There was only the one little feathery clump of dom palms in all that great wilderness of black rocks and orange sand. It stood high on the bank, and below it the brown Nile swirled swiftly towards the Ambigole Cataract, fitting a little frill of foam round each of the boulders which studded its surface. Above, out of a naked blue sky, the sun was beating down upon the sand, and up again from the sand under the brims of the pith-hats of the horsemen with the scorching glare of a blast-furnace. It had risen so high that the shadows of the horses were no larger than themselves.
“Whew!” cried Mortimer, mopping his forehead, “you’d pay five shillings for this at the hummums.”
“Precisely,” said Scott. “But you are not asked to ride twenty miles in a Turkish bath with a field-glass and a revolver, and a water-bottle and a whole Christmas-treeful of things dangling from you. The hot-house at Kew is excellent as a conservatory, but not adapted for exhibitions upon the horizontal bar. I vote for a camp in the palm-grove and a halt until evening.”
Mortimer rose on his stirrups and looked hard to the southward. Everywhere were the same black burned rocks and deep orange sand. At one spot only an intermittent line appeared to have been cut through the rugged spurs which ran down to the river. It was the bed of the old railway, long destroyed by the Arabs, but now in process of reconstruction by the advancing Egyptians. There was no other sign of man’s handiwork in all that desolate scene.
“It’s palm trees or nothing,” said Scott.
“Well, I suppose we must; and yet I grudge every hour until we catch the force up. What would our editors say if we were late for the action?”
“My dear chap, an old bird like you doesn’t need to be told that no sane modern general would ever attack until the Press is up.”
“You don’t mean that?” said young Anerley. “I thought we were looked upon as an unmitigated nuisance.”
“‘Newspaper correspondents and travelling gentlemen, and all that tribe of useless drones’— being an extract from Lord Wolseley’s ‘Soldier’s Pocket-Book,’” cried Scott. “We know all about that, Anerley;” and he winked behind his blue spectacles. “If there was going to be a battle we should very soon have an escort of cavalry to hurry us up. I’ve been in fifteen, and I never saw one where they had not arranged for a reporter’s table.”
“That’s very well; but the enemy may be less considerate,” said Mortimer.
“They are not strong enough to force a battle.”
“A skirmish, then?”
“Much more likely to be a raid upon the rear. In that case we are just where we should be.”
“So we are! What a score over Reuter’s man up with the advance! Well, we’ll outspan and have our tiffin under the palms.”
There were three of them, and they stood for three great London dailies. Reuter’s was thirty miles ahead; two evening pennies upon camels were twenty miles behind. And among them they represented the eyes and ears of the public — the great silent millions and millions who had paid for everything, and who waited so patiently to know the result of their outlay.
They were remarkable men these body-servants of the Press; two of them already veterans in camps, the other setting out upon his first campaign, and full of deference for his famous comrades.
This first one, who had just dismounted from his bay polo-pony, was Mortimer, of the Intelligence — tall, straight, and hawk-faced, with khaki tunic and riding-breeches, drab putties, a scarlet cummerbund, and a skin tanned to the red of a Scotch fir by sun and wind, and mottled by the mosquito and the sand-fly. The other — small, quick, mercurial, with blue-black, curling beard and hair, a fly-switch for ever flicking in his left hand — was Scott, of the Courier, who had come through more dangers and brought off more brilliant coups than any man in the profession, save the eminent Chandler, now no longer in a condition to take the field. They were a singular contrast, Mortimer and Scott, and it was in their differences that the secret of their close friendship lay. Each dovetailed into the other. The strength of each was in the other’s weakness. Together they formed a perfect unit. Mortimer was Saxon — slow, conscientious, and deliberate; Scott was Celtic — quick, happy-go-lucky, and brilliant. Mortimer was the more solid, Scott the more attractive. Mortimer was the deeper thinker, Scott the brighter talker. By a curious coincidence, though each had seen much of warfare, their campaigns had never coincided. Together they covered all recent military history. Scott had done Plevna, the Shipka, the Zulus, Egypt, Suakim; Mortimer had seen the Boer War, the Chilian, the Bulgaria and Servian, the Gordon relief, the Indian frontier, Brazilian rebellion, and Madagascar. This intimate personal knowledge gave a peculiar flavour to their talk. There was none of the second-hand surmise and conjecture which form so much of our conversation; it was all concrete and final. The speaker had been there, had seen it, and there was an end of it.
In spite of their friendship there was the keenest professional rivalry between the two men. Either would have sacrificed himself to help his companion, but either would also have sacrificed his companion to help his paper. Never did a jockey yearn for a winning mount as keenly as each of them longed to have a full column in a morning edition whilst every other daily was blank. They were perfectly frank about the matter. Each professed himself ready to steal a march on his neighbour, and each recognised that the other’s duty to his employer was far higher than any personal consideration.
The third man was Anerley, of the Gazette — young, inexperienced, and rather simple-looking. He had a droop of the lip, which some of his more intimate friends regarded as a libel upon his character, and his eyes were so slow and so sleepy that they suggested an affectation. A leaning towards soldiering had sent him twice to autumn manoeuvres, and a touch of colour in his descriptions had induced the proprietors of the Gazette to give him a trial as a war-special. There was a pleasing diffidence about his bearing which recommended him to his experienced companions, and if they had a smile sometimes at his guileless ways, it was soothing to them to have a comrade from whom nothing was to be feared. From the day that they left the telegraph-wire behind them at Sarras, the man who was mounted upon a 15-guinea 13-4 Syrian was delivered over into the hands of the owners of the two fastest polo-ponies that ever shot down the Ghezireh ground. The three had dismounted and led their beasts under the welcome shade. In the brassy, yellow glare every branch above threw so black and solid a shadow that the men involuntarily raised their feet to step over them.
“The palm makes an excellent hat-rack,” said Scott, slinging his revolver and his water-bottle over the little upward-pointing pegs which bristle from the trunk. “As a shade tree, however, it isn’t an unqualified success. Curious that in the universal adaptation of means to ends something a little less flimsy could not have been devised for the tropics.”
“Like the banyan in India.”
“Or the fine hardwood trees in Ashantee, where a whole regiment could picnic under the shade.”
“The teak tree isn’t bad in Burmah, either. By Jove, the baccy has all come loose in the saddle-bag! That long-cut mixture smokes rather hot for this climate. How about the baggles, Anerley?”
“They’ll be here in five minutes.”
Down the winding path which curved among the rocks the little train of baggage-camels was daintily picking its way. They came mincing and undulating along, turning their heads slowly from side to side with the air of a self-conscious woman. In front rode the three Berberee body-servants upon donkeys, and behind walked the Arab camel-boys. They had been travelling for nine long hours, ever since the first rising of the moon, at the weary camel-drag of two and a half miles an hour, but now they brightened, both beasts and men, at the sight of the grove and the riderless horses. In a few minutes the loads were unstrapped, the animals tethered, a fire lighted, fresh water carried up from the river, and each camel-boy provided with his own little heap of tibbin laid in the centre of the table-cloth, without which no well-bred Arabian will condescend to feed. The dazzling light without, the subdued half-tones within, the green palm-fronds outlined against the deep blue sky, the flitting, silent-footed Arab servants, the crackling of sticks, the reek of a lighting fire, the placid supercilious heads of the camels, they all come back in their dreams to those who have known them.
Scott was breaking eggs into a pan and rolling out a love-song in his rich, deep voice. Anerley, with his head and arms buried in a deal packing-case, was working his way through strata of tinned soups, bully beef, potted chicken, and sardines to reach the jams which lay beneath. The conscientious Mortimer, with his notebook upon his knee, was jotting down what the railway engineer had told him at the line-end the day before. Suddenly he raised his eyes and saw the man himself on his chestnut pony, dipping and rising over the broken ground.
“Hullo! Here’s Merryweather!”
“A pretty lather his pony is in! He’s had her at that hand-gallop for hours, by the look of her. Hullo, Merryweather, hullo!”
The engineer, a small, compact man with a pointed red beard, had made as though he would ride past their camp without word or halt. Now he swerved, and easing his pony down to a canter, he headed her to-wards them.
“For God’s sake, a drink!” he croaked. “My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth.”
Mortimer ran with the water-bottle, Scott with the whisky-flask, and Anerley with the tin pannikin. The engineer drank until his breath failed him.
“Well, I must be off,” said he, striking the drops from his red moustache.
“A hitch in the railway construction. I must see the general. It’s the devil not having a telegraph.”
“Anything we can report?” Out came three notebooks.
“I’ll tell you after I’ve seen the general.”
“The usual shaves. Hud-up, Jinny! Good-bye!”
With a soft thudding upon the sand, and a clatter among the stones the weary pony was off upon her journey once more.
“Nothing serious, I suppose?” said Mortimer, staring after him.
“Deuced serious,” cried Scott. “The ham and eggs are burned! No — it’s all right — saved, and done to a turn! Pull the box up, Anerley. Come on, Mortimer, stow that notebook! The fork is mightier than the pen just at present. What’s the matter with you, Anerley?”
“I was wondering whether what we have just seen was worth a telegram.”
“Well, it’s for the proprietors to say if it’s worth it. Sordid money considerations are not for us. We must wire about something just to justify our khaki coats and our putties.”
“But what is there to say?”
Mortimer’s long, austere face broke into a smile over the youngster’s innocence. “It’s not quite usual in our profession to give each other tips,” said he. “However, as my telegram is written, I’ve no objection to your reading it. You may be sure that I would not show it to you if it were of the slightest importance.”
Anerley took up the slip of paper and read:—
Merryweather obstacles stop journey confer general stop nature difficulties later stop rumours dervishes.
“This is very condensed,” said Anerley, with wrinkled brows.
“Condensed!” cried Scott. “Why, it’s sinfully garrulous. If my old man got a wire like that his language would crack the lamp-shades. I’d cut out half this; for example, I’d have out ‘journey,’ and ‘nature,’ and ‘rumours.’ But my old man would make a ten-line paragraph of it for all that.”
“Well, I’ll do it myself just to show you. Lend me that stylo.” He scribbled for a minute in his notebook. “It works out somewhat on these lines”:—
Mr. Charles H. Merryweather, the eminent railway engineer, who is at present engaged in superintending the construction of the line from Sarras to the front, has met with considerable obstacles to the rapid completion of his important task —
“Of course the old man knows who Merryweather is, and what he is about, so the word ‘obstacles’ would suggest all that to him.”
He has today been compelled to make a journey of forty miles to the front, in order to confer with the general upon the steps which are necessary in order to facilitate the work. Further particulars of the exact nature of the difficulties met with will be made public at a later date. All is quiet upon the line of communications, though the usual persistent rumours of the presence of dervishes in the Eastern desert continue to circulate.— Our own correspondent.
“How’s that?” cried Scott, triumphantly, and his white teeth gleamed suddenly through his black beard. “That’s the sort of flapdoodle for the dear old public.”
“Will it interest them?”
“Oh, everything interests them. They want to know all about it; and they like to think that there is a man who is getting a hundred a month simply in order to tell it to them.”
“It’s very kind of you to teach me all this.”
“Well, it is a little unconventional, for, after all, we are here to score over each other if we can. There are no more eggs, and you must take it out in jam. Of course, as Mortimer says, such a telegram as this is of no importance one way or another, except to prove to the office that we are in the Soudan, and not at Monte Carlo. But when it comes to serious work it must be every man for himself.”
“Is that quite necessary?”
“Why, of course it is.”
“I should have thought if three men were to combine and to share their news, they would do better than if they were each to act for himself, and they would have a much pleasanter time of it.”
The two older men sat with their bread-and-jam in their hands, and an expression of genuine disgust upon their faces.
“We are not here to have a pleasant time,” said Mortimer, with a flash through his glasses. “We are here to do our best for our papers. How can they score over each other if we do not do the same? If we all combine we might as well amalgamate with Reuter at once.”
“Why, it would take away the whole glory of the profession!” cried Scott. “At present the smartest man gets his stuff first on the wires. What inducement is there to be smart if we all share and share alike?”
“And at present the man with the best equipment has the best chance,” remarked Mortimer, glancing across at the shot-silk polo ponies and the cheap little Syrian grey. “That is the fair reward of foresight and enterprise. Every man for himself, and let the best man win.”
“That’s the way to find who the best man is. Look at Chandler. He would never have got his chance if he had not played always off his own bat. You’ve heard how he pretended to break his leg, sent his fellow-correspondent off for the doctor, and so got a fair start for the telegraph-office.”
“Do you mean to say that was legitimate?”
“Everything is legitimate. It’s your wits against my wits.”
“I should call it dishonourable.”
“You may call it what you like. Chandler’s paper got the battle and the other’s didn’t. It made Chandler’s name.”
“Or take Westlake,” said Mortimer, cramming the tobacco into his pipe. “Hi, Abdul, you may have the dishes! Westlake brought his stuff down by pretending to be the Government courier, and using the relays of Government horses. Westlake’s paper sold half a million.”
“Is that legitimate also?” asked Anerley, thoughtfully.
“Well, it looks a little like horse-stealing and lying.”
“Well, I think I should do a little horse-stealing and lying if I could have a column to myself in a London daily. What do you say, Scott?”
“Anything short of manslaughter.”
“And I’m not sure that I’d trust you there.”
“Well, I don’t think I should be guilty of newspaper-man-slaughter. That I regard as a distinct breach of professional etiquette. But if any outsider comes between a highly charged correspondent and an electric wire, he does it at his peril. My dear Anerley, I tell you frankly that if you are going to handicap yourself with scruple you may just as well be in Fleet Street as in the Soudan. Our life is irregular. Our work has never been systematised. No doubt it will be some day, but the time is not yet. Do what you can and how you can, and be first on the wires; that’s my advice to you; and also, that when next you come upon a campaign you bring with you the best horse that money can buy. Mortimer may beat me or I may beat Mortimer, but at least we know that between us we have the fastest ponies in the country. We have neglected no chance.”
“I am not so certain of that,” said Mortimer, slowly. “You are aware, of course, that though a horse beats a camel on twenty miles, a camel beats a horse on thirty.”
“What, one of those camels?” cried Anerley in astonishment. The two seniors burst out laughing.
“No, no, the real high-bred trotter — the kind of beast the dervishes ride when they make their lightning raids.”
“Faster than a galloping horse?” “Well, it tires a horse down. It goes the same gait all the way, and it wants neither halt nor drink, and it takes rough ground much better than a horse. They used to have long distance races at Haifa, and the camel always won at thirty.”
“Still, we need not reproach ourselves, Scott, for we are not very likely to have to carry a thirty-mile message, they will have the field telegraph next week.”
“Quite so. But at the present moment —”
“I know, my dear chap; but there is no motion of urgency before the house. Load baggles at five o’clock; so you have Just three hours clear. Any sign of the evening pennies?”
Mortimer swept the northern horizon with his binoculars. “Not in sight yet.”
“They are quite capable of travelling during the heat of the day. Just the sort of thing evening pennies would do. Take care of your match, Anerley. These palm groves go up like a powder magazine if you set them alight. Bye-bye.” The two men crawled under their mosquito-nets and sank instantly into the easy sleep of those whose lives are spent in the open.
Young Anerley stood with his back against a palm tree and his briar between his lips, thinking over the advice which he had received. After all, they were the heads of the profession, these men, and it was not for him, the newcomer, to reform their methods. If they served their papers in this fashion, then he must do the same. They had at least been frank and generous in teaching him the rules of the game. If it was good enough for them it was good enough for him.
It was a broiling afternoon, and those thin frills of foam round the black, glistening necks of the Nile boulders looked delightfully cool and alluring. But it would not be safe to bathe for some hours to come. The air shimmered and vibrated over the baking stretch of sand and rock. There was not a breath of wind, and the droning and piping of the insects inclined one for sleep. Somewhere above a hoopoe was calling. Anerley knocked out his ashes, and was turning towards his couch, when his eye caught something moving in the desert to the south. It was a horseman riding towards them as swiftly as the broken ground would permit. A messenger from the army, thought Anerley; and then, as he watched, the sun suddenly struck the man on the side of the head, and his chin flamed into gold. There could not be two horsemen with beards of such a colour. It was Merryweather, the engineer, and he was returning. What on earth was he returning for? He had been so keen to see the general, and yet he was coming back with his mission unaccomplished. Was it that his pony was hopelessly foundered? It seemed to be moving well. Anerley picked up Mortimer’s binoculars, and a foam-bespattered horse and a weary koorbash-cracking man came cantering up the centre of the field. But there was nothing in his appearance to explain the mystery of his return. Then as he watched them they dipped into a hollow and disappeared. He could see that it was one of those narrow khors which led to the river, and he waited, glass in hand, for their immediate reappearance. But minute passed after minute and there was no sign of them. That narrow gully appeared to have swallowed them up. And then with a curious gulp and start he saw a little grey cloud wreathe itself slowly from among the rocks and drift in a long, hazy shred over the desert. In an instant he had torn Scott and Mortimer from their slumbers.
“Get up, you chaps!” he cried. “I believe Merryweather has been shot by dervishes.”
“And Reuter not here!” cried the two veterans, exultantly clutching at their notebooks. “Merryweather shot! Where? When? How?”
In a few words Anerley explained what he had seen.
“You heard nothing?”
“Well, a shot loses itself very easily among rocks. By George, look at the buzzards!”
Two large brown birds were soaring in the deep blue heaven. As Scott spoke they circled down and dropped into the little khor.
“That’s good enough,” said Mortimer, with his nose between the leaves of his book. “‘Merryweather headed dervishes stop return stop shot mutilated stop raid communications.’ How’s that?”
“You think he was headed off?”
“Why else should he return?”
“In that case, if they were out in front of him and others cut him off, there must be several small raiding parties.”
“I should judge so.”
“How about the ‘mutilated’?”
“I’ve fought against Arabs before.”
“Where are you off to?”
“I think I’ll race you in,” said Scott.
Anerley stared in astonishment at the absolutely impersonal way in which these men regarded the situation. In their zeal for news it had apparently never struck them that they, their camp, and their servants were all in the lion’s mouth. But even as they talked there came the harsh, importunate rat-tat-tat of an irregular volley from among the rocks, and the high, keening whistle of bullets over their heads. A palm spray fluttered down amongst them. At the same instant the six frightened servants came running wildly in for protection.
It was the cool-headed Mortimer who organised the defence, for Scott’s Celtic soul was so aflame at all this “copy” in hand and more to come that he was too exuberantly boisterous for a commander. The other, with his spectacles and his stern face, soon had the servants in hand. “Tali henna! Egri! What the deuce are you frightened about? Put the camels between the palm trunks. That’s right. Now get the knee-tethers on them. Quies! Did you never hear bullets before? Now put the donkeys here. Not much — you don’t get my polo-pony to make a zareba with. Picket the ponies between the grove and the river out of danger’s way. These fellows seem to fire even higher than they did in ‘85.”
“That’s got home, anyhow,” said Scott, as they heard a soft, splashing thud like a stone in a mud-bank.
“Who’s hit, then?”
“The brown camel that’s chewing the cud.” As he spoke the creature, its jaw still working, laid its long neck along the ground and closed its large dark eyes.
“That shot cost me 15 pounds,” said Mortimer, ruefully. “How many of them do you make?”
“Four, I think.”
“Only four Bezingers, at any rate; there may be some spearmen.”
“I think not; it is a little raiding-party of rifle-men. By the way, Anerley, you’ve never been under fire before, have you?”
“Never,” said the young pressman, who was conscious of a curious feeling of nervous elation.
“Love and poverty and war, they are all experiences necessary to make a complete life. Pass over those cartridges. This is a very mild baptism that you are undergoing, for behind these camels you are as safe as if you were sitting in the back room of the Authors’ Club.”
“As safe, but hardly as comfortable,” said Scott. “A long glass of hock and seltzer would be exceedingly acceptable. But oh, Mortimer, what a chance! Think of the general’s feelings when he hears that the first action of the war has been fought by the Press column. Think of Reuter, who has been stewing at the front for a week! Think of the evening pennies just too late for the fun. By George, that slug brushed a mosquito off me!”
“And one of the donkeys is hit.”
“This is sinful. It will end in our having to carry our own kits to Khartoum.”
“Never mind, my boy, it all goes to make copy. I can see the headlines —‘Raid on Communications’; ‘Murder of British Engineer’: ‘Press Column Attacked.’ Won’t it be ripping?”
“I wonder what the next line will be,” said Anerley.
“‘Our Special Wounded’!” cried Scott, rolling over on to his back. “No harm done,” he added, gathering himself up again; “only a chip off my knee. This is getting sultry. I confess that the idea of that back room at the Authors’ Club begins to grow upon me.”
“I have some diachylon.”
“Afterwards will do. We’re having a ‘appy day with Fuzzy on the rush. I wish he would rush.”
“They’re coming nearer.”
“This is an excellent revolver of mine if it didn’t throw so devilish high. I always aim at a man’s toes if I want to stimulate his digestion. O Lord, there’s our kettle gone!” With a boom like a dinner-gong a Remington bullet had passed through the kettle, and a cloud of steam hissed up from the fire. A wild shout came from the rocks above.
“The idiots think that they have blown us up. They’ll rush us now, as sure as fate; then it will be our turn to lead. Got your revolver, Anerley?”
“I have this double-barrelled fowling-piece.”
“Sensible man! It’s the best weapon in the world at this sort of rough-and-tumble work. What cartridges?”
“That will do all right. I carry this big bore double-barrelled pistol loaded with slugs. You might as well try to stop one of these fellows with a pea-shooter as with a service revolver.”
“There are ways and means,” said Scott. “The Geneva Convention does not hold south of the first cataract. It’s easy to make a bullet mushroom by a little manipulation of the tip of it. When I was in the broken square at Tamai —”
“Wait a bit,” cried Mortimer, adjusting his glasses. “I think they are coming now.”
“The time,” said Scott, snapping up his watch, “being exactly seventeen minutes past four.”
Anerley had been lying behind a camel staring with an interest which bordered upon fascination at the rocks opposite. Here was a little woolly puff of smoke, and there was another one, but never once had they caught a glimpse of the attackers. To him there was something weird and awesome in these unseen, persistent men who, minute by minute, were drawing closer to them. He had heard them cry out when the kettle was broken, and once, immediately afterwards, an enormously strong voice had roared something which had set Scott shrugging his shoulders.
“They’ve got to take us first,” said he, and Anerley thought his nerve might be better if he did not ask for a translation.
The firing had begun at a distance of some 100 yards, which put it out of the question for them, with their lighter weapons, to make any reply to it. Had their antagonists continued to keep that range the defenders must either have made a hopeless sally or tried to shelter themselves behind their zareba as best they might on the chance that the sound might bring up help. But, luckily for them, the African has never taken kindly to the rifle, and his primitive instinct to close with his enemy is always too strong for his sense of strategy. They were drawing in, therefore, and now, for the first time, Anerley caught sight of a face looking at them from over a rock. It was a huge, virile, strong-jawed head of a pure negro type, with silver trinkets gleaming in the ears. The man raised a great arm from behind the rock, and shook his Remington at them.
“Shall I fire?” asked Anerley.
“No, no; it is too far. Your shot would scatter all over the place.”
“It’s a picturesque ruffian,” said Scott. “Couldn’t you kodak him, Mortimer? There’s another!” A fine-featured brown Arab, with a black, pointed beard, was peeping from behind another boulder. He wore the green turban which proclaimed him hadji, and his face showed the keen, nervous exultation of the religious fanatic.
“They seem a piebald crowd,” said Scott.
“That last is one of the real fighting Baggara,” remarked Mortimer. “He’s a dangerous man.”
“He looks pretty vicious. There’s another negro!”
“Two more! Dingas, by the look of them. Just the same chaps we get our own black battalions from. As long as they get a fight they don’t mind who it’s for; but if the idiots had only sense enough to understand, they would know that the Arab is their hereditary enemy, and we their hereditary friends. Look at the silly juggins, gnashing his teeth at the very men who put down the slave trade!”
“Couldn’t you explain?”
“I’ll explain with this pistol when he comes a little nearer. Now sit tight, Anerley. They’re off!”
They were indeed. It was the brown man with the green turban who headed the rush. Close at his heels was the negro with the silver ear-rings — a giant of a man, and the other two were only a little behind. As they sprang over the rocks one after the other, it took Anerley back to the school sports when he held the tape for the hurdle-race. It was magnificent, the wild spirit and abandon of it, the flutter of the chequered galabeeahs, the gleam of steel, the wave of black arms, the frenzied faces, the quick pitter-patter of the rushing feet. The law-abiding Briton is so imbued with the idea of the sanctity of human life that it was hard for the young pressman to realise that these men had every intention of killing him, and that he was at perfect liberty to do as much for them. He lay staring as if this were a show and he a spectator.
“Now, Anerley, now! Take the Arab!” cried somebody.
He put up the gun and saw the brown fierce face at the other end of the barrel. He tugged at the trigger, but the face grew larger and fiercer with every stride. Again and again he tugged. A revolver-shot rang out at his elbow, then another one, and he saw a red spot spring out on the Arab’s brown breast. But he was still coming on.
“Shoot, you ass, shoot!” screamed Scott.
Again he strained unavailingly at the trigger. There were two more pistol-shots, and the big negro had fallen and risen and fallen again.
“Cock it, you fool!” shouted a furious voice; and at the same instant, with a rush and flutter, the Arab bounded over the prostrate camel and came down with his bare feet upon Anerley’s chest. In a dream he seemed to be struggling frantically with someone upon the ground, then he was conscious of a tremendous explosion in his very face, and so ended for him the first action of the war.
“Good-bye, old chap. You’ll be all right. Give yourself time.” It was Mortimer’s voice, and he became dimly conscious of a long, spectacled face, and of a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
“Sorry to leave you. We’ll be lucky now if we are in time for the morning editions.” Scott was tightening his girth as he spoke.
“We’ll put in our wire that you have been hurt, so your people will know why they don’t hear from you. If Reuter or the evening pennies come up, don’t give the thing away. Abbas will look after you, and we’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. Bye-bye!”
Anerley heard it all, though he did not feel energy enough to answer. Then, as he watched two sleek, brown ponies with their yellow-clad riders dwindling among the rocks, his memory cleared suddenly, and he realised that the first great journalistic chance of his life was slipping away from him. It was a small fight, but it was the first of the war, and the great public at home were all athirst for news. They would have it in the Courier; they would have it in the Intelligence, and not a word in the Gazette. The thought brought him to his feet, though he had to throw his arm round the stem of the palm tree to steady his swimming head. There was a big black man lying where he had fallen, his huge chest pocked with bullet-marks, every wound rosetted with its circle of flies. The Arab was stretched out within a few yards of him, with two hands clasped over the dreadful thing which had been his head. Across him was lying Anerley’s fowling-piece, one barrel discharged, the other at half cock.
“Scott effendi shoot him your gun,” said a voice. It was Abbas, his English-speaking body-servant.
Anerley groaned at the disgrace of it. He had lost his head so completely that he had forgotten to cock his gun; and yet he knew that it was not fear but interest which had so absorbed him. He put his hand up to his head and felt that a wet handkerchief was bound round his forehead.
“Where are the two other dervishes?”
“They ran away. One got shot in arm.”
“What’s happened to me?”
“Effendi got cut on head. Effendi catch bad man by arms, and Scott effendi shot him. Face burn very bad.”
Anerley became conscious suddenly that there was a pringling about his skin and an overpowering smell of burned hair under his nostrils. He put his hand to his moustache. It was gone. His eyebrows too? He could not find them. His head, no doubt, was very near to the dervish’s when they were rolling upon the ground together, and this was the effect of the explosion of his own gun. Well, he would have time to grow some more hair before he saw Fleet Street again. But the cut, perhaps, was a more serious matter. Was it enough to prevent him getting to the telegraph-office at Sarras? The only way was to try and see. But there was only that poor little Syrian grey of his. There it stood in the evening sunshine, with a sunk head and a bent knee, as if its morning’s work was still heavy upon it. What hope was there of being able to do thirty-five miles of heavy going upon that? It would be a strain upon the splendid ponies of his companions — and they were the swiftest and most enduring in the country. The most enduring? There was one creature more enduring, and that was a real trotting camel. If he had had one he might have got to the wires first after all, for Mortimer had said that over thirty miles they have the better of any horse. Yes, if he had only had a real trotting camel! And then like a flash came Mortimer’s words, “It is the kind of beast that the dervishes ride when they make their lightning raids.”
The beasts the dervishes ride! What had these dead dervishes ridden? In an instant he was clambering up the rocks, with Abbas protesting at his heels. Had the two fugitives carried away all the camels, or had they been content to save themselves? The brass gleam from a litter of empty Remington cases caught his eye, and showed where the enemy had been crouching. And then he could have shouted for joy, for there, in the hollow, some little distance off, rose the high, graceful white neck and the elegant head of such a camel as he had never set eyes upon before — a swanlike, beautiful creature, as far from the rough, clumsy baggles as the cart-horse is from the racer.
The beast was kneeling under the shelter of the rocks with its waterskin and bag of doora slung over its shoulders, and its forelegs tethered Arab fashion with a rope around the knees. Anerley threw his leg over the front pommel while Abbas slipped off the cord. Forward flew Anerley towards the creature’s neck, then violently backwards, clawing madly at anything which might save him, and then, with a jerk which nearly snapped his loins, he was thrown forward again. But the camel was on its legs now, and the young pressman was safely seated upon one of the fliers of the desert. It was as gentle as it was swift, and it stood oscillating its long neck and gazing round with its large brown eyes, whilst Anerley coiled his legs round the peg and grasped the curved camel-stick which Abbas had handed up to him. There were two bridle-cords, one from the nostril and one from the neck, but he remembered that Scott had said that it was the servant’s and not the house-bell which had to be pulled, so he kept his grasp upon the lower. Then he touched the long, vibrating neck with his stick, and in an instant Abbas’ farewell seemed to come from far behind him, and the black rocks and yellow sand were dancing past on either side.
It was his first experience of a trotting camel, and at first the motion, although irregular and abrupt, was not unpleasant. Having no stirrup or fixed point of any kind, he could not rise to it, but he gripped as tightly as be could with his knee, and he tried to sway backwards and forwards as he had seen the Arabs do. It was a large, very concave Makloofa saddle, and he was conscious that he was bouncing about on it with as little power of adhesion as a billiard-ball upon a tea-tray. He gripped the two sides with his hands to hold himself steady. The creature had got into its long, swinging, stealthy trot, its sponge-like feet making no sound upon the hard sand. Anerley leaned back with his two hands gripping hard behind him, and he whooped the creature on. The sun had already sunk behind the line of black volcanic peaks, which look like huge slag-heaps at the mouth of a mine. The western sky had taken that lovely light green and pale pink tint which makes evening beautiful upon the Nile, and the old brown river itself, swirling down amongst the black rocks, caught some shimmer of the colours above. The glare, the heat, and the piping of the insects had all ceased together. In spite of his aching head, Anerley could have cried out for pure physical joy as the swift creature beneath him flew along with him through that cool, invigorating air, with the virile north wind soothing his pringling face.
He had looked at his watch, and now he made a swift calculation of times and distances. It was past six when he had left the camp. Over broken ground it was impossible that he could hope to do more than seven miles an hour — less on bad parts, more on the smooth. His recollection of the track was that there were few smooth and many bad. He would be lucky, then, if he reached Sarras anywhere from twelve to one. Then the messages took a good two hours to go through, for they had to be transcribed at Cairo. At the best he could only hope to have told his story in Fleet Street at two or three in the morning. It was possible that he might manage it, but the chances seemed enormously against him. About three the morning edition would be made up, and his chance gone for ever. The one thing clear was that only the first man at the wires would have any chance at all, and Anerley meant to be first if hard riding could do it. So he tapped away at the bird-like neck, and the creature’s long, loose limbs went faster and faster at every tap. Where the rocky spurs ran down to the river, horses would have to go round, while camels might get across, so that Anerley felt that he was always gaining upon his companions.
But there was a price to be paid for the feeling. He had heard of men who had burst when on camel journeys, and he knew that the Arabs swathe their bodies tightly in broad cloth bandages when they prepare for a long march. It had seemed unnecessary and ridiculous when he first began to speed over the level track, but now, when he got on the rocky paths, he understood what it meant. Never for an instant was he at the same angle. Backwards, forwards he swung, with a tingling jar at the end of each sway, until he ached from his neck to his knees. It caught him across the shoulders, it caught him down the spine, it gripped him over the loins, it marked the lower line of his ribs with one heavy, dull throb. He clutched here and there with his hand to try and ease the strain upon his muscles. He drew up his knees, altered his seat, and set his teeth with a grim determination to go through with it should it kill him. His head was splitting, his flayed face smarting, and every joint in his body aching as if it were dislocated. But he forgot all that when, with the rising of the moon, he heard the clinking of horses’ hoofs down upon the track by the river, and knew that, unseen by them, he had already got well abreast of his companions. But he was hardly halfway, and the time already eleven.
All day the needles had been ticking away without intermission in the little corrugated iron hut which served as a telegraph station at Sarras. With its bare walls and its packing-case seats, it was none the less for the moment one of the vital spots upon the earth’s surface, and the crisp, importunate ticking might have come from the world-old clock of Destiny. Many august people had been at the other end of those wires, and had communed with the moist-faced military clerk. A French Premier had demanded a pledge, and an English marquis had passed on the request to the General in command, with a question as to how it would affect the situation. Cipher telegrams had nearly driven the clerk out of his wits, for of all crazy occupations the taking of a cipher message, when you are without the key to the cipher, is the worst. Much high diplomacy had been going on all day in the innermost chambers of European chancellories, and the results of it had been whispered into this little corrugated-iron hut. About two in the morning an enormous despatch had come at last to an end, and the weary operator had opened the door, and was lighting his pipe in the cool, fresh air, when he saw a camel plump down in the dust, and a man, who seemed to be in the last stage of drunkenness, come rolling towards him.
“What’s the time?” he cried, in a voice which appeared to be the only sober thing about him.
It was on the clerk’s lips to say that it was time that the questioner was in his bed, but it is not safe upon a campaign to be ironical at the expense of khaki-clad men. He contented himself, therefore, with the bald statement that it was after two. But no retort that he could have devised could have had a more crushing effect. The voice turned drunken also, and the man caught at the door-post to uphold him.
“Two o’clock! I’m done after all!” said he. His head was tied up in a bloody handkerchief, his face was crimson, and he stood with his legs crooked as if the pith had all gone out of his back. The clerk began to realise that something out of the ordinary was in the wind.
“How long does it take to get a wire to London?”
“About two hours.”
“And it’s two now. I could not get it there before four.”
“But you said two hours.”
“Yes, but there’s more than an hour’s difference in longitude.”
“By Heaven, I’ll do it yet!” cried Anerley, and staggering to a packing-case, he began the dictation of his famous despatch.
And so it came about that the Gazette had a long column, with headlines like an epitaph, when the sheets of the Intelligence and the Courier were as blank as the faces of their editors. And so, too, it happened that when two weary men, upon two foundered horses, arrived about four in the morning at the Sarras post-office, they looked at each other in silence and departed noiselessly, with the conviction that there are some situations with which the English language is not capable of dealing.
The New Catacomb
“Look here, Burger,” said Kennedy, “I do wish that you would confide in me.”
The two famous students of Roman remains sat together in Kennedy’s comfortable room overlooking the Corso. The night was cold, and they had both pulled up their chairs to the unsatisfactory Italian stove which threw out a zone of stuffiness rather than of warmth.
Outside under the bright winter stars lay the modern Rome, the long, double chain of the electric lamps, the brilliantly lighted cafes, the rushing carriages, and the dense throng upon the footpaths. But inside, in the sumptuous chamber of the rich young English archaeologist, there was only old Rome to be seen. Cracked and time-worn friezes hung upon the walls, grey old busts of senators and soldiers with their fighting heads and their hard, cruel faces peered out from the corners. On the centre table, amidst a litter of inscriptions, fragments, and ornaments, there stood the famous reconstruction by Kennedy of the Baths of Caracalla, which excited such interest and admiration when it was exhibited in Berlin.
Amphorae hung from the ceiling, and a litter of curiosities strewed the rich red Turkey carpet. And of them all there was not one which was not of the most unimpeachable authenticity, and of the utmost rarity and value; for Kennedy, though little more than thirty, had a European reputation in this particular branch of research, and was, moreover, provided with that long purse which either proves to be a fatal handicap to the student’s energies, or, if his mind is still true to its purpose, gives him an enormous advantage in the race for fame. Kennedy had often been seduced by whim and pleasure from his studies, but his mind was an incisive one, capable of long and concentrated efforts which ended in sharp reactions of sensuous languor. His handsome face, with its high, white forehead, its aggressive nose, and its somewhat loose and sensuous mouth, was a fair index of the compromise between strength and weakness in his nature.
Of a very different type was his companion, Julius Burger. He came of a curious blend, a German father and an Italian mother, with the robust qualities of the North mingling strangely with the softer graces of the South. Blue Teutonic eyes lightened his sun-browned face, and above them rose a square, massive forehead, with a fringe of close yellow curls lying round it. His strong, firm jaw was clean-shaven, and his companion had frequently remarked how much it suggested those old Roman busts which peered out from the shadows in the corners of his chamber. Under its bluff German strength there lay always a suggestion of Italian subtlety, but the smile was so honest, and the eyes so frank, that one understood that this was only an indication of his ancestry, with no actual bearing upon his character.
In age and in reputation he was on the same level as his English companion, but his life and his work had both been far more arduous. Twelve years before he had come as a poor student to Rome, and had lived ever since upon some small endowment for research which had been awarded to him by the University of Bonn.
Painfully, slowly, and doggedly, with extraordinary tenacity and singlemindedness, he had climbed from rung to rung of the ladder of fame, until now he was a member of the Berlin Academy, and there was every reason to believe that he would shortly be promoted to the Chair of the greatest of German Universities. But the singleness of purpose which had brought him to the same high level as the rich and brilliant Englishman, had caused him in everything outside their work to stand infinitely below him. He had never found a pause in his studies in which to cultivate the social graces. It was only when he spoke of his own subject that his face was filled with life and soul. At other times he was silent and embarrassed, too conscious of his own limitations in larger subjects, and impatient of that small talk which is the conventional refuge of those who have no thoughts to express.
And yet for some years there had been an acquaintanceship which appeared to be slowly ripening into a friendship between these two very different rivals. The base and origin of this lay in the fact that in their own studies each was the only one of the younger men who had knowledge and enthusiasm enough to properly appreciate the other. Their common interests and pursuits had brought them together, and each had been attracted by the other’s knowledge. And then gradually something had been added to this. Kennedy had been amused by the frankness and simplicity of his rival, while Burger in turn had been fascinated by the brilliancy and vivacity which had made Kennedy such a favourite in Roman society. I say “had,” because just at the moment the young Englishman was somewhat under a cloud.
A love affair, the details of which had never quite come out, had indicated a heartlessness and callousness upon his part which shocked many of his friends. But in the bachelor circles of students and artists in which he preferred to move there is no very rigid code of honour in such matters, and though a head might be shaken or a pair of shoulders shrugged over the flight of two and the return of one, the general sentiment was probably one of curiosity and perhaps of envy rather than of reprobation.
“Look here, Burger,” said Kennedy, looking hard at the placid face of his companion, “I do wish that you would confide in me.”
As he spoke he waved his hand in the direction of a rug which lay upon the floor.
On the rug stood a long, shallow fruit-basket of the light wicker-work which is used in the Campagna, and this was heaped with a litter of objects, inscribed tiles, broken inscriptions, cracked mosaics, torn papyri, rusty metal ornaments, which to the uninitiated might have seemed to have come straight from a dustman’s bin, but which a specialist would have speedily recognized as unique of their kind.
The pile of odds and ends in the flat wicker-work basket supplied exactly one of those missing links of social development which are of such interest to the student. It was the German who had brought them in, and the Englishman’s eyes were hungry as he looked at them.
“I won’t interfere with your treasure-trove, but I should very much like to hear about it,” he continued, while Burger very deliberately lit a cigar. “It is evidently a discovery of the first importance. These inscriptions will make a sensation throughout Europe.”
“For every one here there are a million there!” said the German. “There are so many that a dozen savants might spend a lifetime over them, and build up a reputation as solid as the Castle of St. Angelo.”
Kennedy was thinking with his fine forehead wrinkled and his fingers playing with his long, fair moustache.
“You have given yourself away, Burger!” said he at last. “Your words can only apply to one thing. You have discovered a new catacomb.”
“I had no doubt that you had already come to that conclusion from an examination of these objects.”
“Well, they certainly appeared to indicate it, but your last remarks make it certain. There is no place except a catacomb which could contain so vast a store of relics as you describe.”
“Quite so. There is no mystery about that. I have discovered a new catacomb.”
“Ah, that is my secret, my dear Kennedy! Suffice it that it is so situated that there is not one chance in a million of anyone else coming upon it. Its date is different from that of any known catacomb, and it has been reserved for the burial of the highest Christians, so that the remains and the relics are quite different from anything which has ever been seen before. If I was not aware of your knowledge and of your energy, my friend, I would not hesitate, under the pledge of secrecy, to tell you everything about it. But as it is I think that I must certainly prepare my own report of the matter before I expose myself to such formidable competition.”
Kennedy loved his subject with a love which was almost a mania — a love which held him true to it, amidst all the distractions which come to a wealthy and dissipated young man. He had ambition, but his ambition was secondary to his mere abstract joy and interest in everything which concerned the old life and history of the city. He yearned to see this new underworld which his companion had discovered.
“Look here, Burger,” said he, earnestly, “I assure you that you can trust me most implicitly in the matter. Nothing would induce me to put pen to paper about anything which I see until I have your express permission. I quite understand your feeling, and I think it is most natural, but you have really nothing whatever to fear from me. On the other hand, if you don’t tell me I shall make a systematic search, and I shall most certainly discover it. In that case, of course, I should make what use I liked of it, since I should be under no obligation to you.”
Burger smiled thoughtfully over his cigar.
“I have noticed, friend Kennedy,” said he, “that when I want information over any point you are not always so ready to supply it.”
“When did you ever ask me anything that I did not tell you? You remember, for example, my giving you the material for your paper about the temple of the Vestals.”
“Ah, well, that was not a matter of much importance. If I were to question you upon some intimate thing, would you give me an answer, I wonder! This new catacomb is a very intimate thing to me, and I should certainly expect some sign of confidence in return.”
“What you are driving at I cannot imagine,” said the Englishman, “but if you mean that you will answer my question about the catacomb if I answer any question which you may put to me, I can assure you that I will certainly do so.”
“Well, then,” said Burger, leaning luxuriously back in his settee, and puffing a blue tree of cigar-smoke into the air, “tell me all about your relations with Miss Mary Saunderson.”
Kennedy sprang up in his chair and glared angrily at his impassive companion.
“What the devil do you mean?” he cried. “What sort of a question is this? You may mean it as a joke, but you never made a worse one.”
“No, I don’t mean it as a joke,” said Burger, simply. “I am really rather interested in the details of the matter. I don’t know much about the world and women and social life and that sort of thing, and such an incident has the fascination of the unknown for me. I know you, and I knew her by sight — I had even spoken to her once or twice. I should very much like to hear from your own lips exactly what it was which occurred between you.”
“I won’t tell you a word.”
“That’s all right. It was only my whim to see if you would give up a secret as easily as you expected me to give up my secret of the new catacomb. You wouldn’t, and I didn’t expect you to. But why should you expect otherwise of me? There’s St. John’s clock striking ten. It is quite time that I was going home.”
“No, wait a bit, Burger,” said Kennedy; “this is really a ridiculous caprice of yours to wish to know about an old love affair which has burned out months ago. You know we look upon a man who kisses and tells as the greatest coward and villain possible.”
“Certainly,” said the German, gathering up his basket of curiosities, “when he tells anything about a girl which is previously unknown, he must be so. But in this case, as you must be aware, it was a public matter which was the common talk of Rome, so that you are not really doing Miss Mary Saunderson any injury by discussing her case with me. But still, I respect your scruples; and so good night!”
“Wait a bit, Burger,” said Kennedy, laying his hand upon the other’s arm; “I am very keen upon this catacomb business, and I can’t let it drop quite so easily. Would you mind asking me something else in return — something not quite so eccentric this time?”
“No, no; you have refused, and there is an end of it,” said Burger, with his basket on his arm. “No doubt you are quite right not to answer, and no doubt I am quite right also — and so again, my dear Kennedy, good night!”
The Englishman watched Burger cross the room, and he had his hand on the handle of the door before his host sprang up with the air of a man who is making the best of that which cannot be helped. “Hold on, old fellow,” said he. “I think you are behaving in a most ridiculous fashion, but still, if this is your condition, I suppose that I must submit to it. I hate saying anything about a girl, but, as you say, it is all over Rome, and I don’t suppose I can tell you anything which you do not know already. What was it you wanted to know?”
The German came back to the stove, and, laying down his basket, he sank into his chair once more. “May I have another cigar?” said he. “Thank you very much! I never smoke when I work, but I enjoy a chat much more when I am under the influence of tobacco. Now, as regards this young lady, with whom you had this little adventure. What in the world has become of her?”
“She is at home with her own people.”
“Oh, really — in England?”
“What part of England — London?”
“You must excuse my curiosity, my dear Kennedy, and you must put it down to my ignorance of the world. No doubt it is quite a simple thing to persuade a young lady to go off with you for three weeks or so, and then to hand her over to her own family at — what did you call the place?”
“Quite so — at Twickenham. But it is something so entirely outside my own experience that I cannot even imagine how you set about it. For example, if you had loved this girl your love could hardly disappear in three weeks, so I presume that you could not have loved her at all. But if you did not love her why should you make this great scandal which has damaged you and ruined her?”
Kennedy looked moodily into the red eye of the stove. “That’s a logical way of looking at it, certainly,” said he. “Love is a big word, and it represents a good many different shades of feeling. I liked her, and — well, you say you’ve seen her — you know how charming she can look. But still I am willing to admit, looking back, that I could never have really loved her.”
“Then, my dear Kennedy, why did you do it?”
“The adventure of the thing had a great deal to do with it.”
“What! You are so fond of adventures!”
“Where would the variety of life be without them? It was for an adventure that I first began to pay my attentions to her. I’ve chased a good deal of game in my time, but there’s no chase like that of a pretty woman. There was the piquant difficulty of it also, for, as she was the companion of Lady Emily Rood it was almost impossible to see her alone. On the top of all the other obstacles which attracted me, I learned from her own lips very early in the proceedings that she was engaged.”
“Mein Gott! To whom?”
“She mentioned no names.”
“I do not think that anyone knows that. So that made the adventure more alluring, did it?”
“Well, it did certainly give a spice to it. Don’t you think so?”
“I tell you that I am very ignorant about these things.”
“My dear fellow, you can remember that the apple you stole from your neighbour’s tree was always sweeter than that which fell from your own. And then I found that she cared for me.”
“What — at once?”
“Oh, no, it took about three months of sapping and mining. But at last I won her over. She understood that my judicial separation from my wife made it impossible for me to do the right thing by her — but she came all the same, and we had a delightful time, as long as it lasted.”
“But how about the other man?”
Kennedy shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose it is the survival of the fittest,” said he. “If he had been the better man she would not have deserted him. Let’s drop the subject, for I have had enough of it!”
“Only one other thing. How did you get rid of her in three weeks?”
“Well, we had both cooled down a bit, you understand. She absolutely refused, under any circumstances, to come back to face the people she had known in Rome. Now, of course, Rome is necessary to me, and I was already pining to be back at my work — so there was one obvious cause of separation. Then, again, her old father turned up at the hotel in London, and there was a scene, and the whole thing became so unpleasant that really — though I missed her dreadfully at first — I was very glad to slip out of it. Now, I rely upon you not to repeat anything of what I have said.”
“My dear Kennedy, I should not dream of repeating it. But all that you say interests me very much, for it gives me an insight into your way of looking at things, which is entirely different from mine, for I have seen so little of life. And now you want to know about my new catacomb. There’s no use my trying to describe it, for you would never find it by that. There is only one thing, and that is for me to take you there.”
“That would be splendid.”
“When would you like to come?”
“The sooner the better. I am all impatience to see it.”
“Well, it is a beautiful night — though a trifle cold. Suppose we start in an hour. We must be very careful to keep the matter to ourselves. If anyone saw us hunting in couples they would suspect that there was something going on.”
“We can’t be too cautious,” said Kennedy. “Is it far?”
“Not too far to walk?”
“Oh, no, we could walk there easily.”
“We had better do so, then. A cabman’s suspicions would be aroused if he dropped us both at some lonely spot in the dead of the night.”
“Quite so. I think it would be best for us to meet at the Gate of the Appian Way at midnight. I must go back to my lodgings for the matches and candles and things.”
“All right, Burger! I think it is very kind of you to let me into this secret, and I promise you that I will write nothing about it until you have published your report. Good-bye for the present! You will find me at the Gate at twelve.”
The cold, clear air was filled with the musical chimes from that city of clocks as Burger, wrapped in an Italian overcoat, with a lantern hanging from his hand, walked up to the rendezvous. Kennedy stepped out of the shadow to meet him.
“You are ardent in work as well as in love!” said the German, laughing.
“Yes; I have been waiting here for nearly half an hour.”
“I hope you left no clue as to where we were going.”
“Not such a fool! By Jove, I am chilled to the bone! Come on, Burger, let us warm ourselves by a spurt of hard walking.”
Their footsteps sounded loud and crisp upon the rough stone paving of the disappointing road which is all that is left of the most famous highway of the world. A peasant or two going home from the wine-shop, and a few carts of country produce coming up to Rome, were the only things which they met. They swung along, with the huge tombs looming up through the darkness upon each side of them, until they had come as far as the Catacombs of St. Calixtus, and saw against a rising moon the great circular bastion of Cecilia Metella in front of them. Then Burger stopped with his hand to his side. “Your legs are longer than mine, and you are more accustomed to walking,” said he, laughing. “I think that the place where we turn off is somewhere here. Yes, this is it, round the corner of the trattoria. Now, it is a very narrow path, so perhaps I had better go in front, and you can follow.” He had lit his lantern, and by its light they were enabled to follow a narrow and devious track which wound across the marshes of the Campagna. The great Aqueduct of old Rome lay like a monstrous caterpillar across the moonlit landscape, and their road led them under one of its huge arches, and past the circle of crumbling bricks which marks the old arena. At last Burger stopped at a solitary wooden cowhouse, and he drew a key from his pocket.
“Surely your catacomb is not inside a house!” cried Kennedy.
“The entrance to it is. That is just the safeguard which we have against anyone else discovering it.”
“Does the proprietor know of it?”
“Not he. He had found one or two objects which made me almost certain that his house was built on the entrance to such a place. So I rented it from him, and did my excavations for myself. Come in, and shut the door behind you.”
It was a long, empty building, with the mangers of the cows along one wall. Burger put his lantern down on the ground, and shaded its light in all directions save one by draping his overcoat round it. “It might excite remark if anyone saw a light in this lonely place,” said he. “Just help me to move this boarding.” The flooring was loose in the corner, and plank by plank the two savants raised it and leaned it against the wall. Below there was a square aperture and a stair of old stone steps which led away down into the bowels of the earth.
“Be careful!” cried Burger, as Kennedy, in his impatience, hurried down them. “It is a perfect rabbits’-warren below, and if you were once to lose your way there, the chances would be a hundred to one against your ever coming out again. Wait until I bring the light.”
“How do you find your own way if it is so complicated?”
“I had some very narrow escapes at first, but I have gradually learned to go about. There is a certain system to it, but it is one which a lost man, if he were in the dark, could not possibly find out. Even now I always spin out a ball of string behind me when I am going far into the catacomb. You can see for yourself that it is difficult, but every one of these passages divides and subdivides a dozen times before you go a hundred yards.” They had descended some twenty feet from the level of the byre, and they were standing now in a square chamber cut out of the soft tufa. The lantern cast a flickering light, bright below and dim above, over the cracked brown walls. In every direction were the black openings of passages which radiated from this common centre.
“I want you to follow me closely, my friend,” said Burger. “Do not loiter to look at anything upon the way, for the place to which I will take you contains all that you can see, and more. It will save time for us to go there direct.” He led the way down one of the corridors, and the Englishman followed closely at his heels. Every now and then the passage bifurcated, but Burger was evidently following some secret marks of his own, for he neither stopped nor hesitated. Everywhere along the walls, packed like the berths upon an emigrant ship, lay the Christians of old Rome. The yellow light flickered over the shrivelled features of the mummies, and gleamed upon rounded skulls and long, white arm-bones crossed over fleshless chests. And everywhere as he passed Kennedy looked with wistful eyes upon inscriptions, funeral vessels, pictures, vestments, utensils, all lying as pious hands had placed them so many centuries ago. It was apparent to him, even in those hurried, passing glances, that this was the earliest and finest of the catacombs, containing such a storehouse of Roman remains as had never before come at one time under the observation of the student. “What would happen if the light went out?” he asked, as they hurried on.
“I have a spare candle and a box of matches in my pocket. By the way, Kennedy, have you any matches?”
“No; you had better give me some.”
“Oh, that is all right. There is no chance of our separating.”
“How far are we going? It seems to me that we have walked at least a quarter of a mile.”
“More than that, I think. There is really no limit to the tombs — at least, I have never been able to find any. This is a very difficult place, so I think that I will use our ball of string.” He fastened one end of it to a projecting stone and he carried the coil in the breast of his coat, paying it out as he advanced. Kennedy saw that it was no unnecessary precaution, for the passages had become more complexed and tortuous than ever, with a perfect network of intersecting corridors. But these all ended in one large circular hall with a square pedestal of tufa topped with a slab of marble at one end of it. “By Jove!” cried Kennedy in an ecstasy, as Burger swung his lantern over the marble. “It is a Christian altar — probably the first one in existence. Here is the little consecration cross cut upon the corner of it. No doubt this circular space was used as a church.”
“Precisely,” said Burger. “If I had more time I should like to show you all the bodies which are buried in these niches upon the walls, for they are the early popes and bishops of the Church, with their mitres, their croziers, and full canonicals. Go over to that one and look at it!” Kennedy went across, and stared at the ghastly head which lay loosely on the shredded and mouldering mitre.
“This is most interesting,” said he, and his voice seemed to boom against the concave vault. “As far as my experience goes, it is unique. Bring the lantern over, Burger, for I want to see them all.” But the German had strolled away, and was standing in the middle of a yellow circle of light at the other side of the hall.
“Do you know how many wrong turnings there are between this and the stairs?” he asked. “There are over two thousand. No doubt it was one of the means of protection which the Christians adopted. The odds are two thousand to one against a man getting out, even if he had a light; but if he were in the dark it would, of course, be far more difficult.”
“So I should think.”
“And the darkness is something dreadful. I tried it once for an experiment. Let us try it again!” He stooped to the lantern, and in an instant it was as if an invisible hand was squeezed tightly over each of Kennedy’s eyes. Never had he known what such darkness was. It seemed to press upon him and to smother him. It was a solid obstacle against which the body shrank from advancing. He put his hands out to push it back from him. “That will do, Burger,” said he, “let’s have the light again.”
But his companion began to laugh, and in that circular room the sound seemed to come from every side at once. “You seem uneasy, friend Kennedy,” said he.
“Go on, man, light the candle!” said Kennedy, impatiently.
“It’s very strange, Kennedy, but I could not in the least tell by the sound in which direction you stand. Could you tell where I am?”
“No; you seem to be on every side of me.”
“If it were not for this string which I hold in my hand I should not have a notion which way to go.”
“I dare say not. Strike a light, man, and have an end of this nonsense.”
“Well, Kennedy, there are two things which I understand that you are very fond of. The one is adventure, and the other is an obstacle to surmount. The adventure must be the finding of your way out of this catacomb. The obstacle will be the darkness and the two thousand wrong turns which make the way a little difficult to find. But you need not hurry, for you have plenty of time, and when you halt for a rest now and then, I should like you just to think of Miss Mary Saunderson, and whether you treated her quite fairly.”
“You devil, what do you mean?” roared Kennedy. He was running about in little circles and clasping at the solid blackness with both hands.
“Good-bye,” said the mocking voice, and it was already at some distance. “I really do not think, Kennedy, even by your own showing that you did the right thing by that girl. There was only one little thing which you appeared not to know, and I can supply it. Miss Saunderson was engaged to a poor, ungainly devil of a student, and his name was Julius Burger.” There was a rustle somewhere — the vague sound of a foot striking a stone — and then there fell silence upon that old Christian church — a stagnant heavy silence which closed round Kennedy and shut him in like water round a drowning man.
Some two months afterwards the following paragraph made the round of the European Press:—
One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years is that of the new catacomb in Rome, which lies some distance to the east of the well-known vaults of St. Calixtus. The finding of this important burial-place, which is exceedingly rich in most interesting early Christian remains, is due to the energy and sagacity of Dr. Julius Burger, the young German specialist, who is rapidly taking the first place as an authority upon ancient Rome. Although the first to publish his discovery, it appears that a less fortunate adventurer had anticipated Dr. Burger. Some months ago Mr. Kennedy, the well-known English student, disappeared suddenly from his rooms in the “Corso”, and it was conjectured that his association with a recent scandal had driven him to leave Rome. It appears now that he had in reality fallen a victim to that fervid love of archaeology which had raised him to a distinguished place among living scholars. His body was discovered in the heart of the new catacomb, and it was evident from the condition of his feet and boots that he had tramped for days through the tortuous corridors which make these subterranean tombs so dangerous to explorers. The deceased gentleman had, with inexplicable rashness, made his way into this labyrinth without, as far as can be discovered, taking with him either candles or matches, so that his sad fate was the natural result of his own temerity. What makes the matter more painful is that Dr. Julius Burger was an intimate friend of the deceased. His joy at the extraordinary find which he has been so fortunate as to make has been greatly marred by the terrible fate of his comrade and fellow-worker.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54