The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XIII. Achmet the Ropemaker Strikes
War! War! The chains of the conscripts clanked in the river villages; the wailing of the women affrighted the pigeons in a thousand dovecotes on the Nile; the dust of despair was heaped upon the heads of the old, who knew that their young would no more return, and that the fields of dourha would go ungathered, the water-channels go unattended, and the onion-fields be bare. War! War! War! The strong, the broad-shouldered --Aka, Mahmoud, Raschid, Selim, they with the bodies of Seti and the faces of Rameses, in their blue yeleks and unsandalled feet--would go into the desert as their forefathers did for the Shepherd Kings. But there would be no spoil for them--no slaves with swelling breasts and lips of honey; no straight-limbed servants of their pleasure to wait on them with caressing fingers; no rich spoils carried back from the fields of war to the mud hut, the earth oven, and the thatched roof; no rings of soft gold and necklaces of amber snatched from the fingers and bosoms of the captive and the dead. Those days were no more. No vision of loot or luxury allured these. They saw only the yellow sand, the ever-receding oasis, the brackish, undrinkable water, the withered and fruitless date- tree, handfuls of dourha for their food by day, and the keen, sharp night to chill their half-dead bodies in a half-waking sleep. And then the savage struggle for life--with all the gain to the pashas and the beys, and those who ruled over them; while their own wounds grew foul, and, in the torturing noon-day heat of the white waste, Death reached out and dragged them from the drooping lines to die. Fighting because they must fight--not patriot love, nor understanding, nor sacrifice in their hearts. War! War! War! War!
David had been too late to stop it. It had grown to a head with revolution and conspiracy. For months before he came conscripts had been gathered in the Nile country from Rosetta to Assouan, and here and there, far south, tribes had revolted. He had come to power too late to devise another course. One day, when this war was over, he would go alone, save for a faithful few, to deal with these tribes and peoples upon another plane than war; but here and now the only course was that which had been planned by Kaid and those who counselled him. Troubled by a deep danger drawing near, Kaid had drawn him into his tough service, half-blindly catching at his help, with a strange, almost superstitious belief that luck and good would come from the alliance; seeing in him a protection against wholesale robbery and debt--were not the English masters of finance, and was not this Englishman honest, and with a brain of fire and an eye that pierced things?
David had accepted the inevitable. The war had its value. It would draw off to the south--he would see that it was so--Achmet and Higli and Diaz and the rest, who were ever a danger. Not to himself: he did not think of that; but to Kaid and to Egypt. They had been out-manoeuvred, beaten, foiled, knew who had foiled them and what they had escaped; congratulated themselves, but had no gratitude to him, and still plotted his destruction. More than once his death had been planned, but the dark design had come to light--now from the workers of the bazaars, whose wires of intelligence pierced everywhere; now from some hungry fellah whose yelek he had filled with cakes of dourha beside a bread-shop; now from Mahommed Hassan, who was for him a thousand eyes and feet and hands, who cooked his food, and gathered round him fellaheen or Copts or Soudanese or Nubians whom he himself had tested and found true, and ruled them with a hand of plenty and a rod of iron. Also, from Nahoum's spies he learned of plots and counterplots, chiefly on Achmet's part; and these he hid from Kaid, while he trusted Nahoum--and not without reason, as yet.
The day of Nahoum's wrath and revenge was not yet come; it was his deep design to lay the foundation for his own dark actions strong on a rock of apparent confidence and devotion. A long torture and a great over- whelming was his design. He knew himself to be in the scheme of a master-workman, and by-and-by he would blunt the chisel and bend the saw; but not yet. Meanwhile, he hated, admired, schemed, and got a sweet taste on his tongue from aiding David to foil Achmet--Higli and Diaz were of little account; only the injury they felt in seeing the sluices being closed on the stream of bribery and corruption kept them in the toils of Achmet's conspiracy. They had saved their heads, but they had not learned their lesson yet; and Achmet, blinded by rage, not at all. Achmet did not understand clemency. One by one his plots had failed, until the day came when David advised Kaid to send him and his friends into the Soudan, with the punitive expedition under loyal generals. It was David's dream that, in the field of war, a better spirit might enter into Achmet and his friends; that patriotism might stir in them.
The day was approaching when the army must leave. Achmet threw dice once more.
Evening was drawing down. Over the plaintive pink and golden glow of sunset was slowly being drawn a pervasive silver veil of moonlight. A caravan of camels hunched alone in the middle distance, making for the western desert. Near by, village life manifested itself in heavily laden donkeys; in wolfish curs stealing away with refuse into the waste; in women, upright and modest, bearing jars of water on their heads; in evening fires, where the cover of the pot clattered over the boiling mass within; in the voice of the Muezzin calling to prayer.
Returning from Alexandria to Cairo in the special train which Kaid had sent for him, David watched the scene with grave and friendly interest. There was far, to go before those mud huts of the thousand years would give place to rational modern homes; and as he saw a solitary horseman spread his sheepskin on the ground and kneel to say his evening prayer, as Mahomet had done in his flight between Mecca and Medina, the distance between the Egypt of his desire and the ancient Egypt that moved round him sharply impressed his mind, and the magnitude of his task settled heavily on his spirit.
"But it is the beginning--the beginning," he said aloud to himself, looking out upon the green expanses of dourha and Lucerne, and eyeing lovingly the cotton-fields here and there, the origin of the industrial movement he foresaw--"and some one had to begin. The rest is as it must be--"
There was a touch of Oriental philosophy in his mind--was it not Galilee and the Nazarene, that Oriental source from which Mahomet also drew? But he added to the "as it must be" the words, "and as God wills." He was alone in the compartment with Lacey, whose natural garrulity had had a severe discipline in the months that had passed since he had asked to be allowed to black David's boots. He could now sit for an hour silent, talking to himself, carrying on unheard conversations. Seeing David's mood, he had not spoken twice on this journey, but had made notes in a little "Book of Experience,"--as once he had done in Mexico. At last, however, he raised his head, and looked eagerly out of the window as David did, and sniffed.
"The Nile again," he said, and smiled. The attraction of the Nile was upon him, as it grows on every one who lives in Egypt. The Nile and Egypt--Egypt and the Nile--its mystery, its greatness, its benevolence, its life-giving power, without which Egypt is as the Sahara, it conquers the mind of every man at last.
"The Nile, yes," rejoined David, and smiled also. "We shall cross it presently."
Again they relapsed into silence, broken only by the clang, clang of the metal on the rails, and then presently another, more hollow sound--the engine was upon the bridge. Lacey got up and put his head out of the window. Suddenly there was a cry of fear and horror over his head, a warning voice shrieking:
"The bridge is open--we are lost. Effendi--master--Allah!" It was the voice of Mahommed Hassan, who had been perched on the roof of the car.
Like lightning Lacey realised the danger, and saw the only way of escape. He swung open the door, even as the engine touched the edge of the abyss and shrieked its complaint under the hand of the terror-stricken driver, caught David's shoulder, and cried: "Jump-jump into the river-- quick!"
As the engine toppled, David jumped--there was no time to think, obedience was the only way. After him sprang, far down into the grey- blue water, Lacey and Mahommed. When they came again to the surface, the little train with its handful of human freight had disappeared.
Two people had seen the train plunge to destruction--the solitary horseman whom David had watched kneel upon his sheepskin, and who now from a far hill had seen the disaster, but had not seen the three jump for their lives, and a fisherman on the bank, who ran shouting towards a village standing back from the river.
As the fisherman sped shrieking and beckoning to the villagers, David, Lacey, and Mahommed fought for their lives in the swift current, swimming at an angle upstream towards the shore; for, as Mahommed warned them, there were rocks below. Lacey was a good swimmer, but he was heavy, and David was a better, but Mahommed had proved his merit in the past on many an occasion when the laws of the river were reaching out strong hands for him. Now, as Mahommed swam, he kept moaning to himself, cursing his father and his father's son, as though he himself were to blame for the crime which had been committed. Here was a plot, and he had discovered more plots than one against his master. The bridge-opener--when he found him he would take him into the desert and flay him alive; and find him he would. His watchful eyes were on the hut by the bridge where this man should be. No one was visible. He cursed the man and all his ancestry and all his posterity, sleeping and waking, until the day when he, Mahommed, would pinch his flesh with red hot irons. But now he had other and nearer things to occupy him, for in the fierce struggle towards the shore Lacey found himself failing, and falling down the stream. Presently both Mahommed and David were beside him, Lacey angrily protesting to David that he must save himself.
"Say, think of Egypt and all the rest. You've got to save yourself--let me splash along!" he spluttered, breathing hard, his shoulders low in the water, his mouth almost submerged.
But David and Mahommed fought along beside him, each determined that it must be all or none; and presently the terror-stricken fisherman who had roused the village, still shrieking deliriously, came upon them in a flat-bottomed boat manned by four stalwart fellaheen, and the tragedy of the bridge was over. But not the tragedy of Achmet the Ropemaker.