HotFreeBooks.com
Bella Donna - A Novel
by Robert Hichens
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

And she would have helpers—Baroudi, Ibrahim, Hamza.

When at dawn the wind died down, and at last slumber, like a soft wave, came stealing over her, the last thing she saw with her imagination was Hamza, straight, enigmatic, grave, holding an upright wand in his hand.

Or was it the ginnee, who had come in out of the night to meet "my lord Arminigel"?

* * * * *

What was that? Was it the ginnee moving, speaking?

Was it—? There had surely been a movement in the room, a sound. She opened her eyes, and saw sunshine and some one by the bed.

"Ruby!"

She blinked, stared, lying perfectly still.

"Ruby!"

She felt a hand on one of her hands. The touch finally recalled her from sleep, and she knew the morning and Nigel. He stood beside the bed in loose travelling clothes, dusty, with short, untidy hair, and a radiant brown face, looking down on her, holding her hand.

"Did I frighten you? I didn't mean to. But I thought you must be awake by now."

There was no sound of reproach in his voice, but there was perhaps just a touch of disappointment. She sat up, leaning against the big pillow.

"And I meant to be at the station to meet you!" she said.

He sat down close to the bed, still keeping his hand on hers.

"You did?"

"Of course. It's this horrid habit I've got into of lying awake at night and sleeping in the morning. And there was such a storm last night."

"I know. The ginnee were abroad."

He spoke laughingly, but she said:

"How did you know that?"

"How? Why, in Egypt—but what do you mean?"

But she had recovered herself, was now fully awake, fully herself, entirely freed from the thrall of the night.

"How well you look!" she said.

"Work!" he replied. "Sun—life under the tent! It's glorious! How I want you to love it! But, I say, shan't we have some tea together? And then I'll jump into a bath. It's too cold for the Nile this morning. And I'm all full of dust. I'll ring for Marie."

He moved, but she caught his hand.

"Nigel!"

"Yes?"

"Don't ring for Marie."

"Why not?"

"It wouldn't be any use."

"What—is she ill!"

"She's gone."

"Gone!"

He looked at the confusion of the room, at the clothes strewn on the furniture and the floor.

"Now I understand all that," he said. "But what was the matter? Did she steal something, or—perhaps I ought to have had another woman in the house."

"No, no; it wasn't that. I sent her away quite amicably; because I thought she'd be in our way in the Fayyum. What could we do with her in a tent?"

"You're going to manage without a maid?"

A radiant look of pleasure came into his face.

"You're a trump!" he said.

He bent down, put his hands gently on her shoulders, and gave her a long kiss.

"And this is how you're managing!" he added, lifting himself up, and speaking with a sort of tender humour as again he looked at the room. "I must learn to maid you."

And he went about rather clumsily getting the things together, picking them up by the wrong end, and laying them in a heap on the sofa.

"Ill do better another time," he said, when he had finished, rather ruefully surveying his handiwork. "And now I'll call Hassan and get tea, and while we're having it I'll tell you about our camp in the Fayyum. To think of your giving up your maid!"

He kissed her again, with a lingering tenderness, and went out.

As soon as he was gone she got up. She had to search for a wrapper. She did not know where any of her things were. How maddening it was to be without a maid! More than once, now that Nigel was back and she could not go to Baroudi, she almost wished that she had kept Marie. Would it have been very unwise to keep her? She pulled out drawer after drawer. She was quite hot and tired before she had found what she wanted. What would life be like in a tent? She almost sickened at the thought of all that was before her. Ah! here was the wrapper at last. She tore it out from where it was lying with reckless violence, and put it on anyhow; then suddenly her real nature, the continuous part of her, asserted itself. She went to the mirror and adjusted it very carefully, very deftly. Then she twisted up her hair simply, and considered herself for a moment.

Had the new truth stamped itself yet upon her face, her body?

She saw before her a woman strongly, strikingly alive, thrilling with life. The eyes, released from sleep, were ardent, were full of the promises of passion; the lips were fresh, surely, and humid; the figure was alluring and splendid; the wonderful line of the neck had kept all its beauty. She had grown younger in Egypt, and she knew very well why. For her the new truth was clearly stamped, but not for Nigel. He would read it wrongly; he would take it for himself, as so many deceived men from the beginning of time have taken the truths of women, thinking "All this is for me." She looked long at herself, and she rejoiced in the vital change that had come over her, and, rejoicing, she came to the resolve of a vain woman. She must exert all her will to keep with her this Indian summer. She must school her nature, govern her passions, drill her mind to accept with serenity what was to come—dulness, delay, the long fatigues of playing a part, the ennui of tent life, of this solitude a deux in the Fayyum. She must not permit this opulence of beauty to be tarnished by the ravages of jealousy; for jealousy often destroys the beauty of women, turns them into haggard witches. But she would not succumb; for, in her creed beauty was everything to a woman, and the woman who had lost her beauty had ceased to count, was scarcely any more to be numbered among the living. This sight and appreciation of herself suddenly seemed to arm her at all points. Her depression, which had peopled the night with horrors and the morning with apprehensions, departed from her. She was able to believe that the future held golden things, because she was able to believe in her own still immense attraction.

That day she contented Nigel, she fascinated him, she charmed him with her flow of animal spirits. He could deny her nothing. And when, laughingly, she begged him, as she had dispensed with a maid, to let her have her own special donkey-boy and donkey in the Fayyum, he was ready to acquiesce.

"We'll take Mohammed, of course, if you wish," he said, heartily, "though there are lots of donkey-boys to be got where we are going."

"I've given up Mohammed," she said.

He looked surprised.

"Have you? What's he done?"

"Nothing specially. But I prefer Hamza."

"The praying donkey-boy!"

"Yes."

She paused; then, looking away from him, she said slowly:

"There's something strange to me and interesting about him. I think it comes, perhaps, from his intense belief in his religion, his intense devotion to the Moslem's faith. I—I can't help admiring that, and I should like to take Hamza with us. He's so different from all the others."

Then, with a changed and lighter tone, she added:

"Besides, his donkey is the best on the river. It comes from Syria, and is a perfect marvel. Give me Hamza, his donkey, and Ibrahim as my suite, and you shall never hear a complaint from me, I promise you."

"Of course you shall have them," he said. "I like the man to whom his beliefs mean something, even if they're not mine and could never be mine."

So the fate of Hamza and Ibrahim was very easily settled.

But when Nigel called Ibrahim, and told him that he had decided on taking him and Hamza to the Fayyum, and that he was to tell Hamza at once, Ibrahim looked a little doubtful.

"All what my gentleman want I do," he said. "But Hamza do much business in Luxor; I dunno if him come to the Fayyum."

He glanced deprecatingly at Mrs. Armine.

"I very glad to come, but about Hamza I dunno."

He spoke with such apparent sincerity that she was almost deceived, and thought that perhaps some difficulty had really arisen.

"Offer him his own terms," exclaimed Nigel, "and I'll bet he'll be glad to come."

"I go to see, my gentleman."

"You shall have him, Ruby, whatever his price," said Nigel.

Ibrahim, with great difficulty, he said, made a bargain with Hamza, and on the following day the Villa Androud was left in Hassan's charge, and the Armines went north by the evening express to Cairo, where they were to stay two days and nights, in order that Mrs. Armine might see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Nigel had already taken rooms at the Mena House, with a terrace exactly opposite to the Great Pyramid, and giving on to the sand of the desert.

They breakfasted at Shepheard's, then hired a victoria to drive up Ismail's road under the meeting lebbek-trees. Nigel was in glorious spirits. It seemed to him that morning as if his life were culminating, as if he were destined to a joy of which he was scarcely worthy. An unworldly man, and never specially fond of society or anxious about its edicts and its opinions, he did not suffer, as many men might have done, under his knowledge of its surprised pity for him, or even contempt. But in his secret heart he was glad that he was cut out of the succession to his family's title and the estates. Had he succeeded to them, his position would at once have become more difficult, his situation with Ruby far more complicated. As things were, they two were free as the wind. His soul leaped up to their freedom.

"I feel like a nomad to-day!" he exclaimed. "By Jove, though! isn't the wind cold? It always blows in the winter over these flats. Wrap yourself well up, darling."

He put up his hand to draw the furs more closely round her. When with her now he so easily felt protective that he was perpetually doing little things for her, and he did them with a gentleness of touch that, coming from a man of his healthy strength and vigour, revealed the progress made by the inner man in absence.

"I must be your maid," he added.

"But you'll be working and shooting," she said, speaking out of the depths of her furs in a low voice.

Her face was shrouded in a veil which seemed to muffle her words, and he only just heard them.

"You come first. I am going to look after you before anything else," he said.

She pulled up her veil till her lips were free of it.

"But I want your work to come first," she said, speaking with more energy. "I hate the woman who marries a man because she admires his character, and who then seeks by every means to change it, to reduce him from a real man to—well, to a sort of male lady's maid. No, Nigel; stick to your work, and I'll manage all right."

She felt just then that she could not endure it if he were always intent on her in the Fayyum. And yet she wished him to be her slave, and she always wished to be adored by men. But now there was something within her which might, perhaps, in the fulness of time even get the upper hand of her vanity.

"We'll see," he answered. "It'll be all right about the work, Ruby. You see the Pyramids well now."

She looked across the flats to those great tombs which draw the world to their feet.

"I wish it wasn't so horribly cold," she said.

And Baroudi was away in the gold of the south, and perhaps with the "Full Moon."

"It won't be half so bad when we get to Mena House. There's always a wind on this road in winter."

"And in the Fayyum? Will it be cold there?"

"No, not like this. Only at nights it gets cold sometimes, and there's often a thick mist."

"A thick mist!"

"But we shall be warm and cosy in our tent, and we shall know nothing about it."

And the Loulia was floating up the Nile into the heart of the gold! Her heart sank. But then she remembered her resolution in the villa. And her vanity, and that which a moment ago had seemed to be fighting against it, clasped hands in resistant friendship.

The victoria rolled smoothly; the horses trotted fast in the brisk air; the line of the desert, pale and vague in the windy morning, grew more distinct, more full of summons; the orifice that was the end of the avenue gaped like a mouth that opens more widely. A line of donkeys appeared, with here and there a white camel with tasselled trappings, surrounded by groups of shouting Egyptians, who stared at the carriage with avaricious eyes. "Ah—ah!" shouted the coachman. The horses broke into a gallop, turned into a garden on the right, and drew up before the Mena House.

A minute later Mrs. Armine was standing on a terrace that ended in a sea of pale yellow sand. Nigel followed her, but only after some minutes.

"You seem to know everybody here," she said to him, in a slightly constrained voice, as he came to stand beside her.

"Well, there are several fellows from Cairo come here to spend Sunday."

"With their wives apparently."

"Yes, some of them. Of course last winter I got to know a good many people. It's much warmer here. We get all the sun, and there's much less wind. And isn't the Great Pyramid grand?"

He took her gently by the arm.

"The Sphinx is beyond. I want you to see that for the first time just before nightfall, Ruby."

"Whatever you like," she said.

Her voice still sounded constrained. On the veranda and in the hall of the hotel she had had to run the gauntlet, and now that she was married again, and had abandoned the defiant life which she had led for so many years, somehow she had become less careless of opinion, of the hostility of women, than she had formerly been. She wished to be accepted again. As Lady Harwich she could have forced people to accept her.

As she looked at the Great Pyramid, she was saying that to herself, and Nigel's words about the Sphinx fell upon inattentive ears. Although he did not know it, in bringing her to Mena House just at this moment he had taken a step that was unwise. But he was walking in the dark.

At lunch in the great Arabic hall officers from the garrisons of Cairo and Abbassieh, and their womenkind, were in great force. Acquaintances of Nigel's sat at little tables to the right and left of them. In other parts of the room were scattered various well-known English people, who stared at Mrs. Armine when they chose to imagine she did not see them. Not far off Lord and Lady Hayman and the Murchisons reappeared.

A more effective irritant to Mrs. Armine's temper and nerves at this moment than this collection of people afforded could scarcely have been devised by her most subtle enemy. But not by a glance or movement did she betray the fact. She had had time to recover herself, to regain perfect outward self-control. But within her a storm was raging. Into the chamber of her soul, borne upon the wings of the wind, were flocking the ginnees out of the dense darkness of night. And when the twilight came, throwing its pale mystery over the desert, and the wonders the desert kept, they had taken possession of her spirit.

The travellers who, during the day, had peopled the waste about the Pyramids had gone back to Cairo by tram and carriage, or were at tea in the hotel, when the Armines, mounted on donkeys, rode through the twilight towards the Sphinx. They approached it from behind. The wind had quite gone down, and though the evening was not warm, the sharpness of the morning had given place to a more gentle briskness that was in place among the sands. Far off, across the plains and the Nile, the lights of Cairo gleamed against the ridges of the Mokattam. Through the empty silence of this now deserted desert they rode in silence, till before them, above the grey waste of the sand, a protuberance arose.

"Do you see that, Ruby?" Nigel said, pulling at his donkey's rein.

"That thing like a gigantic mushroom? Yes. What is it?"

"The Sphinx."

"That!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, but only the back of its head. All the body is concealed. Wait till you've ridden round it and seen it from the front."

She said nothing, and they rode on till they came to the edge of the deep basin in which the sacred monster lies with the sand and its ceaseless fame about it, till they had skirted the basin's rim, and faced it full on the farther bank. There they dismounted, and Nigel ordered their donkey-boys to lead the beasts away till they were out of earshot. The dry sound of their tripping feet, over the stones and hard earth which edged the sand near by, soon died down into the twilight, and the Armines were left alone.

Although the light of day was rapidly failing, it had not entirely gone; day and night joined hands in a twilight mystery which seemed not only to fall from the sky, so soon to be peopled with stars, but also to rise from the pallor of the sands, and to float about the Sphinx. In the distance the Great Pyramid was black against the void.

Mrs. Armine at first stood perfectly still looking at the monster. Then she made Nigel a sign to spread her dust-cloak upon the ridge of the sand, and she sat down on it, and looked again. She did not speak. The pallor of the twilight began to grow dusky, as if into its yellow grey and grey white, from some invisible source a shadowy black was filtering. A cool air stirred, coming from far away where the sands stretch out towards the Gold Coast. It failed, then came again, with a slightly greater force, a more definite intention.

Nigel was standing, but presently, as Ruby did not move, he sat down beside her, and clasped his brown hands round his knees so tightly that they went white at the knuckles. He stole a glance at her, and thought that her face looked strangely fixed and stern, almost cruel in its repose, and he turned his eyes once more towards the Sphinx.

And then he forgot Ruby, he forgot Egypt, he forgot everything except that greatest creation which man has ever accomplished; that creation which by its inexorable calm and prodigious power rouses in some hearts terror and sets peace in some, stirs some natures to aspiration, and crushes others to the ground with an overwhelming sense of their impotence, their smallness, their fugitive existence, and their dark and mysterious fate.

Upon Mrs. Armine the effect of the Sphinx, whatever it might have been at a less critical moment in her life, at this moment was cruel. The storm had broken upon her and she faced the uttermost calm. She was the prey of conflicting forces, wild beasts of which herself was the cage. And she was confronted by the beast of the living rock which, in its almost ironic composure, its power purged of passion, did it deign to be aware of her she felt could only, with a strange stillness, mock her. She was a believer only in the little life, and here lay the conception of Eternity, struck out of the stone of the waste by man, to say to her with its motionless lips, "Thou fool!" And as she had within her resolution, will, and an unsleeping vanity, this power which confronted her not only dimly distressed, but angered her. She felt angry with Nigel. She forgot, or chose not to remember, that the Sphinx was the wonder of the world, and she said to herself that she knew very well why Nigel had brought her by night to see it. He had brought her to be chastened, he had brought her to be rebuked. In the heat of her nervous fancy it almost seemed to her for a moment as if he had divined something of the truth that was in her, truth that struck hard at him, and his hopes of happiness, and all his moral designs, and as if he had brought her to be punished by the Sphinx. In the grasp of the monster she writhed, and she hated herself for writhing. Once in her presence Baroudi had sneered at the Sphinx. Now she remembered his very words: "We Egyptians, we have other things to do than to go and stare at the Sphinx. We prefer to enjoy our lives while we can, and not to trouble about it." She remembered the shrug of his mighty shoulders that had accompanied the words. Almost she could see them and their disdainful movement before her. Yes, the Sphinx was fading away in the night, and Baroudi was there in front of her. His strong outline blotted out from her the outline of the Sphinx. The evening star came out, and the breeze arose again from its distant place in the sands, and whispered round the Sphinx.

She shivered, and got up.

"Let us go; I want to go," she said.

"Isn't it wonderful, Ruby?"

"Yes. Where are the Arabs?"

She could no longer quite conceal her secret agitation, but Nigel attributed it to a wrong cause, and respected it. The Sphinx always stirred powerfully the spiritual part of him, made him feel in every fibre of his being that man is created not for time, but for Eternity. He believed that it had produced a similar effect in Ruby. That this effect should distress her did not surprise him, but roused in his heart a great tenderness towards her, not unlike the tenderness of a parent who sees the tears of a child flow after a punishment the justice of which is realized. The Sphinx had made her understand intensely the hatefulness of certain things.

When he had helped her on to her donkey he kept his arm about her.

"Do you realize what it has been to me to see the Sphinx with you?" he whispered.

The night had fallen. In the darkness they went away across the desert.

And the Sphinx lay looking towards the East, where the lights of Cairo shone across the flats under the ridges of the Mokattam.



XXII

The Fayyum is a great and superb oasis situated upon a plateau of the desert of Libya, wonderfully fertile, rich, and bland, with a splendid climate, and springs of sweet waters which, carefully directed into a network of channels, spreading like wrinkles over the face of the land, carry life and a smiling of joy through the crowding palms, the olive and fruit trees, the corn and the brakes of the sugar-cane. The Egyptians often call it "the country of the roses," and they say that everything grows there. The fellah thinks of it as of a Paradise where man can only be happy. Every Egyptian who has ever set the butt end of a gun against his shoulder sighs to be among its multitudinous game. The fisherman longs to let down his net into the depths of its sacred lake. The land-owner would rather have a few acres between Sennoures and Beni Suwef than many in the other parts of Egypt. The man who is amorous yearns after the legendary beauty of its unveiled women, with their delicately tattooed chins, their huge eyes, and their slim and sinuous bodies. And scarcely is there upon the Nile a brown boy whose face will not gleam and grow expressive with desire at the sound of the words "El-Fayyum."

It is a land of Goshen, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of the heart's desire, this green tract of sweet and gracious fertility to which the Bahr-Yusuf is kind.

But to Mrs. Armine it was from the very first a hateful land.

Their camp was pitched on a piece of brown waste ground, close to a runlet of water, near a palm-grove that shut out from them the native houses of the great village or country town of Sennoures. The land which Nigel's fellahin were reclaiming and had reclaimed—for much of it was already green with luxuriant crops—was farther away, where the oasis runs flush with the pale yellow, or honey-coloured, or sometimes spectral grey sands of the desert of Libya. But Nigel, when he first came to the Fayyum, had first gone into camp among the palms of Sennoures, and there had heard the Egyptian Pan in the night; and he wanted to renew certain impressions, to feel them decked out, as it were, with novel graces now that he was no longer lonely; so he had ordered the camp to be pitched by the little stream that he knew, in order to savour fully the great change in his life.

The railway from Cairo goes to Sennoures, so they came by train, and arrived rather late in the afternoon. Three days later the Sacred Carpet was to depart from Cairo on its journey to Mecca, and at Madinat-al-Fayyum, and at other stations along the route, there were throngs of natives assembled to bid farewell to the pilgrims who were departing to accompany it and to worship at the Holy Places. Small and cheap flags of red edged with a crude yellow fluttered over the doors or beneath the hanging shutters of many dwellings, and the mild and limpid atmosphere was full of the chanting of the songs of pilgrimage in high and nasal voices. Once at a roadside station there was for some unexplained reason a long delay, during which Mrs. Armine sat at the window and looked out upon the crowd, while Nigel got down to stretch his legs and see the people at closer quarters. Loud and almost angry hymns rose up not only from some of the starting pilgrims, but also from many envious ones who would never be "hajjee." Presently, just before the carriage door, a strange little group was formed; a broad, sturdy man with a brutal, almost white-skinned face garnished with a bristling black beard but no moustache, who wore the green turban, an elderly man with staring, sightless eyes, carrying a long staff, and three heavily veiled women, in thin robes partially covered with black, loose-sleeved cloaks, whose eyelids were thickly adorned with kohl, whose hands were dyed a deep orange-colour with the henna, and who rattled and clinked as they moved and the barbaric ornaments of silver and gold which circled their arms and ankles shifted upon their small-boned limbs. The blind man was singing loudly. The women, staring vacantly, held the corners of their cloaks mechanically to their already covered faces. The man with the bristling beard talked violently with friends, and occasionally, interrupting himself abruptly, joined almost furiously in the blind man's hymn. On the platform lay a few bundles wrapped in gaudy cloths and handkerchiefs. From outside the station came the perpetual twittering of women.

As Mrs. Armine looked at these people Nigel came up.

"They are going to Mecca," he said. "You see those bundles? The poor things will be away for months, and that is all they are taking."

The blind man shouted his hymn. Fixing his small and vicious eyes upon Mrs. Armine, the man with the beard joined in. A horn sounded. Nigel got into the carriage, and the train moved slowly out of the station. Mrs. Armine stared at the man with the beard, who kept his eyes upon her, always roaring his hymn, until he was out of sight. His expression was actively wicked. Yet he was starting at great expense with infinite hardships before him, to visit and pray at the Holy Places. She remembered how Baroudi had stared at her while he sang.

"What strange people they are!" said Nigel.

"Yes, they are very strange."

"One can never really know them. There is an eternal barrier between us, the great stone wall of their faith. To-day all the world seems going on pilgrimage. We too, Ruby!"

Even at Sennoures, when they got down, the station was crowded, and the air was alive with hymns. Ibrahim met them, and Hamza was outside the fence with the donkey for Mrs. Armine. He was joining in the singing, and his long eyes held a flame. But when he saw Mrs. Armine, his voice ceased, and he looked at her in silence. As she greeted him, she felt an odd mingled sensation of fear and of relief. He was a link between her and Baroudi, yet he looked a fatal figure, and she could never rid herself of the idea that some harm, or threatening of great danger, would come to her through him.

As they left the station and rode towards the palm-trees, the noise of the hymns grew less, but even when they came in sight of the tents the voices of the pilgrims were still faintly audible, stealing among the wrinkled trunks, through the rich, rankly growing herbage, over the running waters, to make a faint music of religion about their nomad's home.

But after sunset the voices died away. The train had carried the pilgrims towards Cairo, and, trooping among the palm-trees, or along the alleys of Sennoures, the crowd dispersed to their homes.

And a silence fell over this opulent land, which already Mrs. Armine hated.

She hated it as a woman hates the place which in her life is substituted for the place where is the man who has grasped her and holds her fast, whatever the dividing distance between them.

That night, as she sat in the tent, she saw before her the orange garden that bordered the Nile, the wild geraniums making a hedge about the pavilion of bamboo, she heard the loud voice of the fellah by the shaduf. Was it raised in protest or warning? Did she care? Could she care? Could any voice stop her from following the voice that called her on? And what was it in Baroudi that made his summons to her so intense, so arbitrary? What was it in him that governed her so completely? Now that he was far away she could ask herself a question that she could not ask when she was near him.

He was splendid in physique, but so were other men whom she had known and ruled, not been ruled by. He was bold, perhaps indifferent at bottom, though sometimes, in certain moments, on the surface far from indifferent. Others had been like that, and she had not loved them. He was intensely passionate. (But Nigel was passionate, though he kept a strong hand upon the straining life of his nature.) He was very strange.

He was very strange. She understood and could not understand him. He was very strange, and full of secret violence in which religion and vice went hand in hand. And his religion was not canting, nor was his vice ashamed. The one was as bold and as determined as the other. She seemed to grasp him, and did not grasp him. Such a failure piques a woman, and out of feminine pique often rises feminine passion. He was intent upon her. Yet part of him escaped her. Did he love her? She did not know. She knew he drove her perpetually on towards greater desire of him. Yet even that driving action might not be deliberate on his part. He seemed too careless to plot, and yet she knew that he plotted. Was he now at Aswan with some dancing-girl of his own people? Not one word had she heard of him since the day which had preceded the night of the storm when the ginnee had come in the wind. Abruptly he had gone out of her life. At their last meeting he had said nothing about any further intercourse. Yet she knew that he meant to meet her again, that he meant—what? His deep silence did not tell her. She could only wonder and suspect, and govern herself to preserve the bloom of her beauty, and, looking at Ibrahim and Hamza, trust to his intriguing cleverness to "manage things somehow." Yet how could they be managed? She looked at the future and felt hopeless. What was to come? She knew that even if, driven by passion, she were ready to take some mad, decisive step, Baroudi would not permit her to take it. He had never told her so, but instinctively she knew it. If he meant anything, it was something quite different from that. He must mean something, he must mean much; or why was Hamza out here in the green depths of the Fayyum?

Nigel had gone to Sennoures to order provisions, leaving her to rest after the journey from Cairo. She got up from the sofa in the sitting-room tent, which was comfortable in a very simple way but not at all luxurious, went to the opening, and looked out.

Night had fallen, the stars were out, and a small moon, round which was a luminous ring of vapour, lit up the sky, which was partially veiled by thin wreaths of cloud. The densely growing palms looked like dark wands tufted with enormous bunches of feathers. Among them she saw a light. It came from a tent pitched at some distance, and occupied by a middle-aged German lady who was travelling with a handsome young Arab. They had passed on the road close by the camp when the Armines were having tea, and Nigel had asked Ibrahim about them. Mrs. Armine remembered the look on his face when, having heard their history, he had said to her, "Those are the women who ruin the Europeans' prestige out here." She had answered, "That is a thing I could never understand!" and had begun to talk of other matters, but she had not forgotten his look. If—certain things—she might be afraid of Nigel.

Dogs barked in the distance. She heard a faint noise from the runlet of water in front of the camp. From the heavily-cumbered ground, smothered with growing things except just where the tents were pitched, rose a smell that seemed to her autumnal. Along the narrow road that led between the palms and the crops to the town, came two of their men leading in riding camels. A moment later a bitter snarling rose up, mingling with the barking of the dogs and the sound of the water. The camels were being picketed for the night's repose. The atmosphere was not actually cold, but there was no golden warmth in the air, and the wonderful and exquisitely clean dryness of Upper Egypt was replaced by a sort of rich humidity, now that the sun was gone. The vapour around the moon, the smell of the earth, the distant sound of the dogs and the near sound of the water, the feeling of dew which hung wetly about her, and the gleam of the light from that tent distant among the palm-trees, made Mrs. Armine feel almost unbearably depressed. She longed with all her soul to be back at Luxor. And it seemed to her incredible that any one could be happy here. Yet Nigel was perfectly happy and every Egyptian longed to be in the Fayyum.

The sound of the name seemed to her desolate and sad.

But Baroudi meant something. Even now she saw Hamza, straight as a reed, coming down the shadowy track from the town. She must make Nigel happy—and wait. She must make Nigel very happy, lest she should fall below Baroudi's estimate of her, lest she should prove herself less clever, less subtle, than she felt him to be.

Hamza's shadowy figure crossed a little bridge of palm-wood that spanned the runlet of water, turned and came over the waste ground noiselessly into the camp. He was walking with naked feet. He came to the men's tent, where, in a row, with their faces towards the tent door, the camels were lying, eating barley that had been spread out for them on bits of sacking. When he reached it he stood still. He was shrouded in a black abayeh.

"Hamza!"

Mrs. Armine had called to him softly from the tent-door.

"Hamza!"

He flitted across the open space that divided the tents, and stood beside her.

She had never had any conversation with Hamza. She had never heard him say any English word yet but "yes." But to-night she had an uneasy longing to get upon terms with him. For he was Baroudi's emissary in the camp of the Fayyum.

"Are you glad to be in my service, Hamza?" she said. "Are you glad to come with us to the Fayyum?"

"Yes," he said.

She hesitated. There was always something in his appearance, in his manner, which seemed to fend her off from him. She always felt as if with his mind and soul he was pushing her away. At last she said:

"Do you like me, Hamza?"

"Yes," he replied.

"You have been to Mecca, haven't you, with Mahmoud Baroudi?"

"Yes."

He muttered the word this time. His hands had been hanging at his sides, concealed in his loose sleeves, but now they were moved, and one went quickly up to his breast, and stayed there.

"What are you doing?" Mrs. Armine said, with a sudden sharpness; and, moved by an impulse she could not have explained, she seized the hand at his heart, and pulled it towards her. By the light of the young moon she saw that it was grasping tightly a sort of tassel made of cowries which hung round his neck by a string. He covered the shells with his fingers, and showed his teeth. She let his hand go.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered.

She turned and went into the tent, and he flitted away like a shadow.

That night, when Nigel came in from Sennoures, she said to him:

"What is the meaning of those tassels made of shells that Egyptians sometimes wear round their necks?"

"What sort of shells?" he asked.

"Cowries."

"Cowries—oh, they're supposed to be a charm against the evil eye and bad spirits. Where have you seen one?"

"On a donkey-boy up the Nile, at Luxor."

She changed the conversation.

They were sitting at dinner on either side of a folding table that rested on iron legs. Beneath their feet was a gaudy carpet, very thick and of a woolly texture, and so large that it completely concealed the hard earth within the circle of the canvas, which had a lining of deep red, covered with an elaborate pattern in black, white, yellow, blue, and green. The tent was lit up by an oil-lamp, round which several night moths revolved, occasionally striking against the globe of glass. The tent-door was open, and just outside stood Ibrahim, with his head and face wrapped up in a shawl with flowing fringes, to see that the native waiter did his duty properly. Through the opening came the faint sound of running water and the distant noise of the persistent barking of dogs. The opulent smell of the rich and humid land penetrated into the tent and mingled with the smell from the dishes.

Nigel's face was radiant. They had got right away from modern civilization into the wilds, and, manlike, he felt perfectly happy. He looked at Ruby, seeking a reflection of his joy, yet a little doubtful, too, realizing that this was an experiment for her, while to him it was an old story to which she was supplying the beautiful interest of love. She answered his look with one that set his mind at rest, which thrilled him, yet which only drew from him the prosaic remark:

"The cook isn't so bad, is he, Ruby?"

"Excellent," she said. "I don't know when I've had such a capital dinner. How can he do it all in a tent?"

She moved her chair.

"This table's a little bit low," she said. "But I've no business to be so tall. In camp one ought to be the regulation size."

"Have you been uncomfortable?" he exclaimed, anxiously.

"No, no—not really. It doesn't matter."

"I'll have it altered, made higher somehow, to-morrow. We must have everything right, as we're going to live in camp for some time."

She got up.

"I won't take coffee to-night," she said. "It would be too horrid to sleep badly in a tent."

"You'll see, you'll sleep splendidly out here. Every one does in camp. One is always in the air, and one gets thoroughly done by the evening."

"Yes, but I shan't be working so hard as you do."

She went to the tent-door.

"How long shall we be in the Fayyum?" she asked, carelessly. "How long were you in it last year?"

"Off and on for nearly six months."

She said nothing. He struck a match and lit a cigar.

"But of course now it's different," he said. "If you like it, we can stay on, and if you don't we can go back presently to the villa."

"And your work?"

"I ought to be here, so I hope you will like it, Ruby."

He joined her at the tent-door.

"But this winter I mean to live for you, and to try to make you happy. We'll just see how you like being here. Do you think you will like it? Do you feel, as I do, the joy of being in such perfect freedom?"

He put his arm inside hers.

"It's a tremendous change for you, but is it a happy change?" he asked.

"It's wonderful here," she answered; "but it's so strange that I shall have to get accustomed to it."

As she spoke, she was longing, till her soul seemed to ache, to take the early morning train to Cairo. Accustomed for years to have all her caprices obeyed, all her whims indulged by men, she did not know how she was going to endure this situation, which a passionate love alone could have made tolerable. And the man by her side had that passionate love which made the dreary Fayyum his Heaven. She could almost have struck him because he was so happy.

"There's one thing I must say I should love to do before we go away from Egypt," she said, slowly.

She seemed to be led or even forced to say it.

"What's that?"

"I should love to go up the Nile on a dahabeeyah."

"Then you shall. When we leave here and pass through Cairo, I'll pick out a boat, and we'll send it up to Luxor, go on board there, and then sail for Assouan. But you mustn't think we shall get a Loulia."

He laughed.

"Millionaires like Baroudi don't hire out their boats," he added. "And if they did, I couldn't pay their price while Etchingham's so badly let."

Her forehead was wrinkled by a frown. She hated to hear a man who loved her speak of his poverty. It had become a habit of her mind to think that no man had a right to love her unless he could give her exactly what she wanted.

"Shall we go out, Ruby?"

"Very well."

They stepped out on to the waste ground. His hand was still on her arm, and he led her down to the stream. The young moon was already setting. The starry sky was flecked here and there with gossamer veils of cloud. A heavy dew was falling upon the dense growths of the oasis, and in the distance of the palm-grove, where gleamed the lamp from the tent of the German lady and the young Arab, a faint and pearly mist was rising. Nigel drew in his breath, then let it out. It went in vapour from his lips.

"We've left the dryness of Upper Egypt," he said. "This is the country of fertility, the country where things grow. The dews at night are splendid. But wait a moment. I'll get you a cloak. I'm your maid, remember."

He fetched a cloak and wrapped it round her.

"I suppose the Loulia is far up the river," he said. "Perhaps at Assouan. I wonder if we shall see Baroudi some day again. I think he's a good sort of fellow; but after all, one can never get really quite in touch with an Eastern. I used to think one could. I used to swear it, but—"

He shook his head and puffed at his cigar. Quite unconsciously he had taken the husband's tone. There was something in the very timbre of his voice which seemed to assume Ruby's agreement. She longed to startle him, to say she was far more in touch with an Eastern than she could ever be with him, but she thought of the dahabeeyah, the Nile, the getting away from here.

"To tell the truth," she said, "I have always felt that. There is an impassable barrier between East and West."

She looked at the distant light among the palm-trees. Then, with contempt, she added:

"Those who try to overleap it must be mad, or worse."

Nigel's face grew stern.

"Yes," he said. "I loathe condemnation. But there are some things which really are unforgivable."

He swung out his arm towards the light.

"And that is one of them. I hate to see that light so near us. It is the only blot on perfection."

"Don't look at it," she murmured.

His unusual expression of vigorous, sane disgust, and almost of indignation, partly fascinated and partly alarmed her.

"Don't think of it. It has nothing to do with us. Hark! What's that?"

A clear note, like the note of a little flute, sounded from the farther side of the stream, was reiterated many times. Nigel's face relaxed. The sternness vanished from it, and was replaced by an ardent expression that made it look almost like the face of a romantic boy.

"It's—it's the Egyptian Pan by the water," he whispered.

His arm stole round her waist.

"Come a little nearer—gently. That's it! Now listen!"

The little, clear, frail sound was repeated again and again.

The young moon went down behind the palm-trees. Its departure, making the night more dark, made the distant light in the grove seem more clear, more definite, more brilliant.

It drew the eyes, it held the eyes of Bella Donna as the Egyptian Pan piped on.



XXIII

Mrs. Armine summoned all her courage, all her patience, all her force of will, and began resolutely, as she mentally put it, to earn her departure from the land which she hated more bitterly day by day. The situation she was in, so different from any that she had previously known, roused within her a sort of nervous desperation, and this desperation armed her and made her dangerous. And because she was dangerous, she seemed often innocently happy, and sometimes ardently happy; she seemed to have cast away from her any lingering remnants of the manner of a great courtesan which had formerly clung about her. Nigel would have denied that there had been such remnants; nevertheless, he felt and rejoiced in the change that came. He said to himself that he was justified of his loving experiment. He had restored to Ruby her self-respect, her peace of mind and body, and in doing so he had won for himself a joy that he had not known till now.

In that joy his nature expanded, his energies leaped up, his mind kindled, his heart glowed and burned. He felt himself twice the man that he had formerly been. He flung himself into his work with almost a giant's strength, into his pleasure, riding, shooting, fishing, with the enthusiasm of a boy for the first time freed from tutelage.

Mrs. Armine was rewarded for her effort of cunning by the happiness of her husband, and by his gratitude and devotion to her. For she was clever enough to put him into the place the world thought she ought to occupy, into the humble seat of the grateful. She succeeded very soon in infecting his mind with the idea that it was good of her to have married him, that she had given up not a little in doing so. She never made a complaint, but very often she indicated, as if by accident, that for the sake of the upward progress she was enduring a certain amount of definite hardship cheerfully. There was scarcely a day, for instance, when she did not contrive to recall to his mind the fact that, for his sake, she was doing without a maid for the first time in her life. Yet she never said, "I wish I had kept Marie." Her method was, "How thankful I am we decided to get rid of Marie, Nigel! She would have been wretched here. The life would have killed her, though I manage to stand it so splendidly. But servants never will put up with a little discomfort. And it's so good of you not to mind my looking anyhow, and always wearing the same old rag." Such things were said with a resolutely cheerful voice which announced a moral effort.

As they sat at dinner, she would say, perhaps: "Isn't it extraordinary, Nigel, how soon one gets not to care what one is eating, so long as one can satisfy one's hunger? I remember the time when, for a woman, I was almost an epicure, and now I can swallow Mohammed's dinners with positive relish. Do give me another help of that extraordinary muddle he calls a stew."

And in bed that night, or over a last solitary pipe outside the tent, Nigel would be thinking, "By Jove, Ruby is a trump to put up with Mohammed's messes after the food she's always been accustomed to!" Whereas, before, he had been congratulating himself on having engaged at a high rate the greatest treasure of a camp cook that could be found in the whole of Egypt.

Perpetually, in a hundred ways, she brought to his memory the extravagant luxury in which for so many years she had lived. Yet she never seemed to be regretting, but always to be congratulating herself on the fact, that she had abandoned it for a different, more Spartan way of life. Often, in fact generally, she talked as if they were poor people, as if she had married a quite poor man.

"I can't let you be reckless," she would say, when perhaps he suggested something that would put them to extra expense. "It isn't as if we were rich. I love spending money, but I should hate to run you into debt."

And if Nigel began to explain that he could perfectly well afford whatever it was, she would gently, and gaily too, ignore or sweep away his remarks with a "You forget how different your position is now that your brother's got an heir." Once, however, he persisted, and made a sort of statement of his affairs to her, his object being to prove to her that they had "plenty to go on with." The result was scarcely what he had anticipated. For a moment she seemed to be struck dumb with a strong surprise. Then, apparently recovering herself, she said decisively, "If that is all we've got, I am perfectly right to be parsimonious. And besides, it's an excellent thing for me to have to think about money. I've always been accustomed to spend far too much. I've lived much too extravagantly, too brilliantly, all my life. A change to simplicity and occasional self-denial will do me all the good in the world, whether I like it at first or not."

And she smothered a sigh, and smiled at him with a sort of gentle determination. But she never overacted her part, she never underlined anything. Directly she saw that she had gained her end, had "got home," she passed on to a different topic. Never did she persistently play the martyr. She knew how soon a man secretly gets sick of the martyr-wife. But, in one way or another, she kept Nigel simmering in appreciation of her.

And in contenting his soul she did not forget to content him in other ways; she never allowed him to lose sight of the fact that she was still a beautiful and voluptuous woman, and that she belonged wholly to him. And so gradually she woke up in him the peculiar and terrible need of her that a certain type of woman can wake in a certain type of man. She taught him to be grateful to her for a double joy: the moral joy of the high-minded man who has, or who thinks he has, through a woman in some degree fulfilled his ideal of conduct, and the physical joy of the completely natural and vigorous man who legitimately links with his moral satisfaction a satisfaction wholly different. To both spirit and body she held the torch, and each was warmed by the glow, and made cheerful and glad by the light.

Nigel had cared for her in England, had loved her in the Villa Androud; but that care, that love, were as nothing to the feeling for her that sprang up in him in the midst of the springing green things that made a Paradise of the Fayyum. He was a man who got very near to Nature, whose heart beat very near to Nature's generous heart, and often, when he stood shoulder-high in a silver-green sea of sugar-cane, or looked up to the tufted palms that made a murmuring over his head, or listened to the rustle of corn in the sunshine, or to the swish of the heavily-podded doura in the light wind that came in from the desert, he would compare his growing love for Ruby to the growing of Nature's children in this beneficent clime. And the luxuriant richness of the green world round about him seemed to have its counterpart within him.

But there was the desert, too, always near to remind him of the arid wastes of the world—of the arid wastes that needed reclaiming in humanity, in himself.

And in his great joy he never lost one of his most beautiful natural graces, the grace of an unostentatious humility.

The racial reticence of the Englishman about the things he cares for most kept him from telling his wife of what was happening in his mind and heart, despite his apparent frankness, which often seemed that of a boy; and some of it she was too devoid of all spirituality, all moral enthusiasm, to divine. But she summed him up pretty accurately, knew as a rule pretty thoroughly "where she was with him"; and though she sometimes wondered how things could be as they were in him, or in any one, still she knew that so they were.

She acted her part well, though day by day, in the acting of it, her nervous desperation increased; but when, now and then, her self-control was for a moment shaken, she succeeded in leading Nigel to attribute any momentary sharpness, cynicism, or even bitterness, to some failure in himself which had awakened the doubts of the woman long trampled on. Subtly she recalled to him the night after the scene in the garden of the Villa Androud; she reminded him—without words—of the words she had spoken then. He seemed to hear her saying: "After this morning you will have to prove your belief in me to me, thoroughly prove it, or else I shall not believe it. It will take a little time to make me feel quite safe with you, as one can only feel when the little bit of sincerity in one is believed in and trusted." And he remembered the resolve he had taken on that night of crisis, to restore this woman's confidence in goodness by having a firm faith in the goodness existing in her. And he condemned himself and braced himself for new efforts. Those efforts were not difficult for him to make now that he had Ruby all to himself, now that he saw her utterly divorced from her old life and companions, now that he held her in the breast of Nature, now that he knew—as how could he not know?—that she was living virtuously, sanely, simply, and, as he thought, splendidly and happily, despite the lingering backward glances she sometimes cast at the old luxury foregone. It is very difficult for the human being who finds perfect happiness in a life to realize that such a life to another may be a torment.

And Ruby made few mistakes. When she was with her husband, her now unpainted face was serene. She worked bravely to earn her release from a life that was unsuited to her whole temperament, and that was utterly odious to her.

But had not Hamza and Ibrahim been in the camp with her, she often said to herself that she could not have endured this period. That they were there meant that she was not forgotten, that while she was being patient, in a distant place, somewhere upon the great river, in the golden climate of Upper Egypt, some one else was being patient too.

Surely it meant, it must mean, that!

But she was haunted by a jealousy that, instead of being diminished by time and absence, increased with each passing day, even waking up in her a vital force of imagination she had not suspected she possessed. She knew men as a race au fond—knew their fickleness, swift forgetfulness, readiness to be content with the second best, so different from the far greater Epicureanism of women; knew their uneasy appetites, their lack of self-restraint; and, adding to this sum of knowledge her personal knowledge of Baroudi as a young, strong, and untrammelled man of the East, she was confronted with visions which tortured her cruelly. There were times when her mind ran riot, throwing him among all the sensual pleasures which he loved. And then she was more than heart-sick; she was actually body-sick. She felt ill; she felt that she ached with jealousy, as another may ache with some physical disease. She had a longing to perform some frantic physical act.

And then she remembered her beauty, and that, at all costs, she must preserve it as long as possible, and she secretly cursed the unbridled nature within her. But the climate of the Fayyum was very kind to her, and this life in the open, in the unvitiated air that blew through the palms from the virgin deserts of Libya, gave to her health such as she had never known till now, despite her mental torture. And that body-sickness which came from her jealousy was like a fit which seized her and passed away.

Egypt brought back her youth, or, at the least, prolonged and increased steadily the shining and warmth of her Indian summer. And with that shining and warmth the desire to live fully, to use her present powers in the way that would bring her happiness, grew perpetually in strength and ardour. She longed for the man who suited her, and for the luxe that he could give her. With her genuine physical passion for Baroudi there woke the ugly greed that was an essential part of her nature, the greed of the true materialist who cares nothing for a simplicity that has not cost the eyes out of somebody's head. She was a woman who loved to know that some one was ruining himself for her. She took an almost physical pleasure in the spending of money. And often her mind echoed the words of Hassan, when he looked across the Nile to the tapering mast of the Loulia and murmured, "Mahmoud Baroudi is rich! Mahmoud Baroudi is rich!" And she yearned to go, not only to Baroudi, but to his gold, and she remembered her fancy when she sat by the Nile, that the gleaming gold on the water was showered towards her by him to comfort her in her solitude.

At last a crisis came.

After staying for a short time at Sennoures, the camp had been moved from the village to the outskirts of the oasis, so that Nigel might be close to his land. Here the rich fertility, the green abundance of growing things, trailed away into the aridity of the desert, and at night, from the door of the tent, Mrs. Armine could look out upon the pale and vague desolation of the illimitable sands stretching away into the illimitable darkness. Just at first the vision fascinated her, and she lent an ear to the call of the East, but very soon she was distressed by the sight of the still and unpeopled country, which suggested to her the nameless solitudes into which many women are driven out when the time of their triumph is over. She did not speak of this to Nigel, but, pretending that the wind at night from the desert chilled her even between the canvas walls of the tent, she had the tent turned round with its orifice towards the oasis. And she strove to ignore the desert.

Nevertheless, despite what was indeed almost a horror of its spaces, she now found that she felt more strongly their fascination, which seemed calling her, but to danger or sorrow rather than to any pleasure or permanent satisfaction. She often felt an uneasy desire to be more intimate with the thing which she feared, and which woke up in her a prophetic dread of the future when the Indian summer would have faded for ever. And when one day Nigel suggested that he should take two or three days' holiday, and that they should remove the camp into the wilds at the north-eastern end of the sacred lake of Kurun, where Ibrahim and Hamza said he could get some first-rate duck-shooting, and Ruby could come to close quarters with the reality of the Libyan desert, she assented almost eagerly. Any movement, any change, was welcome to her; and—she had to be more intimate with the thing which she feared.

So one morning the riding camels kneeled down, the tents collapsed, were rolled up and sent forward, and they started to go still farther into the wilds.

They made a detour in the oasis to give their Bedouins time to pitch their camp in the sands, and Ibrahim an hour or two to prepare everything for their arrival. It was already afternoon when they were on the track that leads to the lake, leaving the groves of palms behind them and the low houses of the fellahin, moving slowly towards the sand-hills that appeared far off, where huddled the patched and discoloured tents of the gipsies and the almost naked fishermen who are the only dwellers in this strange and blanched desolation, where the sands and the salty waters meet in a wilderness of tamarisk bushes.

It was a grey and windless day, and the sky looked much lower than it usually does in Egypt. The atmosphere was sad. Clouds of wild pigeons flew up to right and left of them, circling over the now diminishing crops and the little runlets of water that soon would die away where sterility's empire began. In low, yet penetrating, voices the camel men sang the songs of the sands, as they ran on, treading softly with naked feet. Hamza, who accompanied the little caravan with his donkey in case Mrs. Armine grew tired of her camel, holding his hieratic wand, kept always softly and unweariedly behind them.

And thus, always accompanied by the hum and the twittering of a melancholy music, they went on towards the lake.

Upon Nigel's beast were slung his guns. He was eagerly looking forward to his holiday. He had been toiling really hard with his fellahin, often almost up to his knees in mud and water, driving the sand-plough, working the small and primitive engines, digging, planting, even following the hand-plough drawn by a camel yoked to a donkey. He was in grand condition, hard as nails, burnt by the sun, joyful with the almost careless joy that is born of a health made perfect by labour. The desolation before them to him seemed a land of promise, for he was entering it with Ruby, and in it there were thousands of wild duck, and jackals that slunk out by night among the stunted tamarisk bushes.

"We seem to be going to the end of the world," she said.

She was swaying gently to and fro with the movement of her camel, which had just turned to the right, after following for an immense time a straight track that was cut through the crops, and that never deviated to right or left. Now sand appeared. On their left, and parallel to them, crept a sluggish stream of water between uneven banks of sand. And the track was up and down, and here and there showed humps, and deep ruts, and sometimes holes. The crops began to be sparser; no more houses or huts were visible; but far away in the white and wintry distance, looking almost like discolourations upon a sheet, were scattered low brown and black tents, which seemed to be crouching on the desolate ground.

"Does any one live out here beyond us?" she added. "Are those things really tents?"

"Yes, Ruby."

"It seems incredible that any human beings should deliberately choose to live here."

"You haven't ever felt the call of the wild?" he asked.

She looked at him, and said, quickly:

"Oh, yes. But it's different for us. We come here to get a new experience, to have a thorough change, and we can get away whenever we like. But just imagine choosing to live here permanently!"

"I'd rather live here than in almost any town."

He was silent for a moment, and his face lost its joyous expression and became almost eagerly anxious. Then he said:

"Ruby, do you hate all this?"

"Hate it! No, it's a novelty; it's strange; it excites me, interests me."

"You are sure?"

He had suddenly thought of her sitting-room in the Savoy. Into what a violently different life he had conveyed her!—into a life that he loved, and that was well fitted for a man to live. He loved such a life, but perhaps he had been, was being selfish. He tried to read her face, and was suddenly full of doubts and fears.

"I like roughing it, of course," he added. "But, I say, you mustn't give in to what I like if it doesn't suit you. We men are infernally selfish."

She saw her opportunity.

"Don't you know yet that women find most of their happiness in pleasing the men they love?" she said.

"But I want to please you."

"So you shall presently."

"How?"

"By taking me up the Nile."

She had sown in his mind the belief that she was living for him unselfishly. He resolved to pay her with a sterling coin of unselfishness. Never mind the work! In this first year he must think always first of her, must dedicate himself to her. And in making her life to flower was he not reclaiming the desert?

"I will take you up the Nile," he said. "Always be frank with me, Ruby. If—if things that suit me don't suit you, tell me so straight out. I think the one thing that binds two people together with hoops of steel is absolute sincerity. Even if it hurts, it's a saviour."

"Yes, but I am absolutely sincere when I say that I love to live in your life."

She could afford to say that now, and despite the increasing desolation around them her heart leaped at a prospect of release, for she knew how his mind was working, and she heard the murmur of Nile water round the prow of a dahabeeyah.

That night they camped in an amazing desolation.

The great lake of Kurun, which looks like an inland sea, and which is salt almost as the sea, is embraced at its northern end by another sea of sand. The vast slopes of the desert of Libya reach down to its waveless waters. The desolation of the desert is linked with the desolation of this unmurmuring sea, the deep silence of the wastes with the deep silence of the waters.

Never before had Mrs. Armine known such a desolation, never had she imagined such a silence as that which lay around their camp, which brooded over this desert, which brooded over the greenish grey waters of this vast lake which was like a sea.

She spoke, and her voice seemed to be taken at once as its prey by the silence. Even her thought seemed to be seized by it, and to be conveyed away from her like a living thing whose destiny it was to be slain. She felt paltry, helpless, unmeaning, in the midst of this arid breast of Nature, which was pale as the leper is pale. She felt chilled, even almost sexless, as if all her powers, all her passions and her desires, had been grasped by the silence, as if they were soon to be taken for ever from her. Never before had anything that was neither human nor connected in any way with humanity's efforts and wishes made such a terrific impression upon her.

She hid this impression from Nigel.

The long camel-ride had slightly fatigued her, despite the great strength of body which she had been given by Egypt. She busied herself in the usual way of a woman arrived from a journey, changed her gown, bathed in a collapsible bath made of India rubber, put eau de Cologne on her forehead, arranged her hair before a mirror pinned to the sloping canvas. But all the time that she did these things she was listening to the enormous silence, was feeling it like a weight, was shrinking, or trying to shrink away from its outstretched, determined arms. From without came sometimes sounds of voices that presented themselves to her ears as shadows, skeletons, spectres, present themselves to the eyes. Was that really Ibrahim? Was that Nigel speaking, laughing? And that long stream of words, did it flow from Hamza's throat? Or were those shadows outside, with voices of shadows, trying to hold intercourse with shadows? Presently tea was ready, and she came out into the waste.

They were at a considerable distance from the lake, looking down on it from the slight elevation of a gigantic slope of sand, which rose gradually behind them till in the distance it seemed to touch the stooping grey of the low horizon. Everywhere white and yellowish white melted into grey and greenish grey. The only vegetation was a great maze of tamarisk bushes, which stretched from the flat sand-plain on their left to the verge of the lake, and far out into the water, making a refuge and a shelter for the thousands upon thousands of wild duck that peopled the watery waste. Now, unafraid, they were floating in the open, casting great clouds of velvety black upon the still surface of the lake, which, owing to some atmospheric effect, looked as if it sloped upward like the sands till it met the stooping sky. Very far off, almost visionary, like blacknesses held partly by the water, and partly by the vapours that muffled the sky, were two or three of the clumsy boats of the wild, almost savage natives who live on the fish of the lake. Almost imperceptibly they moved about their eerie business.

"Just look at the duck, Ruby!" said Nigel, as she came out. "What a place for sport!"

For once their usual roles were reversed; he was practical, while she was imaginative, or at least strongly affected by her imagination. He had been looking to his guns, making arrangements with a huge and nearly black dweller of the tents to show him the best sport possible for a fixed sum of money.

"But it's the devil to get within range of them," he added. "I shall have to do as the natives do, I expect."

"What's that?" she asked, with an effort.

"Strip, and wade in up to my neck, carrying my gun over my head, and then keep perfectly still till some of them come within range."

He laughed with joyous anticipation.

"I've told Ibrahim he must have a roaring big fire for me when I get back."

"Are you going to-day?"

"Yes, I think I'll have just an hour. D'you feel up to riding the donkey to the water's edge, and coming out on the lake with me?"

She hesitated. In this waste and in this silence she felt almost incapable of a decision. Then she said:

"No, I think I've had enough for to-day. You must bring me back a duck for dinner."

"I swear I will."

He gripped her hands when he went. He was full of the irrepressible joy of the sportsman starting out for his pleasure.

"What will you do till I come back?"

"Rest. Perhaps I shall read, and I'll talk to Ibrahim. He always amuses me."

"Good. I'm going to ride the donkey and take Hamza."

Just as he was mounting, he turned round, and said:

"Ruby, I'm having my time now. You shall have yours. You shall have the best dahabeeyah to be got on the Nile, the Loulia, if Baroudi will hire it out to us."

"Oh, the Loulia would cost us too much," she said, "even if it could be hired."

"We'll get a good one, anyhow, and you shall see every temple—go up to Halfa, if you want to. And now pray for duck with all your might."

He rode away down the sand slope towards the lake, and presently, with Hamza and the native guide, was but a moving speck in the pallid distance.

Mrs. Armine watched them from a folding chair, which she made Ibrahim carry out into the sand some hundreds of yards from the camp.

"Leave me here for a little while, Ibrahim," she said.

He obeyed her, and strolled quietly away, then presently squatted down to keep guard.

At first Mrs. Armine scarcely thought at all. She stared at the sand slopes, at the sand plains, at the sand banks, at the wilderness of tamarisk, at the grey waters spotted with duck, at the little moving black things that, like insects, crept towards them. And she felt like—what? Like a nothing. For what seemed a very long time she felt like that. And then, gradually, very gradually, her self began to wake, began to release itself from the spell of place, and to struggle forward, as it were, out of the shattering grip of the silence. And she burned with indignation in the chill air of the desert.

Why had she let herself be brought, even to spend only three or four days, to such a place as this? Had she ever had even a momentary desire to see more solitary places than the place from which they had come? Where was Baroudi at this moment? What was he feeling, doing, thinking? She fastened her mind fiercely upon the thought of him, and she saw herself in exile. Always, until now, she had felt the conviction that Baroudi had some plan in connection with her, and that quiescence on her part was necessary to its ultimate fulfilment. She had felt that she was in the web of his plan, that she had to wait, that something devised by him would presently happen—she did not know what—and that their intercourse would be resumed.

Now, influenced by the desolation towards utter doubt and almost frantic depression, as she came back to her full life, which had surely been for a while in suspense, she asked herself whether she had not been grossly mistaken. Baroudi had never told her anything about the future, had never given her any hint as to what his meaning was. Was that because he had had no meaning? Had she been the victim of her own desires? Had Baroudi had enough of her and done with her? Something, that was compounded of something else as well as of vanity, seemed still to be telling her that it was not so. But to-day, in this terrible greyness, this melancholy, this chilly pallor, she could not trust it. She turned.

"Ibrahim! Ibrahim!" she cried out.

He rose from the sands and sauntered towards her. He came and stood silently beside her.

"Ibrahim," she began.

She looked at him, and was silent. Then she called on her resolute self, on the self that had been hardened, coarsened, by the life which she had led.

"Ibrahim, do you know where Baroudi is—what he has been doing all this time?" she asked.

"What he has bin doin' I dunno, my lady. Baroudi he doos very many things."

"I want to know what he has been doing. I must, I will know."

The spell of place, the spell of the great and frigid silence, was suddenly and completely broken. Mrs. Armine stood up in the sand. She was losing her self-control. She looked at the dreary prospect before her, growing sadder as evening drew on; she thought of Nigel perfectly happy, she even saw him down there a black speck in the immensity, creeping onward towards his pleasure, and a fury that was vindictive possessed her. It seemed to her absolutely monstrous that such a woman as she was should be in such a place, in such a situation, waiting in the sand alone, deserted, with nothing to do, no one to speak to, no prospect of pleasure, no prospect of anything. A loud voice within her seemed suddenly to cry, to shriek, "I won't stand this. I won't stand it."

"I'm sick of the Fayyum," she said fiercely, "utterly sick of it. I want to go back to the Nile. Do you know where Baroudi is? Is he on the Nile? I hate, I loathe this place."

"My lady," said Ibrahim, very gently, "there is good jackal-shootin' here."

"Jackal-shooting, duck-shooting—so you think of nothing but your master's pleasure!" she said, indignantly. "Do you suppose I'm going to sit still here in the sand for days, and do nothing, and see nobody, while—while—"

She stopped. She could not go on. The fierceness of her anger almost choked her. If Nigel had been beside her at that moment, she would have been capable of showing even to him something of her truth. Ibrahim's voice again broke gently in upon her passion.

"My lady, for jackal-shootin' you have to go out at night. You have to go down there when it is dark, and stay there for a long while, till the jackal him come. You tie a goat; the jackal him smell the goat and presently him comin'."

She stared at him almost blankly. What had all this rhodomontade to do with her? Ibrahim met her eyes.

"All this very interestin' for my Lord Arminigel," said Ibrahim, softly.

Mrs. Armine said nothing, but she went on staring at Ibrahim.

"P'r'aps my gentleman go out to-night. If he go, you take a little walk with Ibrahim."

He turned, and pointed behind her, to the distance where the rising sand-hill seemed to touch the stooping sky.

"You take a little walk up there."

Still she said nothing. She asked nothing. She had no need to ask. All the desolation about her seemed suddenly to blossom like the rose. Instead of the end of the world, this place seemed to be the core, the warm heart of the world.

When at last she spoke, she said quietly:

"Your master will go jackal-shooting to-night."

Ibrahim nodded his head.

"I dessay," he pensively replied.

The soft crack of a duck-gun came to their ears from far off among the tamarisk bushes beside the green-grey waters.

"I dessay my Lord Arminigel him goin' after the jackal to-night."



XXIV

The dinner in camp that night was quite a joyous festival. Nigel brought back two duck, Ibrahim made a fine fire of brushwood to warm the eager sportsman, and Ruby was in amazing spirits. She played to perfection the part of ardent housewife. She came and went in the sand, presiding over everything. She even penetrated into the cook's tent with Ibrahim to give Mohammed some hints as to the preparation of the duck.

"This is your holiday," she said to Nigel. "I want it to be a happy one. You must make the most of it, and go out shooting all the time. They say there's any amount of jackals down there in the tamarisk bushes. Are you going to have a shot at them to-night?"

Nigel stretched out his legs, with a long sigh of satisfaction.

"I don't know, Ruby. I should like to, but it's so jolly and cosy here."

He looked towards the fire, then back at her.

"I'm not sure that I'll go out again," he said.

"I dare say you're tired."

"No, that's not it. The truth is that I'm tremendously happy in camp with you. And I love to think of the desolation all round us, and that there isn't a soul about, except a few gipsies down there, and a few wild, half-naked fishermen. We've brought our own oasis with us into the Libyan Desert. And I think to-night I'll be a wise man and stick to the oasis."

She smiled at him.

"Then do!"

In the midst of her smile she yawned.

"I shall go to bed directly," she said.

She seemed to suppress another yawn.

"You mean to go to bed early?" he asked.

"Almost directly. Do you mind? I'm dog tired with the long camel ride, and I shall sleep like twenty tops."

She put her hand on his shoulder. Her whole face was looking sleepy.

"You old wretch," she said. "What do you mean by looking so horribly wide awake?"

He put his hand over hers, and laughed.

"I seem to be made of iron in this glorious country. I'm not a bit sleepy."

She stifled another yawn.

"Then I'll"—she put up her hand to her mouth—"I'll sit up a little to keep you company."

"Indeed, you shan't. You shall go straight to bed, and when you're safely tucked up I think perhaps I will just go down and have a look for the jackals. If you're going to sleep, I might as well—"

He drew down her face to his and gave her a long kiss.

"I'll put you to bed first, and when you're quite safe and warm and cosy, I'll make a start."

She returned his kiss.

"No, I'll see you off."

"But why?"

"Because I love to see you starting off in the night to the thing that gives you pleasure. That's my pleasure. Not always, because I'm too selfish. On the Nile you'll have to attend to me, to do everything I want. But just for these few days I'm going to be like an Eastern woman, at the beck of my lord and master. So I must see you start, and then—oh, how I shall sleep!"

He got up.

"P'r'aps I'll be out till morning. I wonder if Hamdi's got a goat."

He went away for his gun. In a very few minutes he left the camp, gaily calling to her, "Sleep well, Ruby! You look like a sorceress standing there all lit up by the fire. The flames are flickering over you. Good night—good night!"

His steps died away in the sands, his voice died away in the darkness.

She waited, standing perfectly still by the fire, for a long time. Her soul seemed running, rushing over the sands towards the ridge that met the sky, but her will kept her body standing beside the flames, until at last the sportsmen were surely far enough away.

"Ibrahim!"

"My lady?"

"How are we going?"

She was whispering to him beside the fire.

"Does it matter the camel-men knowing? Are they to know? Am I to ride or walk?"

"You leave everythin' to Ibrahim. You go in your tent, and presently I come."

She went at once into the tent, and sat down on a folding chair. A little round iron table stood before it. She leaned her arms on the table and laid her face against the back of her hand. Her cheek was burning. She sprang up, went to her dressing-case, unlocked it, drew out the boite de beaute which Baroudi had given her in the orange-garden, and quickly made her face up, standing before the glass that was pinned to the canvas. Then she put on a short fur coat. The wind would be cold in the sands. She wondered how far they had to go.

And if Nigel should unexpectedly return, as nearly all husbands did on such occasions?

She could not bother about that. She felt too desperate to care; she felt in the grasp of fate. If the fate was to be untoward, so much the worse for her—and for Nigel. She meant to go beyond that ridge of the sand. That was all she knew. Quickly she buttoned the fur coat and put on a hat and gloves.

"Now we goin' to start."

Ibrahim put his muffled head in at the door of the tent.

"Walking?" she asked.

"We goin' to start walkin'."

When she came out, she found that the brushwood fire had been pulled to pieces.

"Down there they not see nothin'," said Ibrahim, pointing towards the darkness before them.

"And the men? Does it matter about the men?" she asked perfunctorily. She did not feel that she really cared.

"All the men sleepin', except Hamza. Him watchin'."

The tents of the men were at some distance. She looked, and saw no movement, no figures except the faint and grotesque silhouettes of the hobbled camels.

"I say that I follow my Lord Arminigel."

They started into the desert. As they left the camp, Mrs. Armine saw Hamza behind her tent, patrolling with a matchlock over his shoulder.

The night was dark and starless; the breeze, though slight and wavering over the sands, was penetrating and cold. The feet of Mrs. Armine sank down at each step into the deep and yielding sands as she went on into the blackness of the immeasurable desert. And as she gazed before her at the hollow blackness and felt the immensity of the unpeopled spaces, it seemed to her that Ibrahim was leading her into some crazy adventure, that they were going only towards the winds, the desolate sands, and the darkness that might be felt. He did not speak to her, nor she to him, till she heard, apparently near them the angry snarl of a camel. Then she stopped.

"Did you hear that? There's some one near us," she said.

"My lady come on! That is a very good dromedary for us."

"Ah!" she said.

She hastened forward again. In two or three seconds the camel snarled furiously again.

"The Bedouin he make him do that to tell us where he is," said Ibrahim.

He cried out some words in Arabic. A violent guttural voice replied out of the darkness. In a moment, under the lee of a sand dune, they came upon two muffled figures holding two camels, which were lying down. Upon one there was a sort of palanquin, in which Mrs. Armine took her seat, with a Bedouin sitting in front. A stick was plied. The beast protested, filling the hollow of the night with a complaint that at last became almost leonine; then suddenly rose up, was silent, and started off at a striding trot.

Mrs. Armine could not measure either the time that elapsed or the space that was covered during that journey. She was filled with a sense of excitement and adventure that she had never experienced before, and that made her feel oddly young. The dark desert, swept by the chilling breeze, became to her suddenly a place of strong hopes and of desires leaping towards fulfilment. She was warmed through and through by expectation, as she had not been warmed by the great camp fire that had been kindled to greet Nigel. And when at last in the distance there shone out a light, like an earth-bound star, to her all the desert seemed glowing with an almost exultant radiance.

But the light was surely far away, for though the dromedary swung on over the desert, it did not seem to her to grow clearer or brighter, but like a distant eye it regarded her with an almost cruel steadiness, as if it calmly read her soul.

And she thought of Baroudi's eyes, and looking again at the yellow light, she felt as if he were watching her calmly from some fastness of the sands to which she could not draw near.

In the desert it is difficult to measure distances. Just as Mrs. Armine was thinking that she could never gain that light, it broadened, broke up into forms, the forms of leaping flames blown this way and that by the stealthy wind of the waste, became abruptly a fire revealing vague silhouettes of camels, of crouching men, of tents, of guard dogs, of hobbled horses. She was in the midst of a camp pitched far out in a lonely place of the sands within sight of no oasis.

The dromedary knelt. She was on her feet with Ibrahim standing beside her.

For a moment she felt dazed. She stood still, consciously pressing her feet down against the sand which glowed in the light from the flames. She saw eyes—the marvellous, birdlike eyes of Bedouins—steadily regarding her beneath the darkness of peaked hoods. She heard the crackle of flames in the windy silence, a soft grating sound that came from the jaws of feeding camels. Dogs snuffed about her ankles.

"My lady, you comin' with me!"

Mechanically she followed Ibrahim away from the fire, across a strip of sand to a large tent that stood apart. As she drew near to it her heart began to beat violently and irregularly, and she felt almost like a girl. For years she had not felt so young as she felt to-night. In this dark desert, among these men of Africa, all her worldly knowledge, all her experience of men in civilized countries seemed of no use to her. It was as if she shed it, cast it as a snake casts its skin, and stood there in a new ignorance that was akin to the wondering ignorance of youth. The canvas flap that was the door of the tent was fastened down. Ibrahim went up to it and called out something. For a moment there was no answer. During that moment Mrs. Armine had time to notice a second smaller tent standing, with Baroudi's, apart from all the others. And she fancied, but was not certain, that as for an instant the breeze died down, she heard within it a thin sound like the plucked strings of some instrument of music. Then the canvas of the big tent was lifted, light shone out from within, and she saw the strong outline of a man. He looked into the night, drew back, and she entered quickly and stood before Baroudi. Then the canvas fell down behind her, shutting out the night and the desert.

Baroudi was dressed in Arab costume. His head was covered with a white turban spangled with gold, his face was framed in snowy white, and his great neck was hidden by drapery. He wore a kuftan of striped and flowered silk with long sleeves, fastened round his waist with lengths of muslin. Over this was a robe of scarlet cloth. His legs were bare of socks, and on his feet were native slippers of scarlet morocco leather. In his left hand he held an immensely long pipe with an ivory mouthpiece.

Mrs. Armine looked from him to his tent, to the thick, bright-coloured silks which entirely concealed the canvas walls, to the magnificent carpets which blotted out the desert sands, to the great hanging lamp of silver, which was fastened by a silver chain to the peaked roof, to the masses of silk cushions of various hues that were strewn about the floor. Once again her nostrils drew in the faint but heavy perfume which she always associated with Baroudi, and now with the whole of the East, and with all Eastern things.

That racing dromedary had surely carried her through the night from one world to another. Suddenly she felt tired; she felt that she longed to lie down upon those great silk cushions, between those coloured walls of silk that shut out the windy darkness and the sad spaces of the sands, and to stay there for a long time. The courtesan's lazy, luxurious instinct drowsed within her soul, and her whole body responded to this perfumed warmth, to this atmosphere of riches created by the man before her in the core of desolation.

She sighed, and looked at his eyes.

"And how is Mr. Armeen?" he said, with the faintly ironic inflection which she had noticed in their first interview alone. "Has he gone out after the jackal?"

What his intention was she did not know, but he could not have said anything to her at that moment that would have struck more rudely upon her sensuous pleasure in the change one step had brought her. His words instantly put before her the necessity for going presently, very soon, back to the camp and Nigel, and they woke up in her the secret woman, the woman who still retained the instincts of a lady. This lady realized, almost as Eve realized her nakedness, the humiliation of that rush through the night from one camp to another, the humiliation that lay in the fact that it was she who sought the man, that he had her brought to him, did not trouble to come to her. She reddened beneath the paint on her face, turned swiftly round, bent down, and tried to undo the canvas flap of the tent. Her intention was to go out, to call Ibrahim, to leave the camp at once. But her hands trembled and she could not undo the canvas. Still bending, she struggled with it. She heard no movement behind her. Was Baroudi calmly waiting for her to go? Some one must have pegged the flap down after she had come in. She would have to kneel down on the carpet to get at the fastenings. It seemed to her, in her nervous anger and excitement, that to kneel in that tent would be a physical sign of humiliation; nevertheless, after an instant of hesitation, she sank to the ground and pushed her hands forcibly under the canvas, feeling almost frantically for the ropes. She grasped something, a rope, a peg—she did not know what—and pulled and tore at it with all her force.

Just then the night wind, which blew waywardly over the sands, now rising in a gust that was almost fierce, now dying away into a calm that was almost complete, failed suddenly, and she heard a frail sound which, by its very frailty, engaged all her attention. It was a reiteration of the sound which she thought she had heard as she waited outside the tent, and this time she was no longer in doubt. It was the cry of an instrument of music, a stringed instrument of some kind, plucked by demure fingers. The cry was repeated. A whimsical Eastern melody, very delicate and pathetic, crept to her from without.

It suggested to her—women.

Her hands became inert, and her fingers dropped from the tent-pegs. She thought of the other tent, of the smaller tent she had seen, standing apart near Baroudi's. Who was living in that tent?

The melody went on, running a wayward course. It might almost be a bird's song softly trilled in some desolate place of the sands, but—

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse