The Four Feathers/XXIX

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The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
XXIX: Colonel Trench Assumes a Knowledge of Chemistry

"Three more days." Both men fell asleep with these words upon their lips. But the next morning Trench waked up and complained of a fever; and the fever rapidly gained upon him, so that before the afternoon had come he was light-headed, and those services which he had performed for Feversham, Feversham had now to perform for him. The thousand nights of the House of Stone had done their work. But it was no mere coincidence that Trench should suddenly be struck down by them at the very moment when the door of his prison was opening. The great revulsion of joy which had come to him so unexpectedly had been too much for his exhausted body. The actual prospect of escape had been the crowning trial which he could not endure.

"In a few days he will be well," said Feversham. "It is nothing."

"It is Umm Sabbah," answered Ibrahim, shaking his head, the terrible typhus fever which had struck down so many in that infected gaol and carried them off upon the seventh day.

Feversham refused to believe. "It is nothing," he repeated in a sort of passionate obstinacy; but in his mind there ran another question, "Will the men with the camels wait?" Each day as he went to the Nile he saw Abou Fatma in the blue robe at his post; each day the man made his sign, and each day Feversham gave no answer. Meanwhile with Ibrahim's help he nursed Trench. The boy came daily to the prison with food; he was sent out to buy tamarinds, dates, and roots, out of which Ibrahim brewed cooling draughts. Together they carried Trench from shade to shade as the sun moved across the zareeba. Some further assistance was provided for the starving family of Idris, and the forty-pound chains which Trench wore were consequently removed. He was given vegetable marrow soaked in salt water, his mouth was packed with butter, his body anointed and wrapped close in camel-cloths. The fever took its course, and on the seventh day Ibrahim said:—

"This is the last. To-night he will die."

"No," replied Feversham, "that is impossible. 'In his own parish,' he said, 'beneath the trees he knew.' Not here, no." And he spoke again with a passionate obstinacy. He was no longer thinking of the man in the blue robe outside the prison walls, or of the chances of escape. The fear that the third feather would never be brought back to Ethne, that she would never have the opportunity to take back the fourth of her own free will, no longer troubled him. Even that great hope of "the afterwards" was for the moment banished from his mind. He thought only of Trench and the few awkward words he had spoken in the corner of the zareeba on the first night when they lay side by side under the sky. "No," he repeated, "he must not die here." And through all that day and night he watched by Trench's side the long hard battle between life and death. At one moment it seemed that the three years of the House of Stone must win the victory, at another that Trench's strong constitution and wiry frame would get the better of the three years.

For that night, at all events, they did, and the struggle was prolonged. The dangerous seventh day was passed. Even Ibrahim began to gain hope; and on the thirteenth day Trench slept and did not ramble during his sleep, and when he waked it was with a clear head. He found himself alone, and so swathed in camel-cloths that he could not stir; but the heat of the day was past, and the shadow of the House of Stone lay black upon the sand of the zareeba. He had not any wish to stir, and he lay wondering idly how long he had been ill. While he wondered he heard the shouts of the gaolers, the cries of the prisoners outside the zareeba and in the direction of the river. The gate was opened, and the prisoners flocked in. Feversham was among them, and he walked straight to Trench's corner.

"Thank God!" he cried. "I would not have left you, but I was compelled. We have been unloading boats all day." And he dropped in fatigue by Trench's side.

"How long have I lain ill?" asked Trench.

"Thirteen days."

"It will be a month before I can travel. You must go, Feversham. You must leave me here, and go while you still can. Perhaps when you come to Assouan you can do something for me. I could not move at present. You will go to-morrow?"

"No, I should not go without you in any case," answered Feversham. "As it is, it is too late."

"Too late?" Trench repeated. He took in the meaning of the words but slowly; he was almost reluctant to be disturbed by their mere sound; he wished just to lie idle for a long time in the cool of the sunset. But gradually the import of what Feversham had said forced itself into his mind.

"Too late? Then the man in the blue gown has gone?"

"Yes. He spoke to me yesterday by the river. The camel men would wait no longer. They were afraid of detection, and meant to return whether we went with them or not."

"You should have gone with them," said Trench. For himself he did not at that moment care whether he was to live in the prison all his life, so long as he was allowed quietly to lie where he was for a long time; and it was without any expression of despair that he added, "So our one chance is lost."

"No, deferred," replied Feversham. "The man who watched by the river in the blue gown brought me paper, a pen, and some wood-soot mixed with water. He was able to drop them by my side as I lay upon the ground. I hid them beneath my jibbeh, and last night—there was a moon last night—I wrote to a Greek merchant who keeps a café at Wadi Halfa. I gave him the letter this afternoon, and he has gone. He will deliver it and receive money. In six months, in a year at the latest, he will be back in Omdurman."

"Very likely," said Trench. "He will ask for another letter, so that he may receive more money, and again he will say that in six months or a year he will be back in Omdurman. I know these people."

"You do not know Abou Fatma. He was Gordon's servant over there before Khartum fell; he has been mine since. He came with me to Obak, and waited there while I went down to Berber. He risked his life in coming to Omdurman at all. Within six months he will be back, you may be very sure."

Trench did not continue the argument. He let his eyes wander about the enclosure, and they settled at last upon a pile of newly turned earth which lay in one corner.

"What are they digging?" he asked.

"A well," answered Feversham.

"A well?" said Trench, fretfully, "and so close to the Nile! Why? What's the object?"

"I don't know," said Feversham. Indeed he did not know, but he suspected. With a great fear at his heart he suspected the reason why the well was being dug in the enclosure of the prison. He would not, however, reveal his suspicion until his companion was strong enough to bear the disappointment which belief in it would entail. But within a few days his suspicion was proved true. It was openly announced that a high wall was to be built about the House of Stone. Too many prisoners had escaped in their fetters along the Nile bank. Henceforward they were to be kept from year's beginning to year's end within the wall. The prisoners built it themselves of mud-bricks dried in the sun. Feversham took his share in the work, and Trench, as soon almost as he could stand, was joined with him.

"Here's our last hope gone," he said; and though Feversham did not openly agree, in spite of himself his heart began to consent.

They piled the bricks one upon the other and mortised them. Each day the wall rose a foot. With their own hands they closed themselves in. Twelve feet high the wall stood when they had finished it—twelve feet high, and smooth and strong. There was never a projection from its surface on which a foot could rest; it could not be broken through in a night. Trench and Feversham contemplated it in despair. The very palm trees of Khartum were now hidden from their eyes. A square of bright blue by day, a square of dark blue by night, jewelled with points of silver and flashing gold, limited their world. Trench covered his face with his hands.

"I daren't look at it," he said in a broken voice. "We have been building our own coffin, Feversham, that's the truth of it." And then he cast up his arms and cried aloud: "Will they never come up the Nile, the gunboats and the soldiers? Have they forgotten us in England? Good God! have they forgotten us?"

"Hush!" replied Feversham. "We shall find a way of escape, never fear. We must wait six months. Well, we have both of us waited years. Six months,—what are they?"

But, though he spoke stoutly for his comrade's sake, his own heart sank within him.

The details of their life during the six months are not to be dwelt upon. In that pestilent enclosure only the myriad vermin lived lives of comfort. No news filtered in from the world outside. They fed upon their own thoughts, so that the sight of a lizard upon the wall became an occasion for excitement. They were stung by scorpions at night; they were at times flogged by their gaolers by day. They lived at the mercy of the whims of Idris-es-Saier and that peculiar spirit Nebbi Khiddr, who always reported against them to the Khalifa just at the moment when Idris was most in need of money for his starving family. Religious men were sent by the Khalifa to convert them to the only true religion; and indeed the long theological disputations in the enclosure became events to which both men looked forward with eagerness. At one time they would be freed from the heavier shackles and allowed to sleep in the open; at another, without reason, those privileges would be withdrawn, and they struggled for their lives within the House of Stone.

The six months came to an end. The seventh began; a fortnight of it passed, and the boy who brought Feversham food could never cheer their hearts with word that Abou Fatma had come back.

"He will never come," said Trench, in despair.

"Surely he will—if he is alive," said Feversham. "But is he alive?"

The seventh month passed, and one morning at the beginning of the eighth there came two of the Khalifa's bodyguard to the prison, who talked with Idris. Idris advanced to the two prisoners.

"Verily God is good to you, you men from the bad world," he said. "You are to look upon the countenance of the Khalifa. How happy you should be!"

Trench and Feversham rose up from the ground in no very happy frame of mind. "What does he want with us? Is this the end?" The questions started up clear in both their minds. They followed the two guards out through the door and up the street towards the Khalifa's house.

"Does it mean death?" said Feversham.

Trench shrugged his shoulders and laughed sourly. "It is on the cards that Nebbi Khiddr has suggested something of the kind," he said.

They were led into the great parade-ground before the mosque, and thence into the Khalifa's house, where another white man sat in attendance upon the threshold. Within the Khalifa was seated upon an angareb, and a grey-bearded Greek stood beside him. The Khalifa remarked to them that they were both to be employed upon the manufacture of gunpowder, with which the armies of the Turks were shortly to be overwhelmed.

Feversham was on the point of disclaiming any knowledge of the process, but before he could open his lips he heard Trench declaring in fluent Arabic that there was nothing connected with gunpowder which he did not know about; and upon his words they were both told they were to be employed at the powder factory under the supervision of the Greek.

For that Greek both prisoners will entertain a regard to their dying day. There was in the world a true Samaritan. It was out of sheer pity, knowing the two men to be herded in the House of Stone, that he suggested to the Khalifa their employment, and the same pity taught him to cover the deficiencies of their knowledge.

"I know nothing whatever about the making of gunpowder except that crystals are used," said Trench. "But we shall leave the prison each day, and that is something, though we return each night. Who knows when a chance of escape may come?"

The powder factory lay in the northward part of the town, and on the bank of the Nile just beyond the limits of the great mud wall and at the back of the slave market. Every morning the two prisoners were let out from the prison door, they tramped along the river-bank on the outside of the town wall, and came into the powder factory past the storehouses of the Khalifa's bodyguard. Every evening they went back by the same road to the House of Stone. No guard was sent with them, since flight seemed impossible, and each journey that they made they looked anxiously for the man in the blue robe. But the months passed, and May brought with it the summer.

"Something has happened to Abou Fatma," said Feversham. "He has been caught at Berber perhaps. In some way he has been delayed."

"He will not come," said Trench.

Feversham could no longer pretend to hope that he would. He did not know of a sword-thrust received by Abou Fatma, as he fled through Berber on his return from Omdurman. He had been recognised by one of his old gaolers in that town, and had got cheaply off with the one thrust in his thigh. From that wound he had through the greater part of this year been slowly recovering in the hospital at Assouan. But though Feversham heard nothing of Abou Fatma, towards the end of May he received news that others were working for his escape. As Trench and he passed in the dusk of one evening between the storehouses and the town wall, a man in the shadow of one of the narrow alleys which opened from the storehouses whispered to them to stop. Trench knelt down upon the ground and examined his foot as though a stone had cut it, and as he kneeled the man walked past them and dropped a slip of paper at their feet. He was a Suakin merchant, who had a booth in the grain market of Omdurman. Trench picked up the paper, hid it in his hand and limped on, with Feversham at his side. There was no address or name upon the outside, and as soon as they had left the houses behind, and had only the wall upon their right and the Nile upon their left, Trench sat down again. There was a crowd about the water's edge, men passed up and down between the crowd and them. Trench took his foot into his lap and examined the sole. But at the same time he unfolded the paper in the hollow of his hand and read the contents aloud. He could hardly read them, his voice so trembled. Feversham could hardly hear them, the blood so sang in his ears.

"A man will bring to you a box of matches. When he comes trust him.—Sutch." And he asked, "Who is Sutch?"

"A great friend of mine," said Feversham. "He is in Egypt, then! Does he say where?"

"No; but since Mohammed Ali, the grain merchant, dropped the paper, we may be sure he is at Suakin. A man with a box of matches! Think, we may meet him to-night!"

But it was a month later when, in the evening, an Arab pushed past them on the river-bank and said: "I am the man with the matches. To-morrow by the storehouse at this hour." And as he walked past them he dropped a box of coloured matches on the ground. Feversham stooped instantly.

"Don't touch them," said Trench, and he pressed the box into the ground with his foot and walked on.

"Sutch!" exclaimed Feversham. "So he comes to our help! How did he know that I was here?"

Trench fairly shook with excitement as he walked. He did not speak of the great new hope which so suddenly came to them, for he dared not. He tried even to pretend to himself that no message at all had come. He was afraid to let his mind dwell upon the subject. Both men slept brokenly that night, and every time they waked it was with a dim consciousness that something great and wonderful had happened. Feversham, as he lay upon his back and gazed upwards at the stars, had a fancy that he had fallen asleep in the garden of Broad Place, on the Surrey hills, and that he had but to raise his head to see the dark pines upon his right hand and his left, and but to look behind to see the gables of the house against the sky. He fell asleep towards dawn, and within an hour was waked up by a violent shaking. He saw Trench bending over him with a great fear on his face.

"Suppose they keep us in the prison to-day," he whispered in a shaking voice, plucking at Feversham. "It has just occurred to me! Suppose they did that!"

"Why should they?" answered Feversham; but the same fear caught hold of him, and they sat dreading the appearance of Idris, lest he should have some such new order to deliver. But Idris crossed the yard and unbolted the prison door without a look at them. Fighting, screaming, jammed together in the entrance, pulled back, thrust forwards, the captives struggled out into the air, and among them was one who ran, foaming at the mouth, and dashed his head against the wall.

"He is mad!" said Trench, as the gaolers secured him; and since Trench was unmanned that morning he began to speak rapidly and almost with incoherence. "That's what I have feared, Feversham, that I should go mad. To die, even here, one could put up with that without overmuch regret; but to go mad!" and he shivered. "If this man with the matches proves false to us, Feversham, I shall be near to it—very near to it. A man one day, a raving, foaming idiot the next—a thing to be put away out of sight, out of hearing. God, but that's horrible!" and he dropped his head between his hands, and dared not look up until Idris crossed to them and bade them go about their work. What work they did in the factory that day neither knew. They were only aware that the hours passed with an extraordinary slowness, but the evening came at last.

"Among the storehouses," said Trench. They dived into the first alley which they passed, and turning a corner saw the man who had brought the matches.

"I am Abdul Kader," he began at once. "I have come to arrange for your escape. But at present flight is impossible;" and Trench swayed upon his feet as he heard the word.

"Impossible?" asked Feversham.

"Yes. I brought three camels to Omdurman, of which two have died. The Effendi at Suakin gave me money, but not enough. I could not arrange for relays, but if you will give me a letter to the Effendi telling him to give me two hundred pounds, then I will have everything ready and come again within three months."

Trench turned his back so that his companion might not see his face. All his spirit had gone from him at this last stroke of fortune. The truth was clear to him, appallingly clear. Abdul Kader was not going to risk his life; he would be the shuttle going backwards and forwards between Omdurman and Suakin as long as Feversham cared to write letters and Sutch to pay money. But the shuttle would do no weaving.

"I have nothing with which to write," said Feversham, and Abdul Kader produced them.

"Be quick," he said. "Write quickly, lest we be discovered." And Feversham wrote; but though he wrote as Abdul suggested, the futility of his writing was as clear to him as to Trench.

"There is the letter," he said, and he handed it to Abdul, and, taking Trench by the arm, walked without another word away.

They passed out of the alley and came again to the great mud wall. It was sunset. To their left the river gleamed with changing lights—here it ran the colour of an olive, there rose pink, and here again a brilliant green; above their heads the stars were coming out, in the east it was already dusk; and behind them in the town, drums were beginning to beat with their barbaric monotone. Both men walked with their chins sunk upon their breasts, their eyes upon the ground. They had come to the end of hope, they were possessed with a lethargy of despair. Feversham thought not at all of the pine trees on the Surrey hills, nor did Trench have any dread that something in his head would snap and that which made him man be reft from him. They walked slowly, as though their fetters had grown ten times their weight, and without a word. So stricken, indeed, were they that an Arab turned and kept pace beside them, and neither noticed his presence. In a few moments the Arab spoke:—

"The camels are ready in the desert, ten miles to the west."

But he spoke in so low a voice, and those to whom he spoke were so absorbed in misery, that the words passed unheard. He repeated them, and Feversham looked up. Quite slowly their meaning broke in on Feversham's mind; quite slowly he recognised the man who uttered them.

"Abou Fatma!" he said.

"Hoosh!" returned Abou Fatma, "the camels are ready."

"Now?"

"Now."

Trench leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, and the face of a sick man. It seemed that he would swoon, and Feversham took him by the arm.

"Is it true?" Trench asked faintly; and before Feversham could answer Abou Fatma went on:—

"Walk forwards very slowly. Before you reach the end of the wall it will be dusk. Draw your cloaks over your heads, wrap these rags about your chains, so that they do not rattle. Then turn and come back, go close to the water beyond the storehouses. I will be there with a man to remove your chains. But keep your faces well covered and do not stop. He will think you slaves."

With that he passed some rags to them, holding his hands behind his back, while they stood close to him. Then he turned and hurried back. Very slowly Feversham and Trench walked forwards in the direction of the prison; the dusk crept across the river, mounted the long slope of sand, enveloped them. They sat down and quickly wrapped the rags about their chains and secured them there. From the west the colours of the sunset had altogether faded, the darkness gathered quickly about them. They turned and walked back along the road they had come. The drums were more numerous now, and above the wall there rose a glare of light. By the time they had reached the water's edge opposite the storehouses it was dark. Abou Fatma was already waiting with his blacksmith. The chains were knocked off without a word spoken.

"Come," said Abou. "There will be no moon to-night. How long before they discover you are gone?"

"Who knows? Perhaps already Idris has missed us. Perhaps he will not till morning. There are many prisoners."

They ran up the slope of sand, between the quarters of the tribes, across the narrow width of the city, through the cemetery. On the far side of the cemetery stood a disused house; a man rose up in the doorway as they approached, and went in.

"Wait here," said Abou Fatma, and he too went into the house. In a moment both men came back, and each one led a camel and made it kneel.

"Mount," said Abou Fatma. "Bring its head round and hold it as you mount."

"I know the trick," said Trench.

Feversham climbed up behind him, the two Arabs mounted the second camel.

"Ten miles to the west," said Abou Fatma, and he struck the camel on the flanks.

Behind them the glare of the lights dwindled, the tapping of the drums diminished.