[Frontispiece: Trembling from head to foot the girl stood before the tent which no foot but his had trod.]
[Transcriber's note: the frontispiece page was too badly damaged to produce a usable image.]
THE HAWK OF EGYPT
Author of "Desert Love", "Leonie of the Jungle."
G. W. GAGE
THE MACAULAY COMPANY
By The Macaulay Company
Printed in the United States of America
"IN LOVE AND GRATITUDE TO THE DEAREST OF WOMEN 'MIVES' MY MOTHER"
THE HAWK OF EGYPT
Author's Note: All names in this book are fictitious.
[Transcriber's note: A number of words in this book are Arabic, using characters that require Unicode to render properly. Refer to the transcriber's note at the end of this book for more information.]
THE HAWK OF EGYPT
"For in the days we know not of Did fate begin Weaving the web of days that wove Your doom."
". . . allahu akbar—la ilaha—illa 'llah!"
Across the golden glory of the sky floated the insistent call of the muezzin just as Damaris, followed closely by Wellington, her bulldog, turned out of the narrow street into the Khan el-Khalili. Shrill and sweet, from far and near it came, calling the faithful to prayer, impelling merchants to leave their wares, buyers their purchases, gossips their chatter, and to turn in the direction of Mecca and offer their praise to Allah, who is God.
As the entire male population of the native quarter knelt, the girl drew back beneath an awning of many colours which shaded silken goods from the rays of the sun, whilst curious eyes peeped down upon her from behind the shelter of the masharabeyeh, the harem lattice of finely-carved wood. Yards of silk of every hue lay tumbled inside and outside the dukkan or shop in the silk-market; silken scarves, plain and embroidered, hung from strings; silk shawls were spread upon Persian carpets; a veritable riot of colour against the yellow-white plaster of the shop walls, above which flamed the sky, a cloak of blue, embroidered in rose and gold and amethyst.
The native women behind the shelter of the wood lattice or the yashmak or the all-enveloping barku, talked softly together as they watched the beautiful girl who serenely and quite unveiled walked amongst men with an animal of surpassing hideousness at her heels.
She stood with her head uncovered—it is permissible at sunset—and with her face lifted, as she listened to the call to prayer, so that a sun-ray silting in through the silks blazed down upon the positively red curls which rioted all over her head and were of a tone sharper than henna, yet many times removed from the shades of red known as carrots or ginger.
Her skin was matte, her mouth crimson, and curved, the teeth perfect, and her heavily-lashed eyes of so deep a purple as to appear black. She was slim and supple, unencumbered by anything more confining than a suspender-belt, a fortnight off her eighteenth birthday and entirely lovable in looks, ways and temperament in the eyes of all mankind, which includes women.
The prayer over, and the men again about the business of the hour, she enquired her way of the vendor of silks who, having quickly replaced his shoes, had as hastily returned to his shop, his heart rejoicing at the prospect of perhaps one or two hours' more bargaining—for where is to be found the Oriental who knows the value of time?
Loving animals, Damaris wanted to find that corner near the silk-market where can be purchased anything from a camel to a hunting cheetah, a greyhound to a falcon.
It is not wise for European women to saunter about the old Arabian quarter unaccompanied, especially if they have been blessed by the gods in the ways of looks. Damaris Hethencourt most certainly ought not to have been there, but you must perforce follow the path Fate has marked out for you, whether it leads through country lanes, or Piccadilly, or the Arab quarter of Cairo.
The vendor of silks salaamed deeply before her beauty and the graciousness of her manner, for she smiled when she talked and spoke the prettiest broken Arabic in the world.
So, putting the huge two-year-old bulldog, which one day was to claim the proud title of champion, on the leash, she wended her way through the narrow streets in which two camels may scarce squeeze past each other and where the masharabeyeh of the harems almost meet overhead.
Water-carriers, camels, sweetmeat-sellers; lowly women in black gown and yashmak; coffee-sellers; donkeys which continually bray and dogs which unceasingly bark; cracking of whips; shrill cries of "Dahrik ya sitt or musyu," ("Thy back, lady, or sir"); shouts of U'a u'a; clashing of bronze ware; snarls of anger; laughter; song; dust and colour, all the ingredients which go to the entrancement of the bazaar.
And the odours?
Scent and perfume, aroma and odour; cedars of Lebanon and harem musk; tang of the sandy sea, fume of the street; the trail of smoke and onions; the milk of goats; the reek of humanity; the breath of kine. Make a bundle of that, and tie it with the silken lashes of women's eyes; secure it with the steel of a needle-pointed knife—and leave it at that.
There is no describing the smell of the East.
The sale of really good animals—the other kind you can buy by lifting a finger in the streets—takes place twice a month in a small square near the Suk-en Nahlesin; but as the way to it leads through many dirty and twisting lanes, few Europeans ever get so far.
The stock is tethered to iron rings in the ground, the vendors squat near by, but at a safe distance from teeth, claws or hoofs; the purchasers stand still farther off; there sometimes occurs a free fight, when the length of the chain that tethers the jaguar next the hunting cheetah is too long by a foot or so; and the noise is always deafening.
Abdul, falconer of Shammar—which district is to be found on the holy road to Mecca—being of that locality specialises in the shahin, which is a species of hawk; visits the market by appointment only, and, being independent and a specialist, does not always keep that appointment.
Damaris turned suddenly into the market and hurriedly looked round for shelter, which she found in an arched doorway leading to the usual court of the native house.
Zulannah the courtesan peered down upon her from between the silken curtains of her balcony, and clapped her hands twice so that her woman-slaves ran quickly to watch and whisper about this white woman who stood unattended in the open market. They giggled in the insufferable Eastern way, and pointed across the Square, where the whole of the male population surged about two men. But Zulannah, the recognised beauty of the North of Egypt, shrugged her dimpled shoulders as she stuffed over-large portions of sweetmeats between her dazzling teeth and stretched herself upon a divan to watch the scene over the way.
Abdul, falconer of Shammar, bearded and middle-aged, stood with a shahin of Jaraza upon his fist and a hooded eyess—which means a young hawk or nestling taken from the nest—of the same species upon a padded and spiked perch beside him, whilst hooded or with seeled eyes, upon perch or bough, were other yellow or dark-eyed birds of prey; short-winged hawks, a bearded vulture, a hobby, a passage Saker.
But it was not upon Abdul or his stock that the girl's eyes rested, nor, peradventure, the eyes behind the silken curtains.
The central figure of the glowing picture was that of Hugh Carden Ali, the eldest and best-beloved son of Hahmed the Sheikh el-Umbar and Jill, his beautiful, English and one and only wife; the son conceived in a surpassing love and born upon the desert sands.
"An Englishman," said Damaris softly as she withdrew yet further into the sheltering doorway and unleashed the dog; and still further back, when the man suddenly turned and looked across the Square as though in search of someone. "No! a native," she added, as she noticed the crimson tarbusch. "And yet . . ."
She was by no means the first to wonder as to the nationality of the man.
In riding-kit, with boots from Peter Yapp, he looked, except for the headcovering, exactly like an Englishman.
Certainly the shape of the face was slightly more oval than is common to the sons of a northern race, but nothing really out of the ordinary, just as the eyes were an ordinary kind of brown, with a disconcerting way of looking suddenly into your face, sweeping it in an all-comprehensive lightning glance and looking indifferently away.
The nose was good and quite straight; the hair thick, brown and controllable; the mouth covering the perfect teeth was deceptive, or maybe it was the strength of the jaw which belied the gentleness, just as the slimness of the six-foot of body, trained to a hair from babyhood, gave no clue to the steel muscles underlying a skin as white as and a good deal whiter than that of some Europeans.
He moved with the quickness and quietness of those accustomed to the far horizon as a background; he was slow in speech; and dead-slow in anger until aroused by opposition.
For the physically weak-born, he had the gentle sympathy of the very strong; for the physically undeveloped and the morally weak he had no use whatever—none. In the West, his reserve with men had been labelled taciturnity or swollen-headeduess, which did not fit the case at all; whilst, in spite of his perfect manner towards them, his indifference to woman en masse or in the individual was supreme and sincere.
He was the direct descendant of the founder of Nineveh where horses were concerned, and his stables in the Oasis of Khargegh would have been one of the sights of Egypt, had he permitted sightseers.
Educated at Harrow, where he had excelled in sport and captained the Eleven at Lord's for two succeeding years; respected by the upper Forms and worshipped by the lower, he had developed the English side of his dual nationality until masters and schoolfellows had come to look upon him as one of themselves.
From Harrow he had gone to Brazenose; then had quite suddenly thrown up the 'Varsity and returned to Egypt.
Not at all, for was not his indifference to woman supreme and sincere?
Just the inevitable ending of a very commonplace, sordid little story which had taught the youth one of life's bitterest lessons.
One of a multitude of guests at Hurdley Castle, he had met a woman, beautiful but predatory, whose looks were taking on an autumnal tint, and whose banking account had shrivelled under the frost of extravagance.
His utter indifference to her wiles and her beauty had culminated in a degrading scene of anger on her part, when, forgetting her breeding, her birth and her nationality, she had first of all twitted him and then openly laughed at his mixed parentage.
He had stood without uttering a word, white to the lips during her tirade.
"Do you think that any white woman would marry you—a half-caste?" had cried the woman, whose bills were coming in in shoals.
"Yes, many," he had quietly answered as he bent to pick up her torn, handkerchief. "Am I not a rich man?"
He had returned to Egypt upon a visit to the Flat Oasis where dwelt his parents, who, though noting the indescribable hurt in the eyes of their firstborn, yet asked no question, for in Egypt a youth is his own master and ofttimes married at the age of fourteen; how much more, therefore, is he a man at over twenty years?
He had visited his own house in the Oasis of Khargegh, with the purpose of putting his stables in order and his falconers through a stiff catechism, and had finally set out to see something of the world.
Not in a desire to cover his hurt, for he was as stoical as any high-bred Arab; and, Mohammedan from belief as well as early training, did not kick against what he looked upon as the commands of Allah.
As for women—well! The sweet, docile woman of his father's race interested him not at all, so that he refused to listen to any hint anent the desirability of his taking a wife and establishing the succession of the House 'an Mahabbha, which is the eldest branch of the House el-Umbar; and racial distinction barred him from the virile, lovely women of his mother's race.
He had his horses, his hawks, his hunting cheetahs, his dogs; one great treasure which he prized and one little conceit.
The treasure had been found in the ruins of the Temple Deir-el-Bahari. An ornament of gold set with precious stones. Its shape was that of the Hawk, which had stood as the symbol of the North in the glorious days of Ancient Egypt. The wings were of emeralds tipped with rubies; gold were the claws and gold the Symbol of Life they held; the body and tail were a mass of precious stones; and the eye of some jet-black stone, unknown to the present century.
As an ornament it was of great value; as an antiquity found in the Shrine of Anubis, the God of Death, its value could not even be guessed at; and how it had come into the possession of Hugh Garden Ali will never be known, though of a truth, unlimited wealth works wonders.
And upon his horses' saddle-cloths, his falcons' hoods, his hounds' coats, and the fine linen and satins of his Eastern raiment he had the emblem worked in thread or silk or jewels, or painted in soft colours.
It was just a pretty conceit, but in conjunction with one-half of his lineage and his love for his birds, it had earned him the title of "The Hawk of Egypt."
And such was the man as he stood in the market-place, having followed the path which Fate had marked out for him through the twisting lanes of the bazaar.
"Dog, ounce, bear and bull, Wolf, lion, horse."
Damaris should not have been strolling by herself in the native quarter.
If you are drab or flat of chest or soul or face, you can saunter your fill in any bazaar without adventure befalling you; if, however, nature should have endowed you with the colouring of a desert sunset, if, in short, you can add a splash of colour to anything so colourful as a native bazaar, then 'twere wise to do your sauntering under the wing of a vigilant chaperon, so that the curiosity and interest resultant on your splash may reach you obliquely and "as through a glass, darkly."
But there was no one to worry the girl at this hour before sunset, so that little by little and quite unconsciously she moved forward until she stood outside the doorway.
She stood, outlined against a background of blazing colours, which served in no way to dim her beauty. Through the yellow-white arch of the doorway showed a stretch of turquoise-blue sky across which, upon a string, swung golden onions and scarlet peppercorns, whilst underneath ruminated a fine, superbly indifferent dromedary.
For a moment Hugh Carden Ali, jogged by Fate, looked straight across at the beautiful picture, staying his talk with Abdul, who, with the courtesy of the East, did not turn his head as he stroked the breast and head of the shahin on his fist.
But Damaris, with envy rampant in her heart, had no eyes for mere man; she wanted to walk across and get near the coal-black stallion from Unayza, a district famous for its breed of large, heavy-built horses. He stood impatiently, with an occasional plunk of a hoof on the sandy stones, or nuzzled his master's sleeve, or pulled at it with his teeth, whilst two shaggy dogs of Billi lay stretched out awaiting the signal to be up and going, perhaps, in a sprint across the desert after the hosseny or red rascal of a fox which had been trapped and caged for the sole purpose of hunting.
Ride out with the caged hosseny on a thoroughbred camel or thoroughbred horse, take with you a couple of greyhounds and a dog or so from Billi, get right off the tourist track and let the red rascal out, and see if you don't have some fun before breakfast.
Only get off the tourist track, else you will have all the bazaar camels and ponies loping along behind you.
The only wild beast this afternoon for sale was a jaguar, black as ink, smooth as satin, short, heavy, with half-closed green eyes fixed steadfastly upon a plump white pigeon foolishly strutting just out of reach of the steel-pointed claws.
"Take her upon thy fist, O Master," said Abdul of Shammar, as he lengthened the jesses, the short, narrow straps of leather or woven silk or cotton with which to hold the hawk. "See, she is well reclaimed, being tame and gentle and altogether amiable. When thrown, she is as a bullet from a rifle, binding her quarry in high air even as a man holds his woman to his heart upon the roof-top under the stars. She is full summed"—and he ran his slender fingers through the new feathers, full and soft after moulting; "she is keen as the winter wind—behold the worn and blunted nails; she will not give up, my master, yet will she come to the lure as quickly, as joyfully as a maid to her lover."
Hugh Carden Ali, the greatest authority after Abdul on the shahin, took the bird upon his fist, looked at the sunken, piercing eyes which were partially seeled; ran his hand over the narrow body, short tail and black back, and a finger over the large beak and deep mouth; held up the ugly face to the light, examined the flight-feathers and, moving his hand quickly up and down, caused the bird to flutter its wings—and so give him a chance of measuring the distance of the wings from the body. Finding her altogether lovely, he nodded and handed her back to the delighted falconer of Shammar, just as with a decisive pat the jaguar landed, its huge paw upon the strutting pigeon, which had forgotten to keep its distance.
For a moment the attention of the spectators, who were mostly squatting on their heels, was diverted from the master and the falconer. They laughed, they moved, whilst some in the back row stood up to see the fun, leaving for one second an open space through which Damaris could see the fluttering white bird.
"Ah!" she cried, heartbroken at the sight; then, "Fetch!" she commanded the dog, pointing across the square.
Now, the dog, who had dispensed with his spiked collar on account of the heat, had no more idea than the man in the moon what he had to fetch for his beloved mistress; but, restless from prolonged inactivity and the smell of strange beasts, he hurled himself in the direction pointed; and his speed, once he got going, was as surprising as that of the elephant or rhinoceros and other clumsy-looking animals, and in very truth, his appearance was just as terrifying.
He crashed head-foremost into the back row of spectators, which, as one man, yelled and fled; tore along the path made clear for him, and sensing an enemy in the growling jaguar, was at its throat like a thrown spear; missing it by an inch as the black beast flung itself back to the full length of the steel chain which fastened it to an iron ring in the ground.
Damaris in her turn rushed, across the square, passing the astounded spectators, who salaamed as she ran. And as she ran she shouted:
"Let the animal loose," she cried. "Give it a chance; let it loose."
But Hugh Carden Ali, not in the least understanding the sudden onslaught, but with every sporting instinct uppermost, had already leant down in the seething, growling mass of fur and hate, and loosened the chain; whilst, with screams of fear and delight, the crowd raced for the adjacent houses, from the upper windows of which they could hang in safety to watch the fight.
Quite so! But have you ever heard of bull-fighting or pigeon-shooting in civilised, humane Europe?
There followed a frightful scene, during which Abdul, having picked up the pigeon, hastily flung his birds far behind the growling, spitting, raging couple, whilst the stallion, rearing in terror, nearly jerked his master, who had the bridle slipped over his arm, off his feet.
The two dogs of Billi and the two greyhounds leapt and barked and snapped at the belligerents until Wellington, taking an off-chance, suddenly turned and bit one of them clean through the shoulder; whereupon it yelped and howled and fled, whilst shouts of "Ma sha-Allah" and much clapping came from the upper windows.
Damaris ran straight towards the man, who, slipping the bridle, put both arms round her to draw her to safety; then, suddenly realising the beauty, the youth and the pure whiteness of her, as suddenly let her go.
"Shall I separate them?" he asked simply.
"No! Not even if you could. Once my dog's blood is up, nothing but death will satisfy him."
She stood quite still, as white as a sheet, with both hands on his arm, whilst the great dog hurled himself at the spitting brute, only to meet the teeth and claws which drew blood at every attempt, until the ground was crimson where they fought.
And then, with tears streaming down her cheeks, Damaris looked up into the man's face; then buried her face on his shoulder.
And the seed of love which is in the heart of every human burst through, the clogging mould of custom and convention and, taking root, put forth shoots and sprang in one moment into the great tree of love of which the fruits, being those of purity, honour and sacrifice, are golden.
Yet he did not touch her, having learned his lesson; instead, he raised his right hand above his head.
"Allah!" he said, in praise of that which had come unto him, "Allah, there is no God but Thee," just as, with a sudden swish, a flock of startled pigeons flashing like jewels in the setting sun new low down across his head, bringing an end to the battle.
For one half-second the jaguar's green eyes shifted, and the dog was at its throat. There was a mighty, convulsive effort of the hind-legs which ripped the bulldog's sides, a click, a shiver, and the black brute fell dead, as the dog, a mass of blood, foam and pride, hurled himself onto the skirt of his beloved mistress, whilst the enraptured spectators, yelling with excitement, rushed out into the square with shouts of "Ma sha-Allah," which means, "Well done, well done!"
"Keep quite still," said Hugh Carden Ali, gently, as Damaris made an effort to turn; then, speaking quickly to the beaming, salaaming spectators, who had had the time of their lives gambling on the chances of either animal, ordered them to remove the dead beast and to strew the place with sand. And "Irja Sooltan," he called to the stallion, which, terrified at the sounds and sight and smell of battle, had bolted up a side street, where he stood fretting and fidgeting himself into a fine sweat, until he heard the clear call which could always bring him back to the man he loved. He stood for one second, then flung up his heels to the devastation of a stall of earthenware, and raced back to the square at a most unseemly pace, causing the spectators once more to fly in all directions with cries of "U'a u'a," which means, "Look out, look out!"
He pushed his soft nose with determination against the woman who stood so close to his master, so that she looked up, and then smiled and stretched out her arms.
"You beauty!" she cried. "Oh, you beauty!"
Damaris, thinking of the hack, the only thing with the shape of a horse she had been able to get so far, and upon the back of which she loathed to be seen, made a grimace.
"I go out on horseback," she said. "I have not ridden since I left home."
The man's reply, whatever it might have been, was interrupted by Abdul, who, all smiles, stood before them, with the white pigeon in the left hand and the shahin upon his right fist.
The native had no intention of causing the white woman pain; in fact, wishing to find favour in the eyes of the nobles, he only wanted to give them a chance of witnessing a little of, to him, the finest sport in the world.
"Look, lady!" he cried.
He tossed the pigeon high into the air, allowed her a little distance, then threw the hawk.
"No! Oh, no! don't!" cried Damaris, as the hawk rose, "stooped" and missed the pigeon by a hair's-breadth as it "put in", which means that it flew straight into a small niche of a minaret for cover.
"Ah!" cried Damaris, and "Bi-sma-llah!" ejaculated Abdul, as he threw the lure of a dead plover and called his hawk with the luring Eastern call. "Coo-coo," he called; "coo-coo," to which the hawk responded as a well-trained shahin should.
Hugh Carden Ali stood with his hand on the stallion's mane, looking up at the sky, in which shone a great star.
"The hawk of Egypt failed," he said to himself. "Flown at a white bird, it failed. The House of Allah, who is God, gave sanctuary to the little white bird. Praise be to Allah who is God."
He looked down at the girl, who was kneeling, consoling the dog, who, reft 'tween pride and pain, showed a lamentable countenance. Suddenly she looked up and rose, and stood silently.
"Come," he said simply, while he longed to pick her up and ride with her to his home in the Oasis. "I will take you to your hotel."
"My car is waiting for me in the Sikket el-Gedideh," she replied.
* * * * *
Later, a vision of loveliness, she walked down the dining-room behind the Duchess of Longacres, whilst continuous lamentations were wafted through the spring-doors from the spot where sat a dog with sticking-plaster across his nose and middle girt with a cummerbund of pink boracic lint.
Beside the girl's place lay a huge bunch of crimson roses tied with golden tassels; there was no card, name nor message.
She asked no question, neither did her godmother.
To what purpose should they? The one knew; the other firmly believed in allowing the young to work out the salvation of their own souls; which did not, however, mean that she would not keep a sharp look-out in the future over the troubled sea of Life.
"I knew something would happen," thought the wise old lady, as she passed a biscuit up to the parrot on her shoulder.
"Kathir Khairak," it said delightedly.
It merely means "thank you," but had taken weeks of teaching and repeating to master.
"Lor! but women's rum cattle to deal with, the first man found that to his cost; And I reckon it's just through a woman, that the last man on earth'll be lost."
G. R. SIMS.
Damaris was the only daughter of Squire Hethencourt. Her mother was an Italian from the Udino, where the hair of the women is genuine Titian-red and the eyes are blue; which perhaps accounted for her colouring and some part of her temperament.
Her type of beauty was certainly remarkable—given, it must be confessed, to a certain amount of fluctuation—and she danced divinely, which gift must not be counted as a parlour-trick; she was slow in her movements and quiet in her manner until she talked of horses or anybody she loved; then her great eyes would flash and her laugh ring out, also she would gesticulate as her mother had been wont to do, until the climate, maybe, of a northern country had served to repress the spontaneity of her Latin mannerisms.
She was simple and unsophisticated and would have made a splendid little chum, if only one out of every three men who met her had not been consumed with a desire to annex her for life by means of a gold ring.
"Dads," she exclaimed, two months before the beginning of this story, having enticed him to her bedroom one night and offered him cream chocolates as he eat at the foot of her bed, facing her. "Dads, what am I to do? Guy Danvers says he is coming to see you to-morrow, and I—I am sure it will only turn out to be—well—you, know."
"But, Golliwog dear, I'm the one to be pitied. This makes the—how many is it?"
"I don't know, Dads, and it isn't the number; it's the awful habit they've got into—and I don't understand anything and I don't encourage them, do I? Do lend me a hankie—this chocolate has burst—and what am I to do?"
"Turn a deaf ear, or a cold shoulder, or put a brave face on, until———" said Dads, retrieving his handkerchief.
"Until the right man comes along, darling, as he surely will."
The girl's lids suddenly dropped until the lashes lay like a fringe upon the white cheek over which very slowly but very surely crept the faintest of rose-colours.
"Hum!" said Dads to himself, as he made great use of the hankie.
"Do smoke, dearest!"
"No, thank you, pet; I couldn't here."
The man who worshipped his wife and adored his little daughter looked round the white and somewhat austere room, and ran his eye over the bookstand at his elbow.
Books on horses, a treatise on bulldogs, the New Testament, essays in French and in German, the History of Egypt in Arabic, Budge's "Book of the Dead," and "King Solomon's Mines."
"But what am I do meanwhile, Dads?" and the girl threw out her hands imploringly.
"Be cold, deaf or brave, Golliwog, as I have suggested."
"But I've been all that, and it's quite useless. Do you think it would help if I let my hair grow and did it up in a tight knob?"
"I think it would help a lot if you shaved your head entirely, kiddie." And the man leant forward and ran his hand through the red curls.
Once upon a time Damaris had read the advertisement of a certain powder guaranteed to darken hair of any colour, and life having been one long torment owing to her violent colouring, she had, greatly daring, acquired a packet; had followed the directions by mixing the powder with water and covering her head with the muddy result, and, "to make assurance doubly sure," had sat with her clay pate for an hour instead of ten minutes near a fire; had cracked the clay, washed her head, and found her hair grass-green.
She had chopped the verdant masses off without a thought, and had ever after refused to allow it to grow to hairpin length, and to her father only had granted the privilege of calling her by the pet name of Golliwog.
"Would you like to travel a bit, pet?" And the man smiled, though his heart was heavy at the thought of the blank which his Golliwog's departure would leave in the home and the daily round.
"Travel! Travel! Oh! darling—to Egypt?
"Why Egypt? Why not France or—or Italy?"
"Because I've got to go to Egypt sometime or another, Dads. I've got to see the desert and the mosques and the whites and blues and oranges and camels. It's in me here," and she thumped her nightgown above her heart. "I shall never be happy until I have seen them all. Oh! Dads, I wonder if you can understand; it—it sounds so—so silly———"
"Tell me," and the man moved over to the head of the bed and took his daughter gently in his arms.
"I'm so out of the picture, somehow, here, dearest," said the child, striving as best she could to describe what was really only the passing of the border-line between girl and womanhood. "This terrible colouring of mine, for one thing. Why, amongst other girls, I am like a Raemaeker stuffed into a Heath Robinson folio, like a palette daubed with oils hung amongst a lot of water-colours. I want to find my own nail and hang for one hour by myself, if it's on a barn-door or the wall of a mosque—as long as I am by myself."
"Good Lord!" said the man inwardly, as he patted his daughter's arm; then, aloud. "As it happens, Golliwog darling, I had a letter from Marraine yesterday, asking me to let you go out to her in Cairo for the winter and see as much as possible of the ordinary sights. We'll talk it over with Mother to-morrow."
"Oh, Dads—how wonderful! And can't you and Mother come? And oh! can I take Wellington?"
"I think so, dear, if he hasn't hydrophobia," and the man bent to pat the head of the great dog which had crept from under the bed at the sound of his name.
And later Dads stood at his window, smoking two last pipes, whilst a glimpse into the future was allowed him.
"Can it be—can it possibly be," he said, puffing clouds of smoke into the creeper, to the annoyance of many insects, "Big Ben Kelham?—and the estates run alongside. Wonder if Teresa has noticed anything. And—by Jove!—of course!—he's at Heliopolis, getting over his hunting accident. I wonder———"
And Damaris sat at her window, with her arms round the dog, who longed inordinately for his mat.
"The desert," she whispered. "The pyramids—the bazaar—life—adventure. How wonderful!" There came a long, long pause, and then she added, as she turned towards a coloured picture of the Sphinx upon the wall, "And who cares if the nail is a tin-tack or a screw?"
As it happened, it was destined to be the jewel-hilted, double-edged, unsheathed dagger of love.
And Fate, having mislaid her glasses, worked her shuttle at hazard in and out of that picture of intricate pattern called Life, and having tangled and knotted together the crimson thread of passion, the golden thread of youth and the honest brown of a deep, undemonstrative love, she left the disentanglement of the muddle in the hands of Olivia, Duchess of Longacres.
Her Grace was over eighty.
Of a line of yeomen ancestors ranging back down the centuries to the William Carew who had fought for Harold, she had been, about sixty-five years ago, the belle of Devon. Against the warnings of her heart and to the delight of her friends and family, she had married the Duke of Longacres, whose roving eye had been arrested by her beauty at a meet of the Devon and Somerset, and his equally roving heart temporarily captured by the indifference of her demeanour towards his autocratic self.
She had lost him, to all intents and purposes, two years after the marriage, but blinding her eyes and stuffing her ears, had held high her beautiful head and high her honour, filling her empty heart with the love of her son and the esteem of her legion of real friends; showing the bravest of beautiful faces to the world, until a happy widowhood had set her free.
Some years of absolute happiness of the simplest kind had followed; the marriage of her son and birth of her grandson, who had cost his mother her life. Then the following year had come the Boer War, and the heroic tragedy of Spion Kop, which left her childless; after that, many years of utter devotion, to her grandson, who adored her; then the Great War and the Battle of the Falkland Islands, which left her absolutely bereft, with the care of the boy's greatest treasure, even the grey parrot, Quarter-Deck, Dekko for short.
Methuselah of birds, it was possessed of an uncanny gift of human speech and understanding, and had been promoted through generation to generation, from sailing-vessel via Merchant Service to British Navy.
As time and tragedy worked hard together to silver her hair and line her face, so did a veritable imp of mischief, bred of her desolation, seem to possess the old darling. She cared not a brass farthing for the opinion of her neighbours, so that after the death of the great Queen, who had been her staunchest friend, she had instructed Maria Hobson, her maid and also staunchest friend, to revive the faded roses of her cheeks with the aid of cosmetics. Things had gone from bad to worse in that respect, until her pretty snow-white hair had been covered by a flagrant golden perruque and the dear old face with a mask of pink and white enamel. Her eyes were blue, and keen as a hawk's, undimmed by the tears shed in secret during her tumultuous and tragic life; her teeth, each one in a perfect and pearly state of preservation, were her own, for which asset she was never given the benefit of the doubt; her tongue was vitriolic; her heart of pure gold, and she owned a right hand which said nothing to the left of the spaces between its fingers through which, daily ran deeds of kindness and streams of love towards the unfortunate ones of the earth.
Her dress was invariably of grey taffeta or brocade, bunched at the back and trailing on the ground; there were ruffles, of priceless lace at the elbow-sleeves and V-shaped neck; a plain straw poke-bonnet served for all outdoor functions, and an ebony stick, called "the wand" by the denizens of the slums, who adored her, completed her picturesque toilette.
The majority feared this grande dame, a minority, if they had had the chance, would have fawned upon her in public and laughed at or caricatured her in private; those who really knew her, and they lived principally east of London town, would willingly have laid themselves down and allowed her ridiculously small feet, invariably shod in crimson, buckled, outrageously high-heeled shoes, to trample upon their prostrate bodies, if it would have given her pleasure so to do.
She adored young things, and had an enormous family of godsons and goddaughters, out of which crowd Ben Kelham and Damaris Hethencourt were supreme favourites, and about whom she had been weaving plots when she had written her letter of invitation to the Squire.
She smoked Three Castles, which she kept in a jewelled Louis XV snuff-box, and had a perfect tartar of a maid, who simply worshipped her.
Of a truth, a long description of a very old and very wise old woman, of whom the great Queen had once remarked to her Consort:
"I wish I were not a queen, so that I might curtsey to Olivia."
And in this wise old woman's jewel-covered hands Fate placed the twisted threads of passion, youth and love, and a wiser selection she could not have made.
A bronchitic cough had taken her to Cairo just as a sooted-up lung, left behind by the pneumonia which had followed the hunting accident had taken Ben Kelham to Heliopolis, and for recuperation of body or mind there is nothing to equal an Egyptian winter, even in a tourist-ridden centre.
Ben Kelham, Big Ben for short, on account of his six-feet-two, was heir to Sir Andrew Kelham, Bart., whose estate joined the lands of Squire Hethencourt, whom he looked upon as his greatest friend, and vice versa. Educated at Harrow, Ben Kelham and Hugh Carden Ali had been known on the Hill as David and Jonathan; so that the crimson, golden and brown threads were more than uncommonly twisted.
Ben was heavy in build and slow in every way, but he was still more sure than slow, and had never been known to give up when once he had set his mind to the accomplishment of a task, and although he had stood in absolute awe of beautiful Damaris since the day she had lengthened her skirts, yet had he determined to make her his wife, even if it meant following in Jacob's footsteps to the tune of waiting many years.
He had confided his determination to his godmother, who had immediately taken the case in hand, and proceeded to throw bucketsful of cold water upon his suggestion of being on the quay or doorstep to welcome the girl to Egypt.
"My dear man," replied the tactful old lady as she rasped a match on the sole of a crimson shoe and lit a fragrant Three Castles, "do remember that everything will be new to the child; she will be one vast ejaculation for at least a month. Let her get over that, let her realise that you are close at hand, but not the least bit anxious to be under her feet, and you'll see. Remember, she is very young, just like a bit of dough which must be stuffed with the currants and raisins of knowledge and then well-baked in the oven of experience before it can be handed across Life's counter to anyone. Further, take care not to blunder into any little trap she may set you out of pique."
"But, dearest, I always do blunder when I'm out of the saddle."
"Well, even if you do, for goodness' sake keep your mouth shut. Be the strong, silent man; women love 'em. We revel in being clubbed and pulled into the cave by the hair; we may squeal a bit for the sake of appearances, but we cook the breakfast nest morning without a murmur! But just ask us to honour the cave by placing our foot over the threshold, and as sure as anything, you'll find yourself making the early cup of tea."
"Wide open and unguarded stand our gates, Named by the four winds, North, South, East and West; Portals that lead to an enchanted land. . ."
T. B. ALDRICH.
Damaris duly arrived in Egypt, accompanied by Wellington—who had shown no sign of incipient hydrophobia—and Jane Coop, her maid.
It were best to describe them both now, and so get it all over.
Whilst waiting one exeat upon Waterloo station, the girl had annexed unto herself a holy terror in the shape of a brindle bull-pup.
The hilarious quadruped had twined its leash about one leg of its master—who was an alien from Wapping—and the spout of a zinc watering-can which a porter had left upon the platform; for which joke it had received a vile cuff on its wrinkled physiognomy from the alien master.
Like some avenging goddess, Damaris, the ladylike, almost finished product of Onslow House, sprang straight at the man, smote him with the flat of the hand upon the face, and pounced upon the yelping pup.
"Take your leg out of the dog's chain, you idiot!" she cried, her eyes blazing, her perfect teeth flashing in a positive snarl. "Be quick; don't be so clumsy. How dare you hit a dog. He hit him," she announced to the interested, sympathetic crowd. "Hit him on his lovely face.
"You gif that dog back to me, missie,—he's mine."
"He's mine. I've got him, and my mother is one of the heads of the Society that protects children."
"That's got nothing to do wif dogs."
"This is a puppy, so it's a child," had come the decisive reply. "And I'll buy him, though I needn't really, if I refer it to the Society."
"I'll take ten poun' for 'im."
The child fished for her purse, which, contained half-a-crown and her ticket, and flung it with a supreme gesture of contempt at the man's feet; then, squeezing up the dog in her arms, tore a simple gold bracelet off her left arm and flung it after the purse.
"Worv two poun' at the mos'."
Then, from out of a first-class carriage of the train waiting to start for Southampton slowly descended Olivia, Duchess of Longacres.
The girl and the alien had their backs turned to her, but the crowd had seen; had looked; started to laugh, and then had become silent, so great was the dignity of the old lady.
Clad in a voluminous grey taffeta gown, from under which peeped little crimson shoes; covered with a huge loose ermine wrap, with the black poke-bonnet on top of the outrageous golden perruque and the grey parrot bobbing up and down excitedly upon her shoulder, she stood silently taking in the scene.
There was the light of battle in the famous hawk's-eyes as she listened to the girl defending the pup, and her splendid teeth shone in a grin of enjoyment as she suddenly rattled her ebony stick upon the alien's ankle-bones, those most tender bits of anatomical scaffolding.
There was a yell of pain as the alien backed hastily into the arms of a lusty youth who had continuously besought Damaris, to allow him "ter put it acrorst ther blighter's h'ugly mug," and a cry of delight as Damaris ran to the old lady's side and, squeezing the pup in one arm, made the sweetest little reverence in the pretty continental way before she excitedly wrung her god-mother's hand.
"Marraine, he hit the puppy, and I've bought him for ten pounds; at least, Dad will send a cheque tonight. I've given him half-a-crown and my bracelet on account."
"Call Hobson," said her grace to the bird, who, obeying, had shrilly piped, "Tumble up, men, tumble up," until Hobson the maid suddenly surged, from the second-class and ploughed her way through the delighted crowd.
"Give the purse and bracelet to my maid, you———"
"Swab," supplemented the parrot.
"——-at once," finished her grace, just as, with a cry of "Here's Dad!" Damaris ran to meet her father, who, having got hung up in the traffic, had failed to meet the train. He listened patiently, with dancing eyes, to the story, smiled across at the duchess, gave the man a pound-note and a jolly good talking to, and acquired a bull pup with the Rodney Stone strain, which they promptly christened Wellington, as it had won at Waterloo.
Wellington forthwith developed an inordinate jealousy of Jane Coop.
Jane Coop was maid, adviser and buffer to the girl whom she loved more than anyone on earth.
Born on the Squire's lands, she had developed a positive genius for mothering delicate lambs and calves and sickly chicks, so that when a crisis had arrived almost immediately after the birth of Damaris, the Squire had bundled the highly-certificated nurse into a motor and sent her packing back to London, and called upon Jane Coop to rise to the occasion.
She had risen.
Bonny and plump, she had taken the weakly little bit of humanity, also the situation, into her strong, capable hands; treated the mother and babe just as she would have treated a couple of delicate lambs, and pulled them both through.
From that day forth she had dominated the house, tyrannised over the Squire and his lady, defied each and every governess who had shown signs of undue strictness, and found her reward for her devotion in the love of the child who teased her to death and—in the long run—obeyed her.
She had shown herself a positive sheep-dog on board the boat. She had rounded up her white lamb and yapped upon the heels of those who dared approach with too great familiarity; had bristled and shown her teeth upon every possible occasion, until those who would fain have led the girl into new and verdant pastures had fled at the sheep-dog's approach, leaving them both to enjoy the novelty of everything, each after her own kind.
Damaris revelled in it all: the seagulls; the lighthouses; the ships that passed in the day and night; and the tail-end of a storm they hit up in the Bay, whilst Jane Coop invented new verses to the Litany as she tried, in her cabin, to solve the problem of two into one, and Wellington, somewhere under the water-line, daily gave a fine imitation of hell-bound to a circle of admiring seamen.
To his last hour at sea Captain X will forever retain the memory of what it cost him in strength of will to maintain his dignity, when, standing straight and exceedingly beautiful, with one hand full of lists, the huge bulldog at her feet, with a black bow under his left ear, and an assembly of the greatest sufferers before her, Damaris, two days before arriving at Port Said, solemnly read out the items and the shop price of each article chewed, damaged or totally destroyed during the voyage by the dog.
"Shoes, boots, pants, edges of trousers; two pipes, one pouch, six packets of gaspers; one entire tray of crockery; one air-cushion dropped in fright by stewardess; one coil of rope, one life-buoy, one tin can dented, one man's ankles slightly bruised; one bare patch to ship's cat's back. . . ." And so on and so forth; whilst murmurs arose from the sufferers, who chorused that "they didn't want no compensation, only too pleased to part with their bits, as long . . ." etc., etc.
"I do not think the fault was all on one side, Miss Hethencourt," summed up the Captain, speaking in guttural consonant and flattened vowel from suppressed emotion. "The—er—the plaintiff must have approached the dog as he was chained and———"
"A bulldog," broke in Damaris, "is a magnet to the best in every human being. They simply could not help themselves; they were drawn within reach of his teeth; they——"
"I cannot quite———" interrupted the captain. "Yes?"
Chips, the carpenter, showed signs of bursting with information withheld.
"Beggin' your pardon for interruption, sir, but what; the lady says is true; we just couldn't keep away. I saw the Chink—beg pardon, sir, I mean Ling-a-Ling the laundryman, burning joss-sticks in front of 'im,"—pointing of stub finger towards shameless dog—"one night when the dawg was asleep. Jus' worship, please, sir, on all parts. And Mrs. Pudge what didn't oughter 'ave been down in our quarters, dropped the air cushion, sir, 'cause she missed in stays———"
"I cannot," interrupted the captain—then choked at a mental vision of Mrs. Pudge, who scorned such frivolous inventions as whalebone to support the figure—then trumpeted behind his handkerchief, ending in that combined half-snort, half-giggle which is so disastrous to dignity and complexion, "I cannot allow the—the—er—form of the Company's stewardesses to be so discussed."
"Beggin' yer pardon, sir," fiercely rejoined Chips—who was getting a bit of his own back on Mrs. Pudge—"I'm using the nautical expression, sir; she failed to get about when that there dawg"—pointing of stub thumb at heedless dog—"growled 'cause she has water in the knee. I'm usin' a an—anatomical expression now, sir—her knee—this, sir"—slapping of knee with horny hand of toil—"The ship's knees, miss," addressing Damaris, whose straight brows had almost met in puzzlement, "is a chock on the forepart of the lowermast on which the 'eel—heel, miss, of the topmast rests. Yuss, sir. Her knee may 'ave water in it; but no one couldn't say the same of her grog."
To prevent death from combustion, the speechless captain here intimated by signs that the culprit should stand up. And the brindle of Rodney Stone strain stood, whilst the men's eyes glistened as they fidgeted upon their feet from very joy in the spectacle.
His skull was massive and perfectly-shaped, the under-jaw square and strong, thrust up and beyond the upper; the teeth were perfect, even, large and also strong; the nose was black and large, well back between the eyes, which were set low down and wide apart, but well in front and round, with a deep "stop" between them; the honestest outward sign of his gallant loving heart. The ears were rose; not in colour, of course, but of rose-leaf shape, set high and small and fine; the face was closely-wrinkled, the "chop" well down, and the loose skin in abundant folds about his throat and neck.
The chest was wide and deep and prominent; the shoulders were tremendously muscular; the body was short, with a Roach back, fine in the rear; the forelegs, short and strong, with the developed calves which give them the appearance of being bowed, whereas the bones are really straight; the feet turned out a bit, with toes split up and arched; the tail set low and straight down and anything but a glad tail. His heart was of the finest, honest, loving, courageous, capable of hurling its owner to instant battle or death, in defence of the one loved, at other times rendering him, in its gentleness, an almost ludicrous spectacle of adoration. Of such was Wellington, and if the description is somewhat detailed and technical it is because he happens a good deal into the book.
The duchess had been put into the train for Port Said by Ben Kelham, who, inwardly kicking at her sage advice, looked as despondent as a camel who considers its strength unequal to its burden.
"Cheer up, lad," she cried as the train moved off. "Cheer up; something is sure to happen before long."
Which was a perfectly safe prophecy to make where Damaris was concerned.
Arrived at Port Said, she put off in a boat with her maid and her parrot, and found her godchild, who did not expect her, on deck, entranced with all she saw.
Yes! of course Port Said is a sink of iniquity and a place of odours and a fold for native wolves in sheep's clothing; also a centre for antiquities made in Birmingham, or by the vendor himself in the hot weather; and a market for things which should not be sold, much less bought.
In fact, in one short sentence, it is a deal of cosmopolitan wrong-doing.
All the same, you need not buy and you need not listen nor look, and if it is the first bit of the Orient you have meet with for the first time in your life, well! it is the East, and jolly exciting and interesting, too.
Damaris rushed at the old lady, and having curtsied to her, gathered her up in her strong arms and hugged her tightly, just as Captain X, who during one trip had had the duchess as passenger and therefore loved her, came along.
As they turned in the direction of the dining-saloon, the girl looked over her shoulder at the two maids, and smiled.
With a great love of their respective mistresses as their sole bond in common they stood, otherwise divided, staring at each other.
"Pleased to meet you again," volunteered country-bred Jane, offering a plump hand.
"Hoping you are in good health," responded Maria Hobson, making a corner in strawberry-leaves as she just touched the finger-tips.
"Wellington, you have met Dekko, I think," laughed the girl.
"Woomph!" grunted the dog disdainfully, as he cocked an eye at the bird, which ruffled its feathers, spread its red tail and looked down sideways and spitefully for a long moment.
"My Gawd!" it suddenly shrieked. "My Gawd!"
And it swung about and rubbed its soft grey pate against its mistress's outrageous golden perruque, then hurled itself onto the captain's shoulder.
"Oh, yet we trust that somehow good Will be the final goal of ill."
After the fight in the bazaar, the ducal party stayed for another fortnight in Cairo, during which time Damaris saw as much of the place and its surroundings as she could in fourteen days and a few hours out of each of the fourteen nights; whilst her godmother played bridge or poker, paid and received visits, took her to dances and parties, and busied her fingers in the tangled threads Fate had tossed into her lap.
It was an understood thing that the girl should be ready to conduct the old aristocrat to the dining-room at the dinner-hour and give her the evening; other than that her time was her own, though, owing to her innate courtesy and her love for her godmother, she never once absented herself without having obtained permission.
"You are a positive tonic, child, in these perplexing days," remarked her grace, when the girl had concluded the recital of the fight in the bazaar. "Only, do remember to come straight to me if ever you get into a real scrape."
And that night, the old lady, who had lost heavily at poker, fairly snapped at Maria Hobson, who, tucking her up in bed, remarked, greatly daring, upon the amount of liberty allowed the child.
"Don't be foolish, my good woman," she said, "and do for goodness' sake mind your business of looking after me. Although my god-daughter may bluff a bit for the fun of the game, and get let down a bit for her own good, yet I shouldn't advise anyone to get seeing her too often. Fate dealt her a royal straight flush in hearts, and better that you can't—no! not even if you hold a full house of intrigue and bad intent t'other end of Life's table."
"Humff!" replied the maid heavily through her nose, not having understood one word of her mistress's admonition.
Each day at breakfast and at dinner a bunch, big or little, of simple or hothouse flowers lay beside the girl's plate, without name or message.
Now, the finding of flowers upon your table does not, in Egypt, necessarily imply that the donor thereof is a son of the desert; the maitre d'hotel has been known to do it out of deference to your rank or purse; and only once had Jane Coop had the mixed pleasure of meeting the deaf-mute Nubian who daily left the posies at the hotel.
Refreshed from her siesta, she had descended to the hall via the stairs instead of the lift, and bumped into the ebony-hued slave as he bent to lay a sheaf of flowers upon the matting outside her mistress's door.
He had straightened himself and salaamed almost to the ground—which had delighted Jane Coop—and had offered the bunch to her.
"Oh, no, my man!" she had said, bridling, "you don't come over me that way. Just you take that trash back to where it came from. My young lady ain't that kind," and had shaken her fist in his face and flounced downstairs to lay a complaint.
What with the militant maids, the parrot and the dog, the ducal party was continually breaking out in some direction or another, but the maitre d'hotel, who simply worshipped the old lady, merely smiled and poured the oil of soothing words upon the troubled waters.
The girl had quite casually recounted the fight in the bazaar, and the wise old woman had made no comment; but, all the same, next day she indifferently asked a few questions of Lady Thistleton, who had a big heart, narrow mind, an ever-wagging tongue and two daughters.
"Oh, that's the son of the Arab and the English girl. You must remember the fuse there was in England over the runaway marriage—what was her name?—how she could, you know——"
"Ah! yes. You must be talking of Jill Carden. I knew her very well. Naughty girl, she refused the invitation I sent them asking them to come to England and stay with me, and gave up writing to me after a while. Does she live in Cairo?"
It seemed that Jill, the wife of the Sheikh el-Umbar, lived in the Flat Oasis t'other side of the Canal, in Arabia proper, but, according to current gossip, was at the moment upon a visit to her son at the House 'an Mahabbha, which had been built for the elder branch of the House el-Umbar on a verdant patch watered by the springs, from the limestone hills which stretch on the desert side of the Oasis of Khargegh.
"He's not in Cairo, then?"
"No; he left to-day," replied the gossip. "You see, his mother is expected any time at his home, if she isn't already there. My maid will chatter so, there's absolutely no stopping her. Funnily enough, I arrived at the station as he was leaving in a special train. Such a handsome man, educated in England, millionaire too. Of course it's a case of a touch of the tarbrush—such a pity, too!"
The duchess suddenly shivered.
"Little Jill!" she said gently. "Little Jill! I must go and see her if she will let me. Ah! General, what about a hand at ecarte before dinner?"—and she rose with a stormy rustling of her softly-scented silks, leaving the gossip wondering in what way she had put her foot in it.
That night, as she lay like a little brown mouse under the mosquito-net, watching the stars through the open window, the old lady suddenly decided to bestir herself.
"It's too risky! She's too beautiful, too young and unsophisticated," she murmured as she lit a cigarette under the curtains, which is strictly against the rules. "I'd bet my last piastre that Jill Carden's son's all right, but, all the same, one has to reckon with the glamour of the East. Love's all very well in a cool climate, but it's the dickens out here. Must get her anchored in safe waters. What d'you think, Dekko old friend? What course shall I set? Shall we go home, or to Heliopolis?"
The bird scrambled awkwardly on to the dressing-table.
"Well, old man, how about it?"
"Steer a straight course for hell, old dear," came the muffled reply, as the bird twisted its head under its wing, then untucked it to murmur sleepily: "T'hell!"
So she made up her mind to move on the very day after the girl's birthday, which fell in a fortnights time. She would, indeed, have left at once if it had not been that she had issued invitations on a gigantic scale for a fancy-dress ball in honour of the anniversary.
Inwardly Damaris rebelled at the suggestion of moving on to Heliopolis; outwardly she acquiesced without enthusiasm.
"But if it will do that nasty little cough good, dearest, why wait for the ball?"
"Do you want to go, Maris?"
"The desert will be so near," evaded the girl. "Half-an-hour's ride at the most, so—so Ben Kelham told me, and there you see the desert, miles upon miles of it stretching right away like the sea."
The hawk-eyes flashed across the girl's face, taking in the forced indifference of the expression and the light which gleamed far down in the eyes.
"I had a letter from Ben this morning. His lung has been troubling him; that is why he hasn't been over."
"Did you—has it—is it—?" rather lamely replied the girl.
He had written Damaris a perfunctory note of welcome to the Land of the Pharaohs; then, a week later, had come over to dine. He had ached to take his beautiful little chum up in his arms and shake her for her haughtiness and by sheer strength of arms and will force her to say "yes" to the question which it took him all his strength not to ask.
Since childhood he had been her slave, her door-mat, and the butt of her various moods, feeling infinitely well rewarded by a careless smile or word; so that he found it difficult, in fact well-nigh impossible, to act up to her grace's plans and suddenly transpose himself into the strong, silent man.
The girl, spoilt and accustomed to slavish devotion and used to his worship, felt incensed, then hurt, and finally perplexed, and, to hide it all, retired therewith into a shell of icy reserve.
He had adored her openly, and now, seemingly, looked upon her as just one of the crowd of women in the hotel; she had taken his adoration for granted and as a right, to waken one morning to find the gem she had tossed in amongst the rubbish of her little experiences, gone!
Is there a greater mistake in the world than that of looking upon love as an ordinary possession, instead of as a rare jewel?
They were both very young, so that they suffered the agonies of doubt and uncertainty, whilst the worldly-wise old dame smiled up her sleeve.
From the hour of the early cup of tea until breakfast-time on the morning of the ball, which was also the girl's birthday morning, tarbusched, impudent young monkeys of messenger boys, bearing gifts and flowers, arrived in a stream at the hotel.
Flowers in pots and vases and bunches lay everywhere in the suite; shawls of many colours, silken veils, slippers, albums of views of Egypt, rare antiques (made mostly in Birmingham), one mummied cat (genuine), scarabs (suspicious), and one live gazelle littered the place.
Ben Kelham had bought her a finger-napkin ring of dull gold; through it he had forced some flowers, and sent it along.
She held it tight in her hand for a moment, then deliberately and ostentatiously laid it amongst the clutter on the table, whilst her grace peeped from behind the newspaper which she was reading in bed.
Arrived at the table in the breakfast-room, the girl suddenly flushed pink and then went quite white.
Right in the centre, flanked on one side by the glass dish of glowing fruit and the other by a cut-glass jar of Keiller's marmalade, stood a cage tied at the top with silver ribbon and containing two cooing doves.
The doves were just ordinary ones, but their prison was no ordinary cage. Fair-sized and square, it was made of fine white bars of ivory. The underside was also ivory, square and unblemished, and would have made an ideal hairpin-tray; it stood upon ebony feet inlaid with infinitesimal precious stones.
"It has but just arrived, Miss Hethencourt," said the maitre d'hotel, who had been fluttering around upon the tiptoe of a most unusual curiosity. "There is no name, no message."
"Please send it to my room," she replied indifferently, whilst, for some unaccountable reason, her heart throbbed as she responded to the birthday greetings which came from every corner of the room.
"A mother is a mother still, The holiest thing alive."
"May the blessing of Allah who is God be upon thee, O woman!"
The sonorous words, of the benediction rang through the room as Hugh Carden Ali stood with the silken curtain drawn back in one hand and the right raised in blessing upon his mother, who stood with arms outstretched in the centre of the room.
Then he knelt to receive the benison of the woman he loved, smiled when he felt the small hands upon his head and, leaping to his feet, swung her up into his arms, covering her face with kisses.
"You beautiful darling!" he said, as he crushed her up, to the derangement of her perfumed silks and satins and many jewels. "It's just heavenly coming back to you, you dear, understanding mother."
The woman's heart leapt to battle, for in the last words, in the way her beloved son looked down upon her in the tone of his voice, she knew that, somewhere out in the world, he had received a hurt. She knew so little of him, had only had him for such a little, little while under the influence of her love and in the shelter of her heart, and she loved him, her firstborn, with a love beyond words. Thinking to do the best for him, and making the biggest mistake of all, beating down her beloved husband's opposition, she had sent the boy to England, and in the subsequent eight years had only seen him twice.
"He is of the East, Woman of my Heart! Behold, I have studied him," had said the Sheikh, all those years ago. "Let him be, else evil may befall him."
But Jill, his beautiful wife, had insisted, and his love for her being beyond telling, the great Arab had submitted to her wish.
For so it had been written.
And what can be the outcome of the tragic mixing of blood? Nothing but pain.
"Come to the roof and talk, Mother, under the stars."
So up the marble staircase, with his arm about her waist, to the roof they went, where the silken awnings lay folded and the scented white flowers hung asleep.
They stood under the canopy of purple night studded with flashing, silvery points, as the soft winds carried to them the notes of a guitar softly thrummed in the shade of the palms.
"It is Mary, dear," happily whispered the woman. "She came with me to welcome you." And then she clasped her hands at the blaze of anger which swept the man's face.
"Most gracious Mother, I am master of my house, and, save for your ever-esteemed, ever-desired presence, I cannot have woman set foot in it without my consent. When I have the desire for one as wife, plaything or servant, then I will give orders."
"But, Hugh, Mary is your sister!"
"Mary is my sister, and I do not deem it wise or seemly that she should run about the country at her own wish or whim."
"Dear, let me speak. I saw so much of woman in Europe that the yashmak, the barku, the seclusion and modesty of the East have become dear to me above all else. Have you forgotten, dear, the restaurants, the theatres, the parks and, Allah! the streets? The half-stripped bodies, the craving for excitement, the wine, the nights turned into day! Why, one has but to stretch the hand, for flowers to be laid therein; the feet trip at every step with the trap of woman's hair; the quarry stands waiting for the arrow; there is not even the incentive of the chase, the hot pursuit, the lust of the kill. I speak as my father's son, and in my house I will have privacy and seclusion and seemliness. Women shall be brought to me when I desire their presence." And the steeliness of the voice brought the woman up-sitting as he gave her an order cloaked in the guise of a favour begged. "And I shall be glad if you will ask my sister to keep within the women's quarters until I send for her."
And she ripped the corner of her veil between perturbed fingers when, upon the clapping of hands, a slave ran swiftly to learn his master's pleasure, then hastened away to find the head body-woman of the guesthouse assigned to women-visitors.
After which the sweet thrumming of the guitar instantly stopped.
On more than one night they talked under the stars, sitting on satin cushions, or leaning on the marble fret-work of the balustrade looking due east to where, so many miles away, flows the blue-green Nile, as it has flowed through the centuries, all unheeding of the passing of mighty kingdoms.
And yet had the mother learned nothing of the hurt reflected in her firstborn's eyes.
"Most precious Mother," he was saying, as he stood flicking the pages of the latest illustrated paper just arrived from Cairo, but which was really a volume of the Book of Life written, printed and published by Fate. "If it pleases you to stay when I am gone, will you do so just as long as you find happiness in my dwelling?"
"You are going, Hugh,—so soon—for long?"
"There has come a report of lion in the Nubian Desert, as far north as Deir el-Bahari. I can hardly believe it, for it is years and years since a lion has been seen even in the Khor Baraka. However, a runner from Nubia came in this morning, so there may be something in it. God grant it, for the sport and the danger would be great, killing or being killed, in the rocks and ruins of the Temple. Also I could visit my Tents of Purple and of Gold. How long shall I be gone, sweet Mother? That is known only to Allah, to whom our goings and our comings are as the drifting of the sands."
"Your tents are very beautiful, my son. The servants are waiting for your orders before pitching the—the—middle one. Without asking permission, I went to inspect them. Just before your return, just to see if everything was quite all right. One can never quite trust the servants."
Jill might have been sitting on a rectory lawn, talking about her linen-cupboard or spring-cleaning with a neighbour, instead of one of the wonders of modern Egypt. In fact, so quaint was it that the man laughed and swung her onto the balustrade.
"I'm not surprised Father worships the ground your ridiculous little feet tread on, Mater," he said, causing his mother to gasp, so English did he sound, so Oriental did he look.
"Dear!" she said gently, as she scrutinised him with a mother's eyes and touched his face and patted his cheek and pulled a bit here and there at his fine white linen coat, upon which in coarse thread was embroidered the Hawk of Old Egypt. "Dear! don't you think you would be happier if you were to marry and—settle down?"
And it was then that there came to her the full explanation of the hurt reflected in her firstborn's eyes.
"I shall never marry, dear," very gently replied the man, so fearful was he of causing pain to the woman who had borne him. "I—I—you see, I cannot."
"Cannot, Hugh? But, my dear, what is the matter? You will have to, some day, you know. You are your father's eldest son," answered the woman, who, wrapped in perfect love and happiness, had never given a thought to the far-reaching effects of her marriage with the Arabian. "Dear son, there are so many beautiful, cultured, gentle women here and at home—I mean in England—you———"
"Mother, please! Oh, Mother, you don't understand—dear heavens! you don't understand. Listen—and, how I wish my father, whom I honour, were here to comfort you. Forgive me, dear, forgive me for the pain I must cause you———"
And the woman went white to the lips under a sudden blinding flash of understanding and her proud eyes dropped to the hands clenched in her lap.
"I want to marry, Mother of mine." He spoke in the Arabian tongue, which, is so atune to love, "for behold love in the space of an hour has grown within me. The floods of love drown me, the full-blossomed trees of passion throw their shade upon the surging waters, and, behold, the shade is that of tenderness. From the midst of the flood where I am like to drown, I stretch my arms towards the rocky shore where stands, looking towards me, the desire of my soul. Behold, my eyes have seen her, and, behold, she is white, with hair like the desert at sunset, and eyes even as the pools of Lebanon. She is as a rod to be bent, and as a vase of perfume to be broken upon a night of love. And I love her—her—out of all women—a doe to be hunted at dawn, a mare to be spurred through the watches of the night———"
"I love her as my father loved you—my father, of whom I am the eldest son—son of a highborn father, son of a highborn mother—outcast—outcast!"
"For pity's sake, Hugh, stop!"
But the storm swept on, tearing the veil from the woman's eyes.
"Behold, I care not for the plucking of garden blossoms, therefore are the beautiful, docile women of the East not for me, and the thorns upon the hedge of convention defied, the barbed wires of racial distinction keep me from the hedgerow flower, born of the wind and the sky and the summer heat, which I covet.
"Among men I am nothing; I may not claim equality with the scavenger of the Western streets; or with the donkey-boys of the Eastern bazaar. Here I am served with fear and servility, being a man of riches; across the waters, I may sun myself in the smiles of women as long as I have no desire to wed." He suddenly seized the woman, holding her in a grip of iron which left great bruises on her arms. "Do you know what she called me, Mother?—that harlot of a line of noblemen—what she flung in my teeth because, seeing in her a woman of the streets hidden under the cloak of marriage, I refused to be tempted?"
There fell a terrible silence, and then a few whispered words.
"She called me a half-caste, Mother!—me—a half-caste!"
And the mother fell at her son's feet and bowed her head to the ground, and he swept her up into his arms, raining kisses upon the piteous face.
"I don't blame you, sweetheart-mother," he said in English, whilst she sobbed on his heart. "Am I not the fruit of a brave woman's great love? Could there be anything finer than that? But my father in me made my whole body clamour for the desert when I was in England; my mother in me makes my heart throb in the desert for just one hour of her cool, misty country, one hour on a hill-top in which to watch the pearl-gray dawn. Dearest, dearest, don't sob so. It is a case of two affirmatives making a negative; two great nationalities decried, derided, rendered null and void in their offspring through the dictates of those who, in religion, prate that we are all brothers. I have just got to stick it, my mother, and life is not very long. But I shall never marry." And as he spoke, Fate flicked a page of an illustrated paper, which was but the volume of the Book of Life, and perhaps only a mother's eyes would have noticed the sudden tightening of the hand upon the marble of the balustrade as the man looked down into the pictured beauty of the woman he loved.
And, having read what had been written, he knelt to receive his mother's blessing.
"To the Tents of Purple and Gold, my darling?" she asked, smiling so bravely to hide her breaking heart.
"Not just yet, dear; a bit further North first, I think."
"I do not know, dear. Bless me, O my mother."
She blessed him and called to him as he stood at the head of the marble stairway:
"Come back to me, my son!"
"That, O woman, is in the hands of Allah, who is God."
And he turned and left her, and she, having wept her heart out and her beautiful eyes dim, took up the illustrated paper which was a volume of the Book of Life, and turned the pages.
"Ah!" she said. "How beautiful!"
It was just a simple photograph of Damaris at a tennis tournament, and underneath the information that the most popular and beautiful visitor in Cairo would celebrate her birthday in a week's time, that in honour of the occasion her god-mother, the Duchess of Longacres, had issued invitations for a fancy-dress ball, after which social event she and her god-daughter would proceed to the Desert Palace Hotel, Heliopolis.
"I wonder," whispered Jill, "I wonder if she would come to see me. She was always such a wise old woman. I wonder if there is a way out"—and she stretched her arms out towards the desert. "Hahmed!" she called, "Beloved, I love you, and my heart is breaking,"—and she lifted her head and listened to the sound of many horses running; then bowed her head and wept.
The dawn was nigh to breaking, and yet the parade of horses was not finished; whilst the trainer, the head groom, the stud groom, the under-grooms and the rank and file of the stables tore their beards or their hair as they endeavoured to please their master, whilst they waited anxiously for the return of the man who had been hurriedly sent to fetch in the mare, Pi-Kay, who was out to grass, and as wild as a bird on the wing.
Singly, or in pairs, every priceless quadruped had been put through its paces upon the track of tan imported from England.
Three coal-black stallions, brothers to el-Sooltan, even then in Cairo, and famous throughout Egypt, tore past him like a cyclone and left him indifferent; a chestnut brood mare, whose price was above that of many rubies, trotted up at his call and snuffled a welcome in his sleeve, searched for sugar in his hand and found it, and whinnied gently when he turned away; bays, piebalds, roans, greys, trotted, galloped, jumped, whilst their master smoked endless cigarettes and the stud groom prayed fervently to Allah.
"By the patience of the Prophet," the master suddenly cried, turning on the man, "hast thou nothing else? Is there no jewel amongst my horses? Hast thou not in all my stables one of the Al Hamsa, a descendant of the mares who found favour in the eyes of Mohammed the prophet of Allah who is God? The mare Alia—has she been, perchance, as sterile as thy wits?"
And then he stopped short and stood in silence, watching the loveliest picture any human could wish to see.
Picking up her dainty feet as though she walked upon hot stones, tossing her proud little head, with big, gentle eyes, spreading nostrils and fine small ears almost touching at the tips, mane flowing, tail set high and spread, came the snow-white mare, Pi-Kay.
Allah! but the loveliness of that picture as she stood, thoroughbred, perfect, as proud as any queen, as scornful as any spoiled beauty, as confused at the sight of her master as any bride!
Ten yards away and motionless she stood from this man who seemed to take no notice of her, and then she wheeled, and flung up her heels; then stopped and looked at him along her satin flank and piqued with his indifference suddenly sped out into the desert.
Then, softly, melodiously, the man's voice called her, ringing like a bell under the lightening sky, and behold, love awoke in the mare's heart and she turned and raced back towards him, longing for his hand and the grip of his knees upon her. But with her feet upon the tan, she turned her back upon him and danced across towards the coal-black stallions, causing their grooms to hold on to them with both hands; then she came back to circle round about this man, who seemingly took no notice of her vagaries, not even when she reared just behind him, pawing the air, nor when she lashed out at a humble sayis, missing him by a hair; until, at last, overpowered by curiosity and love, curveting, rearing, throwing her feet and making a frightful to-do over nothing at all, she came close up—oh! very close—and whinnied gently.
With one hand clutching the silvery mane and in one bound he was across the bare back and away with her into the desert, gripping her with his knees, calling to her by every love-name he could think of.
And out there alone in the desert at the hour of prayer, he slipped from her and, turning towards Mecca, raised his hands to heaven.
"O God of the West! O Allah of the East! Give me one single hour of love!"
And the mare, Pi-Kay, wonderful in her beauty, raced from him far out into the desert, leaving him alone with his God; then stood quite still, with fine small ears pricked, waiting for the call she knew would come. And when it came ringing clear over the golden sand, she raced back to him and pushed against him, until he sprang upon her and turned her towards the East.
"By the war-horses," he cried, quoting from Al-Koran, "which run swiftly to battle, with a panting noise; and by those who strike fire by dashing their hoofs against the stones; and by those who make a sudden invasion on the enemy early in the morning and therein raise the dust, and therein pass through the midst of the adverse troops . . . . by the Message of the Great Book and by my love will I wrest one hour from life."
And urging the mare with the whip of love to the uttermost of her wonderful speed, he thundered back across the path of sand, which was to be trodden by his feet alone, in spite of the plots which Zulannah the courtesan was even then weaving about him—to her own advancement.
". . . . and she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window."
The house of the "Scarlet Enchantress," with its balconies, turrets and outer and inner courts, stood quite by itself at one corner of the Square, in a big, neglected garden. It had been built by means of untold gold and the destruction of scores of miserable, picturesque hovels, which, poor as they might be, had however meant home to many of the needy in the Arabian quarters of Cairo. It would be useless to look for that building covered in white plaster now; it was, later, looted and burned to the ground.
A beautiful wanton of fourteen summers, ambitious, relentless, with the eyes of an innocent child, the morals of a jackal and a fair supply of brain-cunning rather than intellect, Zulannah sat this night of stars in a corner of her balcony overlooking the Square, smoking endless cigarettes.
Courtesan of the highest rank, she had plied her ruthless trade for three successful years, accumulating incredible wealth in jewels and hard cash. Her ambition knew no bounds; her greed no limit; her jealousy of other women had become a by-word in the north.
Physically she was perfect; otherwise, she had not one saving grace, and her enemies were legion. She had driven hard bargains, demanding the very rings off men's fingers in exchange for kisses; shutting the door with callous finality in the face of those she had beggared; she had disowned her mother, who, stricken with ophthalmia, begged in the streets; she had no mercy for man, woman or beast, yet all had gone well until love had come to her.
Love comes to harlots and to queens as well as to us ordinary women, and they suffer every whit as much as we do, perhaps more keenly on account of the hopeless positions they fill.
It had come to Zulannah, uncontrollably, that night when, unveiled, garbed in silks and satins and hung with jewels, she brazenly graced the stage-box at a gala performance.
She looked down, and Ben Kelham, in the end seat of the first row of stalls, looked up and looked and looked, seeing nothing, being blinded with love of Damaris.
Zulannah drove back in her Rolls-Royce to the edge of the Arabian quarter, where, owing to the narrowness of the lanes called by courtesy streets, she alighted to finish what remained of the journey in a litter swung from the shoulders of four Nubian slaves, and, arrived at the great house, summoned her special bodyguard, Qatim the Ethiopian; and for acquiring information down to the smallest detail about some special individual there is, surely, no detective agency on earth to compare to one ordinary, native servant.
He loves intrigue!
So that, twenty-four hours later, Zulannah laughed shrilly when Qatim the Ethiopian repeated all he had learned of the white man and the white maid he presumably loved.
"Love!" she scoffed. "He has not met me!"
But in the weeks that followed no plot had succeeded, no device or subtle invitation had lured the bird to the list, so that she beat sharply upon a silver gong this night of the stars, upon which the Ethiopian came running hastily to cast himself upon the ground at the jewelled, henna'd feet.
"Get up," she said, kicking him upon the side of the head; whereupon he rose, chalking up one more mark on his own particular slate of Life, upon one side of which was written Desire and the other Revenge.
He stood six-foot-four in his loin-cloth, as black and glistening as a polished ebony statue. The enormous hands at the end of great, over-long arms almost touched his knees; the chest and shoulders and abdomen were hard as iron, rippling with muscle under the oiled skin; the feet were huge and pink of sole, and the animality of the man was intensified by a certain gleam of intelligence somewhere in the impassive negroid face.
The woman, took no notice of the magnificent physique; it neither repulsed nor attracted her—he was a slave.
"Run and give orders that no one is admitted! Hasten!"
"Mistress, a great noble waits at——-"
"Desirest thou thy tongue split, thou black dog, that thou answerest Zulannah? Haste thee, and return!"
And far into the night they talked, those two, planning death or destruction, anything as long as it attained the desire of the woman who, looking into the future, took no notice of the mountain of disaster beside her in the shape of the Ethiopian who desired and hated her with all the bestial passion of his race.
Then, just as far down in the east the sky lightened, she sat suddenly upright and clapped her jewelled hands.
"Know'st thou the eunuch who guards the harem empty of women in the palace of—ah! the barbarity of the name!—E'u Car-r-den Ali? He who perchance would give one-half, nay, all of his great wealth in return for the coal-blackness of thy odorous skin. There is to be held a big entertainment within the walls of the white man's hotel, and soon. An entertainment where the whites dance foolishly in foolish raiment, disguised as that which they are not and with covered faces. What easier than for me to obtain entry as one of them under my veils and have speech with the man I love? And if he is as thou sayest, besotted with love of this white girl, then will I use the man of barbarous name as a tool to bring about that which I desire. Know'st thou the eunuch?"
"Mistress, he is my twin-brother."
"Twin of thee! Behold, did not thy mother die of fright, at sight of such monstrosities?"
"Nay, mistress, there are six sons younger than thy slave, each one of which could break thee in one hand."
Zulannah sprang to her feet and, seizing a short whip from a table, smote the man again and again until his face ran blood.
"Thou vile brute, darest thou so to speak! Behold, this is but a foretaste of what will befall thy black carcase before the hour is spent."
"Call thy slaves, mistress; split my tongue; whip the soles from off my feet, the flesh from my body, even to the bones, and thou shalt never meet my twin-brother, who even now prepareth the great palace for the coming of the"—he spat—"bird of different-coloured plumage."
And Zulannah, understanding that she must not overstep the limit if she desired to attain her end, flung the whip full into the stolid, indifferent face, and fled, raving obscenities, into the house.
"If God in His wisdom have brought close The day when I must die, That day by water or fire or air My feet shall fall in the destined snare Wherever my road may lie."
DANTE GABRIEL ROSETTI
"May I come in? Oh, Maris, what do you think? There is to be a real native fortune-teller in the Winter Garden. They've made the corner near the fountain like an Arab's tent, and he'll tell us our horoscopes in the sand, and all sorts of things."
"Not forgetting the stars, let us hope?"
"Oh, there's sure to be that."
Damaris laughed as she turned in her chair and looked at the excited little visitor in fancy-dress.
"You do look sweet. A Light of the Harem, for certain."
"Yes; and what do you think? There are three dozen Lights. Isn't it a shame? I thought I should be the only one. And there are two and a half dozen Sheikhs, and I don't know how many dozen Bedouins. You are—what are you? You look awfully—awfully—er—I don't quite know what."
Damaris adjusted the selva, the quaint silver kind of tube between the eyebrows which connects the yashmak and the tarhah or head-veil, took a final look in the mirror, and rose.
"I am an Egyptian woman of the humblest class."
She was all in black, as befits a member of that class. The simple bodice, cut in a yoke, of the black muslin dress fitted her like a glove; the skirt fell in wide folds from the waist and swung about her ankles encircled by big brass rings, which clashed as she moved. She wore the black yashmak and tarhah; upon her arms were many brass bracelets which tinkled; on one hand she wore a ring and there were flesh-coloured silken hose and sandals upon her feet. She had made a mistake and henna'd her finger-tips, which members of the humblest class have not time to do—besides, their patient hands matter so little—and her great eyes looked as black as the yashmak over which they shone.
Her beautiful face was hidden, yet was she infinitely alluring, tantilising, mysterious, under her veils.
Heavens! if only women knew how easy it is to enhance the looks by the simple method of touching up the eyes with kohl and covering the rest of the face!
"All of us in veils and masks will have to take them off at one."
"Yes, there'll be the rub," said Damaris, as she knelt down beside the perplexed, growling bulldog.
"Don't know Missie? Don't love her?"
"Woomph!" replied Wellington, hurling his great weight into her lap.
"How he loves you, Maris!"
"Yes, miss, he does," broke in Jane Coop. "And I firmly believe he's my mistress's guardian angel."
"After you, Janie dear," said the girl, smiling fondly up at the plump maid and tying a huge crimson bow round the neck of the long-suffering animal.
"What is he going as, Maris?"
"A gargle, miss," broke in the maid. "I think it's just fun on the part of Miss Damaris, because nothing as solid as him,"—pointing of comb to shamed dog—"could go as anything watery."
Damaris got to her feet.
"Let's go in to Marraine," she choked. "Gargoyle, my dear," she whispered, "is what she meant—gargoyle. Do come along!"
The girls' happy laughter rang down the corridor as they knocked at her grace's door.
She stood at her dressing-table in a beautiful dress of grey brocade. Diamonds sparkled in the laces of her corsage, on her fingers and in the buckles of her lovely shoes; a big bunch of pink carnations was tied on the top of her ebony stick; a priceless lace veil fastened over her head by a fragile wreath of diamond leaves fell almost to the hem of her dress behind. She had discarded the terrifying perruque, and her own hair, snowy-white, was puffed and curled about the little face, which was finely powdered and slightly rouged. She was a dream of beautiful old age, with Dekko just visible under a huge pink bow upon her shoulder.
"May I present a very old woman to youth?" she said simply.
"Darling," cried Damaris as she ran forward and, pushing the yashmak to one side, kissed the jewelled hand. "You are too beautiful—too beautiful! Promise me never, never, never to wear it again."
"I'm too old to get rid of bad habits, cherie," said her godmother. "And we had better go down. By the way, what is Ben coming as?"
"I really don't know," came the muffled reply from behind the yashmak, "if he comes at all."
As Cairo entire had accepted the invitation, the place was packed, but nowhere was the crowd so suffocating as round the entrance to the Winter Garden.
"Per-fect-ly wonderful," gasped a rotund Ouled Nail to a masked dancer of the same sex and size. "He told me about that terrible time when I lost so much at bridge—you remember, dear, when I had to—er—to raise money on my diamonds. How could he have seen it in my hand?"
He hadn't; he had been a guest at Hurdley Castle with her.
"What's he like?"
"Oh, I couldn't see his face, on account of the handkerchief thing, but I think he's quite common; his clothes are quite poor. I believe he is one of the waiters dressed up. I seem to recognise his voice. Have you long to wait?"
"I'm twenty-fifth down the list. Who's in now?"
"Some woman in black. There are four of them, and I can't tell t'other from which."
The hand of the woman who was twenty-fifth down the list was never told.
Damaris lifted the curtain, and walked into the corner of the Winter Garden, which had been temporarily given the appearance of an Arab's tent.
"Salaam aley," she said gently, giving the word of peace.
The fortune-teller salaamed with hands to forehead, mouth and heart, in the beautiful Eastern gesture.
"Aleykoum es-Salaam!" he replied as gently, which is the sacrament of lips.
There was the fortune-teller's regulation small table, with a chart of the stars and a silver tray covered in sand upon it; on either side was a chair; but it was upon a cushion on the floor that Damaris seated herself, with her back against the canvas drapery of the wall, motioning the Arab to a cushion near her, whilst her eyes swept the loose cotton tunic, the kaleelyah or head-kerchief, which almost completely hid the face, the great white mantle and the sandals upon the naked feet.
Oh! the game of make-believe they played, those two with the jewel-hilted, razor-edged dagger of love between them.
There fell a silence.
And then the fortune-teller spoke in his own tongue, and too absorbed were they in the game of make-believe to notice that he made use of neither sand nor stars nor the lines upon her hands, which were clasped above her heart, as he read her future in her eyes.
"Two paths lie before thee, O woman, and both stretch, through the kingdom of love.
"The one to thy right hand has been marked out upon the Field of Content by feet bound in the sandals of custom and convention. There is shade upon this path, for, behold, the scorching sun of passion may not penetrate the leaves of the trees of tranquillity; the storm breaks not, neither do the biting winds of fear, nor the drenching torrents of desire, encompass those who walk thereon.
"The river, the slow, full-blossomed river of patience, flows ever beside it, on its way to the Ocean of Life in which all waters must mingle in eternity."
There fell a silence, broken by the swaying, throbbing music from the distant ball-room, causing the girl suddenly to stretch out her hands, upon which shone the ring, and the man to stretch out his, though he touched not hers at all.
"And to the left?"
"To the left, O woman whose eyes are like unto the pools of Lebanon at night, to thy left, lies the desert. The desert, where the feet are blistered by the gritting sands of passion and the eyes are blinded in desire. The vast plain where knowledge walks hand-in-hand with death; where the footprints of horror, fear, starvation, thirst, which are but the footprints of jealousy and love desired and fulfilled, mark the sands for one little second and then are gone; the desert, where there is no shade, no cool waters, no content, no peace until the wanderer lies still, with sightless eyes turned towards Eternity."
"And if a woman's feet trod upon it?"
"Then will she cut her feet upon the stones of pain; then will the scorpion of bitter experience sting her heel; then will she die with a smile upon her red mouth, for love will have come to her, maybe for a day, maybe for a second of time, but a love which will mingle her soul with the soul of her desert lover, or shatter her body, even as is broken the alabaster vase of sweet perfume. Yet is it the love of the soul that endureth forever, yea, even if the body of the woman passeth unto another's keeping."
The girl pulled her veil closely about her head and sat quite still, her wonderful eyes hidden by the fringe of black lashes.
And yet did she not move when he sprang to his feet, intoxicated with the mystery of her, afire with that love which is the heritage of the desert.
Then he bent and caught her by the wrists and raised her to her feet.
"Take the path at thy right hand, woman; set not a foot upon the desert sand, lest perchance a bird of prey swoop down upon thee, thou white dove."
He pulled her hands up, holding them cruelly, as in a steel vise, so that he had but to bend a finger's breadth to kiss them.
"Thy feet hesitate, woman. Why? What searchest thou?"
The man unconsciously laced his fingers in hers, crushing them until she went white to the lips.
"Knowledge is pain, woman. What know'st thou of pain? Great pain. How could'st thou endure it?"
Then he let her hands go and touched the silver tray of sand upon the table beside him.
"Behold! Love shall be offered thee within the passing of a few hours, the love of thy right hand, and thou shalt reject it. Searching for that which thou desirest thou shalt, surrounded by thy women who love thee, pass down the river even unto Thebes of the Hundred Gates. Yet shalt thou not find it in the river, nor in the temples upon the east bank of the waters, nor upon the west bank."
Drawing a square in the sand, the fortune-teller made a cross at the south-east, upon which, to see it better, the girl drew close—so close that the sweet perfume of her veils filled his nostrils.
"Then shalt thou, in thy search, go, even under the stars, to the Gate of Tomorrow, and there shall thou find a mare descended from the mares of Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah the one and only God. White is the mare, and beautiful, yea, even is she like unto thee, thou woman of ivory; her bit is of silver, her bridle of plaited gold, her saddle-cloth encrusted with jewels. Thou wilt spring upon her, and she, knowing her way, will bring thee to the Tents of Purple and Gold."
"Ah!" whispered the girl. "The Tents of the long-dead Queen! They are the talk of Cairo, but nobody—at least, no foreigner—has seen them."
"No man but the servants, no woman but the mother of him who is the master, has even set foot within the Tents of Purple and of Gold; no one but the master has set foot in the tent which stands between them, the Tent of Death."
"And in them—if I come, what—what should I find?"
"No harm shall befall thee, no smirching of thy fair name. The master alone shall greet thee, and when thou hast found that for which thou searchest, then shalt thou return, if so thou wilt."