The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 7

There was nothing to show them as they journeyed onwards that they were not on the very spot that they had passed at sunset upon the evening before. The region of fantastic black hills and orange sand which bordered the river had long been left behind, and everywhere now was the same brown, rolling, gravelly plain, the ground-swell with the shining rounded pebbles upon its surface, and the occasional little sprouts of sage-green camel-grass. Behind and before it extended, to where far away in front of them it sloped upwards towards a line of violet hills. The sun was not high enough yet to cause the tropical shimmer, and the wide landscape, brown with its violet edging, stood out with a hard clearness in that dry, pure air. The long caravan straggled along at the slow swing of the baggage-camels. Far out on the flanks rode the vedettes, halting at every rise, and peering backwards with their hands shading their eyes. In the distance their spears and rifles seemed to stick out of them, straight and thin, like needles in knitting.

“How far do you suppose we are from the Nile?” asked Cochrane. He rode with his chin on his shoulder and his eyes straining wistfully to the eastern sky-line.

“A good fifty miles,” Belmont answered.

“Not so much as that,” said the Colonel. “We could not have been moving more than fourteen or fifteen hours, and a camel seldom goes more than two and a half miles an hour unless he is trotting. That would 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 Café 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 creature, stood still
The creature, stood still

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 jog-trot, which set the prisoners nodding and bowing in grotesque and ludicrous misery. It was fun at first, and they smiled at each other, but soon the fun had become tragedy as the terrible camel-ache seized them by spine and waist, with its deep, dull throb, which rises gradually to a splitting agony.

“I can’t stand it, Sadie,” cried Miss Adams, suddenly. “I’ve done my best. I’m going to fall.”

“No, no, Auntie, you’ll break your limbs if you do. Hold up, just a little, and maybe they’ll stop.”

“Lean back, and hold your saddle behind,” said the Colonel. “There, you’ll find that will ease the strain.” He took the puggaree from his hat, and, tying the ends together, he slung it over her front pommel. “Put your foot in the loop,” said he. “It will steady you like a stirrup.”

The relief was instant, so Stephens did the same for Sadie. But presently one of the weary doora camels came down with a crash, its limbs starred out as if it had split asunder, and the caravan had to come down to its old sober gait.

“Is this another belt of drift sand?” asked the Colonel, presently.

“No, it’s white,” said Belmont. “Here, Mansoor, what is that in front of us?”

But the dragoman shook his head.

“I don’t know what it is, sir. I never saw the same thing before.”

Right across the desert, from north to south, there was drawn a white line, as straight and clear as if it had been slashed with chalk across a brown table. It was very thin, but it extended without a break from horizon to horizon. Tippy Tilly said something to the dragoman.

“It’s the great caravan route,” said Mansoor.

[Illustration: The great caravan route p 174]

“What makes it white, then?”

“The bones.”

It seemed incredible, and yet it was true, for as they drew nearer they saw that it was indeed a beaten track across the desert, hollowed out by long usage, and so covered with bones that they gave the impression of a continuous white ribbon. Long, snouty heads were scattered everywhere, and the lines of ribs were so continuous that it looked in places like the framework of a monstrous serpent. The endless road gleamed in the sun as if it were paved with ivory. For thousands of years this had been the highway over the desert, and during all that time no animal of all those countless caravans had died there without being preserved by the dry, antiseptic air. No wonder, then, that it was hardly possible to walk down it now without treading upon their skeletons.

“This must be the route I spoke of,” said Stephens. “I remember marking it upon the map I made for you, Miss Adams. Baedeker says that it has been disused on account of the cessation of all trade which followed the rise of the Dervishes, but that it used to be the main road by which the skins and gums of Darfur found their way down to Lower Egypt.”

They looked at it with a listless curiosity, for there was enough to engross them at present in their own fates. The caravan struck to the south along the old desert track, and this Golgotha of a road seemed to be a fitting avenue for that which awaited them at the end of it. Weary camels and weary riders dragged on together towards their miserable goal.

And now, as the critical moment approached which was to decide their fate, Colonel Cochrane, weighed down by his fears lest something terrible should befall the women, put his pride aside to the extent of asking the advice, of the renegade dragoman. The fellow was a villain and a coward, but at least he was an Oriental, and he understood the Arab point of view. His change of religion had brought him into closer contact with the Dervishes, and he had overheard their intimate talk. Cochrane’s stiff, aristocratic nature fought hard before he could bring himself to ask advice from such a man, and when he at last did so, it was in the gruffest and most unconciliatory voice.

“You know the rascals, and you have the same way of looking at things,” said he. “Our object is to keep things going for another twenty-four hours. After that it does not much matter what befalls us, for we shall be out of the reach of rescue. But how can we stave them off for another day?”

“You know my advice,” the dragoman answered; “I have already answered it to you. If you will all become as I have, you will certainly be carried to Khartoum alive. If you do not, you will never leave our next camping-place alive.”

The Colonel’s well-curved nose took a higher tilt, and an angry flush reddened his thin cheeks. He rode in silence for a little, for his Indian service had left him with a curried-prawn temper, which had had an extra touch of cayenne added to it by his recent experiences. It was some minutes before he could trust himself to reply.

“We’ll set that aside,” said he, at last.

“Some things are possible and some are not. This is not.”

“You need only pretend.”

“That’s enough,” said the Colonel, abruptly.

Mansoor shrugged his shoulders.

“What is the use of asking me, if you become angry when I answer? If you do not wish to do what I say, then try your own attempt. At least you cannot say that I have not done all I could to save you.”

“I’m not angry,” the Colonel answered, after a pause, in a more conciliatory voice, “but this is climbing down rather farther than we care to go. Now, what I thought is this. You might, if you chose, give this priest, or Moolah, who is coming to us, a hint that we really are softening a bit upon the point. I don’t think, considering the hole that we are in, that there can be very much objection to that. Then, when he comes, we might play up and take an interest and ask for more instruction, and in that way hold the matter over for a day or two. Don’t you think that would be the best game?”

“You will do as you like,” said Mansoor. “I have told you once for ever what I think. If you wish that I speak to the Moolah, I will do so. It is the fat, little man with the grey beard, upon the brown camel in front there. I may tell you that he has a name among them for converting the infidel, and he has a great pride in it, so that he would certainly prefer that you were not injured if he thought that he might bring you into Islam.”

“Tell him that our minds are open then,” said the Colonel. “I don’t suppose the padre would have gone so far, but now that he is dead I think we may stretch a point. You go to him, Mansoor, and if you work it well we will agree to forget what is past. By the way, has Tippy Tilly said anything?”

“No, sir. He has kept his men together, but he does not understand yet how he can help you.”

“Neither do I. Well, you go to the Moolah, 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 be very glad to be relieved of it.”

“I think that I am best fitted for it, since I am equally interested in all creeds. When I ask for information, it is because in verity I desire it, and not because I am playing a part.”

“I certainly think that it would be much better if Monsieur Fardet would undertake it,” said Mrs. Belmont, with decision, and so the matter was arranged.

The sun was now high, and it shone with dazzling brightness upon the bleached bones which lay upon the road. Again the torture of thirst fell upon the little group of survivors, and again, as they rode with withered tongues and crusted lips, a vision of the saloon of the Korosko danced like a mirage before their eyes, and they saw the white napery, the wine-cards by the places, the long necks of the bottles, the siphons upon the sideboard. Sadie, who had borne up so well, became suddenly hysterical, and her shrieks of senseless laughter jarred horribly upon their nerves. Her aunt on one side of her and Mr. Stephens on the other did all they could to soothe her, and at last the weary, over-strung 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 hugh 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 Ibraham 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.

Sword in his hand
Sword in his hand

“Don’t look! don’t look!” cried Belmont to the ladies, and they all rode on with their faces to the south. They heard no sound, but the Baggara passed them a few minutes afterwards. He was cleaning his sword upon the hairy neck of his camel, and he glanced at them with a quick, malicious gleam of his teeth as he trotted by. But those who are at the lowest pitch of human misery are at least secured against the future. That vicious, threatening smile which might once have thrilled them left them now unmoved — or stirred them at most to vague resentment.

There were many things to interest them in this old trade route, had they been in a condition to take notice of them. Here and there along its course were the crumbling remains of ancient buildings, so old that no date could be assigned to them, but designed in some far-off civilisation to give the travellers shade from the sun or protection from the ever-lawless children of the desert. The mud bricks with which these refuges were constructed showed that the material had been carried over from the distant Nile. Once, upon the top of a little knoll, they saw the shattered plinth of a pillar of red Assouan granite, with the wide-winged symbol of the Egyptian god across it, and the cartouche of the second Rameses beneath. After three thousand years one cannot get away from the ineffaceable footprints of the warrior-king. It is surely the most wonderful survival of history that one should still be able to gaze upon him, high-nosed and masterful, as he lies with his powerful arms crossed upon his chest, majestic even in decay, in the Gizeh Museum. To the captives, the cartouche was a message of hope, as a sign that they were not outside the sphere of Egypt. “They’ve left their card here once, and they may again,” said Belmont, and they all tried to smile.

And now they came upon one of the most satisfying sights on which the human eye can ever rest. Here and there, in the depressions at either side of the road, there had been a thin scurf of green, which meant that water was not very far from the surface. And then, quite suddenly, the track dipped down into a bowl-shaped hollow, with a most dainty group of palm-trees, and a lovely greensward 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 greensward with the dark, starlike shadows of the palm-crowns, and 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 saucerlike 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 strange, untraced tracks of the memory, while the weary, grimy bodies lay senseless under the palm-trees in the Oasis of the Libyan Desert.

Grimy bodies lay senseless under the palm-trees
Grimy bodies lay senseless under the palm-trees

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