HotFreeBooks.com
Desert Love
by Joan Conquest
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"And tell me, O! woman, whose courage causes me to marvel, how once happily escaped from the house of few windows and but one apparent door, did you find your way to these gates?"

"Oh! that!" said Jill, as she sat with her hands about her knee and her face upturned to the moon, which, throwing a deep shadow from the hat brim across the upper part of her face, made of the deep eyes a mystery, and a delirious invitation of the red mouth. "Amongst other till now useless accomplishments, I have learned to guide myself by the stars, though I'm positive they move over here. I had noticed that big one there, which we haven't got in England, that very big sparkling one, hung over the quarter in which the waiting-maid told me lay your house."

"Yes!" replied the man who, though he knew the West so well, was secretly wondering at the trait in a character which allowed a woman, on the edge of something unknown, fraught, perhaps, with every kind of danger, to talk unconcernedly of hotels, face creams, blue doors, and stars. "That is the Star of Happiness, it hangs also right in the middle of my oasis, right over my desert dwelling," and the string of beads hanging from the waist slipped through the long fingers as words of prayer fell softly on the perfumed air.

The girl got up and walked over to the camels.

"So I followed my star and suddenly found myself at the gates! Is this my ship of the desert—and what a beautiful coat, the dear thing," starting back as the dear thing turned its bead suddenly, bared its teeth and snarled.

"Don't be afraid, she is always nervous with strangers, also is she a little spoilt, being the fastest and most perfect Bactrian camel in the whole of Egypt and Arabia. Her pedigree, on parchment embossed with gold, goes back almost to Ismael, and is kept in a Millwell safe in my oasis, which shows that East does meet West occasionally. She has, up to to-night, known no rider but me, and is used only for short journeys of about seven days; you see these two-humped beasts can only go three days with comfort without a drink, but their pace is so smooth that it almost induces one to sleep. Also Taffadaln, which means welcome, a name given to her after her mother had foaled three he-camels, has a special guard both day and night, for there are many who covet her, for she is the queen of camels, with her blood and breeding enhanced by many years of training and special treatment. But alas! though her coat is as silk, the cushions of her feet without fault, and her teeth unblemished ivory, her manners are as ill-bred, and her indifference to those who love her as great as that of the lowest of her species which pollute the streets of Cairo." And leaning down he patted the beast's head, speaking to her in the native tongue, whereupon she made juicy, gurgling sounds in her long throat, and nuzzled the flowing sleeve, which might have meant affection in any other animal but a camel.

"More extremes," he added, as a long, soft blast of a motor-horn sounded just outside the walls. "Will you not sit down whilst I explain things for the last time," unwinding, as he spoke, the soft black cloak from about him, and folding it to make a cushion for the stone, standing silhouetted against the shadow of the walls, whilst the slight breeze blowing the snow-white raiment outlined the tremendous width of shoulder, the slimness of the waist, and the muscular leanness of the whole body.

And Jill sat down with a suddenness surprising in so controlled a person, and to hide a sudden rush of rosy colour which swept uncontrollably from chin to brow, extracted another cigarette from the Russian case.

"'Simon Artz,' I am sure! May I not offer you one of mine? They are all made especially and only for me. And do you prize the case? No!"

As the girl shook her head he took the wooden trifle from her, closed his hand gently, and, crushing it to matchwood, dropped it soundlessly on to the sand.

And when Hahmed, the Arab, had finished speaking, Jill Carden, the English girl, understood that with her only rested the decision, that even now, at the eleventh hour, she was still absolutely free to go.

Outside the gates waited the man's car, ready to take her wherever she listed on her way home! At her feet lay the camels, ready to take her to all the possibilities of the unknown!

There was absolute silence as she sat motionless, looking into the future. In the West she saw boats, trains, hotels, inner cabins, middle seats, back bedrooms; felt women, mothers, and wives clutching their mankind so as to keep them from the pariah, the penniless, pretty companion; heard the clink of the five or ten shillings a week paid monthly in silver, and all this to be repeated over and over again until she died, unless she married a man she did not love and "settled down" for ever and ever and ever; though even this possibility seemed to have receded into the remote distance with the receding of her fortune.

Then she looked up to the stars, and down to the sand, and out to the East, seeing her freedom if she dared grasp it, if she dared venture out on the many days' journey which, to her astonishment, she had learned stretched between Ismailiah and the oasis.

She scrutinised the man before her—this Arab with the impassive face, the camels at his feet, her life in his hands if she went with him.

His what? Wife! to settle down for ever and ever and ever.

His plaything? This was not the man to play or be played with, for had he not said:

"If you come with me, fear not that you will be a prisoner. The oasis, the house, my servants, houses, camels, all will be yours, and there will be nothing to prevent your leaving it all—nothing except the desert, the miles of pitiless sand, trackless, pathless, strewn with the white bones of those who have essayed to escape from Fate, the never-changing, ever-different ocean which beats about my dwelling."

Then once again she looked into the dark eyes which were reading every passing emotion on the mobile face, and putting out her hands made one step towards the camel, whilst the soul of the desert laughed with her scarlet mouth.



CHAPTER XIII

A sharp word of command and the pack-camel rose, moved a few paces on its noiseless feet, swaying from side to side as though to readjust its load, whisked its miserable tail, and stretching out its long neck began to nibble the leaves of a flowering shrub.

Jill followed the beast, stroked its silky coat, and prodded one of the water skins filled to bursting.

"Will that be enough to last us all the way? And what happens when we want to rest? And do we do all the cooking and washing-up ourselves, just like a picnic? What fun!" Which shows that Jill had no idea of what unlimited money can do to mitigate the discomfort of desert travelling by providing every possible comfort, even luxury.

"My servants have gone ahead with a caravan containing all that I think will be necessary for your comfort. The journey takes many nights of travelling when the cool wind has tempered the scorching sands. At sunrise we shall find our tents pitched, and you shall rest from then, an hour after dawn, until just before sunset, for it is unwise to be asleep at sunset in the desert. When we halt your bath will be ready, your meals as you desire, your bed as soft and spotless as your own."

"Really!" said Jill, who had imagined herself camping out under the stars with scorpions and spiders as bedfellows. "But if the men have to go on ahead of us, we shall have to get up early so as to let them pack and give them a start."

The Arab gravely shook his head, with never a glimmer of a smile rear the mouth or eyes.

"Ah! no! you need not worry, a caravan of many persons has preceded us."

"Many people!" ejaculated Jill. "What a lot of servants for two!"

"Let me explain! In Egypt, Arabia, or Persia, when we speak of sheep or horses we say so many 'head,' but not so of the camel. The camel is the most cherished possession of the Arab.

"There are three events which bring joy to us, and which are occasions of greatest festival, namely, the birth of a son, the birth of a she-camel, and the birth of a mare. The she-camel provides her master with food for both himself and his horses; for in an area, or season, where there is little water but an abundance of juicy grass in which the camel finds both food and drink, the camel's milk is given to the horses in lieu of water, the master's covering and tent are made of the hair, the waterless places are known to him through her. There are many other ways in which the animal is useful, and for which we daily return thanks to Allah, therefore we speak of them as persons, so many persons in a herd, because as the proverb says, 'God created the camel for the Arab, and the Arab for the camel.'

"Therefore for each resting-place there are two one-humped camels to carry all things necessary for your night's sojourn."

"Why one-humped?" asked the girl, who was of an inquiring turn of mind, and was getting slightly mixed with her first endeavour to grasp something of Eastern life.

"The one-humped or, as we say, the Dyemal-mai, which means water-camel, although they cannot carry so heavy a load as the Bactrian, can go even up to eight or nine days without water.

"There is only one well between here and the water, and it is usually surrounded by caravans, with water as thick as the mud in a London street in November, and dirtier, being polluted by the filth of man and beast.

"This we will pass, contenting ourselves with the water we carry for ablutions and cooking, and with wine or coffee to drink. If there is water to spare the camels can have it, if not they can go without, with the exception of the two that carry us.

"But you will find the going irksome even on Taffadaln, and so that you may rest, beautiful woman, whose name even I do not know, Howesha, which name, being translated, means that she is a past mistress in the art of grumbling, carries all that will give you repose if you should desire to stop before we reach our caravan."

And just as though she understood, Howesha the Grumbler, opening wide her mouth, proceeded to give a series of very fine imitations, including those of a nest of spitting snakes, a sobbing woman, and a choking dog—all of which she concluded by her masterpiece, of a child masticating sticky sweets, when her master, to stop her querulous upbraidings, thrust dates between her polished teeth.

And then he turned to Jill, who was laughing delightedly, and stroked her camel's coat.

"Later you shall have servants, many of them, who hand and foot, shall do your bidding, and carry out your slightest wish, but to-night and for ever I am your slave. Allah! to think that I, the worst feared man in Egypt, whose word is law, who condemns to death by the lifting of a finger, of a race who looks upon women as a useful plaything, at the most as a potential mother of sons, I crave to serve you from your lying down in the heat of the day to your rising up, when the sunset breeze shall blow the soft curls about your flower-face. Do you think I would allow a servant, some low-born son of a bazaar-dweller, to throw his shadow upon the ground over which your lovely feet must tread, or to touch a vessel which your white fingers might hold, to breathe the air which maybe has just passed from your sweet mouth, on this night when you make your journey into Egypt, real Egypt; for to us, Cairo and other such places are but tourist centres which we give to the foreigner readily, traversing many miles of sand and rock and hills ourselves, before we can lie down upon the soft breast of our own motherland.

"Come, woman! The moon tarries not, neither does the sun, and we have many miles to go."

* * * * * *

With the exception of a twopenny ride at the Zoo, few Europeans ever mount or ride a camel, thereby missing an art or a pastime or sport, which to the novice, until he has been thoroughly and literally broken in, is the most back, heart, and nerve-wearing means of locomotion he could possibly choose in all the wide world.

Jill stood ankle-deep in flowers looking down at her mount, the prize of the desert.

"I do not know how you will fare, woman of the West. I dare not put palanquin on Taffadaln for fear that she might bolt from terror and take you far into the desert, there to die. But arrived at our destination she shall be broken in at once, however, for in all my stables there is no other camel with her sliding step, not one who would not make you feel as though your spine had snapped after one hour's journey upon its back. We Arabs can sit a camel in more than one way, but the easiest for you, and Allah knows it will be hard enough after a time, is, if your skirt permits, to sit astride and put both your feet round the pummel in front. That, anyway, will prevent you from being twisted as you are with the shocking ladies' saddle you use in England."

"Oh, but I ride astride," volunteered Jill, as she raised her skirts, settled herself, and taking the gold-studded rein, held firmly to the front and back peak of the saddle as instructed, and awaited the word of command.

A camel rises from its front or hind legs just as the fancy seizes it, so that if you do not keep a fair balance, also yourself in complete readiness to lean forward or backward according to your mount's final decision, you will assuredly find yourself ignominiously pitched in a heap over the quadruped's nose, or just as ignominiously hanging head down in the vicinity of its tail, either of which positions will cause her to chortle gleefully before the next lurch, which gets the rest of her feet into order.

A final touch is given by the imitation of an infantile earthquake as she arranges you to her taste, and then you may consider yourself ready to start out on a journey which may make you more sea-sick than any rough channel-crossing in boat or aeroplane.



CHAPTER XIV

It was with a feeling of exultation that Jill, from her elevated seat, looked down into the Arab's face, outlined in the scented dimness of the garden by the snow-white head-cloth, and her brilliant mouth widened in a low laugh of pleasure as she pulled down a bough of fluffy mimosa to sniff its perfume, and she also gave a little shriek of dismay as Taffadaln, taking matters into her own enormous feet, and utterly ignoring the frantic tugging of the silken reins, suddenly stalked off towards the gate.

There was a sharp word of command bringing the animal to a standstill, then a throaty exclamation from somewhere in the long neck as she pitted her hereditary obstinacy against the man's will.

Five times, with a blatant wink towards her sisters; and a sneer on her hideous mouth, she journeyed towards the gate, and five times was she brought back to the starting-place, to be fastened at last by a strong lead to the bridle of her more submissive sister, who was making disgusting masticatory noises over a tough twig.

Then, upon the fastening of the lead, there arose a concerto of such growlings, fretting, sobbing, groaning, and roaring, as to make the inexperienced Jill beg to be allowed to dismount, for fear of having caused hurt to the hateful brute.

But it seemed that all the fuss came about through the Queen of the Desert's objection to the unknown lady on her hack, an objection which was causing her to twist her long neck backwards in the diabolical hope that the loose-lipped mouth in the spite-contorted face might reach something to bite, be it foot or saddle, cloth or skirt.

"O! hateful, impatient descendant of a dissatisfied mother!" suddenly ejaculated the man. "More foolish than an ostrich, and as poisonous as a scorpion, yet have I to put up with thy whims and fancies because of thy specially formed stomach. I, who long to strike thy repellent face again and again, and dare not, for the fear that thy evil, dwarfed brain, twisted with jealousy, might make thy beautiful rider the object of thy revenge, tearing her limb from limb, and rolling upon her;[1] but behold! in as much as Allah made thee, yet shalt thou, through thy disobedience and ill-manners of to-day, be put to stud with thy elder brother, who, for a camel, rejoiceth in seeming good manners. Then shalt thou be chastened, and thy milk given to the feeding of horses."

This harangue might have been a paean of praise for all the change it made in the beautiful Eastern voice, and the girl's low laughter rang out like bells on the night air, as the man explained that the animal was inordinately jealous of all and sundry who, in her sin-laden brain, she feared might do her out of a handful of sugar or bucket of water.

* * * * * *

From all time women have revelled in a novel sensation, but never surely so much, or in such a one, as did Jill in hers, as, with peace restored, she passed through the gates with her companion, on her way to a life about which she had not allowed herself the slightest analysis.

And a great silence fell on the girl as they left the town, padding noiselessly through the outskirts where no one met them, and no sound was to be heard save for the barking of dogs, and the occasional wail of an infant; for the strangeness of everything had suddenly made her realise that of her own will she was standing on the threshold of a new life, laden—though this the usual narrow outlook and education of the West prevented her from understanding—with a love and passion and womanhood which cannot, and never will be, realised in countries where the dominant colour is grey.

Gone was her laughter, and vanished the merry exclamations and remarks, as she began to glean some idea of the width and breadth of the desert which was slowly engulfing her.

Once or twice she had looked behind at the ever-receding town, with the sheen of the fresh water canal becoming fainter and fainter at each step, until it at last vanished into nothingness. And the living silence of the desert seemed to close in upon her, and the canopy of heaven, weighty with stars, to press down upon her, and the snapping and breaking of generations-rooted conventions to deafen her, until like a lost child she suddenly sobbed, and dropping the rein, held out her hands to the man who, although she knew it not, had been watching and waiting for just such an outburst.

For he worshipped the sand and pebbles and rocks and dunes and hills of his adored desert, and knew the effect it sometimes made, even at the paltry distance of a mile or two from some teeming city, upon both male and female denizens of the West, who bloom palely in the heat of a coal-fire, and lift their faces thankfully to the red lozenge which, for eight months of an English year, represents the sun shining through fog or cloud.

Also must it be confessed that Jill's head was beginning already to swim a little with the sway of the camel, though of nausea she suffered not at all, and it was with a feeling of joy that she felt the animals come to a halt, saw the black one, upon a word of command, get docilely to its knees, heard Howesha grumbling fiercely to the moon as she went through the same gymnastic performance, and felt her own rocking and pitching until it came to the ground. Whereupon she dismounted lightly, and reeled against the man as the entire desert, herself and camels included, turned a complete somersault, after which she meekly sat down on Taffadaln's back and watched proceedings.

The pack-camel lay supinely as its master with strong deft fingers unbound and unknotted the various ropes until everything desired was found.

A rug of many colours was laid at Jill's feet, and cushions thrown thereon, upon which, with a great sigh of relief, she laid herself down, until something softly crawling round her neck brought her to her feet shaking with disgust.

"It is doubtlessly a sand-spider," explained the man. "They are perfectly harmless and to be found everywhere, and are even welcomed in some houses as they help to reduce the plague of flies from which we have suffered, with other things, since the time of Pharaoh. I am so sorry, but insects are a nuisance we have totally failed to conquer, though in your house, believe me, there will be none, not even the smallest."

Upon which assurance Jill sat down, took off her hat, arranged her hair in a pocket mirror, flicked a shadow of powder upon her nose, and settled down to watch and wait.

The man's agile fingers arranged some charcoal, which he lighted quickly in some desert fashion inside a square of four bricks, over which he placed a brass tripod.

There was a gurgling sound as water ran from a skin into a brass pot which hung from a hook on the tripod, and in a few minutes the water began to bubble furiously, as the fire, leaping and falling, cast giant shadows on the Arab's flowing robes.

Small boxes were opened, and the contents laid on plates: sandwiches, cakes, sweetmeats, fruit, and wine, red and white, in skins, poured into empty earthen-ware jugs in which to cool it. Small cups of Egyptian coffee, a "Cona Machine" for the Western idea of coffee, and a box of cigarettes.

"If I had known you would be a-hungered, I would have brought the wherewithal to make a repast of substance!"

"Oh, but it is all so topping!" cried the girl, and then stopped.

The slang words had suddenly struck her as foolish and silly, and out of place in a country where the syllables of words sound sonorously, and time passes like a slow moving river with its banks unchoked with "hustle weeds." And from that day, or rather night, Jill gave up slang, and one by one all the little dreary habits which rub the bloom off the Western maid.

[1]To revenge the lash or whip camels have been known even after a lapse of months to seize their victim, tearing and trampling him to pieces, and then with infinite relish proceed to roll time and again upon the remains.



CHAPTER XV

A striking and unrealistic picture the two made as they lay on their cushions alone in the desert. The girl in her white dress, which in truth was somewhat crumpled, her white neck rising like a gleaming pillar from the low-cut blouse, the little curls rippling round the face which, under the moonlight and the stress of the past hours, showed white with shadow-encircled eyes, gazing at the man who rose and knelt with a towel of softest linen, and a basin of brass filled with water.

Jill happened to be one of those lucky individuals who can with impunity wash their face anywhere, and at any time of the day, and look the better for it. Neither had she to fear a futurist impression in vivid colours of Dorin rouge and blue pencillings mixed with liquid powder appearing on her face after a sudden rain storm.

So she put her face right into the basin, lifted it sparkling with laughter and rainbow drops to bury it in the snowy cloth. Her sleeves she turned back, and ran the water up and down her arms.

"And you must wash your feet, woman, for so small are they, they must assuredly be fatigued!"

And without hesitation the girl proffered her shoe to be unlaced, whilst without lifting her skirt, with a quick movement she undid the suspender which held her last pair of real silk stockings to the infinitesimal girdle she wore instead of the usual figure-distorting corset, peeled off the silken hose and put the prettiest foot in the world in flesh, painting, or marble, into another basin of brass laid upon the ground, and also filled with water.

"Allah!" whispered the man, as he dried each little foot, "so small, so slender, rivalling the arch of Ctesisphon, dimpled as the sky at dawn, never in the most perfect Circassian have I seen feet so wonderful, glory be to Allah, whose prophet is Mohammed."

And then the Arab, filling another basin, moved to the far corner of the rug, where facing towards the East he made ablutions of his mouth and hands and feet, and raising his hands to heaven, gave praise to his God for the wonder of the day, and bowed himself in obeisance.

"I was returning thanks to Allah for you, O! Moon Flower," he said simply, and led her to the cloth of finest damask upon which the repast was spread, praising Allah anew as he poured the contents of the wine jars upon the sands when Jill announced that she only drank water.

Rested and cheered, the girl chatted merrily all through the al fresco meal, in her turn inwardly giving thanks for the Arab's perfect manners and knowledge of table methods, for in her heart she, particular to the point of becoming finicky about the usually so unpleasant process of eating, had looked forward with absolute horror to the moment when the man's fingers should close upon some succulent portion of a mess of pottage or chicken, and convey it to his mouth with charitable distribution of rice grains upon the beard.

Reassured, her laughter rang out sweetly when the absence of methylated spirit for the "Cona Machine" was discovered.

"And I would really rather have yours," said she, "for am I not to become an Eastern———" and suddenly stopped, for looking up she found the man gazing at her with eyes ablaze with love.

And once more a great silence fell between them, as they both sat staring wide-eyed over the desert, and up into the starry heavens.

Few, very few of those who live in the West have had the privilege of sitting alone under the stars in the desert.

This does not mean riding out on a tourist track with dragoman and camel-driver, and retiring a few yards from their perpetual chatter to gaze at the heavens in what you imagine to be the approved style, to the accompaniment of correct gasps, after which, finding you have left your cigarettes behind, you look at your wrist watch and wait another five minutes, until you can with decency saunter back to your camel-driver with the feeling of something quite well done, and the unuttered hope in your mind that everyone would not have gone to bed on your return.

No! it means, when wearied from long travel you call a halt, perhaps just before the dawn, when the very stars seem to commune with you.

Leaving your servants to pitch your tent, urge your camel to the distance when the clattering of pans, and the jar of inter-domestic feud shall not assail your hearing, then urge your camel to its knees, and set you down at a distance so that the pungent odour of the beast shall not assail your nostrils, and then removing little by little the outer covering of the worries and pin-pricks which have made the passing of the day unbearable, give way to your soul, or second self, or whatever you call that which causes you to joy in the coming of the spring, and to mourn when the fire refuses to heat but a portion of the room in winter.

For this is what happened to Jill, the English girl, as she sat on her cushions in the Egyptian desert, and has nothing to do with table-turning, or ten-and-six-penny visions in Maida Vale, or whisperings, or touchings in a conveniently darkened room; neither must you put it down to magnetism or hypnotism, or any of those "isms" which we, of a glacier-born country and a machine-made life, so irreverently tag on as terms descriptive to all that which we cannot label and place upon a museum shelf, or conveniently start by motor power.

A long dissertation on the Eastern's power of concentration, love of meditation, and utter detachment from self, would doubtlessly prove wearisome in the extreme, neither for a true explanation thereof can help be got from highly or lowly born native. Without movement for hours he will sit or squat, as becomes his station, staring, as we should say, vacantly into space, in reality seeing and hearing that which others, blinded by material enjoyment, can never hope to visualise or hear.

Jill afterwards tried to explain the outcome of this, her first step in the meadows of meditation, which she took without help and without intention, and in which she has become so versed, to the mystification of those about her, who look upon woman as a bearer of children, a plaything for sunny hours, useful in time of rain, endowed with the brain of a pea-hen, and as much soul as the priests see fit to mete out to her.

"Something had left me," Jill explained later. "My body seemed to be sitting on the cushions, and I could minutely describe the way Hahmed was sitting, and the exact shape of the shadow cast before him by the moon, which was setting behind us. But inside I was quite empty, whilst all sorts of little things I had known so long, crept out and stole away into the desert. I was just a husk, with no more impatience or quick temper or restlessness, and I can remember wondering if I were likely to break in two or crumble into dust, I felt so thin. And then I heard all sorts of whisperings, just as though thousands of people were standing near me, trying to make me understand something, and a violet shadow suddenly appeared between Hahmed and myself, seeming to get deeper and deeper in colour, and then get less and less; and as it lessened, so did my feeling of being a mere husk leave me, until at last, when it had all gone, I felt—well full is the only way to put it, and my heart was thudding, and the blood pounding in my head, and well—that's all!"

Very indefinite and very unsatisfactory, and of which the whispering can easily be put down to the snuffling of the camels, the passing of the faint breeze, or the intake of the Arab's breath; and the purple shadows to the folds of his black cloak. For the effect of fatigue, excitement, and strong Egyptian coffee upon the mind of a Western maid is quite likely to turn the buzzing of a fly into the flight of an aeroplane, or the dripping of a tap into the roar of a Niagara.

Be that as it may, the Arab made no sound or movement when with a low cry the girl sprung suddenly to her feet, and with both hands upraised, although she knew it not, turned towards the direction in which Mecca lay.

For a full minute she stood absolutely motionless, then gently moving towards the man, who had risen and was standing behind her, she put out her hand, saying softly, "Behold! I am ready to come with thee."



CHAPTER XVI

It was close upon dawn when the two figures suddenly and silently emerged from the tree shadows in which they had been hiding for some considerable time.

Very simple and harmless they looked too, the taller one in spotless galabeah and red fez, his smallpox pitted face softened by the light of the dying moon; the other, a mere bundle of clothes with the yashmak covering all except the eyes, dragging back from the hand which pulled her ruthlessly up to the door of a house conspicuous by its length of wall unbroken by windows.

The faintest sound of music from somewhere about the immense building sounded as out of place at that hour as would a boy's shrill whistling in the middle of High Mass, but unperturbed thereby, the pitted-face man knocked gently three times upon the door, vehemently upbraiding the while his shrinking and protesting companion, who tugged still more forcibly at the restraining hand.

"Behold, art thou the daughter of ungrateful parents and not fit to be honoured by the great lord who awaits thee. Raise thy voice in protest, speak but one word, and thy back shall resemble the red pattern upon thy raiment, which has cost much hard toil to provide for thee."

The female figure suddenly sank back, in all humility at the feet of the upbraider, as unperceived—maybe—by both, a small portion of the door above their heads slipped noiselessly back to show a gleaming eye glued to the little grille, taking in the scene beneath it.

Unperceived or not, the elder man, taking a deep breath, continued in a slightly raised tone to administer his admonition.

"Comely art thou, and young, and good is the price paid for thee, and may he who has purchased thee be not annoyed at the hour in which I bring thee, for in truth was thy mother against thy flight from the nest, being not awake to the advantages of the new bough upon which thou wouldst come to rest—therefore was I forced to bring thee by stealth. Perchance———!"

The gentle voice stopped suddenly as the door was thrown open by a much armed individual, who angrily demanded the meaning of the disturbance.

"The peace of Allah be upon thee and upon this house, into which, by the order of thy master, O! brother, I bring a flower which he has deigned to pluck from within the city. Comely is she, and gifted in music and the dance, but young, is affrighted at the honour before her. I———"

Here the armed individual broke in ruthlessly upon the paean of praise, drawing a most gleaming and curved weapon from somewhere about his huge person.

"Begone, disturbers of the peace," he ejaculated with the difficulty natural to one who has had his tongue split. "My master awaits a flower in truth, being even now o'ercome in sleep in the waiting, but the flower will show a warrant the which will pass her through this door of which I am the guardian. By Allah! it is not opened at the tapping of every chance weed which the wind of poverty may cause to flutter across this path!"

Things began to look somewhat awkward for the humble flower wilting on the marble step, until her friend, speaking suddenly and sharply, saved the situation by leaning down and quite violently snatching something from the little hand fumbling most awkwardly among the many feminine draperies.

"Behold the warrant, O! unbeliever. So desirous of this maiden is thy master, upon whom may the blessing of Allah rest, that he even gave unto her father the ring of emerald from off his right hand. Art satisfied, or is't best to risk the tempest by still further questioning and delay!"

The guardian of the door, not a little astounded, snatched in his turn at the jewel, and seeming perfectly satisfied after a prolonged scrutiny, stood aside and motioned the two to enter, and shutting the door behind them and ordering them to stand where they were until he returned from his dangerous mission of disobeying, by breaking in upon his master's privacy, stalked off with much dignity into the perfumed, half-lit, enormous hall.

Now if only he had been afflicted with one iota of the curiosity apportioned by time to Lot's wife, that man might have been alive even to this day. But he neither turned his head nor pricked his ears, thereby failing to note that with the lightning methods of the eel the comely flower had in some miraculous way slipped from her all enveloping sheath of draperies to stand revealed a wiry, glistening-with-oil youth, who, without a moment's pause, with knife in teeth, and as silently as a lizard, glided across the dividing yards of Persian carpet separating him from his quarry.

Across the hall and through endless deserted rooms they passed, the companion of the camouflage maiden bringing up the rear. Right to the far quarter of the house they went, one after the other, and the guardian of the house felt little more than a pin-prick when, just as his hand pulled aside the curtain screening a door, the youth behind him raising his right arm drove the knife clean under the left shoulder blade, catching the dead body as it fell backwards to lay it noiselessly upon the floor just as his friend appeared upon the scene.

"It was well done, O! brother—neatly, and with strength—leaving no trace of blood to speak of. But now must we proceed with cunning, else may we too be lying lifeless upon our backs. Take even thy knife, my brother, 'twere a pity to leave it in yon carcase!"

Indifferently turning the body over, the boy drew the knife, as indifferently wiping it on the dead man's raiment, and stood for a moment as still as any one of the exotic specimens of statuary which ornamented the whole house.

Truly and implicitly had the orders of the master been obeyed; there was no sound of any living thing in or near the place, so that after a few whispered words the curtain was gently pulled back and the door opened just as gently inch by inch.

For a long minute the two men peered in through the crack, their eyes searching swiftly for sign of him whom they searched.

Unavailing at first, until with a motion of the head the younger one pointed.

"Look! Yonder he sleeps!"

The room was still brilliantly lighted by the many lamps hanging from the ceilings and the walls, but the shadow of the great mass of growing plants fell upon the divan upon which Jill had sat some few hours ago.

Inch by inch the door was opened, until it was wide enough to allow the dusky slender body of the boy to slip in. Round the wall he slid, his eyes a-glisten, and the knife fast held between his teeth; then down upon his hands and knees he sank to crawl as quietly as a cat up to the back of the flowering plants. And then he quite suddenly sprang to his feet, beckoning to his companion, who sped straight across the room, knife in hand.

"Behold! O! brother!"

And a world of disappointment rang in the whispered words as the youth pointed disgustedly to the picture before him.

Very peacefully lay the man whose name had been a byword in the land of Egypt, and whose delight had been in the moral and physical terrors of women.

His eyes were closed and his mouth slightly open, showing the white teeth; the hands were gently clasped, but over the spot where should have been his heart, and on the silken coverings of the cushions, spread a great crimson patch of blood, whilst at his feet, lying prone across the couch, was the body of a girl. Her eyes were open, and a little smile widened the beautiful mouth, but from the spot above the heart which had so unwisely and so well loved, glittered the jewelled hilt of a dagger. One hand touched the hem of her master's coat, but what the bastinado had left of the little feet seemed to shriek aloud for vengeance, vengeance for the dead child, and vengeance for all those who had likewise suffered.

"Allah! Allah!" The cry cleft the stillness of the room as the boy's eyes fell upon the terrible sight; and the knife flashed twice and thrice, and yet again, until the evil beauty of the dead man's face had been entirely obliterated, and a strong hand gripped the supple wrist.

"Come, O! brother! Waste not thy strength upon the dead. Behold! Yon little maid has carried out our master's wish, may she rest in the delights of paradise with the beloved of Allah whose prophet is Mohammed, and may the spirit of him who is accursed enter into the body of a pig to live eternally in filth and dishonour!"

And the sun had risen upon a cleaner day when the twain departed from the house of shadows.



CHAPTER XVII

It was close upon dawn when to Jill's ears was borne a faint melodious sound.

Inexpressibly weary was she, exhausted to the point of fainting, for in spite of numerous haltings, the drinking of tea, coffee, and sherbet, and the eating of cakes and curious Egyptian sweetmeats, had in no way lessened the agony of her lower limbs, which she moved this way and that in the vain effort to relieve the terrible cramp that seemed to creep from her spine to her brain, and down again to her feet.

The stars danced before and around her, as she swayed to and fro to the deadly lurching rhythm of the camel's pace; one thing, and one thing only, having so far saved her from the utter dissolution of fatigue, and that being when, urged by their master's voice, the three animals had broken into a gentle trot, ending in a pace which literally took away the girl's breath; but even that relaxation had had to be abandoned as the nature of the ground changed.

Most people's conception of the desert is that of one huge expanse of smooth sand, with here and there a palm tree to break the monotony; an entirely wrong conception, bred partly, I think, from the highly coloured scriptural pictures of our youth.

There are tracts of sand extending for many miles, such as those around big cities into which you wander on camel-back at so much an hour, and with the description of which you hold your less travelled neighbours enthralled, as you intersperse the munching of muffins with the words "dragoman," "backsheesh," and "Cheops."

But even on a week or ten days of genuine travelling you are likely to pass through and over a variety of grounds, from hard gravel which is delightful for tent-pitching, ground covered with a liberal supply of rocks, under which lurks the festive scorpion, great mounds of limestone which in the desert take on the proportions of mountains, marks of long-dried pools left by long-dried torrents, defiles almost as narrow as the camel's scriptural needle, and in places, an earth, the curious marking of which will almost lead you to believe that it is cloud-shadowed, if the heat of your head, the state of your throat, and the lamentable leathery appearance of your skin did not tell you that for months no such thing as a cloud had been known to appear in the blazing heavens.

At the first faint, flute-like note Jill thought that she must have awakened from sleep or delirium, and, it must be confessed, really did not care which was the solution of the mystery; sinking back into a state of apathy so exhausted was she, until the three camels came to a standstill, and the Arab, with something that looked like a dark cloak across his arm, drew his beast alongside of hers.

"Behold, woman, the hour of Namaz is at hand, when throughout the land the Muezzin is called, for it is the hour of dawn. The hour when the curtains of heaven are drawn about the stars, so that they may not be blinded by the glory of their golden master, as I shall draw this cloak about the fairness of your sweet face, and the outline of your gracious figure, which Allah in his bounty has placed within my unworthy hands, to hide them from the eyes of the high-born, and the eyes of the low-born, such as yonder slave who, though he be the sweetest maker of music in all Egypt, is but my head camel tender, though before Allah who is God, his worth as such could not be purchased for the price of rubies.

"And now shall your weary form rest a while, while I give praise to Allah, whose prophet is Mohammed."

Grumbling, the three animals subsided.

"Is all well with you?"

The girl nodded as she stumbled from her seat and stretched herself full length upon the sands, the convulsive twitching of her cramped limbs giving way at last to the peace of oblivion.

"Will you forgive me if I leave you in your stress, for behold, the hour of Namaz waits neither for weariness or joy, nay, nor even death."

But Jill heard nothing, neither his light footfall as he moved some yards from the unclean Christian whom he loved, and placing his prayer-rug upon the ground turned towards Mecca, which in Islam is called Keblah, which, being translated, means "centre"; nor the splashing of water as he washed three times his nostrils, his mouth, and hands and arms to the elbow, the right first as ordained, then head and neck, and ears once and feet once, whilst murmuring a prescribed form of words, these words being repeated in different positions, standing erect or sitting, with inclinations of the head and body, and prostrations in which the Arab in all humility touched the ground with his forehead.

For Hahmed was a true Mohammedan, carrying out the precepts of his religion as laid down by the Koran as fully and conscientiously as is within the power of man. But, you will say, he was voluntarily consorting with a Christian, who, by the edicts of the Koran, is considered unclean, inviting pollution by touching the bare skin of her hands and feet.

True! but the man was no evil liver, picking up to throw away, buying to regret the purchase within the hour, attracted by this pretty face or that lovely form. Nay. He loved the girl as it is unhappily given on this earth for but few women to be so loved, and with all the strength of his will he intended the outcome of this love to be one more triumph to the glory of Allah.

As for the pollution of her satin skin, did he not murmur the prayer of purification when in contact with it?

Neither did Jill notice that the man, his purification and his prayers ended, had come over to her, standing gazing down at the almost tragic picture she made out-stretched on the sands.

Her death-white face was buried in the curve of one folded arm, the other, flung out, lay with the palm of the hand uppermost. The little feet were crossed under the crumpled skirt, from which peeped the folds of her last white silk petticoat.

"Poor little bird," he murmured, as the sense of mastership rose strong within him at the sight of the helpless child at his feet. "So weary, so beautiful, and so young. Behold, shall a nest be built for thee in which thou shalt rest, shaking off the plumage harmed in thy short passage through life, to appear at last more beautiful than the most glorious bird in Paradise," and bending he touched her gently.

But Jill, who had had no real sleep since she had left the boat, had passed at last into an almost comatose condition, from which it was doubtful she could have been awakened, even at the sound of Israfil's Trumpet.[1]

Crossing to the camels Hahmed considerably lengthened the lead, and attaching the camels Taffadaln and Howesha one on each side of his own, he bade the two former rise, which they did with alacrity, leading one to believe that they heard the flute-like music calling them to the cool of the palm tree's shade, the doubtful bucket of water, and the certain repast, terminating with a handful of luscious dates.

Stooping, the man raised the unconscious girl from the ground, holding her as lightly as a feather on one arm, and draping the dark cloak around her so as to cover the red-gold hair, drew a corner across the face.

Perhaps some may enjoy restraining the vagaries of a lead horse, which sees fit to proceed sideways at the encounter of anything in motion on the road, or execute a pas seul on the hind legs at the flutter of a leaf, without referring to what happens if a white paper-bag should attract the nervous eye.

But it is mere child's play compared with the leading under certain circumstances, of one or more self-willed, obstinate, vain-glorious camels.

Seated across his black camel the Arab drew the girl's head against his shoulder, holding her gently but firmly in his left arm.

A word, and the camel pitching and tossing finally acquired an upright position. Things went well for a score or so of yards, the three animals proceeding at a stately demure pace, until verily the devil entered into Taffadaln.

Suddenly she rushed sideways, then with front legs wide apart came to a dead stop, jerking the black camel violently.

"Thou awkward descendant of clumsy parents, what aileth thee?" exclaimed her master, as Jill's head bumped violently against his shoulder. "Take heed to my words. Enjoy this thy last ride through the glory of the desert, for verily at the end shalt thou, between the periods of bearing young, be put to the lowest tasks apportioned to the lowest of thy species."

Whereupon Taffadaln turned solemnly towards the speaker, and lifting her upper lip laughed, and with no more ado faced towards the palm trees, which to desert-trained eyes showed faintly some miles away, took two steps forward, humped herself together, collapsed on the ground, and stretching out her neck, half-closed her eyes.

Imagine the helplessness of her master, seated so high upon his camel as to render useless any chastisement with the courbaash, which whip applied deftly to certain less tough portions of the camel's body will usually bring the brute to reason, if he who wields the whip cares to risk the accumulation of revenge which the punishment will infallibly store up in the camel's brain. A veritable storm of anger raged in the man as he looked down upon the girl lying peacefully in his arms in a sleep which even the camel's uncouth procedure could not disturb.

Once more groaning bitterly his camel and Howesha grounded, which latter word describes best, in condensed form, the camel's method of lying down.

Out of one corner of her half-shut, insolent eye, the beautiful Taffadaln watched proceedings, and just as her master, holding Jill gently in his arms, was slipping from the saddle, with a positively fiendish squeal of triumph, and one gigantic effort which beat any record, for swiftness established in any camel's family history, she rose suddenly, and rushing forward once more to the end of her lead, caused the black camel to fall sideways and the dismounting man to stumble, and in order to save her, to place Jill with distinct vigour upon the sand.

Not one syllable did he utter, not one line appeared on the perfectly calm face, as he raised the girl and carried her further from the camels, where she lay as still as though the angel Azrael[2] had separated her soul from her body.

Walking to Taffadaln he stood for some minutes absolutely motionless in contemplation, whilst the object of his thoughts, blissfully ignorant of what was in store, and because it suited her mood of the moment, came meekly to ground on the word of command.

[1]In Islamism there are four angels particularly favoured by Allah, who is God. Israfil is the name of one whose office will be to sound the trumpet at the Resurrection.

[2]Azrael—Angel of Death.



CHAPTER XVIII

I am sure that those who read the following and know the East will say that I exaggerate, that under no circumstances or stress of emotion would an Arab so treat a camel, especially the most perfect of her species.

But against this wish to hurt must be weighed the love that consumed the man, a love mighty and sudden, and for the advent of which, and the enjoyment thereof, he had trained himself from his youth, abstaining from aught which might cause his perfect body to deteriorate, and all that which by satisfying the senses might dull his mind. A love, in fact, which, stronger than the wind of the hurricane, swifter than the raging torrent, swept all before it.

The Arab's love for his camel is a love of gratitude, for does not the Koran say, "And hath also provided you with tents and the skin of cattle, which ye find light to be removed on the day of your departure, and easy to be pitched on the day of your sitting down therein, and of their wool, and their fur, and of their hair, hath he supplied you with furniture and household stuff for a season." His love for his horse is a love of delight in her beauty, and her endurance and her swiftness, causing the master even at the point of death in battle to pour forth the praises of his mare, and with his last breath call aloud her pedigree to the lucky person, to whom she falls as booty.

But once let an Arab love a woman, with the love which has nothing to do with the arranged marriage of his early youth, or his attraction to some beautiful face which causes him to take the possessor thereof to wife, of which Allah in his bounty allows him four, or his desire for some one of his concubines, to the number of which there is no limit; then I say will the love of sons, love of beast, and thought for all save his religion, go down before it as a young tree before the storm.

Hahmed the Arab loved the English girl with just such a love, also had she been hurt through the brutish manners of the animal, who had been expressly chosen for the honour of carrying her, therefore his love for his camel had turned to seething hate, and when that happens in the East, it is time to remove thyself, and that hastily.

Unfastening the lead from the pack camel, the man knotted it firmly to the back of her flat saddle, which usually makes the foundation for the animal's burden, then urging her to her feet led her in front of Taffadaln, who, a little at sea as to the proceedings, was marking time with her head. The same thing happened to the black animal, and then with a swiftness which thoroughly befogged the small brain of all this trouble, the leathered thong across her soft muzzle was tightened to the verge of cruelty, and the reins twisted twice round the back of the head, and then knotted to the leading reins fastened to the saddlebacks of her two inferior sisters.

"Thus will I show thee who is master, O! shrew!" observed her master, as he surveyed his handiwork. "Thou wilt not walk, then shall thy sisters force thee to run; thou wilt lie down, then shall they drag thee until thy mouth runs blood.

"Behold has thou brought misery to thy fair mistress, O! curse of camels, and for each moment that thou shalt have lost unto her the shade of the palm tree, for each moment shall thou shed a drop of blood."

Howesha of her own free will scrambled to her feet, whilst the Arab raised the girl, who, sunk in a sleep resembling unconsciousness, took no heed of these untoward events, and placing her so that her head lay softly against his shoulder, mounted his camel and brought the animal to her feet.

The forcing to their feet of three camels by voice persuasion alone is no mean performance, but no voice, not even the vocal chords of the Archangel Gabriel, would have moved the cause of all this pother, for at the word of command, in a tone which should have put fear of death into her black heart, she slightly shifted her hind-quarters and lay still.

"So thou wilt not move, thou daughter of a desert snail! Verily then shalt thou so remain!"

A sharp word, and the two upstanding camels moved forward, coming to a standstill as they felt the weight of their recumbent sister. There was then heard a sharp swish, as the courbaash delicately flicked each astounded quadruped, astounded indeed, for never had they felt the like before, and be it confessed, never had their master been possessed of such a fury.

Simultaneously they bounded forward, if so one can describe their action, bringing a snarl of rage from the unrepentant Desert Pearl. Straining and tugging, with the whip constantly flicking and stinging, they slowly dragged Taffadaln over the sand, until gradually the agony of the tightening muzzle-thong cut not only into the flesh, but into the very soul of the rebellious camel queen.

Foam began to gather round the bruised mouth, dripping from the teeth only half closed by the leather strap; a drop of blood showed red near the corner, cut by the cruel knot, sweat poured from the silky coat as again and again she vainly tried to scramble to her feet, whilst the eyes of her master, ablaze with hate, watched her futile efforts.

Suddenly he halted the animals, and sat contemplating the beautiful Taffadaln, panting and moaning upon the sand.

"Get up!" he suddenly cried, with a ring of steel in the usually soft voice, and obediently the brute scrambled to her feet, leaving red patches where had rested her mouth.

"Now that I have almost broken thy neck, will I essay to break thy heart." In which endeavour the Arab entirely failed.[1]

"Thou wouldst halt, therefore shall thou run!"

But Taffadaln was no fool, no, not one bit. For the first few yards, as her sisters raced ahead, she hung back, pulling on the blood covered thong, and tearing her tongue between her vicious teeth. Faster, and faster, sped the forerunners, and how fast that can be may only be understood by one who has pressed this swift moving animal's pace. Resisting less and less, Taffadaln raced after, until the agony and outrage of the proceedings suddenly drove her mad, and also to her fastest speed, until with a positive shriek of hate she rushed upon the pack camel, regardless of the slackened reins which were like to trip her at every step, a scream of agony announcing the fact that the bloody teeth had met in the camel's side. "Allah!" ejaculated Hahmed as again and again he struck at the animal's infuriated face, when she turned her attention to her black sister, whom she had the full intention of savaging, what time the three were tearing like the wind towards those palms under which figures in white could easily be discerned.

Finding she was unable to wreak her vengeance with her teeth, her crafty brain conceived the idea of harassing her fleeing companions, to whom she was ignominiously fastened.

What were they but snails in speed compared to her, and if she could not pass them for the bonds which held her captive, she could, at least urge them on until they dropped from exhaustion. So into first one and then the other she bumped, with an occasional nip at the tails, whilst the air was rent with agonising shrieks, through which tumult Jill slept sweetly upon the man's heart, until at last they raced up to the caravan.

Many camels and four men watched the arrival, the former grunting and groaning as they scented the trouble, the men calling upon Allah to witness the madness which had befallen their master.

At the sight of the tents and the men who had tended them from birth, Howesha and the black camel stopped dead, but too terrified to pay heed to the voice that bade them get down, stood literally shaking with fear, or wheeling sharply to dodge the gleaming teeth which seldom failed to leave their mark, until Howesha, in a moment of absolute terror, twisted and met her teeth in the upper portion of the back part of Taffadaln's hind-leg, of which there is no tenderer part in the camel's anatomy, following which action ensued a pitched battle.

With a scream, the rage-filled Taffadaln flung herself upon the two camels and then upon her master and she who lay in his arms and who was the real cause of this unseemly fracas. The Arab, essaying to hold the cloak around the girl, so as to save her from the insult of a man's gaze, struck again and again at the mouth which tore great pieces from his flowing robes, the girl's covering, and chunks of hair from the shrieking camel's body.

Blood and foam covered the animal's chest, the girl's cloak, and the garments of the men, who, on account of the inextricable knotting of the leads which bound the animals one to another, and the three sets of teeth which were snapping and tearing at everything within their reach, found themselves helpless to calm the tumult.

But suddenly there was peace, just as Jill opening her eyes murmured, "What a dreadful noise the sea is making," and closed them again, for the maker of sweet music, and head-tender of camels, had grasped the danger to his beloved master, also the disaster impending among the seething herd, who were all upon their feet and straining at their tethers.

Swiftly divesting himself of his long, white, outer garment, he waved it in front of the Glory of the Desert, whose price was above rubies, and temper a direct gift from Eblis.[2]

To her everlasting undoing, she paused for one moment to stretch her neck at length and eye the new menace. A fatal delay in which the offending object lighted upon and around her head, shutting her completely into outer darkness, whereupon she stood like a lamb whilst hobbles were placed about her feet; after which the shade was lifted slightly, leaving the eyes covered, whilst the blood-soaked thong was cut away from the torn flesh, and a kind of leather cage slipped over the muzzle, which would certainly prevent her from biting, or indulging in her usual wide yawn of indifference.

The covering being lifted from her eyes, her bonds were undone, and herself likened by the maker of sweet music, unto all that the Koran calls unclean, even unto the vilest of the vile, the pig, into the company of which she was relegated for all eternity. She was then ordered to ground in a manner reminiscent of the tones used to bazaar dogs, which order was emphasised with a flick of the courbaash upon a part which had known the meeting of Howesha's teeth.

But when at sunset Jill opened her eyes all sounds and signs of battle were stilled.

[1]Having four times successfully foaled a she-camel, Taffadaln, the Glory of the Desert, was ultimately shot on account of her demoniacal temper.

[2]The devil.



CHAPTER XIX

The sun was sinking when Jill moved, stretched a little, half opened her eyes, and closing them turned over and went to sleep again for about two minutes.

Then she half opened her eyes again, stretched out her hand to pull uncomprehendingly at the white netting round her bed, through which she could see a blaze of red, gold, and purple; and laughing in the vacant manner of the delirious, or those but half-awake, tried to collect her thoughts sufficiently to explain the strangeness of her surroundings, sitting up with a jerk as the doings of the last twenty-four hours suddenly stirred in her awakened mind.

Wide-eyed she sat with her hands clasped round her knees, whilst the deadly stillness seemed to rise as a wall around her, cutting her off from laughter, love, and life, until wild unreasoning fear, seizing her very soul, caused her to tear and rend the mosquito nets, and force a way through them and out of the tent.

For a while she stood holding to the tent rope, looking this way and that for the sign of some living thing. Before her stretched one vast plain of gravel, miles upon miles of it receding into nothingness, on each side the same, behind her tent above, the palm trees waving gently in the evening breeze, and above again, a sky such as is to be seen only in this part of the world, for travel you ever so widely, you will find nothing to rival a desert sunset in its design and colour.

Above her head seemed to be stretched a canopy, made by some Eastern magic, of a mixture of colours woven by the hands of Love and Hate, Passion and Revenge, underneath which she stood disheartened, dishevelled, in crumpled clothes and shoeless feet, with fear-distended eyes in a fatigue-shadowed face, searching vainly for something alive and near, be it human, dog, horse or camel.

Owing to a sudden nervous reaction brought about by the cessation of all physical and mental effort, the girl's power of reasoning had gone, along with her will, her common sense, and her fearlessness.

That there was another tent beside her own made no more impression on her mind than the fact that a slight smoke haze softened the intense blue of the sky on her right.

She was absolutely terrified and ravenously hungry, also unwashed, therefore altogether unhappy, so with no more ado she flung out her arms, and with a great sob rushed headlong into that which frightened her most, the unlimited, uninhabited desert.

Her shoeless feet made hardly a sound as she sped like a deer from the desolation she imagined, to the certain desolation and death in front of her, but she had hardly cut her little feet over more than twenty yards when Hahmed, the swiftest runner in Egypt, was speeding after her.

"Allah! Be merciful to me! For behold, I fail to keep from harm that which Thou hast placed in my keeping," he murmured, as he ran abreast with the girl for a few yards, then putting his arm around her lifted her off her feet, holding her gently to him, and speaking no word until the paroxysm of sobs had subsided.

"Where to fly you, O! woman, and whyfore are you thus afraid?"

"I was simply terrified. I—I—thought you had left me all alone to die, and I just ran and ran to find someone or something else beside myself in the desert," answered a voice, muffled by the snowy garments of the man who held her so gently against his heavily beating heart.

"I will take you back to your tent, to the bath and repast which awaits you. I dared not loosen your raiment without your permission, so having removed the shoes from off your feet, laid you upon your bed, but when you are bathed, I pray you wrap yourself in the soft garments you will find, and clapping your hands make known to your slave that you are ready to eat."

"Oh, there is a servant to wait on me. I thought we were quite alone."

"I am your slave," simply replied the Arab, as he placed Jill upon her feet in front of her tent, where she stood with her hand on his arm, rooted to the spot by the glory of the sky, whilst the man gazed down upon her, as the dying sun struck the gold of her hair, the blue of her eyes, and the cream of her neck.

"You, who are of those who are versed in music, and of those who can make poetry, describe that glory to me," imperiously demanded Jill, after a moment of silence, with that suddenness and complete change of mood which falls occasionally upon all women, causing the meek to scratch like cats, and the strong to give in, often to their everlasting undoing.

"Bathe the white body of thy beloved in the blue-green of Egypt's river, so that the coolness and fairness may give delight to thee! Drape the satin veil of deepest blue about the red glory of thy love's hair, and bind a band of gold, set deep is sapphires, above the twin pools of heaven, which are her eyes. Set turquoise, threaded with finest gold, a-swing in the rose-leaf of her ears, to fall and wind about the snow of her white neck.

"Fasten the blue flower which spies upon thee from the shelter of the golden corn, within the glory of her hair.

"Perfume her hair and her breasts, anoint her hands and her feet, and wrap thy delight in a garment of passion, sparing not the shades therein, for in them shalt thou find thy delight.

"Let the garment be heavy with the gold of love, rich with the purples of passion, aflame with the crimson of thy desire, forgetting not the caress of the rose, nor the light mingling of opal and saffron, and the faint touch of amethyst and topaz, in which shall she find her delight.

"Bind thy love with the broad bands of the setting sun so that she cleaves unto thee, and carry her unto the twilight of thy tent, which shall slowly darken until the roof thereof is swathed in purple gloom, through which shall shine the stars of thy beloved.

"And there lie down in thy delight, until the hour of dawn calleth thee to prayer."

The voice was stilled, whereupon Jill lifted her face bathed in rosy colour, which might or might not have been the reflection from the sky, whilst her red mouth quivered ever so slightly, and her great blue eyes looked for a moment into those of the man, and as quickly looked away.

So seductive was she in her youth and utter helplessness that the man stepped back two paces, and saluting her for whom his whole being craved, gathered his cloak about him and departed to his tent.

And Jill also entered her tent, and having earlier and under the lash of terror departed therefrom in blind haste, stood amazed.

She had imagined a mattress, a rug, an earthenware basin on the ground, and sand over everything, and on the top of the sand scorpions, spiders, and all that creepeth and flieth both by day and by night. Not at all.

A carpet of many colours stretching to the corners of the desert tent, which is not peaked like the European affair, into which you crawl fearing to bring the whole concern about your ears, when if you should be over tall you hit the top with your head. It was as big as a fair-sized room, high enough for a man of over six feet to stand erect, not so broad as long, with sides which, lifted according to the direction of the sun, and through the uplifted portion of which the faint delicious evening breeze blew refreshingly. A white enamelled bedstead covered in finest, whitest linen stood in the centre of the carpet, surrounded by a white net curtain hanging from the tent ceiling, each foot in a broad tin of water. In the corners were a canvas folding dressing-table, a full length mirror, a long chair and a smaller one, over which hung diaphanous garments of finest muslin, and a shimmering wrap of pearl white satin, and through a half-drawn curtain which hung across the narrower end of the tent, the vision of a big canvas bath filled with water, big white towels, and another canvas table upon which stood all the things necessary to a woman's toilet.

So that it was a very refreshed Jill who, wrapped in a loose Turkish bath-gown, with little feet thrust into heelless slippers, went in search of raiment. And wonderfully soft, simple things she found into which she slipped, and out of which she slipped again, holding them out at arm's length for inspection, then burying her face in the soft perfumed folds in very thankfulness.

And she laughed a delicious little laugh, of pure glee as she replaced the garments on the chair, and slithering hither and thither in her unaccustomed footgear, tidied the tent and made her bed, regarding ruthfully the torn mosquito curtain.

"Oh, for a maid," she sighed, as she wrestled with the mattress, and "Oh, for dear Babette," she sighed again, as she wrestled with the masses of her hair.

And the tent was filled with a blaze of light, as, wrapped in her bath-gown, she stood in front of the steel mirror, plaiting and unplaiting, twisting and pinning her hair, until with an exclamation of impatience she let it all down, holding great strands out at arm's length, through which she passed the comb again and again, until the red-gold mass shone, and curled, and rippled about her like a cloak of satin.

It is hopeless to try and describe the shining, waving masses which curled round her knees, and fluttered in tendrils round her face, and it would have been hard to find anything anywhere so beautiful as Jill when, clad in the loose silk garment and soft satin wrapper, with her perfumed hair swirling about her, she stood entranced at the opening of her tent, until the sun suddenly disappearing left her in darkness, whereupon she clapped her hands quickly.



CHAPTER XX

Jill had finished the first of many evening meals she was to partake of in the desert, and was lying on a heap of cushions listening to the clink of brass coffee utensils and porcelain cups, whilst sniffing appreciatively the aroma of Eastern coffee Easternly made, which is totally different to that which permeates the dim recesses draped with tinselled dusty hangings, and cluttered with Eastern stools and tables inlaid with mother o' pearl made in Birmingham, in the ubiquitous Oriental Cafe at which we meet the rest of us at eleven o'clock on Saturday morning at the seaside; nor does it resemble in the slightest that which is oilily poured forth in London town by the fat, oily, so-called "Son of the Crescent" who, wearing fez and baggy trousers, in some caravanserai West, Sou'-west or Nor'-west, has unfailingly been chief coffee-maker to the late Sultan, vide anyway the hotel advertisements.

She was smiling as she lay stretched full length with her chin in her palms, thinking of the meal just eaten. Whilst waiting for it she had imagined a mess of pottage perhaps, or stewed kid as piece de resistance, with honey or manna as sweets, and a savoury of fried locusts, which she, with many others, imagined to be the all-devouring insect. She knew by now, and returned thanks, that the man neither ate with his mouth open nor gave precedence to his fingers and teeth over knives and forks, but in her wildest dreams she had never imagined that such exquisite things, served in such an exquisite way, could be laid before her in a desert.

When the light had suddenly closed down upon the two adventurers on the Road of Life, she had been led to the tent adjoining hers, a sudden shyness preventing her from asking where the Arab slept, which she found alight with the soft glow of many candles, and spread with a carpet upon which were many cushions. The table had certainly been the ground, but everything upon it had been of the daintiest, and all that she had eaten, although she had had no notion of what it had consisted, might have been the outcome of some cordon bleu's genius.

"Our life is one long picnic," had replied the Arab to her question anent the cooking facilities in waste places. "So why should we not all, high and low born, learn to make the picnic pleasant, for behold, we know not what a day may bring forth, nor in what place the night shall find us."

And Jill came quite suddenly out of her reverie when asked if she would like to go outside for coffee and cigarettes. "For though the moon in her youth has gone early to bed, the stars are shining like your eyes."

"Oh," said she, as she got into a half-sitting position, "I thought we should have to pack up; it's late already, isn't it?"

"You are tired from unaccustomed travelling, and your limbs must ache, therefore if it pleases you we will wait until to-morrow night, so that with many baths and much refreshing sleep you will feel glad to mount your camel, who is not the begotten daughter of sin, Taffadaln, and come still further into the desert."

So Jill went outside the tent and looked up to the blazing stars, and the soft wind blew her hair so that a burnished red-gold perfumed strand fell across the man's mouth, and behold he trembled, for great was his desire, but greater still his love for this woman.

And when she sat down upon the cushions he stood apart and watched her, until a little hand, like a white moth fluttering in the dark, beckoned him, and he moved towards her and sat at her feet; and the wind, whispered to the palms and the hours fled as the English girl lay on the cushions and listened, and she had learnt of many things before she rose and passed into her tent to sleep again.

Hahmed was of Southern Arabia, and therefore with truth could claim direct descent from Kahtan. He was the first-born of the great Sheik el Has'ad, his father, and his favourite wife who, on her marriage, besides much wealth, had brought a dowry of purest blood, and wonderful beauty, to her lord and master, so that the man who sat at the English girl's feet under the stars, and who trembled at her nearness was pur sang, and further than that you cannot go.

Worshipped by his father, idolised by his mother, at the age of ten he bad been betrothed to the daughter, aged seven, of the Sheik el Banjad. She was also pur sang, and already of looks promising great beauty.

And so he had grown in the warmth of his parents' love, trained in what we call outdoor sports, but which are life itself to the Arab, until at fourteen no one could surpass him in running or horsemanship or spear-throwing, whilst with rifle or revolver he could clip the hair off the top of a man's head, the which strenuous accomplishments he balanced in passing his leisure moments in the gentle arts of verse-making and even music, in spite of the latter being condemned by religion; also did he learn to converse in foreign tongues. Do not think that these qualifications were enumerated with the zest and glorification which usually precede the distribution of dull books at a prize-giving, for the man might have been talking of the sunshine or the sand or the flies or any other part of that which goes to the making up of Egypt, rather than that which had helped to make him the finest man in the country.

And yet another trait which he touched upon lightly, and which had served to make him the subject of comment in the bazaars, and of gossip in the harems.

In regard to his womenfolk there is no man sterner the world over than the Mohammedan, shielding them from harm, and insisting on the absolute privacy of their lives and their bodies. Upon just this subject, from the first day of his understanding, Hahmed the Arab was stern to fanaticism, intolerant even to injustice. He disapproved of licence in all things, but especially in speech, food, and religion. When forced by circumstances, he went to the feasts to which he was invited, eating sparingly as was his wont, taking no more interest in the more or less clothed dancing women than in a set of performing dogs, departing thankfully when the hour came.

Let me recount, in his own words, the happenings of his youth, which served to change the whole tenor of his life, and was to culminate in the high adventure of an English girl.

"At the age of fourteen I was to marry and was content, for the desires of my own woman had come upon me, and I longed to possess the beauty of which my mother told me, and which, save for her father, had been seen by no man.

"My own woman I desired, I say, for bought women were not for me, and I had refrained therefrom, therefore was I unsoiled at the time of my wedding.

"True my marriage had naught to do with my horoscope cast at birth, for it had been read that water would bring me joy, and water would bring me grief, and that water again would bring me everlasting happiness, so I thought with others that it had lied, and was amazed.

"But behold, when after great festival and feasting my bride was in the care of her handmaidens who prepared her for my coming, one came, and casting herself at my feet, covered her head in dust, begging a word with me.

"It seemed she was a master in the art of tinting the fingers the pink which we Arabs love.

"I thought she had a boon to crave so listened to her, but when she told her news I took her by the throat to strangle her, but in choking breath she vowed the great vow, therefore I listened again, and though I were like to die of shame I took counsel with her, asking her the price of her information, whereupon she merely muttered 'revenge,' and showed her breast which was a festering sore caused by the boiling water which her mistress had flung upon her when the scissors had proved over sharp.

"Whereupon I withdrew the handmaidens from the beautiful Zuleikha with the exception of one, cross-bred of French and Tunisian, who, though of passing beauty, scorned all men, it seemed, and passed her days in waiting upon the whims of her mistress, and tending to the beauties of her body.

"I know not how far the women of the West are versed in the knowledge of evil, therefore will I speak in words that are veiled. Be it that I—I, Hahmed, the son of my great father, demeaned myself to spy between the perfumed curtains of my bride's chamber, to witness the passionate farewells of the two beautiful women. Allah! That such things should be. Tears streamed down the cheeks of she who was to share my couch, as the slave, the unclean half-caste, beat her breast in her despair, and letting loose the strands of thick black hair which covered her to the knees, knotted it around until it covered, as a mantle, the body of she who had been anointed for my pleasure.

"And then I tore down the curtains and strode in upon them, bound one to another in their disgrace, and clapping my hands brought eight women as witnesses to my shame. And still bound with the thongs of hair I threw the sinners naked across my horse, and made my way to the woman's house, and before a great assembly, for behold, the guests had not yet departed, I flung them at the feet of the woman's father, and calling my witnesses spake my tale. And when I had finished, the wailing of grief was heard in the land. And then they were unbound and brought before me, and the half-caste mocked me. Me! Until I took her hair within my hands and twisting it about her neck, stopped her speech for ever, and when she fell dead, Zuleika my wife, Allah! hear me, my wife! screamed in terror, for I ordered my slaves to seize her. And then the Sheik el Banjad, her father, pronounced judgment, quoting from the Koran as is written in the second verse of the 24th Sura.

"'Shall you scourge with a hundred stripes, and let not compassion towards them prevent you from executing the judgment of God, if ye believe in God, and the last day.'

"And to the scourging was added the punishment of death, for behold, the Moslem law is less lenient than the Holy Book, also of such a case is it not written in the Koran. And Zuleika, my wife, was bound naked to a pillar and scourged with a hundred stripes. And the city in which had taken place the marriage, and in which both her father and my father had great property being built upon flat ground, there was, therefore, no height from which to throw her, neither well in which to fling her without fear of polluting the water, for time, alas, is making us softer towards misdeeds, so that such places of punishment are disappearing quickly."

Hahmed the Arab stopped short as with a little rustling sound Jill raised herself to her knees, her hair sweeping to the satin cushion, her hands stretched before her face as though to blind her eyes to the word-picture which the man was painting in a perfectly indifferent voice.

"How awful! How awful!" she whispered. "Surely, surely you never let them kill her!"

For a moment the Arab sat silent, as he forced his mind to an understanding of the Western outlook upon what to him was so simple a matter.

"But she was unchaste, woman, therefore there was nothing else to do!"

And at the tone of finality in the gentle voice, Jill sat back on her heels and said, "And then?" and listened without interrupting until the tale was done.

"So," continued Hahmed, "she was taken screaming to a public spot and there buried to her waist, and after that her mother had thrown the first stone, was put to death by men and women who, following the edicts of the Moslem law, meted out death by stoning to the unchaste. And from that day I fled my country and my home. East and West I travelled, passing many moons in England, hence it is that I can converse with you in your own language.

"There are many good things in your country and there are some bad, the greatest of the latter, to an Eastern mind, being the freedom of the women, who, even in their youth, go half-naked to the festival, so that all men, yea, even to the slaves who serve at table, may cast their eye of desire upon wife, or wife to be, taking from the husband the privilege of possessing all the beauty of the woman for himself. Also did I see the women of the West go down to the salt waters to bathe. Naked were they save for a covering which clung as closely as the skin to a peach, so that if I had had a mind I could have discoursed upon the comeliness of the wife of el Jones, or the poor land belonging to el Smith. Allah! I remember well a bride-to-be of seventeen summers, comely in her outer raiment, displaying to her future husband, without hesitation, the poor harvest of which he would shortly be the reaper, for I think that the majority of the women of the West strive not to render themselves beautiful, develop not the portion of the body which maybe lacks contour from birth, bathes not her body in perfumed waters, feeds not her skin with delicious unguents, cares not if her hair reaches in wisps to her shoulders, or falls below her waist as a natural covering under which she may hide at the approach of her master, neither does she daily perfume it, nor her hands, nor her feet, nor any part of her."

Once again Jill snapped the story thread, but this time with laughter, for her mind's eye, aided by her companion's scathing comments, had called up picture after picture of friends and acquaintances who, at balls, theatres, or by the sea, had draped themselves or not according to what they imagined to be their menfolk's outlook upon life.

"How funny!" she laughed, "how too funny!" And added: "And then?" as she lit another cigarette which she did not smoke.

"For many years," continued Hahmed, "I wandered, even unto Asia and to America. In truth whilst there the desert suddenly called me. My body craved for the sun, my eyes for the great distances of the sand, my ears for the familiar sounds of the East.

"But I could not return to the place of my shame, likewise were my parents dead, leaving me an equal part of their great wealth.

"So I went to other parts and bought 'the flat oasis' as it is called, on account of the many miles of perfectly flat sand surrounding it, absolutely unbroken by rock or bush or sand-dune. And perforce because I needed it not I acquired wealth, and yet more wealth, buying villages and great tracts of ground, breeding and selling camels and horses, diverting myself with my hawks, hunting with my cheetahs, or greyhounds, to occupy my time, heaping up the jewels in my bank at Cairo, keeping the best of everything for my wife, the woman predicted in my horoscope, for there can be no real happiness without a perfect helpmate, and real happiness has been promised me.

"And all these things I have done for her, yet am I looked upon as mad by many in that at twenty-eight years I have not begotten me a son, for they could not understand the disgust which had taken root in my whole being, so that in love or passion or desire I laid not hands upon women.

"You cannot understand, woman of the West, what it means when I say this to you, for in the East a man's greatest desire is to propagate his race, to have sons, many sons, with a daughter or two, or more as Allah wills, and to satisfy this longing in the shadow of the law, Allah, who is God, in His all-powerful goodness and bounty has allowed us as many as four wives, and as many women slaves or concubines as a man can properly and with decency provide for, the children of the latter, if recognised by the father, sharing equally with the offspring of the former. Though why a man who has found his love should wish to cumber his house with other women, seething with jealousy and peevish from want of occupation, is beyond my power of comprehension.

"So I have none, because it is within me to love one woman only, and to find the light of my life in her and the children of her loins, and if Allah in his wisdom sees not good to grant me this woman, who must come to me of her own free-will and love, then will I go to my grave in Allah's time without wife, without child, although the Koran sayeth that he who fails in his duty towards his race is accursed among men."

And behold, a great trembling fell upon the English girl, as rising to her feet she stood to look out upon the desert, and drawing the glory of her hair about her so that she was covered from the gaze of the man who stood apart, passed into her tent.

And the hour of prayer being at hand the man purified himself, and turning towards Mecca praised his God, and divesting himself of his outer raiment laid himself across the entrance of the woman's tent so as to guard her through her sleep, until such time that Allah, who is God, should open the entrance of her chamber unto him, and place the delights thereof into his hands for ever.



CHAPTER XXI

And the first day was like unto the second and the third, for these two desert farers went but slowly.

Each dawn, if they had travelled in the night, they found their tents pitched; each night they moved on, or not, as pleased the girl's mood, each hour of the day strengthening the love in the man's soul, each minute of the night passing over him, as he lay outside the entrance to her tent, so that, at the slightest sound from the dim, sweet, scented interior, he might spring to his feet, awaiting the little call for help which never came. Jill slept as peacefully as a babe, stirring only at a dreamed of, or imagined, swaying of the bed, as does the seafarer sometimes who sleeps for the first time after many months upon a bed, the four feet of which stand firmly on the ground.

During the waking moments after her first night's rest, uninitiated Jill had in imagination gone through and ardently disliked the frightful hour in which she would help collect, and clean, and pack a litter of soiled pots and pans, and other such abominations, which collecting, etc., seems to constitute one of the chief charms of a Western picnic; so great had been her relief on hearing that there was absolutely nothing to do but to see that the cushions and coffee were safely strapped upon Howesha's back, the only patient part of the animal. They were standing in front of the tents with the animals at their feet, the man watching the girl's every movement. Jill herself, being vastly rested, was absolutely radiant as to looks; strange dishes and hot winds and cold causing no havoc to the skin, nor the lack of Marcel methods unsightliness to her hair.

The dusk hid the dilapidation of her tailor-made, which looked the fresher for being pressed under the mattress; she always travelled boot-trees, so her shoes were all right, and the two Jacob's ladders, falling on the outside of her stockings, looked just like clocks neatly mended; her lovely hair rioted under her blue hat, and her high spirits rioted in her blue eyes, as she fed the camels with dates and wiped her sticky fingers on the silken coats.

"What!" she had exclaimed. "You don't mean to say that you are going to leave all this for the first thief to collect," withdrawing as she spoke her basket of dates from the vicinity of her new camel's mouth.

Verily, a beast of great beauty and worth was she, but shining as a mere rushlight, in comparison to the Bleriot head-light radiance of the fallen Taffadaln.

"The Arab does not steal!"

"Oh! but———" said Jill, putting a date into her own mouth by mistake, and therefore speaking with difficulty, "but they do steal, and murder, and do all kinds of dreadful things like that—I learnt it all in school!"

"No," reiterated the man calmly, "the Arab does not steal, he merely carries out the order of Allah, who, when Abraham turned his son Ishmael from his door, gave unto the boy the open plains and deserts as a heritage, permitting him to take and make use of whatever he could find therein.

"And as it is written that every hand was turned against Ishmael, so his descendants turn their hand against the descendants of those who persecuted the son of Abraham; but amongst their own tribe, or to those who ask of their hospitality, you will find the greatest honesty.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse