THERE was a group of several people standing about the caliph's gate as Kanana emerged. They were apparently waiting, in careless curiosity, to see the white camel start, and learn what they could of what was going on in official departments.
The information they received was very meager, yet it proved sufficient for more than one. They saw the white camel rise, with the veiled messenger of Omar upon its back. As the driver looked up to receive his first command their necks were bent in a way that betrayed their eagerness to hear. Only one word was spoken, however. It was "Tayf," the name of a city a short distance to the east of Mecca.
The camel-driver's cry sounded again through the streets, but the twilight shadows were gathering. There were few abroad, and the cries were not so loud or so often repeated as in the afternoon. When they ceased altogether, Kanana had turned his back upon Mecca forever.
The night wind blew cool and refreshing from the surrounding hills as the little caravan moved out upon the plain, but Kanana was ill at ease.
It was still as death in the valley. Far as the eye could penetrate the darkness they were all alone, except for five horsemen who left the gate of Mecca not long after the white camel, and were now riding slowly toward Tayf, a short distance behind it.
Ever and again Kanana looked back at them. The faint shadows, silently moving onward through the gloom, were always there; never nearer; never out of sight.
Leaning forward, he spoke in a low voice to the driver, "You walk as though you were weary. The dromedary was brought for you. Mount it, and follow me."
"Master," replied the driver, "the white camel is obstinate. He will only move for one whom he knows well."
"You speak to the wind," muttered Kanana. "Do as I bid thee. Hear my words. Yonder black dromedary has the fleetest foot in Mecca. He is the pride of the Caliph Omar. Mount him, and if you can overtake me while I drive the white camel, you shall throw the dust of the desert in the face of Raschid Airikat, and have the white camel for your own."
The driver started back, and stood staring at the veiled messenger of Omar. The word, "Mount!" was sternly repeated. Then he quickly obeyed, evidently bewildered, but well satisfied that he would have an easy task before him, from the moment the white camel realized that a stranger was in command.
Kanana spoke, and the camel started. The dromedary moved forward close behind it without a word from the driver. The horsemen had approached no nearer while they waited, though Kanana had purposely given them time enough to pass, had they not halted when he halted. They were still five silent shadows upon the distant sand.
"Faster," said Kanana, and the long legs of the white camel swung out a little farther over the sand and moved more rapidly, in response.
The dromedary immediately quickened its pace without urging, and, a moment later, from far in the distance, the night wind brought the sound of horses' hoofs through the silent valley. It was very faint, but distinct enough to indicate that the shadows behind them had broken into a canter.
The camel-driver gave little heed to his surroundings. He was too thoroughly engrossed in the prospect of owning the white camel to care who might be coming or going in a way as safe as that from Tayf to Mecca.
Kanana, however, who could walk through the streets of the holy city without so much as knowing what the houses were made of, would have heard the wings of a night-moth passing him, or seen a sand-bush move, a quarter of a mile away.
His life as a shepherd had, after all, not been wasted.
"Faster," said Kanana, touching the camel's neck with his shepherd's staff, and without even the usual grunt of objection, the animal obeyed. The sand began to fly from his great feet as they rested upon it for an instant, then left it far behind; the Bedouin boy sat with eyes fixed on the path before him, and his head bent so that he could catch the faintest sounds coming from behind. The mantle that had covered his face fell loosely over his shoulder.
The dromedary lost a little ground for a moment, but gathering himself together, easily made it up. The driver was too sure of the final result to urge him unduly at the start. Soon enough the white camel would rebel of his own accord, and till then it was quite sufficient to keep pace with him.
The sound of horses' hoofs became sharper and more distinct, and Omar's messenger knew that the five shadows were being pressed to greater speed, and were drawing nearer.
"Faster!" said Kanana, and the white camel broke into a run, swinging in rapid motions from side to side, as two feet upon one side, then two on the other were thrown far in front of him and, in an instant, left as far behind.
Still the dromedary made light work of keeping close upon his track, evidently realizing what was expected of him; but the driver saw with dismay how quickly the camel responded to the word of his rider, how easily the man sat upon the swaying back—how carefully he selected the best path for the animal, and how skillfully he guided him so that he could make the best speed with the least exertion.
Many a night Kanana had run unsaddled camels about the pastures of the Beni Sads, guarding the sleeping sheep and goats, little dreaming for what he was being educated.
The sound of horses' hoofs grew fainter. They were losing ground, but now and then the listening ear caught the sharp cry of an Arab horseman urging his animal to greater speed.
"They are in earnest," muttered the Bedouin boy, "but they will not win the race."
"Faster!" said Kanana; the camel's head dropped till his neck lost its graceful curve, and the great white ship of the desert seemed almost flying over the billowy sand.
For a moment the dromedary dropped behind. The driver had to use the prod and force him to the very best that was in him, before he was able to regain the lost ground.
The sound of hoofs could no longer be heard, and Kanana was obliged to listen with the utmost care to catch the faintest echo of a distant voice.
"They are doing their best and are beaten, but we can do still better," he said to himself with a deep sigh of relief, as he watched the desert shrubs fly past them in fleeting shadows, scudding over the silver-gray sand.
The music of the sand, as it flew from the camel's feet and fell like hail upon the dry leaves of the desert shrubs, was a delightful melody, and hour after hour they held the rapid pace; over low hills and sandy plains; past the mud village and the well that marks the resting-place for caravans, a night's journey from Mecca, without a sign of halting; and on and on, the dromedary always just so far behind, always doing his best to come nearer.
If by urging he was brought a little closer to the camel, the driver heard that low word, "Faster!" and in spite of him the camel gained again. Would he never stop?
The sounds from behind had long been lost when, far in advance, appeared the regular caravan from Tayf. They approached it like the wind. Only the mystic salaam of the desert was solemnly exchanged, then, in a moment, the trailing train as it crept westward was left, disappearing in the darkness behind them.
When it was out of sight the white camel suddenly changed its course, turning sharply to the north of east and striking directly over the desert, away from the hills and the beaten track to Tayf which he had been following.
The driver could not imagine that such a man as sat upon the white camel had lost his way. He silently followed till they passed a well that marked the second night's journey from Mecca toward Persia.
The driver and dromedary would very willingly have stopped here; but the camel glided onward before them through the changing shadows of the night, as though it were some phantom, and not a thing of flesh and blood.
By dint of urging, the driver brought the dromedary near enough to call:
"Master, we are not upon the road to Tayf."
"No," said Kanana, but the camel still held his course.
Driven to desperation, as the eastern sky was brightening, the driver called again:
"Master, you will kill the camel!"
"Not in one night," said Kanana; "but if you value your own life, come on!"
Faster still and faster the white camel swept toward the glowing east, but the dromedary had done his best. He could not do better.
More and more he fell behind, and in spite of every effort of the driver, the pride of the caliph was beaten.
Fainter and fainter grew the outline of the white camel against the morning sky, ever swinging, swinging, swinging, over the silver-gray sea, with a motion as regular and firm as though it had started but an hour before.
As the red disc of the fiery sun rose out of the desert, however, the driver saw the camel pause, turn half about, till his huge outline stood out in bold relief against the sky, and then lie down.
Quickly Kanana dismounted. He caressed the camel for a moment, whispering, "We are two days and a half from Mecca! Thou hast done better than I hoped. Thou didst remember me yesterday in the temple court. To-night thou hast cheerfully given every atom of thy strength to help me. To-morrow we shall be far apart. Allah alone knows for what or for how long; but if we ever meet again thou wilt remember me. Yes, thou wilt greet thy Kanana."
The boy's dark eyes were bright with tears as he gave the camel the best of the food provided for him; then, with sand in stead of water performing the morning ablution, he faced toward Mecca.
When the dromedary and his rider reached the spot, the veiled messenger of Omar was solemnly repeating his morning prayer.