The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XLII. The Loom of Destiny
It was many a day since the Duchess of Snowdon had seen a sunrise, and the one on which she now gazed from the deck of the dahabieh Nefert, filled her with a strange new sense of discovery and revelation. Her perceptions were arrested and a little confused, and yet the undercurrent of feeling was one of delight and rejuvenation. Why did this sunrise bring back, all at once, the day when her one lost child was born, and she looked out of the windows of Snowdon Hall, as she lay still and nerveless, and thought how wonderful and sweet and green was the world she saw and the sky that walled it round? Sunrise over the Greek Temple of Philae and the splendid ruins of a farther time towering beside it! In her sight were the wide, islanded Nile, where Cleopatra loitered with Antony, the foaming, crashing cataracts above, the great quarries from which ancient temples had been hewed, unfinished obelisks and vast blocks of stone left where bygone workmen had forsaken them, when the invader came and another dynasty disappeared into that partial oblivion from which the Egyptian still emerges triumphant over all his conquerors, unchanged in form and feature. Something of its meaning got into her mind.
"I wonder what Windlehurst would think of it. He always had an eye for things like that," she murmured; and then caught her breath, as she added: "He always liked beauty." She looked at her wrinkled, childish hands. "But sunsets never grow old," she continued, with no apparent relevance. "La, la, we were young once!"
Her eyes were lost again in the pinkish glow spreading over the grey- brown sand of the desert, over the palm-covered island near. "And now it's others' turn, or ought to be," she murmured.
She looked to where, not far away, Hylda stood leaning over the railing of the dahabieh, her eyes fixed in reverie on the farthest horizon line of the unpeopled, untravelled plain of sand.
"No, poor thing, it's not her turn," she added, as Hylda, with a long sigh, turned and went below. Tears gathered in her pale blue eyes. "Not yet--with Eglington alive. And perhaps it would be best if the other never came back. I could have made the world better worth living in if I had had the chance--and I wouldn't have been a duchess! La! La!"
She relapsed into reverie, an uncommon experience for her; and her mind floated indefinitely from one thing to another, while she was half conscious of the smell of coffee permeating the air, and of the low resonant notes of the Nubian boys, as, with locked shoulders, they scrubbed the decks of a dahabieh near by with hempshod feet.
Presently, however, she was conscious of another sound--the soft clip of oars, joined to the guttural, explosive song of native rowers; and, leaning over the rail, she saw a boat draw alongside the Nefert. From it came the figure of Nahoum Pasha, who stepped briskly on deck, in his handsome face a light which flashed an instant meaning to her.
"I know--I know! Claridge Pasha--you have heard?" she said excitedly, as he came to her.
He smiled and nodded. "A messenger has arrived. Within a few hours he should be here."
"Then it was all false that he was wounded--ah, that horrible story of his death!"
"Bismillah, it was not all false! The night before the great battle he was slightly wounded in the side. He neglected it, and fever came on; but he survived. His first messengers to us were killed, and that is why the news of the relief came so late. But all is well at last. I have come to say so to Lady Eglington--even before I went to the Effendina." He made a gesture towards a huge and gaily-caparisoned dahabieh not far away. "Kaid was right about coming here. His health is better. He never doubted Claridge Pasha's return; it was une idee fixe. He believes a magic hand protects the Saadat, and that, adhering to him, he himself will carry high the flower of good fortune and live for ever. Kismet! I will not wait to see Lady Eglington. I beg to offer to her my congratulations on the triumph of her countryman."
His words had no ulterior note; but there was a shadow in his eyes which in one not an Oriental would have seemed sympathy.
"Pasha, Pasha!" the Duchess called after him, as he turned to leave; "tell me, is there any news from England--from the Government?"
"From Lord Eglington? No," Nahoum answered meaningly. "I wrote to him. Did the English Government desire to send a message to Claridge Pasha, if the relief was accomplished? That is what I asked. But there is no word. Malaish, Egypt will welcome him!"
She followed his eyes. Two score of dahabiehs lay along the banks of the Nile, and on the shore were encampments of soldiers, while flags were flying everywhere. Egypt had followed the lead of the Effendina. Claridge Pasha's star was in its zenith.
As Nahoum's boat was rowed away, Hylda came on deck again, and the Duchess hastened to her. Hylda caught the look in her face. "What has happened? Is there news? Who has been here?" she asked.
The Duchess took her hands. "Nahoum has gone to tell Prince Kaid. He came to you with the good news first," she said with a flutter.
She felt Hylda's hands turn cold. A kind of mist filled the dark eyes, and the slim, beautiful figure swayed slightly. An instant only, and then the lips smiled, and Hylda said in a quavering voice: "They will be so glad in England."
"Yes, yes, my darling, that is what Nahoum said." She gave Nahoum's message to her. "Now they'll make him a peer, I suppose, after having deserted him. So English!"
She did not understand why Hylda's hands trembled so, why so strange a look came into her face, but, in an instant, the rare and appealing eyes shone again with a light of agitated joy, and suddenly Hylda leaned over and kissed her cheek.
"Smell the coffee," she said with assumed gaiety. "Doesn't fair-and- sixty want her breakfast? Sunrise is a splendid tonic." She laughed feverishly.
"My darling, I hadn't seen the sun rise in thirty years, not since the night I first met Windlehurst at a Foreign Office ball."
"You have always been great friends?" Hylda stole a look at her.
"That's the queer part of it; I was so stupid, and he so clever. But Windlehurst has a way of letting himself down to your level. He always called me Betty after my boy died, just as if I was his equal. La, la, but I was proud when he first called me that--the Prime Minister of England. I'm going to watch the sun rise again to-morrow, my darling. I didn't know it was so beautiful, and gave one such an appetite." She broke a piece of bread, and, not waiting to butter it, almost stuffed it into her mouth.
Hylda leaned over and pressed her arm. "What a good mother Betty it is!" she said tenderly.
Presently they were startled by the shrill screaming of a steamer whistle, followed by the churning of the paddles, as she drove past and drew to the bank near them.
"It is a steamer from Cairo, with letters, no doubt," said Hylda; and the Duchess nodded assent, and covertly noted her look, for she knew that no letters had arrived from Eglington since Hylda had left England.
A half-hour later, as the Duchess sat on deck, a great straw hat tied under her chin with pale-blue ribbons, like a child of twelve, she was startled by seeing the figure of a farmer-looking person with a shock of grey-red hair, a red face, and with great blue eyes, appear before her in the charge of Hylda's dragoman.
"This has come to speak with my lady," the dragoman said, "but my lady is riding into the desert there." He pointed to the sands.
The Duchess motioned the dragoman away, and scanned the face of the new- comer shrewdly. Where had she seen this strange-looking English peasant, with the rolling walk of a sailor?
"What is your name, and where do you come from?" she asked, not without anxiety, for there was something ominous and suggestive in the old man's face.
"I come from Hamley, in England, and my name is Soolsby, your grace. I come to see my Lady Eglington."
Now she remembered him. She had seen him in Hamley more than once.
"You have come far; have you important news for her ladyship? Is there anything wrong?" she asked with apparent composure, but with heavy premonition.
"Ay, news that counts, I bring," answered Soolsby, "or I hadn't come this long way. 'Tis a long way at sixty-five."
"Well, yes, at our age it is a long way," rejoined the Duchess in a friendly voice, suddenly waving away the intervening air of class, for she was half a peasant at heart.
"Ay, and we both come for the same end, I suppose," Soolsby added; "and a costly business it is. But what matters, so be that you help her ladyship and I help Our Man."
"And who is 'Our Man'?" was the rejoinder. "Him that's coming safe here from the South--David Claridge," he answered. "Ay, 'twas the first thing I heard when I landed here, me that be come all these thousand miles to see him, if so be he was alive." Just then he caught sight of Kate Heaver climbing the stair to the deck where they were. His face flushed; he hurried forward and gripped her by the arm, as her feet touched the upper deck. "Kate-ay, 'tis Kate!" he cried. Then he let go her arm and caught a hand in both of his and fondled it. "Ay, ay, 'tis Kate!" "What is it brings you, Soolsby?" Kate asked anxiously.
"'Tis not Jasper, and 'tis not the drink-ay, I've been sober since, ever since, Kate, lass," he answered stoutly. "Quick, quick, tell me what it is!" she said, frowning. "You've not come here for naught, Soolsby."
Still holding her hand, he leaned over and whispered in her ear. For an instant she stood as though transfixed, and then, with a curious muffled cry, broke away from him and turned to go below.
"Keep your mouth shut, lass, till proper time," he called after her, as she descended the steps hastily again. Then he came slowly back to the Duchess.
He looked her in the face--he was so little like a peasant, so much more like a sailor here with his feet on the deck of a floating thing. "Your grace is a good friend to her ladyship," he said at last deliberately, "and 'tis well that you tell her ladyship. As good a friend to her you've been, I doubt not, as that I've been to him that's coming from beyond and away."
"Go on, man, go on. I want to know what startled Heaver yonder, what you have come to say."
"I beg pardon, your grace. One doesn't keep good news waiting, and 'tis not good news for her ladyship I bring, even if it be for Claridge Pasha, for there was no love lost 'twixt him and second-best lordship that's gone."
"Speak, man, speak it out, and no more riddles," she interrupted sharply.
"Then, he that was my Lord Eglington is gone foreign--he is dead," he said slowly.
The Duchess fell back in her chair. For an instant the desert, the temples, the palms, the Nile waters faded, and she was in some middle world, in which Soolsby's voice seemed coming muffled and deep across a dark flood; then she recovered herself, and gave a little cry, not unlike that which Kate gave a few moments before, partly of pain, partly of relief.
"Ay, he's dead and buried, too, and in the Quaker churchyard. Miss Claridge would have it so. And none in Hamley said nay, not one."
The Duchess murmured to herself. Eglington was dead--Eglington was dead --Eglington was dead! And David Claridge was coming out of the desert, was coming to-day-now!
"How did it happen?" she asked, faintly, at last.
"Things went wrong wi' him--bad wrong in Parliament and everywhere, and he didn't take it well. He stood the world off like-ay, he had no temper for black days. He shut himself up at Hamley in his chemical place, like his father, like his father before him. When the week-end came, there he was all day and night among his bottles and jars and wires. He was after summat big in experiment for explosives, so the papers said, and so he said himself before he died, to Miss Claridge--ay, 'twas her he deceived and treated cruel, that come to him when he was shattered by his experimenting. No patience, he had at last--and reckless in his chemical place, and didn't realise what his hands was doing. 'Twas so he told her, that forgave him all his deceit, and held him in her arms when he died. Not many words he had to speak; but he did say that he had never done any good to any one--ay, I was standing near behind his bed and heard all, for I was thinking of her alone with him, and so I would be with her, and she would have it so. Ay, and he said that he had misused cruel her that had loved him, her ladyship, that's here. He said he had misused her because he had never loved her truly, only pride and vainglory being in his heart. Then he spoke summat to her that was there to forgive him and help him over the stile 'twixt this field and it that's Beyond and Away, which made her cry out in pain and say that he must fix his thoughts on other things. And she prayed out loud for him, for he would have no parson there. She prayed and prayed as never priest or parson prayed, and at last he got quiet and still, and, when she stopped praying, he did not speak or open his eyes for a longish while. But when the old clock on the stable was striking twelve, he opened his eyes wide, and when it had stopped, he said: 'It is always twelve by the clock that stops at noon. I've done no good. I've earned my end.' He looked as though he was waiting for the clock to go on striking, half raising himself up in bed, with Miss Faith's arm under his head. He whispered to her then--he couldn't speak by this time. 'It's twelve o'clock,' he said. Then there came some words I've heard the priest say at Mass, 'Vanitas, Vanitatum,'--that was what he said. And her he'd lied to, there with him, laying his head down on the pillow, as if he was her child going to sleep. So, too, she had him buried by her father, in the Quaker burying-ground--ay, she is a saint on earth, I warrant."
For a moment after he had stopped the Duchess did not speak, but kept untying and tying the blue ribbons under her chin, her faded eyes still fastened on him, burning with the flame of an emotion which made them dark and young again.
"So, it's all over," she said, as though to herself. "They were all alike, from old Broadbrim, the grandfather, down to this one, and back to William the Conqueror."
"Like as peas in a pod," exclaimed Soolsby--"all but one, all but one, and never satisfied with what was in their own garden, but peeking, peeking beyond the hedge, and climbing and getting a fall. That's what they've always been evermore."
His words aroused the Duchess, and the air became a little colder about her-after all, the division between the classes and the masses must be kept, and the Eglingtons were no upstarts. "You will say nothing about this till I give you leave to speak," she commanded. "I must tell her ladyship."
Soolsby drew himself up a little, nettled at her tone. "It is your grace's place to tell her ladyship," he responded; "but I've taken ten years' savings to come to Egypt, and not to do any one harm, but good, if so be I might."
The Duchess relented at once. She got to her feet as quickly as she could, and held out her hand to him. "You are a good man, and a friend worth having, I know, and I shall like you to be my friend, Mr. Soolsby," she said impulsively.
He took her hand and shook it awkwardly, his lips working. "Your grace, I understand. I've got naught to live for except my friends. Money's naught, naught's naught, if there isn't a friend to feel a crunch at his heart when summat bad happens to you. I'd take my affydavy that there's no better friend in the world than your grace."
She smiled at him. "And so we are friends, aren't we? And I am to tell her ladyship, and you are to say 'naught.'
"But to the Egyptian, to him, your grace, it is my place to speak--to Claridge Pasha, when he comes." The Duchess looked at him quizzically. "How does Lord Eglington's death concern Claridge Pasha?" she asked rather anxiously. Had there been gossip about Hylda? Had the public got a hint of the true story of her flight, in spite of all Windlehurst had done? Was Hylda's name smirched, now, when all would be set right? Had everything come too late, as it were?
"There's two ways that his lordship's death concerns Claridge Pasha," answered Soolsby shrewdly, for though he guessed the truth concerning Hylda and David, his was not a leaking tongue. "There's two ways it touches him. There'll be a new man in the Foreign Office--Lord Eglington was always against Claridge Pasha; and there's matters of land betwixt the two estates--matters of land that's got to be settled now," he continued, with determined and successful evasion.
The Duchess was deceived. "But you will not tell Claridge Pasha until I have told her ladyship and I give you leave? Promise that," she urged.
"I will not tell him until then," he answered. "Look, look, your grace," he added, suddenly pointing towards the southern horizon, "there he comes! Ay, 'tis Our Man, I doubt not--Our Man evermore!"
Miles away there appeared on the horizon a dozen camels being ridden towards Assouan.
"Our Man evermore," repeated the Duchess, with a trembling smile. "Yes, it is surely he. See, the soldiers are moving. They're going to ride out to meet him." She made a gesture towards the far shore where Kaid's men were saddling their horses, and to Nahoum's and Kaid's dahabiehs, where there was a great stir.
"There's one from Hamley will meet them first," Soolsby said, and pointed to where Hylda, in the desert, was riding towards the camels coming out of the south.
The Duchess threw up her hands. "Dear me, dear me," she said in distress, "if she only knew!"
"There's thousands of women that'd ride out mad to meet him," said Soolsby carefully; "women that likes to see an Englishman that's done his duty--ay, women and men, that'd ride hard to welcome him back from the grave. Her ladyship's as good a patriot as any," he added, watching the Duchess out of the corners of his eyes, his face turned to the desert.
The Duchess looked at him quizzically, and was satisfied with her scrutiny. "You're a man of sense," she replied brusquely, and gathered up her skirts. "Find me a horse or a donkey, and I'll go too," she added whimsically. "Patriotism is such a nice sentiment."
For David and Lacey the morning had broken upon a new earth. Whatever of toil and tribulation the future held in store, this day marked a step forward in the work to which David had set his life. A way had been cloven through the bloody palisades of barbarism, and though the dark races might seek to hold back the forces which drain the fens, and build the bridges, and make the desert blossom as the rose, which give liberty and preserve life, the good end was sure and near, whatever of rebellion and disorder and treachery intervened. This was the larger, graver issue; but they felt a spring in the blood, and their hearts were leaping, because of the thought that soon they would clasp hands again with all from which they had been exiled.
"Say, Saadat, think of it: a bed with four feet, and linen sheets, and sleeping till any time in the morning, and, If you please, sir, breakfast's on the table.' Say, it's great, and we're in it!"
David smiled. "Thee did very well, friend, without such luxuries. Thee is not skin and bone."
Lacey mopped his forehead. "Well, I've put on a layer or two since the relief. It's being scared that takes the flesh off me. I never was intended for the 'stricken field.' Poetry and the hearth-stone was my real vocation--and a bit of silver mining to blow off steam with," he added with a chuckle.
David laughed and tapped his arm. "That is an old story now, thy cowardice. Thee should be more original.
"It's worth not being original, Saadat, to hear you thee and thou me as you used to do. It's like old times--the oldest, first times. You've changed a lot, Saadat."
"Not in anything that matters, I hope."
"Not in anything that matters to any one that matters. To me it's the same as it ever was, only more so. It isn't that, for you are you. But you've had disappointment, trouble, hard nuts to crack, and all you could do to escape the rocks being rolled down the Egyptian hill onto you; and it's left its mark."
"Am I grown so different?"
Lacey's face shone under the look that was turned towards him. "Say, Saadat, you're the same old red sandstone; but I missed the thee and thou. I sort of hankered after it; it gets me where I'm at home with myself."
David laughed drily. "Well, perhaps I've missed something in you. Thee never says now--not since thee went south a year ago, 'Well, give my love to the girls.' Something has left its mark, friend," he added teasingly; for his spirits were boyish to-day; he was living in the present. There had gone from his eyes and from the lines of his figure the melancholy which Hylda had remarked when he was in England.
"Well, now, I never noticed," rejoined Lacey. "That's got me. Looks as if I wasn't as friendly as I used to be, doesn't it? But I am--I am, Saadat."
"I thought that the widow in Cairo, perhaps--" Lacey chuckled. "Say, perhaps it was--cute as she can be, maybe, wouldn't like it, might be prejudiced."
Suddenly David turned sharply to Lacey. "Thee spoke of silver mining just now. I owe thee something like two hundred thousand pounds, I think--Egypt and I."
Lacey winked whimsically at himself under the rim of his helmet. "Are you drawing back from those concessions, Saadat?" he asked with apparent ruefulness.
"Drawing back? No! But does thee think they are worth--"
Lacey assumed an injured air. "If a man that's made as much money as me can't be trusted to look after a business proposition--"
"Oh, well, then!"
"Say, Saadat, I don't want you to think I've taken a mean advantage of you; and if--"
David hastened to put the matter right. "No, no; thee must be the judge!" He smiled sceptically. "In any case, thee has done a good deed in a great way, and it will do thee no harm in the end. In one way the investment will pay a long interest, as long as the history of Egypt runs. Ah, see, the houses of Assouan, the palms, the river, the masts of the dahabiehs!"
Lacey quickened his camel's steps, and stretched out a hand to the inviting distance. "'My, it's great," he said, and his eyes were blinking with tears. Presently he pointed. "There's a woman riding to meet us, Saa dat. Golly, can't she ride! She means to be in it--to salute the returning brave."
He did not glance at David. If he had done so, he would have seen that David's face had taken on a strange look, just such a look as it wore that night in the monastery when he saw Hylda in a vision and heard her say: "Speak, speak to me!"
There had shot into David's mind the conviction that the woman riding towards them was Hylda. Hylda, the first to welcome him back, Hylda-- Lady Eglington! Suddenly his face appeared to tighten and grow thin. It was all joy and torture at once. He had fought this fight out with himself--had he not done so? Had he not closed his heart to all but duty and Egypt? Yet there she was riding out of the old life, out of Hamley, and England, and all that had happened in Cairo, to meet him. Nearer and nearer she came. He could not see the face, but yet he knew. He quickened his camel and drew ahead of Lacey. Lacey did not understand, he did not recognise Hylda as yet; but he knew by instinct the Saadat's wishes, and he motioned the others to ride more slowly, while he and they watched horsemen coming out from Assouan towards them.
David urged his camel on. Presently he could distinguish the features of the woman riding towards him. It was Hylda. His presentiment, his instinct had been right. His heart beat tumultuously, his hand trembled, he grew suddenly weak; but he summoned up his will, and ruled himself to something like composure. This, then, was his home-coming from the far miseries and trials and battle-fields--to see her face before all others, to hear her voice first. What miracle had brought this thing to pass, this beautiful, bitter, forbidden thing? Forbidden! Whatever the cause of her coming, she must not see what he felt for her. He must deal fairly by her and by Eglington; he must be true to that real self which had emerged from the fiery trial in the monastery. Bronzed as he was, his face showed no paleness; but, as he drew near her, it grew pinched and wan from the effort at self-control. He set his lips and rode on, until he could see her eyes looking into his--eyes full of that which he had never seen in any eyes in all the world.
What had been her feelings during that ride in the desert? She had not meant to go out to meet him. After she heard that he was coming, her desire was to get away from all the rest of the world, and be alone with her thoughts. He was coming, he was safe, and her work was done. What she had set out to do was accomplished--to bring him back, if it was God's will, out of the jaws of death, for England's sake, for the world's sake, for his sake, for her own sake. For her own sake? Yes, yes, in spite of all, for her own sake. Whatever lay before, now, for this one hour, for this moment of meeting he should be hers. But meet him, where? Before all the world, with a smile of conventional welcome on her lips, with the same hand-clasp that any friend and lover of humanity would give him?
The desert air blew on her face, keen, sweet, vibrant, thrilling. What he had heard that night at the monastery, the humming life of the land of white fire--the desert, the million looms of all the weavers of the world weaving, this she heard in the sunlight, with the sand rising like surf behind her horse's heels. The misery and the tyranny and the unrequited love were all behind her, the disillusion and the loss and the undeserved insult to her womanhood--all, all were sunk away into the unredeemable past. Here, in Egypt, where she had first felt the stir of life's passion and pain and penalty, here, now, she lost herself in a beautiful, buoyant dream. She was riding out to meet the one man of all men, hero, crusader, rescuer--ah, that dreadful night in the Palace, and Foorgat's face! But he was coming, who had made her live, to whom she had called, to whom her soul had spoken in its grief and misery. Had she ever done aught to shame the best that was in herself--and had she not been sorely tempted? Had she not striven to love Eglington even when the worst was come, not alone at her own soul's command, but because she knew that this man would have it so? Broken by her own sorrow, she had left England, Eglington--all, to keep her pledge to help him in his hour of need, to try and save him to the world, if that might be. So she had come to Nahoum, who was binding him down on the bed of torture and of death. And yet, alas! not herself had conquered Nahoum, but David, as Nahoum had said. She herself had not done this one thing which would have compensated for all that she had suffered. This had not been permitted; but it remained that she had come here to do it, and perhaps he would understand when he saw her.
Yes, she knew he would understand! She flung up her head to the sun and the pulse-stirring air, and, as she did so, she saw his cavalcade approaching. She was sure it was he, even when he was far off, by the same sure instinct that convinced him. For an instant she hesitated. She would turn back, and meet him with the crowd. Then she looked around. The desert was deserted by all save herself and himself and those who were with him. No. Her mind was made up. She would ride forward. She would be the first to welcome him back to life and the world. He and she would meet alone in the desert. For one minute they would be alone, they two, with the world afar, they two, to meet, to greet--and to part. Out of all that Fate had to give of sorrow and loss, this one delectable moment, no matter what came after.
"David!" she cried with beating heart, and rode on, harder and harder.
Now she saw him ride ahead of the others. Ah, he knew that it was she, though he could not see her face! Nearer and nearer. Now they looked into each other's eyes.
She saw him stop his camel and make it kneel for the dismounting. She stopped her horse also, and slid to the ground, and stood waiting, one hand upon the horse's neck. He hastened forward, then stood still, a few feet away, his eyes on hers, his helmet off, his brown hair, brown as when she first saw it--peril and hardship had not thinned or greyed it. For a moment they stood so, for a moment of revealing and understanding, but speechless; and then, suddenly, and with a smile infinitely touching, she said, as he had heard her say in the monastery--the very words:
"Speak--speak to me!"
He took her hand in his. "There is no need--I have said all," he answered, happiness and trouble at once in his eyes. Then his face grew calmer. "Thee has made it worth while living on," he added.
She was gaining control of herself also. "I said that I would come when I was needed," she answered less, tremblingly.
"Thee came alone?" he asked gently.
"From Assouan, yes," she said in a voice still unsteady. "I was riding out to be by myself, and then I saw you coming, and I rode on. I thought I should like to be the first to say: 'Well done,' and 'God bless you!'"
He drew in a long breath, then looked at her keenly. "Lord Eglington is in Egypt also?" he asked.
Her face did not change. She looked him in the eyes.
"No, Eglington would not come to help you. I came to Nahoum, as I said I would."
"Thee has a good memory," he rejoined simply. "I am a good friend," she answered, then suddenly her face flushed up, her breast panted, her eyes shone with a brightness almost intolerable to him, and he said in a low, shaking voice:
"It is all fighting, all fighting. We have done our best; and thee has made all possible."
"David!" she said in a voice scarce above a whisper.
"Thee and me have far to go," he said in a voice not louder than her own, "but our ways may not be the same."
She understood, and a newer life leaped up in her. She knew that he loved her--that was sufficient; the rest would be easier now. Sacrifice, all, would be easier. To part, yes, and for evermore; but to know that she had been truly loved--who could rob her of that?
"See," she said lightly, "your people are waiting--and there, why, there is my cousin Lacey. Tom, oh, Cousin Tom!" she called eagerly.
Lacey rode down on them. "I swan, but I'm glad," he said, as he dropped from his horse. "Cousin Hylda, I'm blest if I don't feel as if I could sing like Aunt Melissa."
"You may kiss me, Cousin Tom," she said, as she took his hands in hers.
He flushed, was embarrassed, then snatched a kiss from her cheek. "Say, I'm in it, ain't I? And you were in it first, eh, Cousin Hylda? The rest are nowhere--there they come from Assouan, Kaid, Nahoum, and the Nubians. Look at 'em glisten!"
A hundred of Kaid's Nubians in their glittering armour made three sides of a quickly moving square, in the centre of which, and a little ahead, rode Kaid and Nahoum, while behind the square-in parade and gala dress- trooped hundreds of soldiers and Egyptians and natives.
Swiftly the two cavalcades approached each other, the desert ringing with the cries of the Bedouins, the Nubians, and the fellaheen. They met on an upland of sand, from which the wide valley of the Nile and its wild cataracts could be seen. As men meet who parted yesterday, Kaid, Nahoum, and David met, but Kaid's first quiet words to David had behind them a world of meaning:
"I also have come back, Saadat, to whom be the bread that never moulds and the water that never stales!" he said, with a look in his face which had not been there for many a day. Superstition had set its mark on him --on Claridge Pasha's safety depended his own, that was his belief; and the look of this thin, bronzed face, with its living fire, gave him vital assurance of length of days.
And David answered: "May thy life be the nursling of Time, Effendina. I bring the tribute of the rebel lions once more to thy hand. What was thine, and was lost, is thine once more. Peace and salaam!" Between Nahoum and David there were no words at first at all. They shook hands like Englishmen, looking into each other's eyes, and with pride of what Nahoum, once, in his duplicity, had called "perfect friendship."
Lacey thought of this now as he looked on; and not without a sense of irony, he said under his breath, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian!"
But in Hylda's look, as it met Nahoum's, there was no doubt--what woman doubts the convert whom she thinks she has helped to make? Meanwhile, the Nubians smote their mailed breasts with their swords in honour of David and Kaid.
Under the gleaming moon, the exquisite temple of Philae perched on its high rock above the river, the fires on the shore, the masts of the dahabiehs twinkling with lights, and the barbarous songs floating across the water, gave the feeling of past centuries to the scene. From the splendid boat which Kaid had placed at his disposal David looked out upon it all, with emotions not yet wholly mastered by the true estimate of what this day had brought to him. With a mind unsettled he listened to the natives in the forepart of the boat and on the shore, beating the darabukkeh and playing the kemengeh. Yet it was moving in a mist and on a flood of greater happiness than he had ever known.
He did not know as yet that Eglington was gone for ever. He did not know that the winds of time had already swept away all traces of the house of ambition which Eglington had sought to build; and that his nimble tongue and untrustworthy mind would never more delude and charm, and wanton with truth. He did not know, but within the past hour Hylda knew; and now out of the night Soolsby came to tell him.
He was roused from his reverie by Soolsby's voice saying: "Hast nowt to say to me, Egyptian?"
It startled him, sounded ghostly in the moonlight; for why should he hear Soolsby's voice on the confines of Egypt? But Soolsby came nearer, and stood where the moonlight fell upon him, hat in hand, a rustic modern figure in this Oriental world.
David sprang to his feet and grasped the old man by the shoulders. "Soolsby, Soolsby," he said, with a strange plaintive-note in his voice, yet gladly, too. "Soolsby, thee is come here to welcome me! But has she not come--Miss Claridge, Soolsby?"
He longed for that true heart which had never failed him, the simple soul whose life had been filled by thought and care of him, and whose every act had for its background the love of sister for brother--for that was their relation in every usual meaning--who, too frail and broken to come to him now, waited for him by the old hearthstone. And so Soolsby, in his own way, made him understand; for who knew them both better than this old man, who had shared in David's destiny since the fatal day when Lord Eglington had married Mercy Claridge in secret, had set in motion a long line of tragic happenings?
"Ay, she would have come, she would have come," Soolsby answered, "but she was not fit for the journey, and there was little time, my lord."
"Why did thee come, Soolsby? Only to welcome me back?"
"I come to bring you back to England, to your duty there, my lord."
The first time Soolsby had used the words "my lord," David had scarcely noticed it, but its repetition struck him strangely.
"Here, sometimes they call me Pasha and Saadat, but I am not 'my lord,'" he said.
"Ay, but you are my lord, Egyptian, as sure as I've kept my word to you that I'd drink no more, ay, on my sacred honour. So you are my lord; you are Lord Eglington, my lord."
David stood rigid and almost unblinking as Soolsby told his tale, beginning with the story of Eglington's death, and going back all the years to the day of Mercy Claridge's marriage.
"And him that never was Lord Eglington, your own father's son, is dead and gone, my lord; and you are come into your rights at last." This was the end of the tale.
For a long time David stood looking into the sparkling night before him, speechless and unmoving, his hands clasped behind him, his head bent forward, as though in a dream.
How, all in an instant, had life changed for him! How had Soolsby's tale of Eglington's death filled him with a pity deeper than he had ever felt- the futile, bitter, unaccomplished life, the audacious, brilliant genius quenched, a genius got from the same source as his own resistless energy and imagination, from the same wild spring. Gone--all gone, with only pity to cover him, unloved, unloving, unbemoaned, save by the Quaker girl whose true spirit he had hurt, save by the wife whom he had cruelly wronged and tortured; and pity was the thing that moved them both, unfathomable and almost maternal, in that sense of motherhood which, in spite of love or passion, is behind both, behind all, in every true woman's life.
At last David spoke.
"Who knows of all this--of who I am, Soolsby?"
"Lady Eglington and myself, my lord."
"Only she and you?"
"Only us two, Egyptian."
"Then let it be so--for ever."
Soolsby was startled, dumfounded.
"But you will take your title and estates, my lord; you will take the place which is your own."
"And prove my grandfather wrong? Had he not enough sorrow? And change my life, all to please thee, Soolsby?"
He took the old man's shoulders in his hands again. "Thee has done thy duty as few in this world, Soolsby, and given friendship such as few give. But thee must be content. I am David Claridge, and so shall remain ever."
"Then, since he has no male kin, the title dies, and all that's his will go to her ladyship," Soolsby rejoined sourly.
"Does thee grudge her ladyship what was his?"
"I grudge her what is yours, my lord--"
Suddenly Soolsby paused, as though a new thought had come to him, and he nodded to himself in satisfaction. "Well, since you will have it so, it will be so, Egyptian; but it is a queer fuddle, all of it; and where's the way out, tell me that, my lord?"
David spoke impatiently. "Call me 'my lord' no more. . . . But I will go back to England to her that's waiting at the Red Mansion, and you will remember, Soolsby--"
Slowly the great flotilla of dahabiehs floated with the strong current down towards Cairo, the great sails swelling to the breeze that blew from the Libyan Hills. Along the bank of the Nile thousands of Arabs and fellaheen crowded to welcome "the Saadat," bringing gifts of dates and eggs and fowls and dourha and sweetmeats, and linen cloth; and even in the darkness and in the trouble that was on her, and the harrowing regret that she had not been with Eglington in his last hour--she little knew what Eglington had said to Faith in that last hour--Hylda's heart was soothed by the long, loud tribute paid to David.
As she sat in the evening light, David and Lacey came, and were received by the Duchess of Snowdon, who could only say to David, as she held his hand, "Windlehurst sent his regards to you, his loving regards. He was sure you would come home--come home. He wished he were in power for your sake."
So, for a few moments she talked vaguely, and said at last: "But Lady Eglington, she will be glad to see you, such old friends as you are, though not so old as Windlehurst and me--thirty years, over thirty la, la!"
They turned to go to Hylda, and came face to face with Kate Heaver.
Kate looked at David as one would look who saw a lost friend return from the dead. His eyes lighted, he held out his hand to her.
"It is good to see thee here," he said gently. "And 'tis the cross-roads once again, sir," she rejoined.
"Thee means thee will marry Jasper?"
"Ay, I will marry Jasper now," she answered. "It has been a long waiting."
"It could not be till now," she responded.
David looked at her reflectively, and said: "By devious ways the human heart comes home. One can only stand in the door and wait. He has been patient."
"I have been patient, too," she answered.
As the Duchess disappeared with David, a swift change came over Lacey. He spun round on one toe, and, like a boy of ten, careered around the deck to the tune of a negro song.
"Say, things are all right in there with them two, and it's my turn now," he said. "Cute as she can be, and knows the game! Twice a widow, and knows the game! Waiting, she is down in Cairo, where the orange blossom blows. I'm in it; we're all in it--every one of us. Cousin Hylda's free now, and I've got no past worth speaking of; and, anyhow, she'll understand, down there in Cairo. Cute as she can be--"
Suddenly he swung himself down to the deck below. "The desert's the place for me to-night," he said. Stepping ashore, he turned to where the Duchess stood on the deck, gazing out into the night. "Well, give my love to the girls," he called, waving a hand upwards, as it were to the wide world, and disappeared into the alluring whiteness.
"I've got to get a key-thought," he muttered to himself, as he walked swiftly on, till only faint sounds came to him from the riverside. In the letter he had written to Hylda, which was the turning-point of all for her, he had spoken of these "key-thoughts." With all the childishness he showed at times, he had wisely felt his way into spheres where life had depth and meaning. The desert had justified him to himself and before the spirits of departed peoples, who wandered over the sands, until at last they became sand also, and were blown hither and thither, to make beds for thousands of desert wayfarers, or paths for camels' feet, or a blinding storm to overwhelm the traveller and the caravan; Life giving and taking, and absorbing and destroying, and destroying and absorbing, till the circle of human existence wheel to the full, and the task of Time be accomplished.
On the gorse-grown common above Hamley, David and Faith, and David's mother Mercy, had felt the same soul of things stirring--in the green things of green England, in the arid wastes of the Libyan desert, on the bosom of the Nile, where Mahommed Hassan now lay in a nugger singing a song of passion, Nature, with burning voice, murmuring down the unquiet world its message of the Final Peace through the innumerable years.