« PreviousContinue »
and of an inoffensive disposition, he was always well received by the Arabs. When I expressed surprise that he had never been robbed, he would answer that the best way to avoid it was to carry nothing likely to tempt any one. A thousand horsemen cannot strip a naked man,' he would say.
At Blidah we shared a house together. One afternoon, about two o'clock, we were sitting smoking in our room, when our attention was attracted by the clinking of iron castanets and the dull sound of a tarbouka, or native drum, issuing from a neighbouring
A fête,' said Vertbois; shall we go and see it ?' 'I don't mind,' I answered.
Guided by the music, we soon found the house where the fête, as my companion styled it, was being given. A portion of the wall surrounding the courtyard had fallen down at one part, so that by looking over the ruins we could see what was going on within just as if we had been inside. On the door-step of a low building running along one side of the yard sat a young negress suckling a naked baby, and apparently presiding over the small family party which had gathered in a circle in front of her. Two Moorish women reclining upon carpets, each with a pair of enormous iron castanets, which seemed quite out of place in their delicate little hands, accompanied the song of a couple of negroes, who were squatted cross-legged on the ground, beating time upon their tarboukas, and giving utterance to a series of nasal sounds which, although rather monotonous, were not altogether devoid of melody. In the centre of the group, at short distance from the mother and child, a halfnaked negro was performing, in honour of the new-born babe, the wildest kind of war-dance that it is possible to conceive. The courtyard was small, and almost completely covered in by an enormous fig-tree, which, although leafless, had such a multitude of branches closely entwined together, that the sun could hardly penetrate them. A few ducks wallowed at the foot of the tree in a pool of mud, and some fowls, tied together in couples by the legs, were pecking about on a heap of manure, at times creating no little amusement as one of them would try to go to the left while its fellow-prisoner was walking off to the right. Presently a child noticed us, and ran to open the door. Entering the yard, we saluted the company by a movement of the lips and a slight inclination of the head, so as not to call their attention from the dancer, who, on perceiving two foreigners, seemed to throw new energy into his performance, quickening the time and making a fearful clatter with the iron castanets, which he held in each hand.
The Moorish women had cast aside their veils, as well as the voluminous muslin drapery with which they envelop themselves out of doors, so that we were able to contemplate them at our leisure.
They were pretty and well dressed, their costumes being composed of silks and satins, richly embroidered with gold and silver thread. and different-coloured silks. They wore a pair of baggy breeches reaching to the knee, and several small waistcoats, worn one over the other beneath a kaftan, or jacket with long sleeves, the whole being relieved by a very fine muslin chemisette, which peeped out through the negligently-buttoned waistcoats and at the bottom of the sleeves. We sat there for nearly an hour without any one speaking a word. The dancer was of course the first to get tired; and when he at length sank down completely exhausted, the fête came to an end. We had said 'Good-day' to the people of the house, and were on the point of leaving, when we all at once heard a suppressed titter behind us, and looking round, perceived that we were followed by the two Moorish women, who had put on their veils and whitecalico masks. We naturally stood on one side to allow them to go out first, and as they passed us we both said 'Good-day' in Arabic. Au revoir, monsieur,' answered the shortest and slimmest of the two women.
I need hardly say that I at once recognised the Au revoir, monsieur,' of the square at Algiers. This time old Abdallah was not there, and without giving the matter a moment's thought I followed them.
'Do you know them?' asked Vertbois.
'No,' I answered; but I am rather curious to find out something about the one who said Au revoir.'
At the end of the street they parted company. I allowed the tall one to proceed on her way, and followed the other. Much to my disappointment, she did not once turn her head, or, at all events, I did not notice her do so. At last, after a somewhat roundabout journey, she reached her destination, which was one of those dismallooking Arab houses, situated in an Arab street, in a melancholy and deserted quarter of the town. She pushed open the heavy door by leaning the whole weight of her body against it, and disappeared. I was close behind her; I saw the massive wooden door, studded with large iron nails, swing back again, and for a moment or two tremble upon its hinges. She had not bolted it after her, for every now and then it opened slightly, as if pushed by the wind or pulled from the interior by an invisible hand. I remained there for half a minute, uncertain how to act. All of a sudden the door opened again, and the woman stood before me, still masked, but with her eyes sparkling like diamonds.
'Don't come in,' she said in Sabir-that is to say, a dialect composed of French, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic, which is commonly used by the Arabs in the neighbourhood of Algiers; come to-morrow at twelve.'
Vertbois was keeping guard at the bottom of the street.
'Well?' he inquired, when I joined him.
'Well,' I answered, 'I'm going there to-morrow.'
In a few words I related to him the incident connected with Sid-Abdallah's bazaar. He knew Sid-Abdallah well, and assured me that his warning had not been given without cause. 'As to the woman,' he added, we can soon find out all about her from Hassan the barber.'
As we entered the barber's shop, a Moor and an Arab had just concluded a game of draughts.
If one had everything that one desired, the beggar would become bey,' exclaimed the former, as his antagonist captured his last piece.
'That's a well-known proverb,' said Vertbois, taking him by the hand; and then turning to me, he continued, 'Let me introduce you to Ben-Hamida. You can talk together of Paris, for you have both lived there.'
Ben-Hamida spoke French fluently. He had been educated in Paris at the Collège St. Louis, and was then a professor at one of the Arab schools. His antagonist was an Arab of the plain-a short thick-set man, with a brown skin and beard and whiskers. The quality of his burnous and haïk, and the elegant jacket and waistcoats which one caught a glimpse of beneath, seemed to indicate that he was a man of position in his tribe.
We stayed at the barber's, talking, listening to anecdotes, smoking, and sipping coffee, which an Arab boy brought from a neighbouring coffee-house, until the heat had somewhat subsided.
'He's very charming, but a thorough hypocrite,' said Vertbois, as we were strolling home, referring to the ex-student of the Collège St. Louis. 'As to the one who was playing draughts with him,' he continued, he has a little sin upon his conscience which makes him rather taciturn, for the eyes of justice are watching him. As he was returning one night on horseback to his douar, by a somewhat lonely road, accompanied by a cousin against whom he had a grievance, he managed to ride behind his companion and shoot him through the loins. The cousin's horse returned to the douar without a rider, but it was some days before the corpse could be found; eventually, however, it was discovered by the number of birds of prey which were seen hovering over it. Unfortunately, it was then in such a state that it was impossible to find any traces of the wound, and, in fact, the body was only recognised by the garments. Nevertheless, the authorities suspected the truth; Amar-ben-Arif was arrested and questioned, but they were obliged to release him for want of proof. It was a family quarrel, originating out of jealousy, I believe.'
I have gathered a few facts concerning your mauresque,' he con'The woman has been at Blidah for the last month; she
lives alone with her servant Assra, the negress whom we saw to-day. Her name is Haoûa, and the name of her friend Aïchouna. The fête to-day was given to celebrate the birth of Assra's first-born, and the negro who was dancing is the father. That is all I know, but if we require any farther information we will return to Hassan.'
The following day at twelve o'clock I knocked at Haoûa's door, and was answered by several people in the interior crying out together, 'Minhou ?' (Who is there ?); while a voice, easily enough to recognise, proceeding from a little loophole above my head, repeated, Ache koune ?' (Who is it ?). Then a shutter was slammed to, and the same voice continued, Ya Assra, heull el bab' (Assra, open the door). A few minutes afterwards the negress admitted me.
Passing through the courtyard, I noticed four Jewish families huddled together on the ground-floor in a few small rooms, through the open doors of which one caught sight of the women busy at their washing-tubs, while their babies were swinging backwards and forwards in hammocks above their heads, and a score of half-naked children were rolling in the dust at their feet. We ascended a wooden staircase leading to a gallery which ran completely round. the house on the inside, and eventually reached Haoûa's room. The negress drew aside the muslin curtain which veiled the entrance, and motioned me to enter. Crossing the threshold, I found myself in a large apartment paved with encaustic tiles, and furnished with a quantity of Persian carpets and cushions, a few divans, some large chests, and two or three low tables standing about a foot from the ground. I perceived Haoûa reclining at full length upon a large low divan in the midst of a number of small cushions.
'Good-day,' she said, as I entered. 'Sit down.'
I seated myself, not beside her, but at her feet, and at a certain distance, so that I might have a better view of her.
She held the tube of an Oriental pipe between her fingers, and was watching the smoke as it issued from the amber mouthpiece, and went curling slowly up towards the ceiling. The long tube, ornamented with golden bands, was twisted round one of her legsboth of which were naked to the knees and of a very delicate brown tint. It was a lovely sight to watch her as she lay there, pale, motionless, half smiling, with her bosom gently heaving up and down. There was nothing wanting in her toilette to make her appear as charming as possible; indeed, she seemed to have taken more than ordinary pains about her dress, for she was considerably less déshabillée than a Moorish woman generally is at home. She wore blue and black silk handkerchiefs in her hair, and a bodice of blue cashmere richly embroidered with gold thread, beneath a blue kaftan without sleeves, while, contrary to the custom of the neighbourhood, a kind of gold belt with a massive fastening secured an ample scarlet-coloured fouta round her slender waist. Her costume was thus
composed of three colours, but the scarlet completely killed the others, and seemed to intensify her naturally pale complexion. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were painted with koheul, and her hands. and feet stained with henna.
'Onech esmek ?' (What is your name ?) I asked.
She took a last whiff of smoke, and handing me the mouthpiece exclaimed, with a smile:
'Onech entekfi ?' (What does that matter to you?)
'I want to know if your name sounds as soft as your voice,' I answered; and then, as I looked at her, as if waiting for a reply, she said:
'My name is Haoûa ?'
'Is it warm ?' she asked, after a silence.
'Very warm; and he who seeks shelter from the sun beside a fire is a madman.'
She smiled slightly at the proverb; and then there was a second pause. I soon discovered that all the French Haoûa knew consisted of such words as monsieur, bon jour, au revoir, asseyez-vous; and as I possessed but a very indifferent knowledge of Arabic, it was somewhat difficult at times to carry on the conversation. After a while, however, we managed to get on pretty well, and soon became very good friends. I filled the pipe and made cigarettes for her, while she sipped the coffee which Assra brought in from the kitchen. When I was tired of sitting down I walked about the room, admiring the Persian carpets, the enamelled tables, the brilliantly-painted shelves covered with a thousand nicknacks, the many-coloured glass lamps, the divans, the mirrors, and embroidered silk cushions.
Fastened in her hair, and wound four or five times round her neck, was one of those long strings of orange-blossoms which are sold at the markets for a few sous. The blossoms had been gathered that morning, and their perfume scented the whole apartment. As I was wishing her good-bye she slowly removed it, and throwing it round my neck said: Take it.'
After my first visit I saw her almost daily. Vertbois and I used to go there together, and as the Oriental pipe had three branches, each of us took one. In this manner we passed the warm afternoons and evenings; lounging upon cushions, with the amber mouthpiece between our lips and a cup of coffee at our side. I had full permission to open Haoûa's boxes and examine the contents. She had one of the most magnificent wardrobes that it is possible to imagine. There were winter and summer jackets covered with gold and silver ornaments, and with large gold or silver buttons; cloth and silk kaftans; trousers made of every material and of every size, from those of ordinary long cloth or muslin to those of satin and brocaded silk, embroidered with gold and silver thread; a vast