Mathias Sandorf/Page 32
THE FEAST OF THE STORKS.
On the 23d of November the plain of Soung-Ettelate around the walls of Tripoli afforded a curious spectacle. On that day no one could tell if the plain were barren or fertile, for its surface was hidden beneath multi-colored tents adorned with feathers and flags, miserable gourbis with their roofs so tattered and patched as to give very insufficient shelter from that bitter dry wind, the “gibly,” which sweeps across the desert from the south; here and there groups of horses in rich Oriental trappings, meharis stretched on the sand with their flat heads like half-empty goat-skin bottles, small donkeys about as big as large dogs, large dogs as big as small donkeys, mules with the enormous Arab saddle that has the cantle and pommel as round as a camel hump; horsemen with their guns across their shoulders and knees up to their stomachs, and feet in slipper-like stirrups, and having double sabers at their belt, galloping among a crowd of men, women, and children, careless of whom they might run down as they dashed along; and natives almost uniformly clothed in the Barbary “haouly,” beneath which the women would be indistinguishable from the men, if the men did not fix the folds to their waist with a brass pin, while the women let the upper part, fall over their faces so that they can only see with the left eye—a costume which varies with the classes, the poor having nothing on but the simple linen mantle, the more affluent having the waistcoat and wide breeches of the Arabs, and the wealthy having splendid patterns in white and blue over a second haouly of gauze, a glossy silk above the dead-white of the gold-spangled shirt.
Were they only Tripolitans that had gathered on the plain? No. The environs of the capital were crowded with merchants from Ghadames and Sokna, escorted by their black slaves; Jews and Jewesses of the province with uncovered faces; negroes from the neighboring villages, who had come from their cabins of rushes and palms to assist in the general gayety, poorer in linen than in jewelry, large brass bracelets, shell-work collars, strings of teeth, rings of silver in their ears and their noses, and Benoulies and Awaguirs, from the shores of the Syrtes, to whom the date-palm of their country yielded its wine, its fruit, its bread, and its preserves. Among the agglomeration of Moors, Berbers, Turks, Bedouins and Muzaffirs, who are Europeans, were pashas, sheiks, cadis, all the lords in the land walking through the crowds of raayas, which opened humbly and prudently before the drawn swords of the soldiers, or the truncheons of the police or the zapties as there passed in haughty indifference the governor-general of this African eyelet, of this province of the Turkish Empire whose administration belongs to the Sultan.
If there are more than 1,500,000 in Tripoli, with 6000 soldiers—1000 for the djebel and 500 for the Cyrenaic—the town of Tripoli itself has not more than from 20,000 to 24,000 souls. But on this occasion it appeared as though the population had been at least doubled by the crowd of spectators coming from all parts of the territory. These rurals had not, it is true, entered the capital of the Regency. Within the walls of the fortifications neither the houses, which, through the worthlessness of their materials, soon fall into ruins; nor the narrow, tortuous, unpaved streets, nor the neighboring mole with its consulates, nor the western quarter, inhabited by the Jews, nor the rest of the town, inhabited by the Mussulmans, were equal to such an invasion.
But the plain of Soung-Ettelate was large enough for the crowd of spectators attracted to this feast of the storks, where legend always receives due honor in the eastern countries of Africa. This plain—a small fragment of the Sahara, with its yellow sand often invaded by the sea during the violent winds from the east—surrounds the town on three sides, and is about one thousand yards across. In strong contrast is the oasis of Menchie, with its white-walled houses, its gardens watered by the leather chain pump worked by a skinny cow, its woods of orange-trees, citrons, dates, its green clumps of shrubs and flowers, its antelopes, gazelles, fennecs, and flamingoes—a huge patch of ground in which live not less than thirty thousand people. Beyond is the desert, which in no part of Africa comes nearer to the Mediterranean, the desert and its shifting sand-hills, its immense carpet of sand on which, says Baron Krafft, “the wind raises the waves as easily as on the ocean,” the Lybian Ocean with its mists of impalpable dust.
Tripoli—a country almost as large as France—is bounded by Tunis and Egypt and by the Sahara at a distance of one hundred and ninety miles from the Mediterranean coast.
It was in this province—one of the least known in Northern Africa, and which will be perhaps one of the last to be thoroughly explored—that Sarcany had taken refuge after leaving Tetuan. A native of Tripoli, he had returned to the country which had been the scene of his earliest exploits. Affiliated to the most formidable sect of Northern Africa, he had sought the powerful protection of the Senousists, whose agent for the acquisition of arms and ammunition in foreign parts he had never ceased to be. And when he arrived at Tripoli he had taken up his quarters in the house of the moquaddem, Sida Hazam, the recognized chief of the sectaries of the district.
After the capture of Toronthal on the road to Nice—a capture which still remained inexplicable to him—Sarcany had left Monte Carlo. A few thousand francs that he had kept back from his earlier winnings had enabled him to pay his passage and defray his expenses. He had good reason to fear that Toronthal would be reduced to despair and urged to seek vengeance on him, either by revealing his past life, or giving information as to the whereabouts of Sava. The banker knew that the girl was at Tetuan, in charge of Namir, and hence Sarcany's decision to leave Morocco as soon as possible.
He resolved to take refuge in Tripoli, where he could avail himself, not only of the means of action, but the means of defense. But to go there by steamer or the Algerian railway—as the doctor had suspected—would have been too dangerous. And so he joined a caravan of Senousists, who were on their way to Cyrenaic, recruiting as they went in the chief villages of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunis. This caravan, which would quickly travel the 500 leagues between Tetuan and Tripoli, following the northern edge of the desert, set out on the 12th of October.
And now Sava was entirely at the mercy of her captors. But her resolution was-not shaken. Neither the threats of Namir nor the rage of Sarcany had had any effect on her.
At its departure from Tetuan the caravan already numbered fifty of the brethren, or Khouans, under the leadership of an Imam, who had organized it in military fashion. There was no intention of crossing provinces under French influence, or the journey might give rise to difficulties.
The coast of Algeria and Tunis forms an arc up to the western coast of the Grand Syrtes, where it drops abruptly to the south. The most direct road from Tetuan to Tripoli is along the chord of this arc, and that does not run higher than Laghouat, one of the most distant French towns on the borders of the Sahara.
The caravan, on leaving the empire of Morocco, skirted the boundary of Algeria, and in Beni Matan, in Oulad Nail, in Charfat-el-Hamel, secured a goodly number of recruits, so that when it reached the Tunisian coast at the Syrtis Magna it numbered more than 300 men. Then it followed the coast, recruiting Khouans in the different villages, and on the 20th of November, after a six weeks' journey, it reached the frontier of Tripoli. On the day, therefore, that this feast of the storks was taking place, Sarcany and Namir had only been the guests of Sidi Hazam for three days.
The moquaddem's house, which was now Sava's prison, was surrounded by a slender minaret, and with its white walls pierced with loop-holes, its embattled terraces, its want of exterior windows, and its low, narrow door-way, had very much the appearance of a small fortress. It was in reality a regular zaouiya, situated beyond the town, on the skirts of the sandy plain, and the plantations of Menchie, with its gardens defended by the high wall running up on to the oasis.
Its interior was of the ordinary Arab design, but with three court-yards instead of one. Around each of these court-yards was a quadrilateral of galleries, columns, and arcades, on to which opened the rooms of the house, which for the most part were luxuriously furnished. In the second court-yard the visitors or guests found a vast “skifa,” a sort of hall or vestibule in which more than one conference had been held by Sidi Hazam.
The house was naturally defended by its high walls, and the defense was further assured by the number of servants who could be summoned in case of an attack from the wandering tribes, or even the recognized authorities of the province whose efforts were directed to keeping the Senousists in check. There were, in fact, fifty of the brethren, well armed and equally ready for the defensive or the offensive.
There was only one door to the zaouiya, but this door was very thick and solid, and bound with iron and could not be easily forced, and once forced could not be easily entered. Sarcany had thus found a safe refuge in which he hoped to end his work successfully. His marriage with Sava would bring him considerable wealth, and if needed he could count on the assistance of the brotherhood, who were directly interested in his success.
The brethren from Tetuan and the vilayets on the road had been dispersed in the oasis of Menchie, ready for action at the first signal. The Feast of the Storks as the Tripolitan police knew well, would be most convenient for the Senousists. On the plain of Soung-Ettelate the Khouans of Northern Africa could receive their orders from the muftis as to their concentration in the Cyrenaic, where they were to found a regular pirate kingdom under the all-powerful authority of a Caliph. And the circumstances were highly favorable, for it was in the vilayet of Ben Ghazi in the Cyrenaic, that the association already had its greatest number of adherents.
On this day of the Feast of Storks three strangers were strolling through the crowd on the plain of Soung-Ettelate. These strangers, these Muzaffirs, would not have been recognized as Europeans under their Arab dress. The oldest of them wore his with that perfect ease which only long custom gives. He was Dr. Antekirtt, and his companions were Pierre Bathory and Luigi Ferrato. Point Pescade and Cape Matifou were stopping in the town, where they were engaged in certain preparations, and probably would not appear on the scene until they were wanted.
The “Electric” had only come in the forenoon before and anchored under shelter of the long rocks which act as a natural breakwater to the harbor of Tripoli. The passage had been as rapid as the voyage outward. A three hours' stay at Philippeville, in the little bay of Filfila, and no longer, had been all that was necessary to procure the Arab dresses. Then the “Electric” had departed immediately, and its presence had not even been detected in the Numidian Gulf.
When the doctor and his companions came ashore, not at the quay, but on the rocks outside the harbor, they were no longer five Europeans entering Tripolitan territory, they were five Orientals whose garb would attract no attention. Pierre and Luigi, dressed up in this way, might betray themselves to the eyes of a close observer, but Pescade and Matifou, accustomed to the many dresses of the mountebank, were completely at their ease.
When night came the “Electric” moved round to one of the creeks on the other side of the harbor, where she ran little risk of being observed; and there she remained ready for sea at any moment. As soon as they had landed, the doctor and his companions ascended the rocks that skirt the coast until they reached the quay leading to Bab-el-Bahr, the marine gate, and entered the narrow streets of the town. The first hotel they came to seemed good enough for a few days—a few hours perhaps. They seemed to be respectable folks. Tunisian merchants, probably, taking advantage of their journey through Tripoli to be present at the Feast of the Storks. As the doctor spoke Arabic as correctly as he did all the Mediterranean languages, there was no danger that his speech would betray them.
The innkeeper with great cordiality received the five travelers who did him the great honor of selecting his house. He was a large man and very talkative. And so, in encouraging him to talk, the doctor soon learned certain things that interested him greatly. In the first Place, he heard that a caravan had recently arrived from Morocco in Tripoli, that Sarcany, who was well known in the regency, formed part of this caravan, and that he had availed himself of the hospitality of Sidi Hazam.
And hence that evening the doctor, Pierre, and Luigi, taking such precaution as insured their not being observed, had mixed with the crowd of nomads encamped in the plain of Soung-Ettelate. As they strolled about they took careful notes of the moquaddem's house on the skirt of the oasis.
There, then, Sava Sandorf was a prisoner. Since the doctor had been at Ragusa the father and daughter had never been so near together. But now an impassable wall lay between them. To get her away Pierre would have consented to everything, even to Sarcany's terms. Count Sandorf and he were ready to abandon the fortune which the scoundel coveted. And this, although he did not forget that justice ought to be done on the betrayer of Stephen Bathory and Ladislas Zathmar.
Situated as they were, there would seem to be almost insurmountable difficulties in carrying off Sarcany or getting Sava away from Sidi Hazam's house. Force was not likely to succeed; would stratagem? Would to-morrow's festival in any way assist? Probably it would, and this was the plan which bad been suggested by Point Pescade and had been under the consideration of the doctor, Pierre, and Luigi during the evening. In executing it Pescade would risk his life, but if he could enter the moquaddem's house he might succeed in managing Sava's escape. Nothing seemed impossible with his courage and cleverness.
It was, then, in execution of this plan, that the next day the doctor and Pierre and Luigi were on the watch among the crowd on the Plain of Soung-Ettelate, while Pescade and Matifou were preparing their parts.
There was then no sign of the noise and excitement with which the plain would be full beneath the glare of the innumerable torches when the evening arrived. In the compact crowd they scarcely noticed the Senousists who, in their simple costumes, communicated with each other only by Masonic signs.
But it is desirable that we should know the Oriental, or rather, African legend, of which the chief incidents were to be reproduced in the Feast of the Storks, which is the “great attraction” for the Mohammedans.
There was formerly on the African continent a race of Djins. Under the name of Bou-Chebris, these Djins occupied a vast territory situated on the borders of the desert of Hammada, between Tripoli and the Kingdom of Fezzan. They were a powerful people, fearless and feared. They were unjust, perfidious, aggressive, inhuman, and no African monarch had been able to suppress them.
There came a day when the prophet Suleyman attempted, not to attack, but to convert these Djins. And with this object he sent one of his apostles to preach to them the love of good and the hatred of evil. Vain effort! The ferocious horde seized the missionary and put him to death. The Djins showed so much audacity because their country was isolated and difficult of access, and they knew that no neighboring ruler would dare to venture there with his armies. Besides, they thought that no messenger would carry to the prophet Suleyman the news of what they had done to his apostle. They were mistaken.
In the country were a great number of storks. As we know, storks are birds of good manners, of unusual intelligence, and above all things, of great common sense, for the legend affirms that they never inhabit a country the name of which appears on a piece of money—for money is the source of all wickedness and the great power that draws all men to the abyss of their evil passions.
These storks, then, seeing the perverse way in which the Djins lived, mustered one day in deliberative assembly and decided to dispatch one of their number to the prophet Suleyman, so as to procure his just vengeance on the missionary's assassins.
And so the prophet called the hoopoe, his favorite courier, and ordered him to collect in the upper zones of the African sky all the storks on earth. This was done and when the innumerable flocks of these birds were gathered before the prophet Suleyman, the legend says they formed a cloud which put in shadow all the land between Mezda and Mourzouk.
Then each one, taking a stone in its beak, flew toward the country of the Djins. And from above they stoned to death the unhappy race whose souls are now imprisoned for all eternity in the desert of Hammada.
Such is the fable which has given rise to the festival of the day. Many hundreds of storks had been got together under huge nets stretched over the surface of the plain of Soung-Ettelate. And there, for the most part standing on one leg, they waited for the hour of their deliverance and the clicking of their beaks caused a sound in the air as if a tambourine was being beaten. At the given signal they would be set free to fly off, dropping harmless stones of clay among the crowd of the faithful, amid the cheers of the spectators, the uproar of the instruments, the reports of the musketry, and the light from the torches with colored flames.
Pescade knew the programme of this festival, and it was from it that he received the suggestion as to the part he intended to play, and by the aid of which he was to obtain admission to Sidi Hazam's house.
As soon as the sun set a gun from the fortress of Tripoli gave the signal so impatiently expected by the people of Soung-Ettelate. The doctor, Pierre, and Luigi were at first almost deafened by the frightful noise which arose on every side, and were then nearly blinded by the thousands of lights that sprung up all over the plain.
When the gun was heard the crowd of nomads were still busy at their evening meal. Here the roast mutton, the pillau of fowls for those who were Turks and wished it to be seen; there the couscoussou for the well-to-do Arabs; further off a simple bazinu, a sort of barley-flour boiled in oil, for the poorer people, whose pockets contained more mahboubs of brass than mictals of gold; and everywhere the “lagby,” the juice of the date-palm, which, when it is taken as an alcoholic beer, is productive of the worst excesses of intoxication.
A few minutes after the gun had been heard men, women, children, Turks, Arabs, and negroes had finished their meals. The instruments of the barbaric orchestras necessarily rejoiced in alarming sonority to make themselves heard above the human tumult. In places horsemen were leaping about, discharging their long guns and their saddle pistols, while fire-works were thrown about amid an uproar it would be impossible to describe.
Here in the torchlight, to the rattling of the wooden drum and the intonations of a monotonous chant, a negro chief, fantastically dressed with a rattling belt of bones, his face hidden beneath a diabolical mask, was inciting to dance some thirty blacks, grimacing m a circle of convulsionary women who beat them with their hands. And then savage Aissassouas in the last stage of religious exaltation and alcoholic intoxication, with froth on their faces and eyes out of their orbits, were biting at wood, chewing iron, gashing their skins, juggling with live coals and wrapping themselves with the long serpents which bit their hands, their cheeks, their lips, and like them devoured their blood.
But soon the crowd hurried with extraordinary eagerness to the house of Sidi Hazam, as though some new spectacle had attracted them.
Two men were there, one large, the other small—two acrobats whose curious feats of strength and agility amid a quadruple row of spectators were calling forth the most noisy cheers that could escape from Tripolitan throats.
It was Point Pescade and Cape Matifou. They had taken up their stand only a few paces from Sidi Hazam's house. Both on this occasion had resumed their characters as foreign artists. Their dresses cut out of Arab materials, they were again in quest of success.
“You have not got rusty?” Point Pescade had previously asked Cape Matifou.
“And you will not shrink from anything that may amuse the imbeciles?”
“If even you have to chew pebbles with your teeth and swallow serpents?”
“Cooked?” asked Cape Matifou.
Cape Matifou made a grimace, but if necessary he resolved to eat a snake like a simple Aissassou.
The doctor, Pierre, and Luigi mingled in the crowd of spectators and did not lose sight of the two friends.
No! Cape Matifou was not rusty; he had lost nothing of his prodigious strength. At first the shoulders of five or six robust Arabs, who had risked a fall with him, were laid on the ground.
Then followed the juggling, which astonished the Arabs, above all when the flaming torches were launched from Pescade to Matifou, coming and recoming in their zigzags of fire.
And the public might well be critical. There were there a goodly number of the admirers of the Touaregs, those semi-savages “whose agility is equal to that of the most formidable animals in these latitudes,” according to the astounding programme of the famous Bracco troupe. These connoisseurs had already applauded the intrepid Mustapha, the Samson of the Desert, the “man-cannon to whom the Queen of England had sent her valet begging him not to continue his performance for fear of accident.” But Cape Matifou was incomparable in his feats of strength, and feared no rivals.
At last came the final exercise which was to raise to the highest pitch the enthusiasm of the cosmopolitan crowd that surrounded the European performers. Although it had done frequent duty in the circuses of Europe, it seemed that it was still unknown to the loungers of Tripoli. And the crowd crushed more and more round the ring to look at the two acrobats who were at work by torchlight.
Cape Matifou seized a pole nearly thirty feet long and held it upright against his chest with his two hands. At the end of this pole Point Pescade, who had climbed up like a monkey, began to balance himself in attitudes of astonishing audacity, and made it bend alarmingly.
But Cape Matifou remained undismayed, shifting about gradually so as to retain his equilibrium. Then when he was close to the wall of Sidi Hazam's house, he summoned strength enough to lift the pole at arm's length, while Point Pescade assumed the attitude of a favorite actress throwing kisses to the public.
The crowd of Arabs and negroes roared in transports of delight, clapped their hands, and stamped their feet. Never had Samson of the Desert, the intrepid Mustapha, the boldest of the Touaregs, been raised to such a height!
At this moment the report of a gun echoed over the plain from the Fortress of Tripoli. At the signal, the hundreds of storks, suddenly delivered from the immense nets which kept them prisoners, rose in the air, and a shower of sham stones began to fall on the plain, amid a deafening concert of aerial cries, to which the terrestrial concert gave back an equally noisy reply.
This was the paroxysm of the festival. It seemed as though all the mad-houses in the old continent had been emptied on to Soung-Ettelate!
But, as if it was deaf and mute, the moquaddem's house had remained obstinately closed during those hours of public rejoicing, and not one of Sidi Hazam's people had shown themselves at the gate or on the terraces.
But, strange to relate! at the moment tho torches were extinguished, after the flight of the storks, Point Pescade had suddenly disappeared, as if he had been borne upward to the sky by the faithful birds of the prophet Suleyman.
What had become of him?
Cape Matifou did not seem to be at all concerned at the disappearance. He threw the pole into the air, caught it adroitly by the other end, and turned it as a drum-major does his cane. Point Pescade's performance seemed to him to be the most natural thing in the world.
The astonishment of the spectators was unbounded, and their enthusiasm displayed itself in an immense hurrah, which extended far beyond the limits of the oasis. None of them doubted but what the active acrobat had jumped off into space, on his way to the kingdom of the storks.
What charms the multitude most? Is it not that which they are unable to explain?