The Four Feathers

Chapter XXX

The Last of the Southern Cross

A.E.W. Mason

THE WIND blew keen and cold from the north. The camels, freshened by it, trotted out at their fastest pace.

“Quicker,” said Trench, between his teeth. “Already Idris may have missed us.”

“Even if he has,” replied Feversham, “it will take time to get men together for a pursuit, and those men must fetch their camels, and already it is dark.”

But although he spoke hopefully, he turned his head again and again towards the glare of light above Omdurman. He could no longer hear the tapping of the drums, that was some consolation. But he was in a country of silence, where men could journey swiftly and yet make no noise. There would be no sound of galloping horses to warn him that pursuit was at his heels. Even at that moment the Ansar soldiers might be riding within thirty paces of them, and Feversham strained his eyes backwards into the darkness and expected the glimmer of a white turban. Trench, however, never turned his head. He rode with his teeth set, looking forwards. Yet fear was no less strong in him than in Feversham. Indeed, it was stronger, for he did not look back towards Omdurman because he did not dare; and though his eyes were fixed directly in front of him, the things which he really saw were the long narrow streets of the town behind him, the dotted fires at the corners of the streets, and men running hither and thither among the houses, making their quick search for the two prisoners escaped from the House of Stone.

Once his attention was diverted by a word from Feversham, and he answered without turning his head:

“What is it?”

“I no longer see the fires of Omdurman.”

“The golden blot, eh, very low down?” Trench answered in an abstracted voice. Feversham did not ask him to explain what his allusion meant, nor could Trench have disclosed why he had spoken it; the words had come back to him suddenly with a feeling that it was somehow appropriate that the vision which was the last thing to meet Feversham’s eyes as he set out upon his mission he should see again now that that mission was accomplished. They spoke no more until two figures rose out of the darkness in front of them, at the very feet of their camels, and Abou Fatma cried in a low voice:


They halted their camels and made them kneel.

“The new camels are here?” asked Abou Fatma, and two of the men disappeared for a few minutes and brought four camels up. Meanwhile the saddles were unfastened and removed from the camels Trench and his companion had ridden out of Omdurman.

“They are good camels?” asked Feversham, as he helped to fix the saddles upon the fresh ones.

“Of the Anafi breed,” answered Abou Fatma. “Quick! Quick!” and he looked anxiously to the east and listened.

“The arms?” said Trench. “You have them? Where are they?” and he bent his body and searched the ground for them.

“In a moment,” said Abou Fatma, but it seemed that Trench could hardly wait for that moment to arrive. He showed even more anxiety to handle the weapons than he had shown fear that he would be overtaken.

“There is ammunition?” he asked feverishly.

“Yes, yes,” replied Abou Fatma, “ammunition and rifles and revolvers.” He led the way to a spot about twenty yards from the camels, where some long desert grass rustled about their legs. He stooped and dug into the soft sand with his hands.

“Here,” he said.

Trench flung himself upon the ground beside him and scooped with both hands, making all the while an inhuman whimpering sound with his mouth, like the noise a foxhound makes at a cover. There was something rather horrible to Feversham in his attitude as he scraped at the ground on his knees, at the action of his hands, quick like the movements of a dog’s paws, and in the whine of his voice. He was sunk for the time into an animal. In a moment or two Trench’s fingers touched the lock and trigger of a rifle, and he became man again. He stood up quietly with the rifle in his hands. The other arms were unearthed, the ammunition shared.

“Now,” said Trench, and he laughed with a great thrill of joy in the laugh. “Now I don’t mind. Let them follow from Omdurman! One thing is certain now: I shall never go back there; no, not even if they overtake us,” and he fondled the rifle which he held and spoke to it as though it lived.

Two of the Arabs mounted the old camels and rode slowly away to Omdurman. Abou Fatma and the other remained with the fugitives. They mounted and trotted northeastwards. No more than a quarter of an hour had elapsed since they had first halted at Abou Fatma’s word.

All that night they rode through halfa grass and mimosa trees and went but slowly, but they came about sunrise on to flat bare ground broken with small hillocks.

“Are the Effendi tired?” asked Abou Fatma. “Will they stop and eat? There is food upon the saddle of each camel.”

“No; we can eat as we go.”

Dates and bread and a draught of water from a zamsheyeh made up their meal, and they ate it as they sat their camels. These, indeed, now that they were free of the long desert grass, trotted at their quickest pace. And at sunset that evening they stopped and rested for an hour. All through that night they rode and the next day, straining their own endurance and that of the beasts they were mounted on, now ascending on to high and rocky ground, now traversing a valley, and now trotting fast across plains of honey-coloured sand. Yet to each man the pace seemed always as slow as a funeral. A mountain would lift itself above the rim of the horizon at sunrise, and for the whole livelong day it stood before their eyes, and was never a foot higher or an inch nearer. At times, some men tilling a scanty patch of sorghum would send the fugitives’ hearts leaping in their throats, and they must make a wide detour; or again a caravan would be sighted in the far distance by the keen eyes of Abou Fatma, and they made their camels kneel and lay crouched behind a rock, with their loaded rifles in their hands. Ten miles from Abu Klea a relay of fresh camels awaited them, and upon these they travelled, keeping a day’s march westward of the Nile. Thence they passed through the desert country of the Ababdeh, and came in sight of a broad grey tract stretching across their path.

“The road from Berber to Merowi,” said Abou Fatma. “North of it we turn east to the river. We cross that road to-night; and if God wills, to-morrow evening we shall have crossed the Nile.”

“If God wills,” said Trench. “If only He wills,” and he glanced about him in a fear which only increased the nearer they drew towards safety. They were in a country traversed by the caravans; it was no longer safe to travel by day. They dismounted, and all that day they lay hidden behind a belt of shrubs upon some high ground and watched the road and the people like specks moving along it. They came down and crossed it in