are all past," said the Colonel, for it was evident now that the men from above would have to come round. In a broken single file they went past, black men and brown, Soudanese and fellaheen, but all of the best, for the Camel Corps is the corps d'elite of the Egyptian army. Each had a brown bandolier over his chest and his rifle held across his thigh. A large man with a drooping black moustache and a pair of binoculars in his hand was riding at the side of them. "Hulloa, Archer!" croaked the Colonel. The officer looked at him with the vacant, unresponsive eye of a complete stranger.
"I'm Cochrane, you know! We travelled up together."
"Excuse me, sir, but you have the advantage of me," said the officer. "I knew a Colonel Cochrane Cochrane, but you are not the man. He was three inches taller than you, with black hair and—"
"That's all right," cried the Colonel testily. "You try a few days with the Dervishes, and see if your friends will recognise you!"
"Good God, Cochrane, is it really you? I could not have believed it. Great Scott, what you must have been through! I've heard before of fellows going grey in a night, but, by Jove—"
"Quite so," said the Colonel, flushing.
"Allow me to hint to you, Archer, that if you could get some food and drink for these ladies, instead of discussing my personal appearance, it would be much more practical."
"That's all right," said Captain Archer. "Your friend Stuart knows that you are here, and he is bringing some stuff round for you. Poor fare, ladies, but the best we have! You're an old soldier, Cochrane. Get up on the rocks presently, and you'll see a lovely sight. No time to stop, for we shall be in action again in five minutes. Anything I can do before I go?"
"You haven't got such a thing as a cigar?" asked the Colonel wistfully.
Archer drew a thick satisfying partaga from his case, and handed it down, with half-a-dozen wax vestas. Then he cantered after his men, and the old soldier leaned back against the rock and drew in the fragrant smoke. It was then that his jangled nerves knew the full virtue of tobacco, the gentle anodyne which stays the failing strength and soothes the worrying brain. He watched the dim blue reek swirling up from him, and he felt the pleasant aromatic bite upon his palate, while a restful languor crept over his weary and harassed body. The three ladies sat together upon a flat rock.
"Good land, what a sight you are, Sadie!" cried Miss Adams suddenly, and it was the first reappearance of her old self. "What would your mother say if she saw you? Why, sakes alive, your hair is full of straw and your frock clean crazy!"
"I guess we all want some setting to rights," said Sadie, in a voice which was much more subdued than that of the Sadie of old. "Mrs. Belmont, you look just too perfectly sweet anyhow, but if you'll allow me I'll fix your dress for you."
But Mrs. Belmont's eyes were far away, and she shook her head sadly as she gently put the girl's hands aside.
"I do not care how I look. I cannot think of it," said she; "could you, if you had left the man you love behind you, as I have mine?"
"I'm begin—beginning to think I have," sobbed poor Sadie, and buried her hot face in Mrs. Belmont's motherly bosom.
The Camel Corps had all passed onwards down the khor in pursuit of the retreating Dervishes, and for a few minutes the escaped prisoners had been left alone. But now there came a cheery voice calling upon them, and a red turban bobbed about among the rocks, with the large white face of the Nonconformist minister smiling from beneath it. He had a thick lance with which to support his injured leg, and this murderous crutch combined with his peaceful appearance to give him a most incongruous aspect—as of a sheep which has suddenly developed claws. Behind him were two negroes with a basket and a water-skin.
"Not a word! Not a word!" he cried, as he stumped up to them. "I know exactly how you feel. I've been there myself. Bring the water, Ali! Only half a cup, Miss Adams; you shall have some more presently. Now your turn, Mrs. Belmont! Dear me, dear me, you poor souls, how my heart does bleed for you! There's bread and meat in the basket, but you must be very moderate at first." He chuckled with joy, and slapped his fat hands together as he watched them.
"But the others?" he asked, his face turning grave again.
The Colonel shook his head. "We left them behind at the wells. I fear that it is all over with them."
"Tut, tut!" cried the clergyman, in a boisterous voice, which could not cover the despondency of his expression; "you thought, no doubt, that it was all over with me, but here I am in spite of it. Never lose heart, Mrs. Belmont. Your husband's position could not possibly be as hopeless as mine was."
"When I saw you standing on that rock up yonder, I put it down to delirium," said the Colonel. "If the ladies had not seen you, I should never have ventured to believe it."
"I am afraid that I behaved very badly. Captain Archer says that I nearly spoiled all their plans, and that I deserved to be tried by a drumhead court-martial and shot. The fact is that, when I heard the Arabs beneath me, I forgot myself in my anxiety to know if any of you were left."
"I wonder that you were not shot without any drumhead court-martial," said the Colonel. "But how in the world did you get here?"
"The Halfa people were close upon our track at the time when I was abandoned, and they picked me up in the desert. I must have been delirious, I suppose, for they tell me that they heard my voice, singing hymns, a long way off, and it was that, under the providence of God, which brought them to me. They had a camel ambulance, and I was quite myself again by next day. I came with the Sarras people after we met them, because they have the doctor with them. My wound is nothing, and he says that a man of my habit will be the better for the loss of blood. And now, my friends"—his big, brown eyes lost their twinkle, and became very solemn and reverent—"we have all been upon the very confines of death, and our dear companions may be so at this instant. The same Power which saved us may save them, and let us pray together that it may be so, always remembering that if, in spite of our prayers, it should not be so, then that also must be accepted as the best and wisest thing."
So they knelt together among the black rocks, and prayed as some of them had never prayed before. It was very well to discuss prayer and treat it lightly and philosophically upon the deck of the Korosko. It was easy to feel strong and self-confident in the comfortable deck-chair, with the slippered Arab handing round the coffee and liqueurs. But they had been swept out of that placid stream of existence, and dashed against the horrible, jagged facts of life. Battered and shaken, they must have something to cling to. A blind, inexorable destiny was too horrible a belief. A chastening power, acting intelligently and for a purpose—a living, working power, tearing them out of their grooves, breaking down their small sectarian ways, forcing them into the better path—that was what they had learned to realise during these days of horror. Great hands had closed suddenly upon them, and had moulded them into new shapes, and fitted them for new uses. Could such a power be deflected by any human supplication? It was that or nothing—the last court of appeal, left open to injured humanity. And so they all prayed, as a lover loves, or a poet writes, from the very inside of their souls, and they rose with that singular, illogical feeling of inward peace and satisfaction which prayer only can give.
"Hush!" said Cochrane. "Listen!"
The sound of a volley came crackling up the narrow khor, and then another and another. The Colonel was fidgeting about like an old horse which hears the bugle of the hunt and the yapping of the pack.
"Where can we see what is going on?"
"Come this way! This way, if you please! There is a path up to the top. If the ladies will come after me, they will be spared the sight of anything painful."
The clergyman led them along the side to avoid the bodies which were littered thickly down the bottom of the khor. It was hard walking over the shingly, slaggy stones, but they made their way to the summit at last. Beneath them lay the vast expanse of the rolling desert, and in the foreground such a scene as none of them are ever likely to forget. In that perfectly dry and clear light, with the unvarying brown tint of the hard desert as a background, every detail stood out as clearly as if these were toy figures arranged upon a table within hand's-touch of them.
The Dervishes—or what was left of them—were riding slowly some little distance out in a confused crowd, their patchwork jibbehs and red turbans swaying with the motion of their camels. They did not present the appearance of men who were defeated, for their movements were very deliberate, but they looked about them and changed their formation as if they were uncertain what their tactics ought to be. It was no wonder that they were puzzled, for upon their spent camels their situation was as hopeless as could be conceived. The Sarras men had all emerged from the khor, and had dismounted, the beasts being held in groups of four, while the rifle-men knelt in a long line with a woolly, curling fringe of smoke, sending volley after volley at the Arabs, who shot back in a desultory fashion from the backs of their camels. But it was not upon the sullen group of Dervishes, nor yet upon the long line of kneeling rifle-men, that the eyes of the spectators were fixed. Far out upon the desert, three squadrons of the Halfa Camel Corps were coming up in a dense close column, which wheeled beautifully into a widespread semicircle as it approached. The Arabs were caught between two fires.
"By Jove!" cried the Colonel. "See that!"
The camels of the Dervishes had all knelt down simultaneously, and the men had sprung from their backs. In front of them was a tall, stately figure, who could only be the Emir Wad Ibrahim. They saw him kneel for an instant in prayer. Then he rose, and taking something from his saddle he placed it very deliberately upon the sand and stood upon it.
"Good man!" cried the Colonel. "He is standing upon his sheepskin."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Stuart.
"Every Arab has a sheepskin upon his saddle. When he recognises that his position is perfectly hopeless, and yet is determined to fight to the death, he takes his sheepskin off and stands upon it until he dies. See, they are all upon their sheepskins. They will neither give nor take quarter now."
The drama beneath them was rapidly approaching its climax. The Halfa Corps was well up, and a ring of smoke and flame surrounded the clump of kneeling Dervishes, who answered it as best they could. Many of them were already down, but the rest loaded and fired with the unflinching courage which has always made them worthy antagonists. A dozen khaki-dressed figures upon the sand showed that it was no bloodless victory for the Egyptians. But now there was a stirring bugle call from the Sarras men, and another answered it from the Halfa Corps. Their camels were down also, and the men had formed up into a single, long, curved line. One last volley, and they were charging inwards with the wild inspiriting yell which the blacks had brought with them from their central African wilds. For a minute there was a mad vortex of rushing figures, rifle butts rising and falling, spear-heads gleaming and darting among the rolling dust cloud. Then the bugle rang out once more, the Egyptians fell back and formed up with the quick precision of highly disciplined troops, and there in the centre, each upon his sheepskin, lay the gallant barbarian and his raiders. The nineteenth century had been revenged upon the seventh.
The three women had stared horror-stricken and yet fascinated at the stirring scene before them. Now Sadie and her aunt were sobbing together. The Colonel had turned to them with some cheering words when his eyes fell upon the face of Mrs. Belmont. It was as white and set as if it were carved from ivory, and her large grey eyes were fixed as if she were in a trance.
"Good Heavens, Mrs. Belmont, what is the matter?" he cried.
For answer she pointed out over the desert. Far away, miles on the other side of the scene of the fight, a small body of men were riding towards them.
"By Jove, yes; there's some one there. Who can it be?"
They were all straining their eyes, but the distance was so great that they could only be sure that they were camel-men and about a dozen in number.
"It's those devils who were left behind in the palm grove," said Cochrane. "There's no one else it can be. One consolation, they can't get away again. They've walked right into the lion's mouth."
But Mrs. Belmont was still gazing with the same fixed intensity, and the same ivory face. Now, with a wild shriek of joy, she threw her two hands into the air. "It's they!" she screamed. "They are saved! It's they, Colonel, it's they! Oh, Miss Adams, Miss Adams, it is they!" She capered about on the top of the hill with wild eyes like an excited child.
Her companions would not believe her, for they could see nothing, but there are moments when our mortal senses are more acute than those who have never put their whole heart and soul into them can ever realise. Mrs. Belmont had already run down the rocky path, on the way to her camel, before they could distinguish that which had long before carried its glad message to her. In the van of the approaching party, three white dots shimmered in the sun, and they could only come from the three European hats. The riders were travelling swiftly, and by the time their comrades had started to meet them they could plainly see that it was indeed Belmont, Fardet, and Stephens, with the dragoman Mansoor, and the wounded Soudanese rifleman. As they came together they saw that their escort consisted of Tippy Tilly and the other old Egyptian soldiers. Belmont rushed onwards to meet his wife, but Fardet stopped to grasp the Colonel's hand.
"Vive la France! Vivent les Anglais!" he was yelling. "Tout va bien, n'est ce pas, Colonel? Ah, canaille! Vivent la croix et les Chretiens!" He was incoherent in his delight.
The Colonel, too, was as enthusiastic as his Anglo-Saxon standard would permit. He could not gesticulate, but he laughed in the nervous crackling way which was his top-note of emotion.
"My dear boy, I am deuced glad to see you all again. I gave you up for lost. Never was as pleased at anything in my life! How did you get away?"
"It was all your doing."
"Yes, my friend, and I have been quarrelling with you—ungrateful wretch that I am!"
"But how did I save you?"
"It was you who arranged with this excellent Tippy Tilly and the others that they should have so much if they brought us alive into Egypt again. They slipped away in the darkness and hid themselves in the grove. Then, when we were left, they crept up with their rifles and shot the men who were about to murder us. That cursed Moolah, I am sorry they shot him, for I believe that I could have persuaded him to be a Christian. And now, with your permission, I will hurry on and embrace Miss Adams, for Belmont has his wife, and Stephens has Miss Sadie, so I think it is very evident that the sympathy of Miss Adams is reserved for me."
A fortnight had passed away, and the special boat which had been placed at the disposal of the rescued tourists was already far north of Assiout. Next morning they would find themselves at Baliani, where one takes the express for Cairo. It was, therefore, their last evening together. Mrs. Shlesinger and her child, who had escaped unhurt, had already been sent down from the frontier. Miss Adams had been very ill after her privations, and this was the first time that she had been allowed to come upon deck after dinner. She sat now in a lounge chair, thinner, sterner, and kindlier than ever, while Sadie stood beside her and tucked the rugs around her shoulders. Mr. Stephens was carrying over the coffee and placing it on the wicker table beside them. On the other side of the deck Belmont and his wife were seated together in silent sympathy and contentment.
Monsieur Fardet was leaning against the rail, and arguing about the remissness of the British Government in not taking a more complete control of the Egyptian frontier, while the Colonel stood very erect in front of him, with the red end of a cigar-stump protruding from under his moustache.
But what was the matter with the Colonel? Who would have recognised him who had only seen the broken old man in the Libyan Desert? There might be some little grizzling about the moustache, but the hair was back once more at the fine glossy black which had been so much admired upon the voyage up. With a stony face and an unsympathetic manner he had received, upon his return to Halfa, all the commiserations about the dreadful way in which his privations had blanched him, and then diving into his cabin, he had reappeared within an hour exactly as he had been before that fatal moment when he had been cut off from the manifold resources of civilisation. And he looked in such a sternly questioning manner at every one who stared at him, that no one had the moral courage to make any remark about this modern miracle. It was observed from that time forward that, if the Colonel had only to ride a hundred yards into the desert, he always began his preparations by putting a small black bottle with a pink label into the side-pocket of his coat. But those who knew him best at times when a man may best be known, said that the old soldier had a young man's heart and a young man's spirit— so that if he wished to keep a young man's colour also it was not very unreasonable after all.
It was very soothing and restful up there on the saloon deck, with no sound but the gentle lipping of the water as it rippled against the sides of the steamer. The red after-glow was in the western sky, and it mottled the broad, smooth river with crimson. Dimly they could discern the tall figures of herons standing upon the sand-banks, and farther off the line of riverside date-palms glided past them in a majestic procession. Once more the silver stars were twinkling out, the same clear, placid, inexorable stars to which their weary eyes had been so often upturned during the long nights of their desert martyrdom.
"Where do you put up in Cairo, Miss Adams?" asked Mrs. Belmont at last.
"Shepheard's, I think."
"And you, Mr. Stephens?"
"Oh, Shepheard's, decidedly."
"We are staying at the Continental. I hope we shall not lose sight of you."
"I don't want ever to lose sight of you, Mrs. Belmont," cried Sadie. "Oh, you must come to the States, and we'll give you just a lovely time."
Mrs. Belmont laughed, in her pleasant, mellow fashion.
"We have our duty to do in Ireland, and we have been too long away from it already. My husband has his business, and I have my home, and they are both going to rack and ruin. Besides," she added slyly, "it is just possible that if we did come to the States we might not find you there."
"We must all meet again," said Belmont, "if only to talk our adventures over once more. It will be easier in a year or two. We are still too near them."
"And yet how far away and dream-like it all seems!" remarked his wife. "Providence is very good in softening disagreeable remembrances in our minds. All this feels to me as if it had happened in some previous existence."
Fardet held up his wrist with a cotton bandage still round it.
"The body does not forget as quickly as the mind. This does not look very dream-like or far away, Mrs. Belmont."
"How hard it is that some should be spared, and some not! If only Mr. Brown and Mr. Headingly were with us, then I should not have one care in the world," cried Sadie. "Why should they have been taken, and we left?"
Mr. Stuart had limped on to the deck with an open book in his hand, a thick stick supporting his injured leg.
"Why is the ripe fruit picked, and the unripe left?" said he in answer to the young girl's exclamation. "We know nothing of the spiritual state of these poor dear young fellows, but the great Master Gardener plucks His fruit according to His own knowledge. I brought you up a passage to read to you."
There was a lantern upon the table, and he sat down beside it. The yellow light shone upon his heavy cheek and the red edges of his book. The strong, steady voice rose above the wash of the water.
"'Let them give thanks whom the Lord hath redeemed and delivered from the hand of the enemy, and gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south. They went astray in the wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. So they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He led them forth by the right way, that they might go to the city where they dwelt. Oh that men would therefore praise the Lord for His goodness, and declare the wonders that He doeth for the children of men.'
"It sounds as if it were composed for us, and yet it was written two thousand years ago," said the clergyman, as he closed the book. "In every age man has been forced to acknowledge the guiding hand which leads him. For my part I don't believe that inspiration stopped two thousand years ago. When Tennyson wrote with such fervour and conviction":—
'Oh, yet we trust that somehow good Will be the final goal of ill,'
"He was repeating the message which had been given to him, just as Micah or Ezekiel, when the world was younger, repeated some cruder and more elementary message."
"That is all very well, Mr. Stuart," said the Frenchman; "you ask me to praise God for taking me out of danger and pain, but what I want to know is why, since He has arranged all things, He ever put me into that pain and danger. I have, in my opinion, more occasion to blame than to praise. You would not thank me for pulling you out of that river if it was also I who pushed you in. The most which you can claim for your Providence is that it has healed the wound which its own hand inflicted."
"I don't deny the difficulty," said the clergyman slowly; "no one who is not self-deceived can deny the difficulty. Look how boldly Tennyson faced it in that same poem, the grandest and deepest and most obviously inspired in our language. Remember the effect which it had upon him."
'I falter where I firmly trod, And falling with my weight of cares Upon the great world's altar stairs Which slope through darkness up to God;
I stretch lame hands of faith and grope And gather dust and chaff, and call To what I feel is Lord of all, And faintly trust the larger hope.'
"It is the central mystery of mysteries—the problem of sin and suffering, the one huge difficulty which the reasoner has to solve in order to vindicate the dealings of God with man. But take our own case as an example. I, for one, am very clear what I have got out of our experience. I say it with all humility, but I have a clearer view of my duties than ever I had before. It has taught me to be less remiss in saying what I think to be true, less indolent in doing what I feel to be right."
"And I," cried Sadie. "It has taught me more than all my life put together. I have learned so much and unlearned so much. I am a different girl."
"I never understood my own nature before," said Stephens. "I can hardly say that I had a nature to understand. I lived for what was unimportant, and I neglected what was vital."
"Oh, a good shake-up does nobody any harm," the Colonel remarked. "Too much of the feather-bed-and-four-meals-a-day life is not good for man or woman."
"It is my firm belief," said Mrs. Belmont gravely, "that there was not one of us who did not rise to a greater height during those days in the desert than ever before or since. When our sins come to be weighed, much may be forgiven us for the sake of those unselfish days."
They all sat in thoughtful silence for a little, while the scarlet streaks turned to carmine, and the grey shadows deepened, and the wild-fowl flew past in dark straggling V's over the dull metallic surface of the great smooth-flowing Nile. A cold wind had sprung up from the eastward, and some of the party rose to leave the deck. Stephens leaned forward to Sadie.
"Do you remember what you promised when you were in the desert?" he whispered.
"What was that?"
"You said that if you escaped you would try in future to make some one else happy."
"Then I must do so."
"You have," said he, and their hands met under the shadow of the table.