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Title: A Bottle of Perrier
Author: Edith Wharton
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eBook No.:  0200071.txt
Language:   English
Date first posted: February 2002
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Title:      A Bottle of Perrier
Author:     Edith Wharton



1.

A two day's struggle over the treacherous trails in a well-intentioned
but short-winded "flivver", and a ride of two more on a hired mount of
unamiable temper, had disposed young Medford, of the American School of
Archaeology at Athens, to wonder why his queer English friend, Henry
Almodham, had chosen to live in the desert.

Now he understood.

He was leaning against the roof parapet of the old building, half
Christian fortress, half Arab palace, which had been Almodham's pretext;
or one of them. Below, in an inner court, a little wind, rising as the
sun sank, sent through a knot of palms the rain-like rattle so cooling to
the pilgrims of the desert. An ancient fig tree, enormous, exuberant,
writhed over a whitewashed well-head, sucking life from what appeared to
be the only source of moisture within the walls. Beyond these, on every
side, stretched away the mystery of the sands, all golden with promise,
all livid with menace, as the sun alternately touched or abandoned them.

Young Medford, somewhat weary after his journey from the coast, and awed
by his first intimate sense of the omnipresence of the desert, shivered
and drew back. Undoubtedly, for a scholar and a misogynist, it was a
wonderful refuge; but one would have to be, incurably, both.

"Let's take a look at the house," Medford said to himself, as if speedy
contact with man's handiwork were necessary to his reassurance.

The house, he already knew, was empty save for the quick cosmopolitan
man-servant, who spoke a sort of palimpsest Cockney lined with
Mediterranean tongues and desert dialects--English, Italian or Greek,
which was he?--and two or three burnoused underlings who, having carried
Medford's bags to his room, had relieved the palace of their gliding
presences. Mr. Almodham, the servant told him, was away; suddenly
summoned by a friendly chief to visit some unexplored ruins to the south,
he had ridden off at dawn, too hurriedly to write, but leaving messages
of excuse and regret. That evening late he might be back, or next
morning. Meanwhile Mr. Medford was to make himself at home.

Almodham, as young Medford knew, was always making these archaeological
explorations; they had been his ostensible reason for settling in that
remote place, and his desultory search had already resulted in the
discovery of several early Christian ruins of great interest.

Medford was glad that his host had not stood on ceremony, and rather
relieved, on the whole, to have the next few hours to himself. He had had
a malarial fever the previous summer, and in spite of his cork helmet he
had probably caught a touch of the sun; he felt curiously, helplessly
tired, yet deeply content.

And what a place it was to rest in! The silence, the remoteness, the
illimitable air! And in the heart of the wilderness green leafage, water,
comfort--he had already caught a glimpse of wide wicker chairs under the
palms--a humane and welcoming habitation. Yes, he began to understand
Almodham. To anyone sick of the Western fret and fever the very walls of
this desert fortress exuded peace.

As his foot was on the ladder-like stair leading down from the roof,
Medford saw the man-servant's head rising toward him. It rose slowly and
Medford had time to remark that it was sallow, bald on the top,
diagonally dented with a long white scar, and ringed with thick ash-blond
hair. Hitherto Medford had noticed only the man's face--youngish, but
sallow also--and been chiefly struck by its wearing an odd expression
which could best be defined as surprise.

The servant, moving aside, looked up, and Medford perceived that his air
of surprise was produced by the fact that his intensely blue eyes were
rather wider open than most eyes, and fringed with thick ash-blond
lashes; otherwise there was nothing noticeable about him.

"Just to ask--what wine for dinner, sir? Champagne, or--"

"No wine, thanks."

The man's disciplined lips were played over by a faint flicker of
deprecation or irony, or both.

"Not any at all, sir?"

Medford smiled back.  "It's not out of respect for Prohibition." He was
sure that the man, of whatever nationality, would understand that; and he
did.

"Oh, I didn't suppose, sir--"

"Well, no; but I've been rather seedy, and wine's forbidden."

The servant remained incredulous. "Just a little light Moselle, though,
to colour the water, sir?"

"No wine at all," said Medford, growing bored. He was still in the stage
of convalescence when it is irritating to be argued with about one's
dietary.

"Oh--what's your name, by the way?" he added, to soften the curtness of
his refusal.

"Gosling," said the other unexpectedly, though Medford didn't in the
least know what he had expected him to be called.

"You're English, then?"

"Oh, yes, sir."

"You've been in these parts a good many years, though?"

Yes, he had, Gosling said; rather too long for his own liking; and added
that he had been born at Malta. "But I know England well too." His
deprecating look returned. "I will confess, sir, I'd like to have 'ad a
look at Wembley. (The famous exhibition at Wembley, near London, took
place in 1924.) Mr. Almodham 'ad promised me--but there--" As if to
minimize the abandon of this confidence, he followed it up by a
ceremonious request for Medford's keys, and an enquiry as to when he
would like to dine. Having received a reply, he still lingered, looking
more surprised than ever.

"Just a mineral water, then, sir?"

"Oh, yes--anything."

"Shall we say a bottle of Perrier?"

Perrier in the desert! Medford smiled assentingly, surrendered his keys
and strolled away.

The house turned out to be smaller than he had imagined, or at least the
habitable part of it; for above this towered mighty dilapidated walls of
yellow stone, and in their crevices clung plaster chambers, one above the
other, cedar-beamed, crimson-shuttered but crumbling. Out of this jumble
of masonry and stucco, Christian and Moslem, the latest tenant of the
fortress had chosen a cluster of rooms tucked into an angle of the
ancient keep. These apartments opened on the uppermost court, where the
palms chattered and the fig tree coiled above the well. On the broken
marble pavement, chairs and a low table were grouped, and a few geraniums
and blue morning-glories had been coaxed to grow between the slabs.

A white-skirted boy with watchful eyes was watering the plants; but at
Medford's approach he vanished like a wisp of vapour.

There was something vaporous and insubstantial about the whole scene;
even the long arcaded room opening on the court, furnished with saddlebag
cushions, divans with gazelle skins and rough indigenous rugs; even the
table piled with the old "Timeses" and ultra-modern French and English
reviews--all seemed, in that clear mocking air, born of the delusion of
some desert wayfarer.

A seat under the fig tree invited Medford to doze, and when he woke the
hard blue dome above him was gemmed with stars and the night breeze
gossiped with the palms.

Rest--beauty--peace. Wise Almodham!


2.

Wise Almodham! Having carried out--with somewhat disappointing
results--the excavation with which an archaeological society had charged
him twenty-five years ago, he had lingered on, taken possession of the
Crusader's stronghold, and turned his attention from ancient to mediaeval
remains. But even these investigations, Medford suspected, he prosecuted
only at intervals, when the enchantment of his leisure did not lie on him
too heavily.

The young American had met Henry Almodham at Luxor the previous winter;
had dined with him at old Colonel Swordsley's, on that perfumed starlit
terrace above the Nile; and, having somehow awakened the archaeologist's
interest, had been invited to look him up in the desert the following
year.

They had spent only that one evening together, with old Swordsley
blinking at them under memory-laden lids, and two or three charming women
from the Winter Palace chattering and exclaiming; but the two men had
ridden back to Luxor together in the moonlight, and during that ride
Medford fancied he had puzzled out the essential lines of Henry
Almodham's character. A nature saturnine yet sentimental; chronic
indolence alternating with spurts of highly intelligent activity; gnawing
self-distrust soothed by intimate self-appreciation; a craving for
complete solitude coupled with the inability to tolerate it for long.

There was more, too, Medford suspected; a dash of Victorian romance,
gratified by the setting, the remoteness, the inaccessibility of his
retreat, and by being known as THE Henry Almodham--"the one who lives in
a Crusaders' castle, you know"--the gradual imprisonment in a pose
assumed in youth, and into which middle age had slowly stiffened; and
something deeper, darker, too, perhaps, though the young man doubted
that; probably just the fact that living in that particular way had
brought healing to an old wound, an old mortification, something which
years ago had touched a vital part and left him writhing. Above all, in
Almodham's hesitating movements and the dreaming look of his long
well-featured brown face with its shock of gray hair, Medford detected an
inertia, mental and moral, which life in this castle of romance must have
fostered and excused.

"Once here, how easy not to leave!" he mused, sinking deeper into his
deep chair.

"Dinner, sir," Gosling announced.

The table stood in an open arch of the living-room; shaded candles made a
rosy pool in the dusk. Each time he emerged into their light the servant,
white-jacketed, velvet-footed, looked more competent and more surprised
than ever. Such dishes, too--the cook also a Maltese? Ah, they were
geniuses, these Maltese! Gosling bridled, smiled his acknowledgment, and
started to fill the guest's glass with Chablis.

"No wine," said Medford patiently.

"Sorry, sir. But the fact is--"

"You said there was Perrier?"

"Yes, sir; but I find there's none left. It's been awfully hot, and Mr.
Almodham has been and drank it all up. The new supply isn't due till next
week. We 'ave to depend on the caravans going south."

"No matter. Water, then. I really prefer it."

Gosling's surprise widened to amazement. "Not water, sir? Water--in these
parts?"

Medford's irritability stirred again. "Something wrong with your water?
Boil it then, can't you? I won't--" He pushed away the half-filled
wineglass.

"Oh--boiled? Certainly, sir." The man's voice dropped almost to a
whisper. He placed on the table a succulent mess of rice and mutton, and
vanished.

Medford leaned back, surrendering himself to the night, the coolness, the
ripple of wind in the palms.

One agreeable dish succeeded another. As the last appeared, the diner
began to feel the pangs of thirst, and at the same moment a beaker of
water was placed at his elbow.  "Boiled, sir, and I squeezed a lemon into
it."

"Right. I suppose at the end of the summer your water gets a bit muddy?"

"That's it, sir. But you'll find this all right, sir."

Medford tasted. "Better than Perrier." He emptied the glass, leaned back
and groped in his pocket. A tray was instantly at his hand with cigars
and cigarettes.

"You don't--smoke sir?"

Medford, for answer, held up his cigar to the man's light. "What do you
call this?"

"Oh, just so. I meant the other style." Gosling glanced discreetly at the
opium pipes of jade and amber laid out on a low table.

Medford shrugged away the invitation--and wondered. Was that perhaps
Almodham's other secret--or one of them? For he began to think there
might be many; and all, he was sure, safely stored away behind Gosling's
vigilant brow.

"No news yet of Mr. Almodham?"

Gosling was gathering up the dishes with dexterous gestures. For a moment
he seemed not to hear. Then--from beyond the candle gleam--"News, sir?
There couldn't 'ardly be, could there? There's no wireless in the desert,
sir; not like London." His respectful tone tempered the slight irony.
"But tomorrow evening ought to see him riding in." Gosling paused, drew
nearer, swept one of his swift hands across the table in pursuit of the
last crumbs, and added tentatively: "You'll surely be able, sir, to stay
till then?"

Medford laughed. The night was too rich in healing; it sank on his spirit
like wings. Time vanished, fret and trouble were no more. "Stay, I'll
stay a year if I have to!"

"Oh--a year?" Gosling echoed it playfully, gathered up the dessert dishes
and was gone.


3.

Medford had said that he would wait for Almodham a year; but the next
morning he found that such arbitrary terms had lost their meaning. There
were no time measures in a place like this. The silly face of his watch
told its daily tale to emptiness. The wheeling of the constellations over
those ruined walls marked only the revolutions of the earth; the
spasmodic motions of man meant nothing.

The very fact of being hungry, that stroke of the inward clock, was
minimized by the slightness of the sensation--just the ghost of a pang,
that might have been quieted by dried fruit and honey. Life had the light
monotonous smoothness of eternity.

Toward sunset Medford shook off this queer sense of otherwhereness and
climbed to the roof. Across the desert he spied for Almodham. Southward
the Mountains of Alabaster hung like a blue veil lined with light.  In
the west a great column of fire shot up, spraying into plumy cloudlets
which turned the sky to a fountain of rose-leaves, the sands beneath to
gold.

No riders specked them. Medford watched in vain for his absent host till
night fell, and the punctual Gosling invited him once more to table.

In the evening Medford absently fingered the ultra-modern reviews--three
months old, and already so stale to the touch--then tossed them aside,
flung himself on a divan and dreamed. Almodham must spend a lot of time
dreaming; that was it. Then, just as he felt himself sinking down into
torpor, he would be off on one of these dashes across the desert in quest
of unknown ruins. Not such a bad life.

Gosling appeared with Turkish coffee in a cup cased in filigree.

"Are there any horses in the stable?" Medford suddenly asked.

"Horses? Only what you might call pack-horses, sir. Mr. Almodham has the
two best saddle-horses with him."

"I was thinking I might ride out to meet him."

Gosling considered. "So you might, sir."

"Do you know which way he went?"

"Not rightly sir. The caid's man was to guide them."

"Them? Who went with him?"

"Just one of our men, sir. They've got the two thoroughbreds. There's a
third, but he's lame."

Gosling paused. "Do you know the trails, sir? Excuse me, but I don't
think I ever saw you here before."

"No," Medford acquiesced, "I've never been here before."

"Oh, then"--Gosling's gesture added: "In that case, even the best
thoroughbred wouldn't help you."

"I suppose he may still turn up tonight?"

"Oh, easily, sir. I expect to see you both breakfasting here tomorrow
morning," said Gosling cheerfully.

Medford sipped his coffee. "You said you'd never seen me here before. How
long have you been here yourself?"

Gosling answered instantly, as though the figures were never long out of
his memory: "Eleven years and seven months altogether, sir,"

"Nearly twelve years! That's a longish time."

"Yes, it is."

"And I don't suppose you often get away?"

Gosling was moving off with the tray. He halted, turned back, and said
with sudden emphasis: "I've never once been away. Not since Mr. Almodham
first brought me here."

"Good Lord! Not a single holiday?"

"Not one, sir."

"But Mr. Almodham goes off occasionally. I met him at Luxor last year."

"Just so, sir. But when he's here he needs me for himself; and when he's
away he needs me to watch over the others. So you see--"

"Yes, I see. But it must seem to you devilish long."

"It seems long, sir."

"But the others? You mean they're not--wholly trustworthy?"

"Well, sir, they're just Arabs," said Gosling with careless contempt.

"I see. And not a single old reliable among them?"

"The term isn't in their language, sir."

Medford was busy lighting his cigar. When he looked up he found that
Gosling still stood a few feet off.

"It wasn't as if it 'adn't been a promise, you know, sir," he said,
almost passionately.

"A promise?"

"To let me 'ave my holiday, sir. A promise--agine and agine."

"And the time never came?"

"No, sir, the days just drifted by--"

"Ah. They would, here. Don't sit up for me," Medford added. "I think I
shall wait up--wait for Mr. Almodham."

Gosling's stare widened. "Here, sir? Here in the court?"

The young man nodded, and the servant stood still regarding him, turned
by the moonlight to a white spectral figure, the unquiet ghost of a
patient butler who might have died without his holiday.

"Down here in the court all night, sir? It's a lonely spot. I couldn't
'ear you if you was to call. You're best in bed, sir. The air's bad. You
might bring your fever on again."

Medford laughed and stretched himself in his long chair. "Decidedly," he
thought, "the fellow needs a change." Aloud he remarked: "Oh, I'm all
right. It's you who are nervous Gosling. When Mr. Almodham comes back I
mean to put in a word for you. You shall have your holiday."

Gosling still stood motionless. For a minute he did not speak. "You
would, sir, you would?" He gasped it out on a high cracked note, and the
last word ran into a laugh--a brief shrill cackle, the laugh of one long
unused to such indulgences.

"Thank you, sir. Good night, sir." He was gone.


4.

"You do boil my drinking-water, always?" Medford questioned, his hand
clasping the glass without lifting it.

The tone was amicable, almost confidential; Medford felt that since his
rash promise to secure a holiday for Gosling he and Gosling were on terms
of real friendship.

"Boil it? Always, sir. Naturally." Gosling spoke with a slight note of
reproach, as though Medford's question implied a slur--unconscious, he
hoped--on their newly established relation. He scrutinized Medford with
his astonished eyes, in which a genuine concern showed itself through the
glaze of professional indifference.

"Because, you know, my bath this morning--"

Gosling was in the act of receiving from the hands of a gliding Arab a
fragrant dish of kuskus. Under his breath he hissed to the native: "You
damned aboriginy, you, can't even 'old a dish steady? Ugh!" The Arab
vanished before the imprecation, and Gosling, with a calm deliberate
hand, set the dish before Medford. "All alike, they are." Fastidiously he
wiped a trail of grease from his linen sleeve.

"Because, you know, my bath this morning simply stank," said Medford,
plunging fork and spoon into the dish.

"Your bath, sir?" Gosling stressed the word. Astonishment, to the
exclusion of all other emotion, again filled his eyes as he rested them
on Medford. "Now, I wouldn't 'ave 'ad that 'appen for the world," he said
self-reproachfully.

"There's only the one well here, eh? The one in the court?"

Gosling aroused himself from absorbed consideration of the visitor's
complaint. "Yes, sir; only the one."

"What sort of a well is it? Where does the water come from?"

"Oh, it's just a cistern, sir. Rain-water. There's never been any other
here. Not that I ever knew it to fail; but at this season sometimes it
does turn queer. Ask any o' them Arabs, sir; they'll tell you. Liars as
they are, they won't trouble to lie about that."

Medford was cautiously tasting the water in his glass.  "This seems all
right," he pronounced.

Sincere satisfaction was depicted on Gosling's countenance. "I seen to
its being boiled myself, sir. I always do. I 'ope that Perrier'll turn up
tomorrow, sir."

"Oh, tomorrow"--Medford shrugged, taking a second helping. "Tomorrow I
may not be here to drink it."

"What--going away, sir?" cried Gosling.

Medford, wheeling round abruptly, caught a new and incomprehensible look
in Gosling's eyes. The man had seemed to feel a sort of dog-like
affection for him; had wanted, Medford could have sworn, to keep him on,
persuade him to patience and delay; yet now, Medford could equally have
sworn, there was relief in his look, satisfaction, almost, in his voice.

"So soon, sir?"

"Well, this is the fifth day since my arrival. And as there's no news yet
of Mr. Almodham, and you say he may very well have forgotten all about my
coming--"

"Oh, I don't say that, sir; not forgotten! Only, when one of those old
piles of stones takes 'old of him, he does forget about the time, sir.
That's what I meant. The days drift by--'e's in a dream. Very likely he
thinks you're just due now, sir." A small thin smile sharpened the
lustreless gravity of Gosling's features. It was the first time that
Medford had seen him smile.

"Oh, I understand. But still--" Medford paused. Through the spell of
inertia laid on him by the drowsy place and its easeful comforts his
instinct of alertness was struggling back. "It's odd--"

"What's odd?" Gosling echoed unexpectedly, setting the dried dates and
figs on the table.

"Everything," said Medford.

He leaned back in his chair and glanced up through the arch at the lofty
sky from which noon was pouring down in cataracts of blue and gold.
Almodham was out there somewhere under that canopy of fire, perhaps, as
the servant said, absorbed in his dream. The land was full of spells.

"Coffee, sir?" Gosling reminded him. Medford took it.

"It's odd that you say you don't trust any of these fellows--these
Arabs--and yet that you don't seem to feel worried at Mr. Almodham's
being off God knows where, all alone with them."

Gosling received this attentively, impartially; he saw the point. "Well,
sir, no--you wouldn't understand. It's the very thing that can't be
taught, when to trust 'em and when not. It's 'ow their interests lie, of
course, sir; and their religion, as they call it." His contempt was
unlimited. "But even to begin to understand why I'm not worried about Mr.
Almodham, you'd 'ave to 'ave lived among them, sir, and you'd 'ave to
speak their language."

"But I--" Medford began. He pulled himself up short and bent above his
coffee.

"Yes, sir."

"But I've travelled among them more or less."

"Oh, travelled!" Even Gosling's intonation could hardly conciliate
respect with derision in his reception of this boast.

"This makes the fifth day, though," Medford continued argumentatively.
The midday heat lay heavy even on the shaded side of the court, and the
sinews of his will were weakening.

"I can understand, sir, a gentleman like you 'aving other
engagements--being pressed for time, as it were," Gosling reasonably
conceded.

He cleared the table, committed its freight to a pair of Arab arms that
just showed and vanished, and finally took himself off while Medford sank
into the divan. A land of dreams....

The afternoon hung over the place like a great velarium of cloth-of-gold
stretched across the battlements and drooping down in ever slacker folds
upon the heavy-headed palms. When at length the gold turned to violet,
and the west to a bow of crystal clasping the desert sands, Medford shook
off his sleep and wandered out. But this time, instead of mounting to the
roof, he took another direction.

He was surprised to find how little he knew of the place after five days
of loitering and waiting. Perhaps this was to be his last evening alone
in it. He passed out of the court by a vaulted stone passage which led to
another walled enclosure. At his approach two or three Arabs who had been
squatting there rose and melted out of sight. It was as if the solid
masonry had received them.

Beyond, Medford heard a stamping of hoofs, the stir of a stable at
night-fall. He went under another archway and found himself among horses
and mules. In the fading light an Arab was rubbing down one of the
horses, a powerful young chestnut. He too seemed about to vanish; but
Medford caught him by the sleeve.

"Go on with your work," he said in Arabic.

The man, who was young and muscular, with a lean Bedouin face, stopped
and looked at him.

"I didn't know your Excellency spoke our language."

"Oh, yes," said Medford.

The man was silent, one hand on the horse's restless neck, the other
thrust into his woollen girdle. He and Medford examined each other in the
faint light.

"Is that the horse that's lame?" Medford asked.

"Lame?" The Arab's eyes ran down the animal's legs. "Oh, yes; lame," he
answered vaguely.

Medford stooped and felt the horses knees and fetlocks. "He seems pretty
fit. Couldn't he carry me for a canter this evening if I felt like it?"

The Arab considered; he was evidently perplexed by the weight of
responsibility which the question placed on him.

"Your Excellency would like to go for a ride this evening?"

"Oh, just a fancy. I might or I might not." Medford lit a cigarette and
offered one to the groom, whose white teeth flashed his gratification.
Over the shared match they drew nearer and the Arab's diffidence seemed
to lessen.

"Is this one of Mr. Almodham's own mounts?" Medford asked.

"Yes, sir; it's his favourite," said the groom, his hand passing proudly
down the horse's bright shoulder.

"His favourite? Yet he didn't take him on this long expedition?"

The Arab fell silent and stared at the ground.

"Weren't you surprised at that?" Medford queried.

The man's gesture declared that it was not his business to be surprised.

The two remained without speaking while the quick blue night descended.

At length Medford said carelessly: "Where do you suppose your master is
at this moment?"

The moon, unperceived in the radiant fall of day, had now suddenly
possessed the world, and a broad white beam lay full on the Arab's white
smock, his brown face and the turban of camel's hair knotted above it.
His agitated eyeballs glistened like jewels.

"If Allah would vouchsafe to let us know!"

"But you suppose he's safe enough, don't you? You don't think it's
necessary yet for a party to go out in search of him?"

The Arab appeared to ponder this deeply. The question must have taken him
by surprise. He flung a brown arm about the horse's neck and continued to
scrutinize the stones of the court.

"When the master is away Mr. Gosling is our master."

"And he doesn't think it necessary?"

The Arab signed: "Not yet."

"But if Mr. Almodham were away much longer--"

The man was again silent, and Medford continued: "You're the head groom,
I suppose?"

"Yes, Excellency."

There was another pause. Medford half turned away; then over his
shoulder: "I suppose you know the direction Mr. Almodham took? The place
he's gone to?"

"Oh, assuredly, Excellency."

"Then you and I are going to ride after him. Be ready an hour before
daylight. Say nothing to any one--Mr. Gosling or anybody else. We two
ought to be able to find him without other help."

The Arab's face was all a responsive flash of eyes and teeth. "Oh, sir, I
undertake that you and my master shall meet before tomorrow night. And
none shall know of it."

"He's as anxious about Almodham as I am," Medford thought; and a faint
shiver ran down his back. "All right. Be ready," he repeated.

He strolled back and found the court empty of life, but fantastically
peopled by palms of beaten silver and a white marble fig tree.

"After all," he thought irrelevantly, "I'm glad I didn't tell Gosling
that I speak Arabic."

He sat down and waited till Gosling, approaching from the living-room,
ceremoniously announced for the fifth time that dinner was served.


5.

Medford sat up in bed with the jerk which resembles no other. Someone was
in his room. The fact reached him not by sight or sound--for the moon had
set, and the silence of the night was complete--but by a peculiar faint
disturbance of the invisible currents that enclose us.

He was awake in an instant, caught up his electric hand-lamp and flashed
it into two astonished eyes. Gosling stood above the bed.

"Mr. Almodham--he's back?" Medford exclaimed.

"No, sir; he's not back." Gosling spoke in low controlled tones. His
extreme self-possession gave Medford a sense of danger--he couldn't say
why, or of what nature. He sat upright, looking hard at the man.

"Then what's the matter?"

"Well, sir, you might have told me you talk Arabic"--Gosling's tone was
now wistfully reproachful--"before you got 'obnobbing with that Selim.
Making randy-voos with 'im by night in the desert."

Medford reached for his matches and lit the candle by the bed. He did not
know whether to kick Gosling out of the room or to listen to what the man
had to say; but a quick movement of curiosity made him determine on the
latter course.

"Such folly! First I thought I'd lock you in. I might 'ave." Gosling drew
a key from his pocket and held it up. "Or again I might 'ave let you go.
Easier than not. But there was Wembley."

"Wembley?" Medford echoed. He began to think that the man was going mad.
One might, so conceivably, in that place of postponements and
enchantments! He wondered whether Almodham himself were not a little
mad--if, indeed, Almodham were still in a world where such a fate is
possible.

"Wembley. You promised to get Mr. Almodham to give me an 'oliday--to let
me go back to England in time for a look at Wembley. Every man 'as 'is
fancies, 'asn't he sir? And that's mine. I've told Mr. Almodham so, agine
and agine. He'd never listen, or only make believe to; say: 'We'll see,
now, Gosling, we'll see'; and no more 'eard of it. But you was different,
sir. You said it, and I knew you meant it--about my 'oliday. So I'm going
to lock you in." Gosling spoke composedly, but with an under-thrill of
emotion in his queer Mediterranean-Cockney voice.

"Lock me in?"

"Prevent you somehow from going off with that murderer. You don't suppose
you'd ever 'ave come back alive from that ride, do you?"

A shiver ran over Medford, as it had the evening before when he had said
to himself that the Arab was as anxious as he was about Almodham. He gave
a slight laugh.

"I don't know what you're talking about. But you're not going to lock me
in."

The effect of this was unexpected. Gosling's face was drawn up into a
convulsive grimace and two tears rose to his pale eyelashes and ran down
his cheeks.

"You don't trust me, after all," he said plaintively.

Medford leaned on his pillow and considered. Nothing as queer had ever
before happened to him. The fellow looked almost ridiculous enough to
laugh at; yet his tears were certainly not simulated. Was he weeping for
Almodham, already dead, or for Medford, about to be committed to the same
grave?

"I should trust you at once," said Medford, "if you'd tell me where your
master is."

Gosling's face resumed its usual guarded expression, though the trace of
the tears still glittered on it.

"I can't do that, sir."

"Ah, I thought so!"

"Because--'ow do I know?"

Medford thrust a leg out of bed. One hand, under the blanket, lay on his
revolver.

"Well, you may go now. Put that key down on the table first. And don't
try to do anything to interfere with my plans. If you do I'll shoot you,"
he added concisely.

"Oh, no, you wouldn't shoot a British subject; it makes such a fuss. Not
that I'd care--I've often thought of doing it myself. Sometimes in the
sirocco season. That don't scare me. And you shan't go."

Medford was on his feet now, the revolver visible. Gosling eyed it with
indifference.

"Then you do know where Mr. Almodham is? And you're determined that I
shan't find out?" Medford challenged him.

"Selim's determined," said Gosling, "and all the others are. They all
want you out of the way. That's why I've kept 'em to their quarters--done
all the waiting on you myself. Now will you stay here? For God's sake,
sir! The return caravan is going through to the coast the day after
tomorrow. Join it, sir--it's the only safe way! I darsn't let you go with
one of our men, not even if you was to swear you'd ride straight for the
coast and let this business be."

"This business? What business?"

"This worrying about where Mr. Almodham is, sir. Not that there's
anything to worry about. The men all know that. But the plain fact is
they've stolen some money from his box, since he's been gone, and if I
hadn't winked at it they'd 'ave killed me; and all they want is to get
you to ride out after 'im, and put you safe away under a 'eap of sand
somewhere off the caravan trails. Easy job. There; that's all, sir. My
word it is."

There was a long silence. In the weak candle-light the two men stood
considering each other.

Medford's wits began to clear as the sense of peril closed in on him. His
mind reached out on all sides into the enfolding mystery, but it was
everywhere impenetrable. The odd thing was that, though he did not
believe half of what Gosling had told him, the man yet inspired him with
a queer sense of confidence as far as their mutual relation was
concerned. "He may be lying about Almodham, to hide God knows what; but I
don't believe he's lying about Selim."

Medford laid his revolver on the table. "Very well," he said. "I won't
ride out to look for Mr. Almodham, since you advise me not to. But I
won't leave by the caravan; I'll wait here till he comes back."

He saw Gosling whiten under his sallowness. "Oh, don't do that, sir; I
couldn't answer for them if you was to wait. The caravan'll take you to
the coast the day after tomorrow as easy as if you was riding in Rotten
Row."

"Ah, then you know that Mr. Almodham won't be back by the day after
tomorrow?" Medford caught him up.

"I don't know anything, sir."

"Not even where he is now?"

Gosling reflected. "He's been gone too long, sir, for me to know that,"
he said from the threshold.

The door closed on him.

Medford found sleep unrecoverable. He leaned in his window and watched
the stars fade and the dawn break in all its holiness. As the stir of
life rose among the ancient walls he marvelled at the contrast between
that fountain of purity welling up into the heavens and the evil secrets
clinging bat-like to the nest of masonry below.

He no longer knew what to believe or whom. Had some enemy of Almodham's
lured him into the desert and bought the connivance of his people? Or had
the servants had some reason of their own for spiriting him away, and was
Gosling possibly telling the truth when he said that the same fate would
befall Medford if he refused to leave?

Medford, as the light brightened, felt his energy return. The very
impenetrableness of the mystery stimulated him. He would stay, and he
would find out the truth.


6.

It was always Gosling himself who brought up the water for Medford's
bath; but this morning he failed to appear with it, and when he came it
was to bring the breakfast tray. Medford noticed that his face was of a
pasty pallor, and that his lids were reddened as if with weeping. The
contrast was unpleasant, and a dislike for Gosling began to shape itself
in the young man's breast.

"My bath?" he queried.

"Well, sir, you complained yesterday of the water--"

"Can't you boil it?"

"I 'ave, sir."

"Well, then--"

Gosling went out sullenly and presently returned with a brass jug. "It's
the time of year--we're dying for rain," he grumbled, pouring a scant
measure of water into the tub.

Yes, the well must be pretty low, Medford thought. Even boiled, the water
had the disagreeable smell that he had noticed the day before, though of
course, in a slighter degree. But a bath was a necessity in that climate.
He splashed the few cupfuls over himself as best as he could.

He spent the day in rather fruitlessly considering his situation. He had
hoped the morning would bring counsel, but it brought only courage and
resolution, and these were of small use without enlightenment. Suddenly
he remembered that the caravan going south from the coast would pass near
the castle that afternoon. Gosling had dwelt on the date often enough,
for it was the caravan which was to bring the box of Perrier water.

"Well, I'm not sorry for that," Medford reflected, with a slight
shrinking of the flesh. Something sick and viscous, half smell, half
substance, seemed to have clung to his skin since his morning bath, and
the idea of having to drink that water again was nauseating.

But his chief reason for welcoming the caravan was the hope of finding in
it some European, or at any rate some native official from the coast, to
whom he might confide his anxiety. He hung about, listening and waiting,
and then mounted to the roof to gaze northward along the trail. But in
the afternoon glow he saw only three Bedouins guiding laden pack mules
toward the castle.

As they mounted the steep path he recognized some of Almodham's men, and
guessed at once that the southward caravan trail did not actually pass
under the walls and that the men had been out to meet it, probably at a
small oasis behind some fold of the sand-hills. Vexed at his own
thoughtlessness in not foreseeing such a possibility, Medford dashed down
to the court, hoping the men might have brought back some news of
Almodham, though, as the latter had ridden south, he could at best only
have crossed the trail by which the caravan had come. Still, even so,
some one might know something, some report might have been heard--since
everything was always known in the desert.

As Medford reached the court, angry vociferations, and retorts as
vehement, rose from the stable-yard. He leaned over the wall and
listened. Hitherto nothing had surprised him more than the silence of the
place. Gosling must have had a strong arm to subdue the shrill voices of
his underlings. Now they had all broken loose, and it was Gosling's own
voice--usually so discreet and measured--which dominated them.

Gosling, master of all the desert dialects, was cursing his subordinates
in a half-dozen.

"And you didn't bring it--and you tell me it wasn't there, and I tell you
it was, and that you know it, and that you either left it on a sand-heap
while you were jawing with some of those slimy fellows from the coast, or
else fastened it on to the horse so carelessly that it fell off on the
way--and all of you too sleepy to notice. Oh, you sons of females I
wouldn't soil my lips by naming! Well, back you go to hunt it up, that's
all."

"By Allah and the tomb of his Prophet, you wrong us unpardonably. There
was nothing left at the oasis, nor yet dropped off on the way back. It
was not there, and that is the truth in its purity."

"Truth! Purity! You miserable lot of shirks and liars, you--and the
gentleman here not touching a drop of anything but water--as you profess
to do, you liquor-swilling humbugs!"

Medford drew back from the parapet with a smile of relief. It was nothing
but a case of Perrier--the missing case--which had raised the passions of
these grown men to the pitch of frenzy! The anti-climax lifted a load
from his breast. If Gosling, the calm and self-controlled, could waste
his wrath on so slight a hitch in the working of the commissariat, he at
least must have a free mind. How absurd this homely incident made
Medford's speculations seem!

He was at once touched by Gosling's solicitude, and annoyed that he
should have been so duped by the hallucinating fancies of the East.

Almodham was off on his own business; very likely the men knew where and
what the business was; and even if they had robbed him in his absence,
and quarrelled over the spoils, Medford did not see what he could do. It
might even be that his eccentric host--with whom, after all, he had had
but one evening's acquaintance--repenting an invitation too rashly given,
had ridden away to escape the boredom of entertaining him. As this
alternative occurred to Medford it seemed so plausible that he began to
wonder if Almodham had not simply withdrawn to some secret suite of that
intricate dwelling, and were waiting there for his guest's departure.

So well would this explain Gosling's solicitude to see the visitor
off--so completely account for the man's nervous and contradictory
behaviour--that Medford, smiling at his own obtuseness, hastily resolved
to leave on the morrow. Tranquillized by this decision, he lingered about
the court till dusk fell, and then, as usual, went up to the roof. But
today his eyes, instead of raking the horizon, fastened on the clustering
edifice of which, after six days' residence, he knew so little. Aerial
chambers, jutting out at capricious angles, baffled him with closely
shuttered windows, or here and there with the enigma of painted panes.
Behind which window was his host concealed, spying, it might be, at this
very moment on the movements of his lingering guest?

The idea that that strange moody man, with his long brown face and shock
of white hair, his half-guessed selfishness and tyranny, and his morbid
self-absorption, might be actually within a stone's throw, gave Medford,
for the first time, a sharp sense of isolation. He felt himself shut out,
unwanted--the place, now that he imagined someone might be living in it
unknown to him, became lonely, inhospitable, dangerous.

"Fool that I am--he probably expected me to pack up and go as soon as I
found he was away!" the young man reflected. Yes; decidedly he would
leave the next morning.

Gosling had not shown himself all the afternoon. When at length,
belatedly, he came to set the table, he wore a look of sullen, almost
surly, reserve which Medford had not yet seen on his face. He hardly
returned the young man's friendly "Hallo--dinner?" and when Medford was
seated handed him the first dish in silence. Medford's glass remained
unfilled till he touched its brim.

"Oh, there's nothing to drink, sir. The men lost the case of Perrier--or
dropped it and smashed the bottles. They say it never came. 'Ow do I
know, when they never open their 'eathen lips but to lie?" Gosling burst
out with sudden violence.

He set down the dish he was handing, and Medford saw that he had been
obliged to do so because his whole body was shaking as if with fever.

"My dear man, what does it matter? You're going to be ill," Medford
exclaimed, laying his hand on the servant's arm. But the latter,
muttering: "Oh, God, if I'd only 'a' gone for it myself," jerked away and
vanished from the room.

Medford sat pondering; it certainly looked as if poor Gosling were on the
edge of a break-down. No wonder, when Medford himself was so oppressed by
the uncanniness of the place. Gosling reappeared after an interval,
correct, close-lipped, with the desert and a bottle of white wine.
"Sorry, sir."

To pacify him, Medford sipped the wine and then pushed his chair away and
returned to the court. He was making for the fig tree by the well when
Gosling, slipping ahead, transferred his chair and wicker table to the
other end of the court.

"You'll be better here--there'll be a breeze presently," he said. "I'll
fetch your coffee."

He disappeared again, and Medford sat gazing up at the pile of masonry
and plaster, and wondering whether he had not been moved away from his
favourite corner to get him out of--or into?--the angle of vision of the
invisible watcher. Gosling, having brought the coffee, went away and
Medford sat on.

At length he rose and began to pace up and down as he smoked. The moon
was not up yet, and darkness fell solemnly on the ancient walls.
Presently the breeze arose and began its secret commerce with the palms.

Medford went back to his seat; but as soon as he had resumed it he
fancied that the gaze of his hidden watcher was jealously fixed on the
red spark of his cigar. The sensation became increasingly distasteful; he
could almost feel Almodham reaching out long ghostly arms from somewhere
above him in the darkness. He moved back into the living-room, where a
shaded light hung from the ceiling; but the room was airless, and finally
he went out again and dragged his seat to its old place under the fig
tree. From there the windows which he suspected could not command him,
and he felt easier, though the corner was out of the breeze and the heavy
air seemed tainted with the exhalation of the adjoining well.

"The water must be very low," Medford mused. The smell, though faint, was
unpleasant; it smirched the purity of the night. But he felt safer there,
somehow, farther from those unseen eyes which seemed mysteriously to have
become his enemies.

"If one of the men had knifed me in the desert, I shouldn't wonder if it
would have been at Almodham's orders," Medford thought. He drowsed.

When he woke the moon was pushing up its ponderous orange disk above the
walls, and the darkness in the court was less dense. He must have slept
for an hour or more. The night was delicious, or would have been anywhere
but there. Medford felt a shiver of his old fever and remembered that
Gosling had warned him that the court was unhealthy at night.

"On account of the well, I suppose. I've been sitting too close to it,"
he reflected. His head ached, and he fancied that the sweetish foulish
smell clung to his face as it had after his bath. He stood up and
approached the well to see how much water was left in it. But the moon
was not yet high enough to light those depths, and he peered down into
blackness.

Suddenly he felt both shoulders gripped from behind and forcibly pressed
forward, as if by someone seeking to push him over the edge. An instant
later, almost coinciding with his own swift resistance, the push became a
strong tug backward, and he swung round to confront Gosling, whose hands
immediately dropped from his shoulders.

"I thought you had the fever, sir--I seemed to see you pitching over,"
the man stammered.

Medford's wits returned. "We must both have it, for I fancied you were
pitching me," he said with a laugh.

"Me, sir?" Gosling gasped. "I pulled you back as 'ard as ever--"

"Of course. I know."

"Whatever are you doing here, anyhow, sir? I warned you it was un'ealthy
at night," Gosling continued irritably.

Medford leaned against the well-head and contemplated him. "I believe the
whole place is unhealthy."

Gosling was silent. At length he asked: "Aren't you going up to bed,
sir?"

"No," said Medford, "I prefer to stay here."

Gosling's face took on an expression of dogged anger. "Well, then, I
prefer that you shouldn't."

Medford laughed again. "Why? Because it's the hour when Mr. Almodham
comes out to take the air?"

The effect of this question was unexpected. Gosling dropped back a step
or two and flung up his hands, pressing them to his lips as if to stifle
a low outcry.

"What's the matter?" Medford queried. The man's antics were beginning to
get on his nerves.

"Matter?" Gosling still stood away from him, out of the rising slant of
moonlight.

"Come! Own up that he's here and have done with it!" cried Medford
impatiently.

"Here? What do you mean by 'here'? You 'aven't seen 'im, 'ave you?"
Before the words were out of the man's lips he flung up his arms again,
stumbled forward and fell in a heap at Medford's feet.

Medford, still leaning against the well-head, smiled down contemptuously
at the stricken wretch. His conjecture had been the right one, then; he
had not been Gosling's dupe after all.

"Get up, man. Don't be a fool! It's not your fault if I guessed that Mr.
Almodham walks here at night--"

"Walks here!" wailed the other, still cowering.

"Well, doesn't he? He won't kill you for owning up will he?"

"Kill me? Kill me? I wish I'd killed YOU!" Gosling half got to his feet,
his head thrown back in ashen terror. "And I might' ave, too, so easy!
You felt me pushing of you over, didn't you? Coming 'ere spying and
sniffing--" His anguish seemed to choke him.

Medford had not changed his position. The very abjectness of the creature
at his feet gave him an easy sense of power. But Gosling's last cry had
suddenly deflected the course of his speculations.  Almodham was here,
then; that was certain; but just where was he, and in what shape? A new
fear scuttled down Medford's spine.

"So you did want to push me over?" he said. "Why? As the quickest way of
joining your master?"

The effect was more immediate than he had foreseen.

Gosling, getting to his feet, stood there bowed and shrunken in the
accusing moonlight.

"Oh, God--and I 'ad you 'arf over! You know I did! And then--it was what
you said about Wembley. So help me, sir, I felt you meant it, and it 'eld
me back." The man's face was again wet with tears, but this time Medford
recoiled from them as if they had been drops splashed up by a falling
body from the foul waters below.

Medford was silent. He did not know if Gosling were armed or not, but he
was no longer afraid; only aghast, and yet shudderingly lucid.

Gosling continued to ramble on half deliriously: "And if only that
Perrier 'ad of come. I don't believe it'd ever 'ave crossed your mind, if
only you'd 'ave had your Perrier regular, now would it? But you say 'e
walks--and I knew he would! Only--what was I to do with him, with you
turning up like that the very day?"

Still Medford did not move.

"And 'im driving me to madness, sir, sheer madness, that same morning.
Will you believe it? The very week before you come, I was to sail for
England and 'ave my 'oliday, a 'ole month, sir--and I was entitled to
six, if there was any justice--a 'ole month in 'Ammersmith, sir, in a
cousin's 'ouse, and the chance to see Wembley thoroughly; and then 'e
'eard you was coming, sir, and 'e was bored and lonely 'ere, you
understand--'e 'ad to have new excitements provided for 'im or 'e'd go
off 'is bat--and when 'e 'eard you was coming, 'e come out of his black
mood in a flash and was 'arf crazy with pleasure, and said 'I'll keep 'im
'ere all winter--a remarkable young man, Gosling--just my kind.' And when
I says to him: 'And 'ow about my 'oliday?' he stares at me with those
stony eyes of 'is and says: ''Oliday? Oh, to be sure; why next
year--we'll see what can be done about it next year.' Next year, sir, as
if 'e was doing me a favour! And that's the way it 'ad been for nigh on
twelve years.

"But this time, if you 'adn't 'ave come I do believe I'd 'ave got away,
for he was getting used to 'aving Selim about 'im and his 'ealth was
never better--and, well, I told 'im as much, and 'ow a man 'ad his rights
after all, and my youth was going, and me that 'ad served him so well
chained up 'ere like 'is watchdog, and always next year and next
year--and, well, sir, 'e just laughed, sneering-like, and lit 'is
cigarette. 'Oh, Gosling, cut it out,' 'e says.

"He was standing on the very spot where you are now, sir; and he turned
to walk into the 'ouse. And it was then I 'it 'im. He was a heavy man,
and he fell against the well kerb. And just when you were expected any
minute--oh, my God!"

Gosling's voice died out in a strangled murmur.

Medford, at his last words, had unvoluntarily shrunk back a few feet. The
two men stood in the middle of the court and stared at each other without
speaking. The moon, swinging high above the battlements, sent a searching
spear of light down into the guilty darkness of the well.



THE END





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