The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 3

“Stoppa! Backa!” cried the native pilot to the European engineer.

The bluff bows of the stern-wheeler had squelched into the soft brown mud, and the current had swept the boat alongside the bank. The long gangway was thrown across, and the six tall soldiers of the Soudanese escort filed along it, their light-blue, gold-trimmed zouave uniforms and their jaunty yellow and red forage caps showing up bravely in the clear morning light.

The Soudanese escort filed along
The Soudanese escort filed along

Above them, on the top of the bank, was ranged the line of donkeys, and the air was full of the clamour of the boys. In shrill, strident voices each was crying out the virtues of his own beast, and abusing that of his neighbour.

Colonel Cochrane and Mr. Belmont stood together in the bows, each wearing the broad white puggareed hat of the tourist. Miss Adams and her niece leaned against the rail beside them.

“Sorry your wife isn’t coming, Belmont,” said the Colonel.

“I think she had a touch of the sun yesterday. Her head aches very badly.”

His voice was strong and thick like his figure.

“I should stay to keep her company, Mr. Belmont,” said the little American old maid; “but I learn that Mrs. Shlesinger finds the ride too long for her, and has some letters which she must mail today, so Mrs. Belmont will not be lonesome.”

“You’re very good, Miss Adams. We shall be back, you know, by two o’clock.”

“Is that certain?”

“It must be certain, for we are taking no lunch with us, and we shall be famished by then.”

“Yes, I expect we shall be ready for a hock and seltzer, at any rate,” said the Colonel. “This desert dust gives a flavour to the worst wine.”

“Now, ladies and gentlemen!” cried Mansoor, the dragoman, moving forward with something of the priest in his flowing garments and smooth, clean-shaven face. “We must start early that we may return before the meridial heat of the weather.” He ran his dark eyes over the little group of his tourists with a paternal expression. “You take your green glasses, Miss Adams, for glare very great out in the desert. Ah, Mr. Stuart, I set aside very fine donkey for you,— prize donkey, sir, always put aside for the gentleman of most weight. Never mind to take your monument ticket today. Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you please!”

Like a grotesque frieze the party moved one by one along the plank gangway and up the brown crumbling bank. Mr. Stephens led them, a thin, dry, serious figure, in an English straw hat. His red “Baedeker” gleamed under his arm, and in one hand he held a little paper of notes, as if it were a brief. He took Miss Sadie by one arm and her aunt by the other as they toiled up the bank, and the young girl’s laughter rang frank and clear in the morning air as “Baedeker” came fluttering down at their feet. Mr. Belmont and Colonel Cochrane followed, the brims of their sun-hats touching as they discussed the relative advantages of the Mauser, the Lebel, and the Lee-Metford. Behind them walked Cecil Brown, listless, cynical, self-contained. The fat clergyman puffed slowly up the bank, with many gasping witticisms at his own defects. “I’m one of those men who carry everything before them,” said he, glancing ruefully at his rotundity, and chuckling wheezily at his own little joke. Last of all came Headingly, slight and tall, with the student stoop about his shoulders, and Fardet, the good-natured, fussy, argumentative Parisian.

“You see we have an escort today,” he whispered to his companion.

“So I observed.”

“Pah!” cried the Frenchman, throwing out his arms in derision; “as well have an escort from Paris to Versailles. This is all part of the play, Monsieur Headingly. It deceives no one, but it is part of the play.

Pourquoi ces drôles de militaires, dragoman, hein?

It was the dragoman’s rôle to be all things to all men, so he looked cautiously round before he answered to make sure that the English were mounted and out of earshot.

C’est ridicule, monsieur!” said he, shrugging his fat shoulders. “Mais que voulez-vous? C’est l’ordre officiel Egyptien.

Egyptien! Pah, Anglais, Anglais — toujours Anglais!” cried the angry Frenchman.

The frieze now was more grotesque than ever, but had changed suddenly to an equestrian one, sharply outlined against the deep-blue Egyptian sky. Those who have never ridden before have to ride in Egypt, and when the donkeys break into a canter, and the Nile Irregulars are at full charge, such a scene of flying veils, clutching hands, huddled swaying figures, and anxious faces is nowhere to be seen. Belmont, his square figure balanced upon a small white donkey, was waving his hat to his wife, who had come out upon the saloon-deck of the Korosko. Cochrane sat very erect with a stiff military seat, hands low, head high, and heels down, while beside him rode the young Oxford man, looking about him with drooping eyelids as if he thought the desert hardly respectable, and had his doubts about the Universe. Behind them the whole party was strung along the bank in varying stages of jolting and discomfort, a brown-faced, noisy donkey-boy running after each donkey. Looking back, they could see the little lead-coloured stern-wheeler, with the gleam of Mrs. Belmont’s handkerchief from the deck. Beyond ran the broad, brown river, winding down in long curves to where, five miles off, the square, white block-houses upon the black, ragged hills marked the outskirts of Wady Haifa, which had been their starting-point that morning.

“Isn’t it just too lovely for anything?” cried Sadie, joyously. “I’ve got a donkey that runs on casters, and the saddle is just elegant. Did you ever see anything so cunning as these beads and things round his neck? You must make a memo, re donkey, Mr. Stephens. Isn’t that correct legal English?”

Stephens looked at the pretty, animated, boyish face looking up at him from under the coquettish straw hat, and he wished that he had the courage to tell her in her own language that she was just too sweet for anything. But he feared above all things lest he should offend her, and so put an end to their present pleasant intimacy. So his compliment dwindled into a smile.

“You look very happy,” said he.

“Well, who could help feeling good with this dry, clear air, and the blue sky and the crisp, yellow sand, and a superb donkey to carry you. I’ve just got everything in the world to make me happy.”

“Everything?”

“Well, everything that I have any use for just now.”

“I suppose you never know what it is to be sad?”

“Oh, when I am miserable I am just too miserable for words. I’ve sat and cried for days and days at Smith’s College, and the other girls were just crazy to know what I was crying about, and guessing what the reason was that I wouldn’t tell, when all the time the real true reason was that I didn’t know myself. You know how it comes like a great dark shadow over you, and you don’t know why or wherefore, but you’ve just got to settle down to it and be miserable.”

“But you never had any real cause?”

“No, Mr. Stephens, I’ve had such a good time all my life, that I don’t think, when I look back, that I ever had any real cause for sorrow.”

“Well, Miss Sadie, I hope with all my heart that you will be able to say the same when you are the same age as your Aunt. Surely I hear her calling!”

“I wish, Mr. Stephens, you would strike my donkey-boy with your whip if he hits the donkey again,” cried Miss Adams, jogging up on a high, raw-Boned beast. “Hi, dragoman, Mansoor, you tell this boy that I won’t have the animals ill used, and that he ought to be ashamed of himself. Yes, you little rascal, you ought! He’s grinning at me like an advertisement for a tooth paste. Do you think, Mr. Stephens, that if I were to knit that black soldier a pair of woollen stockings he would be allowed to wear them? The poor creature has bandages round his legs.”

“Those are his putties, Miss Adams,” said Colonel Cochrane, looking back at her. “We have found in India that they are the best support to the leg in marching. They are very much better than any stocking.”

“Well, you don’t say! They remind me mostly of a sick horse. But it’s elegant to have the soldiers with us, though Monsieur Fardet tells me there’s nothing for us to be scared about.”

“That is only my opinion, Miss Adams,” said the Frenchman, hastily. “It may be that Colonel Cochrane thinks otherwise.”

“It is Monsieur Fardet’s opinion against that of the officers who have the responsibility of caring for the safety of the frontier,” said the Colonel, coldly. “At least we will all agree that they have the effect of making the scene very much more picturesque.”

The desert upon their right lay in long curves of sand, like the dunes which might have fringed some forgotten primeval sea. Topping them they could see the black, craggy summits of the curious volcanic hills which rise upon the Libyan side. On the crest of the low sand-hills they would catch a glimpse every now and then of a tall, sky-blue soldier, walking swiftly, his rifle at the trail. For a moment the lank, warlike figure would be sharply silhouetted against the sky. Then he would dip into a hollow and disappear, while some hundred yards off another would show for an instant and vanish.

“Wherever are they raised?” asked Sadie, watching the moving figures. “They look to me just about the same tint as the hotel boys in the States.”

“I thought some question might arise about them,” said Mr. Stephens, who was never so happy as when he could anticipate some wish of the pretty American. “I made one or two references this morning in the ship’s library. Here it is — re — that’s to say, about black soldiers. I have it on my notes that they are from the 10th Soudanese battalion of the Egyptian army. They are recruited from the Dinkas and the Shilluks — two negroid tribes living to the south of the Dervish country, near the Equator.”

“How can the recruits come through the Dervishes, then?” asked Headingly, sharply.

“I dare say there is no such very great difficulty over that,” said Monsieur Fardet, with a wink at the American.

“The older men are the remains of the old black battalions. Some of them served with Gordon at Khartoum and have his medal to show. The others are many of them deserters from the Mahdi’s army,” said the Colonel.

“Well, so long as they are not wanted, they look right elegant in those blue jackets,” Miss Adams observed. “But if there was any trouble, I guess we would wish they were less ornamental and a bit whiter.”

“I am not so sure of that, Miss Adams,” said the Colonel. “I have seen these fellows in the field, and I assure you that I have the utmost confidence in their steadiness.”

“Well, I’ll take your word without trying,” said Miss Adams, with a decision which made every one smile.

So far their road had lain along the side of the river, which was swirling down upon their left hand deep and strong from the cataracts above. Here and there the rush of the current was broken by a black shining boulder over which the foam was spouting. Higher up they could see the white gleam of the rapids, and the banks grew into rugged cliffs, which were capped by a peculiar, outstanding, semicircular rock. It did not require the dragoman’s aid to tell the party that this was the famous landmark to which they were bound. A long, level stretch lay before them, and the donkeys took it at a canter. At the farther side were scattered rocks, black upon orange; and in the midst of them rose some broken shafts of pillars and a length of engraved wall, looking in its greyness and its solidity more like some work of Nature than of man. The fat, sleek dragoman had dismounted, and stood waiting in his petticoats and his cover-coat for the stragglers to gather round him.

He pointed up with his donkey-whip
He pointed up with his donkey-whip

“This temple, ladies and gentlemen,” he cried, with the air of an auctioneer who is about to sell it to the highest bidder, “very fine example from the eighteenth dynasty. Here is the cartouche of Thotmes the Third,” he pointed up with his donkey-whip at the rude, but deep, hieroglyphics upon the wall above him. “He live sixteen hundred years before Christ, and this is made to remember his victorious exhibition into Mesopotamia. Here we have his history from the time that he was with his mother, until he return with captives tied to his chariot. In this you see him crowned with Lower Egypt, and with Upper Egypt offering up sacrifice in honour of his victory to the God Ammon-ra. Here he bring his captives before him, and he cut off each his right hand. In this corner you see little pile — all right hands.”

“My sakes, I shouldn’t have liked to be here in those days,” said Miss Adams.

“Why, there’s nothing altered,” remarked Cecil Brown. “The East is still the East. I’ve no doubt that within a hundred miles, or perhaps a good deal less, from where you stand —”

“Shut up!” whispered the Colonel, and the party shuffled on down the line of the wall with their faces up and their big hats thrown backwards. The sun behind them struck the old grey masonry with a brassy glare, and carried on to it the strange black shadows of the tourists, mixing them up with the grim, high-nosed, square-shouldered warriors, and the grotesque, rigid deities who lined it. The broad shadow of the Reverend John Stuart, of Birmingham, smudged out both the heathen King and the god whom he worshipped.

“What’s this?” he was asking in his wheezy voice, pointing up with a yellow Assouan cane.

“That is a hippopotamus,” said the dragoman; and the tourists all tittered, for there was just a suspicion of Mr. Stuart himself in the carving.

“But it isn’t bigger than a little pig,” he protested. “You see that the King is putting his spear through it with ease.”

“They make it small to show that it was a very small thing to the King,” said the dragoman. “So you see that all the King’s prisoners do not exceed his knee — which is not because he was so much taller, but so much more powerful. You see that he is bigger than his horse, because he is a king and the other is only a horse. The same way, these small women whom you see here and there are just his trivial little wives.”

“Well, now!” cried Miss Adams, indignantly. “If they had sculped that King’s soul it would have needed a lens to see it. Fancy his allowing his wives to be put in like that.”

“If he did it now, Miss Adams,” said the Frenchman, “he would have more fighting than ever in Mesopotamia. But time brings revenge. Perhaps the day will soon come when we have the picture of the big, strong wife and the trivial little husband — hein?

Cecil Brown and Headingly had dropped behind, for the glib comments of the dragoman, and the empty, light-hearted chatter of the tourists jarred upon their sense of solemnity. They stood in silence watching the grotesque procession, with its sun-hats and green veils, as it passed in the vivid sunshine down the front of the old grey wall. Above them two crested hoopoes were fluttering and calling amid the ruins of the pylon.

“Isn’t it a sacrilege?” said the Oxford man, at last.

“Well, now, I’m glad you feel that about it, because it’s how it always strikes me,” Headingly answered, with feeling. “I’m not quite clear in my own mind how these things should be approached,— if they are to be approached at all,— but I am sure this is not the way. On the whole, I prefer the ruins that I have not seen to those which I have.”

The young diplomatist looked up with his peculiarly bright smile, which faded away too soon into his languid, blasé mask.

“I’ve got a map,” said the American, “and sometimes far away from anything in the very midst of the waterless, trackless desert, I see ‘ruins’ marked upon it — or ‘remains of a temple,’ perhaps. For example, the temple of Jupiter Ammon, which was one of the most considerable shrines in the world, was hundreds of miles from anywhere. Those are the ruins, solitary, unseen, unchanging through the centuries, which appeal to one’s imagination. But when I present a check at the door, and go in as if it were Barnum’s show, all the subtle feeling of romance goes right out of it.”

“Absolutely!” said Cecil Brown, looking over the desert with his dark, intolerant eyes. “If one could come wandering here alone — stumble upon it by chance, as it were — and find one’s self in absolute solitude in the dim light of the temple, with these grotesque figures all around, it would be perfectly overwhelming. A man would be prostrated with wonder and awe. But when Belmont is puffing his bulldog pipe, and Stuart is wheezing, and Miss Sadie Adams is laughing ——”

“And that jay of a dragoman speaking his piece,” said Headingly; “I want to stand and think all the time, and I never seem to get the chance. I was ripe for manslaughter when I stood before the Great Pyramid, and couldn’t get a quiet moment because they would boost me on to the top. I took a kick at one man which would have sent him to the top in one jump if I had hit meat. But fancy travelling all the way from America to see the pyramid, and then finding nothing better to do than to kick an Arab in front of it!”

The Oxford man laughed in his gentle, tired fashion.

“They are starting again,” said he, and the two hastened forwards to take their places at the tail of the absurd procession.

Their route ran now among large, scattered boulders, and between stony, shingly hills. A narrow, winding path curved in and out amongst the rocks. Behind them their view was cut off by similar hills, black and fantastic, like the slag-heaps at the shaft of a mine. A silence fell upon the little company, and even Sadie’s bright face reflected the harshness of Nature. The escort had closed in, and marched beside them, their boots scrunching among the loose black rubble. Colonel Cochrane and Belmont were still riding together in the van.

A silence fell upon the little company
A silence fell upon the little company

“Do you know, Belmont,” said the Colonel, in a low voice, “you may think me a fool, but I don’t like this one little bit.”

Belmont gave a short gruff laugh.

“It seemed all right in the saloon of the Korosko, but now that we are here we do seem rather up in the air,” said he. “Still, you know, a party comes here every week, and nothing has ever yet gone wrong.”

“I don’t mind taking my chances when I am on the war-path,” the Colonel answered. “That’s all straightforward and in the way of business. But when you have women with you, and a helpless crowd like this, it becomes really dreadful. Of course, the chances are a hundred to one that we have no trouble; but if we should have — well, it won’t bear thinking about. The wonderful thing is their complete unconsciousness that there is any danger whatever.”

“Well, I like the English tailor-made dresses well enough for walking, Mr. Stephens,” said Miss Sadie from behind them. “But for an afternoon dress, I think the French have more style than the English. Your milliners have a more severe cut, and they don’t do the cunning little ribbons and bows and things in the same way.”

The Colonel smiled at Belmont.

She is quite serene in her mind, at any rate,” said he. “Of course, I wouldn’t say what I drink to any one but you, and I dare say it will all prove to be quite unfounded.”

“Well, I could imagine parties of Dervishes on the prowl,” said Belmont. “But what I cannot imagine is that they should just happen to come to the pulpit rock on the very morning when we are due there.”

“Considering that our movements have been freely advertised, and that every one knows a week beforehand what our programme is, and where we are to be found, it does not strike me as being such a wonderful coincidence.”

“It is a very remote chance,” said Belmont, stoutly, but he was glad in his heart that his wife was safe and snug on board the steamer.

And now they were clear of the rocks again, with a fine stretch of firm yellow sand extending to the very base of the conical hill which lay before them. “Ay-ah! Ayah!” cried the boys, and whack came their sticks upon the flanks of the donkeys, which broke into a gallop, and away they all streamed over the plain. It was not until they had come to the end of the path which curves up the hill that the dragoman called a halt.

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, we are arrived for the so famous pulpit rock of Abousir. From the summit you will presently enjoy a panorama of remarkable fertility. But first you will observe that over the rocky side of the hill are everywhere cut the names of great men who have passed it in their travels, and some of these names are older than the time of Christ.”

“Got Moses?” asked Miss Adams.

“Auntie, I’m surprised at you!” cried Sadie.

“Well, my dear, he was in Egypt, and he was a great man, and he may have passed this way.”

“Moses’s name very likely there, and the same with Herodotus,” said the dragoman, gravely. “Both have been long worn away. But there on the brown rock you will see Belzoni. And up higher is Gordon. There is hardly a name famous in the Soudan which you will not find, if you like. And now, with your permission, we shall take good-bye of our donkeys and walk up the path, and you will see the river and the desert from the summit of the top.”

A minute or two of climbing brought them out upon the semicircular platform which crowns the rock. Below them on the far side was a perpendicular black cliff, a hundred and fifty feet high, with the swirling, foam-streaked river roaring past its base. The swish of the water and the low roar as it surged over the mid-stream boulders boomed through the hot, stagnant air. Far up and far down they could see the course of the river, a quarter of a mile in breadth, and running very deep and strong, with sleek black eddies and occasional spoutings of foam. On the other side was a frightful wilderness of black, scattered rocks, which were the débris carried down by the river at high flood. In no direction were there any signs of human beings or their dwellings.

“On the far side,” said the dragoman, waving his donkey-whip towards the east, “is the military line which conducts Wady Haifa to Sarras. Sarras lies to the south, under that black hill. Those two blue mountains which you see very far away are in Dongola, more than a hundred miles from Sarras. The railway there is forty miles long, and has been much annoyed by the Dervishes, who are very glad to turn the rails into spears. The telegraph wires are also much appreciated thereby. Now, if you will kindly turn round, I will explain, also, what we see upon the other side.”

It was a view which, when once seen, must always haunt the mind. Such an expanse of savage and unrelieved desert might be part of some cold and burned-out planet rather than of this fertile and bountiful earth. Away and away it stretched to die into a soft, violet haze in the extremest distance. In the foreground the sand was of a bright golden yellow, which was quite dazzling in the sunshine. Here and there in a scattered cordon stood the six trusty negro soldiers leaning motionless upon their rifles, and each throwing a shadow which looked as solid as himself. But beyond this golden plain lay a low line of those black slag-heaps, with yellow sand-valleys winding between them. These in their turn were topped by higher and more fantastic hills, and these by others, peeping over each other’s shoulders until they blended with that distant violet haze. None of these hills were of any height,— a few hundred feet at the most,— but their savage, saw-toothed crests and their steep scarps of sun-baked stone gave them a fierce character of their own.

“The Libyan desert,” said the dragoman, with a proud wave of his hand. “The greatest desert in the world. Suppose you travel right west from here, and turn neither to the north nor to the south, the first houses you would come to would be in America. That make you homesick, Miss Adams, I believe?”

But the American old maid had her attention drawn away by the conduct of Sadie, who had caught her arm by one hand and was pointing over the desert with the other.

“Well, now, if that isn’t too picturesque for anything!” she cried, with a flush of excitement upon her pretty face. “Do look, Mr. Stephens! That’s just the one only thing we wanted to make it just perfectly grand. See the men upon the camels coming out from between those hills!”

Long string of red-turbaned riders
Long string of red-turbaned riders

They all looked at the long string of red-turbaned riders who were winding out of the ravine, and there fell such a hush that the buzzing of the flies sounded quite loud upon their ears. Colonel Cochrane had lit a match, and he stood with it in one hand and the unlit cigarette in the other until the flame licked round his fingers. Belmont whistled. The dragoman stood staring with his mouth half-open, and a curious slaty tint in his full, red lips. The others looked from one to the other with an uneasy sense that there was something wrong. It was the Colonel who broke the silence.

“By George, Belmont, I believe the hundred-to-one chance has come off!” said he.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33