His heart pounded violently and a tremor of fear passed through his limbs without his being able to master it. The loathsome image of al-Ikhshidi loomed before his eyes once more. How was this night going to end? Would he remember it in the future with laughter or tears? His father too heard the visitor’s footsteps and asked, “Were you expecting a guest?”

He replied without any hesitation, pretending to be nonchalant, “Yes, this is my father-in-law who has come to visit his daughter.”

“Aren’t you going to receive him?”

He stuttered and then said resolutely, “No, my wife will find an excuse to explain my absence. I’ll introduce you to him some other time.”

They fell silent. The old man sensed that his son was embarrassed to introduce him to his father-in-law and tucked in his chin quietly and sadly. Mahgub sat by the door trying his hardest to calm his nerves. He glanced stealthily and angrily at his father, revealing his resentment and rancor. The night had to end peacefully. He felt intuitively that if the night did end peacefully, he would have saved his life and hopes forever. But why should he be afraid? The minister had safely reached his destination, and his father’s state revealed that he did not know the dreadful secret. All he had to do was to be patient and wait until the bey left—as he had arrived—peacefully. All the same he remained—despite the promising signs—anxious and worried. His nervous tension increased when his father complained again in a bitter, disapproving tone, “If your heart really was affectionate, son, it would have set much less store on your position’s requirements, which you have used as an excuse, and would have tormented you for allowing your parents to writhe in hunger. I’m amazed at how your mother continues to defend you, rejecting all the charges that were shared with us. She told me, ‘Time will show you whether I’m not the one who knows our son best.’ I wish she had come with me to see with her own eyes.”

Mahgub felt exasperated. He was fed up with the man whose presence had caused his present crisis. He was poised to respond when the doorbell rang to announce a new arrival. Mahgub’s heart pounded painfully. Who could it be? Was there something more? The cook opened the door, and then he heard a shrill voice. Outraged, he went to the door of the room and opened it. Then he saw a lady who was brushing the cook out of her way and entering the apartment in a state of intense nervous excitation. She was an elegantly attired lady of aristocratic bearing. He was astonished and alarmed. Then he felt panic-stricken, terrified, and speechless. Seeing him, the woman approached haughtily, her eyes flashing angrily. When she stopped before him, she asked contemptuously, “Are you the person known as Mahgub Abd al-Da’im?”

Mahgub was already predisposed to terror and pessimism. His tormented soul told him that he was the victim of a perfidious plot of which his father was merely one of many lethal weapons. He felt despondent, convinced that his glory hung from a fragile thread. Looking at the woman disapprovingly, he said in a low voice, since he was apprehensive about her loud voice that his father could hear, “Yes, madam, I am.”

She scowled angrily, her lips curled disdainfully, and she said harshly, “Come on, show me the room where my husband is secluded with your chaste wife.”

This request pierced his heart, splitting it in two, his energy evaporated, and he felt almost oblivious to his surroundings. The woman turned from him toward the bedroom door like a madwoman. She twisted the doorknob but found the door locked. She struck it hard with the palm of her hand, screaming with crazed fury, “Open the door! Open up, man, Mr. Important Minister. Your cover is blown. I saw you enter this brothel with my own eyes. If you don’t open the door, I’ll break it down.”

The young man’s despair reached its zenith. He stayed where he was, making no motion, as if he were watching a dreadful calamity that did not concern him and that had no bearing on his destiny. It seemed to be more than he could bear to accept that his glory, for which he had mobilized so much energy and thought and on which he had built so many dreams, could in a minute be annihilated. He sensed his father approaching. He asked, in voice Mahgub had come to hate, “What is it? What is this lady saying?”

The young man, however, did not trouble himself to reply. He seemed not to have heard the question. He no longer noticed him. The woman had not stopped pounding on the door, screaming angrily, “I’m warning you that if you don’t open the door voluntarily, I’ll have the police open it by force.”

Mahgub collected what little energy he retained and approached the lady. In a pleading voice, he said, “Madam …”

But she did not allow him to speak. She turned on him and spitefully slapped his face hard, yelling at him, “Don’t say a word, you vile pimp.”

Mahgub retreated in alarm to where his father was standing, paying no attention to him. Then the door opened, and Qasim Bey Fahmi emerged, closing the door behind him. Mahgub heard the key turn from the inside. The man was trying to put on a brave front, but his discomfort was too profound to hide. He quickly told his wife, “Come outside with me, please.”

Crazed with anger, she shouted at him, “Open this door! It must be opened.”

In a low voice he replied, “Not so loud, madam. This isn’t becoming.”

She yelled sarcastically, “You’re going to tell me what’s becoming and what’s not, Your Excellency the Bey? Do you suppose it’s becoming for me to catch you in the bedroom of this insolent pimp’s wife? Will you be happy when your son and daughter learn about your praiseworthy conduct?”

“That’s enough. Enough. Come with me, and we’ll sort through our differences at home.”

He tried to take her arm, but she wrested it from his grip contemptuously and shouted, “I’ll leave this filthy house, but don’t fool yourself into hoping that you can ‘sort through’ this quarrel. This is the last straw! There’ll be no sorting through things after today. My revenge on you will stand for all time as a lesson to libertines.”

The woman headed toward the apartment door, with the bey on her heels. They left together.

In a hoarse voice, Mahgub muttered, “It’s all over.”

What an amazing fact it was! Had his monumental struggle miscarried? Wouldn’t he ever receive his new salary?

Could fortunes die of cardiac arrest like men?

His father’s mournful voice interrupted his reflections. “What does all this mean, son?”

This question might just as well have been gasoline poured on his flaming breast. He turned on his father passionately, his eyes shooting sparks, and said resentfully and rancorously, “It’s all over. No more job. No more salary. Let’s go beg together.”

A stunned, uncertain look appeared in the man’s feeble eyes. His bewilderment seemed potentially fatal and his distress pronounced. He could not believe what his eyes had seen and his ears had heard. His pain was agonizing and his anger stifling. Had he not sensed his son’s despair and delirium, his own volcano would have erupted. It was not just the job and salary that were finished. His son was too. He had lost his money and his son. If he made it back to his hometown, he would tell his wife, “Don’t ask about Mahgub. He’s finished. He’s nothing but a memory.” Then he felt so weak and enervated he was sure he would fall if he did not find a place to sit down. He turned his back on the young man and exited with heavy steps, leaning on his stick, as apt to fall on his face as not.

Mahgub threw himself down on a chair in the sitting room, resting his hand on its arm and leaning his head in the palm of his other hand. The quiet was so pervasive the apartment seemed deserted. Everything was where it belonged, as if his life had not just been turned upside down. Could his rebellious spirit withstand this cascade of erratic fortune? Would he be able to mount a counterattack against this dreadful crisis, brandishing his normal banner: tuzz? What other stratagem could he employ if that didn’t work? When suffering conspired against his happiness, how should an egoist, who cared for nothing in the world but himself, react? His only remaining option was death. Damn his luck! How had his glory ended with such insane speed? Wasn’t the world crammed full of adventurers on whom it smiled to the end? The sound of light footsteps roused him from his reflections. Raising his heavy head, he saw Ihsan looking at him with a face suffused with the pallor of death. Their eyes met in painful silence, as if each was asking the other: Is this the reward for all our struggle and effort?

Finally, in a weak voice, she asked, “Has everyone left?”

In as weak a voice, he replied, “Yes, as you see.”

After hesitating for a moment, she asked, “What will become of us?”

How could he know? All the same, he shook his head and his left hand started to tug at his eyebrow. He said, “I can’t predict the future. Anything may happen, but it doesn’t look good. Certainly our dreams have evaporated. That’s for sure.”

A heavy silence followed. Her eyes had a vacant look as she began to recall memories she had accumulated from the past. She remembered her hopes and how they had been dashed, one after the other. Then her breast surged with pain and regret till her eyes were bathed in tears. Mahgub sank into his own reflections once more. He, however, felt no remorse, acknowledged no fault—certainly not—and rejected none of his ideas. He started to wonder whether the morrow would reveal a new life or whether death was all that awaited him. Even so, this time, he gave in and surrendered to despair and depression as a dark cloud swept before his eyes. He did his best to rouse his rebellious spirit, murmuring in a scarcely audible whisper, “tuzz,” but this time the interjection—atypically—reflected the despair and submission of his heart.

Cairo Modern