And then again the strong desire came upon him to answer it in person, one morning to appear on the riverbank where the—what was the name?—the Loulia was tied up, to walk on deck, and say, "I congratulate you on your happiness."
How amazed his friend would be! And his enemy—what would her face be like?
Isaacson always thought of Mrs. Armine as his enemy. She had come into his life as a spy. He felt as if from the first moment when she had seen him she had hated him. She had got the better of him, and she knew it. Possibly now, because of that knowledge, she would like him better. She had won out. Or had she, now that Lord Harwich had an heir?
As he sat there with Nigel's letter before him, a keen, an almost intense curiosity was alive in Meyer Isaacson. It was not vulgar, but the natural curiosity of the psychologist about strange human things. Since the Armines had left London and he had known of their marriage, Isaacson had thought of them often, but a little vaguely, as of people who had quite gone out of his life for a time. He had to concentrate on his own affairs. But now, with this letter, despite the great distance between the Armines and himself, they seemed to be quite near him. All his recollection of his connection with them started up in his mind, vivid and almost fierce. Especially he remembered the clever woman, the turn of her beautiful head, the look in the eyes contradicting the lovely line of the profile, the irony of her smile, the attractive intonations of her lazy voice. He remembered his two visits to her, how she had secretly defied him. He recalled exactly her appearance when he had bade her good-bye for the last time, eight days before she had been married to Nigel. She had stood by the hearth, in a rose-coloured gown, with smoke-wreaths curling round her. And she had looked quite lovely in her secret triumph. But as he went out, he had noticed the tiny wrinkles near her eyes, the slight hardness about her cheek-bones, the cynical droop at the corners of her mouth.
And he had remembered these things when he learnt of the marriage, and he had foreseen disaster.
He smoothed out Nigel's letter, and he took up his pen to answer it. Since he could not answer it in person, he must despatch the substitute. But now the dreary quiet of the London Sunday distressed him as if it were noise. He found himself listening to it with a sort of anxiety; he felt as if he must struggle against it before he could write sincerely to Nigel. There was something paralyzing in this dark and foggy peace.
Why was he heaping up money, grasping at fame, dedicating himself to imprisonment within the limits of this house, within this sunless town? Why was he starving his love of beauty, his natural love of adventure, his quick feeling for romance? Or was it quick any longer? Things not encouraged die sometimes. Certainly, he was starving deliberately much of himself.
Again came the desire to let, for once, a strong impulse have its way, to forget, for once, that he was a man under strict discipline—the discipline of his own cruel will—or to remember and mutiny. For a moment his thoughts were almost like a schoolboy's. The fun of it! The fun of rapid packing, of saying to Henry (unboundedly amazed), "Call me a four-wheeler!" of the drive to Charing Cross, of the registering of the luggage, of the rapid flight through the wintry landscape till the grey sea beat up almost against the line, of the—
And presently Naples! A blue sea, the mountains of Crete, the iron ridges of Zante, and at last a laughing harbour, boats with bellying lateen sails manned by dark men in turbans, white houses, flat roofs, palm-trees!
It would be good! It would be splendid!
If he answered Nigel's letter, he would not yield to his impulse. And if he did not answer it—?
After long hesitation, he put the letter aside, he got out of a drawer his pile of manuscript paper, and he set himself to work. And presently he forgot that it was Sunday in London; he forgot everything except what he was doing. But in the evening, when he was dining alone, the longing to be off returned, and though he said to himself that he would not yield to it, he did not answer Nigel's letter. Absurdly, he felt that by not answering it he left the door open to this possible pleasure.
He never answered that letter. Day after day went by. He worked with unflagging energy. He seemed as attentive to, as deeply interested in, his patients as usual. But all the time that he sat in his consulting-room, that he listened to accounts of symptoms, that he gave advice and wrote out prescriptions, he was secretly playing with the idea that perhaps this spring he would take a holiday in Egypt. He had an ardent, though generally carefully controlled imagination. Just now he gave it the reins. In the darkest days he saw himself in sunlight. When he looked at the bare trees in the parks, they changed in a moment to opulent palms. He heard a soft wind stirring their mighty leaves. It spoke to him of the desert. Never before had he gained such definite pleasure from his imagination. Had he become a child again? It almost seemed so. If his patients only knew the present truths of the man whom they begged to lead them to health! If they only knew his wanderings while they were unfolding their tales of wonder and woe! But his face told nothing. It did not cry to them, "I am in Egypt!" And so they were never perturbed.
February slipped away.
If he really meant to go to the Nile, he must not delay his departure. Did he mean to go? So long now had he played with the delightful imagination of a voyage to the sun that he began to say to himself that he had had his pleasure and must rest satisfied. He even told himself the commonplace lie that the thought of a thing is more satisfactory than the thing itself could ever be, and that to him the real Egypt would prove a disappointment after the imagined Egypt of his winter dreams. And he decided that he would not go, that he had never intended to go.
On the day when he took this decision, he got a letter from a patient whom he had sent to winter on the Nile. She wrote from Luxor many details of her condition, which he read slowly and with care. Towards the end of the letter, perhaps made frolicsome by confession, she broke into gossip, related several little scandals of various hotels, and concluded with this paragraph:
"Quite an excitement has been caused here by the arrival of a marvellous dahabeeyah called the Loulia. She is the most lovely boat on the Nile, I am told, and every one is longing to go over her. But there is no chance for any of us. In the first place the Loulia is tied up at the western bank, on the Theban side of the river, and, in the second place, she belongs for the season to the Nigel Armines. And, as of course you remember, Mrs. Nigel Armine was Mrs. Chepstow, and utterly impossible. Now she is married again she may think she will be received, but she never will be. Of course, if she could have had the luck one day to become Lady Harwich, it might have become possible. A great position like that naturally makes people think differently. And, after all, the woman is married now. But no use talking about it! The twins have effectually knocked that possibility on the head. They say she nearly went mad with fury when she heard the news. It seems he had never given her a hint before the wedding. Wise man! He evidently knew his Mrs. Chepstow. Nevertheless, to give the devil her due, I hear she seems quite wrapped up in her husband. I saw him for a minute the other day, when I was crossing to go to the tombs of the Kings. He was looking awfully ill, I thought, such an extraordinary colour! I didn't see her, but they say she looks younger than ever, and much more beautiful than when she was in London. Marriage evidently suits her, though it doesn't seem to suit him," etc., etc.
This letter arrived by an evening post, and Isaacson read it after his day's work was done. When he had finished it, he took out from a drawer Nigel's letter to him, which he had kept, and compared the two. It was not necessary to do this, for Nigel's words were in his memory. Isaacson could not have said exactly why he did it. The sight of the two letters side by side made a strongly disagreeable impression upon him, and perhaps, in comparing them thus, he had almost unconsciously been seeking such an impression.
"Never in my life have I been in such splendid health."
"He was looking awfully ill—such an extraordinary colour!"
What had happened between the writing of the first letter and the writing of the last? What had produced this change?
After a few minutes, Isaacson put both the letters away and softly shut the drawer of the writing-table. He had dined. The night was his. He had his nargeeleh brought, and told Henry that he was not to be disturbed.
Not since that night of autumn when Nigel had said of Mrs. Chepstow, "She talks of coming to Egypt for the winter," had Isaacson taken the long and snake-like pipe-stem into his hand. Only when his mind was specially alive, almost excitedly alive, and when he wished to push that vitality to its limit, did he instinctively turn to the nargeeleh. Then his fingers and his lips needed it. His eyes needed it, too. Some breath of the East ran through him, stirring inherited instincts, inherited needs, to life. Now he turned out all the electric lights, he sat down in the dim glow from the fire, and he took once again, eagerly, between his thin fingers the snake-like stem of the nargeeleh. The water bubbled in the cocoanut. He filled his lungs with the delicious tumbak, he let it out in clouds through his nostrils.
London slept, and he sat there still. In his shining eyes the intense life of his mind was revealed. But there was no one to mark it, no one with him to love or to fear it.
At last, in the very deep of the night, he got up from his chair. He sat down at his writing-table. And he worked till the morning came, writing letters to patients whose names he looked out in his book of appointments, and whose addresses he turned up in the Red Book, or found in letters which he had kept by him, going through accounts, studying his bank-book, writing to his banker and his stockbroker, to hospitals with which he was connected, to societies for which he sometimes delivered addresses; doing a multitude of things which might surely—might they not?—have waited till day. And when at length there was a movement in the house which told of the servants awakening, he pushed the bell with a long finger.
Presently Henry came, trying to hide a look of amazement.
"Directly Cook's office in Piccadilly opens I shall want this letter taken there. The messenger must wait for an answer."
He held out a letter.
"All these are for the post."
"You might order Arthur to get ready my bath."
The doctor stood up.
"I shall see patients to-day. To-morrow, or the next day, at latest, I shall leave London. I'm going to Egypt for a few weeks."
There was a pause. Then Henry uttered his formula.
"Yes, sir," he murmured.
He turned and went slowly out.
His sloping shoulders looked as if the Heavens had fallen—on them.
Isaacson refused to get into the omnibus at the station in Cairo, and drove to Shepheard's Hotel in a victoria, drawn by a pair of lean grey horses with long manes and tails. The coachman was an Arab much pitted with smallpox, who wore the tarbush with European clothes. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon, and the streets of the enticing and confusing city were crowded. Isaacson sat up very straight and looked about him with eager eyes. He felt keenly excited. This was his very first taste of Eastern life. Never before had he set foot in his "own place." Already, despite the zest shed through him by novelty, he had an odd, happy feeling of being at home. He saw here and there houses with white facades, before which palm-trees were waving. And in those houses he knew he could be very much at ease. The courtyards, the steps, the tiles, a fountain, small rugs, a divan, a carved dark door, a great screen of wood hiding an inner apartment—could he not see within? He had never entered that house there on the left, and yet he knew it. And this throng of Eastern men, with dark, keen, shining eyes, with heavy, slumbrous eyes, with eyes glittering with the yellow fires of greed; this throng, yellow-skinned, brown-skinned, black-skinned, with thin, expressive hands, with henna-tinted nails, with narrow, cunning wrists; this throng that talked volubly, that gesticulated, that gazed, observing without self-consciousness, summing up without pity, whose eyes took all and gave nothing—if he stepped out of the carriage, if he forsook the borrowed comforts and the borrowed delights of Europe, if he hid himself in this throng, would he not find himself for the first time?
He was sorry when the carriage drew up before the great terrace of the hotel. But he had not lost touch with the pageant. He realized that, almost with a sensation of exultation, when he came down from his room between four and five o'clock, and took a seat by the railing.
He nodded to the German waiter. Somewhere a band was playing melodies of Europe. That night he would seek in the native quarter the whining and syncopated tunes of the East.
The tea was brought, and an Arab approached with papers: the "Sphinx," a French paper published in Cairo, and London papers, the "Times," the "Morning Post." Isaacson bought two or three, vaguely. It was but rarely he felt vague, but now, as he sipped his tea, his excitement was linked with something else, that seemed misty and nebulous, yet not free from a sort of enchantment. By the railing, before and beneath him, a world of many of his dreams—his nargeeleh dreams—flowed by. The abruptness of his decision to come—that made half the enchantment of his coming, made a wonder of his arrival. The boy in him was alive to-day, but with the boy there stood the dreamer.
The terrace, of course, was crowded. People of many nations sat behind and on each side of Meyer Isaacson, walked up and down the broad flight of steps that connected the terrace with the pavement, stared, gesticulated, gossiped. There was a clatter of china. Girls in long veils munched cakes, and, more delicately, ate ices tinted pink, pale green, and almond colour. Elderly ladies sat low in basket chairs, almost dehumanized by sight-seeing. Antiquarians argued and protested, shaking their forefingers, browned by the sun that shines in the desert. American business men, on holiday, smoked large cigars, and invited friends from New York, Boston, Washington to dinner. European boys, smartly dressed, full of life and gaiety, went eagerly up and down excitedly retailing experiences. And perpetually carriages drove up, set down, and departed, while a lean, beautifully clad Arab with grey hair noted hours, prices, numbers, in a mysterious book.
But Meyer Isaacson all the time was watching the Easterns who passed and repassed in the noisy street. He had not even glanced keenly once at the crowd of travellers to see if there were any whom he knew, patients, friends, enemies. His usual sharp consciousness of those about him was for once completely in abeyance.
Presently, however, his attention was transferred from the street to the terrace, carried thither, so it seemed to him, by a man who moved from the one to the other. There passed in front of him slowly one of the most perfectly built mail phaetons he had ever seen. It was very high and large, but looked elegantly light, and it was drawn by a pair of superb Russian horses, jet-black, full of fiery spirit, matched to a hair, and with such grand action that it was an aesthetic pleasure to look upon them moving.
Sitting alone in the front of the phaeton was the man who, almost immediately, was to draw Isaacson's attention to the terrace. He was Mahmoud Baroudi. He was dressed in a light grey suit, and wore the tarbush. Behind him sat a very smart little English groom, dressed in livery, with a shining top-hat, breeches, and top-boots. The phaeton was black with scarlet wheels. The silver on the harness glittered with polish; the chains which fastened the horses to the scarlet pole gleamed brilliantly in the sunshine. But it was Baroudi, his extraordinary physique, his striking, nonchalant face, and his first-rate driving, which attracted all eyes, which held Isaacson's eyes. He pulled up his horses in front of the steps. The groom was down in a moment. Baroudi gave him the reins, got out, and walked up to the terrace. He stood for a moment, looking calmly round; then brought his right hand to his tarbush as he saw a party of French friends, which he immediately joined. They welcomed him with obvious delight. Two of them, perfectly dressed Parisian women, made room for him between them. As he sat down, smiling, Isaacson noticed his slanting eyebrows and his magnificent throat, which looked as strong as the throat of a bull.
"My dear Isaacson! Is it possible? I should almost as soon have expected to meet the Sphinx in Cleveland Square!"
A tall man, not much over thirty, with light, imaginative, yet penetrating eyes, stood before him, and with a "May I?" sat down beside him, after cordially grasping his hand.
"Starnworth, you're one of the few men—I might say almost the only man—I'm glad to meet at this moment. Where have you just come from, or where are you just going? I can't believe you are going to stay in Cairo."
"No. I've been in Syria, just arrived from Damascus. I've been with a caravan—yes, I'll have some tea. I'm going to start to-morrow or next day from Mena House for another little desert trip."
"Little! How many days?"
"Oh, I don't know," said the newcomer, negligently. "Three weeks out and three weeks back, I believe—something like that—to visit an oasis where there are some extraordinary ruins. But why are you here? What induced you to leave your innumerable patients?"
After a very slight hesitation Isaacson answered:
"The deuce! Can doctors who are the rage permit themselves to be governed by whims?"
This man, Basil Starnworth, was an English nomad who for years had steeped himself in the golden East, who spoke Arabic and innumerable Eastern dialects, who was more at home with Bedouins than with his own brothers, and who was a mine of knowledge about the natives of Syria, of Egypt, and the whole of Northern Africa—about their passions, their customs, their superstitions, and all their ways of life. Isaacson had cured him of a malarial fever contracted on one of his journeys. That night they dined together, and after dinner Starnworth took Isaacson to see some of the native quarters of the town.
It was towards eleven o'clock when Isaacson found himself sitting in a small, rude cafe that was hidden in the very bowels of Cairo. Through winding alleys they had reached it—alleys full of painted ladies, alleys gleaming with the lights shed from solitary candles set within entries tinted mauve, and blue, and scarlet, or placed half-way up narrow flights of whitewashed stairs. And in these winding alleys, mingled with human cries, and laughter, and murmured invitations, and barterings, and refusals, there had been music that seemed to wind on and on in ribands of sound—music that was hoarse and shrill and weary, that was piercing, yet at the same time furtive—music that was provocative, and yet that was often sad, with a strange sadness of the desert and of desire among the sands. Even now, in the maze around this cafe, there was another maze of sound, the tripping notes of Eastern dance tunes, the wail of the African hautboy, the twitter of little flutes that set the pace for the pale Circassians, the dull murmur of daraboukkehs.
An old Arab who was "hajjee" brought them coffee, straight from the glowing embers. Starnworth took from his pocket a little box of tobacco and cigarette-papers, and deftly rolled two cigarettes. There were but few people in the cafe, and they were Easterns—two Egyptians, a negro, and three soldiers from the Soudan, black, thin almost as snakes, with skins so dry that they looked like the skins of some reptiles of the sands. And these Easterns were almost motionless, and seemed to be sunk in dreams.
"Why did you bring me here?" asked Isaacson.
"It bores you?"
"No. But I want to know why you chose this cafe out of all the cafes of Cairo."
"It's a very old and, among Easterns, very famous resort of smokers of hashish. You notice the blackened walls, the want of light. The hashish smoker does not desire any luxury or brightness. He wants his dream, and he gets it here. You would scarcely suppose it, but there are rich Egyptians of the upper classes, men who are seen at official receptions, who go to the great balls at the smart hotels, and who slink in here secretly night after night, mingle with the lowest riff-raff, to have their dream beneath this blackened roof. There is one coming in now."
As he spoke, Mahmoud Baroudi appeared in the doorway. He was dressed in native costume—very poorly dressed; wore a dingy turban, and a long gibbeh of discoloured cloth. With the usual salaam, muttered in his throat, he went into the farthest and darkest corner of the cafe and squatted down on the floor. The old Arab carried to him in a moment a gozeh, a pipe resembling a nargeeleh, but without the snake-like handle. Baroudi took it for a moment, inhaled the smoke of the hashish, and poured it out from his mouth and nostrils.
"He looks like a poor Egyptian," said Isaacson, almost in a whisper.
"He is a millionaire. By the way, didn't you see him this afternoon?"
"At Shepheard's. He drove up just before I saw you in a phaeton."
"The man with the Russian horses! Surely, it's impossible!"
"This afternoon he was the cosmopolitan millionaire. To-night he sinks down into his native East."
"Who is he?"
"Mahmoud Baroudi!" repeated Isaacson, slowly and softly.
An old man who had crept in began to sing in a high and quavering voice a song of the smokers of hashish, accompanying himself upon an instrument of tortoise and goat-skin. A youth in skirts began to posture and dance an unfinished dance of the dreamer who has been led by hashish into a world that is sweet and vague.
"I'll tell you about him later," whispered Starnworth.
That night they sat up in the hotel till the third time of the Moslem's prayer was near at hand. Starnworth, pleased to have an auditor who was much more than merely sympathetic, who understood his Eastern lore as if with a mind of the East, poured forth his curious knowledge. And Isaacson gripped it as only the Jew can grip. He listened and listened, saying little, until Starnworth began to speak of the strange immutability that is apparent in Islam, and of how the East must ever, despite the most powerful outside influences, remain utterly the East.
"Or so it seems up to now," he said.
He illustrated and emphasized his contention by a number of striking examples. He spoke of Arabs, of Egyptians he had known intimately, whom he had seen subjected to every kind of European influence, whom he had even seen apparently "Europeanized," as he put it, but who, when the moment came, had shown themselves "native" to the core.
"And it is even so when there is mingled blood," he said. "For instance, that man you saw to-night smoking hashish, wrapped up in that dirty old gibbeh, had a Greek mother, and may have—no doubt has—some aptitudes, some characteristics that are Greek, but they are dominated, almost swallowed up by the East that is in him."
"Do you know him?"
"I have never spoken to him, but I have heard a great deal about him—from Egyptians, mind you, as well as Europeans. With the English, and foreigners generally, he is an immense success. He is a very clever man, and has excellent qualities, I believe. But he is of the East. He is capable of giving one—who does not know very much—the most profound surprises. To ordinary eyes he shows nothing, nothing of what he is. He seems calm, dominating, practical, even cold and businesslike, full always of the most complete self-possession, calculating, but generous, and kind, charming, polished, suave and indifferent, with a sort of tremendously masculine indifference. I have often seen him in society. Even to me he has given that type of impression."
"And what is the real man?"
"Red-hot under the crust, a tremendous hater and a simply tremendous lover. But he hates with his soul and he loves with his body—they say. They say he's the slave of his soul in hatred, the slave of his body in love. He's committed crimes for women, if I ever get truth from my native friends. And I believe I am one of the few Europeans who can get a good deal of truth from the natives."
"Crimes, you say?"
"Yes," returned Starnworth, with his odd, negligent manner, which suggested a man who would undertake a desert journey full of tremendous hardships clad in a dressing-gown and slippers.
"But not for his own women, not for the beauties of the East. Baroudi is one of the many Egyptians who go mad over the women of Europe and of the New World, who go mad over their fairness of skin, their delicate colouring and shining hair. There was a dancer at the opera house here one season—a Dane she was, all fairness, the Northern sunbeam type—"
"He spent thousands upon her. Gave her a yacht, took her off in it to the Greek islands and Naples. Presently she wanted to marry."
"A merchant of Copenhagen, a very rich man. Baroudi was charming about it. The merchant came out to Cairo during the dancer's second season at the opera. Baroudi entertained him, became his friend, talked business, impressed the Dane immensely with his practical qualities, put him up to some splendid 'specs.' Result—the Dane was ruined, and went back to Copenhagen minus his fortune and—naturally—minus his lady-love."
"And what became of her?"
"I forget. Don't think I ever knew. She vanished from the opera house. But the best of it is that the Dane to this day swears by Baroudi, and thinks it was his own folly that did for him. There are much worse things than that, though. Baroudi's a man who would stick at absolutely nothing once he got the madness for a woman into his body. For instance—"
He told stories of Baroudi, stories which the Europeans of Egypt knew nothing of, but which some Egyptians knew and smiled at; one or two of them sounded very ugly to European ears.
"He's a Turco-Egyptian, you know," Starnworth said, presently, "and has the cunning that comes from the Bosphorus grafted on to the cunning that flourishes beneath the indifference of the Sphinx. We should call him a rank bad lot"—the dressing-gown and slippers manner was very much in evidence just here—"but the Turco-Egyptian has a different code from ours. I must say I admire the man. He's got so much grit in him. Worker, lover, hater—there's grit and go in each. Whichever bobs up, bobs up to win right out. But it's the madness for women that really rules the fellow's life, according to Egyptians who are near him and who know him well. And that's so with far more men of Eastern blood than you would suppose, unless you'd lived among them and knew them as I do. Arabs will literally run crazy for a fair face. So will Egyptians. And once they are dominated, they are dominated to an extent an Englishman would scarcely be able to understand. I knew an Arab of the Sahara who broke down the palm-wood door of an auberge at El-Kelf and cut the throat of the Frenchwoman who kept it, cut it while she was screaming her soul out—and only to get the few francs in the till to send to a girl in Paris he'd met at the great Exhibition. And the old Frenchwoman had befriended that man for over sixteen years, had almost brought him up from a boy, had written his letters for him to the tourists and sportsmen whose guide he was. Mahmoud Baroudi would do as much for a woman, once he'd got the madness for her into his body, but he'd do it in a more brainy way."
Starnworth talked on and on. The time of the third prayer was at hand when at last he said good-night. Turning at the door, just as he was going out, he looked at Isaacson with his light and imaginative eyes.
"A different code from ours, you see!" he murmured.
He went out and gently shut the door.
Although it was so late and Isaacson had that day arrived from a journey, he felt strongly alive, and as if no power to sleep were in him. Of course, he must go to bed, nevertheless. Slowly he began to undress, slowly and reluctantly.
And he was in Cairo, actually in Cairo! All around him in the night was Cairo, with its houses full of Egyptians sleeping, with its harims, with its mosques! Not far away was the Sphinx looking east in the sand!
He pottered about his room. He did things very slowly. Eastern life, as it had flowed from the lips of Starnworth, went before his imagination like a great and strange procession. And in this procession Mahmoud Baroudi drove Russian horses, and walked, almost like a mendicant, in a discoloured gibbeh. And then the procession stopped, and Isaacson saw the dingy cafe in the entrails of Cairo, and Mahmoud Baroudi crouched upon the floor drawing the smoke of the hashish into his nostrils.
At last Isaacson was in pajamas and ready for bed. But still his mind was terribly wide awake. The papers he had bought in the afternoon were lying upon his table. Should he read a little to compose his mind? He took up a paper—the Morning Post—opened it, and glanced casually over the middle page.
"Sudden death of the Earl of Harwich."
So Nigel's brother was gone, and, but for the twin boys so recently arrived, Mrs. Armine would at this moment be Countess of Harwich!
Isaacson read the paragraph quickly; then he put the paper down and opened his window. He wanted to think in the air. As he leaned out to the silent city, faintly, as if from very far off, he heard a cry that thrilled through his blood and set his pulses beating.
From a minaret a mueddin was calling the faithful to prayer, at "fegr," when the sun pushes the first ray of steel-coloured light, like the blade of a distant lance, into the breast of the East.
Isaacson had come out to Egypt with no settled plan. The only thing he knew was that he meant to see Nigel Armine. He had not cabled or written to let Nigel know he was coming, and now that he was in Cairo he did not attempt to communicate with the Loulia. He would go up the Nile. He would find the marvellous boat. And one day he would stand upon a brown bank above her, he would see his friend on the deck, would hail him, would cross the gangway and walk on board. Nigel would be amazed.
And Mrs. Armine?
Many times on shipboard Isaacson had wondered what look he would surprise in the eyes of Bella Donna when he held out his hand to her. Those eyes had already defied him. They had laughed at him ironically. Once they had almost seemed to menace him. What greeting would they give him in Egypt?
That the death of Lord Harwich would recall Nigel to England he scarcely supposed. The death had been sudden. It would be impossible for Nigel to arrive for the funeral. And Isaacson knew what had been the Harwich view of the connection with Mrs. Chepstow, what Lady Harwich had thought and said of it. Zoe Harwich was very outspoken. It was improbable that Nigel's trip on the Nile would be brought to an end by his brother's death. Still, it was not impossible. Isaacson realized that, and on the following day, meeting a London acquaintance in the hotel, a man who knew everything about everybody, he spoke of the death casually, and wondered whether Armine would be leaving the Nile for England.
"Not he! Too seedy!" was the reply.
Isaacson remembered the letter he had had in London from his patient at Luxor.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Sunstroke, they say. He went out at midday without a hat—just the sort of thing Armine would do—went out diggin' for antiquities, and got a touch of the sun. I don't think it's serious. But there's no doubt he's damned seedy."
"D'you know where the boat is—the Loulia?"
"Somewhere between Luxor and Assouan, I believe. Armine and his wife are perfect turtle-doves, you know, always keep to themselves and get right away from the crowd. One never sees 'em, except by chance. She's playin' the model wife. Wonder how long it'll last!"
In his laugh there was a sound of cynical incredulity. When he had strolled away, Isaacson went round to Cook's office, and took a sleeping compartment in the express train that started for Luxor that evening. He would see the further wonders of Cairo, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, Sakkara—later, when he came down the Nile, if he had time; if not, he would not see them at all. He had not travelled from England to see sights. That was the truth. He knew it now, despite the longing that Cairo, the real Cairo of the strange, dimly-lit and brightly-tinted interiors, of the shrill and weary music, of the painted girls and the hashish smokers, and of that voice which cried aloud in the mystic hour the acclamation of the Creator—had waked in his Eastern nature to sink into the life which his ancestors knew—the life of the Eastern Jews. He knew what his real purpose had been.
Yet he left Cairo with regret. Starnworth had asked him to come on that six weeks' desert journey. He longed to do that, too. With this cessation of work, this abrupt and complete change of life, had come an almost wild desire for liberty, for adventure. This persistent worker woke to the great, stretching life outside—outside of his consulting-room, of the grey sea that ringed the powerful Island, outside of Europe, a little weary, a little over-civilized. And a voice that seemed to come from the centre of his soul clamoured for wild empires, for freedoms unutterable. It was as if the walls of his consulting-room fell with a noise of the walls of Jericho. And he looked out upon what he needed, what he had always needed, sub-consciously. But he could not take it yet.
In the train he slept but little. Early in the morning he was up and dressed. From his window he saw the sunrise, and, for the first time was moved by the hard wonder of barren hills in an Eastern land. Those hills on the left bank of the river, glowing with delicate colours, hills with dimples that looked like dimples in iron, with outlines that were cruel and yet romantic, stirred his imagination and made him again regret his life. Why had he never been here before? Why had he grown to middle age encompassed by restrictions? A man like Starnworth had a truer conception of life than he. Even now, at this moment, he was not running quite free. And then he thought of the Loulia. Was he not really a man in pursuit? Suppose he gave up this pursuit. No one constrained him to it. He was here with plenty of money, entirely independent. If he chose to hire a caravan, to start away for the Gold Coast, there was no one to say him nay. He could go, if he would, forgetting that in the world there were men who were sick, forgetting everything except that he was in liberty and in a land where he was at home.
And then he asked himself whether he would have the power to forget that in the world there were men who were sick. And he remembered the words in a letter and other spoken words of an acquaintance in an hotel—and he was not sure.
The Armines, when they arrived at Luxor, had walked to their villa. When Isaacson arrived he refused all frantic offers of conveyance, and set out to walk to his hotel. It was the height of the tourist season, and Luxor was a centre for travellers. They swarmed, even at this early hour, in the little town. When Isaacson reached the bank of the Nile he saw a floating wharf with a big steamer moored against it, on which Cook's tourists were promenading, breakfasting, leaning over the rail, calling to and bargaining with smiling brown people on the shore. Beyond were a smaller mail steamer and a long line of dahabeeyahs flying the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, flags of France, Spain, and other countries. Donkeys cantered by, bearing agitated or exultant sight-seers, and pursued by shouting donkey-boys. Against the western shore, flat and sandy, and melting into the green of crops which, in their turn, melted into the sterility that holds the ruins of Thebes, lay more dahabeeyahs, the high, tapering masts of which cut sharply the crude, unclouded blue of a sky which announced a radiant day. Already, at a little after nine, the heat was very great. Isaacson revelled in it. But he longed to take a seven-thonged whip and drive out the happy travellers. He longed to be alone with the brown children of the Nile.
On the terrace of the Winter Palace Hotel he saw at once people whom he knew. Within the bay of sand formed by its crescent stood or strolled throngs of dragomans, and as he approached, one of them, who looked compact of cunning and guile, detached himself from a group, came up to him, saluted, and said:
"Good-morning, sir. You want a dahabeeyah? I get you a very good dahabeeyah. You go on board to-day—not stay at the hotel. One night you sleep. When morning-time come, we go away from all these noisy peoples, we go 'mong the Egyptian peoples. Heeyah"—he threw out a brown hand with fingers curling backward—"heeyah peoples very vulgar, make much noise. You not at all happy heeyah, my nice gentleman!"
The rascal had read his thought.
"What's your name?"
"Hassan ben Achmed."
"I'll see you later."
Isaacson went up the steps and into the great hotel.
When he had had a bath and made his toilet, he came out into the sun. For a moment he stood upon the terrace rejoicing, soul and body, in the radiance. Then he looked down, and saw the long white teeth of Hassan displayed in a smile of temptation and understanding. Beyond those teeth was the river, to which Hassan was inviting him in silence. He looked at the tapering masts, and—he hesitated. Hassan showed more teeth.
At this moment the lady patient who had written to Isaacson from the Nile and mentioned Nigel came up with exclamations of wonder and delight, to engage all his attention. For nearly an hour he strolled from end to end of the crescent and talked with her. When at last she slowly vanished in the direction of the temple of Luxor, accompanied by a villainous-looking dragoman who was "the most intelligent, simple-minded old dear" in Upper Egypt, Isaacson, with decision, descended the steps and stood on the sand by Hassan.
"Where's that dahabeeyah you spoke about?" he said. "I'll go and have a look at her."
That evening, just before sunset he went on board the Fatma as proprietor.
He had been bargaining steadily for some hours, and felt weary, though triumphant, as he stood upon the upper deck, with Hassan in attendance, while the crew poled off from the bank into the golden river. Despite the earnest solicitations of the lady patient and various acquaintances staying in Luxor, he had given the order to remove to the western bank of the Nile. There he could be at peace.
Friends of his cried out adieux from the road in front of the shops and the great hotel. Unknown donkey-boys saluted. Tourists stood at gaze. He answered and looked back. But already a new feeling was stealing over him; already he was forgetting the turmoil of Luxor. The Reis stood on the raised platform in the stern, still as a figure of bronze, with the gigantic helm in his hand. The huge sail hung limp from the mast. Then there came a puff of wind. Slowly the shore receded. Slowly the Fatma crept over the wrinkled gold of the river towards the unwrinkled gold of the west. And Isaacson stood there, alone among his Egyptians, and saw his first sunset on the Nile. Over the gold from Thebes came boats going to the place he had left. And the boatmen sang the deep and drowsy chant that set the time for the oars. Mrs. Armine had often heard it. Now Isaacson heard it, and he thought of the beating pulse in a certain symphony to which he had listened with Nigel, and of the beating pulse of life; and he thought, too, of the destinies of men that often seem so fatal. And he sank down in the magical wonder of this old and golden world.
"Don't tie up near any other dahabeeyah."
"No, gentlemans," said Hassan.
Again the crew got out their poles. Two men stripped, went overboard with a rope, and, running along the shore, towed the Fatma up stream against the tide till she came to a lonely place where two men were vehemently working a shaduf. There they tied up for the night.
The gold was fading. Less brilliant, but deeper now, was the dream of river and shore, of the groves of palms and the mountains. Here and there, far off, a window, touched by a dying ray of light, glittered out of the softened dusk. Isaacson leaned over the rail. This evening, after his long months of perpetual work in a house in London, deprived of all real light, he felt like a man taken by the hand and led into Heaven. Behind him the naked fellahin, unmindful of his presence, cried aloud in the fading gold.
For a long while he stood there without moving. His eyes were attracted, were held, by a white house across the water. It stood alone, and the river flowed in a delicate curve before it by a low tangle of trees or bushes. The windows of this house gleamed fiercely as restless jewels. At last he lifted himself up from the rail.
"Who lives in that house?" he asked of Hassan.
"An English lord, sah. My Lord Arminigel."
"What house is it? What's the name?"
"The Villa Androud, my kind gentlemans."
"The Villa Androud!"
So that was where Armine had gone for his honeymoon with Bella Donna! The windows glittered like the jewels many men had given to her.
Night fell. The song of the fellahin failed. The stars came out. Just where the Loulia had lain the Fatma lay. And under the stars, on deck, Isaacson dined alone. To-morrow at dawn he would start on his voyage up river. He would follow where the Loulia had gone. When dinner was finished, he sent Hassan away, and strolled about on the deck smoking his cigar. Through the tender darkness of the exquisite night the lights of Luxor shone, and from somewhere below them came a faint but barbaric sound of native music.
To-morrow he would follow where the Loulia had gone.
The lady patient that morning had been very communicative. One of her chief joys in life was gossip. Her joy in gossip was second only to her joy in poor health. And she had told her beloved doctor "all the news." The news of the Armine menage was that Nigel Armine had got sunstroke in Thebes and been "too ill for words," and that the Loulia, after a short stay near Luxor, had gone on up the Nile, and was now supposed to be not far from the temple of Edfou. Not a soul had been able to explore the marvellous boat. Only a young American doctor, very susceptible indeed to female charm, had been permitted to set foot on her decks. He had diagnosed "sunstroke," had prescribed for Nigel Armine, and had come away "positively raving" about Mrs. Armine—"silly fellow." Isaacson would have liked a word with him, but he had gone to Assouan.
On the lower deck the boatmen began to sing.
Isaacson paced to and fro. The gentle and monotonous exercise, now accompanied by monotonous though ungentle music, seemed to assist the movement of his thought. When he left the garrulous lady patient, he might have gone to the post-office and telegraphed to the Loulia. It was possible to telegraph to Edfou. Since he intended to leave Luxor and sail up the Nile, surely the natural thing to do was to let his friend know of his coming. Why had he not done the natural thing? Some instinct had advised him against the completely straightforward action. If Nigel had been alone on the Loulia the telegram would have been sent. That Isaacson knew. But Nigel was not alone. A spy was with him, she who had come to spy out the land when she had come to Cleveland Square. Perhaps it was very absurd, but the remembrance of Bella Donna prevented Isaacson now from announcing his presence on the Nile. He was resolved to come to her as she had once come to him. She had appeared in Cleveland Square carrying her secret reason with her. He would appear in the shadow of the temple of Horus. And his secret reason? Perhaps he had none. He was a man who was often led by instinct.
And he trusted very much in his instinctive mistrust of Bella Donna.
The Fatma was no marvellous boat like the Loulia. She was small, poorly furnished, devoid of luxury, and not even very comfortable! That night Isaacson lay on a mattress so thin that he felt the board beneath it. The water gurgled close to him against the vessel's side. It seemed to have several voices, which were holding secret converse together in the great stillness of the night. For long he lay awake in the darkness. How different this darkness seemed from that other darkness of London! He thought of the great temples so near him, of the tombs of the Kings, of all those wonders to see which men travelled from the ends of the earth. And he was sailing at dawn, he who had seen nothing! It seemed a mad thing to do. His friends had been openly amazed when he had been forced to tell them of his immediate departure. And he wanted, he longed, to see the wonders that were so near him in the night; Karnak with its pylons, its halls, its statues; the Colossi sitting side by side in their plain, with the springing crops about their feet; the fallen King in the Ramesseum, and that sad King who gazes for ever into the void beneath the mountain.
He longed to see these things, and many others that were near him in the night.
But he longed still more to look for a moment into the eyes of a woman, to take the hand and gaze at the face of a man. And he was glad when, at dawn, he heard the movement of naked feet and the murmur of voices above his head, when, presently, the dahabeeyah shivered and swayed, and the Nile water spoke in a new and more ardent way as it held her in its embrace.
He was glad, for he knew he was going towards Edfou.
Upon a hard and habitual worker an unexpected holiday sometimes has a weakening rather than a strengthening effect, in the first days of it. Later may come from it vitality and a renewal of energy. Just at first there steals over the worker a curious lassitude. Parts of him seem to lie down and sleep. Other parts of him are dreaming.
So it was now with Meyer Isaacson.
He got up from his Spartan bed feeling alert and animated. He went up on deck full of curiosity and expectation. But as the day wore on, the long day of golden sunshine, the dream of the Nile took him slowly, quietly, to its breast. Strange were the empty hours to this man whose hours were generally so full. And the solitude was strange. For he sent Hassan away, and sat alone on the upper deck—alone save for the Reis, who, like a statue, stood behind him holding the mighty helm.
The Fatma travelled slowly, crept upon the greenish-brown water almost with the deliberation of some monstrous water-insect. For she journeyed against the tide, and as yet there was little wind, though what there was blew from the north. The crew had to work hard in the burning sun-rays, going naked upon the bank and straining at the tow-rope. Isaacson sat in a folding chair and watched their toil. For years he had not known the sensation of watching in absolute idleness the strenuous exertion of others. Those exertions emphasized his inertia, in which presently the mind began to take part with the body. The Nile is exquisitely monotonous. He was coming under its spell. Far off and near, from the western and eastern banks of the river, he heard almost perpetually the creaking song of the sakeeyas, the water-wheels turned by oxen. They made the leit motiv of this wonderful, idle life. Antique and drowsy, with a plaintive drowsiness, was their continual music, which very gradually takes possession of the lonely voyager's soul. The shaduf men, in their long lines leading the eyes towards the south, sang to the almost brazen sky. And heat reigned over all.
Was this pursuit? Where was the Loulia? To what secret place had she crept against the repelling tide? It began to seem to Isaacson that he scarcely cared to know. He was forgetting his reason for coming to Egypt. He was forgetting his friend, his enemy; he was forgetting everything. The heat increased. The puffs of wind died down. Towards noon the Reis tied up, that the sweating crew might rest.
A table was laid on deck, and Isaacson lunched under an awning. When he had finished and the Egyptian waiter had cleared away, Hassan came to stand beside his master and entertain him with conversation.
"Are there many orange plantations on the Nile?" asked Isaacson, presently, looking towards the bank, which was broken just here and showed a vista of trees.
Hassan spoke of Mahmoud Baroudi. Once again Isaacson heard of him, and now of his almost legendary wealth. Then came a flood of gossip in pigeon-English. Hamza was presently mentioned, and Isaacson learnt of Hamza's pilgrimage to Mecca with Mahmoud Baroudi, and of his present service with "my Lord Arminigel" upon the Loulia. Isaacson did not say that he knew "my Lord." He kept his counsel, and he listened, till at last Hassan's volubility seemed exhausted. The crew were sleeping now. There was no prospect of immediate departure, and, to create a diversion, Hassan suggested a walk through the orange gardens to the house they guarded closely.
Lazily Isaacson agreed. He and the guide crossed the gangway, and soon disappeared into the Villa of the Night of Gold.
When the heat grew less, as the day was declining, once more the Fatma crept slowly on her way. She drew ever towards the south with the deliberation of a water-insect which yet had a purpose that kept it on its journey.
She rounded a bend of the Nile. She disappeared.
And all along the Nile the sakeeyahs lifted up their old and melancholy song. And the lines of bending and calling brown men led the eyes towards the south.
On a morning at ten o'clock the Fatma arrived opposite to Edfou, and Hassan came to tell his master. The Loulia had not been sighted. Now and then on the gleaming river dahabeeyahs had passed, floating almost broadside and carried quickly by the tide. Now and then a steamer had churned the Nile water into foam, and vanished, leaving streaks of white in its wake. And the dream had returned, the dream that was cradled in gold, and that was musical with voices of brown men and sakeeyas, and that was shaded sometimes by palm-trees and watched sometimes by stars. But no dahabeeyah had been overtaken. The Fatma travelled slowly, often in an almost breathless calm. And Isaacson, if he had ever wished, no longer wished her to hasten. Upon his sensitive and strongly responsive temperament the Nile had laid a spell. Never before had he been so intimately affected by an environment. Egypt laid upon him hypnotic hands. Without resistance he endured their gentle pressure; without resistance he yielded himself to the will that flowed mysteriously from them upon his spirit. And the will whispered to him to relax his mind, as in London each day for a fixed period he relaxed his muscles—whispered to him to be energetic, determined, acquisitive no more, but to be very passive and to dream.
He did not land to visit Esneh. He would have nothing to do with El-Kab. Hassan was surprised, inclined to be argumentative, but bowed to the will of the dreamer. Nevertheless, when at last Edfou was reached, he made one more effort to rouse the spirit of the sight-seer in his strangely inert protector; and this time, almost to his surprise, Isaacson responded. He had an intense love of purity and of form in art, and even in his dream he felt that he could not miss the temple of Horus at Edfou. But he forbade Hassan to accompany him on his visit. He was determined to go alone, regardless of the etiquette of the Nile. He took his sun-umbrella, slipped his guide-book into his pocket, and slowly, almost reluctantly, left the Fatma. At the top of the bank a donkey was waiting. Before he mounted it he stood for a moment to look about him. His eyes travelled up-stream, and at a long distance off, rising into the radiant atmosphere and relieved against the piercing blue, he saw the tapering mast of a dahabeeyah. No sail was set on it. The dahabeeyah was either becalmed or tied up. He wondered if it were the Loulia, and something of his usual alertness returned to him. For a moment he thought of calling up the snarling and indignant Hassan, whose piercing eyes might perhaps discern the dahabeeyah's identity even from this distance. Or he might go back to his boat, and tell the men to get out their poles again and work her up the river till he could see for himself. Then, in the golden warmth, the dream settled down once more about him and upon him. Why hurry? Why be disturbed? The alertness seemed to fade, to dissolve in his mind. He turned his eyes away from the distant mast, he got upon the donkey, and was taken gently to the temple.
No tourists were there. He sent the donkey-boy away, saying he would walk back to the river. He knew the consciousness that some one was waiting for him to go would take the edge off his pleasure. And he realized at once that he was on the threshold of one of the most intense pleasures of his life. Allured by a gift of money, the native guardian consented to desert him instead of dogging his steps. For the first time he stood in an Egyptian temple.
He remained for some time in the outer court, where the golden sunshine fell, attracted by the sacred darkness that seemed silently to be calling him, but pausing to savour his pleasure. Before him was a vista of empty golden hours. What need had he to hurry? Slowly he approached the hypostyle hall. All about him in the sunshine swarms of birds flew. Their vivacious chirping fell upon ears that were almost deaf. For already the great silence of the darkness beyond was flowing out to Isaacson, was encompassing him about. He reached the threshold and looked back. Through the high and narrow doorway between the towers he caught a glimpse of the native village, and his eyes rested for a moment upon the cupolas of a mosque. Behind him was a place of prayer. Before him was another place, which surely held in its arms of stone all the mystical aspirations, all the unuttered longings, all the starry desires and humble but passionate worship of the men who had passed away from this land of the sun, leaving part of their truth behind them to move through the ages of the souls of men.
He turned at last, and slowly, almost with precaution, he moved from the sunlight into the darkness.
And darkness led to deeper darkness. Never before in any building had Isaacson felt the call to advance so strongly as he felt it now. And yet he lingered. He was forced to linger by the perfect beauty of form which met him in this temple. Never before had any creation of man so absolutely satisfied all the secret demands of his brain and of his soul. He was inundated with a peace that praised, with a calm that loved and adored. This temple built for adoration created within him the need to adore. The perfection of its form was like a perfect prayer offered spontaneously to Him who created in man the power to create.
But though he lingered, and though he was strangely at peace, the darkness called him onward, as the desert calls the nomad who is travelling in it alone.
He was drawn by the innermost darkness of the sanctuary, the core of this house divine of the Hidden One. And he went on between the columns, and up the delicate stone approaches; and though he was always drawing near to a deeper darkness, and natural man is repelled by darkness rather than enticed by it, he felt as if he were approaching something very beautiful, something even divine, something for which, all unconsciously, he had long been waiting and softly hoping. For the spell of the dead architect was upon him, and the Holy of Holies lay beyond—that chamber with narrow walls and blue roof, which contains an altar and shrine of granite, where once no doubt stood the statue of Horus, the God of the Sun.
Isaacson expected to find in this sanctuary the representation of the Being to whom this noble house had been raised. It seemed to him that in this last mystery of beauty and darkness the God Himself must dwell. And he came into it softly, with calm but watchful eyes.
By the shrine, just before it, there stood a white figure. As Isaacson entered it moved, as if disturbed or even startled. A dress rustled.
Isaacson drew back. A chill ran through his nerves. He had been so deep in contemplation, his mind had been drawn away so far from the modern world, that this apparition of a woman, doubtless like himself a tourist, gave him one of the most unpleasant shocks he had ever endured. And in a moment he felt as if his sudden appearance had given an equally disagreeable shock to the woman. Looking in the darkness unnaturally tall, she stood quite still for an instant after her first abrupt movement, then, with an air of decision that was forcible, she came towards him.
Her gait seemed oddly familiar to Isaacson. Directly she stirred he was once more in complete command of his brain. The chill died away from his nerves. The normal man in him started up, alert, composed, enquiring.
The woman came up to him where he stood at the entrance to the sanctuary. Her eyes looked keenly into his eyes, as she was about to pass him. Then she did not pass him. She did not draw back. She just stood where she was and looked at him, looked at him as if she saw what her mind told her, told her loudly, fiercely, she could not be seeing, was not seeing. After an instant of this contemplation she shut her eyes.
"Mrs. Armine!" said Meyer Isaacson.
When he spoke, Mrs. Armine opened her eyes.
"Mrs. Armine!" he repeated.
He took off his hat and held out his hand.
"Then it was the Loulia I saw!" he said.
She gave him her hand and drew it away.
"You are in Egypt!" she said.
Although in the darkness her walk had been familiar to him, had prepared him for the coming up to him of Bella Donna, her voice now seemed utterly unfamiliar. It was ugly and grating. He remembered that in London he had thought her voice one of her greatest charms, one of her most perfectly tempered weapons. Had he been mistaken? Had he never heard it aright? Or had he not heard it aright now?
"What are you doing in Egypt?" she said.
Her voice was ugly, almost hideous. But now he realized that its timbre was completely changed by some emotion which had for the moment entire possession of her.
"What are you doing in Egypt?" she repeated.
Isaacson cleared his throat. Afterwards he knew that he had done this because of the horrible hoarseness of Mrs. Armine's voice.
"I was feeling overworked, run down. I thought I would take a holiday."
She was silent for a minute. Then she said:
"Did you let my husband know you were coming? Does he know you are in Egypt?"
In saying this her voice became more ugly, less like hers, as if the emotion that governed her just then made a crescendo, became more vital and more complex.
"No. I left England unexpectedly. A sudden impulse!"
He was speaking almost apologetically, without meaning to do so. He realized this, and pulled himself up sharply.
"I told no one of my plans. I thought I would give Nigel a surprise."
He said it coolly, with quite a different manner.
"Nigel!" she said.
Isaacson was aware when she spoke that he had called his friend by his Christian name for the first time.
"I thought I would give you and your husband a surprise. I hope you forgive me?"
After what seemed to him an immensely long time she answered:
"What is there to forgive? Everybody comes to the Nile. One is never astonished to see any one turn up."
Her voice this time was no longer ugly. It began to have some of the warm and the lazy charm that he had found in it when he met her in London. But the charm sounded deliberate, as if it was thrust into the voice by a strong effort of her will.
"I use the word 'see,'" she added. "But really here one can't see any one or anything properly. Let us go out."
And she passed out of the sanctuary into the dim but less dark hall that lay beyond. Isaacson followed her.
In the slightly stronger light he looked at her swiftly. Already she was putting up her hands to a big white veil, which she had pushed up over her large white hat. Before it fell, obscuring, though not concealing her, he had seen that her face was not made up and that it was deadly pale. But that pallor might be natural. Always in London he had seen her made up, and always made up white. Possibly her face, when unpowdered, unpainted, was white, too.
In the hall she stood still once more.
"You are an extraordinary person, Doctor Isaacson," she said. "Do you know it? I don't think any one else would come out suddenly like this to a place where he had a friend, without letting the friend know. Really, if it were not you, one might think it quite oddly surreptitious."
She finished with a little laugh.
"I think Nigel will be very much surprised," she added.
"I hope you don't mean unpleasantly surprised? As I told you, I intended—"
"Oh, yes, I know all that," she interrupted. "But surely, it seems—well, almost a little bit unfriendly to be on the Nile and never to let him know. And I suppose—how long have you been in Egypt?"
"Oh, a very short time. You must not think I've delayed. On the contrary—"
"If you had delayed, it would have been quite reasonable. You have never seen Egypt before, have you?"
"How long were you at Luxor?"
"One night, on the boat opposite to Luxor."
"Then what did you see?"
"Nothing at all."
She put up one hand and pulled gently at her veil.
"I thought I would do all the sight-seeing as I came down the river."
"Most people do it coming up. And I find you in a temple."
"It is the first I have entered. I couldn't pass Edfou."
"Perhaps because I felt that I should meet you in it."
He spoke now with the lightness of an agreeable man of the world paying a compliment to a pretty woman.
"My good angel perhaps guided me into the Holy of Holies because you were—shall I say dreaming in it?"
She moved and walked on.
"Were you long in Cairo?" she said.
She stopped again.
"What an extraordinary rush!" she said.
"Yes, I've come along quickly."
"I suppose you've only a very limited time to do it all in? You're only taking a week or two?"
She turned her head towards him, and it seemed to him that her eyes were glittering with a strange excitement, a strange eagerness under her veil.
"I don't know," said Isaacson, carelessly. "I may stay on if I like it. The fact is, Mrs. Armine, that having at last taken the plunge and deserted my patients, I'm enjoying myself amazingly. You've no idea how—"
"Your patients," she interrupted him again, "what will they do? Why, surely your whole practice will go to pieces!"
"It's very kind of you to trouble about that."
"Oh, I'm not troubling; I'm only wondering. I don't know you very well, but I confess I thought I had summed you up."
"And I thought you were a man of intense ambition, and a man who would rise to the very top of the tree."
"Well, this is hardly the way to do it. I'm—I'm quite sorry."
She said it very naturally. If his appearance had startled her very much—and that it had startled her almost terribly he felt certain—she was now recovering her equanimity. Her self-possession was returning.
"Women are very absurd," she continued. "They always admire the man who gets on, who forces his way to the front of the crowd."
Walking onward slowly side by side they came into the great outer court. Isaacson had forgotten the wonderful temple. This woman had the power to grasp the whole of his attention, to fix it upon herself.
"Shall we sit down for a minute?" she said. "I'm quite tired with walking about."
She sauntered to a big block of stone on which a shadow fell, sat down carelessly, and put up a white and green sun-umbrella. For the first time since they had met Isaacson, remembering the death of Lord Harwich, wondered at her costume.
"Ah," she said, "you've heard, of course!"
He was startled by her sudden comprehension of his thought.
"Heard! what, Mrs. Armine?"
"About my brother-in-law's sudden death."
"I saw it in the paper."
"Well, I don't happen to have any thin mourning with me."
Her voice had changed again. When she said that it was as hard as a stone.
Isaacson sat down near her. His block of stone was in the sunshine.
"Besides what does it matter here? And I never even knew Harwich, except by sight."
Isaacson said nothing, and after a pause she added:
"So I can't be very sorry. But Nigel's been very much upset by it."
"Terribly. I dare say you know how sensitive he is?"
"He couldn't go back for the funeral. It was too far. He wouldn't have been in time."
"That was why he didn't go?"
Again he saw the eyes looking keenly at him from under the veil.
"It would have been absolutely no use. Lady Harwich cabled to say so."
"She has always been against Nigel since he married me. You know what women are!"
"But the whole thing has upset Nigel dreadfully. That's why we are up here. He wanted to get away, out of reach of everybody, and just to be alone with me. He hasn't even come out with me this morning. He preferred to stay on the boat. He won't see a soul for two or three weeks, poor fellow! It's quite knocked him up, coming so suddenly."
She turned her head towards him. She was holding the sun-umbrella very low down.
"How long were you at Luxor?" she asked, carelessly. "I forget. And weren't you in a hotel? Did you go straight on board your boat?"
"I went to the Winter Palace for a few hours."
"Did you? And hated the crowd, I suppose?"
"I didn't exactly love it."
"You can imagine poor Nigel's horror of it under the circumstances. And then, you know, he hasn't been very well lately. Nothing of any importance—nothing in your line—but he got a touch of the sun. And that, combined with this death, has made him shrink from everybody. I shall try to persuade him, though, to see you later on, in two or three weeks perhaps, when you're dropping down the Nile. You'll stay at the First Cataract, of course?"
"That'll be it, then. As you come down. You can easily find us. Our boat is called the Loulia."
"And so your husband's had a touch of the sun?"
"Yes; digging at Luxor. Of course, I got in a doctor at once, a charming man—Doctor Baring Hartley. Very clever—a specialist from Boston. He has the case in charge."
"Oh, you've got him on board?"
"No. Nigel wouldn't have any one. But he has the case in charge, and has gone up to Assouan to meet us there. Shall you run up to Khartoum?"
"All these things are done so easily now."
"The railway has made everything so simple."
"I'd give worlds to go to Khartoum. People say it's much more interesting than anything up to the First Cataract."
"Then why not go there?"
"Perhaps we may. But not just yet. Nigel isn't in the mood for anything of that kind. Besides, wouldn't it look almost indecent? Travelling for pleasure, sight-seeing, so soon afterwards? It's a little dull for me, of course, but I think Nigel's quite right to lie low and see no one just for two or three weeks."
"May I light a cigar?"
Rather slowly Meyer Isaacson drew out his cigar-case, extracted a large cigar, struck a match, and lit it. His preoccupation with what he was doing, which seemed perfectly natural, saved him from the necessity of talking for a minute. When the cigar drew thoroughly, he spoke again.
"You don't think"—he spoke slowly, almost lazily, as if he were too content to care much either way about anything under heaven or earth—"you don't think your husband would wish to see me, as we are so very near? We've known each other pretty well. And just now you seemed to fancy he might almost be vexed at my coming out to Egypt without letting him know."
"That's just it," she said, with an answering laziness and indifference. "If he had been expecting you, possibly it mightn't hurt him in the least to see you. But Doctor Baring Hartley specially enjoined on me to keep him quite quiet—at any rate till we got to Assouan. Any shock, even one of pleasure, must be avoided."
"Really? I'm afraid from that that he must really be pretty bad."
"Oh, no, he isn't. He looks worse than he is. It's given him a bad colour, rather, and he gets easily tired. But he was ever so much worse a week ago. He's picking up now every day."
"He would go out digging at Thebes in the very heat of the day. I begged him not to, but Nigel is a little bit wilful. The result is I've had to nurse him."
"It's spoilt your trip, I'm afraid."
"Oh, as long as I get him well quickly, that doesn't matter."
"It will seem quite odd to pass by him without giving him a call," said Isaacson, retaining his casual manner and lazy, indifferent demeanour. "For I suppose I shall pass. You're not going up immediately?"
"We may. I don't know at all. If he wishes to go, we shall go. I shall do just what he wants."
"If you start off, then I shall be in your wake."
She moved her umbrella slightly to and fro.
"I do wish you could pay Nigel a visit," she said. Then, in a very frank and almost cordial voice, she added, "Look here, Doctor Isaacson, let's make a bargain. I'll go back to the dahabeeyah and see how he is, how he's feeling—sound him, in fact. If I think it's all right, I'll send you a note to come on board. If he's very down, or disinclined for company—even yours—I'll ask you to give up the idea and just to put off your visit for a few days, and come to see us at Assouan. After all, Nigel may wish to see you, and it might even do him good. I'm perhaps over-anxious to obey doctor's orders, inclined to be too careful. Shall we leave it like that?"
"Thank you very much."
She got up, and so did he.
"Of course," she said, "if I do have to say no after all—I don't think I shall—but if I do, I know you'll understand, and pass us without disturbing my husband. As a doctor, you won't misunderstand me."
She pulled at her veil again.
"Well, then—" She held out her hand.
"Oh, but I'll go with you to your donkey," he said. "I suppose you came on a donkey? Or was it in a boat?"
"No; I rode."
"Then let me look for your donkey-boy."
"He went to see friends in the village, but no doubt he's come back. I'll find him easily."
But he insisted on accompanying her. They came out of the first court, through the narrow and lofty portal upon which traces of the exquisite blue-green, the "love colour," still linger. This colour makes an effect that is akin to the effect that would be made by a thin but intense cry of joy rising up in a sombre temple. Isaacson looked up at it. He thought it suggested woman as she ought to be in the life of a man—something exquisite, delicate, ethereal, touchingly fascinating, protected and held by strength. He was still thinking of the love colour, and of his companion when Hamza stood before them, still, calm, changeless as a bronze in the brilliant light of the morning. One of his thin and delicate hands was laid on the red bridle of a magnificent donkey. He looked upon them with his wonderfully expressive Eastern eyes, which yet kept all his secrets.
"What a marvellous type!" Isaacson said, in French, to Mrs. Armine.
"His name is Hamza?"
"He comes from Luxor. Good-bye again. And I'll send you the note some time this morning, or in the early afternoon."
With a quick easy movement, like that of a young woman, she was in the saddle, helped by the hand of Hamza.
Isaacson heard her sigh as she rode away.
Isaacson walked back alone into the temple. But the spell of the Nile was broken. He had been rudely awaked from his dream, and so thoroughly awaked that his dream was already as if it had never been. He was once more the man he normally was in London—a man intensely, Jewishly alert, a man with a doctor's mind. In every great physician there is hidden a great detective. It was a detective who now walked alone in the temple of Edfou, who penetrated presently once more to the sombre sanctuary, and who stayed there for a long time, standing before the granite shrine of the God, listening mentally in the absolute silence to the sound of an ugly voice.
When the heat of noon approached, Isaacson went back to the Fatma. He did not know at all how long a time had passed since Mrs. Armine had left him, and when he came on board, he enquired of Hassan whether any message had come for him, any note from the dahabeeyah that lay over there to the south of them, drowned in the quivering gold.
"No, my nice gentlemans," was the reply, accompanied by a glance of intense curiosity.
Questions immediately followed.
"That boat is the Loulia," said Isaacson, impatiently, pointing up river.
"Of course, I know that, my gentlemans."
Hassan's voice sounded full of an almost contemptuous pity.
"Well, I know the people on board of her. They—one of them is a friend of mine. That'll do. You can go to the lower deck."
Isaacson began to pace up and down. He pushed back the deck chairs to the rail in order to have more room for movement. Although the heat was becoming intense, and despite the marvellous dryness of the atmosphere, perspiration broke out on his forehead and cheeks, he could not cease from walking. Once he thought with amazement of his long and almost complete inertia since he had left Luxor. How could he have remained sunk in a chair for hours and hours, staring at the moving water and at the monotonous banks of the Nile? Close to the Fatma two shaduf men were singing and bending, singing and bending. And had the shaduf songs lulled him? Had they pushed him towards his dream? Now, as he listened to the brown men singing, he heard nothing but violence in their voices. And in their rhythmical movements only violence was expressed to him. When lunch came, he ate it hastily, without noticing what he was eating. Soon after he had finished, coffee was brought, not by the waiter, but by Hassan, who could no longer suppress another demonstration of curiosity.
"No message him comin', my nice gentlemans."
He stood gazing at his master.
"No?" said Isaacson, with a forced carelessness.
"All the men bin sleepin', the Reis him ready to start. We stop by the Loulia, and we take the message ourselfs."
"No. I'm not going to start at present. It's too hot."
Hassan showed his long teeth, which looked like the teeth of an animal. Isaacson knew a protest was coming.
"I'll give the order when I'm ready to start. Go below to my cabin—in the chair by the bed there's a field-glass"—he imitated the action of lifting up to the eyes, and looking through, a glass—"just bring it up to me, will you?"
Hassan vanished, and returned with the glass.
"You can go now."
Slowly Hassan went. Not only his face but his whole body looked the prey of an almost venomous sulkiness. Isaacson picked up the glass, put it to his eyes, and stared up river. He saw faintly a blurred vision. Hassan had altered the focus. The sudden gust of irritation which shook Isaacson revealed him to himself. As his fingers quickly readjusted the glass to suit his eyesight, he stood astonished at the impetuosity of his mind. But in a moment the astonishment was gone. He was but a gazer, entirely concentrated in watchfulness, sunk as it were in searching.
The glass was a very powerful one, and of course Isaacson knew it; nevertheless, he was surprised by the apparent nearness of the Loulia as he looked. He could appreciate the beauty of her lines, distinguish her colour, the milky white picked out with gold. He could see two flags flying, one at her mast-head, one in the stern of her; the awning that concealed the upper deck. Yes, he could see all that.
He slightly lowered the glass. Now he was looking straight at the balcony that bayed out from the chamber of the faskeeyeh. There was an awning above it, but the sides were not closed in. As he looked, he saw a figure, like a doll, moving upon the balcony close to the rail. Was it Mrs. Armine? Was it his friend, the man who was sick? He gazed with such intensity that he felt as if he were making a severe physical effort. His eyes began to ache. His eyelids tickled. He rubbed his eyes, blinked, put up the glasses, and looked again.
This time he saw a small boat detach itself from the side of the Loulia, creep upon the river almost imperceptibly. The doll was still moving by the rail. Then, as the boat dropped down the river, coming towards Isaacson, it ceased to move.
Isaacson laid down the glass. As he did so, he saw the crafty eyes of Hassan watching him from the lower deck. He longed to give Hassan a knock-down blow, but he pretended not to have seen him.
He sat down on a deck-chair, out of range of Hassan's eyes, and waited for the coming of the messenger of Bella Donna.
Although his detective's mind had told him what the message must be, something within him, some other part of him, strove to contradict the foreknowledge of the detective, to protest that till the message was actually in his hands he could know nothing about it. This protesting something was that part of a man which is driven into activity by his secret and strong desire, a desire which his instinct for the naked truth of things may declare to be vain, but which, nevertheless, will not consent to lie idle.
He secretly longed for the message to be what he secretly knew it would not be.
At last he heard the plash of oars quite near to the Fatma and deep voices of men chanting, almost muttering, a monotonous song that set the time for the oars. And although it rose up to him out of a golden world, it was like a chant of doom.
He did not move, he did not look over the side. The chant died away, the plash of the oars was hushed. There was a slight impact. Then guttural voices spoke together.
A minute later Hassan came up the companion, carrying a letter in his curling dark fingers.
"The message him comin', him heeyah!"
Isaacson took the letter.
"You needn't stay."
Hassan did not move.
"I waitin' for—"
Isaacson had never before spoken so roughly, so almost ferociously to a dependant. When Hassan had gone, ferociously Isaacson opened the letter. It was not very long, and his eyes seized every word of it almost at a glance—seized every word and conveyed to his brain the knowledge, undesired by him, that the detective had been right.
"Loulia, Nile, Wednesday.
"I find it is better not. When I came on board again I found Nigel reading over one of the notices of Harwich's death. I had begged him to put them away, and not to brood over the inevitable. (We only got the papers giving an account of Harwich yesterday.) But being so seedy, poor boy, I suppose he naturally turns to things that deepen depression. I ought not to have left him. But he insisted on my taking a ride and visiting the temple, which I had never been in before. I persuaded him to put away the papers, and am devoting myself to cheering him up. We play cards together, and I make music, and I read aloud to him. The great thing is—now that he has taken a decided turn for the better—not to excite him in any way. Now you, dear doctor—you mustn't mind my saying it—are rather exciting. You have so much mentality yourself that you stir up one's mind. I have always noticed that. Fond as he is of you, just at this moment I fear you would exhaust Nigel. He gets hot and excited so easily since the sunstroke. So please pass us by without a call, and do be kind and wait for us at Assouan. In a very few days we shall be able to receive you, and then, when he is a little stronger, you can be of the greatest help to Nigel. Not as a doctor—you see we have one, and mustn't leave him; medical etiquette, you know!—but as a friend. It is so delightful to feel you will be at Assouan. If you are the least anxious about your friend, when you get to Assouan ask for Doctor Baring Hartley, if you like, Cataract Hotel. He will set your mind at rest, as he has set mine. It is only a question of keeping very quiet and getting up strength.
"P.S. Don't let your men make too much noise when passing us. Nigel sleeps at odd times. Perhaps wiser to pole up along the opposite bank."
* * * * *
Yes, the detective had been right—of course.
Isaacson read the letter again, and this time slowly. The handwriting was large, clear, and determined, but here and there it seemed to waver, a word turned down. He fancied he detected signs of—
He read the postscript four times. If the handwriting had ever wavered, it had recovered itself in the postscript. As he gazed at it, he felt as if he were looking at a proclamation.
He heard a sound, almost as if a soft-footed animal were padding towards him.
"My gentlemans, the Noobian peoples waitin' for what you say to the nice lady."
Isaacson got up and looked over the rail.
Below lay a white felucca containing two sailors, splendidly handsome black men, who were squatting on their haunches and smoking cigarettes. In the stern of the boat, behind a comfortable seat with a back, was Hamza, praying. As Isaacson looked down, the sailors saluted. But Hamza did not see him. Hamza bowed down his forehead to the wood, raised himself up, holding his hands to his legs, and prostrated himself again. For a moment Isaacson watched him, absorbed.
"Hamza very good donkey-boy, always prayin'."
It was Hassan's eternal voice. Isaacson jerked himself up from the rail.
"Ask if the lady expected an answer," he said. "They don't speak English, I suppose?"
"No, my gentlemans."
He spoke in Arabic. A sailor replied. Hamza always prayed.
"The lady him say p'raps you writin' somethin'."
Isaacson sat down, took a pen and paper. But what should be his answer? He read Mrs. Armine's letter again. She was Nigel's wife, mistress of Nigel's dahabeeyah. It was impossible, therefore, for him to insist on going on board, not merely without an invitation, but having been requested not to come. And yet, had she told Nigel his friend was in Egypt? Apparently not. She did not say she had or she had not. But the detective felt certain she had held her peace. Well, the sailors were waiting, and even that bronze Hamza could not pray for ever.
Isaacson dipped the pen in the ink, and wrote.
"That's for the lady," he said, giving the note to Hassan.
As Hassan went down the stairs, holding up his djelabieh, Isaacson got up and looked once more over the rail. His eyes met the eyes of Hamza. But Hamza did not salute him. Isaacson was not even certain that Hamza saw him. The sailors threw away the ends of their cigarettes. They bent to the oars. The boat shot out into the gold. And once more Isaacson heard the murmuring chant that suggested doom. It diminished, it dwindled, it died utterly away. And always he leant upon the rail, and he watched the creeping felucca, and he wished that he were in it, going to see his friend.
What was he going to do?
Again he began to pace the deck. It was not very far to Assouan—Gebel Silsile, Kom Ombos, then Assouan. It was some hundred and ten kilometres. The steamers did it in thirteen hours. But the Fatma, going always against the stream, would take a much longer time. At Assouan he could seek out this man, Baring Hartley.
But she had suggested that!
How entirely he distrusted this woman!
Mrs. Armine and he were linked by their dislike. He had known they might be when he met her in London. To-day he knew that they were. It seemed to him that he read her with an ease and a certainty that were not natural. And he knew that with equal ease and certainty she read him. Their dislike was as a sheet of flawless glass through which each looked upon the other.
He picked up the field-glass again, and held it to his eyes.
The felucca was close to the Loulia now. And the doll upon the balcony was once more moving by the rail.
He was certain this doll was Mrs. Armine, and that she was restless for his answer.
The tiny boat joined the dahabeeyah, seemed to become one with it. The doll moved and disappeared. Isaacson put down the glass.
In his note to Mrs. Armine, the note she was reading at that moment, he had politely accepted her decision, and written that he would look out for them at Assouan. He had written nothing about Doctor Hartley, nothing in answer to her postscript. His note had been shorter than hers, rather careless and perfunctory. He had intended, when he was writing it, to convey to her the impression that the whole matter was a trifle and that he took it lightly. But he, too, had put his postscript. And this was it:
"P.S. I look forward to a real acquaintance with you at Assouan."
And now, if he gave the word to the Reis to untie, to pole off, to get out the huge oars, and to cross to the western bank of the river! Soon they would be level with the Loulia. A little later the Loulia would lie behind them. A little later still, and she would be out of their sight.
"God knows when they'll be at Assouan!"
Isaacson found himself saying that. And he felt as if, as soon as the Fatma rounded the bend of the Nile and crept out of sight on her slow way southwards, the Loulia would untie and drop down towards the north. He felt it? He knew it as if he had seen it happen.
When Hassan answered, Isaacson bade him tell the Reis that he and his men could rest all the afternoon.
"I'm going to Edfou again. I shall probably spend some hours in the temple."
"Him very fine temple."
"Yes. I shall go alone and on foot."
A few minutes later he set out. He gained the temple, and stayed in it a long time. When he returned to the Fatma, the afternoon was waning. In the ethereal distance the Loulia still lay motionless.
"We goin' now?" asked Hassan.
Isaacson shook his head.
"We goin' to-night?"
"I'll tell you when I want to go. You needn't keep asking me questions."
The dragoman was getting terribly on Isaacson's nerves. For a moment Isaacson thought of dismissing him there and then, paying him handsomely and sending him ashore now, on the instant. The impulse was strong, but he resisted it. The fellow might possibly be useful. Isaacson looked at him meditatively and searchingly.
"What can I doin' for my gentlemans?"
"Nothing, except hold your tongue."
Hassan retired indignantly.
While he had looked at Hassan, Isaacson had considered a proposition and rejected it. He had thought of sending the dragoman with a note to the Loulia. It would be simple enough to invent an excuse for the note. Hassan might see Nigel—would see Nigel, if a hint were given him to do so. But he would no doubt also see Mrs. Armine; and—if Isaacson's instinct were not utterly astray in a wilderness of absurdity and error—she would make more use of Hassan than he ever could. The dragoman's face bore the sign-manual of treachery stamped upon it. And Mrs. Armine would be more clever in using treachery than Isaacson. He appreciated her talent at its full value.
While he had been in the temple of Edfou he had come to a conclusion with himself. Entirely alone in the semi-darkness of the most perfect building, and the most perfectly calm building, that he had ever entered, he had known his own calm and what his instinct told him in it. Had he not spent those hours in Edfou, possibly he might have denied the insistent voice of his instinct. Now he would heed that voice, certain that it was no unreasonable ear that was listening.
He saw the tapering mast of the Loulia against the thin, magical gold of the sky at sunset. He saw it against the even more magical primrose, pale green, soft red, of the after-glow. He saw it black as ink in the livid spasm of light that the falling night struck away from the river, the land, the sky. And then he saw it no more.
His sailors began to sing a song of the Nile, sitting in a circle around a bowl that had been passed from hand to hand. He dined quickly.
Hassan came to ask if he might go ashore. He had friends in the native village, and wished to see them. Isaacson told him to go. A minute later, with a swish of skirts, the tall figure vanished over the gangway and up the bank.
The sailors went on singing, throwing back their heads, swaying them, rocking gently to and fro and from side to side. They were happy and intent.
Isaacson let five minutes go by; then he followed Hassan's example. He crossed the gangway, climbed the bank, and stood still on the flat ground which dominated the river.
The night was warm, almost lusciously warm, and very still. The sky was absolutely clear, but there was no moon, and the river, the flats, the two ranges of mountains that keep the Nile, were possessed by a gentle darkness. As Isaacson stood there, he saw the lights on the Fatma gleaming, he heard the sad and tempestuous singing of his men, and the barking of dogs on hidden houses keeping guard against imagined intruders. When he looked at the lights of the Fatma, he realized how the boat stood to him for home. He felt almost desolate in leaving her to adventure forth in the night.
But he turned southwards and looked up-river. Far away—so it seemed, now the night was come—isolated in the darkness, was a pattern of lights. And high above them, apparently hung in air, there was a blue jewel. Isaacson knew it for a lamp fixed against the mast of the Loulia. He put his hand down to his hip-pocket. Yes, his revolver was safely there. He lit a cigar, then, moved by an after-thought, threw it away. Its tip hissed as it struck the river. He looked at that blue jewel, at the diaper of yellow below it, and he set out upon his nocturnal journey.
At first he walked very slowly and cautiously. But soon his eyes, which were exceptionally strong-sighted, became accustomed to the gloom, and he could see his way without difficulty. Now and then he looked back, rather as a man going into a tunnel on foot may look back to the orifice which shows the light of day. He looked back to his home. And each time it seemed to have receded from him. And at last he felt he was homeless. Then he looked back no more, but always forward to the pattern of light that marked where the Loulia lay. And then—why was that?—he felt more homeless still. Perhaps he was possessed by the consciousness of moving towards an enemy. Men feel very differently in darkness and in light. And in darkness their thought of an individual sometimes assumes strange contours. Now Isaacson's imagination awoke, and led his mind down paths that were dim and eerie. The blue jewel that hung in air seemed like the cruel eye of a beautiful woman that was watching him as he walked. He felt as if Bella Donna had mounted upon a tower to spy out his progress in the night. With this fancy he played a sort of horrible game, until deep in his mind a conviction grew that Mrs. Armine had actually somehow divined his approach. How? Women have the strangest intuitions. They know things that—to speak by the card—they cannot know.
Surely Bella Donna was upon her tower.
He stopped at the edge of a field of doura. What was the use of going further?
He looked to the north, then turned and looked to the south, comparing the two distances that lay between him and his own boat, between him and the Loulia. His mind had said, "If I'm nearer to the Fatma I'll go back; if I'm nearer to the Loulia I'll go on." His eyes, keenly judging the distances, told him he was nearer to the Loulia than to his own boat. The die was cast. He went on.
Surely Bella Donna knew it, spied it from her tower.
Now he heard he knew not where, violent voices of fellahin, of many fellahin talking, as it seemed, furiously in the darkness. The noise suggested a crowd roused by some strong emotion. It sounded quite near, but not close. Isaacson stood still, listened, tried to locate it, but could not. The voices rose in the night, kept perpetually at a high, fierce pitch, like voices of men in a frenzy. Then abruptly they failed, as if the night, wearied with their importunity, had fallen upon the speakers and choked them. And the silence, broken only by the faint rustle of the doura, was startling, was almost dreadful.
Isaacson walked more quickly, fixing his eyes on those lights to the south. As he drew near to them, he was conscious of a sort of cold excitement, cold because at its core lay apprehension. When he was very near to them and could distinguish the solidity of the darkness out of which they were shining, he walked slowly, and then presently stood still. And as he stood still the Nubian sailors on the Loulia began to sing the song about Allah which Mrs. Armine had heard from the garden of the Villa Androud on her first evening in Upper Egypt.
First a solo voice, vehement, strange to Western ears, immensely expressive, like the voice of a mueddin summoning the faithful to prayer, cried aloud, "Al-lah! Al-lah! Al-lah!" And this voice was accompanied by a deep and monotonous murmur, and by the ground bass of the daraboukkeh. Then the chorus of male voices joined in.
As Isaacson stood a little way off on the lonely bank of the Nile in this deserted place—for the Loulia was tied up far from any village, in a desolate reach of the river—he thought that he had never heard till now any music at the same time so pitiless and so sad, so cruel, and yet, at moments, so full of a rough and artless yearning. It seemed heavy with the burthen of fate, of that from which a man cannot escape, though he strive with all his powers and cry out of the very depths of his heart.
Like a great and sombre cloud the East settled down upon Isaacson as he heard that song of the dark people. And as he stood in the cloud something within him responded to these voices, responded to the souls that were behind them.
Once, one morning in London, besieged by the commonplace, he had longed for events, tragic, tremendous, horrible even, if only they were unusual, if only they were such as would lift him into sharp activity. Had that longing resulted in—now?
He put out one lean, dark hand, and pulled at the heavily podded head of a doura plant. And the voices sang on, and on, and on.
Suddenly, with a sharp and cruel abruptness, they ceased.
"Al—" and silence! The name of the dark man's God was executed upon their lips.
Isaacson let go the podded head of the doura. He waited. Then, as the deep silence continued, he went on till the outline of the big boat was distinct before his eyes, till he saw that the blue light was a lamp fixed against an immense mast that bent over and tapered to a delicate point. He saw that, and yet he still seemed to see Bella Donna upon her tower; Bella Donna, the eternal spy, whose beautiful eyes had sought his secrets between the walls of his consulting-room.
Very cautiously he went now. He looked warily about him. But he saw no more upon the bank. It was not high here. Without a long descent he would be able to see into the chambers of the Loulia, unless their shutters were closed against the night. It was strange to think that he was close to Nigel, and that Nigel believed him to be in Cleveland Square, unless Mrs. Armine had been frank. Now he saw something moving upon the bank, furtively creeping towards the lights, as if irresistibly attracted, and yet always afraid. It was a wretched pariah dog, starving, and with its yellow eyes fixed upon the thing that contained food; a dog such as that which crept near to Mrs. Armine as she sat in the garden of the villa, while Nigel, above her, watched the stars. As Isaacson came near to it, it shivered and moved away, but not far. Then it sat down and shook. Its ribs were like the ribs of a wrecked vessel.
Isaacson was close to the Loulia now. He could see the balcony in the stern where the doll had moved by the rail. It was lit by one electric burner, and was not closed in with canvas, though there was a canvas roof above it. Beyond it, through two large apertures, Isaacson could see more light that gleamed in a room. He stood still again. Upon the balcony he saw a long outline, the outline of a deckchair with a figure stretched out in it. As he saw this the silence was again broken by music. From the lighted room came the chilly and modern sound of a piano.