Page images

number of fouta for fastening round the waist; silk handkerchiefs and Tunisian tissues of every description of colour. The jewelry was wrapped up in large silk handkerchiefs. There were massive gold rings for the ankles, bracelets, brooches for fastening the haïk, large earrings, ornaments for the hair, rings for the fingers, and necklaces composed of gold coins of almost every country in the world strung upon ribbons.

One day, when I had been turning all her things over, I said: 'Why, Haoua, you must have inherited the fortune of a Sultan.' 'It was not a Sultan that gave me that; it was my husband.' 'Which one?' asked Vertbois in fun, little thinking that he had shot so near the mark.

'The one who is dead,' answered Haoûa, in a voice which was sad enough to convince us that she had been a widow.

'And what has become of your second husband ?' I asked.

She hesitated for a moment, turned very pale-that is to say, as pale as a face without a shade of colour can possibly become, looked fixedly at us one after the other, and replied:

'I left him.'

'Quite right, too, if he annoyed you,' exclaimed Vertbois.

That evening Vertbois went to the barber's shop, and ascertained that Haoûa was the widow of a first husband, and that she had been divorced six months after her second marriage; but Hassan would give no farther information, and pretended that he had forgotten the names of her husbands.

Sometimes we dined with Haoûa. On those occasions the afternoon was spent in making preparations for the repast. I pounded the spices with a pestle and mortar, Haoûa rolled couscoussou in brass bowls, Assra made honey cakes and tarts, and Vertbois introduced all manner of dishes which he had tasted in the tents of the great chiefs of the Sahara. When by chance Haoûa's friend Aïchouna came to dinner there was a regular fête, for the ladies seemed to endeavour to eclipse each other by the splendour of their costumes. I remember Aïchouna coming one evening about six o'clock, followed by her negress, enveloped in a red haïk. As she entered the room she cast aside her large muslin veil, and placing her black-morocco shoes at the edge of the carpet, seated herself upon the divan. She looked positively splendid, with her legs wrapped in a fouta tied very low down, her little sleeveless bodice glittering with gold and silver ornaments, and a simple gauze chemisette, speckled with a multitude of sparkling spots, covering her bosom and shoulders. A few minutes afterwards, Haoûa, who had left us an hour before, raised the curtain veiling the entrance to her dressing-room, and appeared before us. She wore with an air of considerable distinction the gala costume of the women of Constantine; that is to say, three long kaftans placed one over the

other. Two were of muslin embroidered with flowers, while the third, which was of cloth of gold, fitted her without a single crease, and gave a kind of stiffness to her supple form. Her hair was enveloped in a tissue of gold thread falling down to within half an inch of her painted eyebrows, and her large black eyes were bordered and lengthened with koheul, which gave them a kind of laughing expression, while in the centre of her forehead was a small star tattooed in pale blue. Contrary to the custom of her country, she wore no rings, and indeed very few jewels. She entered the room, dragging her naked feet indolently along the woollen carpet, and gently agitating a Turkish handkerchief, which she had soaked in scent, so as to spread the perfume about her. She approached the low divan, placed her nervous brown hand upon her friend's naked shoulder, and slid, rather than sat, down with an air of lassitude impossible to describe.

We dined upon the carpet by the light of a dozen wax candles, half lying, half sitting round a little low table covered with a negress's haik by way of a cloth. After dinner, which lasted much longer than a European repast, we all drank coffee and tea, and smoked without intermission until ten o'clock, when we took leave of our hostess.

Shortly after this I again left for the south, and only returned to Blidah in the month of August. I found Haoûa exactly the same as when I left her three months previous, with the exception that she was perhaps a trifle more languid. She told me that her friend Aïchouna had taken to dancing in public with considerable success. Towards the end of October of the same year, just after Vertbois and I had returned from a shooting excursion in the neighbourhood of Tipaza, we received a letter from the caïd of the Hadjouts, inviting us to a fête that was to be given in the tribe on the afternoon of the next market-day.


'You'll find nothing new there,' observed Vertbois, as we were riding out of the town; you'll see nothing but a vast number of tents and some hundreds of Arabs, who will give an equestrian fête, followed in the evening by feasting and dancing; but the caïd has invited us, and it would look bad not to go. Besides, we shall perhaps amuse ourselves after all, for I have a great many friends among the Hadjouts, including that scoundrel Amar-ben-Arif, who, by the way, is a splendid horseman.'

We reached the market about mid-day, and by four o'clock everything was ready for the fête. Precisely opposite the women's tent, which was surmounted by a small red flag, stood the silk standard of the caïd planted in the ground. These flags showed the width of the course, which was of no specified length; they marked the spot where the horses had to be stopped short, and where the riders were to discharge their firearms, turning first of

all towards the caïd, and afterwards towards the women. Just as the fête was about to commence, we noticed three mules entering the bivouac; two of them were ridden by Moorish women enveloped in white veils, and the third by a negro, while a negress accompanied them on foot.

'Why, there's Assra and the negro Saïd!' said Vertbois, who at once recognised Haoûa's servant and her husband.

'In that case,' I answered, it is easy to guess who the two Moorish women are.'

[ocr errors]

I f


They entered the camp, but instead of going to the pavilion which had been set apart for the women, they proceeded towards a small tent standing by itself. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to them, but I heard one or two people near me say that they were dancers. As soon as they were seated, Aïchouna unmasked herself completely, while Haoûa merely drew her muslin veil slightly on one side so as to show her face to her friends.

'Are they going to stay there?' I asked Vertbois. 'Why don't they go with the other women ?'

'Haoûa would not be admitted amongst mothers and families,' he answered; they speak a language which she, perhaps, has never spoken, they do things that would cause even her pale face to blush. But while she has shown her visage the others have remained veiled, and have closed their doors while she has thrown hers wide open; it is not so much a question of sentiment as one of discipline. All the difference lies in the veil; as long as a Moorish woman is enveloped in muslin and shuts herself up at home she is considered respectable; but when once the veil is cast aside and she allows the opposite sex to gaze upon her, she is no longer so.'

At the first discharge of musketry Aïchouna rose, and taking her friend by the hand, exclaimed:

'There go the horsemen; let us run and see them.'

They both arranged their veils, and, leaving the tent, mixed with the crowd of spectators.

'Au revoir,' said Haoûa, as she passed me.

'Au revoir,' I answered; and I might have said 'adieu,' for when I saw her again she was lying at the brink of death and hardly recognisable.

The scene that followed was truly magnificent. There were some two or three hundred mounted Arabs galloping about in almost every direction, discharging their firearms in the air and loading them again without stopping, flinging them up above their heads and catching them, standing erect in their stirrups, stooping down to pick up stones from the ground as their horses, pushed to their utmost speed, described curves and circles over the course, and then at a certain signal came tearing down towards the multitude

of lookers-on, stopping short between the standard of the caïd and the tent of the women, while the riders, rising in their stirrups, discharged all the firearms they carried about them and then dashed off again as fleetly as before, amidst the repeated 'You, you, you!' of the women, who in this manner expressed their approval of what they saw.

It was a splendid sight to watch that compact body of horsemen approaching us at a break-neck gallop with their white woollen burnouses and haïks floating in the wind, their costly saddles and harness richly embroidered with different-coloured silk, and their jackets and waistcoats elaborately ornamented with gold and silver, while the weapons which they held in their hands or carried thrust in their girdles flashed in the last rays of the setting sun.

All at once Vertbois, pointing to a horseman who had passed us several times, and who seemed to be riding more recklessly than any of the others, exclaimed, 'There is Ben-Arif.' I remembered the Arab that he had pointed out to me on the occasion of our first visit to Hassan the barber, as well as the story he had related concerning him; but I could hardly recognise the serious and gloomylooking man whom I had seen playing draughts with the exstudent of the Collège St. Louis in the brilliant cavalier who seemed to be the very soul of the fête. He carried a curved sabre thrust between the girths of his saddle, two or three long knives and pistols in his girdle, and a double-barrelled rifle of European manufacture in his hand. From time to time he loaded the lastmentioned weapon with handsful of powder and cocked it while his horse was at full speed; then, after discharging the two barrels in the air, almost simultaneously, in the presence of the caïd and the women of the tribe, he would dash off again into the far distance, throwing the gun up above his head and catching it as it came down with the greatest facility.

The fantasia had lasted for more than an hour, and Amar seemed as untiring as at the commencement, notwithstanding that he had not once left the saddle and that his horse had not had a single minute's repose. At last, as he went tearing past us, accompanied by the dull sound of his horse's hoofs-for, contrary to the custom prevalent among Arabs, it was shod-some of his friends in the crowd of lookers-on shouted after him:

Your horse is bleeding;

Ya! Ben-Arif, take care, take care! you'll injure it, if you don't mind.'

'Patience, patience,' he answered; I have another;' and discharging his rifle at arm's length he dashed out of sight as fast as his steed would carry him.

At length he stopped, not because he was tired, but out of pity for his horse, or may be from prudence. He examined the animal's sides, sponged the wounds with a tuft of grass, and stopped those

which were bleeding too freely with moistened clay. He then carefully wiped off the foam with a corner of his haïk, loosened the saddle-girths, and taking the animal's head between his open hands kissed it upon the nostrils and called it by some endearing name which I did not hear. Then he jumped upon the fresh horse which an Arab was holding for him, and darted off again like a flash of lightning.

'This madman,' said Vertbois, turning to me, 'will wind up with some foolery.'



A few minutes afterwards, as he was galloping past the caid, the latter cried after him, Wait a minute, Ben-Arif; I'll ride with you;' and suiting the action to the word, the old man mounted a white horse and, accompanied by Amar and three youths who had not yet taken part in the fantasia, rode slowly out on to the open ground. When they had attained a certain distance, we heard the caïd shout, Are you ready?' and then the five horsemen dashed off together. They approached us in a line, just as they had started, and as they reached the standard we heard three reports. They were all armed except the caïd, but Amar did not fire. I noticed him place his rifle in front of him across the saddle, and gather up his reins as if to make his horse jump. The animal sprang on one side, and then, rising in the air, leapt into the midst of the spectators. There was a piercing shriek, followed by a confused clamour. The crowd opened, and I caught sight of a bundle of white drapery lying in convulsions upon the ground.

'Ah, the villain!' exclaimed Vertbois.

Seize him!' shouted the caïd, as he dug his spurs into his horse and dashed after Amar.

No one had time to lay hands upon him, however, although he passed so close to us that his horse almost knocked us down. He looked behind him to see if he was followed, and gave a long shrill whistle. On hearing it his first horse, tired as it was, broke loose from the man who was holding it and darted after its master. A few seconds later we saw a party of horsemen enveloped in a cloud of dust racing across the plain in the direction of the mountains. At a short distance in front of them was Ben-Arif, leaning forward in his saddle, with his other horse galloping beside him.


In the mean while, the people round about me continued exclaiming, The villain! Arrest him! Faster-faster!' while every now and then one could hear voices in the crowd saying, 'She is dead.'

It was poor Haoûa who had been knocked down and trampled under foot by Amar's horse. She was not dead, but over her right eyebrow there was a deep wound which bled profusely. They carried her to her tent, laid her on a mattress, and brought red-hot irons for the purpose of cauterising the wound, according to the

« PreviousContinue »