THE GARDEN OF ALLAH
This text was prepared from an edition published by Grosset & Dunlap, New York. It was originally published in 1904.
BOOK I. PRELUDE BOOK II. THE VOICE OF PRAYER BOOK III. THE GARDEN BOOK IV. THE JOURNEY BOOK V. THE REVELATION BOOK VI. THE JOURNEY BACK
THE GARDEN OF ALLAH
BOOK I. PRELUDE
The fatigue caused by a rough sea journey, and, perhaps, the consciousness that she would have to be dressed before dawn to catch the train for Beni-Mora, prevented Domini Enfilden from sleeping. There was deep silence in the Hotel de la Mer at Robertville. The French officers who took their pension there had long since ascended the hill of Addouna to the barracks. The cafes had closed their doors to the drinkers and domino players. The lounging Arab boys had deserted the sandy Place de la Marine. In their small and dusky bazaars the Israelites had reckoned up the takings of the day, and curled themselves up in gaudy quilts on their low divans to rest. Only two or three gendarmes were still about, and a few French and Spaniards at the Port, where, moored against the wharf, lay the steamer Le General Bertrand, in which Domini had arrived that evening from Marseilles.
In the hotel the fair and plump Italian waiter, who had drifted to North Africa from Pisa, had swept up the crumbs from the two long tables in the salle-a-manger, smoked a thin, dark cigar over a copy of the Depeche Algerienne, put the paper down, scratched his blonde head, on which the hair stood up in bristles, stared for a while at nothing in the firm manner of weary men who are at the same time thoughtless and depressed, and thrown himself on his narrow bed in the dusty corner of the little room on the stairs near the front door. Madame, the landlady, had laid aside her front and said her prayer to the Virgin. Monsieur, the landlord, had muttered his last curse against the Jews and drunk his last glass of rum. They snored like honest people recruiting their strength for the morrow. In number two Suzanne Charpot, Domini's maid, was dreaming of the Rue de Rivoli.
But Domini with wide-open eyes, was staring from her big, square pillow at the red brick floor of her bedroom, on which stood various trunks marked by the officials of the Douane. There were two windows in the room looking out towards the Place de la Marine, below which lay the station. Closed persiennes of brownish-green, blistered wood protected them. One of these windows was open. Yet the candle at Domini's bedside burnt steadily. The night was warm and quiet, without wind.
As she lay there, Domini still felt the movement of the sea. The passage had been a bad one. The ship, crammed with French recruits for the African regiments, had pitched and rolled almost incessantly for thirty-one hours, and Domini and most of the recruits had been ill. Domini had had an inner cabin, with a skylight opening on to the lower deck, and heard above the sound of the waves and winds their groans and exclamations, rough laughter, and half-timid, half-defiant conversations as she shook in her berth. At Marseilles she had seen them come on board, one by one, dressed in every variety of poor costume, each one looking anxiously around to see what the others were like, each one carrying a mean yellow or black bag or a carefully-tied bundle. On the wharf stood a Zouave, in tremendous red trousers and a fez, among great heaps of dull brown woollen rugs. And as the recruits came hesitatingly along he stopped them with a sharp word, examined the tickets they held out, gave each one a rug, and pointed to the gangway that led from the wharf to the vessel. Domini, then leaning over the rail of the upper deck, had noticed the different expressions with which the recruits looked at the Zouave. To all of them he was a phenomenon, a mystery of Africa and of the new life for which they were embarking. He stood there impudently and indifferently among the woollen rugs, his red fez pushed well back on his short, black hair cut en brosse, his bronzed face twisted into a grimace of fiery contempt, throwing, with his big and muscular arms, rug after rug to the anxious young peasants who filed before him. They all gazed at his legs in the billowing red trousers; some like children regarding a Jack-in-the-box which had just sprung up into view, others like ignorant, but superstitious, people who had unexpectedly come upon a shrine by the wayside. One or two seemed disposed to laugh nervously, as the very stupid laugh at anything they see for the first time. But fear seized them. They refrained convulsively and shambled on to the gangway, looking sideways, like fowls, and holding their rugs awkwardly to their breasts with their dirty, red hands.
To Domini there was something pitiful in the sight of all these lads, uprooted from their homes in France, stumbling helplessly on board this ship that was to convey them to Africa. They crowded together. Their poor bundles and bags jostled one against the other. With their clumsy boots they trod on each other's feet. And yet all were lonely strangers. No two in the mob seemed to be acquaintances. And every lad, each in his different way, was furtively on the defensive, uneasily wondering whether some misfortune might not presently come to him from one of these unknown neighbours.
A few of the recruits, as they came on board, looked up at Domini as she leant over the rail; and in all the different coloured and shaped eyes she thought she read a similar dread and nervous hope that things might turn out pretty well for them in the new existence that had to be faced. The Zouave, wholly careless or unconscious of the fact that he was an incarnation of Africa to these raw peasants, who had never before stirred beyond the provinces where they were born, went on taking the tickets, and tossing the woollen rugs to the passing figures, and pointing ferociously to the gangway. He got very tired of his task towards the end, and showed his fatigue to the latest comers, shoving their rugs into their arms with brusque violence. And when at length the wharf was bare he spat on it, rubbed his short-fingered, sunburnt hands down the sides of his blue jacket, and swaggered on board with the air of a dutiful but injured man who longed to do harm in the world. By this time the ship was about to cast off, and the recruits, ranged in line along the bulwarks of the lower deck, were looking in silence towards Marseilles, which, with its tangle of tall houses, its forest of masts, its long, ugly factories and workshops, now represented to them the whole of France. The bronchial hoot of the siren rose up menacingly. Suddenly two Arabs, in dirty white burnouses and turbans bound with cords of camel's hair, came running along the wharf. The siren hooted again. The Arabs bounded over the gangway with grave faces. All the recruits turned to examine them with a mixture of superiority and deference, such as a schoolboy might display when observing the agilities of a tiger. The ropes fell heavily from the posts of the quay into the water, and were drawn up dripping by the sailors, and Le General Bertrand began to move out slowly among the motionless ships.
Domini, looking towards the land with the vague and yet inquiring glance of those who are going out to sea, noticed the church of Notre dame de la Garde, perched on its high hill, and dominating the noisy city, the harbour, the cold, grey squadrons of the rocks and Monte Cristo's dungeon. At the time she hardly knew it, but now, as she lay in bed in the silent inn, she remembered that, keeping her eyes upon the church, she had murmured a confused prayer to the Blessed Virgin for the recruits. What was the prayer? She could scarcely recall it. A woman's petition, perhaps, against the temptations that beset men shifting for themselves in far-off and dangerous countries; a woman's cry to a woman to watch over all those who wander.
When the land faded, and the white sea rose, less romantic considerations took possession of her. She wished to sleep, and drank a dose of a drug. It did not act completely, but only numbed her senses. Through the long hours she lay in the dark cabin, looking at the faint radiance that penetrated through the glass shutters of the skylight. The recruits, humanised and drawn together by misery, were becoming acquainted. The incessant murmur of their voices dropped down to her, with the sound of the waves, and of the mysterious cries and creaking shudders that go through labouring ships. And all these noises seemed to her hoarse and pathetic, suggestive, too, of danger.
When they reached the African shore, and saw the lights of houses twinkling upon the hills, the pale recruits were marshalled on the white road by Zouaves, who met them from the barracks of Robertville. Already they looked older than they had looked when they embarked. Domini saw them march away up the hill. They still clung to their bags and bundles. Some of them, lifting shaky voices, tried to sing in chorus. One of the Zouaves angrily shouted to them to be quiet. They obeyed, and disappeared heavily into the shadows, staring about them anxiously at the feathery palms that clustered in this new and dark country, and at the shrouded figures of Arabs who met them on the way.
The red brick floor was heaving gently, Domini thought. She found herself wondering how the cane chair by the small wardrobe kept its footing, and why the cracked china basin in the iron washstand, painted bright yellow, did not stir and rattle. Her dressing-bag was open. She could see the silver backs and tops of the brushes and bottles in it gleaming. They made her think suddenly of England. She had no idea why. But it was too warm for England. There, in the autumn time, an open window would let in a cold air, probably a biting blast. The wooden shutter would be shaking. There would be, perhaps, a sound of rain. And Domini found herself vaguely pitying England and the people mewed up in it for the winter. Yet how many winters she had spent there, dreaming of liberty and doing dreary things—things without savour, without meaning, without salvation for brain or soul. Her mind was still dulled to a certain extent by the narcotic she had taken. She was a strong and active woman, with long limbs and well-knit muscles, a clever fencer, a tireless swimmer, a fine horsewoman. But to-night she felt almost neurotic, like one of the weak or dissipated sisterhood for whom "rest cures" are invented, and by whom bland doctors live. That heaving red floor continually emphasised for her her present feebleness. She hated feebleness. So she blew out the candle and, with misplaced energy, strove resolutely to sleep. Possibly her resolution defeated its object. She continued in a condition of dull and heavy wakefulness till the darkness became intolerable to her. In it she saw perpetually the long procession of the pale recruits winding up the hill of Addouna with their bags and bundles, like spectres on a way of dreams. Finally she resolved to accept a sleepless night. She lit her candle again and saw that the brick floor was no longer heaving. Two of the books that she called her "bed-books" lay within easy reach of her hand. One was Newman's Dream of Gerontius, the other a volume of the Badminton Library. She chose the former and began to read.
Towards two o'clock she heard a long-continued rustling. At first she supposed that her tired brain was still playing her tricks. But the rustling continued and grew louder. It sounded like a noise coming from something very wide, and spread out as a veil over an immense surface. She got up, walked across the floor to the open window and unfastened the persiennes. Heavy rain was falling. The night was very black, and smelt rich and damp, as if it held in its arms strange offerings—a merchandise altogether foreign, tropical and alluring. As she stood there, face to face with a wonder that she could not see, Domini forgot Newman. She felt the brave companionship of mystery. In it she divined the beating pulses, the hot, surging blood of freedom.
She wanted freedom, a wide horizon, the great winds, the great sun, the terrible spaces, the glowing, shimmering radiance, the hot, entrancing moons and bloomy, purple nights of Africa. She wanted the nomad's fires and the acid voices of the Kabyle dogs. She wanted the roar of the tom-toms, the dash of the cymbals, the rattle of the negroes' castanets, the fluttering, painted figures of the dancers. She wanted—more than she could express, more than she knew. It was there, want, aching in her heart, as she drew into her nostrils this strange and wealthy atmosphere.
When Domini returned to her bed she found it impossible to read any more Newman. The rain and the scents coming up out of the hidden earth of Africa had carried her mind away, as if on a magic carpet. She was content now to lie awake in the dark.
Domini was thirty-two, unmarried, and in a singularly independent—some might have thought a singularly lonely—situation. Her father, Lord Rens, had recently died, leaving Domini, who was his only child, a large fortune. His life had been a curious and a tragic one. Lady Rens, Domini's mother, had been a great beauty of the gipsy type, the daughter of a Hungarian mother and of Sir Henry Arlworth, one of the most prominent and ardent English Catholics of his day. A son of his became a priest, and a famous preacher and writer on religious subjects. Another child, a daughter, took the veil. Lady Rens, who was not clever, although she was at one time almost universally considered to have the face of a muse, shared in the family ardour for the Church, but was far too fond of the world to leave it. While she was very young she met Lord Rens, a Lifeguardsman of twenty-six, who called himself a Protestant, but who was really quite happy without any faith. He fell madly in love with her and, in order to marry her, became a Catholic, and even a very devout one, aiding his wife's Church by every means in his power, giving large sums to Catholic charities, and working, with almost fiery zeal, for the spread of Catholicism in England.
Unfortunately, his new faith was founded only on love for a human being, and when Lady Rens, who was intensely passionate and impulsive, suddenly threw all her principles to the winds, and ran away with a Hungarian musician, who had made a furor one season in London by his magnificent violin-playing, her husband, stricken in his soul, and also wounded almost to the death in his pride, abandoned abruptly the religion of the woman who had converted and betrayed him.
Domini was nineteen, and had recently been presented at Court when the scandal of her mother's escapade shook the town, and changed her father in a day from one of the happiest to one of the most cynical, embittered and despairing of men. She, who had been brought up by both her parents as a Catholic, who had from her earliest years been earnestly educated in the beauties of religion, was now exposed to the almost frantic persuasions of a father who, hating all that he had formerly loved, abandoning all that, influenced by his faithless wife, he had formerly clung to, wished to carry his daughter with him into his new and most miserable way of life. But Domini, who, with much of her mother's dark beauty, had inherited much of her quick vehemence and passion, was also gifted with brains, and with a certain largeness of temperament and clearness of insight which Lady Rens lacked. Even when she was still quivering under the shock and shame of her mother's guilt and her own solitude, Domini was unable to share her father's intensely egoistic view of the religion of the culprit. She could not be persuaded that the faith in which she had been brought up was proved to be a sham because one of its professors, whom she had above all others loved and trusted, had broken away from its teachings and defied her own belief. She would not secede with her father; but remained in the Church of the mother she was never to see again, and this in spite of extraordinary and dogged efforts on the part of Lord Rens to pervert her to his own Atheism. His mind had been so warped by the agony of his heart that he had come to feel as if by tearing his only child from the religion he had been led to by the greatest sinner he had known, he would be, in some degree at least, purifying his life tarnished by his wife's conduct, raising again a little way the pride she had trampled in the dust.
Her uncle, Father Arlworth, helped Domini by his support and counsel in this critical period of her life, and Lord Rens in time ceased from the endeavour to carry his child with him as companion in his tragic journey from love and belief to hatred and denial. He turned to the violent occupations of despair, and the last years of his life were hideous enough, as the world knew and Domini sometimes suspected. But though Domini had resisted him she was not unmoved or wholly uninfluenced by her mother's desertion and its effect upon her father. She remained a Catholic, but she gradually ceased from being a devout one. Although she had seemed to stand firm she had in truth been shaken, if not in her belief, in a more precious thing—her love. She complied with the ordinances, but felt little of the inner beauty of her faith. The effort she had made in withstanding her father's assault upon it had exhausted her. Though she had had the strength to triumph, at the moment, a partial and secret collapse was the price she had afterwards to pay. Father Arlworth, who had a subtle understanding of human nature, noticed that Domini was changed and slightly hardened by the tragedy she had known, and was not surprised or shocked. Nor did he attempt to force her character back into its former way of beauty. He knew that to do so would be dangerous, that Domini's nature required peace in which to become absolutely normal once again after the shock it had sustained.
When Domini was twenty-one he died, and her safest guide, the one who understood her best, went from her. The years passed. She lived with her embittered father; and drifted into the unthinking worldliness of the life of her order. Her home was far from ideal. Yet she would not marry. The wreck of her parents' domestic life had rendered her mistrustful of human relations. She had seen something of the terror of love, and could not, like other women, regard it as safety and as sweetness. So she put it from her, and strove to fill her life with all those lesser things which men and women grasp, as the Chinese grasp the opium pipe, those things which lull our comprehension of realities to sleep.
When Lord Rens died, still blaspheming, and without any of the consolations of religion, Domini felt the imperious need of change. She did not grieve actively for the dead man. In his last years they had been very far apart, and his death relieved her from the perpetual contemplation of a tragedy. Lord Rens had grown to regard his daughter almost with enmity in his enmity against her mother's religion, which was hers. She had come to think of him rather with pity than with love. Yet his death was a shock to her. When he could speak no more, but only lie still, she remembered suddenly just what he had been before her mother's flight. The succeeding period, long though it had been and ugly, was blotted out. She wept for the poor, broken life now ended, and was afraid for his future in the other world. His departure into the unknown roused her abruptly to a clear conception of how his action and her mother's had affected her own character. As she stood by his bed she wondered what she might have been if her mother had been true, her father happy, to the end. Then she felt afraid of herself, recognising partially, and for the first time, how all these years had seen her long indifference. She felt self-conscious too, ignorant of the real meaning of life, and as if she had always been, and still remained, rather a complicated piece of mechanism than a woman. A desolate enervation of spirit descended upon her, a sort of bitter, and yet dull, perplexity. She began to wonder what she was, capable of what, of how much good or evil, and to feel sure that she did not know, had never known or tried to find out. Once, in this state of mind, she went to confession. She came away feeling that she had just joined with the priest in a farce. How can a woman who knows nothing about herself make anything but a worthless confession? she thought. To say what you have done is not always to say what you are. And only what you are matters eternally.
Presently, still in this perplexity of spirit, she left England with only her maid as companion. After a short tour in the south of Europe, with which she was too familiar, she crossed the sea to Africa, which she had never seen. Her destination was Beni-Mora. She had chosen it because she liked its name, because she saw on the map that it was an oasis in the Sahara Desert, because she knew it was small, quiet, yet face to face with an immensity of which she had often dreamed. Idly she fancied that perhaps in the sunny solitude of Beni-Mora, far from all the friends and reminiscences of her old life, she might learn to understand herself. How? She did not know. She did not seek to know. Here was a vague pilgrimage, as many pilgrimages are in this world—the journey of the searcher who knew not what she sought. And so now she lay in the dark, and heard the rustle of the warm African rain, and smelt the perfumes rising from the ground, and felt that the unknown was very near her—the unknown with all its blessed possibilities of change.
Long before dawn the Italian waiter rolled off his little bed, put a cap on his head, and knocked at Domini's and at Suzanne Charpot's doors.
It was still dark, and still raining, when the two women came out to get into the carriage that was to take them to the station. The place de la Marine was a sea of mud, brown and sticky as nougat. Wet palms dripped by the railing near a desolate kiosk painted green and blue. The sky was grey and low. Curtains of tarpaulin were let down on each side of the carriage, and the coachman, who looked like a Maltese, and wore a round cap edged with pale yellow fur, was muffled up to the ears. Suzanne's round, white face was puffy with fatigue, and her dark eyes, generally good-natured and hopeful, were dreary, and squinted slightly, as she tipped the Italian waiter, and handed her mistress's dressing-bag and rug into the carriage. The waiter stood an the discoloured step, yawning from ear to ear. Even the tip could not excite him. Before the carriage started he had gone into the hotel and banged the door. The horses trotted quickly through the mud, descending the hill. One of the tarpaulin curtains had been left unbuttoned by the coachman. It flapped to and fro, and when its movement was outward Domini could catch short glimpses of mud, of glistening palm-leaves with yellow stems, of gas-lamps, and of something that was like an extended grey nothingness. This was the sea. Twice she saw Arabs trudging along, holding their skirts up in a bunch sideways, and showing legs bare beyond the knees. Hoods hid their faces. They appeared to be agitated by the weather, and to be continually trying to plant their naked feet in dry places. Suzanne, who sat opposite to Domini, had her eyes shut. If she had not from time to time passed her tongue quickly over her full, pale lips she would have looked like a dead thing. The coquettish angle at which her little black hat was set on her head seemed absurdly inappropriate to the occasion and her mood. It suggested a hat being worn at some festival. Her black, gloved hands were tightly twisted together in her lap, and she allowed her plump body to wag quite loosely with the motion of the carriage, making no attempt at resistance. She had really the appearance of a corpse sitting up. The tarpaulin flapped monotonously. The coachman cried out in the dimness to his horses like a bird, prolonging his call drearily, and then violently cracking his whip. Domini kept her eyes fixed on the loose tarpaulin, so that she might not miss one of the wet visions it discovered by its reiterated movement. She had not slept at all, and felt as if there was a gritty dryness close behind her eyes. She also felt very alert and enduring, but not in the least natural. Had some extraordinary event occurred; had the carriage, for instance, rolled over the edge of the road into the sea, she was convinced that she could not have managed to be either surprised or alarmed, If anyone had asked her whether she was tired she would certainly have answered "No."
Like her mother, Domini was of a gipsy type. She stood five feet ten, had thick, almost coarse and wavy black hair that was parted in the middle of her small head, dark, almond-shaped, heavy-lidded eyes, and a clear, warmly-white skin, unflecked with colour. She never flushed under the influence of excitement or emotion. Her forehead was broad and low. Her eyebrows were long and level, thicker than most women's. The shape of her face was oval, with a straight, short nose, a short, but rather prominent and round chin, and a very expressive mouth, not very small, slightly depressed at the corners, with perfect teeth, and red lips that were unusually flexible. Her figure was remarkably athletic, with shoulders that were broad in a woman, and a naturally small waist. Her hands and feet were also small. She walked splendidly, like a Syrian, but without his defiant insolence. In her face, when it was in repose, there was usually an expression of still indifference, some thought of opposition. She looked her age, and had never used a powderpuff in her life. She could smile easily and easily become animated, and in her animation there was often fire, as in her calmness there was sometimes cloud. Timid people were generally disconcerted by her appearance, and her manner did not always reassure them. Her obvious physical strength had something surprising in it, and woke wonder as to how it had been, or might be, used. Even when her eyes were shut she looked singularly wakeful.
Domini and Suzanne got to the station of Robertville much too early. The large hall in which they had to wait was miserably lit, blank and decidedly cold. The ticket-office was on the left, and the room was divided into two parts by a broad, low counter, on which the heavy luggage was placed before being weighed by two unshaven and hulking men in blue smocks. Three or four Arab touts, in excessively shabby European clothes and turbans, surrounded Domini with offers of assistance. One, the dirtiest of the group, with a gaping eye-socket, in which there was no eye, succeeded by his passionate volubility and impudence in attaching himself to her in a sort of official capacity. He spoke fluent, but faulty, French, which attracted Suzanne, and, being abnormally muscular and active, in an amazingly short time got hold of all their boxes and bags and ranged them on the counter. He then indulged in a dramatic performance, which he apparently considered likely to rouse into life and attention the two unshaven men in smocks, who were smoking cigarettes, and staring vaguely at the metal sheet on which the luggage was placed to be weighed. Suzanne remained expectantly in attendance, and Domini, having nothing to do, and seeing no bench to rest on, walked slowly up and down the hall near the entrance.
It was now half-past four in the morning, and in the air Domini fancied that she felt the cold breath of the coming dawn. Beyond the opening of the station, as she passed and repassed in her slow and aimless walk, she saw the soaking tarpaulin curtains of the carriage she had just left glistening in the faint lamp-light. After a few minutes the Arabs she had noticed on the road entered. Their brown, slipperless feet were caked with sticky mud, and directly they found themselves under shelter in a dry place they dropped the robes they had been holding up, and, bending down, began to flick it off on to the floor with their delicate fingers. They did this with extraordinary care and precision, rubbed the soles of their feet repeatedly against the boards, and then put on their yellow slippers and threw back the hoods which had been drawn over their heads.
A few French passengers straggled in, yawning and looking irritable. The touts surrounded them, with noisy offers of assistance. The men in smocks still continued to smoke and to stare at the metal sheet on the floor. Although the luggage now extended in quite a long line upon the counter they paid no attention to it, or to the violent and reiterated cries of the Arabs who stood behind it, anxious to earn a tip by getting it weighed and registered quickly. Apparently they were wrapped in savage dreams. At length a light shone through the small opening of the ticket-office, the men in smocks stirred and threw down their cigarette stumps, and the few travellers pressed forward against the counter, and pointed to their boxes with their sticks and hands. Suzanne Charpot assumed an expression of attentive suspicion, and Domini ceased from walking up and down. Several of the recruits came in hastily, accompanied by two Zouaves. They were wet, and looked dazed and tired out. Grasping their bags and bundles they went towards the platform. A train glided slowly in, gleaming faintly with lights. Domini's trunks were slammed down on the weighing machine, and Suzanne, drawing out her purse, took her stand before the shining hole of the ticket-office.
In the wet darkness there rose up a sound like a child calling out an insulting remark. This was followed immediately by the piping of a horn. With a jerk the train started, passed one by one the station lamps, and, with a steady jangling and rattling, drew out into the shrouded country. Domini was in a wretchedly-lit carriage with three Frenchmen, facing the door which opened on to the platform. The man opposite to her was enormously fat, with a coal-black beard growing up to his eyes. He wore black gloves and trousers, a huge black cloth hat, and a thick black cloak with a black buckle near the throat. His eyes were shut, and his large, heavy head drooped forward. Domini wondered if he was travelling to the funeral of some relative. The two other men, one of whom looked like a commercial traveller, kept shifting their feet upon the hot-water tins that lay on the floor, clearing their throats and sighing loudly. One of them coughed, let down the window, spat, drew the window up, sat sideways, put his legs suddenly up on the seat and groaned. The train rattled more harshly, and shook from side to side as it got up speed. Rain streamed down the window-panes, through which it was impossible to see anything.
Domini still felt alert, but an overpowering sensation of dreariness had come to her. She did not attribute this sensation to fatigue. She did not try to analyse it. She only felt as if she had never seen or heard anything that was not cheerless, as if she had never known anything that was not either sad, or odd, or inexplicable. What did she remember? A train of trifles that seemed to have been enough to fill all her life; the arrival of the nervous and badly-dressed recruits at the wharf, their embarkation, their last staring and pathetic look at France, the stormy voyage, the sordid illness of almost everyone on board, the approach long after sundown to the small and unknown town, of which it was impossible to see anything clearly, the marshalling of the recruits pale with sickness, their pitiful attempt at cheerful singing, angrily checked by the Zouaves in charge of them, their departure up the hill carrying their poor belongings, the sleepless night, the sound of the rain falling, the scents rising from the unseen earth. The tap of the Italian waiter at the door, the damp drive to the station, the long wait there, the sneering signal, followed by the piping horn, the jerking and rattling of the carriage, the dim light within it falling upon the stout Frenchman in his mourning, the streaming water upon the window-panes. These few sights, sounds, sensations were like the story of a life to Domini just then, were more, were like the whole of life; always dull noise, strange, flitting, pale faces, and an unknown region that remained perpeturally invisible, and that must surely be ugly or terrible.
The train stopped frequently at lonely little stations. Domini looked out, letting down the window for a moment. At each station she saw a tiny house with a peaked roof, a wooden railing dividing the platform from the country road, mud, grass bending beneath the weight of water-drops, and tall, dripping, shaggy eucalyptus trees. Sometimes the station-master's children peered at the train with curious eyes, and depressed-looking Arabs, carefully wrapped up, their mouths and chins covered by folds of linen, got in and out slowly.
Once Domini saw two women, in thin, floating white dresses and spangled veils, hurrying by like ghosts in the dark. Heavy silver ornaments jangled on their ankles, above their black slippers splashed with mud. Their sombre eyes stared out from circles of Kohl, and, with stained, claret-coloured hands, whose nails were bright red, they clasped their light and bridal raiment to their prominent breasts. They were escorted by a gigantic man, almost black, with a zigzag scar across the left side of his face, who wore a shining brown burnous over a grey woollen jacket. He pushed the two women into the train as if he were pushing bales, and got in after them, showing enormous bare legs, with calves that stuck out like lumps of iron.
The darkness began to fade, and presently, as the grey light grew slowly stronger, the rain ceased, and it was possible to see through the glass of the carriage window.
The country began to discover itself, as if timidly, to Domini's eyes. She had recently noticed that the train was going very slowly, and she could now see why. They were mounting a steep incline. The rich, damp earth of the plains beyond Robertville, with its rank grass, its moist ploughland and groves of eucalyptus, was already left behind. The train was crawling in a cup of the hills, grey, sterile and abandoned, without roads or houses, without a single tree. Small, grey-green bushes flourished here and there on tiny humps of earth, but they seemed rather to emphasise than to diminish the aspect of poverty presented by the soil, over which the dawn, rising from the wet arms of night, shed a cold and reticent illumination. By a gash in the rounded hills, where the earth was brownish yellow, a flock of goats with flapping ears tripped slowly, followed by two Arab boys in rags. One of the boys was playing upon a pipe coverd with red arabesques. Domini heard two or three bars of the melody. They were ineffably wild and bird-like, very clear and sweet. They seemed to her to match exactly the pure and ascetic light cast by the dawn over these bare, grey hills, and they stirred her abruptly from the depressed lassitude in which the dreary chances of recent travel had drowned her. She began, with a certain faint excitement, to realise that these low, round-backed hills were Africa, that she was leaving behind the sea, so many of whose waves swept along European shores, that somewhere, beyond the broken and near horizon line toward which the train was creeping, lay the great desert, her destination, with its pale sands and desolate cities, its sunburnt tribes of workers, its robbers, warriors and priests, its ethereal mysteries of mirage, its tragic splendours of colour, of tempest and of heat. A sense of a wider world than the compressed world into which physical fatigue had decoyed her woke in her brain and heart. The little Arab, playing carelessly upon his pipe with the red arabesques, was soon invisible among his goats beside the dry water-course that was probably the limit of his journeying, but Domini felt that like a musician at the head of a procession he had played her bravely forward into the dawn and Africa.
At Ah-Souf Domini changed into another train and had the carriage to herself. The recruits had reached their destination. Hers was a longer pilgramage and still towards the sun. She could not afterwards remember what she thought about during this part of her journey. Subsequent events so coloured all her memories of Africa that every fold of its sun-dried soil was endowed in her mind with the significance of a living thing. Every palm beside a well, every stunted vine and clambering flower upon an auberge wall, every form of hill and silhouette of shadow, became in her heart intense with the beauty and the pathos she used, as a child, to think must lie beyond the sunset.
And so she forgot.
A strange sense of leaving all things behind had stolen over her. She was really fatigued by travel and by want of sleep, but she did not know it. Lying back in her seat, with her head against the dirty white covering of the shaking carriage, she watched the great change that was coming over the land.
It seemed as if God were putting forth His hand to withdraw gradually all things of His creation, all the furniture He had put into the great Palace of the world; as if He meant to leave it empty and utterly naked.
So Domini thought.
First He took the rich and shaggy grass, and all the little flowers that bloomed modestly in it. Then He drew away the orange groves, the oleander and the apricot trees, the faithful eucalyptus with its pale stems and tressy foliage, the sweet waters that fertilised the soil, making it soft and brown where the plough seamed it into furrows, the tufted plants and giant reeds that crowd where water is. And still, as the train ran on, His gifts were fewer. At last even the palms were gone, and the Barbary fig displayed no longer among the crumbling boulders its tortured strength, and the pale and fantastic evolutions of its unnatural foliage. Stones lay everywhere upon the pale yellow or grey-brown earth. Crystals glittered in the sun like shallow jewels, and far away, under clouds that were dark and feathery, appeared hard and relentless mountains, which looked as if they were made of iron carved into horrible and jagged shapes. Where they fell into ravines they became black. Their swelling bosses and flanks, sharp sometimes as the spines of animals, were steel coloured. Their summits were purple, deepening where the clouds came down to ebony.
Journeying towards these terrible fastnesses were caravans on which Domini looked with a heavy and lethargic interest. Many Kabyles, fairer than she was, moved slowly on foot towards their rock villages.
Over the withered earth they went towards the distant mountains and the clouds. The sun was hidden. The wind continued to rise. Sand found its way in through the carriage windows. The mountains, as Domini saw them more clearly, looked more gloomy, more unearthly. There was something unnatural in their hard outlines, in the rigid mystery of their innumerable clefts. That all these people should be journeying towards them was pathetic, and grieved the imagination.
The wind seemed so cold, now the sun was hidden, that she had drawn both the windows up and thrown a rug over her. She put her feet up on the opposite seat, and half closed her eyes. But she still turned them towards the glass on her left, and watched. It seemed to her quite impossible that this shaking and slowly moving train had any destination. The desolation of the country had become so absolute that she could not conceive of anything but still greater desolation lying beyond. She had no feeling that she was merely traversing a tract of sterility. Her sensation was that she had passed the boundary of the world God had created, and come into some other place, upon which He had never looked and of which He had no knowledge.
Abruptly she felt as if her father had entered into some such region when he forced his way out of his religion. And in this region he had died. She had stood on the verge of it by his deathbed. Now she was in it.
There were no Arabs journeying now. No tents huddled among the low bushes. The last sign of vegetation was obliterated. The earth rose and fell in a series of humps and depressions, interspersed with piles of rock. Every shade of yellow and of brown mingled and flowed away towards the foot of the mountains. Here and there dry water-courses showed their teeth. Their crumbling banks were like the rind of an orange. Little birds, the hue of the earth, with tufted crests, tripped jauntily among the stones, fluttered for a few yards and alighted, with an air of strained alertness, as if their minute bodies were full of trembling wires. They were the only living things Domini could see.
She thought again of her father. In some such region as this his soul must surely be wandering, far away from God.
She let down the glass.
The wind was really cold and blowing gustily. She drank it in as if she were tasting a new wine, and she was conscious at once that she had never before breathed such air. There was a wonderful, a startling flavour in it, the flavour of gigantic spaces and of rolling leagues of emptiness. Neither among mountains nor upon the sea had she ever found an atmosphere so fiercely pure, clean and lively with unutterable freedom. She leaned out to it, shutting her eyes. And now that she saw nothing her palate savoured it more intensely. The thought of her father fled from her. All detailed thoughts, all the minutia of the mind were swept away. She was bracing herself to an encounter with something gigantic, something unshackled, the being from whose lips this wonderful breath flowed.
When two lovers kiss their breath mingles, and, if they really love, each is conscious that in the breath of the loved one is the loved one's soul, coming forth from the temple of the body through the temple door. As Domini leaned out, seeing nothing, she was conscious that in this breath she drank there was a soul, and it seemed to her that it was the soul which flames in the centre of things, and beyond. She could not think any longer of her father as an outcast because he had abandoned a religion. For all religions were surely here, marching side by side, and behind them, background to them, there was something far greater than any religion. Was it snow or fire? Was it the lawlessness of that which has made laws, or the calm of that which has brought passion into being? Greater love than is in any creed, or greater freedom than is in any human liberty? Domini only felt that if she had ever been a slave at this moment she would have died of joy, realising the boundless freedom that circles this little earth.
"Thank God for it!" she murmured aloud.
Her own words woke her to a consciousness of ordinary things—or made her sleep to the eternal.
She closed the window and sat down.
A little later the sun came out again, and the various shades of yellow and of orange that played over the wrinkled earth deepened and glowed. Domini had sunk into a lethargy so complete that, though not asleep, she was scarcely aware of the sun. She was dreaming of liberty.
Presently the train slackened and stopped. She heard a loud chattering of many voices and looked out. The sun was now shining brilliantly, and she saw a station crowded with Arabs in white burnouses, who were vociferously greeting friends in the train, were offering enormous oranges for sale to the passengers, or were walking up and down gazing curiously into the carriages, with the unblinking determination and indifference to a return of scrutiny which she had already noticed and thought animal. A guard came up, told her the place was El-Akbara, and that the train would stay there ten minutes to wait for the train from Beni-Mora. She decided to get out and stretch her cramped limbs. On the platform she found Suzanne, looking like a person who had just been slapped. One side of the maid's face was flushed and covered with a faint tracery of tiny lines. The other was greyish white. Sleep hung in her eyes, over which the lids drooped as if they were partially paralysed. Her fingers were yellow from peeling an orange, and her smart little hat was cocked on one side. There were grains of sand on her black gown, and when she saw her mistress she at once began to compress her lips, and to assume the expression of obstinate patience characteristic of properly-brought-up servants who find themselves travelling far from home in outlandish places.
"Have you been asleep, Suzanne?"
"You've had an orange?"
"I couldn't get it down, Mam'zelle."
"Would you like to see if you can get a cup of coffee here?"
"No, thank you, Mam'zelle. I couldn't touch this Arab stuff."
"We shall soon be there now."
Suzanne made all her naturally small features look much smaller, glanced down at her skirt, and suddenly began to shake the grains of sand from it in an outraged manner, at the same time extending her left foot. Two or three young Arabs came up and stood, staring, round her. Their eyes were magnificent, and gravely observant. Suzanne went on shaking and patting her skirt, and Domini walked away down the platform, wondering what a French maid's mind was like. Suzanne's certainly had its limitations. It was evident that she was horrified by the sight of bare legs. Why?
As Domini walked along the platform among the fruit-sellers, the guides, the turbaned porters with their badges, the staring children and the ragged wanderers who thronged about the train, she thought of the desert to which she was now so near. It lay, she knew, beyond the terrific wall of rock that faced her. But she could see no opening. The towering summits of the cliffs, jagged as the teeth of a wolf, broke crudely upon the serene purity of the sky. Somewhere, concealed in the darkness of the gorge at their feet, was the mouth from which had poured forth that wonderful breath, quivering with freedom and with unearthly things. The sun was already declining, and the light it cast becoming softened and romantic. Soon there would be evening in the desert. Then there would be night. And she would be there in the night with all things that the desert holds.
A train of camels was passing on the white road that descended into the shadow of the gorge. Some savage-looking men accompanied them, crying continually, "Oosh! Oosh!" They disappeared, desert-men with their desert-beasts, bound no doubt on some tremendous journey through the regions of the sun. Where would they at last unlade the groaning camels? Domini saw them in the midst of dunes red with the dying fires of the west. And their shadows lay along the sands like weary things reposing.
She started when a low voice spoke to her in French, and, turning round, saw a tall Arab boy, magnificently dressed in pale blue cloth trousers, a Zouave jacket braided with gold, and a fez, standing near her. She was struck by the colour of his skin, which was faint as the colour of cafe au lait, and by the contrast between his huge bulk and his languid, almost effeminate, demeanour. As she turned he smiled at her calmly, and lifted one hand toward the wall of rock.
"Madame has seen the desert?" he asked.
"Never," answered Domini.
"It is the garden of oblivion," he said, still in a low voice, and speaking with a delicate refinement that was almost mincing. "In the desert one forgets everything; even the little heart one loves, and the desire of one's own soul."
"How can that be?" asked Domini.
"Shal-lah. It is the will of God. One remembers nothing any more."
His eyes were fixed upon the gigantic pinnacles of the rocks. There was something fanatical and highly imaginative in their gaze.
"What is your name?" Domini asked.
"Batouch, Madame. You are going to Beni-Mora?"
"I too. To-night, under the mimosa trees, I shall compose a poem. It will be addressed to Irena, the dancing-girl. She is like the little moon when it first comes up above the palm trees."
Just then the train from Beni-Mora ran into the station, and Domini turned to seek her carriage. As she was coming to it she noticed, with the pang of the selfish traveller who wishes to be undisturbed, that a tall man, attended by an Arab porter holding a green bag, was at the door of it and was evidently about to get in. He glanced round as Domini came up, half drew back rather awkwardly as if to allow her to precede him, then suddenly sprang in before her. The Arab lifted in the bag, and the man, endeavouring hastily to thrust some money into his hand, dropped the coin, which fell down between the step of the carriage and the platform. The Arab immediately made a greedy dive after it, interposing his body between Domini and the train; and she was obliged to stand waiting while he looked for it, grubbing frantically in the earth with his brown fingers, and uttering muffled exclamations, apparently of rage. Meanwhile, the tall man had put the green bag up on the rack, gone quickly to the far side of the carriage, and sat down looking out of the window.
Domini was struck by the mixture of indecision and blundering haste which he had shown, and by his impoliteness. Evidently he was not a gentleman, she thought, or he would surely have obeyed his first impulse and allowed her to get into the train before him. It seemed, too, as if he were determined to be discourteous, for he sat with his shoulder deliberately turned towards the door, and made no attempt to get his Arab out of the way, although the train was just about to start. Domini was very tired, and she began to feel angry with him, contemptuous too. The Arab could not find the money, and the little horn now piped its warning of departure. It was absolutely necessary for her to get in at once if she did not mean to stay at El-Akbara. She tried to pass the grovelling Arab, but as she did so he suddenly sprang up, jumped on to the step of the carriage, and, thrusting his body half through the doorway, began to address a torrent of Arabic to the passenger within. The horn sounded again, and the carriage jerked backwards preparatory to starting on its way to Beni-Mora.
Domini caught hold of the short European jacket the Arab was wearing, and said in French:
"You must let me get in at once. The train is going."
The man, however, intent on replacing the coin he had lost, took no notice of her, but went on vociferating and gesticulating. The traveller said something in Arabic. Domini was now very angry. She gripped the jacket, exerted all her force, and pulled the Arab violently from the door. He alighted on the platform beside her and nearly fell. Before he had recovered himself she sprang up into the train, which began to move at that very moment. As she got in, the man who had caused all the bother was leaning forward with a bit of silver in his hand, looking as if he were about to leave his seat. Domini cast a glance of contempt at him, and he turned quickly to the window again and stared out, at the same time putting the coin back into his pocket. A dull flush rose on his cheek, but he attempted no apology, and did not even offer to fasten the lower handle of the door.
"What a boor!" Domini thought as she bent out of the window to do it.
When she turned from the door, after securing the handle, she found the carriage full of a pale twilight. The train was stealing into the gorge, following the caravan of camels which she had seen disappearing. She paid no more attention to her companion, and her feeling of acute irritation against him died away for the moment. The towering cliffs cast mighty shadows, the darkness deepened, the train, quickening its speed, seemed straining forward into the arms of night. There was a chill in the air. Domini drank it into her lungs again, and again was startled, stirred, by the life and the mentality of it. She was conscious of receiving it with passion, as if, indeed, she held her lips to a mouth and drank some being's very nature into hers. She forgot her recent vexation and the man who had caused it. She forgot everything in mere sensation. She had no time to ask, "Whither am I going?" She felt like one borne upon a wave, seaward, to the wonder, to the danger, perhaps, of a murmuring unknown. The rocks leaned forward; their teeth were fastened in the sky; they enclosed the train, banishing the sun and the world from all the lives within it. She caught a fleeting glimpse of rushing waters far beneath her; of crumbling banks, covered with debris like the banks of a disused quarry; of shattered boulders, grouped in a wild disorder, as if they had been vomited forth from some underworld or cast headlong from the sky; of the flying shapes of fruit trees, mulberries and apricot trees, oleanders and palms; of dull yellow walls guarding pools the colour of absinthe, imperturbable and still. A strong impression of increasing cold and darkness grew in her, and the noises of the train became hollow, and seemed to be expanding, as if they were striving to press through the impending rocks and find an outlet into space; failing, they rose angrily, violently, in Domini's ears, protesting, wrangling, shouting, declaiming. The darkness became like the darkness of a nightmare. All the trees vanished, as if they fled in fear. The rocks closed in as if to crush the train. There was a moment in which Domini shut her eyes, like one expectant of a tremendous blow that cannot be avoided.
She opened them to a flood of gold, out of which the face of a man looked, like a face looking out of the heart of the sun.
It flashed upon her with the desert, with the burning heaps of carnation and orange-coloured rocks, with the first sand wilderness, the first brown villages glowing in the late radiance of the afternoon like carven things of bronze, the first oasis of palms, deep green as a wave of the sea and moving like a wave, the first wonder of Sahara warmth and Sahara distance. She passed through the golden door into the blue country, and saw this face, and, for a moment, moved by the exalted sensation of a magical change in all her world, she looked at it simply as a new sight presented, with the sun, the mighty rocks, the hard, blind villages, and the dense trees, to her eyes, and connected it with nothing. It was part of this strange and glorious desert region to her. That was all, for a moment.
In the play of untempered golden light the face seemed pale. It was narrow, rather long, with marked and prominent features, a nose with a high bridge, a mouth with straight, red lips, and a powerful chin. The eyes were hazel, almost yellow, with curious markings of a darker shade in the yellow, dark centres that looked black, and dark outer circles. The eyelashes were very long, the eyebrows thick and strongly curved. The forehead was high, and swelled out slightly above the temples. There was no hair on the face, which was closely shaved. Near the mouth were two faint lines that made Domini think of physical suffering, and also of mediaeval knights. Despite the glory of the sunshine there seemed to be a shadow falling across the face.
This was all that Domini noticed before the spell of change and the abrupt glory was broken, and she knew that she was staring into the face of the man who had behaved so rudely at the station of El-Akbara. The knowledge gave her a definite shock, and she thought that her expression must have changed abruptly, for a dull flush rose on the stranger's thin cheeks and mounted to his rugged forehead. He glanced out of the window and moved his hands uneasily. Domini noticed that they scarcely tallied with his face. Though scrupulously clean, they looked like the hands of a labourer, hard, broad, and brown. Even his wrists, and a small section of his left forearm, which showed as he lifted his left hand from one knee to the other, were heavily tinted by the sun. The spaces between the fingers were wide, as they usually are in hands accustomed to grasping implements, but the fingers themselves were rather delicate and artistic.
Domini observed this swiftly. Then she saw that her neighbour was unpleasantly conscious of her observation. This vexed her vaguely, perhaps because even so trifling a circumstance was like a thin link between them. She snapped it by ceasing to look at or think of him. The window was down. A delicate and warm breeze drifted in, coming from the thickets of the palms. In flashing out of the darkness of the gorge Domini had had the sensation of passing into a new world and a new atmosphere. The sensation stayed with her now that she was no longer dreaming or giving the reins to her imagination, but was calmly herself. Against the terrible rampart of rock the winds beat across the land of the Tell. But they die there frustrated. And the rains journey thither and fail, sinking into the absinthe-coloured pools of the gorge. And the snows and even the clouds stop, exhausted in their pilgrimage. The gorge is not their goal, but it is their grave, and the desert never sees their burial. So Domini's first sense of casting away the known remained, and even grew, but now strongly and quietly. It was well founded, she thought. For she looked out of the carriage window towards the barrier she was leaving, and saw that on this side, guarding the desert from the world that is not desert, it was pink in the evening light, deepening here and there to rose colour, whereas on the far side it had a rainy hue as of rocks in England. And there was a lustre of gold in the hills, tints of glowing bronze slashed with a red line as the heart of a wound, but recalling the heart of a flower. The folds of the earth glistened. There was flame down there in the river bed. The wreckage of the land, the broken fragments, gleamed as if braided with precious things. Everywhere the salt crystals sparkled with the violence of diamonds. Everywhere there was a strength of colour that hurled itself to the gaze, unabashed and almost savage, the colour of summer that never ceases, of heat that seldom dies, in a land where there is no autumn and seldom a flitting cold.
Down on the road near the village there were people; old men playing the "lady's game" with stones set in squares of sand, women peeping from flat roofs and doorways, children driving goats. A man, like a fair and beautiful Christ, with long hair and a curling beard, beat on the ground with a staff and howled some tuneless notes. He was dressed in red and green. No one heeded him. A distant sound of the beating of drums rose in the air, mingled with piercing cries uttered by a nasal voice. And as if below it, like the orchestral accompaniment of a dramatic solo, hummed many blending noises; faint calls of labourers in the palm-gardens and of women at the wells; chatter of children in dusky courts sheltered with reeds and pale-stemmed grasses; dim pipings of homeward-coming shepherds drowned, with their pattering charges, in the golden vapours of the west; soft twitterings of birds beyond brown walls in green seclusions; dull barking of guard dogs; mutter of camel drivers to their velvet-footed beasts.
The caravan which Domini had seen descending into the gorge reappeared, moving deliberately along the desert road towards the south. A watch-tower peeped above the palms. Doves were circling round it. Many of them were white. They flew like ivory things above this tower of glowing bronze, which slept at the foot of the pink rocks. On the left rose a mass of blood-red earth and stone. Slanting rays of the sun struck it, and it glowed mysteriously like a mighty jewel.
As Domini leaned out of the window, and the salt crystals sparkled to her eyes, and the palms swayed languidly above the waters, and the rose and mauve of the hills, the red and orange of the earth, streamed by in the flames of the sun before the passing train like a barbaric procession, to the sound of the hidden drums, the cry of the hidden priest, and all the whispering melodies of these strange and unknown lives, tears started into her eyes. The entrance into this land of flame and colour, through its narrow and terrific portal, stirred her almost beyond her present strength. The glory of this world mounted to her heart, oppressing it. The embrace of Nature was so violent that it crushed her. She felt like a little fly that had sought to wing its way to the sun and, at a million miles' distance from it, was being shrivelled by its heat. When all the voices of the village fainted away she was glad, although she strained her ears to hear their fading echoes. Suddenly she knew that she was very tired, so tired that emotions acted upon her as physical exertion acts upon an exhausted man. She sat down and shut her eyes. For a long time she stayed with her eyes shut, but she knew that on the windows strange lights were glittering, that the carriage was slowly filling with the ineffable splendours of the west. Long afterwards she often wondered whether she endowed the sunset of that day with supernatural glories because she was so tired. Perhaps the salt mountain of El-Alia did not really sparkle like the celestial mountains in the visions of the saints. Perhaps the long chain of the Aures did not really look as if all its narrow clefts had been powdered with the soft and bloomy leaves of unearthly violets, and the desert was not cloudy in the distance towards the Zibans with the magical blue she thought she saw there, a blue neither of sky nor sea, but like the hue at the edge of a flame in the heart of a wood fire. She often wondered, but she never knew.
The sound of a movement made her look up. Her companion was changing his place and going to the other side of the compartment. He walked softly, no doubt with the desire not to disturb Domini. His back was towards her for an instant, and she noticed that he was a powerful man, though very thin, and that his gait was heavy. It made her think again of his labourer's hands, and she began to wonder idly what was his rank and what he did. He sat down in the far corner on the same side as herself and stared out of his window, crossing his legs. He wore large boots with square toes, clumsy and unfashionable, but comfortable and good for walking in. His clothes had obviously been made by a French tailor. The stuff of them was grey and woolly, and they were cut tighter to the figure than English clothes generally are. He had on a black silk necktie, and a soft brown travelling hat dented in the middle. By the way in which he looked out of the window, Domini judged that he, too, was seeing the desert for the first time. There was something almost passionately attentive in his attitude, something of strained eagerness in that part of his face which she could see from where she was sitting. His cheek was not pale, as she had thought at first, but brown, obviously burnt by the sun of Africa. But she felt that underneath the sunburn there was pallor. She fancied he might be a painter, and was noting all the extraordinary colour effects with the definiteness of a man who meant, perhaps, to reproduce them on canvas.
The light, which had now the peculiar, almost supernatural softness and limpidity of light falling at evening from a declining sun in a hot country, came full upon him, and brightened his hair. Domini saw that it was brown with some chestnut in it, thick, and cut extremely short, as if his head had recently been shaved. She felt convinced that he was not French. He might be an Austrian, perhaps, or a Russian from the south of Russia. He remained motionless in that attitude of profound observation. It suggested great force not merely of body, but also of mind, an almost abnormal concentration upon the thing observed. This was a man who could surely shut out the whole world to look at a grain of sand, if he thought it beautiful or interesting.
They were near Beni-Mora now. Its palms appeared far off, and in the midst of them a snow-white tower. The Sahara lay beyond and around it, rolling away from the foot of low, brown hills, that looked as if they had been covered with a soft powder of bronze. A long spur of rose-coloured mountains stretched away towards the south. The sun was very near his setting. Small, red clouds floated in the western quarter of the sky, and the far desert was becoming mysteriously dim and blue, like a remote sea. Here and there thin wreaths of smoke ascended from it, and lights glittered in it, like earth-bound stars.
Domini had never before understood how strangely, how strenuously, colour can at moments appeal to the imagination. In this pageant of the East she saw arise the naked soul of Africa; no faded, gentle thing, fearful of being seen, fearful of being known and understood; but a phenomenon vital, bold and gorgeous, like the sound of a trumpet pealing a great reveille. As she looked on this flaming land laid fearlessly bare before her, disdaining the clothing of grass, plant and flower, of stream and tree, displaying itself with an almost brazen insouciance, confident in its spacious power, and in its golden pride, her heart leaped up as if in answer to a deliberate appeal. The fatigue in her died. She responded to this reveille like a young warrior who, so soon as he is wakened, stretches out his hand for his sword. The sunset flamed on her clear, white cheeks, giving them its hue of life. And her nature flamed to meet it. In the huge spaces of the Sahara her soul seemed to hear the footsteps of Freedom treading towards the south. And all her dull perplexities, all her bitterness of ennui, all her questionings and doubts, were swept away on the keen desert wind into the endless plains. She had come from her last confession asking herself, "What am I?" She had felt infinitely small confronted with the pettiness of modern, civilised life in a narrow, crowded world. Now she did not torture herself with any questions, for she knew that something large, something capable, something perhaps even noble, rose up within her to greet all this nobility, all this mighty frankness and fierce, undressed sincerity of nature. This desert and this sun would be her comrades, and she was not afraid of them.
Without being aware of it she breathed out a great sigh, feeling the necessity of liberating her joy of spirit, of letting the body, however inadequately and absurdly, make some demonstration in response to the secret stirring of the soul. The man in the far corner of the carriage turned and looked at her. When she heard this movement Domini remembered her irritation against him at El-Akbara. In this splendid moment the feeling seemed to her so paltry and contemptible that she had a lively impulse to make amends for the angry look she had cast at him. Possibly, had she been quite normal, she would have checked such an impulse. The voice of conventionality would have made itself heard. But Domini could act vigorously, and quite carelessly, when she was moved. And she was deeply moved now, and longed to lavish the humanity, the sympathy and ardour that were quick in her. In answer to the stranger's movement she turned towards him, opening her lips to speak to him. Afterwards she never knew what she meant to say, whether, if she had spoken, the words would have been French or English. For she did not speak.
The man's face was illuminated by the setting sun as he sat half round on his seat, leaning with his right hand palm downwards on the cushions. The light glittered on his short hair. He had pushed back his soft hat, and exposed his high, rugged forehead to the air, and his brown left hand gripped the top of the carriage door. The large, knotted veins on it, the stretched sinews, were very perceptible. The hand looked violent. Domini's eyes fell on it as she turned. The impulse to speak began to fail, and when she glanced up at the man's face she no longer felt it at all. For, despite the glory of the sunset on him, there seemed to be a cold shadow in his eyes. The faint lines near his mouth looked deeper than before, and now suggested most powerfully the dreariness, the harshness of long-continued suffering. The mouth itself was compressed and grim, and the man's whole expression was fierce and startling as the expression of a criminal bracing himself to endure inevitable detection. So crude and piercing indeed was this mask confronting her that Domini started and was inclined to shudder. For a minute the man's eyes held hers, and she thought she saw in them unfathomable depths of misery or of wickedness. She hardly knew which. Sorrow was like crime, and crime like the sheer desolation of grief to her just then. And she thought of the outer darkness spoken of in the Bible. It came before her in the sunset. Her father was in it, and this stranger stood by him. The thing was as vital, and fled as swiftly as a hallucination in a madman's brain.
Domini looked down. All the triumph died out in her, all the exquisite consciousness of the freedom, the colour, the bigness of life. For there was a black spot on the sun—humanity, God's mistake in the great plan of Creation. And the shadow cast by humanity tempered, even surely conquered, the light. She wondered whether she would always feel the cold of the sunless places in the golden dominion of the sun.
The man had dropped his eyes too. His hand fell from the door to his knee. He did not move till the train ran into Beni-Mora, and the eager faces of countless Arabs stared in upon them from the scorched field of manoeuvres where Spahis were exercising in the gathering twilight.
Having given her luggage ticket to a porter, Domini passed out of the station followed by Suzanne, who looked and walked like an exhausted marionette. Batouch, who had emerged from a third-class compartment before the train stopped, followed them closely, and as they reached the jostling crowd of Arabs which swarmed on the roadway he joined them with the air of a proprietor.
"Which is Madame's hotel?"
Domini looked round.
Suzanne jumped as if her string had been sharply pulled, and cast a glance of dreary suspicion upon the poet. She looked at his legs, then upwards.
He wore white socks which almost met his pantaloons. Scarcely more than an inch of pale brown skin was visible. The gold buttons of his jacket glittered brightly. His blue robe floated majestically from his broad shoulders, and the large tassel of his fez fell coquettishly towards his left ear, above which was set a pale blue flower with a woolly green leaf.
Suzanne was slightly reassured by the flower and the bright buttons. She felt that they needed a protector in this mob of shouting brown and black men, who clamoured about them like savages, exposing bare legs and arms, even bare chests, in a most barbarous manner.
"We are going to the Hotel du Desert," Domini continued. "Is it far?"
"Only a few minutes, Madame."
"I shall like to walk there."
Suzanne collapsed. Her bones became as wax with apprehension. She saw herself toiling over leagues of sand towards some nameless hovel.
"Suzanne, you can get into the omnibus and take the handbags."
At the sweet word omnibus a ray of hope stole into the maid's heart, and when a nicely-dressed man, in a long blue coat and indubitable trousers, assisted her politely into a vehicle which was unmistakable she almost wept for joy.
Meanwhile Domini, escorted serenely by the poet, walked towards the long gardens of Beni-Mora. She passed over a wooden bridge. White dust was flying from the road, along which many of the Arab aristocracy were indolently strolling, carrying lightly in their hands small red roses or sprigs of pink geranium. In their white robes they looked, she thought, like monks, though the cigarettes many of them were smoking fought against the illusion. Some of them were dressed like Batouch in pale-coloured cloth. They held each other's hands loosely as they sauntered along, chattering in soft contralto voices. Two or three were attended by servants, who walked a pace or two behind them on the left. These were members of great families, rulers of tribes, men who had influence over the Sahara people. One, a shortish man with a coal-black beard, moved so majestically that he seemed almost a giant. His face was very pale. On one of his small, almost white, hands glittered a diamond ring. A boy with a long, hooked nose strolled gravely near him, wearing brown kid gloves and a turban spangled with gold.
"That is the Kaid of Tonga, Madame," whispered Batouch, looking at the pale man reverently. "He is here en permission."
"How white he is."
"They tried to poison him. Ever since he is ill inside. That is his brother. The brown gloves are very chic."
A light carriage rolled rapidly by them in a white mist of dust. It was drawn by a pair of white mules, who whisked their long tails as they trotted briskly, urged on by a cracking whip. A big boy with heavy brown eyes was the coachman. By his side sat a very tall young negro with a humorous pointed nose, dressed in primrose yellow. He grinned at Batouch out of the mist, which accentuated the coal-black hue of his whimsical, happy face.
"That is the Agha's son with Mabrouk."
They turned aside from the road and came into a long tunnel formed by mimosa trees that met above a broad path. To right and left were other little paths branching among the trunks of fruit trees and the narrow twigs of many bushes that grew luxuriantly. Between sandy brown banks, carefully flattened and beaten hard by the spades of Arab gardeners, glided streams of opaque water that were guided from the desert by a system of dams. The Kaid's mill watched over them and the great wall of the fort. In the tunnel the light was very delicate and tinged with green. The noise of the water flowing was just audible. A few Arabs were sitting on benches in dreamy attitudes, with their heelless slippers hanging from the toes of their bare feet. Beyond the entrance of the tunnel Domini could see two horsemen galloping at a tremendous pace into the desert. Their red cloaks streamed out over the sloping quarters of their horses, which devoured the earth as if in a frenzy of emulation. They disappeared into the last glories of the sun, which still lingered on the plain and blazed among the summits of the red mountains.
All the contrasts of this land were exquisite to Domini and, in some mysterious way, suggested eternal things; whispering through colour, gleam, and shadow, through the pattern of leaf and rock, through the air, now fresh, now tenderly warm and perfumed, through the silence that hung like a filmy cloud in the golden heaven.
She and Batouch entered the tunnel, passing at once into definite evening. The quiet of these gardens was delicious, and was only interrupted now and then by the sound of wheels upon the road as a carriage rolled by to some house which was hidden in the distance of the oasis. The seated Arabs scarcely disturbed it by their murmured talk. Many of them indeed said nothing, but rested like lotus-eaters in graceful attitudes, with hanging hands, and eyes, soft as the eyes of gazelles, that regarded the shadowy paths and creeping waters with a grave serenity born of the inmost spirit of idleness.
But Batouch loved to talk, and soon began a languid monologue.
He told Domini that he had been in Paris, where he had been the guest of a French poet who adored the East; that he himself was "instructed," and not like other Arabs; that he smoked the hashish and could sing the love songs of the Sahara; that he had travelled far in the desert, to Souf and to Ouargla beyond the ramparts of the Dunes; that he composed verses in the night when the uninstructed, the brawlers, the drinkers of absinthe and the domino players were sleeping or wasting their time in the darkness over the pastimes of the lewd, when the sybarites were sweating under the smoky arches of the Moorish baths, and the marechale of the dancing-girls sat in her flat-roofed house guarding the jewels and the amulets of her gay confederation. These verses were written both in Arabic and in French, and the poet of Paris and his friends had found them beautiful as the dawn, and as the palm trees of Ourlana by the Artesian wells. All the girls of the Ouled Nails were celebrated in these poems—Aishoush and Irena, Fatma and Baali. In them also were enshrined legends of the venerable marabouts who slept in the Paradise of Allah, and tales of the great warriors who had fought above the rocky precipices of Constantine and far off among the sands of the South. They told the stories of the Koulouglis, whose mothers were Moorish slaves, and romances in which figured the dark-skinned Beni M'Zab and the freed negroes who had fled away from the lands in the very heart of the sun.
All this information, not wholly devoid of a naive egoism, Batouch poured forth gently and melodiously as they walked through the twilight in the tunnel. And Domini was quite content to listen. The strange names the poet mentioned, his liquid pronunciation of them, his allusions to wild events that had happened long ago in desert places, and to the lives of priests of his old religion, of fanatics, and girls who rode on camels caparisoned in red to the dancing-houses of Sahara cities—all these things cradled her humour at this moment and seemed to plant her, like a mimosa tree, deep down in this sand garden of the sun.
She had forgotten her bitter sensation in the railway carriage when it was recalled to her mind by an incident that clashed with her present mood.
Steps sounded on the path behind them, going faster than they were, and presently Domini saw her fellow-traveller striding along, accompanied by a young Arab who was carrying the green bag. The stranger was looking straight before him down the tunnel, and he went by swiftly. But his guide had something to say to Batouch, and altered his pace to keep beside them for a moment. He was a very thin, lithe, skittish-looking youth, apparently about twenty-three years old, with a chocolate-brown skin, high cheek bones, long, almond-shaped eyes twinkling with dissipated humour, and a large mouth that smiled showing pointed white teeth. A straggling black moustache sprouted on his upper lip, and long coarse strands of jet-black hair escaped from under the front of a fez that was pushed back on his small head. His neck was thin and long, and his hands were wonderfully delicate and expressive, with rosy and quite perfect nails. When he laughed he had a habit of throwing his head forward and tucking in his chin, letting the tassel of his fez fall over his temple to left or right. He was dressed in white with a burnous, and had a many-coloured piece of silk with frayed edges wound about his waist, which was as slim as a young girl's.
He spoke to Batouch with intense vivacity in Arabic, at the same time shooting glances half-obsequious, half-impudent, wholly and even preternaturally keen and intelligent at Domini. Batouch replied with the dignified languor that seemed peculiar to him. The colloquy continued for two or three minutes. Domini thought it sounded like a quarrel, but she was not accustomed to Arabs' talk. Meanwhile, the stranger in front had slackened his pace, and was obviously lingering for his neglectful guide. Once or twice he nearly stopped, and made a movement as if to turn round. But he checked it and went on slowly. His guide spoke more and more vehemently, and suddenly, tucking in his chin and displaying his rows of big and dazzling teeth, burst into a gay and boyish laugh, at the same time shaking his head rapidly. Then he shot one last sly look at Domini and hurried on, airily swinging the green bag to and fro. His arms had tiny bones, but they were evidently strong, and he walked with the light ease of a young animal. After he had gone he turned his head once and stared full at Domini. She could not help laughing at the vanity and consciousness of his expression. It was childish. Yet there was something ruthless and wicked in it too. As he came up to the stranger the latter looked round, said something to him, and then hastened forward. Domini was struck by the difference between their gaits. For the stranger, although he was so strongly built and muscular, walked rather heavily and awkwardly, with a peculiar shuffling motion of his feet. She began to wonder how old he was. About thirty-five or thirty-seven, she thought.
"That is Hadj," said Batouch in his soft, rich voice.
"Yes. He is my cousin. He lives in Beni-Mora, but he, too, has been in Paris. He has been in prison too."
Batouch gave this piece of information with quiet indifference, and continued
"He likes to laugh. He is lazy. He has earned a great deal of money, and now he has none. To-night he is very gay, because he has a client."
"I see. Then he is a guide?"
"Many people in Beni-Mora are guides. But Hadj is always lucky in getting the English."
"That man with him isn't English!" Domini exclaimed.
She had wondered what the traveller's nationality was, but it had never occurred to her that it might be the same as her own.
"Yes, he is. And he is going to the Hotel du Desert. You and he are the only English here, and almost the only travellers. It is too early for many travellers yet. They fear the heat. And besides, few English come here now. What a pity! They spend money, and like to see everything. Hadj is very anxious to buy a costume at Tunis for the great fete at the end of Ramadan. It will cost fifty or sixty francs. He hopes the Englishman is rich. But all the English are rich and generous."
Here Batouch looked steadily at Domini with his large, unconcerned eyes.
"This one speaks Arabic a little."
Domini made no reply. She was surprised by this piece of information. There was something, she thought, essentially un-English about the stranger. He was certainly not dressed by an English tailor. But it was not only that which had caused her mistake. His whole air and look, his manner of holding himself, of sitting, of walking—yes, especially of walking—were surely foreign. Yet, when she came to think about it, she could not say that they were characteristic of any other country. Idly she had said to herself that the stranger might be an Austrian or a Russian. But she had been thinking of his colouring. It happened that two attaches of those two nations, whom she had met frequently in London, had hair of that shade of rather warm brown.
"He does not look like an Englishman," she said presently.
"He can talk in French and in Arabic, but Hadj says he is English."
"How should Hadj know?"
"Because he has the eyes of the jackal, and has been with many English. We are getting near to the Catholic church, Madame. You will see it through the trees. And there is Monsieur the Cure coming towards us. He is coming from his house, which is near the hotel."
At some distance in the twilight of the tunnel Domini saw a black figure in a soutane walking very slowly towards them. The stranger, who had been covering the ground rapidly with his curious, shuffling stride, was much nearer to it than they were, and, if he kept on at his present pace, would soon pass it. But suddenly Domini saw him pause and hesitate. He bent down and seemed to be doing something to his boot. Hadj dropped the green bag, and was evidently about to kneel down, and assist him when he lifted himself up abruptly and looked before him, as if at the priest who was approaching, then turned sharply to the right into a path which led out of the garden to the arcades of the Rue Berthe. Hadj followed, gesticulating frantically, and volubly explaining that the hotel was in the opposite direction. But the stranger did not stop. He only glanced swiftly back over his shoulder once, and then continued on his way.
"What a funny man that is!" said Batouch. "What does he want to do?"
Domini did not answer him, for the priest was just passing them, and she saw the church to the left among the trees. It was a plain, unpretending building, with a white wooden door set in an arch. Above the arch were a small cross, two windows with rounded tops, a clock, and a white tower with a pink roof. She looked at it, and at the priest, whose face was dark and meditative, with lustrous, but sad, brown eyes. Yet she thought of the stranger.
Her attention was beginning to be strongly fixed upon the unknown man. His appearance and manner were so unusual that it was impossible not to notice him.
"There is the hotel, Madame!" said Batouch.
Domini saw it standing at right angles to the church, facing the gardens. A little way back from the church was the priest's house, a white building shaded by date palms and pepper trees. As they drew near the stranger reappeared under the arcade, above which was the terrace of the hotel. He vanished through the big doorway, followed by Hadj.
While Suzanne was unpacking Domini came out on to the broad terrace which ran along the whole length of the Hotel du Desert. Her bedroom opened on to it in front, and at the back communicated with a small salon. This salon opened on to a second and smaller terrace, from which the desert could be seen beyond the palms. There seemed to be no guests in the hotel. The verandah was deserted, and the peace of the soft evening was profound. Against the white parapet a small, round table and a cane armchair had been placed. A subdued patter of feet in slippers came up the stairway, and an Arab servant appeared with a tea-tray. He put it down on the table with the precise deftness which Domini had already observed in the Arabs at Robertville, and swiftly vanished. She sat down in the chair and poured out the tea, leaning her left arm on the parapet.
Her head was very tired and her temples felt compressed. She was thankful for the quiet round her. Any harsh voice would have been intolerable to her just then. There were many sounds in the village, but they were vague, and mingled, flowing together and composing one sound that was soothing, the restrained and level voice of Life. It hummed in Domini's ears as she sipped her tea, and gave an under-side of romance to the peace. The light that floated in under the round arches of the terrace was subdued. The sun had just gone down, and the bright colours bloomed no more upon the mountains, which looked like silent monsters that had lost the hue of youth and had suddenly become mysteriously old. The evening star shone in a sky that still held on its Western border some last pale glimmerings of day, and, at its signal, many dusky wanderers folded their loose garments round them, slung their long guns across their shoulders, and prepared to start on their journey, helped by the cool night wind that blows in the desert when the sun departs.
Domini did not know of them, but she felt the near presence of the desert, and the feeling quieted her nerves. She was thankful at this moment that she was travelling without any woman friend and was not persecuted by any sense of obligation. In her fatigue, to rest passive in the midst of quiet, and soft light, calm in the belief, almost the certainty, that this desert village contained no acquaintance to disturb her, was to know all the joy she needed for the moment. She drank it in dreamily. Liberty had always been her fetish. What woman had more liberty than she had, here on this lonely verandah, with the shadowy trees below?