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- The Weavers, Volume 6. - 6/11 -
Day broke over a hazy plain. On both sides of the Nile the river mist spread wide, and the army of Ali Wad Hei and the defending forces were alike veiled from each other and from the desert world beyond. Down the river for scores of miles the mist was heavy, and those who moved within it and on the waters of the Nile could not see fifty feet ahead. Yet through this heavy veil there broke gently a little fleet of phantom vessels, the noise of the paddle-wheels and their propellers muffled as they moved slowly on. Never had vessels taken such risks on the Nile before, never had pilots trusted so to instinct, for there were sand- banks and ugly drifts of rock here and there. A safe journey for phantom ships; but these armed vessels, filled by men with white, eager faces and others with dark Egyptian features, were no phantoms. They bristled with weapons, and armed men crowded every corner of space. For full two hours from the first streak of light they had travelled swiftly, taking chances not to be taken save in some desperate moment. The moment was desperate enough, if not for them. They were going to the relief of besieged men, with a message from Nahoum Pasha to Claridge Pasha, and with succour. They had looked for a struggle up this river as they neared the beleaguered city; but, as they came nearer and nearer, not a gun fired at them from the forts on the banks out of the mists. If they were heard they still were safe from the guns, for they could not be seen, and those on shore could not know whether they were friend or foe. Like ghostly vessels they passed on, until at last they could hear the stir and murmur of life along the banks of the stream.
Boom! boom! boom! Through the mist the guns of the city were pouring shot and shell out into Ali Wad Hei's camp, and Ali Wad Hei laughed contemptuously. Surely now the Inglesi was altogether mad, and to-day, this day after prayers at noon, he should be shot like a mad dog, for yesterday's defeat had turned some of his own adherent sheikhs into angry critics. He would not wait for starvation to compel the infidel to surrender. He would win freedom to deal in human flesh and blood, and make slave-markets where he willed, and win glory for the Lord Mahomet, by putting this place to the sword; and, when it was over, he would have the Inglesi's head carried on a pole through the city for the faithful to mock at, a target for the filth of the streets. So, by the will of Allah, it should be done!
Boom! boom! boom! The Inglesi was certainly mad, for never had there been so much firing in any long day in all the siege as in this brief hour this morning. It was the act of a fool, to fire his shot and shell into the mist without aim, without a clear target. Ali Wad Hei scorned to make any reply with his guns, but sat in desultory counsel with his sheikhs, planning what should be done when the mists had cleared away. But yesterday evening the Arab chief had offered to give the Inglesi life if he would surrender and become a Muslim, and swear by the Lord Mahomet; but late in the night he had received a reply which left only one choice, and that was to disembowel the infidel, and carry his head aloft on a spear. The letter he had received ran thus in Arabic:
"To Ali Wad Hei and All with Him:
"We are here to live or to die as God wills, and not as ye will. I have set my feet on the rock, and not by threats of any man shall I be moved. But I say that for all the blood that ye have shed here there will be punishment, and for the slaves which ye have slain or sold there will be high price paid. Ye have threatened the city and me--take us if ye can. Ye are seven to one. Why falter all these months? If ye will not come to us, we shall come to you, rebellious ones, who have drawn the sword against your lawful ruler, the Effendina. "CLARIDGE PASHA"
It was a rhetorical document couched in the phraseology they best understood; and if it begat derision, it also begat anger; and the challenge David had delivered would be met when the mists had lifted from the river and the plain. But when the first thinning of the mists began, when the sun began to dissipate the rolling haze, Ali Wad Hei and his rebel sheikhs were suddenly startled by rifle-fire at close quarters, by confused noises, and the jar and roar of battle. Now the reason for the firing of the great guns was plain. The noise was meant to cover the advance of David's men. The little garrison, which had done no more than issue in sorties, was now throwing its full force on the enemy in a last desperate endeavour. It was either success or absolute destruction. David was staking all, with the last of his food, the last of his ammunition, the last of his hopes. All round the field the movement was forward, till the circle had widened to the enemy's lines; while at the old defences were only handfuls of men. With scarce a cry David's men fell on the unprepared foe; and he himself, on a grey Arab, a mark for any lance or spear and rifle, rode upon that point where Ali Wad Hei's tent was set.
But after the first onset, in which hundreds were killed, there began the real noise of battle--fierce shouting, the shrill cries of wounded and maddened horses as they struck with their feet, and bit as fiercely at the fighting foe as did their masters. The mist cleared slowly, and, when it had wholly lifted, the fight was spread over every part of the field of siege. Ali Wad Hei's men had gathered themselves together after the first deadly onslaught, and were fighting fiercely, shouting the Muslim battle-cry, "Allah hu achbar!" Able to bring up reinforcements, the great losses at first sustained were soon made up, and the sheer weight of numbers gave them courage and advantage. By rushes with lance and sword and rifle they were able, at last, to drive David's men back upon their old defences with loss. Then charge upon charge ensued, and each charge, if it cost them much, cost the besieged more, by reason of their fewer numbers. At one point, however, the besieged became again the attacking party. This was where Achmet Pasha had command. His men on one side of the circle, as Ebn Ezra Bey's men on the other, fought with a valour as desperate as the desert ever saw. But David, galloping here and there to order, to encourage, to prevent retreat at one point, or to urge attack at another, saw that the doom of his gallant force was certain; for the enemy were still four to one, in spite of the carnage of the first attack. Bullets hissed past him. One carried away a button, one caught the tip of his ear, one pierced the fez he wore; but he felt nothing of this, saw nothing. He was buried in the storm of battle preparing for the end, for the final grim defence, when his men would retreat upon the one last strong fort, and there await their fate. From this absorption he was roused by Lacey, who came galloping towards him.
"They've come, Saadat, they've come at last! We're saved--oh, my God, you bet we're all right now! See! See, Saadat!"
David saw. Five steamers carrying the Egyptian flag were bearing around the point where the river curved below the town, and converging upon David's small fleet. Presently the steamers opened fire, to encourage the besieged, who replied with frenzied shouts of joy, and soon there poured upon the sands hundreds of men in the uniform of the Effendina. These came forward at the double, and, with a courage which nothing could withstand, the whole circle spread out again upon the discomfited tribes of Ali Wad Hei. Dismay, confusion, possessed the Arabs. Their river- watchers had failed them, God had hidden His face from them; and when Ali Wad Hei and three of his emirs turned and rode into the desert, their forces broke and ran also, pursued by the relentless men who had suffered the tortures of siege so long. The chase was short, however, for they were desert folk, and they returned to loot the camp which had menaced them so long.
Only the new-comers, Nahoum's men, carried the hunt far; and they brought back with them a body which their leader commanded to be brought to a great room of the palace. Towards sunset David and Ebn Ezra Bey and Lacey came together to this room. The folds of loose linen were lifted from the face, and all three looked at it long in silence. At last Lacey spoke:
"He got what he wanted; the luck was with him. It's better than Leperland."
"In the bosom of Allah there is peace," said Ebn Ezra. "It is well with Achmet."
With misty eyes David stooped and took the dead man's hand in his for a moment. Then he rose to his feet and turned away.
"And Nahoum also--and Nahoum," he said presently. "Read this," he added, and put a letter from Nahoum into Ebn Ezra's hand.
Lacey reverently covered Achmet's face. "Say, he got what he wanted," he said again.
THE LOOM OF DESTINY
It was many a day since the Duchess of Snowdon had seen a sunrise, and the one on which she now gazed from the deck of the dahabieh Nefert, filled her with a strange new sense of discovery and revelation. Her perceptions were arrested and a little confused, and yet the undercurrent of feeling was one of delight and rejuvenation. Why did this sunrise bring back, all at once, the day when her one lost child was born, and she looked out of the windows of Snowdon Hall, as she lay still and nerveless, and thought how wonderful and sweet and green was the world she saw and the sky that walled it round? Sunrise over the Greek Temple of Philae and the splendid ruins of a farther time towering beside it! In her sight were the wide, islanded Nile, where Cleopatra loitered with Antony, the foaming, crashing cataracts above, the great quarries from which ancient temples had been hewed, unfinished obelisks and vast blocks of stone left where bygone workmen had forsaken them, when the invader came and another dynasty disappeared into that partial oblivion from which the Egyptian still emerges triumphant over all his conquerors, unchanged in form and feature. Something of its meaning got into her mind.
"I wonder what Windlehurst would think of it. He always had an eye for things like that," she murmured; and then caught her breath, as she added: "He always liked beauty." She looked at her wrinkled, childish hands. "But sunsets never grow old," she continued, with no apparent relevance. "La, la, we were young once!"
Her eyes were lost again in the pinkish glow spreading over the grey- brown sand of the desert, over the palm-covered island near. "And now it's others' turn, or ought to be," she murmured.
She looked to where, not far away, Hylda stood leaning over the railing of the dahabieh, her eyes fixed in reverie on the farthest horizon line of the unpeopled, untravelled plain of sand.
"No, poor thing, it's not her turn," she added, as Hylda, with a long sigh, turned and went below. Tears gathered in her pale blue eyes. "Not yet--with Eglington alive. And perhaps it would be best if the other never came back. I could have made the world better worth living in if I had had the chance--and I wouldn't have been a duchess! La! La!"
She relapsed into reverie, an uncommon experience for her; and her mind floated indefinitely from one thing to another, while she was half conscious of the smell of coffee permeating the air, and of the low resonant notes of the Nubian boys, as, with locked shoulders, they scrubbed the decks of a dahabieh near by with hempshod feet.
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