Once It Happened in the Black Tents
Once It Happened in the Black Tents
By Achmed Abdullah
IN the motley annals of the Black Tents the end of Mohammed ibn Rashid’s searching assumed, in the course of time, the character of something epic, something close-woven to the yellow loom of the desert in both pattern and sweep of romance. It is mentioned with pride by his own tribe, the Ouled Sieyda, who claim descent from the Prophet, as well as by the Ouled el-Kleybat, a raucous-tongued, hard-riding breed of Bedouins, brittle of honor, greedy of gain, and veritable foxes in keeping tight hold of their bloody stealth. On the sun-cracked lips of the camel-drivers, it has even drifted far north from the Sahara to the pleasant gardens of Tunis where white-beards comment upon it with reverence as they digest the brave past in the smoke of their hasheesh pipes.
“Wah, hyat Ullah—as God liveth!” their telling begins. “Once it happened in the Black Tents. …"
Yet the tale’s beginning, being the dregs of his own life’s youth, had been as salt as pain to Mohammed ibn Rashid twenty years earlier as he sat by the open window, looking out into the spider’s web of crooked, cobble-stoned Paris streets about the ancient church of Saint Sulpice; streets quiet with the peace of decay. The memory of what had happened to him that morning was hot in his brain as he sat there, and he thought of the past ten years and declared them worthless—lines writ on water.
He remembered how he had come to Paris for his education, an eager boy of excellent Arab family, his father, since deceased, a rich sheik with a town house in Tunis, yet keeping up tribal relations with the Ouled Sieyda who acknowledged him chief amongst their black felt tents in the far Sahara. He had opened his keen young soul to the charm of this land of France and had fallen under its spell; he had steeped himself in French literature and history and social and political ideals, deposing the fierce desert Prophet of his ancestors and setting up in his stead brand-new idols labeled Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.
And on the day on which he had received his degree at the Sorbonne he had decided to stay in France, and he dreamed of a home in Paris, and little French-born children, a little dark, but of the French, French—and it might be with the pansy-blue eyes of Mademoiselle Marie la Comtesse de Luhersac. He loved the comtesse and she loved him, so they both thought. It may have been that it was only the mystery of the Orient in his eyes which had captured her, the mystery of the Occident in her which had captured him. But they had been eager to jump over the barrier which the prejudices of a dozen centuries have erected between East and West.
Unfortunately the girl had a brother, her sole living relative, M. le Comte de Luhersac, who was cursed with a malignant form of racial and class consciousness. This morning there had been a scene when Mohammed ibn Rashid had asked for Marie’s hand.
Not exactly a scene, though, at first.
For both men were gentlemen, and M. de Luhersac had been carefully impersonal in marshaling his reasons, biological, social and theological, why he was opposed to the match, while the Arab, as carefully impersonal, had refuted the other’s arguments point for point. They had been perfectly good-humored until a chance word—fleeting, negligible—and afterward it made no difference what it had been or who had spoken it—had destroyed the delicate equilibrium; and on the spur of that moment these two cultured representatives of East and West had crystallized in their brains all the hate and contempt their two races have felt for each other since the world evolved from a mote of star-dust. But the dangerous moment had passed, and Mohammed ibn Rashid had turned to Marie, who had sat there, silent, trembling.
“After all, dear," he had said, "it is your life. It is for you to decide if …"
“Marie!” M. de Luhersac had interrupted.
He had spoken a dozen words, no more; and her love for the Arab had not been able to stand up to her brother’s chilly contempt. There had been one last flicker of revolt in her silly, fluttery heart.
“Please—!” she had called after Mohammed ibn Rashid, whose hand had already been on the door knob.
“I love you, but— Oh, I can’t—I can’t. …”
His words had cut through her like a knife:
“God curse you! God curse you and yours! God curse your race, your faith, your land!”
Then the door had shut on his broad form with a sharp dramatic click.
“Don’t you see, Marie?” her brother had asked. “The man is a savage! Don’t worry, child. You’ll forget—and so will your quaint young friend.”
Evening was beginning to fall. Mohammed ibn Rashid sat by his window. The yellow lights in the houses flared up like evil, winking eyes, and the shadows seemed to wag at him with mocking fingers.
“Marie must marry an equal, mon cher monsieur!”
He heard again the words of M. de Luhersac. He curled his fingers like question marks, curving the palms, causing the muscles to coil and recoil, the skin to tighten beneath the pressure of tissue and bone; and with the physical action came a mental reaction, an atavistic echo of the Black Tents—the lust for revenge. His body hungered for realization of the thought, brutal, concrete.
“Henna mah na sadiqin billah—are we not confiding in Allah? Has He not made manifest that revenge is just?”
Suddenly he rose and crossed the room.
In the farther corner, in an Arab box gaily painted with flowers, he had kept all these years, half ashamed of the contents, a few things which he had brought with him from Tunis: a wooden Moslem rosary, a hand-written Koran, a string of blue beads to give protection against the evil eye, and his father’s dagger, an exquisite Moorish blade with jeweled hilt and scabbard. He took the weapon, unsheathed it, tried its sharpness, sheathed it again. Then he slipped it into his pocket, picked up his hat, and went into the street. He would go to the house of M. de Luhersac. He would make his honor white. He would kill.
He turned the corner of the Rue Palatine and walked south where, black beneath a black sky, the roofs of Paris lay bunched in a carved, stony immensity. He stopped to light a cigarette. In the lemon spurt of the match he saw that his hand was trembling violently; and, with tragic suddenness, he felt something rush across his mind as with a veil of thick, bitter smoke, felt a terrible truth steal upon his soul with a clay-cold, freezing touch.
“Why,”—he spoke the words out loud,—"I am afraid—"
And at that moment he knew that, though there was still in him the lust to kill, these ten years of soft Paris had sapped his manhood and withered his courage. The match flamed to the end, burning his fingers. He did not notice it.
“I am afraid!” he whispered; and again, the words bubbling to his lips with a froth of hate, he cursed France. He stood there, beneath the rushing of the night, his head flung back, and he stared with his cold, black eyes at the cold, black sky, and he cursed Europe, the west, Christendom. He cursed this land which had taken from him his manhood and courage and strength and had given him nothing in return except a trick of polite phrases and a handful of empty shibboleths: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.
“Are you going away, monsieur?” asked his janitress the next morning as his trunks passed her lodge.
“Yes, home,” came his short reply.
“Yes. To Africa—to Tunis. …"
The woman laughed. “Ah—monsieur is an Arab—I had almost forgotten."
“So had I.”
“Is monsieur going home for good?"
“No. Just to find something I lost."
“I hope monsieur will find it."
“So do I. Au revoir, madame!"
A day and a half across the Mediterranean. And nothing worth recording happened until the second evening out when a fellow-passenger asked him a casual question. He shook his head. "I do not speak French." he replied in Arabic, and he walked away.
Tunis jumped out of the morning fog with a scent of remembrance. Mohammed ibn Rashid stood on the top deck. He was excited. Yet his excitement was neither violent nor sentimental. It was like a delicate network of feelers connecting him with this motley Islamic world which lay there at his feet—“a bride awaiting the bridegroom’s coming”—the simile came to him.
The landing pier was a panorama of all Africa. There were Frenchmen, bullet headed Sicilians, Maltese, Jews of every land; and all about them, like a sea on which these Europeans were but driftwood, the natives, every last strain of the littoral and the desert.
He stepped out into the street, and immediately a crowd of men in every conceivable state of raggedness pounced upon him and implored him in a bastard mixture of French and Spanish to hire them as porters, guides and dragomans. They surged about him, shaking greasy testimonials under his nose; and for a moment he stood bewildered, sorry that he had left Paris. Then, when a six-foot, plumcolored Saharan negro clutched him boldly and addressed him as “Nasrany—Christian!” suddenly his patience gave out and long-forgotten words of abuse came to him.
“Away!” he cried in the acrid slang of the Tunis bazaar. “Away, O black wart on your mother’s nose! O son of a drunkard and an odorous, spotted she-hyena!”
Silence. Astonishment. Then laughter, gurgling, high-pitched, typically Oriental, the negro laughing more loudly than the rest.
“A Moslem!” he proclaimed, kissing Mohammed ibn Rashid’s hand. “Listen to him—giving the lie to his trousers and stiff hat!”
The crowd broke into boisterous greetings.
So he took the road to the Street of Terek el-Bey, in the heart of Old Tunis, where, clustered in by trees and flowering shrubs, squatted the house of his ancestors.
He had left Paris suddenly. He had not written of his coming to his father’s old servants who kept this home properly cared for to await the young master’s return. He had not been home in ten years. He dropped the knocker. Shortly afterward an aged woman appeared on the threshold, berry-brown, gnarled, gnomelike.
“Heart of me!" she cried. “Dear, dear heart of me!" And she rushed up to him and hugged him to her breast with all the strength of her withered arms.
“Allah karim!” her voice came in thick sobs. "And have you then come home to me, to your old nurse, your own Habeebah? Ho! Long have I waited for the coming of your feet! And now I hold you in my arms, O Crusher of Hearts.”
Suddenly she ran into the house; and a moment later she could be heard inside.
“Away!” she cried. “Away to the cook pots, the sauce pots, O ye daughters of skillets! The saffron—where is the saffron, in the name of eleven thousand first-class devils? And the eggplants? Stuff well the eggplants; my lord likes eggplants!”
She was out again like a small brown whirlwind, drawing him across the threshold.
“Home!” she said. “You have had enough of life among those swine-fed northerners? You will now stay here and take a wife and make for yourself stout men-children?” She lowered her voice. “Listen, Crusher of Hearts! You came at an auspicious moment. I know a girl—hayah!”—she threw a kiss into the air—“a girl the rose of whose body will make you rigid and trembling in turns and …”
“No,” he interrupted. “Never mind this girl. I cannot stay.” And he told her of the slight which M. de Luhersac had put upon his honor.
“God’s curse on all unbelievers!” she said fervently, and she added: “But you were wrong
“Why did you ask the girl's brother? If you love a woman and she loves you, ask neither brother nor father nor Allah nor the devil. Take her! If you love her and she loves you not, take her by force. Woman—wah—was made for love. Now—as to this girl I spoke to you about—”
“No, no, no!” he exclaimed.
Habeebah shrugged her shoulders. “Very well, my lord. Then return to Paris and bring me this other woman.”
“Impossible!” he smiled.
“The Frankish laws are different from ours.”
“Break their laws. Are you not an Arab and a Shareef?”
“It is also,” he went on, “that I lost my strength. So I came here to regain it. And then …”
“You will take the woman?”
“I do not know. Perhaps I have already forgotten her. But the man—”
“You will kill him. Very proper! I shall feed you well and make your body fat and your sword-arm strong.”
He gave a little laugh. “It is not the strength of my arm which I lost, Habeebah.”
“My strength of will. I need the desert and the sweep of the desert. I shall return to my own people, to the Black Tents of the Ouled Sieyda. I start for the South tomorrow.”
She looked at him, questioningly, from beneath lowered eyelids. “Ten years since you left Tunis,” she said.
“And seven years since your father—may Allah rest his soul in paradise and give him a thousand houris to make soft his couch—left this world.”
“Even during your father’s lifetime the ties which bound the tribesmen to him were but slight, ties of the heart more than the body. Now you—hayah!—you have become almost a Frank. You never wrote. You never came. You never cared. You forgot the tents of your people.”
“I know. But I am still their chief.”
“Be pleased not to go, my lord.”
“Why not? The Ouled Sieyda are mine own people, blood of my blood and bone.”
"Aye, my lord. But—" she slurred, and continued: “They cannot give you strength. They need strength of another's giving—strength of seed and strength of sword.”
ENOUGH babblings, old woman. Give me truth.”
“Iqetter khirak—may Allah increase your happiness!” she murmured, inclining her head as if in resignation to the inevitable; and she told him how these last few years a change had come over the Black Tents. The Ouled Sieyda had always been a small tribe, jealous of their Shareefian blood and unwilling to sully it by intermarriage with the rude Bedouins who were all about them. There had been—“el ouad, destiny!”—commented Habeebah, few men-children born to them, and they had gradually decreased in numbers of fighting-men, becoming a prey to the razzias of the Bedouins. Then one morning two years ago the Ouled el-Kleybat, a raucous-tongued, hard-riding breed, had swept out of the desert toward the Bordj M’Kuttaba, the chief oasis of the Ouled Sieyda.
Mohammed ibn Rashid’s soul echoed to Habeebah’s telling. Clogged cells in his brain opened to receive the picture of it.
The peaceful oasis, greenly athwart the yellow swash of the sands, stippled with the bayt es-shaar, the “booths of hair” black as the tents of Kedar in Hebrew Scripture; the pessimistic grunts of the camels; the barking of the shaggy slouguy greyhounds; the protesting crunch of the lumbering carts that carried the grain to the barn; the swish-swish of the flails winnowing the wheat; the nasal crooning of the women; the creaking of the water wheels; the gay refrains of the young men and then, suddenly, a puff of cloud on the horizon. A savage humming and roaring; a faint neighing of horses; a jingling of headstalls; a tinkling of camels’ bells—the attack!
Now the Ouled el-KIeybat lording it in the tents of the Ouled Sieyda.
“Slaves, our people,” wound up Habeebah, “crouched on the threshold of rude Bedouins! Today it is the sheik of the Ouled el-Kleybat who rules your kin, my lord. A Touareg from the far South,” she continued with a queer, fleeting smile, and when he seemed incredulous, reminding her that Touaregs and Bedouins were of different races, even enemies, she insisted that she was right and added in proof that the sheik of the Ouled el-Kleybat never went abroad without the black face veil hiding his features, all but the eyes, which is the Touareg’s distinctive tribal peculiarity.
“How do you account for it?” he asked. “These Bedouins would not swear fealty to a stranger. They are clannish—”
“Aye—and secretive!” And had Mohammed ibn Rashid not lived too long in Europe he would have noticed that her eyelids were fluttering in the fashion of one who is weaving lies. “A Touareg, he, and a great warrior! A hawk in pouncing, a fox in slinking. … Be pleased not to go, my lord.”
Suddenly she rose and motioned toward the curtain spanning a doorway in back of Mohammed ibn Rashid’s chair whence came a rustle of silken garments and faint, fluting laughter, then the sound of bare feet pattering away as Habeebah broke into shrill vituperations, winding Tip with: “Begone, O daughter of a noseless she-camel!”
She turned to the Arab. “A kitchen wench,” she explained, “curious to behold her young master’s face.”
He did not reply at once. He felt dispirited with all sorts of doubts. What were the Ouled Sieyda to him? Strangers, after all, removed from him by ten years of life, and hundreds of civilization. Paris was his home. He would return there.
No, came the next thought, he hated Paris, the French, all the West. And the Ouled Sieyda were blood of his blood. He had been willing to ask them for the strength which he needed. Now it appeared it was they who needed strength. His impersonal attitude became untrue. He saw his duty. He would go to them. He was sure of only one thing: that before he could regain his own strength he must find in himself the strength to give to his tribesmen. For they needed him.
“They need me,” he said aloud.
Habeebah bowed her head. There was a glint of triumph in her red-rimmed old eyes. “Go, my lord,” she said. “Belike you will succeed!”
So he was off the next day, telling Habeebah to see that nobody knew of his going: “Perhaps I, too, have some of the fox’s stealth.”
He traveled by train and caravan, silent with his thoughts amidst the clanking of the little French engines, the cries of food-hawkers at wayside stations, the hustle of the caravanserai where he changed from train to horse, the squealing of the pack animals, the beating of wooden drums that spoke day and night with the Morse code, the chant, the gossip of all Africa.
He pulled into Wargla, white as a leper with the dust of the road, traded his stallion for a racing-dromedary, and was off again, alone, riding down the clearly defined caravan trail which leads toward Timbuktu. He reached the heart ot the desert on the seventh day out of Tunis, and he stopped for a long time on a little hillock, watching the spawning eternities of the sands. He had come prepared to loathe and fear them. But, strangely, they seemed to inspire him with high courage and hope, seemed to show him behind their mask of yellow death a great, cosmic pulsing of accumulated life force, waiting for the touch to break forth terrific and uplifting. The feeling intoxicated him. From the whirling sands there came to him a flavor of utter, sharp freedom which seemed to him the breath, the soul of the land as he remembered it deep in his racial consciousness.
“Home—and the scent of the home winds!” he thought. Impatience overtook him. “Home, lean daughter of unthinkable begetting!” he shouted at the snarling dromedary, urging it on to greater speed.
The farther desert came with orange and purple, and a carved aridity, a great solitude, a sterile monotony flowing on vague horizons. It came with drab, saw-toothed rock ranges shelving down into avalanches of pebbly strata; with ever and again the sardonic cadence of far signal drums; with an occasional oasis where single palms rose solemn and austere. It came with a sudden, small walled town that was a shimmering haze of flat, white roofs. It came to him with physical exhaustion as he stabled his dromedary in the courtyard of an inn and fell asleep, the drums punctuating his dreams with their staccato measure.
It came lastly that afternoon, as he walked through the bazaar to buy a new water-skin, with a girl’s face, more disclosed than hidden by the thin veil that covered it from the soft curve of her chin to the tip of her nose.
She stopped at a jeweler’s booth, followed by a giant negro servant. Mohammed ibn Rashid stopped too. She seemed lithe and tall beneath the rose-red swathings of her burnoose. He stared at her. Instinctively he smiled; and, fleetingly, she smiled back with all the shrewd demureness of her girlhood, with all the ancient wisdom of her sex. And something in him quickened—something that had never stirred before. The Arab eyes were black and liquid above her veil, and some silent presence seemed to finger his nerves and his spine with an unerring touch that was both sweet and hurting.
And words bubbled to his lips—epically, as they come to Arabs in moments of great emotion. He wanted to tell this girl out of the nowhere that hers was the stroke and slash of his dagger, hers the eloquence of his tongue, the twistings of his brain, the passion of his body; wanted to tell her that his heart was a carpet for her small feet to step on gently, gently … words unspoken. For the negro recalled him to his senses with loud-mouthed abuse that—by Allah!—these were wretched manners, manners of infidels and bad Moslems, to ogle thus a woman in the bazaar.
“A foreigner you seem! An eater of dried fish from the North—of stinking fish.”
Mohammed ibn Rashid flared up.
"Better dried fish in the North than a naked blade in the South!” he cried while the dagger leaped to his hand.
But the girl’s sudden, mocking laughter stopped his hand. “Have you no other use for your weapon,” she asked, “than to stain it with a woolly one’s blood? No other use for your strength?”
He picked up the word. “Right!” he said. “There is threefold work waiting for me. There is a Touareg to be humbled, a Frenchman to be killed, and a woman’s lips to be kissed.”
“Who is she?” came her purring question.
“Yourself, O Delight!” And he laughed triumphantly as she blushed an even rose and walked away with her servant, turning at the end of the bazaar into a house the gates of which shut after her with a click.
“Whose house?” he asked a beggar who squatted near the threshold, whining for alms.
“The house of Kathafa bent Saad.”
“And she is—?”
“The daughter of a rich Southern sheik, goes the telling. Few know her. She comes here once, twice a year to buy things and”—he winked shamelessly—“to give money to the poor.”
Mohammed ibn Rashid tossed him a handful of copper coins.
So he rode out of town toward the farther desert and the Bordj M’Kuttaba, the chief oasis of the Ouled Sieyda where the wild Bedouins were lording it, thinking that here, now, was a third issue for his endeavor, that three were his paths: the path of revenge, the path of duty, and the sweet path of passion … and again, with the thought, came a memory of Marie de Luhersac—to be dismissed with a yawn of boredom.
By this time he had evolved the germ of a plan. He remembered his father having told him how the Touaregs still clung to their ancestral customs reaching back to the days of Moorish chivalry when nobles fought tournaments for the price of a lady’s glove before the trellised harem retreats of the Jardin de los Adarves, high up on the verge of Alhambra’s hill; how to this day they decided the fate of warring clans by single combat between chief and chief. This Touareg, Habeebah had said, wore the face veil of his race, was thus doubtless an orthodox adherent of the old traditions. On the other hand he ruled a tribe of lawless Bedouins who, if they heard of Mohammed ibn Rashid’s intentions, would not permit their sheik to risk all in single combat. But if he could approach the other stealthily, without the Bedouins’ knowledge, if he could persuade him to fight a duel and pledge his honor on the issue, the Ouled el-Kleybat would not break their chief’s covenant.
Secrecy, stealth—there lay his chance. And as he heard the signal drums spanning the distance, he prayed that Habeebah had succeeded in silencing the servants’ leaky tongues—he remembered the kitchen girl who had listened at the curtain—and that the gossip of his enterprise was not already being bruited about in the Black Tents.
He felt keenly elated. With every mile he sensed that this land was claiming and welcoming him, rising about him in an enormous tide to wipe from his brain all memory of the past. It was with an effort that he recalled the double quest, of revenge and duty, which was carrying him South.
“O Allah!” he cried, opening his hidden self to the desert’s call; and, curiously, it seemed that the veiled girl whom he had met in the bazaar was a transcendental part of both the land and his longing for the land, that whatever fate awaited him in the Black Tents was vitally connected with her. He said to himself that he would finish his business in the Bordj M’Kuttaba, then he would return to her. He would claim and take her with his new-found strength, and he smiled as he remembered Habeebah’s saying that women was made for love. Wise, wise, the old unlettered Moslem woman; wiser than the erudite professors of the Sorbonne, than all the teachers who had deviled his young soul with logic and similar western fetishes.
There was now no thought in him at all of Marie nor of returning to Paris and taking toll with steel, as he rode beneath a vaulted sky that burned with a stupendous glare. The desert was silent, lonely, yet throbbing with vital energy. It seemed as if any minute it might burst into a whirl of flame. The sand passed from yellow to amber, from amber to sullen gold, from gold to a sheen of dazzling whiteness. The heat scorched his face and hands. So he sought rest beneath a clump of palms that fretted a tiny oasis with lacy, blue-green finials. He hobbled his dromedary and dropped off to sleep, dreaming vividly. There was in his dream the desert with its listening, waiting dunes, its eery whisperings among the wind-flayed rocks, its sudden, dramatic jumping to life with a tinkle of camels’ bells, then a woman’s silken laughter and a man’s raucous voice addressing the animal with full-flavored speech:
“Down! Down on your knees, O lust-scabbed spawn of a hyena and a bloated she-devil!”
He listened in his dream, moved—and the movement awakened him. He stared dazedly for a moment, then saw that the dream was true. There, on the farther end of the oasis, a camel was being forced through the elaborate process of squatting, snarling wickedly, twisting its rococo neck with the evident intention of biting its driver’s hip. Mohammed ibn Rashid laughed as he recognized in the latter the negro of the bazaar, as he saw, perched between the camel’s humps, a shagduf, a tent-shaped woman’s litter, gaily painted, its sides closed with fluttering, yellow silk. The animal squatted, bending its forelegs then its hindlegs suddenly double like a jack-knife, the shagduf tilting dangerously; the negro walked away to cut an armful of grass; and through the litter’s curtain a bare foot appeared showing an inch of loose, green trouser tight around the ankle, a heel stained red with henna, and a star-sapphire in a silver setting twinkling on the big toe.
Mohammed ibn Rashid rose, crossed over rapidly, and kissed the tiny, bare foot. It wriggled, withdrew, and a voice asked:
“Is this your way of greeting strangers, Arab?”
“Strangers? Did I not look into your eyes for a fleeting glance in the bazaar? Was not that glance an eternity? Listen—”
“To the tale of my love.”
“Suppose I do not believe the tale of your love?”
“Then shall I prove it.”
“For the sake of my love I would bring you the treasures of all the world to heap on your lap—”
“And what then?” she asked ironically. “Are you a Nasrany, a foreigner, that you measure all life with gold?” Came a silken rustle, and her unveiled face appeared between the curtains, with a low, white forehead, the reddest of lips, black eyes below boldly curved brows. “Look well!” she said. “Am I not worth the struggle?”
He stared at her. He read in that face the promise and flame of eternal passion, eternal thrills.
“Heart of my heart,” he replied humbly. “There is nothing, nothing I would not do for the sake of my love!”
“Words—a mirage!” was her curt comment. “The deed alone counts—the strength. …”
“The deed?” He drew himself up. “Girl,” he went on, “there be a Touareg’s head which I shall throw at your feet in sign of deed, of fealty and strength—it is so written! But”—he paused, smiled—“Where shall I find those small, small feet of yours?”
“Where?” There was in her voice a ripple of mocking laughter. “Why—down there—in the Bordj M’Kuttaba!”
“What?” He looked up sharply, doubting his ears.
“In the Bordj M’Kuttaba,” she repeated. “In the tent of the sheik. Perhaps—ah”— she smiled slowly—“is he the very Touareg whom you …”
“Allah!” He pressed closely against the shagduf, rage, suspicion, jealousy surging through him in crimson waves. “What do you know about me, about him? What is he to you?”
“Perhaps,” she said, “I am his sister. Perhaps his daughter. Perhaps—who knows?—his wife.” She laughed as Mohammed ibn Rashid’s face grew black. “Does the thought hurt?”
“I want the truth!”
“Find it out through the deed! Words count for nothing among the Black Tents, O Arab, who is almost like a Frank!”
And when just then the negro returned she dropped the curtains rapidly, while Mohammed ibn Rashid walked away, a prey to conflicting emotions: suspicion, fear that the drums might have preceded his coming and that this was only a trap, but chiefly jealousy. What was she to the sheik of the Ouled el-Kleybat? Sister? Daughter? Wife? The last thought clutched his soul with giant pincers. The girl was right, he told himself; only the deed counted; and, Allah willing, he would show her a deed that would sweep to the imaginings of her savage passion as the wild hawk sweeps to the sky. He jumped into the saddle, turned at the sound of silvery laughter.
“I shall bring you his head!” he cried. “Head of husband or brother or lover! Kiss his cold, dead lips in sign of farewell! Hereafter you will kiss my own warm, living lips!”
Down a hill, sliding. Up a hill, bent over his mount’s neck, pulling it up almost bodily, forcing it to climb like a cat. Taking a rock at a long, lean jump. Swerving sideways to escape treacherous sand hollows. Slipping through the gravel bank of a dried stream. Riding till his hands were raw with the pulling of the reins, his knees numbed with the gripping of the saddle.
On through the afternoon that flamed with a thousand flickering tongues, through the night that dropped like a purple shutter, through another morning looming out of the sands with lemon and delicate green.
He rose in his stirrups as he saw the silhouette of a speeding camel etched on the horizon like a great scrawl of Arabic handwriting; saw, puckering his eyes, a triangular outline, like that of a shagduf, topping the animal’s hump. He said to himself that, doubtless, it was the girl traveling South as he was, but by a short cut in order that she would reach the Bordj M’Kuttaha ahead of him and warn the Touareg—brother or husband or lover. He shrugged his shoulders. He had boasted to Habeebah about his fox’s stealth, had made his plans accordingly. Now he would have to abandon them, would have to forget his stealth by the same token, would have to rely on strength and courage alone!
The odds were against him a hundredfold. Again he shrugged his shoulders. He could not help it. This, too, was Fate. He touched the hilt of his father’s dagger; and with the touch there flamed down upon him a great faith in himself, with the strength of the wind and sun and stars. Then, soberly, he saw to the loading of his pistol and the tightening of his saddle girths as already the Bordj jumped from the coiling sands like a thick slab of jade set into the orange frame of the desert, studded here and there with trees and granaries and the black of the nomads’ tents—in the centre a great, dome-shaped tent with the sheik’s green flag floating from its peak.
“Home!” he thought.
And as if in ironic answer, with utter suddenness, came a guttural shrilling of war cries, a clash and crackle of naked steel, and out of the whirling sands three Bedouins whipped their dromedaries down upon him, one armed with a long-barreled rifle, the other two leveling nine-foot, black bamboo lances.
As the first of them fired from the hip, Mohammed ibn Rashid swerved his mount to one side. A little too late. But he was out of the saddle, landing on his feet, even as the camel dropped, shot through the heart. In a fleeting glance he saw it a few yards away rolling on its back, waving its legs grotesquely in the air; then he thought and acted at the same fraction of a moment as the second nomad closed in, the lance point flickering evilly. He jumped sideways, catching the man’s frenzied camel around the neck. He swung himself half up with one hand while the other drew the dagger. The Bedouin’s long lance was useless in a body-to-body fight and, before he could reach for his own dagger, Mohammed ibn Rashid had slashed wickedly. The man fell to the ground, bleeding profusely, and in the twinkling of a second Mohammed ibn Rashid drew himself fully into the saddle, letting the reins drop loose, relying on the pressure of his knees, and turned to meet the shock of the other two nomads, revolver in hand. He shot; missed. The Bedouins, trained raiders, changed their tactics. They deployed right and left, shooting and stabbing as they galloped past, and even as a lance point grazed his forehead Mohammed ibn Rashid heard one of them call out frantic ally to the other:
“No, no—do not kill him! There are orders. …” They galloped away, swerved, stopped, turned, once more deployed, then joined and came on at a thundering pace, saddle to saddle. Again Mohammed ibn Rashid fired, again missed, since, a good enough marksman, he was not used to reckoning with the swaying motion of his dromedary.
“Itiah saadeq!” came his high-pitched war cry.
He dropped the revolver, slashed side ways with his dagger, right, left, right, left, as the Bedouins reined in, then pressed to either side of him.
"Itiah saadeq!"—at the same time trying to land blow, to parry lance point and rifle butt, to jerk his camel free from the pressure of the nomads’ mounts.
A great joy, a primitive lust of battle sang in his blood. The three animals plunging madly side by side. He used the dagger like a rapier, with carte and tierce and quick, staccato riposte, pinking here a leg, there an arm, ripping through burnoose and saddle cloth as with the edge of a razor. The hilt of his weapon throbbed in his hand while its point danced a swish ing, triumphant saraband, as if the ancient, turbulent soul of the blade had come to life from the clogging sleep of the centuries.
Then, quite suddenly, it seemed to him as if a giant hand were plucking him from the saddle and hurling him through the air. The whole world, the desert, the oasis, the soaring palms, the Black Tents, seemed to totter crazily, to swing from side to side in a blazing, yellow pendulum. He felt a dull jar, a sharp pain. His consciousness faded out.
When—he did not know how many hours later—he came to, he found himself on a couch in a large, dome-shaped tent. His temples pulsed sharply. He felt something cool and moist on his forehead. Then, hearing a rustling noise behind him, he drew himself up, turned, and saw at the head of the couch a burnoosed figure, ghostly with the black face veil that hid the features.
The Touareg, he said to himself; said to himself that he had lost all, his life, his ambition, his love … “Bismillah—Allah’s will be done!” he mumbled in Moslem resignation; and he closed his eyes against the bitter pain of the thought, opened them again as he heard a voice that drifted down to him with a soft tang of remembrance.
“Fate,” said the Touareg, “which comes out of the dark like a blind camel—with no warning, no jingling of bells!
“Fate,” rejoined Mohammed ibn Rashid, “which caused me to thrust a lance to the challenge of my own boast, which hurled me against the ramparts of defeat …”
“And yet, fighting greatly against odds, thus losing greatly and without blame, without reproach, you won—greatly, O Arab!”
“Me!” said the Touareg, dropping the veil, and as Mohammed ibn Rashid stared he saw, bending down to him, the low, white forehead, the red lips, the black, liquid eyes of the girl who was dearer to him than the dwelling of kings, felt her mouth on his, heard her gurgling laughter as she reminded him of the kitchen wench who had listened through the curtains in the house of the Street of Terek el-Bey.
“Did you not tell Habeebah to silence the servants’ leaky tongues? Ho! She could not silence my tongue. What was I doing there, heart of my heart?” She smiled. “And did not Habeebah tell you of a girl whom she wanted you to marry? Listen, behold! I came North on purpose after my people made peace with yours, after the ancients of both tribes declared that it was proper for me to marry, to bring children into the world, men-children belike, to rule your tribe and mine. And whose blood more fitting to mix with mine than yours, O my king? So North I went and spoke to Habeebah. Then you came, by the twist of Fate, with words in your mouth of a Frankish woman, and I found you almost a foreigner, and I talked to Habeebah through the slit in the curtains with my fingers and my eyes. And thus was there a great testing to be done, of strength and courage and the deed—and you won, O my lord!”
“But, he stammered, “the Touareg—?”
“Sister or daughter or wife?” She laughed. “There is but one Touareg in the Black Tents. Myself. K'athafaSaad—at my lord’s service!” She swept him a curtsy. “Daughter and sister and wife to my lord!”
And, to his questioning, came a strange telling of strife in the farther South between her father’s tribe, Touaregs of the blood, and the Ouled el-Kleybat; telling, too, of an old prophecy of the latter that spoke of how a stranger woman, captured in battle, would make good her claim to rule them with the right of steel and death, and lead them to victory.
“A slave I came to the Ouled el-Kleybat, mourning for my father who had died beneath the feet of the war dromedaries—a slave to their chief. And that night, when he took me in his arms, the rage of my race came upon me. I drew a dagger. I killed. Thus I fulfilled the ancient prophecy of the Ouled el-Kleybat, fulfilled it yet further by leading them to the conquest of the Ouled Sieyda. And now”—with utter abandon—“I am again a slave—your slave, O my lord!”
She kissed him; then, mockingly, asked:
“There was talk between you and Habeebah, of a Frank and his sister—ah,”—she made a little grimace as her lips formed the foreign sound—“Marie. …”
“Marie—?” smiled Mohammed ibn Rashid. “W’elah—w’elah!—l cannot recall her name!