THE WHITE PRISONER
Wearily did the hours pass as Jim and his companion lay upon the summit of the hill, gazing down into the valley below. Indeed, it seemed as though the sun would never sink, and as though its course from east to west was slower upon this eventful day than upon any other.
At length, however, when they were almost worn out with impatience and anxiety, the huge golden orb sank out of their sight below a distant line of blue hills, setting the sky aglow with every shade of the spectrum, blended together to form one magnificent whole. Soon, too, sunset hues faded into mist, and with a suddenness which is peculiar to these latitudes, a pall of darkness covered the earth. Then out came the stars, twinkling above like so many diamonds, while down below a point of fire here and there showed where the camp was situated.
For an hour Jim lay there busy with his thoughts, and listening to the sounds which were distinctly borne upon his ear, in spite of the distance which intervened between himself and the village.
“It will take me the better part of an hour to get from here to the neighborhood of the hut in which father sleeps,” he said, “so I shall start now. I have thought the whole matter carefully over, and it seems to me that I cannot do better than leave my rifle and cartridges behind as Ali did. But I shall take a dagger with me—my hunting-knife will answer the purpose admirably. Then if I knock up against anyone and he proves disagreeable, I shall have a weapon at hand with which to overcome him silently. If more than one should attack me, I shall have to fall upon my revolvers, which I shall, of course, carry with me. Ali! I want you.”
He called softly to his companion, who crept to his side immediately.
“What can I do, master?” he asked.
“I am going to start now,” said Jim quietly, “and want you to accompany me half-way. I shall then leave you with the camels and go on alone. But it is important that we should arrange a meeting-place to which I shall be able to find my way without fail. You have already made a trip to the Mullah’s stronghold, and may have fixed upon a likely spot.”
“That is the case,” answered the native follower. “I shall come with you now, and when within half a mile of the huts, I shall halt in a tiny ravine. You will have no difficulty in finding your way to it on your return, for a path leads to the entrance, where there is a well, and then branches off to the right. Though the place is close to the enemy’s sleeping quarters, it is secluded and will form good cover for myself and the camels. There I shall await your coming, and that you may be accompanied by your father is the sincere wish of your servant.”
“I trust that it will turn out like that, Ali; and if hard work and a little boldness on my part will help towards it, why, success ought to follow. But we shall see. Now let us be going.”
A few minutes later both were silently descending the hill, taking the greatest pains to refrain from stumbling over boulders, or setting smaller stones rolling down to the plain below; for there was never any knowing when and where an enemy might be lurking, though the fact that it was a cold night made it probable that all the Somali warriors would be comfortably ensconced in their mud huts, enjoying the warmth to be obtained there. Indeed, there seemed to be none but themselves abroad that night, for they caught sight of none, and, but for the yapping of a native cur, heard not a single sound. But that someone was awake and alert in the Mullah’s stronghold was certain, for the reflection of a big wood-fire which burnt in front of the central building could be seen in the sky, while the peculiar smell came pungently to their nostrils.
“Here is the ravine,” said Ali at last, when they had descended to the plain, and had traversed a mile of the level country. “Look at the spot closely, master. There is the well. You cannot mistake it, for the light of the stars is reflected from the water, while here is the entrance to the ravine of which I spoke. I shall await your coming some yards further in, and should it fall out that you do not return, I shall make my way back to the hill-top an hour before the day dawns. Tomorrow night I shall be here again, and if it should happen that you, too, are made a captive, then I will find my way into the village, and seek to help you. Ali Kumar has sworn to stand by his brave master, and he shall do so, even though he comes by his death in keeping to his word. And now good-bye. I wish you all success.”
“Good-bye,” repeated Jim heartily, gripping his dusky comrade by the hand.
“I have little fear of failure, though I shall not allow that to prevent my taking every precaution. If I should have bad luck, I know that I can trust you to keep your promise, and I shall expect to hear from you. But let us hope that it will not come to that. Stay quietly where you are, and when you hear a low cough, step forward and declare yourself, for we shall have arrived. Good-bye.”
Releasing the native’s hand, Jim at once strode off into the darkness, and in another moment was lost to view. But as he stood there at the mouth of the ravine, listening with all his ears, the faithful Ali could hear the sound of his muffled footsteps shuffling along over the loose soil of which the path was composed.
“Farewell,” whispered Ali, as the sound died away. “May fortune smile upon you, for you are a brave and loyal son, and are deserving of much reward.”
Turning his face towards the glare of the distant camp-fire, Jim struck off into the darkness, and was soon close to the huts which stood on the fringe of the village. By now the moon had risen higher, and enabled him to see his way more clearly, though, being only a small crescent, it did not give sufficient light to show his figure at more than a few paces. Taking advantage of this fact, he pressed on without hesitation, and, before he had expected it, was close to the dwelling which stood in the center. Yes, there it was without doubt, for he could see the folds of the red flag floating lazily in the still night breeze, beating ever and anon against the spear-shaft which supported it, and giving rise to a flapping sound, which, until the cause of it was clear, was decidedly disconcerting.
“At last!” murmured Jim. “Over there is the hut which shelters the Mullah, while in the other sleeps his slave, my dear father. Whatever happens, I must and will reach him and rescue him. But how?”
The question was one which could not be answered easily, and which set him puzzling his brains. Half an hour before it had seemed to him more or less a simple matter to creep close to the mud dwelling beneath which his father slept and to gain access to him by means of a doorway, or perhaps by cutting a hole through the wall. Now, however, when the reality was before him, and he was actually brought face to face with the difficulty, he could not but admit that the danger and magnitude of the task were far greater than he had ever imagined. But he was not the lad to give way, or to be easily discouraged, particularly where his father’s life was concerned.
“It looks rather difficult, I must admit,” said Jim to himself, going on all-fours at the same moment, and then lying flat upon his face. “It seems to me that I cannot do better than wait here, hidden in this long grass, until I am certain of the whereabouts of the sentries. During the daytime I know that four keep watch over the Mullah, while one sits before the door of the prisoner. But do they still act as sentries when night has fallen? I should think that their number is reduced, particularly now, when all seems at peace, and the British have not yet entered the country. Still, it will be well to make certain of the fact, for it would be fatal to walk into the arms of one of these Somali warriors just as I was about to communicate with the prisoner.”
Many minutes passed as he reclined full-length in the grass, and it was only when his stock of patience was well-nigh exhausted that he observed a movement close to the door of the hut in which the prisoner lived.
“A sentry,” he said to himself, as a figure suddenly rose from the ground and stood erect, with arms wide outstretched. “And evidently sleepy, too,” he added, as the native again raised his limbs and yawned deeply, showing a profile which was clear and distinct against the watch-fire which burnt some paces beyond. “I must keep my eyes upon him, and see where he rests, for that is what the fellow will do, I should fancy. He knows, or rather thinks, that there is nothing to fear, and being tired, he will indulge in a snooze. Well, if he does so, all the better for my hopes.”
A few moments later the native slouched across to the opposite dwelling, the one in which the Mullah lived, and after looking about him and conversing for a short while with a second sentry who marched at the front, sat down deliberately against the wall, and folding his arms, gave himself up unrestrainedly to sleep.
“They have most likely arranged to keep watch for one another,” thought Jim. “This fellow will have a couple or more hours’ rest, and then will have to relieve his comrade. If that is the arrangement, it will suit me very well, for the man who is on duty now will devote himself to the Mullah, and will pay only casual attention to the prisoner’s hut. I shall wait till he has strolled round this way, and then I shall make a dash for the door, and trust to getting in before he takes it into his head to have a second look. Ah, here he comes!”
The guard came sauntering round the larger of the two huts, and allowed Jim to obtain a good view of his features, for he, too, as if he had caught the infection from his comrade, stopped in the glare of the firelight and yawned loudly, throwing his head back and stretching in a manner which showed how drowsy he was. Then he went to the mud hut, and fumbled at the door. To Jim’s delight, it opened, showing that it was not secured in any way. But the sentry had another object in view than to test the fastenings, for, drawing it back as far as it would go, he stepped on one side so as not to obstruct the rays of the moon, and then peered in. Evidently, he caught sight of the prisoner, for he gave vent to a guttural murmur of approval, and then closed the door to with a jar. Then he slouched away, carrying his spear over his shoulder, with his shield dangling to it by a length of twisted leather.
“Now is my chance,” murmured Jim. “I’ll give him a moment to get round the corner, and then I’ll make a dart for the hut. Here goes!”
Turning his eyes for one second to the figure of the sleeping man, he sprang to his feet, and crept softly across the ground. An open space was before him, but he did not hesitate, and, pressing on, was before the door of the prison in half a dozen strides. A moment sufficed to unlatch it, and swinging it back, he crawled in on all-fours, closing it after him with the greatest caution.
“And now for the prisoner,” he said. “I must be careful how I awake him, for in his astonishment he might unwittingly give the alarm and ruin all my plans. But first, where is he?”
Kneeling upon the floor of hard-beaten clay, he stared into the darkness in which the interior of the dwelling was buried, endeavoring to make out the figure of the prisoner. And all the while, though he fought to steady himself, and struggled to keep his limbs from trembling, his heart would beat against his ribs with such force, and with such a resounding noise, that it threatened to betray him.
And who could blame him for being so excited, for being so unnerved that he was almost incapable of any movement, and knelt there as if carved in stone? Who, indeed, with such interests at stake? Had he not toiled over miles and miles of sandy desert and sun-baked ground to reach this spot? Was not this almost the summit of his hopes and his ambitions? Here he was, after long marching and infinite toil, in reach of his prize at last, within sight of the end of his arduous task, and, wonder of wonders, the thought of it all had so excited him, so unmanned him, indeed, that for more than a minute he was helpless, a mere child in the heart of the enemy’s camp. But the change did not last for long; for of a sudden his eyes fell upon a huddled figure lying in the corner, and with a thrill he realized that it was the white prisoner.
“Father! father!” he murmured, with lips which would tremble in spite of himself. “I am here—Jim! Your son—come to rescue you! Wake up, and talk to me.”
But there was no answer to his words save a deep snore, and the sound of heavy breathing, which showed that the white prisoner was still fast asleep. A moment later, however, Jim had crawled to his side, and taking the very necessary precaution to place a finger upon the sleeper’s lips, shook him gently with his other hand.
“Wake up, father,” he whispered, placing his lips close to his ear. “It is Jim. Don’t you know me?”
“Who’s that? What’s the matter?” asked the prisoner, suddenly sitting up and speaking as if bewildered. “I swear that I heard someone talking in English. But no, it cannot be the case. I’ve dreamt the same thing time and again, until my heart is sick at the thought. No, I am a slave to these brutes, and shall remain so till the end of my days.”
Strange! The voice seemed harsher than that to which Jim was accustomed. But, no doubt, hardship had altered it.
“Don’t try to sleep anymore,” he whispered eagerly. “The voice is real. I am here—Jim! Can’t you tell?”
The prisoner, who had again thrown himself upon the floor, shot up into a sitting position as if he had been struck, and sat there staring at the figure beside him, as if unable to believe his ears.
“It’s true, then?” he said huskily. “But who are you? Jim? Who’s Jim? I know of none of that name, save an old shipmate who sailed a trip or two to the ‘shiny’ with me. Who is it, then? But anyway I reckon that it is a friend.”
At the words a dreadful fear fell upon Jim, and crawling closer to the prisoner, he stared eagerly into his face, endeavoring to make out in the obscurity of the hut what were the features. As if to help him in his trouble, a few stray rays of the moon managed at that moment to penetrate a chink between the door and its post, and, falling upon the white stranger, allowed a closer scrutiny than would otherwise have been possible. To describe the disappointment, the dismay, which Jim felt would be impossible; for, after all his care, after all his labors and trials, he saw that a hideous error had been made, and that the white prisoner was not Colonel Hubbard who was reported to have escaped the wreck in the Gulf of Aden.
“Not my father?” murmured Jim brokenly, feeling crushed by the weight of the blow. “I have marched miles to win this meeting, and came here this night in the hope that I was about to release my father from prison. And now I find that you are a stranger. The disappointment is almost too hard to bear.”
“And where have you come from, may I ask?” whispered the stranger. “As yet I, too, am bewildered, and it is as much as I can do to understand that at last I am listening to another Englishman. Why, man, it seems years since I heard the language, though in reality it’s a matter of a week or so only. But you say you have come here to rescue. Where from, then? I cannot make head or tail of this affair. But steady! As you value your life, keep your words low, for our guards have sharp ears, and sharper and more ready spears.”
For some minutes Jim could make no reply to the man’s questions, for he felt stunned with the blow, indeed, so dazed and bewildered that he might have been totally unconscious, so still did he lie. His breath came in gasps and catches, and it was with difficulty that he could repress the tears which welled to his eyes, and made frantic efforts to overflow.
“Not my father?” he repeated at length. “But who are you?”
“An unlucky dog who happened to be thrown ashore after a wreck in the Gulf of Aden,” was the answer. “For three years have I been a prisoner to this fiend who goes by the name of the ‘Mad’ Mullah.”
“Then, do you know of another?” asked Jim eagerly, seizing the stranger by the arm, and bringing his face so close to his that they almost touched. “Tell me at once! Quick, I cannot wait!”
In his anxiety to hear the news, Jim shook the stranger and whispered the question fiercely in his ear, feeling as though his own life and happiness depended upon the answer.
“Hush! Steady, man! You will have our guard rushing upon us if you are not careful. There! What is that? I can hear the man outside coming to make his usual inspection. We are discovered, and shall be killed.”
For the space of a few seconds both sat upon the mud floor, staring at the wicket and listening attentively. As they did so, the shuffling sound made by a man walking with sandals upon his feet could be heard approaching, and instantly Jim realized that this must be the sentry who was doing duty for himself and for his comrades.
“Lie down just here, and pretend to be asleep,” he whispered quickly. “He will do as he did before, and will throw open the door so as to obtain a clear view of the interior. But the light of the moon will only fall just where you are, while the remainder of the hut will be in darkness. I’ll get over into the corner, and level my revolver at his head. If he discovers me, I shall shoot, and you had better be ready to join me at once. In the confusion we shall make a bolt for the hiding-place in which I have a follower and two camels. Do you understand? Quick with your answer!”
The white prisoner gave a rapid response in the affirmative, and at once lay down in the attitude of sleep, whilst Jim leaped across the hut into the darkest corner. Then gently drawing a revolver from beneath his waistcloth, he shuffled a few inches to the left until he could get a partial view of the doorway, at which he at once presented his weapon.
Almost immediately the sound of the latch was heard, seeming to break upon the stillness with startling loudness. Then the twisted leather hinges creaked, while the foot of the door scraped over the ground, allowing a flood of moonlight to pour into the room. In the center of the brilliant patch could be seen the dark shadow of the sentry, slanting across the floor until it fell upon the sleeper, and hung over him. But a moment later the man stepped on one side, and then there was silence once more as he peered in. Sitting there, in his dark corner, Jim could hear the man’s heavy breathing, and kept his revolver steadily leveled, knowing that if he were to be discovered it would be during the next few seconds. Breathlessly he waited, not daring to move a finger, but feeling all the while as though the man’s eyes were searching every nook and cranny of the hut, and had fixed themselves upon him.
Indeed, so firmly was he convinced of this that he began to stretch a little farther to one side till the head of the sentry came into view. And there he remained in his strained position, the muzzle of his weapon covering the intruder, and his finger on the trigger, ready to press it and send the death-dealing bullet home. An age seemed to pass before the Somali warrior ended his scrutiny of the hut, and it was with a feeling of indescribable relief that Jim saw his head withdrawn, and heard the rasping of the wicket again as it closed. As if fascinated, he watched the patch of moonlight diminish, and then sat there with the moisture pouring from his forehead, listening to the sounds outside.
“A narrow squeak, I think,” said a voice from the farther end. “That beggar seemed to be suspicious, and as I lay there watching him through a half-closed eye, I felt sure that he was about to enter. Had he done so, and you had not fired, I should have been upon his back in a moment, and you could have trusted me to bring him to the ground with a broken neck, for that is a trick of which these Somali people are very fond. Come over and join me, and I will go on with my tale.”
Creeping across the floor, Jim took the precaution first of replacing his revolver, for in the darkness there was the danger always of an accidental explosion, which would have been a very serious matter. Then he seated himself close beside the stranger, and together they conversed in whispers.
“Answer my questions,” said Jim eagerly, “then you can tell all about yourself.”
“Make your mind easy,” was the answer, “for I have good news for you. But first, say who you are.”
“Jim Hubbard, son of Colonel Hubbard, wrecked on the Somali coast a matter of six weeks ago.”
“And a gallant young fellow!” was the energetic response.
“Your father, I am glad to say, is alive, and at this moment within three hundred paces of you. Like myself, he is a slave to the Mullah, but being new to the work, he has not yet lost his independence and spirit, and a week ago, hearing news the facts of which never reached my ears, he made a desperate attempt at escape, but was discovered and recaptured. I have been a prisoner so long that I can speak the language perfectly, and have many friends amongst the natives, and from them I learnt that the colonel had made a desperate resistance, and had been wounded. But the injury is not severe, though it prevents him from walking, and has given him a blessed release from slavery, for the time being at least.”
Jim listened to the news with feelings of the deepest gratitude, and when the stranger had finished, sat there without answering a word, thinking the whole matter out.
“A few minutes ago I felt like a baby,” he said. “The disappointment was so great that, if I had been a girl, I should have cried. But the information which you have just given me raises my spirits again, and I feel that, after all, things are about to turn out as I wished. Can you lead me to my father? If you can, we must go at once and rescue him. Then we shall rejoin my follower, and when the morning dawns we shall be miles away amongst our friends, ready and willing to make a fight for it, should we be followed.”
“And you’ll take me with you?” asked the prisoner. “Just think of it for a moment! I’m John Margetson, third mate aboard an ocean-going steamer, and no great person at any time. In the search for your father chance has brought you to my side, and I tell you candidly to leave me where I am, and go on with the business you have in hand, for if you include me in your party your risks will be doubled. For think, in another quarter of an hour that sentry outside will poke his ugly head into the hut again, and then the cat will be out of the bag. On the other hand, I can tell you where your father lies, and can describe the position so accurately that you will be able to find him without further help.”
The stranger caught Jim by the hand, and whispered the words eagerly into his ear, repeating them in his unselfish attempt to persuade this lad to leave him to his fate.
“Do you think I am a coward?” asked Jim quietly. “Should I be worthy to be called the son of my father if I left you in the lurch? Ask yourself that question, and then give me the answer, though, whatever it is, I tell you that if you will come I will gladly take you with me, and should never forgive myself if I were to leave you behind.”
“Spoken like a man!” exclaimed John Margetson. “I wanted to put the case before you clearly, but you cannot tell what your answer meant to me, for I have endured three years of hopeless slavery. For all that time I have been the butt of every man, woman, and child who owed allegiance to the Mullah, and whenever his adherents met with a reverse, I have gone in terror of my life. I have been threatened, beaten, starved, until life has become at times such a misery that, but for the fact that at the worst it is dear to every man, and that our religion forbids it, I would have thrown myself into the river yonder and ended my wretched existence. Rescue me from my captors. Take me back to my old life, to my old friends and associates, and I shall be your debtor till the end of my days. I shall, indeed.”
There was no doubt of John Margetson’s earnestness, for his voice trembled as he spoke, and his lips twitched so violently that he could scarcely form the words.
“I know what you feel,” responded Jim soothingly. “Help me to find my father, and then all that I may have done for you will have been amply repaid. And now let us discuss our plans.”
For some twenty minutes the two sat side by side with their heads close together, whispering in the darkness, and then separated, for the shuffling step of the sentry was again heard. But on this occasion he seemed to be satisfied with a casual inspection, and barely troubled to do more than place the wicket ajar and peep in. The sight of the prisoner’s legs, upon which a patch of light fell, made his mind easy, and he at once retired, and, striding to the front of the larger building, walked to and fro within a few paces of the log-fire which blazed there. Then he shivered, and, drawing his blanket closer about him, thrust the haft of his spear into the blaze and stirred the embers till the flames leapt high into the air. And all the while the second warrior sat propped against the opposite hut, a blanket drawn tightly about him, and his chin resting upon his breast. There was no doubt that he was fast asleep, for his snores proclaimed the fact, while he made no movement, though Jim and his companion stared at him through the open door for the space of five minutes.
As soon as they were satisfied of this, they went out and pushed the wicket to. Then John Margetson stepped to the front to lead the way, and at once began to cross the open space which surrounded the dwellings, Jim falling silently behind him. Like ghosts they flitted across the ground, and, hastening from the moonlit area, dived into the deepest shadows that could be found. A hundred yards farther on both came to a sudden halt, and crouched in the darkness, listening apprehensively.
What was that? A shrill cry of alarm suddenly rent the air, and was followed by another. Then there was a loud report of a gun, and instantly, it seemed, the village hummed and buzzed with life. Doors flew open, and men came rushing out with arms in their hands, each one shouting to the other to ask what the trouble was, till the air was alive with their voices. Then, as a sudden silence settled over the Mullah’s camp, for the space of a few seconds, a tall man was seen to be standing beside the flagstaff upon the roof of the central house. His hand was uplifted as if he were about to speak, and instantly all turned their heads in his direction and ceased their clamor.
“Awake!” shouted the man. “The prisoner has escaped, and is even now within our reach. I, the Mullah, order you to arm and separate in parties. To the one who returns with the infidel I will give a great reward.”
At once all the men of the village ran back to their houses, and within five minutes there was silence once more, save for the pattering of many feet, as the warriors left the camp in search of their prisoner.
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