QUEEN SHEBA'S RING
by H. Rider Haggard
THE COMING OF THE RING
Every one has read the monograph, I believe that is the right word, of my dear friend, Professor Higgs—Ptolemy Higgs to give him his full name—descriptive of the tableland of Mur in North Central Africa, of the ancient underground city in the mountains which surrounded it, and of the strange tribe of Abyssinian Jews, or rather their mixed descendants, by whom it is, or was, inhabited. I say every one advisedly, for although the public which studies such works is usually select, that which will take an interest in them, if the character of a learned and pugnacious personage is concerned, is very wide indeed. Not to mince matters, I may as well explain what I mean at once.
Professor Higgs's rivals and enemies, of whom either the brilliancy of his achievements or his somewhat abrupt and pointed methods of controversy seem to have made him a great many, have risen up, or rather seated themselves, and written him down—well, an individual who strains the truth. Indeed, only this morning one of these inquired, in a letter to the press, alluding to some adventurous traveller who, I am told, lectured to the British Association several years ago, whether Professor Higgs did not, in fact, ride across the desert to Mur, not upon a camel, as he alleged, but upon a land tortoise of extraordinary size.
The innuendo contained in this epistle has made the Professor, who, as I have already hinted, is not by nature of a meek disposition, extremely angry. Indeed, notwithstanding all that I could do, he left his London house under an hour ago with a whip of hippopotamus hide such as the Egyptians call a koorbash, purposing to avenge himself upon the person of his defamer. In order to prevent a public scandal, however, I have taken the liberty of telephoning to that gentleman, who, bold and vicious as he may be in print, is physically small and, I should say, of a timid character, to get out of the way at once. To judge from the abrupt fashion in which our conversation came to an end, I imagine that the hint has been taken. At any rate, I hope for the best, and, as an extra precaution, have communicated with the lawyers of my justly indignant friend.
The reader will now probably understand that I am writing this book, not to bring myself or others before the public, or to make money of which I have no present need, or for any purpose whatsoever, except to set down the bare and actual truth. In fact, so many rumours are flying about as to where we have been and what befell us that this has become almost necessary. As soon as I laid down that cruel column of gibes and insinuations to which I have alluded—yes, this very morning, before breakfast, this conviction took hold of me so strongly that I cabled to Oliver, Captain Oliver Orme, the hero of my history, if it has any particular hero, who is at present engaged upon what must be an extremely agreeable journey round the world—asking his consent. Ten minutes since the answer arrived from Tokyo. Here it is:
"Do what you like and think necessary, but please alter all names, et cetera, as propose returning via America, and fear interviewers. Japan jolly place." Then follows some private matter which I need not insert. Oliver is always extravagant where cablegrams are concerned.
I suppose that before entering on this narration, for the reader's benefit I had better give some short description of myself.
My name is Richard Adams, and I am the son of a Cumberland yeoman who married a Welshwoman. Therefore I have Celtic blood in my veins, which perhaps accounts for my love of roving and other things. I am now an old man, near the end of my course, I suppose; at any rate, I was sixty-five last birthday. This is my appearance as I see it in the glass before me: tall, spare (I don't weigh more than a hundred and forty pounds—the desert has any superfluous flesh that I ever owned, my lot having been, like Falstaff, to lard the lean earth, but in a hot climate); my eyes are brown, my face is long, and I wear a pointed white beard, which matches the white hair above.
Truth compels me to add that my general appearance, as seen in that glass which will not lie, reminds me of that of a rather aged goat; indeed, to be frank, by the natives among whom I have sojourned, and especially among the Khalifa's people when I was a prisoner there, I have often been called the White Goat.
Of my very commonplace outward self let this suffice. As for my record, I am a doctor of the old school. Think of it! When I was a student at Bart.'s the antiseptic treatment was quite a new thing, and administered when at all, by help of a kind of engine on wheels, out of which disinfectants were dispensed with a pump, much as the advanced gardener sprays a greenhouse to-day.
I succeeded above the average as a student, and in my early time as a doctor. But in every man's life there happen things which, whatever excuses may be found for them, would not look particularly well in cold print (nobody's record, as understood by convention and the Pharisee, could really stand cold print); also something in my blood made me its servant. In short, having no strict ties at home, and desiring to see the world, I wandered far and wide for many years, earning my living as I went, never, in my experience, a difficult thing to do, for I was always a master of my trade.
My fortieth birthday found me practising at Cairo, which I mention only because it was here that first I met Ptolemy Higgs, who, even then in his youth, was noted for his extraordinary antiquarian and linguistic abilities. I remember that in those days the joke about him was that he could swear in fifteen languages like a native and in thirty-two with common proficiency, and could read hieroglyphics as easily as a bishop reads the Times.
Well, I doctored him through a bad attack of typhoid, but as he had spent every farthing he owned on scarabs or something of the sort, made him no charge. This little kindness I am bound to say he never forgot, for whatever his failings may be (personally I would not trust him alone with any object that was more than a thousand years old), Ptolemy is a good and faithful friend.
In Cairo I married a Copt. She was a lady of high descent, the tradition in her family being that they were sprung from one of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs, which is possible and even probable enough. Also, she was a Christian, and well educated in her way. But, of course, she remained an Oriental, and for a European to marry an Oriental is, as I have tried to explain to others, a very dangerous thing, especially if he continues to live in the East, where it cuts him off from social recognition and intimacy with his own race. Still, although this step of mine forced me to leave Cairo and go to Assouan, then a little-known place, to practise chiefly among the natives, God knows we were happy enough together till the plague took her, and with it my joy in life.
I pass over all that business, since there are some things too dreadful and too sacred to write about. She left me one child, a son, who, to fill up my cup of sorrow, when he was twelve years of age, was kidnapped by the Mardi's people.
This brings me to the real story. There is nobody else to write it; Oliver will not; Higgs cannot (outside of anything learned and antiquarian, he is hopeless); so I must. At any rate, if it is not interesting, the fault will be mine, not that of the story, which in all conscience is strange enough.
We are now in the middle of June, and it was a year ago last December that, on the evening of the day of my arrival in London after an absence of half a lifetime, I found myself knocking at the door of Professor Higgs's rooms in Guildford Street, W.C. It was opened by his housekeeper, Mrs. Reid, a thin and saturnine old woman, who reminded and still reminds me of a reanimated mummy. She told me that the Professor was in, but had a gentleman to dinner, and suggested sourly that I should call again the next morning. With difficulty I persuaded her at last to inform her master that an old Egyptian friend had brought him something which he certainly would like to see.
Five minutes later I groped my way into Higgs's sitting-room, which Mrs. Reid had contented herself with indicating from a lower floor. It is a large room, running the whole width of the house, divided into two by an arch, where once, in the Georgian days, there had been folding doors. The place was in shadow, except for the firelight, which shone upon a table laid ready for dinner, and upon an extraordinary collection of antiquities, including a couple of mummies with gold faces arranged in their coffins against the wall. At the far end of the room, however, an electric lamp was alight in the bow-window hanging over another table covered with books, and by it I saw my host, whom I had not met for twenty years, although until I vanished into the desert we frequently corresponded, and with him the friend who had come to dinner.
First, I will describe Higgs, who, I may state, is admitted, even by his enemies, to be one of the most learned antiquarians and greatest masters of dead languages in Europe, though this no one would guess from his appearance at the age of about forty-five. In build short and stout, face round and high-coloured, hair and beard of a fiery red, eyes, when they can be seen—for generally he wears a pair of large blue spectacles—small and of an indefinite hue, but sharp as needles. Dress so untidy, peculiar, and worn that it is said the police invariably request him to move on, should he loiter in the streets at night. Such was, and is, the outward seeming of my dearest friend, Professor Ptolemy Higgs, and I only hope that he won't be offended when he sees it set down in black and white.
That of his companion who was seated at the table, his chin resting on his hand, listening to some erudite discourse with a rather distracted air, was extraordinarily different, especially by contrast. A tall well-made young man, rather thin, but broad-shouldered, and apparently five or six and twenty years of age. Face clean-cut—so much so, indeed, that the dark eyes alone relieved it from a suspicion of hardness; hair short and straight, like the eyes, brown; expression that of a man of thought and ability, and, when he smiled, singularly pleasant. Such was, and is, Captain Oliver Orme, who, by the way, I should explain, is only a captain of some volunteer engineers, although, in fact, a very able soldier, as was proved in the South African War, whence he had then but lately returned.
I ought to add also that he gave me the impression of a man not in love with fortune, or rather of one with whom fortune was not in love; indeed, his young face seemed distinctly sad. Perhaps it was this that attracted me to him so much from the first moment that my eyes fell on him—me with whom fortune had also been out of love for many years.
While I stood contemplating this pair, Higgs, looking up from the papyrus or whatever it might be that he was reading (I gathered later that he had spent the afternoon in unrolling a mummy, and was studying its spoils), caught sight of me standing in the shadow.
"Who the devil are you?" he exclaimed in a shrill and strident voice, for it acquires that quality when he is angry or alarmed, "and what are you doing in my room?"
"Steady," said his companion; "your housekeeper told you that some friend of yours had come to call."
"Oh, yes, so she did, only I can't remember any friend with a face and beard like a goat. Advance, friend, and all's well."
So I stepped into the shining circle of the electric light and halted again.
"Who is it? Who is it?" muttered Higgs. "The face is the face of—of—I have it—of old Adams, only he's been dead these ten years. The Khalifa got him, they said. Antique shade of the long-lost Adams, please be so good as to tell me your name, for we waste time over a useless mystery."
"There is no need, Higgs, since it is in your mouth already. Well, I should have known you anywhere; but then your hair doesn't go white."
"Not it; too much colouring matter; direct result of a sanguine disposition. Well, Adams—for Adams you must be—I am really delighted to see you, especially as you never answered some questions in my last letter as to where you got those First Dynasty scarabs, of which the genuineness, I may tell you, has been disputed by certain envious beasts. Adams, my dear old fellow, welcome a thousand times"—and he seized my hands and wrung them, adding, as his eye fell upon a ring I wore, "Why, what's that? Something quite unusual. But never mind; you shall tell me after dinner. Let me introduce you to my friend, Captain Orme, a very decent scholar of Arabic, with a quite elementary knowledge of Egyptology."
"Mr. Orme," interrupted the younger man, bowing to me.
"Oh, well, Mr. or Captain, whichever you like. He means that he is not in the regular army, although he has been all through the Boer War, and wounded three times, once straight through the lungs. Here's the soup. Mrs. Reid, lay another place. I am dreadfully hungry; nothing gives me such an appetite as unrolling mummies; it involves so much intellectual wear and tear, in addition to the physical labour. Eat, man, eat. We will talk afterwards."
So we ate, Higgs largely, for his appetite was always excellent, perhaps because he was then practically a teetotaller; Mr. Orme very moderately, and I as becomes a person who has lived for months at a time on dates—mainly of vegetables, which, with fruits, form my principal diet—that is, if these are available, for at a pinch I can exist on anything.
When the meal was finished and our glasses had been filled with port, Higgs helped himself to water, lit the large meerschaum pipe he always smokes, and pushed round the tobacco-jar which had once served as a sepulchural urn for the heart of an old Egyptian.
"Now, Adams," he said when we also had filled our pipes, "tell us what has brought you back from the Shades. In short, your story, man, your story."
I drew the ring he had noticed off my hand, a thick band of rather light-coloured gold of a size such as an ordinary woman might wear upon her first or second finger, in which was set a splendid slab of sapphire engraved with curious and archaic characters. Pointing to these characters, I asked Higgs if he could read them.
"Read them? Of course," he answered, producing a magnifying glass. "Can't you? No, I remember; you never were good at anything more than fifty years old. Hullo! this is early Hebrew. Ah! I've got it," and he read:
"'The gift of Solomon the ruler—no, the Great One—of Israel, Beloved of Jah, to Maqueda of Sheba-land, Queen, Daughter of Kings, Child of Wisdom, Beautiful.'
"That's the writing on your ring, Adams—a really magnificent thing. 'Queen of Sheba—Bath-Melachim, Daughter of Kings,' with our old friend Solomon chucked in. Splendid, quite splendid!"—and he touched the gold with his tongue, and tested it with his teeth. "Hum—where did you get this intelligent fraud from, Adams?"
"Oh!" I answered, laughing, "the usual thing, of course. I bought it from a donkey-boy in Cairo for about thirty shillings."
"Indeed," he replied suspiciously. "I should have thought the stone in it was worth more than that, although, of course, it may be nothing but glass. The engraving, too, is first-rate. Adams," he added with severity, "you are trying to hoax us, but let me tell you what I thought you knew by this time—that you can't take in Ptolemy Higgs. This ring is a shameless swindle; but who did the Hebrew on it? He's a good scholar, anyway."
"Don't know," I answered; "wasn't aware till now that it was Hebrew. To tell you the truth, I thought it was old Egyptian. All I do know is that it was given, or rather lent, to me by a lady whose title is Walda Nagasta, and who is supposed to be a descendant of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba."
Higgs took up the ring and looked at it again; then, as though in a fit of abstraction, slipped it into his waistcoat pocket.
"I don't want to be rude, therefore I will not contradict you," he answered with a kind of groan, "or, indeed, say anything except that if any one else had spun me that yarn I should have told him he was a common liar. But, of course, as every schoolboy knows, Walda Nagasta—that is, Child of Kings in Ethiopic—is much the same as Bath-Melachim—that is, Daughter of Kings in Hebrew."
Here Captain Orme burst out laughing, and remarked, "It is easy to see why you are not altogether popular in the antiquarian world, Higgs. Your methods of controversy are those of a savage with a stone axe."
"If you only open your mouth to show your ignorance, Oliver, you had better keep it shut. The men who carried stone axes had advanced far beyond the state of savagery. But I suggest that you had better give Doctor Adams a chance of telling his story, after which you can criticize."
"Perhaps Captain Orme does not wish to be bored with it," I said, whereon he answered at once:
"On the contrary, I should like to hear it very much—that is, if you are willing to confide in me as well as in Higgs."
I reflected a moment, since, to tell the truth, for sundry reasons, my intention had been to trust no one except the Professor, whom I knew to be as faithful as he is rough. Yet some instinct prompted me to make an exception in favour of this Captain Orme. I liked the man; there was something about those brown eyes of his that appealed to me. Also it struck me as odd that he should happen to be present on this occasion, for I have always held that there is nothing casual or accidental in the world; that even the most trivial circumstances are either ordained, or the result of the workings of some inexorable law whereof the end is known by whatever power may direct our steps, though it be not yet declared.
"Certainly I am willing," I answered; "your face and your friendship with the Professor are passport enough for me. Only I must ask you to give me your word of honour that without my leave you will repeat nothing of what I am about to tell you."
"Of course," he answered, whereon Higgs broke in:
"There, that will do; you don't want us both to kiss the Book, do you? Who sold you that ring, and where have you been for the last dozen years, and whence do you come now?"
"I have been a prisoner of the Khalifa's among other things. I had five years of that entertainment of which my back would give some evidence if I were to strip. I think I am about the only man who never embraced Islam whom they allowed to live, and that was because I am a doctor, and, therefore, a useful person. The rest of the time I have spent wandering about the North African deserts looking for my son, Roderick. You remember the boy, or should, for you are his godfather, and I used to send you photographs of him as a little chap."
"Of course, of course," said the Professor in a new tone; "I came across a Christmas letter from him the other day. But, my dear Adams, what happened? I never heard."
"He went up the river to shoot crocodiles against my orders, when he was about twelve years old—not very long after his mother's death, and some wandering Mahdi tribesmen kidnapped him and sold him as a slave. I have been looking for him ever since, for the poor boy was passed on from tribe to tribe, among which his skill as a musician enabled me to follow him. The Arabs call him the Singer of Egypt, because of his wonderful voice, and it seems that he has learned to play upon their native instruments."
"And now where is he?" asked Higgs, as one who feared the answer.
"He is, or was, a favourite slave among a barbarous, half-negroid people called the Fung, who dwell in the far interior of North Central Africa. After the fall of the Khalifa I followed him there; it took me several years. Some Bedouin were making an expedition to trade with these Fung, and I disguised myself as one of them.
"On a certain night we camped at the foot of a valley outside a great wall which encloses the holy place where their idol is. I rode up to this wall and, through the open gateway, heard some one with a beautiful tenor voice singing in English. What he sang was a hymn that I had taught my son. It begins:
'Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.'
"I knew the voice again. I dismounted and slipped through the gateway, and presently came to an open space, where a young man sat singing upon a sort of raised bench with lamps on either side of him, and a large audience in front. I saw his face and, notwithstanding the turban which he wore and his Eastern robe—yes, and the passage of all those years—I knew it for that of my son. Some spirit of madness entered into me, and I called aloud, 'Roderick, Roderick!' and he started up, staring about him wildly. The audience started up also, and one of them caught sight of me lurking in the shadow.
"With a howl of rage, for I had desecrated their sanctuary, they sprang at me. To save my life, coward that I was, I fled back through the gates. Yes, after all those years of seeking, still I fled rather than die, and though I was wounded with a spear and stones, managed to reach and spring upon my horse. Then, as I was headed off from our camp, I galloped away anywhere, still to save my miserable life from those savages, so strongly is the instinct of self-preservation implanted in us. From a distance I looked back and saw by the light of the fired tents that the Fung were attacking the Arabs with whom I had travelled, I suppose because they thought them parties to the sacrilege. Afterwards I heard that they killed them every one, poor men, but I escaped, who unwittingly had brought their fate upon them.
"On and on I galloped up a steep road. I remember hearing lions roaring round me in the darkness. I remember one of them springing upon my horse and the poor beast's scream. Then I remember no more till I found myself—I believe it was a week or so later—lying on the verandah of a nice house, and being attended by some good-looking women of an Abyssinian cast of countenance."
"Sounds rather like one of the lost tribes of Israel," remarked Higgs sarcastically, puffing at his big meerschaum.
"Yes, something of that sort. The details I will give you later. The main facts are that these people who picked me up outside their gates are called Abati, live in a town called Mur, and allege themselves to be descended from a tribe of Abyssinian Jews who were driven out and migrated to this place four or five centuries ago. Briefly, they look something like Jews, practise a very debased form of the Jewish religion, are civilized and clever after a fashion, but in the last stage of decadence from interbreeding—about nine thousand men is their total fighting force, although three or four generations ago they had twenty thousand—and live in hourly terror of extermination by the surrounding Fung, who hold them in hereditary hate as the possessors of the wonderful mountain fortress that once belonged to their forefathers."
"Gibraltar and Spain over again," suggested Orme.
"Yes, with this difference—that the position is reversed, the Abati of this Central African Gibraltar are decaying, and the Fung, who answer to the Spaniards, are vigorous and increasing."
"Well, what happened?" asked the Professor.
"Nothing particular. I tried to persuade these Abati to organize an expedition to rescue my son, but they laughed in my face. By degrees I found out that there was only one person among them who was worth anything at all, and she happened to be their hereditary ruler who bore the high-sounding titles of Walda Nagasta, or Child of Kings, and Takla Warda, or Bud of the Rose, a very handsome and spirited young woman, whose personal name is Maqueda——"
"One of the names of the first known Queens of Sheba," muttered Higgs; "the other was Belchis."
"Under pretence of attending her medically," I went on, "for otherwise their wretched etiquette would scarcely have allowed me access to one so exalted, I talked things over with her. She told me that the idol of the Fung is fashioned like a huge sphinx, or so I gathered from her description of the thing, for I have never seen it."
"What!" exclaimed Higgs, jumping up, "a sphinx in North Central Africa! Well, after all, why not? Some of the earlier Pharaohs are said to have had dealings with that part of the world, or even to have migrated from it. I think that the Makreezi repeats the legend. I suppose that it is ram-headed."
"She told me also," I continued, "that they have a tradition, or rather a belief, which amounts to an article of faith, that if this sphinx or god, which, by the way, is lion, not ram-headed, and is called Harmac——"
"Harmac!" interrupted Higgs again. "That is one of the names of the sphinx—Harmachis, god of dawn."
"If this god," I repeated, "should be destroyed, the nation of the Fung, whose forefathers fashioned it as they say, must move away from that country across the great river which lies to the south. I have forgotten its name at the moment, but I think it must be a branch of the Nile.
"I suggested to her that, in the circumstances, her people had better try to destroy the idol. Maqueda laughed and said it was impossible, since the thing was the size of a small mountain, adding that the Abati had long ago lost all courage and enterprise, and were content to sit in their fertile and mountain-ringed land, feeding themselves with tales of departed grandeur and struggling for rank and high-sounding titles, till the day of doom overtook them.
"I inquired whether she were also content, and she replied, 'Certainly not'; but what could she do to regenerate her people, she who was nothing but a woman, and the last of an endless line of rulers?
"'Rid me of the Fung,' she added passionately, 'and I will give you such a reward as you never dreamed. The old cave-city yonder is full of treasure that was buried with its ancient kings long before we came to Mur. To us it is useless, since we have none to trade with, but I have heard that the peoples of the outside world worship gold.'
"'I do not want gold,' I answered; 'I want to rescue my son who is a prisoner yonder.'
"'Then,' said the Child of Kings, 'you must begin by helping us to destroy the idol of the Fung. Are there no means by which this can be done?'
"'There are means,' I replied, and I tried to explain to her the properties of dynamite and of other more powerful explosives.
"'Go to your own land,' she exclaimed eagerly, 'and return with that stuff and two or three who can manage it, and I swear to them all the wealth of Mur. Thus only can you win my help to save your son.'"
"Well, what was the end?" asked Captain Orme.
"This: They gave me some gold and an escort with camels which were literally lowered down a secret path in the mountains so as to avoid the Fung, who ring them in and of whom they are terribly afraid. With these people I crossed the desert to Assouan in safety, a journey of many weeks, where I left them encamped about sixteen days ago, bidding them await my return. I arrived in England this morning, and as soon as I could ascertain that you still lived, and your address, from a book of reference called Who's Who, which they gave me in the hotel, I came on here."
"Why did you come to me? What do you want me to do?" asked the Professor.
"I came to you, Higgs, because I know how deeply you are interested in anything antiquarian, and because I wished to give you the first opportunity, not only of winning wealth, but also of becoming famous as the discoverer of the most wonderful relics of antiquity that are left in the world."
"With a very good chance of getting my throat cut thrown in," grumbled Higgs.
"As to what I want you to do," I went on, "I want you to find someone who understands explosives, and will undertake the business of blowing up the Fung idol."
"Well, that's easy enough, anyhow," said the Professor, pointing to Captain Orme with the bowl of his pipe, and adding, "he is an engineer by education, a soldier and a very fair chemist; also he knows Arabic and was brought up in Egypt as a boy—just the man for the job if he will go."
I reflected a moment, then, obeying some sort of instinct, looked up and asked:
"Will you, Captain Orme, if terms can be arranged?"
"Yesterday," he replied, colouring a little, "I should have answered, 'Certainly not.' To-day I answer that I am prepared to consider the matter—that is, if Higgs will go too, and you can enlighten me on certain points. But I warn you that I am only an amateur in the three trades that the Professor has mentioned, though, it is true, one with some experience."
"Would it be rude to inquire, Captain Orme, why twenty-four hours have made such a difference in your views and plans?"
"Not rude, only awkward," he replied, colouring again, this time more deeply. "Still, as it is best to be frank, I will tell you. Yesterday I believed myself to be the inheritor of a very large fortune from an uncle whose fatal illness brought me back from South Africa before I meant to come, and as whose heir I have been brought up. To-day I have learned for the first time that he married secretly, last year, a woman much below him in rank, and has left a child, who, of course, will take all his property, as he died intestate. But that is not all. Yesterday I believed myself to be engaged to be married; to-day I am undeceived upon that point also. The lady," he added with some bitterness, "who was willing to marry Anthony Orme's heir is no longer willing to marry Oliver Orme, whose total possessions amount to under L10,000. Well, small blame to her or to her relations, whichever it may be, especially as I understand that she has a better alliance in view. Certainly her decision has simplified matters," and he rose and walked to the other end of the room.
"Shocking business," whispered Higgs; "been infamously treated," and he proceeded to express his opinion of the lady concerned, of her relatives, and of the late Anthony Orme, shipowner, in language that, if printed, would render this history unfit for family reading. The outspokenness of Professor Higgs is well known in the antiquarian world, so there is no need for me to enlarge upon it.
"What I do not exactly understand, Adams," he added in a loud voice, seeing that Orme had turned again, "and what I think we should both like to know, is your exact object in making these proposals."
"I am afraid I have explained myself badly. I thought I had made it clear that I have only one object—to attempt the rescue of my son, if he still lives, as I believe he does. Higgs, put yourself in my position. Imagine yourself with nothing and no one left to care for except a single child, and that child stolen away from you by savages. Imagine yourself, after years of search, hearing his very voice, seeing his very face, adult now, but the same, the thing you had dreamed of and desired for years; that for which you would have given a thousand lives if you could have had time to think. And then the rush of the howling, fantastic mob, the breakdown of courage, of love, of everything that is noble under the pressure of primaeval instinct, which has but one song—Save your life. Lastly, imagine this coward saved, dwelling within a few miles of the son whom he had deserted, and yet utterly unable to rescue or even to communicate with him because of the poltroonery of those among whom he had refuged."
"Well," grunted Higgs, "I have imagined all that high-faluting lot. What of it? If you mean that you are to blame, I don't agree with you. You wouldn't have helped your son by getting your own throat cut, and perhaps his also."
"I don't know," I answered. "I have brooded over the thing so long that it seems to me that I have disgraced myself. Well, there came a chance, and I took it. This lady, Walda Nagasta, or Maqueda, who, I think, had also brooded over things, made me an offer—I fancy without the knowledge or consent of her Council. 'Help me,' she said, 'and I will help you. Save my people, and I will try to save your son. I can pay for your services and those of any whom you may bring with you.'
"I answered that it was hopeless, as no one would believe the tale, whereon she drew from her finger the throne-ring or State signet which you have in your pocket, Higgs, saying: 'My mothers have worn this since the days of Maqueda, Queen of Sheba. If there are learned men among your people they will read her name upon it and know that I speak no lie. Take it as a token, and take also enough of our gold to buy the stuffs whereof you speak, which hide fires that can throw mountains skyward, and the services of skilled and trusty men who are masters of the stuff, two or three of them only, for more cannot be transported across the desert, and come back to save your son and me.' That's all the story, Higgs. Will you take the business on, or shall I try elsewhere? You must make up your mind, because I have no time to lose, if I am to get into Mur again before the rains."
"Got any of that gold you spoke of about you?" asked the Professor.
I drew a skin bag from the pocket of my coat, and poured some out upon the table, which he examined carefully.
"Ring money," he said presently, "might be Anglo-Saxon, might be anything; date absolutely uncertain, but from its appearance I should say slightly alloyed with silver; yes, there is a bit which has oxydized—undoubtedly old, that."
Then he produced the signet from his pocket, and examined the ring and the stone very carefully through a powerful glass.
"Seems all right," he said, "and although I have been greened in my time, I don't make many mistakes nowadays. What do you say, Adams? Must have it back? A sacred trust! Only lent to you! All right, take it by all means. I don't want the thing. Well, it is a risky job, and if any one else had proposed it to me, I'd have told him to go to—Mur. But, Adams, my boy, you saved my life once, and never sent in a bill, because I was hard up, and I haven't forgotten that. Also things are pretty hot for me here just now over a certain controversy of which I suppose you haven't heard in Central Africa. I think I'll go. What do you say, Oliver?"
"Oh!" said Captain Orme, waking up from a reverie, "if you are satisfied, I am. It doesn't matter to me where I go."
THE ADVICE OF SERGEANT QUICK
At this moment a fearful hubbub arose without. The front door slammed, a cab drove off furiously, a policeman's whistle blew, heavy feet were heard trampling; then came an invocation of "In the King's name," answered by "Yes, and the Queen's, and the rest of the Royal Family's, and if you want it, take it, you chuckle-headed, flat-footed, pot-bellied Peelers."
Then followed tumult indescribable as of heavy men and things rolling down the stairs, with cries of fear and indignation.
"What the dickens is that?" asked Higgs.
"The voice sounded like that of Samuel—I mean Sergeant Quick," answered Captain Orme with evident alarm; "what can he be after? Oh, I know, it is something to do with that infernal mummy you unwrapped this afternoon, and asked him to bring round after dinner."
Just then the door burst open, and a tall, soldier-like form stalked in, carrying in his arms a corpse wrapped in a sheet, which he laid upon the table among the wine glasses.
"I'm sorry, Captain," he said, addressing Orme, "but I've lost the head of the departed. I think it is at the bottom of the stairs with the police. Had nothing else to defend myself with, sir, against their unwarranted attacks, so brought the body to the present and charged, thinking it very stiff and strong, but regret to say neck snapped, and that deceased's head is now under arrest."
As Sergeant Quick finished speaking, the door opened again, and through it appeared two very flurried and dishevelled policemen, one of whom held, as far as possible from his person, the grizzly head of a mummy by the long hair which still adhered to the skull.
"What do you mean by breaking into my rooms like this? Where's your warrant?" asked the indignant Higgs in his high voice.
"There!" answered the first policeman, pointing to the sheet-wrapped form on the table.
"And here!" added the second, holding up the awful head. "As in duty bound, we ask explanation from that man of the secret conveyance of a corpse through the open streets, whereon he assaults us with the same, for which assault, pending investigation of the corpse, I arrest him. Now, Guv'nor" (addressing Sergeant Quick), "will you come along with us quietly, or must we take you?"
The Sergeant, who seemed to be inarticulate with wrath, made a dash for the shrouded object on the table, with the intention, apparently, of once more using it as a weapon of offence, and the policemen drew their batons.
"Stop," said Orme, thrusting himself between the combatants, "are you all mad? Do you know that this woman died about four thousand years ago?"
"Oh, Lord!" said the policeman who held the head, addressing his companion, "it must be one of them mummies what they dig up in the British Museum. Seems pretty ancient and spicy, don't it?" and he sniffed at the head, then set it down upon the table.
Explanations followed, and after the wounded dignity of the two officers of the Force had been soothed with sundry glasses of port wine and a written list of the names of all concerned, including that of the mummy, they departed.
"You take my advice, bobbies," I heard the indignant Sergeant declaim outside the door, "and don't you believe things is always what they seem. A party ain't necessarily drunk because he rolls about and falls down in the street; he may be mad, or 'ungry, or epileptic, and a body ain't always a body jest because it's dead and cold and stiff. Why, men, as you've seen, it may be a mummy, which is quite a different thing. If I was to put on that blue coat of yours, would that make me a policeman? Good heavens! I should hope not, for the sake of the Army to which I still belong, being in the Reserve. What you bobbies need is to study human nature and cultivate observation, which will learn you the difference between a new-laid corpse and a mummy, and many other things. Now you lay my words to heart, and you'll both of you rise to superintendents, instead of running in daily 'drunks' until you retire on a pension. Good-night."
Peace having been restored, and the headless mummy removed into the Professor's bedroom, since Captain Orme declared that he could not talk business in the presence of a body, however ancient, we resumed our discussion. First of all, at Higgs's suggestion I drew up a brief memorandum of agreement which set out the objects of the expedition, and provided for the equal division amongst us of any profit that might accrue; in the event of the death of one or more of us, the survivors or survivor to take their or his share.
To this arrangement personally I objected, who desired neither treasure nor antiquities, but only the rescue of my son. The others pointed out, however, that, like most people, I might in future want something to live on, or that if I did not, in the event of his escape, my boy certainly would; so in the end I gave way.
Then Captain Orme very sensibly asked for a definition of our respective duties, and it was settled that I was to be guide to the expedition; Higgs, antiquarian, interpreter, and, on account of his vast knowledge, general referee; and Captain Orme, engineer and military commander, with the proviso that, in the event of a difference of opinion, the dissentient was to loyally accept the decision of the majority.
This curious document having been copied out fair, I signed and passed it to the Professor, who hesitated a little, but, after refreshing himself with a further minute examination of Sheba's ring, signed also, remarking that he was an infernal fool for his pains, and pushed the paper across the table to Orme.
"Stop a minute," said the Captain; "I forgot something. I should like my old servant, Sergeant Quick, to accompany us. He's a very handy man at a pinch, especially if, as I understand, we are expected to deal with explosives with which he has had a lot to do in the Engineers and elsewhere. If you agree I will call him, and ask if he will go. I expect he's somewhere round."
I nodded, judging from the episode of the mummy and the policeman that the Sergeant was likely to be a useful man. As I was sitting next to it, I opened the door for the Captain, whereon the erect shape of Sergeant Quick, who had clearly been leaning against it, literally fell into the room, reminding me much of an overset wooden soldier.
"Hullo!" said Orme as, without the slightest change of countenance, his retainer recovered himself and stood to attention. "What the deuce are you doing there?"
"Sentry go, Captain. Thought the police might change their minds and come back. Any orders, Captain?"
"Yes. I am going to North Central Africa. When can you be ready to start?"
"The Brindisi mail leaves to-morrow night, Captain, if you travel by Egypt, but if you go by Tunis, 7.15 a.m. Saturday is the time from Charing Cross. Only, as I understand that high explosives and arms have to be provided, these might take awhile to lay in and pack so as to deceive customs."
"You understand!" said Orme. "Pray, how do you understand?"
"Doors in these old houses are apt to get away from their frames, Captain, and the gentleman there"—and he pointed to the Professor—"has a voice that carries like a dog-whistle. Oh, no offence, sir. A clear voice is an excellent thing—that is, if the doors fit"—and although Sergeant Quick's wooden face did not move, I saw his humorous grey eyes twinkle beneath the bushy eyebrows.
We burst out laughing, including Higgs.
"So you are willing to go?" said Orme. "But I hope you clearly understand that this is a risky business, and that you may not come back?"
"Spion Kop was a bit risky, Captain, and so was that business in the donga, where every one was hit except you and me and the sailor man, but we came back, for all that. Begging your pardon, Captain, there ain't no such thing as risk. Man comes here when he must, and dies when he must, and what he does between don't make a ha'porth of difference."
"Hear, hear," I said; "we are much of the same way of thinking."
"There have been several who held those views, sir, since old Solomon gave the lady that"—and he pointed to Sheba's ring, which was lying on the table. "But excuse me, Captain; how about local allowances? Not having been a marrying man myself, I've none dependent upon me, but, as you know, I've sisters that have, and a soldier's pension goes with him. Don't think me greedy, Captain," he added hastily, "but, as you gentlemen understand, black and white at the beginning saves bother at the end"—and he pointed to the agreement.
"Quite right. What do you want, Sergeant?" asked Orme.
"Nothing beyond my pay, if we get nothing, Captain, but if we get something, would five per cent. be too much?"
"It might be ten," I suggested. "Sergeant Quick has a life to lose like the rest of us."
"Thank you kindly, sir," he answered; "but that, in my opinion, would be too much. Five per cent. was what I suggested."
So it was written down that Sergeant Samuel Quick was to receive five per cent. of the total profits, if any, provided that he behaved himself and obeyed orders. Then he also signed the agreement, and was furnished with a glass of whisky and water to drink to its good health.
"Now, gentlemen," he said, declining the chair which Higgs offered to him, apparently because, from long custom, he preferred his wooden-soldier attitude against the wall, "as a humble five-per-cent. private in this very adventurous company I'll ask permission to say a word."
Permission was given accordingly, and the Sergeant proceeded to inquire what weight of rock it was wished to remove.
I told him that I did not know, as I had never seen the Fung idol, but I understood that its size was enormous, probably as large as St. Paul's Cathedral.
"Which, if solid, would take some stirring," remarked the Sergeant. "Dynamite might do it, but it is too bulky to be carried across the desert on camels in that quantity. Captain, how about them picrates? You remember those new Boer shells that blew a lot of us to kingdom come, and poisoned the rest?"
"Yes," answered Orme; "I remember; but now they have stronger stuffs—azo-imides, I think they call them—terrific new compounds of nitrogen. We will inquire to-morrow, Sergeant."
"Yes, Captain," he answered; "but the point is, who'll pay? You can't buy hell-fire in bulk for nothing. I calculate that, allowing for the purchase of the explosives and, say, fifty military rifles with ammunition and all other necessaries, not including camels, the outfit of this expedition can't come to less than L1,500."
"I think I have that amount in gold," I answered, "of which the lady of the Abati gave me as much as I could carry in comfort."
"If not," said Orme, "although I am a poor man now, I could find L500 or so in a pinch. So don't let us bother about the money. The question is—Are we all agreed that we will undertake this expedition and see it through to the end, whatever that may be?"
We answered that we were.
"Then has anybody anything more to say?"
"Yes," I replied; "I forgot to tell you that if we should ever get to Mur, none of you must make love to the Walda Nagasta. She is a kind of holy person, who can only marry into her own family, and to do so might mean that our throats would be cut."
"Do you hear that, Oliver?" said the Professor. "I suppose that the Doctor's warning is meant for you, as the rest of us are rather past that kind of thing."
"Indeed," replied the Captain, colouring again after his fashion. "Well, to tell you the truth, I feel a bit past it myself, and, so far as I am concerned, I don't think we need take the fascinations of this black lady into account."
"Don't brag, Captain. Please don't brag," said Sergeant Quick in a hollow whisper. "Woman is just the one thing about which you can never be sure. To-day she's poison, and to-morrow honey—God and the climate alone know why. Please don't brag, or we may live to see you crawling after this one on your knees, with the gent in the specs behind, and Samuel Quick, who hates the whole tribe of them, bringing up the rear. Tempt Providence, if you like, Captain, but don't tempt woman, lest she should turn round and tempt you, as she has done before to-day."
"Will you be so good as to stop talking nonsense and call a cab," said Captain Orme coldly. But Higgs began to laugh in his rude fashion, and I, remembering the appearance of "Bud of the Rose" when she lifted her veil of ceremony, and the soft earnestness of her voice, fell into reflection. "Black lady" indeed! What, I wondered, would this young gentleman think if ever he should live to set his eyes upon her sweet and comely face?
It seemed to me that Sergeant Quick was not so foolish as his master chose to imagine. Captain Orme undoubtedly was in every way qualified to be a partner in our venture; still, I could have wished either that he had been an older man, or that the lady to whom he was recently affianced had not chosen this occasion to break her engagement. In dealing with difficult and dangerous combinations, my experience has been that it is always well to eliminate the possibility of a love affair, especially in the East.
THE PROFESSOR GOES OUT SHOOTING
Of all our tremendous journey across the desert until we had passed the forest and reached the plains which surrounded the mountains of Mur, there are, I think, but few incidents with which the reader need be troubled. The first of these was at Assouan, where a letter and various telegrams overtook Captain Orme, which, as by this time we had become intimate, he showed to me. They informed him that the clandestine infant whom his uncle left behind him had suddenly sickened and died of some childish ailment, so that he was once again heir to the large property which he thought he had lost, since the widow only took a life interest in some of the personalty. I congratulated him and said I supposed this meant that we should not have the pleasure of his company to Mur.
"Why not?" he asked. "I said I was going and I mean to go; indeed, I signed a document to that effect."
"I daresay," I answered, "but circumstances alter cases. If I might say so, an adventure that perhaps was good enough for a young and well-born man of spirit and enterprise without any particular resources, is no longer good enough for one who has the ball at his feet. Think what a ball it is to a man of your birth, intelligence, record, and now, great fortune come to you in youth. Why, with these advantages there is absolutely nothing that you cannot do in England. You can go into Parliament and rule the country; if you like you can become a peer. You can marry any one who isn't of the blood royal; in short, with uncommonly little effort of your own, your career is made for you. Don't throw away a silver spoon like that in order, perhaps, to die of thirst in the desert or be killed in a fight among unknown tribes."
"Oh, I don't know," he answered. "I never set heart much on spoons, silver or other. When I lost this one I didn't cry, and now that I have found it again I shan't sing. Anyway, I am going on with you, and you can't prevent me under the agreement. Only as I have got such a lot to leave, I suppose I had better make a will first and post it home, which is a bore."
Just then the Professor came in, followed by an Arab thief of a dealer, with whom he was trying to bargain for some object of antiquity. When the dealer had been ejected and the position explained to him, Higgs, who whatever may be his failings in small matters, is unselfish enough in big ones, said that he agreed with me and thought that under the circumstances, in his own interest, Orme ought to leave us and return home.
"You may save your breath, old fellow," answered the Captain, "for this reason if for no other," and he threw him a letter across the table, which letter I saw afterwards. To be brief, it was from the young lady to whom he had been engaged to be married, and who on his loss of fortune had jilted him. Now she seemed to have changed her mind again, and, although she did not mention the matter, it is perhaps not uncharitable to suppose that the news of the death of the inconvenient child had something to do with her decision.
"Have you answered this?" asked Higgs.
"No," answered Orme, setting his mouth. "I have not answered, and I am not going to answer it, either in writing or in person. I intend to start to-morrow for Mur and to travel as far on that road as it pleases fate to allow, and now I am going to look at the rock sculptures by the cataract."
"Well, that's flat," said Higgs after he had departed, "and for my part I am glad of it, for somehow I think he will be a useful man among those Fung. Also, if he went I expect that the Sergeant would go too, and where should we be without Quick, I should like to know?"
Afterwards I conversed with the said Quick about this same matter, repeating to him my opinions, to which the Sergeant listened with the deference which he was always kind enough to show to me.
"Begging your pardon, sir," he said, when I had finished, "but I think you are both right and wrong. Everything has two ends, hasn't it? You say that it would be wicked for the Captain to get himself killed, there being now so much money for him to live for, seeing that life is common as dirt while money is precious, rare and hard to come by. It ain't the kings we admire, it's their crowns; it ain't the millionaires, it's their millions; but, after all, the millionaires don't take their millions with them, for Providence, that, like Nature, hates waste, knows that if they did they'd melt, so one man dead gives another bread, as the saying goes, or p'raps I should say gingerbread in such cases.
"Still, on the whole, sir, I admit you are right as to the sinfulness of wasting luck. But now comes the other end. I know this young lady what the Captain was engaged to, which he never would have been if he had taken my advice, since of all the fish-blooded little serpents that ever I set eyes on she's the serpentest, though pretty, I allow. Solomon said in his haste that an honest woman he had not found, but if he had met the Honourable Miss—well, never mind her name—he'd have said it at his leisure, and gone on saying it. Now, no one should never take back a servant what has given notice and then says he's sorry, for if he does the sorrow will be on the other side before it's all done; and much less should he take back a fiancee (Quick said a 'finance'), on the whole, he'd better drown himself—I tried it once, and I know. So that's the tail of the business.
"But," he went on, "it has a couple of fins as well, like that eel beast I caught in the Nile. One of them is that the Captain promised and vowed to go through with this expedition, and if a man's got to die, he'd better die honest without breaking his word. And the other is what I said to you in London when I signed on, that he won't die a minute before his time, and nothing won't happen to him, but what's bound to happen, and therefore it ain't a ha'porth of use bothering about anything, and that's where the East's well ahead of the West.
"And now, sir, I'll go and look after the camels and those half-bred Jew boys what you call Abati, but I call rotten sneaks, for if they get their thieving fingers into those canisters of picric salts, thinking they're jam, as I found them trying to do yesterday, something may happen in Egypt that'll make the Pharaohs turn in their graves and the Ten Plagues look silly."
So, having finished his oration, Quick went, and in due course we started for Mur.
The second incident that is perhaps worth recording was an adventure that happened to us when we had completed about two of our four months' journey.
After weeks of weary desert travel—if I remember right, it was exactly a fortnight after the dog Pharaoh, of which I shall soon have plenty to say, had come into Orme's possession—we reached an oasis called Zeu, where I had halted upon my road down to Egypt. In this oasis, which, although not large in extent, possesses springs of beautiful water and groves of date-trees, we were, as it chanced, very welcome, since when I was there before, I had been fortunate enough to cure its sheik of an attack of ophthalmia and to doctor several of his people for various ailments with good results. So, although I was burning to get forward, I agreed with the others that it would be wise to accede to the request of the leader of our caravan, a clever and resourceful, but to my mind untrustworthy Abati of the name of Shadrach, and camp in Zeu for a week or so to rest and feed our camels, which had wasted almost to nothing on the scant herbage of the desert.
This Shadrach, I may add here, whom his companions, for some reason unknown to me at that time, called the Cat, was remarkable for a triple line of scars upon his face, which, he informed me, had been set there by the claws of a lion. Now the great enemies of this people of Zeu were lions, which at certain seasons of the year, I suppose when food grew scarce, descended from the slopes of a range of hills that stretched east and west at a distance of about fifty miles north of the oasis, and, crossing the intervening desert, killed many of the Zeu sheep, camels, and other cattle, and often enough any of the tribe whom they could catch. As these poor Zeus practically possessed no firearms, they were at the mercy of the lions, which grew correspondingly bold. Indeed, their only resource was to kraal their animals within stone walls at night and take refuge in their huts, which they seldom left between sunset and dawn, except to replenish the fires that they lit to scare any beast of prey which might be prowling through the town.
Though the lion season was now in full swing, as it happened, for the first five days of our stay at Zeu we saw none of these great cats, although in the darkness we heard them roaring in the distance. On the sixth night, however, we were awakened by a sound of wailing, which came from the village about a quarter of a mile away, and when we went out at dawn to see what was the matter, were met by a melancholy procession advancing from its walls. At the head of it marched the grey-haired old chief, followed by a number of screaming women, who in their excitement, or perhaps as a sign of mourning, had omitted to make their toilette, and by four men, who carried something horrid on a wickerwork door.
Soon we learned what had happened. It seemed that hungry lions, two or three of them, had broken through the palm-leaf roof of the hut of one of the sheik's wives, she whose remains were stretched upon the door, and, in addition to killing her, had actually carried off his son. Now he came to implore us white men who had guns to revenge him on the lions, which otherwise, having once tasted human flesh, would destroy many more of his people.
Through an interpreter who knew Arabic, for not even Higgs could understand the peculiar Zeu dialect, he explained in excited and incoherent words that the beasts lay up among the sand-hills not very far away, where some thick reeds grew around a little spring of water. Would we not come out and kill them and earn the blessing of the Zeus?
Now I said nothing, for the simple reason that, having such big matters on hand, although I was always fond of sport, I did not wish any of us to be led off after these lions. There is a time to hunt and a time to cease from hunting, and it seemed to me, except for the purposes of food, that this journey of ours was the latter. However, as I expected, Oliver Orme literally leaped at the idea. So did Higgs, who of late had been practising with a rifle and began to fancy himself a shot. He exclaimed loudly that nothing would give him greater pleasure, especially as he was sure that lions were in fact cowardly and overrated beasts.
From that moment I foreboded disaster in my heart. Still, I said I would come too, partly because I had not shot a lion for many a day and had a score to settle with those beasts which, it may be remembered, nearly killed me on the Mountain of Mur, and partly because, knowing the desert and also the Zeu people much better than either the Professor or Orme, I thought that I might possibly be of service.
So we fetched our rifles and cartridges, to which by an afterthought we added two large water-bottles, and ate a hearty breakfast. As we were preparing to start, Shadrach, the leader of the Abati camel-drivers, that man with the scarred face who was nicknamed the Cat, came up to me and asked me whither we were going. I told him, whereon he said:
"What have you to do with these savages and their troubles, lords? If a few of them are killed it is no matter, but as you should know, O Doctor, if you wish to hunt lions there are plenty in that land whither you travel, seeing that the lion is the fetish of the Fung and therefore never killed. But the desert about Zeu is dangerous and harm may come to you."
"Then accompany us," broke in the Professor, between whom and Shadrach there was no love lost, "for, of course, with you we should be quite safe."
"Not so," he replied, "I and my people rest; only madmen would go to hunt worthless wild beasts when they might rest. Have we not enough of the desert and its dangers as it is? If you knew all that I do of lions you would leave them alone."
"Of the desert we have plenty also, but of shooting very little," remarked the Captain, who talked Arabic well. "Lie in your beds; we go to kill the beasts that harass the poor people who have treated us so kindly."
"So be it," said Shadrach with a smile that struck me as malicious. "A lion made this"—pointing to the dreadful threefold scar upon his face. "May the God of Israel protect you from lions. Remember, lords, that, the camels being fresh again, we march the day after to-morrow, should the weather hold, for if the wind blows on yonder sand-hills, no man may live among them;" and, putting up his hand, he studied the sky carefully from beneath its shadow, then, with a grunt, turned and vanished behind a hut.
All this while Sergeant Quick was engaged at a little distance in washing up the tin breakfast things, to all appearance quite unconscious of what was going on. Orme called him, whereupon he advanced and stood to attention. I remember thinking how curious he looked in those surroundings—his tall, bony frame clothed in semi-military garments, his wooden face perfectly shaved, his iron-grey hair neatly parted and plastered down upon his head with pomade or some equivalent after the old private soldier fashion, and his sharp ferret-like grey eyes taking in everything.
"Are you coming with us, Sergeant?" asked Orme.
"Not unless ordered so to do, Captain. I like a bit of hunting well enough, but, with all three officers away, some one should mount guard over the stores and transport, so I think the dog Pharaoh and I had best stop behind."
"Perhaps you are right, Sergeant, only tie Pharaoh up, or he'll follow me. Well, what do you want to say? Out with it."
"Only this, Captain. Although I have served in three campaigns among these here Arabians (to Quick, all African natives north of the Equator were Arabians, and all south of it, niggers), I can't say I talk their lingo well. Still, I made out that the fellow they call Cat don't like this trip of yours, and, begging your pardon, Captain, whatever else Cat may be, he ain't no fool."
"Can't help it, Sergeant. For one thing, it would never do to give in to his fancies now."
"That's true, Captain. When once it's hoist, right or wrong, keep the flag flying, and no doubt you'll come back safe and sound if you're meant to."
Then, having relieved his mind, the Sergeant ran his eye over our equipment to see that nothing had been forgotten, rapidly assured himself that the rifles were in working order, reported all well, and returned to his dishes. Little did any of us guess under what circumstances we should next meet with him.
After leaving the town and marching for a mile or so along the oasis, accompanied by a mob of the Zeus armed with spears and bows, we were led by the bereaved chief, who also acted as tracker, out into the surrounding sands. The desert here, although I remembered it well enough, was different from any that we had yet encountered upon this journey, being composed of huge and abrupt sand-hills, some of which were quite three hundred feet high, separated from each other by deep, wind-cut valleys.
For a distance, while they were within reach of the moist air of the oasis, these sand-mountains produced vegetation of various sorts. Presently, however, we passed out into the wilderness proper, and for a while climbed up and down the steep, shifting slopes, till from the crest of one of them the chief pointed out what in South Africa is called a pan, or vlei, covered with green reeds, and explained by signs that in these lay the lions. Descending a steep declivity, we posted ourselves, I at the top, and Higgs and Orme a little way down either side of this vlei. This done, we dispatched the Zeus to beat it out towards us, for although the reeds grew thick along the course of the underground water, it was but a narrow place, and not more than a quarter of a mile in length.
Scarcely had the beaters entered the tall reeds, evidently with trepidation, for a good many of them held back from the adventure, when a sound of loud wailing informed us that something had happened. A minute or two later we saw two of them bearing away what appeared to be the mangled remains of the chief's son who had been carried off on the previous night.
Just then, too, we saw something else, for half-way down the marsh a great male lion broke cover, and began to steal off toward the sand-hills. It was about two hundred yards from Higgs, who chanced to be nearest to it, and, therefore, as any big-game hunter will know, for practical purposes, far out of shot. But the Professor, who was quite unaccustomed to this, or, indeed, any kind of sport, and, like all beginners, wildly anxious for blood, lifted his rifle and fired, as he might have done at a rabbit. By some marvellous accident the aim was good, and the bullet from the express, striking the lion fair behind the shoulder, passed through its heart, and knocked it over dead as a stone.
"By Jingo! Did you see that?" screamed Higgs in his delight. Then, without even stopping to reload the empty barrel, he set off at the top of his speed toward the prostrate beast, followed by myself and by Orme, as fast as our astonishment would allow.
Running along the edge of the marsh, Higgs had covered about a hundred yards of the distance, when suddenly, charging straight at him out of the tall reeds, appeared a second lion, or rather lioness. Higgs wheeled round, and wildly fired the left barrel of his rifle without touching the infuriated brute. Next instant, to our horror, we saw him upon his back, with the lioness standing over him, lashing her tail, and growling.
We shouted as we ran, and so did the Zeus, although they made no attempt at rescue, with the result that the lioness, instead of tearing Higgs to pieces, turned her head confusedly first to one side and then to the other. By now I, who had a long start of Orme, was quite close, say within thirty yards, though fire I dared not as yet, fearing lest, should I do so, I might kill my friend. At this moment the lioness, recovering her nerves, squatted down on the prostrate Higgs, and though he hit at her with his fists, dropped her muzzle, evidently with the intention of biting him through the head.
Now I felt that if I hesitated any more, all would be finished. The lioness was much longer than Higgs—a short, stout man—and her hind quarters projected beyond his feet. At these I aimed rapidly, and, pressing the trigger, next second heard the bullet clap upon the great beast's hide. Up she sprang with a roar, one hind leg dangling, and after a moment's hesitation, fled toward the sand-hill.
Now Orme, who was behind me, fired also, knocking up the dust beneath the lioness's belly, but although he had more cartridges in his rifle, which was a repeater, before either he or I could get another chance, it vanished behind a mound. Leaving it to go where it would, we ran on towards Higgs, expecting to find him either dead or badly mauled, but, to our amazement and delight, up jumped the Professor, his blue spectacles still on his nose, and, loading his rifle as he went, charged away after the wounded lioness.
"Come back," shouted the Captain as he followed.
"Not for Joe!" yelled Higgs in his high voice. "If you fellows think that I'm going to let a great cat sit on my stomach for nothing, you are jolly well mistaken."
At the top of the first rise the long-legged Orme caught him, but persuade him to return was more than he, or I when I arrived, could do. Beyond a scratch on his nose, which had stung him and covered him with blood, we found that he was quite uninjured, except in temper and dignity. But in vain did we beg him to be content with his luck and the honours he had won.
"Why?" he answered, "Adams wounded the beast, and I'd rather kill two lions than one; also I have a score to square. But if you fellows are afraid, you go home."
Well, I confess I felt inclined to accept the invitation, but Orme, who was nettled, replied:
"Come, come; that settles the question, doesn't it? You must be shaken by your fall, or you would not talk like that, Higgs. Look, here runs the spoor—see the blood? Well, let's go steady and keep our wind. We may come on her anywhere, but don't you try any more long distance shots. You won't kill another lion at two hundred and fifty yards."
"All right," said Higgs, "don't be offended. I didn't mean anything, except that I am going to teach that beast the difference between a white man and a Zeu."
Then we began our march, following the blood tracks up and down the steep sand-slopes. When we had been at it for about half-an-hour our spirits were cheered by catching sight of the lioness on a ridge five hundred yards away. Just then, too, some of the Zeus overtook us and joined the hunt, though without zeal.
Meanwhile, as the day grew, the heat increased until it was so intense that the hot air danced above the sand slopes like billions of midges, and this although the sun was not visible, being hidden by a sort of mist. A strange silence, unusual even in the desert, pervaded the earth and sky; we could hear the grains of sand trickling from the ridges. The Zeus, who accompanied us, grew uneasy, and pointed upward with their spears, then behind toward the oasis of which we had long lost sight. Finally, when we were not looking, they disappeared.
Now I would have followed them, guessing that they had some good reason for this sudden departure. But Higgs refused to come, and Orme, in whom his foolish taunt seemed still to rankle, only shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.
"Let the black curs go," exclaimed the Professor as he polished his blue spectacles and mopped his face. "They are a white-livered lot of sneaks. Look! There she is, creeping off to the left. If we run round that sand-hill we shall meet her."
So we ran round the sand-hill, but we did not meet her, although after long hunting we struck the blood spoor afresh, and followed it for several miles, first in this direction, and then in that, until Orme and I wondered at Higgs's obstinacy and endurance. At length, when even he was beginning to despair, we put up the lioness in a hollow, and fired several shots at her as she hobbled over the opposing slope, one of which hit her, for she rolled over, then picked herself up again, roaring. As a matter of fact, it came from the Captain's rifle, but Higgs, who, like many an inexperienced person was a jealous sportsman, declared that it was his and we did not think it worth while to contradict him.
On we toiled, and, just beyond the ridge, walked straight into the lioness, sitting up like a great dog, so injured that she could do nothing but snarl hideously and paw at the air.
"Now it is my turn, old lady," ejaculated Higgs, and straightway missed her clean from a distance of five yards. A second shot was more successful, and she rolled over, dead.
"Come on," said the exultant Professor, "and we'll skin her. She sat on me, and I mean to sit on her for many a day."
So we began the job, although I, who had large experience of this desert, and did not like the appearance of the weather, wished to leave the beast where it lay and get back to the oasis. It proved long, for I was the only one of us who had any practical knowledge of flaying animals, and in that heat extremely unpleasant.
At length it was done, and, having doubled the hide over a rifle for two of us to carry in turns, we refreshed ourselves from the water-bottles (I even caught the Professor washing the blood off his face and hands with some of the precious fluid). Then we started for the oasis, only to discover, though we were all sure that we knew the way, that not one of us had a slightest idea of its real direction. In the hurry of our departure we had forgotten to bring a compass, and the sun, that would have been our guide in ordinary circumstances, and to which we always trusted in the open desert, was hidden by the curious haze that has been described.
So, sensibly enough, we determined to return to the sand crest where we had killed the lioness, and then trace our own footprints backward. This seemed simple enough, for there, within half-a-mile, rose the identical ridge.
We reached it, grumbling, for the lion-skin was heavy, only to discover that it was a totally different ridge. Now, after reflection and argument, we saw our exact mistake, and made for what was obviously the real ridge—with the same result.
We were lost in the desert!
THE DEATH WIND
"The fact is," said Higgs presently, speaking with the air of an oracle, "the fact is that all these accursed sand-hills are as like each other as mummy beads on the same necklace, and therefore it is very difficult to know them apart. Give me that water-bottle, Adams; I am as dry as a lime-kiln."
"No," I said shortly; "you may be drier before the end."
"What do you mean? Oh! I see; but that's nonsense; those Zeus will hunt us up, or, at the worst, we have only to wait till the sun gets out."
As he spoke, suddenly the air became filled with a curious singing sound impossible to describe, caused as I knew, who had often heard it before, by millions and millions of particles of sand being rubbed together. We turned to see whence it came, and perceived, far away, rushing towards us with extraordinary swiftness, a huge and dense cloud preceded by isolated columns and funnels of similar clouds.
"A sand-storm," said Higgs, his florid face paling a little. "Bad luck for us! That's what comes of getting out of bed the wrong side first this morning. No, it's your fault, Adams; you helped me to salt last night, in spite of my remonstrances" (the Professor has sundry little superstitions of this sort, particularly absurd in so learned a man). "Well, what shall we do? Get under the lee of the hill until it blows over?"
"Don't suppose it will blow over. Can't see anything to do except say our prayers," remarked Orme with sweet resignation. Oliver is, I think, the coolest hand in an emergency of any one I ever met, except, perhaps, Sergeant Quick, a man, of course, nearly old enough to be his father. "The game seems to be pretty well up," he added. "Well, you have killed two lions, Higgs, and that is something."
"Oh, hang it! You can die if you like, Oliver. The world won't miss you; but think of its loss if anything happened to me. I don't intend to be wiped out by a beastly sand-storm. I intend to live to write a book on Mur," and Higgs shook his fist at the advancing clouds with an air that was really noble. It reminded me of Ajax defying the lightning.
Meanwhile I had been reflecting.
"Listen," I said. "Our only chance is to stop where we are, for if we move we shall certainly be buried alive. Look; there is something solid to lie on," and I pointed to a ridge of rock, a kind of core of congealed sand, from which the surface had been swept by gales. "Down with you, quick," I went on, "and let's draw that lion-skin over our heads. It may help to keep the dust from choking us. Hurry, men; it's coming!"
Coming, it was indeed, with a mighty, wailing roar. Scarcely had we got ourselves into position, our backs to the blast and our mouths and noses buried after the fashion of camels in a similar predicament, the lion-skin covering our heads and bodies to the middle, with the paws tucked securely beneath us to prevent it from being blown away, when the storm leaped upon us furiously, bringing darkness in its train. There we lay for hour after hour, unable to see, unable to talk because of the roaring noise about us, and only from time to time lifting ourselves a little upon our hands and knees to disturb the weight of sand that accumulated on our bodies, lest it should encase us in a living tomb.
Dreadful were the miseries we suffered—the misery of the heat beneath the stinking pelt of the lion, the misery of the dust-laden air that choked us almost to suffocation, the misery of thirst, for we could not get at our scanty supply of water to drink. But worst of all perhaps, was the pain caused by the continual friction of the sharp sand driven along at hurricane speed, which, incredible as it may seem, finally wore holes in our thin clothing and filed our skins to rawness.
"No wonder the Egyptian monuments get such a beautiful shine on them," I heard poor Higgs muttering in my ear again and again, for he was growing light-headed; "no wonder, no wonder! My shin-bones will be very useful to polish Quick's tall riding-boots. Oh! curse the lions. Why did you help me to salt, you old ass; why did you help me to salt? It's pickling me behind."
Then he became quite incoherent, and only groaned from time to time.
Perhaps, however, this suffering did us a service, since otherwise exhaustion, thirst, and dust might have overwhelmed our senses, and caused us to fall into a sleep from which we never should have awakened. Yet at the time we were not grateful to it, for at last the agony became almost unbearable. Indeed, Orme told me afterwards that the last thing he could remember was a quaint fancy that he had made a colossal fortune by selling the secret of a new torture to the Chinese—that of hot sand driven on to the victim by a continuous blast of hot air.
After a while we lost count of time, nor was it until later that we learned that the storm endured for full twenty hours, during the latter part of which, notwithstanding our manifold sufferings, we must have become more or less insensible. At any rate, at one moment I remembered the awful roar and the stinging of the sand whips, followed by a kind of vision of the face of my son—that beloved, long-lost son whom I had sought for so many years, and for whose sake I endured all these things. Then, without any interval, as it were, I felt my limbs being scorched as though by hot irons or through a burning-glass, and with a fearful effort staggered up to find that the storm had passed, and that the furious sun was blistering my excoriated skin. Rubbing the caked dirt from my eyes, I looked down to see two mounds like those of graves, out of which projected legs that had been white. Just then one pair of legs, the longer pair, stirred, the sand heaved up convulsively, and, uttering wandering words in a choky voice, there arose the figure of Oliver Orme.
For a moment we stood and stared at each other, and strange spectacles we were.
"Is he dead?" muttered Orme, pointing to the still buried Higgs.
"Fear so," I answered, "but we'll look;" and painfully we began to disinter him.
When we came to it beneath the lion-skin, the Professor's face was black and hideous to see, but, to our relief, we perceived that he was not dead, for he moved his hand and moaned. Orme looked at me.
"Water would save him," I said.
Then came the anxious moment. One of our water-bottles was emptied before the storm began, but the other, a large, patent flask covered with felt, and having a screw vulcanite top, should still contain a good quantity, perhaps three quarts—that is, if the fluid had not evaporated in the dreadful heat. If this had happened, it meant that Higgs would die, and unless help came, that soon we should follow him. Orme unscrewed the flask, for my hands refused that office, and used his teeth to draw the cork, which, providentially enough the thoughtful Quick had set in the neck beneath the screw. Some of the water, which, although it was quite hot, had not evaporated, thank God! flew against his parched lips, and I saw him bite them till the blood came in the fierceness of the temptation to assuage his raging thirst. But he resisted it like the man he is, and, without drinking a drop, handed me the bottle, saying simply:
"You are the oldest; take care of this, Adams."
Now it was my turn to be tempted, but I, too, overcame, and, sitting down, laid Higgs's head upon my knee; then, drop by drop, let a little of the water trickle between his swollen lips.
The effect was magical, for in less than a minute the Professor sat up, grasped at the flask with both hands, and strove to tear it away.
"You cruel brute! You cruel selfish brute!" he moaned as I wrenched it from him.
"Look here, Higgs," I answered thickly; "Orme and I want water badly enough, and we have had none. But you might take it all if it would save you, only it wouldn't. We are lost in the desert, and must be sparing. If you drank everything now, in a few hours you would be thirsty again and die."
He thought awhile, then looked up and said:
"Beg pardon—I understand. I'm the selfish brute. But there's a good lot of water there; let's each have a drink; we can't move unless we do."
So we drank, measuring out the water in a little india-rubber cup which we had with us. It held about as much as a port wine glass, and each of us drank, or rather slowly sipped, three cupfuls; we who felt as though we could have swallowed a gallon apiece, and asked for more. Small as was the allowance, it worked wonders in us; we were men again.
We stood up and looked about us, but the great storm had changed everything. Where there had been sand-hills a hundred feet high, now were plains and valleys; where there had been valleys appeared sand-hills. Only the high ridge upon which we had lain was as before, because it stood above the others and had a core of rock. We tried to discover the direction of the oasis by the position of the sun, only to be baffled, since our two watches had run down, and we did not know the time of day or where the sun ought to be in the heavens. Also, in that howling wilderness there was nothing to show us the points of the compass.
Higgs, whose obstinacy remained unimpaired, whatever may have happened to the rest of his vital forces, had one view of the matter, and Orme another diametrically opposed to it. They even argued as to whether the oasis lay to our right or to our left, for their poor heads were so confused that they were scarcely capable of accurate thought or observation. Meanwhile I sat down upon the sand and considered. Through the haze I could see the points of what I thought must be the hills whence the Zeus declared that the lions came, although of course, for aught I knew, they might be other hills.
"Listen," I said; "if lions live upon those hills, there must be water there. Let us try to reach them; perhaps we shall see the oasis as we go."
Then began our dreadful march. The lion-skin that had saved our lives, and was now baked hard as a board, we left behind, but the rifles we took. All day long we dragged ourselves up and down steep sand-slopes, pausing now again to drink a sip of water, and hoping always that from the top of the next slope we should see a rescue party headed by Quick, or perhaps the oasis itself. Indeed, once we did see it, green and shining, not more than three miles away, but when we got to the head of the hill beyond which it should lie we found that the vision was only a mirage, and our hearts nearly broke with disappointment. Oh! to men dying of thirst, that mirage was indeed a cruel mockery.
At length night approached, and the mountains were yet a long way off. We could march no more, and sank down exhausted, lying on our faces, because our backs were so cut by the driving sand and blistered by the sun that we could not sit. By now almost all our water was gone. Suddenly Higgs nudged us and pointed upwards. Following the line of his hand, we saw, not thirty yards away and showing clear against the sky, a file of antelopes trekking along the sand-ridge, doubtless on a night journey from one pasturage to another.
"You fellows shoot," he muttered; "I might miss and frighten them away," for in his distress poor Higgs was growing modest.
Slowly Orme and I drew ourselves to our knees, cocking our rifles. By this time all the buck save one had passed; there were but six of them, and this one marched along about twenty yards behind the others. Orme pulled the trigger, but his rifle would not go off because, as he discovered afterwards, some sand had worked into the mechanism of the lock.
Meanwhile I had also covered the buck, but the sunset dazzled my weakened eyes, and my arms were feeble; also my terrible anxiety for success, since I knew that on this shot hung our lives, unnerved me. But it must be now or never; in three more paces the beast would be down the dip.
I fired, and knowing that I had missed, turned sick and faint. The antelope bounded forward a few yards right to the edge of the dip; then, never having heard such a sound before, and being overcome by some fatal curiosity, stopped and turned around, staring at the direction whence it had come.
Despairingly I fired again, almost without taking aim, and this time the bullet went in beneath the throat, and, raking the animal, dropped it dead as a stone. We scrambled to it, and presently were engaged in an awful meal of which we never afterwards liked to think. Happily for us that antelope must have drunk water not long before.