Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 126 of 240

We slept through the coming of the rest. Two days later we were at Akaba; entering in glory, laden with precious things, and boasting that the trains were at our mercy. From Akaba the two sergeants took hurried ship to Egypt. Cairo had remembered them and gone peevish because of their non-return. However, they could pay the penalty of this cheerfully. They had won a battle single-handed; had had dysentery; lived on camel-milk; and learned to ride a camel fifty miles a day without pain. Also Allenby gave them a medal each.

Chapter LXVIII

Days passed, talking politics, organization and strategy with Feisal, while preparations for a new operation went forward. Our luck had quickened the camp; and the mining of trains promised to become popular, if we were able to train in the technique of the work enough men for several parties. Captain Pisani was first volunteer. He was the experienced commander of the French at Akaba, an active soldier who burned for distinction–and distinctions. Feisal found me three young Damascenes of family, who were ambitious to lead tribal raids. We went to Rumm and announced that this raid was specially for Gasim’s clan. Such coals of fire scorched them; but greed would not let them refuse. Everyone for days around flocked to join. Most were denied: nevertheless, we started out with one hundred and fifty men and a huge train of empty pack-camels for the spoils.

For variety we determined to work by Maan. So we rode up to Batra, climbing out of heat into cold, out of Arabia into Syria, from tamarisk to wormwood. As we topped the pass and saw the blood-red stain on the hills above the leech-infested wells, there met us a first breath of the northern desert; that air too fine to describe, which told of perfect loneliness, dried grass, and the sun on burning flints.

The guides said that Kilometre 475 would be good for mining: but we found it beset by blockhouses, and had to creep shyly away. We marched down the line till it crossed a valley on a high bank, pierced by bridges on each side and in the middle. There, after midnight, we laid an automatic mine of a new and very powerful luddite type. The burying took hours, and dawn caught us as we worked. There was no perceptible lightening, and when we stared round to know where the dark was yielding, we could see no special onset of the day. Long minutes afterwards the sun disclosed itself, high above the earth’s rim, over a vignetted bank of edgeless mist.

We retired a thousand yards up the valley’s scrubby bed to ambush for the intolerable day. As the hours passed the sun increased, and shone so closely upon our radiant trench that we felt crowded by its rays. The men were a mad lot, sharpened to distraction by hope of success. They would listen to no word but mine, and brought me their troubles for judgement. In the six days’ raid there came to a head, and were settled, twelve cases of assault with weapons, four camel-liftings, one marriage, two thefts, a divorce, fourteen feuds, two evil eyes, and a bewitchment.

These decisions were arrived at despite my imperfect knowledge of Arabic. The fraudulence of my business stung me. Here were more fruits, bitter fruits, of my decision, in front of Akaba, to become a principal of the Revolt. I was raising the Arabs on false pretences, and exercising a false authority over my dupes, on little more evidence than their faces, as visible to my eyes weakly watering and stinging after a year’s exposure to the throb, throb of sunlight.

We waited that day, and night. At sunset a scorpion scuttled out of the bush by which I had lain down to make note of the day’s weariness, and fastening on my left hand struck me, it seemed repeatedly. The pain of my swollen arm kept me awake until the second dawn: to the relief of my overburdened mind, for its body became clamant enough to interrupt my self-questioning when the fire of some such surface injury swept the sluggish nerves.

Yet pain of this quality never endured long enough really to cure mind-sickness. After a night it would give way to that unattractive, and not honourable, internal ache which in itself provoked thought and left its victim yet weaker to endure. In such conditions the war seemed as great a folly as my sham leadership a crime; and, sending for our sheikhs, I was about to resign myself and my pretensions into their puzzled hands, when the fugleman announced a train.

It came down from Maan, a water-train, and passed over the mine without accident. The Arabs thanked me, for a booty of water was not their dream. The mine-action had failed; so at noon, with my pupils, I went down to lay an electric mine over the lyddite, that the detonation of one might fire the other. For concealment we trusted to the mirage and midday drowsiness of the Turks; justifiably, for there was no alarm in the hour we spent burying the charge.

From the southern bridge we brought the electric leads to the middle bridge, whose arch would conceal the exploder from a train overhead. The Lewis guns we put under the northern bridge, to rake the far side of the train when the mine went off. The Arabs would line the bushes of a cross-channel of the valley three hundred yards our side of the railway. We waited afterwards throughout a day of sunlight and flies. Enemy patrols marched actively along the line morning, afternoon and evening.

On the second day, about eight in the morning, a pillar of smoke left Maan. At the same time the first patrol approached. They were only half a dozen men, but their warning would deter the train; and we watched strainingly, in wonder which would win the race. The train was very slow, and sometimes the patrol halted.

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