Rebecca leant her elbows on the sill of the wide, unglazed window, and the heat of the desert blew into her face like the exhalation of a blast furnace. Even the river below her seemed to steam like a cauldron. Here it was almost a mile wide, for this was the season of High Nile. The flow was so strong that it created whirlpools and glossy eddies across the surface. The White Nile was green and fetid with the taint of the swamps through which it had so recently flowed, swamps that extended over an area the size of Belgium. The Arabs called this vast slough the Bahr el Ghazal, and the British named it the Sud.
In the cool months of the previous year Rebecca had voyaged upstream with her father to where the flow of the river emerged from the swamps. Beyond that point the channels and lagoons of the Sud were tractless and uncharted, carpeted densely with floating weed that was perpetually shifting, obscuring them from the eyes of all but the most skilled and experienced navigator. This watery, fever-ridden world was the haunt of crocodile and hippopotamus; of myriad strange birds, some beautiful and others grotesque; and of sitatunga, the weird amphibious antelope with corkscrew horns, shaggy coats and elongated hoofs, adapted for life in the water.
Rebecca turned her head and a thick blonde tress of hair fell across one eye. She brushed it aside and looked downstream to where the two great rivers met. It was a sight that always intrigued her, though she had looked upon it every day for two long years. A huge raft of water weed was sailing down the centre of the channel. It had broken free of the swamps and would be carried on by the current until it dispersed far to the north in the turbulence of the cataracts, those rapids that, from time to time, broke the smooth flow of the Nile. She followed its ponderous progress until it reached the confluence of the two Niles.
The other Nile came down from the east. It was fresh and sweet as the mountain stream that was its source. At this season of High Nile its waters were tinted a pale blue grey by the silt it had scoured from the mountainous ranges of Abyssinia. It was named for this colour. The Blue Nile was slightly narrower than its twin, but was still a massive serpent of water. The rivers came together at the apex of the triangle of land on which the City of the Elephant’s Trunk stood. That was the meaning of its name, Khartoum. The two Niles did not mingle at once. As far downstream as Rebecca could see they ran side by side in the same bed, each maintaining its own distinct colour and character until they dashed together on to the rocks at the entrance to the Shabluka Gorge twenty miles on and were churned into a tumultuous union.
‘You are not listening to me, my darling,’ said her father sharply.
Rebecca smiled as she turned to face him. ‘Forgive me, Father, I was distracted.’
‘I know. I know. These are trying times,’ he agreed. ‘But you must face up to them. You are no longer a child, Becky.’
‘Indeed I am not,’ she agreed vehemently. She had not intended to whine—she never whined. ‘I was seventeen last week. Mother married you when she was the same age.’
‘And now you stand in her place as mistress of my household.’ His expression was forlorn as he remembered his beloved wife and the terrible nature of her death.
‘Father dear, you have just jumped off the cliff of your own argument.’ She laughed. ‘If I am what you say I am, then how can you prevail on me to abandon you?’
David Benbrook looked confused, then thrust aside his sorrow and laughed with her. She was so quick and pretty that he could seldom resist her. ‘You are so like your mother.’ This statement was usually his white flag of defeat, but now he struggled on with his arguments. Rebecca turned back to the window, not ignoring him but listening with only half her attention. Now that her father had reminded her of the terrible peril in which they stood she felt the cold claws of dread in the pit of her stomach as she looked across the river.
The sprawling buildings of the native city of Omdurman pressed up to the far riverbank, earth-coloured like the desert around them, tiny as dolls’ houses at this distance, and wavering in the mirage. Yet menace emanated from them as fiercely as the heat from the sun. Night and day, the drums never stopped, a constant reminder of the mortal threat that hung over them. She could hear them booming across the waters, like the heartbeat of the monster. She could imagine him sitting at the centre of his web, gazing hungrily across the river at them, a fanatic with a quenchless thirst for human blood. Soon he and his minions would come for them. She shuddered, and concentrated again on her father’s voice.
‘Of course, I grant that you have your mother’s raw courage and obstinacy, but think of the twins, Becky. Think of the babies. They are your babies now.’
‘I am aware of my duty to them every waking moment of my day,’ she flared, then as swiftly veiled her anger and smiled again—the smile that always softened his heart. ‘But I think of you also.’ She crossed to stand beside his chair, and placed her hand on his shoulder. ‘If you come with us, Father, the girls and I will go.’
‘I cannot, Becky. My duty is here. I am Her Majesty’s consul general. I have a sacred trust. My place is here in Khartoum.’
‘Then so is mine,’ she said simply, and stroked his head. His hair was still thick and springing under her fingers, but shot through with more silver than sable. He was a handsome man, and she often brushed his hair and trimmed and curled his moustache for him, proudly as her mother had once done.
He sighed and gathered himself to protest further, but at that moment a shrill chorus of childish shrieks rang through the open window. They stiffened. They knew those voices, and they struck at both their hearts. Rebecca started across the room, and David sprang up from his desk. Then they relaxed as the cries came again and they recognized the tone as excitement, not terror.
‘They are in the watch tower,’ said Rebecca.
‘They are not allowed up there,’ exclaimed David.
‘There are many places where they are not allowed,’ Rebecca agreed, ‘and those are where you can usually find them.’ She led the way to the door and out into the stone-flagged passage. At the far end a circular staircase wound up the interior of the turret. Rebecca lifted her petticoats and ran up the steps, nimble and sure-footed, her father following more sedately. She came out into the blazing sunlight on the upper balcony of the turret.
The twins were dancing perilously close to the low parapet. Rebecca seized one in each hand and drew them back. She looked down from the height of the consular palace. The minarets and rooftops of Khartoum were spread below. Both branches of the Nile were in full view for miles in each direction.
Saffron tried to pull her arm out of Rebecca’s grip. ‘The Ibis!’ she yelled. ‘Look! The Ibis is coming.’ She was the taller, darker twin. Wild and headstrong as a boy.
‘The Intrepid Ibis,’ Amber piped up. She was dainty and fair, with a melodious timbre to her voice even when she was excited. ‘It’s Ryder in the Intrepid Ibis.’
‘Mr Ryder Courtney, to you,’ Rebecca corrected her. ‘You must never call grown-ups by their Christian names. I don’t want to have to tell you that again.’ But neither child took the reprimand to heart. All three stared eagerly up the White Nile at the pretty white steamboat coming down on the current.
‘It looks like it’s made of icing sugar,’ said Amber, the beauty of the family, with angelic features, a pert little nose and huge blue eyes.
‘You say that every time she comes,’ Saffron remarked, without rancour. She was Amber’s foil: eyes the colour of smoked honey, tiny freckles highlighting her high cheekbones and a wide, laughing mouth. Saffron looked up at Rebecca with a wicked glint in those honey eyes. ‘Ryder is your beau, isn’t he?’ ‘Beau’ was the latest addition to her vocabulary, and as she applied it solely to Ryder Courtney, Rebecca found it pretentious and oddly infuriating.
‘He is not!’ Rebecca responded loftily, to hide her annoyance. ‘And don’t be saucy, Miss Smarty Breeches.’
‘He’s bringing tons of food!’ Saffron pointed at the string of four capacious flat-bottomed barges that the Ibis was towing.
Rebecca released the twins’ arms and shaded her eyes with both hands against the glare. She saw that Saffron was right. At least two of the barges were piled high with sacks of dhurra, the staple grain of the Sudan. The other two were filled with an assorted cargo, for Ryder was one of the most prosperous traders on the two rivers. His trading stations were strung out at intervals of a hundred miles or so along the banks of both Niles, from the confluence of the Atbara river in the north to Gondokoro and far Equatoria in the south, then eastwards from Khartoum along the Blue Nile into the highlands of Abyssinia.
Just then David stepped out on to the balcony. ‘Thank the good Lord he has come,’ he said softly. ‘This is the last chance for you to escape. Courtney will be able to take you and hundreds of our refugees downriver, out of the Mahdi’s evil clutches.’
As he spoke they heard a single cannon shot from across the White Nile. They all turned quickly and saw gunsmoke spurting from one of the Dervish Krupps guns on the far bank. A moment later a geyser of spray rose from the surface of the river a hundred yards ahead of the approaching steamer. The foam was tinged yellow with the lyddite of the bursting shell.
Rebecca clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a cry of alarm, and David remarked drily, ‘Let’s pray their aim is up to the usual standard.’
One after another the other guns of the Dervish batteries burst into a long, rolling volley, and the waters around the little boat leapt and boiled with bursting shells. Shrapnel whipped the river surface like tropical rain.
Then all the great drums of the Mahdi’s army thundered out in full-throated challenge and the ombeya trumpets blared. From among the mud buildings, horsemen and camel riders swarmed out and galloped along the bank, keeping pace with the Ibis.
Rebecca ran to her father’s long brass telescope, which always stood on its tripod at the far end of the parapet, pointing across the river at the enemy citadel. She stood on tiptoe to reach the eyepiece and quickly focused the lens. She swept it over the swarming Dervish cavalry, who were half obscured in the red clouds of dust thrown up by their racing mounts. They appeared so close that she could see the expressions on their fierce dark faces, could almost read the oaths and threats they mouthed, and hear their terrible war cry: ‘Allah Akbar! There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.’
These riders were the Ansar, the Helpers, the Mahdi’s élite bodyguard. They all wore the jibba, the patched robes which symbolized the rags that had been the only garb available to them at the beginning of this jihad against the godless, the unbelievers, the infidels. Armed only with spears and rocks the Ansar had, in the past six months, destroyed three armies of the infidels and slaughtered their soldiers to the man. Now they held Khartoum in siege and gloried in their patched robes, the badge of their indomitable courage and their faith in Allah and His Mahdi, the Expected One. As they rode they brandished their double-handed swords and fired the Martini-Henry carbines they had captured from their defeated enemies.
During the months of the siege Rebecca had seen this warlike display many times, so she swung the lens off them and turned it out across the river, traversing the forest of shell splashes and leaping foam until the open bridge of the steamboat sprang into sharp focus. The familiar figure of Ryder Courtney leant on the rail of his bridge, regarding the antics of the men who were trying to kill him with faint amusement. As she watched him, he straightened and removed the long black cheroot from between his lips. He said something to his helmsman, who obediently spun the wheel and the long wake of the Ibis began to curl in towards the Khartoum bank of the river.
Despite Saffron’s teasing Rebecca felt no love pang at the sight of him. Then she smiled inwardly: I doubt I would recognize it anyway. She considered herself immune to such mundane emotions. Nevertheless she experienced a twinge of admiration for Ryder’s composure in the midst of such danger, followed almost immediately by the warming glow of friendship. ‘Well, there is no harm in admitting that we are friends,’ she reassured herself, and felt quick concern for his safety. ‘Please, God, keep Ryder safe in the eye of the storm,’ she whispered, and God seemed to be listening.
As she watched, a steel shard of shrapnel punched a jagged hole in the funnel just above Ryder’s head, and black boiler smoke spurted out of it. He did not glance round but returned the cheroot to his lips and exhaled a long stream of grey tobacco smoke that was whipped away on the wind. He wore a rather grubby white shirt, open at the throat, sleeves rolled high. With one thumb he tipped his wide-brimmed hat of plaited palm fronds to the back of his head. At a cursory glance, he gave the impression of being stockily built, but this was an illusion fostered by the breadth and set of his shoulders and the girth of his upper arms, muscled by heavy work. His narrow waist and the manner in which he towered over the Arab helmsman at his side gave it the lie.
David had taken the hands of his younger daughters to restrain them, and leant over the parapet to engage in a shouted conversation with someone in the courtyard of the consular palace below.
‘My dear General, do you think you might prevail on your gunners to return fire and take their attention off Mr Courtney’s boat?’ His tone was deferential.
Rebecca glanced down and saw that her father was speaking to the commanding officer of the Egyptian garrison defending the city. General ‘Chinese’ Gordon was a hero of the Empire, the victor of wars in every part of the world. In China his legendary ‘Ever Victorious Army’ had earned him the sobriquet. He had come out of his headquarters in the south wing of the palace with his red flowerpot fez on his head.
‘The order has already been sent to the gunners, sir.’ Gordon’s reply was crisp and assertive, edged with annoyance. He did not need to be reminded of his duty.
His voice carried clearly to where Rebecca stood. It was said that he could make himself heard without effort across a raging battlefield.
A few minutes later the Egyptian artillery, in their emplacements along the city waterfront, opened up a desultory fire. Their pieces were of small calibre and obsolete pattern, six-pounder Krupps mountain guns; their ammunition was ancient and in short supply, much given to misfiring. However, to one accustomed to the ineptitudes of the Egyptian garrison, their accuracy was surprising. A few clouds of black shrapnel smoke appeared in the clear sky directly over the Dervish batteries, for the gunners on both sides had been ranging each other’s positions during all the months since the beginning of the siege. The Dervish fire slackened noticeably. Still unscathed, the white steamer reached the confluence of the two rivers and the line of barges followed her as she turned sharply to starboard into the mouth of the Blue Nile and was almost immediately shielded by the buildings of the city from the guns on the west bank. Deprived of their prey the Dervish batteries fell silent.
‘Please may we go down to the wharf to welcome him?’ Saffron was dragging her father to the head of the staircase. ‘Come on, Becky, let’s go and meet your beau.’
As the family hurried through the neglected, sun-bleached gardens of the palace, they saw that General Gordon was also heading for the harbour, with a group of his Egyptian officers scampering behind him. Just beyond the gates a dead horse half blocked the alley. It had been lying there for ten days, killed by a stray Dervish shell. Its belly was swollen and its gaping wounds heaved with masses of white maggots. Flies hovered and buzzed over it in a dense blue cloud. Mingled with all the other smells of the besieged city the stench of rotting horseflesh was sulphurous. Each breath Rebecca drew seemed to catch in her throat and her stomach heaved. She fought back the nausea so that she did not disgrace herself and the dignity of her father’s office.
The twins vied with each other in a pantomime of disgust. ‘Poof!’ and ‘Stinky-woo!’ they cried, then doubled over to make realistic vomiting sounds, howling with delight at each other’s histrionics.
‘Be off with you, you little savages!’ David scowled at them and brandished his silver-mounted cane. They shrieked in mock alarm, then raced away in the direction of the harbour, leaping over piles of debris from shelled and burnt-out houses. Rebecca and David followed at their best pace, but before they had passed the customs house they encountered the city crowds moving in the same direction.
It was a solid river of humanity, of beggars and cripples, slaves and soldiers, rich women attended by their slaves and scantily clad Galla whores, mothers with infants strapped to their backs, dragging wailing brats by each hand, government officials and fat slave traders with diamond and gold rings on their fingers. All had one purpose: to discover what cargo the steamer carried, and whether she offered a faint promise of escape from the little hell that was Khartoum.
The twins were rapidly engulfed in the throng so David lifted Saffron on to his shoulders while Rebecca grasped Amber’s hand and they pushed their way forward. The crowds recognized the tall, imposing figure of the British consul and gave way to him. They reached the waterfront only a few minutes after General Gordon, who called to them to join him.
The Intrepid Ibis was cutting in across the stream and when she reached the quieter protected water half a cable’s length offshore she shed her tow lines and the four barges anchored in line astern, their bows facing into the strong current of the Blue Nile. Ryder Courtney placed armed guards on each barge to protect the cargoes against looting. Then he took the helm of the steamer and manoeuvred her towards the wharf.
As soon as he was within earshot the twins screeched a welcome: ‘Ryder! It’s us! Did you bring a present?’ He heard them above the hubbub of the crowd, and had soon spotted Saffron perched on her father’s shoulders. He removed the cheroot from his mouth, flicked it overboard into the river, then reached for the cord of the boat’s whistle, sent a singing blast of steam high into the air and blew Saffron a kiss.
She dissolved into giggles and wriggled like a puppy. ‘Isn’t he the most dashing beau in the world?’ She glanced at her elder sister.
Rebecca ignored her, but Ryder’s eyes turned to her next and he lifted the hat off his dense dark curls, sleeked with his sweat. His face and arms were tanned to the colour of polished teak by the desert sun, except for the band of creamy skin just below his hairline where his hat had protected it. Rebecca smiled back and bobbed a curtsy. Saffron was right: he really was rather handsome, especially when he smiled, she thought, but there were crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He’s so old, she thought. He must be every day of thirty.
‘I think he’s sweet on you.’ Amber gave her serious opinion.
‘Don’t you dare start that infernal nonsense, Mademoiselle,’ Rebecca warned her.
‘Infernal nonsense, Mademoiselle,’ Amber repeated softly—and rehearsed the words to use against Saffron at the first opportunity.
Copyright © 2005 by Wilbur Smith