The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter VIII. For His Soul's Sake and the Land's Sake
David came to know a startling piece of news the next morning-that Foorgat Bey had died of heart-disease in his bed, and was so found by his servants. He at once surmised that Foorgat's body had been carried out of the Palace; no doubt that it might not be thought he had come to his death by command of Kaid. His mind became easier. Death, murder, crime in Egypt was not a nine days' wonder; it scarce outlived one day. When a man was gone none troubled. The dead man was in the bosom of Allah; then why should the living be beset or troubled? If there was foul play, why make things worse by sending another life after the life gone, even in the way of justice?
The girl David saved had told him her own name, and had given him the name of the hotel at which she was staying. He had an early breakfast, and prepared to go to her hotel, wishing to see her once more. There were things to be said for the first and last time and then be buried for ever. She must leave the country at once. In this sick, mad land, in this whirlpool of secret murder and conspiracy, no one could tell what plot was hatching, what deeds were forward; and he could not yet be sure that no one save himself and herself knew who had killed Foorgat Bey. Her perfect safety lay in instant flight. It was his duty to see that she went, and at once--this very day. He would go and see her.
He went to the hotel. There he learned that, with her aunt, she had left that morning for Alexandria en route to England.
He approved her wisdom, he applauded her decision. Yet--yet, somehow, as he bent his footsteps towards his lodgings again he had a sense of disappointment, of revelation. What might happen to him--evidently that had not occurred to her. How could she know but that his life might be in danger; that, after all, they might have been seen leaving the fatal room? Well, she had gone, and with all his heart he was glad that she was safe.
His judgment upon last night's event was not coloured by a single direct criticism upon the girl. But he could not prevent the suggestion suddenly flashing into his mind that she had thought of herself first and last. Well, she had gone; and he was here to face the future, unencumbered by aught save the weight of his own conscience.
Yet, the weight of his conscience! His feet were still free--free for one short hour before he went to Kaid; but his soul was in chains. As he turned his course to the Nile, and crossed over the great bridge, there went clanking by in chains a hundred conscripts, torn from their homes in the Fayoum, bidding farewell for ever to their friends, receiving their last offerings, for they had no hope of return. He looked at their haggard and dusty faces, at their excoriated ankles, and his eyes closed in pain. All they felt he felt. What their homes were to them, these fellaheen, dragged forth to defend their country, to go into the desert and waste their lives under leaders tyrannous, cruel, and incompetent, his old open life, his innocence, his integrity, his truthfulness and character, were to him. By an impulsive act, by a rash blow, he had asserted his humanity; but he had killed his fellow-man in anger. He knew that as that fatal blow had been delivered, there was no thought of punishment--it was blind anger and hatred: it was the ancient virus working which had filled the world with war, and armed it at the expense, the bitter and oppressive expense, of the toilers and the poor. The taxes for wars were wrung out of the sons of labour and sorrow. These poor fellaheen had paid taxes on everything they possessed. Taxes, taxes, nothing but taxes from the cradle! Their lands, houses, and palm- trees would be taxed still, when they would reap no more. And having given all save their lives, these lives they must now give under the whip and the chain and the sword.
As David looked at them in their single blue calico coverings, in which they had lived and slept-shivering in the cold night air upon the bare ground--these thoughts came to him; and he had a sudden longing to follow them and put the chains upon his own arms and legs, and go forth and suffer with them, and fight and die? To die were easy. To fight?. . . . Was it then come to that? He was no longer a man of peace, but a man of the sword; no longer a man of the palm and the evangel, but a man of blood and of crime! He shrank back out of the glare of the sun; for it suddenly seemed to him that there was written upon his fore head, "This is a brother of Cain." For the first time in his life he had a shrinking from the light, and from the sun which he had loved like a Persian, had, in a sense, unconsciously worshipped.
He was scarcely aware where he was. He had wandered on until he had come to the end of the bridge and into the great groups of traffickers who, at this place, made a market of their wares. Here sat a seller of sugar cane; there wandered, clanking his brasses, a merchant of sweet waters; there shouted a cheap-jack of the Nile the virtues of a knife from Sheffield. Yonder a camel-driver squatted and counted his earnings; and a sheepdealer haggled with the owner of a ghiassa bound for the sands of the North. The curious came about him and looked at him, but he did not see or hear. He sat upon a stone, his gaze upon the river, following with his eyes, yet without consciously observing, the dark riverine population whose ways are hidden, who know only the law of the river and spend their lives in eluding itpirates and brigands now, and yet again the peaceful porters of commerce.
To his mind, never a criminal in this land but less a criminal than he! For their standard was a standard of might the only right; but he--his whole life had been nurtured in an atmosphere of right and justice, had been a spiritual demonstration against force. He was with out fear, as he was without an undue love of life. The laying down of his life had never been presented to him; and yet, now that his conscience was his only judge, and it condemned him, he would gladly have given his life to pay the price of blood.
That was impossible. His life was not his own to give, save by suicide; and that would be the unpardonable insult to God and humanity. He had given his word to the woman, and he would keep it. In those brief moments she must have suffered more than most men suffer in a long life. Not her hand, however, but his, had committed the deed. And yet a sudden wave of pity for her rushed over him, because the conviction seized him that she would also in her heart take upon herself the burden of his guilt as though it were her own. He had seen it in the look of her face last night.
For the sake of her future it was her duty to shield herself from any imputation which might as unjustly as scandalously arise, if the facts of that black hour ever became known. Ever became known? The thought that there might be some human eye which had seen, which knew, sent a shiver through him.
"I would give my life a thousand times rather than that," he said aloud to the swift-flowing river. His head sank on his breast. His lips murmured in prayer:
"But be merciful to me, Thou just Judge of Israel, for Thou hast made me, and Thou knowest whereof I am made. Here will I dedicate my life to Thee for the land's sake. Not for my soul's sake, O my God! If it be Thy will, let my soul be cast away; but for the soul of him whose body I slew, and for his land, let my life be the long sacrifice."
Dreams he had had the night before--terrible dreams, which he could never forget; dreams of a fugitive being hunted through the world, escaping and eluding, only to be hemmed in once more; on and on till he grew grey and gaunt, and the hunt suddenly ended in a great morass, into which he plunged with the howling world behind him. The grey, dank mists came down on him, his footsteps sank deeper and deeper, and ever the cries, as of damned spirits, grew in his ears. Mocking shapes flitted past him, the wings of obscene birds buffeted him, the morass grew up about him; and now it was all a red moving mass like a dead sea heaving about him. With a moan of agony he felt the dolorous flood above his shoulders, and then a cry pierced the gloom and the loathsome misery, and a voice he knew called to him, "David, David, I am coming!" and he had awaked with the old hallucination of his uncle's voice calling to him in the dawn.
It came to him now as he sat by the water-side, and he raised his face to the sun and to the world. The idlers had left him alone; none were staring at him now. They were all intent on their own business, each man labouring after his kind. He heard the voice of a riverman as he toiled at a rope standing on the corn that filled his ghiassa from end to end, from keel to gunwale. The man was singing a wild chant of cheerful labour, the soul of the hard-smitten of the earth rising above the rack and burden of the body:
"O, the garden where to-day we sow and to-morrow we reap! O, the sakkia turning by the garden walls; O, the onion-field and the date-tree growing, And my hand on the plough-by the blessing of God; Strength of my soul, O my brother, all's well!"
The meaning of the song got into his heart. He pressed his hand to his breast with a sudden gesture. It touched something hard. It was his flute. Mechanically he had put it in his pocket when he dressed in the morning. He took it out and looked at it lovingly. Into it he had poured his soul in the old days--days, centuries away, it seemed now. It should still be the link with the old life. He rose and walked towards his home again. The future spread clearly before him. Rapine, murder, tyranny, oppression, were round him on every side, and the ruler of the land called him to his counsels. Here a great duty lay--his life for this land, his life, and his love, and his faith. He would expiate his crime and his sin, the crime of homicide for which he alone was responsible, the sin of secrecy for which he and another were responsible. And that other? If only there had been but one word of understanding between them before she left!
At the door of his house stood the American whom he had met at the citadel yesterday-it seemed a hundred years ago.
"I've got a letter for you," Lacey said. "The lady's aunt and herself are cousins of mine more or less removed, and originally at home in the U. S. A. a generation ago. Her mother was an American. She didn't know your name--Miss Hylda Maryon, I mean. I told her, but there wasn't time to put it on." He handed over the unaddressed envelope.
David opened the letter, and read:
"I have seen the papers. I do not understand what has happened, but I know that all is well. If it were not so, I would not go. That is the truth. Grateful I am, oh, believe me! So grateful that I do not yet know what is the return which I must make. But the return will be made. I hear of what has come to you--how easily I might have destroyed all! My thoughts blind me. You are great and good; you will know at least that I go because it is the only thing to do. I fly from the storm with a broken wing. Take now my promise to pay what I owe in the hour Fate wills--or in the hour of your need. You can trust him who brings this to you; he is a distant cousin of my own. Do not judge him by his odd and foolish words. They hide a good character, and he has a strong nature. He wants work to do. Can you give it? Farewell."
David put the letter in his pocket, a strange quietness about his heart.
He scarcely realised what Lacey was saying. "Great girl that. Troubled about something in England, I guess. Going straight back."
David thanked him for the letter. Lacey became red in the face. He tried to say something, but failed. "Thee wishes to say something to me, friend?" asked David.
"I'm full up; I can't speak. But, say--"
"I am going to the Palace now. Come back at noon if you will."
He wrung David's hand in gratitude. "You're going to do it. You're going to do it. I see it. It's a great game--like Abe Lincoln's. Say, let me black your boots while you're doing it, will you?"
David pressed his hand.