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- The Weavers, Volume 6. - 5/11 -


orderly with a command to an officer to move forward and secure the position, but still the gap was open, and the men he had ordered to advance remained where they were. Every minute had its crisis.

As Lacey and himself left the town the misery of the place smote him in the eyes. Filth, refuse, debris filled the streets. Sick and dying men called to him from dark doorways, children and women begged for bread, carcasses lay unburied, vultures hovering above them--his tireless efforts had not been sufficient to cope with the daily horrors of the siege. But there was no sign of hostility to him. Voices called blessings on him from dark doorways, lips blanching in death commended him to Allah, and now and then a shrill call told of a fighter who had been laid low, but who had a spirit still unbeaten. Old men and women stood over their cooking-pots waiting for the moment of sunset; for it was Ramadan, and the faithful fasted during the day--as though every day was not a fast.

Sunset was almost come, as David left the city and galloped away to send forces to stop the gap of danger before it was filled by the foe. Sunset--the Three Pashas were to die at sunset! They were with Achmet, and in a few moments they would be dead. As David and Lacey rode hard, they suddenly saw a movement of men on foot at a distant point of the field, and then a small mounted troop, fifty at most, detach themselves from the larger force and, in close formation, gallop fiercely down on the position which Achmet had left. David felt a shiver of anxiety and apprehension as he saw this sharp, sweeping advance. Even fifty men, well intrenched, could hold the position until the main body of Ali Wad Hei's infantry came on.

They rode hard, but harder still rode Ali Wad Hei's troop of daring Arabs. Nearer and nearer they came. Suddenly from the trenches, which they had thought deserted, David saw jets of smoke rise, and a half-dozen of the advancing troop fell from their saddles, their riderless horses galloping on.

David's heart leaped: Achmet had, then, left men behind, hidden from view; and these were now defending the position. Again came the jets of smoke, and again more Arabs dropped from their saddles. But the others still came on. A thousand feet away others fell. Twenty-two of the fifty had already gone. The rest fired their rifles as they galloped. But now, to David's relief, his own forces, which should have moved half an hour before, were coming swiftly down to cut off the approach of Ali Wad Hei's infantry, and he turned his horse upon the position where a handful of men were still emptying the saddles of the impetuous enemy. But now all that were left of the fifty were upon the trenches. Then came the flash of swords, puffs of smoke, the thrust of lances, and figures falling from the screaming, rearing horses.

Lacey's pistol was in his hand, David's sword was gripped tight, as they rushed upon the melee. Lacey's pistol snapped, and an Arab fell; again, and another swayed in his saddle. David's sword swept down, and a turbaned head was gashed by a mortal stroke. As he swung towards another horseman, who had struck down a defender of the trenches, an Arab raised himself in his saddle and flung a lance with a cry of terrible malice; but, even as he did so, a bullet from Lacey's pistol pierced his shoulder. The shot had been too late to stop the lance, but sufficient to divert its course. It caught David in the flesh of the body under the arm--a slight wound only. A few inches to the right, however, and his day would have been done.

The remaining Arabs turned and fled. The fight was over. As David, dismounting, stood with dripping sword in his hand, in imagination, he heard the voice of Kaid say to him, as it said that night when he killed Foorgat Bey: "Hast thou never killed a man?"

For an instant it blinded him, then he was conscious that, on the ground at his feet, lay one of the Three Pashas who were to die at sunset. It was sunset now, and the man was dead. Another of the Three sat upon the ground winding his thigh with the folds of a dead Arab's turban, blood streaming from his gashed face. The last of the trio stood before David, stoical and attentive. For a moment David looked at the Three, the dead man and the two living men, and then suddenly turned to where the opposing forces were advancing. His own men were now between the position and Ali Wad Hei's shouting fanatics. They would be able to reach and defend the post in time. He turned and gave orders. There were only twenty men besides the two pashas, whom his commands also comprised. Two small guns were in place. He had them trained on that portion of the advancing infantry of Ali Wad Hei not yet covered by his own forces. Years of work and responsibility had made him master of many things, and long ago he had learned the work of an artilleryman. In a moment a shot, well directed, made a gap in the ranks of the advancing foe. An instant afterwards a shot from the other gun fired by the unwounded pasha, who, in his youth, had been an officer of artillery, added to the confusion in the swerving ranks, and the force hesitated; and now from Ebn Ezra Bey's river steamers, which had just arrived, there came a flank fire. The force wavered. From David's gun another shot made havoc. They turned and fell back quickly. The situation was saved.

As if by magic the attack of the enemy all over the field ceased. By sunset they had meant to finish this enterprise, which was to put the besieged wholly in their hands, and then to feast after the day's fasting. Sunset had come, and they had been foiled; but hunger demanded the feast. The order to cease firing and retreat sounded, and three thousand men hurried back to the cooking-pot, the sack of dourha, and the prayer mat. Malaish, if the infidel Inglesi was not conquered to-day, he should be beaten and captured and should die to-morrow! And yet there were those among them who had a well-grounded apprehension that the "Inglesi" would win in the end.

By the trenches, where five men had died so bravely, and a traitorous pasha had paid the full penalty of a crime and won a soldier's death, David spoke to his living comrades. As he prepared to return to the city, he said to the unwounded pasha: "Thou wert to die at sunset; it was thy sentence."

And the pasha answered: "Saadat, as for death--I am ready to die, but have I not fought for thee?" David turned to the wounded pasha.

"Why did Achmet Pasha spare thee?"

"He did not spare us, Saadat. Those who fought with us but now were to shoot us at sunset, and remain here till other troops came. Before sunset we saw the danger, since no help came. Therefore we fought to save this place for thee."

David looked them in the eyes. "Ye were traitors," he said, "and for an example it was meet that ye should die. But this that ye have done shall be told to all who fight to-morrow, and men will know why it is I pardon treachery. Ye shall fight again, if need be, betwixt this hour and morning, and ye shall die, if need be. Ye are willing?"

Both men touched their foreheads, their lips, and their breasts. "Whether it be death or it be life, Inshallah, we are true to thee, Saadat!" one said, and the other repeated the words after him. As they salaamed David left them, and rode forward to the advancing forces.

Upon the roof of the palace Mahommed Hassan watched and waited, his eyes scanning sharply the desert to the south, his ears strained to catch that stir of life which his accustomed ears had so often detected in the desert, when no footsteps, marching, or noises could be heard. Below, now in the palace, now in the defences, his master, the Saadat, planned for the last day's effort on the morrow, gave directions to the officers, sent commands to Achmet Pasha, arranged for the disposition of his forces, with as strange a band of adherents and subordinates as ever men had--adventurers, to whom adventure in their own land had brought no profit; members of that legion of the non-reputable, to whom Cairo offered no home; Levantines, who had fled from that underground world where every coin of reputation is falsely minted, refugees from the storm of the world's disapproval. There were Greeks with Austrian names; Armenians, speaking Italian as their native tongue; Italians of astonishing military skill, whose services were no longer required by their offended country; French Pizarros with a romantic outlook, even in misery, intent to find new El Dorados; Englishmen, who had cheated at cards and had left the Horse Guards for ever behind; Egyptian intriguers, who had been banished for being less successful than greater intriguers; but also a band of good gallant men of every nation.

Upon all these, during the siege, Mahommed Hassan had been a self- appointed spy, and had indirectly added to that knowledge which made David's decisive actions to circumvent intrigue and its consequences seem almost supernatural. In his way Mahommed was a great man. He knew that David would endure no spying, and it was creditable to his subtlety and skill that he was able to warn his master, without being himself suspected of getting information by dark means. On the palace roof Mahommed was happy to-night. Tomorrow would be a great day, and, since the Saadat was to control its destiny, what other end could there be but happiness? Had not the Saadat always ridden over all that had been in his way? Had not he, Mahommed, ever had plenty to eat and drink, and money to send to Manfaloot to his father there, and to bribe when bribing was needed? Truly, life was a boon! With a neboot of dom-wood across his knees he sat in the still, moonlit night, peering into that distance whence Ebn Ezra Bey and his men must come, the moon above tranquil and pleasant and alluring, and the desert beneath, covered as it was with the outrages and terrors of war, breathing softly its ancient music, that delicate vibrant humming of the latent activities. In his uncivilised soul Mahommed Hassan felt this murmur, and even as he sat waiting to know whether a little army would steal out of the south like phantoms into this circle the Saadat had drawn round him, he kept humming to himself-- had he not been, was he not now, an Apollo to numberless houris who had looked down at him from behind mooshrabieh screens, or waited for him in the palm-grove or the cane-field? The words of his song were not uttered aloud, but yet he sang them silently--

"Every night long and all night my spirit is moaning and crying O dear gazelle, that has taken away my peace! Ah! if my beloved come not, my eyes will be blinded with weeping Moon of my joy, come to me, hark to the call of my soul!"

Over and over he kept chanting the song. Suddenly, however, he leaned farther forward and strained his ears. Yes, at last, away to the south- east, there was life stirring, men moving--moving quickly. He got to his feet slowly, still listening, stood for a moment motionless, then, with a cry of satisfaction, dimly saw a moving mass in the white moonlight far over by the river. Ebn Ezra Bey and his men were coming. He started below, and met David on the way up. He waited till David had mounted the roof, then he pointed. "Now, Saadat!" he said.

"They have stolen in?" David peered into the misty whiteness.

They are almost in, Saadat. Nothing can stop them now."

"It is well done. Go and ask Ebn Ezra effendi to come hither," he said.

Suddenly a shot was fired, then a hoarse shout came over the desert, then there was silence again.

"They are in, Saadat," said Mahommed Hassan.

.......................


The Weavers, Volume 6. - 5/11

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