When a man turned up our alley—a most rare occurrence—I noticed his appearance. It was rather strange. He wore an old blue shirt, and on his head a kind of turban, but of many colours and, unlike any I had ever seen upon the natives of the country, with an end or streamer hanging loose upon one side. In complexion, too, he was a good deal darker than a Syrian, and yet had nothing of the negro in his looks. Something furtive in his manner of approach amused me, as suggestive of the thief of Rashid's nightmares. I moved into the darkest corner of the room and lay quite still. He climbed our steps and filled the doorway, looking in.
It happened that Rashid had left a bag of lentils, bought that morning, just inside. The thief seized that and, thinking he was unobserved, was going to look round for other spoil, when I sat up and asked to know his business. He gave one jump, replied: 'It is no matter,' and was gone immediately. I watched him running till he vanished in the crowded street.
Rashid returned. I told him what had happened in his absence, but he did not smile. He asked me gravely to describe the man's appearance, and, when I did so, groaned: 'It is a Nuri (gipsy). Who knows their lurking-places? Had it been a townsman or a villager I might perhaps have caught him and obtained redress.' He said this in a manner of soliloquy before he turned to me, and, with reproachful face, exclaimed:
'He stole our bag of lentils and you watched him steal it! You had at hand our good revolver, yet you did not shoot!'
'Why should I shoot a man for such a trifle?'
'It is not the dimensions or the value of the object stolen that your Honour ought to have considered, but the crime! The man who steals a bag of lentils thus deliberately is a wicked man, and when a man is wicked he deserves to die; and he expects it.'
I told him that the gipsy was quite welcome to the lentils, but he would not entertain that point of view. After trying vainly to convince me of my failure to perform a social duty, he went out to the establishment of a coffee-seller across the street, who kept his cups and brazier in the hollow trunk of the old ilex tree, and set stools for his customers beneath its shade, encroaching on the public street. Thither I followed after a few minutes, and found him telling everybody of the theft. Those idlers all agreed with him that it was right to shoot a thief.
'All for a bag of lentils!' I retorted loftily. 'God knows I do not grudge as much to any man.'
At that there rose a general cry of 'God forbid!' while one explained:
'It were a sin to refuse such a thing to a poor man in need who came and begged for it in Allah's name. But men who take by stealth or force are different. Think if your Honour had destroyed that thief, the rascal would not now be robbing poorer folk, less able to sustain the loss! Suppose that bag of lentils had been all you had! There may be people in the world as poor as that.'
'Why should I kill a man who offered me no violence?' I asked defiantly.
'Why should you not do so, when the man is evidently wicked?'
'Why do the Franks object to killing wicked people?' asked the coffee-seller with a laugh. 'Why do they nourish good and bad in their society?'
'It is because they are without religion,' muttered one man in his beard.
An elder of superior rank, who overheard, agreed with him, pronouncing in a tone of gentle pity:
'It is because they lose belief in Allah and the life to come. They deem this fleeting life the only one vouchsafed to man, and death the last and worst catastrophe that can befall him. When they have killed a man they think they have destroyed him quite; and, as each one of them fears such destruction for himself if it became the mode, they condemn killing in their laws and high assemblies. We, when we kill a person, know that it is not the end. Both killed and killer will be judged by One who knows the secrets of men's breasts. The killed is not deprived of every hope. For us, death is an incident: for them, the end. Moreover, they have no idea of sacrifice. Killing, with them, is always the result of hate.'
'What does your Honour mean by that last saying?' I inquired with warmth.
The old man smiled on me indulgently as he made answer sadly:
'Be not offended if we speak our mind before you. We should not do so if we wished you ill. Here, among us, it is not an unheard-of thing for men to kill the creatures they love best on earth; nor do men blame them when, by so doing, they have served the cause of God, which is the welfare of mankind. Thus it was of old the rule, approved of all the world, that every Sultan of the line of Othman had to kill his brothers lest they should rise against him and disturb the peace of all the realm. Was it not like depriving life of all its sweetness thus to destroy their youth's companions and their nearest kin? Yet, though their hearts were in the bodies of their victims, they achieved it. And the victims met their death with the like fortitude, all save a few of less heroic mould.
'Now, I have read some histories written by the Europeans. They do not understand these things at all. They think us merely cruel—just as we, in the same unperceiving manner, think them merely covetous. Yet I disagree with your good servant in the present case. I think that you were right to spare that Nuri.'
Rashid, who, with the rest of the assembly, had listened to the old man's speech with reverence, exclaimed:
'It is not just this Nuri or that bag of lentils, O my lord! My master is thus careless always. He never locks the door when he goes out during my absence, though all that we possess is in that room.'
'Thy lord is young.' The old man smiled upon me kindly, and proceeded then to read me a mild lecture on my carelessness, detailing to me the precautions which he took himself, habitually, when shutting up his house or place of business, including pious formulas which he made me repeat after him. While he was thus instructing me, Rashid went off, returning in about three minutes with a face of indignation strangely and incongruously mixed with triumph.
Taking his stand before me in the very middle of the seated crowd, he said:
'You left the door wide open even after you had seen that Nuri steal the bag of lentils. I have this minute been to look and I have seen. With our revolver lying in the full light of the doorway! Merciful Allah! What is to be done with you?'
The old man, my preceptor, laughed aloud; and at the sound Rashid, whose desperation was not acted, wept real tears. The people round us tried in vain to comfort him.
THE UNWALLED VINEYARD
One morning, as we rode along, we came to vineyards on a valley-side. Rashid dismounted and began to pick the grapes. Suleyman dismounted likewise, and invited me to do the same.
'But it is stealing,' I objected.
'Allah! Allah!' moaned Suleyman, as one past patience. He hung his head a moment, limp all over, as if the spirit had been taken out of him; then called out to Rashid, who was devouring grapes:
'Return, O malefactor, O most wicked robber! Thou art guilty of a fearful crime. Thy master says so.'
Rashid came back to us immediately, bringing a purple bunch, which he was going to give to me when Suleyman prevented him, exclaiming:
'Wouldst dishonour our good lord by placing in his hands the fruit of infamy, as if he were a vile accomplice of thy crime? For shame, O sinful depredator, O defrauder of the poor!'
Rashid gaped at him, and then looked at me. I held out my hand for the grapes.
'Touch them not, for they are stolen!' cried Suleyman.
'I know not what thou wouldst be at, O evil joker,' said Rashid, with warmth; 'but if thou callest me a thief again, I'll break thy head.'
'I call thee thief? Thou art mistaken, O my soul! By Allah! I am but the mouthpiece of thy master here, who says that to pluck grapes out of this vineyard is to steal.'
Rashid looked towards me, half incredulous, and, seeing that I ate the grapes with gusto, answered with a laugh:
'He does not understand our customs, that is all. By Allah! there is no man in this land so churlish or so covetous as to begrudge to thirsty wayfarers a bunch of grapes out of his vineyard or figs or apricots from trees beside the road. To go into the middle of the vineyard and pick fruit there would be wrong, but to gather from the edge is quite allowable. If we were to come with sumpter-mules and load them with the grapes, that would be robbery; but who but the most miserly would blame us for picking for our own refreshment as we pass, any more than he would stop the needy from gleaning in the fields when corn is cut. What your Honour thinks a crime, with us is reckoned as a kindness done and taken.'
'Aye,' said Suleyman, whose gift was for interpretations, 'and in the same way other matters which your Honour blames in us as faults are in reality but laudable and pious uses. Thus, it is customary here among us to allow the servant to help himself a little to his master's plenty in so far as food and means of living are concerned. The servant, being wholly given to his master's service, having no other means of living, still must live; aye, and support a wife and children if he have them; and it is the custom of our great ones to pay little wages, because they have but little ready money. Upon the other hand, they have possessions and wide influence, in which each servant is their partner to a small extent. No one among them would object to such small profits as that cook of yours, whom you condemned so fiercely, made while in your service. If the master does not care to let the servant gain beyond his wages, he must pay him wages high enough for his existence—certainly higher wages than you paid that cook.'
'I paid him what he asked,' I said indignantly.
'And he asked what he thought sufficient in consideration of the profits he felt sure of making in your service—a foreigner and a young man of many wants.'
'I had told him that thou art of all men living the most generous!' put in Rashid. My dismissal of that cook had long been rankling in his mind. 'It is the custom of the country,' he subjoined, defiantly.
'It is a custom which I very heartily dislike,' I answered. 'It seems to me that people here are always grasping. Look at the prices which the merchants ask, the way they bargain. They fight for each para as if it were their soul's salvation. They are mad for gain.'
'Again you are mistaken,' answered Suleyman. 'They do not ask too much from avarice, but for the sake of pastime. Indeed, you will find sometimes that the price they ask is less than the real value of the object, and still they let the buyer beat it down—for mere amusement of the argument and for the sake of seeing what devices he will use. In addition, they will give the buyer a nice cup of coffee—sometimes two cups of coffee if the argument is long—and as many glasses full of sherbet as he cares to drink.'
'And if the buyer will not pay the price, though much reduced, the merchant often will present the object to him, as happened to your Honour in Aleppo only the other day,' put in Rashid.
'That was only a device to shame me into buying it.'
'No, by your Honour's leave!'
'Rashid may well be right,' said Suleyman, 'although I cannot judge of the peculiar instance since I was not present.'
Just then we came around a shoulder of the hill, and saw some people, men and women, harvesting the grapes in a much larger vineyard.
'Now you shall see!' exclaimed Rashid exultantly. He got down off his horse and stooped over the nearest vines. The workers, seeing him, set up a shout of 'Itfaddalu!' (perform a kindness), the usual form of hospitable invitation. Since we refused to join them in the middle of the vineyard a man came wading towards us, bearing on his head a basket tray piled up with grapes. Suleyman picked out three monstrous clusters, one for each of us, with blessings on the giver. To my offer of payment the fellah opposed a serious refusal, saying: 'It would be a shame for me.'
'You see now!' said Rashid, as we resumed our way. 'It is not robbery for wayfarers to take refreshment.'
'And as for the custom of the merchants,' added Suleyman, 'in asking a much higher price than that which they at last accept, what would you have? Those merchants are rich men, who have enough for all their needs. Their aim is not that of the Frankish traders: to increase their wealth by all means and outdistance rivals. Their object is to pass the time agreeably and, to that end, detain the customer as long as possible, the more so if he be a person like your Honour, who loves jokes and laughter. The greatest disappointment to our merchants is for the customer to pay the price first asked and so depart immediately. I have a rare thing in my memory which hits the case.
'Everyone has heard of Abdu, the great Egyptian singer, who died recently. His only daughter met her death in a distressing way. It was her wedding night, and bride and bridegroom died of suffocation owing to the scent of flowers and perfumes in the bedroom where they lay. At sight of the two corpses Abdu broke his lute and swore a solemn oath never to sing again.
'He was rich—for he had earned much by his singing, often as much as a hundred pounds a night—and he sought some means to pass the time till death should come for him. He took a shop in Cairo, and hoped for pleasant conversation in the course of bargaining. But the Egyptians wished to hear him sing again, and men of wealth among them planned together to buy up his whole stock-in-trade immediately. This happened thrice, to the despair of Abdu, who saw his hope of pastime taken from him. In the end he was compelled to get the Cadi to release him from his vow, and sing again, although he would have much preferred to be a merchant. That shows the difference between a trader in our cities and one in any city of the Franks, whose sole desire is to sell quickly and repeatedly.'
'There is no accounting for tastes,' was my reply. 'For my part I detest this bargaining.'
'When that is understood by decent merchants they will not afflict thee. They will ask thee a fair price and let thee go—though with regret, for they would rather spend an hour in talk with thee,' said Suleyman indulgently. 'It is a game of wits which most men like.' He shrugged his shoulders.
'Your Honour was relating yesterday,' observed Rashid, with grievance in his tone, 'how an Englishman of your acquaintance in our country accused his servants of dishonesty. Doubtless he distrusted them and locked things up, which is the same as saying to them: "It is my locks and my vigilance against your wits." Few men of spirit could resist a challenge such as that, which is indeed to urge men on to robbery. But where the master trusts his servants and leaves all things to their care, only a son of infamy would dream of robbing him.'
'Let me propound the matter otherwise for understanding. Seeing that open vineyard, with a wall but two stones high, no man would think of plundering the crop of grapes. But surround that vineyard with a high, strong wall, and every son of Adam will conceive the project of clearing it of every cluster.'
'I should never think of such a thing.'
'That is because your Honour is accustomed to restraints and barriers,' said Suleyman. 'We, in the Sultan's dominions, have more freedom, praise to Allah! For us a high wall is an insult, save in cities.'
Though I had known Suleyman for nearly two years, and had had him with me for some six months of that time, I had never seen him in his function of a dragoman, by which he earned enough in two months of the year to keep a wife and children in a village of the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, of which he spoke with heart-moving affection, though he seldom went there. It was only after much insistence that he allowed us to conduct him thither on one memorable occasion, when I could not but admire his perfect manners as a despot. When first I met him he had been a gentleman at large, and it was as that, and a familiar friend, that he repaired to me whenever he had nothing else to do. Judging from his gifts of conversation, which we all admired, and his unbounded knowledge of the country, I thought that, as a guide for tourists, he would be invaluable. So, when I heard that English friends of mine were coming out to Palestine, I wrote advising them to ask for him, him only; and I was glad to hear soon afterwards that he was with them. When they came north, I joined the party at Damascus and travelled with them for their last fortnight.
It did not take me many minutes in the camp to see that Suleyman was not himself, and that my friends were not so charmed with him as I had thought they would be. On the first evening in their tent I heard complaints. They told me he was most unconscionably lazy, and would not take them to the places they desired to visit. The trouble was, as I soon learnt, that they possessed a map and guidebook which they studied reverently every night, finding out places said therein to be of interest. Suleyman, on his side, had, at setting out, possessed a plan to make their tour the most delightful one imaginable. He hoped by visiting selected spots and people to give it sequence and significance. In a word, he was an artist in travel, wishing to provide them with delicious memories, while they were English and omnivorous of facts and scenes. When he learnt from various rebuffs that they would not confide themselves to him, he lost all pleasure in the tour. It was a listless and disgusted upper servant, most unlike the man I knew, whom I found in gorgeous raiment sitting by the cook's fire in the gardens of Damascus, which were then a wilderness of roses.
He did not explain matters to me all at once. When I reproached him for neglecting friends of mine, he answered only: 'It is the will of Allah, who made men of different kinds, some sweet, some loathsome.' But my arrival mended things a little. At least, my English friends professed to see a great improvement in the conduct of Suleyman and all the servants. I think it was because the poor souls knew that they had someone now to whom they could express their grievances, someone who would condescend to talk with them; for nothing is more foreign to the Oriental scheme of life than the distance at which English people keep their servants. In the democratic East all men are equal, as far as rights of conversation are concerned. It is a hardship for the Oriental to serve Europeans, and only the much higher and more certain wages bring him to it.
My English friends had few good words to say for any of their Arab servants; but I found they had conceived a perfect hatred for the cook, who had undoubtedly a villainous appearance. He was a one-eyed man with a strong cast in his surviving eye. A skull-cap, which had once been white, concealed his shaven poll, and his long pointed ears stood out upon it. He wore a shirt of indigo impaired by time, over which, when riding, he would throw an ancient Frankish coat, or, if it chanced to rain, a piece of sacking. His legs were bare, and he wore scarlet slippers. To see him riding on an ass hung round with cooking tins, at the head of the procession of the beasts of burden, suggested to the uninformed spectator that those beasts of burden and their loads had all been stolen.
I spoke about him to Suleyman one day when in my company he had regained his wonted spirits, telling him of the extreme dislike my friends had taken to the man.
'They are foolish,' he replied, 'to grumble at the figure of a mill which grinds good flour. They profit by his cooking, which is excellent. Indeed, he is the best cook in the world, and most particular. I took great trouble to secure him for this expedition, knowing that the Khawajat were friends of yours.' The tone of grievance in his voice became acute.
I feared that he was going to cry, so answered quickly:
'It is not that. They like his cooking. But his manners——'
'What know they of his manners? Has he ever entered the saloon or bed-tent to defile them? Has he ever spoken insult in their hearing? Inform me of his crime, and I will beat him bloody. But well I know he has done nothing wrong, for I have kept him in the strictest order all these days. It is only his appearance they object to; and that is God's affair, not theirs. The Lord repay them!'
'You say that you have kept him in strict order? Is that necessary?'
'Of course it is, for the poor man is mad. I thought his madness would amuse them; it is very funny. But Allah knows that there is not a laugh in all their bodies. So I have kept him from approaching them.'
The word 'majnun,' which I have here translated 'mad,' has often, as I knew, a complimentary value; and I gathered from Suleyman's way of speaking that the cook was not a raving maniac, but rather what in English country-places we should call 'a character.'
I cultivated his acquaintance after that, and was astonished by his powers of story-telling and of mimicry; still more, perhaps, by a curious, dry scepticism, expressed facetiously and sometimes with profanity, which was evident in almost everything he said. This it was which chiefly pleased the waiter and the muleteers, who were his usual listeners, since they were together on the road. They would laugh and curse him in religious terms for a blasphemer and a wicked atheist, reproofs which he received as high applause. It was his custom to salute his friends with insults, which they took kindly from him, being what he was. They told me in low tones of awe, yet with a chuckle, that he had even sold his father's grave in a facetious way. But I could never get them to relate that story clearly.
I could understand then why Suleyman had kept him in strict order on the journey; for my English friends were quite incapable of seeing any fun in such a character. Nor did I ever tell them of the great adventure of that journey, in which their cook was very nearly done to death.
It happened near the village of Mejdel esh-Shems, down in the valley underneath Mount Hermon. We remained in camp there over Sunday, and on Sunday afternoon my friends were resting in their tent. Suleyman and I had seized that opportunity to go off for a ramble by ourselves, which did us good. We were returning to the camp in time for tea, when a crowd of fellahin came hurrying from the direction of our tents, waving their arms and shouting, seeming very angry. Suleyman called out to them to learn the matter.
'Zandiq!' (an atheist) they cried. 'Zandiq! Zandiq!'
'Where?' I asked, eagerly.
'There, in yonder tent,' an old white-bearded man informed me, with wide eyes of horror. He pointed to the canvas windscreen against which our famous cook sat gazing at the kettle he had set to boil for tea. 'We go to fetch the wherewithal to kill him properly.'
'Stop!' said Suleyman peremptorily. 'You are mistaken. That is our cook—a good, religious man, but mad occasionally.'
'No, there is no mistake, O lords of honour,' cried a score of voices; while the old man who had pointed out the cook to me, explained:
'He said—may God protect us from the blame of it!—He said: "You see that mountain! It is I who made it. Prostrate yourselves before me for I made the world." We had been standing round him inoffensively, asking him questions, as the custom is, about his parentage, his trade, and so forth. But when we heard that awful blasphemy we rent our clothes, and ran in haste to fetch our weapons, as thou seest. Delay us not, for he must surely die.'
'Commit not such a wickedness! The man is mad.'
'No; he is sane.'
'Quite mad, I do assure you. Return with us, and I will prove it to your understanding,' cried Suleyman.
I added my assurance. They came back with us, but murmuring, and in two minds. I could not but admire the simple piety which prompted them at once to kill a man whose speech betrayed him as an atheist. But I was very much afraid of what might happen, and of the sad impression it would make upon my English friends. And everything depended on the cook's behaviour.
'I tell you he is mad,' said Suleyman, advancing towards the fire. 'It were a sin for you to slay a fellow-creature thus afflicted. Come hither, O Mansur,' he cried as to a dog.
The cook rose up and came towards us with a foolish air.
'Lie down before my horse. I would ride over thee.'
The cook fell prostrate, then turned over on his back. His mouth hung open idiotically; his tongue lolled out.
'Now rise and kiss my boot.'
The cook obeyed. By that time there were murmurs of compassion from the would-be slayers.
'Spake I not truly?' asked Suleyman.
'Aye, O sun of verity! He is quite mad, the poor one,' said the old man who had acted spokesman. 'It were a sin for us to kill him, being in that state. His manner at the first deceived us. Allah heal him! How came the dreadful malady upon him?'
'It came upon him through the pangs of unrequited love.'
'Alas, the poor one! Ah, the misery of men! May Allah heal him!' cried the women, as the group of villagers moved off, contented. Just when the last of them passed out of sight the longest tongue I ever saw in man emerged from the cook's mouth, and the rascal put his finger to his nose in a derisive gesture. Those portents were succeeded by a realistic cock-crow.
'What makes the cook like that, devoid of reverence?' I asked of Suleyman.
'It is because he was born in Jerusalem,' was the astonishing reply. 'He is a Christian, and was born poor; and the quarrels of the missionaries over him, each striving to obtain his patronage for some absurd belief, have made him what he is—a kind of atheist.'
Selim, the waiter, who was near and overheard this ending, burst out laughing.
'An atheist!' he cried. 'Your Honour understands? It means a man who thinks there is no God. Just like a beetle!' and he held his quaking sides.
Both he and Suleyman appeared to think that atheism was a subject to make angels laugh. And yet they were as staunch believers as those fellahin.
THE SELLING OF OUR GUN
I had been ill with typhoid fever. Just before my illness, the son of a sheykh in our neighbourhood had asked me to lend him my gun for a few days, since I never used it. There was nothing really which I cared to shoot. The village people rushed out in pursuit of every little bird whose tweet was heard, however distant, in the olive groves or up the mountain side. Jackals there were besides, and an occasional hyaena; and, in the higher mountains, tigers, so the people still persisted in declaring, meaning leopards, I suppose, or lynxes; for ignorant Arabs lump together a whole genus under one specific name, in the same way that they call all wild plants, which have neither scent nor market-value, grass. It was after we had sought those tigers vainly that I put away my gun.
The sheykh's son asked me for the loan of it, and I consented in the absence of Rashid; who, when he heard what I had done, defiled his face with dust and wailed aloud. Suleyman, who happened to be with us at the moment, also blamed me, looking as black as if I had committed some unheard-of sin. It is unlucky for a man to lend his gun to anybody, even to the greatest friend he has on earth, they told me sadly; and that for no superstitious reason, but because, according to the law, if murder be committed with that weapon, the owner of the gun will be considered guilty no matter by whose hand the shot was fired.
'How do they know the owner of the gun?' I answered, scoffing.
'For every gun there is a tezkereh,' answered Rashid; 'and he who holds the tezkereh is held responsible for every use to which that gun is put.'
It was, in fact, a rough-and-ready way of saying that the gun licence was not transferable. I remarked with satisfaction that I had no tezkereh, but that did not appear to reassure them in the least. They still were of opinion harm might come of it.
Then I fell ill and knew no more of daily life until I found myself in a hospital of the German Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, where the good sisters nursed me back to health.
Among the Arab visitors from far and near who came to see me as I lay in bed, was the youth who had borrowed my gun, together with his father and his brethren, who wept real tears and prayed for my complete recovery, talking as if they were beholden to me in some signal way. Their manner puzzled me a little at the time; but I had quite forgotten that perplexity when, discharged at last from hospital, I travelled back into the mountains with Rashid.
On the very day of my return I got an invitation from that young man's father to dine with him at noon upon the morrow. Rashid made a grimace at hearing of it and, when I asked him why, looked down his nose and said:
'He has our gun.'
'Aye, to be sure, and so he has!' I said. 'To-morrow I must not forget to ask him for it.'
Rashid looked big with tidings, but restrained himself and merely growled:
'You will not ask for it. I know your Honour! Nor will that rogue return it of his own accord.'
At the sheykh's house next day I found a largeish company assembled in my honour, as it seemed. Innumerable were the compliments on my recovery, the pretty speeches and remarks, to which I made reply as best I could. The meal consisted of some thirty courses, and was set on trays upon the floor in the old, country fashion, everybody eating with his fingers from the dish. When it drew near an end, the son of the house glanced at his father meaningly, and getting in return a nod, rose up and left the room. He soon came back, carrying my gun, which he brought first to me as if for benediction, then handed round for the inspection of the other guests. There were cries of 'Ma sh'Allah!' while they all praised its workmanship, one man opining that it must have cost a mint of money, another wishing he possessed its brother, and so forth. These exclamations and asides were evidently aimed at me, and it was somehow carried to my understanding that this exhibition of the gun, and not the public joy on my recovery, was the true reason of the feast and all attending it; though why it should be so I could not think.
'One thing that is remarkable about this gun,' explained the master of the house, 'is that it cannot miss the object aimed at. We have tried it at a target nailed upon a tree—I and my sons—at fifty and a hundred paces—aye, and more! And, by the Lord, the bullet always strikes exactly on the spot at which the gun is pointed, even though that spot be not much bigger than a gnat.'
And then, quite unaccountably, the whole assembly rose and tried to kiss my hands, as if the virtues of my gun were due to me. It was obviously not the moment to reclaim the weapon.
When I got home after that strange ovation, Rashid received me coldly and observed:
'You do not bring our gun! You feared to ask for it! Did not I know how it would be? Oh, Allah, Allah!'
'I had no opportunity,' I told him; 'but I am going now to write and ask him to return it. Be ready for the letter. You will have to take it.'
'Upon my head and eye, with all alacrity,' Rashid replied. 'Never did I rejoice so much in any errand. That rascal has been telling everybody that it is your gift to him, and boasting of his gun through all the mountains. No doubt, he counts upon your illness having dimmed remembrance, and hopes that you yourself may be deluded into thinking that it was a gift and not a loan.'
'Why did you not tell me this before?' I asked.
'Was it my business, till the question rose?'
I wrote a civil note to the young man, asking him to let me have the gun in a few days, as I was collecting my belongings for the journey back to England. I thanked him for the care which he had taken of my property, which was much better kept than when I lent it to him, as I had remarked that day. Rashid received the missive and went off exulting.
Within an hour that young man came to me, without the gun, and in a state of most profound affliction and despair. Having shut the door with great precaution to make sure we were alone, he fell upon the ground and burst out crying, confessing that his passion for the gun had made him dream that it was his each night as he lay thinking ere he fell asleep.
'But I did not tell a soul that it was mine—did but dream it—until I knew your Honour was abed and like to die,' he told me naively, as something which might make his fault seem natural. 'I thought that you would die and leave it with me.'
So, thinking me as good as dead, he had told his father and his brothers that it was a gift from me, or, as it were, a legacy; and now the fame of my munificence, my love for him, had gone abroad. An hour ago, when he received my letter, he had confessed the truth at last and privately to his beloved father, who, while strongly blaming him for his deceit, was willing to pay any price I chose to put upon the weapon to save him from the horrid scandal of exposure. If the story became public in the country he would die of grief. The honour of a noble house was at my mercy.
The gun, so much admired, was quite a cheap one in reality. I had bought it for ten pounds three years before, in London, on the advice of an uncle skilled in all such matters. After a moment's thought, I said: 'Eight English pounds.'
Never in my life before or since have I beheld such transports of relief and gratitude, nor heard such heartfelt praises of my generosity. He told the money out before me there and then, insisted on embracing me repeatedly, and then rushed out, intent to tell his father.
When he had gone, Rashid appeared before me, stern and aloof as the Recording Angel.
'It is a crime you have committed,' he exclaimed indignantly. 'That rascal told me as we came along together that his father was prepared to pay a hundred pounds to save their honour. He had sinned; it is but right his house should bear the punishment.'
'You would have done as I have done, in my position,' I assured him, laughing.
'In the position of your Honour,' was the dignified reply, 'I should either have made him pay a hundred pounds for our gun, or else persuaded him that it was worth a hundred pounds, and then presented it. In either case I should have crushed those people utterly. But, for a man in your position to accept eight pounds for such a weapon—and proclaim it worth no more—that is a shame! If your desire was money, you should not have touched the matter personally, but have left it altogether in the hands of me, your servant, who am always careful of your honour, which is mine as well.'
He sulked with me thereafter for two days.
When I knew at length that I was going to leave Syria, I was seized with a desire to buy all kinds of notions of the country to show to my people at home—a very foolish way of spending money, I am now aware, for such things lose significance when taken from their proper setting.
In after days, when leaving Syria for England, the one thing I would purchase for myself was a supply of reed pens for Arabic writing. But on that first occasion I wished to carry the whole country with me.
There was an old, learned Christian of Beyrout, who had given me lessons in Arabic at various times, and always waited on me honourably whenever I alighted in that loveliest and most detestable of seaport towns. He wore the baggiest of baggy trousers, looking just like petticoats, a short fez with enormous hanging tassel, a black alpaca coat of French design, a crimson vest, white cotton stockings, and elastic-sided boots, convenient to pull off ere entering a room. He always carried in the street a silver-headed cane, which he would lean with care against the wall of any room he chanced to enter, never laying it upon the ground, or on a chair or table. In all the time of my acquaintance with him I never, that I can remember, saw him really smile, though something like a twinkle would occasionally touch his eyes beneath great bushy eyebrows, between black and grey. An extraordinarily strong and heavy grey moustache, with drooping ends, gave him a half-pathetic, half-imposing likeness to some aged walrus; so that some of the common people actually called him 'Sheykh el Bahr' (the old man of the sea)—which is the proper Arabic designation of a walrus.
He came to see me after I had left the hospital and was staying with some English friends for a few days before returning to the wilds for a farewell; and repeatedly praised Allah for my safe recovery. There never was a man more thoroughly respectable, more perfectly correct in every word and movement. He disapproved of poor Rashid as a companion for me, because the latter dealt in vulgar language; and I feel certain that he would have disapproved of Suleyman, if he had ever seen that Sun of Wisdom in my company, for pandering to my desire for foolish stories. He was known as the Mu'allim Costantin, a worthy man.
With his usual ceremonious salutation, suggestive of his high position as a representative of learning, he placed himself at my command for any purchases I wished to make; knowing, he said, that I was likely to be busy in the weeks before departure. And his offer was extremely welcome to me at the time. I wished, as I have said already, to buy lots of things; among others—why, I cannot now imagine—the whole costume of natives of the country. The Mu'allim Costantin praised my intention, gravely declaring that it could not fail to interest my honoured relatives and lovers, and enlarge their minds, to know the details of a dress the most becoming in the world. In order that a full idea of Syrian raiment might be given, two suits and two long garments (corresponding to two other suits) were necessary, he pronounced. These, with the various articles of clothing which I then possessed and had grown used to wearing in the country, would be sufficient for the purposes of exhibition.
Upon the following day, as I was dressing, about ten o'clock (for I was still to some extent an invalid), there came a light knock at the door, and the Mu'allim Costantin appeared, ushering in a friend of his, who was a tailor—a man as grave and worthy as himself, who there and then proceeded to take measurements, praising the proportions with which nature had endowed me, and asking Allah to fill out those parts which now were lean through illness. The moment of a man's uprising is—or was at that time, for old customs are now dying out—the one which servants, tradesmen, pedlars, and all who wished to ask a favour chose for visiting. On the morning after my arrival in an Eastern city where I happened to be known I have had as many as twelve persons squatting round upon the floor, watching a barber shave me, while a little boy, the barber's 'prentice, bearing towels, jug, and basin, waited upon him like an acolyte.
The tailor, having made the necessary notes, withdrew with many compliments. The Mu'allim Costantin remained behind a moment, to assure me, in a loud stage-whisper, that the said tailor was a man whom I could trust to do the best for me, and that I might think myself extremely fortunate to have secured his services, as, being much sought after by the fashionables, he generally had more work than he could really do; but that, having taken, as he said, a fancy to me, he would certainly turn out a set of garments to enslave the heart. Having said this in the finest classic phraseology, he went out to rejoin the tailor in the passage; nor did I see him any more until the very day of my departure, when, at the English Consul-General's hospitable house, I was waiting for the carriage which would take me to the quay.
I was told that someone wished to see me upon urgent business, and, going to the great Liwan or entrance-hall, I found my friend, his silver-headed cane leaned carefully against the wall as usual. He carried underneath his arm a number of large books. These he presented to me with a solemn bow.
'It occurred to me,' he said, 'that as your Honour has a predilection for all those curious and often foolish tales which circulate among the common people, you might not perhaps disdain these four poor volumes which I chance to have in my possession. Deign to accept them as a parting gift from me.'
I thanked him kindly, though in truth I was embarrassed, not knowing where to stow the books, since all my things were packed. And then he handed me the tailor's bill, which, with the clothes which I had ordered, had escaped my memory.
'Where are the clothes?' I asked, 'I had forgotten them.'
He pointed to a bundle pinned up honourably in a silken wrapper, reposing on the floor hard by the silver-handled cane. I tore the envelope and opened out the bill. It came to twenty pounds.
And I had got my money ready for my journey. I was going to visit some of the Greek Islands, Smyrna, and Constantinople, on my way to England, and had hoped, besides, to see a little of the Balkan States. To pay out twenty pounds was to reduce that journey by at least a fortnight. And, as I said, I had forgotten all about the clothes, regarding all my Syrian debts as fully paid.
The hall was empty; we were quite alone. I fear I stormed at the Mu'allim Costantin, reminding him that he had promised that the clothes should not be dear.
'But,' he persisted, 'they are very cheap for the materials. If your Honour's wish was to pay less, you ought not to have chosen fabrics three parts silk. I did not know that you were counting money.'
He was right. Throughout my stay in Syria, until that moment, I had never counted money. Compared with England, living in the country was absurdly cheap, and on my small allowance I had lived at ease. He might quite reasonably have supposed me to be very wealthy. But I was not in reasonable mood just then. I paid the bill, but in an angry manner; and while I was still talking to him, the Cawwas arrived, and, close upon his heels, Rashid in tears, to tell me that the carriage was in waiting. The grief I felt at leaving Syria, at parting from Rashid and our Sheytan and many friends took hold of me. Hurriedly I said goodbye to the Mu'allim Costantin, and I am glad to say I changed my tone at that last moment, and had the grace to bid him think no more of the whole matter. But I shall carry to my grave the recollection of his face of horror while I scolded, the look that told his grief that he had been deceived in me.
I went and shoved the books into my luggage here and there, gave Rashid orders to send on the clothes, took leave of my kind hosts, and drove down in a hurry to the quay. It was not till some time after I arrived in England that I realised that the volumes which he had presented to me were a complete Bulac Edition of the Thousand and One Nights—a valuable book—which is my greatest treasure.
Nor have I ever had the chance of thanking the giver in a manner worthy of the gift, and wiping out the bad impression left by my ill-temper, for a letter which I wrote from England never reached him I am told, and when I next was in his country the Mu'allim Costantin had gone where kindness, patience, courtesy, and all his other virtues are, I hope, rewarded.
GLASGOW: W. COLLIN'S SONS AND CO. LTD.
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Typographical errors corrected in text: Page 212: Yusuf replaced with Yusuf