The Sunrise Silents Library
THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (BOOK II)
By ROBERT HICHENS
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 II)CHAPTER VII
BOOK II. THE VOICE OF PRAYER
The music of things from below stole up through the ethereal spaces to Domini without piercing her dream. But suddenly she started with a sense of pain so acute that it shook her body and set the pulses in her temples beating. She lifted her arms swiftly from the parapet and turned her head. She had heard a little grating noise which seemed to be near to her, enclosed with her on this height in the narrow space of the tower. Slight as it was, and short—already she no longer heard it—it had in an instant driven her out of Heaven, as if it had been an angel with a flaming sword. She felt sure that there must be something alive with her at the tower summit, something which by a sudden movement had caused the little noise she had heard. What was it? When she turned her head she could only see the outer wall of the staircase, a section of the narrow white space which surrounded it, an angle of the parapet and blue air.
She listened, holding her breath and closing her two hands on the parapet, which was warm from the sun. Now, caught back to reality, she could hear faintly the sounds from below in Beni-Mora. But they did not concern her, and she wished to shut them out from her ears. What did concern her was to know what was with her up in the sky. Had a bird alighted on the parapet and startled her by scratching at the plaster with its beak? Could a mouse have shuffled in the wall? Or was there a human being up there hidden from her by the masonry?
This last supposition disturbed her almost absurdly for a moment. She was inclined to walk quickly round to the opposite side of the tower, but something stronger than her inclination, an imperious shyness, held her motionless. She had been carried so far away from the world that she felt unable to face the scrutiny of any world-bound creature. Having been in the transparent region of magic it seemed to her as if her secret, the great secret of the absolutely true, the naked personality hidden in every human being, were set blazing in her eyes like some torch borne in a procession, just for that moment. The moment past, she could look anyone fearlessly in the face; but not now, not yet.
While she stood there, half turning round, she heard the sound again and knew what caused it. A foot had shifted on the plaster floor. There was someone else then looking out over the desert. A sudden idea struck her. Probably it was Count Anteoni. He knew she was coming and might have decided to act once more as her cicerone. He had not heard her climbing the stairs, and, having gone to the far side of the tower, was no doubt watching the sunset, lost in a dream as she had been.
She resolved not to disturb him—if it was he. When he had dreamed enough he must inevitably come round to where she was standing in order to gain the staircase. She would let him find her there. Less troubled now, but in an utterly changed mood, she turned, leaned once more on the parapet and looked over, this time observantly, prepared to note the details that, combined and veiled in the evening light of Africa, made the magic which had so instantly entranced her.
She looked down into the village and could see its extent, precisely how it was placed in the Sahara, in what relation exactly it stood to the mountain ranges, to the palm groves and the arid, sunburnt tracts, where its life centred and where it tailed away into suburban edges not unlike the ragged edges of worn garments, where it was idle and frivolous, where busy and sedulous. She realised for the first time that there were two distinct layers of life in Beni-Mora—the life of the streets, courts, gardens and market-place, and above it the life of the roofs. Both were now spread out before her, and the latter, in its domestic intimacy, interested and charmed her. She saw upon the roofs the children playing with little dogs, goats, fowls, mothers in rags of gaudy colours stirring the barley for cous-cous, shredding vegetables, pounding coffee, stewing meat, plucking chickens, bending over bowls from which rose the steam of soup; small girls, seated in dusty corners, solemnly winding wool on sticks, and pausing, now and then, to squeak to distant members of the home circle, or to smell at flowers laid beside them as solace to their industry. An old grandmother rocked and kissed a naked baby with a pot belly. A big grey rat stole from a rubbish heap close by her, flitted across the sunlit space, and disappeared into a cranny. Pigeons circled above the home activities, delicate lovers of the air, wandered among the palm tops, returned and fearlessly alighted on the brown earth parapets, strutting hither and thither and making their perpetual, characteristic motion of the head, half nod, half genuflection. Veiled girls promenaded to take the evening cool, folding their arms beneath their flowing draperies, and chattering to one another in voices that Domini could not hear. More close at hand certain roofs in the dancers' street revealed luxurious sofas on which painted houris were lolling in sinuous attitudes, or were posed with a stiffness of idols, little tables set with coffee cups, others round which were gathered Zouaves intent on card games, but ever ready to pause for a caress or for some jesting absurdity with the women who squatted beside them. Some men, dressed like girls, went to and fro, serving the dancers with sweetmeats and with cigarettes, their beards flowing down with a grotesque effect over their dresses of embroidered muslin, their hairy arms emerging from hanging sleeves of silk. A negro boy sat holding a tomtom between his bare knees and beating it with supple hands, and a Jewess performed the stomach dance, waving two handkerchiefs stained red and purple, and singing in a loud and barbarous contralto voice which Domini could hear but very faintly. The card-players stopped their game and watched her, and Domini watched too. For the first time, and from this immense height, she saw this universal dance of the east; the doll-like figure, fantastically dwarfed, waving its tiny hands, wriggling its minute body, turning about like a little top, strutting and bending, while the soldiers—small almost from here as toys taken out of a box—assumed attitudes of deep attention as they leaned upon the card-table, stretching out their legs enveloped in balloon-like trousers.
Domini thought of the recruits, now, no doubt, undergoing elsewhere their initiation. For a moment she seemed to see their coarse peasant faces rigid with surprise, their hanging jaws, their childish, and yet sensual, round eyes. Notre Dame de la Garde must seem very far away from them now.
With that thought she looked quickly away from the Jewess and the soldiers. She felt a sudden need of something more nearly in relation with her inner self. She was almost angry as she realised how deep had been her momentary interest in a scene suggestive of a license which was surely unattractive to her. Yet was it unattractive? She scarcely knew. But she knew that it had kindled in her a sudden and very strong curiosity, even a vague, momentary desire that she had been born in some tent of the Ouled Nails—no, that was impossible. She had not felt such a desire even for an instant. She looked towards the thickets of the palms, towards the mountains full of changing, exquisite colours, towards the desert. And at once the dream began to return, and she felt as if hands slipped under her heart and uplifted it.
What depths and heights were within her, what deep, dark valleys, and what mountain peaks! And how she travelled within herself, with swiftness of light, with speed of the wind. What terrors of activity she knew. Did every human being know similar terrors?
The colours everywhere deepened as day failed. The desert spirits were at work. She thought of Count Anteoni again, and resolved to go round to the other side of the tower. As she moved to do this she heard once more the shifting of a foot on the plaster floor, then a step. Evidently she had infected him with an intention similar to her own. She went on, still hearing the step, turned the corner and stood face to face in the strong evening light with the traveller. Their bodies almost touched in the narrow space before they both stopped, startled. For a moment they stood still looking at each other, as people might look who have spoken together, who know something of each other's lives, who may like or dislike, wish to avoid or to draw near to each other, but who cannot pretend that they are complete strangers, wholly indifferent to each other. They met in the sky, almost as one bird may meet another on the wing. And, to Domini, at any rate, it seemed as if the depth, height, space, colour, mystery and calm—yes, even the calm —which were above, around and beneath them, had been placed there by hidden hands as a setting for their encounter, even as the abrupt pageant of the previous day, into which the train had emerged from the blackness of the tunnel, had surely been created as a frame for the face which had looked upon her as if out of the heart of the sun. The assumption was absurd, unreasonable, yet vital. She did not combat it because she felt it too powerful for common sense to strive against. And it seemed to her that the stranger felt it too, that she saw her sensation reflected in his eyes as he stood between the parapet and the staircase wall, barring—in despite of himself—her path. The moment seemed long while they stood motionless. Then the man took off his soft hat awkwardly, yet with real politeness, and stood quickly sideways against the parapet to let her pass. She could have passed if she had brushed against him, and made a movement to do so. Then she checked herself and looked at him again as if she expected him to speak to her. His hat was still in his hand, and the light desert wind faintly stirred his short brown hair. He did not speak, but stood there crushing himself against the plaster work with a sort of fierce timidity, as if he dreaded the touch of her skirt against him, and longed to make himself small, to shrivel up and let her go by in freedom.
"Thank you," she said in French.
She passed him, but was unable to do so without touching him. Her left arm was hanging down, and her bare hand knocked against the back of the hand in which he held his hat. She felt as if at that moment she touched a furnace, and she saw him shiver slightly, as over-fatigued men sometimes shiver in daylight. An extraordinary, almost motherly, sensation of pity for him came over her. She did not know why. The intense heat of his hand, the shiver that ran over his body, his attitude as he shrank with a kind of timid, yet ferocious, politeness against the white wall, the expression in his eyes when their hands touched—a look she could not analyse, but which seemed to hold a mingling of wistfulness and repellance, as of a being stretching out arms for succour, and crying at the same time, "Don't draw near to me! Leave me to myself!"—everything about him moved her. She felt that she was face to face with a solitariness of soul such as she had never encountered before, a solitariness that was cruel, that was weighed down with agony. And directly she had passed the man and thanked him formally she stopped with her usual decision of manner. She had abruptly made up her mind to talk to him. He was already moving to turn away. She spoke quickly, and in French.
"Isn't it wonderful here?" she said; and she made her voice rather loud, and almost sharp, to arrest his attention.
He turned round swiftly, yet somehow reluctantly, looked at her anxiously, and seemed doubtful whether he would reply.
After a silence that was short, but that seemed, and in such circumstances was, long, he answered, in French:
"Very wonderful, Madame."
The sound of his own voice seemed to startle him. He stood as if he had heard an unusual noise which had alarmed him, and looked at Domini as if he expected that she would share in his sensation. Very quietly and deliberately she leaned her arms again on the parapet and spoke to him once more.
"We seem to be the only travellers here."
The man's attitude became slightly calmer. He looked less momentary, less as if he were in haste to go, but still shy, fierce and extraordinarily unconventional.
"Yes, Madame; there are not many here."
After a pause, and with an uncertain accent, he added:
"Pardon, Madame—for yesterday."
There was a sudden simplicity, almost like that of a child, in the sound of his voice as he said that. Domini knew at once that he alluded to the incident at the station of El-Akbara, that he was trying to make amends. The way he did it touched her curiously. She felt inclined to stretch out her hand to him and say, "Of course! Shake hands on it!" almost as an honest schoolboy might. But she only answered:
"I know it was only an accident. Don't think of it any more."
She did not look at him.
"Where money is concerned the Arabs are very persistent," she continued.
The man laid one of his brown hands on the top of the parapet. She looked at it, and it seemed to her that she had never before seen the back of a hand express so much of character, look so intense, so ardent, and so melancholy as his.
He still spoke with an odd timidity, with an air of listening to his own speech as if in some strange way it were phenomenal to him. It occurred to her that possibly he had lived much in lonely places, in which his solitude had rarely been broken, and he had been forced to acquire the habit of silence.
"But they are very picturesque. They look almost like some religious order when they wear their hoods. Don't you think so?"
She saw the brown hand lifted from the parapet, and heard her companion's feet shift on the floor of the tower. But this time he said nothing. As she could not see his hand now she looked out again over the panorama of the evening, which was deepening in intensity with every passing moment, and immediately she was conscious of two feelings that filled her with wonder: a much stronger and sweeter sense of the African magic than she had felt till now, and the certainty that the greater force and sweetness of her feeling were caused by the fact that she had a companion in her contemplation. This was strange. An intense desire for loneliness had driven her out of Europe to this desert place, and a companion, who was an utter stranger, emphasised the significance, gave fibre to the beauty, intensity to the mystery of that which she looked on. It was as if the meaning of the African evening were suddenly doubled. She thought of a dice-thrower who throws one die and turns up six, then throws two and turns up twelve. And she remained silent in her surprise. The man stood silently beside her. Afterwards she felt as if, during this silence in the tower, some powerful and unseen being had arrived mysteriously, introduced them to one another and mysteriously departed.
The evening drew on in their silence and the dream was deeper now. All that Domini had felt when first she approached the parapet she felt more strangely, and she grasped, with physical and mental vision, not only the whole, but the innumerable parts of that which she looked on. She saw, fancifully, the circles widen in the pool of peace, but she saw also the things that had been hidden in the pool. The beauty of dimness, the beauty of clearness, joined hands. The one and the other were, with her, like sisters. She heard the voices from below, and surely also the voices of the stars that were approaching with the night, blending harmoniously and making a music in the air. The glowing sky and the glowing mountains were as comrades, each responsive to the emotions of the other. The lights in the rocky clefts had messages for the shadowy moon, and the palm trees for the thin, fire-tipped clouds about the west. Far off the misty purple of the desert drew surely closer, like a mother coming to fold her children in her arms.
The Jewess still danced upon the roof to the watching Zouaves, but now there was something mystic in her tiny movements which no longer roused in Domini any furtive desire not really inherent in her nature. There was something beautiful in everything seen from this altitude in this wondrous evening light.
Presently, without turning to her companion, she said:
"Could anything look ugly in Beni-Mora from here at this hour, do you think?"
Again there was the silence that seemed characteristic of this man before he spoke, as if speech were very difficult to him.
"I believe not, Madame."
"Even that woman down there on that roof looks graceful—the one dancing for those soldiers."
He did not answer. She glanced at him and pointed.
"Down there, do you see?"
She noticed that he did not follow her hand and that his face became stern. He kept his eyes fixed on the trees of the garden of the Gazelles near Cardinal Lavigerie's statue and replied:
His manner made her think that perhaps he had seen the dance at close quarters and that it was outrageous. For a moment she felt slightly uncomfortable, but determined not to let him remain under a false impression, she added carelessly:
"I have never seen the dances of Africa. I daresay I should think them ugly enough if I were near, but from this height everything is transformed."
"That is true, Madame."
There was an odd, muttering sound in his voice, which was deep, and probably strong, but which he kept low. Domini thought it was the most male voice she had ever heard. It seemed to be full of sex, like his hands. Yet there was nothing coarse in either the one or the other. Everything about him was vital to a point that was so remarkable as to be not actually unnatural but very near the unnatural.
She glanced at him again. He was a big man, but very thin. Her experienced eyes of an athletic woman told her that he was capable of great and prolonged muscular exertion. He was big-boned and deep- chested, and had nervous as well as muscular strength. The timidity in him was strange in such a man. What could it spring from? It was not like ordinary shyness, the gaucherie of a big, awkward lout unaccustomed to woman's society but able to be at his ease and boisterous in the midst of a crowd of men. Domini thought that he would be timid even of men. Yet it never struck her that he might be a coward, unmanly. Such a quality would have sickened her at once, and she knew she would have at once divined it. He did not hold himself very well, but was inclined to stoop and to keep his head low, as if he were in the habit of looking much on the ground. The idiosyncrasy was rather ugly, and suggested melancholy to her, the melancholy of a man given to over-much meditation and afraid to face the radiant wonder of life.
She caught herself up at this last thought. She—thinking naturally that life was full of radiant wonder! Was she then so utterly transformed already by Beni-Mora? Or had the thought come to her because she stood side by side with someone whose sorrows had been unfathomably deeper than her own, and so who, all unconsciously, gave her a knowledge of her own—till then unsuspected—hopefulness?
She looked at her companion again. He seemed to have relinquished his intention of leaving her, and was standing quietly beside her, staring towards the desert, with his head slightly drooped forward. In one hand he held a thick stick. He had put his hat on again. His attitude was much calmer than it had been. Already he seemed more at ease with her. She was glad of that. She did not ask herself why. But the intense beauty of evening in this land and at this height made her wish enthusiastically that it could produce a happiness such as it created in her in everyone. Such beauty, with its voices, its colours, its lines of tree and leaf, of wall and mountain ridge, its mystery of shapes and movements, stillness and dreaming distance, its atmosphere of the far off come near, chastened by journeying, fine with the unfamiliar, its solemn changes towards the impenetrable night, was too large a thing and fraught with too much tender and lovable invention to be worshipped in any selfishness. It made her feel as if she could gladly be a martyr for unseen human beings, as if sacrifice would be an easy thing if made for those to whom such beauty would appeal. Brotherhood rose up and cried in her, as it surely sang in the sunset, in the mountains, the palm groves and the desert. The flame above the hills, their purple outline, the moving, feathery trees; dark under the rose-coloured glory of the west, and most of all the immeasurably remote horizons, each moment more strange and more eternal, made her long to make this harsh stranger happy.
"One ought to find happiness here," she said to him very simply.
She saw his hand strain itself round the wood of his stick.
"Why?" he said.
He turned right round to her and looked at her with a sort of anger.
"Why should you suppose so?" he added, speaking quite quickly, and without his former uneasiness and consciousness.
"Because it is so beautiful and so calm."
"Calm!" he said. "Here!"
There was a sound of passionate surprise in his voice. Domini was startled. She felt as if she were fighting, and must fight hard if she were not to be beaten to the dust. But when she looked at him she could find no weapons. She said nothing. In a moment he spoke again.
"You find calm here," he said slowly. "Yes, I see."
His head dropped lower and his face hardened as he looked over the edge of the parapet to the village, the blue desert. Then he lifted his eyes to the mountains and the clear sky and the shadowy moon. Each element in the evening scene was examined with a fierce, painful scrutiny, as if he was resolved to wring from each its secret.
"Why, yes," he added in a low, muttering voice full of a sort of terrified surprise, "it is so. You are right. Why, yes, it is calm here."
He spoke like a man who had been suddenly convinced, beyond power of further unbelief, of something he had never suspected, never dreamed of. And the conviction seemed to be bitter to him, even alarming.
"But away out there must be the real home of peace, I think," Domini said.
"Where?" said the man, quickly.
She pointed towards the south.
"In the depths of the desert," she said. "Far away from civilisation, far away from modern men and modern women, and all the noisy trifles we are accustomed to."
He looked towards the south eagerly. In everything he did there was a flamelike intensity, as if he could not perform an ordinary action, or turn his eyes upon any object, without calling up in his mind, or heart, a violence of thought or of feeling.
"You think it—you think there would be peace out there, far away in the desert?" he said, and his face relaxed slightly, as if in obedience to some thought not wholly sad.
"It may be fanciful," she replied. "But I think there must. Surely Nature has not a lying face."
He was still gazing towards the south, from which the night was slowly emerging, a traveller through a mist of blue. He seemed to be held fascinated by the desert which was fading away gently, like a mystery which had drawn near to the light of revelation, but which was now slipping back into an underworld of magic. He bent forward as one who watches a departure in which he longs to share, and Domini felt sure that he had forgotten her. She felt, too, that this man was gripped by the desert influence more fiercely even than she was, and that he must have a stronger imagination, a greater force of projection even than she had. Where she bore a taper he lifted a blazing torch.
A roar of drums rose up immediately beneath them. From the negro village emerged a ragged procession of thick-lipped men, and singing, capering women tricked out in scarlet and yellow shawls, headed by a male dancer clad in the skins of jackals, and decorated with mirrors, camels' skulls and chains of animals' teeth. He shouted and leaped, rolled his bulging eyes, and protruded a fluttering tongue. The dust curled up round his stamping, naked feet.
The howling chorus came up to the tower, with a clash of enormous castanets, and of poles beaten rhythmically together.
"Yi-yi-yi-yi!" went the shrill voices of the women.
The cloud of dust increased, enveloping the lower part of the procession, till the black heads and waving arms emerged as if from a maelstrom. The thunder of the drums was like the thunder of a cataract in which the singers, disappearing towards the village, seemed to be swept away.
The man at Domini's side raised himself up with a jerk, and all the former fierce timidity and consciousness came back to his face. He turned round, pulled open the door behind him, and took off his hat.
"Excuse me, Madame," he said. "Bon soir!"
"I am coming too," Domini answered.
He looked uncomfortable and anxious, hesitated, then, as if driven to do it in spite of himself, plunged downward through the narrow doorway of the tower into the darkness. Domini waited for a moment, listening to the heavy sound of his tread on the wooden stairs. She frowned till her thick eyebrows nearly met and the corners of her lips turned down. Then she followed slowly. When she was on the stairs and the footsteps died away below her she fully realised that for the first time in her life a man had insulted her. Her face felt suddenly very hot, and her lips very dry, and she longed to use her physical strength in a way not wholly feminine. In the hall, among the shrouded furniture, she met the smiling doorkeeper. She stopped.
"Did the gentleman who has just gone out give you his card?" she said abruptly.
The Arab assumed a fawning, servile expression.
"No, Madame, but he is a very good gentleman, and I know well that Monsieur the Count—"
Domini cut him short.
"Of what nationality is he?"
"Monsieur the Count, Madame?"
"The gentleman? I do not know. But he can speak Arabic. Oh, he is a very nice—"
"Bon soir," said Domini, giving him a franc.
When she was out on the road in front of the hotel she saw the stranger striding along in the distance at the tail of the negro procession. The dust stirred up by the dancers whirled about him. Several small negroes skipped round him, doubtless making eager demands upon his generosity. He seemed to take no notice of them, and as she watched him Domini was reminded of his retreat from the praying Arab in the desert that morning.
"Is he afraid of women as he is afraid of prayer?" she thought, and suddenly the sense of humiliation and anger left her, and was succeeded by a powerful curiosity such as she had never felt before about anyone. She realised that this curiosity had dawned in her almost at the first moment when she saw the stranger, and had been growing ever since. One circumstance after another had increased it till now it was definite, concrete. She wondered that she did not feel ashamed of such a feeling so unusual in her, and surely unworthy, like a prying thing. Of all her old indifference that side which confronted people had always been the most sturdy, the most solidly built. Without affectation she had been a profoundly incurious woman as to the lives and the concerns of others, even of those whom she knew best and was supposed to care for most. Her nature had been essentially languid in human intercourse. The excitements, troubles, even the passions of others had generally stirred her no more than a distant puppet-show stirs an absent-minded passer in the street.
In Africa it seemed that her whole nature had been either violently renewed, or even changed. She could not tell which. But this strong stirring of curiosity would, she believed, have been impossible in the woman she had been but a week ago, the woman who travelled to Marseilles dulled, ignorant of herself, longing for change. Perhaps instead of being angry she ought to welcome it as a symptom of the re-creation she longed for.
While she changed her gown for dinner that night she debated within herself how she would treat her fellow-guest when she met him in the salle-a-manger. She ought to cut him after what had occurred, she supposed. Then it seemed to her that to do so would be undignified, and would give him the impression that he had the power to offend her. She resolved to bow to him if they met face to face. Just before she went downstairs she realised how vehement her internal debate had been, and was astonished. Suzanne was putting away something in a drawer, bending down and stretching out her plump arms.
"Suzanne!" Domini said.
"How long have you been with me?"
"Three years, Mam'zelle."
The maid shut the drawer and turned round, fixing her shallow, blue- grey eyes on her mistress, and standing as if she were ready to be photographed.
"Would you say that I am the same sort of person to-day as I was three years ago?"
Suzanne looked like a cat that has been startled by a sudden noise.
"The same, Mam'zelle?"
"Yes. Do you think I have altered in that time?"
Suzanne considered the question with her head slightly on one side.
"Only here, Mam'zelle," she replied at length.
"Here!" said Domini, rather eagerly. "Why, I have only been here twenty-six hours."
"That is true. But Mam'zelle looks as if she had a little life here, a little emotion. Mon Dieu! Mam'zelle will pardon me, but what is a woman who feels no emotion? A packet. Is it not so, Mam'zelle?"
"Well, but what is there to be emotional about here?"
Suzanne looked vaguely crafty.
"Who knows, Mam'zelle? Who can say? Mon Dieu! This village is dull, but it is odd. No band plays. There are no shops for a girl to look into. There is nothing chic except the costumes of the Zouaves. But one cannot deny that it is odd. When Mam'zelle was away this afternoon in the tower Monsieur Helmuth—"
"Who is that?"
"The Monsieur who accompanies the omnibus to the station. Monsieur Helmuth was polite enough to escort me through the village. Mon Dieu, Mam'zelle, I said to myself, 'Anything might occur here.'"
"Anything! What do you mean?"
But Suzanne did not seem to know. She only made her figure look more tense than ever, tucked in her round little chin, which was dimpled and unmeaning, and said:
"Who knows, Mam'zelle? This village is dull, that is true, but it is odd. One does not find oneself in such places every day."
Domini could not help laughing at these Delphic utterances, but she went downstairs thoughtfully. She knew Suzanne's practical spirit. Till now the maid had never shown any capacity of imagination. Beni- Mora was certainly beginning to mould her nature into a slightly different shape. And Domini seemed to see an Eastern potter at work, squatting in the sun and with long and delicate fingers changing the outline of the statuette of a woman, modifying a curve here, an angle there, till the clay began to show another woman, but with, as it were, the shadow of the former one lurking behind the new personality.
The stranger was not at dinner. His table was laid and Domini sat expecting each moment to hear the shuffling tread of his heavy boots on the wooden floor. When he did not come she thought she was glad. After dinner she spoke for a moment to the priest and then went upstairs to the verandah to take coffee. She found Batouch there. He had renounced his determined air, and his cafe-au-lait countenance and huge body expressed enduring pathos, as of an injured, patient creature laid out for the trampling of Domini's cruel feet.
"Well?" she said, sitting down by the basket table.
He sighed and looked on the ground, lifted one white-socked foot, removed its yellow slipper, shook out a tiny stone from the slipper and put it on again, slowly, gracefully and very sadly. Then he pulled the white sock up with both hands and glanced at Domini out of the corners of his eyes.
"What's the matter?"
"Madame does not care to see the dances of Beni-Mora, to hear the music, to listen to the story-teller, to enter the cafe of El Hadj where Achmed sings to the keef smokers, or to witness the beautiful religious ecstasies of the dervishes from Oumach. Therefore I come to bid Madame respectfully goodnight and to take my departure."
He threw his burnous over his left shoulder with a sudden gesture of despair that was full of exaggeration. Domini smiled.
"You've been very good to-day," she said.
"I am always good, Madame. I am of a serious disposition. Not one keeps Ramadan as I do."
"I am sure of it. Go downstairs and wait for me under the arcade."
Batouch's large face became suddenly a rendezvous of all the gaieties.
"Madame is coming out to-night?"
"Presently. Be in the arcade."
He swept away with the ample magnificence of joyous bearing and movement that was like a loud Te Deum.
Domini had finished her coffee.
"Mam'zelle!" answered Suzanne, appearing.
"Would you like to come out with me to-night?"
"Mam'zelle is going out?"
"Yes, to see the village by night."
Suzanne looked irresolute. Craven fear and curiosity fought a battle within her, as was evident by the expressions that came and went in her face before she answered.
"Shall we not be murdered, Mam'zelle, and are there interesting things to see?"
"There are interesting things to see—dancers, singers, keef smokers. But if you are afraid don't come."
"Dancers, Mam'zelle! But the Arabs carry knives. And is there singing? I—I should not like Mam'zelle to go without me. But——"
"Come and protect me from the knives then. Bring my jacket—any one. I don't suppose I shall put it on."
As she spoke the distant tomtoms began. Suzanne started nervously and looked at Domini with sincere apprehension.
"We had better not go, Mam'zelle. It is not safe out here. Men who make a noise like that would not respect us."
"I like it."
"That sound? But it is always the same and there is no music in it."
"Perhaps there is more in it than music. The jacket?"
Suzanne went gingerly to fetch it. The faint cry of the African hautboy rose up above the tomtoms. The evening fete was beginning. To-night Domini felt that she must go to the distant music and learn to understand its meaning, not only for herself, but for those who made it and danced to it night after night. It stirred her imagination, and made her in love with mystery, and anxious at least to steal to the very threshold of the barbarous world. Did it stir those who had had it in their ears ever since they were naked, sunburned babies rolling in the hot sun of the Sahara? Could it seem as ordinary to them as the cold uproar of the piano-organ to the urchins of Whitechapel, or the whine of the fiddle to the peasants of Touraine where Suzanne was born? She wanted to know. Suzanne returned with the jacket. She still looked apprehensive, but she had put on her hat and fastened a sprig of red geranium in the front of her black gown. The curiosity was in the ascendant.
"We are not going quite alone, Mam'zelle?"
"No, no. Batouch will protect us."
Suzanne breathed a furtive sigh.
The poet was in the white arcade with Hadj, who looked both wicked and deplorable, and had a shabby air, in marked contrast to Batouch's ostentatious triumph. Domini felt quite sorry for him.
"You come with us too," she said.
Hadj squared his shoulders and instantly looked vivacious and almost smart. But an undecided expression came into his face.
"Where is Madame going?"
"To see the village."
Batouch shot a glance at Hadj and smiled unpleasantly.
"I will come with Madame."
Batouch still smiled.
"We are going to the Ouled Nails," he said significantly to Hadj.
"I—I will come."
They set out. Suzanne looked gently at the poet's legs and seemed comforted.
"Take great care of Mademoiselle Suzanne," Domini said to the poet. "She is a little nervous in the dark."
"Mademoiselle Suzanne is like the first day after the fast of Ramadan," replied the poet, majestically. "No one would harm her were she to wander alone to Tombouctou."
The prospect drew from Suzanne a startled gulp. Batouch placed himself tenderly at her side and they set out, Domini walking behind with Hadj.
The village was full of the wan presage of the coming of the moon. The night was very still and very warm. As they skirted the long gardens Domini saw a light in the priest's house. It made her wonder how he passed his solitary evenings when he went home from the hotel, and she fancied him sitting in some plainly-furnished little room with Bous- Bous and a few books, smoking a pipe and thinking sadly of the White Fathers of Africa and of his frustrated desire for complete renunciation. With this last thought blended the still remote sound of the hautboy. It suggested anything rather than renunciation; mysterious melancholy—successor to passion—the cry of longing, the wail of the unknown that draws some men and women to splendid follies and to ardent pilgrimages whose goal is the mirage.
Hadj was talking in a low voice, but Domini did not listen to him. She was vaguely aware that he was abusing Batouch, saying that he was a liar, inclined to theft, a keef smoker, and in a general way steeped to the lips in crime. But the moon was rising, the distant music was becoming more distinct. She could not listen to Hadj.
As they turned into the street of the sand-diviner the first ray of the moon fell on the white road. Far away at the end of the street Domini could see the black foliage of the trees in the Gazelles' garden, and beyond, to the left, a dimness of shadowy palms at the desert edge. The desert itself was not visible. Two Arabs passed, shrouded in burnouses, with the hoods drawn up over their heads. Only their black beards could be seen. They were talking violently and waving their arms. Suzanne shuddered and drew close to the poet. Her plump face worked and she glanced appealingly at her mistress. But Domini was not thinking of her, or of violence or danger. The sound of the tomtoms and hautboys seemed suddenly much louder now that the moon began to shine, making a whiteness among the white houses of the village, the white robes of the inhabitants, a greater whiteness on the white road that lay before them. And she was thinking that the moon whiteness of Beni-Mora was more passionate than pure, more like the blanched face of a lover than the cool, pale cheek of a virgin. There was excitement in it, suggestion greater even than the suggestion of the tremendous coloured scenes of the evening that preceded such a night. And she mused of white heat and of what it means—the white heat of the brain blazing with thoughts that govern, the white heat of the heart blazing with emotions that make such thoughts seem cold. She had never known either. Was she incapable of knowing them? Could she imagine them till there was physical heat in her body if she was incapable of knowing them? Suzanne and the two Arabs were distant shadows to her when that first moon-ray touched their feet. The passion of the night began to burn her, and she thought she would like to take her soul and hold it out to the white flame.
As they passed the sand-diviner's house Domini saw his spectral figure standing under the yellow light of the hanging lantern in the middle of his carpet shop, which was lined from floor to ceiling with dull red embroideries and dim with the fumes of an incense brazier. He was talking to a little boy, but keeping a wary eye on the street, and he came out quickly, beckoning with his long hands, and calling softly, in a half-chuckling and yet authoritative voice:
"Venez, Madame, venez! Come! come!"
Suzanne seized Domini's arm.
"Not to-night!" Domini called out.
"Yes, Madame, to-night. The vie of Madame is there in the sand to- night. Je la vois, je la vois. C'est la dans le sable to-night."
The moonlight showed the wound on his face. Suzanne uttered a cry and hid her eyes with her hands. They went on towards the trees. Hadj walked with hesitation.
"How loud the music is getting," Domini said to him.
"It will deafen Madame's ears if she gets nearer," said Hadj, eagerly. "And the dancers are not for Madame. For the Arabs, yes, but for a great lady of the most respectable England! Madame will be red with disgust, with anger. Madame will have mal-au-coeur."
Batouch began to look like an idol on whose large face the artificer had carved an expression of savage ferocity.
"Madame is my client," he said fiercely. "Madame trusts in me."
Hadj laughed with a snarl:
"He who smokes the keef is like a Mehari with a swollen tongue," he rejoined.
The poet looked as if he were going to spring upon his cousin, but he restrained himself and a slow, malignant smile curled about his thick lips like a snake.
"I shall show to Madame a dancer who is modest, who is beautiful, Hadj-ben-Ibrahim," he said softly.
"Fatma is sick," said Hadj, quickly.
"It will not be Fatma."
Hadj began suddenly to gesticulate with his thin, delicate hands and to look fiercely excited.
"Halima is at the Fontaine Chaude," he cried.
"Keltoum will be there."
"She will not. Her foot is sick. She cannot dance. For a week she will not dance. I know it."
"And—Irena? Is she sick? Is she at the Hammam Salahine?"
Hadj's countenance fell. He looked at his cousin sideways, always showing his teeth.
"Do you not know, Hadj-ben-Ibrahim?"
"Ana ma 'audi ma nek oul lek!"[*] growled Hadj in his throat.
[*] "I have nothing to say to you."
They had reached the end of the little street. The whiteness of the great road which stretched straight through the oasis into the desert lay before them, with the statue of Cardinal Lavigerie staring down it in the night. At right angles was the street of the dancers, narrow, bounded with the low white houses of the ouleds, twinkling with starry lights, humming with voices, throbbing with the clashing music that poured from the rival cafes maures, thronged with the white figures of the desert men, strolling slowly, softly as panthers up and down. The moonlight was growing brighter, as if invisible hands began to fan the white flame of passion which lit up Beni-Mora. A patrol of Tirailleurs Indigenes passed by going up the street, in yellow and blue uniforms, turbans and white gaiters, their rifles over their broad shoulders. The faint tramp of their marching feet was just audible on the sandy road.
"Hadj can go home if he is afraid of anything in the dancing street," said Domini, rather maliciously. "Let us follow the soldiers."
Hadj started as if he had been stung, and looked at Domini as if he would like to strangle her.
"I am afraid of nothing," he exclaimed proudly. "Madame does not know Hadj-ben-Ibrahim."
Batouch laughed soundlessly, shaking his great shoulders. It was evident that he had divined his cousin's wish to supplant him and was busily taking his revenge. Domini was amused, and as they went slowly up the street in the wake of the soldiers she said:
"Do you often come here at night, Hadj-ben-Ibrahim?"
"Oh, yes, Madame, when I am alone. But with ladies—"
"You were here last night, weren't you, with the traveller from the hotel?"
"No, Madame. The Monsieur of the hotel preferred to visit the cafe of the story-teller, which is far more interesting. If Madame will permit me to take her—"
But this last assault was too much for the poet's philosophy. He suddenly threw off all pretence of graceful calm, and poured out upon Hadj a torrent of vehement Arabic, accompanying it with passionate gestures which filled Suzanne with horror and Domini with secret delight. She liked this abrupt unveiling of the raw. There had always lurked in her an audacity, a quick spirit of adventure more boyish than feminine. She had reached the age of thirty-two without ever gratifying it, or even fully realising how much she longed to gratify it. But now she began to understand it and to feel that it was imperious.
"I have a barbarian in me," she thought.
"Batouch!" she said sharply.
The poet turned a distorted face to her.
"That will do. Take us to the dancing-house."
Batouch shot a last ferocious glance at Hadj and they went on into the crowd of strolling men.
The little street, bright with the lamps of the small houses, from which projected wooden balconies painted in gay colours, and with the glowing radiance of the moon, was mysterious despite its gaiety, its obvious dedication to the cult of pleasure. Alive with the shrieking sounds of music, the movement and the murmur of desert humanity made it almost solemn. This crowd of boys and men, robed in white from head to heel, preserved a serious grace in its vivacity, suggested besides a dignified barbarity a mingling of angel, monk and nocturnal spirit. In the distance of the moonbeams, gliding slowly over the dusty road with slippered feet, there was something soft and radiant in their moving whiteness. Nearer, their pointed hoods made them monastical as a procession stealing from a range of cells to chant a midnight mass. In the shadowy dusk of the tiny side alleys they were like wandering ghosts intent on unholy errands or returning to the graveyard.
On some of the balconies painted girls were leaning and smoking cigarettes. Before each of the lighted doorways from which the shrill noise of music came, small, intent crowds were gathered, watching the performance that was going on inside. The robes of the Arabs brushed against the skirts of Domini and Suzanne, and eyes stared at them from every side with a scrutiny that was less impudent than seriously bold.
Hadj's thin hand was pulling Domini's sleeve.
"Well, what is it?"
"This is the best dancing-house. The children dance here."
Domini's height enabled her to peer over the shoulders of those gathered before the door, and in the lighted distance of a white- walled room, painted with figures of soldiers and Arab chiefs, she saw a small wriggling figure between two rows of squatting men, two baby hands waving coloured handkerchiefs, two little feet tapping vigorously upon an earthen floor, for background a divan crowded with women and musicians, with inflated cheeks and squinting eyes. She stood for a moment to look, then she turned away. There was an expression of disgust in her eyes.
"No, I don't want to see children," she said. "That's too—"
She glanced at her escort and did not finish.
"I know," said Batouch. "Madame wishes for the real ouleds."
He led them across the street. Hadj followed reluctantly. Before going into this second dancing-house Domini stopped again to see from outside what it was like, but only for an instant. Then a brightness came into her eyes, an eager look.
"Yes, take me in here," she said.
Batouch laughed softly, and Hadj uttered a word below his breath.
"Madame will see Irena here," said Batouch, pushing the watching Arabs unceremoniously away.
Domini did not answer. Her eyes were fixed on a man who was sitting in a corner far up the room, bending forward and staring intently at a woman who was in the act of stepping down from a raised platform decorated with lamps and small bunches of flowers in earthen pots.
"I wish to sit quite near the door," she whispered to Batouch as they went in.
"But it is much better—"
"Do what I tell you," she said. "The left side of the room."
Hadj looked a little happier. Suzanne was clinging to his arm. He smiled at her with something of mischief, but he took care, when a place was cleared on a bench for their party, to sit down at the end next the door, and he cast an anxious glance towards the platform where the dancing-girls attached to the cafe sat in a row, hunched up against the bare wall, waiting their turn to perform. Then suddenly he shook his head, tucked in his chin and laughed. His whole face was transformed from craven fear to vivacious rascality. While he laughed he looked at Batouch, who was ordering four cups of coffee from the negro attendant. The poet took no notice. For the moment he was intent upon his professional duties. But when the coffee was brought, and set upon a round wooden stool between two bunches of roses, he had time to note Hadj's sudden gaiety and to realise its meaning. Instantly he spoke to the negro in a low voice. Hadj stopped laughing. The negro sped away and returned with the proprietor of the cafe, a stout Kabyle with a fair skin and blue eyes.
Batouch lowered his voice to a guttural whisper and spoke in Arabic, while Hadj, shifting uneasily on the end seat, glanced at him sideways out of his almond-shaped eyes. Domini heard the name "Irena," and guessed that Batouch was asking the Kabyle to send for her and make her dance. She could not help being amused for a moment by the comedy of intrigue, complacently malignant on both sides, that was being played by the two cousins, but the moment passed and left her engrossed, absorbed, and not merely by the novelty of the surroundings, by the strangeness of the women, of their costumes, and of their movements. She watched them, but she watched more closely, more eagerly, rather as a spy than as a spectator, one who was watching them with an intentness, a still passion, a fierce curiosity and a sort of almost helpless wonder such as she had never seen before, and could never have found within herself to put at the service of any human marvel.
Close to the top of the room on the right the stranger was sitting in the midst of a mob of Arabs, whose flowing draperies almost concealed his ugly European clothes. On the wall immediately behind him was a brilliantly-coloured drawing of a fat Ouled Nail leering at a French soldier, which made an unconventional background to his leaning figure and sunburnt face, in which there seemed now to be both asceticism and something so different and so powerful that it was likely, from moment to moment, to drive out the asceticism and to achieve the loneliness of all conquering things. This fighting expression made Domini think of a picture she had once seen representing a pilgrim going through a dark forest attended by his angel and his devil. The angel of the pilgrim was a weak and almost childish figure, frail, bloodless, scarcely even radiant, while the devil was lusty and bold, with a muscular body and a sensual, aquiline face, which smiled craftily, looking at the pilgrim. There was surely a devil in the watching traveller which was pushing the angel out of him. Domini had never before seemed to see clearly the legendary battle of the human heart. But it had never before been manifested to her audaciously in the human face.
All around the Arabs sat, motionless and at ease, gazing on the curious dance of which they never tire—a dance which has some ingenuity, much sensuality and provocation, but little beauty and little mystery, unless—as happens now and then—an idol-like woman of the South, with all the enigma of the distant desert in her kohl- tinted eyes, dances it with the sultry gloom of a half-awakened sphinx, and makes of it a barbarous manifestation of the nature that lies hidden in the heart of the sun, a silent cry uttered by a savage body born in a savage land.
In the cafe of Tahar, the Kabyle, there was at present no such woman. His beauties, huddled together on their narrow bench before a table decorated with glasses of water and sprigs of orange blossom in earthen vases, looked dull and cheerless in their gaudy clothes. Their bodies were well formed, but somnolent. Their painted hands hung down like the hands of marionettes. The one who was dancing suggested Duty clad in Eastern garb and laying herself out carefully to be wicked. Her jerks and wrigglings, though violent, were inhuman, like those of a complicated piece of mechanism devised by a morbid engineer. After a glance or two at her Domini felt that she was bored by her own agilities. Domini's wonder increased when she looked again at the traveller.
For it was this dance of the ennui of the East which raised up in him this obvious battle, which drove his secret into the illumination of the hanging lamps and gave it to a woman, who felt half confused, half ashamed at possessing it, and yet could not cast it away.
If they both lived on, without speaking or meeting, for another half century, Domini could never know the shape of the devil in this man, the light of the smile upon its face.
The dancing woman had observed him, and presently she began slowly to wriggle towards him between the rows of Arabs, fixing her eyes upon him and parting her scarlet lips in a greedy smile. As she came on the stranger evidently began to realise that he was her bourne. He had been leaning forward, but when she approached, waving her red hands, shaking her prominent breasts, and violently jerking her stomach, he sat straight up, and then, as if instinctively trying to get away from her, pressed back against the wall, hiding the painting of the Ouled Nail and the French soldier. A dark flush rose on his face and even flooded his forehead to his low-growing hair. His eyes were full of a piteous anxiety and discomfort, and he glanced almost guiltily to right and left of him as if he expected the hooded Arab spectators to condemn his presence there now that the dancer drew their attention to it. The dancer noticed his confusion and seemed pleased by it, and moved to more energetic demonstrations of her art. She lifted her arms above her head, half closed her eyes, assumed an expression of languid ecstasy and slowly shuddered. Then, bending backward, she nearly touched the floor, swung round, still bending, and showed the long curve of her bare throat to the stranger, while the girls, huddled on the bench by the musicians, suddenly roused themselves and joined their voices in a shrill and prolonged twitter. The Arabs did not smile, but the deepness of their attention seemed to increase like a cloud growing darker. All the luminous eyes in the room were steadily fixed upon the man leaning back against the hideous picture on the wall and the gaudy siren curved almost into an arch before him. The musicians blew their hautboys and beat their tomtoms more violently, and all things, Domini thought, were filled with a sense of climax. She felt as if the room, all the inanimate objects, and all the animate figures in it, were instruments of an orchestra, and as if each individual instrument was contributing to a slow and great, and irresistible crescendo. The stranger took his part with the rest, but against his will, and as if under some terrible compulsion.
His face was scarlet now, and his shining eyes looked down on the dancer's throat and breast with a mingling of eagerness and horror. Slowly she raised herself, turned, bent forwards quivering, and presented her face to him, while the women twittered once more in chorus. He still stared at her without moving. The hautboy players prolonged a wailing note, and the tomtoms gave forth a fierce and dull murmur almost like a death, roll.
"She wants him to give her money," Batouch whispered to Domini. "Why does not he give her money?"
Evidently the stranger did not understand what was expected of him. The music changed again to a shrieking tune, the dancer drew back, did a few more steps, jerked her stomach with fury, stamped her feet on the floor. Then once more she shuddered slowly, half closed her eyes, glided close to the stranger, and falling down deliberately laid her head on his knees, while again the women twittered, and the long note of the hautboys went through the room like a scream of interrogation.
Domini grew hot as she saw the look that came into the stranger's face when the woman touched his knees.
"Go and tell him it's money she wants!" she whispered to Batouch. "Go and tell him!"
Batouch got up, but at this moment a roguish Arab boy, who sat by the stranger, laughingly spoke to him, pointing to the woman. The stranger thrust his hand into his pocket, found a coin and, directed by the roguish youth, stuck it upon the dancer's greasy forehead. At once she sprang to her feet. The women twittered. The music burst into a triumphant melody, and through the room there went a stir. Almost everyone in it moved simultaneously. One man raised his hand to his hood and settled it over his forehead. Another put his cigarette to his lips. Another picked up his coffeecup. A fourth, who was holding a flower, lifted it to his nose and smelt it. No one remained quite still. With the stranger's action a strain had been removed, a mental tension abruptly loosened, a sense of care let free in the room. Domini felt it acutely. The last few minutes had been painful to her. She sighed with relief at the cessation of another's agony. For the stranger had certainly—from shyness or whatever cause—been in agony while the dancer kept her head upon his knees.
His angel had been in fear, perhaps, while his devil——
But Domini tried resolutely to turn her thoughts from the smiling face.
After pressing the money on the girl's forehead the man made a movement as if he meant to leave the room, but once again the curious indecision which Domini had observed in him before cut his action, as it were, in two, leaving it half finished. As the dancer, turning, wriggled slowly to the platform, he buttoned up his jacket with a sort of hasty resolution, pulled it down with a jerk, glanced swiftly round, and rose to his feet. Domini kept her eyes on him, and perhaps they drew his, for, just as he was about to step into the narrow aisle that led to the door he saw her. Instantly he sat down again, turned so that she could only see part of his face, unbuttoned his jacket, took out some matches and busied himself in lighting a cigarette. She knew he had felt her concentration on him, and was angry with herself. Had she really a spy in her? Was she capable of being vulgarly curious about a man? A sudden movement of Hadj drew her attention. His face was distorted by an expression that seemed half angry, half fearful. Batouch was smiling seraphically as he gazed towards the platform. Suzanne, with a pinched-up mouth, was looking virginally at her lap. Her whole attitude showed her consciousness of the many blazing eyes that were intently staring at her. The stomach dance which she had just been watching had amazed her so much that she felt as if she were the only respectable woman in the world, and as if no one would suppose it unless she hung out banners white as the walls of Beni- Mora's houses. She strove to do so, and, meanwhile, from time to time, cast sideway glances towards the platform to see whether another stomach dance was preparing. She did not see Hadj's excitement or the poet's malignant satisfaction, but she, with Domini, saw a small door behind the platform open, and the stout Kabyle appear followed by a girl who was robed in gold tissue, and decorated with cascades of golden coins.
Domini guessed at once that this was Irena, the returned exile, who wished to kill Hadj, and she was glad that a new incident had occurred to switch off the general attention from the stranger.
Irena was evidently a favourite. There was a grave movement as she came in, a white undulation as all the shrouded forms bent slightly forward in her direction. Only Hadj caught his burnous round him with his thin fingers, dropped his chin, shook his hood down upon his forehead, leaned back against the wall, and, curling his legs under him, seemed to fall asleep. But beneath his brown lids and long black lashes his furtive eyes followed every movement of the girl in the sparkling robe.
She came in slowly and languidly, with a heavy and cross expression upon her face, which was thin to emaciation and painted white, with scarlet lips and darkened eyes and eyebrows. Her features were narrow and pointed. Her bones were tiny, and her body was so slender, her waist so small, that, with her flat breast and meagre shoulders, she looked almost like a stick crowned with a human face and hung with brilliant draperies. Her hair, which was thick and dark brown, was elaborately braided and covered with a yellow silk handkerchief. Domini thought she looked consumptive, and was bitterly disappointed in her appearance. For some unknown reason she had expected the woman who wished to kill Hadj, and who obviously inspired him with fear, to be a magnificent and glowing desert beauty. This woman might be violent. She looked weary, anaemic, and as if she wished to go to bed, and Domini's contempt for Hadj increased as she looked at her. To be afraid of a thin, tired, sleepy creature such as that was too pitiful. But Hadj did not seem to think so. He had pulled his hood still further forward, and was now merely a bundle concealed in the shade of Suzanne.
Irena stepped on to the platform, pushed the girl who sat at the end of the bench till she moved up higher, sat down in the vacant place, drank some water out of the glass nearest to her, and then remained quite still staring at the floor, utterly indifferent to the Arabs who were devouring her with their eyes. No doubt the eyes of men had devoured her ever since she could remember. It was obvious that they meant nothing to her, that they did not even for an instant disturb the current of her dreary thoughts.
Another girl was dancing, a stout, Oriental Jewess with a thick hooked nose, large lips and bulging eyes, that looked as if they had been newly scoured with emery powder. While she danced she sang, or rather shouted roughly, an extraordinary melody that suggested battle, murder and sudden death. Careless of onlookers, she sometimes scratched her head or rubbed her nose without ceasing her contortions. Domini guessed that this was the girl whom she had seen from the tower dancing upon the roof in the sunset. Distance and light had indeed transformed her. Under the lamps she was the embodiment of all that was coarse and greasy. Even the pitiful slenderness of Irena seemed attractive when compared with her billowing charms, which she kept in a continual commotion that was almost terrifying.
"Hadj is nearly dead with fear," whispered Batouch, complacently. Domini's lips curled.
"Does not Madame think Irena beautiful as the moon on the waters of the Oued Beni-Mora?"
"Indeed I don't," she replied bluntly. "And I think a man who can be afraid of such a little thing must be afraid of the children in the street."
"Little! But Irena is tall as a female palm in Ourlana."
Domini looked at her again more carefully, and saw that Batouch spoke the truth. Irena was unusually tall, but her excessive narrowness, her tiny bones, and the delicate way in which she held herself deceived the eye and gave her a little appearance.
"So she is; but who could be afraid of her? Why, I could pick her up and throw her over that moon of yours."
"Madame is strong. Madame is like the lioness. But Irena is the most terrible girl in all Beni-Mora if she loves or if she is angry, the most terrible in all the Sahara."
"Madame does not know her," said Batouch, imperturbably. "But Madame can ask the Arabs. Many of the dancers of Beni-Mora are murdered, each season two or three. But no man would try to murder Irena. No man would dare."
The poet's calm and unimpassioned way of alluding to the most horrible crimes as if they were perfectly natural, and in no way to be condemned or wondered at, amazed Domini even more than his statement about Irena.
"Why do they murder the dancers?" she asked quickly.
"For their jewels. At night, in those little rooms with the balconies which Madame has seen, it is easy. You enter in to sleep there. You close your eyes, you breathe gently and a little loud. The woman hears. She is not afraid. She sleeps. She dreams. Her throat is like that"—he threw back his head, exposing his great neck. "Just before dawn you draw your knife from your burnous. You bend down. You cut the throat without noise. You take the jewels, the money from the box by the bed. You go down quietly with bare feet. No one is on the stair. You unbar the door—and there before you is the great hiding-place."
"The great hiding-place!"
"The desert, Madame." He sipped his coffee. Domini looked at him, fascinated.
Suzanne shivered. She had been listening. The loud contralto cry of the Jewess rose up, with its suggestion of violence and of rough indifference. And Domini repeated softly:
"The great hiding-place."
With every moment in Beni-Mora the desert seemed to become more—more full of meaning, of variety, of mystery, of terror. Was it everything? The garden of God, the great hiding-place of murderers! She had called it, on the tower, the home of peace. In the gorge of El-Akbara, ere he prayed, Batouch had spoken of it as a vast realm of forgetfulness, where the load of memory slips from the weary shoulders and vanishes into the soft gulf of the sands.
But was it everything then? And if it was so much to her already, in a night and a day, what would it be when she knew it, what would it be to her after many nights and many days? She began to feel a sort of terror mingled with the most extraordinary attraction she had ever known.
Hadj crouched right back against the wall. The voice of the Jewess ceased in a shout. The hautboys stopped playing. Only the tomtoms roared.
"Hadj can be happy now," observed Batouch in a voice of almost satisfaction, "for Irena is going to dance. Look! There is the little Miloud bringing her the daggers."
An Arab boy, with a beautiful face and a very dark skin, slipped on to the platform with two long, pointed knives in his hand. He laid them on the table before Irena, between the bouquets of orange blossom, jumped lightly down and disappeared.
Directly the knives touched the table the hautboy players blew a terrific blast, and then, swelling the note, till it seemed as if they must burst both themselves and their instruments, swung into a tremendous and magnificent tune, a tune tingling with barbarity, yet such as a European could have sung or written down. In an instant it gripped Domini and excited her till she could hardly breathe. It poured fire into her veins and set fire about her heart. It was triumphant as a great song after war in a wild land, cruel, vengeful, but so strong and so passionately joyous that it made the eyes shine and the blood leap, and the spirit rise up and clamour within the body, clamour for utter liberty, for action, for wide fields in which to roam, for long days and nights of glory and of love, for intense hours of emotion and of life lived with exultant desperation. It was a melody that seemed to set the soul of Creation dancing before an ark. The tomtoms accompanied it with an irregular but rhythmical roar which Domini thought was like the deep-voiced shouting of squadrons of fighting men.
Irena looked wearily at the knives. Her expression had not changed, and Domini was amazed at her indifference. The eyes of everyone in the room were fixed upon her. Even Suzanne began to be less virginal in appearance under the influence of this desert song of triumph. Domini did not let her eyes stray any more towards the stranger. For the moment indeed she had forgotten him. Her attention was fastened upon the thin, consumptive-looking creature who was staring at the two knives laid upon the table. When the great tune had been played right through once, and a passionate roll of tomtoms announced its repetition, Irena suddenly shot out her tiny arms, brought her hands down on the knives, seized them and sprang to her feet. She had passed from lassitude to vivid energy with an abruptness that was almost demoniacal, and to an energy with which both mind and body seemed to blaze. Then, as the hautboys screamed out the tune once more, she held the knives above her head and danced.
Irena was not an Ouled Nail. She was a Kabyle woman born in the mountains of Djurdjura, not far from the village of Tamouda. As a child she had lived in one of those chimneyless and windowless mud cottages with red tiled roofs which are so characteristic a feature of La Grande Kabylie. She had climbed barefoot the savage hills, or descended into the gorges yellow with the broom plant and dipped her brown toes in the waters of the Sebaou. How had she drifted so far from the sharp spurs of her native hills and from the ruddy-haired, blue-eyed people of her tribe? Possibly she had sinned, as the Kabyle women often sin, and fled from the wrath that she would understand, and that all her fierce bravery could not hope to conquer. Or perhaps with her Kabyle blood, itself a brew composed of various strains, Greek, Roman, as well as Berber, were mingling some drops drawn from desert sources, which had manifested themselves physically in her dark hair, mentally in a nomadic instinct which had forbidden her to rest among the beauties of Ait Ouaguennoun, whose legendary charm she did not possess. There was the look of an exile in her face, a weariness that dreamed, perhaps, of distant things. But now that she danced that fled, and the gleam of flame-lit steel was in her eyes.
Tangled and vital impressions came to Domini as she watched. Now she saw Jael and the tent, and the nails driven into the temples of the sleeping warrior. Now she saw Medea in the moment before she tore to pieces her brother and threw the bloody fragments in Aetes's path; Clytemnestra's face while Agamemnon was passing to the bath, Delilah's when Samson lay sleeping on her knee. But all these imagined faces of named women fled like sand grains on a desert wind as the dance went on and the recurrent melody came back and back and back with a savage and glorious persistence. They were too small, too individual, and pinned the imagination down too closely. This dagger dance let in upon her a larger atmosphere, in which one human being was as nothing, even a goddess or a siren prodigal of enchantments was a little thing not without a narrow meanness of physiognomy.
She looked and listened till she saw a grander procession troop by, garlanded with mystery and triumph: War as a shape with woman's eyes: Night, without poppies, leading the stars and moon and all the vigorous dreams that must come true: Love of woman that cannot be set aside, but will govern the world from Eden to the abyss into which the nations fall to the outstretched hands of God: Death as Life's leader, with a staff from which sprang blossoms red as the western sky: Savage Fecundity that crushes all barren things into the silent dust: and then the Desert.
That came in a pale cloud of sand, with a pale crowd of worshippers, those who had received gifts from the Desert's hands and sought for more: white-robed Marabouts who had found Allah in his garden and become a guide to the faithful through all the circling years: murderers who had gained sanctuary with barbaric jewels in their blood-stained hands: once tortured men and women who had cast away terrible recollections in the wastes among the dunes and in the treeless purple distances, and who had been granted the sweet oases of forgetfulness to dwell in: ardent beings who had striven vainly to rest content with the world of hills and valleys, of sea-swept verges and murmuring rivers, and who had been driven, by the labouring soul, on and on towards the flat plains where roll for ever the golden wheels of the chariot of the sun. She saw, too, the winds that are the Desert's best-loved children: Health with shining eyes and a skin of bronze: Passion, half faun, half black-browed Hercules: and Liberty with upraised arms, beating cymbals like monstrous spheres of fire.
And she saw palm trees waving, immense palm trees in the south. It seemed to her that she travelled as far away from Beni-Mora as she had travelled from England in coming to Beni-Mora. She made her way towards the sun, joining the pale crowd of the Desert's worshippers. And always, as she travelled, she heard the clashing of the cymbals of Liberty. A conviction was born in her that Fate meant her to know the Desert well, strangely well; that the Desert was waiting calmly for her to come to it and receive that which it had to give to her; that in the Desert she would learn more of the meaning of life than she could ever learn elsewhere. It seemed to her suddenly that she understood more clearly than hitherto in what lay the intense, the over-mastering and hypnotic attraction exercised already by the Desert over her nature. In the Desert there must be, there was—she felt it— not only light to warm the body, but light to illuminate the dark places of the soul. An almost fatalistic idea possessed her. She saw a figure—one of the Messengers—standing with her beside the corpse of her father and whispering in her ear "Beni-Mora"; taking her to the map and pointing to the word there, filling her brain and heart with suggestions, till—as she had thought almost without reason, and at haphazard—she chose Beni-Mora as the place to which she would go in search of recovery, of self-knowledge. It had been pre-ordained. The Messenger had been sent. The Messenger had guided her. And he would come again, when the time was ripe, and lead her on into the Desert. She felt it. She knew it.
She looked round at the Arabs. She was as much a fatalist as any one of them. She looked at the stranger. What was he?
Abruptly in her imagination a vision rose. She gazed once more into the crowd that thronged about the Desert having received gifts at the Desert's hands, and in it she saw the stranger.
He was kneeling, his hands were stretched out, his head was bowed, and he was praying. And, while he prayed, Liberty stood by him smiling, and her fiery cymbals were like the aureoles that illumine the beautiful faces of the saints.
For some reason that she could not understand her heart began to beat fast, and she felt a burning sensation behind her eyes.
She thought that this extraordinary music, that this amazing dance, excited her too much.
The white bundle at Suzanne's side stirred. Irena, holding the daggers above her head, had sprung from the little platform and was dancing on the earthen floor in the midst of the Arabs.
Her thin body shook convulsively in time to the music. She marked the accents with her shudders. Excitement had grown in her till she seemed to be in a feverish passion that was half exultant, half despairing. In her expression, in her movements, in the way she held herself, leaning backwards with her face looking up, her breast and neck exposed as if she offered her life, her love and all the mysteries in her, to an imagined being who dominated her savage and ecstatic soul, there was a vivid suggestion of the two elements in Passion—rapture and melancholy. In her dance she incarnated passion whole by conveying the two halves that compose it. Her eyes were nearly closed, as a woman closes them when she has seen the lips of her lover descending upon hers. And her mouth seemed to be receiving the fiery touch of another mouth. In this moment she was a beautiful woman because she looked like womanhood. And Domini understood why the Arabs thought her more beautiful than the other dancers. She had what they had not— genius. And genius, under whatever form, shows to the world at moments the face of Aphrodite.
She came slowly nearer, and those by the platform turned round to follow her with their eyes. Hadj's hood had slipped completely down over his face, and his chin was sunk on his chest. Batouch noticed it and looked angry, but Domini had forgotten both the comedy of the two cousins and the tragedy of Irena's love for Hadj. She was completely under the fascination of this dance and of the music that accompanied it. Now that Irena was near she was able to see that, without her genius, there would have been no beauty in her face. It was painfully thin, painfully long and haggard. Her life had written a fatal inscription across it as their life writes upon the faces of poor street-bred children the one word—Want. As they have too little this dancing woman had had too much. The sparkle of her robe of gold tissue covered with golden coins was strong in the lamplight. Domini looked at it and at the two sharp knives above her head, looked at her violent, shuddering movements, and shuddered too, thinking of Batouch's story of murdered dancers. It was dangerous to have too much in Beni-Mora.
Irena was quite close now. She seemed so wrapped in the ecstasy of the dance that it did not occur to Domini at first that she was imitating the Ouled Nail who had laid her greasy head upon the stranger's knees. The abandonment of her performance was so great that it was difficult to remember its money value to her and to Tahar, the fair Kabyle. Only when she was actually opposite to them and stayed there, still performing her shuddering dance, still holding the daggers above her head, did Domini realise that those half-closed, passionate eyes had marked the stranger woman, and that she must add one to the stream of golden coins. She took out her purse but did not give the money at once. With the pitiless scrutiny of her sex she noticed all the dancer's disabilities. She was certainly young, but she was very worn. Her mouth drooped. At the corners of her eyes there were tiny lines tending downward. Her forehead had what Domini secretly called a martyred look. Nevertheless, she was savage and triumphant. Her thin body suggested force; the way she held herself consuming passion. Even so near at hand, even while she was pausing for money, and while her eyes were, doubtless, furtively reading Domini, she shed round her a powerful atmosphere, which stirred the blood, and made the heart leap, and created longing for unknown and violent things. As Domini watched her she felt that Irena must have lived at moments magnificently, that despite her almost shattered condition and permanent weariness—only cast aside for the moment of the dance—she must have known intense joys, that so long as she lived she would possess the capacity for knowing them again. There was something burning within her that would burn on so long as she was alive, a spark of nature that was eternally red hot. It was that spark which made her the idol of the Arabs and shed a light of beauty through her haggard frame.
The spirit blazed.
Domini put her hand at last into her purse and took out a piece of gold. She was just going to give it to Irena when the white bundle that was Hadj made a sudden, though slight, movement, as if the thing inside it had shivered. Irena noticed it with her half-closed eyes. Domini leaned forward and held out the money, then drew back startled. Irena had changed her posture abruptly. Instead of keeping her head thrown back and exposing her long throat, she lifted it, shot it forward. Her meagre bosom almost disappeared as she bent over. Her arms fell to her sides. Her eyes opened wide and became full of a sharp, peering intensity. Her vision and dreams dropped out of her. Now she was only fierce and questioning, and horribly alert. She was looking at the white bundle. It shifted again. She sprang upon it, showing her teeth, caught hold of it. With a swift turn of her thin hands she tore back the hood, and out of the bundle came Hadj's head and face livid with fear. One of the daggers flashed and came up at him. He leaped from the seat and screamed. Suzanne echoed his cry. Then the whole room was a turmoil of white garments and moving limbs. In an instant everybody seemed to be leaping, calling out, grasping, struggling. Domini tried to get up, but she was hemmed in, and could not make a movement upward or free her arms, which were pressed against her sides by the crowd around her. For a moment she thought she was going to be severely hurt or suffocated. She did not feel afraid, but only indignant, like a boy who has been struck in the face and longs to retaliate. Someone screamed again. It was Hadj. Suzanne was on her feet, but separated from her mistress. Batouch's arm was round her. Domini put her hands on the bench and tried to force herself up, violently setting her broad shoulders against the Arabs who were towering over her and covering her head and face with their floating garments as they strove to see the fight between Hadj and the dancer. The heat almost stifled her, and she was suddenly aware of a strong musky smell of perspiring humanity. She was beginning to pant for breath when she felt two burning, hot, hard hands come down on hers, fingers like iron catch hold of hers, go under them, drag up her hands. She could not see who had seized her, but the life in the hands that were on hers mingled with the life in her hands like one fluid with another, and seemed to pass on till she felt it in her body, and had an odd sensation as if her face had been caught in a fierce grip, and her heart too.
Another moment and she was on her feet and out in the moonlit alley between the little white houses. She saw the stars, and the painted balconies crowded with painted women looking down towards the cafe she had left and chattering in shrill voices. She saw the patrol of Tirailleurs Indigenes marching at the double to the doorway in which the Arabs were still struggling. Then she saw that the traveller was beside her. She was not surprised.
"Thank you for getting me out," she said rather bluntly. "Where's my maid?"
"She got away before us with your guide, Madame."
He held up his hands and looked at them hard, eagerly, questioningly.
"You weren't hurt?"
He dropped his hands quickly. "Oh, no, it wasn't——"
He broke off the sentence and was silent. Domini stood still, drew a long breath and laughed. She still felt angry and laughed to control herself. Unless she could be amused at this episode she knew that she was capable of going back to the door of the cafe and hitting out right and left at the men who had nearly suffocated her. Any violence done to her body, even an unintentional push against her in the street —if there was real force in it—seemed to let loose a devil in her, such a devil as ought surely only to dwell inside a man.
"What people!" she said. "What wild creatures!"
She laughed again. The patrol pushed its way roughly in at the doorway.
"The Arabs are always like that, Madame."
She looked at him, then she said, abruptly:
"Do you speak English?"
Her companion hesitated. It was perfectly obvious to her that he was considering whether he should answer "Yes" or "No." Such hesitation about such a matter was very strange. At last he said, but still in French:
And directly he had said it she saw by his face that he wished he had said "No."
From the cafe the Arabs began to pour into the street. The patrol was clearing the place. The women leaning over the balconies cried out shrilly to learn the exact history of the tumult, and the men standing underneath, and lifting up their bronzed faces in the moonlight, replied in violent voices, gesticulating vehemently while their hanging sleeves fell back from their hairy arms.
"I am an Englishwoman," Domini said.
But she too felt obliged to speak still in French, as if a sudden reserve told her to do so. He said nothing. They were standing in quite a crowd now. It swayed, parted suddenly, and the soldiers appeared holding Irena. Hadj followed behind, shouting as if in a frenzy of passion. There was some blood on one of his hands and a streak of blood on the front of the loose shirt he wore under his burnous. He kept on shooting out his arms towards Irena as he walked, and frantically appealing to the Arabs round him. When he saw the women on their balconies he stopped for a moment and called out to them like a man beside himself. A Tirailleur pushed him on. The women, who had been quiet to hear him, burst forth again into a paroxysm of chatter. Irena looked utterly indifferent and walked feebly. The little procession disappeared in the moonlight accompanied by the crowd.
"She has stabbed Hadj," Domini said. "Batouch will be glad."
She did not feel as if she were sorry. Indeed, she thought she was glad too. That the dancer should try to do a thing and fail would have seemed contradictory. And the streak of blood she had just seen seemed to relieve her suddenly and to take from her all anger. Her self- control returned.
"Thank you once more," she said to her companion. "Goodnight."
She remembered the episode of the tower that afternoon, and resolved to take a definite line this time, and not to run the chance of a second desertion. She started off down the street, but found him walking beside her in silence. She stopped.
"I am very much obliged to you for getting me out," she said, looking straight at him. "And now, good-night."
Almost for the first time he endured her gaze without any uncertainty, and she saw that though he might be hesitating, uneasy, even contemptible—as when he hurried down the road in the wake of the negro procession—he could also be a dogged man.
"I'll go with you, Madame," he said.
"I'm not afraid."
"I'll go with you, Madame."
He said it again harshly and kept his eyes on her, frowning.
"And if I refuse?" she said, wondering whether she was going to refuse or not.
"I'll follow you, Madame."
She knew by the look on his face that he, too, was thinking of what had happened in the afternoon. Why should she wish to deprive him of the reparation he was anxious to make—obviously anxious in an almost piteously determined way? It was poor pride in her, a mean little feeling.
"Come with me," she said.
They went on together.
The Arabs, stirred up by the fracas in Tahar's cafe, were seething with excitement, and several of them, gathered together in a little crowd, were quarrelling and shouting at the end of the street near the statue of the Cardinal. Domini's escort saw them and hesitated.
"I think, Madame, it would be better to take a side street," he said.
"Very well. Let us go to the left here. It is bound to bring us to the hotel as it runs parallel to the house of the sand diviner."
"The sand-diviner?" he said in his low, strong voice.
She walked on into a tiny alley. He followed her.
"You haven't seen the thin man with the bag of sand?"
"He reads your past in sand from the desert and tells what your future will be."
The man made no reply.
"Will you pay him a visit?" Domini asked curiously.
"No, Madame. I do not care for such things."
Suddenly she stood still.
"Oh, look!" she said. "How strange! And there are others all down the street."
In the tiny alley the balconies of the houses nearly met. No figures leaned on their railings. No chattering voices broke the furtive silence that prevailed in this quarter of Beni-Mora. The moonlight was fainter here, obscured by the close-set buildings, and at the moment there was not an Arab in sight. The sense of loneliness and peace was profound, and as the rare windows of the houses, minute and protected by heavy gratings, were dark, it had seemed to Domini at first as if all the inhabitants were in bed and asleep. But, in passing on, she had seen a faint and blanched illumination; then another; the vague vision of an aperture; a seated figure making a darkness against whiteness; a second aperture and seated figure. She stopped and stood still. The man stood still beside her.
The alley was an alley of women. In every house on either side of the way a similar picture of attentive patience was revealed: a narrow Moorish archway with a wooden door set back against the wall to show a steep and diminutive staircase winding up into mystery; upon the highest stair a common candlestick with a lit candle guttering in it, and, immediately below, a girl, thickly painted, covered with barbarous jewels and magnificently dressed, her hands, tinted with henna, folded in her lap, her eyes watching under eyebrows heavily darkened, and prolonged until they met just above the bridge of the nose, to which a number of black dots descended; her naked, brown ankles decorated with large circlets of gold or silver. The candle shed upon each watcher a faint light that half revealed her and left her half concealed upon her white staircase bounded by white walls. And in her absolute silence, absolute stillness, each one was wholly mysterious as she gazed ceaselessly out towards the empty, narrow street.
The woman before whose dwelling Domini had stopped was an Ouled Nail, with a square headdress of coloured handkerchiefs and feathers, a pink and silver shawl, a blue skirt of some thin material powdered with silver flowers, and a broad silver belt set with squares of red coral. She was sitting upright, and would have looked exactly like an idol set up for savage worship had not her long eyes gleamed and moved as she solemnly returned the gaze of Domini and of the man who stood a little behind looking over her shoulder.
When Domini stopped and exclaimed she did not realise to what this street was dedicated, why these women sat in watchful silence, each one alone on her stair waiting in the night. But as she looked and saw the gaudy finery she began to understand. And had she remained in doubt an incident now occurred which must have enlightened her.
A great gaunt Arab, one of the true desert men, almost black, with high cheek bones, hollow cheeks, fierce falcon's eyes shining as if with fever, long and lean limbs hard as iron, dressed in a rough, sacklike brown garment, and wearing a turban bound with cords of camel's hair, strode softly down the alley, slipped in front of Domini, and went up to the woman, holding out something in his scaly hand. There was a brief colloquy. The woman stretched her arm up the staircase, took the candle, held it to the man's open hand, and bent over counting the money that lay in the palm. She counted it twice deliberately. Then she nodded. She got up, turned, holding the candle above her square headdress, and went slowly up the staircase followed by the Arab, who grasped his coarse draperies and lifted them, showing his bare legs. The two disappeared without noise into the darkness, leaving the stairway deserted, its white steps, its white walls faintly lit by the moon.
The woman had not once looked at the man, but only at the money in his scaly hand.
Domini felt hot and rather sick. She wondered why she had stood there watching. Yet she had not been able to turn away. Now, as she stepped back into the middle of the alley and walked on with the man beside her she wondered what he was thinking of her. She could not talk to him any more. She was too conscious of the lighted stairways, one after one, succeeding each other to right and left of them, of the still figures, of the watching eyes in which the yellow rays of the candles gleamed. Her companion did not speak; but as they walked he glanced furtively from one side to the other, then stared down steadily on the white road. When they turned to the right and came out by the gardens, and Domini saw the great tufted heads of the palms black against the moon, she felt relieved and was able to speak again.
"I should like you to know that I am quite a stranger to all African things and people," she said. "That is why I am liable to fall into mistakes in such a place as this. Ah, there is the hotel, and my maid on the verandah. I want to thank you again for looking after me."
They were at a few steps from the hotel door in the road. The man stopped, and Domini stopped too.
"Madame," he said earnestly, with a sort of hardly controlled excitement, "I—I am glad. I was ashamed—I was ashamed."
"Of my conduct—of my awkwardness. But you will forgive it. I am not accustomed to the society of ladies—like you. Anything I have done I have not done out of rudeness. That is all I can say. I have not done it out of rudeness."
He seemed to be almost trembling with agitation.
"I know, I know," she said. "Besides, it was nothing."
"Oh, no, it was abominable. I understand that. I am not so coarse- fibred as not to understand that."
Domini suddenly felt that to take his view of the matter, exaggerated though it was, would be the kindest course, even the most delicate.
"You were rude to me," she said, "but I shall forget it from this moment."
She held out her hand. He grasped it, and again she felt as if a furnace were pouring its fiery heat upon her.
"Good-night, Madame. Thank you."
She was going away to the hotel door, but she stopped.
"My name is Domini Enfilden," she said in English.
The man stood in the road looking at her. She waited. She expected him to tell her his name. There was a silence. At last he said hesitatingly, in English with a very slight foreign accent:
"My name is Boris—Boris Androvsky."
"Batouch told me you were English," she said.
"My mother was English, but my father was a Russian from Tiflis. That is my name."
There was a sound in his voice as if he were insisting like a man making an assertion not readily to be believed.
"Good-night," Domini said again.
And she went away slowly, leaving him standing on the moonlit road.
He did not remain there long, nor did he follow her into the hotel. After she had disappeared he stood for a little while gazing up at the deserted verandah upon which the moon-rays fell. Then he turned and looked towards the village, hesitated, and finally walked slowly back towards the tiny, shrouded alley in which on the narrow staircases the painted girls sat watching in the night.
On the following morning Batouch arrived with a handsome grey Arab horse for Domini to try. He had been very penitent the night before, and Domini had forgiven easily enough his pre-occupation with Suzanne, who had evidently made a strong impression upon his susceptible nature. Hadj had been but slightly injured by Irena, but did not appear at the hotel for a very sufficient reason. Both the dancer and he were locked up for the moment, till the Guardians of Justice in Beni-Mora had made up their minds who should be held responsible for the uproar of the previous night. That the real culprit was the smiling poet was not likely to occur to them, and did not seem to trouble him. When Domini inquired after Hadj he showed majestic indifference, and when she hinted at his crafty share in the causing of the tragedy he calmly replied
"Hadj-ben-Ibrahim will know from henceforth whether the Mehari with the swollen tongue can bite."
Then, leaping upon the horse, whose bridle he was holding, he forced it to rear, caracole and display its spirit and its paces before Domini, sitting it superbly, and shooting many sly glances at Suzanne, who leaned over the parapet of the verandah watching, with a rapt expression on her face.
Domini admired the horse, but wished to mount it herself before coming to any conclusion about it. She had brought her own saddle with her and ordered Batouch to put it on the animal. Meanwhile she went upstairs to change into her habit. When she came out again on to the verandah Boris Androvsky was there, standing bare-headed in the sun and looking down at Batouch and the horse. He turned quickly, greeted Domini with a deep bow, then examined her costume with wondering, startled eyes.
"I'm going to try that horse," she said with deliberate friendliness. "To see if I'll buy him. Are you a judge of a horse?"
"I fear not, Madame."
She had spoken in English and he replied in the same language. She was standing at the head of the stairs holding her whip lightly in her right hand. Her splendid figure was defined by the perfectly-fitting, plain habit, and she saw him look at it with a strange expression in his eyes, an admiration that was almost ferocious, and that was yet respectful and even pure. It was like the glance of a passionate schoolboy verging on young manhood, whose natural instincts were astir but whose temperament was unwarped by vice; a glance that was a burning tribute, and that told a whole story of sex and surely of hot, inquiring ignorance—strange glances of a man no longer even very young. It made something in her leap and quiver. She was startled and almost angered by that, but not by the eyes that caused it.
"Au revoir," she said, turning to go down.
"May I—might I see you get up?" said Androvsky.
"Get up!" she said.
"Up on the horse?"
She could not help smiling at his fashion of expressing the act of mounting. He was not a sportsman evidently, despite his muscular strength.
"Certainly, if you like. Come along."
Without thinking of it she spoke rather as to a schoolboy, not with superiority, but with the sort of bluffness age sometimes uses good- naturedly to youth. He did not seem to resent it and followed her down to the arcade.
The side saddle was on and the poet held the grey by the bridle. Some Arab boys had assembled under the arcade to see what was going forward. The Arab waiter lounged at the door with the tassel of his fez swinging against his pale cheek. The horse fidgetted and tugged against the rein, lifting his delicate feet uneasily from the ground, flicking his narrow quarters with his long tail, and glancing sideways with his dark and brilliant eyes, which were alive with a nervous intelligence that was almost hectic. Domini went up to him and caressed him with her hand. He reared up and snorted. His whole body seemed a-quiver with the desire to gallop furiously away alone into some far distant place.
Androvsky stood near the waiter, looking at Domini and at the horse with wonder and alarm in his eyes.
The animal, irritated by inaction, began to plunge violently and to get out of hand.
"Give me the reins," Domini said to the poet. "That's it. Now put your hand for me."
Batouch obeyed. Her foot just touched his hand and she was in the saddle.
Androvsky sprang forward on to the pavement. His eyes were blazing with anxiety. She saw it and laughed gaily.
"Oh, he's not vicious," she said. "And vice is the only thing that's dangerous. His mouth is perfect, but he's nervous and wants handling. I'll just take him up the gardens and back."
She had been reining him in. Now she let him go, and galloped up the straight track between the palms towards the station. The priest had come out into his little garden with Bous-Bous, and leaned over his brushwood fence to look after her. Bous-Bous barked in a light soprano. The Arab boys jumped on their bare toes, and one of them, who was a bootblack, waved his board over his shaven head. The Arab waiter smiled as if with satisfaction at beholding perfect competence. But Androvsky stood quite still looking down the dusty road at the diminishing forms of horse and rider, and when they disappeared, leaving behind them a light cloud of sand films whirling in the sun, he sighed heavily and dropped his chin on his chest as if fatigued.
"I can get a horse for Monsieur too. Would Monsieur like to have a horse?"
It was the poet's amply seductive voice. Androvsky started.
"I don't ride," he said curtly.
"I will teach Monsieur. I am the best teacher in Beni-Mora. In three lessons Monsieur will—"
"I don't ride, I tell you."
Androvsky was looking angry. He stepped out into the road. Bous-Bous, who was now observing Nature at the priest's garden gate, emerged with some sprightliness and trotted towards him, evidently with the intention of making his acquaintance. Coming up to him the little dog raised his head and uttered a short bark, at the same time wagging his tail in a kindly, though not effusive manner. Androvsky looked down, bent quickly and patted him, as only a man really fond of animals and accustomed to them knows how to pat. Bous-Bous was openly gratified. He began to wriggle affectionately. The priest in his garden smiled. Androvsky had not seen him and went on playing with the dog, who now made preparations to lie down on his curly back in the road in the hope of being tickled, a process he was an amateur of. Still smiling, and with a friendly look on his face, the priest came out of his garden and approached the playmates.
"Good morning, M'sieur," he said politely, raising his hat. "I see you like dogs."
Androvsky lifted himself up, leaving Bous-Bous in a prayerful attitude, his paws raised devoutly towards the heavens. When he saw that it was the priest who had addressed him his face changed, hardened to grimness, and his lips trembled slightly.
"That's my little dog," the priest continued in a gentle voice. "He has evidently taken a great fancy to you."
Batouch was watching Androvsky under the arcade, and noted the sudden change in his expression and his whole bearing.
"I—I did not know he was your dog, Monsieur, or I should not have interfered with him," said Androvsky.
Bous-Bous jumped up against his leg. He pushed the little dog rather roughly away and stepped back to the arcade. The priest looked puzzled and slightly hurt. At this moment the soft thud of horse's hoofs was audible on the road and Domini came cantering back to the hotel. Her eyes were sparkling, her face was radiant. She bowed to the priest and reined up before the hotel door, where Androvsky was standing.
"I'll buy him," she said to Batouch, who swelled with satisfaction at the thought of his commission. "And I'll go for a long ride now—out into the desert."
"You will not go alone, Madame?"
It was the priest's voice. She smiled down at him gaily.
"Should I be carried off by nomads, Monsieur?"
"It would not be safe for a lady, believe me."
Batouch swept forward to reassure the priest. "I am Madame's guide. I have a horse ready saddled to accompany Madame. I have sent for it already, M'sieur."
One of the little Arab boys was indeed visible running with all his might towards the Rue Berthe. Domini's face suddenly clouded. The presence of the guide would take all the edge off her pleasure, and in the short gallop she had just had she had savoured its keenness. She was alive with desire to be happy.
"I don't need you, Batouch," she said.
But the poet was inexorable, backed up by the priest.
"It is my duty to accompany Madame. I am responsible for her safety."
"Indeed, you cannot go into the desert alone," said the priest.
Domini glanced at Androvsky, who was standing silently under the arcade, a little withdrawn, looking uncomfortable and self-conscious. She remembered her thought on the tower of the dice-thrower, and of how the presence of the stranger had seemed to double her pleasure then. Up the road from the Rue Berthe came the noise of a galloping horse. The shoeblack was returning furiously, his bare legs sticking out on either side of a fiery light chestnut with a streaming mane and tail.
"Monsieur Androvsky," she said.
"Will you come with me for a ride into the desert?"
His face was flooded with scarlet, and he came a step forward, looking up at her.
"I!" he said with an accent of infinite surprise.
"Yes. Will you?"
The chestnut thundered up and was pulled sharply back on its haunches. Androvsky shot a sideways glance at it and hesitated. Domini thought he was going to refuse and wished she had not asked him, wished it passionately.
"Never mind," she said, almost brutally in her vexation at what she had done.
The poet was about to spring upon the horse when Androvsky caught him by the arm.
"I will go," he said.
Batouch looked vicious. "But Monsieur told me he did not——"
He stopped. The hand on his arm had given him a wrench that made him feel as if his flesh were caught between steel pincers. Androvsky came up to the chestnut.
"Oh, it's an Arab saddle," said Domini.
"It does not matter, Madame."
His face was stern.
"Are you accustomed to them?"
"It makes no difference."
He took hold of the rein and put his foot in the high stirrup, but so awkwardly that he kicked the horse in the side. It plunged.
"Take care!" said Domini.
Androvsky hung on, and climbed somehow into the saddle, coming down in it heavily, with a thud. The horse, now thoroughly startled, plunged furiously and lashed out with its hind legs. Androvsky was thrown forward against the high red peak of the saddle with his hands on the animal's neck. There was a struggle. He tugged at the rein violently. The horse jumped back, reared, plunged sideways as if about to bolt. Androvsky was shot off and fell on his right shoulder heavily. Batouch caught the horse while Androvsky got up. He was white with dust. There was even dust on his face and in his short hair. He looked passionate.
"You see," Batouch began, speaking to Domini, "that Monsieur cannot—"
"Give me the rein!" said Androvsky.
There was a sound in his deep voice that was terrible. He was looking not at Domini, but at the priest, who stood a little aside with an expression of concern on his face. Bous-Bous barked with excitement at the conflict. Androvsky took the rein, and, with a sort of furious determination, sprang into the saddle and pressed his legs against the horse's flanks. It reared up. The priest moved back under the palm trees, the Arab boys scattered. Batouch sought the shelter of the arcade, and the horse, with a short, whining neigh that was like a cry of temper, bolted between the trunks of the trees, heading for the desert, and disappeared in a flash.
"He will be killed," said the priest.
Bous-Bous barked frantically.
"It is his own fault," said the poet. "He told me himself just now that he did not know how to ride."
"Why didn't you tell me so?" Domini exclaimed.
But she was gone, following Androvsky at a slow canter lest she should frighten his horse by coming up behind it. She came out from the shade of the palms into the sun. The desert lay before her. She searched it eagerly with her eyes and saw Androvsky's horse far off in the river bed, still going at a gallop towards the south, towards that region in which she had told him on the tower she thought that peace must dwell. It was as if he had believed her words blindly and was frantically in chase of peace. And she pursued him through the blazing sunlight. She was out in the desert at length, beyond the last belt of verdure, beyond the last line of palms. The desert wind was on her cheek and in her hair. The desert spaces stretched around her. Under her horse's hoofs lay the sparkling crystals on the wrinkled, sun-dried earth. The red rocks, seamed with many shades of colour that all suggested primeval fires and the relentless action of heat, were heaped about her. But her eyes were fixed on the far-off moving speck that was the horse carrying Androvsky madly towards the south. The light and fire, the great airs, the sense of the chase intoxicated her. She struck her horse with the whip. It leaped, as if clearing an immense obstacle, came down lightly and strained forward into the shining mysteries at a furious gallop. The black speck grew larger. She was gaining. The crumbling, cliff-like bank on her left showed a rent in which a faint track rose sharply to the flatness beyond. She put her horse at it and came out among the tiny humps on which grew the halfa grass and the tamarisk bushes. A pale sand flew up here about the horse's feet. Androvsky was still below her in the difficult ground where the water came in the floods. She gained and gained till she was parallel with him and could see his bent figure, his arms clinging to the peak of his red saddle, his legs set forward almost on to his horse's withers by the short stirrups with their metal toecaps. The animal's temper was nearly spent. She could see that. The terror had gone out of his pace. As she looked she saw Androvsky raise his arms from the saddle peak, catch at the flying rein, draw it up, lean against the saddle back and pull with all his force. The horse stopped dead.
"His strength must be enormous," Domini thought with a startled admiration.
She pulled up too on the bank above him and gave a halloo. He turned his head, saw her, and put his horse at the bank, which was steep here and without any gap. "You can't do it," she called.
In reply he dug the heels of his heavy boots into the horse's flanks and came on recklessly. She thought the horse would either refuse or try to get up and roll back on its rider. It sprang at the bank and mounted like a wild cat. There was a noise of falling stones, a shower of scattered earth-clods dropping downward, and he was beside her, white with dust, streaming with sweat, panting as if the labouring breath would rip his chest open, with the horse's foam on his forehead, and a savage and yet exultant gleam in his eyes.
They looked at each other in silence, while their horses, standing quietly, lowered their narrow, graceful heads and touched noses with delicate inquiry. Then she said:
"I almost thought——"
"Yes?" he said, on a great gasping breath that was like a sob.
"—that you were off to the centre of the earth, or—I don't know what I thought. You aren't hurt?"
He could only speak in monosyllables as yet. She looked his horse over.
"He won't give much more trouble just now. Shall we ride back?"
As she spoke she threw a longing glance at the far desert, at the verge of which was a dull green line betokening the distant palms of an oasis.
Androvsky shook his head.
"But you——" She hesitated. "Perhaps you aren't accustomed to horses, and with that saddle——"
He shook his head again, drew a tremendous breath and said
"I don't care, I'll go on, I won't go back."
He put up one hand, brushed the foam from his streaming forehead, and said again fiercely:
"I won't go back."
His face was extraordinary with its dogged, passionate expression showing through the dust and the sweat; like the face of a man in a fight to the death, she thought, a fight with fists. She was glad at his last words and liked the iron sound in his voice.
"Come on then."
And they began to ride towards the dull green line of the oasis, slowly on the sandy waste among the little round humps where the dusty cluster of bushes grew.
"You weren't hurt by the fall?" she said. "It looked a bad one."
"I don't know whether I was. I don't care whether I was."
He spoke almost roughly.
"You asked me to ride with you," he added. "I'll ride with you."
She remembered what Batouch had said. There was pluck in this man, pluck that surged up in the blundering awkwardness, the hesitation, the incompetence and rudeness of him like a black rock out of the sea. She did not answer. They rode on, always slowly. His horse, having had its will, and having known his strength at the end of his incompetence, went quietly, though always with that feathery, light, tripping action peculiar to purebred Arabs, an action that suggests the treading of a spring board rather than of the solid earth. And Androvsky seemed a little more at home on it, although he sat awkwardly on the chair-like saddle, and grasped the rein too much as the drowning man seizes the straw. Domini rode without looking at him, lest he might think she was criticising his performance. When he had rolled in the dust she had been conscious of a sharp sensation of contempt. The men she had been accustomed to meet all her life rode, shot, played games as a matter of course. She was herself an athlete, and, like nearly all athletic women, inclined to be pitiless towards any man who was not so strong and so agile as herself. But this man had killed her contempt at once by his desperate determination not to be beaten. She knew by the look she had just seen in his eyes that if to ride with her that day meant death to him he would have done it nevertheless.
The womanhood in her liked the tribute, almost more than liked it.
"Your horse goes better now," she said at last to break the silence.
"Does it?" he said.
"You don't know!"
"Madame, I know nothing of horses or riding. I have not been on a horse for twenty-three years."
She was amazed.
"We ought to go back then," she exclaimed.
"Why? Other men ride—I will ride. I do it badly. Forgive me."
"Forgive you!" she said. "I admire your pluck. But why have you never ridden all these years?"
After a pause he answered:
"I—I did not—I had not the opportunity."
His voice was suddenly constrained. She did not pursue the subject, but stroked her horse's neck and turned her eyes towards the dark green line on the horizon. Now that she was really out in the desert she felt almost bewildered by it, and as if she understood it far less than when she looked at it from Count Anteoni's garden. The thousands upon thousands of sand humps, each crowned with its dusty dwarf bush, each one precisely like the others, agitated her as if she were confronted by a vast multitude of people. She wanted some point which would keep the eyes from travelling but could not find it, and was mentally restless as the swimmer far out at sea who is pursued by wave on wave, and who sees beyond him the unceasing foam of those that are pressing to the horizon. Whither was she riding? Could one have a goal in this immense expanse? She felt an overpowering need to find one, and looked once more at the green line.
"Do you think we could go as far as that?" she asked Androvsky, pointing with her whip.
"It must be an oasis. Don't you think so?"
"Yes. I can go faster."
"Keep your rein loose. Don't pull his mouth. You don't mind my telling you. I've been with horses all my life."
"Thank you," he answered.
"And keep your heels more out. That's much better. I'm sure you could teach me a thousand things; it will be kind of you to let me teach you this."
He cast a strange look at her. There was gratitude in it, but much more; a fiery bitterness and something childlike and helpless.
"I have nothing to teach," he said.
Their horses broke into a canter, and with the swifter movement Domini felt more calm. There was an odd lightness in her brain, as if her thoughts were being shaken out of it like feathers out of a bag. The power of concentration was leaving her, and a sensation of carelessness—surely gipsy-like—came over her. Her body, dipped in the dry and thin air as in a clear, cool bath, did not suffer from the burning rays of the sun, but felt radiant yet half lazy too. They went on and on in silence as intimate friends might ride together, isolated from the world and content in each other's company, content enough to have no need of talking. Not once did it strike Domini as strange that she should go far out into the desert with a man of whom she knew nothing, but in whom she had noticed disquieting peculiarities. She was naturally fearless, but that had little to do with her conduct. Without saying so to herself she felt she could trust this man.
The dark green line showed clearer through the sunshine across the gleaming flats. It was possible now to see slight irregularities in it, as in a blurred dash of paint flung across a canvas by an uncertain hand, but impossible to distinguish palm trees. The air sparkled as if full of a tiny dust of intensely brilliant jewels, and near the ground there seemed to quiver a maze of dancing specks of light. Everywhere there was solitude, yet everywhere there was surely a ceaseless movement of minute and vital things, scarce visible sun fairies eternally at play.
And Domini's careless feeling grew. She had never before experienced so delicious a recklessness. Head and heart were light, reckless of thought or love. Sad things had no meaning here and grave things no place. For the blood was full of sunbeams dancing to a lilt of Apollo. Nothing mattered here. Even Death wore a robe of gold and went with an airy step. Ah, yes, from this region of quivering light and heat the Arabs drew their easy and lustrous resignation. Out here one was in the hands of a God who surely sang as He created and had not created fear.
Many minutes passed, but Domini was careless of time as of all else. The green line broke into feathery tufts, broadened into a still far- off dimness of palms.
Androvsky's voice spoke as if startled. Domini pulled up. Their horses stood side by side, and at once, with the cessation of motion, the mysticism of the desert came upon them and the marvel of its silence, and they seemed to be set there in a wonderful dream, themselves and their horses dreamlike.
"Water!" he said again.
He pointed, and along the right-hand edge of the oasis Domini saw grey, calm waters. The palms ran out into them and were bathed by them softly. And on their bosom here and there rose small, dim islets. Yes, there was water, and yet— The mystery of it was a mystery she had never known to brood even over a white northern sea in a twilight hour of winter, was deeper than the mystery of the Venetian laguna morta, when the Angelus bell chimes at sunset, and each distant boat, each bending rower and patient fisherman, becomes a marvel, an eerie thing in the gold.
"Is it mirage?" she said to him almost in a whisper.
And suddenly she shivered.
"Yes, it is, it must be."
He did not answer. His left hand, holding the rein, dropped down on the saddle peak, and he stared across the waste, leaning forward and moving his lips. She looked at him and forgot even the mirage in a sudden longing to understand exactly what he was feeling. His mystery —the mystery of that which is human and is forever stretching out its arms—was as the fluid mystery of the mirage, and seemed to blend at that moment with the mystery she knew lay in herself. The mirage was within them as it was far off before them in the desert, still, grey, full surely of indistinct movement, and even perhaps of sound they could not hear.
At last he turned and looked at her.
"Yes, it must be mirage," he said. "The nothing that seems to be so much. A man comes out into the desert and he finds there mirage. He travels right out and that's what he reaches—or at least he can't reach it, but just sees it far away. And that's all. And is that what a man finds when he comes out into the world?"
It was the first time he had spoken without any trace of reserve to her, for even on the tower, though there had been tumult in his voice and a fierceness of some strange passion in his words, there had been struggle in his manner, as if the pressure of feeling forced him to speak in despite of something which bade him keep silence. Now he spoke as if to someone whom he knew and with whom he had talked of many things.
"But you ought to know better than I do," she answered.
"Yes. You are a man, and have been in the world, and must know what it has to give—whether there's only mirage, or something that can be grasped and felt and lived in, and——"
"Yes, I'm a man and I ought to know," he replied. "Well, I don't know, but I mean to know."
There was a savage sound in his voice.
"I should like to know, too," Domini said quietly. "And I feel as if it was the desert that was going to teach me."
"I don't know."
He pointed again to the mirage.
"But that's what there is in the desert."
"That—and what else?"
"Is there anything else?"
"Perhaps everything," she answered. "I am like you. I want to know."
He looked straight into her eyes and there was something dominating in his expression.
"You think it is the desert that could teach you whether the world holds anything but a mirage," he said slowly. "Well, I don't think it would be the desert that could teach me."
She said nothing more, but let her horse go and rode off. He followed, and as he rode awkwardly, yet bravely, pressing his strong legs against his animal's flanks and holding his thin body bent forward, he looked at Domini's upright figure and brilliant, elastic grace—that gave in to her horse as wave gives to wind—with a passion of envy in his eyes.
They did not speak again till the great palm gardens of the oasis they had seen far off were close upon them. From the desert they looked both shabby and superb, as if some millionaire had poured forth money to create a Paradise out here, and, when it was nearly finished, had suddenly repented of his whim and refused to spend another farthing. The thousands upon thousands of mighty trees were bounded by long, irregular walls of hard earth, at the top of which were stuck distraught thorn bushes. These walls gave the rough, penurious aspect which was in such sharp contrast to the exotic mystery they guarded. Yet in the fierce blaze of the sun their meanness was not disagreeable. Domini even liked it. It seemed to her as if the desert had thrown up waves to protect this daring oasis which ventured to fling its green glory like a defiance in the face of the Sahara. A wide track of earth, sprinkled with stones and covered with deep ruts, holes and hummocks, wound in from the desert between the earthen walls and vanished into the heart of the oasis. They followed it.
Domini was filled with a sort of romantic curiosity. This luxury of palms far out in the midst of desolation, untended apparently by human hands—for no figures moved among them, there was no one on the road— suggested some hidden purpose and activity, some concealed personage, perhaps an Eastern Anteoni, whose lair lay surely somewhere beyond them. As she had felt the call of the desert she now felt the call of the oasis. In this land thrilled eternally a summons to go onward, to seek, to penetrate, to be a passionate pilgrim. She wondered whether her companion's heart could hear it.
"I don't know why it is," she said, "but out here I always feel expectant. I always feel as if some marvellous thing might be going to happen to me."
She did not add "Do you?" but looked at him as if for a reply.
"Yes, Madame," he said.
"I suppose it is because I am new to Africa. This is my first visit here. I am not like you. I can't speak Arabic."
She suddenly wondered whether the desert was new to him as to her. She had assumed that it was. Yet as he spoke Arabic it was almost certain that he had been much in Africa.
"I do not speak it well," he answered.
And he looked away towards the dense thickets of the palms. The track narrowed till the trees on either side cast patterns of moving shade across it and the silent mystery was deepened. As far as the eye could see the feathery, tufted foliage swayed in the little wind. The desert had vanished, but sent in after them the message of its soul, the marvellous breath which Domini had drunk into her lungs so long before she saw it. That breath was like a presence. It dwells in all oases. The high earth walls concealed the gardens. Domini longed to look over and see what they contained, whether there were any dwellings in these dim and silent recesses, any pools of water, flowers or grassy lawns.
Her horse neighed.
"Something is coming," she said.
They turned a corner and were suddenly in a village. A mob of half- naked children scattered from their horses' feet. Rows of seated men in white and earth-coloured robes stared upon them from beneath the shadow of tall, windowless earth houses. White dogs rushed to and fro upon the flat roofs, thrusting forward venomous heads, showing their teeth and barking furiously. Hens fluttered in agitation from one side to the other. A grey mule, tethered to a palm-wood door and loaded with brushwood, lashed out with its hoofs at a negro, who at once began to batter it passionately with a pole, and a long line of sneering camels confronted them, treading stealthily, and turning their serpentine necks from side to side as they came onwards with a soft and weary inflexibility. In the distance there was a vision of a glaring market-place crowded with moving forms and humming with noises.
The change from mysterious peace to this vivid and concentrated life was startling.
With difficulty they avoided the onset of the camels by pulling their horses into the midst of the dreamers against the walls, who rolled and scrambled into places of safety, then stood up and surrounded them, staring with an almost terrible interest upon them, and surveying their horses with the eyes of connoisseurs. The children danced up and began to ask for alms, and an immense man, with a broken nose and brown teeth like tusks, laid a gigantic hand on Domini's bridle and said, in atrocious French:
"I am the guide, I am the guide. Look at my certificates. Take no one else. The people here are robbers. I am the only honest man. I will show Madame everything. I will take Madame to the inn. Look—my certificates! Read them! Read what the English lord says of me. I alone am honest here. I am honest Mustapha! I am honest Mustapha!"
He thrust a packet of discoloured papers and dirty visiting-cards into her hands. She dropped them, laughing, and they floated down over the horse's neck. The man leaped frantically to pick them up, assisted by the robbers round about. A second caravan of camels appeared, preceded by some filthy men in rags, who cried, "Oosh! oosh!" to clear the way. The immense man, brandishing his recovered certificates, plunged forward to encounter them, shouting in Arabic, hustled them back, kicked them, struck at the camels with a stick till those in front receded upon those behind and the street was blocked by struggling beasts and resounded with roaring snarls, the thud of wooden bales clashing together, and the desperate protests of the camel-drivers, one of whom was sent rolling into a noisome dust heap with his turban torn from his head.
"The inn! This is the inn! Madame will descend here. Madame will eat in the garden. Monsieur Alphonse! Monsieur Alphonse! Here are clients for dejeuner. I have brought them. Do not believe Mohammed. It is I that—I will assist Madame to descend. I will——"
Domini was standing in a tiny cabaret before a row of absinthe bottles, laughing, almost breathless. She scarcely knew how she had come there. Looking back she saw Androvsky still sitting on his horse in the midst of the clamouring mob. She went to the low doorway, but Mustapha barred her exit.
"This is Sidi-Zerzour. Madame will eat in the garden. She is tired, fainting. She will eat and then she will see the great Mosque of Zerzour."
"Sidi-Zerzour!" she exclaimed. "Monsieur Androvsky, do you know where we are? This is the famous Sidi-Zerzour, where the great warrior is buried, and where the Arabs make pilgrimages to worship at his tomb."
He answered in a low voice.
"As we are here we ought to see. Do you know, I think we must yield to honest Mustapha and have dejeuner in the garden. It is twelve o'clock and I am hungry. We might visit the mosque afterwards and ride home in the afternoon."
He sat there hunched up on the horse and looked at her in silent hesitation, while the Arabs stood round staring.
"You'd rather not?"
She spoke quietly. He shook his feet out of the stirrups. A number of brown hands and arms shot forth to help him. Domini turned back into the cabaret. She heard a tornado of voices outside, a horse neighing and trampling, a scuffling of feet, but she did not glance round. In about three minutes Androvsky joined her. He was limping slightly and bending forward more than ever. Behind the counter on which stood the absinthe bottle was a tarnished mirror, and she saw him glance quickly, almost guiltily into it, put up his hands and try to brush the dust from his hair, his shoulders.
"Let me do it," she said abruptly. "Turn round."
He obeyed without a word, turning his back to her. With her two hands, which were covered with soft, loose suede gloves, she beat and brushed the dust from his coat. He stood quite still while she did it. When she had finished she said:
"There, that's better."
Her voice was practical. He did not move, but stood there.
"I've done what I can, Monsieur Androvsky."
Then he turned slowly, and she saw, with amazement, that there were tears in his eyes. He did not thank her or say a word.
A small and scrubby-looking Frenchman, with red eyelids and moustaches that drooped over a pendulous underlip, now begged Madame to follow him through a small doorway beyond which could be seen three just shot gazelles lying in a patch of sunlight by a wired-in fowl-run. Domini went after him, and Androvsky and honest Mustapha—still vigorously proclaiming his own virtues—brought up the rear. They came into the most curious garden she had ever seen.
It was long and narrow and dishevelled, without grass or flowers. The uneven ground of it was bare, sun-baked earth, hard as parquet, rising here into a hump, falling there into a depression. Immediately behind the cabaret, where the dead gazelles with their large glazed eyes lay by the fowl-run, was a rough wooden trellis with vines trained over it, making an arbour. Beyond was a rummage of orange trees, palms, gums and fig trees growing at their own sweet will, and casting patterns of deep shade upon the earth in sharp contrast with the intense yellow sunlight which fringed them where the leafage ceased. An attempt had been made to create formal garden paths and garden beds by sticking rushes into little holes drilled in the ground, but the paths were zig-zag as a drunkard's walk, and the round and oblong beds contained no trace of plants. On either hand rose steep walls of earth, higher than a man, and crowned with prickly thorn bushes. Over them looked palm trees. At the end of the garden ran a slow stream of muddy water in a channel with crumbling banks trodden by many naked feet. Beyond it was yet another lower wall of earth, yet another maze of palms. Heat and silence brooded here like reptiles on the warm mud of a tropic river in a jungle. Lizards ran in and out of the innumerable holes in the walls, and flies buzzed beneath the ragged leaves of the fig trees and crawled in the hot cracks of the earth.
The landlord wished to put a table under the vine close to the cabaret wall, but Domini begged him to bring it to the end of the garden near the stream. With the furious assistance of honest Mustapha he carried it there and quickly laid it in the shadow of a fig tree, while Domini and Androvsky waited in silence on two straw-bottomed chairs.
The atmosphere of the garden was hostile to conversation. The sluggish muddy stream, the almost motionless trees, the imprisoned heat between the surrounding walls, the faint buzz of the flies caused drowsiness to creep upon the spirit. The long ride, too, and the ardent desert air, made this repose a luxury. Androvsky's face lost its emotional expression as he gazed almost vacantly at the brown water shifting slowly by between the brown banks and the brown walls above which the palm trees peered. His aching limbs relaxed. His hands hung loose between his knees. And Domini half closed her eyes. A curious peace descended upon her. Lapped in the heat and silence for the moment she wanted nothing. The faint buzz of the flies sounded in her ears and seemed more silent than even the silence to which it drew attention. Never before, not in Count Anteoni's garden, had she felt more utterly withdrawn from the world. The feathery tops of the palms were like the heads of sentinels guarding her from contact with all that she had known. And beyond them lay the desert, the empty, sunlit waste. She shut her eyes, and murmured to herself, "I am in far away. I am in far away." And the flies said it in her ears monotonously. And the lizards whispered it as they slipped in and out of the little dark holes in the walls. She heard Androvsky stir, and she moved her lips slowly. And the flies and the lizards continued the refrain. But she said now, "We are in far away."
Honest Mustapha strode forward. He had a Bashi-Bazouk tread to wake up a world. Dejeuner was ready. Domini sighed. They took their places under the fig tree on either side of the deal table covered with a rough white cloth, and Mustapha, with tremendous gestures, and gigantic postures suggesting the untamed descendant of legions of freeborn, sun-suckled men, served them with red fish, omelette, gazelle steaks, cheese, oranges and dates, with white wine and Vals water.
Androvsky scarcely spoke. Now that he was sitting at a meal with Domini he was obviously embarrassed. All his movements were self- conscious. He seemed afraid to eat and refused the gazelle. Mustapha broke out into turbulent surprise and prolonged explanations of the delicious flavour of this desert food. But Androvsky still refused, looking desperately disconcerted.
"It really is delicious," said Domini, who was eating it. "But perhaps you don't care about meat."
She spoke quite carelessly and was surprised to see him look at her as if with sudden suspicion and immediately help himself to the gazelle.
This man was perpetually giving a touch of the whip to her curiosity to keep it alert. Yet she felt oddly at ease with him. He seemed somehow part of her impression of the desert, and now, as they sat under the fig tree between the high earth walls, and at their al fresco meal in unbroken silence—for since her last remark Androvsky had kept his eyes down and had not uttered a word—she tried to imagine the desert without him.
She thought of the gorge of El-Akbara, the cold, the darkness, and then the sun and the blue country. They had framed his face. She thought of the silent night when the voice of the African hautboy had died away. His step had broken its silence. She thought of the garden of Count Anteoni, and of herself kneeling on the hot sand with her arms on the white parapet and gazing out over the regions of the sun, of her dream upon the tower, of her vision when Irena danced. He was there, part of the noon, part of the twilight, chief surely of the worshippers who swept on in the pale procession that received gifts from the desert's hands. She could no longer imagine the desert without him. The almost painful feeling that had come to her in the garden—of the human power to distract her attention from the desert power—was dying, perhaps had completely died away. Another feeling was surely coming to replace it; that Androvsky belonged to the desert more even than the Arabs did, that the desert spirits were close about him, clasping his hands, whispering in his ears, and laying their unseen hands about his heart. But——
They had finished their meal. Domini set her chair once more in front of the sluggish stream, while honest Mustapha bounded, with motions suggestive of an ostentatious panther, to get the coffee. Androvsky followed her after an instant of hesitation.
"Do smoke," she said.
He lit a small cigar with difficulty. She did not wish to watch him, but she could not help glancing at him once or twice, and the conviction came to her that he was unaccustomed to smoking. She lit a cigarette, and saw him look at her with a sort of horrified surprise which changed to staring interest. There was more boy, more child in this man than in any man she had ever known. Yet at moments she felt as if he had penetrated more profoundly into the dark and winding valleys of experience than all the men of her acquaintance.
"Monsieur Androvsky," she said, looking at the slow waters of the stream slipping by towards the hidden gardens, "is the desert new to you?"
She longed to know.
"I thought perhaps—I wondered a little whether you had travelled in it already."
"No, Madame. I saw it for the first time the day before yesterday."
"When I did."
So they had entered it for the first time together. She was silent, watching the pale smoke curl up through the shade and out into the glare of the sun, the lizards creeping over the hot earth, the flies circling beneath the lofty walls, the palm trees looking over into this garden from the gardens all around, gardens belonging to Eastern people, born here, and who would probably die here, and go to dust among the roots of the palms.
On the earthen bank on the far side of the stream there appeared, while she gazed, a brilliant figure. It came soundlessly on bare feet from a hidden garden; a tall, unveiled girl, dressed in draperies of vivid magenta, who carried in her exquisitely-shaped brown hands a number of handkerchiefs—scarlet, orange, yellow green and flesh colour. She did not glance into the auberge garden, but caught up her draperies into a bunch with one hand, exposing her slim legs far above the knees, waded into the stream, and bending, dipped the handkerchiefs in the water.
The current took them. They streamed out on the muddy surface of the stream, and tugged as if, suddenly endowed with life, they were striving to escape from the hand that held them.
The girl's face was beautiful, with small regular features and lustrous, tender eyes. Her figure, not yet fully developed, was perfect in shape, and seemed to thrill softly with the spirit of youth. Her tint of bronze suggested statuary, and every fresh pose into which she fell, while the water eddied about her, strengthened the suggestion. With the golden sunlight streaming upon her, the brown banks, the brown waters, the brown walls throwing up the crude magenta of her bunched-up draperies, the vivid colours of the handkerchiefs that floated from her hand, with the feathery palms beside her, the cloudless blue sky above her, she looked so strangely African and so completely lovely that Domini watched her with an almost breathless attention.
She withdrew the handkerchiefs from the stream, waded out, and spread them one by one upon the low earth wall to dry, letting her draperies fall. When she had finished disposing them she turned round, and, no longer preoccupied with her task, looked under her level brows into the garden opposite and saw Domini and her companion. She did not start, but stood quite still for a moment, then slipped away in the direction whence she had come. Only the brilliant patches of colour on the wall remained to hint that she had been there and would come again. Domini sighed.
"What a lovely creature!" she said, more to herself than to Androvsky.
He did not speak, and his silence made her consciously demand his acquiescence in her admiration.
"Did you ever see anything more beautiful and more characteristic of Africa?" she asked.
"Madame," he said in a slow, stern voice, "I did not look at her."
Domini felt piqued.
"Why not?" she retorted.
Androvsky's face was cloudy and almost cruel.
"These native women do not interest me," he said. "I see nothing attractive in them."
Domini knew that he was telling her a lie. Had she not seen him watching the dancing girls in Tahar's cafe? Anger rose in her. She said to herself then that it was anger at man's hypocrisy. Afterwards she knew that it was anger at Androvsky's telling a lie to her.
"I can scarcely believe that," she answered bluntly.
They looked at each other.
"Why not, Madame?" he said. "If I say it is so?"
She hesitated. At that moment she realised, with hot astonishment, that there was something in this man that could make her almost afraid, that could prevent her even, perhaps, from doing the thing she had resolved to do. Immediately she felt hostile to him, and she knew that, at that moment, he was feeling hostile to her.
"If you say it is so naturally I am bound to take your word for it," she said coldly.
He flushed and looked down. The rigid defiance that had confronted her died out of his face.
Honest Mustapha broke joyously upon them with the coffee. Domini helped Androvsky to it. She had to make a great effort to perform this simple act with quiet, and apparently indifferent, composure.
"Thank you, Madame."
His voice sounded humble, but she felt hard and as if ice were in all her veins. She sipped her coffee, looking straight before her at the stream. The magenta robe appeared once more coming out from the brown wall. A yellow robe succeeded it, a scarlet, a deep purple. The girl, with three curious young companions, stood in the sun examining the foreigners with steady, unflinching eyes. Domini smiled grimly. Fate gave her an opportunity. She beckoned to the girls. They looked at each other but did not move. She held up a bit of silver so that the sun was on it, and beckoned them again. The magenta robe was lifted above the pretty knees it had covered. The yellow, the scarlet, the deep purple robes rose too, making their separate revelations. And the four girls, all staring at the silver coin, waded through the muddy water and stood before Domini and Androvsky, blotting out the glaring sunshine with their young figures. Their smiling faces were now eager and confident, and they stretched out their delicate hands hopefully to the silver. Domini signified that they must wait a moment.
She felt full of malice.
The girls wore many ornaments. She began slowly and deliberately to examine them; the huge gold earrings that were as large as the little ears that sustained them, the bracelets and anklets, the triangular silver skewers that fastened the draperies across the gentle swelling breasts, the narrow girdles, worked with gold thread, and hung with lumps of coral, that circled the small, elastic waists. Her inventory was an adagio, and while it lasted Androvsky sat on his low straw chair with this wall of young womanhood before him, of young womanhood no longer self-conscious and timid, but eager, hardy, natural, warm with the sun and damp with the trickling drops of the water. The vivid draperies touched him, and presently a little hand stole out to his breast, caught at the silver chain that lay across it, and jerked out of its hiding-place—a wooden cross.
Domini saw the light on it for a second, heard a low, fierce exclamation, saw Androvsky's arm push the pretty hand roughly away, and then a thing that was strange.
He got up violently from his chair with the cross hanging loose on his breast. Then he seized hold of it, snapped the chain in two, threw the cross passionately into the stream and walked away down the garden. The four girls, with a twittering cry of excitement, rushed into the water, heedless of draperies, bent down, knelt down, and began to feel frantically in the mud for the vanished ornament. Domini stood up and watched them. Androvsky did not come back. Some minutes passed. Then there was an exclamation of triumph from the stream. The girl in magenta held up the dripping cross with the bit of silver chain in her dripping fingers. Domini cast a swift glance behind her. Androvsky had disappeared. Quickly she went to the edge of the water. As she was in riding-dress she wore no ornaments except two earrings made of large and beautiful turquoises. She took them hastily out of her ears and held them out to the girl, signifying by gestures that she bartered them for the little cross and chain. The girl hesitated, but the clear blue tint of the turquoise pleased her eyes. She yielded, snatched the earrings with an eager, gave up the cross and chain with a reluctant, hand. Domini's fingers closed round the wet gold. She threw some coins across the stream on to the bank, and turned away, thrusting the cross into her bosom.
And she felt at that moment as if she had saved a sacred thing from outrage.
At the cabaret door she found Androvsky, once more surrounded by Arabs, whom honest Mustapha was trying to beat off. He turned when he heard her. His eyes were still full of a light that revealed an intensity of mental agitation, and she saw his left hand, which hung down, quivering against his side. But he succeeded in schooling his voice as he asked:
"Do you wish to visit the village, Madame?"
"Yes. But don't let me bother you if you would rather—"
"I will come. I wish to come."
She did not believe it. She felt that he was in great pain, both of body and mind. His fall had hurt him. She knew that by the way he moved his right arm. The unaccustomed exercise had made him stiff. Probably the physical discomfort he was silently enduring had acted as an irritant to the mind. She remembered that it was caused by his determination to be her companion, and the ice in her melted away. She longed to make him calmer, happier. Secretly she touched the little cross that lay under her habit. He had thrown it away in a passion. Well, some day perhaps she would have the pleasure of giving it back to him. Since he had worn it he must surely care for it, and even perhaps for that which it recalled.
"We ought to visit the mosque, I think," she said.
The assent sounded determined yet reluctant. She knew this was all against his will. Mustapha took charge of them, and they set out down the narrow street, accompanied by a little crowd. They crossed the glaring market-place, with its booths of red meat made black by flies, its heaps of refuse, its rows of small and squalid hutches, in which sat serious men surrounded by their goods. The noise here was terrific. Everyone seemed shouting, and the uproar of the various trades, the clamour of hammers on sheets of iron, the dry tap of the shoemaker's wooden wand on the soles of countless slippers, the thud of the coffee-beater's blunt club on the beans, and the groaning grunt with which he accompanied each downward stroke mingled with the incessant roar of camels, and seemed to be made more deafening and intolerable by the fierce heat of the sun, and by the innumerable smells which seethed forth upon the air. Domini felt her nerves set on edge, and was thankful when they came once more into the narrow alleys that ran everywhere between the brown, blind houses. In them there was shade and silence and mystery. Mustapha strode before to show the way, Domini and Androvsky followed, and behind glided the little mob of barefoot inquisitors in long shirts, speechless and intent, and always hopeful of some chance scattering of money by the wealthy travellers.
The tumult of the market-place at length died away, and Domini was conscious of a curious, far-off murmur. At first it was so faint that she was scarcely aware of it, and merely felt the soothing influence of its level monotony. But as they walked on it grew deeper, stronger. It was like the sound of countless multitudes of bees buzzing in the noon among flowers, drowsily, ceaselessly. She stopped under a low mud arch to listen. And when she listened, standing still, a feeling of awe came upon her, and she knew that she had never heard such a strangely impressive, strangely suggestive sound before.
"What is that?" she said.
She looked at Androvsky.
"I don't know, Madame. It must be people."
"But what can they be doing?"
"They are praying in the mosque where Sidi-Zerzour is buried," said Mustapha.
Domini remembered the perfume-seller. This was the sound she had beard in his sunken chamber, infinitely multiplied. They went on again slowly. Mustapha had lost something of his flaring manner, and his gait was subdued. He walked with a sort of soft caution, like a man approaching holy ground. And Domini was moved by his sudden reverence. It was impressive in such a fierce and greedy scoundrel. The level murmur deepened, strengthened. All the empty and dim alleys surrounding the unseen mosque were alive with it, as if the earth of the houses, the palm-wood beams, the iron bars of the tiny, shuttered windows, the very thorns of the brushwood roofs were praying ceaselessly and intently in secret under voices. This was a world intense with prayer as a flame is intense with heat, with prayer penetrating and compelling, urgent in its persistence, powerful in its deep and sultry concentration, yet almost oppressive, almost terrible in its monotony.
"Allah-Akbar! Allah-Akbar!" It was the murmur of the desert and the murmur of the sun. It was the whisper of the mirage, and of the airs that stole among the palm leaves. It was the perpetual heart-beat of this world that was engulfing her, taking her to its warm and glowing bosom with soft and tyrannical intention.
"Allah! Allah! Allah!" Surely God must be very near, bending to such an everlasting cry. Never before, not even when the bell sounded and the Host was raised, had Domini felt the nearness of God to His world, the absolute certainty of a Creator listening to His creatures, watching them, wanting them, meaning them some day to be one with Him, as she felt it now while she threaded the dingy alleys towards these countless men who prayed.
Androvsky was walking slowly as if in pain.
"Your shoulder isn't hurting you?" she whispered.
This long sound of prayer moved her to the soul, made her feel very full of compassion for everybody and everything, and as if prayer were a cord binding the world together. He shook his head silently. She looked at him, and felt that he was moved also, but whether as she was she could not tell. His face was like that of a man stricken with awe. Mustapha turned round to them. The everlasting murmur was now so near that it seemed to be within them, as if they, too, prayed at the tomb of Zerzour.
"Follow me into the court, Madame," Mustapha said, "and remain at the door while I fetch the slippers."
They turned a corner, and came to an open space before an archway, which led into the first of the courts surrounding the mosque. Under the archway Arabs were sitting silently, as if immersed in profound reveries. They did not move, but stared upon the strangers, and Domini fancied that there was enmity in their eyes. Beyond them, upon an uneven pavement surrounded with lofty walls, more Arabs were gathered, kneeling, bowing their heads to the ground, and muttering ceaseless words in deep, almost growling, voices. Their fingers slipped over the beads of the chaplets they wore round their necks, and Domini thought of her rosary. Some prayed alone, removed in shady corners, with faces turned to the wall. Others were gathered into knots. But each one pursued his own devotions, immersed in a strange, interior solitude to which surely penetrated an unseen ray of sacred light. There were young boys praying, and old, wrinkled men, eagles of the desert, with fierce eyes that did not soften as they cried the greatness of Allah, the greatness of his Prophet, but gleamed as if their belief were a thing of flame and bronze. The boys sometimes glanced at each other while they prayed, and after each glance they swayed with greater violence, and bowed down with more passionate abasement. The vision of prayer had stirred them to a young longing for excess. The spirit of emulation flickered through them and turned their worship into war.
In a second and smaller court before the portal of the mosque men were learning the Koran. Dressed in white they sat in circles, holding squares of some material that looked like cardboard covered with minute Arab characters, pretty, symmetrical curves and lines, dots and dashes. The teachers squatted in the midst, expounding the sacred text in nasal voices with a swiftness and vivacity that seemed pugnacious. There was violence within these courts. Domini could imagine the worshippers springing up from their knees to tear to pieces an intruding dog of an unbeliever, then sinking to their knees again while the blood trickled over the sun-dried pavement and the lifeless body, lay there to rot and draw the flies.
"Allah! Allah! Allah!"
There was something imperious in such ardent, such concentrated and untiring worship, a demand which surely could not be overlooked or set aside. The tameness, the half-heartedness of Western prayer and Western praise had no place here. This prayer was hot as the sunlight, this praise was a mounting fire. The breath of this human incense was as the breath of a furnace pouring forth to the gates of the Paradise of Allah. It gave to Domini a quite new conception of religion, of the relation between Creator and created. The personal pride which, like blood in a body, runs through all the veins of the mind of Mohammedanism, that measureless hauteur which sets the soul of a Sultan in the twisted frame of a beggar at a street corner, and makes impressive, even almost majestical, the filthy marabout, quivering with palsy and devoured by disease, who squats beneath a holy bush thick with the discoloured rags of the faithful, was not abased at the shrine of the warrior, Zerzour, was not cast off in the act of adoration. These Arabs humbled themselves in the body. Their foreheads touched the stones. By their attitudes they seemed as if they wished to make themselves even with the ground, to shrink into the space occupied by a grain of sand. Yet they were proud in the presence of Allah, as if the firmness of their belief in him and his right dealing, the fury of their contempt and hatred for those who looked not towards Mecca nor regarded Ramadan, gave them a patent of nobility. Despite their genuflections they were all as men who knew, and never forgot, that on them was conferred the right to keep on their head-covering in the presence of their King. With their closed eyes they looked God full in the face. Their dull and growling murmur had the majesty of thunder rolling through the sky.
Mustapha had disappeared within the mosque, leaving Domini and Androvsky for the moment alone in the midst of the worshippers. From the shadowy interior came forth a ceaseless sound of prayer to join the prayer without. There was a narrow stone seat by the mosque door and she sat down upon it. She felt suddenly weary, as one being hypnotised feels weary when the body and spirit begin to yield to the spell of the operator. Androvsky remained standing. His eyes were fixed on the ground, and she thought his face looked almost phantom- like, as if the blood had sunk away from it, leaving it white beneath the brown tint set there by the sun. He stayed quite still. The dark shadow cast by the towering mosque fell upon him, and his immobile figure suggested to her ranges of infinite melancholy. She sighed as one oppressed. There was an old man praying near them at the threshold of the door, with his face turned towards the interior. He was very thin, almost a skeleton, was dressed in rags through which his copper- coloured body, sharp with scarce-covered bones, could be seen, and had a scanty white beard sticking up, like a brush, at the tip of his pointed chin. His face, worn with hardship and turned to the likeness of parchment by time and the action of the sun, was full of senile venom; and his toothless mouth, with its lips folded inwards, moved perpetually, as if he were trying to bite. With rhythmical regularity, like one obeying a conductor, he shot forth his arms towards the mosque as if he wished to strike it, withdrew them, paused, then shot them forth again. And as his arms shot forth he uttered a prolonged and trembling shriek, full of weak, yet intense, fury.
He was surely crying out upon God, denouncing God for the evils that had beset his nearly ended life. Poor, horrible old man! Androvsky was closer to him than she was, but did not seem to notice him. Once she had seen him she could not take her eyes from him. His perpetual gesture, his perpetual shriek, became abominable to her in the midst of the bowing bodies and the humming voices of prayer. Each time he struck at the mosque and uttered his piercing cry she seemed to hear an oath spoken in a sanctuary. She longed to stop him. This one blasphemer began to destroy for her the mystic atmosphere created by the multitudes of adorers, and at last she could no longer endure his reiterated enmity.
She touched Androvsky's arm. He started and looked at her.
"That old man," she whispered. "Can't you speak to him?"
Androvsky glanced at him for the first time.
"Speak to him, Madame? Why?"
She felt a sudden disinclination to tell Androvsky why the old man was horrible to her.
"What do you wish me to say to him?"
"I thought perhaps you might be able to stop him from doing that."
Androvsky bent down and spoke to the old man in Arabic.
He shot out his arms and reiterated his trembling shriek. It pierced the sound of prayer as lightning pierces cloud.
Domini got up quickly.
"I can't bear it," she said, still in a whisper. "It's as if he were cursing God."
Androvsky looked at the old man again, this time with profound attention.
"Isn't it?" she said. "Isn't it as if he were cursing God while the whole world worshipped? And that one cry of hatred seems louder than the praises of the whole world."
"We can't stop it."
Something in his voice made her say abruptly:
"Do you wish to stop it?"
He did not answer. The old man struck at the mosque and shrieked. Domini shuddered.
"I can't stay here," she said.
At this moment Mustapha appeared, followed by the guardian of the mosque, who carried two pairs of tattered slippers.
"Monsieur and Madame must take off their boots. Then I will show the mosque."
Domini put on the slippers hastily, and went into the mosque without waiting to see whether Androvsky was following. And the old man's furious cry pursued her through the doorway.
Within there was space and darkness. The darkness seemed to be praying. Vistas of yellowish-white arches stretched away in front, to right and left. On the floor, covered with matting, quantities of shrouded figures knelt and swayed, stood up suddenly, knelt again, bowed down their foreheads. Preceded by Mustapha and the guide, who walked on their stockinged feet, Domini slowly threaded her way among them, following a winding path whose borders were praying men. To prevent her slippers from falling off she had to shuffle along without lifting her feet from the ground. With the regularity of a beating pulse the old man's shriek, fainter now, came to her from without. But presently, as she penetrated farther into the mosque, it was swallowed up by the sound of prayer. No one seemed to see her or to know that she was there. She brushed against the white garments of worshippers, and when she did so she felt as if she touched the hem of the garments of mystery, and she held her habit together with her hands lest she should recall even one of these hearts that were surely very far off.
Mustapha and the guardian stood still and looked round at Domini. Their faces were solemn. The expression of greedy anxiety had gone out of Mustapha's eyes. For the moment the thought of money had been driven out of his mind by some graver pre-occupation. She saw in the semi-darkness two wooden doors set between pillars. They were painted green and red, and fastened with clamps and bolts of hammered copper that looked enormously old. Against them were nailed two pictures of winged horses with human heads, and two more pictures representing a fantastical town of Eastern houses and minarets in gold on a red background. Balls of purple and yellow glass, and crystal chandeliers, hung from the high ceiling above these doors, with many ancient lamps; and two tattered and dusty banners of pale pink and white silk, fringed with gold and powdered with a gold pattern of flowers, were tied to the pillars with thin cords of camel's hair.
"This is the tomb of Sidi-Zerzour," whispered Mustapha. "It is opened once a year."
The guardian of the mosque fell on his knees before the tomb.
"That is Mecca."
Mustapha pointed to the pictures of the city. Then he, too, dropped down and pressed his forehead against the matting. Domini glanced round for Androvsky. He was not there. She stood alone before the tomb of Zerzour, the only human being in the great, dim building who was not worshipping. And she felt a terrible isolation, as if she were excommunicated, as if she dared not pray, for a moment almost as if the God to whom this torrent of worship flowed were hostile to her alone.
Had her father ever felt such a sensation of unutterable solitude?
It passed quickly, and, standing under the votive lamps before the painted doors, she prayed too, silently. She shut her eyes and imagined a church of her religion—the little church of Beni-Mora. She tried to imagine the voice of prayer all about her, the voice of the great Catholic Church. But that was not possible. Even when she saw nothing, and turned her soul inward upon itself, and strove to set this new world into which she had come far off, she heard in the long murmur that filled it a sound that surely rose from the sand, from the heart and the spirit of the sand, from the heart and the spirit of desert places, and that went up in the darkness of the mosque and floated under the arches through the doorway, above the palms and the flat-roofed houses, and that winged its fierce way, like a desert eagle, towards the sun.
Mustapha's hand was on her arm. The guardian, too, had risen from his knees and drawn from his robe and lit a candle. She came to a tiny doorway, passed through it and began to mount a winding stair. The sound of prayer mounted with her from the mosque, and when she came out upon the platform enclosed in the summit of the minaret she heard it still and it was multiplied. For all the voices from the outside courts joined it, and many voices from the roofs of the houses round about.
Men were praying there too, praying in the glare of the sun upon their housetops. She saw them from the minaret, and she saw the town that had sprung up round the tomb of the saint, and all the palms of the oasis, and beyond them immeasurable spaces of desert.
She was above the eternal cry now. She had mounted like a prayer towards the sun, like a living, pulsing prayer, like the soul of prayer. She gazed at the far-off desert and saw prayer travelling, the soul of prayer travelling—whither? Where was the end? Where was the halting-place, with at last the pitched tent, the camp fires, and the long, the long repose?
* * * * * *
When she came down and reached the court she found the old man still striking at the mosque and shrieking out his trembling imprecation. And she found Androvsky still standing by him with fascinated eyes.
She had mounted with the voice of prayer into the sunshine, surely a little way towards God.
Androvsky had remained in the dark shadow with a curse.
It was foolish, perhaps—a woman's vagrant fancy—but she wished he had mounted with her.
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