The Truants

Chapter XXVIII


A.E.W. Mason

THE TWO MEN smoked together upon the roof-top afterwards.

“I left a man at the gate all day,” said Warrisden, “to watch the track from Sefru. I had brought him from Algiers. I do not know how he came to miss you.”

“He could not know me,” said Tony, “and I spoke to no one.”

“But he knew the mule!”

Tony was silent for a little while. Then he said, in a low, grave voice, like a man speaking upon matters which he has no liking to remember—

“The mule was taken from me some days ago in the Ait Yussi country.” And Warrisden upon that said—

“You had trouble, then, upon the way—great trouble.”

Again Tony was slow in the reply. He looked out across the city. It was a night of moonlight, so bright that the stars were pale and small, as though they were withdrawn; there was no cloud anywhere about the sky; and on such a night, in that clear, translucent air, the city, with its upstanding minarets, had a grace and beauty denied to it by day. There was something of enchantment in its aspect, Tony smoked his pipe in silence for a little while. Then he said—

“Let us not talk about it! I never thought that I would be sitting here in Fez to-night. Tell me rather when we start!”

“Early to-morrow,” replied Warrisden. “We must reach Roquebrune in the South of France by the thirty-first.”

Stretton suddenly sat back in his chair.

“Roquebrune! France!” he exclaimed. “We must go there? Why?”

“I do not know,” Warrisden answered. “A telegram reached me at Tangier. I kept it.”

He took the telegram from his pocket and handed it to Stretton, who read it and sat thinking.

“We have time,” said Warrisden, “just time enough, I think, if we travel fast.”

“Good,” said Stretton, as he returned the telegram. “But I was not thinking of the time.”

He did not explain what had caused him to start at the mention of Roquebrune; but after sitting for a little while longer in silence, he betook himself to bed.

Early the next morning they rode out of the Bab Sagma upon the thronged highway over the plain to Mequinez.

The caravans diminished, striking off into this or that track. Very soon there remained with them only one party of five Jews mounted on small donkeys. They began to ride through high shrubs and bushes of fennel over rolling ground. Stretton talked very little, and as the track twisted and circled across the plain he was constantly standing up in his stirrups and searching the horizon.

“There does not seem to be one straight path in Morocco,” he exclaimed impatiently. “Look at this one. There’s no reason why it should not run straight. Yet it never does.”

Indeed, the track lay across that open plain like some brown, monstrous serpent of a legend.

“I do not believe,” replied Warrisden, “that there is a straight path anywhere in the world, unless it is one which has been surveyed and made, or else it runs from gate to gate, and both gates are visible. One might think the animals made this track, turning and twisting to avoid the bushes. Only the tracks are no straighter in the desert, where there are no bushes at all.”

They halted for half an hour at eleven, beside a bridge which crossed a stream, broken and ruinous, but still serviceable. And while they sat on the ground under the shadow they suddenly heard a great clatter of hoofs upon the broken cobbles; and looking up saw a body of men ride across the bridge. There were about forty of them, young and old; all were mounted, and in appearance as wild and ragged a set of bandits as could be imagined. As they rode over the bridge they saw Warrisden and Stretton seated on the ground beneath them; and without a word or a shout they halted as one man. Their very silence was an intimidating thing.

“Z’mur,” whispered Ibrahim. He was shaking with fear. Warrisden noticed that the two soldiers who accompanied them on this journey to Mequinez quietly mounted their horses. Stretton and Warrisden rose to do likewise. And as they rose a dozen of the mounted Z’mur quietly rode round from the end of the bridge and stood between them and the stream. Then the leader, a big man with a black beard turning grey, began to talk in a quiet and pleasant voice to the soldiers.

“You are bringing Europeans into our country. Now, why are you doing that? We do not like Europeans.”

The soldiers no less pleasantly replied—

“Your country? The Europeans are travelling with a letter from your master and mine, my Lord the Sultan, to the Governor of Mequinez.”

“You will show us then the letter?”

“I will do nothing of the kind,” the soldier replied, with a smile. The Z’mur did not move; the two soldiers sat upon their horses smiling—it seemed that matters had come to a deadlock. Meanwhile Warrisden and Stretton got into their saddles. Then the leader of the Z’mur spoke again—

“We passed five Jews riding on donkeys a little while ago. They were kind enough when we stopped them to give us a peseta apiece. We are going to Fez to offer our help to the Sultan, if only he will give us rifles and ammunition. But we shall go home again when we have got them. Perhaps the Europeans would like to give us a peseta apiece as well.”

“I do not think they would like it at all,” said the soldier. “Peace go with you!” and he turned his horse and, followed, by Warrisden and Stretton, the terrified Ibrahim and the train of mules, he rode right through the forty Z’mur and over the bridge.

It was an awkward moment, but the men of Warrisden’s party assumed, with what skill they could, an air of unconcern. Trouble was very near to them. It needed only that one of those wild tribesmen should reach out his hand and seize the bridle of a horse. But no hand was reached out. The Z’mur were caught in a moment of indecision. They sat upon their horses motionless. They let the Europeans pass.

Ibrahim, however, drew no comfort from their attitude.

“It is because they wish rifles and ammunition from the Government,” he said. “Therefore they will avoid trouble until they have got them. But with the next party it will not be so.”

There are three waterfalls in Morocco, and of those three one falls in a great cascade between red cliffs into a dark pool thirty feet below, close by the village of Medhuma. By this waterfall they lunched, the while Ibrahim bared his right arm to the shoulder, stretched himself full length upon the ground, and, to the infinite danger of the bystanders, practised shooting with his revolver. They lunched quickly and rode on. Towards evening, above a group of trees on a hill, they saw here and there a minaret.

“Mequinez,” exclaimed Ibrahim. “Schoof! Mequinez!”

In a little while fragments of thick wall began to show, scattered here and there about the plain. Brown walls, high and crumbling to rain, walls that never had been walls of houses, but which began and ended for no reason. They were all that was left of the work of Mulai Ismail, who, in the seventeenth century, had built and planned buildings about this town until death put an end to all his architecture. There was to be a wall across the country, from Fez to Morocco city far away in the south, so that the blind, of which this kingdom still has many, and then was full, might pass from one town to another without a guide. Part of that wall was built, and fragments of it rise amongst the oleanders and the bushes to this day.

The travellers entered now upon a park. A green mossy turf spread out soft beneath the feet of their horses, dwarf oaks made everywhere a pleasant shade; Stretton had lost sight now of the minarets, and no sign of Mequinez was visible at all. The ground sloped downwards, the track curved round a hill, and suddenly, on the opposite side of a valley, they saw the royal city, with its high walls and gates, its white houses, and its green-tiled mosques, and its old grey massive palaces stretch along the hillside before their eyes.

One of the soldiers rode forward into the town to find the Basha and present his letters. A troop of men came out in a little time and led the travellers up the cobbled stones through a gateway into the wide space before the Renegade’s Gate, that wonderful monument of Moorish art which neither the wear of the centuries nor the neglect of its possessors has availed to destroy. Its tiles are broken. The rains have discoloured it, stones have fallen from their places. Yet the gate rises, majestic yet most delicate, beautiful in colour, exquisite in shape, flanked with massive pillars, and surmounted by its soaring arch, a piece of embroidery in stone, fine as though the stone were lace. By the side of this arch the camp was pitched just about the time when the horses and mules are brought down to roll in the dust of the square and to drink at the two great fountains beyond the gate.

Later in that evening there came a messenger from the Basha with servants bearing bowls of kouss-kouss.

“Fourteen soldiers will ride with you to-morrow,” he said, “for the country is not safe. It will be well if you start early, for you have a long way to go.”

“The earlier the better,” said Stretton.

“It will do if you breakfast at five—half-past five,” said Ibrahim, to whom punctuality was a thing unknown. “And start at six—half-past six.”

“No,” said Warrisden. “We will start at five—half-past five.”

That night a company of soldiers kept guard about the tents, and passed the hours of darkness in calling to one another and chanting one endless plaintive melody. Little sleep was possible to the two Englishmen, and to one of them sleep did not come at all. Now and then Warrisden dropped off and waked again; and once or twice he struck a match and lit his candle. Each time that he did this he saw Stretton lying quite motionless in his bed on the other side of the tent. Tony lay with the bed-clothes up to his chin, and his arms straight down at his sides, in some uncanny resemblance to a dead man. But Warrisden saw that all the while his eyes were open. Tony was awake with his troubles and perplexities, keeping them to himself as was his wont, and slowly searching for an issue. That he would hit upon the issue he did not doubt. He had these few days for thought, and it was not the first time that he had had to map out a line of conduct. His course might be revealed to him at the very last moment, as it had been on the trawler in the North Sea. Or it might flash upon him in a second, as the necessity to desert had flashed upon him amidst the aloes of Ain-Sefra. Meanwhile he lay awake and thought.

They started early that morning, and crossing a valley, mounted on to that high, wide plain Djebel Zarhon and Djebel Gerowaun. They left the town of Mequinez behind them; its minarets dropped out of sight. They had come into a most empty world. Not a tent-village stood anywhere beside the track. Far away to the right, in a deep recess, the white sacred town of Mulai Idris fell down the dark side of Zarhon like a cascade. A little further an arch of stone and a few pillars rising from the plain showed where once the Romans had built their town of Volubilis. But when that was passed there was no sign of life anywhere at all. For hours they rode in a desolate, beautiful world. Bushes of asphodel, white with their starry flowers, brushed against them; plants of iris, purple and yellow, stood stirrup-high upon their path; and at times the bushes would cease, and they would ride over a red carpet of marigolds, which would pale away into the gold of the mustard flower. Flowers were about them all that day, the red anemone, the blue lupin, periwinkles, the yellow flower of the cytisus, but no living things. Even the air above their heads was still. The country seemed too empty even for the birds.

At eleven o’clock they stopped beside a stream which ran prettily between trees across their path.

“We shall find no more water until evening,” said Ibrahim. “We will stop here.”

Stretton dismounted, and said—

“We can send the mules on and catch them up. It will save time.”

The soldiers shook their heads.

“We are in the Berber country,” they said. “We must not separate.”

Stretton looked around impatiently.

“But there is no one within miles,” he exclaimed; and, as if to contradict him, a man walked out from the bushes by the stream and came towards them. He had been robbed on this very track not two hours before by eleven mounted Berbers. He had been driving three mules laden with eggs and food to Mulai Idris, and his mules and their loads had been taken from him. He was walking home, absolutely penniless, His whole fortune had been lost that day; and when once again the travellers started upon their journey he ran at a trot beside their horses for safety’s sake.

The road mounted now on to stony and mountainous country. It wound continually, ascending in and out amongst low, round peaks towards the summit of a great line of hills which ran from east to west opposite to them against the sky.

“Beyond the hills,” cried Ibrahim, “is the plain of the Sebou.”

A big village crowned the hill just where the track ascended. It had been placed there to protect the road. In a little while they came to the brow of the hill, and suddenly they saw, far below them, the great plain of the Sebou, green and level, dotted with villages and the white tombs of saints and clumps of trees, stretching away as far as the eye could reach. It was afternoon, not a cloud was in the sky, and the sun shone through the clear, golden air beneficently bright. The hillside fell away to the plain with a descent so sheer, the plain broke so abruptly upon the eyes, that the very beauty of the scene caught the breath away. Both Warrisden and Stretton reined in their horses, and sat looking across the plain as a man might who suddenly from the crest of some white cliff sees for the first time the sea. And then Warrisden heard his companion begin to hum a song. He caught some of the words, but not many.

“Oh, come out, mah love, I’m awaitin’ foh you heah!” Tony began, and suddenly checked himself with an expression of anger, as though the words had associations which it hurt him to recall.

“Let us ride on,” he said, and led the way down the steep, winding track towards the plain.

They pressed on that evening, and camped late in the Beni Hassan country. Stretton slept that night, but he slept fitfully. He had not yet come to the end of his perplexities, and as he rode away from their camping-ground in the morning he said, impulsively—

“It is quite true. I have thought of it. I am to blame. I should have gone into the house that night.”

He was endeavouring to be just, and to this criticism of himself he continually recurred. He should have entered his house in Berkeley Square on the night when he contented himself with looking up to the lighted windows. He should have gone in and declared what was in his mind to do. Very likely he would only have made matters worse. Contempt for a visionary would very likely have been added to the contempt for a ne’er-do-weel. Certainly no faith would have been felt by Millie in the success of his plan. He would have been asked, in a lukewarm way, to abandon it and stay at home. Still, he ought to have gone in. He had made a mistake that night.

All that day they rode through the Beni Hassan country westwards. The plain was level and monotonous; they passed village after village, each one built in a circle round a great space of open turf, into which the cattle were driven at night. For upon the hills, and in the forest of Mamura to the south, close by, the Z’mur lived, and between the Beni Hassan and the Z’mur there is always war. In the afternoon they came to the borders of that forest, and skirting its edge, towards evening reached the caravanserai of El Kantra.

The travellers saw it some while before they came to it—four high, smooth, castellated walls crowning a low hill. It stands upon the road from Fez to Rabat, and close to the road from Rabat to Larache, and a garrison guards it. For you could almost throw a stone from its walls into the trees of Mamura. Stretton and Warrisden rode round the walls to the gate, and as they passed beneath the arch both halted and looked back.

Outside was a quiet country of grey colours; the sun was near to its setting; far away the broken walls of the old Portuguese town of Mediyah stood upon a point of vantage on a hillside, like some ruined castle of the Tyrol. Inside the caravanserai all was noise and shouting and confusion. In the thickness of the walls there were little rooms or cells, and in these the merchants were making their homes for the night, while about them their servants and muleteers buzzed like a hive of bees. And the whole great square within the walls was one lake of filthy mud, wherein camels, and mules, and donkeys, and horses rolled and stamped and fought. A deafening clamour rose to the skies. Every discordant sound that the created world could produce seemed to be brayed from that jostling throng of animals as from some infernal orchestra. And the smell of the place was fetid.

“Let us pitch our camp outside!” said Warrisden. But the captain of the garrison came hurrying up.

“No,” he cried excitedly. “The Z’mur! The Z’mur!”

Stretton shrugged his shoulders.

“I am getting a little bored with the Z’mur,” said he.

“They have sent in word to us,” the captain continued, “that they mean to attack us to-night.”

Stretton looked perplexed.

“But why send in word?” he asked.

The captain of the garrison looked astonished at the question.

“So that we may be ready for them, of course,” he replied, quite seriously; for life in Morocco has some of the qualities of opera-bouffe. “So you must come inside. You have a letter from my lord the Basha of Fez, it is true. If the letter said you were to sleep outside the walls of El Kantra, then I would kiss the seal and place it against my forehead, and bring out my five hundred men to guard you, and we should all get killed. But it does not say so.”

His five hundred men were really short of fifty. Stretton and Warrisden laughed; but they had to go inside the caravanserai. This was the last day on which they ran any risk. To-morrow they would cross the Sebou at Mediyah, and beyond the Sebou the road was safe.

They rode inside the caravanserai, and were allotted a cell which obtained some privacy from a hurdle fixed in the ground in front of it. The gates of the caravanserai were closed, the sunset flushed the blue sky with a hue of rose; the mueddhin came out upon the minaret which rose from the southern wall, and chanted in a monotone his call to prayer; and then a drummer and a bugler advanced into the crowded square. Suddenly there fell upon Stretton’s ears, competing with the mueddhin and the uproar of the animals, the “Last Post.”

Stretton started up, amazed, and most deeply moved. An English officer instructed the Moorish troops. What more natural than that he should introduce the English calls and signals? But to Stretton it seemed most wonderful that here, in this Eastern country, while the Mohammedan priest was chanting from his minaret, he should hear again, after so many years, that familiar tattoo sounded by an Eastern bugle and an Eastern drum. In how many barracks of England, he wondered, would that same “Last Post” ring out to-night? And at once the years slipped away, the hard years of the North Sea and the Sahara. He was carried back among the days when he served in the Coldstream. Then arose in his heart a great longing that something of the happiness of those days might be recaptured still.

Warrisden and Stretton crossed the Sebou the next morning, and rode with the boom of the Atlantic in their ears. Hills upon their left hand hid the sea from their eyes, and it was not until the next day, when they mounted on to a high tableland four hours from Larache, that they saw it rolling lazily towards the shore. They caught a steamer at Larache that night.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter XXIX

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