“I am in the prison at Omdurman,” he said, “actually in the prison! This is Umm Hagar, the House of Stone. It seems too good to be true.”
He leaned back against the wall with an air of extreme relief. To Trench the words, the tone of satisfaction in which they were uttered, sounded like some sardonic piece of irony. A man who plumed himself upon indifference to pain and pleasure—who posed as a being of so much experience that joy and trouble could no longer stir a pulse or cause a frown, and who carried his pose to perfection—such a man, thought Trench, might have uttered Feversham’s words in Feversham’s voice. But Feversham was not that man; his delirium had proved it. The satisfaction, then, was genuine, the words sincere. The peril of Dongola was past, he had found Trench, he was in Omdurman. That prison house was his longed-for goal, and he had reached it. He might have been dangling on a gibbet hundreds of miles away down the stream of the Nile with the vultures perched upon his shoulders, the purpose for which he lived quite unfulfilled. But he was in the enclosure of the House of Stone in Omdurman.
“You have been here a long while,” he said.
Feversham looked round the zareeba. “Three years of it,” he murmured. “I was afraid that I might not find you alive.”
“The nights are the worst, the nights in there. It’s a wonder any man lives through a week of them, yet I have lived through a thousand nights.” And even to him who had endured them his endurance seemed incredible. “A thousand nights of the House of Stone!” he exclaimed.
“But we may go down to the Nile by daytime,” said Feversham, and he started up with alarm as he gazed at the thorn zareeba. “Surely we are allowed so much liberty. I was told so. An Arab at Wadi Haifa told me.”
“And it’s true,” returned Trench. “Look!” He pointed to the earthen bowl of water at his side. “I filled that at the Nile this morning.”
“I must go,” said Feversham, and he lifted himself up from the ground. “I must go this morning,” and since he spoke with a raised voice and a manner of excitement, Trench whispered to him:—
“Hush. There are many prisoners here, and among them many tale-bearers.”
Feversham sank back on to the ground as much from weakness as in obedience to Trench’s warning.
“But they cannot understand what we say,” he objected in a voice from which the excitement had suddenly gone.
“They can see that we talk together and earnestly. Idris would know of it within the hour, the Khalifa before sunset. There would be heavier fetters and the courbatch if we spoke at all. Lie still. You are weak, and I too am very tired. We will sleep, and later in the day we will go together down to the Nile.”
Trench lay down beside Feversham and in a moment was asleep. Feversham watched him, and saw, now that his features were relaxed, the marks of those three years very plainly in his face. It was towards noon before he awoke.
“There is no one to bring you food?” he asked, and Feversham answered:
“Yes. A boy should come. He should bring news as well.”
They waited until the gate of the zareba was opened and the friends or wives of the prisoners entered. At once that enclosure became a cage of wild beasts. The gaolers took their dole at the outset. Little more of the “aseeda”—that moist and pounded cake of dhurra which was the staple diet of the town—than was sufficient to support life was allowed to reach the prisoners, and even for that the strong fought with the weak, and the group of four did battle with the group of three. From every corner men gaunt and thin as skeletons hopped and leaped as quickly as the weight of their chains would allow them towards the entrance. Here one weak with starvation tripped and fell, and once fallen lay prone in a stolid despair, knowing that for him there would be no meal that day. Others seized upon the messengers who brought the food, and tore it from their hands, though the whips of the gaolers laid their backs open. There were thirty gaolers to guard that enclosure, each armed with his rhinoceros-hide courbatch, but this was the one moment in each day when the courbatch was neither feared, nor, as it seemed, felt.
Among the food-bearers a boy sheltered himself behind the rest and gazed irresolutely about the zareeba. It was not long, however, before he was detected. He was knocked down, and his food snatched from his hands; but the boy had his lungs, and his screams brought Idris es Saier himself upon the three men who had attacked him.
“For whom do you come?” asked Idris, as he thrust the prisoners aside.
“For Joseppi, the Greek,” answered the boy, and Idris pointed to the corner where Feversham lay. The boy advanced, holding out his empty hands as though explaining how it was that he brought no food. But he came quite close, and squatting at Feversham’s side continued to explain with words. And as he spoke he loosed a gazelle skin which was fastened about his waist beneath his jibbeh, and he let it fall by Feversham’s side. The gazelle skin contained a chicken, and upon that Feversham and Trench breakfasted and dined and supped. An hour later they were allowed to pass out of the zareeba and make their way to the Nile. They walked slowly and with many halts, and during one of these Trench said:
“We can talk here.”
Below them, at the water’s edge, some of the prisoners were unloading dhows, others were paddling knee-deep in the muddy water. The shore was crowded with men screaming and shouting and excited for no reason whatever. The gaolers were within view, but not within earshot.
“Yes, we can talk here. Why have you come?”
“I was captured in the desert, on the Arbain road,” said Feversham, slowly.
“Yes, masquerading as a lunatic musician who had wandered out of Wadi Haifa with a zither. I know. But you were captured by your own deliberate wish. You came to join me in Omdurman. I know.”
“How do you know?”
“You told me. During the last three days you have told me much,” and Feversham looked about him suddenly in alarm. “Very much,” continued Trench. “You came to join me because five years ago I sent you a white feather.”
“And was that all I told you?” asked Feversham, anxiously.
“No,” Trench replied, and he dragged out the word. He sat up while Feversham lay on his side, and he looked towards the Nile in front of him, holding his head between his hands, so that he could not see or be seen by Feversham. “No, that was not all—you spoke of a girl, the same girl of whom you spoke when Willoughby and Durrance and I dined with you in London a long while ago. I know her name now—her Christian name. She was with you when the feathers came. I had not thought of that possibility. She gave you a fourth feather to add to our three. I am sorry.”
There was a silence of some length, and then Feversham replied slowly:
“For my part I am not sorry. I mean I am not sorry that she was present when the feathers came. I think, on the whole, that I am rather glad. She gave me the fourth feather, it is true, but I am glad of that as well. For without her presence, without that fourth feather snapped from her fan, I might have given up there and then. Who knows? I doubt if I could have stood up to the three long years in Suakin. I used to see you and Durrance and Willoughby and many men who had once been my friends, and you were all going about the work which I was used to. You can’t think how the mere routine of a regiment to which one had become accustomed, and which one cursed heartily enough when one had to put up with it, appealed as something very desirable. I could so easily have run away. I could so easily have slipped on to a boat and gone back to Suez. And the chance for which I waited never came—for three years.”
“You saw us?” said Trench. “And you gave no sign?”
“How would you have taken it if I had?” And Trench was silent. “No, I saw you, but I was careful that you should not see me. I doubt if I could have endured it without the recollection of that night at Ramelton, without the feel of the fourth feather to keep the recollection actual and recent in my thoughts. I should never have gone down from Obak into Berber. I should certainly never have joined you in Omdurman.”
Trench turned quickly towards his companion.
“She would be glad to hear you say that,” he said. “I have no doubt she is sorry about her fourth feather, sorry as I am about the other three.”
“There is no reason that she should be, or that you either should be sorry. I don’t blame you, or her,” and in his turn Feversham was silent and looked towards the river. The air was shrill with cries, the shore was thronged with a motley of Arabs and Negroes, dressed in their long robes of blue and yellow and dirty brown; the work of unloading the dhows went busily on; across the river and beyond its fork the palm trees of Khartum stood up against the cloudless sky; and the sun behind them was moving down to the west. In a few hours would come the horrors of the House of Stone. But they were both thinking of the elms by the Lennon River and a hall of which the door stood open to the cool night and which echoed softly to the music of a waltz, while a girl and a man stood with three white feathers fallen upon the floor between them; the one man recollected, the imagined, the picture, and to both of them it was equally vivid. Feversham smiled at last.
“Perhaps she has now seen Willoughby; perhaps she has now taken his feather.”
Trench held out his hand to his companion.
“I will take mine back now.”
Feversham shook his head.
“No, not yet,” and Trench’s face suddenly lighted up. A hope which had struggled up in his hopeless breast during the three days and nights of his watch, a hope which he had striven to repress for very fear lest it might prove false, sprang to life.
“Not yet—then you have a plan for our escape,” and the anxiety returned to Feversham’s face.
“I said nothing of it,” he pleaded, “tell me that! When I was delirious in the prison there, I said nothing of it, I breathed no word of it? I told you of the four feathers, I told you of Ethne, but of the plan for escape I said nothing.”
“Not a single word. So that I myself was in doubt and did not dare to believe,” and Feversham’s anxiety died away. He had spoken with his hand trembling upon Trench’s arm, and his voice itself had trembled with alarm.
“You see if I spoke of that in the House of Stone,” he exclaimed, “I might have spoken of it in Dongola. For in Dongola as well as in Omdurman I was delirious. But I didn’t, you say—not here, at all events. So perhaps not there either. I was afraid that I should—how I was afraid! There was a woman in Dongola who spoke some English—very little, but enough. She had been in the ‘Kauneesa’ of Khartum when Gordon ruled there. She was sent to question me. I had unhappy times in Dongola.”
Trench interrupted him in a low voice. “I know. You told me things which made me shiver,” and he caught hold of Feversham’s arm and thrust the loose sleeve back. Feversham’s scarred wrists confirmed the tale.
“Well, I felt myself getting light-headed there,” he went on. “I made up my mind that of your escape I must let no hint slip. So I tried to think of something else with all my might, when I was going off my head.” And he laughed a little to himself.
“That was why you heard me talk of Ethne,” he explained.
Trench sat nursing his knees and looking straight in front of him. He had paid no heed to Feversham’s last words. He had dared now to give his hopes their way.
“So it’s true,” he said in a quiet wondering voice. “There will be a morning when we shall not drag ourselves out of the House of Stone. There will be nights when we shall sleep in beds, actually in beds. There will be—” He stopped with a sort of shy air like a man upon the brink of a confession. “There will be—something more,” he said gamely, and then he got on to his feet.
“We have sat here too long. Let us go forward.”
They moved a hundred yards nearer to the river and sat down again.
“You have more than a hope. You have a plan of escape?” Trench asked eagerly.
“More than a plan,” returned Feversham. “The preparations are made. There are camels waiting in the desert ten miles west of Omdurman.”
“Now?” exclaimed Trench. “Now?”
“Yes, man, now. There are rifles and ammunition buried near the camels, provisions and water kept in readiness. We travel by Metemneh, where fresh camels wait, from Metemneh to Berber. There we cross the Nile; camels are waiting for us five miles from Berber. From Berber we ride in over the Kokreb pass to Suakin.”
“When?” exclaimed Trench. “Oh, when, when?”
“When I have strength enough to sit a horse for ten miles, and a camel for a week,” answered Feversham. “How soon will that be? Not long, Trench, I promise you not long,” and he rose up from the ground.
“As you get up,” he continued, “glance round. You will see a man in a blue linen dress, loitering between us and the gaol. As we came past him, he made me a sign. I didn’t return it. I shall return it on the day when we escape.”
“He will wait?”
“For a month. We must manage on one night during that month to escape from the House of Stone. We can signal him to bring help. A passage might be made in one night through that wall; the stones are loosely built.”
They walked a little farther and came to the water’s edge. There amid the crowd they spoke again of their escape, but with the air of men amused at what went on about them.
“There is a better way than breaking through the wall.” said Trench, and he uttered a laugh as he spoke and pointed to a prisoner with a great load upon his back who had fallen upon his face in the water, and encumbered by his fetters, pressed down by his load, was vainly struggling to lift himself again. “There is a better way. You have money?”
“Ai, ai!” shouted Feversham, roaring with laughter, as the prisoner half rose and soused again. “I have some concealed on me. Idris took what I did not conceal.”
“Good!” said Trench. “Idris will come to you to-day or to-morrow. He will talk to you of the goodness of Allah who has brought you out of the wickedness of the world to the holy city of Omdurman. He will tell you at great length of the peril of your soul and of the only means of averting it, and he will wind up with a few significant sentences about his starving family. If you come to the aid of his starving family and bid him keep for himself fifteen dollars out of the amount he took from you, you may get permission to sleep in the zareeba outside the prison. Be content with that for a night or two. Then he will come to you again, and again you will assist his starving family, and this time you will ask for permission for me to sleep in the open too. Come! There’s Idris shepherding us home.”
It fell out as Trench had predicted. Idris read Feversham an abnormally long lecture that afternoon. Feversham learned that now God loved him; and how Hicks Pasha’s army had been destroyed. The holy angels had done that, not a single shot was fired, not a single spear thrown by the Mahdi’s soldiers. The spears flew from their hands by the angels’ guidance and pierced the unbelievers. Feversham heard for the first time of a most convenient spirit, Nebbi Khiddr, who was the Khalifa’s eyes and ears and reported to him all that went on in the gaol. It was pointed out to Feversham that if Nebbi Khiddr reported against him, he would have heavier shackles riveted upon his feet, and many unpleasant things would happen. At last came the exordium about the starving children, and Feversham begged Idris to take fifteen dollars.
Trench’s plan succeeded. That night Feversham slept in the open, and two nights later Trench lay down beside him. Overhead was a clear sky and the blazing stars.
“Only three more days,” said Feversham, and he heard his companion draw in a long breath. For a while they lay side by side in silence, breathing the cool night air, and then Trench said:
“Are you awake?”
“Well,” and with some hesitation he made that confidence which he had repressed on the day when they sat upon the foreshore of the Nile. “Each man has his particular weak spot of sentiment, I suppose. I have mine. I am not a marrying man, so it’s not sentiment of that kind. Perhaps you will laugh at it. It isn’t merely that I hate the emptiness of those desert wastes. It isn’t merely that I loathe this squalid, shadeless, vile town of Omdurman, or the horrors of its prison. It isn’t merely that I hate the emptiness of those desert wastes. It isn’t merely that I am sick of the palm trees of Khartum, or these chains or the whips of the gaolers. But there’s something more. I want to die at home, and I have been desperately afraid so often that I should die here. I want to die at home—not merely in my own country but in my own village, and be buried there under the trees I know, in the sight of the church and the houses I know, and the trout stream where I fished when I was a boy. You’ll laugh, no doubt.”
Feversham was not laughing. The words had a queer ring of familiarity to him, and he knew why. They never had actually been spoken to him, but they might have been and by Ethne Eustace.
“No, I am not laughing,” he answered. “I understand.” And he spoke with a warmth of tone which rather surprised Trench. And indeed an actual friendship sprang up between the two men, and it dated from that night.
It was a fit moment for confidences. Lying side by side in that enclosure, they made them one to the other in low voices. The shouts and yells came muffled from within the House of Stone, and gave to them both a feeling that they were well off. They could breathe; they could see; no low roof oppressed them; they were in the cool of the night air. That night air would be very cold before morning and wake them to shiver in their rags and huddle together in their corner. But at present they lay comfortably upon their backs with their hands clasped behind their heads and watched the great stars and planets burn in the blue dome of sky.
“It will be strange to find them dim and small again,” said Trench.
“There will be compensations,” answered Feversham, with a laugh; and they fell to making plans of what they would do when they had crossed the desert and the Mediterranean and the continent of Europe and had come to their own country of dim small stars. Fascinated and enthralled by the pictures which the simplest sentence, the most commonplace phrase, through the magic of its associations was able to evoke in their minds, they let the hours slip by unnoticed. They were no longer prisoners in that barbarous town which lay a murky stain upon the solitary wide spaces of sand; they were in their own land, following their old pursuits. They were standing outside clumps of trees, guns in their hands, while the sharp cry, “Mark! Mark!” came to their ears. Trench heard again the unmistakable rattle of the reel of his fishing-rod as he wound in his line upon the bank of his trout stream. They talked of theatres in London, and the last plays which they had seen, the last books which they had read six years ago.
“There goes the Great Bear,” said Trench, suddenly. “It is late.” The tail of the constellation was dipping behind the thorn hedge of the zareeba. They turned over on their sides.
“Three more days,” said Trench.
“Only three more days,” Feversham replied. And in a minute they were neither in England nor the Soudan; the stars marched to the morning unnoticed above their heads. They were lost in the pleasant countries of sleep.