Book III
Chapter XXIII. The Tents of Cushan
 
      "I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction, and the curtains
      of the Land of Midian did tremble."

A Hurdy-Gurdy was standing at the corner, playing with shrill insistence a medley of Scottish airs. Now "Loch Lomond" pleaded for pennies from the upper windows:

          "For you'll tak' the high road,
           and I'll tak' the low road,
           And I'll be in Scotland before ye:
           But I and my true love will never meet again,
           On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond!"

The hurdy-gurdy was strident and insistent, but for a long time no response came. At last, however, as the strains of "Loch Lomond" ceased, a lady appeared on the balcony of a drawing-room, and, leaning over a little forest of flowers and plants, threw a half-crown to the sorry street-musician. She watched the grotesque thing trundle away, then entering the house again, took a 'cello from the corner of the room and tuned the instrument tenderly. It was Hylda.

Something of the peace of Hamley had followed her to London, but the poignant pain of it had come also. Like Melisande, she had looked into the quiet pool of life and had seen her own face, its story and its foreshadowings. Since then she had been "apart." She had watched life move on rather than shared in its movement. Things stood still for her. That apathy of soul was upon her which follows the inward struggle that exhausts the throb and fret of inward emotions, leaving the mind dominant, the will in abeyance.

She had become conscious that her fate and future were suspended over a chasm, as, on the trapeze of a balloon, an adventurous aeronaut hangs uncertain over the hungry sea, waiting for the coming wind which will either blow the hazardous vessel to its doom or to safe refuge on the land.

She had not seen David after he left Hamley. Their last words had been spoken at the Meeting-house, when he gave Faith to her care. That scene came back to her now, and a flush crept slowly over her face and faded away again. She was recalling, too, the afternoon of that day when she and David had parted in the drawing-room of the Cloistered House, and Eglington had asked her to sing. She thought of the hours with Eglington that followed, first at the piano and afterwards in the laboratory, where in his long blue smock he made experiments. Had she not been conscious of something enigmatical in his gaiety that afternoon, in his cheerful yet cheerless words, she would have been deeply impressed by his appreciation of her playing, and his keen reflections on the merits of the composers; by his still keener attention to his subsequent experiments, and his amusing comments upon them. But, somehow, that very cheerless cheerfulness seemed to proclaim him superficial. Though she had no knowledge of science, she instinctively doubted his earnestness even in this work, which certainly was not pursued for effect. She had put the feeling from her, but it kept returning. She felt that in nothing did he touch the depths. Nothing could possess him wholly; nothing inherent could make him self-effacing.

Yet she wondered, too, if she was right, when she saw his fox-terrier watching him, ever watching him with his big brown eyes as he buoyantly worked, and saw him stoop to pat its head. Or was this, after all, mere animalism, mere superficial vitality, love of health and being? She shuddered, and shut her eyes, for it came home to her that to him she was just such a being of health, vitality and comeliness, on a little higher plane. She put the thought from her, but it had had its birth, and it would not down. He had immense vitality, he was tireless, and abundant in work and industry; he went from one thing to another with ease and swiftly changing eagerness. Was it all mere force--mere man and mind? Was there no soul behind it? There in the laboratory she had laid her hand on the terrier, and prayed in her heart that she might understand him for her own good, her own happiness, and his. Above all else she wanted to love him truly, and to be loved truly, and duty was to her a daily sacrifice, a constant memorial. She realised to the full that there lay before her a long race unilluminated by the sacred lamp which, lighted at the altar, should still be burning beside the grave.

Now, as she thought of him, she kept saying to herself: "We should have worked out his life together. Work together would have brought peace. He shuts me out--he shuts me out."

At last she drew the bow across the instrument, once, twice, and then she began to play, forgetful of the world. She had a contralto voice, and she sang with a depth of feeling and a delicate form worthy of a professional; on the piano she was effective and charming, but into the 'cello she poured her soul.

For quite an hour she played with scarce an interruption. At last, with a sigh, she laid the instrument against her knee and gazed out of the window. As she sat lost in her dream--a dream of the desert--a servant entered with letters. One caught her eye. It was from Egypt--from her cousin Lacey. Her heart throbbed violently, yet she opened the official- looking envelope with steady fingers. She would not admit even to her self that news from the desert could move her so. She began to read slowly, but presently, with a little cry, she hastened through the pages. It ran:

THE SOUDAN.

DEAR LADY COUSIN,

I'm still not certain how I ought to style you, but I thought I'd compromise as per above. Anyway, it's a sure thing that I haven't bothered you much with country-cousin letters. I figure, however, that you've put some money in Egypt, so to speak, and what happens to this sandy-eyed foundling of the Nile you would like to know. So I've studied the only "complete letter-writer" I could find between the tropic of Capricorn and Khartoum, and this is the contemptible result, as the dagos in Mexico say. This is a hot place by reason of the sun that shines above us, and likewise it is hot because of the niggers that swarm around us. I figure, if we get out of this portion of the African continent inside our skins, that we will have put up a pretty good bluff, and pulled off a ticklish proposition.

It's a sort of early Christian business. You see, David the Saadat is great on moral suasion--he's a master of it; and he's never failed yet--not altogether; though there have been minutes by a stop-watch when I've thought it wouldn't stand the strain. Like the Mississippi steamboat which was so weak that when the whistle blew the engines stopped! When those frozen minutes have come to us, I've tried to remember the correct religious etiquette, but I've not had much practise since I stayed with Aunt Melissa, and lived on skim-milk and early piety. When things were looking as bad as they did for Dives, "Now I lay me down to sleep," and "For what we are about to receive," was all that I could think of. But the Saadat, he's a wonder from Wondertown. With a little stick, or maybe his flute under his arm, he'll smile and string these heathen along, when you'd think they weren't waiting for anybody. A spear took off his fez yesterday. He never blinked--he's a jim-dandy at keeping cool; and when a hundred mounted heathens made a rush down on him the other day, spears sticking out like quills on a porcupine--2.5 on the shell-road the chargers were going--did he stir? Say, he watched 'em as if they were playing for his benefit. And sure enough, he was right. They parted either side of him when they were ten feet away, and there he was quite safe, a blessing in the storm, a little rock island in the rapids--but I couldn't remember a proper hymn of praise to say.

There's no getting away from the fact that he's got a will or something, a sort of force different from most of us, or perhaps any of us. These heathen feel it, and keep their hands off him. They say he's mad, but they've got great respect for mad people, for they think that God has got their souls above with Him, and that what's left behind on earth is sacred. He talks to'em, too, like a father in Israel; tells 'em they must stop buying and selling slaves, and that if they don't he will have to punish them! And I sit holding my sides, for we're only two white men and forty "friendlies" altogether, and two revolvers among us; and I've got the two! And they listen to his blarneying, and say, "Aiwa, Saadat! aiwa, Saadat!" as if he had an army of fifty thousand behind him. Sometimes I've sort of hinted that his canoe was carrying a lot of sail; but my! he believes in it all as if there wasn't a spear or a battle-axe or a rifle within a hundred miles of him. We've been at this for two months now, and a lot of ground we covered till we got here. I've ridden the gentle camel at the rate of sixty and seventy miles a day--sort of sweeping through the land, making treaties, giving presents, freeing slaves, appointing governors and sheikhs- el-beled, doing it as if we owned the continent. He mesmerised 'em, simply mesmerised 'em-till we got here. I don't know what happened then. Now we're distinctly rating low, the laugh is on us somehow. But he--mind it? He goes about talking to the sheikhs as though we were all eating off the same corn-cob, and it seems to stupefy them; they don't grasp it. He goes on arranging for a post here and a station there, and it never occurs to him that it ain't really actual. He doesn't tell me, and I don't ask him, for I came along to wipe his stirrups, so to speak. I put my money on him, and I'm not going to worry him. He's so dead certain in what he does, and what he is, that I don't lose any sleep guessing about him. It will be funny if we do win out on this proposition--funnier than anything.

Now, there's one curious thing about it all which ought to be whispered, for I'm only guessing, and I'm not a good guesser; I guessed too much in Mexico about three railways and two silvermines. The first two days after we came here, everything was all right. Then there came an Egyptian, Halim Bey, with a handful of niggers from Cairo, and letters for Claridge Pasha.

From that minute there was trouble. I figure it out this way: Halim was sent by Nahoum Pasha to bring letters that said one thing to the Saadat, and, when quite convenient, to say other things to Mustafa, the boss-sheikh of this settlement. Halim Bey has gone again, but he has left his tale behind him. I'd stake all I lost, and more than I ever expect to get out of Mexico on that, and maybe I'll get a hatful out of Mexico yet. I had some good mining propositions down there. The Saadat believes in Nahoum, and has made Nahoum what he is; and on the surface Nahoum pretends to help him; but he is running underground all the time. I'd like to help give him a villa at Fazougli. When the Saadat was in England there was a bad time in Egypt. I was in Cairo; I know. It was the same bad old game--the corvee, the kourbash, conscription, a war manufactured to fill the pockets of a few, while the poor starved and died. It didn't come off, because the Saadat wasn't gone long enough, and he stopped it when he came back. But Nahoumhe laid the blame on others, and the Saadat took his word for it, and, instead of a war, there came this expedition of his own.

Ten days later.--Things have happened. First, there's been awful sickness among the natives, and the Saadat has had his chance. His medicine-chest was loaded, he had a special camel for it--and he has fired it off. Night and day he has worked, never resting, never sleeping, curing most, burying a few. He looks like a ghost now, but it's no use saying or doing anything. He says: "Sink your own will; let it be subject to a higher, and you need take no thought." It's eating away his life and strength, but it has given us our return tickets, I guess. They hang about him as if he was Moses in the wilderness smiting the rock. It's his luck. Just when I get scared to death, and run down and want a tonic, and it looks as if there'd be no need to put out next week's washing, then his luck steps in, and we get another run. But it takes a heap out of a man, getting scared. Whenever I look on a lot of green trees and cattle and horses, and the sun, to say nothing of women and children, and listen to music, or feel a horse eating up the ground under me, 2.10 in the sand, I hate to think of leaving it, and I try to prevent it. Besides, I don't like the proposition of going, I don't know where. That's why I get seared. But he says that it's no more than turning down the light and turning it up again. They used to call me a dreamer in Mexico, because I kept seeing things that no one else had thought of, and laid out railways and tapped mines for the future; but I was nothing to him. I'm a high-and-dry hedge-clipper alongside. I'm betting on him all the time; but no one seems to be working to make his dreams come true, except himself. I don't count; I'm no good, no real good. I'm only fit to run the commissariat, and see that he gets enough to eat, and has a safe camel, and so on.

Why doesn't some one else help him? He's working for humanity. Give him half a chance, and Haroun-al-Raschid won't be in it. Kaid trusts him, depends on him, stands by him, but doesn't seem to know how to help him when help would do most good. The Saadat does it all himself; and if it wasn't that the poor devil of a fellah sees what he's doing, and cottons to him, and the dervishes and Arabs feel he's right, he might as well leave. But it's just there he counts. There's something about him, something that's Quaker in him, primitive, silent, and perceptive--if that's a real word--which makes them feel that he's honest, and isn't after anything for himself. Arabs don't talk much; they make each other understand without many words. They think with all their might on one thing at a time, and they think things into happening--and so does he. He's a thousand years old, which is about as old-fashioned as I mean, and as wise, and as plain to read as though you'd write the letters of words as big as a date-palm. That's where he makes the running with them, and they can read their title clear to mansions in the skies!

You should hear him talk with Ebn Ezra Bey--perhaps you don't know of Ezra? He was a friend of his Uncle Benn, and brought the news of his massacre to England, and came back with the Saadat. Well, three days ago Ebn Ezra came, and there came with him, too, Halim Bey, the Egyptian, who had brought the letters to us from Cairo. Elm Ezra found him down the river deserted by his niggers, and sick with this new sort of fever, which the Saadat is knocking out of time. And there he lies, the Saadat caring for him as though he was his brother. But that's his way; though, now I come to think of it, the Saadat doesn't suspect what I suspect, that Halim Bey brought word from Nahoum to our sheikhs here to keep us here, or lose us, or do away with us. Old Ebn Ezra doesn't say much himself, doesn't say anything about that; but he's guessing the same as me. And the Saadat looks as though he was ready for his grave, but keeps going, going, going. He never seems to sleep. What keeps him alive I don't know. Sometimes I feel clean knocked out myself with the little I do, but he's a travelling hospital all by his lonesome.

Later.--I had to stop writing, for things have been going on-- several. I can see that Ebn Ezra has told the Saadat things that make him want to get away to Cairo as soon as possible. That it's Nahoum Pasha and others--oh, plenty of others, of course--I'm certain; but what the particular game is I don't know. Perhaps you know over in England, for you're nearer Cairo than we are by a few miles, and you've got the telegraph. Perhaps there's a revolution, perhaps there's been a massacre of Europeans, perhaps Turkey is kicking up a dust, perhaps Europe is interfering--all of it, all at once.

Later still.--I've found out it's a little of all, and the Saadat is ready to go. I guess he can go now pretty soon, for the worst of the fever is over. But something has happened that's upset him- knocked him stony for a minute. Halim Bey was killed last night--by order of the sheikhs, I'm told; but the sheikhs won't give it away. When the Saadat went to them, his eyes blazing, his face pale as a sheet, and as good as swore at them, and treated them as though he'd string them up the next minute, they only put their hands on their heads, and said they were "the fallen leaves for his foot to scatter," the "snow on the hill for his breath to melt"; but they wouldn't give him any satisfaction. So he came back and shut himself up in his tent, and he sits there like a ghost all shrivelled up for want of sleep, and his eyes like a lime-kiln burning; for now he knows this at least, that Halim Bey had brought some word from Kaid's Palace that set these Arabs against him, and nearly stopped my correspondence. You see, there's a widow in Cairo--she's a sister of the American consul, and I've promised to take her with a party camping in the Fayoum--cute as she can be, and plays the guitar. But it's all right now, except that the Saadat is running too close and fine. If he has any real friends in England among the Government people, or among those who can make the Government people sit up, and think what's coming to Egypt and to him, they'll help him now when he needs it. He'll need help real bad when he gets back to Cairo--if we get that far. It isn't yet a sure thing, for we've got to fight in the next day or two--I forgot to tell you that sooner. There's a bull-Arab on the rampage with five thousand men, and he's got a claim out on our sheikh, Mustafa, for ivory he has here, and there's going to be a scrimmage. We've got to make for a better position to-morrow, and meet Abdullah, the bull-Arab, further down the river. That's one reason why Mustafa and all our friends here are so sweet on us now. They look on the Saadat as a kind of mascot, and they think that he can wipe out the enemy with his flute, which they believe is a witch-stick to work wonders.

He's just sent for me to come, and I must stop soon. Say, he hasn't had sleep for a fortnight. It's too much; he can't stand it. I tried it, and couldn't. It wore me down. He's killing himself for others. I can't manage him; but I guess you could. I apologise, dear Lady Cousin. I'm only a hayseed, and a failure, but I guess you'll understand that I haven't thought only of myself as I wrote this letter. The higher you go in life the more you'll understand; that's your nature. I'll get this letter off by a nigger to-morrow, with those the Saadat is sending through to Cairo by some friendlies. It's only a chance; but everything's chance here now. Anyhow, it's safer than leaving it till the scrimmage. If you get this, won't you try and make the British Government stand by the Saadat? Your husband, the lord, could pull it off, if he tried; and if you ask him, I guess he'd try. I must be off now. David Pasha will be waiting. Well, give my love to the girls!

Your affectionate cousin,

TOM LACEY.

P. S.--I've got a first-class camel for our scrimmage day after to-morrow. Mustafa sent it to me this morning. I had a fight on mules once, down at Oaxaca, but that was child's play. This will be "slaughter in the pan," if the Saadat doesn't stop it somehow. Perhaps he will. If I wasn't so scared I'd wish he couldn't stop it, for it will be a way-up Barbarian scrap, the tongs and the kettle, a bully panjandrum. It gets mighty dull in the desert when you're not moving. But "it makes to think," as the French say. Since I came out here I've had several real centre thoughts, sort of main principles-key-thoughts, that's it. What I want now is a sort of safety-ring to string 'em on and keep 'em safe; for I haven't a good memory, and I get mighty rattled sometimes. Thoughts like these are like the secret of a combination lock; they let you into the place where the gold and securities and title-deeds of life are. Trouble is, I haven't got a safety-ring, and I'm certain to lose them. I haven't got what you'd call an intellectual memory. Things come in flashes to me out of experiences, and pull me up short, and I say, "Yes, that's it--that's it; I understand." I see why it's so, and what it means, and where it leads, and how far it spreads. It's five thousand years old. Adam thought it after Cain killed Abel, or Abel thought it just before he died, or Eve learned it from Lilith, or it struck Abraham when he went to sacrifice Isaac. Sometimes things hit me deep like that here in the desert. Then I feel I can see just over on the horizon the tents of Moab in the wilderness; that yesterday and to-day are the same; that I've crossed the prairies of the everlasting years, and am playing about with Ishmael in the wild hills, or fighting with Ahab. Then the world and time seem pretty small potatoes.

You see how it is. I never was trained to think, and I get stunned by thoughts that strike me as being dug right out of the centre. Sometimes I'd like to write them down; but I can't write; I can only talk as I'm talking to you. If you weren't so high up, and so much cleverer than I am, and such a thinker, I'd like you to be my safety-ring, if you would. I could tell the key-thoughts to you when they came to me, before I forgot them with all their bearings; and by-and-by they'd do me a lot of good when I got away from this influence, and back into the machinery of the Western world again. If you could come out here, if you could feel what I feel here--and you would feel a thousand times as much--I don't know what you wouldn't do.

It's pretty wonderful. The nights with the stars so white and glittering, and so near that you'd think you could reach up and hand them down; the dark, deep, blue beyond; such a width of life all round you, a sort of never-ending space, that everything you ever saw or did seems little, and God so great in a kind of hovering sense like a pair of wings; and all the secrets of time coming out of it all, and sort of touching your face like a velvet wind. I expect you'll think me sentimental, a first-class squash out of the pumpkin-garden; but it's in the desert, and it gets into you and saturates you, till you feel that this is a kind of middle space between the world of cities, and factories, and railways, and tenement-houses, and the quiet world to come--a place where they think out things for the benefit of future generations, and convey them through incarnations, or through the desert. Say, your ladyship, I'm a chatterer, I'm a two-cent philosopher, I'm a baby; but you are too much like your grandmother, who was the daughter of a Quaker like David Pasha, to laugh at me.

I've got a suit of fine chain-armour which I bought of an Arab down by Darfur. I'm wondering if it would be too cowardly to wear it in the scrap that's coming. I don't know, though, but what I'll wear it, I get so scared. But it will be a frightful hot thing under my clothes, and it's hot enough without that, so I'm not sure. It depends how much my teeth chatter when I see "the dawn of battle."

I've got one more thing before I stop. I'm going to send you a piece of poetry which the Saadat wrote, and tore in two, and threw away. He was working off his imagination, I guess, as you have to do out here. I collected it and copied it, and put in the punctuation--he didn't bother about that. Perhaps he can't punctuate. I don't understand quite what the poetry means, but maybe you will. Anyway, you'll see that it's a real desert piece. Here it is:

                         "THE DESERT ROAD

              "In the sands I lived in a hut of palm,
               There was never a garden to see;
               There was never a path through the desert calm,
               Nor a way through its storms for me.

              "Tenant was I of a lone domain;
               The far pale caravans wound
               To the rim of the sky, and vanished again;
               My call in the waste was drowned.

              "The vultures came and hovered and fled;
               And once there stole to my door
               A white gazelle, but its eyes were dread
               With the hurt of the wounds it bore.

              "It passed in the dusk with a foot of fear,
               And the white cold mists rolled in;

               "And my heart was the heart of a stricken deer,
               Of a soul in the snare of sin.

              "My days they withered like rootless things,
               And the sands rolled on, rolled wide;
               Like a pelican I, with broken wings,
               Like a drifting barque on the tide.

              "But at last, in the light of a rose-red day,
               In the windless glow of the morn,
               From over the hills and from far away,
               You came--ah, the joy of the morn!

              "And wherever your footsteps fell, there crept
               A path--it was fair and wide:
               A desert road which no sands have swept,
               Where never a hope has died.

              "I followed you forth, and your beauty held
               My heart like an ancient song;
               By that desert road to the blossoming plains
               I came-and the way was long!

              "So I set my course by the light of your eyes;
               I care not what fate may send;
               On the road I tread shine the love-starred skies--
               The road with never an end."

Not many men can do things like that, and the other things, too, that he does. Perhaps he will win through, by himself, but is it fair to have him run the risk? If he ever did you a good turn, as you once said to me he did, won't you help him now? You are on the inside of political things, and if you make up your mind to help, nothing will stop you--that was your grandmother's way. He ought to get his backing pretty soon, or it won't be any good. . . . I hear him at his flute. I expect he's tired waiting for me. Well, give my love to the girls!

T. L.

As Hylda read, she passed through phases of feeling begotten of new understanding which shook her composure. She had seen David and all that David was doing; Egypt, and all that was threatening the land through the eyes of another who told the whole truth--except about his own cowardice, which was untrue. She felt the issues at stake. While the mention of David's personal danger left her sick for a moment, she saw the wider peril also to the work he had set out to do.

What was the thing without the man? It could not exist--it had no meaning. Where was he now? What had been the end of the battle? He had saved others, had he saved himself? The most charmed life must be pierced by the shaft of doom sooner or later; but he was little more than a youth yet, he had only just begun!

"And the Saadat looks as though he was ready for his grave--but keeps going, going, going.!" The words kept ringing in her ears. Again: "And he sits there like a ghost all shrivelled up for want of sleep, and his eyes like a lime-kiln burning. . . . He hasn't had sleep for a fortnight. . . . He's killing himself for others."

Her own eyes were shining with a dry, hot light, her lips were quivering, but her hands upon the letter were steady and firm. What could she do?

She went to a table, picked up the papers, and scanned them hurriedly. Not a word about Egypt. She thought for a moment, then left the drawing- room. Passing up a flight of stairs to her husband's study, she knocked and entered. It was empty; but Eglington was in the house, for a red despatch-box lay open on his table. Instinctively she glanced at the papers exposed in the box, and at the letters beside it. The document on the top of the pile in the box related to Cyprus--the name caught her eye. Another document was half-exposed beneath it. Her hand went to her heart. She saw the words, "Soudan" and "Claridge Pasha." She reached for it, then drew back her hand, and her eyes closed as though to shut it out from her sight. Why should she not see it? They were her husband's papers, husband and wife were one. Husband and wife one! She shrank back. Were they one? An overmastering desire was on her. It seemed terrible to wait, when here before her was news of David, of life or death. Suddenly she put out her hand and drew the Cyprus paper over the Egyptian document, so that she might not see it.

As she did so the door opened on her, and Eglington entered. He had seen the swift motion of her hand, and again a look peculiar to him crossed his face, enigmatical, cynical, not pleasant to see.

She turned on him slowly, and he was aware of her inward distress to some degree, though her face was ruled to quietness.

He nodded at her and smiled. She shrank, for she saw in his nod and his smile that suggestion of knowing all about everything and everybody, and thinking the worst, which had chilled her so often. Even in their short married life it had chilled those confidences which she would gladly have poured out before him, if he had been a man with an open soul. Had there been joined to his intellect and temperament a heart capable of true convictions and abiding love, what a man he might have been! But his intellect was superficial, and his temperament was dangerous, because there were not the experiences of a soul of truth to give the deeper hold upon the meaning of life. She shrank now, as, with a little laugh and glancing suggestively at the despatch-box, he said:

"And what do you think of it all?"

She felt as though something was crushing her heart within its grasp, and her eyes took on a new look of pain. "I did not read the papers," she answered quietly.

"I saw them in your fingers. What creatures women are--so dishonourable in little things," he said ironically.

She laid a hand on his. "I did not read them, Harry," she urged.

He smiled and patted her arm. "There, there, it doesn't matter," he laughed. He watched her narrowly. "It matters greatly," she answered gently, though his words had cut her like a knife. "I did not read the papers. I only saw the word 'Cyprus' on the first paper, and I pushed it over the paper which had the word 'Egypt' on it 'Egypt' and 'Claridge,' lest I should read it. I did not wish to read it. I am not dishonourable, Harry."

He had hurt her more than he had ever done; and only the great matter at stake had prevented the lesser part of her from bursting forth in indignation, from saying things which she did not wish to say. She had given him devotion--such devotion, such self-effacement in his career as few women ever gave. Her wealth--that was so little in comparison with the richness of her nature--had been his; and yet his vast egotism took it all as his right, and she was repaid in a kind of tyranny, the more galling and cruel because it was wielded by a man of intellect and culture, and ancient name and tradition. If he had been warned that he was losing his wife's love, he would have scouted the idea, his self- assurance was so strong, his vanity complete. If, however, he had been told that another man was thinking of his wife, he would have believed it, as he believed now that David had done; and he cherished that belief, and let resentment grow. He was the Earl of Eglington, and no matter what reputation David had reached, he was still a member of a Quaker trader's family, with an origin slightly touched with scandal. Another resentment, however, was steadily rising in him. It galled him that Hylda should take so powerful an interest in David's work in Egypt; and he knew now that she had always done so. It did not ease his vexed spirit to know that thousands of others of his fellow-countrymen did the same. They might do so, but she was his wife, and his own work was the sun round which her mind and interest should revolve.

"Why should you be so keen about Egypt and Claridge Pasha?" he said to her now.

Her face hardened a little. Had he the right to torture her so? To suspect her? She could read it in his eyes. Her conscience was clear. She was no man's slave. She would not be any man's slave. She was master of her own soul. What right had he to catechise her--as though she were a servant or a criminal? But she checked the answer on her tongue, because she was hurt deeper than words could express, and she said, composedly:

"I have here a letter from my cousin Lacey, who is with Claridge Pasha. It has news of him, of events in the Soudan. He had fever, there was to be a fight, and I wished to know if you had any later news. I thought that document there might contain news, but I did not read it. I realised that it was not yours, that it belonged to the Government, that I had no right. Perhaps you will tell me if you have news. Will you?" She leaned against the table wearily, holding her letter.

"Let me read your letter first," he said wilfully.

A mist seemed to come before her eyes; but she was schooled to self- command, and he did not see he had given her a shock. Her first impulse was to hand the letter over at once; then there came the remembrance of all it contained, all it suggested. Would he see all it suggested? She recalled the words Lacey had used regarding a service which David had once done her. If Eglington asked, what could she say? It was not her secret alone, it was another's. Would she have the right, even if she wished it, to tell the truth, or part of the truth? Or, would she be entitled to relate some immaterial incident which would evade the real truth? What good could it do to tell the dark story? What could it serve? Eglington would horribly misunderstand it--that she knew. There were the verses also. They were more suggestive than anything else, though, indeed, they might have referred to another woman, or were merely impersonal; but she felt that was not so. And there was Eglington's innate unbelief in man and woman! Her first impulse held, however. She would act honestly. She would face whatever there was to face. She would not shelter herself; she would not give him the right in the future to say she had not dealt fairly by him, had evaded any inquest of her life or mind which he might make.

She gave him the letter, her heart standing still, but she was filled with a regnant determination to defend herself, to defend David against any attack, or from any consequences.

All her life and hopes seemed hanging in the balance, as he began to read the letter. With fear she saw his face cloud over, heard an impatient exclamation pass his lips. She closed her eyes to gather strength for the conflict which was upon her. He spoke, and she vaguely wondered what passage in the letter had fixed his attention. His voice seemed very far away. She scarcely understood. But presently it pierced the clouds of numbness between them, and she realised what he was saying:

"Vulgar fellow--I can't congratulate you upon your American cousin. So, the Saadat is great on moral suasion, master of it--never failed yet--not altogether--and Aunt Melissa and skim-milk and early piety!' And 'the Saadat is a wonder from Wondertown'--like a side-show to a circus, a marvel on the flying trapeze! Perhaps you can give me the sense of the letter, if there is any sense in it. I can't read his writing, and it seems interminable. Would you mind?"

A sigh of relief broke from her. A weight slipped away from her heart and brain. It was as though one in armour awaited the impact of a heavy, cruel, overwhelming foe, who suddenly disappeared, and the armour fell from the shoulders, and breath came easily once again.

"Would you mind?" he repeated drily, as he folded up the letter slowly.

He handed it back to her, the note of sarcasm in his voice pricking her like the point of a dagger. She felt angered with herself that he could rouse her temper by such small mean irony. She had a sense of bitter disappointment in him--or was it a deep hurt?--that she had not made him love her, truly love her. If he had only meant the love that he swore before they had married! Why had he deceived her? It had all been in his hands, her fate and future; but almost before the bridal flowers had faded, she had come to know two bitter things: that he had married with a sordid mind; that he was incapable of the love which transmutes the half- comprehending, half-developed affection of the maid into the absorbing, understanding, beautiful passion of the woman. She had married not knowing what love and passion were; uncomprehending, and innocent because uncomprehending; with a fine affection, but capable of loving wholly. One thing had purified her motives and her life--the desire to share with Eglington his public duty and private hopes, to be his confidante, his friend, his coadjutor, proud of him, eager for him, determined to help him. But he had blocked the path to all inner companionship. He did no more than let her share the obvious and outer responsibilities of his life. From the vital things, if there were vital things, she was shut out. What would she not give for one day of simple tenderness and quiet affection, a true day with a true love!

She was now perfectly composed. She told him the substance of the letter, of David's plight, of the fever, of the intended fight, of Nahoum Pasha, of the peril to David's work. He continued to interrogate her, while she could have shrieked out the question, "What is in yonder document? What do you know? Have you news of his safety?" Would he never stop his questioning? It was trying her strength and patience beyond endurance. At last he drew the document slowly from the despatch- box, and glanced up and down it musingly. "I fancy he won the battle," he said slowly, "for they have news of him much farther down the river. But from this letter I take it he is not yet within the zone of safety-- so Nahoum Pasha says." He flicked the document upwards with his thumb.

"What is our Government doing to help him?" she asked, checking her eagerness.

His heart had gradually hardened towards Egypt. Power had emphasised a certain smallness in him. Personal considerations informed the policy of the moment. He was not going to be dragged at the chariot-wheels of the Quaker. To be passive, when David in Egypt had asked for active interest; to delay, when urgency was important to Claridge Pasha; to speak coldly on Egyptian affairs to his chief, the weak Foreign Secretary, this was the policy he had begun.

So he answered now: "It is the duty of the Egyptian Government to help him--of Prince Kaid, of Nahoum Pasha, who is acting for him in his absence, who governs finance, and therefore the army. Egypt does not belong to England."

"Nahoum Pasha is his enemy. He will do nothing to help, unless you force him."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I know Nahoum Pasha."

"When did you know Nahoum?"

"In Egypt, years ago."

"Your acquaintance is more varied than I thought," he said sarcastically.

"Oh, do not speak to me like that!" she returned, in a low, indignant voice.

"Do not patronise me; do not be sarcastic."

"Do not be so sensitive," he answered unemotionally.

"You surely do not mean that you--that the Government will not help him? He is doing the work of Europe, of civilisation, of Christianity there. He is sacrificing himself for the world. Do you not see it? Oh, but you do! You would realise his work if you knew Egypt as I have seen it."

"Expediency must govern the policy of nations," he answered critically.

"But, if through your expediency he is killed like a rat in a trap, and his work goes to pieces--all undone! Is there no right in the matter?"

"In affairs of state other circumstances than absolute 'right' enter. Here and there the individual is sacrificed who otherwise would be saved --if it were expedient."

"Oh, Eglington! He is of your own county, of your own village, is your neighbour, a man of whom all England should be proud. You can intervene if you will be just, and say you will. I know that intervention has been discussed in the Cabinet."

"You say he is of my county. So are many people, and yet they are not county people. A neighbour he was, but more in a Scriptural than social sense." He was hurting her purposely.

She made a protesting motion of her hand. "No, no, no, do not be so small. This is a great matter. Do a great thing now; help it to be done for your own honour, for England's honour--for a good man's sake, for your country's sake."

There came a knock at the door. An instant afterwards a secretary entered. "A message from the Prime Minister, sir." He handed over a paper.

"Will you excuse me?" he asked Hylda suavely, in his eyes the enigmatical look that had chilled her so often before. She felt that her appeal had been useless. She prepared to leave the room. He took her hand, kissed it gallantly, and showed her out. It was his way--too civil to be real.

Blindly she made her way to her room. Inside, she suddenly swayed and sank fainting to the ground, as Kate Heaver ran forward to her. Kate saw the letter in the clinched hand. Loosening it, she read two or three sentences with a gasp. They contained Tom Lacey's appeal for David. She lifted Hylda's head to her shoulder with endearing words, and chafed the cold hands, murmuring to herself the while.