The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter X. The Four Who Knew
There was a knocking at the door. David opened it. Nahoum Pasha stepped inside, and stood still a moment looking at Hylda. Then he made low salutation to her, touched his hand to his lips and breast saluting David, and waited.
"What is thy business, pasha?" asked David quietly, and motioned towards a chair.
"May thy path be on the high hills, Saadat-el-basha. I come for a favour at thy hands." Nahoum sat down. "What favour is mine to give to Nahoum Pasha?"
"The Prince has given thee supreme place--it was mine but yesterday. It is well. To the deserving be the fruits of deserving."
"Is merit, then, so truly rewarded here?" asked David quietly.
"The Prince saw merit at last when he chose your Excellency for councillor."
"How shall I show merit, then, in the eyes of Nahoum Pasha?"
"Even by urging the Prince to give me place under him again. Not as heretofore--that is thy place--yet where it may be. I have capacity. I can aid thee in the great task. Thou wouldst remake our Egypt--and my heart is with you. I would rescue, not destroy. In years gone by I tried to do good to this land, and I failed. I was alone. I had not the strength to fight the forces around me. I was overcome. I had too little faith. But my heart was with the right--I am an Armenian and a Christian of the ancient faith. I am in sorrow. Death has humbled me. My brother Foorgat Bey--may flowers bloom for ever on his grave!--he is dead,"--his eyes were fixed on those of David, as with a perfectly assured candour--"and my heart is like an empty house. But man must not be idle and live--if Kaid lets me live. I have riches. Are not Foorgat's riches mine, his Palace, his gardens, his cattle, and his plantations, are they not mine? I may sit in the court-yard and hear the singers, may listen to the tale-tellers by the light of the moon; I may hear the tales of Al-Raschid chanted by one whose tongue never falters, and whose voice is like music; after the manner of the East I may give bread and meat to the poor at sunset; I may call the dancers to the feast. But what comfort shall it give? I am no longer a youth. I would work. I would labour for the land of Egypt, for by work shall we fulfil ourselves, redeem ourselves. Saadat, I would labour, but my master has taken away from me the anvil, the fire, and the hammer, and I sit without the door like an armless beggar. What work to do in Egypt save to help the land, and how shall one help, save in the Prince's service? There can be no reform from outside. If I laboured for better things outside Kaid's Palace, how long dost thou think I should escape the Nile, or the diamond-dust in my coffee? The work which I did, is it not so that it, with much more, falls now to thy hands, Saadat, with a confidence from Kaid that never was mine?"
"I sought not the office."
"Have I a word of blame? I come to ask for work to do with thee. Do I not know Prince Kaid? He had come to distrust us all. As stale water were we in his taste. He had no pleasure in us, and in our deeds he found only stones of stumbling. He knew not whom to trust. One by one we all had yielded to ceaseless intrigue and common distrust of each other, until no honest man was left; till all were intent to save their lives by holding power; for in this land to lose power is to lose life. No man who has been in high place, has had the secrets of the Palace and the ear of the Prince, lives after he has lost favour. The Prince, for his safety, must ensure silence, and the only silence in Egypt is the grave. In thee, Saadat, Kaid has found an honest man. Men will call thee mad, if thou remainest honest, but that is within thine own bosom and with fate. For me, thou hast taken my place, and more. Malaish, it is the decree of fate, and I have no anger. I come to ask thee to save my life, and then to give me work."
"How shall I save thy life?"
"By reconciling the Effendina to my living, and then by giving me service, where I shall be near to thee; where I can share with thee, though it be as the ant beside the beaver, the work of salvation in Egypt. I am rich since my brother was--" He paused; no covert look was in his eyes, no sign of knowledge, nothing but meditation and sorrowful frankness--"since Foorgat passed away in peace, praise be to God! He lay on his bed in the morning, when one came to wake him, like a sleeping child, no sign of the struggle of death upon him."
A gasping sound came from the chair where Hylda sat; but he took no notice. He appeared to be unconscious of David's pain-drawn face, as he sat with hands upon his knees, his head bent forward listening, as though lost to the world.
"So did Foorgat, my brother, die while yet in the fulness of his manhood, life beating high in his veins, with years before him to waste. He was a pleasure-lover, alas! he laid up no treasure of work accomplished; and so it was meet that he should die as he lived, in a moment of ease. And already he is forgotten. It is the custom here. He might have died by diamond-dust, and men would have set down their coffee-cups in surprise, and then would have forgotten; or he might have been struck down by the hand of an assassin, and, unless it was in the Palace, none would have paused to note it. And so the sands sweep over his steps upon the shore of time."
After the first exclamation of horror, Hylda had sat rigid, listening as though under a spell. Through her veil she gazed at Nahoum with a cramping pain at her heart, for he seemed ever on the verge of the truth she dreaded; and when he spoke the truth, as though unconsciously, she felt she must cry out and rush from the room. He recalled to her the scene in the little tapestried room as vividly as though it was there before her eyes, and it had for the moment all the effect of a hideous nightmare. At last, however, she met David's eyes, and they guided her, for in them was a steady strength and force which gave her confidence. At first he also had been overcome inwardly, but his nerves were cool, his head was clear, and he listened to Nahoum, thinking out his course meanwhile.
He owed this man much. He had taken his place, and by so doing had placed his life in danger. He had killed the brother upon the same day that he had dispossessed the favourite of office; and the debt was heavy. In office Nahoum had done after his kind, after the custom of the place and the people; and yet, as it would seem, the man had had stirrings within him towards a higher path. He, at any rate, had not amassed riches out of his position, and so much could not be said of any other servant of the Prince Pasha. Much he had heard of Nahoum's powerful will, hidden under a genial exterior, and behind his friendly, smiling blue eyes. He had heard also of cruelty--of banishment, and of enemies removed from his path suddenly, never to be seen again; but, on the whole, men spoke with more admiration of him than of any other public servant, Armenian Christian in a Mahommedan country though he was. That very day Kaid had said that if Nahoum had been less eager to control the State, he might still have held his place. Besides, the man was a Christian--of a mystic, half-legendary, obscure Christianity; yet having in his mind the old faith, its essence and its meaning, perhaps. Might not this Oriental mind, with that faith, be a power to redeem the land? It was a wonderful dream, in which he found the way, as he thought, to atone somewhat to this man for a dark injury done.
When Nahoum stopped speaking David said: "But if I would have it, if it were well that it should be, I doubt I have the power to make it so."
"Saadat-el-bdsha, Kaid believes in thee to-day; he will not believe to-morrow if thou dost remain without initiative. Action, however startling, will be proof of fitness. His Highness shakes a long spear. Those who ride with him must do battle with the same valour. Excellency, I have now great riches--since Death smote Foorgat Bey in the forehead" --still his eyes conveyed no meaning, though Hylda shrank back--"and I would use them for the good thou wouldst do here. Money will be needed, and sufficient will not be at thy hand-not till new ledgers be opened, new balances struck."
He turned to Hylda quietly, and with a continued air of innocence said: "Shall it not be so-madame? Thou, I doubt not, are of his kin. It would seem so, though I ask pardon if it be not so--wilt thou not urge his Excellency to restore me to Kaid's favour? I know little of the English, though I know them humane and honest; but my brother, Foorgat Bey, he was much among them, lived much in England, was a friend to many great English. Indeed, on the evening that he died I saw him in the gallery of the banquet-room with an English lady--can one be mistaken in an English face? Perhaps he cared for her; perhaps that was why he smiled as he lay upon his bed, never to move again. Madame, perhaps in England thou mayst have known my brother. If that is so, I ask thee to speak for me to his Excellency. My life is in danger, and I am too young to go as my brother went. I do not wish to die in middle age, as my brother died."
He had gone too far. In David's mind there was no suspicion that Nahoum knew the truth. The suggestion in his words had seemed natural; but, from the first, a sharp suspicion was in the mind of Hylda, and his last words had convinced her that if Nahoum did not surely know the truth, he suspected it all too well. Her instinct had pierced far; and as she realised his suspicions, perhaps his certainty, and heard his words of covert insult, which, as she saw, David did not appreciate, anger and determination grew in her. Yet she felt that caution must mark her words, and that nothing but danger lay in resentment. She felt the everlasting indignity behind the quiet, youthful eyes, the determined power of the man; but she saw also that, for the present, the course Nahoum suggested was the only course to take. And David must not even feel the suspicion in her own mind, that Nahoum knew or suspected the truth. If David thought that Nahoum knew, the end of all would come at once. It was clear, however, that Nahoum meant to be silent, or he would have taken another course of action. Danger lay in every direction, but, to her mind, the least danger lay in following Nahoum's wish.
She slowly raised her veil, showing a face very still now, with eyes as steady as David's. David started at her action, he thought it rash; but the courage of it pleased him, too.
"You are not mistaken," she said slowly in French; "your brother was known to me. I had met him in England. It will be a relief to all his friends to know that he passed away peacefully." She looked him in the eyes determinedly. "Monsieur Claridge is not my kinsman, but he is my fellow-countryman. If you mean well by monsieur, your knowledge and your riches should help him on his way. But your past is no guarantee of good faith, as you will acknowledge."
He looked her in the eyes with a far meaning. "But I am giving guarantees of good faith now," he said softly. "Will you--not?"
She understood. It was clear that he meant peace, for the moment at least.
"If I had influence I would advise him to reconcile you to Prince Kaid," she said quietly, then turned to David with an appeal in her eyes.
David stood up. "I will do what I can," he said. "If thee means as well by Egypt as I mean by thee, all may be well for all."
"Saadat! Saadat!" said Nahoum, with show of assumed feeling, and made salutation. Then to Hylda, making lower salutation still, he said: "Thou hast lifted from my neck the yoke. Thou hast saved me from the shadow and the dust. I am thy slave." His eyes were like a child's, wide and confiding.
He turned towards the door, and was about to open it, when there came a knocking, and he stepped back. Hylda drew down her veil. David opened the door cautiously and admitted Mizraim the Chief Eunuch. Mizraim's eyes searched the room, and found Nahoum.
"Pasha," he said to Nahoum, "may thy bones never return to dust, nor the light of thine eyes darken! There is danger."
Nahoum nodded, but did not speak.
"Shall I speak, then?" He paused and made low salutation to David, saying, "Excellency, I am thine ox to be slain."
"Speak, son of the flowering oak," said Nahoum, with a sneer in his voice. "What blessing dost thou bring?"
"The Effendina has sent for thee."
Nahoum's eyes flashed. "By thee, lion of Abdin?" The lean, ghastly being smiled. "He has sent a company of soldiers and Achmet Pasha."
"Achmet! Is it so? They are here, Mizraim, watcher of the morning?"
"They are at thy palace--I am here, light of Egypt."
"How knewest thou I was here?"
Mizraim salaamed. "A watch was set upon thee this morning early. The watcher was of my slaves. He brought the word to me that thou wast here now. A watcher also was set upon thee, Excellency"--he turned to David. "He also was of my slaves. Word was delivered to his Highness that thou" --he turned to Nahoum again--"wast in thy palace, and Achmet Pasha went thither. He found thee not. Now the city is full of watchers, and Achmet goes from bazaar to bazaar, from house to house which thou was wont to frequent--and thou art here."
"What wouldst thou have me do, Mizraim?"
"Thou art here; is it the house of a friend or a foe?" Nahoum did not answer. His eyes were fixed in thought upon the floor, but he was smiling. He seemed without fear.
"But if this be the house of a friend, is he safe here?" asked David.
"For this night, it may be," answered Mizraim, "till other watchers be set, who are no slaves of mine. Tonight, here, of all places in Cairo, he is safe; for who could look to find him where thou art who hast taken from him his place and office, Excellency--on whom the stars shine for ever! But in another day, if my lord Nahoum be not forgiven by the Effendina, a hundred watchers will pierce the darkest corner of the bazaar, the smallest room in Cairo."
David turned to Nahoum. "Peace be to thee, friend. Abide here till to-morrow, when I will speak for thee to his Highness, and, I trust, bring thee pardon. It shall be so--but I shall prevail," he added, with slow decision; "I shall prevail with him. My reasons shall convince his Highness."
"I can help thee with great reasons, Saadat," said Nahoum. "Thou shalt prevail. I can tell thee that which will convince Kaid."
While they were speaking, Hylda had sat motionless watching. At first it seemed to her that a trap had been set, and that David was to be the victim of Oriental duplicity; but revolt, as she did, from the miserable creature before them, she saw at last that he spoke the truth.
"Thee will remain under this roof to-night, pasha?" asked David.
"I will stay if thy goodness will have it so," answered Nahoum slowly. "It is not my way to hide, but when the storm comes it is well to shelter."
Salaaming low, Mizraim withdrew, his last glance being thrown towards Hylda, who met his look with a repugnance which made her face rigid. She rose and put on her gloves. Nahoum rose also, and stood watching her respectfully.
"Thee will go?" asked David, with a movement towards her.
She inclined her head. "We have finished our business, and it is late," she answered.
David looked at Nahoum. "Thee will rest here, pasha, in peace. In a moment I will return." He took up his hat.
There was a sudden flash of Nahoum's eyes, as though he saw an outcome of the intention which pleased him, but Hylda, saw the flash, and her senses were at once alarmed.
"There is no need to accompany me," she said. "My cousin waits for me."
David opened the door leading into the court-yard. It was dark, save for the light of a brazier of coals. A short distance away, near the outer gate, glowed a star of red light, and the fragrance of a strong cigar came over.
"Say, looking for me?" said a voice, and a figure moved towards David. "Yours to command, pasha, yours to command." Lacey from Chicago held out his hand.
"Thee is welcome, friend," said David.
"She's ready, I suppose. Wonderful person, that. Stands on her own feet every time. She don't seem as though she came of the same stock as me, does she?"
"I will bring her if thee will wait, friend."
"I'm waiting." Lacey drew back to the gateway again and leaned against the wall, his cigar blazing in the dusk.
A moment later David appeared in the garden again, with the slim, graceful figure of the girl who stood "upon her own feet." David drew her aside for a moment. "Thee is going at once to England?" he asked.
"To-morrow to Alexandria. There is a steamer next day for Marseilles. In a fortnight more I shall be in England."
"Thee must forget Egypt," he said. "Remembrance is not a thing of the will," she answered.
"It is thy duty to forget. Thee is young, and it is spring with thee. Spring should be in thy heart. Thee has seen a shadow; but let it not fright thee."
"My only fear is that I may forget," she answered.
"Yet thee will forget."
With a motion towards Lacey he moved to the gate. Suddenly she turned to him and touched his arm. "You will be a great man herein Egypt," she said. "You will have enemies without number. The worst of your enemies always will be your guest to-night."
He did not, for a moment, understand. "Nahoum?" he asked. "I take his place. It would not be strange; but I will win him to me."
"You will never win him," she answered. "Oh, trust my instinct in this! Watch him. Beware of him." David smiled slightly. "I shall have need to beware of many. I am sure thee does well to caution me. Farewell," he added.
"If it should be that I can ever help you--" she said, and paused.
"Thee has helped me," he replied. "The world is a desert. Caravans from all quarters of the sun meet at the cross-roads. One gives the other food or drink or medicine, and they move on again. And all grows dim with time. And the camel-drivers are forgotten; but the cross-roads remain, and the food and the drink and the medicine and the cattle helped each caravan upon the way. Is it not enough?"
She placed her hand in his. It lay there for a moment. "God be with thee, friend," he said.
The next instant Thomas Tilman Lacey's drawling voice broke the silence.
"There's something catching about these nights in Egypt. I suppose it's the air. No wind--just the stars, and the ultramarine, and the nothing to do but lay me down and sleep. It doesn't give you the jim-jumps like Mexico. It makes you forget the world, doesn't it? You'd do things here that you wouldn't do anywhere else."
The gate was opened by the bowab, and the two passed through. David was standing by the brazier, his hand held unconsciously over the coals, his eyes turned towards them. The reddish flame from the fire lit up his face under the broad-brimmed hat. His head, slightly bowed, was thrust forward to the dusk. Hylda looked at him steadily for a moment. Their eyes met, though hers were in the shade. Again Lacey spoke. "Don't be anxious. I'll see her safe back. Good-bye. Give my love to the girls."
David stood looking at the closed gate with eyes full of thought and wonder and trouble. He was not thinking of the girl. There was no sentimental reverie in his look. Already his mind was engaged in scrutiny of the circumstances in which he was set. He realised fully his situation. The idealism which had been born with him had met its reward in a labour herculean at the least, and the infinite drudgery of the practical issues came in a terrible pressure of conviction to his mind. The mind did not shrink from any thought of the dangers in which he would be placed, from any vision of the struggle he must have with intrigue, and treachery and vileness. In a dim, half-realised way he felt that honesty and truth would be invincible weapons with a people who did not know them. They would be embarrassed, if not baffled, by a formula of life and conduct which they could not understand.
It was not these matters that vexed him now, but the underlying forces of life set in motion by the blow which killed a fellow-man. This fact had driven him to an act of redemption unparalleled in its intensity and scope; but he could not tell--and this was the thought that shook his being--how far this act itself, inspiring him to a dangerous and immense work in life, would sap the best that was in him, since it must remain a secret crime, for which he could not openly atone. He asked himself as he stood by the brazier, the bowab apathetically rolling cigarettes at his feet, whether, in the flow of circumstance, the fact that he could not make open restitution, or take punishment for his unlawful act, would undermine the structure of his character. He was on the threshold of his career: action had not yet begun; he was standing like a swimmer on a high shore, looking into depths beneath which have never been plumbed by mortal man, wondering what currents, what rocks, lay beneath the surface of the blue. Would his strength, his knowledge, his skill, be equal to the enterprise? Would he emerge safe and successful, or be carried away by some strong undercurrent, be battered on unseen rocks?
He turned with a calm face to the door behind which sat the displaced favourite of the Prince, his mind at rest, the trouble gone out of his eyes.
"Uncle Benn! Uncle Benn!" he said to himself, with a warmth at his heart as he opened the door and stepped inside.
Nahoum sat sipping coffee. A cigarette was between his fingers. He touched his hand to his forehead and his breast as David closed the door and hung his hat upon a nail. David's servant, Mahommed Hassan, whom he had had since first he came to Egypt, was gliding from the room--a large, square-shouldered fellow of over six feet, dressed in a plain blue yelek, but on his head the green turban of one who had done a pilgrimage to Mecca. Nahoum waved a hand after Mahommed and said:
"Whence came thy servant sadat?"
"He was my guide to Cairo. I picked him from the street."
Nahoum smiled. There was no malice in the smile, only, as it might seem, a frank humour. "Ah, your Excellency used independent judgment. Thou art a judge of men. But does it make any difference that the man is a thief and a murderer--a murderer?"
David's eyes darkened, as they were wont to do when he was moved or shocked.
"Shall one only deal, then, with those who have neither stolen nor slain --is that the rule of the just in Egypt?"
Nahoum raised his eyes to the ceiling as though in amiable inquiry, and began to finger a string of beads as a nun might tell her paternosters. "If that were the rule," he answered, after a moment, "how should any man be served in Egypt? Hereabouts is a man's life held cheap, else I had not been thy guest to-night; and Kaid's Palace itself would be empty, if every man in it must be honest. But it is the custom of the place for political errors to be punished by a hidden hand; we do not call it murder."
"What is murder, friend?"
"It is such a crime as that of Mahommed yonder, who killed--"
David interposed. "I do not wish to know his crime. That is no affair between thee and me."
Nahoum fingered his beads meditatively. "It was an affair of the housetops in his town of Manfaloot. I have only mentioned it because I know what view the English take of killing, and how set thou art to have thy household above reproach, as is meet in a Christian home. So, I took it, would be thy mind--which Heaven fill with light for Egypt's sake!-- that thou wouldst have none about thee who were not above reproach, neither liars, nor thieves, nor murderers."
"But thee would serve with me, friend," rejoined David quietly. "Thee has men's lives against thy account."
"Else had mine been against their account."
"Was it not so with Mahommed? If so, according to the custom of the land, then Mahommed is as immune as thou art."
"Saadat, like thee I am a Christian, yet am I also Oriental, and what is crime with one race is none with another. At the Palace two days past thou saidst thou hadst never killed a man; and I know that thy religion condemns killing even in war. Yet in Egypt thou wilt kill, or thou shalt thyself be killed, and thy aims will come to naught. When, as thou wouldst say, thou hast sinned, hast taken a man's life, then thou wilt understand. Thou wilt keep this fellow Mahommed, then?"
"I understand, and I will keep him."
"Surely thy heart is large and thy mind great. It moveth above small things. Thou dost not seek riches here?"
"I have enough; my wants are few."
"There is no precedent for one in office to withhold his hand from profit and backsheesh."
"Shall we not try to make a precedent?"
"Truthfulness will be desolate--like a bird blown to sea, beating 'gainst its doom."
"Truth will find an island in the sea."
"If Egypt is that sea, Saadat, there is no island."
David came over close to Nahoum, and looked him in the eyes.
"Surely I can speak to thee, friend, as to one understanding. Thou art a Christian--of the ancient fold. Out of the East came the light. Thy Church has preserved the faith. It is still like a lamp in the mist and the cloud in the East. Thou saidst but now that thy heart was with my purpose. Shall the truth that I would practise here not find an island in this sea--and shall it not be the soul of Nahoum Pasha?"
"Have I not given my word? Nay, then, I swear it by the tomb of my brother, whom Death met in the highway, and because he loved the sun, and the talk of men, and the ways of women, rashly smote him out of the garden of life into the void. Even by his tomb I swear it."
"Hast thou, then, such malice against Death? These things cannot happen save by the will of God."
"And by the hand of man. But I have no cause for revenge. Foorgat died in his sleep like a child. Yet if it had been the hand of man, Prince Kaid or any other, I would not have held my hand until I had a life for his."
"Thou art a Christian, yet thou wouldst meet one wrong by another?"
"I am an Oriental." Then, with a sudden change of manner, he added: "But thou hast a Christianity the like of which I have never seen. I will learn of thee, Saadat, and thou shalt learn of me also many things which I know. They will help thee to understand Egypt and the place where thou wilt be set--if so be my life is saved, and by thy hand."
Mahommed entered, and came to David. "Where wilt thou sleep, Saadat?" he asked.
"The pasha will sleep yonder," David replied, pointing to another room. "I will sleep here." He laid a hand upon the couch where he sat.
Nahoum rose and, salaaming, followed Mahommed to the other room.
In a few moments the house was still, and remained so for hours. Just before dawn the curtain of Nahoum's room was drawn aside, the Armenian entered stealthily, and moved a step towards the couch where David lay. Suddenly he was stopped by a sound. He glanced towards a corner near David's feet. There sat Mahommed watching, a neboot of dom-wood across his knees.
Their eyes remained fixed upon each other for a moment. Then Nahoum passed back into his bedroom as stealthily as he had come.
Mahommed looked closely at David. He lay with an arm thrown over his head, resting softly, a moisture on his forehead as on that of a sleeping child.
"Saadat! Saadat!" said Mahommed softly to the sleeping figure, scarcely above his breath, and then with his eyes upon the curtained room opposite, began to whisper words from the Koran:
"In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful--"