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Wyndham Bimbashi's career in Egypt had been a series of mistakes. In the
first place he was opinionated, in the second place he never seemed to
have any luck; and, worst of all, he had a little habit of doing grave
things on his own lightsome responsibility. This last quality was natural
to him, but he added to it a supreme contempt for the native mind and an
unhealthy scorn of the native official. He had not that rare quality,
constantly found among his fellow-countrymen, of working the native up
through his own medium, as it were, through his own customs and
predispositions, to the soundness of Western methods of government.
Therefore, in due time he made some dangerous mistakes. By virtue of
certain high-handed actions he was the cause of several riots in native
villages, and he had himself been attacked at more than one village as he
rode between the fields of sugar-cane. On these occasions he had behaved
very well--certainly no one could possibly doubt his bravery; but that
was a small offset to the fact that his want of tact and his overbearing
manner had been the means of turning a certain tribe of Arabs loose upon
the country, raiding and killing.
But he could not, or would not, see his own vain stupidity. The climax
came in a foolish sortie against the Arab tribe he had offended. In that
unauthorised melee, in covert disobedience to a general order not to
attack, unless at advantage--for the Gippies under him were raw
levies--his troop was diminished by half; and, cut off from the Nile by a
flank movement of the Arabs, he was obliged to retreat and take refuge in
the well-fortified and walled house which had previously been a Coptic
Here, at last, the truth came home to Wyndham bimbashi. He realised that
though in his six years' residence in the land he had acquired a command
of Arabic equal to that of others who had been in the country twice that
time, he had acquired little else. He awoke to the fact that in his
cock-sure schemes for the civil and military life of Egypt there was not
one element of sound sense; that he had been all along an egregious
failure. It did not come home to him with clear, accurate conviction--his
brain was not a first-rate medium for illumination; but the facts struck
him now with a blind sort of force; and he accepted the blank sensation
of failure. Also, he read in the faces of those round him an alien
spirit, a chasm of black misunderstanding which his knowledge of Arabic
could never bridge over.
Here he was, shut up with Gippies who had no real faith in him, in the
house of a Sheikh whose servants would cut his throat on no provocation
at all; and not an eighth of a mile away was a horde of Arabs--a circle
of death through which it was impossible to break with the men in his
command. They must all die here, if they were not relieved.
The nearest garrison was at Kerbat, sixty miles away, where five hundred
men were stationed. Now that his cup of mistakes was full, Wyndham
bimbashi would willingly have made the attempt to carry word to the
garrison there. But he had no right to leave his post. He called for a
volunteer. No man responded. Panic was upon the Gippies. Though Wyndham's
heart sickened within him, his lips did not frame a word of reproach; but
a blush of shame came into his face, and crept up to his eyes, dimming
them. For there flashed through his mind what men at home would think of
him when this thing, such an end to his whole career, was known. As he
stood still, upright and confounded, some one touched his arm.
It was Hassan, his Soudanese servant. Hassan was the one person in Egypt
who thoroughly believed in him. Wyndham was as a god to Hassan, though
this same god had given him a taste of a belt more than once. Hassan had
not resented the belt, though once, in a moment of affectionate
confidence, he had said to Wyndham that when his master got old and died
he would be the servant of an American or a missionary, "which no whack
It was Hassan who now volunteered to carry word to the garrison at
"If I no carry, you whack me with belt, Saadat," said Hassan, whose logic
and reason were like his master's, neither better nor worse.
"If you do, you shall have fifty pounds--and the missionary," answered
Wyndham, his eyes still cloudy and his voice thick; for it touched him in
a tender nerve that this one Soudanese boy should believe in him and do
for him what he would give much to do for the men under him. For his own
life he did not care--his confusion and shame were so great.
He watched Hassan steal out into the white brilliance of the night.
"Mind you keep a whole skin, Hassan," he said, as the slim lad with the
white teeth, oily hair, and legs like ivory, stole along the wall, to
drop presently on his belly and make for some palm-trees a hundred yards
The minutes went by in silence; an hour went by; the whole night went by;
Hassan had got beyond the circle of trenchant steel.
They must now abide Hassan's fate; but another peril was upon them. There
was not a goolah of water within the walls!
It was the time of low Nile when all the land is baked like a crust of
bread, when the creaking of the shadoofs and the singing croak of the
sakkia are heard the night long like untiring crickets with throats of
frogs. It was the time succeeding the khamsin, when the skin dries like
slaked lime and the face is for ever powdered with dust; and the
fellaheen, in the slavery of superstition, strain their eyes day and
night for the Sacred Drop, which tells that the flood is flowing fast
from the hills of Abyssinia.
It was like the Egyptian that nothing should be said to Wyndham about the
dearth of water until it was all gone. The house of the Sheikh, and its
garden, where were a pool and a fountain, were supplied from the great
Persian wheel at the waterside. On this particular sakkia had been wont
to sit all day a patient fellah, driving the blindfolded buffaloes in
their turn. It was like the patient fellah, when the Arabs, in pursuit of
Wyndham and his Gippies, suddenly cut in between him and the house, to
deliver himself over to the conqueror, with his hand upon his head in
sign of obedience.
It was also like the gentle Egyptian that he eagerly showed the besiegers
how the water could be cut off from the house by dropping one of the
sluice-gates; while, opening another, all the land around the Arab
encampments might be well watered, the pools well filled, and the grass
kept green for horses and camels. This was the reason that Wyndham
bimbashi and his Gippies, and the Sheikh and his household, faced the
fact, the morning after Hassan left, that there was scarce a goolah of
water for a hundred burning throats. Wyndham understood now why the Arabs
sat down and waited, that torture might be added to the oncoming death of
the Englishman, his natives, and the "friendlies."
All that day terror and ghastly hate hung like a miasma over the besieged
house and garden. Fifty eyes hungered for the blood of Wyndham bimbashi;
not because he was Wyndham bimbashi, but because the heathen in these men
cried out for sacrifice; and what so agreeable a sacrifice as the
Englishman who had led them into this disaster and would die so well--had
they ever seen an Englishman who did not die well?
Wyndham was quiet and watchful, and he cudgelled his bullet-head, and
looked down his long nose in meditation all the day, while his tongue
became dry and thick, and his throat seemed to crack like roasting
leather. At length he worked the problem out. Then he took action.
He summoned his troop before him, and said briefly: "Men, we must have
water. The question is, who is going to steal out to the sakkia to-night,
to shut the one sluice and open the other?"
No one replied. No one understood quite what Wyndham meant. Shutting one
sluice and opening the other did not seem to meet the situation. There
was the danger of getting to the sakkia, but there was also an after.
Would it be possible to shut one sluice and open the other without the
man at the wheel knowing? Suppose you killed the man at the wheel--what
The Gippies and the friendlies scowled, but did not speak. The bimbashi
was responsible for all; he was an Englishman, let him get water for
them, or die like the rest of them--perhaps before them!
Wyndham could not travel the sinuosities of their minds, and it would not
have affected his purpose if he could have done so. When no man replied,
he simply said:
"All right, men. You shall have water before morning. Try and hold out
till then." He dismissed them. For a long time he walked up and down the
garden of straggling limes, apparently listless, and smoking hard. He
reckoned carefully how long it would take Hassan to get to Kerbat, and
for relief to come. He was fond of his pipe, and he smoked now as if it
were the thing he most enjoyed in the world. He held the bowl in the
hollow of his hand almost tenderly. He seemed unconscious of the scowling
looks around him. At last he sat down on the ledge of the rude fountain,
with his face towards the Gippies and the Arabs squatted on the ground,
some playing mankalah, others sucking dry lime leaves, many smoking
One man with the flicker of insanity in his eyes suddenly ran forward and
threw himself on the ground before Wyndham.
"In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful--water!" he cried.
"Water--I am dying, effendi whom God preserve!"
"Nile water is sweet; you shall drink it before morning, Mahommed,"
answered Wyndham quietly. "God will preserve your life till the Nile
water cools your throat."
"Before dawn, O effendi?" gasped the Arab. "Before dawn, by the mercy of
God," answered Wyndham; and for the first time in his life he had a burst
of imagination. The Orient had touched him at last.
"Is not the song of the sakkia in thine ear, Mahommed?" he said
"Turn, O Sakkia, turn to the right, and turn to the left.
The Nile floweth by night and the balasses are filled at dawn--
The maid of the village shall bear to thy bed the dewy grey
goolah at dawn
Turn, O Sakkia!"
The man rose from his knees. A vision of his home in the mirkaz of Minieh
passed before him. He stretched out his hands, and sang in the vibrating
monotone of his people:
"Turn, O Sakkia, turn to the right, and turn to the left:
Who will take care of me, if my father dies?
Who will give me water to drink, and the cucumber vine at my door--
Turn, O Sakkia!"
Wyndham looked at them all and pondered. "If the devils out there would
only attack us," he said between his teeth, "or if we could only attack
them!" he added, and he nervously hastened his footsteps; for to him this
inaction was terrible. "They'd forget their thirst if they were
fighting," he muttered, and then he frowned; for the painful neighing of
the horses behind the house came to his ear. In desperation he went
inside and climbed to the roof, where he could see the circle of the
It was no use. They were five to one, and his Gippies were demoralised.
It would be a fine bit of pluck to try and cut his way through the Arabs
to the Nile--but how many would reach it?
No, he had made his full measure of mistakes, he would not add to the
list. If Hassan got through to Kerbat his Gippies here would no doubt be
relieved, and there would be no more blood on his head. Relieved? And
when they were relieved, what of himself, Wyndham bimbashi? He knew what
men would say in Cairo, what men would say at the War Office in London
town, at "The Rag"--everywhere! He could not look his future in the face.
He felt that every man in Egypt, save himself, had known all along that
he was a complete failure.
It did not matter while he himself was not conscious of it; but now that
the armour-plate of conceit protecting his honest mind had been torn away
on the reefs of foolish deeds, it mattered everything. For when his
conceit was peeled away, there was left a crimson cuticle of the Wyndham
pride. Certainly he could not attack the Arabs--he had had his eternal
fill of sorties.
Also he could not wait for the relief party, for his Gippies and the
friendlies were famishing, dying of thirst. He prayed for night. How
slowly the minutes, the hours passed; and how bright was the moon when it
rose! brighter even than it was when Hassan crept out to steal through
the Arab lines.
At midnight, Wyndham stole softly out of a gate in the garden wall, and,
like Hassan, dropping to the ground, crept towards a patch of maize lying
between the house and the river. He was dressed like a fellah, with the
long blue yelek, and a poor wool fez, and round the fez was a white
cloth, as it were to protect his mouth from the night air, after the
manner of the peasant.
The fires of the enemy were dying down, and only here and there Arabs
gossiped or drank coffee by the embers. At last Wyndham was able to drop
into the narrow channel, now dry, through which, when the sluice was open
and the sakkia turned, the water flowed to the house. All went well till
he was within a hundred yards of the wheel, though now and again he could
hear sentries snoring or talking just above him. Suddenly he heard
breathing an arm's length before him, then a figure raised itself and a
head turned towards him. The Arab had been asleep, but his hand ran to
his knife by instinct--too late, for Wyndham's fingers were at his
throat, and he had neither time nor chance to cry Allah! before the
breath left him.
Wyndham crept on. The sound of the sakkia was in his ears--the long,
creaking, crying song, filling the night. And now there arose the Song of
the Sakkia from the man at the wheel:
"Turn, O Sakkia, turn to the right, and turn to the left;
The heron feeds by the water side--shall I starve in my onion-field!
Shall the Lord of the World withhold his tears that water the land--
Turn, O Sakkia!"
. . . The hard white stars, the cold blue sky, the far-off Libyan hills
in a gold and opal glow, the smell of the desert, the deep swish of the
Nile, the Song of the Sakkia. . . .
Wyndham's heart beat faster, his blood flowed quicker, he strangled a
sigh in his breast. Here, with death on every hand, with immediate and
fearful peril before him, out of the smell of the desert and the ghostly
glow of the Libyan hills there came a memory--the memory of a mistake he
had made years before with a woman. She had never forgiven him for the
mistake--he knew it at last. He knew that no woman could ever forgive the
blunder he had made--not a blunder of love but a blunder of self-will and
an unmanly, unmannerly conceit. It had nearly wrecked her life: and he
only realised it now, in the moment of clear-seeing which comes to every
being once in a lifetime. Well, it was something to have seen the mistake
He had come to the sluice-gate. It was impossible to open it without the
fellah on the water-wheel seeing him.
There was another way. He crept close and closer to the wheel. The breath
of the blindfolded buffalo was in his face, he drew himself up lightly
and quickly beside the buffalo--he was making no blunder now.
Suddenly he leapt from behind the buffalo upon the fellah and smothered
his mouth in the white cloth he had brought. There was a moment's
struggle, then, as the wheel went slower and slower, and the patient
buffalo stopped, Wyndham dropped the gagged, but living, fellah into a
trench by the sakkia and, calling to the buffalo, slid over swiftly,
opened the sluice-gate of the channel which fed the house, and closed
that leading to the Arab encampment.
Then he sat down where the fellah had sat, and the sakkia droned its
mystic music over the river, the desert, and the plain. But the buffalo
moved slowly-the fellah's song had been a spur to its travel, as the
camel-driver's song is to the caravan in the waste of sands. Wyndham
hesitated an instant, then, as the first trickle of water entered the
garden of the house where his Gippies and the friendlies were, his voice
rose in the Song of the Sakkia:
"Turn, O Sakkia, turn to the right, and turn to the left:
Who will take care of me, if my father dies?
Who will give me water to drink, and the cucumber vine at my door
Turn, O Sakkia!"
Now and again a figure came towards the wheel, but not close enough to
see that the one sluice-gate had been shut and the other opened. A
half-hour passed, an hour, and then the end came.
The gagged fellah had managed to free his mouth, and though his feet were
bound also and he could not loose them, he gave a loud call for help.
From dying fires here and there Arab sentries sprang to their feet with
rifles and lances.
Wyndham's work was done. He leapt from the sakkia, and ran towards the
house. Shot after shot was fired at him, lances were thrown, and once an
Arab barred his way suddenly. He pistoled him and ran on. A lance caught
him in the left arm. He tore it out and pushed forward. Stooping once, he
caught up a sword from the ground. When he was within fifty yards of the
house, four Arabs intercepted him. He slashed through, then turned with
his pistol and fired as he ran quickly towards the now open gate. He was
within ten yards of it, and had fired his last shot, when a bullet
crashed through his jaw.
A dozen Gippies ran out, dragged him in, and closed the gate.
The last thing Wyndham did before he died in the grey of dawn--and this
is told of him by the Gippies themselves-was to cough up the bullet from
his throat, and spit it out upon the ground. The Gippies thought it a
miraculous feat, and that he had done it in scorn of the Arab foe.
Before another sunrise and sunset had come, Wyndham bimbashi's men were
relieved by the garrison of Kerbat, after a hard fight.
There are Englishmen in Egypt who still speak slightingly of Wyndham
bimbashi, but the British officer who buried him hushed a gossiping
dinner-party a few months ago in Cairo by saying:
"Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him;
But little he'll reek, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where his Gippies have laid him."
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