The Marriage in Kairwan


Wilbur Daniel Steele received an O. Henry Memorial Award Prize for this story which was published in Harpers in 1921.

Kairwan the Holy lay asleep, pent in its thick walls. The moon had sunk at midnight, but the chill light seemed scarcely to have diminished; only the limewashed city had become a marble city, and all the towers turned fabulous in the fierce, dry, needle rain of the stars that burn over the desert of mid-Tunisia.

In the street Bab Djedid the nailed boots of the watch passed from west to east. When their thin racket had turned out and died in the dust of the market, Habib ben Habib emerged from the shadow of a door arch and, putting a foot on the tiled ledge of Bou-Kedj's fry shop, swung up by cranny and gutter till he stood on the plain of the housetops.

Now he looked about him, for on this dim tableland he walked with his life in his hands. He looked to the west, toward the gate, to the south, to the northeast through the ghostly wood of minarets. Then, perceiving nothing that stirred, he went on moving without sound in the camel-skin slippers he had taken from his father's court.

In the uncertain light, but for those slippers and the long-tasselled chechia on his head, one would not have taken him for anything but a European and a stranger. And one would have been right, almost. In the city of his birth and rearing, and of the birth and rearing of his Arab fathers generations dead, Habib ben Habib bel-Kalfate looked upon himself in the rebellious, romantic light of a prisoner in exile—exile from the streets of Paris where, in his four years, he had tasted the strange delights of the Christian—exile from the university where he had dabbled with his keen, light-ballasted mind in the learning of the conqueror.

Sometimes, in the month since he had come home, he had shaken himself and wondered aloud, "Where am I?" with the least little hint, perhaps, of melodrama. Sometimes in the French café outside the walls, among the officers of the garrison, a bantering perversity drove him on to chant the old glories of Islam, the poets of Andalusia, and the bombastic histories of the saints; and in the midst of it, his face pink with the Frenchmen's wine and his own bitter, half-frightened mockery, he would break off suddenly, "Voilà, Messieurs! you will see that I am the best of Mussulmans!" He would laugh then in a key so high and restless that the commandant, shaking his head, would murmur to the lieutenant beside him, "One day, Genet, we must be on the alert for a dagger in that quarter there, eh?"

And Genet, who knew almost as much of the character of the university Arab as the commandant himself, would nod his head. When Habib had laughed for a moment he would grow silent. Presently he would go out into the ugly dark of the foreign quarter, followed very often by Raoul Genet. He had known Raoul most casually in Paris. Here in the Tunisian bled, when Raoul held out his hand to say good-night under the gate lamp at the Bab Djelladin, the troubled fellow clung to it. The smell of the African city, coming under the great brick arch, reached out and closed around him like a hand—a hand bigger than Raoul's.

"You are my brother: not they. I am not of these people, Raoul!"

But then he would go in, under the black arch and the black shade of the false-pepper trees. In the darkness he felt the trees, centuries old, and all the blank houses watching him….

To-night, stealing across the sleeping roofs, he felt the star-lit mosque towers watching him in secret, the pale, silent espionage of them who could wait. The hush of the desert troubled him. Youth troubled him. His lips were dry.

He had come to an arbour covered with a vine. Whose it was, on what house-holder's roof it was reared, he had never known. He entered.

"She is not here." He moistened his lips with his tongue.

He sat down on the stone divan to wait, watching toward the west through the doorway across which hung a loop of vine, like a snake.

He saw her a long way off, approaching by swift darts and intervals of immobility, when her whiteness grew a part of the whiteness of the terrace. It was so he had seen her moving on that first night when, half tipsy with wine and strangeness, he had pursued, caught her, and uncovered her face.

To-night she uncovered it herself. She put back the hooded fold of her haik, showing him her face, her scarlet mouth, her wide eyes, long at the outer corners, her hair aflame with henna.

The hush of a thousand empty miles lay over the city. For an hour nothing lived but the universe, the bright dust in the sky….

That hush was disrupted. The single long crash of a human throat! Rolling down over the plain of the housetops! "La illah il Allah, Mohammed rassoul'lah! Allah Akbar! God is great!"

One by one the dim towers took it up. The call to prayer rolled between the stars and the town. It searched the white runways. It penetrated the vine-bowered arbour. Little by little, tower by tower, it died. In a fondouk outside the gate a waking camel lifted a gargling wail. A jackal dog barked in the Oued Zaroud two miles away. And again the silence of the desert came up over the city walls.

Under the vine Habib whispered: "No, I don't care anything about thy name. A name is such a little thing. I'll call thee 'Nedjma,' because we are under the stars."

"Ai, Nedjmetek — 'Thy Star'!" The girl's lips moved drowsily. In the dark her eyes shone with a dull, steady lustre, unblinking, unquestioning, always unquestioning.

That slumberous acquiescence, taken from all her Arab mothers, began to touch his nerves with the old uneasiness. He took her shoulders between his hands and shook her roughly, crying in a whisper:

"Why dost thou do nothing but repeat my words? Talk! Say things to me!
Thou art like the rest; thou wouldst try to make me seem like these
Arab men, who wish for nothing in a woman but the shadow of
themselves. And I am not like that!"
"No, Sidi, no."

"But talk! Tell me things about thyself, thy life, thy world. Talk! In
Paris, now, a man and a woman can talk together—yes—as if they were
two friends met in a coffeehouse. And those women can talk! Ah! in
Paris I have known women—"
The girl stirred now. Her eyes narrowed; the dark line of her lips thinned. At last something comprehensible had touched her mind.

"Thou hast known many women, then, Sidi! Thou hast come here but to tell me that? Me, who am of little beauty in a man's eyes!"

Habib laughed under his breath. He shook her again. He kissed her and kissed her again on her red lips.

"Thou art jealous, then! But thou canst not comprehend. Canst thou comprehend this, that thou art more beautiful by many times than any other woman I have ever seen? Thou art a heaven of loveliness, and I cannot live without thee. That is true … Nedjma. I am going to take thee for my wife, because I cannot live without thine eyes, thy lips, the fragrance of thy hair…. Yes, I am going to marry thee, my star. It is written! It is written!"

For the first time he could not see her eyes. She had turned them away. Once again something had come in contact with the smooth, heavy substance of her mind. He pulled at her.

"Say! Say, Nedjmà!… It is written!"

"It is not written, Sidi." The same ungroping acquiescence was in her whisper. "I have been promised, Sidi, to another than thee."

Habib's arms let go; her weight sank away in the dark under the vine. The silence of the dead night crept in and lay between them. "And in the night of thy marriage, then, thy husband—or thy father, if thou hast a father—will kill thee."

"In-cha-'llah. If it be the will of God."

Again the silence came and lay heavy between them. A minute and another minute went away. Habib's wrists were shaking. His breast began to heave. With a sudden roughness he took her back, to devour her lips and eyes and hair with the violence of his kisses.

"No, no! I'll not have it! No! Thou art too beautiful for any other man than I even to look upon! No, no, no!"

* * * * *

Habib ben Habib walked out of the gate Djelladin. The day had come; the dawn made a crimson flame in the false-pepper trees. The life of the gate was already at full tide of sound and colour, braying, gargling, quarrelling—nomads wading in their flocks, Djlass countrymen, Singalese soldiers, Jewish pack-peddlers, Bedouin women bent double under their stacks of desert fire-grass streaming inward, dust white, dust yellow, and all red in the dawn under the red wall.

The flood ran against him. It tried to suck him back into the maw of the city. He fought against it with his shoulders and his knees. He tried now to run. It sucked him back. A wandering Aissaoua plucked at his sleeve and held under his nose a desert viper that gave off metallic rose glints in its slow, pained constrictions.

"To the glory of Sidna Aissa, master, two sous."

He kept tugging at Habib's sleeve, holding him back, sucking him back with his twisting reptile into the city of the faithful.

"In the name of Jesus, master, two copper sous!"

Habib's nerves snapped. He struck off the holy mendicant with his fist. "That the devil grill thee!" he chattered. He ran. He bumped into beasts. He bumped into a blue tunic. He halted, blinked, and passed a hand over his hot-lidded eyes. He stammered:

"My friend! I have been looking for you! Hamdou lillah! El hamdou'llah!"

Raoul Genet, studying the flushed, bright-eyed, unsteady youth, put up a hand to cover a little smile, half ironic, half pitying.

"So, Habib ben Habib, you revert! Camel-driver's talk in your mouth and camel's-hide slippers on your feet. Already you revert! Eh?"

"No, that is not the truth. But I am in need of a friend."

"You look like a ghost, Habib." The faint smile still twisted Raoul's lips. "Or a drunken angel. You have not slept."

"That's of no importance. I tell you I am in need—"

"You've not had coffee, Habib. When you've had coffee—"

"Coffee! My God! Raoul, that you go on talking of coffee when life and death are in the balance! For I can't live without—Listen, now! Strictly! I have need to-night—to-morrow night—one night when it is dark—I have need of the garrison car."

The other made a blowing sound. "I'm the commandant, am I, overnight? Zut! The garrison car!" Habib took hold of his arm and held it tight. "If not the car, two horses, then. And I call you my friend."

"Two horses! Ah! So! I begin to perceive. Youth! Youth!"

"Don't jibe, Raoul! I have need of two horses—two horses that are fast and strong."

"Are the horses in thy father's stable, then, of no swiftness and of no strength?"

It was said in the patois, the bastard Arabic of the Tunisian bled. A shadow had fallen across them; the voice came from above. From the height of his crimson saddle Si Habib bel-Kalfate awaited the answer of his son. His brown, unlined, black-bearded face, shadowed in the hood of his creamy burnoose, remained serene, benign, urbanely attendant. But if an Arab knows when to wait, he knows also when not to wait. And now it was as if nothing had been said before.

"Greeting, my son. I have been seeking thee. Thy couch was not slept upon last night."

Habib's face was sullen to stupidity. "Last night, sire, I slept at the caserne, at the invitation of my friend, Lieutenant Genet, whom you see beside me."

The Arab, turning in his saddle, appeared to notice the Christian for the first time. His lids drooped; his head inclined an inch.

"Greeting to thee, oh, master!"

"To thee, greeting!"

"Thou art in well-being?"

"There is no ill. And thou?"

"There is no ill. That the praise be to God, and the prayer!"

Bel-Kalfate cleared his throat and lifted the reins from the neck of his mare.

"Rest in well-being!" he pronounced.

Raoul shrugged his shoulders a little and murmured: "May God multiply thy days!… And yours, too," he added to Habib in French. He bowed and took his leave.

Bel-Kalfate watched him away through the thinning crowd, sitting his saddle stolidly, in an attitude of rumination. When the blue cap had vanished behind the blazing corner of the wool dyers, he threw the reins to his Sudanese stirrup boy and got down to the ground. He took his son's hand. So, palm in palm, at a grave pace, they walked back under the arch into the city. The market-going stream was nearly done. The tide, against which at its flood Habib had fought and won ground, carried him down again with its last shallow wash—so easily!

His nerves had gone slack. He walked in a heavy white dream. The city drew him deeper into its murmurous heart. The walls pressed closer and hid him away. The souks swallowed him under their shadowy arcades. The breath of the bazaar, fetor of offal, stench of raw leather, and all the creeping perfumes of Barbary, attar of roses, chypre and amber and musk, clogged his senses like the drug of some abominable seduction. He was weary, weary, weary. And in a strange, troubling way he was at rest.

"Mektoub! It is written! It is written in the book of the destiny of man!"

With a kind of hypnotic fascination, out of the corners of his eyes, he took stock of the face beside him, the face of the strange being that was his father—the broad, moist, unmarked brow; the large eyes, heavy-lidded, serene; the full-fleshed cheeks from which the beard sprang soft and rank, and against which a hyacinth, pendent over the ear, showed with a startling purity of pallor; and the mobile, deep-coloured, humid lips—the lips of the voluptuary, the eyes of the dreamer, the brow of the man of never-troubled faith.

"Am I like that?" And then, "What can that one be to me?"

As if in answer, bel-Kalfate's gaze came to his son.

"I love thee," he said, and he kissed Habib's temple with his lips. "Thou art my son," he went on, "and my eyes were thirsty to drink of the sight of thee. It is el jammaa." [Friday, the Mohammedan Sabbath.] "It is time we should go to the prayer. We shall go with Hadji Daoud to-day, for afterward, there at the mosque, I have rendezvous with his friends, in the matter of the dowry. It is the day, thou rememberest, that he appointed."

Habib wanted to stop. He wanted to think. He wanted time. But the serene, warm pressure of his father's hand carried him on.

Stammering words fell from his mouth.

"My mother—I remember—my mother, it is true, said something—but I did not altogether comprehend—and—Oh! my sire ——"

"Thou shalt be content. Thou art a man now. The days of thy learning are accomplished. Thou hast suffered exile; now is thy reward prepared. And the daughter of the notary, thy betrothed, is as lovely as a palm tree in the morning and as mild as sweet milk, beauteous as a pearl, Habib, a milk-white pearl. See!"

Drawing from his burnoose a sack of Moroccan lambskin, he opened it and lifted out a pearl. His fingers, even at rest, seemed to caress it. They slid back among the treasure in the sack, the bargaining price for the first wife of the only son of a man blessed by God. And now they brought forth also a red stone, cut in the fashion of Tunis.

"A milk-white sea pearl, look thou; to wed in a jewel with the blood-red ruby that is the son of my breast. Ah, Habib, my Habib, but thou shalt be content!"

They stood in the sunlight before the green door of a mosque. As the hand of the city had reached out for Habib through the city gate, so now the prayer, throbbing like a tide across the pillared mystery of the court, reached out through the doorway in the blaze…. And he heard his own voice, strange in his mouth, shallow as a bleat:

"Why, then, sire—why, oh! why, then, hast thou allowed me to make of those others the friends of my spirit, the companions of my mind?"

"They are neither companions nor friends of thine, for God is God!"

"And why hast thou sent me to learn the teaching of the French?"

"When thou settest thy horse against an enemy it is well to have two lances to thy hand—thine own and his. And it is written, Habib, son of Habib, that thou shalt be content…. Put off thy shoes now and come. It is time we were at prayer."

Summer died. Autumn grew. With the approach of winter an obscure nervousness spread over the land. In the dust of its eight months' drought, from one day to another, from one glass-dry night to another, the desert waited for the coming of the rains. The earth cracked. A cloud sailing lone and high from the coast of Sousse passed under the moon and everywhere men stirred in their sleep, woke, looked out—from their tents on the cactus steppes, from fondouks on the camel tracks of the west, from marble courts of Kairwan…. The cloud passed on and vanished in the sky. On the plain the earth cracks crept and ramified. Gaunt beasts tugged at their heel ropes and would not be still. The jackals came closer to the tents. The city slept again, but in its sleep it seemed to mutter and twitch….

In the serpent-spotted light under the vine on the housetop Habib muttered, too, and twitched a little. It was as if the arid months had got in under his skin and peeled off the coverings of his nerves. The girl's eyes widened with a gradual, phlegmatic wonder of pain under the pinch of his blue fingers on her arms. His face was the colour of the moon.

"Am I a child of three years, that my father should lead me here or lead me there by the hand? Am I that?"

"Nay, Sidi, nay."

"Am I a sheep between two wells, that the herder's stick should tell me, 'Here, and not there, thou shalt drink'? Am I a sheep?"

"Thou art neither child nor sheep, Sidi, but a lion!"

"Yes, a lion!" A sudden thin exaltation shook him like a fever chill. "I am more than a lion, Nedjma, I am a man—just as the Roumi" [Romans—i.e., Christians.] "are men—men who decide—men who undertake—agitate—accomplish … and now, for the last time, I have decided. A fate has given thy loveliness to me, and no man shall take it away from me to enjoy. I will take it away from them instead! From all the men of this Africa, conquered by the French. Hark! I will come and take thee away in the night, to the land beyond the sea, where thou mayest be always near me, and neither God nor man say yes or no!"

"And there, Sidi, beyond the sea, I may talk unveiled with other men? As thou hast told me, in France ——"

"Yes, yes, as I have told thee, there thou mayest—thou ——"

He broke off, lost in thought, staring down at the dim oval of her face. Again he twitched a little. Again his fingers tightened on her arms. He twisted her around with a kind of violence of confrontation.

"But wouldst thou rather talk with other men than with me? Dost thou no longer love me, then?"

"Ai, master, I love thee. I wish to see no other man than thee."

"Ah, my star, I know!" He drew her close and covered her face with his kisses.

And in her ear he whispered: "And when I come for thee in the night, thou wilt go with me? Say!"

"I will go, Sidi. In-cha-'llah! If God will!"

At that he shook her again, even more roughly than before.

"Don't say that! Not, 'If God will!' Say to me, 'If thou wilt.'"

"Ai—Ai ——"

There was a silence.

"But let it be quickly," he heard her whispering, after a while. Under his hand he felt a slow shiver moving over her arms. "Nekaf!" she breathed, so low that he could hardly hear. "I am afraid."

It was another night when the air was electric and men stirred in their sleep. Lieutenant Genet turned over in bed and stared at the moonlight streaming in through the window from the court of the caserne. In the moonlight stood Habib.

"What do you want?" Genet demanded, gruff with sleep.

"I came to you because you are my friend."

The other rubbed his eyes and peered through the window to mark the Sudanese sentry standing awake beside his box at the gate. "How did you get in?"

"I got in as I shall get out, not only from here, but from Kairwan, from Africa—because I am a man of decision."

"You are also, Habib, a skeleton. The moon shows through you. What have you been doing these weeks, these months, that you should be so shivery and so thin? Is it Old Africa gnawing at your bones? Or are you, perhaps, in love?"

"I am in love. Yes…. Ai, ai, Raoul habiby, if but thou couldst see her—the lotus bloom opening at dawn—the palm tree in a land of streams ——"

"Talk French!" Genet got his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. He passed a hand through his hair. "You are in love, then … and again I tell, you, for perhaps the twentieth time, Habib, that between a man and a woman in Islam there is no such thing as love."

"But I am not in Islam. I am not in anything! And if you could but see her ——"


"What do you mean by 'lust'?"

"Lust is the thing you find where you don't find trust. Lust is a priceless perfume that a man has in a crystal vial, and he is the miser of its fragrance. He closes the windows when he takes the stopper out of that bottle to drink its breath, and he puts the stopper back quickly again, so that it will not evaporate—not too soon."

"But that, Raoul, is love! All men know that for love. The priceless perfume in a crystal beyond price."

"Yes, love, too, is the perfume in the vial. But the man who has that vial opens the windows and throws the stopper away, and all the air is sweet forever. The perfume evaporates, forever. And this, Habib, is the miracle. The vial is never any emptier than when it began."

"Yes, yes—I know—perhaps—but to-night I have no time ——"

The moon did shine through him. He was but a rag blown in the dark wind. He had been torn to pieces too long.

"I have no time!" he repeated, with a feverish force. "Listen, Raoul, my dear friend. To-day the price was paid in the presence of the cadi, Ben Iskhar. Three days from now they lead me to marriage with the daughter of the notary. What, to me, is the daughter of the notary? They lead me like a sheep to kill at a tomb…. Raoul, for the sake of our friendship, give me hold of your hand. To-morrow night—the car! Or, if you say you haven't the disposal of the car, bring me horses." And again the shaking of his nerves got the better of him; again he tumbled back into the country tongue. "For the sake of God, bring me two horses! By Sidna Aissa! by the Three Hairs from the Head of the Prophet I swear it! My first-born shall be named for thee, Raoul. Only bring thou horses! Raoul! Raoul!"

It was the whine of the beggar of Barbary. Genet lay back, his hands behind his head, staring into shadows under the ceiling.

"Better the car. I'll manage it with some lies. To-morrow night at moonset I'll have the car outside the gate Djedid." After a moment he added, under his breath, "But I know your kind too well, Habib ben Habib, and I know that you will not be there."

Habib was not there. From moonset till half-past three, well over two hours, Genet waited, sitting on the stone in the shadow of the gate, prowling the little square inside. He smoked twenty cigarettes. He yawned three times twenty times. At last he went out got into the car and drove away.

As the throb of the engine grew faint a figure in European clothes and a long-tasselled chechia crept out from the dark of a door arch along the street. It advanced toward the gate. It started back at a sound. It rallied again, a figure bedeviled by vacillation. It came as far as the well in the centre of the little square.

On the horizon toward the coast of Sousse rested a low black wall of cloud. Lightning came out of it from time to time and ran up the sky, soundless, glimmering…. The cry of the morning muezzin rolled down over the town. The lightning showed the figure sprawled face down on the cool stone of the coping of the well….

The court of the house of bel-Kalfate swam in the glow of candles. A striped awning shut out the night sky, heavy with clouds, and the women, crowding for stolen peeps on the flat roof. A confusion of voices, raillery, laughter, eddied around the arcaded walls, and thin music bound it together with a monotonous count of notes.

Through the doorway from the marble entresol where he stood Habib could see his father, cross-legged on a dais, with the notary. They sat hand in hand like big children, conversing gravely. With them was the caid of Kairwan, the cadi, ben Iskhar, and a dark-skinned cousin from the oases of the Djerid in the south. Their garments shone; there was perfume in their beards. On a rostrum beyond and above the crowded heads the musicians swayed at their work—tabouka players with strong, nervous thumbs; an oily, gross lutist; an organist, watching everything with the lizard eyes of the hashish taker. Among them, behind a taborette piled with bait of food and drink, the Jewish dancing woman from Algiers lolled in her cushions, a drift of white disdain….

He saw it all through a kind of mist. It was as if time had halted, and he was still at the steaming hammam of the afternoon, his spirit and his flesh undone, and all about him in the perfumed vapour of the bath the white bodies of his boyhood comrades glimmering luminous and opalescent.

His flesh was still asleep, and so was his soul. The hand of his father city had come closer about him, and for a moment it seemed that he was too weary, or too lazy, to push it away. For a little while he drifted with the warm and perfumed cloud of the hours.

Hands turned him around. It was Houseen Abdelkader, the caid's son, the comrade of long ago—Houseen in silk of wine and silver, hyacinths pendent on his cheeks, a light of festival in his eyes.

"Es-selam alekoum, ya Habib habiby!" It was the salutation in the plural—to Habib, and to the angels that walk, one at either shoulder of every son of God. And as he spoke he threw a new white burnoose over Habib's head, so that it hung down straight and covered him like a bridal veil.

"Alekoum selam, ya Seenou!" It was the name of boyhood, Seenou, the diminutive, that fell from Habib's lips. And he could not call it back.

"Come thou now." He felt the gentle push of Houseen's hands. He found himself moving toward the door that stood open into the street. The light of an outer conflagration was in his eyes. The thin music of lute and tabouka in the court behind him grew thinner; the boom of drums and voices in the street grew big. He had crossed the threshold. A hundred candles, carried in horizontal banks on laths by little boys, came around him on three sides, like footlights. And beyond the glare, in the flaming mist, he saw the street Dar-el-Bey massed with men. All their faces were toward him, hot yellow spots in which the black spots of their mouths gaped and vanished.

"That the marriage of Habib be blessed! Blessed be the marriage of Habib!" The riot of sound began to take form. It began to emerge in a measure, a boom-boom-boom of tambours and big goatskin drums. A bamboo fife struck into a high, quavering note. The singing club of Sidibou-Sa d joined voice.

The footlights were moving forward toward the street of the market. Habib moved with them a few slow paces without effort or will. Again they had all stopped. It could not be more than two hundred yards to the house of the notary and his waiting bride, but by the ancient tradition of Kairwan an hour must be consumed on the way.

An hour! An eternity! Panic came over Habib. He turned his hooded eyes for some path of escape. To the right, Houseen! To the left, close at his shoulder, Mohammed Sherif—Mohammed the laughing and the well-beloved—Mohammed, with whom in the long, white days he used to chase lizards by the pool of the Aglabides … in the long, white, happy days, while beyond the veil of palms the swaying camel palanquins of women, like huge bright blooms, went northward up the Tunis road….

What made him think of that?

"Boom-boom-boom-boom!" And around the drums beyond the candles he heard them singing:

  On the day of the going away of my Love,
  When the litters, carrying the women of the tribe,
  Traversed the valley of Dad, like a sea, mirage,
  They were like ships, great ships, the work of the children of
  Or like the boats of Yamen's sons….
"Boom-boom!" The monotonous pulse, the slow minor slide of sixteenth tones, the stark rests—he felt the hypnotic pulse of the old music tampering with the pulse of his blood. It gave him a queer creeping fright. He shut his eyes, as if that would keep it out. And in the glow of his lids he saw the tents on the naked desert; he saw the forms of veiled women; he saw the horses of warriors coming like a breaker over the sand—the horses of the warriors of God!

He pulled the burnoose over his lids to make them dark. And even in the dark he could see. He saw two eyes gazing at his, untroubled, untroubling, out of the desert night. And they were the eyes of any woman—the eyes of his bride, of his sister, his mother, the eyes of his mothers a thousand years dead.

"Master!" they said.

They were pushing him forward by the elbows, Mohammed and Houseen. He opened his eyes. The crowd swam before him through the yellow glow. Something had made an odd breach in his soul, and through the breach came memories.

Memories! There at his left was the smoky shelf of blind Moulay's café—black-faced, white-eyed old Moulay. Moulay was dead now many years, but the men still sat in the same attitudes, holding the same cups, smoking the same chibouk with the same gulping of bubbles as in the happy days. And there between the café and the souk gate was the same whitewashed niche where three lads used to sit with their feet tucked under their little kashabias, their chechias awry on their shaven polls, and their lips pursed to spit after the leather legs of the infidel conquerors passing by. The Roumi, the French blasphemers, the defilers of the mosque! Spit on the dogs! Spit!

Behind his reverie the drums boomed, the voices chanted. The lament of drums and voices beat at the back of his brain—while he remembered the three lads sitting in the niche, waiting from one white day to another for the coming of Moulay Saa, the Messiah; watching for the Holy War to begin.

"And I shall ride in the front rank of the horsemen, please God!"

"And I, I shall ride at Moulay Saa's right hand, please God, and I shall cut the necks of Roumi with my sword, like barley straw!"

Habib advanced in the spotlight of the candles. Under the burnoose his face, half shadowed, looked green and white, as if he were sick to his death. Or, perhaps, as if he were being born again.

The minutes passed, and they were hours. The music went on, interminable.

"Boom-boom-boom-boom ——" But now Habib himself was the instrument, and now the old song of his race played its will on him.

Pinkness began to creep over the green-white cheeks. The cadence of the chanting had changed. It grew ardent, melting, voluptuous.

And conquests I have made among the fair ones, perfume inundated, Beauties ravishing; that sway in an air of musk and saffron, Bearing still on their white necks the traces of kisses….

It hung under the pepper trees, drunk with the beauty of flesh, fainting with passion. Above the trees mute lightning played in the cloud. Habib ben Habib was born again. Again, after exile, he came back into the heritage. He saw the heaven of the men of his race. He saw Paradise in a walking dream. He saw women forever young and forever lovely in a land of streams, women forever changing, forever virgin, forever new; strangers intimate and tender. The angels of a creed of love—or of lust!

"Lust is the thing you find where you don't find trust."

A thin echo of the Frenchman's diatribe flickered through his memory, and he smiled. He smiled because his eyes were open now. He seemed to see this Christian fellow sitting on his bed, bare-footed, rumple-haired, talking dogmatically of perfumes and vials and stoppers thrown away, talking of faith in women. And that was the jest. For he seemed to see the women, over there in Paris, that the brothers of that naive fellow trusted—trusted alone with a handsome young university student from Tunisia. Ha-ha-ha! Now he remembered. He wanted to laugh out loud at a race of men that could be as simple as that. He wanted to laugh at the bursting of the iridescent bubble of faith in the virtue of beautiful women. The Arab knew!

A colour of health was on his face; his step had grown confident. Of a sudden, and very quietly, all the mixed past was blotted out. He heard only the chanting voices and the beating drums.

Once I came into the tent of a young beauty on a day of rain…. Beauty blinding…. Charms that ravished and made drunkards of the eyes….

His blood ran with the song, pulse and pulse. The mute lightning came down through the trees and bathed his soul. And, shivering a little, he let his thoughts go for the first time to the strange and virgin creature that awaited his coming there, somewhere, behind some blind house wall, so near.

"Thou hast suffered exile. Now is thy reward prepared."

What a fool! What a fool he had been!

He wanted to run now. The lassitude of months was gone from his limbs. He wanted to fling aside that clogging crowd, run, leap, arrive. How long was this hour? Where was he? He tried to see the housetops to know, but the glow was in his eyes. He felt the hands of his comrades on his arms.

But now there was another sound in the air. His ears, strained to the alert, caught it above the drums and voices—a thin, high ululation. It came from behind high walls and hung among the leaves of the trees, a phantom yodeling, the welcoming "you-you-you-you" of the women of Islam.

Before him he saw that the crowd had vanished. Even the candles went away. There was a door, and the door was open.

He entered, and no one followed. He penetrated alone into an empty house of silence, and all around him the emptiness moved and the silence rustled.

He traversed a court and came into a chamber where there was a light. He saw a negress, a Sudanese duenna, crouching in a corner and staring at him with white eyes. He turned toward the other side of the room.

She sat on a high divan, like a throne, her hands palms together, her legs crossed. In the completeness of her immobility she might have been a doll or a corpse. After the strict fashion of brides, her eyebrows were painted in thick black arches, her lips drawn in scarlet, her cheeks splashed with rose. Her face was a mask, and jewels in a crust hid the flame of her hair. Under the stiff kohl of their lids her eyes turned neither to the left nor to the right. She seemed not to breathe. It is a dishonour for a maid to look or to breathe in the moment when her naked face suffers for the first time the gaze of the lord whom she has never seen.

A minute passed away.

"This is the thing that is mine!" A blinding exultation ran through his brain and flesh. "Better this than the 'trust' of fools and infidels! No question here of 'faith.' Here I know! I know that this thing that is mine has not been bandied about by the eyes of all the men in the world. I know that this perfume has never been breathed by the passers in the street. I know that it has been treasured from the beginning in a secret place—against this moment—for me. This bud has come to its opening in a hidden garden; no man has ever looked upon it; no man will ever look upon it. None but I."

He roused himself. He moved nearer, consumed with the craving and exquisite curiosity of the new. He stood before the dais and gazed into the unwavering eyes. As he gazed, as his sight forgot the grotesque doll painting of the face around those eyes, something queer began to come over him. A confusion. Something bothering. A kind of fright.

"Thou!" he breathed.

Her icy stillness endured. Not once did her dilated pupils waver from the straight line. Not once did her bosom lift with breath.

"Thou! It is thou, then, O runner on the housetops by night!"

The fright of his soul grew deeper, and suddenly it went out. And in its place there came a black calm. The eyes before him remained transfixed in the space beyond his shoulder. But by and by the painted lips stirred once.

"Nekaf!… I am afraid!"

Habib turned away and went out of the house.

In the house of bel-Kalfate the Jewess danced, still, even in voluptuous motion, a white drift of disdain. The music eddied under the rayed awning. Raillery and laughter were magnified. More than a little bokha, the forbidden liquor distilled of figs, had been consumed in secret. Eyes gleamed; lips hung…. Alone in the thronged court on the dais, the host and the notary, the caid, the cadi, and the cousin from the south continued to converse in measured tones, holding their coffee cups in their palms.

"It comes to me, on thought," pronounced bel-Kalfate, inclining his head toward the notary with an air of courtly deprecation—"it comes to me that thou hast been defrauded. For what is a trifle of ten thousand douros of silver as against the rarest jewel (I am certain, Sidi) that has ever crowned the sex which thou mayest perhaps forgive me for mentioning?"

And in the same tone, with the same gesture, Hadji Daoud replied: "Nay, master and friend, by the Beard of the Prophet, but I should repay thee the half. For that is a treasure for a sultan's daughter, and this fillette of mine (forgive me) is of no great beauty or worth ——"

"In saying that, Sidi Hadji, thou sayest a thing which is at odds with half the truth."

They were startled at the voice of Habib coming from behind their backs.

"For thy daughter, Sidi Hadji, thy Zina, is surely as lovely as the full moon sinking in the west in the hour before the dawn."

The words were fair. But bel-Kalfate was looking at his son's face.

"Where are thy comrades?" he asked, in a low voice. "How hast thou come?" Then, with a hint of haste: "The dance is admirable. It would be well that we should remain quiet, Habib, my son."

But the notary continued to face the young man. He set his cup down and clasped his hands about his knee. The knuckles were a little white.

"May I beg thee, Habib ben Habib, that thou shouldst speak the thing which is in thy mind?"

"There is only this, Sidi, a little thing: When thou hast another bird to vend in the market of hearts, it would perhaps be well to examine with care the cage in which thou hast kept that bird.

"Thy daughter," he added, after a moment of silence—"thy daughter, Sidi Hadji, is with child." That was all that was said. Hadji Daoud lifted his cup and drained it, sucking politely at the dregs. The cadi coughed. The cadi raised his eyes to the awning and appeared to listen. Then he observed, "To-night, in-cha-'llah, it will rain." The notary pulled his burnoose over his shoulders, groped down with his toes for his slippers, and got to his feet.

"Rest in well-being!" he said. Then, without haste, he went out.

Habib followed him tardily as far as the outer door. In the darkness of the empty street he saw the loom of the man's figure moving off toward his own house, still without any haste.

"And in the night of thy marriage thy husband, or thy father, if thou hast a father ——"

Habib did not finish with the memory. He turned and walked a few steps along the street. He could still hear the music and the clank of the Jewess's silver in his father's court….

"In-cha-'llah!" she had said, that night.

And after all, it had been the will of God….

A miracle had happened. All the dry pain had gone out of the air. Just now the months of waiting for the winter rains were done. All about him the big, cool drops were spattering on the invisible stones. The rain bathed his face. His soul was washed with the waters of the merciful God of Arab men.

For, after all, from the beginning, it had been written. All written!



facebook share button twitter share button reddit share button share on pinterest pinterest

Add The Marriage in Kairwan to your library.

Return to the Wilbur Daniel Steele library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Wickedness of Father Veiera

© 2022