Baroudi, like a good Mohammedan, declined to drink any wine, but when the fruit was brought, Mrs. Armine got up.
"I'll leave you for a little while," she said. "You'll find me on the terrace. Although Mahmoud Baroudi drinks nothing, I am sure he likes men's talk better than woman's chatter."
Baroudi politely but rather perfunctorily denied this.
"But what do you say," he added, "to coming as my guest to take a cup of coffee and a liqueur at the Winter Palace Hotel? To-night there is the first performance of a Hungarian band which I introduced last winter to Egypt, and which—I am told; I am not, perhaps, a judge of your Western music—plays remarkably. What do you say? Would it please you, madame?"
"Yes, do let us go. Shan't we go?"
She turned to Nigel.
"Of course," he said, "if you like. But can you walk in that dress?"
"It's perfectly dry outside. I'll come down in a moment."
She was away for nearly ten; then she returned, wrapped up in a marvellous ermine coat, and wearing on her head a yellow toque with a high aigrette at one side.
"I'm ready now," she said.
"What a beautiful coat!" Nigel said.
He had not seen it before. He gently smoothed it with his brown fingers. Then he looked at her, took them away, and stepped back rather abruptly.
When they arrived at the great hotel the band was already playing in the hall, and a number of people, scattered about in little detached groups, were listening to it and drinking Turkish coffee. It was very early in the season. The rush up the Nile had not begun, and travellers had not yet cemented their travelling acquaintanceships. People looked at each other rather vaguely, or definitely ignored each other, with profiles and backs which said quite plainly: "We won't have anything to do with you until we know more about you." The entrance of the party from the Villa Androud created a strong diversion. As soon as Baroudi was perceived by the attendants, there was a soft and gliding movement to serve him. The tall Nubians in white and scarlet smiled, salaamed, and showed their pleasure and their desire for his notice. The German hall porter hastened forward, with a pink smile upon his countenance; the chef d'orchestre, a real Hungarian, began to play at him with fervour; and a black gentleman in gold and scarlet, who looked like a Prince of the East, but who was really earning his living in connection with the lift to the first floor, bounded to show them to a table.
Baroudi accepted all these attentions with a magnificent indifference that had in it nothing of assumption. They sat down, he ordered coffee and liqueurs, and they listened to the music, which was genuinely good, and had the peculiar fervent and yet melancholy flavour which music receives from the bows of Hungarian fiddlers. Nigel was smoking. He seemed profoundly attentive, did not attempt any conversation, and kept his eyes on the ground. Mrs. Armine seemed listening attentively, too, but she had not been sitting for five minutes before she had seen and summed up every group in her neighborhood; had defined the nationalities, criticized the gowns and faces of the women, and made up her mind as to the characters of the men who accompanied them, and as to the family or amorous ties uniting them to each other and the men.
And she had done more than this: she had measured the amount of interest, of curiosity, of admiration, of envy, of condemnation which she herself excited with the almost unerring scales of the clever woman who has lived for years both in the great and the half worlds.
Quite near them, not level with their table, but a little behind it on the right, within easy range of her eyes, Lord and Lady Hayman were sitting, with another English couple, a Sir John and Lady Murchison, smart, gambling, racing, pleasure-loving people, who seemed to be everywhere at the same time, and never to miss any function of importance where their "set" put in an appearance. Lady Murchison was a pretty and vindictive blonde—the sort of woman who looks as if she would bite you if you did not let her have her way. She was smiling cruelly now, and murmuring to Lady Hayman, a naturally large, but powerfully compressed personage, with a too-sanguine complexion insufficiently corrected by powder, and a too-autocratic temperament insufficiently corrected by Lord Hayman.
All these people—Mrs. Armine knew it "in her bones"—had just been reading the Morning Post. Here in Egypt they stood for "London." She saw London's verdict, "Serve her right," in their cool smiles, their moments of direct attention to herself—an attention hard, insolent, frigid as steel—in the curious glances of pity combined with a sort of animal, almost school-boy, amusement, which the two men sent towards Nigel.
She looked from "London" to "Egypt," represented by Baroudi. In marrying Nigel she had longed to set her heel upon the London which had despised her; she had hoped some day to set the heel of Lady Harwich upon more than one woman whom she had known before she was cast out. Secretly she had reckoned upon that, as upon something that was certain, something for which she had only to wait. Lord Harwich was worn out, and he was a wildly reckless man, always having accidents, always breaking his bones. She would only have to wait.
And now—twin boys, and all London smiling!
Again she looked at Baroudi. The fervent and melancholy music was rising towards a climax. It caught hold of her now, had her in a grip, swept her onwards. When it ceased, she felt as if she had been carried away from "London," and from those old ambitions and hopes for ever.
Baroudi's great eyes were upon her, and seemed to read her thoughts; and now for the first time she felt uneasy under their resolute gaze, felt the desire, almost the necessity to escape from it and to be unwatched.
"Have you had enough of the music, Nigel?" she said to her husband, as the musicians lifted their chins from their instruments, and let their arms drop down.
"What, Ruby? By Jove, they do play well!"
There was a look in his eyes almost as of one coming back from a long and dark journey underground into the light of day. That music had taken him back to the side of the girl whom he had loved, and who had died so long ago. Now he looked at the woman who was living, and to whom the great power to love which was within him was being directed, on whom it was being concentrated.
"Do you mind if we go home?" she said.
"You have had enough of it already?"
"No, not that; but—I'm tired," she said.
As she spoke, skilfully, without appearing to do so, she led him to look towards the little group of the Murchisons and the Haymans; led him to pity her for their observation, and to take that as the cause of her wish to go. Perhaps it was partly the cause, but not wholly, and not as she made him believe it.
"Ill take you home at once," Nigel said, tenderly.
When they were outside Baroudi bade them good-bye, and invited them to tea on the Loulia—so his dahabeeyah was called—on the following day.
"In the evening I may start for Armant," he said. "Will it bore you to come, madame?"
He spoke politely, but rather perfunctorily, and she answered with much the same tone.
"Thanks, I shall be delighted. Good-night. The music was delicious."
His tall figure went away in the dark.
When he had left them there was a silence. Nigel made a movement as if he were going to take her hand, and draw her arm within the circle of his; but he did not do it, and they walked on side by side by the river, not touching each other, not speaking. And so, presently, they came to the villa, and to the terrace before the drawing-room. Then Nigel spoke at last.
"Are—you are going in at once, Ruby?" he said.
"I—will you call from your window presently?"
"When I may come up. After this morning I must talk to you before we sleep."
She looked at him, then looked down, resting her white chin on the warm white fur of the ermine.
"I'll call," she said.
As she went away he looked after her, and thought how almost strangely tall she looked in the long white coat. He paced up and down as he waited, listening for the sound of her voice. After what seemed to him a very long time he heard it at last.
"Nigel! You can come up now—if you like."
He went upstairs at once to her room, and found her sitting in an arm-chair near the window, which led on to the balcony, and which was wide open to the night. She was in a loose and, to him, a mysterious white and flowing garment, with sleeves that fell away from her arms like wings. Her hair was coiled low at the back of her neck.
The room was lit by two candles, which burned upon a small writing-table, and by the wan and delicate moonlight that seemed to creep in stealthily, yet obstinately, from the silently-breathing Egypt in whose warm breast they were. He stood for a moment; then he sat down on a little sofa, not close to her, but near her.
"Ruby," he said.
"This has been the first unhappy day for me since we've been married."
"Yes, because of the cloud between us."
She said nothing, and he resumed:
"It's made me know something, though, Ruby; it's made me know how much I care—for you."
He leaned forward, and, as he did so, her mind went to Baroudi, and she remembered exactly the look of his shoulders and of his throat when he was leaning towards her.
"I don't think I really knew it before. I'm sure I didn't know it. What made me understand it was the way I felt when I found I had hurt you, had done you a wrong for a moment. Ruby, my own feeling has punished me so much that I don't think you can want to punish me any more."
"I punish you!" she said. "But what wrong have you done me? And how could I punish you?"
"I did you a wrong this morning by thinking for a moment—" He stopped; he found he could not put it quite clearly into words. "Over Harwich and the boys," he concluded.
"Oh, that! That didn't matter!" she said.
She spoke coldly, but she was feeling more excited, more emotional, than she had felt for a very long time, than she had known that she could feel.
"It mattered very much. But I don't think I really thought it."
"Yes, you did!" she said, sharply.
He sat straight up, like a man very much startled.
"You did think it. Don't try to get out of it, Nigel."
"Ruby, I'm not trying. Why, haven't I said—"
But she interrupted him.
"You did think, what every one thinks, that I'm a greedy, soulless woman, and that I even married you"—she laid a fierce emphasis on the pronoun—"out of the wretched, pettifogging ambition some day to be Lady Harwich. You did think it, Nigel. You did think it!"
"For one moment," he said.
He got up from the sofa, and stood by the window. He felt like a man in a moral crisis, and that what he said at this moment, and how he said it, with how much deep sincerity and how much warmth of heart, might, even must, determine the trend of the future.
"For one moment I did just wonder whether perhaps when you married me you had thought I might some day be Lord Harwich."
Through the open window came faintly the nasal cry of the Nubian sailor beginning the song of the Nile upon the lower deck of the Loulia. With it there entered the very dim throbbing of the beaten daraboukkeh, sounding almost like some strange and perpetual ground-swell of the night, that flood of shadowy mystery and beauty in which they and the world were drowned. The distant music added to her sense of excitement and to his.
"Ruby—try to see—I think it was partly a humble feeling that made me wonder—a difficulty in believing you had cared very much for me."
"Why should you, or any one, think I have it in me to care?"
"I thought so in London, I think so here, I have always thought so—always. If others have—have disbelieved in you ever, I haven't been like them. You doubt it?"
He moved a step forward, and stood looking down on her.
"But I could prove it."
"Meyer Isaacson knows it."
He did not refer to his marrying her as a proof already given, for that might have meant something else than belief in the hidden unworldliness of her, and in her hidden desire for that which was good and beautiful.
"And don't you—don't you know it, even after this morning?"
"After this morning—I don't want to hurt you—but after this morning you will have to prove it to me, thoroughly prove it, or else I shall not believe it."
The solo voice of the Nubian sailor was lost in the chorus of voices which came floating over the Nile.
"I don't want to be cold," she continued, "and I don't want to be unkind, but one can't help certain things. I have been driven, forced, into scepticism about men. I don't want to go back into my life, I don't want to trot out the old 'more sinned against than sinning' cliche. I don't mean to play the winey-piney woman. I never have done that, and I believe I've got a little grit in me to prevent me ever doing it. But such a thing as happened this morning must breed doubts and suspicions in a woman who has had the experience I have had. I might very easily tell you a lie, Nigel. I might very easily fall into your arms and say I've forgotten all about it, and I'll never think of it again, and all that sort of thing. It would be the simplest thing in the world for me to act a part to you. But you've been good to me when I was lonely, and you've cared for me enough to marry me, and—well, I won't. I'll tell you the truth. It's this: I can't help knowing you did doubt me, and I'm not really a bit surprised, and I don't know that I'd any right to be hurt; but whether I had any right or not, I was hurt, and it will take a little time to make me feel quite safe with you—quite safe—as one can only feel when the little bit of sincerity in one is believed in and trusted."
She spoke quietly, but he felt excitement behind her apparent calm. In her voice there was an inflexible sound, that seemed to tell him very clearly it meant what it was saying.
Always across the Nile came the song of the Nubian sailors.
"I'm not surprised that you feel like that," he said.
He stood for a moment considering, then he sat down once more, and began to speak with a resolution that seemed to be prompted by passion.
"Ruby, to-day I think I was false to myself, because to-day I was false to my real, my deep-down belief in you. In London I did think you cared for me as a man, not perhaps specially because I'd attracted you by my personality, but because I felt how others misunderstood you. It seemed to me—it seems to me now—that I could answer to a desire in you to which no one else ever tried, ever wished to answer. The others seemed to think you only wanted the things that don't really count—lots of money, luxury, jewels, clothes—you know what I mean. I felt that your real desire was—well, I must put it plainly—to be loved and not lusted after, to be asked for something, not only to be given things. I felt that, I seemed to know it. Wasn't I right?"
"To-night—I don't know," she said.
Her ears were full of the music that wailed and throbbed in the breast of the night.
"Can't you forgive that one going back on myself after all these days and—and nights together? Haven't I proved anything to you in them?"
"You have seemed to, perhaps. But men so often seem, and aren't. And I did think you knew why I had married you."
"Tell me why you married me."
"Long ago," he said, and now he spoke slowly, and with a deep earnestness which suddenly caught the whole of her attention, "Long ago I loved a girl, Ruby. She was very young, knew very little of the world, and nothing at all of its beastlinesses. I think I loved her partly because she knew so little, she was so very pure. One could see—see in her eyes that they had never looked, even from a distance, on mud, on anything black. She loved me. She died. And, after that, she became my ideal."
He looked at her, slowly lifting his head a little. There was a light in his eyes which for a moment half frightened, half fascinated her, so nakedly genuine was it—genuine as a flame which burns straight in an absolutely windless place.
"In my thoughts I always kept her apart from all other women—always—for years and years, until one night in London, after I knew you. That night—I don't know how it was, or why—I seemed to see her and you standing together, looking at each other; I seemed to know that in you both—I don't know how to tell it exactly"—he stopped, looked down, like one thinking deeply, like one absorbed in thought—"that in you both, mixed with quantities of different things, there was one thing—a beautiful thing—that was the same. She—she seemed that night to tell me that you had something I had loved in her, that it was covered up out of sight, that you were afraid to show it, that nobody believed you had it within you. She seemed to tell me that I might teach you to trust me and show it to me. That night I think I began to love you. I didn't know I should ever tell this to any one, even to you. Do you think I could tell it if I distrusted you as much as you seem to think?"
"Give me a glass of Apollinaris, will you, Nigel?" she said. "It's over there beside the bed."
He stared at her as if confused by this sudden diversion.
She pointed. The long sleeve, like a wing, fell away from her soft, white arm.
He went to get it. She sat still, looking out through the open window to the moonlight that lay on the white stone of the balcony floor. She heard the chink of glass, the thin gurgle of liquid falling. Then he came back and stood beside her.
"Here it is, Ruby."
The enthusiasm had gone out of his voice, and the curious light had gone out of his eyes.
She took it, put it to her lips, and drank. Then she set the glass down on the writing-table.
"We're at the beginning of things, Nigel," she said. "That's the truth. We can't jump into a mutual perfection of relationship at once. I've got very few illusions, and I dare say I'm absurdly sensitive about certain matters, much more sensitive than even you can imagine. The fact is I've—I've been trodden on for a long while. A man can't know what a woman—a lady—who's been thoroughly 'in it' feels when she's put outside, and kept outside, and—trodden on. It sends her running to throw her arms round the neck of the Devil. That may be abominable, but it's the fact. And, when she tries to come back from the Devil—well, she's a mass of nerves, and ready to start at a shadow. I saw a shadow to-day in the garden—"
"I know, I know!"
"You remember the night we dined on the Pylon at Karnak? After dinner you tried to show me the ruins by moonlight, and wherever we went a black-robed watchman followed us, or a black-robed watchman glided from behind a pillar, or an obelisk, or a crumbling wall, and faced us, and at last we took to flight. Well, that's what life is like to certain women; that's what life has been for a long time to me. Whenever I've tried to look at anything beautiful quietly, I've been followed or faced by a black-robed watchman, staring at me suspiciously. And to-day you seemed to be one when you asked me that about Harwich."
She took up the glass and drank some more of the water. When she put it down he was kneeling beside her. He put his arms around her.
"I won't be that again."
A very faint perfume from her hair came to him, now that he was so close to her.
"I don't want to be that ever."
He held her, and, while he held her, he listened to the Nubian sailors and to the word that was nearly always upon their tireless lips.
God was there in the night, by the great, mysterious Nile, that flows from such far-off sources in the wild places of the earth; God was attending to them—to him and Ruby. He had the simple faith almost of a child in a God who knew each thing that he thought, each thing that he did. Thousands of men have this faith, and thousands of men conceal it as they might conceal a sin. They fear their own simplicity.
The purpose of God, was it not very plain before him? He thought now that it was. What he had to do was to restore this woman's confidence in the goodness that exists by having a firm faith in the goodness existing in her, by not letting that faith be shaken, as he had let it be shaken that day.
He hated himself for having wounded her, and as he hated himself his strong arms closed more firmly round her, trying to communicate physically to her the resolution he was forming.
And the Nubian sailors went on singing.
To him that night they sang of God.
To her they sang of Mahmoud Baroudi.
"What is the meaning of that Arabic writing, Mahmoud Baroudi?" said Mrs. Armine on the following afternoon, as she stood with him and her husband upon the lower deck of the Loulia, at the foot of the two steps which led down to the big door dividing the lines of living-rooms from the quarters of the Nubian sailors. The door was white, with mouldings of gold, and the inscription above it was in golden characters.
"It looks so significant that I must know what it means," she added.
"It is taken from the Koran, madame."
"And it means?"
He fixed his great eyes upon her.
"'The fate of every man have we bound about his neck.'"
"'The fate of every man have we bound about his neck,'" she repeated, slowly. "So that is the motto for the Loulia!"
She was standing quite still, staring up at the cabalistic signs beneath which she was going to pass.
"Do you dislike it, madame?"
"No, it's strong, but—well, it leaves no loophole for escape, and it rather suggests a prison."
"We are in the prison of our lives, and we are in the prison of ourselves," he answered, calmly.
She dropped her eyes from the words.
"Yes?" she said, looking at him like one who asks for more.
"Prison!" said Nigel, behind her. "I hate that word. You're wrong, Baroudi. Life is a fine freedom, if we choose it to be so, and we can act in it according to our own free-will. Our fate is not bound about our necks. It is only we ourselves who can bind it there."
"All that is not at all in my belief," returned Baroudi, inflexibly. "Here are cabins for servants."
He led them into a passage, and pointed to little doors on the right and left.
"And here is my room for working and arranging all I have to do. I believe you English call it a 'den.'"
He opened a door that faced them at the end of the passage, and preceded them into his "den." The effect of this chamber was that it was a "double room," for an exquisite screen of mashrebeeyeh work, in the centre of which was a small round arch, divided it into two compartments. On each side of this arch, facing the entrance door, were divans covered with embroideries and heaped with enormous cushions. Prayer-rugs covered the floor, prayer-rugs of very varied patterns and colours, on which yellows, greens, mauves, pinks, reds, purples, and browns dwelt in perfect accord; on which vases were seen with trees, lamps with flowers, strange and conventional buildings with ships, with chains, with pedestals, with baskets of fruit, mingled together, apparently at haphazard, yet forming a blend that was restful. By the windows there were lattices of mashrebeeyeh work, which could be opened and closed at will. At present they were open. Beneath them were fitted book-cases containing rows of books, in English and French, many of them works on agriculture, on building, on mining, on the sugar and cotton industries in various parts of the world. There was a large writing-table of lacquer-work, on which stood a movable electric lamp without a shade, in the midst of a rummage of pamphlets and papers. Near it were a coffee-table and two deep arm-chairs. From the ceiling, which was divided into compartments painted in dark red and blue, hung a heavy lamp by a chain of gilded silver. A stick of incense burned in a gilded holder. The dining-room, on the other side of the screen, was fitted with divans running round the walls, and contained a large table and a number of chairs with curved backs. The table was covered with a long and exquisitely embroidered Indian cloth, of which the prevailing colour was a brilliant orange-red, that glowed and had a sheen which was almost fiery. In the centre of this table stood a tawdry Japanese vase, worth, perhaps, five or six shillings. A lovely bracket of carved wood fixed to the wall held a cheap cuckoo-clock from Switzerland.
Mrs. Armine looked around in silence, with eyes that missed no detail. The clock whirred, a minute door flew open, the cuckoo appeared, and the two notes that are the cry of the English spring went thinly out to the Nile. Then the cuckoo disappeared, and the little door shut sharply.
Mrs. Armine smiled.
"You bought that?" she asked.
"Yes, madame. Everything here was bought by me, and arranged according to my poor judgment."
He opened the door, and led them into a long passage with a shining parquetted floor.
"Here are the bedrooms, madame."
He pushed back two or three doors, showing beautiful little cabins, evidently furnished from Paris, with bedsteads, mosquito-curtains, long mirrors, small arm-chairs in white, and green and rose-colour; walls painted ivory-white; and delicate, pretty, but rather frivolous, curtains and portieres, with patterns of flowers tied up with ribands, and flying and perching birds. All the toilet arrangements were perfect, and each room had a recess in which was a large enamelled bath.
"That is my bedroom, madame," said Baroudi, pointing to a door which he did not open. "It is the largest on the boat. And here is my room for sitting alone. When I want to be disturbed by no one, when I want to smoke the keef, to eat the hashish, or just to sit by myself and forget my affairs, and dream quietly for a little, I shut myself in here."
An embroidered curtain, the ground of which was orange colour, covered with silks of various hues, faced them at the end of the corridor. Baroudi pulled aside this curtain, pushed back a sliding door of wood that was almost black, and said:
"Will you go in first, madame?"
Mrs. Armine stepped in, with an almost cautious slowness.
She found herself in a large saloon, which took in the whole width of the stern of the dahabeeyah. The end of this saloon widened out and was crescent-shaped, and contained a low dais with curving divans, divided by two sliding doors which were now pushed back in their recesses, giving access to a big balcony that looked out over the Nile and that was protected by an awning. The wooden ceiling was cut up into lozenges of black and gold, and was edged by minute inscriptions from the Koran, in gold on a black ground. All the windows had lattices of mashrebeeyeh work fitted to them, and all these lattices were closed. Against the walls, which were as dark in colour as the mashrebeeyeh work, there were a number of carved brackets, on which were placed various extremely common things—cheap and gaudy vases from Naples and Paris, two more Swiss cuckoo-clocks, a third clock with a blue and white china face—and a back that looked as if were made of brass, a musical-box, and a grotesque monster, like a dragon with a dog's head, in rough yellow and blue earthenware. There were no chairs in the room, though there were some made of basket-work on the balcony, but all the lower part of the wall space was filled with broad divans. In the centre of the floor there was a sunken receptacle of marble, containing earth, in which dwarf palms were growing, and a faskeeyeh, or little fountain, which threw up a minute jet of water, upon which airily rose and fell a gilded ball about the size of a pea. All over the floor were strewn exquisite rugs. The room was pervaded by a faint but heavy perfume, which had upon the senses an almost narcotic effect.
"What a strange room!" said Mrs. Armine.
She had stood quite still near the door. Now she walked forward, followed by the two men, until she had passed the faskeeyeh and had reached the foot of the dais. There she turned round, with her back to the light that came in through the narrow doorways leading to the balcony. Baroudi had shut the door by which they had come in, and had pulled over it a heavy orange-coloured curtain, which she now saw for the first time. Although lovely in itself both in colour and material, fiercely lovely, like the skin of some savage beast, it did not blend with the rest of the room, with the dim hues of the superb embroideries and prayer-rugs, with the dark wood of the lattices that covered the windows. Like the cheap clocks on the exquisite brackets, and the vulgar ornaments from Naples and Paris, it seemed to reveal a certain childishness in this man, a bad taste that was naive in its crudity, but daring in its determination to be gratified. Oddly, almost violently, this curtain, these clocks and vases, the musical-box, even the tiny gilded ball that rose and fell in the fountain, displayed a part of him strangely different from that which had selected the almost miraculously beautiful rugs, and the embroideries on the divans. Exquisite taste was married with a commonness that was glaring.
Mrs. Armine wished she could see his bedroom.
"I wish—" she began, and stopped.
"Yes, madame?" said Baroudi.
"What is it, Ruby?" asked Nigel.
"You'll laugh at me. But I wish you would both go out upon the balcony, shut the doors, and leave me for a minute shut up alone in here. I think I should feel as if I were in the heart of an Eastern house."
"In a harim, do you mean?" asked Nigel.
"That—perhaps. Do go."
Baroudi smiled, showing his rows of tiny teeth.
"Come, Mr. Armeen!" he said.
He stepped out on to the balcony, followed by Nigel, and pulled out from the recess the first of the sliding doors.
"You really wish the other, too?" he asked, looking in upon Mrs. Armine. "You will be quite in the dark."
"Shut it!" she said, in a low voice.
He pulled out the second door. Gently it slid across the oblong of sunlight, blotting out the figures of the two men from her sight. Baroudi had said that she would be quite in the dark. That was not absolutely true. How and from where she could not determine, a very faint suggestion—it was hardly more than that—of light stole in to show the darkness to her. She went to the divan on the starboard side of the vessel, felt for some cushions, piled them together, and lay down, carefully, so as not to disarrange her hat. The divan was soft and yielding. It held and caressed her body, almost as if it were an affectionate living thing that knew of her present desire. The cushions supported her arm as she lay sideways—listening, and keeping perfectly still.
She had some imagination, although she was not a highly or a very sensitively imaginative woman, and now she left her imagination at play. It took her with it into the heart of an Eastern house which was possessed by an Eastern master. Where was the house, in what strange land of sunshine? She did not know or care to know. And indeed, it mattered little to her—an Eastern woman whose life was usually bounded by a grille.
For she imagined herself an Eastern woman, subject to the laws and the immutable customs of the unchanging East, and she was in the harim of a rich Oriental, to whom she belonged body and soul, and who adored her, but as the man of the East adores the woman who is both his mistress and his slave. For years she had ruled men, and trodden them under her feet. She had lived for that—the ruling of men by her beauty and her clever determination. Now she imagined herself no longer possessing but entirely possessed; no longer commanding, but utterly obedient. What a new experience that would be! All the capricious womanhood of her seemed to be alert and tingling at the mere thought of it. Instead of having slaves, to be herself a slave!
She moved a little on the divan. The heavy perfume that pervaded the room seemed to be creeping about her with an intention—to bring her under its influence. She heard the very faint and liquid murmur of the faskeeyeh, where the tiny gilded ball was rising, poising, sinking, governed by the aspiring and subsiding water. That, too, was a slave—a slave in the Eastern house of Baroudi.
Slowly she closed her eyes, in the Eastern house of Baroudi.
Here Baroudi lay, as she was lying, and smoked the keef, and ate the hashish, and dreamed.
He would never be the slave of a woman. She felt sure of that. But he might make a woman his slave. At moments, when he looked at her, he had the eyes of a slave-owner. But he might adore a slave with a cruel adoration. She felt cruelty in him, and it attracted her, it lured her, it responded to something in her nature which understood and respected cruelty, and which secretly despised gentleness. In his love he would be cruel. Never would he be quite at the feet of the woman. His eyes had told her that, had told it to her with insolence.
The gilded ball in the faskeeyeh, the slave covered with jewels in the harim.
She stretched out her arms along the cushions; she stretched out her limbs along the divan, her long limbs that were still graceful and supple.
How old did Baroudi think her?
Arabs never know their ages. A man, a soldier whom she had known, had told her that once, had told her that Arabs of sixty declare themselves to be twenty-five, not from vanity, but merely because they never reckon the years. Baroudi would probably never think of her as Englishmen thought of her, would never "bother about" her age. She had seen no criticism of that kind in his eyes when they stared at her. Probably he believed her to be quite young, if he thought of her age at all. More probably he did not think about the matter.
She was in the Eastern house of Baroudi.
When she and Nigel had left London for Egypt she had imagined herself one day, if not governing London—the "London" that had once almost worshipped her beauty—at least spurning it as Lady Harwich. She had wrapped herself in that desire, that dream. All her thoughts had been connected with London, with people there. Some day Lord Harwich would die or get himself killed. Zoe Harwich would sink reluctantly into "Zoe, Lady Harwich," and she, once the notorious Mrs. Chepstow, would be mistress of Harwich House, Park Lane; of Illington Park, near Ascot; of Goldney Chase in Derbyshire; of Thirlton Castle in Scotland; and of innumerable shooting-lodges, to say nothing of houses at Brighton and Newmarket. Society might not receive her, but society would have to envy her. And perhaps—in the end—for are not all things possible in the social world of to-day?—perhaps in the end she would impose herself, she would be accepted again because of her great position. She had felt that her cleverness and her force of will made even that possible. Harwich's letter had swept the dream away, and now, the first shock of her new knowledge passed, though not the anger, the almost burning sense of wrong that had followed immediately upon it, she was characteristically readjusting her point of view upon her future. She had schemed for a certain thing; she had taken the first great step towards the realization of her scheme; and then she had suddenly come upon catastrophe. And now her thoughts began to turn away from London. The London thoughts were dying with the London hopes. "All that is useless now." That was what her mind was saying, bitterly, but also with decision. Schooled by a life filled with varying experiences, Mrs. Armine had learnt one lesson very thoroughly—she had learnt to cut her losses. How was she going to cut this loss?
She was in the Eastern house of Baroudi.
Only a few hours ago she had looked out upon Egypt and things Egyptian almost as a traveller looks upon a world through which he is rushing in a train, a world presented to him for a brief moment, but with whose inhabitants he will never have anything to do, in whose life he will never take part. She had to be in Egypt for a while, but all her desires and hopes and intentions were centred in London. There her destiny would be played out, there and in the land of which London was the beating heart.
Now she must centre her desires, her hopes, her intentions elsewhere, if she centred them anywhere. She must centre them upon Nigel, must centre them in the Fayyum, in the making of crops to grow where only sand had been, both in the Fayyum and in another place, or she must centre them—
She smelt the heavy perfume; she smoothed the silken pillows with her long fingers; she stretched her body on the soft divan; she listened to the liquid whisper of the faskeeyeh.
There were many sorts of lives in the world. She had had many experiences, but how many experiences she had never had! No longer did she feel herself to be a traveller rushing onward through a land of which she would never know, or care to know, anything. The train was slackening speed. She saw the land more clearly. Details came into view, making their strange and ardent appeal. The train would presently stop. And she would step out of it, would face the new surroundings, would face the novel life.
Suddenly she distended her nostrils to inhale the perfume more strongly, her hands closed upon the silken cushions with a grip that was almost angry, and something within her, the something that tries to command from its secret place, scourged her imagination to force it to more violent efforts—in the Eastern house of Baroudi.
One of the sliding doors was pushed back, the sunlight came in, tempered by the shade thrown by the awning, and she saw the little ball dancing in the faskeeyeh, and her husband looking inquiringly upon her, framed in the oblong of the doorway.
"What on earth are you doing?"
"Nothing!" she said, sitting up with a brusque movement.
"I believe you were taking a nap."
She got up.
"To tell the truth, I was almost asleep."
She stood up, put her hands to her hat, to her hair, and with a slight but very intelligent movement sent the skirt of her gown into place.
"Let me out," she said.
Nigel drew back, and she stepped out upon the balcony, where Baroudi was leaning upon the railing, looking over the sunlit Nile. He turned round slowly and very calmly to meet her, moving with the almost measured ease of the very supple and strong man, drew forward a basket chair, arranged a cushion for her politely, but rather carelessly, and not at all cleverly, and said, as she sat down:
"You like the heart of my Eastern house?"
"How do you manage the fountain?" she asked.
He embarked upon a clear and technical explanation, but when he had said a very few words, she stopped him.
"Please don't! You are spoiling my whole impression. I oughtn't to have asked."
"Baroudi is a very practical man," said Nigel. "I only wish I had him as my overseer in the Fayyum."
"If I can ever give you advice I shall be very glad," said Baroudi. "I know all about agriculture in my country."
Mrs. Armine leaned back, and looked at the broad river, upon which there were many native boats creeping southward with outspread sails, at the columns of the great Temple of Luxor standing up boldly upon the eastern bank, at the cloud of palm-trees northward beyond the village, at the far-off reaches of water, at the bare and precipitous hills that keep the deserts of Libya. At all these features of the landscape she looked with eyes that seemed to be new.
"Talk about agriculture to my husband, Mahmoud Baroudi," she said. "Forget I am here, both of you."
"Pas de compliments! This is my first visit to a dahabeeyah. Your Nile is making me dream. If only the sailors were singing!"
"They shall sing."
He went up a few steps, and looked over the upper deck; then he called out some guttural words. Almost instantly the throb of the daraboukkeh was audible, and then a nasal cry: "Al-lah!"
"And now—talk about agriculture!"
Baroudi turned away to Nigel, and began to talk to him in a low voice, while Mrs. Armine sat quite still, always watching the Nile, and always listening to the sailors singing. Presently tea was brought, but even then she preserved, smiling, her soft but complete detachment.
"Go on talking," she said. "You don't know how happy I am."
She looked at her husband, and added:
"I am drinking Nile water to-day."
Into his face there came a strong look of joy, which stirred irony in the deeps of her nature. He did not say anything to her, but in a moment he renewed his conversation with Baroudi, energetically, vivaciously, with an ardour which she had deliberately given him, partly out of malice, but partly also to gain for herself a longer lease of tranquillity. For she had spoken the truth. She was drinking Nile water to-day, and she wanted to drink more deeply.
The river was like a dream, she thought. The great boats, with their lateen sails and their grave groups of silent brown men, crept noiselessly by like the vessels that pass in a dream. Against the sides of the Loulia she heard the Nile water whispering softly, whispering surely to her. From the near bank, mingling with the loud and nasal song of the Nubian sailors, rose the fierce and almost tragic songs of the fellahin working the shadufs. How many kinds of lives there were in the world!
The blow that had fallen upon Mrs. Armine had made her unusually thoughtful, unusually introspective, unusually sensitive to all influences from without; had left her vibrating like a musical instrument that had been powerfully struck by a ruthless hand. The gust of fury that had shaken her had stirred her to a fierce and powerful life, had roused up all her secret energies of temper, of will of desire, all her greed to get the best out of life, to wring dry, as it were, of their golden juices every one of the fleeting years. "To-morrow we die." Those who believe that, as she believed it, desire to live as no believer in a prolonged future in other worlds can ever desire to live—here, for the little day—and never had she felt that hungry wish more than she felt it now. Through her dream she felt it, almost as a victim of ardent pain feels that pain, without suffering under it, after an injection of morphia. If she could not have the life to which she had looked forward of triumph in England, she must have in its place some other life that suited her special temperament, some other life that would answer to the call within her for material satisfactions, for strong bodily pleasures, for the joys of the pagan, the unbeliever, who is determined to "make the most of" the short span of human life on earth.
How could she now have that other life with Nigel? He would never be Lord Harwich. He would never be anything but Nigel Armine, a man of moderate means interested in Egyptian agriculture, with a badly let property in England, and a strip of desert in the Fayyum. He would never be anything except that—and her husband, the man who had "let her in." She did not mentally add to the tiny catalogue—"and the man who loved her."
For a long while she sat quite still, leaning her head on the cushion, hearing the singing and crying voices, the perpetual whisper of the water against the Loulia's sides, watching the gleaming Nile and the vessels that crept upon it going towards the south; and now, for the first time, there woke in her a desire to follow them up the river, to sail, too, into the golden south. Instead of the longing to return to and reign in England, came the desire to push England out of her life, almost to kick it away scornfully and have done with it for ever. Since she could never reign in England, she felt that she hated England.
"In the summer? Oh, I always spend the summer in England."
Nigel was speaking cheerfully. She began to attend to his conversation with Baroudi, but she still looked out to the Nile, and did not change her position. They were really talking about agriculture, and apparently with enthusiasm. Nigel was giving details of his efforts in the Fayyum. Now they discussed sand-ploughs. It seemed an unpromising subject, but they fell upon it with ardour, and found it strangely fruitful. Even Baroudi seemed to be deeply interested in sand-ploughs. Mrs. Armine forgot the Nile. She was not at all interested in sand-ploughs, but she was interested in this other practical side of Baroudi, which was now being displayed to her. Very soon she knew that of all these details connected with land, its cultivation, the amount of profit it could be made to yield in a given time, the eventual probabilities of profit in a more distant future, he was a master. And Nigel was talking to him, was listening to him, as a pupil talks and listens to a master. The greedy side of Mrs. Armine was very practical, as Meyer Isaacson had realized, and therefore she was fitted to appreciate at its full value the practical side of Baroudi. She felt that here was a man who knew very well how and where to tap the streams whose waters are made of gold, and, as romance seduces many women, so, secretly, this powerful money-making aptitude seduced her temperament, or an important part of it. She was fascinated by this aptitude, but presently she was still more fascinated by the subtle use that he was making of it.
He was deliberately rousing up Nigel's ambitions connected with labour, was deliberately stinging him to activity, deliberately prompting him to a sort of manly shame at the thought of his present life of repose. But he was doing it with an apparent carelessness that was deceptive and very subtle; he was doing it by talking about himself, and his own energy, and his own success, not conceitedly, but simply, and in connection with Nigel's plans and schemes and desires.
Why was he doing this? Did he want to send Nigel to spend the winter in the Fayyum? And did he know that Nigel intended to "rig up something" in the Fayyum for her?
She began to wonder, to wonder intensely, why Baroudi was stirring up Nigel's enthusiasm for work. It seemed as if, for the moment, the two men had entirely forgotten that she was there, had forgotten that in the world there was such a phenomenon as woman. She had a pleasant sensation of listening securely at a key-hole. Usually she desired to attract to herself the attention of every man who was near her. To-day she wished that the conversation between her husband and Baroudi might be indefinitely prolonged; for a strange sense of well-being, of calmness, indeed of panacea, was beginning to steal at last upon her, after the excitement, the bitter anger that had upset her spirit. It seemed to her as if in that moment of utter repose in the darkness of the chamber near the fountain a hypnotic hand had been laid upon her, as if it had not yet been removed. Really she was already captured by the dahabeeyah spell, although she did not know it. A dahabeeyah is the home of dreams, and of a deeply quiet physical well-being. Mrs. Armine was a very sensuous woman, and sensitive to all sensuous impressions; so now, while her husband talked eagerly, enthusiastically, of the life of activity and work, she received from the Nile its curious gift of bodily indolence and stillness. Her body never moved, never wished to move, in the deep and cushioned chair, was almost like a body morphia-stricken; but her mind was alert, and judging the capacities of these two men. And still it was seeking secretly the answer to a "Why?" when Nigel at length exclaimed:
"Anyhow, I meant to get off by the train to-morrow night. And you? When are you starting up the river?"
"I have a tug. I go away to-night."
"To Armant for some days. Then I go farther up the river. I have interests near Kom Ombos. I shall be away some time, and then drop down to Assiout. I have nothing more to do here."
"Interests in Assiout, too?"
"Oh, yes; at Assiout I have a great many. And just beyond here I have some—a little way up the river on the western bank."
"I have orange-gardens there."
"I wonder you can manage to look after it all—sugar, cotton, quarries, house property, works, factories. Phew! It almost makes one's head spin. And you see into everything yourself!"
"Where the master's eye does not look, the servant's is turned away. Do you not find it so in the Fayyum?"
"I shall know in two or three days."
Nigel suddenly looked round at his wife.
"I hear you," she said, slowly. "You had forgotten all about me, but I was listening to you."
She moved, and sat straight up, putting her hands on the broad cushioned arms of the chair.
"I was receiving a lesson," she added.
"A lesson, Ruby?" said Nigel.
"A lesson in humility."
Both men tried to make her explain exactly what she meant, but she would not satisfy their curiosity.
"You have brains enough to guess," was all she said.
"We must be going, Nigel. Look! it is nearly sunset. Soon the river will be turning golden."
As she said the last word, she looked at Baroudi, and her voice seemed to linger on the word as on a word beloved.
"Won't you stay and see the sunset from here, madame?" he said.
"I am sure you have lots to do. I have been listening to some purpose, and I know you are a man of affairs, and can have very little time for social nonsense, such as occupies the thoughts of women. I feel almost guilty at having taken up even one of your hours."
Nigel thought there was in her voice a faint sound as if she were secretly aggrieved.
Baroudi made a polite rejoinder, in his curiously careless and calmly detached way, but he did not press them again to stay any longer, and Nigel felt certain that he had many things to do—preparations, perhaps, to make for his departure that evening. He was decidedly not a "woman's man," but was a keen and pertinacious man of affairs, who liked the activities of life and knew how to deal with men.
He bade them good-bye on the deck of the sailors.
Just before she stepped down into the waiting felucca, Mrs. Armine, as if moved by an impulse she could not resist, turned her head and gazed at the strange Arabic Letters of gold that were carved above the doorway through which she had once more passed.
"The fate of every man have we bound about his neck."
Baroudi followed her eyes, and a smile, that had no brightness in it, flickered over his full lips, then died, leaving behind it an impassible serenity.
That night, just when the moon was coming, the Loulia, gleaming with many lights, passed the garden of the Villa Androud, and soon was lost in the night, going towards the south.
On the following evening, by the express that went to Cairo, Nigel started for the Fayyum.
The Loulia gone from the reach of the river which was visible from the garden of the Villa Androud; Nigel gone from the house which was surrounded by that garden; a complete solitude, a complete emptiness of golden days stretching out before Mrs. Armine! When she woke to that little bit of truth, fitted in to the puzzle of the truths of her life, she looked into vacancy, and asked of herself some questions.
Presently she came down to the drawing-room, dressed in a thin coat and skirt that were suitable for riding, for walking, for sitting among ruins, for gardening, for any active occupation. Yet she had no plan in her head; only she was absolutely free to-day, and if it occurred to her to want to do anything, why, she was completely ready for the doing of it. Meanwhile she sat down on the terrace and she looked about the garden.
No one was to be seen in it from where she was sitting. The Egyptian gardener was at work, or at rest in some hidden place, and all the garden was at peace.
It was a golden day, almost incredibly clear and radiant, quivering with brightness and life, and surely with ecstasy. She was set free, in a passionate wonder of gold. That was the first fact of which she was sharply conscious. By this time Nigel must be in Cairo; by the evening he would be in that fabled Fayyum of which she had heard so much, which had become to her almost as a moral symbol. In the Fayyum fluted the Egyptian Pan by the water; in the Fayyum, as in an ample and fruitful bosom, dwelt untrammelled Nature, loosed from all shackles of civilization. And there, perhaps to-morrow, Nigel would begin making his eager preparations for her reception and housing—his ardent preparations for the taking of her "right down to Nature," as he had once phrased it to her. She touched her whitened cheek with her carefully manicured fingers, and she wondered, not without irony, at the strange chances of human life. What imp had taken her by the hand to lead her to a tent in the Fayyum, in which she would dwell with a man full of an almost sacred moral enthusiasm? She would surely be more at home lying on embroideries and heaped-up cushions, with her nostrils full of a faint but heavy perfume of the East, and her ears of the murmur of dancing waters, and her mind, or spirit, or soul, or whatever it was, in contact with another "whatever it was," unlit, unheated, by fires that might possibly scorch her, but that could never purify her.
What a marvellous golden day it was! This morning she felt the beneficent influence of the exquisite climate in a much more intimate way than she had ever felt it before. Why was that? Because of Nigel's absence, or because of some other reason? Although she asked herself the question, she did not seek for an answer; the weather was subtly showering into her an exquisite indifference—the golden peace of "never mind!" In the Eastern house of Baroudi, as she squeezed the silken cushions with her fingers, something within her had said, "I must squeeze dry of their golden juices every one of the fleeting years." In this day there were some drops of the golden juices—some drops that she must squeeze out, that her thirsty lips must drink. For the years were fleeting away, and then there would come the black, eternal nothingness. She must turn all her attention towards the joys that might still be hers in the short time that was left her for joy—the short time, for she was a woman, and over forty.
A tent in the Fayyum with Nigel! Nobody else but Nigel! Days and days in complete isolation with Nigel! With the man who had "let her in"! And life, not stealing but clamorously rushing away from her!
She thought of this, she faced it; the soul of her condemned it as a fate almost ludicrously unsuited to her. And yet she was undisturbed in the depths of her, although, perhaps, the surface was ruffled. For the weather would not be gainsaid, the climate would have its way; the blue, and the gold, and the warmth, combining with the knowledge of freedom, could not be conquered by any thought that was black, or by any fear. It seemed to her for a moment as if she were almost struggling to be angry, to be unhappy, and as if the struggle were vain.
She was quite free in this world of gold. What was she going to do with her freedom?
In the golden stillness of the garden she heard the faint rustle of a robe, and she looked round and saw Ibrahim coming slowly towards her, smiling, with his curly head drooping a little to the left side. Behind both his ears there were roses, and he held a rose in his hand with an unlighted cigarette.
"What are we going to do to-day, Ibrahim?" said Mrs. Armine, lazily.
Ibrahim came up and stood beside her, looking down in his very gentle and individual way. He smoothed the front of his djelabieh, lifted his rose, smelt it, and said in his low contralto voice:
"We are goin' across the river, my lady."
"We are goin' to take our lunchin'; we are goin' to be out all day."
"Oh! And what about tea?"
"We are goin' to take it with us in that bottle that looks all made of silver."
"Silver and—gold," she murmured, looking into the radiant distance where Thebes lay cradled in the arms of the sun-god.
"And when are we going, Ibrahim?"
He looked at her, and his soft, pale brown lips stretched themselves and showed his dazzling teeth.
"When you are ready, my lady."
She looked up into his face. Ibrahim was twenty, but he was completely a boy, despite his great height and his tried capacities as a dragoman. Everything in him suggested rather the boy than the young man. His long and slim and flexible body, his long brown neck, his small head, covered with black hair which curled thickly, the expression in his generally smiling eyes, even his quiet gestures, his dreamy poses, his gait, his way of sitting down and of getting up, all conveyed, or seemed to convey, to those about him the fact that he was a boy. And there was something very attractive in this very definite youngness of his. Somehow it inspired confidence.
"I suppose I am ready now."
Mrs. Armine spoke slowly, always looking up at Ibrahim.
"But is there a felucca to take us over?" she added.
"In four five minutes, my lady."
"Call to me from here when it is ready. I leave all the lunch and tea arrangements to you."
"All what you want you must have, my lady."
Was that a formula of Ibrahim's? To-day he seemed to speak the words with a conviction that was not usual, with some curious under-meaning. How much of a boy was he really? As Mrs. Armine went upstairs she was wondering about him.
Nigel had said to her, "You are blossoming here." And he had said to her, "You are beautiful, but you do not trust your own beauty." And that was true, perhaps. To-day she would be quite alone with Ibrahim and the Egyptians; she would be in perfect freedom, and downstairs upon the terrace the idea had come to her to fill up the time that must elapse before the felucca arrived in "undoing" her face. She went into her bedroom, and shut and locked the door.
"The felucca is here suttinly, my lady!"
Ibrahim called from the terrace some ten minutes later; then he came round to the front of the house, and cried out the words again.
"I shall be down in a moment."
Another ten minutes went by, and then Mrs. Armine appeared. She had an ivory fly-whisk in her hand, and a white veil was drawn over her face.
"Is everything ready, Ibrahim?"
They went to the felucca and crossed the river.
At a point where there was a stretch of flat sandy soil on the western shore, Hamza, the praying donkey-boy, was calmly waiting with two large and splendidly groomed donkeys. Mrs. Armine stepped out of the felucca, helped by Ibrahim, and the felucca at once put off, and began to return across the Nile. The boatmen sang in deep and almost tragic voices as they plied the enormous oars. Their voices faded away on the gleaming waste of water.
Mrs. Armine had stood close to the river listening to them. When the long diminuendo was drawn back into a monotonous murmur which she could scarcely hear, she turned round with a sigh; and she had a strange feeling that a last link which had held her to civilization had snapped, and that she was now suddenly grasped by the dry, hot hands of Egypt. As she turned she faced Hamza, who stood immediately before her, motionless as a statue, with his huge, almond-shaped eyes fixed unsmilingly upon her.
"May your day be happy!"
He uttered softly and gravely the Arabic greeting. Mrs. Armine thanked him in English.
Why did she suddenly to-day feel that she lay in the hot breast of Egypt? Why did she for the first time really feel the intimate spell of this land—feel it in the warmth that caressed her, in the softness of the sand that lay beneath her feet, in the little wind that passed like a butterfly and in the words of Hamza, in his pose, in his look, in his silence? Why? Was it because she was no longer companioned by Nigel?
On the day of her arrival Nigel had pointed out Hamza to her. Now and then she had seen him casually, but till to-day she had never looked at him carefully, with woman's eyes that discern and appraise.
Hamza was of a perfectly different type from Ibrahim's. He was excessively slight, almost fragile, with little bones, delicate hands and feet, small shoulders, a narrow head, and a face that was like the face of a beautiful bronze, grave, still, enigmatic, almost inhuman in its complete repose and watchfulness—a face that seemed to take all and to give absolutely nothing. As Mrs. Armine looked at him she remembered the descriptive phrase that set him apart from all the people of Luxor. He was "the praying donkey-boy."
Why had Ibrahim engaged him for their expedition to-day? She had never had him in her service before.
In a low voice she asked Ibrahim the question.
"He is a very good donkey-boy, but he is not for my lord Arminigel."
Mrs. Armine wondered why, but she asked nothing more. To-day she felt herself in the hands of Egypt, and of Egypt Ibrahim and Hamza were part. If she were to enjoy to-day to the utmost, she felt that she must be passive. And something within her seemed to tell her that in all that Ibrahim was doing he was guided by some very definite purpose.
He helped her on to her donkey. Upon the beast he was going to ride were slung two ample panniers. The fragile-looking Hamza, whose body was almost as strong and as flexible as mail, would run beside them—to eternity, if need be—on naked feet.
"Where are we going, Ibrahim?"
"We are goin' this way, my lady."
He gave a loud, an almost gasping, sigh. Instantly his donkey started forward, followed by Mrs. Armine's. The broad river was left behind; they set their course toward the arid mountains of Libya. Ibrahim kept always in front to lead the way. He had pushed his tarbush to the back of his curly head, and as he rode he leaned backwards from his beast, sticking out his long legs, from which the wrinkling socks slipped down, showing his dark brown skin. He began to sing to himself in a low and monotonous voice, occasionally interrupting his song to utter the loud sigh that urged the donkey on. Hamza ran lightly beside Mrs. Armine. He was dressed in white, and wore a white turban. In his right hand he grasped a long piece of sugar-cane. As he ran, holding himself quite straight, his face never changed its expression, his eyes were always fixed upon the mountains of Libya.
Upon the broad, flat lands that lay between the Nile and the ruins of Thebes the young crops shed a sharp green that looked like a wash of paint. Here and there the miniature forests of doura stood up almost still in the sunshine. Above the sturdy brakes of the sugar-cane the crested hoopoes flew, and the larks sang, fluttering their little wings as if in an almost hysterical ecstasy. Although the time was winter, and the Christians' Christmas was not far off, the soft airs seemed to be whispering all the sweet messages of the ardent spring that smiles over Eastern lands. This was a world of young rapture, not careless, but softly intense with joy. All things animate and inanimate were surely singing a love-song, effortless because it flowed from the very core of a heart that had never known sorrow.
"You are blossoming here!"
Nigel had said that to Mrs. Armine, and she thought of his words now, and she felt that to-day they were true. Where was she going? She did not care. She was going under this singing sky, over this singing land, through this singing sunshine. That was surely enough. Once or twice she looked at Hamza, and, because he never looked at her, presently she spoke to him, making some remark about the weather in English. He turned his head, fixed his unyielding eyes upon her, said "Yes," and glanced away. She asked him a question which demanded "No" for an answer. This time he said "Yes," but without looking at her. Like a living bronze he ran on, lightly, swiftly, severely, towards the tiger-coloured mountains. And something in Hamza now made Mrs. Armine wonder where they were going. Already she had seen the ruins on the western shore of the Nile; she was familiar with Medinat-Habu, with Deir-al-Bahari, with Kurna, with the Ramesseum, with the tombs of the Kings and of the Queens. They had landed at a point that lay to the south of Thebes, and now seemed to be making for Medinat-Habu.
"Where are we going, Hamza?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied.
And he ran on, holding the piece of sugar-cane, like some hieratic figure holding a torch in a procession. Ibrahim stopped his song to sigh, and struck his donkey lightly under the right ear, causing it to turn sharply to the left. In the distance Mrs. Armine saw the great temple of Medinat-Habu, but it was not their destination. They were leaving it on their right. And now Ibrahim struck his donkey again, and they went on rapidly towards the Libyan mountains. The heat increased as the day wore on towards noon, but she did not mind it—indeed, she had the desire that it might increase. She saw the drops of perspiration standing on the face of the living bronze who ran beside her. Ibrahim ceased from singing. Had the approach of the golden noontide laid a spell upon his lips?
They went on, and on, and on.
* * * * *
"This is the lunchin'-place, my lady."
At last Ibrahim pulled up his donkey, and slid off, drawing his djelabieh together with his brown hands.
Hamza hissed, and Mrs. Armine's donkey stopped abruptly. She got down. She was, or felt as if she was, in the very heart of the mountains, in a fiery place of beetling yellow, and brownish and reddish yellow, precipices and heaped up rocks that looked like strangely-shaped flames solidified by some cruel and mysterious process. The ground felt hot to her feet as she stood still and looked about her. Her first impression was one of strong excitement. This empty place excited her as a loud, fierce, savage noise excites. The look of it was like noise. For a moment she stood, and though she was really only gazing, she felt as if she were listening—listening to hardness, to heat, to gleam, that were crying out to her.
Hamza took down the panniers after laying his wand of sugar-cane upon the burning ground.
"Why have you brought me here?"
The question was in Mrs. Armine's mind, but she did not speak it. She put up her hands, lifted her veil, and let the sun fall upon her "undone" face, but only for an instant. Then she let her veil down again, and said to Ibrahim:
"You must find me some shade, Ibrahim."
"My lady, you come with me!"
He walked on up the tiny, ascending track, that was like a yellow riband which had been let down from the sun, and she followed him round a rock that was thrust out as if to bar the way, and on to a flat ledge over which the mountain leaned. A long and broad shadow fell here, and the natural wall behind the ledge was scooped out into a shape that suggested repose. As she came upon this ledge, and confronted this shadow, Mrs. Armine uttered a cry of surprise. For against the rock there lay a pile of heaped-up cushions, and over a part of the ledge was spread a superb carpet. In this hot and savage and desolate place it so startled that it almost alarmed her to come abruptly oh these things, which forcibly suggested luxury and people, and she glanced sharply round, again lifting her veil. But she saw only gleaming yellow and amber and red rocks, and shining tresses of sand among them, and precipices that looked almost like still cascades of fire. And again she seemed to hear hardness, and heat, and gleam that were crying out to her.
"This is the lunchin'-place, my lady."
Ibrahim was looking at the ground where the carpet was spread.
"But—whom do these things belong to?"
"Suttinly they are for you."
"They were put here for me!"
Always he looked like a gentle and amiable boy. Mrs. Armine stared at him searchingly for a moment, then, swayed by a sudden impulse, she went to the edge of the great rock that hid Hamza and the donkeys from them, and looked round it to the path by which she had come. On it Hamza was kneeling with his forehead against the ground. He lifted himself up, and with his eyes fast shut he murmured, murmured his prayers. Then he bent again, and laid his forehead once more against the ground. Mrs. Armine drew back. She did not know exactly why, but she felt for an instant chilled in the burning sunshine.
"Hamza is praying," she said to Ibrahim, who stood calmly by the carpet.
"Suttinly!" he replied. "When Hamza stop, him pray. Hamza is very good donkey-boy."
Mrs. Armine asked no more questions. She sat down on the carpet and leaned against the cushions. Now she was protected from the fierce glare of the sun, and, almost as from a box at a theater, she could comfortably survey the burning pageant that Nature gave to her eyes. Ibrahim went to and fro in his golden robe over the yellow ground, bringing her food and water with lemon-juice in it, and, when all was carefully and deftly arranged, he said:
"Is there anythin' more, my lady?"
Mrs. Armine shook her head.
"No, Ibrahim. I have everything I want; I am very comfortable here."
"All what you want you must have to-day, my lady."
He looked at her and went away, and was hidden by the rock. It seemed to her that a curious expression, that was unboyish and sharp with meaning, had dawned and died in his eyes.
Slowly she ate a little food, and she sipped the lemon and water.
Ibrahim did not return, nor did she hear his voice or the voice of Hamza. She knew, of course, that the two Egyptians were near her, behind the rock; nevertheless, presently, since she could not see or hear them, she began to feel as if she were entirely alone in the mountains. She drew down one of the cushions from the rock behind her, and laid and kept her hand upon it. And the sensation the silk gave to her fingers seemed to take her again into the Eastern house of Baroudi. She finished her meal, she put down upon the carpet the empty glass, and, shutting her eyes, she went on feeling the cushions. And as she felt them she seemed to see again Hamza, with his beautiful and severe face, praying upon the yellow ground.
Hamza, Ibrahim, Baroudi. They were all of Eastern blood, they were all of the same faith, of the faith from the bosom of which emanated the words which were written upon the Loulia:
"The fate of every man have we bound about his neck."
Of every man! And what of the fate of woman? What of her fate?
She opened her eyes, and saw Baroudi standing near her, leaning against a rock and looking steadily at her.
For an instant she did not know whether she was startled or not. She seemed to be aware of two selves, the conscious self and the subconscious self, to know that they were in a sharp conflict of sensation. And because of this, conflict she could not say, to herself even, that the sum total of her was this or that. For the conscious self had surely never expected to see Baroudi here; and the subconscious self had surely known quite well that he would come into this hard and yellow place of fire to be alone with her.
"Thank you so much for the carpet and the cushions."
The subconscious self had gained the victory. No, she was not surprised. Baroudi moved from the rock, and, without smiling, came slowly up to her over the shining ground that looked metal in the fierce radiance of the sun. He wore a suit of white linen, white shoes, and the tarbush.
"Puisque votre mari n'y est plus, parlons Francais," he said.
"Comme vous voulez," she replied.
She did not ask him why he preferred to speak in French. Very few whys stood just then between her and this man whom she scarcely knew. They went on talking in French. At first Baroudi continued to stand in the sun, and she looked up at him with composure from her place of shadow.
"Armant is in this direction?" she said.
"I do not say that, but it is not so far as the Fayyum."
"I know so little of Egypt. You must forgive my ignorance."
"You will know more of my country, much more than other Englishwomen—some day."
He spoke with an almost brutal composure and self-possession, and she noticed that he no longer closed his sentences with the word "madame." His great eyes, as they looked steadily down to her, were as direct, as cruelly direct, in their gaze as the eyes of a bird of prey. They pierced her defences, but to-day did not permit her, in return, to pierce his, to penetrate, even a little way, into his territory of thought, of feeling. She remembered the eyes of Meyer Isaacson. They, too, were almost cruelly penetrating; but whereas they distinctly showed his mind at work, the eyes of Baroudi now seemed to hide what his mind was doing while they stared at the working of hers. And this combination of refusal and robbery, blatantly selfish and egoistic, conveyed to her spirit an extraordinary sense of his power. For years she had dominated men. This man could dominate her. He knew it. He had always known it, from the first moment when his eyes rested on hers. Was it that which was Greek or that which was Egyptian in him which already overcame her? the keenly practical and energetic or the mysterious and fatalistic? As yet she could not tell. Perhaps he had a double lure for the two sides of her nature.
"Do you think so?" she said. "I doubt it. I'm not sure that I shall spend another winter in Egypt."
His eyes became more sombre, looked suddenly as if even their material weight must have increased.
"That is known, but not to you," he said.
"And not to you!" she said, with a sudden sharpness, very womanly and modern.
With a quick and supple movement he was beside her, stretching his length upon the ground in the shadow of the mountain. He turned slightly to one side, raising himself up a little on one strong arm, and keeping in that position without any apparent effort.
"Please don't try the old hypnotic fakir tricks upon me, Baroudi," she added, pushing up the cushions against the rock behind her. "I know quantities of hysterical European women make fools of themselves out here, but I am not hysterical, I assure you."
"No, you are practical, as I am, and something else—as I am."
He bent back his head a little. The movement showed her his splendid throat, which seemed to announce all the concentrated strength that was in him—a strength both calm and fiery, not unlike that of the rocks, like petrified flames which hemmed them in.
"Something else? What is it?"
"Why do women so often ask questions to which they know the answers? Here is Ibrahim with our coffee."
At this moment, indeed, Ibrahim came slowly from behind the rocky barrier, carrying coffee-cups, sugar, and a steaming brass coffee-pot on a tray. Without speaking a word, he placed the tray gently upon the ground, filled the cups, handed them to Mrs. Armine and Baroudi, and went quietly away. He had not looked at Mrs. Armine.
And she had thought of Ibrahim as just a gentle and amiable boy!
Could all these people read her mind and follow the track of her distastes and desires, even the dragomans and the donkey-boys? For an instant she felt as if the stalwart Englishmen, the governing race, whom she knew so well, were only children—short-sighted and frigid children—that these really submissive Egyptians, Baroudi, Ibrahim, and the praying Hamza, were crafty and hot-blooded men with a divinatory power.
"Your coffee," said Baroudi, handing to her a cup.
She drank a little, put down the cup, and said:
"The first night we were at the Villa Androud your Nubian sailors came up the Nile and sang just underneath the garden. Why did they do that?"
"Because they are my men, and had my orders to sing to you."
"And Ibrahim—and Hamza?" she asked.
"They had my orders to bring you here."
"Yes," she said.
She was silent for an instant.
"Yes; of course they had your orders."
As she spoke a hot wave of intimate satisfaction seemed to run all over her. From Alexandria this man had greeted her on the first evening of her new life beside the Nile. He had greeted her then, and now he had surely insulted her. He acknowledged calmly that he had treated her as a chattel.
She loved that.
He had greeted her on that first evening with a song about Allah. Her mind, moving quickly from thought to thought, now alighted upon that remembrance, and immediately she recollected Hamza and his prayer, and she wondered how strong was the belief in Allah of the ruthless being beside her.
"They sang a song about Allah," she said, slowly. "Allah was the only word I could understand."
Baroudi raised himself up a little more, and, staring into her face, he opened his lips, and, in a loud and melancholy voice, sang the violent, syncopated tune the Nubian boatmen love. The hot yellow rocks around them seemed to act as a sounding-board to his voice. Its power was surely unnatural, and, combined with his now expressionless face, made upon her an effect that was painful. Nevertheless, it allured her. When he was silent, she murmured:
"Yes, it was that."
He said nothing, and his absolute silence following upon his violent singing strengthened the grip of his strangeness upon her. Only a little while ago she had felt, had even known, that she and Baroudi understood one another as Nigel and she could never understand one another. Now suddenly she felt a mystery in Baroudi far deeper, far more impenetrable, than any mystery that dwelt in Nigel. This mystery seemed to her to be connected with his belief in an all-powerful God, in some Being outside of the world, presiding over its destinies, ordering all the fates which it contained. And whereas the belief of her husband, which she divined and was often sharply conscious of, moved her to a feeling of irony such as may be felt by a naturally sardonic person when hearing the naive revelations of a child, the faith of Baroudi fascinated her, and moved her almost to a sensation of awe. It was like a fire which burnt her, and like an iron door which shut against her.
Yet he had never spoken of it; he did not speak of it now. But he had sung the song of Nubia.
"Did you tell Ibrahim that he was to choose Hamza as my donkey-boy to-day?" she said.
She was still preoccupied, still she seemed to see Hamza running beside her towards the mountains, praying among the rocks.
"Hamza is a very good donkey-boy."
In that moment Mrs. Armine began to feel afraid of Hamza, even afraid of his prayers. That was strangely absurd, she knew, because she believed in nothing. Baroudi now let himself sink down a little, and rested his cheek upon his hand. Somewhere he had learnt the secret of European postures. There had been depths of strangeness in his singing. There was a depth of strangeness in his demeanour. He had greeted her from the Nile by night when he was far away in Alexandria; he had ordered Ibrahim and Hamza to bring her into this solitary place, and now he lay beside her with his strong body at rest, and his mind, apparently, lost in some vagrant reverie, not heeding her, not making any effort to please her, not even—so it seemed to her now—thinking about her. Why was she not piqued, indignant? Why was she even actually charmed by his indifference?
She did not ask herself why. Perhaps she was catching from him a mood that had never before been hers.
For a long time they remained thus side by side, quite motionless, quite silent. And that period of stillness was to Mrs. Armine the most strange period she had ever passed through in a life that had been full of events. In that stillness she was being subdued, in that stillness moulded, in that stillness drawn away. What was active, and how was it active? What spoke in the stillness? No echoes replied with their charmed voices among the gleaming rocks of the Libyan mountains. Nevertheless, something had lifted up a voice and had cried aloud. And an answer had come that had been no echo.
In repose there is renewal. When they spoke again the almost avid desire to make the most of the years that remained to her had grown much stronger in Mrs. Armine, and there had been born within her one of those curious beliefs which, it seems, come only to women—the belief that there was reserved for her a revenge upon a fate, the fate that had taken from her the possibility of having all that she had married Nigel to obtain, and the belief that she would achieve that revenge by means of the man who lay beside her.
That evening, when Mrs. Armine stepped out of the felucca at the foot of the garden of the Villa Androud, she did not wait for Ibrahim to help her up the bank, but hurried away alone, crossed the garden and the terrace, went to her bedroom, shut and locked the door, lit the candles on either side of the long mirror that stood in the dressing-room, pushed up her veil, and anxiously looked at her "undone" face in the glass.
Had her action been very unwise? Several times that day, while with Baroudi, she had felt something that was almost like panic invade her at the thought of what she had done. Now, quite alone and safe, she asked herself whether she had been a fool to obey Nigel's injunction and to trust her own beauty.
She gazed; she took off her hat and she gazed again, hard, critically, almost cruelly.
There came a sharp knock against the door.
"Who is it?"
"C'est moi, madame!"
Mrs. Armine went to the door and opened it.
"Come here, Marie!" she said, almost roughly, "and tell me the truth. I don't want any flattering or any palavering from you. Do you think I look younger, better looking, with something on my face, or like this?"
She put her face close to the light of the candles and stood quite still. Marie examined her with sharp attention.
"Madame has got to look much younger here," she said, at length. "Madame has changed very much since we have been in Egypt. I do not know, but I think, perhaps, here madame can go without anything, unless, of course, she is going to be with Frenchmen. But if madame is much in the sun, at night she should be careful to put—"
And the maid ran on, happy in a subject that appealed to her whole nature.
Mrs. Armine dined alone and quickly. It was past nine o'clock when she finished, and went out to sit on the terrace and to smoke her cigarette and drink her coffee. In returning from the mountains she had scarcely spoken to Ibrahim, and had not spoken to Hamza except to wish him good-night upon the bank of the Nile. She remembered now the expression in his almond-shaped eyes when he had returned her salutation—an unfathomable expression of ruthless understanding that stripped her nature bare of all disguises, and seemed to leave it as it was for all the men of this land to see.
Ibrahim's eyes never could look like Hamza's. And yet between Ibrahim and Hamza what essential difference was there!
Suddenly she said to herself: "Why should I bother my head about these people, a servant and a donkey-boy?"
In England she would never have cared in the least what the people in her service thought about her. But out here things seemed to be different. And Ibrahim and Hamza had brought her to the place where Baroudi had been waiting to meet her. They were in Baroudi's pay. That was the crude fact. She considered it now as she sat alone, sipping the Turkish coffee that Hassan had carried out to her, and smoking her cigarette. She said to herself that she ought to be angry, but she knew that she was not angry. She knew that she was pleased that Ibrahim and Hamza had been bought by Baroudi. Easterns are born with an appetite for intrigue, with a love of walking in hidden ways and creeping along devious paths. Why should those by whom she happened to be surrounded discard their natures?
And then she thought of Nigel.
How much more at her ease she was with Baroudi than she could ever be with Nigel! What Nigel desired she could never give him. She might seem to give it, but the bread would be really a stone, even if he were deceived. And he would be deceived. But what Baroudi desired she could give. It seemed to her to-night indeed that she was born to give just what he desired. She made no mistake about herself. And he could give to her exactly what she wanted. So she thought now. For, since the long day in the mountains, her old ambition seemed to have died, to have been slain, and, with its death, had suddenly grown more fierce within her the governing love, or governing greed, for material things-for money, jewels, lovely bibelots, for all that is summed up in the one word luxe. And Baroudi was immensely rich, and would grow continually richer. She knew how to weigh a man in the balance, and though, even for her, there was mystery in him, she could form a perfectly right judgment of his practical capacity, of his power of acquirement.
But he could give her more than luxe, much, more than luxe.
And as she acknowledged that to herself, there came into Mrs. Armine's heart a new inhabitant.
That inhabitant was fear.
She knew that in Baroudi she had found a man by whom she could be governed, by whom, perhaps, she could be destroyed, because in him she had found a man whom she could love, in no high, eternal way-she was not capable of loving any man like that—but with the dangerous force, the jealous physical passion and desire, the almost bitter concentration, that seem to come to life in a certain type of woman only when youth is left behind.
She knew that, and she was afraid as she had never been afraid before.
That night she slept very little. Two or three times, as she lay awake in the dark, she heard distant voices singing somewhere on the Nile, and she turned upon the bed, and she longed to be out in the night, nearer to the voices. They seemed to be there for her, to be calling her, and they brought back to her memory the sound of Baroudi's voice, when he raised himself up, stared into her face, and sang the song about Allah, the song of the Nubian boatmen. And then she saw him before her in the darkness with a painful clearness, as if he were lit up by the burning rays of the sun. Why had she met this man immediately after she had taken the vital step into another marriage? For years she had been free, free as only the social outcast can be who is forcibly driven out into an almost terrible liberty, and through all those years of freedom she had used men without really loving any man. And then, at last, she had once more bound herself, she had taken what seemed to be a decisive step towards an ultimate respectability, perhaps an ultimate social position, and no sooner had she done this than chance threw in her way a man who could grip her, rouse her, appeal to all the chief wants in her nature. Those words in the Koran, were they not true for her? Her fate had surely been bound about her neck. By whom? If she asked Baroudi she knew what he would tell her. Strangely, even his faith fascinated her, although at Nigel's faith she secretly laughed; for in Baroudi's faith there seemed to be a strength that was hard, that was fierce and cruel. Even in his religion she felt him to be a brigand, trying to seize with greedy hands upon the promises and the joys of another world. He was determined not to be denied anything that he really desired.