The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 6

So the Korosko had been taken, and the chances of rescue upon which they had reckoned — all those elaborate calculations of hours and distances — were as unsubstantial as the mirage which shimmered upon the horizon. There would be no alarm at Haifa until it was found that the steamer did not return in the evening. Even now, when the Nile was only a thin green band upon the farthest horizon, the pursuit had probably not begun. In a hundred miles or even less they would be in the Dervish country. How small, then, was the chance that the Egyptian forces could overtake them. They all sank into a silent, sulky despair, with the exception of Belmont, who was held back by the guards as he strove to go to his wife’s assistance.

The two bodies of camel-men had united, and the Arabs, in their grave, dignified fashion, were exchanging salutations and experiences, while the negroes grinned, chattered, and shouted, with the careless good-humour which even the Koran has not been able to alter. The leader of the new-comers was a greybeard, a worn, ascetic, high-nosed old man, abrupt and fierce in his manner, and soldierly in his bearing. The dragoman groaned when he saw him, and flapped his hands miserably with the air of a man who sees trouble accumulating upon trouble.

“It is the Emir Abderrahman,” said he. “I fear now that we shall never come to Khartoum alive.”

The name meant nothing to the others, but Colonel Cochrane had heard of him as a monster of cruelty and fanaticism, a red-hot Moslem of the old fighting, preaching dispensation, who never hesitated to carry the fierce doctrines of the Koran to their final conclusions. He and the Emir Wad Ibrahim conferred gravely together, their camels side by side, and their red turbans inclined inwards, so that the black beard mingled with the white one. Then they both turned and stared long and fixedly at the poor, head-hanging huddle of prisoners. The younger man pointed and explained, while his senior listened with a sternly impassive face.

“Who’s that nice-looking old gentleman in the white beard?” asked Miss Adams, who had been the first to rally from the bitter disappointment.

“That is their leader now,” Cochrane answered.

“You don’t say that he takes command over that other one?”

“Yes, lady,” said the dragoman; “he is now the head of all.”

“Well, that’s good for us. He puts me in mind of Elder Mathews, who was at the Presbyterian Church in minister Scott’s time. Anyhow, I had rather be in his power than in the hands of that black-haired one with the flint eyes. Sadie, dear, you feel better now its cooler, don’t you?”

“Yes, Auntie; don’t you fret about me. How are you yourself?”

“Well, I’m stronger in faith than I was.

“They haven’t hurt you, Norah, have they?”

“I set you a poor example, Sadie, for I was clean crazed at first at the suddenness of it all, and at thinking of what your mother, who trusted you to me, would think about it. My land, there’ll be some headlines in the Boston Herald over this! I guess somebody will have to suffer for it.”

“Poor Mr. Stuart!” cried Sadie, as the monotonous, droning voice of the delirious man came again to their ears. “Come, Auntie, and see if we cannot do something to relieve him.”

“I’m uneasy about Mrs. Shlesinger and the child,” said Colonel Cochrane. “I can see your wife, Belmont, but I can see no one else.”

“They are bringing her over,” cried he. “Thank God! We shall hear all about it. They haven’t hurt you, Norah, have they?” He ran forward to grasp and kiss the hand which his wife held down to him as he helped her from the camel.

They haven’t hurt you, Norah, have they
They haven’t hurt you, Norah, have they

The kind, grey eyes and calm, sweet face of the Irishwoman brought comfort and hope to the whole party. She was a devout Roman Catholic, and it is a creed which forms an excellent prop in hours of danger. To her, to the Anglican Colonel, to the Nonconformist minister, to the Presbyterian American, even to the two Pagan black riflemen, religion in its various forms was fulfilling the same beneficent office,— whispering always that the worst which the world can do is a small thing, and that, however harsh the ways of Providence may seem, it is, on the whole, the wisest and best thing for us that we should go cheerfully whither the Great Hand guides us. They had not a dogma in common, these fellows in misfortune, but they held the intimate, deep-lying spirit, the calm, essential fatalism which is the world-old framework of religion, with fresh crops of dogmas growing like ephemeral lichens upon its granite surface.

“You poor things,” she said. “I can see that you have had a much worse time than I have. No, really, John, dear, I am quite well,— not even very thirsty, for our party filled their waterskins at the Nile, and they let me have as much as I wanted. But I don’t see Mr. Headingly and Mr. Brown. And poor Mr. Stuart,— what a state he has been reduced to!”

“Headingly and Brown are out of their troubles,” her husband answered. “You don’t know how often I have thanked God today, Norah, that you were not with us. And here you are, after all.”

“Where should I be but by my husband’s side? I had much, much rather be here than safe at Haifa.”

“Has any news gone to the town?” asked the Colonel.

“One boat escaped. Mrs. Shlesinger and her child and maid were in it. I was downstairs in my cabin when the Arabs rushed on to the vessel. Those on deck had time to escape, for the boat was alongside. I don’t know whether any of them were hit. The Arabs fired at them for some time.”

“Did they?” cried Belmont, exultantly, his responsive Irish nature catching the sunshine in an instant. “Then, be Jove, we’ll do them yet, for the garrison must have heard the firing. What d’ye think, Cochrane? They must be full cry upon our scent this four hours. Any minute we might see the white puggaree of a British officer coming over that rise.”

But disappointment had left the Colonel cold and sceptical.

“They need not come at all unless they come strong,” said he. “These fellows are picked men with good leaders, and on their own ground they will take a lot of beating.” Suddenly he paused and looked at the Arabs. “By George!” said he, “that’s a sight worth seeing!”

Hour of Arab prayer
Hour of Arab prayer

The great red sun was down with half its disc slipped behind the violet bank upon the horizon. It was the hour of Arab prayer. An older and more learned civilisation would have turned to that magnificent thing upon the skyline and adored that. But these wild children of the desert were nobler in essentials than the polished Persian. To them the ideal was higher than the material, and it was with their backs to the sun and their faces to the central shrine of their religion that they prayed. And how they prayed, these fanatical Moslems! Wrapt, absorbed, with yearning eyes and shining faces, rising, stooping, grovelling with their foreheads upon their praying carpets. Who could doubt, as he watched their strenuous, heart-whole devotion, that here was a great living power in the world, reactionary but tremendous, countless millions all thinking as one from Cape Juby to the confines of China? Let a common wave pass over them, let a great soldier or organiser arise among them to use the grand material at his hand, and who shall say that this may not be the besom with which Providence may sweep the rotten, decadent, impossible, half-hearted south of Europe, as it did a thousand years ago, until it makes room for a sounder stock?

And now as they rose to their feet the bugle rang out, and the prisoners understood that, having travelled all day, they were fated to travel all night also. Belmont groaned, for he had reckoned upon the pursuers catching them up before they left this camp. But the others had already got into the way of accepting the inevitable. A flat Arab loaf had been given to each of them — what effort of the chef of the post-boat had ever tasted like that dry brown bread?— and then, luxury of luxuries, they had a second ration of a glass of water, for the fresh-filled bags of the new-comers had provided an ample supply. If the body would but follow the lead of the soul as readily as the soul does that of the body, what a heaven the earth might be! Now, with their base material wants satisfied for the instant, their spirits began to sing within them, and they mounted their camels with some sense of the romance of their position. Mr. Stuart remained babbling upon the ground, and the Arabs made no effort to lift him into his saddle. His large, white, upturned face glimmered through the gathering darkness.

“Hi, dragoman, tell them that they are forgetting Mr. Stuart,” cried the Colonel.

“No use, sir,” said Mansoor. “They say that he is too fat, and that they will not take him any farther. He will die, they say, and why should they trouble about him?”

“Not take him!” cried Cochrane. “Why, the man will perish of hunger and thirst. Where’s the Emir? Hi!” he shouted, as the black-bearded Arab passed, with a tone like that in which he used to summon a dilatory donkey-boy. The chief did not deign to answer him, but said something to one of the guards, who dashed the butt of his Remington into the Colonel’s ribs.

The old soldier fell forward gasping
The old soldier fell forward gasping

The old soldier fell forward gasping, and was carried on half senseless, clutching at the pommel of his saddle. The women began to cry, and the men with muttered curses and clenched hands writhed in that hell of impotent passion, where brutal injustice and ill-usage have to go without check or even remonstrance. Belmont gripped at his hip-pocket for his little revolver, and then remembered that he had already given it to Miss Adams. If his hot hand had clutched it, it would have meant the death of the Emir and the massacre of the party.

And now as they rode onwards they saw one of the most singular of the phenomena of the Egyptian desert in front of them, though the ill treatment of their companion had left them in no humour for appreciating its beauty. When the sun had sunk, the horizon had remained of a slaty-violet hue. But now this began to lighten and to brighten until a curious false dawn developed, and it seemed as if a vacillating sun was coming back along the path which it had just abandoned. A rosy pink hung over the west, with beautifully delicate sea-green tints along the upper edge of it. Slowly these faded into slate again, and the night had come. It was but twenty-four hours since they had sat in their canvas chairs discussing politics by starlight on the saloon deck of the Korosko; only twelve since they had breakfasted there and had started spruce and fresh upon their last pleasure trip. What a world of fresh impressions had come upon them since then! How rudely they had been jostled out of their take-it-for-granted complacency! The same shimmering silver stars as they had looked upon last night, the same thin crescent of moon — but they, what a chasm lay between that old pampered life and this!

The long line of camels moved as noiselessly as ghosts across the desert. Before and behind were the silent swaying white figures of the Arabs. Not a sound anywhere, not the very faintest sound, until far away behind them they heard a human voice singing in a strong, droning, unmusical fashion. It had the strangest effect, this far-away voice, in that huge inarticulate wilderness. And then there came a well-known rhythm into that distant chant, and they could almost hear the words: We nightly pitch our moving tent A day’s march nearer home.

Was Mr. Stuart in his right mind again, or was it some coincidence of his delirium, that he should have chosen this for his song? With moist eyes his friends looked back through the darkness, for well they knew that home was very near to this wanderer. Gradually the voice died away into a hum, and was absorbed once more into the masterful silence of the desert.

“My dear old chap, I hope you’re not hurt?” said Belmont, laying his hand upon Cochrane’s knee.

The Colonel had straightened himself, though he still gasped a little in his breathing.

“I am all right again, now. Would you kindly show me which was the man who struck me?”

“It was the fellow in front there — with his camel beside Fardet’s.”

“The young fellow with the moustache — I can’t see him very well in this light, but I think I could pick him out again. Thank you, Belmont!”

“But I thought some of your ribs were gone.”

“No; it only knocked the wind out of me.”

“You must be made of iron. It was a frightful blow. How could you rally from it so quickly?”

The Colonel cleared his throat and hummed and stammered.

“The fact is, my dear Belmont — I’m sure you would not let it go further — above all not to the ladies; but I am rather older than I used to be, and rather than lose the military carriage which has always been dear to me, I——”

“Stays, be Jove!” cried the astonished Irishman.

“Well, some slight artificial support,” said the Colonel, stiffly, and switched the conversation off to the chances of the morrow.

It still comes back in their dreams to those who are left, that long night’s march in the desert. It was like a dream itself, the silence of it as they were borne forward upon those soft, shuffling sponge feet, and the flitting, flickering figures which oscillated upon every side of them. The whole universe seemed to be hung as a monstrous time-dial in front of them. A star would glimmer like a lantern on the very level of their path. They looked again, and it was a hand’s-breadth up, and another was shining beneath it. Hour after hour the broad stream flowed sedately across the deep blue background, worlds and systems drifting majestically overhead, and pouring over the dark horizon. In their vastness and their beauty there was a vague consolation to the prisoners for their own fate, and their own individuality seemed trivial and unimportant amid the play of such tremendous forces. Slowly the grand procession swept across the heaven, first climbing, then hanging long with little apparent motion, and then sinking grandly downwards, until away in the east the first cold grey glimmer appeared, and their own haggard faces shocked each other’s sight.

The day had tortured them with its heat, and now the night had brought the even more intolerable discomfort of cold. The Arabs swathed themselves in their gowns and wrapped up their heads. The prisoners beat their hands together and shivered miserably. Miss Adams felt it most, for she was very thin, with the impaired circulation of age. Stephens slipped off his Norfolk jacket and threw it over her shoulders. He rode beside Sadie, and whistled and chatted to make her believe that her aunt was really relieving him by carrying his jacket for him, but the attempt was too boisterous not to be obvious. And yet it was so far true that he probably felt the cold less than any of the party, for the old, old fire was burning in his heart, and a curious joy was inextricably mixed with all his misfortunes, so that he would have found it hard to say if this adventure had been the greatest evil or the greatest blessing of his lifetime. Aboard the boat, Sadie’s youth, her beauty, her intelligence and humour, all made him realise that she could at the best only be expected to charitably endure him. But now he felt that he was really of some use to her, that every hour she was learning to turn to him as one turns to one’s natural protector; and above all, he had begun to find himself — to understand that there really was a strong, reliable man behind all the tricks of custom which had built up an artificial nature, which had imposed even upon himself. A little glow of self-respect began to warm his blood. He had missed his youth when he was young, and now in his middle age it was coming up like some beautiful belated flower.

“I do believe that you are all the time enjoying it, Mr. Stephens,” said Sadie, with some bitterness.

“I would not go so far as to say that,” he answered. “But I am quite certain that I would not leave you here.”

Certain that I would not leave you here
Certain that I would not leave you here

It was the nearest approach to tenderness which he had ever put into a speech, and the girl looked at him in surprise.

“I think I’ve been a very wicked girl all my life,” she said, after a pause. “Because I have had a good time myself, I never thought of those who were unhappy. This has struck me serious. If ever I get back I shall be a better woman — a more earnest woman — in the future.”

“And I a better man. I suppose it is just for that that trouble comes to us. Look how it has brought out the virtues of all our friends. Take poor Mr. Stuart, for example. Should we ever have known what a noble, constant man he was? And see Belmont and his wife, in front of us, there, going fearlessly forward, hand in hand, thinking only of each other. And Cochrane, who always seemed on board the boat to be a rather stand-offish, narrow sort of man! Look at his courage, and his unselfish indignation when any one is ill used. Fardet, too, is as brave as a lion. I think misfortune has done us all good.”

Sadie sighed.

“Yes, if it would end right here one might say so. But if it goes on and on for a few weeks or months of misery, and then ends in death, I don’t know where we reap the benefit of those improvements of character which it brings. Suppose you escape, what will you do’?”

The lawyer hesitated, but his professional instincts were still strong.

“I will consider whether an action lies, and against whom. It should be with the organisers of the expedition for taking us to the Abousir Rock — or else with the Egyptian Government for not protecting their frontiers. It will be a nice legal question. And what will you do, Sadie?”

It was the first time that he had ever dropped the formal Miss, but the girl was too much in earnest to notice it.

“I will be more tender to others,” she said. “I will try to make some one else happy in memory of the miseries which I have endured.”

“You have done nothing all your life but made others happy. You cannot help doing it,” said he. The darkness made it more easy for him to break through the reserve which was habitual with him. “You need this rough schooling far less than any of us. How could your character be changed for the better?”

“You show how little you know me. I have been very selfish and thoughtless.”

“At least you had no need for all these strong emotions. You were sufficiently alive without them. Now it has been different with me.”

“Why did you need emotions, Mr. Stephens’?”

“Because anything is better than stagnation. Pain is better than stagnation. I have only just begun to live. Hitherto I have been a machine upon the earth’s surface. I was a one-ideaed man, and a one-ideaed man is only one remove from a dead man. That is what I have only just begun to realise. For all these years I have never been stirred, never felt a real throb of human emotion pass through me. I had no time for it. I had observed it in others, and I had vaguely wondered whether there was some want in me which prevented my sharing the experience of my fellow-mortals. But now these last few days have taught me how keenly I can live — that I can have warm hopes and deadly fears — that I can hate and that I can — well, that I can have every strong feeling which the soul can experience. I have come to life. I may be on the brink of the grave, but at least I can say now that I have lived.”

“And why did you lead this soul-killing life in England?”

“I was ambitious — I wanted to get on. And then there were my mother and my sisters to be thought of. Thank Heaven, here is the morning coming. Your aunt and you will soon cease to feel the cold.”

“And you without your coat?”

“Oh, I have a very good circulation. I can manage very well in my shirt-sleeves.”

And now the long, cold, weary night was over, and the deep blue-black sky had lightened to a wonderful mauve-violet, with the larger stars still glinting brightly out of it. Behind them the grey line had crept higher and higher, deepening into a delicate rose-pink, with the fan-like rays of the invisible sun shooting and quivering across it. Then, suddenly, they felt its warm touch upon their backs, and there were hard black shadows upon the sand in front of them. The Dervishes loosened their cloaks and proceeded to talk cheerily among themselves. The prisoners also began to thaw, and eagerly ate the doora which was served out for their breakfasts. A short halt had been called, and a cup of water handed to each.

“Can I speak to you, Colonel Cochrane?” asked the dragoman.

“No, you can’t,” snapped the Colonel.

“But it is very important — all our safety may come from it.”

The Colonel frowned and pulled at his moustache.

“Well, what is it?” he asked, at last.

“You must trust to me, for it is as much to me as to you to get back to Egypt. My wife and home, and children, are on one part, and a slave for life upon the other. You have no cause to doubt it.”

“Well, go on!”

“You know the black man who spoke with you — the one who had been with Hicks?”

“Yes, what of him?”

“He has been speaking with me during the night. I have had a long talk with him. He said that he could not very well understand you, nor you him, and so he came to me.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that there were eight Egyptian soldiers among the Arabs — six black and two fellaheen. He said that he wished to have your promise that they should all have very good reward if they helped you to escape.”

“Of course they shall.”

“They asked for one hundred Egyptian pounds each.”

“They shall have it.”

“I told him that I would ask you, but that I was sure that you would agree to it.”

“What do they purpose to do?”

“They could promise nothing, but what they thought best was that they should ride their camels not very far from you, so that if any chance should come they would be ready to take advantage.”

“Well, you can go to him and promise two hundred pounds each if they will help us. You do not think we could buy over some Arabs?”

Mansoor shook his head. “Too much danger to try,” said he. “Suppose you try and fail, then that will be the end to all of us. I will go tell what you have said.” He strolled off to where the old negro gunner was grooming his camel and waiting for his reply.

The Emirs had intended to halt for a half-hour at the most, but the baggage-camels which bore the prisoners were so worn out with the long, rapid march, that it was clearly impossible that they should move for some time. They had laid their long necks upon the ground, which is the last symptom of fatigue. The two chiefs shook their heads when they inspected them, and the terrible old man looked with his hard-lined, rock features at the captives. Then he said something to Mansoor, whose face turned a shade more sallow as he listened.

“The Emir Abderrahman says that if you do not become Moslem, it is not worth while delaying the whole caravan in order to carry you upon the baggage-camels. If it were not for you, he says that we could travel twice as fast. He wishes to know therefore, once for ever, if you will accept the Koran.” Then in the same tone, as if he were still translating, he continued: “You had far better consent, for if you do not he will most certainly put you all to death.”

The unhappy prisoners looked at each other in despair. The two Emirs stood gravely watching them.

“For my part,” said Cochrane, “I had as soon die now as be a slave in Khartoum!”

“What do you say, Norah?” asked Belmont.

“If we die together, John, I don’t think I shall be afraid.”

“It is absurd that I should die for that in which I have never had belief,” said Fardet. “And yet it is not possible for the honour of a Frenchman that he should be converted in this fashion.” He drew himself up, with his wounded wrist stuck into the front of his jacket, “Je suis Chrétien. J’y reste,” he cried, a gallant falsehood in each sentence.

“What do you say, Mr. Stephens?” asked Mansoor, in a beseeching voice. “If one of you would change, it might place them in a good humour. I implore you that you do what they ask.”

“No, I can’t,” said the lawyer, quietly.

“Well then, you, Miss Sadie? You, Miss Adams? It is only just to say it once, and you will be saved.”

“Oh, Auntie, do you think we might?” whimpered the frightened girl. “Would it be so very wrong if we said it?”

The old lady threw her arms round her.

“No, no, my own dear little Sadie,” she whispered. “You’ll be strong! You would just hate yourself for ever after. Keep your grip of me, dear, and pray if you find your strength is leaving you. Don’t forget that your old aunt Eliza has you all the time by the hand.”

For an instant they were heroic, this line of dishevelled, bedraggled pleasure-seekers. They were all looking Death in the face, and the closer they looked the less they feared him. They were conscious rather of a feeling of curiosity, together with the nervous tingling with which one approaches a dentist’s chair. The dragoman made a motion of his hands and shoulders, as one who has tried and failed. The Emir Abderrahman said something to a negro, who hurried away.

“What does he want a scissors for?” asked the Colonel.

“He is going to hurt the women,” said Mansoor, with the same gesture of impotence.

A cold chill fell upon them all. They stared about them in helpless horror. Death in the abstract was one thing, but these insufferable details were another. Each had been braced to endure any evil in his own person, but their hearts were still soft for each other. The women said nothing, but the men were all buzzing together.

“There’s the pistol, Miss Adams,” said Belmont.

“Give it here! We won’t be tortured! We won’t stand it!”

“Offer them money, Mansoor! Offer them anything!” cried Stephens. “Look. here, I’ll turn Mohammedan if they’ll promise to leave the women alone. After all, it isn’t binding — it’s under compulsion. But I can’t see the women hurt.”

“No, wait a bit, Stephens!” said the Colonel. “We mustn’t lose our heads. I think I see a way out. See here, dragoman! You tell that grey-bearded old devil that we know nothing about his cursed tinpot religion. Put it smooth when you translate it. Tell him that he cannot expect us to adopt it until we know what particular brand of rot it is that he wants us to believe. Tell him that if he will instruct us, we are perfectly willing to listen to his teaching, and you can add that any creed which turns out such beauties as him, and that other bounder with the black beard, must claim the attention of every one.”

With bows and suppliant sweepings of his hands the dragoman explained that the Christians were already full of doubt, and that it needed but a little more light of knowledge to guide them on to the path of Allah. The two Emirs stroked their beards and gazed suspiciously at them. Then Abderrahman spoke in his crisp, stern fashion to the dragoman, and the two strode away together. An instant later the bugle rang out as a signal to mount.

“What he says is this,” Mansoor explained, as he rode in the middle of the prisoners. “We shall reach the wells by mid-day, and there will be a rest. His own Moolah, a very good and learned man, will come to give you an hour of teaching. At the end of that time you will choose one way or the other. When you have chosen, it will be decided whether you are to go to Khartoum or to be put to death. That is his last word.”

“They won’t take ransom?”

“Wad Ibrahim would, but the Emir Abderrahman is a terrible man. I advise you to give in to him.”

“What have you done yourself? You are a Christian, too.”

Mansoor blushed as deeply as his complexion would allow.

“I was yesterday morning. Perhaps I will be tomorrow morning. I serve the Lord as long as what He ask seem reasonable; but this is very otherwise.”

He rode onwards amongst the guards with a freedom which showed that his change of faith had put him upon a very different footing to the other prisoners.

So they were to have a reprieve of a few hours, though they rode in that dark shadow of death which was closing in upon them.

What is there in life that we should cling to it so? It is not the pleasures, for those whose hours are one long pain shrink away screaming when they see merciful Death holding his soothing arms out for them. It is not the associations, for we will change all of them before we walk of our own free wills down that broad road which every son and daughter of man must tread. Is it the fear of losing the I, that dear, intimate I, which we think we know so well, although it is eternally doing things which surprise us? Is it that which makes the deliberate suicide cling madly to the bridge-pier as the river sweeps him by? Or is it that Nature is so afraid that all her weary workmen may suddenly throw down their tools and strike, that she has invented this fashion of keeping them constant to their present work? But there it is, and all these tired, harassed, humiliated folk rejoiced in the few more hours of suffering which were left to them.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53