The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXIV. Nahoum Drops the Mask
At the sound of the words, announced in a loud voice, hundreds of heads were turned towards the entrance of the vast salon, resplendent with gilded mirrors, great candelabra and chandeliers, golden hangings, and divans glowing with robes of yellow silk.
It was the anniversary of Kaid's succession, and all entitled to come poured into the splendid chamber. The showy livery of the officials, the loose, spacious, gorgeous uniforms of the officers, with the curved jewelled scimitars and white turbans, the rich silk robes of the Ulema, robe over robe of coloured silk with flowing sleeves and sumptuous silken vests, the ample dignity of noble-looking Arabs in immense white turbans, the dark straight Stambouli coat of the officials, made a picture of striking variety and colour and interest.
About the centre of the room, laying palm to palm again and yet again, touching lips and forehead and breast, speaking with slow, leisurely, voices, were two Arab sheikhs from the far Soudan. One of these showed a singular interest in the movements of Nahoum Pasha as he entered the chamber, and an even greater interest in David when he was announced; but as David, in his journey up the chamber, must pass near him, he drew behind a little group of officials, who whispered to each other excitedly as David came on. More than once before this same Sheikh Abdullah had seen David, and once they had met, and had made a treaty of amity, and Abdullah had agreed to deal in slaves no more; and yet within three months had sent to Cairo two hundred of the best that could be found between Khartoum and Senaar. His business, of which Ebn Ezra Bey had due knowledge, had now been with Nahoum. The business of the other Arab, a noble-looking and wiry Bedouin from the South, had been with Ebn Ezra Bey, and each hid his business from his friend. Abdullah murmured to himself as David passed--a murmur of admiration and astonishment. He had heard of the disfavour in which the Inglesi was; but, as he looked at David's face with its quiet smile, the influence which he felt in the desert long ago came over him again.
"By Allah," he said aloud abstractedly, "it is a face that will not hide when the khamsin blows! Who shall gainsay it? If he were not an infidel he would be a Mahdi."
To this his Bedouin friend replied: "As the depths of the pool at Ghebel Farik, so are his eyes. You shall dip deep and you shall not find the bottom. Bismillah, I would fight Kaid's Nubians, but not this infidel pasha!"
Never had David appeared to such advantage. The victory over himself the night before, the message of hope that had reached him at the monastery in the desert, the coming of Lacey, had given him a certain quiet masterfulness not reassuring to his foes.
As he entered the chamber but now, there flashed into his mind the scene six years ago when, an absolute stranger, he had stepped into this Eastern salon, and had heard his name called out to the great throng: "Claridge efendi!"
He addressed no one, but he bowed to the group of foreign consuls- general, looking them steadily in the eyes. He knew their devices and what had been going on of late, he was aware that his fall would mean a blow to British prestige, and the calmness of his gaze expressed a fortitude which had a disconcerting effect upon the group. The British Consul-General stood near by. David advanced to him, and, as he did so, the few who surrounded the Consul-General fell back. David held out his hand. Somewhat abashed and ill at ease, the Consul-General took it.
"Have you good news from Downing Street?" asked David quietly.
The Consul-General hesitated for an instant, and then said: "There is no help to be had for you or for what you are doing in that quarter." He lowered his voice. "I fear Lord Eglington does not favour you; and he controls the Foreign Minister. I am very sorry. I have done my best, but my colleagues, the other consuls, are busy--with Lord Eglington."
David turned his head away for an instant. Strange how that name sent a thrill through him, stirred his blood! He did not answer the Consul- General, and the latter continued:
"Is there any hope? Is the breach with Kaid complete?"
David smiled gravely. "We shall see presently. I have made no change in my plans on the basis of a breach."
At that moment he caught sight of Nahoum some distance away and moved towards him. Out of the corner of his eye Nahoum saw David coming, and edged away towards that point where Kaid would enter, and where the crowd was greater. As he did so Kaid appeared. A thrill went through the chamber. Contrary to his custom, he was dressed in the old native military dress of Mehemet Ali. At his side was a jewelled scimitar, and in his turban flashed a great diamond. In his hand he carried a snuff- box, covered with brilliants, and on his breast were glittering orders.
The eyes of the reactionaries flashed with sinister pleasure when they saw Kaid. This outward display of Orientalism could only be a reflex of the mind. It was the outer symbol of Kaid's return to the spirit of the old days, before the influence of the Inglesi came upon him. Every corrupt and intriguing mind had a palpitation of excitement.
In Nahoum the sight of Kaid produced mixed feelings. If, indeed, this display meant reaction towards an entourage purely Arab, Egyptian, and Muslim, then it was no good omen for his Christian self. He drew near, and placed himself where Kaid could see him. Kaid's manner was cheerful, but his face showed the effect of suffering, physical and mental. Presently there entered behind him Sharif Bey, whose appearance was the signal for a fresh demonstration. Now, indeed, there could be no doubt as to Kaid's reaction. Yet if Sharif had seen Mizraim's face evilly gloating near by he would have been less confident.
David was standing where Kaid must see him, but the Effendina gave no sign of recognition. This was so significant that the enemies of David rejoiced anew. The day of the Inglesi was over. Again and again did Kaid's eye wander over David's head.
David remained calm and watchful, neither avoiding nor yet seeking the circle in which Kaid moved. The spirit with which he had entered the room, however, remained with him, even when he saw Kaid summon to him some of the most fanatical members of the court circle, and engage them in talk for a moment. But as this attention grew more marked, a cloud slowly gathered in the far skies of his mind.
There was one person in the great assembly, however, who seemed to be unduly confident. It was an ample, perspiring person in evening dress, who now and again mopped a prematurely bald head, and who said to himself, as Kaid talked to the reactionaries:
"Say, Kald's overdoing it. He's putting potted chicken on the butter. But it's working all right-r-i-g-h-t. It's worth the backsheesh!"
At this moment Kaid fastened David with his look, and spoke in a tone so loud that people standing at some distance were startled.
In the hush that followed David stepped forward. "May the bounty of the years be thine, Saadat," Kaid said in a tone none could misunderstand.
"May no tree in thy orchard wither, Effendina," answered David in a firm voice.
Kaid beckoned him near, and again he spoke loudly: "I have proved thee, and found thee as gold tried seven times by the fire, Saadat. In the treasury of my heart shall I store thee up. Thou art going to the Soudan to finish the work Mehemet Ali began. I commend thee to Allah, and will bid thee farewell at sunrise--I and all who love Egypt."
There was a sinister smile on his lips, as his eyes wandered over the faces of the foreign consuls-general. The look he turned on the intriguers of the Palace was repellent; he reserved for Sharif a moody, threatening glance, and the desperate hakim shrank back confounded from it. His first impulse was to flee from the Palace and from Cairo; but he bethought himself of the assault to be made on Kaid by the tent-maker, as he passed to the mosque a few hours later, and he determined to await the issue of that event. Exchanging glances with confederates, he disappeared, as Kaid laid a hand on David's arm and drew him aside.
After viewing the great throng cynically for a moment Kaid said: "To- morrow thou goest. A month hence the hakim's knife will find the thing that eats away my life. It may be they will destroy it and save me; if not, we shall meet no more."
David looked into his eyes. "Not in a month shall thy work be completed, Effendina. Thou shalt live. God and thy strong will shall make it so."
A light stole over the superstitious face. "No device or hatred, or plot, has prevailed against thee," Kaid said eagerly. "Thou hast defeated all--even when I turned against thee in the black blood of despair. Thou hast conquered me even as thou didst Harrik."
"Thou dost live," returned David drily. "Thou dost live for Egypt's sake, even as Harrik died for Egypt's sake, and as others shall die."
"Death hath tracked thee down how often! Yet with a wave of the hand thou hast blinded him, and his blow falls on the air. Thou art beset by a thousand dangers, yet thou comest safe through all. Thou art an honest man. For that I besought thee to stay with me. Never didst thou lie to me. Good luck hath followed thee. Kismet! Stay with me, and it may be I shall be safe also. This thought came to me in the night, and in the morning was my reward, for Lacey effendi came to me and said, even as I say now, that thou wilt bring me good luck; and even in that hour, by the mercy of God, a loan much needed was negotiated. Allah be praised!"
A glint of humour shot into David's eyes. Lacey--a loan--he read it all! Lacey had eased the Prince Pasha's immediate and pressing financial needs--and, "Allah be praised!" Poor human nature--backsheesh to a Prince regnant!
"Effendina," he said presently, "thou didst speak of Harrik. One there was who saved thee then--" "Zaida!" A change passed over Kaid's face. "Speak! Thou hast news of her? She is gone?" Briefly David told him how Zaida was found upon her sister's grave. Kaid's face was turned away as he listened.
"She spoke no word of me?" Kaid said at last. "To whom should she speak?" David asked gently. "But the amulet thou gavest her, set with one red jewel, it was clasped in her hand in death."
Suddenly Kaid's anger blazed. "Now shall Achmet die," he burst out. "His hands and feet shall be burnt off, and he shall be thrown to the vultures."
"The Place of the Lepers is sacred even from thee, Effendina," answered David gravely. "Yet Achmet shall die even as Harrik died. He shall die for Egypt and for thee, Effendina."
Swiftly he drew the picture of Achmet at the monastery in the desert. "I have done the unlawful thing, Effendina," he said at last, "but thou wilt make it lawful. He hath died a thousand deaths--all save one."
"Be it so," answered Kaid gloomily, after a moment; then his face lighted with cynical pleasure as he scanned once more the faces of the crowd before him. At last his eyes fastened on Nahoum. He turned to David.
"Thou dost still desire Nahoum in his office?" he asked keenly.
A troubled look came into David's eyes, then it cleared away, and he said firmly: "For six years we have worked together, Effendina. I am surety for his loyalty to thee."
"And his loyalty to thee?"
A pained look crossed over David's face again, but he said with a will that fought all suspicion down: "The years bear witness."
Kaid shrugged his shoulders slightly. "The years have perjured themselves ere this. Yet, as thou sayest, Nahoum is a Christian," he added, with irony scarcely veiled.
Now he moved forward with David towards the waiting court. David searched the groups of faces for Nahoum in vain. There were things to be said to Nahoum before he left on the morrow, last suggestions to be given. Nahoum could not be seen.
Nahoum was gone, as were also Sharif and his confederates, and in the lofty Mosque of Mahmoud soft lights were hovering, while the Sheikh-el- Islam waited with Koran and scimitar for the ruler of Egypt to pray to God and salute the Lord Mahomet.
At the great gateway in the Street of the Tent Makers Kaid paused on his way to the Mosque Mahmoud. The Gate was studded with thousands of nails, which fastened to its massive timbers relics of the faithful, bits of silk and cloth, and hair and leather; and here from time immemorial a holy man had sat and prayed. At the gateway Kaid salaamed humbly, and spoke to the holy man, who, as he passed, raised his voice shrilly in an appeal to Allah, commending Kaid to mercy and everlasting favour. On every side eyes burned with religious zeal, and excited faces were turned towards the Effendina. At a certain point there were little groups of men with faces more set than excited. They had a look of suppressed expectancy. Kald neared them, passed them, and, as he did so, they looked at each other in consternation. They were Sharif's confederates, fanatics carefully chosen. The attempt on Kaid's life should have been made opposite the spot where they stood. They craned their necks in effort to find the Christian tent-maker, but in vain.
Suddenly they heard a cry, a loud voice calling. It was Rahib the tent- maker. He was beside Kaid's stirrups, but no weapon was in his hand; and his voice was calling blessings down on the Effendina's head for having pardoned and saved from death his one remaining son, the joy of his old age. In all the world there was no prince like Kaid, said the tent- maker; none so bountiful and merciful and beautiful in the eyes of men. God grant him everlasting days, the beloved friend of his people, just to all and greatly to be praised.
As the soldiers drove the old man away with kindly insistence--for Kaid had thrown him a handful of gold--Mizraim, the Chief Eunuch, laughed wickedly. As Nahoum had said, the greatest of all weapons was the mocking finger. He and Mizraim had had their way with the governor of the prisons, and the murderer had gone in safety, while the father stayed to bless Kaid. Rahib the tent-maker had fooled the plotters. They were mad in derision. They did not know that Kaid was as innocent as themselves of having pardoned the tent-maker's son. Their moment had passed; they could not overtake it; the match had spluttered and gone out at the fuel laid for the fire of fanaticism.
The morning of David's departure came. While yet it was dark he had risen, and had made his last preparations. When he came into the open air and mounted, it was not yet sunrise, and in that spectral early light, which is all Egypt's own, Cairo looked like some dream-city in a forgotten world. The Mokattam Hills were like vast dun barriers guarding and shutting in the ghostly place, and, high above all, the minarets of the huge mosque upon the lofty rocks were impalpable fingers pointing an endless flight. The very trees seemed so little real and substantial that they gave the eye the impression that they might rise and float away. The Nile was hung with mist, a trailing cloud unwound from the breast of the Nile-mother. At last the sun touched the minarets of the splendid mosque with shafts of light, and over at Ghizeh and Sakkarah the great pyramids, lifting their heads from the wall of rolling blue mist below, took the morning's crimson radiance with the dignity of four thousand years.
On the decks of the little steamer which was to carry them south David, Ebn Ezra, Lacey, and Mahommed waited. Presently Kaid came, accompanied by his faithful Nubians, their armour glowing in the first warm light of the rising sun, and crowds of people, who had suddenly emerged, ran shrilling to the waterside behind him.
Kaid's pale face had all last night's friendliness, as he bade David farewell with great honour, and commended him to the care of Allah; and the swords of the Nubians clashed against their breasts and on their shields in salaam.
But there was another farewell to make; and it was made as David's foot touched the deck of the steamer. Once again David looked at Nahoum as he had done six years ago, in the little room where they had made their bond together. There was the same straight look in Nahoum's eyes. Was he not to be trusted? Was it not his own duty to trust? He clasped Nahoum's hand in farewell, and turned away. But as he gave the signal to start, and the vessel began to move, Nahoum came back. He leaned over the widening space and said in a low tone, as David again drew near:
"There is still an account which should be settled, Saadat. It has waited long; but God is with the patient. There is the account of Foorgat Bey."
The light fled from David's eyes and his heart stopped beating for a moment. When his eyes saw the shore again Nahoum was gone with Kaid.