It Happened in Egypt
C. N. Williamson & A. M. Williamson
Part 4 out of 8
(Was that a flag fluttering on the horizon?)
"Well, then--it isn't _my_ business, of course. But one can't help
being interested in him, he's such a--such a romantic sort of figure,
as you said yourself. And there's something so high and noble about
him--I mean, about his looks and manners--that one hates to be
"You _would_ have him with us, you know!"
"I know. And--and I'm glad I--we--_have_ got him. It's a--it's an
experience. I suppose he's rather wonderful. But don't you think he
ought to remember that he isn't _exactly_ a prince? He isn't even
called Bey. And if he were, its not the same as being a prince of
"In what way has he presumed on his--er--near--princehood?"
"I believe he has--fallen in love with Biddy!"
"By Jove! _Let_ the flag flutter!"
"Oh--er--that was only an expression. They use it where I live. Why
shouldn't he fall in love with Biddy, when you come to think of it?"
"He's of a darker race. Though--he does seem so like _us_. Of course
she couldn't marry him. It wouldn't do. _Would_ it?"
"I don't know. I must think it over. Is that all you were going to tell
"No. I suppose it's natural he should fall in love with Biddy. She's
_so_ attractive! But the worst part about it is that he has _proposed_
to Aunt Clara."
"Yes. He has. I saw part of the letter--the first part. She's the only
one of us who thinks it would be right to marry a man of Egyptian
blood, because you know she believes she's Egyptian herself--and she's
always talking about reincarnations. _I_ don't see that It's such a
wonderful coincidence his name being 'Antoun.' It wouldn't be so bad if
he were in love with her; but it's Biddy who is always right in
everything she says and does, according to him--just as I am always
wrong. Aunt Clara is richer than Biddy. I can't bear to fancy that's
why he has proposed; it would take away all the romance"
"Don't strip him of his romance yet," said I, again torn between
interest in Monny's incredible statement, and excitement which grew
with the growing in size of those flags on the horizon. "You may wrong
him. If you saw only the _first_ part of the letter--"
"There could be no mistake. It was in hieroglyphics, and who but
'Antoun' would have written such a letter to Aunt Clara? She asked me
to translate it, the night she dug it up at Fustât--"
"And when I'd read as far as, 'Beautiful Queen, Star of my Heart, be my
wife,' she snatched the paper away, and put it inside her dress, saying
she'd look up the rest in one of my books."
"Good heavens! You must have changed places at Fustât. That letter
couldn't have been for her!"
"It couldn't have been for any one else. 'Beautiful Queen' meant Queen
Cleopatra. She said so herself. I don't know what she's going to do
"Do about it?" I echoed desperately. "Why--" and just then my straining
eyes saw that on the middle flag in the fluttering row were four large
red letters on a white ground. Slaney had betrayed me! Everything
depended on getting that flag down before those letters declared
themselves to other eyes. "Excuse me," I finished my sentence with a
Monny must have gasped also, as she saw me suddenly dash away from her
at full speed of one-camel power. But I had no time to think about what
she might think. I suppose I must have done something to the steering-gear
of that camel, which coastguard camels do not permit. Whatever it
was, it got me into the midst of camp before I could draw breath; but I
have a dim recollection of being caught by Arab arms, and seeing
suppressed Arab grins, as mechanically I felt to see how far the end of
my spine stuck out at the top of my head.
"That flag! Pull it down!" was my first gasp, pointing convulsively to
the banner which shrieked, "Cook!" "Quick--before they come!"
Dazed by my vehemence, several Arabs scuttled to obey the order, but
there were too many of them. Each hindered his neighbour, and as I
danced about, making matters worse, out pounced our withered chêf from
"It was _he_ brought that flag, wrapped round something," explained one
of the men, in Arabic. "When he saw we had other flags, but none of
Cook, he gave it to us to put over the biggest tent, because he thought
it shameful to have no flag of the master's."
"Cook isn't the master. I'm it," I burbled, with a leap to catch the
tell-tale square of white as it reluctantly came down. But I was too
late. Sir John Biddell and Harry Snell, the newspaper man, came
gallumping up on their camels before I could stuff the flag into my
"What's the matter?" they asked, as their animals squatted to let them
down. "Were you run away with? What are you so mad about? Hullo! What
"It should be over the kitchen-tent," I heard myself explaining. "Don't
you see? C-O-O-K! It's the cook's special flag. He brought it himself,
but these chaps went and flew it over the dining-tent in place of the
Union Jack. That's why he and I are mad."
And I thanked all the stars on Monny's tent flag that none of the Set
After this, how could I hope to explain to Monny that the hieroglyphic
proposal was mine, and that she, not Cleopatra, ought to have dug it
up? She isn't a girl used to having men run away from her, on camelback
or anything else--so naturally she thought me a rude beast, and showed
it. Besides, even if I'd dared, I should have had no chance to
straighten matters out; for though the flag-episode was after all no
fault of Slaney's, there were a few little things which had escaped
even his Napoleonic memory; and it was only by combining the feats of
an acrobat with those of a juggler that I saved my reputation during
the next half hour.
No sight could have been more beautiful in our eyes than that village
of white tents in the waste of yellow sand. Our wildest imaginings
could have pictured nothing more perfect, more peaceful.
Tea was ready, in the huge dining-tent, where folding chairs were
grouped round a white-covered table. The floor of sand was hidden with
thick, bright-coloured rugs, and it was finding "T. C. and Son" on the
wrong side of one which Miss Hassett-Bean's foot turned up, that filled
me with renewed alarms. Hastily I laid the rug straight, placed a chair
upon it, and persuaded everybody to have tea before inspecting their
bedroom tents. While they drank draughts and dabbed jam on an Egyptian
conception of scones, I hurried like a haggard ghost from tent to tent,
seeking the forbidden thing. Cook on the backs of the little mirrors
hanging from the pole hooks!... Will it wash off?... No! Cut it out
with a penknife! Down on your knees and tear off the label from the
wrong side of another carpet! (Memo: Must do the one in the dining-tent
when the people are asleep for the night.) Cram three Cook towels into
my pockets. Hastily pin a handkerchief over the name on a white bit of
a tent wall. Must have it cut out, and patched with something, later.
Shall have to pay damages when I settle up with Slaney. Lady Macbeth
wasn't in it with me! All she needed was a little water. I have to have
pins and penknives and pockets all over the place.
I didn't get any tea. But that was a detail. And everybody was so
delighted with everything that my spirits rose, despite a snub or two
from Monny--for which Biddy tried to make up. People took desert
strolls, or sat on dunes, and gazed into the sunset which couldn't have
been better if I had turned it on myself. Along the western horizon ran
a pale flame of green blending with rose, rose blending with amethyst,
and in the distance the Pyramids of Dahshur burned with the red of
The wind had died among the desert dunes, and it was not till after
dinner that any one realized the arctic fall of temperature. It was too
cold to enjoy playing bridge or any of the games I had brought; and the
only hope of comfort was in bed. People said good night to each other
in the comparatively warm dining-tent, and then gave surprised shrieks
or grunts (according to sex) at the piercing cold. Several of the elder
ladies fell over ten-tropes, despite the large lanterns illuminating
the desert, and had to be escorted to their bedroom tents, and soothed.
After this, silence reigned for a few minutes, and I had stealthily
begun to work on the biggest rug-label, when arose a clamour of voices
and presently appeared the dragoman lent by Slaney.
"Eight ladies wishing hot-water bottles," he explained.
But there were no hot-water bottles. We had thought of everything, it
seemed, except hot-water bottles.
"I tell them very sorry but can't have?" Yusef suggested, looking
"Let me think!" I groaned. "What about the mineral water bottles we
emptied at lunch and dinner? Let the cook boil water, and we'll supply
This was done; and I was proud of the inspiration, with the pride that
comes before a fall. When I began to write, in my bedroom tent, wrapped
in all the blankets of the bed that should be Anthony's, I had the
place to myself. But about midnight a head was unexpectedly thrust
through the door-flap. It looked ghostly in the haze of colour made by
the gorgeous appliqué work of high roof and octagon walls, which gave
an effect of sitting at the bottom of a giant kaleidoscope.
"Who's that?" I hissed, in a whisper meant to be discreet, but which
roused a camel or two in the ring outside the tents.
"Biddell--Sir John Biddell," replied the head. "I saw your light, and
remembered you had your tent to yourself to-night. Those hot-water
bottles have been leaking. There's one at least gone wrong in most of
the ladies' tents. The married men have given their beds to girls who
are drowned out. 'Twas _your_ idea about those bottles, wasn't it? I
expect you'll hear from it in the morning! Three of us want to come and
camp in here with you."
"All right," I sighed, with a sinking heart. "I _like_ sitting up, and
you can toss for the cots."
* * * * *
At this moment Sir John Biddell reposes in one of them, General Harlow
in the other. These gentlemen were so affected with the cold that they
went to bed in their clothes, then got up to put on their overcoats,
then got up again and put on their hats. On the floor lies a certain
Mills of Manchester, rolled in all the rugs, except one which I have
on, after surrendering my blankets. He has his head in a basket, to
keep off the icy draught; and in the ruggy region of his spine, as he
rests on his side, are the letters C-O-O-K. I wonder if I could rip
them off without waking him up?
THE DESERT DIARY TO ITS BITTER END
_Tuesday_: The principal water-cask has leaked; consequently not enough
water to go round. Chêf said it was a question of baths, or soup.
Considering the cold, most of the people voted for soup. Some washed in
Apollinaris. Others douched with soda siphons. We can get more water
to-night. Can't think why the north wind doesn't stop and warm itself
while traversing the Mediterranean or the hot sands! It seems to be in
too fierce a hurry and consequently cuts across the desert, like a
frozen scythe, the moment its rival the sun has gone to sleep. I hear
that Miss Hassett-Bean cried with cold as she dressed, and put on two
of everything; but she is luckier than the younger women. Monny and
Mrs. East, though warned that nights would be chill, have come clothed
in silk and gossamer, and have brought low-necked nightgowns of
nainsook trimmed with lace. This was confided to me soon after sunrise
by a blue-nosed Biddy, hovering over the kitchen fire and
--incidentally--ingratiating herself with the cook. It wouldn't be Biddy
if she weren't ingratiating herself with some one!
Nobody yearned to get up early (I speak for others, as _I_ passed my
night in the attitude of a suspension bridge between two folding
chairs); but in camp where sleep is concerned, men may propose, camels
Their nights they spend in a ring of camelhood, huddled together for
warmth; and if they do not have nightmare or bite each other in their
sleep, mere humans in neighbouring tents may hope for comparative
silence in the desert, if not near a village full of pi-dogs. At
sunrise, however, a change comes o'er their spirit. They are given
food, and made as happy and contented as it is their nature to be,
which apparently is not saying much. Judging by the strange,
inarticulate oaths they constantly mutter, they are equally accursed in
their sitting down and their getting up. It is only when they are
actually "on the move," floating and swaying through the air--legs,
tail, neck, jaws--that they have nothing disagreeable to say.
Immediately after dawn this morning, our camels began to imitate every
animal they could have met since the days of the Ark, when one had to
know everybody. They mewed like cats, hissed like snakes, bleated like
sheep, roared like toy lions, grunted like pigs, barked like dogs,
squawked like geese, and bellowed like baby bulls. Also they gargled
their throats like elderly invalids. It was useless trying to sleep;
and when I had accomplished such bathing as the chêf permitted, I went
out to see what was the matter. Nothing was the matter, except that the
creatures had the sunrise in their eyes, and could see the camel-boys
preparing their loads; but I was glad I had come out, because Biddy was
there and the scene was beautiful. Shivering, we chuckled over the
morning toilet of the camels, who turned their faces disconcertingly
upon us, sneering with long yellow teeth, and bubbling as if their
mouths were full of pink soapsuds, when they realized that we were
laughing at them.
Incidentally we learned why the Baby Sphinx accompanied our caravan
uninvited. His name is Salih; and he came because there's a very
important camel (the property of his father) who refuses to eat or stir
without him. It is a most original and elaborate camel. It has a neat
way of turning its ears with their backs to the wind, in order to make
them sand-proof. If any person other than Salih touches it, an
incredible quantity of green cud is instantly let loose over their
turbans; but at the approach of Salih it emits a purring noise, preens
its head for the nose-strap ornamented with a bunch of palmlike plumes,
and playfully pretends not to want the bersím which the little black
Sphinx thrusts down its throat in handfuls. This, it seems, is good
camel table-manners. And it is to the tail of this animal that Salih
clings on the march. If he is not there, the animal looks round, stops,
or turns to charge at any Arab who jestingly misuses its idol.
Yesterday the miniature Sphinx was in a white robe. To-day he is in
black. All the Arabs have changed their clothes, although they have
brought no visible luggage except vague pieces of sacking. The dragoman
is exquisitely arrayed, galabeah and kaftan gray-blue, with a pink
petticoat, and a white one under that. I suspect that he sleeps beneath
the dining-table--and the other Arabs among the kitchen pots--yet they
are smarter than any of us Europeans, all of whom have a frayed air.
This, I suppose, would not be so in desert-fiction. Nothing would be
said about hot-water bottles leaking, or beetles beetling (one doesn't
come to Egypt to see live scarabs), or draughts raging, or camels
gobbling, or flags flapping all night. (Memo: Abolish flags, even at
expense of patriotism.)
Despite every desert drawback, however, Biddy and I agreed that the
sunrise alone was worth the journey, and the pure air of dawn which,
though cold, seemed perfumed by mysterious rose-fields. Just at sun-up
the desert was lily pale--then, as the horizon flamed, a dazzling flood
of gold poured over the dunes. The sun was a fantastic brooch of beaten
copper, caught in a veil of ruby gauze, while here and there a belated
star was a dull, flawed emerald sewn into the veil's fringe. Shadows
swept westward across the desert like blue water, showing a glitter of
drowned jewels underneath; and though last night it had seemed that we
were alone in a vast wilderness, now there were signs that a village
lay not far off. A group of children in red and blue, staring avidly at
the camp, were like a bunch of ragged poppies in the sand. Their mangy
pi-dogs had ventured nearer, to smell sadly at the meat-safes hanging
outside our kitchen-tent. A gypsy-woman with splendid eyes and a blue
tattooed chin, breakfasted on an adjacent dune with her husband. Men
like living hencoops passed in the distance. Patriarchal persons blew
by, in that graceful way in which people do blow in Egypt, driving a
flock of sheep, with a black lamb "for luck." These men were dressed as
their ancestors had dressed in the time of Abraham, and Biddy and I
envied them. How nice, said she, to wear the same clothes for a hundred
years if you happened to live, and never be out of fashion. If a few of
your things dropped off by degrees, you were still all right, and
nobody would be rude enough to notice!
Our faded family revived after breakfast, and even those who vowed they
hadn't closed an eye all night enjoyed the scene of striking camp. The
big white tents fell to the ground like pricked soap-bubbles; whereupon
their remains were deftly rolled up and tied on to the backs of
bitterly protesting camels. Beds, mattresses, tables, chairs ceased to
be what they had been and became something else. Camels made faces and
noises. Arabs tore this way and that, doing as little work as possible.
The cook fluttered about in his blanket, brandishing a saucepan. Yusef
the dragoman made noble gestures of command, and our little desert city
ceased to exist except on camels' backs. It was shaved off the surface
of the earth, and went churning and swaying along toward the next
stand; the procession rising and falling among swelling dunes, under a
sky which seemed to trail like a heavy blue curtain, where at the
horizon it met the gold.
We travelled over pebbly plateaus, scattered with jewel-like stones.
Sand-pyramids rose out of the glistening plain. Here and there were
rocks like partly hewn sphinxes pushing out of the sand to breathe;
other rocks like monstrous toads; and still others dark and dreadful in
the distance as ogres' houses. Altogether the desert gave us a truly
Libyan effect, which made the Set feel that after all they were getting
what they had paid for, with an introduction to a beauty and heiress
thrown in. But apropos of this latter boon, it is dawning upon me that
Rachel Guest is receiving more attention than Monny. This strikes me as
inexplicable. There are more men than women in our party, all young
except Sir John Biddell, General Harlow, and Mills of Manchester, a
soft, fat sort of fellow whose first name you can never remember. It
occurred to me on starting, that the desire of so many unattached young
men to spend a week in the desert and the Fayoum, might not be
unconnected with Miss Gilder's intention to join the party. Not being
jealous, I expected to see a little fun, and laugh over it with Biddy,
who is a heavenly person with whom to share a joke. But if there is a
joke, I haven't seen the point yet, nor has she. There's no disputing
the fact that Miss Guest, the poor, brave school teacher on holiday, is
the belle of the desert.
Of course, if Monny had stopped in Cairo, Rachel's success with our men
wouldn't be astonishing. As Brigit and Monny warned me in their letters
to the _Candace_, she grows better looking every day; but though she is
distinctly of Monny's type, despite those slanting eyes, she will never
be a real beauty, or a Complete Fascinator, like our Gilded Girl.
Besides, Monny has millions, and Rachel hasn't a cent. Yet there it is!
Miss Guest is having the "time of her life" in spite of leaky water
bottles and bumping camels, while Miss Gilder might be an old married
woman, for all the attention she gets from any man on this trip except
me. What can be the explanation? Even those two exaggerately
German-looking men with Bedr stared at Rachel from their respectful
distance. It turns out that they camped not far from us last night.
Yusef heard this from one of our camel-boys. But they kept to themselves,
and didn't come within a mile of us, so there's nothing to complain of.
Every one except Sir John delighted with to-day's desert. He can't see
anything beautiful in yellow lumps that keep you sawing up and down,
though he has no doubt the desert is full of other fools doing what
we're doing; and we could all see each other doing it if it weren't for
those darn dunes.
_Later_: Adventure for sandcart on one of the biggest plateaus. Looked
all right from the top; but a shriek from Mrs. East put me to the dire
necessity of sliding off Farag and running to the rescue. The plateau
was broken off in front and became a precipice which, Cleopatra seemed
to think, would not have existed had "Antoun" arrived in tune to
Great wind came roaring up again about noon. Feared to learn that it
had been impossible to get luncheon-tent in position. But when the time
came to find it, there it was with its back to the blast, and its shady
open front, of tile-patterned appliqué, offering the hoped-for picture
of white table and smiling brown waiters.
While we lunched, the fierce gusts striking the back canvas wall were
like the frightened flappings of giant wings, and the beating of a
great bird's heart. Otherwise we might have forgotten the elements as
we ate, save for a slight powdering of sand on our food. But even that
wasn't bad, if we selected only the port side of our bread and chicken,
leaving windward bits to the Arabs.
Our night camp was in shelter of the two vast dunes which hide the
ancient city of Bacchias, now called Um-el-Atl, where we found "Antoun"
awaiting us. He had started from Cairo in the morning on a coastguard
camel, coming quickly along the camel route between Bedrashen and
Tomieh, and the extra few miles to our encampment. Before we arrived he
had sent the camel back with the mounted Arab who accompanied him; and
somehow the camp seemed all the smarter and more ship-shape for the
presence of the handsome Hadji, in his green turban. The Set are all
extremely interested in him; and on hearing my version of his history,
sketchily told, have taken to calling him "the prince." Enid and Elaine
almost fawn upon him, in their admiration of so romantic and splendid
an addition to our party: a real, live Egyptian gentleman, with enough
European blood in his veins to justify nice-minded maidens in
cherishing a hopeless love for him, when he has safely vanished out of
Mrs. East made Anthony pick up pre-historic oyster shells in the
desert, between flaming sunset and twilight, when the sky became a vast
blue tent hung with a million lamps. And at dinner she was not nice to
Enid and Elaine who admired her hero too frankly. She has developed an
embarrassing clearness of vision as to other people's former
incarnations, especially their disagreeable or shocking ones. "Ah, it
has _just_ come to me!" she exclaimed, her elbows on the table, looking
dreamily into Elaine Biddell's face. "You were _Xantippe_. I knew I'd
seen you somewhere."
As for Enid, it seems that she was Charmian or Iris, Cleopatra can't be
sure which; but the girl has come to me saying that, if Mrs. East
doesn't stop calling her "My dear handmaiden," one or the other of them
will have to give up starting on the Nile trip next week.
_Wednesday_: We had lobster á la Newburgh for dinner, in mid-Libyan
desert, and drank the chêf's health in champagne. I don't know which
was to blame, or whether it was the combination; but in the windy
middle of the night when tent flaps stirred like a nestful of young
birds, there were demands for ginger and for peppermint. Now, ginger
and peppermint happened to be the only two medicaments in the whole
pharmacopoeia left out of the medicine chest. But nothing else would
do. The more the things weren't there, the more they were wanted; and
all the people who had made notes to remember me in their wills,
scratched me out again. Then, to pile Ossa on Pelion, the dogs of
Tomieh arrived to pay a visit. They barked, of course; but they barked
so much that the noise was like a silence, and nobody minded after the
first half hour. The worst was, that they did not confine their
demonstrations to barking. In order to signify their disapproval of our
stingy ways, they took the boots we had confided to the sand in front
of our tents to be cleaned, and worried them at a considerable
distance. Some of the boots were past wearing when found, and some were
not found. Judging from cold glances directed at me by those obliged to
resort to pumps or bedroom slippers, one would imagine me the trainer
of this canine menagerie. It has been hinted, too, that a conductor
worth his salt would have filled up interstices of the medicine chest
with toothbrushes. Several members of the party forgot to pack theirs
in moving camp and they are now the property of jackals. A stock of
toothbrushes is the one other thing besides peppermint and ginger and
hot-water bottles that Slaney and I left out of our calculations;
still, I do think bygones ought to be bygones. Anthony is the hero now,
because it occurred to him to buy in Cairo flannelette nightwear, male
and female, of the thickest and most hideously pink description. Had
these horrors been suggested at the start, they would have been
rejected with fury, in favour of lace and nainsook; but the
contribution has made a _success fou_, at a crisis when vanity has been
forgotten, and the girls are employing their prettiest frocks as bed
_Another Day:_ Have now forgotten which, or how many we've had. This is
Anthony's hour--but he may take such advantage of it as he chooses--I'm
indifferent. On top of my troubles I've contracted Desert Snivels.
Whether the habit of using sand for snuff has produced the malady, or
whether I've caught something (despite the tonic air) from nomads or
oasis-dwellers, all of whom emit a storm of coughs and sneezes, I do
not know. All desire to use this grand opportunity of taking
Cleopatra's advice and winning Monny's love while for once she's
neglected by others, has died within me. My one wish is to keep away
from her and the rest, except perhaps Biddy, and suffer alone, like a
cat. Biddy has got Desert Snivels, too. It makes another link between
us, like the memories of our childhood. We swop stories of symptoms.
Both feel that sense of terrible resignation which desert babies have
when their eyes are full of flies and no one takes them out.
The sky lowers. Big black birds flap over our heads like pirate flags
that have blown away. They are the vultures which used to be sacred to
Egyptians, and seem to labour under the delusion that they are sacred
still. The sand blows into our back hair, and the Arabs make scarves
and veils of their turbans. Apparently these Moslems never say any
prayers, and the _Candace_ people feel they've been cheated of a
promised sensation of desert life. The only religious thing the men do
is to bawl "Allah!" when they lift the heavy, rolled up tents onto the
People are beginning to grumble about their meals, which at first
seemed to them miracles of culinary art. "Same old desert things we've
been eating ever since Moses," I heard Harry Snell mutter. And Sir John
Biddell is sick of h. b. eggs. I suppose he means hard-boiled. I should
like to feed him on soft-shell scarabs!
Tea is the only incident in the desert which has palled on no one yet.
Very jolly, having finished the day's exertion, and sitting on folding
chairs inside tent door, teacup in hand, watching the winged shadows
sweep across the dunes! One feels like Jacob or Rebecca or some one.
There may be a fine saint's tomb standing up, marble-white, against the
rose-garden of a sunset sky, but one doesn't bother to walk out and
examine it at close quarters. There's nothing like sitting still after
a windy day on camel back.
We lack interest in history ancient and modern, although Egypt is the
country which ought to make one want to know all other history. There
may be a European war or an earthquake. We don't care what happens to
any one but ourselves. It is all we can do to keep track of our own
affairs. As for ancient history, we content ourselves with wondering if
Anthony and Cleopatra, when picnicking in the desert, dropped orange
peel and cake to feed the living scarabs of their day.
We seem to be lost to the world, yet now and then we're reminded that
we have neighbours in the desert. We've had glimpses of a distant
caravan which must be Bedr's; and when we came in sight of our own camp
last evening, we were just in time to catch a party of Germans being
photographed in front of it, with our things for an unpaid background.
Ever beauteous picture, by the by, your own encampment! White tents
blossoming like snowy flowers in a wilderness; a dense black cloud,
massed near by on the golden sand, which might in the distance be a
plantation of young palms, but is in reality a congested mass of
camels. You sing at the top of your voice "From the desert I come to
thee, on a stallion shod with fire!" hoping to thrill the girls. But
they are thinking about their tea. Girls in the desert, I find, are
always thinking about their tea, or their dinner, or their beds. You
would like (when your Desert Snivels improve) to walk with a maiden
under the stars; but no, she is sleepy! She wants to get to bed early.
Even the camels are most particular about their bed hours. It would be
irritating, if you didn't secretly feel the same yourself. But what a
waste of stars!
_Some old Day or Other:_ Interesting but dusty dyke road into the
Fayoum oasis. Every one enraged with Robert Hichens because "Bella
Donna's" Nigel recommended The Fayoum. "No wonder she poisoned him!"
snarled Mrs. Harlow. Our Arabs riding ahead look magnificent, seeming
to wade through a flood of gold, the feet and legs of their camels
floating in a rose-pink mist. But alas, the flood of gold and the
rose-pink mist are composed of dust--that reddish dust in which presumably
the boasted Fayoum roses grow; and it blows into our noses. This upsets
our tempers, and prevents our enjoying the pictures we see in the
sudden transition from desert to oasis. Biblical patriarchs on white
asses, disputing the high, narrow "gisr" or dyke road; women with huge
gold nose rings; running processions of girls, in blowing coral and
copper robes, large ornamental jars on their veiled heads, thin
trailing black scarves and slim figures dark against a sky of gold.
Blue-eyed water-buffaloes--gamoushas--and exaggerated brown-gray
calves, with wide-open, boxlike ears in which you feel you ought to
post something. Canals stretching away through emerald fields to
distant palm groves; here and there a miniature cataract; children
playing in the water, imps whose red and amber rags ring out high notes
of colour like the clash of cymbals; now and then a jerboa or a
mongoose waddling across the path; travelling families on trotting
donkeys or swinging camels who pass us with difficulty. Camels
everywhere, indeed, on dyke or in meadow; even the clouds are shaped
like camels who have gone to heaven and turned to mother o' pearl.
There are horses, too; not little sand stallions like ours, but
ordinary, plodding animals whose hoofs know only Fayoum dust or mud.
Our desert creature, however, does not spurn them. On the contrary,
though he pretends not to notice camels, cows, or buffaloes, he
whinnies and prances with delight when he meets anything of his own
shape, and assumes hobby-horse attitudes, much to the alarm of
Cleopatra and Miss Hassett-Bean. Also, just to remind everybody that
sand is his element, he shies at water, and almost swoons at sight of
the Fayoum light railway.
Much wind again. But thank goodness out of Fayoum dust, and in desert
sand for lunch! Prop up tent with our backs, leaning against the blast.
However, we have now a special clothes-brush for the bread, and a
moderately clean bandanna for the fruit. Plates, we blow upon without a
qualm. Scarabei gambolling in the sand around our feet we pass
unnoticed. This is the simple desert life!
But ah, what an encampment for the night! It makes up for everything,
and a sudden realization of abounding health is tingling in our veins.
We adore the desert. We want to spend our lives in it. Thank goodness
we have two nights here, on the golden shore of the blue Birket Karun,
all that's left of Lake Moeris of which Strabo and Herodotus raved.
From the dune-sheltered plateau where our white tents cluster, the
glitter of water in the desert is like a mirage: a mysterious,
melancholy sheet of steel and silver turning to ruby in the sunset,
with dark birds skimming over the clear surface.
Suddenly the Bible seems as exciting as some wonderful novel. Not far
from here ran Joseph's river, making the desert to blossom like the
rose. In tents like ours, perhaps, Abraham rested with Sarah, planning
how to save himself by giving her to the Egyptian king. To see this
lake is like seeing a bright, living eye suddenly open in the face of a
mummy, dead for six thousand years!
Our best sunset; romance but slightly damaged by an Arab waiter
wrapping up his head in a towel with which he had just dried our
teacups and no doubt will again.
_Another Day:_ (Merely slavish to look it out in the calendar, and
besides there is none.) All I know is, we've had two on the shore of
Birket Kurun (I spell it a different way now, because no books ever
spell anything in Egypt twice alike), "The Lake of the Horns"; and
we've been on the water in some very old boats, in order to see things
which may have existed once, but don't now; and at present we're
encamped near Medinet-el-Fayoum, a kind of lesser Cairo: originally
named Medinet-el Fâris, City of the Horseman, because of a Roman
equestrian statue found in the neighbouring mounds of "Crocodilopolis."
We have just arrived, hot and dusty, with more dust of more Fayoum than
we had before Lake Moeris. "Fayoum" means Country of the Lake it seems;
and it really is a great emerald cup sunk below the level of the Nile
--as if to dip up water for its roses.
However, the Set is happy despite the state of its clothes and its
hair. None of us quite realized what the Fallahcen were really like
before, or that the word Fellal meant "ploughman." This has been
market-day, and we met an endless stream of riding men, and walking
women with black trailing garments. They had bought sheep, and goats,
and rabbits, and quantities of rustling, pale green sugar cane, which
they carried on their shoulders.
There were wild adventures for the sandcart, and watery spaces across
which Cleopatra was carried (at her own urgent request) by Anthony;
Miss Hassett-Bean by me and the strongest Arab. There were the
wonderfully picturesque squalid mud towns of Senoures and two or three
others, honey-yellow in a green mist of palms, against an indigo sky
with streaks of sunshine like bright bayonets of Djinns. And then
Medinet, through which our caravan had to pass _en route_ to camp, much
to the ribald joy of smart, silk-robed Egyptian "undergrads" who
strolled hand in hand along the broad streets near the University. They
were big, fantastic houses to suit modern Oriental taste, painted pink
and green, and set in shady gardens. And between high brick embankments
we saw the river Joseph made--swiftly running, deep golden yellow like
the Nile, with ancient water-wheels pouring crystal jets into enormous
This was our most fatiguing day, and we wanted our last encampment to
be the best. We found the worst: a suburban meadow inhabited by goats
and buffaloes. "Can't we move somewhere else?" Cleopatra besought
Anthony, to whom she appeals when he's within appealing distance.
"Isn't this tour for our _pleasure_, and can't we do what we _like_?"
Anthony absolved the camp-makers, explaining that we must be near the
town in order to get carriages and see the sights we had come to see.
Also our water supply had given out, and we must beg some from the
"government people." He hinted that it would be well to make the best
of things; but Cleopatra, with her royal memories, is not good at
making the best of what she doesn't like. She wants what she wants,
especially in her own Egypt, where things ought to know that they once
belonged to her. Miss Hassett-Bean is quite as _exigeante_, in a
different way, more Biblical, less pagan. Her criticism on the
encampment was that it, and all her oasis experiences, are destroying
her faith in hymns. "By cool Siloam's Shady Rill," for instance, used
to be her favourite, but she doesn't believe now that Siloam ever had a
_Later: 11 p. m_. Fallahcen and Fellahah (doesn't sound female, but is)
pretended to have things to do on the frontier of their field and ours,
as we were settling in, and stared unblinkingly at us, whenever we
stuck a nose outside a tent. Also they laughed. Also they brought their
dogs. But they couldn't spoil the sunset, and Medinet was a colourful
picture of the Orient, towering against the crimson west. I took Monny
and Biddy into the town to see the bridge and dilapidated Mosque of
Kait Bey, with its pillars stolen from Arsinoë. Anthony took Cleopatra,
and most of the other unmarried men took Rachel Guest. When Brigit
remarked rather sharply upon the ex-school teacher's popularity, Monny
laughed an odd, understanding little laugh. "I believe you think you
know _why_ they're all so mad about that girl!" exclaimed Biddy.
"Perhaps I do," smiled Miss Gilder.
"_What_ is her fascination?"
"Bedr could have told you," Monny cryptically replied. "He told several
"What do you mean, child? I'm eating my heart out to know!"
"Don't eat it, dearest. You can't eat your heart and have it, too. And
it's your most important possession."
"I wish you wouldn't tease me when I'm tired. Is it part of the secret
you and Rachel were always giggling over, when we first got to Cairo?"
"Yes, dear, it is, if you must know. But I don't want to tell even you
what the secret is, please! You might think it your duty to spoil
Rachel's fun, and she and I are both enjoying it _so_ much."
"Can you guess what she means, Duffer?" Biddy appealed to me. "You know
I wrote you that Monny and Miss Guest had a secret. I thought afterward
it might have been only their plan to see the hasheesh den; but since
then I've realized it was something else."
"Even if I could guess, ought I to give Miss Gilder away, when she has
just told you she doesn't want you to know?" I asked innocently.
They both turned on me in a flash. (I expected that.) "_Do_ you guess?"
"I don't see, if I do, why I shouldn't have _my_ little secret," I
mildly replied. I knew that, after this, Monny would give me a good
deal of her society, even though she might not have forgiven me for
bolting to haul down the Cook ensign, in the midst of her confidences.
But in truth I have not guessed the secret! My wits go wheeling round
it, like screaming swallows who see a crumb. I get a glimpse of the
crumb, and lose it again. In my present mood I almost regret that Bedr
and his supposed Germans have not dumped themselves down in our field.
It would have been like them to do so, judging by the aggressive checks
on those mustard tweeds; but as a matter of fact the party has
disappeared from view since just before Birket Karun. They may have
turned back to Cairo; they may have been swallowed up by a palsied sand
dune; they may have been eaten by jackals (we saw a dead one), or they
may have taken to the fleshpots of a Greek hotel in Medinet; but the
fact remains that, just when he might be useful, Bedr is not to be had.
In our tent to-night, I took advantage of our friendship to try and
draw Fenton out a little on the subject of his feelings. It seemed the
right hour to open the door of the soul. The Fallaheen having taken
their families home, our tent-flaps were up, and only the stars looked
in--stars swarming like fireflies in the blue cup of a hanging flower;
but Anthony would speak of nothing more intimate than the Mountain of
the Golden Pyramid, or his tiresome sheikh's tomb. I yearned to tell
him of the _contretemps_ about the hieroglyphic letter, but something
stopped the confession on the end of my tongue, though perhaps in the
circumstances, I owed it to Mrs. East. If he had mentioned her name the
story might have come out; but the one drop of Eastern blood which
mingles with a hundred of the West in Anthony's veins makes him
singularly reserved, aggravatingly reticent where women are concerned.
I used to think that this was because he was not interested in them.
But something--I can't explain what, unless it's instinct--tells me
that this is no longer the case. Another interest has come into his
life, rivalling his soldier interest, and the secret hope buried deep
in our Mountain. I see it in his eyes. I hear it in the _timbre_ of his
voice. It means Woman. But what woman? Is Monny right? Is he falling
seriously in love for the first time in his strenuous life with Biddy,
whom he picked out for admiration the moment he set eyes on her? Or is
it Monny herself? I must be a dog in the manger, because I don't like
the idea of its being either.
He is asleep on the other side of the tent as I write. Desert dogs do
not disturb him. He's great on concentrating his mind, and when he goes
to sleep he concentrates on that.
I wish he'd talk in his sleep! But even in unconsciousness, he is
discreet as a statue.
_The Last Day. Evening:_ I am in disgrace, and am left alone to bear
it, so I may as well finish my Desert Diary. It's all an account of a
lamb, just an ordinary, modern lamb you might meet anywhere. But I
mustn't begin with that, though it haunts me. In spirit it's here in
the tent, sitting at my feet, staring up into my face. Avaunt, lamb!
Thy blood is not on _my_ head. Go to those who deserve thee. I wish to
write of Crocodilopolis. Shetet, the city was called in the beginning
of things; Shetet, or the "Reclaimed," for the Egyptians stole land
from the water, and made it the capital of their great Lake Province,
which Ptolemy Philadelphus renamed to please his adored wife. Queen
Arsinoë was charming, no doubt; and the Greek ruins and papyri of her
day are interesting, but it is the city sacred to the crocodile god
Sebek which can alone distract my thoughts now from the tragedy of the
black lamb. If his Ka refuses to go I shall set crocodiles at it
--ghosts of crocodiles mummied somewhere under the desert hills which
separate the Fayoum from the Nile Valley.
We drove out to the ruins in a string of hired carriages, at an
incredibly early hour this morning. As the night was one long dog-howl,
and the dawn one overwhelming cockcrow, people were thankful to get up.
But what a waste of hardly obtained baths before the start! Between
Medinet and Crocodilopolis rose a solid wall of red dust. We had to
break through it, as firemen dash through the smoke of a burning house;
and when our arabeahs stopped at the foot of a mountainous mound, about
a mile out of Medinet, the dust had come too. Scrambling up, with the
wind on our backs, we began to breathe; but it was not until we had
ascended to the old guard house on top of the pottery strewn height,
that we could draw a clean breath. Then the reward was worth the pains.
Down below us, seen as from a bird's-eye view, lay a vast, unroofed
honeycomb. It's size was incredible. The thing could not really be
there. It was a startling dream, that endless gold-brown city of
regular streets, and mud brick buildings, big and small, shops and
houses, theatres and libraries, lacking only their roofs, deserted save
by ghosts for thousands of years, yet looking as though it had been
destroyed by a cyclone yesterday. Down there in the devastated beehive
myriads of bees still worked frantically, human bees, which Cleopatra
said were reincarnations of those who had owned slaves and killed them
with forced labour, when Shetet was among the richest cities of the
"Two Lands." These bees of to-day worked to destroy, not to recreate,
for the crumbling brick is the best of fertilizers--and fertilizing
their land is the one great interest in life for the Fellaheen of the
Fayoum. Furiously they tore at the remaining walls; furiously they
packed away their treasure of dried mud in sacks; furiously they piled
it on backs of donkeys and rushed away to make room for others. Each
instant hundreds of wild figures in dusty black or blue scampered off,
beating loaded donkeys, only to be replaced by hundreds more doing the
same thing in the same manner. Yet always a few forms remained
stationary. They were police guardians of the ruins, men armed with
staves, whose business was to oversee each worker's sack, lest some
rare roll of papyri, some rich jewel which once adorned a pampered
crocodile of the lake, should be found and stolen. Glimpsed through the
red flame of blowing, ruby dust, the scene was a vision of Inferno; we
on our mount looking down on it were in company of Dante and Virgil.
The rest of the day we gave to a light-railway excursion to Illahun and
the brick Pyramid of Hawara. There was much laughing and shrieking
among the girls of the Set (I don't count Monny, who shrieks for
nothing less terrible than the largest spiders) as Arabs pushed our
trolley cars along the line; and we were frivolous even on the site of
the labyrinth which was, perhaps, copied from the Labyrinth of Crete.
The Set were frankly disappointed in the few remains of granite columns
and carvings; but vague memories of jewels seen at the Egyptian Museum
waked an interest in the brick pyramid tomb at Hawara where King
Amenemhat and his daughter Ptah-nefru lay for a few thousand years. All
of us were eager for the "last camp tea," when we got "home" from our
expedition, and it was then that the tragedy happened: the tragedy of
the black lamb.
How could I guess, when Yusef said the camel-boys wanted money to buy
meat as a feast for the last day, that they meant to buy it alive?
When we arrived in camp, an idyllic scene was being enacted. A woolly
black lamb with a particularly engaging facial expression was being
hospitably entertained by all our men with the exception of the chêf.
They formed an admiring ring round it, taking turns in feeding it with
bersim, and patting its delightfully innocent head. It was difficult to
say which was happier, the charming guest or its kind hosts.
"How _sweet_ of them!" said Miss Hassett-Bean. "I must write a few
verses about this, for our home paper!"
Everybody joined with her in thinking the Arabs sweet, and Enid Biddell
went round and took up a collection. The men arranged a football match
for our benefit, to show their gratitude, and played so well and were
so picturesque that Sir John and other ardent sportsmen pressed more
money upon them. It was altogether a red-letter day for the camel-boys,
quite apart from the fact that they would get rid of their noble
benefactors to-morrow; and by way of a climax they had what we supposed
to be a bonfire at dark.
"Aren't all those white figures wonderful, grouped round the blaze?"
asked Monny, who appeared on the whole satisfied with the way in which
the desert had taken her. "And look, the flames are reflected on the
clouds. I do believe it's going to _rain_, if such a thing can happen
here! I hope it won't spoil the poor darlings' celebration. Why, they
seem to have something big and black hanging over the fire. What _can_
it be? Oh, it looks awful!"
"It is not awful, mees," Yusef, standing near, good naturedly reassured
her. "It very naice. It is the lamb, they cook for their supper. The
genelman, milord, he give them money to buy it."
"Lamb?" shrieked Monny, in a wild voice which brought a crowd round us.
"_Lamb_! Not--oh, not--"
"Yes, mees, you all see it feeded when you come home, when you say it
so sweet. Camel-boys find sweeter now!"
"Oh!" the girl exclaimed. "Fiends! They invited that lamb here, and
brought it in their arms and played with it and did everything they
could to make it think it was having a pleasant afternoon, and then
--they _killed_ it!"
"Of course, yes, mees," said Yusef, puzzled. "Why else for milord tell
they can buy it? They kill and pound it up to make it good, and soon
they eat in honour of the genelmen and ladies who have been so kind
this naice trip."
"I should like to kill _them_!" gasped Monny, preparing to cry, and
flinging herself into Biddy's arms. "Oh--_somebody_ give me a hanky
We all felt mechanically in our pockets; but I, being nearest, was
first in the field. It was a shock to see Monny wave my handkerchief
away with a gesture of horror, and bury her face in a far inferior one
tendered by Anthony.
"No _wonder_!" exclaimed Miss Hassett-Bean, who is not, as a rule, a
Monny-ite. "You're _quite_ right, Miss Gilder. Lord Ernest Borrow, I
don't see _much_ difference between you and a murderer!"
For a minute, I did not know what she meant. Then it broke upon me that
the Arabs' monstrous breach of hospitality to the lamb was laid at my
door. I jabbered explanations, but no one listened; and just then the
rain, which nobody had believed in, seized the opportunity of coming
down in floods. The camels roared with rage and surprise; the camel-boys
swore Arab oaths; the fire sputtered, and what became of the half-cooked
lamb I shall never know. We rushed for the dining-tent, all
soaked in an instant, with the exception of Brigit and Monny, whom
"Antoun" protected with a long cloak.
Dinner was a gloomy feast, which might have been composed of funeral
baked meats, though the chêf himself came to the door and vowed by all
his saints that the lamb cutlets were not from _that_ lamb. So well did
he exonerate himself, so eloquently did he protest that he had nothing
to do with the camel-boys' orgy, that another special collection was
taken up for him.
"Poor, dear old gentleman!" sighed Miss Hassett-Bean. "I shall never be
able to forget him. When I'm out of this awful country of _cannibals_,
and safe in my own home, he will simply haunt me, passing his
respectable old age, black though he is, chasing across deserts on
camels, wrapped in a blanket and covered with chicken coops, at the
mercy of any queer Christian who can afford to pay for him. It's a
Perhaps she wrote her poem about the cook instead of the camel-boys.
Luckily, however, at the last moment I remembered a superstition of the
Ancient Egyptians. They were in the habit of sacrificing a black lamb
to propitiate Set, the sender of storms. Our lamb _was_ black: and at
the hour of his untimely death a storm was coming up. The dreadful
deed, therefore, was turned into a Rite.
AN OILED HAND
That is where my diary of the desert stopped; for the adventure that
ended our trip was not of the sort that mixes well with tragedies of
Before dinner Monny had apologized for refusing my handkerchief, I
really believe because she was sorry she had misunderstood, _not_
because the rain had leaked through her tent, and she wanted me to give
her mine. In fact, she and Biddy refused pointblank at first when
Anthony and I suggested the change. They would not have told us that
the water had come in on their beds if they had thought we would
suggest such a thing. All they wished for was to have the tent-roof
somehow mended before matters got worse. But we insisted, especially
Fenton; and he is difficult to disobey. A look from him, and a drawing
together of the black eyebrows has the same effect on the mind of a
rebellious woman as an "Off with her head!" from an Arabian Nights
Sultan, while I might vainly exert my ingenuity to achieve the result
he gets by sheer mysterious magnetism.
It was bedtime when the leak showed itself, but the change of quarters
was accomplished with military quickness and precision, as Fenton's
undertakings generally are; and almost before they knew what had
happened, Monny and Brigit, who had been tent-mates during the tour,
found themselves transferred bag and baggage to our tent, with the last
clean sheets in the bedroom-Arab's possession.
Transferred, we set ourselves to making repairs, and soon patched up
the leaks. Rain at this season comes so rarely, it was not surprising
that a stitch or two had been neglected.
Only the pillows and upper blankets had had time to get wet, and we had
but to remove the coverings and turn the pillows. We both did this
simultaneously, and simultaneously exclaimed "Hullo!"
"They've left their treasures" said Anthony, not with quite the
masculine scorn of feminine weaknesses I was used to noticing in him.
Indeed, he spoke almost tenderly, as a father might speak at finding
the forgotten doll of an absent child.
Each of us stood with a wet pillow in his hand, gazing at his borrowed
bunk. In the one I had selected, lay a small chamois-skin bag, attached
to a narrow pink ribbon. In the bed chosen by Fenton, was a tiny white
enamelled watch, on a platinum chain. Both these things had been
covered by their respective owners' pillows, and forgotten in the hasty
change of quarters. The watch was Monny's. She wore it round her neck
every day--therefore the chamois-skin bag on the other bed must be
Brigit's. I told myself that in it she probably kept her pathetic store
of money, hidden under her bodice by day, her pillow by night; and
beholding this intimate souvenir of my childhood's friend, my heart
yearned over her.
"Too late to rouse them up now," said Anthony.
"Yes," said I. "We must have been twenty minutes or half an hour
getting the roof to rights. They may be asleep, and if not, they won't
worry anyhow. They'll know that their things are safe till to-morrow
Fenton agreed with this verdict, and each keeping charge of his own
treasure trove, we went to bed and to sleep.
I am a champion dreamer. So much so, that I often find the life of
dreamland rivalling in interest the life this side of sleep. I look
forward to my dreams, as some people look forward to an interesting
dinner-party; but that night I was too tired to inspect the dream-menu,
before lying down to it. The first thing I knew, a handsome Egyptian
god with crystal eyes, like those which Bill Bailey means to make the
fashion, stood by my bedside. I asked him politely whether he were Rã
or Osiris, deliberately picking the two best gods of the bunch in order
to flatter him; but without answering, he pointed a bronze hand to the
mat on which he stood. It was a white mat, and on it I read a word
which evidently he meant me to take as his name: TAM HTAB. For an
instant it seemed to me a fine name for an Egyptian god, though I
hadn't met it before. Then I burst out laughing disrespectfully. "Why,
you're only a Bath Mat wrong side out!" I heard myself sneering; and
the god disappeared as a flash of lightning comes and is gone. In
going, however, he stumbled slightly against the bed. It was a mere
touch; but that, or my own voice, half waked me up.
"TAM HTAB," I mumbled dreamily; and was just reminding myself before
dropping off to sleep again that I must tell Biddy about the new bath
god, when I realized that he had not quite gone. No, not quite gone! It
must be he who still lingered by the bed, for it could be nobody else.
Anthony would not come and hover silently at my bedside in the middle
of the night. Besides, I was almost awake now, and I could hear the
gentle, regular breathing of a man asleep: Anthony's breathing.
"Go away, TAM HTAB," I tried to say, but I was not awake enough to
speak. He was bending over the bed. His face was near to mine. I felt
rather than saw it. "How could I see in the dark?" sleepily, even
fretfully, I asked myself. And yet, _was_ the tent dark?...It had been,
I remembered that. I remembered that Anthony had got to bed first, and
I had extinguished the two candles on the washhand-stand. Afterward, I
had had to grope my way to the bed. Now, however, there was a light...a
very faint, rather curious light. There seemed to be only a square of
it, a square sloped off at the top. It was opposite my eyes, which
really were open now, I felt sure. I couldn't be dreaming this. It was
like a queer-shaped window in the blackness, a window full of
starlight, but close to the floor. Then the rain must have stopped. The
stars must be out. Yes, but how could I see that? There was no window
in the tent.
This thought dragged the last film of sleep off my tired brain, like a
veil snatched away by impatient fingers on an unseen hand.
Odd! Those very words said over themselves in my head: "Fingers on an
unseen hand." And that was because a hand was being slipped cautiously,
inch by inch, under my pillow. It was the Egyptian god's hand. But I
knew suddenly that the dream-god had turned into a thief: that the
silver-glimmering square of light was one of the tent flaps unbuttoned
and turned back. That the man must stealthily have pulled up a peg or
two while we slept our heavy sleep, must have crept into the tent,
soft-footed over the thick rugs, and now here he was, trying to steal.
After that, I did not go on with the thought. My dull reasoning snapped
off as short as a dry stick. I made a grab for the hand under my
pillow, seized a wrist, held it for an instant in a grip which must
have hurt, then had the shame and disappointment of feeling it slip out
of my grasp, like a greased snake. There was a stifled exclamation of
pain or surprise, scarcely louder than a sigh, and I was out of bed and
after a shadow that ran for the low square of starlight. Something
caught and tripped me as I reached the opening. What it was I did not
know then and don't know now, but I had a vague impression that it was
warm. If I had stumbled against a bare leg thrust out to stop me, it
would have felt like that. Yet it could not have been the leg of the
man running away. He was using both his, and must have used them well,
for I was up and out from under the lifted tent flap which had fallen
on top of me as I tumbled, before I could have counted five. Very wide
awake now, I stood in the rough, sandy grass, under a sky encrusted
with stars, and could see no one. Barefooted, I pattered this way and
that, searching every shadow, but the whole camp seemed an abode of
peace. There was not a sound or movement even in the black ring of
sleeping camels. Rain had driven to shelter the roving dogs which had
troubled us last night. The camp lanterns burned clear and strong,
yellow and crude in the silver flood of starlight which dulled their
radiance. The smell of earth and grass after the heavy shower was like
the fragrance of tea roses. Could it be that an evil, stealthy presence
had but just broken this sweet serenity with its vile intention, or had
the whole incident been after all a singularly vivid dream? I should
have believed so, if my hand which had clutched that other hand, had
not been slippery with oil.
No, I had not dreamed. And suddenly a troubling thought leaped into my
mind. "Biddy!" The name sprang to my lips and spoke itself aloud.
If this were for her! I had laughed at her forebodings. Sensational
revenges such as she feared seemed so incongruous, so utterly unsuited
to those laughing, long-lashed eyes of hers! Yet she had in her past
life lived side by side with fear and tragedy for more years than I
liked to count. And as she said, men such as those whom Richard O'Brien
had betrayed had been known to reach out very far to take revenge.
Biddy had done nothing. Surely they owed her no grudge. But she had
known things. Perhaps they thought that she knew even more than she did
know. Their organization was rich as well as powerful. It had many
branches. Yet why should men use its power to hurt the widow of a dead
enemy, now that they--or fate--had put him underground?
In a flash I remembered the chamois-skin bag, which she had forgotten
under the pillow: and lifting the loosened canvas flap with its
dangling pegs, I stooped to go back into the tent. Inside, I expected
to find darkness, but instead I found light; Anthony up, setting a
match to a candle wick, and looking a tall, dark silhouette in his
"What's the row?" he calmly wanted to know--too calmly to suit my
"A thief, that's all," I answered, hastily searching under the pillow
where the unseen hand had been. Sheet and pillow-case were slimy with
oil, yet the chamois-skin bag was safe. "But he didn't get what he
wanted!" I finished.
"Good," said Anthony, who had lighted both candles. "Let's go look for
"I've been, and couldn't see anything."
"I know. I heard a sound. I sang out, and you didn't answer, so I
thought something must be up. Let's have another try. I've got Miss
I slipped Biddy's bag into the pocket of my pyjamas, and pulling on our
boots we went out into the night.
"It's _their_ tent I'm thinking of," I said, though I'd never talked of
Brigit O'Brien's affairs to Fenton. "If some one had planned to rob
them, not knowing of the change we made at the last minute--"
"All our Arabs did know--"
"I'm not talking of them. We've been here two days. Any one could have
spied on us enough to find out which tent was Mrs. Jones' and Miss
"You're thinking of Bedr?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I am. Biddy never believed they were Germans."
"Who, those chaps in checked clothes he had in tow? By Jove! yes--I
heard her speak of a scar on the forehead of one."
"She thought he might have been Burke, the fellow in the street row,
that night at the House of the Crocodile."
"These things happen to heiresses in old-fashioned story books," said
Anthony. "But there's nothing that happens in a story which can't
happen in real life, I suppose--especially to _such_ a girl. She--"
"Oh, but I wasn't thinking of her!" I began, then stopped, shocked
because it was true, and also because I was unwilling to tell why my
thoughts had turned to "Mrs. Jones."
"We must find out if they're safe," I went on. "The thieves seem to
have got clear away and we're not likely to find them, unless they've
gone to our old tent--"
"Come along," said Anthony. "We'll slip on something, and call the
ladies as softly as we can, not to disturb the others and have the
whole camp buzzing like a beehive. When we're sure _they're_ all right,
we can attend to such details as searching for tracks."
He seemed as eager as I was, to know that the two women were safe; but
there was no sign to tell me about which one he chiefly concerned
A minute transformed him from a pyjamaed Englishman into a robed
Egyptian of that old-fashioned order which despises things European.
Only, he forgot to put on his turban. I didn't think of the omission
myself at the time, but I recalled it later.
Going to the tent which had been ours, I scratched on the tight drawn
canvas near the spot where I knew one of the folding iron bedsteads was
placed. "Biddy--Biddy!" I called gently, and after a few repetitions I
heard her voice, rather sleepy, a little anxious, cry, "Is that you,
"Yes," I whispered, seeing the tent quiver in the region of some big
cushiony buttons. "'Antoun' and I are both here. But don't be scared.
Could you come and peep out from under the door flap a minute?"
"Yes," said she. "Go round there, and I'll come."
There was not much delay, for Biddy's crinkled black hair needs no
night disfigurements by way of patent curlers. In a few seconds the
door flap waved, and Biddy looked out into the starlight, the yellow
glimmer of a candle flame within the tent silhouetting the Japanesey
little figure wrapped in a kimono. Behind her dark head and above it,
floated a mist of bronzy gold, which I took to be Miss Gilder's hair.
There seemed to be quantities of it, and I should have been feverishly
interested in wondering how long it was, if I had had time to think of
anything but my thankfulness that Biddy and Monny were both safe.
"Are either of you ill?" asked the creamy Irish voice which had never
sounded half so sweet as now, in the starlight and fragrance of this
strange night. "Because if you are, I've some lovely medicine--"
"I wouldn't frighten them any more than I could help, if I were you," I
heard Fenton mumbling advice in muffled tones at my back.
For obvious reasons I made no audible answer; but I had just been
resolving not to tell Biddy my suspicions unless it were necessary to
"No, we're not ill," I assured her. "But there's been a silly sort of
scare about a sneak thief: may have been a false alarm, and we won't
say anything about it to-morrow, if others don't. We're horribly sorry
to disturb you and Miss Gilder, but we couldn't rest without making
sure you hadn't been worried."
"_You_ heard nothing, did you, Monny?" Brigit threw a question over her
shoulder to the floating mist of gold.
"No, and I wasn't asleep either," Miss Gilder's voice answered. "I was
lying awake thinking about its being our last night--and lots of
"I was lying half awake, too, thinking of 'lots of things,'" Biddy
mimicked her friend, "or I shouldn't have heard you so easily when you
scratched on the canvas. Oh, by the way, Duffer, did you or Antoun
Effendi find a little chamois-skin bag under the pillow?"
"I found it," said I, and this gave me a chance I had been wanting but
hadn't quite known how to snatch. "I was rather worried over the
responsibility. Of course you knew that we'd take care of your
"It's all my money, and--and just _one_ other thing!" Biddy answered,
with an odd little hesitation in her manner and a catch in her voice.
"I should hate to have anybody open that bag. I'm thankful it's safe.
With you, I know it's _sacred_. All the same, I'd like to have it, if
you don't mind the bother."
"You oughtn't to carry the thing about with you, if it's so important,"
I scolded her. "Why not leave your secret treasure, whatever it is, and
most of your money, in Cairo, when you come off on an expedition like
"I don't know," she mumbled evasively. "I'm used to having this thing
with me. I can't think how I forgot it under my pillow. I never have
before. It isn't the sort of--of valuable one keeps in a bank. Monny
embroidered the bag when she was a little girl. It was her first work.
I taught her how to do it, and she gave it to me for a birthday
present. I wouldn't lose it for the world."
"You shan't," I said soothingly. I had heard what I had been afraid to
hear; but why should Biddy's trip be spoiled by another worry if I
could shield her? We could not _know_ that the oiled hand had been
groping for that bag; and I resolved not to distress Brigit by putting
the idea into her head at present. "Go to sleep again in peace, both of
you," I went on. "All's well, since _you_ are well. Probably some
prowler has been sneaking round the kitchen-tent."
"Yes. The news of the lamb has gone forth!" said Biddy. "Good night!"
"Good night!" I answered.
Down went the tent flap, and hid the sparkle of eyes in starsheen, and
mist of gold in wavering candle-light. We trusted that the two had
crept back into their beds; but we did not return to ours. We took one
of the camp lanterns and searched for footprints--those which were
freshest after the rain. The rough grass growing sparsely out of the
sandy earth was not favourable to such attempts, however; and even at
dawn, when we looked again before the camp was stirring, we made no
notable discoveries such as amateur detectives make, in books.
Our next expedition, as soon as light came, was to the town, where we
inquired at the few hotels, and put questions to the police. Nobody
answering the description of Bedr and his two companions had been seen
in Medinet, and we had to go back to camp baffled.
There was our adventure; and when we reached Cairo by train, the
mystery of the oiled hand was still unsolved.
THE SHIP'S MYSTERY AGAIN
I expected a black mark for the lamb and every little desert
difficulty, but, to my surprise, only our joys were remembered. Those
who had stayed in Cairo exchanged tales with the desert travellers, and
it was astonishing to hear what a marvellous week we had had. Each day
had been better than its brother. In fact, our trip had been one long,
glorious dream of golden sands and amethyst sunsets; the camels were as
easy to ride as sofas, and combined the intelligence of human beings
with the disposition of angels; the camp was as luxurious as the Savoy
or the Plaza; and to me and that wonderful Antoun Effendi all credit
was suddenly due. Not to be outdone, the stayers in Cairo had had the
"time of their lives." They had not been herded together like animals
in a menagerie, as in Colonel Corkran's day. The girls had not only
been to dances, but had danced with darling pets of officers, friends
of Ernest Borrow; while their mothers had been asked to those
fascinating picnics they get up in Egypt, don't you know, where you dig
in ancient burial grounds and find mummy beads and amulets. Somehow or
other, all these people attributed their pleasures to me, as they had
blamed me for their mishaps; and my spirits were at the top of the
thermometer three days later when, after some hard work, the
_Enchantress Isis_ was ready to start "up Nile."
Sir Marcus wanted "his tours to be different from every other Nile
tour, and a little better." He wanted to "show what he could do," and
he was beginning well. Though the _Enchantress Isis_ had had a past
under other owners, she looked as if this were her maiden trip, and she
was as beautifully decorated as a débutante for her first ball. Her
paint was new and gleaming white; her brass and nickel glittered like
jewellery; and even those who thought nothing quite good enough for
them, uttered admiring "Ohs!" as they trooped on board.
"The Highway of Egypt" was a silver-paved road, leading to adventure.
The masts of native boats lying along the river bank were etched in
black lines crowding one over another, on the lightly washed-in
background of blue. Near by, the great Kasr-el-Nil bridge gleamed with
colour and life like a rainbow "come alive"; and the _Enchantress Isis_
looked as gay and inviting as a houseboat _en fête_ for Henley regatta.
She was smaller than the most modern of the Nile boats, for she had
been sold cheap to Sir Marcus by another firm: but she was big enough
for his experiment, though he had turned some of her cabins into
private baths and sitting-rooms. Her three decks towered out of the
water with a superior air of stateliness, such as small women put on
beside tall sisters; and her upper deck was a big open-air sitting-room.
There were Turkish rugs on the white floor, and basket chairs and
sofas with silk cushions. On the tables and on the piano top there were
picture-books of Egypt, and magazines, and bowls of flowers. From the
roof, sprouted electric lamps with brass leaves and glass lotuses; and
smiling Arabs in white from turban to slippers had blue larks flying
wide-winged on their breasts. Oh, yes, Sir Marcus was "doing" his
clients well, that was patent at first glance, and became even more
conspicuous to the eyes of the Set as they wandered into the dining
saloon, drawing-room and library, or peeped into each other's cabins.
Sir Marcus himself had come on board ostensibly to see us off, really
to watch the effect of his boat upon Cleopatra. He lay in wait for her
outside the door of her suite (the best on board), pretending to engage
me in conversation, but forgot my existence as she appeared. The
ecstasy on his big face was pathetic, as his brown eyes fixed
themselves on a quantity of artificial blue lotuses she held in her
"Do you like 'em, Mrs. East?" he ventured.
"Do I like what?" she inquired, that quiver of impatience in her tone
which she kept for her unfortunate adorer.
"The--those flowers," he stammered. "I--"
"They're _awful_!" she exclaimed. "The rooms are lovely, but these
dreadful artificial things some _silly_ person has stuck all over the
place spoil the whole effect. I want to find an Arab to take them away.
Or do you think I might throw them overboard? No one _could_ like them,
"Of course, chuck 'em overboard--or hand 'em to me, and I'll do it,"
said Sir Marcus, looking ready to cry. "But--they're _lotuses_, I
suppose you know? I heard you say you'd give anything to have some."
"Not artificial ones," explained Cleopatra, _belle dame sans merci_. "I
can't stand artificial flowers even on hats, much less in rooms. Who
could have put such horrors all over my _salon_?"
"I don't know," Sir Marcus lied stoutly; "but it shan't happen again.
There ain't any real lotuses to be got, so maybe the--er--the
decorator--" his meanderings died into silence, as he took the bunch of
flowers from Mrs. East, and viciously flung them as tribute to the
"After all, we oughtn't to do that," said Cleopatra. "In the beautiful
old days real lotuses were given to the Nile. These are an insult."
"They aren't meant as such," the big man apologized, all joy in his
fine boat and the compliments he had received crushed out of him. I
knew now that he had hovered at Cleopatra's door hoping for a cry of
pleasure. Probably he had ransacked Cairo for the lotuses, or
telegraphed to Paris, before his cruel lady went from him into the
desert. I was sorry for the "boss," though a snub or two would be good
for him, no doubt, and perhaps were being specially provided by a wise
Providence. But I had other things to think of than Sir Marcus Lark's
love-troubles: Monny, for instance, who at last had found a letter from
"Madame Wretched" in Cairo, and had wonderful schemes in her head. On
board the _Laconia_ I should have thought such schemes obstinate and
headstrong, the wish of a spoiled child to do something dangerous, to
meddle in matters which did not concern her, and to have "an
adventure." But I understood the Gilded Rose a little better now. I
began to see the real Monny as Biddy saw her, bright with the flame of
courage and enthusiasm and passionate generosity, behind the passing
cloud of superficial faults. She wanted everybody to be as fortunate
and happy as she, and was prepared to be exceedingly trying and
disagreeable in the effort to make them so.
We had not been on board ten minutes when Biddy told me about the
exciting letter, and escorted me to find it and Monny. Miss Gilder was
in the act of insisting that General and Mrs. Harlow should accept her
suite, and that she should take their cabin. The matter had to be
argued out before she could spare attention for anything else; but as
she made it clear that the Harlows were not to pay extra, their
scruples were soon conquered. "The baggage hasn't been put into the
cabins yet," she explained breathlessly to me, "so that's all right!"
In my astonishment, I forgot Madame Wretched. "But why," I adjured
Monny in my professional tone, as conductor, "why on earth should you
sacrifice yourself to these people? What have they done for you? I
thought you didn't like them?"
"I don't," she replied, calmly, while Biddy listened, smiling. "That's
why I gave them my suite--at least, it's partly why."
"I should think the other part of the 'partly' is more convincing," I
remarked; and Monny blushed.
"Perhaps you know that your friend Antoun Effendi thinks me the most
selfish as well as the most obstinate girl he ever saw," she said. "And
I don't intend to have foreigners like him go on doing American girls
an injustice. Besides, maybe he's right about me--and I want him to be
wrong. I hate having all the best things there are everywhere, just
because I'm rich. The Harlows wanted a suite, and they couldn't afford
to take one. They were looking sadly through the door at my rooms and
envying me, so I thought I would change. I was _determined_ to change,
whether they would let me or not. They are old; I'm young, and I shall
enjoy thinking I've done something nice for people I thoroughly
dislike, as much as _they_ will enjoy having their own bathroom."
"If Mrs. Harlow could hear you calling her old!" gurgled Biddy.
"Well, she _is_ old. And she's perfectly horrid, much more horrid even
than Miss Hassett-Bean; so I'd rather give my suite to her and her
husband than any one else. Biddy and Rachel are together, and Aunt
Clara is alone. I'm robbing no one but myself."
"How do you know Antoun Effendi thinks you selfish and obstinate?" I
inquired. "Surely he wasn't rude enough to say so?"
"He was indeed, the day I _would_ have the coastguard camel, and he
came after me when it ran away," she confessed. "And you're not to tell
him about the suite. I didn't give it up to please him."
"I thought you did," I ventured, "in order that Egyptian princes
shouldn't do injustice to American girls?"
"I meant," she explained hastily, "that I like to know they're _wrong_
about us. And now what was it that Biddy and you wanted to say? Oh,
poor Mabel's letter! How thankful I am to get it! I've been wondering
if I dared write, and thinking of all sorts of desperate plans. But,
Biddy thought we must wait till Wretched was off his guard. You see, we
shall have to rescue her when we get to Asiut."
I would have answered, but a look from Biddy enjoined silence. And so
we were in touch with the "Ship's Mystery" again! I took the envelope,
which was addressed to Miss Gilder in a distinctively American
handwriting, strange to see coming from an Egyptian harem.
The letter began abruptly, and showed signs of haste:
"You were so good, I know I can appeal to you, but I'm not sure if
there's any way to help me. I began to be frightened on the ship, when
_he_ behaved so queerly, just because I talked about the most ordinary
things to one or two men. He made me stay in my cabin--but you'll
remember that. Already it's like ages ago! I tell myself now that I was
almost happy then. At least, I believed I was his _wife_, and that it
was better than being poor, and a governess to hateful French children
in Paris. He was kind, too--he seemed to love me; and I thought it was
like living in a romance to marry a Turk. He swore he'd never loved any
one except me, that he'd never been married, and that he wouldn't try
to convert me or shut me up like Turkish women. But everything was
untrue and different from what he said. I hardly know how to tell you,
for you will think it horrible, yet I must tell. When I came here, I
found he _had a wife already_, and a perfectly fiendish little girl. It
is legal in this dreadful country to have four wives, but I don't care
about the law. I want to get away. I've been cheated. This isn't
marriage! I don't know what will become of me, for I haven't any money,
but I'd rather starve than stay. I heard Mr. Sheridan say on board ship
that it was easy to get a divorce in Egypt or Turkey. Maybe he meant me
to hear, thinking some day I might be glad to know. But I can't get a
divorce while I'm shut up in this house and watched. Now, _he_ suspects
I want to leave him (since a scene we had about the wife), and he won't
let me go out, even into the garden. You are my only hope. You'll
wonder why I don't try appealing to the American Consul here, instead
of to you. I suppose there must be a consul--Asiut seems a big,
important town. I'll tell you why I don't. For one thing, there mayn't
be a consul. For another thing, the woman who has promised to post this
wouldn't do so if she guessed I was writing against my husband, who is
her brother-in-law, and she would guess if she saw an envelope
addressed to a consul, although she knows scarcely any English. I have
to talk to her in French. He thinks she is devoted to him, and that
she's explaining the Mussulman religion and ideas of a woman's life to
me, or he wouldn't let her come. It's true, she is loyal to him, in a
way. She wouldn't help me to escape. But I think women in the harems
like to have secrets with each other, which they hide from their men.
I've told her about you, how pretty you are, and a great heiress and
she's so interested, she's dying to see you. She hopes, if she posts
this letter, that you will call on me on your way up the Nile. She can
perhaps find out what day your boat is to arrive, through her husband,
and then she'll try to come to our house on the chance of meeting you.
I'm almost sure she'll keep her promise and post this letter. If not
--if he sees it, maybe he will kill me. I believe now he would do
anything. But I must run the risk. Do come. Do think of some way to
"I don't feel I have the right to any other name, for surely as he has
a wife I'm not truly married."
"Well?" asked Monny, as she saw me finish and fold up the letter. "You
were horrid about her at first, but just at the last minute on the
ship, you were good, and kept Wretched Bey talking, so I might have my
chance with Mabel. If you hadn't, I shouldn't like you as much as I do.
And I'm sure even you'll be anxious to do something now."
"Yet we don't wish Ernest or Antoun Effendi to run into danger, do we,
dear?" Biddy suggested, coaxingly. "When you wanted to show the letter,
I said yes, but--"
Monny listened no longer. Her eyes were sparkling, as they looked
straight into mine. "Antoun Effendi!" she repeated. "Tell me first
--because, you know, you are his friend--what would he think about a case
like this? Whatever he is, he's not a Mussulman, I'm sure. Still, he's
not one of us--"
"You're sure he's not a Mussulman?" I echoed. "What makes you sure,
when you know he's been to Mecca, unless somebody has put the idea into
your head?" "His own head put it there," she answered. "I saw it
without his turban, the night of the alarm in camp. It wasn't shaved,
as I've read the heads of Moslem men are. It was a head like--like the
head of every Christian man I know, except that it was a better shape
than most! So, as he isn't Mussulman, he might not mind our trying to
help this poor deceived girl?"
"Shall I ask his advice?" I inquired, rather drily perhaps.
She hesitated for an instant, then said "Yes!"
"You seem certain that whatever he thinks, he won't betray your plan."
"I am certain," she replied, looking rapt. "He's not the kind of man
"You're right," I said. "He's not the kind of man who betrays. He's the
kind that helps. Though in such a case as this--you know, the very
meaning of the word "harem" is "sacred" or "forbidden." Still--we shall
We could not "see" at once, however, because Anthony had not come on
board. Even when the hour for starting arrived, there was no Anthony,
no message from Anthony. "Your friend isn't going to leave us in the
lurch, is he?" asked Sir Marcus, watch in hand. He had meant to travel
with us as far as Beni Hasan, our first stop, and return to Cairo by
donkey and train, but had changed his intention and was going off at
once--I thought I could guess why. "The _Enchantress Isis_ ought to be
under way this minute, but Antoun and you are our chief attractions. We
can't leave him behind."
I agreed. We could not leave Anthony behind, but I was not worrying. If
he had to drop down out of an aeroplane, I felt sure that having said
he would come, he would keep his word. So, while Sir Marcus stared at
his watch and fumed, I rushed usefully about among the ladies who
clamoured for their luggage, or complained that their cabins were too
small for innovation trunks. I showed them how these travelling
wardrobes could be opened wide and flattened against the walls, taking
up next to no room; I assured each woman in confidence that she had
been given the best cabin on the boat; I dealt out little illustrated
books about the trip; I advised people which tables to choose in the
dining-saloon, and consoled them when the places they wanted were gone.
Still, the _Enchantress Isis_ had not stirred, and a rumour was
beginning to go round that something had happened, when suddenly I saw
Antoun Effendi's green turban.
"Thank goodness!" muttered Sir Marcus, putting his watch into his
pocket. And then Mrs. East came swiftly across the deck from the door
of her own suite, where she must have stood watching, hidden behind the
portière. "Oh, Antoun Effendi!" she cried, and though her face was
turned toward us, she did not seem to know that we existed. How Anthony
looked at her we could not judge, for we saw only his back; but her
eyes must have told Sir Marcus a piece of news. He glanced from her to
Fenton, and from Fenton to her, with the expression of a school-boy who
has been punished for something he hasn't done. Then he turned to me as
though to ask a question; but shut his mouth tightly, as if gulping
down a large pill, wheeled, and left me without a good-bye. I wondered,
Cleopatra-fashion, what he had done in his last incarnation to deserve
these heavy blows in the hour which should have seen his triumph. "What
if he changes his mind and doesn't want Fenton and me after all?" I
asked myself. To my surprise, I realized that it would be a genuine
disappointment not to be wanted by Sir Marcus Lark. The Mountain of the
Golden Pyramid had nothing to do with this. It was borne in upon me
that I had begun to enjoy the rôle of conductor; and certainly I was
learning lessons in high diplomacy which might be useful in my career.
Anthony, who was free as an eagle from questions of innovation trunks
and how to give everybody the best cabins, and places at table, looked
as if he were bound for the Island of Hesperides, on a voyage of pure
romance. The air of gravity and responsibility he had worn in Cairo and
in the desert was gone with the starting of the boat. I knew suddenly,
without asking him, that his mission had been of a far more serious
nature than the transplanting of a sheikh's tomb; that there had been
something else, and that it had finished at the last moment in success.
"Sir Marcus was worrying about you," I said, when the importance of
unpacking left the deck empty save for Anthony and me.
"You weren't, were you?" He was smiling at me in a friendly,
confidential way that showed a happy mood.
"Not I! I knew you'd turn up, as you'd said you would."
"Thanks, my good Duffer. But now it's over, I don't mind telling you
that it was a toss up."
"You mean there was a chance of your failing us--in spite of the
"Well, I meant to bring this off somehow. But my first duty was to
finish up the Cairo business. I simply had to finish it, and I did. It
was a--rather bigger job than the sheikh's tomb racket, though of
course that was on the cards, too. Everything's all right now; but I
spent last night in getting the full details of an Arab plot to blow up
the house of a rich Copt, who's been of great service to the
Government. Some of the young Nationalists think that the Christian
Copts are put ahead of Moslems by the British, and there are
jealousies. The whole set of men concerned in this affair were arrested
an hour ago, so all's well with the world! I'm free to turn my face
toward the Mountain of the Golden Pyramid--free to enjoy myself,
although I must stick to my turban still."
"Are you getting tired of it?" I asked.
"I've been tired of it since the first day I put it on. I don't like
play-acting for long. But it was necessary. And it has had its
advantages as well as disadvantages for me."
I should have liked to ask another question then, but dared not, so
instead I told him about the letter from Bechid Bey's beautiful
American bride, Mabella Hânem, the "Ship's Mystery" of the _Laconia_.
Anthony listened, as the _Enchantress Isis_ slipped past the Island of
Roda, past Ghizeh, past old Cairo and still older Babylon, then out on
to the broad bosom of the river where the Nile Valley lay bathed in
sunshine from Gebel Mokattam in the east, to the Libyan hills--haunt of
departed spirits--in the west.
"Miss Gilder wants me to help, does she?" he asked at last. "She told
you to tell me about this?"
"I warned her that you mightn't approve," I explained. "I said you had
more knowledge of Egypt in your little finger than I had in all my gray
matter, and you might think that nothing could be done--"
"Tell her I think something may be done," he interrupted me. "And
before we reach Asiut we'll plan out how best to do it."
"You and I?"
"You and _she_ and I. She has brains as well as courage."
"Of course I mean Miss Gilder."
"Oh! Is it 'of course'? There are others who answer that description."
Fenton smiled. "But it's going to be her show."
"She is under the impression," I reminded him, laughing, "that all
Egypt, including the Nile, and you and your green turban, are her
Anthony did not answer. Perhaps already he was thinking of something
else. I should have liked to be sure exactly what his smile meant. Was
it for Monny? Was it for Biddy? Or only for an adventure which he saw
in the distance?
THE ASIUT AFFAIR
Nothing could be less appropriate to the Spirit of the Nile than our
spirit in setting out. We had turned our backs upon medieval Cairo, and
our faces toward Ethiopia. Our minds should have teemed with thoughts
of early gods, and the mysteries of their great temples. But not at
all. Medieval or prehistoric, it was all one to us in our secret
hearts, which throbbed with passionate excitement over our own small
affairs of to-day, and to-morrow. Little cared we, as our white boat
bore us southward, on the bosom of the sacred river--little cared we
for the love-story of the Great Enchantress--pupil of Magician Thoth,
--fair Isis, in whose honour that boat was named. Her tragic journey
along this river, whose stream she could augment by one sacred tear,
should have been followed by our fancy. We should have seen with our
minds' eyes the lovely lady asking news of the painted boat which
carried the dead body of her murdered husband Osiris, asking always
vainly, until she thought of questioning the little children. But
instead we thought of our own love-stories and amusements. We played
bridge, and danced the Tango on deck; we drummed on the piano, or
warbled the latest musical comedy airs. Above all, we flirted, or
gossiped about those who flirted, if for any reason we were off the
active list of flirters ourselves.
To be sure, we had brought learned books, and took pains to leave them
in our chairs, open at marked passages of deep interest to students. We
even scribbled heterogeneous notes, if for a moment there were nothing
more amusing to do; and bits of paper scampered wildly about the deck
informing those who retrieved them that "Nub" was ancient Egyptian for
"gold," that Osiris created men and women from the tears he wept over
his own body, cut in pieces by Set; that the ivy was his favourite
plant; or that "scarabeus" was the Greek word for a blue-green beetle,
which created itself from itself, becoming the symbol of eternal life.
All this, however, was affectation. Each hoped others might think that
he or she was not an ordinary tourist: each wished to pose as a devotee
of some phase of history concerning gods, temples, or portrait statues,
anything not difficult to "study up." But life was too strong for us.
The colour and glamour of the Nile got into our blood. Hathor, goddess
of Love, bewitched us into doing queer things which we should not have
dreamed of doing if we hadn't drunk "Nile champagne." Yet after all,
what did it matter? We were absorbing what our hearts, if not our
minds, called out for: the enchantment of Egypt.
More or less conscientiously I performed the duties Sir Marcus Lark had
bribed me to perform. I gave neat little lectures, and tried to remind
people, whether they liked it or not, that almost every moment the boat
was taking us past places of astonishing interest.
The so-called tombs of "Beni Hasan," the _Enchantress Isis_ stopped for
us to see, in order that we might admire wall-paintings in rock
chambers, and gabble about Queen Hatasu or King Seti and his mother
Pakhet, the "Beautiful Lady of the Speos." But it was difficult to
rouse emotion concerning things which we glided by without visiting.
Ruined temples were everywhere, "thick as flies," as I heard Harry
Snell say to Enid Biddell; but why bother about them, when finer ones
were waiting further down on the menu-card of the Nile-feast?
Especially when there was a pretty girl to walk the deck with,
meanwhile? As for Tell el-Marna, the Heretic King's great city, the
general vote went against a visit to the ruins. Antoun Effendi praised
it as one of the most interesting places near the Nile, because with
the exception of Queen Hatasu and Rameses the Great, Amen-hetep IV was
the most human personality in Egyptian history. But only Monny, who was
making a hero of Aknator, really wished to delay at the Disc
Worshipper's Utopia. It must have seemed strange to the Gilded Rose not
to have her will prevail; but there was a "clique" on board who
appeared to find pleasure in thwarting Monny. Her sacrifice to the
Harlows was misunderstood. She had made it, said those who did not like
her, in order to gain credit for unselfishness, or to have an excuse
for displaying herself _en route_ to the public bath, in a dream of a
dressing-gown, and a vision of a cap, carrying a poem of a sponge bag.
Rachel Guest was still mysteriously more popular than Monny, and was
said to have had two proposals on the first day. She didn't want to get
off the boat to see irrelevant painted pavements, in the harem of
Aknaton's royal palace, and her laziness won, when the vote was taken.
But what did anything matter, if the glamour of the Nile was in our
Not one of us but thrilled to the droning cry of the shadoof men on the
brown banks, as the dripping water jars went up and up, tier after tier
above the river level. Not one but felt a strange allurement in the
passing scene; the dark mystery of palm groves, whose slender stems
were prison bars against the shining sky; the copper glow of the
mud-bricks in piled-up villages; the colour of the flowing water, where
secret gleams as from flooded gold mines seemed to glint through masses
of dead violets, that floated with the tide. No eye so dull that it
could not see how the shadows on land and water were painted at evening
with a blue glaze, like the bloom on old scarabs and mummy beads, and
broken bits of pottery that art cannot copy now.
In her way, even Miss Hassett-Bean felt the charm of the Nile, and its
shores of brown and emerald and peacock-purple. "I don't call it
_scenery_," she explained. "Except when the light is different, or
there's some green stuff for cattle growing on the banks, everything's
the same yellow-brown; and nothing happens but palms and mud villages,
and shadoofs, and a few Arabs, or camels, or those ugly water buffaloes
they say the devil made, to show what he could do. But the funny thing
is, you can't bear to shut your eyes for a single minute for fear of
missing a tree, or a mound, or one of those tall-masted gyassas loaded
with white and pink pottery: they all seem so ridiculously _important_,
somehow! Then, there's that bothersome north wind following you, and
trying to freeze your spine, unless you pounce on the best seat where
it can't reach. If you put on your fur coat you're too hot; if you
don't you're too cold. At night your bed creaks, and so does everybody
else's. You hear a creaking all down the line when people turn over,
which gets on your nerves: but you soon forget; and the whole
experience is so perfectly wonderful that I'd like to spend the rest of
my natural life going up and down on a Nile boat!"
Through the opalescent dream of these first days and nights, shot the
fiery thought of our mission in Asiut. I had been surprised at first
that Anthony, who knew so well the dangers and mysteries of the East,
encouraged Miss Gilder to meddle in so delicate an affair; and there
had never been any explanations between us. But I told myself that his
motive was sympathy with Monny's desire to help: or else he had been
tempted to associate himself with her in an adventure where again, as
once or twice before, he had been able to win her gratitude. Perhaps
both motives combined.
As for Mrs. East, she frankly sulked. Intuition told me that she had
never dared speak to "Antoun Effendi" about the proposal in
hieroglyphics (so difficult for me to explain) which she attributed to
him. Never had she dared say: "You have written me a love letter. Why
don't you follow it up, and give me a chance to answer it, one way or
the other?" But it was puzzling her, disappointing her, if not breaking
her heart, that he avoided rather than sought her, on this glorified
houseboat where "the Egyptian Prince" was more or less a hero with
romantic women. While we four planned, in thrilling whispers, how to
rescue the "Ship's Mystery," and Rachel Guest walked the deck with Bill
Bailey or Harry Snell, Cleopatra was reduced to writing picture
post-cards. I thought, if Sir Marcus had but the inspiration to reappear
at some stopping place farther on, she might be ready to forgive him the
false lotus flowers: and perhaps he would come, for the Lark type is as
difficult to snub as Cleopatra's Needle. I was half inclined to send
him a telegram, on some excuse or other.
* * * * *
We came to Asiut in the morning, and it was to be a long stop, for
there was much to see, and every one was excited at the thought of our
first Nile town, a town already of Upper Egypt, which made it seem that
we had come a tremendous way from Cairo. For us, Egypt existed no
longer as a country, but as a golden brown, purple-green river-bed and
a flowing stream of history on which we floated; so it was fun for
those having no special mission, to feel that once again bazaars and
more or less sophisticated "Sights" awaited their pleasure. I had given
my after-dinner lecture the night before, trying to behave as if I were
not boiling with emotion, and had told those who deigned to listen that
Asiut, "City of the Wolves," was the capital of a province. I had
babbled, too, about the tombs which self-respecting tourists must see,
even if they hurry over the inspection of carvings, cartouches, and
representations of very small queens smelling very large lotuses (most
Egyptian queens apparently spent much of their time, lightly clothed,
and smelling lotuses, a ladylike pursuit for those about to have their
portraits taken); in order to find time for the mummied cats, the
bazaars, the silver scarves, the red and black pottery, and the images
of wolves, crocodiles, and camels cheap enough to be freely bought for
poor relations at home. "Antoun" and I hinted at business which must
prevent our joining the sightseers, who would be chaperoned by the
dragoman. Luckily, they got the idea into their heads that our affairs
were connected with Sir Marcus, and the "trip." We were pitied, rather
than blamed, but our real difficulty was with Mrs. East, as Monny did
not wish Cleopatra to be let into the secret. If she knew, she would
want to be in the adventure, and in Monny's opinion, Aunt Clara was a
dear, but unfitted for adventures.
We planned that Brigit and Monny should call upon the wife of Rechid
Bey, whose house would be easy to find. If they were admitted, they
would try to bring her out, as if for a drive, for it seemed a case of
now or never if she were to escape. In case she were able to come, they
would take her straight to the American Consulate, which I was to visit
meanwhile, in order to explain matters. But if the rescuers were
refused admission, the Consul must be entreated to give active help. I,
as a "diplomat," was considered a suitable person to deal with this
side of the affair; and Antoun Effendi was to keep unobtrusive guard
within sight of Rechid's house until Brigit and Monny, with or without
a companion, should come forth safely. As I said, however, the
difficulty was Mrs. East. She would expect her niece if not Brigit to
go about with her, and would not be easily persuaded to join any other
party. As for Rachel, we need not think of her, as she had been annexed
by the Biddells, who would otherwise have lost Harry Snell. But
Cleopatra! What to do with Cleopatra? It was Anthony who had an
There lived near Asiut, it seemed, an Italian who bred Sicilian lap-dogs,
said to be like those which had been favourite pets in the day of
Cleopatra the Great. Indeed, Antony was supposed to have given one to
the Queen. Now, Fenton asked permission to present a Sicilian lap-dog
to Mrs. East, a dog so small, so polite, that he could be taken
anywhere. Anthony could not go himself to select the gift, but would
find an interpreter as a guide to the kennel and bring her back to the
exploring party. Cleopatra, delighted with her hero's thoughtfulness,
caught at the idea: and when the Set went tearing furiously away in
arabeahs or on donkeys, Mrs. East followed sedately in a carriage with
the elderly Greek interpreter, and Miss Hassett-Bean, who also fancied
the idea of a Sicilian lap-dog, to replace the lamented Marmoset.
Everything glittered at Asiut. The sun glittered on the water; palm
trees in gardens glittered as the wind waved their big green fans; the
white or pink facades of large, square houses glittered, those fine
houses along the Nile, in one of which Rechid Bey was known to live.
But brighter than all glittered the silver scarfs which Arabs begged us
to buy. Hanging over arms raised to show them off, the shining folds
glittered like cascades of running water in moonlight. "Very cheap!
very beautiful!" cried the merchants. "Ladies, see here! Your
gen'lemen, they buy for you!"
In spite of "Antoun's" dignified refusals, putting the men off till our
return, they ran after us, waving scarfs and shawls and robes, white as
scintillating hoarfrost, pink as palest roses, purple as sunset clouds,
green and golden as Nile water, or sequined black as a night of stars.
Their vendors feared that if we did not buy of them, others might
beguile us, and saw danger ahead in a distant group of rivals crowding
round some tourists from another boat. This group we had to pass, and
as we did so, who should break out from the glittering ring but Bedr.
He came toward us, humble and cringing, giving the beautiful Arab
salute. "Dear gen'lemen and ladies!" he exclaimed. "I am very happy to
see you again. Won't you shake hands, to forgive, because I meaned no
harm, and did no wrong thing but obey the sweet ladies' wish when they
would go to that House of the Crocodile. I too much punished when I
been sent away."
"That's past now, and forgotten," said Monny, shrinking slightly from
the outstretched hand. "Perhaps it wasn't your fault, that trouble we
got into, but we didn't need you afterward, anyhow, and probably the
people you are with now are nicer to you than we were."
"Oh, no peoples could be nicer, though they are very nice, my two
gen'lemens you seed with me in the desert. They travel with me yet. We
go everywhere by trains, because it takes not so much time as the
boats. And Miss Guest, that nice good young lady, is she well?"
"Yes, she is very well," replied Miss Gilder, beginning to be restless,
her beauty-loving eyes avoiding Bedr's face, as had been her habit when
the man was in our employ. She did not like to hurt his feelings (Monny
can't bear to hurt the feelings of any one below herself in wealth or
station, though apparently she doesn't consider that one is bound to be
kind-hearted with the rich); but I could see that she wanted to escape.
Never had she liked Bedr. He had been Rachel's man from the first.
"Miss Guest has gone to see the tombs," Monny explained.
"You not go there, and to the bazaars? I take my gen'lemen in a few
"We shall go by and by; just now we've other things to do," said the
girl evasively, rather too evasively, perhaps. But in the hope of
killing two birds with one stone (luring the man to betray his secret
if he had one, and then shunting him), I broke in.
"How have you been getting on," I inquired, looking into the squint
eyes, "since that night I saw you at Medinet-el-Fayoum?"
But the eyes opened wide, with a stare of innocence.
"You see _me_ there, milord? I thought your party had not come when we
went away. My gen'lemen not like that camping place, and we stay there
not even one night. You must make mistake, and think some other man me.
We could not help laughing at the "Sure!" It was spoken in so truly an
American way that it was funny on those lips. Afterward, however, it
struck me in remembering the scene, that the man's accent in speaking
English was even more distinctly American than it had been. This was
odd, if he had been associating with Germans; but natural if his new
clients were Americans.
Another question was on my tongue, but before I had time to speak,
Monny cried out: "Oh, there's Wretched Bey, in a carriage, all alone
with some luggage! I hope he's going away!"
Naturally we turned, but I saw Biddy raise her eyebrows warningly. The
girl looked puzzled, as if, for an instant, she did not see what she
had done that was wrong. But I guess that Biddy's distrust of Bedr as a
possible spy was still alive in her breast. She did not know of my
suspicions concerning the "camp thief," for the affair at Medinet,
thanks to a white fib or two, had never assumed serious proportions in
her mind. It did not need that, however, to make her feel that Bedr's
ears were not fit receptacles for secrets.
Monny had not been mistaken. It was Rechid Bey, leaning comfortably
back in an old-fashioned but not badly appointed open carriage, drawn
by two very decent horses, and driven by a smart, red-sashed, white-robed
negro. We saw him in profile as he passed along the road at some
distance, but he was reading a paper with an expression so placid that
I felt sure he had not seen us. On the seat beside him was a suitcase
with the air of having been made in France; and circumstantial evidence
said that Monny's wish was to be granted.
I glanced hastily at Bedr, to observe, if I could, whether the girl's
impulsive exclamation had aroused undue interest; for it was not
unlikely that he had seen Rechid Bey and Mabel landing at Alexandria
the night of his first meeting with us. But the ugly face showed
"If you have things you want to do, my ladies," he said, "please excuse
that I have keeped you. I go to my gen'lemen or they give the men with
the silver shawls too much money."
The "gen'lemen" in question were more interested in observing our
movements than in completing any bargain with the street vendors;
nevertheless Bedr hastened back as if in great fear that they might be
cheated. An arabeah waited for them; and having bought a scarf or two,
they drove off before we had parted to go our several ways. An arabeah
was in attendance upon us, also, and we put Brigit and Monny into it
alone, for Rechid Bey's house, the driver informed us, was not far off.
"Good luck!" I said encouragingly, and Brigit smiled gayly at me; but
Monny was looking at Fenton. She was telling him something with her
eyes; and, with a significant little gesture, she touched the small
leather handbag she carried.
"One would think she was a suffragette with a bomb," I remarked to
Anthony, trying to speak easily, as though I were not at all anxious,
when the carriage had turned its back on us.
"Instead of which," said Anthony, gazing at the dark head and the fair
head, as earnestly as if he never expected to see them again, "instead
of which, she's merely a brave girl with a pistol that she knows how to
use. Or, anyhow, she says she does."
"Great heavens! Has she got one in that bag?" I gasped.
"She has. My Browning."
"Jove! You gave it to her?"
"I did. Last night."
My heart began suddenly to feel like a cannon ball, in my breast. I
felt that I had not understood the situation, and that now I did not
understand Anthony--though that was far from being a new sensation.
"I thought that _you_ thought there was no danger?" I bleated. "You
know Egypt and I don't. I didn't want them to go in for this thing, but
when you said it would be all right, I yielded. I wish to heaven I
"Do you think if you hadn't given in, Miss Gilder would have given up?"
"You and I together could have kept them both out of the business."
"Only by sheer force. You see, Miss Gilder was interested in this girl
and fond of her before she met you. So was Mrs. East. As Rechid tricked
the pretty little governess by making her believe she would be his
first and only wife, they don't look upon her as married to him: And I
think they're right. Don't you glory in them both for knowing there's a
risk, yet taking it so gayly for that foolish child's sake?"
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