The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XL. Hylda Seeks Nahoum
It was as though she had gone to sleep the night before, and waked again upon this scene unchanged, brilliant, full of colour, a chaos of decoration--confluences of noisy, garish streams of life, eddies of petty labour. Craftsmen crowded one upon the other in dark bazaars; merchants chattered and haggled on their benches; hawkers clattered and cried their wares. It was a people that lived upon the streets, for all the houses seemed empty and forsaken. The sais ran before the Pasha's carriage, the donkey-boys shrieked for their right of way, a train of camels calmly forced its passage through the swirling crowds, supercilious and heavy- laden.
It seemed but yesterday since she had watched with amused eyes the sherbet-sellers clanking their brass saucers, the carriers streaming the water from the bulging goatskins into the earthen bottles, crying, "Allah be praised, here is coolness for thy throat for ever!" the idle singer chanting to the soft kanoon, the chess-players in the shade of a high wall, lost to the world, the dancing-girls with unveiled, shameless faces, posturing for evil eyes. Nothing had changed these past six years. Yet everything had changed.
She saw it all as in a dream, for her mind had no time for reverie or retrospect; it was set on one thing only.
Yet behind the one idea possessing her there was a subconscious self taking note of all these sights and sounds, and bringing moisture to her eyes. Passing the house which David had occupied on that night when he and she and Nahoum and Mizraim had met, the mist of feeling almost blinded her; for there at the gate sat the bowab who had admitted her then, and with apathetic eyes had watched her go, in the hour when it seemed that she and David Claridge had bidden farewell for ever, two driftwood spars that touched and parted in the everlasting sea. Here again in the Palace square were Kaid's Nubians in their glittering armour as of silver and gold, drawn up as she had seen them drawn then, to be reviewed by their overlord.
She swept swiftly through the streets and bazaars on her mission to Nahoum. "Lady Eglington" had asked for an interview, and Nahoum had granted it without delay. He did not associate her with the girl for whom David Claridge had killed Foorgat Pey, and he sent his own carriage to bring her to the Palace. No time had been lost, for it was less than twenty-four hours since she had arrived in Cairo, and very soon she would know the worst or the best. She had put her past away for the moment, and the Duchess of Snowdon had found at Marseilles a silent, determined, yet gentle-tongued woman, who refused to look back, or to discuss anything vital to herself and Eglington, until what she had come to Egypt to do was accomplished. Nor would she speak of the future, until the present had been fully declared and she knew the fate of David Claridge. In Cairo there were only varying rumours: that he was still holding out; that he was lost; that he had broken through; that he was a prisoner--all without foundation upon which she could rely.
As she neared the Palace entrance, a female fortune-teller ran forward, thrusting towards her a gazelle's skin, filled with the instruments of her mystic craft, and crying out: "I divine-I reveal! What is present I manifest! What is absent I declare! What is future I show! Beautiful one, hear me. It is all written. To thee is greatness, and thy heart's desire. Hear all! See! Wait for the revealing. Thou comest from afar, but thy fortune is near. Hear and see. I divine--I reveal. Beautiful one, what is future I show."
Hylda's eyes looked at the poor creature eagerly, pathetically. If it could only be, if she could but see one step ahead! If the veil could but be lifted! She dropped some silver into the folds of the gazelle- skin and waved the Gipsy away. "There is darkness, it is all dark, beautiful one," cried the woman after her, "but it shall be light. I show--I reveal!"
Inside these Palace walls there was a revealer of more merit, as she so well and bitterly knew. He could raise the veil--a dark and dangerous necromancer, with a flinty heart and a hand that had waited long to strike. Had it struck its last blow?
Outside Nahoum's door she had a moment of utter weakness, when her knees smote together, and her throat became parched; but before the door had swung wide and her eyes swept the cool and shadowed room, she was as composed as on that night long ago when she had faced the man who knew.
Nahoum was standing in a waiting and respectful attitude as she entered. He advanced towards her and bowed low, but stopped dumfounded, as he saw who she was. Presently he recovered himself; but he offered no further greeting than to place a chair for her where her face was in the shadow and his in the light--time of crisis as it was, she noticed this and marvelled at him. His face was as she had seen it those years ago. It showed no change whatever. The eyes looked at her calmly, openly, with no ulterior thought behind, as it might seem. The high, smooth forehead, the full but firm lips, the brown, well-groomed beard, were all indicative of a nature benevolent and refined. Where did the duplicity lie? Her mind answered its own question on the instant; it lay in the brain and the tongue. Both were masterly weapons, an armament so complete that it controlled the face and eyes and outward man into a fair semblance of honesty. The tongue--she remembered its insinuating and adroit power, and how it had deceived the man she had come to try and save. She must not be misled by it. She felt it was to be a struggle between them, and she must be alert and persuasive, and match him word for word, move for move.
"I am happy to welcome you here, madame," he said in English. "It is years since we met; yet time has passed you by."
She flushed ever so slightly--compliment from Nahoum Pasha! Yet she must not resent anything to-day; she must get what she came for, if it was possible. What had Lacey said? "A few thousand men by parcel-post, and some red seals-British officers."
"We meet under different circumstances," she replied meaningly. "You were asking a great favour then."
"Ah, but of you, madame?"
"I think you appealed to me when you were doubtful of the result."
"Well, madame, it may be so--but, yes, you are right; I thought you were Claridge Pasha's kinswoman, I remember."
"Excellency, you said you thought I was Claridge Pasha's kinswoman."
"And you are not?" he asked reflectively.
He did not understand the slight change that passed over her face. His kinswoman--Claridge Pasha's kinswoman!
"I was not his kinswoman," she answered calmly. "You came to ask a favour then of Claridge Pasha; your life-work to do under him. I remember your words: 'I can aid thee in thy great task. Thou wouldst remake our Egypt, and my heart is with you. I would rescue, not destroy. . . . I would labour, but my master has taken away from me the anvil, the fire, and the hammer, and I sit without the door like an armless beggar.' Those were your words, and Claridge Pasha listened and believed, and saved your life and gave you work; and now again you have power greater than all others in Egypt."
"Madame, I congratulate you on a useful memory. May it serve you as the hill-fountain the garden in the city! Those indeed were my words. I hear myself from your lips, and yet recognise myself, if that be not vanity. But, madame, why have you sought me? What is it you wish to know--to hear?"
He looked at her innocently, as though he did not know her errand; as though beyond, in the desert, there was no tragedy approaching--or come.
"Excellency, you are aware that I have come to ask for news of Claridge Pasha." She leaned forward slightly, but, apart from her tightly interlaced fingers, it would not have been possible to know that she was under any strain.
"You come to me instead of to the Effendina. May I ask why, madame? Your husband's position--I did not know you were Lord Eglington's wife-- would entitle you to the highest consideration."
"I knew that Nahoum Pasha would have the whole knowledge, while the Effendina would have part only. Excellency, will you not tell me what news You have? Is Claridge Pasha alive?"
"Madame, I do not know. He is in the desert. He was surrounded. For over a month there has been no word-none. He is in danger. His way by the river was blocked. He stayed too long. He might have escaped, but he would insist on saving the loyal natives, on remaining with them, since he could not bring them across the desert; and the river and the desert are silent. Nothing comes out of that furnace yonder. Nothing comes."
He bent his eyes upon her complacently. Her own dropped. She could not bear that he should see the misery in them.
"You have come to try and save him, madame. What did you expect to do? Your Government did not strengthen my hands; your husband did nothing-- nothing that could make it possible for me to act. There are many nations here, alas! Your husband does not take so great an interest in the fate of Claridge Pasha as yourself, madame."
She ignored the insult. She had determined to endure everything, if she might but induce this man to do the thing that could be done--if it was not too late. Before she could frame a reply, he said urbanely:
"But that is not to be expected. There was that between Claridge Pasha and yourself which would induce you to do all you might do for him, to be anxious for his welfare. Gratitude is a rare thing--as rare as the flower of the century--aloe; but you have it, madame."
There was no chance to misunderstand him. Foorgat Bey--he knew the truth, and had known it all these years.
"Excellency," she said, "if through me, Claridge Pasha--"
"One moment, madame," he interrupted, and, opening a drawer, took out a letter. "I think that what you would say may be found here, with much else that you will care to know. It is the last news of Claridge Pasha-- a letter from him. I understand all you would say to me; but he who has most at stake has said it, and, if he failed, do you think, madame, that you could succeed?"
He handed her the letter with a respectful salutation.
"In the hour he left, madame, he came to know that the name of Foorgat Bey was not blotted from the book of Time, nor from Fate's reckoning."
After all these years! Her instinct had been true, then, that night so long ago. The hand that took the letter trembled slightly in spite of her will, but it was not the disclosure Nahoum had made which caused her agitation. This letter she held was in David Claridge's hand, the first she had ever seen, and, maybe, the last that he had ever written, or that any one would ever see, a document of tears. But no, there were no tears in this letter! As Hylda read it the trembling passed from her fingers, and a great thrilling pride possessed her. If tragedy had come, then it had fallen like a fire from heaven, not like a pestilence rising from the earth. Here indeed was that which justified all she had done, what she was doing now, what she meant to do when she had read the last word of it and the firm, clear signature beneath.
Without a pause Hylda had read the letter from the first word to the last. She was too proud to let this conspirator and traitor see what David's words could do to her. When she read the lines concerning herself, she became cold from head to foot, but she knew that Nahoum never took his eyes from her face, and she gave no outward sign of what was passing within. When she had finished it, she folded it up calmly, her eyes dwelt for a moment on the address upon the envelope, and then she handed it back to Nahoum without a word. She looked him in the eyes and spoke. "He saved your life, he gave you all you had lost. It was not his fault that Prince Kaid chose him for his chief counsellor. You would be lying where your brother lies, were it not for Claridge Pasha."
"It may be; but the luck was with me; and I have my way."
She drew herself together to say what was hard to say. "Excellency, the man who was killed deserved to die. Only by lies, only by subterfuge, only because I was curious to see the inside of the Palace, and because I had known him in London, did I, without a thought of indiscretion, give myself to his care to come here. I was so young; I did not know life, or men--or Egyptians." The last word was uttered with low scorn.
He glanced up quickly, and for the first time she saw a gleam of malice in his eyes. She could not feel sorry she had said it, yet she must remove the impression if possible.
"What Claridge Pasha did, any man would have done, Excellency. He struck, and death was an accident. Foorgat's temple struck the corner of a pedestal.
"His death was instant. He would have killed Claridge Pasha if it had been possible--he tried to do so. But, Excellency, if you have a daughter, if you ever had a child, what would you have done if any man had--"
"In the East daughters are more discreet; they tempt men less," he answered quietly, and fingered the string of beads he carried.
"Yet you would have done as Claridge Pasha did. That it was your brother was an accident, and--"
"It was an accident that the penalty must fall on Claridge Pasha, and on you, madame. I did not choose the objects of penalty. Destiny chose them, as Destiny chose Claridge Pasha as the man who should supplant me, who should attempt to do these mad things for Egypt against the judgment of the world--against the judgment of your husband. Shall I have better judgment than the chancellories of Europe and England--and Lord Eglington?"
"Excellency, you know what moves other nations; but it is for Egypt to act for herself. You ask me why I did not go to the Effendina. I come to you because I know that you could circumvent the Effendina, even if he sent ten thousand men. It is the way in Egypt."
"Madame, you have insight--will you not look farther still, and see that, however good Claridge Pasha's work might be some day in the far future, it is not good to-day. It is too soon. At the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps. Men pay the penalty of their mistakes. A man's life"--he watched her closely with his wide, benevolent eyes--"is neither here nor there, nor a few thousands, in the destiny of a nation. A man who ventures into a lion's den must not be surprised if he goes as Harrik went--ah, perhaps you do not know how Harrik went! A man who tears at the foundations of a house must not be surprised if the timbers fall on him and on his workmen. It is Destiny that Claridge Pasha should be the slayer of my brother, and a danger to Egypt, and one whose life is so dear to you, madame. You would have it otherwise, and so would I, but we must take things as they are--and you see that letter. It is seven weeks since then, and it may be that the circle has been broken. Yet it may not be so. The circle may be smaller, but not broken."
She felt how he was tempting her from word to word with a merciless ingenuity; yet she kept to her purpose; and however hopeless it seemed, she would struggle on.
"Excellency," she said in a low, pleading tone, "has he not suffered enough? Has he not paid the price of that life which you would not bring back if you could? No, in those places of your mind where no one can see lies the thought that you would not bring back Foorgat Bey. It is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth that has moved you; it has not been love of Foorgat Bey; it has been the hatred of the East for the West. And yet you are a Christian! Has Claridge Pasha not suffered enough, Excellency? Have you not had your fill of revenge? Have you not done enough to hurt a man whose only crime was that he killed a man to save a woman, and had not meant to kill?"
"Yet he says in his letter that the thought of killing would not have stopped him."
"Does one think at such a moment? Did he think? There was no time. It was the work of an instant. Ah, Fate was not kind, Excellency! If it had been, I should have been permitted to kill Foorgat Bey with my own hands."
"I should have found it hard to exact the penalty from you, madame."
The words were uttered in so neutral a way that they were enigmatical, and she could not take offence or be sure of his meaning.
"Think, Excellency. Have you ever known one so selfless, so good, so true? For humanity's sake, would you not keep alive such a man? If there were a feud as old as Adam between your race and his, would you not before this life of sacrifice lay down the sword and the bitter challenge? He gave you his hand in faith and trust, because your God was his God, your prophet and lord his prophet and lord. Such faith should melt your heart. Can you not see that he tried to make compensation for Foorgat's death, by giving you your life and setting you where you are now, with power to save or kill him?"
"You call him great; yet I am here in safety, and he is--where he is. Have you not heard of the strife of minds and wills? He represented the West, I the East. He was a Christian, so was I; the ground of our battle was a fair one, and--and I have won."
"The ground of battle fair!" she protested bitterly. "He did not know that there was strife between you. He did not fight you. I think that he always loved you, Excellency. He would have given his life for you, if it had been in danger. Is there in that letter one word that any man could wish unwritten when the world was all ended for all men? But no, there was no strife between you--there was only hatred on your part. He was so much greater than you that you should feel no rivalry, no strife. The sword he carries cuts as wide as Time. You are of a petty day in a petty land. Your mouth will soon be filled with dust, and you will be forgotten. He will live in the history of the world. Excellency, I plead for him because I owe him so much: he killed a man and brought upon himself a lifelong misery for me. It is all I can do, plead to you who know the truth about him--yes, you know the truth--to make an effort to save him. It may be too late; but yet God may be waiting for you to lift your hand. You said the circle may be smaller, but it may be unbroken still. Will you not do a great thing once, and win a woman's gratitude, and the thanks of the world, by trying to save one who makes us think better of humanity? Will you not have the name of Nahoum Pasha linked with his--with his who thought you were his friend? Will you not save him?"
He got slowly to his feet, a strange look in his eyes. "Your words are useless. I will not save him for your sake; I will not save him for the world's sake; I will not save him--"
A cry of pain and grief broke from her, and she buried her face in her hands.
"--I will not save him for any other sake than his own."
He paused. Slowly, as dazed as though she had received a blow, Hylda raised her face and her hands dropped in her lap.
"For any other sake than his own!" Her eyes gazed at him in a bewildered, piteous way. What did he mean? His voice seemed to come from afar off.
"Did you think that you could save him? That I would listen to you, if I did not listen to him? No, no, madame. Not even did he conquer me; but something greater than himself within himself, it conquered me."
She got to her feet gasping, her hands stretched out. "Oh, is it true-- is it true?" she cried.
"The West has conquered," he answered.
"You will help him--you will try to save him?" "When, a month ago, I read the letter you have read, I tried to save him. I sent secretly four thousand men who were at Wady Halfa to relieve him--if it could be done; five hundred to push forward on the quickest of the armed steamers, the rest to follow as fast as possible. I did my best. That was a month ago, and I am waiting--waiting and hoping, madame."
Suddenly she broke down. Tears streamed from her eyes. She sank into the chair, and sobs shook her from head to foot.
"Be patient, be composed, madame," Nahoum said gently. "I have tried you greatly--forgive me. Nay, do not weep. I have hope. We may hear from him at any moment now," he added softly, and there was a new look in his wide blue eyes as they were bent on her.