HYLDA SEEKS NAHOUM
It was as though she had gone to sleep the night before, and waked again upon
this scene unchanged, brilliant, full of colour, a chaos of
decoration—confluences of noisy, garish streams of life, eddies of petty labour.
Craftsmen crowded one upon the other in dark bazaars; merchants chattered and
haggled on their benches; hawkers clattered and cried their wares. It was a
people that lived upon the streets, for all the houses seemed empty and
forsaken. The sais ran before the Pasha's carriage, the donkey-boys shrieked for
their right of way, a train of camels calmly forced its passage through the
swirling crowds, supercilious and heavy-laden.
It seemed but yesterday since she had watched with amused eyes the
sherbet-sellers clanking their brass saucers, the carriers streaming the water
from the bulging goatskins into the earthen bottles, crying, "Allah be praised,
here is coolness for thy throat for ever!" the idle singer chanting to the soft
kanoon, the chess-players in the shade of a high wall, lost to the world, the
dancing-girls with unveiled, shameless faces, posturing for evil eyes. Nothing
had changed these past six years. Yet everything had changed.
She saw it all as in a dream, for her mind had no time for reverie or
retrospect; it was set on one thing only.
Yet behind the one idea possessing her there was a subconscious self taking
note of all these sights and sounds, and bringing moisture to her eyes. Passing
the house which David had occupied on that night when he and she and Nahoum and
Mizraim had met, the mist of feeling almost blinded her; for there at the gate
sat the bowab who had admitted her then, and with apathetic eyes had watched her
go, in the hour when it seemed that she and David Claridge had bidden farewell
for ever, two driftwood spars that touched and parted in the everlasting sea.
Here again in the Palace square were Kaid's Nubians in their glittering armour
as of silver and gold, drawn up as she had seen them drawn then, to be reviewed
by their overlord.
She swept swiftly through the streets and bazaars on her mission to Nahoum.
"Lady Eglington" had asked for an interview, and Nahoum had granted it without
delay. He did not associate her with the girl for whom David Claridge had killed
Foorgat Pey, and he sent his own carriage to bring her to the Palace. No time
had been lost, for it was less than twenty-four hours since she had arrived in
Cairo, and very soon she would know the worst or the best. She had put her past
away for the moment, and the Duchess of Snowdon had found at Marseilles a
silent, determined, yet gentle-tongued woman, who refused to look back, or to
discuss anything vital to herself and Eglington, until what she had come to
Egypt to do was accomplished. Nor would she speak of the future, until the
present had been fully declared and she knew the fate of David Claridge. In
Cairo there were only varying rumours: that he was still holding out; that he
was lost; that he had broken through; that he was a prisoner—all without
foundation upon which she could rely.
As she neared the Palace entrance, a female fortune-teller ran forward,
thrusting towards her a gazelle's skin, filled with the instruments of her
mystic craft, and crying out: "I divine-I reveal! What is present I manifest!
What is absent I declare! What is future I show! Beautiful one, hear me. It is
all written. To thee is greatness, and thy heart's desire. Hear all! See! Wait
for the revealing. Thou comest from afar, but thy fortune is near. Hear and see.
I divine—I reveal. Beautiful one, what is future I show."
Hylda's eyes looked at the poor creature eagerly, pathetically. If it could
only be, if she could but see one step ahead! If the veil could but be lifted!
She dropped some silver into the folds of the gazelle-skin and waved the Gipsy
away. "There is darkness, it is all dark, beautiful one," cried the woman after
her, "but it shall be light. I show—I reveal!"
Inside these Palace walls there was a revealer of more merit, as she so well
and bitterly knew. He could raise the veil—a dark and dangerous necromancer,
with a flinty heart and a hand that had waited long to strike. Had it struck its
Outside Nahoum's door she had a moment of utter weakness, when her knees
smote together, and her throat became parched; but before the door had swung
wide and her eyes swept the cool and shadowed room, she was as composed as on
that night long ago when she had faced the man who knew.
Nahoum was standing in a waiting and respectful attitude as she entered. He
advanced towards her and bowed low, but stopped dumfounded, as he saw who she
was. Presently he recovered himself; but he offered no further greeting than to
place a chair for her where her face was in the shadow and his in the light—time
of crisis as it was, she noticed this and marvelled at him. His face was as she
had seen it those years ago. It showed no change whatever. The eyes looked at
her calmly, openly, with no ulterior thought behind, as it might seem. The high,
smooth forehead, the full but firm lips, the brown, well-groomed beard, were all
indicative of a nature benevolent and refined. Where did the duplicity lie? Her
mind answered its own question on the instant; it lay in the brain and the
tongue. Both were masterly weapons, an armament so complete that it controlled
the face and eyes and outward man into a fair semblance of honesty. The
tongue—she remembered its insinuating and adroit power, and how it had deceived
the man she had come to try and save. She must not be misled by it. She felt it
was to be a struggle between them, and she must be alert and persuasive, and
match him word for word, move for move.
"I am happy to welcome you here, madame," he said in English. "It is years
since we met; yet time has passed you by."
She flushed ever so slightly—compliment from Nahoum Pasha! Yet she must not
resent anything to-day; she must get what she came for, if it was possible. What
had Lacey said? "A few thousand men by parcel-post, and some red seals-British
"We meet under different circumstances," she replied meaningly. "You were
asking a great favour then."
"Ah, but of you, madame?"
"I think you appealed to me when you were doubtful of the result."
"Well, madame, it may be so—but, yes, you are right; I thought you were
Claridge Pasha's kinswoman, I remember."
"Excellency, you said you thought I was Claridge Pasha's kinswoman."
"And you are not?" he asked reflectively.
He did not understand the slight change that passed over her face. His
kinswoman—Claridge Pasha's kinswoman!
"I was not his kinswoman," she answered calmly. "You came to ask a favour
then of Claridge Pasha; your life-work to do under him. I remember your words:
'I can aid thee in thy great task. Thou wouldst remake our Egypt, and my heart
is with you. I would rescue, not destroy.... I would labour, but my master has
taken away from me the anvil, the fire, and the hammer, and I sit without the
door like an armless beggar.' Those were your words, and Claridge Pasha listened
and believed, and saved your life and gave you work; and now again you have
power greater than all others in Egypt."
"Madame, I congratulate you on a useful memory. May it serve you as the
hill-fountain the garden in the city! Those indeed were my words. I hear myself
from your lips, and yet recognise myself, if that be not vanity. But, madame,
why have you sought me? What is it you wish to know—to hear?"
He looked at her innocently, as though he did not know her errand; as though
beyond, in the desert, there was no tragedy approaching—or come.
"Excellency, you are aware that I have come to ask for news of Claridge
Pasha." She leaned forward slightly, but, apart from her tightly interlaced
fingers, it would not have been possible to know that she was under any strain.
"You come to me instead of to the Effendina. May I ask why, madame? Your
husband's position—I did not know you were Lord Eglington's wife—would entitle
you to the highest consideration."
"I knew that Nahoum Pasha would have the whole knowledge, while the Effendina
would have part only. Excellency, will you not tell me what news You have? Is
Claridge Pasha alive?"
"Madame, I do not know. He is in the desert. He was surrounded. For over a
month there has been no word-none. He is in danger. His way by the river was
blocked. He stayed too long. He might have escaped, but he would insist on
saving the loyal natives, on remaining with them, since he could not bring them
across the desert; and the river and the desert are silent. Nothing comes out of
that furnace yonder. Nothing comes."
He bent his eyes upon her complacently. Her own dropped. She could not bear
that he should see the misery in them.
"You have come to try and save him, madame. What did you expect to do? Your
Government did not strengthen my hands; your husband did nothing—nothing that
could make it possible for me to act. There are many nations here, alas! Your
husband does not take so great an interest in the fate of Claridge Pasha as
She ignored the insult. She had determined to endure everything, if she might
but induce this man to do the thing that could be done—if it was not too late.
Before she could frame a reply, he said urbanely:
"But that is not to be expected. There was that between Claridge Pasha and
yourself which would induce you to do all you might do for him, to be anxious
for his welfare. Gratitude is a rare thing—as rare as the flower of the
century—aloe; but you have it, madame."
There was no chance to misunderstand him. Foorgat Bey—he knew the truth, and
had known it all these years.
"Excellency," she said, "if through me, Claridge Pasha—"
"One moment, madame," he interrupted, and, opening a drawer, took out a
letter. "I think that what you would say may be found here, with much else that
you will care to know. It is the last news of Claridge Pasha—a letter from him.
I understand all you would say to me; but he who has most at stake has said it,
and, if he failed, do you think, madame, that you could succeed?"
He handed her the letter with a respectful salutation.
"In the hour he left, madame, he came to know that the name of Foorgat Bey
was not blotted from the book of Time, nor from Fate's reckoning."
After all these years! Her instinct had been true, then, that night so long
ago. The hand that took the letter trembled slightly in spite of her will, but
it was not the disclosure Nahoum had made which caused her agitation. This
letter she held was in David Claridge's hand, the first she had ever seen, and,
maybe, the last that he had ever written, or that any one would ever see, a
document of tears. But no, there were no tears in this letter! As Hylda read it
the trembling passed from her fingers, and a great thrilling pride possessed
her. If tragedy had come, then it had fallen like a fire from heaven, not like a
pestilence rising from the earth. Here indeed was that which justified all she
had done, what she was doing now, what she meant to do when she had read the
last word of it and the firm, clear signature beneath.
"Excellency [the letter began in English], I came into the desert
and into the perils I find here, with your last words in my ear,
'There is the matter of Foorgat Bey.' The time you chose to speak
was chosen well for your purpose, but ill for me. I could not turn
back, I must go on. Had I returned, of what avail? What could I do
but say what I say here, that my hand killed Foorgat Bey; that I had
not meant to kill him, though at the moment I struck I took no heed
whether he lived or died. Since you know of my sorrowful deed, you
also know why Foorgat Bey was struck down. When, as I left the bank
of the Nile, your words blinded my eyes, my mind said in its misery:
'Now, I see!' The curtains fell away from between you and me, and I
saw all that you had done for vengeance and revenge. You knew all
on that night when you sought your life of me and the way back to
Kaid's forgiveness. I see all as though you spoke it in my ear.
You had reason to hurt me, but you had no reason for hurting Egypt,
as you have done. I did not value my life, as you know well, for it
has been flung into the midst of dangers for Egypt's sake, how
often! It was not cowardice which made me hide from you and all the
world the killing of Foorgat Bey. I desired to face the penalty,
for did not my act deny all that I had held fast from my youth up?
But there was another concerned—a girl, but a child in years, as
innocent and true a being as God has ever set among the dangers of
this life, and, by her very innocence and unsuspecting nature, so
much more in peril before such unscrupulous wiles as were used by
"I have known you many years, Nahoum, and dark and cruel as your
acts have been against the work I gave my life to do, yet I think
that there was ever in you, too, the root of goodness. Men would
call your acts treacherous if they knew what you had done; and so
indeed they were; but yet I have seen you do things to others—not
to me—which could rise only from the fountain of pure waters. Was
it partly because I killed Foorgat and partly because I came to
place and influence and power, that you used me so, and all that I
did? Or was it the East at war with the West, the immemorial feud
"This last I will believe; for then it will seem to be something
beyond yourself—centuries of predisposition, the long stain of the
indelible—that drove you to those acts of matricide. Ay, it is
that! For, Armenian as you are, this land is your native land, and
in pulling down what I have built up—with you, Nahoum, with you—
you have plunged the knife into the bosom of your mother. Did it
never seem to you that the work which you did with me was a good
work—the reduction of the corvee, the decrease of conscription, the
lessening of taxes of the fellah, the bridges built, the canals dug,
the seed distributed, the plague stayed, the better dwellings for
the poor in the Delta, the destruction of brigandage, the slow
blotting-out of exaction and tyranny under the kourbash, the quiet
growth of law and justice, the new industries started—did not all
these seem good to you, as you served the land with me, your great
genius for finance, ay, and your own purse, helping on the things
that were dear to me, for Egypt's sake? Giving with one hand
freely, did your soul not misgive you when you took away with the
"When you tore down my work, you were tearing down your own; for,
more than the material help I thought you gave in planning and
shaping reforms, ay, far more than all, was the feeling in me which
helped me over many a dark place, that I had you with me, that I was
not alone. I trusted you, Nahoum. A life for a life you might have
had for the asking; but a long torture and a daily weaving of the
web of treachery—that has taken more than my life; it has taken
your own, for you have killed the best part of yourself, that which
you did with me; and here in an ever-narrowing circle of death I say
to you that you will die with me. Power you have, but it will
wither in your grasp. Kaid will turn against you; for with my
failure will come a dark reaction in his mind, which feels the cloud
of doom drawing over it. Without me, with my work falling about his
ears, he will, as he did so short a time ago, turn to Sharif and
Higli and the rest; and the only comfort you will have will be that
you destroyed the life of him who killed your brother. Did you love
your brother? Nay, not more than did I, for I sent his soul into
the void, and I would gladly have gone after it to ask God for the
pardon of all his sins—and mine. Think: I hid the truth, but why?
Because a woman would suffer an unmerited scandal and shame.
Nothing could recall Foorgat Bey; but for that silence I gave my
life, for the land which was his land. Do you betray it, then?
"And now, Nahoum, the gulf in which you sought to plunge me when you
had ruined all I did is here before me. The long deception has
nearly done its work. I know from Ebn Ezra Bey what passed between
you. They are out against me—the slave-dealers—from Senaar to
where I am. The dominion of Egypt is over here. Yet I could
restore it with a thousand men and a handful of European officers,
had I but a show of authority from Cairo, which they think has
"I am shut up here with a handful of men who can fight and thousands
who cannot fight, and food grows scarcer, and my garrison is worn
and famished; but each day I hearten them with the hope that you
will send me a thousand men from Cairo. One steamer pounding here
from the north with men who bring commands from the Effendina, and
those thousands out yonder beyond my mines and moats and guns will
begin to melt away. Nahoum, think not that you shall triumph over
David Claridge. If it be God's will that I shall die here, my work
undone, then, smiling, I shall go with step that does not falter, to
live once more; and another day the work that I began will rise
again in spite of you or any man.
"Nahoum, the killing of Foorgat Bey has been like a cloud upon all
my past. You know me, and you know I do not lie. Yet I do not
grieve that I hid the thing—it was not mine only; and if ever you
knew a good woman, and in dark moments have turned to her, glad that
she was yours, think what you would have done for her, how you would
have sheltered her against aught that might injure her, against
those things women are not made to bear. Then think that I hid the
deed for one who was a stranger to me, whose life must ever lay far
from mine, and see clearly that I did it for a woman's sake, and not
for this woman's sake; for I had never seen her till the moment I
struck Foorgat Bey into silence and the tomb. Will you not
"Yonder, I see the tribes that harry me. The great guns firing make
the day a burden, the nights are ever fretted by the dangers of
surprise, and there is scarce time to bury the dead whom sickness
and the sword destroy. From the midst of it all my eyes turn to you
in Cairo, whose forgiveness I ask for the one injury I did you;
while I pray that you will seek pardon for all that you have done to
me and to those who will pass with me, if our circle is broken.
Friend, Achmet the Ropemaker is here fighting for Egypt. Art thou
less, then, than Achmet? So, God be with thee.
Without a pause Hylda had read the letter from the first word to the last.
She was too proud to let this conspirator and traitor see what David's words
could do to her. When she read the lines concerning herself, she became cold
from head to foot, but she knew that Nahoum never took his eyes from her face,
and she gave no outward sign of what was passing within. When she had finished
it, she folded it up calmly, her eyes dwelt for a moment on the address upon the
envelope, and then she handed it back to Nahoum without a word. She looked him
in the eyes and spoke. "He saved your life, he gave you all you had lost. It was
not his fault that Prince Kaid chose him for his chief counsellor. You would be
lying where your brother lies, were it not for Claridge Pasha."
"It may be; but the luck was with me; and I have my way."
She drew herself together to say what was hard to say. "Excellency, the man
who was killed deserved to die. Only by lies, only by subterfuge, only because I
was curious to see the inside of the Palace, and because I had known him in
London, did I, without a thought of indiscretion, give myself to his care to
come here. I was so young; I did not know life, or men—or Egyptians." The last
word was uttered with low scorn.
He glanced up quickly, and for the first time she saw a gleam of malice in
his eyes. She could not feel sorry she had said it, yet she must remove the
impression if possible.
"What Claridge Pasha did, any man would have done, Excellency. He struck, and
death was an accident. Foorgat's temple struck the corner of a pedestal.
"His death was instant. He would have killed Claridge Pasha if it had been
possible—he tried to do so. But, Excellency, if you have a daughter, if you ever
had a child, what would you have done if any man had—"
"In the East daughters are more discreet; they tempt men less," he answered
quietly, and fingered the string of beads he carried.
"Yet you would have done as Claridge Pasha did. That it was your brother was
an accident, and—"
"It was an accident that the penalty must fall on Claridge Pasha, and on you,
madame. I did not choose the objects of penalty. Destiny chose them, as Destiny
chose Claridge Pasha as the man who should supplant me, who should attempt to do
these mad things for Egypt against the judgment of the world—against the
judgment of your husband. Shall I have better judgment than the chancellories of
Europe and England—and Lord Eglington?"
"Excellency, you know what moves other nations; but it is for Egypt to act
for herself. You ask me why I did not go to the Effendina. I come to you because
I know that you could circumvent the Effendina, even if he sent ten thousand
men. It is the way in Egypt."
"Madame, you have insight—will you not look farther still, and see that,
however good Claridge Pasha's work might be some day in the far future, it is
not good to-day. It is too soon. At the beginning of the twentieth century,
perhaps. Men pay the penalty of their mistakes. A man's life"—he watched her
closely with his wide, benevolent eyes—"is neither here nor there, nor a few
thousands, in the destiny of a nation. A man who ventures into a lion's den must
not be surprised if he goes as Harrik went—ah, perhaps you do not know how
Harrik went! A man who tears at the foundations of a house must not be surprised
if the timbers fall on him and on his workmen. It is Destiny that Claridge Pasha
should be the slayer of my brother, and a danger to Egypt, and one whose life is
so dear to you, madame. You would have it otherwise, and so would I, but we must
take things as they are—and you see that letter. It is seven weeks since then,
and it may be that the circle has been broken. Yet it may not be so. The circle
may be smaller, but not broken."
She felt how he was tempting her from word to word with a merciless
ingenuity; yet she kept to her purpose; and however hopeless it seemed, she
would struggle on.
"Excellency," she said in a low, pleading tone, "has he not suffered enough?
Has he not paid the price of that life which you would not bring back if you
could? No, in those places of your mind where no one can see lies the thought
that you would not bring back Foorgat Bey. It is not an eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth that has moved you; it has not been love of Foorgat Bey; it
has been the hatred of the East for the West. And yet you are a Christian! Has
Claridge Pasha not suffered enough, Excellency? Have you not had your fill of
revenge? Have you not done enough to hurt a man whose only crime was that he
killed a man to save a woman, and had not meant to kill?"
"Yet he says in his letter that the thought of killing would not have stopped
"Does one think at such a moment? Did he think? There was no time. It was the
work of an instant. Ah, Fate was not kind, Excellency! If it had been, I should
have been permitted to kill Foorgat Bey with my own hands."
"I should have found it hard to exact the penalty from you, madame."
The words were uttered in so neutral a way that they were enigmatical, and
she could not take offence or be sure of his meaning.
"Think, Excellency. Have you ever known one so selfless, so good, so true?
For humanity's sake, would you not keep alive such a man? If there were a feud
as old as Adam between your race and his, would you not before this life of
sacrifice lay down the sword and the bitter challenge? He gave you his hand in
faith and trust, because your God was his God, your prophet and lord his prophet
and lord. Such faith should melt your heart. Can you not see that he tried to
make compensation for Foorgat's death, by giving you your life and setting you
where you are now, with power to save or kill him?"
"You call him great; yet I am here in safety, and he is—where he is. Have you
not heard of the strife of minds and wills? He represented the West, I the East.
He was a Christian, so was I; the ground of our battle was a fair one, and—and I
"The ground of battle fair!" she protested bitterly. "He did not know that
there was strife between you. He did not fight you. I think that he always loved
you, Excellency. He would have given his life for you, if it had been in danger.
Is there in that letter one word that any man could wish unwritten when the
world was all ended for all men? But no, there was no strife between you—there
was only hatred on your part. He was so much greater than you that you should
feel no rivalry, no strife. The sword he carries cuts as wide as Time. You are
of a petty day in a petty land. Your mouth will soon be filled with dust, and
you will be forgotten. He will live in the history of the world. Excellency, I
plead for him because I owe him so much: he killed a man and brought upon
himself a lifelong misery for me. It is all I can do, plead to you who know the
truth about him—yes, you know the truth—to make an effort to save him. It may be
too late; but yet God may be waiting for you to lift your hand. You said the
circle may be smaller, but it may be unbroken still. Will you not do a great
thing once, and win a woman's gratitude, and the thanks of the world, by trying
to save one who makes us think better of humanity? Will you not have the name of
Nahoum Pasha linked with his—with his who thought you were his friend? Will you
not save him?"
He got slowly to his feet, a strange look in his eyes. "Your words are
useless. I will not save him for your sake; I will not save him for the world's
sake; I will not save him—"
A cry of pain and grief broke from her, and she buried her face in her hands.
"—I will not save him for any other sake than his own."
He paused. Slowly, as dazed as though she had received a blow, Hylda raised
her face and her hands dropped in her lap.
"For any other sake than his own!" Her eyes gazed at him in a bewildered,
piteous way. What did he mean? His voice seemed to come from afar off.
"Did you think that you could save him? That I would listen to you, if I did
not listen to him? No, no, madame. Not even did he conquer me; but something
greater than himself within himself, it conquered me."
She got to her feet gasping, her hands stretched out. "Oh, is it true—is it
true?" she cried.
"The West has conquered," he answered.
"You will help him—you will try to save him?"
"When, a month ago, I read the letter you have read, I tried to save him. I
sent secretly four thousand men who were at Wady Halfa to relieve him—if it
could be done; five hundred to push forward on the quickest of the armed
steamers, the rest to follow as fast as possible. I did my best. That was a
month ago, and I am waiting—waiting and hoping, madame."
Suddenly she broke down. Tears streamed from her eyes. She sank into the
chair, and sobs shook her from head to foot.
"Be patient, be composed, madame," Nahoum said gently. "I have tried you
greatly—forgive me. Nay, do not weep. I have hope. We may hear from him at any
moment now," he added softly, and there was a new look in his wide blue eyes as
they were bent on her.