The Sunrise Silents Library
THE GARDEN OF ALLAH
By ROBERT HICHENS
ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM THE PHOTOPLAY
A REX INGRAM PRODUCTION
A METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURE
This text was prepared from an edition published by Grosset & Dunlap, New York. It was originally published in 1904.
CONTENTSBOOK I. PRELUDE
BOOK II. THE VOICE OF PRAYER
BOOK III. THE GARDEN
BOOK IV. THE JOURNEY
BOOK V. THE REVELATION
BOOK VI. THE JOURNEY BACK
CHAPTERS (BOOK I)CHAPTER I
BOOK I. PRELUDE
The fatigue caused by a rough sea journey, and, perhaps, the consciousness that she would have to be dressed before dawn to catch the train for Beni-Mora, prevented Domini Enfilden from sleeping. There was deep silence in the Hotel de la Mer at Robertville. The French officers who took their pension there had long since ascended the hill of Addouna to the barracks. The cafes had closed their doors to the drinkers and domino players. The lounging Arab boys had deserted the sandy Place de la Marine. In their small and dusky bazaars the Israelites had reckoned up the takings of the day, and curled themselves up in gaudy quilts on their low divans to rest. Only two or three gendarmes were still about, and a few French and Spaniards at the Port, where, moored against the wharf, lay the steamer Le General Bertrand, in which Domini had arrived that evening from Marseilles.
In the hotel the fair and plump Italian waiter, who had drifted to North Africa from Pisa, had swept up the crumbs from the two long tables in the salle-a-manger, smoked a thin, dark cigar over a copy of the Depeche Algerienne, put the paper down, scratched his blonde head, on which the hair stood up in bristles, stared for a while at nothing in the firm manner of weary men who are at the same time thoughtless and depressed, and thrown himself on his narrow bed in the dusty corner of the little room on the stairs near the front door. Madame, the landlady, had laid aside her front and said her prayer to the Virgin. Monsieur, the landlord, had muttered his last curse against the Jews and drunk his last glass of rum. They snored like honest people recruiting their strength for the morrow. In number two Suzanne Charpot, Domini's maid, was dreaming of the Rue de Rivoli.
But Domini with wide-open eyes, was staring from her big, square pillow at the red brick floor of her bedroom, on which stood various trunks marked by the officials of the Douane. There were two windows in the room looking out towards the Place de la Marine, below which lay the station. Closed persiennes of brownish-green, blistered wood protected them. One of these windows was open. Yet the candle at Domini's bedside burnt steadily. The night was warm and quiet, without wind.
As she lay there, Domini still felt the movement of the sea. The passage had been a bad one. The ship, crammed with French recruits for the African regiments, had pitched and rolled almost incessantly for thirty-one hours, and Domini and most of the recruits had been ill. Domini had had an inner cabin, with a skylight opening on to the lower deck, and heard above the sound of the waves and winds their groans and exclamations, rough laughter, and half-timid, half-defiant conversations as she shook in her berth. At Marseilles she had seen them come on board, one by one, dressed in every variety of poor costume, each one looking anxiously around to see what the others were like, each one carrying a mean yellow or black bag or a carefully-tied bundle. On the wharf stood a Zouave, in tremendous red trousers and a fez, among great heaps of dull brown woollen rugs. And as the recruits came hesitatingly along he stopped them with a sharp word, examined the tickets they held out, gave each one a rug, and pointed to the gangway that led from the wharf to the vessel. Domini, then leaning over the rail of the upper deck, had noticed the different expressions with which the recruits looked at the Zouave. To all of them he was a phenomenon, a mystery of Africa and of the new life for which they were embarking. He stood there impudently and indifferently among the woollen rugs, his red fez pushed well back on his short, black hair cut en brosse, his bronzed face twisted into a grimace of fiery contempt, throwing, with his big and muscular arms, rug after rug to the anxious young peasants who filed before him. They all gazed at his legs in the billowing red trousers; some like children regarding a Jack-in-the-box which had just sprung up into view, others like ignorant, but superstitious, people who had unexpectedly come upon a shrine by the wayside. One or two seemed disposed to laugh nervously, as the very stupid laugh at anything they see for the first time. But fear seized them. They refrained convulsively and shambled on to the gangway, looking sideways, like fowls, and holding their rugs awkwardly to their breasts with their dirty, red hands.
To Domini there was something pitiful in the sight of all these lads, uprooted from their homes in France, stumbling helplessly on board this ship that was to convey them to Africa. They crowded together. Their poor bundles and bags jostled one against the other. With their clumsy boots they trod on each other's feet. And yet all were lonely strangers. No two in the mob seemed to be acquaintances. And every lad, each in his different way, was furtively on the defensive, uneasily wondering whether some misfortune might not presently come to him from one of these unknown neighbours.
A few of the recruits, as they came on board, looked up at Domini as she leant over the rail; and in all the different coloured and shaped eyes she thought she read a similar dread and nervous hope that things might turn out pretty well for them in the new existence that had to be faced. The Zouave, wholly careless or unconscious of the fact that he was an incarnation of Africa to these raw peasants, who had never before stirred beyond the provinces where they were born, went on taking the tickets, and tossing the woollen rugs to the passing figures, and pointing ferociously to the gangway. He got very tired of his task towards the end, and showed his fatigue to the latest comers, shoving their rugs into their arms with brusque violence. And when at length the wharf was bare he spat on it, rubbed his short-fingered, sunburnt hands down the sides of his blue jacket, and swaggered on board with the air of a dutiful but injured man who longed to do harm in the world. By this time the ship was about to cast off, and the recruits, ranged in line along the bulwarks of the lower deck, were looking in silence towards Marseilles, which, with its tangle of tall houses, its forest of masts, its long, ugly factories and workshops, now represented to them the whole of France. The bronchial hoot of the siren rose up menacingly. Suddenly two Arabs, in dirty white burnouses and turbans bound with cords of camel's hair, came running along the wharf. The siren hooted again. The Arabs bounded over the gangway with grave faces. All the recruits turned to examine them with a mixture of superiority and deference, such as a schoolboy might display when observing the agilities of a tiger. The ropes fell heavily from the posts of the quay into the water, and were drawn up dripping by the sailors, and Le General Bertrand began to move out slowly among the motionless ships.
Domini, looking towards the land with the vague and yet inquiring glance of those who are going out to sea, noticed the church of Notre dame de la Garde, perched on its high hill, and dominating the noisy city, the harbour, the cold, grey squadrons of the rocks and Monte Cristo's dungeon. At the time she hardly knew it, but now, as she lay in bed in the silent inn, she remembered that, keeping her eyes upon the church, she had murmured a confused prayer to the Blessed Virgin for the recruits. What was the prayer? She could scarcely recall it. A woman's petition, perhaps, against the temptations that beset men shifting for themselves in far-off and dangerous countries; a woman's cry to a woman to watch over all those who wander.
When the land faded, and the white sea rose, less romantic considerations took possession of her. She wished to sleep, and drank a dose of a drug. It did not act completely, but only numbed her senses. Through the long hours she lay in the dark cabin, looking at the faint radiance that penetrated through the glass shutters of the skylight. The recruits, humanised and drawn together by misery, were becoming acquainted. The incessant murmur of their voices dropped down to her, with the sound of the waves, and of the mysterious cries and creaking shudders that go through labouring ships. And all these noises seemed to her hoarse and pathetic, suggestive, too, of danger.
When they reached the African shore, and saw the lights of houses twinkling upon the hills, the pale recruits were marshalled on the white road by Zouaves, who met them from the barracks of Robertville. Already they looked older than they had looked when they embarked. Domini saw them march away up the hill. They still clung to their bags and bundles. Some of them, lifting shaky voices, tried to sing in chorus. One of the Zouaves angrily shouted to them to be quiet. They obeyed, and disappeared heavily into the shadows, staring about them anxiously at the feathery palms that clustered in this new and dark country, and at the shrouded figures of Arabs who met them on the way.
The red brick floor was heaving gently, Domini thought. She found herself wondering how the cane chair by the small wardrobe kept its footing, and why the cracked china basin in the iron washstand, painted bright yellow, did not stir and rattle. Her dressing-bag was open. She could see the silver backs and tops of the brushes and bottles in it gleaming. They made her think suddenly of England. She had no idea why. But it was too warm for England. There, in the autumn time, an open window would let in a cold air, probably a biting blast. The wooden shutter would be shaking. There would be, perhaps, a sound of rain. And Domini found herself vaguely pitying England and the people mewed up in it for the winter. Yet how many winters she had spent there, dreaming of liberty and doing dreary things—things without savour, without meaning, without salvation for brain or soul. Her mind was still dulled to a certain extent by the narcotic she had taken. She was a strong and active woman, with long limbs and well- knit muscles, a clever fencer, a tireless swimmer, a fine horsewoman. But to-night she felt almost neurotic, like one of the weak or dissipated sisterhood for whom "rest cures" are invented, and by whom bland doctors live. That heaving red floor continually emphasised for her her present feebleness. She hated feebleness. So she blew out the candle and, with misplaced energy, strove resolutely to sleep. Possibly her resolution defeated its object. She continued in a condition of dull and heavy wakefulness till the darkness became intolerable to her. In it she saw perpetually the long procession of the pale recruits winding up the hill of Addouna with their bags and bundles, like spectres on a way of dreams. Finally she resolved to accept a sleepless night. She lit her candle again and saw that the brick floor was no longer heaving. Two of the books that she called her "bed-books" lay within easy reach of her hand. One was Newman's Dream of Gerontius, the other a volume of the Badminton Library. She chose the former and began to read.
Towards two o'clock she heard a long-continued rustling. At first she supposed that her tired brain was still playing her tricks. But the rustling continued and grew louder. It sounded like a noise coming from something very wide, and spread out as a veil over an immense surface. She got up, walked across the floor to the open window and unfastened the persiennes. Heavy rain was falling. The night was very black, and smelt rich and damp, as if it held in its arms strange offerings—a merchandise altogether foreign, tropical and alluring. As she stood there, face to face with a wonder that she could not see, Domini forgot Newman. She felt the brave companionship of mystery. In it she divined the beating pulses, the hot, surging blood of freedom.
She wanted freedom, a wide horizon, the great winds, the great sun, the terrible spaces, the glowing, shimmering radiance, the hot, entrancing moons and bloomy, purple nights of Africa. She wanted the nomad's fires and the acid voices of the Kabyle dogs. She wanted the roar of the tom-toms, the dash of the cymbals, the rattle of the negroes' castanets, the fluttering, painted figures of the dancers. She wanted—more than she could express, more than she knew. It was there, want, aching in her heart, as she drew into her nostrils this strange and wealthy atmosphere.
When Domini returned to her bed she found it impossible to read any more Newman. The rain and the scents coming up out of the hidden earth of Africa had carried her mind away, as if on a magic carpet. She was content now to lie awake in the dark.
Domini was thirty-two, unmarried, and in a singularly independent— some might have thought a singularly lonely—situation. Her father, Lord Rens, had recently died, leaving Domini, who was his only child, a large fortune. His life had been a curious and a tragic one. Lady Rens, Domini's mother, had been a great beauty of the gipsy type, the daughter of a Hungarian mother and of Sir Henry Arlworth, one of the most prominent and ardent English Catholics of his day. A son of his became a priest, and a famous preacher and writer on religious subjects. Another child, a daughter, took the veil. Lady Rens, who was not clever, although she was at one time almost universally considered to have the face of a muse, shared in the family ardour for the Church, but was far too fond of the world to leave it. While she was very young she met Lord Rens, a Lifeguardsman of twenty-six, who called himself a Protestant, but who was really quite happy without any faith. He fell madly in love with her and, in order to marry her, became a Catholic, and even a very devout one, aiding his wife's Church by every means in his power, giving large sums to Catholic charities, and working, with almost fiery zeal, for the spread of Catholicism in England.
Unfortunately, his new faith was founded only on love for a human being, and when Lady Rens, who was intensely passionate and impulsive, suddenly threw all her principles to the winds, and ran away with a Hungarian musician, who had made a furor one season in London by his magnificent violin-playing, her husband, stricken in his soul, and also wounded almost to the death in his pride, abandoned abruptly the religion of the woman who had converted and betrayed him.
Domini was nineteen, and had recently been presented at Court when the scandal of her mother's escapade shook the town, and changed her father in a day from one of the happiest to one of the most cynical, embittered and despairing of men. She, who had been brought up by both her parents as a Catholic, who had from her earliest years been earnestly educated in the beauties of religion, was now exposed to the almost frantic persuasions of a father who, hating all that he had formerly loved, abandoning all that, influenced by his faithless wife, he had formerly clung to, wished to carry his daughter with him into his new and most miserable way of life. But Domini, who, with much of her mother's dark beauty, had inherited much of her quick vehemence and passion, was also gifted with brains, and with a certain largeness of temperament and clearness of insight which Lady Rens lacked. Even when she was still quivering under the shock and shame of her mother's guilt and her own solitude, Domini was unable to share her father's intensely egoistic view of the religion of the culprit. She could not be persuaded that the faith in which she had been brought up was proved to be a sham because one of its professors, whom she had above all others loved and trusted, had broken away from its teachings and defied her own belief. She would not secede with her father; but remained in the Church of the mother she was never to see again, and this in spite of extraordinary and dogged efforts on the part of Lord Rens to pervert her to his own Atheism. His mind had been so warped by the agony of his heart that he had come to feel as if by tearing his only child from the religion he had been led to by the greatest sinner he had known, he would be, in some degree at least, purifying his life tarnished by his wife's conduct, raising again a little way the pride she had trampled in the dust.
Her uncle, Father Arlworth, helped Domini by his support and counsel in this critical period of her life, and Lord Rens in time ceased from the endeavour to carry his child with him as companion in his tragic journey from love and belief to hatred and denial. He turned to the violent occupations of despair, and the last years of his life were hideous enough, as the world knew and Domini sometimes suspected. But though Domini had resisted him she was not unmoved or wholly uninfluenced by her mother's desertion and its effect upon her father. She remained a Catholic, but she gradually ceased from being a devout one. Although she had seemed to stand firm she had in truth been shaken, if not in her belief, in a more precious thing—her love. She complied with the ordinances, but felt little of the inner beauty of her faith. The effort she had made in withstanding her father's assault upon it had exhausted her. Though she had had the strength to triumph, at the moment, a partial and secret collapse was the price she had afterwards to pay. Father Arlworth, who had a subtle understanding of human nature, noticed that Domini was changed and slightly hardened by the tragedy she had known, and was not surprised or shocked. Nor did he attempt to force her character back into its former way of beauty. He knew that to do so would be dangerous, that Domini's nature required peace in which to become absolutely normal once again after the shock it had sustained.
When Domini was twenty-one he died, and her safest guide, the one who understood her best, went from her. The years passed. She lived with her embittered father; and drifted into the unthinking worldliness of the life of her order. Her home was far from ideal. Yet she would not marry. The wreck of her parents' domestic life had rendered her mistrustful of human relations. She had seen something of the terror of love, and could not, like other women, regard it as safety and as sweetness. So she put it from her, and strove to fill her life with all those lesser things which men and women grasp, as the Chinese grasp the opium pipe, those things which lull our comprehension of realities to sleep.
When Lord Rens died, still blaspheming, and without any of the consolations of religion, Domini felt the imperious need of change. She did not grieve actively for the dead man. In his last years they had been very far apart, and his death relieved her from the perpetual contemplation of a tragedy. Lord Rens had grown to regard his daughter almost with enmity in his enmity against her mother's religion, which was hers. She had come to think of him rather with pity than with love. Yet his death was a shock to her. When he could speak no more, but only lie still, she remembered suddenly just what he had been before her mother's flight. The succeeding period, long though it had been and ugly, was blotted out. She wept for the poor, broken life now ended, and was afraid for his future in the other world. His departure into the unknown roused her abruptly to a clear conception of how his action and her mother's had affected her own character. As she stood by his bed she wondered what she might have been if her mother had been true, her father happy, to the end. Then she felt afraid of herself, recognising partially, and for the first time, how all these years had seen her long indifference. She felt self-conscious too, ignorant of the real meaning of life, and as if she had always been, and still remained, rather a complicated piece of mechanism than a woman. A desolate enervation of spirit descended upon her, a sort of bitter, and yet dull, perplexity. She began to wonder what she was, capable of what, of how much good or evil, and to feel sure that she did not know, had never known or tried to find out. Once, in this state of mind, she went to confession. She came away feeling that she had just joined with the priest in a farce. How can a woman who knows nothing about herself make anything but a worthless confession? she thought. To say what you have done is not always to say what you are. And only what you are matters eternally.
Presently, still in this perplexity of spirit, she left England with only her maid as companion. After a short tour in the south of Europe, with which she was too familiar, she crossed the sea to Africa, which she had never seen. Her destination was Beni-Mora. She had chosen it because she liked its name, because she saw on the map that it was an oasis in the Sahara Desert, because she knew it was small, quiet, yet face to face with an immensity of which she had often dreamed. Idly she fancied that perhaps in the sunny solitude of Beni-Mora, far from all the friends and reminiscences of her old life, she might learn to understand herself. How? She did not know. She did not seek to know. Here was a vague pilgrimage, as many pilgrimages are in this world— the journey of the searcher who knew not what she sought. And so now she lay in the dark, and heard the rustle of the warm African rain, and smelt the perfumes rising from the ground, and felt that the unknown was very near her—the unknown with all its blessed possibilities of change.
Long before dawn the Italian waiter rolled off his little bed, put a cap on his head, and knocked at Domini's and at Suzanne Charpot's doors.
It was still dark, and still raining, when the two women came out to get into the carriage that was to take them to the station. The place de la Marine was a sea of mud, brown and sticky as nougat. Wet palms dripped by the railing near a desolate kiosk painted green and blue. The sky was grey and low. Curtains of tarpaulin were let down on each side of the carriage, and the coachman, who looked like a Maltese, and wore a round cap edged with pale yellow fur, was muffled up to the ears. Suzanne's round, white face was puffy with fatigue, and her dark eyes, generally good-natured and hopeful, were dreary, and squinted slightly, as she tipped the Italian waiter, and handed her mistress's dressing-bag and rug into the carriage. The waiter stood an the discoloured step, yawning from ear to ear. Even the tip could not excite him. Before the carriage started he had gone into the hotel and banged the door. The horses trotted quickly through the mud, descending the hill. One of the tarpaulin curtains had been left unbuttoned by the coachman. It flapped to and fro, and when its movement was outward Domini could catch short glimpses of mud, of glistening palm-leaves with yellow stems, of gas-lamps, and of something that was like an extended grey nothingness. This was the sea. Twice she saw Arabs trudging along, holding their skirts up in a bunch sideways, and showing legs bare beyond the knees. Hoods hid their faces. They appeared to be agitated by the weather, and to be continually trying to plant their naked feet in dry places. Suzanne, who sat opposite to Domini, had her eyes shut. If she had not from time to time passed her tongue quickly over her full, pale lips she would have looked like a dead thing. The coquettish angle at which her little black hat was set on her head seemed absurdly inappropriate to the occasion and her mood. It suggested a hat being worn at some festival. Her black, gloved hands were tightly twisted together in her lap, and she allowed her plump body to wag quite loosely with the motion of the carriage, making no attempt at resistance. She had really the appearance of a corpse sitting up. The tarpaulin flapped monotonously. The coachman cried out in the dimness to his horses like a bird, prolonging his call drearily, and then violently cracking his whip. Domini kept her eyes fixed on the loose tarpaulin, so that she might not miss one of the wet visions it discovered by its reiterated movement. She had not slept at all, and felt as if there was a gritty dryness close behind her eyes. She also felt very alert and enduring, but not in the least natural. Had some extraordinary event occurred; had the carriage, for instance, rolled over the edge of the road into the sea, she was convinced that she could not have managed to be either surprised or alarmed, If anyone had asked her whether she was tired she would certainly have answered "No."
Like her mother, Domini was of a gipsy type. She stood five feet ten, had thick, almost coarse and wavy black hair that was parted in the middle of her small head, dark, almond-shaped, heavy-lidded eyes, and a clear, warmly-white skin, unflecked with colour. She never flushed under the influence of excitement or emotion. Her forehead was broad and low. Her eyebrows were long and level, thicker than most women's. The shape of her face was oval, with a straight, short nose, a short, but rather prominent and round chin, and a very expressive mouth, not very small, slightly depressed at the corners, with perfect teeth, and red lips that were unusually flexible. Her figure was remarkably athletic, with shoulders that were broad in a woman, and a naturally small waist. Her hands and feet were also small. She walked splendidly, like a Syrian, but without his defiant insolence. In her face, when it was in repose, there was usually an expression of still indifference, some thought of opposition. She looked her age, and had never used a powderpuff in her life. She could smile easily and easily become animated, and in her animation there was often fire, as in her calmness there was sometimes cloud. Timid people were generally disconcerted by her appearance, and her manner did not always reassure them. Her obvious physical strength had something surprising in it, and woke wonder as to how it had been, or might be, used. Even when her eyes were shut she looked singularly wakeful.
Domini and Suzanne got to the station of Robertville much too early. The large hall in which they had to wait was miserably lit, blank and decidedly cold. The ticket-office was on the left, and the room was divided into two parts by a broad, low counter, on which the heavy luggage was placed before being weighed by two unshaven and hulking men in blue smocks. Three or four Arab touts, in excessively shabby European clothes and turbans, surrounded Domini with offers of assistance. One, the dirtiest of the group, with a gaping eye-socket, in which there was no eye, succeeded by his passionate volubility and impudence in attaching himself to her in a sort of official capacity. He spoke fluent, but faulty, French, which attracted Suzanne, and, being abnormally muscular and active, in an amazingly short time got hold of all their boxes and bags and ranged them on the counter. He then indulged in a dramatic performance, which he apparently considered likely to rouse into life and attention the two unshaven men in smocks, who were smoking cigarettes, and staring vaguely at the metal sheet on which the luggage was placed to be weighed. Suzanne remained expectantly in attendance, and Domini, having nothing to do, and seeing no bench to rest on, walked slowly up and down the hall near the entrance.
It was now half-past four in the morning, and in the air Domini fancied that she felt the cold breath of the coming dawn. Beyond the opening of the station, as she passed and repassed in her slow and aimless walk, she saw the soaking tarpaulin curtains of the carriage she had just left glistening in the faint lamp-light. After a few minutes the Arabs she had noticed on the road entered. Their brown, slipperless feet were caked with sticky mud, and directly they found themselves under shelter in a dry place they dropped the robes they had been holding up, and, bending down, began to flick it off on to the floor with their delicate fingers. They did this with extraordinary care and precision, rubbed the soles of their feet repeatedly against the boards, and then put on their yellow slippers and threw back the hoods which had been drawn over their heads.
A few French passengers straggled in, yawning and looking irritable. The touts surrounded them, with noisy offers of assistance. The men in smocks still continued to smoke and to stare at the metal sheet on the floor. Although the luggage now extended in quite a long line upon the counter they paid no attention to it, or to the violent and reiterated cries of the Arabs who stood behind it, anxious to earn a tip by getting it weighed and registered quickly. Apparently they were wrapped in savage dreams. At length a light shone through the small opening of the ticket-office, the men in smocks stirred and threw down their cigarette stumps, and the few travellers pressed forward against the counter, and pointed to their boxes with their sticks and hands. Suzanne Charpot assumed an expression of attentive suspicion, and Domini ceased from walking up and down. Several of the recruits came in hastily, accompanied by two Zouaves. They were wet, and looked dazed and tired out. Grasping their bags and bundles they went towards the platform. A train glided slowly in, gleaming faintly with lights. Domini's trunks were slammed down on the weighing machine, and Suzanne, drawing out her purse, took her stand before the shining hole of the ticket-office.
In the wet darkness there rose up a sound like a child calling out an insulting remark. This was followed immediately by the piping of a horn. With a jerk the train started, passed one by one the station lamps, and, with a steady jangling and rattling, drew out into the shrouded country. Domini was in a wretchedly-lit carriage with three Frenchmen, facing the door which opened on to the platform. The man opposite to her was enormously fat, with a coal-black beard growing up to his eyes. He wore black gloves and trousers, a huge black cloth hat, and a thick black cloak with a black buckle near the throat. His eyes were shut, and his large, heavy head drooped forward. Domini wondered if he was travelling to the funeral of some relative. The two other men, one of whom looked like a commercial traveller, kept shifting their feet upon the hot-water tins that lay on the floor, clearing their throats and sighing loudly. One of them coughed, let down the window, spat, drew the window up, sat sideways, put his legs suddenly up on the seat and groaned. The train rattled more harshly, and shook from side to side as it got up speed. Rain streamed down the window-panes, through which it was impossible to see anything.
Domini still felt alert, but an overpowering sensation of dreariness had come to her. She did not attribute this sensation to fatigue. She did not try to analyse it. She only felt as if she had never seen or heard anything that was not cheerless, as if she had never known anything that was not either sad, or odd, or inexplicable. What did she remember? A train of trifles that seemed to have been enough to fill all her life; the arrival of the nervous and badly-dressed recruits at the wharf, their embarkation, their last staring and pathetic look at France, the stormy voyage, the sordid illness of almost everyone on board, the approach long after sundown to the small and unknown town, of which it was impossible to see anything clearly, the marshalling of the recruits pale with sickness, their pitiful attempt at cheerful singing, angrily checked by the Zouaves in charge of them, their departure up the hill carrying their poor belongings, the sleepless night, the sound of the rain falling, the scents rising from the unseen earth. The tap of the Italian waiter at the door, the damp drive to the station, the long wait there, the sneering signal, followed by the piping horn, the jerking and rattling of the carriage, the dim light within it falling upon the stout Frenchman in his mourning, the streaming water upon the window-panes. These few sights, sounds, sensations were like the story of a life to Domini just then, were more, were like the whole of life; always dull noise, strange, flitting, pale faces, and an unknown region that remained perpeturally invisible, and that must surely be ugly or terrible.
The train stopped frequently at lonely little stations. Domini looked out, letting down the window for a moment. At each station she saw a tiny house with a peaked roof, a wooden railing dividing the platform from the country road, mud, grass bending beneath the weight of water- drops, and tall, dripping, shaggy eucalyptus trees. Sometimes the station-master's children peered at the train with curious eyes, and depressed-looking Arabs, carefully wrapped up, their mouths and chins covered by folds of linen, got in and out slowly.
Once Domini saw two women, in thin, floating white dresses and spangled veils, hurrying by like ghosts in the dark. Heavy silver ornaments jangled on their ankles, above their black slippers splashed with mud. Their sombre eyes stared out from circles of Kohl, and, with stained, claret-coloured hands, whose nails were bright red, they clasped their light and bridal raiment to their prominent breasts. They were escorted by a gigantic man, almost black, with a zigzag scar across the left side of his face, who wore a shining brown burnous over a grey woollen jacket. He pushed the two women into the train as if he were pushing bales, and got in after them, showing enormous bare legs, with calves that stuck out like lumps of iron.
The darkness began to fade, and presently, as the grey light grew slowly stronger, the rain ceased, and it was possible to see through the glass of the carriage window.
The country began to discover itself, as if timidly, to Domini's eyes. She had recently noticed that the train was going very slowly, and she could now see why. They were mounting a steep incline. The rich, damp earth of the plains beyond Robertville, with its rank grass, its moist ploughland and groves of eucalyptus, was already left behind. The train was crawling in a cup of the hills, grey, sterile and abandoned, without roads or houses, without a single tree. Small, grey-green bushes flourished here and there on tiny humps of earth, but they seemed rather to emphasise than to diminish the aspect of poverty presented by the soil, over which the dawn, rising from the wet arms of night, shed a cold and reticent illumination. By a gash in the rounded hills, where the earth was brownish yellow, a flock of goats with flapping ears tripped slowly, followed by two Arab boys in rags. One of the boys was playing upon a pipe coverd with red arabesques. Domini heard two or three bars of the melody. They were ineffably wild and bird-like, very clear and sweet. They seemed to her to match exactly the pure and ascetic light cast by the dawn over these bare, grey hills, and they stirred her abruptly from the depressed lassitude in which the dreary chances of recent travel had drowned her. She began, with a certain faint excitement, to realise that these low, round-backed hills were Africa, that she was leaving behind the sea, so many of whose waves swept along European shores, that somewhere, beyond the broken and near horizon line toward which the train was creeping, lay the great desert, her destination, with its pale sands and desolate cities, its sunburnt tribes of workers, its robbers, warriors and priests, its ethereal mysteries of mirage, its tragic splendours of colour, of tempest and of heat. A sense of a wider world than the compressed world into which physical fatigue had decoyed her woke in her brain and heart. The little Arab, playing carelessly upon his pipe with the red arabesques, was soon invisible among his goats beside the dry water-course that was probably the limit of his journeying, but Domini felt that like a musician at the head of a procession he had played her bravely forward into the dawn and Africa.
At Ah-Souf Domini changed into another train and had the carriage to herself. The recruits had reached their destination. Hers was a longer pilgramage and still towards the sun. She could not afterwards remember what she thought about during this part of her journey. Subsequent events so coloured all her memories of Africa that every fold of its sun-dried soil was endowed in her mind with the significance of a living thing. Every palm beside a well, every stunted vine and clambering flower upon an auberge wall, every form of hill and silhouette of shadow, became in her heart intense with the beauty and the pathos she used, as a child, to think must lie beyond the sunset.
And so she forgot.
A strange sense of leaving all things behind had stolen over her. She was really fatigued by travel and by want of sleep, but she did not know it. Lying back in her seat, with her head against the dirty white covering of the shaking carriage, she watched the great change that was coming over the land.
It seemed as if God were putting forth His hand to withdraw gradually all things of His creation, all the furniture He had put into the great Palace of the world; as if He meant to leave it empty and utterly naked.
So Domini thought.
First He took the rich and shaggy grass, and all the little flowers that bloomed modestly in it. Then He drew away the orange groves, the oleander and the apricot trees, the faithful eucalyptus with its pale stems and tressy foliage, the sweet waters that fertilised the soil, making it soft and brown where the plough seamed it into furrows, the tufted plants and giant reeds that crowd where water is. And still, as the train ran on, His gifts were fewer. At last even the palms were gone, and the Barbary fig displayed no longer among the crumbling boulders its tortured strength, and the pale and fantastic evolutions of its unnatural foliage. Stones lay everywhere upon the pale yellow or grey-brown earth. Crystals glittered in the sun like shallow jewels, and far away, under clouds that were dark and feathery, appeared hard and relentless mountains, which looked as if they were made of iron carved into horrible and jagged shapes. Where they fell into ravines they became black. Their swelling bosses and flanks, sharp sometimes as the spines of animals, were steel coloured. Their summits were purple, deepening where the clouds came down to ebony.
Journeying towards these terrible fastnesses were caravans on which Domini looked with a heavy and lethargic interest. Many Kabyles, fairer than she was, moved slowly on foot towards their rock villages.
Over the withered earth they went towards the distant mountains and the clouds. The sun was hidden. The wind continued to rise. Sand found its way in through the carriage windows. The mountains, as Domini saw them more clearly, looked more gloomy, more unearthly. There was something unnatural in their hard outlines, in the rigid mystery of their innumerable clefts. That all these people should be journeying towards them was pathetic, and grieved the imagination.
The wind seemed so cold, now the sun was hidden, that she had drawn both the windows up and thrown a rug over her. She put her feet up on the opposite seat, and half closed her eyes. But she still turned them towards the glass on her left, and watched. It seemed to her quite impossible that this shaking and slowly moving train had any destination. The desolation of the country had become so absolute that she could not conceive of anything but still greater desolation lying beyond. She had no feeling that she was merely traversing a tract of sterility. Her sensation was that she had passed the boundary of the world God had created, and come into some other place, upon which He had never looked and of which He had no knowledge.
Abruptly she felt as if her father had entered into some such region when he forced his way out of his religion. And in this region he had died. She had stood on the verge of it by his deathbed. Now she was in it.
There were no Arabs journeying now. No tents huddled among the low bushes. The last sign of vegetation was obliterated. The earth rose and fell in a series of humps and depressions, interspersed with piles of rock. Every shade of yellow and of brown mingled and flowed away towards the foot of the mountains. Here and there dry water-courses showed their teeth. Their crumbling banks were like the rind of an orange. Little birds, the hue of the earth, with tufted crests, tripped jauntily among the stones, fluttered for a few yards and alighted, with an air of strained alertness, as if their minute bodies were full of trembling wires. They were the only living things Domini could see.
She thought again of her father. In some such region as this his soul must surely be wandering, far away from God.
She let down the glass.
The wind was really cold and blowing gustily. She drank it in as if she were tasting a new wine, and she was conscious at once that she had never before breathed such air. There was a wonderful, a startling flavour in it, the flavour of gigantic spaces and of rolling leagues of emptiness. Neither among mountains nor upon the sea had she ever found an atmosphere so fiercely pure, clean and lively with unutterable freedom. She leaned out to it, shutting her eyes. And now that she saw nothing her palate savoured it more intensely. The thought of her father fled from her. All detailed thoughts, all the minutia of the mind were swept away. She was bracing herself to an encounter with something gigantic, something unshackled, the being from whose lips this wonderful breath flowed.
When two lovers kiss their breath mingles, and, if they really love, each is conscious that in the breath of the loved one is the loved one's soul, coming forth from the temple of the body through the temple door. As Domini leaned out, seeing nothing, she was conscious that in this breath she drank there was a soul, and it seemed to her that it was the soul which flames in the centre of things, and beyond. She could not think any longer of her father as an outcast because he had abandoned a religion. For all religions were surely here, marching side by side, and behind them, background to them, there was something far greater than any religion. Was it snow or fire? Was it the lawlessness of that which has made laws, or the calm of that which has brought passion into being? Greater love than is in any creed, or greater freedom than is in any human liberty? Domini only felt that if she had ever been a slave at this moment she would have died of joy, realising the boundless freedom that circles this little earth.
"Thank God for it!" she murmured aloud.
Her own words woke her to a consciousness of ordinary things—or made her sleep to the eternal.
She closed the window and sat down.
A little later the sun came out again, and the various shades of yellow and of orange that played over the wrinkled earth deepened and glowed. Domini had sunk into a lethargy so complete that, though not asleep, she was scarcely aware of the sun. She was dreaming of liberty.
Presently the train slackened and stopped. She heard a loud chattering of many voices and looked out. The sun was now shining brilliantly, and she saw a station crowded with Arabs in white burnouses, who were vociferously greeting friends in the train, were offering enormous oranges for sale to the passengers, or were walking up and down gazing curiously into the carriages, with the unblinking determination and indifference to a return of scrutiny which she had already noticed and thought animal. A guard came up, told her the place was El-Akbara, and that the train would stay there ten minutes to wait for the train from Beni-Mora. She decided to get out and stretch her cramped limbs. On the platform she found Suzanne, looking like a person who had just been slapped. One side of the maid's face was flushed and covered with a faint tracery of tiny lines. The other was greyish white. Sleep hung in her eyes, over which the lids drooped as if they were partially paralysed. Her fingers were yellow from peeling an orange, and her smart little hat was cocked on one side. There were grains of sand on her black gown, and when she saw her mistress she at once began to compress her lips, and to assume the expression of obstinate patience characteristic of properly-brought-up servants who find themselves travelling far from home in outlandish places.
"Have you been asleep, Suzanne?"
"You've had an orange?"
"I couldn't get it down, Mam'zelle."
"Would you like to see if you can get a cup of coffee here?"
"No, thank you, Mam'zelle. I couldn't touch this Arab stuff."
"We shall soon be there now."
Suzanne made all her naturally small features look much smaller, glanced down at her skirt, and suddenly began to shake the grains of sand from it in an outraged manner, at the same time extending her left foot. Two or three young Arabs came up and stood, staring, round her. Their eyes were magnificent, and gravely observant. Suzanne went on shaking and patting her skirt, and Domini walked away down the platform, wondering what a French maid's mind was like. Suzanne's certainly had its limitations. It was evident that she was horrified by the sight of bare legs. Why?
As Domini walked along the platform among the fruit-sellers, the guides, the turbaned porters with their badges, the staring children and the ragged wanderers who thronged about the train, she thought of the desert to which she was now so near. It lay, she knew, beyond the terrific wall of rock that faced her. But she could see no opening. The towering summits of the cliffs, jagged as the teeth of a wolf, broke crudely upon the serene purity of the sky. Somewhere, concealed in the darkness of the gorge at their feet, was the mouth from which had poured forth that wonderful breath, quivering with freedom and with unearthly things. The sun was already declining, and the light it cast becoming softened and romantic. Soon there would be evening in the desert. Then there would be night. And she would be there in the night with all things that the desert holds.
A train of camels was passing on the white road that descended into the shadow of the gorge. Some savage-looking men accompanied them, crying continually, "Oosh! Oosh!" They disappeared, desert-men with their desert-beasts, bound no doubt on some tremendous journey through the regions of the sun. Where would they at last unlade the groaning camels? Domini saw them in the midst of dunes red with the dying fires of the west. And their shadows lay along the sands like weary things reposing.
She started when a low voice spoke to her in French, and, turning round, saw a tall Arab boy, magnificently dressed in pale blue cloth trousers, a Zouave jacket braided with gold, and a fez, standing near her. She was struck by the colour of his skin, which was faint as the colour of cafe au lait, and by the contrast between his huge bulk and his languid, almost effeminate, demeanour. As she turned he smiled at her calmly, and lifted one hand toward the wall of rock.
"Madame has seen the desert?" he asked.
"Never," answered Domini.
"It is the garden of oblivion," he said, still in a low voice, and speaking with a delicate refinement that was almost mincing. "In the desert one forgets everything; even the little heart one loves, and the desire of one's own soul."
"How can that be?" asked Domini.
"Shal-lah. It is the will of God. One remembers nothing any more."
His eyes were fixed upon the gigantic pinnacles of the rocks. There was something fanatical and highly imaginative in their gaze.
"What is your name?" Domini asked.
"Batouch, Madame. You are going to Beni-Mora?"
"I too. To-night, under the mimosa trees, I shall compose a poem. It will be addressed to Irena, the dancing-girl. She is like the little moon when it first comes up above the palm trees."
Just then the train from Beni-Mora ran into the station, and Domini turned to seek her carriage. As she was coming to it she noticed, with the pang of the selfish traveller who wishes to be undisturbed, that a tall man, attended by an Arab porter holding a green bag, was at the door of it and was evidently about to get in. He glanced round as Domini came up, half drew back rather awkwardly as if to allow her to precede him, then suddenly sprang in before her. The Arab lifted in the bag, and the man, endeavouring hastily to thrust some money into his hand, dropped the coin, which fell down between the step of the carriage and the platform. The Arab immediately made a greedy dive after it, interposing his body between Domini and the train; and she was obliged to stand waiting while he looked for it, grubbing frantically in the earth with his brown fingers, and uttering muffled exclamations, apparently of rage. Meanwhile, the tall man had put the green bag up on the rack, gone quickly to the far side of the carriage, and sat down looking out of the window.
Domini was struck by the mixture of indecision and blundering haste which he had shown, and by his impoliteness. Evidently he was not a gentleman, she thought, or he would surely have obeyed his first impulse and allowed her to get into the train before him. It seemed, too, as if he were determined to be discourteous, for he sat with his shoulder deliberately turned towards the door, and made no attempt to get his Arab out of the way, although the train was just about to start. Domini was very tired, and she began to feel angry with him, contemptuous too. The Arab could not find the money, and the little horn now piped its warning of departure. It was absolutely necessary for her to get in at once if she did not mean to stay at El-Akbara. She tried to pass the grovelling Arab, but as she did so he suddenly sprang up, jumped on to the step of the carriage, and, thrusting his body half through the doorway, began to address a torrent of Arabic to the passenger within. The horn sounded again, and the carriage jerked backwards preparatory to starting on its way to Beni-Mora.
Domini caught hold of the short European jacket the Arab was wearing, and said in French:
"You must let me get in at once. The train is going."
The man, however, intent on replacing the coin he had lost, took no notice of her, but went on vociferating and gesticulating. The traveller said something in Arabic. Domini was now very angry. She gripped the jacket, exerted all her force, and pulled the Arab violently from the door. He alighted on the platform beside her and nearly fell. Before he had recovered himself she sprang up into the train, which began to move at that very moment. As she got in, the man who had caused all the bother was leaning forward with a bit of silver in his hand, looking as if he were about to leave his seat. Domini cast a glance of contempt at him, and he turned quickly to the window again and stared out, at the same time putting the coin back into his pocket. A dull flush rose on his cheek, but he attempted no apology, and did not even offer to fasten the lower handle of the door.
"What a boor!" Domini thought as she bent out of the window to do it.
When she turned from the door, after securing the handle, she found the carriage full of a pale twilight. The train was stealing into the gorge, following the caravan of camels which she had seen disappearing. She paid no more attention to her companion, and her feeling of acute irritation against him died away for the moment. The towering cliffs cast mighty shadows, the darkness deepened, the train, quickening its speed, seemed straining forward into the arms of night. There was a chill in the air. Domini drank it into her lungs again, and again was startled, stirred, by the life and the mentality of it. She was conscious of receiving it with passion, as if, indeed, she held her lips to a mouth and drank some being's very nature into hers. She forgot her recent vexation and the man who had caused it. She forgot everything in mere sensation. She had no time to ask, "Whither am I going?" She felt like one borne upon a wave, seaward, to the wonder, to the danger, perhaps, of a murmuring unknown. The rocks leaned forward; their teeth were fastened in the sky; they enclosed the train, banishing the sun and the world from all the lives within it. She caught a fleeting glimpse of rushing waters far beneath her; of crumbling banks, covered with debris like the banks of a disused quarry; of shattered boulders, grouped in a wild disorder, as if they had been vomited forth from some underworld or cast headlong from the sky; of the flying shapes of fruit trees, mulberries and apricot trees, oleanders and palms; of dull yellow walls guarding pools the colour of absinthe, imperturbable and still. A strong impression of increasing cold and darkness grew in her, and the noises of the train became hollow, and seemed to be expanding, as if they were striving to press through the impending rocks and find an outlet into space; failing, they rose angrily, violently, in Domini's ears, protesting, wrangling, shouting, declaiming. The darkness became like the darkness of a nightmare. All the trees vanished, as if they fled in fear. The rocks closed in as if to crush the train. There was a moment in which Domini shut her eyes, like one expectant of a tremendous blow that cannot be avoided.
She opened them to a flood of gold, out of which the face of a man looked, like a face looking out of the heart of the sun.
It flashed upon her with the desert, with the burning heaps of carnation and orange-coloured rocks, with the first sand wilderness, the first brown villages glowing in the late radiance of the afternoon like carven things of bronze, the first oasis of palms, deep green as a wave of the sea and moving like a wave, the first wonder of Sahara warmth and Sahara distance. She passed through the golden door into the blue country, and saw this face, and, for a moment, moved by the exalted sensation of a magical change in all her world, she looked at it simply as a new sight presented, with the sun, the mighty rocks, the hard, blind villages, and the dense trees, to her eyes, and connected it with nothing. It was part of this strange and glorious desert region to her. That was all, for a moment.
In the play of untempered golden light the face seemed pale. It was narrow, rather long, with marked and prominent features, a nose with a high bridge, a mouth with straight, red lips, and a powerful chin. The eyes were hazel, almost yellow, with curious markings of a darker shade in the yellow, dark centres that looked black, and dark outer circles. The eyelashes were very long, the eyebrows thick and strongly curved. The forehead was high, and swelled out slightly above the temples. There was no hair on the face, which was closely shaved. Near the mouth were two faint lines that made Domini think of physical suffering, and also of mediaeval knights. Despite the glory of the sunshine there seemed to be a shadow falling across the face.
This was all that Domini noticed before the spell of change and the abrupt glory was broken, and she knew that she was staring into the face of the man who had behaved so rudely at the station of El-Akbara. The knowledge gave her a definite shock, and she thought that her expression must have changed abruptly, for a dull flush rose on the stranger's thin cheeks and mounted to his rugged forehead. He glanced out of the window and moved his hands uneasily. Domini noticed that they scarcely tallied with his face. Though scrupulously clean, they looked like the hands of a labourer, hard, broad, and brown. Even his wrists, and a small section of his left forearm, which showed as he lifted his left hand from one knee to the other, were heavily tinted by the sun. The spaces between the fingers were wide, as they usually are in hands accustomed to grasping implements, but the fingers themselves were rather delicate and artistic.
Domini observed this swiftly. Then she saw that her neighbour was unpleasantly conscious of her observation. This vexed her vaguely, perhaps because even so trifling a circumstance was like a thin link between them. She snapped it by ceasing to look at or think of him. The window was down. A delicate and warm breeze drifted in, coming from the thickets of the palms. In flashing out of the darkness of the gorge Domini had had the sensation of passing into a new world and a new atmosphere. The sensation stayed with her now that she was no longer dreaming or giving the reins to her imagination, but was calmly herself. Against the terrible rampart of rock the winds beat across the land of the Tell. But they die there frustrated. And the rains journey thither and fail, sinking into the absinthe-coloured pools of the gorge. And the snows and even the clouds stop, exhausted in their pilgrimage. The gorge is not their goal, but it is their grave, and the desert never sees their burial. So Domini's first sense of casting away the known remained, and even grew, but now strongly and quietly. It was well founded, she thought. For she looked out of the carriage window towards the barrier she was leaving, and saw that on this side, guarding the desert from the world that is not desert, it was pink in the evening light, deepening here and there to rose colour, whereas on the far side it had a rainy hue as of rocks in England. And there was a lustre of gold in the hills, tints of glowing bronze slashed with a red line as the heart of a wound, but recalling the heart of a flower. The folds of the earth glistened. There was flame down there in the river bed. The wreckage of the land, the broken fragments, gleamed as if braided with precious things. Everywhere the salt crystals sparkled with the violence of diamonds. Everywhere there was a strength of colour that hurled itself to the gaze, unabashed and almost savage, the colour of summer that never ceases, of heat that seldom dies, in a land where there is no autumn and seldom a flitting cold.
Down on the road near the village there were people; old men playing the "lady's game" with stones set in squares of sand, women peeping from flat roofs and doorways, children driving goats. A man, like a fair and beautiful Christ, with long hair and a curling beard, beat on the ground with a staff and howled some tuneless notes. He was dressed in red and green. No one heeded him. A distant sound of the beating of drums rose in the air, mingled with piercing cries uttered by a nasal voice. And as if below it, like the orchestral accompaniment of a dramatic solo, hummed many blending noises; faint calls of labourers in the palm-gardens and of women at the wells; chatter of children in dusky courts sheltered with reeds and pale-stemmed grasses; dim pipings of homeward-coming shepherds drowned, with their pattering charges, in the golden vapours of the west; soft twitterings of birds beyond brown walls in green seclusions; dull barking of guard dogs; mutter of camel drivers to their velvet-footed beasts.
The caravan which Domini had seen descending into the gorge reappeared, moving deliberately along the desert road towards the south. A watch-tower peeped above the palms. Doves were circling round it. Many of them were white. They flew like ivory things above this tower of glowing bronze, which slept at the foot of the pink rocks. On the left rose a mass of blood-red earth and stone. Slanting rays of the sun struck it, and it glowed mysteriously like a mighty jewel.
As Domini leaned out of the window, and the salt crystals sparkled to her eyes, and the palms swayed languidly above the waters, and the rose and mauve of the hills, the red and orange of the earth, streamed by in the flames of the sun before the passing train like a barbaric procession, to the sound of the hidden drums, the cry of the hidden priest, and all the whispering melodies of these strange and unknown lives, tears started into her eyes. The entrance into this land of flame and colour, through its narrow and terrific portal, stirred her almost beyond her present strength. The glory of this world mounted to her heart, oppressing it. The embrace of Nature was so violent that it crushed her. She felt like a little fly that had sought to wing its way to the sun and, at a million miles' distance from it, was being shrivelled by its heat. When all the voices of the village fainted away she was glad, although she strained her ears to hear their fading echoes. Suddenly she knew that she was very tired, so tired that emotions acted upon her as physical exertion acts upon an exhausted man. She sat down and shut her eyes. For a long time she stayed with her eyes shut, but she knew that on the windows strange lights were glittering, that the carriage was slowly filling with the ineffable splendours of the west. Long afterwards she often wondered whether she endowed the sunset of that day with supernatural glories because she was so tired. Perhaps the salt mountain of El-Alia did not really sparkle like the celestial mountains in the visions of the saints. Perhaps the long chain of the Aures did not really look as if all its narrow clefts had been powdered with the soft and bloomy leaves of unearthly violets, and the desert was not cloudy in the distance towards the Zibans with the magical blue she thought she saw there, a blue neither of sky nor sea, but like the hue at the edge of a flame in the heart of a wood fire. She often wondered, but she never knew.
The sound of a movement made her look up. Her companion was changing his place and going to the other side of the compartment. He walked softly, no doubt with the desire not to disturb Domini. His back was towards her for an instant, and she noticed that he was a powerful man, though very thin, and that his gait was heavy. It made her think again of his labourer's hands, and she began to wonder idly what was his rank and what he did. He sat down in the far corner on the same side as herself and stared out of his window, crossing his legs. He wore large boots with square toes, clumsy and unfashionable, but comfortable and good for walking in. His clothes had obviously been made by a French tailor. The stuff of them was grey and woolly, and they were cut tighter to the figure than English clothes generally are. He had on a black silk necktie, and a soft brown travelling hat dented in the middle. By the way in which he looked out of the window, Domini judged that he, too, was seeing the desert for the first time. There was something almost passionately attentive in his attitude, something of strained eagerness in that part of his face which she could see from where she was sitting. His cheek was not pale, as she had thought at first, but brown, obviously burnt by the sun of Africa. But she felt that underneath the sunburn there was pallor. She fancied he might be a painter, and was noting all the extraordinary colour effects with the definiteness of a man who meant, perhaps, to reproduce them on canvas.
The light, which had now the peculiar, almost supernatural softness and limpidity of light falling at evening from a declining sun in a hot country, came full upon him, and brightened his hair. Domini saw that it was brown with some chestnut in it, thick, and cut extremely short, as if his head had recently been shaved. She felt convinced that he was not French. He might be an Austrian, perhaps, or a Russian from the south of Russia. He remained motionless in that attitude of profound observation. It suggested great force not merely of body, but also of mind, an almost abnormal concentration upon the thing observed. This was a man who could surely shut out the whole world to look at a grain of sand, if he thought it beautiful or interesting.
They were near Beni-Mora now. Its palms appeared far off, and in the midst of them a snow-white tower. The Sahara lay beyond and around it, rolling away from the foot of low, brown hills, that looked as if they had been covered with a soft powder of bronze. A long spur of rose- coloured mountains stretched away towards the south. The sun was very near his setting. Small, red clouds floated in the western quarter of the sky, and the far desert was becoming mysteriously dim and blue, like a remote sea. Here and there thin wreaths of smoke ascended from it, and lights glittered in it, like earth-bound stars.
Domini had never before understood how strangely, how strenuously, colour can at moments appeal to the imagination. In this pageant of the East she saw arise the naked soul of Africa; no faded, gentle thing, fearful of being seen, fearful of being known and understood; but a phenomenon vital, bold and gorgeous, like the sound of a trumpet pealing a great reveille. As she looked on this flaming land laid fearlessly bare before her, disdaining the clothing of grass, plant and flower, of stream and tree, displaying itself with an almost brazen insouciance, confident in its spacious power, and in its golden pride, her heart leaped up as if in answer to a deliberate appeal. The fatigue in her died. She responded to this reveille like a young warrior who, so soon as he is wakened, stretches out his hand for his sword. The sunset flamed on her clear, white cheeks, giving them its hue of life. And her nature flamed to meet it. In the huge spaces of the Sahara her soul seemed to hear the footsteps of Freedom treading towards the south. And all her dull perplexities, all her bitterness of ennui, all her questionings and doubts, were swept away on the keen desert wind into the endless plains. She had come from her last confession asking herself, "What am I?" She had felt infinitely small confronted with the pettiness of modern, civilised life in a narrow, crowded world. Now she did not torture herself with any questions, for she knew that something large, something capable, something perhaps even noble, rose up within her to greet all this nobility, all this mighty frankness and fierce, undressed sincerity of nature. This desert and this sun would be her comrades, and she was not afraid of them.
Without being aware of it she breathed out a great sigh, feeling the necessity of liberating her joy of spirit, of letting the body, however inadequately and absurdly, make some demonstration in response to the secret stirring of the soul. The man in the far corner of the carriage turned and looked at her. When she heard this movement Domini remembered her irritation against him at El-Akbara. In this splendid moment the feeling seemed to her so paltry and contemptible that she had a lively impulse to make amends for the angry look she had cast at him. Possibly, had she been quite normal, she would have checked such an impulse. The voice of conventionality would have made itself heard. But Domini could act vigorously, and quite carelessly, when she was moved. And she was deeply moved now, and longed to lavish the humanity, the sympathy and ardour that were quick in her. In answer to the stranger's movement she turned towards him, opening her lips to speak to him. Afterwards she never knew what she meant to say, whether, if she had spoken, the words would have been French or English. For she did not speak.
The man's face was illuminated by the setting sun as he sat half round on his seat, leaning with his right hand palm downwards on the cushions. The light glittered on his short hair. He had pushed back his soft hat, and exposed his high, rugged forehead to the air, and his brown left hand gripped the top of the carriage door. The large, knotted veins on it, the stretched sinews, were very perceptible. The hand looked violent. Domini's eyes fell on it as she turned. The impulse to speak began to fail, and when she glanced up at the man's face she no longer felt it at all. For, despite the glory of the sunset on him, there seemed to be a cold shadow in his eyes. The faint lines near his mouth looked deeper than before, and now suggested most powerfully the dreariness, the harshness of long-continued suffering. The mouth itself was compressed and grim, and the man's whole expression was fierce and startling as the expression of a criminal bracing himself to endure inevitable detection. So crude and piercing indeed was this mask confronting her that Domini started and was inclined to shudder. For a minute the man's eyes held hers, and she thought she saw in them unfathomable depths of misery or of wickedness. She hardly knew which. Sorrow was like crime, and crime like the sheer desolation of grief to her just then. And she thought of the outer darkness spoken of in the Bible. It came before her in the sunset. Her father was in it, and this stranger stood by him. The thing was as vital, and fled as swiftly as a hallucination in a madman's brain.
Domini looked down. All the triumph died out in her, all the exquisite consciousness of the freedom, the colour, the bigness of life. For there was a black spot on the sun—humanity, God's mistake in the great plan of Creation. And the shadow cast by humanity tempered, even surely conquered, the light. She wondered whether she would always feel the cold of the sunless places in the golden dominion of the sun.
The man had dropped his eyes too. His hand fell from the door to his knee. He did not move till the train ran into Beni-Mora, and the eager faces of countless Arabs stared in upon them from the scorched field of manoeuvres where Spahis were exercising in the gathering twilight.
Having given her luggage ticket to a porter, Domini passed out of the station followed by Suzanne, who looked and walked like an exhausted marionette. Batouch, who had emerged from a third-class compartment before the train stopped, followed them closely, and as they reached the jostling crowd of Arabs which swarmed on the roadway he joined them with the air of a proprietor.
"Which is Madame's hotel?"
Domini looked round.
Suzanne jumped as if her string had been sharply pulled, and cast a glance of dreary suspicion upon the poet. She looked at his legs, then upwards.
He wore white socks which almost met his pantaloons. Scarcely more than an inch of pale brown skin was visible. The gold buttons of his jacket glittered brightly. His blue robe floated majestically from his broad shoulders, and the large tassel of his fez fell coquettishly towards his left ear, above which was set a pale blue flower with a woolly green leaf.
Suzanne was slightly reassured by the flower and the bright buttons. She felt that they needed a protector in this mob of shouting brown and black men, who clamoured about them like savages, exposing bare legs and arms, even bare chests, in a most barbarous manner.
"We are going to the Hotel du Desert," Domini continued. "Is it far?"
"Only a few minutes, Madame."
"I shall like to walk there."
Suzanne collapsed. Her bones became as wax with apprehension. She saw herself toiling over leagues of sand towards some nameless hovel.
"Suzanne, you can get into the omnibus and take the handbags."
At the sweet word omnibus a ray of hope stole into the maid's heart, and when a nicely-dressed man, in a long blue coat and indubitable trousers, assisted her politely into a vehicle which was unmistakable she almost wept for joy.
Meanwhile Domini, escorted serenely by the poet, walked towards the long gardens of Beni-Mora. She passed over a wooden bridge. White dust was flying from the road, along which many of the Arab aristocracy were indolently strolling, carrying lightly in their hands small red roses or sprigs of pink geranium. In their white robes they looked, she thought, like monks, though the cigarettes many of them were smoking fought against the illusion. Some of them were dressed like Batouch in pale-coloured cloth. They held each other's hands loosely as they sauntered along, chattering in soft contralto voices. Two or three were attended by servants, who walked a pace or two behind them on the left. These were members of great families, rulers of tribes, men who had influence over the Sahara people. One, a shortish man with a coal-black beard, moved so majestically that he seemed almost a giant. His face was very pale. On one of his small, almost white, hands glittered a diamond ring. A boy with a long, hooked nose strolled gravely near him, wearing brown kid gloves and a turban spangled with gold.
"That is the Kaid of Tonga, Madame," whispered Batouch, looking at the pale man reverently. "He is here en permission."
"How white he is."
"They tried to poison him. Ever since he is ill inside. That is his brother. The brown gloves are very chic."
A light carriage rolled rapidly by them in a white mist of dust. It was drawn by a pair of white mules, who whisked their long tails as they trotted briskly, urged on by a cracking whip. A big boy with heavy brown eyes was the coachman. By his side sat a very tall young negro with a humorous pointed nose, dressed in primrose yellow. He grinned at Batouch out of the mist, which accentuated the coal-black hue of his whimsical, happy face.
"That is the Agha's son with Mabrouk."
They turned aside from the road and came into a long tunnel formed by mimosa trees that met above a broad path. To right and left were other little paths branching among the trunks of fruit trees and the narrow twigs of many bushes that grew luxuriantly. Between sandy brown banks, carefully flattened and beaten hard by the spades of Arab gardeners, glided streams of opaque water that were guided from the desert by a system of dams. The Kaid's mill watched over them and the great wall of the fort. In the tunnel the light was very delicate and tinged with green. The noise of the water flowing was just audible. A few Arabs were sitting on benches in dreamy attitudes, with their heelless slippers hanging from the toes of their bare feet. Beyond the entrance of the tunnel Domini could see two horsemen galloping at a tremendous pace into the desert. Their red cloaks streamed out over the sloping quarters of their horses, which devoured the earth as if in a frenzy of emulation. They disappeared into the last glories of the sun, which still lingered on the plain and blazed among the summits of the red mountains.
All the contrasts of this land were exquisite to Domini and, in some mysterious way, suggested eternal things; whispering through colour, gleam, and shadow, through the pattern of leaf and rock, through the air, now fresh, now tenderly warm and perfumed, through the silence that hung like a filmy cloud in the golden heaven.
She and Batouch entered the tunnel, passing at once into definite evening. The quiet of these gardens was delicious, and was only interrupted now and then by the sound of wheels upon the road as a carriage rolled by to some house which was hidden in the distance of the oasis. The seated Arabs scarcely disturbed it by their murmured talk. Many of them indeed said nothing, but rested like lotus-eaters in graceful attitudes, with hanging hands, and eyes, soft as the eyes of gazelles, that regarded the shadowy paths and creeping waters with a grave serenity born of the inmost spirit of idleness.
But Batouch loved to talk, and soon began a languid monologue.
He told Domini that he had been in Paris, where he had been the guest of a French poet who adored the East; that he himself was "instructed," and not like other Arabs; that he smoked the hashish and could sing the love songs of the Sahara; that he had travelled far in the desert, to Souf and to Ouargla beyond the ramparts of the Dunes; that he composed verses in the night when the uninstructed, the brawlers, the drinkers of absinthe and the domino players were sleeping or wasting their time in the darkness over the pastimes of the lewd, when the sybarites were sweating under the smoky arches of the Moorish baths, and the marechale of the dancing-girls sat in her flat-roofed house guarding the jewels and the amulets of her gay confederation. These verses were written both in Arabic and in French, and the poet of Paris and his friends had found them beautiful as the dawn, and as the palm trees of Ourlana by the Artesian wells. All the girls of the Ouled Nails were celebrated in these poems—Aishoush and Irena, Fatma and Baali. In them also were enshrined legends of the venerable marabouts who slept in the Paradise of Allah, and tales of the great warriors who had fought above the rocky precipices of Constantine and far off among the sands of the South. They told the stories of the Koulouglis, whose mothers were Moorish slaves, and romances in which figured the dark-skinned Beni M'Zab and the freed negroes who had fled away from the lands in the very heart of the sun.
All this information, not wholly devoid of a naive egoism, Batouch poured forth gently and melodiously as they walked through the twilight in the tunnel. And Domini was quite content to listen. The strange names the poet mentioned, his liquid pronunciation of them, his allusions to wild events that had happened long ago in desert places, and to the lives of priests of his old religion, of fanatics, and girls who rode on camels caparisoned in red to the dancing-houses of Sahara cities—all these things cradled her humour at this moment and seemed to plant her, like a mimosa tree, deep down in this sand garden of the sun.
She had forgotten her bitter sensation in the railway carriage when it was recalled to her mind by an incident that clashed with her present mood.
Steps sounded on the path behind them, going faster than they were, and presently Domini saw her fellow-traveller striding along, accompanied by a young Arab who was carrying the green bag. The stranger was looking straight before him down the tunnel, and he went by swiftly. But his guide had something to say to Batouch, and altered his pace to keep beside them for a moment. He was a very thin, lithe, skittish-looking youth, apparently about twenty-three years old, with a chocolate-brown skin, high cheek bones, long, almond-shaped eyes twinkling with dissipated humour, and a large mouth that smiled showing pointed white teeth. A straggling black moustache sprouted on his upper lip, and long coarse strands of jet-black hair escaped from under the front of a fez that was pushed back on his small head. His neck was thin and long, and his hands were wonderfully delicate and expressive, with rosy and quite perfect nails. When he laughed he had a habit of throwing his head forward and tucking in his chin, letting the tassel of his fez fall over his temple to left or right. He was dressed in white with a burnous, and had a many-coloured piece of silk with frayed edges wound about his waist, which was as slim as a young girl's.
He spoke to Batouch with intense vivacity in Arabic, at the same time shooting glances half-obsequious, half-impudent, wholly and even preternaturally keen and intelligent at Domini. Batouch replied with the dignified languor that seemed peculiar to him. The colloquy continued for two or three minutes. Domini thought it sounded like a quarrel, but she was not accustomed to Arabs' talk. Meanwhile, the stranger in front had slackened his pace, and was obviously lingering for his neglectful guide. Once or twice he nearly stopped, and made a movement as if to turn round. But he checked it and went on slowly. His guide spoke more and more vehemently, and suddenly, tucking in his chin and displaying his rows of big and dazzling teeth, burst into a gay and boyish laugh, at the same time shaking his head rapidly. Then he shot one last sly look at Domini and hurried on, airily swinging the green bag to and fro. His arms had tiny bones, but they were evidently strong, and he walked with the light ease of a young animal. After he had gone he turned his head once and stared full at Domini. She could not help laughing at the vanity and consciousness of his expression. It was childish. Yet there was something ruthless and wicked in it too. As he came up to the stranger the latter looked round, said something to him, and then hastened forward. Domini was struck by the difference between their gaits. For the stranger, although he was so strongly built and muscular, walked rather heavily and awkwardly, with a peculiar shuffling motion of his feet. She began to wonder how old he was. About thirty-five or thirty-seven, she thought.
"That is Hadj," said Batouch in his soft, rich voice.
"Yes. He is my cousin. He lives in Beni-Mora, but he, too, has been in Paris. He has been in prison too."
Batouch gave this piece of information with quiet indifference, and continued
"He likes to laugh. He is lazy. He has earned a great deal of money, and now he has none. To-night he is very gay, because he has a client."
"I see. Then he is a guide?"
"Many people in Beni-Mora are guides. But Hadj is always lucky in getting the English."
"That man with him isn't English!" Domini exclaimed.
She had wondered what the traveller's nationality was, but it had never occurred to her that it might be the same as her own.
"Yes, he is. And he is going to the Hotel du Desert. You and he are the only English here, and almost the only travellers. It is too early for many travellers yet. They fear the heat. And besides, few English come here now. What a pity! They spend money, and like to see everything. Hadj is very anxious to buy a costume at Tunis for the great fete at the end of Ramadan. It will cost fifty or sixty francs. He hopes the Englishman is rich. But all the English are rich and generous."
Here Batouch looked steadily at Domini with his large, unconcerned eyes.
"This one speaks Arabic a little."
Domini made no reply. She was surprised by this piece of information. There was something, she thought, essentially un-English about the stranger. He was certainly not dressed by an English tailor. But it was not only that which had caused her mistake. His whole air and look, his manner of holding himself, of sitting, of walking—yes, especially of walking—were surely foreign. Yet, when she came to think about it, she could not say that they were characteristic of any other country. Idly she had said to herself that the stranger might be an Austrian or a Russian. But she had been thinking of his colouring. It happened that two attaches of those two nations, whom she had met frequently in London, had hair of that shade of rather warm brown.
"He does not look like an Englishman," she said presently.
"He can talk in French and in Arabic, but Hadj says he is English."
"How should Hadj know?"
"Because he has the eyes of the jackal, and has been with many English. We are getting near to the Catholic church, Madame. You will see it through the trees. And there is Monsieur the Cure coming towards us. He is coming from his house, which is near the hotel."
At some distance in the twilight of the tunnel Domini saw a black figure in a soutane walking very slowly towards them. The stranger, who had been covering the ground rapidly with his curious, shuffling stride, was much nearer to it than they were, and, if he kept on at his present pace, would soon pass it. But suddenly Domini saw him pause and hesitate. He bent down and seemed to be doing something to his boot. Hadj dropped the green bag, and was evidently about to kneel down, and assist him when he lifted himself up abruptly and looked before him, as if at the priest who was approaching, then turned sharply to the right into a path which led out of the garden to the arcades of the Rue Berthe. Hadj followed, gesticulating frantically, and volubly explaining that the hotel was in the opposite direction. But the stranger did not stop. He only glanced swiftly back over his shoulder once, and then continued on his way.
"What a funny man that is!" said Batouch. "What does he want to do?"
Domini did not answer him, for the priest was just passing them, and she saw the church to the left among the trees. It was a plain, unpretending building, with a white wooden door set in an arch. Above the arch were a small cross, two windows with rounded tops, a clock, and a white tower with a pink roof. She looked at it, and at the priest, whose face was dark and meditative, with lustrous, but sad, brown eyes. Yet she thought of the stranger.
Her attention was beginning to be strongly fixed upon the unknown man. His appearance and manner were so unusual that it was impossible not to notice him.
"There is the hotel, Madame!" said Batouch.
Domini saw it standing at right angles to the church, facing the gardens. A little way back from the church was the priest's house, a white building shaded by date palms and pepper trees. As they drew near the stranger reappeared under the arcade, above which was the terrace of the hotel. He vanished through the big doorway, followed by Hadj.
While Suzanne was unpacking Domini came out on to the broad terrace which ran along the whole length of the Hotel du Desert. Her bedroom opened on to it in front, and at the back communicated with a small salon. This salon opened on to a second and smaller terrace, from which the desert could be seen beyond the palms. There seemed to be no guests in the hotel. The verandah was deserted, and the peace of the soft evening was profound. Against the white parapet a small, round table and a cane armchair had been placed. A subdued patter of feet in slippers came up the stairway, and an Arab servant appeared with a tea-tray. He put it down on the table with the precise deftness which Domini had already observed in the Arabs at Robertville, and swiftly vanished. She sat down in the chair and poured out the tea, leaning her left arm on the parapet.
Her head was very tired and her temples felt compressed. She was thankful for the quiet round her. Any harsh voice would have been intolerable to her just then. There were many sounds in the village, but they were vague, and mingled, flowing together and composing one sound that was soothing, the restrained and level voice of Life. It hummed in Domini's ears as she sipped her tea, and gave an under-side of romance to the peace. The light that floated in under the round arches of the terrace was subdued. The sun had just gone down, and the bright colours bloomed no more upon the mountains, which looked like silent monsters that had lost the hue of youth and had suddenly become mysteriously old. The evening star shone in a sky that still held on its Western border some last pale glimmerings of day, and, at its signal, many dusky wanderers folded their loose garments round them, slung their long guns across their shoulders, and prepared to start on their journey, helped by the cool night wind that blows in the desert when the sun departs.
Domini did not know of them, but she felt the near presence of the desert, and the feeling quieted her nerves. She was thankful at this moment that she was travelling without any woman friend and was not persecuted by any sense of obligation. In her fatigue, to rest passive in the midst of quiet, and soft light, calm in the belief, almost the certainty, that this desert village contained no acquaintance to disturb her, was to know all the joy she needed for the moment. She drank it in dreamily. Liberty had always been her fetish. What woman had more liberty than she had, here on this lonely verandah, with the shadowy trees below?
The bell of the church near by chimed softly, and the familiar sound fell strangely upon Domini's ears out here in Africa, reminding her of many sorrows. Her religion was linked with terrible memories, with cruel struggles, with hateful scenes of violence. Lord Rens had been a man of passionate temperament. Strong in goodness when he had been led by love, he had been equally strong in evil when hate had led him. Domini had been forced to contemplate at close quarters the raw character of a warped man, from whom circumstance had stripped all tenderness, nearly all reticence. The terror of truth was known to her. She had shuddered before it, but she had been obliged to watch it during many years. In coming to Beni-Mora she had had a sort of vague, and almost childish, feeling that she was putting the broad sea between herself and it. Yet before she had started it had been buried in the grave. She never wished to behold such truth again. She wanted to look upon some other truth of life—the truth of beauty, of calm, of freedom. Lord Rens had always been a slave, the slave of love, most of all when he was filled with hatred, and Domini, influenced by his example, instinctively connected love with a chain. Only the love a human being has for God seemed to her sometimes the finest freedom; the movement of the soul upward into the infinite obedient to the call of the great Liberator. The love of man for woman, of woman for man, she thought of as imprisonment, bondage. Was not her mother a slave to the man who had wrecked her life and carried her spirit beyond the chance of heaven? Was not her father a slave to her mother? She shrank definitely from the contemplation of herself loving, with all the strength she suspected in her heart, a human being. In her religion only she had felt in rare moments something of love. And now here, in this tremendous and conquering land, she felt a divine stirring in her love for Nature. For that afternoon Nature, so often calm and meditative, or gently indifferent, as one too complete to be aware of those who lack completeness, had impetuously summoned her to worship, had ardently appealed to her for something more than a temperate watchfulness or a sober admiration. There had been a most definite demand made upon her. Even in her fatigue and in this dreamy twilight she was conscious of a latent excitement that was not lulled to sleep.
And as she sat there, while the darkness grew in the sky and spread secretly along the sandy rills among the trees, she wondered how much she held within her to give in answer to this cry to her of self- confident Nature. Was it only a little? She did not know. Perhaps she was too tired to know. But however much it was it must seem meagre. What is even a woman's heart given to the desert or a woman's soul to the sea? What is the worship of anyone to the sunset among the hills, or to the wind that lifts all the clouds from before the face of the moon?
A chill stole over Domini. She felt like a very poor woman, who can never know the joy of giving, because she does not possess even a mite.
The church bell chimed again among the palms. Domini heard voices quite clearly below her under the arcade. A French cafe was installed there, and two or three soldiers were taking their aperitif before dinner out in the air. They were talking of France, as people in exile talk of their country, with the deliberateness that would conceal regret and the child's instinctive affection for the mother. Their voices made Domini think again of the recruits, and then, because of them, of Notre Dame de la Garde, the mother of God, looking towards Africa. She remembered the tragedy of her last confession. Would she be able to confess here to the Father whom she had seen strolling in the tunnel? Would she learn to know here what she really was?
How warm it was in the night, and how warmth, as it develops the fecundity of the earth, develops also the possibilities in many men and women. Despite her lassitude of body, which kept her motionless as an idol in her chair, with her arm lying along the parapet of the verandah, Domini felt as if a confused crowd of things indefinable, but violent, was already stirring within her nature, as if this new climate was calling armed men into being. Could she not hear the murmur of their voices, the distant clashing of their weapons?
Without being aware of it she was dropping into sleep. The sound of a footstep on the wooden floor of the verandah recalled her. It was at some distance behind her. It crossed the verandah and stopped. She felt quite certain that it was the step of her fellow-traveller, not because she knew he was staying in the hotel, but rather because of the curious, uneven heaviness of the tread.
What was he doing? Looking over the parapet into the fruit gardens, where the white figures of the Arabs were flitting through the trees?
He was perfectly silent. Domini was now wide awake. The feeling of calm serenity had left her. She was nervously troubled by this presence near her, and swiftly recalled the few trifling incidents of the day which had begun to delineate a character for her. They were, she found, all unpleasant, all, at least, faintly disagreeable. Yet, in sum, what was their meaning? The sketch they traced was so slight, so confused, that it told little. The last incident was the strangest. And again she saw the long and luminous pathway of the tunnel, flickering with light and shade, carpeted with the pale reflections of the leaves and narrow branches of the trees, the black figure of the priest far down it, and the tall form of the stranger in an attitude of painful hesitation. Each time she had seen him, apparently desirous of doing something definite, hesitation had overtaken him. In his indecision there was something horrible to her, something alarming.
She wished he was not standing behind her, and her discomfort increased. She could still hear the voices of the soldiers in the cafe. Perhaps he was listening to them. They sounded louder.
The speakers were getting up from their seats. There was a jingling of spurs, a tramp of feet, and the voices died away. The church bell chimed again. As it did so Domini heard heavy and uneven steps cross the verandah hurriedly. An instant later she heard a window shut sharply.
"Suzanne!" she called.
Her maid appeared, yawning, with various parcels in her hands.
"I sha'n't go down to the salle-a-manger to-night. Tell them to give me some dinner in my salon."
"You did not see who was on the verandah just now?"
The maid looked surprised.
"I was in Mademoiselle's room."
"Yes. How near the church is."
"Mademoiselle will have no difficulty in getting to Mass. She will not be obliged to go among all the Arabs."
"I have come here to be among the Arabs, Suzanne."
"The porter of the omnibus tells me they are dirty and very dangerous. They carry knives, and their clothes are full of fleas."
"You will feel quite differently about them in the morning. Don't forget about dinner."
"I will speak about it at once, Mademoiselle."
Suzanne disappeared, walking as one who suspects an ambush.
After dinner Domini went again to the verandah. She found Batouch there. He had now folded a snow-white turban round his head, and looked like a young high priest of some ornate religion. He suggested that Domini should come out with him to visit the Rue des Ouled Nails and see the strange dances of the Sahara. But she declined.
"Not to-night, Batouch. I must go to bed. I haven't slept for two nights."
"But I do not sleep, Madame. In the night I compose verses. My brain is alive. My heart is on fire."
"Yes, but I am not a poet. Besides, I may be here for a long time. I shall have many evenings to see the dances."
The poet looked displeased.
"The gentleman is going," he said. "Hadj is at the door waiting for him now. But Hadj is afraid when he enters the street of the dancers."
"There is a girl there who wishes to kill him. Her name is Aishoush. She was sent away from Beni-Mora for six months, but she has come back, and after all this time she still wishes to kill Hadj."
"What has he done to her?"
"He has not loved her. Yes, Hadj is afraid, but he will go with the gentleman because he must earn money to buy a costume for the fete of Ramadan. I also wish to buy a new costume."
He looked at Domini with a dignified plaintiveness. His pose against the pillar of the verandah was superb. Over his blue cloth jacket he had thrown a thin white burnous, which hung round him in classic folds. Domini could scarcely believe that so magnificent a creature was touting for a franc. The idea certainly did occur to her, but she banished it. For she was a novice in Africa.
"I am too tired to go out to-night," she said decisively.
"Good-night, Madame. I shall be here to-morrow morning at seven o'clock. The dawn in the garden of the gazelles is like the flames of Paradise, and you can see the Spahis galloping upon horses that are beautiful as—"
"I shall not get up early to-morrow."
Batouch assumed an expression that was tragically submissive and turned to go. Just then Suzanne appeared at the French window of her bedroom. She started as she perceived the poet, who walked slowly past her to the staircase, throwing his burnous back from his big shoulders, and stood looking after him. Her eyes fixed themselves upon the section of bare leg that was visible above his stockings white as the driven snow, and a faintly sentimental expression mingled with their defiance and alarm.
Domini got up from her chair and leaned over the parapet. A streak of yellow light from the doorway of the hotel lay upon the white road below, and in a moment she saw two figures come out from beneath the verandah and pause there. Hadj was one, the stranger was the other. The stranger struck a match and tried to light a cigar, but failed. He struck another match, and then another, but still the cigar would not draw. Hadj looked at him with mischievous astonishment.
"If Monsieur will permit me—" he began.
But the stranger took the cigar hastily from his mouth and flung it away.
"I don't want to smoke," Domini heard him say in French.
Then he walked away with Hadj into the darkness.
As they disappeared Domini heard a faint shrieking in the distance. It was the music of the African hautboy.
The night was marvellously dry and warm. The thickly growing trees in the garden scarcely moved. It was very still and very dark. Suzanne, standing at her window, looked like a shadow in her black dress. Her attitude was romantic. Perhaps the subtle influence of this Sahara village was beginning to steal even over her obdurate spirit.
The hautboy went on crying. Its notes, though faint, were sharp and piercing. Once more the church bell chimed among the date palms, and the two musics, with their violently differing associations, clashing together smote upon Domini's heart with a sense of trouble, almost of tragedy. The pulses in her temples throbbed, and she clasped her hands tightly together. That brief moment, in which she heard the duet of those two voices, was one of the most interesting, yet also one of the most painful she had ever known. The church bell was silent now, but the hautboy did not cease. It was barbarous and provocative, shrill with a persistent triumph.
Domini went to bed early, but she could not sleep. Just before midnight she heard someone walking up and down on the verandah. The step was heavy and shuffling. It came and went, came and went, without pause till she was in a fever of uneasiness. Only when two chimed from the church did it cease at last.
She whispered a prayer to Notre Dame de la Garde, The Blessed Virgin, looking towards Africa. For the first time she felt the loneliness of her situation and that she was far away.
Towards morning Domini slept. It was nearly eight o'clock when she awoke. The room was full of soft light which told of the sun outside, and she got up at once, put on a pair of slippers and opened the French window on to the verandah. Already Beni-Mora was bathed in golden beams and full of gentle activities. A flock of goats pattered by towards the edge of the oasis. The Arab gardeners were lazily sweeping small leaves from the narrow paths under the mimosa and pepper trees. Soldiers in loose white suits, dark blue sashes and the fez, were hastening from the Fort towards the market. A distant bugle rang out and the snarl of camels was audible from the village. Domini stood on the verandah for a moment, drinking in the desert air. It made her feel very pure and clean, as if she had just bathed in clear water. She looked up at the limpid sky, which seemed full of hope and of the power to grant blessings, and she was glad that she had come to Beni-Mora. Her lonely sensation of the previous night had gone. As she stood in the sun she was conscious that she needed re-creation and that here she might find it. The radiant sky, the warm sun and the freedom of the coming day and of many coming desert days, filled her heart with an almost childish sensation. She felt younger than she had felt for years, and even foolishly innocent, like a puppy dog or a kitten. Her thick black hair, unbound, fell in a veil round her strong, active body, and she had the rare consciousness that behind that other more mysterious veil her soul was to-day a less unfit companion for its mate than it had been since her mother's sin.
Cleanliness—what a blessed condition that was, a condition to breed bravery. In this early morning hour Beni-Mora looked magically clean. Domini thought of the desperate dirt of London mornings, of the sooty air brooding above black trees and greasy pavements. Surely it was difficult to be clean of soul there. Here it would be easy. One would tune one's lyre in accord with Nature and be as a singing palm tree beside a water-spring. She took up a little vellum-bound book which she had laid at night upon her dressing-table. It was Of the Imitation of Christ, and she opened it at haphazard and glanced down on a sunlit page. Her eyes fell on these words:
"Love watcheth, and sleeping, slumbereth not. When weary it is not tired; when straitened it is not constrained; when frightened it is not disturbed; but like a vivid flame and a burning torch it mounteth upwards and securely passeth through all. Whosoever loveth knoweth the cry of this voice."
The sunlight on the page of the little book was like the vivid flame and the burning torch spoken of in it. Heat, light, a fierce vitality. Domini had been weary so long, weary of soul, that she was almost startled to find herself responding quickly to the sacred passion on the page, to the bright beam that kissed it as twin kisses twin. She knelt down to say her morning prayer, but all she could whisper was:
"O, God, renew me. O, God, renew me. Give me power to feel, keenly, fiercely, even though I suffer. Let me wake. Let me feel. Let me be a living thing once more. O, God, renew me, renew me!"
While she prayed she pressed her face so hard against her hands that patches of red came upon her cheeks. And afterwards it seemed to her as if her first real, passionate prayer in Beni-Mora had been almost like a command to God. Was not such a fierce prayer perhaps a blasphemy?
She rose from that prayer to the first of her new days.
After breakfast she looked over the edge of the verandah and saw Batouch and Hadj squatting together in the shadow of the trees below. They were smoking cigarettes and talking eagerly. Their conversation, which was in Arabic, sounded violent. The accented words were like blows. Domini had not looked over the parapet for more than a minute before the two guides saw her and rose smiling to their feet.
"I am waiting to show the village to Madame," said Batouch, coming out softly into the road, while Hadj remained under the trees, exposing his teeth in a sarcastic grin, which plainly enough conveyed to Domini his pity for her sad mistake in not engaging him as her attendant.
Domini nodded, went back into her room and put on a shady hat. Suzanne handed her a large parasol lined with green, and she descended the stairs rather slowly. She was not sure whether she wanted a companion in her first walk about Beni-Mora. There would be more savour of freedom in solitude. Yet she had hardly the heart to dismiss Batouch, with all his dignity and determination. She resolved to take him for a little while and then to get rid of him on some pretext. Perhaps she would make some purchases in the bazaars and send him to the hotel with them.
"Madame has slept well?" asked the poet as she emerged into the sun.
"Pretty well," she answered, nodding again to Hadj, whose grin became more mischievous, and opening her parasol. "Where are we going?"
"Wherever Madame wishes. There is the market, the negro village, the mosque, the casino, the statue of the Cardinal, the bazaars, the garden of the Count Ferdinand Anteoni."
"A garden," said Domini. "Is it a beautiful one?"
Batouch was about to burst into a lyric ecstasy, but he checked himself and said:
"Madame shall see for herself and tell me afterwards if in all Europe there is one such garden."
"Oh, the English gardens are wonderful," she said, smiling at his patriotic conceit.
"No doubt. Madame shall tell me, Madame shall tell me," he repeated with imperturbable confidence.
"But first I wish to go for a moment into the church," she said. "Wait for me here, Batouch."
She crossed the road, passed the modest, one-storied house of the priest, and came to the church, which looked out on to the quiet gardens. Before going up the steps and in at the door she paused for a moment. There was something touching to her, as a Catholic, in this symbol of her faith set thus far out in the midst of Islamism. The cross was surely rather lonely, here, raised above the white-robed men to whom it meant nothing. She was conscious that since she had come to this land of another creed, and of another creed held with fanaticism, her sentiment for her own religion, which in England for many years had been but lukewarm, had suddenly gained in strength. She had an odd, almost manly, sensation that it was her duty in Africa to stand up for her faith, not blatantly in words to impress others, but perseveringly in heart to satisfy herself. Sometimes she felt very protective. She felt protective today as she looked at this humble building, which she likened to one of the poor saints of the Thebaid, who dwelt afar in desert places, and whose devotions were broken by the night-cries of jackals and by the roar of ravenous beasts. With this feeling strong upon her she pushed open the door and went in.
The interior was plain, even ugly. The walls were painted a hideous drab. The stone floor was covered with small, hard, straw-bottomed chairs and narrow wooden forms for the patient knees of worshippers. In the front were two rows of private chairs, with velvet cushions of various brilliant hues and velvet-covered rails. On the left was a high stone pulpit. The altar, beyond its mean black and gold railing, was dingy and forlorn. On it there was a tiny gold cross with a gold statuette of Christ hanging, surmounted by a canopy with four pillars, which looked as if made of some unwholesome sweetmeat. Long candles of blue and gold and bouquets of dusty artificial flowers flanked it. Behind it, in a round niche, stood a painted figure of Christ holding a book. The two adjacent side chapels had domed roofs representing the firmament. Beneath the pulpit stood a small harmonium. At the opposite end of the church was a high gallery holding more chairs. The mean, featureless windows were filled with glass half white, half staring red dotted with yellow crosses. Round the walls were reliefs of the fourteen stations of the Cross in white plaster on a gilt ground framed in grey marble. From the roof hung vulgar glass chandeliers with ropes tied with faded pink ribands. Several frightful plaster statues daubed with scarlet and chocolate brown stood under the windows, which were protected with brown woollen curtains. Close to the entrance were a receptacle for holy water in the form of a shell, and a confessional of stone flanked by boxes, one of which bore the words, "Graces obtenues," the other, "Demandes," and a card on which was printed, "Litanies en honneur de Saint Antoine de Padoue."
There was nothing to please the eye, nothing to appeal to the senses. There was not even the mystery which shrouds and softens, for the sunshine streamed in through the white glass of the windows, revealing, even emphasising, as if with deliberate cruelty, the cheap finery, the tarnished velvet, the crude colours, the meretricious gestures and poses of the plaster saints. Yet as Domini touched her forehead and breast with holy water, and knelt for a moment on the stone floor, she was conscious that this rather pitiful house of God moved her to an emotion she had not felt in the great and beautiful churches to which she was accustomed in England and on the Continent. Through the windows she saw the outlines of palm leaves vibrating in the breeze; African fingers, feeling, with a sort of fluttering suspicion, if not enmity, round the heart of this intruding religion, which had wandered hither from some distant place, and, stayed, confronting the burning glance of the desert. Bold, little, humble church! Domini knew that she would love it. But she did not know then how much.
She wandered round slowly with a grave face. Yet now and then, as she stood by one of the plaster saints, she smiled. They were indeed strange offerings at the shrine of Him who held this Africa in the hollow of His hand, of Him who had ordered the pageant of the sun which she had seen last night among the mountains. And presently she and this little church in which she stood alone became pathetic in her thoughts, and even the religion which the one came to profess in the other pathetic too. For here, in Africa, she began to realise the wideness of the world, and that many things must surely seem to the Creator what these plaster saints seemed just then to her.
"Oh, how little, how little!" she whispered to herself. "Let me be bigger! Oh, let me grow, and here, not only hereafter!"
The church door creaked. She turned her head and saw the priest whom she had met in the tunnel entering. He came up to her at once, saluted her, and said:
"I saw you from my window, Madame, and thought I would offer to show you our little church here. We are very proud of it."
Domini liked his voice and his naive remark. His face, too, though undistinguished, looked honest, kind, and pathetic, but with a pathos that was unaffected and quite unconscious. The lower part of it was hidden by a moustache and beard.
"Thank you," she answered. "I have been looking round already."
"You are a Catholic, Madame?"
The priest looked pleased. There was something childlike in the mobility of his face.
"I am glad," he said simply. "We are not a rich community in Beni- Mora, but we have been fortunate in bygone years. Our great Cardinal, the Father of Africa, loved this place and cherished his children here."
"Yes, Madame. His house is now a native hospital. His statue faces the beginning of the great desert road, But we remember him and his spirit is still among us."
The priest's eyes lit up as he spoke. The almost tragic expression of his face changed to one of enthusiasm.
"He loved Africa, I believe," Domini said.
"His heart was here. And what he did! I was to have been one of his freres armes, but my health prevented, and afterwards the association was dissolved."
The sad expression returned to his face.
"There are many temptations in such a land and climate as this," he said. "And men are weak. But there are still the White Fathers whom he founded. Glorious men. They carry the Cross into the wildest places of the world. The most fanatical Arabs respect the White Marabouts."
"You wish you were with them?"
"Yes, Madame. But my health only permits me to be a humble parish priest here. Not all who desire to enter the most severe life can do so. If it were otherwise I should long since have been a monk. The Cardinal himself showed me that my duty lay in other paths."
He pointed out to Domini one or two things in the church which he admired and thought worthy; the carving of the altar rail into grapes, ears of corn, crosses, anchors; the white embroidered muslin that draped the tabernacle; the statue of a bishop in a red and gold mitre holding a staff and Bible, and another statue representing a saint with a languid and consumptive expression stretching out a Bible, on the leaves of which a tiny, smiling child was walking.
As they were about to leave the church he made Domini pause in front of a painting of Saint Bruno dressed in a white monkish robe, beneath which was written in gilt letters:
"Saint Bruno ordonne a ses disciples
De renoncer aux biens terrestres
Pour acquerir les biens celestes."
The disciples stood around the saint in grotesque attitudes of pious attention.
"That, I think, is very beautiful," he said. "Who could look at it without feeling that the greatest act of man is renunciation?"
His dark eyes flamed. Just then a faint soprano bark came to them from outside the church door, a very discreet and even humble, but at the same time anxious, bark. The priest's face changed. The almost passionate asceticism of it was replaced by a soft and gentle look.
"Bous-Bous wants me," he said, and he opened the door for Domini to pass out.
A small white and yellow dog, very clean and well brushed, was sitting on the step in an attentive attitude. Directly the priest appeared it began to wag its short tail violently and to run round his feet, curving its body into semi-circles. He bent down and patted it.
"My little companion, Madame," he said. "He was not with me yesterday, as he was being washed."
Then he took off his hat and walked towards his house, accompanied by Bous-Bous, who had suddenly assumed an air of conscious majesty, as of one born to preside over the fate of an important personage.
Domini stood for a moment under the palm trees looking after them. There was a steady shining in her eyes.
"Madame is a Catholic too?" asked Batouch, staring steadily at her.
Domini nodded. She did not want to discuss religion with an Arab minor poet just then.
"Take me to the market," she said, mindful of her secret resolve to get rid of her companion as soon as possible.
They set out across the gardens.
It was a celestial day. All the clear, untempered light of the world seemed to have made its home in Beni-Mora. Yet the heat was not excessive, for the glorious strength of the sun was robbed of its terror, its possible brutality, by the bright and feathery dryness and coolness of the airs. She stepped out briskly. Her body seemed suddenly to become years younger, full of elasticity and radiant strength.
"Madame is very strong. Madame walks like a Bedouin."
Batouch's voice sounded seriously astonished, and Domini burst out laughing.
"In England there are many strong women. But I shall grow stronger here. I shall become a real Arab. This air gives me life."
They were just reaching the road when there was a clatter of hoofs, and a Spahi, mounted on a slim white horse, galloped past at a tremendous pace, holding his reins high above the red peak of his saddle and staring up at the sun. Domini looked after him with critical admiration.
"You've got some good horses here," she said when the Spahi had disappeared.
"Madame knows how to ride?"
She laughed again.
"I've ridden ever since I was a child."
"You can buy a fine horse here for sixteen pounds," remarked Batouch, using the pronoun "tu," as is the custom of the Arabs.
"Find me a good horse, a horse with spirit, and I'll buy him," Domini said. "I want to go far out in the desert, far away from everything."
"You must not go alone."
"There are bandits in the desert."
"I'll take my revolver," Domini said carelessly. "But I will go alone."
They were in sight of the market now, and the hum of voices came to them, with nasal cries, the whine of praying beggars, and the fierce braying of donkeys. At the end of the small street in which they were Domini saw a wide open space, in the centre of which stood a quantity of pillars supporting a peaked roof. Round the sides of the square were arcades swarming with Arabs, and under the central roof a mob of figures came and went, as flies go and come on a piece of meat flung out into a sunny place.
"What a quantity of people! Do they all live in Beni-Mora?" she asked.
"No, they come from all parts of the desert to sell and to buy. But most of those who sell are Mozabites."
Little children in bright-coloured rags came dancing round Domini, holding out their copper-coloured hands, and crying shrilly, "'Msee, M'dame! 'Msee, M'dame!" A deformed man, who looked like a distorted beetle, crept round her feet, gazing up at her with eyes that squinted horribly, and roaring in an imperative voice some Arab formula in which the words "Allah-el-Akbar" continually recurred. A tall negro, with a long tuft of hair hanging from his shaven head, followed hard upon her heels, rolling his bulging eyes, in which two yellow flames were caught, and trying to engage her attention, though with what object she could not imagine. From all directions tall men with naked arms and legs, and fluttering white garments, came slowly towards her, staring intently at her with lustrous eyes, whose expression seemed to denote rather a calm and dignified appraisement than any vulgar curiosity. Boys, with the whitest teeth she had ever beheld, and flowers above their well-shaped, delicate ears, smiled up at her with engaging impudence. Her nostrils were filled with a strange crowd of odours, which came from humanity dressed in woollen garments, from fruits exposed for sale in rush panniers, from round close bouquets of roses ringed with tight borders of green leaves, from burning incense twigs, from raw meat, from amber ornaments and strong perfumes in glass phials figured with gold attar of rose, orange blossom, geranium and white lilac. In the shining heat of the sun sounds, scents and movements mingled, and were almost painfully vivid and full of meaning and animation. Never had a London mob on some great fete day seemed so significant and personal to Domini as this little mob of desert people, come together for the bartering of beasts, the buying of burnouses, weapons, skins and jewels, grain for their camels, charms for their women, ripe glistening dates for the little children at home in the brown earth houses.
As she made her way slowly through the press, pioneered by Batouch, who forced a path with great play of his huge shoulders and mighty arms, she was surprised to find how much at home she felt in the midst of these fierce and uncivilised-looking people. She had no sense of shrinking from their contact, no feeling of personal disgust at their touch. When her eyes chanced to meet any of the bold, inquiring eyes around her she was inclined to smile as if in recognition of these children of the sun, who did not seem to her like strangers, despite the unknown language that struggled fiercely in their throats. Nevertheless, she did not wish to stay very long among them now. She was resolved to get a full and delicately complete first impression of Beni-Mora, and to do that she knew that she must detach herself from close human contact. She desired the mind's bird's-eye view—a height, a watchtower and a little solitude. So, when the eager Mozabite merchants called to her she did not heed them, and even the busy patter of the informing Batouch fell upon rather listless ears.
"I sha'n't stay here," she said to him. "But I'll buy some perfumes. Where can I get them?"
A thin youth, brooding above a wooden tray close by, held up in his delicate fingers a long bottle, sealed and furnished with a tiny label, but Batouch shook his head.
"For perfumes you must go to Ahmeda, under the arcade."
They crossed a sunlit space and stood before a dark room, sunk lightly below the level of the pathway in a deserted corner. Shadows congregated here, and in the gloom Domini saw a bent white figure hunched against the blackened wall, and heard an old voice murmuring like a drowsy bee. The perfume-seller was immersed in the Koran, his back to the buying world. Batouch was about to call upon him, when Domini checked the exclamation with a quick gesture. For the first time the mystery that coils like a great black serpent in the shining heart of the East startled and fascinated her, a mystery in which indifference and devotion mingle. The white figure swayed slowly to and fro, carrying the dull, humming voice with it, and now she seemed to hear a far-away fanaticism, the bourdon of a fatalism which she longed to understand.
Batouch shouted. His voice came like a stone from a catapult. The merchant turned calmly and without haste, showing an aquiline face covered with wrinkles, tufted with white hairs, lit by eyes that shone with the cruel expressiveness of a falcon's. After a short colloquy in Arabic he raised himself from his haunches, and came to the front of the room, where there was a small wooden counter. He was smiling now with a grace that was almost feminine.
"What perfume does Madame desire?" he said in French.
Domini gazed at him as at a deep mystery, but with the searching directness characteristic of her, a fearlessness so absolute that it embarrassed many people.
"Please give me something that is of the East—not violets, not lilac."
"Amber," said Batouch.
The merchant, still smiling, reached up to a shelf, showing an arm like a brown twig, and took down a glass bottle covered with red and green lines. He removed the stopper, made Domini take off her glove, touched her bare hand with the stopper, then with his forefinger gently rubbed the drop of perfume which had settled on her skin till it was slightly red.
"Now, smell it," he commanded.
Domini obeyed. The perfume was faintly medicinal, but it filled her brain with exotic visions. She shut her eyes. Yes, that was a voice of Africa too. Oh! how far away she was from her old life and hollow days. The magic carpet had been spread indeed, and she had been wafted into a strange land where she had all to learn.
"Please give me some of that," she said.
The merchant poured the amber into a phial, where it lay like a thread in the glass, weighed it in a scales and demanded a price. Batouch began at once to argue with vehemence, but Domini stopped him.
"Pay him," she said, giving Batouch her purse.
The perfume-seller took the money with dignity, turned away, squatted upon his haunches against the blackened wall, and picked up the broad- leaved volume which lay upon the floor. He swayed gently and rhythmically to and fro. Then once more the voice of the drowsy bee hummed in the shadows. The worshipper and the Prophet stood before the feet of Allah.
And the woman—she was set afar off, as woman is by white-robed men in Africa.
"Now, Batouch, you can carry the perfume to the hotel and I will go to that garden."
"Alone? Madame will never find it."
"I can ask the way."
"Impossible! I will escort Madame to the gate. There I will wait for her. Monsieur the Count does not permit the Arabs to enter with strangers."
"Very well," Domini said.
The seller of perfumes had led her towards a dream. She was not combative, and she would be alone in the garden. As they walked towards it in the sun, through narrow ways where idle Arabs lounged with happy aimlessness, Batouch talked of Count Anteoni, the owner of the garden.
Evidently the Count was the great personage of Beni-Mora. Batouch spoke of him with a convinced respect, describing him as fabulously rich, fabulously generous to the Arabs.
"He never gives to the French, Madame, but when he is here each Friday, upon our Sabbath, he comes to the gate with a bag of money in his hand, and he gives five franc pieces to every Arab who is there."
"And what is he? French?"
"He is Italian; but he is always travelling, and he has made gardens everywhere. He has three in Africa alone, and in one he keeps many lions. When he travels he takes six Arabs with him. He loves only the Arabs."
Domini began to feel interested in this wandering maker of gardens, who was a pilgrim over the world like Monte Cristo.
"Is he young?" she asked.
"Oh, no! He is always alone. Sometimes he comes here and stays for three months, and is never once seen outside the garden. And sometimes for a year he never comes to Beni-Mora. But he is here now. Twenty Arabs are always working in the garden, and at night ten Arabs with guns are always awake, some in a tent inside the door and some among the trees.
"Then there is danger at night?"
"The garden touches the desert, and those who are in the desert without arms are as birds in the air without wings."
They had come out from among the houses now into a broad, straight road, bordered on the left by land that was under cultivation, by fruit trees, and farther away by giant palms, between whose trunks could be seen the stony reaches of the desert and spurs of grey-blue and faint rose-coloured mountains. On the right was a shady garden with fountains and stone benches, and beyond stood a huge white palace built in the Moorish style, and terraced roofs and a high tower ornamented with green and peacock-blue tiles. In the distance, among more palms, appeared a number of low, flat huts of brown earth. The road, as far as the eyes could see, stretched straight forward through enormous groves of palms, whose feathery tops swayed gently in the light wind that blew from the desert. Upon all things rained a flood of blue and gold. A blinding radiance made all things glad.
"How glorious light is!" Domini exclaimed, as she looked down the road to the point where its whiteness was lost in the moving ocean of the trees.
Batouch assented without enthusiasm, having always lived in the light.
"As we return from the garden we will visit the tower," he said, pointing to the Moorish palace. "It is a hotel, and is not yet open, but I know the guardian. From the tower Madame will see the whole of Beni-Mora. Here is the negro village."
They traversed its dusty alleys slowly. On the side where the low brown dwellings threw shadows some of the inhabitants were dreaming or chattering, wrapped in garments of gaudy cotton. Little girls in the fiercest orange colour, with tattooed foreheads and leathern amulets, darted to and fro, chasing each other and shrieking with laughter. Naked babies, whose shaven heads made a warm resting-place for flies, stared at Domini with a lustrous vacancy of expression. At the corners of the alleys unveiled women squatted, grinding corn in primitive hand-mills, or winding wool on wooden sticks. Their heads were covered with plaits of imitation hair made of wool, in which barbaric silver ornaments were fastened, and their black necks and arms jingled with chains and bangles set with squares of red coral and large dull blue and green stones. Some of them called boldly to Batouch, and he answered them with careless impudence. The palm-wood door of one of the houses stood wide open, and Domini looked in. She saw a dark space with floor and walls of earth, a ceiling of palm and brushwood, a low divan of earth without mat or covering of any kind.
"They have no furniture?" she asked Batouch.
"No. What do they want with it? They live out here in the sun and go in to sleep."
Life simplified to this extent made her smile. Yet she looked at the squatting figures in the gaudy cotton rags with a stirring of envy. The memory of her long and complicated London years, filled with a multitude of so-called pleasures which had never stifled the dull pain set up in her heart by the rude shock of her mother's sin and its result, made this naked, sunny, barbarous existence seem desirable. She stood for a moment to watch two women sorting grain for cous-cous. Their guttural laughter, their noisy talk, the quick and energetic movements of their busy black hands, reminded her of children's gaiety. And Nature rose before her in the sunshine, confronting artifice and the heavy languors of modern life in cities. How had she been able to endure the yoke so long?
"Will Madame take me to London with her when she returns?" said Batouch, slyly.
"I am not going back to London for a very long time," she replied with energy.
"You will stay here many weeks?"
"Months, perhaps. And perhaps I shall travel on into the desert. Yes, I must do that."
"If we followed the white road into the desert, and went on and on for many days, we should come at last to Tombouctou," said Batouch. "But very likely we should be killed by the Touaregs. They are fierce and they hate strangers."
"Would you be afraid to go?" Domini asked him, curiously.
"Of being killed?"
He looked calmly surprised. "Why should I be afraid to die? All must pass through that door. It does not matter whether it is to-day or to-morrow."
"You have no fear of death, then?"
"Of course not. Have you, Madame?" He gazed at Domini with genuine astonishment.
"I don't know," she answered.
And she wondered and could not tell.
"There is the Villa Anteoni."
Batouch lifted his hand and pointed. They had turned aside from the way to Tombouctou, left the village behind them, and come into a narrow track which ran parallel to the desert. The palm trees rustled on their right, the green corn waved, the narrow cuttings in the earth gleamed with shallow water. But on their other side was limitless sterility; the wide, stony expanse of the great river bed, the Oued- Beni-Mora, then a low earth cliff, and then the immense airy flats stretching away into the shining regions of the sun. At some distance, raised on a dazzling white wall above the desert in an unshaded place, Domini saw a narrow, two-sided white house, with a flat roof and a few tiny loopholes instead of windows. One side looked full upon the waterless river bed, the other, at right angles to it, ran back towards a thicket of palms and ended in an arcade of six open Moorish arches, through which the fierce blue of the cloudless sky stared, making an almost theatrical effect. Beyond, masses of trees were visible, looking almost black against the intense, blinding pallor of wall, villa and arcade, the intense blue above.
"What a strange house!" Domini said. "There are no windows."
"They are all on the other side, looking into the garden."
The villa fascinated Domini at once. The white Moorish arcade framing bare, quivering blue, blue from the inmost heart of heaven, intense as a great vehement cry, was beautiful as the arcade of a Geni's home in Fairyland. Mystery hung about this dwelling, a mystery of light, not darkness, secrets of flame and hidden things of golden meaning. She felt almost like a child who is about to penetrate into the red land of the winter fire, and she hastened her steps till she reached a tall white gate set in an arch of wood, and surmounted with a white coat of arms and two lions. Batouch struck on it with a white knocker and then began to roll a cigarette.
"I will wait here for Madame."
Domini nodded. A leaf of wood was pulled back softly in the gate, and she stepped into the garden and confronted a graceful young Arab dressed in pale green, who saluted her respectfully and gently closed the door.
"May I walk about the garden a little?" she asked.
She did not look round her yet, for the Arab's face interested and even charmed her. It was aristocratic, enchantingly indolent, like the face of a happy lotus-eater. The great, lustrous eyes were tender as a gazelle's and thoughtless as the eyes of a sleepy child. His perfectly-shaped feet were bare on the shining sand. In one hand he held a large red rose and in the other a half-smoked cigarette.
Domini could not kelp smiling at him as she put her question, and he smiled contentedly back at her as he answered, in a low, level voice:
"You can go where you will. Shall I show you the paths?"
He lifted his hand and calmly smelt his red rose, keeping his great eyes fixed upon her. Domini's wish to be alone had left her. This was surely the geni of the garden, and his company would add to its mystery and fragrance.
"You need not stay by the door?" she asked.
"No one will come. There is no one in Beni-Mora. And Hassan will stay."
He pointed with his rose to a little tent that was pitched close to the gate beneath a pepper tree. In it Domini saw a brown boy curled up like a dog and fast asleep. She began to feel as if she had eaten hashish. The world seemed made for dreaming.
"Thank you, then."
And now for the first time she looked round to see whether Batouch had implied the truth. Must the European gardens give way to this Eastern garden, take a lower place with all their roses?
She stood on a great expanse of newly-raked smooth sand, rising in a very gentle slope to a gigantic hedge of carefully trimmed evergreens, which projected at the top, forming a roof and casting a pleasant shade upon the sand. At intervals white benches were placed under this hedge. To the right was the villa. She saw now that it was quite small. There were two lines of windows—on the ground floor and the upper story. The lower windows opened on to the sand, those above on to a verandah with a white railing, which was gained by a white staircase outside the house built beneath the arches of the arcade. The villa was most delicately simple, but in this riot of blue and gold its ivory cleanliness, set there upon the shining sand which was warm to the foot, made it look magical to Domini. She thought she had never known before what spotless purity was like.
"Those are the bedrooms," murmured the Arab at her side.
"There are only bedrooms?" she asked in surprise.
"The other rooms, the drawing-room of Monsieur the Count, the dining- room, the smoking-room, the Moorish bath, the room of the little dog, the kitchen and the rooms for the servants are in different parts of the garden. There is the dining-room."
He pointed with his rose to a large white building, whose dazzling walls showed here and there through the masses of trees to the left, where a little raised sand-path with flattened, sloping sides wound away into a maze of shadows diapered with gold.
"Let us go down that path," Domini said almost in a whisper.
The spell of the place was descending upon her. This was surely a home of dreams, a haven where the sun came to lie down beneath the trees and sleep.
"What is your name?" she added.
"Smain," replied the Arab. "I was born in this garden. My father, Mohammed, was with Monsieur the Count."
He led the way over the sand, moving silently on his long, brown feet, straight as a reed in a windless place. Domini followed, holding her breath. Only sometimes she let her strong imagination play utterly at its will. She let it go now as she and Smain turned into the golden diapered shadows of the little path and came into the swaying mystery of the trees. The longing for secrecy, for remoteness, for the beauty of far away had sometimes haunted her, especially in the troubled moments of her life. Her heart, oppressed, had overleaped the horizon line in answer to a calling from hidden things beyond. Her emotions had wandered, seeking the great distances in which the dim purple twilight holds surely comfort for those who suffer. But she had never thought to find any garden of peace that realised her dreams. Nevertheless, she was already conscious that Smain with his rose was showing her the way to her ideal, that her feet were set upon its pathway, that its legendary trees were closing round her.
Behind the evergreen hedge she heard the liquid bubbling of a hidden waterfall, and when they had left the untempered sunlight behind them this murmur grew louder. It seemed as if the green gloom in which they walked acted as a sounding-board to the delicious voice. The little path wound on and on between two running rills of water, which slipped incessantly away under the broad and yellow-tipped leaves of dwarf palms, making a music so faint that it was more like a remembered sound in the mind than one which slid upon the ear. On either hand towered a jungle of trees brought to this home in the desert from all parts of the world.
There were many unknown to Domini, but she recognised several varieties of palms, acacias, gums, fig trees, chestnuts, poplars, false pepper trees, the huge olive trees called Jamelons, white laurels, indiarubber and cocoanut trees, bananas, bamboos, yuccas, many mimosas and quantities of tall eucalyptus trees. Thickets of scarlet geranium flamed in the twilight. The hibiscus lifted languidly its frail and rosy cup, and the red gold oranges gleamed amid leaves that looked as if they had been polished by an attentive fairy.
As she went with Smain farther into the recesses of the garden the voice of the waterfall died away. No birds were singing. Domini thought that perhaps they dared not sing lest they might wake the sun from its golden reveries, but afterwards, when she knew the garden better, she often heard them twittering with a subdued, yet happy, languor, as if joining in a nocturn upon the edge of sleep. Under the trees the sand was yellow, of a shade so voluptuously beautiful that she longed to touch it with her bare feet like Smain. Here and there it rose in symmetrical little pyramids, which hinted at absent gardeners, perhaps enjoying a siesta.
Never before had she fully understood the enchantment of green, quite realised how happy a choice was made on that day of Creation when it was showered prodigally over the world. But now, as she walked secretly over the yellow sand between the rills, following the floating green robe of Smain, she rested her eyes, and her soul, on countless mingling shades of the delicious colour; rough, furry green of geranium leaves, silver green of olives, black green of distant palms from which the sun held aloof, faded green of the eucalyptus, rich, emerald green of fan-shaped, sunlit palms, hot, sultry green of bamboos, dull, drowsy green of mulberry trees and brooding chestnuts. It was a choir of colours in one colour, like a choir of boys all with treble voices singing to the sun.
Gold flickered everywhere, weaving patterns of enchantment, quivering, vital patterns of burning beauty. Down the narrow, branching paths that led to inner mysteries the light ran in and out, peeping between the divided leaves of plants, gliding over the slippery edges of the palm branches, trembling airily where the papyrus bent its antique head, dancing among the big blades of sturdy grass that sprouted in tufts here and there, resting languidly upon the glistening magnolias that were besieged by somnolent bees. All the greens and all the golds of Creation were surely met together in this profound retreat to prove the perfect harmony of earth with sun.
And now, growing accustomed to the pervading silence, Domini began to hear the tiny sounds that broke it. They came from the trees and plants. The airs were always astir, helping the soft designs of Nature, loosening a leaf from its stem and bearing it to the sand, striking a berry from its place and causing it to drop at Domini's feet, giving a faded geranium petal the courage to leave its more vivid companions and resign itself to the loss of the place it could no longer fill with beauty. Very delicate was the touch of the dying upon the yellow sand. It increased the sense of pervading mystery and made Domini more deeply conscious of the pulsing life of the garden.
"There is the room of the little dog," said Smain.
They had come out into a small open space, over which an immense cocoanut tree presided. Low box hedges ran round two squares of grass which were shadowed by date palms heavy with yellow fruit, and beneath some leaning mulberry trees Domini saw a tiny white room with two glass windows down to the ground. She went up to it and peeped in, smiling.
There, in a formal salon, with gilt chairs, oval, polished tables, faded rugs and shining mirrors, sat a purple china dog with his tail curled over his back sternly staring into vacancy. His expression and his attitude were autocratic and determined, betokening a tyrannical nature, and Domini peeped at him with precaution, holding herself very still lest he should become aware of her presence and resent it.
"Monsieur the Count paid much money for the dog," murmured Smain. "He is very valuable."
"How long has he been there?"
"For many years. He was there when I was born, and I have been married twice and divorced twice."
Domini turned from the window and looked at Smain with astonishment. He was smelling his rose like a dreamy child.
"You have been divorced twice?"
"Yes. Now I will show Madame the smoking-room."
They followed another of the innumerable alleys of the garden. This one was very narrow and less densely roofed with trees than those they had already traversed. Tall shrubs bent forward on either side of it, and their small leaves almost meeting, were transformed by the radiant sunbeams into tongues of pale fire, quivering, well nigh transparent. As she approached them Domini could not resist the fancy that they would burn her. A brown butterfly flitted forward between them and vanished into the golden dream beyond.
"Oh, Smain, how you must love this garden!" she said.
A sort of ecstasy was waking within her. The pure air, the caressing warmth, the enchanted stillness and privacy of this domain touched her soul and body like the hands of a saint with power to bless her.
"I could live here for ever," she added, "without once wishing to go out into the world."
Smain looked drowsily pleased.
"We are coming to the centre of the garden," he said, as they passed over a palm-wood bridge beneath which a stream glided under the red petals of geraniums.
The tongues of flame were left behind. Green darkness closed in upon them and the sand beneath their feet looked blanched. The sense of mystery increased, for the trees were enormous and grew densely here. Pine needles lay upon the ground, and there was a stirring of sudden wind far up above their heads in the tree-tops.
"This is the part of the garden that Monsieur the Count loves," said Smain. "He comes here every day."
"What is that?" said Domini, suddenly stopping on the pale sand.
A thin and remote sound stole to them down the alley, clear and frail as the note of a night bird.
"It is Larbi playing upon the flute. He is in love. That is why he plays when he ought to be watering the flowers and raking out the sand."
The distant love-song of the flute seemed to Domini the last touch of enchantment making this indeed a wonderland. She could not move, and held up her hands to stay the feet of Smain, who was quite content to wait. Never before had she heard any music that seemed to mean and suggest so much to her as this African tune played by an enamoured gardener. Queer and uncouth as it was, distorted with ornaments and tricked out with abrupt runs, exquisitely unnecessary grace notes, and sudden twitterings prolonged till a strange and frivolous Eternity tripped in to banish Time, it grasped Domini's fancy and laid a spell upon her imagination. For it sounded as naively sincere as the song of a bird, and as if the heart from which it flowed were like the heart of a child, a place of revelation, not of concealment. The sun made men careless here. They opened their windows to it, and one could see into the warm and glowing rooms. Domini looked at the gentle Arab youth beside her, already twice married and twice divorced. She listened to Larbi's unending song of love. And she said to herself, "These people, uncivilised or not, at least live, and I have been dead all my life, dead in life." That was horribly possible. She knew it as she felt the enormously powerful spell of Africa descending upon her, enveloping her quietly but irresistibly. The dream of this garden was quick with a vague and yet fierce stirring of realities. There was a murmuring of many small and distant voices, like the voices of innumerable tiny things following restless activities in a deep forest. As she stood there the last grain of European dust was lifted from Domini's soul. How deeply it had been buried, and for how many years.
"The greatest act of man is the act of renunciation." She had just heard those words. The eyes of the priest had flamed as he spoke them, and she had caught the spark of his enthusiasm. But now another fire seemed lit within her, and she found herself marvelling at such austerity. Was it not a fanatical defiance flung into the face of the sun? She shrank from her own thought, like one startled, and walked on softly in the green darkness.
Larbi's flute became more distant. Again and again it repeated the same queer little melody, changing the ornamentation at the fantasy of the player. She looked for him among the trees but saw no one. He must be in some very secret place. Smain touched her.
"Look!" he said, and his voice was very low.
He parted the branches of some palms with his delicate hands, and Domini, peering between them, saw in a place of deep shadows an isolated square room, whose white walls were almost entirely concealed by masses of purple bougainvillea. It had a flat roof. In three of its sides were large arched window-spaces without windows. In the fourth was a narrow doorway without a door. Immense fig trees and palms and thickets of bamboo towered around it and leaned above it. And it was circled by a narrow riband of finely-raked sand.
"That is the smoking-room of Monsieur the Count," said Smain. "He spends many hours there. Come and I will show the inside to Madame."
They turned to the left and went towards the room. The flute was close to them now. "Larbi must be in there," Domini whispered to Smain, as a person whispers in a church.
"No, he is among the trees beyond."
"But someone is there."
She pointed to the arched window-space nearest to them. A thin spiral of blue-grey smoke curled through it and evaporated into the shadows of the trees. After a moment it was followed gently and deliberately by another.
"It is not Larbi. He would not go in there. It must be——"
He paused. A tall, middle-aged man had come to the doorway of the little room and looked out into the garden with bright eyes.
Domini drew back and glanced at Smain. She was not accustomed to feeling intrusive, and the sudden sensation rendered her uneasy.
"It is Monsieur the Count," Smain said calmly and quite aloud.
The man in the doorway took off his soft hat, as if the words effected an introduction between Domini and him.
"You were coming to see my little room, Madame?" he said in French. "If I may show it to you I shall feel honoured."
The timbre of his voice was harsh and grating, yet it was a very interesting, even a seductive, voice, and, Domini thought, peculiarly full of vivid life, though not of energy. His manner at once banished her momentary discomfort. There is a freemasonry between people born in the same social world. By the way in which Count Anteoni took off his hat and spoke she knew at once that all was right.
"Thank you, Monsieur," she answered. "I was told at the gate you gave permission to travellers to visit your garden."
He spoke a few words in fluent Arabic to Smain, who turned away and disappeared among the trees.
"I hope you will allow me to accompany you through the rest of the garden," he said, turning again to Domini. "It will give me great pleasure."
"It is very kind of you."
The way in which the change of companion had been effected made it seem a pleasant, inevitable courtesy, which neither implied nor demanded anything.
"This is my little retreat," Count Anteoni continued, standing aside from the doorway that Domini might enter.
She drew a long breath when she was within.
The floor was of fine sand, beaten flat and hard, and strewn with Eastern rugs of faint and delicate hues, dim greens and faded rose colours, grey-blues and misty topaz yellows. Round the white walls ran broad divans, also white, covered with prayer rugs from Bagdad, and large cushions, elaborately worked in dull gold and silver thread, with patterns of ibises and flamingoes in flight. In the four angles of the room stood four tiny smoking-tables of rough palm wood, holding hammered ash-trays of bronze, green bronze torches for the lighting of cigarettes, and vases of Chinese dragon china filled with velvety red roses, gardenias and sprigs of orange blossom. Leather footstools, covered with Tunisian thread-work, lay beside them. From the arches of the window-spaces hung old Moorish lamps of copper, fitted with small panes of dull jewelled glass, such as may be seen in venerable church windows. In a round copper brazier, set on one of the window-seats, incense twigs were drowsily burning and giving out thin, dwarf columns of scented smoke. Through the archways and the narrow doorway the dense walls of leafage were visible standing on guard about this airy hermitage, and the hot purple blossoms of the bougainvillea shed a cloud of colour through the bosky dimness.
And still the flute of Larbi showered soft, clear, whimsical music from some hidden place close by.
Domini looked at her host, who was standing by the doorway, leaning one arm against the ivory-white wall.
"This is my first day in Africa," she said simply. "You may imagine what I think of your garden, what I feel in it. I needn't tell you. Indeed, I am sure the travellers you so kindly let in must often have worried you with their raptures."
"No," he answered, with a still gravity which yet suggested kindness, "for I leave nearly always before the travellers come. That sounds a little rude? But you would not be in Beni-Mora at this season, Madame, if it could include you."
"I have come here for peace," Domini replied simply.
She said it because she felt as if it was already understood by her companion.
Count Anteoni took down his arm from the white wall and pulled a branch of the purple flowers slowly towards him through the doorway.
"There is peace—what is generally called so, at least—in Beni-Mora," he answered rather slowly and meditatively. "That is to say, there is similarity of day with day, night with night. The sun shines untiringly over the desert, and the desert always hints at peace."
He let the flowers go, and they sprang softly back, and hung quivering in the space beyond his thin figure. Then he added:
"Perhaps one should not say more than that."
Domini sat down for a moment. She looked up at him with her direct eyes and at the shaking flowers. The sound of Larbi's flute was always in her ears.
"But may not one think, feel a little more?" she asked.
"Oh, why not? If one can, if one must? But how? Africa is as fierce and full of meaning as a furnace, you know."
"Yes, I know—already," she replied.
His words expressed what she had already felt here in Beni-Mora, surreptitiously and yet powerfully. He said it, and last night the African hautboy had said it. Peace and a flame. Could they exist together, blended, married?
"Africa seems to me to agree through contradiction," she added, smiling a little, and touching the snowy wall with her right hand. "But then, this is my first day."
"Mine was when I was a boy of sixteen."
"This garden wasn't here then?"
"No. I had it made. I came here with my mother. She spoilt me. She let me have my whim."
"This garden is your boy's whim?"
"It was. Now it is a man's——"
He seemed to hesitate.
"Paradise," suggested Domini.
"I think I was going to say hiding-place."
There was no bitterness in his odd, ugly voice, yet surely the words implied bitterness. The wounded, the fearful, the disappointed, the condemned hide. Perhaps he remembered this, for he added rather quickly:
"I come here to be foolish, Madame, for I come here to think. This is my special thinking place."
"How strange!" Domini exclaimed impulsively, and leaning forward on the divan.
"I only mean that already Beni-Mora has seemed to me the ideal place for that."
"For finding out interior truth."
Count Anteoni looked at her rather swiftly and searchingly. His eyes were not large, but they were bright, and held none of the languor so often seen in the eyes of his countrymen. His face was expressive through its mobility rather than through its contours. The features were small and refined, not noble, but unmistakably aristocratic. The nose was sensitive, with wide nostrils. A long and straight moustache, turning slightly grey, did not hide the mouth, which had unusually pale lips. The ears were set very flat against the head, and were finely shaped. The chin was pointed. The general look of the whole face was tense, critical, conscious, but in the defiant rather than in the timid sense. Such an expression belongs to men who would always be aware of the thoughts and feelings of others concerning them, but who would throw those thoughts and feelings off as decisively and energetically as a dog shakes the waterdrops from its coat on emerging from a swim.
"And sending it forth, like Ishmael, to shift for itself in the desert," he said.
The odd remark sounded like neither statement nor question, merely like the sudden exclamation of a mind at work.
"Will you allow me to take you through the rest of the garden, Madame?" he added in a more formal voice.
"Thank you," said Domini, who had already got up, moved by the examining look cast at her.
There was nothing in it to resent, and she had not resented it, but it had recalled her to the consciousness that they were utter strangers to each other.
As they came out on the pale riband of sand which circled the little room Domini said:
"How wild and extraordinary that tune is!"
"Larbi's. I suppose it is, but no African music seems strange to me. I was born on my father's estate, near Tunis. He was a Sicilian; but came to North Africa each winter. I have always heard the tomtoms and the pipes, and I know nearly all the desert songs of the nomads."
"This is a love-song, isn't it?"
"Yes. Larbi is always in love, they tell me. Each new dancer catches him in her net. Happy Larbi!"
"Because he can love so easily?"
"Or unlove so easily. Look at him, Madame."
At a little distance, under a big banana tree, and half hidden by clumps of scarlet geraniums, Domini saw a huge and very ugly Arab, with an almost black skin, squatting on his heels, with a long yellow and red flute between his thick lips. His eyes were bent down, and he did not see them, but went on busily playing, drawing from his flute coquettish phrases with his big and bony fingers.
"And I pay him so much a week all the year round for doing that," the Count said.
His grating voice sounded kind and amused. They walked on, and Larbi's tune died gradually away.
"Somehow I can't be angry with the follies and vices of the Arabs," the Count continued. "I love them as they are; idle, absurdly amorous, quick to shed blood, gay as children, whimsical as—well, Madame, were I talking to a man I might dare to say pretty women."
"I will, then. I glory in their ingrained contempt of civilisation. But I like them to say their prayers five times in the day as it is commanded, and no Arab who touches alcohol in defiance of the Prophet's law sets foot in my garden."
There was a touch of harshness in his voice as he said the last words, the sound of the autocrat. Somehow Domini liked it. This man had convictions, and strong ones. That was certain. There was something oddly unconventional in him which something in her responded to. He was perfectly polite, and yet, she was quite sure, absolutely careless of opinion. Certainly he was very much a man.
"It is pleasant, too," he resumed, after a slight pause, "to be surrounded by absolutely thoughtless people with thoughtful faces and mysterious eyes—wells without truth at the bottom of them."
"No one must think here but you!"
"I prefer to keep all the folly to myself. Is not that a grand cocoanut?"
He pointed to a tree so tall that it seemed soaring to heaven.
"Yes, indeed. Like the one that presides over the purple dog."
"You have seen my fetish?"
"Smain showed him to me, with reverence."
"Oh, he is king here. The Arabs declare that on moonlight nights they have heard him joining in the chorus of the Kabyle dogs."
"You speak almost as if you believed it."
"Well, I believe more here than I believe anywhere else. That is partly why I come here."
"I can understand that—I mean believing much here."
"What! Already you feel the spell of Beni-Mora, the desert spell! Yes, there is enchantment here—and so I never stay too long."
"For fear of what?"
Count Anteoni was walking easily beside her. He walked from the hips, like many Sicilians, swaying very slightly, as if he liked to be aware how supple his body still was. As Domini spoke he stopped. They were now at a place where four paths joined, and could see four vistas of green and gold, of magical sunlight and shadow.
"I scarcely know; of being carried who knows where—in mind or heart. Oh, there is danger in Beni-Mora, Madame, there is danger. This startling air is full of influences, of desert spirits."
He looked at her in a way she could not understand—but it made her think of the perfume-seller in his little dark room, and of the sudden sensation she had had that mystery coils, like a black serpent, in the shining heart of the East.
"And now, Madame, which path shall we take? This one leads to my drawing-room, that on the right to the Moorish bath."
"That one goes straight down to the wall that overlooks the Sahara."
"Please let us take it."
"The desert spirits are calling to you? But you are wise. What makes this garden remarkable is not its arrangement, the number and variety of its trees, but the fact that it lies flush with the Sahara—like a man's thoughts of truth with Truth, perhaps."
He turned up the tail of the sentence and his harsh voice gave a little grating crack.
"I don't believe they are so different from one another as the garden and the desert."
She looked at him directly.
"It would be too ironical."
"But nothing is," the Count said.
"You have discovered that in this garden?"
"Ah, it is new to you, Madame!"
For the first time there was a sound of faint bitterness in his voice.
"One often discovers the saddest thing in the loveliest place," he added. "There you begin to see the desert."
Far away, at the small orifice of the tunnel of trees down which they were walking, appeared a glaring patch of fierce and quivering sunlight.
"I can only see the sun," Domini said.
"I know so well what it hides that I imagine I actually see the desert. One loves one's kind, assiduous liar. Isn't it so?"
"The imagination? But perhaps I am not disposed to allow that it is a liar."
"Who knows? You may be right."
He looked at her kindly with his bright eyes. It had not seem to strike him that their conversation was curiously intimate, considering that they were strangers to one another, that he did not even know her name. Domini wondered suddenly how old he was. That look made him seem much older than he had seemed before. There was such an expression in his eyes as may sometimes be seen in eyes that look at a child who is kissing a rag doll with deep and determined affection. "Kiss your doll!" they seemed to say. "Put off the years when you must know that dolls can never return a kiss."
"I begin to see the desert now," Domini said after a moment of silent walking. "How wonderful it is!"
"Yes, it is. The most wonderful thing in Nature. You will think it much more wonderful when you fancy you know it well."
"I don't think anyone can ever really know the desert. It is the thing that keeps calling, and does not permit one to draw near."
"But then, one might learn to hate it."
"I don't think so. Truth does just the same, you know. And yet men keep on trying to draw near."
"But sometimes they succeed."
"Do they? Not when they live in gardens."
He laughed for the first time since they had been together, and all his face was covered with a network of little moving lines.
"One should never live in a garden, Madame."
"I will try to take your word for it, but the task will be difficult."
"Yes? More difficult, perhaps, when you see what lies beside my thoughts of truth."
As he spoke they came out from the tunnel and were seized by the fierce hands of the sun. It was within half an hour of noon, and the radiance was blinding. Domini put up her parasol sharply, like one startled. She stopped.
"But how tremendous!" she exclaimed.
Count Anteoni laughed again, and drew down the brim of his grey hat over his eyes. The hand with which he did it was almost as burnt as an Arab's.
"You are afraid of it?"
"No, no. But it startled me. We don't know the sun really in Europe."
"No. Not even in Southern Italy, not even in Sicily. It is fierce there in summer, but it seems further away. Here it insists on the most intense intimacy. If you can bear it we might sit down for a moment?"
All along the edge of the garden, from the villa to the boundary of Count Anteoni's domain, ran a straight high wall made of earth bricks hardened by the sun and topped by a coping of palm wood painted white. This wall was some eight feet high on the side next to the desert, but the garden was raised in such a way that the inner side was merely a low parapet running along the sand path. In this parapet were cut small seats, like window-seats, in which one could rest and look full upon the desert as from a little cliff. Domini sat down on one of them, and the Count stood by her, resting one foot on the top of the wall and leaning his right arm on his knee.
"There is the world on which I look for my hiding-place," he said. "A vast world, isn't it?"
Domini nodded without speaking.
Immediately beneath them, in the narrow shadow of the wall, was a path of earth and stones which turned off at the right at the end of the garden into the oasis. Beyond lay the vast river bed, a chaos of hot boulders bounded by ragged low earth cliffs, interspersed here and there with small pools of gleaming water. These cliffs were yellow. From their edge stretched the desert, as Eternity stretches from the edge of Time. Only to the left was the immeasurable expanse intruded upon by a long spur of mountains, which ran out boldly for some distance and then stopped abruptly, conquered and abashed by the imperious flats. Beneath the mountains were low, tent-like, cinnamon- coloured undulations, which reminded Domini of those made by a shaken- out sheet, one smaller than the other till they melted into the level. The summits of the most distant mountains, which leaned away as if in fear of the desert, were dark and mistily purple. Their flanks were iron grey at this hour, flecked in the hollows with the faint mauve and pink which became carnation colour when the sun set.
Domini scarcely looked at them. Till now she had always thought that she loved mountains. The desert suddenly made them insignificant, almost mean to her. She turned her eyes towards the flat spaces. It was in them that majesty lay, mystery, power, and all deep and significant things. In the midst of the river bed, and quite near, rose a round and squat white tower with a small cupola. Beyond it, on the little cliff, was a tangle of palms where a tiny oasis sheltered a few native huts. At an immense distance, here and there, other oases showed as dark stains show on the sea where there are hidden rocks. And still farther away, on all hands, the desert seemed to curve up slightly like a shallow wine-hued cup to the misty blue horizon line, which resembled a faintly seen and mysterious tropical sea, so distant that its sultry murmur was lost in the embrace of the intervening silence.
An Arab passed on the path below the wall. He did not see them. A white dog with curling lips ran beside him. He was singing to himself in a low, inward voice. He went on and turned towards the oasis, still singing as he walked slowly.
"Do you know what he is singing?" the Count asked.
Domini shook her head. She was straining her ears to hear the melody as long as possible.
"It is a desert song of the freed negroes of Touggourt—'No one but God and I knows what is in my heart.'"
Domini lowered her parasol to conceal her face. In the distance she could still hear the song, but it was dying away.
"Oh! what is going to happen to me here?" she thought.
Count Anteoni was looking away from her now across the desert. A strange impulse rose up in her. She could not resist it. She put down her parasol, exposing herself to the blinding sunlight, knelt down on the hot sand, leaned her arms on the white parapet, put her chin in the upturned palms of her hands and stared into the desert almost fiercely.
"No one but God and I knows what is in my heart," she thought. "But that's not true, that's not true. For I don't know."
The last echo of the Arab's song fainted on the blazing air. Surely it had changed now. Surely, as he turned into the shadows of the palms, he was singing, "No one but God knows what is in my heart." Yes, he was singing that. "No one but God—no one but God."
Count Anteoni looked down at her. She did not notice it, and he kept his eyes on her for a moment. Then he turned to the desert again.
By degrees, as she watched, Domini became aware of many things indicative of life, and of many lives in the tremendous expanse that at first had seemed empty of all save sun and mystery. She saw low, scattered tents, far-off columns of smoke rising. She saw a bird pass across the blue and vanish towards the mountains. Black shapes appeared among the tiny mounds of earth, crowned with dusty grass and dwarf tamarisk bushes. She saw them move, like objects in a dream, slowly through the shimmering gold. They were feeding camels, guarded by nomads whom she could not see.
At first she persistently explored the distances, carried forcibly by an elan of her whole nature to the remotest points her eyes could reach. Then she withdrew her gaze gradually, reluctantly, from the hidden summoning lands, whose verges she had with difficulty gained, and looked, at first with apprehension, upon the nearer regions. But her apprehension died when she found that the desert transmutes what is close as well as what is remote, suffuses even that which the hand could almost touch with wonder, beauty, and the deepest, most strange significance.
Quite near in the river bed she saw an Arab riding towards the desert upon a prancing black horse. He mounted a steep bit of path and came out on the flat ground at the cliff top. Then he set his horse at a gallop, raising his bridle hand and striking his heels into the flanks of the beast. And each of his movements, each of the movements of his horse, was profoundly interesting, and held the attention of the onlooker in a vice, as if the fates of worlds depended upon where he was carried and how soon he reached his goal. A string of camels laden with wooden bales met him on the way, and this chance encounter seemed to Domini fraught with almost terrible possibilities. Why? She did not ask herself. Again she sent her gaze further, to the black shapes moving stealthily among the little mounds, to the spirals of smoke rising into the glimmering air. Who guarded those camels? Who fed those distant fires? Who watched beside them? It seemed of vital consequence to her that she should know.
Count Anteoni took out his watch and glanced at it.
"I am looking to see if it is nearly the hour of prayer," he said. "When I am in Beni-Mora I usually come here then."
"You turn to the desert as the faithful turn towards Mecca?"
"Yes. I like to see men praying in the desert."
He spoke indifferently, but Domini felt suddenly sure that within him there were depths of imagination, of tenderness, even perhaps of mysticism.
"An atheist in the desert is unimaginable," he added. "In cathedrals they may exist very likely, and even feel at home. I have seen cathedrals in which I could believe I was one, but—how many human beings can you see in the desert at this moment, Madame?"
Domini, still with her round chin in her hands, searched the blazing region with her eyes. She saw three running figures with the train of camels which was now descending into the river bed. In the shadow of the low white tower two more were huddled, motionless. She looked away to right and left, but saw only the shallow pools, the hot and gleaming boulders, and beyond the yellow cliffs the brown huts peeping through the palms. The horseman had disappeared.
"I can see five," she answered.
"Ah! you are not accustomed to the desert."
"There are more?"
"I could count up to a dozen. Which are yours?"
"The men with the camels and the men under that tower."
"There are four playing the jeu des dames in the shadow of the cliff opposite to us. There is one asleep under a red rock where the path ascends into the desert. And there are two more just at the edge of the little oasis—Filiash, as it is called. One is standing under a palm, and one is pacing up and down."
"You must have splendid eyes."
"They are trained to the desert. But there are probably a score of Arabs within sight whom I don't see."
"Oh! now I see the men at the edge of the oasis. How oddly that one is moving. He goes up and down like a sailor on the quarter-deck."
"Yes, it is curious. And he is in the full blaze of the sun. That can't be an Arab."
He drew a silver whistle from his waistcoat pocket, put it to his lips and sounded a call. In a moment Smain same running lightly over the sand. Count Anteoni said something to him in Arabic. He disappeared, and speedily returned with a pair of field-glasses. While he was gone Domini watched the two doll-like figures on the cliff in silence. One was standing under a large isolated palm tree absolutely still, as Arabs often stand. The other, at a short distance from him and full in the sun, went to and fro, to and fro, always measuring the same space of desert, and turning and returning at two given points which never varied. He walked like a man hemmed in by walls, yet around him were the infinite spaces. The effect was singularly unpleasant upon Domini. All things in the desert, as she had already noticed, became almost terribly significant, and this peculiar activity seemed full of some extraordinary and even horrible meaning. She watched it with straining eyes.
Count Anteoni took the glasses from Smain and looked through them, adjusting them carefully to suit his sight.
"Ecco!" he said. "I was right. That man is not an Arab."
He moved the glasses and glanced at Domini.
"You are not the only traveller here, Madame."
He looked through the glasses again.
"I knew that," she said.
"There is one at my hotel."
"Possibly this is he. He makes me think of a caged tiger, who has been so long in captivity that when you let him out he still imagines the bars to be all round him. What was he like?"
All the time he was speaking he was staring intently through the glasses. As Domini did not reply he removed them from his eyes and glanced at her inquiringly.
"I am trying to think what he looked like," she said slowly. "But I feel that I don't know. He was quite unlike any ordinary man."
"Would you care to see if you can recognise him? These are really marvellous glasses."
Domini took them from him with some eagerness.
"Twist them about till they suit your eyes."
At first she could see nothing but a fierce yellow glare. She turned the screw and gradually the desert came to her, startlingly distinct. The boulders of the river bed were enormous. She could see the veins of colour in them, a lizard running over one of them and disappearing into a dark crevice, then the white tower and the Arabs beneath it. One was an old man yawning; the other a boy. He rubbed the tip of his brown nose, and she saw the henna stains upon his nails. She lifted the glasses slowly and with precaution. The tower ran away. She came to the low cliff, to the brown huts and the palms, passed them one by one, and reached the last, which was separated from its companions. Under it stood a tall Arab in a garment like a white night-shirt.
"He looks as if he had only one eye!" she exclaimed.
"The palm-tree man—yes."
She travelled cautiously away from him, keeping the glasses level.
"Ah!" she said on an indrawn breath.
As she spoke the thin, nasal cry of a distant voice broke upon her ears, prolonging a strange call.
"The Mueddin," said Count Anteoni.
And he repeated in a low tone the words of the angel to the prophet: "Oh thou that art covered arise . . . and magnify thy Lord; and purify thy clothes, and depart from uncleanness."
The call died away and was renewed three times. The old man and the boy beneath the tower turned their faces towards Mecca, fell upon their knees and bowed their heads to the hot stones. The tall Arab under the palm sank down swiftly. Domini kept the glasses at her eyes. Through them, as in a sort of exaggerated vision, very far off, yet intensely distinct, she saw the man with whom she had travelled in the train. He went to and fro, to and fro on the burning ground till the fourth call of the Mueddin died away. Then, as he approached the isolated palm tree and saw the Arab beneath it fall to the earth and bow his long body in prayer, he paused and stood still as if in contemplation. The glasses were so powerful that it was possible to see the expressions on faces even at that distance. The expression on the traveller's face was, or seemed to be, at first one of profound attention. But this changed swiftly as he watched the bowing figure, and was succeeded by a look of uneasiness, then of fierce disgust, then—surely—of fear or horror. He turned sharply away like a driven man, and hurried off along the cliff edge in a striding walk, quickening his steps each moment till his departure became a flight. He disappeared behind a projection of earth where the path sank to the river bed.
Domini laid the glasses down on the wall and looked at Count Anteoni.
"You say an atheist in the desert is unimaginable?
"Isn't it true?"
"Has an atheist a hatred, a horror of prayer?"
"Chi lo sa? The devil shrank away from the lifted Cross."
"Because he knew how much that was true it symbolised."
"No doubt had it been otherwise he would have jeered, not cowered. But why do you ask me this question, Madame?"
"I have just seen a man flee from the sight of prayer."
"Yes. It was horrible."
She gave him back the glasses.
"They reveal that which should be hidden," she said.
Count Anteoni took the glasses slowly from her hands. As he bent to do it he looked steadily at her, and she could not read the expression in his eyes.
"The desert is full of truth. Is that what you mean?" he asked.
She made no reply. Count Anteoni stretched out his hand to the shining expanse before them.
"The man who is afraid of prayer is unwise to set foot beyond the palm trees," he said.
He answered her very gravely.
"The Arabs have a saying: 'The desert is the garden of Allah.'"
* * * * * *
Domini did not ascend the tower of the hotel that morning. She had seen enough for the moment, and did not wish to disturb her impressions by adding to them. So she walked back to the Hotel du Desert with Batouch.
Count Anteoni had said good-bye to her at the door of the garden, and had begged her to come again whenever she liked, and to spend as many hours there as she pleased.
"I shall take you at your word," she said frankly. "I feel that I may."
As they shook hands she gave him her card. He took out his. "By the way," he said, "the big hotel you passed in coming here is mine. I built it to prevent a more hideous one being built, and let it to the proprietor. You might like to ascend the tower. The view at sundown is incomparable. At present the hotel is shut, but the guardian will show you everything if you give him my card."
He pencilled some words in Arabic on the back from right to left.
"You write Arabic, too?" Domini said, watching the forming of the pretty curves with interest.
"Oh, yes; I am more than half African, though my father was a Sicilian and my mother a Roman."
He gave her the card, took off his hat and bowed. When the tall white door was softly shut by Smain, Domini felt rather like a new Eve expelled from Paradise, without an Adam as a companion in exile.
"Well, Madame?" said Batouch. "Have I spoken the truth?"
"Yes. No European garden can be so beautiful as that. Now I am going straight home."
She smiled to herself as she said the last word.
Outside the hotel they found Hadj looking ferocious. He exchanged some words with Batouch, accompanying them with violent gestures. When he had finished speaking he spat upon the ground.
"What is the matter with him?" Domini asked.
"The Monsieur who is staying here would not take him to-day, but went into the desert alone. Hadj wishes that the nomads may cut his throat, and that his flesh may be eaten by jackals. Hadj is sure that he is a bad man and will come to a bad end."
"Because he does not want a guide every day! But neither shall I."
"Madame is quite different. I would give my life for Madame."
"Don't do that, but go this afternoon and find me a horse. I don't want a quiet one, but something with devil, something that a Spahi would like to ride."
The desert spirits were speaking to her body as well as to her mind. A physical audacity was stirring in her, and she longed to give it vent.
"Madame is like the lion. She is afraid of nothing."
"You speak without knowing, Batouch. Don't come for me this afternoon, but bring round a horse, if you can find one, to-morrow morning."
"This very evening I will—"
"No, Batouch. I said to-morrow morning."
She spoke with a quiet but inflexible decision which silenced him. Then she gave him ten francs and went into the dark house, from which the burning noonday sun was carefully excluded. She intended to rest after dejeuner, and towards sunset to go to the big hotel and mount alone to the summit of the tower.
It was half-past twelve, and a faint rattle of knives and forks from the salle-a-manger told her that dejeuner was ready. She went upstairs, washed her face and hands in cold water, stood still while Suzanne shook the dust from her gown, and then descended to the public room. The keen air had given her an appetite.
The salle-a-manger was large and shady, and was filled with small tables, at only three of which were people sitting. Four French officers sat together at one. A small, fat, perspiring man of middle age, probably a commercial traveller, who had eyes like a melancholy toad, was at another, eating olives with anxious rapidity, and wiping his forehead perpetually with a dirty white handkerchief. At the third was the priest with whom Domini had spoken in the church. His napkin was tucked under his beard, and he was drinking soup as he bent well over his plate.
A young Arab waiter, with a thin, dissipated face, stood near the door in bright yellow slippers. When Domini came in he stole forward to show her to her table, making a soft, shuffling sound on the polished wooden floor. The priest glanced up over his napkin, rose and bowed. The French officers stared with an interest they were too chivalrous to attempt to conceal. Only the fat little man was entirely unconcerned. He wiped his forehead, stuck his fork deftly into an olive, and continued to look like a melancholy toad entangled by fate in commercial pursuits.
Domini's table was by a window, across which green Venetian shutters were drawn. It was at a considerable distance from the other guests, who0did not live in the house, but came there each day for their meals. Near it she noticed a table laid for one person, and so arranged that if he came to dejeuner he would sit exactly opposite to her. She wondered if it was for the man at whom she had just been looking through Count Anteoni's field-glasses, the man who had fled from prayer in the "Garden of Allah." As she glanced at the empty chair standing before the knives and forks, and the white cloth, she was uncertain whether she wished it to be filled by the traveller or not. She felt his presence in Beni-Mora as a warring element. That she knew. She knew also that she had come there to find peace, a great calm and remoteness in which she could at last grow, develop, loose her true self from cramping bondage, come to an understanding with herself, face her heart and soul, and—as it were—look them in the eyes and know them for what they were, good or evil. In the presence of this total stranger there was something unpleasantly distracting which she could not and did not ignore, something which roused her antagonism and which at the same time compelled her attention. She had been conscious of it in the train, conscious of it in the tunnel at twilight, at night in the hotel, and once again in Count Anteoni's garden. This man intruded himself, no doubt unconsciously, or even against his will, into her sight, her thoughts, each time that she was on the point of giving herself to what Count Anteoni called "the desert spirits." So it had been when the train ran out of the tunnel into the blue country. So it had been again when she leaned on the white wall and gazed out over the shining fastnesses of the sun. He was there like an enemy, like something determined, egoistical, that said to her, "You would look at the greatness of the desert, at immensity, infinity, God!—Look at me." And she could not turn her eyes away. Each time the man had, as if without effort, conquered the great competing power, fastened her thoughts upon himself, set her imagination working about his life, even made her heart beat faster with some thrill of—what? Was it pity? Was it a faint horror? She knew that to call the feeling merely repugnance would not be sincere. The intensity, the vitality of the force shut up in a human being almost angered her at this moment as she looked at the empty chair and realised all that it had suddenly set at work. There was something insolent in humanity as well as something divine, and just then she felt the insolence more than the divinity. Terrifically greater, more overpowering than man, the desert was yet also somehow less than man, feebler, vaguer. Or else how could she have been grasped, moved, turned to curiosity, surmise, almost to a sort of dread—all at the desert's expense—by the distant moving figure seen through the glasses?
Yes, as she looked at the little white table and thought of all this, Domini began to feel angry. But she was capable of effort, whether mental or physical, and now she resolutely switched her mind off from the antagonistic stranger and devoted her thoughts to the priest, whose narrow back she saw down the room in the distance. As she ate her fish—a mystery of the seas of Robertville—she imagined his quiet existence in this remote place, sunny day succeeding sunny day, each one surely so like its brother that life must become a sort of dream, through which the voice of the church bell called melodiously and the incense rising before the altar shed a drowsy perfume. How strange it must be really to live in Beni-Mora, to have your house, your work here, your friendships here, your duties here, perhaps here too the tiny section of earth which would hold at the last your body. It must be strange and monotonous, and yet surely rather sweet, rather safe.
The officers lifted their heads from their plates, the fat man stared, the priest looked quietly up over his napkin, and the Arab waiter slipped forward with attentive haste. For the swing door of the salle-a-manger at this moment was pushed open, and the traveller—so Domini called him in her thoughts—entered and stood looking with hesitation from one table to another.
Domini did not glance up. She knew who it was and kept her eyes resolutely on her plate. She heard the Arab speak, a loud noise of stout boots tramping over the wooden floor, and the creak of a chair receiving a surely tired body. The traveller sat down heavily. She went on slowly eating the large Robertville fish, which was like something between a trout and a herring. When she had finished it she gazed straight before her at the cloth, and strove to resume her thoughts of the priest's life in Beni-Mora. But she could not. It seemed to her as if she were back again in Count Anteoni's garden. She looked once more through the glasses, and heard the four cries of the Mueddin, and saw the pacing figure in the burning heat, the Arab bent in prayer, the one who watched him, the flight. And she was indignant with herself for her strange inability to govern her mind. It seemed to her a pitiful thing of which she should be ashamed.
She heard the waiter set down a plate upon the traveller's table, and then the noise of a liquid being poured into a glass. She could not keep her eyes down any more. Besides, why should she? Beni-Mora was breeding in her a self-consciousness—or a too acute consciousness of others—that was unnatural in her. She had never been sensitive like this in her former life, but the fierce African sun seemed now to have thawed the ice of her indifference. She felt everything with almost unpleasant acuteness. All her senses seemed to her sharpened. She saw, she heard, as she had never seen and heard till now. Suddenly she remembered her almost violent prayer—"Let me be alive! Let me feel!" and she was aware that such a prayer might have an answer that would be terrible.
Looking up thus with a kind of severe determination, she saw the man again. He was eating and was not looking towards her, and she fancied that his eyes were downcast with as much conscious resolution as hers had been a moment before. He wore the same suit as he had worn in the train, but now it was flecked with desert dust. She could not "place" him at all. He was not of the small, fat man's order. They would have nothing in common. With the French officers? She could not imagine how he would be with them. The only other man in the room—the servant had gone out for the moment—was the priest. He and the priest—they would surely be antagonists. Had he not turned aside to avoid the priest in the tunnel? Probably he was one of those many men who actively hate the priesthood, to whom the soutane is anathema. Could he find pleasant companionship with such a man as Count Anteoni, an original man, no doubt, but also a cultivated and easy man of the world? She smiled internally at the mere thought. Whatever this stranger might be she felt that he was as far from being a man of the world as she was from being a Cockney sempstress or a veiled favourite in a harem. She could not, she found, imagine him easily at home with any type of human being with which she was acquainted. Yet no doubt, like all men, he had somewhere friends, relations, possibly even a wife, children.
No doubt—then why could she not believe it?
The man had finished his fish. He rested his broad, burnt hands on the table on each side of his plate and looked at them steadily. Then he turned his head and glanced sideways at the priest, who was behind him to the right. Then he looked again at his hands. And Domini knew that all the time he was thinking about her, as she was thinking about him. She felt the violence of his thought like the violence of a hand striking her.
The Arab waiter brought her some ragout of mutton and peas, and she looked down again at her plate.
As she left the room after dejeuner the priest again got up and bowed. She stopped for a moment to speak to him. All the French officers surveyed her tall, upright figure and broad, athletic shoulders with intent admiration. Domini knew it and was indifferent. If a hundred French soldiers had been staring at her critically she would not have cared at all. She was not a shy woman and was in nowise uncomfortable when many eyes were fixed upon her. So she stood and talked a little to the priest about Count Anteoni and her pleasure in his garden. And as she did so, feeling her present calm self- possession, she wondered secretly at the wholly unnatural turmoil—she called it that, exaggerating her feeling because it was unusual—in which she had been a few minutes before as she sat at her table.
The priest spoke well of Count Anteoni.
"He is very generous," he said.
Then he paused, twisting his napkin, and added:
"But I never have any real intercourse with him, Madame. I believe he comes here in search of solitude. He spends days and even weeks alone shut up in his garden."
"Thinking," she said.
The priest looked slightly surprised.
"It would be difficult not to think, Madame, would it not?"
"Oh, yes. But Count Anteoni thinks rather as a Bashi-Bazouk fights, I fancy."
She heard a chair creak in the distance and glanced over her shoulder. The traveller had turned sideways. At once she bade the priest good- bye and walked away and out through the swing door.
All the afternoon she rested. The silence was profound. Beni-Mora was enjoying a siesta in the heat. Domini revelled in the stillness. The fatigue of travel had quite gone from her now and she began to feel strangely at home. Suzanne had arranged photographs, books, flowers in the little salon, had put cushions here and there, and thrown pretty coverings over the sofa and the two low chairs. The room had an air of cosiness, of occupation. It was a room one could sit in without restlessness, and Domini liked its simplicity, its bare wooden floor and white walls. The sun made everything right here. Without the sun— but she could not think of Beni-Mora without the sun.
She read on the verandah and dreamed, and the hours slipped quickly away. No one came to disturb her. She heard no footsteps, no movements of humanity in the house. Now and then the sound of voices floated up to her from the gardens, mingling with the peculiar dry noise of palm leaves stirring in a breeze. Or she heard the distant gallop of horses' feet. The church bell chimed the hours and made her recall the previous evening. Already it seemed far off in the past. She could scarcely believe that she had not yet spent twenty-four hours in Beni- Mora. A conviction came to her that she would be there for a long while, that she would strike roots into this sunny place of peace. When she heard the church bell now she thought of the interior of the church and of the priest with an odd sort of familiar pleasure, as people in England often think of the village church in which they have always been accustomed to worship, and of the clergyman who ministers in it Sunday after Sunday. Yet at moments she remembered her inward cry in Count Anteoni's garden, "Oh, what is going to happen to me here?" And then she was dimly conscious that Beni-Mora was the home of many things besides peace. It held warring influences. At one moment it lulled her and she was like an infant rocked in a cradle. At another moment it stirred her, and she was a woman on the edge of mysterious possibilities. There must be many individualities among the desert spirits of whom Count Anteoni had spoken. Now one was with her and whispered to her, now another. She fancied the light touch of their hands on hers, pulling gently at her, as a child pulls you to take you to see a treasure. And their treasure was surely far away, hidden in the distance of the desert sands.
As soon as the sun began to decline towards the west she put on her hat, thrust the card Count Anteoni had given her into her glove and set out towards the big hotel alone. She met Hadj as she walked down the arcade. He wished to accompany her, and was evidently filled with treacherous ideas of supplanting his friend Batouch, but she gave him a franc and sent him away. The franc soothed him slightly, yet she could see that his childish vanity was injured. There was a malicious gleam in his long, narrow eyes as he looked after her. Yet there was genuine admiration too. The Arab bows down instinctively before any dominating spirit, and such a spirit in a foreign woman flashes in his eyes like a bright flame. Physical strength, too, appeals to him with peculiar force. Hadj tossed his head upwards, tucked in his chin, and muttered some words in his brown throat as he noted the elastic grace with which the rejecting foreign woman moved till she was out of his sight. And she never looked back at him. That was a keen arrow in her quiver. He fell into a deep reverie under the arcade and his face became suddenly like the face of a sphinx.
Meanwhile Domini had forgotten him. She had turned to the left down a small street in which some Indians and superior Arabs had bazaars. One of the latter came out from the shadow of his hanging rugs and embroideries as she passed, and, addressing her in a strange mixture of incorrect French and English, begged her to come in and examine his wares.
She shook her head, but could not help looking at him with interest.
He was the thinnest man she had ever seen, and moved and stood almost as if he were boneless. The line of his delicate and yet arbitrary features was fierce. His face was pitted with small-pox and marked by an old wound, evidently made by a knife, which stretched from his left cheek to his forehead, ending just over the left eyebrow. The expression of his eyes was almost disgustingly intelligent. While they were fixed upon her Domini felt as if her body were a glass box in which all her thoughts, feelings, and desires were ranged for his inspection. In his demeanour there was much that pleaded, but also something that commanded. His fingers were unnaturally long and held a small bag, and he planted himself right before her in the road.
"Madame, come in, venez avec moi. Venez—venez! I have much—I will show—j'ai des choses extraordinaires! Tenez! Look!"
He untied the mouth of the bag. Domini looked into it, expecting to see something precious—jewels perhaps. She saw only a quantity of sand, laughed, and moved to go on. She thought the Arab was an impudent fellow trying to make fun of her.
"No, no, Madame! Do not laugh! Ce sable est du desert. Il y a des histoires la-dedans. Il y a l'histoire de Madame. Come bazaar! I will read for Madame—what will be—what will become—I will read—I will tell. Tenez!" He stared down into the bag and his face became suddenly stern and fixed. "Deja je vois des choses dans la vie de Madame. Ah! Mon Dieu! Ah! Mon Dieu!"
"No, no," Domini said.
She had hesitated, but was now determined.
"I have no time to-day."
The man cast a quick and sly glance at her, then stared once more into the bag. "Ah! Mon Dieu! Ah! Mon Dieu!" he repeated. "The life to come —the life of Madame—I see it in the bag!"
His face looked tortured. Domini walked on hurriedly. When she had got to a little distance she glanced back. The man was standing in the middle of the road and glaring into the bag. His voice came down the street to her.
"Ah! Mon Dieu! Ah! Mon Dieu! I see it—I see—je vois la vie de Madame —Ah! Mon Dieu!"
There was an accent of dreadful suffering in his voice. It made Domini shudder.
She passed the mouth of the dancers' street. At the corner there was a large Cafe Maure, and here, on rugs laid by the side of the road, numbers of Arabs were stretched, some sipping tea from glasses, some playing dominoes, some conversing, some staring calmly into vacancy, like animals drowned in a lethargic dream. A black boy ran by holding a hammered brass tray on which were some small china cups filled with thick coffee. Halfway up the street he met three unveiled women clad in voluminous white dresses, with scarlet, yellow, and purple handkerchiefs bound over their black hair. He stopped and the women took the cups with their henna-tinted fingers. Two young Arabs joined them. There was a scuffle. White lumps of sugar flew up into the air. Then there was a babel of voices, a torrent of cries full of barbaric gaiety.
Before it had died out of Domini's ears she stood by the statue of Cardinal Lavigerie. Rather militant than priestly, raised high on a marble pedestal, it faced the long road which, melting at last into a faint desert track, stretched away to Tombouctou. The mitre upon the head was worn surely as if it were a helmet, the pastoral staff with its double cross was grasped as if it were a sword. Upon the lower cross was stretched a figure of the Christ in agony. And the Cardinal, gazing with the eyes of an eagle out into the pathless wastes of sand that lay beyond the palm trees, seemed, by his mere attitude, to cry to all the myriad hordes of men the deep-bosomed Sahara mothered in her mystery and silence, "Come unto the Church! Come unto me!"
He called men in from the desert. Domini fancied his voice echoing along the sands till the worshippers of Allah and of his Prophet heard it like a clarion in Tombouctou.
When she reached the great hotel the sun was just beginning to set. She drew Count Anteoni's card from her glove and rang the bell. After a long interval a magnificent man, with the features of an Arab but a skin almost as black as a negro, opened the door.
"Can I go up the tower to see the sunset?" she asked, giving him the card.
The man bowed low, escorted her through a long hall full of furniture shrouded in coverings, up a staircase, along a corridor with numbered rooms, up a second staircase and out upon a flat-terraced roof, from which the tower soared high above the houses and palms of Beni-Mora, a landmark visible half-a-day's journey out in the desert. A narrow spiral stair inside the tower gained the summit.
"I'll go up alone," Domini said. "I shall stay some time and I would rather not keep you."
She put some money into the Arab's hand. He looked pleased, yet doubtful too for a moment. Then he seemed to banish his hesitation and, with a deprecating smile, said something which she could not understand. She nodded intelligently to get rid of him. Already, from the roof, she caught sight of a great visionary panorama glowing with colour and magic. She was impatient to climb still higher into the sky, to look down on the world as an eagle does. So she turned away decisively and mounted the dark, winding stair till she reached a door. She pushed it open with some difficulty, and came out into the air at a dizzy height, shutting the door forcibly behind her with an energetic movement of her strong arms.
The top of the tower was small and square, and guarded by a white parapet breast high. In the centre of it rose the outer walls and the ceiling of the top of the staircase, which prevented a person standing on one side of the tower from seeing anybody who was standing at the opposite side. There was just sufficient space between parapet and staircase wall for two people to pass with difficulty and manoeuvring.
But Domini was not concerned with such trivial details, as she would have thought them had she thought of them. Directly she had shut the little door and felt herself alone—alone as an eagle in the sky—she took the step forward that brought her to the parapet, leaned her arms on it, looked out and was lost in a passion of contemplation.
At first she did not discern any of the multitudinous minutiae in the great evening vision beneath and around her. She only felt conscious of depth, height, space, colour, mystery, calm. She did not measure. She did not differentiate. She simply stood there, leaning lightly on the snowy plaster work, and experienced something that she had never experienced before, that she had never imagined. It was scarcely vivid; for in everything that is vivid there seems to be something small, the point to which wonders converge, the intense spark to which many fires have given themselves as food, the drop which contains the murmuring force of innumerable rivers. It was more than vivid. It was reliantly dim, as is that pulse of life which is heard through and above the crash of generations and centuries falling downwards into the abyss; that persistent, enduring heart-beat, indifferent in its mystical regularity, that ignores and triumphs, and never grows louder nor diminishes, inexorably calm, inexorably steady, undefeated—more— utterly unaffected by unnumbered millions of tragedies and deaths.
Many sounds rose from far down beneath the tower, but at first Domini did not hear them. She was only aware of an immense, living silence, a silence flowing beneath, around and above her in dumb, invisible waves. Circles of rest and peace, cool and serene, widened as circles in a pool towards the unseen limits of the satisfied world, limits lost in the hidden regions beyond the misty, purple magic where sky and desert met. And she felt as if her brain, ceaselessly at work from its birth, her heart, unresting hitherto in a commotion of desires, her soul, an eternal flutter of anxious, passionate wings, folded themselves together gently like the petals of roses when a summer night comes into a garden.
She was not conscious that she breathed while she stood there. She thought her bosom ceased to rise and fall. The very blood dreamed in her veins as the light of evening dreamed in the blue.
She knew the Great Pause that seems to divide some human lives in two, as the Great Gulf divided him who lay in Abraham's bosom from him who was shrouded in the veil of fire.
BOOK II. THE VOICE OF PRAYER