A. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) Mason.

The truants; a novel online

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be entrapped.

" Yes, yes, I am sure," replied Ibrahim, " the Z'mur are
bad men. They might capture you and hold you to
ransom."

Warrisden was inclined to discount Ibrahim's terror of
the Z'mur. The lawless deeds of that wild and fanatical
tribe had been dinned into his ears ever since he had crossed
the Sebou j until he had come to make light of them. But
there was no doubt they terrorised the people ; in the vil-
lages where Warrisden had camped, they were spoken of
with a dread hardly less than that which Ibrahim betrayed.
It would certainly never do to be taken by the Z'mur. They
would be released, no doubt ; but time would be wasted.
They might be kept for weeks in the forest of Marmura.
They would reach Roquebrune too late.

Warrisden had brought with him, as a servant, one of



264 THE TRUANTS

the men who had been with him to Ain-Sefra, and descend-
ing the stairs he called him, and spoke, bidding Ibrahim
interpret.

" Do yon remember the mule which I gave away at Ain-
Sefra ? " he asked. And the man answered, " Yes ! "

" You would know it again ? "

The man was sure upon that point. He described the
marks by which he would recognise the beast.

" Very well," said Warrisden. " Go out to the west of
Fez, and watch the road to Sefru. If you see a Jew come
towards Fez driving the mule, lead him at once to this
house. Watch all day until the gate is closed."

The man went off upon his errand, and Warrisden betook
himself to the vice-consulate. On his return he summoned
Ibrahim, and said —

We must travel by Mequinez and Mediyah. A letter
will be given to us, passing us on from governor to governor.
We can reach Larache, travelling hard, in five days. We
may find a steamer there for Gibraltar. If not, we must go
on, in one more day, to Tangier.

Ibrahim bowed his head and made no further protest.
In the evening Warrisden's servant came back from the
gate ; his watch had been fruitless. Thus three days had
passed. Warrisden became anxious again, and restless.
The seven days which Tony Stretton could take, and still
reach Roquebrunc by the date on which Pamela insisted,
were now curtailed. Six days formed the limit, and even
that limit implied that the journey should be of the swiftest.
Of those six days, three had gone.

The fourth came, and passed. Warrisden rode out upon
the track to Sefru in vain. Even the promised letter did
not come. Warrisden made inquiries. It would come, he
was told. There was no doubt upon that score. But a
Government letter takes a long time in the writing in
Morocco. It was not until the fifth evening that a mes-
senger from the Palace knocked upon the door. These



"BALAK!" 265

were the days when Mulai-el-Hassan ruled in Morocco, and
was on the march against his rebellious tribes for nine
months out of the twelve. Mulai-el-Hassan, at this par-
ticular time, was far away to the south in the Sus country,
and therefore the mountain pass to the north was dangerous.

Warrisden had his letter, however, sealed with the Vice-
roy's seal. But he gazed out over the city as it lay, warm
and ruddy in the sunset, and wondered whether it would
avail at all. His servant had come back from the gate with
his familiar answer. No Jew had driven the mule down the
road into Fez that day. And there was only one more day.

Warrisden descended the stairs to the gallery on the first
floor, and as he came out upon it, he heard voices in the
courtyard below. He looked over the balustrade and saw a
man standing amongst his muleteers and servants. "War-
risden could not see his face. He was dressed in rags, but
the rags were the remnants of a black gabardine, and he
wore a black skull-cap upon his head.

It is likely that Warrisden would have taken no further
notice of the man, but that he cringed a little in his manner
as though he was afraid. Then he spoke in Arabic, and the
voice was timorous and apologetic. Warrisden, however,
knew it none the less. He leaned over the balustrade —

" Stretton ! " he cried out in a burst of joy.

The man in the courtyard looked up. Warrisden would
never have known him but for his voice. A ragged beard
stubbled his cheeks and chin ; he was disfigured with dirt
and bruises ; he was lean with hunger ; his face was drawn
and hollow from lack of sleep. But there was something
more, a wider difference between this ragged Stretton in the
courtyard and the Stretton Warrisden had known than mere
looks explained. The man who had looked up when he
heard his voice loudly and suddenly pronounced had been
startled — nay, more than startled. He had raised an arm
as though to ward off a blow. He had shrunk back. He
had been afraid. Even now, when he looked at Warrisden,



266 THE TRUANTS

and knew that he was here in a house of safety, he stood
drawing deep breaths, and trembling like one who has
received a shock. His appearance told Warrisden much of
the dangers of the journey from Ain-Sefra through the hills
to Fez.

" Yes," said Tony, " I am here. Am I in time ? "

" Just in time," cried "Warrisden. " Oh, but I thought
you never would come 1 "

He ran down the steps into the courtyard.

" Balak I " cried Stretton, with a laugh. " Wait till I
have had a bath, and got these clothes burnt."

In such guise, Tony Stretton came to Fez. He had
gone straight to the vice-consulate, and thence had been
directed to Warrisden's house. When, an hour later, he
came up on to the gallery and sat down to dinner, he was
wearing the clothes of a European, and the look of fear had
gone from his face, the servility from his manner. But
Warrisden could not forget either the one or the other.
Tony Stretton had come through the mountains — yes. But
the way had not been smooth.



( 267 )



CHAPTER XXVIII

HOMEWARDS

The two men smoked together upon the roof -top afterwards.

" I left a man at the gate all day," said Warrisden, " to
watch the track from Sefru. I had brought him from
Algiers. I do not know how he came to miss you."

" He could not know me," said Tony, " and I spoke to
no one."

" But he knew the mule ! "

Tony was silent for a little while. Then he said, in a
low, grave voice, like a man speaking upon matters which he
has no liking to remember —

" The mule was taken from me some days ago in the Ait
Yussi country." And "Warrisden upon that said —

" You had trouble, then, upon the way — great trouble."

Again Tony was slow in the reply. He looked out
across the city. It was a night of moonlight, so bright that
the stars were pale and small, as though they were with-
drawn ; there was no cloud anywhere about the sky ; and on
such a night, in that clear, translucent air, the city, with its
upstanding minarets, had a grace and beauty denied to it by
day. There was something of enchantment in its aspect,
Tony smoked his pipe in silence for a little while. Then he
said —

"Let us not talk about it! I never thought that I
would be sitting here in Fez to-night. Tell me rather when
we start ! "

"Early to-morrow," replied "Warrisden. "We must



268 THE TRUANTS

reach Roquebrune in the South of France by the thirty-
first."

Stretton suddenly sat back in his chair.

" Roquebrune ! France ! " he exclaimed. " We must go
there? Why?"

" I do not know," Warrisden answered. " A telegram
reached me at Tangier. I kept it."

He took the telegram from his pocket and handed it to
Stretton, who read it and sat thinking.

" We have time," said Warrisden, " just time enough, I
think, if we travel fast."

"Good," said Stretton, as he returned the telegram.
" But I was not thinking of the time."

He did not explain what had caused him to start at the
mention of Roquebrune ; but after sitting for a little while
longer in silence, he betook himself to bed.

Early the next morning they rode out of the Bab Sagma
upon the thronged highway over the plain to Mequinez.

The caravans diminished, striking off into this or that
track. Very soon there remained with them only one party
of five Jews mounted on small donkeys. They began to ride
through high shrubs and bushes of fennel over rolling
ground. Stretton talked very little, and as the track twisted
and circled across the plain he was constantly standing up in
his stirrups and searching the horizon.

" There does not seem to be one straight path in
Morocco," he exclaimed impatiently. " Look at this one.
There's no reason why it should not run straight. Yet it
never does."

Indeed, the track lay across that open pluin like some
brown, monstrous serpent of a legend.

"I do not believe," replied Warrisden, "that there is a
straight path anywhere in the world, unless it is one which
has been surveyed and made, or else it runs from gate to
gate, and both gates are visible. One might think the
animals made this track, turning and twisting to avoid the



HOMEWARDS 269

bushes. Only the tracks are no straighter in the desert,
where there are no bushes at all."

They halted for half an hour at eleven, beside a bridge
which crossed a stream, broken and ruinous, but still service-
able. And while they sat on the ground under the shadow
they suddenly heard a great clatter of hoofs upon the broken
cobbles ; and looking up saw a body of men ride across the
bridge. There were about forty of them, young and old ;
all were mounted, and in appearance as wild and ragged a
set of bandits as could be imagined. As they rode over the
bridge they saw Warrisden and Stretton seated on the ground
beneath them ; and without a word or a shout they halted
as one man. Their very silence was an intimidating thing.

" Z'mur," whispered Ibrahim. He was shaking with
fear. Warrisden noticed that the two soldiers who accom-
panied them on this journey to Mequinez quietly mounted
their horses. Stretton and Warrisden rose to do likewise.
And as they rose a dozen of the mounted Z'mur quietly rode
round from the end of the bridge and stood between them
and the stream. Then the leader, a big man with a black
beard turning grey, began to talk in a quiet and pleasant
voice to the soldiers.

" You are bringing Europeans into our country. Now,
why are you doing that ? We do not like Europeans."

The soldiers no less pleasantly replied —

" Your country ? The Europeans are travelling with a
letter from your master and mine, my Lord the Sultan, to
the Governor of Mequinez."

" You will show us then the letter ? "

" I will do nothing of the kind," the soldier replied, with
a smile. The Z'mur did not move ; the two soldiers sat
upon their horses smiling — it seemed that matters had come
to a deadlock. Meanwhile Warrisden and Stretton got into
their saddles. Then the leader of the Z'mur spoke again —

" We passed five Jews riding on donkeys a little while
ago. They were kind enough when we stopped them to



270 THE TRUANTS

give us a peseta apiece. We are going to Fez to offer our
help to the Sultan, if only he will give us rifles and ammuni-
tion. But we shall go home again when we have got them.
Perhaps the Europeans would like to give us a peseta apiece
as well."

"I do not think they would like it at all," said the
soldier. " Peace go with you ! " and he turned his horse and,
followed, by Warrisden and Stretton, the terrified Ibrahim
and the train of mules, he rode right through the forty Z'mur
and over the bridge.

It was an awkward moment, but the men of "Warrisden's
party assumed, with what skill they could," an air of uncon-
cern. Trouble was very near to them. It needed only that
one of those wild tribesmen should reach out his hand and
seize the bridle of a horse. But no hand was reached out.
The Z'mur were caught in a moment of indecision. They
sat upon their horses motionless. They let the Europeans
pass.

Ibrahim, however, drew no comfort from their attitude.

"It is because they wish rifles and ammunition from
the Government," he said. "Therefore they will avoid
trouble until they have got them. But with the next party
it will not be so."

There are three waterfalls in Morocco, and of those three
one falls in a great cascade between red cliffs into a dark
pool thirty feet below, close by the village of Medhuma. By
this waterfall they lunched, the while Ibrahim bared his
right arm to the shoulder, stretched himself full length upon
the ground, and, to the infinite danger of the bystanders,
practised shooting with his revolver. They lunched quickly
and rode on. Towards evening, above a group of trees on a
hill, they saw here and there a minaret.

" Mequinez," exclaimed Ibrahim. " Schoof 1 Mequinez ! "

In a little while fragments of thick wall began to show,
scattered here and there about the plain. Brown walls, high
and crumbling to rain, walls that never had been walls of



HOMEWARDS 271

houses, but which began and ended for no reason. They
were all that was left of the work of Mulai Ismail, who, in
the seventeenth century, had built and planned buildings
about this town until death put an end to all his architecture.
There was to be a wall across the country, from Fez to
Morocco city far away in the south, so that the blind, of
which this kingdom still has many, and then was full, might
pass from one town to another without a guide. Part of
that wall was built, and fragments of it rise amongst the
oleanders and the bushes to this day.

The travellers entered now upon a park. A green mossy
turf spread out soft beneath the feet of their horses, dwarf
oaks made everywhere a pleasant shade ; Stretton had lost
sight now of the minarets, and no sign of Mequinez was
visible at all. The ground sloped downwards, the track
curved round a hill, and suddenly, on the opposite side of a
valley, they saw the royal city, with its high walls and gates,
its white houses, and its green-tiled mosques, and its old
grey massive palaces stretch along the hillside before their
eyes.

One of the soldiers rode forward into the town to find the
Basha and present his letters. A troop of men came out in
a little time and led the travellers up the cobbled stones
through a gateway into the wide space before the Renegade's
Gate, that wonderful monument of Moorish art which neither
the wear of the centuries nor the neglect of its possessors has
availed to destroy. Its tiles are broken. The rains have
discoloured it, stones have fallen from their places. Yet
the gate rises, majestic yet most delicate, beautiful in colour,
exquisite in shape, flanked with massive pillars, and sur-
mounted by its soaring arch, a piece of embroidery in stone,
fine as though the stone were lace. By the side of this arch
the camp was pitched just about the time when the horses
and mules are brought down to roll in the dust of the
square and to drink at the two great fountains beyond the
gate.



272 THE TRUANTS

Later iu that evening there came a messenger from the
Basha with servants bearing bowls of kouss-kouss.

" Fourteen soldiers will ride with you to-morrow," he
said, " for the country is not safe. It will be well if you
start early, for you have a long way to go."

" The earlier the better," said Stretton.

" It will do if you breakfast at five — half-past five," said
Ibrahim, to whom punctuality was a thing unknown. " And
start at six — half-past six."

'"No," said Warrisden. "We will start at five— half-
past five."

That night a company of soldiers kept guard about the
tents, and passed the hours of darkness in calling to one
another and chanting one endless plaintive melody. Little
sleep was possible to the two Englishmen, and to one of them
sleep did not come at all. Now and then Warrisden dropped
off and waked again ; and once or twice he struck a match
and lit his candle. Each time that he did this he saw Stretton
lying quite motionless in his bed on the other side of the
tent. Tony lay with the bed-clothes up to his chin, and his
arms straight down at his sides, in some uncanny resemblance
to a dead man. But Warrisden saw that all the while his
eyes were open. Tony was awake with his troubles and per-
plexities, keeping them to himself as was his wont, and slowly
searching for an issue. That he would hit upon the issue
he did not doubt. He had these few days for thought, and
it was not the first time that he had had to map out a line of
conduct. His course might be revealed to him at the very
last moment, as it had been on the trawler in the North Sea.
Or it might flash upon him in a second, as the necessity to
desert had flashed upon him amidst the aloes of Ain-Sefra.
Meanwhile he lay awake and thought.

They started early that morning, and crossing a valley,
mounted on to that high, wide plain Djebel Zarhon and
Djebel (Jerowann. They left the town of Mequinez behind
them ; its minarets dropped out of sight. They had come



HOMEWARDS 273

into a most empty world. Not a tent-village stood anywhere
beside the track. Far away to the right, in a deep recess,
the white sacred town of Mulai Idris fell down the dark side
of Zarhon like a cascade. A little further an arch of stone
and a few pillars rising from the plain showed where once
the Romans had built their town of Volubilis. But when
that was passed there was no sign of life anywhere at all.
For hours they rode in a desolate, beautiful world. Bushes
of asphodel, white with their starry flowers, brushed against
them ; plants of iris, purple and yellow, stood stirrup-high
upon their path ; and at times the bushes would cease, and
they would ride over a red carpet of marigolds, which would
pale away into the gold of the mustard flower. Flowers were
about them all that day, the red anemone, the blue lupin,
periwinkles, the yellow flower of the cytisus, but no living
things. Even the air above their heads was still. The
country seemed too empty even for the birds.

At eleven o'clock they stopped beside a stream which ran
prettily between trees across their path.

"We shall find no more water until evening," said
Ibrahim. " We will stop here."

Stretton dismounted, and said —

" We can send the mules on and catch them up. It will
save time."

The soldiers shook their heads.

"We are in the Berber country," they said. "We must
not separate."

Stretton looked around impatiently.

" But there is no one within miles," he exclaimed ; and,
as if to contradict him, a man walked out from the bushes
by the stream and came towards them. He had been robbed
on this very track not two hours before by eleven mounted
Berbers. He had been driving three mules laden with eggs
and food to Mulai Idris, and his mules and their loads had
been taken from him. He was walking home, absolutely
penniless, His whole fortune had been lost that day ; and

T



274 THE TRUANTS

when once again the travellers started upon their journey he
ran at a trot beside their horses for safety's sake.

The road mounted now on to stony and mountainous
country. It wound continually, ascending in and out
amongst low, round peaks towards the summit of a great
line of hills which ran from east to west opposite to them
against the sky.

" Beyond the hills," cried Ibrahim, " is the plain of the
Sebou."

A big village crowned the hill just where the track
ascended. It had been placed there to protect the road. In
a little while they came to the brow of the hill, and suddenly
they saw, far below them, the great plain of the Sebou, green
and level, dotted with villages and the white tombs of saints
and clumps of trees, stretching away as far as the eye could
reach. It was afternoon, not a cloud was in the sky, and
the sun shone through the clear, golden air beneficently
bright. The hillside fell away to the plain with a descent
so sheer, the plain broke so abruptly upon the eyes, that the
very beauty of the scene caught the breath away. Both
Warrisden and Stretton reined in their horses, and sat
looking across the plain as a man might who suddenly from
the crest of some white cliff sees for the first time the sea.
And then Warrisden heard his companion begin to hum a
song. He caught some of the words, but not many,

" Oh, come out, mah love, I'm awaitin' foh you heah 1 M
Tony began, and suddenly checked himself with an expression
of anger, as though the words had associations which it hurt
him to recall.

" Let us ride on," he said, and led the way down the
steep, winding track towards the plain.

They pressed on that evening, and camped late in the
Beni Hassan country. Stretton slept that night, but he
slept fitfully. He had not yet come to the end of his
perplexities, and as he rode away from their camping-ground
in the morning he said, impulsively—



HOMEWARDS 275

<v It is quite true. I have thought of it. I am to
blame. I should have gone into the house that night."

He was endeavouring to be just, and to this criticism of
himself he continually recurred. He should have entered
his house in Berkeley Square on the night when he con-
tented himself with looking up to the lighted windows. He
should have gone in and declared what was in his mind
to do. Very likely he would only have made matters
worse. Contempt for a visionary would very likely have
been added to the contempt for a ne'er-do-weel. Certainly
no faith would have been felt by Millie in the success of his
plan. He would have been asked, in a lukewarm way, to
abandon it and stay at home. Still, he ought to have gone
in. He had made a mistake that night.

All that day they rode through the Beni Hassan country
westwards. The plain was level and monotonous ; they
passed village after village, each one built in a circle round
a great space of open turf, into which the cattle were driven
at night. For upon the hills, and in the forest of Mamura
to the south, close by, the Z'mur lived, and between the Beni
Hassan and the Z'mur there is always war. In the afternoon
they came to the borders of that forest, and skirting its edge,
towards evening reached the caravanserai of El Kantra.

The travellers saw it some while before they came to it —
four high, smooth, castellated walls crowning a low hill. It
stands upon the road from Fez to Rabat, and close to the
road from Rabat to Larache, and a garrison guards it. For
you could almost throw a stone from its walls into the trees
of Mamura. Stretton and "Warrisden rode round the walla
to the gate, and as they passed beneath the arch both halted
and looked back.

Outside was a quiet country of grey colours ; the sun
was near to its setting ; far away the broken walls of the old
Portuguese town of Mediyah stood upon a point of vantage
on a hillside, like some ruined castle of the Tyrol. Inside
the caravanserai all was noise and shouting and confusion.



276 THE TRUANTS

[n the thickness of the walls there were little rooms or cells,
and in these the merchants were making their homes for the
night, while about them their servants and muleteers buzzed
like a hire of bees. And the whole great square within the
walls was one lake of filthy mud, wherein camels, and mules,
and donkeys, and horses rolled and stamped and fought. A
deafening clamour rose to the skies. Every discordant
sound that the created world could produce seemed to be
brayed from that jostling throng of animals as from some
infernal orchestra. And the smell of the place was fetid.

" Let us pitch our camp outside ! " said Warrisden. But
the captain of the garrison came hurrying up.

" No," he cried excitedly. " The Z'mur ! The Z'inur ! "

Stretton shrugged his shoulders.

" I am getting a little bored with the Z'inur," said he.

"They have sent in word to us," the captain continued,
" that they mean to attack us to-night."

Stretton looked perplexed.

" But why send in word ? " he asked.

The captain of the garrison looked astonished at the
question.

" So that we may be ready for them, of course," he replied,
quite seriously ; for life in Morocco has some of the qualities
of opera-bouffe. " So you must come inside. You have a
letter from my lord the Basha of Fez, it is true. If the
letter said you were to sleep outside the walls of El Kantra,
then I would kiss the seal and place it against my forehead,
;ind bring out my five hundred men to guard you, and we
should all get killed. But it does not say so."

11 is five hundred men were really short of fifty. Stretton
and "Warrisden laughed ; but they had to go inside the
caravanserai. This was the last day on which they ran any
risk. To-morrow they would cross the Sebou at Mediyah,
and beyond the Sebou the road was safe.

They rode inside the caravanserai, and were allotted a
ell which obtained some privacy from a hurdle fixed in the



HOMEWARDS 277

ground in front of it. The gates of the caravanserai were
closed, the sunset flushed the blue sky with a hue of rose ;


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Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 20 of 26)