The Sunrise Silents Library
THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (BOOK III)
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 III)CHAPTER X
BOOK III. THE GARDEN
It was noon in the desert.
The voice of the Mueddin died away on the minaret, and the golden silence that comes out of the heart of the sun sank down once more softly over everything. Nature seemed unnaturally still in the heat. The slight winds were not at play, and the palms of Beni-Mora stood motionless as palm trees in a dream. The day was like a dream, intense and passionate, yet touched with something unearthly, something almost spiritual. In the cloudless blue of the sky there seemed a magical depth, regions of colour infinitely prolonged. In the vision of the distances, where desert blent with sky, earth surely curving up to meet the downward curving heaven, the dimness was like a voice whispering strange petitions. The ranges of mountains slept in the burning sand, and the light slept in their clefts like the languid in cool places. For there was a glorious languor even in the light, as if the sun were faintly oppressed by the marvel of his power. The clearness of the atmosphere in the remote desert was not obscured, but was impregnated with the mystery that is the wonder child of shadows. The far-off gold that kept it seemed to contain a secret darkness. In the oasis of Beni-Mora men, who had slowly roused themselves to pray, sank down to sleep again in the warm twilight of shrouded gardens or the warm night of windowless rooms.
In the garden of Count Anteoni Larbi's flute was silent.
"It is like noon in a mirage," Domini said softly.
Count Anteoni nodded.
"I feel as if I were looking at myself a long way off," she added. "As if I saw myself as I saw the grey sea and the islands on the way to Sidi-Zerzour. What magic there is here. And I can't get accustomed to it. Each day I wonder at it more and find it more inexplicable. It almost frightens me."
"You could be frightened?"
"Not easily by outside things—it least I hope not."
"But what then?"
"I scarcely know. Sometimes I think all the outside things, which do what are called the violent deeds in life, are tame, and timid, and ridiculously impotent in comparison with the things we can't see, which do the deeds we can't describe."
"In the mirage of this land you begin to see the exterior life as a mirage? You are learning, you are learning."
There was a creeping sound of something that was almost impish in his voice.
"Are you a secret agent?" Domini asked him.
"Of whom, Madame?"
She was silent. She seemed to be considering. He watched her with curiosity in his bright eyes.
"Of the desert," she answered at length, quite seriously.
"A secret agent has always a definite object. What is mine?"
"How can I know? How can I tell what the desert desires?"
"Already you personify it!"
The network of wrinkles showed itself in his brown face as he smiled, surely with triumph.
"I think I did that from the first," she answered gravely. "I know I did."
"And what sort of personage does the desert seem to you?"
"You ask me a great many questions to-day."
"Mirage questions, perhaps. Forgive me. Let us listen to the question —or is it the demand?—of the desert in this noontide hour, the greatest hour of all the twenty-four in such a land as this."
They were silent again, watching the noon, listening to it, feeling it, as they had been silent when the Mueddin's nasal voice rose in the call to prayer.
Count Anteoni stood in the sunshine by the low white parapet of the garden. Domini sat on a low chair in the shadow cast by a great jamelon tree. At her feet was a bush of vivid scarlet geraniums, against which her white linen dress looked curiously blanched. There was a half-drowsy, yet imaginative light in her gipsy eyes, and her motionless figure, her quiet hands, covered with white gloves, lying loosely in her lap, looked attentive and yet languid, as if some spell began to bind her but had not completed its work of stilling all the pulses of life that throbbed within her. And in truth there was a spell upon her, the spell of the golden noon. By turns she gave herself to it consciously, then consciously strove to deny herself to its subtle summons. And each time she tried to withdraw it seemed to her that the spell was a little stronger, her power a little weaker. Then her lips curved in a smile that was neither joyous nor sad, that was perhaps rather part perplexed and part expectant.
After a minute of this silence Count Anteoni drew back from the sun and sat down in a chair beside Domini. He took out his watch.
"Twenty-five minutes," he said, "and my guests will be here."
"Guests!" she said with an accent of surprise.
"I invited the priest to make an even number."
"You don't dislike him?"
"I like him. I respect him."
"But I'm afraid you aren't pleased?"
Domini looked him straight in the face.
"Why did you invite Father Roubier?" she said.
"Isn't four better than three?"
"You don't want to tell me."
"I am a little malicious. You have divined it, so why should I not acknowledge it? I asked Father Roubier because I wished to see the man of prayer with the man who fled from prayer."
"Mussulman prayer," she said quickly.
"Prayer," he said.
His voice was peculiarly harsh at that moment. It grated like an instrument on a rough surface. Domini knew that secretly he was standing up for the Arab faith, that her last words had seemed to strike against the religion of the people whom he loved with an odd, concealed passion whose fire she began to feel at moments as she grew to know him better.
It was plain from their manner to each other that their former slight acquaintance had moved towards something like a pleasant friendship.
Domini looked as if she were no longer a wonder-stricken sight-seer in this marvellous garden of the sun, but as if she had become familiar with it. Yet her wonder was not gone. It was only different. There was less sheer amazement, more affection in it. As she had said, she had not become accustomed to the magic of Africa. Its strangeness, its contrasts still startled and moved her. But she began to feel as if she belonged to Beni-Mora, as if Beni-Mora would perhaps miss her a little if she went away.
Ten days had passed since the ride to Sidi-Zerzour—days rather like a dream to Domini.
What she had sought in coming to Beni-Mora she was surely finding. Her act was bringing forth its fruit. She had put a gulf, in which rolled the sea, between the land of the old life and the land in which at least the new life was to begin. The completeness of the severance had acted upon her like a blow that does not stun, but wakens. The days went like a dream, but in the dream there was the stir of birth. Her lassitude was permanently gone. There had been no returning after the first hours of excitement. The frost that had numbed her senses had utterly melted away. Who could be frost-bound in this land of fire? She had longed for peace and she was surely finding it, but it was a peace without stagnation. Hope dwelt in it, and expectancy, vague but persistent. As to forgetfulness, sometimes she woke from the dream and was almost dazed, almost ashamed to think how much she was forgetting, and how quickly. Her European life and friends—some of them intimate and close—were like a far-off cloud on the horizon, flying still farther before a steady wind that set from her to it. Soon it would disappear, would be as if it had never been. Now and then, with a sort of fierce obstinacy, she tried to stay the flight she had desired, and desired still. She said to herself, "I will remember. It's contemptible to forget like this. It's weak to be able to." Then she looked at the mountains or the desert, at two Arabs playing the ladies' game under the shadow of a cafe wall, or at a girl in dusty orange filling a goatskin pitcher at a well beneath a palm tree, and she succumbed to the lulling influence, smiling as they smile who hear the gentle ripple of the waters of Lethe.
She heard them perhaps most clearly when she wandered in Count Anteoni's garden. He had made her free of it in their first interview. She had ventured to take him at his word, knowing that if he repented she would divine it. He had made her feel that he had not repented. Sometimes she did not see him as she threaded the sandy alleys between the little rills, hearing the distant song of Larbi's amorous flute, or sat in the dense shade of the trees watching through a window-space of quivering golden leaves the passing of the caravans along the desert tracks. Sometimes a little wreath of ascending smoke, curling above the purple petals of bougainvilleas, or the red cloud of oleanders, told her of his presence, in some retired thinking-place. Oftener he joined her, with an easy politeness that did not conceal his oddity, but clothed it in a pleasant garment, and they talked for a while or stayed for a while in an agreeable silence that each felt to be sympathetic.
Domini thought of him as a new species of man—a hermit of the world. He knew the world and did not hate it. His satire was rarely quite ungentle. He did not strike her as a disappointed man who fled to solitude in bitterness of spirit, but rather as an imaginative man with an unusual feeling for romance, and perhaps a desire for freedom that the normal civilised life restrained too much. He loved thought as many love conversation, silence as some love music. Now and then he said a sad or bitter thing. Sometimes she seemed to be near to something stern. Sometimes she felt as if there were a secret link which connected him with the perfume-seller in his little darkened chamber, with the legions who prayed about the tomb of Sidi-Zerzour. But these moments were rare. As a rule he was whimsical and kind, with the kindness of a good-hearted man who was human even in his detachment from ordinary humanity. His humour was a salt with plenty of savour. His imagination was of a sort which interested and even charmed her.
She felt, too, that she interested him and that he was a man not readily interested in ordinary human beings. He had seen too many and judged too shrewdly and too swiftly to be easily held for very long. She had no ambition to hold him, and had never in her life consciously striven to attract or retain any man, but she was woman enough to find his obvious pleasure in her society agreeable. She thought that her genuine adoration of the garden he had made, of the land in which it was set, had not a little to do with the happy nature of their intercourse. For she felt certain that beneath the light satire of his manner, his often smiling airs of detachment and quiet independence, there was something that could seek almost with passion, that could cling with resolution, that could even love with persistence. And she fancied that he sought in the desert, that he clung to its mystery, that he loved it and the garden he had created in it. Once she had laughingly called him a desert spirit. He had smiled as if with contentment.
They knew little of each other, yet they had become friends in the garden which he never left.
One day she said to him:
"You love the desert. Why do you never go into it?"
"I prefer to watch it," he relied. "When you are in the desert it bewilders you."
She remembered what she had felt during her first ride with Androvsky.
"I believe you are afraid of it," she said challengingly.
"Fear is sometimes the beginning of wisdom," he answered. "But you are without it, I know."
"How do you know?"
"Every day I see you galloping away into the sun."
She thought there was a faint sound of warning—or was it of rebuke— in his voice. It made her feel defiant.
"I think you lose a great deal by not galloping into the sun too," she said.
"But if I don't ride?"
That made her think of Androvsky and his angry resolution. It had not been the resolution of a day. Wearied and stiffened as he had been by the expedition to Sidi-Zerzour, actually injured by his fall—she knew from Batouch that he had been obliged to call in the Beni-Mora doctor to bandage his shoulder—she had been roused at dawn on the day following by his tread on the verandah. She had lain still while it descended the staircase, but then the sharp neighing of a horse had awakened an irresistible curiosity in her. She had got up, wrapped herself in a fur coat and slipped out on to the verandah. The sun was not above the horizon line of the desert, but the darkness of night was melting into a luminous grey. The air was almost cold. The palms looked spectral, even terrible, the empty and silent gardens melancholy and dangerous. It was not an hour for activity, for determination, but for reverie, for apprehension.
Below, a sleepy Arab boy, his hood drawn over his head, held the chestnut horse by the bridle. Androvsky came out from the arcade. He wore a cap pulled down to his eyebrows which changed his appearance, giving him, as seen from above, the look of a groom or stable hand. He stood for a minute and stared at the horse. Then he limped round to the left side and carefully mounted, following out the directions Domini had given him the previous day: to avoid touching the animal with his foot, to have the rein in his fingers before leaving the ground, and to come down in the saddle as lightly as possible. She noted that all her hints were taken with infinite precaution. Once on the horse he tried to sit up straight, but found the effort too great in his weary and bruised condition. He leaned forward over the saddle peak, and rode away in the luminous greyness towards the desert. The horse went quietly, as if affected by the mystery of the still hour. Horse and rider disappeared. The Arab boy wandered off in the direction of the village. But Domini remained looking after Androvsky. She saw nothing but the grim palms and the spectral atmosphere in which the desert lay. Yet she did not move till a red spear was thrust up out of the east towards the last waning star.
He had gone to learn his lesson in the desert.
Three days afterwards she rode with him again. She did not let him know of her presence on the verandah, and he said nothing of his departure in the dawn. He spoke very little and seemed much occupied with his horse, and she saw that he was more than determined—that he was apt at acquiring control of a physical exercise new to him. His great strength stood him in good stead. Only a man hard in the body could have so rapidly recovered from the effects of that first day of defeat and struggle. His absolute reticence about his efforts and the iron will that prompted them pleased Domini. She found them worthy of a man.
She rode with him on three occasions, twice in the oasis through the brown villages, once out into the desert on the caravan road that Batouch had told her led at last to Tombouctou. They did not travel far along it, but Domini knew at once that this route held more fascination for her than the route to Sidi-Zerzour. There was far more sand in this region of the desert. The little humps crowned with the scrub the camels feed on were fewer, so that the flatness of the ground was more definite. Here and there large dunes of golden- coloured sand rose, some straight as city walls, some curved like seats in an amphitheatre, others indented, crenellated like battlements, undulating in beastlike shapes. The distant panorama of desert was unbroken by any visible oasis and powerfully suggested Eternity to Domini.
"When I go out into the desert for my long journey I shall go by this road," she said to Androvsky.
"You are going on a journey?" he said, looking at her as if startled.
"I suppose I must take a caravan, two or three Arabs, some horses, a tent or two. It's easy to manage. Batouch will arrange it for me."
Androvsky still looked startled, and half angry, she thought.
They had pulled up their horses among the sand dunes. It was near sunset, and the breath of evening was in the sir, making its coolness even more ethereal, more thinly pure than in the daytime. The atmosphere was so clear that when they glanced back they could see the flag fluttering upon the white of the great hotel of Beni-Mora, many kilometres away among the palms; so still that they could hear the bark of a Kabyle off near a nomad's tent pitched in the green land by the water-springs of old Beni-Mora. When they looked in front of them they seemed to see thousands of leagues of flatness, stretching on and on till the pale yellowish brown of it grew darker, merged into a strange blueness, like the blue of a hot mist above a southern lake, then into violet, then into—the thing they could not see, the summoning thing whose voice Domini's imagination heard, like a remote and thrilling echo, whenever she was in the desert.
"I did not know you were going on a journey, Madame," Androvsky said.
"Don't you remember?" she rejoined laughingly, "that I told you on the tower I thought peace must dwell out there. Well, some day I shall set out to find it."
"That seems a long time ago, Madame," he muttered.
Sometimes, when speaking to her, he dropped his voice till she could scarcely hear him, and sounded like a man communing with himself.
A red light from the sinking sun fell upon the dunes. As they rode back over them their horses seemed to be wading through a silent sea of blood. The sky in the west looked like an enormous conflagration, in which tortured things were struggling and lifting twisted arms.
Domini's acquaintance with Androvsky had not progressed as easily and pleasantly as her intercourse with Count Anteoni. She recognised that he was what is called a "difficult man." Now and then, as if under the prompting influence of some secret and violent emotion, he spoke with apparent naturalness, spoke perhaps out of his heart. Each time he did so she noticed that there was something of either doubt or amazement in what he said. She gathered that he was slow to rely, quick to mistrust. She gathered, too, that very many things surprised him, and felt sure that he hid nearly all of them from her, and would—had not his own will sometimes betrayed him—have hidden all. His reserve was as intense as everything about him. There was a fierceness in it that revealed its existence. He always conveyed to her a feeling of strength, physical and mental. Yet he always conveyed, too, a feeling of uneasiness. To a woman of Domini's temperament uneasiness usually implies a public or secret weakness. In Androvsky's she seemed to be aware of passion, as if it were one to dash obstacles aside, to break through doors of iron, to rush out into the open. And then—what then? To tremble at the world before him? At what he had done? She did not know. But she did know that even in his uneasiness there seemed to be fibre, muscle, sinew, nerve—all which goes to make strength, swiftness.
Speech was singularly difficult to him. Silence seemed to be natural, not irksome. After a few words he fell into it and remained in it. And he was less self-conscious in silence than in speech. He seemed, she fancied, to feel himself safer, more a man when he was not speaking. To him the use of words was surely like a yielding.
He had a peculiar faculty of making his presence felt when he was silent, as if directly he ceased from speaking the flame in him was fanned and leaped up at the outside world beyond its bars.
She did not know whether he was a gentleman or not.
If anyone had asked her, before she came to Beni-Mora, whether it would be possible for her to take four solitary rides with a man, to meet him—if only for a few minutes—every day of ten days, to sit opposite to him, and not far from him, at meals during the same space of time, and to be unable to say to herself whether he was or was not a gentleman by birth and education—feeling set aside—she would have answered without hesitation that it would be utterly impossible. Yet so it was. She could not decide. She could not place him. She could not imagine what his parentage, what his youth, his manhood had been. She could not fancy him in any environment—save that golden light, that blue radiance, in which she had first consciously and fully met him face to face. She could not hear him in converse with any set of men or women, or invent, in her mind, what he might be likely to say to them. She could not conceive him bound by any ties of home, or family, mother, sister, wife, child. When she looked at him, thought about him, he presented himself to her alone, like a thing in the air.
Yet he was more male than other men, breathed humanity—of some kind— as fire breathes heat.
The child there was in him almost confused her, made her wonder whether long contact with the world had tarnished her own original simplicity. But she only saw the child in him now and then, and she fancied that it, too, he was anxious to conceal.
This man had certainly a power to rouse feeling in others. She knew it by her own experience. By turns he had made her feel motherly, protecting, curious, constrained, passionate, energetic, timid—yes, almost timid and shy. No other human being had ever, even at moments, thus got the better of her natural audacity, lack of self- consciousness, and inherent, almost boyish, boldness. Nor was she aware what it was in him which sometimes made her uncertain of herself.
She wondered. But he often woke up wonder in her.
Despite their rides, their moments of intercourse in the hotel, on the verandah, she scarcely felt more intimate with him than she had at first. Sometimes indeed she thought that she felt less so, that the moment when the train ran out of the tunnel into the blue country was the moment in which they had been nearest to each other since they trod the verges of each other's lives.
She had never definitely said to herself: "Do I like him or dislike him?"
Now, as she sat with Count Anteoni watching the noon, the half-drowsy, half-imaginative expression had gone out of her face. She looked rather rigid, rather formidable.
Androvsky and Count Anteoni had never met. The Count had seen Androvsky in the distance from his garden more than once, but Androvsky had not seen him. The meeting that was about to take place was due to Domini. She had spoken to Androvsky on several occasions of the romantic beauty of this desert garden.
"It is like a garden of the Arabian Nights," she had said.
He did not look enlightened, and she was moved to ask him abruptly whether he had ever read the famous book. He had not. A doubt came to her whether he had ever even heard of it. She mentioned the fact of Count Anteoni's having made the garden, and spoke of him, sketching lightly his whimsicality, his affection for the Arabs, his love of solitude, and of African life. She also mentioned that he was by birth a Roman.
"But scarcely of the black world I should imagine," she added.
Androvsky said nothing.
"You should go and see the garden," she continued. "Count Anteoni allows visitors to explore it."
"I am sure it must be very beautiful, Madame," he replied, rather coldly, she thought.
He did not say that he would go.
As the garden won upon her, as its enchanted mystery, the airy wonder of its shadowy places, the glory of its trembling golden vistas, the restfulness of its green defiles, the strange, almost unearthly peace that reigned within it embalmed her spirit, as she learned not only to marvel at it, to be entranced by it, but to feel at home in it and love it, she was conscious of a persistent desire that Androvsky should know it too.
Perhaps his dogged determination about the riding had touched her more than she was aware. She often saw before her the bent figure, that looked tired, riding alone into the luminous grey; starting thus early that his act, humble and determined, might not be known by her. He did not know that she had seen him, not only on that morning, but on many subsequent mornings, setting forth to study the new art in the solitude of the still hours. But the fact that she had seen, had watched till horse and rider vanished beyond the palms, had understood why, perhaps moved her to this permanent wish that he could share her pleasure in the garden, know it as she did.
She did not argue with herself about the matter. She only knew that she wished, that presently she meant Androvsky to pass through the white gate and be met on the sand by Smain with his rose.
One day Count Anteoni had asked her whether she had made acquaintance with the man who had fled from prayer.
"Yes," she said. "You know it."
"We have ridden to Sidi-Zerzour."
"I am not always by the wall."
"No, but I think you were that day."
"Why do you think so?"
"I am sure you were."
He did not either acknowledge or deny it.
"He has never been to see my garden," he said.
"He ought to come."
"I have told him so."
"Ah? Is he coming?"
"I don't think so."
"Persuade him to. I have a pride in my garden—oh, you have no idea what a pride! Any neglect of it, any indifference about it rasps me, plays upon the raw nerve each one of us possesses."
He spoke smilingly. She did not know what he was feeling, whether the remote thinker or the imp within him was at work or play.
"I doubt if he is a man to be easily persuaded," she said.
"Perhaps not—persuade him."
After a moment Domini said:
"I wonder whether you recognise that there are obstacles which the human will can't negotiate?"
"I could scarcely live where I do without recognising that the grains of sand are often driven by the wind. But when there is no wind!"
"They lie still?"
"And are the desert. I want to have a strange experience."
"A fete in my garden."
"Something far more banal. A lunch party, a dejeuner. Will you honour me?"
"By breakfasting with you? Yes, of course. Thank you."
"And will you bring—the second sun worshipper?"
She looked into the Count's small, shining eyes.
"If that is his name. I can send him an invitation, of course. But that's rather formal, and I don't think he is formal."
"On what day do you ask us?"
"And why do you ask us?"
"I wish to overcome this indifference to my garden. It hurts me, not only in my pride, but in my affections."
The whole thing had been like a sort of serious game. Domini had not said that she would convey the odd invitation; but when she was alone, and thought of the way in which Count Anteoni had said "Persuade him," she knew she would, and she meant Androvsky to accept it. This was an opportunity of seeing him in company with another man, a man of the world, who had read, travelled, thought, and doubtless lived.
She asked him that evening, and saw the red, that came as it comes in a boy's face, mount to his forehead.
"Everybody who comes to Beni-Mora comes to see the garden," she said before he could reply. "Count Anteoni is half angry with you for being an exception."
"But—but, Madame, how can Monsieur the Count know that I am here? I have not seen him."
"He knows there is a second traveller, and he's a hospitable man. Monsieur Androvsky, I want you to come; I want you to see the garden."
"It is very kind of you, Madame."
The reluctance in his voice was extreme. Yet he did not like to say no. While he hesitated, Domini continued:
"You remember when I asked you to ride?"
"That was new to you. Well, it has given you pleasure, hasn't it?"
"So will the garden. I want to put another pleasure into your life."
She had begun to speak with the light persuasiveness of a woman of the world—wishing to overcome a man's diffidence or obstinacy, but while she said the words she felt a sudden earnestness rush over her. It went into the voice, and surely smote upon him like a gust of the hot wind that sometimes blows out of the desert.
"I shall come, Madame," he said quickly.
"Friday. I may be in the garden in the morning. I'll meet you at the gate at half-past twelve."
"Friday?" he said.
Already he seemed to be wavering in his acceptance. Domini did not stay with him any longer.
"I'm glad," she said in a finishing tone.
And she went away.
Now Count Anteoni told her that he had invited the priest. She felt vexed, and her face showed that she did. A cloud came down and immediately she looked changed and disquieting. Yet she liked the priest. As she sat in silence her vexation became more profound. She felt certain that if Androvsky had known the priest was coming he would not have accepted the invitation. She wished him to come, yet she wished he had known. He might think that she had known the fact and had concealed it. She did not suppose for a moment that he disliked Father Roubier personally, but he certainly avoided him. He bowed to him in the coffee-room of the hotel, but never spoke to him. Batouch had told her about the episode with Bous-Bous. And she had seen Bous-Bous endeavour to renew the intimacy and repulsed with determination. Androvsky must dislike the priesthood. He might fancy that she, a believing Catholic, had—a number of disagreeable suppositions ran through her mind. She had always been inclined to hate the propagandist since the tragedy in her family. It was a pity Count Anteoni had not indulged his imp in a different fashion. The beauty of the noon seemed spoiled.
"Forgive my malice," Count Anteoni said. "It was really a thing of thistledown. Can it be going to do harm? I can scarcely think so."
She roused herself, with the instinct of a woman who has lived much in the world, to conceal the vexation that, visible, would cause a depression to stand in the natural place of cheerfulness.
"The desert is making me abominably natural," she thought.
At this moment the black figure of Father Roubier came out of the shadows of the trees with Bous-Bous trotting importantly beside it.
"Ah, Father," said Count Anteoni, going to meet him, while Domini got up from her chair, "it is good of you to come out in the sun to eat fish with such a bad parishioner as I am. Your little companion is welcome."
He patted Bous-Bous, who took little notice of him.
"You know Miss Enfilden, I think?" continued the Count.
"Father Roubier and I meet every day," said Domini, smiling.
"Mademoiselle has been good enough to take a kind interest in the humble work of the Church in Beni-Mora," said the priest with the serious simplicity characteristic of him.
He was a sincere man, utterly without pretension, and, as such men often are, quietly at home with anybody of whatever class or creed.
"I must go to the garden gate," Domini said. "Will you excuse me for a moment?"
"To meet Monsieur Androvsky? Let us accompany you if Father Roubier—"
"Please don't trouble. I won't be a minute."
Something in her voice made Count Anteoni at once acquiesce, defying his courteous instinct.
"We will wait for you here," he said.
There was a whimsical plea for forgiveness in his eyes. Domini's did not reject it; they did not answer it. She walked away, and the two men looked after her tall figure with admiration. As she went along the sand paths between the little streams, and came into the deep shade, her vexation seemed to grow darker like the garden ways. For a moment she thought she understood the sensations that must surely sometimes beset a treacherous woman. Yet she was incapable of treachery. Smain was standing dreamily on the great sweep of sand before the villa. She and he were old friends now, and every day he calmly gave her a flower when she came into the garden.
"What time is it, Smain?"
"Nearly half-past twelve, Madame."
"Will you open the door and see if anyone is coming?"
He went towards the great door, and Domini sat down on a bench under the evergreen roof to wait. She had seldom felt more discomposed, and began to reason with herself almost angrily. Even if the presence of the priest was unpleasant to Androvsky, why should she mind? Antagonism to the priesthood was certainly not a mental condition to be fostered, but a prejudice to be broken down. But she had wished— she still wished with ardour—that Androvsky's first visit to the garden should be a happy one, should pass off delightfully. She had a dawning instinct to make things smooth for him. Surely they had been rough in the past, rougher even than for herself. And she wondered for an instant whether he had come to Beni-Mora, as she had come, vaguely seeking for a happiness scarcely embodied in a definite thought.
"There is a gentleman coming, Madame."
It was the soft voice of Smain from the gate. In a moment Androvsky stood before it. Domini saw him framed in the white wood, with a brilliant blue behind him and a narrow glimpse of the watercourse. He was standing still and hesitating.
"Monsieur Androvsky!" she called.
He started, looked across the sand, and stepped into the garden with a sort of reluctant caution that pained her, she scarcely knew why. She got up and went towards him, and they met full in the sunshine.
"I came to be your cicerone."
"Thank you, Madame."
There was the click of wood striking against wood as Smain closed the gate. Androvsky turned quickly and looked behind him. His demeanour was that of a man whose nerves were tormenting him. Domini began to dread telling him of the presence of the priest, and, characteristically, did without hesitation what she feared to do.
"This is the way," she said.
Then, as they turned into the shadow of the trees and began to walk between the rills of water, she added abruptly:
"Father Roubier is here already, so our party is complete."
Androvsky stood still.
"Father Roubier! You did not tell me he was coming."
"I did not know it till five minutes ago."
She stood still too, and looked at him. There was a flaming of distrust in his eyes, his lips were compressed, and his whole body betokened hostility.
"I did not understand. I thought Senor Anteoni would be alone here."
"Father Roubier is a pleasant companion, sincere and simple. Everyone likes him."
"No doubt, Madame. But—the fact is I"—he hesitated, then added, almost with violence—"I do not care for priests."
"I am sorry. Still, for once—for an hour—you can surely——"
She did not finish the sentence. While she was speaking she felt the banality of such phrases spoken to such a man, and suddenly changed tone and manner.
"Monsieur Androvsky," she said, laying one hand on his arm, "I knew you would not like Father Roubier's being here. If I had known he was coming I should have told you in order that you might have kept away if you wished to. But now that you are here—now that Smain has let you in and the Count and Father Roubier must know of it, I am sure you will stay and govern your dislike. You intend to turn back. I see that. Well, I ask you to stay."
She was not thinking of herself, but of him. Instinct told her to teach him the way to conceal his aversion. Retreat would proclaim it.
"For yourself I ask you," she added. "If you go, you tell them what you have told me. You don't wish to do that."
They looked at each other. Then, without a word, he walked on again. As she kept beside him she felt as if in that moment their acquaintanceship had sprung forward, like a thing that had been forcibly restrained and that was now sharply released. They did not speak again till they saw, at the end of an alley, the Count and the priest standing together beneath the jamelon tree. Bous-Bous ran forward barking, and Domini was conscious that Androvsky braced himself up, like a fighter stepping into the arena. Her keen sensitiveness of mind and body was so infected by his secret impetuosity of feeling that it seemed to her as if his encounter with the two men framed in the sunlight were a great event which might be fraught with strange consequences. She almost held her breath as she and Androvsky came down the path and the fierce sunrays reached out to light up their faces.
Count Anteoni stepped forward to greet them.
"Monsieur Androvsky—Count Anteoni," she said.
The hands of the two men met. She saw that Androvsky's was lifted reluctantly.
"Welcome to my garden," Count Anteoni said with his invariable easy courtesy. "Every traveller has to pay his tribute to my domain. I dare to exact that as the oldest European inhabitant of Beni-Mora."
Androvsky said nothing. His eyes were on the priest. The Count noticed it, and added:
"Do you know Father Roubier?"
"We have often seen each other in the hotel," Father Roubier said with his usual straightforward simplicity.
He held out his hand, but Androvsky bowed hastily and awkwardly and did not seem to see it. Domini glanced at Count Anteoni, and surprised a piercing expression in his bright eyes. It died away at once, and he said:
"Let us go to the salle-a-manger. Dejeuner will be ready, Miss Enfilden."
She joined him, concealing her reluctance to leave Androvsky with the priest, and walked beside him down the path, preceded by Bous-Bous.
"Is my fete going to be a failure?" he murmured.
She did not reply. Her heart was full of vexation, almost of bitterness. She felt angry with Count Anteoni, with Androvsky, with herself. She almost felt angry with poor Father Roubier.
"Forgive me! do forgive me!" the Count whispered. "I meant no harm."
She forced herself to smile, but the silence behind them, where the two men were following, oppressed her. If only Androvsky would speak! He had not said one word since they were all together. Suddenly she turned her head and said:
"Did you ever see such palms, Monsieur Androvsky? Aren't they magnificent?"
Her voice was challenging, imperative. It commanded him to rouse himself, to speak, as a touch of the lash commands a horse to quicken his pace. Androvsky raised his head, which had been sunk on his breast as he walked.
"Palms!" he said confusedly.
"Yes, they are wonderful."
"You care for trees?" asked the Count, following Domini's lead and speaking with a definite intention to force a conversation.
"Yes, Monsieur, certainly."
"I have some wonderful fellows here. After dejeuner you must let me show them to you. I spent years in collecting my children and teaching them to live rightly in the desert."
Very naturally, while he spoke, he had joined Androvsky, and now walked on with him, pointing out the different varieties of trees. Domini was conscious of a sense of relief and of a strong feeling of gratitude to their host. Following upon the gratitude came a less pleasant consciousness of Androvsky's lack of good breeding. He was certainly not a man of the world, whatever he might be. To-day, perhaps absurdly, she felt responsible for him, and as if he owed it to her to bear himself bravely and govern his dislikes if they clashed with the feelings of his companions. She longed hotly for him to make a good impression, and, when her eyes met Father Roubier's, was almost moved to ask his pardon for Androvsky's rudeness. But the Father seemed unconscious of it, and began to speak about the splendour of the African vegetation.
"Does not its luxuriance surprise you after England?" he said.
"No," she replied bluntly. "Ever since I have been in Africa I have felt that I was in a land of passionate growth."
"But—the desert?" he replied with a gesture towards the long flats of the Sahara, which were still visible between the trees.
"I should find it there too," she answered. "There, perhaps, most of all."
He looked at her with a gentle wonder. She did not explain that she was no longer thinking of growth in Nature.
The salle-a-manger stood at the end of a broad avenue of palms not far from the villa. Two Arab servants were waiting on each side of the white step that led into an ante-room filled with divans and coffee- tables. Beyond was a lofty apartment with an arched roof, in the centre of which was an oval table laid for breakfast, and decorated with masses of trumpet-shaped scarlet flowers in silver vases. Behind each of the four high-backed chairs stood an Arab motionless as a statue. Evidently the Count's fete was to be attended by a good deal of ceremony. Domini felt sorry, though not for herself. She had been accustomed to ceremony all her life, and noticed it, as a rule, almost as little as the air she breathed. But she feared that to Androvsky it would be novel and unpleasant. As they came into the shady room she saw him glance swiftly at the walls covered with dark Persian hangings, at the servants in their embroidered jackets, wide trousers, and snow-white turbans, at the vivid flowers on the table, then at the tall windows, over which flexible outside blinds, dull green in colour, were drawn; and it seemed to her that he was feeling like a trapped animal, full of a fury of uneasiness. Father Roubier's unconscious serenity in the midst of a luxury to which he was quite unaccustomed emphasised Androvsky's secret agitation, which was no secret to Domini, and which she knew must be obvious to Count Anteoni. She began to wish ardently that she had let Androvsky follow his impulse to go when he heard of Father Roubier's presence.
They sat down. She was on the Count's right hand, with Androvsky opposite to her and Father Roubier on her left. As they took their places she and the Father said a silent grace and made the sign of the Cross, and when she glanced up after doing so she saw Androvsky's hand lifted to his forehead. For a moment she fancied that he had joined in the tiny prayer, and was about to make the sacred sign, but as she looked at him his hand fell heavily to the table. The glasses by his plate jingled.
"I only remembered this morning that this is a jour maigre," said Count Anteoni as they unfolded their napkins. "I am afraid, Father Roubier, you will not be able to do full justice to my chef, Hamdane, although he has thought of you and done his best for you. But I hope Miss Enfilden and—"
"I keep Friday," Domini interrupted quietly.
"Yes? Poor Hamdane!"
He looked in grave despair, but she knew that he was really pleased that she kept the fast day.
"Anyhow," he continued, "I hope that you, Monsieur Androvsky, will be able to join me in testing Hamdane's powers to the full. Or are you too——"
He did not continue, for Androvsky at once said, in a loud and firm voice:
"I keep no fast days."
The words sounded like a defiance flung at the two Catholics, and for a moment Domini thought that Father Roubier was going to treat them as a challenge, for he lifted his head and there was a flash of sudden fire in his eyes. But he only said, turning to the Count:
"I think Mademoiselle and I shall find our little Ramadan a very easy business. I once breakfasted with you on a Friday—two years ago it was, I think—and I have not forgotten the banquet you gave me."
Domini felt as if the priest had snubbed Androvsky, as a saint might snub, without knowing that he did so. She was angry with Androvsky, and yet she was full of pity for him. Why could he not meet courtesy with graciousness? There was something almost inhuman in his demeanour. To-day he had returned to his worst self, to the man who had twice treated her with brutal rudeness.
"Do the Arabs really keep Ramadan strictly?" she asked, looking away from Androvsky.
"Very," said Father Roubier. "Although, of course, I am not in sympathy with their religion, I have often been moved by their adherence to its rules. There is something very grand in the human heart deliberately taking upon itself the yoke of discipline."
"Islam—the very word means the surrender of the human will to the will of God," said Count Anteoni. "That word and its meaning lie like the shadow of a commanding hand on the soul of every Arab, even of the absinthe-drinking renegades one sees here and there who have caught the vices of their conquerors. In the greatest scoundrel that the Prophet's robe covers there is an abiding and acute sense of necessary surrender. The Arabs, at any rate, do not buzz against their Creator, like midges raging at the sun in whose beams they are dancing."
"No," assented the priest. "At least in that respect they are superior to many who call themselves Christians. Their pride is immense, but it never makes itself ridiculous."
"You mean by trying to defy the Divine Will?" said Domini.
She thought of her dead father.
The servants stole round the table, handing various dishes noiselessly. One of them, at this moment, poured red wine into Androvsky's glass. He uttered a low exclamation that sounded like the beginning of a protest hastily checked.
"You prefer white wine?" said Count Anteoni.
"No, thank you, Monsieur."
He lifted the glass to his lips and drained it.
"Are you a judge of wine?" added the Count. "That is made from my own grapes. I have vineyards near Tunis."
"It is excellent," said Androvsky.
Domini noticed that he spoke in a louder voice than usual, as if he were making a determined effort to throw off the uneasiness that evidently oppressed him. He ate heartily, choosing almost ostentatiously dishes in which there was meat. But everything that he did, even this eating of meat, gave her the impression that he was— subtly, how she did not know—defying not only the priest, but himself. Now and then she glanced across at him, and when she did so he was always looking away from her. After praising the wine he had relapsed into silence, and Count Anteoni—she thought moved by a very delicate sense of tact—did not directly address him again just then, but resumed the interrupted conversation about the Arabs, first explaining that the servants understood no French. He discussed them with a minute knowledge that evidently sprang from a very real affection, and presently she could not help alluding to this.
"I think you love the Arabs far more than any Europeans," she said.
He fixed his bright eyes upon her, and she thought that just then they looked brighter than ever before.
"Why?" he asked quietly.
"Do you know the sound that comes into the voice of a lover of children when it speaks of a child?"
"Ah!—the note of a deep indulgence?"
"I hear it in yours whenever you speak of the Arabs."
She spoke half jestingly. For a moment he did not reply. Then he said to the priest:
"You have lived long in Africa, Father. Have not you something of the same feeling towards these children of the sun?"
"Yes, and I have noticed it in our dead Cardinal."
Androvsky bent over his plate. He seemed suddenly to withdraw his mind forcibly from this conversation in which he was taking no active part, as if he refused even to listen to it.
"He is your hero, I know," the Count said sympathetically.
"He did a great deal for me."
"And for Africa. And he was wise."
"You mean in some special way?" Domini said.
"Yes. He looked deep enough into the dark souls of the desert men to find out that his success with them must come chiefly through his goodness to their dark bodies. You aren't shocked, Father?"
"No, no. There is truth in that."
But the priest assented rather sadly.
"Mahomet thought too much of the body," he added.
Domini saw the Count compress his lips. Then he turned to Androvsky and said:
"Do you think so, Monsieur?"
It was a definite, a resolute attempt to draw his guest into the conversation. Androvsky could not ignore it. He looked up reluctantly from his plate. His eyes met Domini's, but immediately travelled away from them.
"I doubt——" he said.
He paused, laid his hands on the table, clasping its edge, and continued firmly, even with a sort of hard violence:
"I doubt if most good men, or men who want to be good, think enough about the body, consider it enough. I have thought that. I think it still."
As he finished he stared at the priest, almost menacingly. Then, as if moved by an after-thought, he added:
"As to Mahomet, I know very little about him. But perhaps he obtained his great influence by recognising that the bodies of men are of great importance, of tremendous—tremendous importance."
Domini saw that the interest of Count Anteoni in his guest was suddenly and vitally aroused by what he had just said, perhaps even more by his peculiar way of saying it, as if it were forced from him by some secret, irresistible compulsion. And the Count's interest seemed to take hands with her interest, which had had a much longer existence. Father Roubier, however, broke in with a slightly cold:
"It is a very dangerous thing, I think, to dwell upon the importance of the perishable. One runs the risk of detracting from the much greater importance of the imperishable."
"Yet it's the starved wolves that devour the villages," said Androvsky.
For the first time Domini felt his Russian origin. There was a silence. Father Roubier looked straight before him, but Count Anteoni's eyes were fixed piercingly upon Androvsky. At last he said:
"May I ask, Monsieur, if you are a Russian?"
"My father was. But I have never set foot in Russia."
"The soul that I find in the art, music, literature of your country is, to me, the most interesting soul in Europe," the Count said with a ring of deep earnestness in his grating voice.
Spoken as he spoke it, no compliment could have been more gracious, even moving. But Androvsky only replied abruptly:
"I'm afraid I know nothing of all that."
Domini felt hot with a sort of shame, as at a close friend's public display of ignorance. She began to speak to the Count of Russian music, books, with an enthusiasm that was sincere. For she, too, had found in the soul from the Steppes a meaning and a magic that had taken her soul prisoner. And suddenly, while she talked, she thought of the Desert as the burning brother of the frigid Steppes. Was it the wonder of the eternal flats that had spoken to her inmost heart sometimes in London concert-rooms, in her room at night when she read, forgetting time, which spoke to her now more fiercely under the palms of Africa? At the thought something mystic seemed to stand in her enthusiasm. The mystery of space floated about her. But she did not express her thought. Count Anteoni expressed it for her.
"The Steppes and the Desert are akin, you know," he said. "Despite the opposition of frost and fire."
"Just what I was thinking!" she exclaimed. "That must be why—"
She stopped short.
"Yes?" said the Count.
Both Father Roubier and Androvsky looked at her with expectancy. But she did not continue her sentence, and her failure to do so was covered, or at the least excused, by a diversion that secretly she blessed. At this moment, from the ante-room, there came a sound of African music, both soft and barbarous. First there was only one reiterated liquid note, clear and glassy, a note that suggested night in a remote place. Then, beneath it, as foundation to it, rose a rustling sound as of a forest of reeds through which a breeze went rhythmically. Into this stole the broken song of a thin instrument with a timbre rustic and antique as the timbre of the oboe, but fainter, frailer. A twang of softly-plucked strings supported its wild and pathetic utterance, and presently the almost stifled throb of a little tomtom that must have been placed at a distance. It was like a beating heart.
The Count and his guests sat listening in silence. Domini began to feel curiously expectant, yet she did not recognise the odd melody. Her sensation was that some other music must be coming which she had heard before, which had moved her deeply at some time in her life. She glanced at the Count and found him looking at her with a whimsical expression, as if he were a kind conspirator whose plot would soon be known.
"What is it?" she asked in a low voice.
He bent towards her.
"Wait!" he whispered. "Listen!"
She saw Androvsky frown. His face was distorted by an expression of pain, and she wondered if he, like some Europeans, found the barbarity of the desert music ugly and even distressing to the nerves. While she wondered a voice began to sing, always accompanied by the four instruments. It was a contralto voice, but sounded like a youth's.
"What is that song?" she asked under her breath. "Surely I must have heard it!"
"You don't know?"
She searched her heart. It seemed to her that she knew the song. At some period of her life she had certainly been deeply moved by it—but when? where? The voice died away, and was succeeded by a soft chorus singing monotonously:
Then it rose once more in a dreamy and reticent refrain, like the voice of a soul communing with itself in the desert, above the instruments and the murmuring chorus.
"You remember?" whispered the Count.
She moved her head in assent but did not speak. She could not speak. It was the song the Arab had sung as he turned into the shadow of the palm trees, the song of the freed negroes of Touggourt:
"No one but God and I
Knows what is in my heart."
The priest leaned back in his chair. His dark eyes were cast down, and his thin, sun-browned hands were folded together in a way that suggested prayer. Did this desert song of the black men, children of God like him as their song affirmed, stir his soul to some grave petition that embraced the wants of all humanity?
Androvsky was sitting quite still. He was also looking down and the lids covered his eyes. An expression of pain still lingered on his face, but it was less cruel, no longer tortured, but melancholy. And Domini, as she listened, recalled the strange cry that had risen within her as the Arab disappeared in the sunshine, the cry of the soul in life surrounded by mysteries, by the hands, the footfalls, the voices of hidden things—"What is going to happen to me here?" But that cry had risen in her, found words in her, only when confronted by the desert. Before it had been perhaps hidden in the womb. Only then was it born. And now the days had passed and the nights, and the song brought with it the cry once more, the cry and suddenly something else, another voice that, very far away, seemed to be making answer to it. That answer she could not hear. The words of it were hidden in the womb as, once, the words of her intense question. Only she felt that an answer had been made. The future knew, and had begun to try to tell her. She was on the very edge of knowledge while she listened, but she could not step into the marvellous land.
Presently Count Anteoni spoke to the priest.
"You have heard this song, no doubt, Father?"
Father Roubier shook his head.
"I don't think so, but I can never remember the Arab music"
"Perhaps you dislike it?"
"No, no. It is ugly in a way, but there seems a great deal of meaning in it. In this song especially there is—one might almost call it beauty."
"Wonderful beauty," Domini said in a low voice, still listening to the song.
"The words are beautiful," said the Count, this time addressing himself to Androvsky. "I don't know them all, but they begin like this:
"'The gazelle dies in the water,
The fish dies in the air,
And I die in the dunes of the desert sand
For my love that is deep and sad.'
And when the chorus sounds, as now"—and he made a gesture toward the inner room, in which the low murmur of " Wurra-Wurra" rose again, "the singer reiterates always the same refrain:
"No one but God and I
Knows what is in my heart."
Almost as he spoke the contralto voice began to sing the refrain. Androvsky turned pale. There were drops of sweat on his forehead. He lifted his glass of wine to his lips and his hand trembled so that some of the wine was spilt upon the tablecloth. And, as once before, Domini felt that what moved her deeply moved him even more deeply, whether in the same way or differently she could not tell. The image of the taper and the torch recurred to her mind. She saw Androvsky with fire round about him. The violence of this man surely resembled the violence of Africa. There was something terrible about it, yet also something noble, for it suggested a male power, which might make for either good or evil, but which had nothing to do with littleness. For a moment Count Anteoni and the priest were dwarfed, as if they had come into the presence of a giant.
The Arabs handed round fruit. And now the song died softly away. Only the instruments went on playing. The distant tomtom was surely the beating of that heart into whose mysteries no other human heart could look. Its reiterated and dim throbbing affected Domini almost terribly. She was relieved, yet regretful, when at length it ceased.
"Shall we go into the ante-room?" the Count said. "Coffee will be brought there."
"Oh, but—don't let us see them!" Domini exclaimed.
"You would rather not hear any more music?"
"If you don't mind!"
He gave an order in Arabic. One of the servants slipped away and returned almost immediately.
"Now we can go," the Count said. "They have vanished."
The priest sighed. It was evident that the music had moved him too. As they got up he said:
"Yes, there was beauty in that song and something more. Some of these desert poets can teach us to think."
"A dangerous lesson, perhaps," said the Count. "What do you say, Monsieur Androvsky?"
Androvsky was on his feet. His eyes were turned toward the door through which the sound of the music had come.
"I!" he answered. "I—Monsieur, I am afraid that to me this music means very little. I cannot judge of it."
"But the words?" asked the Count with a certain pressure.
"They do not seem to me to suggest much more than the music."
The Count said no more. As she went into the outer room Domini felt angry, as she had felt angry in the garden at Sidi-Zerzour when Androvsky said:
"These native women do not interest me. I see nothing attractive in them."
For now, as then, she knew that he had lied.
Domini came into the ante-room alone. The three men had paused for a moment behind her, and the sound of a match struck reached her ears as she went listlessly forward to the door which was open to the broad garden path, and stood looking out into the sunshine. Butterflies were flitting here and there through the riot of gold, and she heard faint bird-notes from the shadows of the trees, echoed by the more distant twitter of Larbi's flute. On the left, between the palms, she caught glimpses of the desert and of the hard and brilliant mountains, and, as she stood there, she remembered her sensations on first entering the garden and how soon she had learned to love it. It had always seemed to her a sunny paradise of peace until this moment. But now she felt as if she were compassed about by clouds.
The vagrant movement of the butterflies irritated her eyes, the distant sound of the flute distressed her ears, and all the peace had gone. Once again this man destroyed the spell Nature had cast upon her. Because she knew that he had lied, her joy in the garden, her deeper joy in the desert that embraced it, were stricken. Yet why should he not lie? Which of us does not lie about his feelings? Has reserve no right to armour?
She heard her companions entering the room and turned round. At that moment her heart was swept by an emotion almost of hatred to Androvsky. Because of it she smiled. A forced gaiety dawned in her. She sat down on one of the low divans, and, as she asked Count Anteoni for a cigarette and lit it, she thought, "How shall I punish him?" That lie, not even told to her and about so slight a matter, seemed to her an attack which she resented and must return. Not for a moment did she ask herself if she were reasonable. A voice within her said, "I will not be lied to, I will not even bear a lie told to another in my presence by this man." And the voice was imperious.
Count Anteoni remained beside her, smoking a cigar. Father Roubier took a seat by the little table in front of her. But Androvsky went over to the door she had just left, and stood, as she had, looking out into the sunshine. Bous-Bous followed him, and snuffed affectionately round his feet, trying to gain his attention.
"My little dog seems very fond of your friend," the priest said to Domini.
She lowered her voice.
"He is only a travelling acquaintance. I know nothing of him."
The priest looked gently surprised and Count Anteoni blew forth a fragrant cloud of smoke.
"He seems a remarkable man," the priest said mildly.
"Do you think so?"
She began to speak to Count Anteoni about some absurdity of Batouch, forcing her mind into a light and frivolous mood, and he echoed her tone with a clever obedience for which secretly she blessed him. In a moment they were laughing together with apparent merriment, and Father Roubier smiled innocently at their light-heartedness, believing in it sincerely. But Androvsky suddenly turned around with a dark and morose countenance.
"Come in out of the sunshine," said the Count. "It is too strong. Try this chair. Coffee will be—ah, here it is!"
Two servants appeared, carrying it.
"Thank you, Monsieur," Androvsky said with reluctant courtesy.
He came towards them with determination and sat down, drawing forward his chair till he was facing Domini. Directly he was quiet Bous-Bous sprang upon his knee and lay down hastily, blinking his eyes, which were almost concealed by hair, and heaving a sigh which made the priest look kindly at him, even while he said deprecatingly:
"Bous-Bous! Bous-Bous! Little rascal, little pig—down, down!"
"Oh, leave him, Monsieur!" muttered Androvsky. "It's all the same to me."
"He really has no shame where his heart is concerned."
"Arab!" said the Count. "He has learnt it in Beni-Mora."
"Perhaps he has taken lessons from Larbi," said Domini. "Hark! He is playing to-day. For whom?"
"I never ask now," said the Count. "The name changes so often."
"Constancy is not an Arab fault?" Domini asked.
"You say 'fault,' Madame," interposed the priest.
"Yes, Father," she returned with a light touch of conscious cynicism. "Surely in this world that which is apt to bring inevitable misery with it must be accounted a fault."
"But can constancy do that?"
"Don't you think so, into a world of ceaseless change?"
"Then how shall we reckon truth in a world of lies?" asked the Count. "Is that a fault, too?"
"Ask Monsieur Androvsky," said Domini, quickly.
"I obey," said the Count, looking over at his guest.
"Ah, but I am sure I know," Domini added. "I am sure you think truth a thing we should all avoid in such a world as this. Don't you, Monsieur?"
"If you are sure, Madame, why ask me?" Androvsky replied.
There was in his voice a sound that was startling. Suddenly the priest reached out his hand and lifted Bous-Bous on to his knee, and Count Anteoni very lightly and indifferently interposed.
"Truth-telling among Arabs becomes a dire necessity to Europeans. One cannot out-lie them, and it doesn't pay to run second to Orientals. So one learns, with tears, to be sincere. Father Roubier is shocked by my apologia for my own blatant truthfulness."
The priest laughed.
"I live so little in what is called 'the world' that I'm afraid I'm very ready to take drollery for a serious expression of opinion."
He stroked Bous-Bous's white back, and added, with a simple geniality that seemed to spring rather from a desire to be kind than from any temperamental source:
"But I hope I shall always be able to enjoy innocent fun."
As he spoke his eyes rested on Androvsky's face, and suddenly he looked grave and put Bous-Bous gently down on the floor.
"I'm afraid I must be going," he said.
"Already?" said his host.
"I dare not allow myself too much idleness. If once I began to be idle in this climate I should become like an Arab and do nothing all day but sit in the sun."
"As I do. Father, we meet very seldom, but whenever we do I feel myself a cumberer of the earth."
Domini had never before heard him speak with such humbleness. The priest flushed like a boy.
"We each serve in our own way," he said quickly. "The Arab who sits all day in the sun may be heard as a song of praise where He is."
And then he took his leave. This time he did not extend his hand to Androvsky, but only bowed to him, lifting his white helmet. As he went away in the sun with Bous-Bous the three he had left followed him with their eyes. For Androvsky had turned his chair sideways, as if involuntarily.
"I shall learn to love Father Roubier," Domini said.
Androvsky moved his seat round again till his back was to the garden, and placed his broad hands palm downward on his knees.
"Yes?" said the Count.
"He is so transparently good, and he bears his great disappointment so beautifully."
"What great disappointment?"
"He longed to become a monk."
Androvsky got up from his seat and walked back to the garden doorway. His restless demeanour and lowering expression destroyed all sense of calm and leisure. Count Anteoni looked after him, and then at Domini, with a sort of playful surprise. He was going to speak, but before the words came Smain appeared, carrying reverently a large envelope covered with Arab writing.
"Will you excuse me for a moment?" the Count said.
He took the letter, and at once a vivid expression of excitement shone in his eyes. When he had read it there was a glow upon his face as if the flames of a fire played over it.
"Miss Enfilden," he said, "will you think me very discourteous if I leave you for a moment? The messenger who brought this has come from far and starts to-day on his return journey. He has come out of the south, three hundred kilometres away, from Beni-Hassan, a sacred village—a sacred village."
He repeated the last words, lowering his voice.
"Of course go and see him."
He glanced towards Androvsky, who was standing with his back to them.
"Won't you show Monsieur Androvsky the garden?"
Hearing his name Androvsky turned, and the Count at once made his excuses to him and followed Smain towards the garden gate, carrying the letter that had come from Beni-Hassan in his hand.
When he had gone Domini remained on the divan, and Androvsky by the door, with his eyes on the ground. She took another cigarette from the box on the table beside her, struck a match and lit it carefully. Then she said:
"Do you care to see the garden?"
She spoke indifferently, coldly. The desire to show her Paradise to him had died away, but the parting words of the Count prompted the question, and so she put it as to a stranger.
"Thank you, Madame—yes," he replied, as if with an effort.
She got up, and they went out together on to the broad walk.
"Which way do you want to go?" she asked.
She saw him glance at her quickly, with anxiety in his eyes.
"You know best where we should go, Madame."
"I daresay you won't care about it. Probably you are not interested in gardens. It does not matter really which path we take. They are all very much alike."
"I am sure they are all very beautiful."
Suddenly he had become humble, anxious to please her. But now the violent contrasts in him, unlike the violent contrasts of nature in this land, exasperated her. She longed to be left alone. She felt ashamed of Androvsky, and also of herself; she condemned herself bitterly for the interest she had taken in him, for her desire to put some pleasure into a life she had deemed sad, for her curiosity about him, for her wish to share joy with him. She laughed at herself secretly for what she now called her folly in having connected him imaginatively with the desert, whereas in reality he made the desert, as everything he approached, lose in beauty and wonder. His was a destructive personality. She knew it now. Why had she not realised it before? He was a man to put gall in the cup of pleasure, to create uneasiness, self-consciousness, constraint round about him, to call up spectres at the banquet of life. Well, in the future she could avoid him. After to-day she need never have any more intercourse with him. With that thought, that interior sense of her perfect freedom in regard to this man, an abrupt, but always cold, content came to her, putting him a long way off where surely all that he thought and did was entirely indifferent to her.
"Come along then," she said. "We'll go this way."
And she turned down an alley which led towards the home of the purple dog. She did not know at the moment that anything had influenced her to choose that particular path, but very soon the sound of Larbi's flute grew louder, and she guessed that in reality the music had attracted her. Androvsky walked beside her without a word. She felt that he was not looking about him, not noticing anything, and all at once she stopped decisively.
"Why should we take all this trouble?" she said bluntly. "I hate pretence and I thought I had travelled far away from it. But we are both pretending."
"Pretending, Madame?" he said in a startled voice.
"Yes. I that I want to show you this garden, you that you want to see it. I no longer wish to show it to you, and you have never wished to see it. Let us cease to pretend. It is all my fault. I bothered you to come here when you didn't want to come. You have taught me a lesson. I was inclined to condemn you for it, to be angry with you. But why should I be? You were quite right. Freedom is my fetish. I set you free, Monsieur Androvsky. Good-bye."
As she spoke she felt that the air was clearing, the clouds were flying. Constraint at least was at an end. And she had really the sensation of setting a captive at liberty. She turned to leave him, but he said:
"Please, stop, Madame."
"You have made a mistake."
"I do want to see this garden."
"Really? Well, then, you can wander through it."
"I do not wish to see it alone."
"Larbi shall guide you. For half a franc he will gladly give up his serenading."
"Madame, if you will not show me the garden I will not see it at all. I will go now and will never come into it again. I do not pretend."
"Ah!" she said, and her voice was quite changed. "But you do worse."
"Yes. You lie in the face of Africa."
She did not wish or mean to say it, and yet she had to say it. She knew it was monstrous that she should speak thus to him. What had his lies to do with her? She had been told a thousand, had heard a thousand told to others. Her life had been passed in a world of which the words of the Psalmist, though uttered in haste, are a clear-cut description. And she had not thought she cared. Yet really she must have cared. For, in leaving this world, her soul had, as it were, fetched a long breath. And now, at the hint of a lie, it instinctively recoiled as from a gust of air laden with some poisonous and suffocating vapour.
"Forgive me," she added. "I am a fool. Out here I do love truth."
Androvsky dropped his eyes. His whole body expressed humiliation, and something that suggested to her despair.
"Oh, you must think me mad to speak like this!" she exclaimed. "Of course people must be allowed to arm themselves against the curiosity of others. I know that. The fact is I am under a spell here. I have been living for many, many years in the cold. I have been like a woman in a prison without any light, and—"
"You have been in a prison!" he said, lifting his head and looking at her eagerly.
"I have been living in what is called the great world."
"And you call that a prison?"
"Now that I am living in the greater world, really living at last. I have been in the heart of insincerity, and now I have come into the heart, the fiery heart of sincerity. It's there—there"—she pointed to the desert. "And it has intoxicated me; I think it has made me unreasonable. I expect everyone—not an Arab—to be as it is, and every little thing that isn't quite frank, every pretence, is like a horrible little hand tugging at me, as if trying to take me back to the prison I have left. I think, deep down, I have always loathed lies, but never as I have loathed them since I came here. It seems to me as if only in the desert there is freedom for the body, and only in truth there is freedom for the soul."
She stopped, drew a long breath, and added:
"You must forgive me. I have worried you. I have made you do what you didn't want to do. And then I have attacked you. It is unpardonable."
"Show me the garden, Madame," he said in a very low voice.
Her outburst over, she felt a slight self-consciousness. She wondered what he thought of her and became aware of her unconventionality. His curious and persistent reticence made her frankness the more marked. Yet the painful sensation of oppression and exasperation had passed away from her and she no longer thought of his personality as destructive. In obedience to his last words she walked on, and he kept heavily beside her, till they were in the deep shadows of the closely- growing trees and the spell of the garden began to return upon her, banishing the thought of self.
"Listen!" she said presently.
Larbi's flute was very near.
"He is always playing," she whispered.
"Who is he?"
"One of the gardeners. But he scarcely ever works. He is perpetually in love. That is why he plays."
"Is that a love-tune then?" Androvsky asked.
"Yes. Do you think it sounds like one?"
"How should I know, Madame?"
He stood looking in the direction from which the music came, and now it seemed to hold him fascinated. After his question, which sounded to her almost childlike, and which she did not answer, Domini glanced at his attentive face, to which the green shadows lent a dimness that was mysterious, at his tall figure, which always suggested to her both weariness and strength, and remembered the passionate romance to whose existence she awoke when she first heard Larbi's flute. It was as if a shutter, which had closed a window in the house of life, had been suddenly drawn away, giving to her eyes the horizon of a new world. Was that shutter now drawn back for him? No doubt the supposition was absurd. Men of his emotional and virile type have travelled far in that world, to her mysterious, ere they reach his length of years. What was extraordinary to her, in the thought of it alone, was doubtless quite ordinary to him, translated into act. Not ignorant, she was nevertheless a perfectly innocent woman, but her knowledge told her that no man of Androvsky's strength, power and passion is innocent at Androvsky's age. Yet his last dropped-out question was very deceptive. It had sounded absolutely natural and might have come from a boy's pure lips. Again he made her wonder.
There was a garden bench close to where they were standing. "If you like to listen for a moment we might sit down," she said.
"Yes. Thank you."
When they were sitting side by side, closely guarded by the gigantic fig and chestnut trees which grew in this part of the garden, he added:
"Whom does he love?"
"No doubt one of those native women whom you consider utterly without attraction," she answered with a faint touch of malice which made him redden.
"But you come here every day?" he said.
"Yes. Has he ever seen you?"
"Larbi? Often. What has that to do with it?"
He did not reply.
Odd and disconnected as Larbi's melodies were, they created an atmosphere of wild tenderness. Spontaneously they bubbled up out of the heart of the Eastern world and, when the player was invisible as now, suggested an ebon faun couched in hot sand at the foot of a palm tree and making music to listening sunbeams and amorous spirits of the waste.
"Do you like it?" she said presently in an under voice.
"Yes, Madame. And you?"
"I love it, but not as I love the song of the freed negroes. That is a song of all the secrets of humanity and of the desert too. And it does not try to tell them. It only says that they exist and that God knows them. But, I remember, you do not like that song."
"Madame," he answered slowly, and as if he were choosing his words, "I see that you understood. The song did move me though I said not. But no, I do not like it."
"Do you care to tell me why?"
"Such a song as that seems to me an—it is like an intrusion. There are things that should be let alone. There are dark places that should be left dark."
"You mean that all human beings hold within them secrets, and that no allusion even should ever be made to those secrets?"
After a pause he said, anxiously, she thought:
"Am I right, Madame, or is my thought ridiculous?"
He asked it so simply that she felt touched.
"I'm sure you could never be ridiculous," she said quickly. "And perhaps you are right. I don't know. That song makes me think and feel, and so I love it. Perhaps if you heard it alone—"
"Then I should hate it," he interposed.
His voice was like an uncontrolled inner voice speaking.
"And not thought and feeling—" she began.
But he interrupted her.
"They make all the misery that exists in the world."
"And all the happiness."
"Then you want to think deeply, to feel deeply?"
"Yes. I would rather be the central figure of a world-tragedy than die without having felt to the uttermost, even if it were sorrow. My whole nature revolts against the idea of being able to feel little or nothing really. It seems to me that when we begin to feel acutely we begin to grow, like the palm tree rising towards the African sun."
"I do not think you have ever been very unhappy," he said. The sound of his voice as he said it made her suddenly feel as if it were true, as if she had never been utterly unhappy. Yet she had never been really happy. Africa had taught her that.
"Perhaps not," she answered. "But—some day—"
"Could one stay long in such a world as this and not be either intensely happy or intensely unhappy? I don't feel as if it would be possible. Fierceness and fire beat upon one day after day and—one must learn to feel here."
As she spoke a sensation of doubt, almost of apprehension, came to her. She was overtaken by a terror of the desert. For a moment it seemed to her that he was right, that it were better never to be the prey of any deep emotion.
"If one does not wish to feel one should never come to such a place as this," she added.
And she longed to ask him why he was here, he, a man whose philosophy told him to avoid the heights and depths, to shun the ardours of nature and of life.
"Or, having come, one should leave it."
A sensation of lurking danger increased upon her, bringing with it the thought of flight.
"One can always do that," she said, looking at him. She saw fear in his eyes, but it seemed to her that it was not fear of peril, but fear of flight. So strongly was this idea borne in upon her that she bluntly exclaimed:
"Unless it is one's nature to face things, never to turn one's back. Is it yours, Monsieur Androvsky?"
"Fear could never drive me to leave Beni-Moni," he answered.
"Sometimes I think that the only virtue in us is courage," she said, "that it includes all the others. I believe I could forgive everything where I found absolute courage."
Androvsky's eyes were lit up as if by a flicker of inward fire.
"You might create the virtue you love," he said hoarsely.
They looked at each other for a moment. Did he mean that she might create it in him?
Perhaps she would have asked, or perhaps he would have told her, but at that moment something happened. Larbi stopped playing. In the last few minutes they had both forgotten that he was playing, but when he ceased the garden changed. Something was withdrawn in which, without knowing it, they had been protecting themselves, and when the music faded their armour dropped away from them. With the complete silence came an altered atmosphere, the tenderness of mysticism instead of the tenderness of a wild humanity. The love of man seemed to depart out of the garden and another love to enter it, as when God walked under the trees in the cool of the day. And they sat quite still, as if a common impulse muted their lips. In the long silence that followed Domini thought of her mirage of the palm tree growing towards the African sun, feeling growing in the heart of a human being. But was it a worthy image? For the palm tree rises high. It soars into the air. But presently it ceases to grow. There is nothing infinite in its growth. And the long, hot years pass away and there it stands, never nearer to the infinite gold of the sun. But in the intense feeling of a man or woman is there not infinitude? Is there not a movement that is ceaseless till death comes to destroy—or to translate?
That was what she was thinking in the silence of the garden. And Androvsky? He sat beside her with his head bent, his hands hanging between his knees, his eyes gazing before him at the ordered tangle of the great trees. His lips were slightly parted, and on his strongly- marked face there was an expression as of emotional peace, as if the soul of the man were feeling deeply in calm. The restlessness, the violence that had made his demeanour so embarrassing during and after the dejeuner had vanished. He was a different man. And presently, noticing it, feeling his sensitive serenity, Domini seemed to see the great Mother at work about this child of hers, Nature at her tender task of pacification. The shared silence became to her like a song of thanksgiving, in which all the green things of the garden joined. And beyond them the desert lay listening, the Garden of Allah attentive to the voices of man's garden. She could hardly believe that but a few minutes before she had been full of irritation and bitterness, not free even from a touch of pride that was almost petty. But when she remembered that it was so she realised the abysses and the heights of which the heart is mingled, and an intense desire came to her to be always upon the heights of her own heart. For there only was the light of happiness. Never could she know joy if she forswore nobility. Never could she be at peace with the love within her—love of something that was not self, of something that seemed vaguer than God, as if it had entered into God and made him Love—unless she mounted upwards during her little span of life. Again, as before in this land, in the first sunset, on the tower, on the minaret of the mosque of Sidi-Zerzour, Nature spoke to her intimate words of inspiration, laid upon her the hands of healing, giving her powers she surely had not known or conceived of till now. And the passion that is the chiefest grace of goodness, making it the fire that purifies, as it is the little sister of the poor that tends the suffering, the hungry, the groping beggar- world, stirred within her, like the child not yet born, but whose destiny is with the angels. And she longed to make some great offering at the altar on whose lowest step she stood, and she was filled, for the first time consciously, with woman's sacred desire for sacrifice.
A soft step on the sand broke the silence and scattered her aspirations. Count Anteoni was coming towards them between the trees. The light of happiness was still upon his face and made him look much younger than usual. His whole bearing, in its elasticity and buoyant courage, was full of anticipation. As he came up to them he said to Domini:
"Do you remember chiding me?"
"I!" she said. "For what?"
Androvsky sat up and the expression of serenity passed away from his face.
"For never galloping away into the sun."
"Oh!—yes, I do remember."
"Well, I am going to obey you. I am going to make a journey."
"Into the desert?"
"Three hundred kilometers on horseback. I start to-morrow."
She looked up at him with a new interest. He saw it and laughed, almost like a boy.
"Ah, your contempt for me is dying!"
"How can you speak of contempt?"
"But you were full of it." He turned to Androvsky. "Miss Enfilden thought I could not sit a horse, Monsieur, unlike you. Forgive me for saying that you are almost more dare-devil than the Arabs themselves. I saw you the other day set your stallion at the bank of the river bed. I did not think any horse could have done it, but you knew better."
"I did not know at all," said Androvsky. "I had not ridden for over twenty years until that day."
He spoke with a blunt determination which made Domini remember their recent conversation on truth-telling.
"Dio mio!" said the Count, slowly, and looking at him with undisguised wonder. "You must have a will and a frame of iron."
"I am pretty strong."
He spoke rather roughly. Since the Count had joined them Domini noticed that Androvsky had become a different man. Once more he was on the defensive. The Count did not seem to notice it. Perhaps he was too radiant.
"I hope I shall endure as well as you, Monsieur," he said. "I go to Beni-Hassan to visit Sidi El Hadj Aissa, one of the mightiest marabouts in the Sahara. In your Church," he added, turning again to Domini, "he would be a powerful Cardinal."
She noticed the "your." Evidently the Count was not a professing Catholic. Doubtless, like many modern Italians, he was a free-thinker in matters of religion.
"I am afraid I have never heard of him," she said. "In which direction does Beni-Hassan lie?"
"To go there one takes the caravan route that the natives call the route to Tombouctou."
An eager look came into her face.
"My road!" she said.
"The one I shall travel on. You remember, Monsieur Androvsky?"
"Let me into your secret," said the Count, laughingly, yet with interest too.
"It is no secret. It is only that I love that route. It fascinates me, and I mean some day to make a desert journey along it."
"What a pity that we cannot join forces," the Count said. "I should feel it an honour to show the desert to one who has the reverence for it, the understanding of its spell, that you have."
He spoke earnestly, paused, and then added:
"But I know well what you are thinking."
"What is that?"
"That you will go to the desert alone. You are right. It is the only way, at any rate the first time. I went like that many years ago."
She said nothing in assent, and Androvsky got up from the bench.
"I must go, Monsieur."
"Already! But have you seen the garden?"
"It is wonderful. Good-bye, Monsieur. Thank you."
"But—let me see you to the gate. On Fridays——"
He was turning to Domini when she got up too.
"Don't you distribute alms on Fridays?" she said.
"How should you know it?"
"I have heard all about you. But is this the hour?"
"Let me see the distribution."
"And we will speed Monsieur Androvsky on his way at the same time."
She noticed that there was no question in his mind of her going with Androvsky. Did she mean to go with him? She had not decided yet.
They walked towards the gate and were soon on the great sweep of sand before the villa. A murmur of many voices was audible outside in the desert, nasal exclamations, loud guttural cries that sounded angry, the twittering of flutes and the snarl of camels.
"Do you hear my pensioners?" said the Count. "They are always impatient."
There was the noise of a tomtom and of a whining shriek.
"That is old Bel Cassem's announcement of his presence. He has been living on me for years, the old ruffian, ever since his right eye was gouged out by his rival in the affections of the Marechale of the dancing-girls. Smain!"
He blew his silver whistle. Instantly Smain came out of the villa carrying a money-bag. The Count took it and weighed it in his hand, looking at Domini with the joyous expression still upon his face.
"Have you ever made a thank-offering?" he said.
"That tells me something. Well, to-day I wish to make a thank-offering to the desert."
"What has it done for you?"
"Who knows? Who knows?"
He laughed aloud, almost like a boy. Androvsky glanced at him with a sort of wondering envy.
"And I want you to share in my little distribution," he added. "And you, Monsieur, if you don't mind. There are moments when— Open the gate, Smain!"
His ardour was infectious and Domini felt stirred by it to a sudden sense of the joy of life. She looked at Androvsky, to include him in the rigour of gaiety which swept from the Count to her, and found him staring apprehensively at the Count, who was now loosening the string of the bag. Smain had reached the gate. He lifted the bar of wood and opened it. Instantly a crowd of dark faces and turbaned heads were thrust through the tall aperture, a multitude of dusky hands fluttered frantically, and the cry of eager voices, saluting, begging, calling down blessings, relating troubles, shrieking wants, proclaiming virtues and necessities, rose into an almost deafening uproar. But not a foot was lifted over the lintel to press the sunlit sand. The Count's pensioners might be clamorous, but they knew what they might not do. As he saw them the wrinkles in his face deepened and his fingers quickened to achieve their purpose.
"My pensioners are very hungry to-day, and, as you see, they don't mind saying so. Hark at Bel Cassem!"
The tomtom and the shriek that went with it made it a fierce crescendo.
"That means he is starving—the old hypocrite! Aren't they like the wolves in your Russia, Monsieur? But we must feed them. We mustn't let them devour our Beni-Mora. That's it!"
He threw the string on to the sand, plunged his hand into the bag and brought it out full of copper coins. The mouths opened wider, the hands waved more frantically, and all the dark eyes gleamed with the light of greed.
"Will you help me?" he said to Domini.
"Of course. What fun!"
Her eyes were gleaming too, but with the dancing fires of a gay impulse of generosity which made her wish that the bag contained her money. He filled her hands with coins.
"Choose whom you will. And now, Monsieur!"
For the moment he was so boyishly concentrated on the immediate present that he had ceased to observe whether the whim of others jumped with his own. Otherwise he must have been struck by Androvsky's marked discomfort, which indeed almost amounted to agitation. The sight of the throng of Arabs at the gateway, the clamour of their voices, evidently roused within him something akin to fear. He looked at them with distaste, and had drawn back several steps upon the sand, and now, as the Count held out to him a hand filled with money, he made no motion to take it, and half turned as if he thought of retreating into the recesses of the garden.
"Here, Monsieur! here!" exclaimed the Count, with his eyes on the crowd, towards which Domini was walking with a sort of mischievous slowness, to whet those appetites already so voracious.
Androvsky set his teeth and took the money, dropping one or two pieces on the ground. For a moment the Count seemed doubtful of his guest's participation in his own lively mood.
"Is this boring you?" he asked. "Because if so—"
"No, no, Monsieur, not at all! What am I to do?"
"Those hands will tell you."
The clamour grew more exigent.
"And when you want more come to me!"
Then he called out in Arabic, "Gently! Gently!" as the vehement scuffling seemed about to degenerate into actual fighting at Domini's approach, and hurried forward, followed more slowly by Androvsky.
Smain, from whose velvety eyes the dreams were not banished by the uproar, stood languidly by the porter's tent, gazing at Androvsky. Something in the demeanour of the new visitor seemed to attract him. Domini, meanwhile, had reached the gateway. Gently, with a capricious deftness and all a woman's passion for personal choice, she dropped the bits of money into the hands belonging to the faces that attracted her, disregarding the bellowings of those passed over. The light from all these gleaming eyes made her feel warm, the clamour that poured from these brown throats excited her. When her fingers were empty she touched the Count's arm eagerly.
"More, more, please!"
He held out to her the bag. She plunged her hands into it and came nearer to the gate, both hands full of money and held high above her head. The Arabs leapt up at her like dogs at a bone, and for a moment she waited, laughing with all her heart. Then she made a movement to throw the money over the heads of the near ones to the unfortunates who were dancing and shrieking on the outskirts of the mob. But suddenly her hands dropped and she uttered a startled exclamation.
The sand-diviner of the red bazaar, slipping like a reptile under the waving arms and between the furious bodies of the beggars, stood up before her with a smile on his wounded face, stretched out to her his emaciated hands with a fawning, yet half satirical, gesture of desire.
The money dropped from Domini's fingers and rolled upon the sand at the Diviner's feet. But though he had surely come to ask for alms, he took no heed of it. While the Arabs round him fell upon their knees and fought like animals for the plunder, he stood gaping at Domini. The smile still flickered about his lips. His hand was still stretched out.
Instinctively she had moved backwards. Something that was like a thrill of fear, mental, not physical, went through her, but she kept her eyes steadily on his, as if, despite the fear, she fought against him.
The contest of the beggars had become so passionate that Count Anteoni's commands were forgotten. Urged by the pressure from behind those in the front scrambled or fell over the sacred threshold. The garden was invaded by a shrieking mob. Smain ran forward, and the autocrat that dwelt in the Count side by side with the benefactor suddenly emerged. He blew his whistle four times. At each call a stalwart Arab appeared.
"Shut the gate!" he commanded sternly.
The attendants furiously repulsed the mob, using their fists and feet without mercy. In the twinkling of an eye the sand was cleared and Smain had his hand upon the door to shut it. But the Diviner stopped him with a gesture, and in a fawning yet imperious voice called out something to the Count.
The Count turned to Domini.
"This is an interesting fellow. Would you like to know him?"
Her mind said no, yet her body assented. For she bowed her head. The Count beckoned. The Diviner stepped stealthily on to the sand with an air of subtle triumph, and Smain swung forward the great leaf of palm wood.
"Wait!" the Count cried, as if suddenly recollecting something. "Where is Monsieur Androvsky?"
"Isn't he——?" Domini glanced round. "I don't know."
He went quickly to the door and looked out. The Arabs, silent now and respectful, crowded about him, salaaming. He smiled at them kindly, and spoke to one or two. They answered gravely. An old man with one eye lifted his hand, in which was a tomtom of stretched goatskin, and pointed towards the oasis, rapidly moving his toothless jaws. The Count stepped back into the garden, dismissed his pensioners with a masterful wave of the hand, and himself shut the door.
"Monsieur Androvsky has gone—without saying good-bye," he said.
Again Domini felt ashamed for Androvsky.
"I don't think he likes my pensioners," the Count added, in amused voice, "or me."
"I am sure—" Domini began.
But he stopped her.
"Miss Enfilden, in a world of lies I look to you for truth."
His manner chafed her, but his voice had a ring of earnestness. She said nothing. All this time the Diviner was standing on the sand, still smiling, but with downcast eyes. His thin body looked satirical and Domini felt a strong aversion from him, yet a strong interest in him too. Something in his appearance and manner suggested power and mystery as well as cunning. The Count said some words to him in Arabic, and at once he walked forward and disappeared among the trees, going so silently and smoothly that she seemed to watch a panther gliding into the depths of a jungle where its prey lay hid. She looked at the Count interrogatively.
"He will wait in the fumoir."
"Where we first met?"
"For us, if you choose."
"Tell me about him. I have seen him twice. He followed me with a bag of sand."
"He is a desert man. I don't know his tribe, but before he settled here he was a nomad, one of the wanderers who dwell in tents, a man of the sand; as much of the sand as a viper or a scorpion. One would suppose such beings were bred by the marriage of the sand-grains. The sand tells him secrets."
"He says. Do you believe it?"
"Would you like to test it?"
"By coming with me to the fumoir?"
She hesitated obviously.
"Mind," he added, "I do not press it. A word from me and he is gone. But you are fearless, and you have spoken already, will speak much more intimately in the future, with the desert spirits."
"How do you know that?"
"The 'much more intimately'?"
"I do not know it, but—which is much more—I feel it."
She was silent, looking towards the trees where the Diviner had disappeared. Count Anteoni's boyish merriment had faded away. He looked grave, almost sad.
"I am not afraid," she said at last. "No, but—I will confess it— there is something horrible about that man to me. I felt it the first time I saw him. His eyes are too intelligent. They look diseased with intelligence."
"Let me send him away. Smain!"
But she stopped him. Directly he made the suggestion she felt that she must know more of this man.
"No. Let us go to the fumoir."
"Very well. Go, Smain!"
Smain went into the little tent by the gate, sat down on his haunches and began to smell at a sprig of orange blossoms. Domini and the Count walked into the darkness of the trees.
"What is his name?" she asked.
She repeated the word slowly. There was a reluctant and yet fascinated sound in her voice.
"There is melody in the name," he said.
"Yes. Has he—has he ever looked in the sand for you?"
"Once—a long time ago."
"May I—dare I ask if he found truth there?"
"He found nothing for all the years that have passed since then."
There was a sound of relief in her voice.
"For those years."
She glanced at him and saw that once again his face had lit up into ardour.
"He found what is still to come?" she said.
And he repeated:
"He found what is still to come."
Then they walked on in silence till they saw the purple blossoms of the bougainvillea clinging to the white walls of the fumoir. Domini stopped on the narrow path.
"Is he in there?" she asked almost in a whisper.
"Larbi was playing the first day I came here."
"I wish he was playing now."
The silence seemed to her unnaturally intense.
"Even his love must have repose."
She went on a step or two till, but still from a distance, she could look over the low plaster wall beneath the nearest window space into the little room.
"Yes, there he is," she whispered.
The Diviner was crouching on the floor with his back towards them and his head bent down. Only his shoulders could be seen, covered with a white gandoura. They moved perpetually but slightly.
"What is he doing?"
"Speaking with his ancestor."
"The sand. Aloui!"
He called softly. The figure rose, without sound and instantly, and the face of the Diviner smiled at them through the purple flowers. Again Domini had the sensation that her body was a glass box in which her thoughts, feelings and desires were ranged for this man's inspection; but she walked resolutely through the narrow doorway and sat down on one of the divans. Count Anteoni followed.
She now saw that in the centre of the room, on the ground, there was a symmetrical pyramid of sand, and that the Diviner was gently folding together a bag in his long and flexible fingers.
"You see!" said the Count.
She nodded, without speaking. The little sand heap held her eyes. She strove to think it absurd and the man who had shaken it out a charlatan of the desert, but she was really gripped by an odd feeling of awe, as if she were secretly expectant of some magical demonstration.
The Diviner squatted down once more on his haunches, stretched out his fingers above the sand heap, looked at her and smiled.
"La vie de Madame—I see it in the sable—la vie de Madame dans le grand desert du Sahara."
His eyes seemed to rout out the secrets from every corner of her being, and to scatter them upon the ground as the sand was scattered.
"Dans le grand desert du Sahara," Count Anteoni repeated, as if he loved the music of the words. "Then there is a desert life for Madame?"
The Diviner dropped his fingers on to the pyramid, lightly pressing the sand down and outward. He no longer looked at Domini. The searching and the satire slipped away from his eyes and body. He seemed to have forgotten the two watchers and to be concentrated upon the grains of sand. Domini noticed that the tortured expression, which had come into his face when she met him in the street and he stared into the bag, had returned to it. After pressing down the sand he spread the bag which had held it at Domini's feet, and deftly transferred the sand to it, scattering the grains loosely over the sacking, in a sort of pattern. Then, bending closely over them, he stared at them in silence for a long time. His pock-marked face was set like stone. His emaciated hands, stretched out, rested above the grains like carven things. His body seemed entirely breathless in its absolute immobility.
The Count stood in the doorway, still as he was, surrounded by the motionless purple flowers. Beyond, in their serried ranks, stood the motionless trees. No incense was burning in the little brazier to-day. This cloistered world seemed spell-bound.
A low murmur at last broke the silence. It came from the Diviner. He began to talk rapidly, but as if to himself, and as he talked he moved again, broke up with his fingers the patterns in the sand, formed fresh ones; spirals, circles, snake-like lines, series of mounting dots that reminded Domini of spray flung by a fountain, curves, squares and oblongs. So swiftly was it done and undone that the sand seemed to be endowed with life, to be explaining itself in these patterns, to be presenting deliberate glimpses of hitherto hidden truths. And always the voice went on, and the eyes were downcast, and the body, save for the moving hands and arms, was absolutely motionless.
Domini looked over the Diviner to Count Anteoni, who came gently forward and sat down, bending his head to listen to the voice.
"Is it Arabic?" she whispered.
"Can you understand it?"
"Not yet. Presently it will get slower, clearer. He always begins like this."
"Translate it for me."
"Exactly as it is?"
"Exactly as it is."
"Whatever it may be?"
"Whatever it may be."
He glanced at the tortured face of the Diviner and looked grave.
"Remember you have said I am fearless," she said.
"Whatever it is you shall know it."
Then they were silent again. Gradually the Diviner's voice grew clearer, the pace of its words less rapid, but always it sounded mysterious and inward, less like the voice of a man than the distant voice of a secret.
"I can hear now," whispered the Count.
"What is he saying?"
"He is speaking about the desert."
"He sees a great storm. Wait a moment!"
The voice spoke for some seconds and ceased, and once again the Diviner remained absolutely motionless, with his hands extended above the grains like carven things.
"He sees a great sand-storm, one of the most terrible that has ever burst over the Sahara. Everything is blotted out. The desert vanishes. Beni-Mora is hidden. It is day, yet there is a darkness like night. In this darkness he sees a train of camels waiting by a church."
"No, a church. In the church there is a sound of music. The roar of the wind, the roar of the camels, mingles with the chanting and drowns it. He cannot hear it any more. It is as if the desert is angry and wishes to kill the music. In the church your life is beginning."
"Your real life. He says that now you are fully born, that till now there has been a veil around your soul like the veil of the womb around a child."
"He says that!"
There was a sound of deep emotion in her voice.
"That is all. The roar of the wind from the desert has silenced the music in the church, and all is dark."
The Diviner moved again, and formed fresh patterns in the sand with feverish rapidity, and again began to speak swiftly.
"He sees the train of camels that waited by the church starting on a desert journey. The storm has not abated. They pass through the oasis into the desert. He sees them going towards the south."
Domini leaned forward on the divan, looking at Count Anteoni above the bent body of the Diviner.
"By what route?" she whispered.
"By the route which the natives call the road to Tombouctou."
"But—it is my journey!"
"Upon one of the camels, in a palanquin such as the great sheikhs use to carry their women, there are two people, protected against the storm by curtains. They are silent, listening to the roaring of the wind. One of them is you."
"But—who is the other?"
"He cannot see. It is as if the blackness of the storm were deeper round about the other and hid the other from him. The caravan passes on and is lost in the desolation and the storm."
She said nothing, but looked down at the thin body of the Diviner crouched close to her knees. Was this pock-marked face the face of a prophet? Did this skin and bone envelop the soul of a seer? She no longer wished that Larbi was playing upon his flute or felt the silence to be unnatural. For this man had filled it with the roar of the desert wind. And in the wind there struggled and was finally lost the sound of voices of her Faith chanting—what? The wind was too strong. The voices were too faint. She could not hear.
Once more the Diviner stirred. For some minutes his fingers were busy in the sand. But now they moved more slowly and no words came from his lips. Domini and the Count bent low to watch what he was doing. The look of torture upon his face increased. It was terrible, and made upon Domini an indelible impression, for she could not help connecting it with his vision of her future, and it suggested to her formless phantoms of despair. She looked into the sand, as if she, too, would be able to see what he saw and had not told, looked till she began to feel almost hypnotised. The Diviner's hands trembled now as they made the patterns, and his breast heaved under his white robe. Presently he traced in the sand a triangle and began to speak.
The Count bent down till his ear was almost at the Diviner's lips, and Domini held her breath. That caravan lost in the desolation of the desert, in the storm and the darkness—where was it? What had been its fate? Sweat ran down over the Diviner's face, and dropped upon his robe, upon his hands, upon the sand, making dark spots. And the voice whispered on huskily till she was in a fever of impatience. She saw upon the face of the Count the Diviner's tortured look reflected. Was it not also on her face? A link surely bound them all together in this tiny room, close circled by the tall trees and the intense silence. She looked at the triangle in the sand. It was very distinct, more distinct than the other patterns had been. What did it represent? She searched her mind, thinking of the desert, of her life there, of man's life in the desert. Was it not tent-shaped? She saw it as a tent, as her tent pitched somewhere in the waste far from the habitations of men. Now the trembling hands were still, the voice was still, but the sweat did not cease from dropping down upon the sand.
"Tell me!" she murmured to the Count.
He obeyed, seeming now to speak with an effort.
"It is far away in the desert——"
"Very far away in a sandy place. There are immense dunes, immense white dunes of sand on every side, like mountains. Near at hand there is a gleam of many fires. They are lit in the market-place of a desert city. Among the dunes, with camels picketed behind it, there is a tent——"
She pointed to the triangle traced upon the sand.
"I knew it," she whispered. "It is my tent."
"He sees you there, as he saw you in the palanquin. But now it is night and you are quite alone. You are not asleep. Something keeps you awake. You are excited. You go out of the tent upon the dunes and look towards the fires of the city. He hears the jackals howling all around you, and sees the skeletons of dead camels white under the moon."
She shuddered in spite of herself.
"There is something tremendous in your soul. He says it is as if all the date palms of the desert bore their fruit together, and in all the dry places, where men and camels have died of thirst in bygone years, running springs burst forth, and as if the sand were covered with millions of golden flowers big as the flower of the aloe."
"But then it is joy, it must be joy!"
"He says it is great joy."
"Then why does he look like that, breathe like that?"
She indicated the Diviner, who was trembling where he crouched, and breathing heavily, and always sweating like one in agony.
"There is more," said the Count, slowly.
"You stand alone upon the dunes and you look towards the city. He hears the tomtoms beating, and distant cries as if there were a fantasia. Then he sees a figure among the dunes coming towards you."
"Who is it?" she asked.
He did not answer. But she did not wish him to answer. She had spoken without meaning to speak.
"You watch this figure. It comes to you, walking heavily."
"That's what he says. The dates shrivel on the palms, the streams dry up, the flowers droop and die in the sand. In the city the tomtoms faint away and the red fires fade away. All is dark and silent. And then he sees—"
"Wait!" Domini said almost sharply.
He sat looking at her. She pressed her hands together. In her dark face, with its heavy eyebrows and strong, generous mouth, a contest showed, a struggle between some quick desire and some more sluggish but determined reluctance. In a moment she spoke again.
"I won't hear anything more, please."
"But you said 'whatever it may be.'"
"Yes. But I won't hear anything more."
She spoke very quietly, with determination.
The Diviner was beginning to move his hands again, to make fresh patterns in the sand, to speak swiftly once more.
"Shall I stop him?"
"Then would you mind going out into the garden? I will join you in a moment. Take care not to disturb him."
She got up with precaution, held her skirts together with her hands, and slipped softly out on to the garden path. For a moment she was inclined to wait there, to look back and see what was happening in the fumoir. But she resisted her inclination, and walked on slowly till she reached the bench where she had sat an hour before with Androvsky. There she sat down and waited. In a few minutes she saw the Count coming towards her alone. His face was very grave, but lightened with a slight smile when he saw her.
"He has gone?" she asked.
He was about to sit beside her, but she said quickly:
"Would you mind going back to the jamelon tree?"
"Where we sat this morning?"
"Was it only—yes."
"Oh; but you are going away to-morrow! You have a lot to do probably?"
"Nothing. My men will arrange everything."
She got up, and they walked in silence till they saw once more the immense spaces of the desert bathed in the afternoon sun. As Domini looked at them again she knew that their wonder, their meaning, had increased for her. The steady crescendo that was beginning almost to frighten her was maintained—the crescendo of the voice of the Sahara. To what tremendous demonstration was this crescendo tending, to what ultimate glory or terror? She felt that her soul was as yet too undeveloped to conceive. The Diviner had been right. There was a veil around it, like the veil of the womb that hides the unborn child.
Under the jamelon tree she sat down once more.
"May—I light a cigar?" the Count asked.
He struck a match, lit a cigar, and sat down on her left, by the garden wall.
"Tell me frankly," he said. "Do you wish to talk or to be silent?"
"I wish to speak to you."
"I am sorry now I asked you to test Aloui's powers."
"Because I fear they made an unpleasant impression upon you."
"That was not why I made you stop him."
"You don't understand me. I was not afraid. I can only say that, but I can't give you my reason for stopping him. I wished to tell you that it was not fear."
"I believe—I know that you are fearless," he said with an unusual warmth. "You are sure that I don't understand you?"
"Remember the refrain of the Freed Negroes' song!"
"Ah, yes—those black fellows. But I know something of you, Miss Enfilden—yes, I do."
"I would rather you did—you and your garden."
"And—some day—I should like you to know a little more of me."
"Thank you. When will you come back?"
"I can't tell. But you are not leaving?"
The idea of leaving Beni-Mora troubled her heart strangely.
"No, I am too happy here."
"Are you really happy?"
"At any rate I am happier than I have ever been before."
"You are on the verge."
He was looking at her with eyes in which there was tenderness, but suddenly they flashed fire, and he exclaimed:
"My desert land must not bring you despair."
She was startled by his sudden vehemence.
"What I would not hear!" she said. "You know it!"
"It is not my fault. I am ready to tell it to you."
"No. But do you believe it? Do you believe that man can read the future in the sand? How can it be?"
"How can a thousand things be? How can these desert men stand in fire, with their naked feet set on burning brands, with burning brands under their armpits, and not be burned? How can they pierce themselves with skewers and cut themselves with knives and no blood flow? But I told you the first day I met you; the desert always makes me the same gift when I return to it."
"The gift of belief."
"Then you do believe in that man—Aloui?"
"I can only say that it seemed to me as if it might be divination. If I had not felt that I should not have stopped it. I should have treated it as a game."
"It impressed you as it impresses me. Well, for both of us the desert has gifts. Let us accept them fearlessly. It is the will of Allah."
She remembered her vision of the pale procession. Would she walk in it at last?
"You are as fatalistic as an Arab," she said.
"I!" she answered simply. "I believe that I am in the hands of God, and I know that perfect love can never harm me."
After a moment he said, gently:
"Miss Enfilden, I want to ask something of you."
"Will you make a sacrifice? To-morrow I start at dawn. Will you be here to wish me God speed on my journey?"
"Of course I will."
"It will be good of you. I shall value it from you. And—and when—if you ever make your long journey on that road—the route to the south— I will wish you Allah's blessing in the Garden of Allah."
He spoke with solemnity, almost with passion, and she felt the tears very near her eyes. Then they sat in silence, looking out over the desert.
And she heard its voices calling.
On the following morning, before dawn, Domini awoke, stirred from sleep by her anxiety, persistent even in what seemed unconsciousness, to speed Count Anteoni upon his desert journey. She did not know why he was going, but she felt that some great issue in his life hung upon the accomplishment of the purpose with which he set out, and without affectation she ardently desired that accomplishment. As soon as she awoke she lit a candle and glanced at her watch. She knew by the hour that the dawn was near, and she got up at once and made her toilet. She had told Batouch to be at the hotel door before sunrise to accompany her to the garden, and she wondered if he were below. A stillness as of deep night prevailed in the house, making her movements, while she dressed, seem unnaturally loud. When she put on her hat, and looked into the glass to see if it were just at the right angle, she thought her face, always white, was haggard. This departure made her a little sad. It suggested to her the instability of circumstance, the perpetual change that occurs in life. The going of her kind host made her own going more possible than before, even more likely. Some words from the Bible kept on running through her brain "Here have we no continuing city." In the silent darkness their cadence held an ineffable melancholy. Her mind heard them as the ear, in a pathetic moment, hears sometimes a distant strain of music wailing like a phantom through the invisible. And the everlasting journeying of all created things oppressed her heart.
When she had buttoned her jacket and drawn on her gloves she went to the French window and pushed back the shutters. A wan semi-darkness looked in upon her. Again she wondered whether Batouch had come. It seemed to her unlikely. She could not imagine that anyone in all the world was up and purposeful but herself. This hour seemed created as a curtain for unconsciousness. Very softly she stepped out upon the verandah and looked over the parapet. She could see the white road, mysteriously white, below. It was deserted. She leaned down.
"Batouch!" she called softly. "Batouch!"
He might be hidden under the arcade, sleeping in his burnous.
No answer came. She stood by the parapet, waiting and looking down the road.
All the stars had faded, yet there was no suggestion of the sun. She faced an unrelenting austerity. For a moment she thought of this atmosphere, this dense stillness, this gravity of vague and shadowy trees, as the environment of those who had erred, of the lost spirits of men who had died in mortal sin.
Almost she expected to see the desperate shade of her dead father pass between the black stems of the palm trees, vanish into the grey mantle that wrapped the hidden world.
He was not there. That was certain. She resolved to set out alone and went back into her bedroom to get her revolver. When she came out again with it in her hand Androvsky was standing on the verandah just outside her window. He took off his hat and looked from her face to the revolver. She was startled by his appearance, for she had not heard his step, and had been companioned by a sense of irreparable solitude. This was the first time she had seen him since he vanished from the garden on the previous day.
"You are going out, Madame?" he said.
"I believe so. Unless I find Batouch below."
She slipped the revolver into the pocket of the loose coat she wore.
"But it is dark."
"It will be day very soon. Look!"
She pointed towards the east, where a light, delicate and mysterious as the distant lights in the opal, was gently pushing in the sky.
"You ought not to go alone."
"Unless Batouch is there I must. I have given a promise and I must keep it. There is no danger."
He hesitated, looking at her with an anxious, almost a suspicious, expression.
"Good-bye, Monsieur Androvsky."
She went towards the staircase. He followed her quickly to the head of it.
"Don't trouble to come down with me."
"If—if Batouch is not there—might not I guard you, Madame?" She remembered the Count's words and answered:
"Let me tell you where I am going. I am going to say good-bye to Count Anteoni before he starts for his desert journey."
Androvsky stood there without a word.
"Now, do you care to come if I don't find Batouch? Mind, I'm not the least afraid."
"Perhaps he is there—if you told him." He muttered the words. His whole manner had changed. Now he looked more than suspicious—cloudy and fierce.
She began to descend the stairs. He did not follow her, but stood looking after her. When she reached the arcade it was deserted. Batouch had forgotten or had overslept himself. She could have walked on under the roof that was the floor of the verandah, but instead she stepped out into the road. Androvsky was above her by the parapet. She glanced up and said:
"He is not here, but it is of no consequence. Dawn is breaking. Au revoir!"
Slowly he took off his hat. As she went away down the road he was holding it in his hand, looking after her.
"He does not like the Count," she thought.
At the corner she turned into the street where the sand-diviner had his bazaar, and as she neared his door she was aware of a certain trepidation. She did not want to see those piercing eyes looking at her in the semi-darkness, and she hurried her steps. But her anxiety was needless. All the doors were shut, all the inhabitants doubtless wrapped in sleep. Yet, when she had gained the end of the street, she looked back, half expecting to see an apparition of a thin figure, a tortured face, to hear a voice, like a goblin's voice, calling after her. Midway down the street there was a man coming slowly behind her. For a moment she thought it was the Diviner in pursuit, but something in the gait soon showed her her mistake. There was a heaviness in the movement of this man quite unlike the lithe and serpentine agility of Aloui. Although she could not see the face, or even distinguish the costume in the morning twilight, she knew it for Androvsky. From a distance he was watching over her. She did not hesitate, but walked on quickly again. She did not wish him to know that she had seen him. When she came to the long road that skirted the desert she met the breeze of dawn that blows out of the east across the flats, and drank in its celestial purity. Between the palms, far away towards Sidi- Zerzour, above the long indigo line of the Sahara, there rose a curve of deep red gold. The sun was coming up to take possession of his waiting world. She longed to ride out to meet him, to give him a passionate welcome in the sand, and the opening words of the Egyptian "Adoration of the Sun by the Perfect Souls" came to her lips:
"Hommage a Toi. Dieu Soleil. Seigneur du Ciel, Roi sur la Terre! Lion du Soir! Grande Ame divine, vivante a toujours."
Why had she not ordered her horse to ride a little way with Count Anteoni? She might have pretended that she was starting on her great journey.
The red gold curve became a semi-circle of burnished glory resting upon the deep blue, then a full circle that detached itself majestically and mounted calmly up the cloudless sky. A stream of light poured into the oasis, and Domini, who had paused for a moment in silent worship, went on swiftly through the negro village which was all astir, and down the track to the white villa.
She did not glance round again to see whether Androvsky was still following her, for, since the sun had come, she had the confident sensation that he was no longer near.
He had surely given her into the guardianship of the sun.
The door of the garden stood wide open, and, as she entered, she saw three magnificent horses prancing upon the sweep of sand in the midst of a little group of Arabs. Smain greeted her with graceful warmth and begged her to follow him to the fumoir, where the Count was waiting for her.
"It is good of you!" the Count said, meeting her in the doorway. "I relied on you, you see!"
Breakfast for two was scattered upon the little smoking-tables; coffee, eggs, rolls, fruit, sweetmeats. And everywhere sprigs of orange blossom filled the cool air with delicate sweetness.
"How delicious!" she exclaimed. "A breakfast here! But—no, not there!"
"That is exactly where he was."
"Aloui! How superstitious you are!"
He moved her table. She sat down near the doorway and poured out coffee for them both.
"You look workmanlike."
She glanced at his riding-dress and long whip. Smoked glasses hung across his chest by a thin cord.
"I shall have some hard riding, but I'm tough, though you may not think it. I've covered many a league of my friend in bygone years."
He tapped an eggshell smartly, and began to eat with appetite.
"How gravely gay you are!" she said, lifting the steaming coffee to her lips. He smiled.
"Yes. To-day I am happy, as a pious man is happy when after a long illness, he goes once more to church."
"The desert seems to be everything to you."
"I feel that I am going out to freedom, to more than freedom." He stretched out his arms above his head.
"Yet you have stayed always in this garden all these days."
"I was waiting for my summons, as you will wait for yours."
"What summons could I have?"
"It will come!" he said with conviction. "It will come!" She was silent, thinking of the diviner's vision in the sand, of the caravan of camels disappearing in the storm towards the south. Presently she asked him:
"Are you ever coming back?"
He looked at her in surprise, then laughed.
"Of course. What are you thinking?"
"That perhaps you will not come back, that perhaps the desert will keep you."
"And my garden?"
She looked out across the tiny sand-path and the running rill of water to the great trees stirred by the cool breeze of dawn.
"It would miss you."
After a moment, during which his bright eyes followed hers, he said:
"Do you know, I have a great belief in the intuitions of good women?"
"An almost fanatical belief. Will you answer me a question at once, without consideration, without any time for thought?"
"If you ask me to."
"I do ask you."
"Do you see me in this garden any more?"
A voice answered:
It was her own, yet it seemed another's voice, with which she had nothing to do.
A great feeling of sorrow swept over her as she heard it.
"Do come back!" she said.
The Count had got up. The brightness of his eyes was obscured.
"If not here, we shall meet again," he said slowly.
"In the desert."
"Did the Diviner—? No, don't tell me."
She got up too.
"It is time for you to start?"
A sort of constraint had settled over them. She felt it painfully for a moment. Did it proceed from something in his mind or in hers? She could not tell. They walked slowly down one of the little paths and presently found themselves before the room in which sat the purple dog.
"If I am never to come back I must say good-bye to him," the Count said.
"But you will come back."
"That voice said 'No.'"
"It was a lying voice."
They looked in at the window and met the ferocious eyes of the dog.
"And if I never come back will he bay the moon for his old master?" said the Count with a whimsical, yet sad, smile. "I put him here. And will these trees, many of which I planted, whisper a regret? Absurd, isn't it, Miss Enfilden? I never can feel that the growing things in my garden do not know me as I know them."
"Someone will regret you if—"
"Will you? Will you really?"
"I believe it."
He looked at her. She could see, by the expression of his eyes, that he was on the point of saying something, but was held back by some fighting sensation, perhaps by some reserve.
"What is it?"
"May I speak frankly to you without offence?" he asked. "I am really rather old, you know."
"That guest of mine yesterday—"
"Yes. He interested me enormously, profoundly."
"Really! Yet he was at his worst yesterday."
"Perhaps that was why. At any rate, he interested me more than any man I have seen for years. But—" He paused, looking in at the little chamber where the dog kept guard.
"But my interest was complicated by a feeling that I was face to face with a human being who was at odds with life, with himself, even with his Creator—a man who had done what the Arabs never do—defied Allah in Allah's garden."
She uttered a little exclamation of pain. It seemed to her that he was gathering up and was expressing scattered, half formless thoughts of hers.
"You know," he continued, looking more steadily into the room of the dog, "that in Algeria there is a floating population composed of many mixed elements. I could tell you strange stories of tragedies that have occurred in this land, even here in Beni-Mora, tragedies of violence, of greed, of—tragedies that were not brought about by Arabs."
He turned suddenly and looked right into her eyes.
"But why am I saying all this?" he suddenly exclaimed. "What is written is written, and such women as you are guarded."
"Guarded? By whom?"
"By their own souls."
"I am not afraid," she said quietly.
"Need you tell me that? Miss Enfilden, I scarcely know why I have said even as little as I have said. For I am, as you know, a fatalist. But certain people, very few, so awaken our regard that they make us forget our own convictions, and might even lead us to try to tamper with the designs of the Almighty. Whatever is to be for you, you will be able to endure. That I know. Why should I, or anyone, seek to know more for you? But still there are moments in which the bravest want a human hand to help them, a human voice to comfort them. In the desert, wherever I may be—and I shall tell you—I am at your service."
"Thank you," she said simply.
She gave him her hand. He held it almost as a father or a guardian might have held it.
"And this garden is yours day and night—Smain knows."
"Thank you," she said again.
The shrill whinnying of a horse came to them from a distance. Their hands fell apart. Count Anteoni looked round him slowly at the great cocoanut tree, at the shaggy grass of the lawn, at the tall bamboos and the drooping mulberry trees. She saw that he was taking a silent farewell of them.
"This was a waste," he said at last with a half-stifled sigh. "I turned it into a little Eden and now I am leaving it."
"For a time."
"And if it were for ever? Well, the great thing is to let the waste within one be turned into an Eden, if that is possible. And yet how many human beings strive against the great Gardener. At any rate I will not be one of them."
"And I will not be one."
"Shall we say good-bye here?"
"No. Let us say it from the wall, and let me see you ride away into the desert."
She had forgotten for the moment that his route was the road through the oasis. He did not remind her of it. It was easy to ride across the desert and join the route where it came out from the last palms.
"So be it. Will you go to the wall then?"
He touched her hand again and walked away towards the villa, slowly on the pale silver of the sand. When his figure was hidden by the trunks of the trees Domini made her way to the wide parapet. She sat down on one of the tiny seats cut in it, leaned her cheek in her hand and waited. The sun was gathering strength, but the air was still deliciously cool, almost cold, and the desert had not yet put on its aspect of fiery desolation. It looked dreamlike and romantic, not only in its distances, but near at hand. There must surely be dew, she fancied, in the Garden of Allah. She could see no one travelling in it, only some far away camels grazing. In the dawn the desert was the home of the breeze, of gentle sunbeams and of liberty. Presently she heard the noise of horses cantering near at hand, and Count Anteoni, followed by two Arab attendants, came round the bend of the wall and drew up beneath her. He rode on a high red Arab saddle, and a richly- ornamented gun was slung in an embroidered case behind him on the right-hand side. A broad and soft brown hat kept the sun from his forehead. The two attendants rode on a few paces and waited in the shadow of the wall.
"Don't you wish you were going out?" he said. "Out into that?" And he pointed with his whip towards the dreamlike blue of the far horizon. She leaned over, looking down at him and at his horse, which fidgeted and arched his white neck and dropped foam from his black flexible lips.
"No," she answered after a moment of thought. "I must speak the truth, you know."
"To me, always."
"I feel that you were right, that my summons has not yet come to me."
"And when it comes?"
"I shall obey it without fear, even if I go in the storm and the darkness."
He glanced at the radiant sky, at the golden beams slanting down upon the palms.
"The Coran says: 'The fate of every man have We bound about his neck.' May yours be as serene, as beautiful, as a string of pearls."
"But I have never cared to wear pearls," she answered.
"No? What are your stones?"
"Blood! No others?"
"The sky at night."
"Fires gleaming across the white of moonlit dunes. Do you remember?"
"And you do not ask me for the end of the Diviner's vision even now?"
She hesitated for an instant. Then she added:
"I will tell you why. It seemed to me that there was another's fate in it as well as my own, and that to hear would be to intrude, perhaps, upon another's secrets."
"That was your reason?"
"My only reason." And then she added, repeating consciously Androvsky's words: "I think there are things that should be let alone."
"Perhaps you are right."
A stronger breath of the cool wind came over the flats, and all the palm trees rustled. Through the garden there was a delicate stir of life.
"My children are murmuring farewell," said the Count. "I hear them. It is time! Good-bye, Miss Enfilden—my friend, if I may call you so. May Allah have you in his keeping, and when your summons comes, obey it— alone."
As he said the last word his grating voice dropped to a deep note of earnest, almost solemn, gravity. Then he lifted his hat, touched his horse with his heel, and galloped away into the sun.
Domini watched the three riders till they were only specks on the surface of the desert. Then they became one with it, and were lost in the dreamlike radiance of the morning. But she did not move. She sat with her eyes fixed up on the blue horizon. A great loneliness had entered into her spirit. Till Count Anteoni had gone she did not realise how much she had become accustomed to his friendship, how near their sympathies had been. But directly those tiny, moving specks became one with the desert she knew that a gap had opened in her life. It might be small, but it seemed dark and deep. For the first time the desert, which she had hitherto regarded as a giver, had taken something from her. And now, as she sat looking at it, while the sun grew stronger and the light more brilliant, while the mountains gradually assumed a harsher aspect, and the details of things, in the dawn so delicately clear, became, as it were, more piercing in their sharpness, she realised a new and terrible aspect of it. That which has the power to bestow has another power. She had seen the great procession of those who had received gifts of the desert's hands. Would she some day, or in the night when the sky was like a sapphire, see the procession of those from whom the desert had taken away perhaps their dreams, perhaps their hopes, perhaps even all that they passionately loved and had desperately clung to?
And in which of the two processions would she walk?
She got up with a sigh. The garden had become tragic to her for the moment, full of a brooding melancholy. As she turned to leave it she resolved to go to the priest. She had never yet entered his house. Just then she wanted to speak to someone with whom she could be as a little child, to whom she could liberate some part of her spirit simply, certain of a simple, yet not foolish, reception of it by one to whom she could look up. She desired to be not with the friend so much as with the spiritual director. Something was alive within her, something of distress, almost of apprehension, which needed the soothing hand, not of human love, but of religion.
When she reached the priest's house Beni-Mora was astir with a pleasant bustle of life. The military note pealed through its symphony. Spahis were galloping along the white roads. Tirailleurs went by bearing despatches. Zouaves stood under the palms, staring calmly at the morning, their sunburned hands loosely clasped upon muskets whose butts rested in the sand. But Domini scarcely noticed the brilliant gaiety of the life about her. She was preoccupied, even sad. Yet, as she entered the little garden of the priest, and tapped gently at his door, a sensation of hope sprang up in her heart, born of the sustaining power of her religion.
An Arab boy answered her knock, said that the Father was in and led her at once to a small, plainly-furnished room, with whitewashed walls, and a window opening on to an enclosure at the back, where several large palm trees reared their tufted heads above the smoothly- raked sand. In a moment the priest came in, smiling with pleasure and holding out his hands in welcome.
"Father," she said at once, "I am come to have a little talk with you. Have you a few moments to give me?"
"Sit down, my child," he said.
He drew forward a straw chair for her and took one opposite.
"You are not in trouble?"
"I don't know why I should be, but——"
She was silent for a moment. Then she said:
"I want to tell you a little about my life."
He looked at her kindly without a word.
His eyes were an invitation for her to speak, and, without further invitation, in as few and simple words as possible, she told him why she had come to Beni-Mora, and something of her parents' tragedy and its effect upon her.
"I wanted to renew my heart, to find myself," she said. "My life has been cold, careless. I never lost my faith, but I almost forgot that I had it. I made little use of it. I let it rust."
"Many do that, but a time comes when they feel that the great weapon with which alone we can fight the sorrows and dangers of the world must be kept bright, or it may fail us in the hour of need."
"And this is an hour of need for you. But, indeed, is there ever an hour that is not?"
"I feel to-day, I——"
She stopped, suddenly conscious of the vagueness of her apprehension. It made her position difficult, speech hard for her. She felt that she wanted something, yet scarcely knew what, or exactly why she had come.
"I have been saying good-bye to Count Anteoni," she resumed. "He has gone on a desert journey."
"I don't know, but I feel that it will be."
"He comes and goes very suddenly. Often he is here and I do not even know it."
"He is a strange man, but I think he is a good man."
As she spoke about him she began to realise that something in him had roused the desire in her to come to the priest.
"And he sees far," she added.
She looked steadily at the priest, who was waiting quietly to hear more. She was glad he did not trouble her mind just then by trying to help her to go on, to be explicit.
"I came here to find peace," she continued. "And I thought I had found it. I thought so till to-day."
"We only find peace in one place, and only there by our own will according with God's."
"You mean within ourselves."
"Is it not so?"
"Yes. Then I was foolish to travel in search of it."
"I would not say that. Place assists the heart, I think, and the way of life. I thought so once."
"When you wished to be a monk?"
A deep sadness came into his eyes.
"Yes," he said. "And even now I find it very difficult to say, 'It was not thy will, and so it is not mine.' But would you care to tell me if anything has occurred recently to trouble you?"
"Something has occurred, Father."
More excitement came into her face and manner.
"Do you think," she went on, "that it is right to try to avoid what life seems to be bringing to one, to seek shelter from—from the storm? Don't monks do that? Please forgive me if—"
"Sincerity will not hurt me," he interrupted quietly. "If it did I should indeed be unworthy of my calling. Perhaps it is not right for all. Perhaps that is why I am here instead of—"
"Ah, but I remember, you wanted to be one of the freres armes."
"That was my first hope. But you"—very simply he turned from his troubles to hers—"you are hesitating, are you not, between two courses?"
"I scarcely know. But I want you to tell me. Ought we not always to think of others more than of ourselves?"
"So long as we take care not to put ourselves in too great danger. The soul should be brave, but not foolhardy."
His voice had changed, had become stronger, even a little stern.
"There are risks that no good Christian ought to run: it is not cowardice, it is wisdom that avoids the Evil One. I have known people who seemed almost to think it was their mission to convert the fallen angels. They confused their powers with the powers that belong to God only."
"Yes, but—it is so difficult to—if a human being were possessed by the devil, would not you try—would you not go near to that person?"
"If I had prayed, and been told that any power was given me to do what Christ did."
"To cast out—yes, I know. But sometimes that power is given—even to women."
"Perhaps especially to them. I think the devil has more fear of a good mother than of many saints."
Domini realised almost with agony in that moment how her own soul had been stripped of a precious armour. A feeling of bitter helplessness took possession of her, and of contempt for what she now suddenly looked upon as foolish pride. The priest saw that his words had hurt her, yet he did not just then try to pour balm upon the wound.
"You came to me to-day as to a spiritual director, did you not?" he asked.
"Yet you do not wish to be frank with me. Isn't that true?"
There was a piercing look in the eyes he fixed upon her.
"Yes," she answered bravely.
"Why? Cannot you—at least will not you tell me?"
A similar reason to that which had caused her to refuse to hear what the Diviner had seen in the sand caused her now to answer:
"There is something I cannot say. I am sure I am right not to say it."
"Do you wish me to speak frankly to you, my child?"
"Yes, you may."
"You have told me enough of your past life to make me feel sure that for some time to come you ought to be very careful in regard to your faith. By the mercy of God you have been preserved from the greatest of all dangers—the danger of losing your belief in the teachings of the only true Church. You have come here to renew your faith which, not killed, has been stricken, reduced, may I not say? to a sort of invalidism. Are you sure you are in a condition yet to help"—he hesitated obviously, then slowly—"others? There are periods in which one cannot do what one may be able to do in the far future. The convalescent who is just tottering in the new attempt to walk is not wise enough to lend an arm to another. To do so may seem nobly unselfish, but is it not folly? And then, my child, we ought to be scrupulously aware what is our real motive for wishing to assist another. Is it of God, or is it of ourselves? Is it a personal desire to increase a perhaps unworthy, a worldly happiness? Egoism is a parent of many children, and often they do not recognise their father."
Just for a moment Domini felt a heat of anger rise within her. She did not express it, and did not know that she had shown a sign of it till she heard Father Roubier say:
"If you knew how often I have found that what for a moment I believed to be my noblest aspirations had sprung from a tiny, hidden seed of egoism!"
At once her anger died away.
"That is terribly true," she said. "Of us all, I mean."
She got up.
"You are going?"
"Yes. I want to think something out. You have made me want to. I must do it. Perhaps I'll come again."
"Do. I want to help you if I can."
There was such a heartfelt sound in his voice that impulsively she held out her hand.
"I know you do. Perhaps you will be able to."
But even as she said the last words doubt crept into her mind, even into her voice.
The priest came to his gate to see Domini off, and directly she had left him she noticed that Androvsky was under the arcade and had been a witness of their parting. As she went past him and into the hotel she saw that he looked greatly disturbed and excited. His face was lit up by the now fiery glare of the sun, and when, in passing, she nodded to him, and he took off his hat, he cast at her a glance that was like an accusation. As soon as she gained the verandah she heard his heavy step upon the stair. For a moment she hesitated. Should she go into her room and so avoid him, or remain and let him speak to her? She knew that he was following her with that purpose. Her mind was almost instantly made up. She crossed the verandah and sat down in the low chair that was always placed outside her French window. Androvsky followed her and stood beside her. He did not say anything for a moment, nor did she. Then he spoke with a sort of passionate attempt to sound careless and indifferent.
"Monsieur Anteoni has gone, I suppose, Madame?"
"Yes, he has gone. I reached the garden safely, you see."
"Batouch came later. He was much ashamed when he found you had gone. I believe he is afraid, and is hiding himself till your anger shall have passed away."
"Batouch could not easily make me angry. I am not like you, Monsieur Androvsky."
Her sudden challenge startled him, as she had meant it should. He moved quickly, as at an unexpected touch.
"Yes; I think you are very often angry. I think you are angry now."
His face was flooded with red.
"Why should I be angry?" he stammered, like a man completely taken aback.
"How can I tell? But, as I came in just now, you looked at me as if you wanted to punish me."
"I—I am afraid—it seems that my face says a great deal that—that—"
"Your lips would not choose to say. Well, it does. Why are you angry with me?" She gazed at him mercilessly, studying the trouble of his face. The combative part of her nature had been roused by the glance he had cast at her. What right had he, had any man, to look at her like that?
Her blunt directness lashed him back into the firmness he had lost. She felt in a moment that there was a fighting capacity in him equal, perhaps superior, to her own.
"When I saw you come from the priest's house, Madame, I felt as if you had been there speaking about me—about my conduct of yesterday."
"Indeed! Why should I do that?"
"I thought as you had kindly wished me to come—"
"Well?" she said, in rather a hard voice.
"Madame, I don't know what I thought, what I think—only I cannot bear that you should apologise for any conduct of mine. Indeed, I cannot bear it."
He looked fearfully excited and moved two or three steps away, then returned.
"Were you doing that?" he asked. "Were you, Madame?"
"I never mentioned your name to Father Roubier, nor did he to me," she answered.
For a moment he looked relieved, then a sudden suspicion seemed to strike him.
"But without mentioning my name?" he said.
"You wish to accuse me of quibbling, of insincerity, then!" she exclaimed with a heat almost equal to his own.
"No, Madame, no! Madame, I—I have suffered much. I am suspicious of everybody. Forgive me, forgive me!"
He spoke almost with distraction. In his manner there was something desperate.
"I am sure you have suffered," she said more gently, yet with a certain inflexibility at which she herself wondered, yet which she could not control. "You will always suffer if you cannot govern yourself. You will make people dislike you, be suspicious of you."
"Suspicious! Who is suspicious of me?" he asked sharply. "Who has any right to be suspicious of me?"
She looked up and fancied that, for an instant, she saw something as ugly as terror in his eyes.
"Surely you know that people don't ask permission to be suspicious of their fellow-men?" she said.
"No one here has any right to consider me or my actions," he said, fierceness blazing out of him. "I am a free man, and can do as I will. No one has any right—no one!"
Domini felt as if the words were meant for her, as if he had struck her. She was so angry that she did not trust herself to speak, and instinctively she put her hand up to her breast, as a woman might who had received a blow. She touched something small and hard that was hidden beneath her gown. It was the little wooden crucifix Androvsky had thrown into the stream at Sidi-Zerzour. As she realised that her anger died. She was humbled and ashamed. What was her religion if, at a word, she could be stirred to such a feeling of passion?
"I, at least, am not suspicious of you," she said, choosing the very words that were most difficult for her to say just then. "And Father Roubier—if you included him—is too fine-hearted to cherish unworthy suspicions of anyone."
She got up. Her voice was full of a subdued, but strong, emotion.
"Oh, Monsieur Androvsky!" she said. "Do go over and see him. Make friends with him. Never mind yesterday. I want you to be friends with him, with everyone here. Let us make Beni-Mora a place of peace and good will."
Then she went across the verandah quickly to her room, and passed in, closing the window behind her.
Dejeuner was brought into her sitting-room. She ate it in solitude, and late in the afternoon she went out on the verandah. She had made up her mind to spend an hour in the church. She had told Father Roubier that she wanted to think something out. Since she had left him the burden upon her mind had become heavier, and she longed to be alone in the twilight near the altar. Perhaps she might be able to cast down the burden there. In the verandah she stood for a moment and thought how wonderful was the difference between dawn and sunset in this land. The gardens, that had looked like a place of departed and unhappy spirits when she rose that day, were now bathed in the luminous rays of the declining sun, were alive with the softly-calling voices of children, quivered with romance, with a dreamlike, golden charm. The stillness of the evening was intense, enclosing the children's voices, which presently died away; but while she was marvelling at it she was disturbed by a sharp noise of knocking. She looked in the direction from which it came and saw Androvsky standing before the priest's door. As she looked, the door was opened by the Arab boy and Androvsky went in.
Then she did not think of the gardens any more. With a radiant expression in her eyes she went down and crossed over to the church. It was empty. She went softly to a prie-dieu near the altar, knelt down and covered her eyes with her hands.
At first she did not pray, or even think consciously, but just rested in the attitude which always seems to bring humanity nearest its God. And, almost immediately, she began to feel a quietude of spirit, as if something delicate descended upon her, and lay lightly about her, shrouding her from the troubles of the world. How sweet it was to have the faith that brings with it such tender protection, to have the trust that keeps alive through the swift passage of the years the spirit of the little child. How sweet it was to be able to rest. There was at this moment a sensation of deep joy within her. It grew in the silence of the church, and, as it grew, brought with it presently a growing consciousness of the lives beyond those walls, of other spirits capable of suffering, of conflict, and of peace, not far away; till she knew that this present blessing of happiness came to her, not only from the scarce-realised thought of God, but also from the scarce-realised thought of man.
Close by, divided from her only by a little masonry, a few feet of sand, a few palm trees, Androvsky was with the priest.
Still kneeling, with her face between her hands, Domini began to think and pray. The memory of her petition to Notre Dame de la Garde came back to her. Before she knew Africa she had prayed for men wandering, and perhaps unhappy, there, for men whom she would probably never see again, would never know. And now that she was growing familiar with this land, divined something of its wonders and its dangers, she prayed for a man in it whom she did not know, who was very near to her making a sacrifice of his prejudices, perhaps of his fears, at her desire. She prayed for Androvsky without words, making of her feelings of gratitude to him a prayer, and presently, in the darkness framed by her hands, she seemed to see Liberty once more, as in the shadows of the dancing-house, standing beside a man who prayed far out in the glory of the desert. The storm, spoken of by the Diviner, did not always rage. It was stilled to hear his prayer. And the darkness had fled, and the light drew near to listen. She pressed her face more strongly against her hands, and began to think more definitely.
Was this interview with the priest the first step taken by Androvsky towards the gift the desert held for him?
He must surely be a man who hated religion, or thought he hated it.
Perhaps he looked upon it as a chain, instead of as the hammer that strikes away the fetters from the slave.
Yet he had worn a crucifix.
She lifted her head, put her hand into her breast, and drew out the crucifix. What was its history? She wondered as she looked at it. Had someone who loved him given it to him, someone, perhaps, who grieved at his hatred of holiness, and who fancied that this very humble symbol might one day, as the humble symbols sometimes do, prove itself a little guide towards shining truth? Had a woman given it to him?
She laid the cross down on the edge of the prie-dieu.
There was red fire gleaming now on the windows of the church. She realised the pageant that was marching up the west, the passion of the world as well as the purity which lay beyond the world. Her mind was disturbed. She glanced from the red radiance on the glass to the dull brown wood of the cross. Blood and agony had made it the mystical symbol that it was—blood and agony.
She had something to think out. That burden was still upon her mind, and now again she felt its weight, a weight that her interview with the priest had not lifted. For she had not been able to be quite frank with the priest. Something had held her back from absolute sincerity, and so he had not spoken quite plainly all that was in his mind. His words had been a little vague, yet she had understood the meaning that lay behind them.
Really, he had warned her against Androvsky. There were two men of very different types. One was unworldly as a child. The other knew the world. Neither of them had any acquaintance with Androvsky's history, and both had warned her. It was instinct then that had spoken in them, telling them that he was a man to be shunned, perhaps feared. And her own instinct? What had it said? What did it say?
For a long time she remained in the church. But she could not think clearly, reason calmly, or even pray passionately. For a vagueness had come into her mind like the vagueness of twilight that filled the space beneath the starry roof, softening the crudeness of the ornaments, the garish colours of the plaster saints. It seemed to her that her thoughts and feelings lost their outlines, that she watched them fading like the shrouded forms of Arabs fading in the tunnels of Mimosa. But as they vanished surely they whispered, "That which is written is written."
The mosques of Islam echoed these words, and surely this little church that bravely stood among them.
"That which is written is written."
Domini rose from her knees, hid the wooden cross once more in her breast, and went out into the evening.
As she left the church door something occurred which struck the vagueness from her. She came upon Androvsky and the priest. They were standing together at the latter's gate, which he was in the act of opening to an accompaniment of joyous barking from Bous-Bous. Both men looked strongly expressive, as if both had been making an effort of some kind. She stopped in the twilight to speak to them.
"Monsieur Androvsky has kindly been paying me a visit," said Father Roubier.
"I am glad," Domini said. "We ought all to be friends here."
There was a perceptible pause. Then Androvsky lifted his hat.
"Good-evening, Madame," he said. "Good-evening, Father." And he walked away quickly.
The priest looked after him and sighed profoundly.
"Oh, Madame!" he exclaimed, as if impelled to liberate his mind to someone, "what is the matter with that man? What is the matter?"
He stared fixedly into the twilight after Androvsky's retreating form.
"With Monsieur Androvsky?"
She spoke quietly, but her mind was full of apprehension, and she looked searchingly at the priest.
"Yes. What can it be?"
"But—I don't understand."
"Why did he come to see me?"
"I asked him to come."
She blurted out the words without knowing why, only feeling that she must speak the truth.
"You asked him!"
"Yes. I wanted you to be friends—and I thought perhaps you might——"
"I wanted you to be friends." She repeated it almost stubbornly.
"I have never before felt so ill at ease with any human being," exclaimed the priest with tense excitement. "And yet I could not let him go. Whenever he was about to leave me I was impelled to press him to remain. We spoke of the most ordinary things, and all the time it was as if we were in a great tragedy. What is he? What can he be?" (He still looked down the road.)
"I don't know. I know nothing. He is a man travelling, as other men travel."
"What do you mean, Father?"
"I mean that other travellers are not like this man."
He leaned his thin hands heavily on the gate, and she saw, by the expression of his eyes, that he was going to say something startling.
"Madame," he said, lowering his voice, "I did not speak quite frankly to you this afternoon. You may, or you may not, have understood what I meant. But now I will speak plainly. As a priest I warn you, I warn you most solemnly, not to make friends with this man."
There was a silence, then Domini said:
"Please give me your reason for this warning."
"That I can't do."
"Because you have no reason, or because it is not one you care to tell me?"
"I have no reason to give. My reason is my instinct. I know nothing of this man—I pity him. I shall pray for him. He needs prayers, yes, he needs them. But you are a woman out here alone. You have spoken to me of yourself, and I feel it my duty to say that I advise you most earnestly to break off your acquaintance with Monsieur Androvsky."
"Do you mean that you think him evil?"
"I don't know whether he is evil, I don't know what he is."
"I know he is not evil."
The priest looked at her, wondering.
"My instinct," she said, coming a step nearer, and putting her hand, too, on the gate near his. "Why should we desert him?"
"Desert him, Madame!"
Father Roubier's voice sounded amazed.
"Yes. You say he needs prayers. I know it. Father, are not the first prayers, the truest, those that go most swiftly to Heaven—acts?"
The priest did not reply for a moment. He looked at her and seemed to be thinking deeply.
"Why did you send Monsieur Androvsky to me this afternoon?" he said at last abruptly.
"I knew you were a good man, and I fancied if you became friends you might help him."
His face softened.
"A good man," he said. "Ah!" He shook his head sadly, with a sound that was like a little pathetic laugh. "I—a good man! And I allow an almost invincible personal feeling to conquer my inward sense of right! Madame, come into the garden for a moment."
He opened the gate, she passed in, and he led her round the house to the enclosure at the back, where they could talk in greater privacy. Then he continued:
"You are right, Madame. I am here to try to do God's work, and sometimes it is better to act for a human being, perhaps, even than to pray for him. I will tell you that I feel an almost invincible repugnance to Monsieur Androvsky, a repugnance that is almost stronger than my will to hold it in check." He shivered slightly. "But, with God's help, I'll conquer that. If he stays on here I'll try to be his friend. I'll do all I can. If he is unhappy, far away from good, perhaps—I say it humbly, Madame, I assure you—I might help him. But" —and here his face and manner changed, became firmer, more dominating —"you are not a priest, and—"
"No, only a woman," she said, interrupting him.
Something in her voice arrested him. There was a long silence in which they paced slowly up and down on the sand between the palm trees. The twilight was dying into night. Already the tomtoms were throbbing in the street of the dancers, and the shriek of the distant pipes was faintly heard. At last the priest spoke again.
"Madame," he said, "when you came to me this afternoon there was something that you could not tell me."
"Had it anything to do with Monsieur Androvsky?"
"I meant to ask you to advise me about myself."
"My advice to you was and is—be strong but not too foolhardy."
"Believe me I will try not to be foolhardy. But you said something else too, something about women. Don't you remember?"
She stopped, took his hands impulsively and pressed them.
"Father, I've scarcely ever been of any use all my life. I've scarcely ever tried to be. Nothing within me said, 'You could be,' and if it had I was so dulled by routine and sorrow that I don't think I should have heard it. But here it is different. I am not dulled. I can hear. And—suppose I can be of use for the first time! You wouldn't say to me, 'Don't try!' You couldn't say that?"
He stood holding her hands and looking into her face for a moment. Then he said, half-humorously, half-sadly:
"My child, perhaps you know your own strength best. Perhaps your safest spiritual director is your own heart. Who knows? But whether it be so or not you will not take advice from me."
She knew that was true now and, for a moment, felt almost ashamed.
"Forgive me," she said. "But—it is strange, and may seem to you ridiculous or even wrong—ever since I have been here I have felt as if everything that happened had been arranged beforehand, as if it had to happen. And I feel that, too, about the future."
"Count Anteoni's fatalism!" the priest said with a touch of impatient irritation. "I know. It is the guiding spirit of this land. And you too are going to be led by it. Take care! You have come to a land of fire, and I think you are made of fire."
For a moment she saw a fanatical expression in his eyes. She thought of it as the look of the monk crushed down within his soul. He opened his lips again, as if to pour forth upon her a torrent of burning words. But the look died away, and they parted quietly like two good friends. Yet, as she went to the hotel, she knew that Father Roubier could not give her the kind of help she wanted, and she even fancied that perhaps no priest could. Her heart was in a turmoil, and she seemed to be in the midst of a crowd.
Batouch was at the door, looking elaborately contrite and ready with his lie. He had been seized with fever in the night, in token whereof he held up hands which began to shake like wind-swept leaves. Only now had he been able to drag himself from his quilt and, still afflicted as he was, to creep to his honoured patron and crave her pardon. Domini gave it with an abstracted carelessness that evidently hurt his pride, and was passing into the hotel when he said:
"Irena is going to marry Hadj, Madame."
Since the fracas at the dancing-house both the dancer and her victim had been under lock and key.
"To marry her after she tried to kill him!" said Domini.
"Yes, Madame. He loves her as the palm tree loves the sun. He will take her to his room, and she will wear a veil, and work for him and never go out any more."
"What! She will live like the Arab women?"
"Of course, Madame. But there is a very nice terrace on the roof outside Hadj's room, and Hadj will permit her to take the air there, in the evening or when it is hot."
"She must love Hadj very much."
"She does, or why should she try to kill him?"
So that was an African love—a knife-thrust and a taking of the veil! The thought of it added a further complication to the disorder that was in her mind.
"I will see you after dinner, Batouch," she said.
She felt that she must do something, go somewhere that night. She could not remain quiet.
Batouch drew himself up and threw out his broad chest. His air gave place to importance, and, as he leaned against the white pillar of the arcade, folded his ample burnous round him, and glanced up at the sky he saw, in fancy, a five-franc piece glittering in the chariot of the moon.
The priest did not come to dinner that night, but Androvsky was already at his table when Domini came into the salle-a-manger. He got up from his seat and bowed formally, but did not speak. Remembering his outburst of the morning she realised the suspicion which her second interview with the priest had probably created in his mind, and now she was not free from a feeling of discomfort that almost resembled guilt. For now she had been led to discuss Androvsky with Father Roubier, and had it not been almost an apology when she said, "I know he is not evil"? Once or twice during dinner, when her eyes met Androvsky's for a moment, she imagined that he must know why she had been at the priest's house, that anger was steadily increasing in him.
He was a man who hated to be observed, to be criticised. His sensitiveness was altogether abnormal, and made her wonder afresh where his previous life had been passed. It must surely have been a very sheltered existence. Contact with the world blunts the fine edge of our feeling with regard to others' opinion of us. In the world men learn to be heedless of the everlasting buzz of comment that attends their goings out and their comings in. But Androvsky was like a youth, alive to the tiniest whisper, set on fire by a glance. To such a nature life in the world must be perpetual torture. She thought of him with a sorrow that—strangely in her—was not tinged with contempt. That which manifested by another man would certainly have moved her to impatience, if not to wrath, in this man woke other sensations— curiosity, pity, terror.
Yes—terror. To-night she knew that. The long day, begun in the semidarkness before the dawn and ending in the semidarkness of the twilight, had, with its events that would have seemed to another ordinary and trivial enough, carried her forward a stage on an emotional pilgrimage. The half-veiled warnings of Count Anteoni and of the priest, followed by the latter's almost passionately abrupt plain speaking, had not been without effect. To-night something of Europe and her life there, with its civilised experience and drastic training in the management of woman's relations with humanity in general, crept back under the palm trees and the brilliant stars of Africa; and despite the fatalism condemned by Father Roubier, she was more conscious than she had hitherto been of how others—the outside world —would be likely to regard her acquaintance with Androvsky. She stood, as it were, and looked on at the events in which she herself had been and was involved, and in that moment she was first aware of a thrill of something akin to terror, as if, perhaps, without knowing it, she had been moving amid a great darkness, as if perhaps a great darkness were approaching. Suddenly she saw Androvsky as some strange and ghastly figure of legend; as the wandering Jew met by a traveller at cross roads and distinguished for an instant in an oblique lightning flash; as Vanderdecken passing in the hurricane and throwing a blood-red illumination from the sails of his haunted ship; as the everlasting climber of the Brocken, as the shrouded Arab of the Eastern legend, who announced coming disaster to the wanderers in the desert by beating a death-roll on a drum among the dunes.
And with Count Anteoni and the priest she set another figure, that of the sand-diviner, whose tortured face had suggested a man looking on a fate that was terrible. Had not he, too, warned her? Had not the warning been threefold, been given to her by the world, the Church, and the under-world—the world beneath the veil?
She met Androvsky's eyes. He was getting up to leave the room. His movement caught her away from things visionary, but not from worldly things. She still looked on herself moving amid these events at which her world would laugh or wonder, and perhaps for the first time in her life she was uneasily self-conscious because of the self that watched herself, as if that self held something coldly satirical that mocked at her and marvelled.
"What shall I do to-night?"
Alone in the now empty salle-a-manger Domini asked herself the question. She was restless, terribly restless in mind, and wanted distraction. The idea of going to her room, of reading, even of sitting quietly in the verandah, was intolerable to her. She longed for action, swiftness, excitement, the help of outside things, of that exterior life which she had told Count Anteoni she had begun to see as a mirage. Had she been in a city she would have gone to a theatre to witness some tremendous drama, or to hear some passionate or terrible opera. Beni-Mora might have been a place of many and strange tragedies, would be no doubt again, but it offered at this moment little to satisfy her mood. The dances of the Cafes Maures, the songs of the smokers of the keef, the long histories of the story-tellers between the lighted candles—she wanted none of these, and, for a moment, she wished she were in London, Paris, any great capital that spent itself to suit the changing moods of men. With a sigh she got up and went out to the Arcade. Batouch joined her immediately.
"What can I do to-night, Batouch?" she said.
"There are the femmes mauresques," he began.
"Would Madame like to hear the story-teller?"
"No. I should not understand him."
"I can explain to Madame."
She stepped out into the road.
"There will be a moon to-night, won't there?" she said, looking up at the starry sky.
"Yes, Madame, later."
"What time will it rise?"
"Between nine and ten."
She stood in the road, thinking. It had occurred to her that she had never seen moonrise in the desert.
"And now it is"—she looked at her watch—"only eight."
"Does Madame wish to see the moon come up pouring upon the palms—"
"Don't talk so much, Batouch," she said brusquely.
To-night the easy and luscious imaginings of the poet worried her like the cry of a mosquito. His presence even disturbed her. Yet what could she do without him? After a pause she said:
"Can one go into the desert at night?"
"On foot, Madame? It would be dangerous. One cannot tell what may be in the desert by night."
These words made her long to go. They had a charm, a violence perhaps, of the unknown.
"One might ride," she said. "Why not? Who could hurt us if we were mounted and armed?"
"Madame is brave as the panther in the forests of the Djurdjurah."
"And you, Batouch? Aren't you brave?"
"Madame, I am afraid of nothing." He did not say it boastfully, like Hadj, but calmly, almost loftily.
"Well, we are neither of us afraid. Let us ride out on the Tombouctou road and see the moon rise. I'll go and put on my habit."
"Madame should take her revolver."
"Of course. Bring the horses round at nine."
When she had put on her habit it was only a few minutes after eight. She longed to be in the saddle, going at full speed up the long, white road between the palms. Physical movement was necessary to her, and she began to pace up and down the verandah quickly. She wished she had ordered the horses at once, or that she could do something definite to fill up the time till they came. As she turned at the end of the verandah she saw a white form approaching her; when it drew near she recognised Hadj, looking self-conscious and mischievous, but a little triumphant too. At this moment she was glad to see him. He received her congratulations on his recovery and approaching marriage with a sort of skittish gaiety, but she soon discovered that he had come with a money-making reason. Having seen his cousin safely off the premises, it had evidently occurred to him to turn an honest penny. And pennies were now specially needful to him in view of married life.
"Does Madame wish to see something strange and wonderful to-night?" he asked, after a moment, looking at her sideways out of the corners of his wicked eyes, which, as Domini could see, were swift to read character and mood.
"I am going out riding."
He looked astonished.
"In the night?"
"Yes. Batouch has gone to fetch the horses."
Hadj's face became a mask of sulkiness.
"If Madame goes out with Batouch she will be killed. There are robbers in the desert, and Batouch is afraid of—"
"Could we see the strange and wonderful thing in an hour?" she interrupted.
The gay and skittish expression returned instantly to his face.
"What is it?"
He shook his head and made an artful gesture with his hand in the air.
"Madame shall see."
His long eyes were full of mystery, and he moved towards the staircase.
Domini laughed and followed him. She felt as if she were playing a game, yet her curiosity was roused. They went softly down and slipped out of the hotel like children fearing to be caught.
"Batouch will be angry. There will be white foam on his lips," whispered Hadj, dropping his chin and chuckling low in his throat. "This way, Madame."
He led her quickly across the gardens to the Rue Berthe, and down a number of small streets, till they reached a white house before which, on a hump, three palm trees grew from one trunk. Beyond was waste ground, and further away a stretch of sand and low dunes lost in the darkness of the, as yet, moonless night. Domini looked at the house and at Hadj, and wondered if it would be foolish to enter.
"What is it?" she asked again.
But he only replied, "Madame will see!" and struck his flat hand upon the door. It was opened a little way, and a broad face covered with little humps and dents showed, the thick lips parted and muttering quickly. Then the face was withdrawn, the door opened wider, and Hadj beckoned to Domini to go in. After a moment's hesitation she did so, and found herself in a small interior court, with a tiled floor, pillars, and high up a gallery of carved wood, from which, doubtless, dwelling-rooms opened. In the court, upon cushions, were seated four vacant-looking men, with bare arms and legs and long matted hair, before a brazier, from which rose a sharply pungent perfume. Two of these men were very young, with pale, ascetic faces and weary eyes. They looked like young priests of the Sahara. At a short distance, upon a red pillow, sat a tiny boy of about three years old, dressed in yellow and green. When Domini and Hadj came into the court no one looked at them except the child, who stared with slowly-rolling, solemn eyes, slightly shifting on the pillow. Hadj beckoned to Domini to seat herself upon some rugs between the pillars, sat down beside her and began to make a cigarette. Complete silence prevailed. The four men stared at the brazier, holding their nostrils over the incense fumes which rose from it in airy spirals. The child continued to stare at Domini. Hadj lit his cigarette. And time rolled on.
Domini had desired violence, and had been conveyed into a dumbness of mystery, that fell upon her turmoil of spirit like a blow. What struck her as especially strange and unnatural was the fact that the men with whom she was sitting in the dim court of this lonely house had not looked at her, did not appear to know that she was there. Hadj had caught the aroma of their meditations with the perfume of the incense, for his eyes had lost their mischief and become gloomily profound, as if they stared on bygone centuries or watched a far-off future. Even the child began to look elderly, and worn as with fastings and with watchings. As the fumes perpetually ascended from the red-hot coals of the brazier the sharp smell of the perfume grew stronger. There was in it something provocative and exciting that was like a sound, and Domini marvelled that the four men who crouched over it and drank it in perpetually could be unaffected by its influence when she, who was at some distance from it, felt dawning on her desires of movement, of action, almost a physical necessity to get up and do something extraordinary, absurd or passionate, such as she had never done or dreamed of till this moment.
A low growl like that of a wild beast broke the silence. Domini did not know at first whence it came. She stared at the four men, but they were all gazing vacantly into the brazier, their naked arms dropping to the floor. She glanced at Hadj. He was delicately taking a cigarette paper from a little case. The child—no, it was absurd even to think of a child emitting such a sound.
Someone growled again more fiercely, and this time Domini saw that it was the palest of the ascetic-looking youths. He shook back his long hair, rose to his feet with a bound, and moving into the centre of the court gazed ferociously at his companions. As if in obedience to the glance, two of them stretched their arms backwards, found two tomtoms, and began to beat them loudly and monotonously. The young ascetic bowed to the tomtoms, dropping his lower jaw and jumping on his bare feet. He bowed again as if saluting a fetish, and again and again. Ceaselessly he bowed to the tomtoms, always jumping softly from the pavement. His long hair fell over his face and back upon his shoulders with a monotonous regularity that imitated the tomtoms, as if he strove to mould his life in accord with the fetish to which he offered adoration. Flecks of foam appeared upon his lips, and the asceticism in his eyes changed to a bestial glare. His whole body was involved in a long and snake-like undulation, above which his hair flew to and fro. Presently the second youth, moving reverently like a priest about the altar, stole to a corner and returned with a large and curved sheet of glass. Without looking at Domini he came to her and placed it in her hands. When the dancer saw the glass he stood still, growled again long and furiously, threw himself on his knees before Domini, licked his lips, then, abruptly thrusting forward his face, set his teeth in the sheet of glass, bit a large piece off, crunched it up with a loud noise, swallowed it with a gulp, and growled for more. She fed him again, while the tomtoms went on roaring, and the child in its red pillow watched with its weary eyes. And when he was full fed, only a fragment of glass remained between her fingers, he fell upon the ground and lay like one in a trance.
Then the second youth bowed to the tomtoms, leaping gently on the pavement, foamed at the mouth, growled, snuffed up the incense fumes, shook his long mane, and placed his naked feet in the red-hot coals of the brazier. He plucked out a coal and rolled his tongue round it. He placed red coals under his bare armpits and kept them there, pressing his arms against his sides. He held a coal, like a monocle, in his eye socket against his eye. And all the time he leaped and bowed and foamed, undulating his body like a snake. The child looked on with a still gravity, and the tomtoms never ceased. From the gallery above painted faces peered down, but Domini did not see them. Her attention was taken captive by the young priests of the Sahara. For so she called them in her mind, realising that there were religious fanatics whose half-crazy devotion seemed to lift them above the ordinary dangers to the body. One of the musicians now took his turn, throwing his tomtom to the eater of glass, who had wakened from his trance. He bowed and leaped; thrust spikes behind his eyes, through his cheeks, his lips, his arms; drove a long nail into his head with a wooden hammer; stood upon the sharp edge of an upturned sword blade. With the spikes protruding from his face in all directions, and his eyes bulging out from them like balls, he spun in a maze of hair, barking like a dog. The child regarded him with a still attention, and the incense fumes were cloudy in the court. Then the last of the four men sprang up in the midst of a more passionate uproar from the tomtoms. He wore a filthy burnous, and, with a shriek, he plunged his hand into its hood and threw some squirming things upon the floor. They began to run, rearing stiff tails into the air. He sank down, blew upon them, caught them, letting them set their tail weapons in his fingers, and lifting them thus, imbedded, high above the floor. Then again he put them down, breathed upon each one, drew a circle round each with his forefinger. His face had suddenly become intense, hypnotic. The scorpions, as if mesmerised, remained utterly still, each in its place within its imaginary circle, that had become a cage; and their master bowed to the fetish of the tomtoms, leaped, grinned, and bowed again, undulating his body in a maze of hair.
Domini felt as if she, like the scorpions, had been mesmerised. She, too, was surely bound in a circle, breathed upon by some arrogant breath of fanaticism, commanded by some horrid power. She looked at the scorpions and felt a sort of pity for them. From time to time the bowing fanatic glanced at them through his hair out of the corners of his eyes, licked his lips, shook his shoulders, and uttered a long howl, thrilling with the note of greed. The tomtoms pulsed faster and faster, louder and louder, and all the men began to sing a fierce chant, the song surely of desert souls driven crazy by religion. One of the scorpions moved slightly, reared its tail, began to run. Instantly, as if at a signal, the dancer fell upon his knees, bent down his head, seized it in his teeth, munched it and swallowed it. At the same moment with the uproar of the tomtoms there mingled a loud knocking on the door.
Hadj's lips curled back from his pointed teeth and he looked dangerous.
"It is Batouch!" he snarled.
Domini got up. Without a word, turning her back upon the court, she made her way out, still hearing the howl of the scorpion-eater, the roar of the tomtoms, and the knocking on the door. Hadj followed her quickly, protesting. At the door was the man with the pitted white face and the thick lips. When he saw her he held out his hand. She gave him some money, he opened the door, and she came out into the night by the triple palm tree. Batouch stood there looking furious, with the bridles of two horses across his arm. He began to speak in Arabic to Hadj, but she stopped him with an imperious gesture, gave Hadj his fee, and in a moment was in the saddle and cantering away into the dark. She heard the gallop of Batouch's horse coming up behind her and turned her head.
"Batouch," she said, "you are the smartest"—she used the word chic —"Arab here. Do you know what is the fashion in London when a lady rides out with the attendant who guards her—the really smart thing to do?"
She was playing on his vanity. He responded with a ready smile.
"The attendant rides at a short distance behind her, so that no one can come up near her without his knowledge."
Batouch fell back, and Domini cantered on, congratulating herself on the success of her expedient.
She passed through the village, full of strolling white figures, lights and the sound of music, and was soon at the end of the long, straight road that was significant to her as no other road had ever been. Each time she saw it, stretching on till it was lost in the serried masses of the palms, her imagination was stirred by a longing to wander through barbaric lands, by a nomad feeling that was almost irresistible. This road was a track of fate to her. When she was on it she had a strange sensation as if she changed, developed, drew near to some ideal. It influenced her as one person may influence another. Now for the first time she was on it in the night, riding on the crowded shadows of its palms. She drew rein and went more slowly. She had a desire to be noiseless.
In the obscurity the thickets of the palms looked more exotic than in the light of day. There was no motion in them. Each tree stood like a delicately carven thing, silhouetted against the remote purple of the void. In the profound firmament the stars burned with a tremulous ardour they never show in northern skies. The mystery of this African night rose not from vaporous veils and the long movement of winds, but was breathed out by clearness, brightness, stillness. It was the deepest of all mystery—the mystery of vastness and of peace.
No one was on the road. The sound of the horse's feet were sharply distinct in the night. On all sides, but far off, the guard dogs were barking by the hidden homes of men. The air was warm as in a hothouse, but light and faintly impregnated with perfume shed surely by the mystical garments of night as she glided on with Domini towards the desert. From the blackness of the palms there came sometimes thin notes of the birds of night, the whizzing noise of insects, the glassy pipe of a frog in the reeds by a pool behind a hot brown wall.
She rode through one of the villages of old Beni-Mora, silent, unlighted, with empty streets and closed cafes maures, touched her horse with the whip, and cantered on at a quicker pace. As she drew near to the desert her desire to be in it increased. There was some coarse grass here. The palm trees grew less thickly. She heard more clearly the barking of the Kabyle dogs, and knew that tents were not far off. Now, between the trunks of the trees, she saw the twinkling of distant fires, and the sound of running water fell on her ears, mingling with the persistent noise of the insects, and the faint cries of the birds and frogs. In front, where the road came out from the shadows of the last trees, lay a vast dimness, not wholly unlike another starless sky, stretched beneath the starry sky in which the moon had not yet risen. She set her horse at a gallop and came into the desert, rushing through the dark.
Batouch's voice was calling her. She galloped faster, like one in flight. Her horse's feet padded over sand almost as softly as a camel's. The vast dimness was surely coming to meet her, to take her to itself in the night. But suddenly Batouch rode furiously up beside her, his burnous flying out behind him over his red saddle.
"Madame, we must not go further, we must keep near the oasis."
"It is not safe at night in the desert, and besides—"
His horse plunged and nearly rocketed against hers. She pulled in. His company took away her desire to keep on.
Leaning over his saddle peak he said, mysteriously:
"Besides, Madame, someone has been following us all the way from Beni- Mora."
"A horseman. I have heard the beat of the hoofs on the hard road. Once I stopped and turned, but I could see nothing, and then I could hear nothing. He, too, had stopped. But when I rode on again soon I heard him once more. Someone found out we were going and has come after us."
She looked back into the violet night without speaking. She heard no sound of a horse, saw nothing but the dim track and the faint, shadowy blackness where the palms began. Then she put her hand into the pocket of her saddle and silently held up a tiny revolver.
"I know, but there might be more than one. I am not afraid, but if anything happens to Madame no one will ever take me as a guide any more."
She smiled for a moment, but the smile died away, and again she looked into the night. She was not afraid physically, but she was conscious of a certain uneasiness. The day had been long and troubled, and had left its mark upon her. Restlessness had driven her forth into the darkness, and behind the restlessness there was a hint of the terror of which she had been aware when she was left alone in the salle-a- manger. Was it not that vague terror which, shaking the restlessness, had sent her to the white house by the triple palm tree, had brought her now to the desert? she asked herself, while she listened, and the hidden horseman of whom Batouch had spoken became in her imagination one with the legendary victims of fate; with the Jew by the cross roads, the mariner beating ever about the rock-bound shores of the world, the climber in the witches' Sabbath, the phantom Arab in the sand. Still holding her revolver, she turned her horse and rode slowly towards the distant fires, from which came the barking of the dogs. At some hundreds of yards from them she paused.
"I shall stay here," she said to Batouch. "Where does the moon rise?"
He stretched his arm towards the desert, which sloped gently, almost imperceptibly, towards the east.
"Ride back a little way towards the oasis. The horseman was behind us. If he is still following you will meet him. Don't go far. Do as I tell you, Batouch."
With obvious reluctance he obeyed her. She saw him pull up his horse at a distance where he had her just in sight. Then she turned so that she could not see him and looked towards the desert and the east. The revolver seemed unnaturally heavy in her hand. She glanced at it for a moment and listened with intensity for the beat of horse's hoofs, and her wakeful imagination created a sound that was non-existent in her ears. With it she heard a gallop that was spectral as the gallop of the black horses which carried Mephistopheles and Faust to the abyss. It died away almost at once, and she knew it for an imagination. To-night she was peopling the desert with phantoms. Even the fires of the nomads were as the fires that flicker in an abode of witches, the shadows that passed before them were as goblins that had come up out of the sand to hold revel in the moonlight. Were they, too, waiting for a signal from the sky?
At the thought of the moon she drew up the reins that had been lying loosely on her horse's neck and rode some paces forward and away from the fires, still holding the revolver in her hand. Of what use would it be against the spectres of the Sahara? The Jew would face it without fear. Why not the horseman of Batouch? She dropped it into the pocket of the saddle.
Far away in the east the darkness of the sky was slowly fading into a luminous mystery that rose from the underworld, a mystery that at first was faint and tremulous, pale with a pallor of silver and primrose, but that deepened slowly into a live and ardent gold against which a group of three palm trees detached themselves from the desert like messengers sent forth by it to give a salutation to the moon. They were jet black against the gold, distinct though very distant. The night, and the vast plain from which they rose, lent them a significance that was unearthly. Their long, thin stems and drooping, feathery leaves were living and pathetic as the night thoughts of a woman who has suffered, but who turns, with a gesture of longing that will not be denied, to the luminance that dwells at the heart of the world. And those black palms against the gold, that stillness of darkness and light in immensity, banished Domini's faint sense of horror. The spectres faded away. She fixed her eyes on the palms.
Now all the notes of the living things that do not sleep by night, but make music by reedy pools, in underwood, among the blades of grass and along the banks of streams, were audible to her again, filling her mind with the mystery of existence. The glassy note of the frogs was like a falling of something small and pointed upon a sheet of crystal. The whirs of the insects suggested a ceaselessly active mentality. The faint cries of the birds dropped down like jewels slipping from the trees. And suddenly she felt that she was as nothing in the vastness and the complication of the night. Even the passion that she knew lay, like a dark and silent flood, within her soul, a flood that, once released from its boundaries, had surely the power to rush irresistibly forward to submerge old landmarks and change the face of a world—even that seemed to lose its depth for a moment, to be shallow as the first ripple of a tide upon the sand. And she forgot that the first ripple has all the ocean behind it.
Red deepened and glowed in the gold behind the three palms, and the upper rim of the round moon, red too as blood, crept about the desert. Domini, leaning forward with one hand upon her horse's warm neck, watched until the full circle was poised for a moment on the horizon, holding the palms in its frame of fire. She had never seen a moon look so immense and so vivid as this moon that came up into the night like a portent, fierce yet serene, moon of a barbaric world, such as might have shone upon Herod when he heard the voice of the Baptist in his dungeon, or upon the wife of Pilate when in a dream she was troubled. It suggested to her the powerful watcher of tragic events fraught with long chains of consequence that would last on through centuries, as it turned its blood-red gaze upon the desert, upon the palms, upon her, and, leaning upon her horse's neck, she too—like Pilate's wife—fell into a sort of strange and troubled dream for a moment, full of strong, yet ghastly, light and of shapes that flitted across a background of fire.
In it she saw the priest with a fanatical look of warning in his eyes, Count Anteoni beneath the trees of his garden, the perfume-seller in his dark bazaar, Irena with her long throat exposed and her thin arms drooping, the sand-diviner spreading forth his hands, Androvsky galloping upon a horse as if pursued. This last vision returned again and again. As the moon rose a stream of light that seemed tragic fell across the desert and was woven mysteriously into the light of her waking dream. The three palms looked larger. She fancied that she saw them growing, becoming monstrous as they stood in the very centre of the path of the nocturnal glory, and suddenly she remembered her thought when she sat with Androvsky in the garden, that feeling grew in human hearts like palms rising in the desert. But these palms were tragic and aspired towards the blood-red moon. Suddenly she was seized with a fear of feeling, of the growth of an intense sensation within her, and realised, with an almost feverish vividness, the impotence of a soul caught in the grip of a great passion, swayed hither and thither, led into strange paths, along the edges, perhaps into depths of immeasurable abysses. She had said to Androvsky that she would rather be the centre of a world tragedy than die without having felt to the uttermost even if it were sorrow. Was that not the speech of a mad woman, or at least of a woman who was so ignorant of the life of feeling that her words were idle and ridiculous? Again she felt desperately that she did not know herself, and this lack of the most essential of all knowledge reduced her for a moment to a bitterness of despair that seemed worse than the bitterness of death. The vastness of the desert appalled her. The red moon held within its circle all the blood of the martyrs, of life, of ideals. She shivered in the saddle. Her nature seemed to shrink and quiver, and a cry for protection rose within her, the cry of the woman who cannot face life alone, who must find a protector, and who must cling to a strong arm, who needs man as the world needs God.
Then again it seemed to her that she saw Androvsky galloping upon a horse as if pursued.
Moved by a desire to do something to combat this strange despair, born of the moonrise and the night, she sat erect in her saddle, and resolutely looked at the desert, striving to get away from herself in a hard contemplation of the details that surrounded her, the outward things that were coming each moment into clearer view. She gazed steadily towards the palms that sharply cut the moonlight. As she did so something black moved away from them, as if it had been part of them and now detached itself with the intention of approaching her along the track. At first it was merely a moving blot, formless and small, but as it drew nearer she saw that it was a horseman riding slowly, perhaps stealthily, across the sand. She glanced behind her, and saw Batouch not far off, and the fires of the nomads. Then she turned again to watch the horseman. He came steadily forward.
It was the voice of Batouch.
"Stay where you are!" she called out to him.
She heard the soft sound of the horse's feet and could see the attitude of its rider. He was leaning forward as if searching the night. She rode to meet him, and they came to each other in the path of the light she had thought tragic.
"You followed me?"
"I cannot see you go out alone into the desert at night," Androvsky replied.
"But you have no right to follow me."
"I cannot let harm come to you, Madame."
She was silent. A moment before she had been longing for a protector. One had come to her, the man whom she had been setting with those legendary figures who have saddened and appalled the imagination of men. She looked at the dark figure of Androvsky leaning forward on the horse whose feet were set on the path of the moon, and she did not know whether she felt confidence in him or fear of him. All that the priest had said rose up in her mind, all that Count Anteoni had hinted and that had been visible in the face of the sand-diviner. This man had followed her into the night as a guardian. Did she need someone, something, to guard her from him? A faint horror was still upon her. Perhaps he knew it and resented it, for he drew himself upright on his horse and spoke again, with a decision that was rare in him.
"Let me send Batouch back to Beni-Mora, Madame."
"Why?" she asked, in a low voice that was full of hesitation.
"You do not need him now."
He was looking at her with a defiant, a challenging expression that was his answer to her expression of vague distrust and apprehension.
"How do you know that?"
He did not answer the question, but only said:
"It is better here without him. May I send him away, Madame?"
She bent her head. Androvsky rode off and she saw him speaking to Batouch, who shook his head as if in contradiction.
"Batouch!" she called out. "You can ride back to Beni-Mora. We shall follow directly."
The poet cantered forward.
"Madame, it is not safe."
The sound of his voice made Domini suddenly know what she had not been sure of before—that she wished to be alone with Androvsky.
"Go, Batouch!" she said. "I tell you to go."
Batouch turned his horse without a word, and disappeared into the darkness of the distant palms.
When they were alone together Domini and Androvsky sat silent on their horses for some minutes. Their faces were turned towards the desert, which was now luminous beneath the moon. Its loneliness was overpowering in the night, and made speech at first an impossibility, and even thought difficult. At last Androvsky said:
"Madame, why did you look at me like that just now, as if you—as if you hesitated to remain alone with me?"
Suddenly she resolved to tell him of her oppression of the night. She felt as if to do so would relieve her of something that was like a pain at her heart.
"Has it never occurred to you that we are strangers to each other?" she said. "That we know nothing of each other's lives? What do you know of me or I of you?"
He shifted in his saddle and moved the reins from one hand to the other, but said nothing.
"Would it seem strange to you if I did hesitate—if even now—"
"Yes," he interrupted violently, "it would seem strange to me."
"You would rely on an Arab and not rely upon me," he said with intense bitterness.
"I did not say so."
"Yet at first you wished to keep Batouch."
"Batouch is my attendant."
"And I? Perhaps I am nothing but a man whom you distrust; whom—whom others tell you to think ill of."
"I judge for myself."
"But if others speak ill of me?"
"It would not influence me——for long."
She added the last words after a pause. She wished to be strictly truthful, and to-night she was not sure that the words of the priest had made no impression upon her.
"For long!" he repeated. Then he said abruptly, "The priest hates me."
"And Count Anteoni?"
"You interested Count Anteoni greatly."
His voice sounded intensely suspicious in the night.
"Don't you wish to interest anyone? It seems to me that to be uninteresting is to live eternally alone in a sunless desert."
"I wish—I should like to think that I—" He stopped, then said, with a sort of ashamed determination: "Could I ever interest you, Madame?"
"Yes," she answered quietly.
"But you would rather be protected by an Arab than by me. The priest has—"
"To-night I do not seem to be myself," she said, interrupting him. "Perhaps there is some physical reason. I got up very early, and— don't you ever feel oppressed, suspicious, doubtful of life, people, yourself, everything, without apparent reason? Don't you know what it is to have nightmare without sleeping?"
"I! But you are different."
"To-night I have felt—I do feel as if there were tragedy near me, perhaps coming towards me," she said simply, "and I am oppressed, I am almost afraid."
When she had said it she felt happier, as if a burden she carried were suddenly lighter. As he did not speak she glanced at him. The moon rays lit up his face. It looked ghastly, drawn and old, so changed that she scarcely recognised it and felt, for a moment, as if she were with a stranger. She looked away quickly, wondering if what she had seen was merely some strange effect of the moon, or whether Androvsky was really altered for a moment by the action of some terrible grief, one of those sudden sorrows that rush upon a man from the hidden depths of his nature and tear his soul, till his whole being is lacerated and he feels as if his soul were flesh and were streaming with the blood from mortal wounds. The silence between them was long. In it she presently heard a reiterated noise that sounded like struggle and pain made audible. It was Androvsky's breathing. In the soft and exquisite air of the desert he was gasping like a man shut up in a cellar. She looked again towards him, startled. As she did so he turned his horse sideways and rode away a few paces. Then he pulled up his horse. He was now merely a black shape upon the moonlight, motionless and inaudible. She could not take her eyes from this shape. Its blackness suggested to her the blackness of a gulf. Her memory still heard that sound of deep-drawn breathing or gasping, heard it and quivered beneath it as a tender-hearted person quivers seeing a helpless creature being ill-used. She hesitated for a moment, and then, carried away by an irresistible impulse to try to soothe this extremity of pain which she was unable to understand, she rode up to Androvsky. When she reached him she did not know what she had meant to say or do. She felt suddenly impotent and intrusive, and even horribly shy. But before she had time for speech or action he turned to her and said, lifting up his hands with the reins in them and then dropping them down heavily upon his horse's neck:
"Madame, I wanted to tell you that to-morrow I——" He stopped.
"Yes?" she said.
He turned his head away from her till she could not see his face.
"To-morrow I am leaving Beni-Mora."
"To-morrow!" she said.
She did not feel the horse under her, the reins in her hand. She did not see the desert or the moon. Though she was looking at Androvsky she no longer perceived him. At the sound of his words it seemed to her as if all outside things she had ever known had foundered, like a ship whose bottom is ripped up by a razor-edged rock, as if with them had foundered, too, all things within herself: thoughts, feelings, even the bodily powers that were of the essence of her life; sense of taste, smell, hearing, sight, the capacity of movement and of deliberate repose. Nothing seemed to remain except the knowledge that she was still alive and had spoken.
"Yes, to-morrow I shall go away."
His face was still turned from her, and his voice sounded as if it spoke to someone at a distance, someone who could hear as man cannot hear.
"To-morrow," she repeated.
She knew she had spoken again, but it did not seem to her as if she had heard herself speak. She looked at her hands holding the reins, knew that she looked at them, yet felt as if she were not seeing them while she did so. The moonlit desert was surely flickering round her, and away to the horizon in waves that were caused by the disappearance of that ship which had suddenly foundered with all its countless lives. And she knew of the movement of these waves as the soul of one of the drowned, already released from the body, might know of the movement on the surface of the sea beneath which its body was hidden.
But the soul was evidently nothing without the body, or, at most, merely a continuance of power to know that all which had been was no more. All which had been was no more.
At last her mind began to work again, and those words went through it with persistence. She thought of the fascination of Africa, that enormous, overpowering fascination which had taken possession of her body and spirit. What had become of it? What had become of the romance of the palm gardens, of the brown villages, of the red mountains, of the white town with its lights, its white figures, its throbbing music? And the mystical attraction of the desert—where was it now? Its voice, that had called her persistently, was suddenly silent. Its hand, that had been laid upon her, was removed. She looked at it in the moonlight and it was no longer the desert, sand with a soul in it, blue distances full of a music of summons, spaces, peopled with spirits from the sun. It was only a barren waste of dried-up matter, arid, featureless, desolate, ghastly with the bones of things that had died.
She heard the dogs barking by the tents of the nomads and the noises of the insects, but still she did not feel the horse underneath her. Yet she was gradually recovering her powers, and their recovery brought with it sharp, physical pain, such as is felt by a person who has been nearly drowned and is restored from unconsciousness.
Androvsky turned round. She saw his eyes fastened upon her, and instantly pride awoke in her, and, with pride, her whole self.
She felt her horse under her, the reins in her hands, the stirrup at her foot. She moved in her saddle. The blood tingled in her veins fiercely, bitterly, as if it had become suddenly acrid. She felt as if her face were scarlet, as if her whole body flushed, and as if the flush could be seen by her companion. For a moment she was clothed from head to foot in a fiery garment of shame. But she faced Androvsky with calm eyes, and her lips smiled.
"You are tired of it?" she said.
"I never meant to stay long," he answered, looking down.
"There is not very much to do here. Shall we ride back to the village now?"
She turned her horse, and as she did so cast one more glance at the three palm trees that stood far out on the path of the moon. They looked like three malignant fates lifting up their hands in malediction. For a moment she shivered in the saddle. Then she touched her horse with the whip and turned her eyes away. Androvsky followed her and rode by her side in silence.
To gain the oasis they passed near to the tents of the nomads, whose fires were dying out. The guard dogs were barking furiously, and straining at the cords which fastened them to the tent pegs, by the short hedges of brushwood that sheltered the doors of filthy rags. The Arabs were all within, no doubt huddled up on the ground asleep. One tent was pitched alone, at a considerable distance from the others, and under the first palms of the oasis. A fire smouldered before it, casting a flickering gleam of light upon something dark which lay upon the ground between it and the tent. Tied to the tent was a large white dog, which was not barking, but which was howling as if in agony of fear. Before Domini and Androvsky drew near to this tent the howling of the dog reached them and startled them. There was in it a note that seemed humanly expressive, as if it were a person trying to scream out words but unable to from horror. Both of them instinctively pulled up their horses, listened, then rode forward. When they reached the tent they saw the dark thing lying by the fire.
"What is it?" Domini whispered.
"An Arab asleep, I suppose," Androvsky answered, staring at the motionless object.
"But the dog——" She looked at the white shape leaping frantically against the tent. "Are you sure?"
"It must be. Look, it is wrapped in rags and the head is covered."
"I don't know."
She stared at it. The howling of the dog grew louder, as if it were straining every nerve to tell them something dreadful.
"Do you mind getting off and seeing what it is? I'll hold the horse."
He swung himself out of the saddle. She caught his rein and watched him go forward to the thing that lay by the fire, bend down over it, touch it, recoil from it, then—as if with a determined effort—kneel down beside it on the ground and take the rags that covered it in his hands. After a moment of contemplation of what they had hidden he dropped the rags—or rather threw them from him with a violent gesture —got up and came back to Domini, and looked at her without speaking. She bent down.
"I'll tell you," she said. "I'll tell you what it is. It's a dead woman."
It seemed to her as if the dark thing lying by the fire was herself.
"Yes," he said. "It's a woman who has been strangled."
"Poor woman!" she said. "Poor—poor woman!"
And it seemed to her as if she said it of herself.
Lying in bed in the dark that night Domini heard the church clock chime the hours. She was not restless, though she was wakeful. Indeed, she felt like a woman to whom an injection of morphia had been administered, as if she never wished to move again. She lay there counting the minutes that made the passing hours, counting them calmly, with an inexorable and almost cold self-possession. The process presently became mechanical, and she was able, at the same time, to dwell upon the events that had followed upon the discovery of the murdered woman by the tent: Androvsky's pulling aside of the door of the tent to find it empty, their short ride to the encampment close by, their rousing up of the sleeping Arabs within, filthy nomads clothed in patched garments, unveiled women with wrinkled, staring faces and huge plaits of false hair and amulets. From the tents the strange figures had streamed forth into the light of the moon and the fading fires, gesticulating, talking loudly, furiously, in an uncouth language that was unintelligible to her. Led by Androvsky they had come to the corpse, while the air was rent by the frantic barking of all the guard dogs and the howling of the dog that had been a witness of the murder. Then in the night had risen the shrill wailing of the women, a wailing that seemed to pierce the stars and shudder out to the remotest confines of the desert, and in the cold white radiance of the moon a savage vision of grief had been presented to her eyes: naked arms gesticulating as if they strove to summon vengeance from heaven, claw-like hands casting earth upon the heads from which dangled Fatma hands, chains of tarnished silver and lumps of coral that reminded her of congealed blood, bodies that swayed and writhed as if stricken with convulsions or rent by seven devils. She remembered how strange had seemed to her the vast calm, the vast silence, that encompassed this noisy outburst of humanity, how inflexible had looked the enormous moon, how unsympathetic the brightly shining stars, how feverish and irritable the flickering illumination of the flames that spurted up and fainted away like things still living but in the agonies of death.
Then had followed her silent ride back to Beni-Mora with Androvsky along the straight road which had always fascinated her spirit of adventure. They had ridden slowly, without looking at each other, without exchanging a word. She had felt dry and weary, like an old woman who had passed through a long life of suffering and emerged into a region where any acute feeling is unable to exist, as at a certain altitude from the earth human life can no longer exist. The beat of the horses' hoofs upon the road had sounded hard, as her heart felt, cold as the temperature of her mind. Her body, which usually swayed to her horse's slightest movement, was rigid in the saddle. She recollected that once, when her horse stumbled, she had thrilled with an abrupt anger that was almost ferocious, and had lifted her whip to lash it. But the hand had slipped down nervelessly, and she had fallen again into her frigid reverie.
When they reached the hotel she had dropped to the ground, heavily, and heavily had ascended the steps of the verandah, followed by Androvsky. Without turning to him or bidding him good-night she had gone to her room. She had not acted with intentional rudeness or indifference—indeed, she had felt incapable of an intention. Simply, she had forgotten, for the first time perhaps in her life, an ordinary act of courtesy, as an old person sometimes forgets you are there and withdraws into himself. Androvsky had said nothing, had not tried to attract her attention to himself. She had heard his steps die away on the verandah. Then, mechanically, she had undressed and got into bed, where she was now mechanically counting the passing moments.
Presently she became aware of her own stillness and connected it with the stillness of the dead woman, by the tent. She lay, as it were, watching her own corpse as a Catholic keeps vigil beside a body that has not yet been put into the grave. But in this chamber of death there were no flowers, no lighted candles, no lips that moved in prayer. She had gone to bed without praying. She remembered that now, but with indifference. Dead people do not pray. The living pray for them. But even the watcher could not pray. Another hour struck in the belfry of the church. She listened to the chime and left off counting the moments, and this act of cessation made more perfect the peace of the dead woman.
When the sun rose her sensation of death passed away, leaving behind it, however, a lethargy of mind and body such as she had never known before the previous night. Suzanne, coming in to call her, exclaimed:
"Mam'selle is ill?"
"No. Why should I be ill?"
"Mam'selle looks so strange," the maid said, regarding her with round and curious eyes. "As if—"
"Give me my tea," Domini said.
When she was drinking it she asked:
"Do you know at what time the train leaves Beni-Mora—the passenger train?"
"Yes, Mam'selle. There is only one in the day. It goes soon after twelve. Monsieur Helmuth told me."
"What gown will—?"
"Any gown—the white linen one I had on yesterday."
"No, not that. Any other gown. Is it to be hot?"
"Very hot, Mam'selle. There is not a cloud in the sky."
"How strange!" Domini said, in a low voice that Suzanne did not hear. When she was up and dressed she said:
"I am going out to Count Anteoni's garden. I think I'll—yes, I'll take a book with me."
She went into her little salon and looked at the volumes scattered about there, some books of devotion, travel, books on sport, Rossetti's and Newman's poems, some French novels, and the novels of Jane Austen, of which, oddly, considering her nature, she was very fond. For the first time in her life they struck her as shrivelled, petty chronicles of shrivelled, bloodless, artificial lives. She turned back into her bedroom, took up the little white volume of the Imitation, which lay always near her bed, and went out into the verandah. She looked neither to right nor left, but at once descended the staircase and took her way along the arcade.
When she reached the gate of the garden she hesitated before knocking upon it. The sight of the villa, the arches, the white walls and clustering trees she knew so well hurt her so frightfully, so unexpectedly, that she felt frightened and sick, and as if she must go away quickly to some place which she had never seen, and which could call up no reminiscences in her mind.
Perhaps she would have gone into the oasis, or along the path that skirted the river bed, had not Smain softly opened the gate and come out to meet her, holding a great velvety rose in his slim hand.
He gave it to her without a word, smiling languidly with eyes in which the sun seemed caught and turned to glittering darkness, and as she took it and moved it in her fingers, looking at the wine-coloured petals on which lay tiny drops of water gleaming with thin and silvery lights, she remembered her first visit to the garden, and the mysterious enchantment that had floated out to her through the gate from the golden vistas and the dusky shadows of the trees, the feeling of romantic expectation that had stirred within her as she stepped on to the sand and saw before her the winding ways disappearing into dimness between the rills edged by the pink geraniums.
How long ago that seemed, like a remembrance of early childhood in the heart of one who is old.
Now that the gate was open she resolved to go into the garden. She might as well be there as elsewhere. She stepped in, holding the rose in her hand. One of the drops of water slipped from an outer petal and fell upon the sand. She thought of it as a tear. The rose was weeping, but her eyes were dry. She touched the rose with her lips.
To-day the garden was like a stranger to her, but a stranger with whom she had once—long, long ago—been intimate, whom she had trusted, and by whom she had been betrayed. She looked at it and knew that she had thought it beautiful and loved it. From its recesses had come to her troops of dreams. The leaves of its trees had touched her as with tender hands. The waters of its rills had whispered to her of the hidden things that lie in the breast of joy. The golden rays that played through its scented alleys had played, too, through the shadows of her heart, making a warmth and light there that seemed to come from heaven. She knew this as one knows of the apparent humanity that greeted one's own humanity in the friend who is a friend no longer, and she sickened at it as at the thought of remembered intimacy with one proved treacherous. There seemed to her nothing ridiculous in this personification of the garden, as there had formerly seemed to her nothing ridiculous in her thought of the desert as a being; but the fact that she did thus instinctively personify the nature that surrounded her gave to the garden in her eyes an aspect that was hostile and even threatening, as if she faced a love now changed to hate, a cold and inimical watchfulness that knew too much about her, to which she had once told all her happy secrets and murmured all her hopes. She did not hate the garden, but she felt as if she feared it. The movements of its leaves conveyed to her uneasiness. The hidden places, which once had been to her retreats peopled with tranquil blessings, were now become ambushes in which lay lurking enemies.
Yet she did not leave it, for to-day something seemed to tell her that it was meant that she should suffer, and she bowed in spirit to the decree.
She went on slowly till she reached the fumoir. She entered it and sat down.
She had not seen any of the gardeners or heard the note of a flute. The day was very still. She looked at the narrow doorway and remembered exactly the attitude in which Count Anteoni had stood during their first interview, holding a trailing branch of the bougainvillea in his hand. She saw him as a shadow that the desert had taken. Glancing down at the carpet sand she imagined the figure of the sand-diviner crouching there and recalled his prophecy, and directly she did this she knew that she had believed in it. She had believed that one day she would ride, out into the desert in a storm, and that with her, enclosed in the curtains of a palanquin, there would be a companion. The Diviner had not told her who would be this companion. Darkness was about him rendering him invisible to the eyes of the seer. But her heart had told her. She had seen the other figure in the palanquin. It was a man. It was Androvsky.
She had believed that she would go out into the desert with Androvsky, with this traveller of whose history, of whose soul, she knew nothing. Some inherent fatalism within her had told her so. And now——?
The darkness of the shade beneath the trees in this inmost recess of the garden fell upon her like the darkness of that storm in which the desert was blotted out, and it was fearful to her because she felt that she must travel in the storm alone. Till now she had been very much alone in life and had realised that such solitude was dreary, that in it development was difficult, and that it checked the steps of the pilgrim who should go upward to the heights of life. But never till now had she felt the fierce tragedy of solitude, the utter terror of it. As she sat in the fumoir, looking down on the smoothly-raked sand, she said to herself that till this moment she had never had any idea of the meaning of solitude. It was the desert within a human soul, but the desert without the sun. And she knew this because at last she loved. The dark and silent flood of passion that lay within her had been released from its boundaries, the old landmarks were swept away for ever, the face of the world was changed.
She loved Androvsky. Everything in her loved him; all that she had been, all that she was, all that she could ever be loved him; that which was physical in her, that which was spiritual, the brain, the heart, the soul, body and flame burning within it—all that made her the wonder that is woman, loved him. She was love for Androvsky. It seemed to her that she was nothing else, had never been anything else. The past years were nothing, the pain by which she was stricken when her mother fled, by which she was tormented when her father died blaspheming, were nothing. There was no room in her for anything but love of Androvsky. At this moment even her love of God seemed to have been expelled from her. Afterwards she remembered that. She did not think of it now. For her there was a universe with but one figure in it—Androvsky. She was unconscious of herself except as love for him. She was unconscious of any Creative Power to whom she owed the fact that he was there to be loved by her. She was passion, and he was that to which passion flowed.
The world was the stream and the sea.
As she sat there with her hands folded on her knees, her eyes bent down, and the purple flowers all about her, she felt simplified and cleansed, as if a mass of little things had been swept from her, leaving space for the great thing that henceforth must for ever dwell within her and dominate her life. The burning shame of which she had been conscious on the previous night, when Androvsky told her of his approaching departure and she was stricken as by a lightning flash, had died away from her utterly. She remembered it with wonder. How should she be ashamed of love? She thought that it would be impossible to her to be ashamed, even if Androvsky knew all that she knew. Just then the immense truth of her feeling conquered everything else, made every other thing seem false, and she said to herself that of truth she did not know how to be ashamed. But with the knowledge of the immense truth of her love came the knowledge of the immense sorrow that might, that must, dwell side by side with it.
Suddenly she moved. She lifted her eyes from the sand and looked out into the garden. Besides this truth within her there was one other thing in the world that was true. Androvsky was going away. While she sat there the moments were passing. They were making the hours that were bent upon destruction. She was sitting in the garden now and Androvsky was close by. A little time would pass noiselessly. She would be sitting there and Androvsky would be far away, gone from the desert, gone out of her life no doubt for ever. And the garden would not have changed. Each tree would stand in its place, each flower would still give forth its scent. The breeze would go on travelling through the lacework of the branches, the streams slipping between the sandy walls of the rills. The inexorable sun would shine, and the desert would whisper in its blue distances of the unseen things that always dwell beyond. And Androvsky would be gone. Their short intercourse, so full of pain, uneasiness, reserve, so fragmentary, so troubled by abrupt violences, by ignorance, by a sense of horror even on the one side, and by an almost constant suspicion on the other, would have come to an end.
She was stunned by the thought, and looked round her as if she expected inanimate Nature to take up arms for her against this fate. Yet she did not for a moment think of taking up arms herself. She had left the hotel without trying to see Androvsky. She did not intend to return to it till he was gone. The idea of seeking him never came into her mind. There is an intensity of feeling that generates action, but there is a greater intensity of feeling that renders action impossible, the feeling that seems to turn a human being into a shell of stone within which burn all the fires of creation. Domini knew that she would not move out of the fumoir till the train was creeping along the river-bed on its way from Beni-Mora.
She had laid down the Imitation upon the seat by her side, and now she took it up. The sight of its familiar pages made her think for the first time, "Do I love God any more?" And immediately afterwards came the thought: "Have I ever loved him?" The knowledge of her love for Androvsky, for this body that she had seen, for this soul that she had seen through the body like a flame through glass, made her believe just then that if she had ever thought—and certainly she had thought —that she loved a being whom she had never seen, never even imaginatively projected, she had deceived herself. The act of faith was not impossible, but the act of love for the object on which that faith was concentrated now seemed to her impossible. For her body, that remained passive, was full of a riot, a fury of life. The flesh that had slept was awakened and knew itself. And she could no longer feel that she could love that which her flesh could not touch, that which could not touch her flesh. And she said to herself, without terror, even without regret, "I do not love, I never have loved, God."
She looked into the book:
"Unspeakable, indeed, is the sweetness of thy contemplation, which thou bestowest on them that love thee."
The sweetness of thy contemplation! She remembered Androvsky's face looking at her out of the heart of the sun as they met for the first time in the blue country. In that moment she put him consciously in the place of God, and there was nothing within her to say, "You are committing mortal sin."
She looked into the book once more and her eyes fell upon the words which she had read on her first morning in Beni-Mora:
"Love watcheth, and sleeping, slumbereth not. When weary it is not tired; when straitened it is not constrained; when frightened it is not disturbed; but like a vivid flame and a burning torch it mounteth upwards and securely passeth through all. Whosoever loveth knoweth the cry of this voice."
She had always loved these words and thought them the most beautiful in the book, but now they came to her with the newness of the first spring morning that ever dawned upon the world. The depth of them was laid bare to her, and, with that depth, the depth of her own heart. The paralysis of anguish passed from her. She no longer looked to Nature as one dumbly seeking help. For they led her to herself, and made her look into herself and her own love and know it. "When frightened it is not disturbed—it securely passeth through all." That was absolutely true—true as her love. She looked down into her love, and she saw there the face of God, but thought she saw the face of human love only. And it was so beautiful and so strong that even the tears upon it gave her courage, and she said to herself: "Nothing matters, nothing can matter so long as I have this love within me. He is going away, but I am not sad, for I am going with him—my love, all that I am—that is going with him, will always be with him."
Just then it seemed to her that if she had seen Androvsky lying dead before her on the sand she could not have felt unhappy. Nothing could do harm to a great love. It was the one permanent, eternally vital thing, clad in an armour of fire that no weapon could pierce, free of all terror from outside things because it held its safety within its own heart, everlastingly enough, perfectly, flawlessly complete for and in itself. For that moment fear left her, restlessness left her. Anyone looking in upon her from the garden would have looked in upon a great, calm happiness.
Presently there came a step upon the sand of the garden walks. A man, going slowly, with a sort of passionate reluctance, as if something immensely strong was trying to hold him back, but was conquered with difficulty by something still stronger that drove him on, came out of the fierce sunshine into the shadow of the garden, and began to search its silent recesses. It was Androvsky. He looked bowed and old and guilty. The two lines near his mouth were deep. His lips were working. His thin cheeks had fallen in like the cheeks of a man devoured by a wasting illness, and the strong tinge of sunburn on them seemed to be but an imperfect mark to a pallor that, fully visible, would have been more terrible than that of a corpse. In his eyes there was a fixed expression of ferocious grief that seemed mingled with ferocious anger, as if he were suffering from some dreadful misery, and cursed himself because he suffered, as a man may curse himself for doing a thing that he chooses to do but need not do. Such an expression may sometimes be seen in the eyes of those who are resisting a great temptation.
He began to search the garden, furtively but minutely. Sometimes he hesitated. Sometimes he stood still. Then he turned back and went a little way towards the wide sweep of sand that was bathed in sunlight where the villa stood. Then with more determination, and walking faster, he again made his way through the shadows that slept beneath the densely-growing trees. As he passed between them he several times stretched out trembling hands, broke off branches and threw them on the sand, treading on them heavily and crushing them down below the surface. Once he spoke to himself in a low voice that shook as if with difficulty dominating sobs that were rising in his throat.
"De profundis—" he said. "De profundis—de profundis—"
His voice died away. He took hold of one hand with the other and went on silently.
Presently he made his way at last towards the fumoir in which Domini was still sitting, with one hand resting on the open page whose words had lit up the darkness in her spirit. He came to it so softly that she did not hear his step. He saw her, stood quite still under the trees, and looked at her for a long time. As he did so his face changed till he seemed to become another man. The ferocity of grief and anger faded from his eyes, which were filled with an expression of profound wonder, then of flickering uncertainty, then of hard, manly resolution—a fighting expression that was full of sex and passion. The guilty, furtive look which had been stamped upon all his features, specially upon his lips, vanished. Suddenly he became younger in appearance. His figure straightened itself. His hands ceased from trembling. He moved away from the trees, and went to the doorway of the fumoir.
Domini looked up, saw him, and got up quietly, clasping her fingers round the little book.
Androvsky stood just beyond the doorway, took off his hat, kept it in his hand, and said:
"I came here to say good-bye."
He made a movement as if to come into the fumoir, but she stopped it by coming at once to the opening. She felt that she could not speak to him enclosed within walls, under a roof. He drew back, and she came out and stood beside him on the sand.
"Did you know I should come?" he said.
She noticed that he had ceased to call her "Madame," and also that there was in his voice a sound she had not heard in it before, a note of new self-possession that suggested a spirit concentrating itself and aware of its own strength to act.
"No," she answered.
"Were you coming back to the hotel this morning?" he asked.
He was silent for a moment. Then he said slowly:
"Then—then you did not wish—you did not mean to see me again before I went?"
"It was not that. I came to the garden—I had to come—I had to be alone."
"You want to be alone?" he said. "You want to be alone?"
Already the strength was dying out of his voice and face, and the old uneasiness was waking up in him. A dreadful expression of pain came into his eyes.
"Was that why you—you looked so happy?" he said in a harsh, trembling voice.
"I stood for a long while looking at you when you were in there"—he pointed to the fumoir—"and your face was happy—your face was happy."
"Yes, I know."
"You will be happy alone?—alone in the desert?"
When he said that she felt suddenly the agony of the waterless spaces, the agony of the unpeopled wastes. Her whole spirit shrank and quivered, all the great joy of her love died within her. A moment before she had stood upon the heights of her heart. Now she shrank into its deepest, blackest abysses. She looked at him and said nothing.
"You will not be happy alone."
His voice no longer trembled. He caught hold of her left hand, awkwardly, nervously, but held it strongly with his close to his side, and went on speaking.
"Nobody is happy alone. Nothing is—men and women—children—animals." A bird flew across the shadowy space under the trees, followed by another bird; he pointed to them; they disappeared. "The birds, too, they must have companionship. Everything wants a companion."
"But then—you will stay here alone in the desert?"
"What else can I do?" she said.
"And that journey," he went on, still holding her hand fast against his side, "Your journey into the desert—you will take it alone?"
"What else can I do?" she repeated in a lower voice.
It seemed to her that he was deliberately pressing her down into the uttermost darkness.
"You will not go."
"Yes, I shall go."
She spoke with conviction. Even in that moment—most of all in that moment—she knew that she would obey the summons of the desert.
"I—I shall never know the desert," he said. "I thought—it seemed to me that I, too, should go out into it. I have wanted to go. You have made me want to go."
"Yes. Once you said to me that peace must dwell out there. It was on the tower the—the first time you ever spoke to me."
"I wondered—I often wonder why you spoke to me."
She knew he was looking at her with intensity, but she kept her eyes on the sand. There was something in them that she felt he must not see, a light that had just come into them as she realised that already, on the tower before she even knew him, she had loved him. It was that love, already born in her heart but as yet unconscious of its own existence, which had so strangely increased for her the magic of the African evening when she watched it with him. But before—suddenly she knew that she had loved Androvsky from the beginning, from the moment when his face looked at her as if out of the heart of the sun. That was why her entry into the desert had been full of such extraordinary significance. This man and the desert were, had always been, as one in her mind. Never had she thought of the one without the other. Never had she been mysteriously called by the desert without hearing as a far-off echo the voice of Androvsky, or been drawn onward by the mystical summons of the blue distances without being drawn onward, too, by the mystical summons of the heart to which her own responded. The link between the man and the desert was indissoluble. She could not conceive of its being severed, and as she realised this, she realised also something that turned her whole nature into flame.
She could not conceive of Androvsky's not loving her, of his not having loved her from the moment when he saw her in the sun. To him, too, the desert had made a revelation—the revelation of her face, and of the soul behind it looking through it. In the flames of the sun, as they went into the desert, the flames of their two spirits had been blended. She knew that certainly and for ever. Then how could it be possible that Androvsky should not go out with her into the desert?
"Why did you speak to me?" he said.
"We came into the desert together," she answered simply. "We had to know each other."
"And now—now—we have to say——"
His voice ceased. Far away there was the thin sound of a chime. Domini had never before heard the church bell in the garden, and now she felt as if she heard it, not with her ears, but with her spirit. As she heard she felt Androvsky's hand, which had been hot upon hers, turn cold. He let her hand go, and again she was stricken by the horrible sound she had heard the previous night in the desert, when he turned his horse and rode away with her. And now, as then, he turned away from her in silence, but she knew that this time he was leaving her, that this movement was his final good-bye. With his head bowed down he took a few steps. He was near to a turning of the path. She watched him, knowing that within less than a moment she would be watching only the trees and the sand. She gazed at the bent figure, calling up all her faculties, crying out to herself passionately, desperately, "Remember it—remember it as it is—there—before you—just as it is— for ever." As it reached the turning, in the distance of the garden rose the twitter of the flute of Larbi. Androvsky stopped, stood still with his back turned towards her. And Larbi, hidden and far off, showered out his little notes of African love, of love in the desert where the sun is everlasting, and the passion of man is hot as the sun, where Liberty reigns, lifting her cymbals that are as spheres of fire, and the footsteps of Freedom are heard upon the sand, treading towards the south.
Larbi played—played on and on, untiring as the love that blossomed with the world, but that will not die when the world dies.
Then Androvsky came back quickly till he reached the place where Domini was standing. He put his hands on her shoulders. Then he sank down on the sand, letting his hands slip down over her breast and along her whole body till they clasped themselves round her knees. He pressed his face into her dress against her knees.
"I love you," he said. "I love you but don't listen to me—you mustn't hear it—you mustn't. But I must say it. I can't—I can't go till I say it. I love you—I love you."
She heard him sobbing against her knees, and the sound was as the sound of strength made audible. She put her hands against his temples.
"I am listening," she said. "I must hear it."
He looked up, rose to his feet, put his hands behind her shoulders, held her, and set his lips on hers, pressing his whole body against hers.
"Hear it!" he said, muttering against her lips. "Hear it. I love you— I love you."
The two birds they had seen flew back beneath the trees, turned in an airy circle, rose above the trees into the blue sky, and, side by side, winged their way out of the garden to the desert.
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