THE FOUR FEATHERS
THE LAST RECONNAISSANCE
"No one," said Durrance, and he strapped his field-glasses into the leather case at his side.
"No one, sir," Captain Mather agreed.
"We will move forward."
The scouts went on ahead, the troops resumed their formation, the two seven-pounder mountain-guns closed up behind, and Durrance's detachment of the Camel Corps moved down from the gloomy ridge of Khor Gwob, thirty-five miles southwest of Suakin, into the plateau of Sinkat. It was the last reconnaissance in strength before the evacuation of the eastern Soudan.
All through that morning the camels had jolted slowly up the gulley of shale between red precipitous rocks, and when the rocks fell back, between red mountain-heaps all crumbled into a desolation of stones. Hardly a patch of grass or the ragged branches of a mimosa had broken the monotony of ruin. And after that arid journey the green bushes of Sinkat in the valley below comforted the eye with the pleasing aspect of a park. The troopers sat their saddles with a greater alertness.
They moved in a diagonal line across the plateau toward the mountains of Erkoweet, a silent company on a plain still more silent. It was eleven o'clock. The sun rose toward the centre of a colourless, cloudless sky, the shadows of the camels shortened upon the sand, and the sand itself glistened white as a beach of the Scilly Islands. There was no draught of air that morning to whisper amongst the rich foliage, and the shadows of the branches lay so distinct and motionless upon the ground that they might themselves have been branches strewn there on some past day by a storm. The only sounds that were audible were the sharp clank of weapons, the soft ceaseless padding of the camels' feet, and at times the whirr of a flight of pigeons disturbed by the approaching cavalcade. Yet there was life on the plateau, though of a noiseless kind. For as the leaders rode along the curves of sand, trim and smooth between the shrubs like carriage drives, they would see from time to time, far ahead of them, a herd of gazelle start up from the ground and race silently, a flash of dappled brown and white, to the enclosing hills. It seemed that here was a country during this last hour created.
"Yet this way the caravans passed southwards to Erkoweet and the Khor Baraka. Here the Suakis built their summer-houses," said Durrance, answering the thought in his mind.
"And there Tewfik fought, and died with his four hundred men," said Mather, pointing forward.
For three hours the troops marched across the plateau. It was the month of May, and the sun blazed upon them with an intolerable heat. They had long since lost their alertness. They rode rocking drowsily in their saddles and prayed for the evening and the silver shine of stars. For three hours the camels went mincing on with their queer smirking motions of the head, and then quite suddenly a hundred yards ahead Durrance saw a broken wall with window-spaces which let the sky through.
"The fort," said he.
Three years had passed since Osman Digna had captured and destroyed it, but during these three years its roofless ruins had sustained another siege, and one no less persistent. The quick-growing trees had so closely girt and encroached upon it to the rear and to the right and to the left, that the traveller came upon it unexpectedly, as Childe Roland upon the Dark Tower in the plain. In the front, however, the sand still stretched open to the wells, where three great Gemeiza trees of dark and spreading foliage stood spaced like sentinels.
In the shadow to the right front of the fort, where the bushes fringed the open sand with the level regularity of a river bank, the soldiers unsaddled their camels and prepared their food. Durrance and Captain Mather walked round the fort, and as they came to the southern corner, Durrance stopped.
"Hallo!" said he.
"Some Arab has camped here," said Mather, stopping in his turn. The grey ashes of a wood fire lay in a little heap upon a blackened stone.
"And lately," said Durrance.
Mather walked on, mounted a few rough steps to the crumbled archway of the entrance, and passed into the unroofed corridors and rooms. Durrance turned the ashes over with his boot. The stump of a charred and whitened twig glowed red. Durrance set his foot upon it, and a tiny thread of smoke spurted into the air.
"Very lately," he said to himself, and he followed Mather into the fort. In the corners of the mud walls, in any fissure, in the very floor, young trees were sprouting. Rearward a steep glacis and a deep fosse defended the works. Durrance sat himself down upon the parapet of the wall above the glacis, while the pigeons wheeled and circled overhead, thinking of the long months during which Tewfik must daily have strained his eyes from this very spot toward the pass over the hills from Suakin, looking as that other general far to the south had done, for the sunlight flashing on the weapons of the help which did not come. Mather sat by his side and reflected in quite another spirit.
"Already the Guards are steaming out through the coral reefs toward Suez. A week and our turn comes," he said. "What a God-forsaken country!"
"I come back to it," said Durrance.
"I like it. I like the people."
Mather thought the taste unaccountable, but he knew nevertheless that, however unaccountable in itself, it accounted for his companion's rapid promotion and success. Sympathy had stood Durrance in the stead of much ability. Sympathy had given him patience and the power to understand, so that during these three years of campaign he had left far quicker and far abler men behind him, in his knowledge of the sorely harassed tribes of the eastern Soudan. He liked them; he could enter into their hatred of the old Turkish rule, he could understand their fanaticism, and their pretence of fanaticism under the compulsion of Osman Digna's hordes.
"Yes, I shall come back," he said, "and in three months' time. For one thing, we know—every Englishman in Egypt, too, knows—that this can't be the end. I want to be here when the work's taken in hand again. I hate unfinished things."
The sun beat relentlessly upon the plateau; the men, stretched in the shade, slept; the afternoon was as noiseless as the morning; Durrance and Mather sat for some while compelled to silence by the silence surrounding them. But Durrance's eyes turned at last from the amphitheatre of hills; they lost their abstraction, they became intently fixed upon the shrubbery beyond the glacis. He was no longer recollecting Tewfik Bey and his heroic defence, or speculating upon the work to be done in the years ahead. Without turning his head, he saw that Mather was gazing in the same direction as himself.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked suddenly of Mather.
Mather laughed, and answered thoughtfully:—
"I was drawing up the menu of the first dinner I will have when I reach London. I will eat it alone, I think, quite alone, and at Epitaux. It will begin with a watermelon. And you?"
"I was wondering why, now that the pigeons have got used to our presence, they should still be wheeling in and out of one particular tree. Don't point to it, please! I mean the tree beyond the ditch, and to the right of two small bushes."
All about them they could see the pigeons quietly perched upon the branches, spotting the foliage like a purple fruit. Only above the one tree they circled and timorously called.
"We will draw that covert," said Durrance. "Take a dozen men and surround it quietly."
He himself remained on the glacis watching the tree and the thick undergrowth. He saw six soldiers creep round the shrubbery from the left, six more from the right. But before they could meet and ring the tree in, he saw the branches violently shaken, and an Arab with a roll of yellowish dammar wound about his waist, and armed with a flat-headed spear and a shield of hide, dashed from the shelter and raced out between the soldiers into the open plain. He ran for a few yards only. For Mather gave a sharp order to his men, and the Arab, as though he understood that order, came to a stop before a rifle could be lifted to a shoulder. He walked quietly back to Mather. He was brought up on to the glacis, where he stood before Durrance without insolence or servility.
He explained in Arabic that he was a man of the Kabbabish tribe named Abou Fatma, and friendly to the English. He was on his way to Suakin.
"Why did you hide?" asked Durrance.
"It was safer. I knew you for my friends. But, my gentleman, did you know me for yours?"
Then Durrance said quickly, "You speak English," and Durrance spoke in English.
The answer came without hesitation.
"I know a few words."
"Where did you learn them?"
Thereafter he was left alone with Durrance on the glacis, and the two men talked together for the best part of an hour. At the end of that time the Arab was seen to descend the glacis, cross the trench, and proceed toward the hills. Durrance gave the order for the resumption of the march.
The water-tanks were filled, the men replenished their zamshyehs, knowing that of all thirsts in this world the afternoon thirst is the very worst, saddled their camels, and mounted to the usual groaning and snarling. The detachment moved northwestward from Sinkat, at an acute angle to its morning's march. It skirted the hills opposite to the pass from which it had descended in the morning. The bushes grew sparse. It came into a black country of stones scantily relieved by yellow tasselled mimosas.
Durrance called Mather to his side.
"That Arab had a strange story to tell me. He was Gordon's servant in Khartum. At the beginning of 1884, eighteen months ago in fact, Gordon gave him a letter which he was to take to Berber, whence the contents were to be telegraphed to Cairo. But Berber had just fallen when the messenger arrived there. He was seized upon and imprisoned the day after his arrival. But during the one day which he had free he hid the letter in the wall of a house, and so far as he knows it has not been discovered."
"He would have been questioned if it had been," said Mather.
"Precisely, and he was not questioned. He escaped from Berber at night, three weeks ago. The story is curious, eh?"
"And the letter still remains in the wall? It is curious. Perhaps the man was telling lies."
"He had the chain mark on his ankles," said Durrance.
The cavalcade turned to the left into the hills on the northern side of the plateau, and climbed again over shale.
"A letter from Gordon," said Durrance, in a musing voice, "scribbled perhaps upon the roof-top of his palace, by the side of his great telescope—a sentence written in haste, and his eye again to the lens, searching over the palm trees for the smoke of the steamers—and it comes down the Nile to be buried in a mud wall in Berber. Yes, it's curious," and he turned his face to the west and the sinking sun. Even as he looked, the sun dipped behind the hills. The sky above his head darkened rapidly, to violet; in the west it flamed a glory of colours rich and iridescent. The colours lost their violence and blended delicately into one rose hue, the rose lingered for a little, and, fading in its turn, left a sky of the purest emerald green transfused with light from beneath rim of the world.
"If only they had let us go last year westward to the Nile," he said with a sort of passion. "Before Khartum had fallen, before Berber had surrendered. But they would not."
The magic of the sunset was not at all in Durrance's thoughts. The story of the letter had struck upon a chord of reverence within him. He was occupied with the history of that honest, great, impracticable soldier, who, despised by officials and thwarted by intrigues, a man of few ties and much loneliness, had gone unflaggingly about his work, knowing the while that the moment his back was turned the work was in an instant all undone.
Darkness came upon the troops, the camels quickened their pace, the cicadas shrilled from every tuft of grass. The detachment moved down toward the well of Disibil. Durrance lay long awake that night on his camp bedstead spread out beneath the stars. He forgot the letter in the mud wall. Southward the Southern Cross hung slanting in the sky, above him glittered the curve of the Great Bear. In a week he would sail for England; he lay awake, counting up the years since the packet had cast off from Dover pier, and he found that the tale of them was good. Kassassin, Tel-el-Kebir, the rush down the Red Sea, Tokar, Tamai, Tamanieb—the crowded moments came vividly to his mind. He thrilled even now at the recollection of the Hadendowas leaping and stabbing through the breach of McNeil's zareba six miles from Suakin; he recalled the obdurate defence of the Berkshires, the steadiness of the Marines, the rallying of the broken troops. The years had been good years, years of plenty, years which had advanced him to the brevet-rank of lieutenant-colonel.
"A week more—only a week," murmured Mather, drowsily.
"I shall come back," said Durrance, with a laugh.
"Have you no friends?"
And there was a pause.
"Yes, I have friends. I shall have three months wherein to see them."
Durrance had written no word to Harry Feversham during these years. Not to write letters was indeed a part of the man. Correspondence was a difficulty to him. He was thinking now that he would surprise his friends by a visit to Donegal, or he might find them perhaps in London. He would ride once again in the Row. But in the end he would come back. For his friend was married, and to Ethne Eustace, and as for himself his life's work lay here in the Soudan. He would certainly come back. And so, turning on his side, he slept dreamlessly while the hosts of the stars trampled across the heavens above his head.
Now, at this moment Abou Fatma of the Kabbabish tribe was sleeping under a boulder on the Khor Gwob. He rose early and continued along the broad plains to the white city of Suakin. There he repeated the story which he had told to Durrance to one Captain Willoughby, who was acting for the time as deputy-governor. After he had come from the Palace he told his story again, but this time in the native bazaar. He told it in Arabic, and it happened that a Greek seated outside a café close at hand overheard something of what was said. The Greek took Abou Fatma aside, and with a promise of much merissa, wherewith to intoxicate himself, induced him to tell it a fourth time and very slowly.
"Could you find the house again?" asked the Greek.
Abou Fatma had no doubts upon that score. He proceeded to draw diagrams in the dust, not knowing that during his imprisonment the town of Berber had been steadily pulled down by the Mahdists and rebuilt to the north.
"It will be wise to speak of this to no one except me," said the Greek, jingling some significant dollars, and for a long while the two men talked secretly together. The Greek happened to be Harry Feversham whom Durrance was proposing to visit in Donegal. Captain Willoughby was Deputy-Governor of Suakin, and after three years of waiting one of Harry Feversham's opportunities had come.