Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 135 of 240

Auda had fifteen men, of whom five were able-bodied, and the rest greybeards or boys, but we were thirty strong, and I pondered the hard luck of the Turkish commander who had chosen for his surprise the day on which there happened to be guesting with the Howeitat a section of Indian machine-gunners who knew their business. We couched and knee-haltered the camels in the deeper water-cuts, and placed the Vickers and Lewis in others of these natural trenches, admirably screened with alkali bushes, and commanding a flat field eight hundred yards each way. Auda dropped his tents, and threw out his riflemen to supplement our fire; and then we waited easily till the first horseman rode up the bank on to our level, and we saw they were Ali ibn el Hussein and Abd el Kadir, coming to Jefer from the enemy direction. We foregathered merrily, while Mohammed produced a second edition of tomato-rice for Ali’s comfort. They had lost two men and a mare in the shooting on the railway in the night.

Chapter LXXIII

Lloyd was to go back from here to Versailles, and we asked Auda for a guide to take him across the line. About the man there was no difficulty, but great difficulty in mounting him; for the Howeitat camels were at pasture: and the nearest pasture lay a full day’s journey south-east of these barren wells. I cut this difficulty by providing a mount for the new guide from my own beasts. Choice fell on my ancient Ghazala, whose pregnancy had proved more heavy than we thought. Before our long expedition ended she would be unfit for fast work. So, in honour of his good seat and cheerful spirit, Thorne was transferred to her, while the Howeitat stared open-mouthed. They esteemed Ghazala above all the camels of their desert and would have paid much for the honour of riding her, and here she was given to a soldier, whose pink face and eyes swollen with ophthalmia made him look feminine and tearful; a little, said Lloyd, like an abducted nun. It was a sorry thing to see Lloyd go. He was understanding, helped wisely, and wished our cause well. Also he was the one fully-taught man with us in Arabia, and in these few days together our minds had ranged abroad, discussing any book or thing in heaven or earth which crossed our fancy. When he left we were given over again to war and tribes and camels without end.

The night began with a surfeit of such work. The matter of the Howeitat must be put right. After dark we gathered round Auda’s hearth, and for hours I was reaching out to this circle of fire-lit faces, playing on them with all the tortuous arts I knew, now catching one, now another (it was easy to see the flash in their eyes when a word got home); or again, taking a false line, and wasting minutes of precious time without response. The Abu Tayi were as hard-minded as they were hard-bodied, and the heat of conviction had burned out of their long since in stress of work.

Gradually I won my points, but the argument was yet marching near midnight when Auda held up his stick and called silence. We listened, wondering what the danger was, and after a while we felt a creeping reverberation, a cadence of blows too dull, too wide, too slow easily to find response in our ears. It was like the mutter of a distant, very lowly thunderstorm. Auda raised his haggard eyes towards the west, and said, ‘The English guns’. Allenby was leading off in preparation, and his helpful sounds closed my case for me beyond dispute.

Next morning the atmosphere of the camp was serene and cordial. Old Auda, his difficulties over for this time, embraced me warmly, invoking peace upon us. At the last, whilst I was standing with my hand on my couched camel, he ran out, took me in his arms again, and strained me to him. I felt his harsh beard brush my ear as he whispered to me windily, ‘Beware of Abd el Kader’. There were too many about us to say more.

We pushed on over the unending but weirdly beautiful Jefer flats, till night fell on us at the foot of a flint scarp, like a cliff above the plain. We camped there, in a snake-infested pocket of underwood. Our marches were short and very leisurely. The Indians had proved novices on the road. They had been for weeks inland from Wejh, and I had rashly understood that they were riders; but now, on good animals, and trying their best, they could average only thirty-five miles a day, a holiday for the rest of the party.

So for us each day was an easy movement, without effort, quite free from bodily strain. A golden weather of misty dawns, mild sunlight, and an evening chill added a strange peacefulness of nature to the peacefulness of our march. This week was a St. Martin’s summer, which passed like a remembered dream. I felt only that it was very gentle, very comfortable, that the air was happy, and my friends content. Conditions so perfect must needs presage the ending of our time; but this certainty, because of its being unchallenged by any rebellious hope, served only to deepen the quiet of the autumnal present. There was no thought or care at all. My mind was as near stilled those days as ever in my life.

We camped for lunch and for a midday rest–the soldiers had to have three meals a day. Suddenly there was an alarm. Men on horses and camels appeared from the west and north and closed quickly on us. We snatched our rifles. The Indians, getting used to short notices, now carried their Vickers and Lewis mounted for action. After thirty seconds we were in complete posture of defence, though in this shallow country our position held little of advantage. To the front on each flank were my bodyguards in their brilliant clothes, lying spread out between the grey tufts of weed, with their rifles lovingly against their cheeks. By them the four neat groups of khaki Indians crouched about their guns. Behind them lay Sherif Ali’s men, himself in their midst, bareheaded and keen, leaning easily upon his rifle. In the background the camel men were driving in our grazing animals to be under cover of our fire.

It was a picture that the party made. I was admiring ourselves and Sherif Ali was exhorting us to hold our fire till the attack became real, when Awad, with a merry laugh sprang up and ran out towards the enemy, waving his full sleeve over his head in sign of friendliness. They fired at, or over him, ineffectually. He lay down and shot back, one shot, aimed just above the head of the foremost rider. That, and our ready silence perplexed them. They pulled off in a hesitant group, and after a minute’s discussion, flagged back their cloaks in half-hearted reply to our signal.

One of them rode towards us at a foot’s pace. Awad, protected by our rifles, went two hundred yards to meet him, and saw that he was a Sukhurri, who, when he heard our names, feigned shock. We walked together to Sherif Ali, followed at a distance by the rest of the newcomers, after they had seen our peaceful greeting. They were a raiding party from the Zebn Sukhur, who were camped, as we had expected, in front at Bair.

Ali, furious with them, for their treacherous attack on us, threatened all sorts of pains. They accepted his tirade sullenly, saying that it was a Beni Sakhr manner to shoot over strangers. Ali accepted this as their habit, and a good habit in the desert, but protested that their unheralded appearance against us from three sides showed a premeditated ambush. The Beni Sakhr were a dangerous gang, not pure enough nomads to hold the nomadic code of honour or to obey the desert law in spirit, and not villagers enough to have abjured the business of rapine and raid.

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