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- The Weavers, Volume 6. - 4/11 -
He got to his feet slowly and walked up and down the room for a moment, glancing out occasionally towards the clump of palms which marked the disappearance of the Nile into the desert beyond his vision. At intervals a cannon-shot crashed upon the rarefied air, as scores of thousands had done for months past, torturing to ear and sense and nerve. The confused and dulled roar of voices came from the distance also; and, looking out to the landward side, David saw a series of movements of the besieging forces, under the Arab leader, Ali Wad Hei. Here a loosely formed body of lancers and light cavalry cantered away towards the south, converging upon the Nile; there a troop of heavy cavalry in glistening mail moved nearer to the northern defences; and between, battalions of infantry took up new positions, while batteries of guns moved nearer to the river, curving upon the palace north and south. Suddenly David's eyes flashed fire. He turned to Lacey eagerly. Lacey was watching with eyes screwed up shrewdly, his forehead shining with sweat.
"Saadat," he said suddenly, "this isn't the usual set of quadrilles. It's the real thing. They're watching the river--waiting."
"But south!" was David's laconic response. At the same moment he struck a gong. An orderly entered. Giving swift instructions, he turned to Lacey again. "Not Cairo--Darfur," he added.
"Ebn Ezra Bey coming! Ali Wad Hei's got word from up the Nile, I guess."
David nodded, and his face clouded. "We should have had word also," he said sharply.
There was a knock at the door, and Mahommed Hassan entered, supporting an Arab, down whose haggard face blood trickled from a wound in the head, while an arm hung limp at his side.
"Behold, Saadat--from Ebn Ezra Bey," Mahommed said. The man drooped beside him.
David caught a tin cup from a shelf, poured some liquor into it, and held it to the lips of the fainting man. "Drink," he said. The Arab drank greedily, and, when he had finished, gave a long sigh of satisfaction. "Let him sit," David added.
When the man was seated on a sheepskin, the huge Mahommed squatting behind like a sentinel, David questioned him. "What is thy name--thy news?" he asked in Arabic.
"I am called Feroog. I come from Ebn Ezra Bey, to whom be peace!" he answered. "Thy messenger, Saadat, behold he died of hunger and thirst, and his work became mine. Ebn Ezra Bey came by the river. . . ." "He is near?" asked David impatiently.
"He is twenty miles away."
"Thou camest by the desert?"
"By the desert, Saadat, as Ebn Ezra effendi comes."
"By the desert! But thou saidst he came by the river."
"Saadat, yonder, forty miles from where we are, the river makes a great curve. There the effendi landed in the night with four hundred men to march hither. But he commanded that the boats should come on slowly and receive the attack in the river, while he came in from the desert."
David's eye flashed. "A great device. They will be here by midnight, then, perhaps?"
"At midnight, Saadat, by the blessing of God."
"How wert thou wounded?"
"I came upon two of the enemy. They were mounted. I fought them. Upon the horse of one I came here."
"God is merciful, Saadat. He is in the bosom of God."
"How many men come by the river?"
"But fifty, Saadat," was the answer, "but they have sworn by the stone in the Kaabah not to surrender."
"And those who come with the effendi, with Ebn Ezra Bey, are they as those who will not surrender?"
"Half of them are so. They were with thee, as was I, Saadat, when the great sickness fell upon us, and were healed by thee, and afterwards fought with thee." David nodded abstractedly, and motioned to Mahommed to take the man away; then he said to Lacey: "How long do you think we can hold out?"
"We shall have more men, but also more rifles to fire, and more mouths to fill, if Ebn Ezra gets in, Saadat."
David raised his head. "But with more rifles to fire away your ten thousand rounds"--he tapped the paper on the table--"and eat the eighty hundredweight of dourha, how long can we last?"
"If they are to fight, and with full stomachs, and to stake everything on that one fight, then we can last two days. No more, I reckon."
"I make it one day," answered David. "In three days we shall have no food, and unless help comes from Cairo, we must die or surrender. It is not well to starve on the chance of help coming, and then die fighting with weak arms and broken spirit. Therefore, we must fight to morrow, if Ebn Ezra gets in to-night. I think we shall fight well," he added. "You think so?"
"You are a born fighter, Saadat."
A shadow fell on David's face, and his lips tightened. "I was not born a fighter, Lacey. The day we met first no man had ever died by my hand or by my will."
"There are three who must die at sunset--an hour from now-by thy will, Saadat."
A startled look came into David's face. "Who?" he asked.
"The Three Pashas, Saadat. They have been recaptured."
"Recaptured!" rejoined David mechanically.
"Achmet Pasha got them from under the very noses of the sheikhs before sunrise this morning."
"Achmet--Achmet Pasha!" A light came into David's face again.
"You will keep faith with Achmet, Saadat. He risked his life to get them. They betrayed you, and betrayed three hundred good men to death. If they do not die, those who fight for you will say that it doesn't matter whether men fight for you or betray you, they get the same stuff off the same plate. If we are going to fight to-morrow, it ought to be with a clean bill of health."
"They served me well so long--ate at my table, fought with me. But--but traitors must die, even as Harrik died." A stern look came into his face. He looked round the great room slowly. "We have done our best," he said. "I need not have failed, if there had been no treachery. . . ."
"If it hadn't been for Nahoum!"
David raised his head. Supreme purpose came into his bearing. A grave smile played at his lips, as he gave that quick toss of the head which had been a characteristic of both Eglington and himself. His eyes shone- a steady, indomitable light. "I will not give in. I still have hope. We are few and they are many, but the end of a battle has never been sure. We may not fail even now. Help may come from Cairo even to- morrow."
"Say, somehow you've always pulled through before, Saadat. When I've been most frightened I've perked up and stiffened my backbone, remembering your luck. I've seen a blue funk evaporate by thinking of how things always come your way just when the worst seems at the worst."
David smiled as he caught up a small cane and prepared to go. Looking out of a window, he stroked his thin, clean-shaven face with a lean finger. Presently a movement in the desert arrested his attention. He put a field-glass to his eyes, and scanned the field of operations closely once more.
"Good-good!" he burst out cheerfully. "Achmet has done the one thing possible. The way to the north will be still open. He has flung his men between the Nile and the enemy, and now the batteries are at work." Opening the door, they passed out. "He has anticipated my orders," he added. "Come, Lacey, it will be an anxious night. The moon is full, and Ebn Ezra Bey has his work cut out--sharp work for all of us, and . . ."
Lacey could not hear the rest of his words in the roar of the artillery. David's steamers in the river were pouring shot into the desert where the enemy lay, and Achmet's "friendlies" and the Egyptians were making good their new position. As David and Lacey, fearlessly exposing themselves to rifle fire, and taking the shortest and most dangerous route to where Achmet fought, rode swiftly from the palace, Ebn Ezra's three steamers appeared up the river, and came slowly down to where David's gunboats lay. Their appearance was greeted by desperate discharges of artillery from the forces under Ali Wad Hei, who had received word of their coming two hours before, and had accordingly redisposed his attacking forces. But for Achmet's sharp initiative, the boldness of the attempt to cut off the way north and south would have succeeded, and the circle of fire and sword would have been complete. Achmet's new position had not been occupied before, for men were too few, and the position he had just left was now exposed to attack.
Never since the siege began had the foe shown such initiative and audacity. They had relied on the pressure of famine and decimation by sickness, the steady effects of sorties, with consequent fatalities and desertions, to bring the Liberator of the Slaves to his knees. Ebn Ezra Bey had sought to keep quiet the sheikhs far south, but he had been shut up in Darffur for months, and had been in as bad a plight as David. He had, however, broken through at last. His ruse in leaving the steamers in the night and marching across the desert was as courageous as it was perilous, for, if discovered before he reached the beleaguered place, nothing could save his little force from destruction. There was one way in from the desert to the walled town, and it was through that space which Achmet and his men had occupied, and on which Ali Wad Hei might now, at any moment, throw his troops.
David's heart sank as he saw the danger. From the palace he had sent an
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