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- The Weavers, Volume 6. - 1/11 -
By Gilbert Parker
XL. HYLDA SEEKS NAHOUM XLI. IN THE LAND OF SHINAR XLII. THE LOOM OF DESTINY
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."
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