Arthur Conan Doyle.

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that the date fell out of his palm and the deception stood revealed.
In vain he tried to pass on at once to another of his little stock. The
Moolah said something, and an Arab struck Fardet across the shoulders
with the thick shaft of his spear.

"We have had enough child's play," said the angry priest. "Are we men or
babes, that you should try to impose upon us in this manner? Here is the
cross and the Koran - which shall it be?"

Fardet looked helplessly round at his companions.

"I can do no more; you asked for five minutes. You have had them," said
he to Colonel Cochrane.

"And perhaps it is enough," the soldier answered. "Here are the Emirs."

The camel-man, whose approach they had heard from afar, had made for the
two Arab chiefs, and had delivered a brief report to them, stabbing
with his forefinger in the direction from which he had come. There was a
rapid exchange of words between the Emirs, and then they strode forward
together to the group around the prisoners. Bigots and barbarians, they
were none the less two most majestic men, as they advanced through the
twilight of the palm grove. The fierce old greybeard raised his hand
and spoke swiftly in short, abrupt sentences, and his savage followers
yelped to him like hounds to a huntsman. The fire that smouldered in his
arrogant eyes shone back at him from a hundred others. Here were to
be read the strength and danger of the Mahdi movement; here in these
convulsed faces, in that fringe of waving arms, in these frantic,
red-hot souls, who asked nothing better than a bloody death, if their
own hands might be bloody when they met it.

"Have the prisoners embraced the true faith?" asked the Emir
Abderrahman, looking at them with his cruel eyes.

The Moolah had his reputation to preserve, and it was not for him to
confess to a failure.

"They were about to embrace it, when - - "

"Let it rest for a little time, O Moolah." He gave an order, and the
Arabs all sprang for their camels. The Emir Wad Ibrahim filed off at
once with nearly half the party. The others were mounted and ready, with
their rifles unslung.

"What's happened?" asked Belmont.

"Things are looking up," cried the Colonel. "By George, I think we are
going to come through all right. The Gippy Camel Corps are hot on our
trail."

"How do you know?"

"What else could have scared them?"

"O Colonel, do you really think we shall be saved?" sobbed Sadie. The
dull routine of misery through which they had passed had deadened all
their nerves until they seemed incapable of any acute sensation, but now
this sudden return of hope brought agony with it like the recovery of
a frostbitten limb. Even the strong, self-contained Belmont was filled
with doubts and apprehensions. He had been hopeful when there was no
sign of relief, and now the approach of it set him trembling.

"Surely they wouldn't come very weak," he cried. "Be Jove, if the
Commandant let them come weak, he should be court-martialled."

"Sure, we're in God's hands, anyway," said his wife, in her soothing,
Irish voice. "Kneel down with me, John, dear, if it's the last time, and
pray that, earth or heaven, we may not be divided."

"Don't do that! Don't!" cried the Colonel, anxiously, for he saw that
the eye of the Moolah was upon them. But it was too late, for the two
Roman Catholics had dropped upon their knees and crossed themselves.
A spasm of fury passed over the face of the Mussulman priest at this
public testimony to the failure of his missionary efforts. He turned and
said something to the Emir.

[Illustration: Stand up! cried Mansoor p214]

"Stand up!" cried Mansoor. "For your life's sake, stand up! He is asking
for leave to put you to death."

"Let him do what he likes!" said the obstinate Irishman; "we will rise
when our prayers are finished, and not before."

The Emir stood listening to the Moolah, with his baleful gaze upon the
two kneeling figures. Then he gave one or two rapid orders, and four
camels were brought forward. The baggage-camels which they had hitherto
ridden were standing unsaddled where they had been tethered.

"Don't be a fool, Belmont!" cried the Colonel; "everything depends upon
our humouring them. Do get up, Mrs. Belmont! You are only putting their
backs up!"

The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders as he looked at them. "_Mon Dieu!_"
he cried, "were there ever such impracticable people? _Voilà!_" he
added, with a shriek, as the two American ladies fell upon their knees
beside Mrs. Belmont. "It is like the camels - one down, all down! Was
ever anything so absurd?"

But Mr. Stephens had knelt down beside Sadie and buried his haggard face
in his long, thin hands. Only the Colonel and Monsieur Fardet remained
standing. Cochrane looked at the Frenchman with an interrogative eye.

"After all," said he, "it is stupid to pray all your life, and not to
pray now when we have nothing to hope for except through the goodness of
Providence." He dropped upon his knees with a rigid, military back, but
his grizzled, unshaven chin upon his chest. The Frenchman looked at his
kneeling companions, and then his eyes travelled onwards to the angry
faces of the Emir and Moolah.

"_Sapristi!_" he growled. "Do they suppose that a Frenchman is afraid of
them?" and so, with an ostentatious sign of the cross, he took his place
upon his knees beside the others. Foul, bedraggled, and wretched, the
seven figures knelt and waited humbly for their fate under the black
shadow of the palm-tree.

The Emir turned to the Moolah with a mocking smile, and pointed at the
results of his ministrations. Then he gave an order, and in an instant
the four men were seized.

A couple of deft turns with a camel-halter secured each of their wrists.
Fardet screamed out, for the rope had bitten into his open wound. The
others took it with the dignity of despair.

"You have ruined everything. I believe you have ruined me also!" cried
Mansoor, wringing his hands. "The women are to get upon these three
camels."

"Never!" cried Belmont. "We won't be separated!" He plunged madly, but
he was weak from privation, and two strong men held him by each elbow.

[Illustration: Don't fret, John! cried his wife p217]

"Don't fret, John!" cried his wife, as they hurried her towards the
camel. "No harm shall come to me. Don't struggle, or they'll hurt you,
dear."

The four men writhed as they saw the women dragged away from them. All
their agonies had been nothing to this. Sadie and her aunt appeared to
be half senseless from fear. Only Mrs. Belmont kept a brave face. When
they were seated the camels rose, and were led under the tree behind
where the four men were standing.

"I've a pistol in me pocket," said Belmont, looking up at his wife. "I
would give me soul to be able to pass it to you."

"Keep it, John, and it may be useful yet. I have no fears. Ever since we
prayed I have felt as if our guardian angels had their wings round us."
She was like a guardian angel herself as she turned to the shrinking
Sadie, and coaxed some little hope back into her despairing heart.

The short, thick Arab, who had been in command of Wad Ibrahim's
rearguard, had joined the Emir and the Moolah; the three consulted
together, with occasional oblique glances towards the prisoners. Then
the Emir spoke to Mansoor.

"The chief wishes to know which of you four is the richest man?" said
the dragoman. His fingers were twitching with nervousness and plucking
incessantly at the front of his cover-coat.

"Why does he wish to know?" asked the Colonel.

"I do not know."

"But it is evident," cried Monsieur Fardet.

"He wishes to know which is the best worth keeping for his ransom."

"I think we should see this thing through together," said the Colonel.
"It's really for you to decide, Stephens, for I have no doubt that you
are the richest of us."

"I don't know that I am," the lawyer answered; "but, in any case, I have
no wish to be placed upon a different footing to the others."

The Emir spoke again in his harsh, rasping voice.

"He says," Mansoor translated, "that the baggage-camels are spent, and
that there is only one beast left which can keep up. It is ready now for
one of you, and you have to decide among yourselves which is to have it.
If one is richer than the others, he will have the preference."

"Tell him that we are all equally rich."

"In that case he says that you are to choose at once which is to have
the camel."

"And the others?"

The dragoman shrugged his shoulders.

"Well," said the Colonel, "if only one of us is to escape, I think you
fellows will agree with me that it ought to be Belmont, since he is the
married man."

"Yes, yes, let it be Monsieur Belmont," cried Fardet.

"I think so also," said Stephens.

But the Irishman would not hear of it.

"No, no, share and share alike," he cried. "All sink or all swim, and
the devil take the flincher."

They wrangled among themselves until they became quite heated in this
struggle of unselfishness. Some one had said that the Colonel should go
because he was the oldest, and the Colonel was a very angry man.

"One would think I was an octogenarian," he cried. "These remarks are
quite uncalled for."

"Well, then," said Belmont, "let us all refuse to go."

"But this is not very wise," cried the Frenchman. "See, my friends! Here
are the ladies being carried off alone. Surely it would be far better
that one of us should be with them to advise them."

They looked at one another in perplexity. What Fardet said was obviously
true, but how could one of them desert his comrades? The Emir himself
suggested the solution.

"The chief says," said Mansoor, "that if you cannot settle who is to go,
you had better leave it to Allah and draw lots."

"I don't think we can do better," said the Colonel, and his three
companions nodded their assent.

It was the Moolah who approached them with four splinters of palm-bark
protruding from between his fingers.

"He says that he who draws the longest has the camel," says Mansoor.

"We must agree to abide absolutely by this," said Cochrane, and again
his companions nodded.

The Dervishes had formed a semicircle in front of them, with a fringe
of the oscillating heads of the camels. Before them was a cooking fire,
which threw its red light over the group. The Emir was standing with his
back to it, and his fierce face towards the prisoners. Behind the four
men was a line of guards, and behind them again the three women, who
looked down from their camels upon this tragedy. With a malicious smile,
the fat, one-eyed Moolah advanced with his fist closed, and the four
little brown spicules protruding from between his fingers.

It was to Belmont that he held them first. The Irishman gave an
involuntary groan, and his wife gasped behind him, for the splinter came
away in his hand. Then it was the Frenchman's turn, and his was half an
inch longer than Belmont's. Then came Colonel Cochrane, whose piece was
longer than the two others put together. Stephen's was no bigger than
Belmont's. The Colonel was the winner of this terrible lottery.

[Illustration: The Colonel was the winner of this terrible lottery p222]

"You're welcome to my place, Belmont," said he. "I've neither wife nor
child, and hardly a friend in the world. Go with your wife, and I'll
stay."

"No, indeed! An agreement is an agreement. It's all fair play, and the
prize to the luckiest."

"The Emir says that you are to mount at once," said Mansoor, and an Arab
dragged the Colonel by his wrist-rope to the waiting camel.

"He will stay with the rearguard," said the Emir to his lieutenant. "You
can keep the women with you also."

"And this dragoman dog?"

"Put him with the others."

"And they?"

"Put them all to death."




CHAPTER IX

As none of the three could understand Arabic, the order of the Emir
would have been unintelligible to them had it not been for the conduct
of Mansoor. The unfortunate dragoman, after all his treachery and all
his subservience and apostasy, found his worst fears realised when the
Dervish leader gave his curt command. With a shriek of fear the poor
wretch threw himself forward upon his face, and clutched at the Arab's
jibbeh, clawing with his brown fingers at the edge of the cotton skirt.
The Emir tugged to free himself, and then, finding that he was still
held by that convulsive grip, he turned and kicked at Mansoor with
the vicious impatience with which one drives off a pestering cur. The
dragoman's high red tarboosh flew up into the air, and he lay groaning
upon his face where the stunning blow of the Arab's horny foot had left
him.

All was bustle and movement in the camp, for the old Emir had mounted
his camel, and some of his party were already beginning to follow
their companions. The squat lieutenant, the Moolah, and about a dozen
Dervishes surrounded the prisoners. They had not mounted their camels,
for they were told off to be the ministers of death. The three men
understood as they looked upon their faces that the sand was running
very low in the glass of their lives. Their hands were still bound, but
their guards had ceased to hold them. They turned round, all three, and
said good-bye to the women upon the camels.

"All up now, Norah," said Belmont. "It's hard luck when there was a
chance of a rescue, but we've done our best."

For the first time his wife had broken down. She was sobbing
convulsively, with her face between her hands.

"Don't cry, little woman! We've had a good time together. Give my
love to all my friends at Bray! Remember me to Amy McCarthy and to the
Blessingtons. You'll find there is enough and to spare, but I would take
Rogers's advice about the investments. Mind that!"

"O John, I won't live without you!" Sorrow for her sorrow broke the
strong man down, and he buried his face in the hairy side of her camel.
The two of them sobbed helplessly together.

Stephens meanwhile had pushed his way to Sadie's beast. She saw his
worn, earnest face looking up at her through the dim light.

"Don't be afraid for your aunt and for yourself," said he. "I am
sure that you will escape. Colonel Cochrane will look after you. The
Egyptians cannot be far behind. I do hope you will have a good drink
before you leave the wells. I wish I could give your aunt my jacket, for
it will be cold tonight. I'm afraid I can't get it off. She should keep
some of the bread, and eat it in the early morning."

He spoke quite quietly, like a man who is arranging the details of a
picnic. A sudden glow of admiration for this quietly consistent man
warmed her impulsive heart.

"How unselfish you are!" she cried. "I never saw any one like you. Talk
about saints! There you stand in the very presence of death, and you
think only of us."

"I want to say a last word to you, Sadie, if you don't mind. I should
die so much happier. I have often wanted to speak to you, but I
thought that perhaps you would laugh, for you never took anything very
seriously, did you? That was quite natural, of course, with your high
spirits, but still it was very serious to me. But now I am really a dead
man, so it does not matter very much what I say."

"Oh, don't, Mr. Stephens!" cried the girl.

"I won't, if it is very painful to you. As I said, it would make me die
happier, but I don't want to be selfish about it. If I thought it would
darken your life afterwards or be a sad recollection to you I would not
say another word."

"What did you wish to say?"

"It was only to tell you how I loved you. I always loved you. From the
first I was a different man when I was with you. But of course it was
absurd, I knew that well enough. I never said anything, and I tried not
to make myself ridiculous. But I just want you to know about it now that
it can't matter one way or the other. You'll understand that I really
do love you when I tell you that, if it were not that I knew you were
frightened and unhappy, these last two days in which we have been always
together would have been infinitely the happiest of my life."

The girl sat pale and silent, looking down with wondering eyes at his
upturned face. She did not know what to do or say in the solemn presence
of this love which burned so brightly under the shadow of death. To her
child's heart it seemed incomprehensible, - and yet she understood that
it was sweet and beautiful also.

"I won't say any more," said he; "I can see that it only bothers you.
But I wanted you to know, and now you do know, so it is all right. Thank
you for listening so patiently and gently. Good-bye, little Sadie! I
can't put my hand up. Will you put yours down?"

[Illustration: Good-bye, little Sadie p229]

She did so and Stephens kissed it. Then he turned and took his place
once more between Belmont and Fardet. In his whole life of struggle and
success he had never felt such a glow of quiet contentment as suffused
him at that instant when the grip of death was closing upon him. There
is no arguing about love. It is the innermost fact of life, the one
which obscures and changes all the others, the only one which is
absolutely satisfying and complete. Pain is pleasure, and want is
comfort, and death is sweetness when once that golden mist is round
it. So it was that Stephens could have sung with joy as he faced his
murderers. He really had not time to think about them. The important,
all-engrossing, delightful thing was that she could not look upon him as
a casual acquaintance any more. Through all her life she would think of
him - she would know.

Colonel Cochrane's camel was at one side, and the old soldier, whose
wrists had been freed, had been looking down upon the scene, and
wondering in his tenacious way whether all hope must really be
abandoned. It was evident that the Arabs who were grouped round the
victims were to remain behind with them, while the others who were
mounted would guard the three women and himself. He could not understand
why the throats of his companions had not been already cut, unless it
were that with an Eastern refinement of cruelty this rearguard would
wait until the Egyptians were close to them, so that the warm bodies of
their victims might be an insult to the pursuers. No doubt that was the
right explanation. The Colonel had heard of such a trick before.

But in that case there would not be more than twelve Arabs with the
prisoners. Were there any of the friendly ones among them? If Tippy
Tilly and six of his men were there, and if Belmont could get his arms
free and his hand upon his revolver, they might come through yet. The
Colonel craned his neck and groaned in his disappointment. He could see
the faces of the guards in the firelight. They were all Baggara Arabs,
men who were beyond either pity or bribery. Tippy Tilly and the others
must have gone on with the advance. For the first time the stiff old
soldier abandoned hope.

"Good-bye, you fellows! God bless you!" he cried, as a negro pulled at
his camel's nose-ring and made him follow the others. The women came
after him, in a misery too deep for words. Their departure was a relief
to the three men who were left.

"I am glad they are gone," said Stephens, from his heart.

"Yes, yes, it is better," cried Fardet. "How long are we to wait?"

"Not very long now," said Belmont, grimly, as the Arabs closed in around
them.

The Colonel and the three women gave one backward glance when they came
to the edge of the oasis. Between the straight stems of the palms they
saw the gleam of the fire, and above the group of Arabs they caught a
last glimpse of the three white hats. An instant later, the camels began
to trot, and when they looked back once more the palm grove was only a
black clump with the vague twinkle of a light somewhere in the heart of
it. As with yearning eyes they gazed at that throbbing red point in the
darkness, they passed over the edge of the depression, and in an instant
the huge, silent, moonlit desert was round them without a sign of the
oasis which they had left. On every side the velvet, blue-black sky,
with its blazing stars, sloped downwards to the vast, dun-coloured
plain. The two were blurred into one at their point of junction.

The women had sat in the silence of despair, and the Colonel had been
silent also - for what could he say? - but suddenly all four started in
their saddles, and Sadie gave a sharp cry of dismay. In the hush of the
night there had come from behind them the petulant crack of a rifle,
then another, then several together, with a brisk rat-tat-tat, and then,
after an interval, one more.

"It may be the rescuers! It may be the Egyptians!" cried Mrs. Belmont,
with a sudden flicker of hope. "Colonel Cochrane, don't you think it may
be the Egyptians?"

"Yes, yes," Sadie whimpered. "It must be the Egyptians."

The Colonel had listened expectantly, but all was silent again. Then he
took his hat off with a solemn gesture.

"There is no use deceiving ourselves, Mrs. Belmont," said he; "we may
as well face the truth. Our friends are gone from us, but they have met
their end like brave men."

"But why should they fire their guns? They had - - they had spears." She
shuddered as she said it.

"That is true," said the Colonel. "I would not for the world take away
any real grounds of hope which you may have; but, on the other hand,
there is no use in preparing bitter disappointments for ourselves. If
we had been listening to an attack, we should have heard some reply.
Besides, an Egyptian attack would have been an attack in force. No doubt
it _is_, as you say, a little strange that they should have wasted their
cartridges, - by Jove, look at that!"

He was pointing over the eastern desert. Two figures were moving across
its expanse, swiftly and stealthily, furtive dark shadows against the
lighter ground. They saw them dimly, dipping and rising over the rolling
desert, now lost, now reappearing in the uncertain light. They were
flying away from the Arabs. And then, suddenly they halted upon the
summit of a sand-hill, and the prisoners could see them outlined plainly
against the sky. They were camel-men, but they sat their camels astride
as a horseman sits his horse.

"Gippy Camel Corps!" cried the Colonel.

"Two men," said Miss Adams, in a voice of despair.

"Only a vedette, ma'am! Throwing feelers out all over the desert. This
is one of them. Main body ten miles off, as likely as not. There they go
giving the alarm! Good old Camel Corps!"

The self-contained, methodical soldier had suddenly turned almost
inarticulate with his excitement. There was a red flash upon the top of
the sand-hill, and then another, followed by the crack of the rifles.
Then with a whisk the two figures were gone, as swiftly and silently as
two trout in a stream.

The Arabs had halted for an instant, as if uncertain whether they should
delay their journey to pursue them or not. There was nothing left to
pursue now, for amid the undulations of the sand-drift the vedettes
might have gone in any direction. The Emir galloped back along the line,
with exhortations and orders. Then the camels began to trot, and the
hopes of the prisoners were dulled by the agonies of the terrible jolt.
Mile after mile and mile after mile they sped onwards over that vast
expanse, the women clinging as best they might to the pommels, the
Colonel almost as spent as they, but still keenly on the lookout for any
sign of the pursuers.

"I think - - I think," cried Mrs. Belmont, "that something is moving in
front of us."

The Colonel raised himself upon his saddle, and screened his eyes from
the moonshine.

"By Jove, you're right there, ma'am. There are men over yonder."

They could all see them now, a straggling line of riders far ahead of
them in the desert.

"They are going in the same direction as we," cried Mrs. Belmont, whose
eyes were very much better than the Colonel's.

Cochrane muttered an oath into his moustache.

"Look at the tracks there," said he; "of course, it's our own vanguard
who left the palm grove before us. The chief keeps us at this infernal
pace in order to close up with them."

As they drew closer they could see plainly that it was indeed the other
body of Arabs, and presently the Emir Wad Ibrahim came trotting back to
take counsel with the Emir Abderrahman. They pointed in the direction in
which the vedettes had appeared, and shook their heads like men who
have many and grave misgivings. Then the raiders joined into one long,
straggling line, and the whole body moved steadily on towards the
Southern Cross, which was twinkling just over the skyline in front of
them. Hour after hour the dreadful trot continued, while the fainting


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