Chapter 24 | Receiving the Enemy | Yussuf the Guide

Chapter Twenty Four.

Lawrence kept the watch in the ravine by which they had reached the spring that day, and as he posted himself a little way up the slope, where he could shelter himself behind a block of stone and gaze for some distance along the deep rift among the rocks, he could not help feeling somewhat elated by his position.

He was stiff and sore with his long ride, but the refreshment of which he had partaken and the pleasant coolness of the evening air raised his spirits, and he smiled to himself as he felt that his strength was returning, and that he was drinking in health with every breath of the pure air around.

There was something so important, too, in his position on sentry there, with a loaded gun resting upon the rock, the gun he took such pains to polish and keep free from every spot of rust. Only a short time since he was lying back in his easy-chair in Guilford Street, waited upon incessantly by Mrs Dunn, while now he was a traveller passing through adventures which startled him sometimes, and at others thrilled him by their strangeness and peril.

“It is like reading a book,” he said to himself as he stood there watching the side of the ridge high up, with its rugged masses of stone, and a feathery cypress here and there turned to orange and gold by the setting sun.

Then he went over again the skirmish of the past night, and how the robbers had been beaten off. Next he began to wonder whether the band would stop at the end of the ravine long, and soon after, having surfeited himself with gazing at the fading light in the sky and the blackening rocks that had so lately been glistening as if of gold, he began to yawn and think that he should much like to lie down and sleep off this weariness which seemed to be coming over him like a mist.

He leaned more and more upon the stone, so as to stare down the ravine, which kept growing darker and darker, till the bushes and tall feathery cypresses began to assume suspicious forms and seem to be tall watchers or crouching men coming slowly forward to the attack.

A dozen times over he felt sure that he was right, and that he ought to fire or run back and give the alarm. But a dread of being laughed at checked him; and then he seemed to see more clearly and to make out that these were not men, but after all trees and bushes upon the slope.

This gave him more confidence for a time, as the shades of evening fell fast, and all below in the deep ravine grew black, but he was startled again by a low rushing noise that came down the valley, followed by a piteous wail which sent a chill through him, and made the hands which held the gun grow moist.

“Was it the night breeze or some bird?” he asked himself, and as he was debating with himself as to whether he might not summon Yussuf or Mr Burne to stay with him, there came a gentle crackling noise from the side of the ravine, such as might be made by some wild beast, fresh from its lair, and in search of food.

“What could it be?” he asked himself, as in spite of his determination his nervousness increased, and he realised that strength of mind is a good deal dependent upon vigour of body, and that he was far from possessing either.

What wild beast was it likely to be? He had heard of Syrian lions, but he thought that there could not be any there now; tigers he knew enough of natural history to feel would be in India; leopards in Africa. Then what was this which approached? It must be one of two things—either a hyena or a wolf.

The former he had heard was extremely cowardly, unless it had to deal with a child or a lamb; but wolves, if hungry, were savage in the extreme, and as the noise continued, he brought the muzzle of the gun to bear, and the click, click, made by the locks sounded so loudly in the still evening air, that the creature, whatever it was, probably a lemur or wild-cat, took alarm, bounded off, and was heard no more.

Then the heavy sleepy sensation began to resume its sway, and though the lad remained standing, his eyes closed, and he was suddenly completely overcome with fatigue and fast asleep, when he woke with a start, for a voice just behind him said:

“Well, boy, how are you getting on?” and a faint odour of snuff, sufficient to be inhaled and to make him sneeze, roused Lawrence into thorough wakefulness.

“I was getting drowsy, Mr Burne,” said Lawrence sadly.

“Enough to make you, my lad. I’ve had a nap since I sat down, but I’m fresh as a daisy now. I’m to relieve you, while Yussuf or the professor is to come by and by and relieve me. I say, how do you like playing at soldiers?”

“Playing at soldiers, Mr Burne?”

“Well, what else do you call it?—mounting guard, and fighting robbers, and all that sort of thing. I’m getting quite excited, only I don’t know yet whether it’s true.”

“It is true enough,” said Lawrence laughing.

“Oh, I don’t know so much about that. It doesn’t seem to be possible. Couldn’t believe that such things went on in these days, when people use telephones and telegraphs and read newspapers.”

“It does seem strange and unreal, sir, but then so do all these beautiful valleys and mountains.”

“So they do to us, my boy. Shouldn’t wonder if they are all theatrical scenery, or else we shall wake up directly both of us and say, ‘Lo! it was a dream.’”

Lawrence sneezed twice heavily, for it was impossible to be in Mr Burne’s company long without suffering from the impalpable dust that pervaded all his clothes; and as the old gentleman looked on with a grim smile and clapped his young companion on the shoulder, he exclaimed:

“You are right, Lawrence, my lad, it is all real, and that proves it. I never knew anyone sneeze in a dream. There, go back. Relieve guard. I’m sentry now, and I feel as if I were outside Buckingham Palace, or the British Museum, only I ought to have a black bearskin on instead of this red fez with the yellow roll round it. How does it look, eh?”

“Splendid, sir. It quite improves you,” replied Lawrence.

“Get out, you young impostor!” cried the old lawyer. “There, be off. You are getting well.”

Lawrence laughed and went back to the camping-place by the spring, where Hamed was bathing his ankles in the cold water, and Yussuf was diligently attending to the horses, whose legs he hobbled so as to keep them from straying away, though they showed very little inclination for this, the clear water and the abundant clover proving too great an attraction for them to care to go far.

It was rapidly getting dark now, and hearing from Yussuf that the professor had taken his gun and strolled off along the great gorge, Lawrence was disposed to follow him, but the sensation of stiffness, the result of many hours in the saddle, made him prefer to await his return. Picking out, then, a snug spot among some stones that had fallen from above, where a clump of myrtles perfumed the soft evening air, he settled himself down, and soon sank into a comfortable drowsy state, in which he listened to the munch munch of the horses, and a low crooning song uttered by Hamed as he finished his task of bathing his swollen ankles, and then walked up and down more strongly, pausing every now and then to stoop and rub them well.

Soon after Yussuf came to his side, and stood looking along the gorge towards where the cliff-dwellings clustered on high; but it was too dark to see them now.

“It is time the effendi was back,” he said. “He will not be long now. You will keep watch while I go and speak with his excellency, Burne.”

“Yes, I am well awake again, now,” said Lawrence, starting up. “I wish I did not grow so sleepy.”

“Why?” said Yussuf gently, as he laid his hand upon the boy’s arm. “I love to see you sleep, and sleep well. It is a good sign. It means that you are growing strong and well, and will some day be a stout and active man.”

“Do you think so?” said Lawrence dreamily.

“I feel sure so,” replied the Turk gravely. “I am not educated like you Franks from the west, but I have lived to middle age, and noticed many things. You are growing better and stronger. I will go now and come back soon. The effendi will be here then, and we two will watch, and you shall sleep.”

He strode away into the gathering darkness, passing the spring, turning round by the right, and making for the spot where the sentry were posted. Here Mr Burne showed no inclination to go back to the little camp, but stood talking to him in his dry manner, for mutual dislike was gradually changing into a certain amount of friendliness.

Meanwhile the horses went on biting off great mouthfuls of the rich clover that grew near the stream, and munched and munched up the juicy herbage as Lawrence listened and watched the pathway to see if he could catch sight of Mr Preston returning with his gun.

It grew darker and darker still, but the professor did not come, and Lawrence began to grow drowsy again.

He fought against it, but the desire to sleep overcame him more and more. His head sank lower, and in an instant he was dreaming that he heard that rustling sound again of some wild animal approaching the group of rocks where he was stationed.

Wolf—hyena—some fierce creature that was coming steadily on nearer and nearer, till before long it would spring upon him, and in the nightmare-like sensation he felt as if he were struggling to get away, while it fascinated him and held him to his place.

One—two—three—four—there were several such creatures drawing nearer and nearer, and he could not cry for help, only stay motionless there in his horrible dread.

Nearer—nearer—nearer, till he fancied he could see them in the darkness gathering themselves up to spring, and still he could not move—still he could not shout to his friends for help, till all at once he seemed to make a desperate spring, and then he was awake and staring into the thick darkness, telling himself that it was fancy.

No; there were sounds farther up the gorge—sounds as of some animals coming softly down, nearer and nearer, but not wolves or hyenas. They were horses.

There was no doubt about it—horses; and now fully awake, the lad felt filled by a new alarm. For who could it be but an enemy stealing along in the darkness; and in the sudden alarm, he did not pause to argue out whether it might not be travellers like themselves, but shouted in a clear ringing voice:

“Who’s that?”

There was utter stillness in the deep gorge, just broken by the gurgling of the fount as the water gushed from below the rock; and in his alarm, startled as much by the deep silence as he had been by the sounds of approaching horsemen, Lawrence shouted again:

“Who’s that?” and then, hardly knowing what he did, he raised his gun and fired.