Excerpt of Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth
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When the figures were near enough to be distinguished, Somerville stepped out into the open so that they should see him as they followed the track toward the expedition house. They dismounted at a distance of a hundred paces or so and left the horses in the care of one of their number. The others, headed by Jehar, walked toward him, inclining their heads in greeting as they drew near. None would have dreamed of approaching mounted when the khwaja was on foot. Jehar, as always, would be the spokesman. The others drew around him in a half circle. The hoods of their cloaks were thrown back, but they wore the folds of the headcloths still drawn over the mouth against the cold they had ridden through. They would say nothing, but they would keep a close eye on the sum handed over to Jehar; he was their employer, as the archaeologist was his, four being deemed a sufficient escort to ensure safe passage through lands in the main unfriendly, guard against ambush by day and depredation by night. Often enough, of course, they were themselves the raiders and despoilers; in their saddle slings they carried Mauser repeating rifles of recent make, weapons that had been issued to the Sultan's irregular cavalry units in Syria. But none of these men belonged to any unit at all, however irregular...
Jehar uncovered his face, which was handsome, narrow-boned, and level-browed, fierce in its serenity. "Oh noble one," he said in Arabic, the only language they had in common.
"Well," Somerville said, "speak out, why do you wait?" The delay, he knew, was more due to Jehar's relish for drama than to any diffidence about delivering unwelcome news.
Jehar raised his arms on either side. "Lord, the bridge is made, its claws have come to rest on our side of the Great River." He continued to gesture, lifting his arms higher, then lowering them to make the sweeping shape of an arc. "A great marvel, this bridge of the Germans," he said. "It is all made of steel, the span is greater than any floods can reach."
He looked keenly as he spoke at the face of the man before him, who had sustained the infliction of this news without change of expression. "Farther than ten throws of a stone," he said in a tone of wonder. "High in the sky, the sparrows cannot fly over it." He was disappointed by the other's failure to show feeling but not deceived by it; he was sensitive in certain ways and had understood very early in their acquaintance that the Englishman was one of those--he had met others in his time--whom Allah for reasons inscrutable to mortals had predisposed to feel singled out for harm. He was himself an optimist, blessed with a belief in his destiny. Only one such as he could set out to raise one hundred gold pounds, starting from nothing. This was the bride-price of the Circassian girl who filled his thoughts. He knew that this man was searching for treasure and was possessed by fear that the people of the railway would bring the line too close and take the treasure for themselves. It must be an enormous treasure, for one to spend so much on the finding of it. They had not found it yet; this was the third year they had come; they had dug down and down, but they had not found it yet...
"We were approached by a ghazwa of the Shammar people," he said. "A dozen men. They followed us for some miles and fired at us. We killed one and they fled, the cowards."
There was nothing in the attentive faces around him that could be taken to confirm or deny this story. Next time he spoke of it the Shammar raiding party would be fifty strong at least, the deaths five or six, and the encounter would already belong to the realm of legend.
"Now we will be pestered by his relatives with demands for blood money," Somerville said.
"No, no, they did not know us." For the first time Jehar glanced around at his companions, who all shook their heads.
"Well, we shall see. Now that the bridge is completed, have they started immediately to lay the rails on this side of the river?"
Excerpted from Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth Copyright © 2009 by Barry Unsworth. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.