Chapter 23 | The Professor is Startled | Yussuf the Guide

Chapter Twenty Three.

It was an exciting flight, the more so from the fact that they were obliged to keep on at a foot-pace because of the baggage-horses, when at any moment they knew that the enemy might appear behind in full chase. Certainly the road was bad, and it was only here and there that they could have ventured upon a trot or canter; but this did not lessen the anxiety that was felt.

A dozen times over the professor would have been glad to pause and investigate some wonderful chasm or rift, but Yussuf was inexorable. He pointed out that it would be madness to stop, for at any time the enemy might appear in sight, so Mr Preston had to resign himself to his fate.

It was the same when, during the heat of the afternoon, they came to the ruins of a tower placed upon an angle in the defile quite a thousand feet above the rough track, so as to command a good view in every direction. From where they stood it looked ancient enough to have been erected far back in the days when the armies of Assyria or Egypt passed through these gates of the country; certainly it was not later than the Roman times.

“One might find inscriptions, perhaps, or something else to explain when it was made,” said the professor. “Come, Yussuf, don’t you think we might stop and ascend here?”

“No, effendi,” replied Yussuf sternly. “Those dogs may be close upon our track, and I cannot let you run risks. We are not all men.”

“Yussuf is perfectly right,” said Mr Burne, who had become quite reconciled to his fez with its gaudy roll of yellow silk; in fact, two or three times over he had taken it off and held it up to examine it as it rested on his fist. “He is perfectly right,” he repeated, “we do not want to fight, unless driven to extremities, and discretion is the better part of valour.”

“Yes,” said the professor, looking up longingly at the watch-tower, “but—”

“Now, my dear Preston, you really must not run risks for the sake of a few stones,” cried the old lawyer. “Come.”

There was no help for it, so the professor sighed, and they rode slowly on, with the heat growing more and more intense, till toward sundown, when, about a hundred and fifty feet above the path, there was a cluster of ruins, evidently of quite modern date, and among them a few old fruit-trees, one of which, a plum, showed a good many purple fruit here and there.

The lawyer made a peculiar noise with his mouth as he drew rein, the others following his example.

“Now, there are some ruins that you might very well examine,” he said, pointing upwards with the barrel of his gun. “Shall we dismount and climb up?”

“To see these?” said the professor quietly; and then a change came over his countenance, and he laughed softly as he turned round to look his travelling companion in the face. “Which stones do you want to look at?” he said.

“Those, sir, those,” cried Mr Burne fiercely. “Can’t you see?”

“No,” said the professor smiling; “I do not know which you mean, whether it is the building stones or the plum stones.”

“Tchah!” ejaculated the old gentleman, with his face puckering up into a comical grin. “There, come along.”

Yussuf smiled too as he rode on, and at the end of a few moments he said gravely:

“The plums would not have been worth gathering, effendi. They are a bitter, sour kind.”

“Grapes are too, when the fox cannot reach them—eh, Lawrence?”

No more was said, for every one was exhausted with the long slow ride. The little wind there was came from behind, and they were wandering in and out to such an extent that the soft mountain-breeze was completely shut off, and the horses were beginning to suffer terribly now from want of water to quench their burning thirst.

At last, in front, that for which they had been hoping to see appeared to be at hand, for a patch of broad green bushes at the foot of a rock told plainly that their fresh growth must be the result of abundant watering at the roots, and, pressing onward, to their delight the horses proved the correctness of their belief by breaking into a canter, and soon carrying them to where the defile ended in one of larger extent, at whose junction a spring of clear water gushed from the foot of a rock, and Lawrence cried eagerly:

“Why, this is the old place where we left Hamed!”

And so it proved to be.

Here, pursued or not, it was absolutely necessary to stop and recruit the horses, even if they had been prepared to suffer themselves; so a halt was made, one of the party took it in turn to be sentry, and the package containing provision was undone, the horses finding plenty of herbage to satisfy their wants.

Yussuf took the first watch, while Lawrence and his friends were enjoying their repast with the hunger and appetite produced by such a long fast; and then Lawrence took his place, while Yussuf seated himself upon a stone by the spring, and began eating his simple meal of hard bread and a few dates.

The night was coming on fast; and, enticed by the beauty of the shadows that were deepening in the gorge through which they had gone in pursuit of the robbers the day before, the professor walked on and on till he was nearly abreast of the rock-dwellings.

They were just visible, but where he stood the gorge was in profound darkness, and he remained watching the ruins fade away as it were in the evening gloom, till, feeling that it was time to return, he was in the act of going back, when a peculiar click struck his ear, and he knew as well as if he had seen the act that a horse had struck its armed hoof against a stone.

Had he felt any doubt it was set aside by a low snort, and, feeling that one of their steeds had strayed after him, and then gone on toward the end of the gorge, he was about to hurry forward and seize it, when a second click startled him, and in an instant he realised that the enemy had evidently been duped by the sham sentry, and given up the attempt to attack them. What was more, he grasped that the enemy had started a ruse of their own, and were coming along the larger gorge, to turn back during the night by the spring, so as to take them in the rear, while they were expecting an attack in front.

The professor realised all this as he stood there in the darkness leaning upon his gun, and afraid to stir, for he knew that to do so was to betray his whereabouts to a set of men who would perhaps take his life, and even if they spared this, carry him off to hold him to ransom.

Worse still; they would then go on and surprise the party by the spring, his presence betraying their whereabouts, for there was only one spot likely in that stony wilderness for people to halt, and that was of course by the water side.

What was he to do?

It was a hard question, and the professor felt himself at his wits’ end. He had stepped a dozen yards out of the track, and was standing amongst some rough stones which helped the darkness to conceal his presence, though the valley was in such a deep shadow that, as he strained eyes and ears to make out and count the enemy, he could do neither, though he knew now that they had halted just opposite to him, and he could hear them whispering evidently in consultation before they took another step in advance.

The professor stood there in the darkness with the perspiration streaming down his face as he recalled the stories he had heard of the atrocities committed by the outlaws who made their homes in the mountains of the sultan’s dominions. He was tortured by a dozen different plans which suggested themselves for his next course of action, but neither of them commended itself for second consideration, while there he was, face to face with the one great difficulty, that he was cut off from his companions, and unable to stir without betraying his presence and being captured or perhaps slain.

To stir was impossible. He hardly dared to breathe, while his heart throbbed with so audible a beat that he fully expected it to betray his whereabouts.

It was a perilous time, and his agony of mind was terrible, for just then it seemed to him that he had, to gratify his own selfishness, brought the son of his old friend—a lad weak and wasted from a long illness—into a peril which might have been avoided. There they were, perfectly unconscious of danger in this direction; and as soon as the party had finished their whispered consultation he felt that they would steal cautiously on and make their attack.

What should he do—fire at them or over them, and in the confusion make a dash for the little camp?

He dared not risk it, for it seemed a clumsy, gambling experiment, which would most probably result in failure.

What should he do then—sacrifice himself?

Yes. It seemed after all that his firing would not be so clumsy an expedient, for even if it ended in his own destruction it would warn his friends and place them upon their guard.

He hesitated for a few moments, as he tried once more to realise the position. This might not, after all, be the gang of men who had stolen their horses; but everything pointed to the fact that it was, as he had at first imagined—that they had been duped by Yussuf’s ruse, and then made, by some way known to them, for the principal gorge, down which they had come to turn into the lesser ravine by the spring, and then in the night or early morning, take their victims in the rear, drive them out into the open country, and master them with ease.

While Mr Preston was running over all this in his own mind he could hear the low whispering of the little, body of men going on, and every now and then an impatient stamp given by one of the horses, followed by a low muttered adjuration in the Turkish dialect, bidding the animal be still.

It was only a matter of minutes, but it seemed to be hours before the band of men began to move forward cautiously through the darkness, and more than ever the professor blamed himself for not staying with his friends, but only to acknowledge the next moment that if he had done so he would not have known of the approach of the foe.

As near as he could judge the enemy had about half a mile to go, and not knowing what to do Mr Preston began to follow them cautiously, getting as near as he could while straining his eyes to make out the figures of the mounted men as they moved slowly on.

By degrees he found out that he was left a long way behind, but while quickening his pace he was compelled to do so with the greatest caution, and to walk with outstretched hands, for, though high above his head the starlight enabled him to make out the line of the high cliff against the sky, all below in that gorge was of pitchy blackness, and he had to guide himself by stepping carefully more than by the use of his eyes.

In spite of his care he was, he found, being left more and more behind, and yet he dare not hasten for fear of coming suddenly upon the rear of the party.

But at last, quite in despair, he pressed forward, trusting to his good fortune to get near enough to note their actions without being detected, so that at last he was within a very few yards, and he kept that distance till he felt that they must be very near the spring, when, as he pressed on, keeping to the path, as he believed, he suddenly found himself about to stumble over a low block of blackish stone just beneath his feet.

He tried to save himself, but he was too late, and he blundered right upon it; but instead of knocking the skin off his shins, and falling heavily, he was stricken back, for the object he had taken for a rock felt soft, sprang up, and he found, as the man, who had been stooping to bind up his rough gear, uttered a few angry words in his own tongue, that he had come upon a laggard of the party.

It was evident that in the darkness the man imagined that he was addressing a companion, for he gripped the professor fiercely and whispered a question.

A struggle would have ensued, but just then a clear voice rang out on the night air, sounding wild and strange, and echoing from the face of the cliff as it seemed to cut the black darkness.

The man dropped the professor’s arm which he had seized, sprang away into the darkness ahead, and then there was utter silence.