THE STRUGGLE IN THE DESERT
"And His mercy is on them that fear Him throughout all generations."
On the clear, still evening air the words rang out over the desert, sonorous,
imposing, peaceful. As the notes of the verse died away the answer came from
other voices in deep, appealing antiphonal:
"He hath showed strength with His arm, He hath scattered the proud
in the imagination of their hearts."
Beyond the limits of the monastery there was not a sign of life; neither
beast nor bird, nor blade of grass, nor any green thing; only the perfect
immemorial blue, and in the east a misty moon, striving in vain to offer light
which the earth as yet rejected for the brooding radiance of the descending sun.
But at the great door of the monastery there grew a stately palm, and near by an
ancient acacia-tree; and beyond the stone chapel there was a garden of
struggling shrubs and green things, with one rose-tree which scattered its pink
leaves from year to year upon the loam, since no man gathered bud or blossom.
The triumphant call of the Magnificat, however beautiful, seemed strangely
out of place in this lonely island in a sea of sand. It was the song of a
bannered army, marching over the battle-field with conquering voices, and swords
as yet unsheathed and red, carrying the spoils of conquest behind the laurelled
captain of the host. The crumbling and ancient walls were surrounded by a moat
which a stranger's foot crossed hardly from moon to moon, which the desert
wayfarer sought rarely, since it was out of the track of caravans, and because
food was scant in the refectory of this Coptic brotherhood. It was scarce five
hours' ride from the Palace of the Prince Pasha: but it might have been a
thousand miles away, so profoundly separate was it from the world of vital
things and deeds of men.
As the chant rang out, confident, majestic, and serene, carried by voices of
power and shrill sweetness, which only the desert can produce, it might have
seemed to any listener that this monastery was all that remained of some ancient
kingdom of brimming, active cities, now lying beneath the obliterating sand,
itself the monument and memorial of a breath of mercy of the Destroyer, the last
refuge of a few surviving captains of a departed greatness. Hidden by the grey,
massive walls, built as it were to resist the onset of a ravaging foe, the
swelling voices might well have been those of some ancient order of valiant
knights, whose banners hung above them, the 'riclame' of their deeds. But they
were voices and voices only; for they who sang were as unkempt and forceless as
the lonely wall which shut them in from the insistent soul of the desert.
Desolation? The desert was not desolate. Its face was bare and burning, it
slaked no man's thirst, gave no man food, save where scattered oases were like
the breasts of a vast mother eluding the aching lips of her parched children;
but the soul of the desert was living and inspiring, beating with vitality. It
was life that burned like flame. If the water-skin was dry and the date-bag
empty it smothered and destroyed; but it was life; and to those who ventured
into its embrace, obeying the conditions of the sharp adventure, it gave what
neither sea, nor green plain, nor high mountain, nor verdant valley could give—a
consuming sense of power, which found its way to the deepest recesses of being.
Out upon the vast sea of sand, where the descending sun was spreading a note of
incandescent colour, there floated the grateful words:
"He remembering His mercy hath holpen His servant Israel; as He
promised to our forefathers, Abraham, and his seed for ever."
Then the antiphonal ceased; and together the voices of all within the place
swelled out in the Gloria and the Amen, and seemed to pass away in ever-receding
vibrations upon the desert, till it was lost in the comforting sunset.
As the last note died away, a voice from beneath the palm-tree near the door,
deeper than any that had come from within, said reverently: "Ameen-Ameen!"
He who spoke was a man well over sixty years, with a grey beard, lofty benign
forehead, and the eyes of a scholar and a dreamer. As he uttered the words of
spiritual assent, alike to the Muslim and the Christian religion, he rose to his
feet, showing the figure of a man of action, alert, well-knit, authoritative.
Presently he turned towards the East and stretched a robe upon the ground, and
with stately beauty of gesture he spread out his hands, standing for a moment in
the attitude of aspiration. Then, kneeling, he touched his turbaned head to the
ground three times, and as the sun drew down behind the sharp, bright line of
sand that marked the horizon, he prayed devoutly and long. It was Ebn Ezra Bey.
Muslim though he was, he had visited this monastery many times, to study the
ancient Christian books which lay in disordered heaps in an ill-kept chamber,
books which predated the Hegira, and were as near to the life of the Early
Church as the Scriptures themselves—or were so reputed. Student and pious Muslim
as he was, renowned at El Azhar and at every Muslim university in the Eastern
world, he swore by the name of Christ as by that of Abraham, Isaac, and all the
prophets, though to him Mahomet was the last expression of Heaven's will to
mankind. At first received at the monastery with unconcealed aversion, and not
without danger to himself, he had at last won to him the fanatical monks, who,
in spirit, kept this ancient foundation as rigid to their faith as though it
were in mediaeval times. And though their discipline was lax, and their daily
duties orderless, this was Oriental rather than degenerate. Here Ebn Ezra had
stayed for weeks at a time in the past, not without some religious scandal, long
His prayers ended, he rose up slowly, once more spread out his hands in
ascription, and was about to enter the monastery, when, glancing towards the
west, he saw a horseman approaching. An instinct told him who it was before he
could clearly distinguish the figure, and his face lighted with a gentle and
expectant smile. Then his look changed.
"He is in trouble," he murmured. "As it was with his uncle in Damascus, so
will it be with him. Malaish, we are in the will of God!"
The hand that David laid in Ebn Ezra's was hot and nervous, the eyes that
drank in the friendship of the face which had seen two Claridges emptying out
their lives in the East were burning and famished by long fasting of the spirit,
forced abstinence from the pleasures of success and fruition-haunting, desiring
eyes, where flamed a spirit which consumed the body and the indomitable mind.
The lips, however, had their old trick of smiling, though the smile which
greeted Ebn Ezra Bey had a melancholy which touched the desert-worn, life-spent
old Arab as he had not been touched since a smile, just like this, flashed up at
him from the weather-stained, dying face of quaint Benn Claridge in a street of
Damascus. The natural duplicity of the Oriental had been abashed and inactive
before the simple and astounding honesty of these two Quaker folk.
He saw crisis written on every feature of the face before him. Yet the scanty
meal they ate with the monks in the ancient room was enlivened by the eager yet
quiet questioning of David, to whom the monks responded with more spirit than
had been often seen in this arid retreat. The single torch which spluttered from
the wall as they drank their coffee lighted up faces as strange, withdrawn, and
unconsciously secretive as ever gathered to greet a guest. Dim tales had reached
them of this Christian reformer and administrator, scraps of legend from stray
camel-drivers, a letter from the Patriarch commanding them to pray blessings on
his labours—who could tell what advantage might not come to the Coptic Church
through him, a Christian! On the dull, torpid faces, light seemed struggling to
live for a moment, as David talked. It was as though something in their meagre
lives, which belonged to undeveloped feelings, was fighting for existence—a
light struggling to break through murky veils of inexperience.
Later, in the still night, however—still, though air vibrated everywhere, as
though the desert breathed an ether which was to fill men's veins with that
which quieted the fret and fever of life's disillusions and forgeries and
failures—David's speech with Ebn Ezra Bey was of a different sort. If, as it
seems ever in the desert, an invisible host of beings, once mortal, now
immortal, but suspensive and understanding, listened to the tale he unfolded,
some glow of pity must have possessed them; for it was an Iliad of herculean
struggle against absolute disaster, ending with the bitter news of his
grandfather's death. It was the story of AEdipus overcome by events too strong
for soul to bear. In return, as the stars wheeled on, and the moon stole to the
zenith, majestic and slow, Ebn Ezra offered to his troubled friend only the
philosophy of the predestinarian, mingled with the calm of the stoic. But
something antagonistic to his own dejection, to the Muslim's fatalism, emerged
from David's own altruism, to nerve him to hope and effort still. His
unconquerable optimism rose determinedly to the surface, even as he summed up
and related the forces working against him.
"They have all come at once," he said; "all the activities opposing me, just
as though they had all been started long ago at different points, with a fixed
course to run, and to meet and give me a fall in the hour when I could least
resist. You call it Fate. I call it what it proves itself to be. But here it is
a hub of danger and trouble, and the spokes of disaster are flying to it from
all over the compass, to make the wheel that will grind me; and all the old
troop of Palace intriguers and despoilers are waiting to heat the tire and
fasten it on the machine of torture. Kaid has involved himself in loans which
press, in foolish experiments in industry without due care; and now from
ill-health and bad temper comes a reaction towards the old sinister rule, when
the Prince shuts his eyes and his agents ruin and destroy. Three nations who
have intrigued against my work see their chance, and are at Kaid's elbow. The
fate of the Soudan is in the balance. It is all as the shake of a feather. I can
save it if I go; but, just as I am ready, my mills burn down, my treasury dries
up, Kaid turns his back on me, and the toil of years is swept away in a night.
Thee sees it is terrible, friend?"
Ebn Ezra looked at him seriously and sadly for a moment, and then said: "Is
it given one man to do all? If many men had done these things, then there had
been one blow for each. Now all falls on thee, Saadat. Is it the will of God
that one man should fling the lance, fire the cannon, dig the trenches, gather
food for the army, drive the horses on to battle, and bury the dead? Canst thou
David's eyes brightened to the challenge. "There was the work to do, and
there were not the many to do it. My hand was ready; the call came; I answered.
I plunged into the river of work alone."
"Thou didst not know the strength of the currents, the eddies and the
whirlpools, the hidden rocks—and the shore is far off, Saadat."
"It is not so far but that, if I could get breath to gather strength, I
should reach the land in time. Money—ah, but enough for this expedition! That
over, order, quiet yonder, my own chosen men as governors, and I could"—he
pointed towards the southern horizon—"I could plant my foot in Cairo, and from
the centre control the great machinery—with Kaid's help; and God's help. A sixth
of a million, and Kaid's hand behind me, and the boat would lunge free of the
sand-banks and churn on, and churn on.... Friend," he added, with the winning
insistence that few found it possible to resist, "if all be well, and we go
thither, wilt thou become the governor-general yonder? With thee to rule justly
where there is most need of justice, the end would be sure—if it be the will of
Ebn Ezra Bey sat for a moment looking into the worn, eager face, indistinct
in the moonlight, then answered slowly: "I am seventy, and the years smite hard
as they pass, and there or here, it little matters when I go, as I must go; and
whether it be to bend the lance, or bear the flag before thee, or rule a
Mudirieh, what does it matter! I will go with thee," he added hastily; "but it
is better thou shouldst not go. Within the last three days I have news from the
South. All that thou hast done there is in danger now. The word for revolt has
passed from tribe to tribe. A tongue hath spoken, and a hand hath signalled"—his
voice lowered—"and I think I know the tongue and the hand!" He paused; then, as
David did not speak, continued: "Thou who art wise in most things, dost decline
to seek for thy foe in him who eateth from the same dish with thee. Only when it
is too late thou wilt defend thyself and all who keep faith with thee."
David's face clouded. "Nahoum, thou dost mean Nahoum? But thou dost not
understand, and there is no proof."
"As a camel knows the coming storm while yet the sky is clear, by that which
the eye does not see, so do I feel Nahoum. The evils thou hast suffered, Saadat,
are from his hand, if from any hand in Egypt—"
Suddenly he leaned over and touched David's arm. "Saadat, it is of no avail.
There is none in Egypt that desires good; thy task is too great. All men will
deceive thee; if not now, yet in time. If Kaid favours thee once more, and if it
is made possible for thee to go to the Soudan, yet I pray thee to stay here.
Better be smitten here, where thou canst get help from thine own country, if
need be, than yonder, where they but wait to spoil thy work and kill thee. Thou
art young; wilt thou throw thy life away? Art thou not needed here as there? For
me it is nothing, whether it be now or in a few benumbing years; but for thee—is
there no one whom thou lovest so well that thou wouldst not shelter thy life to
spare that life sorrow? Is there none that thou lovest so, and that will love
thee to mortal sorrow, if thou goest without care to thy end too soon?"
As a warm wind suddenly sweeps across the cool air of a summer evening for an
instant, suffocating and unnerving, so Ebn Ezra's last words swept across
David's spirit. His breath came quicker, his eyes half closed. "Is there none
that thou lovest so, and that will love thee to mortal sorrow, if—"
As a hand secretly and swiftly slips the lever that opens the sluice-gates of
a dike, while the watchman turns away for a moment to look at the fields which
the waters enrich and the homes of poor folk whom the gates defend, so, in a
moment, when off his guard, worn with watching and fending, as it were, Ebn Ezra
had sprung the lever, and a flood of feeling swept over David, drowned him in
its impulse and pent-up force.
"Is there none that thou lovest so—" Of what use had been all his struggle
and his pain since that last day in Hamley—his dark fighting days in the desert
with Lacey and Mahommed, and his handful of faithful followers, hemmed in by
dangers, the sands swarming with Arabs who feathered now to his safety, now to
his doom, and his heart had hungered for what he had denied it with a will that
would not be conquered? Wasted by toil and fever and the tension of danger and
the care of others dependent on him, he had also fought a foe which was ever at
his elbow, ever whispered its comfort and seduction in his ear, the insidious
and peace-giving, exalting opiate that had tided him over some black places, and
then had sought for mastery of him when he was back again in the world of normal
business and duty, where it appealed not as a medicine, but as a perilous
luxury. And fighting this foe, which had a voice so soothing, and words like the
sound of murmuring waters, and a cool and comforting hand that sought to lead
him into gardens of stillness and passive being, where he could no more hear the
clangour and vexing noises of a world that angered and agonised, there had also
been the lure of another passion of the heart, which was too perilously dear to
contemplate. Eyes that were beautiful, and their beauty was not for him; a
spirit that was bright and glowing, but the brightness and the glow might not
renew his days. It was hard to fight alone. Alone he was, for only to one may
the doors within doors be opened-only to one so dear that all else is
everlastingly distant may the true tale of the life beneath life be told. And it
was not for him—nothing of this; not even the thought of it; for to think of it
was to desire it, and to desire it was to reach out towards it; and to reach out
towards it was the end of all. There had been moments of abandonment to the
alluring dream, such as when he wrote the verses which Lacey had sent to Hylda
from the desert; but they were few. Oft-repeated, they would have filled him
with an agitated melancholy impossible to be borne in the life which must be
So it had been. The deeper into life and its labours and experiences he had
gone, the greater had been his temptations, born of two passions, one of the
body and its craving, the other of the heart and its desires: and he had fought
on—towards the morning.
"Is there none that thou lovest so, and that will love thee to mortal sorrow,
if thou goest without care to thy end too soon?" The desert, the dark monastery,
the acacia tree, the ancient palm, the ruinous garden, disappeared. He only saw
a face which smiled at him, as it had done 'by the brazier in the garden at
Cairo, that night when she and Nahoum and himself and Mizraim had met in the
room of his house by the Ezbekieh gardens, and she had gone out to her old life
in England, and he had taken up the burden of the East—that long six years ago.
His head dropped in his hands, and all that was beneath the Quaker life he had
led so many years, packed under the crust of form and habit, and regulated
thought, and controlled emotion, broke forth now, and had its way with him.
He turned away staggering and self-reproachful from the first question, only
to face the other—"And that will love thee to mortal sorrow, if thou goest
without care to thy end too soon." It was a thought he had never let himself
dwell on for an instant in all the days since they had last met. He had driven
it back to its covert, even before he could recognise its face. It was disloyal
to her, an offence against all that she was, an affront to his manhood to let
the thought have place in his mind even for one swift moment. She was Lord
Eglington's wife—there could be no sharing of soul and mind and body and the
exquisite devotion of a life too dear for thought. Nothing that she was to
Eglington could be divided with another, not for an hour, not by one act of
impulse; or else she must be less, she that might have been, if there had been
An exclamation broke from him, and, as one crying out in one's sleep wakes
himself, so the sharp cry of his misery woke him from the trance of memory that
had been upon him, and he slowly became conscious of Ebn Ezra standing before
him. Their eyes met, and Ebn Ezra spoke:
"The will of Allah be thy will, Saadat. If it be to go to the Soudan, I am
thine; if it be to stay, I am thy servant and thy brother. But whether it be
life or death, thou must sleep, for the young are like water without sleep. Thou
canst not live in strength nor die with fortitude without it. For the old,
malaish, old age is between a sleeping and a waking! Come, Saadat! Forget not,
thou must ride again to Cairo at dawn."
David got slowly to his feet and turned towards the monastery. The figure of
a monk stood in the doorway with a torch to light him to his room.
He turned to Ebn Ezra again. "Does thee think that I have aught of his
courage—my Uncle Benn? Thou knowest me—shall I face it out as did he?"
"Saadat," the old man answered, pointing, "yonder acacia, that was he, quick
to grow and short to live; but thou art as this date-palm, which giveth food to
the hungry, and liveth through generations. Peace be upon thee," he added at the
doorway, as the torch flickered towards the room where David was to lie.
"And upon thee, peace!" answered David gently, and followed the smoky light
to an inner chamber. The room in which David found himself was lofty and large,
but was furnished with only a rough wooden bed, a rug, and a brazier. Left
alone, he sat down on the edge of the bed, and, for a few moments, his mind
strayed almost vaguely from one object to another. From two windows far up in
the wall the moonlight streamed in, making bars of light aslant the darkness.
Not a sound broke the stillness. Yet, to his sensitive nerves, the air seemed
tingling with sensation, stirring with unseen activities. Here the spirit of the
desert seemed more insistent in its piercing vitality, because it was shut in by
four stone walls.
Mechanically he took off his coat, and was about to fold and lay it on the
rug beside the bed, when something hard in one of the pockets knocked against
his knee. Searching, he found and drew forth a small bottle which, for many a
month past, had lain in the drawer of a table where he had placed it on his
return from the Soudan. It was an evil spirit which sent this tiny phial to his
hand at a moment when he had paid out of the full treasury of his strength and
will its accumulated deposit, leaving him with a balance on which no heavy draft
could be made. His pulse quickened, then his body stiffened with the effort at
Who placed this evil elixir in his pocket? What any enemy of his work had
done was nothing to what might be achieved by the secret foe, who had placed
this anodyne within his reach at this the most critical moment of his life. He
remembered the last time he had used it—in the desert: two days of forgetfulness
to the world, when it all moved by him, the swarming Arabs, the train of camels,
the loads of ivory, the slimy crocodile on the sandbanks, the vultures hovering
above unburied carcasses, the kourbash descending on shining black shoulders,
corrugating bare brown bodies into cloven skin and lacerated flesh, a fight
between champions of two tribes who clasped and smote and struggled and rained
blows, and, both mortally wounded, still writhed in last conflict upon the
ground—and Mahommed Hassan ever at the tent door or by his side, towering,
watchful, sullen to all faces without, smiling to his own, with dog-like look
waiting for any motion of his hand or any word.... Ah, Mahommed Hassan, it was
he! Mahommed had put this phial in his pocket. His bitter secret was not hidden
from Mahommed. And this was an act of supreme devotion—to put at his hand the
lulling, inspiring draught. Did this fellah servant know what it meant—the sin
of it, the temptation, the terrible joy, the blessed quiet; and then, the
agonising remorse, the withering self-hatred and torturing penitence? No,
Mahommed only knew that when the Saadat was gone beyond his strength, when the
sleepless nights and feverish days came in the past, in their great troubles,
when men were dying and only the Saadat could save, that this cordial lifted him
out of misery and storm into calm. Yet Mahommed must have divined that it was a
thing against which his soul revolted, or he would have given it to him openly.
In the heart and mind of the giant murderer, however, must have been the thought
that now when trouble was upon his master again, trouble which might end all,
this supreme destroyer of pain and dark memory and present misery, would give
him the comfort he needed—and that he would take it.
If he had not seen it, this sudden craving would not have seized him for this
eager beguiling, this soothing benevolence. Yet here it was in his hand; and
even as it lay in his cold fingers—how cold they were, and his head how
burning!—the desire for it surged up in him. And, as though the thing itself had
the magical power to summon up his troubles, that it might offer the apathy and
stimulus in one—even as it lured him, his dangers, his anxieties, the black
uncertainties massed, multiplied and aggressive, rose before him, buffeted him,
caught at his throat, dragged down his shoulders, clutched at his heart.
Now, with a cry of agony, he threw the phial on the ground, and, sinking on
the bed, buried his face in his hands and moaned, and fought for freedom from
the cords tightening round him. It was for him to realise now how deep are the
depths to which the human soul can sink, even while labouring to climb. Once
more the sense of awful futility was on him: of wasted toil and blenched force,
veins of energy drained of their blood, hope smitten in the way, and every dear
dream shattered. Was it, then, all ended? Was his work indeed fallen, and all
his love undone? Was his own redemption made impossible? He had offered up his
life to this land to atone for a life taken when she—when she first looked up
with eyes of gratitude, eyes that haunted him. Was it, then, unacceptable? Was
it so that he must turn his back upon this long, heart-breaking but beloved
work, this panacea for his soul, without which he could not pay the price of
Go back to England—to Hamley where all had changed, where the old man he
loved no longer ruled in the Red Mansion, where all that had been could be no
more? Go to some other land, and there begin again another such a work? Were
there not vast fields of human effort, effort such as his, where he could ease
the sorrow of living by the joy of a divine altruism? Go back to Hamley? Ah, no,
a million times, no! That life was dead, it was a cycle of years behind him.
There could be no return. He was in a maelstrom of agony, his veins were afire,
his lips were parched. He sprang from his bed, knelt down, and felt for the
little phial he had flung aside. After a moment his hand caught it, clutched it.
But, even at the crest of the wave of temptation, words that he had heard one
night in Hamley, that last night of all, flashed into his mind—the words of old
Luke Claridge's prayer, "And if a viper fasten on his hand, O Lord—"
Suddenly he paused. That scene in the old Meetinghouse swam before his eyes,
got into his brain. He remembered the words of his own prayer, and how he had
then retreated upon the Power that gave him power, for a draught of the one true
tincture which braced the heart to throw itself upon the spears of trial. Now
the trial had come, and that which was in him as deep as being, the habit of
youth, the mother-fibre and predisposition, responded to the draught he had
drunk then. As a body freed from the quivering, unrelenting grasp of an electric
battery subsides into a cool quiet, so, through his veins seemed to pass an
ether which stilled the tumult, the dark desire to drink the potion in his hand,
and escape into that irresponsible, artificial world, where he had before
loosened his hold on activity.
The phial slipped from his fingers to the floor. He sank upon the side of the
bed, and, placing his hands on his knees, he whispered a few broken words that
none on earth was meant to hear. Then he passed into a strange and moveless
quiet of mind and body. Many a time in days gone by—far-off days—had he sat as
he was doing now, feeling his mind pass into a soft, comforting quiet, absorbed
in a sensation of existence, as it were between waking and sleeping, where doors
opened to new experience and understanding, where the mind seemed to loose
itself from the bonds of human necessity and find a freer air.
Now, as he sat as still as the stone in the walls around him, he was
conscious of a vision forming itself before his eyes. At first it was
indefinite, vague, without clear form, but at last it became a room dimly
outlined, delicately veiled, as it were. Then it seemed, not that the mist
cleared, but that his eyes became stronger, and saw through the delicate haze;
and now the room became wholly, concretely visible.
It was the room in which he had said good-bye to Hylda. As he gazed like one
entranced, he saw a figure rise from a couch, pale, agitated, and beautiful, and
come forward, as it were, towards him. But suddenly the mist closed in again
upon the scene, a depth of darkness passed his eyes, and he heard a voice say:
"Speak—speak to me!"
He heard her voice as distinctly as though she were beside him—as, indeed,
she had stood before him but an instant ago.
Getting slowly to his feet, into the night he sent an answer to the call.
Would she hear? She had said long ago that she would speak to him so. Perhaps
she had tried before. But now at last he had heard and answered. Had she heard?
Time might tell—if ever they met again. But how good, and quiet, and serene was
He composed himself to sleep, but, as he lay waiting for that coverlet of
forgetfulness to be drawn over him, he heard the sound of bells soft and clear.
Just such bells he had heard upon the common at Hamley. Was it, then, the
outcome of his vision—a sweet hallucination? He leaned upon his elbow and