The music ceased. For a full minute the many dancers stood as the dance had left them, stranded, so to speak, upon the polished floor of the ballroom, clapping their white-gloved hands in what seemed to be an appeal to the tired musicians to release them from their awkward situation. The chef d’orchestre rose from his chair and shook his head, pointing to the beads of moisture upon his sallow forehead. Two or three couples, more merciful than their companions, turned and walked away; and therewith the whole company ceased their vain clapping, and, as though awakened from an hypnotic seizure, hastened to jam themselves into the heated, chattering mass which moved out of the brilliantly lighted room and dispersed into the shadows of the halls and passages beyond.
Lady Muriel Blair, to all appearances the only cool young person in the throng, led her perspiring partner towards a group of elderly women who sat fanning themselves near an open window, beyond which the palms could be seen redundant in the light of the moon. An enormous-bosomed matron, wearing a diamond tiara upon her dyed brown hair, and a rope of pearls about her naked pink shoulders, turned to her as she approached, and smiled upon her in a patronizing manner. She was the wife of Sir Henry Smith-Evered, Commander-in-chief of the British Forces in Egypt; and her smile was highly valued in Cairo society.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself, my dear,” she said, taking hold of the girl’s hand. “But you mustn’t get overtired in this heat. Wait another month, until the weather is cool, and then you can dance all night.”
“Oh, but I don’t feel it at all,” Lady Muriel replied, looking with mild disdain at her partner’s somewhat limp collar. “Father warned me that October in Cairo would be an ordeal, but so far I’ve simply loved it.”
Her voice had that very slight suggestion of husky tiredness in it which has a certain fascination. With her it was habitual.
“You’ve only been in Egypt twenty-four hours,” Lady Smith-Evered reminded her. “You must be careful.”
“Careful!” the girl muttered, with laughing scorn. “I hate the word.”
Her good-looking little partner, Rupert Helsingham, ran his finger around the inside of his collar, and adjusted his eyeglass. “Let’s go and sit on the veranda,” he suggested.
Lady Muriel turned an eye of mocking enquiry upon the General’s lady, who was her official chaperone (though the office had little, if any, meaning); for, in a strange country and in a diplomatic atmosphere, it was as well, she thought, to ascertain the proprieties. Lady Smith-Evered, aware of dear little Rupert’s strict regard on all occasions for his own reputation, nodded acquiescence; and therewith the young couple sauntered out of the room.
“A charming girl!” remarked the stout chaperone, turning her heavily powdered face to her companions.
“She is beautiful,” said Madam Pappadoulopolos, an expansive, black-eyed, black-haired, black-moustached, black-robed figure, wife of the Greek Consul-General.
“She has the sort of monkey-beauty of all the Blairs,” declared Mrs.
“It is a great responsibility for Lord Blair,” said Lady Smith-Evered. “Now that poor Lady Blair has been dead for over a year, he felt that he ought not to leave his only daughter, his only child, with her relations in England any longer; and, of course, it is very right that she should take her place as mistress here at the Residency, though I could really have acted as hostess for him perfectly well.”
“Indeed yes,” Madam Pappadoulopolos assented, warmly.
“You have a genius for that sort of thing,” murmured Mrs. Froscombe, staring out of the window at the moonlit garden.
“Thank you, Gladys dear,” said Lady Smith-Evered, smiling coldly at her friend’s averted face.
Muriel Blair’s type of beauty was in a way monkey-like, if so ludicrous a term can be employed in a laudatory sense to describe a face of great charm. She was of about the average height; her head was gracefully set upon her excellent neck and shoulders; and there was a sort of airy dignity in her carriage and step. Her enemies called her sullen at times, and named her Moody Muriel; her friends, on the contrary, described her as a personification of the spirit of Youth; while her feminine intimates said that, except for her dislike of the cold, she might have earned her living as a sculptor’s model.
She possessed a much to be envied mane of rather coarse brown hair which she wore coiled high upon her head; and her skin was that of a brunette, though there was some nice colour in her cheeks. Her eyes were good, and she had the habit of staring at her friends, sometimes, in a manner which seemed to indicate a fortuitous mimicry of childlike and incredulous questioning.
It was perhaps the tilt of her small nose and an occasional setting of her jaw which caused her undoubted beauty to be called monkey-like; or possibly it was the occasional defiance of her brown eyes, or the puckering of her eyebrows, or sometimes the sudden and whimsical grimace which she made when she was displeased.
As she seated herself now in the moonlight and leant back in the basket chair, Rupert Helsingham looked at her with admiration; and in the depths of his worldly little twenty-five-year-old mind he anticipated with pleasurably audacious hopes a season tinctured with romance. He held the position of Oriental Secretary at the Residency, and was considered to be a rising young man, something of an Arabic scholar, and an expert on points of native etiquette. She was his chief’s daughter, and heiress to the Blair estates. Every day they would meet; and probably, since she was rather adorable, he would fall in love with her, and perhaps she with him. It was a charming prospect.
His father had recently been created Baron Helsingham of Singleton. The old gentleman was the first of an ancient race of village squires who had ever performed any public service or received any royal recognition; and now he, the son and heir, might very possibly make the first notable matrimonial alliance of his line.
“I wonder what’s happened to my father,” said Muriel, breaking the silence engendered by Rupert’s reflections. “I haven’t seen him since the how-d’you-doing business.”
His whereabouts was only of casual interest to her, for she regarded him with no particular love, nor, indeed, did she know him at all intimately. His duties had taken him abroad a great deal during her childhood, while her education had kept her in England; and for the last three or four years he had passed almost entirely out of her scheme of things.
“He’s working in his study,” her companion replied, pointing to the wing of the house which went to form the angle wherein they were sitting. “He always dictates his telegrams at this time: he says he feels more benevolent after dinner. He’ll come into the ballroom presently, and say the correct thing to the correct people. He’s a paragon of tact, and, I can tell you, tact is needed here in Cairo! There’s such a mixture of nationalities to deal with. What languages do you speak?”
“Only French,” she replied.
“Good!” he laughed. “Speak French to everybody: especially to those who are not French. It makes them think that you think them cosmopolitan. Everybody wants to be thought cosmopolitan in a little place like this: it indicates that they have had the money to travel.”
“I shall look to you for guidance,” said Muriel, opening her mouth to yawn, and shutting it again as though remembering her manners.
“I’ll give you a golden rule to start with,” he answered. “Be very gracious to all foreigners, because every little politeness helps the international situation, but behave how you like to English people, because their social aspirations require them to speak of you as dear Lady Muriel, however fiercely they burn with resentment.”
Muriel smiled. She had a really fascinating smile, and her teeth were worthy of the great care she gave to them. “And how must I treat an Egyptian – I mean an Egyptian gentleman?” she enquired.
“There isn’t such a thing,” he laughed, having very insular ideas as to the meaning of the word.
“Well, a Prince or a Pasha or whatever they’re called?”
“O, that’s simple enough. If his colour is anything lighter than black coffee, ask him if he’s a Frenchman. He will protest vehemently, and cry ‘Mais non! – je suis Egyptien.’ But he’ll love you for ever all the same.”
Muriel gazed before her into the mystery of the garden. For a brief moment she had the feeling that their conversation was at variance with their surroundings, that the sweet night and the moon and the stately trees were bidding them be silent. But the thought was gone almost before it was recorded.
From where she sat she looked across one side of the short circular entrance-drive, and behind the acacias and slender palms, which grew close up to the veranda, she could see the high white wall of the garden, whereon the purple bougainvillea clustered. Through the ornate bars of the great front gates she watched the regular passage to and fro of the kilted sentry, the moonlight gleaming upon the bayonet fixed to his rifle. Beyond, there was an open lamp-lit square, in the middle of which a jet of sparkling water shot up from a marble fountain.
Roses grew in profusion at the edges of the drive, and the gentle night-wind brought their fragrance to her nostrils; while to her ears came the rustling of the trees, the ringing tramp of the sentry’s heavy boots, and the subdued chatter of the resting dancers to whom this part of the veranda was forbidden. In the clear Egyptian atmosphere so strong was the moonlight that every detail of the scene was almost as apparent as it would have been at high noon; and, between the houses on the opposite side of the square, her vision travelled out over the ranges of white buildings which gradually rose towards the towering Citadel and the hills of the desert beyond. Here and there a minaret pierced the sky, so slender that its stability seemed a marvel of balance; and countless domes and cupolas gleamed like great pearls in the silvery light.
She was about to ask a further languid question of her partner in regard to the ways of Cairene society when her attention was attracted by the appearance of a man wearing a slouch hat, who came suddenly into view beyond the bars of the gates and was at once accosted by the Scotch sentry. He looked something of a ruffian, and the sentry seemed to be acting correctly in barring the way with his rifle held in both hands across his bare knees.
A rapid argument followed, the exact words of which she could not quite catch; but it was evident that the Scotchman was not going to admit any suspicious character or possible anarchist on to the premises until he had consulted with the native policeman who was to be seen hurrying across the square. On the other hand the intruder appeared to be in a hurry, and his voice had clearly to be controlled as he explained to the zealous guardian of the gate that he had business at the Residency. But the sentry was obdurately silent, and the voice of the speaker, in consequence, increased in volume.
“Now don’t be silly,” Muriel heard him say, “or I’ll take your gun away from you.”
At this she laughed outright, and, turning to her companion, suggested that he should go and find out what was the trouble; but he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “We can’t be seen here behind these flower-pots: let’s watch what happens.”
The newcomer made a sudden forward movement; the sentry assumed an attitude as though about to bayonet him, or to pretend to do so; there was a rapid scuffle; and a moment later the rifle was twisted out of its owner’s brawny hands.
The soldier uttered an oath, stepped back a pace, and like a lion, leapt upon his assailant. There was a confused movement; the rifle dropped with a clatter upon the pavement; and the Scotchman seized about the middle in a grip such as he was unlikely ever to have experienced before, turned an amazingly unexpected somersault, landing, like a clown at the circus, in a sitting position in which he appeared to be staring open-mouthed at the beauties of a thousand dazzling stars.
Thereupon the ruffian quietly picked up the rifle, opened the gate, shut it behind him, and walked up the drive; while the Egyptian policeman ran to the soldier’s assistance, blowing the while upon his whistle with all the wind God had given him.
The dazed sentry scrambled to his feet, and, with a curious crouching gait, suggestive of the ring, followed the intruder into the drive.
“Gi’ me ma rifle,” he said, hoarsely. It was evident that he was trying to collect his wits; and his attitude was that of a wrestler looking for an opening.
The ruffian stood still, and in voluble Arabic ordered the policeman to stop his noise, at which the bewildered native, as though impressed by the peremptory words, obediently took the whistle out of his mouth and stood irresolute.
“Gi’ me ma rifle,” repeated the Scot, in injured tones, warily circling around his cool opponent.
Rupert Helsingham suddenly got up from his chair. “Why,” he exclaimed, “it’s Daniel Lane! Excuse me a moment.”
He hurried down the steps of the veranda; and, with breathless interest, Muriel watched the two men shake hands, the one a small dapper ballroom figure, the other a large, muscular brigand, a mighty man from the wilds. He wore a battered, broad-brimmed felt hat, an old jacket of thin tweed, and grey flannel trousers which sagged at the knees and were rolled up above a pair of heavy brown boots, covered with dust.
With an air of complete unconcern he gave the rifle back to the abashed sentry; and, putting his hand on Helsingham’s shoulder, strolled towards the veranda.
“I’ve ridden in at top speed,” he said, and Muriel noticed that his voice was deep and quiet, and that there was a trace of an American accent. “A hundred and fifty miles in under three days. Pretty good going, considering how bad the tracks are up there.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the western desert.
“The Great Man will be very pleased,” the other replied. ‘The Great Man’ was the designation generally used by the diplomatic staff in speaking of Lord Blair.
As they ascended the steps Daniel Lane cast a pair of searching blue eyes upon the resplendent figure of the girl in the chair. In the sheen of the moon her dress, of flimsy material, seemed to array her as it were in a mist; and the diamonds about her throat and in her hair – for she was wearing family jewels – gleamed like magic points of light.
“Got a party on?” he asked, with somewhat disconcerting directness.
“A dance,” Rupert Helsingham replied, stiffly, “in honour of Lady Muriel’s arrival. But let me introduce you.”
He turned to the girl, and effected the introduction. “Mr. Lane,” he said, “is one of your father’s most trusted friends. I don’t know what we should do sometimes without his counsel and advice. He knows the native mind inside out.”
Now that the man had removed his hat, Lady Muriel felt sure that she had seen him before, but where, she could not recall. The face was unforgettable. The broad forehead from which the rough mud-coloured hair was thrown back; the heavy brows which screened the steady blue eyes; the bronzed skin; the white, regular teeth – these features she had looked at across a drawing-room somewhere. His bulk and figure, too, were not of the kind to be forgotten easily: the powerful neck, the great shoulders, the mighty chest, the strong hands, were all familiar to her.
“I think we’ve met before,” she ventured.
“Yes, I fancy we have,” he replied. “Use’n’t you to wear your hair in two fat pigtails?”
“Four years ago,” she laughed.
“Then I guess it was four years ago that we met,” he said; and without further remark he turned to Rupert Helsingham, asking whether and when he might see Lord Blair. “I was going to ring at the side door there,” he explained, pointing to the door behind them which led directly into the corridor before the Great Man’s study. “That’s my usual way in: I’ve no use for the main entrance and the footman.”
“And not much real use for sentries, either,” Muriel laughed.
“The lad only did his duty,” he answered good-humouredly, pointing to his rough clothes; “but somehow things like fixed bayonets always make me impatient. I must try to get over it.”
“If Lady Muriel will excuse me, I’ll go and find out if his Lordship can see you at once,” said Helsingham, in his most official tone of voice. A sentry after all is a sentry, not an acrobat; and if people will wear the garments of a tramp, they must take the consequences.
Daniel Lane thrust his hands into his pockets, and stared out into the garden; while Muriel, left alone with him, was aware of a feeling of awkwardness and a consequent sense of annoyance. His broad back was turned to her – if not wholly, certainly sufficiently to suggest a lack of deference, a lack, almost, of consciousness of her presence.
A minute or two passed. She hoped that her polite little partner would quickly return to take her back to the ballroom, in which the music had again begun. She felt stupid and curiously tongue-tied. She wanted to make some remark, if only as a reminder to him of his manners.
The remark which at length she made, however, was foolish, and unworthy of her: she knew this before the words had passed her lips. “You seem to find the garden very interesting,” she said.
He turned round slowly, a whimsical smile upon his face. “Very,” he answered; and then, after an embarrassing pause, “I haven’t seen any roses for six months: I’m revelling in them.”
“Do you live in the desert?” she asked.
“Yes, most of my time. It’s a fine free life.”
“Oh, one can be free anywhere,” she replied. She felt an indefinable desire to be contrary.
“Nonsense!” he answered, abruptly. “You don’t call yourself free, do you, in those diamonds and those absurd shoes?”
He turned again to the garden and breathed in the scent of the roses, with head thrown back. To Lady Muriel’s joy Rupert Helsingham returned at this moment, followed by a footman.
“Lord Blair will see you at once,” he said.
The girl gave a sigh of relief which she hoped Mr. Lane would observe; but in this she was disappointed, for, with a nod to her partner and a good-natured bow to herself, he strode away.
“A very odd fellow,” remarked Helsingham, when they were alone once more. “His manners are atrocious; but what can one expect from a man who spends his life in the desert?”
“What makes him live there?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Being a crank, I suppose. He’s studying Bedouin manners and customs, or something. He’s a great Arabic scholar.”
“He made me feel rather uncomfortable,” she said, as she rose from her chair and laid her fingers on her partner’s arm.
“Yes, he’s boorish,” he replied, smoothing his sleek, dark hair with his disengaged hand.
“It isn’t that, quite,” she corrected him, her eyebrows puckering. “But he made me feel that I was of no importance whatsoever, and, being a woman, I resented it. He brushed me aside, like the sentry.”
“He was probably shy,” her companion suggested, for conciliation was his m?tier. “And of course he must have been tired after that long ride.”
“No,” she said, as they entered the ballroom, “I don’t think he was in the least bit shy; and, as for being tired, could anything make a man of that kind tired? He looks like a Hercules, or a Samson, or something unconquerable of that sort.”
Rupert Helsingham glanced quickly at her. There was a tone in her voice which suggested that their visitor’s personality had at once imposed itself on her mind. Women, he understood, were often attracted by masculine strength and brutality. He had known cases where an assumption of prehistoric manners had been eminently successful in the seduction of the weaker sex, painfully more successful, indeed, than had been his own well-bred dalliance with romance.
A school-friend had told him once that no girl could resist the man who took her by the throat, or pulled back her head by the hair, or, better still, who picked her up in his arms and bit her in the neck. He wondered whether Lady Muriel was heavy, and, with a sort of timorous audacity, he asked himself whether she would be likely to enjoy being bitten. He would have to be careful of Daniel Lane: he did not want any rivals.
She led him across to the three elderly ladies. He was her partner also for the present dance; but Muriel, throwing herself into a chair beside Lady Smith-Evered, told him that she would prefer not to take the floor. He glanced at the forbidding aspect of the three, and admired what he presumed to be her self-sacrifice in the interests of diplomacy.
“Rupert, my dear,” said the General’s wife, “do be an angel and bring us some ices.”