ACHMET THE ROPEMAKER STRIKES
War! War! The chains of the conscripts clanked in the river villages; the
wailing of the women affrighted the pigeons in a thousand dovecotes on the Nile;
the dust of despair was heaped upon the heads of the old, who knew that their
young would no more return, and that the fields of dourha would go ungathered,
the water-channels go unattended, and the onion-fields be bare. War! War! War!
The strong, the broad-shouldered—Aka, Mahmoud, Raschid, Selim, they with the
bodies of Seti and the faces of Rameses, in their blue yeleks and unsandalled
feet—would go into the desert as their forefathers did for the Shepherd Kings.
But there would be no spoil for them—no slaves with swelling breasts and lips of
honey; no straight-limbed servants of their pleasure to wait on them with
caressing fingers; no rich spoils carried back from the fields of war to the mud
hut, the earth oven, and the thatched roof; no rings of soft gold and necklaces
of amber snatched from the fingers and bosoms of the captive and the dead. Those
days were no more. No vision of loot or luxury allured these. They saw only the
yellow sand, the ever-receding oasis, the brackish, undrinkable water, the
withered and fruitless date-tree, handfuls of dourha for their food by day, and
the keen, sharp night to chill their half-dead bodies in a half-waking sleep.
And then the savage struggle for life—with all the gain to the pashas and the
beys, and those who ruled over them; while their own wounds grew foul, and, in
the torturing noon-day heat of the white waste, Death reached out and dragged
them from the drooping lines to die. Fighting because they must fight—not
patriot love, nor understanding, nor sacrifice in their hearts. War! War! War!
David had been too late to stop it. It had grown to a head with revolution
and conspiracy. For months before he came conscripts had been gathered in the
Nile country from Rosetta to Assouan, and here and there, far south, tribes had
revolted. He had come to power too late to devise another course. One day, when
this war was over, he would go alone, save for a faithful few, to deal with
these tribes and peoples upon another plane than war; but here and now the only
course was that which had been planned by Kaid and those who counselled him.
Troubled by a deep danger drawing near, Kaid had drawn him into his tough
service, half-blindly catching at his help, with a strange, almost superstitious
belief that luck and good would come from the alliance; seeing in him a
protection against wholesale robbery and debt—were not the English masters of
finance, and was not this Englishman honest, and with a brain of fire and an eye
that pierced things?
David had accepted the inevitable. The war had its value. It would draw off
to the south—he would see that it was so—Achmet and Higli and Diaz and the rest,
who were ever a danger. Not to himself: he did not think of that; but to Kaid
and to Egypt. They had been out-manoeuvred, beaten, foiled, knew who had foiled
them and what they had escaped; congratulated themselves, but had no gratitude
to him, and still plotted his destruction. More than once his death had been
planned, but the dark design had come to light—now from the workers of the
bazaars, whose wires of intelligence pierced everywhere; now from some hungry
fellah whose yelek he had filled with cakes of dourha beside a bread-shop; now
from Mahommed Hassan, who was for him a thousand eyes and feet and hands, who
cooked his food, and gathered round him fellaheen or Copts or Soudanese or
Nubians whom he himself had tested and found true, and ruled them with a hand of
plenty and a rod of iron. Also, from Nahoum's spies he learned of plots and
counterplots, chiefly on Achmet's part; and these he hid from Kaid, while he
trusted Nahoum—and not without reason, as yet.
The day of Nahoum's wrath and revenge was not yet come; it was his deep
design to lay the foundation for his own dark actions strong on a rock of
apparent confidence and devotion. A long torture and a great over-whelming was
his design. He knew himself to be in the scheme of a master-workman, and
by-and-by he would blunt the chisel and bend the saw; but not yet. Meanwhile, he
hated, admired, schemed, and got a sweet taste on his tongue from aiding David
to foil Achmet—Higli and Diaz were of little account; only the injury they felt
in seeing the sluices being closed on the stream of bribery and corruption kept
them in the toils of Achmet's conspiracy. They had saved their heads, but they
had not learned their lesson yet; and Achmet, blinded by rage, not at all.
Achmet did not understand clemency. One by one his plots had failed, until the
day came when David advised Kaid to send him and his friends into the Soudan,
with the punitive expedition under loyal generals. It was David's dream that, in
the field of war, a better spirit might enter into Achmet and his friends; that
patriotism might stir in them.
The day was approaching when the army must leave. Achmet threw dice once
Evening was drawing down. Over the plaintive pink and golden glow of sunset
was slowly being drawn a pervasive silver veil of moonlight. A caravan of camels
hunched alone in the middle distance, making for the western desert. Near by,
village life manifested itself in heavily laden donkeys; in wolfish curs
stealing away with refuse into the waste; in women, upright and modest, bearing
jars of water on their heads; in evening fires, where the cover of the pot
clattered over the boiling mass within; in the voice of the Muezzin calling to
Returning from Alexandria to Cairo in the special train which Kaid had sent
for him, David watched the scene with grave and friendly interest. There was
far, to go before those mud huts of the thousand years would give place to
rational modern homes; and as he saw a solitary horseman spread his sheepskin on
the ground and kneel to say his evening prayer, as Mahomet had done in his
flight between Mecca and Medina, the distance between the Egypt of his desire
and the ancient Egypt that moved round him sharply impressed his mind, and the
magnitude of his task settled heavily on his spirit.
"But it is the beginning—the beginning," he said aloud to himself, looking
out upon the green expanses of dourha and Lucerne, and eyeing lovingly the
cotton-fields here and there, the origin of the industrial movement he
foresaw—"and some one had to begin. The rest is as it must be—"
There was a touch of Oriental philosophy in his mind—was it not Galilee and
the Nazarene, that Oriental source from which Mahomet also drew? But he added to
the "as it must be" the words, "and as God wills." He was alone in the
compartment with Lacey, whose natural garrulity had had a severe discipline in
the months that had passed since he had asked to be allowed to black David's
boots. He could now sit for an hour silent, talking to himself, carrying on
unheard conversations. Seeing David's mood, he had not spoken twice on this
journey, but had made notes in a little "Book of Experience,"—as once he had
done in Mexico. At last, however, he raised his head, and looked eagerly out of
the window as David did, and sniffed.
"The Nile again," he said, and smiled. The attraction of the Nile was upon
him, as it grows on every one who lives in Egypt. The Nile and Egypt—Egypt and
the Nile—its mystery, its greatness, its benevolence, its life-giving power,
without which Egypt is as the Sahara, it conquers the mind of every man at last.
"The Nile, yes," rejoined David, and smiled also. "We shall cross it
Again they relapsed into silence, broken only by the clang, clang of the
metal on the rails, and then presently another, more hollow sound—the engine was
upon the bridge. Lacey got up and put his head out of the window. Suddenly there
was a cry of fear and horror over his head, a warning voice shrieking:
"The bridge is open—we are lost. Effendi—master—Allah!" It was the voice of
Mahommed Hassan, who had been perched on the roof of the car.
Like lightning Lacey realised the danger, and saw the only way of escape. He
swung open the door, even as the engine touched the edge of the abyss and
shrieked its complaint under the hand of the terror-stricken driver, caught
David's shoulder, and cried: "Jump-jump into the river—quick!"
As the engine toppled, David jumped—there was no time to think, obedience was
the only way. After him sprang, far down into the grey-blue water, Lacey and
Mahommed. When they came again to the surface, the little train with its handful
of human freight had disappeared.
Two people had seen the train plunge to destruction—the solitary horseman
whom David had watched kneel upon his sheepskin, and who now from a far hill had
seen the disaster, but had not seen the three jump for their lives, and a
fisherman on the bank, who ran shouting towards a village standing back from the
As the fisherman sped shrieking and beckoning to the villagers, David, Lacey,
and Mahommed fought for their lives in the swift current, swimming at an angle
upstream towards the shore; for, as Mahommed warned them, there were rocks
below. Lacey was a good swimmer, but he was heavy, and David was a better, but
Mahommed had proved his merit in the past on many an occasion when the laws of
the river were reaching out strong hands for him. Now, as Mahommed swam, he kept
moaning to himself, cursing his father and his father's son, as though he
himself were to blame for the crime which had been committed. Here was a plot,
and he had discovered more plots than one against his master. The
bridge-opener—when he found him he would take him into the desert and flay him
alive; and find him he would. His watchful eyes were on the hut by the bridge
where this man should be. No one was visible. He cursed the man and all his
ancestry and all his posterity, sleeping and waking, until the day when he,
Mahommed, would pinch his flesh with red hot irons. But now he had other and
nearer things to occupy him, for in the fierce struggle towards the shore Lacey
found himself failing, and falling down the stream. Presently both Mahommed and
David were beside him, Lacey angrily protesting to David that he must save
"Say, think of Egypt and all the rest. You've got to save yourself—let me
splash along!" he spluttered, breathing hard, his shoulders low in the water,
his mouth almost submerged.
But David and Mahommed fought along beside him, each determined that it must
be all or none; and presently the terror-stricken fisherman who had roused the
village, still shrieking deliriously, came upon them in a flat-bottomed boat
manned by four stalwart fellaheen, and the tragedy of the bridge was over. But
not the tragedy of Achmet the Ropemaker.