THE TENTS OF CUSHAN
"I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction, and the curtains
of the Land of Midian did tremble."
A Hurdy-Gurdy was standing at the corner, playing with shrill insistence a
medley of Scottish airs. Now "Loch Lomond" pleaded for pennies from the upper
"For you'll tak' the high road,
and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland before ye:
But I and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond!"
The hurdy-gurdy was strident and insistent, but for a long time no response
came. At last, however, as the strains of "Loch Lomond" ceased, a lady appeared
on the balcony of a drawing-room, and, leaning over a little forest of flowers
and plants, threw a half-crown to the sorry street-musician. She watched the
grotesque thing trundle away, then entering the house again, took a 'cello from
the corner of the room and tuned the instrument tenderly. It was Hylda.
Something of the peace of Hamley had followed her to London, but the poignant
pain of it had come also. Like Melisande, she had looked into the quiet pool of
life and had seen her own face, its story and its foreshadowings. Since then she
had been "apart." She had watched life move on rather than shared in its
movement. Things stood still for her. That apathy of soul was upon her which
follows the inward struggle that exhausts the throb and fret of inward emotions,
leaving the mind dominant, the will in abeyance.
She had become conscious that her fate and future were suspended over a
chasm, as, on the trapeze of a balloon, an adventurous aeronaut hangs uncertain
over the hungry sea, waiting for the coming wind which will either blow the
hazardous vessel to its doom or to safe refuge on the land.
She had not seen David after he left Hamley. Their last words had been spoken
at the Meeting-house, when he gave Faith to her care. That scene came back to
her now, and a flush crept slowly over her face and faded away again. She was
recalling, too, the afternoon of that day when she and David had parted in the
drawing-room of the Cloistered House, and Eglington had asked her to sing. She
thought of the hours with Eglington that followed, first at the piano and
afterwards in the laboratory, where in his long blue smock he made experiments.
Had she not been conscious of something enigmatical in his gaiety that
afternoon, in his cheerful yet cheerless words, she would have been deeply
impressed by his appreciation of her playing, and his keen reflections on the
merits of the composers; by his still keener attention to his subsequent
experiments, and his amusing comments upon them. But, somehow, that very
cheerless cheerfulness seemed to proclaim him superficial. Though she had no
knowledge of science, she instinctively doubted his earnestness even in this
work, which certainly was not pursued for effect. She had put the feeling from
her, but it kept returning. She felt that in nothing did he touch the depths.
Nothing could possess him wholly; nothing inherent could make him self-effacing.
Yet she wondered, too, if she was right, when she saw his fox-terrier
watching him, ever watching him with his big brown eyes as he buoyantly worked,
and saw him stoop to pat its head. Or was this, after all, mere animalism, mere
superficial vitality, love of health and being? She shuddered, and shut her
eyes, for it came home to her that to him she was just such a being of health,
vitality and comeliness, on a little higher plane. She put the thought from her,
but it had had its birth, and it would not down. He had immense vitality, he was
tireless, and abundant in work and industry; he went from one thing to another
with ease and swiftly changing eagerness. Was it all mere force—mere man and
mind? Was there no soul behind it? There in the laboratory she had laid her hand
on the terrier, and prayed in her heart that she might understand him for her
own good, her own happiness, and his. Above all else she wanted to love him
truly, and to be loved truly, and duty was to her a daily sacrifice, a constant
memorial. She realised to the full that there lay before her a long race
unilluminated by the sacred lamp which, lighted at the altar, should still be
burning beside the grave.
Now, as she thought of him, she kept saying to herself: "We should have
worked out his life together. Work together would have brought peace. He shuts
me out—he shuts me out."
At last she drew the bow across the instrument, once, twice, and then she
began to play, forgetful of the world. She had a contralto voice, and she sang
with a depth of feeling and a delicate form worthy of a professional; on the
piano she was effective and charming, but into the 'cello she poured her soul.
For quite an hour she played with scarce an interruption. At last, with a
sigh, she laid the instrument against her knee and gazed out of the window. As
she sat lost in her dream—a dream of the desert—a servant entered with letters.
One caught her eye. It was from Egypt—from her cousin Lacey. Her heart throbbed
violently, yet she opened the official-looking envelope with steady fingers. She
would not admit even to her self that news from the desert could move her so.
She began to read slowly, but presently, with a little cry, she hastened through
the pages. It ran:
DEAR LADY COUSIN,
I'm still not certain how I ought to style you, but I thought I'd
compromise as per above. Anyway, it's a sure thing that I haven't
bothered you much with country-cousin letters. I figure, however,
that you've put some money in Egypt, so to speak, and what happens
to this sandy-eyed foundling of the Nile you would like to know. So
I've studied the only "complete letter-writer" I could find between
the tropic of Capricorn and Khartoum, and this is the contemptible
result, as the dagos in Mexico say. This is a hot place by reason
of the sun that shines above us, and likewise it is hot because of
the niggers that swarm around us. I figure, if we get out of this
portion of the African continent inside our skins, that we will have
put up a pretty good bluff, and pulled off a ticklish proposition.
It's a sort of early Christian business. You see, David the Saadat
is great on moral suasion—he's a master of it; and he's never
failed yet—not altogether; though there have been minutes by a
stop-watch when I've thought it wouldn't stand the strain. Like the
Mississippi steamboat which was so weak that when the whistle blew
the engines stopped! When those frozen minutes have come to us,
I've tried to remember the correct religious etiquette, but I've not
had much practise since I stayed with Aunt Melissa, and lived on
skim-milk and early piety. When things were looking as bad as they
did for Dives, "Now I lay me down to sleep," and "For what we are
about to receive," was all that I could think of. But the Saadat,
he's a wonder from Wondertown. With a little stick, or maybe his
flute under his arm, he'll smile and string these heathen along,
when you'd think they weren't waiting for anybody. A spear took off
his fez yesterday. He never blinked—he's a jim-dandy at keeping
cool; and when a hundred mounted heathens made a rush down on him
the other day, spears sticking out like quills on a porcupine—2.5
on the shell-road the chargers were going—did he stir? Say, he
watched 'em as if they were playing for his benefit. And sure
enough, he was right. They parted either side of him when they were
ten feet away, and there he was quite safe, a blessing in the storm,
a little rock island in the rapids—but I couldn't remember a proper
hymn of praise to say.
There's no getting away from the fact that he's got a will or
something, a sort of force different from most of us, or perhaps any
of us. These heathen feel it, and keep their hands off him. They
say he's mad, but they've got great respect for mad people, for they
think that God has got their souls above with Him, and that what's
left behind on earth is sacred. He talks to'em, too, like a father
in Israel; tells 'em they must stop buying and selling slaves, and
that if they don't he will have to punish them! And I sit holding
my sides, for we're only two white men and forty "friendlies"
altogether, and two revolvers among us; and I've got the two! And
they listen to his blarneying, and say, "Aiwa, Saadat! aiwa,
Saadat!" as if he had an army of fifty thousand behind him.
Sometimes I've sort of hinted that his canoe was carrying a lot of
sail; but my! he believes in it all as if there wasn't a spear or a
battle-axe or a rifle within a hundred miles of him. We've been at
this for two months now, and a lot of ground we covered till we got
here. I've ridden the gentle camel at the rate of sixty and seventy
miles a day—sort of sweeping through the land, making treaties,
giving presents, freeing slaves, appointing governors and sheikhs-
el-beled, doing it as if we owned the continent. He mesmerised 'em,
simply mesmerised 'em-till we got here. I don't know what happened
then. Now we're distinctly rating low, the laugh is on us somehow.
But he—mind it? He goes about talking to the sheikhs as though we
were all eating off the same corn-cob, and it seems to stupefy them;
they don't grasp it. He goes on arranging for a post here and a
station there, and it never occurs to him that it ain't really
actual. He doesn't tell me, and I don't ask him, for I came along
to wipe his stirrups, so to speak. I put my money on him, and I'm
not going to worry him. He's so dead certain in what he does, and
what he is, that I don't lose any sleep guessing about him. It will
be funny if we do win out on this proposition—funnier than
Now, there's one curious thing about it all which ought to be
whispered, for I'm only guessing, and I'm not a good guesser; I
guessed too much in Mexico about three railways and two silvermines.
The first two days after we came here, everything was all right.
Then there came an Egyptian, Halim Bey, with a handful of niggers
from Cairo, and letters for Claridge Pasha.
From that minute there was trouble. I figure it out this way: Halim
was sent by Nahoum Pasha to bring letters that said one thing to the
Saadat, and, when quite convenient, to say other things to Mustafa,
the boss-sheikh of this settlement. Halim Bey has gone again, but
he has left his tale behind him. I'd stake all I lost, and more
than I ever expect to get out of Mexico on that, and maybe I'll get
a hatful out of Mexico yet. I had some good mining propositions
down there. The Saadat believes in Nahoum, and has made Nahoum what
he is; and on the surface Nahoum pretends to help him; but he is
running underground all the time. I'd like to help give him a villa
at Fazougli. When the Saadat was in England there was a bad time in
Egypt. I was in Cairo; I know. It was the same bad old game—the
corvee, the kourbash, conscription, a war manufactured to fill the
pockets of a few, while the poor starved and died. It didn't come
off, because the Saadat wasn't gone long enough, and he stopped it
when he came back. But Nahoumhe laid the blame on others, and the
Saadat took his word for it, and, instead of a war, there came this
expedition of his own.
Ten days later.—Things have happened. First, there's been awful
sickness among the natives, and the Saadat has had his chance. His
medicine-chest was loaded, he had a special camel for it—and he has
fired it off. Night and day he has worked, never resting, never
sleeping, curing most, burying a few. He looks like a ghost now,
but it's no use saying or doing anything. He says: "Sink your own
will; let it be subject to a higher, and you need take no thought."
It's eating away his life and strength, but it has given us our
return tickets, I guess. They hang about him as if he was Moses in
the wilderness smiting the rock. It's his luck. Just when I get
scared to death, and run down and want a tonic, and it looks as if
there'd be no need to put out next week's washing, then his luck
steps in, and we get another run. But it takes a heap out of a man,
getting scared. Whenever I look on a lot of green trees and cattle
and horses, and the sun, to say nothing of women and children, and
listen to music, or feel a horse eating up the ground under me, 2.10
in the sand, I hate to think of leaving it, and I try to prevent it.
Besides, I don't like the proposition of going, I don't know where.
That's why I get seared. But he says that it's no more than turning
down the light and turning it up again. They used to call me a
dreamer in Mexico, because I kept seeing things that no one else had
thought of, and laid out railways and tapped mines for the future;
but I was nothing to him. I'm a high-and-dry hedge-clipper
alongside. I'm betting on him all the time; but no one seems to be
working to make his dreams come true, except himself. I don't
count; I'm no good, no real good. I'm only fit to run the
commissariat, and see that he gets enough to eat, and has a safe
camel, and so on.
Why doesn't some one else help him? He's working for humanity.
Give him half a chance, and Haroun-al-Raschid won't be in it. Kaid
trusts him, depends on him, stands by him, but doesn't seem to know
how to help him when help would do most good. The Saadat does it
all himself; and if it wasn't that the poor devil of a fellah sees
what he's doing, and cottons to him, and the dervishes and Arabs
feel he's right, he might as well leave. But it's just there he
counts. There's something about him, something that's Quaker in
him, primitive, silent, and perceptive—if that's a real word—which
makes them feel that he's honest, and isn't after anything for
himself. Arabs don't talk much; they make each other understand
without many words. They think with all their might on one thing at
a time, and they think things into happening—and so does he. He's
a thousand years old, which is about as old-fashioned as I mean, and
as wise, and as plain to read as though you'd write the letters of
words as big as a date-palm. That's where he makes the running with
them, and they can read their title clear to mansions in the skies!
You should hear him talk with Ebn Ezra Bey—perhaps you don't know
of Ezra? He was a friend of his Uncle Benn, and brought the news of
his massacre to England, and came back with the Saadat. Well, three
days ago Ebn Ezra came, and there came with him, too, Halim Bey, the
Egyptian, who had brought the letters to us from Cairo. Elm Ezra
found him down the river deserted by his niggers, and sick with this
new sort of fever, which the Saadat is knocking out of time. And
there he lies, the Saadat caring for him as though he was his
brother. But that's his way; though, now I come to think of it, the
Saadat doesn't suspect what I suspect, that Halim Bey brought word
from Nahoum to our sheikhs here to keep us here, or lose us, or do
away with us. Old Ebn Ezra doesn't say much himself, doesn't say
anything about that; but he's guessing the same as me. And the
Saadat looks as though he was ready for his grave, but keeps going,
going, going. He never seems to sleep. What keeps him alive I
don't know. Sometimes I feel clean knocked out myself with the
little I do, but he's a travelling hospital all by his lonesome.
Later.—I had to stop writing, for things have been going on—
several. I can see that Ebn Ezra has told the Saadat things that
make him want to get away to Cairo as soon as possible. That it's
Nahoum Pasha and others—oh, plenty of others, of course—I'm
certain; but what the particular game is I don't know. Perhaps you
know over in England, for you're nearer Cairo than we are by a few
miles, and you've got the telegraph. Perhaps there's a revolution,
perhaps there's been a massacre of Europeans, perhaps Turkey is
kicking up a dust, perhaps Europe is interfering—all of it, all at
Later still.—I've found out it's a little of all, and the Saadat is
ready to go. I guess he can go now pretty soon, for the worst of
the fever is over. But something has happened that's upset him—
knocked him stony for a minute. Halim Bey was killed last night—by
order of the sheikhs, I'm told; but the sheikhs won't give it away.
When the Saadat went to them, his eyes blazing, his face pale as a
sheet, and as good as swore at them, and treated them as though he'd
string them up the next minute, they only put their hands on their
heads, and said they were "the fallen leaves for his foot to
scatter," the "snow on the hill for his breath to melt"; but they
wouldn't give him any satisfaction. So he came back and shut
himself up in his tent, and he sits there like a ghost all
shrivelled up for want of sleep, and his eyes like a lime-kiln
burning; for now he knows this at least, that Halim Bey had brought
some word from Kaid's Palace that set these Arabs against him, and
nearly stopped my correspondence. You see, there's a widow in
Cairo—she's a sister of the American consul, and I've promised to
take her with a party camping in the Fayoum—cute as she can be, and
plays the guitar. But it's all right now, except that the Saadat is
running too close and fine. If he has any real friends in England
among the Government people, or among those who can make the
Government people sit up, and think what's coming to Egypt and to
him, they'll help him now when he needs it. He'll need help real
bad when he gets back to Cairo—if we get that far. It isn't yet a
sure thing, for we've got to fight in the next day or two—I forgot
to tell you that sooner. There's a bull-Arab on the rampage with
five thousand men, and he's got a claim out on our sheikh, Mustafa,
for ivory he has here, and there's going to be a scrimmage. We've
got to make for a better position to-morrow, and meet Abdullah, the
bull-Arab, further down the river. That's one reason why Mustafa
and all our friends here are so sweet on us now. They look on the
Saadat as a kind of mascot, and they think that he can wipe out the
enemy with his flute, which they believe is a witch-stick to work
He's just sent for me to come, and I must stop soon. Say, he hasn't
had sleep for a fortnight. It's too much; he can't stand it. I
tried it, and couldn't. It wore me down. He's killing himself for
others. I can't manage him; but I guess you could. I apologise,
dear Lady Cousin. I'm only a hayseed, and a failure, but I guess
you'll understand that I haven't thought only of myself as I wrote
this letter. The higher you go in life the more you'll understand;
that's your nature. I'll get this letter off by a nigger to-morrow,
with those the Saadat is sending through to Cairo by some
friendlies. It's only a chance; but everything's chance here now.
Anyhow, it's safer than leaving it till the scrimmage. If you get
this, won't you try and make the British Government stand by the
Saadat? Your husband, the lord, could pull it off, if he tried; and
if you ask him, I guess he'd try. I must be off now. David Pasha
will be waiting. Well, give my love to the girls!
Your affectionate cousin,
P. S.—I've got a first-class camel for our scrimmage day after
to-morrow. Mustafa sent it to me this morning. I had a fight on
mules once, down at Oaxaca, but that was child's play. This will be
"slaughter in the pan," if the Saadat doesn't stop it somehow.
Perhaps he will. If I wasn't so scared I'd wish he couldn't stop
it, for it will be a way-up Barbarian scrap, the tongs and the
kettle, a bully panjandrum. It gets mighty dull in the desert when
you're not moving. But "it makes to think," as the French say.
Since I came out here I've had several real centre thoughts, sort of
main principles-key-thoughts, that's it. What I want now is a sort
of safety-ring to string 'em on and keep 'em safe; for I haven't a
good memory, and I get mighty rattled sometimes. Thoughts like
these are like the secret of a combination lock; they let you into
the place where the gold and securities and title-deeds of life are.
Trouble is, I haven't got a safety-ring, and I'm certain to lose
them. I haven't got what you'd call an intellectual memory. Things
come in flashes to me out of experiences, and pull me up short, and
I say, "Yes, that's it—that's it; I understand." I see why it's
so, and what it means, and where it leads, and how far it spreads.
It's five thousand years old. Adam thought it after Cain killed
Abel, or Abel thought it just before he died, or Eve learned it from
Lilith, or it struck Abraham when he went to sacrifice Isaac.
Sometimes things hit me deep like that here in the desert. Then I
feel I can see just over on the horizon the tents of Moab in the
wilderness; that yesterday and to-day are the same; that I've
crossed the prairies of the everlasting years, and am playing about
with Ishmael in the wild hills, or fighting with Ahab. Then the
world and time seem pretty small potatoes.
You see how it is. I never was trained to think, and I get stunned
by thoughts that strike me as being dug right out of the centre.
Sometimes I'd like to write them down; but I can't write; I can only
talk as I'm talking to you. If you weren't so high up, and so much
cleverer than I am, and such a thinker, I'd like you to be my
safety-ring, if you would. I could tell the key-thoughts to you
when they came to me, before I forgot them with all their bearings;
and by-and-by they'd do me a lot of good when I got away from this
influence, and back into the machinery of the Western world again.
If you could come out here, if you could feel what I feel here—and
you would feel a thousand times as much—I don't know what you
It's pretty wonderful. The nights with the stars so white and
glittering, and so near that you'd think you could reach up and hand
them down; the dark, deep, blue beyond; such a width of life all
round you, a sort of never-ending space, that everything you ever
saw or did seems little, and God so great in a kind of hovering
sense like a pair of wings; and all the secrets of time coming out
of it all, and sort of touching your face like a velvet wind. I
expect you'll think me sentimental, a first-class squash out of the
pumpkin-garden; but it's in the desert, and it gets into you and
saturates you, till you feel that this is a kind of middle space
between the world of cities, and factories, and railways, and
tenement-houses, and the quiet world to come—a place where they
think out things for the benefit of future generations, and convey
them through incarnations, or through the desert. Say, your
ladyship, I'm a chatterer, I'm a two-cent philosopher, I'm a baby;
but you are too much like your grandmother, who was the daughter of
a Quaker like David Pasha, to laugh at me.
I've got a suit of fine chain-armour which I bought of an Arab down
by Darfur. I'm wondering if it would be too cowardly to wear it in
the scrap that's coming. I don't know, though, but what I'll wear
it, I get so scared. But it will be a frightful hot thing under my
clothes, and it's hot enough without that, so I'm not sure. It
depends how much my teeth chatter when I see "the dawn of battle."
I've got one more thing before I stop. I'm going to send you a
piece of poetry which the Saadat wrote, and tore in two, and threw
away. He was working off his imagination, I guess, as you have to
do out here. I collected it and copied it, and put in the
punctuation—he didn't bother about that. Perhaps he can't
punctuate. I don't understand quite what the poetry means, but
maybe you will. Anyway, you'll see that it's a real desert piece.
Here it is:
"THE DESERT ROAD
Not many men can do things like that, and the other things, too,
that he does. Perhaps he will win through, by himself, but is it
fair to have him run the risk? If he ever did you a good turn, as
you once said to me he did, won't you help him now? You are on the
inside of political things, and if you make up your mind to help,
nothing will stop you—that was your grandmother's way. He ought to
get his backing pretty soon, or it won't be any good.... I
hear him at his flute. I expect he's tired waiting for me. Well,
give my love to the girls!
"In the sands I lived in a hut of palm,
There was never a garden to see;
There was never a path through the desert calm,
Nor a way through its storms for me.
"Tenant was I of a lone domain;
The far pale caravans wound
To the rim of the sky, and vanished again;
My call in the waste was drowned.
"The vultures came and hovered and fled;
And once there stole to my door
A white gazelle, but its eyes were dread
With the hurt of the wounds it bore.
"It passed in the dusk with a foot of fear,
And the white cold mists rolled in;
"And my heart was the heart of a stricken deer,
Of a soul in the snare of sin.
"My days they withered like rootless things,
And the sands rolled on, rolled wide;
Like a pelican I, with broken wings,
Like a drifting barque on the tide.
"But at last, in the light of a rose-red day,
In the windless glow of the morn,
From over the hills and from far away,
You came—ah, the joy of the morn!
"And wherever your footsteps fell, there crept
A path—it was fair and wide:
A desert road which no sands have swept,
Where never a hope has died.
"I followed you forth, and your beauty held
My heart like an ancient song;
By that desert road to the blossoming plains
I came-and the way was long!
"So I set my course by the light of your eyes;
I care not what fate may send;
On the road I tread shine the love-starred skies—
The road with never an end."
As Hylda read, she passed through phases of feeling begotten of new
understanding which shook her composure. She had seen David and all that David
was doing; Egypt, and all that was threatening the land through the eyes of
another who told the whole truth—except about his own cowardice, which was
untrue. She felt the issues at stake. While the mention of David's personal
danger left her sick for a moment, she saw the wider peril also to the work he
had set out to do.
What was the thing without the man? It could not exist—it had no meaning.
Where was he now? What had been the end of the battle? He had saved others, had
he saved himself? The most charmed life must be pierced by the shaft of doom
sooner or later; but he was little more than a youth yet, he had only just
"And the Saadat looks as though he was ready for his grave—but keeps going,
going, going!" The words kept ringing in her ears. Again: "And he sits there
like a ghost all shrivelled up for want of sleep, and his eyes like a lime-kiln
burning.... He hasn't had sleep for a fortnight.... He's killing himself for
Her own eyes were shining with a dry, hot light, her lips were quivering, but
her hands upon the letter were steady and firm. What could she do?
She went to a table, picked up the papers, and scanned them hurriedly. Not a
word about Egypt. She thought for a moment, then left the drawing-room. Passing
up a flight of stairs to her husband's study, she knocked and entered. It was
empty; but Eglington was in the house, for a red despatch-box lay open on his
table. Instinctively she glanced at the papers exposed in the box, and at the
letters beside it. The document on the top of the pile in the box related to
Cyprus—the name caught her eye. Another document was half-exposed beneath it.
Her hand went to her heart. She saw the words, "Soudan" and "Claridge Pasha."
She reached for it, then drew back her hand, and her eyes closed as though to
shut it out from her sight. Why should she not see it? They were her husband's
papers, husband and wife were one. Husband and wife one! She shrank back. Were
they one? An overmastering desire was on her. It seemed terrible to wait, when
here before her was news of David, of life or death. Suddenly she put out her
hand and drew the Cyprus paper over the Egyptian document, so that she might not
As she did so the door opened on her, and Eglington entered. He had seen the
swift motion of her hand, and again a look peculiar to him crossed his face,
enigmatical, cynical, not pleasant to see.
She turned on him slowly, and he was aware of her inward distress to some
degree, though her face was ruled to quietness.
He nodded at her and smiled. She shrank, for she saw in his nod and his smile
that suggestion of knowing all about everything and everybody, and thinking the
worst, which had chilled her so often. Even in their short married life it had
chilled those confidences which she would gladly have poured out before him, if
he had been a man with an open soul. Had there been joined to his intellect and
temperament a heart capable of true convictions and abiding love, what a man he
might have been! But his intellect was superficial, and his temperament was
dangerous, because there were not the experiences of a soul of truth to give the
deeper hold upon the meaning of life. She shrank now, as, with a little laugh
and glancing suggestively at the despatch-box, he said:
"And what do you think of it all?"
She felt as though something was crushing her heart within its grasp, and her
eyes took on a new look of pain. "I did not read the papers," she answered
"I saw them in your fingers. What creatures women are—so dishonourable in
little things," he said ironically.
She laid a hand on his. "I did not read them, Harry," she urged.
He smiled and patted her arm. "There, there, it doesn't matter," he laughed.
He watched her narrowly. "It matters greatly," she answered gently, though his
words had cut her like a knife. "I did not read the papers. I only saw the word
'Cyprus' on the first paper, and I pushed it over the paper which had the word
'Egypt' on it 'Egypt' and 'Claridge,' lest I should read it. I did not wish to
read it. I am not dishonourable, Harry."
He had hurt her more than he had ever done; and only the great matter at
stake had prevented the lesser part of her from bursting forth in indignation,
from saying things which she did not wish to say. She had given him
devotion—such devotion, such self-effacement in his career as few women ever
gave. Her wealth—that was so little in comparison with the richness of her
nature—had been his; and yet his vast egotism took it all as his right, and she
was repaid in a kind of tyranny, the more galling and cruel because it was
wielded by a man of intellect and culture, and ancient name and tradition. If he
had been warned that he was losing his wife's love, he would have scouted the
idea, his self-assurance was so strong, his vanity complete. If, however, he had
been told that another man was thinking of his wife, he would have believed it,
as he believed now that David had done; and he cherished that belief, and let
resentment grow. He was the Earl of Eglington, and no matter what reputation
David had reached, he was still a member of a Quaker trader's family, with an
origin slightly touched with scandal. Another resentment, however, was steadily
rising in him. It galled him that Hylda should take so powerful an interest in
David's work in Egypt; and he knew now that she had always done so. It did not
ease his vexed spirit to know that thousands of others of his fellow-countrymen
did the same. They might do so, but she was his wife, and his own work was the
sun round which her mind and interest should revolve.
"Why should you be so keen about Egypt and Claridge Pasha?" he said to her
Her face hardened a little. Had he the right to torture her so? To suspect
her? She could read it in his eyes. Her conscience was clear. She was no man's
slave. She would not be any man's slave. She was master of her own soul. What
right had he to catechise her—as though she were a servant or a criminal? But
she checked the answer on her tongue, because she was hurt deeper than words
could express, and she said, composedly:
"I have here a letter from my cousin Lacey, who is with Claridge Pasha. It
has news of him, of events in the Soudan. He had fever, there was to be a fight,
and I wished to know if you had any later news. I thought that document there
might contain news, but I did not read it. I realised that it was not yours,
that it belonged to the Government, that I had no right. Perhaps you will tell
me if you have news. Will you?" She leaned against the table wearily, holding
"Let me read your letter first," he said wilfully.
A mist seemed to come before her eyes; but she was schooled to self-command,
and he did not see he had given her a shock. Her first impulse was to hand the
letter over at once; then there came the remembrance of all it contained, all it
suggested. Would he see all it suggested? She recalled the words Lacey had used
regarding a service which David had once done her. If Eglington asked, what
could she say? It was not her secret alone, it was another's. Would she have the
right, even if she wished it, to tell the truth, or part of the truth? Or, would
she be entitled to relate some immaterial incident which would evade the real
truth? What good could it do to tell the dark story? What could it serve?
Eglington would horribly misunderstand it—that she knew. There were the verses
also. They were more suggestive than anything else, though, indeed, they might
have referred to another woman, or were merely impersonal; but she felt that was
not so. And there was Eglington's innate unbelief in man and woman! Her first
impulse held, however. She would act honestly. She would face whatever there was
to face. She would not shelter herself; she would not give him the right in the
future to say she had not dealt fairly by him, had evaded any inquest of her
life or mind which he might make.
She gave him the letter, her heart standing still, but she was filled with a
regnant determination to defend herself, to defend David against any attack, or
from any consequences.
All her life and hopes seemed hanging in the balance, as he began to read the
letter. With fear she saw his face cloud over, heard an impatient exclamation
pass his lips. She closed her eyes to gather strength for the conflict which was
upon her. He spoke, and she vaguely wondered what passage in the letter had
fixed his attention. His voice seemed very far away. She scarcely understood.
But presently it pierced the clouds of numbness between them, and she realised
what he was saying:
"Vulgar fellow—I can't congratulate you upon your American cousin. So, the
Saadat is great on moral suasion, master of it—never failed yet—not
altogether—and Aunt Melissa and skim-milk and early piety!' And 'the Saadat is a
wonder from Wondertown'—like a side-show to a circus, a marvel on the flying
trapeze! Perhaps you can give me the sense of the letter, if there is any sense
in it. I can't read his writing, and it seems interminable. Would you mind?"
A sigh of relief broke from her. A weight slipped away from her heart and
brain. It was as though one in armour awaited the impact of a heavy, cruel,
overwhelming foe, who suddenly disappeared, and the armour fell from the
shoulders, and breath came easily once again.
"Would you mind?" he repeated drily, as he folded up the letter slowly.
He handed it back to her, the note of sarcasm in his voice pricking her like
the point of a dagger. She felt angered with herself that he could rouse her
temper by such small mean irony. She had a sense of bitter disappointment in
him—or was it a deep hurt?—that she had not made him love her, truly love her.
If he had only meant the love that he swore before they had married! Why had he
deceived her? It had all been in his hands, her fate and future; but almost
before the bridal flowers had faded, she had come to know two bitter things:
that he had married with a sordid mind; that he was incapable of the love which
transmutes the half-comprehending, half-developed affection of the maid into the
absorbing, understanding, beautiful passion of the woman. She had married not
knowing what love and passion were; uncomprehending, and innocent because
uncomprehending; with a fine affection, but capable of loving wholly. One thing
had purified her motives and her life—the desire to share with Eglington his
public duty and private hopes, to be his confidante, his friend, his coadjutor,
proud of him, eager for him, determined to help him. But he had blocked the path
to all inner companionship. He did no more than let her share the obvious and
outer responsibilities of his life. From the vital things, if there were vital
things, she was shut out. What would she not give for one day of simple
tenderness and quiet affection, a true day with a true love!
She was now perfectly composed. She told him the substance of the letter, of
David's plight, of the fever, of the intended fight, of Nahoum Pasha, of the
peril to David's work. He continued to interrogate her, while she could have
shrieked out the question, "What is in yonder document? What do you know? Have
you news of his safety?" Would he never stop his questioning? It was trying her
strength and patience beyond endurance. At last he drew the document slowly from
the despatch-box, and glanced up and down it musingly. "I fancy he won the
battle," he said slowly, "for they have news of him much farther down the river.
But from this letter I take it he is not yet within the zone of safety—so Nahoum
Pasha says." He flicked the document upwards with his thumb.
"What is our Government doing to help him?" she asked, checking her
His heart had gradually hardened towards Egypt. Power had emphasised a
certain smallness in him. Personal considerations informed the policy of the
moment. He was not going to be dragged at the chariot-wheels of the Quaker. To
be passive, when David in Egypt had asked for active interest; to delay, when
urgency was important to Claridge Pasha; to speak coldly on Egyptian affairs to
his chief, the weak Foreign Secretary, this was the policy he had begun.
So he answered now: "It is the duty of the Egyptian Government to help him—of
Prince Kaid, of Nahoum Pasha, who is acting for him in his absence, who governs
finance, and therefore the army. Egypt does not belong to England."
"Nahoum Pasha is his enemy. He will do nothing to help, unless you force
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I know Nahoum Pasha."
"When did you know Nahoum?"
"In Egypt, years ago."
"Your acquaintance is more varied than I thought," he said sarcastically.
"Oh, do not speak to me like that!" she returned, in a low, indignant voice.
"Do not patronise me; do not be sarcastic."
"Do not be so sensitive," he answered unemotionally.
"You surely do not mean that you—that the Government will not help him? He is
doing the work of Europe, of civilisation, of Christianity there. He is
sacrificing himself for the world. Do you not see it? Oh, but you do! You would
realise his work if you knew Egypt as I have seen it."
"Expediency must govern the policy of nations," he answered critically.
"But, if through your expediency he is killed like a rat in a trap, and his
work goes to pieces—all undone! Is there no right in the matter?"
"In affairs of state other circumstances than absolute 'right' enter. Here
and there the individual is sacrificed who otherwise would be saved—if it were
"Oh, Eglington! He is of your own county, of your own village, is your
neighbour, a man of whom all England should be proud. You can intervene if you
will be just, and say you will. I know that intervention has been discussed in
"You say he is of my county. So are many people, and yet they are not county
people. A neighbour he was, but more in a Scriptural than social sense." He was
hurting her purposely.
She made a protesting motion of her hand. "No, no, no, do not be so small.
This is a great matter. Do a great thing now; help it to be done for your own
honour, for England's honour—for a good man's sake, for your country's sake."
There came a knock at the door. An instant afterwards a secretary entered. "A
message from the Prime Minister, sir." He handed over a paper.
"Will you excuse me?" he asked Hylda suavely, in his eyes the enigmatical
look that had chilled her so often before. She felt that her appeal had been
useless. She prepared to leave the room. He took her hand, kissed it gallantly,
and showed her out. It was his way—too civil to be real.
Blindly she made her way to her room. Inside, she suddenly swayed and sank
fainting to the ground, as Kate Heaver ran forward to her. Kate saw the letter
in the clinched hand. Loosening it, she read two or three sentences with a gasp.
They contained Tom Lacey's appeal for David. She lifted Hylda's head to her
shoulder with endearing words, and chafed the cold hands, murmuring to herself