The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 4

“What’s the meaning of this, Mansoor?” cried Belmont, harshly. “Who are these people, and why are you standing staring as if you had lost your senses?”

The dragoman made an effort to compose himself, and licked his dry lips before he answered.

“I do not know who they are,” said he, in a quavering voice. “I did not expect to see any Arabs in this part.”

“Who they are?” cried the Frenchman. “You can see who they are. They are armed men upon camels, Ababdeh, Bishareen — Bedouins, in short, such as are employed by the Government upon the frontier.”

“By Jove, he may be right, Cochrane,” said Belmont, looking inquiringly at the Colonel. “Why shouldn’t it be as he says? why shouldn’t these fellows be friendlies?”

“There are no friendlies upon this side of the river,” said the Colonel, abruptly; “I am perfectly certain about that. There is no use in mincing matters. We must prepare for the worst.”

But in spite of his words, they stood stock-still, in a huddled group, staring out over the plain. Their nerves were numbed by the sudden shock, and to all of them it was like a scene in a dream, vague, impersonal, and unreal. The men upon the camels had streamed out from a gorge which lay a mile or so distant on the side of the path along which they had travelled. Their retreat, therefore, was entirely cut off. It appeared, from the dust and the length of the line, to be quite an army which was emerging from the hills, for seventy men upon camels cover a considerable stretch of ground. Having reached the sandy plain, they very deliberately formed to the front, and then at the harsh call of a bugle they trotted forward in line, the parti-coloured figures all swaying and the sand smoking in a rolling yellow cloud at the heels of their camels. At the same moment the six black soldiers doubled in from the front with their Martinis at the trail, and snuggled down like well-trained skirmishers behind the rocks upon the haunch of the hill. Their breech-blocks all snapped together as their corporal gave them the order to load.

And now suddenly the first stupor of the excursionists passed away, and was succeeded by a frantic and impotent energy. They all ran about upon the plateau of rock in an aimless, foolish flurry, like frightened fowls in a yard. They could not bring themselves to acknowledge that there was no possible escape for them. Again and again they rushed to the edge of the great cliff which rose from the river, but the youngest and most daring of them could never have descended it. The two women clung one on each side of the trembling Mansoor, with a feeling that he was officially responsible for their safety. When he ran up and down in his desperation, his skirts and theirs all fluttered together. Stephens, the lawyer, kept close to Sadie Adams, muttering mechanically, “Don’t be alarmed, Miss Sadie. Don’t be at all alarmed!” though his own limbs were twitching with agitation. Monsieur Fardet stamped about with a guttural rolling of r’s, glancing angrily at his companions, as if they had in some way betrayed him, while the fat clergyman stood with his umbrella up, staring stolidly with big, frightened eyes at the camel-men. Cecil Brown curled his small, prim moustache, and looked white but contemptuous. The Colonel, Belmont, and the young Harvard graduate were the three most cool-headed and resourceful members of the party.

“Better stick together,” said the Colonel. “There’s no escape for us, so we may as well remain united.”

“They’ve halted,” said Belmont. “They are reconnoitring us. They know very well that there is no escape from them, and they are taking their time. I don’t see what we can do.”

“Suppose we hide the women,” Headingly suggested. “They can’t know how many of us are here. When they have taken us, the women can come out of their hiding-place and make their way back to the boat.”

“Admirable!” cried Colonel Cochrane. “Admirable! This way, please, Miss Adams. Bring the ladies here, Mansoor. There is not an instant to be lost.”

There was a part of the plateau which was invisible from the plain, and here in feverish haste they built a little cairn. Many flaky slabs of stone were lying about, and it did not take long to prop the largest of these against a rock, so as to make a lean-to, and then to put two side-pieces to complete it. The slabs were of the same colour as the rock, so that to a casual glance the hiding-place was not very visible. The two ladies were squeezed into this, and they crouched together, Sadie’s arms thrown round her aunt. When they had walled them up, the men turned with lighter hearts to see what was going on. As they did so there rang out the sharp, peremptory crack of a rifleshot from the escort, followed by another and another, but these isolated shots were drowned in the long, spattering roll of an irregular volley from the plain, and the air was full of the phit-phit-phit of the bullets. The tourists all huddled behind the rocks, with the exception of the Frenchman, who still stamped angrily about, striking his sun-hat with his clenched hand. Belmont and Cochrane crawled down to where the Soudanese soldiers were firing slowly and steadily, resting their rifles upon the boulders in front of them.

The Arabs had halted about five hundred yards away, and it was evident from their leisurely movements that they were perfectly aware that there was no possible escape for the travellers. They had paused to ascertain their number before closing in upon them. Most of them were firing from the backs of their camels, but a few had dismounted and were kneeling here and there,— little shimmering white spots against the golden background. Their shots came sometimes singly in quick, sharp throbs, and sometimes in a rolling volley, with a sound like a boy’s stick drawn across iron railings. The hill buzzed like a bee-hive, and the bullets made a sharp, crackling sound as they struck against the rocks.

You do no good by exposing yourself
You do no good by exposing yourself

“You do no good by exposing yourself,” said Belmont, drawing Colonel Cochrane behind a large jagged boulder, which already furnished a shelter for three of the Soudanese.

“A bullet is the best we have to hope for,” said Cochrane, grimly. “What an infernal fool I have been, Belmont, not to protest more energetically against this ridiculous expedition! I deserve whatever I get, but it is hard on these poor souls who never knew the danger.”

“I suppose there’s no help for us?”

“Not the faintest.”

“Don’t you think this firing might bring the troops up from Haifa?”

“They’ll never hear it. It is a good six miles from here to the steamer. From that to Haifa would be another five.”

“Well, when we don’t return, the steamer will give the alarm.”

“And where shall we be by that time?”

“My poor Norah! My poor little Norah!” muttered Belmont, in the depths of his grizzled moustache.

“What do you suppose that they will do with us, Cochrane,” he asked after a pause.

“They may cut our throats, or they may take us as slaves to Khartoum. I don’t know that there is much to choose. There’s one of us out of his troubles, anyhow.”

The soldier next them had sat down abruptly, and leaned forward over his knees. His movement and attitude were so natural that it was hard to realise that he had been shot through the head. He neither stirred nor groaned. His comrades bent over him for a moment, and then, shrugging their shoulders, they turned their dark faces to the Arabs once more. Belmont picked up the dead man’s Martini and his ammunition-pouch.

“Only three more rounds, Cochrane,” said he, with the little brass cylinders upon the palm of his hand. “We’ve let them shoot too soon, and too often. We should have waited for the rush.”

“You’re a famous shot, Belmont,” cried the Colonel. “I’ve heard of you as one of the cracks. Don’t, you think you could pick off their leader?” “Which is he?”

“As far as I can make out, it is that one on the white camel on their right front. I mean the fellow who is peering at us from under his two hands.”

Belmont thrust in his cartridge and altered the sights. “It’s a shocking bad light for judging distance,” said he. “This is where the low point-blank trajectory of the Lee-Metford comes in useful. Well, we’ll try him at five hundred.” He fired, but there was no change in the white camel or the peering rider.

“Did you see any sand fly?”

“No; I saw nothing.” “I fancy I took my sight a trifle too full.” “Try him again.” Man and rifle and rock were equally steady, but again the camel and chief remained unharmed. The third shot must have been nearer, for he moved a few paces to the right, as if he were becoming restless.

Belmont threw the empty rifle down with an exclamation of disgust.

“It’s this confounded light,” he cried, and his cheeks flushed with annoyance. “Think of my wasting three cartridges in that fashion! If I had him at Bisley I’d shoot the turban off him, but this vibrating glare means refraction. What’s the matter with the Frenchman?”

Monsieur Fardet was stamping about the plateau with the gestures of a man who has been stung by a wasp. “S’cré nom! S’cré nom!” he shouted, showing his strong white teeth under his black waxed moustache. He wrung his right hand violently, and as he did so he sent a little spray of blood from his finger-tips. A bullet had chipped his wrist. Headingly ran out from the cover where he had been crouching, with the intention of dragging the demented Frenchman into a place of safety, but he had not taken three paces before he was himself hit in the loins, and fell with a dreadful crash among the stones. He staggered to his feet, and then fell again in the same place, floundering up and down like a horse which has broken its back. “I’m done!” he whispered, as the Colonel ran to his aid, and then he lay still, with his china-white cheek against the black stones. When, but a year before, he had wandered under the elms of Cambridge, surely the last fate upon this earth which he could have predicted for himself would be that he should be slain by the bullet of a fanatical Mohammedan in the wilds of the Libyan desert.

Meanwhile the fire of the escort had ceased, for they had shot away their last cartridge. A second man had been killed, and a third — who was the corporal in charge — had received a bullet in his thigh. He sat upon a stone, tying up his injury with a grave, preoccupied look upon his wrinkled black face, like an old woman piecing together a broken plate. The three others fastened their bayonets with a determined metallic rasp and snap, and the air of men who intended to sell their lives dearly.

“They’re coming!” cried Belmont, looking over the plain.

“Let them come!” the Colonel answered, putting his hands into his trouser-pockets. Suddenly he pulled one fist out, and shook it furiously in the air. “Oh, the cads! die confounded cads!” he shouted, and his eyes were congested with rage.

It was the fate of the poor donkey-boys which had carried the self-contained soldier out of his usual calm. During the firing they had remained huddled, a pitiable group, among the rocks at the base of the hill. Now upon the conviction that the charge of the Dervishes must come first upon them, they had sprung upon their animals with shrill, inarticulate cries of fear, and had galloped off across the plain. A small flanking-party of eight or ten camel-men had worked round while the firing had been going on, and these dashed in among the flying donkey-boys, hacking and hewing with a cold-blooded, deliberate ferocity. One little boy, in a flapping Galabeeah, kept ahead of his pursuers for a time, but the long stride of the camels ran him down, and an Arab thrust his spear into the middle of his stooping back. The small, white-clad corpses looked like a flock of sheep trailing over the desert.

But the people upon the rock had no time to think of the cruel fate of the donkey-boys. Even the Colonel, after that first indignant outburst, had forgotten all about them. The advancing camel-men had trotted to the bottom of the hill, had dismounted, and, leaving their camels kneeling, had rushed furiously onward. Fifty of them were clambering up the path and over the rocks together, their red turbans appearing and vanishing again as they scrambled over the boulders. Without a shot or a pause they surged over the three black soldiers, killing one and stamping the other two down under their hurrying feet. So they burst on to the plateau at the top, where an unexpected resistance checked them for an instant.

The travellers, nestling up against one another, had awaited, each after his own fashion, the coming of the Arabs. The Colonel, with his hands back in his trouser-pockets, tried to whistle out of his dry lips. Belmont folded his arms and leaned against a rock, with a sulky frown upon his lowering face. So strangely do our minds act that his three successive misses and the tarnish to his reputation as a marksman was troubling him more than his impending fate. Cecil Brown stood erect, and plucked nervously at the upturned points of his little prim moustache. Monsieur Fardet groaned over his wounded wrist. Mr. Stephens, in sombre impotence, shook his head slowly, the living embodiment of prosaic law and order. Mr. Stuart stood, his umbrella still over him, with no expression upon his heavy face or in his staring brown eyes. Headingly lay with that china-white cheek resting motionless upon the stones. His sun-hat had fallen off, and he looked quite boyish with his ruffled yellow hair and his unlined, clean-cut face. The dragoman sat upon a stone and played nervously with his donkey-whip. So the Arabs found them when they reached the summit of the hill.

And then, just as the foremost rushed to lay hands upon them, a most unexpected incident arrested them. From the time of the first appearance of the Dervishes the fat clergyman of Birmingham had looked like a man in a cataleptic trance. He had neither moved nor spoken. But now he suddenly woke at a bound into strenuous and heroic energy. It may have been the mania of fear, or it may have been the blood of some Berserk ancestor which stirred suddenly in his veins; but he broke into a wild shout, and, catching up a stick, he struck right and left among the Arabs with a fury which was more savage than their own. One who helped to draw up this narrative has left it upon record that of all the pictures which have been burned into his brain, there is none so clear as that of this man, his large face shining with perspiration, and his great body dancing about with unwieldy agility, as he struck at the shrinking, snarling savages.

[Illustration: He struck at the snarling savages p 94]

Then a spear-head flashed from behind a rock with a quick, vicious upward thrust, the clergyman fell upon his hands and knees, and the horde poured over him to seize their unresisting victims. Knives glimmered before their eyes, rude hands clutched at their wrists and at their throats, and then, with brutal and unreasoning violence, they were hauled and pushed down the steep, winding path to where the camels were waiting below. The Frenchman waved his unwounded hand as he walked. “Vive le Khalifa! Vive le Madhi!” he shouted, until a blow from behind with the butt-end of a Remington beat him into silence.

And now they were herded in at the base of the Abousir Rock, this little group of modern types who had fallen into the rough clutch of the seventh century,— for in all save the rifles in their hands there was nothing to distinguish these men from the desert warriors who first carried the crescent flag out of Arabia. The East does not change, and the Dervish raiders were not less brave, less cruel, or less fanatical than their forebears. They stood in a circle, leaning upon their guns and spears, and looking with exultant eyes at the dishevelled group of captives. They were clad in some approach to a uniform, red turbans gathered around the neck as well as the head, so that the fierce face looked out of a scarlet frame; yellow, untanned shoes, and white tunics with square, brown patches let into them. All carried rifles, and one had a small, discoloured bugle slung over his shoulder. Half of them were negroes — fine, muscular men, with the limbs of a jet Hercules; and the other half were Baggara Arabs — small, brown, and wiry, with little, vicious eyes, and thin, cruel lips. The chief was also a Baggara, but he was a taller man than the others, with a black beard which came down over his chest, and a pair of hard, cold eyes, which gleamed like glass from under his thick, black brows. They were fixed now upon his captives, and his features were grave with thought. Mr. Stuart had been brought down, his hat gone, his face still flushed with anger, and his trousers sticking in one part to his leg. The two surviving Soudanese soldiers, their black faces and blue coats blotched with crimson, stood silently at attention upon one side of this forlorn group of castaways.

The chief stood for some minutes, stroking his black beard, while his fierce eyes glanced from one pale face to another along the miserable line of his captives. In a harsh, imperious voice he said something which brought Mansoor, the dragoman, to the front, with bent back and outstretched, supplicating palms. To his employers there had always seemed to be something comic in that flapping skirt and short cover-coat above it; but now, under the glare of the mid-day sun, with those faces gathered round them, it appeared rather to add a grotesque horror to the scene. The dragoman salaamed like some ungainly, automatic doll, and then, as the chief rasped out a curt word or two, he fell suddenly upon his face, rubbing his forehead into the sand, and flapping upon it with his hands.

Fell suddenly upon his face
Fell suddenly upon his face

“What’s that, Cochrane?” asked Belmont. “Why is he making an exhibition of himself?”

“As far as I can understand, it is all up with us,” the Colonel answered.

“But this is absurd,” cried the Frenchman, excitedly; “why should these people wish any harm to me? I have never injured them. On the other hand, I have always been their friend. If I could but speak to them, I would make them comprehend. Hola, dragoman, Mansoor!”

The excited gestures of Monsieur Fardet drew the sinister eyes of the Baggara chief upon him. Again he asked a curt question, and Mansoor, kneeling in front of him, answered it.

“Tell him that I am a Frenchman, dragoman. Tell him that I am a friend of the Khalifa. Tell him that my countrymen have never had any quarrel with him, but that his enemies are also ours.”

“The chief asks what religion you call your own,” said Mansoor. “The Khalifa, he says, has no necessity for any friendship from those who are infidels and unbelievers.”

“Tell him that in France we look upon all religions as good.”

“The chief says that none but a blaspheming dog and the son of a dog would say that all religions are one as good as the other. He says that if you are indeed the friend of the Khalifa, you will accept the Koran and become a true believer upon the spot. If you will do so, he will promise on his side to send you alive to Khartoum.”

“And if not?”

“You will fare in the same way as the others.”

“Then you may make my compliments to monsieur the chief, and tell him that it is not the custom for Frenchmen to change their religion under compulsion.”

The chief said a few words, and then turned to consult with a short, sturdy Arab at his elbow.

“He says, Monsieur Fardet,” said the dragoman, “that if you speak again he will make a trough out of you for the dogs to feed from. Say nothing to anger him, sir, for he is now talking what is to be done with us.”

“Who is he?” asked the Colonel.

“It is Ali Wad Ibrahim, the same who raided last year, and killed all of the Nubian village.”

“I’ve heard of him,” said the Colonel.

“He has the name of being one of the boldest and the most fanatical of all the Khalifa’s leaders. Thank God that the women are out of his clutches.”

The two Arabs had been talking in that stern, restrained fashion which comes so strangely from a southern race. Now they both turned to the dragoman, who was still kneeling upon the sand. They plied him with questions, pointing first to one and then to another of their prisoners. Then they conferred together once more, and finally said something to Mansoor, with a contemptuous wave of the hand to indicate that he might convey it to the others.

“Thank Heaven, gentlemen, I think that we are saved for the present time,” said Mansoor, wiping away the sand which had stuck to his perspiring forehead. “Ali Wad Ibrahim says that though an unbeliever should have only the edge of the sword from one of the sons of the Prophet, yet it might be of more profit to the beit-el-mal at Omdurman if it had the gold which your people will pay for you. Until it comes you can work as the slaves of the Khalifa; unless he should decide to put you to death. You are to mount yourselves upon the spare; camels and to ride with the party.”

The chief had waited for the end of the explanation. Now he gave a brief order, and a negro stepped forward with a long, dull-coloured sword in his hand. The dragoman squealed like a rabbit who sees a ferret, and threw himself frantically down upon the sand once more.

“What is it, Cochrane?” asked Cecil Brown,— for the Colonel had served in the East, and was the only one of the travellers who had a smattering of Arabic.

“As far as I can make out, he says there is no use keeping the dragoman, as no one would trouble to pay a ransom for him, and he is too fat to make a good slave.”

“Poor devil!” cried Brown. “Here, Cochrane, tell them to let him go. We can’t let him be butchered like this in front of us. Say that we will find the money amongst us. I will be answerable for any reasonable sum.”

“I’ll stand in as far as my means will allow,” cried Belmont.

“We will sign a joint bond or indemnity,” said, the lawyer. “If I had a paper and pencil I could throw it into shape in an instant, and the chief could rely upon its being perfectly correct and valid.”

But the Colonel’s Arabic was insufficient, and Mansoor himself was too maddened by fear to understand the offer which was being made for him. The negro looked a question at the chief, and then his long black arm swung upwards and his sword hissed over his shoulder. But the dragoman had screamed out something which arrested the blow, and which brought the chief and the lieutenant to his side with a new interest upon their swarthy faces. The others crowded in also, and formed a dense circle around the grovelling, pleading man.

The Colonel had not understood this sudden change, nor had the others fathomed the reason of it, but some instinct flashed it upon Stephens’s horrified perceptions.

“Oh, you villain!” he cried, furiously.

“Hold your tongue, you miserable creature! Be silent! Better die — a thousand times better die!”

But it was too late, and already they could all see the base design by which the coward hoped to save his own life. He was about to betray the women. They saw the chief, with a brave man’s contempt upon his stern face, make a sign of haughty assent, and then Mansoor spoke rapidly and earnestly, pointing up the hill. At a word from the Baggara, a dozen of the raiders rushed up the path and were lost to view upon the top. Then came a shrill cry, a horrible, strenuous scream of surprise and terror, and an instant later the party streamed into sight again, dragging the women in their midst. Sadie, with her young, active limbs, kept up with them as they sprang down the slope, encouraging her aunt all the while over her shoulder. The older lady, struggling amid the rushing white figures, looked with her thin limbs and open mouth like a chicken being dragged from a coop.

The party streamed into sight again
The party streamed into sight again

The chief’s dark eyes glanced indifferently at Miss Adams, but gazed with a smouldering fire at the younger woman. Then he gave an abrupt order, and the prisoners were hurried in a miserable, hopeless drove to the cluster of kneeling camels. Their pockets had already been ransacked, and the contents thrown into one of the camel-food bags, the neck of which was tied up by Ali Wad Ibrahim’s own hands.

“I say, Cochrane,” whispered Belmont, looking with smouldering eyes at the wretched Mansoor, “I’ve got a little hip revolver which they have not discovered. Shall I shoot that cursed dragoman for giving away the women?”

The Colonel shook his head.

“You had better keep it,” said he, with a sombre face. “The women may find some other use for it before all is over.”

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