The Sunrise Silents Library
THE GARDEN OF ALLAH (BOOK IV)
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 IV)CHAPTER XVI
BOOK IV. THE JOURNEY
In the evening before the day of Domini's marriage with Androvsky there was a strange sunset, which attracted even the attention and roused the comment of the Arabs. The day had been calm and beautiful, one of the most lovely days of the North African spring, and Batouch, resting from the triumphant labour of superintending the final preparations for a long desert journey, augured a morning of Paradise for the departure along the straight road that led at last to Tombouctou. But as the radiant afternoon drew to its end there came into the blue sky a whiteness that suggested a heaven turning pale in the contemplation of some act that was piteous and terrible. And under this blanching heaven the desert, and all things and people of the oasis of Beni-Mora, assumed an aspect of apprehension, as if they felt themselves to be in the thrall of some power whose omnipotence they could not question and whose purpose they feared. This whiteness was shot, at the hour of sunset, with streaks of sulphur yellow and dappled with small, ribbed clouds tinged with yellow-green, a bitter and cruel shade of green that distressed the eyes as a merciless light distresses them, but these colours quickly faded, and again the whiteness prevailed for a brief space of time before the heavy falling of a darkness unpierced by stars. With this darkness came a faint moaning of hollow wind from the desert, a lamentable murmur that shuddered over the great spaces, crept among the palms and the flat- roofed houses, and died away at the foot of the brown mountains beyond the Hammam Salahine. The succeeding silence, short and intense, was like a sound of fear, like the cry of a voice lifted up in protest against the approach of an unknown, but dreaded, fate. Then the wind came again with a stronger moaning and a lengthened life, not yet forceful, not yet with all its powers, but more tenacious, more acquainted with itself and the deeds that it might do when the night was black among the vast sands which were its birth-place, among the crouching plains and the trembling palm groves that would be its battle-ground.
Batouch looked grave as he listened to the wind and the creaking of the palm stems one against another. Sand came upon his face. He pulled the hood of his burnous over his turban and across his cheeks, covered his mouth with a fold of his haik and stared into the blackness, like an animal in search of something his instinct has detected approaching from a distance.
Ali was beside him in the doorway of the Cafe Maure, a slim Arab boy, bronze-coloured and serious as an idol, who was a troubadour of the Sahara, singer of "Janat" and many lovesongs, player of the guitar backed with sand tortoise and faced with stretched goatskin. Behind them swung an oil lamp fastened to a beam of palm, and the red ashes glowed in the coffee niche and shed a ray upon the shelf of small white cups with faint designs of gold. In a corner, his black face and arms faintly relieved against the wall, an old negro crouched, gazing into vacancy with bulging eyes, and beating with a curved palm stem upon an oval drum, whose murmur was deep and hollow as the murmur of the wind, and seemed indeed its echo prisoned within the room and striving to escape.
"There is sand on my eyelids," said Batouch. "It is bad for to-morrow. When Allah sends the sands we should cover the face and play the ladies' game within the cafe, we should not travel on the road towards the south."
Ali said nothing, but drew up his haik over his mouth and nose, and looked into the night, folding his thin hands in his burnous.
"Achmed will sleep in the Bordj of Arba," continued Batouch in a low, murmuring voice, as if speaking to himself. "And the beasts will be in the court. Nothing can remain outside, for there will be a greater roaring of the wind at Arba. Can it be the will of Allah that we rest in the tents to-morrow?"
Ali made no answer. The wind had suddenly died down.
The sand grains came no more against their eyelids and the folds of their haiks. Behind them the negro's drum gave out monotonously its echo of the wind, filling the silence of the night.
"Whatever Allah sends," Batouch went on softly after a pause, "Madame will go. She is brave as the lion. There is no jackal in Madame. Irena is not more brave than she is. But Madame will never wear the veil for a man's sake. She will not wear the veil, but she could give a knife- thrust if he were to look at another woman as he has looked at her, as he will look at her to-morrow. She is proud as a Touareg and there is fierceness in her. But he will never look at another woman as he will look at her to-morrow. The Roumi is not as we are."
The wind came back to join its sound with the drum, imprisoning the two Arabs in a muttering circle.
"They will not care," said Batouch. "They will go out into the storm without fear."
The sand pattered more sharply on his eyelids. He drew back into the cafe. Ali followed him, and they squatted down side by side upon the ground and looked before them seriously. The noise of the wind increased till it nearly drowned the noise of the negro's drum. Presently the one-eyed owner of the cafe brought them two cups of coffee, setting the cups near their stockinged feet. They rolled two cigarettes and smoked in silence, sipping the coffee from time to time. Then Ali began to glance towards the negro. Half shutting his eyes, and assuming a languid expression that was almost sickly, he stretched his lips in a smile, gently moving his head from side to side. Batouch watched him. Presently he opened his lips and began to sing:
"The love of women is like a date that is golden in the sun,
That is golden—
The love of women is like a gazelle that comes to drink—
To drink at the water springs—
The love of women is like the nargileh, and like the dust of the keef
That is mingled with tobacco and with honey.
Put the reed between thy lips, O loving man!
And draw dreams from the haschish that is the love of women!
Janat! Janat! Janat!"
The wind grew louder and sand was blown along the cafe floor and about the coffee-cups.
"The love of women is like the rose of the Caid's garden
That is full of silver tears—
The love of women is like the first day of the spring
When the children play at Cora—
The love of women is like the Derbouka that has been warmed at the fire
And gives out a sweet sound.
Take it in thy hands, O loving man!
And sing to the Derbouka that is the love of women.
Janat! Janat! Janat!"
In the doorway, where the lamp swung from the beam, a man in European dress stood still to listen. The wind wailed behind him and stirred his clothes. His eyes shone in the faint light with a fierceness of emotion in which there was a joy that was almost terrible, but in which there seemed also to be something that was troubled. When the song died away, and only the voices of the wind and the drum spoke to the darkness, he disappeared into the night. The Arabs did not see him.
"Janat! Janat! Janat!"
The night drew on and the storm increased. All the doors of the houses were closely shut. Upon the roofs the guard dogs crouched, shivering and whining, against the earthen parapets. The camels groaned in the fondouks, and the tufted heads of the palms swayed like the waves of the sea. And the Sahara seemed to be lifting up its voice in a summons that was tremendous as a summons to Judgment.
Domini had always known that the desert would summon her. She heard its summons now in the night without fear. The roaring of the tempest was sweet in her ears as the sound of the Derbouka to the loving man of the sands. It accorded with the fire that lit up the cloud of passion in her heart. Its wildness marched in step with a marching wildness in her veins and pulses. For her gipsy blood was astir to-night, and the recklessness of the boy in her seemed to clamour with the storm. The sound of the wind was as the sound of the clashing cymbals of Liberty, calling her to the adventure that love would glorify, to the far-away life that love would make perfect, to the untrodden paths of the sun of which she had dreamed in the shadows, and on which she would set her feet at last with the comrade of her soul.
To-morrow her life would begin, her real life, the life of which men and women dream as the prisoner dreams of freedom. And she was glad, she thanked God, that her past years had been empty of joy, that in her youth she had been robbed of youth's pleasures. She thanked God that she had come to maturity without knowing love. It seemed to her that to love in early life was almost pitiful, was a catastrophe, an experience for which the soul was not ready, and so could not appreciate at its full and wonderful value. She thought of it as of a child being taken away from the world to Paradise without having known the pain of existence in the world, and at that moment she worshipped suffering. Every tear that she had ever shed she loved, every weary hour, every despondent thought, every cruel disappointment. She called around her the congregation of her past sorrows, and she blessed them and bade them depart from her for ever.
As she heard the roaring of the wind she smiled. The Sahara was fulfilling the words of the Diviner. To-morrow she and Androvsky would go out into the storm and the darkness together. The train of camels would be lost in the desolation of the desert. And the people of Beni- Mora would see it vanish, and, perhaps, would pity those who were hidden by the curtains of the palanquin. They would pity her as Suzanne pitied her, openly, with eyes that were tragic. She laughed aloud.
It was late in the night. Midnight had sounded yet she did not go to bed. She feared to sleep, to lose the consciousness of her joy of the glory which had come into her life. She was a miser of the golden hours of this black and howling night. To sleep would be to be robbed. A splendid avarice in her rebelled against the thought of sleep.
Was Androvsky sleeping? She wondered and longed to know.
To-night she was fully aware for the first time of the inherent fearlessness of her character, which was made perfect at last by her perfect love. Alone, she had always had courage. Even in her most listless hours she had never been a craven. But now she felt the completeness of a nature clothed in armour that rendered it impregnable. It was a strange thing that man should have the power to put the finishing touch to God's work, that religion should stoop to be a handmaid to faith in a human being, but she did not think it strange. Everything in life seemed to her to be in perfect accord because her heart was in perfect accord with another heart.
And she welcomed the storm. She even welcomed something else that came to her now in the storm: the memory of the sand-diviner's tortured face as he gazed down, reading her fate in the sand. For what was an untroubled fate? Surely a life that crept along the hollows and had no impulse to call it to the heights. Knowing the flawless perfection of her armour she had a wild longing to prove it. She wished that there should be assaults upon her love, because she knew she could resist them one and all, and she wished to have the keen joy of resisting them. There is a health of body so keen and vital that it desires combat. The soul sometimes knows a precisely similar health and is filled with a similar desire.
"Put my love to the proof, O God!" was Domini's last prayer that night when the storm was at its wildest. "Put my love to the uttermost proof that he may know it, as he can never know it otherwise."
And she fell asleep at length, peacefully, in the tumult of the night, feeling that God had heard her prayer.
The dawn came struggling like an exhausted pilgrim through the windy dark, pale and faint, with no courage, it seemed, to grow bravely into day. As if with the sedulous effort of something weary but of unconquered will, it slowly lit up Beni-Mora with a feeble light that flickered in a cloud of whirling sand, revealing the desolation of an almost featureless void. The village, the whole oasis, was penetrated by a passionate fog that instead of brooding heavily, phlegmatically, over the face of life and nature travelled like a demented thing bent upon instant destruction, and coming thus cloudily to be more free for crime. It was an emissary of the desert, propelled with irresistible force from the farthest recess of the dunes, and the desert itself seemed to be hurrying behind it as if to spy upon the doing of its deeds.
As the sea in a great storm rages against the land, ferocious that land should be, so the desert now raged against the oasis that ventured to exist in its bosom. Every palm tree was the victim of its wrath, every running rill, every habitation of man. Along the tunnels of mimosa it went like a foaming tide through a cavern, roaring towards the mountains. It returned and swept about the narrow streets, eddying at the corners, beating upon the palmwood doors, behind which the painted dancing-girls were cowering, cold under their pigments and their heavy jewels, their red hands trembling and clasping one another, clamouring about the minarets of the mosques on which the frightened doves were sheltering, shaking the fences that shut in the gazelles in their pleasaunce, tearing at the great statue of the Cardinal that faced it resolutely, holding up the double cross as if to exorcise it, battering upon the tall, white tower on whose summit Domini had first spoken with Androvsky, raging through the alleys of Count Anteoni's garden, the arcades of his villa, the window-spaces of the fumoir, from whose walls it tore down frantically the purple petals of the bougainvillea and dashed them, like enemies defeated, upon the quivering paths which were made of its own body.
Everywhere in the oasis it came with a lust to kill, but surely its deepest enmity was concentrated upon the Catholic Church.
There, despite the tempest, people were huddled, drawn together not so much by the ceremony that was to take place within as by the desire to see the departure of an unusual caravan. In every desert centre news is propagated with a rapidity seldom equalled in the home of civilisation. It runs from mouth to mouth like fire along straw. And Batouch, in his glory, had not been slow to speak of the wonders prepared under his superintendence to make complete the desert journey of his mistress and Androvsky. The main part of the camp had already gone forward, and must have reached Arba, the first halting stage outside Beni-Mora; tents, the horses for the Roumis, the mules to carry necessary baggage, the cooking utensils and the guard dogs. But the Roumis themselves were to depart from the church on camel-back directly the marriage was accomplished. Domini, who had a native hatred of everything that savoured of ostentation, had wished for a tiny expedition, and would gladly have gone out into the desert with but one tent, Batouch and a servant to do the cooking. But the journey was to be long and indefinite, an aimless wandering through the land of liberty towards the south, without fixed purpose or time of returning. She knew nothing of what was necessary for such a journey, and tired of ceaseless argument, and too much occupied with joy to burden herself with detail, at last let Batouch have his way.
"I leave it to you, Batouch," she said. "But, remember, as few people and beasts as possible. And as you say we must have camels for certain parts of the journey, we will travel the first stage on camel-back."
Consciously she helped to fulfil the prediction of the Diviner, and then she left Batouch free.
Now outside the church, shrouded closely in hoods and haiks, grey and brown bundles with staring eyes, the desert men were huddled against the church wall in the wind. Hadj was there, and Smain, sheltering in his burnous roses from Count Anteoni's garden. Larbi had come with his flute and the perfume-seller from his black bazaar. For Domini had bought perfumes from him on her last day in Beni-Mora. Most of Count Anteoni's gardeners had assembled. They looked upon the Roumi lady, who rode magnificently, but who could dream as they dreamed, too, as a friend. Had she not haunted the alleys where they worked and idled till they had learned to expect her, and to miss her when she did not come? And with those whom Domini knew were assembled their friends, and their friends' friends, men of Beni-Mora, men from the near oasis, and also many of those desert wanderers who drift in daily out of the sands to the centres of buying and selling, barter their goods for the goods of the South, or sell their loads of dates for money, and, having enjoyed the dissipation of the cafes and of the dancing-houses, drift away again into the pathless wastes which are their home.
Few of the French population had ventured out, and the church itself was almost deserted when the hour for the wedding drew nigh.
The priest came from his little house, bending forward against the wind, his eyes partially protected from the driving sand by blue spectacles. His face, which was habitually grave, to-day looked sad and stern, like the face of a man about to perform a task that was against his inclination, even perhaps against his conscience. He glanced at the waiting Arabs and hastened into the church, taking off his spectacles as he did so, and wiping his eyes, which were red from the action of the sand-grains, with a silk pocket-handkerchief. When he reached the sacristy he shut himself into it alone for a moment. He sat down on a chair and, leaning his arms upon the wooden table that stood in the centre of the room, bent forward and stared before him at the wall opposite, listening to the howling of the wind.
Father Roubier had an almost passionate affection for his little church of Beni-Mora. So long and ardently had he prayed and taught in it, so often had he passed the twilight hours in it alone wrapped in religious reveries, or searching his conscience for the shadows of sinful thoughts, that it had become to him as a friend, and more than a friend. He thought of it sometimes as his confessor and sometimes as his child. Its stones were to him as flesh and blood, its altars as lips that whispered consolation in answer to his prayers. The figures of its saints were heavenly companions. In its ugliness he perceived only beauty, in its tawdriness only the graces that are sweet offerings to God. The love that, had he not been a priest, he might have given to a woman he poured forth upon his church, and with it that other love which, had it been the design of his Heavenly Father, would have fitted him for the ascetic, yet impassioned, life of an ardent and devoted monk. To defend this consecrated building against outrage he would, without hesitation, have given his last drop of blood. And now he was to perform in it an act against which his whole nature revolted; he was to join indissolubly the lives of these two strangers who had come to Beni-Mora—Domini Enfilden and Boris Androvsky. He was to put on the surplice and white stole, to say the solemn and irreparable "Ego Jungo," to sprinkle the ring with holy water and bless it.
As he sat there alone, listening to the howling of the storm outside, he went mentally through the coming ceremony. He thought of the wonderful grace and beauty of the prayers of benediction, and it seemed to him that to pronounce them with his lips, while his nature revolted against his own utterance, was to perform a shameful act, was to offer an insult to this little church he loved.
Yet how could he help performing this act? He knew that he would do it. Within a few minutes he would be standing before the altar, he would be looking into the faces of this man and woman whose love he was called upon to consecrate. He would consecrate it, and they would go out from him into the desert man and wife. They would be lost to his sight in the town.
His eye fell upon a silver crucifix that was hanging upon the wall in front of him. He was not a very imaginative man, not a man given to fancies, a dreamer of dreams more real to him than life, or a seer of visions. But to-day he was stirred, and perhaps the unwonted turmoil of his mind acted subtly upon his nervous system. Afterward he felt certain that it must have been so, for in no other way could he account for a fantasy that beset him at this moment.
As he looked at the crucifix there came against the church a more furious beating of the wind, and it seemed to him that the Christ upon the crucifix shuddered.
He saw it shudder. He started, leaned across the table and stared at the crucifix with eyes that were full of an amazement that was mingled with horror. Then he got up, crossed the room and touched the crucifix with his finger. As he did so, the acolyte, whose duty it was to help him to robe, knocked at the sacristy door. The sharp noise recalled him to himself. He knew that for the first time in his life he had been the slave of an optical delusion. He knew it, and yet he could not banish the feeling that God himself was averse from the act that he was on the point of committing in this church that confronted Islam, that God himself shuddered as surely even He, the Creator, must shudder at some of the actions of his creatures. And this feeling added immensely to the distress of the priest's mind. In performing this ceremony he now had the dreadful sensation that he was putting himself into direct antagonism with God. His instinctive horror of Androvsky had never been so great as it was to-day. In vain he had striven to conquer it, to draw near to this man who roused all the repulsion of his nature. His efforts had been useless. He had prayed to be given the sympathy for this man that the true Christian ought to feel towards every human being, even the most degraded. But he felt that his prayers had not been answered. With every day his antipathy for Androvsky increased. Yet he was entirely unable to ground it upon any definite fact in Androvsky's character. He did not know that character. The man was as much a mystery to him as on the day when they first met. And to this living mystery from which his soul recoiled he was about to consign, with all the beautiful and solemn blessings of his Church, a woman whose character he respected, whose innate purity, strength and nobility he had quickly divined, and no less quickly learned to love.
It was a bitter, even a horrible, moment to him.
The little acolyte, a French boy, son of the postmaster of Beni-Mora, was startled by the sight of the Father's face when he opened the sacristy door. He had never before seen such an expression of almost harsh pain in those usually kind eyes, and he drew back from the threshold like one afraid. His movement recalled the priest to a sharp consciousness of the necessities of the moment, and with a strong effort he conquered his pain sufficiently to conceal all outward expression of it. He smiled gently at the little boy and said:
"Is it time?"
The child looked reassured.
He came into the sacristy and went towards the cupboard where the vestments were kept, passing the silver crucifix. As he did so he glanced at it. He opened the cupboard, then stood for a moment and again turned his eyes to the Christ. The Father watched him.
"What are you looking at, Paul?" he asked.
"Nothing, Father," the boy replied, with a sudden expression of reluctance that was almost obstinate.
And he began to take the priest's robes out of the cupboard.
Just then the wind wailed again furiously about the church, and the crucifix fell down upon the floor of the sacristy.
The priest started forward, picked it up, and stood with it in his hand. He glanced at the wall, and saw at once that the nail to which the crucifix had been fastened had come out of its hole. A flake of plaster had been detached, perhaps some days ago, and the hole had become too large to retain the nail. The explanation of the matter was perfect, simple and comprehensible. Yet the priest felt as if a catastrophe had just taken place. As he stared at the cross he heard a little noise near him. The acolyte was crying.
"Why, Paul, what's the matter?" he said.
"Why did it do that?" exclaimed the boy, as if alarmed. "Why did it do that?"
"Perhaps it was the wind. Everything is shaking. Come, come, my child, there is nothing to be afraid of."
He laid the crucifix on the table. Paul dried his eyes with his fists.
"I don't like to-day," he said. "I don't like to-day."
The priest patted him on the shoulder.
"The weather has upset you," he said, smiling.
But the nervous behaviour of the child deepened strangely his own sense of apprehension. When he had robed he waited for the arrival of the bride and bridegroom. There was to be no mass, and no music except the Wedding March, which the harmonium player, a Marseillais employed in the date-packing trade, insisted on performing to do honour to Mademoiselle Enfilden, who had taken such an interest in the music of the church. Androvsky, as the priest had ascertained, had been brought up in the Catholic religion, but, when questioned, he had said quietly that he was no longer a practising Catholic and that he never went to confession. Under these circumstances it was not possible to have a nuptial mass. The service would be short and plain, and the priest was glad that this was so. Presently the harmonium player came in.
"I may play my loudest to-day, Father," he said, "but no one will hear me."
He laughed, settled the pin—Joan of Arc's face in metal—in his azure blue necktie, and added:
"Nom d'un chien, the wind's a cruel wedding guest!"
The priest nodded without speaking.
"Would you believe, Father," the man continued, "that Mademoiselle and her husband are going to start for Arba from the church door in all this storm! Batouch is getting the palanquin on to the camel. How they will ever—"
"Hush!" said the priest, holding up a warning finger.
This idle chatter displeased him in the church, but he had another reason for wishing to stop the conversation. It renewed his dread to hear of the projected journey, and made him see, as in a shadowy vision, Domini Enfilden's figure disappearing into the windy desolation of the desert protected by the living mystery he hated. Yes, at this moment, he no longer denied it to himself. There was something in Androvsky that he actually hated with his whole soul, hated even in his church, at the very threshold of the altar where stood the tabernacle containing the sacred Host. As he thoroughly realised this for a moment he was shocked at himself, recoiled mentally from his own feeling. But then something within him seemed to rise up and say, "Perhaps it is because you are near to the Host that you hate this man. Perhaps you are right to hate him when he draws nigh to the body of Christ."
Nevertheless when, some minutes later, he stood within the altar rails and saw the face of Domini, he was conscious of another thought, that came through his mind, dark with doubt, like a ray of gold: "Can I be right in hating what this good woman—this woman whose confession I have received, whose heart I know—can I be right in hating what she loves, in fearing what she trusts, in secretly condemning what she openly enthrones?" And almost in despite of himself he felt reassured for an instant, even happy in the thought of what he was about to do.
Domini's face at all times suggested strength. The mental and emotional power of her were forcibly expressed, too, through her tall and athletic body, which was full of easy grace, but full, too, of well-knit firmness. To-day she looked not unlike a splendid Amazon who could have been a splendid nun had she entered into religion. As she stood there by Androvsky, simply dressed for the wild journey that was before her, the slight hint in her personality of a Spartan youth, that stamped her with a very definite originality, was blended with, even transfigured by, a womanliness so intense as to be almost fierce, a womanliness that had the fervour, the glowing vigour of a glory that had suddenly become fully aware of itself, and of all the deeds that it could not only conceive, but do. She was triumph embodied in the flesh, not the triumph that is a school-bully, but that spreads wings, conscious at last that the human being has kinship with the angels, and need not, should not, wait for death to seek bravely their comradeship. She was love triumphant, woman utterly fearless because instinctively aware that she was fulflling her divine mission.
As he gazed at her the priest had a strange thought—of how Christ's face must have looked when he said, "Lazarus, come forth!"
Androvsky stood by her, but the priest did not look at him.
The wind roared round the church, the narrow windows rattled, and the clouds of sand driven against them made a pattering as of fingers tapping frantically upon the glass. The buff-coloured curtains trembled, and the dusty pink ribands tied round the ropes of the chandeliers shook incessantly to and fro, as if striving to escape and to join the multitudes of torn and disfigured things that were swept through space by the breath of the storm. Beyond the windows, vaguely seen at moments through the clouds of sand, the outlines of the palm leaves wavered, descended, rose, darted from side to side, like hands of the demented.
Suzanne, who was one of the witnesses, trembled, and moved her full lips nervously. She disapproved utterly of her mistress' wedding, and still more of a honeymoon in the desert. For herself she did not care, very shortly she was going to marry Monsieur Helmuth, the important person in livery who accompanied the hotel omnibus to the station, and meanwhile she was to remain at Beni-Mora under the chaperonage of Madame Armande, the proprietor of the hotel. But it shocked her that a mistress of hers, and a member of the English aristocracy, should be married in a costume suitable for a camel ride, and should start off to go to le Bon Dieu alone knew where, shut up in a palanquin like any black woman covered with lumps of coral and bracelets like handcuffs.
The other witnesses were the mayor of Beni-Mora, a middle-aged doctor, who wore the conventional evening-dress of French ceremony, and looked as if the wind had made him as sleepy as a bear on the point of hibernating, and the son of Madame Armande, a lively young man, with a bullet head and eager, black eyes. The latter took a keen interest in the ceremony, but the mayor blinked pathetically, and occasionally rubbed his large hooked nose as if imploring it to keep his whole person from drooping down into a heavy doze.
The priest, speaking in a conventional voice that was strangely inexpressive of his inward emotion, asked Androvsky and Domini whether they would take each other for wife and husband, and listened to their replies. Androvsky's voice sounded to him hard and cold as ice when it replied, and suddenly he thought of the storm as raging in some northern land over snowbound wastes whose scanty trees were leafless. But Domini's voice was clear, and warm as the sun that would shine again over the desert when the storm was past. The mayor, constraining himself to keep awake a little longer, gave Domini away, while Suzanne dropped tears into a pocket-handkerchief edged with rose-coloured frilling, the gift of Monsieur Helmuth. Then, when the troth had been plighted in the midst of a more passionate roaring of the wind, the priest, conquering a terrible inward reluctance that beset him despite his endeavour to feel detached and formal, merely a priest engaged in a ceremony that it was his office to carry out, but in which he had no personal interest, spoke the fateful words:
"Ego conjungo vos in matrimonium in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
He said this without looking at the man and woman who stood before him, the man on the right hand and the woman on the left, but when he lifted his hand to sprinkle them with holy water he could not forbear glancing at them, and he saw Domini as a shining radiance, but Androvsky as a thing of stone. With a movement that seemed to the priest sinister in its oppressed deliberation, Androvsky placed gold and silver upon the book and the marriage ring.
The priest spoke again, slowly, in the uproar of the wind, after blessing the ring:
"Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini."
After the reply the "Domine, exaudi orationem meam," the "Et clamor," the "Dominus vobiscum," and the "Et cum spiritu tuo," the "Oremus," and the prayer following, he sprinkled the ring with holy water in the form of a cross and gave it to Androvsky to give with gold and silver to Domini. Androvsky took the ring, repeated the formula, "With this ring," etc., then still, as it seemed to the priest, with the same sinister deliberation, placed it on the thumb of the bride's uncovered hand, saying, "In the name of the Father," then on her second finger, saying, "Of the Son," then on her third finger, saying, "Of the Holy Ghost," then on her fourth finger. But at this moment, when he should have said "Amen," there was a long pause of silence. During it—why he did not know—the priest found himself thinking of the saying of St. Isidore of Seville that the ring of marriage is left on the fourth finger of the bride's hand because that finger contains a vein directly connected with the heart.
Androvsky had spoken. The priest started, and went on with the "Confirma, hoc, Deus." And from this point until the "Per Christum Dominum nostrum, Amen," which, since there was no Mass, closed the ceremony, he felt more master of himself and his emotions than at any time previously during this day. A sensation of finality, of the irrevocable, came to him. He said within himself, "This matter has passed out of my hands into the hands of God." And in the midst of the violence of the storm a calm stole upon his spirit. "God knows best!" he said within himself. "God knows best!"
Those words and the state of feeling that was linked with them were and had always been to him as mighty protecting arms that uplifted him above the beating waves of the sea of life. The Wedding March sounded when the priest bade good-bye to the husband and wife whom he had made one. He was able to do it tranquilly. He even pressed Androvsky's hand.
"Be good to her," he said. "She is—she is a good woman."
To his surprise Androvsky suddenly wrung his hand almost passionately, and the priest saw that there were tears in his eyes.
That night the priest prayed long and earnestly for all wanderers in the desert.
When Domini and Androvsky came out from the church they saw vaguely a camel lying down before the door, bending its head and snarling fiercely. Upon its back was a palanquin of dark-red stuff, with a roof of stuff stretched upon strong, curved sticks, and curtains which could be drawn or undrawn at pleasure. The desert men crowded about it like eager phantoms in the wind, half seen in the driving mist of sand. Clinging to Androvsky's arm, Domini struggled forward to the camel. As she did so, Smain, unfolding for an instant his burnous, pressed into her hands his mass of roses. She thanked him with a smile he scarcely saw and a word that was borne away upon the wind. At Larbi's lips she saw the little flute and his thick fingers fluttering upon the holes. She knew that he was playing his love-song for her, but she could not hear it except in her heart. The perfume-seller sprinkled her gravely with essence, and for a moment she felt as if she were again in his dark bazaar, and seemed to catch among the voices of the storm the sound of men muttering prayers to Allah as in the mosque of Sidi-Zazan.
Then she was in the palanquin with Androvsky close beside her.
At this moment Batouch took hold of the curtains of the palanquin to draw them close, but she put out her hand and stopped him. She wanted to see the last of the church, of the tormented gardens she had learnt to love.
He looked astonished, but yielded to her gesture, and told the camel- driver to make the animal rise to its feet. The driver took his stick and plied it, crying out, "A-ah! A-ah!" The camel turned its head towards him, showing its teeth, and snarling with a sort of dreary passion.
"A-ah!" shouted the driver. "A-ah! A-ah!"
The camel began to get up.
As it did so, from the shrouded group of desert men one started forward to the palanquin, throwing off his burnous and gesticulating with thin naked arms, as if about to commit some violent act. It was the sand-diviner. Made fantastic and unreal by the whirling sand grains, Domini saw his lean face pitted with small-pox; his eyes, blazing with an intelligence that was demoniacal, fixed upon her; the long wound that stretched from his cheek to his forehead. The pleading that had been mingled with the almost tyrannical command of his demeanour had vanished now. He looked ferocious, arbitrary, like a savage of genius full of some frightful message of warning or rebuke. As the camel rose he cried aloud some words in Arabic. Domini heard his voice, but could not understand the words. Laying his hands on the stuff of the palanquin he shouted again, then took away his hands and shook them above his head towards the desert, still staring at Domini with his fanatical eyes.
The wind shrieked, the sand grains whirled in spirals about his body, the camel began to move away from the church slowly towards the village.
"A-ah!" cried the camel-driver. "A-ah!"
In the storm his call sounded like a wail of despair.
As the voice of the Diviner fainted away on the wind, and the vision of his wounded face and piercing eyes was lost in the whirling sand grains, Androvsky stretched out his hand and drew together the heavy curtains of the palanquin. The world was shut out. They were alone for the first time as man and wife; moving deliberately on this beast they could not see, but whose slow and monotonous gait swung them gently to and fro, out from the last traces of civilisation into the life of the sands. With each soft step the camel took they went a little farther from Beni-Mora, came a little nearer to that liberty of which Domini sometimes dreamed, to the smiling eyes and the lifted spheres of fire.
She shut her eyes now. She did not want to see her husband or to touch his hand. She did not want to speak. She only wanted to feel in the uttermost depths of her spirit this movement, steady and persistent, towards the goal of her earthly desires, to realise absolutely the marvellous truth that after years of lovelessness, and a dreaminess more benumbing than acute misery, happiness more intense than any she had been able to conceive of in her moments of greatest yearning was being poured into her heart, that she was being taken to the place where she would be with the one human being whose presence blotted out even the memory of the false world and gave to her the true. And whereas in the dead years she had sometimes been afraid of feeling too much the emptiness and the desolation of her life, she was now afraid of feeling too little its fulness and its splendour, was afraid of some day looking back to this superb moment of her earthly fate, and being conscious that she had not grasped its meaning till it was gone, that she had done that most terrible of all things—realised that she had been happy to the limits of her capacity for happiness only when her happiness was numbered with the past.
But could that ever be? Was Time, such Time as this, not Eternity? Could such earthly things as this intense joy ever have been and no longer be? It seemed to her that it could not be so. She felt like one who held Eternity's hand, and went out with that great guide into the endlessness of supreme perfection. For her, just then, the Creator's scheme was rounded to a flawless circle. All things fell into order, stars and men, the silent growing things, the seas, the mountains and the plains, fell into order like a vast choir to obey the command of the canticle: Benedicite, omnia opera!"
"Bless ye the Lord!" The roaring of the wind about the palanquin became the dominant voice of this choir in Domini's ears.
"Bless ye the Lord!" It was obedient, not as the slave, but as the free will is obedient, as her heart, which joined its voice with this wind of the desert was obedient, because it gloriously chose with all its powers, passions, aspirations to be so. The real obedience is only love fulfilling its last desire, and this great song was the fulfilling of the last desire of all created things. Domini knew that she did not realise the joy of this moment of her life now when she felt no longer that she was a woman, but only that she was a living praise winging upward to God.
A warm, strong hand clasped hers. She opened her eyes. In the dim twilight of the palanquin she saw the darkness of Androvsky's tall figure sitting in the crouched attitude rendered necessary by the peculiar seat, and swaying slightly to the movement of the camel. The light was so obscure that she could not see his eyes or clearly discern his features, but she felt that he was gazing at her shadowy figure, that his mind was passionately at work. Had he, too, been silently praising God for his happiness, and was he now wishing the body to join in the soul's delight?
She left her hand in his passively. The sense of her womanhood, lost for a moment in the ecstasy of worship, had returned to her, but with a new and tremendous meaning which seemed to change her nature. Androvsky forcibly pressed her hand with his, let it go, then pressed it again, repeating the action with a regularity that seemed suggested by some guidance. She imagined him pressing her hand each time his heart pulsed. She did not want to return the pressure. As she felt his hand thus closing and unclosing over hers, she was conscious that she, who in their intercourse had played a dominant part, who had even deliberately brought about that intercourse by her action on the tower, now longed to be passive and, forgetting her own power and the strength and force of her nature, to lose herself in the greater strength and force of this man to whom she had given herself. Never before had she wished to be anything but strong. Nor did she desire weakness now, but only that his nature should rise above hers with eagle's wings, that when she looked up she should see him, never when she looked down. She thought that to see him below her would kill her, and she opened her lips to say so. But something in the windy darkness kept her silent. The heavy curtains of the palanquin shook perpetually, and the tall wooden rods on which they were slung creaked, making a small, incessant noise like a complaining, which joined itself with the more distant but louder noise made by the leaves of the thousands of palm trees dashed furiously together. From behind came the groaning of one of the camels, borne on the gusts of the wind, and faint sounds of the calling voices of the Arabs who accompanied them. It was not a time to speak.
She wondered where they were, in what part of the oasis, whether they had yet gained the beginning of the great route which had always fascinated her, and which was now the road to the goal of all her earthly desires. But there was nothing to tell her. She travelled in a world of dimness and the roar of wind, and in this obscurity and uproar, combined with perpetual though slight motion, she lost all count of time. She had no idea how long it was since she had come out of the church door with Androvsky. At first she thought it was only a few minutes, and that the camels must be just coming to the statue of the Cardinal. Then she thought that it might be an hour, even more; that Count Anteoni's garden was long since left behind, and that they were passing, perhaps, along the narrow streets of the village of old Beni-Mora, and nearing the edge of the oasis. But even in this confusion of mind she felt that something would tell her when the last palms had vanished in the sand mist and the caravan came out into the desert. The sound of the wind would surely be different when they met it on the immense flats, where there was nothing to break its fury. Or even if it were not different, she felt that she would know, that the desert would surely speak to her in the moment when, at last, it took her to itself. It could not be that they would be taken by the desert and she not know it. But she wanted Androvsky to know it too. For she felt that the moment when the desert took them, man and wife, would be a great moment in their lives, greater even than that in which they met as they came into the blue country. And she set herself to listen, with a passionate expectation, with an attention so close and determined that it thrilled her body, and even affected her muscles.
What she was listening for was a rising of the wind, a crescendo of its voice. She was anticipating a triumphant cry from the Sahara, unlimited power made audible in a sound like the blowing of the clarion of the sands.
Androvsky's hand was still on hers, but now it did not move as if obeying the pulsations of his heart. It held hers closely, warmly, and sent his strength to her, and presently, for an instant, taking her mind from the desert, she lost herself in the mystery and the wonder of human companionship. She realised that the touch of Androvsky's hand on hers altered for her herself, and the whole universe as it was presented to her, as she observed and felt it. Nothing remained as it was when he did not touch her. There was something stupefying in the thought, something almost terrible. The wonder that is alive in the tiny things of love, and that makes tremendously important their presence in, or absence from, a woman's life, took hold on her completely for the first time, and set her forever in a changed world, a world in which a great knowledge ruled instead of a great ignorance. With the consciousness of exactly what Androvsky's touch meant to her came a multiple consciousness of a thousand other things, all connected with him and her consecrated relation to him. She quivered with understanding. All the gates of her soul were being opened, and the white light of comprehension of those things which make life splendid and fruitful was pouring in upon her. Within the dim, contained space of the palanquin, that was slowly carried onward through the passion of the storm, there was an effulgence of unseen glory that grew in splendour moment by moment. A woman was being born of a woman, woman who knew herself of woman who did not know herself, woman who henceforth would divinely love her womanhood of woman who had often wondered why she had been created woman.
The words muttered by the man of the sand in Count Anteoni's garden were coming true. In the church of Beni-Mora the life of Domini had begun more really than when her mother strove in the pains of childbirth and her first faint cry answered the voice of the world's light when it spoke to her.
Slowly the caravan moved on. The camel-drivers sang low under the folds of their haiks those mysterious songs of the East that seem the songs of heat and solitude. Batouch, smothered in his burnous, his large head sunk upon his chest, slumbered like a potentate relieved from cares of State. Till Arba was reached his duty was accomplished. Ali, perched behind him on the camel, stared into the dimness with eyes steady and remote as those of a vulture of the desert. The houses of Beni-Mora faded in the mist of the sand, the statue of the Cardinal holding the double cross, the tower of the hotel, the shuddering trees of Count Anteoni's garden. Along the white blue which was the road the camels painfully advanced, urged by the cries and the sticks of the running drivers. Presently the brown buildings of old Beni-Mora came partially into sight, peeping here and there through the flying sands and the frantic palm leaves. The desert was at hand.
Ali began to sing, breathing his song into the back of Batouch's hood.
"The love of women is like the holiday song that the boy sings gaily
In the sunny garden—
The love of women is like the little moon, the little happy moon
In the last night of Ramadan.
The love of women is like the great silence that steals at dusk
To kiss the scented blossoms of the orange tree.
Sit thee down beneath the orange tree, O loving man!
That thou mayst know the kiss that tells the love of women.
Janat! Janat! Janat!"
Batouch stirred uneasily, pulled his hood from his eyes and looked into the storm gravely. Then he shifted on the camel's hump and said to Ali:
"How shall we get to Arba? The wind is like all the Touaregs going to battle. And when we leave the oasis——"
"The wind is going down, Batouch-ben-Brahim," responded Ali, calmly. "This evening the Roumis can lie in the tents."
Batouch's thick lips curled with sarcasm. He spat into the wind, blew his nose in his burnous, and answered:
"You are a child, and can sing a pretty song, but—"
Ali pointed with his delicate hand towards the south.
"Do you not see the light in the sky?"
Batouch stared before him, and perceived that there was in truth a lifting of the darkness beyond, a whiteness growing where the desert lay.
"As we come into the desert the wind will fall," said Ali; and again he began to sing to himself:
"Janat! Janat! Janat!"
Domini could not see the light in the south, and no premonition warned her of any coming abatement of the storm. Once more she had begun to listen to the roaring of the wind and to wait for the larger voice of the desert, for the triumphant clarion of the sands that would announce to her her entry with Androvsky into the life of the wastes. Again she personified the Sahara, but now more vividly than ever before. In the obscurity she seemed to see it far away, like a great heroic figure, waiting for her and her passion, waiting in a region of gold and silken airs at the back of the tempest to crown her life with a joy wide as its dreamlike spaces, to teach her mind the inner truths that lie beyond the crowded ways of men and to open her heart to the most profound messages of Nature.
She listened, holding Androvsky's hand, and she felt that he was listening too, with an intensity strong as her own, or stronger. Presently his hand closed upon hers more tightly, almost hurting her physically. As it did so she glanced up, but not at him, and noticed that the curtains of the palanquin were fluttering less fiercely. Once, for an instant, they were almost still. Then again they moved as if tugged by invisible hands; then were almost still once more. At the same time the wind's voice sank in her ears like a music dropping downward in a hollow place. It rose, but swiftly sank a second time to a softer hush, and she perceived in the curtained enclosure a faintly growing light which enabled her to see, for the first time since she had left the church, her husband's features. He was looking at her with an expression of anticipation in which there was awe, and she realised that in her expectation of the welcome of the desert she had been mistaken. She had listened for the sounding of a clarion, but she was to be greeted by a still, small voice. She understood the awe in her husband's eyes and shared it. And she knew at once, with a sudden thrill of rapture, that in the scheme of things there are blessings and nobilities undreamed of by man and that must always come upon him with a glorious shock of surprise, showing him the poor faultiness of what he had thought perhaps his most magnificent imaginings. Elisha sought for the Lord in the fire and in the whirlwind; but in the still, small voice onward came the Lord.
Incomparably more wonderful than what she had waited for seemed to her now this sudden falling of the storm, this mystical voice that came to them out of the heart of the sands telling them that they were passing at last into the arms of the Sahara. The wind sank rapidly. The light grew in the palanquin. From without the voices of the camel-drivers and of Batouch and Ali talking together reached their ears distinctly. Yet they remained silent. It seemed as if they feared by speech to break the spell of the calm that was flowing around them, as if they feared to interrupt the murmur of the desert. Domini now returned the gaze of her husband. She could not take her eyes from his, for she wished him to read all the joy that was in her heart; she wished him to penetrate her thoughts, to understand her desires, to be at one with the woman who had been born on the eve of the passing of the wind. With the coming of this mystic calm was coming surely something else. The silence was bringing with it the fusing of two natures. The desert in this moment was drawing together two souls into a union which Time and Death would have no power to destroy. Presently the wind completely died away, only a faint breeze fluttered the curtains of the palanquin, and the light that penetrated between them here and there was no longer white, but sparkled with a tiny dust of gold. Then Androvsky moved to open the curtains, and Domini spoke for the first time since their marriage.
"Wait," she said in a low voice.
He dropped his hand obediently, and looked at her with inquiry in his eyes.
"Don't let us look till we are far out," she said, "far away from Beni-Mora."
He made no answer, but she saw that he understood all that was in her heart. He leaned a little nearer to her and stretched out his arm as if to put it round her. But he did not put it round her, and she knew why. He was husbanding his great joy as she had husbanded the dark hours of the previous night that to her were golden. And that unfinished action, that impulse unfulfilled, showed her more clearly the depths of his passion for her even than had the desperate clasp of his hands about her knees in the garden. That which he did not do now was the greatest assertion possible of all that he would do in the life that was before them, and made her feel how entirely she belonged to him. Something within her trembled like a poor child before whom is suddenly set the prospect of a day of perfect happiness. She thought of the ending of this day, of the coming of the evening. Always the darkness had parted them; at the ending of this day it would unite them. In Androvsky's eyes she read her thought of the darkness reflected, reflected and yet changed, transmuted by sex. It was as if at that moment she read the same story written in two ways—by a woman and by a man, as if she saw Eden, not only as Eve saw it, but as Adam.
A long time passed, but they did not feel it to be long. When their camel halted they unclasped their hands slowly like sleepers reluctantly awaking.
They heard Batouch's voice outside the palanquin.
"Madame!" he called. "Madame!"
"What is it?" asked Domini, stifling a sigh.
"Madame should draw the curtains. We are halfway to Arba. It is time for dejeuner. I will make the camel of Madame lie down."
A loud "A-a-ah!" rose up, followed by a fierce groaning from the camel, and a lethargic, yet violent, movement that threw them forward and backward. They sank. A hand from without pulled back the curtains and light streamed over them. They set their feet in sand, stood up, and looked about them.
Already they were far out in the desert, though not yet beyond the limit of the range of red mountains, which stretched forward upon their left but at no great distance beyond them ended in the sands. The camels were lying down in a faintly defined track which was bordered upon either side by the plain covered with little humps of sandy soil on which grew dusty shrub. Above them was a sky of faint blue, heavy with banks of clouds towards the east, and over their heads dressed in wispy veils of vaporous white, through which the blue peered in sections that grew larger as they looked. Towards the south, where Arba lay on a low hill of earth, without grass or trees, beyond a mound covered thickly with tamarisk bushes, which was a feeding- place for immense herds of camels, the blue was clear and the light of the sun intense. A delicate breeze travelled about them, stirring the bushes and the robes of the Arabs, who were throwing back their hoods, and uncovering their mouths, and smiling at them, but seriously, as Arabs alone can smile. Beside them stood two white and yellow guard dogs, blinking and looking weary.
For a moment they stood still, blinking too, almost like the dogs. The change to this immensity and light from the narrow darkness of the palanquin overwhelmed their senses. They said nothing, but only stared silently. Then Domini, with a large gesture, stretched her arms above her head, drawing a deep breath which ended in a little, almost sobbing, laugh of exultation.
"Out of prison," she said disconnectedly. "Out of prison—into this!" Suddenly she turned upon Androvsky and caught his arm, and twined both of her arms round it with a strong confidence that was careless of everything in the intensity of its happiness.
"All my life I've been in prison," she said. "You've unlocked the door!" And then, as suddenly as she had caught his arm, she let it go. Something surged up in her, making her almost afraid; or, if not that, confused. It was as if her nature were a horse taking the bit between its teeth preparatory to a tremendous gallop. Whither? She did not know. She was intoxicated by the growing light, the sharp, delicious air, the huge spaces around her, the solitude with this man who held her soul surely in his hands. She had always connected him with the desert. Now he was hers into the desert, and the desert was hers with him. But was it possible? Could such a fate have been held in reserve for her? She scarcely dared even to try to realise the meaning of her situation, lest at a breath it should be changed. Just then she felt that if she ventured to weigh and measure her wonderful gift Androvsky would fall dead at her feet and the desert be folded together like a scroll.
"There is Beni-Mora, Madame," said Batouch.
She was glad he spoke to her, turned and followed with her eyes his pointing hand. Far off she saw a green darkness of palms, and above it a white tower, small, from here, as the tower of a castle of dolls.
"The tower!" she said to Androvsky. "We first spoke in it. We must bid it good-bye."
She made a gesture of farewell towards it. Androvsky watched the movement of her hand. She noticed now that she made no movement that he did not observe with a sort of passionate attention. The desert did not exist for him. She saw that in his eyes. He did not look towards the tower even when she repeated:
"We must—we owe it that."
Batouch and Ali were busy spreading a cloth upon the sand, making it firm with little stones, taking out food, plates, knives, glasses, bottles from a great basket slung on one of the camels. They moved deftly, seriously intent upon their task. The camel-drivers were loosening the cords that bound the loads upon their beasts, who roared venomously, opening their mouths, showing long decayed teeth, and turning their heads from side to side with a serpentine movement. Domini and Androvsky were not watched for a moment.
"Why won't you look? Why won't you say good-bye?" she asked, coming nearer to him on the sand softly, with a woman's longing to hear him explain what she understood.
"What do I care for it, or the palms, or the sky, or the desert?" he answered almost savagely. "What can I care? If you were mine behind iron bars in that prison you spoke of—don't you think it's enough for me—too much—a cup running over?"
And he added some words under his breath, words she could not hear.
"Not even the desert!" she said with a catch in her voice.
"It's all in you. Everything's in you—everything that brought us together, that we've watched and wanted together."
"But then," she said, and now her voice was very quiet, "am I peace for you?"
"Peace!" said Androvsky.
"Yes. Don't you remember once I said that there must be peace in the desert. Then is it in me—for you?"
"Peace!" he repeated. "To-day I can't think of peace, or want it. Don't you ask too much of me! Let me live to-day, live as only a man can who—let me live with all that is in me to-day—Domini. Men ask to die in peace. Oh, Domini—Domini!"
His expression was like arms that crushed her, lips that pressed her mouth, a heart that beat on hers.
"Madame est servie!" cried Batouch in a merry voice.
His mistress did not seem to hear him. He cried again:
"Madame est servie!"
Then Domini turned round and came to the first meal in the sand. Two cushions lay beside the cloth upon an Arab quilt of white, red, and orange colour. Upon the cloth, in vases of rough pottery, stained with designs in purple, were arranged the roses brought by Smain from Count Anteoni's garden.
"Our wedding breakfast!" Domini said under her breath.
She felt just then as if she were living in a wonderful romance.
They sat down side by side and ate with a good appetite, served by Batouch and Ali. Now and then a pale yellow butterfly, yellow as the sand, flitted by them. Small yellow birds with crested heads ran swiftly among the scrub, or flew low over the flats. In the sky the vapours gathered themselves together and moved slowly away towards the east, leaving the blue above their heads unflecked with white. With each moment the heat of the sun grew more intense. The wind had gone. It was difficult to believe that it had ever roared over the desert. A little way from them the camel-drivers squatted beside the beasts, eating flat loaves of yellow bread, and talking together in low, guttural voices. The guard dogs roamed round them, uneasily hungry. In the distance, before a tent of patched rags, a woman, scantily clad in bright red cotton, was suckling a child and staring at the caravan.
Domini and Androvsky scarcely spoke as they ate. Once she said:
"Do you realise that this is a wedding breakfast?"
She was thinking of the many wedding receptions she had attended in London, of crowds of smartly-dressed women staring enviously at tiaras, and sets of jewels arranged in cases upon tables, of brides and bridegrooms, looking flushed and anxious, standing under canopies of flowers and forcing their tired lips into smiles as they replied to stereotyped congratulations, while detectives—poorly disguised as gentlemen—hovered in the back-ground to see that none of the presents mysteriously disappeared. Her presents were the velvety roses in the earthen vases, the breezes of the desert, the sand humps, the yellow butterflies, the silence that lay around like a blessing pronounced by the God who made the still places where souls can learn to know themselves and their great destiny.
"A wedding breakfast," Androvsky said.
"Yes. But perhaps you have never been to one."
"Then you can't love this one as much as I do."
"Much more," he answered.
She looked at him, remembering how often in the past, when she had been feeling intensely, she had it borne in upon her that he was feeling even more intensely than herself. But could that be possible now?
"Do you think," she said, "that it is possible for you, who have never lived in cities, to love this land as I love it?"
Androvsky moved on his cushion and leaned down till his elbow touched the sand. Lying thus, with his chin in his hand, and his eyes fixed upon her, he answered:
"But it is not the land I am loving."
His absolute concentration upon her made her think that, perhaps, he misunderstood her meaning in speaking of the desert, her joy in it. She longed to explain how he and the desert were linked together in her heart, and she dropped her hand upon his left hand, which lay palm downwards in the warm sand.
"I love this land," she began, "because I found you in it, because I feel——"
"Yes, Domini?" he said.
"No, not now. I can't tell you. There's too much light."
"Domini," he repeated.
Then they were silent once more, thinking of how the darkness would come to them at Arba.
In the late afternoon they drew near to the Bordj, moving along a difficult route full of deep ruts and holes, and bordered on either side by bushes so tall that they looked almost like trees. Here, tended by Arabs who stared gravely at the strangers in the palanquin, were grazing immense herds of camels. Above the bushes to the horizon on either side of the way appeared the serpentine necks flexibly moving to and fro, now bending deliberately towards the dusty twigs, now stretched straight forward as if in patient search for some solace of the camel's fate that lay in the remoteness of the desert. Baby camels, many of them only a few days old, yet already vowed to the eternal pilgrimages of the wastes, with mild faces and long, disobedient-looking legs, ran from the caravan, nervously seeking their morose mothers, who cast upon them glances that seemed expressive of a disdainful pity. In front, beyond a watercourse, now dried up, rose the low hill on which stood the Bordj, a huge, square building, with two square towers pierced with loopholes. From a distance it resembled a fort threatening the desert in magnificent isolation. Its towers were black against the clear lemon of the failing sunlight. Pigeons, that looked also black, flew perpetually about them, and the telegraph posts, that bordered the way at regular intervals on the left, made a diminishing series of black vertical lines sharply cutting the yellow till they were lost to sight in the south. To Domini these posts were like pointing fingers beckoning her onward to the farthest distances of the sun. Drugged by the long journey over the flats, and the unceasing caress of the air, that was like an importunate lover ever unsatisfied, she watched from the height on which she was perched this evening scene of roaming, feeding animals, staring nomads, monotonous herbage and vague, surely- retreating mountains, with quiet, dreamy eyes. Everything which she saw seemed to her beautiful, a little remote and a little fantastic. The slow movement of the camels, the swifter movements of the circling pigeons about the square towers on the hill, the motionless, or gently-gliding, Arabs with their clubs held slantwise, the telegraph poles, one smaller than the other, diminishing till—as if magically— they disappeared in the lemon that was growing into gold, were woven together for her by the shuttle of the desert into a softly brilliant tapestry—one of those tapestries that is like a legend struck to sleep as the Beauty in her palace. As they began to mount the hill, and the radiance of the sky increased, this impression faded, for the life that centred round the Bordj was vivid, though sparse in comparison with the eddying life of towns, and had that air of peculiar concentration which may be noted in pictures representing a halt in the desert.
No longer did the strongly-built Bordj seem to Domini like a fort threatening the oncomer, but like a stalwart host welcoming him, a host who kept open house in this treeless desolation that yet had, for her, no feature that was desolate. It was earth-coloured, built of stone, and had in the middle of the facade that faced them an immense hospitable doorway with a white arch above it. This doorway gave a partial view of a vast courtyard, in which animals and people were moving to and fro. Round about, under the sheltering shadow of the windowless wall, were many Arabs, some squatting on their haunches, some standing upright with their backs against the stone, some moving from one group to another, gesticulating and talking vivaciously. Boys were playing a game with stones set in an ordered series of small holes scooped by their fingers in the dust. A negro crossed the flat space before the Bordj carrying on his head a huge earthen vase to the well near by, where a crowd of black donkeys, just relieved of their loads of brushwood, was being watered. From the south two Spahis were riding in on white horses, their scarlet cloaks floating out over their saddles; and from the west, moving slowly to a wailing sound of indistinct music, a faint beating of tomtoms, was approaching a large caravan in a cloud of dust which floated back from it and melted away into the radiance of the sunset.
When they gained the great open space before the building they were bathed in the soft golden light, in which all these figures of Africans, and all these animals, looked mysterious and beautiful, and full of that immeasurable significance which the desert sheds upon those who move in it, specially at dawn or at sundown. From the plateau they dominated the whole of the plain they had traversed as far as Beni-Mora, which on the morrow would fade into the blue horizon. Its thousands of palms made a darkness in the gold, and still the tower of the hotel was faintly visible, pointing like a needle towards the sky. The range of mountains showed their rosy flanks in the distance. They, too, on the morrow would be lost in the desert spaces, the last outposts of the world of hill and valley, of stream and sea. Only in the deceptive dream of the mirage would they appear once more, looming in a pearl-coloured shaking veil like a fluid on the edge of some visionary lagune.
Domini was glad that on this first night of their journey they could still see Beni-Mora, the place where they had found each other and been given to each other by the Church. As the camel stopped before the great doorway of the Bordj she turned in the palanquin and looked down upon the desert, motioning to the camel-driver to leave the beast for a moment. She put her arm through Androvsky's and made his eyes follow hers across the vast spaces made magical by the sinking sun to that darkness of distant palms which, to her, would be a sacred place for ever. And as they looked in silence all that Beni-Mora meant to her came upon her. She saw again the garden hushed in the heat of noon. She saw Androvsky at her feet on the sand. She heard the chiming church bell and the twitter of Larbi's flute. The dark blue of trees was as the heart of the world to her and as the heart of life. It had seen the birth of her soul and given to her another newborn soul. There was a pathos in seeing it fade like a thing sinking down till it became one with the immeasurable sands, and at that moment she said to herself, "When shall I see Beni-Mora again—and how?" She looked at Androvsky, met his eyes, and thought: "When I see it again how different I shall be! How I shall be changed!" And in the sunset she seemed to be saying a mute good-bye to one who was fading with Beni- Mora.
As soon as they had got off the camel and were standing in the group of staring Arabs, Batouch begged them to come to their tents, where tea would be ready. He led them round the angle of the wall towards the west, and there, pitched in the full radiance of the sunset, with a wide space of hard earth gleaming with gypse around it, was a white tent. Before it, in the open air, was stretched a handsome Arab carpet, and on this carpet were set a folding table and two folding chairs. The table held a japanned tray with tea-cups, a milk jug and plates of biscuits and by it, in an attitude that looked deliberately picturesque stood Ouardi, the youth selected by Batouch to fill the office of butler in the desert.
Ouardi smiled a broad welcome as they approached, and having made sure that his pose had been admired, retired to the cook's abode to fetch the teapot, while Batouch invited Domini and Androvsky to inspect the tent prepared for them. Domini assented with a dropped-out word. She still felt in a dream. But Androvsky, after casting towards the tent door a glance that was full of a sort of fierce shyness, moved away a few steps, and stood at the edge of the hill looking down upon the incoming caravan, whose music was now plainly audible in the stillness of the waste.
Domini went into the tent that was to be their home for many weeks, alone. And she was glad just then that she was alone. For she too, like Androvsky, felt a sort of exquisite trouble moving, like a wave, in her heart. On some pretext, but only after an expression of admiration, she got rid of Batouch. Then she stood and looked round.
From the big tent opened a smaller one, which was to serve Androvsky as a dressing-room and both of them as a baggage room. She did not go into that, but saw, with one glance of soft inquiry, the two small, low beds, the strips of gay carpet, the dressing-table, the stand and the two cane chairs which furnished the sleeping-tent. Then she looked back to the aperture. In the distance, standing alone at the edge of the hill, she saw Androvsky, bathed in the sunset, looking out over the hidden desert from which rose the wild sound of African music, steadily growing louder. It seemed to her as if he must be gazing at the plains of heaven, so magically brilliant and tender, so pellucidly clear and delicate was the atmosphere and the colour of the sky. She saw no other form, only his, in this poem of light, in this wide world of the sinking sun. And the music seemed to be about his feet, to rise from the sand and throb in its breast.
At that moment the figure of Liberty, which she had seen in the shadows of the dancing-house, came in at the tent door and laid, for the first time, her lips on Domini's. That kiss was surely the consecration of the life of the sands. But to-day there had been another consecration. Domini had a sudden impulse to link the two consecrations together.
She drew from her breast the wooden crucifix Androvsky had thrown into the stream at Sidi-Zerzour, and, softly going to one of the beds, she pinned the crucifix above it on the canvas of the tent. Then she turned and went out into the glory of the sunset to meet the fierce music that was rising from the desert.
Night had fallen over the desert, a clear purple night, starry but without a moon. Around the Bordj, and before a Cafe Maure built of brown earth and palm-wood, opposite to it, the Arabs who were halting to sleep at Arba on their journeys to and from Beni-Mora were huddled, sipping coffee, playing dominoes by the faint light of an oil lamp, smoking cigarettes and long pipes of keef. Within the court of the Bordj the mules were feeding tranquilly in rows. The camels roamed the plain among the tamarisk bushes, watched over by shrouded shadowy guardians sleepless as they were. The mountains, the palms of Beni- Mora, were lost in the darkness that lay over the desert.
On the low hill, at some distance beyond the white tent of Domini and Androvsky, the obscurity was lit up fiercely by the blaze of a huge fire of brushwood, the flames of which towered up towards the stars, flickering this way and that as the breeze took them, and casting a wild illumination upon the wild faces of the rejoicing desert men who were gathered about it, telling stories of the wastes, singing songs that were melancholy and remote to Western ears, even though they hymned past victories over the infidels, or passionate ecstasies of love in the golden regions of the sun. The steam from bowls of cous- cous and stews of mutton and vegetables curled up to join the thin smoke that made a light curtain about this fantasia, and from time to time, with a shrill cry of exultation, a half-naked form, all gleaming eyes and teeth and polished bronze-hued limbs, rushed out of the blackness beyond the fire, leaped through the tongues of flame and vanished like a spectre into the embrace of the night.
All the members of the caravan, presided over by Batouch in glory, were celebrating the wedding night of their master and mistress.
Domini and Androvsky had already visited them by their bonfire, had received their compliments, watched the sword dance and the dance of the clubs, touched with their lips, or pretended to touch, the stem of a keef, listened to a marriage song warbled by Ali to the accompaniment of a flute and little drums, and applauded Ouardi's agility in leaping through the flames. Then, with many good-nights, pressures of the hand, and auguries for the morrow, they had gone away into the cool darkness, silently towards their tent.
They walked slowly, a little apart from each other. Domini looked up at the stars and saw among them the star of Liberty. Androvsky looked at her and saw all the stars in her face. When they reached the tent door they stopped on the warm earth. A lamp was lit within, casting a soft light on the simple furniture and on the whiteness of the two beds, above one of which Domini imagined, though from without she could not see, the wooden crucifix Androvsky had once worn in his breast.
"Shall we stay here a little?" Domini said in a low voice. "Out here?" There was a long pause. Then Androvsky answered:
"Yes. Let us feel it all—all. Let us feel it to the full."
He caught hold of her hand with a sort of tender roughness and twined his fingers between hers, pressing his palm against hers.
"Don't let us miss anything to-night," he said. "All my life is to-night. I've had no life yet. To-morrow—who knows whether we shall be dead to-morrow? Who knows? But we're alive to-night, flesh and blood, heart and soul. And there's nothing here, there can be nothing here to take our life from us, the life of our love to-night. For we're out in the desert, we're right away from anyone, everything. We're in the great freedom. Aren't we, Domini? Aren't we?"
"Yes," she said. "Yes."
He took her other hand in the same way. He was facing her, and he held his hands against his heart with hers in them, then pressed her hands against her heart, then drew them back again to his.
"Then let us realise it. Let us forget our prison. Let us forget everything, everything that we ever knew before Beni-Mora, Domini. It's dead, absolutely dead, unless we make it live by thinking. And that's mad, crazy. Thought's the great madness. Domini, have you forgotten everything before we knew each other?"
"Yes," she said. "Now—but only now. You've made me forget it all."
There was a deep breathing under her voice. He held up her hands to his shoulders and looked closely into her eyes, as if he were trying to send all himself into her through those doors of the soul opened to seeing him. And now, in this moment, she felt that her fierce desire was realised, that he was rising above her on eagle's wings. And as on the night before the wedding she had blessed all the sorrows of her life, now she blessed silently all the long silence of Androvsky, all his strange reticence, his uncouthness, his avoidance of her in the beginning of their acquaintance. That which had made her pain by being, now made her joy by having been and being no more. The hidden man was rushing forth to her at last in his love. She seemed to hear in the night the crash of a great obstacle, and the voice of the flood of waters that had broken it down at length and were escaping into liberty. His silence of the past now made his speech intensely beautiful and wonderful to her. She wanted to hear the waters more intensely, more intensely.
"Speak to me," she said. "You've spoken so little. Do you know how little? Tell me all you are. Till now I've only felt all you are. And that's so much, but not enough for a woman—not enough. I've taken you, but now—give me all I've taken. Give—keep on giving and giving. From to-night to receive will be my life. Long ago I've given all I had to you. Give to me, give me everything. You know I've given all."
"All?" he said, and there was a throb in his deep voice, as if some intense feeling rose from the depths of him and shook it.
"Yes, all," she whispered. "Already—and long ago—that day in the garden. When I—when I put my hands against your forehead—do you remember? I gave you all, for ever."
And as she spoke she bent down her face with a sort of proud submission and put her forehead against his heart.
The purity in her voice and in her quiet, simple action dazzled him like a flame shining suddenly in his eyes out of blackness. And he, too, in that moment saw far up above him the beating of an eagle's wings. To each one the other seemed to be on high, and as both looked up that was their true marriage.
"I felt it," he said, touching her hair with his lips. "I felt it in your hands. When you touched me that day it was as if you were giving me the world and the stars. It frightened me to receive so much. I felt as if I had no place to put my gift in."
"Did your heart seem so small?" she said.
"You make everything I have and am seem small—and yet great. What does it mean?"
"That you are great, as I am, because we love. No one is small who loves. No one is poor, no one is bad, who loves. Love burns up evil. It's the angel that destroys."
Her words seemed to send through his whole body a quivering joy. He took her face between his hands and lifted it from his heart.
"Is that true? Is that true?" he said. "I've—I've tried to think that. If you know how I've tried."
"And don't you know it is true?"
"I don't feel as if I knew anything that you do not tell me to-night. I don't feel as if I have, or am, anything but what you give me, make me to-night. Can you understand that? Can you understand what you are to me? That you are everything, that I have nothing else, that I have never had anything else in all these years that I have lived and that I have forgotten? Can you understand it? You said just now 'Speak to me, tell me all you are.' That's what I am, all I am, a man you have made a man. You, Domini—you have made me a man, you have created me."
She was silent. The intensity with which he spoke, the intensity of his eyes while he was speaking, made her hear those rushing waters as if she were being swept away by them.
"And you?" he said. "You?"
"This afternoon in the desert, when we were in the sand looking at Beni-Mora, you began to tell me something and then you stopped. And you said, 'I can't tell you. There's too much light.' Now the sun has gone."
"Yes. But—but I want to listen to you. I want——"
She stopped. In the distance, by the great fire where the Arabs were assembled, there rose a sound of music which arrested her attention. Ali was singing, holding in his hand a brand from the fire like a torch. She had heard him sing before, and had loved the timbre of his voice, but only now did she realise when she had first heard him and who he was. It was he who, hidden from her, had sung the song of the freed negroes of Touggourt in the gardens of Count Anteoni that day when she had been angry with Androvsky and had afterwards been reconciled with him. And she knew now it was he, because, once more hidden from her—for against the curtain of darkness she only saw the flame from the torch he held and moved rhythmically to the burden of his song—he was singing it again. Androvsky, when she ceased to speak, suddenly put his arms round her, as if he were afraid of her escaping from him in her silence, and they stood thus at the tent door listening:
"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."
The chorus of hidden men by the fire rose in a low murmur that was like the whisper of the desert in the night. Then the contralto voice of Ali came to Domini and Androvsky again, but very faintly, from the distance where the flaming torch was moving:
"No one but God and I
Knows what is in my heart."
When the voice died away for a moment Domini whispered the refrain. Then she said:
"But is it true? Can it be true for us to-night?"
Androvsky did not reply.
"I don't think it is true," she added. "You know—don't you?"
The voice of Ali rose again, and his torch flickered on the soft wind of the night. Its movement was slow and eerie. It seemed like his voice made visible, a voice of flame in the blackness of the world. They watched it. Presently she said once more:
"You know what is in my heart—don't you?"
"Do I?" he said. "All?"
"All. My heart is full of one thing—quite full."
"Then I know."
"And," she hesitated, then added, "and yours?"
"I know all that is in it then?"
She still spoke questioningly. He did not reply, but held her more closely, with a grasp that was feverish in its intensity.
"Do you remember," she went on, "in the garden what you said about that song?"
"You have forgotten?"
"I told you," he said, "I mean to forget everything."
"Everything before we came to Beni-Mora?"
"And more. Everything before you put your hands against my forehead, Domini. Your touch blotted out the past."
"Even the past at Beni-Mora?"
"Yes, even that. There are many things I did and left undone, many things I said and never said that—I have forgotten—I have forgotten for ever."
There was a sternness in his voice now, a fiery intention.
"I understand," she said. "I have forgotten them too, but not some things."
"Not that night when you took me out of the dancing-house, not our ride to Sidi-Zerzour, not—there are things I shall remember. When I am dying, after I am dead, I shall remember them."
The song faded away. The torch was still, then fell downwards and became one with the fire. Then Androvsky drew Domini down beside him on to the warm earth before the tent door, and held her hand in his against the earth.
"Feel it," he said. "It's our home, it's our liberty. Does it feel alive to you?"
"As if it had pulses, like the pulses in our hearts, and knew what we know?"
"Yes. Mother Earth—I never understood what that meant till to-night."
"We are beginning to understand together. Who can understand anything alone?"
He kept her hand always in his pressed against the desert as against a heart. They both thought of it as a heart that was full of love and protection for them, of understanding of them. Going back to their words before the song of Ali, he said:
"Love burns up evil, then love can never be evil."
"Not the act of loving."
"Or what it leads to," he said.
And again there was a sort of sternness in his voice, as if he were insisting on something, were bent on conquering some reluctance, or some voice contradicting.
"I know that you are right," he added.
She did not speak, but—why she did not know—her thought went to the wooden crucifix fastened in the canvas of the tent close by, and for a moment she felt a faint creeping sadness in her. But he pressed her hand more closely, and she was conscious only of these two warmths—- of his hand above her hand and of the desert beneath it. Her whole life seemed set in a glory of fire, in a heat that was life-giving, that dominated her and evoked at the same time all of power that was in her, causing her dormant fires, physical and spiritual, to blaze up as if they were sheltered and fanned. The thought of the crucifix faded. It was as if the fire destroyed it and it became ashes—then nothing. She fixed her eyes on the distant fire of the Arabs, which was beginning to die down slowly as the night grew deeper.
"I have doubted many things," he said. "I've been afraid."
"You!" she said.
"Yes. You know it."
"How can I? Haven't I forgotten everything—since that day in the garden?"
He drew up her hand and put it against his heart.
"I'm jealous of the desert even," he whispered. "I won't let you touch it any more tonight."
He looked into her eyes and saw that she was looking at the distant fire, steadily, with an intense eagerness.
"Why do you do that?" he said.
"To-night I like to look at fire," she answered.
"Tell me why."
"It is as if I looked at you, at all that there is in you that you have never said, never been able to say to me, all that you never can say to me but that I know all the same."
"But," he said, "that fire is——"
He did not finish the sentence, but put up his hand and turned her face till she was looking, not at the fire, but at him.
"It is not like me," he said. "Men made it, and—it's a fire that can sink into ashes."
An expression of sudden exaltation shone in her eyes.
"And God made you," she said. "And put into you the spark that is eternal."
And now again she thought, she dared, she loved to think of the crucifix and of the moment when he would see it in the tent.
"And God made you love me," she said. "What is it?"
Androvsky had moved suddenly, as if he were going to get up from the warm ground.
"No," he said in a low voice. "Go on, Domini. Speak to me."
He sat still.
A sudden longing came to her to know if to-night he were feeling as she was the sacredness of their relation to each other. Never had they spoken intimately of religion or of the mysteries that lie beyond and around human life. Once or twice, when she had been about to open her heart to him, to let him understand her deep sense of the things unseen, something had checked her, something in him. It was as if he had divined her intention and had subtly turned her from it, without speech, merely by the force of his inward determination that she should not break through his reserve. But to-night, with his hand on hers and the starry darkness above them, with the waste stretching around them, and the cool air that was like the breath of liberty upon their faces, she was unconscious of any secret, combative force in him. It was impossible to her to think there could have been any combat, however inward, however subtle, between them. Surely if it were ever permitted to two natures to be in perfect accord theirs were in perfect accord to-night.
"I never felt the presence of God in His world so keenly as I feel it to-night," she went on, drawing a little closer to him. "Even in the church to-day He seemed farther away than tonight. But somehow—one has these thoughts without knowing why—I have always believed that the farther I went into the desert the nearer I should come to God."
Androvsky moved again. The clasp of his hand on hers loosened, but he did not take his hand away.
"Why should—what should make you think that?" he asked slowly.
"Don't you know what the Arabs call the desert?"
"No. What do they call it?"
"The Garden of Allah."
"The Garden of Allah!" he repeated.
There was a sound like fear in his voice. Even her great joy did not prevent her from noticing it, and she remembered, with a thrill of pain, where and under what circumstances she had first heard the Arab's name for the desert.
Could it be that this man she loved was secretly afraid of something in the desert, some influence, some—? Her thought stopped short, like a thing confused.
"Don't you think it a very beautiful name?" she asked, with an almost fierce longing to be reassured, to be made to know that he, like her, loved the thought that God was specially near to those who travelled in this land of solitude.
"Is it beautiful?"
"To me it is. It makes me feel as if in the desert I were specially watched over and protected, even as if I were specially loved there."
Suddenly Androvsky put his arm round her and strained her to him.
"By me! By me!" he said. "Think of me to-night, only of me, as I think only of you."
He spoke as if he were jealous even of her thought of God, as if he did not understand that it was the very intensity of her love for him that made her, even in the midst of the passion of the body, connect their love of each other with God's love of them. In her heart this overpowering human love which, in the garden, when first she realised it fully, had seemed to leave no room in her for love of God, now in the moment when it was close to absolute satisfaction seemed almost to be one with her love of God. Perhaps no man could understand how, in a good woman, the two streams of the human love which implies the intense desire of the flesh, and the mystical love which is absolutely purged of that desire, can flow the one into the other and mingle their waters. She tried to think that, and then she ceased to try. Everything was forgotten as his arms held her fast in the night, everything except this great force of human love which was like iron, and yet soft about her, which was giving and wanting, which was concentrated upon her to the exclusion of all else, plunging the universe in darkness and setting her in light.
"There is nothing for me to-night but you," he said, crushing her in his arms. "The desert is your garden. To me it has always been your garden, only that, put here for you, and for me because you love me— but for me only because of that."
The Arabs' fire was rapidly dying down.
"When it goes out, when it goes out!" Androvsky whispered it her ear.
His breath stirred the thick tresses of her hair.
"Let us watch it!" he whispered.
She pressed his hand but did not reply. She could not speak any more. At last the something wild and lawless, the something that was more than passionate, that was hot and even savage in her nature, had risen up in its full force to face a similar force in him, which insistently called it and which it answered without shame.
"It is dying," Androvsky said. "It is dying. Look how small the circle of the flame is, how the darkness is creeping up about it! Domini—do you see?"
She pressed his hand again.
"Do you long for the darkness?" he asked. "Do you, Domini? The desert is sending it. The desert is sending it for you, and for me because you love me."
A log in the fire, charred by the flames, broke in two. Part of it fell down into the heart of the fire, which sent up a long tongue of red gold flame.
"That is like us," he said. "Like us together in the darkness."
She felt his body trembling, as if the vehemence of the spirit confined within it shook it. In the night the breeze slightly increased, making the flame of the lamp behind them in the tent flicker. And the breeze was like a message, brought to them from the desert by some envoy in the darkness, telling them not to be afraid of their wonderful gift of freedom with each other, but to take it open- handed, open-hearted, with the great courage of joy.
"Domini, did you feel that gust of the wind? It carried away a cloud of sparks from the fire and brought them a little way towards us. Did you see? Fire wandering on the wind through the night calling to the fire that is in us. Wasn't it beautiful? Everything is beautiful to-night. There were never such stars before."
She looked up at them. Often she had watched the stars, and known the vague longings, the almost terrible aspirations they wake in their watchers. But to her also they looked different to-night, nearer to the earth, she thought, brighter, more living than ever before, like strange tenderness made visible, peopling the night with an unconquerable sympathy. The vast firmament was surely intent upon their happiness. Again the breeze came to them across the waste, cool and breathing of the dryness of the sands. Not far away a jackal laughed. After a pause it was answered by another jackal at a distance. The voices of these desert beasts brought home to Domini with an intimacy not felt by her before the exquisite remoteness of their situation, and the shrill, discordant noise, rising and falling with a sort of melancholy and sneering mirth, mingled with bitterness, was like a delicate music in her ears.
"Hark!" Androvsky whispered.
The first jackal laughed once more, was answered again. A third beast, evidently much farther off, lifted up a faint voice like a dismal echo. Then there was silence.
"You loved that, Domini. It was like the calling of freedom to you— and to me. We've found freedom; we've found it. Let us feel it. Let us take hold of it. It is the only thing, the only thing. But you can't know that as I do, Domini."
Again she was conscious that his intensity surpassed hers, and the consciousness, instead of saddening or vexing, made her thrill with joy.
"I am maddened by this freedom," he said; "maddened by it, Domini. I can't help—I can't—"
He laid his lips upon hers in a desperate caress that almost suffocated her. Then he took his lips away from her lips and kissed her throat, holding her head back against his shoulder. She shut her eyes. He was indeed teaching her to forget. Even the memory of the day in the garden when she heard the church bell chime and the sound of Larbi's flute went from her. She remembered nothing any more. The past was lost or laid in sleep by the spell of sensation. Her nature galloped like an Arab horse across the sands towards the sun, towards the fire that sheds warmth afar but that devours all that draws near to it. At that moment she connected Androvsky with the tremendous fires eternally blazing in the sun. She had a desire that he should hurt her in the passionate intensity of his love for her. Her nature, which till now had been ever ready to spring into hostility at an accidental touch, which had shrunk instinctively from physical contact with other human beings, melted, was utterly transformed. She felt that she was now the opposite of all that she had been—more woman than any other woman who had ever lived. What had been an almost cold strength in her went to increase the completeness of this yielding to one stronger than herself. What had seemed boyish and almost hard in her died away utterly under the embrace of this fierce manhood.
"Domini," he spoke, whispering while he kissed her, "Domini, the fire's gone out. It's dark."
He lifted her a little in his arms, still kissing her.
"Domini, it's dark, it's dark."
He lifted her more. She stood up, with his arms about her, looking towards where the fire had been. She put her hands against his face and softly pressed it back from hers, but with a touch that was a caress. He yielded to her at once.
"Look!" he said. "Do you love the darkness? Tell me—tell me that you love it."
She let her hand glide over his cheek in answer.
"Look at it. Love it. All the desert is in it, and our love in the desert. Let us stay in the desert, let us stay in it for ever—for ever. It is your garden—yours. It has brought us everything, Domini."
He took her hand and pressed it again and again over his cheek lingeringly. Then, abruptly, he dropped it.
"Come!" he said. "Domini."
And he drew her in through the tent door almost violently.
A stronger gust of the night wind followed them. Androvsky took his arms slowly from Domini and turned to let down the flap of the tent. While he was doing this she stood quite still. The flame of the lamp flickered, throwing its light now here, now there, uneasily. She saw the crucifix lit up for an instant and the white bed beneath it. The wind stirred her dark hair and was cold about her neck. But the warmth there met and defied it. In that brief moment, while Androvsky was fastening the tent, she seemed to live through centuries of intense and complicated emotion. When the light flickered over the crucifix she felt as if she could spend her life in passionate adoration at its foot; but when she did not see it, and the wind, coming in from the desert through the tent door, where she heard the movement of Androvsky, stirred in her hair, she felt reckless, wayward, savage— and something more. A cry rose in her that was like the cry of a stranger, who yet was of her and in her, and from whom she would not part.
Again the lamp flame flickered upon the crucifix. Quickly, while she saw the crucifix plainly, she went forward to the bed and fell on her knees by it, bending down her face upon its whiteness.
When Androvsky had fastened the tent door he turned round and saw her kneeling. He stood quite still as if petrified, staring at her. Then, as the flame, now sheltered from the wind, burned steadily, he saw the crucifix. He started as if someone had struck him, hesitated, then, with a look of fierce and concentrated resolution on his face, went swiftly to the crucifix and pulled it from the canvas roughly. He held it in his hand for an instant, then moved to the tent door and stooped to unfasten the cords that held it to the pegs, evidently with the intention of throwing the crucifix out into the night. But he did not unfasten the cords. Something—some sudden change of feeling, some secret and powerful reluctance—checked him. He thrust the crucifix into his pocket. Then, returning to where Domini was kneeling, he put his arms round her and drew her to her feet.
She did not resist him. Still holding her in his arms he blew out the lamp.
The Arabs have a saying, "In the desert one forgets everything, one remembers nothing any more."
To Domini it sometimes seemed the truest of all the true and beautiful sayings of the East. Only three weeks had passed away since the first halt at Arba, yet already her life at Beni-Mora was faint in her mind as the dream of a distant past. Taken by the vast solitudes, journeying without definite aim from one oasis to another through empty regions bathed in eternal sunshine, camping often in the midst of the sand by one of the wells sunk for the nomads by the French engineers, strengthened perpetually, yet perpetually soothed, by airs that were soft and cool, as if mingled of silk and snow, they lived surely in a desert dream with only a dream behind them. They had become as one with the nomads, whose home is the moving tent, whose hearthstone is the yellow sand of the dunes, whose God is liberty.
Domini loved this life with a love which had already become a passion. All that she had imagined that the desert might be to her she found that it was. In its so-called monotony she discovered eternal interest. Of old she had thought the sea the most wonderful thing in Nature. In the desert she seemed to possess the sea with something added to it, a calm, a completeness, a mystical tenderness, a passionate serenity. She thought of the sea as a soul striving to fulfil its noblest aspirations, to be the splendid thing it knew how to dream of. But she thought of the desert as a soul that need strive no more, having attained. And she, like the Arabs, called it always in her heart the Garden of Allah. For in this wonderful calm, bright as the child's idea of heaven; clear as a crystal with a sunbeam caught in it, silent as a prayer that will be answered silently, God seemed to draw very near to His wandering children. In the desert was the still, small voice, and the still, small voice was the Lord.
Often at dawn or sundown, when, perhaps in the distance of the sands, or near at hand beneath the shade of the palms of some oasis by a waterspring, she watched the desert men in their patched rags, with their lean, bronzed faces and eagle eyes turned towards Mecca, bowing their heads in prayer to the soil that the sun made hot, she remembered Count Anteoni's words, "I like to see men praying in the desert," and she understood with all her heart and soul why. For the life of the desert was the most perfect liberty that could be found on earth, and to see men thus worshipping in liberty set before her a vision of free will upon the heights. When she thought of the world she had known and left, of the men who would always live in it and know no other world, she was saddened for a moment. Could she ever find elsewhere such joy as she had found in the simple and unfettered life of the wastes? Could she ever exchange this life for another life, even with Androvsky?
One day she spoke to him of her intense joy in the wandering fate, and the pain that came to her whenever she thought of exchanging it for a life of civilisation in the midst of fixed groups of men.
They had halted for the noonday rest at a place called Sidi-Hamdam, and in the afternoon were going to ride on to a Bordj called Mogar, where they meant to stay two or three days, as Batouch had told them it was a good halting place, and near to haunts of the gazelle. The tents had already gone forward, and Domini and Androvsky were lying upon a rug spread on the sand, in the shadow of the grey wall of a traveller's house beside a well. Behind them their horses were tethered to an iron ring in the wall. Batouch and Ali were in the court of the house, talking to the Arab guardian who dwelt there, but their voices were not audible by the well, and absolute silence reigned, the intense yet light silence that is in the desert at noontide, when the sun is at the zenith, when the nomad sleeps under his low-pitched tent, and the gardeners in the oasis cease even from pretending to work among the palms. From before the well the ground sank to a plain of pale grey sand, which stretched away to a village hard in aspect, as if carved out of bronze and all in one piece. In the centre of it rose a mosque with a minaret and a number of cupolas, faintly gilded and shining modestly under the fierce rays of the sun.
At the foot of the village the ground was white with saltpetre, which resembled a covering of new-fallen snow. To right and left of it were isolated groups of palms growing in threes and fours, like trees that had formed themselves into cliques and set careful barriers of sand between themselves and their despised brethren. Here and there on the grey sand dark patches showed where nomads had pitched their tents. But there was no movement of human life. No camels were visible. No guard dogs barked. The noon held all things in its golden grip.
"Boris!" Domini said, breaking a long silence.
He turned towards her on the rug, stretching his long, thin body lazily as if in supreme physical contentment.
"You know that saying of the Arabs about forgetting everything in the desert?"
"Yes, Domini, I know it."
"How long shall we stay in this world of forgetfulness?"
He lifted himself up on his elbow quickly, and fixed his eyes on hers.
"But—do you wish to leave it? Are you tired of it?"
There was a note of sharp anxiety in his voice.
"I don't answer such a question," she said, smiling at him.
"Ah, then, why do you try to frighten me?"
She put her hand in his.
"How burnt you are!" she said. "You are like an Arab of the South."
"Let me become more like one. There's health here."
"And peace, perfect peace."
He said nothing. He was looking down now at the sand.
She laid her lips on his warm brown hand.
"There's all I want here," she added.
"Let us stay here."
"But some day we must go back, mustn't we?"
"Can anything be lifelong—even our honeymoon?"
"Suppose we choose that it shall be?"
"Can we choose such a thing? Is anybody allowed to choose to live always quite happily without duties? Sometimes I wonder. I love this wandering life so much, I am so happy in it, that I sometimes think it cannot last much longer."
He began to sift the sand through his fingers swiftly.
"Duties?" he said in a low voice.
"Yes. Oughtn't we to do something presently, something besides being happy?"
"What do you mean, Domini?"
"I hardly know, I don't know. You tell me."
There was an urging in her voice, as if she wanted, almost demanded, something of him.
"You mean that a man must do some work in his life if he is to keep himself a man," he said, not as if he were asking a question.
He spoke reluctantly but firmly.
"You know," he added, "that I have worked hard all my life, hard like a labourer."
"Yes, I know," she said.
She stroked his hand, that was worn and rough, and spoke eloquently of manual toil it had accomplished in the past.
"I know. Before we were married, that day when we sat in the garden, you told me your life and I told you mine. How different they have been!"
"Yes," he said.
He lit a cigar and watched the smoke curling up into the gold of the sunlit atmosphere.
"Mine in the midst of the world and yours so far away from it. I often imagine that little place, El Krori, the garden, your brother, your twin-brother Stephen, that one-eyed Arab servant—what was his name?"
"Yes, El Magin, who taught you to play Cora and to sing Arab songs, and to eat cous-cous with your fingers. I can almost see Father Andre, from whom you learnt to love the Classics, and who talked to you of philosophy. He's dead too, isn't he, like your mother?"
"I don't know whether Pere Andre is dead. I have lost sight of him," Androvsky said.
He still looked steadily at the rings of smoke curling up into the golden air. There was in his voice a sound of embarrassment. She guessed that it came from the consciousness of the pain he must have caused the good priest who had loved him when he ceased from practising the religion in which he had been brought up. Even to her he never spoke frankly on religious subjects, but she knew that he had been baptised a Catholic and been educated for a time by priests. She knew, too, that he was no longer a practising Catholic, and that, for some reason, he dreaded any intimacy with priests. He never spoke against them. He had scarcely ever spoken of them to her. But she remembered his words in the garden, "I do not care for priests." She remembered, too, his action in the tunnel on the day of his arrival in Beni-Mora. And the reticence that they both preserved on the subject of religion, and its reason, were the only causes of regret in this desert dream of hers. Even this regret, too, often faded in hope. For in the desert, the Garden of Allah, she had it borne in upon her that Androvsky would discover what he must surely secretly be seeking—the truth that each man must find for himself, truth for him of the eventual existence in which the mysteries of this present existence will be made plain, and of the Power that has fashioned all things.
And she was able to hope in silence, as women do for the men they love.
"Don't think I do not realise that you have worked," she went on after a pause. "You told me how you always cultivated the land yourself, even when you were still a boy, that you directed the Spanish labourers in the vineyards, that—you have earned a long holiday. But should it last for ever?"
"You are right. Well, let us take an oasis; let us become palm gardeners like that Frenchman at Meskoutine."
"And build ourselves an African house, white, with a terrace roof."
"And sell our dates. We can give employment to the Arabs. We can choose the poorest. We can improve their lives. After all, if we owe a debt to anyone it is to them, to the desert. Let us pay our debt to the desert men and live in the desert."
"It would be an ideal life," she said with her eyes shining on his.
"And a possible life. Let us live it. I could not bear to leave the desert. Where should we go?"
"Where should we go!" she repeated.
She was still looking at him, but now the expression of her eyes had quite changed. They had become grave, and examined him seriously with a sort of deep inquiry. He sat upon the Arab rug, leaning his back against the wall of the traveller's house.
"Why do you look at me like that, Domini?" he asked with a sudden stirring of something that was like uneasiness.
"I! I was wondering what you would like, what other life would suit you."
"Yes?" he said quickly. "Yes?"
"It's very strange, Boris, but I cannot connect you with anything but the desert, or see you anywhere but in the desert. I cannot even imagine you among your vines in Tunisia."
"They were not altogether mine," he corrected, still with a certain excitement which he evidently endeavoured to repress. "I—I had the right, the duty of cultivating the land."
"Well, however it was, you were always at work; you were responsible, weren't you?"
"I can't see you even in the vineyards or the wheat-fields. Isn't it strange?"
She was always looking at him with the same deep and wholly unselfconscious inquiry.
"And as to London, Paris—"
Suddenly she burst into a little laugh and her gravity vanished.
"I think you would hate them," she said. "And they—they wouldn't like you because they wouldn't understand you."
"Let us buy our oasis," he said abruptly. "Build our African house, sell our dates and remain in the desert. I hear Batouch. It must be time to ride on to Mogar. Batouch! Batouch!"
Batouch came from the courtyard of the house wiping the remains of a cous-cous from his languid lips.
"Untie the horses," said Androvsky.
"But, Monsieur, it is still too hot to travel. Look! No one is stirring. All the village is asleep."
He waved his enormous hand, with henna-tinted nails, towards the distant town, carved surely out of one huge piece of bronze.
"Untie the horses. There are gazelle in the plain near Mogar. Didn't you tell me?"
"Yes, Monsieur, but—"
"We'll get there early and go out after them at sunset. Now, Domini."
They rode away in the burning heat of the noon towards the southwest across the vast plains of grey sand, followed at a short distance by Batouch and Ali.
"Monsieur is mad to start in the noon," grumbled Batouch. "But Monsieur is not like Madame. He may live in the desert till he is old and his hair is grey as the sand, but he will never be an Arab in his heart."
"He cannot rest. To Madame the desert gives its calm, but to Monsieur—" He did not finish his sentence. In front Domini and Androvsky had put their horses to a gallop. The sand flew up in a thin cloud around them.
"Nom d'un chien!" said Batouch, who, in unpoetical moments, occasionally indulged in the expletives of the French infidels who were his country's rulers. "What is there in the mind of Monsieur which makes him ride as if he fled from an enemy?"
"I know not, but he goes like a hare before the sloughi, Batouch-ben Brahim," answered Ali, gravely.
Then they sent their horses on in chase of the cloud of sand towards the southwest.
About four in the afternoon they reached the camp at Mogar.
As they rode in slowly, for their horses were tired and streaming with heat after their long canter across the sands, both Domini and Androvsky were struck by the novelty of this halting-place, which was quite unlike anything they had yet seen. The ground rose gently but continuously for a considerable time before they saw in the distance the pitched tents with the dark forms of the camels and mules. Here they were out of the sands, and upon hard, sterile soil covered with small stones embedded in the earth. Beyond the tents they could see nothing but the sky, which was now covered with small, ribbed grey clouds, sad-coloured and autumnal, and a lonely tower built of stone, which rose from the waste at about two hundred yards from the tents to the east. Although they could see so little, however, they were impressed with a sensation that they were on the edge of some vast vision, of some grandiose effect of Nature, that would bring to them a new and astonishing knowledge of the desert. Perhaps it was the sight of the distant tower pointing to the grey clouds that stirred in them this almost excited feeling of expectation.
"It is like a watch-tower," Domini said, pointing with her whip. "But who could live in such a place, far from any oasis?"
"And what can it overlook?" said Androvsky. "This is the nearest horizon line we have seen since we came into the desert."
She glanced at him as they put their horses into a gentle canter. Then she added:
"You, too, feel that we are coming to something tremendous, don't you?
Her horse whinnied shrilly. Domini stroked his foam-flecked neck with her hand.
"Abou is as full of anticipation as we are," she said. Androvsky was looking towards the tower.
"That was built for French soldiers," he said. A moment afterwards he added:
"I wonder why Batouch chose this place for us to camp in?"
There was a faint sound as of irritation in his voice.
"Perhaps we shall know in a minute," Domini answered. They cantered on. Their horses' hoofs rang with a hard sound on the stony ground.
"It's inhospitable here," Androvsky said. She looked at him in surprise.
"I never knew you to take a dislike to any halting-place before," she said. "What's the matter, Boris?"
He smiled at her, but almost immediately his face was clouded by the shadow of a gloom that seemed to respond to the gloom of the sky. And he fixed his eyes again upon the tower.
"I like a far horizon," he answered. "And there's no sun to-day."
"I suppose even in the desert we cannot have it always," she said. And in her voice, too, there was a touch of melancholy, as if she had caught his mood. A minute later she added:
"I feel exactly as if I were on a hill top and were coming to a view of the sea."
Almost as she spoke they cantered in among the tents of the attendants, and reined in their horses at the edge of a slope that was almost a precipice. Then they sat still in their saddles, gazing.
They had been living for weeks in the midst of vastness, and had become accustomed to see stretched out around them immense tracts of land melting away into far blue distances, but this view from Mogar made them catch their breath and stiffed their pulses.
It was gigantic. There was even something unnatural in its appearance of immensity, as if it were, perhaps, deceptive, and existed in their vision of it only. So, surely, might look a plain to one who had taken haschish, which enlarges, makes monstrous and threateningly terrific. Domini had a feeling that no human eyes could really see such infinite tracts of land and water as those she seemed to be seeing at this moment. For there was water here, in the midst of the desert. Infinite expanses of sea met infinite plains of snow. Or so it seemed to both of them. And the sea was grey and calm as a winter sea, breathing its plaint along a winter land. From it, here and there, rose islets whose low cliffs were a deep red like the red of sandstone, a sad colour that suggests tragedy, islets that looked desolate, and as if no life had ever been upon them, or could be. Back from the snowy plains stretched sand dunes of the palest primrose colour, sand dunes innumerable, myriads and myriads of them, rising and falling, rising and falling, till they were lost in the grey distance of this silent world. In the foreground, at their horses' feet, wound from the hill summit a broad track faintly marked in the deep sand, and flanked by huge dunes shaped, by the action of the winds, into grotesque semblances of monsters, leviathans, beasts with prodigious humps, sphinxes, whales. This track was presently lost in the blanched plains. Far away, immeasurably far, sea and snow blended and faded into the cloudy grey. Above the near dunes two desert eagles were slowly wheeling in a weary flight, occasionally sinking towards the sand, then rising again towards the clouds. And the track was strewn with the bleached bones of camels that had perished, or that had been slaughtered, on some long desert march.
To the left of them the solitary tower commanded this terrific vision of desolation, seemed to watch it steadily, yet furtively, with its tiny loophole eyes.
"We have come into winter," Domini murmured.
She looked at the white of the camels' bones, of the plains, at the grey white of the sky, at the yellow pallor of the dunes.
"How wonderful! How terrible!" she said.
She drew her horse to one side, a little nearer to Androvsky's.
"Does the Russian in you greet this land?" she asked him.
He did not reply. He seemed to be held in thrall by the sad immensity before them.
"I realise here what it must be to die in the desert, to be killed by it—by hunger, by thirst in it," she said presently, speaking, as if to herself, and looking out over the mirage sea, the mirage snow. "This is the first time I have really felt the terror of the desert."
Her horse drooped its head till its nose nearly touched the earth, and shook itself in a long shiver. She shivered too, as if constrained to echo an animal's distress.
"Things have died here," Androvsky said, speaking at last in a low voice and pointing with his long-lashed whip towards the camels' skeletons. "Come, Domini, the horses are tired."
He cast another glance at the tower, and they dismounted by their tent, which was pitched at the very edge of the steep slope that sank down to the beast-like shapes of the near dunes.
An hour later Domini said to Androvsky:
"You won't go after gazelle this evening surely?"
They had been having coffee in the tent and had just finished. Androvsky got up from his chair and went to the tent door. The grey of the sky was pierced by a gleaming shaft from the sun.
"Do you mind if I go?" he said, turning towards her after a glance to the desert.
"No, but aren't you tired?"
He shook his head.
"I couldn't ride, and now I can ride. I couldn't shoot, and I'm just beginning—"
"Go," she said quickly. "Besides, we want gazelle for dinner, Batouch says, though I don't suppose we should starve without it." She came to the tent door and stood beside him, and he put his arm around her.
"If I were alone here, Boris," she said, leaning against his shoulder, "I believe I should feel horribly sad to-day."
"Shall I stay?"
He pressed her against him.
"No. I shall know you are coming back. Oh, how extraordinary it is to think we lived so many years without knowing of each other's existence, that we lived alone. Were you ever happy?"
He hesitated before he replied.
"I sometimes thought I was."
"But do you think now you ever really were?"
"I don't know—perhaps in a lonely sort of way."
"You can never be happy in that way now?"
He said nothing, but, after a moment, he kissed her long and hard, and as if he wanted to draw her being into his through the door of his lips.
"Good-bye," he said, releasing her. "I shall be back directly after sundown."
"Yes. Don't wait for the dark down there. If you were lost in the dunes!"
She pointed to the distant sand hills rising and falling monotonously to the horizon.
"If you are not back in good time," she said, "I shall stand by the tower and wave a brand from the fire."
"Why by the tower?"
"The ground is highest by the tower."
She watched him ride away on a mule, with two Arabs carrying guns. They went towards the plains of saltpetre that looked like snow beside the sea that was only a mirage. Then she turned back into the tent, took up a volume of Fromentin's, and sat down in a folding-chair at the tent door. She read a little, but it was difficult to read with the mirage beneath her. Perpetually her eyes were attracted from the book to its mystery and plaintive sadness, that was like the sadness of something unearthly, of a spirit that did not move but that suffered. She did not put away the book, but presently she laid it down on her knees, open, and sat gazing. Androvsky had disappeared with the Arabs into some fold of the sands. The sun-ray had vanished with him. Without Androvsky and the sun—she still connected them together, and knew she would for ever.
The melancholy of this desert scene was increased for her till it became oppressive and lay upon her like a heavy weight. She was not a woman inclined to any morbid imaginings. Indeed, all that was morbid roused in her an instinctive disgust. But the sudden greyness of the weather, coming after weeks of ardent sunshine, and combined with the fantastic desolation of the landscape, which was half real and half unreal, turned her for the moment towards a dreariness of spirit that was rare in her.
She realised suddenly, as she looked and did not see Androvsky even as a black and moving speck upon the plain; what the desert would seem to her without him, even in sunshine, the awfulness of the desolation of it, the horror of its distances. And realising this she also realised the uncertainty of the human life in connection with any other human life. To be dependent on another is to double the sum of the terrors of uncertainty. She had done that.
If the immeasurable sands took Androvsky and never gave him back to her! What would she do?
She gazed at the mirage sea with its dim red islands, and at the sad white plains along its edge.
Winter—she would be plunged in eternal winter. And each human life hangs on a thread. All deep love, all consuming passion, holds a great fear within the circle of a great glory. To-day the fear within the circle of her glory seemed to grow. But she suddenly realised that she ought to dominate it, to confine it—as it were—to its original and permanent proportions.
She got up, came out upon the edge of the hill, and walked along it slowly towards the tower.
Outside, freed from the shadow of the tent, she felt less oppressed, though still melancholy, and even slightly apprehensive, as if some trouble were coming to her and were near at hand. Mentally she had made the tower the limit of her walk, and therefore when she reached it she stood still.
It was a squat, square tower, strongly constructed, with loopholes in the four sides, and now that she was by it she saw built out at the back of it a low house with small shuttered windows and a narrow courtyard for mules. No doubt Androvsky was right and French soldiers had once been here to work the optic telegraph. She thought of the recruits and of Marseilles, of Notre Dame de la Garde, the Mother of God, looking towards Africa. Such recruits came to live in such strange houses as this tower lost in the desert and now abandoned. She glanced at the shuttered windows and turned back towards the tent; but something in the situation of the tower—perhaps the fact that it was set on the highest point of the ground—attracted her, and she presently made Batouch bring her out some rugs and ensconced herself under its shadow, facing the mirage sea.
How long she sat there she did not know. Mirage hypnotises the imaginative and suggests to them dreams strange and ethereal, sad sometimes, as itself. How long she might have sat there dreaming, but for an interruption, she knew still less. It was towards evening, however, but before evening had fallen, that a weary and travel- stained party of three French soldiers, Zouaves, and an officer rode slowly up the sandy track from the dunes. They were mounted on mules, and carried their small baggage with them on two led mules. When they reached the top of the hill they turned to the right and came towards the tower. The officer was a little in advance of his men. He was a smart-looking, fair man of perhaps thirty-two, with blonde moustaches, blue eyes with blonde lashes, and hair very much the colour of the sand dunes. His face was bright red, burnt, as a fair delicate skin burns, by the sun. His eyes, although protected by large sun spectacles, were inflamed. The skin was peeling from his nose. His hair was full of sand, and he rode leaning forward over his animal's neck, holding the reins loosely in his hands, that seemed nerveless from fatigue. Yet he looked smart and well-bred despite his evident exhaustion, as if on parade he would be a dashing officer. It was evident that both he and his men were riding in from some tremendous journey. The latter looked dog-tired, scarcely human in their collapse. They kept on their mules with difficulty, shaking this way and that like sacks, with their unshaven chins wagging loosely up and down. But as they saw the tower they began to sing in chorus half under their breath, and leaning their broad hands on the necks of the beasts for support they looked with a sort of haggard eagerness in its direction.
Domini was roused from her contemplation of the mirage and the daydreams it suggested by the approach of this small cavalcade. The officer was almost upon her ere she heard the clatter of his mule among the stones. She looked up, startled, and he looked down, even more surprised, apparently, to see a lady ensconced at the foot of the tower. His astonishment and exhaustion did not, however, get the better of his instinctive good breeding, and sitting straight up in the saddle he took off his sun helmet and asked Domini's pardon for disturbing her.
"But this is my home for the night, Madame," he added, at the same time drawing a key from the pocket of his loose trousers. "And I'm thankful to reach it. Ma foi! there have been several moments in the last days when I never thought to see Mogar."
Slowly he swung himself off his mule and stood up, catching on to the saddle with one hand.
"F-f-f-f!" he said, pursing his lips. "I can hardly stand. Excuse me, Madame."
Domini had got up.
"You are tired out," she said, looking at him and his men, who had now come up, with interest.
"Pretty well indeed. We have been three days lost in the great dunes in a sand-storm, and hit the track here just as we were preparing for a—well, a great event."
"A great event?" said Domini.
"The last in a man's life, Madame."
He spoke simply, even with a light touch of humour that was almost cynical, but she felt beneath his words and manner a solemnity and a thankfulness that attracted and moved her.
"Those terrible dunes!" she said.
And, turning, she looked out over them.
There was no sunset, but the deepening of the grey into a dimness that seemed to have blackness behind it, the more ghastly hue of the white plains of saltpetre, and the fading of the mirage sea, whose islands now looked no longer red, but dull brown specks in a pale mist, hinted at the rapid falling of night.
"My husband is out in them," she added.
"Your husband, Madame!"
He looked at her rather narrowly, shifted from one leg to the other as if trying his strength, then added:
"Not far, though, I suppose. For I see you have a camp here."
"He has only gone after gazelle."
As she said the last word she saw one of the soldiers, a mere boy, lick his lips and give a sort of tragic wink at his companions. A sudden thought struck her.
"Don't think me impertinent, Monsieur, but—what about provisions in your tower?"
"Oh, as to that, Madame, we shall do well enough. Here, open the door, Marelle!"
And he gave the key to a soldier, who wearily dismounted and thrust it into the door of the tower.
"But after three days in the dunes! Your provisions must be exhausted unless you've been able to replenish them."
"You are too good, Madame. We shall manage a cous-cous."
"And wine? Have you any wine?"
She glanced again at the exhausted soldiers covered with sand and saw that their eyes were fixed upon her and were shining eagerly. All the "good fellow" in her nature rose up.
"You must let me send you some," she said. "We have plenty."
She thought of some bottles of champagne they had brought with them and never opened.
"In the desert we are all comrades," she added, as if speaking to the soldiers.
They looked at her with an open adoration which lit up their tired faces.
"Madame," said the officer, "you are much too good; but I accept your offer as frankly as you have made it. A little wine will be a godsend to us to-night. Thank you, Madame."
The soldiers looked as if they were going to cheer.
"I'll go to the camp—"
"Cannot one of the men go for you, Madame? You were sitting here. Pray, do not let us disturb you."
"But night is falling and I shall have to go back in a moment."
While they had been speaking the darkness had rapidly increased. She looked towards the distant dunes and no longer saw them. At once her mind went to Androvsky. Why had he not returned? She thought of the signal. From the camp, behind their sleeping-tent, rose the flames of a newly-made fire.
"If one of your men can go and tell Batouch—Batouch—to come to me here I shall be grateful," she answered. "And I want him to bring me a big brand from the fire over there."
She saw wonder dawning in the eyes fixed upon her, and smiled.
"I want to signal to my husband," she said, "and this is the highest point. He will see it best if I stand here."
"Go, Marelle, ask for Batouch, and be sure you bring the brand from the fire."
The man saluted and rode off with alacrity. The thought of wine had infused a gaiety into him and his companions.
"Now, Monsieur, don't stand on ceremony," Domini said to the officer. "Go in and make your toilet. You are longing to, I know."
"I am longing to look a little more decent—now, Madame," he said gallantly, and gazing at her with a sparkle of admiration in his inflamed eyes. "You will let me return in a moment to escort you to the camp."
"Will you permit me—my name is De Trevignac."
"And mine is Madame Androvsky."
"Russian!" the officer said. "The alliance in the desert! Vive la Russie!"
"That is for my husband, for I am English."
"Vive l'Angleterre!" he said.
The two soldier echoed his words impulsively, lifting up in the gathering darkness hoarse voices.
"Thank you, thank you," she said. "Now, Monsieur, please don't let me keep you."
"I shall be back directly," the officer replied.
And he turned and went into the tower, while the soldiers rode round to the court, tugging at the cords of the led mules.
Domini waited for the return of Marelle. Her mood had changed. A glow of cordial humanity chased away her melancholy. The hostess that lurks in every woman—that housewife-hostess sense which goes hand-in-hand with the mother sense—was alive in her. She was keenly anxious to play the good fairy simply, unostentatiously, to these exhausted men who had come to Mogar out of the jaws of Death, to see their weary faces shine under the influence of repose and good cheer. But the tower looked desolate. The camp was gayer, cosier. Suddenly she resolved to invite them all to dine in the camp that night.
Marelle returned with Batouch. She saw them from a distance coming through the darkness with blazing torches in their hands. When they came to her she said:
"Batouch, I want you to order dinner in camp for the soldiers."
A broad and radiant smile irradiated the blunt Breton features of Marelle.
"And Monsieur the officer will dine with me and Monsieur. Give us all you can. Perhaps there will be some gazelle."
She saw him opening his lips to say that the dinner would be poor and stopped him.
"You are to open some of the champagne—the Pommery. We will drink to all safe returns. Now, give me the brand and go and tell the cook."
As he took his torch and disappeared into the darkness De Trevignac came out from the tower. He still looked exhausted and walked with some difficulty, but he had washed the sand from his face with water from the artesian well behind the tower, changed his uniform, brushed the sand from his yellow hair, and put on a smart gold-laced cap instead of his sun-helmet. The spectacles were gone from his eyes, and between his lips was a large Havana—his last, kept by him among the dunes as a possible solace in the dreadful hour of death.
"Monsieur de Trevignac, I want you to dine with us in camp to-night— only to dine. We won't keep you from your bed one moment after the coffee and the cognac. You must seal the triple alliance—France, Russia, England—in some champagne."
She had spoken gaily, cordially. She added more gravely:
"One doesn't escape from death among the dunes every day. Will you come?"
She held out her hand frankly, as a man might to another man. He pressed it as a man presses a woman's hand when he is feeling very soft and tender.
"Madame, what can I say, but that you are too good to us poor fellows and that you will find it very difficult to get rid of us, for we shall be so happy in your camp that we shall forget all about our tower."
"That's settled then."
With the brand in her hand she walked to the edge of the hill. De Trevignac followed her. He had taken the other brand from Marelle. They stood side by side, overlooking the immense desolation that was now almost hidden in the night.
"You are going to signal to your husband, Madame?"
"Let me do it for you. See, I have the other brand!"
"Thank you—but I will do it."
In the light of the flame that leaped up as if striving to touch her face he saw a light in her eyes that he understood, and he drooped his torch towards the earth while she lifted hers on high and waved it in the blackness.
He watched her. The tall, strong, but exquisitely supple figure, the uplifted arm with the torch sending forth a long tongue of golden flame, the ardent and unconscious pose, that set before him a warm passionate heart calling to another heart without shame, made him think of her as some Goddess of the Sahara. He had let his torch droop towards the earth, but, as she waved hers, he had an irresistible impulse to join her in the action she made heroic and superb. And presently he lifted his torch, too, and waved it beside hers in the night.
She smiled at him in the flames.
"He must see them surely," she said.
From below, in the distance of the desert, there rose a loud cry in a strong man's voice.
"Aha!" she exclaimed.
She called out in return in a warm, powerful voice. The man's voice answered, nearer. She dropped her brand to the earth.
"Monsieur, you will come then—in half an hour?"
"Madame, with the most heartfelt pleasure. But let me accompany—"
"No, I am quite safe. And bring your men with you. We'll make the best feast we can for them. And there's enough champagne for all."
Then she went away quickly, eagerly, into the darkness.
"To be her husband!" murmured De Trevignac. "Lucky—lucky fellow!" And he dropped his brand beside hers on the ground, and stood watching the two flames mingle.
"Lucky—lucky fellow!" he said again aloud. "I wonder what he's like."
When Domini reached the camp she found it in a bustle. Batouch, resigned to the inevitable, had put the cook upon his mettle. Ouardi was already to be seen with a bottle of Pommery in each hand, and was only prevented from instantly uncorking them by the representations of his mistress and an elaborate exposition of the peculiar and evanescent virtues of champagne. Ali was humming a mysterious song about a lovesick camel-man, with which he intended to make glad the hearts of the assembly when the halting time was over. And the dining- table was already set for three.
When Androvsky rode in with the Arabs Domini met him at the edge of the hill.
"You saw my signal, Boris?"
He was going to say more, when she interrupted him eagerly.
"Have you any gazelle? Ah——""
Across the mule of one of the Arabs she saw a body drooping, a delicate head with thin, pointed horns, tiny legs with exquisite little feet that moved as the mule moved.
"We shall want it to-night. Take it quickly to the cook's tent, Ahmed." Androvsky got off his mule.
"There's a light in the tower!" he said, looking at her and then dropping his eyes.
"And I saw two signals. There were two brands being waved together."
"To-night, we have comrades in the desert."
"Comrades!" he said.
His voice sounded startled.
"Men who have escaped from a horrible death in the dunes."
Quickly she told him her story. He listened in silence. When she had finished he said nothing. But she saw him look at the dining-table laid for three and his expression was dark and gloomy.
"Boris, you don't mind!" she said in surprise. "Surely you would not refuse hospitality to these poor fellows!"
She put her hand through his arm and pressed it.
"Have I done wrong? But I know I haven't!"
"Wrong! How could you do that?"
He seemed to make an effort, to conquer something within him.
"It's I who am wrong, Domini. The truth is, I can't bear our happiness to be intruded upon even for a night. I want to be alone with you. This life of ours in the desert has made me desperately selfish. I want to be alone, quite alone, with you."
"It's that! How glad I am!"
She laid her cheek against his arm.
"Then," he said, "that other signal?"
"Monsieur de Trevignac gave it."
Androvsky took his arm from hers abruptly.
"Monsieur de Trevignac!" he said. "Monsieur de Trevignac?"
He stood as if in deep and anxious thought.
"Yes, the officer. That's his name. What is it, Boris?"
There was a sound of voices approaching the camp in the darkness. They were speaking French.
"I must," said Androvsky, "I must——"
He made an uncertain movement, as if to go towards the dunes, checked it, and went hurriedly into the dressing-tent. As he disappeared De Trevignac came into the camp with his men. Batouch conducted the latter with all ceremony towards the fire which burned before the tents of the attendants, and, for the moment, Domini was left alone with De Trevignac.
"My husband is coming directly," she said. "He was late in returning, but he brought gazelle. Now you must sit down at once."
She led the way to the dining-tent. De Trevignac glanced at the table laid for three with an eager anticipation which he was far too natural to try to conceal.
"Madame," he said, "if I disgrace myself to-night, if I eat like an ogre in a fairy tale, will you forgive me?"
"I will not forgive you if you don't."
She spoke gaily, made him sit down in a folding-chair, and insisted on putting a soft cushion at his back. Her manner was cheerful, almost eagerly kind and full of a camaraderie rare in a woman, yet he noticed a change in her since they stood together waving the brands by the tower. And he said to himself:
"The husband—perhaps he's not so pleased at my appearance. I wonder how long they've been married?"
And he felt his curiosity to see "Monsieur Androvsky" deepen.
While they waited for him Domini made De Trevignac tell her the story of his terrible adventure in the dunes. He did so simply, like a soldier, without exaggeration. When he had finished she said:
"You thought death was certain then?"
"Quite certain, Madame."
She looked at him earnestly.
"To have faced a death like that in utter desolation, utter loneliness, must make life seem very different afterwards."
"Yes, Madame. But I did not feel utterly alone."
After a pause he added, simply:
"My mother is a devout Catholic, Madame. I am her only child, and—she taught me long ago that in any peril one is never quite alone."
Domini's heart warmed to him. She loved this trust in God so frankly shown by a soldier, member of an African regiment, in this wild land. She loved this brave reliance on the unseen in the midst of the terror of the seen. Before they spoke again Androvsky crossed the dark space between the tents and came slowly into the circle of the lamplight.
De Trevignac got up from his chair, and Domini introduced the two men. As they bowed each shot a swift glance at the other. Then Androvsky looked down, and two vertical lines appeared on his high forehead above his eyebrows. They gave to his face a sudden look of acute distress. De Trevignac thanked him for his proffered hospitality with the ease of a man of the world, assuming that the kind invitation to him and to his men came from the husband as well as from the wife. When he had finished speaking, Androvsky, without looking up, said, in a voice that sounded to Domini new, as if he had deliberately assumed it:
"I am glad, Monsieur. We found gazelle, and so I hope—I hope you will have a fairly good dinner."
The words could scarcely have been more ordinary, but the way in which they were uttered was so strange, sounded indeed so forced, and so unnatural, that both De Trevignac and Domini looked at the speaker in surprise. There was a pause. Then Batouch and Ouardi came in with the soup.
"Come!" Domini said. "Let us begin. Monsieur de Trevignac, will you sit here on my right?"
They sat down. The two men were opposite to each other at the ends of the small table, with a lamp between them. Domini faced the tent door, and could see in the distance the tents of the attendants lit up by the blaze of the fire, and the forms of the French soldiers sitting at their table close to it, with the Arabs clustering round them. Sounds of loud conversation and occasional roars of laughter, that was almost childish in its frank lack of all restraint, told her that one feast was a success. She looked at her companions and made a sudden resolve —almost fierce—that the other, over which she was presiding, should be a success, too. But why was Androvsky so strange with other men? Why did he seem to become almost a different human being directly he was brought into any close contact with his kind? Was it shyness? Had he a profound hatred of all society? She remembered Count Anteoni's luncheon and the distress Androvsky had caused her by his cold embarrassment, his unwillingness to join in conversation on that occasion. But then he was only her friend. Now he was her husband. She longed for him to show himself at his best. That he was not a man of the world she knew. Had he not told her of his simple upbringing in El Kreir, a remote village of Tunisia, by a mother who had been left in poverty after the death of his father, a Russian who had come to Africa to make a fortune by vine-growing, and who had had his hopes blasted by three years of drought and by the visitation of the dreaded phylloxera? Had he not told her of his own hard work on the rich uplands among the Spanish workmen, of how he had toiled early and late in all kinds of weather, not for himself, but for a company that drew a fortune from the land and gave him a bare livelihood? Till she met him he had never travelled—he had never seen almost anything of life. A legacy from a relative had at last enabled him to have some freedom and to gratify a man's natural taste for change. And, strangely, perhaps, he had come first to the desert. She could not—she did not— expect him to show the sort of easy cultivation that a man acquires only by long contact with all sorts and conditions of men and women. But she knew that he was not only full of fire and feeling—a man with a great temperament, but also that he was a man who had found time to study, whose mind was not empty. He was a man who had thought profoundly. She knew this, although even with her, even in the great intimacy that is born of a great mutual passion, she knew him for a man of naturally deep reserve, who could not perhaps speak all his thoughts to anyone, even to the woman he loved. And knowing this, she felt a fighting temper rise up in her. She resolved to use her will upon this man who loved her, to force him to show his best side to the guest who had come to them out of the terror of the dunes. She would be obstinate for him.
Her lips went down a little at the corners. De Trevignac glanced at her above his soup-plate, and then at Androvsky. He was a man who had seen much of society, and who divined at once the gulf that must have separated the kind of life led in the past by his hostess from the kind of life led by his host. Such gulfs, he knew, are bridged with difficulty. In this case a great love must have been the bridge. His interest in these two people, encountered by him in the desolation of the wastes, and when all his emotions had been roused by the nearness of peril, would have been deep in any case. But there was something that made it extraordinary, something connected with Androvsky. It seemed to him that he had seen, perhaps known Androvsky at some time in his life. Yet Androvsky's face was not familiar to him. He could not yet tell from what he drew this impression, but it was strong. He searched his memory.
Just at first fatigue was heavy upon him, but the hot soup, the first glass of wine revived him. When Domini, full of her secret obstinacy, began to talk gaily he was soon able easily to take his part, and to join her in her effort to include Androvsky in the conversation. The cheerful noise of the camp came to them from without.
"I'm afraid my men are lifting up their voices rather loudly," said De Trevignac.
"We like it," said Domini. "Don't we, Boris?"
There was a long peal of laughter from the distance. As it died away Batouch's peculiar guttural chuckle, which had something negroid in it, was audible, prolonging itself in a loneliness that spoke his pertinacious sense of humour.
"Certainly," said Androvsky, still in the same strained and unnatural voice which had surprised Domini when she introduced the two men. "We are accustomed to gaiety round the camp fire."
"You are making a long stay in the desert, Monsieur?" asked De Trevignac.
"I hope so, Monsieur. It depends on my—it depends on Madame Androvsky."
"Why didn't he say 'my wife'?" thought De Trevignac. And again he searched his memory. Had he ever met this man? If so, where?"
"I should like to stay in the desert for ever," Domini said quickly, with a long look at her husband.
"I should not, Madame," De Trevignac said.
"I understand. The desert has shown you its terrors."
"Indeed it has."
"But to us it has only shown its enchantment. Hasn't it?" She spoke to Androvsky. After a pause he replied:
The word, when it came, sounded like a lie.
For the first time since her marriage Domini felt a cold, like a cold of ice about her heart. Was it possible that Androvsky had not shared her joy in the desert? Had she been alone in her happiness? For a moment she sat like one stunned by a blow. Then knowledge, reason, spoke in her. She knew of Androvsky's happiness with her, knew it absolutely. There are some things in which a woman cannot be deceived. When Androvsky was with her he wanted no other human being. Nothing could take that certainty from her.
"Of course," she said, recovered, "there are places in the desert in which melancholy seems to brood, in which one has a sense of the terrors of the wastes. Mogar, I think, is one of them, perhaps the only one we have been in yet. This evening, when I was sitting under the tower, even I"—and as she said "even I" she smiled happily at Androvsky—"knew some forebodings."
"Forebodings?" Androvsky said quickly. "Why should you—?" He broke off.
"Not of coming misfortune, I hope, Madame?" said De Trevignac in a voice that was now irresistibly cheerful.
He was helping himself to some gazelle, which sent forth an appetising odour, and Ouardi was proudly pouring out for him the first glass of blithely winking champagne.
"I hardly know, but everything looked sad and strange; I began to think about the uncertainties of life."
Domini and De Trevignac were sipping their champagne. Ouardi came behind Androvsky to fill his glass.
"Non! non!" he said, putting his hand over it and shaking his head.
De Trevignac started.
Ouardi looked at Domini and made a distressed grimace, pointing with a brown finger at the glass.
"Oh, Boris! you must drink champagne to-night!" she exclaimed.
"I would rather not," he answered. "I am not accustomed to it."
"But to drink our guest's health after his escape from death!"
Androvsky took his hand from the glass and Ouardi filled it with wine.
Then Domini raised her glass and drank to De Trevignac. Androvsky followed her example, but without geniality, and when he put his lips to the wine he scarcely tasted it. Then he put the glass down and told Ouardi to give him red wine. And during the rest of the evening he drank no more champagne. He also ate very little, much less than usual, for in the desert they both had the appetites of hunters.
After thanking them cordially for drinking his health, De Trevignac said:
"I was nearly experiencing the certainty of death. But was it Mogar that turned you to such thoughts, Madame?"
"I think so. There is something sad, even portentous about it."
She looked towards the tent door, imagining the immense desolation that was hidden in the darkness outside, the white plains, the mirage sea, the sand dunes like monsters, the bleached bones of the dead camels with the eagles hovering above them.
"Don't you think so, Boris? Don't you think it looks like a place in which—like a tragic place, a place in which tragedies ought to occur?"
"It is not places that make tragedies," he said, "or at least they make tragedies far more seldom than the people in them."
He stopped, seemed to make an effort to throw off his taciturnity, and suddenly to be able to throw it off, at least partially. For he continued speaking with greater naturalness and ease, even with a certain dominating force.
"If people would use their wills they need not be influenced by place, they need not be governed by a thousand things, by memories, by fears, by fancies—yes, even by fancies that are the merest shadows, but out of which they make phantoms. Half the terrors and miseries of life lie only in the minds of men. They even cause the very tragedies they would avoid by expecting them."
He said the last words with a sort of strong contempt—then, more quietly, he added:
"You, Domini, why should you feel the uncertainty of life, especially at Mogar? You need not. You can choose not to. Life is the same in its chances here as everywhere?"
"But you," she answered—"did you not feel a tragic influence when we arrived here? Do you remember how you looked at the tower?"
"The tower!" he said, with a quick glance at De Trevignac. "I—why should I look at the tower?"
"I don't know, but you did, almost as if you were afraid of it."
"My tower!" said De Trevignac.
Another roar of laughter reached them from the camp fire. It made Domini smile in sympathy, but De Trevignac and Androvsky looked at each other for a moment, the one with a sort of earnest inquiry, the other with hostility, or what seemed hostility, across the circle of lamplight that lay between them.
"A tower rising in the desert emphasises the desolation. I suppose that was it," Androvsky said, as the laugh died down into Batouch's throaty chuckle. "it suggests lonely people watching."
"For something that never comes, or something terrible that comes," De Trevignac said.
As he spoke the last words Androvsky moved uneasily in his chair, and looked out towards the camp, as if he longed to get up and go into the open air, as if the tent roof above his head oppressed him.
Trevignac turned to Domini.
"In this case, Madame, you were the lonely watcher, and I was the something terrible that came."
She laughed. While she laughed De Trevignac noticed that Androvsky looked at her with a sort of sad intentness, not reproachful or wondering, as an older person might look at a child playing at the edge of some great gulf into which a false step would precipitate it. He strove to interpret this strange look, so obviously born in the face of his host in connection with himself. It seemed to him that he must have met Androvsky, and that Androvsky knew it, knew—what he did not yet know—where it was and when. It seemed to him, too, that Androvsky thought of him as the "something terrible" that had come to this woman who sat between them out of the desert.
But how could it be?
A profound curiosity was roused in him and he mentally cursed his treacherous memory—if it were treacherous. For possibly he might be mistaken. He had perhaps never met his host before, and this strange manner of his might be due to some inexplicable cause, or perhaps to some cause explicable and even commonplace. This Monsieur Androvsky might be a very jealous man, who had taken this woman away into the desert to monopolise her, and who resented even the chance intrusion of a stranger. De Trevignac knew life and the strange passions of men, knew that there are Europeans with the Arab temperament, who secretly long that their women should wear the veil and live secluded in the harem. Androvsky might be one of these.
When she had laughed Domini said:
"On the contrary, Monsieur, you have turned my thoughts into a happier current by your coming."
"You made me think of what are called the little things of life that are more to us women than to you men, I suppose."
"Ah," he said. "This food, this wine, this chair with a cushion, this gay light—Madame, they are not little things I have to be grateful for. When I think of the dunes they seem to me—they seem—"
Suddenly he stopped. His gay voice was choked. She saw that there were tears in his blue eyes, which were fixed on her with an expression of ardent gratitude. He cleared his throat.
"Monsieur," he said to Androvsky, "you will not think me presuming on an acquaintance formed in the desert if I say that till the end of my life I—and my men—can only think of Madame as of the good Goddess of the desolate Sahara!"
He did not know how Androvsky would take this remark, he did not care. For the moment in his impulsive nature there was room only for admiration of the woman and, gratitude for her frank kindness. Androvsky said:
"Thank you, Monsieur."
He spoke with an intensity, even a fervour, that were startling. For the first time since they had been together his voice was absolutely natural, his manner was absolutely unconstrained, he showed himself as he was, a man on fire with love for the woman who had given herself to him, and who received a warm word of praise of her as a gift made to himself. De Trevignac no longer wondered that Domini was his wife. Those three words, and the way they were spoken, gave him the man and what he might be in a woman's life. Domini looked at her husband silently. It seemed to her as if her heart were flooded with light, as if desolate Mogar were the Garden of Eden before the angel came. When they spoke again it was on some indifferent topic. But from that moment the meal went more merrily. Androvsky seemed to lose his strange uneasiness. De Trevignac met him more than half-way. Something of the gaiety round the camp fire had entered into the tent. A chain of sympathy had been forged between these three people. Possibly, a touch might break it, but for the moment it seemed strong.
At the end of the dinner Domini got up.
"We have no formalities in the desert," she said. "But I'm going to leave you together for a moment. Give Monsieur de Trevignac a cigar, Boris. Coffee is coming directly."
She went out towards the camp fire. She wanted to leave the men together to seal their good fellowship. Her husband's change from taciturnity to cordiality had enchanted her. Happiness was dancing within her. She felt gay as a child. Between the fire and the tent she met Ouardi carrying a tray. On it were a coffee-pot, cups, little glasses and a tall bottle of a peculiar shape with a very thin neck and bulging sides.
"What's that, Ouardi?" she asked, touching it with her finger.
"That is an African liqueur, Madame, that you have never tasted. Batouch told me to bring it in honour of Monsieur the officer. They call it—"
"Another surprise of Batouch's!" she interrupted gaily. "Take it in! Monsieur the officer will think we have quite a cellar in the desert."
He went on, and she stood for a few minutes looking at the blaze of the fire, and at the faces lit up by it, French and Arab. The happy soldiers were singing a French song with a chorus for the delectation of the Arabs, who swayed to and fro, wagging their heads and smiling in an effort to show appreciation of the barbarous music of the Roumis. Dreary, terrible Mogar and its influences were being defied by the wanderers halting in it. She thought of Androvsky's words about the human will overcoming the influence of place, and a sudden desire came to her to go as far as the tower where she had felt sad and apprehensive, to stand in its shadow for an instant and to revel in her happiness.
She yielded to the impulse, walked to the tower, and stood there facing the darkness which hid the dunes, the white plains, the phantom sea, seeing them in her mind, and radiantly defying them. Then she began to return to the camp, walking lightly, as happy people walk. When she had gone a very short way she heard someone coming towards her. It was too dark to see who it was. She could only hear the steps among the stones. They were hasty. They passed her and stopped behind her at the tower. She wondered who it was, and supposed it must be one of the soldiers come to fetch something, or perhaps tired and hastening to bed.
As she drew near to the camp she saw the lamplight shining in the tent, where doubtless De Trevignac and Androvsky were smoking and talking in frank good fellowship. It was like a bright star, she thought, that gleam of light that shone out of her home, the brightest of all the stars of Africa. She went towards it. As she drew near she expected to hear the voices of the two men, but she heard nothing. Nor did she see the blackness of their forms in the circle of the light. Perhaps they had gone out to join the soldiers and the Arabs round the fire. She hastened on, came to the tent, entered it, and was confronted by her husband, who was standing back in an angle formed by the canvas, in the shadow, alone. On the floor near him lay a quantity of fragments of glass.
"Boris!" she said. "Where is Monsieur de Trevignac?"
"Gone," replied Androvsky in a loud, firm voice.
She looked up at him. His face was grim and powerful, hard like the face of a fighting man.
"Gone already? Why?"
"He's tired out. He told me to make his excuses to you."
She saw in the table the coffee cups. Two of them were full of coffee. The third, hers, was clean.
"But he hasn't drunk his coffee!" she said.
She was astonished and showed it. She could not understand a man who had displayed such warm, even touching, appreciation of her kindness leaving her without a word, taking the opportunity of her momentary absence to disappear, to shirk away—for she put it like that to herself.
"No—he did not want coffee."
"But was anything the matter?"
She looked down at the broken glass, and saw stains upon the ground among the fragments.
"What's this?" she said. "Oh, the African liqueur!"
Suddenly Androvsky put his arm round her with an iron grip, and led her away out of the tent. They crossed the space to the sleeping-tent in silence. She felt governed, and as if she must yield to his will, but she also felt confused, even almost alarmed mentally. The sleeping-tent was dark. When they reached it Androvsky took his arm from her, and she heard him searching for the matches. She was in the tent door and could see that there was a light in the tower. De Trevignac must be there already. No doubt it was he who had passed her in the night when she was returning to the camp. Androvsky struck a match and lit a candle. Then he came to the tent door and saw her looking at the light in the tower.
"Come in, Domini," he said, taking her by the hand, and speaking gently, but still with a firmness that hinted at command.
She obeyed, and he quickly let down the flap of canvas, and shut out the night.
"What is it, Boris?" she asked.
She was standing by one of the beds.
"What has happened?"
"I don't understand. Why did Monsieur de Trevignac go away so suddenly?"
"Domini, do you care whether he is here or gone? Do you care?" He sat on the edge of the bed and drew her down beside him.
"Do you want anyone to be with us, to break in upon our lives? Aren't we happier alone?"
"Boris!" she said, "you—did you let him see that you wanted him to go?"
It occurred to her suddenly that Androvsky, in his lack of worldly knowledge, might perhaps have shown their guest that he secretly resented the intrusion of a stranger upon them even for one evening, and that De Trevignac, being a sensitive man, had been hurt and had abruptly gone away. Her social sense revolted at this idea.
"You didn't let him see that, Boris!" she exclaimed. "After his escape from death! It would have been inhuman."
"Perhaps my love for you might even make me that, Domini. And if it did—if you knew why I was inhuman—would you blame me for it? Would you hate me for it?"
There was a strong excitement dawning in him. It recalled to her the first night in the desert when they sat together on the ground and watched the waning of the fire.
"Could you—could you hate me for anything, Domini?" he said. "Tell me —could you?"
His face was close to hers. She looked at him with her long, steady eyes, that had truth written in their dark fire.
"No," she answered. "I could never hate you—now."
"Not if—not if I had done you harm? Not if I had done you a wrong?"
"Could you ever do me a wrong?" she asked.
She sat, looking at him as if in deep thought, for a moment.
"I could almost as easily believe that God could," she said at last simply.
"Then you—you have perfect trust in me?"
"But—have you ever thought I had not?" she asked. There was wonder in her voice.
"But I have given my life to you," she added still with wonder. "I am here in the desert with you. What more can I give? What more can I do?"
He put his arms about her and drew her head down on his shoulder.
"Nothing, nothing. You have given, you have done everything—too much, too much. I feel myself below you, I know myself below you—far, far down."
"How can you say that? I couldn't have loved you if it were so." She spoke with complete conviction.
"Perhaps," he said, in a low voice, "perhaps women never realise what their love can do. It might—it might—"
"It might do what Christ did—go down into hell to preach to the—to the spirits in prison."
His voice had dropped almost to a murmur. With one hand on her cheek he kept her face pressed down upon his shoulder so that she could not see his face.
"It might do that, Domini."
"Boris," she said, almost whispering too, for his words and manner filled her with a sort of awe, "I want you to tell me something."
"What is it?"
"Are you quite happy with me here in the desert? If you are I want you to tell me that you are. Remember—I shall believe you."
"No other human being could ever give me the happiness you give me."
He interrupted her.
"No other human being ever has. Till I met you I had no conception of the happiness there is in the world for man and woman who love each other."
"Then you are happy?"
"Don't I seem so?"
She did not reply. She was searching her heart for the answer— searching it with an almost terrible sincerity. He waited for her answer, sitting quite still. His hand was always against her face. After what seemed to him an eternity she said:
"Why did you say that about a woman's love being able even to go down into hell to preach to the spirits in prison?"
He did not answer. His hand seemed to her to lie more heavily on her cheek.
"I—I am not sure that you are quite happy with me," she said.
She spoke like one who reverenced truth, even though it slew her. There was a note of agony in her voice.
"Hush!" he said. "Hush, Domini!"
They were both silent. Beyond the canvas of the tent that shut out from them the camp they heard a sound of music. Drums were being beaten. The African pipe was wailing. Then the voice of Ali rose in the song of the "Freed Negroes":
"No one but God and I
Knows what is in my heart."
At that moment Domini felt that the words were true—horribly true.
"Boris," she said. "Do you hear?"
"I think there is something in your heart that sometimes makes you sad even with me. I think perhaps I partly guess what it is."
He took his hand away from her face, his arm from her shoulder, but she caught hold of him, and her arm was strong like a man's.
"Boris, you are with me, you are close to me, but do you sometimes feel far away from God?"
He did not answer.
"I don't know; I oughtn't to ask, perhaps. I don't ask—no, I don't. But, if it's that, don't be too sad. It may all come right—here in the desert. For the desert is the Garden of Allah. And, Boris—put out the light."
He extinguished the candle with his hand.
"You feel, perhaps, that you can't pray honestly now, but some day you may be able to. You will be able to. I know it. Before I knew I loved you I saw you—praying in the desert."
"I!" he whispered. "You saw me praying in the desert!"
It seemed to her that he was afraid. She pressed him more closely with her arms.
"It was that night in the dancing-house. I seemed to see a crowd of people to whom the desert had given gifts, and to you it had given the gift of prayer. I saw you far out in the desert praying."
She heard his hard breathing, felt it against her cheek.
"If—if it is that, Boris, don't despair. It may come. Keep the crucifix. I am sure you have it. And I always pray for you."
They sat for a long while in the dark, but they did not speak again that night.
Domini did not sleep, and very early in the morning, just as dawn was beginning, she stole out of the tent, shutting down the canvas flap behind her.
It was cold outside—cold almost as in a northern winter. The wind of the morning, that blew to her across the wavelike dunes and the white plains, seemed impregnated with ice. The sky was a pallid grey. The camp was sleeping. What had been a fire, all red and gold and leaping beauty, was now a circle of ashes, grey as the sky. She stood on the edge of the hill and looked towards the tower.
As she did so, from the house behind it came a string of mules, picking their way among the stones over the hard earth. De Trevignac and his men were already departing from Mogar.
They came towards her slowly. They had to pass her to reach the track by which they were going on to the north and civilisation. She stood to see them pass.
When they were quite near De Trevignac, who was riding, with his head bent down on his chest, muffled in a heavy cloak, looked up and saw her. She nodded to him. He sat up and saluted. For a moment she thought that he was going on without stopping to speak to her. She saw that he hesitated what to do. Then he pulled up his mule and prepared to get off.
"No, don't, Monsieur," she said.
She held out her hand.
"Good-bye," she added.
He took her hand, then signed to his men to ride on. When they had passed, saluting her, he let her hand go. He had not spoken a word. His face, burned scarlet by the sun, had a look of exhaustion on it, but also another look—of horror, she thought, as if in his soul he was recoiling from her. His inflamed blue eyes watched her, as if in a search that was intense. She stood beside the mule in amazement. She could hardly believe that this was the man who had thanked her, with tears in his eyes, for her hospitality the night before. "Good-bye," he said, speaking at last, coldly. She saw him glance at the tent from which she had come. The horror in his face surely deepened. "Goodbye, Madame," he repeated. "Thank you for your hospitality." He pulled up the rein to ride on. The mule moved a step or two. Then suddenly he checked it and turned in the saddle. "Madame!" he said. "Madame!"
She came up to him. It seemed to her that he was going to say something of tremendous importance to her. His lips, blistered by the sun, opened to speak. But he only looked again towards the tent in which Androvsky was still sleeping, then at her.
A long moment passed.
Then De Trevignac, as if moved by an irresistable impulse, leaned from the saddle and made over Domini the sign of the cross. His hand dropped down against the mule's side, and without another word, or look, he rode away to the north, following his men.
That same day, to the surprise of Batouch, they left Mogar. To both Domini and Androvsky it seemed a tragic place, a place where the desert showed them a countenance that was menacing.
They moved on towards the south, wandering aimlessly through the warm regions of the sun. Then, as the spring drew into summer, and the heat became daily more intense, they turned again northwards, and on an evening in May pitched their camp on the outskirts of the Sahara city of Amara.
This city, although situated in the northern part of the desert, was called by the Arabs "The belly of the Sahara," and also "The City of Scorpions." It lay in the midst of a vast region of soft and shifting sand that suggested a white sea, in which the oasis of date palms, at the edge of which the city stood, was a green island. From the south, whence the wanderers came, the desert sloped gently upwards for a long distance, perhaps half a day's march, and many kilometres before the city was reached, the minarets of its mosques were visible, pointing to the brilliant blue sky that arched the whiteness of the sands. Round about the city, on every side, great sand-hills rose like ramparts erected by Nature to guard it from the assaults of enemies. These hills were black with the tents of desert tribes, which, from far off, looked like multitudes of flies that had settled on the sands. The palms of the oasis, which stretched northwards from the city, could not be seen from the south till the city was reached, and in late spring this region was a strange and barbarous pageant of blue and white and gold; crude in its intensity, fierce in its crudity, almost terrible in its blazing splendour that was like the Splendour about the portals of the sun.
Domini and Androvsky rode towards Amara at a foot's pace, looking towards its distant towers. A quivering silence lay around them, yet already they seemed to hear the cries of the voices of a great multitude, to be aware of the movement of thronging crowds of men. This was the first Sahara city they had drawn near to, and their minds were full of memories of the stories of Batouch, told to them by the camp fire at night in the uninhabited places which, till now, had been their home: stories of the wealthy date merchants who trafficked here and dwelt in Oriental palaces, poor in aspect as seen from the dark and narrow streets, or zgags, in which they were situated, but within full of the splendours of Eastern luxury; of the Jew moneylenders who lived apart in their own quarter, rapacious as wolves, hoarding their gains, and practising the rites of their ancient and—according to the Arabs—detestable religion; of the marabouts, or sacred men, revered by the Mohammedans, who rode on white horses through the public ways, followed by adoring fanatics who sought to touch their garments and amulets, and demanded importunately miraculous blessings at their hands—the hedgehog's foot to protect their women in the peril of childbirth; the scroll, covered with verses of the Koran and enclosed in a sheaf of leather, that banishes ill dreams at night and stays the uncertain feet of the sleep-walker; the camel's skull that brings fruit to the palm trees; the red coral that stops the flow of blood from a knife-wound—of the dancing-girls glittering in an armour of golden pieces, their heads tied with purple and red and yellow handkerchiefs of silk, crowned with great bars of solid gold and tufted with ostrich feathers; of the dwarfs and jugglers who by night perform in the marketplace, contending for custom with the sorceresses who tell the fates from shells gathered by mirage seas; with the snake-charmers—who are immune from the poison of serpents and the acrobats who come from far-off Persia and Arabia to spread their carpets in the shadow of the Agha's dwelling and delight the eyes of negro and Kabyle, of Soudanese and Touareg with their feats of strength; of the haschish smokers who, assembled by night in an underground house whose ceiling and walls were black as ebony, gave themselves up to day-dreams of shifting glory, in which the things of earth and the joys and passions of men reappeared, but transformed by the magic influence of the drug, made monstrous or fairylike, intensified or turned to voluptuous languors, through which the Ouled Nail floated like a syren, promising ecstasies unknown even in Baghdad, where the pale Circassian lifts her lustrous eyes, in which the palms were heavy with dates of solid gold, and the streams were gliding silver.
Often they had smiled over Batouch's opulent descriptions of the marvels of Ain-Amara, which they suspected to be very far away from the reality, and yet, nevertheless, when they saw the minarets soaring above the sands to the brassy heaven, it seemed to them both as if, perhaps, they might be true. The place looked intensely barbaric. The approach to it was grandiose.
Wide as the sands had been, they seemed to widen out into a greater immensity of arid pallor before the city gates as yet unseen. The stretch of blue above looked vaster here, the horizons more remote, the radiance of the sun more vivid, more inexorable. Nature surely expanded as if in an effort to hold her arm against some tremendous spectacle set in its bosom by the activity of men, who were strong and ardent as the giants of old, who had powers and a passion for employing them persistently not known in any other region of the earth. The immensity of Mogar brought sadness to the mind. The immensity of Ain-Amara brought excitement. Even at this distance from it, when its minarets were still like shadowy fingers of an unlifted hand, Androvsky and Domini were conscious of influences streaming forth from its battlements over the sloping sands like a procession that welcomed them to a new phase of desert life.
"And people talk of the monotony of the Sahara!" Domini said speaking out of their mutual thought. "Everything is here, Boris; you've never drawn near to London. Long before you reach the first suburbs you feel London like a great influence brooding over the fields and the woods. Here you feel Amara in the same way brooding over the sands. It's as if the sands were full of voices. Doesn't it excite you?"
"Yes," he said. "But"—and he turned in his saddle and looked back—"I feel as if the solitudes were safer."
"We can return to them."
"We are splendidly free. There's nothing to prevent us leaving Amara tomorrow."
"Isn't there?" he answered, fixing his eyes upon the minarets.
"What can there be?"
"What do you mean, Boris? Are you superstitious? But you reject the influence of place. Don't you remember—at Mogar?"
At the mention of the name his face clouded and she was sorry she had spoken it. Since they had left the hill above the mirage sea they had scarcely ever alluded to their night there. They had never once talked of the dinner in camp with De Trevignac and his men, or renewed their conversation in the tent on the subject of religion. But since that day, since her words about Androvsky's lack of perfect happiness even with her far out in the freedom of the desert, Domini had been conscious that, despite their great love for each other, their mutual passion for the solitude in which it grew each day more deep and more engrossing, wrapping their lives in fire and leading them on to the inner abodes of sacred understanding, there was at moments a barrier between them.
At first she had striven not to recognise its existence. She had striven to be blind. But she was essentially a brave woman and an almost fanatical lover of truth for its own sake, thinking that what is called an ugly truth is less ugly than the loveliest lie. To deny truth is to play the coward. She could not long do that. And so she quickly learned to face this truth with steady eyes and an unflinching heart.
At moments Androvsky retreated from her, his mind became remote—more, his heart was far from her, and, in its distant place, was suffering. Of that she was assured.
But she was assured, too, that she stood to him for perfection in human companionship. A woman's love is, perhaps, the only true divining rod. Domini knew instinctively where lay the troubled waters, what troubled them in their subterranean dwelling. She was certain that Androvsky was at peace with her but not with himself. She had said to him in the tent that she thought he sometimes felt far away from God. The conviction grew in her that even the satisfaction of his great human love was not enough for his nature. He demanded, sometimes imperiously, not only the peace that can be understood gloriously, but also that other peace which passeth understanding. And because he had it not he suffered.
In the Garden of Allah he felt a loneliness even though she was with him, and he could not speak with her of this loneliness. That was the barrier between them, she thought.
She prayed for him: in the tent by night, in the desert under the burning sky by day. When the muezzin cried from the minaret of some tiny village lost in the desolation of the wastes, turning to the north, south, east and west, and the Mussulmans bowed their shaved heads, facing towards Mecca, she prayed to the Catholics' God, whom she felt to be the God, too, of all the devout, of all the religions of the world, and to the Mother of God, looking towards Africa. She prayed that this man whom she loved, and who she believed was seeking, might find. And she felt that there was a strength, a passion in her prayers, which could not be rejected. She felt that some day Allah would show himself in his garden to the wanderer there. She dared to feel that because she dared to believe in the endless mercy of God. And when that moment came she felt, too, that their love—hers and his —for each other would be crowned. Beautiful and intense as it was it still lacked something. It needed to be encircled by the protecting love of a God in whom they both believed in the same way, and to whom they both were equally near. While she felt close to this love and he far from it they were not quite together.
There were moments in which she was troubled, even sad, but they passed. For she had a great courage, a great confidence. The hope that dwells like a flame in the purity of prayer comforted her.
"I love the solitudes," he said. "I love to have you to myself."
"If we lived always in the greatest city of the world it would make no difference," she said quietly. "You know that, Boris."
He bent over from his saddle and clasped her hand in his, and they rode thus up the great slope of the sands, with their horses close together.
The minarets of the city grew more distinct. They dominated the waste as the thought of Allah dominates the Mohammedan world. Presently, far away on the left, Domini and Androvsky saw hills of sand, clearly defined like small mountains delicately shaped. On the summits of these hills were Arab villages of the hue of bronze gleaming in the sun. No trees stood near them. But beyond them, much farther off, was the long green line of the palms of a large oasis. Between them and the riders moved slowly towards the minarets dark things that looked like serpents writhing through the sands. These were caravans coming into the city from long journeys. Here and there, dotted about in the immensity, were solitary horsemen, camels in twos and threes, small troops of donkeys. And all the things that moved went towards the minarets as if irresistibly drawn onwards by some strong influence that sucked them in from the solitudes of the whirlpool of human life.
Again Domini thought of the approach to London, and of the dominion of great cities, those octopus monsters created by men, whose tentacles are strong to seize and stronger still to keep. She was infected by Androvsky's dread of a changed life, and through her excitement, that pulsed with interest and curiosity, she felt a faint thrill of something that was like fear.
"Boris," she said, "I feel as if your thoughts were being conveyed to me by your touch. Perhaps the solitudes are best."
By a simultaneous impulse they pulled in their horses and listened. Sounds came to them over the sands, thin and remote. They could not tell what they were, but they knew that they heard something which suggested the distant presence of life.
"What is it?" said Domini.
"I don't know, but I hear something. It travels to us from the minarets."
They both leaned forward on their horses' necks, holding each other's hand.
"I feel the tumult of men," Androvsky said presently.
"And I. But it seems as if no men could have elected to build a city here."
"Here in the 'Belly of the desert,'" he said, quoting the Arabs' name for Amara.
"Boris"—she spoke in a more eager voice, clasping his hand strongly—"you remember the fumoir in Count Anteoni's garden. The place where it stood was the very heart of the garden."
"We understood each other there."
He pressed her hand without speaking.
"Amara seems to me the heart of the Garden of Allah. Perhaps—perhaps we shall——"
She paused. Her eyes were fixed upon his face.
"What, Domini?" he asked.
He looked expectant, but anxious, and watched her, but with eyes that seemed ready to look away from her at a word.
"Perhaps we shall understand each other even better there."
He looked down at the white sand.
"Better!" he repeated. "Could we do that?"
She did not answer. The far-off villages gleamed mysteriously on their little mountains, like unreal things that might fade away as castles fade in the fire. The sky above the minarets was changing in colour slowly. Its blue was being invaded by a green that was a sister colour. A curious light, that seemed to rise from below rather than to descend from above, was transmuting the whiteness of the sands. A lemon yellow crept through them, but they still looked cold and strange, and immeasurably vast. Domini fancied that the silence of the desert deepened so that, in it, they might hear the voices of Amara more distinctly.
"You know," she said, "when one looks out over the desert from a height, as we did from the tower of Beni-Mora, it seems to call one. There's a voice in the blue distance that seems to say, 'Come to me! I am here—hidden in my retreat, beyond the blue, and beyond the mirage, and beyond the farthest verge!'"
"Yes, I know."
"I have always felt, when we travelled in the desert, that the calling thing, the soul of the desert, retreated as I advanced, and still summoned me onward but always from an infinite distance."
"And I too, Domini."
"Now I don't feel that. I feel as if now we were coming near to the voice, as if we should reach it at Amara, as if there it would tell us its secret."
"Imagination!" he said.
But he spoke seriously, almost mystically. His voice was at odds with the word it said. She noticed that and was sure that he was secretly sharing her sensation. She even suspected that he had perhaps felt it first.
"Let us ride on," he said. "Do you see the change in the light? Do you see the green in the sky? It is cooler, too. This is the wind of evening."
Their hands fell apart and they rode slowly on, up the long slope of the sands.
Presently they saw that they had come out of the trackless waste and that though still a long way from the city they were riding on a desert road which had been trodden by multitudes of feet. There were many footprints here. On either side were low banks of sand, beaten into a rough symmetry by implements of men, and shallow trenches through which no water ran. In front of them they saw the numerous caravans, now more distinct, converging from left and right slowly to this great isle of the desert which stretched in a straight line to the minarets.
"We are on a highway," Domini said.
"I feel already as if we were in the midst of a crowd," he answered.
"Our love for peace oughtn't to make us hate our fellowmen!" she said. "Come, Boris, let us chase away our selfish mood!"
She spoke in a more cheerful voice and drew her rein a little tighter. Her horse quickened its pace.
"And think how our stay at Amara will make us love the solitudes when we return to them again. Contrast is the salt of life."
"You speak as if you didn't believe what you are saying."
"If I were ever inclined to tell you a lie," she said, "I should not dare to. Your mind penetrates mine too deeply."
"You could not tell me a lie."
"Do you hear the dogs barking?" she said, after a moment. "They are among those tents that are like flies on the sands around the city. That is the tribe of the Ouled Nails I suppose. Batouch says they camp here. What multitudes of tents! Those are the suburbs of Amara. I would rather live in them than in the suburbs of London. Oh, how far away we are, as if we were at the end of the world!"
Either her last words, or her previous change of manner to a lighter cheerfulness, almost a briskness, seemed to rouse Androvsky to a greater confidence, even to anticipation of possible pleasure.
"Yes. After all it is only the desert men who are here. Amara is their Metropolis, and in it we shall only see their life."
His horse plunged. He had touched it sharply with his heel.
"I believe you hate the thought of civilisation," she exclaimed.
"I never think of it. I feel almost as if I had never known it, and could never know it."
"Why should you? You love the wilds."
"They make my whole nature leap. Even when I was a child it was so. I remember once reading Maud. In it I came upon a passage—I can't remember it well, but it was about the red man—"
She thought for a moment, looking towards the city.
"I don't know how it is quite," she murmured. "'When the red man laughs by his cedar tree, and the red man's babe leaps beyond the sea' —something like that. But I know that it made my heart beat, and that I felt as if I had wings and were spreading them to fly away to the most remote places of the earth. And now I have spread my wings, and— it's glorious. Come, Boris!"
They put their horses to a canter, and soon drew near to the caravans. They had sent Batouch and Ali, who generally accompanied them, on with the rest of the camp. Both had many friends in Amara, and were eager to be there. It was obvious that they and all the attendants, servants and camel-men, thought of it as the provincial Frenchman thinks of Paris, as a place of all worldly wonders and delights. Batouch was to meet them at the entrance to the city, and when they had seen the marvels of its market-place was to conduct them to the tents which would be pitched on the sand-hills outside.
Their horses pulled as if they, too, longed for a spell of city life after the life of the wastes, and Domini's excitement grew. She felt vivid animal spirits boiling up within her, the sane and healthy sense that welcomes a big manifestation of the ceaseless enterprise and keen activity of a brotherhood of men. The loaded camels, the half-naked running drivers, the dogs sensitively sniffing, as if enticing smells from the city already reached their nostrils, the chattering desert merchants discussing coming gains, the wealthy and richly-dressed Arabs, mounted on fine horses, and staring with eyes that glittered up the broad track in search of welcoming friends, were sympathetic to her mood. Amara was sucking them all in together from the solitary places as quiet waters are sucked into the turmoils of a mill-race. Although still out in the sands they were already in the midst of a noise of life flowing to meet the roar of life that rose up at the feet of the minarets, which now looked tall and majestic in the growing beauty of the sunset.
They passed the caravans one by one, and came on to the crest of the long sand slope just as the sky above the city was flushing with a bright geranium red. The track from here was level to the city wall, and was no longer soft with sand. A broad, hard road rang beneath their horses' hoofs, startling them with a music that was like a voice of civilised life. Before them, under the red sky, they saw a dark blue of distant houses, towers, and great round cupolas glittering like gold. Forests of palm trees lay behind, the giant date palms for which Amara was famous. To the left stretched the sands dotted with gleaming Arab villages, to the right again the sands covered with hundreds of tents among which quantities of figures moved lively like ants, black on the yellow, arched by the sky that was alive with lurid colour, red fading into gold, gold into primrose, primrose into green, green into the blue that still told of the fading day. And to this multi-coloured sky, from the barbaric city and the immense sands in which it was set, rose a great chorus of life; voices of men and beasts, cries of naked children playing Cora on the sand-hills, of mothers to straying infants, shrill laughter of unveiled girls wantonly gay, the calls of men, the barking of multitudes of dogs,— the guard dogs of the nomads that are never silent night or day,—the roaring of hundreds of camels now being unloaded for the night, the gibbering of the mad beggars who roam perpetually on the outskirts of the encampments like wolves seeking what they may devour, the braying of donkeys, the whinnying of horses. And beneath these voices of living things, foundation of their uprising vitality, pulsed barbarous music, the throbbing tomtoms that are for ever heard in the lands of the sun, fetish music that suggests fatalism, and the grand monotony of the enormous spaces, and the crude passion that repeats itself, and the untiring, sultry loves and the untired, sultry languors of the children of the sun.
The silence of the sands, which Domini and Androvsky had known and loved, was merged in the tumult of the sands. The one had been mystical, laying the soul to rest. The other was provocative, calling the soul to wake. At this moment the sands themselves seemed to stir with life and to cry aloud with voices.
"The very sky is barbarous to-night!" Domini exclaimed. "Did you ever see such colour, Boris?"
"Over the minarets it is like a great wound," he answered.
"No wonder men are careless of human life in such a land as this. All the wildness of the world seems to be concentrated here. Amara is like the desert city of some tremendous dream. It looks wicked and unearthly, but how superb!"
"Look at those cupolas!" he said. "Are there really Oriental palaces here? Has Batouch told us the truth for once?"
"Or less than the truth? I could believe anything of Amara at this moment. What hundreds of camels! They remind me of Arba, our first halting-place." She looked at him and he at her.
"How long ago that seems!" she said.
"A thousand years ago."
They both had a memory of a great silence, in the midst of this growing tumult in which the sky seemed now to take its part, calling with the voices of its fierce colours, with the voices of the fires that burdened it in the west.
"Silence joined us, Domini," Androvsky said.
"Yes. Perhaps silence is the most beautiful voice in the world."
Far off, along the great white road, they saw two horsemen galloping to meet them from the city, one dressed in brilliant saffron yellow, the other in the palest blue, both crowned with large and snowy turbans.
"Who can they be?" said Domini, as they drew near. "They look like two princes of the Sahara."
Then she broke into a merry laugh.
"Batouch! and Ali!" she exclaimed.
The servants galloped up then, without slackening speed deftly wheeled their horses in a narrow circle, and were beside them, going with them, one on the right hand, the other on the left.
"Bravo!" Domini cried, delighted at this feat of horsemanship. "But what have you been doing? You are transformed!"
"Madame, we have been to the Bain Maure," replied Batouch, calmly, swelling out his broad chest under his yellow jacket laced with gold. "We have had our heads shaved till they are smooth and beautiful as polished ivory. We have been to the perfumer"—he leaned confidentially towards her, exhaling a pungent odour of amber—"to the tailor, to the baboosh bazaar!"—he kicked out a foot cased in a slipper that was bright almost as a gold piece—"to him who sells the cherchia." He shook his head till the spangled muslin that flowed about it trembled. "Is it not right that your servants should do you honour in the city?"
"Perfectly right," she answered with a careful seriousness. "I am proud of you both."
"And Monsieur?" asked Ali, speaking in his turn.
Androvsky withdrew his eyes from the city, which was now near at hand.
"Splendid!" he said, but as if attending to the Arabs with difficulty. "You are splendid."
As they came towards the old wall which partially surrounds Amara, and which rises from a deep natural moat of sand, they saw that the ground immediately before the city which, from a distance, had looked almost fiat, was in reality broken up into a series of wavelike dunes, some small with depressions like deep crevices between them, others large with summits like plateaux. These dunes were of a sharp lemon yellow in the evening light, a yellow that was cold in its clearness, almost setting the teeth on edge. They went away into great rolling slopes of sand on which the camps of the nomads and the Ouled Nails were pitched, some near to, some distant from, the city, but they themselves were solitary. No tents were pitched close to the city, under the shadow of its wall. As Androvsky spoke, Domini exclaimed:
"Boris—-look! That is the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen!"
She put her hand on his arm. He obeyed her eyes and looked to his right, to the small lemon-yellow dunes that were close to them. At perhaps a hundred yards from the road was a dune that ran parallel with it. The fire of the sinking sun caught its smooth crest, and above this crest, moving languidly towards the city, were visible the heads and busts of three women, the lower halves of whose bodies were concealed by the sand of the farther side of the dune. They were dancing-girls. On their heads, piled high with gorgeous handkerchiefs, were golden crowns which glittered in the sun-rays, and tufts of scarlet feathers. Their oval faces, covered with paint, were partially concealed by long strings of gold coins, which flowed from their crowns down over their large breasts and disappeared towards their waists, which were hidden by the sand. Their dresses were of scarlet, apple-green and purple silks, partially covered by floating shawls of spangled muslin. Beneath their crowns and handkerchiefs burgeoned forth plaits of false hair decorated with coral and silver ornaments. Their hands, which they held high, gesticulating above the crest of the dune, were painted blood red.
These busts and heads glided slowly along in the setting sun, and presently sank down and vanished into some depression of the dunes. For an instant one blood-red hand was visible alone, waving a signal above the sand to someone unseen. Its fingers fluttered like the wings of a startled bird. Then it, too, vanished, and the sharply-cold lemon yellow of the dunes stretched in vivid loneliness beneath the evening sky.
To both of them this brief vision of women in the sand brought home the solitude of the desert and the barbarity of the life it held, the ascetism of this supreme manifestation of Nature and the animal passion which fructifies in its heart.
"Do you know what that made me think of, Boris?" Domini said, as the red hand with its swiftly-moving fingers disappeared. "You'll smile, perhaps, and I scarcely know why. It made me think of the Devil in a monastery."
Androvsky did not smile. Nor did he answer. She felt sure that he, too, had been strongly affected by that glimpse of Sahara life. His silence gave Batouch an opportunity of pouring forth upon them a flood of poetical description of the dancing-girls of Amara, all of whom he seemed to know as intimate friends. Before he ceased they came into the city.
The road was still majestically broad. They looked with interest at the first houses, one on each side of the way. And here again they were met by the sharp contrast which was evidently to be the keynote of Amara. The house on the left was European, built of white stone, clean, attractive, but uninteresting, with stout white pillars of plaster supporting an arcade that afforded shade from the sun, windows with green blinds, and an open doorway showing a little hall, on the floor of which lay a smart rug glowing with gay colours; that on the right, before which the sand lay deep as if drifted there by some recent wind of the waste, was African and barbarous, an immense and rambling building of brown earth, brushwood and palm, windowless, with a flat-terraced roof, upon which were piled many strange-looking objects like things collapsed, red and dark green, with fringes and rosettes, and tall sticks of palm pointing vaguely to the sky.
"Why, these are like our palanquin!" Domini said.
"They are the palanquins of the dancing-girls, Madame," said Batouch. "That is the cafe of the dancers, and that"—he pointed to the neat house opposite—"is the house of Monsieur the Aumonier of Amara."
"Aumonier," said Androvsky, sharply. "Here!"
He paused, then added more quietly:
"What should he do here?"
"But, Monsieur, he is for the French officers."
"There are French officers?"
"Yes, Monsieur, four or five, and the commandant. They live in the palace with the cupolas."
"I forgot," Androvsky said to Domini. "We are not out of the sphere of French influence. This place looks so remote and so barbarous that I imagined it given over entirely to the desert men."
"We need not see the French," she said. "We shall be encamped outside in the sand."
"And we need not stay here long," he said quickly.
"Boris," she asked him, half in jest, half in earnest, "shall we buy a desert island to live in?"
"Let us buy an oasis," he said. "That would be the perf—the safest life for us."
"The safest for our happiness. Domini, I have a horror of the world!" He said the last words with a strong, almost fierce, emphasis.
"Had you it always, or only since we have been married?"
"I—perhaps it was born in me, perhaps it is part of me. Who knows?"
He had relapsed into a gravity that was heavy with gloom, and looked about him with eyes that seemed to wish to reject all that offered itself to their sight.
"I want the desert and you in it," he said. "The lonely desert, with you."
"And nothing else?"
"I want that. I cannot have that taken from me."
He looked about him quickly from side to side as they rode up the street, as if he were a scout sent in advance of an army and suspected ambushes. His manner reminded her of the way he had looked towards the tower as they rode into Mogar. And he had connected that tower with the French. She remembered his saying to her that it must have been built for French soldiers. As they rode into Mogar he had dreaded something in Mogar. The strange incident with De Trevignac had followed. She had put it from her mind as a matter of small, or no, importance, had resolutely forgotten it, had been able to forget it in their dream of desert life and desert passion. But the entry into a city for the moment destroyed the dreamlike atmosphere woven by the desert, recalled her town sense, that quick-wittedness, that sharpness of apprehension and swiftness of observation which are bred in those who have long been accustomed to a life in the midst of crowds and movement, and changing scenes and passing fashions. Suddenly she seemed to herself to be reading Androvsky with an almost merciless penetration, which yet she could not check. He had dreaded something in Mogar. He dreaded something here in Amara. An unusual incident—for the coming of a stranger into their lives out of their desolation of the sand was unusual—had followed close upon the first dread. Would another such incident follow upon this second dread? And of what was this dread born?
Batouch drew her attention to the fact that they were coming to the marketplace, and to the curious crowds of people who were swarming out of the tortuous, narrow streets into the main thoroughfare to watch them pass, or to accompany them, running beside their horses. She divined at once, by the passionate curiosity their entry aroused, that he had misspent his leisure in spreading through the city lying reports of their immense importance and fabulous riches.
"Batouch," she said, "you have been talking about us."
"No, Madame, I merely said that Madame is a great lady in her own land, and that Monsieur—"
"I forbid you ever to speak about me, Batouch," said Androvsky, brusquely.
He seemed worried by the clamour of the increasing mob that surrounded them. Children in long robes like night-gowns skipped before them, calling out in shrill voices. Old beggars, with diseased eyes and deformed limbs, laid filthy hands upon their bridles and demanded alms. Impudent boys, like bronze statuettes suddenly endowed with a fury of life, progressed backwards to keep them full in view, shouting information at them and proclaiming their own transcendent virtues as guides. Lithe desert men, almost naked, but with carefully-covered heads, strode beside them, keeping pace with the horses, saying nothing, but watching them with a bright intentness that seemed to hint at unutterable designs. And towards them, through the air that seemed heavy and almost suffocating now that they were among buildings, and through clouds of buzzing flies, came the noise of the larger tumult of the market-place.
Looking over the heads of the throng Domini saw the wide road opening out into a great space, with the first palms of the oasis thronging on the left, and a cluster of buildings, many with small cupolas, like down-turned white cups, on the right. On the farther side of this space, which was black with people clad for the most in dingy garments, was an arcade jutting out from a number of hovel-like houses, and to the right of them, where the market-place, making a wide sweep, continued up hill and was hidden from her view, was the end of the great building whose gilded cupolas they had seen as they rode in from the desert, rising above the city with the minarets of its mosques.
The flies buzzed furiously about the horses' heads and flanks, and the people buzzed more furiously, like larger flies, about the riders. It seemed to Domini as if the whole city was intent upon her and Androvsky, was observing them, considering them, wondering about them, was full of a thousand intentions all connected with them.
When they gained the market-place the noise and the watchful curiosity made a violent crescendo. It happened to be market day and, although the sun was setting, buying and selling were not yet over. On the hot earth over which, whenever there is any wind from the desert, the white sand grains sift and settle, were laid innumerable rugs of gaudy colours on which were disposed all sorts of goods for sale; heavy ornaments for women, piles of burnouses, haiks, gandouras, gaiters of bright red leather, slippers, weapons—many jewelled and gilt, or rich with patterns in silver—pyramids of the cords of camels' hair that bind the turbans of the desert men, handkerchiefs and cottons of all the colours of the rainbow, cheap perfumes in azure flasks powdered with golden and silver flowers and leaves, incense twigs, panniers of henna to dye the finger-nails of the faithful, innumerable comestibles, vegetables, corn, red butcher's meat thickly covered with moving insects, pale yellow cakes crisp and shining, morsels of liver spitted on skewers—which, cooked with dust of keef, produce a dreamy drunkenness more overwhelming even than that produced by haschish— musical instruments, derboukas, guitars, long pipes, and strange fiddles with two strings, tomtoms, skins of animals with heads and claws, live birds, tortoise backs, and plaits of false hair.
The sellers squatted on the ground, their brown and hairy legs crossed, calmly gazing before them, or, with frenzied voices and gestures, driving bargains with the buyers, who moved to and fro, treading carelessly among the merchandise. The tellers of fates glided through the press, fingering the amulets that hung upon their hearts. Conjurors proclaimed the merits of their miracles, bawling in the faces of the curious. Dwarfs went to and fro, dressed in bright colours with green and yellow turbans on their enormous heads, tapping with long staves, and relating their deformities. Water-sellers sounded their gongs. Before pyramids of oranges and dates, neatly arranged in patterns, sat boys crying in shrill voices the luscious virtues of their fruits. Idiots, with blear eyes and protending under- lips, gibbered and whined. Dogs barked. Bakers hurried along with trays of loaves upon their heads. From the low and smoky arcades to right and left came the reiterated grunt of negroes pounding coffee. A fanatic was roaring out his prayers. Arabs in scarlet and blue cloaks passed by to the Bain Maure, under whose white and blue archway lounged the Kabyle masseurs with folded, muscular arms. A marabout, black as a coal, rode on a white horse towards the great mosque, followed by his servant on foot.
Native soldiers went by to the Kasba on the height, or strolled down towards the Cafes Maures smoking cigarettes. Circles of grave men bent over card games, dominoes and draughts—called by the Arabs the Ladies' Game. Khodjas made their way with dignity towards the Bureau Arabe. Veiled women, fat and lethargic, jingling with ornaments, waddled through the arches of the arcades, carrying in their painted and perspiring hands blocks of sweetmeats which drew the flies. Children played in the dust by little heaps of refuse, which they stirred up into clouds with their dancing, naked feet. In front, as if from the first palms of the oasis, rose the roar of beaten drums from the negroes' quarter, and from the hill-top at the feet of the minarets came the fierce and piteous noise that is the leit-motif of the desert, the multitudinous complaining of camels dominating all other sounds.
As Domini and Androvsky rode into this whirlpool of humanity, above which the sky was red like a great wound, it flowed and eddied round them, making them its centre. The arrival of a stranger-woman was a rare, if not an unparalleled, event in Amara, and Batouch had been very busy in spreading the fame of his mistress.
"Madame should dismount," said Batouch. "Ali will take the horses, and I will escort Madame and Monsieur up the hill to the place of the fountain. Shabah will be there to greet Madame."
"What an uproar!" Domini exclaimed, half laughing, half confused. "Who on earth is Shabah?"
"Shabah is the Caid of Amara," replied Batouch with dignity. "The greatest man of the city. He awaits Madame by the fountain." Domini cast a glance at Androvsky.
"Well?" she said.
He shrugged his shoulders like a man who thinks strife useless and the moment come for giving in to Fate.
"The monster has opened his jaws for us," he said, forcing a laugh. "We had better walk in, I suppose. But—O Domini!—the silence of the wastes!"
"We shall know it again. This is only for the moment. We shall have all its joy again."
"Who knows?" he said, as he had said when they were riding up the sand slope. "Who knows?"
Then they got off their horses and were taken by the crowd.
The tumult of Amara waked up in Domini the town-sense that had been slumbering. All that seemed to confuse, to daze, to repel Androvsky, even to inspire him with fear, the noise of the teeming crowds, their perpetual movement, their contact, startled her into a vividness of life and apprehension of its various meanings, that sent a thrill through her. And the thrill was musical with happiness. To the sad a great vision of human life brings sadness because they read into the hearts of others their own misery. But to the happy such a vision brings exultation, for everywhere they find dancing reflections of their own joy. Domini had lived much in crowds, but always she had been actively unhappy, or at least coldly dreary in them. Now, for the first time, she was surrounded by masses of fellow-beings in her splendid contentment. And the effect of this return, as it were, to something like the former material conditions of her life, with the mental and affectional conditions of it transformed by joy, was striking even to herself. Suddenly she realised to the full her own humanity, and the living warmth of sympathy that is fanned into flame in a human heart by the presence of human life with its hopes, desires, fears, passions, joys, that leap to the eye. Instead of hating this fierce change from solitude with the man she loved to a crowd with the man she loved she rejoiced in it. Androvsky was the cause of both her joys, joy in the waste and joy in Amara, but while he shared the one he did not share the other.
This did not surprise her because of the conditions in which he had lived. He was country-bred and had always dwelt far from towns. She was returning to an old experience—old, for the London crowd and the crowd of Amara were both crowds of men, however different—with a mind transformed by happiness. To him the experience was new. Something within her told her that it was necessary, that it had been ordained because he needed it. The recalled town-sense, with its sharpness of observation, persisted. As she rode in to Amara she had seemed to herself to be reading Androvsky with an almost merciless penetration which yet she could not check. Now she did not wish to check it, for the penetration that is founded on perfect love can only yield good fruit. It seemed to her that she was allowed to see clearly for Androvsky what he could not see himself, almost as the mother sees for the child. This contact with the crowds of Amara was, she thought, one of the gifts the desert made to him. He did not like it. He wished to reject it. But he was mistaken. For the moment his vision was clouded, as our vision for ourselves so often is. She realised this, and, for the first time since the marriage service at Beni-Mora, perhaps seemed to be selfish. She opposed his wish. Hitherto there had never been any sort of contest between them. Their desires, like their hearts, had been in accord. Now there was not a contest, for Androvsky yielded to Domini's preference, when she expressed it, with a quickness that set his passion before her in a new and beautiful light. But she knew that, for the moment, they were not in accord. He hated and dreaded what she encountered with a vivid sensation of sympathy and joy.
She felt that there was something morbid in his horror of the crowd, and the same strength of her nature said to her, "Uproot it!"
Their camp was pitched on the sand-hills, to the north of the city near the French and Arab cemeteries. They reached it only when darkness was falling, going out of the city on foot by the great wall of dressed stone which enclosed the Kasba of the native soldiers, and ascending and descending various slopes of deep sand, over which the airs of night blew with a peculiar thin freshness that renewed Domini's sense of being at the end of the world. Everything here whispered the same message, said, "We are the denizens of far-away."
In their walk to the camp they were accompanied by a little procession. Shabah, the Caid of Amara, a shortish man whose immense dignity made him almost gigantic, insisted upon attending them to the tents, with his young brother, a pretty, libertine boy of sixteen, the brother's tutor, an Arab black as a negro but without the negro's look of having been freshly oiled, and two attendants. To them joined himself the Caid of the Nomads, a swarthy potentate who not only looked, but actually was, immense, his four servants, and his uncle, a venerable person like a shepherd king. These worthies surrounded Domini and Androvsky, and behind streamed the curious, the envious, the greedy and the desultory Arabs, who follow in the trail of every stranger, hopeful of the crumbs that are said to fall from the rich man's table. Shabah spoke French and led the conversation, which was devoted chiefly to his condition of health. Some years before an attempt had been made upon his life by poison, and since that time, as he himself expressed it, his stomach had been "perturbed as a guard dog in the night when robbers are approaching." All efforts to console or to inspire him with hope of future cure were met with a stern hopelessness, a brusque certainty of perpetual suffering. The idea that his stomach could again know peace evidently shocked and distressed him, and as they all waded together through the sand, pioneered by the glorified Batouch, Domini was obliged to yield to his emphatic despair, and to join with him in his appreciation of the perpetual indigestion which set him apart from the rest of the world like some God within a shrine. The skittish boy, his brother, who wore kid gloves, cast at her sly glances of admiration which asked for a return. The black tutor grinned. And the Caid of the Nomads punctuated their progress with loud grunts of heavy satisfaction, occasionally making use of Batouch as interpreter to express his hopes that they would visit his palace in the town, and devour a cous-cous on his carpet.
When they came to the tents it was necessary to entertain these personages with coffee, and they finally departed promising a speedy return, and full of invitations, which were cordially accepted by Batouch on his employer's behalf before either Domini or Androvsky had time to say a word.
As the cortege disappeared over the sands towards the city Domini burst into a little laugh, and drew Androvsky out to the tent door to see them go.
"Society in the sands!" she exclaimed gaily. "Boris, this is a new experience. Look at our guests making their way to their palaces!"
Slowly the potentates progressed across the white dunes towards the city. Shabah wore a long red cloak. His brother was in pink and gold, with white billowing trousers. The Caid of the Nomads was in green. They all moved with a large and conscious majesty, surrounded by their obsequious attendants. Above them the purple sky showed a bright evening star. Near it was visible the delicate silhouette of the young moon. Scattered over the waste rose many koubbahs, grey in the white, with cupolas of gypse. Hundreds of dogs were barking in the distance. To the left, on the vast, rolling slopes of sand, glared the innumerable fires kindled before the tents of the Ouled Nails. Before the sleeping tent rose the minarets and the gilded cupolas of the city which it dominated from its mountain of sand. Behind it was the blanched immensity of the plain, of the lonely desert from which Domini and Androvsky had come to face this barbaric stir of life. And the city was full of music, of tomtoms throbbing, of bugles blowing in the Kasba, of pipes shrieking from hidden dwellings, and of the faint but multitudinous voices of men, carried to them on their desolate and treeless height by the frail wind of night that seemed a white wind, twin-brother of the sands.
"Let us go a step or two towards the city, Boris," Domini said, as their guests sank magnificently down into a fold of the dunes.
"Towards the city!" he answered. "Why not—?" He glanced behind him to the vacant, noiseless sands.
She set her impulse against his for the first time.
"No, this is our town life, our Sahara season. Let us give ourselves to it. The loneliness will be its antidote some day."
"Very well, Domini," he answered.
They went a little way towards the city, and stood still in the sand at the edge of their height.
"Listen, Boris! Isn't it strange in the night all this barbaric music? It excites me."
"You are glad to be here."
She heard the note of disappointment in his voice, but did not respond to it.
"And look at all those fires, hundreds of them in the sand!"
"Yes," he said, "it is wonderful, but the solitudes are best. This is not the heart of the desert, this is what the Arabs call it, 'The belly of the Desert.' In the heart of the desert there is silence."
She thought of the falling of the wind when the Sahara took them, and knew that her love of the silence was intense. Nevertheless, to-night the other part of her was in the ascendant. She wanted him to share it. He did not. Could she provoke him to share it?
"Yet, as we rode in, I had a feeling that the heart of the desert was here," she said. "You know I said so."
"Do you say so still?"
"The heart, Boris, is the centre of life, isn't it?"
He was silent. She felt his inner feeling fighting hers.
"To-night," she said, putting her arm through his, and looking towards the city. "I feel a tremendous sympathy with human life such as I never felt before. Boris, it comes to me from you. Yes, it does. It is born of my love for you, and seems to link me, and you with me, to all these strangers, to all men and women, to everything that lives. It is as if I was not quite human before, and my love for you had made me completely human, had done something to me that even—even my love for God had not been able to do."
She lowered her voice at the last words. After a moment she added:
"Perhaps in isolation, even with you, I could not come to completeness. Perhaps you could not in isolation even with me. Boris, I think it's good for us to be in the midst of life for a time."
"You wish to remain here, Domini?"
"Yes, for a time."
The fatalistic feeling that had sometimes come upon her in this land entered into her at this moment. She felt, "It is written that we are to remain here."
"Let us remain here, Domini," he said quietly.
The note of disappointment had gone out of his voice, deliberately banished from it by his love for her, but she seemed to hear it, nevertheless, echoing far down in his soul. At that moment she loved him like a woman he had made a lover, but also like a woman he had made a mother by becoming a child.
"Thank you, Boris," she answered very quietly. "You are good to me."
"You are good to me," he said, remembering the last words of Father Roubier. "How can I be anything else?"
Directly he had spoken the words his body trembled violently.
"Boris, what is it?" she exclaimed, startled.
He took his arm away from hers.
"These—these noises of the city in the night coming across the sand- hills are extraordinary. I have become so used to silence that perhaps they get upon my nerves. I shall grow accustomed to them presently."
He turned towards the tents, and she went with him. It seemed to her that he had evaded her question, that he had not wished to answer it, and the sense sharply awakened in her by a return to life near a city made her probe for the reason of this. She did not find it, but in her mental search she found herself presently at Mogar. It seemed to her that the same sort of uneasiness which had beset her husband at Mogar beset him now more fiercely at Amara, that, as he had just said, his nerves were being tortured by something. But it could not be the noises from the city.
After dinner Batouch came to the tent to suggest that they should go down with him into the city. Domini, feeling certain that Androvsky would not wish to go, at once refused, alleging that she was tired. Batouch then asked Androvsky to go with him, and, to Domini's astonishment, he said that if she did not mind his leaving her for a short time he would like a stroll.
"Perhaps," he said to her, as Batouch and he were starting, "perhaps it will make me more completely human; perhaps there is something still to be done that even you, Domini, have not accomplished."
She knew he was alluding to her words before dinner. He stood looking at her with a slight smile that did not suggest happiness, then added:
"That link you spoke of between us and these strangers"—he made a gesture towards the city—"I ought perhaps to feel it more strongly than I do. I—I will try to feel it."
Then he turned away, and went with Batouch across the sand-hills, walking heavily.
As Domini watched him going she felt chilled, because there was something in his manner, in his smile, that seemed for the moment to set them apart from each other, something she did not understand.
Soon Androvsky disappeared in a fold of the sands as he had disappeared in a fold of the sands at Mogar, not long before De Trevignac came. She thought of Mogar once more, steadily, reviewing mentally—with the renewed sharpness of intellect that had returned to her, brought by contact with the city—all that had passed there, as she never reviewed it before.
It had been a strange episode.
She began to walk slowly up and down on the sand before the tent. Ouardi came to walk with her, but she sent him away. Before doing so, however, something moved her to ask him:
"That African liqueur, Ouardi—you remember that you brought to the tent at Mogar—have we any more of it?"
"The monk's liqueur, Madame?"
"What do you mean—monk's liqueur?"
"It was invented by a monk, Madame, and is sold by the monks of El- Largani."
"Oh! Have we any more of it?"
"There is another bottle, Madame, but I should not dare to bring it if——"
"If what, Ouardi?"
"If Monsieur were there."
Domini was on the point of asking him why, but she checked herself and told him to leave her. Then she walked up and down once more on the sand. She was thinking now of the broken glass on the ground at Androvsky's feet when she found him alone in the tent after De Trevignac had gone. Ouardi's words made her wonder whether this liqueur, brought to celebrate De Trevignac's presence in the camp, had turned the conversation upon the subject of the religious orders; whether Androvsky had perhaps said something against them which had offended De Trevignac, a staunch Catholic; whether there had been a quarrel between the two men on the subject of religion. It was possible. She remembered De Trevignac's strange, almost mystical, gesture in the dawn, following his look of horror towards the tent where her husband lay sleeping.
To-night her mind—her whole nature—felt terribly alive.
She tried to think no more of Mogar, but her thoughts centred round it, linked it with this great city, whose lights shone in the distance below her, whose music came to her from afar over the silence of the sands.
Mogar and Amara; what had they to do with one another? Leagues of desert divided them. One was a desolation, the other was crowded with men. What linked them together in her mind?
Androvsky's fear of both—that was the link. She kept on thinking of the glance he had cast at the watch-tower, to which Trevignac had been even then approaching, although they knew it not. De Trevignac! She walked faster on the sand, to and fro before the tent. Why had he looked at the tent in which Androvsky slept with horror? Was it because Androvsky had denounced the religion that he reverenced and loved? Could it have been that? But then—did Androvsky actively hate religion? Perhaps he hated it, and concealed his hatred from her because he knew it would cause her pain. Yet she had sometimes felt as if he were seeking, perhaps with fear, perhaps with ignorance, perhaps with uncertainty, but still seeking to draw near to God. That was why she had been able to hope for him, why she had not been more troubled by his loss of the faith in which he had been brought up, and to which she belonged heart and soul. Could she have been wrong in her feeling—deceived? There were men in the world, she knew, who denied the existence of a God, and bitterly ridiculed all faith. She remembered the blasphemies of her father. Had she married a man who, like him, was lost, who, as he had, furiously denied God?
A cold thrill of fear came into her heart. Suddenly she felt as if, perhaps, even in her love, Androvsky had been a stranger to her.
She stood upon the sand. It chanced that she looked towards the camp of the Ouled Nails, whose fires blazed upon the dunes. While she looked she was presently aware of a light that detached itself from the blaze of the fires, and moved from them, coming towards the place where she was standing, slowly. The young moon only gave a faint ray to the night. This light travelled onward through the dimness like an earth-bound star. She watched it with intentness, as people watch any moving thing when their minds are eagerly at work, staring, yet scarcely conscious that they see.
The little light moved steadily on over the sands, now descending the side of a dune, now mounting to a crest, and always coming towards the place where Domini was standing, And presently this determined movement towards her caught hold of her mind, drew it away from other thoughts, fixed it on the light. She became interested in it, intent upon it.
Who was bearing it? No doubt some desert man, some Arab. She imagined him tall, brown, lithe, half-naked, holding the lamp in his muscular fingers, treading on bare feet silently, over the deep sand. Why had he left the camp? What was his purpose?
The light drew near. It was now moving over the flats and seemed, she thought, to travel more quickly. And always it came straight towards where she was standing. A conviction dawned in her that it was travelling with an intention of reaching her, that it was carried by someone who was thinking of her. But how could that be? She thought of the light as a thing with a mind and a purpose, borne by someone who backed up its purpose, helping it to do what it wanted. And it wanted to come to her.
In Mogar! Androvsky had dreaded something in Mogar. De Trevignac had come. He dreaded something in Amara. This light came. For an instant she fancied that the light was a lamp carried by De Trevignac. Then she saw that it gleamed upon a long black robe, the soutane of a priest.
As she and Androvsky rode into Amara she had asked herself whether his second dread would be followed, as his first dread had been, by an unusual incident. When she saw the soutane of a priest, black in the lamplight, moving towards her over the whiteness of the sand, she said to herself that it was to be so followed. This priest stood in the place of De Trevignac.
Why did he come to her?
When the priest drew close to the tent Domini saw that it was not he who carried the lantern, but a native soldier, one of the Tirailleurs, formerly called Turcos, who walked beside him. The soldier saluted her, and the priest took off his broad, fluffy black hat.
"Good-evening, Madame," he said, speaking French with the accent of Marseilles. "I am the Aumonier of Amara, and have just heard of your arrival here, and as I was visiting my friends on the sand-hills yonder, I thought I would venture to call and ask whether I could be of any service to you. The hour is informal, I know, but to tell the truth, Madame, after five years in Amara one does not know how to be formal any longer."
His eyes, which had a slightly impudent look, rare in a priest but not unpleasing, twinkled cheerfully in the lamplight as he spoke, and his whole expression betokened a highly social disposition and the most genuine pleasure at meeting with a stranger. While she looked at him, and heard him speak, Domini laughed at herself for the imaginations she had just been cherishing. He had a broad figure, long arms, large feet encased in stout, comfortable boots. His face was burnt brown by the sun and partially concealed by a heavy black beard, whiskers and moustache. His features were blunt and looked boyish, though his age must have been about forty. The nose was snub, and accorded with the expression in his eyes, which were black like his hair and full of twinkling lights. As he smiled genially on Domini he showed two rows of small, square white teeth. His Marseilles accent exactly suited his appearance, which was rough but honest. Domini welcomed him gladly. Indeed, her reception of him was more than cordial, almost eager. For she had been vaguely expecting some tragic figure, some personality suggestive of mystery or sorrow, and she thought of the incidents at Mogar, and associated the moving light with the approach of further strange events. This homely figure of her religion, beaming satisfaction and comfortable anticipation of friendly intercourse, laid to rest fears which only now, when she was conscious of relief, she knew she had been entertaining. She begged the priest to come into the dining-tent, and, taking up the little bell which was on the table, went out into the sand and rang it for Ouardi.
He came at once, like a shadow gliding over the waste.
"Bring us coffee for two, Ouardi, biscuits"—she glanced at her visitor—"bon-bons, yes, the bon-bons in the white box, and the cigars. And take the soldier with you and entertain him well. Give him whatever he likes."
Ouardi went away with the soldier, talking frantically, and Domini returned to the tent, where she found the priest gleaming with joyous anticipation. They sat down in the comfortable basket chairs before the tent door, through which they could see the shining of the city's lights and hear the distant sound of its throbbing and wailing music.
"My husband has gone to see the city," Domini said after she had told the priest her name and been informed that his was Max Beret.
"We only arrived this evening."
"I know, Madame."
He beamed on her, and stroked his thick beard with his broad, sunburnt hand. "Everyone in Amara knows, and everyone in the tents. We know, too, how many tents you have, how many servants, how many camels, horses, dogs."
He broke into a hearty laugh.
"We know what you've just had for dinner!"
Domini laughed too.
"Well, I heard in the camp that it was soup and stewed mutton. But never mind! You must forgive us. We are barbarians! We are sand- rascals! We are ruffians of the sun!"
His laugh was infectious. He leaned back in his chair and shook with the mirth his own remarks had roused.
"We are ruffians of the sun!" he repeated with gusto. "And we must be forgiven everything."
Although clad in a soutane he looked, at that moment, like a type of the most joyous tolerance, and Domini could not help mentally comparing him with the priest of Beni-Mora. What would Father Roubier think of Father Beret?
"It is easy to forgive in the sun," Domini said.
The priest laid his hands on his knees, setting his feet well apart. She noticed that his hands were not scrupulously clean.
"Madame," he said, "it is impossible to be anything but lenient in the sun. That is my experience. Excuse me but are you a Catholic?"
"So much the better. You must let me show you the chapel. It is in the building with the cupolas. The congregation consists of five on a full Sunday." His laugh broke out again. "I hope the day after to-morrow you and your husband will make it seven. But, as I was saying, the sun teaches one a lesson of charity. When I first came to live in Africa in the midst of the sand-rascals—eh; Madame!—I suppose as a priest I ought to have been shocked by their goings-on. And indeed I tried to be, I conscientiously did my best. But it was no good. I couldn't be shocked. The sunshine drove it all out of me. I could only say, 'It is not for me to question le bon Dieu, and le bon Dieu has created these people and set them here in the sand to behave as they do.' What is my business? I can't convert them. I can't change their morals. I must just be a friend to them, cheer them up in their sorrows, give them a bit if they're starving, doctor them a little. I'm a first-rate hand at making an Arab take a pill or a powder!—when they are ill, and make them at home with the white marabout. That's what the sun has taught me, and every sand-rascal and sand-rascal's child in Amara is a friend of mine."
He stretched out his legs as if he wished to elongate his satisfaction, and stared Domini full in the face with eyes that confidently, naively, asked for her approval of his doctrine of the sun. She could not help liking him, though she felt more as if she were sitting with a jolly, big, and rather rowdy boy than with a priest.
"You are fond of the Arabs then?" she said.
"Of course I am, Madame. I can speak their language, and I'm as much at home in their tents, and more, than I should ever be at the Vatican —with all respect to the Holy Father."
He got up, went out into the sand, expectorated noisily, then returned to the tent, wiping his bearded mouth with a large red cotton pocket- handkerchief.
"Are you staying here long, Madame?"
He sat down again in his chair, making it creak with his substantial weight.
"I don't know. If my husband is happy here. But he prefers the solitudes, I think."
"Does he? And yet he's gone into the city. Plenty of bustle there at night, I can tell you. Well, now, I don't agree with your husband. I know it's been said that solitude is good for the sad, but I think just the contrary. Ah!"
The last sonorously joyous exclamation jumped out of Father Beret at the sight of Ouardi, who at this moment entered with a large tray, covered with a coffee-pot, cups, biscuits, bon-bons, cigars, and a bulging flask of some liqueur flanked by little glasses.
"You fare generously in the desert I see, Madame," he exclaimed. "And so much the better. What's your servant's name?"
Domini told him.
"Ouardi! that means born in the time of the roses." He addressed Ouardi in Arabic and sent him off into the darkness chuckling gaily. "These Arab names all have their meanings—Onlagareb, mother of scorpions, Omteoni, mother of eagles, and so on. So much the better! Comforts are rare here, but you carry them with you. Sugar, if you please."
Domini put two lumps into his cup.
"If you allow me!"
He added two more.
"I never refuse a good cigar. These harmless joys are excellent for man. They help his Christianity. They keep him from bitterness, harsh judgments. But harshness is for northern climes—rainy England, eh? Forgive me, Madame. I speak in joke. You come from England perhaps. It didn't occur to me that—"
They both laughed. His garrulity was irresistible and made Domini feel as if she were sitting with a child. Perhaps he caught her feeling, for he added:
"The desert has made me an enfant terrible, I fear. What have you there?"
His eyes had been attracted by the flask of liqueur, to which Domini was stretching out her hand with the intention of giving him some.
"I don't know."
She leaned forward to read the name on the flask.
"L o u a r i n e," she said.
"Pst!" exclaimed the priest, with a start.
"Will you have some? I don't know whether it's good. I've never tasted it, or seen it before. Will you have some?"
She felt so absolutely certain that he would say "Yes" that she lifted the flask to pour the liqueur into one of the little glasses, but, looking at him, she saw that he hesitated.
"After all—why not?" he ejaculated. "Why not?"
She was holding the flask over the glass. He saw that his remark surprised her.
"Yes, Madame, thanks."
She poured out the liqueur and handed it to him. He set it down by his coffee-cup.
"The fact is, Madame—but you know nothing about this liqueur?"
"No, nothing. What is it?"
Her curiosity was roused by his hesitation, his words, but still more by a certain gravity which had come into his face.
"Well, this liqueur comes from the Trappist monastery of El-Largani."
"The monks' liqueur!" she exclaimed.
And instantly she thought of Mogar.
"You do know then?"
"Ouardi told me we had with us a liqueur made by some monks."
"This is it, and very excellent it is. I have tasted it in Tunis."
"But then why did you hesitate to take it here?"
He lifted his glass up to the lamp. The light shone on its contents, showing that the liquid was pale green.
"Madame," he said, "the Trappists of El-Largani have a fine property. They grow every sort of things, but their vineyards are specially famous, and their wines bring in a splendid revenue. This is their only liqueur, this Louarine. It, too, has brought in a lot of money to the community, but when what they have in stock at the monastery now is exhausted they will never make another franc by Louarine."
"But why not?"
"The secret of its manufacture belonged to one monk only. At his death he was to confide it to another whom he had chosen."
"And he died suddenly without—"
"Madame, he didn't die."
The gravity had returned to the priest's face and deepened there, transforming it. He put the glass down without touching it with his lips.
"Then—I don't understand."
"He disappeared from the monastery."
"Do you mean he left it—a Trappist?"
"After taking the final vows?"
"Oh, he had been a monk at El-Largani for over twenty years."
"How horrible!" Domini said. She looked at the pale-green liquid. "How horrible!" she repeated.
"Yes. The monks would have kept the matter a secret, but a servant of the hotellerie—who had taken no vow of eternal silence—spoke, and —well, I know it here in the 'belly of the desert.'"
She said the word again, and as if she felt its meaning more acutely each time she spoke it.
"After twenty years to go!" she added after a moment. "And was there no reason, no—no excuse—no, I don't mean excuse! But had nothing exceptional happened?"
"What exceptional thing can happen in a Trappist monastery?" said the priest. "One day is exactly like another there, and one year exactly like another."
"Was it long ago?"
"No, not very long. Only some months. Oh, perhaps it may be a year by now, but not more. Poor fellow! I suppose he was a man who didn't know himself, Madame, and the devil tempted him."
"But after twenty years!" said Domini.
The thing seemed to her almost incredible.
"That man must be in hell now," she added. "In the hell a man can make for himself by his own act. Oh, here is my husband."
Androvsky stood in the tent door, looking in upon them with startled, scrutinising eyes. He had come over the deep sand without noise. Neither Domini nor the priest had heard a footstep. The priest got up from his chair and bowed genially.
"Good-evening, Monsieur," he said, not waiting for any introduction. "I am the Aumonier of Amara, and——"
He paused in the full flow of his talk. Androvsky's eyes had wandered from his face to the table, upon which stood the coffee, the liqueur, and the other things brought by Ouardi. It was evident even to the self-centred priest that his host was not listening to him. There was a moment's awkward pause. Then Domini said:
"Boris, Monsieur l'Aumonier!"
She did not speak loudly, but with an intention that recalled the mind of her husband. He stepped slowly into the tent and held out his hand in silence to the priest. As he did so the lamplight fell full upon him.
"Boris, are you ill?" Domini exclaimed.
The priest had taken Androvsky's hand, but with a doubtful air. His cheerful and confident manner had died away, and his eyes, fixed upon his host, shone with an astonishment which was mingled with a sort of boyish glumness. It was evident that he felt that his presence was unwelcome.
"I have a headache," Androvsky said. "I—that is why I returned."
He dropped the priest's hand. He was again looking towards the table.
"The sun was unusually fierce to-day," Domini said. "Do you think—"
"Yes, yes," he interrupted. "That's it. I must have had a touch of the sun."
He put his hand to his head.
"Excuse me, Monsieur," he said, speaking to the priest but not looking at him. "I am really feeling unwell. Another day—"
He went out of the tent and disappeared silently into the darkness. Domini and the priest looked after him. Then the priest, with an air of embarrassment, took up his hat from the table. His cigar had gone out, but he pulled at it as if he thought it was still alight, then took it out of his mouth and, glancing with a naive regret at the good things upon the table, his half-finished coffee, the biscuits, the white box of bon-bons—said:
"Madame, I must be off. I've a good way to go, and it's getting late. If you will allow me—"
He went to the tent door and called, in a powerful voice:
He paused, then called again:
A light travelled over the sand from the farther tents of the servants. Then the priest turned round to Domini and shook her by the hand.
"I'm very sorry," she said, not trying to detain him. "You must come again. My husband is evidently ill, and—"
"You must go to him. Of course. Of course. This sun is a blessing. Still, it brings fever sometimes, especially to strangers. We sand- rascals—eh, Madame!" he laughed, but the laugh had lost its sonorous ring—"we can stand it. It's our friend. But for travellers sometimes it's a little bit too much. But now, mind, I'm a bit of a doctor, and if to-morrow your husband is no better I might—anyhow"—he looked again longingly at the bon-bons and the cigars—"if you'll allow me I'll call to know how he is."
"Thank you, Monsieur."
"Not at all, Madame, not at all! I can set him right in a minute, if it's anything to do with the sun, in a minute. Ah, here's Belgassem!"
The soldier stood like a statue without, bearing the lantern. The priest hesitated. He was holding the burnt-out cigar in his hand, and now he glanced at it and then at the cigar-box. A plaintive expression overspread his bronzed and bearded face. It became almost piteous. Quickly Domini wait to the table, took two cigars from the box and came back.
"Yon must have a cigar to smoke on the way."
"Really, Madame, you are too good, but—well, I rarely refuse a fine cigar, and these—upon my word—are—"
He struck a match on his broad-toed boot. His demeanour was becoming cheerful again. Domini gave the other cigar to the soldier.
"Good-night, Madame. A demain then, a demain! I trust your husband may be able to rest. A demain! A demain!"
The light moved away over the dunes and dropped down towards the city. Then Domini hurried across the sand to the sleeping-tent. As she went she was acutely aware of the many distant noises that rose up in the night to the pale crescent of the young moon, the pulsing of the tomtoms in the city, the faint screaming of the pipes that sounded almost like human beings in distress, the passionate barking of the guard dogs tied up to the tents on the sand-slopes where the multitudes of fires gleamed. The sensation of being far away, and close to the heart of the desert, deepened in her, but she felt now that it was a savage heart, that there was something terrible in the remoteness. In the faint moonlight the tent cast black shadows upon the wintry whiteness of the sands, that rose and fell like waves of a smooth but foam-covered sea. And the shadow of the sleeping-tent looked the blackest of them all. For she began to feel as if there was another darkness about it than the darkness that it cast upon the sand. Her husband's face that night as he came in from the dunes had been dark with a shadow cast surely by his soul. And she did not know what it was in his soul that sent forth the shadow.
She was at the door of the sleeping-tent. He did not answer.
He came in from the farther tent that he used as a dressing-room, carrying a lit candle in his hand. She went up to him with a movement of swift, ardent sincerity.
"You felt ill in the city? Did Batouch let you come back alone?"
"I preferred to be alone."
He set down the candle on the table, and moved so that the light of it did not fall upon his face. She took his hands in hers gently. There was no response in his hands. They remained in hers, nervelessly. They felt almost like dead things in her hands. But they were not cold, but burning hot.
"You have fever!" she said.
She let one of his hands go and put one of hers to his forehead.
"Your forehead is burning, and your pulses—how they are beating! Like hammers! I must—"
"Don't give me anything, Domini! It would be useless."
She was silent. There was a sound of hopelessness in his voice that frightened her. It was like the voice of a man rejecting remedies because he knew that he was stricken with a mortal disease.
"Why did that priest come here to-night?" he asked.
They were both standing up, but now he sat down in a chair heavily, taking his hand from hers.
"Merely to pay a visit of courtesy."
He spoke suspiciously. Again she thought of Mogar, and of how, on his return from the dunes, he had said to her, "There is a light in the tower." A painful sensation of being surrounded with mystery came upon her. It was hateful to her strong and frank nature. It was like a miasma that suffocated her soul.
"Oh, Boris," she exclaimed bluntly, "why should he not come at night?"
"Is such a thing usual?"
"But he was visiting the tents over there—of the nomads, and he had heard of our arrival. He knew it was informal, but, as he said, in the desert one forgets formalities."
"And—and did he ask for anything?"
"I saw—on the table-coffee and—and there was liqueur."
"Naturally I offered him something."
"He didn't ask?"
"But, Boris, how could he?"
After a moment of silence he said:
"No, of course not."
He shifted in his chair, crossed one leg over the other, put his hands on the arms of it, and continued:
"What did he talk about?"
"A little about Amara."
"That was all?"
"He hadn't been here long when you came—"
"But he told me one thing that was horrible," she added, obedient to her instinct always to tell the complete truth to him, even about trifles which had nothing to do with their lives or their relation to each other.
"Horrible!" Androvsky said, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward in his chair.
She sat down by him. They both had their backs to the light and were in shadow.
"What was it about—some crime here?"
"Oh, no! It was about that liqueur you saw on the table."
Androvsky was sitting upon a basket chair. As she spoke it creaked under a violent movement that he made.
"How could—what could there be that was horrible connected with that?" he asked, speaking slowly.
"It was made by a monk, a Trappist—"
He got up from his chair and went to the opening of the tent.
"What—" she began, thinking he was perhaps feeling the pain in his head more severely.
"I only want to be in the air. It's rather hot there. Stay where, you are, Domini, and—well, what else?"
He stepped out into the sand, and stood just outside the tent in its shadow.
"It was invented by a Trappist monk of the monastery of El-Largani, who disappeared from the monastery. He had taken the final vows. He had been there for over twenty years."
"He—he disappeared—did the priest say?"
"I don't think—I am sure he doesn't know. But what does it matter? The awful thing is that he should leave the monastery after taking the eternal vows—vows made to God."
After a moment, during which neither of them spoke and Androvsky stood quite still in the sand, she added:
Androvsky came a step towards her, then paused.
"Why do you say that, Domini?"
"I was thinking of the agony he must be enduring if he is still alive."
"Of mind, of heart. You—I know, Boris, you can't feel with me on certain subjects—yet—"
"Yet!" he said.
"Boris"—she got up and came to the tent door, but not out upon the sand—"I dare to hope that some day perhaps——"
She was silent, looking towards him with her brave, steady eyes.
"Agony of heart?" Androvsky said, recurring to her words. "You think— what—you pity that man then?"
"And don't you?"
"I—what has he to do with—us? Why should we—?"
"I know. But one does sometimes pity men one never has seen, never will see, if one hears something frightful about them. Perhaps—don't smile, Boris—perhaps it was seeing that liqueur, which he had actually made in the monastery when he was at peace with God, perhaps it was seeing that, that has made me realise—such trifles stir the imagination, set it working—at any rate—"
She broke off. After a minute, during which he said nothing, she continued:
"I believe the priest felt something of the same sort. He could not drink the liqueur that man had made, although he intended to."
"But—that might have been for a different reason," Androvsky said in a harsh voice; "priests have strange ideas. They often judge things cruelly, very cruelly."
"Perhaps they do. Yes; I can imagine that Father Roubier of Beni-Mora might, though he is a good man and leads a saintly life."
"Those are sometimes the most cruel. They do not understand."
"Perhaps not. It may be so. But this priest—he's not like that."
She thought of his genial, bearded face, his expression when he said, "We are ruffians of the sun," including himself with the desert men, his boisterous laugh.
"His fault might be the other way."
"Too great a tolerance."
"Can a man be too tolerant towards his fellow-man?" said Androvsky.
There was a strange sound of emotion in his deep voice which moved her. It seemed to her—why, she did not know—to steal out of the depth of something their mutual love had created.
"The greatest of all tolerance is God's," she said. "I'm sure—quite sure—of that."
Androvsky came in out of the shadow of the tent, took her in his arms with passion, laid his lips on hers with passion, hot, burning force and fire, and a hard tenderness that was hard because it was intense.
"God will bless you," he said. "God will bless you. Whatever life brings you at the end you must—you must be blessed by Him."
"But He has blessed me," she whispered, through tears that rushed from her eyes, stirred from their well-springs by his sudden outburst of love for her. "He has blessed me. He has given me you, your love, your truth."
Androvsky released her as abruptly as he had taken her in his arms, turned, and went out into the desert.
True to his promise, on the following day the priest called to inquire after Androvsky's health. He happened to come just before dejeuner was ready, and met Androvsky on the sand before the tent door.
"It's not fever then, Monsieur," he said, after they had shaken hands.
"No, no," Androvsky replied. "I am quite well this morning."
The priest looked at him closely with an unembarrassed scrutiny.
"Have you been long in the desert, Monsieur?" he asked.
"The heat has tired you. I know the look—"
"I assure you, Monsieur, that I am accustomed to heat. I have lived in North Africa all my life."
"Indeed. And yet by your appearance I should certainly suppose that you needed a change from the desert. The air of the Sahara is magnificent, but there are people—"
"I am not one of them," Androvsky said abruptly. "I have never felt so strong physically as since I have lived in the sand."
The priest still looked at him closely, but said nothing further on the subject of health. Indeed, almost immediately his attention was distracted by the apparition of Ouardi bearing dishes from the cook's tent.
"I am afraid I have called at a very unorthodox time," he remarked, looking at his watch; "but the fact is that here in Amara we—"
"I hope you will stay to dejeuner," Androvsky said.
"It is very good of you. If you are certain that I shall not put you out."
"I will, then, with pleasure."
He moved his lips expectantly, as if only a sense of politeness prevented him from smacking them. Androvsky went towards the sleeping- tent, where Domini, who had been into the city, was washing her hands.
"The priest has called," he said. "I have asked him to dejeuner."
She looked at him with frank astonishment in her dark eyes.
"Yes, I. Why not?"
"I don't know. But generally you hate people."
"He seems a good sort of man."
She still looked at him with some surprise, even with curiosity.
"Have you taken a fancy to a priest?" she asked, smiling.
"Why not? This man is very different from Father Roubier, more human."
"Father Beret is very human, I think," she answered.
She was still smiling. It had just occurred to her that the priest had timed his visit with some forethought.
"I am coming," she added.
A sudden cheerfulness had taken possession of her. All the morning she had been feeling grave, even almost apprehensive, after a bad night. When her husband had abruptly left her and gone away into the darkness she had been overtaken by a sudden wave of acute depression. She had felt, more painfully than ever before, the mental separation which existed between them despite their deep love, and a passionate but almost hopeless longing had filled her heart that in all things they might be one, not only in love of each other, but in love of God. When Androvsky had taken his arms from her she had seemed to feel herself released by a great despair, and this certainty—for as he vanished into the darkness she was no more in doubt that his love for her left room within his heart for such an agony—had for a moment brought her soul to the dust. She had been overwhelmed by a sensation that instead of being close together they were far apart, almost strangers, and a great bitterness had entered into her. It was accompanied by a desire for action. She longed to follow Androvsky, to lay her hand on his arm, to stop him in the sand and force him to confide in her. For the first time the idea that he was keeping something from her, a sorrow, almost maddened her, even made her feel jealous. The fact that she divined what that sorrow was, or believed she divined it, did not help her just then. She waited a long while, but Androvsky did not return, and at last she prayed and went to bed. But her prayers were feeble, disjointed, and sleep did not come to her, for her mind was travelling with this man who loved her and who yet was out there alone in the night, who was deliberately separating himself from her. Towards dawn, when he stole into the tent, she was still awake, but she did not speak or give any sign of consciousness, although she was hot with the fierce desire to spring up, to throw her arms round him, to draw his head down upon her heart, and say, "I have given myself, body, heart and soul, to you. Give yourself to me; give me the thing you are keeping back—your sorrow. Till I have that I have not all of you. And till I have all of you I am in hell."
It was a mad impulse. She resisted it and lay quite still. And when he lay down and was quiet she slept at length.
Now, as she heard him speak in the sunshine and knew that he had offered hospitality to the comfortable priest her heart suddenly felt lighter, she scarcely knew why. It seemed to her that she had been a little morbid, and that the cloud which had settled about her was lifted, revealing the blue.
At dejeuner she was even more reassured. Her husband seemed to get on with the priest better than she had ever seen him get on with anybody. He began by making an effort to be agreeable that was obvious to her; but presently he was agreeable without effort. The simple geniality and lack of self-consciousness in Father Beret evidently set him at his ease. Once or twice she saw him look at his guest with an earnest scrutiny that puzzled her, but he talked far more than usual and with greater animation, discussing the Arabs and listening to the priest's account of the curiosities of life in Amara. When at length Father Beret rose to go Androvsky said he would accompany him a little way, and they went off together, evidently on the best of terms.
She was delighted and surprised. She had been right, then. It was time that Androvsky was subjected to another influence than that of the unpeopled wastes. It was time that he came into contact with men whose minds were more akin to his than the minds of the Arabs who had been their only companions. She began to imagine him with her in civilised places, to be able to imagine him. And she was glad they had come to Amara and confirmed in her resolve to stay on there. She even began to wish that the French officers quartered there—few in number, some five or six—would find them in the sand, and that Androvsky would offer them hospitality. It occurred to her that it was not quite wholesome for a man to live in isolation from his fellow-men, even with the woman he loved, and she determined that she would not be selfish in her love, that she would think for Androvsky, act for him, even against her own inclination. Perhaps his idea of life in an oasis apart from Europeans was one she ought to combat, though it fascinated her. Perhaps it would be stronger, more sane, to face a more ordinary, less dreamy, life, in which they would meet with people, in which they would inevitably find themselves confronted with duties. She felt powerful enough in that moment to do anything that would make for Androvsky's welfare of soul. His body was strong and at ease. She thought of him going away with the priest in friendly conversation. How splendid it would be if she could feel some day that the health of his soul accorded completely with that of his body!
"Batouch!" she called almost gaily.
Batouch appeared, languidly smoking a cigarette, and with a large flower tied to a twig protending from behind his ear.
"Saddle the horses. Monsieur has gone with the Pere Beret. I shall take a ride, just a short ride round the camp over there—in at the city gate, through the market-place, and home. You will come with me."
Batouch threw away his cigarette with energy. Poet though he was, all the Arab blood in him responded to the thought of a gallop over the sands. Within a few minutes they were off. When she was in the saddle it was at all times difficult for Domini to be sad or even pensive. She had a native passion for a good horse, and riding was one of the joys, and almost the keenest, of her life. She felt powerful when she had a spirited, fiery animal under her, and the wide spaces of the desert summoned speed as they summoned dreams. She and Batouch went away at a rapid pace, circled round the Arab cemetery, made a detour towards the south, and then cantered into the midst of the camps of the Ouled Nails. It was the hour of the siesta. Only a few people were stirring, coming and going over the dunes to and from the city on languid errands for the women of the tents, who reclined in the shade of their brushwood arbours upon filthy cushions and heaps of multi- coloured rags, smoking cigarettes, playing cards with Arab and negro admirers, or staring into vacancy beneath their heavy eyebrows as they listened to the sound of music played upon long pipes of reed. No dogs barked in their camp. The only guardians were old women, whose sandy faces were scored with innumerable wrinkles, and whose withered hands drooped under their loads of barbaric rings and bracelets. Batouch would evidently have liked to dismount here. Like all Arabs he was fascinated by the sight of these idols of the waste, whose painted faces called to the surface the fluid poetry within him, but Domini rode on, descending towards the city gate by which she had first entered Amara. The priest's house was there and Androvsky was with the priest. She hoped he had perhaps gone in to return the visit paid to them. As she rode into the city she glanced at the house. The door was open and she saw the gay rugs in the little hall. She had a strong inclination to stop and ask if her husband were there. He might mount Batouch's horse and accompany her home.
"Batouch," she said, "will you ask if Monsieur Androvsky is with Pere Beret. I think—"
She stopped speaking. She had just seen her husband's face pass across the window-space of the room on the right-hand side of the hall door. She could not see it very well. The arcade built out beyond the house cast a deep shade within, and in this shade the face had flitted like a shadow. Batouch had sprung from his horse. But the sight of the shadowy face had changed her mind. She resolved not to interrupt the two men. Long ago at Beni-Mora she had asked Androvsky to call upon a priest. She remembered the sequel to that visit. This time Androvsky had gone of his own will. If he liked this priest, if they became friends, perhaps—she remembered her vision in the dancing-house, her feeling that when she drew near Amara she was drawing near to the heart of the desert. If she should see Androvsky praying here! Yet Father Beret hardly seemed a man likely to influence her husband, or anyone with a strong and serious personality. He was surely too fond of the things of this world, too obviously a lover and cherisher of the body. Nevertheless, there was something attractive in him, a kindness, a geniality. In trouble he would be sympathetic. Certainly her husband must have taken a liking to him, and the chances of life and the influences of destiny were strange and not to be foreseen.
"No, Batouch," she said. "We won't stop."
"But, Madame," he cried, "Monsieur is in there. I saw his face at the window."
"Never mind. We won't disturb them. I daresay they have something to talk about."
They cantered on towards the market-place. It was not market-day, and the town, like the camp of the Ouled Nails, was almost deserted. As she rode up the hill towards the place of the fountain, however, she saw two handsomely-dressed Arabs, followed by a servant, slowly strolling towards her from the doorway of the Bureau Arabe. One, who was very tall, was dressed in green, and carried a long staff, from which hung green ribbons. The other wore a more ordinary costume of white, with a white burnous and a turban spangled with gold.
"Madame!" said Batouch.
"Do you see the Arab dressed in green?"
He spoke in an almost awestruck voice.
"Yes. Who is he?"
"The great marabout who lives at Beni-Hassan."
The name struck upon Domini's ear with a strange familiarity.
"But that's where Count Anteoni went when he rode away from Beni-Mora that morning."
"Is it far from Amara?"
"Two hours' ride across the desert."
"But then Count Anteoni may be near us. After he left he wrote to me and gave me his address at the marabout's house."
"If he is still with the marabout, Madame."
They were close to the fountain now, and the marabout and his companion were coming straight towards them.
"If Madame will allow me I will salute the marabout," said Batouch.
He sprang off his horse immediately, tied it up to the railing of the fountain, and went respectfully towards the approaching potentate to kiss his hand. Domini saw the marabout stop and Batouch bend down, then lift himself up and suddenly move back as if in surprise. The Arab who was with the marabout seemed also surprised. He held out his hand to Batouch, who took it, kissed it, then kissed his own hand, and turning, pointed towards Domini. The Arab spoke a word to the marabout, then left him, and came rapidly forward to the fountain. As he drew close to her she saw a face browned by the sun, a very small, pointed beard, a pair of intensely bright eyes surrounded by wrinkles. These eyes held her. It seemed to her that she knew them, that she had often looked into them and seen their changing expressions. Suddenly she exclaimed:
"Yes, it is I!"
He held out his hand and clasped hers.
"So you have started upon your desert journey," he added, looking closely at her, as he had often looked in the garden.
"And as I ventured to advise—that last time, do you remember?"
She recollected his words.
"No," she replied, and there was a warmth of joy, almost of pride, in her voice. "I am not alone."
Count Anteoni was standing with one hand on her horse's neck. As she spoke, his hand dropped down.
"I have been away from Beni-Hassan," he said slowly. "The marabout and I have been travelling in the south and only returned yesterday. I have heard no news for a long time from Beni-Mora, but I know. You are Madame Androvsky."
"Yes," she answered; "I am Madame Androvsky."
There was a silence between them. In it she heard the dripping water in the fountain. At last Count Anteoni spoke again.
"It was written," he said quietly. "It was written in the sand."
She thought of the sand-diviner and was silent. An oppression of spirit had suddenly come upon her. It seemed to her connected with something physical, something obscure, unusual, such as she had never felt before. It was, she thought, as if her body at that moment became more alive than it had ever been, and as if that increase of life within her gave to her a peculiar uneasiness. She was startled. She even felt alarmed, as at the faint approach of something strange, of something that was going to alter her life. She did not know at all what it was. For the moment a sense of confusion and of pain beset her, and she was scarcely aware with whom she was, or where. The sensation passed and she recovered herself and met Count Anteoni's eyes quietly.
"Yes," she answered; "all that has happened to me here in Africa was written in the sand and in fire."
"You are thinking of the sun."
"I—where are you living?"
"Close by on the sand-hill beyond the city wall."
"Where you can see the fires lit at night and hear the sound of the music of Africa?"
"As he said."
"Yes, as he said."
Again the overwhelming sense of some strange and formidable approach came over her, but this time she fought it resolutely.
"Will you come and see me?" she said.
She had meant to say "us," but did not say it.
"If you will allow me."
"I—" she heard the odd, upward grating in his voice which she remembered so well. "May I come now if you are riding to the tents?"
"I will explain to the marabout and follow you."
"But the way? Shall Batouch—?"
"No, it is not necessary."
She rode away. When she reached the camp she found that Androvsky had not yet returned, and she was glad. She wanted to talk to Count Anteoni alone. Within a few minutes she saw him coming towards the tent. His beard and his Arab dress so altered him that at a short distance she could not recognise him, could only guess that it was he. But directly he was near, and she saw his eyes, she forgot that he was altered, and felt that she was with her kind and whimsical host of the garden.
"My husband is in the city," she said.
"With the priest."
She saw an expression of surprise flit over Count Anteoni's face. It went away instantly.
"Pere Beret," he said. "He is a cheerful creature and very good to the Arabs."
They sat down just inside the shadow of the tent before the door, and he looked out quietly towards the city.
"Yes, this is the place," he said.
She knew that he was alluding to the vision of the sand-diviner, and said so.
"Did you believe at the time that what he said would come true?" she asked.
"How could I? Am I a child?"
He spoke with gentle irony, but she felt he was playing with her.
"Cannot a man believe such things?"
He did not answer her, but said:
"My fate has come to pass. Do you not care to know what it is?"
"Yes, do tell me."
She spoke earnestly. She felt a change in him, a great change which as yet she did not understand fully. It was as if he had been a man in doubt and was now a man no longer in doubt, as if he had arrived at some goal and was more at peace with himself than he had been.
"I have become a Mohammedan," he said simply.
She repeated the words as a person repeats words in surprise, but her voice did not sound surprised.
"You wonder?" he asked.
After a moment she answered:
"No. I never thought of such a thing, but I am not surprised. Now you have told me it seems to explain you, much that I noticed in you, wondered about in you."
She looked at him steadily, but without curiosity.
"I feel that you are happy now."
"Yes, I am happy. The world I used to know, my world and yours, would laugh at me, would say that I was crazy, that it was a whim, that I wished for a new sensation. Simply it had to be. For years I have been tending towards it—who knows why? Who knows what obscure influences have been at work in me, whether there is not perhaps far back, some faint strain of Arab blood mingled with the Sicilian blood in my veins? I cannot understand why. What I can understand is that at last I have fulfilled my destiny! After years of unrest I am suddenly and completely at peace. It is a magical sensation. I have been wandering all my life and have come upon the open door of my home."
He spoke very quietly, but she heard the joy in his voice.
"I remember you saying, 'I like to see men praying in the desert.'"
"Yes. When I looked at them I was longing to be one of them. For years from my garden wall I watched them with a passion of envy, with bitterness, almost with hatred sometimes. They had something I had not, something that set them above me, something that made their lives plain through any complication, and that gave to death a meaning like the meaning at the close of a great story that is going to have a sequel. They had faith. And it was difficult not to hate them. But now I am one of them. I can pray in the desert."
"That was why you left Beni-Mora."
"Yes. I had long been wishing to become a Mohammedan. I came here to be with the marabout, to enter more fully into certain questions, to see if I had any lingering doubts."
"And you have none?"
She looked at his bright eyes and sighed, thinking of her husband.
"You will go back to Beni-Mora?" she asked.
"I don't think so. I am inclined to go farther into the desert, farther among the people of my own faith. I don't want to be surrounded by French. Some day perhaps I may return. But at present everything draws me onward. Tell me"—he dropped the earnest tone in which he had been speaking, and she heard once more the easy, half- ironical man of the world—"do you think me a half-crazy eccentric?"
"You look at me very gravely, even sadly."
"I was thinking of the men who cannot pray," she said, "even in the desert."
"They should not come into the Garden of Allah. Don't you remember that day by the garden wall, when—"
He suddenly checked himself.
"Forgive me," he said simply. "And now tell me about yourself. You never wrote that you were going to be married."
"I knew you would know it in time—when we met again."
"And you knew we should meet again?"
"Did not you?"
"In the heart of the desert. And you—where are you going? You are not returning to civilisation?"
"I don't know. I have no plans. I want to do what my husband wishes."
"He loves the desert. He has suggested our buying an oasis and setting up as date merchants. What do you think of the idea?"
She spoke with a smile, but her eyes were serious, even sad.
"I cannot judge for others," he answered.
When he got up to go he held her hand fast for a moment.
"May I speak what is in my heart?" he asked.
"I feel as if what I have told you to-day about myself, about my having come to the open door of a home I had long been wearily seeking, had made you sad. Is it so?"
"Yes," she answered frankly.
"Can you tell me why?"
"It has made me realise more sharply than perhaps I did before what must be the misery of those who are still homeless."
There was in her voice a sound as if she suppressed a sob.
"Hope for them, remembering my many years of wandering."
"Will you come again?"
"You are here for long?"
"Some days, I think."
"Whenever you ask me I will come."
"I want you and my husband to meet again. I want that very much." She spoke with a pressure of eagerness.
"Send for me and I will come at any hour."
"I will send—soon."
When he was gone, Domini sat in the shadow of the tent. From where she was she could see the Arab cemetery at a little distance, a quantity of stones half drowned in the sand. An old Arab was wandering there alone, praying for the dead in a loud, persistent voice. Sometimes he paused by a grave, bowed himself in prayer, then rose and walked on again. His voice was never silent. The sound of it was plaintive and monotonous. Domini listened to it, and thought of homeless men, of those who had lived and died without ever coming to that open door through which Count Anteoni had entered. His words and the changed look in his face had made a deep impression upon her. She realised that in the garden, when they were together, his eyes, even when they twinkled with the slightly ironical humour peculiar to him, had always held a shadow. Now that shadow was lifted out of them. How deep was the shadow in her husband's eyes. How deep had it been in the eyes of her father. He had died with that terrible darkness in his eyes and in his soul. If her husband were to die thus! A terror came upon her. She looked out at the stones in the sand and imagined herself there—as the old Arab was—praying for Androvsky buried there, hidden from her on earth for ever. And suddenly she felt, "I cannot wait, I must act."
Her faith was deep and strong. Nothing could shake it. But might it not shake the doubt from another's soul, as a great, pure wind shakes leaves that are dead from a tree that will blossom with the spring? Hitherto a sense of intense delicacy had prevented her from ever trying to draw near definitely to her husband's sadness. But her interview with Count Anteoni, and the sound of this voice praying, praying for the dead men in the sand, stirred her to an almost fierce resolution. She had given herself to Androvsky. He had given himself to her. They were one. She had a right to draw near to his pain, if by so doing there was a chance that she might bring balm to it. She had a right to look closer into his eyes if hers, full of faith, could lift the shadow from them.
She leaned back in the darkness of the tent. The old Arab had wandered further on among the graves. His voice was faint in the sand, faint and surely piteous, as if, even while he prayed, he felt that his prayers were useless, that the fate of the dead was pronounced beyond recall. Domini listened to him no more. She was praying for the living as she had never prayed before, and her prayer was the prelude not to patience but to action. It was as if her conversation with Count Anteoni had set a torch to something in her soul, something that gave out a great flame, a flame that could surely burn up the sorrow, the fear, the secret torture in her husband's soul. All the strength of her character had been roused by the sight of the peace she desired for the man she loved; enthroned in the heart of this other man who was only her friend.
The voice of the old Arab died away in the distance, but before it died away Domini had ceased from hearing it.
She heard only a voice within her, which said to her, "If you really love be fearless. Attack this sorrow which stands like a figure of death between you and your husband. Drive it away. You have a weapon— faith. Use it."
It seemed to her then that through all their intercourse she had been a coward in her love, and she resolved that she would be a coward no longer.
Domini had said to herself that she would speak to her husband that night. She was resolved not to hesitate, not to be influenced from her purpose by anything. Yet she knew that a great difficulty would stand in her way—the difficulty of Androvsky's intense, almost passionate, reserve. This reserve was the dominant characteristic in his nature. She thought of it sometimes as a wall of fire that he had set round about the secret places of his soul to protect them even from her eyes. Perhaps it was strange that she, a woman of a singularly frank temperament, should be attracted by reserve in another, yet she knew that she was so attracted by the reserve of her husband. Its existence hinted to her depths in him which, perhaps, some day she might sound, she alone, strength which was hidden for her some day to prove.
Now, alone with her purpose, she thought of this reserve. Would she be able to break it down with her love? For an instant she felt as if she were about to enter upon a contest with her husband, but she did not coldly tell over her armoury and select weapons. There was a heat of purpose within her that beckoned her to the unthinking, to the reckless way, that told her to be self-reliant and to trust to the moment for the method.
When Androvsky returned to the camp it was towards evening. A lemon light was falling over the great white spaces of the sand. Upon their little round hills the Arab villages glowed mysteriously. Many horsemen were riding forth from the city to take the cool of the approaching night. From the desert the caravans were coming in. The nomad children played, half-naked, at Cora before the tents, calling shrilly to each other through the light silence that floated airily away into the vast distances that breathed out the spirit of a pale eternity. Despite the heat there was an almost wintry romance in this strange land of white sands and yellow radiance, an ethereal melancholy that stole with the twilight noiselessly towards the tents.
As Androvsky approached Domini saw that he had lost the energy which had delighted her at dejeuner. He walked towards her slowly with his head bent down. His face was grave, even sad, though when he saw her waiting for him he smiled.
"You have been all this time with the priest?" she said.
"Nearly all. I walked for a little while in the city. And you?"
"I rode out and met a friend."
"A friend?" he said, as if startled.
"Yes, from Beni-Mora—Count Anteoni. He has been here to pay me a visit."
She pulled forward a basket-chair for him. He sank into it heavily.
"Count Anteoni here!" he said slowly. "What is he doing here?"
"He is with the marabout at Beni-Hassan. And, Boris, he has become a Mohammedan."
He lifted his head with a jerk and stared at her in silence.
"You are surprised?"
"A Mohammedan—Count Anteoni?"
"Yes. Do you know, when he told me I felt almost as if I had been expecting it."
"But—is he changed then? Is he—"
He stopped. His voice had sounded to her bitter, almost fierce.
"Yes, Boris, he is changed. Have you ever seen anyone who was lost, and the same person walking along the road home? Well, that is Count Anteoni."
They said no more for some minutes. Androvsky was the first to speak again.
"You told him?" he asked.
"I told him."
"What did he say?"
"He had expected it. When we ask him he is coming here again to see us both together."
Androvsky got up from his chair. His face was troubled. Standing before Domini, he said:
"Count Anteoni is happy then, now that he—now that he has joined this religion?"
"And you—a Catholic—what do you think?"
"I think that, since that is his honest belief, it is a blessed thing for him."
He said no more, but went towards the sleeping-tent.
In the evening, when they were dining, he said to her:
"Domini, to-night I am going to leave you again for a short time."
He saw a look of keen regret come into her face, and added quickly:
"At nine I have promised to go to see the priest. He—he is rather lonely here. He wants me to come. Do you mind?"
"No, no. I am glad—very glad. Have you finished?"
"Let us take a rug and go out a little way in the sand—that way towards the cemetery. It is quiet there at night."
"Yes. I will get a rug." He went to fetch it, threw it over his arm, and they set out together. She had meant the Arab cemetery, but when they reached it they found two or three nomads wandering there.
"Let us go on," she said.
They went on, and came to the French cemetery, which was surrounded by a rough hedge of brushwood, in which there were gaps here and there. Through one of these gaps they entered it, spread out the rug, and lay down on the sand. The night was still and silence brooded here. Faintly they saw the graves of the exiles who had died here and been given to the sand, where in summer vipers glided to and fro, and the pariah dogs wandered stealthily, seeking food to still the desires in their starving bodies. They were mostly very simple, but close to Domini and Androvsky was one of white marble, in the form of a broken column, hung with wreaths of everlasting flowers, and engraved with these words:
JEAN BAPTISTE FABRIANI
Priez pour lui.
When they lay down they both looked at this grave, as if moved by a simultaneous impulse, and read the words.
"Priez pour lui!" Domini said in a low voice.
She put out her hand and took hold of her husband's, and pressed it down on the sand.
"Do you remember that first night, Boris," she said, "at Arba, when you took my hand in yours and laid it against the desert as against a heart?"
"Yes, Domini, I remember."
"That night we were one, weren't we?"
"Were we"—she was almost whispering in the night—"were we truly one?"
"Why do you—truly one, you say?"
"Yes—one in soul? That is the great union, greater than the union of our bodies. Were we one in soul? Are we now?"
"Domini, why do you ask me such questions? Do you doubt my love?"
"No. But I do ask you. Won't you answer me?"
He was silent. His hand lay in hers, but did not press it.
"Boris"—she spoke the cruel words very quietly,—"we are not truly one in soul. We have never been. I know that."
He said nothing.
"Shall we ever be? Think—if one of us were to die, and the other—the one who was left—were left with the knowledge that in our love, even ours, there had always been separation—could you bear that? Could I bear it?"
"Why do you speak like this? We are one. You have all my love. You are everything to me."
"And yet you are sad, and you try to hide your sadness, your misery, from me. Can you not give it me? I want it—more than I want anything on earth. I want it, I must have it, and I dare to ask for it because I know how deeply you love me and that you could never love another."
"I never have loved another," he said.
"I was the very first."
"The very first. When we married, although I was a man I was as you were."
She bent down her head and laid her lips on his hand that was in hers.
"Then make our union perfect, as no other union on earth has ever been. Give me your sorrow, Boris. I know what it is."
"How can—you cannot know," he said in a broken voice.
"Yes. Love is a diviner, the only true diviner. I told you once what it was, but I want you to tell me. Nothing that we take is beautiful to us, only what we are given."
"I cannot," he said.
He tried to take his hand from hers, but she held it fast. And she felt as if she were holding the wall of fire with which he surrounded the secret places of his soul.
"To-day, Boris, when I talked to Count Anteoni, I felt that I had been a coward with you. I had seen you suffer and I had not dared to draw near to your suffering. I have been afraid of you. Think of that."
"Yes, I have been afraid of you, of your reserve. When you withdrew from me I never followed you. If I had, perhaps I could have done something for you."
"Domini, do not speak like this. Our love is happy. Leave it as it is."
"I can't. I will not. Boris, Count Anteoni has found a home. But you are wandering. I can't bear that, I can't bear it. It is as if I were sitting in the house, warm, safe, and you were out in the storm. It tortures me. It almost makes me hate my own safety."
Androvsky shivered. He took his hand forcibly from Domini's.
"I have almost hated it, too," he said passionately. "I have hated it. I'm a—I'm—"
His voice failed. He bent forward and took Domini's face between his hands.
"And yet there are times when I can bless what I have hated. I do bless it now. I—I love your safety. You—at least you are safe."
"You must share it. I will make you share it."
"I can. I shall. I feel that we shall be together in soul, and perhaps to-night, perhaps even to-night."
Androvsky looked profoundly agitated. His hands dropped down.
"I must go," he said. "I must go to the priest."
He got up from the sand.
"Come to the tent, Domini."
She rose to her feet.
"When you come back," she said, "I shall be waiting for you, Boris."
He looked at her. There was in his eyes a piercing wistfulness. He opened his lips. At that moment Domini felt that he was on the point of telling her all that she longed to know. But the look faded. The lips closed. He took her in his arms and kissed her almost desperately.
"No, no," he said. "I'll keep your love—I'll keep it."
"You could never lose it."
"If I believed that."
Suddenly burning tears rushed from her eyes.
"Don't ever say a thing like that to me again!" she said with passion.
She pointed to the grave close to them.
"If you were there," she said, "and I was living, and you had died before—before you had told me—I believe—God forgive me, but I do believe that if, when you died, I were taken to heaven I should find my hell there."
She looked through her tears at the words: "Priez pour lui."
"To pray for the dead," she whispered, as if to herself. "To pray for my dead—I could not do it—I could not. Boris, if you love me you must trust me, you must give me your sorrow."
The night drew on. Androvsky had gone to the priest. Domini was alone, sitting before the tent waiting for his return. She had told Batouch and Ouardi that she wanted nothing more, that no one was to come to the tent again that night. The young moon was rising over the city, but its light as yet was faint. It fell upon the cupolas of the Bureau Arabe, the towers of the mosque and the white sands, whose whiteness it seemed to emphasise, making them pale as the face of one terror- stricken. The city wall cast a deep shadow over the moat of sand in which, wrapped in filthy rags, lay nomads sleeping. Upon the sand- hills the camps were alive with movement. Fires blazed and smoke ascended before the tents that made patches of blackness upon the waste. Round the fires were seated groups of men devouring cous-cous and the red soup beloved of the nomad. Behind them circled the dogs with quivering nostrils. Squadrons of camels lay crouched in the sand, resting after their journeys. And everywhere, from the city and from the waste, rose distant sounds of music, thin, aerial flutings like voices of the night winds, acrid cries from the pipes, and the far-off rolling of the African drums that are the foundation of every desert symphony.
Although she was now accustomed to the music of Africa, Domini could never hear it without feeling the barbarity of the land from which it rose, the wildness of the people who made and who loved it. Always it suggested to her an infinite remoteness, as if it were music sounding at the end of the world, full of half-defined meanings, melancholy yet fierce passion, longings that, momentarily satisfied, continually renewed themselves, griefs that were hidden behind thin veils like the women of the East, but that peered out with expressive eyes, hinting their story and desiring assuagement. And tonight the meaning of the music seemed deeper than it had been before. She thought of it as an outside echo of the voices murmuring in her mind and heart, and the voices murmuring in the mind and heart of Androvsky, broken voices some of them, but some strong, fierce, tense and alive with meaning. And as she sat there alone she thought this unity of music drew her closer to the desert than she had ever been before, and drew Androvsky with her, despite his great reserve. In the heart of the desert he would surely let her see at last fully into his heart. When he came back in the night from the priest he would speak. She was waiting for that.
The moon was mounting. Its light grew stronger. She looked across the sands and saw fires in the city, and suddenly she said to herself, "This is the vision of the sand-diviner realised in my life. He saw me as I am now, in this place." And she remembered the scene in the garden, the crouching figure, the extended arms, the thin fingers tracing swift patterns in the sand, the murmuring voice.
To-night she felt deeply expectant, but almost sad, encompassed by the mystery that hangs in clouds about human life and human relations. What could be that great joy of which the Diviner had spoken? A woman's great joy that starred the desert with flowers and made the dry places run with sweet waters. What could it be?
Suddenly she felt again the oppression of spirit she had been momentarily conscious of in the afternoon. It was like a load descending upon her, and, almost instantly, communicated itself to her body. She was conscious of a sensation of unusual weariness, uneasiness, even dread, then again of an intensity of life that startled her. This intensity remained, grew in her. It was as if the principle of life, like a fluid, were being poured into her out of the vials of God, as if the little cup that was all she had were too small to contain the precious liquid. That seemed to her to be the cause of the pain of which she was conscious. She was being given more than she felt herself capable of possessing. She got up from her chair, unable to remain still. The movement, slight though it was, seemed to remove a veil of darkness that had hung over her and to let in upon her a flood of light. She caught hold of the canvas of the tent. For a moment she felt weak as a child, then strong as an Amazon. And the sense of strength remained, grew. She walked out upon the sand in the direction by which Androvsky would return. The fires in the city and the camps were to her as illuminations for a festival. The music was the music of a great rejoicing. The vast expanse of the desert, wintry white under the moon, dotted with the fires of the nomads, blossomed as the rose. After a few moments she stopped. She was on the crest of a sand-bank, and could see below her the faint track in the sand which wound to the city gate. By this track Androvsky would surely return. From a long distance she would be able to see him, a moving darkness upon the white. She was near to the city now, and could hear voices coming to her from behind its rugged walls, voices of men singing, and calling one to another, the twang of plucked instruments, the click of negroes' castanets. The city was full of joy as the desert was full of joy. The glory of life rushed upon her like a flood of gold, that gold of the sun in which thousands of tiny things are dancing. And she was given the power of giving life, of adding to the sum of glory. She looked out over the sands and saw a moving blot upon them coming slowly towards her, very slowly. It was impossible at this distance to see who it was, but she felt that it was her husband. For a moment she thought of going down to meet him, but she did not move. The new knowledge that had come to her made her, just then, feel shy even of him, as if he must come to her, as if she could make no advance towards him.
As the blackness upon the sand drew nearer she saw that it was a man walking heavily. The man had her husband's gait. When she saw that she turned. She had resolved to meet him at the tent door, to tell him what she had to tell him at the threshold of their wandering home. Her sense of shyness died when she was at the tent door. She only felt now her oneness with her husband, and that to-night their unity was to be made more perfect. If it could be made quite perfect! If he would speak too! Then nothing more would be wanting. At last every veil would have dropped from between them, and as they had long been one flesh they would be one in spirit.
She waited in the tent door.
After what seemed a long time she saw Androvsky coming across the moonlit sand. He was walking very slowly, as if wearied out, with his head drooping. He did not appear to see her till he was quite close to the tent. Then he stopped and gazed at her. The moon—she thought it must be the moon—made his face look strange, like a dying man's face. In this white face the eyes glittered feverishly.
"Boris!" she said.
"Come here, close to me. I have something to tell you—something wonderful."
He came quite up to her.
"Domini," he said, as if he had not heard her. "Domini, I—I've been to the priest to-night. I meant to confess to him."
"To confess!" she said.
"This afternoon I asked him to hear my confession, but tonight I could not make it. I can only make it to you, Domini—only to you. Do you hear, Domini? Do you hear?"
Something in his face and in his voice terrified her heart. Now she felt as if she would stop him from speaking if she dared, but that she did not dare. His spirit was beyond domination. He would do what he meant to do regardless of her—of anyone.
"What is it, Boris?" she whispered. "Tell me. Perhaps I can understand best because I love best."
He put his arms round her and kissed her, as a man kisses the woman he loves when he knows it may be for the last time, long and hard, with a desperation of love that feels frustrated by the very lips it is touching. At last he took his lips from hers.
"Domini," he said, and his voice was steady and clear, almost hard, "you want to know what it is that makes me unhappy even in our love— desperately unhappy. It is this. I believe in God, I love God, and I have insulted Him. I have tried to forget God, to deny Him, to put human love higher than love for Him. But always I am haunted by the thought of God, and that thought makes me despair. Once, when I was young, I gave myself to God solemnly. I have broken the vows I made. I have—I have—"
The hardness went out of his voice. He broke down for a moment and was silent.
"You gave yourself to God," she said. "How?"
He tried to meet her questioning eyes, but could not.
"I—I gave myself to God as a monk," he answered after a pause.
As he spoke Domini saw before her in the moonlight De Trevignac. He cast a glance of horror at the tent, bent over her, made the sign of the Cross, and vanished. In his place stood Father Roubier, his eyes shining, his hand upraised, warning her against Androvsky. Then he, too, vanished, and she seemed to see Count Anteoni dressed as an Arab and muttering words of the Koran.
"Domini, did you hear me? Domini! Domini!"
She felt his hands on her wrists.
"You are the Trappist!" she said quietly, "of whom the priest told me. You are the monk from the Monastery of El-Largani who disappeared after twenty years."
"Yes," he said, "I am he."
"What made you tell me? What made you tell me?"
There was agony now in her voice.
"You asked me to speak, but it was not that. Do you remember last night when I said that God must bless you? You answered, 'He has blessed me. He has given me you, your love, your truth.' It is that which makes me speak. You have had my love, not my truth. Now take my truth. I've kept it from you. Now I'll give it you. It's black, but I'll give it you. Domini! Domini! Hate me to-night, but in your hatred believe that I never loved you as I love you now."
"Give me your truth," she said.
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