"And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues; and they repented not to give Him glory."
The droning voice quivered and fell silent. Within the hospital tent, only the buzz of flies innumerable was audible. Without, there sounded near at hand the squeak of a sentry's boots, and in the distance the clatter of the camp.
The man who lay dying was in a remote and quite detached sense aware of these things, but his fevered imagination had carried him beyond. He watched, as it were, the glowing pictures that came and went in his furnace of pain. These little details were to him but the distant humming of the spinning-wheel of time from which he was drawing ever farther and farther away. They did not touch that inner consciousness with which he saw his visions.
Now and then he turned his head sharply on the pillow, as an alien might turn at the sound of a familiar voice, but always, after listening intently, it came back to its old position, and the man's restless eyes returned to the crack high up in the tent canvas through which the sun shone upon him like a piercing eye.
The occupant of the bed next to him watched him furtively, fascinated but uneasy. He was a young soldier of the simple country type, and the wild words that came now and again from the fevered lips startled him uncomfortably. He wished the dying man would cease his mutterings and let him sleep. But every time the prolonged silence seemed to indicate a final cessation of the nuisance, the droning voice took up the tale once more.
"And men were scorched with great heat--and they repented not--repented not."
A soft-stepping native orderly moved to the bedside and paused. Instantly the wandering words were hushed.
"Bring me some water, Sammy," the same voice said huskily. "If you can't take the sun out of the sky, you can give me a drink."
The native shook his head.
"The doctor will come soon," he said soothingly. "Have patience."
Patience! The word had no meaning for him in that inferno of suffering. He moved his head, that searching spot of sunlight dancing in his eyes, and cursed deep in his throat the man who kept him waiting.
Barely a minute later the doctor came--a quiet, bronzed man, level-eyed and strong. He bent over the stricken figure on the bed, and drew the tumbled covering up a little higher. He had just written "mortally wounded" of this man on his hospital report, but there was nothing in his manner to indicate that he had no hope for him.
"Get another pillow," he said to the native orderly. And to the dying man: "That will take the sun out of your eyes. I see it is bothering you."
"Curse the sun!" the parched lips gasped. "Can't you give me a drink?"
The eyes of the young soldier in the next bed scanned the doctor's face anxiously. He, too, wanted a drink. He thirsted from the depths of his soul. But he knew there was no water to be had. The supply had been cut off hours before.
"No," the doctor said gravely. "I can't give it you yet. By-and-bye, perhaps----"
"By-and-bye!" There was a dreadful sound like laughter in the husky voice.
The doctor laid a restraining hand on the man's chest.
"Hush!" he said, in a lower tone. "It's this sort of thing that shows what a fellow is made of. All these other poor chaps are children. But you, Ford, you are grown up, so to speak. I look to you to help me,--to set the example."
"Example! Man alive!" A queer light danced like a mocking spirit in Private Ford's eyes, and again he laughed--an exceeding bitter laugh. "I've been made an example of all my life," he said. "I've sometimes thought it was what I was created for. Ah, thanks!" he added in a different tone, as the doctor raised him on the extra pillow. "You're a brick, sir! Sit down a minute, will you? I want to talk to you."
The doctor complied, his hand on the wounded man's wrist.
"That's better," Ford said. "Keep it there. And stop me if I rave. It's a queer little world, isn't it? I remember you well, but you wouldn't know me. You were one of the highfliers, and I was always more or less of an earthworm. But you'll remember Rotherby, the captain of the first eleven? A fine chap--that. He's dead now, eh?"
"Yes," the doctor said, "Rotherby's dead."
He was looking with an intent scrutiny at the scarred and bandaged face on the pillow. He had felt from the first that this man was no ordinary ranker. Yet till that moment it had never occurred to him that they might have met before.
"I always liked Rotherby," the husky voice went on. "He was a big swell, and he didn't think much of small fry. But you--you and he were friends, weren't you?"
"For a time," the doctor said. "It didn't last."
There was regret in his voice--the keen regret of a man who has lost a thing he valued.
"No; it didn't last," Ford agreed. "I remember when you chucked him. Or was it the other way round? I saw a good deal of him in those days. I thought him a jolly good fellow, till I found out what a scoundrel he was. And I had a soft feeling for him even then. You knew he was a scoundrel, didn't you?"
"Yes, I knew."
The doctor spoke reluctantly. The hospital tent, the silent row of wounded men, the stifling atmosphere, the flies, all were gone from his inner vision. He was looking with grave, compassionate eyes at the picture that absorbed the man at his side.
"He was good company, eh?" the restless voice went on. "But he had his black moments. I didn't know him so well in the days when you and he were friends."
"Nor I," the doctor said. "But--why do you want to talk of him?"
Again he was searching the face at his side with grave intensity. It did not seem to him that this man could ever have been of the sort that his friend Rotherby would have cared to admit to terms of intimacy. Rotherby--notwithstanding his sins--had been fastidious in many ways.
The answer seemed to make the matter more comprehensible.
"I was with him when he died," the man said. "It was in just such an inferno as this. We were alone together, looking for gold in the Australian desert. We didn't find it, though it was there, mountains of it. The water gave out. We tossed for the last drain--and I won. That was how Rotherby came to die. He hadn't much to live for, and he was going to die, anyhow. A queer chap, he was. He and his wife never lived together after the smash came, and he had to leave the country. Perhaps you knew?"
"Yes," the doctor said again, "I knew."
Ford moved his head restlessly.
"The thought of her used to worry him in the night," he said. "I've known him lie for hours not sleeping, just staring up at the stars, and thinking, thinking. I've sometimes thought that the worst torture on earth can't equal that. You know, after he was dead, they found her miniature on him--a thing in a gold case, with their names engraved inside. He used to wear it round his neck like a charm. It was by that they identified him--that and his signet-ring, and one or two letters. Scamp though I was, I had the grace not to rob the dead. They sent the things to his wife. I've often wondered what she did with them."
"I can tell you that," said the doctor quietly. "She keeps them among her greatest treasures."
Ford turned sharply on his pillows, and stifled an exclamation of pain.
"You know her still, then?" he said.
"She is my wife," the doctor answered.
A long silence followed his words. The wounded soldier lay with closed eyes and drawn brows. He seemed to be unconscious of everything save physical pain.
Suddenly he seemed to recover himself, and looked up.
"You," he said slowly, "you are Montagu Durant, the fellow she was engaged to before she married Rotherby."
The doctor bent his head.
"Yes," he said. "I am Montagu Durant."
"Rotherby's friend," Ford went on. "The chap who stuck to him through thick and thin--to be betrayed in the end. I know all about you, you see, though you haven't placed me yet."
"No, I can't place you," Durant said. "I don't think we ever knew each other very well. You will have to tell me who you are."
"Later--later," said Ford. "No, you never knew me very well. It was always you and Rotherby, you and Rotherby. You never looked at any one else, till that row at the 'Varsity when he got kicked out. Yes," with a sudden, sharp sigh, "I was a 'Varsity man too. I admired Leonard Rotherby in those days. Poor old Leo! He knew how to hit a boundary as well as any fellow! You never forgave him, I suppose, for marrying your girl?"
There was a pause, and the fevered eyes sought Durant's face. The answer came at length very slowly.
"I could have forgiven him," Durant said, "if he had stuck to her and made her happy."
"Ah! There came the rub. But did Rotherby ever stick to anything? It was a jolly good thing he died--for all concerned. Yet, you know, he cared for her to the last. Blackguard as he was, he carried her in his heart right up to his death. I tell you I was with him, and I know."
There was strong insistence in the man's words. Durant could feel the racing pulse leap and quiver under his hand. He leaned forward a little, looking closely into the drawn face.
"I think you have talked enough," he said. "Try to get some rest."
"I haven't raved," said Ford, with confidence. "It has done me good to talk. I can't help thinking of Leo Rotherby. My brain runs on him. He wanted to see you--horribly--before he died. I believe he'd have asked your forgiveness. But you wouldn't have given it to him, I suppose? You will never forgive him in your heart?"
Again the answer did not come at once. Durant was frowning a little--the frown of a man who tries to fathom his own secret impulses.
"I think," he said at last, "that if I had seen him and he had asked for it, I should not have refused my forgiveness."
"No one ever refused Rotherby anything," said the dying man, with a curious, half-humorous twist of his mouth under its dark moustache.
"Except yourself," Durant reminded him, almost involuntarily.
Again the wandering, uneasy eyes sought his. "You mean--that drain of water," Ford said, with a total lack of shame or remorse. "Yes, it's true Rotherby didn't have that. But it didn't make any difference, you know. He was going to die. And the living come before the dead, eh, doctor?"
Durant did not quite understand his tone, but he suffered the words to go unchallenged. He was not there to discuss the higher morality with a dying man. Moreover, he knew that the bare mention of water was a fiery torture to him, disguise it as he might.
He sat a little longer, then rose to go. He fancied that there was a shade less of restlessness about this man, whom he knew to be suffering what no other man in the tent could have endured in silence.
In response to a sign he stooped to catch a few, low-spoken words.
"By-and-bye," said Private Ford, with husky self-assurance, "when it's dark--or only moonlight--a man will creep out between the lines and crawl down to the river, to get some water for--the children."
He was wandering again, Durant saw; and his pity mounted high.
"Perhaps, poor fellow; perhaps," he answered gently.
As he went away he heard again the droning, unconscious voice:
"And power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched--with great heat. Eh, Sammy? Is that water you have there? Quick! Give me--what? There is none? Then why the--why the--" There came an abrupt pause; then a brief, dry chuckle that was like the crackling of flame through dead twigs. "Ah, I forgot. I mustn't curse. I've got to set the example to these children. But, O God, the heat and the flies!"
Durant wondered if after all it had been a kindness to call back the passing spirit that had begun to forget.
* * * * *
Slowly the scorching day wore away, till evening descended in a blaze of gorgeous colouring upon the desolate African wilderness and the band of men that had been surrounded and cut off by a wily enemy.
They were expecting relief. Hourly they expected it, but, being hampered by a score of wounded, it was not possible for them to break through the thickly populated scrub unassisted. And they had no water.
A stream flowed, brown and sluggish, not more than a hundred yards below the camp. But that same stream was flanked on the farther side by a long, black line of thicket that poured forth fire upon any man who ventured out from behind the great rocks that protected the camp.
It had been attempted again and again, for the needs of the wounded were desperate. But each effort had been disastrous, and at last an order had gone forth that no man was to expose himself again to this deadly risk.
So, silent behind their entrenchments, with the hospital tent in their midst, the British force had to endure the situation, waiting with a dogged patience for the coming of their comrades who could not be far away.
Regal to the last, the sun sank away in orange and gold; and night, burning, majestic, shimmering, spread over a cloudless sky. A full moon floated up behind dense forest trees, and shed a glimmering radiance everywhere. The heat did not seem to vary by a breath.
A great restlessness spread like a wave through the hospital tent. Men waked from troubled slumber, crying aloud like children, piteously, unreasoningly, for water.
The doctor went from one to another, restraining, soothing, reassuring. His influence made itself felt, and quiet returned; but it was a quiet that held no peace; it was the silent gripping of an agony that was bound to overcome.
Again and again through the crawling hours the bitter protest broke out afresh, like the crying of souls in torment. One or two became delirious and had to be forcibly restrained from struggling forth in search of that which alone could still their torture.
Durant was too fully occupied with these raving patients of his to spare any attention for the bed in the far corner on which they had laid the one man whose injuries were mortal. If he thought of the man at all, it was to reflect that he was probably dead.
But at last a young officer entered the seething tent, and touched him on the shoulder.
"Can you come outside a moment? You're wanted," he said.
Durant turned from a man who was lying exhausted and barely conscious, took up his case, and followed him out. He did just glance at the bed in the corner as he went, but he saw no movement there.
His summoner turned upon him abruptly as they emerged.
"Look here," he said. "There's a water-bag quite full, waiting for those poor beggars in there. Better send one of the orderlies for it."
"Water!" said Durant sharply, as if the news were difficult to believe. Then, recovering himself: "Tell the sentry, will you? I can't spare an orderly."
The young officer complied, and hurried him on.
"The poor chap is breathing his last," he said. "You can't do him any good, but he wants you."
"Who is it?" asked the doctor.
"The man who fetched the water--Ford. He was badly wounded when he started. He crawled every inch of the way on his stomach, and back again, dragging the bag with him. Heaven knows how he did it! It's taken him hours."
"Ford?" the doctor said incredulously. "Ford? Impossible! How did he get away?"
"Oh, he crawled through somehow; Heaven only knows how! But he's done now, poor beggar--pegging out fast. We got him into shelter, but we couldn't do more, he was in such agony."
The speaker stopped, for Durant had broken into a run. The moonlight showed him a group of men gathered about a prone figure. They separated and stood aside as he reached them; and he, kneeling, found in the prone figure the man who had talked with him in the afternoon of the friend who had played him false.
He was very far gone, lying in a dreadful twisted heap, his head, with its bloodstained bandages, resting on his arm. Yet Durant saw that he still lived, and tried with gentle hands to ease the strain of his position.
With a sharp gasp, Ford opened his eyes.
"Hullo!" he said. "It's you, is it? Did they get the water?"
"They have got it by now," the doctor answered.
"Ah!" The man's lips twisted in a difficult smile. He struggled bravely to keep the mortal agony out of his face. "Gave you the slip that time," he gasped. "Disobeyed orders, too. But it didn't matter--except for example. You must tell them, eh? Dying men have privileges."
"Tell him he'd have had the V. C. for it," whispered the officer in command, over the doctor's shoulder.
Durant complied, and caught the quick gleam that shot up in the dying eyes at his words.
"The gods were always behind time--with me," came the husky whisper. "I used to think I'd scale Olympus, but--they kicked me down. If--if there's any water to spare, when it's gone round, I--I----"
He broke off with a rending cough. Some one put a tin cup into the doctor's hand, and he held it to the parched lips. Ford drank in great gulps, and, as he drank, the worst agony passed. His limbs relaxed after the draught, and he lay quite still, his face to the sky.
After the passage of minutes he spoke again suddenly. His voice was no longer husky, but clear and strong. His eyes were the eyes of a man who sees a vision.
"Jove!" he said. "What a princely gathering to see me carry out my bat! Don't grin, you fellows. I know it was a fluke--a dashed fine fluke, too. But it's what I always meant, after all. There's good old Monty, yelling himself hoarse in the pavilion. And his girl--waving. Sweet girl, too--the best in the world. I might cut him out there. But I won't, I won't! I'm not such a hound as that, though she's the only woman in the world, bless her, bless her!"
He stopped. Durant was bending over him, listening eagerly, as one might listen to the voice of an old, familiar friend, heard again after many years.
He did not speak. He seemed afraid to dispel the other's dream. But after a moment, the man in his arms made a sudden, impulsive movement towards him. It was almost like a gesture of affection. And their eyes met.
There followed a brief silence that had in it something of strain. Then Ford uttered a shaky laugh. The vision had passed.
"So--you see--he had to die--anyhow," he said. "My love to--your wife, dear old Monty! Tell her--I'm--awfully--pleased!"
His voice ceased, yet for a moment his lips still seemed to form words.
Durant stooped lower over him, and spoke at last with a sort of urgent tenderness.
"Leo!" he said. "Leo, old chap!"
But there came no answer save a faint, still smile. The man he called had passed beyond his reach.
* * * * *
Relief came to the beleaguered force at daybreak, and the worst incident of the campaign ended without disaster. A casualty list, published in the London papers a few days later, contained an announcement, which concerned nobody who read it, to the effect that Private Ford, of a West African Regiment, had succumbed to his wounds.