Coming, it was indeed, with a mighty, wailing roar. Scarcely had we got ourselves into position, our backs to the blast and our mouths and noses buried after the fashion of camels in a similar predicament, the lion-skin covering our heads and bodies to the middle, with the paws tucked securely beneath us to prevent it from being blown away, when the storm leaped upon us furiously, bringing darkness in its train. There we lay for hour after hour, unable to see, unable to talk because of the roaring noise about us, and only from time to time lifting ourselves a little upon our hands and knees to disturb the weight of sand that accumulated on our bodies, lest it should encase us in a living tomb.
Dreadful were the miseries we suffered—the misery of the heat beneath the stinking pelt of the lion, the misery of the dust-laden air that choked us almost to suffocation, the misery of thirst, for we could not get at our scanty supply of water to drink. But worst of all perhaps, was the pain caused by the continual friction of the sharp sand driven along at hurricane speed, which, incredible as it may seem, finally wore holes in our thin clothing and filed our skins to rawness.
“No wonder the Egyptian monuments get such a beautiful shine on them,” I heard poor Higgs muttering in my ear again and again, for he was growing light-headed; “no wonder, no wonder! My shin-bones will be very useful to polish Quick’s tall riding-boots. Oh! curse the lions. Why did you help me to salt, you old ass; why did you help me to salt? It’s pickling me behind.”
Then he became quite incoherent, and only groaned from time to time.
Perhaps, however, this suffering did us a service, since otherwise exhaustion, thirst, and dust might have overwhelmed our senses, and caused us to fall into a sleep from which we never should have awakened. Yet at the time we were not grateful to it, for at last the agony became almost unbearable. Indeed, Orme told me afterwards that the last thing he could remember was a quaint fancy that he had made a colossal fortune by selling the secret of a new torture to the Chinese—that of hot sand driven on to the victim by a continuous blast of hot air.
After a while we lost count of time, nor was it until later that we learned that the storm endured for full twenty hours, during the latter part of which, notwithstanding our manifold sufferings, we must have become more or less insensible. At any rate, at one moment I remembered the awful roar and the stinging of the sand whips, followed by a kind of vision of the face of my son—that beloved, long-lost son whom I had sought for so many years, and for whose sake I endured all these things. Then, without any interval, as it were, I felt my limbs being scorched as though by hot irons or through a burning-glass, and with a fearful effort staggered up to find that the storm had passed, and that the furious sun was blistering my excoriated skin. Rubbing the caked dirt from my eyes, I looked down to see two mounds like those of graves, out of which projected legs that had been white. Just then one pair of legs, the longer pair, stirred, the sand heaved up convulsively, and, uttering wandering words in a choky voice, there arose the figure of Oliver Orme.