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- The Weavers, Volume 4. - 6/13 -


What's the bargain you have in your mind?"

"That the slave-trade continue, effendi."

Lacey did not wink, but he had a shock of surprise. On the instant he saw the trap--for the Saadat and for himself.

"He would not do it--not for money, pasha."

"He would not be doing it for money. The time is not ripe for it, it is too dangerous. There is a time for all things. If he will but wait!"

"I wouldn't like to be the man that'd name the thing to him. As you say, he's got his prejudices. They're stronger than in most men."

"It need not be named to him. Thou canst accept the money for him, and when thou art in the Soudan, and he is going to do it, thou canst prevent it."

"Tell him that I've taken the money and that he's used it, and he oughtn't to go back on the bargain I made for him? So that he'll be bound by what I did?"

"It is the best way, effendi."

"He'd be annoyed," said Lacey with a patient sigh.

"He has a great soul; but sometimes he forgets that expediency is the true policy."

"Yet he's done a lot of things without it. He's never failed in what he set out to do. What he's done has been kicked over, but he's done it all right, somehow, at last."

"He will not be able to do this, effendi, except with my help--and thine."

"He's had quite a lot of things almost finished, too," said Lacey reflectively, "and then a hand reached out in the dark and cut the wires --cut them when he was sleeping, and he didn't know; cut them when he was waking, and he wouldn't understand; cut them under his own eyes, and he wouldn't see; because the hand that cut them was the hand of the perfect friend."

He got slowly to his feet, as a cloud of colour drew over the face of Nahoum and his eyes darkened with astonishment and anger. Lacey put his hands in his pockets and waited till Nahoum also rose. Then he gathered the other's eyes to his, and said with drawling scorn:

"So, you thought I didn't understand! You thought I'd got a brain like a peanut, and wouldn't drop onto your game or the trap you've set. You'd advance money--got from the slave-dealers to prevent the slave-trade being stopped! If Claridge Pasha took it and used it, he could never stop the slave-trade. If I took it and used it for him on the same terms, he couldn't stop the slave-trade, though he might know no more about the bargain than a babe unborn. And if he didn't stand by the bargain I made, and did prohibit slave-dealing, nothing'd stop the tribes till they marched into Cairo. He's been safe so far, because they believed in him, and because he'd rather die a million deaths than go crooked. Say, I've been among the Dagos before--down in Mexico--and I'm onto you. I've been onto you for a good while; though there was nothing I could spot certain; but now I've got you, and I'll break the 'perfect friendship' or I'll eat my shirt. I'll--"

He paused, realising the crisis in which David was moving, and that perils were thick around their footsteps. But, even as he thought of them, he remembered David's own frank, fearless audacity in danger and difficulty, and he threw discretion to the winds. He flung his flag wide, and believed with a belief as daring as David's that all would be well.

"Well, what wilt thou do?" asked Nahoum with cool and deadly menace. "Thou wilt need to do it quickly, because, if it is a challenge, within forty-eight hours Claridge Pasha and thyself will be gone from Egypt--or I shall be in the Nile."

"I'll take my chances, pasha," answered Lacey, with equal coolness. "You think you'll win. It's not the first time I've had to tackle men like you--they've got the breed in Mexico. They beat me there, but I learned the game, and I've learned a lot from you, too. I never knew what your game was here. I only know that the Saadat saved your life, and got you started again with Kaid. I only know that you called yourself a Christian, and worked on him till he believed in you, and Hell might crackle round you, but he'd believe, till he saw your contract signed with the Devil--and then he'd think the signature forged. But he's got to know now. We are not going out of Egypt, though you may be going to the Nile; but we are going to the Soudan, and with Kaid's blessing, too. You've put up the bluff, and I take it. Be sure you've got Kaid solid, for, if you haven't, he'll be glad to know where you keep the money you got from the slave-dealers."

Nahoum shrugged his shoulders. "Who has seen the money? Where is the proof? Kaid would know my reasons. It is not the first time virtue has been tested in Egypt, or the first time that it has fallen."

In spite of himself Lacey laughed. "Say, that's worthy of a great Christian intellect. You are a bright particular star, pasha. I take it back--they'd learn a lot from you in Mexico. But the only trouble with lying is, that the demand becomes so great you can't keep all the cards in your head, and then the one you forget does you. The man that isn't lying has the pull in the long run. You are out against us, pasha, and we'll see how we stand in forty-eight hours. You have some cards up your sleeve, I suppose; but--well, I'm taking you on. I'm taking you on with a lot of joy, and some sorrow, too, for we might have pulled off a big thing together, you and Claridge Pasha, with me to hold the stirrups. Now it's got to be war. You've made it so. It's a pity, for when we grip there'll be a heavy fall."

"For a poor man thou hast a proud stomach."

"Well, I'll admit the stomach, pasha. It's proud; and it's strong, too; it's stood a lot in Egypt; it's standing a lot to-day."

"We'll ease the strain, perhaps," sneered Nahoum. He made a perfunctory salutation and walked briskly from the room.

Mahommed Hassan crept in, a malicious grin on his face. Danger and conflict were as meat and drink to him.

"Effendi, God hath given thee a wasp's sting to thy tongue. It is well. Nahoum Pasha hath Mizraim: the Saadat hath thee and me."

"There's the Effendina," said Lacey reflectively. "Thou saidst thou would 'square' him, effendi."

"I say a lot," answered Lacey rather ruefully. "Come, Mahommed, the Saadat first, and the sooner the better."

CHAPTER XXXI

THE STRUGGLE IN THE DESERT

"And His mercy is on them that fear Him throughout all generations."

On the clear, still evening air the words rang out over the desert, sonorous, imposing, peaceful. As the notes of the verse died away the answer came from other voices in deep, appealing antiphonal:

"He hath showed strength with His arm, He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts."

Beyond the limits of the monastery there was not a sign of life; neither beast nor bird, nor blade of grass, nor any green thing; only the perfect immemorial blue, and in the east a misty moon, striving in vain to offer light which the earth as yet rejected for the brooding radiance of the descending sun. But at the great door of the monastery there grew a stately palm, and near by an ancient acacia-tree; and beyond the stone chapel there was a garden of struggling shrubs and green things, with one rose-tree which scattered its pink leaves from year to year upon the loam, since no man gathered bud or blossom.

The triumphant call of the Magnificat, however beautiful, seemed strangely out of place in this lonely island in a sea of sand. It was the song of a bannered army, marching over the battle-field with conquering voices, and swords as yet unsheathed and red, carrying the spoils of conquest behind the laurelled captain of the host. The crumbling and ancient walls were surrounded by a moat which a stranger's foot crossed hardly from moon to moon, which the desert wayfarer sought rarely, since it was out of the track of caravans, and because food was scant in the refectory of this Coptic brotherhood. It was scarce five hours' ride from the Palace of the Prince Pasha: but it might have been a thousand miles away, so profoundly separate was it from the world of vital things and deeds of men.

As the chant rang out, confident, majestic, and serene, carried by voices of power and shrill sweetness, which only the desert can produce, it might have seemed to any listener that this monastery was all that remained of some ancient kingdom of brimming, active cities, now lying beneath the obliterating sand, itself the monument and memorial of a breath of mercy of the Destroyer, the last refuge of a few surviving captains of a departed greatness. Hidden by the grey, massive walls, built as it were to resist the onset of a ravaging foe, the swelling voices might well have been those of some ancient order of valiant knights, whose banners hung above them, the 'riclame' of their deeds. But they were voices and voices only; for they who sang were as unkempt and forceless as the lonely wall which shut them in from the insistent soul of the desert.

Desolation? The desert was not desolate. Its face was bare and burning, it slaked no man's thirst, gave no man food, save where scattered oases were like the breasts of a vast mother eluding the aching lips of her parched children; but the soul of the desert was living and inspiring, beating with vitality. It was life that burned like flame. If the water-skin was dry and the date-bag empty it smothered and destroyed; but it was life; and to those who ventured into its embrace, obeying the conditions of the sharp adventure, it gave what neither sea, nor green plain, nor high mountain, nor verdant valley could give--a consuming sense of power, which found its way to the deepest recesses of being. Out upon the vast sea of sand, where the descending sun was spreading a note of incandescent colour, there floated the grateful words:

"He remembering His mercy hath holpen His servant Israel; as He promised to our forefathers, Abraham, and his seed for ever."

Then the antiphonal ceased; and together the voices of all within the place swelled out in the Gloria and the Amen, and seemed to pass away in ever-receding vibrations upon the desert, till it was lost in the


The Weavers, Volume 4. - 6/13

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