Part 3 out of 4
go back to the boat: other Englishman want me. You go to Kerreree,
Show everything; carry black box for him--carry everything. Salaam,
And, without waiting for either assent or dissent, he swiftly, yet
without any loss of dignity or show of hurry, departed. Merla's
large eyes were downcast. She was a free woman, and came and went
unveiled, nor was it impossible for her to talk to the white
people, for her parents were poor and humble, and glad to make
piastres in any way they could. One of her sisters was a
water-carrier at the hotel in Khartoum, and she might be engaged
there also when she was older. But still she held her eyes down,
for she felt embarrassed and oppressed, and, besides, the topee and
the goggles had been replaced, and they spoilt the vision she had
seen first of the English face.
"Well, Merla, if that's your name, will you come with me?" the
Englishman said lightly. He knew the tongue well that her brothers
spoke, not in any of its refinement and subtlety, but in the
ordinary distorted way an Englishman usually speaks a foreign
"I will ask if I may," she returned simply, in a low voice, and
drew back into the dark hut behind her. After a moment she
reappeared. "My mother and my brother have ordered it," she said
calmly. "I am ready."
Struck by the philosophic, impassive accent of her voice, and not
feeling at all flattered, the young man added in rather a nettled
"But I hope it's not disagreeable to you. You are willing to come?"
Then Merla looked at him steadily from under her calm,
widely-arching brows: "I am willing." A calm pride enwrapped all
her countenance, and it seemed as if she said it somewhat as a
victim might say, "I am willing," on being led to the altar of
sacrifice. Yet her eyes were radiant, and seemed to smile on him.
The young Englishman was puzzled, as young England mostly is by the
East, and, seeing this, the girl added, "Certainly I am willing; it
is fated I should go with you. Give me the black box."
But it goes against the grain of an Englishman to let a woman carry
his baggage, though he hires her to do it, and he held his camera
back from her.
"Take these," he said; "they are lighter," and he gave the little
tripod to her, and so they started down the mud sun-baked street
that leads through Omdurman to the desert, and out towards the
battle-ground of Kerreree. There were few people stirring; the men
had already started to their work in the fields by the Nile, or on
the river itself, and the women kept within the close darkness of
the huts mixing and baking meal for the evening's food. Merla
walked on swiftly and silently like a shadow at Stanhope's side
through the mud village, and then on into the silent heat of the
desert beyond. Here the fury of the sun was intense. The river was
out of sight, lying low between its banks. To infinite distance on
every side of them stretched the plain, and the soil here was not
golden sand, but curiously black, like powdered coal or lava. Not a
living thing moved near them; only, far away towards the horizon,
now and then passed a string of camels of some Bedouins travelling.
They walked on in silence. Stanhope found the walking heavy, as his
heeled boots sank into the loose, black soil, and it was difficult
to keep up with the swift, easy steps of the bare black feet beside
him. His duck suit was damp, and the line of flesh exposed between
cuff and glove on his wrist was burnt to a livid red already in the
smiting heat. Suddenly Merla's eyes fell on this, and she stopped.
Over her head she wore a loose veil of coarse white muslin. As she
stopped, she unwound this from her hair, and tore two strips from
it. Stanhope stopped too, well pleased at the pause.
"You burn your English skin; the flesh will come off," she said
gravely, and before he quite realised it, she had passed one of the
muslin strips round and tied it on his wrist. Stanhope's instinct
was to protest at once, but there was something in the girl's
earnestness and the tender interest with which she put the muslin
on his hand that checked him. Also the pain, whenever his sharp
cuff touched the seared skin, was unpleasant, and made him really
appreciate the improvised protection.
"Your pretty veil, Merla, you've torn it up for me," he remarked
regretfully as they started again. Merla glanced at him suddenly;
she said nothing, but the pride and joy in her eyes startled the
man beside her. He could find no more words, and silence fell
on them again till Merla roused him from a reverie by saying
"Look! that white heap there--bones, dead men, dead horses. This
side, white bones too; many dead here--many bones."
Stanhope looked round. Everywhere, scattered in heaps, shone the
white bones. They had come to the edge of the battlefield. Before
them rose the little hill of Teb-el-Surgham, crowned by its cairn
of black stones and rocks, surrounded by whitened bones and skulls,
from the summit of which the English watched the defeat of the
Khalifa's force. Stanhope cast his eyes over the dreary, black,
blood-soaked plain, on which there was no blade of grass, no plant,
no flower--only black rock and white bones, that shimmered together
in the torrid heat.
"Horrible! Merla, war is horrible! Come and sit down; I'm dead
tired. Let's sit down here against this rock and rest."
Stanhope threw himself down by one of the rocks at the base of the
hill, and leant back against it. The girl took her place on the
sand opposite him, with her feet tucked under her. Not far from
them lay a skull, turned upwards to the glaring sky.
"Will you let me photograph you?" he asked after a minute's gazing
at the rich dark beauty of the youthful face, "or is it against
"It is against our customs," Merla answered, her hands closing hard
on the tripod beside her. What terror it would mean for her to
stand before that great black box, and have that evil black eye
glare upon her for long seconds! She had seen her countrywomen flee
shrieking to their huts, when the Englishmen approached with their
"But you will do it for me, won't you?" answered Stanhope
persuasively, having set his heart on the picture.
"Yes, I will do it for you; it is right, if you wish it," she
Stanhope accepted at once such a convenient theory, and sprang up
to fix the tripod and the camera in order, and the girl sat still
on the sand watching him, cold with terror in the burning air.
"Now, pick up that skull and hold it out in your hand, so. Yes,
that's right. Now, stand a little further back. Yes, that's
There was no difficulty in getting her to pose. The natural
attitudes of her race are all perfect poses. And Merla stood
erect, facing the camera, with the emblem of death in her hand.
"Thank you; I am very much obliged! That'll be a first-rate
picture," he said gratefully when he had finished, and Merla sat
down with a strange swimming feeling of joy rushing over her.
Stanhope was some time fussing with his camera, and putting it back
in its case out of the light. Then he wanted lunch, and drew forth
a sandwich-case and a wine-flask. The girl would only eat very
little, and would not taste the wine. Stanhope, who was very hungry
and thirsty, ate all his sandwiches and drank all the wine, and
began to feel very bright, refreshed, and exhilarated.
"Do you know you are very beautiful?" he remarked, as he stretched
himself comfortably in the shade of the rock and gazed at her,
seated sedately on the sand in front of him.
"Beautiful?" she repeated slowly, reflectively, "am I? The white
camel that lives down by the market square is beautiful, and so was
the Mahdi's tomb."
"Well, you are more beautiful even than the white camel or the
Mahdi's tomb," returned Stanhope, laughing. "And what do you think
of me?" he added curiously. "Where do I come in the list? somewhere
close after the white camel, I hope."
Then, as she gazed at him steadfastly, without replying at all, he
felt rather piqued, and took off his blue glasses and squared his
fine shoulders against the rock.
"Oh, you!" said the girl softly at last, "You are like nothing on
earth, lord! You are like the sun when he first comes over the
plain, or the moon at night, when it floats, white and shining,
through the blue spaces!"
She sat sedately still, but her breast heaved under the straight,
white tunic: her eyes were full of soft fire: her voice was low,
and quivered with enthusiasm. Stanhope flushed scarlet. Confused
and startled, he stared into her eyes, and so they sat, silent,
gazing at each other.
* * * * *
That same afternoon there was a big fair or bazaar in the trampled
mud square in the centre of the Soudanese village that lies higher
up the river at the back of Khartoum. The place was gay with colour
and crowded with moving figures. From long distances, from far-off
villages down and up the river, the natives had come in, either to
sell or to buy along the wide, dusty road that went out from either
side of the square, leading each way north and south. The mud-huts
stood all round the square, backed by some date-palms, for Khartoum
and the village behind it are more favoured with shade than
sun-baked Omdurman. And in the centre of the square stood or sat
the natives, buying and selling, chaffering and gesticulating. Some
were Bishareens, with straight forms and features, and black bodies
almost covered with long strings and chains of beads. They stood
about gracefully to be admired, with their wooly hair fluffed out
at right angles to their head, for the occasion. Some were
corn-merchants, sitting leisurely before a heap of golden grain
piled up loosely on the ground. Others stood by patiently with
their fowls or goats or camels, feeding them with green fodder; and
others had vivid scarlet rugs and carpets of native make spread out
on the uneven ground. And all day long the noise of the merchants,
and the cry of the fowls, and the groan of the camels, and the
dust of the square, and the smoke of the cooking fires went up from
In one corner of it, on a square of blue carpet, spread beneath his
camel's nose, sat a merchant who had been observed to come early to
the fair. He appeared to be a man of some substance, for he was
clothed, and the camel kneeling beside him was fat and sleek, and
would easily make two of the thin camels of Khartoum. Opposite him,
sitting on his heels and holding out two lean hands to tend the
small fire that smoked between them, was another, obviously poorer,
from his smaller amount of dress and flesh.
"It is true: your Merla is the pearl of the desert. I have heard it
from my mother," observed the merchant reflectively. "Still, think,
my brother, a good riding camel that can be hired out to the
Englishmen every day for thirty piastres the day; in a short time
you will feed on goat's flesh, and wear boots, with all that
The black eyes of the listener sparkled, but he objected shrewdly
"My daughter eats not as much as a camel, and the English want not
a camel every day."
The stranger, fat and comfortable-looking, with a certain amount of
opulent Oriental good looks, waved his hand with a lordly gesture.
"Let it not be said that Balloon is an oppressor of the poor. Give
me the pearl, and this knife shall go with the camel, also this
piece of blue carpet--a noble offer, my brother; where will you
find such another?"
He drew from his crimson sash a longish knife, keen-bladed, with
trueblue, Eastern steel, and having a good bone-handle, on which
the fingers clasped easily. The other took the knife and gazed at
"'Tis but a poor thing," he said at last, indifferently thrusting
it into the cloths twisted round his waist. "Yet the camel and the
carpet may suit me, and, as you say, you need not the girl at
present, I will agree, as I am a poor man, and the poor are ever
under the heel of the rich. The girl shall be sent to your house on
"I go now northwards, and shall return by the full moon; disappoint
me not, Krino or it shall be evil for you."
"I disappoint no man," replied Krino calmly, taking over from the
other the string of the camel, and the fine beast turned its dark,
soft head, and looked with liquid eyes on its new owner.
The sky began to show an orange and crimson glow behind the palms,
and many cooking-fires now gleamed like spots of blood upon the
sand, and the figures still came and went, and talked and bartered,
for the goods were not nearly all sold, and the heaps of fine corn
were still high in many places, and the fair would go on to-morrow
and the next day. But Krino got up and took his way homeward,
exulting over his bargain, and leading the camel.
At the same hour, lower down the Nile, at Omdurman, the river lay
calm now, without a ripple, and bathed in gold; a stream of liquid
gold it seemed, asleep between its deep-green banks, and only now
and then did a white-sailed felucca glide by in the golden evening
Two figures came down from the desert to the Nile out of the flat,
heated air of the plain to the divine freshness by the water.
Here, in the cool, golden light, they paused slow and reluctant to
"Good-night, Merla! Are you unhappy that I must go?"
The girl raised her face, and looked at him with steadfast eyes.
"The sun gilds the black rock, but the rock cannot expect the sun
to stay. I am quite happy. Good-night!"
Another moment and the little launch had sprung out from the deep
shadowed bank on to the golden surface, and was steaming, amidst
the gold and rosy ripples, back to Khartoum.
When Merla reached the little enclosure of stamped clay round her
hut, she saw a new camel feeding there, and cried out for joy. She
ran to it and clasped her hands about its velvet neck, and called
to her father, as he sat smoking at the doorway, a dozen questions.
Where had it come from? Whose was it? But the old man only chuckled
and laughed, and would not answer.
"No, no," he thought, watching her with pride, as she played round
the camel, "let the maiden wait to know the joy in store for her
till the full moon; she is but a child."
Stanhope went that night to a dance at the palace at Khartoum, but
he was late in arriving, and seemed very dull and absent-minded
when he came, and flattered the women less than usual. "He used to
be such a nice boy when he first came here," they complained
amongst themselves, "but he was quite horrid to-night--he must be
in love," and they all laughed, for every one knew there was no one
in Khartoum to fall in love with except themselves, and he had not
led any one of them to suppose she was the favoured one.
The night was calm, and in the purple, star-filled sky the moon was
rising. It was at the full. The naphtha launch was on the river,
but it moved silently; current was with it, and the light airs
favourable, so there was no need of the engine; one single sail
carried the boat easily over the buoyant water. The stars and the
rising moon gleamed in the smooth, black ripples. Stanhope sat in
the boat thinking, wrapped in a cruel reverie.
He felt he had sailed the craft of his life too near the perilous
shore of unconventionality, and now he saw the rocks ahead of him
plainly, on which it would be torn in pieces. Yet how to turn back,
or move the helm to steer away from them?
"A month ago," he thought, as his eye caught the reflection of the
rising moon in the water, "when that moon was young, I was free.
Not a soul cared for me, whether I lived or died, and I cared for
no one." Now there was one, he knew, who lived upon his coming,
whose feet ran to meet him, whose eyes strained their vision to see
his first approach. And he, too; he was no longer free. His heart
went out to that other heart, beating for him alone so truly, so
faithfully, full of such unquestioning adoration and obedience, in
mud-walled sun-parched Omdurman.
When the launch touched the bank, he sprang out and walked swiftly
up to their usual meeting-place: the deserted mud enclosure of a
deserted hut--an unlovely meeting-place enough--but filled with the
sweet air of the desert night and the royal light of the stars.
"My lord looks weary to-night," said Merla softly, after they had
greeted each other, and had sat down side by side with their backs
to the low wall.
"Yes, I am tired with thinking. What is to be the end of this,
Merla? Where is our love drifting us to?"
"Why does my lord concern himself with that? We are in the hands of
Stanhope moved impatiently.
"Our fate is what we make it."
"It is not wise to enquire about our fate," replied Merla, and he
saw her face grow grave with resolution in the dim light. "But I
can tell you, if you like, what it will be: when you are ready, you
will go back to your own people, your own life, and you will be
"And you--?" asked Stanhope in a whisper.
"I shall then have lived my life. I shall die and be buried out
there," and she motioned to the desert. "I shall have given my lord
happiness for a time: think what delight, what honour!"
"Don't, don't, I can't bear to hear you; do you ask nothing for
yourself from life?"
"Life has given me all now," returned Merla, with a proud smile on
"Why should we not go home to my land together?" said Stanhope
passionately, in that sudden revolt against the laws of custom that
stirs all humanity at times. "Why should I not take you to live
with me for always to be my wife? who would forbid me?"
Merla shook her head, and pressed hard on his hand lying beside her
on the sand.
"The sun cannot lift the black rock from the desert and take it to
dwell in the blue spaces; neither can the sun stay with the rock.
You are grieving for me; do not. I am quite happy. I accept what
must be. My life ends when you go."
For a wild moment it seemed to Stanhope that he must dare
everything and take her. After all, she was intelligent: she could
be educated. She was beautiful, youthful; and what a love she
poured out at his feet!--different in calibre, in nature,
different, from its root up, from any love he could hope to find
again--a love that asked absolutely nothing for itself, not even
the right to live, and yet would give its all unquestioningly,
unsparingly. It is not a toy to be thrown away lightly, and
Stanhope realised this.
"The blue spaces are cold and empty, Merla," he said, suddenly
catching her to his breast. "You must come with me."
"No, lord, it is impossible; you speak only for me," whispered
Merla, though she clasped his neck tightly. "You must go and live
happy, and I shall die happy; even in my grave I shall remember
* * * * *
An hour later, the moon was well up in the sky, though the light
was not yet brilliant, and they parted by the wall of the
cattle-byre with promises to meet on the morrow, and he turned and
left her standing in the shadow; but some instinct moved him, and
he returned and kissed her yet again, and said one more farewell;
then he took the narrow track leading down to the river, and Merla
knew that she must hasten home; for her father, who had been out in
the early evening, would be returning. Before she left she turned
back once more into the byre, and stood looking at the stars that
she had communed with so often: a great sadness fell on her
thoughts, a chill as after a final parting. As she turned to go,
her eyes fell on a grey patch on the byre floor--his coat! He had
left it behind. Merla gave a little laugh as she picked it up: the
parting seemed less final now. She would keep it till the morrow.
Would he want it? miss it? No, the night was so still and sultry;
and, throwing it over her arm, she passed onwards to her hut.
As she neared the enclosure, her heart beat rapidly. A light was
burning within the hut, and by the moonlight she saw the great
camel moving restlessly in the narrow space outside. Angry voices
reached her in sharp discussion--her father's and another. Just
inside the enclosure she paused and listened, trembling, uncertain
what this unusual clamour and strange voice might mean.
"I gave you my camel, my knife, and my carpet. Where is the Pearl I
was promised? Is not the moon at the full?"
Merla heard these words with a thrill passing through every fibre.
She knew her father had no pearl in his possession, but was not
her name "Pearl of the Desert"? Next there came some confused
murmur--seemingly words of apology--in her father's voice that she
could not catch, but the stranger interrupted angrily:
"Unhappy man! tricked seller, tricked buyer, would you know where
the Pearl is? would you know where your daughter hides? I have
heard that she has been seen with a stranger, a white-faced
stranger--I know not if he be a leper or an Englishman--" with a
bitter laugh, "but in either case I want her not. Come, give me my
knife, and I lead off my camel."
Merla's heart failed, for her father gave a shriek as he heard the
accusation, and a shower of oaths and imprecations came to her
shrinking ears. Nothing was clear any more; there was only clamour
and raving in the hut. But once she caught the words, "to the
river--does he go to the river?" and above all the storm of words
there was the awful sound of the sharpening of a knife.
Like a shadow, noiseless and silent, Merla crept swiftly, under the
shade of the camel's body, across the enclosure to the mud
partition behind which her youngest brother slept, and roused him.
"Nungoon!" she said breathlessly, gripping his shoulder, "take the
track to the river, and run for your life. You will overtake the
Englishman. Tell him this. 'Merla says: Run to the launch and get
off the land quickly, and never come back to Omdurman, or come with
a guard. They seek to kill you here.' Go, brother; run!"
The boy, startled from his sleep, gathered himself together and
rose. His sister, leaning over him with ashy face and fixed eyes,
seemed like Fate itself directing him. Moreover, Oriental youth is
accustomed to obey unquestioningly. Without a word, simply with a
sign of assent, he fled out of the enclosure, down the track to the
Merla stepped back and out of the yard, and stood waiting, silent
as before; she had formed her resolution, and all fear was past.
The mats in front of the door were suddenly pushed aside, and a
streak of light fell across the yard, but it could not touch her,
sheltered by the wall. She saw her father rush out, wild-eyed, and
the long blade of the knife gleamed blue in the moonlight.
Then, as he dashed through the enclosure entrance, she moved her
feet suddenly, scraping the sand, and then fled, wrapped in
Stanhope's long light overcoat, up towards the desert, away from
the river. Krino, blinded, maddened by passion, glanced at the wall
whence came the scraping sound, and then, catching sight of a
flying form in English dress, plunged with a cry of triumph after
it. Merla fled like the wind along in the shadow of the wall,
keeping in the darkness, with her head down, fearing lest her bare
head or bare feet might betray her. But Krino's eyes were fixed on
the silvery grey of the English overcoat, and, blind to all else,
he raced on in the uncertain light with his eyes intent on the
shoulders between which he would plunge his knife. Up through the
heart of sleeping Omdurman, past silent huts and yellow walls that
gleamed pale in the moonlight, through the village to the desert,
hunted and hunter fled on, and Krino's heart rose in savage
"Fool! he cannot escape me now; by the river--yes, but not in the
desert; he cannot escape."
And the desert was reached and entered, and still the two noiseless
shadows fled over the sand.
Merla's strength was failing: her sight was reeling; she could run
no more. Only the joy of knowing that each step led the enemy
farther from her loved one had supported her till now. Now he was
safe, he must be away on the friendly river. There had been ample
time. Not now would it be possible for Krino to reach the river
before her lover had embarked. It was well. All was well! And the
black sand spun round her in the moonlight, as she heard the hiss
of her father's breath behind her. She wavered. With a bound the
man threw himself forward. One stab, and the keen blade sank
through the flesh below the shoulder, driving her forward, and she
fell face downwards on the sand.
Blind still with fury, the Soudanese bent down, tore at the head to
drag it back that he might slash it from the body, and turned up
the face to the moonlight. Fixed in agony and triumph, it looked
back at him--the dead face of his daughter, the PEARL OF THE
The last flare of the sunset was falling on the walls of Jerusalem,
staining them crimson, and flooding all the enchanting circle of
the hills that lie round the city with rosy light. Low down in one
of the depressions, where the long sun-rays could not reach, and
the olive-trees looked grey in the twilight, stood the grim, white
Monastery of the Holy Virgin. The air was sweet and cool here, far
from the pollution of the city, and the evening sky stretched fair
and radiant above the purple hills. Unbroken quiet reigned, and
only one thing in the landscape moved--the figure of a girl
ascending swiftly a narrow, stony road under the shadow of the
wall. She seemed burdened with many things that she was carrying,
and oppressed with some haunting fear, for she looked back
frequently, and then pressed on with redoubled speed. The stony
track brought her at last to the corner of the enclosure of
olive-trees belonging to the monastery; it branched here, one path
leading straight to the gates of the building, the other skirting
the olive-wood plantation, and then passing on out into the barren
hills and open country towards Jericho. The girl took the second
track, and here, under the friendly shade of the sheltering trees,
she walked more erect and easily. When she reached the farther
corner of the plantation she stopped and listened, gazing round
her. There was no sound, the light was failing, the hush deepening.
"Nicholas," she breathed in a clear whisper, leaning on the low
stone plantation wall, "are you there?" A rustling of some long
robe against bushes answered her--the olive branches were pushed
aside, and the figure of a Greek priest came from between them.
With a smile of intense joy on his face he leant over the wall, and
clasped the girl's two soft hands in his.
"Esther!" he whispered back, "you have come; you have decided then,
you are ready?"
"I am quite ready," answered the girl, pressing close to the wall
and lifting her face; the last gleam of gold light from the rising
ridge to the west touched it, and showed it was very fair. "If you
are sure it is right, if you have faith in Jehovah to lead us."
The priest's face, pale and emaciated, with the rapt look of the
visionary stamped upon it, lighted up suddenly with a new
"I am quite sure. Last night when I was praying, still in doubt,
before the great crucifix, I heard a voice from above saying:
'Nicholas, you are absolved from further prayer and penance here.
Go forth with the maiden you love and serve Me in the world. The
joy of human hearts singing to Me in grateful praise is more
pleasing to Me than these groans and tears and prayers. I have
created the blue sky and the laughing seas and the green hills; go
forth and see my works, and praise Me.'"
The Jewish girl had listened intently, her face as rapt as his
while he spoke, the fire of joy glowing in her eyes.
"Come, then, at once," she murmured in an ardent whisper, and
Nicholas stepped over the low boundary into the hill road, now
wrapped in darkness. Before them still glimmered dimly the white
outlines of the monastery behind the trees. The man stood
motionless, gazing at them, the girl's hand tightly clasped in his
and held against his breast.
"The agony, the misery I have suffered behind those walls," he
muttered, "for sixteen years!"
"It is over," murmured the girl; "come away to the hills; we have
no time to lose."
She stooped to gather up the objects in the road. "I have brought
you these things," she said confusedly, hardly audibly. "Change
into them quickly, and then follow me up the road. No, I will take
all the rest," she added, as he took the bundle of clothing she
gave him and stretched out his hand for the other smaller things.
"Hasten, Nicholas, it is so dangerous here!" With this parting
entreaty she went on up the road carrying the bundles.
After she had gone a little way she paused and listened--all was
quite still--the stars now showed fitfully in the deepening purple
of the sky, a little breeze blew gently up from the wilderness
towards Jerusalem. The girl sat down by the wall, with her back
against it, and her hands clasped round her knees. Her face had a
strange, wonderful beauty as she sat waiting, white-skinned and
softly-moulded, with resolute, dark eyebrows drawn straight across
the calm forehead. A few moments passed, and then Nicholas
approached; his flowing priest's robes were gone, the high,
straight, black hat of the order was no longer on his head: it was
bare, and the long uncut hair, as the Greeks wear it, was twisted
in two thick fair coils round his head. Esther sprang up,
untwisting a broad sash from her waist.
"Take this! No wait! let me twist it round your head--yes, so. Now
it looks like a Jewish turban. You have the robe and the hat with
you?--yes, bring them, bring them," and they hurried on, fleeing
away from the monastery. Esther knew a short track across the hills
which in a little while joins the great main road to Jericho, that
descends down and down through the bare rolling hills of the
wilderness to the fair plain of the Jordan and the shores of the
Dead Sea. For the first few miles they sped on in silence with
clasped hands, the night wind rushing against their faces, and no
sound coming to their ears but the occasional whine of the hungry
hyenas, prowling over the stony, starlit hills. In the man's breast
swelled an exaltation beyond all words: it lifted him up so, that
his feet seemed flying over the rugged ground without touching it;
the night-wind filled his veins with fire: his brain seemed alight
and glowing. For years past the bare stone walls of his monk's cell
had given him pictures painted by his fevered fancy of such a walk
as this through starlit, open spaces--a walk to life and freedom.
For years his hot, caged feet had paced the stone cell floor,
aching to pass the threshold; and for the last month ever since
from amongst the olive-trees he had seen the fair Jewish girl pass
by, a new vision had come upon those white-washed walls to add its
torture to the rest. Evening after evening he had stolen out at
sunset to see her pass, as she came and went from the little
cluster of Jewish houses on the ridge beyond the monastery and
watched the sunlight play upon her brows and hair. Could this
thing, so divinely beautiful, be the creation of the devil to
destroy men's souls? His reason revolted against it. If so, the
warm sunlight and radiant sky and air, the flowers and the purple
hills, his weary eyes strained out to must be also the devil's
work, for all these things were akin, and the woman passing amongst
them was but the masterpiece made by the same hand.
"Say," he had said wearily, one night, to a monk passing him like a
silent shadow on his way to his cell. "Is all the world the work of
"Nay, brother, what blasphemy!" returned the other, startled beyond
measure. "It is all the work of God" and Nicholas had passed into
his cell well pleased. And the next evening he had called softly to
the masterpiece of the Creator, as she went by, and the girl,
startled and fearful at first, had spoken a few words out of sheer
pity for the hungry, lonely soul looking out so wistfully at her;
and then how soon had come other meetings, the plan to escape--that
final vision which had seemed to justify him,--and now the flight!
"Will the boat be there! will they wait for us?" he asked eagerly,
as they walked swiftly on.
"Yes, I heard the boat was coming over from the Jewish Colony
beyond the Dead Sea, and I sent word down it was to take me in it
when it left again," the girl replied, "We shall get down there
to-morrow evening; we will go to old Solomon's house; he will let
us stay with him one night, and in the morning we must get down to
the shore and the boat."
Nicholas pressed her hand as they walked on. How wise she was, this
little Jewish girl! She had lived her short life in the world, and
knew her way about in it so well. And he, so much older, felt like
a child beside her, after all those long, deadening, numbing years
in the monastery.
Five miles more of the white, stony road were traversed, winding in
and out, but always descending between the barren desolate hills of
the wilderness, and then Esther said with a little sob in her
"We must stop here now and rest, I am so tired. I cannot go any
"Tired?" he echoed wonderingly. Could he ever feel tired now? His
feet seemed borne on wings. But he stopped, and bending over her,
lifted and carried her tenderly from the starlit road to a large
rock jutting out from the hillside. Here, in the shadow on the
farther side, they lay down, and the girl fell at once into the
deep sleep of utter bodily fatigue. The man lay open-eyed clasping
her to him, his brain on fire with freedom, listening with joy to
the cries of the wandering wild animals amongst the hills.
The following evening, late, they reached the plain. The wilderness
lay behind them, and in front, beyond the green darkness of the
trees, they knew the starlight was gleaming on the Dead Sea. The
heat down here was suffocating, and their weary feet moved on
slowly through the village--a collection of a few white flat-roofed
houses, which are all that now mark the spot where stood once the
rich, mighty city of Jericho. In the last house shone a light, and
Esther led Nicholas towards it.
Solomon was waiting for them, and had prepared for them his best
upper room--a little narrow apartment, with windows facing towards
the sea--where supper was laid, and opening from this a tiny
sleeping chamber. A swinging lamp hung over the centre table, and
Solomon's younger brother waited on them. Esther, with the dust of
the road washed from her skin, looked very fair, sitting under the
light of the lamp, her eyes glowing with the mysterious fires of
love and joy, and the two Jews sat listening to her eagerly as she
talked to them, telling them the news of her family and friends in
"If I could only go up to the city," sighed the younger man. "But I
cannot walk, and I have no horse," and he grew sullen and dejected
and said no more, while the elder continued to ask and be answered
a hundred questions about the life and doings of the city.
That night, past midnight, when the whole plain of Jericho lay
wrapped in a deep hush, and not one light gleamed in the darkness
of the village, a carriage drawn by two foam-covered horses
thundered down the last steep descent of the road from Jerusalem
into the village, and dashed through it straight to Solomon's
dwelling. Esther, asleep in the upper room, with Nicholas' head
pillowed on her shoulder, heard the clatter of wheels and awoke
suddenly, all her body growing rigid with terror.
"Nicholas, awake! they have followed us!" She sprang from the bed,
and opening the window noiselessly, looked out. The night was quite
dark, but by straining her eyes she could descry the form of a
covered carriage below, and two dark figures stood hammering on the
house-door. The sounds rang reverberating through the dwelling, and
disturbing the still, calm air without, laden with the scent of
myrtle and orange-flower. A window above opened, and the old Jew
"Who knocks?" he called.
"Priests from Jerusalem, from the Monastery of the Holy Virgin. One
whom we seek is within; let us enter." Esther drew back into the
room, and saw Nicholas standing behind her, his face haggard with
despair. "Jehovah, then, is not with us."
Esther pressed his hand.
"Esther is with you," she murmured softly. "You shall not go back,
they shall not touch you. Give me your priest's clothing, and stay
Before he could answer she had snatched up the garments and was
gone, fastening the door behind her. Outside on the stairway she
met old Solomon, coming slowly down to answer the imperative
summons from below.
"Delay all you can in admitting them," she whispered, then ran past
him, fleet of foot, up the stairs to the Jews' room--the door stood
open as Solomon had left it. She entered, and stood within in the
"Hiram," she called softly, "you wished to go up to Jerusalem. Now
is your opportunity. Get up, put on these things, and the priests
will take you back in their carriage." She heard the man rise and
bound to the floor.
"Is that you, Esther? Have they sent from the monastery to take
"Yes," returned Esther in an agonised voice. "But you will not let
them take him? See, Hiram, they cannot hurt you; they will not
recognise you, nor suspect you here in the darkness, in the dress
of Nicholas. You need not speak. They will hasten you into the
carriage. To-morrow when they discover you, it will be too late for
them to overtake us. We shall be gone, and _you_ they will not
want. They cannot put you in their monastery. They must release
you, and you--will be at the gates of Jerusalem."
Her low voice, thrilled with her agony of fear and suspense: there
was the very soul of persuasion in it. As she pleaded in the
darkness, she heard the man breathing quickly, and shuffling his
feet on the floor. He was hesitating. He longed to go up to the
city, but this seemed a dangerous expedient. Yet it would serve
Esther, and she was very fair, and was of his own kindred. There
was a noise and clamour downstairs beneath them--the sound of the
slow unbarring of bolts, and angry voices without. Esther drew
nearer, and her voice grew sharp with fear:
"Hiram, as they are pushing you to the carriage, I will throw
myself into your arms, and you shall kiss me your last farewell, as
if you were Nicholas."
In the darkness she felt that the man stretched out his hand.
"Give me the clothes; I will go."
Esther threw them into his arms, and darted out, closing the door,
and hung over the stair-rail. There was no light, but she could
hear the heavy footsteps coming up. Nearer they came, and nearer,
stumbling, and Solomon's step behind, as he followed the priests,
grumbling and protesting. Now they were almost opposite the door of
the room where Nicholas crouched waiting.
"He is not here! he is not here!" wailed out Esther's voice
suddenly from above, and the priests hearing her, rushed up the
stairs to where she stood, passing by, forgotten, the door of the
Rigid and tense she stood before the door as if guarding it, her
arms outstretched before it. The first priest pushed her roughly on
one side, the second opened the door, and beyond, dimly outlined
against the open window square, was visible the draped figure and
heavy hat of a priest. With a shout of triumph they darted forward,
and Esther gave a great cry of wild despair. The priests dragged
him out unresisting, and forced him down the stairs. No word came
from him. Solomon, leaning back against the wall to let them pass,
stretched out his hand to the weeping Esther; but she passed him,
crying and hurrying after her lover. Down in the passage the large
door stood wide, showing the waiting carriage in the dim starlight
of the sultry night. As they pushed him to the door, he suddenly
wrested himself free for an instant, and Esther rushed into his
"Oh, Nicholas, Nicholas! Good-bye!"
The priests seized her by the shoulder, wrenching her away, and one
hurled her with a fury of loathing back into the darkness of the
passage. Then they forced their prisoner forward, stumbling,
resisting, to the carriage. The door snapped to, the horses plunged
forward, and the carriage thundered away into the night. Esther
picked herself up from where she had fallen in the passage, and
bruised and trembling, but with a joyous smile, rushed up the
"Solomon!" she said, whispering in the old Jew's ear, "Hiram has
gone in the place of Nicholas! Nicholas is safe here. Oh, help us
to get to the sea!"
Solomon shook with laughter as he heard--for a Jew loves dearly a
clever ruse--and he stroked Esther's soft hair as she stood by him.
"Light us a lamp, and let us get away to the shore, that we can
embark and be away on the water at dawn, before they discover it
and return," Then she passed by him and entered the room where
Nicholas awaited her. Solomon trimmed a lamp and a lantern for
them, and put up some bread and meat for their journey, his
shoulders shaking with inward chuckles as he did so.
"Hiram a priest!" he repeated to himself; "that is a joke indeed,
and Esther, what a quick brain she has--a true daughter of Israel!"
and Esther was murmuring within to Nicholas:
"Jehovah has saved us. Now let us hasten down to the sea."
The next morning, when the dawn broke soft and rosy over the fair
plain of Jericho, the sea that is called the Dead Sea, yet seems,
in its glorious wealth of colour and sparkling brilliance to be
rather the emblem of Life, glowed and flashed like a huge sapphire
in the sun's rays, and at its calm edge, that meets the shore
without a ripple, swayed gently the ship of the pilgrims from the
Nicholas and Esther sat side by side watching the pilgrims' oars
dip quietly in perfect rhythm as they sang. And the song of praise
went up through the golden air, and echoed back to the sunny,
silent strand vanishing behind them.
Dawn was breaking over the desert. Steadily the triumphant rose
spread upward in the pale opalescent sky, and broad waves of light
rippled slowly over the wide level plain. The little keen breeze of
the morning, the herald of the dawn that runs ever in front of its
chariot, stirred the branches of the palm trees by the Nile, and
played a moment idly with the flap of a tent door before it passed
onward. Here, some two miles away from cool Assouan, lying out in
the desert, was the Bishareen encampment, and the last small tent
of the long line had its door open, and the flap of the awning
loose, with which the morning wind stopped to play.
Within, seated cross-legged on the scarlet rug and sheepskin which
formed their bed, were two girls braiding their hair before a tiny
square of glass, which each in turn held up for the other.
"How cold the morning is! How I hate to hear the wind shake the
door flaps," one said and shivered.
"Doolga, don't; you are holding the glass all crooked; I cannot see
myself. Why should you feel cold this morning of all others, when
Sheik Ilbrahim dar Awaz is coming to claim you?" returned the
other, and she laughed softly, with her slim fingers busy trying to
bind up and restrain her dusky cloud of hair.
How lovely she was, this young Bishareen, who had looked on the
yearly fall of the Nile but fifteen times--lovely as the tall
slender palm of the oasis, or the gold light on the river at
sunset. Tall and straight, with the stately carriage and proud head
of her race; smooth and supple, with every limb faultlessly moulded
under the clear, lustrous skin.
"Silka, Silka! I cannot marry the Sheik. I am in terror of him.
Help me, save me!"
The little glass fell on the blanket between them. In the warm rose
glow now filling the tent, Doolga's face was ashen-coloured.
Awe-struck and startled Silka gazed wide-eyed upon her. For an
instant the two girls sat staring in silence into each other's
eyes. So much alike they were that one face seemed the reflection
of the other, only there was a bloom, a light, a sweetness on
Silka's that was missing in the other.
"Why?" she breathed after that first startled silence, "what is the
matter, Doolga? Tell me; tell me everything."
She drew nearer her sister, and put one arm round her. The pink
light from without, striking through the tent canvas, touched her
face, showing its delicately-cut, exquisite features and the tender
love filling the eyes.
"I hate the Sheik!" sobbed Doolga, putting down her head on the
other's soft bare shoulder; "I don't want him. I love _him_!"
And Silka felt that everything indeed was told. The incoherent,
inexplicable words were clear enough to her. She trembled all over,
and the two girls clung together in the little tent, while the
noise of a large encampment awakening grew about them outside.
Suddenly Doolga grew calm; she lifted her face, and Silka saw it
was grey, with great lines of anguish cut in it, and her heart
seemed to contract with pain, for she loved Doolga better than
anything she knew in the world, and Doolga's suffering was her
"I thought, father thought you would be glad to marry the Sheik,"
"I cannot. I will throw myself into the Nile rather; Silka, help
"How can I?"
"_You_ marry the Sheik!" Doolga's eyes were alight with flame.
Something of the tiger's glare shone in them. She bent forward and
seized the other girl's wrists in a feverish grip. The clasp hurt
and burnt like fire. Silka drew back instinctively, paling with
"I marry the Sheik?" she repeated, "but--"
"Yes, you _must_! Oh, Silka, you have always loved me: save me now.
I cannot. It will be death to me. I love--I love--" she hesitated;
then added, "so much. You love no one. Why not then the Sheik? Do
this for me. I will think of you, bless you always. Save me from
death; save me from the Nile!"
The burning words, uttered low, in that strange, strained voice she
hardly recognised, fell upon Silka like drops of molten lead. Her
sister seemed mad: her eyes started forward from her livid face:
her clasp on Silka's wrists gripped like iron. Silka's heart was
overwhelmed with pity and distress.
"How can I?" she murmured back, bewildered by the sudden revelation
of misery in the other--this other that had grown up with her,
played with her, slept with her side by side through the soft, hot
nights when they had lain counting the stars through a chink in the
tent. Side by side their bodies had nestled together, and side by
side their hearts had always been.
"You have but to unveil your face to the Sheik," returned the other
quickly, eagerly, almost furiously, "and he will take you instead
of me. Think, Silka! the head of the tribe, fifty camels, a
thousand goats--" She stopped in her eager outpour of persuasion.
Silka was looking at her straight from under her dark, level brows,
her lips curled in a sorrowful disdain.
"Have his riches any weight with you, Doolga? Why do you offer them
to me?" she said proudly.
"Because you are free: you do not love," impetuously returned the
other with glib, persistent vehemence. "I would marry the Sheik, I
would prize his flocks, his riches; but I love--I love--I cannot!"
"Whom do you love so much?" replied Silka sadly. "Why have you not
told me? Who is he?"
The girls were seated on the bed in one corner of the tent close
beside its stretched canvas wall. There was a little eyelet, a
square hole with a flap buttoned down over it, on a level with
their heads. At Silka's question Doolga turned to the canvas, and,
with an impatient movement, tore up the flap and looked out. The
plain was bathed in gold: above, the pure, pink glow still hung in
the limpid sky. The encampment was astir. The tents were open, and
little cooking fires, sending up their spirals of blue smoke were
dotted over the sand. At a few paces' distance from the main row of
tents, the camels, lying down, made a velvet-like patch of shade on
the gleaming gold of the sand, and herds of white goats stood near,
their silky coats flashing in the morning sunlight. Silka looked
out, too, over her sister's shoulder. She saw the burnished gold of
the plain and the luminous sky, and between these two a figure
that stood by a low brown tent, with the sunlight falling full on
its noble brow and the straight profile turned towards them. Doolga
wrung Silka's hand, that she still clutched, as they knelt side by
side on the sheepskin looking through the eyelet.
"That is he!" she said, and Silka's lips parted suddenly in a
little scream of pain.
"What is the matter?" asked Doolga roughly, drawing her back from
the aperture, and letting the flap fall.
"You hurt me," replied Silka. "Is that the one you love?" Her voice
sounded tremulous: her eyes, fixed on Doolga, seemed to widen with
"Yes, that is he; that is Melun," answered Doolga softly. "Is he
not handsome, wonderful? Why do you stare so? Might not any girl
A little smile played round Silka's lips.
"Yes, indeed, any girl might love him," she answered.
"But not as I do--no, never! Oh, Silka, I cannot tell you how I
love him. More than the Nile, more than the stars, more than we
have ever loved each other! I have met him often when I went to
draw water, and sometimes we have stayed together in the
palm-grove. I was so happy till father sold me to the Sheik; and
now I must part from Melun for ever! Do not make me, dear, darling
Silka; do not send me to the Nile!" She spoke with increasing
excitement, with passionate intensity. She was close to Silka, and
she laid one arm softly round her neck and put her face close to
hers. Such a beautiful oval face it was!--the face that Silka
loved: as she looked at it, her heart melted within her.
"See, dearest Silka," continued the other coaxingly, "you have
nothing to do but to unveil before the Sheik; you are just like me,
only a thousand times lovelier. He will not want me then, but you.
You can say to our father: As I am fairer than my sister, he will
give you two more camels. Father will be pleased with the camels,
and I shall be left free to marry Melun."
"But suppose I don't want to marry the Sheik either," said Silka,
slowly stroking the curls of the sheepskin as she looked down upon
"But why should you not? he has flocks and herds; he will give you
necklets and bracelets, and a camel to ride, and take you to the
oasis? Why should you mind?"
"It is late, Doolga. Father will be returning soon. Go, fill your
urns at the well."
"But will you promise--?"
"I can promise nothing yet. Go, go, leave me, you must let me think
Doolga got up well satisfied. She knew Silka had never refused her
anything since they had first played as babies together in the
sand. Silka loved her. Silka had never denied her anything.
She took her large earthenware jar, poised it on her shoulder, and
went out of the tent into the hot light. Silka lay on the sheepskin
where her sister had left her, and turned her face to it, shaken
with a storm of feeling that convulsed her slender body from head
to foot. She heard none of the cheerful sounds of life stirring
round the tent; she heard only Doolga's threat of the Nile, her
passionate pleading for help. Her face was buried in the sheepskin,
yet she saw plainly in the wall of darkness before her eyeballs
the figure of the Bishareen standing out against the pink light of
the morning sky. So it was Melun that Doolga loved! And to Melun
all her own passionate impulsive heart had been given through her
eyes. Had she not, morning after morning, gazed out through the
square eyelet to catch a glimpse of him as he came from his tent,
dressed in his snowy white linen tunic, and with countless strings
of coloured beads twisted round the firm column of his throat and
hanging from his arms? Melun, the necklace-seller of Assouan!
Melun, that the foreign tourists stopped to gaze after, as he
walked with slow and stately steps beneath the lebek trees on the
"boulvard" by the Nile. Young and straight and slender, with a
beautiful face and form, he never offered his wares for sale. He
simply stood and looked at the tourists, and they came and bought
largely. They came up to him with curious eyes to chaffer for his
blue-glass beads, and stare at his smooth, perfectly-moulded arms
and throat, at the wonderfully straight features, and the lofty
carriage of his head, at the thick hair, like fine, black wool,
that waved above his forehead and clustered round the nape of his
neck, interwoven with his brilliant blue beads. Ah! how she loved
Melun! how she had dreamed of the day when her elder sister,
happily married, she herself could go to her father and say, "Let
Melun, the necklace-seller, come to the tent and see my face." And
now, not for him, but for the old hard-visaged Sheik, she was asked
to unveil. "I cannot do it; no, I cannot," she muttered to herself,
and the thought of Melun came to her softly. "I have but to look at
him, and he must love me; he is mine." Did not her mirror tell her
this each morning? Had not her sister but now said the same? She
smiled to herself, and balm seemed poured through her. Then there
came another thought piercing her like a dagger. Melun is not mine,
but hers. She loves him; he loves her. They have met in the
palm-grove. Never, never, could she unveil for him now. He must
never see her. Though he loved her a thousand times, yet would
she never take him from Doolga. Doolga, bright, graceful, and
beautiful, the light of her eyes, the joy of the tent! could she
bear to see her brought through the door cold, motionless,
lifeless, killed by the embrace of the Nile?
When Doolga returned with the flush of warmth on her cheek and the
jar full of shimmering water on her shoulder, Silka was sitting
upright on the bed with dry, wide eyes. One glance at her told
Doolga that she herself was free, that the other would take up her
burden and bear it for her. She crossed over with a quick beautiful
movement, lithe, free, untamed.
"Darling Silka, you will consent? you will promise?"
"Do you meet him often in the palm-grove?" returned Silka; it was
now her eyes that were full of flame as she met her sister's.
"Why--Melun? Yes, whenever it was possible. To-night there will be
no moon; I was going, but why should you ask?" She bent forward
quickly, eagerly, some faint suspicion stirring in her.
"If I do this for you--if I save you--if I show myself to the
Sheik, then you must let me go to the palm-grove to-night."
Doolga fell back from her, surprise and terror and horror mingling
in her face. She clasped her small, soft hands together and wrung
"Oh, Silka! you know, if he sees you, he will not look at me again;
he will not care."
Silka smiled a slow, painful smile.
"Do you not see?" she said in a whisper. "I shall go as you. Who
will know it is not you? Not Melun. He will be expecting you! he
has never seen me. I will not betray myself nor you, but this is my
condition. To-morrow I go in your stead to the Sheik; to-night, I
go in your stead to Melun."
Doolga stared at her, barely comprehending.
"But why--why?" she stammered in return.
"I go to the Sheik in your stead because I love you, and to Melun
in your stead because I love him," replied Silka firmly.
There was a smile in her eyes, but her lips were pale, compressed,
and sad. Doolga gazed at her in silence, both hands clasped tightly
now over her swelling breast. Astonishment, gratitude, mistrust,
and jealousy were all struggling together within it for mastery.
"You love Melun too?" she said at last. "Then why do you not take
him? One glance from you and he is yours."
"He was yours first," answered Silka miserably. "I cannot take him
"And you will marry the Sheik to save me?"
"Yes," replied Silka.
Then Doolga fell on her knees and thanked Silka and kissed her, and
Doolga's kisses were very sweet, and while those lips pressed hers
Silka forgot everything else in the world. At last Doolga said in a
sudden recrudescence of jealousy:
"In the grove to-night you will not--" and the rest was whispered.
"No," answered Silka; "I am the bride of the Sheik. You need fear
nothing. But I must see Melun; all my life long I shall feed on
your happiness. There will be nothing else for me. I shall live on
it. To do this I must have a vision of it before I go, and it will
stay by me for ever."
That afternoon the tent was gay with unrolled silks and scarlet
rugs, and coffee stood out in little porcelain cups upon the floor,
for the Sheik Ilbrahim had come to the final parley for his bride.
He sat before the coffee-cups on a black goat-skin, the pipe of
honour placed beside him. A grave, quiet man, with kind eyes, but
already far on in the winter of life. Opposite him sat his host,
the owner of the tent and father of the girls. Shrewd-eyed,
keen-faced, quietly he did his bargaining. Earlier in the day the
elder girl had laid the plan before him: herself for Melun, the
necklace-seller of Assouan, who owned neither camels nor goats, but
would pay well in silver straight from the hands of the tourists;
her younger sister for the Sheik, who would give doubtless two more
camels for her wonderful beauty. The father listened placidly. It
was not a bad bargain.
"But," he answered finally, "why should you not go to the Sheik now
for two camels and by and by another will come for your sister and
give four camels. Then shall I have had six for the two of you."
"But she may die," objected the ready Doolga, the keen-witted
daughter of her father. "Better secure the camels now, father."
"True, she may die, and the bargain be lost," mused the father,
and at last he spread out his hands with a gesture of conclusion.
"It is for the Sheik to decide," he said merely, and Doolga was
content. She knew beforehand what the Sheik would decide when he
saw her sister. Now the two girls sat clasped in each other's arms
behind a curtain hung across a corner of the tent, and waited
silently till they should be summoned.
"If she be fairer than your daughter Doolga," they heard the Sheik
say good-humouredly, "she must be fair indeed, and worth four
camels. Let me see her."
At those words Silka rose and stepped from behind the little
curtain. With timid steps she came forward to the centre of the
tent. A linen tunic clasped round the base of her throat fell
almost to her ankles, caught lightly in at the waist by a scarlet
cord; loose sleeves falling from the shoulder half-concealed her
rounded arms; but her lovely face, with its arching brows and
liquid eyes, looked out unveiled from her frame of cloudy hair, and
drew the Sheik's heart towards her. Wrapt in the enthusiasm of the
holiest of all loves, that of sister for sister, tense with the
ardour of her sacrifice, a light shone out from the tender soul
within that fired all her beauty, making it burn like the sun, and
intoxicate like wine.
Her father eyed her, and wished he had asked five camels.
The Sheik stretched out his right hand towards her.
"Are you pleased to come, my daughter, to the oasis of roses with
"My lord beholds his slave," answered Silka, and her eyes were full
of light, and her lips were curved in smiles.
"My camels, four of the best, will find their stable behind your
tent to-night," said the Sheik to her father, and he filled the cup
he had drunk from and handed it to the girl. Silka raised it to her
"Does it please my lord that he fetch me to-morrow, and leave me in
my father's tent to-night?"
The Sheik laughed good-naturedly, his eyes fixed on the pleading,
"It pleases me not to leave you; but if you ask me, little one, I
will not refuse. Let it be so."
As he spoke Silka drained the coffee-cup he had given her, and by
so doing bound herself to him henceforward.
There was no moon that night; it was dark with the darkness of the
desert, and the splendour of its million stars. As Silka came
softly from the tent she looked upwards; the wild heaving of her
bosom seemed repeated in that restless, pulsing light above. The
soft breath of the desert came to her; it whispered of Melun
waiting for her in the palm-grove. How happy she was! This was
life: one night of life was hers--no more. With the dawn came the
end. This was her first--her last--night of life, but how exquisite
it was! The voice of the desert sang in her ears, the light soft
sand caressed her flying feet. Within bounded her heart, buoyant
with leaping joy. Never had she realised the strength of her swift,
straight ankles--never till now the free, joyous power in her
Before her rose the palm-grove, distinct in all its beauty of
feathery-topped trees, against the gorgeous starlit sky. By her
side gleamed now the line of the river, silver in the starlight;
smooth and lovely, studded with its fierce black rocks, flanked by
its orange sand, and here and there, on its edge in the radiant
darkness, rose a lofty palm lifting its swaying branches towards
the jewelled sky. Silka looked at the river curiously. Now she was
keenly alive; life was sharp and alert in every fibre, but it was
the last. This night of life was also a night of good-byes.
To-morrow she would look on the river again, but she would be dead
then--dead to joy and to love; it would only be Doolga who would be
living rich in both these gifts--gifts given by her. The thought
ran through her with a tumultuous gladness.
She entered the palm-grove and went straight to the tree that
Doolga had told her of, a withered palm. A figure sat at the foot
of the tree. The starlight gleamed on its white clothing. Silka's
feet stopped mechanically as she saw him; her heart beat so that
she could scarcely breathe; but he had caught sight of her, and
sprang to his feet and came towards her. How wonderful he was with
his fine head set on that long, firm throat, and how sweet the face
when his beautiful mouth broke into smiles as he saw her!
"Doolga!" he exclaimed, and then paused. She heard the little note
of wonder, of joy, in his voice, as she looked up at him in the
soft starlight, filtered through the palms. She was close to him,
and his voice, his presence was a new wonder to her.
"You are lovelier to-night than ever before. You have a new beauty,
what is it?" and he stretched out his arms passionately to her and
enfolded her in them close to his breast and kissed her. Then in
one moment did the rose of life, that unfolds slowly for most
mortals petal by petal, bloom suddenly for her whole and complete,
and fill her with its wild fragrance, overwhelming her senses. The
happiness of a hundred lives was compressed into that one perfect
moment when his lips touched hers, and she saw his face hang over
hers in the starlight, blazing with the fires of love.
"This then is life," she thought, as she put her arms round his
neck. "This is what I am giving to Doolga."
"Am I really more beautiful to-night than I have been?" she asked
presently, as they sat crouched close side by side at the foot of
the palm, looking towards the silver river.
"A thousand times!" he answered passionately. "I have never loved
you, never seen you as I do to-night."
"Then you must always remember me as you see me now. However Doolga
looks to you in the future, always remember this night, and how you
loved her then."
And he took her more closely into his arms, and pressed kisses on
her eyes, and told her in low murmured words of the tent he was
preparing for her, pitched where the cool breeze from the Nile
would reach them, and of the coming sunsets when she would sit
awaiting his return in the doorway, and of the still radiant hours
of the desert night which would pass over them full of delirious
joys; and the girl listened and lived out her life in those moments
against his heart. And ever as she listened, the thought of the
Sheik and his withered arms rose before her. Still it was Doolga's
future she looked into, the secrets of Doolga's happiness she
learned. As often as he murmured, "Doolga!" and caressed her, a
wave of joy passed through her.
Three hours before the dawn they parted, and with slow, sad steps
she returned to her father's tent. Her strength was spent. Life
and she had finally separated. Entering the tent with noiseless
feet, no sound disturbed the sleeping chief, and she crept to where
her sister sat up, wild-eyed and sleepless, on the bed.
"This he gave to Doolga," she said, with her lips pressed to
Doolga's ear, and passed over her head a necklace of faultless
beads of jade.
* * * * *
The following day, when the last flare of the sunset lit up the sky
with flame, and the delicate branches of the palms of the oasis
showed before them tipped with gold, the Sheik Ilbrahim bent over
his bride sitting before him on the camel, decked out with gold
ornaments in her hair. He saw her smiling, and a glory that was not
of the sunset on her face.
"Of what is my beloved one thinking?" he asked her.
She looked up, but she did not see his face above her. She saw only
the tent where the wind from the Nile could come, and Doolga within
radiant with the joy she had given her.
"Of what should your slave be thinking, lord," she answered, "but
love and happiness?"
It was evening. A sky of purest emerald, luminous, transparent, and
divinely calm, stretched over the city of Damascus, that lies in
its white glory, wrapped round by its mantle of foliage, in the
heart of the burning desert--unhurt, cool, invulnerable in the jaws
of the all-devouring desert sand. In the East, with the first cool
breath of evening comes a spirit of rejoicing: the heat and burden
of the day are over, and there is one hour of pure delight before
the darkness. This hour had come to Damascus: the roses lifted
their heads in the garden, the birds burst into joyous floods of
song, and the trees waved and spread their branches to the little
breeze that came rippling through the crystal air.
Almost on the confines of the city, where the belt of protecting
verdure grows thin and the gaunt face of the desert presses against
the city walls, rose the square, white dwelling of Ahmed Ali, and
his garden was the largest and most beautiful of the city. High
white walls enclosed it on every side, and from the broad,
travelled highway that ran beside it the dusty and wearied wayfarer
often lifted his eyes to the profusion of gay roses, the syringa,
and star-eyed jasmine that tumbled jubilantly over the edge, and
hung their scented wreaths far above his head. The tinkling of a
fountain could be heard within, and the mad rapture of song from
the birds in the evening, when the scent of the orange blossom
stole softly out on the radiant golden air. On the other side of
the garden was a grove of orange-trees. The rich, glossy, green
foliage rose in dark masses above the high wall, and some
inquisitive, encroaching boughs stretched over and occasionally
dropped their golden fruit into Ahmed's garden. On the inside of
the old, moss-grown wall were numerous buttresses, and in these
angles and corners, sheltered from any breeze, the roses and the
small fruit-trees fairly rioted together, blending their masses of
pink and white bloom.
On this evening, when the sky shone like one sheet of purest
mother-of-pearl, green and rose and faint purple, the garden was
very still; the only sound was the murmur of the falling water, the
coo of some white doves in a pear-tree, and a very light step
pacing on the tiny narrow path that wound its way round the whole
garden amongst the rose-bushes and lemon-trees.
Dilama, the youngest of the ladies of the harem, was walking in the
garden with her white veil thrown back and a smile on her small,
red, curling lips. She stooped here and there to gather a flower
whenever a bud or blossom of particular beauty caught her eye, and
fastened now one against her thick brown hair, and now one or two
upon the rich-embroidered muslin that covered the upper part of her
bosom. She was intensely happy: in the spring at Damascus, at
seventeen and in love, who would not be happy? The fires of youth
and love and joy burned in her flesh and danced in her veins and
shone in her eyes, and she sang and smiled to herself as she
gathered the flowers. She was a Druze woman, and gifted with the
wonderful beauty that Nature has showered on the women of Syria.
Skins that the most perfect Saxon skin of milk and rose can
scarcely rival are wedded to eyes of Eastern midnight and brown
tresses filled with shining lights of red and gold. She had been
born in the fierce, barren mountains lying behind Beirut, and at
eight years old had drifted--part of the spoils of a raid--into the
keeping of Ahmed Ali, the richest landowner and merchant of
Damascus. He was a Turk, of pure Turkish blood, and with the large,
generous heart and the kindly nature of the Turk. All the life that
owed him allegiance, that was supported by his hand, was happy and
well cared for--from the magnificent black horses, ignorant of whip
and spur, that filled his stables, and the dogs that lay peacefully
about in his palace, to the beauties of the harem, who tripped
about gaily singing and laughing in their cool halls and shaded
garden. Where the Turk rules there is usually peace, for his nature
is pacific, and in the palace of Ahmed there was joy and peace and
love and pleasure in abundance. There were seven ladies of the
harem, including Dilama, and six of these were happy wives of
Ahmed. Each had one or more sons, handsome, large-eyed, sedate
little Mohammedans, who were being trained by Turkish mothers in
all sorts of gentle ways and manners--in thought and care for
others, in courtesy and kindness; and who were very different in
their childish work and play from the brawling, selfish, cruel
little monsters that European children of the same age mostly are.
But Dilama was not yet Ahmed's wife; she loved him most truly and
deeply as an affectionate daughter. For who could not love Ahmed?
There was a charm in his stately beauty of face and figure, in the
kind musical voice, in the eyes so large and dark and gentle, that
was irresistible. But to Dilama he was something far above her: her
king, her lord indeed, for whom she would lay down life itself
without question, but not the man to whom her ardent simple nature
had turned for love. Ahmed had not sought her. When first she came
to his palace she had been too young except for him to treat as
a pretty child, and the relationship of father and daughter
then established had never yet been broken in upon. And the
light-hearted, sunny-natured Druze girl had taken life just as she
found it, regarding herself as Ahmed's daughter, and rejoicing in
her home of love and beauty she ceased to remember that one day he
would inevitably claim her as his wife, and that that day must be
the beginning or the end of happiness just as she prepared for it.
But she did not prepare for it, she ignored it: flitting like some
golden butterfly through the pleasant hours, and growing fairer
every day, so that the harem women looked at her with a little
sinking of the heart yet no ill-will, and said amongst themselves,
"Surely Ahmed must choose her soon." But Ahmed loved at that time
with his whole soul a Turkish woman, and she was to give him
shortly a second child, and for fear of disturbing her peace of
mind Ahmed remained in the Selamlik, and would not visit his other
wives, nor send for Dilama, though his eyes, like the others, noted
her growing beauty day by day.
"I will wait in patience," he thought, looking out one morning at
sunrise, and watching Dilama playing with the white doves on the
basin edge of the fountain. "I will wait till Buldoula is well and
strong again. She would fret now, and think I was forgetting her in
a new love if I call Dilama to me yet. I will wait till her second
son is born, and then in her joy and pride she will not be jealous
of the new wife."
So he waited, but in the game of love he that waits is ever the
loser. That night, when the moon was rising over the white and deep
green of Damascus, Dilama walked, humming to herself, in the
garden, full of a great leaping desire, born of her youth and fine
health and the breath of the May night, to love and be loved.
Suddenly, when she came to the corner, under the drooping boughs of
the grove without the garden, an orange fell, and, just escaping
her head struck her heavily on her bosom. With a great shock she
stood still, looking up, and there, on the summit of the high wall,
amid the green boughs, was a man sitting, leaning over down towards
her, with fiery eyes looking upon her from under a dark green
"It is death to be here," she whispered, her face pallid in the
moonlight, "do not stay;" yet her whole being leapt up with hope
that he would disobey. The man laughed softly.
"It is life to look on you," he said merely, and to her terrified
joy and horrified delight he slid down between the lemon-trees and
the wall, and stood before her in the angle it made, where two
buttresses jutting forward hid him from all view unless one stood
Dilama shook from head to foot; in one fierce, sweeping rush,
love passed over and through her as she stood staring with wild
dilated eyes on the form before her. Tall, tall as Ahmed, with
all the grace and strength of youth, lithe and supple, with a
straight-lined, dark-browed face above a stately throat, and dark
kindling eyes, wells of living fire that called all her soul and
heart and womanhood into life.
"I have often watched you walking in the garden," he murmured,
gently taking in his, one nerveless hand. "I come from your village
in the hills, where you were taken from long ago. I am a Druze,"
and he threw his head higher, as the stag of the forest throws his
at the first note of the challenge. Dilama knew well that he was
of her own people. Infant memories, instinctive, implanted
consciousness told her this without the aid of Druze clothing, or
the short, gay dagger thrust into his waist-sash.
"I think you are not yet the wife of Ahmed Ali?" he went on, as
she simply trembled in silence, wave after wave of emotion passing
through her, striking her heart and choking her voice. "Tell me?"
Dilama shook her head, and a triumphant smile curved the handsome
lips before her.
"I knew it; you are mine," he said, in reply, and, bending over her
as she stood shrinking, on the verge of fainting, between terror
and wonder and joy, he kissed her on the lips, not roughly--even
gently--but with such a fire of life on his that it seemed to the
girl, in the destruction of all her usual feelings, in the havoc of
the new ones called in their place, that the actual moment of
dissolution had come.
That had been some three weeks ago, and now, on this soft, pearly
evening, she was waiting eagerly for the sky to deepen, and the
light of the stars to sharpen, and the orange to fall over the
wall. For the Druze had come many times, and no one had discovered
the lovers, screened by masses of roses in the buttress-sheltered
corner of the wall. In fact, for the last weeks no one had had time
or thought for anything but Buldoula, who lay sick within the
palace walls, and attendants waited anxiously or ran hither and
thither on various errands, and Ahmed was in the depths of anxiety;
and no one thought about Dilama or paid any attention to her, and
she was radiantly happy and self-engrossed, and came and went
between the garden and her own little chamber as she listed,
undisturbed. And this evening, as usual, she slipped unobserved
amongst the roses into the corner of the buttressed wall. A moment
after the boughs overhead parted, and the lithe Druze dropped down
noiselessly beside her. She put her gold braceleted arms round his
strong brown neck, and pressed her silken-covered bosom hard
against his rough cotton tunic. A great rush of rosy light flooded
all the sky for some minutes, then began to pale softly before the
approach of the lustrous purple dark.
In the palace a light behind one of the mushrabeared windows was
extinguished; there was the sound of the scurry of feet, and then a
long wail came out from the building, rending the pink-hued
"Buldoula is dead!" remarked Dilama simply, as the lovers crouched
together between the wall and the roses. It meant nothing to her,
enclosed in the happy warmth of her lover's arms; death had no
meaning for her yet, hardly seventeen years' journey distant from
birth, and full of all the sap and great leaping fires of life.
Death was something so far away, so impossible to realise. It was
but a word to her--a casket enclosing nothing. Yet the death of
Buldoula was the embryo event in the womb of time from which was to
develop the whole tragedy of her own life.
"Buldoula is dead," she said again, carelessly, her rose-tipped
fingers smoothing the black sweeping arch of the man's brows.
"Perhaps her son is dead also. Ahmed will be very grieved--she was
going to bear her second son."
"Little dove! I must take you away to the mountains soon," said the
Druze, clasping her tighter to him. "Soon," he muttered again,
stooping down to look under the rose-boughs to the white-faced
house, now, with all its screened windows, dark. His words seemed
irrelevant, yet they were not. He had a keen prescience that the
death of the favourite of the harem might influence very quickly
"Why not take me now, Murad? I want to see the mountains," and she
laid her little head, crowned by its masses of brown-gold hair, on
his warm breast.
"The caravan does not start for two weeks more," he answered
thoughtfully. "We must wait for it. It would be madness to try to
escape alone. We should be seen, noted, and tracked down. Think how
Ahmed will look for his treasure when he finds it stolen! But if
you are hidden in a bale of goods on a camel in the caravan, who
will suspect, who will know that the Druze has taken you? The whole
caravan of Druzes cannot be stopped because Ahmed has lost a wife!
No, in the caravan, with all the rest, we are safe. There is no
There was silence while the twilight deepened in the garden, and
the stars began to show above like flashing swords in the sky. In
the languor of love that knows no fear and has no cares, that
opiate of the soul, Dilama lay in his arms and sought his lips and
eyes, and asked no more about caravans and journeys and mountains,
drugged and heavy with love. In an hour when all was velvet
blackness beneath the wall, they kissed farewell. He scaled the
crumbling bricks, and regained the sheltering orange grove, and she
walked slowly back, drawing smooth her filmy veil, towards the
Five days later at noontime, as Dilama was sitting in the garden
playing with the tame white doves by the fountain, one of the black
female slaves approached her. Dilama looked up questioningly,
holding a dove to her bosom.
"The lord is sorrowing within for his dead wife and dead son. He
has sent for you; go in, and lead him away from grief," and the
woman smiled and prostrated herself before Dilama, who shrank
instinctively away like a frightened child. But there is only one
law and one will in the harem, and she rose obediently, letting the
dove go, and stood ready to follow the slave. That meaning smile on
the woman's face filled her with an intuitive, instinctive,
undefined fear, and at the same instant there rushed over her the
realisation of the great happiness that same smile would have
brought her had there been no Murad, had she fled from that
rose-filled corner on that first evening--had she, in a word,
_waited_! This summons to the presence of their lord is what so
many of the harem slaves pine and long for through weary months,
and sometimes years. It came now to her, and it meant nothing but
vague fear and dread. She followed the slave with unelastic steps,
and her brain full of heavy thoughts; they passed the women's
apartments and went on to the Selamlik and to the room of Ahmed,
that looked out with unscreened windows into the cool, deep green
of the garden. The slave drew back at the door, holding a curtain
aside for the girl to enter. She went forward, the curtain fell
behind her, and she was alone with Ahmed.
He was sitting opposite on a low divan or couch, clothed from head
to foot in a deep blue robe, and with a turban of the same colour
twisted above his level brows--a kingly, majestic figure, and the
girl's heart beat and her eyelids fell as she crept slowly over the
floor towards him. At his feet she sank to her knees, and would
have put her forehead to the ground, but Ahmed bent forward, and
clasping both her arms lifted her on to the couch beside him.
"And you are the Druze child, Dilama?" he said gently, and leaning
a little back from her, surveyed her intently with dark lustrous
eyes. The girl felt swooning with terror; before his gaze her very
flesh seemed dissolving. It seemed as if her heart, her brain, with
the image of Murad stamped on them, would be laid bare to those
brilliant, searching eyes. What would he not know, suspect, find
out? What would he ask? demand of her? She could not ask herself.
Was this to be the end of his paternal relationship to her? the
beginning of a new one? She dared not lift her eyes lest he should
see their terror; the blood burnt in the surface of all her fair
skin, as if red-hot irons were pressed to it. And Ahmed, gazing
upon her with the pure noonday light, softened by the leafy screen
without pouring over her, drank in her fair Syrian beauty with
delight. The pale, rose-hued silken clothing she wore harmonised
with the ivory and rose of her round arms and throat and cheeks,
and threw up the masses of dark hair that fell beneath her veil to
her slender waist. Ahmed very gently unbound the snowy garment from
her head and stroked her hair lightly, watching the gold gleams in
its ripples as his hand passed over them. He saw her dismay,
confusion, even her terror, and noticed the quiver of her hands and
the irregular leap of her bosom, but these did not dismay him. He
was accustomed to be beloved even as he loved, and the women of the
harem who came to him in fear left him with happy confidence. He
affected now not to see her embarrassment, thinking it to be only
that, and said quietly, "And you have been happy, Dilama, in my
house?" The girl felt she must speak, though her throat seemed
closed and her tongue nerveless.
"Very happy," she faltered at last in a whisper.
"But you have been lonely, perhaps?" he asked. "Have the roses and
doves in the garden been companions enough for you? Have you not
been too much alone?"
In the heavy load of apprehension of intangible fear and horror
that seemed stifling her, a madness of longing came over the girl
to be free from her guilty secret, to have never known Murad. Now
she could have looked up fearless, full of expectant joy! She could
have loved this man; she knew it, now that she felt his love
approaching her: hope was dying within her that ever again would he
regard her simply as his daughter. She knew those tones of the
voice, she had heard them from Murad in the garden, but here the
voice was infinitely more refined, the sound of it exquisitely
musical; and now, that love for her was in it, it told her a new
secret, that she could have given love for love. She knew, though
her eyelids were down, how beautiful the face was that bent over
her: the straight, severe lines of it, the magnificent eyes and
brows burnt through her lids. Ah, why had he waited so long, or she
not waited longer?
Full of intolerable, irrepressible pain, she looked up at last
"Why did not my lord come into the garden, to the roses and doves
and--me?" she asked falteringly, her gaze held now irresistibly by
the dark orbs above her. Then, afraid of her own temerity, she
became white as death under his gaze.
But Ahmed was rather pleased by this first connected speech she
had made in the interview. It sounded to him like the tender
reproach of an amorous, expectant maiden, waiting eagerly for her
love, too long delayed. The under-meaning, the terrible regret for
irrevocable ill, naturally escaped him. He smiled, and put his arm
round her shoulders. "Well, it is not too late," he said, bending
over her. But the girl shrank from his arm, and he realised it
instantly. He was aware directly that there was some feeling in her
not quite fathomed nor understood. It puzzled him. He was far too
deep a thinker, far too refined a nature to treat his women as
inanimate toys to be used for his amusement, either with or without
their consent, as the chance might be. He knew them to be, and
treated them as, individual souls, with right of will and desire
equal to his own, and was too proud to accept the gift of the body
unless he had first conquered the will. But usually there was no
difficulty. Nature had gifted Ahmed with all the best treasures in
her jewel-box; beauty of face and form, strength and grace, charm
of voice and presence--everything needed to ensnare and delight
the senses, and he was accustomed to be loved, passionately adored,
and worshipped. He was naturally a connoisseur in such matters, and
knew well and easily the truth or dissembling in them. But here
there was neither: the girl shrank from him instinctively, and
seemed possessed by nothing but dumb, helpless fear that was
distressing to him. Yet not all distressing, for even in the best
of male natures there always remains some of the instinctive desire
of conquest, the delight in opposition, if not too prolonged, the
love of battle, the hope of victory; and to Ahmed, the invariably
successful lover, the resistance of this slight, rose-leaf creature
he could crush with one blow of his hand roused suddenly all the
primitive joy of the chase, the excitement of pursuit. Only, where
with some natures it would have been brutal and rapid, the end and
triumph assured, the prize the body; here it would be gentle and
dexterous, the end dependent on another, the prize the soul--the
soul, the will, the most difficult quarry to capture, as Ahmed
He let his arm slip from her shoulders, and rose and walked over
to the window, looking out for a moment into the delicious green
beyond. Dilama half-sat, half-crouched upon the divan, not daring
to stir, and watched him furtively.
Ahmed stood for a moment, and there was dead silence in the room.
Then he returned and came towards the couch, standing opposite it,
and looking down at her.
"Dilama, you seem very much afraid of me, and why is it? Look up
and speak to me. There is no need for fear. Do you think I have
called you here to force you to love me? There is no way of forcing
love. You are free to come and go to and from this room as you
will, but I am lonely and grieved, now Buldoula has been taken away
from me. I would like you to come here and play and sing to me, and
console me; will you?"
Dilama ventured to lift her eyes to the kingly figure before her,
and meeting the pained, dark eyes bent on her, and realising that
there was nothing, indeed, to make her fear but her own guilty
conscience, she burst suddenly into an uncontrollable passion of
weeping, and slipping from the couch fell sobbing at his feet.
Ahmed stooped and gathered her up in his arms, holding her to his
breast, and this time she did not shrink from him, but lay there
unresisting, crying violently. For a moment the clasp of his arm,
the touch of gentle sympathy, soothed and comforted her. For one
wild moment she longed to confide in him, to tell him the reality.
What would happen? Was it possible that Ahmed would pardon her, and
let her go to her own life, her own love and lover! No, it was not
possible--any other offence but this; theft or murder he could have
forgiven and sheltered, but this, no! Instinctively she knew and
felt it would not be possible to him--a Turk, free from prejudice
and superstition, liberal as he was--to forgive her crime. Death
for herself and Murad was the best she could expect. Ahmed's own
honour, the traditions of all his house, his great position would
make it impossible for him to let her pass from his, a Turk's harem
to a Druze lover. The thought whirled from her sick brain, leaving
all confused and hopeless as before, and her tears rained fast.
Ahmed smoothed her soft hair and kissed her forehead gently, as it
lay against his breast.
"Go and fetch your music, and sing to me," he whispered, as her
sobs ceased. "See how lovely the spring time is; it is no time for
tears, but for songs and--love." He murmured the last word very
softly and set her free. Without looking at him she slipped away to
the door in obedience to his command, and in a wild confusion of
feeling in which pleasure struggled with fear.
When she came back with her instrument, a small pear shaped guitar
in appearance, she was more composed. Her eyes were still red and
swollen, but the soft, elastic skin had already regained its
colouring. As she entered, soft bars of sunlight were falling
through the room, the window had been opened, and the song of the
birds came gaily through it. Ahmed had ordered coffee and
sweetmeats to be brought, and these now stood on a small inlaid
table before her, on whose glistening arabesques of mother of pearl
the sunbeams twinkled merrily. Ahmed's eyes lighted up with tender
pleasure as he saw her enter, and she noted it. He was still
sitting on the couch, and held in his hand a small green leather
case--the counterpart of hundreds to be seen in the jewellers'
windows in Paris. Dilama guessed at once it was some present for
her. Unconsciously the light, gay, butterfly nature of the girl
began to reassert itself in the knowledge that the final issue had
not to be met then; that there was respite for her, delay; and a
natural joy stirred in her looking across at Ahmed. It was
something, after all, to be queen of the harem, to be wooed in
gifts and smiles by its lord.
"Come here!" he said to her, and as she approached he opened the
case and took from it a bracelet, a limp band of gold with a clasp
of rubies and diamonds that flashed a thousand sparkling rays into
the astonished eyes of the girl, accustomed only to the dull, uncut
or poorly-cut gems of the East.
"How wonderful! Is it for me, really?" she exclaimed, as Ahmed took
her unresisting arm and clasped the bracelet round it above the
elbow, where it lent a new beauty to the flesh.
"Now, take some coffee, and then you shall play to me while I rest
and smoke," continued Ahmed, kissing her tenderly between the eyes,
as she gazed up gratefully to him, and though she flushed and
trembled, this time she did not shrink from him.
The coffee seemed more delicious than any that was served in the
haremlik, and the gold-tipped cigarettes and the jam, made out of
rose leaves, that Ahmed pressed upon her, delighted her senses and
helped to make her think less of the passing hour and Murad, who
would be waiting in stormy passion for her, in the angle of the
wall. "I can't help it; I can't help it!" she thought to herself as
she took up her instrument and bent over the strings to tune them,
while Ahmed stretched himself at full length on the divan to
listen, with a scarlet cushion supporting his regal head. She could
both sing and play well, for Ahmed loved music, and wisely
considered it a safe amusement--an outlet for superfluous passions
and unexpressed feelings--for the women of the harem. Instruments
were provided in plenty, and instruction and all encouragement
given to them to learn, and from her first day in the harem
Dilama's natural voice and talents had been noted and fostered.
This afternoon, at first she was timid, and sang and played
stiffly, carefully, with a great attention to notes and strings;
but slowly the calm and stillness of the beautiful sun-filled room,
the scented air floating in from the garden, the tense atmosphere
of passion about her, and the magic beauty of the face and form
opposite influenced her, grew upon her, wrapped her round, and she
began to sing passionately, ardently, with that abandonment,
without which all music is a hollow sound. Her glorious voice,
fresh, youthful, clear, and pure came rushing joyously over her
lips and filled the room. Her spirits rose as she realised the
power she was exerting. She felt a little impatient at the thought
of Murad. After all, she was a great lady, a lady of the harem of
Ahmed Ali, the richest Turk in Damascus. She was dressed in
delicate silks, and the jewels blazed on her arm. She was queen of
the harem, and the beloved of its lord. He was most desirable to
her and to all women, and, but for Murad, who seemed to stand like
a black shadow between, she would have lain upon his breast with
pure delight. She leant forward now, singing rapturously over the
instrument pressed close to her soft breast, while her rose-hued
fingers leapt among its strings; a transparent flush, delicate as
the tint of a shell, glowed in her cheeks; her large, dark eyes
looked straight at Ahmed, drawing in all the proud beauty of his
face; her hair lay soft and thick without its veil above her brows,
and one heavy tress fell forward over her shoulder to her knee.
Ahmed lay watching her, his eyes filled with sombre fires, his
whole soul listening to the song; and one other lay listening also,
and this was Murad, crouching in the shade of the orange-tree
plantation, catching with distended ears that flood of passionate
melody wafted to him over the still garden, from the window of
Ahmed's apartment, from the Selamlik.
When the song was finished, and the last notes had faltered softly
into silence, Ahmed rose from his divan and crossed to where she
sat. The room was full now of hot rosy light; the scent of the
orange flowers poured in through the windows; the girl's senses
grew confused and dizzy. Her cheeks were flaming with the
excitement and joy and effort and passion of her singing; her
eyelids were cast down, and beneath them her eyes watched, half in
terror, half in a strained delight, the blue Persian slippers
advancing silently over the matting on the floor towards her.
"Will Dilama stay with me to-night?"
The girl looked up, whitening to the lips, and slid to a kneeling
position. Terror at the thought of infidelity to Murad filled her;
he would infallibly find it out and avenge himself. Her face worked
convulsively; she stretched out her hands with a gesture of
"What my lord wills: I am the slave of his wishes."
Ahmed drew his level brows together, and for a moment lined the
serene beauty of his forehead. He gazed at her with a steady,
puzzled look, and at last a faint, half-quizzical smile relaxed his
lips. What could this strange idea, this whim be, so unlike all
Eastern maiden's usual fancies? He had not yet solved the riddle,
nor found the clue! he would do so, but in the meantime she must be
left her freedom. In all noble natures power brings with it a
terrible responsibility, and the habit of stern self-control and
long forbearance. Ahmed's complete power over the frightened piece
of humanity before him brought upon him the necessity practically
of surrender; for the Turk possesses one of the noblest and gentle
natures the human race can boast of. Ahmed remained silent for a
few seconds, and the girl gazed upon him with dilated, fascinated
eyes. She noted in a dazed way how the dark blue robe parted on his
breast and showed beneath a vest of gold silk, fastened a little to
the side by a single emerald; how the column of throat towered
above these, supporting the oval face and beautifully-modelled
chin, and above these again, and the commanding brows, shone
another solitary emerald between the folds of his turban on his
Murad began to seem like a robber depriving her of all these
things. There is no fidelity in the body. Fidelity is a thing of
the mind, always at war with and striving to coerce those instincts
of the senses that are ever clamouring after the new and the
unknown. Nature is ever driving us on to seek new mates. The mind
with its trammels of affection, gratitude, pity, consideration, is
ever dragging us back and seeking to tie us to the old. Nature's
rule is fresh seasons, fresh mates, new hours, new loves. And he
who seeks fidelity must woo the mind, for the body cannot give it,
and knows not its laws.
After a minute's silence Ahmed stretched out his hand to her and
raised her to her feet. His face had lost its smiles and fire; it
was grave and sombre-looking now, but his voice was gentle as he
"You are free to return to the haremlik," he said; "no one has any
power to coerce you. I wish you to come and go as you will." He
waved his hand towards the curtain with a gesture of dismissal, and
then turned away and rang a little silver bell on a table. The
black slave appeared--it seemed almost instantly--before the
curtain; while Dilama still stood, motionless, irresolute, with a
curious sense of disappointment, mingling with relief, stealing
over her. Ahmed beckoned the slave to him, and said something
in a low voice Dilama did not catch, but the last sentence she
overheard. "Send Soutouma to me," and without taking any further
notice of Dilama, Ahmed turned back towards the divan, threw
himself upon it, and drew the pipe-stand towards him.
The black slave, with a smile on her curving lips, motioned to
Dilama to precede her, and Dilama, with one look flung backward to
Ahmed's couch in the full sunlight of the window, passed under the
heavy blue curtain out into the passage. "Send Soutouma to me!" the
words went through her with a cutting feeling, as a knife dividing
Soutouma was next to Buldoula in age and rank--a fair beauty of the
harem, with soft, long, sunlit tresses, and a skin of snow.
"Yes, why not? why not?" asked Dilama wildly to herself as her feet
dragged along down the passage side by side with the grinning
black's. "I am a Druze girl: I belong to Murad and to the
mountains." But the insidious charm of Ahmed's personality worked
on all the pulses of her body; pulses that know not fidelity,
though her brain kept telling her that Murad would be waiting for
her in the garden. But that night Murad did not come. The garden
stood cool and fragrant, full of perfume and rosy light, full of
the music of birds and the tints of a thousand flowers--all the
invitations to love, but love itself was absent. Dilama searched
the garden from end to end, and walked in and out among the roses
by the buttressed wall, but the garden was empty and silent. She
was alone. Tired at last, and ready to cry with fatigue and
disappointment, she sat down by the red brick wall, leaning her
chin on her hand and gazing up towards the windows of the Selamlik,
which could only be seen in portions here and there through a leafy
screen of plane-tree branches. How still it was in the garden, and
how the scent of the orange flower weighed on the senses! How clear
the pink, transparent air!
Through that same lucid air, under the spreading plane-trees, and
through the great dim bazaars of the city, walked Murad that
evening with quick, hot feet, and the liquid coursing in his veins
seemed fire instead of blood. He went from Druze to Druze, wherever
he could find them, in their own homes, or sitting at a shady
corner of a street, where the tiny rush-bottomed stools are
gathered round the tea-stalls with their hissing brazen urns and
porcelain cups, or lounging in the bazaars, or at the marble
drinking-fountains. Wherever they were he found them, and spoke a
few hot, eager words to them, urging them to hurry forward their
preparations, and be ready to start with the caravan at the rising
of the full moon. Then, as the rosy light changed into violet dusk,
he went home to his low, yellow, square-roofed dwelling on the edge
of the desert, and sat there in his one unlighted room--sat there
gazing out with unseeing eyes into the lustrous Damascus night
beyond the open door, and with the fingers of his right hand
playing absently with the handle of his knife.
A week had passed over and Ahmed had not sent again for Dilama, nor
had Murad visited the garden, and to the Eastern girl it seemed as
if the world had stopped still. The hot, languid days, the gorgeous
nights with the blaze of the stars and the rapture of the
nightingales, filled her with madness that seemed insupportable.
She knew of no reason for Murad's desertion. She could find out
nothing. She did not dare to breathe a word to any one of the
anxiety, the wonder, the desperation that seemed choking her. What
had become of him? What had happened? Would he ever come again? And
as he appealed only to her senses, and he was not there, she ceased
to wish for him very much, but thought more of Ahmed and the
Selamlik that were close to her. For the mind and the imagination
love in absence and long after the absent one, but the senses are
stirred by proximity, and turn to the one who is nearest.
One evening, when the soft sky was a clear crimson and the full
moon rose a perfect disk of transparent silver, faint as yet in the
blood-red glow, Dilama felt as if she could exist no longer in the
still, even, unchanging peace of the women's apartments. The song
of the water without, the coo of the doves, the incessantly
repeated love-note of the mating sparrows, seemed to madden her
She lay face downwards on the soft carpet of her little
sleeping-chamber, and moaned unconsciously aloud, "Let me die! let
me die! I have lost favour with all men."