THE FOUR FEATHERS
THE LAST OF THE SOUTHERN CROSS
The wind blew keen and cold from the north. The camels, freshened by it, trotted out at their fastest pace.
"Quicker," said Trench, between his teeth. "Already Idris may have missed us."
"Even if he has," replied Feversham, "it will take time to get men together for a pursuit, and those men must fetch their camels, and already it is dark."
But although he spoke hopefully, he turned his head again and again towards the glare of light above Omdurman. He could no longer hear the tapping of the drums, that was some consolation. But he was in a country of silence, where men could journey swiftly and yet make no noise. There would be no sound of galloping horses to warn him that pursuit was at his heels. Even at that moment the Ansar soldiers might be riding within thirty paces of them, and Feversham strained his eyes backwards into the darkness and expected the glimmer of a white turban. Trench, however, never turned his head. He rode with his teeth set, looking forwards. Yet fear was no less strong in him than in Feversham. Indeed, it was stronger, for he did not look back towards Omdurman because he did not dare; and though his eyes were fixed directly in front of him, the things which he really saw were the long narrow streets of the town behind him, the dotted fires at the corners of the streets, and men running hither and thither among the houses, making their quick search for the two prisoners escaped from the House of Stone.
Once his attention was diverted by a word from Feversham, and he answered without turning his head:—
"What is it?"
"I no longer see the fires of Omdurman."
"The golden blot, eh, very low down?" Trench answered in an abstracted voice. Feversham did not ask him to explain what his allusion meant, nor could Trench have disclosed why he had spoken it; the words had come back to him suddenly with a feeling that it was somehow appropriate that the vision which was the last thing to meet Feversham's eyes as he set out upon his mission he should see again now that that mission was accomplished. They spoke no more until two figures rose out of the darkness in front of them, at the very feet of their camels, and Abou Fatma cried in a low voice:—
They halted their camels and made them kneel.
"The new camels are here?" asked Abou Fatma, and two of the men disappeared for a few minutes and brought four camels up. Meanwhile the saddles were unfastened and removed from the camels Trench and his companion had ridden out of Omdurman.
"They are good camels?" asked Feversham, as he helped to fix the saddles upon the fresh ones.
"Of the Anafi breed," answered Abou Fatma. "Quick! Quick!" and he looked anxiously to the east and listened.
"The arms?" said Trench. "You have them? Where are they?" and he bent his body and searched the ground for them.
"In a moment," said Abou Fatma, but it seemed that Trench could hardly wait for that moment to arrive. He showed even more anxiety to handle the weapons than he had shown fear that he would be overtaken.
"There is ammunition?" he asked feverishly.
"Yes, yes," replied Abou Fatma, "ammunition and rifles and revolvers." He led the way to a spot about twenty yards from the camels, where some long desert grass rustled about their legs. He stooped and dug into the soft sand with his hands.
"Here," he said.
Trench flung himself upon the ground beside him and scooped with both hands, making all the while an inhuman whimpering sound with his mouth, like the noise a foxhound makes at a cover. There was something rather horrible to Feversham in his attitude as he scraped at the ground on his knees, at the action of his hands, quick like the movements of a dog's paws, and in the whine of his voice. He was sunk for the time into an animal. In a moment or two Trench's fingers touched the lock and trigger of a rifle, and he became man again. He stood up quietly with the rifle in his hands. The other arms were unearthed, the ammunition shared.
"Now," said Trench, and he laughed with a great thrill of joy in the laugh. "Now I don't mind. Let them follow from Omdurman! One thing is certain now: I shall never go back there; no, not even if they overtake us," and he fondled the rifle which he held and spoke to it as though it lived.
Two of the Arabs mounted the old camels and rode slowly away to Omdurman. Abou Fatma and the other remained with the fugitives. They mounted and trotted northeastwards. No more than a quarter of an hour had elapsed since they had first halted at Abou Fatma's word.
All that night they rode through halfa grass and mimosa trees and went but slowly, but they came about sunrise on to flat bare ground broken with small hillocks.
"Are the Effendi tired?" asked Abou Fatma. "Will they stop and eat? There is food upon the saddle of each camel."
"No; we can eat as we go."
Dates and bread and a draught of water from a zamsheyeh made up their meal, and they ate it as they sat their camels. These, indeed, now that they were free of the long desert grass, trotted at their quickest pace. And at sunset that evening they stopped and rested for an hour. All through that night they rode and the next day, straining their own endurance and that of the beasts they were mounted on, now ascending on to high and rocky ground, now traversing a valley, and now trotting fast across plains of honey-coloured sand. Yet to each man the pace seemed always as slow as a funeral. A mountain would lift itself above the rim of the horizon at sunrise, and for the whole livelong day it stood before their eyes, and was never a foot higher or an inch nearer. At times, some men tilling a scanty patch of sorghum would send the fugitives' hearts leaping in their throats, and they must make a wide detour; or again a caravan would be sighted in the far distance by the keen eyes of Abou Fatma, and they made their camels kneel and lay crouched behind a rock, with their loaded rifles in their hands. Ten miles from Abu Klea a relay of fresh camels awaited them, and upon these they travelled, keeping a day's march westward of the Nile. Thence they passed through the desert country of the Ababdeh, and came in sight of a broad grey tract stretching across their path.
"The road from Berber to Merowi," said Abou Fatma. "North of it we turn east to the river. We cross that road to-night; and if God wills, to-morrow evening we shall have crossed the Nile."
"If God wills," said Trench. "If only He wills," and he glanced about him in a fear which only increased the nearer they drew towards safety. They were in a country traversed by the caravans; it was no longer safe to travel by day. They dismounted, and all that day they lay hidden behind a belt of shrubs upon some high ground and watched the road and the people like specks moving along it. They came down and crossed it in the darkness, and for the rest of that night travelled hard towards the river. As the day broke Abou Fatma again bade them halt. They were in a desolate open country, whereon the smallest protection was magnified by the surrounding flatness. Feversham and Trench gazed eagerly to their right. Somewhere in that direction and within the range of their eyesight flowed the Nile, but they could not see it.
"We must build a circle of stones," said Abou Fatma, "and you must lie close to the ground within it. I will go forward to the river, and see that the boat is ready and that our friends are prepared for us. I shall come back after dark."
They gathered the stones quickly and made a low wall about a foot high; within this wall Feversham and Trench laid themselves down upon the ground with a water-skin and their rifles at their sides.
"You have dates, too," said Abou Fatma.
"Then do not stir from the hiding-place till I come back. I will take your camels, and bring you back fresh ones in the evening." And in company with his fellow-Arab he rode off towards the river.
Trench and Feversham dug out the sand within the stones and lay down, watching the horizon between the interstices. For both of them this perhaps was the longest day of their lives. They were so near to safety and yet not safe. To Trench's thinking it was longer than a night in the House of Stone, and to Feversham longer than even one of those days six years back when he had sat in his rooms above St. James's Park and waited for the night to fall before he dared venture out into the streets. They were so near to Berber, and the pursuit must needs be close behind. Feversham lay wondering how he had ever found the courage to venture himself in Berber. They had no shade to protect them; all day the sun burnt pitilessly upon their backs, and within the narrow circle of stones they had no room wherein to move. They spoke hardly at all. The sunset, however, came at the last, the friendly darkness gathered about them, and a cool wind rustled through the darkness across the desert.
"Listen!" said Trench; and both men as they strained their ears heard the soft padding of camels very near at hand. A moment later a low whistle brought them out of their shelter.
"We are here," said Feversham, quietly.
"God be thanked!" said Abou Fatma. "I have good news for you, and bad news too. The boat is ready, our friends are waiting for us, camels are prepared for you on the caravan track by the river-bank to Abu Hamed. But your escape is known, and the roads and the ferries are closely watched. Before sunrise we must have struck inland from the eastern bank of the Nile."
They crossed the river cautiously about one o'clock of the morning, and sank the boat upon the far side of the stream. The camels were waiting for them, and they travelled inland and more slowly than suited the anxiety of the fugitives. For the ground was thickly covered with boulders, and the camels could seldom proceed at any pace faster than a walk. And all through the next day they lay hidden again within a ring of stones while the camels were removed to some high ground where they could graze. During the next night, however, they made good progress, and, coming to the groves of Abu Hamed in two days, rested for twelve hours there and mounted upon a fresh relay. From Abu Hamed their road lay across the great Nubian Desert.
Nowadays the traveller may journey through the two hundred and forty miles of that waterless plain of coal-black rocks and yellow sand, and sleep in his berth upon the way. The morning will show to him, perhaps, a tent, a great pile of coal, a water tank, and a number painted on a white signboard, and the stoppage of the train will inform him that he has come to a station. Let him put his head from the window, he will see the long line of telegraph poles reaching from the sky's rim behind him to the sky's rim in front, and huddling together, as it seems, with less and less space between them the farther they are away. Twelve hours will enclose the beginning and the end of his journey, unless the engine break down or the rail be blocked. But in the days when Feversham and Trench escaped from Omdurman progression was not so easy a matter. They kept eastward of the present railway and along the line of wells among the hills. And on the second night of this stage of their journey Trench shook Feversham by the shoulders and waked him up.
"Look," he said, and he pointed to the south. "To-night there's no Southern Cross." His voice broke with emotion. "For six years, for every night of six years, until this night, I have seen the Southern Cross. How often have I lain awake watching it, wondering whether the night would ever come when I should not see those four slanting stars! I tell you, Feversham, this is the first moment when I have really dared to think that we should escape."
Both men sat up and watched the southern sky with prayers of thankfulness in their hearts; and when they fell asleep it was only to wake up again and again with a fear that they would after all still see that constellation blazing low down towards the earth, and to fall asleep again confident of the issue of their desert ride. At the end of seven days they came to Shof-el-Ain, a tiny well set in a barren valley between featureless ridges, and by the side of that well they camped. They were in the country of the Amrab Arabs, and had come to an end of their peril.
"We are safe," cried Abou Fatma. "God is good. Northwards to Assouan, westwards to Wadi Halfa, we are safe!" And spreading a cloth upon the ground in front of the kneeling camels, he heaped dhurra before them. He even went so far in his gratitude as to pat one of the animals upon the neck, and it immediately turned upon him and snarled.
Trench reached out his hand to Feversham.
"Thank you," he said simply.
"No need of thanks," answered Feversham, and he did not take the hand. "I served myself from first to last."
"You have learned the churlishness of a camel," cried Trench. "A camel will carry you where you want to go, will carry you till it drops dead, and yet if you show your gratitude it resents and bites. Hang it all, Feversham, there's my hand."
Feversham untied a knot in the breast of his jibbeh and took out three white feathers, two small, the feathers of a heron, the other large, an ostrich feather broken from a fan.
"Will you take yours back?"
"You know what to do with it."
"Yes. There shall be no delay."
Feversham wrapped the remaining feathers carefully away in a corner of his ragged jibbeh and tied them safe.
"We shake hands, then," said he; and as their hands met he added, "To-morrow morning we part company."
"Part company, you and I—after the year in Omdurman, the weeks of flight?" exclaimed Trench. "Why? There's no more to be done. Castleton's dead. You keep the feather which he sent, but he is dead. You can do nothing with it. You must come home."
"Yes," answered Feversham, "but after you, certainly not with you. You go on to Assouan and Cairo. At each place you will find friends to welcome you. I shall not go with you."
Trench was silent for a while. He understood Feversham's reluctance, he saw that it would be easier for Feversham if he were to tell his story first to Ethne Eustace, and without Feversham's presence.
"I ought to tell you no one knows why you resigned your commission, or of the feathers we sent. We never spoke of it. We agreed never to speak, for the honour of the regiment. I can't tell you how glad I am that we all agreed and kept to the agreement," he said.
"Perhaps you will see Durrance," said Feversham; "if you do, give him a message from me. Tell him that the next time he asks me to come and see him, whether it is in England or Wadi Halfa, I will accept the invitation."
"Which way will you go?"
"To Wadi Halfa," said Feversham, pointing westwards over his shoulder. "I shall take Abou Fatma with me and travel slowly and quietly down the Nile. The other Arab will guide you into Assouan."
They slept that night in security beside the well, and the next morning they parted company. Trench was the first to ride off, and as his camel rose to its feet, ready for the start, he bent down towards Feversham, who passed him the nose rein.
"Ramelton, that was the name? I shall not forget."
"Yes, Ramelton," said Feversham; "there's a ferry across Lough Swilly to Rathmullen. You must drive the twelve miles to Ramelton. But you may not find her there."
"If not there, I shall find her somewhere else. Make no mistake, Feversham, I shall find her."
And Trench rode forward, alone with his Arab guide. More than once he turned his head and saw Feversham still standing by the well; more than once he was strongly drawn to stop and ride back to that solitary figure, but he contented himself with waving his hand, and even that salute was not returned.
Feversham, indeed, had neither thought nor eyes for the companion of his flight. His six years of hard probation had come this morning to an end, and yet he was more sensible of a certain loss and vacancy than of any joy. For six years, through many trials, through many falterings, his mission had strengthened and sustained him. It seemed to him now that there was nothing more wherewith to occupy his life. Ethne? No doubt she was long since married ... and there came upon him all at once a great bitterness of despair for that futile, unnecessary mistake made by him six years ago. He saw again the room in London overlooking the quiet trees and lawns of St. James's Park, he heard the knock upon the door, he took the telegram from his servant's hand.
He roused himself finally with the recollection that, after all, the work was not quite done. There was his father, who just at this moment was very likely reading his Times after breakfast upon the terrace of Broad Place among the pine trees upon the Surrey hills. He must visit his father, he must take that fourth feather back to Ramelton. There was a telegram, too, which must be sent to Lieutenant Sutch at Suakin.
He mounted his camel and rode slowly with Abou Fatma westwards towards Wadi Halfa. But the sense of loss did not pass from him that day, nor his anger at the act of folly which had brought about his downfall. The wooded slopes of Ramelton were very visible to him across the shimmer of the desert air. In the greatness of his depression Harry Feversham upon this day for the first time doubted his faith in the "afterwards."