Colonel Cochrane was awakened from his slumber by some one pulling at his shoulder. As his eyes opened they fell upon the black, anxious face of Tippy Tilly, the old Egyptian gunner. His crooked finger was laid upon his thick, liver-coloured lips, and his dark eyes glanced from left to right with ceaseless vigilance.
“Lie quiet! Do not move!” he whispered, in Arabic. “I will lie here beside you, and they cannot tell me from the others. You can understand what I am saying?”
“Yes, if you will talk slowly.”
“Very good. I have no great trust in this black man, Mansoor. I had rather talk direct with the Miralai.”
“What have you to say?”
“I have waited long, until they should all be asleep, and now in another hour we shall be called to evening prayer. First of all, here is a pistol, that you may not say that you are without arms.”
It was a clumsy, old-fashioned thing, but the Colonel saw the glint of a percussion-cap upon the nipple, and knew that it was loaded. He slipped it into the inner pocket of his Norfolk jacket.
“Thank you,” said he; “speak slowly, so that I may understand you.”
“There are eight of us who wish to go to Egypt. There are also four men in your party. One of us, Mehemet Ali, has fastened twelve camels together, which are the fastest of all save only those which are ridden by the Emirs. There are guards upon watch, but they are scattered in all directions. The twelve camels are close beside us here,— those twelve behind the acacia-tree. If we can only get mounted and started, I do not think that many can overtake us, and we shall have our rifles for them. The guards are not strong enough to stop so many of us. The waterskins are all filled, and we may see the Nile again by tomorrow night.”
The Colonel could not follow it all, “That is excellent,” said he. “But what are we to do about the three ladies?”
The black soldier shrugged his shoulders.
“Mefeesh!” said he. “One of them is old, and in any case there are plenty more women if we get back to Egypt. These will not come to any hurt, but they will be placed in the harem of the Khalija.”
“What you say is nonsense,” said the Colonel, sternly. “We shall take our women with us, or we shall not go at all.”
“I think it is rather you who talk the thing without sense,” the black man answered, angrily. “How can you ask my companions and me to do that which must end in failure? For years we have waited for such a chance as this, and now that it has come, you wish us to throw it away owing to this foolishness about the women.”
He understood enough to set a little spring of hope bubbling in his heart. The last terrible day had left its mark in his livid face and his hair, which was turning rapidly to grey. He might have been the father of the spruce, well-preserved soldier who had paced with straight back and military stride up and down the saloon deck of the Korosko.
“What have we promised you if we come back to Egypt?” asked Cochrane.
“Two hundred Egyptian pounds and promotion in the army,— all upon the word of an Englishman.”
“Very good. Then you shall have three hundred each if you can make some new plan by which you can take the women with you.”
Tippy Tilly scratched his woolly head in his perplexity.
“We might, indeed, upon some excuse, bring three more of the faster camels round to this place. Indeed, there are three very good camels among those which are near the cooking-fire. But how are we to get the women upon them?— and if we had them upon them, we know very well that they would fall off when they began to gallop. I fear that you men will fall off, for it is no easy matter to remain upon a galloping camel; but as to the women, it is impossible. No, we shall leave the women, and if you will not leave the women, then we shall leave all of you and start by ourselves.”
“Very good! Go!” said the Colonel, abruptly, and settled down as if to sleep once more. He knew that with Orientals it is the silent man who is most likely to have his way.
The negro turned and crept away for some little distance, where he was met by one of his fellaheen comrades, Mehemet Ali, who had charge of the camels. The two argued for some little time,— for those three hundred golden pieces were not to be lightly resigned. Then the negro crept back to Colonel Cochrane.
“Mehemet Ali has agreed,” said he. “He has gone to put the nose-rope upon three more of the camels. But it is foolishness, and we are all going to our death. Now come with me, and we shall awaken the women and tell them.”
The Colonel shook his companions and whispered to them what was in the wind. Belmont and Fardet were ready for any risk. Stephens, to whom the prospect of a passive death presented little terror, was seized with a convulsion of fear when he thought of any active exertion to avoid it, and shivered in all his long, thin limbs. Then he pulled out his Baedeker and began to write his will upon the fly-leaf, but his hand twitched so that he was hardly legible. By some strange gymnastic of the legal mind, a death, even by violence, if accepted quietly, had a place in the established order of things, while a death which overtook one galloping frantically over a desert was wholly irregular and discomposing. It was not dissolution which he feared, but the humiliation and agony of a fruitless struggle against it.
Colonel Cochrane and Tippy Tilly had crept together under the shadow of the great acacia tree to the spot where the women were lying. Sadie and her aunt lay with their arms round each other, the girl’s head pillowed upon the old woman’s bosom. Mrs. Belmont was awake, and entered into the scheme in an instant.
“But you must leave me,” said Miss Adams, earnestly. “What does it matter at my age, anyhow?”
“No, no, Aunt Eliza; I won’t move without you! Don’t you think it!” cried the girl. “You’ve got to come straight away, or else we both stay right here where we are.”
“Come, come, ma’am, there is no time for arguing,” said the Colonel, roughly. “Our lives all depend upon your making an effort, and we cannot possibly leave you behind.”
“But I will fall off.”
“I’ll tie you on with my puggaree. I wish I had the cummerbund which I lent poor Stuart. Now, Tippy, I think we might make a break for it!”
But the black soldier had been staring with a disconsolate face out over the desert, and he turned upon his heel with an oath.
“There!” said he, sullenly. “You see what comes of all your foolish talking! You have ruined our chances as well as your own!”
Half a dozen mounted camel-men had appeared suddenly over the lip of the bowl-shaped hollow, standing out hard and clear against the evening sky, where the copper basin met its great blue lid. They were travelling fast, and waved their rifles as they came. An instant later the bugle sounded an alarm, and the camp was up with a buzz like an overturned bee-hive. The Colonel ran back to his companions, and the black soldier to his camel. Stephens looked relieved, and Belmont sulky, while Monsieur Fardet raved, with his one uninjured hand in the air.
“Sacred name of a dog!” he cried. “Is there no end to it, then? Are we never to come out of the hands of these accursed Dervishes?”
“Oh, they really are Dervishes, are they?” said the Colonel, in an acid voice. “You seem to be altering your opinions. I thought they were an invention of the British Government.”
The poor fellows’ tempers were getting frayed and thin. The Colonel’s sneer was like a match to a magazine, and in an instant the Frenchman was dancing in front of him with a broken torrent of angry words. His hand was clutching at Cochrane’s throat before Belmont and Stephens could pull him off.
“If it were not for your grey hairs ——” he said.
“Damn your impudence!” cried the Colonel.
“If we have to die, let us die like gentlemen, and not like so many corner-boys,” said Belmont, with dignity.
“I only said I was glad to see that Monsieur Fardet had learned something from his adventures,” the Colonel sneered.
“Shut up, Cochrane! What do you want to aggravate him for?” cried the Irishman.
“Upon my word, Belmont, you forget yourself! I do not permit people to address me in this fashion.”
“You should look after your own manners, then.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, here are the ladies!” cried Stephens, and the angry, overstrained men relapsed into a gloomy silence, pacing up and down, and jerking viciously at their moustaches. It is a very catching thing, ill-temper, for even Stephens began to be angry at their anger, and to scowl at them as they passed him. Here they were at a crisis in their fate, with the shadow of death above them, and yet their minds were all absorbed in some personal grievance so slight that they could hardly put it into words. Misfortune brings the human spirit to a rare height, but the pendulum still swings.
But soon their attention was drawn away to more important matters. A council of war was being held beside the wells, and the two Emirs, stern and composed, were listening to a voluble report from the leader of the patrol. The prisoners noticed that, though the fierce, old man stood like a graven image, the younger Emir passed his hand over his beard once or twice with a nervous gesture, the thin, brown fingers twitching among the long, black hair.
“I believe the Gippies are after us,” said Belmont. “Not very far off either, to judge by the fuss they are making.”
“It looks like it. Something has scared them.”
“Now he’s giving orders. What can it be? Here, Mansoor, what is the matter?”
The dragoman came running up with the light of hope shining upon his brown face.
“I think they have seen something to frighten them. I believe that the soldiers are behind us. They have given the order to fill the waterskins, and be ready for a start when the darkness comes. But I am ordered to gather you together, for the Moolah is coming to convert you all. I have already told him that you are all very much inclined to think the same with him.”
How far Mansoor may have gone with his assurances may never be known, but the Mussulman preacher came walking towards them at this moment with a paternal and contented smile upon his face, as one who has a pleasant and easy task before him. He was a one-eyed man, with a fringe of grizzled beard and a face which was fat, but which looked as if it had once been fatter, for it was marked with many folds and creases. He had a green turban upon his head, which marked him as a Mecca pilgrim. In one hand he carried a small brown carpet, and in the other a parchment copy of the Koran. Laying his carpet upon the ground, he motioned Mansoor to his side, and then gave a circular sweep of his arm to signify that the prisoners should gather round him, and a downward wave which meant that they should be seated. So they grouped themselves round him, sitting on the short green sward under the palm-tree, these seven forlorn representatives of an alien creed, and in the midst of them sat the fat little preacher, his one eye dancing from face to face as he expounded the principles of his newer, cruder, and more earnest faith. They listened attentively and nodded their heads as Mansoor translated the exhortation, and with each sign of their acquiescence the Moolah became more amiable in his manner and more affectionate in his speech.
“For why should you die, my sweet lambs, when all that is asked of you is that you should set aside that which will carry you to everlasting Gehenna, and accept the law of Allah as written by His prophet, which will assuredly bring you unimaginable joys, as is promised in the Book of the Camel? For what says the chosen one?”— and he broke away into one of those dogmatic texts which pass in every creed as an argument. “Besides, is it not clear that God is with us, since from the beginning, when we had but sticks against the rifles of the Turks, victory has always been with us? Have we not taken El Obeid, and taken Khartoum, and destroyed Hicks and slain Gordon, and prevailed against every one who has come against us? How, then, can it be said that the blessing of Allah does not rest upon us?”
The Colonel had been looking about him during the long exhortation of the Moolah, and he had observed that the Dervishes were cleaning their guns, counting their cartridges, and making all the preparations of men who expected that they might soon be called upon to fight. The two Emirs were conferring together with grave faces, and the leader of the patrol pointed, as he spoke to them, in the direction of Egypt. It was evident that there was at least a chance of a rescue if they could only keep things going for a few more hours. The camels were not recovered yet from their long march, and the pursuers, if they were indeed close behind, were almost certain to overtake them.
“For God’s sake, Fardet, try and keep him in play,” said he. “I believe we have a chance if we can only keep the ball rolling for another hour or so.”
But a Frenchman’s wounded dignity is not so easily appeased. Monsieur Fardet sat moodily with his back against the palm-tree, and his black brows drawn down. He said nothing, but he still pulled at his thick, strong moustache.
“Come on, Fardet! We depend upon you,” said Belmont.
“Let Colonel Cochrane do it,” the Frenchman answered, snappishly. “He takes too much upon himself, this Colonel Cochrane.”
“There! there!” said Belmont, soothingly, as if he were speaking to a fractious child. “I am quite sure that the Colonel will express his regret at what has happened, and will acknowledge that he was in the wrong ——”
“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” snapped the Colonel.
“Besides, that is merely a personal quarrel,” Belmont continued, hastily. “It is for the good of the whole party that we wish you to speak with the Moolah, because we all feel that you are the best man for the job.”
But the Frenchman only shrugged his shoulders and relapsed into a deeper gloom.
The Moolah looked from one to the other, and the kindly expression began to fade away from his large, baggy face. His mouth drew down at the corners, and became hard and severe.
“Have these infidels been playing with us, then?” said he to the dragoman. “Why is it that they talk among themselves and have nothing to say to me?”
“He is getting impatient about it,” said Cochrane. “Perhaps I had better do what I can, Belmont, since this damned fellow has left us in the lurch.”
But the ready wit of a woman saved the situation.
“I am sure, Monsieur Fardet,” said Mrs. Belmont, “that you, who are a Frenchman, and therefore a man of gallantry and honour, would not permit your own wounded feelings to interfere with the fulfilment of your promise and your duty towards three helpless ladies.”
Fardet was on his feet in an instant, with his hand over his heart.
“You understand my nature, madame,” he cried. “I am incapable of abandoning a lady. I will do all that I can in this matter. Now, Mansoor, you may tell the holy man that I am ready to discuss through you the high matters of his faith with him.”
And he did it with an ingenuity which amazed his companions. He took the tone of a man who is strongly attracted, and yet has one single remaining shred of doubt to hold him back. Yet as that one shred was torn away by the Moolah, there was always some other stubborn little point which prevented his absolute acceptance of the faith of Islam. And his questions were all so mixed up with personal compliments to the priest and self-congratulations that they should have come under the teachings of so wise a man and so profound a theologian, that the hanging pouches under the Moolah’s eyes quivered with his satisfaction, and he was led happily and hopefully onwards from explanation to explanation, while the blue overhead turned into violet, and the green leaves into black, until the great serene stars shone out once more between the crowns of the palm-trees.
“As to the learning of which you speak, my lamb,” said the Moolah, in answer to some argument of Fardet’s, “I have myself studied at the University of El Azhar at Cairo, and I know that to which you allude. But the learning of the faithful is not as the learning of the unbeliever, and it is not fitting that we pry too deeply into the ways of Allah. Some stars have tails, O my sweet lamb, and some have not; but what does it profit us to know which are which? For God made them all, and they are very safe in His hands. Therefore, my friend, be not puffed up by the foolish learning of the West, and understand that there is only one wisdom, which consists in following the will of Allah as His chosen prophet has laid it down for us in this book. And now, my lambs, I see that you are ready to come into Islam, and it is time, for that bugle tells that we are about to march, and it was the order of the excellent Emir Abderrahman that your choice should be taken, one way or the other, before ever we left the wells.”
“Yet, my father, there are other points upon which I would gladly have instruction,” said the Frenchman, “for, indeed, it is a pleasure to hear your clear words after the cloudy accounts which we have had from other teachers.”
But the Moolah had risen, and a gleam of suspicion twinkled in his single eye.
“This further instruction may well come afterwards,” said he, “since we shall travel together as far as Khartoum, and it will be a joy to me to see you grow in wisdom and in virtue as we go.” He walked over to the fire, and stooping down, with the pompous slowness of a stout man, he returned with two half-charred sticks, which he laid crosswise upon the ground. The Dervishes came clustering over to see the new converts admitted into the fold. They stood round in the dim light, tall and fantastic, with the high necks and supercilious heads of the camels swaying above them.
“Now,” said the Moolah, and his voice had lost its conciliatory and persuasive tone, “there is no more time for you. Here upon the ground I have made out of two sticks the foolish and superstitious symbol of your former creed. You will trample upon it, as a sign that you renounce it, and you will kiss the Koran, as a sign that you accept it, and what more you need in the way of instruction shall be given to you as you go.”
They stood up, the four men and the three women, to meet the crisis of their fate. None of them, except perhaps Miss Adams and Mrs. Belmont, had any deep religious convictions. All of them were children of this world, and some of them disagreed with everything which that symbol upon the earth represented. But there was the European pride, the pride of the white race which swelled within them, and held them to the faith of their countrymen. It was a sinful, human, unChristian motive, and yet it was about to make them public martyrs to the Christian creed. In the hush and tension of their nerves low sounds grew suddenly loud upon their ears. Those swishing palm-leaves above them were like a swift-flowing river, and far away they could hear the dull, soft thudding of a galloping camel.
“There’s something coming,” whispered Cochrane. “Try and stave them off for five minutes longer, Fardet.”
The Frenchman stepped out with a courteous wave of his uninjured arm, and the air of a man who is prepared to accommodate himself to anything.
“You will tell this holy man that I am quite ready to accept his teaching, and so I am sure are all my friends,” said he to the dragoman. “But there is one thing which I should wish him to do in order to set at rest any possible doubts which may remain in our hearts. Every true religion can be told by the miracles which those who profess it can bring about. Even I, who am but a humble Christian, can, by virtue of my religion, do some of these. But you, since your religion is superior, can no doubt do far more, and so I beg you to give us a sign that we may be able to say that we know that the religion of Islam is the more powerful.”
Behind all his dignity and reserve, the Arab has a good fund of curiosity. The hush among the listening Arabs showed how the words of the Frenchman as translated by Mansoor appealed to them.
“Such things are in the hands of Allah,” said the priest. “It is not for us to disturb His laws. But if you have yourself such powers as you claim, let us be witnesses to them.”
The Frenchman stepped forward, and raising his hand he took a large, shining date out of the Moolah’s beard. This he swallowed and immediately produced once more from his left elbow. He had often given his little conjuring entertainment on board the boat, and his fellow-passengers had had some good-natured laughter at his expense, for he was not quite skilful enough to deceive the critical European intelligence. But now it looked as if this piece of obvious palming might be the point upon which all their fates would hang. A deep hum of surprise rose from the ring of Arabs, and deepened as the Frenchman drew another date from the nostril of a camel and tossed it into the air, from which, apparently, it never descended. That gaping sleeve was obvious enough to his companions, but the dim light was all in favour of the performer. So delighted and interested was the audience that they paid little heed to a mounted camel-man who trotted swiftly between the palm trunks. All might have been well had not Fardet, carried away by his own success, tried to repeat his trick once more, with the result that the date fell out of his palm and the deception stood revealed. In vain he tried to pass on at once to another of his little stock. The Moolah said something, and an Arab struck Fardet across the shoulders with the thick shaft of his spear.
“We have had enough child’s play,” said the angry priest. “Are we men or babes, that you should try to impose upon us in this manner? Here is the cross and the Koran — which shall it be?”
Fardet looked helplessly round at his companions.
“I can do no more; you asked for five minutes. You have had them,” said he to Colonel Cochrane.
“And perhaps it is enough,” the soldier answered. “Here are the Emirs.”
The camel-man, whose approach they had heard from afar, had made for the two Arab chiefs, and had delivered a brief report to them, stabbing with his forefinger in the direction from which he had come. There was a rapid exchange of words between the Emirs, and then they strode forward together to the group around the prisoners. Bigots and barbarians, they were none the less two most majestic men, as they advanced through the twilight of the palm grove. The fierce old greybeard raised his hand and spoke swiftly in short, abrupt sentences, and his savage followers yelped to him like hounds to a huntsman. The fire that smouldered in his arrogant eyes shone back at him from a hundred others. Here were to be read the strength and danger of the Mahdi movement; here in these convulsed faces, in that fringe of waving arms, in these frantic, red-hot souls, who asked nothing better than a bloody death, if their own hands might be bloody when they met it.
“Have the prisoners embraced the true faith?” asked the Emir Abderrahman, looking at them with his cruel eyes.
The Moolah had his reputation to preserve, and it was not for him to confess to a failure.
“They were about to embrace it, when ——”
“Let it rest for a little time, O Moolah.” He gave an order, and the Arabs all sprang for their camels. The Emir Wad Ibrahim filed off at once with nearly half the party. The others were mounted and ready, with their rifles unslung.
“What’s happened?” asked Belmont.
“Things are looking up,” cried the Colonel. “By George, I think we are going to come through all right. The Gippy Camel Corps are hot on our trail.”
“How do you know?”
“What else could have scared them?”
“O Colonel, do you really think we shall be saved?” sobbed Sadie. The dull routine of misery through which they had passed had deadened all their nerves until they seemed incapable of any acute sensation, but now this sudden return of hope brought agony with it like the recovery of a frostbitten limb. Even the strong, self-contained Belmont was filled with doubts and apprehensions. He had been hopeful when there was no sign of relief, and now the approach of it set him trembling.
“Surely they wouldn’t come very weak,” he cried. “Be Jove, if the Commandant let them come weak, he should be court-martialled.”
“Sure, we’re in God’s hands, anyway,” said his wife, in her soothing, Irish voice. “Kneel down with me, John, dear, if it’s the last time, and pray that, earth or heaven, we may not be divided.”
“Don’t do that! Don’t!” cried the Colonel, anxiously, for he saw that the eye of the Moolah was upon them. But it was too late, for the two Roman Catholics had dropped upon their knees and crossed themselves. A spasm of fury passed over the face of the Mussulman priest at this public testimony to the failure of his missionary efforts. He turned and said something to the Emir.
“Stand up!” cried Mansoor. “For your life’s sake, stand up! He is asking for leave to put you to death.”
“Let him do what he likes!” said the obstinate Irishman; “we will rise when our prayers are finished, and not before.”
The Emir stood listening to the Moolah, with his baleful gaze upon the two kneeling figures. Then he gave one or two rapid orders, and four camels were brought forward. The baggage-camels which they had hitherto ridden were standing unsaddled where they had been tethered.
“Don’t be a fool, Belmont!” cried the Colonel; “everything depends upon our humouring them. Do get up, Mrs. Belmont! You are only putting their backs up!”
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders as he looked at them. “Mon Dieu!” he cried, “were there ever such impracticable people? Voilà!” he added, with a shriek, as the two American ladies fell upon their knees beside Mrs. Belmont. “It is like the camels — one down, all down! Was ever anything so absurd?”
But Mr. Stephens had knelt down beside Sadie and buried his haggard face in his long, thin hands. Only the Colonel and Monsieur Fardet remained standing. Cochrane looked at the Frenchman with an interrogative eye.
“After all,” said he, “it is stupid to pray all your life, and not to pray now when we have nothing to hope for except through the goodness of Providence.” He dropped upon his knees with a rigid, military back, but his grizzled, unshaven chin upon his chest. The Frenchman looked at his kneeling companions, and then his eyes travelled onwards to the angry faces of the Emir and Moolah.
“Sapristi!” he growled. “Do they suppose that a Frenchman is afraid of them?” and so, with an ostentatious sign of the cross, he took his place upon his knees beside the others. Foul, bedraggled, and wretched, the seven figures knelt and waited humbly for their fate under the black shadow of the palm-tree.
The Emir turned to the Moolah with a mocking smile, and pointed at the results of his ministrations. Then he gave an order, and in an instant the four men were seized.
A couple of deft turns with a camel-halter secured each of their wrists. Fardet screamed out, for the rope had bitten into his open wound. The others took it with the dignity of despair.
“You have ruined everything. I believe you have ruined me also!” cried Mansoor, wringing his hands. “The women are to get upon these three camels.”
“Never!” cried Belmont. “We won’t be separated!” He plunged madly, but he was weak from privation, and two strong men held him by each elbow.
“Don’t fret, John!” cried his wife, as they hurried her towards the camel. “No harm shall come to me. Don’t struggle, or they’ll hurt you, dear.”
The four men writhed as they saw the women dragged away from them. All their agonies had been nothing to this. Sadie and her aunt appeared to be half senseless from fear. Only Mrs. Belmont kept a brave face. When they were seated the camels rose, and were led under the tree behind where the four men were standing.
“I’ve a pistol in me pocket,” said Belmont, looking up at his wife. “I would give me soul to be able to pass it to you.”
“Keep it, John, and it may be useful yet. I have no fears. Ever since we prayed I have felt as if our guardian angels had their wings round us.” She was like a guardian angel herself as she turned to the shrinking Sadie, and coaxed some little hope back into her despairing heart.
The short, thick Arab, who had been in command of Wad Ibrahim’s rearguard, had joined the Emir and the Moolah; the three consulted together, with occasional oblique glances towards the prisoners. Then the Emir spoke to Mansoor.
“The chief wishes to know which of you four is the richest man?” said the dragoman. His fingers were twitching with nervousness and plucking incessantly at the front of his cover-coat.
“Why does he wish to know?” asked the Colonel.
“I do not know.”
“But it is evident,” cried Monsieur Fardet.
“He wishes to know which is the best worth keeping for his ransom.”
“I think we should see this thing through together,” said the Colonel. “It’s really for you to decide, Stephens, for I have no doubt that you are the richest of us.”
“I don’t know that I am,” the lawyer answered; “but, in any case, I have no wish to be placed upon a different footing to the others.”
The Emir spoke again in his harsh, rasping voice.
“He says,” Mansoor translated, “that the baggage-camels are spent, and that there is only one beast left which can keep up. It is ready now for one of you, and you have to decide among yourselves which is to have it. If one is richer than the others, he will have the preference.”
“Tell him that we are all equally rich.”
“In that case he says that you are to choose at once which is to have the camel.”
“And the others?”
The dragoman shrugged his shoulders.
“Well,” said the Colonel, “if only one of us is to escape, I think you fellows will agree with me that it ought to be Belmont, since he is the married man.”
“Yes, yes, let it be Monsieur Belmont,” cried Fardet.
“I think so also,” said Stephens.
But the Irishman would not hear of it.
“No, no, share and share alike,” he cried. “All sink or all swim, and the devil take the flincher.”
They wrangled among themselves until they became quite heated in this struggle of unselfishness. Some one had said that the Colonel should go because he was the oldest, and the Colonel was a very angry man.
“One would think I was an octogenarian,” he cried. “These remarks are quite uncalled for.”
“Well, then,” said Belmont, “let us all refuse to go.”
“But this is not very wise,” cried the Frenchman. “See, my friends! Here are the ladies being carried off alone. Surely it would be far better that one of us should be with them to advise them.”
They looked at one another in perplexity. What Fardet said was obviously true, but how could one of them desert his comrades? The Emir himself suggested the solution.
“The chief says,” said Mansoor, “that if you cannot settle who is to go, you had better leave it to Allah and draw lots.”
“I don’t think we can do better,” said the Colonel, and his three companions nodded their assent.
It was the Moolah who approached them with four splinters of palm-bark protruding from between his fingers.
“He says that he who draws the longest has the camel,” says Mansoor.
“We must agree to abide absolutely by this,” said Cochrane, and again his companions nodded.
The Dervishes had formed a semicircle in front of them, with a fringe of the oscillating heads of the camels. Before them was a cooking fire, which threw its red light over the group. The Emir was standing with his back to it, and his fierce face towards the prisoners. Behind the four men was a line of guards, and behind them again the three women, who looked down from their camels upon this tragedy. With a malicious smile, the fat, one-eyed Moolah advanced with his fist closed, and the four little brown spicules protruding from between his fingers.
It was to Belmont that he held them first. The Irishman gave an involuntary groan, and his wife gasped behind him, for the splinter came away in his hand. Then it was the Frenchman’s turn, and his was half an inch longer than Belmont’s. Then came Colonel Cochrane, whose piece was longer than the two others put together. Stephen’s was no bigger than Belmont’s. The Colonel was the winner of this terrible lottery.
“You’re welcome to my place, Belmont,” said he. “I’ve neither wife nor child, and hardly a friend in the world. Go with your wife, and I’ll stay.”
“No, indeed! An agreement is an agreement. It’s all fair play, and the prize to the luckiest.”
“The Emir says that you are to mount at once,” said Mansoor, and an Arab dragged the Colonel by his wrist-rope to the waiting camel.
“He will stay with the rearguard,” said the Emir to his lieutenant. “You can keep the women with you also.”
“And this dragoman dog?”
“Put him with the others.”
“Put them all to death.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53