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- Donovan Pasha And Some People Of Egypt, Volume 3. - 1/13 -


DONOVAN PASHA AND SOME PEOPLE OF EGYPT

By Gilbert Parker

Volume 3.

THE MAN AT THE WHEEL A TYRANT AND A LADY

THE MAN AT THE WHEEL

Wyndham Bimbashi's career in Egypt had been a series of mistakes. In the first place he was opinionated, in the second place he never seemed to have any luck; and, worst of all, he had a little habit of doing grave things on his own lightsome responsibility. This last quality was natural to him, but he added to it a supreme contempt for the native mind and an unhealthy scorn of the native official. He had not that rare quality, constantly found among his fellow-countrymen, of working the native up through his own medium, as it were, through his own customs and predispositions, to the soundness of Western methods of government. Therefore, in due time he made some dangerous mistakes. By virtue of certain high-handed actions he was the cause of several riots in native villages, and he had himself been attacked at more than one village as he rode between the fields of sugar-cane. On these occasions he had behaved very well--certainly no one could possibly doubt his bravery; but that was a small offset to the fact that his want of tact and his overbearing manner had been the means of turning a certain tribe of Arabs loose upon the country, raiding and killing.

But he could not, or would not, see his own vain stupidity. The climax came in a foolish sortie against the Arab tribe he had offended. In that unauthorised melee, in covert disobedience to a general order not to attack, unless at advantage--for the Gippies under him were raw levies-- his troop was diminished by half; and, cut off from the Nile by a flank movement of the Arabs, he was obliged to retreat and take refuge in the well-fortified and walled house which had previously been a Coptic monastery.

Here, at last, the truth came home to Wyndham bimbashi. He realised that though in his six years' residence in the land he had acquired a command of Arabic equal to that of others who had been in the country twice that time, he had acquired little else. He awoke to the fact that in his cock-sure schemes for the civil and military life of Egypt there was not one element of sound sense; that he had been all along an egregious failure. It did not come home to him with clear, accurate conviction-- his brain was not a first-rate medium for illumination; but the facts struck him now with a blind sort of force; and he accepted the blank sensation of failure. Also, he read in the faces of those round him an alien spirit, a chasm of black misunderstanding which his knowledge of Arabic could never bridge over.

Here he was, shut up with Gippies who had no real faith in him, in the house of a Sheikh whose servants would cut his throat on no provocation at all; and not an eighth of a mile away was a horde of Arabs--a circle of death through which it was impossible to break with the men in his command. They must all die here, if they were not relieved.

The nearest garrison was at Kerbat, sixty miles away, where five hundred men were stationed. Now that his cup of mistakes was full, Wyndham bimbashi would willingly have made the attempt to carry word to the garrison there. But he had no right to leave his post. He called for a volunteer. No man responded. Panic was upon the Gippies. Though Wyndham's heart sickened within him, his lips did not frame a word of reproach; but a blush of shame came into his face, and crept up to his eyes, dimming them. For there flashed through his mind what men at home would think of him when this thing, such an end to his whole career, was known. As he stood still, upright and confounded, some one touched his arm.

It was Hassan, his Soudanese servant. Hassan was the one person in Egypt who thoroughly believed in him. Wyndham was as a god to Hassan, though this same god had given him a taste of a belt more than once. Hassan had not resented the belt, though once, in a moment of affectionate confidence, he had said to Wyndham that when his master got old and died he would be the servant of an American or a missionary, "which no whack Mahommed."

It was Hassan who now volunteered to carry word to the garrison at Kerbat.

"If I no carry, you whack me with belt, Saadat," said Hassan, whose logic and reason were like his master's, neither better nor worse.

"If you do, you shall have fifty pounds--and the missionary," answered Wyndham, his eyes still cloudy and his voice thick; for it touched him in a tender nerve that this one Soudanese boy should believe in him and do for him what he would give much to do for the men under him. For his own life he did not care--his confusion and shame were so great.

He watched Hassan steal out into the white brilliance of the night.

"Mind you keep a whole skin, Hassan," he said, as the slim lad with the white teeth, oily hair, and legs like ivory, stole along the wall, to drop presently on his belly and make for some palm-trees a hundred yards away.

The minutes went by in silence; an hour went by; the whole night went by; Hassan had got beyond the circle of trenchant steel.

They must now abide Hassan's fate; but another peril was upon them. There was not a goolah of water within the walls!

It was the time of low Nile when all the land is baked like a crust of bread, when the creaking of the shadoofs and the singing croak of the sakkia are heard the night long like untiring crickets with throats of frogs. It was the time succeeding the khamsin, when the skin dries like slaked lime and the face is for ever powdered with dust; and the fellaheen, in the slavery of superstition, strain their eyes day and night for the Sacred Drop, which tells that the flood is flowing fast from the hills of Abyssinia.

It was like the Egyptian that nothing should be said to Wyndham about the dearth of water until it was all gone. The house of the Sheikh, and its garden, where were a pool and a fountain, were supplied from the great Persian wheel at the waterside. On this particular sakkia had been wont to sit all day a patient fellah, driving the blindfolded buffaloes in their turn. It was like the patient fellah, when the Arabs, in pursuit of Wyndham and his Gippies, suddenly cut in between him and the house, to deliver himself over to the conqueror, with his hand upon his head in sign of obedience.

It was also like the gentle Egyptian that he eagerly showed the besiegers how the water could be cut off from the house by dropping one of the sluice-gates; while, opening another, all the land around the Arab encampments might be well watered, the pools well filled, and the grass kept green for horses and camels. This was the reason that Wyndham bimbashi and his Gippies, and the Sheikh and his household, faced the fact, the morning after Hassan left, that there was scarce a goolah of water for a hundred burning throats. Wyndham understood now why the Arabs sat down and waited, that torture might be added to the oncoming death of the Englishman, his natives, and the "friendlies."

All that day terror and ghastly hate hung like a miasma over the besieged house and garden. Fifty eyes hungered for the blood of Wyndham bimbashi; not because he was Wyndham bimbashi, but because the heathen in these men cried out for sacrifice; and what so agreeable a sacrifice as the Englishman who had led them into this disaster and would die so well --had they ever seen an Englishman who did not die well?

Wyndham was quiet and watchful, and he cudgelled his bullet-head, and looked down his long nose in meditation all the day, while his tongue became dry and thick, and his throat seemed to crack like roasting leather. At length he worked the problem out. Then he took action.

He summoned his troop before him, and said briefly: "Men, we must have water. The question is, who is going to steal out to the sakkia to- night, to shut the one sluice and open the other?"

No one replied. No one understood quite what Wyndham meant. Shutting one sluice and opening the other did not seem to meet the situation. There was the danger of getting to the sakkia, but there was also an after. Would it be possible to shut one sluice and open the other without the man at the wheel knowing? Suppose you killed the man at the wheel--what then?

The Gippies and the friendlies scowled, but did not speak. The bimbashi was responsible for all; he was an Englishman, let him get water for them, or die like the rest of them--perhaps before them!

Wyndham could not travel the sinuosities of their minds, and it would not have affected his purpose if he could have done so. When no man replied, he simply said:

"All right, men. You shall have water before morning. Try and hold out till then." He dismissed them. For a long time he walked up and down the garden of straggling limes, apparently listless, and smoking hard. He reckoned carefully how long it would take Hassan to get to Kerbat, and for relief to come. He was fond of his pipe, and he smoked now as if it were the thing he most enjoyed in the world. He held the bowl in the hollow of his hand almost tenderly. He seemed unconscious of the scowling looks around him. At last he sat down on the ledge of the rude fountain, with his face towards the Gippies and the Arabs squatted on the ground, some playing mankalah, others sucking dry lime leaves, many smoking apathetically.

One man with the flicker of insanity in his eyes suddenly ran forward and threw himself on the ground before Wyndham.

"In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful--water!" he cried. "Water--I am dying, effendi whom God preserve!"

"Nile water is sweet; you shall drink it before morning, Mahommed," answered Wyndham quietly. "God will preserve your life till the Nile water cools your throat."

"Before dawn, O effendi?" gasped the Arab. "Before dawn, by the mercy of God," answered Wyndham; and for the first time in his life he had a burst of imagination. The Orient had touched him at last.

"Is not the song of the sakkia in thine ear, Mahommed?" he said

"Turn, O Sakkia, turn to the right, and turn to the left.


Donovan Pasha And Some People Of Egypt, Volume 3. - 1/13

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