At the Mercy of Tiberius
AT THE MERCY
IN a certain year when Dicky Donovan was close to the person of the Khedive, and the one being in Egypt who had any restraining influence on him, he suddenly asked leave of absence to visit England. The Khedive reluctantly granted it, chiefly because he disliked any interference with his comforts, and Dicky was one of them, in some respects the most important.
"My friend," he said half petulantly to Dicky, as he tossed the plans for a new palace to his secretary and dismissed him, "are you not happy here? Have you not all a palace and a prince can give?"
"Highness," answered Dicky, "I have kith and kin in England. Shall a man forget his native land?"
The Khedive yawned, lighted a cigarette, and murmured through the smoke: "Inshallah! It might be pleasant—sometimes."
"I have your Highness' leave to go?" asked Dicky, as the secretary came in again with the plans of the palace in his hand.
"May God preserve your head from harm!" answered Ismail in farewell salutation, and taking a ring from his finger set with a large emerald, he gave it to Dicky. "Gold is scarce in Egypt," he went on, "but there are jewels still in the palace—and the Khedive's promises-to-pay with every money-barber of Europe!" he added, with a cynical sneer, and touched his forehead and his breast courteously as Dicky retired.
Outside the presence Dicky unbuttoned his coat like an Englishman again, and ten minutes later flung his tarbush into a corner of the room; for the tarbush was the sign of official servitude, and Dicky was never a perfect official. Initiative was his strong point, independence his life; he loathed the machine of system in so far as he could not command it; he revolted at being a cog in the wheel. Ismail had discovered this, and Dicky had been made a kind of confidential secretary who seldom wrote a line. By his influence with Ismail he had even more power at last than the chief eunuch or the valet de chambre before whom the highest officials bowed low. He was hated profoundly by many of the household, cultivated by certain of the Ministers, fawned upon by outsiders, trusted by the Khedive, and entirely believed in by the few Englishmen and Frenchmen who worked faithfully for decent administration but without hope and sometimes with nausea.
It was nausea that bad seized upon Dicky at last, nausea and one other thing: the spirit of adventure, an inveterate curiosity. His was the instinct of the explorer, his feet were the feet of the Wandering Jew. He knew things behind closed doors by instinct; he was like a thought-reader in the sure touch of discovery; the Khedive looked upon him as occult almost, and laughed in the face of the Mouffetish Sadik, when he said some evil things of Dicky. Also the Khedive told Sadik the Mouffetish that if any harm came to Dicky there would come harm to him. The Khedive loved to play one man off against another, and the death of Sadik or the death of Dicky would have given him no pain, if either seemed necessary. For the moment, however, he loved them both after his fashion: for Sadik lied to him, and squeezed the land dry, and flailed it with kourbashes for gold for his august master and himself; and Dicky told him the truth about all things—which gave the Khedive knowledge of how he really stood all round.
Dicky told the great spendthrift the truth about himself; but he did not tell the truth when he said he was going to England on a visit to his kith and kin. Seized by the most irresistible curiosity of his life, moved by a desire for knowledge, that a certain plan in his mind might be successfully advanced, he went south and east, not west and north.
For four months Egypt knew him not. For four months the Khedive was never told the truth save by European financiers, when truths were obvious facts: for four months he had never seen a fearless or an honest eye in his own household. Not that it mattered in one sense; but Ismail was a man of ideas, a sportsman of a sort, an Iniquity with his points; a man who chose the broad way because it was easier, not because he was remorseless. At the start he meant well by his people, but he meant better by himself; and not being able to satisfy both sides of the equation, he satisfied one at the expense of the other and of that x quantity otherwise known as Europe. And Europe was heckling him; the settling of accounts was near. Commissioners had been sent to find where were the ninety millions he had borrowed. Only Ismail and Sadik the Mouffetish, once slave and foster-brother, could reply. The Khedive could not long stave off the evil day when he must "pay the debt of the lobster," and Sadik give account of his stewardship. Meanwhile his mind turned to the resourceful little Englishman with the face of a girl and the tongue of an honest man.
But the day Dicky had set for his return had come and gone, and Dicky himself had not appeared. With a grim sort of satisfaction, in harmony with his irritation, Ismail went forth with his retinue to the Dôsah, the gruesome celebration of the Prophet's birthday, following on the return of the pilgrimage from Mecca. At noon he entered his splendid tent at one side of a square made of splendid tents, and looked out listlessly, yet sourly, upon the vast crowds assembled—upon the lines of banners, the red and green pennons embroidered with phrases from the Koran. His half-shut, stormy eyes fell upon the tent of the chief of the dervishes, and he scarcely checked a sneer, for the ceremony to be performed appealed to nothing in him save a barbaric instinct, and this barbaric instinct had been veneered by French civilisation and pierced by the criticism of one honest man. His look fell upon the long pathway whereon, for three hundred yards, matting had been spread. A field of the cloth of blood; for on this cloth dervishes back from Mecca, mad with fanaticism and hashish, would lie packed like herrings, while the Sheikh of the Dôsah rode his horse over their bodies, a pavement of human flesh and bone.
As the Khedive looked, his lip curled a little, for he recalled what Dicky Donovan had said about it; how he had pleaded against it, describing sickening wounds and pilgrims done to death. Dicky had ended his brief homily by saying—"And isn't that a pretty dish to set before a king!" to Ismail's amusement; for he was no good Mussulman, no Mussulman at all, in fact, save in occasional violent prejudices got of inheritance and association.
To-day, however, Ismail was in a bad humour with Dicky and with the world. He had that very morning flogged a soldier senseless with his own hand; he had handed over his favourite Circassian slave to a brute of a Bey, who would drown her or sell her within a month; and he had dishonoured his own note of hand for fifty thousand pounds to a great merchant who had served him not wisely but too well. He was not taking his troubles quietly, and woe be to the man or woman who crossed him this day! Tiberius was an hungered for a victim to his temper. His entourage knew it well, and many a man trembled that day for his place, or his head, or his home. Even Sadik Pasha the Mouffetish—Sadik, who had four hundred women slaves dressed in purple and fine linen—Sadik, whose kitchen alone cost him sixty thousand pounds a year, the price of whose cigarette ash-trays was equal to the salary of an English consul—even Sadik, foster-brother, panderer, the Barabbas of his master, was silent and watchful to-day.
And Sadik, silent and watchful and fearful, was also a dangerous man. As Sadik's look wandered over the packed crowds, his faded eyes scarce realising the bright-coloured garments of the men, the crimson silk tents and banners and pennons, the gorgeous canopies and trappings and plumes of the approaching dervishes, led by the Amir-el-Haj or Prince of the Pilgrims, returned from Mecca, he wondered what lamb for the sacrifice might be provided to soothe the mind of his master. He looked at the matting in the long lane before them, and he knew that the bodies which would lie here presently, yielding to the hoofs of the Sheikh's horse, were not sufficient to appease the rabid spirit tearing at the Khedive's soul. He himself had been flouted by one ugly look this morning, and one from Ismail was enough.
It did his own soul good now to see the dervish fanatics foaming at the mouth, their eyes rolling, as they crushed glass in their teeth and ate it, as they swallowed fire, as they tore live serpents to pieces with their teeth and devoured them, as they thrust daggers and spikes of steel through their cheeks, and gashed their breasts with knives and swords. He watched the effect of it on the Khedive; but Ismail had seen all this before, and he took it in the stride. This was not sufficient.
Sadik racked his brain to think who in the palace or in official life might be made the scapegoat, upon whom the dark spirit in the heart of the Khedive might be turned. His mean, colourless eyes wandered inquiringly over the crowd, as the mad dervishes, half-naked, some with masses of dishevelled hair, some with no hair at all, bleached, haggard, moaning and shrieking, threw themselves to the ground on the matting, while attendants pulled off their slippers and placed them under their heads, which lay face downwards. At last Sadik's eyes were arrested by a group of ten dervishes, among them one short in stature and very slight, whose gestures were not so excited as those of his fellows. He also saw that one or two of the dervishes watched the slight man curiously and covertly.
Five of the little group suddenly threw themselves upon the matting, adding their bodies to the highway of bones and flesh. Then another and another did the same, leaving three who, with the little man, made a fanatical chorus. Now the three near the little man began to cut themselves with steel and knives, and one set fire to his yelek and began to chew the flames. Yet the faces of all three were turned towards the little man, who did no more than shriek and gesticulate and sway his body wildly up and down. He was tanned and ragged and bearded and thin, and there was a weird brilliance in his brown eyes, which watched his companions closely.
So fierce and frenzied were the actions of those with him, that the attention of the Khedive was drawn; and Sadik, looking at his master, saw that his eyes were intently fixed on the little man. At that instant the little man himself caught the eye of the Khedive, and Ismail involuntarily dropped a hand upon his sword, for some gesture of the little man, some familiar turn of his body, startled him. Where had he seen the gesture before? Who was this pilgrim who did not cut and wound himself like his companions? Suddenly the three mad dervishes waved their hands towards the matting and shrieked something into his ear. The little man's eyes shot a look at the Khedive. Ismail's ferret look fastened on him, and a quick fear, as of assassination, crossed his face as the small dervish ran forward with the other three to the lane of human flesh, where there was still a gap to be filled, and the cry rose up that the Sheikh of the Dôsah had left his tent and was about to begin his direful ride.
Sadik the Mouffetish saw the Khedive's face, and suddenly said in his ear: "Shall my slave seize him, Highness, whom God preserve?"
The Khedive did not reply, for at that moment he recognised the dervish; and now he understood that Dicky Donovan had made the pilgrimage to Mecca with the Mahmal caravan; that an infidel had desecrated the holy city; and that his Englishman had lied to him. His first impulse was to have Dicky seized and cast to the crowd, to be torn to pieces. Dicky's eyes met his without wavering—a desperate yet resolute look—and Ismail knew that the little man would sell his life dearly, if he had but half a chance; but he also saw in Dicky's eyes the old honesty, the fearless straightforwardness—and an appeal too, not humble, but still eager and downright. Ismail's fury was great, for the blue devils had him by the heels that day; but on the instant he saw the eyes of Sadik the Mouffetish, and their cunning, cruelty and soulless depravity, their present search for a victim to his master's bad temper, acted at once on Ismail's sense of humour. He saw that Sadik half suspected something, he saw that Dicky's three companions suspected, and his mind was made up on the instant—things should take their course: he would not interfere. He looked Dicky squarely in the face, and Dicky knew that the Khedive's glance said as plainly as words:
"Fool of an Englishman, go on! I will not kill you, but I will not save you. The game is in your hands alone. You can only avert suspicion by letting the Sheikh of the Dôsah make a bridge of your back. Mecca is a jest you must pay for."
With the wild cry of a dervish fanatic Dicky threw himself down, his head on his arms, and the vengeful three threw themselves down beside him. The attendants pulled off their slippers and thrust them under their faces, and now the sais of the Sheikh ran over their bodies lightly, calling out for all to lie still—that the Sheikh was coming on his horse.
Dicky weighed his chances with a little shrinking, but with no fear: he had been in imminent danger for four long months, he was little likely to give way now. The three men lying beside him had only suspected him for the last three days, and during that time they had never let him out of their sight. What had roused their suspicion he did not know: probably a hesitation concerning some Arab custom or the pronunciation of some Arab word—the timbre of the Arab voice was rougher and heavier. There had been no chance of escape during these three days, for his three friends had never left his side, and now they were beside him. His chances were not brilliant If he escaped from the iron hoofs of the Sheikh's horse, if the weight did not crush the life out of his small body, there was a fair chance; for to escape unhurt from the Dôsah is to prove yourself for ever a good Mussulman, who has undergone the final test and is saved evermore by the promise of the Prophet. But even if he escaped unhurt, and the suspicions of his comrades were allayed, what would the Khedive do? The Khedive had recognised him, and had done nothing—so far! Yet he could have sworn beforehand that Ismail, the chief Mussulman in Egypt, would have thrown him like a rat to the terriers. Why Ismail had acted otherwise he was not certain: perhaps to avoid a horrible sensation at the Dôsah and the outcry of the newspapers of Europe; perhaps to have him assassinated privately; perhaps after all to pardon him. But this last alternative was not reasonable, save from the standpoint that Ismail had no religion at all.
Whatever it was to be, his fate would soon come, and in any case he had done what only one European before him had done: he had penetrated to the tomb of Mahomet in Mecca. Whatever should come, he had crowded into his short life a thousand unusual and interesting things. His inveterate curiosity had served him well, and he had paid fairly for the candles of his game. He was ready.
Low moans came to his ears. He could hear the treading hoofs of the Sheikh's horse. Nearer and nearer the frightened animal came; the shout "Lie close and still, O brothers of giants!" of those who led the horse was in his ears. He heard the ribs of a man but two from him break, he heard the gurgle in the throat of another into whose neck the horse's hoofs had sunk. He braced himself and drew his breast close to the ground.
He could hear now the heavy breathing of the Sheikh of the Dôsah, who, to strengthen himself for his ride, had taken a heavy dose of hashish. The toe of the Arab leading the horse touched his head, then a hoof was on him—between the shoulders, pressing—pressing down, the iron crushing into the flesh—down—down—down, till his eyes seemed to fill with blood. Then another hoof—and this would crush the life out of him. He gasped, and nerved himself. The iron shoe came down, slipped a little, grazed his side roughly, and sank between himself and the dervish next him, who had shrunk away at the last moment.
A mad act; for the horse stumbled, and in recovering himself plunged forward heavily with a bound. Dicky expected the hind hoofs to crush down on his back or neck, and drew in his breath; but the horse, excited by the cries of the people, sprang clear of him, and the hind hoofs fell with a sickening thud on the back and neck of the dervish who had been the cause of the disaster.
Dicky lay still for a moment to get his breath, then sprang to his feet lightly, cast a swift glance of triumph towards the Khedive, and turned to the dervishes who had lain beside him. The man who had shrunk away from the horse's hoofs was dead, the one on the other side was badly wounded, and the last, bruised and dazed, got slowly to his feet.
"God is great," said Dicky to him: "I have no hurt, Mahommed."
"It is the will of God. Extolled be Him who created thee!" answered the dervish, all suspicion gone and admiration in his eyes, as Dicky cried his Allah Kerim—"God is great!"
A kavass touched Dicky on the arm.
"His Highness would speak with you," he said.
Dicky gladly turned his back on the long lane of fanatic immolation and the sight of the wounded and dead being carried away. Coming over to the Khedive he salaamed, and kneeling on the ground kissed the toe of his boot.
Ismail smiled, and his eyes dropped with satisfaction upon the prostrate Dicky. Never before had an Englishman kissed his boot, and that Dicky of all Englishmen should do it gave him an ironical pleasure which chased his black humour away.
"It is written that the true believer shall come unscathed from the hoofs of the horse. Thou hast no hurt, Mahommed?"
"None, Highness, whose life God preserve," said Dicky in faultless Arabic, with the eyes of Sadik upon him trying to penetrate his mystery.
"May the dogs bite the heart of thine enemies! What is thy name?" said Ismail.
"Rekab, so God wills, Highness."
"I am a poor scribe, Highness," answered Dicky with a dangerous humour, though he had seen a look in the Khedive's face which boded only safety.
"I have need of scribes. Get you to the Palace of Abdin, and wait upon me at sunset after prayers," said Ismail.
"I am the slave of your Highness. Peace on thee, O Prince of the Faithful!"
"A moment, Mahommed. Hast thou wife or child?"
"Nor kith nor kin?" Ismail's smile was grim.
"They be far away, beyond the blessed rule of your Highness."
"Thou wilt desire to return to them. How long wilt thou serve me?" asked Ismail slowly.
"Till the two Karadh-gatherers return," answered Dicky, quoting the old Arabic saying which means for ever, since the two Karadh-gatherers who went to gather the fruit of the sant and the leaves of the selem never returned.
"So be it," said the Khedive, and, rising, waved Dicky away. "At sunset."
"At sunset after prayers, Highness," answered Dicky, and was instantly lost in the throng which now crowded upon the tent to see the Sheikh of the Dôsah arrive to make obeisance to Ismail.
That night at sunset, Dicky, once more clothed and shaven and well appointed, but bronzed and weather-beaten, was shown into the presence of the Khedive, whose face showed neither pleasure nor displeasure.
"You have returned from your kith and kin in England?" said Ismail, with malicious irony.
"I have no excuses. Highness. I have done what I set out to do."
"If I had given you to death as an infidel who had defiled the holy tomb and the sacred city——"
"Your Highness would have lost a faithful servant," answered Dicky. "I took my chances."
"Even now it would be easy to furnish—accidents for you!"
"But not wise, Highness, till my story is told."
"Sadik Pasha suspects you."
"I suspect Sadik Pasha," answered Dicky.
"Of what?" said Ismail, starting. "He is true to me—Sadik is true to me!" he urged, with a shudder; for if Sadik was false in this crisis, with Europe clamouring for the payment of debts and for reforms, where should he look for faithful knavery!
"He will desert your Highness in the last ditch. Let me tell your Highness the truth, in return for saving my life. Your only salvation lies in giving up to the creditors of Egypt your own wealth, and Sadik's, which is twice your own."
"Sadik will not give it up."
"Is not Ismail the Khedive master in Egypt?"
"Sit down and smoke," said Ismail eagerly, handing Dicky a cigarette.
When Dicky left the Khedive at midnight, he thought he saw a better day dawning for Egypt. He felt also that he had done the land a good turn in trying to break the shameless contract between Ismail and Sadik the Mouffetish; and he had the Khedive's promise that it should be broken, given as Ismail pinned on his breast the Order of the Medjidie.
He was not, however, prepared to hear of the arrest of the Mouffetish before another sunset, and then of his hugger-mugger death, of which the world talks to this day; though the manner of it is only known to a few, and to them it is an ugly memory.
In exile a year later Ismail told Dicky the truth about it; and Dicky was never sorry for either Ismail or Sadik.