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Bella Donna - A Novel
by Robert Hichens
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As he finished speaking, a steward appeared, quickly conducting to their table a tall and broad young man, who made them a formal bow, and composedly sat down opposite to them.

He was remarkably well dressed in clothes which must have been cut by an English tailor, and which he wore with a carelessness almost English, but also with an easy grace that was utterly foreign. Thin, with mighty shoulders and an exceptionally deep chest, it was obvious that his strength must be enormous. His neck looked as powerful as a bull's, and his rather small head was poised upon it with a sort of triumphant boldness. His hair was black and curly, his forehead very broad, his nose short, straight, and determined, with wide and ardent nostrils. Under a small but dense moustache his lips were thick and rather pouting. His chin, thrust slightly forward in a manner almost aggressive, showed the dusk of close-shaven hair. The tint of his skin, though dark, was clear—had even something of delicacy. His hands, broad, brown, and muscular, had very strong-looking fingers which narrowed slightly at the tips. His eyes were large and black, were set in his head with an almost singular straightness, and were surmounted by brows which, depressed towards the nose, sloped upwards towards the temples. These brows gave to the eyes beneath them, even to the whole face, a curiously distinctive look of open resolution, which was seizing, and attractive or unattractive according to the temperament of the beholder.

He took up the carte du jour, studied it at length and with obvious care, then gave an order in excellent French, which the steward hastened away to carry out. This done, he twisted his moustaches and looked calmly at his companions, not curiously, but rather as if he regarded them with a polite indifference, and merely because they were near him. Mrs. Armine seemed quite unaware of his scrutiny, but Nigel spoke to him almost immediately, making some remark about the ship in English. The stranger answered in the same language, but with a strong foreign accent. He seemed quite willing to talk. He apologized for interrupting their tete-a-tete, but said he had no choice, as the saloon was completely full. They declared they were quite ready for company, Nigel with his usual sympathetic geniality, Mrs. Armine with a sort of graceful formality beneath which—or so her husband fancied—there was just a suspicion of reluctance. He guessed that she would have much preferred a private table, but when he said so to her, as they were taking their coffee on deck, she answered:

"No, what does it matter? We shall so soon be in our own house. Tell me about the villa, Nigel, and Luxor. You know I have never seen it."

With little more than a word she had deftly flicked the intruding stranger out of their lives, she had concentrated herself on Nigel. He felt that all her force, like a strong and ardent stream, was flowing into the new channel which he had cut for her. He obeyed her. He told her about Egypt. And as he talked, and watched her listening, he began to feel thoroughly for the first time the vital change in his life, and something within him rejoiced, that was surely his manhood singing.

The voyage passed swiftly by, attended by perfect weather, calm, radiant, blue—weather that releases humanity from any bonds of depression into a joyous world. Yet for the Armines it was not without an unpleasant incident. Among the passengers were a Lord and Lady Hayman, whom Nigel Armine knew, and whom Mrs. Armine had known in the days when London had loved her. It was impossible not to meet them, equally impossible not to perceive their cold confusion at each encounter, shown by a sudden interest in empty seas and unpopulated horizons. That they mistook the situation was so evident to Nigel that one day he managed to confront Lord Hayman in the smoke-room and to have it out with him.

"Congratulate you, I'm sure, congratulate you!" murmured that gentleman, whose practical brown eyes became suddenly wells full of ironical amazement. "Tell my wife at once. Knew nothing at all about it."

He got away, with a moribund cigar between his teeth, and no doubt informed Lady Hayman, who thereafter bowed to Nigel, but with a reluctant muscular movement that adequately expressed an inward moral surprise mingled with condemnation. Mrs. Armine seemed totally undisturbed by these demonstrations, her only comment upon the lady being that it was really strange that "in these days" any one could be found to wear magenta and red together, especially any one with a complexion like Lady Hayman's. And her astonishment at the triple combination of colours seemed so simple, so sincere, that it had to be believed in as merely an emanation from an artistic temperament. It was probable that the Haymans told other English on the Hohenzollern the news of Nigel's marriage, for several of the faces that had stared from the luncheon-tables continued to stare on the deck, but with a slightly different expression; the sheer, dull curiosity being exchanged for that half-satirical interest with which the average person of British blood regards a newly-married couple.

This contemplation of them made Nigel secretly angry, and awoke in him a great and peculiar tenderness for his wife, founded on a suddenly more acute understanding of the brutality of the ostracism, combined with notoriety, which she had endured in recent years. Now at last she had some one to protect her. His heart enfolded her with ample wings. But he longed to be free from this crowd, from which on a ship they could not escape, and they spoke to no one during the voyage except to their companion at meals.

With him they were soon on the intimate terms of shipboard—terms that commit one to nothing in the future when land is reached. Although he was dressed like an Englishman, and on deck wore a straw hat with the word "Scott" inside it, he soon let them know that his name was Mahmoud Baroudi, that his native place was Alexandria, that he was of mixed Greek and Egyptian blood, and that he was a man of great energy and will, interested in many schemes, pulling the strings of many enterprises.

He spoke always with a certain polite but bold indifference, as if he cared very little what impression he made on others; and all the information that he gave about himself was dropped out in a careless, casual way that seemed expressive of his character. The high rank, the great riches of his father he rather implied than definitely mentioned. Only when he talked of his occupations was he more definite, more strongly personal. Nigel gathered that he was essentially a man of affairs, had nothing in common with the typical lazy Eastern, who loves to sit in the sun, to suffer the will of Allah, and to fill the years with dreams; that he was cool, clear-headed, and full of the marked commercial ability characteristic of the modern Greek. Whether this aptitude was combined with the sinuous cunning that is essentially Oriental Nigel did not know. He certainly could not perceive it. All that Baroudi said was said with clearness, and a sort of acute precision, whether he discussed the land question, the irrigation works on the Nile, the great boom of 1906, in which such gigantic fortunes were made, or the cotton and sugar industries, in both of which he was interested. The impression he conveyed to Nigel was that he was born to "get on" in whatever he undertook, and that in almost any form of activity he could be a fine ally, or an equally fine opponent. That he was fond of sport was soon apparent. He spoke with an enthusiasm that was always mingled with a certain serene insouciance of the horses he had bred and of the races he had won in Alexandria and Cairo, of yachting, of big-game shooting up the Nile beyond Khartum in the country of the Shillouks, and of duck, pigeon, and jackal shooting in the Fayyum and on the sacred Lake of Kurun.

Nigel found him an excellent fellow, the most sympathetic and energetic man of Eastern blood whom he had ever encountered. Mrs. Armine spoke of him more temperately; he did not seem to interest her, and Nigel was confirmed by her lack of appreciation in an idea that had already occurred to him. He believed that Baroudi was a man who did not care for women, except, no doubt, as the occasional and servile distractions of an unoccupied hour in the harem. He was always very polite to Mrs. Armine, but when he talked he soon, as if almost instinctively, addressed himself to Nigel; and once or twice, when Mrs. Armine left them alone together over their coffee and cigars, he seemed to Nigel to become another man, to expand almost into geniality, to be not merely self-possessed—that faculty never failed him—but to be more happily at his ease, more racy, more ready for intimacy. Probably he was governed by the Oriental's conception of woman as an inferior sex, and was unable to be quite at home in the complete equality and ease of the English relation with women.

When the Hohenzollern sighted Alexandria, Baroudi went below for a moment. He reappeared wearing the fez. They bade each other good-bye in the harbour, with the usual vague hopes of a further meeting that do duty on such occasions, and that generally end in nothing.

Mrs. Armine seemed glad to be rid of him and to be alone with her husband.

"Don't let us stay in Cairo," she said. "I want to go up the river. I want to be in the Villa Androud."

After one night at Shepheard's they started for Luxor, or rather for Keneh, where they got out in the early morning to visit the temple of Denderah, taking a later train which brought them to Luxor towards evening, just as the gold of the sunset was beginning to steal into the sky and to cover the river with glory.

Mrs. Armine was fatigued by the journey, and by the long day at Denderah, which had secretly depressed her. She looked out of the window of their compartment at the green plains of doura, at the almost naked brown men bending rhythmically by the shadufs, at the children passing on donkeys, and the women standing at gaze with corners of their dingy garments held fast between their teeth; and she felt as if she still saw the dark courts of Hathor's dwelling, as if she still heard the cries of the enormous bats that inhabit them. When the train stopped, she got up slowly, and let Nigel help her down to the platform.

"Is the villa far away?" she said, looking round on the crowd of staring Egyptians.

"No, I want you to walk to it. Do you mind?"

His eyes demanded a "no," and she gave it him with a good grace that ought to have been written down to her credit by the pen of the recording angel. They set out to walk to the villa. As they went through the little town, Nigel pointed out the various "objects of interest": the antiquity shops, where may be purchased rings, necklaces, and amulets, blue and green "servants of the dead," scarabs, winged discs, and mummy-cases; the mosque, a Coptic church, cafes, the garden of the Hotel de Luxor. He greeted several friends of humble origin: the black barber who called himself "Mr. White"; Ahri Achmed, the Folly of Luxor, who danced and gibbered at Mrs. Armine and cried out a welcome in many languages; Hassan, the one-eyed pipe-player; and Hamza, the praying donkey-boy, who in winter stole all the millionaires from his protesting comrades and in summer sat with the dervishes in the deep shadows of the mosques.

"You seem to be as much at home here as in London," said Mrs. Armine, in a voice that was rather vague.

"Ten times more, Ruby. And so will you be soon. I love a little place."

"Yes?"

After a pause she added:

"Are there many villas here?"

"Only two on the bank of the Nile. One belongs to a Dutchman. Our villa is the other."

"Only two—and one belongs to a Dutchman!" she thought.

And she wondered about their winter.

"When I've settled you in, I must run off to the Fayyum to see how the work is going, and rig up something for you. I want to take you there soon, but it's really in the wilds, and I didn't like to straight away. Besides I was afraid you might be dull and unhappy without any of your comforts. And I do want you to be happy."

There was an anxiety that was almost wistful in his voice.

"I do want you to like Egypt," he added, like an eager boy.

"I am sure I shall like it, Nigel. There's no Casino, I suppose!"

"Good heavens, no! What should one do with a Casino here!"

"Oh, they sometimes have one, even in places like this. A friend of mine who went to Biskra told me there was one there."

"Look at that, Ruby! That's better than any Casino—don't you think?"

They had turned to the left and come to the river bank.

All the Nile was flooded with gold, in which there were eddies of pale mauve and distant flushes of a red that resembled the red on the wing of a flamingo. The clear and radiant sky was drowned in a quivering radiance of gold, that was like a thing alive and sensitively palpitating. The far-off palms, the lofty river banks that framed the Nile's upper reaches, the birds that flew south, following the direction of the breeze, the bats that wheeled about the great columns of the temple, the boats that with wide-spread lateen sails went southward with the birds, were like motionless and moving jewels of black against the vibrant gold. And the crenellated mountains of Libya, beyond Thebes and the tombs of the Kings, stood like spectral sentinels at their posts till the pageant should be over.

"Isn't it wonderful, Ruby?"

"Yes," she said. "Quite wonderful."

She honestly thought it superb, but the dust in her hair and in her skirts, the lassitude that seemed to hang, almost like spiders' webs about wood, about the body which contained her tired spirit, restrained her enthusiasm from being a match for his. Perhaps she knew this and wished to come up with him, for she added, throwing a warm sound into her voice:

"It is exquisite. It is the most magical thing I have ever seen."

She touched her veil, as she spoke, and put up her hand to her hair behind. Two Frenchmen, talking with sonorous voices, were just then passing them on the road.

"I didn't know any sunset could be so marvellous."

She was still touching her hair, and now she felt clothed in dust; and, with the ardour of a fastidious woman who has not seen the inside of a dressing-room for twenty-four hours, she longed to be rid both of the sunset and of the man.

"Where is the villa, Nigel?"

"Not ten minutes away."

The spirit groaned within her, and she went resolutely forward, passing the Winter Palace Hotel.

"What a huge hotel—but it isn't open!" she said.

"It will be almost directly. We turn to the right down here."

Some large rats were playing on the uneven stones close to the river; from a little shed close by there came the dull puffing of an engine.

"Where on earth are we going, Nigel? This is only a donkey track."

"It's all right. Just wait a minute. There's the Dutchman's castle, and we are just beyond it. Am I walking too fast for you, Ruby?"

"No, no."

She hurried on. Her whole body was clamouring for warm water with a certain essence dissolved in it, for a change of stockings and shoes, for a tea-gown, for a sofa with a tea-table beside it, for a hundred and one things his manhood did not dream of.

"Here it is at last!" he said.

A tall and amiable-looking boy in a flowing gold-coloured robe suddenly appeared before them, holding open a wooden gate, through which they passed into a garden.

"Hulloh, Ibrahim!" cried Nigel.

"Hulloh, my gentleman!" returned the boy, inclining his body towards Mrs. Armine and touching his fez with his hand. "I am Ibrahim Ahmed, my lady, the special servant called a dragoman of my Lord Arminigel. I can read the hieroglyphs, and I am always young and cheerful."

He took Nigel's right hand, kissed it and placed it against his forehead rapidly three times in succession, smiled, and looked sideways on the ground.

"I am always young and cheerful," he repeated, softly and dreamily. He picked a red rose from a bush, placed it between his white teeth, and turned to conduct them to the white house that stood in the midst of the garden perhaps a hundred yards away.

"What a nice boy!" said Mrs. Armine.

"He's been my dragoman before. This is our little domain."

Mrs. Armine saw a flat expanse of brown and sun-dried earth, completely devoid of grass, and divided roughly into sunken beds containing small orange-trees, mimosas, rose-bushes, poinsettias, and geraniums. It was bounded on three sides by earthen walls and on the fourth side by the Nile.

"Is it not beautiful, mees?" said Ibrahim.

Mrs. Armine began to laugh.

"He takes me for a vieille fille!" she said. "Is it a compliment, Nigel? Ibrahim,"—she touched the boy's robe—"won't you give me that rose?"

"My lady, I will give you all what you want."

Already she had fascinated him. As she took the rose, which he offered with a salaam, she began to look quite gay.

"All what you want you must have," continued Ibrahim, gravely.

"Ibrahim reads my thoughts like a true Eastern!" said Nigel.

"What I want now is a bath," remarked Mrs. Armine, smelling the rose.

"Directly we have had one more look at the Nile from our own garden," exclaimed Nigel.

But she had stopped before the house.

"I can't take my bath in the Nile. Good-bye, Nigel!"

Before he could say a word she had crossed a little terrace, disappeared through a French window, and vanished into the villa.

Ibrahim smiled, hung his head, and then murmured in a deep contralto voice:

"The wife of my Lord Arminigel, she does not want Ibrahim any more, she does not want the Nile, she wants to be all alone."

He shook his head, which drooped on his long and gentle brown neck, sighed, and repeated dreamily:

"She wants to be all alone."

"We'll leave her alone for a little and go and look at the gold."

Meanwhile within the house Mrs. Armine was calling impatiently for her maid.

"For mercy's sake, undress me. I am a mass of dust, and looking perfectly dreadful. Is the bath ready?" she asked, as the girl, who had come running, showed her into a good-sized bedroom.

The maid, who was not the red-eyed maid Nigel had met at the Savoy, shrugged up her small shoulders, and extended her little, greedy hands.

"It is ready, madame; but the water—oh, la, la!"

"What's the matter. What do you mean?"

"The water is the colour of madame's morning chocolate."

"Oh!" said Mrs. Armine, almost with a sound of despair.

She sank into a chair, taking in with a glance every detail of the chamber, which had been furnished and arranged by a rich and consumptive Frenchman who had lived there with his mistress and had recently died at Cairo.

"Bring me the mirror from my dressing-case, and get me out of this gown."

Marie hastened to fetch the mirror, into which, after unpinning and removing her hat and veil, Mrs. Armine looked long and earnestly.

"There are no women servants, madame."

* * * * *

"All the servants here are men, madame, and all are as black as boots."

"Shut the door into monsieur's room, and don't chatter so much. My head is simply splitting."

* * * * *

"What are you doing? One would think you had never seen a corset before. Don't fumble! If you fumble, I shall pack you off to Paris by the first train to-morrow morning. Now where's the bath?"

Marie, wrinkling up her nose, which looked like a note of interrogation, led the way into the bathroom, and pointed to the water with a grimace.

"Voila, madame!"

"Mon Dieu!" said Mrs. Armine.

She stared at the water, and repeated her exclamation.

"That makes pity to think that madame—"

"Have you put in the eau de paradis?"

"But certainly, madame."

"Very well then—ugh!"

She shuddered with disgust as the rich brown water of the Nile came up to her breast, to her chin.

"And to think that it looked golden," she murmured, "when we were standing on the bank!"



XII

Soon after half-past eight that evening, when darkness lay over the Nile and over the small garden of the villa, a tall Nubian servant, dressed in white with a scarlet girdle, spread two prayer rugs on the terrace before the French windows of the drawing-room, and placed upon them a coffee-table and two arm-chairs. At first he put the chairs a good way apart, and looked at them very gravely. Then he set them quite close together, and relaxed into a smile. And before he had finished smiling, over the parquet floor behind him there came the light rustle of a dress. The Nubian servant turned round and gazed at Mrs. Armine, who had stopped beside a table and was looking about the room; a white-and-yellow room, gaily but rather sparsely furnished, that harmonized well with the fair beauty which moved the black man's soul.

He thought her very wonderful. The pallor of her face, the delicate lustre of her hair, quite overcame his temperament, and when she caught sight of him and smiled, and observed the contrast between the snowy white of his turban, his scarlet girdle and babouches, and the black lustre of his skin, with eyes that frankly admired, he compared her secretly to the little moon that lights up the Eastern night. He went softly to fetch the coffee, while she stepped out on to the terrace.

At first she stood quite still, and stared at the bit of garden which revealed itself in the darkness; at the dry earth, the untrimmed, wild-looking rose-bushes, and the little mimosa-trees, vague almost as pretty shadows. A thin, dark-brown dog, with pale yellow eyes, slunk in from the night and stood near her, trembling and furtively watching her. She had not seen it yet, for now she was gazing up at the sky, which was peopled with myriads of stars, those piercingly bright stars which look down from African skies. The brown dog trembled and blinked, keeping his yellow eyes upon her, looked self-consciously down sideways, then looked at her again.

From the hidden river there came a distant song of boatmen, one of those vehement and yet sad songs of the Nile that the Nubian waterman loves.

"Sh—sh—sh!"

Mrs. Armine had caught sight of the dog. She hissed at him angrily, and made a threatening gesture with her hands, which sent him slinking back to the darkness.

"What is it, Ruby?" called out a strong voice from above.

She started.

"Oh, are you there, Nigel?"

"Yes. What's the matter?"

"It was only a dreadful-looking dog. What are you doing up there?"

"I was looking at the stars. Aren't they wonderful to-night?"

There was in his voice a sound of warm yet almost childlike enthusiasm, with which she was becoming very familiar.

"Yes, marvellous. Oh, there's the dog again! Sh—sh—sh!"

"I'll come down and drive it away."

In a moment he was with her.

"Where is the little beast?"

"It's gone again. I frightened it. Oh, you've brought me a cloak, you thoughtful person."

She turned for him to put it round her, and as he began to do so, as he touched her arms and shoulders, his eyes shone and his brown cheeks slightly reddened. Then his expression changed; he seemed to repress, to beat back something; he drew her down into a chair, and quietly sat down by her. The Nubian came with coffee, and went softly away, smiling.

Mrs. Armine poured out the coffee, and Nigel lit his cigar.

"Turkish coffee for my lord and master!" she said, pushing a cup towards him over the little table. "I think I must learn how to make it."

He was gazing at her as he stretched out his hand to take it.

"Do you feel at home here, Ruby?" he asked her.

"It's such a very short time, you dear enquirer," she answered. "Remember I haven't closed an eye here yet. But I'm sure I shall feel at home. And what about you?"

"I scarcely know what I feel."

He sipped the coffee slowly.

"It's such a tremendous change," he continued. "And I've been alone so long. Of course, I've got lots of friends, but still I've often felt very lonely, as you have, Ruby, haven't you?"

"I've seldom felt anything else," she replied.

"But to-night—?"

"Oh, to-night—everything's different to-night. I wonder—"

She paused. She was leaning back in her chair, with her head against a cushion, looking at him with a slight, half-ironical smile in her eyes and at the corners of her lips.

"I wonder," she continued, "what Meyer Isaacson will think."

"Of our marriage?"

"Yes. Do you suppose it will surprise him?"

"I—no, I hardly think it will."

"You didn't hint it to him, did you?"

"I said nothing about any marriage, but he knew something of my feeling for you."

"All the same, I think he'll be surprised. When shall we get the first post from England telling us the opinion of the dear, kind, generous-hearted world?"

"Ruby, who cares what any one thinks or says?"

"Men often don't credit us with it, but we women, as a rule, are horribly sensitive, more sensitive than you can imagine. I—how I wish that some day your people would try to like me!"

He took one of her hands in his.

"Why shouldn't they? Why shouldn't they? But this winter we'll keep to ourselves, learn to know each other, learn to trust each other, learn to—to love each other in the very best and finest way. Ruby, I took this villa because I thought you would like it, that it would not be so bad as our first home. But presently I want you to come with me to Sennoures. When we've had our fortnight's honeymoon here, I'll go off for a few nights, and look into the work, and arrange something for you. I'll get a first-rate tent from Cairo. I want you in camp with me. And it's farther away there, wilder, less civilized; one gets right down to Nature. When I was in London, before I asked you to marry me, I thought of you at Sennoures. My camp used to be pitched near water, and at night, when the men slept covered up in their rugs and bits of sacking, and the camels lay in a line, with their faces towards the men's tent, eating, I used to come out, alone and listen to the frogs singing. It's like the note of a flute, and they keep it up all night, the beggars. You shall come out beside that water, and you shall hear it with me. It's odd how a little thing like that stirs up one's imagination. Why, even just thinking of that flute of the Egyptian Pan in the night—" He broke off with a sound that was not quite a laugh, but that held laughter and something else. "We've got, please God, a grand winter ahead of us, Ruby," he finished. "And far away from the world."

"Far—far away from the world!"

She repeated his words rather slowly.

"I must have some more coffee," she added, with a change of tone.

"Take care. You mayn't be able to sleep."

"Nigel—do you want me to sleep to-night?"

He looked at her, but he did not answer.

"Even if I don't sleep I must have it. Besides I always sit up late."

"But to-night you're tired."

"Never mind. I must have the coffee."

She poured it out and drank it.

"I believe you live very much in the present," he said.

"Well—you live very much in the future."

"Do I? What makes you think so?"

"My instinct informs me of the fact, and of other facts about you."

"You'll make me feel as if I were made of glass if you don't take care."

"Live a little more in the present. Live in the present to-night."

There was a sound of insistence in her voice, a look of insistence in her bright blue eyes which shone out from their painted shadows, a feeling of insistence in the thin and warm white hand which now she laid upon his. "Don't worry about the future."

He smiled.

"I wasn't worrying. I was looking forward."

"Why? We are here to-night, Nigel, to live as if we had only to-night to live. You talk of Sennoures. But who knows whether we shall ever see Sennoures, ever hear the Egyptian Pan by the water? I don't. You don't. But we do know we are here to-night by the Nile."

With all her force, but secretly, she was trying to destroy in him the spiritual aspiration which was essential in his nature, through which she had won him as her husband, but which now could only irritate and confuse her, and stand in the way of her desires, keeping the path against them.

"Yes," he said, drawing in his breath. "We are here to-night by the Nile, and we hear the boatmen singing."

The distant singers had been silent for some minutes; now their voices were heard again, and sounded nearer to the garden, as if they were on some vessel that was drifting down the river under the brilliant stars. So much nearer was the music that Mrs. Armine could hear a word cried out by a solo voice, "Al-lah! Al-lah! Al-lah!" The voice was accompanied by a deep and monotonous murmur. The singer was beating a daraboukkeh held loosely between his knees. The chorus of nasal voices joined in with the rough and artless vehemence which had in it something that was sad, and something that, though pitiless, seemed at moments to thrill with yearning, like the cruelty of the world, which is mingled with the eternal longing for the healing of its wounds.

"We hear the boatmen singing," he repeated, "about Allah, and always Allah, Allah, the God of the Nile, and of us two on the Nile."

"Sh—sh! There's that dog again! I do wish—"

She had begun to speak with an abrupt and almost fierce nervous irritation, but she recovered herself immediately.

"Couldn't the gardener keep him out?" she said, quietly.

"Perhaps he belongs to the gardener. I'll go and see. I won't be a minute."

He sprang up and followed the dog, which crept away into the garden, looking around with its desolate, yellow eyes to see if danger were near it.

Allah—Allah—Allah in the night!

Mrs. Armine did not know that this song of the boatmen of Nubia was presently, in later days she did not dream of, to become almost an integral part of her existence on the Nile; but although she did not know this, she listened to it with an attention that was strained and almost painful.

"Al-lah—Al-lah—"

"And probably there is no God," she thought. "How can there be? I am sure there is none."

Abruptly Meyer Isaacson seemed to come before her in the darkness, looking into her eyes as he had looked in his consulting-room when she had put up her veil and turned her face towards the light. She shut her eyes. Why should she think about him now? Why should she call him up before her?

She heard a slight rustle near her, and she started and opened her eyes. By one of the French windows the dragoman Ibrahim was standing, perfectly still now, and looking steadily at her. He held a flower between his teeth, and when he saw that she had seen him, he came gracefully forward, smiling and almost hanging his head, as if in half-roguish deprecation.

"What did you say your name was?" Mrs. Armine asked him.

He took the flower from his teeth, handed it to her, then took her hand, kissed it, bent his forehead quite low, and pressed her hand against it.

"Ibrahim Ahmed, my lady."

She looked at his gold-coloured robe, at his European jacket, at the green and gold fringed handkerchief which he had wound about his tarbush, and which covered his throat and fell down upon his breast.

"Very pretty," she said, approvingly. "But I don't like the jacket. It looks too English."

"It is a present from London, my lady."

"Al-lah—"

Always the sailors' song seemed growing louder, more vehement, more insistent, like a strange fanaticism ever increasing in the bosom of the night.

"Where are those people singing, Ibrahim?" said Mrs. Armine.

She put his flower in the front of her gown, opening her cloak to do so.

"They seem to get nearer and nearer. Are they coming down the river?"

"I s'pose they are in a felucca, my lady. They are Noobian peoples. They always make that song. It is a pretty song."

He gently moved his head, following the rhythm of the music. Between the green and gold folds of his silken handkerchief his gentle brown eyes always regarded her.

"Nubian people!" she said. "But Luxor isn't in Nubia."

"Noobia is up by Aswan. The obelisks come from there. I will show you the obelisks to-morrow, my lady. There is no dragoman who understands all 'bout obelisks like Ibrahim."

"I am sure there isn't. But"—those voices of the singing sailors were beginning almost to obsess her—"are all the boatmen Nubians then?"

"Nao!" he replied, with a sudden cockney accent.

"But these that are singing?"

"I say they are Noobian peoples, my lady. They are Mahmoud Baroudi's Noobian peoples."

"Baroudi's sailors!" said Mrs. Armine.

She sat up straight in her chair.

"But Mahmoud Baroudi isn't here, at Luxor?"

Ibrahim's soft eyes had become suddenly sharp and bright.

"Do you know Mahmoud Baroudi, my lady?"

"We met him on the ship coming from Naples."

"Very big—big as Rameses the Second, the statue of the King hisself what you see before you at the Ramesseum—eyes large as mine, and hair over them what goes like that!"

He put up his brown hands and suddenly sketched Baroudi's curiously shaped eyebrows.

Mrs. Armine nodded. Ibrahim stretched out his arm towards the Nile.

"Those are his Noobian peoples. They come from his dahabeeyah. It is at Luxor, waiting for him. They have nuthin' to do, and so they make the fantasia to-night."

"He is coming here to Luxor?"

Ibrahim nodded his head calmly.

"He is comin' here to Luxor, my lady, very nice man, very good man. He is as big as Rameses the Second, and he is as rich as the Khedive. He has money—as much as that."

He threw out his arms, as if trying to indicate the proportions of a great world or of an enormous ocean.

"Here comes my gentleman!" he added, suddenly dropping his arms.

Nigel returned from the darkness of the garden.

"Hulloh, Ibrahim!"

"Hulloh, my gentleman!"

"Keeping your mistress company while I was gone? That is right."

Ibrahim smiled, and sauntered away, going towards the bank of the Nile. His golden robe faded among the little trunks of the orange-trees.

"It was the gardener's dog," said Nigel, letting himself down into his chair with a sigh of satisfaction. "I've made him feed the poor brute. It was nearly starving. That's why it came to us."

"I see."

"Al-lah!" he murmured, saying the word like an Eastern man.

He looked into her eyes.

"The first word you hear in the night from Egypt, Ruby, Egypt's night greeting to you. I have heard that song up the river in Nubia often, but—oh, it's so different now!"

During her long experience in a life that had been complex and full of changes, Mrs. Armine had heard the sound of love many times in the voices of men. But she had never heard till this moment Nigel's full sound of love. There was something in it that she did not know how to reply to, though she had the instinct of the great courtesan to make the full and perfect reply to the desires of the man with whom she had schemed to ally herself. She owed this reply to him, but she owed it how much more to something within herself! But there existed within him a hunger for which she had no food. Why did he show this hunger to her? Already its demonstration had tried her temper, but to-night, for the first time, she felt her whole being set on edge by it. Nevertheless, she was determined he should not see this, and she answered very quietly:

"I am hearing this song for the first time with you, so I shall always associate it with you."

He drew a little nearer to her. And she understood and could reply to the demand which prompted that movement.

"We must drink Nile water together, Ruby, Nile water—in all the different ways. I'll take you to the tombs of the Kings, and to the Colossi when the sun is setting. And when the moon comes, we'll go to Karnak. I believe you'll love it all as I do. One can never tell, of course, for another. But—but do you think you'll love it all with me?"

Mingled with the ardour and the desire there was a hint in his voice of anxiety, of the self-doubt which, in certain types of natures, is the accompaniment of love.

"I know I shall love it all—with you," she said.

She let her hand fall into his, and as his hand closed upon it she was physically moved. There was in Nigel something that attracted her physically, that attracted her at certain moments very strongly. In the life that was to come she must sweep away all interference with that.

"And some day," he said, "some day I shall take you to see night fall over the Sphinx, the most wonderful thing in Egypt and perhaps in the whole world. We can do that on our way to or from the Fayyum when we have to pass through Cairo, as soon as I've arranged something for you."

"You think of everything, Nigel."

"Do you like to be thought for?"

"No woman ever lived that did not."

She softly pressed his hand. Then she lifted it and held it on her knee.

Presently she saw him look up at the stars, and she felt sure that he was connecting her with them, was thinking of her as something almost ideal, or, if not that, as something that might in time become almost ideal.

"I am not a star," she said.

He did not make any answer.

"Nigel, never be so absurd as to think of me as a star!"

He suddenly looked around at her.

"What do you say, Ruby?"

"Nothing."

"But I heard you speak."

"It must have been the sailors singing. I was looking up at the stars. How wonderful they are!"

As she spoke, she moved very slightly, letting her cloak fall open so that her long throat was exposed.

"And how beautifully warm it is!"

He looked at her throat, and sighed, seemed to hesitate, and then bent suddenly down as if he were going to kiss it.

"Al-lah!"

Almost fiercely the nasal voice of the singing boatman who gave out the solo part of the song of the Nile came over the garden from the river, and the throbbing of the daraboukkeh sounded loudly in their ears. Nigel lifted his head without kissing her.

"Those boatmen are close to the garden!" he said.

Mrs. Armine wrapped her cloak suddenly round her.

"Would you like to go down to the river and see them?" he added.

"Yes, let us go. I must see them," she said.

She got up from her chair with a quick but graceful movement that was full of fiery impetus, and her eyes were shining almost fiercely, as if they gave a reply to the fierce voices of the boatmen.

Nigel drew her arm through his, and they went down the little sandy path past the motionless orange-trees till they came to the bank of the Nile. Ibrahim was standing there, peeping out whimsically from his fringed and tasselled wrappings, and smoking a cigarette.

"Where are the boatmen, Ibrahim?" said Nigel.

"Here they come, my gentleman!"

Upon the wide and moving darkness of the river, a great highway of the night leading to far-off African lands, hugging the shore by a tufted darkness of trees, there came a felucca that gleamed with lanterns. The oars sounded in the water, mingling with the voices of the men, whose vague, uncertain forms, some crouched, some standing up, some leaning over the river, that was dyed with streaks of light into which the shining drops fell back from the lifted blades, were half revealed to the watchers above them in the garden.

"Here come the Noobian peoples!"

"I wonder what they are doing here," said Nigel, "and why they come up the river to-night. Whose people can they be?"

Ibrahim opened his lips to explain, but Mrs. Armine looked at him, and he shut them without a word.

"Hush!" she whispered. "I want to listen."

This was like a serenade of the East designed to give her a welcome to Egypt, like the voice of this great, black Africa speaking to her alone out of the night, speaking with a fierce insistence, daring her not to listen to it, not to accept its barbaric summons. A sort of animal romance was stirred within her, and she began to feel strongly excited. She heard no longer the name of Allah, or, if she heard it, she connected it no longer with the Christian's conception of a God, with Nigel's conception of a God, but perhaps with strange idols in dusky temples where are mingled crimes and worship. Her imagination suddenly rose up, gathered its energies, and ran wild.

The boat stayed opposite the garden.

"It must be meant for me, it is meant for me!" she thought.

At that moment she knew quite certainly that this boat had come to the garden because she lived in the garden, that it paused so that she might be sure that the music was directed to her, was meant for no one but her. It was not for her and Nigel. Nigel had nothing to do with it. He did not understand its meaning.

At last the boat moved on, the flickering spears of light on the water travelled on and turned away, the voices floated away under the stars till the night enfolded them, the light and the music were taken and kept by the sleepless mystery of Egypt.

"Shall we go into the villa, Ruby?" said Nigel, almost diffidently, yet with a thrill in his voice.

She did not answer for a moment, then she said,

"Yes, I suppose it is time to go to bed."

Nigel drew her arm again through his, and they went away towards the house, while Ibrahim looked after them, smiling.



XIII

"Ruby," said Nigel, a fortnight later, coming into his wife's bedroom after the morning walk on the river bank which invariably succeeded his plunge into the Nile, "whom do you think I've just met in Luxor?"

He was holding a packet of letters and papers in his hand. The post had just arrived.

Mrs. Armine, wrapped in a long white gown which did not define her figure, with her shining hair coiled loosely at the back of her neck, was sitting before the toilet-table, and looked round over her shoulder.

"Some one we both know, Nigel?" she asked.

He nodded.

"Not the magenta and red together, then?"

"The Haymans—no, though I believe they are here at the Winter Palace."

"God bless them!" she murmured, with a slight contraction of her forehead. "Is it a man or a woman?"

"A man."

"A man!" She turned right round, with a sharp movement, holding the arms of her chair tightly. "Not Meyer Isaacson?"

"Isaacson! Good heavens! He never takes a holiday except in August. Dear old chap! No, this is some one not specially interesting, but not bad; only Baroudi."

Mrs. Armine's hands dropped from the arms of the chair, as she turned towards the glass.

"Baroudi!" she said, as if the name meant nothing to her. "Why do you string one up for nothing, Nigel?"

She took up a powder-puff.

"Do you mean the man on the Hohenzollern? What has he to do with us?"

Nigel crossed the room, and sat down on a chair by the side of the toilet-table, facing his wife and holding in his lap the bundle of letters and papers.

"Are you disappointed, Ruby?"

"No, because we don't need any one. But you roused my expectation, and then played a cold douche upon it, you tiresome person!"

There was a sort of muffled crossness in her voice, but as she passed the powder-puff over her face her eyes and her lips were smiling. Nigel leaned his arm upon the table.

"Ruby," he said.

"Well—what is it?"

She stopped powdering.

"I wish you wouldn't do—all that."

"All what?"

"All those things to your face. You are beautiful. I wish you would leave your face alone."

"I do, practically. I only try to save it a little from the sun. You wouldn't have me look like the wife of one of what Ibrahim calls 'the fellaheen peoples,' would you?"

"I want you to look as natural and simple as you always are with me. I don't mean that you are simple in mind, of course. I am speaking of your manner."

"My dear Nigel, who is affected nowadays? But I really mustn't look like the fellaheen peoples. Ibrahim would be shocked."

Nevertheless, she put the powder-puff down.

"You don't trust your own beauty, Ruby," he said.

She sat back and looked at him very gravely, as if his remark had made a strong impression upon her. Then she looked into the mirror, then she looked again at him.

"You think I should be wise to trust it as much as that?"

"Of course you would."

He laid his hand on hers.

"You are blossoming here in Egypt, but you hardly let one know it when you put things on your face."

She gazed again into the glass in silence.

"Any letters for me?" she said, at last.

"I haven't looked yet. I walked with Baroudi on the bank. He's joined his dahabeeyah, and is going up to Armant to see to his affairs in the sugar business up there."

"Oh!"

"I believe he only stays till to-morrow or Wednesday. He invited me to go over to his boat and have a look at it this afternoon."

"Are you going?"

"I told him I'd let him know. Shall I go?"

"Don't you want to?"

"I should like to see the boat, but—you see, he's half an Oriental, and perhaps he didn't think it was the proper thing to do, but—"

"He didn't invite me. Why should he? Go, Nigel. You want a man's society sometimes. You mustn't always sit in my pocket. And besides, you're just off to the Fayyum. I must get accustomed to an occasional lonely hour."

He pressed his hand on hers.

"I shall soon come back. And soon you shall come with me there."

"I love this place," she said. "Are there any letters for me?"

He untied the string of the packet, looked over the contents, and handed her three or four.

"And now run away and read yours," she said. "When you're in my room I can do nothing. You take up all my attention. I'll come down in a few minutes."

He gave her a kiss and obeyed her.

When he was in the little drawing-room, he threw the papers carelessly on a table without taking off their wrappers. He had scarcely looked at a paper since he had been in Egypt; he had had other things to do, things that had engrossed him mind and body. Like many men who are informed by a vital enthusiasm, Nigel sometimes lived for a time in blinkers, which shut out from his view completely the world to right and left of him. He could be an almost terribly concentrated man. And since he had been in Egypt he had been concentrated on his wife, and on his own life in relation to her. The affairs of the nations had not troubled him. He had read his letters, and little besides. Now he took those which had come that morning, and went out upon the terrace to run through them in the sunshine.

Bills, a communication from his agent at Etchingham, a note from his man of affairs in Cairo, and—hullo!—a letter from his brother, Harwich!

That did not promise him much pleasure. Already he had received several family letters scarcely rejoicing in his marriage. They had not bothered him as much as he had formerly feared they would. He did not expect his relations, or the world, to look at things with his eyes, to think of Ruby with gentleness or even forgiveness for her past. He knew his world too well to make preposterous mental demands upon it. But Harwich had already expressed himself with his usual freedom. There seemed no particular reason why he should write so soon again.

Nigel tore open the letter, read it quickly, re-read it, then laid it down upon his knees, pulled his linen hat over his eyes, and sat for a long while quite motionless, thinking.

His brother's letter informed him that his sister-in-law, Zoe, Harwich's wife, had given birth to twin children—sons—and that they were "stunningly well—hip, hip, hooray!"

Harwich's boisterous joy was very natural, and might be supposed to spring from paternal feelings that did him honour, but there was a note of triumph in his exultation which Nigel understood, and which made him thoughtful now. Harwich was glorying in the fact that Nigel and Nigel's wife were cut out of the succession—that, so far as one could see, Mrs. Armine would now never be Lady Harwich.

For himself Nigel did not care at all. Harwich was ten years older than he was, but he had never thought about succeeding him, had never wished to succeed him, and when he had married Ruby he had known that his sister-in-law was going to have a child. He had known this, but he had not told it to Ruby. He had not concealed it; simply, it had not occurred to him to tell her. Now the tone of Harwich's letter was making him wonder, "Will she mind?"

Presently he heard her coming into the room behind him, crossing it, stepping out upon the terrace.

"Nigel! Are you asleep?"

"Asleep!" he said. "At this hour!"

For once there was an unnatural sound in his voice, a note of carelessness that was forced. He jumped up from his chair, scattering his letters on the ground.

"You haven't read your letters all this time!"

"Not yet; not all of them, at least," he said, bending to pick them up. "I've been reading one from my brother, Harwich."

"From Lord Harwich?" She sent a sharp look to him. "Is it bad news? Is Lord Harwich ill?"

"No, Ruby."

"Then what's the matter?"

"The matter? Nothing! On the contrary, it's a piece of good news."

In spite of himself almost, his eyes were staring at her with an expression of scrutiny that was fierce, because of the anxiety within him.

"Poor old Harwich has had to wait so long, and now at last he's got what he's wanted."

"What's that?"

"A child—that is, children—twins."

There was a moment of silence. Then Mrs. Armine said, with a smile:

"So that's it!"

"Yes, that's it, Ruby."

"Girls? Boys? Girl and boy?"

"Boys, both of them."

"When you write, congratulate him for me. And now read the rest of your letters. I'm going to take a stroll in the garden."

As she spoke, she put up her parasol and sauntered away towards the Nile, stopping now and then to look at a flower or tree, to take a rose in her hand, smell it, then let it go with a careless gesture.

"Does she really mind? Damn it, does she mind?"

There had been no cloud on her face, no involuntary movement of dismay, yet in her apparently unruffled calm there had been a reticence that somehow had chilled him. She was so clever in reading people that surely she must have felt the anxiety in his heart, the eager desire to be reassured. If she had only responded to it frankly, if she had only come up to him, touched his hand, said, "Dear old boy, what does it matter? You don't suppose I've ever bothered about being the future Lady Harwich?"—something of that kind, all his doubts would have been swept away. But she had taken it too coolly, almost, had dismissed it too abruptly. Perhaps that was his fault, though, for he had been reserved with her, had not said to her all he was thinking, or indeed anything he was thinking.

"Ruby! I say, Ruby!"

Following a strong impulse, he hastened after her, and came up with her on the bank of the Nile.

"Look!" she said.

"What? Oh, Baroudi's dahabeeyah tied up over there! Yes, I knew that. It's to get out of the noise of Luxor. Ruby, you—you don't mind about Harwich and the boys?"

"Mind?" she said.

Her voice was suddenly almost angry, and an expression that was hard came into her brilliant eyes.

"Mind? What do you mean, Nigel?"

"Well, you see it makes a lot of difference in my position from the worldly point of view."

"And you think I care about that! I knew you did. I knew exactly what you were thinking on the terrace!"

There was a wounded sound in her voice. Then she added, with a sort of terribly bitter quietness:

"But—what else could you, or anyone, think?"

"Ruby!" he exclaimed.

He tried to seize her hand, but she would not let him.

"No, Nigel! don't touch me now. I—I shall hate you if you touch me now."

Her face was distorted with passion, and the tears stood in her eyes.

"I don't blame you a bit," she said. "I should be a fool to expect anyone, even you, to believe in me after all that—all that has happened. But—it is hard, sometimes it is frightfully hard, to bear all this disbelief that one can have any good in one."

She turned hurriedly away.

"Ruby!" he said, with a passion of tenderness.

"No, no! Leave me alone for a little. I tell you I must be alone!" she exclaimed, as he followed her.

He stopped on the garden path and watched her go into the house.

"Beast, brute that I am!" he said to himself.

He clenched his hands. At that moment he hated himself; he longed to strike himself down—himself, and all men with himself—to lay them even with the ground—cynics, unbelievers, agents destructive of all that was good and noble.

Mrs. Armine went straight up to her room, locked the door against her maid, and gave way to a violent storm of passion, which had been determined by Nigel's impulse to be frank, following on his news of Harwich. With the shrewd cleverness that scarcely ever deserted her, she had forced her temper into the service of deception. When she knew she had lost her self-control, that she must show how indignant she was, she had linked her anger to a cause with which it had nothing to do, a cause that would stir all his tenderness for her. At the moment when she was hating him, she was teaching him to love her, and deliberately teaching him. But now that she was alone, all that was deliberate deserted her, and, disregarding even the effect grief and anger unrestrained must have upon her appearance, she gave way, and gave way completely.

She did not come down to lunch, but towards tea-time she reappeared in the garden, looking calm, but pathetically tired, with soft and wistful eyes.

"When are you starting for the dahabeeyah?" she asked, as Nigel came anxiously, repentantly forward to meet her.

"I don't think I'll go at all. I don't want to go. I'll stay here and have tea with you."

"No, you mustn't do that. I shall like to have tea alone to-day."

She spoke very gently, but her manner, her eyes, and every word rebuked him.

"Then I'll go," he said, "if you prefer it."

He looked down.

"Baroudi's men have come already to take me over."

"I heard them singing, up in my bedroom. Run along! Don't keep him waiting."

With the final words she seemed to make an effort, to try to assume the playful, half-patronizing manner of a pretty woman of the world to a man supposed to adore her; but she allowed her lips to tremble so that he might see she was playing a part. He did not dare to say that he saw, and he went down to the bank of the Nile, got into the felucca that was waiting, and was rowed out into the river.

As soon as he had gone, Mrs. Armine called Ibrahim to come and put a chair and a table for her in the shadow of the wall, close to the stone promontory that was thrust out into the Nile to keep its current from eating away the earth embankment of the garden.

"I am going to have tea here, Ibrahim," she said. "Tell Hassan to bring it directly the sun begins to set."

"Yes, suttinly," replied the always young and cheerful. "And shall Ibrahim come back and stay with you?"

She shook her head, looking kindly at the boy, who had quickly learnt to adore her, as had all the Nubians in the villa.

"Not to-day, Ibrahim. To-day I want to be alone."

He inclined his long, thin body, and answered gravely:

"All what you want you must have, my lady."

"Don't call me 'my lady' to-day!" she exclaimed, with a sudden sharpness.

Ibrahim looked amazed and hurt.

"Never mind, Ibrahim!"—she touched her forehead—"I've got a bad head to-day, and it makes me cross about nothing."

He thrust one hand into his gold-coloured skirt, and produced a glass bottle full of some very cheap perfume from Europe.

"This will cure you, my la—mees. Rub it on your head. It is a bootiful stink. It stinks lovely indeed!"

She accepted it with a grateful smile, and he went pensively to order the tea; letting his head droop towards his left shoulder, and looking rather like a faithful dog that, quite unexpectedly, is not wanted by his mistress. Mrs. Armine sat still, frowning.

She could hear the Nubians of Baroudi singing as they bent to their mighty oars; not the song of Allah with which they had greeted her on her arrival, obedient perhaps to some message sent from Alexandria by their master, but a low and mysterious chaunt that was almost like a murmur from some spirit of the Nile, and that seemed strangely expressive of a sadness of the sun, as if even in the core of the golden glory there lurked a canker, like the canker of uncertainty that lies in the heart of all human joy.

The day was beginning to decline; the boatmen's voices died away; Hassan, in obedience to Ibrahim's order, brought out tea to his mistress in the garden. When he had finished arranging it, he stood near her for a moment, looking across the water to Baroudi's big white dahabeeyah, which was tied up against the bank a little way down the river. In his eyes there were yellow lights.

"What are you doing, Hassan?" asked Mrs. Armine.

The tall Nubian turned towards her.

"Mahmoud Baroudi is rich!" he said. "Mahmoud Baroudi is rich!"

He looked again at the dahabeeyah; then he came to the little table, moved a plate, touched and smoothed the table-cloth, and went quietly away.

Mrs. Armine sipped her tea and looked, still frowning, at the river, which began to lose its brown colour slowly, to gleam at first with pallid gold, then with a gold that shone like fire. The eddies beyond the breakwater were a light and delicate mauve and looked nervously alive. A strange radiance that was both ethereal and voluptuous, that seemed to combine elements both spiritual and material, was falling over this world, clothing it in a sparkling veil of beauty. And as the gold on the river deepened in hue, it spread swiftly upon the water, it travelled down towards Luxor, it crept from the western bank to the eastern bank of the Nile, from the dahabeeyah of Baroudi almost to the feet of Mrs. Armine.

"Mahmoud Baroudi is rich! Mahmoud Baroudi is rich!"

Why had Hassan said that? What had it to do with her? She looked across at Baroudi's great white boat, which now was turning into a black jewel on the gold of the moving river, and she felt as if, like some magician who understood her nature, he was trying to comfort her to-day by showering gold towards her. It was an absurd fancy, at which, in a moment, she was smiling bitterly enough.

She almost hated Nigel to-day. When she had left him in the garden before luncheon, she had quite hated him for his unworldliness, combined with a sort of boyish simplicity and wistfulness. Of course he had known, he must have known, that Zoe Harwich was going to have a child; he must have known it when he was shooting with his brother in the autumn. And he had never said a word of it to her. And now he was cut out of the succession. He might never have succeeded his brother; but there had been a great chance that he would, that some day she would be reigning as Lady Harwich. That thought had swayed her towards him, had had very much to do with the part she had played in London which had won her Nigel as a husband. If what was now a fact had been a fact a few weeks ago, would she ever have schemed to marry him, would such an alliance have been "worth her while"?

How Lady Hayman and all her tribe, a tribe which once had petted and entertained the beautiful Mrs. Chepstow, had dubbed her "Bella Donna," how they must be rejoicing to-day! She could almost hear what they were saying as she sat in the sunset by the Nile. "What a mercy that woman has overreached herself!" "How furious she must, be, now Harwich has got sons!" "What a delicious slap in the face for her after catching that foolish Nigel Armine!" Hundreds of women were smiling over her discomfiture at this moment, and probably also hundreds of men. For no one would give her credit for having married Nigel for himself, for having honestly fallen in love with him and acted "squarely" towards him. And, of course, she had not fallen in love with him. He was not, indeed, the type of man with whom a nature and a temperament like hers could fall in love. She had liked him before she married him, he had even had for her a certain physical attraction; but already that physical attraction—really the passing fancy of a capricious and a too-experienced woman—had lost its savour, and for a reason that, had he known it, would have cut Nigel to the heart.

She could not bear his love of an ideal, his instinct to search for hidden good in men and women, but especially in herself, his secret desire for moral progress. She knew that these traits existed in him, and therefore was able to hate them; but she was incapable of really understanding them, clever woman though she was. Her cleverness was of that type which comprehends vice more completely than virtue, and although she could apprehend virtue, as she had proved by her conduct in London which had led to her capture of Nigel, she could never learn really to understand its loveliness, or to bask happily in its warmth and light. Morally she seemed to be impotent. And the great gulf which must for ever divide her husband from her was his absolute disbelief that any human being can be morally impotent. He must for ever misunderstand her, because his power to read character was less acute than his power to love. And she, in her inmost chamber of the soul, though she might play a part to deceive, though she might seldom be, however often appearing to be, truly her natural self, had the desire, active surely or latent in the souls of all human creatures, to be understood, to be known as she actually was.

Nigel had been aware that Zoe Harwich was going to have a child, and he had never let her know it.

She repeated that fact over and over in her mind as she sat and looked at the sunset. Ever since the morning she had been repeating it over and over. Even her violent outburst of temper had not stilled the insistent voice which in reiteration never wearied. In the first moments of her bitterness and anger, the voice had added, "Nigel shall pay me for this." It did not add this now, perhaps because into her fierceness had glided a weariness. She was paying for her passion. Perhaps Nigel would have to pay for that payment too. He was going away to the Fayyum in two or three days. How she wished he was going to-night, that she need not be with him to-night, need not play the good woman, or the woman with developing goodness in her, to-night, now that she was weary from having been angry!

The tea had become almost black from standing. She poured out another cupful, and began to drink it without putting in milk or sugar. It tasted acrid, astringent, almost fierce, on her palate; it lifted the weariness from her, seemed to draw back curtains from a determined figure which slipped out naked into the light, the truth of herself untired and unashamed.

Nigel would have to reckon with that some day.

The gold was fading from the river now, the water was becoming like liquid silver, then, in a moment, like liquid steel. On the dahabeeyah, which began to look as if it were a long way off and were receding from her, shone a red and a blue light. Still the vehement voices of the brown fellahin at work by the shaduf rose unwearied along the Nile. During the last days Mrs. Armine's ears had grown accustomed to these voices, so accustomed to them that it was already becoming difficult to her to realize that but a short time ago she had never heard them, never felt their curious influence, their driving power, which, mingled with other powers of sun and air, flogs the souls of men and women into desire of ungentle joys and of sometimes cruel pleasures. And now, with the fading away of the daylight, those powerful, savage, and sad voices gained in meaning, seemed no more to be issuing from the throats of toiling and sweating Egyptians, but to be issuing from the throat of this land of ruins and gold, where the green runs flush with the sand, and the lark sings in the morning, where the jackal whines by night.

For a long time Mrs. Armine listened, sitting absolutely still. Then suddenly she moved, got up, and went swiftly towards the house. Nigel was coming back. Mingling with the voices of the shaduf men she heard the voices of Baroudi's Nubians.

When she had reached the house, she went up at once to her bedroom, shut the door, and stood by the open window that gave on to a balcony which faced towards the Nile. The voices of the shaduf men had now suddenly died away. With the rapid falling of night the singers' time for repose had come; they had slipped on their purple garments, and were walking to their villages. Those other voices drew nearer and nearer, murmuring deeply, rather than actually singing, their fatalistic chaunt which set the time for the oars.

Darkness came. The voices ceased.

Mrs. Armine leaned forward, with one hand on the window-frame. Her white teeth showed on her lower lip.

In the garden she heard two voices talking, and moving towards the house.

* * * * *

"Marie! Marie!"

Her maid came running.

"V'la, madame? What does madame want?"

"I am going to change my gown."

"Madame is going to dress for the evening?"

"No. I don't dine for two hours."

"Then madame—"

"Don't talk so much. Get me out a white gown, that white linen gown I got at Paquin's and have never worn yet. And put me out—"

She gave some directions about stockings and shoes, and went in to her dressing-room, where she stood before the mirror, carefully examining her face. Then she took off the hat she was wearing.

"Lock the bedroom door and the door into monsieur's room!" she called, in a moment.

"Bien, madame!"

"Mon Dieu!" muttered the maid, as she went to turn the keys, "is she going mad? What has she? There is no one here, there is no one coming, and all this tohu-bohu!"

"Get out the white hat with the white picotees!"

"Ah, mon Dieu!"

"Do you hear? The white—"

"I hear, I hear, madame! Oh, la, la, la!"

"Make haste!"

"Bien, madame, tres bien!"

The girl ran for the hat, and Mrs. Armine, who had lighted all the candles, sat down before the glass. She remembered Nigel's desire expressed to her that day that she would give up "doing things" to her face. Well, she would respond to it in this way!

Very carefully and cleverly she began to whiten her face, to touch up her eyes and her narrow, definite eyebrows.

"All is ready, madame!"

Marie was standing at the dressing-room door; she started and swung round on her heels as there came a knock at the door of the bedroom, the creak of the handle turning.

"Be quiet!"

Mrs. Armine had caught her arm. The girl stood still, staring and marvelling, while her mistress went noiselessly into the bedroom and sat down on the far side of the bed, leaning backwards till her head was near the pillows, which she took care not to touch.

"Ruby! Ruby!"

"What is it? Who's there? Who's there?"

The voice that replied sounded both languid and surprised.

"I—Nigel!"

Mrs. Armine sat up.

"What is it, Nigel? I'm lying down."

"Oh, I'm—I'm sorry if I've disturbed you, but—you're not ill?"

"No, only resting. What is it, Nigel?"

"I've brought Baroudi over to see you and the villa, and to dine with us to-night."

"Oh—very well."

"You don't mind, Ruby?"

The voice outside the door was suddenly very low.

"Go down and entertain him, and I'll come almost directly."

The handle creaked, as he let it go, but for a moment there was no sound of retreating footsteps.

"Look here, Ruby, if—"

"Go down! I'll come directly."

Footsteps went towards the stairs.

"Get me into my gown! Wait—change my stockings first."

Marie knelt down quickly on the floor. As she bent her head, she was smiling.

She began to understand.



XIV

When Mrs. Armine came into the little drawing-room, it was empty, but she smelt cigars, and heard the murmur of voices outside near the terrace. The men were evidently walking up and down enjoying the soft air of the evening. She did not go out immediately, but stood and listened to the voices.

Ah, they were talking about the Fayyum—doubtless discussing some question of sowing, planting, of the cultivation of land!

This evening her face seemed to retain in its skin an effect of her outburst of passion, a sensation of dryness and harshness, as if it were unduly stretched over the flesh and had lost its normal elasticity. Just before she came out of her bedroom, Marie, with a sort of reluctant admiration, had exclaimed, "Madame est exquise ce soir!" She wondered if it were true, and as the voices without grew softer for a moment, more distant, she went to stand again before a mirror, and to ask herself that question.

She had chosen to put on a walking-dress instead of a tea-gown, because she believed that in it she would look younger, her splendid figure being still one of her greatest advantages. Yes, her figure was superb, and this gown showed it off superbly. The long quiet of her very dull life in London while she had known Nigel, followed by her comparative repose in the splendid climate of Egypt, had done wonders for her appearance. Certainly to-night, despite any ravages made by her injudicious yielding to anger, she looked years younger than she had looked in Isaacson's consulting-room. The wrinkles about her eyes showed scarcely at all, or—not at all. And she was marvellously fair.

Orientals delight in fairness, and always suppose Occidentals to be years younger than they really are, if they have succeeded in retaining any of the charms of youth.

Marie was not far wrong.

She turned to step out upon the terrace.

"Ah, Mahmoud Baroudi!" she said, with a sort of lazy but charming indifference, as the two men came to meet her. "So you have come up the river to look after—what is it? your something—your sugar?"

"My sugar; exactly, madame," he replied gravely, bowing over her hand. "I hope you will forgive my intrusion. Your husband kindly insisted on bringing me over—and in flannels."

His apology was extremely composed, but Nigel was looking a little excited, a little anxious, was begging forgiveness with his eyes for all the trouble of the morning. She was not going to seem to give it him yet; a man on the tenter-hooks was a man in the perfectly right place. So she was suave, and avoided his glance without seeming to avoid it. They strolled about a little, talking lightly of nothing particular; then she said, speaking for the first time directly to her husband,

"Nigel, don't you think you'd better just go and tell Hassan we shall be three at dinner, and have a little talk to the cook? Your Arabic will have more effect upon the servants than my English. Mahmoud Baroudi and I will sit on the terrace till you come back."

"Right you are!" he said.

And he went off at once, leaving them together.

As soon as he was gone, Mrs. Armine sat down on a basket chair. For a moment she said nothing. In the silence her face changed. The almost lazy naturalness and simplicity faded gradually out of it, revealing the alert and seductive woman of the world. Even her body seemed to change, to become more sensitive, more conscious, under the eyes of Baroudi; and all the woman in her, who till now, save for a few subtle and fleeting indications of life, had lain almost quiescent, rose suddenly and signalled boldly to attract the attention of this man, who sat down a little way from her, and gazed at her in silence with an Oriental directness and composure.

Although they had talked upon shipboard, this was the first time they had been en tete-a-tete.

To-night Mrs. Armine's eyes told Baroudi plainly that she admired him, told him more—that she wished him to know it; and he accepted her admiration, and now made a bold return. For soon the change in her was matched by the change in him. The open resolution of his face, which on the ship had often attracted Nigel, was now mingled with a something sharp, as of cunning, with a ruthlessness she could understand and appreciate. As she looked at him in the gathering darkness of the night, she realized that housed within him, no doubt with many companions, there was certainly a brigand, without any fear, without much pity. And she compared this brigand with Nigel.

"How do you find Egypt, madame? Do you like my country?"

He leaned a little forward as at last he broke their silence, and the movement, and his present attitude, drew her attention to the breadth of his mighty shoulders and to the arresting poise of his head, a poise that, had it been only a shade less bold, would have been almost touchingly gallant.

"Have you seen all the interesting things in Thebes and Karnak?"

"Yes. We've been quite good tourists. We've been to the Colossi, the tombs, the temples. We've dined by moonlight on the top of the Pylon at Karnak. We've seen sunset from Deir-al-Bahari."

"And sunrise?"

"From nowhere. I prefer to sleep in the morning."

"And do you care about all these things, tombs, temples, mummies—madame? Have you enjoyed your Egyptian life?"

She paused before answering the question. As a fact, she had often enjoyed her expeditions with Nigel in the bright and shimmering gaiety of the exquisite climate of Luxor; the picnic lunches out in the open, or within the walls of some mighty ruin; the smart canters on the straight brown paths between the waving green prairies or crops, above which the larks sang and the wild pigeons flew up to form the only cloud in the triumph of gold and of blue; the long climbs upward into the mountains along the tiger-coloured ways, where the sun had made his empire since the beginning of the world; the descents when day was declining, when the fellahin went homewards under the black velvet of the palm-trees, and the dust stirred by their brown and naked feet rose up in spirals towards the almost livid light of the afterglow. And she had enjoyed the dinner at Karnak in the pale beams of a baby moon. For she still had the power to enjoy, and much of the physical energy of the average Englishwoman, who is at home in the open air and quite at her ease in the saddle. And Egypt was for her a complete novelty, and a novelty bringing health, and a feeling almost of youth.

Nevertheless, she paused before replying.

Secretly, during all these days she was now considering, she had been as one who walks in a triumph. She had been exulting in the coup she had made just when her life seemed turning to greyness, exulting in the blow she had struck against a society which had despised her and cast her out. Exultation had coloured her days. Now suddenly, unexpectedly, she knew she had been living in a fool's paradise, into which Nigel had led her. And this knowledge fell, like a great shadow, over all the days in Egypt behind her, blotting out their sunshine, their gaiety, their glow.

"Pretty well," she said, at last. "Do you care about such things?"

He shrugged his mighty shoulders.

"Madame, I am not a tourist. What should I do in the temples among the bats, and in the tombs where one can almost smell the dead people? You must not come to us Egyptians for all that. You must go to the old English maidens—is that it?—maidens who wear helmets on their grey hair done so"—he put up his brown hands, and pretended to twist up a tiny top-knot at the back of his head—"and who stroke the heads of the dragomans sitting there at their feet, what they call their 'tootsicums,' and telling them thousands of lies. Or you must go to the thin antiquaries, with the red noses and the heads without any hair, who dig for mummies while their wives—ah, well I must not say that! But we Egyptians, we have other things to do than to go and stare at the Sphinx. We have always seen it. We know it is there, that it is not going to run away. So we prefer to enjoy our lives while we can, and not to trouble about it. Do you blame us?"

"No," she said. "I never blame any one for enjoying life."

There was in his look and manner, even in his attitude, a something that was almost like a carelessly veiled insolence. In a European she would perhaps have resented it. In him not only did she not resent it, but she was attracted by it. For it seemed to belong as of right to his great strength, his bold and direct good looks, which sprang to the eyes, his youth, and his Eastern blood. Such a man must feel often insolent, however carefully he might hide it. Why should he not show some grains of his truth to her?

"Nor for any way of enjoying life, madame?" he said.

And he leaned still a little more forward, put up one big hand to his cheek, let it drop down to his splendid throat, and kept the fingers inside his soft turn-down collar while he looked into her eyes.

"I didn't say that."

"Would you care much what way it was if it gave the enjoyment?"

"Would you?"

"I! Certainly not. But—I am not like Mr. Armeen."

He slightly mispronounced the name.

"Mr. Armine?" she said. "What about him?"

"Would he not think that some things one might do and many things one must not do? All the Englishmen are like that. Oh, dear, if one does the thing they think wrong! Oh, dear! Oh, Law!"

He took away his hand from his throat, held it up, then slapped it down upon his knee.

"My word!" he added, smiling, and always searching her eyes with his. "It is worse than to eat pig by daylight in Ramadan would seem to an Egyptian."

"Do you dislike the English?"

"What must I say?"

"Say the truth."

"If it is the English ladies, I think them lovely."

"And the Englishmen?"

"Oh, they are all—good fellers."

He threw into the last two words an indescribable sound of half-laughing contempt.

"They are all—good fellers. Don't you think so?"

"But what does that mean?"

"Splendid chaps, madame!"

He sat up straight, and threw out his chest and thumped it.

"Beef, plum pudding, fine fellers, rulers!"

"You mustn't laugh at my countrymen."

"Laugh—never! But—may I smile, just at one corner?"

He showed his rows of little, straight, white teeth, which looked strong enough to bite through a bar of iron.

"The Englishman rules us in Egypt. He keeps saying we are ruling, and he keeps on ruling us. And all the time he rules us, he despises us, madame. He thinks us silly children. But sometimes we smile at him, though of course he never smiles at us, for fear a smile from him should make us think we are not so far below him. It is very wrong of us, but somehow Allah permits us to smile. And then"—again he leaned forward, and his chair creaked in the darkness—"there are some Englishwomen who like to see us smile, some who even smile with us behind the Englishman's back."

He spoke calmly, with a certain subtle irony, but quite without any hint of bitterness, and in speaking the last words he slightly lowered his voice.

"Is it very wrong of them, madame? What do you say? Do you condemn them?"

She did not answer, but her mobile, painted lips quivered, as if she were trying to repress a smile and were not quite succeeding.

"If they smile, if they smile—isn't that a shame, madame?"

He was smiling into her eyes.

"It is a great shame," she said. "I despise deceitful women."

"And yet who does not deceive? Everybody—except the splendid fellers!"

He threw back his head and laughed, while she looked at his magnificent throat.

"You never talked like this on the Hohenzollern," she said.

"Madame, I was never alone with you. How could I talk like this? I should not have been properly understood."

Not only in his eyes, but also in this assumption of a certain comradeship and sympathy from which Nigel and Nigel's kind were necessarily excluded, there was a definite insolence that seemed to strike upon and challenge Mrs. Armine, like a glove flung in her face. Would she perhaps have resented it even yesterday? She could not tell. To-night she was ready to welcome it, for to-night she almost hated Nigel. But, apart from her personal anger, Baroudi made an impression upon her that was definite and strong. She felt, she ever seemed to perceive with her eyes, the love of brigandage in him—and had she not been a brigand? There were some ruined men who could have answered that question. And in this man there was a great fund of force and of energy. He threw out an extraordinary atmosphere of physical strength, in which seemed involved a strength that was mental, like dancing motes in a beam of light. Mrs. Armine was a resolute woman, as Meyer Isaacson had at once divined. She felt that here was a human being who could be even more resolute than herself, more persistent, more unyielding, and quite as subtle, quite as cool. Though he was an Eastern man and she was a Western woman, how should each not understand much of the other's character? And as to him—Orientals are readers of brains, if not of souls.

She felt a great sense of relief, as if a balm were laid at evening upon the morning's wound.

"Ruby!"

Baroudi leaned back quietly, looking calm and strong and practical. And this time Mrs. Armine noticed that the basket chair did not creak beneath his movement.

"Is it all right about the dinner, Nigel?"

"I hope so," he said. "But Baroudi mustn't suppose we've got a chef like his."

"I'll leave you for a little while," she said, getting up. "Dinner at a quarter past eight."

"Thank you, madame."

He was standing up.

"You pardon my flannels?"

"I like men in flannels, don't I, Nigel?"

She spoke carelessly, almost absently, and went slowly into the house. Again she had subtly cast around her a gentle atmosphere of rebuke.

On the table in the drawing-room were lying, still in their wrappers, the papers which had come by the morning's post. She took one up, as she passed, and carried it upstairs with her; and when she was in her bedroom she opened it, and glanced quickly through the social news. Ah! there was a paragraph about Lady Harwich!

"The birth of twin sons to the Countess of Harwich has given much satisfaction in social circles, as both Lord and Lady Harwich are universally popular and esteemed. It is said that the baptism of the infants will take place, in the Chapel Royal of St. James's Palace, and that His Majesty the King will be one of the sponsors. Until this happy event, the next heir to the title and the immense estates that go with it was the Honourable Nigel Armine, who recently married the well-known Mrs. Chepstow, and who is ten years younger than Lord Harwich."

Somehow, now that she saw the fact stated in print, Mrs. Armine felt suddenly more conscious both of the triumph of Lady Harwich and of the Harwich, which was the social, faction generally, and of what seemed her own defeat. What a comfortable smile there must be just now upon the lips of the smart world, upon the lips of numbers of women not a bit better than she was! And Nigel had "let her in" for it all. Her lips tightened ominously as she remembered the cool American eyes of Lady Harwich, which had often glanced at her with the knowing contempt of the lively but innocent woman, which stirs the devil in women who are not innocent, and who are known not to be innocent.

She put down the paper; she went to the window and looked out. From the garden there rose to her nostrils the delicate scent of some hidden flower that gave its best gift to the darkness. In the distance, to her right, there was a pattern of coloured fire relieved against the dimness, that was not blackness, of the world. That was Baroudi's dahabeeyah.

Women were smiling in London, were rejoicing in her misfortune. As she looked at the lines of lamps, they seemed to her lines of satirical eyes, then, presently, lines of eyes that were watching her and were reading the truth of her nature.

She called Marie, and again she changed her gown.

While she was doing so, Nigel came up once more, taking Baroudi to a bedroom, and presently tried the door between her bedroom and his.

"Can't come in!" she called out, lightly.

"You're not changing your dress?"

"I couldn't dine in linen."

"But we are both—"

"Men—and I'm a woman, and I can't dine in linen. I should feel like a sheet or a pillow-case. Run away, Nigel!"

She heard him washing his hands, and presently she heard him go away. She knew very well that the lightness in her voice had whipped him, and that he was "feeling badly."

When the small gong sounded for dinner, she went downstairs, dressed in a pale yellow gown with a high bodice in which a bunch of purple flowers was fastened. She wore no jewels and no ornament in her hair.

As she came into the room, for a moment Nigel had the impression that she was a stranger coming in. Why was that? His mind repeated the question, and he gazed at her with intensity, seeking the reason of his impression. She was looking strangely, abnormally fair. Had she again, despite the conversation of the morning, "done something" to her face? Was its whiteness whiter than usual? Or were her lips a little redder? Or—he did not know what she had done, whether, indeed, she had done anything—but he felt troubled, ill at ease. He felt a longing to be alone with Ruby, to make her forgive him for having hurt her in the morning. He hated the barrier between them, and he felt that he had created it by his disbelief in her. Women are always more sensitive than men, and who is more sensitive than the emerging Magdalen, encompassed by disbelief, by irony, by wonder? He felt that in the morning he had been radically false to himself, that by his lapse from a high ideal of conduct he had struck a heavy blow upon a trembling virtue which had been gathering its courage to venture forth into the light.

During the dinner, almost everything, every look, tone, gesture, attitude, that was expressive of Ruby, confirmed him in self-rebuke. She was certainly changed. The rather weary and wistful woman who had stayed alone in the garden when he went to the dahabeeyah had given place to a woman more resolute, brilliant, animated—a woman who could hold her own, who could be daring, almost defiant, and a woman who could pain him in return, perhaps, for the pain he had inflicted on her. The dinner was quite good. Their Nubian cook had been trained in a big hotel, and Mrs. Armine had nothing to apologize for. Baroudi politely praised the cooking. Yet she felt that behind his praise there lurked immeasurable reservations, and she remembered the time when her chef was the most famous in London, a marvel who had been bribed by a millionaire lover of hers to leave the service of a royalty to bring his gift to her. She mentioned this fact to Baroudi. It was a vulgar thing to do, and at heart she was not vulgar; but she was prompted by two desires. She felt in her guest the Oriental's curious and almost romantic admiration of riches, and wished to draw this admiration towards herself; and she wanted to inflict some more punishment on Nigel.

"You seem to be something of an epicure, Mahmoud Baroudi," she said. "I suppose you have heard of Armand Carrier?"

"The best chef in Europe, madame? How should I not have heard of him among my friends of Paris?"

"He was in my service for five years."

There was a pause. Nigel suddenly turned red. Baroudi moved his large eyes slowly from Mrs. Armine to him, and at length observed calmly:

"I felicitate you both. You must have had a treasure. But why did you let him go?"

He addressed the question to Nigel.

"He was not in my service," said Nigel, with a sudden, very English stiffness that was almost like haughtiness. "It was long before we were married."

"Oh—I see. But what a pity! Then you did not have the benefit of eating his marvellous plats."

"No. I don't care about that sort of thing."

"Really!"

They talked of other matters, but Nigel had lost all his bonhomie, and seemed unable to recover it.

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