'There may be some small grain of sense in what thou sayest,' chuckled the objector, 'but not enough to make sin righteous, nor yet to abrogate the sacred law.'
Suleyman pursued unheeding: 'I have a rare thing, which will show you what I mean.
'A new judge had been appointed to the Holy City. He was departing from Stambul by ship to take up his appointment. On the quay, a Jew of his acquaintance came to him with reverence, and begged him kindly to convey a basket of bastirma to his (the Jew's) son at the Holy City, which the Jews in their own language call Jerusalem. You all know what bastirma is. It is dried and salted mutton—very tasty—a dish of which the Turks are most inordinately fond. The Cadi graciously consented, bidding his major-domo take the basket, and bestow it carefully among the things. The Jew departed. The Cadi and his party journeyed till they reached their destination, where, upon arrival, they discovered a young Jew inquiring earnestly about a basket of bastirma. The Cadi had forgotten its existence. "Ah, to be sure!" he cried. "I gave it my major-domo for safe keeping."
'He called that servant, and commanded him to give the basket of bastirma to the Jew there waiting. The major-domo bowed his head, folded his hands upon his breast, and said: "I ask forgiveness, O my lord. The basket still remains, but the bastirma was so excellent that, having tasted but a piece of it, I wanted more, so that, in fact, I ate it all upon the journey. I wish to pay the price of it to this young Jew."
'The Cadi thought his servant's offer fair enough, but the young Jew went mad. Flying at the throat of the major-domo, he flung him to the ground, and tried to tear the soul out of his body with his teeth and nails. The Cadi called upon the bystanders for help. The Jew was dragged with difficulty from his victim. Then the Cadi asked:
'"Why, pray, did you attack my servant in that savage way?"
'"That man," said the Jew, still white with rage, and pointing with his tallow finger at the major-domo, who had risen from the ground—"that man contains my grandfather."
'"What words are these? Explain yourself!" the Cadi cried.
'"Three weeks ago, O gracious Excellency, my grandfather died in Stambul. It had ever been his dearest wish to be buried in the Holy City, near the scene of judgment; and that wish of his was law on us his offspring. But how could we fulfil it? How, I ask? No skipper, whether Nazarene or Muslim, would receive a dead Jew on his ship for less than the corpse-weight in gold. And we are poor. To take him overland was quite impossible. And so my father and my mother in Stambul cured his dead limbs, and made of them bastirma, and sent him hither in the way thou knowest. It follows that thy servant has committed a most dreadful crime. Let him be killed, I pray, and buried in the tomb we have prepared, that so my grandfather's great wish may be fulfilled."
'The major-domo was more dead than living as he heard that story. He rent his clothes and fell down on the ground insensible.
'The Cadi answered the young Jew with wisdom, saying: "Thou art entitled to the price of one basket of bastirma, and no more, from this my servant; but he, on his side, has a right to all thou ownest. What wealth can ever compensate him for the haunting fear that on the Last Day he may rise inextricably mingled with thy worthy grandfather? Go, I say, and never venture to approach him any more, or I shall surely act upon this judgment and denude thee quite." The major-domo—'
Cries of 'Miskin! Miskin!' (poor fellow!) interrupted the narrative.
One said: 'I once ate pig's flesh by mistake, but this man's plight is much more horrible.'
Suleyman's opponent cried: 'It was a judgment on him, evidently, for his theft of the bastirma. Say, what became of him thereafter, O narrator?'
'The major-domo, who, till then, had been a precious rogue—I knew him intimately from a child, and so can vouch for it—became from that day forth the saintliest of men. He thought about his crime and mourned for it, and deemed himself an unclean beast until he died—may God have mercy on him—and was buried in the Holy City as the Jew desired. He thought of nothing but good deeds, yet without seeking merit, knowing that nothing he could do would ever cleanse him. He became the humblest and the best of men, who had before been arrogant and very wicked. Therefore I say that it is well for men to think of their sins after rather than before committing them.'
'But the intention!—What of the intention, O my master? His intention was not good. He stole!'
'His intention went no further than a basket of bastirma. The Jew was only an unpleasant accident, in respect whereof no guilt attached to him. The case is clear, and yet, although I used to argue with him on the subject, I never could contrive to make him see it. One thing is certain, and will prove to you the worth of good intentions. He only meant to eat a basket of bastirma; therefore he felt great remorse when he devoured a Jew, and so became a saint for Paradise. Had he intended to devour a Jew he could not possibly have felt such great remorse. What say you?'
And everyone agreed that it was so.
Of Suleyman in his capacity of dragoman I saw little but heard much both from himself and others. The English residents in Palestine and Syria—those who knew of him—regarded him as but a doubtful character, if one may judge from their repeated warnings to me not to trust him out of sight. His wisdom and his independent way of airing it did not please everybody as they did me; and reverence in dealing with a fellow-man was not his strong point. By travellers, I gather from innumerable testimonials which he showed me, he was either much beloved or the reverse, though none could say he did not know his business.
His English, though voluminous and comprehensive, was sometimes strange to native English ears. He had read the Bible in a German mission school, and spoke of 'Billiam's donkey' and 'the mighty Simson' where we should speak of Balaam's ass and Samson. He called the goatskins used for carrying water 'beastly skins,' and sometimes strengthened a mild sentence with an expletive.
I do not think he ever went so far in this way as another dragoman who, riding out from Haifa one fine morning with an English lady, pointed to Mount Carmel and observed:
'Bloody fine hill, madam!'
He knew how to adapt his language to his audience. But it is curious that a man whose speech in Arabic was highly mannered, in English should have cultivated solecisms. That he did cultivate them as an asset of his stock-in-trade I can affirm, for he would invent absurd mistakes and then rehearse them to me, with the question: 'Is that funny? Will that make the English laugh?'
For clergymen he kept a special manner and a special store of jokes. When leading such through Palestine he always had a Bible up before him on the saddle; and every night would join them after dinner and preach a sermon on the subject of the next day's journey. This he would make as comical as possible for their amusement, for clergymen, he often used to say to me, are fond of laughter of a certain kind.
One English parson he bedevilled utterly by telling him the truth—or the accepted legend—in such a form that it seemed false or mad to him.
As they were riding out from Jaffa towards Jerusalem, he pointed to the mud-built village of Latrun and said:
'That, sir, is the place where Simpson catch the foxes.'
'Ah?' said the clergyman. 'And who was Simpson?'
'He was a very clever gentleman, and liked a bit of sport.'
'Was he an Englishman?'
'No, sir; he was a Jew. He catch a lot of foxes with some traps; he kill them and he take their skins to Jaffa to the tailor, and he tell the tailor: "Make me one big skin out of these little ones." The tailor make one thundering big fox's skin, big enough for Simpson to get inside of it. Then Simpson, he put on that skin one night, and go and sit out in the field and make the same noise what the little foxes make. The little foxes come out of their holes to look; they see one big fox sitting there, and they not know it's really Simpson. They come quite near and Simpson catch hold of their tails and tie their tails together. Then they make the noise, and still more foxes come, and Simpson catch hold of their tails and tie their tails together, till he got hundreds and hundreds.'
'Whatever did he do with them?' inquired the parson.
'He set fire to them.'
'What on earth did he do that for?'
'That, sir, was to annoy his wife's relations.'
'And would you believe it,' added Suleyman when he told me the story, 'that foolish preacher did not know that it is in the Bible. He took it all down in his notebook as the exploit of a Jewish traveller. He was the Heavy One.'
The last remark was in allusion to an Arabic proverb of which Suleyman was very fond:
'When the Heavy One alights in the territory of a people there is nothing for the inhabitants except departure.'
Which, in its turn, is an allusion to the following story:
A colony of ducks lived on an island in a river happily until a certain day, when the carcase of an ox came drifting down the current and stuck upon the forepoint of that island. They tried in vain to lift it up or push it off; it was too heavy to be moved an inch by all their efforts. They named it in their speech the Heavy One. Its stench infected the whole island, and kept on increasing until the hapless ducks were forced to emigrate.
Many Heavy Ones fell to the lot of Suleyman as dragoman, and he was by temperament ill-fitted to endure their neighbourhood. Upon the other hand, he sometimes happened on eccentrics who rejoiced his heart. An American admiral, on shore in Palestine for two days, asked only one thing: to be shown the tree on which Judas Iscariot had hanged himself, in order that he might defile it in a natural manner and so attest his faith. Suleyman was able to conduct him to the very tree, and to make the journey occupy exactly the time specified. The American was satisfied, and wrote him out a handsome testimonial.
It must have been a hardship for Suleyman—a man by nature sensitive and independent—to take his orders from some kinds of tourists and endure their rudeness. If left alone to manage the whole journey, he was—I have been told, and I can well believe it—the best guide in Syria, devoting all his energies to make the tour illuminating and enjoyable; if heckled or distrusted, he grew careless and eventually dangerous, intent to play off jokes on people whom he counted enemies. One Englishman, with a taste for management but little knowledge of the country, and no common sense, he cruelly obeyed in all things, with the natural result in loss of time and loss of luggage, sickness and discomfort. That was his way of taking vengeance on the Heavy Ones.
'And yet the man was happy, having had things his own way, even after the most horrid and disastrous journey ever made,' he told me with a sigh. 'Some men are asses.'
One afternoon, when I was riding round the bay from Akka towards the foot of Carmel, supposing Suleyman to be a hundred miles away, I came upon a group of tourists by the river Kishon, on the outskirts of the palm grove. They had alighted and were grouped around a dragoman in gorgeous raiment, like gulls around a parrot. The native of the land was holding forth to them. His voice was richly clerical in intonation, which made me notice that his audience consisted solely of members of the clergy and their patient women.
'This, ladies and gentlemen,' the rascal was declaiming like a man inspired, 'is that ancient riffer, the riffer Kishon. It was here that the great Brophet Elijah bring the Brophets of Baal after he catch them with that dirty trick which I exblain to you about the sacrifice ub there upon that mountain what you see behind you. Elijah he come strollin' down, quite habby, to this ancient riffer, singin' one little song; and the beoble they lug down those wicked brophets. Then Elijah take one big, long knife his uncle gif him and sharben it ubon a stone like what I'm doin'. Then he gif a chuckle and he look among those brophets; and he see one man he like the look of, nice and fat; and he say: "Bring me that man!" They bring that man; Elijah slit his throat and throw him in the riffer. Then he say: "Bring his brother!" and they bring his brother, and he slit his throat and throw him in the riffer ... till they was ALL gone. Then Elijah clean his knife down in the earth, and when he'd finished laughin' he put ub a brayer.
'That was a glorious massycration, gentlemen!'
The preacher was Suleyman, at struggle with the Heavy Ones. He was not at all abashed when he caught sight of me.
LOVE AND THE PATRIARCH
I was staying for some weeks at Howard's Hotel in Jerusalem (Iskender Awwad, the dragoman, had transformed himself into the Chevalier Alexander Howard, a worthy, if choleric, gentleman, and a good friend of mine), and I rode out every day upon a decent pony, which I had discovered in the stables at the back of the hotel. One afternoon a nephew of the stable-owner, who was something of a blood, proposed that we should ride together out towards Bethlehem. His horse was a superb and showy stallion, quite beyond his power to manage properly. My modest steed was fired to emulation, and, once beyond the outskirts of Jerusalem, we tore away. At a corner where the road was narrow between rocks, I do not know exactly how, the big horse cannoned into mine and overturned him. I pitched headlong on some stones.
My first impression was that I had struck a wet spot in that arid wilderness. Then I saw my horse at a great distance, galloping, and heard the nephew of the owner saying that he must pursue it, while I must mount his horse and ride on slowly.
'Not half a mile from here, upon that hill,' he said, 'is Katamun, the country seat of the Greek Patriarch. There you are certain to find people who will have compassion. Would God that I had never lived to see this day! Would God that I were in the grave instead of you!'
He seemed beside himself with grief and fear on my account; and yet the sense of property remained supreme. His first concern was to retrieve the runaway.
Bewildered and unable to see clearly, I did not mount the horse, which would have mastered me in that condition, but led him slowly up the hill to Katamun. Upon the top there was a grove of trees, above which peeped some flat roofs and a dome. At length I reached the gate of this enclosure. It was open, and I led the horse along a sort of drive, on which were many chickens and a tethered sheep, which, bolting round a tree at our approach, became inextricably tangled in its rope.
In a court between a little church and other buildings, a grim old woman in a coloured head-veil looked at me out of a doorway. I called to her that I had had an accident, and asked the favour of some washing-water and a bandage. She stared at me in doleful wise, and shook her head.
'Water! Bring me water!' I insisted.
She went indoors and fetched a man of the same breed, whose eyes grew large and dull with horror at the sight of me.
Again I asked to be allowed to wash my head and face.
I heard the woman whisper: 'Shall I bring it?' and the man reply: 'Let be! This blood-stained form is half a corpse already. He will surely die. The horse, perhaps, is stolen. There has been a fight. If we should touch him we might be concerned in it. Wait till the end. Then we will summon his Beatitude, and have our testimony written down to prove our innocence.'
Amazed at their stupidity, I took a step towards them, arguing. They vanished headlong, when I realised for the first time that my appearance was in truth alarming. Perceiving the advantage that appearance gave me, I pursued them, promising them plagues in this world and perdition in the next unless they brought some water instantly.
The horse, which I was leading all this while, had been as quiet as a lamb; but, frightened by my shouts and gestures, he became unmanageable. I was struggling with him in the doorway of the house when a large and dignified ecclesiastic came upon the scene, the jewelled cross upon his cassock flashing in the sun. In the twinkling of an eye, it seemed to me, he had subdued the horse and tied him to a ring in the wall which I, in my bewilderment, had failed to see; had seized me by the collar of my coat and driven me before him through a kind of tunnel to a second court in which there was a cistern and a pump. He worked that pump and held my head beneath it, cursing the servants for a pack of imbeciles.
The man and woman reappeared, completely tamed. He sent them running, one for stuff to make a bandage, the other for medicaments, but said no word to me until the work was ended, when he grinned and asked: 'Art happy now?'
I told him that I felt a great deal better.
'Good,' he said, and led me by the hand into an upper chamber, richly carpeted, and furnished with a cushioned divan, of which the windows framed a wide view eastward over the Judaean wilderness.
There, sitting comfortably, he asked who I was and of what country; and, hearing that I came from England, questioned me about the High Church and the Low Church in that land, and whether they formed one communion or were separate—a problem which he seemed to think of great importance. He was glad, he said, that I was not a Roman Catholic, a sect which he regarded as the worst of heretics.
But his concern with all these matters seemed perfunctory compared with the delight he took in farming; for when I noticed from the window some sleek cows munching in a small enclosure, he brightened up and told me they were recent purchases. He talked about his poultry and his sheep and goats, all of which he would be pleased to show me if I cared to see them.
Accordingly, when we had drunk some coffee, which completed my revival, he took me out and showed me round his small demesne. We were standing in the shade of trees, discussing turkeys, when my companion of the road arrived upon the truant horse. He was a member of the Orthodox Greek Church.
What was my amazement when, having tied up the horse, he came with reverent haste and knelt at my companion's feet, kissing his hand with pious and devoted fervour. The grey-bearded priest, with full brown eyes, and hair that curled below the tall black head-dress like a trimming of grey astrakhan, with whom I had been talking so familiarly, was no other than the successor of St. James, the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. I had supposed him some sub-prior or domestic chaplain. His Beatitude acknowledged my surprise by an ironic grin.
The new arrival, still upon his knees, embarked on a long story, told in lamentable tones, about a man who was in love, and like to die of it, with a young girl who was the sister of his brother's wife. It is forbidden by the canons of the Eastern Church for two brothers to marry two sisters.
'Is there no way by which he may obtain her lawfully?' the suppliant asked.
The Patriarch assumed an air of weariness, and shook his head.
'If he were a Catholic or a Protestant he could obtain her lawfully.'
The Patriarch assumed an air of pitying scorn.
'The case is very hard,' the suppliant moaned, as he rose up from the ground at last and cleaned his knees.
The Patriarch, with a shrug, remarked that it was so. The young man should not have cast eyes upon a maid unlawful to him.
'The only way,' he said, 'is to obtain annulment of the brother's marriage by proving it to be illegal in some way.' With that he left the subject and resumed his talk concerning poultry. My companion of the road was plucking at my sleeve.
I took leave of the Patriarch respectfully, with many thanks. He clapped me on the shoulder, saying: 'Come again! And never seek to wed the sister of thy brother's wife. Your Church does not forbid such marriage—does it?—being still tainted with the Latin heresy. Why does the Orthodox Church forbid it? Because it brings confusion into families, and is indecent.'
He seemed to jest, but the look he gave to my companion as we rode away was stern, I thought, and more than half-contemptuous.
Excepting that my head was bandaged, I felt well again; so we rode on, as we had first intended, towards Bethlehem. Over a rocky land with patches of pink cyclamen, black crows were wheeling in a sky of vivid blue.
We came into the olive groves beneath the hill on which stands the Greek priory of Mar Elias, when my companion said ingratiatingly: 'If you please, we will call at the monastery and take refreshment. The monks are friends of mine. It was with the object of this visit that I led our ride in this direction.'
As I raised no objection, we tied up our horses in the garden of the monastery and went in. We found the Prior in the middle of a tea-party, a number of Greek neighbours, of both sexes, being gathered in a very comfortably-furnished room.
My friend, ere entering, implored me in a whisper not to tell them that my accident was owing to his clumsy horsemanship. Instead, he put about some story which I did not clearly overhear—something about a fight with desert Arabs, redounding to my credit, I conclude, from the solicitude which everyone expressed on my account when he had told it. Some of the ladies present insisted on a second washing of my wounds with rose-water, and a second bandaging with finer linen than the Patriarch had used. Some monks, their long hair frizzed coquettishly and tied with ribbon, helped in the work. I did not like the look of them. My friend meanwhile was talking to some pretty girls.
When we rode off again towards Jerusalem he asked me questions about the Anglican and Roman Churches, and seemed to think it a sad defect in the former that it lacked the faculty of dispensation with regard to marriage.
After a space of silence, as we were riding down the hill by the Ophthalmic Hospital, with the Tower of David and the city walls crowning the steep before us, he inquired: 'Did you observe those girls with whom I was conversing—especially the one with pale-blue ribbons. It is her I love.' And, when I complimented him on his good taste, he added: 'I think I shall become a Catholic,' and started weeping.
I then learnt from his broken speech that he was himself the hapless lover of his story to the Patriarch. The girl whom I had seen at Mar Elias was the sister of his brother's wife. I was as sympathetic in appearance as I could be; but somehow all my sympathy was with the Patriarch, who seemed to me the only man whom I had seen that day.
THE UNPOPULAR LANDOWNER
I had decided to buy land and settle down in Syria; and had obtained consent from home upon condition that I did not spend more than a certain sum of money, not a large one, which, Suleyman had told me, would be quite sufficient for the purpose. He pointed out how lands, at present desert, and to be bought for a mere song, could be rendered profitable for the cost of bringing water to them. There was such a tract of land adjacent to the village where he had a house, with water running under it at no great depth. Rashid, my servant, did not like this notion of converting deserts into gardens. He called it simple waste of time and labour, when gardens ready made were going cheap. There was a nice estate, with two perennial springs within its boundaries, near his village in the north. His people would be proud and gratified if I would honour their poor dwelling while inspecting it. Suleyman lamented that his house was quite unworthy of my occupation, but proposed to have a fine pavilion pitched outside it, if I would deign to grace the village as his guest.
'Depend upon it,' said an Englishman whom I consulted on one of my rare visits to the city, 'the land they recommend belongs to their relations. They will sell it you for twenty times the market value, and then adhere to you like leeches till they've sucked you dry.' He added: 'I advise you to give up the whole idea,' but I was used to that advice, and firm against it.
His warning against native counsellors, however, weighed with me to this extent, that I determined to ignore the lands they recommended in their neighbourhood. Each was at first cast down when I announced this resolution. But presently Rashid exclaimed: 'No matter where we dwell. I still shall serve thee'; and Suleyman, after smoking his narghileh a long while in silence, said: 'Each summer I will visit thee and give advice.'
All three of us then set to work upon inquiries. Innumerable were the sheykhs who seemed to be in money difficulties and wished to sell their land. Some owners journeyed forty miles to come and see me, and explain the great advantage of their property. But, knowing something of the Land Code, I inquired about the tenure. I wanted only 'mulk' or freehold land; and 'wakf' (land held in tail or mortmain) of various and awful kinds is much more common. At last a sheykh came who declared his land was 'mulk,' and certain of our neighbours, men of worth, testified of their certain knowledge that he spoke the truth.
The village where the property was situated was a long day's journey from our own. A fortnight after my discussion with the owner Suleyman and I set out on our way thither, having sent Rashid ahead of us to find a decent lodging, since it was our intention to remain there several days.
The village was arranged in steps upon a mountain side, the roofs of houses on the lower level serving as approach to those above. On all the steep slopes round about it there were orchards, with now and then a flat-roofed house among the trees.
Rashid came out to meet us, accompanied by certain of the elders, among whom I looked in vain for the owner of the land we were to visit. My first inquiry was for him. Rashid replied: 'He is unpopular. I went to the chief people of the village'—he waved his hand towards the persons who escorted him—'and they have set apart a house and stable for your Honour's use.'
The house turned out to be a single room, cube-shaped, and furnished only with some matting. The stable, part of the same building, was exactly like it, except that it was open at one end.
We had our supper at a tavern by the village spring, surrounded by a friendly crowd of fellahin. Again I looked for the old gentleman whom I had come to see, and whispered my surprise at not beholding him. Rashid again replied: 'He is unpopular.'
Returning to the house with me, Rashid arranged my bed; put candle, matches, cigarettes within my reach; fastened the shutters of two windows; and retired, informing me that he and Suleyman were sleeping at the dwelling of the headman of the place.
I had got into my bed upon the floor when there came a knocking on the solid wooden shutters which Rashid had closed. I went and opened one of them a little way. It was moonlight, but the window looked into the gloom of olive trees. A voice out of the shadows questioned:
'Is it thou, the Englishman?'
It was the owner of the land, who then reproached me in heartbroken tones because I had not let him know the hour of my arrival, that he and his three sons might have gone forth upon the road to meet me. The owners of the place where now I lodged were his chief enemies. He begged me to steal forth at once and come with him. When I refused, he groaned despairingly and left me with the words:
'Believe not anything they say about us or the property.'
I closed the shutter and went back to bed. But it was hot. I rose again and opened both the windows so as to secure whatever breeze there was, and, after a long spell of angry tossing due to sandflies, fell asleep. When I awoke the room was full of daylight and a murmur which I first mistook for that of insects, but soon found out to be the voice of a considerable crowd of human beings. At every window was a press of faces and of women's head-veils, and children raised upon their mothers' shoulders. I heard a child's sad wail: 'O mother, lift me up that I, too, may behold the unbeliever!'
I made haste to cover myself somehow, for in my sleep I had kicked off the bedclothes, and commanded all those women to be gone immediately. They merely grinned and wished me a good day, and then discussed my personal appearance, the whiteness of my skin, and more particularly my pyjamas, with much interest. This went on till Rashid appeared upon the scene, bringing my india-rubber bath and a kerosene tin full of water. He closed and bolted all the shutters firmly, with stern reflections on the lack of shame of my admirers.
I told him of the visit of the owner of the land.
He answered as before: 'He is unpopular.'
I asked the reason, and he told me:
'There are in this part of the country two factions which have existed from old time. All the people in this village are adherents of one faction, except that old man and his children, who uphold the other. The people would not mind so much if he kept silent, but he gibes at them and vaunts his party upon all occasions. They intend to kill him. That is why he wants to sell. It is good to know this, since it gives us an advantage.'
Suleyman arrived. We all three breakfasted on slabs of country bread and a great bowl of curds, and then went out to view that old man's land. The sheykh—whose name was Yusuf—and his sons were there to show us round, and, though the property was not extensive, they contrived to keep us there till noon, when a round meal was spread for us beneath some trees. And after that was finished, the sheykh availed himself of some remark of mine to start the whole perambulation once again.
At last it came to mention of the price, which seemed to me excessive, and I said so to my friends.
Rashid replied: 'Of course! The business has not yet begun. To-morrow and the next day we shall view the land again; and after that we shall arrange for the appointment of two valuers, one for us and one for him, who will inspect the land, first separately, then together; and after that we shall appoint an arbiter who will remonstrate with the owner of the land; and after that——'
'But the business will take months.'
'That is the proper way, unless your Honour wishes to be cheated.'
'What is your opinion?' I inquired of Suleyman.
'The land is good, and capable of much improvement,' he replied, 'and all the trees go with it, which is an advantage. Also the source of water will be all our own.'
Suleyman repeated this remark in presence of the crowd of villagers whom we found awaiting our return before my house. At once there rose a cry: 'That Yusuf is a liar. Some of the trees do not belong to him. The water, too, does not originate upon his property, but on the hill above, so can be cut from him.'
Suleyman was talking with the village headman. When he returned to me his face was grave.
'What is it?' I inquired. 'Has the Sheykh Yusuf been deceiving us?'
He shook his head with a disgusted frown before replying:
'No, it is these others who are lying through dislike of him. Is your heart set upon the purchase of that land?'
'By no means.'
'That is good; because this village is a nest of hornets. The headman has long marked that land out for his own. Were we to pay Sheykh Yusuf a good price for it, enabling him to leave the neighbourhood with honour, they would hate us and work for our discomfort in a multitude of little ways. We will call upon the Sheykh to-morrow and cry off the bargain, because your Honour caught a touch of fever from the land to-day. That is a fair excuse.'
We proffered it upon the morrow, when the Sheykh Yusuf received it with a scarce veiled sneer, seeming extremely mortified. Directly after we had left him, we heard later, he went down to the tavern by the village spring and cursed the elders who had turned my mind against him in unmeasured terms; annoying people so that they determined there and then to make an end of him.
Next morning, when we started on our homeward way, there was a noise of firing in the village, and, coming round a shoulder of the hill in single file we saw Sheykh Yusuf seated on a chair against the wall of his house, and screened by a great olive tree, the slits in whose old trunk made perfect loopholes, blazing away at a large crowd of hostile fellahin. He used, in turn, three rifles, which his sons kept loading for him. He was seated, as we afterwards found out, because he had been shot in the leg.
I was for dashing to his rescue, and Rashid was following. We should both have lost our lives, most probably, if Suleyman had not shouted at that moment, in stentorian tones: 'Desist, in the name of the Sultan and all the Powers of Europe! Desist, or every one of you shall surely hang!'
Such words aroused the people's curiosity. The firing ceased while we rode in between them and their object; and Suleyman assured the villagers politely that I was the right hand and peculiar agent of the English Consul-General, with absolutely boundless power to hang and massacre.
Upon the other hand, we all three argued with Sheykh Yusuf that he should leave the place at once and lay his case before the Governor.
'We will go with him,' said Suleyman to me, 'in order that your Honour may be made acquainted with the Governor—a person whom you ought to know. His property will not be damaged in his absence, for they fear the law. The heat of war is one thing, and cold-blooded malice is another. It is the sight and sound of him that irritates them and so drives them to excess.'
At length we got the Sheykh on horseback and upon the road; but he was far from grateful, wishing always to go back and fight. We could not get a civil word from him on the long ride, and just before we reached the town where lived the Governor he managed to escape.
Rashid flung up his hands when we first noticed his defection. 'No wonder that he is unpopular,' he cried disgustedly. 'To flee from us, his benefactors, after we have come so far out of our way through kindness upon his account. It is abominable. Who, under Allah, could feel love for such a man?'
Though the reason of our coming, the Sheykh Yusuf, had deserted us, we rode into the town and spent the night there, finding lodgings at a khan upon the outskirts of the place, of which the yard was shaded by a fine old carob tree. While we were having breakfast the next morning in a kind of gallery which looked into the branches of that tree, and through them and a ruined archway to the road, crowded just then with peasants in grey clothing coming in to market, Suleyman proposed that he and I should go and call upon the Caimmacam, the local Governor. I had spent a wretched night. The place was noisy and malodorous. My one desire was to be gone as soon as possible, and so I answered:
'I will call on no one. My only wish to see him was upon account of that old rogue who ran away from us.'
'The man was certainly ungrateful—curse his father!' said Rashid.
'The man is to be pitied, being ignorant,' said Suleyman. 'His one idea was to defend his house and land by combat. He did not perceive that by the course of law and influence he might defend them more effectually, and for ever. He probably did not imagine that your Honour would yourself approach the Governor and plead with him.'
'I shall see nobody,' I answered crossly. 'We return at once.'
'Good,' said Rashid. 'I get the horses ready.'
'And yet,' said our preceptor thoughtfully, 'his Excellency is, they say, a charming man; and this would be a golden opportunity for us to get acquainted with him and bespeak his favour. Thus the Sheykh Yusuf, though himself contemptible, may be of service to us. Already I have told the people here that we have come on an important errand to the Governor. Rashid, too, as I know, has spoken of the matter in a boastful way. If, after that, we should depart in dudgeon without seeing him, there would be gossip and perhaps—God knows—even political disturbance. The Governor, coming to hear of it, might reasonably feel aggrieved.'
He argued so ridiculously, yet so gravely, that in the end I was obliged to yield. And so, a little before ten o'clock, we sauntered through the narrow streets to the Government offices—a red-roofed, whitewashed building near which soldiers loitered, in a dusty square.
There we waited for a long while in an ante-room—spacious, but rather dingy, with cushionless divans around the walls, on which a strange variety of suitors sat or squatted. Some of these appeared so poor that I admired their boldness in demanding audience of the Governor. Yet it was one of the most wretched in appearance who was called first by the turbaned, black-robed usher. He passed into an inner room: the door was shut.
Then Suleyman went over to the usher, who kept guard upon that door, and held a whispered conversation with him. I know not what he said; but, when the wretched-looking man came out again, the usher slipped into the inner room with reverence and, presently returning, bowed to us and bade us enter. I went in, followed by Suleyman, who swelled and strutted like a pouter pigeon in his flowing robes.
The Caimmacam was a nice-looking Turk of middle-age, extremely neat in his apparel and methodical in his surroundings. He might have been an Englishman but for the crimson fez upon his brow and a chaplet of red beads, with which he toyed perpetually. He gazed into my eyes with kind inquiry. I told him that I came with tidings of a grave disturbance in his district, and then left Suleyman to tell the story of Sheykh Yusuf and his neighbours and the battle we had witnessed in the olive grove before his house.
Suleyman exhausted all his powers of language and of wit, making a veritable poem of the episode. The Governor did not appear profoundly interested.
'Sheykh Yusuf! Who is he?' he asked at the conclusion of the tale.
I explained that the Sheykh Yusuf was a landowner, whose acquaintance we had made through my desire to buy some property.
'Your Honour thinks of settling here among us?' cried his Excellency, with sudden zest, appearing quite enraptured with the notion. He asked then if the French tongue was intelligible to me, and, hearing that it was, talked long in French about my project, which seemed to please him greatly. He said that it would be a blessing for his district to have a highly civilised, enlightened being like myself established in it as the sun and centre of improvement; and what a comfort it would be to him particularly to have an educated man at hand to talk to! He hoped that, when I had set up my model farm—for a model it would be, in every way, he felt quite sure of that, from my appearance and my conversation—I would not limit my attention solely to the work of agriculture, but would go on to improve the native breeds of sheep and oxen. He heard that splendid strains of both were found in England. He wished me to import a lot of English bulls and rams, assuring me of the assistance of the Government in all that I might do in that direction, since the Sultan ('His Imperial Majesty' he called him always) took the greatest interest in such experiments.
All this was very far from my original design, which was to lead as far as possible a quiet life. But I promised to give thought to all his Excellency's counsels.
He made me smoke two cigarettes and drink a cup of coffee which his secretary had prepared upon a brazier in a corner of the room; and then, with a sweet smile and deprecating gestures of the hands, he begged me to excuse him if he closed the interview. It was a grief to him to let me go, but he was very busy.
I rose at once, and so did Suleyman.
'But what of the Sheykh Yusuf?' I exclaimed, reminding him.
'Ah, to be sure!' rejoined the Governor with a slight frown. 'Of what religion is he?'
'I suppose a Druze.'
'And the people who attacked him so unmercifully?'
'Are Druzes too.'
'Ah, then, it is all in the family, as the saying goes. And, unless some deputation from the Druze community appeals to me, I should be ill-advised to interfere in its affairs. Our way of government is not identical with that which is pursued with such conspicuous success in highly civilised and settled countries like your own. We leave the various communities and tribes alone to settle their internal differences. It is only where tribe wars on tribe, religion on religion, or their quarrels stop the traffic on the Sultan's highway that we intervene. What would you have, mon ami? We are here in Asia!'
With these words, and a smile of quite ineffable indulgence for my young illusions, his Excellency bowed me out.
In the ante-room Suleyman drew close to my left ear and whispered sharply:
'Give me four mejidis.'
'Whatever for?' I asked in deep amazement.
'That I will tell you afterwards. The need is instant.'
I produced the four mejidis from a trouser-pocket, and, receiving them, he went back to the door by which the usher stood, and whispered to the man, who went inside a moment and came back with the private secretary of the Caimmacam. The compliments which passed between them seemed to me interminable.
I paced the pavement of the waiting-room, the only figure in the crowd whose attitude bespoke impatience. The others sat or squatted round the walls in perfect resignation, some of them smoking, others munching nuts of various kinds, of which the shells began to hide the floor adjacent to them. A few of the suppliants had even had the forethought to bring with them bags full of provisions, as if anticipating that their time of waiting might endure for several days.
At last, when I was growing really angry with him, Suleyman returned and told me:
'All is well, and we can now be going, if your Honour pleases.'
'I do please,' I rejoined indignantly. 'Why have you kept me waiting all this while? I never wished to come at all into this place, and Allah knows that we have done no good by coming. We have spoilt a morning which we might have spent upon the road.'
'Allah, Allah!' sighed Suleyman long-sufferingly. 'Your Honour is extremely hard to please. Did not his Excellency talk to you exclusively, with every sign of the most lively pleasure for quite half an hour; whereas he scarcely deigned to throw a word to me, although I wooed his ear with language calculated to seduce the mind of kings? I have some cause to be dejected at neglect from one so powerful; but you have every cause to be elated. He is now your friend.'
'I shall never see him in my life again most likely!' I objected.
'Nay, that you cannot tell,' replied my mentor suavely. 'To be acquainted with a person in authority is always well.'
'Why did you want those four mejidis?' I inquired severely.
Suleyman shrugged up his shoulders and replied:
'I had to pay the proper fees, since you yourself showed not a sign of doing so, to save our carefully established honour and good name.'
'You don't mean that you gave them to the Caimmacam?'
'Allah forbid! Consider, O beloved, my position in this matter. To put it in the form of parables: Suppose a king and his vizier should pay a visit to another king and his vizier. If there were presents to be made, I ask you, would not those intended for the king be offered personally by the king, and those for the vizier by the vizier? It will be obvious to your Honour, upon slight reflection, that if, in our adventure of this morning, a present to the Governor was necessary or desirable, you personally, and no other creature, should have made it.'
'Merciful Allah!' I exclaimed. 'He would have knocked me down.'
'He would have done nothing of the kind, being completely civilised. He would merely have pushed back your hand with an indulgent smile, pressing it tenderly, as who should say: "Thou art a child in these things, and dost not know our ways, being a stranger." Yet, undoubtedly, upon the whole, your offer of a gift, however small, would have confirmed the good opinion which he formed at sight of you.
'But let that pass! Out of the four mejidis which you gave me so reluctantly (since you ask for an account) I presented one to the usher, and three to his Excellency's private secretary, in your name. And I have procured it of the secretary's kindness that he will urge his lord to take some measures to protect that ancient malefactor, the Sheykh Yusuf.'
'If I had tipped the Governor, as you suggest that I ought to have done,' I interrupted vehemently, 'do you mean to say he would have taken measures to protect Sheykh Yusuf?'
'Nay, I say not that; but he would at least have had complete conviction that your Honour takes a lively interest in that old churl—a person in himself unpleasant and unworthy of a single thought from any thinking or right-minded individual. Thus, even though he scorned the money, as he would no doubt have done, the offer would have told him we were earnest in our application, and he might conceivably have taken action from desire to do a pleasure to one whom, as I said before, he loved at sight.'
'The whole system is corrupt,' I said, 'and what is worse, unreasonable.'
'So say the Franks,' replied Suleyman, shrugging his shoulders up and spreading wide his hands, as though before a wall of blind stupidity which he knew well could never be cast down nor yet surmounted. 'Our governors, our judges, and the crowd of small officials are not highly paid, and what they do receive is paid irregularly. Then all, whether high or low, must live; and it is customary in our land to offer gifts to persons in authority, because a smile, God knows, is always better than a frown from such an one. We are not like the Franks, who barter everything, even their most sacred feelings, even love. It gives us pleasure to make gifts, and see them welcomed, even when the recipient is someone who cannot in any way repay us for our trouble, as a Frank would say.'
'But to sell justice; for it comes to that!' I cried, indignant.
'Who talks of selling justice? You are quite mistaken. If I have to go before a judge I make a gift beforehand to his Honour, whose acceptance tells me, not that he will give a verdict in my favour—do not think it!—but merely that his mind contains no grudge against me. If he refused the gift I should be terrified, since I should think he had been won completely by the other side. To take gifts from both parties without preference, making allowance, when there is occasion, for the man who is too poor to give; and then to judge entirely on the merits of the case; that is the way of upright judges in an Eastern country. The gifts we make are usually small, whereas the fees which lawyers charge in Western countries are exorbitant, as you yourself have told me more than once and I have heard from others. And even after paying those enormous fees, the inoffensive, righteous person is as like to suffer as the guilty. Here, for altogether harmless men to suffer punishment in place of rogues is quite unheard-of; though occasionally one notorious evildoer may be punished for another's crime when this is great and the real criminal cannot be found and there is call for an example to be made upon the instant. This generally happens when a foreign consul interferes, demanding vengeance for some slight offence against his nationals. Things like that take place occasionally when the court is flustered. But in its natural course, believe me, Turkish justice, if slow-moving, is as good as that of Europe and infinitely less expensive than your English law.'
I made no answer, feeling quite bewildered.
Suleyman was always serious in manner, which made it very hard to tell when he was joking or in earnest. Among the natives of the land, I knew, he had the reputation of a mighty joker, but I had learnt the fact from the applause of others. I never should have guessed from his demeanour that he jested consciously.
He also held his peace until we reached our hostelry. There, some half-hour later, when I had given orders for our horses to be ready for a start directly after luncheon—a decision against which Suleyman protested unsuccessfully, declaring it would be too hot for riding—I overheard him telling the whole story of our visit, including the donation of the four mejidis, to Rashid, who was lazily engaged in polishing my horse's withers.
'That secretary is a man of breeding,' he was saying, in a tone of warm approval; 'for I noticed he was careful to receive the present in his left hand, which he placed behind his back in readiness, with great decorum. Nor did he thank me, or give any token of acknowledgment beyond a little friendly twinkle of the eyes.'
At once I pounced on this admission, crying: 'That shows that he regarded the transaction as unlawful! And your remark upon it shows that you, too, think it so.'
Suleyman looked slowly round until his eyes met mine, not one whit disconcerted, though until I spoke he had not known that I was anywhere in earshot.
'Your Honour is incorrigible,' he replied, with a grave smile. 'I never knew your like for obstinacy in a false opinion; which shows that you were born to fill some high position in the world. Of course they all—these fine officials, great and small—regard it as beneath their dignity to take a present which they sorely need. To take such presents greedily would be to advertise their poverty to all the world. And Government appointments swell a man with pride, if nothing else—a pride which makes them anxious to be thought above all fear of want. For that cause, they are half-ashamed of taking gifts. But no one in this country thinks it wrong of them to do so, nor to oblige the giver, if they can, in little ways. It would be wrong if they betrayed the trust reposed in them by their superiors, or were seduced into some act against their loyalty or their religion. But that, praise be to God, you will not find. It is only in small matters such as acts of commerce or politeness, which hardly come within the sphere of a man's conscience, that they are procurable, and no one in this country thinks the worse of them, whatever people say to you, a foreigner, by way of flattery. It is very difficult for foreigners to learn the truth. Your Honour should be thankful that you have Suleyman for an instructor—and Rashid, too,' he added as an after-thought, seeing that my bodyservant stood close by, expecting mention.
And after more than twenty years' experience of Eastern matters, I know now that he was right.
Our road, the merest bridle-path, which sometimes altogether disappeared and had to be retrieved by guesswork, meandered on the side of a ravine, down in the depths of which, in groves of oleander, there flowed a stream of which we caught the murmur. The forest was continuous on our side of the wadi. It consisted of dense olive groves around the villages and a much thinner growth of ilex in the tracts between. The shade was pleasant in the daytime, but as night came on its gloom oppressed our spirits with extreme concern, for we were still a long way off our destination, and uncertain of the way.
The gloom increased. From open places here and there we saw the stars, but gloom filled the ravine, and there was little difference between the darkness underneath the trees and that outside in open spaces of the grove. We trusted to our horses to make out the path, which sometimes ran along the verge of precipices.
I cannot say that I was happy in my mind. Rashid made matters worse by dwelling on the risks we ran not only from abandoned men but ghouls and jinnis. The lugubrious call of a hyaena in the distance moved him to remark that ghouls assume that shape at night to murder travellers. They come up close and rub against them like a loving cat; which contact robs the victims of their intellect, and causes them to follow the hyaena to its den, where the ghoul kills them and inters their bodies till the flesh is ripe.
He next expressed a fear lest we might come upon some ruin lighted up, and be deceived into supposing it a haunt of men, as had happened to a worthy cousin of his own when on a journey. This individual, whose name was Ali, had been transported in the twinkling of an eye by jinnis, from somewhere in the neighbourhood of Hama to the wilds of Jebel Caf (Mount Caucasus), and had escaped a hideous and painful death only by recollection of the name of God. He told me, too, how he himself, when stationed at Mersin, had met a company of demons, one fine evening in returning from an errand; and other tales which caused my flesh to creep.
The groves receded. We were in an open place where only a low kind of brushwood grew, when suddenly my horse shied, gave a fearful snort, and sturdily refused to budge another inch. I let him stand until Rashid came up. He thought to pass me, but his horse refused as mine had done.
'It is no doubt some jinni in the way,' he whispered in a frightened tone; then, calling out: 'Dastur, ya mubarak' (Permission, blessed one!), he tried to urge his horse, which still demurred. So there we were, arrested by some unseen hand; and this became the more unpleasant because a pestilential smell was in the place.
'Better return!' muttered Rashid, with chattering teeth.
'Give me a match!' I said distractedly. 'My box is empty.'
'Better return!' he pleaded.
'A match, do you hear?' I cried, made cross by terror.
He gave the match, and I believe I shouted as I struck it. For a brief space it made a dazzle in my eyes, preventing me from seeing anything, and then went out.
'There is something lying in the path!' Rashid was gibbering.
I got down off my horse and lit a second match, which I took care to shelter till the flame was strong. A human arm lay in the path before us.
My horror was extreme, and grew uncanny when the match expired. But the ghastly object had restored his courage to Rashid, who even laughed aloud as he exclaimed:
'The praise to Allah! It is nothing which can hurt us. No doubt some murder has been here committed, all unknown. The Lord have mercy on the owner of that arm! We will report the matter to some high official at our journey's end.'
We turned our horses to the right and made a long detour, but scarcely had they found the path again when mine (which led the way) demurred once more.
'Another piece,' exclaimed Rashid excitedly. He got down off his horse to look. 'Nay, many pieces. This, by Allah, is no other than a battlefield unknown to fame.'
'How can a battle take place without public knowledge?' I inquired, incredulous.
'The thing may happen when two factions quarrel for unlawful cause—it may be over stolen gains, or for some deadly wrong which cannot be avowed without dishonour—and when each side exterminates the other.'
'How can that happen?' I exclaimed again.
Rashid could not at once reply, because in our avoidance of those human relics we found ourselves on broken ground and among trunks of trees, which called for the address of all our wits. But when the horses once more plodded steadily, he assured me that the thing could happen, and had happened often in that country, where men's blood is hot. He told me how a band of brigands once, in Anti-Lebanon, had fought over their spoils till the majority on both sides had been slain, and the survivors were so badly wounded that they could not move, but lay and died upon the battlefield; and how the people of two villages, both men and women, being mad with envy, had held a battle with the same result. I interrupted him with questions. Both of us were glad to talk in order to get rid of the remembrance of our former fear. We gave the rein to our imaginations, speaking eagerly.
Reverting to the severed limbs which we had seen, Rashid exclaimed:
'Now I will tell your Honour how it happened. A deadly insult had been offered to a family in a young girl's dishonour. Her father and her brothers killed her to wipe out the shame—as is the custom here among the fellahin—and then with all their relatives waylaid the men of the insulter's house when these were cutting wood here in the forest. There was a furious battle, lasting many hours. The combatants fought hand-to-hand with rustic weapons, and in some cases tore each other limb from limb. When all was done, the victors were themselves so sorely wounded that they were able to do nothing but lie down and die.'
'How many do you think there were?' I asked, believing.
'To judge by scent alone, not one or two; but, Allah knows, perhaps a hundred!' said Rashid reflectively.
'It is strange they should have lain there undiscovered.'
'Not strange, when one remembers that the spot is far from any village and probably as far from the right road,' was his reply.
This last conjecture was disquieting; but we were both too much excited for anxiety.
'It is an event to be set down in histories,' Rashid exclaimed. 'We shall be famous people when we reach the village. Such news is heard but once in every hundred years.'
'I wish that we could reach that village,' was my answer; and again we fell to picturing the strange event.
At length we heard the barking of a dog in the far distance, and gave praise to Allah. A half-hour later we saw lights ahead of us. But that did not mean that the village was awake, Rashid explained to me, for among the people of that country 'to sleep without a light' is to be destitute. A little later, Rashid hammered at a door, while savage dogs bayed round us, making rushes at his heels.
'Awake, O sons of honour!' was his cry. 'A great calamity!' And, when the door was opened, he detailed the story of an awful fight, in which both parties of belligerents had been exterminated. 'They are torn limb from limb. We saw the relics,' he explained. 'If you have any doubt, question my lord who is out here behind me—a great one of the English, famed for his veracity.'
And I was ready to confirm each word he said.
In a very little while that village was astir.
It was the seat of a mudir who had two soldiers at his beck and call. The great man was aroused from sleep; he questioned us, and, as the result of the inquiry, sent the soldiers with us to survey the battlefield. A crowd of peasants, armed with quarter-staves and carrying lanterns, came with the party out of curiosity. Our horses having had enough of travel, we went back on foot amid the noisy crowd, who questioned us incessantly about the strange event. The murmur of our going filled the wood and echoed from the rocks above. By the time we reached the place where we had seen the human limbs, the dawn was up, to make our lanterns useless.
Rashid and I were certain of the spot. We came upon it with a thrill of apprehension.
But there was nothing there.
'I seek refuge in Allah!' gasped Rashid in pious awe. 'I swear by my salvation it was here we saw them. The name of God be round about us! It is devilry.'
Our escort was divided in opinion, some thinking we had been indeed the sport of devils, others that we lied. But someone sniffed and said:
'There is a smell of death.'
There was no doubt about the smell at any rate. Then one of the mudir's two soldiers, searching in the brushwood, cried: 'I have the remnant of an arm.'
And then an old man of the village smote his leg and cried:
'O my friends, I see it! Here is neither lies nor devilry.'
Laughing, he seized me by the arm and bade me come with him. We went a little way into the wood, and there he showed me three Druze tombs deep in the shade of ilex trees—small buildings made of stone and mud, like little houses, each with an opening level with the ground, and a much smaller opening, like a window, at the height of a man's elbow.
'Thou seest?' cried my tutor. 'Those are graves. The openings on the ground were made too large, and jackals have got in and pulled the bodies out. The men who made those graves are foolish people, who have wandered from the truth. They think the spirits of the dead have need of food and light, and also of a hole for crawling in and out. I heard thee ask thy servant for a match just now. Come, I will show thee where to find one always.'
He led me to the nearest tomb, and thrust my hand into the little hole which served as window. It touched a heap of matches which he bade me take and put into my pocket, saying:
'It is not a theft, for the matches have been thrown away, as you might say. Those foolish people will suppose the dead have struck them. They used to put wax candles and tinder-boxes with them in the niches, but when these sulphur matches came in fashion, they preferred them for economy. When I am working in this wood I take no fire with me, being quite sure to find the means of lighting one. Praise be to Allah for some people's folly!'
I thanked him for the wrinkle, and went back to join Rashid, who was exclaiming with the others over our deception. But everyone agreed that the mistake was natural for men bewildered in the darkness of the night.
Rashid and I were riding down to Tripoli, and had long been looking for a certain 'kheymah' or refreshment booth beside the road, which an enterprising Christian of that town had opened in the summer months for the relief of travellers. When at length we came in sight of it, we saw a crowd of men reposing on the ground before its awning. We soon lost sight of them again in a ravine, and it was not till we were close upon them, climbing up the other bank, that I remarked that most of them were shackled and in charge of a small guard of Turkish soldiers.
'Criminals upon their way to the hard labour prison,' said Rashid.
'What have they done?' I asked, as we dismounted.
He strolled across and put a question to their escort, then returned and told me:
'They are murderers.'
After that information it surprised me, while we ate our luncheon, to observe their open faces, and to hear them laugh and chatter with their guards. Already I had learnt that crime in Eastern countries is not regarded altogether as it is with us; that Orientals do not know that shrinking from contamination which marks the Englishman's behaviour towards a breaker of his country's law. But I was unprepared for this indulgence towards a gang of murderers. It interested me; and, seeing that Rashid was talking with them in a friendly way, I gathered there was nothing to be feared from their proximity, and myself drew near when I had finished eating, and gave them cigarettes. They thanked me loudly. The smile of pleasure on each face expressed a childlike innocence. One only sat apart in gloom, conforming in some measure to my preconceived idea of what a murderer upon his way to prison ought to look like. I noticed with surprise that this one wore no chain. I went and touched him on the shoulder. It was only then that he looked up and saw that I was wishing him to take a cigarette. He did so quickly, and saluted me without a word.
One of the others said in tender tones:
'Blame him not, O my lord, for he is mad with sorrow. He is more luckless than the rest of us—may Allah help him! He killed the person he loved best on earth—his only brother.'
'Then it is true that you are murderers?' I asked, still half-incredulous.
'By Allah, it is true, alas! and we are paying for it by a year's enslavement.'
'A year! No more than that,' I cried, 'for killing men?'
'And is it not enough, O lord of kindness? It is not as if we had killed men from malice or desire of gain. We killed in sudden anger, or, in the case of three among us, in a faction-fight. It is from Allah; and we ask forgiveness.'
'How did that man kill?' I questioned, pointing to the apathetic figure of the fratricide, which attracted my imagination by its loneliness.
'He suffered persecutions from a rich man of his village, who was his rival for the favour of a certain girl—so it is said. Those persecutions maddened him at times. One day when he was mad like that, his brother came to him and spoke some word of blame upon another matter. He killed him, as he might have killed his wife and children or himself, being in that state of mind devoid of reason. When he awoke and saw what he had done, he wished to kill himself.'
'It is from Allah! His remorse is punishment,' exclaimed Rashid. 'Why should he go to prison? He has had enough.'
'Nobody of this country would have thought of punishment for him,' replied the spokesman of the murderers, with rueful smile. 'But his brother was the servant of a foreign merchant—a Greek from overseas, I think it was—who put the business in his Consul's hands, and so——' The speaker clicked his thumbnail on his white front teeth to signify finality. 'But the poor man himself does not object; it seems indeed that he is glad to go with us. Perhaps by labour and harsh treatment he may be relieved.'
As there were still provisions in our saddle-bags, Rashid, by my command, divided them among the company, the soldiers and the murderers alike, who were delighted. It was a merry party which we left behind, with the exception of the fratricide, who ate the food, when it was set before him, ravenously, but said not a word.
'May Allah heal him!' sighed the other murderers. 'Our Lord remove this shadow from his mind!'
Rashid and I pursued our way on an interminable path meandering in zig-zags down through brushwood, which smelt sweet of myrtle and wild incense. I tried to make him understand that he had quite misled me by the term he had applied to men who had been guilty of no more than manslaughter. The distinction had to be explained with much periphrasis, because the Arabic word 'Catil' means a slayer, and is given indiscriminately to all who kill.
He caught my meaning sooner than I had expected.
'Ah!' he said. 'Your Honour thought from what I said that they were "cutters of the road," or hired assassins, who kill men for gain. Those are the greater criminals, whose punishment is death. Few such exist among us. Here a robber will seldom kill a man unless that man kills him.' [I translate literally] 'when it is just retaliation; and as for hired assassins, I have known several of them in my time, and they are not bad people, but unfortunate, having fallen early in the power of cruel and ambitious men. Most of the killing in this country is done without a thought, in anger or mad jealousy.'
'Is it for man to judge them?' he exclaimed, with a high shrug, when I remarked upon their friendly treatment by the Turkish guards. 'They are punished by authority down here, so we are better; but afterwards, when comes the Judgment of the Lord, we may be worse. It is hard upon those men we met just now. They go to prison, most of them, because they were not rich enough to pay the sum demanded as the price of blood. For men of wealth, or who have rich relations, it is easy to compound the matter for a sum of money, in return for which the dead man's relatives regard his death as due to natural causes, and forswear revenge. It is hard, I say, upon those men we met just now; and especially upon the man who slew his brother—may Our Lord console him!'
A few days later I was strolling in the town and happened to pass by the public gaol. In the middle of the gate, behind some iron bars, a wretched man stood shaking a tin can, in which some small coins rattled, and calling on the passers-by for alms for the poor prisoners. A little group of English tourists—a gentleman and two fair ladies—came that way, led on by a resplendent dragoman. They stared at the wild figure at the prison gate.
'You like to give a trifle to the brisoners?' inquired the guide.
'What are they in for?' asked the gentleman.
'Murders, I guess, mostly,' shrugged the dragoman.
'Certainly not,' replied the gentleman, with indignation.
I ventured to approach and tell him that they were not murderers in our sense of the word, and that they depended for a bare subsistence upon public charity. The only thanks I got were a cold stare from the man, a fastidious grimace from the two ladies, and an 'Oh, indeed!' so arrogant in tone that I retired discomfited. My ill-success may be attributable to the fact that I was wearing a 'kufiyeh' and 'acal' and so appeared to them as what is called a 'native.'
I myself have always, since that day, felt it my duty to give alms to murderers in Eastern lands.
 i.e., Highwaymen.
THE TREES ON THE LAND
My search for an estate provided us with an excuse for visiting all sorts of out-of-the-way places, and scraping acquaintance with all sorts of curious people. In some villages we were greeted with unbounded glee; in others with a sullen, gruff endurance far from welcome. But, though the flavour of reception varied, we were everywhere received with some degree of hospitality, and shown what we desired to see. Thus we surveyed a great variety of properties, none of which fulfilled my chief requirements. I wanted both a house in which I should not feel ashamed to live, and cultivable land enough to yield a revenue; and the two together seemed impossible to find, at least for the sum of money which was placed at my disposal.
One piece of land attracted us so much that we remained in the adjacent village a full week, returning every day to wander over it, trying to see if it could not be made to fit my needs. It consisted of a grove of fine old olive trees, with terraces of fig and mulberry trees and vegetables, spread out to catch the morning sun upon a mountain side sloping to a wooded valley walled by rocky heights. Water was there in plenty, but no house to speak of; the three small, cube-shaped houses on the property being in the occupation (which amounts to ownership) of workers of the land, who, according to the custom of the country, would become my partners. Upon the other hand, the land was fairly cheap, and after paying for it, I should have a balance with which I might begin to build a proper house; for, as Suleyman remarked, 'here all things are done gradually. No one will expect to see a palace all at once. Begin with two rooms and a stable, and add a fresh room every time that you have forty pounds to spare.'
The price of building appeared fixed in all that countryside at forty pounds a vault, which in ordinary buildings means a room, since every room is vaulted.
The trouble was to see just where to put the house without encroaching upon profitable land. At last I hit on a position in the middle of the highest terrace on which grew olive trees so very old that they could well be sacrificed. Having arrived at this decision I sat down among those trees and gazed in rapture at the view across the valley. It was indeed a grand position for a house.
Rashid exclaimed: 'Our dwelling will be seen afar. The traveller on distant roads will see its windows flashing, and will certainly inquire the owner's name. Yet would I rather it had faced the evening sun, because more people are abroad at sunset than at dawn.'
'The morning sun is better for the growth of plants, and it comports the evening shadow, which is most agreeable,' murmured Suleyman, who stretched his length upon the ground before us, chewing a flower-stem with an air of wisdom.
As we were there conversing lazily, one of the peasant-partners in the land came through the trees, bringing a tray with cups of coffee, which he had prepared for our refreshment.
'The Lord preserve thy hands, O Casim,' sighed Suleyman. 'Thou comest at the very moment when my soul said "coffee."'
The peasant Casim beamed with pleasure at the thanks we showered on him, and, squatting down, inquired if we had yet decided anything.
'Aye,' I replied. 'In sh'Allah we shall cut down these three olive trees and put the house instead of them.'
At that his smile gave place to grave concern.
He said: 'That may not be.'
'Why not?' I asked.
'Because we have no right to touch these trees.'
'But the Sheykh Ali told me that this terrace was his property.'
'That is so, as to the land. The trees are different.'
'To whom, then, do these trees belong?'
'To different people.'
'How can I know which trees are ours, which theirs?'
'Your Honour need not trouble. They are able to distinguish.'
'But they must walk upon our land to reach their trees!'
'Without a doubt.'
'But it is unheard of!'
'Perhaps; but it has been the way since Noah's flood.'
'If your Honour condescends to read the Bible he will notice that, in the bargain which our lord Abraham made for the cave of Machpelah, the trees upon the land are mentioned separately,' put in Suleyman, who had a well-stored mind.
I took no notice, but continued my alarmed inquiries.
'How many people own these trees?'
'Twenty or thirty.'
'And they trample on our land?'
'The case is so.'
'Who is their chief?'
'I know not; but the largest share, they say, is vested in Muhammad abu Hasan. His share of all the trees is twelve kirats, as much as all the others put together. They say so. Only Allah knows the truth!'
'I should like to speak to this Muhammad abu Hasan.'
'Upon my head; I go to fetch him,' answered Casim, touching his brow in token of obedience.
When he was gone, Suleyman observed significantly:
'Have naught to do with all these fathers of kirats. When once the word "kirat" is mentioned, flee the place, for you may be assured that it is the abode of all bedevilment. When once a man is father of but one or two kirats, he has the power of forty thousand for unreasoning annoyance.'
'And what, in mercy's name, is a kirat?' I questioned.
'A kirat,' replied Rashid, as usual eager to explain, 'is that term into which all things visible and invisible are resolved and subdivided secretly, or may be subdivided at a person's pleasure. A kirat is that which has no real existence unless a group of men agree together saying: "It is here or there." A kirat——'
Suleyman cut short his explanation, saying simply: 'A kirat is the twenty-fourth part of anything. If my soul is sick, I ask the doctor: "How many kirats of hope?" and according to his answer "four" or "twenty" I feel gladness or despair. To own but one kirat, in this concern of property, is sometimes better than to own all the remaining three-and-twenty, as witness the affair of Johha, the greatest wiseacre this country has produced. Johha owned a house, consisting of a single room. Wishing to make a little money, he let his house to people for a yearly rent (which they paid in advance), reserving to himself the use of only one kirat of it. To show where his kirat was situated Johha drove a peg into the wall inside. After the tenants had been in a week he brought a bag of beans and hung it on his peg. No one objected; he was exercising his free right. A few days later he removed the bag of beans and hung up garlic in its place. Again a few days and he came with an old cat which had been some time dead; and so on, bringing ever more offensive things, until the tenants were obliged to leave the house and forfeit their year's rent, without redress, since Johha was within his rights. Therefore I say to you, beware. These fathers of kirats will spoil the property.'
Rashid gave an appreciative chuckle, and was going to relate some story of his own; but just then Casim reappeared, attended not by one man only but a score of men—the owners of the trees, as it immediately appeared, for they cried out, as they came up, that it would be a sin for us to cut them down.
I asked them to elect a spokesman, as I could not deal with all at once, and Muhammad abu Hasan was pushed forward. He squatted, facing me, upon the ground, his men behind him. The twigs and leaves of olives overhead spread a filigree of moving shade upon their puckered faces. They were evidently much perturbed in mind.
I asked them for how much they would consent to sell those trees—showing the three I wished to fell to clear a space for building.
'The freehold, meanest thou?' inquired their spokesman anxiously. 'Not for five hundred pounds. But we would sell a share.'
'I want no share. I want to cut them down.'
At that there was a general outcry that it must not be.
'The trees would remain yours until the end,' I told them, 'for I would let you have the wood for your own purposes, and, in addition, you would have a pretty sum of money.'
There ensued a long and whispered consultation before Muhammad abu Hasan answered me. At length he said:
'It may not be. Behold, we all are the descendants of one man who owned these trees in ancient days. But we are not brothers, nor yet uncles' children, and there is jealousy among us. We quarrel near to fighting every year about the produce of these trees, each man perceiving that he has been cheated of his proper share. But that is not so very serious, for each man hopes that next year he will get a larger share in compensation. Suppose, instead of trees which bear fruit every year, we had a sum of money. In that case the division would admit of no redress, and those who thought themselves defrauded would bear lifelong malice. Therefore I say: We will not have those trees cut down; but we are prepared, upon the other hand, to sell you all our trees upon this terrace if you, on your side, will assign to us but two kirats of all your trees, these trees included.'
'Allah destroy the dwelling of your two kirats,' I cried out angrily. 'I will have none of them. Nor will I make my dwelling in the neighbourhood of men so foolish. I shall seek elsewhere.'
The peasants chuckled at my curse on the kirats. They murmured an apology, but seemed relieved, as they went off.
Suleyman, who had to leave us on the following day, then gave me good advice.
He said: 'It is no use for thee to deal with little people who wish to make the most of their small lands, who have mean, dirty houses. Thou hast a friend among the great sheykhs of the Druz. Go to him in his castle and explain thy wish. He owns a score of noble houses which he does not use, and for the love of thee he will not count the price too closely. Moreover, he will think that, showing favour to an Englishman, he will earn the good opinion of the British Government. He has political ambitions. All great men are fools or malefactors.'
'That is the best of counsel,' said Rashid. And, having nothing else in mind, we acted on it.
BUYING A HOUSE
Even great men in the East rise early; so, when I arrived before the castle of the great Druze chief at six o'clock of a summer's morning, I was not surprised to find a crowd of black-cloaked and white-turbaned mountaineers already waiting for an audience of his grace; nor yet, when I had gained admittance as a favoured person, to find the chief himself afoot and wide awake. What did surprise me was to see him clad in Stambuli frock-coat and all its stiff accompaniments at an hour when even the most civilised of Pashas still wears native dress. He heard of my desire to settle in his country with surprise and seeming pleasure, and made me sit beside him on a sofa in an upper chamber of magnificent proportions—spoilt, to my taste, by gaudy Frankish furniture and certain oleographs of the crowned heads of Europe which adorned its walls.
He thought, as is the way of Orientals, visibly, with finger pressed to brow. Then he exclaimed:
'I have a house close by, across the glen—a little ruinous, perhaps, but we can soon repair it. Come to the window; you can see the place from here.' He pointed out a kind of thickset tower which crowned a pretty village set in orchards. 'If you care to see it we will go there when I have received my people.'
He invited me to go with him to the reception; but, having seen the crowd outside, I thought it wisdom to go back rather to the village khan where I had left my horse, to warn Rashid to have things ready for a start, and get some breakfast.
I returned in two hours' time, to find the chief already mounted on a splendid charger, led by a no less splendid servant, setting forth in search of me, 'with half the world for tail,' as Rashid put it.
It was in truth a long procession which meandered down the steep and rocky pathway, deep in the shade of walls and overhanging trees, to the ravine, forded the stream, and climbed the other bank.
The village, when we reached it, was in great commotion, all its people crowding to the wide meydan, or levelled ground for horsemanship, spread out before the house which might be mine. In the midst of this meydan there was a fine old carob tree, with a stone bench all round the foot of its enormous trunk.
The house itself was an old fortress, built of solid stone, with arrow slits as well as modern windows, and an arched doorway at the top of wide stone steps. Against it nestled lesser houses of the village which seemed to climb up towards it for protection.
Some men of consequence came forth to greet the chief, who then dismounted with their servile aid. He introduced me to a turbaned Druze of reverend appearance, who (he said) at present occupied the house, and also to the son of the said turbaned Druze, who knew a little French and longed to air it.
The turbaned one, whose name was Sheykh Huseyn, was called on to refresh his chieftain's memory with regard to various details of the house and property and all the feudal rights and privileges appertaining thereunto. He did so, as in duty bound, but in a very mournful tone.
His son explained: Tu fiens habiter, nous defons quitter. Mon bere n'aime bas quitter. Tres bon marche'—from which I guessed that they had occupied the house rent-free till they had come to look upon it as their own.
Leaving aside the land, which we should visit presently, the owner of the house, I was informed, had jurisdiction over the meydan, which was in times of peace the village square, and owned one-fifth part of the great tree in its midst. He also owned a fifth of all the water flowing or to flow from the great village spring; and had the right to call upon the fellahin for one day's work a year in return for his protection of their land from enemies. When I inquired by what means I could possibly secure my fifth share of the water from the spring, the chief informed me that the stipulation was in case the source diminished in dry seasons, which, thank the Lord, it never yet had done.
We viewed the house, and I was pleased with the great vaulted rooms, in which the pots and pans and bedding of the Sheykh Huseyn appeared like nothing, and the women of the family of Sheykh Huseyn, close-veiled against our inroad, made themselves exceeding small; and then, remounting, we went off to view the land. This was scattered all about the mountain side—a terrace here, a terrace there. It took us a long while to see the whole of it.
The chief, fatigued, alighted and sat down beneath some walnut trees. He ordered Sheykh Huseyn to cause refreshments to appear. The latter shouted, and a dozen villagers went tearing off. In a very little time a meal of honeyed cakes and fruit was set before us, and the ceremony of making coffee was in progress on a brazier near us in the shade.
'Allah! Allah!' sighed the Sheykh Huseyn, telling his beads.
'Mon bere est triste, tu vois. Il aime bas quitter,' murmured his hopeful son in tones of high delight, the feeling proper to express before a new acquaintance of my quality.
'Curse the religion of these flies! It is extremely hot!' exclaimed the chief in momentary irritation.
The trees went with the land without exception, I was glad to hear. One-fifth of all the produce of that land of any kind whatever would be mine, the rest belonging to the husbandmen by immemorial right. There was never such a thing as wages for the cultivation of the land.
The Sheykh Huseyn implored us to return to luncheon at his house, protesting that he had commanded a great feast to be prepared; but the chief declared we were too busy to allow ourselves that pleasure. As we were then some way below the village, we did not go back thither, but rode off along a path through orchards till we found the road to the ravine.
At taking leave, the eyes of Sheykh Huseyn met mine a moment. They were large, benevolent, brown eyes, and they expressed much inward sorrow, while on his lips there broke the smile demanded of politeness.
'Au refoir, mon cher! Au blaisir!' cried his hopeful son.
Rashid came up behind me as we rode along, and poured into my ear a wondrous tale of how the Sheykh Huseyn was our ill-wisher and would do his best to make things lively for us if we took the place. He had conversed with people of the village while we viewed the house.
'But the majority are in our favour,' he assured me, with grave satisfaction. 'They do not love the Sheykh Huseyn, who is a miser and a hypocrite. They say, please God, we shall humiliate him to the very depth of shame.'
He spoke as if we were at war, and within sight of victory, as if we were already settled in the place. And I was glad, because it augured well for my content if I should buy the place, which I was now resolved to do if I could anyhow afford it.
'The price will be too great, I fear,' was my reply; whereat he sighed, observing that the place was of a nature to exalt our honour.
Returning to the castle of the chieftain, I was ushered to his private chamber, where I broached at once the burning question of the price. He said: 'God knows I wish to give thee house and land since thou desirest them. But I have a mortgage on some other lands of mine which vexes me, because, though I can find the interest—which is exorbitant—each year, I cannot in this country lay my hands upon the principal. Discharge that debt for me and, God reward thee, take the house and land.'
He named a sum of money. I could not believe my ears, it was so little as compared with what I judged to be the value of the property. It was well within the sum at my disposal. I wished to write a cheque out there and then; but he forbade me, saying: 'Allah knows I might mislay the paper or destroy it in a moment of forgetfulness. Do thou in kindness pay my creditor and bring me the discharge.'
He named an Armenian gentleman of my acquaintance—an amiable, learned man of modest means, the last person in the country whom I should have thought a usurer. Nor was he one habitually, for he himself informed me that this loan to the Druze chieftain was his sole investment of the kind. I called on him one afternoon in the city, and handed him my cheque, explaining how the matter stood.
'You do me a bad turn. Unlucky day!' he sighed as he received it. 'My little fortune was more safe with him than in a bank, and every year it brought me in a pretty income. Where can I find another such investment.'
With groans he wrote out the receipt, which in due time I carried to the chief, who thanked me and assured me that the house was mine and should be made so formally.
I then rode over to the house again, and with Rashid planned out the changes we desired to make, the Sheykh Huseyn following us about gloomily, and his cheerful son bestowing on us his advice in broken French. They knew their tenancy was at an end. The Sheykh, resigned at length to the inevitable, sought to establish good relations with me; and he also gave us counsel, which Rashid, who viewed him as our deadly foe, at once rejected. Under these rebuffs the old man became quite obsequious.
His son exclaimed excitedly: 'Mon bere est heureux, tu vois. If feut bas quitter. Il feut rester afec toi comme chef de serfice.'
Considering that I had bought a house and land exactly to my taste, and likely, as Rashid declared, to raise our honour in the country, I felt that I had earned the right to take a holiday. Whenever I have done anything decisive it is my instinct to withdraw myself a little from the scene of action and inure myself by contemplation to the new position of affairs. Accordingly, having surveyed the house and land as owner, I set off with Rashid upon a ten days' journey beyond the reach of telegrams and letters.
At the end of the ten days we rode into Beyrout, and put up at a little hostelry, which we frequented, built out on piers above the sea. There I found two letters waiting for me, one from the great Druze chief who sold to me my house and land.
'Never,' he wrote, 'have I had to endure such disrespect and ignominy. It is not at all what I expected from your friendship. In obedience to the Consul's order, I wrote express to the Khawajah ——, my creditor, informing him that there had been some error and entreating him to send your cheque in to the British Consulate. I hope to God you have received it safely before this. My health has suffered from this huge indignity. I shall not long survive this cruel shame.'
The second letter was from Her Britannic Majesty's Consul-General, enclosing my cheque written to the order of the Armenian gentleman for the amount of the mortgage which he held upon my Druze friend's property, and adjuring me to pay a visit to the Consulate without delay.
I went that afternoon. The outer office was crowded with the usual set of English and would-be English persons who went there for gossip. My appearance called forth more or less derisive shouts. I was a nice young man to go and buy a village—from a native, too!—without the forethought to secure a title to the property! It was plain that they knew more about the matter than I did myself. I felt ashamed, and must have looked dejected, I suppose, for they changed their tone for one more genial, crying: 'Cheer up, man! We've all been through it. You know now what these devils really are. They'll always do you, if they can. It's no shame to you at your age. They're so devilish clever.'
I did not know then, nor do I know to-day, that I had ever been defrauded seriously, or deceived, by any native of the country, but the legend ran, and doubtless runs, to that effect.
Then I was called into the Consul's presence and strongly blamed by him for running off just at the moment when my presence was most needed. I had written joyously to tell him of my purchase. I now heard that I should have waited for his reply before concluding it. A man does not buy tracts of land like that, I was severely told. And as I was so very young and (he implied it) idiotic, he had intervened to stop the sale, pending inquiries and the discharge of certain formalities which were legally required. If the seller went into the court and had the transfer registered and a proper deed of sale made out, then well and good; but he understood that there was some objection on the seller's part. If not, then he advised me to give up the whole idea. Profoundly conscious of my youth, and mindful of past kindness on the Consul's part, I was, of course, impressed. I thought I had indeed been foolish, even mad; and promised to do all that he required of me. As I went through the outer office, looking more than ever downcast, I was hailed with further adjurations to cheer up, for they had all been through it.
Rashid was more depressed than even I was when I told him of the sudden downfall of our hopes. He cursed the Consul and the Druzes indiscriminately. But on our journey up into the mountains his reconstructive mind transfigured my misfortunes, making of them an event well calculated to 'exalt our honour.' So great was my consideration in my native country that the Queen herself had written to the Consul-General to take care of me and see that I was not defrauded when I bought my land. The Consul, who had been neglectful of me, and knew nothing of the land I wished to buy, had been afraid of the Queen's anger, hence his mad activity. I did not hear that version at the time, nor from Rashid's own lips; but it came to my ears eventually, after its vogue was past.
We both hoped, however, that the house and land would yet be ours.
I found the Druze chief prostrate with humiliation and bewilderment. He greeted me with monstrous sighs, and told me how ashamed he was, how very ill. His eyes reproached me. What had he ever done to me that I should loose upon him such a swarm of ignominies. I felt humiliated and ashamed before him, an honourable man who had been treated like a rogue on my account.
'I shall not survive these insults, well I know it. I shall die,' he kept lamenting. 'All my people know the way I have been treated—like a dog.'
I told him that there had been a misunderstanding, and that the shame which he had suffered had been all my fault, because I had been absent for my selfish pleasure at the moment when I might have saved him by a simple statement of the facts.
'I shall not easily recover,' the chief groaned. 'And then that debt which I was so delighted to pay off is once again upon my shoulders.'
I explained then that the Consul's stopping of the sale was not conclusive, but provisional; his only stipulation being that, before I paid, all the legal formalities necessary to the transfer should have been fulfilled.
'He asks no more than that your Excellency will condescend to go before the Caimmacam with witnesses, and have a proper title-deed made out.'
At those words, uttered in all innocence, the great man shuddered violently and his face went green. I feared that he would have a fit, but he recovered gradually; and at last he said: 'It is a cruel thought, and one which must have been suggested to him by my enemies. Know that the Caimmacam at present is my rival and most deadly foe. We have not met on terms of speech for many years; our servants fight at chance encounters on the road. It is but five years since I held the post of Governor which he now occupies. When, by means of calumny and foul intrigue against me at Stamboul, he managed to supplant me, I swore a solemn oath that I would never recognise the Government nor seek its sanction so long as he remained its representative. And now the Consul bids me have recourse to him. By Allah, I would sooner be impaled alive.'
He paused a moment, swallowing his rage, then added:
'This, however, I will do. I will summon all the chiefs of all my people—every head of every family—hither to your presence and command them all to witness that the property is yours. I will make them swear to defend you and your successors in possession of it with their lives if need be, and to leave the obligation as a sacred charge to their descendants. That, I think, would be sufficient to assure you undisturbed possession if I die, as well I may, of this unheard-of treatment. And if I live till happier times—that is, to see the downfall of my enemy—then you shall have the Government certificate which the Consul deems of such immense importance.'
I now know that the kind of treaty which he thus proposed, laying a solemn charge on all his people—who would have been, of course, my neighbours—to defend my right, would have been worth a good deal more than any legal document in that wild country. The Armenian gentleman, who was delighted that his mortgage still held good, told me as much when next I saw him in the city. He thought me foolish not to jump at it, particularly when the land was offered to me for a song. But the Consul's prohibition, and the warnings of the English colony, possessed more weight with me just then than his opinion, or, indeed, my own, for I was very young.
I told the chieftain it was not enough.
'Then I am truly sorry,' he replied, with dignity; 'but there the matter ends. I have told your Honour the reason why I cannot go to court at present.'
Rashid was sad when I informed him of my failure. Once more he cursed the Druzes and all Consuls. And as we rode back through the mountains he was wrapped in thought. He came at length to the conclusion that this, too, redounded to our honour, since anybody less exalted than ourselves would certainly have jumped at such an offer as the chief had made to me. But everything, for us, must be performed in the most perfect manner. We were tremendous sticklers for formality.
There was only one thing he could not get over.
'It is the triumph of our enemy, that Sheykh Huseyn,' he told me. 'I hate to think of him in comfort in our house.'
CONCERNING CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
If we wished to stay in any place for more than a day or two, Rashid, upon arrival, wandered through the markets and inquired what dwellings were to let, while I sat down and waited in some coffee-house. Within an hour he would return with tidings of a decent lodging, whither we at once repaired with our belongings, stabling our horses at the nearest khan.
My servant was an expert in the art of borrowing, so much so that no sound of disputation on that subject reached my ears. It seemed as if the neighbours came, delighted, of their own accord to lend us pots and pans and other necessaries. He also did the cooking and the marketing without a hitch, giving a taste of home to the small whitewashed chamber, which we had rented for a week, it might be, or a month at most.
When obliged to go out upon any errand, Rashid was always worried about leaving me alone, regarding me as careless of my property and so untrusty from the point of view of one who idolised it.
'If your Honour should be seized with a desire to smell the air when I am absent,' he would say, 'do not forget to lock the door and place the key in the appointed hiding-place where I can find it. There are wicked people in the world. And while you sit alone, keep our revolver handy.'
He told me that in cities robberies of private dwellings are oftener committed at high noon, when many houses are left empty, than at night, when they are full of snoring folk. I did not doubt the truth of this assertion, but differed from him in believing that we harboured nothing likely to attract a thief.
'I would not lose the buckle of a strap, a single grain of sesame, by such foul means,' he would reply with vehemence.
One morning—it was in Damascus—he went out, after imploring me as usual to take care of everything. The room we occupied was at the end of a blind alley, up a flight of nine stone steps. The alley led into a crowded, narrow street, bordered with shops of many-coloured wares, which at that point was partly shaded by a fine old ilex tree. From where I sprawled upon a bed of borrowed cushions in the room, reading a chap-book I had lately purchased—The Rare Things of Abu Nawwas—I saw the colour and the movement of that street as at the far end of a dark kaleidoscope, for all the space between was in deep shadow.