It died away into the night, and the night wind rose again.
Mrs. Armine got up from her knees. Her hands were trembling no longer. She no longer wished to go.
"Arrange some of those cushions for me, Baroudi," she said. "I am tired after my ride."
He had not moved from where he had been standing when she came in, but she noticed that his long pipe had dropped from his hand and was lying on the carpet.
"Where shall I put them?" he asked, gravely.
She pointed to the side of the tent which was nearest to the smaller tent.
"Against the silk, two or three cushions. Then I can lean back. That will do."
She unbuttoned her fur jacket.
"Help me!" she said.
He drew it gently off. She sat down, and pulled off her gloves. She arranged the cushions with care behind her back. Her manner was that of a woman who meant to stay where she was for a long time. She was listening intently to hear the music again, but her face did not show that she was making any effort. Her self was restored to her, and her self was a woman who in a certain world, a world where women crudely, and sometimes quite openly, battle with other women for men, had for a long time resolutely, successfully, even cruelly, held her own.
Baroudi watched her with serious eyes. He picked up his pipe and let himself down on his haunches close to where she was leaning against her cushions. The night wind blew more strongly. There was no sound from the other tent. When Mrs. Armine knew that the wind must drown that strange, frail music, even if the hidden player still carelessly made it, she said, with a sort of brutality:
"And if my husband comes back to camp before my return there?"
"He will not."
"We can't know."
"The dromedary will take you there in fifteen minutes."
"He may be there now. If he is there?"
"Do you wish him to be there?"
He had penetrated her thought, gone down to her desire. That sound of music, that little cry of some desert lute plucked by demure fingers, perhaps stained with the henna, the colour of joy, had rendered her reckless. At that moment she longed for a crisis. And yet, at his question, something within her recoiled. Could she be afraid of Nigel? Could she cower before his goodness when it realized her evil? Marriage had surely subtly changed her, giving back to her desires, prejudices, even pruderies of feeling that she had thought she had got rid of for ever long ago. Some spectral instincts of the "straight" woman still feebly strove, it seemed, to lift their bowed heads within her.
"Things can't go on like this," she said. "I don't know what I wish. But I am not going to allow myself to be treated as you think you can treat me. Do you know that in Europe men have ruined themselves for me—ruined themselves?"
"You liked that!" he intercepted, with a smile of understanding. "You liked that very much. But I should never do that."
He shook his head.
"I would give you many things, but I am not one of those what the Englishman calls 'dam fools.'"
The practical side of his character, thus suddenly displayed, was like a cool hand laid upon her. It was like a medicine to her fever. It seemed for a moment to dominate a raging disease—the disease of her desire for him—which created, to be its perpetual companion, a furious jealousy involving her whole body, her whole spirit.
"Because you don't care for me," she said, after a moment of hesitation, and again running, almost in despite of herself, to meet her humiliation. "Every man who cares for a woman can be a fool for her, even an Eastern man."
"Why do I come here," he said, "two days through the desert from the Sphinx?"
"It amuses you to pursue an Englishwoman. You are cruel, and it amuses you."
Her cruelty to Nigel understood Baroudi's cruelty to her quite clearly at that moment, and she came very near to a knowledge of the law of compensation.
His eyes narrowed.
"Would you rather I did not pursue you?"
She was silent.
"Would you rather be left quietly to your life with Mr. Armeen?"
"Oh, I'm sick of my life with him!" she cried out, desperately. "It would be better if he were in camp tonight when I got back there; it would be much better!"
"And if he were in camp—would you tell him?"
Contempt crawled in his voice.
"You are not like one of our women," he said. "They know how to do what they want even behind the shutters of their husbands' houses. They are clever women when they walk in the ways of love."
He had made her feel like a child. He had struck hard upon her pride of a successful demi-mondaine.
"Of course I shouldn't tell him!" she said. "But perhaps it would be better if I did. For I'm tired of my life."
Again the horrible melancholy which so often comes to women of her type and age, and of which she was so almost angrily afraid, flowed over her. She must live as she wished to live in these few remaining years. She must break out of prison quickly, or, when she did break out, there would be no freedom that she could enjoy. She had so little time to lose. She could tell nothing to Baroudi of all this, but perhaps she could make him feel the force of her desire in such a way that an equal force of answering desire would wake in him. Perhaps she had never really exerted herself enough to put forth, when with him, all the powers of her fascination, long tempered and tried in the blazing furnaces of life.
The gusty wind died down across the sands, and again she heard the frail sound of the desert lute. It wavered into her ears, like something supple, yielding, insinuating.
There was a woman in that tent.
And she, Bella Donna, must go back to camp almost directly, and leave Baroudi with that woman! She was being chastised with scorpions to-night.
"Why did you come to this place?" she said.
"To be with you for an hour."
The irony, the gravity, that seemed almost cold in its calm, died out of his eyes, and was replaced by a shining that changed his whole aspect.
There was the divine madness in him too, then. Or was it only the madness that is not divine? She did not ask or care to know.
The night wind rose again, drowning the little notes of the desert lute.
* * * * *
That night, without being aware of it, Mrs. Armine crossed a Rubicon. She crossed it when she came out of the big tent into the sands to go back to the camp by the lake. While she had been with Baroudi the sky had partially cleared. Above the tents and the blazing fire some stars shone out benignly. A stillness and a pellucid clearness that were full of remote romance were making the vast desert their sacred possession. The aspect of the camp had changed. It was no longer a lurid and mysterious assemblage of men, animals, and tents, half revealed in the light of blown flames, half concealed by the black mantle of night, but a tranquil and restful picture of comfort and of repose, full of the quiet detail of feeding beasts, and men smoking, sleeping, or huddling together to tell the everlasting stories and play the games of draughts that the Arabs love so well.
But blackness and gusty storm were within her, and made the vision of this desert place, governed by the huge calm of the immersing night in this deep hour of rest, almost stupefying by its contrast with herself.
Baroudi had gone out first to speak with Ibrahim. She saw him, made unusually large and imposing by the ample robes he wore, the innumerable folds of muslin round his head, stride slowly across the sand and mingle with his attendants, who all rose up as he joined them. For a moment she stood quite still just beyond the shadow of the tent.
The exquisitely cool air touched her, to make her know that she was on fire. The exquisite clearness fell around her, to make her realize the misty confusion of her soul. She trembled as she stood there. Not only her body, but her whole nature was quivering.
And then she heard again the player upon the lute, and she saw a faint ray of light upon the sand by the tent she had not entered. She buttoned her fur jacket, twisted her gloves in her hands, and looked towards the ray. There was a hard throbbing in her temples, and just beneath her shoulders there came a sudden shock of cold, that was like the cold of menthol. She looked again at the camp fire; then she stole over the sand, set her feet on the ray, and waited.
For the first time she realized that she was afraid of Baroudi, that she would shrink from offending him almost as a dog shrinks from offending its master. But would it anger him if she saw the lute-player? He had not taken the trouble to silence that music. He treated women de haut en bas. That was part of his fascination for them—at any rate, for her. What would he care if she knew he had a woman with him in the camp, if she saw the woman?
And even if he were angry? She thought of his anger, and knew that at this moment she would risk it—she would risk anything—to see the woman in that tent. Thinking with great rapidity in her nervous excitement and bitter jealousy, become tenfold more bitter now that the moment had arrived for her departure, she imagined what the woman must be: probably some exquisite, fair Circassian, young, very young, fifteen or sixteen years old, or perhaps a maiden from the Fayyum, the region of lovely dark maidens with broad brows, oval faces, and long and melting black eyes. Her fancy drew and painted marvellous girls in the night. Then, as a louder note, almost like a sigh, came from the tent, she moved forward, lifted the canvas, and looked in.
The interior was unlike the interior of Baroudi's tent. Here nothing was beautiful, though nearly everything was gaudy. The canvas was covered with coarse striped stuff, bright red and yellow, with alternate red and yellow rosettes all round the edge near the sand, which was strewn with bits of carpet on which enormous flowers seemed to be writhing in a wilderness of crude green and yellow leaves. Fastened to the walls, in tarnished frames, were many little pictures—oleographs of the most blatant type, chalk drawings of personages such as might people an ugly dream; men in uniforms with red noses and bulbous cheeks; dogs, cats, and sand-lizards, and coloured plates cut out of picture papers. Mingled with these were several objects that Mrs. Armine guessed to be charms, a mus-haf, or copy of the Koran, enclosed in a silver case which hung from a string of yellow silk; one or two small scrolls and bits of paper covered with Arab writing; two tooth-sticks in a wooden tube, open at one end; a child's shoe tied with string, to which were attached bits of coral and withered flowers; several tassels of shells mingled with bright blue and white beads; a glass bottle of blessed storax; and a quantity of Fatma hands, some very large and made of silver gilt, set with stones and lumps of a red material that looked like sealing-wax, others of silver and brass, small and practically worthless. There was also the foot of some small animal set in a battered silver holder. On a deal table stood a smoking oil lamp of mean design and cheap material. Underneath it was a large wooden chest or coffer, studded with huge brass nails, clamped with brass, and painted a brilliant green. Near it, touching the canvas wall, was a mattress covered with gaudy rugs that served as a bed.
In the tent there were two people. Although the thin sound of the music had suggested a woman to Mrs. Armine, the player was not a woman, but a tall and large young man, dressed in a bright yellow jacket cut like a "Zouave," wide drawers of white linen, yellow slippers, and the tarbush. Round his waist there was a girdle, made of a long and narrow red and yellow shawl with fringes and tassels. He was squatting cross-legged on the hideous carpet, holding in his large, pale hands, artificially marked with blue spots and tinted at the nails with the henna, a strange little instrument of sand-tortoise, goat-skin, wood, and catgut, with four strings from which he was drawing the plaintive and wavering tune. He wore a moustache and a small, blue-black beard. His eyes were half shut, his head drooped to one side, his mouth was partly open, and the expression upon his face was one of weak and sickly contentment. Now and then he sang a few notes in a withdrawn and unnatural voice, slightly shook his large and flaccid body, and allowed his head to tremble almost as if he were seized with palsy. Despite his breadth, his large limbs, and his beard, there was about his whole person an indescribable effeminacy, which seemed heightened, rather than diminished, by his bulk and his virile contours. A little way from him on the mattress a girl was sitting straight up, like an idol, with her legs and feet tucked away and completely concealed by her draperies.
Mrs. Armine looked from the man to her with the almost ferocious eagerness of the bitterly jealous woman. For she guessed at once that the man was no lover of this girl, but merely an attendant, perhaps a eunuch, who ministered to her pleasure. This was Baroudi's woman, who would stay here in the tent beside him, while she, the fettered, European woman, would ride back in the night to Kurun. Yet could this be Baroudi's woman, this painted, jewelled, bedizened creature, almost macawlike in her bright-coloured finery, who remained quite still upon her rugs—like the macaw upon its perch—indifferent, somnolent surely, or perhaps steadily, enigmatically watchful, with a cigarette between her painted lips, above the chin, on which was tattooed a pattern resembling a little, indigo-coloured beard or "imperial"? Could he be attracted by this face, which, though it seemed young under its thick vesture of paint and collyrium, would surely not be thought pretty by any man who was familiar with the beauties of Europe and America, this face with its heavy features, its sultry, sullen eyes, its plump cheeks, and sensual lips?
Yes, he could. As she looked, with the horrible intuition of a feverishly strung up and excited woman Mrs. Armine felt the fascination such a creature held to tug at a man like Baroudi. Here was surely no mind, but only a body containing the will, inherited from how many Ghawazee ancestors, to be the plaything of man; a well-made body, yes, even beautifully made, with no heaviness such as showed in the face, a body that could move lightly, take supple attitudes, dance, posture, bend, or sit up straight, as now, with the perfect rigidity of an idol; a body that could wear rightly cascades of wonderfully tinted draperies, and spangled, vaporous tissues, and barbaric jewels, that do not shine brightly as if reflecting the modern, restless spirit, but that are somnolent and heavy and deep, like the eyes of the Eastern women of pleasure.
The player upon the desert lute had not seen that some one stood in the tent door. With half-shut eyes he continued playing and singing, lost in a sickly ecstasy. The woman on the gaudy rug sat quite still and stared at Mrs. Armine. She showed no surprise, no anger, no curiosity. Her expression did not change. Her motionless, painted mouth was set like a mouth carved in some hard material. Only her bosom stirred with a regular movement beneath her coloured tissues, her jewels and strings of coins.
Mrs. Armine stepped into the tent and dropped the flap behind her. She did not know what she was going to do, but she was filled with a bitter curiosity that she could not resist, with an intense desire to force her way into this woman's life, a life so strangely different from her own, yet linked with it by Baroudi. She hated this woman, yet with her hatred was mingled a subtle admiration, a desire to touch this painted toy that gave him pleasure, a longing to prove its attraction, to plumb the depth of its fascination, to learn from it a lesson in the strange lore of the East. She came close up to the woman and stood beside her.
Instantly one of the painted hands went up to her jacket, and gently, very delicately, touched its fur. Then the other hand followed, and the jacket was felt with wondering fingers, was stroked softly, first downwards, then upwards, while the dark and heavy eyes solemnly noted the thin shine of the shifting skin. The curiosity of Mrs. Armine was met by another but childlike curiosity, and suddenly, out of the cloud of mystery broke a ray of light that was naive.
This naivete confused Mrs. Armine. For a moment it seemed to be pushing away her anger, to be drawing the sting from her curiosity. But then the childishness of this strange rival stirred up in her a more acrid bitterness than she had known till now. And the wondering touch became intolerable to her. Why should such a creature be perfectly happy, while she with her knowledge, her experience, her tempered and perfected powers, lived in a turmoil of misery? She looked down into the Ghawazee's eyes, and suddenly the painted hands dropped from the fur, and she was confronted by a woman who was no longer naive, who understood her, and whom she could understand.
The voice of the lute-player died away, the thin cry of the strings failed. He had seen. He rose to his feet, and said something in a language Mrs. Armine could not understand. The girl replied in a voice that sounded ironic, and suddenly began to laugh. At the same moment Baroudi came into the tent. The girl called out to him, pointed at Mrs. Armine, and went on laughing. He smiled at her, and answered.
"What are you saying to her?" said Mrs. Armine, fiercely. "How dare you speak to her about me? How dare you discuss me with her?"
"P'f! She is a child. She knows nothing. The camel is ready."
The girl spoke to him again with great rapidity, and an air of half-impudent familiarity that sickened Mrs. Armine. Something seemed to have roused within her a sense of boisterous humour. She gesticulated with her painted hands, and rocked on her mattress with an abandon almost negroid. Holding his lute in one pale hand, and stroking his blue-black beard with the other, her huge and flaccid attendant looked calmly on without smiling.
Mrs. Armine turned and went quickly out of the tent. Baroudi spoke again to the girl, joined in her merriment, then followed Mrs. Armine. She turned upon him and took hold of his cloak with both her hands, and her hands were trembling violently.
"How dared you bring me here?" she said. "How dared you?"
"I wanted you. You know it."
"That's not true."
"It is true."
"It is not true. How could you want me when you had that dancing-girl with you?"
He shrugged his shoulders, almost like one of the Frenchmen whom he had met ever since he was a child.
"You do not understand the men of the East, or you forget that I am an Oriental," he said.
A sudden idea struck her.
"Perhaps you are married, too?" she exclaimed.
"Of course I am married!"
His eyes narrowed, and his face began to look hard and repellent.
"It is not in our habits to discuss these things," he said.
She felt afraid of his anger.
"I didn't mean—"
She dropped her hands from his cloak.
"But haven't I a right?" she began.
She stopped. What was the use of making any claim upon such a man? What was the use of wasting upon him any feeling either of desire or of anger? What was the use? And yet she could not go without some understanding. She could not ride back into the camp by the lake and settle down to virtue, to domesticity with Nigel. Her whole nature cried out for this man imperiously. His strangeness lured her. His splendid physique appealed to her with a power she could not resist. He dominated her by his indifference as well as by his passion. He fascinated her by his wealth, and by his almost Jewish faculty of acquiring. His irony whipped her, his contempt of morality answered to her contempt. His complete knowledge of what she was warmed, soothed, reposed her.
But the thought of his infidelity to her as soon as she was away from him roused in her a sort of madness.
"How am I to see you again?" she said.
And all that she felt for him went naked in her voice.
"How am I to see you again?"
He stood and looked at her.
"And what is to happen to me if he has found out that I have been away from the camp?"
"Hamza will make an explanation."
"And if he doesn't believe the explanation?"
"You will make one. You will never tell him the truth."
It was a cold command laid like a yoke upon her.
"He can never know I have been here. To-night, directly you are gone, I strike my tents and go back to Cairo. I do not choose to have any bad affairs with the English so long as the English rule in Egypt. I am well looked upon by the English, and so it must continue. Otherwise my affairs might suffer. And that I will not have. Do you understand?"
She looked at him, and said nothing.
"We have to do what we want in the world without losing anything by it. Thus it has always been with me in my life."
She thought of all she had lost long ago by doing the thing she desired, and again she felt herself inferior to him.
"And this, too, we shall do without losing anything by it," he said.
"Go back to Kurun. Tell me. Will you not presently need to have a dahabeeyah?"
"And if we do?"
"You shall have the Loulia."
"You mean to come with us?"
"Are you a child? I shall let it to your husband at a price that will suit his purse, so that you may be housed as you ought to be. I shall let it with my crew, my servants, my cook. Then you must take your husband away with you quietly up the Nile."
Again Mrs. Armine was conscious of a shock of cold.
"Quietly up the Nile?" she repeated.
"What is the use of that?"
"Perhaps he will like the Nile so much that he will not come back."
He looked into her eyes. She heard the snarl of a camel.
"Your camel is ready," he said.
They walked towards the fire where Ibrahim was awaiting them. Before Mrs. Armine had settled herself in the palanquin Baroudi moved away without another word, and as the camel rose, complaining in the night, she saw him lift the canvas of the Ghawazee's tent and disappear within it.
When she reached the camp by the lake, Nigel had not returned. She undressed quickly, got into bed, and lay there shivering, though heavy blankets covered her.
Just at dawn Nigel came back.
Then she shut her eyes and pretended to sleep.
Always she was shivering.
"Ruby," Nigel said, as he stood with her on the deck of the Loulia and looked up at the Arabic letters of gold inscribed above the doorway through which they were going to pass, "what is the exact meaning of those words? Baroudi told us that day at Luxor, but I've forgotten. It was some lesson of fate, something from the Koran. D'you remember?"
She turned up her veil over the brim of her burnt-straw hat. "Let me see!" she said.
She seemed to make an effort of memory, and lines came on her generally smooth forehead.
"I fancy it was 'The fate of every man have we bound about his neck,' or something very like that."
"Yes, that was it. We discussed it, and I said I wasn't a fatalist."
"Did you? Come along. Let's explore."
"Our floating home—yes."
He took hold of her arm.
"If my fate is bound about my neck, it's a happy fate," he said—"a fate I can wear as a jewel instead of bearing as a burden."
They went down the steps together, and vanished through the doorway into the shadows beyond.
The Loulia was moored at Keneh, not far from the temple of Denderah. She had been sent up the river from Assiout, where Baroudi had left her when he had finished his business affairs and was ready to start for Cairo. It was Nigel's wish that he and his wife should join her there.
"Denderah was the first temple you and I saw together," he said. "Let's see it more at our leisure. And let us ask Aphrodite to bless our voyage."
"Hathor! What, are you turning pagan?" she said.
He laughed as he looked into her blue eyes.
"Scarcely; but she was the Egyptian Goddess of Beauty, and I don't think she could deny her blessing to you."
Then she was looking radiant!
That cold which had made her shudder in the night by the sacred lake had been left in the desolation of Libya. Surely, it could never come to her here in the golden warmth of Upper Egypt. She said to herself that she would not shudder again now that she had escaped from that blanched end of the world where desperation had seized her.
The day of departure for the Nile journey had come, and Nigel and she set foot upon the Loulia for the first time as proprietors.
They passed the doors of the servants' cabins, and came into their own quarters. Ibrahim followed softly behind with a smiling face, and Hamza, standing still in the sunshine beneath the golden letters, looked after them imperturbably.
Baroudi's "den" had been swept and garnished. Flowers and small branches of mimosa decorated it, as if this day were festal. The writing-table, which had been loaded with papers, was now neat and almost bare. But all, or nearly all, Baroudi's books were still in their places. The marvellous prayer rugs strewed the floor. Ibrahim had set sticks of incense burning in silver holders. Upon the dining-room table, beyond the screen of mashrebeeyah work, still stood the tawdry Japanese vase. And the absurd cuckoo clock uttered its foolish sound to greet them.
"The eastern house!" said Nigel. "You little thought you would ever be mistress of it, did you, Ruby? How wonderful these prayer rugs are! But we must get rid of that vase."
"Why?" she said hastily, almost sharply.
He looked at her in surprise.
"You don't mean to say you like it? Besides, it doesn't belong to the room. It's a false note."
"Of course. But it appeals to my sense of humour—like that ridiculous cuckoo clock. Don't let's change anything. The incongruities are too delicious."
"You are a regular baby!" he said. "All right. Shall we make Baroudi's 'den' your boudoir?"
She nodded, smiling.
"And you shall use it whenever you like. And now for the bedrooms!"
"More incongruities," he said. "But never mind. They looked delightfully clean and cosy."
"Clean and cosy!" she repeated, with a sort of light irony in her beautiful voice. "Is that all?"
"Well, I mean—"
"I know. Come along."
They opened the doors and looked into each gay and luxurious little room. And as Mrs. Armine went from one to another, she was aware of the soft and warm sensation that steals over a woman returning to the atmosphere which thoroughly suits her, and from which she has long been exiled. Here she could be in her element, for here money had been lavishly spent to create something unique. She felt certain that no dahabeeyah on the Nile was so perfect as the Loulia. Every traveller upon the river would be obliged to envy her. For a moment she secretly revelled in that thought; then she remembered something; her face clouded, her lips tightened, and she strove to chase from her mind that desire to be envied by other women.
Nigel and she must avoid the crowds that gather on the Nile in the spring. They must tie up in the unfrequented places. Had she not reiterated to him her wish to "get away from people," to see only the native life on the river? Those "other women" must wait to be envious, and she, too, must wait. She stifled an impatient sigh, and opened another door. After one swift glance within, she said:
"I will have this cabin, Nigel."
"All right, darling. Anything you like. But let's have a look."
For a moment she did not move.
"Don't be selfish, Ruby!"
She felt fingers touching her waist at the back, gripping her with a sort of tender strongness; and she closed her eyes, and tried to force herself to believe they were Baroudi's fingers of iron.
"Or I shall pick you up and lift you out of the way."
When Nigel spoke again, she opened her eyes. It was no use. She was not to have that illusion. She set her teeth and put her hands behind her, feeling for his fingers. Their hands met, clasped. She fell back, and let him look in.
"Why, this must be Baroudi's cabin!" he said.
"I dare say. But what I want it for is the size. Don't you see, it's double the size of the others," she said, carelessly.
"So it is. But they are ever so much gayer. This is quite Oriental, and the bed's awfully low."
He bent down and felt it.
"It's a good one, though. Trust Baroudi for that. Well, dear, take it; I'll turn in next door. We can easily talk through the partition"—he paused, then added in a lower voice—"when we are not together. Now there's the other sitting-room to see and then shall we be off to Denderah with Hamza, while Ibrahim sees to the arrangement of everything?"
"Yes. Or—shall we leave the other room till we come back, till it's getting twilight? I don't think I want to see quite everything just at once."
"You're becoming a regular child, saving up your pleasure. Then we'll start for Denderah now."
She drew her veil over her face rather quickly, and walked down the passage, through the arch in the screen, and out to the brilliant sunshine that flooded the sailors' deck. For though the Nubians had spread an awning over their heads, they had not let down canvas as yet to meet the white and gold of the bulwarks forward. And there was a strong sparkle of light about them. In the midst of that sparkle Hamza stood, a little away from the crew, who were tall, stalwart, black men, evidently picked men, for not one was mean or ugly, not one lacked an eye or was pitted with smallpox.
As Mrs. Armine came up the three steps from the cabins, walking rather hurriedly, as if in haste to get to the sunshine, Hamza sent her a steady look that was like a quiet but determined rebuke. His eyes seemed to say to her, "Why do you rush out of the shadows like this?" And she felt as if they were adding, "You who must learn to love the shadows." His look affected her nerves, even affected her limbs. At the top of the steps she stood still, then looked round, with a slight gesture as if she would return.
"What is it, Ruby?" asked Nigel. "Have you forgotten anything?"
"No, no. Is it this side? Or must we have the felucca? I forget."
"It's this side. The Loulia is tied up here on purpose. The donkeys, Hamza!"
He spoke kindly, but in the authoritative voice of the young Englishman addressing a native. Without changing his expression, Hamza went softly and swiftly over the gangway to the shore, climbed the steep brown bank, and was gone—a flash of white through the gold.
"He's a useful fellow, that!" said Nigel. "And now, Ruby, to seek the blessing of the Egyptian Aphrodite. It will be easily won, for Aphrodite could never turn her face from you."
As their tripping donkeys drew near to that lonely temple, where a sad Hathor gazes in loneliness upon the courts that are no longer thronged with worshippers, Mrs. Armine fell into silence. The disagreeable impression she had received here on her first visit was returning. But on her first visit she had been tired, worn with travel. Now she was strong, in remarkable health. She would not be the victim of her nerves. Nevertheless, as the donkeys covered the rough ground, as she saw the pale facade of the temple confronting her in the pale sands, backed by the almost purple sky, she remembered the carven face of the goddess, and a fear that was superstitious stirred in her heart. Why had Nigel suggested that they should seek the blessing of this tragic Aphrodite? No blessing, surely, could emanate from this dark dwelling in the sands, from this goddess long outraged by desertion.
They dismounted, and went into the temple. No one was there except the chocolate-coloured guardian, who greeted them with a smile of welcome that showed his broken teeth.
"May your day be happy!" he said to them in Arabic.
"He ought to say, 'May all your days on the Nile be happy,' Ruby," said Nigel.
"He only wants the day on which we pay him to be happy. On any other day we might die like dogs, and he wouldn't care."
She stood still in the first court, and looked up at the face of Hathor, which seemed to regard the distant spaces with an eternal sorrow.
"I think you count too much on happiness, Nigel," she added. She felt almost impelled by the face to say it. "I believe it's a mistake to count upon things," she added.
"You think it's a mistake to look forward, as I am doing, to our Nile journey?"
She walked on slowly into the lofty dimness of the temple.
"One never knows what is going to happen," she added. And there was almost a grimness in her voice.
"And it all passes away so fast, whatever it is," he said. "But that is no reason why we should not take our happiness and enjoy it to the utmost. Why do you try to damp my enthusiasm to-day?"
"I don't try. But it is dangerous to be too sure of happiness beforehand."
She was speaking superstitiously, and she was really speaking to herself. At first she had been thinking of, speaking to, him as if for his own good, moved by a sort of dim pity that surely belonged rather to the girl she had been than to the woman she actually was. Now the darkness of this lonely temple and the knowledge that it was Aphrodite's—she thought always of Hathor as Aphrodite—preyed again upon her spirit as when she first came to it. She felt the dreadful brevity of a woman's, of any woman's triumph over the world of men. She felt the ghastly shortness of the life of physical beauty. She seemed to hear the sound of the movement of Time rushing away, to see the darkness of the End closing about her, as now the dimness of this desolate shrine of beauty and love grew deeper round her.
Far up, near the forbidding gloom of the mighty roof, there rose a fiercely petulant sound, a chorus of angry cries. Large shadows with beating wings came and went rapidly through the forest of heavy columns. The monstrous bats of Hathor were disturbed in their brooding reveries. A heavy smell, like the odour of a long-decaying past, lifted itself, as if with a slow, determined effort, to Mrs. Armine's nostrils. And ever the light of day failed slowly as she and Nigel went onward, drawn in despite of themselves by the power of the darkness, and by the mysterious perfumes that swept up from the breast of death.
At last they came into the sanctuary, the "Holy of Holies" of Denderah, where once were treasured images of the gods of Egypt, where only the King or his high priest might venture to come, at the fete of the New Year. They stood in its darkness, this woman who was longing to return to the unbridled life of her sensual and disordered past, and this man who, quite without vanity, believed that he had been permitted to redeem her from it.
The guardian of the temple, who had followed them softly, now lit a ribbon of magnesium, and there sprang into a vague and momentary life reliefs of the King performing ceremonies and accomplishing sacrifices. Then the darkness closed again. And the fragmentary and short vision seemed to Mrs. Armine like the vision of her little life as a beautiful woman, and the coming of the darkness to blot it out like the coming of the darkness of death to cover her for ever with its impenetrable mantle.
What she had told Meyer Isaacson in his consulting-room was true. When she thought sincerely, she believed in no future life. She could not conceive of a spirit life. Nor could she conceive of the skeletons of the dead in some strange resurrection being reclothed with the flesh which she adored, being inhabited again by the vitality which makes skeleton and flesh living man or woman. This life was all to her. And when the light in which it existed and was perceived died away and was consumed, she believed that the vision could never reappear.
Now, in this once so sacred place, she seemed for a moment to plunge into the depths of herself, to penetrate into the inmost recesses of her nature. In London, before Nigel came into her life, had she not been like Hathor in her temple, hearing the sound of the departing feet of those who had been her worshippers? And with Nigel had come a wild hope of worldly eminence, of great riches, of a triumph over enemies. And that hope had faded abruptly. Yet through her association with Nigel she had come to another hope. And this hope must be fulfilled, before the inevitable darkness that would fall about her beauty. Nigel would never be the means to the end she had originally had in view. Yet his destiny was to serve her. He had his destiny, and she hers. And hers was not a great worldly position, or any ultimate respectability. She could not have the first, and so she would not have the second. Perhaps she was born for other things—born to be a votary of Venus, but not to content any man as his lawful wife. The very word "lawful" sent a chill through her blood now. She was meant for lawlessness, it seemed. Then she would fulfil her destiny, without pity, without fear, but not without discretion. And her destiny was to emerge from the trap in which she was confined. So she believed.
Yet would she emerge? In the darkness of Hathor's sanctuary, haunted by the face of the goddess and by the sad thoughts of deserted womanhood which it suggested to her self-centred mind, she resolved that she would emerge, that nothing should stop her, that she would crush down any weakening sentiments and thoughts if they came to heart or mind. Egypt, in which one desire had been rendered useless and finally killed in her, had given to her another, had brought to her a last chance—she seemed to know it was that—of happiness, of ugly yet intense joy. In Egypt she had blossomed, fading woman though she had been. She had renewed her powers of physical fascination. Then she must emerge from the trap and go to fulfil her destiny. She would do so. Silently, and as if making the vow to the Egyptian Aphrodite in the darkness of her temple, she swore to do so. Nigel had brought her there—had he not?—that Hathor might bless her voyage. Moved by a fierce impulse, and casting away pity, doubt, fear, everything but flamelike desire, she called upon Hathor to bless her voyage—not their voyage, but only hers. She called upon the goddess of beauty, the pagan goddess of the love that was not spiritual.
And she almost felt as if she was answered.
Yet only the enormous bats cried fiercely to her from far up in the dimness. She only heard their voices and the beating of their wings.
"Let's go, Ruby. I don't know why, but to-day I hate this place."
She started at the sound of his voice close to her. But she controlled herself immediately, and replied, quietly:
"Yes, let us go. We are only disturbing the bats."
As they went out, she looked up to the column from which Hathor gazed as if seeking for her worshippers, and she whispered adieu to the goddess.
As soon as they were on board of the Loulia Nigel gave the order to cast off. He seemed unusually restless, and in a hurry to be en route. With eagerness he spoke to the impassive Reis, whose handsome head was swathed in a shawl, and who listened imperturbably. He went about on the sailors' deck watching the preparations, seeing the ropes hauled in, the huge poles brought out to fend them from off the bank, the gigantic sail unfurled to catch the evening breeze, which was blowing from the north, and which would take them up against the strong set of the current. And when the water curled and eddied about the Loulia's prow, and the shores seemed slipping away and falling back into the primrose light of the north, and into the great dahabeeyah there came that mysterious feeling of life which thrills through the moving vessel, he flung up his arms, and uttered an exclamation that was like a mingled sigh and half-suppressed shout. Then he laughed at himself, and turned to look for Ruby.
She was alone on the upper deck, standing among some big palms in pots, with her hands on the rail, and gazing towards him. She had taken off her hat and veil, and the breeze stirred, and the gold of the departing sun lit up the strands of her curiously pale yet shining hair. He sprang up the companion to stand beside her.
"We're off!" he said.
"How glad you seem! You called me a child. But you're like a mad boy—mad to be moving. One would think you had—No, that wouldn't be like a boy."
"What do you mean?"
"I was going to say one would think you had an enemy in Keneh and were escaping from him."
"Him! Her, you should say."
"Hathor. That temple of Denderah seemed haunted to-day."
He pulled off his hat to let the breeze get at his hair, too.
"When we were standing in the sanctuary I seemed to be smelling death and corruption. Ugh!"
His face changed at the memory.
"And the cries of those bats! They sounded like menacing spirits. I was a fool to go to such a place to ask a blessing on our voyage. My attempt at paganism was punished, and no wonder, Ruby. For I don't think I'm really a bit of a pagan; I don't think I see much joy in the pagan life, that is so much cracked up by some people. I don't see how the short life and the merry one can ever be really merry at all. How can a man be merry with a darkness always in front of him?"
She said nothing for a moment. Then she asked him:
"Do you look upon death merely as a door into another life?"
"I believe it is. Don't you?"
"Yes. Then you don't dread death?"
"Don't I—now? It would be leaving so much now. And besides, I love this life; I revel in it. Who wouldn't, with health like mine? Feel that arm!"
She did not move. He took her hand and pressed her fingers against his muscles.
"It's like iron," she said, taking away her hand. "But muscle and health are not exactly the same thing, are they?"
"No; of course not. But did you ever see a man look more perfectly well than I do?"
As he stood beside her, radiant now, upright, with the breeze ruffling his short, fair hair, his enthusiastic blue eyes shining with happiness, he did look like a young god of health and years younger than his age.
"Oh, you look all right," she said; "just like lots of other men who go in for sport and keep themselves fit."
"You won't pay me the compliment I want. Look at those barges loaded with pottery! All those thousands of little vases—koulal, as the natives call them—are made in Keneh. I've seen the men doing it—boys too—the wet clay spinning round the brown finger that makes the orifice. How good it is to see the life of the river! There's always something new, always something interesting, humanity at work in the sunshine and the open air. Who wouldn't be a fellah rather than a toiler in any English town? Here are the shadufs! All the way up the Nile we shall see them, and we shall hear the old shaduf songs, that sound as if they came down from the days when they cut the Sphinx out of the living rock, and we shall hear the drowsy song of the water-wheels, as the sleepy oxen go round and round in the sunshine; and we shall see the women coming in lines from the inland villages with the water-jars poised on their heads. If only we were back in the days when there were no steamers and the Nile must have been like a perpetual dream! But never mind. At least we refused Baroudi's steam-tug. So we shall just go up with the wind, or be poled up when there is none, if we aren't tied up under the bank. That's the only way to travel on the Nile, but of course Baroudi uses it, as one uses the railway, to go to business."
He stopped, as if his mind had taken a turn towards some other line of thought; then he said:
"Isn't it odd that you and I should be established in Baroudi's boat, when we've never seen him again since the day we had tea on it? I almost thought—"
"I almost thought perhaps he'd run up by train to give us a sort of send-off."
"Why should he?"
"Of course it wasn't necessary. Still, it would have been an act of pretty politeness to you."
"Oh, I think the less pretty politeness European women have from these Orientals the better!" she said, almost with a sneer.
"You're thinking of that horrible German woman in the Fayyum. But Baroudi's very well looked on by the English in Egypt. I found that out in Cairo, when I left you to go to the Fayyum. He's quite a persona grata for an Egyptian. Everybody seems ready to do him a good turn. That's partly why he's been so successful in all he's undertaken."
"I dare say he's not bad in his way, but as long as we've got his lovely boat I can do quite well without him" she said, smiling. "Where are we going to tie up tonight, and when?"
"When it gets dark. The Reis knows where. Isn't it glorious to be quite free and independent? We can stop wherever we like, in the lonely places, where there'll be no tourists to bother us."
"Yes," she said, echoing his enthusiasm, while she looked at him with smiling eyes. "Let's avoid the tourists and stop in the lonely places. Well, I'm going down now."
"Why? What are you going to do? The sun will soon be setting. We ought to see the first afterglow from the Loulia together."
"Call me, then, when it comes. But I'm going to take a lesson in coffee-making as they do it out here. It will amuse me to make our coffee after lunch. Besides, it will be something to do. And I want to take an interest in everything, in all the trifles of this odd new life."
He put his arm around her shoulder.
"Splendid!" he said.
His hand tightened upon her.
"But you must come for the afterglow."
"Call me, and I'll come."
As she went down the companion, he leaned over the rail and asked her:
"Who's going to give you your lesson in coffee-making?"
"Hamza," she answered.
And she disappeared.
"All the way up the Nile we shall hear the old shaduf songs," Nigel had said, when the Loulia set sail from Keneh.
As Mrs. Armine went down to meet Hamza, she was aware of the loud voices of the shaduf men. They came from both banks of the Nile—powerfully from the eastern, faintly from the western bank soon to be drowned in the showers of gold from the sinking sun. Yet she could hear that even those distant voices were calling loudly, that in their faintness there was violence. And she thought of the fellah's voice that cried to her in the orange-garden, and how for a moment she had thought of flight before she had found herself in a prison of prayer. Now she was in another prison. But even then the inexorable hands had closed upon her, and the final cry of the fellah had thrilled with a savage triumph. She had remembered "Aida" that day. She remembered it again now. Then, in her youth, she had believed that the passion which had wrecked her was the passion of her life, a madness of the senses, a delirium of the body which could never be repeated in later years for another object. How little she had known herself or life! How little she had known the cruel forces of mature age. That passion of her girlhood seemed to her like an anaemic shadow of the wolfish truth that was alive in her now. In those days the power to feel, the power to crave, to shudder with jealousy, to go almost mad in the face of a menacing imagination, was not full-grown. Now it was full-grown, and it was a giant. Yet in those days she had allowed the shadow to ruin her. In these she meant to be more wary. But now she was tortured by a nature that she feared.
The die was cast. She had no more thought of escape or of resistance. The supreme selfishness of the materialist, which is like no other selfishness, was fully alive within her. Believing not at all in any future for her soul, she desired present joy for her clamorous body as no one not a materialist could ever desire. If she failed in having what she longed for now, while she still retained the glow of her Indian summer, she believed she would have nothing more at all, that all would be finally over for her, that the black gulf would gape for her and that she would vanish into it for ever. She was a desperate woman, beneath her mask of smiling calm, when the Loulia set sail and glided into the path of the golden evening.
Nevertheless, directly she had descended the shallow steps, and come into the luxurious cabin that was to be her boudoir, she was conscious of a feeling of relief that was almost joy. The comfort, the perfect arrangements of the Loulia gave her courage. She was able to look forward. The soul of her purred with a sensual satisfaction. She went on down the passage to the room of the fountain and of the gilded ball. But today the fountain was not playing, and the little ball floated upon the water in the marble basin like a thing that had lost its life. She felt a slight shock of disappointment. Then she remembered that they were moving. Probably the fountain only played when the dahabeeyah was at rest. The grotesque monster, like a dragon with a dog's head, which she had seen on her first visit, looked down on her from its bracket. And she felt as if it welcomed her. The mashrebeeyeh lattices were closed over the windows, but the sliding doors that gave on to the balcony were pushed back, and let in the light of evening, and a sound of water, and of voices along the Nile. She sat down on the divan, and almost immediately Hamza came in.
"You are going to show me how to make Turkish coffee, Hamza?" she said, in her lazy and careless voice.
"Yes," he replied.
"Where shall we do it?"
He pointed towards the raised balcony in the stern.
"Out there!" she said.
She seemed disappointed, but she got up slowly and followed him out. The awning was spread so that the upper deck was not visible. When she saw that, the cloud passed away from her face, and as she sat down to receive her lesson, there was a bright and hard eagerness and attention in her eyes and about her lips.
Hamza had already brought a brazier with iron legs, which was protected from the wind by a screen of canvas. On the polished wood close to it there were a shining saucepan containing water, a brass bowl of freshly roasted and pounded coffee, two small open coffee-pots with handles that stuck straight out, two coffee-cups, a tiny bowl of powdered sugar, and some paper parcels which held sticks of mastic, ambergris, and seed of cardamom. As soon as Mrs. Armine was seated by the brazier Hamza, whose face looked as if he were quite alone, with slow and almost dainty delicacy and precision proceeded with his task. Squatting down upon his haunches, with his thin brown legs well under his reed-like body, he poured the water from the saucepan into one of the copper pots, set the pot on the brazier, and seemed to sink into a reverie, with his enigmatic eyes, that took all and gave nothing, fixed on the burning coals. Mrs. Armine was motionless, watching him, but he never looked at her. There was something animal in his abstraction. Presently there came from the pot a murmur. Instantly Hamza stretched out his hand, took the pot from the brazier and the bowl of coffee from the ground, let some of the coffee slip into the water, stirred it with a silver spoon which he produced from a carefully folded square of linen, and set the pot once more on the brazier. Then he unfolded the paper which held the ambergris, put a carat weight of it into the second pot and set that, too, on the brazier. The coffee began to simmer. He lit a stick of mastic, fumigated with its smoke the two little coffee-cups, took the coffee-pot, and gently poured the fragrant coffee into the pot containing the melted ambergris, let it simmer for a moment there, poured it out into the coffee-cups, creaming and now sending forth with its own warm perfume the enticing perfume of ambergris, added a dash of the cardamom seed, and then, at last, looked towards Mrs. Armine.
"It's ready? Then—then shall I put the sugar in?" she said.
"Yes," said Hamza, looking steadily at her.
She stretched out her hand, but not to the sugar bowl. Just as she did so a voice from over their heads called out:
"Come down here!" she called, in answer.
"But I want you to come up and see the sunset and the afterglow with me."
"Come down here first," she called.
The coffee-making was finished. Hamza got up from his haunches, lifted up the brazier, and went softly away, carrying it with a nonchalant ease almost as if it were a cardboard counterfeit weighing nothing.
In a moment Nigel came into the dim room of the fountain.
"Where are you? Oh, there! We mustn't miss our first sunset."
"Coffee!" she said, smiling.
He came out on to the balcony, and she gave him one of the little cups.
"Did you make it yourself?"
"No. But I will to-morrow. Hamza has been showing me how to."
He took the cup.
"It smells delicious, as enticing as perfumes from Paradise. I think you must have made it."
"Drink it, and believe so—you absurd person!" she said, gently.
He sipped, and she did likewise.
"It's perfect, simply perfect. But what has been put into it to give it this peculiar, delicious flavour, Ruby?"
"Ah, that's my secret."
She sipped from her little cup.
"It is extraordinarily good," she said.
She pointed to the small paper packets, which Hamza had not yet carried off.
"The preparation is almost like some sacred rite," she said. "We put in a little something from this packet, and a little something from that. And we smoke the cups with one of those burning sticks of mastic. And then, at the very end, when the coffee is frothing and creaming, we dust it with sugar. This is the result."
He put his cup down empty.
"Look at that light!" he said, pointing over the rail to the yellow water which they were leaving behind them. "Have you finished?"
"Then let's go on deck—coffee-maker."
They were quite alone. He put his arm around her as she stood up.
"Everything you give me seems to me different from other things," he said—"different, and so much better."
"Your imagination is kind to me—too kind. You are foolish about me."
He looked into her eyes, and his kind and enthusiastic eyes became almost piercing for an instant.
"And you, Ruby?"
"Could you ever be foolish about me?"
For a moment his joy seemed to be clouded by a faint and creeping doubt, as if he were mentally comparing her condition of heart with his, and as if the comparison were beginning—only just beginning—dimly to distress him. She knew just how he was feeling, and she leaned against him, making her body feel weak.
"I don't want to," she said.
Already the cloud was evaporating.
"I don't want to suffer. I want to be happy now in the short time I have left for happiness."
"Why do you say 'the short time'?"
"I'm not young any more. And I've suffered enough in my life."
"But through me! How could you suffer? Don't you trust me completely even yet?"
"It isn't that. But—it's dangerous for a woman to be foolish about any man. It's a folly to care too much."
She spoke with a sincerity there was no mistaking, for she was thinking about Baroudi.
"Only sometimes. Only when one cares for the weak, or the insincere. We—needn't count the cost, and hesitate."
She let him close her lips, which were opening for a reply, and while he kissed her she listened to the voices of the shaduf men ever calling on the banks of the river.
When they were on the upper deck those voices seemed to her louder. That evening it was a sunset of sheer gold. The cloudless sky—so it seemed—would brook no other colour; the hills would receive no gift that was not a gift of gold. A pageant of gold that was almost barbaric was offered to Mrs. Armine. Out of the gold the voices cried from banks that were turning black. Always, in Egypt, the gold turns the barques on the Nile, its banks, the palm-trees that sometimes crown them, the houses of the native villages, black. And so it was that evening, but Nigel only saw and thought of the gold.
"At last we are sailing into the gold," he said. "This makes me think of a picture that I love."
"A picture by Watts, called 'Progress.' In it there is a wonderful glow. I remember I spoke of it to Meyer Isaacson on the evening when I introduced him to you."
She had been leaning over the rail on the starboard side of the boat. Now she lifted her arms, stood straight up, then sat down in a beehive chair, and leaned back against the basket-work, which creaked as if protesting.
"To Meyer Isaacson!" she said. "What did you say about it?"
He turned, set his back against the rail, and looked at her in her hooded shelter.
"We spoke of progress. The picture's an allegory, of course, an allegory of the spiritual progress of the world, and of each one of us. I remember telling Isaacson how firmly I believed in the triumph of good in the world and the individual."
"And what did he say?"
"Isaacson? I don't know that he quite took my view."
"He's a tiny bit of a suspicious man, I think."
"Perhaps he wants more solid proof—proof you could point to and say, 'Look there! I rely on that!' than I should."
"He's ever so much more terre a terre than you are."
"Oh, Ruby, I don't know that!"
"Yes, he is. He's a delightfully clever and a very interesting man, but, though he mayn't think it he's terre a terre. He sees with extraordinary clearness, but only a very little way, and he would never believe anything important existed beyond the range of his vision. You are not like that!"
"He's a thousand times cleverer than I am."
"Yes, he's so clever that he's distrustful. Now, for instance, he'd never believe in a woman like me."
"Oh—" he began, in a tone of energetic protest.
"No, he wouldn't," she interrupted, quietly. "To the end of time he would judge me by the past. He would label me 'woman to beware of' and my most innocent actions, my most impulsive attempts to show forth my true and better self he would entirely misinterpret, brilliant man though he is. Nigel, believe me, we women know!"
"But, then, surely you must dislike Isaacson very much!"
"On the contrary, I like him."
"I can't understand that."
"I don't require of him any of the splendid things that—well, that I do require of you, because I could never care for him. If he were to play me false, even if he were to hate me a thousand times more than he does, it wouldn't upset me, because I could never care for him."
"You think Isaacson hates you!" he exclaimed.
He had forgotten the gold of the sunset, the liquid gold of the river. He saw only her, thought only of what she was saying, thinking.
"Nigel, tell me the truth. Do you think he likes me?"
He looked down.
"He doesn't know you. If he did—"
"If he did, it would make not a bit of difference."
"I think it would; all the difference."
She smilingly shook her head.
"I should always wear my label, 'woman to beware of.' But what does it matter? I'm not married to him. If I were, ah, then I should be the most miserable woman on earth—now!"
He sat down close to her in another beehive chair.
"Ruby, why did you say 'now' like that?"
"Oh," she spoke in a tone of lightness that sounded assumed, "because now I've lived in an atmosphere not of mistrust. And it's spoilt me completely."
He felt within him a glow strong and golden as the glow of the sunset. At last she had forgotten their painful scene in the garden. He had fought for and had won her soul's forgetfulness.
"I'm glad," he said, with the Englishman's almost blunt simplicity—"I'm glad. I wish Isaacson knew."
She felt as if she frowned, but not a wrinkle came on her forehead.
"I didn't tell you," he added, "but I wrote to Isaacson the other day."
Her hands met in her lap, and her fingers clasped.
"Yes, I sent him quite a good letter. I told him we were going up the Nile in Baroudi's boat, and how splendid you were looking, and how immensely happy we were. I told him we were going to cut all the travellers, and just live for our two selves in the quiet places where there are no steamers and no other dahabeeyahs. And I told him how magnificently well I was."
"Oh, treating him as the great Doctor, I suppose!"
She unclasped her hands, and took hold of the rudimentary arms of her chair.
"No. But I felt expansive—riotously well—when I was writing, and I just stuck it down with all the rest."
"And the rest?"
She leaned forward a little, as if she wanted to see the sunset better, but soon she looked at him.
"Oh, I let him understand just how it is between you and me. And I told him about the dahabeeyah, what a marvel it is, and about Baroudi, and how Ibrahim put Baroudi up to the idea of letting it to us."
"How these chairs creak!" he said. "Yours is making a regular row."
She got up.
"You aren't going down again?"
"No. Let us walk about."
He joined her and they began slowly to pace up and down, while the gold grew fainter in the sky, fainter upon the river. She kept silence, and perhaps communicated her wish for silence to him, for he did not speak until the sunset had faded away, and the world of water, green flats, desert, and arid hills grew pale in the pause before the afterglow. Then at last he said:
"What is it, Ruby? What are you thinking about so seriously?"
"I don't know."
She looked at him, and seemed to take a resolve.
"Yes, I do."
"Have I said something that has vexed you? Are you vexed at my writing to Isaacson to tell him about our happiness?"
"Not vexed, no. But somehow it seems to take off the edge of it a little. But men don't understand such things, so it's no use talking of it."
"But I want to understand everything. You see, Isaacson is my friend. Isn't it natural that I should let him know of my happiness?"
"Oh, yes, I suppose so. Never mind. What does it matter?"
"You dislike my having written to him?"
"I'm a fool, Nigel—that's the truth. I'm afraid of everything and everybody."
"Afraid! You're surely not afraid of Isaacson?"
"I tell you I'm afraid of everybody."
She stopped by the rail, and looked towards the west.
"To me happiness seems such a brittle thing that any one might break it. And men—forgive me!—men generally have such clumsy hands."
He leaned on the rail beside her, turning himself towards her.
"You don't mean to say that you think Isaacson could ever break our happiness, even if he wished to?"
"Don't you understand me at all?"
There was in his voice a tremor of deep feeling.
"Do you think," he went on, "that a man who is worth anything at all would allow even his dearest friend to come between him and the woman whom he loved and who was his? Do you think that I would allow any one, woman or man, to come between me and you?"
"Are you sure you wouldn't?"
"What a tragedy it must be to be so distrustful of love as you are!" he said, almost with violence.
"You haven't lived my life."
She, too, spoke almost with violence, and there was violence in her eyes.
"You haven't lived for years in the midst of condemnation. Your friend, Doctor Isaacson, secretly condemns me. I know it. And so I'm afraid of him. I don't pretend to have any real reason—any reason that would commend itself to a man. Women don't need such reasons for their fears."
"And yet you say that you like Isaacson!"
"So I do, in a way. At least, I thought I did, till you told me you'd written to him to tell him about us and our life on the Nile."
He could not help smiling.
"Oh!" he said, moving nearer to her. "I shall never understand women. What a reason for dislike of a man hundreds of miles away from us!"
"Hundreds of miles—yes! And if your letter brought him to us! Suppose he took it into his head to run out and see for himself if what you wrote was true?"
"Ruby! How wild you are in your suppositions!"
"They're not so wild as you think. Doctor Isaacson is just the man to do such a thing."
"Well, even if he did—?"
"Do you want him to?" she interrupted.
"You do want him to."
She said it bitterly.
"And I thought I was enough!" she exclaimed.
"It isn't that, Ruby—it isn't that at all. But I confess that I should like Isaacson to see for himself how happy we are together."
"Did you say that in your letter?"
"No, not a word of it. But I did think it when I was writing. Wasn't it a natural thought? Isaacson was almost my confidant—not quite, for nobody was quite—about my feelings and intentions towards you before our marriage."
"And if he could have prevented the marriage, he would have prevented it."
"And because of that, if it's true, you wouldn't like him to see us happy together?"
"I don't want him here. I don't want any one. I feel as if he might try to separate us, even now."
"He might try till the Day of Judgment without succeeding. But you are not quite fair to him."
"And he would never be fair to me. There's the after-glow coming at last."
They watched it in silence giving magic to the western hills and to the cloudless sky in the west. It was suggestive of peace and of remoteness, suggestive of things clarified, purged, made very wonderfully pure, but not coldly pure. When it died away into the breast of the softly advancing night, Nigel felt as if it had purged him of all confusion of thought and feeling, as if it had set him quite straight with himself.
"That makes me feel as if I understood everything just for a moment," he said. "Ruby, don't let us get into any difficulties, make any difficulties for ourselves out here. We are having such a chance for peace, aren't we? We should be worse than mad if we didn't take it, I think. But we will take it. I understand that your life has made you suspicious of people. I believe I understand your fears a little, too. But they are groundless as far as I am concerned. Nobody on earth could ever come between you and me. Only one person could ever break our union."
"Yourself. Hark! the sailors are singing. I expect we are going to tie up."
That night, as Mrs. Armine lay awake in the cabin which was Baroudi's, and which, in contrast to all the other bedrooms on the Loulia, was sombre in its colouring and distinctively Oriental, she thought of the conversation of the afternoon, and realized that she must keep a tighter hold over her nerves, put a stronger guard upon her temper. Without really intending to, she had let herself run loose, she had lost part of her self-control. Not all, for as usual when she told some truth, she had made it serve her very much as a lie might have served her. But by speaking as she had about Meyer Isaacson she had made herself fully realize something—that she was afraid of him, or that in the future she might become afraid of him. Why had Nigel written just now? Why had he drawn Isaacson's attention to them and their lives just now? It was almost as if—and then she pulled herself up sharply. She was not going to be a superstitious fool. It was, of course, perfectly natural for Nigel to write to his friend. Nevertheless, she wished ardently that Isaacson was not his friend, that those keen doctor's eyes, which seemed to sum up the bodily and mental states of woman or man with one bright and steady glance, had never looked upon her.
And most of all she wished that they might never look upon her again.
In the house in Cleveland Square, on a morning in late January, Meyer Isaacson read Nigel's letter.
"Luxor, Upper Egypt, Jan. 21st.
"Here at last is a letter, the first I've sat down to write to you since the note telling you of my marriage. I had your kind letter in answer, and showed it to Ruby, who was as pleased with it as I was. She liked you from the first, and I think has always wished to know you better since you went to cheer her up in her London solitude. Some day I suppose she will have the chance, but now we are on the eve of cutting ourselves off from every one and giving ourselves up to the Nile. You are surprised, perhaps? You thought I should be hard at it in the Fayyum, looking after my brown fellows? Well, I'm as keen as ever on the work there, and if you could have seen me not many days ago, nearly up to my knees in mud, and as oily and black as a stoker, you'd know it. My wife was in the Fayyum with me, and has been roughing it like a regular Spartan. She packed off her French maid so as to be quite free, and has been living under the tent, riding camels, feeding anyhow, and, in short, getting a real taste of the nomad's life in the wilds. She cottoned to it like anything, although no doubt she missed her comforts now and then. But she never complained, she's looking simply splendid—years younger than she did when you saw her in London—and won't hear of having another maid, though now she might quite well get one. For I felt I oughtn't to keep her too long in the wilds just at first, although she was quite willing to stay, and didn't want to take me away from my work. I knew she was naturally anxious to see something of the wonders of Egypt, and the end of it was that we decided to take a dahabeeyah trip on the Nile, and are on the eve of starting. You should see our boat, the Loulia! she's a perfect beauty, and, apart from a few absurd details which I haven't the time to describe, would delight you. The bedrooms are Paris, but the sitting-rooms are like rooms in an Eastern house. You'll say Paris and the East don't go together. Granted! But it's very jolly to be romantic by day and soused in modern comfort at night. Now isn't it? Especially after the Fayyum. And we've actually got a fountain on board, to say nothing of prayer rugs by the dozen which beat any I've seen in the bazaars of Cairo. For we haven't hired from Cook, but from an Egyptian millionaire of Alexandria called Mahmoud Baroudi, whom we met coming out, and who happened to want a tenant for his boat just in the nick of time. It isn't my money he needs, though I'm paying him what I should pay Cook for a first-rate boat, but he doesn't like leaving his crew and servants with nothing to do. He says they get into mischief. He was looking out for a rich American—like nearly every one out here—when he happened to hear from one of our fellows, a first-rate chap called Ibrahim, that we wanted a good boat, and so the bargain was made. Our plans are pretty vague. We want to get right away from trippers, and just be together in all the delicious out-of-the-way places on the river; see the temples and tombs quietly, enter into the life of the natives—in fact, steep ourselves to the lips in Nile water. I can't tell you how we are both looking forward to it. Isaacson, we're happy! Out here in this climate, this air, this clearness—like radiant sincerity it is, I often think—it's difficult not to be happy; but I think we're happier even than most people out here—at any rate I'm sure I am—I'll dare to say than any one else out here. And I'll say it with audacity and without superstitious fears of the future. The sun's streaming in over me as I write; I hear the voices of the watermen singing; I see my wife in the garden walking to the river bank, and I've got this trip before me. And—just remembered it!—I'm superbly well. Never in my life have I been in such splendid health. They say a perfectly healthy man should be unconscious of his body. Well, when I get up in the morning, all I know is that I say to myself, 'You're in grand condition, old chap!' And I think that consciousness means more than any unconsciousness. Don't you? I've no use for all your knowledge, your skill, out here—no use at all. Are there really people being ill in London? Are your consulting-rooms crowded? I can't believe it, any more than I can believe in the darkness of London days. What a selfish brute I am! You're hating me, aren't you? But it's so good to be happy. When I'm happy, I always feel that I'm fulfilling the law. If you want to fulfil the law better, come to Egypt. But you ought to bring the woman with you into the sunshine. I can't say any more; I needn't say any more. Now, you understand that it's all right. Do you remember our walk home from the concert that night, and how I said, 'I want to get into the light, the real light'? Well, I'm in it, and how I wish that you and every one else could be in it too! Forgive my egoism. Write to me at this address when you have time. Come to the Nile when next you take a holiday, and, with many messages from us both,
"Your friends, "N. A. and R. A.
"I sign for her. She's still in the garden, where I'm just going."
A letter of success. A letter subtly breathing out from every line the message, "You were wrong." A letter of triumph, devoid of the cruelty that triumph often holds. A letter, surely, for a true friend to rejoice in?
Meyer Isaacson held it for a long while in his hands, forgetful of the tea that was standing at his elbow.
The day was dark and grim, a still, not very cold, but hopeless day of the dawning year. And he, was he not holding sunshine? The strange thing was that it did not warm him, that it seemed rather to add a shadow to London's dimness.
Mrs. Armine without a maid! He scarcely knew why, but that very small event, the dismissal of a maid, seemed almost to bristle up at him out of his friend's letter. He knew smart women well, and he knew that the average smart woman would rather do without the hope of Heaven than do without her maid. Mrs. Armine must have changed indeed since she was Mrs. Chepstow. Could she have changed so much? Do people of mature age change radically when an enthusiastic influence is brought to bear upon them?
All day long Isaacson was pondering that question.
Nigel was knocking at a door. Had it opened to him? Would it ever open? He thought it would. Probably he thought it had.
He and his wife were going away to be together "in all the delicious out-of-the-way places on the Nile," and they were "happier than most people"—even than most people in the region of gold.
And yet two sons had been born to Lord Harwich, and Nigel had been cut out of the succession!
When he had read that news, Isaacson had wondered what effect it would have in the menage on the Nile—how the greedy woman would bear it.
Apparently she had borne it well. Nigel did not even mention it.
And the departure of that maid! Mrs. Armine without a maid! Again that night as Isaacson sat alone reading Nigel's letter that apparently unimportant fact seemed to bristle up from the paper and confront him. What was the meaning of that strange renunciation? What had prompted it? "She packed off her French maid so as to be quite free." Free for what?
The doctor lit a cigar, and leaned back in a deep arm-hair. And he began to study that cheery letter almost as a detective studies the plan of a house in which a crime has been committed. When his cigar was smoked out, he laid the letter aside, but he still refrained for a while from going to bed. His mind was far away on the Nile. Never had he seen the Nile. Should he go to see it, soon, this year, this spring? He remembered a morning's ride, when the air of London was languorous, had seemed for a moment almost exotic. That air had made him wish to go away, far away, to the land where he would be really at home, where he would be in "his own place." And then he had imagined a distant country where all romances unwind their shining coils. And he had longed for events, tragic, tremendous, horrible, even, if only they were unusual. He had longed for an incentive which would call his secret powers into supreme activity.
Should he go to the Nile very soon—this spring?
He looked again at the letter. He read again those apparently insignificant words:
"She packed off her French maid, so as to be quite free."
The next day was Sunday. Meyer Isaacson had no patients and no engagements. He had deliberately kept the day free, in order that he might study, and answer a quantity of letters. He was paying the penalty of his great success, and was one of the hardest worked men in London. At the beginning of the New Year he had even broken through his hitherto inflexible rule, and now he frequently saw patients up till half-past seven o'clock. He dined out much less than in former days, and was seldom seen at concerts and the play. Success, like a monster, had gripped him, was banishing pleasure from his life. He worked harder and harder, gained ever more and more money, rose perpetually nearer to the top of his ambition. Not long ago royalty had called him in for the first time, and been pleased to approve both of him personally and of his professional services. The future, no doubt, held a title for him. All the ultra-fashionable world thronged to consult him. Even since the Armines' departure he had gone up several rungs of the ladder. His strong desire to "arrive"—and arrival in his mind meant far more than it does in the minds of most men—and his acute pleasure in adding perpetually to his fortune, drove him incessantly onward. In his few free hours he was slowly and laboriously writing a work on poisons, the work for which he had been preparing in Italy during his last holiday. On this Sunday he meant to devote some hours to it. But first he would "get through" his letters.
After a hasty breakfast, he shut himself up in his study. London seemed strangely quiet. Even here within four walls, and without looking at the outside world, one felt that it was Sunday; one felt also that almost everybody was out of town. A pall of grey brooded over the city. Isaacson turned on the electric light, stood for a moment in front of the fire, then went over to his writing-table. The letters he intended to answer were arranged in a pile on the right hand side of his blotting-pad. Many of them—most of them—were from people who desired to consult him, or from patients about their cases. These letters meant money. Numbers of them he could answer with a printed card to which he would only have to add a date and a name. Monotonous work, but swiftly done, a filling up of many of the hours of his life which were near at hand.
He sat down, took a packet of his printed engagement forms, and a pen, put them before him, then opened one of the letters:
"4, Manton Street, Mayfair, Jan. 2.
"Dear Doctor Isaacson:
"My health," etc., etc.
He opened another:
"200, Park Lane, Jan. ——
"Dear Doctor Isaacson:
"I don't know what is the matter with me, but—" etc., etc.
He took up a third:
1x, Berkeley Square, Jan. ——
Dear Doctor Isaacson:
"That strange feeling in my head has returned, and I should like to see you about it," etc., etc.
Usually he answered such letters with energy, and certainly without any disgust. They were the letters he wanted. He could scarcely have too many of them. But to-day a weariness overtook him; almost more than a weariness, a sort of sick irritation against the life that he had chosen and that he was making a marvellous success of. Illness, always illness! Pale faces, disordered nerves, dyspepsia, melancholia, anaemia, all the troop of ills that afflict humanity, marching for ever into his room! What company for a man to keep! What company! Suddenly he pushed away the printed forms, put down his pen, and got up.
He knew quite well what was troubling him. It was the letter he had had from the Nile. At first it had disturbed him in one way. Now it was disturbing him in another. It was a call to him from a land which he knew he must love, a call to him from his own place. For his ancestors had been Jews of the East, and some of them had been settled in Cairo. It was a call from the shining land. He remembered how one night, when Nigel and he were talking about Egypt, Nigel had said: "You ought to go there. You'd be in your right place there."
If he did go there! If he went soon, very soon—this spring!
But how could he take a holiday in the spring, just when everybody was coming to town? Then he told himself that he was saying nonsense to himself. People went abroad in the spring, to India, Sicily, the Riviera, the Nile. Ah, he was back again on the Nile! But so many people did not go abroad. It would be madness for a fashionable doctor to be away just when the season was coming on. Well, but he might run out for a very short time—for a couple of weeks, something like that. Two nights from London to Naples; two nights at sea in one of the new, swift boats, the Heliopolis, perhaps; a few hours in the train, and he would be at Cairo. Five nights' travelling would bring him to the first cataract. And he would be in the real light.
He stared at the electric bulbs that gleamed on either side of the mantelpiece. Then he glanced towards the windows, oblongs of dingy grey looking upon fog and daylight darkness.
That would be good, to be in the real light!
Nigel's letter lay somewhere under the letters from patients. The Doctor went back to his table, searched for it, and found it. Then he came back to the fire, and studied the letter carefully again.
"Do you remember our walk home from the concert that night, and how I said, 'I want to get into the light, the real light'? Well, I'm in it, and how I wish that you and every one else could be in it too!... Come to the Nile when next you take a holiday."
It was almost an invitation to go; not quite an invitation, but almost. Isaacson seemed to divine that the man who wrote wished his friend to come out and see his happiness, but that he did not quite dare to ask him to come out; seemed to divine a hostile influence that kept the pen in check.
"I wonder if she knows of this letter?"
That question came into Isaacson's mind. The last words of the letter almost implied that she knew. Nigel had meant to tell her of it, had doubtless told her of it on the day when he wrote it. If Isaacson went to the Nile, there was one person on the river who would not welcome him. He knew that well. And Nigel, of course, did not really want him. Happy people do not really want friends outside to come into the magic circle and share their happiness. They may say they do, out of good-will. Even for a moment, moved by an enthusiastic impulse, they may think that they do. But true happiness is exquisitely exclusive in its desires.
"Armine would like me just to see it's all right, and then, when I've seen, he would like to kick me out."
That was how Isaacson summed up eventually Nigel's exact feeling towards him at this moment. It was hardly worth while undertaking the journey from England to gratify such a desire of the happy egoist. Better put the idea away. It was impracticable, and—
"Besides, it's quite out of the question!"
The Doctor returned to his table, and began resolutely to write answers to his letters, and to fix appointments. He went on writing until every letter was answered—every letter but Nigel Armine's.