THE BLACK BOX
A DESERT VENGEANCE
Quest was the first the next morning to open his eyes, to grope his way through the tent opening and stand for a moment alone, watching the alabaster skies. Away eastwards, the faint curve of the blood-red sun seemed to be rising out of the limitless sea of sand. The light around him was pearly, almost opalescent, fading eastwards into pink. The shadows had passed away. Though the sands were still hot beneath his feet, the silent air was deliciously cool. He turned lazily around, meaning to summon the Arab who had volunteered to take Hassan’s place. His arms—he had been in the act of stretching—fell to his sides. He stared incredulously at the spot where the camels had been tethered. There were no camels, no drivers, no Arabs. There was not a soul nor an object in sight except the stark body of Hassan, which they had dragged half out of sight behind a slight knoll. High up in the sky above were two little black specks, wheeling lower and lower. Quest shivered as he suddenly realised that for the first time in his life he was looking upon the winged ghouls of the desert. Lower and lower they came. He turned away with a shiver.
The Professor was still sleeping when Quest re-entered the tent. He woke him up and beckoned him to come outside.
“Dear me!” the former exclaimed genially, as he adjusted his glasses, “I am not sure that my toilet—however, the young ladies, I imagine, are not yet astir. You did well to call me, Quest. This is the rose dawn of Egypt. I have watched it from solitudes such as you have never dreamed of. After all, we are here scarcely past the outskirts of civilisation.”
“You’ll find we are far enough!” Quest remarked grimly. “What do you make of this, Professor?”
He pointed to the little sandy knoll with its sparse covering of grass, deserted—with scarcely a sign, even, that it had been the resting place of the caravan. The Professor gave vent to a little exclamation.
“Our guides!” he demanded. “And the camels! What has become of them?”
“I woke you up to ask you that question?” Quest replied, “but I guess it’s pretty obvious. We might have saved the money we gave for those rifles in Port Said.”
The Professor hurried off towards the spot where the encampment had been made. Suddenly he stood still and pointed with his finger. In the clearer, almost crystalline light of the coming day, they saw the track of the camels in one long, unbroken line stretching away northwards.
“No river near, where they could have gone to water the camels, or anything of that sort, I suppose?” Quest asked.
The Professor smiled.
“Nothing nearer than a little stream you may have heard of in the days when you studied geography,” he observed derisively,—“the Nile. I never liked the look of those fellows, Quest. They sat and talked and crooned together after Hassan’s death. I felt that they were up to some mischief.”
He glanced around a little helplessly. Quest took a cigar from his case, and lit it.
“To think that an old campaigner like I am,” the Professor continued, in a tone of abasement, “should be placed in a position like this! There have been times when for weeks together I have slept literally with my finger upon the trigger of my rifle, when I have laid warning traps in case the natives tried to desert in the night. I have even had our pack ponies hobbled. I have learnt the secret of no end of devices. And here, with a shifty lot of Arabs picked up in the slums of Port Said, and Hassan, the dragoman, dying in that mysterious fashion, I permit myself to lie down and go to sleep! I do not even secure my rifle! Quest, I shall never forgive myself.”
“No good worrying,” Quest sighed. “The question is how best to get out of the mess. What’s the next move, anyway?”
The Professor glanced towards the sun and took a small compass from his pocket. He pointed across the desert.
“That’s exactly our route,” he said, “but I reckon we still must be two days from the Mongars, and how we are going to get there ourselves, much more get the women there, without camels, I don’t know. There are no wells, and I don’t believe those fellows have left us a single tin of water.”
“Any chance of falling in with a caravan?” Quest enquired.
“Not one in a hundred,” the Professor replied gloomily. “If we were only this short distance out of Port Said, and on one of the recognised trade routes, we should probably meet half-a-dozen before mid-day. Here we are simply in the wilds. The way we are going leads to nowhere and finishes in an utterly uninhabitable jungle.”
“Think we’d better turn round and try and bisect one of the trade routes?” Quest suggested.
The Professor shook his head.
“We should never know when we’d struck it. There are no milestones or telegraph wires. We shall have to put as brave a face on it as possible, and push on.”
Laura put her head out of the tent in which the two women had slept.
“Say, where’s breakfast?” she exclaimed. “I can’t smell the coffee.”
They turned and approached her silently. The two girls, fully dressed, came out of the tent as they approached.
“Young ladies,” the Professor announced, “I regret to say that a misfortune has befallen us, a misfortune which we shall be able, without a doubt, to surmount, but which will mean a day of hardship and much inconvenience.”
“Where are the camels?” Lenora asked breathlessly.
“Gone!” Quest replied.
“And the Arabs?”
“Gone with them—we are left high and dry,” Quest explained. “Those fellows are as superstitious as they can be, and Hassan’s death has given them the scares. They have gone back to Port Said.”
“And what is worse,” the Professor added, with a groan, “they have taken with them all our stores, our rifles and our water.”
“How far are we from the Mongar Camp?” Lenora asked.
“About a day’s tramp,” Quest replied quickly. “We may reach there by nightfall.”
“Then let’s start walking at once, before it gets any hotter,” Lenora suggested.
Quest patted her on the back. They made a close search of the tents but found that the Arabs had taken everything in the way of food and drink, except a single half-filled tin of drinking water. They moistened their lips with this carefully, Quest with the camphor in his hand. They found it good, however, though lukewarm. Laura produced a packet of sweet chocolate from her pocket.
“It’s some breakfast, this,” she remarked, as she handed it round. “Let’s get a move on.”
“And if I may be permitted to make the suggestion,” the Professor advised, “not too much chocolate. It is sustaining, I know, but this sweetened concoction encourages thirst, and it is thirst which we have most to—from which we may suffer most inconvenience.”
“One, two, three—march!” Laura sung out. “Come on, everybody.”
They started bravely enough, but by mid-day their little stock of water was gone, and their feet were sorely blistered. No one complained, however, and the Professor especially did his best to revive their spirits.
“We have come further than I had dared to hope, in the time,” he announced. “Fortunately, I know the exact direction we must take. Keep up your spirits, young ladies. At any time now we may see signs of our destination.”
“Makes one sad to think of the drinks we could have had,” Quest muttered. “What’s that?”
The whole party stopped short. Before them was a distant vision of white houses, of little stunted groves of trees, the masts of ships in the distance.
“It’s Port Said!” Quest exclaimed. “What the mischief—have we turned round? Say, Professor, has your compass got the jim-jams?”
“I don’t care where it is,” Lenora faltered, with tears in her eyes. “I thought Port Said was a horrible place, but just now I believe it’s heaven.”
The Professor turned towards them and shook his head.
“Can’t you see?” he pointed out. “It’s a mirage—a desert mirage. They are quite common at dusk.”
Lenora for a moment was hysterical, and even Laura gave a little sob. Quest set his teeth and glanced at the Professor.
“Always water near where there’s a mirage, isn’t there, Professor?”
“That’s so,” the Professor agreed. “We are coming to something, all right.”
They struggled on once more. Night came and brought with it a half soothing, half torturing coolness. That vain straining of the eyes upon the horizon, at any rate, was spared to them. They slept in a fashion, but soon after dawn they were on their feet again. They were silent now, for their tongues were swollen and talk had become painful. Their walk had become a shamble, but there was one expression in their haggard faces common to all of them—the brave, dogged desire to struggle on to the last. Suddenly Quest, who had gone a little out of his way to mount a low ridge of sand-hills, waved his arm furiously. He was holding his field-glasses to his eyes. It was wonderful how that ray of hope transformed them. They hurried to where he was. He passed the glasses to the Professor.
“A caravan!” he exclaimed. “I can see the camels, and horses!”
The Professor almost snatched the glasses.
“It is quite true,” he agreed. “It is a caravan crossing at right angles to our direction. Come! They will see us before long.”
Lenora began to sob and Laura to laugh. Both were struggling with a tendency towards hysterics. The Professor and Quest marched grimly side by side. With every step they took the caravan became more distinct. Presently three or four horsemen detached themselves from the main body and came galloping towards them. The eyes of the little party glistened as they saw that the foremost had a water-bottle slung around his neck. He came dashing up, waving his arms.
“You lost, people?” he asked. “Want water?”
They almost snatched the bottle from him. It was like pouring life into their veins. They all, at the Professor’s instigation, drank sparingly. Quest, with a great sigh of relief, lit a cigar.
“Some adventure, this!” he declared.
The Professor, who had been talking to the men in their own language, turned back towards the two girls.
“It is a caravan,” he explained, “of peaceful merchants on their way to Jaffa. They are halting for us, and we shall be able, without a doubt, to arrange for water and food and a camel or two horses. The man here asks if the ladies will take the horses and ride?”
They started off gaily to where the caravan had come to a standstill. They had scarcely traversed a hundred yards, however, before the Arab who was leading Lenora’s horse came to a sudden standstill. He pointed with his arm and commenced to talk in an excited fashion to his two companions. From across the desert, facing them, came a little company of horsemen, galloping fast and with the sunlight flashing upon their rifles.
“The Mongars!” the Arab cried, pointing wildly. “They attack the caravan!”
The three Arabs talked together for a moment in an excited fashion. Then, without excuse or warning, they swung the two women to the ground, leapt on their horses, and, turning northwards, galloped away. Already the crack of the rifles and little puffs of white smoke showed them where the Mongars, advancing cautiously, were commencing their attack. The Professor looked on anxiously.
“I am not at all sure,” he said in an undertone to Quest, “about our position with the Mongars. Craig has a peculiar hold upon them, but as a rule they hate white men, and their blood will be up…. See! the fight is all over. Those fellows were no match for the Mongars. Most of them have fled and left the caravan.”
The fight was indeed over. Four of the Mongars had galloped away in pursuit of the Arabs who had been the temporary escort of Quest and his companions. They passed about a hundred yards away, waving their arms and shouting furiously. One of them even fired a shot, which missed Quest by only a few inches.
“They say they are coming back,” the Professor muttered. “Who’s this? It’s the Chief and—”
“Our search is over, at any rate,” Quest interrupted. “It’s Craig!”
They came galloping up, Craig in white linen clothes and an Arab cloak; the Chief by his side—a fine, upright man with long grey beard; behind, three Mongars, their rifles already to their shoulders. The Chief wheeled up his horse as he came within twenty paces of the little party.
“White! English!” he shouted. “Why do you seek death here?”
He waited for no reply but turned to his men. Three of them dashed forward, their rifles, which were fitted with an odd sort of bayonet, drawn back for the plunge. Quest, snatching his field-glasses from his shoulders, swung them by the strap above his head, and brought them down upon the head of his assailant. The man reeled and his rifle fell from his hand. Quest picked it up, and stood on guard. The other two Mongars swung round towards him, raising their rifles to their shoulders. Quest held Lenora to him. It seemed as though their last second had come. Suddenly Craig, who had been a little in the rear, galloped, shouting, into the line of fire.
“Stop!” he ordered. “Chief, these people are my friends. Chief, the word!”
The Chief raised his arm promptly. The men lowered their rifles, and Craig galloped back to his host’s side. The Chief listened to him, nodding gravely. Presently he rode up to the little party. He saluted the Professor and talked to him in his own language. The Professor turned to the others.
“The Chief apologises for not recognising me,” he announced. “It seems that Craig had told him that he had come to the desert for shelter, and he imagined at once, when he gave the order for the attack upon us, that we were his enemies. He says that we are welcome to go with him to his encampment.”
Quest stood for a moment irresolute.
“Seems to me we’re in a pretty fix,” he muttered. “We’ve got to owe our lives to that fellow Craig, anyway, and how shall we be able to get him away from them, goodness only knows.”
“That is for later,” the Professor said gravely. “At present I think we cannot do better than accept the hospitality of the Chief. Even now the Chief is suspicious. I heard him ask Craig why, if these were his friends, he did not greet them.”
Craig turned slowly towards them. It was a strange meeting. His face was thin and worn, there were hollows in his cheeks, a dull light in his sunken eyes. He had the look of the hunted animal. He spoke to them in a low tone.
“It is necessary,” he told them, “that you should pretend to be my friends. The Chief has ordered two of his men to dismount. Their ponies are for the young ladies. There will be horses for you amongst the captured ones from the caravan yonder.”
“So we meet at last, Craig,” the Professor said sternly.
Craig raised his eyes and dropped them again. He said nothing. He turned instead once more towards Quest.
“Whatever there may be between us,” he said, “your lives are mine at this moment, if I chose to take them. For the sake of the women, do as I advise. The Chief invites you to his encampment as his guests.”
They all turned towards the Chief, who remained a little on the outside of the circle. The Professor raised his hat and spoke a few words in his own language, then he turned to the others.
“I have accepted the invitation of the Chief,” he announced. “We had better start.”
“This may not be Delmonico’s,” Laura remarked, a few hours later, with a little sigh of contentment, “but believe me that goat-stew and sherbet tasted better than any chicken and champagne I ever tasted.”
“And I don’t quite know what tobacco this is,” Quest added, helping himself to one of a little pile of cigarettes which had been brought in to them, “but it tastes good.”
They moved to the opening of the tent and sat looking out across the silent desert. Laura took the flap of the canvas in her hand.
“What do all these marks mean?” she asked.
“They are cabalistic signs,” the Professor replied, “part of the language of the tribe. They indicate that this is the guest tent, and there are a few little maxims traced upon it, extolling the virtues of hospitality. Out in the desert there we met the Mongars as foes, and we had, I can assure you, a very narrow escape of our lives. Here, under the shelter of their encampment, it is a very different matter. We have eaten their salt.”
“It’s a strange position,” Quest remarked moodily.
Lenora leaned forward to where a little group of Mongars were talking together.
“I wish that beautiful girl would come and let us see her again,” she murmured.
“She,” the Professor explained, “is the Chief’s daughter, Feerda, whose life Craig saved.”
“And from the way she looks at him,” Laura observed, “I should say she hadn’t forgotten it, either.”
The Professor held up a warning finger. The girl herself had glided to their side out of the shadows. She faced the Professor. The rest of the party she seemed to ignore. She spoke very slowly and in halting English.
“My father wishes to know that you are satisfied?” she said. “You have no further wants?”
“None,” the Professor assured her. “We are very grateful for this hospitality, Feerda.”
“Won’t you talk to us for a little time?” Lenora begged, leaning forward.
The girl made no responsive movement. She seemed, if anything, to shrink a little away. Her head was thrown back, her dark eyes were filled with dislike. She turned suddenly to the Professor and spoke to him in her own language. She pointed to the signs upon the tent, drew her finger along one of the sentences, flashed a fierce glance at them all and disappeared.
“Seems to me we are not exactly popular with the young lady,” Quest remarked. “What was she saying, Professor?”
“She suspects us,” the Professor said slowly, “of wishing to bring evil to Craig. She pointed to a sentence upon the tent. Roughly it means ‘Gratitude is the debt of hospitality.’ I am very much afraid that the young lady must have been listening to our conversation a while ago.”
“To think of any girl,” she murmured, “caring for a fiend like Craig!”
Before they knew it she was there again, her eyes on fire, her tone shaking.
“You call him evil, he who saved your lives, who saved you from the swords of my soldiers!” she cried. “I wish that you had all died before you came here. I hope that you yet may die!”
She passed away into the night. The Professor looked anxiously after her.
“It is a humiliating reflection,” he said, “but we are most certainly in Craig’s power. Until we have been able to evolve some scheme for liberating ourselves and taking him with us, if possible, I think that we had better avoid any reference to him as much as possible. That young woman is quite capable of stirring up the whole tribe against us. The whole onus of hospitality would pass if they suspected we meant evil to Craig, and they have an ugly way of dealing with their enemies…. Ah! Listen!”
The Professor suddenly leaned forward. There was a queer change in his face. From somewhere on the other side of that soft bank of violet darkness came what seemed to be the clear, low cry of some animal.
“It is the Mongar cry of warning,” he said hoarsely. “Something is going to happen.”
The whole encampment was suddenly in a state of activity. The Mongars ran hither and thither, getting together their horses. The Chief, with Craig by his side, was standing on the outskirts of the camp. The cry came again, this time much louder and nearer. Soon they caught the muffled trampling of a horse’s hoofs galloping across the soft sands, then the gleam of his white garments as he came suddenly into sight, in the edge of the little circle of light thrown by the fire. They saw him leap from his horse, run to the Chief, bend double in some form of salute, then commence to talk rapidly. The Chief listened with no sign of emotion, but in a moment or two he was giving rapid orders. Camels appeared from some invisible place. Men, already on horseback, were galloping hither and thither, collecting fire-arms and spare ammunition. Pack-horses were being loaded, tents rolled up and every evidence of breaking camp.
“Seems to me there’s a move on,” Quest muttered, as they rose to their feet. “I wonder if we are in it.”
A moment or two later Craig approached them. He came with his shoulders stooped and his eyes fixed upon the ground. He scarcely raised them as he spoke.
“Word has been brought to the Chief,” he announced, “that the Arab who escaped from the caravan has fallen in with an outpost of British soldiers. They have already started in pursuit of us. The Mongars will take refuge in the jungle, where they have prepared hiding-places. We start at once.”
“What about us?” the Professor enquired.
“I endeavoured,” Craig continued, “to persuade the Chief to allow you to remain here, when the care of you would devolve upon the English soldiers. He and Feerda, however, have absolutely refused my request. Feerda has overheard some of your conversation, and the Chief believes that you will betray us. You will have to come along, too.”
“You mean,” Laura exclaimed, “that we’ve got to tramp into what you call the jungle, and hide there because these thieves are being chased?”
Craig glanced uneasily around.
“Young lady,” he said, “you will do well to speak little here. They have long ears and quick understandings, these men. You may call them a race of robbers. They only remember that they are the descendants of an Imperial race, and what they take by the right of conquest they believe Allah sends them. You must do the bidding of the Chief.”
He turned away towards where the Chief and Feerda, already on horseback, were waiting for him. Quest leaned towards the Professor.
“Why not tackle the Chief yourself?” he suggested. “Here he comes now. Craig may be speaking the truth, but, on the other hand, it’s all to his interests to keep us away from the soldiers.”
The Professor rose at once to his feet and stepped out to where the Chief was giving orders.
“Chief,” he said, “my friends desire me to speak with you. We are worn out with our adventures. The young ladies who are with us are unused to and ill-prepared for this hard life. We beg that you will allow us to remain here and await the arrival of the English soldiers.”
The Chief turned his head. There was little friendliness in his tone.
“Wise man,” he replied, “I have sent you my bidding by him who is our honoured guest. I tell you frankly that I am not satisfied with the explanations I have received of your presence here.”
Feerda leaned forward, her beautiful eyes flashing in the dim light.
“Ah! but I know,” she cried, “they would bring harm to the master. I can read it in their hearts as I have heard it from their own lips.”
“What my daughter says is truth,” the Chief declared. “Back, wise man, and tell your friends that you ride with us to-night, either as guests or captives. You may take your choice.”
The Professor returned to where the others were eagerly awaiting him.
“It is useless,” he announced. “The girl, who is clearly enamoured of Craig, suspects us. So does the Chief. Perhaps, secretly, Craig himself is unwilling to leave us here. The Chief never changes his mind and he has spoken. We go either as his captives or his guests. I have heard it said,” the Professor added grimly, “that the Mongars never keep captives longer than twenty-four hours.”
They all rose at once to their feet, and a few moments later horses were brought. The little procession was already being formed in line. Craig approached them once more.
“You will mount now and ride in the middle of our caravan,” he directed. “The Chief does not trust you. If you value your lives, you will do as you are bidden.”
“I don’t like the idea of the jungle,” Lenora sighed.
“Gives me the creeps,” Laura admitted, as she climbed upon her horse. “Any wild animals there, Professor?”
The Professor became more cheerful.
“The animal life of the region we are about to traverse,” he observed, as they moved off, “is in some respects familiar to me. Twelve years ago I devoted some time to research a little to the westward of our present route. I will, if you choose, as we ride, give you a brief account of some of my discoveries.”
The two girls exchanged glances. Quest, who had intercepted them, turned his horse and rode in between the Professor and Lenora.
“Go right ahead, Professor,” he invited. “Fortunately the girls have got saddles like boxes—I think they both mean to go to sleep.”
“An intelligent listener of either sex,” the Professor said amiably, “will be a stimulus to my memory.”
“You can call this fairyland, if you want,” Laura remarked, gazing around her; “I call it a nasty, damp, oozy spot.”
“It seemed very beautiful when we first came,” Lenora sighed, “but that was after the heat and glare of the desert. There does seem something a little unhealthy about it.”
“I’m just about fed up with Mongars,” Quest declared.
“We do nothing but lie about, and they won’t even let us fire a gun off.”
“Personally,” the Professor confessed, holding up a glass bottle in front of him from which a yellow beetle was making frantic efforts to escape, “I find this little patch of country unusually interesting. The specimen which I have here—I spare you the scientific name for him—belongs to a class of beetle which has for long eluded me.”
Laura regarded the specimen with disfavour.
“So far as I am concerned,” she observed, “I shouldn’t have cared if he’d eluded you a little longer. Don’t you dare let him out, Professor.”
“My dear young lady,” the Professor assured her, “the insect is perfectly secure. Through the cork, as you see, I have bored a couple of holes, hoping to keep him alive until we reach Port Said, when I can prepare him as a specimen.”
“Port Said!” Lenora murmured. “It sounds like heaven.”
Quest motioned them to sit a little nearer.
“Well,” he said, “I fancy we are all feeling about the same except the Professor, and even he wants to get some powder for his beetle. I had a moment’s talk with Craig this morning, and from what he says I fancy they mean to make a move a little further in before long. It’ll be all the more difficult to escape then.”
“You think we could get away?” Lenora whispered eagerly.
Quest glanced cautiously around. They were surrounded by thick vegetation, but they were only a very short distance from the camp.
“Seems to me,” he continued, “we shall have to try it some day or other and I’m all for trying it soon. Even if they caught us, I don’t believe they’d dare to kill us, with the English soldiers so close behind. I am going to get hold of two or three rifles and some ammunition. That’s easy, because they leave them about all the time. And what you girls want to do is to hide some food and get a bottle of water.”
“What about Craig?” the Professor asked.
“We are going to take him along,” Quest declared grimly. “He’s had the devil’s own luck so far, but it can’t last forever. I’ll see to that part of the business, if you others get ready and wait for me to give the signal…. What’s that?”
They all looked around. There had been a little rustling amongst the canopy of bushes. Quest peered through and returned, frowning.
“Feerda again,” he muttered. “She hangs around all the time, trying to listen to what we are saying. She couldn’t have heard this, though. Now, girls, remember. When the food is about this evening, see how much you can get hold of. I know just where to find the guns and the horses. Let’s separate now. The Professor and I will go on a beetle hunt.”
They dispersed in various directions. It was not until late in the evening, when the Mongars had withdrawn a little to indulge in their customary orgy of crooning songs, that they were absolutely alone. Quest looked out of the tent in which they had been sitting and came back again.
Laura lifted her skirt and showed an unusual projection underneath.
“Lenora and I have pinned up our petticoats,” she announced. “We’ve got plenty of food and a bottle of water.”
Quest threw open the white Arab cloak which he had been wearing. He had three rifles strapped around him.
“The Professor’s got the ammunition,” he said, “and we’ve five horses tethered a hundred paces along the track we came by, just behind the second tree turning to the left. I want you all to go there now at once and take the rifles. There isn’t a soul in the camp and you can carry them wrapped in this cloak. I’ll join you in ten minutes.”
“What about Craig?” the Professor enquired.
“I am seeing to him,” Quest replied.
“Isn’t it rather a risk?” she whispered fearfully.
Quest’s face was suddenly stern.
“Craig is going back with us,” he said. “I’ll be careful, Lenora. Don’t worry.”
He strolled out of the tent and came back again.
“The coast’s clear,” he announced. “Off you go…. One moment,” he added, “there are some papers in this little box of mine which one of you ought to take care of.”
He bent hastily over the little wallet, which never left him. Suddenly a little exclamation broke from his lips. The Professor peered over his shoulder.
“What is it?”
Quest never said a word. From one of the spaces of the wallet he drew out a small black box, removed the lid and held out the card. They read it together:
Even the Professor’s lips blanched a little as he read. Quest, however, seemed suddenly furious. He tore the card and the box to pieces, flung them into a corner of the tent and drew a revolver from his pocket.
“This time,” he exclaimed, “we are going to make an end of the Hands! Out you go now, girls. You can leave me to finish things up.”
One by one they stole along the path. Quest came out and watched them disappear. Then he gripped his revolver firmly in his hand and turned towards Craig’s tent. There was something in the breathless stillness of the place, at that moment, which seemed almost a presage of coming disaster. Without knowing exactly why, Quest’s fingers tightened on the butt of his weapon. Then, from the thick growth by the side of the clearing, he saw a dark shape steal out and vanish in the direction of Craig’s tent. He came to a standstill, puzzled. There had been rumours of lions all day, but the Professor had been incredulous. The nature of the country, he thought, scarcely favoured the probability of their presence. Then the still, heavy air was suddenly rent by a wild scream of horror. Across the narrow opening the creature had reappeared, carrying something in its mouth, something which gave vent all the time to the most awful yells. Quest fired his revolver on chance and broke into a run. Already the Mongars, disturbed in their evening amusement, were breaking into the undergrowth in chase. Quest came to a standstill. It was from Craig’s tent that the beast had issued!
He turned slowly around. If Craig had indeed paid for his crimes by so horrible a death, there was all the more reason why they should make their escape in the general confusion, and make it quickly. He retraced his steps. The sound of shouting voices grew less and less distinct. When he reached the meeting place, he found the Professor standing at the corner with the rest. His face showed signs of the most lively curiosity.
“From the commotion,” he announced, “I believe that, after all, a lion has visited the camp. The cries which we have heard were distinctly the cries of a native.”
Quest shook his head.
“A lion’s been here all right,” he said, “and he has finished our little job for us. That was Craig. I saw him come out of Craig’s tent.”
The Professor was dubious.
“My friend,” he said, “you are mistaken. There is nothing more characteristic and distinct than the Mongar cry of fear. They seldom use it except in the face of death. That was the cry of a native Mongar. As for Craig, well, you see that tree that looks like a dwarfed aloe?”
“What about it?”
“Craig was lying there ten minutes ago. He sprang up when he heard the yells from the encampment, but I believe he is there now.”
“Got the horses all right?” Quest enquired.
“Everything is waiting,” the Professor replied.
“I’ll have one more try, then,” Quest declared.
He made his way slowly through the undergrowth to the spot which the Professor had indicated. Close to the trunk of a tree Craig was standing. Feerda was on her knees before him. She was speaking to him in broken English.
“Dear master, you shall listen to your slave. These people are your enemies. It would be all over in a few minutes. You have but to say the word. My father is eager for it. No one would ever know.”
Craig patted her head. His tone was filled with the deepest despondency.
“It is impossible, Feerda,” he said. “You do not understand. I cannot tell you everything. Sometimes I almost think that the best thing I could do would be to return with them to the countries you know nothing of.”
“That’s what you are going to do, any way,” Quest declared, suddenly making his appearance. “Hands up!”
He covered Craig with his revolver, but his arm was scarcely extended before Feerda sprang at him like a little wild-cat. He gripped her with his left arm and held her away with difficulty.
“Craig,” he continued, “you’re coming with us. You know the way to Port Said and we want you—you know why. Untie that sash from your waist. Quickly!”
Craig obeyed. He had the stupefied air of a man who has lost for the time his volition.
“Tie it to the tree,” Quest ordered. “Leave room enough.”
Craig did as he was told. Then he turned and held the loose ends up. Quest lowered his revolver for a moment as he pushed Feerda toward it. Craig, with a wonderful spring, reached his side and kicked the revolver away. Before Quest could even stoop to recover it, he saw the glitter of the other’s knife pressed against his chest.
“Listen,” Craig declared. “I’ve made up my mind. I won’t go back to America. I’ve had enough of being hunted all over the world. This time I think I’ll rid myself of one of you, at any rate.”
The interruption was so unexpected that Craig lost his nerve. Through an opening in the trees, only a few feet away, Lenora had suddenly appeared. She, too, held a revolver; her hand was as steady as a rock.
“Drop your knife,” she ordered Craig.
He obeyed without hesitation.
“Now tie the sash around the girl.”
He obeyed mechanically. Feerda, who had been fiercely resisting Quest’s efforts to hold her, yielded without a struggle as soon as Craig touched her. She looked at him, however, with bitter reproach.
“You would tie me here?” she murmured. “You would leave me?”
“It is Fate,” Craig muttered. “I am worn out with trying to escape, Feerda. They will come soon and release you.”
She opened her lips to shriek, but Quest, who had made a gag of her linen head-dress, thrust it suddenly into her mouth. He took Craig by the collar and led him to the spot where the others were waiting. They hoisted him on to a horse. Already behind them they could see the flare of the torches from the returning Mongars.
“You know the way to Port Said,” Quest whispered. “See that you lead us there. There will be trouble, mind, if you don’t.”
Craig made no reply. He rode off in front of the little troop, covered all the time by Quest’s revolver. Very soon they were out of the jungle and in the open desert. Quest looked behind him uneasily.
“To judge by the row those fellows are making,” he remarked, “I should think that they’ve found Feerda already.”
“In that case,” the Professor said gravely, “let me recommend you to push on as fast as possible. We have had one escape from them, but nothing in the world can save us now that you have laid hands upon Feerda. The Chief would never forgive that.”
“We’ve got a start, any way,” Quest observed, “and these are the five best horses in the camp. Girls, a little faster. We’ve got to trust Craig for the direction but I believe he is right.”
“So far as my instinct tells me,” the Professor agreed, “I believe that we are heading in precisely the right direction.”
They galloped steadily on. The moon rose higher and higher until it became almost as light as day. Often the Professor raised himself in his saddle and peered forward.
“This column of soldiers would march at night,” he remarked. “I am hoping all the time that we may meet them.”
Quest fell a little behind to his side, although he never left off watching Craig.
“Look behind you, Professor,” he whispered.
In the far distance were a number of little black specks, growing every moment larger. Even at that moment they heard the low, long call of the Mongars.
“They are gaining on us,” Quest muttered.
The two girls, white though they were, bent over their horses.
“We’ll stick to it till the last moment,” Quest continued, “then we’ll turn and let them have it.”
They raced on for another mile or more. A bullet whistled over their heads. Quest tightened his reins.
“No good,” he sighed. “We’d better stay and fight it out, Professor. Stick close to me, Lenora.”
They drew up and hastily dismounted. The Mongars closed in around them. A cloud had drifted in front of the moon, and in the darkness it was almost impossible to see their whereabouts. They heard the Chief’s voice.
“Shoot first that dog of a Craig!”
There was a shriek. Suddenly Feerda, breaking loose from the others, raced across the little division. She flung herself from her horse.
“Tell my father that you were not faithless,” she pleaded. “They shall not kill you!”
She clung to Craig’s neck. The bullets were beginning to whistle around them now. All of a sudden she threw up her arms. Craig, in a fury, turned around and fired into the darkness. Then suddenly, as though on the bidding of some unspoken word, there was a queer silence. Every one was distinctly conscious of an alien sound—the soft thud of many horses’ feet galloping from the right; then a sharp, English voice of command.
“Hold your fire, men. Close into the left there. Steady!”
The cloud suddenly rolled away from the moon. A long line of horsemen were immediately visible. The officer in front rode forward.
“Drop your arms and surrender,” he ordered sternly.
The Mongars, who were outnumbered by twenty to one, obeyed without hesitation. Their Chief seemed unconscious, even, of what had happened. He was on his knees, bending over the body of Feerda, half supported in Craig’s arms. The officer turned to Quest.
“Are you the party who left Port Said for the Mongar Camp?” he asked.
“They took us into the jungle—just escaped. They’d caught us here, though, and I’m afraid we were about finished if you hadn’t come along. We are not English—we’re American.”
“Same thing,” the officer replied, as he held out his hand. “Stack up their arms, men,” he ordered, turning around. “Tie them in twos. Dennis, take the young ladies back to the commissariat camels.”
The Professor drew a little sigh.
“Commissariat!” he murmured. “That sounds most inviting.”