The Four Feathers/XXIV

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The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
XXIV: On the Nile

It was a callous country inhabited by a callous race, thought Calder, as he travelled down the Nile from Wadi Halfa to Assouan on his three months' furlough. He leaned over the rail of the upper deck of the steamer and looked down upon the barge lashed alongside. On the lower deck of the barge among the native passengers stood an angareb,[1] whereon was stretched the motionless figure of a human being shrouded in a black veil. The angareb and its burden had been carried on board early that morning at Korosko by two Arabs, who now sat laughing and chattering in the stern of the barge. It might have been a dead man or a dead woman who lay still and stretched out upon the bedstead, so little heed did they give to it. Calder lifted his eyes and looked to his right and his left across glaring sand and barren rocks shaped roughly into the hard forms of pyramids. The narrow meagre strip of green close by the water's edge upon each bank was the only response which the Soudan made to Spring and Summer and the beneficent rain. A callous country inhabited by a callous people.

Calder looked downwards again to the angareb upon the barge's deck and the figure lying upon it. Whether it was man or woman he could not tell. The black veil lay close about the face, outlining the nose, the hollows of the eyes and the mouth; but whether the lips wore a moustache and the chin a beard, it did not reveal.

The slanting sunlight crept nearer and nearer to the angareb. The natives seated close to it moved into the shadow of the upper deck, but no one moved the angareb, and the two men laughing in the stern gave no thought to their charge. Calder watched the blaze of yellow light creep over the black recumbent figure from the feet upwards. It burnt at last bright and pitiless upon the face. Yet the living creature beneath the veil never stirred. The veil never fluttered above the lips, the legs remained stretched out straight, the arms lay close against the side.

Calder shouted to the two men in the stern.

"Move the angareb into the shadow," he cried, "and be quick!"

The Arabs rose reluctantly and obeyed him.

"Is it a man or woman?" asked Calder.

"A man. We are taking him to the hospital at Assouan, but we do not think that he will live. He fell from a palm tree three weeks ago."

"You give him nothing to eat or drink?"

"He is too ill."

It was a common story and the logical outcome of the belief that life and death are written and will inevitably befall after the manner of the writing. That man lying so quiet beneath the black covering had probably at the beginning suffered nothing more serious than a bruise, which a few simple remedies would have cured within a week. But he had been allowed to lie, even as he lay upon the angareb, at the mercy of the sun and the flies, unwashed, unfed, and with his thirst unslaked. The bruise had become a sore, the sore had gangrened, and when all remedies were too late, the Egyptian Mudir of Korosko had discovered the accident and sent the man on the steamer down to Assouan. But, familiar though the story was, Calder could not dismiss it from his thoughts. The immobility of the sick man upon the native bedstead in a way fascinated him, and when towards sunset a strong wind sprang up and blew against the stream, he felt an actual comfort in the knowledge that the sick man would gain some relief from it. And when his neighbour that evening at the dinner table spoke to him with a German accent, he suddenly asked upon an impulse:—

"You are not a doctor by any chance?"

"Not a doctor," said the German, "but a student of medicine at Bonn. I came from Cairo to see the Second Cataract, but was not allowed to go farther than Wadi Halfa."

Calder interrupted him at once. "Then I will trespass upon your holiday and claim your professional assistance."

"For yourself? With pleasure, though I should never have guessed you were ill," said the student, smiling good-naturedly behind his eyeglasses.

"Nor am I. It is an Arab for whom I ask your help."

"The man on the bedstead?"

"Yes, if you will be so good. I will warn you—he was hurt three weeks ago, and I know these people. No one will have touched him since he was hurt. The sight will not be pretty. This is not a nice country for untended wounds."

The German student shrugged his shoulders. "All experience is good," said he, and the two men rose from the table and went out on to the upper deck.

The wind had freshened during the dinner, and, blowing up stream, had raised waves so that the steamer and its barge tossed and the water broke on board.

"He was below there," said the student, as he leaned over the rail and peered downwards to the lower deck of the barge alongside. It was night, and the night was dark. Above that lower deck only one lamp, swung from the centre of the upper deck, glimmered and threw uncertain lights and uncertain shadows over a small circle. Beyond the circle all was black darkness, except at the bows, where the water breaking on board flung a white sheet of spray. It could be seen like a sprinkle of snow driven by the wind, it could be heard striking the deck like the lash of a whip.

"He has been moved," said the German. "No doubt he has been moved. There is no one in the bows."

Calder bent his head downwards and stared into the darkness for a little while without speaking.

"I believe the angareb is there," he said at length. "I believe it is."

Followed by the German, he hurried down the stairway to the lower deck of the steamer and went to the side. He could make certain now. The angareb stood in a wash of water on the very spot to which at Calder's order it had been moved that morning. And on the angareb the figure beneath the black covering lay as motionless as ever, as inexpressive of life and feeling, though the cold spray broke continually upon its face.

"I thought it would be so," said Calder. He got a lantern and with the German student climbed across the bulwarks on to the barge. He summoned the two Arabs.

"Move the angareb from the bows," he said; and when they had obeyed, "Now take that covering off. I wish my friend who is a doctor to see the wound."

The two men hesitated, and then one of them with an air of insolence objected. "There are doctors in Assouan, whither we are taking him."

Calder raised the lantern and himself drew the veil away from off the wounded man. "Now if you please," he said to his companion. The German student made his examination of the wounded thigh, while Calder held the lantern above his head. As Calder had predicted, it was not a pleasant business; for the wound crawled. The German student was glad to cover it up again.

"I can do nothing," he said. "Perhaps, in a hospital, with baths and dressings—! Relief will be given at all events; but more? I do not know. Here I could not even begin to do anything at all. Do these two men understand English?"

"No," answered Calder.

"Then I can tell you something. He did not get the hurt by falling out of any palm tree. That is a lie. The injury was done by the blade of a spear or some weapon of the kind."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

Calder bent down suddenly towards the Arab on the angareb. Although he never moved, the man was conscious. Calder had been looking steadily at him, and he saw that his eyes followed the spoken words.

"You understand English?" said Calder.

The Arab could not answer with his lips, but a look of comprehension came into his face.

"Where do you come from?" asked Calder.

The lips tried to move, but not so much as a whisper escaped from them. Yet his eyes spoke, but spoke vainly. For the most which they could tell was a great eagerness to answer. Calder dropped upon his knee close by the man's head and, holding the lantern close, enunciated the towns.

"From Dongola?"

No gleam in the Arab's eyes responded to that name.

"From Metemneh? From Berber? From Omdurman? Ah!"

The Arab answered to that word. He closed his eyelids. Calder went on still more eagerly.

"You were wounded there? No. Where then? At Berber? Yes. You were in prison at Omdurman and escaped? No. Yet you were wounded."

Calder sank back upon his knee and reflected. His reflections roused in him some excitement. He bent down to the Arab's ear and spoke in a lower key.

"You were helping some one to escape? Yes. Who? El Kaimakam Trench? No." He mentioned the names of other white captives in Omdurman, and to each name the Arab's eyes answered "No." "It was Effendi Feversham, then?" he said, and the eyes assented as clearly as though the lips had spoken.

But this was all the information which Calder could secure. "I too am pledged to help Effendi Feversham," he said, but in vain. The Arab could not speak, he could not so much as tell his name, and his companions would not. Whatever those two men knew or suspected, they had no mind to meddle in the matter themselves, and they clung consistently to a story which absolved them from responsibility. Kinsmen of theirs in Korosko, hearing that they were travelling to Assouan, had asked them to take charge of the wounded man, who was a stranger to them, and they had consented. Calder could get nothing more explicit from them than this statement, however closely he questioned them. He had under his hand the information which he desired, the news of Harry Feversham for which Durrance asked by every mail, but it was hidden from him in a locked book. He stood beside the helpless man upon the angareb. There he was, eager enough to speak, but the extremity of weakness to which he had sunk laid a finger upon his lips. All that Calder could do was to see him safely bestowed within the hospital at Assouan. "Will he recover?" Calder asked, and the doctors shook their heads in doubt. There was a chance perhaps, a very slight chance; but at the best, recovery would be slow.

Calder continued upon his journey to Cairo and Europe. An opportunity of helping Harry Feversham had slipped away; for the Arab who could not even speak his name was Abou Fatma of the Kabbabish tribe, and his presence wounded and helpless upon the Nile steamer between Korosko and Assouan meant that Harry Feversham's carefully laid plan for the rescue of Colonel Trench had failed.

Note[edit]

  1. The native bedstead of matting woven across a four-legged frame.