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Laughing Bill Hyde and Other Stories by Rex Beach

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valley and the monk Joseph went his simple way, rendering service
where he could, preaching, by the example of his daily life and his
unselfish devotion, a sermon more powerful than his lips could utter.
Through it all the Moor watched him carefully, safeguarding him as a
provident farmer fattens a sheep for the slaughter. Once a year the
father rode southward to Cordova, bringing news with his return that
delighted the countryside, news that penetrated even the walls of San
Sebastian and filled the good men therein with gladness. It seemed
that the maiden Zahra was becoming a great musician. She pursued her
studies in the famous school of Ali-Zeriab, and not even Moussali
himself, that most gifted of Arabian singers, could bring more tender
notes from the lute than could this fair daughter of Catalonia. Her
skill transcended that of Al Farabi, for the harp, the tabor, and the
mandolin were wedded to her dancing fingers; and, most marvelous of
all, her soul was so filled with poetry that her verses were sung from
Valencia to Cadiz. It was said that she could move men to laughter, to
tears, to deeds of heroism--that she could even lull them to sleep by
the potency of her magic. She had once played before the Caliph under
amazing circumstances.

The Prince of True Believers, so ran the story, had quarreled with
his favorite wife, and in consequence had fallen into a state of
melancholy so deep as to threaten his health and to alarm his
ministers. Do what they would, he still declined, until in despair the
Hadjeb sent for Zahra, daughter of Abul Malek. She came, surrounded by
her servants, and sang before El Hakkam. So cunningly did she contrive
her verses, so tender were her airs, so potent were her fluttering
fingers, that those within hearing were moved to tears, and the
unhappy lover himself became so softened that he sped to the arms of
his offended beauty and a reconciliation occurred. In token of his
gratitude he had despatched a present of forty thousand drachmas of
gold to the singer, and her renown went broadcast like a flame.

When Abul Malek heard of this he praised his God, and, gathering his
horsemen, he set out to bring his daughter home, for the time was

One evening in early spring, that magic season when nature is most
charming, Fray Joseph, returning to his cell, heard from behind a
screen of verdure alongside his path a woman singing. But was this
singing? he asked himself. Could mortal lips give birth to melody like
this? It was the sighing of summer winds through rustling leaves, the
music of crystal brooks on stony courses, the full-throated worship
of birds. Joseph listened, enthralled, like a famished pilgrim in the
desert. His simple soul, attuned to harmonies of the woodland, leaped
in answer; his fancy, starved by years of churchly rigor, quickened
like a prisoner at the light of day. Not until the singer had ceased
did he resume his way, and through his dreams that night ran the song
of birds, the play of zephyrs, the laughter of bubbling springs.

A few evenings later he heard the voice again, and paused with lips
apart, with heart consumed by eagerness. It was some slave girl busied
among the vines of Abul Malek, he decided, for she translated all the
fragmentary airs that float through summer evenings--the songs of
sweethearts, the tender airs of motherhood, the croon of distant
waterfalls, the voice of sleepy locusts--and yet she wove them into an
air that carried words. It was most wonderful.

Joseph felt a strong desire to mingle his voice with the singer's, but
he knew his throat to be harsh and stiff from chanting Latin phrases.
He knew not whither the tune would lead, and yet, when she sang, he
followed, realizing gladly that she voiced the familiar music of his
soul. He was moved to seek her out and to talk with her, until he
remembered with a start that she was a woman and he a priest.

Each night he shaped his course so as to bring him past the spot
where the mysterious singer labored, and in time he began to feel the
stirring of a very earthly curiosity, the which he manfully fought
down. Through the long, heated hours of the day he hummed her airs and
repeated her verses, longing for the twilight hour which would bring
the angel voice from out the vineyard. Eventually the girl began to
sing of love, and Joseph echoed the songs in solitude, his voice as
rasping and untrue as that of a frog.

Then, one evening, he heard that which froze him in his tracks. The
singer accompanied herself upon some instrument the like of which he
had never imagined. The music filled the air with heavenly harmony,
and it set him to vibrating like a tautened string; it rippled
forth, softer than the breeze, more haunting than the perfume of the
frangipani. Joseph stood like a man in a trance, forgetful of all
things save these honeyed sounds, half minded to believe himself
favored by the music of the seraphim.

Never had he dreamed of such an intoxication. And then, as if to
intensify his wild exultation, the maiden sang a yearning strain of
passion and desire.

The priest began to tremble. His heart-beats quickened, his senses
became unbridled; something new and mighty awoke within him, and he
was filled with fever. His huge thews tightened, his muscles swelled
as if for battle, yet miracle of miracles, he was melting like a child
in tears! With his breath tugging at his throat, he turned off the
path and parted the verdure, going as soundlessly as an animal; and
all the while his head was whirling, his eyes took note of nothing. He
was drawn as by a thousand invisible strings, which wound him toward
the hidden singer.

But suddenly the music ended in a peal of rippling laughter and there
came the rustle of silken garments. Fray Joseph found himself in a
little open glade, so recently vacated that a faint perfume still
lingered to aggravate his nostrils. Beyond stretched the vineyard of
the Moor, a tangle of purpling vines into the baffling mazes of which
the singer had evidently fled.

So she had known of his presence all along, the monk reflected,
dizzily. It followed, therefore, that she must have waited every
evening for his coming, and that her songs had been sung for him. An
ecstasy swept over him. Regaining the path, he went downward to the
monastery, his brain afire, his body tingling.

Joseph was far too simple for self-analysis, and he was too enchanted
by those liquid strains to know what all this soul confusion foretold;
he merely realized that he had made the most amazing of discoveries,
that the music of the spheres had been translated for his privileged
ears, that a door had opened allowing him to glimpse a glory hidden
from other mortals. It was not the existence of the singer, but of the
music, that excited him to adoration. He longed to possess it, to take
it with him, and to cherish it like a thing of substance, to worship
it in his solitude.

The song had been of love; but, after all, love was the burden of his
religion. Love filled the universe, it kept the worlds a-swinging, it
was the thing that dominated all nature and made sweet even the rigid
life of an anchorite. It was doubtless love which awoke this fierce
yet tender yearning in him now, this ecstasy that threatened to
smother him. Love was a holy and an impersonal thing, nevertheless it
blazed and melted in his every vein, and it made him very human.

Through all that night Fray Joseph lay upon his couch, rapt, thankful,
wondering. But in the morning he had changed. His thoughts became
unruly, and he recalled again that tantalizing perfume, the shy tones
of that mischief laughter. He began to long intensely to behold the
author of this music-magic, to behold her just once, for imagination
graced her with a thousand witching forms. He wished ardently, also,
to speak with her about this miracle, this hidden thing called melody,
for the which he had starved his life, unknowingly.

As the afternoon aged he began to fear that he had frightened her,
and therefore when he came to tread his homeward path it was with a
strange commingling of eagerness and of dread. But while still at a
distance, he heard her singing as usual, and, nearing the spot, he
stopped to drink in her message. Again the maiden sang of love; again
the monk felt his spirit leaping as she fed his starving soul even
more adroitly than she fingered the vibrant strings. At last her wild,
romantic verses became more unrestrained; the music quickened until,
regardless of all things, Fray Joseph burst the thicket asunder and
stood before her, huge, exalted, palpitant.

"I, too, have sung those songs," he panted, hoarsely. "That melody has
lived in me since time began; but I am mute. And you? Who are you?
What miracle bestowed this gift--?"

He paused, for with the ending of the song his frenzy was dying and
his eyes were clearing. There, casting back his curious gaze, was a
bewitching Moorish maid whose physical perfection seemed to cause the
very place to glow. The slanting sunbeams shimmered upon her silken
garments; from her careless hand drooped an instrument of gold and of
tortoise-shell, an instrument strange to the eyes of the monk. Her
feet were cased in tiny slippers of soft Moroccan leather; her limbs,
rounded and supple and smooth as ivory, were outlined beneath wide
flowing trousers which were gathered at the ankles. A tunic of finest
fabric was flung back, displaying a figure of delicate proportions,
half recumbent now upon the sward.

The loveliness of Moorish women has been heralded to the world; it is
not strange that this maid, renowned even among her own people, should
have struck the rustic priest to dumbness. He stood transfixed; and
yet he wondered not, for it was seemly that such heavenly music should
have sprung from the rarest of mortals. He saw that her hair, blacker
than the night, rippled in a glorious cascade below her waist, and
that her teeth embellished with the whiteness of alabaster the
vermilion lips which smiled at him.

That same intoxicating scent, sweeter than the musk of Hadramaut,
enveloped her; her fingers were jeweled with nails which flashed in
rivalry with their burden of precious stones as she toyed with the
whispering strings.

For a time she regarded the monk silently.

"I am Zahra," she said at length, and Joseph thrilled at the tones of
her voice. "To me, all things are music."

"Zahra! 'Flower of the World,'" he repeated, wonderingly. After an
instant he continued, harshly, "Then you are the daughter of the

"Yes. Abul Malek. You have heard of me?"

"Who has not? Aye, you were rightly called 'Flower of the World.'
But--this music! It brought me here against my will; it pulls at me
like straining horses. Why is that? What wizardry do you possess? What
strange chemistry?"

She laughed lightly. "I possess no magic art. We are akin, you and I.
That is all. You, of all men, are attuned to me."

"No," he said, heavily. "You are an Infidel, I am a Christian. There
is no bond between us."

"So?" she mocked. "And yet, when I sing, you can hear the nightingales
of Aden; I can take you with me to the fields of battle, or to the
innermost halls of the Alhambra. I have watched you many times,
Brother Joseph, and I have never failed to play upon your soul as I
play upon my own. Are we not, then, attuned?"

"Your veil!" he cried, accusingly. "I have never beheld a Moorish
woman's face until now."

Her lids drooped, as if to hide the fire behind them, and she replied,
without heeding his words: "Sit here, beside me. I will play for you."

"Yes, yes!" he cried, eagerly. "Play! Play on for me! But--I will

Accordingly she resumed her instrument; and o'er its strings her
rosy fingers twinkled, while with witchery of voice and beauty she
enthralled him. Again she sang of love, reclinging there like an
_houri_ fit to grace the paradise of her Prophet; and the giant monk
became a puppet in her hands. Now, although she sang of love, it was a
different love from that which Joseph knew and worshiped; and as she
toyed with him his hot blood warred with his priestly devotion until
he was racked with the tortures of the pit. But she would not let him
go. She lured him with her eyes, her lips, her luscious beauty, until
he heard no song whatever, until he no longer saw visions of spiritual
beatitude, but flesh, ripe flesh, aquiver and awake to him.

A cry burst from him. Turning, he tore himself away and went crashing
blindly through the thicket like a bull pursued. On, on he fled, down
to the monastery and into the coolness of his cell, where, upon the
smooth, worn flags, he knelt and struggled with this evil thing which
accursed his soul.

For many days Joseph avoided the spot which had witnessed his
temptation; but of nights, when he lay spent and weary with his
battle, through the grating of his window came the song of the Saracen
maid and the whisper of her golden lute. He knew she was calling to
him, therefore he beat his breast and scourged himself to cure his
longing. But night after night she sang from the heights above, and
the burden of her song was ever the same, of one who waited and of one
who came.

Bit by bit she wore down the man's resistance, then drew him up
through the groves of citron and pomegrante, into the grape fields;
time and again he fled. Closer and closer she lured him, until one day
he touched her flesh--woman's flesh--and forgot all else. But now it
was her turn to flee.

She poised like a sunbeam just beyond his reach, her bosom heaving,
her lips as ripe and full as the grapes above, her eyes afire with
invitation. In answer to his cry she made a glowing promise, subtle,
yet warm and soft, as of the flesh.

"To-night, when the moon hangs over yonder pass, I shall play on the
balcony outside my window. Beneath is a door, unbarred. Come, for I
shall be alone in all the castle, and there you will find music made
flesh, and flesh made music." Then she was gone.

The soul of the priest had been in torment heretofore, but chaos
engulfed it during the hours that followed. He was like a man bereft
of reason; he burned with fever, yet his whole frame shook as from a
wintry wind. He prayed, or tried to, but his eyes beheld no vision
save a waiting Moorish maid with hair like night, his stammering
tongue gave forth no Latin, but repeated o'er and o'er her parting

"There you will find music made flesh and flesh made music."

He realized that the foul fiend had him by the throat, and undertook
to cast him off; but all the time he knew that when the moon came,
bringing with it the cadence of a song, he would go, even though his
going led to perdition. And go he did, groveling in his misery. His
sandals spurned the rocky path when he heard the voice of Zahra
sighing through the branches; then, when he had reached the castle
wall, he saw her bending toward him from the balcony above.

"I come to you," she whispered; and an instant later her form showed
white against the blackness of the low stone door in front of him.
There, in the gloom, for one brief instant, her yielding body met his,
her hands reached upward and drew his face down to her own; then out
from his hungry arms she glided, and with rippling laughter fled into
the blackness.

"Zahra!" he cried.

"Come!" she whispered, and when he hesitated, "Do you fear to follow?"

"Zahra!" he repeated; but his voice was strange, and he tore at the
cloth that bound his throat, stumbling after her, guided only by her

Always she was just beyond his reach; always she eluded him; yet never
did he lose the perfume of her presence nor the rustle of her silken
garments. Over and over he cried her name, until at last he realized
from the echo of his calling that he had come into a room of great
dimensions and that the girl was gone.

For an instant he was in despair, until her voice reached him from

"I do but test you, Christian priest. I am waiting."

"'Flower of the World,'" he stammered, hoarsely. "Whence lead the

"And do you love me, then?" she queried, in a tone that set him all

"Zahra," he repeated, "I shall perish for want of you."

"How do you measure this devotion?" she insisted, softly. "Will it
cool with the dawn, or are you mine in truth forever and all time?"

"I have no thought save that of you. Come, Light of my Soul, or I
shall die."

"Do you then adore me above all things, earthly and heavenly, that you
forsake your vows? Answer, that my arms may enfold you."

He groaned like a man upon a rack, and the agony of that cry was proof
conclusive of his abject surrender.

Then, through the dead, black silence of the place there came a
startling sound. It was a peal of laughter, loud, evil, triumphant;
and, as if it had been a signal, other mocking voices took it up,
until the great vault rang to a fiendish din.

"Ho! Hassam! Elzemah! Close the doors!" cried the voice of Abul Malek.
"Bring the lights."

There followed a ponderous clanging and the rattle of chains, the
while Fray Joseph stood reeling in his tracks. Then suddenly from
every side burst forth the radiance of many lamps. Torches sprang into
flame, braziers of resin wood began to smoke, flambeaux were lit, and,
half blinded by the glare, the Christian monk stood revealed in the
hall of Abul Malek.

He cast his eyes about, but on every side he beheld grinning men of
swarthy countenance, and at sight of his terror the hellish merriment
broke forth anew, until the whole place thundered with it. Facing
him, upon an ornamental balcony, stood the Moor, and beside him, with
elbows on the balustrade and face alight with sinister enjoyment,
stood his daughter.

Stunned by his betrayal, Joseph imploringly pronounced her name, at
which a fresh guffaw resounded. Then above the clamor she inquired,
with biting malice:

"Dost thou any longer doubt, oh, Christian, that I adore thee?"
At this her father and her brothers rocked back and forth, as if
suffocated by the humor of this jest.

The lone man turned, in mind to flee, but every entrance to the hall
was closed, and at each portal stood a grinning Saracen. He bowed his
shaven head, and his shame fell slowly upon him.

"You have me trapped," he said. "What shall my punishment be?"

"This," answered the Moorish lord; "to acknowledge once again, before
us all, the falseness of your faith."

"That I have never done; that I can never do," said Joseph.

"Nay! But a moment ago you confessed that you adored my daughter above
all things, earthly or heavenly. You forswore your vows for her.
Repeat it, then."

"I have sinned before God; but I still acknowledge Him and crave His
mercy," said the wretched priest.

"Hark you, Joseph. You are the best of monks. Have you ever done evil
before this night?"

"My life has been clean, but the flesh is weak. It was the witchcraft
of Satan in that woman's music. I prayed for strength, but I was
powerless. My soul shall pay the penalty."

"What sort of God is this who snares His holiest disciple, with the
lusts of the flesh?" mocked Abul Malek. "Did not your prayers mount
up so high? Or is His power insufficient to forestall the devil? Bah!
There is but one true God, and Mohammed is His Prophet. These many
years have I labored to rend your veil of holiness asunder and
to expose your faith to ridicule and laughter. This have I done

"Stop!" cried the tortured monk. "Bring forth a lance."

"Nay! Nay! You shall hear me through," gloated Abul Malek; and again
Joseph bowed his tonsured head, murmuring:

"It is my punishment."

Ringed about thus by his enemies, the priest stood meekly, while the
sweat came out upon his face; as the Saracen mocked and jeered at him
he made no answer, except to move his lips in whispered grayer. Had it
not been for this sign they might have thought him changed to stone,
so motionless and so patient did he stand. How long the baiting lasted
no one knew; it may have been an hour, then Joseph's passive silence
roused the anger of the overlord, who became demoniac in his rage.
His followers joined in harrying the victim, until the place became a
babel. Finally Elzemah stepped forward, torch in hand, and spat upon
the giant black-robed figure.

The monk's face whitened, it grew ghastly; but he made no movement.
Then in a body the infidels rushed forth to follow the example of
Abul Malek's son. They swarmed about the Christian, jeering, cursing,
spitting, snatching at his garments, until their master cried:

"Enough! The knave has water in his veins. His blood has soured.
Deserted by his God, his frame has withered and his vigor fled."

"Yes," echoed his daughter. "He is great only in bulk. Had he been a
Man I might have loved him; but the evil has fled out of him, leaving
nothing but his cassock. Off with his robe, Elzemah. Let us see if
aught remains."

With swift movement her brother tore at the monk's habit, baring his
great bosom. At this insult to his cloth a frightful change swept over
the victim. He upheaved his massive shoulders, his gleaming head rose
high, and in the glaring light they saw that his face had lost all
sweetness and humility; it was now the visage of a madman. All fleshly
passion stored through thirty years of cloister life blazed forth,
consuming reason and intelligence; with a sweep of his mighty arms he
cleared a space about him, hurling his enemies aside as if they were
made of straw. He raised his voice above the din, cursing God and men
and Moors. As they closed in upon him he snatched from the hands of a
lusty slave a massive wrought-iron brazier, and whirling it high above
his head, he sent its glowing coals flying into the farthest corners
of the room. Then with this weapon he laid about him right and left,
while men fell like grain before the reaper.

"At him!" shouted Abul Malek, from his balcony. "Pull down the weapons
from the walls! The fool is mad!"

Zahra clutched at her father's sleeve and pointed to a distant corner,
where a tongue of flame was licking the dry woodwork and hangings.
Her eyes were flashing and her lips were parted; she bent forward,
following the priest with eagerness.

"Allah be praised!" she breathed. "He is a Man!"

Elzemah strove to sheathe his poinard in the monk's bare breast, but
the brazier crushed him down. Across the wide floor raged the contest,
but the mighty priest was irresistible. Hassam, seeing that the priest
was fighting toward the balcony, flung himself upon the stairs, crying
to his father and his sister to be gone. By now the castle echoed with
a frightful din through which arose a sinister crackling. The light
increased moment by moment, and there came the acrid smell of smoke.

Men left the maniac to give battle to the other fury. Some fled to the
doors and fought with their clumsy fastenings, but as they flung
them back a draught sucked through, changing the place into a raging

With his back against the stairs, Hassam hewed at the monk with his
scimitar; he had done as well had he essayed to fell an oak with a
single blow. Up over him rushed the giant, to the balcony above, where
Abul Malek and his daughter stood at bay in the trap of their own
manufacture. There, in the glare of the mounting flames, Fray Joseph
sank his mighty fingers through the Moor's black beard.

The place by now was suffocating, and the roar of the conflagration
had drowned all other sounds. Men wrapped their robes about their
heads and hurled themselves blindly at the doors, fighting with one
another, with the licking flames, with the dead that clogged the
slippery flags. But the maid remained. She tore at the tattered
cassock of the priest, crying into his ear:

"Come, Joseph! We may yet escape."

He let the writhing Abul Malek slip from out his grasp and peered at
her through the smother.

"Thou knowest me not?" she queried. "I am Zahra." Her arms entwined
his neck for a second time that night, but with a furious cry he
raised his hands and smote her down at his feet, then he fled back to
the stairs and plunged down into the billows that raged ahead of the
fresh night wind.

The bells of San Sebastian were clanging the alarm, the good monks
were toiling up the path toward the inferno which lit the heavens,
when, black against the glare, they saw a giant figure approaching. It
came reeling toward them, vast, mighty, misshapen. Not until it was in
their very midst did they recognize their brother, Joseph. He was
bent and broken, he was singed of body and of raiment, he gibbered
foolishly; he passed them by and went staggering to his cell. Long ere
they reached the castle it was but a seething mountain of flame; and
in the morning naught remained of Abul Malek's house but heated ruins.

Strange tales were rife concerning the end of the Moor and of his
immediate kin, but the monks could make little out of them, for they
were garbled and too ridiculous for belief. No Mussulman who survived
the fire could speak coherently of what had happened in the great
hall, nor could Fray Joseph tell his story, for he lay stricken with a
malady which did not leave him for many weeks. Even when he recovered
he did not talk; for although his mind was clear on most matters, nay,
although he was as simple and as devout as ever, a kind Providence had
blotted out all memory of Zahra, of his sin, and of the temptation
that had beset his flesh.

So it is that even to this day "The Teeth of the Moor" remains a term
of mystery to most of the monks of San Sebastian.

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