One of my friends had said to me:—
“If you happen to be near Bordj–Ebbaba while you are in Algeria, be sure and go to see my old friend Auballe, who has settled there.”
I had forgotten the name of Auballe and of Ebbaba, and I was not thinking of this planter, when I arrived at his house by pure accident. For a month, I had been wandering on foot through that magnificent district which extends from Algiers to Cherchell, Orléansville, and Tiaret. It is at the same time wooded and bare, grand and charming. Between two hills, one comes across large pine forests in narrow valleys, through which torrents rush in the winter. Enormous trees, which have fallen across the ravine, serve as a bridge for the Arabs, and also for the tropical creepers, which twine round the dead stems, and adorn them with new life. There are hollows, in little known recesses of the mountains, of a terribly beautiful character, and the sides of the brooks, which are covered with oleanders, are indescribably lovely.
But what has left behind it the most pleasant recollections of that excursion, is the long after-dinner walks along the slightly wooded roads on those undulating hills, from which one can see an immense tract of country from the blue sea as far as the chain of the Quarsenis, on whose summit there is the cedar forest of Teniet-el-Haad.
On that day I lost my way. I had just climbed to the top of a hill, whence, beyond a long extent of rising ground, I had seen the extensive plain of Metidja, and then, on the summit of another chain, almost invisible in the distances that strange monument which is called The Tomb of the Christian Woman, and which was said to be the burial-place of the kings of Mauritana. I went down again, going southward, with a yellow landscape before me, extending as far as the fringe of the desert, as yellow as if all those hills were covered with lions’ skins sewn together, sometimes a pointed yellow peak would rise out of the midst of them, like the bristly back of a camel.
I walked quickly and lightly, like as one does when following tortuous paths on a mountain slope. Nothing seems to weigh on one in those short, quick walks through the invigorating air of those heights, neither the body, nor the heart, nor the thoughts, nor even cares. On that day I felt nothing of all that crushes and tortures our life; I only felt the pleasure of that descent. In the distance I saw an Arab encampment, brown pointed tents, which seemed fixed to the earth, like limpets are to a rock, or else gourbis, huts made of branches, from which a gray smoke rose. White figures, men and women, were walking slowly about, and the bells of the flocks sounded vaguely through the evening air.
The arbutus trees on my road hung down under the weight of their purple fruit, which was falling on the ground. They looked like martyred trees, from which blood-colored sweat was falling, for at the top of every tier there was a red spot, like a drop of blood.
The earth all round them was covered with it, and as my feet crushed the fruit, they left blood-colored traces behind them, and sometimes, as I went along, I would jump and pick one, and eat it.
All the valleys were by this time filled with a white vapor, which rose slowly, like the steam from the flanks of an ox, and on the chain of mountains that bordered the horizon, on the outskirts of the desert of Sahara, the sky was in flames. Long streaks of gold alternated with streaks of blood — blood again! Blood and gold, the whole of human history — and sometimes between the two there was a small opening in the greenish azure, far away like a dream.
How far away I was from all those persons and things with which one occupies oneself on the boulevards, far from myself also, for I had become a kind of wandering being, without thought or consciousness, far from any road, of which I was not even thinking, for as night came on, I found that I had lost my way.
The shades of night were falling onto the earth like a shower of darkness, and I saw nothing before me but the mountains, in the far distance. Presently, I saw some tents in the valley, into which I descended, and tried to make the first Arab I met understand in which direction I wanted to go. I do not know whether he understood me, but he gave me a long answer, which I did not in the least understand. In despair, I was about to make up my mind to pass the night wrapped up in a rug near the encampment, when among the strange words he uttered, I fancied that I heard the name, Bordj–Ebbaba, and so I repeated:
I showed him two francs that were a fortune to him, and he started off, while I followed him. Ah! I followed that pale phantom which strode on before me bare-footed along stony paths, on which I stumbled continually, for a long time, and then suddenly I saw a light, and we soon reached the door of a white house, a kind of fortress with straight walls, and without any outside windows. When I knocked, dogs began to bark inside, and a voice asked in French:
“Who is there?”
“Does Monsieur Auballe live here?” I asked.
The door was opened for me, and I found myself face to face with Monsieur Auballe himself, a tall man in slippers, with a pipe in his mouth and the looks of a jolly Hercules.
As soon as I mentioned my name, he put out both his hands and said:
“Consider yourself at home here, Monsieur.”
A quarter of an hour later I was dining ravenously, opposite to my host, who went on smoking.
I knew his history. After having wasted a great amount of money on women, he had invested the remnants of his fortune in Algerian landed property and taken to money-making. It turned out prosperously; he was happy, and had the calm look of a happy and contented man. I could not understand how this fast Parisian could have grown accustomed to that monstrous life in such a lonely spot, and I asked him about it.
“How long have you been here?” I asked him.
“For nine years.”
“And have you not been intolerably dull and miserable?”
“No, one gets used to this country, and ends by liking it. You cannot imagine how it lays hold on people by those small, animal instincts that we are ignorant of ourselves. We first become attached to it by our organs, to which it affords secret gratifications which we do not inquire into. The air and the climate overcome our flesh, in spite of ourselves, and the bright light with which it is inundated keeps the mind clear and fresh, at but little cost. It penetrates us continually by our eyes, and one might really say that it cleanses the somber nooks of the soul.”
“But what about women?”
“Ah . . .! There is rather a dearth of them!”
“Well, yes . . . rather. For one can always, even among the Arabs, find some complaisant, native women, who think of the nights of Roumi.”
He turned to the Arab, who was waiting on me, who was a tall, dark fellow, with bright, black eyes, that flashed beneath his turban, and said to him:
“I will call you when I want you, Mohammed.” And then, turning to me, he said:
“He understands French, and I am going to tell you a story in which he plays a leading part.”
As soon as the man had left the room, he began:
“I had been here about four years, and scarcely felt quite settled yet in this country, whose language I was beginning to speak, and forced, in order not to break altogether with those passions that had been fatal to me in other places, to go to Algiers for a few days, from time to time.
“I had bought this farm, this bordj, which had been a fortified post, and was within a few hundred yards from the native encampment, whose man I employ to cultivate my land. Among the tribe that had settled here, and which formed a portion of the Oulad–Taadja, I chose, as soon as I arrived here, that tall fellow whom you have just seen, Mohammed ben Lam’har, who soon became greatly attached to me. As he would not sleep in a house, not being accustomed to it, he pitched his tent a few yards from my house, so that I might be able to call him from my window.
“You can guess what my life was, I dare say? Every day I was busy with cleanings and plantations; I hunted a little, I used to go and dine with the officers of the neighboring fortified posts, or else they came and dined with me. As for pleasures . . . I have told you what they consisted in. Algiers offered me some which were rather more refined, and from time to time a complaisant and compassionate Arab would stop me when I was out for a walk, and offer to bring one of the women of his tribe to my house at night. Sometimes I accepted, but more frequently I refused, from fear of the disagreeable consequences and troubles it might entail upon me.
“One evening, at the beginning of summer, as I was going home, after going over the farm, as I wanted Mohammed, I went into his tent without calling him, as I frequently did, and there I saw a woman, a girl, sleeping almost naked, with her arms crossed under her head, on one of those thick, red carpets, made of the fine wool of Djebel–Amour, and which are as soft and as thick as a feather bed. Her body, which was beautifully white under the ray of light that came in through the raised covering of the tent, appeared to me to be one of the most perfect specimens of the human race that I had ever seen, and most of the women about here are beautiful and tall, and are a rare combination of features and shape. I let the edge of the tent fall in some confusion, and returned home.
“I love women! The sudden flash of this vision had penetrated and scorched me, and had rekindled in my veins that old, formidable ardor to which I owe my being here. It was very hot for it was July, and I spent nearly the whole night at my window, with my eyes fixed on the black Mohammed’s tent made on the ground.
“When he came into my room the next morning, I looked him closely in the face, and he hung his head, like a man who was guilty and in confusion. Did he guess that I knew? I, however, asked him, suddenly:
“‘So you are married, Mohammed?’ and I saw that he got red, and he stammered out: ‘No, mo’ssieuia!’
“I used to make him speak French to me, and to give me Arabic lessons, which was often productive of a most incoherent mixture of languages; however, I went on:
“‘Then why is there a woman in your tent?’
“‘She comes from the South,’ he said, in a low, apologetic voice.
“‘Oh! So she comes from the South? But that does not explain to me how she comes to be in your tent.’
“Without answering my question, he continued:
“‘She is very pretty.’
“‘Oh! Indeed. Another time, please, when you happen to receive a pretty woman from the South, you will take care that she comes to my gourbi, and not to yours. You understand me, Mohammed?’
“‘Yes, mo’ssieuia,’ he repeated, seriously.
“I must acknowledge that during the whole day I was in a state of aggressive excitement at the recollection of that Arab girl lying on the red carpet, and when I went in at dinner time, I felt very strongly inclined to go to Mohammed’s tent again. During the evening, he waited on me just as usual, and hovered round me with his impassive face, and several times I was very nearly asking him whether he intended to keep that girl from the South, who was very pretty, in his camel skin tent for a long time.
“Towards nine o’clock, still troubled with that longing for female society which is as tenacious as the hunting instinct in dogs, I went out to get some fresh air, and to stroll about a little round that cone of brown skin through which I could see a brilliant speck of light. I did not remain long, however, for fear of being surprised by Mohammed in the neighborhood of his dwelling. When I went in an hour later, I clearly saw his outline in the tent, and then, taking the key out of my pocket, I went into the bordj, where besides myself, there slept my steward, two French laborers, and an old cook whom I had picked up in the Algiers. As I went up stairs, I was surprised to see a streak of light under my door, and when I opened it, I saw a girl with the face of a statue sitting on a straw chair by the side of the table, on which a wax candle was burning; she was bedizened with all those silver gew-gaws which women in the South wear on their legs, arms, breast, and even on their stomach. Her eyes, which were tinged with kohl, to make them look larger, regarded me earnestly, and four little blue spots, finely tatooed on her skin, marked her forehead, her cheeks, and her chin. Her arms, which were loaded with bracelets, were resting on her thighs, which were covered by the long, red silk skirt that she wore.
“When she saw me come in, she got up and remained standing in front of me, covered with her barbaric jewels, in an attitude of proud submission.
“‘What are you doing here?’ I said to her in Arabic.
“‘I am here because Mohammed told me to come.’
“‘Very well, sit down.’
“So she sat down and lowered her eyes, while I examined her attentively.
“She had a strange, regular, delicate, and rather bestial face, but mysterious as that of a Buddha. Her lips, which were rather thick and covered with a reddish efflorescence, which I discovered on the rest of her body as well, indicated a slight admixture of negro blood, although her hands and arms were of an irreproachable whiteness.
“I hesitated what to do with her, and felt excited, tempted and rather confused, so in order to gain time and to give myself an opportunity for reflection, I put other questions to her, about her birth, how she came into this part of the country, and what her connection with Mohammed was. But she only replied to those that interested me the least, and it was impossible for me to find out why she had come, with what intention, by whose orders, nor what had taken place between her and my servant. However, just as I was about to say to her: ‘Go back to Mohammed’s tent,’ she seemed to guess my intention, for getting up suddenly, and raising her two bare arms, on which the jingling bracelets slipped down to her shoulders, she crossed her hands behind my neck and drew me towards her with an irresistible air of suppliant longing.
“Her eyes, which were bright from emotion, from that necessity of conquering man, which makes the looks of an impure woman as seductive as those of the feline tribe, allured me, enchained me, deprived me of all the power of resistance, and filled me with impetuous ardor. It was a short, sharp struggle of the eyes only, that eternal struggle between those two human brutes, the male and the female, in which the male is always beaten.
“Her hands, which had clasped behind my head, drew me irresistibly, with a gentle, increasing pressure, as if by mechanical force towards her red lips, on which I suddenly laid mine while, at the same moment, I clasped her body, that was covered with jingling silver rings, in an ardent embrace.
“She was as strong, as healthy, and as supple as a wild animal, with all the motions, the ways, the grace, and even something of the odor of a gazelle, which made me find a rare, unknown zest in her kisses, which was as strange to my senses as the taste of tropical fruits.
“Soon — I say soon, although it may have been towards morning — I wished to send her away, as I thought that she would go in the same way that she had come; I did not, even, at the moment, ask myself what I should do with her, or what she would do with me, but as soon as she guessed my intention, she whispered:
“‘What do you expect me to do if you get rid of me now? I shall have to sleep on the ground in the open air at night. Let me sleep on the carpet, at the foot of your bed.’
“What answer could I give her, or what could I do? I thought that no doubt Mohammed also would be watching the window of my room, in which a light was burning, and questions of various natures, that I had not put to myself during the first minutes, formulated themselves clearly in my brain.
“‘Stop here,’ I replied, ‘and we will talk.’
“My resolution was taken in a moment. As this girl had been thrown into my arms, in this manner, I would keep her; I would make her a kind of slave-mistress, hidden in my house, like women in a harem are. When the time should come that I no longer cared for her, it would be easy for me to get rid of her in some way or another, for on African soil those sort of creatures almost belong to us, body and soul, and so I said to her:
“‘I wish to be kind to you, and I will treat you so that you shall not be unhappy, but I want to know who you are and where you come from?’
“She saw clearly that she must say something, and she told me her story, or rather a story, for no doubt she was lying from beginning to end, like all Arabs always do, with or without any motive.
“That is one of the most surprising and incomprehensible signs of the native character — the Arabs always lie. Those people in whom Islam has become so incarnate that it has become part of themselves, to such an extent as to model their instincts and modifies the entire race, and to differentiate it from others in morals just as much as the color of the skin differentiates a negro from a white man, are liars to the backbone, so that one can never trust a word that they say. I do not know whether they owe that to their religion, but one must have lived among them in order to know the extent to which lying forms part of their being, of their heart and soul, until it has become a kind of second nature, a very necessity of life, with them.
“Well, she told me that she was the daughter of a Caidi of the Ouled Sidi Cheik, and of a woman whom he had carried off in a raid against the Touaregs. The woman must have been a black slave, or, at any rate, have sprung from a first cross of Arab and negro blood. It is well known that negro women are in great request for harems, where they act as aphrodisiacs. Nothing of such an origin was to be noticed, however, except the purple color of her lips, and the dark nipples of her elongated breasts, which were as supple as if they were on springs. Nobody who knew anything about the matter, could be mistaken in that. But all the rest of her belonged to the beautiful race from the South, fair, supple and with a delicate face which was formed on straight and simple lines like those of a Hindoo figure. Her eyes, which were very far apart, still further heightened the somewhat god-like looks of this desert marauder.
“I knew nothing exactly about her real life. She related it to me in incoherent fragments, that seemed to rise up at random from a disordered memory, and she mixed up deliciously childish observations with them; a whole vision of a Nomad world, born of a squirrel’s brain that had leapt from tent to tent, from encampment to encampment, from tribe to tribe. And all this was done with the severe looks that this reserved people always preserve, with the appearance of a brass idol, and rather comic gravity.
“When she had finished, I perceived that I had not remembered anything of that long story, full of insignificant events, that she had stored up in her flighty brain, and I asked myself whether she had not simply been making fun of me by her empty and would-be serious chatter, which told me nothing about her, nor about any real facts connected with her life.
“And I thought of that conquered race, among whom we have encamped, or, rather, who are encamping among us, whose language we are beginning to speak, whom we see every day, living under the transparent linen of their tents, on whom we have imposed our laws, our regulations, and our customs, and about whom we know nothing, nothing more whatever, I assure you, than if we were not here, and solely occupied in looking at them, for nearly sixty years. We know no more about what is going on in those huts made of branches, and under those small canvas cones that are fastened to the ground by stakes, which are within twenty yards of our doors, than we know what the so-called civilized Arabs of the Moorish houses in Algiers do, think, and are. Behind the white-washed walls of their town houses, behind the partition of their gourbi, which is made of branches, or behind that thin, brown, camel-haired curtain which the wind moves, they live close to us, unknown, mysterious, cunning, submissive, smiling, impenetrable. What if I were to tell you, that when I look at the neighboring encampment through my field glasses, I guess that there are superstitions, customs, ceremonies, a thousand practices of which we know nothing, and which we do not even suspect! Never previously, in all probability, did a conquered race know so well how to escape so completely from the real domination, the moral influence and the inveterate, but useless, investigations of the conquerors.
“Now I suddenly felt the insurmountable, secret barrier which incomprehensible nature had set up between the two races, more than I had ever felt it before, between this girl and myself, between this woman who had just given herself to me, who had yielded herself to my caresses and to me, who had possessed her, and, thinking of it for the first time, I said to her: ‘What is your name?’
“She did not speak for some moments, and I saw her start, as if she had forgotten that I was there, and then, in her eyes that were raised to mine, I saw that that moment had sufficed for her to be overcome by sleep, by irresistible, sudden, almost overwhelming sleep, like everything that lays hold of the mobile senses of women, and she answered, carelessly, suppressing a yawn:
“‘Do you want to go sleep?’
“‘Yes,’ she replied.
“‘Very well then, go to sleep!’
“She stretched herself out tranquilly by my side, lying on her stomach, with her forehead resting on her folded arms, and I felt almost immediately that fleeting, untutored thoughts were lulled in repose, while I began to ponder, as I lay by her side, and tried to understand it all. Why had Mohammed given her to me? Had he acted the part of a magnanimous servant, who sacrifices himself for his master, even to the extent of giving up the woman whom he had brought into his own tent, to him? Or had he, on the other hand, obeyed a more complex and more practical, though less generous impulse, in handing over this girl who had taken my fancy, to my embrace? An Arab, when it is a question of women, is rigorously modest and unspeakably complaisant, and one can no more understand his rigorous and easy morality, than one can all the rest of his sentiments. Perhaps, when I accidentally went to his tent, I had merely forestalled the benevolent intentions of this thoughtful servant, who had intended this woman, who was his friend and accomplice, or perhaps even his mistress, for me.
“All these suppositions assailed me, and fatigued me so much, that, at last, in my turn, I fell into a profound sleep, from which I was roused by the creaking of my door, and Mohammed came in, to call me as usual. He opened the window, through which a flood of light streamed in, and fell onto Allouma who was still asleep; then he picked up my trousers, coat and waistcoat from the floor in order to brush them. He did not look at the woman who was lying by my side, did not seem to know or remark that she was there, and preserved his ordinary gravity, demeanor and looks. But the light, the movement, the slight noise which his bare feet made, the feeling of the fresh air on her skin and in her lungs, roused Allouma from her lethargy. She stretched out her arms, turned over, opened her eyes, and looked at me and then Mohammed with the same indifference; then she sat up in bed and said: ‘I am hungry.’
“‘What would you like?’
“‘Coffee and bread and butter.’
“Mohammed remained standing close to our bed, with my clothes under his arm, waiting for my orders.
“‘Bring breakfast for Allouma and me,’ I said to him.
“He went out, without his face betraying the slightest astonishment or anger, and as soon as he had left the room, I said to the girl:
“‘Will you live in my house?’
“‘I should like to, very much.’
“‘I will give you a room to yourself, and a woman to wait on you.’
“‘You are very generous, and I am grateful to you.’
“‘But if you behave badly, I shall send you away immediately.’
“‘I will do everything that you wish me to.’
“She took my hand, and kissed it as a token of submission, and just then Mohammed came in, carrying a tray with our breakfast on it, and I said to him:—
“‘Allouma is going to live here. You must spread a carpet on the floor of the room at the end of the passage, and get Abd–El-Kader–El-Hadara’s wife to come and wait on her.’
“That was all.
“An hour later, my beautiful Arab was installed in a large, airy, light room, and when I went in to see that everything was in order, she asked me in a supplicating voice, to give her a wardrobe with a looking-glass in the doors. I promised her one, and then I left her squatting on the carpet from Djebel–Amour, with a cigarette in her mouth, and gossiping with the old Arab woman I had sent for, as if they had known each other for years.”
“For a month I was very happy with her, and I got strangely attached to this creature belonging to another race, who seemed to me almost to belong to some other species, and to have been born on a neighboring planet.
“I did not love her; no, one does not love the women of that primitive continent. This small, pale blue flower of Northern countries never unfolds between them and us, or even between them and their natural males, the Arabs. They are too near to human animalism, their hearts are too rudimentary, their feelings are not refined enough to rouse that sentimental exaltation in us, which is the poetry of love. Nothing intellectual, no intoxication of thought or feeling is mingled with that sensual intoxication which those charming nonentities excite in us. Nevertheless, they captivate us like the others do, but in a different fashion, which is less tenacious, and, at the same time, less cruel and painful.
“I cannot even now explain precisely what I felt for her. I said to you just now that this country, this bare Africa, without any arts, void of all intellectual pleasures, gradually captivates us by its climate, by the continual mildness of the dawn and sunset, by its delightful light, and by the feeling of well-being with which it fills all our organs. Well, then! Allouma captivated me in the same manner, by a thousand hidden, physical, alluring charms, and by the procreative seductiveness, not of her embraces, for she was of thoroughly oriental supineness in that respect, but of her sweet self-surrender.
“I left her absolutely free to come and go as she liked, and she certainly spent one afternoon out of two with the wives of my native agricultural laborers. Often also, she would remain for nearly a whole day admiring herself in front of a mahogany wardrobe with a large looking-glass in the doors that I had got from Miliana.
“She admired herself conscientiously, standing before the glass doors, in which she followed her own movements with profound and serious attention. She walked with her head somewhat thrown back, in order to be able to see whether her hips and loins swayed properly; went away, came back again, and then, tired with her own movements, she sat down on a cushion and remained opposite to her own reflection, with her eyes fixed on her face in the glass, and her whole soul absorbed in that picture.
“Soon, I began to notice that she went out nearly every morning after breakfast, and that she disappeared altogether until evening, and as I felt rather anxious about this, I asked Mohammed whether he knew what she could be doing during all these long hours of absence, but he replied very calmly:
“‘Do not be uneasy. It will be the Feast of Ramadan soon, and so she goes to say her prayers.’
“He also seemed delighted at having Allouma in the house, but I never once saw anything suspicious between them, and so I accepted the situation as it was, and let time, accident, and life act for themselves.
“Often, after I had inspected my farm, my vineyards, and my clearings, I used to take long walks. You know the magnificent forests in this part of Algeria, those almost impenetrable ravines, where fallen pine trees hem the mountain torrents, and those little valleys filled with oleanders, which look like oriental carpets stretching along the banks of the streams. You know that at every moment, in these woods and on these hills, where one would think that nobody had ever penetrated, one suddenly sees the white dome of a shrine that contains the bones of a humble, solitary marabout, which was scarcely visited from time to time, even by the most confirmed believers, who had come from the neighboring villages with a wax candle in their pocket, to set up before the tomb of the saint.
“Now one evening as I was going home, I was passing one of these Mohammedan chapels, and, looking in through the door, which was always open, I saw a woman praying before the altar. That Arab woman, sitting on the ground in that dilapidated building, into which the wind entered as it pleased, and heaped up the fine, dry pine needles in yellow heaps in the corners. I went near to see better, and recognized Allouma. She neither saw nor heard me, so absorbed was she with the saint, to whom she was speaking in a low voice, as she thought that she was alone with him, and telling this servant of God all her troubles. Sometimes she stopped for a short time to think, to try and recollect what more she had to say, so that she might not forget anything that she wished to confide to him; then, again, she would grow animated, as if he had replied to her, as if he had advised her to do something that she did not want to do, and the reasons for which she was impugning, and I went away as I had come, without making any noise, and returned home to dinner.
“That evening, when I sent for her, I saw that she had a thoughtful look, which was not usual with her.
“‘Sit down there,’ I said, pointing to her place on the couch by my side. As soon as she had sat down, I stooped to kiss her, but she drew her head away quickly, and, in great astonishment, I said to her:
“‘Well, what is the matter?’
“‘It is the Ramadan,’ she said.
“I began to laugh, and said: ‘And the Marabout has forbidden you to allow yourself to be kissed during the Ramadan?’
“Oh, yes; I am an Arab woman, and you are a Roumi!’
“‘And it would be a great sin?’
“‘So you ate nothing all day, until sunset?’
“‘But you had something to eat after sundown?’
“‘Well, then, as it is quite dark now, you ought not to be more strict about the rest than you are about your mouth.’
“She seemed irritated, wounded, and offended, and replied with an amount of pride that I had never noticed in her before:—
“‘If an Arab girl were to allow herself to be touched by a Roumi during the Ramadan, she would be cursed for ever.’
“‘And that is to continue for a whole month?’
“‘Yes, for the whole of the month of Ramadan,’ she replied, with great determination.
“I assumed an irritated manner and said:— ‘Very well, then, you can go and spend the Ramadan with your family.’
“She seized my hands, and, laying them on my heart, she said:—
“‘Oh! Please do not be unkind, and you shall see how nice I will be. We will keep Ramadan together, if you like. I will look after you, and spoil you, but don’t be unkind.’
“I could not help smiling at her funny manner and her unhappiness, and I sent her to go to sleep at home, but, an hour later, just as I was thinking about going to bed, there came two little taps at my door, which were so slight, however, that I scarcely heard them; but when I said:— ‘Come in,’ Allouma appeared carrying a large tray covered with Arab dainties; fried balls of rice, covered with sugar, and a variety of other strange, Nomad pastry.
“She laughed, showing her white teeth, and repeated:— ‘Come, we will keep Ramadan together.’
“You know that the fast, which begins at dawn and ends at twilight, at the moment when the eye can no longer distinguish a black from a white thread, is followed every evening by small, friendly entertainments, at which eating is kept up until the morning, and the result is that for such of the natives as are not very scrupulous, Ramadan consists of turning day into night, and night into day. But Allouma carried her delicacy of conscience further than this. She placed her tray between us on the divan, and taking a small, sugared ball between her long, slender fingers, she put it into my mouth, and whispered:— ‘Eat it, it is very good.’
“I munched the light cake, which was really excellent, and asked her:— ‘Did you make that?’
“‘Yes, for you.’
“‘To enable me to support Ramadan?’
“‘Oh! Don’t be so unkind! I will bring you some every day.’
“Oh! the terrible month that I spent! A sugared, insipidly sweet month; a month that nearly drove me mad; a month of spoiling and of temptation, of anger and of vain efforts against an invincible resistance, but at last the three days of Beiram came, which I celebrated in my own fashion, and Ramadan was forgotten.
“The summer went on, and it was very hot, and in the first days of autumn, Allouma appeared to me to be preoccupied and absent-minded, and, seemingly, taking no interest in anything, and, at last, when I sent for her one evening, she was not to be found in her room. I thought that she was roaming about the house, and I gave orders to look for her. She had not come in, however, and so I opened my window, and called out:—
“‘Mohammed,’ and the voice of the man, who was lying in his tent, replied:—
“‘Do you know where Allouma is?’
“‘No, mo’ssieuia . . . it is not possible . . . is Allouma lost?’
“A few moments later, my Arab came into my room, so agitated that he could not master his feelings, and I said:
“‘Is Allouma lost?’
“‘Yes, she is lost.’
“‘It is impossible.’
“‘Go and look for her,’ I said.
“He remained standing where he was, thinking, seeking for her motives, and unable to understand anything about it. Then he went into the empty room, where Allouma’s clothes were lying about, in oriental disorder. He examined everything, as if he had been a police officer, or, rather, he smelt like a dog, and then, incapable of a lengthened effort, he murmured, resignedly:—
“‘She has gone, she has gone!’
“I was afraid that some accident had happened to her; that she had fallen into some ravine and sprained herself, and I immediately sent all the men about the place off with orders to look for her until they should find her, and they hunted for her all that night, all the next day, and all the week long, but nothing was discovered that could put us upon her track. I suffered, for I missed her very much; my house seemed empty, and my existence a void. And then, disgusting thoughts entered my mind. I feared that she might have been carried off, or even murdered, but when I spoke about it to Mohammed, and tried to make him share my fears, he invariably replied:
“‘No; gone away.’
“Then he added the Arab word r’ezale, which means gazelle, as if he meant to say that she could run quickly, and that she was far away.
“Three weeks passed, and I had given up all hopes of seeing my Arab mistress again, when one morning Mohammed came into my room, with every sign of joy in his face, and said to me:
“‘Mo’ssieuia, Allouma has come back.’
“I jumped out of bed and said:
“‘Where is she?’
“‘She does not dare to come in! There she is, under the tree.’
“And stretching out his arm, he pointed out to me, through the window, a whitish spot at the foot of an olive tree.
“I got up immediately, and went out to where she was. As I approached what looked like a mere bundle of linen thrown against the gnarled trunk of the tree, I recognized the large, dark eyes, the tattooed stars, and the long, regular features of that semi-wild girl who had so captivated my senses. As I advanced towards her, I felt inclined to strike her, to make her suffer pain, and to have my revenge, and so I called out to her from a little distance:
“‘Where have you been?’
“She did not reply, but remained motionless and inert, as if she were scarcely alive, resigned to my violence, and ready to receive my blows. I was standing up, close to her, looking in stupefaction at the rags with which she was covered, at those bits of silk and muslin, covered with dust, torn and dirty, and I repeated, raising my hand, as if she had been a dog:
“‘Where have you come from?’
“‘From yonder,’ she said, in a whisper.
“‘Where is that?’
“‘From the tribe.’
“‘Why did you go away?’
“When she saw that I was not going to beat her, she grew rather bolder, and said in a low voice: “‘I was obliged to do it. . . . I was forced to go, I could not stop in the house any longer.’
“I saw tears in her eyes, and immediately felt softened. I leaned over her, and when I turned round to sit down, I noticed Mohammed, who was watching us at a distance, and I went on, very gently:
“‘Come, tell me why you ran away?’
“Then she told me, that for a long time in her Nomad’s heart she had felt the irresistible desire to return to the tents, to lie, to run, to roll on the sand; to wander about the plains with the flocks, to feel nothing over her head, between the yellow stars in the sky and the blue stars in her face, except the thin, threadbare, patched stuff, through which she could see spots of fire in the sky, when she awoke during the night.
“She made me understand all that in such simple and powerful words, that I felt quite sure that she was not lying, and pitied her, and I asked her:
“‘Why did you not tell me that you wished to go away for a time?’
“‘Because you would not have allowed me . . . ’
“‘If you had promised to come back, I should have consented.’
“‘You would not have believed me.’
“Seeing that I was not angry, she began to laugh, and said:
“‘You see that is all over; I have come home again, and here I am. I only wanted a few days there. I have had enough of it now, it is finished and passed; the feeling is cured. I have come back, and have not that longing any more. I am very glad, and you are very kind.’
“‘Come into the house,’ I said to her.
“She got up, and I took her hand, her delicate hand, with its slender fingers, and triumphant in her rags, with her bracelets and her necklace ringing, she went gravely towards my house, where Mohammed was waiting for us, but before going in, I said:
“‘Allouma, whenever you want to return to your own people, tell me, and I will allow you to go.’
“‘Yes, I promise.’
“‘And I will make you a promise also. When I feel ill or unhappy’ — and here she put her hand to her forehead, with a magnificent gesture — ‘I shall say to you: “I must go yonder,” and you will let me go.’
“I went with her to her room, followed by Mohammed, who was carrying some water, for there had been no time to tell the wife of Abd-el-Kader-el-Hadam that her mistress had returned. As soon as she got into the room, and saw the wardrobe with the looking-glass in the door, she ran up to it, like a child does when it sees its mother. She looked at herself for a few seconds, made a grimace, and then in a rather cross voice, she said to the looking-glass:
“‘Just you wait a moment; I have some silk dresses in the wardrobe. I shall be beautiful in a few minutes.’
“And I left her alone, to act the coquette to herself.
“Our life began its usual course again, as formerly, and I felt more and more under the influence of the strange, merely physical attractions of that girl, for whom, at the same time, I felt a kind of paternal contempt. For two months all went well, and then I felt that she was again becoming nervous, agitated, and rather low-spirited, and one day I said to her:—
“‘Do you want to return home again?’
“‘And you did not dare to tell me?’
“‘I did not venture to.’
“‘Go, if you wish to; I give you leave.’
“She seized my hands and kissed them, as she did in all her outbursts of gratitude, and the same morning she disappeared.
“She came back, as she had done the first time, at the end of about three weeks, in rags, covered with dust, and satiated with her Nomad life of sand and liberty. In two years she returned to her own people four times in this fashion.
“I took her back, gladly, without any feelings of jealousy, for with me jealousy can only spring from love as we Europeans understand it. I might very likely have killed her if I had surprised her in the act of deceiving me, but I should have done it, just as one half kills a disobedient dog, from sheer violence. I should not have felt those torments, that consuming fire — Northern jealousy. I have just said that I should have killed her like a disobedient dog, and, as a matter of fact, I loved her somewhat in the same manner as one loves some very highly bred horse or dog, which it is impossible to replace. She was a splendid animal, a sensual animal, an animal made for pleasure, and which possessed the body of a woman.
“I cannot tell you what an immeasurable distance separated our two souls, although our hearts perhaps occasionally warmed towards each other. She was something belonging to my house, she was part of my life, she had become a very agreeable, daily, regular requirement with me, to which I clung, and which the sensual man in me loved, that in me which was only eyes and sensuality.
“Well, one morning, Mohammed came into my room with a strange look on his face, that uneasy look of the Arabs, which resembles the furtive look of a cat, face to face with a dog, and when I noticed his expression, I said:
“‘What is the matter, now?’
“‘Allouma has gone away.’
“I began to laugh, and said:— ‘Where has she gone to?’
“‘Gone away altogether, mo’ssieuia!’
“‘What do you mean by gone away altogether; you are mad, my man.’
“‘Why has she gone away? Just explain yourself; come!’
“He remained motionless, and evidently did not wish to speak, and then he had one of those explosions of Arab rage, which make us stop in streets in front of two demoniacs, whose oriental silence and gravity suddenly give place to the most violent gesticulations, and the most ferocious vociferations, and I gathered, amidst his shouts, that Allouma had run away with my shepherd, and when I had partially succeeded in calming him, I managed to extract the facts from him one by one.
“It was a long story, but at last I gathered that he had been watching my mistress, who used to meet a sort of vagabond whom my steward had hired the month before, behind the neighboring cactus woods, or in the ravine where the oleanders flourished. The night before, Mohammed had seen her go out without seeing her return, and he repeated, in an exasperated manner:— ‘Gone, mo’ssieuia; she has gone away!’
“I do not know why, but his conviction, the conviction that she had run away with this vagabond, laid hold of me irresistibly in a moment. It was absurd, unlikely, and yet certain in virtue of that very unreasonableness, which constitutes female logic.
“Boiling over with indignation, I tried to recall the man’s features, and I suddenly remembered having seen him the previous week, standing on a mound amidst his flock, and watching me. He was a tall Bedouin, the color of whose bare limbs was blended with that of his rags; he was a type of a barbarous brute, with high cheek bones, and a hooked nose, a retreating chin, thin legs, and a tall carcass in rags, with the shifty eyes of a jackal.
“I did not doubt for a moment that she had run away with that beggar. Why? Because she was Allouma, a daughter of the desert. A girl from the pavement in Paris would have run away with my coachman, or some thief in the suburbs.
“‘Very well,’ I said to Mohammed. Then I got up, opened my window, and began to draw in the stifling South wind, for the sirocco was blowing, and I thought to myself:—
“Good heavens! she is . . . a woman, like so many others. Does anybody know what makes them act, what makes them love, what makes them follow, or throw over a man? One certainly does know, occasionally; but often one does not, and sometimes one is in doubt. Why did she run away with that repulsive brute? Why? Perhaps, because the wind had been blowing regularly from the South, for a month; that was enough; a breath of wind! Does she know, do they know, even the cleverest of them, why they act? No more than a weather-cock that turns with the wind. An imperceptible breeze, makes the iron, brass, zinc, or wooden arrow revolve, just in the same manner as some imperceptible influence, some undiscernible impression moves the female heart, and urges it on to resolutions, and it does not matter whether they belong to town or country, the suburbs or the desert.
“They can then feel, provided that they reason and understand, why they have done one thing rather than another, but, for the moment, they do not know, for they are the playthings of their own sensibility, the thoughtless, giddy-headed slaves of events, of their surroundings, of chance meetings, and of all the sensations with which their soul and their body trembles!”
Monsieur Auballe had risen, and, after walking up and down the room once or twice, he looked at me, and said, with a smile:—
“That is love in the desert!”
“Suppose she were to come back?” I asked him.
“Horrid girl!” he replied.
“But I should be very glad if she did return to me.”
“And you would pardon the shepherd?”
“Good heavens, yes! With women, one must always pardon . . . or else pretend not to see things.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53