The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XIV. Beyond the Pale
Mahommed Hassan had vowed a vow in the river, and he kept it in so far as was seemly. His soul hungered for the face of the bridge-opener, and the hunger grew. He was scarce passed from the shivering Nile into a dry yelek, had hardly taken a juicy piece from the cooking-pot at the house of the village sheikh, before he began to cultivate friends who could help him, including the sheikh himself; for what money Mahommed lacked was supplied by Lacey, who had a reasoned confidence in him, and by the fiercely indignant Kaid himself, to whom Lacey and Mahommed went secretly, hiding their purpose from David. So, there were a score of villages where every sheikh, eager for gold, listened for the whisper of the doorways, and every slave and villager listened at the sheikh's door. But neither to sheikh nor to villager was it given to find the man.
But one evening there came a knocking at the door of the house which Mahommed still kept in the lowest Muslim quarter of the town, a woman who hid her face and was of more graceful figure than was familiar in those dark purlieus. The door was at once opened, and Mahommed, with a cry, drew her inside.
"Zaida--the peace of God be upon thee," he said, and gazed lovingly yet sadly upon her, for she had greatly changed.
"And upon thee peace, Mahommed," she answered, and sat upon the floor, her head upon her breast.
"Thou hast trouble at," he said, and put some cakes of dourha and a meated cucumber beside her. She touched the food with her fingers, but did not eat. "Is thy grief, then, for thy prince who gave himself to the lions?" he asked.
"Inshallah! Harrik is in the bosom of Allah. He is with Fatima in the fields of heaven--was I as Fatima to him? Nay, the dead have done with hurting."
"Since that night thou hast been lost, even since Harrik went. I searched for thee, but thou wert hid. Surely, thou knewest mine eyes were aching and my heart was cast down--did not thou and I feed at the same breast?"
"I was dead, and am come forth from the grave; but I shall go again into the dark where all shall forget, even I myself; but there is that which I would do, which thou must do for me, even as I shall do good to thee, that which is the desire of my heart."
"Speak, light of the morning and blessing of thy mother's soul," he said, and crowded into his mouth a roll of meat and cucumber. "Against thy feddan shall be set my date-tree; it hath been so ever."
"Listen then, and by the stone of the Kaabah, keep the faith which has been throe and mine since my mother, dying, gave me to thy mother, whose milk gave me health and, in my youth, beauty--and, in my youth, beauty!" Suddenly she buried her face in her veil, and her body shook with sobs which had no voice. Presently she continued: "Listen, and by Abraham and Christ and all the Prophets, and by Mahomet the true revealer, give me thine aid. When Harrik gave his life to the lions, I fled to her whom I had loved in the house of Kaid--Laka the Syrian, afterwards the wife of Achmet Pasha. By Harrik's death I was free--no more a slave. Once Laka had been the joy of Achmet's heart, but, because she had no child, she was despised and forgotten. Was it not meet I should fly to her whose sorrow would hide my loneliness? And so it was--I was hidden in the harem of Achmet. But miserable tongues--may God wither them!--told Achmet of my presence. And though I was free, and not a bondswoman, he broke upon my sleep. . . ."
Mahommed's eyes blazed, his dark skin blackened like a coal, and he muttered maledictions between his teeth. ". . . In the morning there was a horror upon me, for which there is no name. But I laughed also when I took a dagger and stole from the harem to find him in the quarters beyond the women's gate. I found him, but I held my hand, for one was with him who spake with a tone of anger and of death, and I listened. Then, indeed, I rejoiced for thee, for I have found thee a road to honour and fortune. The man was a bridge-opener--" "Ah!--O, light of a thousand eyes, fruit of the tree of Eden!" cried Mahommed, and fell on his knees at her feet, and would have kissed them, but that, with a cry, she said: "Nay, nay, touch me not. But listen. . . . Ay, it was Achmet who sought to drown thy Pasha in the Nile. Thou shalt find the man in the little street called Singat in the Moosky, at the house of Haleel the date-seller."
Mahommed rocked backwards and forwards in his delight. "Oh, now art thou like a lamp of Paradise, even as a star which leadeth an army of stars, beloved," he said. He rubbed his hands together. "Thy witness and his shall send Achmet to a hell of scorpions, and I shall slay the bridge- opener with my own hand--hath not the Effendina secretly said so to me, knowing that my Pasha, the Inglesi, upon whom be peace for ever and forever, would forgive him. Ah, thou blossom of the tree of trees--"
She rose hastily, and when he would have kissed her hand she drew back to the wall. "Touch me not--nay, then, Mahommed, touch me not--"
"Why should I not pay thee honour, thou princess among women? Hast thou not the brain of a man, and thy beauty, like thy heart, is it not--"
She put out both her hands and spoke sharply. "Enough, my brother," she said. "Thou hast thy way to great honour. Thou shalt yet have a thousand feddans of well-watered land and slaves to wait upon thee. Get thee to the house of Haleel. There shall the blow fall on the head of Achmet, the blow which was mine to strike, but that Allah stayed my hand that I might do thee and thy Pasha good, and to give the soul-slayer and the body-slayer into the hands of Kaid, upon whom be everlasting peace!" Her voice dropped low. "Thou saidst but now that I had beauty. Is there yet any beauty in my face?" She lowered her yashmak and looked at him with burning eyes.
"Thou art altogether beautiful," he answered, "but there is a strangeness to thy beauty like none I have seen; as if upon the face of an angel there fell a mist--nay, I have not words to make it plain to thee."
With a great sigh, and yet with the tenseness gone from her eyes, she slowly drew the veil up again till only her eyes were visible. "It is well," she answered. "Now, I have heard that to-morrow night Prince Kaid will sit in the small court-yard of the blue tiles by the harem to feast with his friends, ere the army goes into the desert at the next sunrise. Achmet is bidden to the feast."
"It is so, O beloved!"
"There will be dancers and singers to make the feast worthy?"
"At such a time it will be so."
"Then this thou shalt do. See to it that I shall be among the singers, and when all have danced and sung, that I shall sing, and be brought before Kaid."
"Inshallah! It shall be so. Thou dost desire to see Kaid--in truth, thou hast memory, beloved."
She made a gesture of despair. "Go upon thy business. Dost thou not desire the blood of Achmet and the bridge-opener?"
Mahommed laughed, and joyfully beat his breast, with whispered exclamations, and made ready to go. "And thou?" he asked.
"Am I not welcome here?" she replied wearily. "O, my sister, thou art the master of my life and all that I have," he exclaimed, and a moment afterwards he was speeding towards Kaid's Palace.
For the first time since the day of his banishment Achmet the Ropemaker was invited to Kaid's Palace. Coming, he was received with careless consideration by the Prince. Behind his long, harsh face and sullen eyes a devil was raging, because of all his plans that had gone awry, and because the man he had sought to kill still served the Effendina, putting a blight upon Egypt. To-morrow he, Achmet, must go into the desert with the army, and this hated Inglesi would remain behind to have his will with Kaid. The one drop of comfort in his cup was the fact that the displeasure of the Effendina against himself was removed, and that he had, therefore, his foot once more inside the Palace. When he came back from the war he would win his way to power again. Meanwhile, he cursed the man who had eluded the death he had prepared for him. With his own eyes had he not seen, from the hill top, the train plunge to destruction, and had he not once more got off his horse and knelt upon his sheepskin and given thanks to Allah--a devout Arab obeying the sunset call to prayer, as David had observed from the train?
One by one, two by two, group by group, the unveiled dancers came and went; the singers sang behind the screen provided for them, so that none might see their faces, after the custom. At last, however, Kaid and his guests grew listless, and smoked and talked idly. Yet there was in the eyes of Kaid a watchfulness unseen by any save a fellah who squatted in a corner eating sweetmeats, and a hidden singer waiting until she should be called before the Prince Pasha. The singer's glances continually flashed between Kaid and Achmet. At last, with gleaming eyes, she saw six Nubian slaves steal silently behind Achmet. One, also, of great strength, came suddenly and stood before him. In his hands was a leathern thong.
Achmet saw, felt the presence of the slaves behind him, and shrank back numbed and appalled. A mist came before his eyes; the voice he heard summoning him to stand up seemed to come from infinite distances. The hand of doom had fallen like a thunderbolt. The leathern thong in the hands of the slave was the token of instant death. There was no chance of escape. The Nubians had him at their mercy. As his brain struggled to regain its understanding, he saw, as in a dream, David enter the court-yard and come towards Kaid.
Suddenly David stopped in amazement, seeing Achmet. Inquiringly he looked at Kaid, who spoke earnestly to him in a low tone. Whereupon David turned his head away, but after a moment fixed his eyes on Achmet.
Kaid motioned all his startled guests to come nearer. Then in strong, unmerciful voice he laid Achmet's crime before them, and told the story of the bridge-opener, who had that day expiated his crime in the desert by the hands of Mahommed--but not with torture, as Mahommed had hoped might be.
"What shall be his punishment--so foul, so wolfish?" Kaid asked of them all. A dozen voices answered, some one terrible thing, some another.
"Mercy!" moaned Achmet aghast. "Mercy, Saadat!" he cried to David.
David looked at him calmly. There was little mercy in his eyes as he answered: "Thy crimes sent to their death in the Nile those who never injured thee. Dost thou quarrel with justice? Compose thy soul, and I pray only the Effendina to give thee that seemly death thou didst deny thy victims." He bowed respectfully to Kaid.
Kaid frowned. "The ways of Egypt are the ways of Egypt, and not of the land once thine," he answered shortly. Then, under the spell of that influence which he had never yet been able to resist, he added to the slaves: "Take him aside. I will think upon it. But he shall die at sunrise ere the army goes. Shall not justice be the gift of Kaid for an example and a warning? Take him away a little. I will decide."
As Achmet and the slaves disappeared into a dark corner of the court- yard, Kaid rose to his feet, and, upon the hint, his guests, murmuring praises of his justice and his mercy and his wisdom, slowly melted from the court-yard; but once outside they hastened to proclaim in the four quarters of Cairo how yet again the English Pasha had picked from the Tree of Life an apple of fortune.
The court-yard was now empty, save for the servants of the Prince, David and Mahommed, and two officers in whom David had advised Kaid to put trust. Presently one of these officers said: "There is another singer, and the last. Is it the Effendina's pleasure?"
Kaid made a gesture of assent, sat down, and took the stem of a narghileh between his lips. For a moment there was silence, and then, out upon the sweet, perfumed night, over which the stars hung brilliant and soft and near, a voice at first quietly, then fully, and palpitating with feeling, poured forth an Eastern love song:
"Take thou thy flight, O soul! Thou hast no more The gladness of the morning! Ah, the perfumed roses My love laid on my bosom as I slept! How did he wake me with his lips upon mine eyes, How did the singers carol--the singers of my soul That nest among the thoughts of my beloved! . . . All silent now, the choruses are gone, The windows of my soul are closed; no more Mine eyes look gladly out to see my lover come. There is no more to do, no more to say: Take flight, my soul, my love returns no more!"
At the first note Kaid started, and his eyes fastened upon the screen behind which sat the singer. Then, as the voice, in sweet anguish, filled the court-yard, entrancing them all, rose higher and higher, fell and died away, he got to his feet, and called out hoarsely: "Come--come forth!"
Slowly a graceful, veiled figure came from behind the great screen. He took a step forward.
"Zaida! Zaida!" he said gently, amazedly.
She salaamed low. "Forgive me, O my lord!" she said, in a whispering voice, drawing her veil about her head. "It was my soul's desire to look upon thy face once more."
"Whither didst thou go at Harrik's death? I sent to find thee, and give thee safety; but thou wert gone, none knew where."
"O my lord, what was I but a mote in thy sun, that thou shouldst seek me?"
Kaid's eyes fell, and he murmured to himself a moment, then he said slowly: "Thou didst save Egypt, thou and my friend"--he gestured towards David"--and my life also, and all else that is worth. Therefore bounty, and safety, and all thy desires were thy due. Kaid is no ingrate--no, by the hand of Moses that smote at Sinai!"
She made a pathetic motion of her hands. "By Harrik's death I am free, a slave no longer. O my lord, where I go bounty and famine are the same."
Kaid took a step forward. "Let me see thy face," he said, something strange in her tone moving him with awe.
She lowered her veil and looked him in the eyes. Her wan beauty smote him, conquered him, the exquisite pain in her face filled Kaid's eyes with foreboding, and pierced his heart.
"O cursed day that saw thee leave these walls! I did it for thy good-- thou wert so young; thy life was all before thee! But now--come, Zaida, here in Kaid's Palace thou shalt have a home, and be at peace, for I see that thou hast suffered. Surely it shall be said that Kaid honours thee." He reached out to take her hand.
She had listened like one in a dream, but, as he was about to touch her, she suddenly drew back, veiled her face, save for the eyes, and said in a voice of agony: "Unclean, unclean! My lord, I am a leper!"
An awed and awful silence fell upon them all. Kaid drew back as though smitten by a blow.
Presently, upon the silence, her voice sharp with agony said: "I am a leper, and I go to that desert place which my lord has set apart for lepers, where, dead to the world, I shall watch the dreadful years come and go. Behold, I would die, but that I have a sister there these many years, and her sick soul lives in loneliness. O my lord, forgive me! Here was I happy; here of old I did sing to thee, and I came to sing to thee once more a death-song. Also, I came to see thee do justice, ere I went from thy face for ever."
Kaid's head was lowered on his breast. He shuddered. "Thou art so beautiful--thy voice, all! Thou wouldst see justice--speak! Justice shall be made plain before thee."
Twice she essayed to speak, and could not; but from his sweetmeats and the shadows Mahommed crept forward, kissed the ground before Kaid, and said: "Effendina, thou knowest me as the servant of thy high servant, Claridge Pasha."
"I know thee--proceed."
"Behold, she whom God has smitten, man smote first. I am her foster- brother--from the same breast we drew the food of life. Thou wouldst do justice, O Effendina; but canst thou do double justice--ay, a thousandfold? Then"--his voice raised almost shrilly--"then do it upon Achmet Pasha. She--Zaida--told me where I should find the bridge- opener."
"Zaida once more!" Kaid murmured.
"She had learned all in Achmet's harem--hearing speech between Achmet and the man whom thou didst deliver to my hands yesterday."
"Zaida-in Achmet's harem?" Kaid turned upon her.
Swiftly she told her dreadful tale, how, after Achmet had murdered all of her except her body, she rose up to kill herself; but fainting, fell upon a burning brazier, and her hand thrust accidentally in the live coals felt no pain. "And behold, O my lord, I knew I was a leper; and I remembered my sister and lived on." So she ended, in a voice numbed and tuneless.
Kaid trembled with rage, and he cried in a loud voice: "Bring Achmet forth."
As the slave sped upon the errand, David laid a hand on Kaid's arm, and whispered to him earnestly. Kaid's savage frown cleared away, and his rage calmed down; but an inflexible look came into his face, a look which petrified the ruined Achmet as he salaamed before him.
"Know thy punishment, son of a dog with a dog's heart, and prepare for a daily death," said Kaid. "This woman thou didst so foully wrong, even when thou didst wrong her, she was a leper."
A low cry broke from Achmet, for now when death came he must go unclean to the after-world, forbidden Allah's presence. Broken and abject he listened.
"She knew not, till thou wert gone," continued Kaid. She is innocent before the law. But thou--beast of the slime--hear thy sentence. There is in the far desert a place where lepers live. There, once a year, one caravan comes, and, at the outskirts of the place unclean, leaves food and needful things for another year, and returns again to Egypt after many days. From that place there is no escape--the desert is as the sea, and upon that sea there is no ghiassa to sail to a farther shore. It is the leper land. Thither thou shalt go to wait upon this woman thou hast savagely wronged, and upon her kind, till thou diest. It shall be so."
"Mercy! Mercy!" Achmet cried, horror-stricken, and turned to David. "Thou art merciful. Speak for me, Saadat."
"When didst thou have mercy?" asked David. "Thy crimes are against humanity."
Kaid made a motion, and, with dragging feet, Achmet passed from the haunts of familiar faces.
For a moment Kaid stood and looked at Zaida, rigid and stricken in that awful isolation which is the leper's doom. Her eyes were closed, but her head was high. "Wilt thou not die?" Kaid asked her gently.
She shook her head slowly, and her hands folded on her breast. "My sister is there," she said at last. There was an instant's stillness, then Kaid added with a voice of grief: "Peace be upon thee, Zaida. Life is but a spark. If death comes not to-day, it will tomorrow, for thee-- for me. Inshallah, peace be upon thee!"
She opened her eyes and looked at him. Seeing what was in his face, they lighted with a great light for a moment.
"And upon thee peace, O my lord, for ever and for ever!" she said softly, and, turning, left the court-yard, followed at a distance by Mahommed Hassan.
Kaid remained motionless looking after her.
David broke in on his abstraction. "The army at sunrise--thou wilt speak to it, Effendina?"
Kaid roused himself. "What shall I say?" he asked anxiously.
"Tell them they shall be clothed and fed, and to every man or his family three hundred piastres at the end."
"Who will do this?" asked Kaid incredulously. "Thou, Effendina--Egypt and thou and I."
"So be it," answered Kaid.
As they left the court-yard, he said suddenly to an officer behind him:
"The caravan to the Place of Lepers--add to the stores fifty camel-loads this year, and each year hereafter. Have heed to it. Ere it starts, come to me. I would see all with mine own eyes."