ADVENTURES AMONG THE SOUDANESE, AND
STRANGE MEETING WITH THE MAHDI
Day after day, for many days, our
captives were thus driven over the burning desert,
suffering intensely from heat and thirst and hunger,
as well as from fatigue, and treated with more or
less cruelty according to the varying moods of their
At last one afternoon they arrived
at a city of considerable size, through the streets
of which they were driven with unusual harshness by
the Arab soldiers, who seemed to take pleasure in thus
publicly heaping contempt on Christian captives in
the sight of the Mohammedan population.
Their case seemed truly desperate
to Miles, as he and his comrades passed through the
narrow streets, for no pitying eye, but many a frown,
was cast on them by the crowds who stopped to gaze
What city they had reached they had
no means of finding out, being ignorant of Arabic.
Indeed, even though they had been able to converse
with their guards, it is probable that these would
have refused to hold communication with them.
Turning out of what appeared to be
a sort of market-place, they were driven, rather than
conducted, to a whitewashed building, into which they
entered through a low strong door, studded with large
iron-headed nails. As they entered a dark passage,
the door was slammed and locked behind them.
At first, owing to their sudden entrance out of intensely
bright day, they seemed to be in profound darkness,
but when they became accustomed to the dim light,
they found that they were in the presence of several
powerful men, who carried long Eastern-like pistols
in their girdles, and curved naked swords in their
hands. These stood like statues against the
wall of the small room, silently awaiting the orders
of one whose dress betokened him of superior rank,
and who was engaged in writing with a reed in Persian
characters. A tall, very black-skinned negro
stood beside this officer.
After a few minutes the latter laid
down the reed, rose up, and confronted the prisoners,
at the same time addressing some remark to his attendant.
“Who is you, an’ where
you come fro?” asked the negro, addressing himself
to Miles, whom he seemed intuitively to recognise as
the chief of his party.
“We are British soldiers!”
said Miles, drawing himself up with an air of dignity
that would have done credit to the Emperor of China.
You see, at that moment he felt himself to be the
spokesman for, and, with his comrades, the representative
of, the entire British army, and was put upon his
mettle accordingly. “We come from Suakim ”
“Ay, black-face!” broke
in Jack Molloy at that moment, “and you may tell
him that if he has the pluck to go to Suakim, he’ll
see plenty more British soldiers an’
British seamen too who’ll give him
an’ his friends a hot and hearty welcome wi’
bullet, bayonet, and cutlash whenever he feels inclined.”
“Are you officer?” asked
the negro of Miles, and not paying the smallest attention
to Molloy’s warlike invitation.
“No, I am not.”
Turning to the armed men, the officer
gave them an order which caused them to advance and
stand close to the Englishmen two beside
each prisoner with drawn swords.
An extra man took up his position behind Molloy, evidently
having regard to his superior size! Then two
men, who looked like jailers, advanced to Stevenson,
cut the cords that bound his arms, and proceeded to
put iron fetters on his wrists.
“Comrades,” said Molloy,
in a low voice, when he perceived that his turn was
coming, “shall we make a burst for it kill
them all, get out into street, cut and slash through
the town, and make a grand run for it or
die like men?”
“Die like fools!” growled
Simkin, as he suffered his hands to be manacled.
“No, no, Jack,” said Armstrong;
“don’t be rash. Let’s bide
our time. There’s no sayin’ what’ll
“Well, well,” sighed Molloy,
resigning himself to his fate, “there’s
only one thing now that’s sartin sure to turn
up, an’ that is the sod that’ll cover
“You’re not sure even
of that, man,” said Moses Pyne, who was beginning
to give way to despair, “for may-hap they’ll
only dig a hole in the sand, an’ shove us in.”
“More likely to leave the dogs
an’ vultures to clear us out o’ the way,”
said Simkin, whose powers of hope were being tested
almost beyond endurance.
While the prisoners indulged in these
gloomy anticipations, the operation of fixing their
irons was finished, after which they were taken across
an inner court which was open to the sky. At
the other side of this they came to another heavy
iron-studded door, which, when opened, disclosed a
flight of steps descending into profound darkness.
“Go in!” said the negro, who had accompanied
Molloy, who was first, hesitated,
and the tremendous flush on his face, and frown on
his shaggy brows, seemed to indicate that even yet
he meditated attempting his favourite “burst”!
But Stevenson, pushing past him, at once descended,
saying, as he went, “Don’t be foolish,
Jack; we must learn to submit.”
There were only three steps, and at
the bottom a room about fifteen feet square, to enlighten
which there was a small hole high up in one of the
walls. It did little more, however, than render
“God help us!” exclaimed
Miles, with a sensation of sinking at the heart which
he had never felt before.
And little wonder, for, as their eyes
became accustomed to the dim light, it was seen that
the walls were blank, with nothing on them to relieve
the eye save the little hole or window just mentioned;
that the floor was of hard earth, and that there was
not a scrap of furniture in the room not
even a stool, or a bundle of straw on which to lie
“`I will trust, and not be afraid,’”
said Stevenson, in a low voice.
“Who will you trust?”
asked Simkin, who was not aware that his comrade had
“I will trust God,” answered the marine.
“I wouldn’t give much
for your trust, then,” returned Simkin bitterly,
as well as contemptuously, for he had given way to
despair. “You Blue Lights and Christians
think yourselves so much better than everybody else,
because you make so much talk about prayin’ an’
singin’, an’ doin’ your duty, an’
servin’ God, an’ submitting. It’s
“Don’t you believe that
Sergeant Hardy is a good soldier?” asked Stevenson.
“Of course I do,” replied
Simkin, in some surprise at the question.
“An’ he doesn’t
think much of himself, does he?” continued the
“Certainly not. He’s
one o’ the kindest an’ humblest men in
the regiment, as I have good reason to know.”
“Yet he frequently talks to
us of attendin’ to our duty, an’ doin’
credit to the British Flag, an’ faithfully serving
the Queen. If this is praiseworthy in the sergeant,
why should the talk of duty an’ service an’
honour to God be hypocrisy in the Christian?
Does it not seem strange that we Blue Lights who
have discovered ourselves to be much worse than we
thought ourselves, an’ gladly accept Jesus as
our Saviour from sin should be charged
with thinkin’ ourselves `_better_ than other
“Come now,” cried Jack
Molloy, seating himself on the floor, and leaning
his back against the wall; “it do seem to me,
as you putt it, Stevenson, that the charge ought to
be all the other way; for we, who make no purfession
of religion at all, thinks ourselves so far righteous
that we’ve got no need of a Saviour. Suppose,
now, as we’ve got to as low a state o’
the dumps as men can well come to, we all sits down
in a row an’ have a palaver about this matter Parson
Stevenson bein’ the chief spokesman.”
They all readily agreed to this proposal.
Indeed, in the circumstances, any proposal that offered
the faintest hope of diverting their minds from present
trouble would have been welcome to them at that moment.
The marine was nothing loath to fall in with the fancy
of his irrepressible comrade, but we do not propose
to follow them in the talk that ensued. We will
rather turn at once to those events which affected
more immediately the fortunes of the captives.
On the morning after their arrival
in the city there was assembled in the principal square
a considerable concourse of Soudan warriors.
They stood chatting together in various groups in
front of a public building, as if awaiting some chief
or great man, whose richly caparisoned steed stood
in front of the main entrance, with its out-runner
standing before it.
This runner was a splendid specimen
of physical manhood. He was as black as coal,
as graceful as Apollo, and apparently as powerful as
Hercules, if one might judge from the great
muscles which stood out prominently on all his limbs,
he wore but little clothing merely a pair
of short Arab drawers of white cotton, a red fez on
his head, and a small tippet on his shoulders.
Unlike negroes in general, his features were cast
in a mould which one is more accustomed to see in the
Caucasian race of mankind the nose being
straight, the lips comparatively thin, and the face
oval, while his bearing was that of a man accustomed
The appearance of a few soldiers traversing
the square drew the eyes of all in their direction,
and caused a brief pause in the hum of conversation.
Our friends, the captives, were in the midst of these
soldiers, and beside them marched the negro interpreter
whom they had first met with in the prison.
At the door of the public building
the soldiers drew up and allowed the captives to pass
in, guarded by two officers and the interpreter.
Inside they found a number of military men and dignitaries
grouped around, conversing with a stern man of strongly
marked features. This man towards
whom all of them showed great deference was
engaged when the captives entered; they were therefore
obliged to stand aside for a few minutes.
“Who is he?” asked Molloy of the negro
“Our great leader,” said the negro, “the
“What! the scoundrel that’s
bin the cause o’ all this kick-up?” asked
Jack Molloy, in surprise.
The interpreter did not quite understand
the seaman’s peculiar language, but he seemed
to have some idea of the drift of it, for he turned
up his up-turned nose in scorn and made no reply.
In a few minutes an officer led the
captives before the Mahdi, who regarded them with
a dark frown, directing his attention particularly
to Jack Molloy, as being the most conspicuous member
of the party, perhaps, also, because Molloy looked
at him with an air and expression of stern defiance.
Selecting him as a spokesman for the
others, the Mahdi, using the negro as an interpreter,
put him through the following examination:
“Where do you come from?” he asked, sternly.
“From Suakim,” answered Molloy, quite
“What brought you here?”
“Your dirty-faced baboons!”
It is probable that the negro used
some discretion in translating this reply, for the
chief did not seem at all offended, but with the same
manner and tone continued
“Do you know the number of men in Suakim?”
“Tell me how many?”
To this Molloy answered slowly, “Quite
enough if you had only the pluck to come
out into the open an’ fight like men to
give you such a lickin’ that there wouldn’t
be a baboon o’ you left in the whole Soudan!”
Again it is probable that the interpreter
did not give this speech verbatim, for while he was
delivering it, the Mahdi was scanning the features
of the group of prisoners with a calm but keen eye.
Making a sign to one of his attendants
to lead Molloy to one side, he said a few words to
another, who thereupon placed Miles in front of his
“Are you an officer?” was the first question
“No,” answered our hero,
with quiet dignity, but without the slightest tinge
of defiance either in tone or look.
“Will you tell me how many men you have in Suakim?”
“Dare you refuse?”
“Yes; it is against the principles
of a British soldier to give information to an enemy.”
“That’s right, John Miles,”
said Molloy, in an encouraging tone; “give it
’im hot! They can only kill us once, an’ ”
“Silence!” hissed the Mahdi between his
“Silence!” echoed the interpreter.
“All right, you nigger!
Tell the baboon to go on. I won’t run
foul of him again; he ain’t worth it.”
This was said with free-and-easy contempt.
“Do you not know,” resumed
the Mahdi, turning again to Miles with a fierce expression,
“that I have power to take your life?”
“You have no power at all beyond
what God gives to you,” said Miles quietly.
Even the angry Mahdi was impressed
with the obvious truth of this statement, but his
anger was not much allayed by it.
“Know you not,” he continued,
“that I have the power to torture you to death?”
Our hero did not at once reply.
He felt that a grand crisis in his life had arrived,
that he stood there before an assemblage of “unbelievers,”
and that, to some extent, the credit of his countrymen
for courage, fidelity, and Christianity was placed
in his hands.
“Mahdi,” he said, impressively,
as he drew himself up, “you have indeed the
power to torture and kill me, but you have not
the power to open my lips, or cause me to bring dishonour
on my country!”
“Brayvo, Johnny! Pitch
into him!” cried the delighted Molloy.
“Fool!” exclaimed the
Mahdi, whose ire was rekindled as much by the seaman’s
uncomprehended comment as by our hero’s fearless
look and tone, “you cannot bring dishonour on
a country which is already dishonoured. What
dishonour can exceed that of being leagued with the
oppressor against the oppressed? Go! You
shall be taught to sympathise with the oppressed by
He waved his hand, and, quickly leaving
the court, walked towards his horse, where the fine-looking
negro runner stood and held his stirrup, while he
prepared to mount. Instead of mounting, however,
he stood for a few seconds looking thoughtfully at
the ground. Then he spoke a few words to the
runner, who bowed his head slightly as his master mounted
and rode away.
Grasping a small lance and flag, which
seemed to be the emblems of his office, he ran off
at full speed in front of the horse to clear the way
for his master.
At the entrance to the building an
official of some sort took hold of Miles’s arm
and led him away. He glanced back and observed
that two armed men followed. At the same time
he saw Molloy’s head towering above the surrounding
crowd, as he and his comrades were led away in another
direction. That was the last he saw of some at
least, of his friends for a considerable time.
Poor Miles was too much distressed
at this sudden and unexpected separation to take much
note of the things around him. He was brought
back to a somewhat anxious consideration of his own
affairs by being halted at the gate of a building
which was more imposing, both in size and appearance,
than the houses around it. Entering at the bidding
of his conductors, he found himself in an open court,
and heard the heavy door closed and bolted behind
Thereafter he was conducted to a small
chamber, which, although extremely simple, and almost
devoid of furniture, was both cleaner and lighter
than that in which he and his comrades had been at
first immured. He observed, however, with a
feeling of despondency, that it was lighted only by
small square holes in the roof, and that the door
was very substantial!
Here his conductor left him without
saying a word and bolted the door. As he listened
to the retreating steps of his jailer echoing on the
marble pavement of the court, a feeling of profound
dejection fell upon our hero’s spirit, and he
experienced an almost irresistible tendency to give
way to unmanly tears. Shame, however, came to
his aid and enabled him to restrain them.
In one corner of the little room there
was a piece of thick matting. Sitting down on
it with his back against the wall, the poor youth laid
his face in his hands and began to think and to pray.
But the prayer was not audible; and who can describe
the wide range of thought the grief, the
anxiety for comrades as well as for himself, the remorse,
the intense longing to recall the past, the wish that
he might awake and find that it was only a wild dream,
and, above all, the bitter almost vengeful self-condemnation!
He was aroused from this condition
by the entrance of a slave bearing a round wooden
tray, on which were a bowl of food and a jug of water.
Placing these before him, the slave
retired without speaking, though he bestowed a glance
of curiosity on the “white infidel dog,”
before closing the door.
Appetite had ever been a staunch friend
to Miles Milton. It did not fail him now.
Soldier-life has usually the effect of making its
devotees acutely careful to take advantage of all opportunities!
He set to work on the bowlful of food with a will,
and was not solicitous to ascertain what it consisted
of until it was safely washed down with a draught
from the jug. Being then too late to enter on
an inquiry as to its nature, he contented himself
with a pleasing recollection that the main body of
the compost was rice, one of the constituents oil,
and that the whole was by no means bad. He also
wished that there had been more of it, and then resumed
his previous and only possible amusement
Thinking, like fighting, is better
done on a full stomach! He had gradually thought
himself into a more hopeful state of mind, when he
was again interrupted by the entrance of visitors two
armed men, and the magnificent negro runner whom he
had observed holding the Mahdi’s horse.
One of the armed men carried a small bundle, which
he deposited on the ground, and then stood beside
his companion. Both stood like sentinels with
drawn swords, ready, apparently, to obey the commands
of the runner.
Advancing to the captive, the latter,
producing a key, unlocked and removed his manacles.
These he handed to one of the men, and, turning again
to Miles, said, to his great surprise, in English
“Undress, and put on de t’ings in bundle.”
We may here observe that up to this
time Miles and his comrades in adversity had worn,
day and night, the garments in which they had been
captured. Our hero was not sorry, therefore,
at the prospect of a change. Untying the bundle
to see what substitute was given for his uniform,
he found that it contained only a pair of loose cotton
drawers and a red fez.
“Is this all?” he asked, in surprise.
“All,” answered the negro.
“And what if I refuse to undress?” asked
“Your clo’es will be tore off your back
and you be bastinado!”
This was said so calmly, and the three
grave, powerful men seemed so thoroughly capable of
performing the deed, that our hero wisely submitted
to the inevitable and took off his uniform, which one
of the guards gathered up piece by piece as it was
removed. Then he pulled on the drawers, which
covered him from the waist to a little below the knees.
When he had put on the red fez he found himself clothed
in exactly the same costume as the runner, with the
exception of a small green tippet which barely covered
the top of his shoulders, and seemed to be worn rather
as an ornament than a piece of clothing, though perhaps
it formed a slight protection from the sun.
In this cool costume they left him,
carrying away his uniform, as if more thoroughly to
impress on him what uncommonly cool things they were
capable of doing in the hot regions of the Soudan!