The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXII. Forty Stripes Save One
The bells that rang were not the bells of Hamley; they were part of no vision or hallucination, and they drew David out of his chamber into the night. A little group of three stood sharply silhouetted against the moonlight, and towering above them was the spare, commanding form of Ebn Ezra Bey. Three camels crouched near, and beside them stood a Nubian lad singing to himself the song of the camel-driver:
"Fleet is thy foot: thou shalt rest by the Etl tree; Water shalt thou drink from the blue-deep well; Allah send His gard'ner with the green bersim, For thy comfort, fleet one, by the Etl tree. As the stars fly, have thy footsteps flown Deep is the well, drink, and be still once more; Till the pursuing winds panting have found thee And, defeated, sink still beside thee-- By the well and the Etl tree."
For a moment David stood in the doorway listening to the low song of the camel-driver. Then he came forward. As he did so, one of the two who stood with Ebn Ezra moved towards the monastery door slowly. It was a monk with a face which, even in this dim light, showed a deathly weariness. The eyes looked straight before him, as though they saw nothing of the world, only a goal to make, an object to be accomplished. The look of the face went to David's heart--the kinship of pain was theirs.
"Peace be to thee," David said gently, as the other passed him.
There was an instant's pause, and then the monk faced him with fingers uplifted. "The grace of God be upon thee, David," he said, and his eyes, drawn back from the world where they had been exploring, met the other's keenly. Then he wheeled and entered the monastery.
"The grace of God be upon thee, David!" How strange it sounded, this Christian blessing in response to his own Oriental greeting, out in this Eastern waste. His own name, too. It was as though he had been transported to the ancient world where "Brethren" were so few that they called each other by their "Christian" names--even as they did in Hamley to-day. In Hamley to-day! He closed his eyes, a tremor running through his body; and then, with an effort which stilled him to peace again, he moved forward, and was greeted by Ebn Ezra, from whom the third member of the little group had now drawn apart nearer to the acacia-tree, and was seated on a rock that jutted from the sand. "What is it?" David asked.
"Wouldst thou not sleep, Saadat? Sleep is more to thee now than aught thou mayst hear from any man. To all thou art kind save thyself."
"I have rested," David answered, with a measured calmness, revealing to his friend the change which had come since they parted an hour before. They seated themselves under the palm-tree, and were silent for a moment, then Ebn Ezra said:
"These come from the Place of Lepers."
David started slightly. "Zaida?" he asked, with a sigh of pity.
"The monk who passed thee but now goes every year to the Place of Lepers with the caravan, for a brother of this order stays yonder with the afflicted, seeing no more the faces of this world which he has left behind. Afar off from each other they stand--as far as eye can see--and after the manner of their faith they pray to Allah, and he who has just left us finds a paper fastened with a stone upon the sand at a certain place where he waits. He touches it not, but reads it as it lies, and, having read, heaps sand upon it. And the message which the paper gives is for me."
"For thee? Hast thou there one who--"
"There was one, my father's son, though we were of different mothers; and in other days, so many years ago, he did great wrong to me, and not to me alone,"--the grey head bowed in sorrow--"but to one dearer to me than life. I hated him, and would have slain him, but the mind of Allah is not the mind of man; and he escaped me. Then he was stricken with leprosy, and was carried to the place from whence no leper returns. At first my heart rejoiced; then, at last, I forgave him, Saadat--was he not my father's son, and was the woman not gone to the bosom of Allah, where is peace? So I forgave and sorrowed for him--who shall say what miseries are those which, minute to minute, day after day, and year upon year, repeat themselves, till it is an endless flaying of the body and burning of the soul! Every year I send a message to him, and every year now this Christian monk--there is no Sheikh-el-Islam yonder--brings back the written message which he finds in the sand."
"And thee has had a message to-night?"
"The last that may come--God be praised, he goeth to his long home. It was written in his last hour. There was no hope; he is gone. And so, one more reason showeth why I should go where thou goest, Saadat."
Casting his eyes toward the figure by the acacia-tree, his face clouded and he pondered anxiously, looking at David the while. Twice he essayed to speak, but paused.
David's eyes followed his look. "What is it? Who is he--yonder?"
The other rose to his feet. "Come and see, Saadat," he replied. "Seeing, thou wilt know what to do."
"Zaida--is it of Zaida?" David asked.
"The man will answer for himself, Saadat." Coming within a few feet of the figure crouched upon the rock, Ebn Ezra paused and stretched out a hand. "A moment, Saadat. Dost thou not see, dost thou not recognise him?"
David intently studied the figure, which seemed unconscious of their presence. The shoulders were stooping and relaxed as though from great fatigue, but David could see that the figure was that of a tall man. The head was averted, but a rough beard covered the face, and, in the light of the fire, one hand that clutched it showed long and skinny and yellow and cruel. The hand fascinated David's eyes. Where had he seen it? It flashed upon him--a hand clutching a robe, in a frenzy of fear, in the court-yard of the blue tiles, in Kaid's Palace--Achmet the Ropemaker! He drew back a step.
"Achmet," he said in a low voice. The figure stirred, the hand dropped from the beard and clutched the knee; but the head was not raised, and the body remained crouching and listless.
"He escaped?" David said, turning to Ebn Ezra Bey.
"I know not by what means--a camel-driver bribed, perhaps, and a camel left behind for him. After the caravan had travelled a day's journey he joined it. None knew what to do. He was not a leper, and he was armed."
"Leave him with me," said David.
Ebn Ezra hesitated. "He is armed; he was thy foe--"
"I am armed also," David answered enigmatically, and indicated by a gesture that he wished to be left alone. Ebn Ezra drew away towards the palm-tree, and stood at this distance watching anxiously, for he knew what dark passions seize upon the Oriental--and Achmet had many things for which to take vengeance.
David stood for a moment, pondering, his eyes upon the deserter. "God greet thee as thou goest, and His goodness befriend thee," he said evenly. There was silence, and no movement. "Rise and speak," he added sternly. "Dost thou not hear? Rise, Achmet Pasha!"
Achmet Pasha! The head of the desolate wretch lifted, the eyes glared at David for an instant, as though to see whether he was being mocked, and then the spare figure stretched itself, and the outcast stood up. The old lank straightness was gone, the shoulders were bent, the head was thrust forward, as though the long habit of looking into dark places had bowed it out of all manhood.
"May grass spring under thy footstep, Saadat," he said, in a thick voice, and salaamed awkwardly--he had been so long absent from life's formularies.
"What dost thou here, pasha?" asked David formally. "Thy sentence had no limit."
"I could not die there," said the hollow voice, and the head sank farther forward. "Year after year I lived there, but I could not die among them. I was no leper; I am no leper. My penalty was my penalty, and I paid it to the full, piastre by piastre of my body and my mind. It was not one death, it was death every hour, every day I stayed. I had no mind. I could not think. Mummy-cloths were round my brain; but the fire burned underneath and would not die. There was the desert, but my limbs were like rushes. I had no will, and I could not flee. I was chained to the evil place. If I stayed it was death, if I went it was death."
"Thou art armed now," said David suggestively. Achmet laid a hand fiercely upon a dagger under his robe. "I hid it. I was afraid. I could not die--my hand was like a withered leaf; it could not strike; my heart poured out like water. Once I struck a leper, that he might strike and kill me; but he lay upon the ground and wept, for all his anger, which had been great, died in him at last. There was none other given to anger there. The leper has neither anger, nor mirth, nor violence, nor peace. It is all the black silent shame--and I was no leper."
"Why didst thou come? What is there but death for thee here, or anywhere thou goest! Kaid's arm will find thee; a thousand hands wait to strike thee."
"I could not die there--Dost thou think that I repent?" he added with sudden fierceness. "Is it that which would make me repent? Was I worse than thousands of others? I have come out to die--to fight and die. Aiwa, I have come to thee, whom I hated, because thou canst give me death as I desire it. My mother was an Arab slave from Senaar, and she was got by war, and all her people. War and fighting were their portion--as they ate, as they drank and slept. In the black years behind me among the Unclean, there was naught to fight--could one fight the dead, and the agony of death, and the poison of the agony! Life, it is done for me-- am I not accursed? But to die fighting--ay, fighting for Egypt, since it must be, and fighting for thee, since it must be; to strike, and strike, and strike, and earn death! Must the dog, because he is a dog, die in the slime? Shall he not be driven from the village to die in the clean sand? Saadat, who will see in me Achmet Pasha, who did with Egypt what he willed, and was swept away by the besom in thy hand? Is there in me aught of that Achmet that any should know?"
"None would know thee for that Achmet," answered David.
"I know, it matters not how--at last a letter found me, and the way of escape--that thou goest again to the Soudan. There will be fighting there--"
"Not by my will," interrupted David.
"Then by the will of Sheitan the accursed; but there will be fighting-- am I not an Arab, do I not know? Thou hast not conquered yet. Bid me go where thou wilt, do what thou wilt, so that I may be among the fighters, and in the battle forget what I have seen. Since I am unclean, and am denied the bosom of Allah, shall I not go as a warrior to Hell, where men will fear me? Speak, Saadat, canst thou deny me this?"
Nothing of repentance, so far as he knew, moved the dark soul; but, like some evil spirit, he would choose the way to his own doom, the place and the manner of it: a sullen, cruel, evil being, unyielding in his evil, unmoved by remorse--so far as he knew. Yet he would die fighting, and for Egypt "and for thee, if it must be so. To strike, to strike, to strike, and earn death!" What Achmet did not see, David saw, the glimmer of light breaking through the cloud of shame and evil and doom. Yonder in the Soudan more problems than one would be solved, more lives than one be put to the extreme test. He did not answer Achmet's question yet. "Zaida--?" he said in a low voice. The pathos of her doom had been a dark memory.
Achmet's voice dropped lower as he answered. "She lived till the day her sister died. I never saw her face; but I was sent to bear each day to her door the food she ate and a balass of water; and I did according to my sentence. Yet I heard her voice. And once, at last, the day she died, she spoke to me, and said from inside the hut: 'Thy work is done, Achmet. Go in peace.' And that night she lay down on her sister's grave, and in the morning she was found dead upon it."
David's eyes were blinded with tears. "It was too long," he said at last, as though to himself.
"That day," continued Achmet, "there fell ill with leprosy the Christian priest from this place who had served in that black service so long; and then a fire leapt up in me. Zaida was gone--I had brought food and a balass of water to her door those many times; there was naught to do, since she was gone--"
Suddenly David took a step nearer to him and looked into the sullen and drooping eyes. "Thou shalt go with me, Achmet. I will do this unlawful act for thee. At daybreak I will give thee orders. Thou shalt join me far from here--if I go to the Soudan," he added, with a sudden remembrance of his position; and he turned away slowly.
After a moment, with muttered words, Achmet sank down upon the stone again, drew a cake of dourha from his inner robe, and began to eat.
The camel-boy had lighted a fire, and he sat beside it warming his hands at the blaze and still singing to himself:
"The bed of my love I will sprinkle with attar of roses, The face of my love I will touch with the balm With the balm of the tree from the farthermost wood, From the wood without end, in the world without end. My love holds the cup to my lips, and I drink of the cup, And the attar of roses I sprinkle will soothe like the evening dew, And the balm will be healing and sleep, and the cup I will drink, I will drink of the cup my love holds to my lips--"
David stood listening. What power was there in desert life that could make this poor camel-driver, at the end of a long day of weariness and toil and little food and drink, sing a song of content and cheerfulness? The little needed, the little granted, and no thought beyond--save the vision of one who waited in the hut by the onion-field. He gathered himself together and tuned his mind to the scene through which he had just passed, and then to the interview he would have with Kaid on the morrow. A few hours ago he had seen no way out of it all--he had had no real hope that Kaid would turn to him again; but the last two hours had changed all that. Hope was alive in him. He had fought a desperate fight with himself, and he had conquered. Then had come Achmet, unrepentant, degraded still, but with the spirit of Something glowing-- Achmet to die for a cause, driven by that Something deep beneath the degradation and the crime. He had hope, and, as the camel-driver's voice died away, and he lay down with a sheep-skin over him and went instantly to sleep, David drew to the fire and sat down beside it. Presently Ebn Ezra came to urge him to go to bed, but he would not. He had slept, he said; he had slept and rested, and the night was good--he would wait. Then the other brought rugs and blankets, and gave David some, and lay down beside the fire, and watched and waited for he knew not what. Ever and ever his eyes were on David, and far back under the acacia-tree Achmet slept as he had not slept since his doom fell on him.
At last Ebn Ezra Bey also slept; but David was awake with the night and the benevolent moon and the marching stars. The spirit of the desert was on him, filling him with its voiceless music. From the infinite stretches of sand to the south came the irresistible call of life, as soft as the leaves in a garden of roses, as deep as the sea. This world was still, yet there seemed a low, delicate humming, as of multitudinous looms at a distance so great that the ear but faintly caught it--the sound of the weavers of life and destiny and eternal love, the hands of the toilers of all the ages spinning and spinning on; and he was part of it, not abashed or dismayed because he was but one of the illimitable throng.
The hours wore on, but still he sat there, peace in all his heart, energy tingling softly through every vein, the wings of hope fluttering at his ear.
At length the morning came, and, from the west, with the rising sun, came a traveller swiftly, making for where he was. The sleepers stirred around him and waked and rose. The little camp became alive. As the traveller neared the fresh-made fire, David saw that it was Lacey. He went eagerly to meet him.
"Thee has news," he said. "I see it is so." He held Lacey's hand in his.
"Say, you are going on that expedition, Saadat. You wanted money. Will a quarter of a million do?" David's eyes caught fire.
From the monastery there came the voices of the monks: