Book II
Chapter IX. The Letter, the Night, and the Woman
 

"To-day has come the fulfilment of my dream, Faith. I am given to my appointed task; I am set on a road of life in which there is no looking back. My dreams of the past are here begun in very truth and fact. When, in the night, I heard Uncle Benn calling, when in the Meeting-house voices said, 'Come away, come away, and labour, thou art idle,' I could hear my heart beat in the ardour to be off. Yet I knew not whither. Now I know.

"Last night the Prince Pasha called me to his Council, made me adviser, confidant, as one who has the ear of his captain--after he had come to terms with me upon that which Uncle Benn left of land and gold. Think not that he tempted me.

"Last night I saw favourites look upon me with hate because of Kaid's favour, though the great hall was filled with show of cheerful splendour, and men smiled and feasted. To-day I know that in the Palace where I was summoned to my first: duty with the Prince, every step I took was shadowed, every motion recorded, every look or word noted and set down. I have no fear of them. They are not subtle enough for the unexpected acts of honesty in the life of a true man. Yet I do not wonder men fail to keep honest in the midst of this splendour, where all is strife as to who shall have the Prince's favour; who shall enjoy the fruits of bribery, backsheesh, and monopoly; who shall wring from the slave and the toil-ridden fellah the coin his poor body mints at the corvee, in his own taxed fields of dourha and cucumbers.

"Is this like anything we ever dreamed at Hamley, Faith? Yet here am I set, and here shall I stay till the skein be ravelled out. Soon I shall go into the desert upon a mission to the cities of the South, to Dongola, Khartoum, and Darfur and beyond; for there is trouble yonder, and war is near, unless it is given to me to bring peace. So I must bend to my study of Arabic, which I am thankful I learned long ago. And I must not forget to say that I shall take with me on my journey that faithful Muslim Ebn Ezra. Others I shall take also, but of them I shall write hereafter.

"I shall henceforth be moving in the midst of things which I was taught to hate. I pray that I may not hate them less as time goes on. To-morrow I shall breathe the air of intrigue, shall hear footsteps of spies behind me wherever I go; shall know that even the roses in the garden have ears; that the ground under my feet will telegraph my thoughts. Shall I be true? Shall I at last whisper, and follow, and evade, believe in no one, much less in myself, steal in and out of men's confidences to use them for my own purposes? Does any human being know what he can bear of temptation or of the daily pressure of the life around him? what powers of resistance are in his soul? how long the vital energy will continue to throw off the never-ending seduction, the freshening force of evil? Therein lies the power of evil, that it is ever new, ever fortified by continuous conquest and achievements. It has the rare fire of aggression; is ever more upon the offence than upon the defence; has, withal, the false lure of freedom from restraint, the throbbing force of sympathy.

"Such things I dreamed not of in Soolsby's but upon the hill, Faith, though, indeed, that seemed a time of trial and sore-heartedness. How large do small issues seem till we have faced the momentous things! It is true that the larger life has pleasures and expanding capacities; but it is truer still that it has perils, events which try the soul as it is never tried in the smaller life--unless, indeed, the soul be that of the Epicurean. The Epicurean I well understand, and in his way I might have walked with a wicked grace. I have in me some hidden depths of luxury, a secret heart of pleasure, an understanding for the forbidden thing. I could have walked the broad way with a laughing heart, though, in truth, habit of mind and desire have kept me in the better path. But offences must come, and woe to him from whom the offence cometh! I have begun now, and only now, to feel the storms that shake us to our farthest cells of life. I begin to see how near good is to evil; how near faith is to unfaith; and how difficult it is to judge from actions only; how little we can know to-day what we shall feel tomorrow. Yet one must learn to see deeper, to find motive, not in acts that shake the faith, but in character which needs no explanation, which--"

He paused, disturbed. Then he raised his head, as though not conscious of what was breaking the course of his thoughts. Presently he realised a low, hurried knocking at his door. He threw a hand over his eyes, and sprang up. An instant later the figure of a woman, deeply veiled, stood within the room, beside the table where he had been writing. There was silence as they faced each other, his back against the door.

"Oh, do you not know me?" she said at last, and sank into the chair where he had been sitting.

The question was unnecessary, and she knew it was so; but she could not bear the strain of the silence. She seemed to have risen out of the letter he had been writing; and had he not been writing of her--of what concerned them both? How mean and small-hearted he had been, to have thought for an instant that she had not the highest courage, though in going she had done the discreeter, safer thing. But she had come--she had come!

All this was in his eyes, though his face was pale and still. He was almost rigid with emotion, for the ancient habit of repose and self- command of the Quaker people was upon him.

"Can you not see--do you not know?" she repeated, her back upon him now, her face still veiled, her hands making a swift motion of distress.

"Has thee found in the past that thee is so soon forgotten?"

"Oh, do not blame me!" She raised her veil suddenly, and showed a face as pale as his own, and in the eyes a fiery brightness. "I did not know. It was so hard to come--do not blame me. I went to Alexandria--I felt that I must fly; the air around me seemed full of voices crying out. Did you not understand why I went?"

"I understand," he said, coming forward slowly. "Thee should not have returned. In the way I go now the watchers go also."

"If I had not come, you would never have understood," she answered quickly. "I am not sorry I went. I was so frightened, so shaken. My only thought was to get away from the terrible Thing. But I should have been sorry all my life long had I not come back to tell you what I feel, and that I shall never forget. All my life I shall be grateful. You have saved me from a thousand deaths. Ah, if I could give you but one life! Yet--yet--oh, do not think but that I would tell you the whole truth, though I am not wholly truthful. See, I love my place in the world more than I love my life; and but for you I should have lost all."

He made a protesting motion. "The debt is mine, in truth. But for you I should never have known what, perhaps--" He paused.

His eyes were on hers, gravely speaking what his tongue faltered to say. She looked and looked, but did not understand. She only saw troubled depths, lighted by a soul of kindling purpose. "Tell me," she said, awed.

"Through you I have come to know--" He paused again. What he was going to say, truthful though it was, must hurt her, and she had been sorely hurt already. He put his thoughts more gently, more vaguely.

"By what happened I have come to see what matters in life. I was behind the hedge. I have broken through upon the road. I know my goal now. The highway is before me."

She felt the tragedy in his words, and her voice shook as she spoke. "I wish I knew life better. Then I could make a better answer. You are on the road, you say. But I feel that it is a hard and cruel road--oh, I understand that at least! Tell me, please, tell me the whole truth. You are hiding from me what you feel. I have upset your life, have I not? You are a Quaker, and Quakers are better than all other Christian people, are they not? Their faith is peace, and for me, you--" She covered her face with her hands for an instant, but turned quickly and looked him in the eyes: "For me you put your hand upon the clock of a man's life, and stopped it."

She got to her feet with a passionate gesture, but he put a hand gently upon her arm, and she sank back again. "Oh, it was not you; it was I who did it!" she said. "You did what any man of honour would have done, what a brother would have done."

"What I did is a matter for myself only," he responded quickly. "Had I never seen your face again it would have been the same. You were the occasion; the thing I did had only one source, my own heart and mind. There might have been another way; but for that way, or for the way I did take, you could not be responsible."

"How generous you are!" Her eyes swam with tears; she leaned over the table where he had been writing, and the tears dropped upon his letter. Presently she realised this, and drew back, then made as though to dry the tears from the paper with her handkerchief. As she did so the words that he had written met her eye: "'But offences must come, and woe to him from whom the offence cometh!' I have begun now, and only now, to feel the storms that shake us to our farthest cells of life."

She became very still. He touched her arm and said heavily: "Come away, come away."

She pointed to the words she had read. "I could not help but see, and now I know what this must mean to you."

"Thee must go at once," he urged. "Thee should not have come. Thee was safe--none knew. A few hours and it would all have been far behind. We might never have met again."

Suddenly she gave a low, hysterical laugh. "You think you hide the real thing from me. I know I'm ignorant and selfish and feeble-minded, but I can see farther than you think. You want to tell the truth about--about it, because you are honest and hate hiding things, because you want to be punished, and so pay the price. Oh, I can understand! If it were not for me you would not. . . . " With a sudden wild impulse she got to her feet. "And you shall not," she cried. "I will not have it." Colour came rushing to her cheeks.

"I will not have it. I will not put myself so much in your debt. I will not demand so much of you. I will face it all. I will stand alone."

There was a touch of indignation in her voice. Somehow she seemed moved to anger against him. Her hands were clasped at her side rigidly, her pulses throbbing. He stood looking at her fixedly, as though trying to realise her. His silence agitated her still further, and she spoke excitedly:

"I could have, would have, killed him myself without a moment's regret. He had planned, planned--ah, God, can you not see it all! I would have taken his life without a thought. I was mad to go upon such an adventure, but I meant no ill. I had not one thought that I could not have cried out from the housetops, and he had in his heart--he had what you saw. But you repent that you killed him--by accident, it was by accident. Do you realise how many times others have been trapped by him as was I? Do you not see what he was--as I see now? Did he not say as much to me before you came, when I was dumb with terror? Did he not make me understand what his whole life had been? Did I not see in a flash the women whose lives he had spoiled and killed? Would I have had pity? Would I have had remorse? No, no, no! I was frightened when it was done, I was horrified, but I was not sorry; and I am not sorry. It was to be. It was thetrue end to his vileness. Ah!"

She shuddered, and buried her face in her hands for a moment, then went on: "I can never forgive myself for going to the Palace with him. I was mad for experience, for mystery; I wanted more than the ordinary share of knowledge. I wanted to probe things. Yet I meant no wrong. I thought then nothing of which I shall ever be ashamed. But I shall always be ashamed because I knew him, because he thought that I--oh, if I were a man, I should be glad that I had killed him, for the sake of all honest women!"

He remained silent. His look was not upon her, he seemed lost in a dream; but his face was fixed in trouble.

She misunderstood his silence. "You had the courage, the impulse to--to do it," she said keenly; "you have not the courage to justify it. I will not have it so.

"I will tell the truth to all the world. I will not shrink I shrank yesterday because I was afraid of the world; to-day I will face it, I will--"

She stopped suddenly, and another look flashed into her face. Presently she spoke in a different tone; a new light had come upon her mind. "But I see," she added. "To tell all is to make you the victim, too, of what he did. It is in your hands; it is all in your hands; and I cannot speak unless--unless you are ready also."

There was an unintended touch of scorn in her voice. She had been troubled and tried beyond bearing, and her impulsive nature revolted at his silence. She misunderstood him, or, if she did not wholly misunderstand him, she was angry at what she thought was a needless remorse or sensitiveness. Did not the man deserve his end?

"There is only one course to pursue," he rejoined quietly, "and that is the course we entered upon last night. I neither doubted yourself nor your courage. Thee must not turn back now. Thee must not alter the course which was your own making, and the only course which thee could, or I should, take. I have planned my life according to the word I gave you. I could not turn back now. We are strangers, and we must remain so. Thee will go from here now, and we must not meet again. I am--"

"I know who you are," she broke in. "I know what your religion is; that fighting and war and bloodshed is a sin to you."

"I am of no family or place in England," he went on calmly. "I come of yeoman and trading stock; I have nothing in common with people of rank. Our lines of life will not cross. It is well that it should be so. As to what happened--that which I may feel has nothing to do with whether I was justified or no. But if thee has thought that I have repented doing what I did, let that pass for ever from your mind. I know that I should do the same, yes, even a hundred times. I did according to my nature. Thee must not now be punished cruelly for a thing thee did not do. Silence is the only way of safety or of justice. We must not speak of this again. We must each go our own way."

Her eyes were moist. She reached out a hand to him timidly. "Oh, forgive me," she added brokenly, "I am so vain, so selfish, and that makes one blind to the truth. It is all clearer now. You have shown me that I was right in my first impulse, and that is all I can say for myself. I shall pray all my life that it will do you no harm in the end."

She remained silent, for a moment adjusting her veil, preparing to go. Presently she spoke again: "I shall always want to know about you--what is happening to you. How could it be otherwise?"

She was half realising one of the deepest things in existence, that the closest bond between two human beings is a bond of secrecy upon a thing which vitally, fatally concerns both or either. It is a power at once malevolent and beautiful. A secret like that of David and Hylda will do in a day what a score of years could not accomplish, will insinuate confidences which might never be given to the nearest or dearest. In neither was any feeling of the heart begotten by their experiences; and yet they had gone deeper in each other's lives than any one either had known in a lifetime. They had struck a deeper note than love or friendship. They had touched the chord of a secret and mutual experience which had gone so far that their lives would be influenced by it for ever after. Each understood this in a different way.

Hylda looked towards the letter lying on the table. It had raised in her mind, not a doubt, but an undefined, undefinable anxiety. He saw the glance, and said: "I was writing to one who has been as a sister to me. She was my mother's sister though she is almost as young as I. Her name is Faith. There is nothing there of what concerns thee and me, though it would make no difference if she knew." Suddenly a thought seemed to strike him. "The secret is of thee and me. There is safety. If it became another's, there might be peril. The thing shall be between us only, for ever?"

"Do you think that I--"

"My instinct tells me a woman of sensitive mind might one day, out of an unmerciful honesty, tell her husband--"

"I am not married-"

"But one day--"

She interrupted him. "Sentimental egotism will not rule me. Tell me," she added, "tell me one thing before I go. You said that your course was set. What is it?"

"I remain here," he answered quietly. "I remain in the service of Prince Kaid."

"It is a dreadful government, an awful service--" "That is why I stay."

"You are going to try and change things here--you alone?"

"I hope not alone, in time."

"You are going to leave England, your friends, your family, your place-- in Hamley, was it not? My aunt has read of you--my cousin--" she paused.

"I had no place in Hamley. Here is my place. Distance has little to do with understanding or affection. I had an uncle here in the East for twenty-five years, yet I knew him better than all others in the world. Space is nothing if minds are in sympathy. My uncle talked to me over seas and lands. I felt him, heard him speak."

"You think that minds can speak to minds, no matter what the distance-- real and definite things?"

"If I were parted from one very dear to me, I would try to say to him or her what was in my mind, not by written word only, but by the flying thought."

She sat down suddenly, as though overwhelmed. "Oh, if that were possible!" she said. "If only one could send a thought like that!" Then with an impulse, and the flicker of a sad smile, she reached out a hand. "If ever in the years to come you want to speak to me, will you try to make me understand, as your uncle did with you?"

"I cannot tell," he answered. "That which is deepest within us obeys only the laws of its need. By instinct it turns to where help lies, as a wild deer, fleeing, from captivity, makes for the veldt and the watercourse."

She got to her feet again. "I want to pay my debt," she said solemnly. "It is a debt that one day must be paid--so awful--so awful!" A swift change passed over her. She shuddered, and grew white. "I said brave words just now," she added in a hoarse whisper, "but now I see him lying there cold and still, and you stooping over him. I see you touch his breast, his pulse. I see you close his eyes. One instant full of the pulse of life, the next struck out into infinite space. Oh, I shall never--how can I ever-forget!" She turned her head away from him, then composed herself again, and said quietly, with anxious eyes: "Why was nothing said or done? Perhaps they are only waiting. Perhaps they know. Why was it announced that he died in his bed at home?"

"I cannot tell. When a man in high places dies in Egypt, it may be one death or another. No one inquires too closely. He died in Kaid Pasha's Palace, where other men have died, and none has inquired too closely. To-day they told me at the Palace that his carriage was seen to leave with himself and Mizraim the Chief Eunuch. Whatever the object, he was secretly taken to his house from the Palace, and his brother Nahoum seized upon his estate in the early morning.

"I think that no one knows the truth. But it is all in the hands of God. We can do nothing more. Thee must go. Thee should not have come. In England thee will forget, as thee should forget. In Egypt I shall remember, as I should remember."

"Thee," she repeated softly. "I love the Quaker thee. My grandmother was an American Quaker. She always spoke like that. Will you not use thee and thou in speaking to me, always?"

"We are not likely to speak together in any language in the future," he answered. "But now thee must go, and I will--"

"My cousin, Mr. Lacey, is waiting for me in the garden," she answered. "I shall be safe with him." She moved towards the door. He caught the handle to turn it, when there came the noise of loud talking, and the sound of footsteps in the court-yard. He opened the door slightly and looked out, then closed it quickly. "It is Nahoum Pasha," he said. "Please, the other room," he added, and pointed to a curtain. "There is a window leading on a garden. The garden-gate opens on a street leading to the Ezbekiah Square and your hotel."

"But, no, I shall stay here," she said. She drew down her veil, then taking from her pocket another, arranged it also, so that her face was hidden.

"Thee must go," he said--"go quickly." Again he pointed.

"I will remain," she rejoined, with determination, and seated herself in a chair.