A two day’s struggle over the treacherous trails in a well-intentioned but short-winded “flivver”, and a ride of two more on a hired mount of unamiable temper, had disposed young Medford, of the American School of Archaeology at Athens, to wonder why his queer English friend, Henry Almodham, had chosen to live in the desert.
Now he understood.
He was leaning against the roof parapet of the old building, half Christian fortress, half Arab palace, which had been Almodham’s pretext; or one of them. Below, in an inner court, a little wind, rising as the sun sank, sent through a knot of palms the rain-like rattle so cooling to the pilgrims of the desert. An ancient fig tree, enormous, exuberant, writhed over a whitewashed well-head, sucking life from what appeared to be the only source of moisture within the walls. Beyond these, on every side, stretched away the mystery of the sands, all golden with promise, all livid with menace, as the sun alternately touched or abandoned them.
Young Medford, somewhat weary after his journey from the coast, and awed by his first intimate sense of the omnipresence of the desert, shivered and drew back. Undoubtedly, for a scholar and a misogynist, it was a wonderful refuge; but one would have to be, incurably, both.
“Let’s take a look at the house,” Medford said to himself, as if speedy contact with man’s handiwork were necessary to his reassurance.
The house, he already knew, was empty save for the quick cosmopolitan man-servant, who spoke a sort of palimpsest Cockney lined with Mediterranean tongues and desert dialects — English, Italian or Greek, which was he? — and two or three burnoused underlings who, having carried Medford’s bags to his room, had relieved the palace of their gliding presences. Mr. Almodham, the servant told him, was away; suddenly summoned by a friendly chief to visit some unexplored ruins to the south, he had ridden off at dawn, too hurriedly to write, but leaving messages of excuse and regret. That evening late he might be back, or next morning. Meanwhile Mr. Medford was to make himself at home.
Almodham, as young Medford knew, was always making these archaeological explorations; they had been his ostensible reason for settling in that remote place, and his desultory search had already resulted in the discovery of several early Christian ruins of great interest.
Medford was glad that his host had not stood on ceremony, and rather relieved, on the whole, to have the next few hours to himself. He had had a malarial fever the previous summer, and in spite of his cork helmet he had probably caught a touch of the sun; he felt curiously, helplessly tired, yet deeply content.
And what a place it was to rest in! The silence, the remoteness, the illimitable air! And in the heart of the wilderness green leafage, water, comfort — he had already caught a glimpse of wide wicker chairs under the palms — a humane and welcoming habitation. Yes, he began to understand Almodham. To anyone sick of the Western fret and fever the very walls of this desert fortress exuded peace.
As his foot was on the ladder-like stair leading down from the roof, Medford saw the man-servant’s head rising toward him. It rose slowly and Medford had time to remark that it was sallow, bald on the top, diagonally dented with a long white scar, and ringed with thick ash-blond hair. Hitherto Medford had noticed only the man’s face — youngish, but sallow also — and been chiefly struck by its wearing an odd expression which could best be defined as surprise.
The servant, moving aside, looked up, and Medford perceived that his air of surprise was produced by the fact that his intensely blue eyes were rather wider open than most eyes, and fringed with thick ash-blond lashes; otherwise there was nothing noticeable about him.
“Just to ask — what wine for dinner, sir? Champagne, or — ”
“No wine, thanks.”
The man’s disciplined lips were played over by a faint flicker of deprecation or irony, or both.
“Not any at all, sir?”
Medford smiled back. “It’s not out of respect for Prohibition.” He was sure that the man, of whatever nationality, would understand that; and he did.
“Oh, I didn’t suppose, sir — ”
“Well, no; but I’ve been rather seedy, and wine’s forbidden.”
The servant remained incredulous. “Just a little light Moselle, though, to colour the water, sir?”
“No wine at all,” said Medford, growing bored. He was still in the stage of convalescence when it is irritating to be argued with about one’s dietary.
“Oh — what’s your name, by the way?” he added, to soften the curtness of his refusal.
“Gosling,” said the other unexpectedly, though Medford didn’t in the least know what he had expected him to be called.
“You’re English, then?”
“Oh, yes, sir.”
“You’ve been in these parts a good many years, though?”
Yes, he had, Gosling said; rather too long for his own liking; and added that he had been born at Malta. “But I know England well too.” His deprecating look returned. “I will confess, sir, I’d like to have ‘ad a look at Wembley. (The famous exhibition at Wembley, near London, took place in 1924.) Mr. Almodham ‘ad promised me — but there — ” As if to minimize the abandon of this confidence, he followed it up by a ceremonious request for Medford’s keys, and an enquiry as to when he would like to dine. Having received a reply, he still lingered, looking more surprised than ever.
“Just a mineral water, then, sir?”
“Oh, yes — anything.”
“Shall we say a bottle of Perrier?”
Perrier in the desert! Medford smiled assentingly, surrendered his keys and strolled away.
The house turned out to be smaller than he had imagined, or at least the habitable part of it; for above this towered mighty dilapidated walls of yellow stone, and in their crevices clung plaster chambers, one above the other, cedar-beamed, crimson-shuttered but crumbling. Out of this jumble of masonry and stucco, Christian and Moslem, the latest tenant of the fortress had chosen a cluster of rooms tucked into an angle of the ancient keep. These apartments opened on the uppermost court, where the palms chattered and the fig tree coiled above the well. On the broken marble pavement, chairs and a low table were grouped, and a few geraniums and blue morning-glories had been coaxed to grow between the slabs.
A white-skirted boy with watchful eyes was watering the plants; but at Medford’s approach he vanished like a wisp of vapour.
There was something vaporous and insubstantial about the whole scene; even the long arcaded room opening on the court, furnished with saddlebag cushions, divans with gazelle skins and rough indigenous rugs; even the table piled with the old “Timeses” and ultra-modern French and English reviews — all seemed, in that clear mocking air, born of the delusion of some desert wayfarer.
A seat under the fig tree invited Medford to doze, and when he woke the hard blue dome above him was gemmed with stars and the night breeze gossiped with the palms.
Rest — beauty — peace. Wise Almodham!
Wise Almodham! Having carried out — with somewhat disappointing results — the excavation with which an archaeological society had charged him twenty-five years ago, he had lingered on, taken possession of the Crusader’s stronghold, and turned his attention from ancient to mediaeval remains. But even these investigations, Medford suspected, he prosecuted only at intervals, when the enchantment of his leisure did not lie on him too heavily.
The young American had met Henry Almodham at Luxor the previous winter; had dined with him at old Colonel Swordsley’s, on that perfumed starlit terrace above the Nile; and, having somehow awakened the archaeologist’s interest, had been invited to look him up in the desert the following year.
They had spent only that one evening together, with old Swordsley blinking at them under memory-laden lids, and two or three charming women from the Winter Palace chattering and exclaiming; but the two men had ridden back to Luxor together in the moonlight, and during that ride Medford fancied he had puzzled out the essential lines of Henry Almodham’s character. A nature saturnine yet sentimental; chronic indolence alternating with spurts of highly intelligent activity; gnawing self-distrust soothed by intimate self-appreciation; a craving for complete solitude coupled with the inability to tolerate it for long.
There was more, too, Medford suspected; a dash of Victorian romance, gratified by the setting, the remoteness, the inaccessibility of his retreat, and by being known as THE Henry Almodham — “the one who lives in a Crusaders’ castle, you know” — the gradual imprisonment in a pose assumed in youth, and into which middle age had slowly stiffened; and something deeper, darker, too, perhaps, though the young man doubted that; probably just the fact that living in that particular way had brought healing to an old wound, an old mortification, something which years ago had touched a vital part and left him writhing. Above all, in Almodham’s hesitating movements and the dreaming look of his long well-featured brown face with its shock of gray hair, Medford detected an inertia, mental and moral, which life in this castle of romance must have fostered and excused.
“Once here, how easy not to leave!” he mused, sinking deeper into his deep chair.
“Dinner, sir,” Gosling announced.
The table stood in an open arch of the living-room; shaded candles made a rosy pool in the dusk. Each time he emerged into their light the servant, white-jacketed, velvet-footed, looked more competent and more surprised than ever. Such dishes, too — the cook also a Maltese? Ah, they were geniuses, these Maltese! Gosling bridled, smiled his acknowledgment, and started to fill the guest’s glass with Chablis.
“No wine,” said Medford patiently.
“Sorry, sir. But the fact is — ”
“You said there was Perrier?”
“Yes, sir; but I find there’s none left. It’s been awfully hot, and Mr. Almodham has been and drank it all up. The new supply isn’t due till next week. We ‘ave to depend on the caravans going south.”
“No matter. Water, then. I really prefer it.”
Gosling’s surprise widened to amazement. “Not water, sir? Water — in these parts?”
Medford’s irritability stirred again. “Something wrong with your water? Boil it then, can’t you? I won’t — ” He pushed away the half-filled wineglass.
“Oh — boiled? Certainly, sir.” The man’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. He placed on the table a succulent mess of rice and mutton, and vanished.
Medford leaned back, surrendering himself to the night, the coolness, the ripple of wind in the palms.
One agreeable dish succeeded another. As the last appeared, the diner began to feel the pangs of thirst, and at the same moment a beaker of water was placed at his elbow. “Boiled, sir, and I squeezed a lemon into it.”
“Right. I suppose at the end of the summer your water gets a bit muddy?”
“That’s it, sir. But you’ll find this all right, sir.”
Medford tasted. “Better than Perrier.” He emptied the glass, leaned back and groped in his pocket. A tray was instantly at his hand with cigars and cigarettes.
“You don’t — smoke sir?”
Medford, for answer, held up his cigar to the man’s light. “What do you call this?”
“Oh, just so. I meant the other style.” Gosling glanced discreetly at the opium pipes of jade and amber laid out on a low table.
Medford shrugged away the invitation — and wondered. Was that perhaps Almodham’s other secret — or one of them? For he began to think there might be many; and all, he was sure, safely stored away behind Gosling’s vigilant brow.
“No news yet of Mr. Almodham?”
Gosling was gathering up the dishes with dexterous gestures. For a moment he seemed not to hear. Then — from beyond the candle gleam — “News, sir? There couldn’t ‘ardly be, could there? There’s no wireless in the desert, sir; not like London.” His respectful tone tempered the slight irony. “But tomorrow evening ought to see him riding in.” Gosling paused, drew nearer, swept one of his swift hands across the table in pursuit of the last crumbs, and added tentatively: “You’ll surely be able, sir, to stay till then?”
Medford laughed. The night was too rich in healing; it sank on his spirit like wings. Time vanished, fret and trouble were no more. “Stay, I’ll stay a year if I have to!”
“Oh — a year?” Gosling echoed it playfully, gathered up the dessert dishes and was gone.
Medford had said that he would wait for Almodham a year; but the next morning he found that such arbitrary terms had lost their meaning. There were no time measures in a place like this. The silly face of his watch told its daily tale to emptiness. The wheeling of the constellations over those ruined walls marked only the revolutions of the earth; the spasmodic motions of man meant nothing.
The very fact of being hungry, that stroke of the inward clock, was minimized by the slightness of the sensation — just the ghost of a pang, that might have been quieted by dried fruit and honey. Life had the light monotonous smoothness of eternity.
Toward sunset Medford shook off this queer sense of otherwhereness and climbed to the roof. Across the desert he spied for Almodham. Southward the Mountains of Alabaster hung like a blue veil lined with light. In the west a great column of fire shot up, spraying into plumy cloudlets which turned the sky to a fountain of rose-leaves, the sands beneath to gold.
No riders specked them. Medford watched in vain for his absent host till night fell, and the punctual Gosling invited him once more to table.
In the evening Medford absently fingered the ultra-modern reviews — three months old, and already so stale to the touch — then tossed them aside, flung himself on a divan and dreamed. Almodham must spend a lot of time dreaming; that was it. Then, just as he felt himself sinking down into torpor, he would be off on one of these dashes across the desert in quest of unknown ruins. Not such a bad life.
Gosling appeared with Turkish coffee in a cup cased in filigree.
“Are there any horses in the stable?” Medford suddenly asked.
“Horses? Only what you might call pack-horses, sir. Mr. Almodham has the two best saddle-horses with him.”
“I was thinking I might ride out to meet him.”
Gosling considered. “So you might, sir.”
“Do you know which way he went?”
“Not rightly sir. The caid’s man was to guide them.”
“Them? Who went with him?”
“Just one of our men, sir. They’ve got the two thoroughbreds. There’s a third, but he’s lame.”
Gosling paused. “Do you know the trails, sir? Excuse me, but I don’t think I ever saw you here before.”
“No,” Medford acquiesced, “I’ve never been here before.”
“Oh, then” — Gosling’s gesture added: “In that case, even the best thoroughbred wouldn’t help you.”
“I suppose he may still turn up tonight?”
“Oh, easily, sir. I expect to see you both breakfasting here tomorrow morning,” said Gosling cheerfully.
Medford sipped his coffee. “You said you’d never seen me here before. How long have you been here yourself?”
Gosling answered instantly, as though the figures were never long out of his memory: “Eleven years and seven months altogether, sir,”
“Nearly twelve years! That’s a longish time.”
“Yes, it is.”
“And I don’t suppose you often get away?”
Gosling was moving off with the tray. He halted, turned back, and said with sudden emphasis: “I’ve never once been away. Not since Mr. Almodham first brought me here.”
“Good Lord! Not a single holiday?”
“Not one, sir.”
“But Mr. Almodham goes off occasionally. I met him at Luxor last year.”
“Just so, sir. But when he’s here he needs me for himself; and when he’s away he needs me to watch over the others. So you see — ”
“Yes, I see. But it must seem to you devilish long.”
“It seems long, sir.”
“But the others? You mean they’re not — wholly trustworthy?”
“Well, sir, they’re just Arabs,” said Gosling with careless contempt.
“I see. And not a single old reliable among them?”
“The term isn’t in their language, sir.”
Medford was busy lighting his cigar. When he looked up he found that Gosling still stood a few feet off.
“It wasn’t as if it ‘adn’t been a promise, you know, sir,” he said, almost passionately.
“To let me ‘ave my holiday, sir. A promise — agine and agine.”
“And the time never came?”
“No, sir, the days just drifted by — ”
“Ah. They would, here. Don’t sit up for me,” Medford added. “I think I shall wait up — wait for Mr. Almodham.”
Gosling’s stare widened. “Here, sir? Here in the court?”
The young man nodded, and the servant stood still regarding him, turned by the moonlight to a white spectral figure, the unquiet ghost of a patient butler who might have died without his holiday.
“Down here in the court all night, sir? It’s a lonely spot. I couldn’t ‘ear you if you was to call. You’re best in bed, sir. The air’s bad. You might bring your fever on again.”
Medford laughed and stretched himself in his long chair. “Decidedly,” he thought, “the fellow needs a change.” Aloud he remarked: “Oh, I’m all right. It’s you who are nervous Gosling. When Mr. Almodham comes back I mean to put in a word for you. You shall have your holiday.”
Gosling still stood motionless. For a minute he did not speak. “You would, sir, you would?” He gasped it out on a high cracked note, and the last word ran into a laugh — a brief shrill cackle, the laugh of one long unused to such indulgences.
“Thank you, sir. Good night, sir.” He was gone.
“You do boil my drinking-water, always?” Medford questioned, his hand clasping the glass without lifting it.
The tone was amicable, almost confidential; Medford felt that since his rash promise to secure a holiday for Gosling he and Gosling were on terms of real friendship.
“Boil it? Always, sir. Naturally.” Gosling spoke with a slight note of reproach, as though Medford’s question implied a slur — unconscious, he hoped — on their newly established relation. He scrutinized Medford with his astonished eyes, in which a genuine concern showed itself through the glaze of professional indifference.
“Because, you know, my bath this morning — ”
Gosling was in the act of receiving from the hands of a gliding Arab a fragrant dish of kuskus. Under his breath he hissed to the native: “You damned aboriginy, you, can’t even ‘old a dish steady? Ugh!” The Arab vanished before the imprecation, and Gosling, with a calm deliberate hand, set the dish before Medford. “All alike, they are.” Fastidiously he wiped a trail of grease from his linen sleeve.
“Because, you know, my bath this morning simply stank,” said Medford, plunging fork and spoon into the dish.
“Your bath, sir?” Gosling stressed the word. Astonishment, to the exclusion of all other emotion, again filled his eyes as he rested them on Medford. “Now, I wouldn’t ‘ave ‘ad that ‘appen for the world,” he said self-reproachfully.
“There’s only the one well here, eh? The one in the court?”
Gosling aroused himself from absorbed consideration of the visitor’s complaint. “Yes, sir; only the one.”
“What sort of a well is it? Where does the water come from?”
“Oh, it’s just a cistern, sir. Rain-water. There’s never been any other here. Not that I ever knew it to fail; but at this season sometimes it does turn queer. Ask any o’ them Arabs, sir; they’ll tell you. Liars as they are, they won’t trouble to lie about that.”
Medford was cautiously tasting the water in his glass. “This seems all right,” he pronounced.
Sincere satisfaction was depicted on Gosling’s countenance. “I seen to its being boiled myself, sir. I always do. I ‘ope that Perrier’ll turn up tomorrow, sir.”
“Oh, tomorrow” — Medford shrugged, taking a second helping. “Tomorrow I may not be here to drink it.”
“What — going away, sir?” cried Gosling.
Medford, wheeling round abruptly, caught a new and incomprehensible look in Gosling’s eyes. The man had seemed to feel a sort of dog-like affection for him; had wanted, Medford could have sworn, to keep him on, persuade him to patience and delay; yet now, Medford could equally have sworn, there was relief in his look, satisfaction, almost, in his voice.
“So soon, sir?”
“Well, this is the fifth day since my arrival. And as there’s no news yet of Mr. Almodham, and you say he may very well have forgotten all about my coming — ”
“Oh, I don’t say that, sir; not forgotten! Only, when one of those old piles of stones takes ‘old of him, he does forget about the time, sir. That’s what I meant. The days drift by — ‘e’s in a dream. Very likely he thinks you’re just due now, sir.” A small thin smile sharpened the lustreless gravity of Gosling’s features. It was the first time that Medford had seen him smile.
“Oh, I understand. But still — ” Medford paused. Through the spell of inertia laid on him by the drowsy place and its easeful comforts his instinct of alertness was struggling back. “It’s odd — ”
“What’s odd?” Gosling echoed unexpectedly, setting the dried dates and figs on the table.
“Everything,” said Medford.
He leaned back in his chair and glanced up through the arch at the lofty sky from which noon was pouring down in cataracts of blue and gold. Almodham was out there somewhere under that canopy of fire, perhaps, as the servant said, absorbed in his dream. The land was full of spells.
“Coffee, sir?” Gosling reminded him. Medford took it.
“It’s odd that you say you don’t trust any of these fellows — these Arabs — and yet that you don’t seem to feel worried at Mr. Almodham’s being off God knows where, all alone with them.”
Gosling received this attentively, impartially; he saw the point. “Well, sir, no — you wouldn’t understand. It’s the very thing that can’t be taught, when to trust ’em and when not. It’s ‘ow their interests lie, of course, sir; and their religion, as they call it.” His contempt was unlimited. “But even to begin to understand why I’m not worried about Mr. Almodham, you’d ‘ave to ‘ave lived among them, sir, and you’d ‘ave to speak their language.”
“But I— ” Medford began. He pulled himself up short and bent above his coffee.
“But I’ve travelled among them more or less.”
“Oh, travelled!” Even Gosling’s intonation could hardly conciliate respect with derision in his reception of this boast.
“This makes the fifth day, though,” Medford continued argumentatively. The midday heat lay heavy even on the shaded side of the court, and the sinews of his will were weakening.
“I can understand, sir, a gentleman like you ‘aving other engagements — being pressed for time, as it were,” Gosling reasonably conceded.
He cleared the table, committed its freight to a pair of Arab arms that just showed and vanished, and finally took himself off while Medford sank into the divan. A land of dreams. . . .
The afternoon hung over the place like a great velarium of cloth-of-gold stretched across the battlements and drooping down in ever slacker folds upon the heavy-headed palms. When at length the gold turned to violet, and the west to a bow of crystal clasping the desert sands, Medford shook off his sleep and wandered out. But this time, instead of mounting to the roof, he took another direction.
He was surprised to find how little he knew of the place after five days of loitering and waiting. Perhaps this was to be his last evening alone in it. He passed out of the court by a vaulted stone passage which led to another walled enclosure. At his approach two or three Arabs who had been squatting there rose and melted out of sight. It was as if the solid masonry had received them.
Beyond, Medford heard a stamping of hoofs, the stir of a stable at night-fall. He went under another archway and found himself among horses and mules. In the fading light an Arab was rubbing down one of the horses, a powerful young chestnut. He too seemed about to vanish; but Medford caught him by the sleeve.
“Go on with your work,” he said in Arabic.
The man, who was young and muscular, with a lean Bedouin face, stopped and looked at him.
“I didn’t know your Excellency spoke our language.”
“Oh, yes,” said Medford.
The man was silent, one hand on the horse’s restless neck, the other thrust into his woollen girdle. He and Medford examined each other in the faint light.
“Is that the horse that’s lame?” Medford asked.
“Lame?” The Arab’s eyes ran down the animal’s legs. “Oh, yes; lame,” he answered vaguely.
Medford stooped and felt the horses knees and fetlocks. “He seems pretty fit. Couldn’t he carry me for a canter this evening if I felt like it?”
The Arab considered; he was evidently perplexed by the weight of responsibility which the question placed on him.
“Your Excellency would like to go for a ride this evening?”
“Oh, just a fancy. I might or I might not.” Medford lit a cigarette and offered one to the groom, whose white teeth flashed his gratification. Over the shared match they drew nearer and the Arab’s diffidence seemed to lessen.
“Is this one of Mr. Almodham’s own mounts?” Medford asked.
“Yes, sir; it’s his favourite,” said the groom, his hand passing proudly down the horse’s bright shoulder.
“His favourite? Yet he didn’t take him on this long expedition?”
The Arab fell silent and stared at the ground.
“Weren’t you surprised at that?” Medford queried.
The man’s gesture declared that it was not his business to be surprised.
The two remained without speaking while the quick blue night descended.
At length Medford said carelessly: “Where do you suppose your master is at this moment?”
The moon, unperceived in the radiant fall of day, had now suddenly possessed the world, and a broad white beam lay full on the Arab’s white smock, his brown face and the turban of camel’s hair knotted above it. His agitated eyeballs glistened like jewels.
“If Allah would vouchsafe to let us know!”
“But you suppose he’s safe enough, don’t you? You don’t think it’s necessary yet for a party to go out in search of him?”
The Arab appeared to ponder this deeply. The question must have taken him by surprise. He flung a brown arm about the horse’s neck and continued to scrutinize the stones of the court.
“When the master is away Mr. Gosling is our master.”
“And he doesn’t think it necessary?”
The Arab signed: “Not yet.”
“But if Mr. Almodham were away much longer — ”
The man was again silent, and Medford continued: “You’re the head groom, I suppose?”
There was another pause. Medford half turned away; then over his shoulder: “I suppose you know the direction Mr. Almodham took? The place he’s gone to?”
“Oh, assuredly, Excellency.”
“Then you and I are going to ride after him. Be ready an hour before daylight. Say nothing to any one — Mr. Gosling or anybody else. We two ought to be able to find him without other help.”
The Arab’s face was all a responsive flash of eyes and teeth. “Oh, sir, I undertake that you and my master shall meet before tomorrow night. And none shall know of it.”
“He’s as anxious about Almodham as I am,” Medford thought; and a faint shiver ran down his back. “All right. Be ready,” he repeated.
He strolled back and found the court empty of life, but fantastically peopled by palms of beaten silver and a white marble fig tree.
“After all,” he thought irrelevantly, “I’m glad I didn’t tell Gosling that I speak Arabic.”
He sat down and waited till Gosling, approaching from the living-room, ceremoniously announced for the fifth time that dinner was served.
Medford sat up in bed with the jerk which resembles no other. Someone was in his room. The fact reached him not by sight or sound — for the moon had set, and the silence of the night was complete — but by a peculiar faint disturbance of the invisible currents that enclose us.
He was awake in an instant, caught up his electric hand-lamp and flashed it into two astonished eyes. Gosling stood above the bed.
“Mr. Almodham — he’s back?” Medford exclaimed.
“No, sir; he’s not back.” Gosling spoke in low controlled tones. His extreme self-possession gave Medford a sense of danger — he couldn’t say why, or of what nature. He sat upright, looking hard at the man.
“Then what’s the matter?”
“Well, sir, you might have told me you talk Arabic” — Gosling’s tone was now wistfully reproachful — “before you got ‘obnobbing with that Selim. Making randy-voos with ’im by night in the desert.”
Medford reached for his matches and lit the candle by the bed. He did not know whether to kick Gosling out of the room or to listen to what the man had to say; but a quick movement of curiosity made him determine on the latter course.
“Such folly! First I thought I’d lock you in. I might ‘ave.” Gosling drew a key from his pocket and held it up. “Or again I might ‘ave let you go. Easier than not. But there was Wembley.”
“Wembley?” Medford echoed. He began to think that the man was going mad. One might, so conceivably, in that place of postponements and enchantments! He wondered whether Almodham himself were not a little mad — if, indeed, Almodham were still in a world where such a fate is possible.
“Wembley. You promised to get Mr. Almodham to give me an ‘oliday — to let me go back to England in time for a look at Wembley. Every man ‘as ‘is fancies, ‘asn’t he sir? And that’s mine. I’ve told Mr. Almodham so, agine and agine. He’d never listen, or only make believe to; say: ‘We’ll see, now, Gosling, we’ll see’; and no more ‘eard of it. But you was different, sir. You said it, and I knew you meant it — about my ‘oliday. So I’m going to lock you in.” Gosling spoke composedly, but with an under-thrill of emotion in his queer Mediterranean–Cockney voice.
“Lock me in?”
“Prevent you somehow from going off with that murderer. You don’t suppose you’d ever ‘ave come back alive from that ride, do you?”
A shiver ran over Medford, as it had the evening before when he had said to himself that the Arab was as anxious as he was about Almodham. He gave a slight laugh.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. But you’re not going to lock me in.”
The effect of this was unexpected. Gosling’s face was drawn up into a convulsive grimace and two tears rose to his pale eyelashes and ran down his cheeks.
“You don’t trust me, after all,” he said plaintively.
Medford leaned on his pillow and considered. Nothing as queer had ever before happened to him. The fellow looked almost ridiculous enough to laugh at; yet his tears were certainly not simulated. Was he weeping for Almodham, already dead, or for Medford, about to be committed to the same grave?
“I should trust you at once,” said Medford, “if you’d tell me where your master is.”
Gosling’s face resumed its usual guarded expression, though the trace of the tears still glittered on it.
“I can’t do that, sir.”
“Ah, I thought so!”
“Because — ‘ow do I know?”
Medford thrust a leg out of bed. One hand, under the blanket, lay on his revolver.
“Well, you may go now. Put that key down on the table first. And don’t try to do anything to interfere with my plans. If you do I’ll shoot you,” he added concisely.
“Oh, no, you wouldn’t shoot a British subject; it makes such a fuss. Not that I’d care — I’ve often thought of doing it myself. Sometimes in the sirocco season. That don’t scare me. And you shan’t go.”
Medford was on his feet now, the revolver visible. Gosling eyed it with indifference.
“Then you do know where Mr. Almodham is? And you’re determined that I shan’t find out?” Medford challenged him.
“Selim’s determined,” said Gosling, “and all the others are. They all want you out of the way. That’s why I’ve kept ’em to their quarters — done all the waiting on you myself. Now will you stay here? For God’s sake, sir! The return caravan is going through to the coast the day after tomorrow. Join it, sir — it’s the only safe way! I darsn’t let you go with one of our men, not even if you was to swear you’d ride straight for the coast and let this business be.”
“This business? What business?”
“This worrying about where Mr. Almodham is, sir. Not that there’s anything to worry about. The men all know that. But the plain fact is they’ve stolen some money from his box, since he’s been gone, and if I hadn’t winked at it they’d ‘ave killed me; and all they want is to get you to ride out after ’im, and put you safe away under a ‘eap of sand somewhere off the caravan trails. Easy job. There; that’s all, sir. My word it is.”
There was a long silence. In the weak candle-light the two men stood considering each other.
Medford’s wits began to clear as the sense of peril closed in on him. His mind reached out on all sides into the enfolding mystery, but it was everywhere impenetrable. The odd thing was that, though he did not believe half of what Gosling had told him, the man yet inspired him with a queer sense of confidence as far as their mutual relation was concerned. “He may be lying about Almodham, to hide God knows what; but I don’t believe he’s lying about Selim.”
Medford laid his revolver on the table. “Very well,” he said. “I won’t ride out to look for Mr. Almodham, since you advise me not to. But I won’t leave by the caravan; I’ll wait here till he comes back.”
He saw Gosling whiten under his sallowness. “Oh, don’t do that, sir; I couldn’t answer for them if you was to wait. The caravan’ll take you to the coast the day after tomorrow as easy as if you was riding in Rotten Row.”
“Ah, then you know that Mr. Almodham won’t be back by the day after tomorrow?” Medford caught him up.
“I don’t know anything, sir.”
“Not even where he is now?”
Gosling reflected. “He’s been gone too long, sir, for me to know that,” he said from the threshold.
The door closed on him.
Medford found sleep unrecoverable. He leaned in his window and watched the stars fade and the dawn break in all its holiness. As the stir of life rose among the ancient walls he marvelled at the contrast between that fountain of purity welling up into the heavens and the evil secrets clinging bat-like to the nest of masonry below.
He no longer knew what to believe or whom. Had some enemy of Almodham’s lured him into the desert and bought the connivance of his people? Or had the servants had some reason of their own for spiriting him away, and was Gosling possibly telling the truth when he said that the same fate would befall Medford if he refused to leave?
Medford, as the light brightened, felt his energy return. The very impenetrableness of the mystery stimulated him. He would stay, and he would find out the truth.
It was always Gosling himself who brought up the water for Medford’s bath; but this morning he failed to appear with it, and when he came it was to bring the breakfast tray. Medford noticed that his face was of a pasty pallor, and that his lids were reddened as if with weeping. The contrast was unpleasant, and a dislike for Gosling began to shape itself in the young man’s breast.
“My bath?” he queried.
“Well, sir, you complained yesterday of the water — ”
“Can’t you boil it?”
“I ‘ave, sir.”
“Well, then — ”
Gosling went out sullenly and presently returned with a brass jug. “It’s the time of year — we’re dying for rain,” he grumbled, pouring a scant measure of water into the tub.
Yes, the well must be pretty low, Medford thought. Even boiled, the water had the disagreeable smell that he had noticed the day before, though of course, in a slighter degree. But a bath was a necessity in that climate. He splashed the few cupfuls over himself as best as he could.
He spent the day in rather fruitlessly considering his situation. He had hoped the morning would bring counsel, but it brought only courage and resolution, and these were of small use without enlightenment. Suddenly he remembered that the caravan going south from the coast would pass near the castle that afternoon. Gosling had dwelt on the date often enough, for it was the caravan which was to bring the box of Perrier water.
“Well, I’m not sorry for that,” Medford reflected, with a slight shrinking of the flesh. Something sick and viscous, half smell, half substance, seemed to have clung to his skin since his morning bath, and the idea of having to drink that water again was nauseating.
But his chief reason for welcoming the caravan was the hope of finding in it some European, or at any rate some native official from the coast, to whom he might confide his anxiety. He hung about, listening and waiting, and then mounted to the roof to gaze northward along the trail. But in the afternoon glow he saw only three Bedouins guiding laden pack mules toward the castle.
As they mounted the steep path he recognized some of Almodham’s men, and guessed at once that the southward caravan trail did not actually pass under the walls and that the men had been out to meet it, probably at a small oasis behind some fold of the sand-hills. Vexed at his own thoughtlessness in not foreseeing such a possibility, Medford dashed down to the court, hoping the men might have brought back some news of Almodham, though, as the latter had ridden south, he could at best only have crossed the trail by which the caravan had come. Still, even so, some one might know something, some report might have been heard — since everything was always known in the desert.
As Medford reached the court, angry vociferations, and retorts as vehement, rose from the stable-yard. He leaned over the wall and listened. Hitherto nothing had surprised him more than the silence of the place. Gosling must have had a strong arm to subdue the shrill voices of his underlings. Now they had all broken loose, and it was Gosling’s own voice — usually so discreet and measured — which dominated them.
Gosling, master of all the desert dialects, was cursing his subordinates in a half-dozen.
“And you didn’t bring it — and you tell me it wasn’t there, and I tell you it was, and that you know it, and that you either left it on a sand-heap while you were jawing with some of those slimy fellows from the coast, or else fastened it on to the horse so carelessly that it fell off on the way — and all of you too sleepy to notice. Oh, you sons of females I wouldn’t soil my lips by naming! Well, back you go to hunt it up, that’s all.”
“By Allah and the tomb of his Prophet, you wrong us unpardonably. There was nothing left at the oasis, nor yet dropped off on the way back. It was not there, and that is the truth in its purity.”
“Truth! Purity! You miserable lot of shirks and liars, you — and the gentleman here not touching a drop of anything but water — as you profess to do, you liquor-swilling humbugs!”
Medford drew back from the parapet with a smile of relief. It was nothing but a case of Perrier — the missing case — which had raised the passions of these grown men to the pitch of frenzy! The anti-climax lifted a load from his breast. If Gosling, the calm and self-controlled, could waste his wrath on so slight a hitch in the working of the commissariat, he at least must have a free mind. How absurd this homely incident made Medford’s speculations seem!
He was at once touched by Gosling’s solicitude, and annoyed that he should have been so duped by the hallucinating fancies of the East.
Almodham was off on his own business; very likely the men knew where and what the business was; and even if they had robbed him in his absence, and quarrelled over the spoils, Medford did not see what he could do. It might even be that his eccentric host — with whom, after all, he had had but one evening’s acquaintance — repenting an invitation too rashly given, had ridden away to escape the boredom of entertaining him. As this alternative occurred to Medford it seemed so plausible that he began to wonder if Almodham had not simply withdrawn to some secret suite of that intricate dwelling, and were waiting there for his guest’s departure.
So well would this explain Gosling’s solicitude to see the visitor off — so completely account for the man’s nervous and contradictory behaviour — that Medford, smiling at his own obtuseness, hastily resolved to leave on the morrow. Tranquillized by this decision, he lingered about the court till dusk fell, and then, as usual, went up to the roof. But today his eyes, instead of raking the horizon, fastened on the clustering edifice of which, after six days’ residence, he knew so little. Aerial chambers, jutting out at capricious angles, baffled him with closely shuttered windows, or here and there with the enigma of painted panes. Behind which window was his host concealed, spying, it might be, at this very moment on the movements of his lingering guest?
The idea that that strange moody man, with his long brown face and shock of white hair, his half-guessed selfishness and tyranny, and his morbid self-absorption, might be actually within a stone’s throw, gave Medford, for the first time, a sharp sense of isolation. He felt himself shut out, unwanted — the place, now that he imagined someone might be living in it unknown to him, became lonely, inhospitable, dangerous.
“Fool that I am — he probably expected me to pack up and go as soon as I found he was away!” the young man reflected. Yes; decidedly he would leave the next morning.
Gosling had not shown himself all the afternoon. When at length, belatedly, he came to set the table, he wore a look of sullen, almost surly, reserve which Medford had not yet seen on his face. He hardly returned the young man’s friendly “Hallo — dinner?” and when Medford was seated handed him the first dish in silence. Medford’s glass remained unfilled till he touched its brim.
“Oh, there’s nothing to drink, sir. The men lost the case of Perrier — or dropped it and smashed the bottles. They say it never came. ‘Ow do I know, when they never open their ‘eathen lips but to lie?” Gosling burst out with sudden violence.
He set down the dish he was handing, and Medford saw that he had been obliged to do so because his whole body was shaking as if with fever.
“My dear man, what does it matter? You’re going to be ill,” Medford exclaimed, laying his hand on the servant’s arm. But the latter, muttering: “Oh, God, if I’d only ‘a’ gone for it myself,” jerked away and vanished from the room.
Medford sat pondering; it certainly looked as if poor Gosling were on the edge of a break-down. No wonder, when Medford himself was so oppressed by the uncanniness of the place. Gosling reappeared after an interval, correct, close-lipped, with the desert and a bottle of white wine. “Sorry, sir.”
To pacify him, Medford sipped the wine and then pushed his chair away and returned to the court. He was making for the fig tree by the well when Gosling, slipping ahead, transferred his chair and wicker table to the other end of the court.
“You’ll be better here — there’ll be a breeze presently,” he said. “I’ll fetch your coffee.”
He disappeared again, and Medford sat gazing up at the pile of masonry and plaster, and wondering whether he had not been moved away from his favourite corner to get him out of — or into? — the angle of vision of the invisible watcher. Gosling, having brought the coffee, went away and Medford sat on.
At length he rose and began to pace up and down as he smoked. The moon was not up yet, and darkness fell solemnly on the ancient walls. Presently the breeze arose and began its secret commerce with the palms.
Medford went back to his seat; but as soon as he had resumed it he fancied that the gaze of his hidden watcher was jealously fixed on the red spark of his cigar. The sensation became increasingly distasteful; he could almost feel Almodham reaching out long ghostly arms from somewhere above him in the darkness. He moved back into the living-room, where a shaded light hung from the ceiling; but the room was airless, and finally he went out again and dragged his seat to its old place under the fig tree. From there the windows which he suspected could not command him, and he felt easier, though the corner was out of the breeze and the heavy air seemed tainted with the exhalation of the adjoining well.
“The water must be very low,” Medford mused. The smell, though faint, was unpleasant; it smirched the purity of the night. But he felt safer there, somehow, farther from those unseen eyes which seemed mysteriously to have become his enemies.
“If one of the men had knifed me in the desert, I shouldn’t wonder if it would have been at Almodham’s orders,” Medford thought. He drowsed.
When he woke the moon was pushing up its ponderous orange disk above the walls, and the darkness in the court was less dense. He must have slept for an hour or more. The night was delicious, or would have been anywhere but there. Medford felt a shiver of his old fever and remembered that Gosling had warned him that the court was unhealthy at night.
“On account of the well, I suppose. I’ve been sitting too close to it,” he reflected. His head ached, and he fancied that the sweetish foulish smell clung to his face as it had after his bath. He stood up and approached the well to see how much water was left in it. But the moon was not yet high enough to light those depths, and he peered down into blackness.
Suddenly he felt both shoulders gripped from behind and forcibly pressed forward, as if by someone seeking to push him over the edge. An instant later, almost coinciding with his own swift resistance, the push became a strong tug backward, and he swung round to confront Gosling, whose hands immediately dropped from his shoulders.
“I thought you had the fever, sir — I seemed to see you pitching over,” the man stammered.
Medford’s wits returned. “We must both have it, for I fancied you were pitching me,” he said with a laugh.
“Me, sir?” Gosling gasped. “I pulled you back as ‘ard as ever — ”
“Of course. I know.”
“Whatever are you doing here, anyhow, sir? I warned you it was un’ealthy at night,” Gosling continued irritably.
Medford leaned against the well-head and contemplated him. “I believe the whole place is unhealthy.”
Gosling was silent. At length he asked: “Aren’t you going up to bed, sir?”
“No,” said Medford, “I prefer to stay here.”
Gosling’s face took on an expression of dogged anger. “Well, then, I prefer that you shouldn’t.”
Medford laughed again. “Why? Because it’s the hour when Mr. Almodham comes out to take the air?”
The effect of this question was unexpected. Gosling dropped back a step or two and flung up his hands, pressing them to his lips as if to stifle a low outcry.
“What’s the matter?” Medford queried. The man’s antics were beginning to get on his nerves.
“Matter?” Gosling still stood away from him, out of the rising slant of moonlight.
“Come! Own up that he’s here and have done with it!” cried Medford impatiently.
“Here? What do you mean by ‘here’? You ‘aven’t seen ’im, ‘ave you?” Before the words were out of the man’s lips he flung up his arms again, stumbled forward and fell in a heap at Medford’s feet.
Medford, still leaning against the well-head, smiled down contemptuously at the stricken wretch. His conjecture had been the right one, then; he had not been Gosling’s dupe after all.
“Get up, man. Don’t be a fool! It’s not your fault if I guessed that Mr. Almodham walks here at night — ”
“Walks here!” wailed the other, still cowering.
“Well, doesn’t he? He won’t kill you for owning up will he?”
“Kill me? Kill me? I wish I’d killed YOU!” Gosling half got to his feet, his head thrown back in ashen terror. “And I might’ ave, too, so easy! You felt me pushing of you over, didn’t you? Coming ’ere spying and sniffing — ” His anguish seemed to choke him.
Medford had not changed his position. The very abjectness of the creature at his feet gave him an easy sense of power. But Gosling’s last cry had suddenly deflected the course of his speculations. Almodham was here, then; that was certain; but just where was he, and in what shape? A new fear scuttled down Medford’s spine.
“So you did want to push me over?” he said. “Why? As the quickest way of joining your master?”
The effect was more immediate than he had foreseen.
Gosling, getting to his feet, stood there bowed and shrunken in the accusing moonlight.
“Oh, God — and I ‘ad you ‘arf over! You know I did! And then — it was what you said about Wembley. So help me, sir, I felt you meant it, and it ‘eld me back.” The man’s face was again wet with tears, but this time Medford recoiled from them as if they had been drops splashed up by a falling body from the foul waters below.
Medford was silent. He did not know if Gosling were armed or not, but he was no longer afraid; only aghast, and yet shudderingly lucid.
Gosling continued to ramble on half deliriously: “And if only that Perrier ‘ad of come. I don’t believe it’d ever ‘ave crossed your mind, if only you’d ‘ave had your Perrier regular, now would it? But you say ‘e walks — and I knew he would! Only — what was I to do with him, with you turning up like that the very day?”
Still Medford did not move.
“And ’im driving me to madness, sir, sheer madness, that same morning. Will you believe it? The very week before you come, I was to sail for England and ‘ave my ‘oliday, a ‘ole month, sir — and I was entitled to six, if there was any justice — a ‘ole month in ‘Ammersmith, sir, in a cousin’s ’ouse, and the chance to see Wembley thoroughly; and then ‘e ‘eard you was coming, sir, and ‘e was bored and lonely ’ere, you understand — ‘e ‘ad to have new excitements provided for ’im or ‘e’d go off ‘is bat — and when ‘e ‘eard you was coming, ‘e come out of his black mood in a flash and was ‘arf crazy with pleasure, and said ‘I’ll keep ’im ’ere all winter — a remarkable young man, Gosling — just my kind.’ And when I says to him: ‘And ‘ow about my ‘oliday?’ he stares at me with those stony eyes of ‘is and says: ”Oliday? Oh, to be sure; why next year — we’ll see what can be done about it next year.’ Next year, sir, as if ‘e was doing me a favour! And that’s the way it ‘ad been for nigh on twelve years.
“But this time, if you ‘adn’t ‘ave come I do believe I’d ‘ave got away, for he was getting used to ‘aving Selim about ’im and his ‘ealth was never better — and, well, I told ’im as much, and ‘ow a man ‘ad his rights after all, and my youth was going, and me that ‘ad served him so well chained up ’ere like ‘is watchdog, and always next year and next year — and, well, sir, ‘e just laughed, sneering-like, and lit ‘is cigarette. ‘Oh, Gosling, cut it out,’ ‘e says.
“He was standing on the very spot where you are now, sir; and he turned to walk into the ’ouse. And it was then I ‘it ’im. He was a heavy man, and he fell against the well kerb. And just when you were expected any minute — oh, my God!”
Gosling’s voice died out in a strangled murmur.
Medford, at his last words, had unvoluntarily shrunk back a few feet. The two men stood in the middle of the court and stared at each other without speaking. The moon, swinging high above the battlements, sent a searching spear of light down into the guilty darkness of the well.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02