The Light That Failed
Part 5 out of 5
him off to bed and ordered him to sleep. The house shouted and sang and
danced and revelled, Madame Binat moving through it with one eye on
the liquor payments and the girls and the other on Dick's interests. To
this latter end she smiled upon scowling and furtive Turkish officers of
fellaheen regiments, and more than kind to camel agents of no nationality
In the early morning, being then appropriately dressed in a flaming red
silk ball-dress, with a front of tarnished gold embroidery and a necklace
of plate-glass diamonds, she made chocolate and carried it in to Dick.
'It is only I, and I am of discreet age, eh? Drink and eat the roll too. Thus
in France mothers bring their sons, when those behave wisely, the
morning chocolate.' She sat down on the side of the bed whispering:--
'It is all arranged. Thou wilt go by the lighthouse boat. That is a bribe of
ten pounds English. The captain is never paid by the Government. The
boat comes to Suakin in four days. There will go with thee George, a
Greek muleteer. Another bribe of ten pounds. I will pay; they must not
know of thy money. George will go with thee as far as he goes with his
mules. Then he comes back to me, for his well-beloved is here, and if I do
not receive a telegram from Suakin saying that thou art well, the girl
answers for George.'
'Thank you.' He reached out sleepily for the cup. 'You are much too kind,
'If there were anything that I might do I would say, stay here and be
wise; but I do not think that would be best for thee.' She looked at her
liquor-stained dress with a sad smile. 'Nay, thou shalt go, in truth, thou
shalt go. It is best so. My boy, it is best so.'
She stooped and kissed Dick between the eyes. 'That is for
good-morning,' she said, going away. 'When thou art dressed we will
speak to George and make everything ready. But first we must open the
little trunk. Give me the keys.'
'The amount of kissing lately has been simply scandalous. I shall expect
Torp to kiss me next. He is more likely to swear at me for getting in his
way, though. Well, it won't last long.--Ohe, Madame, help me to my
toilette of the guillotine! There will be no chance of dressing properly out
He was rummaging among his new campaign-kit, and rowelling his
hands with the spurs. There are two says of wearing well-oiled
ankle-jacks, spotless blue bands, khaki coat and breeches, and a perfectly
pipeclayed helmet. The right way is the way of the untired man, master
of himself, setting out upon an expedition, well pleased.
'Everything must be very correct,' Dick explained. 'It will become dirty
afterwards, but now it is good to feel well dressed. Is everything as it
He patted the revolver neatly hidden under the fulness of the blouse on
the right hip and fingered his collar.
'I can do no more,' Madame said, between laughing and crying. 'Look at
thyself--but I forgot.'
'I am very content.' He stroked the creaseless spirals of his leggings.
'Now let us go and see the captain and George and the lighthouse boat.
Be quick, Madame.'
'But thou canst not be seen by the harbour walking with me in the
daylight. Figure to yourself if some English ladies----'
'There are no English ladies; and if there are, I have forgotten them.
Take me there.'
In spite of this burning impatience it was nearly evening ere the
lighthouse boat began to move. Madame had said a great deal both to
George and the captain touching the arrangements that were to be made
for Dick's benefit. Very few men who had the honour of her
acquaintance cared to disregard Madame's advice. That sort of contempt
might end in being knifed by a stranger in a gambling hell upon
surprisingly short provocation.
For six days--two of them were wasted in the crowded Canal--the little
steamer worked her way to Suakin, where she was to pick up the
superintendent of the lighthouse; and Dick made it his business to
propitiate George, who was distracted with fears for the safety of his
light-of-love and half inclined to make Dick responsible for his own
discomfort. When they arrived George took him under his wing, and
together they entered the red-hot seaport, encumbered with the material
and wastage of the Suakin-Berger line, from locomotives in disconsolate
fragments to mounds of chairs and pot-sleepers.
'If you keep with me,' said George, 'nobody will ask for passports or
what you do. They are all very busy.'
'Yes; but I should like to hear some of the Englishmen talk. They might
remember me. I was known here a long time ago--when I was some one
'A long time ago is a very long time ago here. The graveyards are full.
Now listen. This new railway runs out so far as Tanai-el-Hassan--that is
seven miles. Then there is a camp. They say that beyond Tanai-el-Hassan
the English troops go forward, and everything that they require will be
brought to them by this line.'
'Ah! Base camp. I see. That's a better business than fighting Fuzzies in
'For this reason even the mules to up in the iron-train.'
'It is all covered with iron, because it is still being shot at.'
'An armoured train. Better and better! Go on, faithful George.'
'And I go up with my mules to-night. Only those who particularly
require to go to the camp go out with the train. They begin to shoot not
far from the city.'
'The dears--they always used to!' Dick snuffed the smell of parched dust,
heated iron, and flaking paint with delight. Certainly the old life was
welcoming him back most generously.
'When I have got my mules together I go up to-night, but you must first
send a telegram of Port Said, declaring that I have done you no harm.'
'Madame has you well in hand. Would you stick a knife into me if you
had the chance?'
'I have no chance,' said the Greek. 'She is there with that woman.'
'I see. It's a bad thing to be divided between love of woman and the
chance of loot. I sympathise with you, George.'
They went to the telegraph-office unquestioned, for all the world was
desperately busy and had scarcely time to turn its head, and Suakin was
the last place under sky that would be chosen for holiday-ground. On
their return the voice of an English subaltern asked Dick what he was
doing. The blue goggles were over his eyes and he walked with his hand
on George's elbow as he replied--
'Egyptian Government--mules. My orders are to give them over to the A.
C. G. at Tanai-el-Hassan. Any occasion to show my papers?'
'Oh, certainly not. I beg your pardon. I'd no right to ask, but not seeing
your face before I----'
'I go out in the train to-night, I suppose,' said Dick, boldly. 'There will be
no difficulty in loading up the mules, will there?'
'You can see the horse-platforms from here. You must have them loaded
up early.' The young man went away wondering what sort of
broken-down waif this might be who talked like a gentleman and
consorted with Greek muleteers. Dick felt unhappy. To outface an
English officer is no small thing, but the bluff loses relish when one plays
it from the utter dark, and stumbles up and down rough ways, thinking
and eternally thinking of what might have been if things had fallen out
otherwise, and all had been as it was not.
George shared his meal with Dick and went off to the mule-lines. His
charge sat alone in a shed with his face in his hands. Before his tight-shut
eyes danced the face of Maisie, laughing, with parted lips. There was a
great bustle and clamour about him. He grew afraid and almost called
'I say, have you got your mules ready?' It was the voice of the subaltern
over his shoulder.
'My man's looking after them. The--the fact is I've a touch of ophthalmia
and can't see very well.
'By Jove! that's bad. You ought to lie up in hospital for a while. I've had
a turn of it myself. It's as bad as being blind.'
'So I find it. When does this armoured train go?'
'At six o'clock. It takes an hour to cover the seven miles.'
'Are the Fuzzies on the rampage--eh?'
'About three nights a week. Fact is I'm in acting command of the
night-train. It generally runs back empty to Tanai for the night.'
'Big camp at Tanai, I suppose?'
'Pretty big. It has to feed our desert-column somehow.'
'Is that far off?'
'Between thirty and forty miles--in an infernal thirsty country.'
'Is the country quiet between Tanai and our men?'
'More or less. I shouldn't care to cross it alone, or with a subaltern's
command for the matter of that, but the scouts get through it in some
'They always did.'
'Have you been here before, then?'
'I was through most of the trouble when it first broke out.'
'In the service and cashiered,' was the subaltern's first thought, so he
refrained from putting any questions.
'There's you man coming up with the mules. It seems rather queer----'
'That I should be mule-leading?' said Dick.
'I didn't mean to say so, but it is. Forgive me--it's beastly impertinence I
know, but you speak like a man who has been at a public school. There's
no mistaking the tone.'
'I am a public school man.'
'I thought so. I say, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you're a little
down on your luck, aren't you? I saw you sitting with your head in your
hands, and that's why I spoke.'
'Thanks. I am about as thoroughly and completely broke as a man need
'Suppose--I mean I'm a public school man myself. Couldn't I
perhaps--take it as a loan y'know and----'
'You're much too good, but on my honour I've as much money as I want.
. . . I tell you what you could do for me, though, and put me under an
everlasting obligation. Let me come into the bogie truck of the train.
There is a fore-truck, isn't there?'
'Yes. How d'you know?'
'I've been in an armoured train before. Only let me see--hear some of the
fun I mean, and I'll be grateful. I go at my own risk as a non-combatant.'
The young man thought for a minute. 'All right,' he said. 'We're
supposed to be an empty train, and there's no one to blow me up at the
George and a horde of yelling amateur assistants had loaded up the
mules, and the narrow-gauge armoured train, plated with three-eighths
inch boiler-plate till it looked like one long coffin, stood ready to start.
Two bogie trucks running before the locomotive were completely covered
in with plating, except that the leading one was pierced in front for the
muzzle of a machine-gun, and the second at either side for lateral fire.
The trucks together made one long iron-vaulted chamber in which a
score of artillerymen were rioting.
'Whitechapel--last train! Ah, I see yer kissin' in the first class there!'
somebody shouted, just as Dick was clamouring into the forward truck.
'Lordy! 'Ere's a real live passenger for the Kew, Tanai, Acton, and
Ealin' train. Echo, sir. Speshul edition! Star, sir.'--'Shall I get you a
foot-warmer?' said another.
'Thanks. I'll pay my footing,' said Dick, and relations of the most amiable
were established ere silence came with the arrival of the subaltern, and
the train jolted out over the rough track.
'This is an immense improvement on shooting the unimpressionable
Fuzzy in the open,' said Dick, from his place in the corner.
'Oh, but he's still unimpressed. There he goes!' said the subaltern, as a
bullet struck the outside of the truck. 'We always have at least one
demonstration against the night-train. Generally they attack the
rear-truck, where my junior commands. He gets all the fun of the fair.'
'Not to-night though! Listen!' said Dick. A flight of heavy-handed bullets
was succeeded by yelling and shouts. The children of the desert valued
their nightly amusement, and the train was an excellent mark.
'Is it worth giving them half a hopper full?' the subaltern asked of the
engine, which was driven by a Lieutenant of Sappers.
'I should think so! This is my section of the line. They'll be playing old
Harry with my permanent way if we don't stop 'em.'
'Hrrmph!' said the machine gun through all its five noses as the subaltern
drew the lever home. The empty cartridges clashed on the floor and the
smoke blew back through the truck. There was indiscriminate firing at
the rear of the train, and return fire from the darkness without and
unlimited howling. Dick stretched himself on the floor, wild with delight
at the sounds and the smells.
'God is very good--I never thought I'd hear this again. Give 'em hell,
men. Oh, give 'em hell!' he cried.
The train stopped for some obstruction on the line ahead and a party
went out to reconnoitre, but came back, cursing, for spades. The children
of the desert had piled sand and gravel on the rails, and twenty minutes
were lost in clearing it away. Then the slow progress recommenced, to be
varied with more shots, more shoutings, the steady clack and kick of the
machine guns, and a final difficulty with a half-lifted rail ere the train
came under the protection of the roaring camp at Tanai-el-Hassan.
'Now, you see why it takes an hour and a half to fetch her through,' said
the subaltern, unshipping the cartridge-hopper above his pet gun.
'It was a lark, though. I only wish it had lasted twice as long. How superb
it must have looked from outside!' said Dick, sighing regretfully.
'It palls after the first few nights. By the way, when you've settled about
your mules, come and see what we can find to eat in my tent. I'm Bennil
of the Gunners--in the artillery lines--and mind you don't fall over my
tent-ropes in the dark.'
But it was all dark to Dick. He could only smell the camels, the hay-bales,
the cooking, the smoky fires, and the tanned canvas of the tents as he
stood, where he had dropped from the train, shouting for George. There
was a sound of light-hearted kicking on the iron skin of the rear trucks,
with squealing and grunting. George was unloading the mules.
The engine was blowing off steam nearly in Dick's ear; a cold wind of the
desert danced between his legs; he was hungry, and felt tired and
dirty--so dirty that he tried to brush his coat with his hands. That was a
hopeless job; he thrust his hands into his pockets and began to count over
the many times that he had waited in strange or remote places for trains
or camels, mules or horses, to carry him to his business. In those days he
could see--few men more clearly--and the spectacle of an armed camp at
dinner under the stare was an ever fresh pleasure to the eye. There was
colour, light, and motion, without which no man has much pleasure in
living. This night there remained for him only one more journey through
the darkness that never lifts to tell a man how far he has travelled. Then
he would grip Torpenhow's hand again--Torpenhow, who was alive and
strong, and lived in the midst of the action that had once made the
reputation of a man called Dick Heldar: not in the least to be confused
with the blind, bewildered vagabond who seemed to answer to the same
name. Yes, he would find Torpenhow, and come as near to the old life as
might be. Afterwards he would forget everything: Bessie, who had
wrecked the Melancolia and so nearly wrecked his life; Beeton, who lived
in a strange unreal city full of tin-tacks and gas-plugs and matters that
no men needed; that irrational being who had offered him love and
loyalty for nothing, but had not signed her name; and most of all Maisie,
who, from her own point of view, was undeniably right in all she did, but
oh, at this distance, so tantalisingly fair.
George's hand on his arm pulled him back to the situation.
'And what now?' said George.
'Oh yes of course. What now? Take me to the camel-men. Take me to
where the scouts sit when they come in from the desert. They sit by their
camels, and the camels eat grain out of a black blanket held up at the
corners, and the men eat by their side just like camels. Take me there!'
The camp was rough and rutty, and Dick stumbled many times over the
stumps of scrub. The scouts were sitting by their beasts, as Dick knew
they would. The light of the dung-fires flickered on their bearded faces,
and the camels bubbled and mumbled beside them at rest. It was no part
of Dick's policy to go into the desert with a convoy of supplies. That
would lead to impertinent questions, and since a blind non-combatant is
not needed at the front, he would probably be forced to return to Suakin.
He must go up alone, and go immediately.
'Now for one last bluff--the biggest of all,' he said. 'Peace be with you,
brethren!' The watchful George steered him to the circle of the nearest
fire. The heads of the camel-sheiks bowed gravely, and the camels,
scenting a European, looked sideways curiously like brooding hens, half
ready to get to their feet.
'A beast and a driver to go to the fighting line to-night,' said Dick.
'A Mulaid?' said a voice, scornfully naming the best baggage-breed that
'A Bisharin,' returned Dick, with perfect gravity. 'A Bisharin without
saddle-galls. Therefore no charge of thine, shock-head.'
Two or three minutes passed. Then--
'We be knee-haltered for the night. There is no going out from the camp.'
'Not for money?'
'H'm! Ah! English money?'
Another depressing interval of silence.
'Twenty-five pounds English paid into the hand of the driver at my
journey's end, and as much more into the hand of the camel-sheik here,
to be paid when the driver returns.'
This was royal payment, and the sheik, who knew that he would get his
commission on this deposit, stirred in Dick's behalf.
'For scarcely one night's journey--fifty pounds. Land and wells and good
trees and wives to make a man content for the rest of his days. Who
speaks?' said Dick.
'I,' said a voice. 'I will go--but there is no going from the camp.'
'Fool! I know that a camel can break his knee-halter, and the sentries do
not fire if one goes in chase. Twenty-five pounds and another twenty-five
pounds. But the beast must be a good Bisharin; I will take no
Then the bargaining began, and at the end of half an hour the first
deposit was paid over to the sheik, who talked in low tones to the driver.
Dick heard the latter say: 'A little way out only. Any baggage-beast will
serve. Am I a fool to waste my cattle for a blind man?'
'And though I cannot see'--Dick lifted his voice a little--'yet I carry that
which has six eyes, and the driver will sit before me. If we do not reach
the English troops in the dawn he will be dead.'
'But where, in God's name, are the troops?'
'Unless thou knowest let another man ride. Dost thou know? Remember
it will be life or death to thee.'
'I know,' said the driver, sullenly. 'Stand back from my beast. I am going
to slip him.'
'Not so swiftly. George, hold the camel's head a moment. I want to feel
his cheek.' The hands wandered over the hide till they found the branded
half-circle that is the mark of the Biharin, the light-built riding-camel.
'That is well. Cut this one loose. Remember no blessing of God comes on
those who try to cheat the blind.'
The men chuckled by the fires at the camel-driver's discomfiture. He had
intended to substitute a slow, saddle-galled baggage-colt.
'Stand back!' one shouted, lashing the Biharin under the belly with a
quirt. Dick obeyed as soon as he felt the nose-string tighten in his
hand,--and a cry went up, 'Illaha! Aho! He is loose.'
With a roar and a grunt the Biharin rose to his feet and plunged forward
toward the desert, his driver following with shouts and lamentation.
George caught Dick's arm and hurried him stumbling and tripping past a
disgusted sentry who was used to stampeding camels.
'What's the row now?' he cried.
'Every stitch of my kit on that blasted dromedary,' Dick answered, after
the manner of a common soldier.
'Go on, and take care your throat's not cut out side--you and your
The outcries ceased when the camel had disappeared behind a hillock,
and his driver had called him back and made him kneel down.
'Mount first,' said Dick. Then climbing into the second seat and gently
screwing the pistol muzzle into the small of his companion's back, 'Go on
in God's name, and swiftly. Good-bye, George. Remember me to
Madame, and have a good time with your girl. Get forward, child of the
A few minutes later he was shut up in a great silence, hardly broken by
the creaking of the saddle and the soft pad of the tireless feet. Dick
adjusted himself comfortably to the rock and pitch of the pace, girthed
his belt tighter, and felt the darkness slide past. For an hour he was
conscious only of the sense of rapid progress.
'A good camel,' he said at last.
'He was never underfed. He is my own and clean bred,' the driver
His head dropped on his chest and he tried to think, but the tenor of his
thoughts was broken because he was very sleepy. In the half doze in
seemed that he was learning a punishment hymn at Mrs. Jennett's. He
had committed some crime as bad as Sabbath-breaking, and she had
locked him up in his bedroom. But he could never repeat more than the
first two lines of the hymn--
When Israel of the Lord believed
Out of the land of bondage came.
He said them over and over thousands of times. The driver turned in the
saddle to see if there were any chance of capturing the revolver and
ending the ride. Dick roused, struck him over the head with the butt, and
stormed himself wide awake. Somebody hidden in a clump of
camel-thorn shouted as the camel toiled up rising ground. A shot was
fired, and the silence shut down again, bringing the desire to sleep. Dick
could think no longer. He was too tired and stiff and cramped to do more
than nod uneasily from time to time, waking with a start and punching
the driver with the pistol.
'Is there a moon?' he asked drowsily.
'She is near her setting.'
'I wish that I could see her. Halt the camel. At least let me hear the
The man obeyed. Out of the utter stillness came one breath of wind. It
rattled the dead leaves of a shrub some distance away and ceased. A
handful of dry earth detached itself from the edge of a rail trench and
crumbled softly to the bottom.
'Go on. The night is very cold.'
Those who have watched till the morning know how the last hour before
the light lengthens itself into many eternities. It seemed to Dick that he
had never since the beginning of original darkness done anything at all
save jolt through the air. Once in a thousand years he would finger the
nailheads on the saddle-front and count them all carefully. Centuries
later he would shift his revolver from his right hand to his left and allow
the eased arm to drop down at his side. From the safe distance of London
he was watching himself thus employed,--watching critically. Yet
whenever he put out his hand to the canvas that he might paint the
tawny yellow desert under the glare of the sinking moon, the black
shadow of a camel and the two bowed figures atop, that hand held a
revolver and the arm was numbed from wrist to collar-bone. Moreover,
he was in the dark, and could see no canvas of any kind whatever.
The driver grunted, and Dick was conscious of a change in the air.
'I smell the dawn,' he whispered.
'It is here, and yonder are the troops. Have I done well?'
The camel stretched out its neck and roared as there came down wind
the pungent reek of camels in the square.
'Go on. We must get there swiftly. Go on.'
'They are moving in their camp. There is so much dust that I cannot see
what they do.'
'Am I in better case? Go forward.'
They could hear the hum of voices ahead, the howling and the bubbling
of the beasts and the hoarse cries of the soldiers girthing up for the day.
Two or three shots were fired.
'Is that at us? Surely they can see that I am English,' Dick spoke angrily.
'Nay, it is from the desert,' the driver answered, cowering in his saddle.
'Go forward, my child! Well it is that the dawn did not uncover us an
The camel headed straight for the column and the shots behind
multiplied. The children of the desert had arranged that most
uncomfortable of surprises, a dawn attack for the English troops, and
were getting their distance by snap-shots at the only moving object
without the square.
'What luck! What stupendous and imperial luck!' said Dick. 'It's "just
before the battle, mother." Oh, God has been most good to me!?
Only'--the agony of the thought made him screw up his eyes for an
instant--'Maisie . . .'
'Allahu! We are in,' said the man, as he drove into the rearguard and the
'Who the deuce are you? Despatches or what? What's the strength of the
enemy behind that ridge? How did you get through?' asked a dozen
voices. For all answer Dick took a long breath, unbuckled his belt, and
shouted from the saddle at the top of a wearied and dusty voice,
'Torpenhow! Ohe, Torp! Coo-ee, Tor-pen-how.'
A bearded man raking in the ashes of a fire for a light to his pipe moved
very swiftly towards that cry, as the rearguard, facing about, began to
fire at the puffs of smoke from the hillocks around. Gradually the
scattered white cloudlets drew out into the long lines of banked white
that hung heavily in the stillness of the dawn before they turned over
wave-like and glided into the valleys. The soldiers in the square were
coughing and swearing as their own smoke obstructed their view, and
they edged forward to get beyond it. A wounded camel leaped to its feet
and roared aloud, the cry ending in a bubbling grunt. Some one had cut
its throat to prevent confusion. Then came the thick sob of a man
receiving his death-wound from a bullet; then a yell of agony and
There was no time to ask any questions.
'Get down, man! Get down behind the camel!'
'No. Put me, I pray, in the forefront of the battle.' Dick turned his face to
Torpenhow and raised his hand to set his helmet straight, but,
miscalculating the distance, knocked it off. Torpenhow saw that his hair
was gray on the temples, and that his face was the face of an old man.
'Come down, you damned fool! Dickie, come off!'
And Dick came obediently, but as a tree falls, pitching sideways from the
Bisharin's saddle at Torpenhow's feet. His luck had held to the last, even
to the crowning mercy of a kindly bullet through his head.
Torpenhow knelt under the lee of the camel, with Dick's body in his arms.
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