Read CHAPTER XXI. of An Unknown Lover , free online book, by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, on ReadCentral.com.

The ship dropped anchor in the harbour of Port Said early in the morning, and almost immediately afterwards four large coal barges, lashed together, were towed towards her, with a not unmusical chanting of “Oola!  Oola!  Oola!” from their Arab crew.

Veritable imps of Satan did the men appear, dyed to an ebon blackness, and the passengers made haste to depart shorewards to escape the ordeal of the day.  Katrine, Mrs Mannering, and Vernon Keith formed a little party by themselves; the elder woman trim and gaunt in grey alpaca, Katrine immaculately white, with a broad-brimmed hat shading face and neck.  An undercurrent of excitement at the prospect of meeting the first of her Indian friends brightened her eyes, and infused her whole aspect with a delightful animation.  The first duty on shore was to purchase topees, which to Katrine’s relief proved to be much more becoming than she had anticipated.  Her choice had indeed quite a fashionable aspect, being of the wide Merry Widow shape, the pith foundation daintily covered with white cotton, while a green lining and light hanging scarf added to the general effect, and sent her out of the shop complacently reassured.

They walked about the sun-baked streets of the squalid town, the gaunt man, the grey-haired woman, and between them the young blooming girl, passing quickly by the few decent houses which skirt the quay, to visit the native quarters, Katrine’s first glimpse of the East.  There was none of the glamour which she had expected in the ramshackle buildings, cabins, and hencoops, with but little to differentiate one from the other.  Dark-skinned men lounged about in every variety of bed-gown, women sported the heavy yashmak, in addition to a brass band across the forehead, from which four large brass rings depended over the nose.  Children swarmed around thick as mosquitoes, begging in broken English, any claims to beauty which they might have possessed obliterated by the almost universal pitting of smallpox.

The animals were more attractive, but in the absence of even the smallest blade of grass their presence seemed difficult to explain.  The goats appeared to live on bits of paper and scraps of orange peel, while the cows, dogs, and cats which with the goats wandered restlessly about the streets fared even worse.  As for the camels and donkeys, they stood about in groups, or lay in the sand with their usual expression of bored resignation.

Vernon Keith laughed at Katrine’s undisguised dismay.

“Don’t judge the East by Port Said, Miss Beverley!  It is a nightmare of a hole, where no one lives who is not absolutely compelled.  Even these Arab coal-porter fellows bring their families here for two or three months, work like the devil, and then disappear into the desert to live like fighting cocks until their earnings are finished...  Here’s a water hydrant,-suppose we stand here and watch the people fill their skins!  It may give you a laugh, and that’s a difficult thing to achieve in this part of the world.”

Katrine looked around eagerly.  A group of Europeans had already gathered round the hydrant, some of whom she recognised as passengers on her own boat; the others were strangers, for whom at the moment she had no attention to spare.  An Arab woman was holding to the tap a crumpled mass of skin, into which the water was gradually falling.  Even as she watched, the folded mass swelled and wriggled in life-like contortions.  The crowd broke into laughter; the Arab woman, expectant of backsheesh, responded with a gleaming smile.  Katrine danced on her toes like an excited child.

“What is it?  What is it?  A pig-skin?  A calf-skin?  A sloper?  It’s just like a dying sloper!  What can it be?”

Suddenly from out the sausage-like round shot a leg, kicking, as it were, into space; a second leg, more legs, a tail-then the Arab woman gave an adroit twist to the balloon, and a final shriek of laughter from the crowd greeted the cocking of frisky ears, above the life-like head!

The sight was so irresistibly comic, that even Vernon Keith was surprised into a smile, which broadened at sight of Katrine’s childlike delight.  The clear treble of her laughter, the involuntary dance of her eager feet, the beauty of the sparkling face, made her indeed the cynosure of every eye.  Fellow-passengers smiled at her with a kindliness which had in it an element of remorse.  “The girl who walked about with that horrible man”-appeared suddenly in a different light,- not an adventuress after all, but a girl whose experience of life was behind her years, a child at heart who meant no harm.  The strangers whispered among themselves, and speculated as to her relationship with the man and woman by her side.

The Arab woman shouldered her burden and walked away, enriched by several voluntary offerings, and the object of interest being removed, Katrine became embarrassingly conscious of the general scrutiny.  She cast a rapid glance around the group, skimming quickly from one face to another, until suddenly, startlingly, she found herself held by the gaze of a pair of eyes, a man’s eyes, steely grey, with a curious effect of lightness against the deep tan of the skin.  There was something in those eyes, a magnetism, an intentness, which gripped Katrine with a force amounting to positive pain.  Each of us in his turn has had such an experience, but it is all too rare, for the eyes of our fellow-creatures, so far from being windows of the soul, are as a rule little more illuminating than any other feature.  Tired eyes, shallow eyes, blank, expressionless eyes, one encounters them at every turn, but only at rare and memorable intervals eyes alive, magnetic, which not only look straight from the heart of their owner, but like a searchlight pierce straight to one’s own.  When this experience comes, it forges a link which neither time nor distance can break.  Two souls have met, and mutely acclaimed their kinship.

While one might have counted ten, Katrine stood, motionless, almost without breath, gazing deep into the strange man’s eyes, then with the wrench of physical effort, she turned aside, and slipped her hand through Mrs Mannering’s arm.

“Come!  Let us go!”

They walked on.  Vernon Keith on one side, Mrs Mannering on the other, large, gaunt, protective, her arm gripping the girl’s hand to her grey alpaca side.  Katrine loved her for that grip, but her mind was still engrossed in visualising the figure of a tall man, thin, yet broad, of a tanned face, and light grey eyes.

The glare from the sand seemed of a sudden to have become monstrous, unbearable.  She felt a tired longing for the cool white deck.

“How soon can we go back?  How long will those-sweeps-take over their work?”

“Not long,” Vernon said.  “They are incredibly quick.  Three hours for a matter of eight or nine hundred tons.  We will go to the hotel and get something to drink.  Has the sun been too much for you?  You look so suddenly tired.”

Beneath her breath Mrs Mannering grunted disgust at the blindness of man.  When the hotel was reached, and she and Katrine sat alone for a few minutes waiting the arrival of drinks, she looked at the girl with a kindly twinkle and said abruptly: 

“No need to take it to heart, my dear.  Your own fault!  You were worth looking at, and he looked-that’s all!  A cat may look at a king.”

Katrine smiled faintly.

“Yes-of course.  Stupid of me.  But there was something in his eyes that-startled!  Did you ever have that curious feeling on meeting a stranger?  Not recognition-it’s more like expectation-as if he mattered!”

Mrs Mannering grunted again.

“I know a fool when I see him, and an honest man.  I know when to be civil, or to give a wide berth.  Common-sense, I call it; not curious at all.  Rather a fine figure, that man!  You’d make a good pair.  I’ve been thinking, you know, he might be that friend who is coming on board...  Eh, what?”

To her surprise Katrine violently resented the suggestion.

“Oh, no!” she cried loudly.  “I am sure he is not.  Captain Bedford will be quite different.”  A look almost of fear flitted over her face.  “I’m quite sure it was not he!”

Mrs Mannering shrugged her shoulders, “Well! have it your own way.  If I were a pretty, unattached female, and was introduced to that man as my travelling companion, I should feel I was in for a good time!  On the other hand, if you were a bride, my dear, I’d stick to you like glue, out of sympathy for the poor man waiting his turn...”

Katrine hesitated, fighting an impulse which prompted her to confide in this kind, shrewd woman, to confess the real object of her journey, and secure her help and counsel.  The words trembled on her lip; another second and they would have found speech; then the door opened and Vernon Keith appeared, followed by a waiter bearing refreshments.  The opportunity was past.