Part 2 out of 3
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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,
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
"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
"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
The dragoman came running up with the light of hope shining upon his
"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
"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
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,
"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
"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
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
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
But the Moolah had risen, and a gleam of suspicion twinkled in his
"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
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
"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
"You have ruined everything. I believe you have ruined me also!" cried
Mansoor, wringing his hands. "The women are to get upon these three
"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,
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
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
"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
"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
"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.