The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXI. The Struggle in the Desert
"And His mercy is on them that fear Him throughout all generations."
On the clear, still evening air the words rang out over the desert, sonorous, imposing, peaceful. As the notes of the verse died away the answer came from other voices in deep, appealing antiphonal:
"He hath showed strength with His arm, He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts."
Beyond the limits of the monastery there was not a sign of life; neither beast nor bird, nor blade of grass, nor any green thing; only the perfect immemorial blue, and in the east a misty moon, striving in vain to offer light which the earth as yet rejected for the brooding radiance of the descending sun. But at the great door of the monastery there grew a stately palm, and near by an ancient acacia-tree; and beyond the stone chapel there was a garden of struggling shrubs and green things, with one rose-tree which scattered its pink leaves from year to year upon the loam, since no man gathered bud or blossom.
The triumphant call of the Magnificat, however beautiful, seemed strangely out of place in this lonely island in a sea of sand. It was the song of a bannered army, marching over the battle-field with conquering voices, and swords as yet unsheathed and red, carrying the spoils of conquest behind the laurelled captain of the host. The crumbling and ancient walls were surrounded by a moat which a stranger's foot crossed hardly from moon to moon, which the desert wayfarer sought rarely, since it was out of the track of caravans, and because food was scant in the refectory of this Coptic brotherhood. It was scarce five hours' ride from the Palace of the Prince Pasha: but it might have been a thousand miles away, so profoundly separate was it from the world of vital things and deeds of men.
As the chant rang out, confident, majestic, and serene, carried by voices of power and shrill sweetness, which only the desert can produce, it might have seemed to any listener that this monastery was all that remained of some ancient kingdom of brimming, active cities, now lying beneath the obliterating sand, itself the monument and memorial of a breath of mercy of the Destroyer, the last refuge of a few surviving captains of a departed greatness. Hidden by the grey, massive walls, built as it were to resist the onset of a ravaging foe, the swelling voices might well have been those of some ancient order of valiant knights, whose banners hung above them, the 'riclame' of their deeds. But they were voices and voices only; for they who sang were as unkempt and forceless as the lonely wall which shut them in from the insistent soul of the desert.
Desolation? The desert was not desolate. Its face was bare and burning, it slaked no man's thirst, gave no man food, save where scattered oases were like the breasts of a vast mother eluding the aching lips of her parched children; but the soul of the desert was living and inspiring, beating with vitality. It was life that burned like flame. If the water-skin was dry and the date-bag empty it smothered and destroyed; but it was life; and to those who ventured into its embrace, obeying the conditions of the sharp adventure, it gave what neither sea, nor green plain, nor high mountain, nor verdant valley could give--a consuming sense of power, which found its way to the deepest recesses of being. Out upon the vast sea of sand, where the descending sun was spreading a note of incandescent colour, there floated the grateful words:
Then the antiphonal ceased; and together the voices of all within the place swelled out in the Gloria and the Amen, and seemed to pass away in ever-receding vibrations upon the desert, till it was lost in the comforting sunset.
As the last note died away, a voice from beneath the palm-tree near the door, deeper than any that had come from within, said reverently: "Ameen- Ameen !"
He who spoke was a man well over sixty years, with a grey beard, lofty benign forehead, and the eyes of a scholar and a dreamer. As he uttered the words of spiritual assent, alike to the Muslim and the Christian religion, he rose to his feet, showing the figure of a man of action, alert, well-knit, authoritative. Presently he turned towards the East and stretched a robe upon the ground, and with stately beauty of gesture he spread out his hands, standing for a moment in the attitude of aspiration. Then, kneeling, he touched his turbaned head to the ground three times, and as the sun drew down behind the sharp, bright line of sand that marked the horizon, he prayed devoutly and long. It was Ebn Ezra Bey.
Muslim though he was, he had visited this monastery many times, to study the ancient Christian books which lay in disordered heaps in an ill-kept chamber, books which predated the Hegira, and were as near to the life of the Early Church as the Scriptures themselves--or were so reputed. Student and pious Muslim as he was, renowned at El Azhar and at every Muslim university in the Eastern world, he swore by the name of Christ as by that of Abraham, Isaac, and all the prophets, though to him Mahomet was the last expression of Heaven's will to mankind. At first received at the monastery with unconcealed aversion, and not without danger to himself, he had at last won to him the fanatical monks, who, in spirit, kept this ancient foundation as rigid to their faith as though it were in mediaeval times. And though their discipline was lax, and their daily duties orderless, this was Oriental rather than degenerate. Here Ebn Ezra had stayed for weeks at a time in the past, not without some religious scandal, long since forgotten.
His prayers ended, he rose up slowly, once more spread out his hands in ascription, and was about to enter the monastery, when, glancing towards the west, he saw a horseman approaching. An instinct told him who it was before he could clearly distinguish the figure, and his face lighted with a gentle and expectant smile. Then his look changed.
"He is in trouble," he murmured. "As it was with his uncle in Damascus, so will it be with him. Malaish, we are in the will of God!"
The hand that David laid in Ebn Ezra's was hot and nervous, the eyes that drank in the friendship of the face which had seen two Claridges emptying out their lives in the East were burning and famished by long fasting of the spirit, forced abstinence from the pleasures of success and fruition-haunting, desiring eyes, where flamed a spirit which consumed the body and the indomitable mind. The lips, however, had their old trick of smiling, though the smile which greeted Ebn Ezra Bey had a melancholy which touched the desert-worn, life-spent old Arab as he had not been touched since a smile, just like this, flashed up at him from the weather-stained, dying face of quaint Benn Claridge in a street of Damascus. The natural duplicity of the Oriental had been abashed and inactive before the simple and astounding honesty of these two Quaker folk.
He saw crisis written on every feature of the face before him. Yet the scanty meal they ate with the monks in the ancient room was enlivened by the eager yet quiet questioning of David, to whom the monks responded with more spirit than had been often seen in this arid retreat. The single torch which spluttered from the wall as they drank their coffee lighted up faces as strange, withdrawn, and unconsciously secretive as ever gathered to greet a guest. Dim tales had reached them of this Christian reformer and administrator, scraps of legend from stray camel- drivers, a letter from the Patriarch commanding them to pray blessings on his labours--who could tell what advantage might not come to the Coptic Church through him, a Christian! On the dull, torpid faces, light seemed struggling to live for a moment, as David talked. It was as though something in their meagre lives, which belonged to undeveloped feelings, was fighting for existence--a light struggling to break through murky veils of inexperience.
Later, in the still night, however--still, though air vibrated everywhere, as though the desert breathed an ether which was to fill men's veins with that which quieted the fret and fever of life's disillusions and forgeries and failures--David's speech with Ebn Ezra Bey was of a different sort. If, as it seems ever in the desert, an invisible host of beings, once mortal, now immortal, but suspensive and understanding, listened to the tale he unfolded, some glow of pity must have possessed them; for it was an Iliad of herculean struggle against absolute disaster, ending with the bitter news of his grandfather's death. It was the story of Aedipus overcome by events too strong for soul to bear. In return, as the stars wheeled on, and the moon stole to the zenith, majestic and slow, Ebn Ezra offered to his troubled friend only the philosophy of the predestinarian, mingled with the calm of the stoic. But something antagonistic to his own dejection, to the Muslim's fatalism, emerged from David's own altruism, to nerve him to hope and effort still. His unconquerable optimism rose determinedly to the surface, even as he summed up and related the forces working against him.
"They have all come at once," he said; "all the activities opposing me, just as though they had all been started long ago at different points, with a fixed course to run, and to meet and give me a fall in the hour when I could least resist. You call it Fate. I call it what it proves itself to be. But here it is a hub of danger and trouble, and the spokes of disaster are flying to it from all over the compass, to make the wheel that will grind me; and all the old troop of Palace intriguers and despoilers are waiting to heat the tire and fasten it on the machine of torture. Kaid has involved himself in loans which press, in foolish experiments in industry without due care; and now from ill-health and bad temper comes a reaction towards the old sinister rule, when the Prince shuts his eyes and his agents ruin and destroy. Three nations who have intrigued against my work see their chance, and are at Kaid's elbow. The fate of the Soudan is in the balance. It is all as the shake of a feather. I can save it if I go; but, just as I am ready, my mills burn down, my treasury dries up, Kaid turns his back on me, and the toil of years is swept away in a night. Thee sees it is terrible, friend?"
Ebn Ezra looked at him seriously and sadly for a moment, and then said: "Is it given one man to do all? If many men had done these things, then there had been one blow for each. Now all falls on thee, Saadat. Is it the will of God that one man should fling the lance, fire the cannon, dig the trenches, gather food for the army, drive the horses on to battle, and bury the dead? Canst thou do all?"
David's eyes brightened to the challenge. "There was the work to do, and there were not the many to do it. My hand was ready; the call came; I answered. I plunged into the river of work alone."
"Thou didst not know the strength of the currents, the eddies and the whirlpools, the hidden rocks--and the shore is far off, Saadat."
"It is not so far but that, if I could get breath to gather strength, I should reach the land in time. Money--ah, but enough for this expedition! That over, order, quiet yonder, my own chosen men as governors, and I could"--he pointed towards the southern horizon-- "I could plant my foot in Cairo, and from the centre control the great machinery--with Kaid's help; and God's help. A sixth of a million, and Kaid's hand behind me, and the boat would lunge free of the sand-banks and churn on, and churn on. . . . Friend," he added, with the winning insistence that few found it possible to resist, "if all be well, and we go thither, wilt thou become the governor-general yonder? With thee to rule justly where there is most need of justice, the end would be sure-- if it be the will of God."
Ebn Ezra Bey sat for a moment looking into the worn, eager face, indistinct in the moonlight, then answered slowly: "I am seventy, and the years smite hard as they pass, and there or here, it little matters when I go, as I must go; and whether it be to bend the lance, or bear the flag before thee, or rule a Mudirieh, what does it matter! I will go with thee," he added hastily; "but it is better thou shouldst not go. Within the last three days I have news from the South. All that thou hast done there is in danger now. The word for revolt has passed from tribe to tribe. A tongue hath spoken, and a hand hath signalled "--his voice lowered--" and I think I know the tongue and the hand!" He paused; then, as David did not speak, continued: "Thou who art wise in most things, dost decline to seek for thy foe in him who eateth from the same dish with thee. Only when it is too late thou wilt defend thyself and all who keep faith with thee."
David's face clouded. "Nahoum, thou dost mean Nahoum? But thou dost not understand, and there is no proof."
"As a camel knows the coming storm while yet the sky is clear, by that which the eye does not see, so do I feel Nahoum. The evils thou hast suffered, Saadat, are from his hand, if from any hand in Egypt--"
Suddenly he leaned over and touched David's arm. "Saadat, it is of no avail. There is none in Egypt that desires good; thy task is too great. All men will deceive thee; if not now, yet in time. If Kaid favours thee once more, and if it is made possible for thee to go to the Soudan, yet I pray thee to stay here. Better be smitten here, where thou canst get help from thine own country, if need be, than yonder, where they but wait to spoil thy work and kill thee. Thou art young; wilt thou throw thy life away? Art thou not needed here as there? For me it is nothing, whether it be now or in a few benumbing years; but for thee--is there no one whom thou lovest so well that thou wouldst not shelter thy life to spare that life sorrow? Is there none that thou lovest so, and that will love thee to mortal sorrow, if thou goest without care to thy end too soon?"
As a warm wind suddenly sweeps across the cool air of a summer evening for an instant, suffocating and unnerving, so Ebn Ezra's last words swept across David's spirit. His breath came quicker, his eyes half closed. "Is there none that thou lovest so, and that will love thee to mortal sorrow, if--"
As a hand secretly and swiftly slips the lever that opens the sluice- gates of a dike, while the watchman turns away for a moment to look at the fields which the waters enrich and the homes of poor folk whom the gates defend, so, in a moment, when off his guard, worn with watching and fending, as it were, Ebn Ezra had sprung the lever, and a flood of feeling swept over David, drowned him in its impulse and pent-up force.
"Is there none that thou lovest so--" Of what use had been all his struggle and his pain since that last day in Hamley--his dark fighting days in the desert with Lacey and Mahommed, and his handful of faithful followers, hemmed in by dangers, the sands swarming with Arabs who feathered now to his safety, now to his doom, and his heart had hungered for what he had denied it with a will that would not be conquered? Wasted by toil and fever and the tension of danger and the care of others dependent on him, he had also fought a foe which was ever at his elbow, ever whispered its comfort and seduction in his ear, the insidious and peace-giving, exalting opiate that had tided him over some black places, and then had sought for mastery of him when he was back again in the world of normal business and duty, where it appealed not as a medicine, but as a perilous luxury. And fighting this foe, which had a voice so soothing, and words like the sound of murmuring waters, and a cool and comforting hand that sought to lead him into gardens of stillness and passive being, where he could no more hear the clangour and vexing noises of a world that angered and agonised, there had also been the lure of another passion of the heart, which was too perilously dear to contemplate. Eyes that were beautiful, and their beauty was not for him; a spirit that was bright and glowing, but the brightness and the glow might not renew his days. It was hard to fight alone. Alone he was, for only to one may the doors within doors be opened-only to one so dear that all else is everlastingly distant may the true tale of the life beneath life be told. And it was not for him--nothing of this; not even the thought of it; for to think of it was to desire it, and to desire it was to reach out towards it; and to reach out towards it was the end of all. There had been moments of abandonment to the alluring dream, such as when he wrote the verses which Lacey had sent to Hylda from the desert; but they were few. Oft-repeated, they would have filled him with an agitated melancholy impossible to be borne in the life which must be his.
So it had been. The deeper into life and its labours and experiences he had gone, the greater had been his temptations, born of two passions, one of the body and its craving, the other of the heart and its desires: and he had fought on--towards the morning.
"Is there none that thou lovest so, and that will love thee to mortal sorrow, if thou goest without care to thy end too soon?" The desert, the dark monastery, the acacia tree, the ancient palm, the ruinous garden, disappeared. He only saw a face which smiled at him, as it had done 'by the brazier in the garden at Cairo, that night when she and Nahoum and himself and Mizraim had met in the room of his house by the Ezbekieh gardens, and she had gone out to her old life in England, and he had taken up the burden of the East--that long six years ago. His head dropped in his hands, and all that was beneath the Quaker life he had led so many years, packed under the crust of form and habit, and regulated thought, and controlled emotion, broke forth now, and had its way with him.
He turned away staggering and self-reproachful from the first question, only to face the other--"And that will love thee to mortal sorrow, if thou goest without care to thy end too soon." It was a thought he had never let himself dwell on for an instant in all the days since they had last met. He had driven it back to its covert, even before he could recognise its face. It was disloyal to her, an offence against all that she was, an affront to his manhood to let the thought have place in his mind even for one swift moment. She was Lord Eglington's wife--there could be no sharing of soul and mind and body and the exquisite devotion of a life too dear for thought. Nothing that she was to Eglington could be divided with another, not for an hour, not by one act of impulse; or else she must be less, she that might have been, if there had been no Eglington--
An exclamation broke from him, and, as one crying out in one's sleep wakes himself, so the sharp cry of his misery woke him from the trance of memory that had been upon him, and he slowly became conscious of Ebn Ezra standing before him. Their eyes met, and Ebn Ezra spoke:
"The will of Allah be thy will, Saadat. If it be to go to the Soudan, I am thine; if it be to stay, I am thy servant and thy brother. But whether it be life or death, thou must sleep, for the young are like water without sleep. Thou canst not live in strength nor die with fortitude without it. For the old, malaish, old age is between a sleeping and a waking! Come, Saadat! Forget not, thou must ride again to Cairo at dawn."
David got slowly to his feet and turned towards the monastery. The figure of a monk stood in the doorway with a torch to light him to his room.
He turned to Ebn Ezra again. "Does thee think that I have aught of his courage--my Uncle Benn? Thou knowest me--shall I face it out as did he?"
"Saadat," the old man answered, pointing, "yonder acacia, that was he, quick to grow and short to live; but thou art as this date-palm, which giveth food to the hungry, and liveth through generations. Peace be upon thee," he added at the doorway, as the torch flickered towards the room where David was to lie.
"And upon thee, peace!" answered David gently, and followed the smoky light to an inner chamber. The room in which David found himself was lofty and large, but was furnished with only a rough wooden bed, a rug, and a brazier. Left alone, he sat down on the edge of the bed, and, for a few moments, his mind strayed almost vaguely from one object to another. From two windows far up in the wall the moonlight streamed in, making bars of light aslant the darkness.
Not a sound broke the stillness. Yet, to his sensitive nerves, the air seemed tingling with sensation, stirring with unseen activities. Here the spirit of the desert seemed more insistent in its piercing vitality, because it was shut in by four stone walls.
Mechanically he took off his coat, and was about to fold and lay it on the rug beside the bed, when something hard in one of the pockets knocked against his knee. Searching, he found and drew forth a small bottle which, for many a month past, had lain in the drawer of a table where he had placed it on his return from the Soudan. It was an evil spirit which sent this tiny phial to his hand at a moment when he had paid out of the full treasury of his strength and will its accumulated deposit, leaving him with a balance on which no heavy draft could be made. His pulse quickened, then his body stiffened with the effort at self-control.
Who placed this evil elixir in his pocket? What any enemy of his work had done was nothing to what might be achieved by the secret foe, who had placed this anodyne within his reach at this the most critical moment of his life. He remembered the last time he had used it--in the desert: two days of forgetfulness to the world, when it all moved by him, the swarming Arabs, the train of camels, the loads of ivory, the slimy crocodile on the sandbanks, the vultures hovering above unburied carcasses, the kourbash descending on shining black shoulders, corrugating bare brown bodies into cloven skin and lacerated flesh, a fight between champions of two tribes who clasped and smote and struggled and rained blows, and, both mortally wounded, still writhed in last conflict upon the ground--and Mahommed Hassan ever at the tent door or by his side, towering, watchful, sullen to all faces without, smiling to his own, with dog-like look waiting for any motion of his hand or any word.... Ah, Mahommed Hassan, it was he! Mahommed had put this phial in his pocket. His bitter secret was not hidden from Mahommed. And this was an act of supreme devotion--to put at his hand the lulling, inspiring draught. Did this fellah servant know what it meant--the sin of it, the temptation, the terrible joy, the blessed quiet; and then, the agonising remorse, the withering self-hatred and torturing penitence? No, Mahommed only knew that when the Saadat was gone beyond his strength, when the sleepless nights and feverish days came in the past, in their great troubles, when men were dying and only the Saadat could save, that this cordial lifted him out of misery and storm into calm. Yet Mahommed must have divined that it was a thing against which his soul revolted, or he would have given it to him openly. In the heart and mind of the giant murderer, however, must have been the thought that now when trouble was upon his master again, trouble which might end all, this supreme destroyer of pain and dark memory and present misery, would give him the comfort he needed--and that he would take it.
If he had not seen it, this sudden craving would not have seized him for this eager beguiling, this soothing benevolence. Yet here it was in his hand; and even as it lay in his cold fingers--how cold they were, and his head how burning!--the desire for it surged up in him. And, as though the thing itself had the magical power to summon up his troubles, that it might offer the apathy and stimulus in one--even as it lured him, his dangers, his anxieties, the black uncertainties massed, multiplied and aggressive, rose before him, buffeted him, caught at his throat, dragged down his shoulders, clutched at his heart.
Now, with a cry of agony, he threw the phial on the ground, and, sinking on the bed, buried his face in his hands and moaned, and fought for freedom from the cords tightening round him. It was for him to realise now how deep are the depths to which the human soul can sink, even while labouring to climb. Once more the sense of awful futility was on him: of wasted toil and blenched force, veins of energy drained of their blood, hope smitten in the way, and every dear dream shattered. Was it, then, all ended? Was his work indeed fallen, and all his love undone? Was his own redemption made impossible? He had offered up his life to this land to atone for a life taken when she--when she first looked up with eyes of gratitude, eyes that haunted him. Was it, then, unacceptable? Was it so that he must turn his back upon this long, heart-breaking but beloved work, this panacea for his soul, without which he could not pay the price of blood?
Go back to England--to Hamley where all had changed, where the old man he loved no longer ruled in the Red Mansion, where all that had been could be no more? Go to some other land, and there begin again another such a work? Were there not vast fields of human effort, effort such as his, where he could ease the sorrow of living by the joy of a divine altruism? Go back to Hamley? Ah, no, a million times, no! That life was dead, it was a cycle of years behind him. There could be no return. He was in a maelstrom of agony, his veins were afire, his lips were parched. He sprang from his bed, knelt down, and felt for the little phial he had flung aside. After a moment his hand caught it, clutched it. But, even at the crest of the wave of temptation, words that he had heard one night in Hamley, that last night of all, flashed into his mind--the words of old Luke Claridge's prayer, "And if a viper fasten on his hand, O Lord--"
Suddenly he paused. That scene in the old Meetinghouse swam before his eyes, got into his brain. He remembered the words of his own prayer, and how he had then retreated upon the Power that gave him power, for a draught of the one true tincture which braced the heart to throw itself upon the spears of trial. Now the trial had come, and that which was in him as deep as being, the habit of youth, the mother-fibre and predisposition, responded to the draught he had drunk then. As a body freed from the quivering, unrelenting grasp of an electric battery subsides into a cool quiet, so, through his veins seemed to pass an ether which stilled the tumult, the dark desire to drink the potion in his hand, and escape into that irresponsible, artificial world, where he had before loosened his hold on activity.
The phial slipped from his fingers to the floor. He sank upon the side of the bed, and, placing his hands on his knees, he whispered a few broken words that none on earth was meant to hear. Then he passed into a strange and moveless quiet of mind and body. Many a time in days gone by--far-off days--had he sat as he was doing now, feeling his mind pass into a soft, comforting quiet, absorbed in a sensation of existence, as it were between waking and sleeping, where doors opened to new experience and understanding, where the mind seemed to loose itself from the bonds of human necessity and find a freer air.
Now, as he sat as still as the stone in the walls around him, he was conscious of a vision forming itself before his eyes. At first it was indefinite, vague, without clear form, but at last it became a room dimly outlined, delicately veiled, as it were. Then it seemed, not that the mist cleared, but that his eyes became stronger, and saw through the delicate haze; and now the room became wholly, concretely visible.
It was the room in which he had said good-bye to Hylda. As he gazed like one entranced, he saw a figure rise from a couch, pale, agitated, and beautiful, and come forward, as it were, towards him. But suddenly the mist closed in again upon the scene, a depth of darkness passed his eyes, and he heard a voice say: "Speak--speak to me!"
He heard her voice as distinctly as though she were beside him--as, indeed, she had stood before him but an instant ago.
Getting slowly to his feet, into the night he sent an answer to the call.
Would she hear? She had said long ago that she would speak to him so. Perhaps she had tried before. But now at last he had heard and answered. Had she heard? Time might tell--if ever they met again. But how good, and quiet, and serene was the night!
He composed himself to sleep, but, as he lay waiting for that coverlet of forgetfulness to be drawn over him, he heard the sound of bells soft and clear. Just such bells he had heard upon the common at Hamley. Was it, then, the outcome of his vision--a sweet hallucination? He leaned upon his elbow and listened.