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   Chapter 10 THE WELLS OF OBAK

The Four Feathers By A. E. W. Mason Characters: 10715

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


In that month of May Durrance lifted his eyes from Wadi Halfa and began eagerly to look homeward. But in the contrary direction, five hundred miles to the south of his frontier town, on the other side of the great Nubian desert and the Belly of Stones, the events of real importance to him were occurring without his knowledge. On the deserted track between Berber and Suakin the wells of Obak are sunk deep amongst mounds of shifting sand. Eastward a belt of trees divides the dunes from a hard stony plain built upon with granite hills; westward the desert stretches for fifty-eight waterless miles to Mahobey and Berber on the Nile, a desert so flat that the merest tuft of grass knee-high seems at the distance of a mile a tree promising shade for a noonday halt, and a pile of stones no bigger than one might see by the side of any roadway in repair achieves the stature of a considerable hill. In this particular May there could be no spot more desolate than the wells of Obak. The sun blazed upon it from six in the morning with an intolerable heat, and all night the wind blew across it piercingly cold, and played with the sand as it would, building pyramids house-high and levelling them, tunnelling valleys, silting up long slopes, so that the face of the country was continually changed. The vultures and the sand-grouse held it undisturbed in a perpetual tenancy. And to make the spot yet more desolate, there remained scattered here and there the bleached bones and skeletons of camels to bear evidence that about these wells once the caravans had crossed and halted; and the remnants of a house built of branches bent in hoops showed that once Arabs had herded their goats and made their habitation there. Now the sun rose and set, and the hot sky pressed upon an empty round of honey-coloured earth. Silence brooded there like night upon the waters; and the absolute stillness made it a place of mystery and expectation.

Yet in this month of May one man sojourned by the wells and sojourned secretly. Every morning at sunrise he drove two camels, swift riding-mares of the pure Bisharin breed, from the belt of trees, watered them, and sat by the well-mouth for the space of three hours. Then he drove them back again into the shelter of the trees, and fed them delicately with dhoura upon a cloth; and for the rest of the day he appeared no more. For five mornings he thus came from his hiding-place and sat looking toward the sand-dunes and Berber, and no one approached him. But on the sixth, as he was on the point of returning to his shelter, he saw the figures of a man and a donkey suddenly outlined against the sky upon a crest of the sand. The Arab seated by the well looked first at the donkey, and, remarking its grey colour, half rose to his feet. But as he rose he looked at the man who drove it, and saw that while his jellab was drawn forward over his face to protect it from the sun, his bare legs showed of an ebony blackness against the sand. The donkey-driver was a negro. The Arab sat down again and waited with an air of the most complete indifference for the stranger to descend to him. He did not even move or turn when he heard the negro's feet treading the sand close behind him.

"Salam aleikum," said the negro, as he stopped. He carried a long spear and a short one, and a shield of hide. These he laid upon the ground and sat by the Arab's side.

The Arab bowed his head and returned the salutation.

"Aleikum es salam," said he, and he waited.

"It is Abou Fatma?" asked the negro.

The Arab nodded an assent.

"Two days ago," the other continued, "a man of the Bisharin, Moussa Fedil, stopped me in the market-place of Berber, and seeing that I was hungry, gave me food. And when I had eaten he charged me to drive this donkey to Abou Fatma at the wells of Obak."

Abou Fatma looked carelessly at the donkey as though now for the first time he had remarked it.

"Tayeeb," he said, no less carelessly. "The donkey is mine," and he sat inattentive and motionless, as though the negro's business were done and he might go.

The negro, however, held his ground.

"I am to meet Moussa Fedil again on the third morning from now, in the market-place of Berber. Give me a token which I may carry back, so that he may know I have fulfilled the charge and reward me."

Abou Fatma took his knife from the small of his back, and picking up a stick from the ground, notched it thrice at each end.

"This shall be a sign to Moussa Fedil;" and he handed the stick to his companion. The negro tied it securely into a corner of his wrap, loosed his water-skin from the donkey's back, filled it at the well and slung it about his shoulders. Then he picked up his spears and his shield. Abou Fatma watched him labour up the slope of loose sand and disappear again on the further incline of the crest. Then in his turn he rose, and hastily. When Harry Feversham had set out from Obak six days before to traverse the fifty-eight miles of barren desert to the Nile, this grey donkey had carried his water-skins and food.

Abou Fatma drove the donkey down amongst the trees, and fastening it to a stem examined its shoulders. In the left shoulder a tiny incision had been made and the skin neatly stitched up again with fine thread. He cut the stitches, and pressing open the two edges of the wound, force

d out a tiny package little bigger than a postage stamp. The package was a goat's bladder, and enclosed within the bladder was a note written in Arabic and folded very small. Abou Fatma had not been Gordon's body-servant for nothing; he had been taught during his service to read. He unfolded the note, and this is what was written:-

"The houses which were once Berber are destroyed, and a new town of wide streets is building. There is no longer any sign by which I may know the ruins of Yusef's house from the ruins of a hundred houses; nor does Yusef any longer sell rock-salt in the bazaar. Yet wait for me another week."

The Arab of the Bisharin who wrote the letter was Harry Feversham. Wearing the patched jubbeh of the Dervishes over his stained skin, his hair frizzed on the crown of his head and falling upon the nape of his neck in locks matted and gummed into the semblance of seaweed, he went about his search for Yusef through the wide streets of New Berber with its gaping pits. To the south, and separated by a mile or so of desert, lay the old town where Abou Fatma had slept one night and hidden the letters, a warren of ruined houses facing upon narrow alleys and winding streets. The front walls had been pulled down, the roofs carried away, only the bare inner walls were left standing, so that Feversham when he wandered amongst them vainly at night seemed to have come into long lanes of five courts, crumbling into decay. And each court was only distinguishable from its neighbour by a degree of ruin. Already the foxes made their burrows beneath the walls.

He had calculated that one night would have been the term of his stay in Berber. He was to have crept through the gate in the dusk of the evening, and before the grey light had quenched the stars his face should be set towards Obak. Now he must go steadily forward amongst the crowds like a man that has business of moment, dreading conversation lest his tongue should betray him, listening ever for the name of Yusef to strike upon his ears. Despair kept him company at times, and fear always. But from the sharp pangs of these emotions a sort of madness was begotten in him, a frenzy of obstinacy, a belief fanatical as the dark religion of those amongst whom he moved, that he could not now fail and the world go on, that there could be no injustice in the whole scheme of the universe great enough to lay this heavy burden upon the one man least fitted to bear it and then callously to destroy him because he tried.

Fear had him in its grip on that morning three days after he had left Abou Fatma at the wells, when coming over a slope he first saw the sand stretched like a lagoon up to the dark brown walls of the town, and the overshadowing foliage of the big date palms rising on the Nile bank beyond. Within those walls were the crowded Dervishes. It was surely the merest madness for a man to imagine that he could escape detection there, even for an hour. Was it right, he began to ask, that a man should even try? The longer he stood, the more insistent did this question grow. The low mud walls grew strangely sinister; the welcome green of the waving palms, after so many arid days of sun and sand and stones, became an ironical invitation to death. He began to wonder whether he had not already done enough for honour in venturing so near.

The sun beat upon him; his strength ebbed from him as though his veins were opened. If he were caught, he thought, as surely he would be-oh, very surely! He saw the fanatical faces crowding fiercely about him ... were not mutilations practised?... He looked about him, shivering even in that strong heat, and the great loneliness of the place smote upon him, so that his knees shook. He faced about and commenced to run, leaping in a panic alone and unpursued across the naked desert under the sun, while from his throat feeble cries broke inarticulately.

He ran, however, only for a few yards, and it was the very violence of his flight which stopped him. These four years of anticipation were as nothing, then? He had schooled himself in the tongue, he had lived in the bazaars, to no end? He was still the craven who had sent in his papers? The quiet confidence with which he had revealed his plan to Lieutenant Sutch over the table in the Criterion grill-room was the mere vainglory of a man who continually deceived himself? And Ethne?...

He dropped upon the ground and, drawing his coat over his head, lay, a brown spot indistinguishable from the sand about him, an irregularity in the great waste surface of earth. He shut the prospect from his eyes, and over the thousands of miles of continent and sea he drew Ethne's face towards him. A little while and he was back again in Donegal. The summer night whispered through the open doorway in the hall; in a room near by people danced to music. He saw the three feathers fluttering to the floor; he read the growing trouble in Ethne's face. If he could do this thing, and the still harder thing which now he knew to lie beyond, he might perhaps some day see that face cleared of its trouble. There were significant words too in his ears, "I should have no doubt that you and I would see much of one another afterwards." Towards the setting of the sun he rose from the ground, and walking down towards Berber, passed between the gates.

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