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"This is not too much for you, I hope," he said.
"Not at all, not at all. I am enjoying my ride, and positively I have not had to use my fly-whisk at all. I was wondering how I should manage it as well as my reins. But there are no flies. No, my dear fellow, don't be down-hearted. Joyce likes you very well."
"Then I shall tempt my fate without waiting any longer," he said. "If I am fortunate, I shall be happiest of men, and, I may add, the cheerfulest of travelling companions. If otherwise, I think I shall go back to England at once. The situation would be intolerable."
Philip was perfectly aghast. For a moment he could say nothing whatever.
"But that would be out of the question," he said. "I do not see how we could get on without you. Who would make our arrangements, and settle the hundred little questions that arise when one is travelling. I could not do it: my health would completely break down. Perhaps, too, my mother will stay on in Cairo: if it suits her fancy, I am sure she will, and Joyce is utterly incapable of arranging for our comfort in the way in which you do. I should be left without a companion, for, as you see, Joyce has become totally independent of me. And your valet, who, at your direction, is so kind as to look after me, and pack for me, and see to my clothes, no doubt you would take him with you. It was understood, I thought, that you would make the entire journey with us: you can hardly mean what you have just said. It would spoil everything; it would break up our party altogether. Pray assure me that you do not mean what you say. The idea agitates me, and any agitation, as you know, is so bad for me. Besides, of course this is the root of the whole matter – that is why I state it to you last after those minor considerations – your best opportunity, your most favourable chance, is when we are alone and quiet up the Nile. We are living in a mere railway station here: none of us have a minute to ourselves."
Till he heard this rapid staccato speech, Craddock felt he had never really known what egotism meant. Here it was in excelsis: almost grand and awe-compelling in this gigantic and inspired exhibition of it…
"I am very much agitated," said Philip, haloing and crowning it. "Do not leave my donkey, Mohammed."
In spite of the danger of prolonging this agitation Craddock was silent for a moment, and Philip had one more remark to make.
"It would be very selfish," he said, "and very unlike you. And I am sure it would not be wise."
Craddock hesitated no longer. He had received a certain assurance – though he could not estimate its value – that his interpretation of Joyce's bearing towards him was mistaken; he had been recommended, a course which seemed sensible, to wait for the comparative quiet of Luxor, where the relations of their party would naturally be more intimate and familiar; he had also had ocular evidence that Philip was perfectly capable of having a fit, if he precipitated matters unsuccessfully, and returned home.All these considerations pointed one way.
"Certainly I will continue your journey with you," he said. "It is delightful to me to find how solidly you have been counting on me. And from my point of view – my own personal point of view – I think you have probably indicated to me the most promising course. I exceedingly regret the agitation I have caused you."
Philip mopped his forehead.
"It is nothing," he said. "I will make an effort, and become my own master again. But I do not think I feel up to continuing our ride. Let us turn. Perhaps to-morrow I shall feel more robust. I should like to rest a little before lunch. And take heart of grace, my dear man: I felt just like you once, and how happily it turned out for me."
This was not true: Philip had never been in love with anybody. Joyce's mother, however, had soon overcome his somewhat feeble resistance to her charms, and had led him a fine life for the few years that she was spared to him.
Our party had designed to stay in Egypt two months altogether, and a month being now spent and Lady Crowborough being at length a little fatigued by her whirl of gaiety in Cairo, it was settled that day at lunch that they should proceed southwards up the Nile in a few days' time, going by steamer all the way, in order to save Philip's nerves the jar and jolting of the ill-laid line. Lady Crowborough's flirts came in flocks to see her off, bringing bouquets and confectionery enough to fill both her cabin and Joyce's, and she made a variety of astounding speeches in a brilliant monologue to them all, addressing first one and then another.
"All you young men are trying to spoil me," she said, "and it's lucky I've got my grand-daughter with me to play chaperone and see you don't go too far. And are these chocolates for me, too? Joyce, my dear, put them in my cabin, and lock them up; I shall have a good blow-out of them as soon as we start. As for you, Mr. Wortledge, I daren't stop in Cairo a day longer because of you. You'd be coming round for me in a cab and driving me off to a mosque or a synagogue or some such heathen place of worship, to be married to you, under pretence of showing me the antiquities, and what would Mr. Stuart do then? I never saw such roses, Mr. Stuart. Joyce, my dear – oh, she's gone with the chocolate. I shall wear a fresh one every day, that's what I shall do, and make pot-pourri of the leaves, and put it among my clothes, if that'll content you. And there's a note attached to them, I see. I shan't open that till I'm alone, so that no one shall see my blushes. And I'll be bound you'll all be flirting with some other old woman the moment my back's turned, because I know your ways."
A shrill whistle warned her that this court de cong? must draw to an end, and she began shaking hands with them all.
"You've all made my stay in Cairo uncommonly pleasant," she said, "and I thank you all with all my heart. You're dear nice boys, all of you, and I'm really broken-hearted to say goodbye to you. Goodbye all of you."
And this charming old lady, with real tears in her eyes, put up all her veils, and kissed away handfuls of her delicious little white fingers, as the boat began to churn the green Nile water into foam. Then she went to her cabin, had a good blow-out of chocolate, and slept the greater part of the three days' voyage up to Luxor with intervals for food, and a few expeditions to temples on donkey-back. She had bought ropes and ropes of ancient Egyptian beads in the bazaars, with which she adorned herself, and when a professor of antiquities (otherwise promising) hinted that they were modern and came from Manchester, she told him he knew nothing about it, and was dead cuts with him ever afterwards.
Craddock, now that he was committed not to separate himself from the party, was in no hurry to put his fortune to the test. In spite of Philip's assurance, he still fancied he had been right regarding Joyce's avoidance of him, and until their stay was beginning to draw to an end and Philip had begun to fuss about having a sufficiency of warmer underclothing put in his steamer trunk, so that even when the weather grew colder as they sailed northwards again across the Mediterranean, he should be able to sit out on deck without risk of chill, devoted himself to restoring Joyce's confidence in and ease of intercourse with him. Many times, it so happened, he was alone with her, going on some expedition that Philip declared himself not equal to, while Lady Crowborough's appetite for antiquities had proved speedily satiated. Indeed, she announced when she had been at Luxor a week that the sight of any more temples would make her sick. Thus he was often Joyce's only companion and, while waiting his time, made himself an admirable guide and comrade. He had studied the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties before, and with the air of a friendly tutor interested her in the history and monuments. He soon saw how apt she was to learn and appreciate, and by degrees re-established unembarrassing relations with her, winning her back to frank intercourse with him. With his knowledge and his power of vividly and lightly presenting it, he succeeded in weaving their true antique charm about the temples and silent tombs, and Joyce found herself taking the keenest enjoyment in their long sunny days together. To her immense relief, he seemed to have banished altogether his yearning for another relationship, and she told herself she must have been quite wrong in imagining that he would approach her again, and this time with fire. Yet she had been so convinced of it, and here he was with day-long opportunities at his disposal, plunging her to her infinite satisfaction in the heresies of Amenhotep, and the Elizabethan rule of Hatasoo. He unfolded the stories of the carven walls for her, with their hawk-faced gods or adoring kings. He traced for her the merchandise that the queen's expedition to the Land of Plenty brought back with it, ivory and apes, as in the days of Solomon, and gold weighed in the balances by overseers. He told her of Sen-mut the architect of Deir-el-Bahari, to whom the queen showed all her heart, and entrusted with the secrets of her will, and how Thothmes, on his mother's death, erased from the inscriptions all mention of the low-born fellow… Then day by golden day went on, and Joyce's confidence increased, and her debt of pleasant hours to him grew heavier and was less felt by her. But never did she quite get out of her mind that it was he who had said, she knew not quite what, to her father, speaking evil of the boy who painted beside the weir. Could she have been wrong about that, too? If so, she had indeed wronged this large kindly man, who was never weary of his pleasant efforts to interest her. Her manner to him changed as her confidence returned, and with the changing of her manner, he drew nearer to confidence in himself.
But it must not be imagined that all life's inner workings, with regard to Craddock, were centred in this successful charming of Joyce to comradeship with him, nor in restraining himself from attempting to pluck the fruit while clearly unripe. Week by week there came to him the most satisfactory accounts from the box-office with regard to the reaped and ever-ripening harvest, so to speak, of "Easter Eggs." But against that solid asset he had to set, not indeed a positive loss, but a sacrifice of what might have been a tremendous gain. For "The Long Lane that had Five Turnings" – was there ever so insolently careless a title? – had appeared early in January, and all London rocked with it. Akroyd had clearly made the biggest hit of his industrious career, and the author had leaped at this second spring over the heads of all other dramatists. Critics, even the most cautious of them, seemed to have lost their heads, and "Sheridan redivivus" was among their less extravagant expressions. His informant as to all this was Frank Armstrong himself, who very thoughtfully sent him a stout packet of these joyful cries, as supplied to him by a press-agency, and with it a letter that seemed to touch the pinnacles of impertinence.
"You have often told me," wrote this amiable young man, "of the great interest you take in my work, and so I am certain you will be pleased to hear of the success of the play. I have to thank you also for the hint you so kindly gave me about screwing Akroyd up to favourable terms, and I made a bargain for myself about the scale of royalties that really was stupendous. About the play itself – it is not being a very good theatrical season generally, and even Peter, I hear, isn't panning out very well, but you should see the queues at the Pall-Mall. Golly! It's the same in the stalls and boxes. Mrs. Fortescue has taken a box every night next week, and I think I have persuaded Akroyd to raise prices. He says it is illegitimate, but I rather think he will do it. After all the rule of supply and demand must affect prices. I'm afraid 'Easter Eggs' is bound to suffer; indeed, it was distressingly empty the other night, but the box office says it will recover again … I see there is a flat vacant just below yours in Berkeley Square. I am thinking of taking it. It will be nice to be near you. I can never forget what you did for me over my first play… Also, after an unpropitious beginning, I have struck up a friendship with Charles Lathom. He has told me, in confidence, how you played Providence to him. I hope you will do well over him. I should think you would, people are talking about him, and he has several sitters. I tried to tell him all you have done for me, but the recollection was too much. The words wouldn't come, so I pretended to burn my finger over a pipe I was lighting, and said 'Damn!' Was not that clever and dramatic?
"I enclose quantities of press-notices, and I wish I could see your delight over them. It was very vexing that you were not here for the first night, for I should have liked to have seen what you said. But perhaps when I saw it, I shouldn't have liked it, as I remember you didn't think very much of the play when I read it to you. Perhaps I shall take a long holiday now, not write again at all for a year or two. I am besieged with repeats, of course."
That threat did not much alarm Craddock. He felt as convinced, as he felt with regard to the rising of the sun, that the young man could not keep off it. But there was the very scorpion of a sting in the sentence immediately preceding, in which he was reminded of his own rejection of the play. His wits must have been wandering that night; his flair for anticipating public taste had never betrayed him with so desperate a lapse of perception. And somehow it gave him unease to think that an assured enemy of his, sharper than a serpent's tooth, should have thus leaped into affluence as well as prominence. Nor did he like this growing friendship between Charles and the other – he did not like any of the letter, nor any of the press notices. His evening was completely spoiled and Mr. Wroughton beat him at b?zique. But next morning, with that power which was not the least of his gifts, he switched his mind off these disturbances and fixed himself heart and soul on that which lay before him here and now.
Thus passed for them at Luxor a complete moon, which among other celestial offices had magically illumined for them an hour of night among the ruins of Karnak. Then, too, they had gone about, and there up till then had come the hardest struggle in restraint for him. All the spell of the starry-kirtled night was woven round them while the huge monoliths and spent glory of the columned hall reminded him, urgently, insistently, how short life was, how soon for the generations of men nothing but the hard granite of their work remains, no joy, no rapture any more, for eyes are closed and mouths dumb, and the soft swift limbs laid to rest, where at the most they can but feel the grasses that wave over their graves, or, more horribly, injected and wrapped in cero-cloth and bitumen to be preserved as a parody and mocking of what they once were. And this – these few years – was his time, his innings before the silence that preceded closed in on him again. All he wanted stood in front of him now, as Joyce leaned on a fragment of wall white and tall in the moonlight, and let her great eyes wander over the outlined columns, with young fresh mouth a little parted, and hand almost resting on his.
"Yes, it is all later than – " he heard his voice saying, and suddenly he stopped, feeling that to talk here and now and to her of Egyptian kings was a mere profanity, in this temple which his love had built, so much holier than all that had ever been made with hands.
But at his sudden cessation, he saw Joyce withdraw herself a little, instinctively on guard. Bitterly he saw that.
"It is all so woundingly sad," he said, "this eternal glorious moon and sky, looking down on to what in so few years is but ruin and decay. And yet they thought that their houses would endure for ever – "
Joyce instantly recovered her confidence, and flowed to meet him on this.
"Oh, yes, oh yes," she said, "all this month that has been haunting me. I think I hate the moon to-night. It is like some dreadful imperishable governess, always presiding and watching us poor children."
That broke the tension.
"Oh, Mistress Moon," said Craddock laughing. "But she is a governess of remarkable personal attractions…"
Then the last day of their sojourn came. Joyce, immensely reassured by her own mistaken conviction that he was going to speak that night at Karnak, and slightly ashamed of herself, had nothing left of the trouble she had anticipated at Cairo, and with regard to retrospect, that which had also been a conviction to her, though not absolutely vanished, was as remote as the imperishable governess. That day the two companions had settled to spend not in detailed study, for indeed they had gathered a most creditable crop, nor even in farewell visits to shrines, but in a general out-door survey and assimilation of river and temple and desert and sky, a long exposed photograph, so to speak, of panorama to take back to the fogs of a northern February. Soon after breakfast they took ferry over the Nile, and joining their donkeys there, rode straight away from the river, going neither to the right nor left, up the narrow path between fast-rising stretches of lengthening crops, past the two great silent dwellers on the plain, who, looking ever eastward, wait for the ultimate dawn that shall touch mute lips again to song, through the huddled mud-houses of G?rnak, and up and beyond and out till the level green was left below them, and they met the sand-dried untainted air of the desert. Here on the brow of the sandstone cliffs they dismounted, while Josef bestowed their lunch in a cool shadow of a rock in this thirsty land.
Joyce sat down on this bluff.
"We can't dispose of the flesh-pots of Egypt yet," she said, nodding at the provision basket. "May we sit here a little, Mr. Craddock, and will you let me say my eighteenth dynasty catechism, and then – "
Joyce turned to him.
"We must plan out this day so carefully," she said, "as it is the last. I want to sit here quite silent for about half-an-hour, and if it isn't rude, out of sight of you, and everybody, and just look, look, get all that – the river, the crops, the sky, the temples, right deep down. Then let us have lunch, and then let us go a long ride out into the desert, where there isn't anybody or anything. And then, oh, oh, we shall have to go back, and the last day will be over. I promised father to go and call on the chaplain after tea with him. Chaplain! He's a dear man, but think – chaplain on the last day!"
Joyce's desired menu of the mind was served to her. She said her eighteenth dynasty kings, and then strolled along the edge, of the cliffs till she was out of sight and sound of donkey and donkey-boy and Craddock. The magic of the land indeed had made its spell for her, and now she wanted just to look, to absorb, to be wrapped in it. Then, just because she had planned this her mind grew restive and fidgetty… She had determined on her own account to speak a grateful word to Mr. Craddock to-day for all he had done for her, and she felt she must thank him too for his unremitting attention to her father. He, she felt sure, would not do so, and Joyce felt that the family must discharge that indebtedness. It seemed a simple task enough to perform, but she could not in imagination frame a suitable sentence, either about that or her own debt to him, and insensibly beginning to worry about it, she lost the mood that she had come here to capture. Craddock and her imminent acknowledgment to him "drave between her and the sun" and her half hour alone proved a not very satisfactory item.
She went back to him at the end of it, and found that he had already spread their lunch.
"And you have had a 'heart-to-heart' talk with Egypt?" he asked. "I thought I heard sobs."
"They were sobs of rage then," she said. "My plan broke down. I could think of everything under the sun except Egypt. Just because I meant to gaze and meditate, I could not meditate at all. But I am so hungry; that is something. How good of you to have made ready!"
Hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches, however hungry the attack, do not need much time for their due disposition, and in a quarter of an hour Craddock had lit a cigarette, preparatory for their ride into the desert. And this seemed to Joyce a very suitable moment for the dischargal of her thanks and compliments.
"I've had a burden on my mind so long, Mr. Craddock," she said, "and that is to let you know just in so many words how I appreciate all that you have done for us. Your presence has made the whole difference to my father – "
She had begun to speak, not looking at him, but at the hot sand at her feet. But here a sudden movement of his, a shifting of his place so that he sat just a little nearer her, made her look up. At the same moment she saw that he flung away the cigarette he had only just lit. Then she looked at his face, and saw that his mouth was a little open, and that his breath came quickly. And she knew the moment she had feared a month ago, but had allowed herself to think of as averted, hovered close to her.
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