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ALBERT DORRINGTON

A FACE IN AMBER

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A published in
The Western Mail, Perth, Australia, 5 March 1931

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-04-21
Produced by Terry Walker, Gary Meller and Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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THE night was hot, with a big red moon over the date palms. Elsie Findlay sat alone on the wide verandah of the trade-house, where the Hafiz-road brought strings of camels from the everlasting sandbelts of the Northern Sahara.

From the rear of the trade-house came the fragrant smoke of burning olive logs, the bivouac fires of the Arab horse-boys and cotton-buyers.

Ever since she could remember Elsie had listened to the prattling voices of Algerian cameleers, the camp fire talk of the white-gowned traders from Jaffa and Constantinople, vendors of perfume, ivory and bergamot.

Her father, Dan Findlay, depended on the cross-desert traffic for a livelihood. He bartered English goods for oil and francs. He sold the snow-white twill and sheeting that is made into Arab cheche and burnous. In time Dan had begun to regard this lonely desert outpost as his own territory.

Only one white man had challenged Dan's right to annex the Jaffa-bound desert trade. His name was Bede Templeton, an inexperienced youngster from an English public school. From a seemingly inexhaustible supply of funds Templeton had built and stocked a commodious trade depot within a short ride of Findlay's stockades.

Templeton's smile had not deserted him in the months of neglect, and failure that followed his appearance in the Hafiz district. But the smile of trusting youth is not equal to the abysmal cunning of the desert.

He had returned, one night, after a ride in the sands, to find his trade-house a blazing ruin. Everything was burnt to the ground.


IT was a crushing event for Elsie Findlay. Templeton had been so likeable. Her father said it was Bede's own fault. The boy didn't know a real sheik from a henna shampoo. Always he allowed beggars and cadging old women about his gateway, when he might have used a whip.

Any one crone with a tale to tell of her starving brats could pull the goods from Bede's shelves. Dan Findlay recalled Old Nabbon, the witch woman, to whom he had given clothes and even money. Money! And because of a little rain and cold the young fool had allowed the infernal old witch to camp in his yard! Fire, medicine, blankets and milk!

No wonder the sheiks and traders had kept away. And then a gang of Algerian bullies, from the French military depots, cleaned out his store and then applied a firestick to his walls. Witches and beggars!

Bede Templeton had gone away in the dark without a look or a word from the people he had helped.

In the long hot months that followed, Elsie heard nothing from the boy who had cast away his inheritance. An Arab perfume- dealer, from Fezzan, reported that Bede had joined the Legion, and was fighting the Riffi somewhere in the Bibane hills. They never came back, these young asses. Praise Allah, there was plenty of sand to cover them! the perfume dealer intimated.


ELSIE listened to the sounds outside the high stockade, the faint, far-off tinkle of camel-bells, the soft chanting tones of a Mahommedan at prayer. Her father had gone to Makaran to negotiate some credit. Times had changed since the war. Dan found himself at grips with foreign competition, Belgian and French. He would not return till past midnight.

Few people visited the tradehouse after dark. Once or twice during the last month a District Commissioner had called in reference to Bede Templeton's disappearance. Consulates rarely sleep on such matters, although the history of North Africa is well listed with the names of young Englishmen who go missing in unadministered territory.

Lilith, a soft-eyed Eritrean girl, who worked among the fabrics in the deep shadowed trade-room, slipped noiselessly across the verandah and whispered a dozen sing-song words in the vernacular.

Elsie put aside her book and stood up to peer across the palm shadows beyond the high stockade. A team of camels had halted silently a hundred yards from the gate. The yielding sand gave no sound under the slouching tread of laden beasts. But the harsh voices of the Arab drivers were audible.

"It is El Manek, mam'zelle!" Lilith intoned. "The Amber Sheik!"

Elsie stared at the black shadows moving hither and yon about the date palms.

Her father had often discussed the notorious El Manek. From Biskra to the Great Lakes his caravans collected ivory and skins in return for amber and francs. His name bad been linked with the slave-runners of the old Sudan.

Lilith stood back in the shadows of the verandah, whispering in sharp, frightened sentences to her young mistress.

"Listen mam'zelle! He is coming up the path!"

The Amber Sheik came slowly up the path, halted where the tall, singularly wistful figure of Elsie was silhouetted in the lights of the house.

"The night is with thee, Flower of the Sands!" he grunted in Arabic, his glance leaping beyond the startled English girl to the cedar-panelled traderoom, the open windows that revealed the scanty stocks of cotton and woollen goods.

His eye was caught by the soft glow of an unusually fine piece of amber that lay on Dan Findlay's open desk. His trained glance missed nothing of its wonderful colouring and almost crystalline clearness, the unmistakable fragrance that spoke of the cold Baltic tides, the salt of the Great Belt. The news of its presence in Dan's trade-room had been carried far and wide by envious Arabs.

Elsie spoke. "I'm sorry, El Manek, you have come at this hour. My father has gone to Makaran. It will be late before he returns."

El Manek drew a suliu leaf from his belt, rolled it dexterously about a twist of green tobacco. His grunting voice came through the acrid fumes as he smoked.

"Hear me, Daughter of the Dawn!" he commanded. "It is not thy father I seek. Let thine eyes rest on the tall white man out there!" He jerked in the direction of the moving shadows of his followers out-side the stockade. "Look well, for he is easy to see among my desert pygmies!"

Elsie leaned from the verandah, staring wide-eyed at the circle of camel drivers. In the centre of the circle stood a tattered, travel-mired figure, a long camel-halter about his waist and wrists. Bare of foot, his face revealed the scars and bruises of a long and terrible journey through sand and cacti. On his breast, gleaming faintly, was the tiny cross of the Legion.

Bede Templeton.

"A prisoner?" It came from Elsie in a suffocating under- breath. "How dare you put a rope about a white man?" she demanded, her warm breast swelling with anger.

The Amber Sheik stooped towards her, his bright earrings quivering in the moon-light.

"He is known to thee! Thou knowest also that his sword hath been turned against the great Abdel. He was wounded. I found him in the sands of the Maghri, two hundred miles south of the Hammada Homra. His life is mine. The award of five hundred pounds, offered by Abdel, for every soldier of the Foreign Legion brought to him, awaits me!"

A silence.

Elsie Findlay was listening to the beating of her own heart. Why had be brought Bede to her? Why had this old slave-runner traversed the unending leagues of desert and mountain to show her the beaten body of the boy who had thrown away his chances?

El Manek spoke. "I am not cruel, Daughter of the Dawn. I seek only to trade. This man, whom thou knowest, is worth five hundred pounds to me if I hand him to the agents of Sultan Abdel!"

Five hundred pounds! Elsie remembered her father's almost desperate financial position.

"Yet money is not my need," El Manek went on, his tiger-brown eyes shifting again to the glowing lump of pure amber, lying on Dan's desk within the trade-room.

Elsie knew what was coming.

"Give me the piece of amber," he went on, indicating the shining, glowing mass on her father's desk, "in return for this prisoner! Then I will go my way leaving him in thy care."

Elsie's fingers closed about the verandah rail. In the dark of her young brain was the knowledge that this slow-voiced Arab was demanding all that stood between her dour, hard-pressed parent and practical ruin. The cash for its purchase had been borrowed at almost ruinous interest from an Assyrian trader.

The thought blanched her.

He seemed to read the cause of her hesitation to accept his offer. By Allah she needed a spur! With the speed of a wolf he turned to his followers at the gate.

"Move on with this white dog! There is nothing here for us! Elsewhere his body will bring the reward!"

El Manek was outside the gate now, adjusting his big riding saddle, shortening the long halter that bound Templeton to his pommel.

The camels grunted protestingly as the drivers swung their rawhide whips once more to the moonlit sands of the Algerian Sahara.

All the blood drained from Elsie's cheeks. Templeton turned for a moment to the lights of the tradehouse as a drowning mariner looks at a fast disappearing ship. Every step into the desert widened the gap.

This time there could be no return!

The rope jerked him to his knees as El Manek's big camel plunged forward. Not a sound escaped him. His fine eyes seemed steeped in misery, his chin sunk to the little cross on his breast.

He had seen Elsie's slim figure in the trade-house lights. He could not even guess what had passed between her and El Manek. All he knew was that one's dreams never came true.

Ahead lay thirst, blows and finally a bullet—if his lucky star held. His young teeth snapped as he flung into line with the swinging, lashing pack beasts in his rear.

God! Why had they revealed his hopeless defeat to a woman with pitying eyes?


A WHITE shape was running in the wake of the fast disappearing camel train. It was Elsie's voice that called across the hoof- trodden sands.

"Stop! I was wrong to let you go. Here is what you ask!"

El Manek halted his camel, slipped from the saddle and stood before the quick-breathing girl. In her hand was the glowing, honey-coloured piece of amber. He took it with a grin, and then, with a slash of his knife, severed the rope that bound Templeton to his saddle.

Elsie's hands went out to his swaying shoulders as the disappearing camel train left them alone in the moonlit sands.

The fragrance of her hair stole into his fainting blood as they reached the stockade gate. Elsie led him to the cool room where she had waited and dreamed during the long hot summer for a sign of his return.

El Manek uttered an Arab oath at the moment Elsie and Templeton gained the tradehouse. A black, clawing figure had risen from the sands and was clutching his driving rein.

"Nabbon!" He glared down at the old witch as the team halted, the drivers staring in superstitious amaze at her furious fingers and flaming eyes.

Her long black fingers had closed over the piece of amber in his fist. He had raised his rawhide to strike her from his path. Something in her furious cat-like writhings checked him. He was conscious that she had torn the amber from his paralysed grip, that she was holding it to the powerful rays of the desert moon.

"Thief!" she accused, her long bony fingers playing over the luminous surface of the amber "Turn thy evil eyes into this well of light!" She held up the glowing mass to his frightened stare.

"Gaze into the heart of the light, jackal of the sands! Maybe thou wilt see the face of thy dead son whom Abdel's butchers led away!"

El Manek would have struck with his rawhide and flung the writhing sorceress into the drifts. But she was holding the spheroid of moon-whitened amber above the whip, was clinging to the neck of his camel with the tenacity of a panthress.

Hypnotised he glared into the depths of ghost-pale amber, half-dazzled, awed, but cursing under his breath.

Was if the moonlight or her twirling black fingers that gave life to the glowing sphere of amber? Within its smoky depths leered the faces of dead slaves and hunted women, the streaming eyes of fear-crazed native children. Hundreds and hundreds of them, and then—.

The witch thrust the amber closer to his blanched eyes, as the face of his son showed in the fuming depths of colour, the boy who had gone with the Sultan's armies to fill a grave on the Oureq.

At his sick gesture she drew away the amber.

"Begone!" His lips barely shaped the word. "Thou devil- cat!"

The old witch stood firm under the white glow of the desert moon. "Begone, thou, El Manek! Cover thy wicked head. Tempt not devils when they bid thee go in peace!" she retorted.

The drivers in the rear sheltered their eyes from her baleful stare, from the whitely glowing mirror of death in her shaking claw.

At a sign from El Manek they moved on. Once or twice he looked back apprehensively at the old witch, hobbling across the sands, the piece of magic amber in her shut claw. Inshallah! It was not a thing to have in one's tent! Yet he prayed that the Prophet would scourge her body before many dawns had passed.


IT was very still on the trade-house verandah where Elsie sat with Templeton settled in a low, cushioned chair. A little food had acted like magic on his overwrought senses. Already in his boyish exuberance he was inclined to laugh over the bitter hardships he had recently endured.

What was it Elsie had given to El Manek that had caused the old slave-runner to cut him loose? Elsie evaded the question. It was nothing, she said a piece of mineral stuff Manek had begged her to give him from the store. Often these Arabs set value on a piece of worthless stuff lying on the tables.

Elsie's joy at Bede's deliverance was not without misgiving. The thought of her father's dismay and anger at the loss of the precious amber began to cheat the moments of their aching delight. If she had given away a piece of cloth, a bolt of silk, Dan might never have guessed. She saw his buckling brows, his scowling surprise when he found the amber gone from his desk.

A crunching of feet in the path warned Elsie that her father had returned. His bent shadow slanted across the verandah. The rifle he carried was slammed into the hall rack. Behind him came Mr. Drummond, the District Commissioner. The Commissioner's glance went straight to Templeton in the low-cushioned chair.

But Elsie had eyes only for her father. He appeared fretted and worn. His visit to Makaran to raise money had failed. Her heart gave a little twisting leap. Mr. Drummond's voice, as he leaned over Templeton's chair, barely reached her.

"Gad, boy; we'd given you up! Of course, we're sorry your father's gone. The estate is, er, unentailed if I may say so. There has been no litigation. Everything goes to your good self, a matter of fifteen thousand a year. Dammit, boy, you've given the consulates no end of trouble!"

He shook hands violently with the dumb-founded boy in the chair.

Dan Findlay emerged suddenly from the traderoom, a haggard look in his face as be signed to Elsie.

"The amber's gone!" he flung out. "I forgot to lock it up!"

Silence that was like an unspoken tragedy froze Elsie as her father turned with a sick gesture from the room. How could she explain?

Templeton was listening to the loud voice of the District Commissioner. Yet he heard Elsie's soft breathing beside him, felt something of the sudden anguish that had come upon her.

And then a black claw was thrust through the dark foliage beside the verandah, where he sat. A lump of shining amber fell into his hand. The voice of Nabbon, the witch, came from the shadows.

"It was the price of thy life, effendi! Only for it thou wouldst now be on thy way to the execution grounds of the Red Sultan! Never, never must thou forget that!"

A long drawn sigh escaped Nabbon as she vanished in the shadows of the Hafiz road.

Templeton stood up with Elsie's half-fainting form drawn to him. His voice broke the almost savage silence.

"Ahoy, there, Findlay!" he called. "Are you looking for a lump of amber?"

The startled face of Dan Findlay appeared in the doorway of the room. His eyes leaped towards the precious object in Templeton's hand.

A sharp pause.

"You see, Findlay," Templeton spoke at last, "I want to come into your business. And this piece of amber is going to be my first gift to Elsie. Will you let me come into your business, Dan?" His voice was oddly wistful.

The District Commissioner broke in unexpectedly. "You may draw on the Consulate for ten thousand pounds, to-morrow, Templeton," he said, lighting a big cheroot, "The money's there!"

The beaten look went out of Dan Findlay's eyes as Templeton drew Elsie closer to his breast. Perhaps Dan's answer did not matter, after all. The fragrant night was too full of the melody in Elsie's heart to heed other sounds.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.