With a heart of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander;
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
With a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney —
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end,
Methinks it is no journey.
— Tom a’ Bedlam’s Song.
‘GOOD-BYE, Bess; I promised you fifty. Here’s a hundred — all that I got for my furniture from Beeton. That will keep you in pretty frocks for some time. You’ve been a good little girl, all things considered, but you’ve given me and Torpenhow a fair amount of trouble.’
‘Give Mr. Torpenhow my love if you see him, won’t you?’
‘Of course I will, dear. Now take me up the gang-plank and into the cabin. Once aboard the lugger and the maid is — and I am free, I mean.’
‘Who’ll look after you on this ship?’
‘The head-steward, if there’s any use in money. The doctor when we come to Port Said, if I know anything of P. and O. doctors. After that, the Lord will provide, as He used to do.’
Bess found Dick his cabin in the wild turmoil of a ship full of leavetakers and weeping relatives. Then he kissed her, and laid himself down in his bunk until the decks should be clear. He who had taken so long to move about his own darkened rooms well understood the geography of a ship, and the necessity of seeing to his own comforts was as wine to him.
Before the screw began to thrash the ship along the Docks he had been introduced to the head-steward, had royally tipped him, secured a good place at table, opened out his baggage, and settled himself down with joy in the cabin. It was scarcely necessary to feel his way as he moved about, for he knew everything so well. Then God was very kind: a deep sleep of weariness came upon him just as he would have thought of Maisie, and he slept till the steamer had cleared the mouth of the Thames and was lifting to the pulse of the Channel.
The rattle of the engines, the reek of oil and paint, and a very familiar sound in the next cabin roused him to his new inheritance.
‘Oh, it’s good to be alive again!’ He yawned, stretched himself vigorously, and went on deck to be told that they were almost abreast of the lights of Brighton. This is no more open water than Trafalgal Square is a common; the free levels begin at Ushant; but none the less Dick could feel the healing of the sea at work upon him already. A boisterous little cross-swell swung the steamer disrespectfully by the nose; and one wave breaking far aft spattered the quarterdeck and the pile of new deck-chairs. He heard the foam fall with the clash of broken glass, was stung in the face by a cupful, and sniffing luxuriously, felt his way to the smoking-room by the wheel. There a strong b reeze found him, blew his cap off and left him bareheaded in the doorway, and the smoking-room steward, understanding that he was a voyager of experience, said that the weather would be stiff in the chops off the Channel and more than half a gale in the Bay. These things fell as they were foretold, and Dick enjoyed himself to the utmost. It is allowable and even necessary at sea to lay firm hold upon tables, stanchions, and ropes in moving from place to place. On land the man who feels with his hands is patently blind. At sea even a blind man who is not sea-sick can jest with the doctor over the weakness of his fellows. Dick told the doctor many tales — and these are coin of more value than silver if properly handled — smoked with him till unholy hours of the night, and so won his short-lived regard that he promised Dick a few hours of his time when they came to Port Said.
And the sea roared or was still as the winds blew, and the engines sang their song day and night, and the sun grew stronger day by day, and Tom the Lascar barber shaved Dick of a morning under the opened hatch-grating where the cool winds blew, and the awnings were spread and the passengers made merry, and at last they came to Port Said.
‘Take me,’ said Dick, to the doctor, ‘to Madame Binat’s — if you know where that is.’
‘Whew!’ said the doctor, ‘I do. There’s not much to choose between ’em; but I suppose you’re aware that that’s one of the worst houses in the place. They’ll rob you to begin with, and knife you later.’
‘Not they. Take me there, and I can look after myself.’
So he was brought to Madame Binat’s and filled his nostrils with the well-remembered smell of the East, that runs without a change from the Canal head to Hong–Kong, and his mouth with the villainous Lingua Franca of the Levant. The heat smote him between the shoulder-blades with the buffet of an old friend, his feet slipped on the sand, and his coat-sleeve was warm as new-baked bread when he lifted it to his nose.
Madame Binat smiled with the smile that knows no astonishment when Dick entered the drinking-shop which was one source of her gains. But for a little accident of complete darkness he could hardly realise that he had ever quitted the old life that hummed in his ears. Somebody opened a bottle of peculiarly strong Schiedam. The smell reminded Dick of Monsieur Binat, who, by the way, had spoken of art and degradation.
Binat was dead; Madame said as much when the doctor departed, scandalised, so far as a ship’s doctor can be, at the warmth of Dick’s reception. Dick was delighted at it. ‘They remember me here after a year. They have forgotten me across the water by this time. Madame, I want a long talk with you when you’re at liberty. It is good to be back again.’
In the evening she set an iron-topped cafe-table out on the sands, and Dick and she sat by it, while the house behind them filled with riot, merriment, oaths, and threats. The stars came out and the lights of the shipping in the harbour twinkled by the head of the Canal.
‘Yes. The war is good for trade, my friend; but what dost thou do here? We have not forgotten thee.’
‘I was over there in England and I went blind.’
‘But there was the glory first. We heard of it here, even here — I and Binat; and thou hast used the head of Yellow ‘Tina — she is still alive — so often and so well that ‘Tina laughed when the papers arrived by the mail-boats. It was always something that we here could recognise in the paintings. And then there was always the glory and the money for thee.’
‘I am not poor — I shall pay you well.’
‘Not to me. Thou hast paid for everything.’ Under her breath, ‘Mon Dieu, to be blind and so young! What horror!’
Dick could not see her face with the pity on it, or his own with the discoloured hair at the temples. He did not feel the need of pity; he was too anxious to get to the front once more, and explained his desire.
‘And where? The Canal is full of the English ships. Sometimes they fire as they used to do when the war was here — ten years ago. Beyond Cairo there is fighting, but how canst thou go there without a correspondent’s passport? And in the desert there is always fighting, but that is impossible also,’ said she.
‘I must go to Suakin.’ He knew, thanks to Alf’s readings, that Torpenhow was at work with the column that was protecting the construction of the Suakin–Berber line. P. and O. steamers do not touch at that port, and, besides, Madame Binat knew everybody whose help or advice was worth anything. They were not respectable folk, but they could cause things to be accomplished, which is much more important when there is work toward.
‘But at Suakin they are always fighting. That desert breeds men always — and always more men. And they are so bold! Why to Suakin?’
‘My friend is there.
‘Thy friend! Chtt! Thy friend is death, then.’
Madame Binat dropped a fat arm on the table-top, filled Dick’s glass anew, and looked at him closely under the stars. There was no need that he should bow his head in assent and say —‘No. He is a man, but — if it should arrive . . . blamest thou?’
‘I blame?’ she laughed shrilly. ‘Who am I that I should blame any one — except those who try to cheat me over their consommations. But it is very terrible.’
‘I must go to Suakin. Think for me. A great deal has changed within the year, and the men I knew are not here. The Egyptian lighthouse steamer goes down the Canal to Suakin — and the post-boats — But even then ——’
‘Do not think any longer. I know, and it is for me to think. Thou shalt go — thou shalt go and see thy friend. Be wise. Sit here until the house is a little quiet — I must attend to my guests — and afterwards go to bed. Thou shalt go, in truth, thou shalt go.’
‘As soon as may be.’ She was talking as though he were a child.
He sat at the table listening to the voices in the harbour and the streets, and wondering how soon the end would come, till Madame Binat carried him off to bed and ordered him to sleep. The house shouted and sang and danced and revelled, Madame Binat moving through it with one eye on the liquor payments and the girls and the other on Dick’s interests. To this latter end she smiled upon scowling and furtive Turkish officers of fellaheen regiments, and more than kind to camel agents of no nationality whatever.
In the early morning, being then appropriately dressed in a flaming red silk ball-dress, with a front of tarnished gold embroidery and a necklace of plate-glass diamonds, she made chocolate and carried it in to Dick.
‘It is only I, and I am of discreet age, eh? Drink and eat the roll too. Thus in France mothers bring their sons, when those behave wisely, the morning chocolate.’ She sat down on the side of the bed whispering:—‘It is all arranged. Thou wilt go by the lighthouse boat. That is a bribe of ten pounds English. The captain is never paid by the Government. The boat comes to Suakin in four days. There will go with thee George, a Greek muleteer. Another bribe of ten pounds. I will pay; they must not know of thy money. George will go with thee as far as he goes with his mules. Then he comes back to me, for his well-beloved is here, and if I do not receive a telegram from Suakin saying that thou art well, the girl answers for George.’
‘Thank you.’ He reached out sleepily for the cup. ‘You are much too kind, Madame.’
‘If there were anything that I might do I would say, stay here and be wise; but I do not think that would be best for thee.’ She looked at her liquor-stained dress with a sad smile. ‘Nay, thou shalt go, in truth, thou shalt go. It is best so. My boy, it is best so.’
She stooped and kissed Dick between the eyes. ‘That is for good-morning,’ she said, going away. ‘When thou art dressed we will speak to George and make everything ready. But first we must open the little trunk. Give me the keys.’
‘The amount of kissing lately has been simply scandalous. I shall expect Torp to kiss me next. He is more likely to swear at me for getting in his way, though. Well, it won’t last long. — Ohe, Madame, help me to my toilette of the guillotine! There will be no chance of dressing properly out yonder.’
He was rummaging among his new campaign-kit, and rowelling his hands with the spurs. There are two says of wearing well-oiled ankle-jacks, spotless blue bands, khaki coat and breeches, and a perfectly pipeclayed helmet. The right way is the way of the untired man, master of himself, setting out upon an expedition, well pleased.
‘Everything must be very correct,’ Dick explained. ‘It will become dirty afterwards, but now it is good to feel well dressed. Is everything as it should be?’
He patted the revolver neatly hidden under the fulness of the blouse on the right hip and fingered his collar.
‘I can do no more,’ Madame said, between laughing and crying. ‘Look at thyself — but I forgot.’
‘I am very content.’ He stroked the creaseless spirals of his leggings.
‘Now let us go and see the captain and George and the lighthouse boat.
Be quick, Madame.’
‘But thou canst not be seen by the harbour walking with me in the daylight. Figure to yourself if some English ladies ——’
‘There are no English ladies; and if there are, I have forgotten them.
Take me there.’
In spite of this burning impatience it was nearly evening ere the lighthouse boat began to move. Madame had said a great deal both to George and the captain touching the arrangements that were to be made for Dick’s benefit. Very few men who had the honour of her acquaintance cared to disregard Madame’s advice. That sort of contempt might end in being knifed by a stranger in a gambling hell upon surprisingly short provocation.
For six days — two of them were wasted in the crowded Canal — the little steamer worked her way to Suakin, where she was to pick up the superintendent of the lighthouse; and Dick made it his business to propitiate George, who was distracted with fears for the safety of his light-of-love and half inclined to make Dick responsible for his own discomfort. When they arrived George took him under his wing, and together they entered the red-hot seaport, encumbered with the material and wastage of the Suakin–Berger line, from locomotives in disconsolate fragments to mounds of chairs and pot-sleepers.
‘If you keep with me,’ said George, ‘nobody will ask for passports or what you do. They are all very busy.’
‘Yes; but I should like to hear some of the Englishmen talk. They might remember me. I was known here a long time ago — when I was some one indeed.’
‘A long time ago is a very long time ago here. The graveyards are full.
Now listen. This new railway runs out so far as Tanai-el-Hassan — that is seven miles. Then there is a camp. They say that beyond Tanai-el-Hassan the English troops go forward, and everything that they require will be brought to them by this line.’
‘Ah! Base camp. I see. That’s a better business than fighting Fuzzies in the open.’
‘For this reason even the mules to up in the iron-train.’
‘It is all covered with iron, because it is still being shot at.’
‘An armoured train. Better and better! Go on, faithful George.’
‘And I go up with my mules to-night. Only those who particularly require to go to the camp go out with the train. They begin to shoot not far from the city.’
‘The dears — they always used to!’ Dick snuffed the smell of parched dust, heated iron, and flaking paint with delight. Certainly the old life was welcoming him back most generously.
‘When I have got my mules together I go up to-night, but you must first send a telegram of Port Said, declaring that I have done you no harm.’
‘Madame has you well in hand. Would you stick a knife into me if you had the chance?’
‘I have no chance,’ said the Greek. ‘She is there with that woman.’
‘I see. It’s a bad thing to be divided between love of woman and the chance of loot. I sympathise with you, George.’
They went to the telegraph-office unquestioned, for all the world was desperately busy and had scarcely time to turn its head, and Suakin was the last place under sky that would be chosen for holiday-ground. On their return the voice of an English subaltern asked Dick what he was doing. The blue goggles were over his eyes and he walked with his hand on George’s elbow as he replied —‘Egyptian Government — mules. My orders are to give them over to the A.
C. G. at Tanai-el-Hassan. Any occasion to show my papers?’
‘Oh, certainly not. I beg your pardon. I’d no right to ask, but not seeing your face before I——’
‘I go out in the train to-night, I suppose,’ said Dick, boldly. ‘There will be no difficulty in loading up the mules, will there?’
‘You can see the horse-platforms from here. You must have them loaded up early.’ The young man went away wondering what sort of broken-down waif this might be who talked like a gentleman and consorted with Greek muleteers. Dick felt unhappy. To outface an English officer is no small thing, but the bluff loses relish when one plays it from the utter dark, and stumbles up and down rough ways, thinking and eternally thinking of what might have been if things had fallen out otherwise, and all had been as it was not.
George shared his meal with Dick and went off to the mule-lines. His charge sat alone in a shed with his face in his hands. Before his tight-shut eyes danced the face of Maisie, laughing, with parted lips. There was a great bustle and clamour about him. He grew afraid and almost called for George.
‘I say, have you got your mules ready?’ It was the voice of the subaltern over his shoulder.
‘My man’s looking after them. The — the fact is I’ve a touch of ophthalmia and can’t see very well.
‘By Jove! that’s bad. You ought to lie up in hospital for a while. I’ve had a turn of it myself. It’s as bad as being blind.’
‘So I find it. When does this armoured train go?’
‘At six o’clock. It takes an hour to cover the seven miles.’
‘Are the Fuzzies on the rampage — eh?’
‘About three nights a week. Fact is I’m in acting command of the night-train. It generally runs back empty to Tanai for the night.’
‘Big camp at Tanai, I suppose?’
‘Pretty big. It has to feed our desert-column somehow.’
‘Is that far off?’
‘Between thirty and forty miles — in an infernal thirsty country.’
‘Is the country quiet between Tanai and our men?’
‘More or less. I shouldn’t care to cross it alone, or with a subaltern’s command for the matter of that, but the scouts get through it in some extraordinary fashion.’
‘They always did.’
‘Have you been here before, then?’
‘I was through most of the trouble when it first broke out.’
‘In the service and cashiered,’ was the subaltern’s first thought, so he refrained from putting any questions.
‘There’s you man coming up with the mules. It seems rather queer ——’
‘That I should be mule-leading?’ said Dick.
‘I didn’t mean to say so, but it is. Forgive me — it’s beastly impertinence I know, but you speak like a man who has been at a public school. There’s no mistaking the tone.’
‘I am a public school man.’
‘I thought so. I say, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re a little down on your luck, aren’t you? I saw you sitting with your head in your hands, and that’s why I spoke.’
‘Thanks. I am about as thoroughly and completely broke as a man need be.’
‘Suppose — I mean I’m a public school man myself. Couldn’t I perhaps — take it as a loan y’know and ——’
‘You’re much too good, but on my honour I’ve as much money as I want.
. . . I tell you what you could do for me, though, and put me under an everlasting obligation. Let me come into the bogie truck of the train.
There is a fore-truck, isn’t there?’
‘Yes. How d’you know?’
‘I’ve been in an armoured train before. Only let me see — hear some of the fun I mean, and I’ll be grateful. I go at my own risk as a non-combatant.’
The young man thought for a minute. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘We’re supposed to be an empty train, and there’s no one to blow me up at the other end.’
George and a horde of yelling amateur assistants had loaded up the mules, and the narrow-gauge armoured train, plated with three-eighths inch boiler-plate till it looked like one long coffin, stood ready to start.
Two bogie trucks running before the locomotive were completely covered in with plating, except that the leading one was pierced in front for the muzzle of a machine-gun, and the second at either side for lateral fire.
The trucks together made one long iron-vaulted chamber in which a score of artillerymen were rioting.
‘Whitechapel — last train! Ah, I see yer kissin’ in the first class there!’ somebody shouted, just as Dick was clamouring into the forward truck.
‘Lordy! ‘Ere’s a real live passenger for the Kew, Tanai, Acton, and Ealin’ train. Echo, sir. Speshul edition! Star, sir.’—‘Shall I get you a foot-warmer?’ said another.
‘Thanks. I’ll pay my footing,’ said Dick, and relations of the most amiable were established ere silence came with the arrival of the subaltern, and the train jolted out over the rough track.
‘This is an immense improvement on shooting the unimpressionable Fuzzy in the open,’ said Dick, from his place in the corner.
‘Oh, but he’s still unimpressed. There he goes!’ said the subaltern, as a bullet struck the outside of the truck. ‘We always have at least one demonstration against the night-train. Generally they attack the rear-truck, where my junior commands. He gets all the fun of the fair.’
‘Not to-night though! Listen!’ said Dick. A flight of heavy-handed bullets was succeeded by yelling and shouts. The children of the desert valued their nightly amusement, and the train was an excellent mark.
‘Is it worth giving them half a hopper full?’ the subaltern asked of the engine, which was driven by a Lieutenant of Sappers.
‘I should think so! This is my section of the line. They’ll be playing old Harry with my permanent way if we don’t stop ’em.’
‘Hrrmph!’ said the machine gun through all its five noses as the subaltern drew the lever home. The empty cartridges clashed on the floor and the smoke blew back through the truck. There was indiscriminate firing at the rear of the train, and return fire from the darkness without and unlimited howling. Dick stretched himself on the floor, wild with delight at the sounds and the smells.
‘God is very good — I never thought I’d hear this again. Give ’em hell, men. Oh, give ’em hell!’ he cried.
The train stopped for some obstruction on the line ahead and a party went out to reconnoitre, but came back, cursing, for spades. The children of the desert had piled sand and gravel on the rails, and twenty minutes were lost in clearing it away. Then the slow progress recommenced, to be varied with more shots, more shoutings, the steady clack and kick of the machine guns, and a final difficulty with a half-lifted rail ere the train came under the protection of the roaring camp at Tanai-el-Hassan.
‘Now, you see why it takes an hour and a half to fetch her through,’ said the subaltern, unshipping the cartridge-hopper above his pet gun.
‘It was a lark, though. I only wish it had lasted twice as long. How superb it must have looked from outside!’ said Dick, sighing regretfully.
‘It palls after the first few nights. By the way, when you’ve settled about your mules, come and see what we can find to eat in my tent. I’m Bennil of the Gunners — in the artillery lines — and mind you don’t fall over my tent-ropes in the dark.’
But it was all dark to Dick. He could only smell the camels, the hay-bales, the cooking, the smoky fires, and the tanned canvas of the tents as he stood, where he had dropped from the train, shouting for George. There was a sound of light-hearted kicking on the iron skin of the rear trucks, with squealing and grunting. George was unloading the mules.
The engine was blowing off steam nearly in Dick’s ear; a cold wind of the desert danced between his legs; he was hungry, and felt tired and dirty — so dirty that he tried to brush his coat with his hands. That was a hopeless job; he thrust his hands into his pockets and began to count over the many times that he had waited in strange or remote places for trains or camels, mules or horses, to carry him to his business. In those days he could see — few men more clearly — and the spectacle of an armed camp at dinner under the stare was an ever fresh pleasure to the eye. There was colour, light, and motion, without which no man has much pleasure in living. This night there remained for him only one more journey through the darkness that never lifts to tell a man how far he has travelled. Then he would grip Torpenhow’s hand again — Torpenhow, who was alive and strong, and lived in the midst of the action that had once made the reputation of a man called Dick Heldar: not in the least to be confused with the blind, bewildered vagabond who seemed to answer to the same name. Yes, he would find Torpenhow, and come as near to the old life as might be. Afterwards he would forget everything: Bessie, who had wrecked the Melancolia and so nearly wrecked his life; Beeton, who lived in a strange unreal city full of tin-tacks and gas-plugs and matters that no men needed; that irrational being who had offered him love and loyalty for nothing, but had not signed her name; and most of all Maisie, who, from her own point of view, was undeniably right in all she did, but oh, at this distance, so tantalisingly fair.
George’s hand on his arm pulled him back to the situation.
‘And what now?’ said George.
‘Oh yes of course. What now? Take me to the camel-men. Take me to where the scouts sit when they come in from the desert. They sit by their camels, and the camels eat grain out of a black blanket held up at the corners, and the men eat by their side just like camels. Take me there!’
The camp was rough and rutty, and Dick stumbled many times over the stumps of scrub. The scouts were sitting by their beasts, as Dick knew they would. The light of the dung-fires flickered on their bearded faces, and the camels bubbled and mumbled beside them at rest. It was no part of Dick’s policy to go into the desert with a convoy of supplies. That would lead to impertinent questions, and since a blind non-combatant is not needed at the front, he would probably be forced to return to Suakin.
He must go up alone, and go immediately.
‘Now for one last bluff — the biggest of all,’ he said. ‘Peace be with you, brethren!’ The watchful George steered him to the circle of the nearest fire. The heads of the camel-sheiks bowed gravely, and the camels, scenting a European, looked sideways curiously like brooding hens, half ready to get to their feet.
‘A beast and a driver to go to the fighting line to-night,’ said Dick.
‘A Mulaid?’ said a voice, scornfully naming the best baggage-breed that he knew.
‘A Bisharin,’ returned Dick, with perfect gravity. ‘A Bisharin without saddle-galls. Therefore no charge of thine, shock-head.’
Two or three minutes passed. Then —‘We be knee-haltered for the night. There is no going out from the camp.’
‘Not for money?’
‘H’m! Ah! English money?’
Another depressing interval of silence.
‘Twenty-five pounds English paid into the hand of the driver at my journey’s end, and as much more into the hand of the camel-sheik here, to be paid when the driver returns.’
This was royal payment, and the sheik, who knew that he would get his commission on this deposit, stirred in Dick’s behalf.
‘For scarcely one night’s journey — fifty pounds. Land and wells and good trees and wives to make a man content for the rest of his days. Who speaks?’ said Dick.
‘I,’ said a voice. ‘I will go — but there is no going from the camp.’
‘Fool! I know that a camel can break his knee-halter, and the sentries do not fire if one goes in chase. Twenty-five pounds and another twenty-five pounds. But the beast must be a good Bisharin; I will take no baggage-camel.’
Then the bargaining began, and at the end of half an hour the first deposit was paid over to the sheik, who talked in low tones to the driver.
Dick heard the latter say: ‘A little way out only. Any baggage-beast will serve. Am I a fool to waste my cattle for a blind man?’
‘And though I cannot see’— Dick lifted his voice a little —‘yet I carry that which has six eyes, and the driver will sit before me. If we do not reach the English troops in the dawn he will be dead.’
‘But where, in God’s name, are the troops?’
‘Unless thou knowest let another man ride. Dost thou know? Remember it will be life or death to thee.’
‘I know,’ said the driver, sullenly. ‘Stand back from my beast. I am going to slip him.’
‘Not so swiftly. George, hold the camel’s head a moment. I want to feel his cheek.’ The hands wandered over the hide till they found the branded half-circle that is the mark of the Biharin, the light-built riding-camel.
‘That is well. Cut this one loose. Remember no blessing of God comes on those who try to cheat the blind.’
The men chuckled by the fires at the camel-driver’s discomfiture. He had intended to substitute a slow, saddle-galled baggage-colt.
‘Stand back!’ one shouted, lashing the Biharin under the belly with a quirt. Dick obeyed as soon as he felt the nose-string tighten in his hand — and a cry went up, ‘Illaha! Aho! He is loose.’
With a roar and a grunt the Biharin rose to his feet and plunged forward toward the desert, his driver following with shouts and lamentation.
George caught Dick’s arm and hurried him stumbling and tripping past a disgusted sentry who was used to stampeding camels.
‘What’s the row now?’ he cried.
‘Every stitch of my kit on that blasted dromedary,’ Dick answered, after the manner of a common soldier.
‘Go on, and take care your throat’s not cut out side — you and your dromedary’s.’
The outcries ceased when the camel had disappeared behind a hillock, and his driver had called him back and made him kneel down.
‘Mount first,’ said Dick. Then climbing into the second seat and gently screwing the pistol muzzle into the small of his companion’s back, ‘Go on in God’s name, and swiftly. Good-bye, George. Remember me to Madame, and have a good time with your girl. Get forward, child of the Pit!’
A few minutes later he was shut up in a great silence, hardly broken by the creaking of the saddle and the soft pad of the tireless feet. Dick adjusted himself comfortably to the rock and pitch of the pace, girthed his belt tighter, and felt the darkness slide past. For an hour he was conscious only of the sense of rapid progress.
‘A good camel,’ he said at last.
‘He was never underfed. He is my own and clean bred,’ the driver replied.
His head dropped on his chest and he tried to think, but the tenor of his thoughts was broken because he was very sleepy. In the half doze in seemed that he was learning a punishment hymn at Mrs. Jennett’s. He had committed some crime as bad as Sabbath-breaking, and she had locked him up in his bedroom. But he could never repeat more than the first two lines of the hymn —
When Israel of the Lord believed Out of the land of bondage came.
He said them over and over thousands of times. The driver turned in the saddle to see if there were any chance of capturing the revolver and ending the ride. Dick roused, struck him over the head with the butt, and stormed himself wide awake. Somebody hidden in a clump of camel-thorn shouted as the camel toiled up rising ground. A shot was fired, and the silence shut down again, bringing the desire to sleep. Dick could think no longer. He was too tired and stiff and cramped to do more than nod uneasily from time to time, waking with a start and punching the driver with the pistol.
‘Is there a moon?’ he asked drowsily.
‘She is near her setting.’
‘I wish that I could see her. Halt the camel. At least let me hear the desert talk.’
The man obeyed. Out of the utter stillness came one breath of wind. It rattled the dead leaves of a shrub some distance away and ceased. A handful of dry earth detached itself from the edge of a rail trench and crumbled softly to the bottom.
‘Go on. The night is very cold.’
Those who have watched till the morning know how the last hour before the light lengthens itself into many eternities. It seemed to Dick that he had never since the beginning of original darkness done anything at all save jolt through the air. Once in a thousand years he would finger the nailheads on the saddle-front and count them all carefully. Centuries later he would shift his revolver from his right hand to his left and allow the eased arm to drop down at his side. From the safe distance of London he was watching himself thus employed — watching critically. Yet whenever he put out his hand to the canvas that he might paint the tawny yellow desert under the glare of the sinking moon, the black shadow of a camel and the two bowed figures atop, that hand held a revolver and the arm was numbed from wrist to collar-bone. Moreover, he was in the dark, and could see no canvas of any kind whatever.
The driver grunted, and Dick was conscious of a change in the air.
‘I smell the dawn,’ he whispered.
‘It is here, and yonder are the troops. Have I done well?’
The camel stretched out its neck and roared as there came down wind the pungent reek of camels in the square.
‘Go on. We must get there swiftly. Go on.’
‘They are moving in their camp. There is so much dust that I cannot see what they do.’
‘Am I in better case? Go forward.’
They could hear the hum of voices ahead, the howling and the bubbling of the beasts and the hoarse cries of the soldiers girthing up for the day.
Two or three shots were fired.
‘Is that at us? Surely they can see that I am English,’ Dick spoke angrily.
‘Nay, it is from the desert,’ the driver answered, cowering in his saddle.
‘Go forward, my child! Well it is that the dawn did not uncover us an hour ago.’
The camel headed straight for the column and the shots behind multiplied. The children of the desert had arranged that most uncomfortable of surprises, a dawn attack for the English troops, and were getting their distance by snap-shots at the only moving object without the square.
‘What luck! What stupendous and imperial luck!’ said Dick. ‘It’s “just before the battle, mother.” Oh, God has been most good to me!
Only’— the agony of the thought made him screw up his eyes for an instant —‘Maisie . . . ’
‘Allahu! We are in,’ said the man, as he drove into the rearguard and the camel knelt.
‘Who the deuce are you? Despatches or what? What’s the strength of the enemy behind that ridge? How did you get through?’ asked a dozen voices. For all answer Dick took a long breath, unbuckled his belt, and shouted from the saddle at the top of a wearied and dusty voice, ‘Torpenhow! Ohe, Torp! Coo-ee, Tor-pen-how.’
A bearded man raking in the ashes of a fire for a light to his pipe moved very swiftly towards that cry, as the rearguard, facing about, began to fire at the puffs of smoke from the hillocks around. Gradually the scattered white cloudlets drew out into the long lines of banked white that hung heavily in the stillness of the dawn before they turned over wave-like and glided into the valleys. The soldiers in the square were coughing and swearing as their own smoke obstructed their view, and they edged forward to get beyond it. A wounded camel leaped to its feet and roared aloud, the cry ending in a bubbling grunt. Some one had cut its throat to prevent confusion. Then came the thick sob of a man receiving his death-wound from a bullet; then a yell of agony and redoubled firing.
There was no time to ask any questions.
‘Get down, man! Get down behind the camel!’
‘No. Put me, I pray, in the forefront of the battle.’ Dick turned his face to Torpenhow and raised his hand to set his helmet straight, but, miscalculating the distance, knocked it off. Torpenhow saw that his hair was gray on the temples, and that his face was the face of an old man.
‘Come down, you damned fool! Dickie, come off!’
And Dick came obediently, but as a tree falls, pitching sideways from the Bisharin’s saddle at Torpenhow’s feet. His luck had held to the last, even to the crowning mercy of a kindly bullet through his head.
Torpenhow knelt under the lee of the camel, with Dick’s body in his arms.
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University of Adelaide
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56