by Arthur Conan
There was only the one little feathery clump of dom palms in all that
great wilderness of black rocks and orange sand. It stood high on the
bank, and below it the brown Nile swirled swiftly towards the Ambigole
Cataract, fitting a little frill of foam round each of the boulders
which studded its surface. Above, out of a naked blue sky, the sun was
beating down upon the sand, and up again from the sand under the brims
of the pith-hats of the horsemen with the scorching glare of a
blast-furnace. It had risen so high that the shadows of the horses were
no larger than themselves.
"Whew!" cried Mortimer, mopping his forehead, "you'd pay five shillings
for this at the hummums."
"Precisely," said Scott. "But you are not asked to ride twenty miles in
a Turkish bath with a field-glass and a revolver, and a water-bottle and
a whole Christmas-treeful of things dangling from you. The hot-house at
Kew is excellent as a conservatory, but not adapted for exhibitions upon
the horizontal bar. I vote for a camp in the palm-grove and a halt
Mortimer rose on his stirrups and looked hard to the southward.
Everywhere were the same black burned rocks and deep orange sand.
At one spot only an intermittent line appeared to have been cut through
the rugged spurs which ran down to the river. It was the bed of the old
railway, long destroyed by the Arabs, but now in process of
reconstruction by the advancing Egyptians. There was no other sign of
man's handiwork in all that desolate scene.
"It's palm trees or nothing," said Scott.
"Well, I suppose we must; and yet I grudge every hour until we catch the
force up. What would our editors say if we were late for the action?"
"My dear chap, an old bird like you doesn't need to be told that no sane
modern general would ever attack until the Press is up."
"You don't mean that?" said young Anerley. "I thought we were looked
upon as an unmitigated nuisance."
"'Newspaper correspondents and travelling gentlemen, and all that tribe
of useless drones'—being an extract from Lord Wolseley's 'Soldier's
Pocket-Book,'" cried Scott. "We know all about that, Anerley;" and he
winked behind his blue spectacles. "If there was going to be a battle
we should very soon have an escort of cavalry to hurry us up. I've been
in fifteen, and I never saw one where they had not arranged for a
"That's very well; but the enemy may be less considerate," said
"They are not strong enough to force a battle."
"A skirmish, then?"
"Much more likely to be a raid upon the rear. In that case we are just
where we should be."
"So we are! What a score over Reuter's man up with the advance!
Well, we'll outspan and have our tiffin under the palms."
There were three of them, and they stood for three great London dailies.
Reuter's was thirty miles ahead; two evening pennies upon camels were
twenty miles behind. And among them they represented the eyes and ears
of the public—the great silent millions and millions who had paid for
everything, and who waited so patiently to know the result of their
They were remarkable men these body-servants of the Press; two of them
already veterans in camps, the other setting out upon his first
campaign, and full of deference for his famous comrades.
This first one, who had just dismounted from his bay polo-pony, was
Mortimer, of the Intelligence—tall, straight, and hawk-faced, with
khaki tunic and riding-breeches, drab putties, a scarlet cummerbund, and
a skin tanned to the red of a Scotch fir by sun and wind, and mottled by
the mosquito and the sand-fly. The other—small, quick, mercurial, with
blue-black, curling beard and hair, a fly-switch for ever flicking in
his left hand—was Scott, of the Courier, who had come through more
dangers and brought off more brilliant coups than any man in the
profession, save the eminent Chandler, now no longer in a condition to
take the field. They were a singular contrast, Mortimer and Scott, and
it was in their differences that the secret of their close friendship
lay. Each dovetailed into the other. The strength of each was in the
other's weakness. Together they formed a perfect unit. Mortimer was
Saxon—slow, conscientious, and deliberate; Scott was Celtic—quick,
happy-go-lucky, and brilliant. Mortimer was the more solid, Scott the
more attractive. Mortimer was the deeper thinker, Scott the brighter
talker. By a curious coincidence, though each had seen much of warfare,
their campaigns had never coincided. Together they covered all recent
military history. Scott had done Plevna, the Shipka, the Zulus, Egypt,
Suakim; Mortimer had seen the Boer War, the Chilian, the Bulgaria and
Servian, the Gordon relief, the Indian frontier, Brazilian rebellion,
and Madagascar. This intimate personal knowledge gave a peculiar
flavour to their talk. There was none of the second-hand surmise and
conjecture which form so much of our conversation; it was all concrete
and final. The speaker had been there, had seen it, and there was an
end of it.
In spite of their friendship there was the keenest professional rivalry
between the two men. Either would have sacrificed himself to help his
companion, but either would also have sacrificed his companion to help
his paper. Never did a jockey yearn for a winning mount as keenly as
each of them longed to have a full column in a morning edition whilst
every other daily was blank. They were perfectly frank about the
matter. Each professed himself ready to steal a march on his neighbour,
and each recognised that the other's duty to his employer was far higher
than any personal consideration.
The third man was Anerley, of the Gazette—young, inexperienced, and
rather simple-looking. He had a droop of the lip, which some of his
more intimate friends regarded as a libel upon his character, and his
eyes were so slow and so sleepy that they suggested an affectation.
A leaning towards soldiering had sent him twice to autumn manoeuvres,
and a touch of colour in his descriptions had induced the proprietors of
the Gazette to give him a trial as a war-special. There was a
pleasing diffidence about his bearing which recommended him to his
experienced companions, and if they had a smile sometimes at his
guileless ways, it was soothing to them to have a comrade from whom
nothing was to be feared. From the day that they left the
telegraph-wire behind them at Sarras, the man who was mounted upon a
15-guinea 13-4 Syrian was delivered over into the hands of the owners of
the two fastest polo-ponies that ever shot down the Ghezireh ground.
The three had dismounted and led their beasts under the welcome shade.
In the brassy, yellow glare every branch above threw so black and solid
a shadow that the men involuntarily raised their feet to step over
"The palm makes an excellent hat-rack," said Scott, slinging his
revolver and his water-bottle over the little upward-pointing pegs which
bristle from the trunk. "As a shade tree, however, it isn't an
unqualified success. Curious that in the universal adaptation of means
to ends something a little less flimsy could not have been devised for
"Like the banyan in India."
"Or the fine hardwood trees in Ashantee, where a whole regiment could
picnic under the shade."
"The teak tree isn't bad in Burmah, either. By Jove, the baccy has all
come loose in the saddle-bag! That long-cut mixture smokes rather hot
for this climate. How about the baggles, Anerley?"
"They'll be here in five minutes."
Down the winding path which curved among the rocks the little train of
baggage-camels was daintily picking its way. They came mincing and
undulating along, turning their heads slowly from side to side with the
air of a self-conscious woman. In front rode the three Berberee
body-servants upon donkeys, and behind walked the Arab camel-boys.
They had been travelling for nine long hours, ever since the first
rising of the moon, at the weary camel-drag of two and a half miles an
hour, but now they brightened, both beasts and men, at the sight of the
grove and the riderless horses. In a few minutes the loads were
unstrapped, the animals tethered, a fire lighted, fresh water carried up
from the river, and each camel-boy provided with his own little heap of
tibbin laid in the centre of the table-cloth, without which no well-bred
Arabian will condescend to feed. The dazzling light without, the
subdued half-tones within, the green palm-fronds outlined against the
deep blue sky, the flitting, silent-footed Arab servants, the crackling
of sticks, the reek of a lighting fire, the placid supercilious heads of
the camels, they all come back in their dreams to those who have known
Scott was breaking eggs into a pan and rolling out a love-song in his
rich, deep voice. Anerley, with his head and arms buried in a deal
packing-case, was working his way through strata of tinned soups, bully
beef, potted chicken, and sardines to reach the jams which lay beneath.
The conscientious Mortimer, with his notebook upon his knee, was jotting
down what the railway engineer had told him at the line-end the day
before. Suddenly he raised his eyes and saw the man himself on his
chestnut pony, dipping and rising over the broken ground.
"Hullo! Here's Merryweather!"
"A pretty lather his pony is in! He's had her at that hand-gallop for
hours, by the look of her. Hullo, Merryweather, hullo!"
The engineer, a small, compact man with a pointed red beard, had made as
though he would ride past their camp without word or halt. Now he
swerved, and easing his pony down to a canter, he headed her to-wards
"For God's sake, a drink!" he croaked. "My tongue is stuck to the roof
of my mouth."
Mortimer ran with the water-bottle, Scott with the whisky-flask, and
Anerley with the tin pannikin. The engineer drank until his breath
"Well, I must be off," said he, striking the drops from his red
"A hitch in the railway construction. I must see the general.
It's the devil not having a telegraph."
"Anything we can report?" Out came three notebooks.
"I'll tell you after I've seen the general."
"The usual shaves. Hud-up, Jinny! Good-bye!"
With a soft thudding upon the sand, and a clatter among the stones the
weary pony was off upon her journey once more.
"Nothing serious, I suppose?" said Mortimer, staring after him.
"Deuced serious," cried Scott. "The ham and eggs are burned! No—it's
all right—saved, and done to a turn! Pull the box up, Anerley.
Come on, Mortimer, stow that notebook! The fork is mightier than the
pen just at present. What's the matter with you, Anerley?"
"I was wondering whether what we have just seen was worth a telegram."
"Well, it's for the proprietors to say if it's worth it. Sordid money
considerations are not for us. We must wire about something just to
justify our khaki coats and our putties."
"But what is there to say?"
Mortimer's long, austere face broke into a smile over the youngster's
innocence. "It's not quite usual in our profession to give each other
tips," said he. "However, as my telegram is written, I've no objection
to your reading it. You may be sure that I would not show it to you if
it were of the slightest importance."
Anerley took up the slip of paper and read:—
Merryweather obstacles stop journey confer general stop nature
difficulties later stop rumours dervishes.
"This is very condensed," said Anerley, with wrinkled brows.
"Condensed!" cried Scott. "Why, it's sinfully garrulous. If my old man
got a wire like that his language would crack the lamp-shades. I'd cut
out half this; for example, I'd have out 'journey,' and 'nature,' and
'rumours.' But my old man would make a ten-line paragraph of it for all
"Well, I'll do it myself just to show you. Lend me that stylo." He
scribbled for a minute in his notebook. "It works out somewhat on these
Mr. Charles H. Merryweather, the eminent railway engineer,
who is at present engaged in superintending the construction
of the line from Sarras to the front, has met with considerable
obstacles to the rapid completion of his important task—
"Of course the old man knows who Merryweather is, and what he is about,
so the word 'obstacles' would suggest all that to him."
He has to-day been compelled to make a journey of forty
miles to the front, in order to confer with the general upon
the steps which are necessary in order to facilitate the work.
Further particulars of the exact nature of the difficulties
met with will be made public at a later date. All is quiet
upon the line of communications, though the usual persistent
rumours of the presence of dervishes in the Eastern desert
continue to circulate.—Our own correspondent.
"How's that?" cried Scott, triumphantly, and his white teeth gleamed
suddenly through his black beard. "That's the sort of flapdoodle for
the dear old public."
"Will it interest them?"
"Oh, everything interests them. They want to know all about it; and
they like to think that there is a man who is getting a hundred a month
simply in order to tell it to them."
"It's very kind of you to teach me all this."
"Well, it is a little unconventional, for, after all, we are here to
score over each other if we can. There are no more eggs, and you must
take it out in jam. Of course, as Mortimer says, such a telegram as
this is of no importance one way or another, except to prove to the
office that we are in the Soudan, and not at Monte Carlo. But when it
comes to serious work it must be every man for himself."
"Is that quite necessary?"
"Why, of course it is."
"I should have thought if three men were to combine and to share their
news, they would do better than if they were each to act for himself,
and they would have a much pleasanter time of it."
The two older men sat with their bread-and-jam in their hands, and an
expression of genuine disgust upon their faces.
"We are not here to have a pleasant time," said Mortimer, with a flash
through his glasses. "We are here to do our best for our papers.
How can they score over each other if we do not do the same? If we all
combine we might as well amalgamate with Reuter at once."
"Why, it would take away the whole glory of the profession!" cried
Scott. "At present the smartest man gets his stuff first on the wires.
What inducement is there to be smart if we all share and share alike?"
"And at present the man with the best equipment has the best chance,"
remarked Mortimer, glancing across at the shot-silk polo ponies and the
cheap little Syrian grey. "That is the fair reward of foresight and
enterprise. Every man for himself, and let the best man win."
"That's the way to find who the best man is. Look at Chandler.
He would never have got his chance if he had not played always off his
own bat. You've heard how he pretended to break his leg, sent his
fellow-correspondent off for the doctor, and so got a fair start for the
"Do you mean to say that was legitimate?"
"Everything is legitimate. It's your wits against my wits."
"I should call it dishonourable."
"You may call it what you like. Chandler's paper got the battle and the
other's didn't. It made Chandler's name."
"Or take Westlake," said Mortimer, cramming the tobacco into his pipe.
"Hi, Abdul, you may have the dishes! Westlake brought his stuff down by
pretending to be the Government courier, and using the relays of
Government horses. Westlake's paper sold half a million."
"Is that legitimate also?" asked Anerley, thoughtfully.
"Well, it looks a little like horse-stealing and lying."
"Well, I think I should do a little horse-stealing and lying if I
could have a column to myself in a London daily. What do you say,
"Anything short of manslaughter."
"And I'm not sure that I'd trust you there."
"Well, I don't think I should be guilty of newspaper-man-slaughter.
That I regard as a distinct breach of professional etiquette. But if
any outsider comes between a highly charged correspondent and an
electric wire, he does it at his peril. My dear Anerley, I tell you
frankly that if you are going to handicap yourself with scruple you may
just as well be in Fleet Street as in the Soudan. Our life is
irregular. Our work has never been systematised. No doubt it will be
some day, but the time is not yet. Do what you can and how you can, and
be first on the wires; that's my advice to you; and also, that when next
you come upon a campaign you bring with you the best horse that money
can buy. Mortimer may beat me or I may beat Mortimer, but at least we
know that between us we have the fastest ponies in the country. We have
neglected no chance."
"I am not so certain of that," said Mortimer, slowly. "You are aware,
of course, that though a horse beats a camel on twenty miles, a camel
beats a horse on thirty."
"What, one of those camels?" cried Anerley in astonishment. The two
seniors burst out laughing.
"No, no, the real high-bred trotter—the kind of beast the dervishes
ride when they make their lightning raids."
"Faster than a galloping horse?" "Well, it tires a horse down. It goes
the same gait all the way, and it wants neither halt nor drink, and it
takes rough ground much better than a horse. They used to have long
distance races at Haifa, and the camel always won at thirty."
"Still, we need not reproach ourselves, Scott, for we are not very
likely to have to carry a thirty-mile message, they will have the field
telegraph next week."
"Quite so. But at the present moment—"
"I know, my dear chap; but there is no motion of urgency before the
house. Load baggles at five o'clock; so you have Just three hours
clear. Any sign of the evening pennies?"
Mortimer swept the northern horizon with his binoculars. "Not in sight
"They are quite capable of travelling during the heat of the day.
Just the sort of thing evening pennies would do. Take care of your
match, Anerley. These palm groves go up like a powder magazine if you
set them alight. Bye-bye." The two men crawled under their
mosquito-nets and sank instantly into the easy sleep of those whose
lives are spent in the open.
Young Anerley stood with his back against a palm tree and his briar
between his lips, thinking over the advice which he had received.
After all, they were the heads of the profession, these men, and it was
not for him, the newcomer, to reform their methods. If they served
their papers in this fashion, then he must do the same. They had at
least been frank and generous in teaching him the rules of the game.
If it was good enough for them it was good enough for him.
It was a broiling afternoon, and those thin frills of foam round the
black, glistening necks of the Nile boulders looked delightfully cool
and alluring. But it would not be safe to bathe for some hours to come.
The air shimmered and vibrated over the baking stretch of sand and rock.
There was not a breath of wind, and the droning and piping of the
insects inclined one for sleep. Somewhere above a hoopoe was calling.
Anerley knocked out his ashes, and was turning towards his couch, when
his eye caught something moving in the desert to the south. It was a
horseman riding towards them as swiftly as the broken ground would
permit. A messenger from the army, thought Anerley; and then, as he
watched, the sun suddenly struck the man on the side of the head, and
his chin flamed into gold. There could not be two horsemen with beards
of such a colour. It was Merryweather, the engineer, and he was
returning. What on earth was he returning for? He had been so keen to
see the general, and yet he was coming back with his mission
unaccomplished. Was it that his pony was hopelessly foundered?
It seemed to be moving well. Anerley picked up Mortimer's binoculars,
and a foam-bespattered horse and a weary koorbash-cracking man came
cantering up the centre of the field. But there was nothing in his
appearance to explain the mystery of his return. Then as he watched
them they dipped into a hollow and disappeared. He could see that it
was one of those narrow khors which led to the river, and he waited,
glass in hand, for their immediate reappearance. But minute passed
after minute and there was no sign of them. That narrow gully appeared
to have swallowed them up. And then with a curious gulp and start he
saw a little grey cloud wreathe itself slowly from among the rocks and
drift in a long, hazy shred over the desert. In an instant he had torn
Scott and Mortimer from their slumbers.
"Get up, you chaps!" he cried. "I believe Merryweather has been shot by
"And Reuter not here!" cried the two veterans, exultantly clutching at
their notebooks. "Merryweather shot! Where? When? How?"
In a few words Anerley explained what he had seen.
"You heard nothing?"
"Well, a shot loses itself very easily among rocks. By George, look at
Two large brown birds were soaring in the deep blue heaven. As Scott
spoke they circled down and dropped into the little khor.
"That's good enough," said Mortimer, with his nose between the leaves of
his book. "'Merryweather headed dervishes stop return stop shot
mutilated stop raid communications.' How's that?"
"You think he was headed off?"
"Why else should he return?"
"In that case, if they were out in front of him and others cut him off,
there must be several small raiding parties."
"I should judge so."
"How about the 'mutilated'?"
"I've fought against Arabs before."
"Where are you off to?"
"I think I'll race you in," said Scott.
Anerley stared in astonishment at the absolutely impersonal way in which
these men regarded the situation. In their zeal for news it had
apparently never struck them that they, their camp, and their servants
were all in the lion's mouth. But even as they talked there came the
harsh, importunate rat-tat-tat of an irregular volley from among the
rocks, and the high, keening whistle of bullets over their heads.
A palm spray fluttered down amongst them. At the same instant the six
frightened servants came running wildly in for protection.
It was the cool-headed Mortimer who organised the defence, for Scott's
Celtic soul was so aflame at all this "copy" in hand and more to come
that he was too exuberantly boisterous for a commander. The other, with
his spectacles and his stern face, soon had the servants in hand.
"Tali henna! Egri! What the deuce are you frightened about? Put the
camels between the palm trunks. That's right. Now get the knee-tethers
on them. Quies! Did you never hear bullets before? Now put the
donkeys here. Not much—you don't get my polo-pony to make a zareba
with. Picket the ponies between the grove and the river out of danger's
way. These fellows seem to fire even higher than they did in '85."
"That's got home, anyhow," said Scott, as they heard a soft, splashing
thud like a stone in a mud-bank.
"Who's hit, then?"
"The brown camel that's chewing the cud." As he spoke the creature, its
jaw still working, laid its long neck along the ground and closed its
large dark eyes.
"That shot cost me 15 pounds," said Mortimer, ruefully. "How many of
them do you make?"
"Four, I think."
"Only four Bezingers, at any rate; there may be some spearmen."
"I think not; it is a little raiding-party of rifle-men. By the way,
Anerley, you've never been under fire before, have you?"
"Never," said the young pressman, who was conscious of a curious feeling
of nervous elation.
"Love and poverty and war, they are all experiences necessary to make a
complete life. Pass over those cartridges. This is a very mild baptism
that you are undergoing, for behind these camels you are as safe as if
you were sitting in the back room of the Authors' Club."
"As safe, but hardly as comfortable," said Scott. "A long glass of hock
and seltzer would be exceedingly acceptable. But oh, Mortimer, what a
chance! Think of the general's feelings when he hears that the first
action of the war has been fought by the Press column. Think of Reuter,
who has been stewing at the front for a week! Think of the evening
pennies just too late for the fun. By George, that slug brushed a
mosquito off me!"
"And one of the donkeys is hit."
"This is sinful. It will end in our having to carry our own kits to
"Never mind, my boy, it all goes to make copy. I can see the
headlines—'Raid on Communications'; 'Murder of British Engineer':
'Press Column Attacked.' Won't it be ripping?"
"I wonder what the next line will be," said Anerley.
"'Our Special Wounded'!" cried Scott, rolling over on to his back.
"No harm done," he added, gathering himself up again; "only a chip off
my knee. This is getting sultry. I confess that the idea of that back
room at the Authors' Club begins to grow upon me."
"I have some diachylon."
"Afterwards will do. We're having a 'appy day with Fuzzy on the rush.
I wish he would rush."
"They're coming nearer."
"This is an excellent revolver of mine if it didn't throw so devilish
high. I always aim at a man's toes if I want to stimulate his
digestion. O Lord, there's our kettle gone!" With a boom like a
dinner-gong a Remington bullet had passed through the kettle, and a
cloud of steam hissed up from the fire. A wild shout came from the
"The idiots think that they have blown us up. They'll rush us now, as
sure as fate; then it will be our turn to lead. Got your revolver,
"I have this double-barrelled fowling-piece."
"Sensible man! It's the best weapon in the world at this sort of
rough-and-tumble work. What cartridges?"
"That will do all right. I carry this big bore double-barrelled pistol
loaded with slugs. You might as well try to stop one of these fellows
with a pea-shooter as with a service revolver."
"There are ways and means," said Scott. "The Geneva Convention does not
hold south of the first cataract. It's easy to make a bullet mushroom
by a little manipulation of the tip of it. When I was in the broken
square at Tamai—"
"Wait a bit," cried Mortimer, adjusting his glasses. "I think they are
"The time," said Scott, snapping up his watch, "being exactly seventeen
minutes past four."
Anerley had been lying behind a camel staring with an interest which
bordered upon fascination at the rocks opposite. Here was a little
woolly puff of smoke, and there was another one, but never once had they
caught a glimpse of the attackers. To him there was something weird and
awesome in these unseen, persistent men who, minute by minute, were
drawing closer to them. He had heard them cry out when the kettle was
broken, and once, immediately afterwards, an enormously strong voice had
roared something which had set Scott shrugging his shoulders.
"They've got to take us first," said he, and Anerley thought his nerve
might be better if he did not ask for a translation.
The firing had begun at a distance of some 100 yards, which put it out
of the question for them, with their lighter weapons, to make any reply
to it. Had their antagonists continued to keep that range the defenders
must either have made a hopeless sally or tried to shelter themselves
behind their zareba as best they might on the chance that the sound
might bring up help. But, luckily for them, the African has never taken
kindly to the rifle, and his primitive instinct to close with his enemy
is always too strong for his sense of strategy. They were drawing in,
therefore, and now, for the first time, Anerley caught sight of a face
looking at them from over a rock. It was a huge, virile, strong-jawed
head of a pure negro type, with silver trinkets gleaming in the ears.
The man raised a great arm from behind the rock, and shook his Remington
"Shall I fire?" asked Anerley.
"No, no; it is too far. Your shot would scatter all over the place."
"It's a picturesque ruffian," said Scott. "Couldn't you kodak him,
Mortimer? There's another!" A fine-featured brown Arab, with a black,
pointed beard, was peeping from behind another boulder. He wore the
green turban which proclaimed him hadji, and his face showed the keen,
nervous exultation of the religious fanatic.
"They seem a piebald crowd," said Scott.
"That last is one of the real fighting Baggara," remarked Mortimer.
"He's a dangerous man."
"He looks pretty vicious. There's another negro!"
"Two more! Dingas, by the look of them. Just the same chaps we get our
own black battalions from. As long as they get a fight they don't mind
who it's for; but if the idiots had only sense enough to understand,
they would know that the Arab is their hereditary enemy, and we their
hereditary friends. Look at the silly juggins, gnashing his teeth at
the very men who put down the slave trade!"
"Couldn't you explain?"
"I'll explain with this pistol when he comes a little nearer. Now sit
tight, Anerley. They're off!"
They were indeed. It was the brown man with the green turban who headed
the rush. Close at his heels was the negro with the silver ear-rings—
a giant of a man, and the other two were only a little behind. As they
sprang over the rocks one after the other, it took Anerley back to the
school sports when he held the tape for the hurdle-race. It was
magnificent, the wild spirit and abandon of it, the flutter of the
chequered galabeeahs, the gleam of steel, the wave of black arms, the
frenzied faces, the quick pitter-patter of the rushing feet. The
law-abiding Briton is so imbued with the idea of the sanctity of human
life that it was hard for the young pressman to realise that these men
had every intention of killing him, and that he was at perfect liberty
to do as much for them. He lay staring as if this were a show and he a
"Now, Anerley, now! Take the Arab!" cried somebody.
He put up the gun and saw the brown fierce face at the other end of the
barrel. He tugged at the trigger, but the face grew larger and fiercer
with every stride. Again and again he tugged. A revolver-shot rang out
at his elbow, then another one, and he saw a red spot spring out on the
Arab's brown breast. But he was still coming on.
"Shoot, you ass, shoot!" screamed Scott.
Again he strained unavailingly at the trigger. There were two more
pistol-shots, and the big negro had fallen and risen and fallen again.
"Cock it, you fool!" shouted a furious voice; and at the same instant,
with a rush and flutter, the Arab bounded over the prostrate camel and
came down with his bare feet upon Anerley's chest. In a dream he seemed
to be struggling frantically with someone upon the ground, then he was
conscious of a tremendous explosion in his very face, and so ended for
him the first action of the war.
"Good-bye, old chap. You'll be all right. Give yourself time." It was
Mortimer's voice, and he became dimly conscious of a long, spectacled
face, and of a heavy hand upon his shoulder.
"Sorry to leave you. We'll be lucky now if we are in time for the
morning editions." Scott was tightening his girth as he spoke.
"We'll put in our wire that you have been hurt, so your people will know
why they don't hear from you. If Reuter or the evening pennies come up,
don't give the thing away. Abbas will look after you, and we'll be back
to-morrow afternoon. Bye-bye!"
Anerley heard it all, though he did not feel energy enough to answer.
Then, as he watched two sleek, brown ponies with their yellow-clad
riders dwindling among the rocks, his memory cleared suddenly, and he
realised that the first great journalistic chance of his life was
slipping away from him. It was a small fight, but it was the first of
the war, and the great public at home were all athirst for news.
They would have it in the Courier; they would have it in the
Intelligence, and not a word in the Gazette. The thought brought
him to his feet, though he had to throw his arm round the stem of the
palm tree to steady his swimming head. There was a big black man lying
where he had fallen, his huge chest pocked with bullet-marks, every
wound rosetted with its circle of flies. The Arab was stretched out
within a few yards of him, with two hands clasped over the dreadful
thing which had been his head. Across him was lying Anerley's
fowling-piece, one barrel discharged, the other at half cock.
"Scott effendi shoot him your gun," said a voice. It was Abbas, his
Anerley groaned at the disgrace of it. He had lost his head so
completely that he had forgotten to cock his gun; and yet he knew that
it was not fear but interest which had so absorbed him. He put his hand
up to his head and felt that a wet handkerchief was bound round his
"Where are the two other dervishes?"
"They ran away. One got shot in arm."
"What's happened to me?"
"Effendi got cut on head. Effendi catch bad man by arms, and Scott
effendi shot him. Face burn very bad."
Anerley became conscious suddenly that there was a pringling about his
skin and an overpowering smell of burned hair under his nostrils. He
put his hand to his moustache. It was gone. His eyebrows too?
He could not find them. His head, no doubt, was very near to the
dervish's when they were rolling upon the ground together, and this was
the effect of the explosion of his own gun. Well, he would have time to
grow some more hair before he saw Fleet Street again. But the cut,
perhaps, was a more serious matter. Was it enough to prevent him
getting to the telegraph-office at Sarras? The only way was to try and
see. But there was only that poor little Syrian grey of his. There it
stood in the evening sunshine, with a sunk head and a bent knee, as if
its morning's work was still heavy upon it. What hope was there of
being able to do thirty-five miles of heavy going upon that? It would
be a strain upon the splendid ponies of his companions—and they were
the swiftest and most enduring in the country. The most enduring?
There was one creature more enduring, and that was a real trotting
camel. If he had had one he might have got to the wires first after
all, for Mortimer had said that over thirty miles they have the better
of any horse. Yes, if he had only had a real trotting camel! And then
like a flash came Mortimer's words, "It is the kind of beast that the
dervishes ride when they make their lightning raids."
The beasts the dervishes ride! What had these dead dervishes ridden?
In an instant he was clambering up the rocks, with Abbas protesting at
his heels. Had the two fugitives carried away all the camels, or had
they been content to save themselves? The brass gleam from a litter of
empty Remington cases caught his eye, and showed where the enemy had
been crouching. And then he could have shouted for joy, for there, in
the hollow, some little distance off, rose the high, graceful white neck
and the elegant head of such a camel as he had never set eyes upon
before—a swanlike, beautiful creature, as far from the rough, clumsy
baggles as the cart-horse is from the racer.
The beast was kneeling under the shelter of the rocks with its waterskin
and bag of doora slung over its shoulders, and its forelegs tethered
Arab fashion with a rope around the knees. Anerley threw his leg over
the front pommel while Abbas slipped off the cord. Forward flew
Anerley towards the creature's neck, then violently backwards, clawing
madly at anything which might save him, and then, with a jerk which
nearly snapped his loins, he was thrown forward again. But the camel
was on its legs now, and the young pressman was safely seated upon one
of the fliers of the desert. It was as gentle as it was swift, and it
stood oscillating its long neck and gazing round with its large brown
eyes, whilst Anerley coiled his legs round the peg and grasped the
curved camel-stick which Abbas had handed up to him. There were two
bridle-cords, one from the nostril and one from the neck, but he
remembered that Scott had said that it was the servant's and not the
house-bell which had to be pulled, so he kept his grasp upon the lower.
Then he touched the long, vibrating neck with his stick, and in an
instant Abbas' farewell seemed to come from far behind him, and the
black rocks and yellow sand were dancing past on either side.
It was his first experience of a trotting camel, and at first the
motion, although irregular and abrupt, was not unpleasant. Having no
stirrup or fixed point of any kind, he could not rise to it, but he
gripped as tightly as be could with his knee, and he tried to sway
backwards and forwards as he had seen the Arabs do. It was a large,
very concave Makloofa saddle, and he was conscious that he was bouncing
about on it with as little power of adhesion as a billiard-ball upon a
tea-tray. He gripped the two sides with his hands to hold himself
steady. The creature had got into its long, swinging, stealthy trot,
its sponge-like feet making no sound upon the hard sand. Anerley leaned
back with his two hands gripping hard behind him, and he whooped the
creature on. The sun had already sunk behind the line of black volcanic
peaks, which look like huge slag-heaps at the mouth of a mine.
The western sky had taken that lovely light green and pale pink tint
which makes evening beautiful upon the Nile, and the old brown river
itself, swirling down amongst the black rocks, caught some shimmer of
the colours above. The glare, the heat, and the piping of the insects
had all ceased together. In spite of his aching head, Anerley could
have cried out for pure physical joy as the swift creature beneath him
flew along with him through that cool, invigorating air, with the virile
north wind soothing his pringling face.
He had looked at his watch, and now he made a swift calculation of times
and distances. It was past six when he had left the camp. Over broken
ground it was impossible that he could hope to do more than seven miles
an hour—less on bad parts, more on the smooth. His recollection of the
track was that there were few smooth and many bad. He would be lucky,
then, if he reached Sarras anywhere from twelve to one. Then the
messages took a good two hours to go through, for they had to be
transcribed at Cairo. At the best he could only hope to have told his
story in Fleet Street at two or three in the morning. It was possible
that he might manage it, but the chances seemed enormously against him.
About three the morning edition would be made up, and his chance gone
for ever. The one thing clear was that only the first man at the wires
would have any chance at all, and Anerley meant to be first if hard
riding could do it. So he tapped away at the bird-like neck, and the
creature's long, loose limbs went faster and faster at every tap.
Where the rocky spurs ran down to the river, horses would have to go
round, while camels might get across, so that Anerley felt that he was
always gaining upon his companions.
But there was a price to be paid for the feeling. He had heard of men
who had burst when on camel journeys, and he knew that the Arabs swathe
their bodies tightly in broad cloth bandages when they prepare for a
long march. It had seemed unnecessary and ridiculous when he first
began to speed over the level track, but now, when he got on the rocky
paths, he understood what it meant. Never for an instant was he at the
same angle. Backwards, forwards he swung, with a tingling jar at the
end of each sway, until he ached from his neck to his knees. It caught
him across the shoulders, it caught him down the spine, it gripped him
over the loins, it marked the lower line of his ribs with one heavy,
dull throb. He clutched here and there with his hand to try and ease
the strain upon his muscles. He drew up his knees, altered his seat,
and set his teeth with a grim determination to go through with it should
it kill him. His head was splitting, his flayed face smarting, and
every joint in his body aching as if it were dislocated. But he forgot
all that when, with the rising of the moon, he heard the clinking of
horses' hoofs down upon the track by the river, and knew that, unseen by
them, he had already got well abreast of his companions. But he was
hardly halfway, and the time already eleven.
All day the needles had been ticking away without intermission in the
little corrugated iron hut which served as a telegraph station at
Sarras. With its bare walls and its packing-case seats, it was none the
less for the moment one of the vital spots upon the earth's surface, and
the crisp, importunate ticking might have come from the world-old clock
of Destiny. Many august people had been at the other end of those
wires, and had communed with the moist-faced military clerk. A French
Premier had demanded a pledge, and an English marquis had passed on the
request to the General in command, with a question as to how it would
affect the situation. Cipher telegrams had nearly driven the clerk out
of his wits, for of all crazy occupations the taking of a cipher
message, when you are without the key to the cipher, is the worst.
Much high diplomacy had been going on all day in the innermost chambers
of European chancellories, and the results of it had been whispered into
this little corrugated-iron hut. About two in the morning an enormous
despatch had come at last to an end, and the weary operator had opened
the door, and was lighting his pipe in the cool, fresh air, when he saw
a camel plump down in the dust, and a man, who seemed to be in the last
stage of drunkenness, come rolling towards him.
"What's the time?" he cried, in a voice which appeared to be the only
sober thing about him.
It was on the clerk's lips to say that it was time that the questioner
was in his bed, but it is not safe upon a campaign to be ironical at the
expense of khaki-clad men. He contented himself, therefore, with the
bald statement that it was after two. But no retort that he could have
devised could have had a more crushing effect. The voice turned drunken
also, and the man caught at the door-post to uphold him.
"Two o'clock! I'm done after all!" said he. His head was tied up in a
bloody handkerchief, his face was crimson, and he stood with his legs
crooked as if the pith had all gone out of his back. The clerk began to
realise that something out of the ordinary was in the wind.
"How long does it take to get a wire to London?"
"About two hours."
"And it's two now. I could not get it there before four."
"But you said two hours."
"Yes, but there's more than an hour's difference in longitude."
"By Heaven, I'll do it yet!" cried Anerley, and staggering to a
packing-case, he began the dictation of his famous despatch.
And so it came about that the Gazette had a long column, with
headlines like an epitaph, when the sheets of the Intelligence and the
Courier were as blank as the faces of their editors. And so, too, it
happened that when two weary men, upon two foundered horses, arrived
about four in the morning at the Sarras post-office, they looked at each
other in silence and departed noiselessly, with the conviction that
there are some situations with which the English language is not capable