The Desert, by Arthur Cosslett Smith
Far down in the Desert of Sahara is the little oasis of El Merb. It is
so small that our crude atlases miss it. It has but one well, and the
fertile land is not more than forty rods in diameter. It has a mosque,
a bazaar, a slave-market, and a café. It is called by the traders of
Biskra "The Key of the Desert." It is called by the Mohammedan priests
of Biskra "The Treasury of the Desert." It is called by the French
commandant at Biskra "A place to be watched." The only communication
between El Merb and Biskra is by camels, and Abdullah was once the
* * * * *
Abdullah, having felt the humps of his camels, turned to his driver.
"We start to-morrow, Ali," he said; "the beasts are fit."
Ali bowed and showed his white teeth.
"To-morrow," continued Abdullah, "since it is Friday; and immediately
after the middle prayer. I hear in the bazaar that the well at Okba is
choked. Can we make forty-two miles in one day, so as to cut Okba out?"
"We can," said Ali, "during the first three days, when the beasts do
not drink; after that—no."
"Good," said Abdullah; "I will make a route."
Some one plucked at his sleeve and he turned.
"Sir," said a man with a white beard and eager eyes, "I learn that you
start for Biskra to-morrow."
"If Allah wills," said Abdullah.
"In crossing the desert," said the old man, "I am told there are many
"Friend," said Abdullah, "in sitting at home there are many dangers."
"True," said the old man; and, after an interval, he added, "I think I
may trust you."
Abdullah shrugged his shoulders and rolled a cigarette.
"Would it please you," said the old man, "to take a passenger for
"At a price," replied Abdullah, striking a match.
"What is the price?" asked the old man.
"Do you pay in dates, hides, ivory, or gold-dust?"
"In dust," replied the old man.
Abdullah threw away his cigarette. "I will carry you to Biskra," said
he, "for eight ounces, and will furnish you with dates. If you desire
other food, you must provide it. You shall have water, if I do."
"It is not for myself that I seek passage," said the old man, "but for
"In that event," said Abdullah, "the price will be nine ounces. Women
cast responsibility upon me."
"And her maid-servant?" asked the old man.
"Eight ounces," replied Abdullah.
"It is all I have," said the old man, "but I will give it."
"If you have no more," said Abdullah, "Allah forbid that I should strip
you. I will carry the two for sixteen ounces."
"Allah will make it up to you," said the old man. "If you will deign to
accompany me to the bazaar, I will pay you immediately."
They went to the arcades about the square and entered the shop of
Hassan, the money-changer.
The old man pulled at his girdle and produced, after many contortions,
a purse of gazelle skin.
"Friend Hassan," he said, "I wish to pay to this, my son, sixteen
ounces. Kindly weigh them for me."
Hassan produced his scales. They consisted of two metal disks,
suspended by silk threads from the ends of a fern stem. He balanced
this stem upon the edge of a knife, fixed above his table. In one of
the pans he placed a weight, stamped with Arabic characters. The pan
fell to the table. Hassan produced a horn spoon, which he blew upon and
then carefully wiped with the hem of his burnoose. He handed the spoon
to the old man, who felt of the bowl.
"It is dry," he said; "nothing will stick to it."
Hassan plunged the spoon into the bag and brought it out, filled with
gold-dust, which he poured into the empty pan. The scales rose, fell,
trembled, and then settled even.
"I nearly always can judge an ounce," said Hassan; "a grain is another
He weighed out sixteen ounces. The last ounce he left in the pan. Then
he turned and, with a sweep of his arm, caught a fly from off the wall.
He handled it with the greatest care until he held it in the tips of
his fingers; then he put it into his mouth and closed his lips. In a
moment he took it out. The fly was moist and dejected. He placed it
upon the gold-dust in the pan. The fly began to beat its wings and work
its legs. In a moment its color changed from blue-black to yellow. It
was coated with gold-dust. Hassan lifted it with a pair of tweezers,
and popped it into an inlaid box.
"My commission," he said. "Good-by. Allah be with you."
The old man tied up his bag, which seemed to be as heavy as ever.
"I thought," said Abdullah, glancing at the purse, "that seventeen
ounces was all you had."
"What remains," said the old man, and there was a twinkle in his eye,
"belongs to Allah's poor, of whom I am one."
"I regret," said Abdullah, with some heat, "that I did not treble my
usual price. I merely doubled it for you."
The old man's face clouded, but only for an instant.
"My son," he said, "I am glad that I have intrusted my daughter to you.
You will bring her to Biskra in safety. At what hour do you start?"
"Immediately after the noon prayer," answered Abdullah, "and I wait for
"Good," said the old man, "we shall be there; slama."
"Slama," said Abdullah, and they parted.
Abdullah went back to his camels. He found Ali asleep between the black
racer and the dun leader. He kicked him gently, as though he were a
dog, and Ali sat up smiling and pleased to be kicked, when he saw his
"We take two women with us," said Abdullah.
"Allah help us," said Ali.
"He has already," said Abdullah; "I have sixteen ounces in my girdle."
"It seems, then," said Ali, grinning, "that not only Allah has helped
you, but you have helped yourself."
"Peace," said Abdullah, "you know nothing of commerce."
"I know, however," said Ali, "that the Englishwoman whom we carried two
years ago, and who made us stop two days at the wells of Okba, because
her dog was ailing, gave me a bad piece of silver that I could not
spend in Biskra. 'T was she of the prominent teeth and the big feet. I
used to see her feet when she mounted her camel, and I used to see her
teeth when I saw nothing else."
"Peace," said Abdullah. "Allah who made us made also the English."
"Perhaps," said Ali, "but one cannot help wondering why He did it."
"If we carry these two women," said Abdullah, "we must leave the cargo
of two beasts behind. Leave four bales of hides; I took them
conditioned upon no better freight offering; and put the women on the
two lame camels. In this way we profit most, since we sacrifice least
merchandise. The porters will be here at sunrise to help you load. See
that they are careful. You remember what happened last time, when our
cargoes kept shifting. All seems well to-night, except you have loaded
that red camel yonder too high on the right side. How can a camel rest
if, when he kneels, his load does not touch the ground? He must support
the weight himself."
"I intended to alter that in the morning," said Ali.
"The morning may never dawn," said Abdullah, "and meanwhile you rob the
beast of one night's rest. Attend to it at once. The speed of a caravan
is the speed of its slowest camel."
"Who should know that better than I?" exclaimed Ali. "Have I not
crossed the desert nine times with you? Oh, master, bear with me, I am
"What is your age?" asked Abdullah.
"One-and-thirty," replied Ali.
"My friend," said Abdullah, "you are good for another voyage; and know
this, when you fail me, I quit the desert, and turn householder, with a
wife or two, and children, if Allah wills it. I myself am
six-and-twenty. I have earned a rest. Slama." And he turned on his
heel to go, but he turned again.
"Ali," he said, "who lives in the first house beyond the mosque, on the
left—the house with the green lattices?"
"I do not know, my master," replied Ali, "but I shall tell you in the
"Good," said Abdullah; "and there is a damsel who sits behind the
lattice, and always wears a flower in her hair, a red flower, a flower
like this," and he put his hand into the folds of his burnoose and
brought out a faded, crumpled, red oleander. "Who is she?"
"Tomorrow," said Ali.
"Good," said Abdullah, and he went away.
"Slama" said Ali, and then he added, to himself, "There goes a
masterful man, and a just one, but love has caught him."
And he hurriedly eased the red camel of her load.
The next morning the departing caravan had many visitors. The merchants
from the arcades came to see that their ventures were properly loaded.
They passed comments upon the camels as Englishmen and Americans do
upon horses in the paddock or the show-ring. Some they criticised, some
they praised, but they were of one mind as to their condition.
"Their humps are fat," they all agreed; and, as a camel draws upon his
hump for food as he draws upon the sacs surrounding his stomach for
water, the condition of the caravan was declared to be mleh, which is
the Arabic equivalent for "fit."
Abdullah was a busy man. He signed manifests, received money, receipted
for it, felt of surcingles, tightened them, swore at the boys who were
teasing the camels, kicked Ali whenever he came within reach, and in
every way played the rôle of the business man of the desert.
Suddenly, from the minaret of the mosque came the cry of the mueddin.
The clamor of the market ceased and the Mussulmans fell upon their
knees, facing the east and Mecca. The camels were already kneeling, but
they were facing the north and Biskra.
While the faithful were praying, the unbelievers from the Soudan fell
back and stood silent. A cry to God, no matter what god, silences the
patter of the market-place. Abdullah prayed as a child beseeches his
"Give me, Allah, a safe and quick journey. Unchoke the wells at Okba.
Strengthen the yellow camel. Make high the price of dates and low the
price of hides; 'tis thus I have ventured. Bring us in safety to
Biskra. And bring me to the damsel who sits behind the green lattice.
These things I pray—thy sinful son, Abdullah."
He rose, and the old man stood at his elbow. Abdullah had forgotten his
"This," said the old man, turning to a woman veiled to her eyes, "is my
daughter, and this," he added, "is her maid," and a negress, comely and
smiling, made salaam. "I pray thee," he continued, "to deliver this
invoice," and he handed Abdullah a paper.
Abdullah was too busy to notice his passengers. "Let them mount at
once," he said, slipping the paper under his girdle, and he left them
to Ali, who came up showing his white teeth.
There were the last words, instructions, cautions, adieus, and then
Abdullah held up his hand. Ali gave the cry of the camel-driver and the
uncouth beasts, twisting and snarling under their loads, struggled to
Another cry, and they began their voyage. They traversed the square,
passed the mosque, turned down a narrow street, and in five minutes
crossed the line that bounded the oasis, and entered upon the desert.
Immediately the dun leader took his place at the left and slightly in
advance. The fourth on the right of the dun was the black racer. He
carried two water-skins and Abdullah's saddle. Then came, in ranks,
fifteen camels, Ali riding in the centre. On the right flank rode the
two women, with enormous red and white cotton sunshades stretched
behind them. Then, at an interval of six rods, came fifteen camels
unattended. They simply followed the squad in front. The dun leader and
the black racer had lanyards about their necks. The other camels had no
harness save the surcingles that held their loads.
In a panic, a sand-storm, a fusillade from Bedouins, a mirage, and a
race for water, if Abdullah and Ali could grasp these lanyards, the
caravan was saved, since the other camels followed the dun leader and
the black racer as sheep follow the bell-wether.
Abdullah walked at the left, abreast of the dun. At intervals he rode
the black racer.
The pace of a caravan is two miles an hour, but Abdullah's, the two
cripples included, could make two miles and a quarter. The black racer
could make sixty miles a day for five days, without drinking, but at
the end of such a journey his hump would be no larger than a
pincushion, and his temper—?
For centuries it has been the custom of Sahara caravans to travel not
more than five miles the first day. Abdullah, the iconoclast, made
thirty-three. Ali came to him at two o'clock.
"Shall we camp, master?" he asked.
"When I give the word," replied Abdullah. "You forget that the wells at
Okba are choked. We shall camp at El Zarb."
"El Zarb," exclaimed Ali. "We should camp there to-morrow."
"Must I continually remind you," said Abdullah, "that to-morrow may
never dawn? We camp at El Zarb to-night."
At nine o'clock they marched under the palms of El Zarb. Abdullah held
up his hands; Ali ran to the head of the dun leader; the caravan
halted, groaned, and knelt. The first day's journey was over.
The moment that the halt was accomplished, Abdullah went about, loosing
the surcingles of his camels. Then he began to pitch his tent. It was
of camel-skins, stretched over eight sticks, and fastened at the edges
with spikes of locust wood. It was entirely open at the front, and when
he had the flaps pinned, he gathered a little pile of camels' dung,
struck a match, and began to make his tea. He had no thought for his
passengers. His thoughts were with his heart, and that was back at the
house beyond the bazaar—the house with the green lattices. Before the
water boiled, Ali came up, eager, breathless.
"Master," he said, "the passengers are cared for, and the mistress
wears a flower like—like that; the one you showed me;" and he
pointed to Abdullah's bosom. "You are either a faithful servant," said
Abdullah, "or you are a great liar. The morrow will tell." And he
started toward the passengers' tent. He found it closed. Being a
woman's tent, it had front flaps, and they were laced. He walked back
and forth before it. He was master of the caravan, more autocratic than
the master of a ship. He might have cut the laces, entered, and no one
could have questioned. That is the law of the desert. He could more
easily have cut his own throat than that slender cord.
He wandered back and forth before the tent. The twilight faded. The
shadows turned from saffron to violet, to purple, to cobalt. Out of the
secret cavern of the winds came the cool night-breeze of the Sahara.
Still he paced up and down, before the little tent. And as he measured
the sands, he measured his life. Born of a camel-driver by a slave;
working his way across the desert a score of times before his wages
made enough to buy one bale of hides; venturing the earnings of a
lifetime on one voyage—making a profit, when a loss would have put him
back to the beginning—venturing again, winning again—buying three
camels—leasing them—buying three more—starting an express from the
Soudan to Biskra one day short of all others;—carrying only dates and
gold-dust—insuring his gold-dust, something he learned from the French
in Biskra;—buying thirty camels at a plunge—at once the master
camel-driver of the Sahara—and here he was, pacing up and down before
a laced tent which held behind it—a woman.
The night of the desert settled down, and still he paced. The stars
came up—the stars by which he laid his course; and, finally, pacing,
he came for the hundredth time to the tent's front and stopped.
"Mistress?" he whispered. There was no answer, "Mistress?" he called,
and then, after an interval, the flies of the tent parted—a white
hand, and a whiter wrist, appeared, and a red oleander fell on the
sands of the desert.
Abdullah was on his knees. He pressed the flower to his lips, to his
heart. Kneeling he watched the flaps of the tent. They fluttered; the
laces raced through the eyelets; the flaps parted, and a girl,
unveiled, stepped out into the firelight. They stood, silent, gazing
one at the other.
"You have been long in coming," she said, at length.
There is no love-making in the desert. Thanks to its fervent heat, love
there comes ready-made.
"Yes," said Abdullah, "I have tarried, but now that I have come, I stay
forever;" and he took her in his arms.
"When did you love me first?" she whispered, half-released.
"When first I saw you, behind the green lattice," gasped Abdullah.
"Ah, that green lattice," whispered the girl; "how small its openings
were. And still, my heart flew through them when first you passed. How
proudly you walked. Walk for me now—here, in the firelight, where I
may see you—not so slowly with your eyes turned toward me, but
swiftly, smoothly, proudly, your head held high—that's it—that is the
way you passed my lattice, and as you passed my heart cried out, 'There
goes my king.' Did you not hear it?"
"No," said Abdullah; "my own heart cried so loudly I heard naught
"What did it cry? What cries it now?" she said; and she placed her
cheek against his bosom, her ear above his heart. "I hear it," she
whispered, "but it beats so fast I cannot understand."
"Then," said Abdullah, "I must tell thee with my lips."
"Oh, beloved," she whispered, "the camels will see us."
"What matters," he said; "they belong to me."
"Then they are my brethren," she said, "since I, also, belong to thee,"
and with arms entwined they passed out of the fire-light into the
purple of the desert.
* * * * *
When they came back, the hobbled camels were snoring, and the unfed
fires were smouldering.
"Allah keep thee," said Abdullah, at the door of her tent.
"And thee, my master," said the girl, and the flaps fell.
Abdullah went slowly toward his own tent. He stopped a moment by one of
the lame camels. "Thou broughtest her to me," he said, and he eased the
beast's surcingle by a dozen holes.
He reached his tent, paused, faced the western horizon, lifted his
arms, breathed in the sweet, cool air of the desert, and entered.
Ali had spread a camel's hide, had covered a water-skin with a burnoose
for a pillow, and had left, near it, a coiled wax-taper and a box of
matches. Abdullah untwined his turban, loosened his sash, felt
something escape him, fell on his knees, groped, felt a paper, rose,
went to the tent's door, recognized the invoice which the old man had
given him, went out, kicked up the embers of the fire, knelt, saw that
the paper was unsealed, was fastened merely with a thread, played with
the thread, saw it part beneath his fingers, saw the page unfold,
stirred up the embers, and read:
"_To Mirza, Mother of the Dancers at Biskra, by the hand of Abdullah. I
send thee, as I said, the most beautiful woman in the world. She has
been carefully reared. She has no thought of commercialism. Two and two
are five to her as well as four. She is unspoiled. She never has had a
coin in her fingers, and she never has had a wish ungratified. She
knows a little French; the French of courtship merely. Her Arabic is
that of Medina. You, doubtless, will exploit her in Biskra. You may
have her for two years. By that time she may toss her own handkerchief.
Then she reverts to me. I shall take her to Cairo, where second-rate
Englishmen and first-rate Americans abound.
"This is thy receipt for the thirty ounces you sent me._
When Abdullah had read this invoice of his love, he sat long before the
little fire as one dead. Then he rose, felt in his bosom, and drew out
two flowers, one withered, the other fresh. He dropped these among the
embers, straightened himself; lifted his arms toward heaven, and slowly
entered his tent.
The little fires smouldered and died, and the great desert was silent,
save for the sighing of the camels and the singing of the shifting
THE MAN WHO KEEPS GOATS
The next morning broke as all mornings break in the desert, first
yellow, then white, and always silent. The air bore the scent of sage.
The hobbled camels had broken every shrub within their reach, and
stunted herbage is, almost always, aromatic.
Abdullah gave no heed to the sun. He who for ten years had been the
most energetic man of the desert had overnight become the most
nonchalant. Like Achilles, he sulked in his tent.
At five o'clock Ali ventured to bring his master's coffee. He found
Abdullah fully dressed and reading a paper, which he hurriedly thrust
into his burnoose when he was interrupted.
"Your coffee, master," said Ali. "We have twelve leagues to make
"Ali," said Abdullah, "the night before we started I asked you who
lived in the house with the green lattices—the next house beyond the
mosque—and you promised to tell me in the morning."
"Yes, master," said Ali, "but in the morning you did not ask me."
"I ask you now," said Abdullah.
Ali bowed. "Master," he answered, "the house is occupied by Ilderhim,
chief of the tribe of Ouled Nail. He hires it for five years, and he
occupies it for the three months, Chaban, Ramadan, and Chaoual, of each
year. He has also the gardens and four water-rights. He deals in ivory,
gold-dust, and dancing-girls. He formerly lived in Biskra, but the
French banished him. They have also banished him from Algiers, and he
has been warned from Cairo and Medina. He has a divorced wife in each
of those cities. They are the mothers of the dancing-girls. The one in
Biskra is Mirza. Every one in Biskra knows Mirza. Doubtless you,
"Yes," said Abdullah, "but the damsel. Who is she?"
"His daughter," replied Ali.
"How know you this?" demanded Abdullah, fiercely.
"Master," said Ali, "last night, when you were looking at the stars
with the mistress, I had a word with the maid. She came to me, while I
was asleep by the dun leader, and shook me as if I had been an old
"'Save her,' she whispered, as I rubbed my eyes.
"'Willingly,' I replied. 'Who is she?'
"'My mistress,' said the maid. 'They are taking her to Biskra. She has
been sold to Mirza. She will dance in the cafés. This sweet flower will
be cast into the mire of the market-place. Save her.'
"'How know you this?' I asked.
"'Ah,' she answered, 'this is not the first time I have crossed the
desert with one of Ilderhim's daughters. Save her.'
"'Does the damsel know nothing of this—does she not go with her eyes
open?' I asked.
"'She thinks,' said the maid, 'that she goes to Biskra to be taught the
manners and the learning of the French women—to read, to sing, to know
the world. Her heart is even fairer than her face. She knows no evil.
Abdullah groaned and hung his head.
"Forgive me, Allah," he said, "for that I doubted her. Forgive me for
that I burned the flowers she gave to me," and he went out.
"Your coffee, master," cried Ali, but Abdullah paid no heed. He went
swiftly to the little tent, and there was the damsel, veiled, and
already mounted on the lame camel, ready to march.
"Beloved," said Abdullah, "you must dismount," and he lifted her from
the back of the kneeling beast.
"Ali," he cried, "place the damsel's saddle on the black racer, and put
mine on the dun. We two start on at once for the oasis of Zama. We can
make it in thirteen hours. Give us a small water-skin and some dates. I
leave everything else with you. Load, and follow us. We will wait for
you at Zama. I go to counsel with the Man who Keeps Goats."
In five minutes the black racer and the dun leader were saddled.
"Come, beloved," said Abdullah, and without a word she followed him.
She had asked no question, exhibited no curiosity. It was enough for
her that Abdullah said, "Come."
They rode in silence for some minutes. Then Abdullah said: "Beloved, I
do not know your name."
She dropped her veil, and his heart fell to fluttering.
"The one who loves me calls me 'beloved,'" she said, "and I like that
"But your real name?" said Abdullah.
"I was baptized 'Fathma,'" she said, smiling.
"Doubtless," said Abdullah; "since all women are named for the mother
of the Prophet; but what is your other name, your house name?"
"Nicha," she answered; "do you like it?"
"Yes," he said, "I like it."
"I like 'beloved' better," said the girl.
"You shall hear it to your heart's content," said Abdullah.
They went on again, in silence, which was broken by the girl.
"Master," she said, "if you do not care to speak to me further, I will
put up my veil."
"Do not," exclaimed Abdullah, "unless," he added, "you fear for your
"I do not fear for my complexion," said the girl, "but for my
reputation; and she smiled again.
"That," said Abdullah, "is henceforth in my keeping. Pay no heed to
"I am not yet your wife," said the girl.
"True," said Abdullah, "and we are making this forced march to learn
how I may make you such. Who is your father, beloved?"
"Ilderhim," she answered; "but why do you ask? You saw him when we
started from El Merb."
"Do you love him?" asked Abdullah.
"I scarcely know," answered the girl, after a pause. "I have not seen
him often. He is constantly from home. He buys me pretty clothes and
permits me to go to the cemetery each Friday with my maid. I suppose I
love him—not as I love you, or as I love the camel that brought me to
you, or the sandal on your foot, or the sand it presses—still, I think
I must love him—but I never thought about it before."
"And your mother?" asked Abdullah.
"I have no mother," said the girl. "She died before I can remember."
"And why do you go to Biskra?" asked Abdullah.
"My father sends me," said the girl, "to a great lady who lives there.
Her name is Mirza. Do you not know her, since you lived in Biskra?"
Abdullah did not answer. Something suddenly went wrong with his saddle,
and he busied himself with it.
"I am to be taught the languages and the ways of Europe," continued the
girl, "music and dancing, and many things the desert cannot teach. I am
to remain two years, and then my father fetches me. Now that I consider
the trouble and expense he is put to on my account, surely I should
love him, should I not?"
Abdullah's saddle again required attention.
They rode for hours, sometimes speaking, sometimes silent. Twice
Abdullah passed dates and water to the girl, and always they pressed
on. A camel does not trot, he paces. He moves the feet of his right
side forward at once, and follows them with the feet of his left side.
This motion heaves the rider wofully. The girl stood it bravely for six
hours, then she began to droop. Abdullah watched her as her head sank
toward the camel's neck; conversation had long ceased. It had become a
trial of endurance. Abdullah kept his eye upon the girl. He saw her
head bending, bending toward her camel's neck; he gave the cry of halt,
leaped from the dun, while yet at speed, raced to the black, held up
his arms and caught his mistress as she fell.
There was naught about them save the two panting camels, the brown
sands, the blue sky, and the God of Love. Abdullah lifted her to the
earth as tenderly, as modestly, as though she had been his sister. It
is a fine thing to be a gentleman, and the God of Love is a great God.
It proved that the girl's faintness came from the camel's motion and
the cruel sun. Abdullah made the racer and the dun kneel close
together. He spread his burnoose over them and picketed it with his
riding-stick. This made shade. Then he brought water from the little
skin; touched the girl's lips with it, bathed her brow, sat by her,
silent, saw her sleep; knelt in the sand and kissed the little hand
that rested on it, and prayed to Him that some call God, and more call
In an hour the girl whispered, "Abdullah?"
He was at her lips.
"Why are we waiting?" she asked.
"Because I was tired," he answered.
"Are you rested?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered.
"Then let us go on," she said.
They rode on, hope sustaining Abdullah, and love sustaining Nicha, for
she knew nothing but love.
Then, after eight hours, on the edge of the desert appeared a little
cloud, no larger than a man's hand.
Abdullah roused himself with effort. He watched the cloud resolve
itself into a mass of green, into waving palms—then he knew that Zama
was before him, and that the march was ended.
He turned and spoke to the girl. They had not spoken for hours.
"Beloved," he said, "a half-hour, and we reach rest."
She did not answer. She was asleep upon her saddle.
"Thank Allah," said Abdullah, and they rode on.
Suddenly the trees of the oasis were blotted out. A yellow cloud of
dust rolled in between them and the travellers, and Abdullah said to
himself, "It is he whom I seek—it is He who Keeps Goats."
They met. In the midst of threescore goats whose feet had made the
yellow cloud of dust was a man, tall, gaunt, dressed in the garb of the
desert, and burned by the sun as black as a Soudanese.
"Ah, my son," he cried, in French, when he was within distance, "you
travel light this time. Whom have you with you, another mistress, or,
at last, a wife?"
"Hush," said Abdullah, "she is a little damsel who has ridden twelve
leagues and is cruel tired."
"God help her," said the man of the goats; "shall I give her some warm
milk—there is plenty?"
"No," said Abdullah; "let us go to thy house," and the goats, at the
whistle of their master, turned, and followed the camels under the
palms of the oasis of Zama.
They halted before a little hut, and Abdullah held up his hand. The
camels stopped and kneeled. The girl did not move. Abdullah ran to her,
took her in his arms, lifted her, turned, entered the hut, passed to
the inner room, laid her upon a low couch, beneath the window, put away
her veil, kissed her hand, not her lips, and came out.
In the outer room he found his host. Upon the table were some small
cheeses, a loaf of bread, a gourd of milk. Abdullah fell upon the food.
"Well, my son," said his host, after Abdullah began to pick and choose,
"what brings you to me?"
"This," said Abdullah, and he felt in his bosom, and drew out the
invoice of his passenger.
His host took from a book upon the table a pair of steel-bowed
spectacles—the only pair in the Sahara. He placed the bow upon his
nose, the curves behind his ears, snuffed the taper with his fingers,
took the invoice from Abdullah, and read. He read it once, looked up,
and said nothing. He read it a second time, looked up, and said: "Well,
what of it?"
"Is it legal?" asked Abdullah.
"Doubtless," said his host, "since it is a hiring, merely, not a sale;
and it is to be executed in Biskra, which is under the French rule."
"The French rule is beneficent, doubtless?" asked Abdullah.
His host did not answer for some minutes; then he said: "It is a
compromise; and certain souls deem compromises to be justice. The real
men of this age, as of all others, do not compromise; they fight out
right and wrong to a decision. The French came into Algeria to avenge a
wrong. They fought, they conquered, and then they compromised. Having
compromised, they must fight and conquer all over again."
"You are a Frenchman, are you not?" asked Abdullah.
"No," replied his host, "I am a Parisian."
"Ah," exclaimed Abdullah, "I thought they were the same thing."
"Far from it," replied his host. "In Brittany, Frenchmen wear black to
this day for the king whom Parisians guillotined."
"Pardon," said Abdullah; "I have been taught that Paris is French."
"Not so, my son," rejoined his host; "Paris is universal. If you will
go to the Museum of the Louvre, and take a seat before the Venus of
Milo, and will remain long enough, everybody in this world, worth
knowing, will pass by you; crowned heads, diplomats, financiers, the
demimonde; you may meet them all. They tell me that the same thing
happens to the occupant of the corner table of the Café de la Paix—the
table next to the Avenue de l'Opéra; if he waits long enough, he will
see every one—"
"Pardon me, Monsieur," said Abdullah, "but I care to see no one save
the little maid sleeping within."
"Ah," said his host, "it is love, is it? I thought it was
"No," said Abdullah; "it is a question of how I can keep the woman I
love, and still keep my commercial integrity. She is consigned to me by
her father, to be delivered to Mirza, the mother of the dancers, in
Biskra. I am the trusted caravan owner between El Merb and Biskra. In
the last ten years I have killed many men who tried to rob my freight
of dates, and hides, and gold-dust. Now I long to rob my own freight of
the most precious thing I have ever carried. May I do it, and still be
a man; or must I deliver the damsel, re-cross the desert, return the
passage money to her father, come once more to Biskra, and find my love
the sport of the cafés?"
The Man who Keeps Goats rose and paced the floor.
"My son," he said, finally, "when the French occupied Algeria, they
made this bargain—'Mussulmans shall be judged by their civil law.' It
was a compromise and, therefore, a weakness. The civil law of the
Mohammedans is, virtually, the Koran. The law of France is, virtually,
the Code Napoléon. The parties to the present contract being
Mohammedans, it will be construed by their law, and it is not repugnant
to it. If, on the contrary, the damsel were a Christian, the French
commandant at Biskra would tear the contract to pieces, since it is
against morals. Better yet, if you were a Christian, and the damsel
your wife, you might hold her in Biskra against the world."
Abdullah sat silent, his eyes half closed.
"Monsieur," he said at length, "is it very difficult to become a
The Man who Keeps Goats sat silent—in his turn.
"My son," he said, finally, "I myself am a priest of the Church. I have
lived in the desert for twenty years, but I have never been unfrocked.
I cannot answer you, but I can tell you what a wiser than I declared to
a desert traveller who put this same question nineteen hundred years
He took up the book upon the table, turned a few pages, and read—"'And
the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward
the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which
is desert. And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, a
eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who
had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to
worship, was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the
prophet…. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the
prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? And he
said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip
that he would come up and sit with him…. Then Philip opened his
mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.
And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and
the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be
"'And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.
And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of
"'And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both
into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.'"
Scarcely had the reader ceased when Abdullah sprang to his feet.
"Father," he cried, "see, here is water. What doth hinder me to be
"My son," said the old man, "how canst thou believe with all thine
heart? No Philip has preached Jesus unto thee."
"What need?" exclaimed Abdullah. "Can a man's belief need preaching to
in such a case as this? How long must I believe a religion that saves
her I love? A month, a year, until it avails nothing, and she is gone?
This eunuch was a blacker man than I; like me, he was a man of the
desert. He did not ride with Philip long. I have not only heard what
Philip said to him, but I have also heard what you have said to me.
Both of you have preached unto me Jesus. What right have you to doubt
my belief in a God who will save my love to me? Again, I ask you, what
doth hinder me to be baptized?"
"Nothing," said the old man, and they went out both to the well,
sparkling beneath the palms, both Abdullah and the Man who Keeps Goats;
and he baptized him.
When Abdullah rose from his knees, his forehead dripping, he drew his
hand across his face and asked, "Am I a Christian?"
"Yes," said the priest, "so far as I can make you one."
"Thank you," said Abdullah; "you have done much, and in the morning you
shall do more, for then you shall baptize the damsel and shall marry us
according to your—pardon me—our religion."
They entered the hut, and the priest, pointing toward the chamber-door,
asked: "Does she believe?"
"She believes what I believe," said Abdullah.
The priest shook his head. "You speak," he said, "not as a Christian,
but as a Moslem. You were brought up to look upon woman as a mere
adjunct, a necessary evil, necessary because men must be born into the
world. A female child, with you, was a reproach; she was scarcely seen
by her parents until she was brought out to be sold in marriage. With
Christians it is different. A woman has a soul—"
"Hush," said Abdullah, "or you will awaken the camels with that strange
doctrine. A woman has a soul, has she? You read me no such proposition
from your prophets, a half-hour ago. Woman was not mentioned by Philip
or by the Ethiopian in what you read to me. Is there aught in your book
that argues that woman has a soul?"
"Doubtless," said the priest, "but I do not recall it."
He caught up his Bible. He opened it unluckily, for the first words
that met his eye were these, and he read them: "Woman, what have I to
do with thee?" and he paused, embarrassed.
"Whose words were those?" asked Abdullah.
The priest hesitated, crossed himself, and answered: "They were the
words of Jesus."
"To whom were they spoken?" asked Abdullah.
The answer lagged. Finally, the priest said, "To His mother."
"Master," said Abdullah, "the more I learn of my new religion, the more
I am enamoured of it;" and he went to the chamber-door and knocked.
"Beloved," he said, and waited.
He knocked again, and again he said, "Beloved."
"Who art thou?" came a voice.
"'Tis I, Abdullah," he said.
"Enter," said the voice.
"Not so," said Abdullah; "but come you out."
"Art thou alone?" asked the voice.
"No," replied Abdullah, "the man who keeps goats is here."
"I have no light," said the voice.
Abdullah took the taper from the table, opened the door six inches,
felt a warm soft hand meet his own, pressed it, left the taper in it,
closed the door, and groped in darkness to his seat.
"Father," he said, after some moments of silence, "have women souls?"
"Doubtless," answered the priest.
"God help them," said Abdullah; "have they not trouble enough, without
souls to save?"
The two men sat silent in the darkness.
The door creaked, a line of light appeared; the door swung wide out,
and on the threshold stood Nicha, the taper in her hand.
The two men sat silent, gazing.
She had put off her outer costume of white linen and stood dressed for
the house, the seraglio. Upon her head was a chachia, a little velvet
cap, embroidered with seed-pearls. Her bust was clothed with a rlila,
or bolero of brocaded silk, beneath which was a vest of muslin, heavy
with gold buttons. About her slim waist was a fouta, or scarf of
striped silk. Below came the serroual, wide trousers of white silk
that ended mid-leg. Upon her feet were blue velvet slippers, pointed,
turned up at the toes and embroidered with gold. About her ankles were
redeefs, or bangles of emeralds, pierced, and strung on common
string. At her wrists hung a multitude of bangles, and on her bare left
arm, near the shoulder, was a gold wire that pinched the flesh, and
from it hung a filigree medallion that covered her crest, tattooed
beneath the skin. It is always so with the tribe of Ouled Nail.
This was the costume of the woman, but the woman herself, as she stood
in the doorway, the taper in her hand, who may describe her? Tall,
lithe, laughing—her black hair, braided, tied behind her neck, and
still reaching the ground; her eyebrows straight as though pencilled;
her ears small and closely set; her nose straight and thin, with
fluttering nostrils; her shoulders sloping; her bust firm and pulsating
beneath her linen vest; her slender waist; her little feet, in the blue
velvet slippers; the charm of breeding and of youth; the added charm of
jewels and of soft textures; what wonder that the two men sat silent
Abdullah spoke first. "Beloved," he said, "I have broken your night's
rest that you may have eternal rest."
The girl laughed. "That is a long way off," she said. "The cemetery,
with the cypress-trees, is beautiful, but this hut, with thee, is
better. Why did you wake me?"
"Because, since you slept," said Abdullah, "I have changed my
"Good," exclaimed the girl; "then I change mine. I am tired of a
religion that makes me plait my hair for eight hours of the day and
sends no man to see it."
"What religion do you choose?" asked Abdullah.
"Yours," said the girl, seating herself and dropping her hands,
interlaced, and covered with turquoise rings, about her knees; "why
should a woman question anything when her husband has passed upon it?"
"Did I not tell thee?" said Abdullah.
"Yes," said the priest, "but I waited for her own words."
"You have them now," said Abdullah, and they went out to the spring.
"I name thee Marie," said the priest, "since it is the name borne by
the Mother of our Lord."
"Ah," said the girl, "I was baptized Fathma, after the Mother of the
Prophet. There seems to be not so much difference thus far."
When the sacrament had been administered and they had returned to the
hut, the priest addressed his converts. "My children," he said, "in
order to do a great right I have done a little wrong. I have baptized
you into a religion that you know nothing of. How should you? You,
Abdullah—I beg your pardon, Philip—that was the name I gave you, was
"You, Philip," resumed the priest, "have changed your religion to win a
woman whom you love; and you, Marie, have changed yours because the man
you love bade you. Neither of you knows anything of the faith you have
adopted. I have had no chance to instruct you; but one thing I declare
to you, the Christian religion tolerates but one husband and one wife."
Nicha rose, pale, hesitating. She stepped slowly into the light. Her
beauty added to the light.
"Beloved," she said, "knew you this?"
"No," he said, "but I know it now, and welcome it."
"Oh, my beloved," she cried, "to think that you are all my own, that I
do not have to share you," and she flung her arms about him.
"Hush," said the priest, "or, as Philip says, you will wake the
"Father," asked Abdullah, "will you now marry us, since we are
"I would," answered the priest, "but it is necessary to have two
Abdullah's face fell, but in an instant it brightened again. He went to
the door of the hut and stood, listening. In a moment he turned and
said, "Allah is good, or, rather, God is good. This new religion works
well. Here are our witnesses."
And, even as he spoke, there came out of the darkness the halt-cry of
"It is Ali," said Abdullah, "and Nicha's maid is with him. They have
caught us up."
He ran out and found the camels kneeling and Ali easing the surcingles.
"Ali," he cried, "you must change your religion."
"Willingly," said Ali; "what shall the new one be? The old one has done
little for me."
"Christian," said Abdullah.
"That suits me," said Ali; "under it one may drink wine, and one may
curse. It is a useful religion for a trader."
"And the maid?" asked Abdullah.
"We have travelled a day and a part of a night together," said Ali,
"and she will believe what I tell her to believe."
"The old religion is good in some respects," said Abdullah. "Call the
maid;" and they went to the hut.
"Here are the witnesses," said Abdullah, "ready to be Christians."
"It is not necessary," said the priest, "if they can make their mark;
that is all that is required."
So, in the little hut, before an improvised altar, they were
married—the camel-driver and the daughter of the Chief of Ouled Nail.
The next morning the caravan took up the march for Biskra.
THE MOTHER OF THE ALMEES
It was the great fast of Rhamadan, and the square of Biskra was crowded
with white-robed men waiting for the sun to set that they might eat.
The rough pavement was dotted with fires over which simmered pots
filled with what only a very jealous God indeed would have called food.
About them were huddled the traders from the bazaars, the camel-drivers
from the desert, the water-carriers from Bab el Derb. Each man held a
cigarette in his left hand and a match in his right. He would smoke
before he ate.
In the long arcades the camels, in from the Soudan, knelt, fasting. An
Arab led a tame lion into the square and the beast held back on his
chain as he passed the flesh-pots, for he, too, was fasting. Crowds of
little children stood about the circle of the fires, fasting. A God was
being placated by the sufferings of His creatures.
There is little twilight in the latitude of Biskra. There is the hard,
white light of the daytime, five minutes of lavender and running
shadows, and then the purple blackness of the night.
The mueddin took his place on the minaret of the mosque. His shadow ran
to the centre of the square and stopped. He cried his admonition, each
white-robed figure bowed to the earth in supplication, a cannon-shot at
the citadel split the hot air, and in an instant the square was dotted
with sparks. Each worshipper had struck his match. The fast was over
The silence became a Babel. All fell to eating and to talking. A
marabout, graceful as a Greek statue, came out of the mosque and made
his way among the fires. As he passed, the squatting Mussulmans caught
at his robe and kissed it. Mirza, the mother of the Almee girls, her
golden necklaces glinting in the firelight, came walking by. As she
passed the marabout he drew back and held his white burnoose across his
face. She bent her knee and then went on, but as she passed she laughed
and whispered, "Which trade pays best, yours or mine?" and she shook
"Daughter," said the marabout, "there is but one God."
"Yes," she replied, "but He has many prophets, and, of them all, you
are the most beautiful," and she went on.
An officer of spahis rode in and, stopping his horse before the
arched door of the commandant, stood motionless. The square was filled
with color, with life, with foreignness, with the dancing flames, the
leaping shadows, the fumes of the cook-pots, the odor of Arabian
tobacco, the clamor of all the dialects of North Africa.
A bugle sounded. Out of a side street trotted a cavalcade. The iron
shoes of the horses rang on the pavement, and the steel chains of the
curbs tinkled. The commandant dismounted and gave his bridle to his
The commandant walked through the square. He wore a fatigue cap, a
sky-blue blouse, with white loopings, white breeches, tight at the
knee, and patent-leather boots, with box spurs. He walked through the
square slowly, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He was not only the
commandant but he was the commissioner of police. With seventy men he
ruled ten thousand, and he knew his weakness. The knowledge of his
weakness was his strength.
As he walked through the square he met Mirza. He passed her without a
sign of recognition and she, on her part, was looking at the minaret of
In their official capacities they were strangers. On certain occasions,
when the commandant was in mufti they had, at least, passed the time
of day. The commandant walked through the long rows of fires, speaking
to a merchant here, nodding to a date-grower there, casting quick
glances and saying nothing to the spies who, mingling with the people,
sat about the kouss-kouss pots, and reported to the commandant, each
morning, the date set for his throat-cutting. This was many years ago,
before there was a railroad to Biskra.
The commandant, having made the round of the fires, crossed over to his
house under the arcades. He dismissed the sergeant and the guard, and
they rode away to the barracks, the hoof-beats dying in the distance.
The spahi remained, silent, motionless. The commandant was about to
enter his door, when a man sprang from behind one of the pillars of the
arcade and held out to him a paper. The commandant put his hands behind
his back. The spahi edged his horse up closely.
"Who are you?" asked the commandant, in French.
The man shook his head, but still held out the paper.
"Who are you?" asked the commandant again, but now in Arabic.
"I am Ali, the slave of Abdullah," answered the man, "and he sends you
The commandant remained motionless. "Will your horse stand, corporal?"
he asked of the spahi.
"Perfectly, my colonel."
"Leave him, then," said the commandant, "and bring one of your
The spahi gathered his long blue cloak off the quarters of his horse,
took a revolver from its holster, swung his right leg over his horse's
head, so that he might not for an instant turn his back, threw the
reins over his horse's neck, brought the heels of his red boots
together, saluted, and stood silent.
The horse began to play with the pendant reins and to shift his
"Go in," said the commandant, and the spahi opened the door. "You
next," and Ali followed. The commandant brought up the rear.
They entered at once not a hall but a room. So all Eastern houses are
ordered. A lamp was burning, the walls were hung with maps of France
and of North Africa, a few shelves held a few books and many tin cases
labelled "Forage," "Hospital," "Police." Behind a desk sat a little
man, dressed in black, who was dealing cards to himself in a game of
solitaire. He rose and bowed when the commandant entered, and then he
went on with his game.
"Stand there," said the commandant, pointing to a corner, "and put your
hands over your head."
"Search him," said the commandant.
The spahi began at Ali's hair and ended with his sandals.
"He has nothing," he reported.
"Now give me the letter," said the commandant.
Ali twisted himself, fumbled at his waist, and drew out a knife. He
placed it on the desk, smiling.
"Do not blame the corporal for overlooking this," he said; "I am so
thin from the journey that he took it for one of my ribs."
"I will trust you," said the commandant, and he took the letter.
The little man in black kept dealing solitaire.
The commandant read the letter to himself and laughed, and then he read
"_To Monsieur the COUNT D'APREMONT, Commandant at Biskra.
"MONSIEUR: Since last I saw you strange things have happened. I have
turned Christian, and I have married. I wonder at which of these
statements you will laugh most.
"May I bring my wife to your house? She will be the only Christian
woman in Biskra. Say 'yes' or 'no' to the bearer. I am halted a mile
outside of the town, awaiting your answer.
"Mirza, the mother of the Almees, has a certain claim upon my wife; how
valid I do not know. I need counsel, but first of all I need shelter.
May I come?_
"Of course he may come," said the commandant; "what is to prevent?"
"The law, perhaps," said the little man in black, shuffling the cards.
The commandant turned quickly. "Why the law, Monsieur the Chancellor?"
"Because," answered the little man, still shuffling the cards, "he says
that Mirza has a certain claim upon his wife, how valid he does not
know; and he needs counsel and he needs shelter. When a man writes like
this, he also needs a lawyer;" and he commenced a new deal.
The commandant stood a moment, thinking. Then he raised his head with a
jerk, and said to Ali: "Tell your master that I say 'yes.'"
Ali made salaam and glided from the room.
"He has left his knife," said the lawyer.
The commandant turned to the spahi. "Corporal," he said, "go to the
citadel and bring back twelve men. Place six of them at the entrance of
the square, and six of them before my house. When Abdullah's caravan
has entered the square, have the further six close in behind. You may
take your time. It will be an hour before you are needed."
The spahi saluted, and went out.
The commandant turned to the little man in black.
"Why in the world," he asked, "did you object to my harboring Abdullah?
He is my friend and yours. He is the best man that crosses the desert.
He has eaten our salt many times. If all here were like him, you and I
might go home to France, with our medals and our pensions."
"True," said the lawyer, gathering his cards, "and very likely there is
no risk in harboring him and his wife." He shuffled the cards
mechanically, his eyes fixed on the opposite wall.
"My friend," he said, at length, "whom do you consider the most
powerful person in Biskra, the person to be first reckoned with?"
The commandant laughed. "As I am in command," he said, "I should be
court-martialled if I denied my own superiority."
"And yet," said the lawyer, "you are only a poor second."
The commandant, who was sitting astride of his chair, his hands upon
its back, demi-vaulted as if he were in the saddle of a polo pony.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
The lawyer kept shuffling the cards, but he paid no attention to them.
"Go to the window," he said, "and tell me what you see."
The commandant rose, and went to the window, his spurs jingling. He
drew the curtain and looked out.
"What do you see?" asked the counsellor.
"I see the square," answered the commandant, "with five hundred
kettle-lights, and three thousand Mussulmans gorging themselves, making
up lost time."
"Look over at the left corner," said the lawyer.
"I see the mosque," said the commandant, "with its lamps burning."
"There you have it," cried the lawyer. "This religion that you and I
are sent to conquer keeps its lamps burning constantly, while the
religion that comes to conquer lights its candles only for the mass.
Mankind loves light and warmth. What do you see now?"
"I see Mirza," replied the commandant; "she is walking up the centre
line of the fires. Now she stops. She meets a man, draws him hurriedly
aside, and is speaking close to his ear."
"Has he a green turban?" asked the lawyer. "Has he been to Mecca?"
"Yes," answered the commandant.
"There you see the most powerful person in Biskra," said the
"Who?" asked the commandant. "The man in the green turban?"
"No," said the lawyer, "the woman he is speaking to."
"Mirza?" exclaimed the commandant.
"Yes," said the lawyer. "The centre of affairs, since the world was
sent spinning, has always been a woman. Who placed the primal curse of
labor on the race? Was it the man, Adam, or the woman, Eve?"
"As I remember," said the commandant, "the serpent was the prime mover
in that affair."
"Yes," said the lawyer; "but being 'more subtile than any beast in the
field,' he knew that if he caught the woman the man would follow of his
own accord. Julius Caesar and Antony were dwarfed by Cleopatra. Helen
of Troy set the world ablaze. Joan of Arc saved France. Catharine I
saved Peter the Great. Catharine II made Russia. Marie Antoinette ruled
Louis XVI and lost a crown and her head. Fat Anne of England and Sarah
Jennings united England and Scotland. Eugénie and the milliners lost
Alsace and Lorraine. Victoria made her country the mistress of the
world. I have named many women who have played great parts in this
drama which we call life. How many of them were good women? By 'good' I
do not mean virtuous, but simply 'good.'"
"Out of your list," said the commandant, "I should name Joan of Arc and
"A woman," repeated the lawyer, "is the centre of every affair. When
you go back to France, what are you looking forward to?"
"My wife's kiss," said the commandant. "And you, since you are a
"The scolding of my housekeeper," said the lawyer, and he shrugged his
The commandant laughed. "But what of Mirza?" he asked. "Why is she so
"For the same reason that your wife and my housekeeper are powerful,"
said the lawyer; "she is a woman."
"A woman here," said the commandant, "is a slave."
"A good woman, I grant you," said the lawyer, "but a bad woman, if
she chance to be beautiful, is an empress. Do you know how many men it
takes to officer a mosque of the first class, such a one as we have
here? Twelve," and he dropped the cards and began to count his fingers.
"Two mueddins the chaps that call to prayer; two tolbas who read
the litanies; two hezzabin, who read the Koran; a mufti who
interprets the law; a khetib who recites the prayer for the chief of
the government each Friday, and who is very unpopular; an iman who
reads the five daily prayers; a chaouch who is a secretary to the
last of the list, the oukil who collects the funds and pays them out.
The oukil is the man who governs the mosque. He is the man in the
green turban whom you saw talking with Mirza. They are partners. He
attends to the world, she to the flesh, and both to the devil. It is a
strong partnership. It is what, in America, they call a 'trust.' The
oukil sends his clients to Mirza, and she sends hers to the oukil.
Look out of the window again. There are three thousand religionists who
have passed through the hands of the oukil and Mirza, and she, making
the most money, has the last word. Do you ask, now, why she is the most
powerful person in Biskra?"
"It seems," said the commandant, "that it is because she is a woman,
and is bad."
"And beautiful," added the lawyer.
"Do you think her beautiful?" asked the commandant.
The lawyer thought a moment. "Did you ever see a hunting-leopard?" he
"No," said the commandant.
"I used to see them," said the lawyer, "when I was in Sumatra, looking
after the affairs of some Frenchmen who were buying pearls from the
oyster-beds of Arippo. They were horribly beautiful. Mirza reminds me
of them, especially when she seizes her prey. Most beasts of prey are
satisfied when they have killed all that they can devour; but the
hunting-leopard kills because she loves to kill. So does Mirza. She
destroys because she loves to destroy. A hunting-leopard and Mirza are
the only two absolutely cruel creatures I have ever seen. Of course,"
he added, "I eliminate the English, who deem the day misspent unless
they have killed something, and who give infinite pains and tenderness
to the raising of pheasants, that they may slaughter a record number
of them at a battue. Aside from a hunting-leopard and a hunting-
Englishman, I know of no being so cruel as Mirza; no being that
takes such delight in mere extermination. They used to call our
nobility, in the time of Louis XIV and Louis XV, cruel, but they did
not kill, they merely taxed. In the height of the ancient régime, it
was not good form to kill a peasant, because then the country had one
less taxpayer. The height of the art was to take all the peasant had
and then to induce him to set to work again. When he had earned another
surplus, his lord came and took it. France had an accomplished
nobility. England had a brutal one. The latter used to take all the
eggs out of the nest and then kill the hen. The French noble took all
the eggs but one or two, and spared the hen. He could rob a nest a
dozen times and his English contemporary could rob it but once."
"My friend," said the commandant, laughing, "you reassure me. When you
begin comparing England with France, I know that you have nothing of
importance at hand and that your mind is kicking up its heels in
vacation. You have a charming mind, my friend, but it has been
prostituted to the law. If you had been bred a soldier—"
He stopped, because the murmur of the square suddenly stopped. The
cessation of a familiar clamor is more startling than a sudden cry. The
two men ran to the window. The fires under the pots were still burning
and the square was light as day. At the opposite side, where the
caravan road debouched, three thousand white-robed Mussulmans stood,
silent. Above them the commandant and the lawyer could see the heads of
the six spahis, they and their horses silent. Beyond, were the heads
of many camels. The commandant threw up the sash. Across the silent
square came a woman's voice, speaking Arabic in the dialect of Ouled
"That is Mirza," said the lawyer.
Then there came a man's voice, evidently in reply.
"That is Abdullah," said the lawyer.
"How can you distinguish at this distance?" asked the commandant.
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders. "While you are drilling your
soldiers," he said, "I am drilling myself. If a man yonder sneezes, I
can name his tribe. A sneeze, being involuntary, cannot be artificial,
and therefore it is the true index of race and character. Take the
Oriental Express any night from Paris to Vienna. If you will sit up
late enough and walk up and down the aisle, you may tell from the
sneezes and the coughs the nationality of the occupant of each berth. A
German sneezes with all his might, and if there is a compatriot within
hearing he says, 'Gesundheit.' An Italian sneezes as if it were a
crime, with his hand over his face."
"Hush," said the commandant.
Out from the white-robed crowd came two forms, Mirza and the oukil.
Mirza held a paper in her hand. They went to the nearest fire and Mirza
gave the paper to the man with the green turban. He read it, thought a
moment, read it again, and then the two went back to the silent crowd
by the mosque. There was conversation, there were vehement exclamations
which, if they had been in English, would have been oaths—there was a
sudden movement of the horses and the camels; the outskirts of the
crowd surged and broke, and then, above their heads, flashed the sabres
of the spahis.
The commandant went to the door. "Corporal," he said, "take your men to
the mosque, join your comrades, and bring to me Abdullah, his wife,
Mirza, and the oukil."
The corporal saluted, gave an order, and the little troop trotted
across the square. The commandant closed the shutters of the window.
"I do not care to see the row," he said, and he lit a cigarette. But if
he did not see the row, he heard it, for presently came the yelp and
snarl of an Oriental mob.
"It is growing warm," said the commandant. "Hospitality cannot be
lightly practised here."
"Nor anywhere," said the lawyer, who had resumed his cards; "because it
is a virtue, and the virtues are out of vogue. The only really
successful life, as the world looks upon success now, is an absolutely
selfish life. It is the day of specialists, of men with one idea, one
object, and the successful man is the one who permits nothing to come
between him and his object. Wife, children, honor, friendship, ease,
all must give place to the grand pursuit; be it the gathering of
wealth, the discovery of a disease germ, the culture of orchids, or the
breeding of a honey-bee that works night and day. Human life is too
short to permit a man to do more than one thing well, and money is
becoming so common that its possessors require the best of everything."
"Old friend," said the commandant, "you are a many-sided man, and yet
you are one of the best lawyers in France."
"You have said it," exclaimed the lawyer; "one of the best, not the
best. The one thing I have earnestly striven for I have not attained."
"What is that?" asked the commandant. "Do you wish to be Minister of
"No," said the lawyer; "but I should like to be known as the best
player of Napoleon solitaire."
A sabre-hilt rapped on the door.
"Enter," cried the commandant.
The door opened, and there entered first the sharp cries of the mob,
and then the corporal, Abdullah, a woman clothed all in white, the
oukil, and, last of all, Mirza. The moment she was within the room
she dominated it. The other occupants were blotted out by comparison.
She entered, debonair, smiling, and, as she crossed the threshold, she
flung up her hand in a military salute.
"Hail, my masters," she cried in Arabic. "Would you believe it? but
just now I was nearly robbed, before your windows, of merchandise that
cost me thirty ounces."
"Be good enough to speak French," said the commandant; "it is the
etiquette of the office."
"And to you?" exclaimed Mirza, in the speech of Paris, "to you, who
speak such charming Arabic. It was only last week, the evening you did
me the honor of supping with me, that Miriam—perhaps you will pay her
the compliment of remembering her—the little girl who played and
danced for you, and who, when you were going, hooked on your sword for
you, and gave you a light from her cigarette?—well, Miriam said, when
you were gone, 'It is a pity the gracious commandant speaks any
language save Arabic, he speaks that so convincingly.' What could you
have whispered to her, Monsieur le Commandant, as you left my poor
The commandant moved nervously in his chair and glanced out of the
corner of his eye at the lawyer, who had resumed his cards. Reassured
by the apparent abstraction of his friend, the commandant gathered
himself and essayed a pleasantry.
"I told her," he said, "that if she lived to be twice her age, she
might be half as beautiful as you."
Mirza made an exaggerated courtesy and threw a mocking kiss from her
finger-tips. "I thought," she said, "that a woman's age was something
that no well-bred Frenchman would speak of." Then she drew herself up
and her face, from mocking, became hard and cruel.
"I know," she said, slowly, "that I am old. I am eight-and-twenty. I
was a wife at twelve, and a mother at thirteen. Such matters are
ordered differently here, Monsieur. A girl is a woman before she has
had any childhood. I married Ilderhim. Of course, I had never seen him
until we stood before the cadi. I had the misfortune to bear him a
daughter, and he cursed me. When I was fourteen, a Russian Grand Duke
came to Biskra and my husband sold me to him. I refused to submit
myself. Then Ilderhim beat me and turned me out of his house. You
understand, Monsieur le Commandant, that under our blessed religion a
man may have as many wives as he chooses and may divorce them when he
chooses. Well, there I was, without a husband, without a home, without
my child, and I passed the night in the arcades, among the camels. The
next morning I went to the hotel and asked for the Grand Duke.
'Monsieur,' I said to him, 'I am Mirza. I would not sell myself to
you, but if you will take me as a gift, behold, here am I.' He took me
to Paris, to Vienna, to St. Petersburg. For a year he did not tire of
me. That was a long time for a savage to amuse a Grand Duke, was it
not? Then one day he gave me money, bade me keep the jewels he had
given me, and sent me back to Biskra. Since then I have been, first a
dancing-girl, and then, the mother of them all. I have never given the
authorities any trouble. I have observed the laws of France. What will
the laws of France do for me?" and she handed to the commandant the
invoice which Abdullah had brought with his freight.
The commandant read the paper and his face grew troubled.
"Chancellor," he said, "is this binding?"
The lawyer read the paper twice. "Yes," he said, "it is a mere hiring;
it is not a sale. I don't see how we can interfere."
"Mirza," said the commandant, "it seems that you have a good contract,
under Moslem law."
"Excellent," cried the oukil, rubbing his hands.
"Silence," thundered the commandant. "Speak French, and that only when
you are spoken to. Abdullah, have you anything which you wish to say to
Abdullah bent and whispered in the ear of the girl who sat trembling;
then he stepped forward.
"Monsieur le Commandant," he said, "will you have the kindness to read
this?" and he held out a paper. It was yellow with age and of quarto
size and twice folded. The commandant took it, unfolded it, and read
aloud, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen."
"Why, this is the last page of a Bible," he said.
"I do not know," said Abdullah. "He tore it from a book upon his table.
It was the only paper that he had. Upon the other side is writing."
The commandant reversed the paper and again read:
THIS is to Certify that on the nineteenth day of February,
187-, in the Oasis of Zama, in the Great Sahara, having first
baptized them, I did unite in marriage Philip (formerly Abdullah)
and Marie (formerly Nicha), in accordance with the rites of our
Who Keeps Goats.
Ali, the son of Ali X
ZINA, parentage unknown X
"Ah, ha," exclaimed the lawyer, "this changes the complexion of
affairs," and he threw the cards upon the floor. "I could swear to
Joseph's handwriting, I have his IOU's, but as I am now sitting as a
magistrate, I cannot swear to anything. Where are the witnesses,
"With the camels, across the square," said Abdullah; "if you will
permit the corporal to go for them—"
"Pardon," said the oukil; "if I am permitted to speak I can save you
the trouble. We admit all that the goatherd certifies."
"Then," said the chancellor, "you admit yourselves out of court, since,
if one Christian marries another, the law of France obtains, and this
contract which Mirza produces is abhorrent to the law of France, being
"Pardon," said the oukil. "In every word you speak I recognize my
master, but is it not possible that my master may nod? As one of a
conquered people, I have studied the code of my conqueror. It is true
that a religious ceremony has been performed here, but how about the
civil marriage which, as I read the French code, is absolutely
The lawyer sat silent. Then he put out his hand. "My friend," he said,
"I have done you a great wrong. I have looked upon you as a mere
religionist. It seems that you are a student. You remind me of my duty.
I, as the chief legal officer of this colony, should marry these people
at once. Thank you many times for reminding me."
"Pardon," said the oukil; "but if I have read the laws of France
aright, there cannot be a civil marriage without the consent of the
"My friend," said the lawyer, "will you place me doubly in your debt by
shaking hands with me a second time? If you were to exchange your green
turban for the silk hat of the boulevards, your photograph would soon
be in the shops. You know my law much better than I know yours, and I
shake hands with you intellectually, not socially. Who is your father,
Abdullah?" he asked.
"I do not know his name," answered Abdullah; "he was a camel-driver of
"And your mother?" asked the lawyer.
"How can one, born as I, know his mother?" replied Abdullah.
"And you," said the lawyer, turning to Nicha, "who is your father?"
"Ilderhim of El Merb," she answered.
"And your mother?" asked the lawyer.
"She died before I can remember."
"Her father, Ilderhim," said the oukil, "signs the invoice which you
have read. He does not consent."
"He is nobody," said the lawyer. "He was banished from Algeria years
ago. It is as though he had never existed."
"I had overlooked that," said the oukil; and then he added, "As the
mistake this time is mine, perhaps you will again shake hands."
"No," said the lawyer; "I pay penance only when I am in the wrong."
The oukil bowed low, but when he drew himself up to his full height
there was murder in his eye.
"Well," said the commandant, "what is the solution?"
"I advise you," said the lawyer, "that this contract comes under the
law of France and is void, because it is immoral and opposed to public
policy. It comes under the law of France because the young woman is a
Christian and has married a Christian. The religious marriage is
complete. The civil marriage is only delayed that the young woman may
present proofs of her mother's death. Her father is already civilly
"Mirza," said the commandant, "do you hear?"
"Yes," she said, "I hear, and, being a woman, I am accustomed to such
decisions. I pay thirty ounces to Ilderhim for two years' hire of a
girl. The girl turns Christian and I lose the thirty ounces."
"Not so," said Abdullah; "they are here," and he placed a bag upon the
"Take it," said Mirza; and she tossed it to the oukil.
"To make his contract good," she continued, "Ilderhim, my former
husband, pays sixteen or seventeen ounces' freight on the girl and her
maid. The girl turns Christian. Who loses the freight?"
"I," said Abdullah, and he placed another bag upon the table.
"Take it," said Mirza, and the oukil grasped it.
"Let us see this girl who has kept us all up so late," said Mirza, and
she strode over to Nicha. Abdullah put out his hand to keep her off.
"You've won," she said; "why be disagreeable? Let us see what you have
gained and I have lost," and she stripped the veil and the outer
garment from the girl, who sat passive. When the veil and the burnoose
fell, the beauty of the girl filled the room as would a perfume.
The commandant and the lawyer sat speechless, gazing. The oukil wrung
his hands and exclaimed: "What have we lost!" Abdullah stood, proud and
happy. The corporal at the door shifted his feet and rattled his
side-arms, and Mirza laughed. Then she stepped back a pace; the
laughter died upon her lips, and her hands flew to her bosom.
"Little one," she said, "the life you would have lived with me would
not have been so hard when one remembers what the life of woman is, at
best. It is to amuse, to serve, to obey. You are too young to
understand. You are, perhaps, fourteen?"
"Yes," said Nicha.
"When I was fourteen," said Mirza, "I too was beautiful; at least my
husband and my mirror told me so. There is something in your face that
reminds me of the face I used to see in my glass, but when one grows
old, and I am eight-and-twenty, one is sure to see resemblances that do
not exist. How prettily they have dressed you! Did Ilderhim, your
father, give you these silks and these emeralds?"
"Yes," said Nicha.
"If you are hoping to be a good wife," said Mirza, "you must not think
too much of silks and jewels. When I was in Paris, with the Grand Duke,
I noticed that the women who had sold themselves had taken their pay in
pearls and diamonds. The honest women went more soberly. I see you are
of the old tribe—the tribe of Ouled Nail. Let me see your name."
She raised the filigree medallion that hung upon Nicha's upper arm. She
looked at the tattooed crest, started, drew her hand across her eyes,
looked again, and fell to trembling. She stood a moment, swaying, and
then she staggered to the commandant's table. She rested one hand upon
it and with the other she began playing with Ali's knife. Her face was
gray but her lips were pitifully smiling.
"Monsieur the Chancellor," she said, each word a sob, "you need no
longer delay the civil marriage.—I consent to it,—This is my
daughter.—It seems," she added, in a whisper, "that Allah has not
altogether forgotten me.—He has saved my child from me." And with an
exceeding bitter cry she went out.