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Chapter 2

Then we brought the lances down, then the bugles blew,
When we went to Kandahar, ridin' two an' two,
Ridin', ridin', ridin', two an' two,
Ta-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra,
All the way to Kandahar, ridin' two an' two.

--Barrack-Room Ballad.

'I'M NOT angry with the British public, but I wish we had a few
thousand of them scattered among these rooks. They wouldn't be in such
a hurry to get at their morning papers then. Can't you imagine the
regulation householder--Lover of Justice, Constant Reader,
Paterfamilias, and all that lot--frizzling on hot gravel?'

'With a blue veil over his head, and his clothes in strips. Has any man
here a needle? I've got a piece of sugar-sack.'

'I'll lend you a packing-needle for six square inches of it then. Both my
knees are worn through.'

'Why not six square acres, while you're about it? But lend me the needle,
and I'll see what I can do with the selvage. I don't think there's enough to
protect my royal body from the cold blast as it is. What are you doing
with that everlasting sketch-book of yours, Dick?'

'Study of our Special Correspondent repairing his wardrobe,' said Dick,
gravely, as the other man kicked off a pair of sorely worn
riding-breeches and began to fit a square of coarse canvas over the most
obvious open space. He grunted disconsolately as the vastness of the void
developed itself.

'Sugar-bags, indeed! Hi! you pilot man there! lend me all the sails for
that whale-boat.'

A fez-crowned head bobbed up in the stern-sheets, divided itself into
exact halves with one flashing grin, and bobbed down again. The man of
the tattered breeches, clad only in a Norfolk jacket and a gray flannel
shirt, went on with his clumsy sewing, while Dick chuckled over the
sketch.

Some twenty whale-boats were nuzzling a sand-bank which was dotted
with English soldiery of half a dozen corps, bathing or washing their
clothes. A heap of boat-rollers, commissariat-boxes, sugar-bags, and
flour- and small-arm-ammunition-cases showed where one of the
whale-boats had been compelled to unload hastily; and a regimental
carpenter was swearing aloud as he tried, on a wholly insufficient
allowance of white lead, to plaster up the sun-parched gaping seams of
the boat herself.

'First the bloomin' rudder snaps,' said he to the world in general; 'then
the mast goes; an' then, s' 'help me, when she can't do nothin' else, she
opens 'erself out like a cock-eyes Chinese lotus.'

'Exactly the case with my breeches, whoever you are,' said the tailor,
without looking up. 'Dick, I wonder when I shall see a decent shop again.'

There was no answer, save the incessant angry murmur of the Nile as it
raced round a basalt-walled bend and foamed across a rock-ridge half a
mile upstream. It was as though the brown weight of the river would
drive the white men back to their own country. The indescribable scent
of Nile mud in the air told that the stream was falling and the next few
miles would be no light thing for the whale-boats to overpass. The desert
ran down almost to the banks, where, among gray, red, and black
hillocks, a camel-corps was encamped. No man dared even for a day lose
touch of the slow-moving boats; there had been no fighting for weeks
past, and throughout all that time the Nile had never spared them. Rapid
had followed rapid, rock rock, and island-group island-group, till the
rank and file had long since lost all count of direction and very nearly of
time. They were moving somewhere, they did not know why, to do
something, they did not know what. Before them lay the Nile, and at the
other end of it was one Gordon, fighting for the dear life, in a town called
Khartoum. There were columns of British troops in the desert, or in one
of the many deserts; there were yet more columns waiting to embark on
the river; there were fresh drafts waiting at Assioot and Assuan; there
were lies and rumours running over the face of the hopeless land from
Suakin to the Sixth Cataract, and men supposed generally that there
must be some one in authority to direct the general scheme of the many
movements. The duty of that particular river-column was to keep the
whale-boats afloat in the water, to avoid trampling on the villagers' crops
when the gangs 'tracked' the boats with lines thrown from midstream, to
get as much sleep and food as was possible, and, above all, to press on
without delay in the teeth of the churning Nile.

With the soldiers sweated and toiled the correspondents of the
newspapers, and they were almost as ignorant as their companions. But
it was above all things necessary that England at breakfast should be
amused and thrilled and interested, whether Gordon lived or died, or
half the British army went to pieces in the sands. The Soudan campaign
was a picturesque one, and lent itself to vivid word-painting. Now and
again a 'Special' managed to get slain,--which was not altogether a
disadvantage to the paper that employed him,--and more often the
hand-to-hand nature of the fighting allowed of miraculous escapes which
were worth telegraphing home at eighteenpence the word. There were
many correspondents with many corps and columns,--from the veterans
who had followed on the heels of the cavalry that occupied Cairo in '82,
what time Arabi Pasha called himself king, who had seen the first
miserable work round Suakin when the sentries were cut up nightly and
the scrub swarmed with spears, to youngsters jerked into the business at
the end of a telegraph-wire to take the places of their betters killed or
invalided.

Among the seniors--those who knew every shift and change in the
perplexing postal arrangements, the value of the seediest, weediest
Egyptian garron offered for sale in Cairo or Alexandria, who could talk a
telegraph-clerk into amiability and soothe the ruffled vanity of a newly
appointed staff-officer when press regulations became burdensome--was
the man in the flannel shirt, the black-browed Torpenhow. He
represented the Central Southern Syndicate in the campaign, as he had
represented it in the Egyptian war, and elsewhere. The syndicate did not
concern itself greatly with criticisms of attack and the like. It supplied
the masses, and all it demanded was picturesqueness and abundance of
detail; for there is more joy in England over a soldier who
insubordinately steps out of square to rescue a comrade than over twenty
generals slaving even to baldness at the gross details of transport and
commissariat.

He had met at Suakin a young man, sitting on the edge of a recently
abandoned redoubt about the size of a hat-box, sketching a clump of
shell-torn bodies on the gravel plain.

'What are you for?' said Torpenhow. The greeting of the correspondent
is that of the commercial traveller on the road.

'My own hand,' said the young man, without looking up. 'Have you any
tobacco?'

Torpenhow waited till the sketch was finished, and when he had looked
at it said, 'What's your business here?'

'Nothing; there was a row, so I came. I'm supposed to be doing something
down at the painting-slips among the boats, or else I'm in charge of the
condenser on one of the water-ships. I've forgotten which.'

'You've cheek enough to build a redoubt with,' said Torpenhow, and took
stock of the new acquaintance. 'Do you always draw like that?'

The young man produced more sketches. 'Row on a Chinese pig-boat,'

said he, sententiously, showing them one after another.--'Chief mate
dirked by a comprador.--Junk ashore off Hakodate.--Somali muleteer
being flogged.--Star-shelled bursting over camp at Berbera.--Slave-dhow
being chased round Tajurrah Bah.--Soldier lying dead in the moonlight
outside Suakin.--throat cut by Fuzzies.'

'H'm!' said Torpenhow, 'can't say I care for Verestchagin-and-water
myself, but there's no accounting for tastes. Doing anything now, are
you?'

'No. I'm amusing myself here.'

Torpenhow looked at the sketches again, and nodded. 'Yes, you're right
to take your first chance when you can get it.'

He rode away swiftly through the Gate of the Two War-Ships, rattled
across the causeway into the town, and wired to his syndicate, 'Got man
here, picture-work. Good and cheap. Shall I arrange? Will do letterpress
with sketches.'

The man on the redoubt sat swinging his legs and murmuring, 'I knew
the chance would come, sooner or later. By Gad, they'll have to sweat for
it if I come through this business alive!'

In the evening Torpenhow was able to announce to his friend that the
Central Southern Agency was willing to take him on trial, paying
expenses for three months. 'And, by the way, what's your name?' said
Torpenhow.

'Heldar. Do they give me a free hand?'

'They've taken you on chance. You must justify the choice. You'd better
stick to me. I'm going up-country with a column, and I'll do what I can
for you. Give me some of your sketches taken here, and I'll send 'em
along.' To himself he said, 'That's the best bargain the Central southern
has ever made; and they got me cheaply enough.'

So it came to pass that, after some purchase of horse-flesh and
arrangements financial and political, Dick was made free of the New and
Honourable Fraternity of war correspondents, who all possess the
inalienable right of doing as much work as they can and getting as much
for it as Providence and their owners shall please. To these things are
added in time, if the brother be worthy, the power of glib speech that
neither man nor woman can resist when a meal or a bed is in question,
the eye of a horse-cope, the skill of a cook, the constitution of a bullock,
the digestion of an ostrich, and an infinite adaptability to all
circumstances. But many die before they attain to this degree, and the
past-masters in the craft appear for the most part in dress-clothes when
they are in England, and thus their glory is hidden from the multitude.

Dick followed Torpenhow wherever the latter's fancy chose to lead him,
and between the two they managed to accomplish some work that almost
satisfied themselves. It was not an easy life in any way, and under its
influence the two were drawn ver closely together, for they ate from the
same dish, they shared the same water-bottle, and, most binding tie of all,
their mails went off together. It was Dick who managed to make
gloriously drunk a telegraph-clerk in a palm hut far beyond the Second
Cataract, and, while the man lay in bliss on the floor, possessed himself of
some laboriously acquired exclusive information, forwarded by a
confiding correspondent of an opposition syndicate, made a careful
duplicate of the matter, and brought the result to Torpenhow, who said
that all was fair in love or war correspondence, and built an excellent
descriptive article from his rival's riotous waste of words. It was
Torpenhow who--but the tale of their adventures, together and apart,
from Philae to the waste wilderness of Herawi and Muella, would fill
many books. They had been penned into a square side by side, in deadly
fear of being shot by over-excited soldiers; they had fought with
baggage-camels in the chill dawn; they had jogged along in silence under
blinding sun on indefatigable little Egyptian horses; and they had
floundered on the shallows of the Nile when the whale-boat in which they
had found a berth chose to hit a hidden rock and rip out half her
bottom-planks.

Now they were sitting on the sand-bank, and the whale-boats were
bringing up the remainder of the column.

'Yes,' said Torpenhow, as he put the last rude stitches into his
over-long-neglected gear, 'it has been a beautiful business.'

'The patch or the campaign?' said Dick. 'Don't think much of either,
myself.'

'You want the Euryalus brought up above the Third Cataract, don't you?
and eighty-one-ton guns at Jakdul? Now, I'm quite satisfied with my
breeches.' He turned round gravely to exhibit himself, after the manner
of a clown.

'It's very pretty. Specially the lettering on the sack. G.B.T. Government
Bullock Train. That's a sack from India.'

'It's my initials,--Gilbert Belling Torpenhow. I stole the cloth on purpose.

What the mischief are the camel-corps doing yonder?' Torpenhow
shaded his eyes and looked across the scrub-strewn gravel.

A bugle blew furiously, and the men on the bank hurried to their arms
and accoutrements.

'"Pisan soldiery surprised while bathing,"' remarked Dick, calmly.

'D'you remember the picture? It's by Michael Angelo; all beginners copy
it. That scrub's alive with enemy.'

The camel-corps on the bank yelled to the infantry to come to them, and
a hoarse shouting down the river showed that the remainder of the
column had wind of the trouble and was hastening to take share in it. As
swiftly as a reach of still water is crisped by the wind, the rock-strewn
ridges and scrub-topped hills were troubled and alive with armed men.

Mercifully, it occurred to these to stand far off for a time, to shout and
gesticulate joyously. One man even delivered himself of a long story. The
camel-corps did not fire. They were only too glad of a little
breathing-space, until some sort of square could be formed. The men on
the sand-bank ran to their side; and the whale-boats, as they toiled up
within shouting distance, were thrust into the nearest bank and emptied
of all save the sick and a few men to guard them. The Arab orator ceased
his outcries, and his friends howled.

'They look like the Mahdi's men,' said Torpenhow, elbowing himself into
the crush of the square; 'but what thousands of 'em there are! The tribes
hereabout aren't against us, I know.'

'Then the Mahdi's taken another town,' said Dick, 'and set all these
yelping devils free to show us up. Lend us your glass.'

'Our scouts should have told us of this. We've been trapped,' said a
subaltern. 'Aren't the camel guns ever going to begin? Hurry up, you
men!'

There was no need of any order. The men flung themselves panting
against the sides of the square, for they had good reason to know that
whoso was left outside when the fighting began would very probably die
in an extremely unpleasant fashion. The little hundred-and-fifty-pound
camel-guns posted at one corner of the square opened the ball as the
square moved forward by its right to get possession of a knoll of rising
ground. All had fought in this manner many times before, and there was
no novelty in the entertainment; always the same hot and stifling
formation, the smell of dust and leather, the same boltlike rush of the
enemy, the same pressure on the weakest side, the few minutes of
hand-to-hand scuffle, and then the silence of the desert, broken only by
the yells of those whom their handful of cavalry attempted to purse. They
had become careless. The camel-guns spoke at intervals, and the square
slouched forward amid the protesting of the camels. Then came the
attack of three thousand men who had not learned from books that it is
impossible for troops in close order to attack against breech-loading fire.

A few dropping shots heralded their approach, and a few horsemen led,
but the bulk of the force was naked humanity, mad with rage, and armed
with the spear and the sword. The instinct of the desert, where there is
always much war, told them that the right flank of the square was the
weakest, for they swung clear of the front. The camel-guns shelled them
as they passed and opened for an instant lanes through their midst, most
like those quick-closing vistas in a Kentish hop-garden seen when the
train races by at full speed; and the infantry fire, held till the opportune
moment, dropped them in close-packing hundreds. No civilised troops in
the world could have endured the hell through which they came, the
living leaping high to avoid the dying who clutched at their heels, the
wounded cursing and staggering forward, till they fell--a torrent black as
the sliding water above a mill-dam--full on the right flank of the square.

Then the line of the dusty troops and the faint blue desert sky overhead
went out in rolling smoke, and the little stones on the heated ground ant
the tinder-dry clumps of scrub became matters of surpassing interest, for
men measured their agonised retreat and recovery by these things,
counting mechanically and hewing their way back to chosen pebble and
branch. There was no semblance of any concerted fighting. For aught the
men knew, the enemy might be attempting all four sides of the square at
once. Their business was to destroy what lay in front of them, to bayonet
in the back those who passed over them, and, dying, to drag down the
slayer till he could be knocked on the head by some avenging gun-butt.

Dick waited with Torpenhow and a young doctor till the stress grew
unendurable. It was hopeless to attend to the wounded till the attack was
repulsed, so the three moved forward gingerly towards the weakest side
of the square. There was a rush from without, the short hough-hough of
the stabbing spears, and a man on a horse, followed by thirty or forty
others, dashed through, yelling and hacking. The right flank of the
square sucked in after them, and the other sides sent help. The wounded,
who knew that they had but a few hours more to live, caught at the
enemy's feet and brought them down, or, staggering into a discarded
rifle, fired blindly into the scuffle that raged in the centre of the square.

Dick was conscious that somebody had cut him violently across his
helmet, that he had fired his revolver into a black, foam-flecked face
which forthwith ceased to bear any resemblance to a face, and that
Torpenhow had gone down under an Arab whom he had tried to 'collar
low,' and was turning over and over with his captive, feeling for the
man's eyes. The doctor jabbed at a venture with a bayonet, and a
helmetless soldier fired over Dick's shoulder: the flying grains of powder
stung his cheek. It was to Torpenhow that Dick turned by instinct. The
representative of the Central Southern Syndicate had shaken himself
clear of his enemy, and rose, wiping his thumb on his trousers. The Arab,
both hands to his forehead, screamed aloud, then snatched up his spear
and rushed at Torpenhow, who was panting under shelter of Dick's
revolver. Dick fired twice, and the man dropped limply. His upturned
face lacked one eye. The musketry-fire redoubled, but cheers mingled
with it. The rush had failed and the enemy were flying. If the heart of the
square were shambles, the ground beyond was a butcher's shop. Dick
thrust his way forward between the maddened men. The remnant of the
enemy were retiring, as the few--the very few--English cavalry rode
down the laggards.

Beyond the lines of the dead, a broad blood-stained Arab spear cast aside
in the retreat lay across a stump of scrub, and beyond this again the
illimitable dark levels of the desert. The sun caught the steel and turned
it into a red disc. Some one behind him was saying, 'Ah, get away, you
brute!' Dick raised his revolver and pointed towards the desert. His eye
was held by the red spash in the distance, and the clamour about him
seemed to die down to a very far-away whisper, like the whisper of a
level sea. There was the revolver and the red light. . . . and the voice of
some one scaring something away, exactly as had fallen somewhere
before,--a darkness that stung. He fired at random, and the bullet went
out across the desert as he muttered, 'Spoilt my aim. There aren't any
more cartridges. We shall have to run home.' He put his hand to his head
and brought it away covered with blood.

'Old man, you're cut rather badly,' said Torpenhow. 'I owe you
something for this business. Thanks. Stand up! I say, you can't be ill
here.'

Throughout the night, when the troops were encamped by the
whale-boats, a black figure danced in the strong moonlight on the
sand-bar and shouted that Khartoum the accursed one was dead,--was
dead,--was dead,--that two steamers were rock-staked on the Nile outside
the city, and that of all their crews there remained not one; and
Khartoum was dead,--was dead,--was dead!

But Torpenhow took no heed. He was watching Dick, who called aloud to
the restless Nile for Maisie,--and again Maisie!?

'Behold a phenomenon,' said Torpenhow, rearranging the blanket. 'Here
is a man, presumably human, who mentions the name of one woman
only. And I've seen a good deal of delirium, too.--Dick, here's some fizzy
drink.'

'Thank you, Maisie,' said Dick.

Rudyard Kipling

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