Mary and the Marabout
Mary and the Marabout
BY LOUISE CLOSSER HALE
ALTHOUGH we had taken Mary to Algeria that she might "forget," the girl had faith that any effort on our part to separate her from a certain charming and therefore ineligible young man would be frustrated by a higher power than ourselves, and that she and the tabooed one would meet in some miraculous way, after we had put several thousand miles of water and desert sands between them.
As a rule, under such circumstances, we would have been on Mary's side. The Illustrator was ever keen to champion a lady's cause, and I, having made some such marriage as our protégée was seeking, and found the result satisfactory, saw no reason why the girl shouldn't have a charming one herself. But what hurt us was the way that Mary granted any higher power than our own high-powered motor-car, even to the point of assuring us that it would outstrip our efforts, and arrange matters to her satisfaction in the very teeth of our perfected mechanical appliances. As the Illustrator said, there was no better engine in the world than ours, nor lamps that threw a farther light, nor tires that could run longer without bursting, and, like Robert of Sicily, "he was the King."
These were not our only assets. The young man, in a fashion, was another. He had gone off in that stubborn, crushed state which is so comprehensible to such of us who live by our hearts, and so perplexing to Mary's family who live by their heads, and had completely broken off with Mary until such time as her people would welcome him as an equal, or—he longed to say, but did not—as a superior. And now, as the girl ever concluded in rehearsing the tale, the thing for her to do was to search him out and talk him over.
The palm-trees outside our windows in Algiers were no more incessant in their whispering than were we in our rooms after Mary was nightly sent to bed. There was no necessity for aspirates. Lacking an easy-chair at home, the main idea of the Arab is to meet in the square on which our hotel gave, and scream his family scandals to his friends. The noise is unvaried and endless, and any plot from the undermining of a nation to the breaking of a young woman's heart could be discussed at full lung power. But the Illustrator enjoyed intrigue and kept his voice down, hissing platitudes at me like a stage villain.
On this especial evening he gave utterance to the mighty novelty that, as one nail drives out another, the best plan for us was to find a nail that would be of sufficient interest to Mary to drive out all recollection of the charming one, and to prove to her that a girl can be happy even if she doesn't marry an ineligible. I agreed with him, suggesting, however, that the nail be not young, good looking, or a gentleman. And the Illustrator, in turn, accepted my addendum piously. "Besides," he added, "there are many other interests in Africa. For instance, the dancing girls—"
The promulgation of this thought died in his throat in a lame whistle, as he caught my eye. We had been spending that evening among the dancing girls for their "local color," or anything else that the Illustrator could think of calling them, and while they had not been up to the picturesque standards of our Eastern dancers as seen in the Western world, they had afforded him an enjoyment which he had endeavored to conceal beneath a bored exterior.
We had decided at first that Mary was too tired to see the Algerians dance, for the reason that public entertainers in Africa are not the kind of ladies she would meet at afternoon teas, nor do they live in Moorish domiciles whose janitors have scruples. As man and wife we could go, and therefore were not tired, but the girl had better stay in the dull hotel and rest. However, there was a certain cold deadliness in the way our ward kept putting on her hat that brought us to silence after we had exclaimed over her fatigue several times.
"For you know," concluded Mary, after she had completed her outdoor toilet—"you know, I shall find him somewhere—and it may be there."
The Illustrator had smothered an exclamation of horror, fearing if he suggested that it was no place for a young man it would be no place for us, and followed the girl and the guide, as he wound us in and out of the narrow ways of the Kasbah, the while stoutly maintaining that Mary was right.
The very next morning, however, we found a decent "nail" which attracted Mary and held an enjoyable prospect for us, and I should have been entirely pleased but that my delight was mixed with the uncanny fear that I had made the discovery by some of Mary's white magic. If I could do this so quickly just by wishing it, what could not Mary, with her sublime faith, accomplish?
We had rushed out into the square because the sun was shining and because no guide was looking. Not that these conditions remained with us for any length of time. The sun went behind a cloud, and a moment later a passing Moor with a blind eye and American garters became our guide, unasked, and hurried us off to see something of which he spoke only in an Arabic whisper.
Our direction was toward the mole beyond the white mosque, where, after twelve minutes of vague wandering, he brought up before a low building and urged us to take turns peeking through a hole in the center of the ancient door. It was dark inside, and we could see nothing, but the Arab became very excited. He said it was a marabout.
The announcement created a sensation, for this was the first intimation we had ever received that a marabout was anything but a feather boa, and very poor feathers at that. "Probably the combings of the bird," Mary had decided. We dismissed our old belief without effort, however. As the Illustrator said, no man, not even an Arab, could get so wild over a lady's neckpiece, and following this line of argument, he thought it, meaning the marabout, must be the lady at least.
"Or a harem," I added.
Mary grew intensely interested at this. "Not so much because it is a harem," she said, "but because it may not be, and we will have a lot of fun finding out."
Asking the concierge would have been an easy way of finding out about the marabout, and the Illustrator was going to suggest this when I shoved against his foot.
I explained further to the Illustrator on the way back. Mary, as usual, was with the blind guide and twenty-one beggars. If this nail of the girl's was to remain interesting to her, I warned, then it must continue delicately veiled. And even he, while doubting the attraction of a "nail" which was at all secreted, granted that hunting a marabout held possibilities for absorption.
The plot thickened that afternoon. It was Friday, and on Friday the Arabian women take their airing. They do not go shopping, or to the parks, or to the picture films. Claiming a privilege which many of us would be proud to share, they put on their best trousers or possibly their husbands' best trousers, and in merry bands make their way to the cemetery, there to sit, unveiled, among the dead. This is the most that Mohammed can do for them, and, as far as I can make out, it is the one joy that is withheld from men. The male cannot visit the cemetery on Friday. He is mad to do this, and he goes as far as he dares. In second-best trousers the men squat in circles at the entrance to that Eden and watch the women bitterly as they swish past with a great rustling of starch. We left the Illustrator among them, disputing for the first time the laws of Moslemism, while he watched the serpents that were driven out of the garden writhe to the screeching of a fakir's flute.
Mary and I wandered down over the slope of the hill among the groups of barefaced picnickers who sat upon the graves and cackled of their households and the difficulty of keeping servants. Even at our approach they intuitively drew behind their soiled cheese-cloth draperies. After a time we felt their shyness ourselves as though in the presence of nude women, and, by a common instinct, kept our eyes on the green of the olive branches which were endeavoring to intercept the bold stare of the sun. Indignant sounds brought us up with a halt before the oldest woman in the world upon whom we were about to tread. The black slaves and the young girls who encircled her berated us in Arabic, and the old lady herself, who sat upon a very fine tomb with the characteristics of a doll's house, peered up at us through spent eyelids.
"Marabout," she explained, majestically.
"Marabout," cried the court, pointing to her.
"A marabout," whispered Mary, "and we were about to step on her!"
I was annoyed with the crone for solving our mystery so early in the game. I was disturbed at my gaucherie when she refused my offer to photograph her, unveiled, and I was distinctly embarrassed when she would accept no pennies for the flowers she proffered. We decided that the male Arab was less careful of his dignity. We left the cemetery and the pathetic bundles huddled upon the tombs.
"Marabout, a proud old woman," I defined to the Illustrator, who was hanging about pretending not to wait for us.
There was a gleam in his eye which betokened triumph—a triumph over women. He was too polite to be trusted, and assumed a dramatic air which is ridiculous in a man unless he is paid for it by the evening. He suggested that he had not been idle while we were frippering in the graveyard. He led the way down steps, which one is continually doing in the Kasbah unless one is walking up them. He would explain nothing. Arriving at a lower level, he stopped before a hut. A filthy beggar lifted her body at our approach, and with skinny fingers indicated a collection of rain-washed ribbons tied upon rings sunk in the mortar of the wall. She lifted a ribbon.
"Marabout," she whined.
Mary and I were indignant. "Stuff and nonsense!" we told her.
"A marabout is a woman," I added.
"Or a harem," continued Mary, doubtful again.
"Or a hole in the door," the Illustrator sneered.
"Marabout," repeated the withered creature, waggling the ribbon.
We left her enriched, and sat upon the steps which go down to the town. Our brains were soft and mushy like the day. The Illustrator, to avoid fierce discussion, essayed a sketch of a muezzin tower rising from an old-fashioned graveyard which did not receive callers. Hadj, the page boy of our hotel, came along—as all Arabs do—and invited us into the courtyard of the mosque. We would be able to hear the cry to prayer very plainly from there. Hadj and his friends were welcome in the court, for he and his mother and little sister lived in part of the building. It was the mother's duty to clean the carpets.
We crouched down upon the lintel of a door, Hadj with us, holding his toes and dropping knowledge in soft French. The cry of the Faithful came. We heard the priest clattering up and down the winding stairs. One by one the white-robed worshipers stole into the church; we could see their bent forms upon the carpets waving through the five posturings of prayer. The voice of Hadj was lifted softly above the priest's cry in the pulpit and the responses.
"No, madame, he could not go into the mosque—not in the uniform of the hotel—yes, it was a pity, in effect—no, madame, he did not like his uniform—he had a fine Arabian costume, all of blue, madame—that is, all but the turban, which was yellow—and the scarf around the waist, that was a mixture—it was a pity he could not wear it always—when he arrayed himself in these so beautiful garments all the world turned around to regard him—his mother had bought them for him—yes, madame, he carried all his wages to his mother—married?—not yet, not quite yet, but it had been arranged—oh yes, he had seen his betrothed—she played with his little sister—she had thirteen years—and he? Oh, seventeen, perhaps—yes, madame, he was well content with life—every night when he came home he could see her playing with his little sister—well content, and if he could but wear his blue burnoose and the ceinture of a mélange delicious—his uniform would have grieved his father—yes, dead, madame—it was a damage, but it was the will of Allah—his father had been of a so great prominence—he had been a marabout—!"
As Mary said, she would rather it had turned out a feather boa than an office, even one of honor, but Hadj was a truthful boy, considering that he was a boy, and there was no getting away from the last definition.
"Anyway, it's settled," announced the Illustrator, with the air of a discoverer, ignoring the ribbon that he had led us up to half an hour ago.
Mary hippety-hopped down the steps in an aggressive manner. "Why, I don't feel that it is settled," she announced.
"Why not?" we asked, suspiciously, wondering if she had gathered inside information anywhere.
"I don't know why," she skipped out cheerfully. "But this is a strange, occult country, and I just feel it. The more one says the word 'marabout,' the more significance it has. Rhymes keep coming to me: 'Now, Marabout, oh, tell me true, if I am you, then you are who?' Or I can say: 'Nice Marabout, they're in a stew to find out why I cling to you?' Then: 'Please, Marabout, there's only you, to tell me what my love does do.' "
We had reached the hotel at the end of the third verse, and with a laugh on the mocking order the girl pranced in, giving the Illustrator an opportunity to sink into a chair and order an apéritif. He was always fortunate that way.
"She's mad," he said, after he had decided upon an Amer, "stark, staring mad."
"No, she's not," I defended, "she's bravely trying to get some fun out of a situation that—that isn't so very funny, after all," I added, slowly.
"Well, it's an uncanny 'nail' you've chosen," he continued, reproachfully, "and I shall be glad when we get into a healthy motor-car and make for the desert to-morrow, giving up the search forever."
"Do you think we're going to leave it behind?" I asked in a smooth voice.
He sprang about anxiously. "Good heavens! If it's a ghost I'll"—he cast about him—"I'll have to have two Amers." And that was my punishment.
At twelve that night we left the opera-house of Algiers with the pitiful wailing music of "Madame Butterfly" in our ears. At noon the next day, slightly impeded by a train of camels, we drew up alongside a spirit-broken diligence and descended for déjeuner at the gateway of the desert.
"Tum-tum-ta-dá—" Mary still hummed from the intermezzo of the opera.
I was annoyed. This was not a desert air. "Doesn't this wonderful transition mean anything to you?" I asked. She turned big eyes upon me. "Don't you see that it does?"
"Then why poor Butterfly?"
"Because I am waiting, too," she oracularly answered.
I betrayed her to the Illustrator. But the long white road had far removed the complexities of modern lovers. "Waiting—waiting for what?"
"Perhaps she's waiting for a marabout," I mumbled.
He edged off uncomfortably. Déjeuner was consumed—enjoyed. Mary, growing normal, fed a camel; French officers, admiring her, climbed backward into the diligence; Moors clung to the second-class places on the top, lifting their palms outward as a salute to us. With a roar of the cut-out we passed the slow-going voyagers and made for the rose-and-gold of the desert. "Tum-tum-ta-dá"—hummed Mary as we swept into the future.
Soon we came upon the tents of the Bedouins, lying like gigantic truffles in a yellow field. Their dogs barked, but the men lifted the open palm in their majestic greeting, and the women clapped their hands against the mouth emitting the war-cry of our Indians, which is Arabian applause. If camels dodged and donkeys lost their burdens as they ran from us, the caravan found only delicious fun in their retarded journey.
The perfect road stretched toward great violet bluffs; the desert was harrowed as though by a mighty plow. Toward evening the colors changed to heliotrope and softest pink. A moon, built in proportion to the scene, gave a pale warning to the sun. Ahead, a long black line defined the horizon. Ten miles nearer we saw it was the waving palm-trees of the oasis of Bou Saada.
"Journey's end," I whispered to Mary. She shook her head. "Tum-tum-ta-dá—" suspending her notes maddeningly.
As we entered the purely Arab town in the blue of the early night, white forms rose up around us like lost souls. They wailed in concert as we made the wrong turning, and guided us, as one man, to the market-place. Once there, we waited to be seized by kindly varlets from rival hostelries. It is the Illustrator's plan to sway with the most amusing runner. There were but two inns in the village. The representative of the Hôtel du Désert addressed us in polite French, but the other tout, an attractive Arab bursting with knowledge, welcomed us in his idea of our own tongue. "Good night," he greeted us.
"Good night," we responded, inviting him to ride upon the running-board.
The motor was backed into the courtyard of a bungalow—the Hôtel de France—and the great gates barred. By some miracle three small guides had crept in with us never more to part. One was a deficient youth in a linen duster and the usual fez, the second a fine Soudanese speaking beautiful French, and the third a minute creature known as the Monkey, hooded and enveloped in a tiny striped burnoose. Mary clung to them, as though all guides would aid her in her quest.
There was white moonlight while we uneasily slept, and the barking of the dogs upon the roof-tops, answered by the far-off yelp of the Bedouin curs as they prowled around the lonely watch-fires. At dawn the sound of coughing outside my window was so continual that I at last opened the casement, to find strings of camels slouching by on their way to the market. And, when the sun was up, my last attempt to doze was frustrated bv a black man from Timbuctoo, masked and hung with monkeys' paws, who blew upon a bagpipe made of a goat's skin, and in the courtyard gave the danse du ventre for early morning worship.
Mary took her coffee at a little table as she watched the dancer, sharing her bread with the Deficient, the Soudanese, and the small Monkey. The Illustrator began his morning with a chuckle as he surveyed the scene.
"And her good, plain mother committed her to this," I groaned.
"But a universe and several planets lie between her and the 'charming one,' " he hastily consoled, fearing I would drive off the Blackamoor.
"Yes," I admitted, doubtfully, "if this appeal to her senses doesn't keep the flame alive, can't we dwell more upon the mental side of the country?"
"There isn't any mental side," very much excited.
"Well, there's the marabout," I stubbornly recalled.
"Tum-tum-ta-dá—" sang Mary in the uncanny way she had developed.
We walked through the village, in and out of the houses of our three guides. The habitations were unvarying—no chairs, no rugs, no beds, no clothing, and a single pot for the making of the kous-kous over a brasier. The women and girls worked at the hand-looms weaving the white burnoose cloth; blind old hags lay on matted straw. The men were in the date-market, and the boys in the school that the French maintain. The Monkey said that he could not attend the school, as he was obliged to work—not this day, because it was Thursday and the Moabites' Sabbath, nor on Friday, as that was the Moslem day of rest, nor on Saturday, which was the Jewish, and, of course, not on Sunday, so highly did he regard the Christians. He seemed quite a worthless proposition, but even as he finished this explanation of his uselessness he brought us up before the door of an old mosque, and at one side was a grave. It was a poor affair, but with a dome over it; such a tomb, but lacking in ornamentation, as the old lady had sat upon in the cemetery.
"See here a marabout!" said the Monkey.
The Illustrator clutched him, poorly concealing his joy that the thing we sought was safely underground. "It's gone on long enough," he cried to us. "Mon fils, expliquez un marabout."
We gathered around him while the three explained that when a good man died he became holy, and one revered his tomb and marked it with a dome.
"Sounds right," said the man of our party. "We do the same thing at home! Scorn our heroes until they die, then put them in a marble cheese-box."
"One must die to become good," completed the Deficient, efficiently.
"Could an old lady sit upon a tomb of a marabout?" I inquired, cautiously.
Old ladies could—and did.
"But the ribbons?" asked the Illustrator in a low voice, hoping that we didn't hear him.
"Come with me this day," urged the Soudanese. "Come with me to El Hamel, and I shall show you the most beautiful tomb of the most wondrous marabout in Africa or the United States— yes, and hung-with ribbons!"
"Yes, come with me," echoed the Deficient and the Monkey, as individuals.
"Come with me," invited the Illustrator, and they accepted.
"Tum-tum-ta-dá—" hummed Mary as the motor-car, replete with Arabs, twisted its way over the old camel route into the heart of the desert.
After some miles the dome of the mosque rose out of the sky, a wall of yellow mud bricks surrounding the town. There were no bright reassuring uniforms of the French about, no hotels with a table d'hôte, no pathetic Cercle Militaire of the officers; only myriads of tiny huts where the students of the Koran were freely housed, only a kitchen with an enormous caldron that gave to seven hundred of the poor a meal a day.
Great moments are seldom as stupendous as we think they are going to be. Now that we had arrived in the domed presence of our search, the Illustrator grew petty over minor matters. He had a hard time shuffling about in the slippers that he was obliged to put on at the door to keep his unbelieving feet from off the carpet of the Faithful, and he said things that no man should utter in any church.
His condition of mind did not improve when Mary and I behaved remarkably at the tomb, for, following the custom, as it was explained to us, we added to the cluster of strings and ribbons and shreds of garments that were fastened upon the carving of the sarcophagus.
"Tie something on, my ladies," cried the Soudanese, "and make your prayer. For the women do this that Allah may not forget their beseeching—since they are women."
So, as children tie strings upon their lingers that they themselves may remember, we silently prayed and raised a timid flag that we might not be quite forgotten. And, being unselfish, I, no doubt, wished what Mary did.
"Anyway, it's all over," said the ominously reminded.
"Nothing is all over until we are," I ominously reminded.
And even with the saying of these words there was a great falling to the floor of the Arabs near us, and a kissing of the rope and hand of a majestic yet undersized Moor, and a sudden nutter of nervousness among our guides, who whispered to us awesomely:
"Behold the marabout."
Then Mary stopped humming and advanced to meet him, unafraid. He touched her hand, and ours. I was relieved to find his warm; and I was pleased to note that my companion was as alarmed as I was over this rising up of the dead. Indeed, we were in such a state of perplexity that we were up-stairs in the drawing-room of this mysterious departed god before we could pinch each other and wake up.
The marabout, with dignity, waved toward gilt candelabra on a shelf. I made gestures expressing admiration. Mary sat at the table, which was covered with a filthy cloth. Her hand rested on an album, a register for signatures, so great is the fame of the marabout.
She was very tranquil, and, after conversing with the servant who acted as interpreter, we were soothed also. For our marabout had never died—as yet. His father had—himself a benefactor—and his son had built the mosque and fed the poor, and so great is his goodness that he has been proclaimed a marabout before his death.
I gazed at our host reverently, fishing about for something of moment to say. "Never before have I looked upon a man who was at all holy," came the truth.
"Yes, madam," agreed the servant, with enthusiasm. "There are few. He brings peace to every one. Even in his harem there is quiet."
The Illustrator sprang from the springs. "His what?"
Mary and I, mouths wreathed in smiles the greater to deceive, admonished him in icy English.
Coffee was brought. The holy man sat at our head, proud of his table-cloth, of the lady-finger cakes, of his sugar-bowl. There were windows in the room—European fashion—that gave upon the open place before the house and mosque. A mute, turbaned throng waited to see those whom the master had honored.
It was Moslemism at its darkest, with a French coffee-cup before us. It was world's end to all appearances, if not the end of the journey. Mary waited no longer in expectancy; she was seemingly at peace, yet what could she extract from these surroundings, I asked myself, where, in our searching for a "nail," we had been so curiously led?
We had finished our coffee and paid our compliments; we had left a silver bangle for—for the ladies. When we arose to go, our host opened the register and besought our autographs.
It will always annoy me that I took no cognizance of the way Mary behaved from the time she signed the register to the moment she kissed the cheek of the marabout. The kiss one could not fail to notice—it was unnecessary and it was fervid. As the Illustrator reminded her in rapid-fire English, it was dangerous to encourage a man, no matter how good, who had a harem. There is always room for one more in that mysterious quarter.
The marabout was not shocked, he was rather pleased than otherwise, and our ward's face was glowing like the heart of a rose.
"I don't care," she defended; "he's made me the happiest woman on earth, and I just don't care."
This amazing step was too dreadful, too mysterious to analyze. I sat with the Illustrator on the front seat as we went back through the open country toward Bou Saada. If he had anything to say I preferred to have it over with as he drove, his close attention to the rough road necessarily limiting his flow of words. Still, his vocabulary was not to be despised, and by the time we had neared the village it was impressed upon me that Mary had now fallen in love with the "nail" which I had chosen, and had relentlessly pursued, and no doubt she would shortly slip away from us to become a haremite. This would be all my fault, and what would her mother say?
But, far from crushed, I hissed back that the girl was in love with but one man, and that she was searching for him, and that her faith would bring her to him. It was a departure from my former allegiance, but the Illustrator had to be punished. He plunged us in and out of a ravine as he stared at me. He wanted to know any good reason for her faith accomplishing what his motor-car didn't want.
"Because," I confessed, "I, too, have faith that her faith can do it."
Then we snorted into Bou Saada with the moon for company again, all three of us ominously silent. Nor was the uneasy peace broken until my consort fell into my room, as I was tidying up for dinner, with the horrible information that Mary had already left the hotel and was making for the marabout. She wasn't difficult to trail, poor dear, for she went, unafraid, in the moonlight, while we skulked along in the shadow—and she took the road toward El Hamel. Yet she did not leave the town, for, reaching the rival Hôtel du Desert, she paused, peering into the coffee-room. It was of the Moorish type, a blue-tiled oven with the copper coffee-pot over the smoldering coals. Some Arabs were playing in one corner, and in another a charming face shone out from a haze of cigarette smoke.
Mary walked over to this corner, and when the occupant saw her he arose and put out both his hands to greet her, and for the second time that day, with just as little fuss, the girl kissed a "nail"—only this was the first one. Then they sat down at the little table hand in hand, and he, like the ineligible that he was, forgot his vow never to return to her except by the bending of the family knee. He could only marvel that both of them, idle wanderers, should have found each other in the waste of the desert. But Mary said it was no trick at all.
At this point, we two, looking into Paradise, ventured to enter, and without preliminaries asked the question that was uppermost.
"How did I know he was here?" repeated Mary. "Why, I saw his name and this address in the dear marabout's register."
"It was faith," I freely admitted.
"It was fate," said her charmed one, romantically.
Then Mary proved the excellence of her creed, for it stretched like rubber that she might grow kind. "No, it was the motor-car—it took me there," insisted Mary, sweetly, to my charming one.
So the Illustrator was happy and gave them his blessing.