The Weavers

CHAPTER XXXVII
THE FLYING SHUTTLE

Hour after hour of sleeplessness. The silver-tongued clock remorselessly tinkled the quarters, and Hylda lay and waited for them with a hopeless strained attention. In vain she tried devices to produce that monotony of thought which sometimes brings sleep. Again and again, as she felt that sleep was coming at last, the thought of the letter she had found flashed through her mind with words of fire, and it seemed as if there had been poured through every vein a subtle irritant. Just such a surging, thrilling flood she had felt in the surgeon's chair when she was a girl and an anesthetic had been given. But this wave of sensation led to no oblivion, no last soothing intoxication. Its current beat against her heart until she could have cried out from the mere physical pain, the clamping grip of her trouble. She withered and grew cold under the torture of it all—the ruthless spoliation of everything which made life worth while or the past endurable.

About an hour after she had gone to bed she heard Eglington's step. It paused at her door. She trembled with apprehension lest he should enter. It was many a day since he had done so, but also she had not heard his step pause at her door for many a day. She could not bear to face it all now; she must have time to think, to plan her course—the last course of all. For she knew that the next step must be the last step in her old life, and towards a new life, whatever that might be. A great sigh of relief broke from her as she heard his door open and shut, and silence fell on everything, that palpable silence which seems to press upon the night-watcher with merciless, smothering weight.

How terribly active her brain was! Pictures—it was all vivid pictures, that awful visualisation of sorrow which, if it continues, breaks the heart or wrests the mind from its sanity. If only she did not see! But she did see Eglington and the Woman together, saw him look into her eyes, take her hands, put his arm round her, draw her face to his! Her heart seemed as if it must burst, her lips cried out. With a great effort of the will she tried to hide from these agonies of the imagination, and again she would approach those happy confines of sleep, which are the only refuge to the lacerated heart; and then the weapon of time on the mantelpiece would clash on the shield of the past, and she was wide awake again. At last, in desperation, she got out of bed, hurried to the fireplace, caught the little sharp-tongued recorder in a nervous grasp, and stopped it.

As she was about to get into bed again, she saw a pile of letters lying on the table near her pillow. In her agitation she had not noticed them, and the devoted Heaver had not drawn her attention to them. Now, however, with a strange premonition, she quickly glanced at the envelopes. The last one of all was less aristocratic-looking than the others; the paper of the envelope was of the poorest, and it had a foreign look. She caught it up with an exclamation. The handwriting was that of her cousin Lacey.

She got into bed with a mind suddenly swept into a new atmosphere, and opened the flimsy cover. Shutting her eyes, she lay still for a moment—still and vague; she was only conscious of one thing, that a curtain had dropped on the terrible pictures she had seen, and that her mind was in a comforting quiet. Presently she roused herself, and turned the letter over in her hand. It was not long—was that because its news was bad news? The first chronicles of disaster were usually brief! She smoothed the paper out-it had been crumpled and was a little soiled-and read it swiftly. It ran:

DEAR LADY COUSIN—As the poet says, "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward," and in Egypt the sparks set the stacks on fire oftener than anywhere else, I guess. She outclasses Mexico as a "precious example" in this respect. You needn't go looking for trouble in Mexico; it's waiting for you kindly. If it doesn't find you to-day, well, manana. But here it comes running like a native to his cooking-pot at sunset in Ramadan. Well, there have been "hard trials" for the Saadat. His cotton-mills were set on fire- can't you guess who did it? And now, down in Cairo, Nahoum runs Egypt; for a messenger that got through the tribes worrying us tells us that Kaid is sick, and Nahoum the Armenian says, you shall, and you shan't, now. Which is another way of saying, that between us and the front door of our happy homes there are rattlesnakes that can sting—Nahoum's arm is long, and his traitors are crawling under the canvas of our tents!

I'm not complaining for myself. I asked for what I've got, and, dear Lady Cousin, I put up some cash for it, too, as a man should. No, I don't mind for myself, fond as I am of loafing, sort of pottering round where the streets are in the hands of a pure police; for I've seen more, done more, thought more, up here, than in all my life before; and I've felt a country heaving under the touch of one of God's men—it gives you minutes that lift you out of the dust and away from the crawlers. And I'd do it all over a thousand times for him, and for what I've got out of it. I've lived. But, to speak right out plain, I don't know how long this machine will run. There's been a plant of the worst kind. Tribes we left friendly under a year ago are out against us; cities that were faithful have gone under to rebels. Nahoum has sowed the land with the tale that the Saadat means to abolish slavery, to take away the powers of the great sheikhs, and to hand the country over to the Turk. Ebn Ezra Bey has proofs of the whole thing, and now at last the Saadat knows too late that his work has been spoiled by the only man who could spoil it. The Saadat knows it, but does he rave and tear his hair? He says nothing. He stands up like a rock before the riot of treachery and bad luck and all the terrible burden he has to carry here. If he wasn't a Quaker I'd say he had the pride of an archangel. You can bend him, but you can't break him; and it takes a lot to bend him. Men desert, but he says others will come to take their place. And so they do. It's wonderful, in spite of the holy war that's being preached, and all the lies about him sprinkled over this part of Africa, how they all fear him, and find it hard to be out on the war-path against him. We should be gorging the vultures if he wasn't the wonder he is. We need boats. Does he sit down and wring his hands? No, he organises, and builds them—out of scraps. Hasn't he enough food for a long siege? He goes himself to the tribes that have stored food in their cities, and haven't yet declared against him, and he puts a hand on their hard hearts, and takes the sulkiness out of their eyes, and a fleet of ghiassas comes down to us loaded with dourha. The defences of this place are nothing. Does he fold his hands like a man of peace that he is, and say, 'Thy will be done'? Not the Saadat. He gets two soldier- engineers, one an Italian who murdered his wife in Italy twenty years ago, and one a British officer that cheated at cards and had to go, and we've got defences that'll take some negotiating. That's the kind of man he is; smiling to cheer others when their hearts are in their boots, stern like a commander-in-chief when he's got to punish, and then he does it like steel; but I've seen him afterwards in his tent with a face that looks sixty, and he's got to travel a while yet before he's forty. None of us dares be as afraid as we could be, because a look at him would make us so ashamed we'd have to commit suicide. He hopes when no one else would ever hope. The other day I went to his tent to wait for him, and I saw his Bible open on the table. A passage was marked. It was this:

"Behold, I have taken out of thy hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again: But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee; which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over; and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over."

I'd like to see Nahoum with that cup of trembling in his hand, and I've got an idea, too, that it will be there yet. I don't know how it is, but I never can believe the worst will happen to the Saadat. Reading those verses put hope into me. That's why I'm writing to you, on the chance of this getting through by a native who is stealing down the river with a letter from the Saadat to Nahoum, and one to Kaid, and one to the Foreign Minister in London, and one to your husband. If they reach the hands they're meant for, it may be we shall pan out here yet. But there must be display of power; an army must be sent, without delay, to show the traitors that the game is up. Five thousand men from Cairo under a good general would do it. Will Nahoum send them? Does Kaid, the sick man, know? I'm not banking on Kaid. I think he's on his last legs. Unless pressure is put on him, unless some one takes him by the throat and says: If you don't relieve Claridge Pasha and the people with him, you will go to the crocodiles, Nahoum won't stir. So, I am writing to you. England can do it. The lord, your husband, can do it. England will have a nasty stain on her flag if she sees this man go down without a hand lifted to save him. He is worth another Alma to her prestige. She can't afford to see him slaughtered here, where he's fighting the fight of civilisation. You see right through this thing, I know, and I don't need to palaver any more about it. It doesn't matter about me. I've had a lot for my money, and I'm no use—or I wouldn't be, if anything happened to the Saadat. No one would drop a knife and fork at the breakfast-table when my obit was read out—well, yes, there's one, cute as she can be, but she's lost two husbands already, and you can't be hurt so bad twice in the same place. But the Saadat, back him, Hylda—I'll call you that at this distance. Make Nahoum move. Send four or five thousand men before the day comes when famine does its work and they draw the bowstring tight.

Salaam and salaam, and the post is going out, and there's nothing in the morning paper; and, as Aunt Melissa used to say: "Well, so much for so much!" One thing I forgot. I'm lucky to be writing to you at all. If the Saadat was an old-fashioned overlord, I shouldn't be here. I got into a bad corner three days ago with a dozen Arabs— I'd been doing a little work with a friendly tribe all on my own, and I almost got caught by this loose lot of fanatics. I shot three, and galloped for it. I knew the way through the mines outside, and just escaped by the skin of my teeth. Did the Saadat, as a matter of discipline, have me shot for cowardice? Cousin Hylda, my heart was in my mouth as I heard them yelling behind me— and I never enjoyed a dinner so much in my life. Would the Saadat have run from them? Say, he'd have stayed and saved his life too. Well, give my love to the girls!

Your affectionate cousin,

Tom LACEY

P.S.-There's no use writing to me. The letter service is bad. Send a few thousand men by military parcel-post, prepaid, with some red seals—majors and colonels from Aldershot will do. They'll give the step to the Gyppies. T.

Hylda closed her eyes. A fever had passed from her veins. Here lay her duty before her—the redemption of the pledge she had made. Whatever her own sorrow, there was work before her; a supreme effort must be made for another. Even now it might be too late. She must have strength for what she meant to do. She put the room in darkness, and resolutely banished thought from her mind.

The sun had been up for hours before she waked. Eglington had gone to the Foreign Office. The morning papers were full of sensational reports concerning Claridge Pasha and the Soudan. A Times leader sternly admonished the Government.



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