The past middle-aged Sir Timothy of the latest birthday honours, partner in life of Lady Gruntham, and therefore part possessor of the Gruntham family, was whole owner of an army of chimney stacks which, morning, noon, and night, belched thick oily smoke across one of England's Northern counties in the process of manufacturing a substitute for something; also he owned a banking account almost as big as his honest old heart.
La famille Gruntham were breaking their first wide-eyed, open-mouthed tour de monde in Cairo, having selected their hotel from an advertisement in the A.B.C.
The Honourable Mary's nondescript mother sat patiently waiting the decisive moment which would see her en route once more to tea in her bedroom and the last chapter of a Hichens novel, as she had patiently awaited decisive moments for years, having uncomplainingly allowed the reins which controlled the large estate, and large fortune, to slip into the large, capable hands of her daughter, just as she had also either as uncomplainingly criss-crossed the world in the wake of her daughter's unaristocratically large footsteps, or submissively remained at home for the hunting, in which field the Honourable Mary excelled.
Diana Lytham, spinster, through no want of trying to remedy the defect, expert at bridge, razor-edged of tongue, but still youthful enough to allow the lid of Pandora's casket to lift on occasions, also to be described by those who feared the razor-edge as petulant instead of peevish, and cendree instead of sandy, passed the tedious moments of waiting in a running commentary upon the idiosyncrasies and oddities of the people and refreshments of the past hours, with a verve which she fondly believed to be a combination of sarcasm and cynicism, but which, in reality, was the kernel of the nut of spitefulness, hanging from the withering bough of the tree of passing youth.
She, having an atrocious seat and knowing it, with the excuse of England's winter dampness had fled the hunting. The Gruntham's younger generation, knowing not the difference between a hunter and a carriage-horse, had not given the subject a thought, but Mary Bingham had made a whole-hearted sacrifice of the month she loved best because, although loving her horses with a love of understanding, she knew that the love in her heart for just the one man, was a love passing all understanding whatsoever; feeling, therefore, that the sacrifice brought its own reward in the qualified bliss of being near the one man of her heart, whilst he passed weeks and months in the vain endeavour to find their friend, who had been lost to them in the land of the long-dead Pharaohs.
"Most annoying indeed—great negligence on the part of the city police to allow a hold-up like this at this hour of the afternoon. No wonder Egypt's in the mess of ruins it is if this is the way traffic has always been regulated," fumed and fretted Sir Timothy, whilst Mary Bingham twirled her sunshade over her hat and gazed unseeingly at the domes, cupolas, and minarets of the distant mosque of the Mohamet Ali; and the thin heir of the race of Gruntham pondered upon the allurements of the yashmak, which hid all but the eyes of the few Eastern women who glanced timidly in passing at the occupants of the motor-cars.
"Now then, dearies," smiled the irate old knight's comfortable wife, "don't you take on so, though I do allow it's a nuisance, considering I have to get into my apricot satin to-night, with all those hooks. Pity Sir John Wetherbourne ain't—isn't here, it u'd never have happened I'm sure if he had been, seeing the way he has with him, though I can't say as 'ow I approve of him so young and good-looking—and all these Eastern hussies around—wandering about so much by himself. I do wonder what 'appened—all right, lad, there's many a slip between the aitch and the noovoh rich lip, h'appened to the girl he's looking for. Over a year ago you say, Mary, my dear, since she disappeared at Ishmael, and not heard of since, and Sir John scouring Egypt with all the energy I used to use to the kitchen floor, and not half the result to show for it, eh, Timothy lad? Do you think he was in love with her, or is it a case of—oh, what's them two words which mean that you can't think of anything but one thing."
"Ide fixe," enlightened Diana Lytham.
"Eyedyfix! Sounds like one of those cocktails that heathen feller-me-lad's always trying to poison me with, eh, Miss Diana," chuckled the old manufacturer, who worshipped the cloth of aristocracy, and even reverenced the fringe.
"Oh, you bet he was in love all right, don't you think so, Mary dearest," and the small grey eyes snapped spitefully across at the good-natured, healthy girl, who had raised a weak resemblance of hate in her whilom school friend's breast, more by the matter-of-course, jolly way she had helped lame dogs over stiles than the fact that such obstructions had never lain in her path.
"Are you talking about Jack and Jill? Everybody loved her, and she was made to be loved, was beautiful, wilful Jillikins. I wish he could find her, or a trace, or some news of her! Oh, but surely we are intruding upon his own affairs too much, and I wonder what has—— Oh, but listen—do listen, did you ever hear such a noise, and just look at the crowds! Why, the whole of old Cairo is coming this way."
Even as she spoke, two Arabs, mounted on superb horses, and brandishing spears, dashed past the cars, shouting continuously what would be the equivalent of "clear the way" in English, just as to the sound of shouting and singing, the beating of drums, and clashing of cymbals, a stream of natives, dancing and waving their arms, poured into the square.
Round and round they spun about six great camels, which, hung with bells and decked from head to stubbly tail with glistening harness and embroidered saddle-cloths, stalked ahead, unheeding of the tumult; whilst riders of restless horses did their best to regulate the action and pace of the nervous animals.
Behind them walked scores of young men in snow-white galabeah, their impassive, delicately curved faces surmounted by the scarlet tarboosh, chanting that old-Egyptian marriage song of which the music score was lost some few thousand years ago, lying perhaps securely hidden in a secret chamber, undiscovered in the ruins of Karnak, but which song, without a single alteration of note or word, has descended from Rameses the Second down through the history-laden centuries to us, the discoverers and worshippers of ragtime.
But the greatest crush surged round two camels which walked disdainfully through the throng, seemingly as oblivious of the excited multitude as the one made herself out to be of the man who walked beside her with a fantastic whip, and the other of the golden chains which fastened her to the blackest eunuch of all Africa.
Upon the one of the golden chains, rested a golden palanquin, closed with curtains of softest white satin, a-glitter with precious stones.
Around the brute's neck hung great garlands of flowers, from its harness chimed golden bells of softest tone, whilst tassels of silver swung from the jewel encrusted net covering her shining coat.
What or who was inside, no one seemed to be able to coherently explain, though the setting alone told of some priceless treasure.
There was no doubt as to the rider of the other camel!
"Hahmed! Hahmed! Hahmed!" rose the unceasing cry from old and young, whilst blessings ranging from the continued comfortable shape of his shadow, to the welfare of his progeny unto the most far-reaching generation, through a life perpetual of sun, sweetmeats, and shady streams, rose and fell from the pavements, roofs, and balconies crowded with the curious, upon the impassive man who held his camel harnessed with native simplicity, just one pace behind its companion.
The crowning touch was added to this delirious moment of festival by the simply scandalous distribution of golden coin, golden mind you, which attendants clothed in every colour of an Egyptian sunset, and mounted upon diminutive, but pure bred donkeys, threw right and left with no stinting hand, to the distribution of which largesse responded shrill laughter, and still shriller cries, and thwack of stick on dark brown pate and cries of pain upon the meeting of youthful ivories in the aged ankle or wrist.
No doubt about it, Cairo, real Cairo I mean, had been in an uproar from the moment two special trains had chugged into the Central Station a few hours back.
Crowned and uncrowned queens travel in comfort all the world over, a comfort of over-heated special trains, the most stable part of the boat, the most skilful chauffeur, allied to the most speedy car, an elaboration of the luncheon basket, and the heartening effect of strips of red baize; but the comfort of a church pew compared to the downy recesses of a Chesterfield, against the comfort and regal luxury of Jill's mode of travelling.
Surrounded by an armed guard under the absolute control of black Mustapha, armed to the teeth, chaperoned by Mrs. Grundy in the shape or, as I should say, represented in the shapeless person of a dusky duenna of many moons, a good heart and a vitriolic tongue, who coyly peeped from behind the sombre curtains of her middle-aged palanquin, Jill started on her wedding journey. Over a carpet of flowers, through a long lane of palm leaves, held by veiled maidens, so as to form an arch, she passed, whilst the sweetness of the girls' voices rose to the tops of the acacia and mimosa trees, and gigantic date palms, in the Egyptian bridal song.
In no way did Jill's return journey across the desert and through the mountains to the canal's edge resemble the out going.
She did it with leisure and comfort this time, to find the Arab's great white steam yacht waiting to race her to Ismailiah.
She had looked round for the man she loved, but had seen him only when, with great pomp and circumstance, she landed on the other side.
The whole of the town had turned out, so that the white car in which she made the short trajet between the landing-place and the station passed between a lane lined with male faces, dusky, dark brown, and light tan, thousands of soft eyes sparkling over the all-hiding, all-attractive yashmak, and a dotted line, well in the forefront of the leather-brown, European physiognomies, of those who nudged and pointed, exclaiming aloud, so that their words carried even into the interior of the closed car, upon their luck of seeing a real native show.
With grave obeisance to the woman, Hahmed the Arab had entered his special train, which preceded Jill's by ten minutes, so that when she arrived at Cairo Central Station, surrounded by her armed guard, and with her duenna rocking painfully by her side in a pair of over small shoes, a little scared at the sea of faces, and the echo of the voices of those who stood outside, kept in order by the swash-buckling native police of fez ornamented heads, she had stood transfixed, wondering what on earth she should do next.
Verily, the Eastern can carry off a situation which would undoubtedly fill the Western with consternation.
Perhaps the clothing has as much to do with it as any national traits, for surely no man in stove-pipe trousers, and all that goes to the well-looking of these garments, could have so composedly traversed the broad flower-strewn carpet, laid with the consent of the authorities and no little distribution of backsheesh upon the dusty station, and making deep obeisance, have so serenely led the little cloaked and veiled figure to the gorgeously caparisoned (if one may apply that term to the ship of the desert's rigging) camel, which sprawled its neck upon the ground for the benefit of the motley crowd without.
Anyway, it was an unbelievable thing to happen in Egypt, the land of veiled and secluded women. It was wonderful enough to know that the great Hahmed was taking unto himself a wife, but that that wife should suddenly appear from out of the desert unknown, unseen—well, it took one's breath away, indeed it did, but well again—seeing the wealth and power of the man, it was wiser to rejoice than to quibble and gossip upon such doings.
So all along the Sharia Clot Bey, which is the electrically lit, motor filled, modern shop-lined road leading from the station, Jill peeped between the curtains at the throngs of jubilant natives, and the surrounding Western looking buildings.
She felt hurt to the soul by the modernity of the latter, just as she had been hurt on arriving in Rome and Venice, until later on she had found balm in the old stones and streets and buildings of both places hidden behind the twentieth century.
Jill knew that she was being taken to the palace of the old Sheikh, uncle of the man she was about to wed, but where it was she had no idea, nor of the names of the streets, the mosques or the palaces and the mansions she could spy upon, from between her satin curtains, on her way to the Bab-es-Shweyla gate. The route they had taken in the glow of the setting sun, once they had left European Cairo behind, lay through the El Katai quarter, having chosen the road leading from the mosque of Sultan Hassan, through the Bazaar of the Amourers to reach the great gate, the very heart of old Cairo.
And the girl's whole being seemed inundated with the light of the gorgeous heavens above her as she passed down the Sukkariya, the broad and pleasant path running under the gate, and her eyes shone as they rested on the huge and ancient El-Azhar, the university of all Islam.
Past mosque and tomb in the El-Nahassin, whilst minarets turned from gold to rose, and rose to crimson in the dying sun, up through the Gamahyia, danced and sang the ever increasing multitude, until the armed guard suddenly came to a standstill, forming a circle round the two camels, who had haughtily condescended to kneel, as Jill with her hand in that of her chaperon, passing between rows of salaaming servants, wondering what had become of Hahmed, and where she was going, and if tea could possibly be forthcoming instead of coffee, entered a courtyard, beautiful beyond words, and passing through the gates leading to the harem, heard them shut behind her; whilst with little cries of greeting, the four wives and many inhabitants of this secluded spot swept down upon her, their dainty, henna-tipped fingers quickly removing her cloak and veil, their little exclamations of astonishment testifying to their appreciation of the radiant little vision who smiled so sweetly upon them, and returned their greetings in such prettily broken Arabic.
Only one contretemps had marred the perfect organisation of the proceedings, and that happened when the advance guard, turning a corner at full speed, regardless of the life and limbs of the seething mass of adults, babies, and dogs, had found themselves forced to edify the spectators with an exhibition of haute ecole, as their terrified horses, suddenly rearing, pawed the quivering air above a brace of camels, who had lawlessly and obstinately stretched themselves forth upon the soft bed of mud and house garbage spread liberally throughout one of the narrowest streets in El-Katia.
Proddings of spears, and kickings of tender anatomical portions availing nothing, the last means for the hasty moving of obstreperous camels had been resorted to with success.
The following is the recipe:
Take two or more camels, fully laden for choice, stretched at length across a narrow street. For removal of same, apply a vigorous drubbing by means of a stick or sticks. If no result, apply foot with yet more vigour. If this fails, gather an armful of good dry straw, fix it cunningly under the animal's belly, apply match, and fly for your life to the nearest sanctuary.
Jill had been married a fortnight. Everything down to the minutest detail had passed off perfectly, everything had been duly signed and sealed and conducted in the most orthodox and binding manner, leaving the witnesses breathless at the thought of the land, jewels, houses, and cattle with which Hahmed the Arab endowed this woman who brought him nothing excepting beauty, which was not exactly beauty, but rather colouring, plus brain and charm.
Not even love had she brought it seemed, or obedience, for had not her lord and master uncomplainingly allowed her to keep the door of her apartments closed, neither had he insisted on the dyeing of her golden hair to that henna shade, of which so much is thought in the land of black hirsute coverings.
The feasting and rejoicings of the past ten days had surpassed anything ever dreamt of on the banks of the Nile.
There had been tournaments and exhibitions of strength and agility and horsemanship in the day, and dancing by the most famous dancers in the land by night—dances, let me tell you, in spite of what you gather by hearsay or ocular proof in such cesspools as Port Said and kindred towns, which were lessons in modesty compared to that blush-producing exercise called the Tango and its descendants.
The harem was a cage of excited love-birds to whom were duly brought detailed accounts of the nightly and daily doings. Never had there been such a commotion within the somewhat over-decorated walls, nor had the great mirrors reflected such sheen of wondrous silks, and satins, and flashing jewels; whilst sweetmeats, coffee, and cool drinks were the order of the day for the sustenance and refreshment of the never-ending stream of high-born ladies, who from far and near and in all kinds of covered vehicles hastened with the excuse of greeting the wife of the great Arab, to gather first hand delectable morsels of gossip anent her strange methods of procedure, and her master's still stranger leniency towards her.
"Truly," remarked Fatima (which is not her real name), the thirteen-year-old and latest addition to the harem, and therefore favourite of the old Sheikh, as for the eighth time she changed her costume, and with the tip of her henna pink finger skilfully removed a too liberal application of kohl from about her right and lustrous eye, whilst chatting with her maid. "Truly, I say, the man is either besotted with love, or suffering from some strange malady. Nigh upon the passage of ten days and nights, and yet he bends not the woman to his will, and she more luscious than a peach from the southern wall. Thinkest thou it's love, oh Fuddja? And thinkest thou the whiteness of my bosom shows to advantage against the gold of my neckband?"
Having just wrested a promise from Hahmed that he would take her one moonlight night to the summit of the Great Pyramid, in spite of the strict rules against such nightly excursions, Jill sat very still and quite content upon her camel gazing at the Sphinx. She turned and looked in the direction where the great eyes were staring, and then turning once more towards the mystery of all ages, she urged her camel on until it stood close to the base, and then, dissatisfied, she urged it back until she could look once more from a distance, and shaking her head with a little sigh, spoke in a whisper to the man at her side.
"I wonder, Hahmed," she said, holding out her hand as was her habit when perplexed or distressed, "I wonder who conceived the idea. No! I mean something quite different—it is—how shall I say—I wonder who it was who, having the meaning of that face in his mind, had the power and the will to hold it there while he carved or chipped it—oh! so slowly into stone. It is easy enough to paint from a model, or hew blocks of marble in the shape of a man or a woman or animal, isn't it—when you have them in front with their expressions and their forms? But how did the man who did this with only a picture in his mind to rely on dare to use a chisel? Because you can't rub out mistakes in stone, and sketches wouldn't have helped him, would they, because even photographs give one no real idea of all the Sphinx means? And I wonder where the look lies—in the eyes or the whole face, or the set of the head, or what? The eyes are rather like a dog's, aren't they—a sort of wistfulness and steadfastness."
"Many have asked, O! woman, though not many who have looked upon the Sphinx have, I think, thought upon just your first point. What do we know about this living stone before which the mightiest, and most wonderful, and most beautiful works of even the greatest masters seem as nothing? Who was he? Whose brain conceived, and hands gave birth to this mystery? Why is his name not engraved somewhere for us pigmies to read? Though doubtless it is in the depths of the hidden chambers in the base which up to now have only been superficially examined."
"Yes!" broke in Jill, "but whoever he was, slave or prince, captive or free, who taught him what eternity looks like; for that surely is is what the Sphinx sees, the circle with no join, the world—not this one—not Egypt—without end. We all say for ever and ever, but our brains reel when we think for one minute on eternity. Do you think his brain snapped when he put the last stroke? Do you think he was buried with decency with his chisels beside him?"
"No! surely not! Otherwise, Moonflower, somebody would have dug him out along with the Pharaohs, and priests, and courtesans, so that we should have learned something about him by turning his mummified body inside out, and unwinding the burial cloth from about those fingers which have given us the Sphinx. Strange! that a woman's whim, born of vanity, should be spoken of with bated breath, even to this day! A woman melts a pearl and the world continues to cry Ah! through all time; a man creates this, and no record is left of him. Verily Allah has blessed me in giving you into my hands, for behold your thoughts are as sweet to me as the wind that blows through the mimosa trees at dawn."
The girl turned a serious face towards Hahmed and smiled sweetly.
"How small and futile we are, Hahmed, in front of this great thing. See how it, I say it because surely there is no sex in any one part of it, brushes us aside, not in indifference, but just because to it we simply do not exist any more than the sand, even less so, because the sand in time would even blind those eyes. How I wish I could see it lying uncovered on its base. And I somehow can't imagine that Mary laid the Infant Christ to rest between its paws! How did they cross the desert on one poor ass? How would they, so humble and so poor, be able to approach the Sphinx with its guards about it? And I wonder if they will ever open up the shaft and search until they find the history on the walls of the base which, I am sure, buries somebody down in its depths.
"Eternity! and yet I fret and worry, get cross—cross, Hahmed, which is so much more little than angry—and love to tease and give pain. Forgive me!"
And something had crept into the girl's voice which caused the man to lean forward, and very gently to tilt Jill's face upward so that the moon struck down full upon it.
But the heavy lids veiled the eyes, so that nothing could be seen of the wonder of all-time reflected therein. A wonder of the birth of which there is no record; a mystery which has a million times million shapes, each shape fashioned afresh, yet always the same; a mystery besides which the Sphinx is as a grain of sand. The mystery of Love.
And Hahmed the Arab, who had waited since all eternity for this moment of time, raised one hand to heaven and praised his God, and then leant forward to readjust the veil before the woman's face.
"The Sphinx shall not see your face, neither shall the stars, nor shall the wind touch your mouth, O! my beloved! For I would take you to the ruins of the Temple of Khafra, where the rose colour of the stone shall tint your face and your hands, where eyes shall not see nor hear the story of the love I have to tell you."
And leaning across he put his arm about Jill and lifted her from her saddle, and laid her across his knees with her head in the hollow of his shoulder.
"I am of the desert, O! my woman, of the sandstorm and the winds, the rocks, and the heat—I have no desire this night for soft cushions, nor for the fragrance of the hanging curtains of your chamber. I love you, Allah, and this time I will not wait. You have played with me for many moons! Not even once have I laid my lips upon even the whiteness of your hand since Allah in His greatness made you my wife in the name before the law. At your wish I have denied myself all, until I have longed to bring you to my feet with the lash of the whip—yet have I waited, knowing that the moment of your surrender would be the sweeter for it.
"And the spirits of the past shall be your hand-maidens, and the moon shall be your lamp, and the sand shall be your marriage-couch this night—and I, O! woman—I shall be your master."
And who knows if it was not love who wrought upon the granite until the Sphinx was born? For after all Love is eternal, and eternity is Love.
The silver shafts of the full moon struck down into the ruined outer courts of the Temple of Khafra, turning the rose-colour of the granite to a dull terra-cotta, and picking out the pavement with weird designs of gigantic beasts and flowers, the which, when Jill put her foot upon them, proved to be nothing more harmful than the shadows thrown by the walls and huge blocks of fallen masonry.
Slowly she crossed the court and as slowly climbed the incline leading to the chambers of long dead priests and priestesses, pausing at the opening with a little catch of the breath, and a quick glance at the man she loved beside her.
The darkness of Egypt is a common enough expression on the lips of those who know nothing of what they are talking about, and Jill, who had often used the words, stood transfixed at the abysmal blackness in front of her.
Outside it was as clear as day, inside it was darker than any night, and like a flash, the girl compared it with her life at that very moment.
Up to now she had been her own mistress, in that she had deliberately and of her own free will done the things she ought and ought not to have done, and had been content with the result.
True, she was married to the man beside her, bound to him by law, his in the eyes of the world, and of Allah Who is God, but she knew full well that until she called to him and surrendered herself in love, that she was as free as any maiden could be in that land, and, she thought, that doubtless in time he would tire of her caprice and let her go, taking unto himself another as wife. In which surmise she was utterly mistaken!
Should she move forward into the darkness? Should she turn back into the light?
If she crossed the threshold she knew she would seek the protection of his arms against the threatenings of the shadows which surely held the spirits of the past; and in his arms, why! even at the thought her heart leapt and her face burned beneath the veil.
If she turned back she would return to her position of honoured guest in the man's house, a barren, unsatisfying position for one in whom youth cried for love and mastery.
If only Hahmed would make a sign, a movement; if only he would say one word. But he stood motionless just behind her, waiting himself, with the oriental's implicit belief for some deciding sign from Fate.
There was no sound, no sign of life as they stood waiting, and then the night breeze, gently lifting a corner of the Arab's full white cloak, wrapped it like some great wing about the girl.
A thrill swept her from head to foot as she pressed her hands above her heart, and then with eyes wide open and alight with love stepped across the threshold into the shadows, unknowingly turning the corner of that block of granite which hides the opening, leaving one in complete and utter darkness.
She flung out her hands and felt nothing, turned swiftly and flung them out again, vainly searching for the Arab's cloak, and finding nothing let them fall to her side.
"My God!" she whispered, and moved a step forward, stopped and listened and moved back. "Hahmed! Hahmed!"
She called aloud in fear, she who had never known what it was to be afraid, and she gave a little sob of pure relief when the Arab answered from the distance of a few feet.
"Wherefore are you afraid, O! woman? Behold I am near you, watching you, for my eyes are trained for the night as well as for the day, even though your eyes, which are as the turquoise set in a crown of glory, may not pierce the darkness, being unaccustomed to the violent contrasts and colourings of the East."
Then fell a silence.
And then the perfume of the night, and the scent of the sand and the spirit of the dead women who had lived and loved even in that temple chamber, assailed the nostrils of the girl, entering in unto her and causing a wave of longing and unutterable love to rise and flood her whole being, so that she smiled sweetly to herself and held out her arms, and trembled not at the thought of the moment awaiting her.
"Hahmed! Hahmed!" she called softly from love, and hearing no sound called again and yet more softly. "Come to me, Hahmed! come to me—because—I love you!"
And her master held her in one arm whilst he gently removed the veil from before her face, which she turned and laid against his heart as he poured forth his soul in an ecstasy of love.
"Behold!" he cried, as he removed the outer cloak from about her. "Behold is my beloved like unto a citadel which has fallen before my might, and the gates thereof are unbarred before the conqueror!
"Behold," and Jill's head veil fell to her feet, "is the citadel fair to look upon, from the glistening of the golden cupolas to the feet awash in the River of Love.
"Surrounded by the ivory wall of innocence is she, and unto her lord is the glory of measuring the circumference thereof.
"Even as a flowering tree is she, and beneath my hands shall the bloom of love turn even unto the passion flower.
"Like unto a Court of Love is my heart's delight, and many are the chambers therein, in which in the heat of the day and the coolness of the night I shall find repose.
"Her fingers are as the lattice before the windows of her joy, through which she shall peep; looking for the coming of her lord; her lashes are the silken curtains which she will draw before the twin pools of love which are her eyes; her body is as a column of alabaster in the shadow of which I shall find my delight!
"Yea! the citadel has fallen, and the walls about it are riven at my approach. Allah! Allah! Allah!"
And the shadows crept gently about them as once more the silence fell, and gathered again into the corners as Jill sighed softly.
"Tremble not, my beloved! for behold I love thee! Gentle is love to such as thee, and soft is the sand of Egypt which shall be thy couch. And yet, thou child of love, even at this moment when my heart waxeth faint within me from love of thee, yet will I listen, and take thee back unto thy dwelling and thy fragrant chamber if so thou desireth!"
But Jill, lifting her arms, laid her hands in utter submission upon the man's breast, and sighed again in perfect content beneath the kisses which covered them, and her arms and her breasts and her beautiful mouth.
"As thou wilt," she whispered softly, "only as thou wilt."
And verily as a young tree she stood in the glory of her youth with her feet upon the sands of Egypt, and verily was her heart glad when she was carried into the inner chamber, and passed into the keeping of her master for ever.
Some months had gone, and the sun sparkled on the water of the little singing stream, though bitter winds had blown and all-enveloping sand had swirled about the palms which surrounded Jill's beautiful home in the oasis, of which the reins were gradually slipping into fingers skilled in driving anything from a four-in-hand to a donkey in a cart.
Three mornings a week, an hour after dawn, she gave audience to all those who, with grievance or in difficulty, desired her help or advice; for which ceremony, and having the dramatic instinct, she had caused a clearing to be made in the shade of the palms, under the biggest of which she had also had placed a great chair of snow-white marble, in which, clothed always in white, she would seat herself, her passionate mouth smiling happily behind the yashmak whilst over it the great eyes, into which had crept a look of infinite tenderness in the months that had passed, would scrutinise the people standing humbly and astounded before her.
She would look across upon mothers with obstreperous sons who would not work, or would not wed; mothers who beat their breasts in despair at the utter lack of looks or grace in the unfortunately multiplied feminine arrows within the parental quiver; young men who craved a word of recommendation so as to obtain a certain post; older men who craved an overdraft at the bank of her patience; young mothers whose infants were either too fat or too lean, or with eyes half-eaten away with disease; all of whom having received a full measure of help, pressed down and running over, and having bestrewn themselves upon the ground around her chair, would depart in high fettle to spread the news of this wonder woman, their mistress, in whom they felt such inordinate pride; so that one, then two, then more, from distances long and short, would creep into the council with pretexts ranging from the thin to the absolutely transparent, until one morning the whole seance ended in an unseemly fracas between the legitimate and the illegitimate seekers after help in word or kind, whereupon Hahmed, rising in his wrath, smote them verbally hip and thigh, and Jill departed in high dudgeon, leaving the culprits to wilt in the frost of her keen displeasure.
And from about that date, a month ago, everything seemed to have gone wrong.
Days of depression would follow days of mad spirits, hours when she was as the sweetest scented rose within the hands of the Arab, followed by interminable, stretches of time when the points of the "wait-a-bit" thorn were blunt compared to the exceeding sharpness of her temper.
Days when all that was right was wrong, and all that was wrong was wrong, so that her women crept quietly, and Hahmed wondered sometimes if some "afreet" haunted the soil and had taken possession of the soul of his beloved.
Jill swung to and fro in a hammock slung between two palms at a very early hour indeed of this morning late in December.
She had neither veil before her face nor shoes upon her feet, and the flimsy mauve robe clung to the supple body as she restlessly swung, until she clapped her hands to summon her breakfast, and clapped them again sharply so that a figure came running at high pressure.
"Go, ask thy master if he will break bread with me in the shade of the palms, oh Laleah, and let not the shadows lengthen unduly in thy going for fear that I give thee cause to hasten thy footsteps!"
Which manner of speech shows that Jill had not unduly tarried either in acquiring knowledge of things Eastern. And Hahmed, as he stood before her and greeted her in the beautiful Arabian tongue, wondered if in all the world there could be found such another picture as that of his wife, with the riot of red-gold hair about her little face, which somehow seemed over white in the shade of the palm, and the blueness of her eyes, and the redness of her mouth, which neither the one nor the other smiled at his approach.
"Do sit down and help yourself!" said she indeed, and clapping her hands sharply ordered fresh food and drinks, both hot and cold, to be brought upon the instant.
And her next remark, after the breakfast of tea in a real teapot, a hissing kettle, strange loaves, purest butter, honey, and fruits of every conceivable colour had been laid upon a cloth upon the grass, fell like a bolt from the blue, though the man made no sign of disturbance from the impact.
"I want eggs and bacon, Hahmed!"
For a moment he pondered the remark, whilst he offered Jill a cigarette and lit one for himself.
"The eggs, my woman," and the musical voice made a poem even of the absurd words, "now that thou hast taught thy slaves to poach and scramble and prepare them in divers and pleasant ways, are easy—but bacon—no! that canst thou not have amongst these my people!"
And Jill swung ceaselessly to and fro, looking at the man sitting a few yards from her on a rug, before she answered in tersest English:
"Don't be dense, Hahmed! I want eggs and bacon, and a starched finger napkin—toast in a rack—covered dishes—marmalade—I'm—I'm———"
The deep voice filled in the pause also in tersest English.
For one moment Jill sat up as straight as the hammock would allow, and then for the first time in many days broke into a peal of sweetest laughter, and swinging herself clear of the net ran over and laid herself down upon the rug beside the man, with her chin in the palms of her hands, to find herself the next moment in his arms, whilst he looked down into her eyes without speaking. Whereupon she turned her face on to his shoulder and burst into tears.
And Hahmed, being wise, let her cry until there were no more tears, only little sobs which tore at his heart, which lightened considerably when having mopped her eyes with the edge of his cloak, she twisted herself into a sitting position, and smiled as she laid her golden head against his dark one, and entwined her slim fingers in his.
And Hahmed smiled also, knowing that this was the preliminary to some request of which his wife had doubts as to the granting, but never a word did he utter, nor made sign to help, whilst Jill, somewhat at a loss, lit a cigarette, and proceeded to blow rings which on account of the breeze refused to pass one through the other.
"Hahmed!" she managed at last and stopped, and then continued as she got up and moved away: "Hahmed! I'm feeling absolutely miserable. I think I want a change—I really do want all I said just now, so—so can't we go to Cairo and stay at an English hotel for the New Year? We could just do it if we started at once—couldn't we? I know you have important business or something next month—can't you put it off?"
Hahmed looked at her for a moment, as she stood very fair and straight, with her beautiful feet peeping from under her trailing gown; and frowned a little, noticing the shadows round the big eyes, and the suspicion of a collar-bone showing above the embroidery of her bodice.
"And why didst thou hesitate, little one, to ask—knowing as thou dost that thy wish is law absolute to me? Business affairs, what are they? Let them wait—let the world wait as long as thou art happy. Verily thou art pale and thin———" Upon which unfortunate remark Jill turned like the spitfire she had lately become.
"Seeing that you are allowed four wives, Hahmed, there is no reason to bemoan your fate; this is not Europe, where once married you are for ever tied to the one girl, who, a bud in her youth, may as time passes turn to one of those dreadful cabbage-roses, which go purple and fat with age. I'm sorry," she continued, as she held out both her hands, "you simply must not notice me these days. I think I am bewitched—I have even sent my darling old Ameena away because her deformity suddenly irritated me, and I told Mustapha I would have him thrown as breakfast to the cheetahs if he dared to make himself seen, and he believed it, and no shampoo will ever get the sand out of his hair."
"But he shall be thrown to the cheetahs if it would please thee, beloved!"
And the uncalculating cruelty in the man's voice sent the red to the girl's white face, and moving over to him made her lean down and kiss him upon the mouth.
And then she seated herself upon the ground and made tea, laughing like a child when to please her the Arab drank it protestingly.
"By Allah! it is a poison which you drink in Europe, and yet you would go and drink it in a crowded city."
"Are we going, Hahmed, oh Hahmed, are we?" whispered Jill, half afraid to break the spell by the raising of her voice.
"But of course, beloved—hast thou not expressed the wish—though surely it were better to go to thine own dwelling, for it will go hard with thee to keep thy face covered and remain undiscovered to thy many friends, who doubtless will be seeking the solace of Egypt's winter sun; for the time is not yet at hand when I will permit thee to make thyself known to them."
But Jill was ready to accept anything as long as her craving could be satisfied, and Hahmed, longing to satisfy her craving, looked with eyes of love upon the sweetness of her face aglow with anticipation, so that both were well content.
And an hour passed in which they ate and drank, and Jill balanced pieces of sweet bread upon the noses of two great hounds, who, scenting their master from afar, had broken bounds and raced to him, leaping the breakfast table to Jill's infinite delight, whilst their groom lay upon the ground out of sight anticipating the thrashing his carelessness merited him, but from which he was spared by reason of his mistress' sweetness.
"And so, Light of Heaven, I must leave thee, for there is much to prepare if we would start at once, for it is difficult to secure the strict privacy due to my wife in these times when the world is overrun by the tourist ants who should by right be underground.
"And my heart inclineth to hours spent with thee, O! Flower of the Desert, hours spent at thy feet in the heat of the day whilst thou slumberest, hours upon the roof of thy dwelling, watching the day prepare herself for the coming of her lover, the night; and yet must I leave thee when my being is overwhelmed with love of thee, thou wind of caprice! Would that I could tell the meaning of my gentleness towards thee, I, Hahmed, who, like a love-sick youth, sleeps the night without the silken curtain of thy door and dare not enter in unto thee."
And his hands suddenly gripped the girl by her shoulders and pulled her towards him, at which roughness she smiled, as women do when so treated, and rested her sweet-scented head above his heart.
"Ah, Hahmed! Who knows if thou are not over timorous even for a love-sick youth," she sighed. "And must thou go when my heart inclineth to hours spent with thee? And yet at night the stars come out so 'tis said, and can be seen from the roof of my dwelling; and when the wind sweeps over chill across the sands the fire throws shadows in my room of roses, where the love bird with little wings hovers above my couch suspended by a little silken cord."
And the man bent her back towards him so that the ribbon of her bodice snapped and the beauty of her lay under his hands, and she stretched both arms outwards and whispered so that only he could hear, "Kiss me, Hahmed, oh my heart's desire! Kiss me, for I am faint with love of thee."
And even as he bent downwards to her she fell unconscious at his feet, whereupon he raised her in his arms and looked into the white face, speaking so that only she might hear.
"And the love bird shall fly down to thy couch this night, Delight of my Heart, and the shadows upon thy sweet face shall deepen ere the dawn," and he kissed the closed eyes and the red mouth and the white throat and the shadow of a collar-bone which showed above the roundness of her breasts, and then he laid her upon the cushions on the ground, and, clapping his hands, gave her into the care of her handmaidens.
An hour and more had passed before Jack Wetherbourne suddenly awoke, and stretching his arms above his head apostrophised the full moon shining down upon the Great Pyramid in the shadows of which he was sitting.
"What the dickens Lady Moon brought me to this place of all places to-night," he said lazily, as he struck a match and lit a cigarette. "Let's hope my ship of the desert hasn't upstreamed for Cairo all on her own, else I see myself here until the advent of the next Cook's party. Decent of the camel wallah to let me take the apple of his commercial eye into the desert unaccompanied." He stretched and settled himself more comfortably, continuing to talk aloud. "What a night—what a country—wish I'd brought Mary with me—ideal spot for a heart-to-heart talk. I might have shaken her out of her 'eyedyfix,' as old Gruntham calls it. Silly idea that she won't get married until Jill has been found—why! what! who in heaven's name are coming down the pyramid? Well, I'm blessed! two native wallahs been breaking the rules, and I had no idea they were perched up there above my head."
Safe in the protecting shadows he watched Hahmed and Jill descend.
Little ripples of laughter fell on the night air as Hahmed, letting himself down easily from one gigantic block to another, held out his arms and lifted Jill down, bending his head to kiss her each time he put her on her feet.
They were at the last step but one when, with a little scream, she swayed, and nearly fell to the step beneath.
"Hold me, Hahmed," she cried, "I'm dizzy, everything is going round!"
And Hahmed caught her and lifted her gently down the last steps to the sand, bending to kiss her on the mouth, and shifting her suddenly to his left arm so as to catch Jack Wetherbourne by the throat as he dashed shouting from the shadows upon them.
"Jill! Jill! It's I—Jack! don't let——-"
Until the grip tightening choked back his words, when with a surprising swiftness the Arab let go his hold, and getting one in on the point, sent the Englishman reeling backwards to fall in a heap against the base of the pyramid, and then to scramble to his feet, too dizzy to stop his adversary, who, flinging the veil over the woman's face, passed swiftly to the place where awaited the camels.
And too slow was Jack Wetherbourne to gain the spot in time to stop the flight of the camel which with its double burden was already racing straight ahead into the desert; and too bemused by the blow to recognise the fact when he did get there that the hired brute he was staggering too was built for speed in the image of the tortoise compared to the hare-like-for-swiftness contour of the abandoned beauty who had strolled to the spot from the other side of the pyramid, and quite undisturbed was watching her sister's hurried departure into the unknown.
All our lives we all chase wraiths in the moonshine! Be the wraiths the outcome of proximity in the garden under the silvery moon rays, which so often snap the trap about our unwary feet by rounding off the physical angles of our momentary heart's desires, or lending point to the stub ends of their undeveloped mentality; or the wraiths of the midnight soul, otherwise disarranged nervous or digested system, which float invitingly, distractingly, tantalisingly in front of our clogged-by-sleep vision at night; turning out, however, in the early light heralding the early cup of tea, to be nothing more soul distracting than the good old brass knob adorning the end of the bedstead.
But Jack Wetherbourne's wraiths, which he was chasing in the moonlight, were good honest humans with the requisite number of legs and arms wrapped in good, white raiment; one of which humans with the other in his arms sat astride a camel, who made up by her muscular development whatever she might lack in goodness of heart and honesty of purpose; she too being wrapped in the silvery drapery which the moon throws pell-mell around pyramid and mud hut, humble fellah, descendant maybe of some long dead Pharaoh, and the jocular, jubilant millionaire, who with luck can trace a grandfather.
But chase he ever so eagerly, Jack Wetherbourne could barely keep his quarry in sight as on and on sped the racing camel with that curious slithering gait which denotes great speed, whilst the wind caught at Jill's veil, blowing it this way and that until she impatiently tore it from before her face, and struggling against the arm which held her like a vice, managed to screw herself round to look behind, whereupon the Arab jerked her suddenly back, looking down into her white face with eyes ablaze with jealousy.
"Hast thou no circumspection, O! wife of mine?" he cried, the wind carrying the words from his lips almost before they were uttered. "Mine, all mine thou art, and yet thou strivest to look upon the countenance of that madman who would have outraged my honour by looking upon thy face!"
"Oh, but Hahmed! you don't understand—that was Jack Wetherbourne, my neighbour and brother and friend, and do for pity's sake make the camel go slower, I am being bumped to bits!"
Which of all foolish utterances was the most foolish she could have uttered, fanning the man's jealousy to a pitch where it burned right through the barrier of self-restraint, making him desire to stop her foolish words with kisses, and long to strangle her as she lay in his arms, and cast her on to the sands for the vultures to pick at.
"Thy friend and brother! How could any man unborn of thy parents be anything but the would-be lover and husband of thy beautiful self! Verily, woman, could I beat thee for such words until thy shoulders ran blood. I know of him and his foolish futile searchings for thee, yet it is I who hold thee, and in very truth can call thee wife; nor will I stay this my camel so that thou mayest have speech with him; this pale faced yearling, who dared to look upon thy shadow; but by the grace of Allah, I will so bewilder him who blundereth after thee astride the product of the bazaar, that his sightless skull shall stare blindly at the moon to-morrow night, whilst I shall feast my eyes upon the whiteness of thy satin skin."
And Jill lay still, knowing that she was up against something with which she could not cope, noticing not at all that the camel began a wide circle to the left, therefore being excessively surprised when an hour before the dawn, upon the very outskirts of Cairo itself, the man caused his camel to kneel, and placing the girl like a bundle of hay upon the ground, turned towards Mecca; and the time of prayer being passed, came to her suddenly and held her to him, raining kisses upon the fairness of her face, shining pale and shadowed in the light of the coming day.
You have only to stare long enough at it to get the image of some distinct object imprinted upon your retina, then you need but stare again at some space of indistinct colouring and you will see the impression of your distinct object reprinted a hundred times upside down.
Who has not tried the experiment in their youth with the aid of the ceiling and red-lettered advertisement of chocolate or soap, and later in years upbraided the reflected blobs of sun which usually choose a critical moment in which to obscure your vision when you have turned your back upon the sunset.
Jack Wetherbourne distinctly saw the fleeing camel in front of him, when he at last got his own to its feet, and being eager to keep his quarry well within his vision, continued to stare and strain his eyes, whilst he raced for hour after hour over mile after mile of sand, until in the end he saw the fleeing camel ahead of him when in reality it was well on its way back to Cairo; and continued, with eyes staring out of a white, dust-covered face, to pursue the phantom until the first ray of the sun hitting him fiercely, caused him to cover his eyes a while, and after, to look about him with refreshed sight, which showed him in the midst of the desert, alone, with a cloud of sand rising before the wind some miles behind him—an infant sandstorm, but strong enough to hide the distant peaks of the pyramids from him, and to send his terrified, idiotic camel fleeing straight ahead through hours of increasing heat, without a drop of water upon its foolish back or in its master's pocket flask, until with a sudden silly chuckle the man jerked the reins and tumbled headlong from the saddle, laughing stupidly with sudden sunstroke.
The midday sun of the same day blazed down upon a picture which for ghastliness surpassed even the horrors painted by the madman Werth, which, if your mind is steeped in morbidness, you can see for a franc, or for nothing, I really forget which, when next you visit Brussels.
Upon a hillock of sand, the summit of which continually trickled to the base in fine golden streams, a little mound built with the aid of a pair of pumps, sat Jack Wetherbourne, laughing sickeningly, just as he had sat since the moment he had waved a delirious adieu to the quickly disappearing camel. His dress coat, trousers, white waistcoat, shirt, undergarments, socks and shoes, lay upon the sand arranged by the disordered mind in the fantastic design of a scarecrow.
As I have said, the man himself, naked save for a vest twisted round his waist, sat upon the mound gesticulating violently, whilst keeping up a one-sided, unanswered conversation with the figure on the sand. His bronzed face, burnt almost black even in the few hours of sun beating down upon his unshaded head, turned restlessly to the right and left; his long fingers plucked without ceasing at the great blisters which the heat drew up upon his body, bursting them, so that the fluid mingled with the sand blown upon him by the light wind, and upon which flies, thousands of them, settled, to buzz away when he rose to run this way and that in an effort to stay the awful irritation.
Two o'clock by the clocks in Cairo, the hour when workers and idlers, rich and poor, seek the coolest spot in their vicinity in which to lay them down and sleep a while—the hour when Mary Bingham drove up to Shepherds, having raced here, there, and everywhere during the morning in a vain endeavour to awaken a little interest in the minds of those who listened, and shrugged, and looked at each other significantly, at the tale of a man who had got lost in Cairo for a night and a morning—a tale told agitatedly by a charming woman who could give no reason for her agitation.
Also she had tried, desperately hard, with the aid of the hotel porter, to make head or tail out of the narrative as recounted by the hirer of camels—a woebegone tale in which the undercurrent was a dismal foreboding as to the fate of the priceless quadruped; the fate of an Englishman seemingly being of small account when compared to that of the snarling, unpleasant brute who represented the native's entire fortune—at least so he said. "Yes, the nobleman had hired the camel as he so often did, and being acquainted with the ways of the animal had gone alone as he always did. No! upon the beard of his grandfather he had no idea in which direction he had gone, though verily upon the outskirts of Cairo there had been a festival in which La Belle, the well-known dancer, was to dance—who knows———" And the Hon. Mary had flung out of the place in disgust, knowing with a woman's intuition, sharpened love, in comparison with which a kukri is blunt, that no such place hid the man she had been searching for so desperately ever since she had suddenly wakened and sprung out of her bed the night before, for no reason whatever, and, having rung up Shepherds and ascertained the fact that Sir John Wetherbourne was not in the hotel, had paced her room until she could with reason arouse her maid, and, having bathed and breakfasted, had started out on the seemingly mad pursuit of someone who had failed to return to his habitat during the night—and in Cairo too!
Is it surprising that men winked secretly at one another, and that their wives, sharers of their joys and sorrows, scandal and gossip inclusive, jingled their bracelets and pursed their lips, and did all those things which jealous women—not necessarily love jealous—are feign to do when the object responsible for the conception of the green-eyed monster within their being is bent on making a fool of herself?
"Come now, dearie," mumbled Lady Sarah Gruntham, who insisted on keeping Lancashire meal hours to the consternation of the hotel staff, native and otherwise, as she mopped her heated brow with her handkerchief and with the other hand patted the dark head leaning wearily upon the row of scarab buttons adorning her tussore front, from which she had forgotten to remove her finger napkin when the girl had entered. "Come now—come now. Don't 'ee take on an' fret so. The lad'll coom back to ye, never ye fear now. Well I remember when yon Tim of mine was down t' mine in t' big explosion—I took on just as ye are takin' on, love, but down in me heart, lass, I never really feared me, because I knew that me love for me lad was that great, lass, that I'd pull him out of danger—and sure and I did, lass, black as a sweep and with a broken arm, but alive, and a champion tea of shrimps and cress we had, jest as ye'll have with yer lad when he comes back, lass!"
Which motherly comfort served to lighten the heavy heart, but brought not the faintest shadow of a smile to the steadfast eyes. For even the vision of watercress, shrimps and tea on the verandah at Shepherds will not force a light to the windows of the soul when they are blinded with anxiety.
So Mary Bingham, in her cool white dress, lay back in the long chair, with a glass of iced lemonade on a table by her side in a room darkened so as to induce slumber, whilst out in the desert with choked cries of "Good dog! At it! Good dog!" a man began scratching the sand as a ratting terrier does the earth, until he had excavated a hole big enough in which to curl himself, where he lay until desert things that creep and crawl drove him out again, shrieking for water.
And the full force of the storm crashed about Jill's defenceless head at the midday hour also of the same day, when she ought to have been searching the coolness of her midday sleeping chamber, and forgetfulness of the last few hours in sleep.
Not quite defenceless was she, however, as she sat back in the chair, her eyes ablaze and her veil torn to shreds at her feet, ripping the moral atmosphere with words which seemed to have been dipped in some corrosive verbal fluid. She was angry, hurt, and deathly tired, and was doing her best to pass some of her mental suffering anyway on to the man who leant with folded arms against the cedar wall.
The inevitable crisis had come!
The independence of Western womanhood had clashed with the Eastern ideas on the privacy and seclusion of the gentler sex. Jill simply could not understand that there was any cause for the terrible jealousy which had suddenly blazed up in the Arab when she had innocently repeated her request to be allowed to see her old friend; Hahmed was as incapable of understanding the request, having failed in his sojourn in the West to fully realise the everyday kind of jolly, good, frank camaraderie which can exist between certain types of English man and woman.
Half a word of tenderness, half a gesture of love, and she would have been sobbing or laughing happily in his arms, but like a prairie fire before the wind, the terrible Eastern rage was blazing through the man, too fierce, too terrific to allow him to analyse the situation, or remember that the upbringing of his girl-wife had been totally different to that of the women of his country.
Jill suddenly sat forward, clasping one slim ankle across her knee in a slim hand, a position she knew perfectly well would rouse Hahmed to a frenzy, and spoke slowly and mockingly in English instead of the pretty lisping Arabic which always entranced him.
"You may lecture, and remonstrate, and admonish, which all comes to the same thing, until night falls, but you will never make me see eye to eye with you in this. It is simply absurd to threaten that you will shut me in my apartments until I learn reason. If you lock me in, or place guards about me, I will jump from the roof and gain my freedom by breaking my neck. Why Jack Wetherbourne—oh———"
Hahmed had leant forward, and gripping her by the shoulders had very suddenly, and not over gently, jerked her to her feet, holding her by the strength of his hands alone, as she desperately tried to liberate herself.
"Let me go, Hahmed! let me go! You are hurting me dreadfully. You must not hurt me—you must not bruise me. Oh! you don't understand!"
She struggled furiously and unavailingly, resorting at last to cruelty to gain her end.
"Let me go, Hahmed! Take your hands away—I—I hate to feel them upon me!"
He let her go, pushing her away from him ever so slightly, so that she stumbled against the chair, cracking her ankle-bone, that tenderest bit of anatomical scaffolding, against a projecting piece of ornamental wood.
It was a case of injury added to insult, and she crouched back furious in her physical hurt as she tore the silken covering from her arms, where already showed faint bruises above the little tattoo mark showing itself so black against the white skin, and upon which she put her finger.
"Oh! who would have thought when you tattooed that, Jack——!"
But she stood her ground and shrugged her naked shoulders irritatingly when Hahmed crossed the dividing space in a bound with his hand upon the hilt of his dagger.
"Bi—smi—llah! what sayest thou? This mark upon the fairness of thy arm which I have thought a blemish, and therefore have not questioned thee thereon—sayest thou it is a dakkh, what thou callest a tattoo mark? And if so what has it to do with the man whose name is unceasingly upon thy lips?"
Jill stood like a statue of disdain.
"What is the matter now, Hahmed? Please understand that I will not tolerate such continual fault-finding any longer! That is a tattoo mark of a pail of water—you may not know that we have a rhyme in England which begins like this:
"Jack and Jill went up a hill To fetch a pail of water!"
Oh! shades of ancient Egypt, did you ever hear or see anything so pathetically absurd as Jill as she solemnly repeated the old doggerel.
"That makes no difference—a pail of water or the outline of a flower—did this man—this—this Jack make the mark upon thee?"
Jill hesitated for a second and then answered with a glint in her eye.
"Yes! he did—and he did Mary too—put the dinkiest little heart on her arm—we were under the cherry tree in the vegetable———!"
"Go!" suddenly thundered the Arab.
And Jill, gathering her raiment about her for departure, turned to look straight into the man's eyes, whilst her heart, in spite of the little scornful smile which twisted the corner of her mouth, leapt with the love which had blossomed a hundredfold under the torrent of jealousy, wrath, and mastery which he had poured forth upon her during the last hour.
"Behold! art thou weak," she said sweetly in his own tongue, "having not the strength to kill that which offends thee. 'Thou shalt not know this man, or any other man,'" she mocked, quoting his words, "and yet canst thou not break me to thy will! Of a truth, I have no further use for thee in thy weakness!"
But Hahmed's control had only been slightly cracked, so that he merely pointed to the curtain which divided Jill's quarters from the rest of the house.
"Go!" he said simply, "go to thy apartment, wherein thou shalt stay until thou seest good to come to me in obedience and love. Thou shalt not go forth except to the gardens; neither shall thy friends visit thee, neither shalt thou climb to the roof; and thou shalt obey me—many, aye, many a woman were dead for far less than this thy disobedience—but thou—thou art too beautiful to kill, except with love—go!"
And Jill went, with beautiful head held high, heart throbbing from love, and blood pounding in her ears from downright rage.
"I will not obey you! I shall do exactly as I wish!" she proclaimed, with the curtain in her hand. In which she was mistaken, for the simple fact that love held her fast.
And the curtain swinging to hide her from the Arab, as she stood for one moment holding out her arms toward him; and for the same reason she did not see him pick up her torn, scented veil, to thrust it between his inner silken vest and his sorely perturbed heart.
Night with her blessed wind had come at last, which means coolness for a space beneath the stars, and oblivion for a while in sleep for those who have untroubled heart and good digestion. There was just one black patch in all that silvery stretch of sand, upon which the moon shone, a patch that came neither from rock or tree or cloud, and which moved occasionally in fitful jerks, until it raised itself and collapsed again, and spread itself in a still stranger shape as from underneath garments which had the form of arms and legs and disjointed feet which fell apart, there crawled a man.
A man, though the face was cracked in great seams from brow to chin, whilst the black tongue protruded from the split mouth drawn back from the even teeth until the great bloated face seemed to laugh in derision at the moon's softness.
The body, covered in a mass of sores coated with sand, raised itself to the knees, whilst the hands tried painfully to scoop up the silver moonbeams and raise them to the mouth. There was no sound in all that deathly plain, which Allah knows is accustomed to such scenes, and when the body had fallen forward once more upon the sand, so that the open mouth was filled with grit, neither was there movement, until upon the pale light of dawn a silent shape, and yet another, and still another one, sailed serenely across the sky, and with a faint rustle of folding wings settled down around the heap; to soar noiselessly skyward when it suddenly twitched convulsively; to settle again with faint rustling when all once more was still.
"Verily, O! brother, I am led towards that spot upon which the birds of death have come together."
So said the Egyptian who was partner in the small caravan proceeding leisurely towards Cairo, as he shaded his eyes and pointed first up to the ever lightening sky, across which from all parts floated small black dots, and then to a distant place upon the sand, where the black spots seemed to mingle until they formed a blot of shade.
"Nay! Raise not thy voice in dissent, O! my brother, for behold we have made good time, and water faileth us not."
And well was it that they turned aside, and shouted as they approached so that only one beak had time to tear a strip of flesh from beneath the naked shoulder, ere the flock of vultures rose, hovered a second, and were gone. The two men drew near, and having dismounted, turned the poor thing over, and feeling the faint beating of the heart, with no more ado than if they were setting down to food, undid one of the goatskins from the nearest camel, and soaking the flowing bernous until it dripped with the precious water, wrapped the body in its folds; and collecting the gold watch, money and card-case strewn upon the sands, slipped everything back into a waistcoat pocket with the exception of a three day old programme announcing a cotillion at Shepherd's Hotel, a sketch of which hideous building was elaborately and mendaciously reproduced on the cover, so that to the mind of uneducated Yussuf, unversed in the English tongue, there was but one thing to do, and that to go straight to the well-known caravanserai with his burden, and deliver it safely into the proprietor's hands.
So Yussuf, euphoniously termed a benighted heathen by some enlightened Christians, seated himself upon the fastest camel in the caravan, receiving into his arms the thing that was still a man by their good efforts, from the hands of the other heathen, who, with hands raised to heaven, called down the blessing of Allah upon men and beast as the latter departed at her swiftest for the great city, leaving him to follow in more leisurely manner.
So that consternation and excitement were great among those who sat upon the verandah after dinner, partaking of coffee and cigarettes before undertaking the more strenuous task of entertaining themselves, when in the glare of the electric light a great camel suddenly appeared out of the night, and totally disregarding the upraised voice of the enormous hotel porter, subsided in the gutter, thereby causing a block in the street; whilst a man clumsily dismounted and staggered up the shallow steps, tenderly holding some covered burden the while in his arms that were breaking with fatigue, and who, speaking with authority, demanded speech of the proprietor, who, furious at being disturbed, came forth as furiously to annihilate the disturber, but instead, at the first word from the Arab, who clutched a dirty piece of paper in a hand almost paralysed with cramp, lifted a corner of the cloth from about that which lay so inertly under the all-hiding cloak, and choked, and stuttered, and then recovering himself, blandly led the Arab to the lift which whirled them to the first floor, leaving the occupants on the verandah all a-twitter, whilst the coffee grew cold and the cigarettes went out.
Days and nights passed, and still more days and nights, in which the man, bound from head to foot in soft wrappings soaked in unguents, tossed and raved, screaming for water, tearing at the bed-linen which to his distorted mind was alive with every conceivable insect, beating blindly at the faces of the two women who, refusing any help, watched over and tended Jack Wetherbourne through his days of distress.
"Aye, lass! Now don't 'ee lose 'eart," whispered Sarah Ann Gruntham to the girl who, having held consultation with the doctor, was sobbing her heart out on the elder woman's motherly bosom which covered a heart of purest gold. "Don't 'ee listen to such fash, lass, for what's he likely to know outside of Lady Jones's wimble-wambles and me Lor' Fitznoodles' rheumatism. Why 'e couldn't even tell that I 'ad 'ad a touch of my old complaint, and me with an 'andle to me name. Come, lass, oop with ye bonnie head, for I'll tell 'ee the great news—I sees a bead o' perspiration on Sir John's brow—an' so I'm off to take me 'air out of crackers. Though Tim does find it more home-like, 'e says, when I 'ave 'em h'in—oh, dearie! dearie! I often wish I was plain Mrs. Gruntham again with no aitches to mind. I'll be with you in ten minutes, and then, lass, ye'll just run away and have a bath—I managed the aitch that time—and come back as fresh as a daisy, if there were such a innocent thing in this land of sphinxes and minxes—and ye'll see ten beads then, which sounds as tho' I be a Roman instead of a strict Baptist. I'll run along, love, and don't let 'im see tears in them bonny eyes of yours when he comes to know ye, lass."
And the dearest old soul in the world waddled away to take her hair out of the crackers which had made a steel halo round her silvery hair for many a night, and waddled hack again to see Mary with a great glow in her eyes, and her hand clasping the skeleton fingers of Jack Wetherbourne, who had known her at last, and was gazing blissfully at his beloved.
His lips moved, though so weak was he that no sound came from them, so that Mary had to bend to catch the whisper until her ear just touched the lips still distorted from the effects of the desert sun.
She sat up, blushing from chin to brow, and smilingly shook her head.
"I will marry you, Jack dear, as soon as we find Jill!"
Wetherbourne made a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to frown, and then turned his eyes as Mary turned her head on the opening of the door between the bedroom and the sitting-room.
In the doorway stood the bewildering picture of an Eastern woman.
Wrapped round in the voluminous cloak of the East, with the face and head veils hiding all but her eyes, she stood quite still as Lady Sarah bustled across the room towards her, and Mary held up a warning hand.
A twitching of the man's fingers drew Mary's attention, and once more she leant down to him.
"We're engaged," came the faint whisper, "it's Jill!"
Decked out in Mary's trappings Jill lay on the couch, her pale face shining like an evening flower, whilst she passed the brush over and over again through the burnished strands of her wonderful hair.
Mary had sat spellbound, almost open-mouthed, at the Arabian Nights tale Jill had poured into her astounded ears.
"Hahmed!" she had exclaimed when Jill had told her of her marriage; and be it confessed that Jill had tautened to meet the coming attack, and relaxed when Mary, clasping her capable hands, had suddenly and whole-heartedly beamed upon her. "Why, I've heard the most wonderful things about him since I have been out here, in fact I've been almost wearied to death listening to the accounts of his Haroun al Raschid methods and qualities. His wedding put Cairo in an uproar—I saw the pro——— But Jill, darling, is it possible it was you inside the palanquin on the wonderful camel?"
Jill nodded as she busied herself in plaiting her hair into great ropes.
"And you've run away—escaped, you say?"
Jill nodded again.
"Yes!" she said, with three big tortoiseshell combs between her teeth. "We had a frightful flare-up—all the fault of my tearing temper. You see I've been absolutely spoilt these last months, and I simply behaved anyhow the first time I got scolded. But I didn't deserve it all the same!" she added as an afterthought, as she wound the plaits round her head. "And," she went on, "I should never have got away if Mustapha had been with us."
"My own special bodyguard! But as he wasn't there I managed to thoroughly examine the high wall round the grounds, and found just one spot to give me a foothold. I scrambled up in the heat of the day when everyone was asleep, and had a terrible time with my garments."
She pointed as she spoke to a scented heap of silk and satin thrown on a chair.
"I had to partly disrobe whilst sitting on the top of the wall, and was terrified in case some pedlar might chance along. I tied my face and head veil round my waist, but the habarah, that big black cloak—by the way it belongs to one of my women, and I borrowed it with the excuse that I wanted it copied, mine you see are rather ornamental, as, of course, I never walk in the streets—well, I threw that on to the ground, tucked up my sebleh, that dressing-gown sort of thing, and scrambled down the other side, as I did not want to jump, ripping the knees of my shintiyan—the wide trouser kind of things we wear———"
Mary's face was a study.
"Thanks to my borrowed cloak I was able to walk through the streets in comfort—drawing my burko, face veil, dear, across my face so that only one eye should be seen, and a blue one at that. When I got to Cairo I hired a car—speaking in Arabic to the astounded and fluttering Englishman—drove to the Savoy, where I guessed you'd be—found you'd moved here—came here—and being mistaken for what I am by marriage, namely, a high-born lady of the land, was conducted straightway to you in spite of the invalid—et voila!"
Mary got up, and crossing to Jill sat down beside her on the couch.
"And what now, Jill? Hahmed will come and fetch you."
"Not Hahmed," said Jill, with a shadow in her eyes as she remembered his parting words after what she had tersely called the flare-up. "Besides, he trusts me really!" she added as an afterthought, and continued with a note of feverish excitement in her voice: "So I I'm going to stay with you, Mary, if you'll let me, until something or another happens to help me make up my mind. I want to do a lot of sight-seeing, and wear white skirts and a silk jersey and blouse. I'll find a maid somewhere, I expect."
"Oh!" broke in practical Mary, "don't worry about that—servants are such a nuisance. Do you remember Higgins? Well! she came out with me, and gave me notice the second week—'couldn't abide the 'eathen ways'—and wanted to get back to her home in Vauxhall. But the proprietor found me a native woman, a perfect treasure, whose one complaint is that she hasn't enough work to do!"
Silence fell for a time whilst Mary studied the face of her friend, suddenly leaning forward to stroke the pale cheek and pat the little hand.
"You don't look well, Jillikins! Are you sure you are happy?"
"Perfectly," said Jill, turning her face to the cushions and bursting into uncontrollable weeping.
With short steps the native woman shuffled quickly along the outside of the wall surrounding the house of Hahmed the Arab, stopping in front of the great gates, which were closed at sunset, to peer between the wrought bronze work, standing her ground unconcernedly when a Nubian of gigantic proportions suddenly appeared on the other side.
Terrifying he looked as he towered in the dusk, his huge eyes rolling, and his hand on the hilt of a scimitar, which looked as though it had been tempered more for use than for ornament.
"What wouldst thou?" he demanded in dog Arabic of the woman whose eyes flashed disdainfully over the veil which hid her pock-marked face.
"Speech with they master, who has bidden me to his presence, and move quickly, thou black dog of ill repute; tarry not in saying that his servant from the big house in the city has news for his most august ears."
The son of ill repute stared inquisitively for a moment, and then moved off slowly with the inimitable gait of these ebon specimens of mankind, increasing his pace almost to a run once out of the female's range of vision.
Like a shadow she followed the different people, who, passing her from one to another, led her through rooms and halls into an open court, at the far end of which sat the man she sought, watching two jaguars being led up and down before him.
"Peace unto thee, O! my daughter, and fear not to approach," Hahmed said gently as the woman made deep obeisance, and shrank from the animals who snarled at her viciously. "And thou, my son, take these products of the bazaar hence, for surely hast thou been fooled by him who brought them from distant climes. Verily, the sire may have been a jaguar, but his mate, judging from the shape of the offspring, must most surely have been a jackal. Bring not such trash to me, if thou wouldst not incur my wrath!"
The snarling products of the bazaar were hurriedly jerked out of the court as Hahmed turned to the woman.
"Is all well, O! faithful one?"
"All is well, O! Most High," answered the Honourable Mary's perfect treasure of a maid. "Behold the gracious flower, upon whom it is my joy and honour to wait, changeth her mood one hundred times in the passing hour. She laughs at noon, and her pillow is wet with salt tears at night; her feet, like lotus-buds, carry her hither and thither in the day, the dimness of her room sees her face downwards upon her couch.
"As unto a sweet rose she clings to her friend, the great lady, who forsooth is as pleasing as a well-cooked dish of the flesh of kid mingled with tamarind and rice; but the rose mixeth not with other flowers, and about her heart rests thy most honourable picture."
For some long time Hahmed stared unseeingly in front and then he spoke.
"Thou hast worked well, my daughter, even from the moment when thou didst take the place of the great lady's white servant, to report to me upon the doings of the white man who strove to find my wife.
"Ask what reward thou will'st, it shall be granted unto thee!"
And the man, knowing the cupidity of his race, was somewhat astounded when, casting herself at his feet, the woman craved to be taken into his household so that, as she put it, "I may dwell in content in thy shadow, and the shadow of the snow-white dove when she wings her way back to happiness." Just for a moment the Arab looked into the eyes of the woman, as, greatly daring, she lifted her right hand.
"For so it is written, O! my lord! the blessing of Allah is upon thee, and thy heart shall be at rest."
The day following the native woman's surreptitious visit to the great Arab saw Jill and Mary and Jack, followed discreetly by the same native woman, set sail at an early, gay and blithesome hour for Denderah, where are to be seen the ruins of the Temple of Hathor, the Venus of Ancient Egypt.
Upon arriving, after much dallying on the way, Jill insisted upon walking along the narrow tracks through the stretches of corn and sweet-smelling flowering bean, among which, to the general horror, cattle ranging from cows to goats were allowed to roam at will.
A temple of love calls up visions of marble halls, marble fretwork, basins with splashing waters and marble doves, pillars crowned with intertwined marble hearts and lovers' knots tied with marble ribbons; therefore Jill stood transfixed as she entered the great hall of columns, with the goddess's somewhat forbidding head carved on each side of each pillar.
She walked across slowly to peer into the inner court, shrouded in deep shadows, shuddered and moved back towards the other two, whose mentality, psychology or temperament responded not in the least to light and shade.
Together they traversed the place, Jill running her hand over the hieroglyphics which cover the pillars to their beautiful capitals, until she stopped before a representation of Hathor the wanton, standing naked and verily unashamed before the image of a man, whose name I know not, but whose beauty and nudity are as great as hers.
Turning sharply she glanced hurriedly at Jack and Mary, and slipping a hand through the arm of each, almost pulled them across the floor to a stairway made in the wall and leading to the roof.
For, taken up in their own love story, those two had noticed nothing, not even the uncountable figures of stone in the bas-reliefs which, appearing to turn and whisper to each other, seem in the shadows to take a delight in portraying by pantomimic gestures a love wholly allied to voluptuousness and license.
But Jill had seen, and her ultra fastidiousness had dyed face and neck crimson, and caused her to try and spare her companions similar uncomfortable moments.
For a moment she stood on the roof watching the clouds of twittering birds as they flew in the direction of the Libyan Hills, and then she slipped quietly down the stairway, leaving her friends, supremely oblivious of her presence or absence, weaving their love-tale on the roof of the ruined temple of love.
With nerves a-jangle and heart disturbed Jill longed for shadows and solitude, so that she shrank back, hesitated, and then advanced slowly towards the veiled figure of a woman standing watching her from the shadows of the very heart of the ruins, the holy of holies, the hall of past mysteries and solemn rites.
"What wouldst thou?" Jill asked her in Arabic, which was as wellnigh perfect as any European can make it, and although she could hardly make out one whole sentence of what she took for a dialect spoken by the woman, she grasped enough to understand that the Egyptian, draped in the peasant's cloak, was anxious to read her fortune in the sand she carried in the black handkerchief, and which sand she said she had gathered on the steps of the temple's high altar at the full moon.
Jill sat down on a fallen block of masonry, looking very fragile, very sweet, very fair, with her white throat gleaming above the white silk blouse and jersey, soft blue hat pulled over her sunny head to shade her face, death-white save for the shadows which seemed to make a mask about her eyes, as she drew hieroglyphics on her own account in the sand with the tip of her small white shoe.
She had heard of the extraordinary powers possessed by some of the Egyptian people; Hahmed had told her of their gift of reading the future in the sand; among her own household she had come across authentic cases where the most unlikely things predicted had come to pass.
And the cloud about her was so thick, and weighed so heavily upon her! Of her own free-will she had flung her happiness away, and with her happiness had gone her content and light-heartedness. She laughed with others, and cried softly by herself at night; she shared the amusements with others, and sat up at night, bewildered and afraid, to steal to the mirror and look upon a pinched face with tightened nostrils, and to wipe away the dampness gathered under the golden curls.
Had her marriage been a mistake or not? If not, why had she fled before the first little sign of storm? If it had been, why was she utterly miserable now that liberty was hers?
Her friends would surely be taking their departure soon. Should she go too, or should she go back in all humbleness to the man she loved? Did he want her, having shown no sign or desire for her return? Did he—did he not? A decision must be made, and soon, but what was it to be? Round and round, like a flock of startled pigeons, went her thoughts, one breaking away to whirr into the back of her mind, another to drift into the shadows, and another, and yet another, whilst the rest flew on, round and round!
And then she shrank back, gripping the stone with two cold little hands as great drops gathered and trickled down her face, her breath coming in silent gasps.
Stricken with terror she threw out her arms passionately.
"Speak, woman, speak! Spread the sand, and read to me what thou seest therein. Thy finger shall point the way, and that way will I follow wherever it may lead."
Whereupon the woman of the shadows, turning towards that which had once been an altar, and raising her arms straight above her head with hands out-turned at an acute angle, thrice repeated words that were absolutely unintelligible to Jill.
And then kneeling, she spread the sand upon the ground, dividing it into circles and squares, drawing curious signs with the tip of her hand, which as Jill noticed was passing white and slender for that of a peasant woman, and spoke—in modern tongue.
"Behold, O! woman, who emerged from a grey cloud to enter into the radiance of the sun, thou art beloved by the gods who rule the earth through the countless and eternal ages. Thou dost pause upon the threshold of the temple of love, fearing these shadows which will pass away when thou shalt stand within the great radiance of the goddess. Yea! and fearful art thou of the sand out of which shall spring a tree of many branches, and in the shade of which thou shalt encompass thy life's span. Behold," and the finger drew a line upon the sand, "the grey cloud encloses thee yet once again, and the goddess weeps without! Yet will she rejoice! Before many moons have come and gone, the great god Amen shall tear aside that which blindeth thee, and placing a man son upon thy breast shall lead thee into the innermost temple.
"Six times shall Amen strike thee in love, so that thou bearest sons, and once shall he strike thee upon both breasts so that a woman child shall spring from thy loins.
"Love is thy portion, thy meat, and thy drink, bringing unto thee those who travailing in love shall come for thy wisdom, and those labouring in grief for thy succour.