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An Echo in Egypt by Robert Smythe Hichens

 

That lustrous land of weary music and wild dancing, of reverend tombs and pert Arabs, that Egypt of plagues and tourists, to whose sandy bosom Society flocks, affects her visitors in many different ways. Bellairs went to her under the fixed impression that he was a cynic, and found that he was a romanticist. Very acute in mind, he had long flattered himself on being unimpressionable; and he was much inclined to think that to be insensitive was to be strong with the best kind of strength. He loved to lay stress on all that was devil-may-care in his character, and to put aside all that was prone to cling, or weep, or wonder, or pray, and he fancied that if he cultivated one side of his mind assiduously he could eliminate the other sides. In England, in London, the process had seemed to be successful. But Egypt gave to him illusions with both hands, and, against his will, he had to accept them. Protests were unavailing, and soon he ceased to protest, and told himself the horrid fact that he was a sentimentalist, perhaps even a poet. Good heavens! a Bellairs—a poet! His soldier ancestors seemed forming a square and fixing bayonets to resist the charging notion. And yet—and yet—

Instead of playing pool after dinner at night, Bellairs found himself wandering, like Haroun Al Raschid, through the narrow ways of Cairo, mixing with the natives, studying their loves, and drinking their coffee. There were moments, retrograde moments, when he even wished to wear their dress, to drape his long-limbed British form in a flowing blue robe, and wrap his dark head in a bulging white turban. He resisted this devil of an idea; but the fact that it had ever come to him troubled him. And, partly to regain his manhood, his hard scepticism, his contempt of outside, delicate influences, he went up the Nile—and succumbed utterly to fantasy and to old romance. “I am no longer Jack Bellairs,” he told himself one day, as the steamer on which he travelled neared Luxor on its way down the river from the First Cataract—“I am somebody else; some one who is touched by a sunset, and responsive to a gleam of rose on the Libyan Mountains, some one who dreams at night when the pipes wail under the palm-trees, some one who feels that the great river has life, and that the desert owns a wistful soul, and has a sweet armour with silence. Good-bye, Jack Bellairs! Go home to England—I stay here.”

And that evening he left the steamer, and took a room for a month at the Luxor Hotel. And that evening he cast the skin of his former self, and emerged, with fluttering wings, from the chrysalis of his identity. He was a bachelor, aged twenty-eight, and he was travelling alone; so there was no critical eye to mark the change in him, no chattering tongue to express surprise at his pleasant abandonment to the follies which make up the lives of sensitive artists and refined sensualists who can differentiate between the promenade of the “Empire,” and the garden of love. As he stepped out into the Arab-haunted village that night, after dinner, Bellairs breathed a sigh of relief. For a month he would let himself go. Where to? He bent his steps towards the river, the Nile that is the pulsing blood in the veins of Egypt. Moored in the shadow of its brown banks lay a string of bright-eyed dahabeeyahs. From more than one of them came music. Bellairs, his cigarette his only companion, strolled slowly along listening idly in a pleasant dream. A woman's voice sang, asking “Ninon” what was her scheme of life. A man beat out his soul at the feet of “Medje.” And, upon the deck of the last dahabeeyah, a woman played a fantastic mazurka. Bellairs was fond of music, and her performance was so clever, so full of nuances, understanding, wild passion, that he stood still to remark it more closely.

“She has known many things, good and evil,” he thought, as his mind noted the intellect that spoke in the changes of time, the regret and the gaiety that the touch demonstrated so surely and easily, as the mood of the composition changed. The music ceased.

“Betty,” a woman's voice said, in English, but with a slight French accent, “I want to see the stars. This awning hides them. Come for a little walk.”

“Yes; I want to see the stars too, and the awning does hide them,” a girl's voice answered. “Do let us take a little walk.”

Bellairs smiled, as he said to himself, “The first voice is the voice of the musician, and the second voice seems to be its echo.” He was still standing on the bank when the two women stepped upon the gangway to the shore and climbed to the narrow path.

As they passed him by they glanced at him rather curiously. One was a woman of about thirty, dark, with a pale, strong-featured face. The other was a fair, aristocratic-looking girl, not more than seventeen.

“She is the echo,” Bellairs thought. “Rather a sweet one.” Then, at a distance, he followed them, and presently found them sitting together in the garden of the Hotel. He sat down not far off. A man, whom he knew slightly, spoke to them, and afterwards crossed to him.

“That lady plays very cleverly,” Bellairs said.

“Mademoiselle Leroux, you mean—yes. You know her?”

“Not at all. I only heard her from the river bank.”

“She is travelling with Lord Braydon. She is a great friend of Lady Betty Lambe, his daughter.”

“That pretty girl?”

“Yes. Shall I introduce you?”

“I should be delighted.”

A moment later Bellairs was sitting with the two ladies and talking of Egypt. It seemed to him that they were the first nurses to dandle his new baby-nature, this nature which Egypt had given to him, and which only to-night he had definitely accepted. Perhaps this fact quickly cemented their acquaintance. At any rate, a distinct friendship began to walk in their conversation, and Bellairs found himself listening to Mdlle. Leroux, and looking at Lady Betty, with a great deal of interest and of admiration. Presently the former said:—

“I knew you would be introduced to us to-night.”

Bellairs was surprised.

“When?” he asked.

“When we passed you just now on the bank of the Nile.”

“I knew we should too,” said Lady Betty.

“You must be very intuitive,” said Bellairs.

“Women generally are,” remarked Mdlle. Leroux.

“Yes. Do your intuitions tell you whether our acquaintance will be long and agreeable?”

“Perhaps—but I never prophesy.”

“Why?”

“Because I am always right.”

“Is that a valid reason for abstention?”

“I think so. For in this world those who look forward generally see darkness.”

“I cannot achieve a proper pessimism in Upper Egypt,” Bellairs replied.

       * * * * *

A week later, Bellairs felt quite certain that there had never been a period in his life when he had not known and talked with Mdlle. Leroux and Lady Betty Lambe. Lord and Lady Braydon asked him to lunch on the dahabeeyah almost every day, and he often strolled down to tea without invitation. Then, in the afternoon, there were donkey expeditions to Karnak, or across the river to the tombs of the kings, to the desert villa of Monsieur Naville, to ancient Thebes, to the two Colossi. Lord Braydon was consumptive and was spending the winter and spring in Egypt. Lady Braydon seldom left his side, and so it happened that Bellairs and his two acquaintances of the garden were often alone together. Bellairs became deeply interested in them, and for a rather peculiar reason. He was fascinated by the extraordinary sympathy that existed between the two women—if Lady Betty could be called a woman yet. Mdlle. Leroux had obtained so strong an influence over the girl that she seemed to have grafted not only her mind, but her heart, her apparatus of emotions and of affections, on to Lady Betty's. What the former silently thought, the latter silently thought too, and when the silence died in expression, they frequently spoke almost the same sentence simultaneously. Sometimes Mdlle. Leroux would express some feeling with vehemence to Bellairs when Lady Betty was out of hearing, and an hour or two afterwards, with only a slightly fainter vehemence, Lady Betty would express the same feeling. Indeed, these two women seemed to have only one heart, one soul, between them, the heart and soul that had originally been the sole property of the elder one.

“You are very generous,” said Bellairs one day to Mdlle. Leroux.

“Why?” she asked in surprise.

“You give away things that most of us have only the power to keep.”

“What do you mean?”

“Some day, perhaps, I will tell you.”

Clarice Leroux was tremendously impulsive, and she had taken an immediate and strong liking to Bellairs. In this Lady Betty, as usual, coincided. But when Clarice's liking passed through self-revelations, confidences, towards a stronger feeling, it was rather strange to find Lady Betty still treading in her footsteps, still ever succeeding her in her attitudes of mind and of heart. Yet the inevitable double flirtation, apparently expected and desired by the two women, was strangely gilded by novelty; and, at first, Bellairs played as happily with these two dual natures as a child plays with two doll representatives of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. For, at first, he possessed the child's power of detachment, and felt that he could at any moment discard dolls for soldiers, or a Noah's Ark, and still keep happiness in his lap. But most things have an inherent tendency to become complicated if they are let alone and allowed to develop free from definite guidance, and presently Bellairs became conscious of advancing complications. His intellectual appreciation of a new situation began to degenerate into a more emotional condition, which disturbed and irritated him. It seemed that he was peering through the bars of the gate that guards the garden of passion. Which of the two women did he see in the garden?

He told himself that, having regard to the circumstances of the case, he ought to see both of them. Unfortunately, a vision of that kind never has been, and never will be, seen by a man. The temple in which the idol sits always makes a difference in the nature of our worship of the idol. Bellairs was forced to recognise this fact. And the temple in which sat the idol of Lady Betty's nature attracted him more than the temple in which sat the idol of Mdlle. Leroux's nature. He came to this conclusion one afternoon at Karnak. They three were hidden away in a stone nook of this great stone forest, enshrined from the gaze of tourists by mighty rugged pillars, walled in by huge blocks of antique masonry that threw cold shadows whence the lizards stole to seek the sun. The blue sky was broken to their gaze by a narrow section of what had been, doubtless, once a wide-spread roof. A silence of endless ages hung around them in this haven fashioned by dead men and living Time.

Mdlle. Leroux had been boiling a kettle; and they sipped tea, and, at first, did not talk. But tea unlooses the bonds of speech. After their second cups they felt communicative.

“One week gone out of my four,” Bellairs said, “and each will seem shorter-lived than its forerunner.”

“You go in three weeks from now?” said Mdlle. Leroux, with an uneven intonation that betokened a sudden awakening to the finality of things.

“Yes; at the end of January.”

“And we are here until nearly the end of March.”

“Yes,” said Lady Betty; “it will seem a very long time. February will be eternal.”

“It is the shortest month in the year,” Bellairs remarked.

Mdlle. Leroux looked at him sarcastically.

“You English are so prosaic,” she exclaimed. “Any Frenchman would have understood.”

“What?”

“That we were paying you a compliment.”

“Perhaps I did understand it, and preferred not to show my comprehension; there is such a thing as modesty!”

“There is—such a thing as false modesty!”

“Exactly,” remarked Lady Betty.

“I will accept your compliment gladly,” said Bellairs, looking at Lady Betty.

“Mine?” asked Clarice Leroux.

“Yes,” Bellairs replied.

The consciousness that he cared very much more for such a pretty meaning in Lady Betty than in Clarice Leroux led him then, for the first time, to that Garden Gate. He looked at Lady Betty again with a new feeling. She returned his gaze quietly. Then he turned his eyes to those of Clarice. Hers were fixed upon him with a curious violence. He had a momentary sensation, literally for the first time, that these two women after all, had not one soul, one heart, between them. They did not feel quite simultaneously. Lady Betty was always a step behind Clarice. Yes, that was the difference between them. However quickly the echo follows the voice that summons it, yet it must always follow. Would Lady Betty never cease to follow? Bellairs found himself wondering eagerly, for that afternoon a strange certainty came to him. He knew, in a flash, that Clarice, if she did not already love him, was on the verge of loving him. He knew now that he loved Lady Betty. But she didn't love him yet, was not even quite close to loving him. Had she been in Egypt alone, divorced from Clarice, Bellairs believed that he would not have attracted her. He attracted her through Clarice, because he attracted Clarice. Could he make her love him in the same way? It would be a curious, subtle experiment to try to win one woman's heart by winning another's: Bellairs silently decided to make it. All the rest of that afternoon he talked to Clarice, showing to her the new self that Egypt had given him, the poetry which had ousted the prose inherited from a long line of ancestors, the sentiment of which he was no longer ashamed now he felt it to be a weapon with which he might win two hearts, the heart that contained another heart, as one conjurer's box contains a hundred others.

       * * * * *

“I knew it when I first saw you,” Clarice said. “Directly I looked at you that evening on the bank I knew it.”

“How strange,” Bellairs answered.

“And you—did you know it when you heard me playing?”

“That mazurka! Remember I am a man.”

They were sitting in the garden. It was night. Very few people were out, for a great Austrian pianist was playing in the public drawing-room, and the little world of Luxor sat at his feet relentlessly. They two could hear, mingling with a Polonaise of Chopin, the throbbing of tom-toms in the dusty village, the faint and suggestive cry of the pipes, which fill the soul at the same time with desire, and regret for past desire killed by gratification. Bellairs had been making love to Clarice, and she had told him that she loved him. And he had kissed her and his kiss had been returned.

“Will this kiss, too, have its echo?” he thought; and his eyes travelled towards the lighted windows of the drawing-room behind which Lady Betty sat. He turned again to Clarice.

“Do you believe in echoes?” he asked.

“Echoes!”

“That each thing we do in life, each word, each cry, each act, calls into being, perhaps very soon, perhaps very late, a repetition?”

“From the same person?”

“Or from some other person.”

“What a curious idea. You think we cannot ever do anything without finding an imitator! I don't like to imagine it. I don't fancy that there can ever, in the history of the world, be an exact repetition of our feeling, our doing, to-night.”

“Yet, there may be. Who knows?”

“I do. Instinct tells me there never can. There has never been, never will be, any woman with a heart just like mine, given to a man just in the same way as mine is given to you. Why should you think such a hateful thing?”

“I don't know. It was only an idea that occurred to me.”

And again he glanced towards the lighted windows.

“The world is very full of echoes,” he went on; “our troubles are repeated.”

“But not our joys, our deepest joys. No, no, never!”

“There have always been lovers, and they all act in much the same way!”

“Hateful! Ah! why can't we invent some new mode of expression for ourselves—you and I?”

“Because we are human beings, and one network of tangled limitations.”

“You make me cry with anger,” she said.

And when he looked, he saw that there were tears shining in her eyes.

At that moment a ghastly sensation of compunction swept over him. What had he done? A deep wrong, the deepest wrong man can do. He had made an experiment, as a scientist may make an experiment. He had vivisected a soul, but the soul was yet ignorant of the fact. When it knew, would it die? But then he told himself he had to do it. For he loved passionately, and was certain that he could only gain the heart he had not yet completely won by gaining this heart that he had completely won. He had made an experiment. If it failed! But it could not fail. All that Clarice said, all that she thought, all that she desired, Betty said, thought, desired. After the necessary interval the echo must follow the voice. And he smiled to himself.

“Why do you smile like that?” Clarice asked.

“Because—because I thought I heard an echo,” he replied. And then they kissed again. He, with his eyes shut, forced his imagination to tell him that the lips he pressed were the lips of Betty. She thought only of the lips of love, that burn up all the recollections of the lonely years, all the phantoms which dwell in the deserts through which women pass to joy—or to despair.

The Austrian pianist was exhausted. Even his long hair could no longer sustain his failing energies. He expired magnificently, the seventh rhapsody of Liszt serving as his bier. Lady Betty came out into the garden.

“How unmusical you two are,” she said; “his playing was exquisite.”

“We heard finer music here,” Clarice answered, as she got up to go back to the dahabeeyah—“did we not?”

She turned to Bellairs. He was looking at Lady Betty and did not hear. Clarice's cheek flushed angrily.

“Come, Betty,” she exclaimed. “Good-night, Mr Bellairs.”

“Good-night, Mr Bellairs,” echoed Lady Betty.

The two women moved away, and vanished down the narrow and dusty avenue that leads to the bank of the Nile. Bellairs stood looking after them. He was wondering why he loved Betty and did not love Clarice. It seemed feeble to love an echo. Yet, the intonation of an echo is sometimes exquisite in its trilling vagueness, its far-off, thrilling beauty. And Bellairs fancied that if he once wakened Betty to passion he would free her, in a moment, from her curious bondage, would give to her the soul that Clarice must surely have crushed down and expelled, replacing it with a replica of her own soul. And then he asked himself, being analytically inclined that night, what he adored in Betty. Was it merely her fresh young beauty? It could not be her nature; for that, at present, was merely Clarice's, and he did not love the nature of Clarice. Yet he felt it was something more than her beauty. When he had made her love him he would know; for, when he had made her love him, he would force her to be herself.

He watched the bats circling among the shadowy palms. How gentle the air was. How sweet the stars looked. Bellairs thought of England that was so far away. It seemed impossible that he could ever be in London again, ever again assume a Piccadilly nature, and laugh at the folly of having a romance. Yes, it seemed impossible. Nevertheless, in a fortnight he must go. But he would take Betty's promise with him. He was resolved on that. And then he left the silent garden to the bats, and was soon between the mosquito curtains, dreaming.

       * * * * *

Three days afterwards Clarice was prostrated with a nervous headache. She could not bear to have any one in her cabin, and Lady Betty sat on the deck of the Queen Hatasoo quite inconsolable. Bellairs, arriving to pay his usual afternoon call, found her there. Lord Braydon was out, sailing in a flat-bottomed boat far up the river with Lady Braydon, so Lady Betty was quite desolate. She told Bellairs so mournfully.

“And Clarice won't let me come near her,” she exclaimed. “A step on the floor, the creak of the cabin door as I come in, tortures her. She is all nerves. I hope I shan't have her headache presently.”

“Is it likely?”

“I often do. She seems to pass it on to me. I never had a headache until I knew her. But, indeed, I never seemed to live, I never seemed to know anything, be anything, until she came into my life.”

“I wish I had known you before you knew her,” Bellairs said.

“Why?”

“I don't know—perhaps to see if you were really so very different from what you are now.”

“I was—utterly.”

“What were you like?”

“I can't remember—but I was utterly different.”

As she ceased speaking, Bellairs glanced over the rail to the river bank. Two blue-robed donkey boys stood there trying to attract his attention, and pointing significantly to their gaily-bedizened donkeys.

“Shall we go for a ride?” he said to Lady Betty. “Just along the river bank? Then we shall see Lord Braydon as he sails back. Mdlle. Leroux won't miss you. Shall we go?”

Betty hesitated. But she could do the invalid no good by staying. So she assented. Bellairs helped her to the bank and placed her in the smart red saddle. He motioned the boys to keep well in the rear, and they started at a quick, tripping walk. As they went, a white face appeared at a cabin window, staring after them, the face of Clarice, who had with difficulty lifted her throbbing head from the pillow. She watched the donkeys diminishing till they were black shadows moving along against the sky, then she began to cry weakly, but only because she was too ill to be with them. Her gift of prophecy failed her at this critical juncture of her life, and she had no sense of a coming disaster, as she lay back on her berth, and gave herself up once more to pain.

That evening Lord Braydon asked Bellairs to dine on the dahabeeyah, and he accepted the invitation. Clarice was still in durance, having entirely failed to pass her headache on to Lady Betty. After dinner Lord Braydon went into the saloon to write a letter to England, and Lady Betty and Bellairs had the deck to themselves. He was resolved to put his fate to the touch; for, during the donkey ride, he had discovered the change in Betty which he had so eagerly desired, the change from warm friendship to a different feeling. The girl had not acknowledged it. Bellairs had not asked her to do so; but he meant to. Only the thought of his treachery to the woman lying in the cabin below held him back, just for a moment, and prompted him to talk lightly of indifferent things. But that treachery had been a necessary manoeuvre in his campaign of happiness. He strove to dismiss it from his mind as he leant forward in his chair, and led Lady Betty to the subject that lay so near to his heart.

“You love me?” she said presently.

“Yes—deeply. You are angry?”

“How can I be? No, no—and yet—”

“Yes?”

“And yet, when you told me, I felt sad.”

Bellairs looked keenly vexed, and she hastened to add:—

“Not because I am—indifferent. No, no. I can't explain why the feeling came. It was gone in a moment. And now—”

“Now you are happy?”

He caught her hand and she left it in his.

“Yes, very happy.”

Bellairs bent over her and kissed her—as he lifted himself up a white hand appeared on the rail of the companion that led from the lower to the upper deck of the Hatasoo. Clarice wearily dragged herself up. She was wrapped in a shawl and looked very ill. Betty ran to help her.

“I thought I must get a little air,” she said feebly. “How d'you do, Mr Bellairs?”

She sank down in a chair.

Bellairs felt like a man between two fires.

       * * * * *

Two days later Lord Braydon gave his consent to his daughter's engagement with Bellairs, and Lady Betty ran to tell Clarice. She had not previously said a word to her friend of what had passed between her and Bellairs. He had begged her to keep silence until he had spoken to Lord Braydon, and she had promised and had kept her promise. But now she rushed into the saloon where Clarice was playing Chopin, and, throwing her arms round her friend, told her the great news. The body of Clarice became rigid in her arms.

“And the king has consented,” Betty cried.

The king was her father.

“Clarice, Clarice, isn't it wonderful?”

“Wonderful! I thought so when you told me. But already I begin to doubt if it is.”

“To doubt, Clarice?”

“To doubt whether anything a man does is wonderful.”

That was all Clarice said. Then she kissed Betty, and went on playing Chopin feverishly, while Betty told, to the accompaniment of the music, all that was in her heart.

“And,” she said at last, “I love him, Clarice; I love him intensely. I shall always love him.”

Clarice played a final chord and got up.

Bellairs lunched on the dahabeeyah that day and Clarice met him as usual. Her manner gave no sign of any mental disturbance. Perhaps it was curiously calm. He wondered a little, but was too happy to wonder much. Joy made him cruel, for nothing is so cruel as joy. Only he was glad that Clarice had so much pride, for he thought now that in her pride lay his safety. He no longer feared that she would condescend to a scene, and he even thought that perhaps she did not feel so deeply as he had supposed.

“After all,” he said to himself exultantly, “there's no harm done. I need not have been so conscience-stricken. What is a pretty speech and a kiss to a woman who has lived, travelled over the world, read widely, thought many things? Now, if I had treated Betty in such a way I should be a blackguard. She could not have understood. She could only have suffered. I will never hurt her—Betty!”

His nature was so full of her that it could no longer hold any thought of Clarice. And for a little while, as Bellairs dived into Betty's heart, he was astonished at the passion he found there, and congratulated himself on having released her from bondage. Now, at least, he was teaching her to be herself. He was killing the echo and creating a voice, a beautiful, clear, radiant voice that would sing to him, to him alone.

“Betty has a great deal in her,” he said to Clarice once.

“Yes—a great deal. Who put it there, do you think?”

“Who? Why, nobody. Surely you would not say that all you yourself have of—of strength, originality, courage, was put into you by some other man or woman.”

“No. I would not say that. But then—I am not Betty.”

Bellairs felt irritated.

“Please don't run Betty down,” he exclaimed hastily.

“I! I run down Betty! I don't think you understand what I feel about Betty. She is the one perfect being I know. I worship her.”

“I am sure you do,” he said, mollified. “And you have done much for her, perhaps too much.”

“I cannot tell that—yet,” Clarice answered. “Some day I may know whether I have done very much, or very little.”

“Some day—when?”

“Perhaps very soon.”

Bellairs wondered what she meant, and wondered, too, why he had a sudden sense of uneasiness.

It was a day or two after this conversation that a light cloud seemed to float across his lover's happiness with Betty. He could not tell the exact moment when it came, nor from what quarter it journeyed. But he felt the obscuring of the sun and the lessening of the lovely warmth of intimacy. He was chilled and alarmed, and at night, when he was alone with Betty in the stern of the Hatasoo bidding her good-bye, he could not refrain from saying:—

“Betty, is anything the matter?”

“The matter, Jack?”

“Yes. Are you quite happy to-day? Quite as happy as you were yesterday?”

“I suppose so—I believe so.”

But she did not speak with a perfect conviction, and Bellairs was more gravely troubled.

“I am certain something is wrong,” he persisted. “I have done something that has offended you, or said something stupid. What is it? Do tell me.”

“I can't. There is nothing to tell. Really, there is not.”

“You would tell me if there was?”

“Of course.”

“And you love me as much as ever?”

“Oh, yes.”

He looked into her eyes, asking them mutely to tell him the truth. And he thought their expression was strangely cold. The light had surely faded out of them. He kissed her silently and went forward. Clarice was standing there looking at the rising moon.

“Good-night,” he said, holding out his hand.

“How grave you look,” she answered, not seeing the hand.

“The moonlight makes people look unnatural.”

“It does not reach the deck yet.”

“Good-night,” he said again, and he went down the stairs.

She looked after him with a smile. When he had gone, she turned her head and called.

“Betty!”

“Yes!”

“Come here and sit with me. Let us watch the moon. Don't talk. I want to think—and to make you think—as I do.”

The cloud which Bellairs had fancied he noticed did not dissolve in the night. It was not drawn up mysteriously into the sun to fade in gold. On the contrary, next day he could no longer pretend to himself that his anxiety as a lover rendered him foolishly self-conscious, dangerously observant of the merest trifles. There really was a change in Betty, and a change which grew. He became seriously alarmed. Could it be possible that the ardent passion which she had displayed in the first moments of their engagement was already subsiding as cynics say passion subsides after marriage? Such a supposition seemed ridiculous. The ardour which has never fulfilled itself is not liable to cool. And Betty was a young girl who had not known love before. If she tired of it after so short an experience of its delights, she could be nothing less than a wholly unnatural and distorted being. And she was strangely natural. Bellairs rode out alone with her along the built-up brown roads into the desert, and tried to interest her, but she was abstracted and seemed deep in thought. Often she didn't hear what he was saying, and when she did hear and replied, her answers were short and careless, and rather dismissed than encouraged the subject to which they were applied. Bellairs, at last, gave up attempting to talk, and from time to time stole a cautious glance at her pretty face. He noticed that it wore a puzzled expression, as if she were turning over something in her mind and could not come to a conclusion about it. She did not look exactly sad, but merely grave and distrait. At length he exclaimed, determined to rouse her into some sort of comradeship:—

“You never caught that headache, did you?”

“Clarice's, you mean? No.”

“Is it coming on now?”

“Oh, no. I feel perfectly well. What made you think it was?”

“You won't talk to me, and you look so preternaturally serious. I am sure I have unwittingly offended you?”

“No, you haven't. You are just as you always are, better to me than I deserve.”

“You deserve the best man in the world.”

“I already have the best woman.”

“Mdlle. Leroux?”

“Yes; Clarice.”

“You admire her very much.”

“Of course. I would give anything to be like her.”

Bellairs hesitated a moment. Then he said with a slight, uneasy laugh:—

“But you are wonderfully like her.”

Betty looked surprised.

“I don't see how,” she answered.

“No, because we never see ourselves. But when I first knew you both, I was immensely struck by the curious resemblance between you, in mind, in the things you said, in the things you did, the people you liked.”

“We both liked you.”

“Yes.”

“It would have been strange if we had both loved you!” Betty said, musingly.

Bellairs laughed again, and gave his horse a cut with the whip. “I only wanted one to do that,” he said, not quite truthfully. “And, thank God, I have got my desire.”

Betty did not answer.

“Haven't I?” he persisted.

“You know whether you have or not,” she answered. “How beautiful the sunset is going to be to-night. Look at the light over Karnak.”

She pointed towards the temple with her whip. Bellairs felt a crawling despair that numbed him What did it all mean? Was he torturing himself foolishly, or was this instinct which gnawed at his heart a thing to be reckoned with? When he left Betty at the dahabeeyah, he walked slowly, in the gathering shadows, along the path which skirts the dingy temple of Luxor. This change in Betty was simply inexplicable. In no way could he account for it. She had not the definite, angry coldness of a girl who had made a dreadful mistake and hated the man who had led her to make it. No; she seemed rather in a state of mental transition. She was setting foot on some bridge, which, Bellairs felt, led away from the shore on which she had been standing with him. Was her first transport of love and joy a pretence? He could not believe so. He knew it was genuine. That was the puzzle which he could not put together. And then he tried to comfort himself by thinking deliberately of the many moods that make the feminine mind so full of April weather, of how they come and pass and are dead. All men had suffered from them, especially all lovers. He could not expect to be exempt—only, till now, Betty had seemed so utterly free from moods, so steadily frank, eager, charming, responsive. Bellairs finally argued himself into a condition of despair, during which he came to a resolve of despair. He silently decided to seek a quiet interview with Clarice, and ask her what was the matter with Betty. After all, there was no reason why he should not take this step. Clarice had evidently not cared deeply for him. Otherwise, she would not have accepted his desertion with such truly agreeable fortitude. Theirs had been a passing flirtation—nothing more. And, indeed, their intimacy gave him the right to consult her, while her close knowledge of Betty must render her an infallible judge of any reasons which there might be to render the latter's conduct intelligible.

       * * * * *

Bellairs did not have to wait long before he put his resolve into practice. That evening Betty, who had become more and more abstracted and silent, got up soon after dinner, and said she was tired, and was going to bed. Bellairs tried to get a moment with her alone, but she frustrated the attempt by holding out her hand to him in public and markedly bidding him good-night before Lord and Lady Braydon. When she had disappeared, Bellairs sought Clarice, who was downstairs in the saloon writing letters. Clarice looked up from the blotting-pad as he entered.

“I want to talk to you,” he exclaimed abruptly.

“I am writing letters.”

“Do give me a few minutes.”

“Very well,” she said, pushing her paper away and laying down her pen. “What is it?”

“That's what I want to ask you. What has come over Betty? Is she ill?”

“Betty! Has anything come over her?”

Bellairs tapped his fingers impatiently on the table.

“Don't tell me you haven't noticed the change,” he said. “Forgive me for saying that I couldn't believe it if you did.”

“In that case I won't trouble myself to say it.”

“Ah—you have! Then what's the matter? Tell me.”

“Hush, don't speak so loud or the sailors will hear you, and Abdul understands English. I did not say I knew the reason of this change.”

“You must. You are Betty's other self, or rather she is—was—yours.”

“Was! Do you mean that she is not now?”

“Remember, she loves me.”

“Oh, and that makes a difference?”

“Surely!”

“You have observed it?”

Bellairs hesitated. He scarcely knew whether to reply in the affirmative or the negative. He resolved upon a compromise.

“There has hardly been time yet,” he said; “naturally, I expect that Betty will place me before every one else.”

Mdlle. Leroux's eyes flashed under the hanging lamp.

“What we expect is not always what we get,” she said significantly.

Bellairs flushed. He understood that she was alluding to his treatment of her, but he preferred to ignore it, and went on:—

“Is Betty ill to-night?”

“Not at all.”

“Then what on earth is the matter? I ask you for a plain answer. I think I deserve so much.”

“Men are always so deserving,” she said with bitterness.

“And women are always so exacting,” he retorted. “But please answer my question.”

“I will first ask you another. If you reply frankly to me, I will reply frankly to you.”

She leaned her elbows on the table, supporting her face on the palms of her upturned hands, and looked into his eyes.

“Ask me,” said Bellairs eagerly; “I'll do anything if you'll only explain Betty to me.”

“Why did you try to make me love you? Why did you make love to me?”

Bellairs pushed back his chair and there was an awkward silence. Clarice's question was very unexpected and very difficult to answer.

“Well?” she said, still with her eyes on his.

“Is it any good our discussing this?” he replied at length. “It meant nothing to you. It is over.”

“How do you know it meant nothing to me?”

“You have shown that by your conduct. You care nothing. I am indifferent to you.”

“No, not indifferent, not at all.”

“What? You can't mean—no, it is absurd!”

“What is absurd?”

“You can't—you don't mean that you really have any feeling for me?”

“I do mean it!”

Bellairs felt very uncomfortable. He scarcely knew what to do or say. He fidgeted on his chair almost like a boy caught in a dishonest act.

“We had really better not talk about it,” he said.

“Very well.” Clarice reached out her hand for her pen and drew the blotting-pad towards her.

“But Betty?” said Bellairs uneasily.

“You have not answered my question. I shall not answer yours.” She dipped her pen in the ink and prepared to go on with her letter. Bellairs grew desperate.

“Look here,” he said; “you must tell me the reason of this change in Betty. Now I know you don't care for me, you don't really love me.”

“No, I don't love you,” she said quickly.

“Well, then, since you say that, I will answer your question. I tried to win your heart because I wanted to win Betty's!”

“What do you mean?”

“That Betty is practically you—or was, your echo, in word, deed, thought. Her mind, her heart, followed yours in everything. I loved her, and I knew that if I made you like me very much she must follow you in that feeling as in others. Since you don't love me, I can dare to tell you this.”

Clarice sat silent.

“Are you angry?” he asked.

“Go on,” she said.

“That's all.” Again a silence.

“It was your fault in a way,” Bellairs said awkwardly. “You made Betty your other self. Why did you not let her alone?”

“Can a strong nature help impressing itself on others?”

“Oh, I don't know. I'm no psychologist. But—you must let Betty alone now,” he said.

“Suppose I can't. Suppose this sympathy between us has got beyond my control?”

“I shall release Betty from this bondage to you,” Bellairs said, “my love will—”

“You! Your love!” Clarice said. And she burst into a laugh.

Bellairs suddenly leaned forward across the table.

“I believe you hate me,” he exclaimed.

She, on her part, leaned forward till her face was near his.

“You're right,” she whispered; “I do hate you. Now you know what's the matter with Betty.”

For a moment Bellairs did not understand.

“Now—I know—” he repeated. “I don't—Ah!” Comprehension flashed upon him.

“You devil,” he said—“you she-devil! Curse—curse you!” Clarice laughed again. Bellairs sprang up.

“No, no, I won't believe it,” he cried. “I can't. The thing's impossible.”

“Is it? The pendulum of my heart has swung back from love to hate. Betty's is following.”

“No, no!”

“Wait, and you will see. Already she seems to care less for you. You yourself have remarked it.”

“I have not,” he said with violence.

“To-morrow she will care less, and so less—less—till she too—hates you.”

“Never!”

“Only wait—and you will know. And now, good-night. I must really write my letter. It is to my mother, and must go by to-morrow's mail.”

She resumed her writing quietly. Bellairs watched her for a moment. Then he strode out of the room, across the gangway, up the bank.

How dark the night was.

       * * * * *

The explanation of Clarice struck Bellairs with a benumbing force. In vain he argued to himself that it was not the true one, that no heart could follow another as she said Betty's followed hers, that no nature could merely for ever echo another's. Some furtive despair lurking in his soul whispered that she had spoken the truth. An appalling sense of utter impotence seized him, as it seizes a man who fights with a shadow. But he resolved to fight. His whole life's happiness hung on the issue.

On the following day he forced himself to be cheerful, gay, talkative. He went early to the dahabeeyah, and proposed to Lord Braydon a picnic to Thebes. Lord Braydon assented. A hamper was packed. The boat was ordered. The little party assembled on the deck of the Hatasoo for the start; Lady Braydon, in a wide hat and sweeping grey veil, Clarice with her big white parasol lined with pale green, Lord Braydon in his helmet, his eyes protected by enormous spectacles. But where was Betty? Abdul, the dragoman, went to tell her that they were going. She came, without her hat, or gloves, holding a palm leaf fan in her hand.

“I am not coming,” she said.

Clarice glanced at Bellairs. He pressed his lips together and felt that he was turning white underneath the tan the Egyptian sun rays had painted on his cheeks. Lady Braydon protested.

“What's the matter, Betty?” she said. “The donkeys are ordered and waiting for us on the opposite bank. Why aren't you coming?”

“I have got a headache. I'm afraid of the sun to-day.” All persuasion was useless. They had to set out without her. Bellairs was bitterly angry, bitterly afraid. He could scarcely make the necessary effort to be polite and talkative, but Lord and Lady Braydon readily excused his gloom, understanding his disappointment, and Clarice no longer desired his conversation. That night he did not see Betty. She was confined to her cabin and would see no one but Clarice. On the following day Bellairs went very early to the dahabeeyah and asked for her. Abdul took his message, and, after an interval, returned to him with the following note:—

   “DEAR MR BELLAIRS,—I am very sorry I cannot see you this
   morning, but I am still very unwell. I think the mental agony
   I have been and am undergoing accounts for my condition. I
   must tell you the truth. I cannot marry you. I mistook my
   feeling for you. I honestly thought it love. I find it is only
   friendship. Can you ever forgive me the pain I am causing you?
   I cannot forgive myself. But I should do you a much greater
   wrong by marrying you than by giving you up. I have told my
   father and mother. See them if you like. We sail to-morrow
   morning for Assouan.

                     “BETTY.”

Bellairs, crumpling this note in his hand, would have burst forth into a passion of useless rage and despair, but Abdul's lustrous eyes were fixed upon him. Abdul's dignified form calmly waited his pleasure.

“Where is Lord Braydon?” said Bellairs, “I must see him.”

“His lordship is on the second deck, sir.”

“Take me to him.”

The interview that followed only increased the despair of Bellairs. Lord Braydon was most sympathetic, most courteously sorry, but he said that his daughter's decision was absolutely irrevocable, and he could not attempt to coerce her in such an important matter.

“At any rate, I must see her before you sail,” said Bellairs at last. “I think she owes me at least that one last debt.”

“I think so too,” said Lord Braydon. “Come at six. I will undertake that you shall see her.”

How Bellairs spent the intervening hours he could never remember. He did not go back to the hotel; he must have wandered all day along the river bank. Yet he felt neither the heat, nor any fatigue, nor any hunger. At six o'clock he reached the dahabeeyah. Lady Betty was sitting alone on the deck. She looked very pale and grave.

“My father and mother and Clarice have gone up to the hotel,” she said. “That Austrian is playing again this evening.”

“Is he?” Bellairs answered. He sat down beside her and tried to take her hand. But she would not let him.

“No,” she said. “No, it's no use. I have made a ghastly mistake, but I will not make another. Oh, forgive me, do forgive me!”

“How can I? If you will not try to love me my life is ruined.”

“Don't say that. It's no use to try to love. You know that. We must just let ourselves alone. Love comes, or hate, just as God wills it. We can only accept our fate.”

“As God wills,” Bellairs said passionately; “why do you say that, when you know it is not true?”

“Not true—Mr Bellairs!”

“Yes. If you echoed the will of God how could I blame you? We must all do that—at least, when we are good. And those of us who are wicked I suppose echo the Devil. But you—what do you echo?”

“I—I echo no one. I don't understand you.”

“But you shall, before it is too late. Betty, be yourself. Emancipate your soul. You are the echo of that woman, of Clarice. Don't you see it? Don't you know it? You are her echo—and she hates me!”

Betty drew back from him—she was evidently alarmed.

“Are you mad?” she said. “Why do you say such things to me? Clarice and I love each other, it is true, but our real natures are totally different. She does not hate you, nor do I. She has never said one word against you to me. She has always told me how much she liked you. What are you saying?”

“The truth!”

“I—her echo! Why, then—then if that were the case she must have loved you, or thought she loved you. Do you dare to tell me that?”

“I do not say that,” Bellairs answered hopelessly.

“Of course not. The idea is so absurd. Clarice—oh! how can you talk like this? And if I am only an echo, as you call it, how can you say you care for me, care for another woman's shadow? You do not love me.”

“I do—with all my heart.”

“And yet you say I am nothing, that I have not even a heart of my own, that I love or hate at the will of another.”

“Forgive me, forgive me! I don't know what I say. I only know I love you.”

Her face softened.

“And you deserve to be loved,” she said; “but I—it is so horrible—I cannot!”

Suddenly Bellairs caught her in his arms.

“You shall,” he exclaimed, “you shall. I will make you.” But she pushed him back with a strange strength, and her face hardened till he scarcely recognised it.

“Don't do that—don't touch me—or you'll make me hate you,” she said vehemently.

Bellairs let her go. At that moment there was a step on the deck. Clarice appeared. She did not seem to notice that anything was wrong. She smiled.

“Isn't it sad, Mr Bellairs,” she said, “we sail to-morrow. I love Luxor. I can't bear to leave it.”

Bellairs suddenly turned and hurried away. He could no longer trust himself. There was blood before his eyes.

       * * * * *

It was dawn. The Nile was smooth as a river of oil. Light mists rolled upwards gently, discovering the rosy flanks of the Libyan mountains to the sun. The sky began to glimmer with a dancing golden heat. On the brown bank where the boats lie in the shadow a man stood alone. His hands were tightly clenched. His lips worked silently. His eyes were fixed in a stare. And away in the distance up river, a tiny trail of smoke floated towards Luxor. It came from a steam tug that drew a following dahabeeyah.

The Queen Hatasoo was on her voyage to Assouan.

 
 
 

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