[Frontispiece: Someone leaned above him to inspect his work. Chap X.]
THE WAYFARERS LIBRARY
VALLEY of the KINGS
J.M.DENT & SONS. Ltd.
VALLEY OF THE KINGS
"Woe on you, mothers of nothing! May the scourge of Allah flay you as you go!"
The mother of Iskender held the doorway of her little house in a posture of spitting defiance. Rancour, deep-rooted and boundless, ranged in her guttural snarl. Her black eyes burned to kill, their thick brows quite united by the energy of her frown as she gazed across a sand-dell, chary of vegetation but profuse in potsherds, towards the white walls and high red roof of the Mission-house seen above a wave of tamarisks on the opposite dune. The hedge of prickly pear defining her small domain did not obstruct the view, for it consisted largely of gaps, by one of which a group of three Frankish ladies had just gone from her. She could see their white-clad forms, under sunshades, down there in the hollow, battling ungracefully with the sand for foothold. With one hand raised as a screen from the declining sun, the mother of Iskender clenched the other, and shook it down the pathway of those ladies so that the bracelets of coloured glass tinkled upon her strong brown arm.
"Ha, Carulin, most ancient virgin, thy stalk is a crane's! There is neither flesh nor blood in thee, but only gristle and dry skin. Thy heart is gall and poison. . . . O Jane, thou art a fruit all husk; half man, yet lacking man's core, half maid, yet lacking woman's pulp! In thee is no fount of joy, no sweetness. Did love of our Blessed Saviour and the Sacred Book bring the pair of you to this land? By Allah, not so; well I know it! It was the love of change, of adventure; and what is that in a virgin save the hope of men? And now, seeing none have desired you, your longing is turned to hatred of all things sweet! My son is bad, you declare; it is a grace for him to be allowed to sweep your house. But the son of Costantin—that sly-eyed devil!—he is good: of him you make a clergyman, a grand khawajah! Have I not washed these twenty years for you and the false priest whose things you are? Was I not among the first to profess your damning heresy? The house of Costantin are converts of last year. Let Allah judge between us this day."
She paused a moment, the better to gesticulate a frantic reverence to the ladies, now on the opposite slope, who were waving hands to her.
"O poor little Hilda! Thou art a ripe fruit that whispers 'Pluck me.' But those two sexless devils guard thee sleeplessly. Thou wast not angry when Iskender kissed thy mouth. Is it likely, since thou didst incite him to it by previously stroking his hand? But the rest, thy keepers. . . . Holy Mother of God! . . . When shall I hear the last of my son's guilt! Iskender is vile, Iskender is worthless, Iskender is the son of all things evil. Ah, if the great lady, the mother of George, had been here, you would never have dared to use the poor lad so, for she loved him from a babe. But alas! she is away in your native land, watching the education of her many children. You and the priest, her husband, were gentler in your ways while she was here. But since she left, you have become true devils. Aye, you are right, forsooth, and the whole world of nature is quite wrong. May Allah set the foot of Iskender upon the necks of you, O false saints!"
With a parting menace of the fist, she turned indoors, still snarling. After the sun-glare on the sands, the room was darkness. Doorway and unshuttered casement framed each its vision of relentless light; but no ray entered.
The place consisted of a single chamber, which, with door and window open as at present, became a draughtway for what air there was. A curtain veiled one corner, where the beds were stowed in daytime, with whatever else was unpresentable through dirt or breakage: for the ladies of the Mission valued tidiness above all virtues, and claimed the right to inspect the abode of their washerwoman and pet proselyte. The mother of Iskender courted their inspection, being secured against complete surprise by the position of her house upon an eminence whence approaching visitors could be descried a long way off. To-day she had run to meet them with delighted cries; but old Carulin had met the welcome in the dullest manner, stalking on into the house, where, instated in the only chair, with hands crossed on the handle of her parasol, she proceeded to give judgment on Iskender, while Jane and Hilda, standing one on either side, contributed their sad Amen to all she said.
"We are more grieved than we can express, Sarah," the old devil concluded in her creaking voice; "more especially on your account, who are a Christian woman. It is solely out of regard for you that we are prepared to take him as a servant, provided he repents and mends his ways. We cannot have him associating with men like that Elias."
She spoke as the mouthpiece of the missionary, the dispenser of wealth and preferment. Sarah was obliged to thank the Lord for her kindness, instead of tearing her eyes out, or treading her dog-face level with the ground. Yet Iskender was robbed of his birthright. It had always been known that one boy of the little congregation would be made a clergyman; and Iskender was clearly designated, his parents having been the first converts, and himself the spoilt child of the Mission till six months ago. Furthermore, he was fatherless, a widow's only son. Yet Asad son of Costantin was put before him. Asad had a father—aye, and a clever one—a father who dwelt at the Mission-house, and was always at the ladies' ears with cunning falsehoods. If only Iskender's father—the righteous Yacub—had been still alive! . . .
Thus brooding on her wrongs, with lips still murmurous, the mother of Iskender brushed a hand across her eyes, and looked about her. There was the chair still standing in the middle of the room where Carulin had sat.
Snatching up the defiled thing, she swung it to its usual place beside the wall, banging it down with spiteful energy enough to break it. Having stooped to make sure that it was not actually broken, she brushed her eyes again, and wept a little. Then, on a sudden thought, she sprang to the curtained corner, and, groping among mattresses and sweat-stained coverlets which the ladies from the Mission never dared turn over, brought forth a picture of the Blessed Virgin which Iskender had made for her with the help of a paint-box given to him by the Sitt Hilda on his eighteenth birthday. This she set upon a stool against the wall and, crossing herself, knelt down before it. Here was one at least to whom she could expose her wrongs, secure of sympathy—a woman of almighty influence bound to her in the common tie of motherhood.
Was not Iskender clever, handsome, good? For what could any one prefer that lanky, pig-eyed son of Costantin the gardener—the convert of a day, whereas Iskender had been a Protestant from his birth? Naturally, she had looked for some reward of her long adherence. But lo; they thrust her aside, exalting in her stead the mother of Asad son of Costantin. They would never have dared to do it if the wife of the missionary, the excellent mother of George, had not been absent with her children in the land of the English.
At the first planting of the Mission here upon the sandhills, it had seemed to many Christians of the town to promise escape from the repressive shadow of the Muslim, and the protection of a foreign flag which bore the Cross. O sad delusion! That cold priest, those bloodless women, considered nothing but their own comfort. To that they made every convert minister; their notion being to patronise and not to raise; witness Allah how she herself had slaved for them, obeyed and flattered them, for twenty years! By the Gospel, it was black ingratitude that the son of Costantin should be set apart for their priesthood, be made an Englishman, a grand khawajah, whilst Iskender was offered employment—mark the kindness!—as a scullion and a sweeper in their house—Iskender, who had been their favourite till a month ago!
How had he fallen? Ah, that was a joke indeed! Listen, O Holy Miriam and all saints! It was because one hot afternoon, at their Bible-class, he had kissed the pretty Sitt Hilda, who sat close to him, teaching. Forgetting he was no longer a child, she had caressed his hand approvingly; that was Hilda's tale. A likely one, forsooth! And the lad quite sick for love of her, as an infant of the female sex must have perceived blindfold! Already, before that, they had begun to persecute the lad, finding fault with his painting, his idleness, his language, his smoking—Allah knows with what besides!—so that he was vexed in mind, no longer quite himself. From his birth he had been a sensitive boy, always responsive to a touch of kindness. He was in love with the Sitt Hilda, and his mind was clouded; she touched him fondly, and he kissed her mouth. It was all quite natural. As well blame flowers for opening to the sun! Iskender was immoral, was he? Then what should be said of those who set such ripe and tempting fruit before a youth of the ravenous age, simply to punish him if he made a bite? Ah, they were moral, doubtless! But Our Lady Miriam and the Host of Heaven thought otherwise, they might be sure!
And if, in the month which had elapsed since then, he had turned his back on prayer-meetings and haunted taverns of the town, whose fault was that? His new associates were not depraved. Their only crime was that they were not Protestants. Even Elias Abdul Messih, the cause of all this outcry, was a respectable man, only scatter-brained and light-hearted. He was a Christian, not a Muslim or an idolater, so what was there to justify such bitter chiding?
The missionaries called it a crime in Iskender that he idled abroad, trying to make a likeness of the things he saw with his pencils and paints—the gift of the Sitt Hilda, mark that well! It was all their own doing, yet so wrong! Did he smoke a cigarette, it was a sin! Did he call in talk upon the name of Allah—a sin most deadly! . . .
"Peace on this house!" said a man's complacent voice at the doorway.
Still on her knees, the mother of Iskender turned and peered at the disturber, pressing both hands to her temples. In her confusion on the start the greeting gave her she failed at first to recognise the figure standing forth against the sand-glare, which, now that evening drew on, had the colour of ripe wheat.
"O mother of Iskender, how is thy health to-day?" pursued the visitor; and then she knew him for the brother of her dead husband.
"Is it thyself, Abdullah?" She rose up to greet him. "My soul has grief this day on account of Iskender. They treat him shamefully over yonder—worse than a dog!"
Abdullah rejected her offer of the only chair in favour of a cushion by the wall. He was an elderly man of most respectable appearance, being clad in a blue zouave jacket and pantaloons, both finely braided, a crimson sash at his waist, and on his head a low-crowned fez with long blue tassel hanging to the neck. He wore top boots and held a whip, though he had not come riding. The skin of his face had withered in loose folds, leaving the bushy grey moustache and brows unduly prominent, a crowd of wrinkles round his large brown eyes giving an effect of intelligence to orbs whose real expression was a calm stupidity in keeping with the general dignity of his demeanour.
"Even the son of Costantin—that dirt!—is preferred before him. In this minute I was kneeling to our gracious Lady on his behalf."
"Praise to her!" exclaimed Abdullah, crossing himself. "There is none like her in a difficulty, as I, of all men living, have best cause to know, since she gave me all that I possess."
"Allah increase thy wealth!" said Sarah hastily, fearing the story she had heard a thousand times.
Years ago the respectable Abdullah had been no better than a sot and wastrel, having contracted the habit of drunkenness at Port Said, where he spent three years as porter in a small hotel. He had squandered all his savings and had drunk himself to the verge of madness, when one summer night, as he lay on the floor of his house (as he himself expressed it) "between drunk and sober," the Mother of God appeared to him, "all white and blinding like the sand at noon." The vision, after gazing on him a space, stretched out its hand and vanished. That was all. But Abdullah arose with new heart. Thenceforth he honoured himself, whom God had honoured. The change in him was plain for all to see, and he proclaimed the cause of it aloud with streaming eyes. The Orthodox Church confirmed the miracle, which made a noise at the time. The Patriarch himself wrote the seer a long letter. People who had long since washed their hands of the drunken reprobate vied one with another to help the known favourite of Heaven. Abdullah obtained good employment, first in an hotel at Jerusalem, then with an English traveller of importance. Now, for some years, he had been a trusted dragoman in the pay of a mysterious power called Cook. His religious vogue had passed, his story and the miracle involved were quite forgotten of the multitude. But Abdullah himself remembered, viewing his respectability at the present day with the same feelings of awe and reverence with which he had received it at the first. It was the mantle of the Blessed Virgin, her gift to him. In it lay all his hope for this world and the next.
"It is of Iskender that I come to speak," he said, having pulled out his moustache to the utmost and swallowed twice with solemn gulps preliminary to the announcement. "It hurts my soul to see him wasting time——"
"Enough! enough, I say!" The woman screamed aloud to drown his words. "Am I not already killed with such bad talk, deafened with it, maddened with it every day from morn till night. Ah, by the Gospel, it has grown past bearing! They will no longer make a priest of our Iskender; that honour is for the son of Costantin;—low, cunning devil! Iskender may now, as a favour, sweep their house. Here, in this very room, on yonder chair, the abandoned Carulin sat and told me the fine news—to me, the mainstay of the Mission, who have not missed a prayer-meeting for twenty years——"
"Allah is merciful!" ejaculated the dragoman. Though himself a staunch supporter of the Holy Orthodox Church, he had a regard for the Protestant, as the faith of the wealthy English. He had looked forward to the welcoming smile of English travellers when he told them that his nephew was a Protestant clergyman. This rejection of Iskender was therefore a disappointment to him. Nevertheless, since God so willed it, there were other occupations that the boy could follow. More insupportable by far was the screaming fury of this woman, which, he feared, might lead her to disgrace her relatives by overt rudeness towards the English missionaries. He said:
"The flush of anger well becomes thee. By Allah, it enriches thy dark beauty, like the bloom on purple grapes."
The mother of Iskender started and blushed hotly, struck in the face by such audacious flattery. She exclaimed:
"Be silent, imbecile! Are such words for the ear of one like me? Keep thy fine phrases for the tourist ladies, who know the fashion, and can answer thee."
"Nay, the daughters of our land nowadays rival the foreign ladies in wit and fashion," said Abdullah gravely, pursuing his advantage. "I myself assisted at a wedding in Beyrut where the ladies talked and jested freely with the gentlemen, with roars of laughter in the Frankish manner. Ah, that was a sight! A hundred carriages, all festively bedecked, conveyed the guests to church, with cracking of whips and shoutings to clear a way. All the women were arrayed in splendid dresses brought from Fransa, and grand big hats with ostrich plumes and flying ribbons. A sight, I tell thee, equal to anything to be seen in Baris or Lundra."
"Thou seest such things!" The mother of Iskender pouted, envious. "Here there is never anything to call a show. Even when Daud el Barudi married, there were no fine dresses. Every woman present wore the head-veil. I fain would try a Frankish hat myself; but the ladies will not let me—curse their father!"
"They fear to be outshone," put in Abdullah, and continued quickly, apprehending a fresh storm: "Now, as concerns Iskender, I have a project for thee. It was for that I came here, not to blame the lad. Know that a young Englishman arrived yesterday at the Hotel Barudi, in search of amusement, it would seem, for when Selim Barudi inquired how long he wished to stay, he replied it might be all his life if the place pleased him. From that and the plenteousness of his luggage I conclude him to be the son of a good house—no less than an Emir, by Allah—though why he comes here out of season Allah knows! Elias and the rest have not got wind of him. He as yet knows no one in the land except the two Barudis and myself, who met him at their house an hour ago. My plan is to present our dear one to him——"
At this point Iskender's mother interrupted him with sudden outcry as of one possessed:
"Aha, O cruel priest! O soured virgins! Let the son of Costantin be your dog if he will. My son shall tread on all your faces, the friend of an Emir."
She shook her fist towards the Mission, seen in fierce sunlight through the shadowed doorway.
"Hush, woman!" cried Abdullah in an agony. Her foolish words set wasps about his head. "For the love of Allah, let Iskender anger no man, but be supple, politic, and so respected. Now that he is cast off by your Brutestants, there is nothing for it but he must become a dragoman. The Englishman of whom I spoke is but a step. He has need of all men's favour, and must court it diligently. . . . Where is the boy himself? I thought to find him."
"Ask me not where he is!" The woman raised her hands despairingly. "He went out early this morning with his paint-things, and has not returned. May his house be destroyed! He is the worst of sons. He shuns all counsel, and does nothing that one asks of him. How often have I begged him to renounce his painting, or to go with me to the Mission and make show of penitence. As well instruct the sand. It is likely he will scout this plan of thine. Oh, what have I ever done to be thus afflicted? Why, why has he not the wit of Asad son of Costantin?"
"Let us go out and meet him," proposed old Abdullah, still bent on diverting her mind from its maddening grievance. "He cannot be far off, and to smell the air is pleasant at this hour."
The mother of Iskender flung her cares aside. To walk out by the side of so respectable a man, at an hour when many people took the air upon the sandhills, was to gain distinction. She draped a black lace shawl upon her head, while Abdullah strode to the doorway and stared out, flicking his boots with his whip. Then, gathering up the skirt of her flowered cotton gown in one hand, she placed the other in Abdullah's arm, ready crooked to receive it.
"It is the fashionable way," she tittered as they set forth.
Beyond the ancient town and its dark green orange gardens, between the tilled plain and the shore, the sandhills roll away to north and south, with here a dwelling, there a patch of herbage. To Iskender, lying prone on the crest of the highest dune, caught up into the laugh of sunset, their undulations appeared flushed and softly dimpled, like the flesh of babes. Returning homeward, hungry, from a day of much adventure, he had espied from this eminence a camp of nomads in a certain hollow, and at once forgot his supper in desire to sketch it. He had settled to the work with such complete absorption that Elias Abdul Messih, his companion, for once grew tired of the sound of his own voice, and left him, with a sigh for his obtuseness. And Iskender was glad to be rid of him, to lie alone and nurse his secret joy; for he had this day made the acquaintance of an Englishman, whose affability restored his pride of life. Might Allah bless that light-haired youth, for he was the very lord of kindness, and beautiful as an angel from Allah. His cheeks had the same rose-bloom as the Sitt Hilda's, while his blue eyes danced and sparkled like sea-waves in sunlight. How different from the priest of the Mission, whose gaze was of green ice! Moreover, he had praised Iskender's painting and taught him a trick of colouring, which consisted in washing the page yellow and letting it dry before setting to work on it. The artist had never been so happy since the day, six months ago, when the missionary had declared against his sketching as mere waste of time. The ladies of the Mission, who had fostered it, obsequious to the edict, then condemned it strongly. His mother, too, turned round and blamed him for it. Only the Sitt Hilda still was kind, comforting him in secret, till his love leapt up. And then came outer darkness. Iskender was a profligate, and driven forth.
Debarred from Christian society, hardly less than Muslim, by his English education and his Protestantism, he was a pariah in his own land. This very morning, sketching a gateway in the town, he had been beaten by some Muslim boys and called an idol-maker; and, traversing a Christian hamlet among the gardens, had been reviled and pelted by its Orthodox inhabitants. For company he had been obliged to consort with English-speaking touts and dragomans, who welcomed his proficiency in the foreign tongue; and these he hated, for they mocked his art. The one exception was Elias Abdul Messih. Elias could read Arabic fluently (a feat beyond Iskender, who had been schooled in English), and from trips to Beyrut and the towns of Egypt had brought back any number of miraculous romances, which he read and read again until they turned his brain. Impersonating the chief characters, he dwelt in a world of magical adventure, and spoke from thence to ears that understood not. For this he was named the Liar and the Boaster, and, though well liked, derided. He had taken a fancy to Iskender, and often sat beside the artist while he sketched.
His talk revealed new worlds to the pupil of the English missionaries, who hitherto had looked to England as the realm of romantic ambition—the land where, by simply entering holy orders, a poor son of the Arabs could attain to wealth and luxury. Now, for the first time, he was shown the wonders of the East. Elias, in his tales, despised the Christians, his own folk, anathematised the Jews, and praised the Muslims, till Iskender longed to embrace the doctrine of Muhammad, and become a freeman of the land of old romance. But when he said as much, Elias shook his head. It was known that every Muslim would be damned eternally.
Moved by the example of this friend, Iskender's brain conceived wild dreams of greatness, enabling him in imagination to enslave the wicked missionaries and carry off his blushing love amid applause. He told Elias that his father, Yacub, had left a treasure buried in the ground, which he would dig up some day, and astound mankind; and Elias accepted the statement as quite probable. But such fancies were of no real comfort to Iskender, being rendered feverish by his sense of wrong. He had known no solace till this day at noon, when the English youth from the hotel had smiled on him. Now, once again, he looked to England as of old—to England where great honours were conferred on painters.
With a final dab at the sky, he held his picture off from him, to mark the effect. In love with the figure of a camel belonging to the camp, which was chewing the cud superbly in the foreground, he had at unawares so magnified the creature that it bestrode the whole page of his drawing-book; while the camp itself, the sandhills, some scattered houses and a palm-tree in the distance, the very sky, seemed no more than the pattern of a carpet upon which it stood. There was something wrong, he perceived—something to do with that perspective which, despite instructions from the Sitt Hilda, he could never rightly comprehend.
But his pride in the monster camel condoned everything. He just lengthened all the tent-ropes a little with his smallest paint-brush, thereby imparting to the black pavilions a look of spiders squashed by the triumphant beast, and laid aside his work, well pleased. There were many groups abroad, of people enjoying the cool evening; he saw them stalking ghostlike in the coloured light; but they kept to the bound sand of the trodden pathways, and if any one descried him on his perch, none laboured up to see what he was after.
At ease upon the ground, with chin on palm, he tried to judge what colours would be needed in order faithfully to reproduce the sunset glow. He compared that glow to the insurgent blood ever ready to mantle in the cheeks of the Sitt Hilda; but this was a warmer, swarthier flush than ever dyed the white skin of a Frank. Then, looking east, he watched the blue increase on the horizon, its drowsy glimmer radiating thoughts of rest, as if a hovering spirit whispered "Hush!" A star glanced out above the distant palm-tree; in that direction it was night already behind the crimsoned earth. A flash from the grand glass windows of the Mission, ruddy with the last of daylight, caused him to wag his head and sigh:
"Would to Allah I were rich like one of them!" The English youth from the hotel had laughed at missionaries. Though here so great and powerful, it seemed they were little thought of in their own country. When Iskender eagerly inquired whether a famous painter would take rank before them, the Englishman had said: "Yes, rather!" with his merry laugh.
"O Allah, help me," was Iskender's prayer now, "that I may travel to the countries of the Franks, and reap the honour they accord to painters!"
This with a fond glance at his drawing-book, which contained a camel—ah, but a camel such as Allah made him!—a camel worthy to be framed in gold and hung in king's palaces!
"Is—ken—der!" A shrill, trailing cry disturbed his reverie; when, looking forth in the direction of the sound, he saw in a dell beneath, where ran a footpath, a man and a woman standing still amid the shadows, gazing up at him.
"Ya Iskender! Make haste, descend, come down to us!" The call came again more peremptorily.
The voice was his mother's. Muttering, "May her house be destroyed!" he emptied the pannikin of paint-foul water which he had carried with him all day long, picked up his drawing-book, and obeyed. As he prepared to descend, the last red gleam forsook the sand-crests, leaving them ashy white.
"Make haste, O shameless loiterer. We bring thee news—fine news! Praise Allah who assigned to thee Abdullah for an uncle—one so kind, so considerate, so thoughtful for thy welfare.~.~.~. But first I must tell thee how the three ladies came in thy absence to inform me of their intention to educate the son of Costantin to be a clergyman; whilst thou, whose mother has washed for them these twenty years, art required to sweep their house."
"What matter!" rejoined Iskender, with a listless shrug. "My ambition is to visit the country of the Franks and gain the honour of a mighty painter."
His mother stretched out her hands to heaven, screaming:
"Hear him, Allah! Is he not bewitched? Desire of the lady Hilda has made him mad. O Holy Maryam, O Mar Jiryis and all saints, condemn those who have led him thus to ruin. Hear him now; he would make pictures! Well, to Allah the praise; but it is their doing!~.~.~. Now, for the love of Allah, put such toys aside and hear Abdullah's generous plan for thy advancement. Know that a young Englishman has lately come to the Hotel Barudi——"
"I know that well," Iskender grunted irritably. "He is my friend. This day he spent two hours with me."
"Thy friend!~.~.~. O merciful Allah!" cried his mother.
"Thou knowest him?" exclaimed Abdullah, much affronted.
"Come, cease thy dreaming, tell the story, mad-man!" His mother shook his arm and screamed at him. "Art possessed with thy dumb devil. Speak! What sayest thou?"
"May thy father perish!" cried Iskender, startled.
"Curse thy religion!" retorted his mother hotly. "Is thy uncle dirt to be thus disregarded? Ask his pardon, O my dear!"
Abdullah the dragoman laughed at that, and suggested they had best be moving, for the night was near. A trace of grievance lingered in his voice and manner, for he loved ceremonies, and had looked forward to a formal presentation of his nephew to the English nobleman.
"Come, tell the story of thy day!" he too insisted. At first it had not been a happy one, Iskender told them. He had tried to paint the beauty of the sea between two dunes, but it turned to a blue gate on yellow gate-posts; then a boat turned upside down upon the beach, but the portrait made resembled nothing earthly. Then the Englishman had taught him a new way, and things went well, and he had drawn a camel.~.~.~.
He was opening his sketch-book to display the masterpiece; but his mother shrieked:
"Who cares to hear all that. Tell of the Englishman; how came he with thee?"
"They stoned me," he replied indifferently; "and I was running from them, weeping, when he met me, and I cried to him in English to protect me. He had compassion on me, and admired my pictures——"
Iskender became aware that his companions were no longer listening, so stopped abruptly. His uncle seemed to think some miracle had happened, for he heard him praising Allah and the Holy Virgin, the while his mother kept exclaiming in her shrill-pitched tones. His mind strayed far from them, occupying itself with distant features of the landscape. All the earth was now obscure: stars sparkled in the dome of the sky. From a high, sandy neck their path surmounted, he beheld the minarets of the town, seeming to cut the sky above the sharp sea-line. The timbre of his mother's voice made for inattention like the monotonous shrill note of the cicada; and he had at all times a trick of projecting his wits into the scene around him, whence it needed a shout to re-collect them, as she knew to her grievance. She shouted now, and punched him in the back:
"Forget not to tell the Emir that thou art a Brutestant, which is half an Englishman."
Jarred in his bones by her shrillness, he exclaimed:
"Merciful Allah! Is my mother mad? The Emir! In the name of angels, what Emir?"
"O Holy Maryam! Am I not unblessed in such a son? What wonder that the priest and the ladies favour the son of Costantin—may his house be destroyed!—who has at least the grace to listen when one speaks to him.~.~.~. Thou goest in the morning to the Hotel Barudi, to visit formally this English youth, who is an Emir in his own country, and proffer thy services. Thou wilt present thyself before him, not as now in a soiled kaftan, but in thy best. Give him to know how thy mother is esteemed by the missionaries, how thou art thyself a Brutestant of the English Church."
"Whist!" said Abdullah warningly.
Some one was hurrying towards them down the path.
"Who is it?" breathed the mother of Iskender.
It was Elias, who was looking for his friend.
"No word to him, or all is lost!" hissed old Abdullah.
But Elias for the moment had no ears. After parting from Iskender he had been seized with a new and vivid inspiration, and felt the need of his accustomed listener. Dragging his friend aside he whispered breathlessly:
"I am in great haste. A lady—ah, a beauty!—waits for me—a Muslimeh, I do assure thee—one of the most closely guarded. I go now to the tryst. It is to risk my life; but what care I, for love has maddened me. I would not tell a living soul save thee; but if I die in the adventure, thou wilt pray for me. I sought thee in thy house, but found thee not."
"May Allah guard and prosper thee!" replied Iskender.
But by then his friend was gone, driven on by the fierce wind of his imagining towards the house-door, not far distant, where his wife stood looking for him. Iskender could not prevent a lump from rising in his throat at the vision of requited love, however perilous. From a dream of the Sitt Hilda he was roused by his mother saying:
"Thou must sup with us, O Abdullah! After all thy kindness to Iskender, thou canst scarce refuse me."
They were at the house.
With a polite show of reluctance Abdullah entered, and sat down beside the wall, while Iskender helped his mother spread the feast for him. Then, when all was ready, the young man wrapped some morsels in a piece of bread, and carried them out beyond the threshold, to be alone. Squatting there, he was once more happy in thoughts of the fair young Englishman who, though a prince, had shown such kindness towards him. By Allah, he would give his life for that sweet youth. He asked no better than to serve him always.
The highest lobes of the cactus hedge before him were like great hands shorn of fingers thrust against the sky. Through a gap he beheld the lights of the Mission—fierce hostile eyes intent upon his thoughts. The wail and bark of a jackal came from the landward plain.
"Praise to Allah!" The voice of his mother raised for a moment above its monotone caused him to turn and look into the house.
They had made an end of eating in there and were now arranging the programme of Iskender's conduct towards the young Emir. His uncle sat cross-legged by the wall, puffing slowly at a narghileh, his mother opposite to him, in the same posture, also with a narghileh, not smoking for the moment, but leaning forward with one hand out, talking eagerly. A saucer-lamp stood on the floor between them, among remnants of the feast; it caused their faces to look ghastly, lighted thus from below, and sent their shadows reeling up the wall. The woman declaimed untiringly with gestures of demonstration, and the man kept acquiescing by a nod which set the tassel of his fez in motion.
The dull sententiousness of the dragoman and his mother's shrill, rash judgments were alike irritating to Iskender. They claimed to understand the foreigners perfectly; and in truth they knew enough of the foibles of the lords of gold to secure to themselves a livelihood. They had never, either of them, loved a Frank.
Next morning Iskender was disturbed at daybreak by the movements of his mother in the house. With her black locks all dishevelled, she was putting out his grandest clothes and dusting them in the feeble lamp-light.
"Though shalt wear this sweet suit which thy father left thee," she croaked out when she knew he was awake. "That and thy new tarbush and the great umbrella. Wallah, thou wilt fill men's eyes. Now rise, and make haste with thy washing."
He rose accordingly and, having dedicated his works to God, dipped a hand-bowl in the earthen jar which served as cistern, and carried it out on to the sand before the threshold. There the rising colour of the dawn bewitched him; he was reminded of a certain trumpet-flower which bloomed at Easter on the Mission walls—a flower with purple petals and the gleam of gold in its heart; and, all on fire to register the rare impression, he left his bowl of water on the sand and re-entered the house to fetch his book and paint-box. But his mother tried to wrest them from him, cursing him for a maniac, and before he could shake her off the colours of the sky had changed completely. The little disappointment made life vain. In a pet, he overturned the basin of water, robbed of the heart to wash his face and hands. Then, as his mother still kept screaming for him, he went indoors and donned the clothes which she had laid ready. Even then she would not let him be, but pulled and patted at the garments till he lost his temper, and made a rush for the door. A horrified shriek recalled him. The umbrella! He had forgotten that! His mother thrust it on him. Gathered up into a bunch and tied, not folded, it in shape resembled a charged distaff of unusual size. With it tucked beneath his arm, the youth escaped at last into the rosy sunlight.
Up on the well-marked road which runs out to the Mission from the town he encountered Costantin, the missionary's servant, driving a donkey burdened with two jars of water up towards the house. Costantin remarked upon his finery, and asked where he was going. He showed an amiable inclination to stop and talk. But Iskender hurried on, merely explaining that he was going to be a great painter in the land of the English. Costantin stood scratching his head and staring after him.
The road soon left the sandhills and meandered through thick orange-groves, full of shade and perfume and the hum of bees. Here he advanced with circumspection, and at a turn of the way stood still to reconnoitre.
From that point he could see a Christian village, dignified in the distance by two palm-trees put up like sunshades over its squat mud hovels. The tiny church stood apart, quite overshadowed by an ancient ilex. It was there that he had been pelted yesterday; but at present all looked safe. Only two human beings were in sight—the priest, one Mitri, eminent in black robe and tower-like headdress, sat in thought beneath the oak-tree, and a child in a sky-blue kirtle sprawled at play upon the threshold of one of the houses. The coo of doves and cluck of hens, the only voices, sounded peaceful in the sun-filled air. Iskender moved on, trusting hard in Allah to save his Sunday clothes from base defilement.
The priest Mitri, seated in the shade, was playing an innocent game with two pebbles, which he threw into the air and caught alternately, when Iskender, approaching humbly, wished him a happy day. He returned the greeting mechanically, then, seeing who it was, let fall his playthings and stared solemnly at the disturber. Iskender became uncomfortably conscious of his festive raiment, more especially of the umbrella, which seemed to fascinate Mitri.
For release from the embarrassment of being silently devoured by eyes as fierce and prominent as a bull's, he paused before the priest and asked his blessing. At that the staring orbs betrayed amazement; their owner raised a hand to stroke his long black beard. The child in the sky-blue shift had left its play to observe the encounter. Standing up against the darkness of the doorway it revealed the figure of a slim young girl.
Still gazing fixedly at the suppliant, who stood trembling before him, the priest seemed to ponder the request. Then suddenly he sprang to his feet, crying: "Come with me!" and, seizing Iskender's arm, dragged the terrified youth into the church, of which the door stood open. In there the sudden gloom, combined with a stale smell of incense, overpowered the victim.
"Prostrate thy sinful self!" the priest enjoined.
Iskender fell upon his face obediently. To perform the prostration he was obliged to discard for a moment the great umbrella. When he rose from his knees the priest had hold of it.
"Wherefore dost thou require a blessing of me?"
Iskender confessed that he was about to present himself before a certain great one, in the hope of patronage, and felt the need of Heaven's favour to support his worthlessness.
"What is his name, this great one?"
"That I know not. The man in question is the young Inklizi who honours the hotel of Musa el Barudi. I know only that he is a great Emir, and hates the missionaries."
"Then he must be of the High Church of that land, which yet holds faithful, christening by immersion, and scorning the interpolation of the swine of Rome. May he be a guide to thee, poor unbaptized one. Now, for the blessing, give me ten piasters!"
"Ten piasters!" gasped Iskender.
The enraged ecclesiastic pinched the objector's ear, and twisted it until its owner writhed in anguish. "For a heretic like thee it should be thrice as much. Remember I have power to bind as well as to loose. Insult this place again with heathen haggling, and by the keys of heaven and of hell, I curse thee leprous."
Iskender fell on his knees and howled for mercy.
"I have no money with me," he explained most piteously.
"Is that in truth the case?" The priest let go his ear, and seemed to meditate. Iskender was aware of the girl in the sky-blue robe gazing in at the doorway. Her presence added to his ignominy. "No matter! Thou shalt pay the price another time, and in the meanwhile I shall keep this fine umbrella."
"Alas, it is not mine!" Iskender wrung his hands.
But Mitri had already withdrawn into the inner darkness of the sanctuary, whence he emerged directly, but without the umbrella. Something white and glittering now adorned his shoulders.
As he came towards Iskender, the light from the doorway picking him out from the surrounding gloom, he seemed to bear with him a mystic radiance. The young man knelt instinctively and pressed his forehead to the ground; while the voice of the priest, now grown tender and melodious, seemed to warble far above him like a voice from heaven. An angel stood in the place of his late tormentor.
"It is not thy fault that thou art a Brutestant," said Mitri kindly, when the blessing was concluded. "Come to me sometimes; let us talk things over. I discern in thee some mind to know the truth."
"Is he indeed a Brutestant, my father?" The girl in the sky-blue shirt had stolen close to them. "Ah, woe is me that one so goodly should go the way of everlasting punishment!"
She wore no garment but the long straight kirtle. Her hair, brought low round either temple to be plaited in a tail behind, increased the shadow of her eyes—great thoughtful eyes, which made the childish face divine. Iskender, smitten dumb with admiration, at that moment thought of Protestantism as a foul crone.
"May thy house be destroyed, O Nesibeh, shameless girl!" the priest rebuked her. "What have this youth's looks to do with thee? Thou art grown too big to be allowed such freedom. It is time thou didst assume the veil, and with it modesty." He took his daughter's hand and fondled it, none the less, adding: "Whence this religious fervour, soul of mischief?"
It was with a sigh that Iskender parted from them and he went slowly, often turning to look back at the little church beneath the oak-tree, till his road debouched into a crowded highway, where the long intent procession of the fellahin conveying the produce of their fields to market on the backs of camels, mules and asses, on the heads of women, reminded him of his own errand. He then made haste to the hotel of Musa el Barudi.
The two sons of Musa, Daud and Selim, clad in robes of striped silk, and high red fezzes, sat out on stools, one on either side of the doorway, to feel the morning sun and chat with wayfarers. Behind them, against the doorpost, leaned a tall negro in white robe and turban, who held a broom in his hand, but seemed to have done with sweeping. Iskender approached this group with low obeisance.
"Is his Highness the Emir within?"
The black alone condescended to heed the inquiry. He replied with the broadest of grins:
"May Allah heal thy intelligence. Art possessed with a devil, or a joker merely?"
"I mean the young khawajah who resides here all alone," Iskender explained, replying to the negro, though his eyes kept looking from Daud to Selim, whose perfect impassivity surprised him. He grieved for the loss of his umbrella, which would have compelled more respect.
"Ah," grinned the negro, seeing light. "He is at breakfast."
"Then with permission, I will wait till he comes forth."
"What is this youth?" cried Daud irritably, without looking.
"Bid him depart!" said Selim, moving impatiently in his seat as though a fly annoyed him.
Of a sudden both the brothers rose and bowed profoundly, laying hand to breast, and lips, and brow, as a Muslim notable passed up the street on horseback. Then they sank down again, and the obsequious smile died away on their faces, leaving them cold and haughty as before.
"The great khawajah is my very good friend. He loves me dearly," proffered Iskender in his own excuse. "By Allah, he is the nicest of men! He will be overjoyed to find me here this morning."
The scornful eyes of Daud glanced on him for a brief moment, while Selim, in his turn, questioned:
"Who is this?"
"Is it not the son of one Yacub, a muleteer, who sold his soul years ago to the English missionaries. It seems such renegades are well paid, for behold the raiment of this youth. What wouldst thou here, O dog, son of a dog?"
"I ask but to see my friend the Emir, who loves me dearly—by Allah, I speak but the truth!" pleaded Iskender, near to tears.
"Now by the sword of St. George," vociferated Daud, roused at last, "none of thy species enters my father's door. Ours is an honourable house, respected far and near. If any of our clients needs a guide or servant, we know where to send for one who may be trusted. We tolerate no lickspittle-rogues, no beggars. Remember the abominations of thy father and the extraordinary unchastity of thy mother, and take thy shameful face elsewhere away from us."
"O my kind lords!" Iskender began to protest; but just then Selim, who had been silently working himself into a fury while his brother spoke, sprang up, and snatching the broom from the black servant's hand, discharged it at Iskender's head with all his strength. The son of Yacub, by a lucky move, escaped the missile; but seeing the negro stepping forth to recover his broom, stayed to make no retort.
Having retired to the opposite side of the street, which was in shadow, he sat down on the doorstep of a Frankish shop, and waited. He saw his friend of yesterday come forth at last, Selim and Daud rising for his passage. As he paused upon the steps to taste the sunny air, Iskender caught his eye and ran to greet him. The Emir was gracious, asking how he did, and at once proposing they should walk together. Iskender gave the sons of Musa a triumphant glance.
"Where are your sketching things?" the Frank inquired; and hearing they were left behind, would go and fetch them. They sauntered together through the gardens out on to the sandhills, till within a stone's-throw of Iskender's home; when the Englishman lay down on a patch of withered herbage, saying he would wait there till his friend returned.
Iskender passed the broken hedge at a bound and stood before his mother in the doorway. She screamed to Allah for protection, in the first surprise.
"Come, O my mother! Come and look!" he cried, and dragged her to a point whence they could see the young Emir, lying flat on his back, his straw hat covering his face, for the sun was strong. "It is himself," Iskender whispered, dashing on into the house; while his mother made wild reverence in the Frank's direction, quite oblivious of the fact that the object of her bows and servile gestures could not, from the circumstances of his position, see them.
"Make all speed, O beloved!" she implored Iskender. "It is not well that his Highness should remain extended in the hot sun. Allah forbid that he should get a sunstroke, for his life is precious. May our Lord preserve him for a blessing to us!" But while she spoke her son was out of hearing.
Returning towards the town, the two friends had to pass the Christian village by the ilex-tree, and the Emir, who had seen Iskender stoned there, insisted on his sketching the small church, vowing to punish all who dared molest him. Remembering the priest's daughter, he was fain, and went to Mitri's house to ask for water. The girl herself appeared in answer to his call, but, seeing who it was, ran back in terror, crying: "O mother, help! It is the Brutestant." Whereat a slattern dame came forth instead of her, and filled his can for him, with every blessing.
Soon after, as he sat at work beneath the oak, the priest himself appeared. Iskender rose and presented the Emir, who welcomed the introduction with his ready smile.
"So the blessing worked, the praise to Allah!" was Mitri's comment. He made the Englishman enter his house and drink coffee, then took him into the church. The door stood open. Iskender caught some fragments of the priest's discourse, from which it appeared that he was displaying vestments and a holy relic. When they emerged, the Frank was thrusting money on the priest, who declined to take it, till Iskender shouted:
"It is for the poor."
"For the poor, it is well." Mitri smiled and accepted the offering. Then, with a knowing glance at the son of Yacub, he once more vanished into the church, to reappear next minute with the great umbrella. "Thou hast redeemed the pledge, my son," he said, as he restored it to its lord, and winked discreetly. "But what have we here? By Allah, thou art a complete painter, a professor of the art! There am I, like life. There is my house, the church, the palm-trees. O young man, thou art a devil at this work. A pity thou art a Brutestant, else thou couldst make a trade of it, and make us pictures of the Blessed for our churches. Come, O Nesibeh, see the pretty picture."
Iskender fixed his gaze upon the sketch. He dared not look up, for the girl was at his shoulder. The whole population of the place, his foes but yesterday, now gathered round him, praising Allah for his wondrous talent; while the Emir denounced the bad quality of the paint-box, gift of the Sitt Hilda, and swore to have a proper one sent out from England. Iskender's heart was like to burst with pride and happiness.
It wanted but an hour of sunset when Iskender parted from the Frank. His very brain was laughing, and he trod on air as he strode off, hugging the great umbrella. At noonday he had had his meal at the hotel (no matter though it was flung to him in the entry as to a dog) and afterwards had walked again with the Emir, showing his Honour the chief buildings of the town. Not a few of his acquaintance had beheld his glory, among them Elias the great talker. No doubt but that the fame of it was noised abroad. In no hurry to go home, for his mother had already heard the tidings, he bent his steps towards a tavern where the dragomans were wont to assemble at that hour.
Leaving the road of red-roofed foreign houses in which was the hotel, he crossed a stable-yard, and then a rubbish-heap, and passed through tunnels to the main street of the town, a narrow, shaded way leading down to the shore. Here, what with spanning arches and the merchants' awnings, it was dark already; the business of the shops appeared belated; the sunlit sea beyond was like a vision. Dodging his way through the crowd, avoiding bales and groaning camels, he traversed half the street, then turned in at a gateway worthy of the noblest mosque.
Within was a kind of cloister, three parts ruined, which had once, it was said, appertained to a Christian church. On one side the outer wall had fallen, allowing a view through shadowy arches of the sunset on the sea; on the other, just within the colonnade, an enterprising cook had placed his brazier and all else that is required to make a tavern. Wherever the ground was clear of debris stools were set, and men sat talking, smoking slow narghilehs. The fragrance of coffee stewing filled the place, mixed with the peculiar odour of a charcoal fire.
Here the English-speaking dragomans used to meet together at the cool of the day, to practise the tongue of their profession and discuss the news. Clad in the gayest Oriental clothing to attract the foreigner, their talk was all of Europe and its social splendours. At the moment of Iskender's entrance, a man named Khalil was gravely playing English music-hall airs on a concertina, having acquired the art by instruction from an English sailor at Port Said.
Iskender advanced self-consciously, knowing himself the hero of the hour. And in the twinkling of an eye the music ceased; he was surrounded. Elias, a saffron sash at his waist, a scarlet dust-cloak streaming from his shoulders, flung an arm around his dear friend's neck, and cried:
"I saw thee! Thou art in luck, my dear; for thy man is of the noblest. I know him well by sight, for he is of the intimate friends of my lady."
This had reference to an illusion of Elias, who always maintained that he was the lover of an English princess, and had spent a whole year as her guest among the nobles of that distant land.
"Thou shalt present me to him, O my soul," cried a man in yet more gorgeous raiment, "that I may judge of his character, and teach thee how to work him to the best advantage."
"Aye, it behoves thee to present thy friends," rejoined another. "He is a generous man, it is known; they say he gave a sovereign to our father Mitri."
Iskender promised freely. He saw his uncle beckoning to him, and obeyed the gesture, breaking loose from the throng of courtiers. Abdullah removed his stool to a distant spot among the ruins, whither the servant of the tavern carried two narghilehs. He made his nephew sit and smoke with him, then asked:
"The best—thanks to Allah," replied Iskender. "The Emir has shown great love for me, and is having a grand new paint-box sent from the land of the English."
"Pshaw!" said Abdullah, a shade of annoyance on his brow. "Put away such playthings, which lead nowhere. Let thy whole study be to please his Honour. In dealing with all travellers the first thing is to keep them interested; for if their mind is dull a single moment they blame the dragoman and give him a bad report. Thou art conversant with the Sacred Book. Quote from it freely in connection with common sights; as, for instance, if thou seest people ploughing, refer straightway to Mar Elias who ploughed with twelve yoke of oxen before him; if a woman fetching water from the spring, mention her with whom Our Saviour talked beside Samaria. Things common among us are strange to them. To-morrow take thy patron to the bath, and conduct him through all its stages. Thence bring him to my house, where thou shalt find a meal which will not fail to please him. To sit on the floor as we do, and eat with fingers from one dish, affords delight to foreigners. Above all things, keep him for thine own. I say nought against thy taking him this day to Mitri, though the visit has made a noise. Our father Mitri is an upright man. But these——"
He jerked his thumb in the direction of the other dragomans, now howling in chorus to the strains of the concertina.
"——These are all rivals—enemies. In the season thy Emir would seem as nothing to them; but now he is the only game in sight. Avoid them; lead thy lord away from them. Thy coming here this evening was a fault. Go now and quietly, lest they trap thee somehow. I expect thee at my house at noon to-morrow."
Iskender saw the wisdom in these words. He shot a glance over his shoulder at the other dragomans. They were still busy singing to the concertina. Touching his uncle's hand, he stepped out through the open arches and scrambled down over rocks and fallen masonry to the sea-beach, whence he made his way home through the twilight. His mother had heard of his introducing his Emir to the priest Mitri, and blamed the folly of it, till she learnt how thereby he had redeemed the great umbrella. Even then she still declared it was a pity. It would put the missionaries in a perfect fury, since an Orthodox priest was the devil in their eyes; and was certain to rouse the cupidity of other people. Allah had blessed Iskender with the friendship of a mighty prince. She bade him keep the blessing to himself, not let it waste away in gifts to strangers.
Her words confirmed the counsel of the wise Abdullah. Iskender resolved to follow it to the letter. But when, presenting himself before his lord next morning, he announced the programme for the day, the Frank raised unforeseen objections. He would in no case visit the bath, he said, having heard that they used dirty water there. It was with difficulty that Iskender won him to view Abdullah's invitation with some favour.
Abdullah's house was in the town itself, hard by the shore. It stank in the approach, as the Frank was not slow to remark; but within all was swept and perfumed for the occasion. Borrowed mats strewed the floor. Two candles burned upon a little shelf, before a picture of the Blessed Virgin placed there in remembrance of the famous vision. And the host omitted no formula of politeness that had ever been used by a son of the Arabs to felicitate and set at ease an honoured guest. The Emir, completely reassured, smiled graciously. The food, when it appeared, was tasty and abundant, and his Honour seemed to like it. But Iskender knew that it was of the cheapest: the whole feast had not cost his uncle ten piasters. When the Emir, at taking leave, put two mejidis in Abdullah's hand, he bit his lip and cursed the old man's guile.
Thenceforth he determined to keep all English-speaking persons at a distance, since their whole endeavour seemed to be to cheat his loved Emir. But it was not so easy to discard his old acquaintance.
That same evening, after parting from his patron, he ran right into the arms of a pair of merry fellows, who announced their playful purpose to detain him. Both wore their fezzes at a rakish angle, both had a rosary dangling fashionably from the left hand, both talked and laughed uproariously—secure in their employment by a foreign tourist agency from the disgust of the Muslim population, whose scowls shadowed them. Elias Abdul Messih was one of them. The other, who boasted a very large hooked nose, like a parrot's beak, which reduced the rest of his face to insignificance, was Yuhanna Mahbub, a famous bully.
"Now we have thee!" cried Elias, laughing loudly. "By Allah, it is rude in thee to shun thy friends."
"Is it true that the Emir gives thee an English pound every day?" inquired Yuhanna.
"He is good enough to treat me as a brother, and has sworn, of his benevolence, to make my fortune," Iskender modestly admitted.
"Pshaw! Promises—I know them!" sneered Yuhanna. "Coined money is the only thing I put my faith in."
"We crave a boon of thee," pursued Elias coaxingly. "Bring the khawajah to the house of Karlsberger to-morrow afternoon. We will make a feast in his honour and thine. Say yes, O my soul!"
"Aye, promise," snarled Yuhanna, "or we shall know thou hast a mind to slight us, and take steps accordingly."
Iskender promised, with intent to fail them, for the Emir's protection made their threat quite harmless. He pursued his way down a sandy road through the orange-gardens, which looked black beneath the sunset—of unusual splendour owing to the presence in the sky of ragged clouds. A fellah who passed remarked that rain was coming.
"Art on the way to visit me?" A hand fell suddenly upon Iskender's shoulder. A tall black-clad form had overtaken him, unheard by reason of the muffling sand. It was the priest Mitri. "Or dost thou fear to incur the anger of the English missionaries? By Allah, thou art wrong to fear them. Their religion is of man's devising; its aim is worldly comfort, which will fail them at the Last Day; whereas ours is the faith of Christ and the Holy Apostles, the same for which thy fathers suffered ages before the invention of the Brutestant heresy. It is the faith of the true Romans who reigned in the city of Costantin, when Rome had reaped the reward of her heathen iniquity and lay in ruins, a haunt of brigands and wild beasts. Is it not a sin that, after the lapse of so many ages, people calling themselves Christians, people who have never suffered hardship for their faith as we do, come hither and wage war upon the Church in her bound and crippled state, seducing the feeble and the avaricious by the spectacle of their wealth and the prospect of foreign protection? These heretics—and the Muscovites, our co-religionists, alas! with them—conspire against the Sultan, who is our sole defender. With the Muslimin we have in common language, country, and the intercourse of daily life. Therefore, I say, a Muslim is less abominable before Allah than a Latin or a Brutestant."
The priest stopped speaking suddenly and embraced Iskender, kissing him repeatedly on both cheeks. At the same moment a little cavalcade went ambling by, which solved the riddle of his strange behaviour. Iskender caught a scowl of disapproval from the Sitt Carulin, a glance of agonised appeal from the Sitt Hilda, and then a malicious grin from old Costantin, as he ran by on foot, prodding with his staff the hindmost jackass, on which the Sitt Jane sat up with face averted. The three ladies were clad in white with mushroom hats and fluttering face-veils. Their bodies bulged now here, now there, like sacks of grain, obedient to the motion of the trotting donkeys.
"There they go, mothers of all contention, shameless meddlers!" said Mitri, peering after them in the twilight. "Ha, ha! I angered them, the praise to Allah. I made them tremble for their nursling!"
Iskender made no answer, feeling angry with the priest. At that reproachful glance of the Sitt Hilda, all his childhood had risen up and testified against him. His heart was stricken with profound compunction. He broke away from Mitri as soon as possible, refusing an invitation to enter his house and argue with him, and sped on across the sandhills to his own home. There, in the little house, a lamp was lighted; his mother stood at the doorway looking out for him. Breathless, he informed her of his encounter with the Mission ladies, and the priest's vile trick to shame him.
"Aha," she laughed, "a famous joker is our father Mitri. I would give much to have seen the faces of those harridans! Nevertheless, may his house be destroyed, for he has done me an ill-turn with his foolery. The ladies are certain to come here tomorrow, deafening me with the outcry of their poisonous spite. For thee, it recks not, thou hast thy Emir. In sh' Allah thou wilt soon get money from him. Then thou canst laugh at the malevolence of these hypocrites!"
But Iskender was not to be so easily consoled. He lay awake that night, a prey to poignant self-disgust, remembering in turn his happy childhood at the Mission, his love for the Sitt Hilda, and his recent frowardness, each with a vividness that hurt his brain. Even the patronage of a great Emir seemed nothing worth as compared with the affection of those who had brought him up. The Emir spoke lightly of religion; he despised the missionaries; it might well be he was wicked, a servant of the Evil One, a creature of that outer darkness into which he (Iskender) had fallen through his own fault. Then he thought of the priest Mitri, and of the beautiful child who for a moment had ensnared his fancy; and was overwhelmed with pity for himself. He belonged to nobody. The missionaries loved him so little that they were content to cast him off for small offences; while for the Orthodox he remained a Protestant, a filthy thing. In his thirst for comfort he was driven back on dreams of greatness, of buried treasure some day to be found, which would cause the English and the natives of the land alike to grovel in the dirt before him. Warmed by such thoughts he fell asleep at last.
When he awoke in the morning his mind was healed. He viewed the Mission with the old resentment, and placed his every hope in the Emir. On his way to the hotel he saw the daughter of Mitri throwing crumbs to the church pigeons, and blew a kiss to her with words of love, only to laugh loud when, picking up a stone, she cursed his father. At the entering-in of the town he was accosted by Elias, who sprang suddenly from the shade of a cactus-hedge. Yuhanna followed, yawning. It was clear that they had been lying in wait.
"This afternoon, at the house of Karlsberger; forget not," Elias cried. "We have ordered a fine feast in thy friend's honour."
"Fail us not, or it shall be the worse for thee," put in Yuhanna.
Iskender swore obedience to their will and hurried on, mentally resolved to hire horses and take his Emir for a ride until the evening. It would be easy to say the Frank had willed it so, in which case none could blame him. With this in mind he entered the hotel. But again his Emir proved refractory. The air that morning oppressed him, he declared, and the sons of Musa said that it was going to rain. He proposed a stroll to some near spot among the gardens, where he could read while his companion sketched.
Iskender still had hope to foil the dragomans. He led his patron in a direction opposite to that where he had left Elias. But, looking back, he saw two figures shadowing them, and knew the game was up.
In fact, no sooner had they found a cool retreat than Elias and Yuhanna sauntered up, hailing Iskender with delight as loving comrades. He was obliged to present them to his Emir, and from the moment of introduction they had words for no one else, inquiring how his Honour liked the place, and asking if he knew this and that great lord of the English with whom they, by their own accounts, stood high in favour. They presented their invitation with every circumstance of respect, and the Emir accepted it; and then, by the veriest accident, the eyes of Yuhanna happened to light upon the ousted youth.
"Ah," he exclaimed, "you like this little one, our dear Iskender! A good boy, sir, only don't know much yet. Baints fery nicely, for a young 'un. He show you, sir, the way this afternoon."
A tear fell splash upon Iskender's drawing-book.
The house of Karlsberger stood in a hollow of the southern sandhills, only discoverable on a close approach, so that the sight of its red roof, something like an extinguisher, came always as a surprise.
Its owner was of the number of those Jewish immigrants who, lured by the offer of perpetual charity, had of late years come in their thousands to occupy lands provided by their rich co-religionists. But the life of a husbandman soon palled on Karlsberger, accustomed to trade upon the vices of a European city; and his wife, a former harlot, shared his disgust. As soon as he could gather money enough he had left agriculture to the dullards, and built this house near the town as a rendezvous for all who loved the flavour of depravity. For the dragomans and their kind the house of Karlsberger stood for the fashion and gay life of Europe.
Thither Iskender conducted his lord in the manner of a reluctant follower rather than a guide. He had said all he could to dissuade the Frank from going, had exaggerated the ill repute of the place, and called the dragomans low, drunken blackguards; but all in vain. The Emir was bent on going; and his slave went with him miserably, feeling sure that the kindness he had himself inspired would not survive the introduction to a set of dashing fellows, whose profession it was to win the hearts of foreigners. The air was sultry, the expanse of sand glared hatefully beneath a sky veiled all over with thin cloud. All nature, in accordance with his mood, seemed glum and spiteful.
In sight of the house he pointed to it without a word. It looked in truth a pretty place for a great prince to visit. With a gloomy satisfaction Iskender noticed filth about the threshold, and shabby garments spread to dry upon the window-sill.
Sounds of talk and laughter came from the open door. They ceased directly the Emir was seen by those within; and some dozen men, assembled in a narrow room, rose as one and saluted. The room had been roughly cleaned for the occasion, the dust and filth of the floor having been swept into the four corners, where it lay in heaps. The ceiling and the white-washed walls were grimy, and dust made a bloom on the ragged curtains of the window, looped pretentiously; a three-legged table all but filled the room, leaving just room for one to pass around it. His lord was ushered to the seat of honour, a sofa covered with a fabric which had once been plush, but now resembled draggled sealskin; while Iskender went quite unnoticed till the wife of Karlsberger—a bulky slattern, who kept shuffling in and out with plates and glasses—perceived his need, and placed a stool for him. Through confusion and annoyance he caught nothing of the conversation till Elias, in a mincing voice, announced:
"The grub quite ready."
The Englishman laughed at that; upon which Elias, dancing up to him, exclaimed:
"You are a good fellow; I see that. I like you, and so blease to see you here."
All then drew close to the table, on which were set forth many tempting viands, including mottled discs of German sausage, anchovies, pickled gherkins, and huge chunks of Frankish bread. A bottle of rum and a bottle of gin stood one at each end of the board, attended by glasses of all shapes and sizes.
"Allow me to helb you, sir—a bit of sausage?" cried Elias, seizing a knife and presenting it at the dish in question. The Emir laughed again, which was the signal for an obsequious roar. He said he would prefer some bread and anchovy, and could help himself. He accepted a little of the rum for politeness' sake, and then professed himself satisfied. After some outcry on his lack of appetite the rest of the party fell to with avidity. The presence of his uncle, which he now realised for the first time, relieved Iskender from the fear of personal indignity. He, too, attacked the victuals with good appetite, but refused the spirits, strong in the example of Abdullah's abstinence. The work of eating was soon done, and every one sat back for conversation. There was much ostentatious picking of teeth, and noises of repletion came from all sides. Tongues were loosed, and vied one with another to display deep knowledge of the English speech and manners. The company abounded in expressions such as "old chap," "never say die," and "right you are!" which Iskender, from his education, knew to be inappropriate. Every one too, except Abdullah, made believe to revel in the gin and rum, out of compliment to the guest, whose national drink it was; but Iskender was not deceived by their hilarity. Sitting at the opposite end of the room to his patron, he saw the wry faces which were turned away at every sip. Elias, quite beside himself with adulation, and intoxicated already by the success of his facetious sallies, drank and drank again with convivial gestures.
"Ha, ha!" he cried, "I'm feelin' deflish habby. So fery nice to be with English beeble. The English are our friends; they're Christians like what we are. Blease God, they take this country like they taken Egybt, and gif the Turks an' Muslims good old Hell! Ha, ha! we're English, we are, just the same. The Turks all done for—no dam' good. The Christians kick 'em all the time. They got to lick our boots, that's sure. The English they soon string up the rotten ole Sultan, first they christen 'im jus' for luck——"
His words were drowned in cries of horrified protest; his neighbours at the table flung themselves upon the rash talker, stopping his mouth forcibly with their hands; while old Abdullah rose up in authority and loudly denounced such sentiments as high treason, with glances at the open door as at an audience. Iskender could see the Frank was quite bewildered; he sat smiling on all that occurred without intelligence. Elias, when let go, was laughing heartily.
"Well, I neffer!" he observed. "Who's afraid?"
Just then Khalil, the concertina-player, a dull-eyed, fattish man, who had kept silence, suddenly drew all eyes upon himself by picking up his instrument from the floor and playing a few chords softly.
"All right, Khalil! Come along then! Neffer say die, ole chabbie!" Elias encouraged him.
"I blay you 'Bob goose the Whistle,'" said the musician seriously, and at once struck up a jerky Frankish tune, with eyes intently fixed on the Emir, garnering his every smile and sign of pleasure. When his Honour showed a disposition to sing the words of the refrain, he played more loudly than before in triumph. All present flung back their heads and bawled in discord, producing a din so horrible that the Jew Karlsberger, with his wife and child, appeared from an inner room with scared white faces.
"Merciful Allah, make less noise!" the Israelite besought the revellers. "If a Muslim were to hear you, I am ruined."
At that Elias rose with dignity and swaggering towards the Jew with a Frankish elegance which the depth of his potations made unsteady, seized the landlord by the breast of his gaberdine. He lifted an admonishing finger, saying:
"You hold your row, Mr. Karlsberger. You go to Blazes, my fery good friend!"
The Jew, who knew no English, accepted the assurance and retired.
The musician struck into another tune, but soon desisted, finding his art forgotten in a general clamour of conversation, every one addressing the Frank, who, after looking from one to another at a loss, gave ear to Yuhanna Mahbub, who sat next him. Yuhanna, like Elias, had partaken of the rum and gin. He struck a vein of amorous reminiscence, and began boasting of his conquests among English ladies. Abdullah sharply bade him hold his tongue.
"He is a boaster, sir, and neffer did nothing what he say he did," said that respectable man in explanation to the visitor. "If he really done such things, he neffer sbeak about them, that sure; he know he get the sack for such a shame."
"Shame!" chorused Elias with a reproachful shake of the head. "Hear, hear! Order, order! By God, you are a nasty beast, Yuhanna."
As he spoke he poured out rum into a tumbler, without looking, till the glass was half full.
Iskender, seeing the disgust in the Frank's face deepen, waxed exultant. It was time to leave now, while that look endured. He caught his uncle's eye. The old man nodded.
"It is time that we dispersed," he said in Arabic, "unless we wish to get wet through. See how the sky has clouded over while we sat here. Remember, it is the year's first rain, which means a deluge."
"He speaks truth"—"Rain is coming"—"See the clouds," cried one and another, peering out on the world. The company obeyed the motion of its acknowledged sheykh, all save Elias, who had got beyond the reach of all authority.
"You think I'm goin' yet, you silly ole fool!" he cried in English. "No dam' jolly fear! I haf not yet talk to my friend, this nice kind mister!"
And holding in one hand the glass half full of rum, he staggered to the sofa, till then sacred to the Emir, and sank down on it with a contented hiccup.
"My dear luffed friend, now we talk a little. The rest, they go to Hell," he said; and tried to kiss the Frank.
He measured his length on the floor, the tumbler was broken, the rum spilt. In a moment the whole room was in an uproar. All who could get near enough tendered abject apologies to the guest for their companion's rudeness; while those debarred by concourse from that privilege, consoled themselves by kicking and punching the prostrate Elias, who wept aloud, still crying: "My friend! My dearest friend!" In the midst of this tumult, Khalil struck up the English National Hymn, a carefully reserved effect which he was unwilling to forgo.
At length the Emir won his way to the door, where Iskender was waiting for him, too happy in the turn events had taken to shake his head or say "I told you so." They were joined by old Abdullah. Indoors, behind them, the shrieks of the Jew and his spouse were now heard high above the furious talking and the strains of the concertina.
"He come to you to-morrow, sir, and lie down on the floor and lick your boots; I'll see to that," said Abdullah with determination.
"Curse it all! I lost my temper!" said the Frank with a nervous laugh.
"We best make haste, sir," said Abdullah, pointing eastward.
The sky inland was black as ink and formless; the sand looked white as sun-bleached bone by contrast; the dark green wave of the orange-gardens appeared pale; a palm-tree in the distance stood up wan against the impending cloud. Presently a flash of lightning made them quicken step; big drops of water fell like bullets round them. Before they could reach the hotel the rain came down in sheets, beating up the sand like smoke, and they were drenched to the skin. The Emir lent his henchman some dry clothes and insisted on his remaining till the storm passed over. Iskender knew that it might last for days. He dispatched a ragamuffin, who had sought shelter in the hotel entry, with a message to relieve his mother's mind; and soon found himself arrayed in clothes too large for him, sitting in a drawing-room only less luxurious than that of the Mission, looking at some English pictures, while the Frank wrote letters. Truly, it seemed, he had been born to honour.
When Iskender rose next morning from the bed on the floor of the entrance-hall which he had been permitted to share with the black servant, he saw a woeful figure in the doorway. A man, wrapped in a great cloak of camel's hair, sat staring out dejectedly at the daylight, which was greenish grey, the whole air seeming turned to falling water. A hood drawn low upon his brow concealed his face, except the smouldering anguish of the eyes, when he turned at sound of movements in the hall behind him.
Elias—for he it was—sprang up and made the bound required to bring him within reach of his friend's hand, which he forthwith seized and carried to his lips, cringing low and moaning:
"O my horror! O my bitter shame! For the love of Allah, speak for me with his noble Highness! Thou knowest how I always loved thee, and stood thy friend when others scoffed at thee. Persuade thy Emir to forgive me and keep silence, or I shall lose my employment, and my wife and little ones will come to want!"
Iskender's heart leapt up in thanks to Allah for thus abasing one who had conspired against him. He pressed the suppliant's hand in both his own.
"Now Allah witness how I always loved thee!" he murmured with a gaze of fond compassion. "It hurt my soul to see thee siding with my enemies, scheming to supplant me in the favour of my dear lord."
"By Allah, thy thoughts wrong me!" cried Elias with wild earnestness. "Ask Yuhanna, ask Khalil! My efforts were against them all, on thy behalf. How canst thou think such harm of one who loves thee?"
The speaker burst into a passion of tears.
"Weep not, O my dear!" Iskender murmured soothingly. "In sh' Allah, all may yet be well, though I will not disguise from thee that my lord is angry."
"Obtain but a hearing for me; that is all I ask. My tears shall wash his feet; my groans, my heartfelt penitence will surely move him."
"Thou knowest that I will do all in my power to save thee. But, alas! my influence is not boundless. By naming thy name in his presence, and seeming anxious to excuse thy fault, I fear to draw a measure of his Honour's wrath upon myself. Last evening he was full of rage against thee, vowing to see thee a beggar in the gate of the town. And he has sworn at the first opportunity to make complaint of thy behaviour to the English consul."
At mention of the consul Elias collapsed utterly. He sank down on the marble pavement, huddled up in his cloak, his chin upon his breast, moaning like one insensible through stress of pain. Complaint to the consul meant his life-long ruin as a dragoman, since he depended on the English for his daily bread.
At length he cried:
"Thou must, thou shalt, befriend me! I adjure thee by Him who took our flesh upon Him, by the Holy Cross! Allah will reward thee, and I myself will be thy slave till death."
Pouncing once more upon Iskender's hand, he pressed two large coins down upon the open palm.
"What is this, O my soul?" cried the youth in amazement, after looking to make sure the coins were silver. "Are such things needed between me and thee?"
He pulled out his silver watch—the gift of the wife of the missionary, the excellent mother of George, which she had caused to be sent expressly from the land of the English—and gazed long and pensively at the face of it. Though he had risen later than his custom, deceived by the darkness of the rain prolonging night, it wanted still an hour of the Emir's waking. He said:
"His Honour is still in his chamber; he objects to be disturbed while dressing. Nevertheless, since thy cause is urgent, I will crave an audience."
"Our Lord reward thee," sobbed Elias gratefully.
Iskender repaired to the hotel kitchen, and spent some minutes talking to the cook, who was his friend, before he returned and said:
"His Highness will not hear me. At mention of thy name he shut his ears." Then, when Elias burst into a fit of weeping that seemed like to strangle him, he added: "But he was in the act of bathing his whole body, which he does daily in cold water. It may be that the coldness of the water made him angry. After a little, I will try again."
"May Allah prolong thy life! From this day forth Elias is thy servant. I will give thee my gold ring with the large carbuncle, if thou bring this business to a good result."
After a decent interval, Iskender paid another visit to the kitchen and, returning, said:
"He gave no answer to my knock, and I feared to enrage him by repeated knocking. I will return presently."
Elias promised him a dagger of rare workmanship.
"He bade me go away, though not in anger," was the next report.
Elias promised him a pistol with jewelled mountings; and after that a saddle with rich tassels, a holy book, some silver buttons, and a young mare of the noblest desert breed. Thus time passed pleasantly, till the sons of Musa emerged from their sleeping apartment. Iskender dare not pursue the game with them about; but humbly presented Elias, explaining the reason of his presence. They at once offered themselves to plead the cause of the sufferer, who was a friend of theirs.
But the son of Yacub was beforehand with them. He sped straight to the bedroom of the Frank, who by good luck was up and dressed, and informed him of the penitence of Elias, begging forgiveness for that broken man. The Emir consented with a laugh. Together they went down into the hall, where Iskender presented the suppliant to his Emir, in the face of the sons of Musa, and of all the servants who came crowding to the sight.
Elias fell down flat before the great one and embraced his feet. He seemed unconscious when the Frank addressed him. It was by the exertions of the sons of Musa and the group of servants that the despairing wretch at length received assurance of forgiveness. With tears of joy he kissed the hand of his preserver; then, suddenly flinging open the vast cloak, which he had till now kept close around him, he revealed a splendid whip of rhinoceros-hide, mounted and ringed with silver. Iskender felt cruelly defrauded; it was with difficulty that he suppressed a cry of rage; for had he so much as guessed that such a thing was hid beneath the cloak of the blubberer, he would long ago have had it for his own. Elias thrust that whip upon the Frank, who would fain have refused it; but, the sons of Musa and the servants joining the donor in entreaties, he at last gave way.
When his patron went to breakfast, Iskender received many compliments. His manifest ascendency over the mind of the Englishman had made a favourable impression even on the sons of Musa. This was as it should be. But it did not please him, as the day wore on, to find that Elias, out of gratitude for his forgiveness, intended to remain in close attendance on the Emir.
Divested of his cloak, his slim but manly figure cased in showy garments, his moustache curled ferociously up to the eyes, his fez tilted jauntily to one side, Elias appeared to Iskender's jealousy the most attractive of men. And as he recovered spirits, his talk showed the lively sparkle which enchanted travellers.
It being impossible to get out, the Emir brought down a book, and read to them in the entrance-hall. The tale was one of wild adventures in the search for treasure. It fascinated Iskender. But Elias was reminded by one of the incidents of a lion he had slain upon Mount Sinai; and the Frank shut up the book to hear his story. Elias described all the fortunes of the fight with singular realism, opening his mouth very wide and roaring when momentarily impersonating the lion. The Frank showed great amusement; Iskender was vexed with him for encouraging the silly liar. He gave praise to Allah when Elias departed for the night.
But his bugbear returned next morning, as the Frank emerged from breakfast, claiming praise for his devotion in coming through such weather. The wady to the north of the town was now a raging torrent, he informed them. With his own eyes he had seen ten righteous men torn off their feet and carried clean away. More than a hundred camels had been swept far out to sea.
"He is a big liar, sir," Iskender whispered in the ear of his lord, who appeared unduly stricken by these tidings; and in proof of the assertion, he referred the matter to the sons of Musa, who said that a donkey laden with vegetables had been washed away. Elias, in no wise disconcerted, thanked God that things were no worse. But Iskender triumphed, informed by the Frank's sneer that he had struck a death-blow at his rival's influence. That done, he felt all kindness for the handsome dragoman, now his manifest inferior, and encouraged him to show off for the Emir's amusement. He even, in the course of the day, assured his patron that Elias was not a bad man.
That evening the rain diminished sensibly; in the course of the night it ceased. The dawn next day was cloudless when Iskender set out early for his mother's house.
"May Allah keep thee! Here is a nice to-do!" His mother, who had spied Iskender from afar, stood in a gap of the cactus hedge with arms akimbo. "Was ever woman blessed with such a son? The Father of Ice was here before the rain, he and the Sitt Jane with him. They spoke against thee ceaselessly for two hours, till my poor back ached with standing there and bowing, and my head swam round with listening to their tiresome iterations. Had I not heard it all before a thousand times—thy idleness, thy kissing the Sitt Hilda, thy choice of low companions in the town? And then thy friends—Elias, what a wretch! Once, years ago, when conducting a party of travellers, he pushed his horse among the ladies, who were on their donkeys. Unheard-of insolence! He shouted—actually shouted at English ladies—to make way; of course, they paid no heed to such impertinence, and then he rode among them. Ma sh' Allah! And Mitri too! To hear them talk of Mitri, any one would suppose the poor, good priest some dreadful ghoul. . . . All that was empty talk, however spiteful, and Allah knows I am well seasoned to it. But when they came to speak of thy Emir, and swore to turn his mind against thee, I saw danger. What ailed thy wits that thou must needs tell Costantin a tale of thy going to the land of the English to study the art of painting at thy lord's expense? They have it that thou wouldst defraud the good young man. . . . Ah! Allah knows I have my fill of troubles."
She paused from sheer exhaustion, pressing a hand to her heart.
Iskender laughed at her concern, assuring her that his favour with the Emir was now established past all fear of assault. Exultant from his recent triumphs, and flushed from a walk through air which the rain had left pure and invigorating, he did in truth believe himself beyond the grasp of adversity. His mother's woe seemed senseless. When he told of the wicked plot of the dragomans, and how signally it had failed through Allah's mercy, it angered him to see her wag her head with boding looks. She could not realise the victory his words implied.
"Think, O my mother!" he cried out impatiently. "These three days have I been his guest and chosen comrade, sitting with him at all hours—aye, even in the seat of honour in the guest-room, in my slippers—admitted to the secret of his every thought. It is well seen that he loves me truly. Give praise to Allah, therefore, and throw grief aside."
But his mother still looked rueful as she shuffled about the room getting food—a bowl of curds, some olives, and a slab of bread—to set before him.
"All that is well enough," she grumbled audibly, "but to what end? By Allah, I perceive no profit in it. Thy need is money, not mere compliments. Better get him to appoint thee monthly wages as his servant."
"Merciful Allah! is my mother mad?" exclaimed Iskender, teeth on edge with irritation. The woman's lack of understanding rasped his soul. "He loves me as a friend, an equal, not a slave. And what are the paltry wages of a servant as compared with the friendship of a mighty prince? In the end he is certain to provide for me honourably; he will make me a great painter, as I said to Costantin."
"In sh' Allah, it may prove so," replied his mother; "but I doubt it greatly. Thou wast ever one to follow distant dreams, neglecting the good that lay within hand's reach. Were Elias or Yuhanna in thy place, no doubt at all but they would make some money. There is a chance when making purchases or hiring horses for his Honour. But thou art capable of scorning every gain—nay, even of bestowing all thy goods!—for the sake of a fine friendship which may leave thee naked."
"By Allah, I will hear no more of this!" Iskender started to his feet, past patience. "Know that my love for my Emir equals his love for me. He is my soul; how then should I defraud him? I shall buy for him as for myself; he shall admire my honesty—it is the virtue most esteemed among the Franks—and be assured that in the end he will reward it."
His mother sighed profoundly, and spread out her hands.
"Thou art young, O my son, nor hast thou my experience. It is true that the Franks hate guile or any cleverness; but I never heard of one of them rewarding honesty. For them it is a thing of course, unnoticed. I warrant thou wilt get no credit for it. Moreover, Allah knows thou needest money; for, if the missionary's wrath goes on increasing, I cannot keep thee here. I must either turn thee out or lose a good appointment which enables me to lay by something every year for thy future fortune. They grow to hate thee so that soon they will refuse to send their dirty garments to be washed where thou dost dwell. . . . Wouldst leave me now already, when I have not seen thee for three days? May thy house be destroyed! Stop, in the name of Allah; stop, I say! Was ever mother cursed with such a son?"
But by then Iskender had passed through the cactus hedge, and was running down into the sandy hollow. The clear, cool air at once restored his exultation, and his mother's words became a buzz of flies which he had left behind. The sky was dreamy blue; the sandhills rose against it shapely like the backs and flanks of couchant lions. The red roof of the Mission on its ridge seemed placed there by some childish whim—a thing incongruous. As Iskender fixed his gaze on it, he saw a figure coming thence with speed—a figure in dark Frankish clothes beneath the red tarbush, which he recognised as that of Asad son of Costantin. A minute later he was called by name, and saw the same shape running fast towards him.
"O my soul!" cried Asad, panting, as he drew near. "What are these tidings that we hear of thee? Why wilt thou show thyself to disadvantage?" Pausing to gather breath, he caught Iskender's hand and pressed it to his heart. "What is this talk of thy friendship with the priest Mitri? Wouldst thou for ever forfeit the goodwill of those above?" He jerked his head towards the Mission, hidden from where they stood by the brow of the sandhill. "Only think! To whom in all the land can we look for support and encouragement unless to these people who have brought us up? The Orthodox have neither wealth nor influence. Wert thou to join them, I fail to see how it could profit thee. In this land there is no hope for a Christian unless by foreign protection. And of all the races of foreigners the English are the richest and the most powerful. By Allah, thou wast a fool ever to anger them; thou shouldst have hid thy thoughts and bowed to their will in all things, even as I do. Thou seest they will make of me a priest, a grand khawajah. They would have done the same for thee hadst thou behaved with common prudence. If not a priest, thou mayest still become a well-paid schoolmaster by their protection. Thou wouldst do well, therefore, to forsake this Mitri, who has nothing to offer. Be advised, I entreat thee!"
Asad was a tall, lean youth, lantern-jawed, and of a serious countenance, in age a few months younger than Iskender. His complexion was swarthier than the common, and his eyes, like the eyes of his father Costantin, were furtive, with a cast of malice. The boys had always been on friendly terms, in spite of standing jealousy between their parents. But to-day the patronage in Asad's speech incensed Iskender. What need had he, the Emir's right-hand, of compassion and advice from any whipper-snapper? He replied with sarcasm:
"May Allah repay thy kindness, O my dear! Had I known thy mind had such anxiety on my account I should certainly have sent a messenger to reassure thee. Believe me, all thy fears for my welfare are quite groundless, for never had I such good cause to praise the Lord as at this present. Behold me in the road to wealth and honour, possessing the favour of an English nobleman, for whom these missionaries are mere specks of dirt. My kind lord vows that I have talent as a maker of likenesses, and wishes me to receive the best instruction in that art. For a beginning, he has sent express to the land of the English for better instruments and materials than I could here obtain. Indeed, there is no cause to fear for me. The praise to Allah!"
"Praise to Allah!" echoed Asad sneeringly, stung to reprisals by Iskender's tone. "But concerning that Emir of thine I have a word to say. They have heard up there how thou hast fastened on him like a leech, and dost boast to all men that his wealth is thine. I myself heard the Father of Ice declare that thy designs were iniquitous and must be thwarted. He himself will go to the Emir and tell him thy whole history, which is nothing good; so thou hadst best beware. By Allah, thou dost wrong to take this tone with me, who came as a friend to warn thee!"