The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XI. Against the Hour of Midnight
Achmet the Ropemaker was ill at ease. He had been set a task in which he had failed. The bright Cairene sun starkly glittering on the French chandeliers and Viennese mirrors, and beating on the brass trays and braziers by the window, irritated him. He watched the flies on the wall abstractedly; he listened to the early peripatetic salesmen crying their wares in the streets leading to the Palace; he stroked his cadaverous cheek with yellow fingers; he listened anxiously for a footstep. Presently he straightened himself up, and his fingers ran down the front of his coat to make sure that it was buttoned from top to bottom. He grew a little paler. He was less stoical and apathetic than most Egyptians. Also he was absurdly vain, and he knew that his vanity would receive rough usage.
Now the door swung open, and a portly figure entered quickly. For so large a man Prince Kaid was light and subtle in his movements. His face was mobile, his eye keen and human.
Achmet salaamed low. "The gardens of the First Heaven be thine, and the uttermost joy, Effendina," he said elaborately.
"A thousand colours to the rainbow of thy happiness," answered Kaid mechanically, and seated himself cross-legged on a divan, taking a narghileh from the black slave who had glided ghostlike behind him.
"What hour didst thou find him? Where hast thou placed him?" he added, after a moment.
Achmet salaamed once more. "I have burrowed without ceasing, but the holes are empty, Effendina," he returned, abjectly and nervously.
He had need to be concerned. The reply was full of amazement and anger. "Thou hast not found him? Thou hast not brought Nahoum to me?" Kaid's eyes were growing reddish; no good sign for those around him, for any that crossed him or his purposes.
"A hundred eyes failed to search him out. Ten thousand piastres did not find him; the kourbash did not reveal him."
Kaid's frown grew heavier. "Thou shalt bring Nahoum to me by midnight to-morrow!"
"But if he has escaped, Effendina?" Achmet asked desperately. He had a peasant's blood; fear of power was ingrained.
"What was thy business but to prevent escape? Son of a Nile crocodile, if he has escaped, thou too shalt escape from Egypt--into Fazougli. Fool, Nahoum is no coward. He would remain. He is in Egypt."
"If he be in Egypt, I will find him, Effendina. Have I ever failed? When thou hast pointed, have I not brought? Have there not been many, Effendina? Should I not bring Nahoum, who has held over our heads the rod?"
Kaid looked at him meditatively, and gave no answer to the question. "He reached too far," he muttered. "Egypt has one master only."
The door opened softly and the black slave stole in. His lips moved, but scarce a sound travelled across the room. Kaid understood, and made a gesture. An instant afterwards the vast figure of Higli Pasha bulked into the room. Again there were elaborate salutations and salaams, and Kaid presently said:
"Effendina," answered High, "it is not known how he died. He was in this Palace alive at night. In the morning he was found in bed at his own home."
"There was no wound?"
"There was no mark, Effendina."
"There was no sign, Effendina."
"Impossible, Effendina. There was not time. He was alive and well here at the Palace at eleven, and--" Kaid made an impatient gesture. "By the stone in the Kaabah, but it is not reasonable that Foorgat should die in his bed like a babe and sleep himself into heaven! Fate meant him for a violent end; but ere that came there was work to do for me. He had a gift for scenting treason--and he had treasure." His eyes shut and opened again with a look not pleasant to see. "But since it was that he must die so soon, then the loan he promised must now be a gift from the dead, if he be dead, if he be not shamming. Foorgat was a dire jester."
"But now it is no jest, Effendina. He is in his grave."
"In his grave! Bismillah! In his grave, dost thou say?"
High's voice quavered. "Yesterday before sunset, Effendina. By Nahoum's orders."
"I ordered the burial for to-day. By the gates of hell, but who shall disobey me!"
"He was already buried when the Effendina's orders came," High pleaded anxiously.
"Nahoum should have been taken yesterday," he rejoined, with malice in his eyes.
"If I had received the orders of the Effendina on the night when the Effendina dismissed Nahoum--" Achmet said softly, and broke off.
"A curse upon thine eyes that did not see thy duty!" Kaid replied gloomily. Then he turned to High. "My seal has been put upon Foorgat's doors? His treasure-places have been found? The courts have been commanded as to his estate, the banks--"
"It was too late, Effendina," replied High hopelessly. Kaid got to his feet slowly, rage possessing him. "Too late! Who makes it too late when I command?"
"When Foorgat was found dead, Nahoum at once seized the palace and the treasures. Then he went to the courts and to the holy men, and claimed succession. That was while it was yet early morning. Then he instructed the banks. The banks hold Foorgat's fortune against us, Effendina."
"Foorgat had turned Mahommedan. Nahoum is a Christian. My will is law. Shall a Christian dog inherit from a true believer? The courts, the Wakfs shall obey me. And thou, son of a burnt father, shalt find Nahoum! Kaid shall not be cheated. Foorgat pledged the loan. It is mine. Allah scorch thine eyes!" he added fiercely to Achmet, "but thou shalt find this Christian gentleman, Nahoum."
Suddenly, with a motion of disgust, he sat down, and taking the stem of the narghileh, puffed vigorously in silence. Presently in a red fury he cried: "Go--go--go, and bring me back by midnight Nahoum, and Foorgat's treasures, to the last piastre. Let every soldier be a spy, if thine own spies fail."
As they turned to go, the door opened again, the black slave appeared, and ushered David into the room. David salaamed, but not low, and stood still.
On the instant Kaid changed, The rage left his face. He leaned forward eagerly, the cruel and ugly look faded slowly from his eyes.
"May thy days of life be as a river with sands of gold, effendi," he said gently. He had a voice like music. "May the sun shine in thy heart and fruits of wisdom flourish there, Effendina," answered David quietly. He saluted the others gravely, and his eyes rested upon Achmet in a way which Higli Pasha noted for subsequent gossip.
Kaid pulled at his narghileh for a moment, mumbling good-humouredly to himself and watching the smoke reel away; then, with half-shut eyes, he said to David: "Am I master in Egypt or no, effendi?"
"In ruling this people the Prince of Egypt stands alone," answered David. "There is no one between him and the people. There is no Parliament."
"It is in my hand, then, to give or to withhold, to make or to break?" Kaid chuckled to have this tribute, as he thought, from a Christian, who did not blink at Oriental facts, and was honest.
David bowed his head to Kaid's words.
"Then if it be my hand that lifts up or casts down, that rewards or that punishes, shall my arm not stretch into the darkest corner of Egypt to bring forth a traitor? Shall it not be so?"
"It belongs to thy power," answered David. "It is the ancient custom of princes here. Custom is law, while it is yet the custom."
Kaid looked at him enigmatically for a moment, then smiled grimly--he saw the course of the lance which David had thrown. He bent his look fiercely on Achmet and Higli. "Ye have heard. Truth is on his lips. I have stretched out my arm. Ye are my arm, to reach for and gather in Nahoum and all that is his." He turned quickly to David again. "I have given this hawk, Achmet, till to-morrow night to bring Nahoum to me," he explained.
"And if he fails--a penalty? He will lose his place?" asked David, with cold humour.
"More than his place," Kaid rejoined, with a cruel smile.
"Then is his place mine, Effendina," rejoined David, with a look which could give Achmet no comfort. "Thou will bring Nahoum--thou?" asked Kaid, in amazement.
"I have brought him," answered David. "Is it not my duty to know the will of the Effendina and to do it, when it is just and right?"
"Where is he--where does he wait?" questioned Kaid eagerly.
"Within the Palace--here," replied David. "He awaits his fate in thine own dwelling, Effendina." Kaid glowered upon Achmet. "In the years which Time, the Scytheman, will cut from thy life, think, as thou fastest at Ramadan or feastest at Beiram, how Kaid filled thy plate when thou wast a beggar, and made thee from a dog of a fellah into a pasha. Go to thy dwelling, and come here no more," he added sharply. "I am sick of thy yellow, sinful face."
Achmet made no reply, but, as he passed beyond the door with Higli, he said in a whisper: "Come--to Harrik and the army! He shall be deposed. The hour is at hand." High answered him faintly, however. He had not the courage of the true conspirator, traitor though he was.
As they disappeared, Kaid made a wide gesture of friendliness to David, and motioned to a seat, then to a narghileh. David seated himself, took the stem of a narghileh in his mouth for an instant, then laid it down again and waited.
"Nahoum--I do not understand," Kaid said presently, his eyes gloating.
"He comes of his own will, Effendina."
"Wherefore?" Kaid could not realise the truth. This truth was not Oriental on the face of it. "Effendina, he comes to place his life in thy hands. He would speak with thee."
"How is it thou dost bring him?"
"He sought me to plead for him with thee, and because I knew his peril, I kept him with me and brought him hither but now."
"Nahoum went to thee?" Kaid's eyes peered abstractedly into the distance between the almost shut lids. That Nahoum should seek David, who had displaced him from his high office, was scarcely Oriental, when his every cue was to have revenge on his rival. This was a natural sequence to his downfall. It was understandable. But here was David safe and sound. Was it, then, some deeper scheme of future vengeance? The Oriental instinctively pierced the mind of the Oriental. He could have realised fully the fierce, blinding passion for revenge which had almost overcome Nahoum's calculating mind in the dark night, with his foe in the next room, which had driven him suddenly from his bed to fall upon David, only to find Mahommed Hassan watching--also with the instinct of the Oriental.
Some future scheme of revenge? Kaid's eyes gleamed red. There would be no future for Nahoum. "Why did Nahoum go to thee?" he asked again presently.
"That I might beg his life of thee, Highness, as I said," David replied.
"I have not ordered his death."
David looked meditatively at him. "It was agreed between us yesterday that I should speak plainly--is it not so?"
Kaid nodded, and leaned back among the cushions.
"If what the Effendina intends is fulfilled, there is no other way but death for Nahoum," added David. "What is my intention, effendi?"
"To confiscate the fortune left by Foorgat Bey. Is it not so?"
"I had a pledge from Foorgat--a loan."
"That is the merit of the case, Effendina. I am otherwise concerned. There is the law. Nahoum inherits. Shouldst thou send him to Fazougli, he would still inherit."
"He is a traitor."
"Highness, where is the proof?"
"I know. My friends have disappeared one by one--Nahoum. Lands have been alienated from me--Nahoum. My income has declined--Nahoum. I have given orders and they have not been fulfilled--Nahoum. Always, always some rumour of assassination, or of conspiracy, or the influence and secret agents of the Sultan--all Nahoum. He is a traitor. He has grown rich while I borrow from Europe to pay my army and to meet the demands of the Sultan."
"What man can offer evidence in this save the Effendina who would profit by his death?"
"I speak of what I know. I satisfy myself. It is enough."
"Highness, there is a better way; to satisfy the people, for whom thee lives. None should stand between. Is not the Effendina a father to them?"
"The people! Would they not say Nahoum had got his due if he were blotted from their sight?"
"None has been so generous to the poor, so it is said by all. His hand has been upon the rich only. Now, Effendina, he has brought hither the full amount of all he has received and acquired in thy service. He would offer it in tribute."
Kaid smiled sardonically. "It is a thin jest. When a traitor dies the State confiscates his goods!"
"Thee calls him traitor. Does thee believe he has ever conspired against thy life?"
Kaid shrugged his shoulders.
"Let me answer for thee, Effendina. Again and again he has defeated conspiracy. He has blotted it out--by the sword and other means. He has been a faithful servant to his Prince at least. If he has done after the manner of all others in power here, the fault is in the system, not in the man alone. He has been a friend to thee, Kaid."
"I hope to find in thee a better."
"Why should he not live?"
"Thou hast taken his place."
"Is it, then, the custom to destroy those who have served thee, when they cease to serve?" David rose to his feet quickly. His face was shining with a strange excitement. It gave him a look of exaltation, his lips quivered with indignation. "Does thee kill because there is silence in the grave?"
Kaid blew a cloud of smoke slowly. "Silence in the grave is a fact beyond dispute," he said cynically.
"Highness, thee changes servants not seldom," rejoined David meaningly. "It may be that my service will be short. When I go, will the long arm reach out for me in the burrows where I shall hide?"
Kaid looked at him with ill-concealed admiration. "Thou art an Englishman, not an Egyptian, a guest, not a subject, and under no law save my friendship." Then he added scornfully: "When an Englishman in England leaves office, no matter how unfaithful, though he be a friend of any country save his own, they send him to the House of Lords--or so I was told in France when I was there. What does it matter to thee what chances to Nahoum? Thou hast his place with me. My secrets are thine. They shall all be thine--for years I have sought an honest man. Thou art safe whether to go or to stay."
"It may be so. I heed it not. My life is as that of a gull--if the wind carry it out to sea, it is lost. As my uncle went I shall go one day. Thee will never do me ill; but do I not know that I shall have foes at every corner, behind every mooshrabieh screen, on every mastaba, in the pasha's court-yard, by every mosque? Do I not know in what peril I serve Egypt?"
"Yet thou wouldst keep alive Nahoum! He will dig thy grave deep, and wait long."
"He will work with me for Egypt, Effendina." Kaid's face darkened.
"What is thy meaning?"
"I ask Nahoum's life that he may serve under me, to do those things thou and I planned yesterday--the land, taxation, the army, agriculture, the Soudan. Together we will make Egypt better and greater and richer--the poor richer, even though the rich be poorer."
"When Egypt is richer, the Prince is richer, too. Is not the Prince Egypt? Highness, yesterday--yesterday thee gave me my commission. If thee will not take Nahoum again into service to aid me, I must not remain. I cannot work alone."
"Thou must have this Christian Oriental to work with thee?" He looked at David closely, then smiled sardonically, but with friendliness to David in his eyes. "Nahoum has prayed to work with thee, to be a slave where he was master? He says to thee that he would lay his heart upon the altar of Egypt?" Mordant, questioning humour was in his voice.
David inclined his head.
"He would give up all that is his?"
"It is so, Effendina."
"All save Foorgat's heritage?"
"It belonged to their father. It is a due inheritance."
Kaid laughed sarcastically. "It was got in Mehemet Ali's service."
"Nathless, it is a heritage, Effendina. He would give that fortune back again to Egypt in work with me, as I shall give of what is mine, and of what I am, in the name of God, the all-merciful!"
The smile faded out of Kaid's face, and wonder settled on it. What manner of man was this? His life, his fortune for Egypt, a country alien to him, which he had never seen till six months ago! What kind of being was behind the dark, fiery eyes and the pale, impassioned face? Was he some new prophet? If so, why should he not have cast a spell upon Nahoum? Had he not bewitched himself, Kaid, one of the ablest princes since Alexander or Amenhotep? Had Nahoum, then, been mastered and won? Was ever such power? In how many ways had it not been shown! He had fought for his uncle's fortune, and had got it at last yesterday without a penny of backsheesh. Having got his will, he was now ready to give that same fortune to the good of Egypt--but not to beys and pashas and eunuchs (and that he should have escaped Mizraim was the marvel beyond all others!), or even to the Prince Pasha; but to that which would make "Egypt better and greater and richer--the poor richer, even though the rich be poorer!" Kaid chuckled to himself at that. To make the rich poorer would suit him well, so long as he remained rich. And, if riches could be got, as this pale Frank proposed, by less extortion from the fellah and less kourbash, so much the happier for all.
He was capable of patriotism, and this Quaker dreamer had stirred it in him a little. Egypt, industrial in a real sense; Egypt, paying her own way without tyranny and loans: Egypt, without corvee, and with an army hired from a full public purse; Egypt, grown strong and able to resist the suzerainty and cruel tribute--that touched his native goodness of heart, so long, in disguise; it appealed to the sense of leadership in him; to the love of the soil deep in his bones; to regard for the common people--for was not his mother a slave? Some distant nobleness trembled in him, while yet the arid humour of the situation flashed into his eyes, and, getting to his feet, he said to David: "Where is Nahoum?"
David told him, and he clapped his hands. The black slave entered, received an order, and disappeared. Neither spoke, but Kaid's face was full of cheerfulness.
Presently Nahoum entered and salaamed low, then put his hand upon his turban. There was submission, but no cringing or servility in his manner. His blue eyes looked fearlessly before him. His face was not paler than its wont. He waited for Kaid to speak.
"Peace be to thee," Kaid murmured mechanically.
"And to thee, peace, O Prince," answered Nahoum. "May the feet of Time linger by thee, and Death pass thy house forgetful."
There was silence for a moment, and then Kaid spoke again. "What are thy properties and treasure?" he asked sternly.
Nahoum drew forth a paper from his sleeve, and handed it to Kaid without a word. Kaid glanced at it hurriedly, then said: "This is but nothing. What hast thou hidden from me?"
"It is all I have got in thy service, Highness," he answered boldly. "All else I have given to the poor; also to spies--and to the army."
"To spies--and to the army?" asked Kaid slowly, incredulously.
"Wilt thou come with me to the window, Effendina?" Kaid, wondering, went to the great windows which looked on to the Palace square. There, drawn up, were a thousand mounted men as black as ebony, wearing shining white metal helmets and fine chain-armour and swords and lances like medieval crusaders. The horses, too, were black, and the mass made a barbaric display belonging more to another period in the world's history. This regiment of Nubians Kaid had recruited from the far south, and had maintained at his own expense. When they saw him at the window now, their swords clashed on their thighs and across their breasts, and they raised a great shout of greeting.
"Well?" asked Kaid, with a ring to the voice. "They are loyal, Effendina, every man. But the army otherwise is honeycombed with treason. Effendina, my money has been busy in the army paying and bribing officers, and my spies were costly. There has been sedition-- conspiracy; but until I could get the full proofs I waited; I could but bribe and wait. Were it not for the money I had spent, there might have been another Prince of Egypt."
Kald's face darkened. He was startled, too. He had been taken unawares. "My brother Harrik--!"
"And I should have lost my place, lost all for which I cared. I had no love for money; it was but a means. I spent it for the State--for the Effendina, and to keep my place. I lost my place, however, in another way."
"Proofs! Proofs!" Kaid's voice was hoarse with feeling.
"I have no proofs against Prince Harrik, no word upon paper. But there are proofs that the army is seditious, that, at any moment, it may revolt."
"Thou hast kept this secret?" questioned Kaid darkly and suspiciously.
"The time had not come. Read, Effendina," he added, handing some papers over.
"But it is the whole army!" said Kaid aghast, as he read. He was convinced.
"There is only one guilty," returned Nahoum. Their eyes met. Oriental fatalism met inveterate Oriental distrust and then instinctively Kaid's eyes turned to David. In the eyes of the Inglesi was a different thing. The test of the new relationship had come. Ferocity was in his heart, a vitriolic note was in his voice as he said to David, "If this be true-- the army rotten, the officers disloyal, treachery under every tunic-- bismillah, speak!"
"Shall it not be one thing at a time, Effendina?" asked David. He made a gesture towards Nahoum. Kaid motioned to a door. "Wait yonder," he said darkly to Nahoum. As the door opened, and Nahoum disappeared leisurely and composedly, David caught a glimpse of a guard of armed Nubians in leopard-skins filed against the white wall of the other room.
"What is thy intention towards Nahoum, Effendina?" David asked presently.
Kaid's voice was impatient. "Thou hast asked his life--take it; it is thine; but if I find him within these walls again until I give him leave, he shall go as Foorgat went."
"What was the manner of Foorgat's going?" asked David quietly.
"As a wind blows through a court-yard, and the lamp goes out, so he went --in the night. Who can say? Wherefore speculate? He is gone. It is enough. Were it not for thee, Egypt should see Nahoum no more."
David sighed, and his eyes closed for an instant. "Effendina, Nahoum has proved his faith--is it not so?" He pointed to the documents in Kaid's hands.
A grim smile passed over Kaid's face. Distrust of humanity, incredulity, cold cynicism, were in it. "Wheels within wheels, proofs within proofs," he said. "Thou hast yet to learn the Eastern heart. When thou seest white in the East, call it black, for in an instant it will be black. Malaish, it is the East! Have I not trusted--did I not mean well by all? Did I not deal justly? Yet my justice was but darkness of purpose, the hidden terror to them all. So did I become what thou findest me and dost believe me--a tyrant, in whose name a thousand do evil things of which I neither hear nor know. Proof! When a woman lies in your arms, it is not the moment to prove her fidelity. Nahoum has crawled back to my feet with these things, and by the beard of the Prophet they are true!" He looked at the papers with loathing. "But what his purpose was when he spied upon and bribed my army I know not. Yet, it shall be said, he has held Harrik back--Harrik, my brother. Son of Sheitan and slime of the Nile, have I not spared Harrik all these years!"
"Hast thou proof, Effendina?"
"I have proof enough; I shall have more soon. To save their lives, these, these will tell. I have their names here." He tapped the papers. "There are ways to make them tell. Now, speak, effendi, and tell me what I shall do to Harrik."
"Wouldst thou proclaim to Egypt, to the Sultan, to the world that the army is disloyal? If these guilty men are seized, can the army be trusted? Will it not break away in fear? Yonder Nubians are not enough --a handful lost in the melee. Prove the guilt of him who perverted the army and sought to destroy thee. Punish him."
"How shall there be proof save through those whom he has perverted? There is no writing."
"There is proof," answered David calmly.
"Where shall I find it?" Kaid laughed contemptuously.
"I have the proof," answered David gravely. "Against Harrik?"
"Against Prince Harrik Pasha."
"Thou--what dost thou know?"
"A woman of the Prince heard him give instructions for thy disposal, Effendina, when the Citadel should turns its guns upon Cairo and the Palace. She was once of thy harem. Thou didst give her in marriage, and she came to the harem of Prince Harrik at last. A woman from without who sang to her--a singing girl, an al'mah--she trusted with the paper to warn thee, Effendina, in her name. Her heart had remembrance of thee. Her foster-brother Mahommed Hassan is my servant. Him she told, and Mahommed laid the matter before me this morning. Here is a sign by which thee will remember her, so she said. Zaida she was called here." He handed over an amulet which had one red gem in the centre.
Kaid's face had set into fierce resolution, but as he took the amulet his eyes softened.
"Zaida. Inshallah! Zaida, she was called. She has the truth almost of the English. She could not lie ever. My heart smote me concerning her, and I gave her in marriage." Then his face darkened again, and his teeth showed in malice. A demon was roused in him. He might long ago have banished the handsome and insinuating Harrik, but he had allowed him wealth and safety--and now . . .
His intention was unmistakable.
"He shall die the death," he said. "Is it not so?" he added fiercely to David, and gazed at him fixedly. Would this man of peace plead for the traitor, the would-be fratricide?
"He is a traitor; he must die," answered David slowly.
Kald's eyes showed burning satisfaction. "If he were thy brother, thou wouldst kill him?"
"I would give a traitor to death for the country's sake. There is no other way."
"To-night he shall die."
"But with due trial, Effendina?"
"Trial--is not the proof sufficient?"
"But if he confess, and give evidence himself, and so offer himself to die?"
"Is Harrik a fool?" answered Kaid, with scorn.
If there be a trial and sentence is given, the truth concerning the army must appear. Is that well? Egypt will shake to its foundations--to the joy of its enemies."
"Then he shall die secretly."
"The Prince Pasha of Egypt will be called a murderer."
Kaid shrugged his shoulders.
"The Sultan--Europe--is it well?"
"I will tell the truth," Kaid rejoined angrily.
"If the Effendina will trust me, Prince Harrik shall confess his crime and pay the penalty also."
"What is thy purpose?"
"I will go to his palace and speak with him."
"I have no power to seize him, Effendina."
"I will give it. My Nubians shall go also."
"Effendina, I will go alone. It is the only way. There is great danger to the throne. Who can tell what a night will bring forth?"
"If Harrik should escape--"
"If I were an Egyptian and permitted Harrik to escape, my life would pay for my failure. If I failed, thou wouldst not succeed. If I am to serve Egypt, there must be trust in me from thee, or it were better to pause now. If I go, as I shall go, alone, I put my life in danger--is it not so?"
Suddenly Kaid sat down again among his cushions. "Inshallah! In the name of God, be it so. Thou art not as other men. There is something in thee above my thinking. But I will not sleep till I see thee again."
"I shall see thee at midnight, Effendina. Give me the ring from thy finger."
Kaid passed it over, and David put it in his pocket. Then he turned to go.
"Nahoum?" he asked.
"Take him hence. Let him serve thee if it be thy will. Yet I cannot understand it. The play is dark. Is he not an Oriental?"
"He is a Christian."
Kaid laughed sourly, and clapped his hands for the slave.
In a moment David and Nahoum were gone. "Nahoum, a Christian! Bismillah!" murmured Kaid scornfully, then fell to pondering darkly over the evil things he had heard.
Meanwhile the Nubians in their glittering armour waited without in the blistering square.