The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXX. Lacey Moves
If there was one glistening bead of sweat on the bald pate of Lacey of Chicago there were a thousand; and the smile on his face was not less shining and unlimited. He burst into the rooms of the palace where David had residence, calling: "Oyez! Oyez! Saadat! Oh, Pasha of the Thousand Tails! Oyez! Oyez!"
Getting no answer, he began to perform a dance round the room, which in modern days is known as the negro cake-walk. It was not dignified, but it would have been less dignified still performed by any other living man of forty-five with a bald head and a waist-band ten inches too large. Round the room three times he went, and then he dropped on a divan. He gasped, and mopped his face and forehead, leaving a little island of moisture on the top of his head untouched. After a moment, he gained breath and settled down a little. Then he burst out:
"Are you coming to my party, O effendi? There'll be high jinks, there'll be welcome, there'll be room; For to-morrow we are pulling stakes for Shendy. Are you coming to my party, O Nahoum?"
"Say, I guess that's pretty good on the spur of the moment," he wheezed, and, taking his inseparable note book from his pocket, wrote the impromptu down. "I guess She'll like that-it rings spontaneous. She'll be tickled, tickled to death, when she knows what's behind it." He repeated it with gusto. "She'll dote on it," he added--the person to whom he referred being the sister of the American Consul, the little widow, "cute as she can be," of whom he had written to Hylda in the letter which had brought a crisis in her life. As he returned the note- book to his pocket a door opened. Mahommed Hassan slid forward into the room, and stood still, impassive and gloomy. Lacey beckoned, and said grotesquely:
"'Come hither, come hither, my little daughter, And do not tremble so!'"
A sort of scornful patience was in Mahommed's look, but he came nearer and waited.
"Squat on the ground, and smile a smile of mirth, Mahommed," Lacey said riotously. "'For I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother, I'm to be Queen o' the May!'"
Mahommed's face grew resentful. "O effendi, shall the camel-driver laugh when the camels are lost in the khamsin and the water-bottle is empty?"
"Certainly not, O son of the spreading palm; but this is not a desert, nor a gaudy caravan. This is a feast of all angels. This is the day when Nahoum the Nefarious is to be buckled up like a belt, and ridden in a ring. Where is the Saadat?"
"He is gone, effendi! Like a mist on the face of the running water, so was his face; like eyes that did not see, so was his look. 'Peace be to thee, Mahommed, thou art faithful as Zaida,' he said, and he mounted and rode into the desert. I ran after till he was come to the edge of the desert; but he sent me back, saying that I must wait for thee; and this word I was to say, that Prince Kaid had turned his face darkly from him, and that the finger of Sharif--"
"That fanatical old quack--Harrik's friend!"
"--that the finger of Sharif was on his pulse; but the end of all was in the hands of God."
"Oh yes, exactly, the finger of Sharif on his pulse! The old story-the return to the mother's milk, throwing back to all the Pharaohs. Well, what then?" he added cheerfully, his smile breaking out again. "Where has he gone, our Saadat?"
"To Ebn Ezra Bey at the Coptic Monastery by the Etl Tree, where your prophet Christ slept when a child."
Lacey hummed to himself meditatively. "A sort of last powwow--Rome before the fall. Everything wrong, eh? Kaid turned fanatic, Nahoum on the tiles watching for the Saadat to fall, things trembling for want of hard cash. That's it, isn't it, Mahommed?"
Mahommed nodded, but his look was now alert, and less sombre. He had caught at something vital and confident in Lacey's tone. He drew nearer, and listened closely.
"Well, now, my gentle gazelle, listen unto me," continued Lacey. He suddenly leaned forward, and spoke in subdued but rapid tones. "Say, Mahommed, once upon a time there was an American man, with a shock of red hair, and a nature like a spring-lock. He went down to Mexico, with a million or two of his own money got honestly by an undisputed will from an undisputed father--you don't understand that, but it doesn't matter-- and with a few millions of other people's money, for to gamble in mines and railways and banks and steamship companies--all to do with Mexico what the Saadat has tried to do in Egypt with less money; but not for the love of Allah, same as him. This American was going to conquer like Cortez, but his name was Thomas Tilman Lacey, and he had a lot of gall. After years of earnest effort, he lost his hair and the millions of the Infatuated Conquistadores. And by-and-by he came to Cairo with a thimbleful of income, and began to live again. There was a civil war going on in his own country, but he thought that one out of forty millions would not be strictly missed. So he stayed in Egypt; and the tale of his days in Egypt, is it not written with a neboot of domwood in the book of Mahommed Hassan the scribe?"
He paused and beamed upon the watchful Mahommed, who, if he did not understand all that had been said, was in no difficulty as to the drift and meaning of the story.
"Aiwa, effendi," he urged impatiently. "It is a long ride to the Etl Tree, and the day is far spent."
"Inshallah, you shall hear, my turtle-dove! One day there came to Cairo, in great haste, a man from Mexico, looking for the foolish one called T. T. Lacey, bearing glad news. And the man from Mexico blew his trumpet, and straightway T. T. Lacey fell down dismayed. The trumpet said that a million once lost in Mexico was returned, with a small flock of other millions; for a mine, in which it was sunk, had burst forth with a stony stream of silver. And behold! Thomas Tilman Lacey, the despised waster of his patrimony and of other people's treasure, is now, O son of the fig-flower, richer than Kaid Pasha and all his eunuchs."
Suddenly Mahommed Hassan leaned forward, then backward, and, after the fashion of desert folk, gave a shrill, sweet ululation that seemed to fill the palace.
"Say, that's A1," Lacey said, when Mahommed's voice sank to a whisper of wild harmony. "Yes, you can lick my boots, my noble sheikh of Manfaloot," he added, as Mahommed caught his feet and bent his head upon them. "I wanted to do something like that myself. Kiss 'em, honey; it'll do you good."
After a moment, Mahommed drew back and squatted before him in an attitude of peace and satisfaction. "The Saadat--you will help him? You will give him money?"
"Let's put it in this way, Mahommed: I'll invest in an expedition out of which I expect to get something worth while--concessions for mines and railways, et cetera." He winked a round, blue eye. "Business is business, and the way to get at the Saadat is to talk business; but you can make up your mind that,
"'To-morrow, we are pulling stakes for Shendy! Are you coming to my party, O Nahoum?'"
"By the prophet Abraham, but the news is great news," said Mahommed with a grin. "But the Effendina?"
"Well, I'll try and square the Effendina," answered Lacey. "Perhaps the days of backsheesh aren't done in Egypt, after all."
"And Nahoum Pasha?" asked Mahommed, with a sinister look.
"Well, we'll try and square him, too, but in another way."
"The money, it is in Egypt?" queried Mahommed, whose idea was that money to be real must be seen. "Something that's as handy and as marketable," answered Lacey. "I can raise half a million to-morrow; and that will do a lot of what we want. How long will it take to ride to the monastery?"
Mahommed told him.
Lacey was about to leave the room, when he heard a voice outside. "Nahoum!" he said, and sat down again on the divan. "He has come to see the Saadat, I suppose; but it'll do him good to see me, perhaps. Open the sluices, Mahommed."
Yes, Nahoum would be glad to see the effendi, since Claridge Pasha was not in Cairo. When would Claridge Pasha return? If, then, the effendi expected to see the Saadat before his return to Cairo, perhaps he would convey a message. He could not urge his presence on the Saadat, since he had not been honoured with any communication since yesterday.
"Well, that's good-mannered, anyhow, pasha," said Lacey with cheerful nonchalance. "People don't always know when they're wanted or not wanted."
Nahoum looked at him guardedly, sighed and sat down. "Things have grown worse since yesterday," he said. "Prince Kaid received the news badly." He shook his head. "He has not the gift of perfect friendship. That is a Christian characteristic; the Muslim does not possess it. It was too strong to last, maybe--my poor beloved friend, the Saadat."
"Oh, it will last all right," rejoined Lacey coolly. "Prince Kaid has got a touch of jaundice, I guess. He knows a thing when he finds it, even if he hasn't the gift of 'perfect friendship,' same as Christians like you and me. But even you and me don't push our perfections too far --I haven't noticed you going out of your way to do things for your 'poor beloved friend, the Saadat'."
"I have given him time, energy, experience--money."
Lacey nodded. "True. And I've often wondered why, when I've seen the things you didn't give and the things you took away."
Nahoum's eyes half closed. Lacey was getting to close quarters with suspicion and allusion; but it was not his cue to resent them yet.
"I had come now to offer him help; to advance him enough to carry through his expedition."
"Well, that sounds generous, but I guess he would get on without it, pasha. He would not want to be under any more obligations to you."
"He is without money. He must be helped."
"He cannot go to the treasury, and Prince Kaid has refused. Why should he decline help from his friend?" Suddenly Lacey changed his tactics. He had caught a look in Nahoum's eyes which gave him a new thought. "Well, if you've any proposition, pasha, I'll take it to him. I'll be seeing him to-night."
"I can give him fifty thousand pounds."
"It isn't enough to save the situation, pasha."
"It will help him over the first zareba."
"Are there any conditions?" "There are no conditions, effendi." "And interest?"
"There would be no interest in money."
"Yes, other considerations, effendi."
"If they were granted, would there be enough still in the stocking to help him over a second zareba--or a third, perhaps?"
"That would be possible, even likely, I think. Of course we speak in confidence, effendi."
"The confidence of the 'perfect friendship.'"
"There may be difficulty, because the Saadat is sensitive; but it is the only way to help him. I can get the money from but one source; and to get it involves an agreement."
"You think his Excellency would not just jump at it--that it might hurt some of his prejudices, eh?"
"And me--where am I in it, pasha?"
"Thou hast great influence with his Excellency."
"I am his servant--I don't meddle with his prejudices, pasha."
"But if it were for his own good, to save his work here."
Lacey yawned almost ostentatiously. "I guess if he can't save it himself it can't be saved, not even when you reach out the hand of perfect friendship. You've been reaching out for a long time, pasha, and it didn't save the steamer or the cotton-mills; and it didn't save us when we were down by Sobat a while ago, and you sent Halim Bey to teach us to be patient. We got out of that nasty corner by sleight of hand, but not your sleight of hand, pasha. Your hand is a quick hand, but a sharp eye can see the trick, and then it's no good, not worth a button."
There was something savage behind Nahoum's eyes, but they did not show it; they blinked with earnest kindness and interest. The time would come when Lacey would go as his master should go, and the occasion was not far off now; but it must not be forced. Besides, was this fat, amorous- looking factotum of Claridge Pasha's as Spartan-minded as his master? Would he be superior to the lure of gold? He would see. He spoke seriously, with apparent solicitude.
"Thou dost not understand, effendi. Claridge Pasha must have money. Prestige is everything in Egypt, it is everything with Kaid. If Claridge Pasha rides on as though nothing has happened--and money is the only horse that can carry him--Kaid will not interfere, and his black mood may pass; but any halting now and the game is done."
"And you want the game to go on right bad, don't you? Well, I guess you're right. Money is the only winner in this race. He's got to have money, sure. How much can you raise? Oh, yes, you told me! Well, I don't think it's enough; he's got to have three times that; and if he can't get it from the Government, or from Kaid, it's a bad lookout. What's the bargain you have in your mind?"
"That the slave-trade continue, effendi."
Lacey did not wink, but he had a shock of surprise. On the instant he saw the trap--for the Saadat and for himself.
"He would not do it--not for money, pasha."
"He would not be doing it for money. The time is not ripe for it, it is too dangerous. There is a time for all things. If he will but wait!"
"I wouldn't like to be the man that'd name the thing to him. As you say, he's got his prejudices. They're stronger than in most men."
"It need not be named to him. Thou canst accept the money for him, and when thou art in the Soudan, and he is going to do it, thou canst prevent it."
"Tell him that I've taken the money and that he's used it, and he oughtn't to go back on the bargain I made for him? So that he'll be bound by what I did?"
"It is the best way, effendi."
"He'd be annoyed," said Lacey with a patient sigh.
"He has a great soul; but sometimes he forgets that expediency is the true policy."
"Yet he's done a lot of things without it. He's never failed in what he set out to do. What he's done has been kicked over, but he's done it all right, somehow, at last."
"He will not be able to do this, effendi, except with my help--and thine."
"He's had quite a lot of things almost finished, too," said Lacey reflectively, "and then a hand reached out in the dark and cut the wires --cut them when he was sleeping, and he didn't know; cut them when he was waking, and he wouldn't understand; cut them under his own eyes, and he wouldn't see; because the hand that cut them was the hand of the perfect friend."
He got slowly to his feet, as a cloud of colour drew over the face of Nahoum and his eyes darkened with astonishment and anger. Lacey put his hands in his pockets and waited till Nahoum also rose. Then he gathered the other's eyes to his, and said with drawling scorn:
"So, you thought I didn't understand! You thought I'd got a brain like a peanut, and wouldn't drop onto your game or the trap you've set. You'd advance money--got from the slave-dealers to prevent the slave-trade being stopped! If Claridge Pasha took it and used it, he could never stop the slave-trade. If I took it and used it for him on the same terms, he couldn't stop the slave-trade, though he might know no more about the bargain than a babe unborn. And if he didn't stand by the bargain I made, and did prohibit slave-dealing, nothing'd stop the tribes till they marched into Cairo. He's been safe so far, because they believed in him, and because he'd rather die a million deaths than go crooked. Say, I've been among the Dagos before--down in Mexico--and I'm onto you. I've been onto you for a good while; though there was nothing I could spot certain; but now I've got you, and I'll break the 'perfect friendship' or I'll eat my shirt. I'll--"
He paused, realising the crisis in which David was moving, and that perils were thick around their footsteps. But, even as he thought of them, he remembered David's own frank, fearless audacity in danger and difficulty, and he threw discretion to the winds. He flung his flag wide, and believed with a belief as daring as David's that all would be well.
"Well, what wilt thou do?" asked Nahoum with cool and deadly menace. "Thou wilt need to do it quickly, because, if it is a challenge, within forty-eight hours Claridge Pasha and thyself will be gone from Egypt--or I shall be in the Nile."
"I'll take my chances, pasha," answered Lacey, with equal coolness. "You think you'll win. It's not the first time I've had to tackle men like you--they've got the breed in Mexico. They beat me there, but I learned the game, and I've learned a lot from you, too. I never knew what your game was here. I only know that the Saadat saved your life, and got you started again with Kaid. I only know that you called yourself a Christian, and worked on him till he believed in you, and Hell might crackle round you, but he'd believe, till he saw your contract signed with the Devil--and then he'd think the signature forged. But he's got to know now. We are not going out of Egypt, though you may be going to the Nile; but we are going to the Soudan, and with Kaid's blessing, too. You've put up the bluff, and I take it. Be sure you've got Kaid solid, for, if you haven't, he'll be glad to know where you keep the money you got from the slave-dealers."
Nahoum shrugged his shoulders. "Who has seen the money? Where is the proof? Kaid would know my reasons. It is not the first time virtue has been tested in Egypt, or the first time that it has fallen."
In spite of himself Lacey laughed. "Say, that's worthy of a great Christian intellect. You are a bright particular star, pasha. I take it back--they'd learn a lot from you in Mexico. But the only trouble with lying is, that the demand becomes so great you can't keep all the cards in your head, and then the one you forget does you. The man that isn't lying has the pull in the long run. You are out against us, pasha, and we'll see how we stand in forty-eight hours. You have some cards up your sleeve, I suppose; but--well, I'm taking you on. I'm taking you on with a lot of joy, and some sorrow, too, for we might have pulled off a big thing together, you and Claridge Pasha, with me to hold the stirrups. Now it's got to be war. You've made it so. It's a pity, for when we grip there'll be a heavy fall."
"For a poor man thou hast a proud stomach."
"Well, I'll admit the stomach, pasha. It's proud; and it's strong, too; it's stood a lot in Egypt; it's standing a lot to-day."
"We'll ease the strain, perhaps," sneered Nahoum. He made a perfunctory salutation and walked briskly from the room.
Mahommed Hassan crept in, a malicious grin on his face. Danger and conflict were as meat and drink to him.
"Effendi, God hath given thee a wasp's sting to thy tongue. It is well. Nahoum Pasha hath Mizraim: the Saadat hath thee and me."
"There's the Effendina," said Lacey reflectively. "Thou saidst thou would 'square' him, effendi."
"I say a lot," answered Lacey rather ruefully. "Come, Mahommed, the Saadat first, and the sooner the better."