For the moment it looked as though the expedition upon which Jim and his friend had set out was doomed to early disaster, for there was no denying the fact that they had unwittingly aroused the anger of the natives. And yet, what could they do? Passing through the bazaar in their search for information, an evil chance had brought them into contact with this gathering, and they had found themselves compelled to accept the unwelcome invitation to join the circle which sat about the brazier. And now, at the very beginning, indeed, within less than a minute they were engaged in an altercation with them. Deeply did Jim regret the fact that he could not speak the language, for had he been able to do so, there would have been no need for silence, and no need to ruffle the feelings of the gathering.

It was a dilemma, and, puzzle his brains as he might, he could not come to any solution that would help him. Instead, therefore, he sat there stolidly, his eyes now fixed upon the brazier, and then turning for the space of a second to the man who confronted him.


“Insolent! How dare you to insult us so?” shouted the native, thrusting his hand into the folds of his waistcloth, to withdraw it a moment later clasping the handle of a dagger. “Dog!” he continued, springing forward. “Speak, or I will bury this blade in your flesh.”

Meanwhile, the other natives who formed the gathering had sprung to their feet, and crowded about the two young Englishmen with threatening gestures.

In The Grip Of The Mullah A Tale Of Adventure In Somaliland

“Yes,” they shouted angrily, “answer, or we will kill you now, and throw your bodies into the gutter.”

It was wonderful to see the coolness with which Jim and his companion acted. Had they lost their presence of mind, and sprung to their feet with the intention of escaping, they would have been instantly cut to pieces, for they were entirely surrounded. Indeed, there was no doubt that this was a situation demanding cunning more than anything else, and both recognized that fact fully. Seated, therefore, side by side, as if they were unaware of the commotion raging about them, Jim still looked nonchalantly into the flames, as if, indeed, he had no other interest in life, while Tom stared at the circle of angry faces with the utmost calmness.

“Are we, then, guests or dogs?” he demanded quietly, letting his eyes wander from one to the other. “Was it not you who bade us join your circle? Then why do you grumble if one of us is a man who will keep his vow, whatever befalls? My friend and I have come here from Somaliland, bound upon an expedition to Mecca. But ill fortune fell upon us, and now we return to our country to replenish our funds. For my part, I confess that I am disappointed, but my comrade is grieved beyond expression. His lips are closed, and his ears deaf, until the day when he completes his pilgrimage. He has sworn it by Allah, and by Allah he shall keep to his oath, even though thousands attempt to dissuade him. Take your places, then, again, I beg of you, and let us be friends, for we are deserving of your kindness.”

The words, spoken quietly as they were, acted like oil upon troubled waters. Scarcely had they left Tom Dixon’s lips, when the excitement of the angry natives disappeared even more rapidly than it had arisen. For a moment only they looked incredulously at one another, and then, saluting Jim with the utmost respect, they took their places again shamefacedly.

“We meant no harm, brothers,” said the first speaker, apologetically. “Forgive us, if we spoke angrily and in some haste, but the occasion demanded instant explanation, and, now that you have given it, we are fully satisfied. More than that, it is an honour to us to know that there sits in our circle in friendship with us one who has made such a vow, and who refuses to break his oath in spite of any danger. I watched him carefully as I advanced upon him with my drawn weapon, but he did not flinch, did not even turn aside, or raise an arm to ward off the blow which might well have fallen. Moreover, he allowed no sound to escape his lips, and, true to his word, and to the holy task which he has set himself, sat there unmoved, prepared to die rather than cry out for mercy. It is marvelous the strength that Allah gives to such men.”

“Yes, it is a great thing,” chimed in an aged native, who sat crouching over the brazier, as if to absorb all its warmth; “and in Aden here not one in ten thousand is capable of making and keeping such a vow. It is only men from Somaliland who are brave enough to do such a thing. Our brother has just told us that we are honored; we are more than that, for these guests of ours are friends of the Mullah, a holy man, who has made many pilgrimages to Mecca, and who will yet be king of the country which lies yonder across the sea.”

He pointed towards the harbor, and looked round at his companions.

“Yes,” they agreed in guttural tones, “the Mullah is a great man, and will be even more powerful.”

“We can speak openly,” continued the old man, “for there are none but friends here, and no Hindoos are within hearing. How thrives the Mullah?” he went on, addressing Tom. “Does he know that the English are preparing to march against him?”

“Yes, he is fully aware of it,” answered the latter, quietly, “and will meet them in battle. But at present, he is fearful of defeat, for though his soldiers are numerous, they are poorly armed, and for the most part carry only shields and spears. Guns are what he wants, and he is prepared to pay well for them. Indeed, he bade us on our return to make enquiries here, and endeavor to induce some of the wealthy merchants who are friendly to him to send him a ship-load of weapons and ammunition. We believe that such a ship has lately sailed, or will shortly leave this shore, but we are uncertain. We have been to more than one of those who live in this town, and are friendly to us, but they will do nothing until silver is placed in their hands, and of that we have absolutely none. However, once we can get a passage across to Somaliland, we shall be able to replenish our store, and shall return immediately.”

“And how knows your friend of this arrangement?” asked the old man suspiciously, glancing sharply at Jim. “If he has made a vow not to speak, how can he have discussed this matter with you?”

The question was a shrewd one, and at once set the whole circle of natives staring hard at their guests.

“Yes, how can he have learnt of this plan?” cried another, rising to his feet, and waving his arms excitedly. “You say that you have been to many in the town, and have questioned them concerning arms for the Mullah. Then this vow of which your comrade boasts is one made to be broken or kept at will. Perhaps he is a spy come here to learn our secrets.”

His words at once brought the whole gathering of natives to their feet, and again, such is the excitability of these Eastern people, they crowded threateningly about their guests, calling loudly for an explanation. But Jim and his friend were equal to the occasion. The former was certainly dumfounded at the sudden turn affairs had taken, for he had not understood a word of all that had been said. But he was fully aware that here again an attempt to escape would be worse than useless, and therefore, placing full reliance in his friend, he squatted there as calmly as before, prepared, however, to spring to his feet in a moment and join Tom in fighting for their lives. A hasty glance at the latter told him that there was still some chance of calming the natives, for Tom Dixon sat as if carved in stone. One hand was buried, as if accidentally, in the folds of his waistcloth, though Jim knew well that it grasped the butt of a hidden revolver; while the other was stretched out towards the brazier, as if to gather some comfort from its glowing embers.

“Did I say that I had discussed this matter with my comrade?” he asked sarcastically, looking round the circle with a contemptuous glance. “When I said that we had been to various merchants in the town, I thought that you were wise enough to understand my meaning. My comrade’s vow is one which few or none of you would dare to take, and yet you do not hesitate to doubt it. It was sworn more than a week ago, and, by Allah, it has never been broken. But look at him? Do you not see him turn his head as each one speaks? He cannot help the words falling upon his ears, and hears and understands all that you say, without, however, deigning to answer. So it is with me. So that he should know what was to happen, I have spoken of my plans to him, but we have never entered into discussion on the matter. Come,” he continued, “let us be friends, and treat us like brothers.”

“We will,” exclaimed the old man warmly. “We cannot venture to take risks, for were a spy to come amongst us, he would learn many things of value to the Government. It was on that account that we tested you, and have proved you to be of ourselves. We are friends and brothers.”

Each of the natives gave vent to a guttural exclamation of approval, and then, as if to forbid further altercation, the sharp notes of the tom-tom were heard, and the gathering began a chant, one of those peculiarly dismal dirges which seem to delight the ears of natives of the East. Then, when the song was finished, an earthen dish, containing slices of juicy lemon, was handed round, each man present helping himself.

“You spoke of a ship which might be sailing for Somaliland,” said the old man, suddenly, awaking from a reverie into which he seemed to have fallen, and looking up at Tom. “You also told us that you and your friend were in search of a passage. Are you strong, and are you willing to work? For, if so, I will find places for you upon the dhow.”

“It is a good offer, and we accept it gladly,” responded Tom promptly. “As for strength, we are capable of hauling at the ropes as well as any man. Would there be much else to do? For I tell you honestly that we are unused to the sea, and are more at home when mounted upon horseback and galloping across the smooth plains of Somaliland.”

“There is little else for you to do than keep watch upon the deck, and help to pull in the sails, for three men will go besides yourselves, as well as the master. But I warn you that fighting may fall to your lot, for a steamship flying the Government colours patrols these seas, and, should she sight you, will certainly endeavour to capture you. In that case your death would be swift and almost certain. If not, you would be thrown into prison, and would be a slave for the greater part of your days.”

“Then the post will suit us well. If there is fighting we shall not grumble, for it is our trade, and as capture means death, you may rely upon it that we shall do all that is possible to defeat the enemy. But why should the Government fall upon this dhow?”

For a moment the old man scrutinized Tom closely, as if still suspicious of him, and as if doubtful whether he was to be fully trusted. But the latter returned his glance with one that was equally steady and unflinching, and, satisfied with this, the native at length answered:

“That dhow is filled to overflowing with guns and ammunition for the Mullah,” he said. “If she reaches the Somali coast in safety, I shall have done well for myself, and shall have aided the cause of your master. She sails tomorrow at noon, and you will know her by the fact that she bears a red streak upon her bows, and has a large rent in her sail. When you see her, she will be lying some few yards from the shore, and any of the small craft in the harbor will put you aboard her. You must go below as soon as you get on board, and if any of the crew are there, pass them without a sound, but salute them in this manner.”

The old man paused for an instant, and withdrawing his hand from beneath the blanket which covered him, placed two fingers upon his lips.

“That is the sign which you must make, and be careful that you do it exactly as I have shown you, for, if not, the crew will believe that you are spies, and will fall upon you as soon as you are below. Today the Customs officer has been on board, inspecting the cargo. But the crew are even now busily employed in transferring it to another ship, and in taking in the guns and ammunition destined for the Mullah’s troops.”

“It is a good plan,” said Tom, “and I can see the need for secrecy. Tomorrow we shall go on board the dhow, and we shall be careful to follow your wishes. Can you tell us how long the passage will take, and where we shall be landed?”

Again the old man looked suspiciously at him, and then shook his head emphatically.

“No, I cannot tell you that. If Allah wills it, you shall land upon the coast and return to your people.”

Some five minutes later Tom touched Jim upon the arm, and made signs to him to rise. Then, nodding to the natives, they left the circle and went on into the bazaar. But they had already had one experience of native cunning and curiosity, and instead of turning their steps towards the room in which they had disguised themselves, they moved away in the opposite direction, and taking advantage of a narrow alley, which was filled with chattering natives, they mingled with the crowd, and sauntered on, now looking curiously at the wares of some Hindoo merchant, and then watching with evident interest the skill of a juggler, who sat in the middle of the street, with an admiring circle about him. Winding hither and thither, they at length came to a deserted part, and having hidden in the shadow of a booth for some ten minutes, so as to assure themselves that they were not followed, they took to their heels, and before very long had reached the dwelling in which they were to shelter that night.

“We’re in luck,” exclaimed Tom, in tones of satisfaction. “I must admit that at one moment I thought it was all up with us, for these natives are suspicious beggars, and would think nothing of killing anyone whom they suspected of spying upon them. If they had discovered us, you may take it for certain that we should have disappeared for good, and no amount of searching on the part of our friends would have led to news of our fate. There is no doubt that they are masters at the art, and no bribe will induce anyone to give evidence against his comrades.”

“I can quite believe that,” answered Jim, “and I agree with you that things looked very black. Of course, I didn’t understand what was happening, and am puzzling about it even now. But the shouting and excitement, and the fact that that fellow drew his knife, told me that trouble was coming. It was as much as I could do to sit there quietly, but I took my cue from you, and I can tell you I was jolly glad when the squabble ended.”

“You behaved like a brick, old boy. Considering that you are a novice, and quite unused to these natives, you showed no end of pluck. I admit that it was not without some misgivings that I allowed you to accompany me into the bazaar, for, you see, I hadn’t an idea how you would behave. But I felt sure that the fellow who could come out here, and quietly make his preparations to face the dangers of an expedition into the heart of Somaliland, must be someone quite out of the ordinary. Of course, you might have been a thoughtless kind of beggar, who had no fear simply because you were unaware of, and had taken no trouble to find out, the difficulties and risks you were about to face. But I soon saw that you realized the gravity of your task, and, by George! I admired you for it, for there are precious few youngsters of your age who would have the grit to go on with the matter. But I am wandering from the subject. There’s no doubt that if you had flinched, and shouted out when that beggar drew his knife, we should have been set upon by the whole gang of ruffians, and, though we were armed with revolvers, we should have had precious little chance. The whole row arose because you made no answer when they invited you to sing.”

Throwing himself upon the bed, Tom Dixon gave his comrade a full account of the altercation, and then went on to describe how a passage had been offered them upon the dhow, which was to sail upon the following day, with arms for the Mullah.

“It will not do to take any risks,” he said, “and therefore I vote that we practise going aboard and making the sign, for the slightest slip would mean ruin to our plans.”

Accordingly, while Tom stood at one end of the room, Jim advanced from the other, and turning, raised his fingers to his lips as he passed him. Not till he had done it some half-dozen times was Tom satisfied, and then he, too, went through the process.

“The next thing will be to give news to the Governor,” said Tom, “so as to make it possible for the gunboat to intercept us. She left Aden a couple of days ago, but was to return to-morrow night. If she slips away again at once, she should easily overtake us, and then I should give very little for the chances of the crew. There should be four on board besides ourselves, and if we cannot master them with our revolvers, I shall be greatly surprised. It will be a feather in our caps, Jim, to capture the dhow by ourselves and then hand her over to the gunboat.”

“But you said that you had been unable to ascertain the destination of the dhow,” interposed Jim. “Supposing the gunboat could not find her?”

“It would be very awkward, and that’s where the risk comes in.”

“Yes, it would be awkward,” agreed Jim; “but then there would be all the more honour in capturing her. It would be grand to overpower the crew and compel them to sail the dhow back to Aden.”

“Perhaps it will turn out like that,” said Tom. “But you lie down on the bed and have a sleep while I go off to the Governor. I shall be back within an hour, and shall make myself comfortable in the corner there with a blanket as a covering. No,” he exclaimed, seeing Jim about to remonstrate, “you are not yet used to sleeping on a hard floor like the natives. But I am, and even prefer it.”

A few moments later Jim was left alone in the room, and blowing out the candle, at once lay down upon the bed and settled himself to sleep. An hour later his comrade returned, and threw himself down in the corner, where his heavy breathing soon gave evidence of the fact that he, too, had forgotten the adventures of the night and was lost in dreams.

Scarcely had the sun risen on the following morning when both were astir, and at once rearranged their clothing, so as to make sure that their disguise was satisfactory and would pass muster in broad daylight. Then Tom produced a small oil stove and a frying-pan and began to prepare breakfast. Eggs were to be had in plenty, and as these were easy to cook, four of them were quickly spluttering upon the pan. Meanwhile, a kettle of water was set upon a second stove to boil, and soon they sat down to a satisfying if not dainty repast. To a hungry man food, if clean and fairly well prepared, is always acceptable, and Jim and his companion were not the ones to turn up their noses simply because their eggs reposed on rough tin plates, and their tea was contained in mugs of similar material. Seated upon the two chairs of which the room boasted, and taking the plates upon their knees, they set to work with energy, and quickly caused the food to disappear. Indeed, so keen was their appetite, that they unanimously agreed to prepare a second relay of eggs, and partook of them with the same relish.

“And now to business,” cried Jim cheerily. “I feel as fresh as paint, and quite ready for this adventure. Shall I do as I am?”

For the moment Tom did not answer, but pulling the curtain from the window so as to allow all the light that was possible to enter the room, he placed his comrade in the centre and walked slowly round him.

“The disguise is perfect,” he said in tones of satisfaction. “I guarantee that you will pass muster anywhere, and, so long as you remember that you are never to open your lips, I have little fear that you will be discovered. Let me give you a little additional advice. As we go towards the dhow it is quite on the cards that we shall run across some of the passengers who accompanied you from England, and you may be tempted to renew your friendship with them, quite forgetful of your disguise. But you must not dream of doing such a thing, for sharp eyes are always watching in this town, and were the natives to learn that a spy is amongst them, your chances of success in Somaliland would be considerably diminished. Now, are your revolvers in position, and do you feel ready to accompany me?”

“Quite,” exclaimed Jim, with emphasis. “I tell you that I feel as light-hearted as possible, and fully prepared for the adventure.”

“Then come along.”

Leading the way to the window, Tom Dixon threw it open, and placing a chair beneath it, stepped upon it and crawled through. Jim followed, without hesitation, and found himself in a narrow courtyard, from which a gate that was almost tumbling from its hinges led into a street behind. A glance showed them that the street was empty, and at once they stepped into it, and hurrying along, were soon in the main thoroughfare of Aden.

Had anyone taken the trouble to scrutinize them closely, he would have seen two stalwart and swarthy men, one somewhat younger than the other, and of slightly smaller proportions, but both evidently from the shores of Northern Africa. They strode along with that quick shuffling gait common to men of their race, and due, no doubt, in some degree, to the sandals which they wear. That they were strangers to Aden could be easily guessed, for they looked curiously about them, and stopped every now and again to look in at the shop windows. An Englishman marching along the footpath was obviously an object of interest and respect, for they turned aside to give him more room to pass, and gazed at him in wonderment. So cleverly did they act their part that no one suspected that they were not what they pretended to be, and even the natives, who swarmed everywhere, let them pass without a doubt. On one occasion a native arrested their progress, and would have entered into conversation with Jim, but a few words from Tom altered his intention, and he stood aside, allowing them to pass without comment. A few minutes later, when turning a corner sharply, they barely escaped running into a second Englishman, who was no other than Mr. Andrews. But he motioned them aside with a brusque “Out of the way!” and went on, without a thought of the two young fellows who had sat with him on the previous evening, and without a suspicion that the two Somali tribesmen whom he had met face to face were those whose interests he had so much at heart.

Half an hour’s sharp walk brought Jim and his companion to the shore, where they paused for some minutes to gaze at a large steamer which was moored there, undergoing the process of coaling with the help of a perfect army of dusky figures who swarmed about her, shouting at the top of their voices.

From there they took their way to that part of the harbour usually allotted to native craft, and before very long had the satisfaction of noting that one which floated in deep water, and was of fairly large proportions, had a thin streak of red upon her bows.

Tom at once turned towards her, and, followed closely by Jim, went down to the water’s edge. A number of flimsy native boats were drawn up on the mud, with their owners seated chatting beside them. As soon as they caught sight of the two strangers, the boatmen at once sprang to their feet, and, gesticulating wildly, offered their services.

“We want to go aboard the dhow there,” said Tom shortly, selecting one of the boatmen. “What will you take us for?”

A price was agreed upon after some little haggling, and a few moments later a boat was run down into the water and pushed off. Taking his place in the stern, the oarsman paddled out into deep water, and quickly brought them alongside the dhow. Tom at once handed him his fare, and then, grasping the halliards, which were close at hand, swarmed up on deck, closely followed by Jim. As he did so he threw a glance aloft, and noted that the huge leg-of-mutton sail which was tied up to the mast had a large rent in one corner of it.

“We are on the right ship, at any rate,” he said to himself. “And now for the crew.”

Turning towards the stern of the dhow, he and Jim walked towards a narrow hatchway, which evidently gave admission to the hold. As they did so, three figures started up from behind some coils of rope with the silence of specters, and gazed at them curiously and suspiciously; while a fourth, happening to thrust his head up at that moment, caught sight of the strangers, and, with a guttural exclamation, climbed out upon the deck. They were fierce-looking fellows, clad in scanty raiment, and undoubtedly armed, for, as the newcomers returned their glances and ran their eyes over them, they noted the handle of more than one weapon protruding from their waist-cloths, while the man who had just emerged from the hold bore a pistol of gigantic proportions.

“We shall have our work cut out to master them,” Jim said to himself, “for they will fight hard and make a desperate resistance. However, so long as their suspicions are not aroused, and they believe that we are friends, and to be thoroughly relied upon, we shall have every opportunity of taking them by surprise. If we are successful in doing that, I think we shall be able to overawe them; and if not, why, they must look to themselves.”

A movement on Tom’s part now attracted his attention, and following him closely, Jim strode down the deck, taking little notice of the natives. Arrived at the hatchway, his companion paused for the space of a moment and rapidly made the sign. Instantly the crew, who had stood there with menacing looks, evidently determined to attack them should they prove to be enemies come to spy upon them, sauntered away, watching, however, to see that Jim, too, lifted his fingers to his lips. A moment later both had disappeared into the darkness of the hold, and, creeping forward, sat down side by side.

“Guns!” whispered Jim, feeling about with his hands, and venturing for one second to break the silence which he had promised to observe. “Scores of them! They are all over the place.”

“And precious uncomfortable to sit upon,” answered his companion in husky tones. “The stock of one is digging into me. But, hush! We must not talk, for those beggars are certain to be curious about us, and we may take it for granted that for a day at least they will watch us like cats. No doubt, for the present, and until the dhow sails, we shall be left severely alone; but then will come the trial. Recollect, Jim, that we are landsmen, and don’t forget to bungle when you hang on to a rope. I shall let them know of your vow, and you must act up to it by appearing morose and stupid. Hear nothing; say nothing; but wait until everything is explained to you by signs.”

“Right, old man; you may rely upon me,” was Jim’s whispered reply; after which they both sat silently, neither venturing to speak nor move, but listening intently to every sound that reached their ears. Now and again they could hear the distant shout of some native boatman, or the howl of a cur prowling along the shore. Then, too, the voices of the crew could be occasionally heard as they chatted together on the deck, but the actual words could not be distinguished at that distance, though Tom would have given anything to learn what they were saying. And all the while the dhow rolled lazily from side to side, her mast creaking dismally as she did so, while the rigging rattled loudly against the woodwork. Occasionally, as a boat of large proportions passed, the sea would come with a splash against the side and drown all other sounds. But the noise soon quieted down, and Jim and Tom found themselves listening again, as if fascinated, to the distant shouts, the murmur of voices above, and the flapping of the sail.

Three long and weary hours passed—hours of suspense to the two young Englishmen seated below; and then, just as their patience was exhausted, they heard someone moving on the deck. There was a patter of bare feet upon the boards, followed by the noise of a rope passing through a block.

“Up goes the sail!” whispered Jim, in tones of delight. “Hurrah! We’re off!”

“Then prepare to go on deck,” answered Tom. “They’ll wait until we’re out of sight, and then will call us up.”

“Ah, there she goes!” exclaimed Jim, as the dhow suddenly heeled over, and began to move through the water. A minute later she was driving along before a brisk breeze, and the two young fellows below realized that, at last, their adventure had begun in earnest.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.