"Good Heavens!" exclaimed the young man, getting up in a flurry. "But—but—look here, have you any idea what's the matter?"
"Unless there's a formal consultation, I must decline to say anything on that point."
Doctor Hartley dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief.
"I—I do wish you were on better terms with Mrs. Armine," he said. "I should be delighted to meet you in consultation. It would really be better, much better."
"I think it would. It often requires two brains working in accord to unravel a difficult case."
"Of course it does! Of course it does!"
"Well, I'm just down the river. And I may pole up little higher."
"Of course, if I demand another opinion—"
"Ah, that's your right."
"I shall exercise it."
"Women, even the best of women don't always understand as we do, the gravity of a situation."
"Just what I think!"
"And if—he should get worse—" said Isaacson, gravely, almost solemnly, and at this moment giving some rein to his real, desperately sincere feeling.
"Oh, but—do you think it's likely?"
Isaacson looked steadily at Hartley.
"I do—very likely."
"Whatever she wishes or says, I shall summon you at once. She will be thankful, perhaps afterwards."
"Women admire the man who takes a strong line."
"And I think that you may be very thankful—afterwards."
"I'll tell you what, I'm going to call you in, in consultation to-night. Directly the patient wakes and I've seen him, I shall insist on calling you in. I won't bear the whole responsibility alone. It isn't fair. And, as you say, she'll be glad afterwards and admire the strong line I—one takes."
They parted very differently from the way in which they had met.
Did the fate of Nigel depend upon whether the sensual or the ambitious part of the young American came out "top dog" in the worry that was impending? Isaacson called it to himself a worry, not a fight. The word seemed to suit best the nature in which the contest would take place.
Mrs. Armine's ravaged face would count for something in the struggle. Isaacson's cleverness was trusting a little to that, with a pitiless intuition that was almost feminine.
His eyes had pierced the veil, and had seen that the Indian summer had suddenly faded.
Returned to the Fatma, Isaacson felt within him a sort of little collapse, that was like the crumbling of something small. For the moment he was below his usual standard of power. He was depressed, slightly overstrung. He was conscious of the acute inner restlessness that comes from the need to rest, of the painful wakefulness that is the child of a lack of proper sleep. As soon as he had arrived, he asked for tea.
"You can bring it," he said to Hassan.
When Hassan came up with the tea Isaacson gave him a cigarette, and, instead of getting rid of him, began to talk, or rather to set Hassan talking.
"What's the name of the tall boy who met us on the Loulia?"
"Ibrahim, my gentleman."
Ibrahim—the name that was mentioned in Nigel's letter as that of the Egyptian who had arranged for the hire by Nigel of the Loulia. Isaacson encouraged Hassan to talk about Ibrahim, while he kept still and sipped his tea and lemon.
It seemed that Ibrahim was a great friend of Hassan's; in fact, Hassan's greatest friend. He and Hassan were like brothers. Also, Hassan loved Ibrahim as he loved his father, and Ibrahim thought of Hassan with as much respect and admiration as he dedicated to his own mother.
Isaacson was impressed. His temples felt as if they were being pinched, as if somebody was trying gently to squeeze them together. Yet he was able to listen and to encourage, and to know why he was doing both.
Hassan flowed on with a native volubility, revealing his own and Ibrahim's affairs, and presently it appeared that at this moment Ibrahim was not at all pleased, not at all happy, on board the Loulia. Why was this? Isaacson asked. The reason was that he had been supplanted—he who had been efficient, devoted, inspired, and capable beyond what could be looked for from any other Egyptian, or indeed from any other sentient being. Hassan's hands became tragic and violent as he talked. He showed his teeth and seemed burning with fury. And who has done this monstrous thing? Isaacson dropped out the enquiry. Hamza—him who prayed. That was the answer. And it was through Ibrahim that Hamza had entered the service of my Lord Arminigel; it was Ibrahim's unexampled generosity and nobility that had brought Hamza to the chance of this treachery.
Then Ibrahim had been first in the service of the Armines?
Very soon Isaacson knew that Mohammed, "the best donkey-boy of Luxor," had been driven out to make room for Hamza, while "my Lord Arminigel" had been away in the Fayyum, and that now Hamza had been permitted to take Ibrahim's place as the personal attendant on my lord.
"Hamza him wait on my lord, give him his drink, give him his meat, give him his sick-food"—i.e., medicine—'give him everythin'.
And meanwhile Ibrahim, though always well paid and well treated, had sunk out of importance, and was become, in the eyes of men, "like one dog what eat where him can and sleepin' nowheres."
Who had driven out Mohammed? Isaacson was interested to know that. He was informed, with the usual variations of the East, that Mrs. Armine had wanted Hamza. "She likin' him because him always prayin'." The last sentence seemed to throw doubt upon all that had gone before. But as Isaacson lay back, having dismissed Hassan, and strove to rest, he continually saw the beautiful Hamza before him, beautiful because wonderfully typical, shrouded and drenched in the spirit of the East, a still fanatic with fatal eyes.
And Hamza always gave Nigel his "sick-food."
When Isaacson had spoken to Mrs. Armine of Hamza praying, a strange look had gone over her face. It was like a look of horror. Isaacson remembered it very well. Why should she shrink in horror from Hamza's prayers?
Isaacson needed repose. But he could not rest yet. To sleep one must cease from thinking, and one must cease from waiting.
He considered Doctor Hartley.
He was accustomed in his consulting-room to read character, temperament, shrewdly, to probe for more than mere bodily symptoms. Would Doctor Hartley act out of his fear or out of his subjection to women? In leaving the Loulia Isaacson had really trusted him to act out of his fear. But suppose Isaacson had misjudged him! Suppose Mrs. Armine again used her influence, and Hartley succumbed and obeyed!
In that case, Isaacson resolved that he must act up to his intuition. If it were wrong, the consequences to himself would be very disagreeable—might almost be disastrous. If he were wrong, Mrs. Armine would certainly take care that he was thoroughly punished. There was in her an inflexible want of heart and of common humanity that made her really a dangerous woman, or a potentially dangerous woman. But he must take the risk. Although a man who went cautiously where his own interests were concerned, Isaacson was ready to take the risk. He had not taken it yet, for caution had been at his elbow, telling him to exhaust all possible means of obtaining what he wanted, and what he meant to have in a reasonable way and without any scandal. He had borne with a calculated misunderstanding, with cool impertinence, even with insult. But one thing he would not bear. He would not bear to be a second time worsted by Mrs. Armine. He would not bear to be driven away.
If Hartley was governed by fear, well and good. If not, Isaacson would stand a scene, provoke a scandal, even defy Nigel for his own sake. Would that be necessary?
Well, he would soon know. He would know that night. Hartley had promised to summon him in consultation that night.
"Meanwhile I simply must rest."
He spoke to himself as a doctor. And at last he went below, lay down in his cabin with the wooden shutters drawn over the windows, and closed his eyes. He had little hope of sleep. But sleep presently came. When he woke, he heard voices quite near him. They seemed to come from the water. He lay still and listened. They were natives' voices talking violently. He began to get up. As he put his feet to the floor, he heard a knock.
"Come in!" he called.
Hassan put in his head.
"The gentleman him here!"
"What gentleman? Not Doctor Hartley?"
"The sick gentleman."
Nigel! Was it possible? Isaacson sprang up and hurried on deck. There was a boat from the Loulia alongside, and on the upper deck was Doctor Hartley walking restlessly about. He heard Isaacson and turned sharply.
"You've come to fetch me?" said Isaacson.
As he came up, he had noticed that already the sun had set. He had slept for a long time.
"There's been a—a most unpleasant—a most distressing scene!" Hartley said.
"Why, with whom?"
"With her—Mrs. Armine. What on earth have you done to set her against you? She—she—really, it amounts to absolute hatred. Have you ever done her any serious wrong?"
"I—I really think she must be hysterical. There's—there's the greatest change in her."
He paused. Then, very abruptly, he said:
"Have you any idea how old she is?"
"I only know that she isn't thirty-eight," said Isaacson.
"She is older than that. She once told me so—in an indirect way."
Hartley looked at him with sudden suspicion.
"Then you've—you and she have known each other very well?"
"Till now I imagined her about thirty, thirty-two perhaps, something like that."
"Yes. She—to-day she looks suddenly almost like a—well—a middle-aged woman. I never saw such a change."
It seemed that the young man was seriously perturbed by the announced transformation.
"Sit down, won't you?" said Isaacson.
"No, thanks. I—"
He went to the rail. Isaacson followed him.
"Our talk quite decided me," Hartley said, "to call you in to-night. I felt it was necessary. I felt I owed it to myself as a—if I may say so—a rising medical man."
"I think you did."
"When she woke I told her so. But I'm sorry to say she didn't take my view. We had a long talk. It really was most trying, most disagreeable. But she was not herself. She knew it. She said it was my fault—that I ought not to have given her that veronal. Certainly she did look awful. D'you know"—he turned round to Isaacson, and there was in his face an expression almost of awe—"it was really like seeing a woman become suddenly old before one's very eyes. And—and I had thought she was quite—comparatively—young!"
"And the result of your conversation?"
"At first things were not so bad. I agreed—I thought it was only reasonable—to wait till Mr. Armine woke up and to see how he was then. He slept for some time longer, and we sat there waiting. She—I must say—she has charm."
Even in the midst of his anxiety, of his nervous tension, Isaacson could scarcely help smiling. He could almost see Bella Donna fighting the young man's dawning resolution with every weapon she had.
"Indeed she has!" he assented, without a touch of irony.
"Ah! Any man must feel it. At the same time, really she is a wreck now."
Isaacson's almost feminine intuition had evidently not betrayed him. That altered face had had a great deal to do with Doctor Hartley's definite resolve to have a consultation.
"Poor woman!" he added. "Upon my soul, I can't help pitying her. She knows it, too. But I expect they always do."
"Probably. But you've come then to take me to the Loulia?"
"I told her I really must insist."
"How did you find the patient when he woke?"
"Well, I must say I didn't like the look of him at all.'"
"No? Did he seem worse?"
"I really—I really hardly know. But I told her he was much worse."
"Why? Because I was determined not to go on with the case alone, for fear something should happen. She denied it. She declared he was much better—stronger. He agreed with her, I must confess; said he felt more himself, and all that. But—but she seemed rather putting the words into his mouth, I fancied. I may have been wrong, but still—the fact is I'm positively upset by all that's happened."
He grasped the rail with both hands. Evidently he had only held his own against Bella Donna at the expense of his nervous system.
"When we left him, I told her I must get you in. She was furious, said she wouldn't have you, that you had always been against her, that you had nearly prevented her marriage with Mr. Armine, that you had maligned her all over London."
"Did she say any of this before her husband?"
"Not all that. No. We were in the first saloon. But I thought the men would have heard her. She really lost her head. She was distinctly hysterical. It was a most awkward position for me. But—but I was resolved to dominate her."
"And you did?"
"Well—I—I stuck to my point. I said I must and would have another opinion."
"Yours, of course. There's nobody else to be got at immediately. And after what you—what we both said and thought this afternoon, I won't wait till another doctor can be fetched from a distance."
"Well start at once," said Isaacson, in a practical voice.
But the assent was very hesitating, and Hartley made no movement. Isaacson looked at him with sharply questioning eyes.
"I—I wish I was out of the case altogether," said the young man, weakly. "After this afternoon's row I seem to have lost all heart. I never have had such an unpleasant scene with any woman before. It makes the position extremely difficult. I don't know how she will receive us; I really don't. She never agreed to my proposition, and I left her looking dreadful."
"Mrs. Armine hates me. It's a pity. But I've got to think of the sick man. And so have you. Look here, Doctor Hartley, you and I have got over our little disagreement of this morning, and I hope we can be colleagues."
"I wish nothing better indeed," said the young man, earnestly.
"We'll go back to the Loulia. We'll see the patient. We'll have our consultation. And then if you still wish to get out of the case—"
"Really, I think I'd much rather. I've got friends waiting for me at Assouan."
"And I've got nobody waiting for me. Suppose the patient agrees, and you continue in the same mind, I'm willing to relieve you of all responsibility and take the whole thing into my own hands. And if at any time you come to London—"
"I may be coming this summer."
"Then I think I can be of use to you there. Shall we go?"
This time Doctor Hartley did move. A weight seemed lifted from his shoulders, and he went, almost with alacrity, towards the boat.
"After all, you are much my senior," he said, as they were getting in, "besides being an intimate friend of the patient. I don't think it would seem unnatural to any one."
"The most natural thing in the world!" said Isaacson, calmly. "Yes, Hassan, you can come with us. Come in the other boat. I may want you to do something for me later on."
The two doctors did not talk much as they were rowed towards the Loulia. Both were preoccupied. As they drew near to her, however, Doctor Hartley began to fidget. His bodily restlessness betrayed his mental uneasiness.
"I do hope she'll be reasonable," he said at length.
"I think she will."
"What makes you?"
"She's a decidedly clever woman."
"Clever—oh, yes, she is. She was very well known, wasn't she, once—in a certain way?"
"As a beauty—yes."
Isaacson's tone of voice was scarcely encouraging, and the other relapsed into silence and continued to fidget. But when they were close to the Loulia, almost under the blue light that shone at her mast-head, he said, in a low and secretive voice:
"I think you had better take the lead, as you are my senior. It will appear more natural."
"Very well. But I don't want to seem to—"
"No, no! Don't mind about me! I shall perfectly understand. I have chosen to call you in. That shows I am not satisfied with the way the case is going."
The felucca touched the side of the Loulia. Ibrahim appeared. He smiled when he saw them, smiled still more when he perceived beyond them the second boat with Hassan. Isaacson stepped on board first. Hartley followed him without much alacrity.
"I want to see Mrs. Armine," Isaacson said to Ibrahim. Ibrahim went towards the steps.
"Do you happen to know what that Arabic writing means?" Isaacson asked of Hartley, as they were about to pass under the motto of the Loulia.
"That—yes; I asked. It's from the Koran."
"It means—the fate of every man have we bound about his neck."
"Ah! Rather fatalistic! Does it appeal to you?"
"I don't know. I haven't thought about it. I wonder how she'll receive us!"
"It will be all right," Isaacson said with cheerful confidence.
But he was wondering too.
The first saloon was empty. Ibrahim left them in it, and went through the doorway beyond to the after part of the vessel. Isaacson sat down on the divan, but Hartley moved about. His present anxiety was in proportion to his past admiration of Mrs. Armine. He had adored her enough once to be very much afraid of her now.
"I do—I must say I hope she won't make a scene," he said.
"Yes, but you didn't see her this afternoon."
"She was upset. Some people can't endure daytime sleep. She's had time now to recover."
But Hartley did not seem to be reassured. He kept looking furtively towards the door by which Ibrahim had vanished. In about five minutes it was opened again by Ibrahim. He stood aside, slightly bending and looking on the floor, and Mrs. Armine came in, dressed in a sort of elaborate tea-gown, grey in colour, with silver embroideries. She was carefully made up, but not made up pale. Her cheeks were delicately flushed with colour. Her lips were red. Her shining hair was arranged to show the beautiful shape of her head as clearly as possible and to leave her lovely neck quite bare. Everything that could be done to render her attractive had been very deftly done. Nevertheless, even Isaacson, who had seen the change in her that afternoon, and had been prepared for further change in her by Hartley, was surprised by the alteration a few hours had made in her appearance.
Middle-age, with its subtle indications of what old age will be, had laid its hands upon her, had suddenly and firmly grasped her. As before, since she had been in Egypt, she had appeared to most people very much younger than she really was, so now she appeared older, decisively older, than she actually was. When Isaacson had looked at her in his consulting-room he had thought her not young, nor old, nor definitely middle-aged. Now he realized exactly what she would be some day as a painted and powdered old woman, striving by means of clever corsets, a perfect wig, and an ingenious complexion to simulate that least artificial of all things, youth. The outlines of the face were sharper, cruder than before; the nose and chin looked more pointed, the cheek-bones much more salient. The mouth seemed to have suddenly "given in" to the thing it had hitherto successfully striven against. And the eyes burnt with a fire that called the attention to the dark night slowly but certainly coming to close about this woman, and to withdraw her beauty into its blackness.
Isaacson's thought was: "What must be the state of the mind which has thus suddenly triumphed over a hitherto triumphant body?" And he felt like a man who looks down into a gulf, and who sees nothing, but hears movements and murmurs of horror and despair.
Mrs. Armine came straight to Isaacson. Her eyes, fastened upon him, seemed to defy him to see the change in her. She smiled and said:
"So you've come again! It's very good of you. Nigel is awake now."
She looked towards Doctor Hartley.
"I hope Doctor Isaacson will be able to reassure you," she said. "You frightened me this afternoon. I don't think you quite realized what it is to a woman to have sprung upon her so abruptly such an alarming view of an invalid's condition."
"But I didn't at all mean—" began the young doctor in agitation.
"I don't know what you meant," she interrupted, "but you alarmed me dreadfully. Well, are you going to see my husband together?"
"Yes, we must do that," said Isaacson.
He was slightly surprised by her total lack of all further opposition to the consultation, although he had almost prophesied it to Hartley. Perhaps he had prophesied to reassure himself, for now he was conscious of a certain rather vague sense of doubt and of uneasiness, such as comes upon a man who, without actually suspecting an ambush, wonders whether, perhaps, he is near one.
"I dare say you would rather I was not present at your consultation?" said Mrs. Armine.
"It isn't usual for any one to be present except the doctors taking part in it," said Isaacson.
"The consultation comes after the visit to the patient," she said; "and of course I'll leave you alone for that. I should prefer to leave you alone while you are examining my husband, too, but I'm sorry to say he insists on my being there."
Isaacson was no longer in doubt about an ambush. She had prepared one while she had been left alone with the sick man. Hartley having unexpectedly escaped from the magic circle of her influence, she had devoted herself to making it invulnerable about her husband.
Nevertheless, he meant to break in at whatever cost.
"We don't want to oppose or irritate the patient, I'm sure," he said.
He looked towards Doctor Hartley.
"No, no, certainly not!" the young man assented, hastily.
"Very well, then!" said Mrs. Armine.
Her brows went down and her mouth contracted for an instant. Then she moistened her painted lips with the tip of her tongue and turned towards the door.
"I'll go first to tell him you are coming," she said.
She went out into the passage.
Isaacson glanced at Doctor Hartley before he followed her.
"I—doesn't she look strange? Did you ever see such an alteration?" almost whispered the young man.
Isaacson did not answer, but stepped into the passage.
Mrs. Armine was a little way down it, walking on rather quickly. Suddenly she looked round. Light shone upon her from above, and showed her tense and worn face, her features oddly sharpened and pointed, wrinkles clustering about the corners of her eyes. She seemed, under the low roof, unnaturally tall in her flowing grey robe, and this evening in her height there seemed to Isaacson to be something forbidding and almost dreadful. She held up one hand, as if warning the two men to pause for a moment. Then she went on, and disappeared through the doorway that faced them beyond the two rows of bedrooms.
"We are to wait, it seems," Isaacson said, stopping in the passage. "The patient is up then?"
"He wasn't when I left," murmured Hartley.
"Did you say whether he was to be kept in bed?"
"Oh, no. I don't know that there was any reason against his getting up, except his weakness. He has never taken to his bed."
Mrs. Armine reappeared, and beckoned to them to come on. They obeyed her, and came into the farther saloon. As soon as Isaacson passed through the doorway, he saw Nigel sitting up on the divan, with cushions behind him, near the left-hand doorway which gave on to the balcony. He had a hat on, as if he had just been out there, and a newspaper on his knees. The saloon was not well lit. Only one electric burner covered with a shade was turned on. With the aid of the cushions he was sitting up very straight, as if he had just made a strong effort and succeeded in bracing up his body. Mrs. Armine stood close to him. His eyes were turned towards the two doctors, and as Isaacson came up to him, he said in a colourless voice, which yet held a faintly querulous sound:
"So you've come up again, Isaacson!"
"Very good of you. But I don't know why there should be all this fuss made about me. It's rather trying, you know. I believe it keeps me back."
Already Isaacson knew just what he had to face, what he had to contend with.
"I hate a fuss made about me," Nigel continued, "simply hate it. You must know that."
Isaacson, who had come up to him, extended his hand in greeting. But Nigel, whether he felt too weak to stretch out his hand, or for some other reason, did not appear to see it, and Isaacson at once dropped his hand, while he said:
"I don't think there is any reason to make a fuss. But, being so near, I just rowed up to see how you were getting on after your sleep."
"I didn't sleep at night," Nigel said quickly. "What you gave me did me no good at all."
"I'm sorry for that."
Nigel still sat up against the cushions, but his body now inclined slightly to the left side, where Mrs. Armine was standing, looking down on him with quiet solicitude.
"I had a very bad night—very bad."
"Then I'm afraid—"
"Doctor Hartley rowed down to fetch you here, I understood," Nigel interrupted.
There was suspicion in his voice.
"Yes," said Hartley, speaking for the first time, nervously. "I—I thought to myself, 'Two heads are better than one.'"
He forced a sort of laugh. Nigel twitched on the divan like a man supremely irritated, then looked from one doctor to the other with eyes that included them both in his irritation.
"Two heads—what for?" he said. "What d'you mean?"
He sighed heavily as he finished the question. Then, without waiting for an answer, he said to his wife:
"If only I could have a little peace!"
There was a frightful weariness in his voice, a sound that made Isaacson think of a cruelly treated child's voice. Mrs. Armine bent down and touched his hand as it lay on the newspaper which was still across his knees. She smiled at him.
"A little patience!" she murmured.
She raised her eyebrows.
"Yes, it's all very well, Ruby, but—" He looked again at Isaacson, with a distinct though not forcible hostility. "I know you want to doctor me, Isaacson," he said. "And she asked me to-night to see you. Last night it was different, but to-night I don't want doctoring. Frankly"—he sighed again heavily—"I only see any one to-night to please her. All I want is quiet. We came here for quiet. But we don't seem to get it."
He turned again to his wife.
"Even you are getting worn out. I can see that," he said.
Mrs. Armine's forehead sharply contracted. "Oh, I'm all right, Nigel," she said, quickly. She laughed. "I'm not going to let them begin doctoring me," she said.
"She's nursed me like a slave," Nigel continued, looking at the two men, and speaking as if for a defence. "There has never been such devotion. And I wish every one could know it." Tears suddenly started into his eyes. "But the best things and the best people in the world are not believed in, are never believed in," he murmured.
"Never mind, Nigel dear," she said, soothingly. "It's all right."
Isaacson, who with Hartley had been standing all this time because Mrs. Armine was standing, now sat down beside the sick man.
"I think true devotion will always find its reward," he said, quietly, steadily. "We only want to do you good, to get you quickly into your old splendid health."
"That's very good of you, of course. But you didn't do me good last night. It was the worst night I ever had."
Isaacson remembered the sound he had heard when the Nubians lay on their oars on the dark river.
"Let us try to do you good to-night. Won't you?" he said.
"All I want is rest. I've told her so. And I tell you so."
"Shall I stay on board to-night and see you to-morrow morning when you have had a night's rest?"
Nigel looked up at his wife.
"Aren't you quite near?" he asked Isaacson, in a moment.
"I'm not very far away, but—"
"Then I don't think we need bother you to stay. We've got Doctor Hartley."
"I—I'm afraid I shall have to leave you to-morrow," said the young man, who had several times looked, almost with a sort of horror, at Mrs. Armine's ravaged face. "You see I'm with people at Assouan. I really came out to Egypt in a sort of way in attendance upon Mrs. Craven Bagley, who is in delicate health. And though she's much stronger—"
"Yes, yes!" Nigel interrupted. "Of course, go—go! I want peace, I want rest."
He drooped towards his wife. Suddenly she sat down beside him, holding his hand.
"Would you rather not be examined to-night?" she asked him.
"Examined!" he said, in a startled voice.
"Well, dearest, these doctors—"
Nigel, with a great effort, sat up as before.
"I won't be bothered to-night," he said, with the weak anger of an utterly worn-out man. "I—I can't stand anything more. I—can't—stand—" His voice died away.
"We'd better go," whispered Hartley. "To-morrow morning."
He looked at Mrs. Armine, and moved towards the door. Isaacson got up.
"We will leave the patient to-night," he said to Mrs. Armine, in an expressionless voice.
"But may I have a word with you, please, in the other room?"
Then he followed Hartley.
He caught him up in the passage.
"It's absolutely no use to-night," said Hartley. "Any examination would only make matters worse. He's not in a fit state mentally to go through it so late."
"I think it will be best to wait till to-morrow."
"And then, directly after the consultation is over, I must really get away. That is, if you are willing to—"
"You may leave everything in my hands."
"She hates me now!" the young man said, almost plaintively. "Did you ever see such a change?"
"I'm going to speak with her in the first saloon, so I'll leave you," said Isaacson.
Hartley had his hand on one of the cabin doors.
"Then I'll go in here. I sleep here."
"Good night," Isaacson said.
"Oh! you won't want me again?"
"Good night then."
He opened the cabin door and disappeared within, while Isaacson walked on to the first saloon.
He had to wait in it for nearly ten minutes before he heard Mrs. Armine coming. But he would not have minded much waiting an hour. He felt within him the determination of an iron will now completely assured. And strength can wait.
Mrs. Armine came in and shut the door gently behind her.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," she said. "I was taking my husband to his cabin. He's going to bed. Where is Doctor Hartley?"
"He's gone to his cabin."
Something in Isaacson's tone seemed suddenly to strike her, and she sent him a look of sharp enquiry.
"Will you sit down for a minute?" he said.
She sat down at once, still keeping her eyes fixed upon him. He sat down near her.
"Doctor Hartley is going away to-morrow morning," Isaacson said.
"He promised to stay several days with us to preside over my husband's convalescence."
"He's going away, and there's no question of convalescence."
"I don't understand you!"
"I'll make myself plain. Your husband is not a convalescent. Your husband is a very sick man."
"No wonder, when he's worried to death, when he's allowed no peace day or night, when he's given one thing on the top of another!"
"May I ask what you mean by that?"
"Didn't you come in last night, and force a sleeping draught upon him?"
"I certainly gave him something to make him sleep."
"And it didn't make him sleep."
"Because before it had had time to take effect he received a great shock," Isaacson said, quietly.
"A great shock?"
She stared at him.
"At night, upon water, sound travels a very long way. Have you never noticed that?" he asked her.
Still she stared, and as he looked at her it seemed to him that the bony structure of her face became more salient.
"Last night," he said, as she did not speak, "I thought I heard something strange. I made my men stop rowing for a minute, and I listened. I am not surprised that the sleeping draught I gave your husband had no effect. Under the circumstances it probably even did him harm. But no doctor could have foreseen that."
She moved restlessly. Isaacson got up and stood before her.
"I'm going to speak plainly," he said. "Some time ago, in my consulting-room in London, you told me a good deal of the truth of yourself."
"I know. You told me then that your whole desire was to have a good time. How long are you going to put up with your present life?"
"Put up! You don't understand. Nigel has been very good to me, and I am very happy with him."
"If he's been good to you, don't you wish him to get well?"
"Of course I do. I've been waiting upon him hand and foot."
"And not even a maid to help you—although she did ring last night for Hamza, when we were here."
She looked down, and picked at the dim embroideries that covered the divan.
"I've nursed him till I've nearly made myself ill," she said, mechanically.
"I'm going to relieve you of that task."
She turned her face up towards him.
"No, you aren't!" she said. "I'm Nigel's wife, and that is my natural duty."
"Nevertheless, I'm going to relieve you of it."
The rock-like firmness of his tone evidently made upon her an immense impression.
"From to-night I take charge of this case."
Mrs. Armine stood up. She was taller than Isaacson, and now she stood looking down upon him.
"Nigel won't have you!" she said.
"He won't—unless I wish it."
"You will never wish it."
"But you will pretend to wish it."
She continued to look down in silence. At last she breathed, "Why?"
"Because, if you don't, I shall not send for another doctor. I shall send for the police authorities."
She sank down again upon the divan. But her expression did not change. He believed that she succeeded in making her face a mere mask while she thought with a furious rapidity.
"You don't mean to say," she at length said, "that you think anything—that you suppose one of the servants—Ibrahim—Hamza—? I can't believe it! I could never believe it!"
"Do you wish me to cure your husband?"
"Of course I wish him to be cured."
"Then please go now and tell him that you have asked me to stay here for the night. I don't want him to see me to-night. I will see him as soon as he wakes to-morrow."
"Just as you like! Either I stay here and take charge of this case, or I go back to the boat at Edfou and to-morrow I put myself into communication with the proper authorities."
She got up again slowly.
"Well, if you really believe you can pull Nigel round quickly!" she said.
She moved to the door.
"I'll see what he says!" she murmured.
Then she opened the door and went out.
That night Isaacson sent Hassan back to the Fatma to fetch some necessary luggage. For Mrs. Armine succeeded in persuading her husband to submit to a doctor's visit the next morning.
Isaacson had not been worsted. But as he went into one of the smart little cabins to get some sleep if possible, he felt terribly, almost unbearably, depressed.
For what was—what must be—the meaning of this victory?
Isaacson had asked himself at night the meaning of his victory. When the morning dawned, when once more he had to go to his work, the work which was his life, although sometimes he was inclined to decry it secretly in moments of fatigue, he asked no further questions. His business was plain before him, and it was business into which he could put his heart. Although he was not an insensitive man, he was a man of generous nature. He pushed away with an almost careless energy those small annoyances, those little injuries of life, which more petty people make much of and cannot easily forgive. The querulous man who was ready, out of his bodily weakness and his mis-directed love, to make little of his friendship, even to thrust away his proffered help, he disregarded as man, regarded as so much nearly destroyed material which he had to repair, to bring back to its former flawlessness. He knew the real nature, the real soul of the man; he understood why they were warped, and he put himself aside, put his pride into his pocket, which he considered the proper place for it at that moment. But though he had gained his point by a daring half-avowal of what his intuition had whispered to him, he presently realized that if he were to win through with Nigel into the sunshine, he must act with determination; perhaps, too, with a cunning which the Eastern drops in his blood made not so unnatural to him as it might have been to most men as honest living as he was.
Mrs. Armine had been dominated for the moment. She had obeyed. She had done the thing she hated to do. But she was not the woman to run straight on any path that led away from her wishes; she now loathed as well as feared Meyer Isaacson, and she had a cruelly complete influence over her husband. And even any secret fear could not hold her animus against the man who understood her wholly in check. Like the mole, she must work in the dark. She could not help it.
What she had said of him to Nigel, between his first and his second visits to the Loulia, Isaacson did not know. Indeed, he scarcely cared to know. It was not difficult to divine how she had used her influence. Isaacson could almost hear her reciting the catalogue of his misdeeds against herself, could almost see her eyes as she murmured the insinuations which doubtless the sick man had believed—because in his condition he must believe almost anything she persistently told him.
Yet at a word from her he had agreed to accept all the ministrations of his friend, which at another word he had been willing to repel.
The fact was that secretly he was crying out for the powerful hand to save him from the abyss. And he believed in Isaacson as a doctor, however much he now resented Isaacson's mistrust, no longer to be doubted, of the woman his chivalry had lifted to a throne.
He received Isaacson with an odd mixture of thankfulness and reserve, put himself into the doctor's hands with almost a boy's confidence, but kept himself free, with a determination that in the circumstances was touching, however pitiful, from the stretched-out hands of the friend.
And Isaacson felt swiftly that though one contest was ended, and ended as he desired, another contest was at its beginning, a silent battle of influences about this good fellow, who, by his very virtue, had fallen so low.
But the doctor must come first. That coming might clear the ground for the friend. And so Isaacson, in the beginning, met Nigel's new reserve with another reserve, very unself-conscious apparently, very businesslike, practical, and, above all things, very calm.
Isaacson radiated calm.
He found his patient that first morning weary after another bad night, induced partly by the draught which had sent him to sleep in daylight, and this very conscious and physical misery, acting upon the mind, played into the Doctor's hands. He was able without difficulty to make a minute examination of the case. The patient, though so reserved at first in his manner, putting a barrier between himself and Isaacson, was almost pathetically talkative directly the conversation became definitely medical. But that conversation finished, he relapsed into his former almost stiff reserve, a reserve which seemed so strangely foreign to his real nature that Isaacson felt as if the man he knew and cared for had got up and left the room.
Mrs. Armine was waiting to hear the result of the interview. Doctor Hartley had taken his departure—fled, perhaps, is the word—at an early hour. In daylight her face looked even more ravaged than it had on the previous night. But her manner was coldly calm.
"What is the verdict?" she asked.
"I'm afraid I am not prepared to give a verdict. Your husband is in a very weak, low state. If it had been allowed to continue indefinitely, the mischief might have become irreparable."
"But you can put him right?"
"Let's hope so."
She stood as if she were waiting for more definite information. But none came. After a silence Isaacson said:
"The first thing to be done is to get him away from here."
"Get him away! Where to?"
"You've still got your villa at Luxor, I believe?"
"I suppose it is comfortable, well arranged?"
"And it's quiet and has a garden, I know."
"You've seen it?"
"Yes. My boat was tied up just opposite to it the night before I started up river."
"Perhaps you'll be kind enough to give the order to the Reis to start for Luxor as soon as possible?"
"Very well," she said, indifferently.
Her whole look and manner now were curiously indolent and indifferent. Before she had been full of fiercely nervous life. To-day it seemed as if that life was withdrawn from her.
"I'll tell him now," she said.
And without any more questions she went away to the deck.
Soon afterwards there was a stir. Cries were heard from the sailors, and the Loulia began to move, floating northwards with the tide. When Nigel asked the reason, Isaacson said to him:
"This place is too isolated for an invalid. One can get at nothing here. You will be much more at your ease in your own home, and I can take better care of you there."
"We are going back to the villa?"
"I'm glad," Nigel said, slowly. "I never told her, but I was beginning to hate this boat; all this trouble has come upon me here. Sometimes—sometimes I have felt almost as if—"
He broke off.
"Yes?" Isaacson said, quietly.
"As if there were something that was fatal to me on board the Loulia."
"In the villa I shall get you back to your original health and strength."
The thin, lead-coloured face drooped forward, and the eyes that were full of a horrible malaise held for a moment the fires of hope.
"Do you really think I can ever get well?"
Isaacson did not reply for a moment. Then he said, "Will you make me a promise?"
"What is it?"
"Will you promise me to obey implicitly everything I order you to do?"
"Do you mean—as a doctor?"
"Very well. If you carry out that promise, I think I can undertake to cure you. I think I can undertake that some day you will be once more the strong man who rejoices in his strength."
Tears came into Nigel's eyes.
"I wonder," he said. "I wonder."
"But remember," Isaacson said, almost with solemnity, "I shall expect from you implicit obedience to my medical orders. And the first of them is this: you are to swallow nothing which is not given to you by me with my own hand."
"Medicine, you mean?"
"I mean what I say—nothing; not a morsel of food, not a drop of liquid."
"Then my wife and Hamza—"
"Will you obey me?" Isaacson interrupted, almost sternly.
"Yes," Nigel said, in a weak voice.
"And now just lie quiet, and remember you are going towards your home, in which I intend to get you quite well."
And the Loulia floated down with the tide, slowly, and broadside to the great river, for there was no wind at all, and the weather was hot almost as a furnace. The Fatma untied, and followed her down. And the night came, and still they floated on broadside under the stars.
Nigel was now sleeping, and Meyer Isaacson was watching.
And in a cabin close by a woman was staring at her face in a little glass set in the lid of a gilded box, was staring, with desperation at her heart.
Hartley had said he believed she knew of the sudden collapse of her beauty. Believed! Before he had noticed it, she had perceived it, with a cold horror which, gathering strength, grew into a bitter despair. And with the despair came hatred, hatred of the man who by keeping her back from happiness had led her to this collapse. This man was Nigel. He thought he had saved her from her worst self. But really he had stirred this worst self from sleep. In London she had been almost a good woman, compared to the woman she was now. His bungling search after nobility of spirit had roused the devil within her. She longed to let him know what she really was. Often and often, while they two had been isolated together on the Loulia, she had been on the edge of telling him at least some fragments of the truth. Her nerves had nearly betrayed her when through the long and shining hours the dahabeeyah lay still on the glassy river, far away from the haunts of men, and she, sick with ennui, nearly mad because of the dulness of her life, had been forced to play at love with the man whose former strength and beauty diminished day by day.
Would it never end? Each day seemed to her an eternity, each hour almost a year. But she knew that she must be patient, though patience was no part of her character. All through her life she had been an impatient and greedy woman, seizing on what she wanted and holding to it tenaciously. She had hidden her impatience with her charm, and so she had gained successes. But now, with so little time left to her for possible enjoyment, gnawed by desire and jealousy, she found her powers reluctant in their coming. Formerly she had exercised her influence almost without effort. Now she had to be stubborn in endeavour. And she knew, with the frightful certainty of the middle-aged woman, that the cruel exertions of her mind must soon tell upon her body.
Her terror, a terror which had never left her during these days and nights on the dahabeeyah, was that her beauty might fade before she was free to go to Baroudi. She knew now how strongly she had fascinated him, despite his seeming, almost cruel imperturbability. By her lowest powers, the powers that Nigel ignored and thought that he hated—though perhaps he too had been partially subject to them—she had grasped the sensual nature of the Egyptian. As Starnworth had told Isaacson, Baroudi had within him the madness for women. He had within him the madness for Bella Donna. But he knew how to wait for what he wanted. He was waiting now. The question that had presented itself to Mrs. Armine again and again during her exile with Nigel was this: "Will he wait too long?" She knew how fleeting is the Indian summer of women. And she knew, though she denied it to herself, that if she brought to Baroudi not an Indian summer as her gift, but a fading autumn, she would run the risk of being confronted by the blank cruelty that is so often the offspring of the Eastern conception of women.
Yet in her terror she had always been supported by a fierce energy of hope, until in the holy of holies of Horus she had come face to face with Isaacson.
Now she sat alone in her cabin, and she stared into the little mirror which Baroudi had given her in the garden of oranges.
And Isaacson watched over her husband.
"The fate of every man have we bound about his neck."
The Arabic letters of gold seemed to be pressing down upon her, to crush her body and spirit. She put down the box, and, almost savagely shut down the lid upon it.
And now that she no longer saw herself, she seemed to see Hamza praying, as he had prayed that day in the orange garden when she looked out of the window. Then she had felt that the hands of the East had grasped her, that they would never let her go, and something within her had recoiled, though something else had desired only that—to be grasped by Baroudi's hands.
The praying men had frightened her. Yet she believed in no God.
If there really was a God! If He looked upon her now!
She sprang up, and turned out the light.
* * * * *
The next day the Loulia tied up under the garden of the Villa Androud, just beyond the stone promontory that diverted the strong current of the river. Nigel, too weak to walk up the bank to the house, was carefully carried by the Nubians. The surprised servants of the villa, who had had no notice of their master's arrival, hastened to throw back the shutters, to open the windows, letting in light and air. And Ibrahim once more began to look authoritative, for it seemed that Hamza's reign was over. From henceforth only Meyer Isaacson gave food and drink and "sick-food" to "my Lord Arminigel."
The change from dahabeeyah life to life on shore seemed at once to make a difference to the patient. When he was put carefully down in the white and yellow drawing-room, and, looking out through the French windows across the terrace, saw the roses blowing in the sandy garden, he heaved a sigh that was like a deep breathing of relief.
"I'm thankful to be out of the Loulia, Ruby," he said to his wife, who was standing beside the sofa on which he was resting.
"Are you, Nigel. Why?"
"I don't know. It seemed to oppress me. And you know that writing?"
"Over the door as you went in."
"I used to think of it in the night when I felt so awful, and it was like a weight coming down to crush me."
"That was fanciful of you," she said.
But she sent him a strange look of half-frightened suspicion.
He did not see it. He was looking out to the garden. From the Nile rose the voices of the sailors singing their song. He listened to it for a moment.
"What a strange time it's been since we first heard that song together, Ruby," he said.
"When we first heard it, I was so strong, so happy—strong to protect you, happy to have you to protect, and—and it's ended in your having to protect and take care of me."
"Yes," she said again, in a dry voice.
"I—I think I'm glad we can't look into the future. One wants a lot of courage in life."
She said nothing.
"But I feel a little courage now. I never quite told you how it was with me on the Loulia. If I had stayed on her much longer, as we were, I should have died. I should have died very soon."
"No, no, Nigel."
"Yes, I should. But here"—he moved, stretched out his arms, sighed—"I feel that I shall get better, perhaps get well, even. How—how splendid if I do!"
"Well, I must go and look after things," she said.
"You're tired, aren't you?"
"No. Why should you think so?"
"Your voice sounds tired."
"It isn't that."
"What is it?"
"You know that for your sake I am enduring a companionship that is odious to me," she said, in a low voice.
At that moment, Meyer Isaacson came into the room.
"We must get the patient to bed as soon as possible," he said, in his quiet, practical, and strong voice.
"I'll go and see about the room," said Mrs. Armine.
She went away quickly.
When she got upstairs there were drops of blood on her lower lip.
Nigel had come to hate the Loulia. They had no further need of her, and he begged his wife to telegraph to Baroudi in his name to take her away as soon as he liked.
"Ibrahim has his address, I know," he said.
The telegram was sent. In reply came one from Baroudi taking over the Loulia. The same day the Reis came up to the villa to receive backsheesh and to say farewell. He made no remark as to his own and his crew's immediate destiny, but soon after he had gone the Loulia untied, crossed the Nile, and was tied up again nearly opposite to the garden against the western bank. And in the evening the sailors could be heard in the distance "making the fantasia."
Mrs. Armine heard them as she walked alone in the garden close to the promontory, and she saw the blue light at the mast-head. The cabin windows were dark.
So this was the end of their voyage to the South!
She stood still near the wall of earth which divided the garden from the partially waste and partially cultivated ground which lay beyond it.
She had not thought that they would come back—there.
This was the end of their voyage. But what was to be the end?
Baroudi made no sign. He had never written to her one word. She had never dared to write to him. He had not told her to write, and that meant he did not choose her to write. She was very much afraid of him, and her fear of him was part of the terrible fascination he held to govern her. She who had had so many slaves when she was young ended thus—in being herself a slave.
She sat down by the earth wall on the first stones of the promontory. The night was moonless; but in the clear nights of Egypt, even without the moon very near details can often be distinguished.
To the right of Mrs. Armine the brown earth bank shelved steeply to a shore that was like a sandy beach which an incoming tide had nearly covered. About it, in a sort of large basin of loose sand and earth, grew a quantity of bushes forming a not dense scrub. She had never been down to walk upon the sandy shore, though she had often descended to get into the felucca. But to-night, after sitting still for some time, she went down, and began to pace upon the sand close to the water's edge.
From here she could not see the house with its lighted windows, speaking to her of the life in which she was involved. She could see nothing except the darkness of the great river, the dark outline of the promontory, and of the top of the bank where the garden began, the dark and confused forms of the bushes tangled together. At her feet the silent water lay, like lake water almost, though farther out the current was strong.
"What am I going to do?" she kept on saying to herself, as she walked to and fro in this solitude. "What am I going to do?"
It was a strange thing, perhaps, that even at this moment Baroudi, the man at a distance, frightened her more than Isaacson, the man who was near. She did not know what either was going to do. She was the prey of a double uncertainty. Isaacson, she supposed, would bring her husband back to health, unless even now she found means to get rid of him. And Baroudi, what would he do? She looked across the river and saw the blue light. Why was the Loulia tied up there? Was Baroudi coming up to join her?
If he did come! She walked faster, quite unconscious that she had quickened her pace. If he did come she felt now that she could no longer be obedient. She would have to see him, have to force him to come out from his deep mystery of the Eastern mind and take notice of what she was feeling. His magnificent selfishness had dominated hers. But she was becoming desperate. The thought of her wrecked beauty haunted her always, though she was perpetually thrusting it away from her. She was resolved to think that there was very little change in her appearance, and that such change as there was would only be temporary. A little, only a little of what she wanted, and surely the Indian summer would return.
And then, she thought of Meyer Isaacson up there in the house close to her, with his horribly acute eyes that proclaimed his horribly acute brain. That man could be pitiless, but not to Nigel. And could he ever be pitiless to her without being pitiless to Nigel?
She looked at the water, and now stood still.
If Baroudi were on board the Loulia to-night, she would get a boat and go to him—would not she?—and say she could not stand her life any longer, that she must be with him. She would let him treat her as he chose. Thinking of Nigel's kindness at this moment she actually longed for cruelty from Baroudi.
But she must be with him.
If she could only be with Baroudi anywhere, anyhow, she would throw the memory of this hateful life with Nigel away for ever. She would never give Nigel another thought. There would be no time to waste over that.
"But what am I going to do? What am I going to do?"
That sentence came back to her mind. Flights of the imagination were useless. It was no use now to give the reins to imagination.
Baroudi must come up the river. He must be coming up, or the Loulia would surely not be tied up against the western shore. But perhaps she was there only for the night. Perhaps she would sail on the morrow.
Mrs. Armine felt that if the next morning the Loulia was gone she would be unable to remain in Luxor. She would have to take the train and go. Where? Anywhere! To Cairo. She could make some excuse; that she must get some clothes, mourning for Harwich. That would do. She would say she was going only for a couple of days. Nigel would let her go. And Meyer Isaacson?
What he wished and what he meant in regard to her Mrs. Armine did not know. And just at this moment she scarcely cared. The return to the villa and the departure of the Loulia seemed to have fanned the fire within her. While she was on the Loulia, in an enclosed place, rather like a beautiful prison, she had succeeded in concentrating herself to a certain extent on matters in hand. She had had frightful hours of ennui and almost of despair, but she had got through them somehow. And she had been in command.
Now Nigel had been taken forcibly out of her hands, and the beautiful prison was no more theirs. And this return to the home which had seen the opening of her life in Egypt strangely excited her. Once again the Loulia lay there where she had lain when Baroudi was on board of her; once again from the bank of the Nile Mrs. Armine heard the song of Allah in the distance, as on that night when she heard it first, and it was a serenade to her. But how much had happened between then and now!
Now in the house behind her there were two men—the man who did not know her and loved her, and the man who did know her and hated her.
But the man who knew her, and who had wanted her just as she was—he was not there.
She felt that she must see him again, quickly, that she must tell him all that had happened since she had set sail on the Loulia. And yet could she, dared she, leave Nigel alone with Meyer Isaacson?
She paced again on the sand, passing and repassing in front of the darkness of the bushes.
When Isaacson had stood before her in the temple of Edfou, she had had a moment of absolute terror—such a moment as can only come once in a life. A period of fear and of struggle, of agony even, had followed. Yet in that period there had been no moment quite so frightful. For she had confronted the known, not the utterly unexpected, and she had been fighting, and still she must fight.
But she must have a word from Baroudi, a look from Baroudi. Without these, she felt as if she might—as if she must do something stupid or desperate. She was coming to the end of her means, to the limit of her powers, perhaps.
The hardest blow she had had as yet had been Doctor Hartley's escape out of the circle of her influence. That escape had weakened her self-confidence, had been a catastrophe surely grimly prophetic of other catastrophes to come. It had even put into her mind a doubt that was surely absurd.
Suppose Nigel were to emancipate himself!
If he were gone, she would care nothing. She would not want Nigel to regret her. If she were gone, in a day he would be as one dead to her. He meant nothing to her except a weight that dragged upon her, keeping her from all that she was fitted for, from all that she desired. But while she remained with Nigel, her influence must be paramount. For Isaacson was at his elbow to take advantage of every opening. And she was sure Isaacson would give her no mercy, if once he got Nigel on his side.
What was she to do? What was she to do?
Secretly she cursed with her whole heart now the coldly practical, utterly self-interested side of Baroudi's nature. But she was afraid to defy it. She remembered his words:
"We have to do what we want in the world without losing anything by it."
And she saw him—how often!—going in at the tent-door through which streamed light, to join the painted odalisque.
She was reaching the limit of her endurance. She felt that strongly to-night.
On the day of their return to the villa Hamza had mysteriously left them, without a word.
Two or three times Nigel had asked for him. She had said at first that he had gone to see his family. Afterwards she had said that he stayed away because he was offended at not being allowed any more to wait upon his master: "Doctor Isaacson's orders, you know!" And Nigel had answered nothing. Where was Hamza? Mrs. Armine had asked Ibrahim. But Ibrahim, without a smile, had answered that he knew nothing of Hamza, and in Mrs. Armine's heart had been growing the hope that Hamza had gone to seek Baroudi, that perhaps he would presently return with a message from Baroudi.
And yet could any good, any happiness, ever come to her through the praying donkey-boy? Always she instinctively connected him with fatality, with evil followed by sorrow. The look in his eyes when they were turned upon her seemed like a quiet but steady menace. She had a secret conviction that he hated her, perhaps because she was what he would call a Christian. Strange if she were really hated for such a reason!
Once more she stood still by the edge of the river.
She heard the sailors still singing on the Loulia, the faint barking of dogs, perhaps from the village of Luxor. She looked up at the stars mechanically, and remembered how Nigel had gazed at them when she had wanted him to be wholly intent upon her. Then she looked again, for a long time, at the blue light which shone from the Loulia's mast-head.
Behind her the bushes rustled. She turned sharply round. Ibrahim came towards her from the tangled darkness.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him. She spoke almost roughly. The noise had startled her.
"My lady, you better come in," said Ibrahim. "Very lonely heeyah. No peoples comin' heeyah!"
She moved towards the bank. He put his hand gently under her elbow to assist her. When they were at the top she said:
"Where's Hamza, Ibrahim?"
Ibrahim's boyish face looked grim.
"I dunno, my lady. I know nothin' at all about Hamza."
For the first time it occurred to Mrs. Armine that Ibrahim and Hamza were no longer good friends. She opened her lips to make some enquiry about their relation. But she shut them again without saying anything, and in silence they walked to the house.
On the following morning, when Mrs. Armine looked out of her window, the Loulia still lay opposite. She took glasses to see if there was any movement of the crew suggestive of impending departure. But all seemed quiet. The men were squatting on the lower deck in happy idleness.
Then Baroudi must presently be coming.
She decided to be patient a little longer, not to make that excuse to go to Cairo. With the morning she felt, she did not know why, more able to endure present conditions.
But as day followed day and Baroudi made no sign, and the Loulia lay always by the western shore with the shutters closed over the cabin windows, the intense irritation of her nerves returned, and grew with each succeeding hour.
Isaacson had not gone to stay at an hotel, but had, as a matter of course, taken up his abode at the villa, and he continued to live there. She was obliged to see him perpetually, obliged to behave to him with politeness, if not with suavity. His watch over Nigel was tireless. The rule he had made at the beginning of his stay was not relaxed. Nigel was not allowed to take anything from any hand but the Doctor's.
The relation between Doctor and patient was still a curious and even an awkward one. Although Nigel's trust in the Doctor was absolute, he had never returned to his former pleasant intimacy with his friend. At first Isaacson had secretly anticipated a gradual growth of personal confidence, had thought that as weakness declined, as a little strength began to bud out almost timidly in the poor, tormented body, Nigel would revert, perhaps unconsciously, to a happier or more friendly mood. But though the Doctor was offered the gratitude of the patient, the friend was never offered the cordiality of the friend.
Bella Donna's influence was stubborn. Between these two men the woman always stood, dividing them, even now when the one was ministering to the other, was bringing the other back to life, was giving up everything for the other.
For this prolonged stay in Egypt was likely to prove a serious thing to Isaacson. Not only was he losing much money by it now. Probably, almost certainly, he would lose money by it in the future. There were moments when he thought about this with a secret vexation. But they passed, and quickly. He had his reward in the growing strength of the sick man. Yet sometimes it was difficult to bear the almost stony reserve which took the colour out of his life in the Villa Androud. It would have been more difficult still if he too, like Bella Donna, had not had his work to do in the dark. Since they had arrived in Luxor he had been seeking for a motive. The moment came when at last he found it.
Prompted by him, Hassan played upon Ibrahim's indignation at having been supplanted for so long by Hamza, and drew from him the truth of Mrs. Armine's days while Nigel had been away in the Fayyum.
Isaacson's treatment of Nigel's case had succeeded wonderfully. As the great heats began to descend upon Upper Egypt, the health of the invalid improved day by day. Mrs. Armine saw life returning into the eyes that had expressed a sick weariness of an existence suddenly overcast by the cloud of suffering. The limbs moved more easily as a greater vitality was shed through the body. The nights were no longer made a torment by the acute rheumatic pains. The parched mouth and throat craved no more perpetually for the cooling drinks that had not allayed their misery. Light could be borne without any grave discomfort, and the agonizing abdominal pains, which had made the victim writhe and almost desire death, had entirely subsided. From the face, too, the dreadful hue which had even struck those who had only seen Nigel casually had nearly departed. Though still very thin and pale, it did not look unnatural. It was now the face of a man who had recently suffered, and suffered much; it was not a face that suggested the grave.
Nigel would recover, was fast recovering. He would not be strong for a time, perhaps for a long time. But he was "out of the wood." One day he realized it, and told himself so, silently, with a sort of wonder mingled with a joy half solemn, half lively with the liveliness of the spirit that again felt the touch of youth.
The day that he realized it was the day that Isaacson found the motive he had in the dark been seeking.
And on that day, too, Mrs. Armine told herself that she could endure no longer. She must get away to Cairo, if only for two or three days. If Baroudi was not there, she must go to Alexandria and seek him. Baffled desire, enforced patience, the perpetual presence of Meyer Isaacson, with whom she was obliged to keep up a pretence of civility and even of gratitude, and the jealousy that grows like a rank weed in the soil of ignorance, rendered her at last almost reckless. She was sure if she remained longer in the villa she would betray herself by some sudden outburst. Isaacson had kept silence so long as to the cause of her husband's illness that she sometimes nearly deceived herself into thinking he did not know what it was. Perhaps she had been a fool to be so much afraid of him. She strove to think so, and nearly succeeded.
The Loulia lay always by the western shore of the Nile, but each night, when she looked from the garden, the cabin windows were dark. She had made enquiries of Ibrahim. But Ibrahim was no longer the smiling, boyish attendant who had been her slave. He performed his duties carefully, and was always elaborately polite, but he had an air of secrecy, of uneasiness, and almost of gloom, and when she mentioned Baroudi, he said:
"My lady, I know nothin'."
"Well, but on the Loulia?" she persisted. "The Reis—the crew—?"
"They knows nothin'. Nobody heeyah know nothin' at all."
Then she resolved to wait no longer, but to go and find out for herself. Perhaps it was the look of returning life in the eyes of her husband which finally decided her.
She came out on to the terrace where he was stretched in a long chair under an awning. A book lay on one of the arms of the chair, but he was not reading it. He was just lying there and looking out to the garden, and to the hills that edge the desert of Libya. Isaacson was not with him. He had gone away somewhere, perhaps for a stroll on the bank of the Nile.
Mrs. Armine sauntered up, with an indolent, careless air, and sat down near her husband.
"Dreaming?" she said, in her sweetest voice.
He shook his head.
"Waking!" he answered. "Waking up to life."
"You do look much stronger to-day."
"Stronger than yesterday?" he said, eagerly. "You think so? You notice it, Ruby?"
"That's strange. To-day I—I know that all is going to be right with me. To-day I know that presently—Ruby, think of it!—I shall be the man I once was."
"And I know it, too, Nigel—to-day—and that is why at last I feel I can ask you something."
"Anything—anything. I would do anything to please you after all this time of misery, and dulness for you!"
"It's a prosaic little request I have to make. I only want you to let me take the night train and run up to Cairo."
His face fell. He stretched out his hand to touch hers.
"Go away! Go to Cairo!" he said.
And his voice was reluctant.
"Yes, Nigel," she said, with gentle firmness. "I've been looking over my wardrobe these last days, and I'm simply in rags."
"But your dresses—"
"It's not only my dresses—I really am in rags. Won't you let me go just for two days to get a few things I actually need? I'm not going to spend a lot of money."
"As if it was that!"
He pressed her hand, and his pressure showed his returning strength.
"It's being without you."
"For two days. And you'll have Doctor Isaacson. I want to go while he is still with us, so as not to leave you alone. And Nigel, while I'm gone, can't you manage to find out what we owe him? It must be an enormous sum."
Nigel suddenly looked preoccupied.
"I'd never thought of that," he said, slowly.
"No, because you've been ill. But I have often. And you must think of it now."
"Yes; he's saved my life. I can never really repay him."
"Oh, yes, you can. Doctors do these things for fixed sums, you know."
He shifted in his chair, and sent an uneasy glance to her.
"I wish—how I wish that you and Isaacson could be better friends!" he dropped out, at length.
"After all I've told you!" she exclaimed, almost with bitterness.
"I know, I know. But now that he's saved my life!"
"There are some things a woman can never forget, Nigel. I—of course, I am deeply grateful to Meyer Isaacson, the doctor. But Meyer Isaacson the man I never can be friends with. I must always tell you the truth, even if it hurts you."
"While I'm in Cairo, find out what we owe him. For I suppose now you feel so much better he won't remain with us for ever."
"No, of course he must be wanting to go."
He spoke with hesitation. With the blameless selfishness of a sick man, he had taken a great deal for granted. She was making him feel that now. And he had to take it all in. How he depended on Isaacson! He looked at his wife. And how he depended on her, too! He was conscious again of his weakness, almost as a child might be. And these two human beings upon whom he was leaning were at enmity, not open but secret enmity. He did not know exactly how, or how much! But Ruby had told him often—things about Meyer Isaacson. And he knew that Isaacson had mistrusted her, and felt that he did so still.
"I may go, then?" she said.
He could not in reason forbid her. He thought of her long service.
"Of course, dearest, go. But surely you aren't going to-night?"
"If you'll let me. I shall only take a bag. And the sooner I go, the sooner I shall be back."
"In two days?"
"In two days."
"And where will you stay?"
"I don't like your going alone. I wish you had a maid—"
"You've guessed it!" she said.
He looked almost startled.
"I didn't like to tell you, but I will now. May I have a maid again?"
"That's what you want, to get a maid?"
She smiled, and looked almost shy.
"I've done splendidly without one. But still—"
From that moment he only pressed, begged her to go.
Isaacson returned to find it was all settled. When he was told, he only said, "I think it wonderful that Mrs. Armine has managed without a maid for so long."
Soon afterwards he went to his room, and was shut in there for a considerable time. He said he had letters to write. Yet he sent no letters to the post that day.
Meanwhile Mrs. Armine, with the assistance of one of the Nubians, was packing a few things. Now that at last she was going to do something definite, she marvelled that she had been able to endure her life of waiting so long. This movement and planning in connection with a journey roused in her a secret excitement that was feverish.
"If only I were going away for ever!" she thought, as she went about her dressing-room. "If only I were never to see my husband and Isaacson again!"
And with that thought she paused and stood still.
Suppose it really were so! Suppose she found Baroudi, told him all that had happened, told him her misery, begged him to let her remain with him! He might be kind. He might for once yield to her wishes instead of imposing upon her his commands. There would be a great scandal; but what of that? She did not care any longer for public opinion. She only wanted now to escape from all that reminded her of Europe, of her former life, to sink into the bosom of the East and be lost in it for ever. The far future was nothing to her. All she thought about, all she cared for, was to escape at once and have the one thing she wanted, the thing for which the whole of her clamoured unceasingly. She was obsessed by the one idea, as only the woman of her temperament, arrived at her critical age, can be obsessed.
She might never come back. This might be her last day with Nigel.
In his room near to hers, Isaacson was sitting on his balcony, smoking the nargeeleh, and thinking that, too. He was not at all sure, but he was inclined to believe that this departure of Bella Donna was going to be a flight. Ought he to allow her to go? Instead of writing those letters, he was pondering, considering this. It was his duty, he supposed, not to allow her to go. If everything were to be known, people, the world would say that he ought to have acted already, that in any case he ought to act now. But he was not bothering about the world. He was thinking of his friend, how to do the best thing by him.
When he took his long fingers from the nargeeleh he had decided that he would let Bella Donna go.
And that evening, a little before sunset, she kissed her husband and bade him good-bye, wondering whether she would ever see him again. Then she held out her hand to Meyer Isaacson.
"Good-bye, Doctor! Take great care of him," she said, lightly.
Isaacson took her hand. Again now, at this critical moment, despite his afternoon's decision, he said to himself, not only "Ought I to let her go?" but "Shall I let her go?" And the influence of the latter question in his mind caused him unconsciously to grasp her hand arbitrarily, as if he meant to detain her. Instantly there came into her eyes the look he had seen in them when in the sanctuary of Edfou she had stood face to face with him—a look of startled terror.
"You promise only to stay two days, Ruby?"
Nigel's voice spoke.
"I promise faithfully, Nigel," she said, with her eyes on Isaacson.
Isaacson dropped her hand. She sighed, and went out quickly.
The departure of Mrs. Armine brought to Meyer Isaacson a sudden and immense feeling of relief. When he looked at his watch and knew that the train for Cairo had left the station of Luxor, when half an hour later Ibrahim came in to tell Nigel that "my lady" had gone off "very nice indeed," he was for a time almost joyous, as a man is joyous who has got rid of a heavy burden, or who is unexpectedly released from some cruel prison of circumstance. How much the enforced companionship with Mrs. Armine had oppressed him he understood fully now. And it was difficult for him to realize, more difficult still for him to sympathize with, Nigel's obvious regret at his wife's going, obvious longing for her to be back again by his side.
Isaacson's sympathy was not asked for by Nigel. Here the strong reserve existing between the two men naturally stepped in. Isaacson strove to dissimulate his joy, Nigel to dissimulate his feeling of sudden loneliness. But either Isaacson played his part the better, or his powers of observation were far more developed than Nigel's; for whereas he saw with almost painful clearness the state of his friend's mind on that first evening of their dual solitude, Nigel only partially guessed at his, or very faintly suspected it.
Their dinner together threatened at first to be dreary. For Mrs. Armine's going, instead of breaking down, had consolidated for the moment the reserve between them. But Isaacson's inner joyousness, however carefully concealed, made its influence felt, as joy will. Without quite knowing why, Nigel presently began to thaw. Isaacson turned the conversation, which had stumbled, had halted, to Nigel's condition of health, and then Nigel said, as he had already said to his wife:
"To-day I feel that I am waking up to life."
"Only to-day?" said the Doctor.
"Oh, I've been feeling better and better, but to-day it's as if a door that had been creaking on its hinges was flung wide open."
"I'm not surprised. These sudden leaps forward are often a feature of convalescence."
"They—they aren't followed by falling back, are they?" Nigel asked, with a sudden change to uneasiness.
"Sometimes, in fever cases especially. But in a case like yours we needn't anticipate anything of that kind."
The last words seemed to suggest to Nigel some train of thought, and after sitting in silence two or three minutes, looking grave and rather preoccupied, he said:
"By the way, what has been the matter with me, exactly? What have I really had in the way of an illness? All this time I've been so occupied in being ill that I've never asked you."
The last words were said with an attempt at lightness.
"Have I?" he added.
"No, I don't think you have," said Isaacson, in a voice that suggested a nature at that moment certainly not inclined to be communicative.
"Has it been all sunstroke! But—but I'm sure it hasn't."
"No, I shouldn't put it down entirely to sunstroke. Hartley wasn't quite right there, I think."
Nigel had found a safe topic for conversation, or thought he had. It was sufficiently evident that he felt more at ease, and perhaps he was atoning for former indifference as to the cause of his misery by a real and keen interest about it now.
"You were unwell, you see, before you went out digging without a hat. Weren't you?"
"Yes, that bath in the Nile near Kous. It seemed all to begin somewhere about then. But d'you know, though I've never said so, even to you, I believe I really was not quite myself when I took that dip. I think it was because of that I got the chill."
"When I started, I was splendidly well. I mean when we went on board of the Loulia. It's as if it was something to do with that boat. I believe I began to go down the hill very soon after we started on her. But it was all so gradual that I scarcely noticed anything at first. My bath made things worse, and then the digging fairly finished me."
The last course of the very light dinner was put on the table. Isaacson poured out some Vichy water and began to squeeze the juice of half a lemon into it. Nigel sat watching the process, which was very careful and deliberate.
"You don't tell me what exactly has been the matter," he said, at last.
"You've had such a complication of symptoms."
"That you mean it's impossible to give a name that covers them all?"
Isaacson squeezed the last drop almost tenderly into the tumbler, took up his napkin, and carefully dried his long, brown fingers.
"'What's in a name?'" he quoted.
He looked across the table at Nigel, and questions seemed to be shining in his eyes.
"Do you mean that you don't want to tell me the name?" Nigel said.
It seemed that he was roused to persistence. Either curiosity or some other feeling was awakened within him.
"I don't say that. But you know we doctors often go cautiously—we don't care to commit ourselves."
"Hartley, yes. But that isn't true of you."
"You are hedging," he said, bluntly.
Isaacson drank the Vichy and lemon. He put down the glass.
"You are hedging," Nigel repeated. "Why?"
"Isn't it enough for you to get well? What good will it do you to know what you have been suffering from?"
"Good! But isn't it natural that I should wish to know? Why should there be any mystery about it?"
He stopped. Then, leaning forward a little with one arm on the table, he said:
"Does my wife know what it is?"
"I've never told her," Isaacson answered.
"Well, but does she know?"
The voice that asked was almost suspicious. And the eyes that regarded Isaacson were now suspicious, too.
"How can I tell? She told me she supposed it to be a sunstroke."
"That was Hartley's nonsense. Hartley put that idea into her head. But since you came, of course she's realized there was more in it than that."
"I dare say."
Nigel waited, as if expecting something more. But Isaacson kept silence. Dinner was over. Nigel got up, and walking steadily, though not yet with the brisk lightness of complete strength and buoyancy, led the way to the drawing-room.
"Shall we sit out on the terrace?"
"If you like. But you must have a coat. I'll fetch it."
"Oh, don't you—"
But the doctor was gone. In a moment he returned with a coat and a light rug. He helped Nigel to put the coat on, took him by the arm, led him out to the chair, and, when he was in it, arranged the rug over his knees.
"You're awfully good to me, Isaacson," Nigel said, almost with softness, "awfully good to me. I am grateful."
"That's all right."
"We were speaking about it only to-day, Ruby and I. She was saying that we mustn't presume on your kindness that we mustn't detain you out here now that I'm out of the wood."
"She wants to get rid of me! Then she must be coming back!" The thought darted through Isaacson's brain, upsetting a previously formed conviction which, to a certain extent, had guided his conduct during dinner.
"Oh, I'm in no hurry," he said, carelessly. "I want to get you quite strong."
"Yes, but your patients in London! You know I've been feeling so ill that I've been beastly selfish. I've thought only of myself. I've made a slave of my wife, and now I've been keeping you out of London all this time."
As he spoke, his voice grew warmer. His reserve seemed to be melting, the friend to be stirring in the patient. Although certainly he did not realize it, the absence of his wife had already made a difference in his feeling towards Isaacson. Her perpetual silent hostility was like an emanation that insensibly affected her husband. Now that was withdrawn to a distance, he reverted instinctively towards—not yet to—the old relation with his friend. He longed to get rid of all the difficulty between them, and this could only be done by making Isaacson understand Ruby more as he understood her. If he could only accomplish this before Ruby came back! Now this idea came to him, and sent warmth into his voice, warmth into his manner. Isaacson opened his lips to make some friendly protest, but Nigel continued:
"And d'you know who made me see my selfishness—realize how tremendously unselfish you've been in sticking to me all this time?"
Isaacson said nothing.
"My wife. She opened my eyes to it. But for her I mightn't have given a thought to all your loss, not only your material loss, but—"
Isaacson felt as if something poisonous had stung him.
"Please don't speak of anything of that kind!" he said.
"I know I can never compensate you for all you've done for us—"
"Oh, yes, you can!"
The Doctor's voice was almost sharp. Nigel was startled by it.
"We can? How?"
"You can!" Isaacson said, laying a heavy stress on the first word.
"First, by never speaking to me of—of the usual 'compensation' patients make to doctors."
"But how can you expect me to accept all this devoted service and make no kind of return?"
"Perhaps you can make me a return—the only return I want."
"But what is it?"
"I—I won't tell you to-night."
"Then when will you tell me?"
Isaacson hesitated. His face was blazing with expression. He looked like a man powerfully stirred—almost like a man on the edge of some outburst.
"I won't tell you to-night," he repeated.
"But you must tell me."
"At the proper time. You asked me at dinner what had been the matter with you, what illness you had been suffering from. You observed that I didn't care to tell you then. Well, I'll tell you before you get rid of me."
"Get rid of you!"
"Yes, yes. Don't think I misunderstand what you've been trying to tell me to-night. You want to convey to me in a friendly manner that now I've accomplished my work it's time for me to be off."
Nigel was deeply hurt.
"Nothing of the sort!" he said. "It was only that my wife had made me understand what a terrible loss to you remaining out here at such a time must be."
"There is something I must make you understand, Armine, before I leave you. And when I've told you what it is, you can give me the only compensation I want, and I want it badly—badly!"
"And you won't tell me what it is now?"
"Not to-night—not in a hurry."
He got up.
"When are you expecting Mrs. Armine back?" he asked.
"In four nights. She wants a couple of full days in Cairo. Then there are the two night journeys."
"I'll tell you before she comes back."
Isaacson turned round, and strolled away into the darkness of the garden.
When he was alone there, he tacitly reproached himself for his vehemence of spirit, for the heat of his temper. Yet surely they were leading him in the right path. These words of Nigel had awakened him to the very simple fact that this association must come to an end, and almost immediately. He had been, he supposed now, drifting on from day to day, postponing any decision. Mrs. Armine was stronger than he. From her, through Nigel, had come to him this access of determination, drawn really from her decision. As he knew this, he was able secretly to admire for a moment this woman whom he actively hated. Her work in the dark would send him now to work in the light.
It was inevitable. While he had believed that very possibly her departure to Cairo was a flight from her husband, Isaacson had had a reason for his hesitation. If Bella Donna vanished, why torture Nigel further? Let him lose her, without knowing all that he had lost. But if she were really coming back, and if he, Isaacson, must go—and his departure in any case must shortly be inevitable—then, cost what it might, the truth must be told.
As he paced the garden, he was trying to brace himself to the most difficult, the most dreadful duty life had so far imposed upon him.
When he went back to the terrace, Nigel was no longer there. He had gone up to bed.
The next day passed without a word between the two men on the subject of the previous night. They talked on indifferent topics. But the cloud of mutual reserve once more enveloped them, and intercourse was uneasy.
Another day dawned.
Mrs. Armine had now been away for two nights, and, if she held to her announced plan, should leave Cairo on her return to Luxor on the evening of the following day. No letter had been received from her. The question in Isaacson's mind was, would she come back? If he spoke and she never returned, he would have stabbed his friend to the heart for no reason. But if she did return and he had not spoken?
He was the prey of doubt, of contending instincts. He did not know what to do. But deep down within him was there not a voice that, like the ground swell of the ocean, murmured ever one thing, unwearied, persistent?
Sometimes he was aware of this voice and strove not to hear it, or not to heed it, this voice in the depths of a man, telling him that in the speaking of truth there is strength, and that out of weakness no good ever came yet, nor ever will come till the end of all things.
But the telling of certain truths seems too cruel; and how can one be cruel to a man returning to life with almost hesitating steps?
Perhaps something would happen to decide the matter, something—some outside event. What it might be Isaacson could not say to himself. Indeed, it was almost childish to hope for anything. He knew that. And yet, unreasonably, he hoped.
And the event did happen, and on that day.
Late in the afternoon a telegram arrived for Nigel. Ibrahim brought it out to the terrace where the two men were together, and Nigel opened it with an eagerness he did not try to disguise.
"It's from her," he said. "She starts to-night, and will be here to-morrow morning early. She's in such a hurry to be back that she's only staying the one night in Cairo."
He looked across to Isaacson, who seemed startled.
"Is there anything the matter with you?" he asked.
"You don't look quite yourself."
"I feel perfectly well."
Almost directly Isaacson made an excuse and got away. His decision was made. There was no more combat within him. But his heart was heavy, was sick, and he felt an acute and frightful nervousness, such as he could imagine being experienced by a man under sentence of death, who is not told on what day the sentence will be carried out. Apprehension fell over him like an icy rain in the sultry air.
He walked mechanically to the bank of the Nile.
To-day the water was like a sheet of glass, dimpled here and there by the wayward currents, and, because of some peculiar atmospheric effect, perhaps, the river looked narrower than usual, the farther bank less far off. Never before had Isaacson been so forcibly struck by the magical clearness of Egypt. Even in the midst of his misery, a misery which physically affected him, he stood still to marvel and to admire.