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- The Weavers, Volume 2. - 4/24 -


"Well, give my love to the girls," he said.

CHAPTER VI

"HAST THOU NEVER KILLED A MAN?"

"Claridge Effendi!"

As David moved forward, his mind was embarrassed by many impressions. He was not confused, but the glitter and splendour, the Oriental gorgeousness of the picture into which he stepped, excited his eye, roused some new sense in him. He was a curious figure in those surroundings. The consuls and agents of all the nations save one were in brilliant uniform, and pashas, generals, and great officials were splendid in gold braid and lace, and wore flashing Orders on their breasts. David had been asked for half-past eight o'clock, and he was there on the instant; yet here was every one assembled, the Prince Pasha included. As he walked up the room he suddenly realised this fact, and, for a moment, he thought he had made a mistake; but again he remembered distinctly that the letter said half-past eight, and he wondered now if this had been arranged by the Prince--for what purpose? To afford amusement to the assembled company? He drew himself up with dignity, his face became graver. He had come in a Quaker suit of black broadcloth, with grey steel buttons, and a plain white stock; and he wore his broad-brimmed hat--to the consternation of the British Consul-General and the Europeans present, to the amazement of the Turkish and native officials, who eyed him keenly. They themselves wore red tarbooshes, as did the Prince; yet all of them knew that the European custom of showing respect was by doffing the hat. The Prince Pasha had settled that with David, however, at their first meeting, when David had kept on his hat and offered Kaid his hand.

Now, with amusement in his eyes, Prince Kaid watched David coming up the great hall. What his object was in summoning David for an hour when all the court and all the official Europeans should be already present, remained to be seen. As David entered, Kaid was busy receiving salaams, and returning greeting, but with an eye to the singularly boyish yet gallant figure approaching. By the time David had reached the group, the Prince Pasha was ready to receive him.

"Friend, I am glad to welcome thee," said the Effendina, sly humour lurking at the corner of his eye. Conscious of the amazement of all present, he held out his hand to David.

"May thy coming be as the morning dew, friend," he added, taking David's willing hand.

"And thy feet, Kaid, wall in goodly paths, by the grace of God the compassionate and merciful."

As a wind, unfelt, stirs the leaves of a forest, making it rustle delicately, a whisper swept through the room. Official Egypt was dumfounded. Many had heard of David, a few had seen him, and now all eyed with inquisitive interest one who defied so many of the customs of his countrymen; who kept on his hat; who used a Mahommedan salutation like a true believer; whom the Effendina honoured--and presently honoured in an unusual degree by seating him at table opposite himself, where his Chief Chamberlain was used to sit.

During dinner Kaid addressed his conversation again and again to David, asking questions put to disconcert the consuls and other official folk present, confident in the naive reply which would be returned. For there was a keen truthfulness in the young man's words which, however suave and carefully balanced, however gravely simple and tactful, left no doubt as to their meaning. There was nothing in them which could be challenged, could be construed into active criticism of men or things; and yet much he said was horrifying. It made Achmet Pasha sit up aghast, and Nahoum Pasha, the astute Armenian, for a long time past the confidant and favourite of the Prince Pasha, laugh in his throat; for, if there was a man in Egypt who enjoyed the thrust of a word or the bite of a phrase, it was Nahoum. Christian though he was, he was, nevertheless, Oriental to his farthermost corner, and had the culture of a French savant. He had also the primitive view of life, and the morals of a race who, in the clash of East and West, set against Western character and directness, and loyalty to the terms of a bargain, the demoralised cunning of the desert folk; the circuitous tactics of those who believed that no man spoke the truth directly, that it must ever be found beneath devious and misleading words, to be tracked like a panther, as an Antipodean bushman once said, "through the sinuosities of the underbrush." Nahoum Pasha had also a rich sense of grim humour. Perhaps that was why he had lived so near the person of the Prince, had held office so long. There were no Grand Viziers in Egypt; but he was as much like one as possible, and he had one uncommon virtue, he was greatly generous. If he took with his right hand he gave with his left; and Mahommedan as well as Copt and Armenian, and beggars of every race and creed, hung about his doors each morning to receive the food and alms he gave freely.

After one of David's answers to Kaid, which had had the effect of causing his Highness to turn a sharp corner of conversation by addressing himself to the French consul, Nahoum said suavely:

"And so, monsieur, you think that we hold life lightly in the East--that it is a characteristic of civilisation to make life more sacred, to cherish it more fondly?"

He was sitting beside David, and though he asked the question casually, and with apparent intention only of keeping talk going, there was a lurking inquisition in his eye. He had seen enough to-night to make him sure that Kaid had once more got the idea of making a European his confidant and adviser; to introduce to his court one of those mad Englishmen who cared nothing for gold--only for power; who loved administration for the sake of administration and the foolish joy of labour. He was now set to see what sort of match this intellect could play, when faced by the inherent contradictions present in all truths or the solutions of all problems.

"It is one of the characteristics of that which lies behind civilisation, as thee and me have been taught," answered David.

Nahoum was quick in strategy, but he was unprepared for David's knowledge that he was an Armenian Christian, and he had looked for another answer.

But he kept his head and rose to the occasion. "Ah, it is high, it is noble, to save life--it is so easy to destroy it," he answered. "I saw his Highness put his life in danger once to save a dog from drowning. To cherish the lives of others, and to be careless of our own; to give that of great value as though it were of no worth--is it not the Great Lesson?" He said it with such an air of sincerity, with such dissimulation, that, for the moment, David was deceived. There was, however, on the face of the listening Kaid a curious, cynical smile. He had heard all, and he knew the sardonic meaning behind Nahoum's words.

Fat High Pasha, the Chief Chamberlain, the corrupt and corruptible, intervened. "It is not so hard to be careless when care would be useless," he said, with a chuckle. "When the khamsin blows the dust- storms upon the caravan, the camel-driver hath no care for his camels. 'Malaish!' he says, and buries his face in his yelek."

"Life is beautiful and so difficult--to save," observed Nahoum, in a tone meant to tempt David on one hand and to reach the ears of the notorious Achmet Pasha, whose extortions, cruelties, and taxations had built his master's palaces, bribed his harem, given him money to pay the interest on his European loans, and made himself the richest man in Egypt, whose spies were everywhere, whose shadow was across every man's path. Kaid might slay, might toss a pasha or a slave into the Nile now and then, might invite a Bey to visit him, and stroke his beard and call him brother and put diamond-dust in the coffee he drank, so that he died before two suns came and went again, "of inflammation and a natural death"; but he, Achmet Pasha, was the dark Inquisitor who tortured every day, for whose death all men prayed, and whom some would have slain, but that another worse than himself might succeed him.

At Nahoum's words the dusky brown of Achmet's face turned as black as the sudden dilation of the pupil of an eye deepens its hue, and he said with a guttural accent:

"Every man hath a time to die."

"But not his own time," answered Nahoum maliciously.

"It would appear that in Egypt he hath not always the choice of the fashion or the time," remarked David calmly. He had read the malice behind their words, and there had flashed into his own mind tales told him, with every circumstance of accuracy, of deaths within and without the Palace. Also he was now aware that Nahoum had mocked him. He was concerned to make it clear that he was not wholly beguiled.

"Is there, then, for a man choice of fashion or time in England, effendi?" asked Nahoum, with assumed innocence.

"In England it is a matter between the Giver and Taker of life and himself--save where murder does its work," said David.

"And here it is between man and man--is it that you would say?" asked Nahoum.

"There seem wider privileges here," answered David drily.

"Accidents will happen, privileges or no," rejoined Nahoum, with lowering eyelids.

The Prince intervened. "Thy own faith forbids the sword, forbids war, or--punishment."

"The Prophet I follow was called the Prince of Peace, friend," answered David, bowing gravely across the table.

"Hast thou never killed a man?" asked Kaid, with interest in his eyes. He asked the question as a man might ask another if he had never visited Paris.

"Never, by the goodness of God, never," answered David.

"Neither in punishment nor in battle?"

"I am neither judge nor soldier, friend."

"Inshallah, thou hast yet far to go! Thou art young yet. Who can tell?"

"I have never so far to go as that, friend," said David, in a voice that rang a little.

"To-morrow is no man's gift."

David was about to answer, but chancing to raise his eyes above the Prince Pasha's head, his glance was arrested and startled by seeing a face--the face of a woman-looking out of a panel in a mooshrabieh screen


The Weavers, Volume 2. - 4/24

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