The Anklet of the Troglodyte
The Anklet of the Troglodyte
BY LOUISE CLOSSER HALE
WE had not taken Cassy, into consideration when we invited the biologist, Gregory George, to motor with us into the Tunisian desert. Our wanting him to go at all we felt to be a sort of intellectual development on our part of which we were rather proud. As a rule, while idling through foreign countries we shun the erudite, and derive our enjoyment by sopping up understanding through the agency of the senses rather than through the cells of the brain.
Possibly several weeks of Cassy had given us a respect anew for brain cells, on the old theory—generally otherwise applied—that absence makes the heart grow fonder. If Cassy possesses a cell, it is yet to be unlocked, although, conforming to the law of compensation, this lack of equipment is cunningly concealed beneath a lovely exterior. And it is a melancholy fact that any girl who has looked about her a bit will admit such an arrangement to be an asset in life. However, we had forgotten the advantages of this specious pulchritude, or rather we had ceased to regard it as being marketable, and when we fully realized that Gregory would be thrown into close proximity with Cassy if he accepted our invitation, we saw very little ahead but several hundred miles of motoring misery for both our guests.
We would not have asked him at all had Cassy been with us when we three met, quite by chance, on the hill that once bore ancient Carthage on its bosom. The incompatibility would have been too easily apparent. But Cassy had declined Carthage a second time, as our first trip had revealed nothing to her but White Fathers and tear-vases, "which were very sad things"; and as we strolled among the tombs of those who had themselves been denied the joys of biology, listening to Gregory's mildly explanatory voice, we suddenly yearned for more.
He did not at first accept our proposal, although we drove him straight away to the café at Sidi Bou Said, and he who can sit under the spell of that Moorish village and refuse any cup that is offered him of further Arabian delights has reduced life to a science indeed. Yet he admitted the temptation to let the world slide, and as he and the Illustrator touched upon their boyhood days and their climb up the beanstalk to manhood, they found that the science of life as the biologist knew it, and the science of living as the Illustrator had found it, were not dissimilar.
Even with this discovery fresh in our minds, a growing fear of what he would think of Cassy wrapped us in a penumbra of dishonor, and we begged him to declare himself before he would, perforce, encounter her. But some uncertainty of steamers deterred him until we reached Tunis, and there, as we expected, we encountered the child within a few feet of our hotel.
She was returning without guide from a shopping expedition, her arms full of red slippers, her eyes full of hair, and what was not in her eyes falling down her back. But Cassy was not troubled, she had bargained well that day; and impatient of the suggestion that we walk to the lily minaret rising from the kasbah for the call to prayers, she urged us to a brasserie, there to hear American airs played by Germans in a French band.
It was not entirely unpleasant to sit in a sort of magnified shop-window protected from Tunisian zephyrs, and watch the panorama of nations pass on the pavement below, and Cassy loved it. In a rush of emotion she bought a nosegay which, in a further, excess of sympathy, she gave to a blind beggar, save for one flower, and this she extracted for our astonished guest. Her general prodigality attracted to our table most of the turbaned venders of the town, and the apéritif hour took on the aspect of Donnybrook Fair. Her remarks were varied and unceasing, and as we watched the biologist endeavoring to follow her, our last hope of him as a traveling companion vanished.
"Oh, Mr. George," she prattled, "you are losing your rose. Yes, you forgot it—you simply didn't care—but I do hate to stick a pin into their little bodies, don't you?—do you suppose that it hurts them? Here's the boy with only one eye. Why do so many of them only have one? But then 'half a loaf,' etc., don't you think? Voilà, petit, est-ce-que vous avez des cartes postales de Carthage? No, he hasn't; then allez, allez. I'm sending Carthage post-cards to all my old Latin teachers on account of 'Infelix Dido'! I never got any further than 'Infelix Dido' in Cæsar—or was it Virgil? Then I always had the measles and had to leave school for the year. I had them three times, and scarlet fever once—but I haven't a word to say against scarlet fever—it made my hair come in curly. Did you ever have your head shaved, Mr. George? Those little lawn-mowers that move over it are so funny. Look, here comes a funeral! It's so sweet the way the French take off their hats. They—"
"As I was saying, Greg!" broke in the Illustrator, firmly, "if you've never been to Matmata, you ought to come with us. They're a very curious people. They—they—" He didn't know what they did, and looked at me appealingly.
"They live in the ground," I hastened, glad I had read up on them.
"Oh yes," said Gregory, "they are troglodytes. They—"
But Cassy drowned him in a flood of laughter. It was amazing with what courtesy he listened to her. "Troglodytes! I can't tell why, but that word reminds me of frogs. I'm really quite anxious to see them, although I don't suppose there's a thing to buy there. I have a feeling that they will be leaping about. Are you going with us, Mr. George—are you?"
The Illustrator pushed back his chair, that the embarrassment of our friend's refusal might be lessened by conflicting noises. But no sound emanated from the biologist except a very pleasant one, the sound of a man telling a pretty girl that at first he was a little uncertain about giving the time to the trip, but now he believed he could manage it, "and thank you very much," and all the while he was looking at Cassy while he thanked her for our car. Cassy said, "Not at all," and for a time was distinctly depressed while gazing at Professor George's glasses; but we ourselves cheered up, having noticed her disfavor, and determined for Gregory's sake to keep him to ourselves.
It has always been a sore point with the Illustrator that he did not "twig" from the beginning his friend's interest in Cassy. He can sit now and recount ceaselessly of clever acquaintances of his who have married women mentally inferior. On one moody evening, when he had to change a tire, he was inclined to believe that he himself was of the mad, the bad, and the sad who had sought entrance and been admitted to this Fool's Paradise. But catching a steely, intellectual look in my eye, he hastily decided that, on second thoughts, he had been caught peeping into the Paradise and I had rescued him.
Our tardy suspicions grew as Gregory became, in a way, unsatisfactory as a guest. His kindliness remained, but, even before leaving Tunis, his excellent knowledge of conditions around us for which we, like parched creatures, thirsted, was giving way to Cassy's flouting of his encyclopædic mind.
We had arranged a sort of compromise with Cassy—a secret one of which she knew nothing. It was decided that we would accompany her on her eternal trips to the bazaars, and that we would derive as much information as we could while sitting about the shops sipping the coffee which was served us, and looking at the various articles of men's apparel which the foreign woman takes to herself. The biologist was full of an easy knowledge of the antiquity of these garments, of the prices paid for making them, of the law of the Prophet that first brought them into use. It was an excellent plan, but it didn't work. Cassy absorbed Gregory. It was fearful to see the eminence of such as he brought low by the imminence of such as she. He juggled cups for her, delicate ones; he tried on hats too small for him; he allowed himself to be draped in costumes to see if they would be becoming to her. We protested, we stormed, we took her aside.
"Why, he doesn't mind; he likes it!" the girl insisted.
And as time went on, the truth was made certain that he did like it. His controlled, educational laughter developed now and then into a college yell, his gray eyes grew blue, and he had a way of taking off his glasses, when he saw her coming up the street, that was strongly akin to the pluming of the male pheasant in the spring. The Illustrator and I—off in corners, whispering—admitted our disappointment in that we were obliged to abandon all hopes of motoring along a higher intellectual plane of culture, and yet, after several conferences, we confessed that the opportunity for philosophical reflection in observing this old young man shuffle off his husk was a fair exchange for statistics.
What followed we could divide into four distinct conclusions—each one being final. From Tunis to Sousse we were of the mind that he would soon get over it if he saw enough of her, so we gave them the back seat and drove away, looking sternly along the magnificent French road which blazes the country like a ray of the sun. We hadn't wanted to go to Sousse on that day, as the French President was there, and we saw no reason for motoring through a desert to witness an every-day occurrence in the Bois.
But Cassy begged for it, because she would never know if the President freckled or tanned unless we saw him under Southern skies, and the biologist, laughing in great gusts, urged us on. It was noteworthy that almost anything this mad young woman and maddened young man proposed turned out successfully. Although the hotel proprietor met us with the cheerless information that there were no accommodations in the town unless we were the party that wired for rooms, they assured him in a single voice that we were those same; and although we ate the excellent luncheon prepared for the other party with apprehension, still nothing happened so far as we know to prove us impostors. More than that, the sun was warm, the sky was blue, and the walls of the citadel were glistening white. The Spahis, magnificent in red and blue and gold, waited on their nervous little horses while the ruler lunched in the blank walled house of the kadi. The Arabian women, dressed and veiled in black—for economy's sake, the guide told us—squatted along the route; and sweeping past us came the meharis, the courier camels, their white-clad drivers urging the huge beasts to greater speed as they took their "warming" up previous to a race of many miles.
The Illustrator and I pinched each other, which is as much show of affection as those who have seen their wooden-wedding dare permit themselves, and both of us felt pity for the biologist, because his love must live—and die—in so appealing an hour. But it didn't die, not in that hour, although when the President appeared Cassy clapped her hands against her mouth, emitting what the Arabian women call applause, but we call a war-whoop; nor later in the day, when she ate fried cakes in the kasbah with the Moors, and dribbled syrup over her pretty face; nor later than that, when we sat at our own café looking out over the waters of the bay.
"The reason I like it all," she summed up, "is because you don't have to think in this country. It's just like the first day of summer vacation—after you know you've 'passed.' "
"Yes," said Gregory, deeply, comprehendingly.
"Yes," we echoed, understanding Gregory. It was vacation-time, but we saw a wintry term ahead for him, with but remembrance, like dead flowers in a book, for consolation.
After Sousse, by some weaving about, came Kairouan. It was out of our way, but Cassy feared if we didn't go there shortly there would be no room left in the motor for rugs. "You shouldn't buy rugs in Kairouan," we reminded her. "It is a holy city. If a Moslem makes seven pilgrimages there it is the equivalent to one to Mecca, and he will see Paradise."
"He will see it if he goes but once to Kairouan," murmured Professor George, parenthetically, although he was seeing nothing at the time but the mist of Cassy's hair.
The young lady was insistent that rugs could be found in the city of mosques. "Who would have thought that there would have been inlaid tables at Sousse?" she asked, wedging her purchase more firmly into the back seat.
"We're going to 'do' the mosques," I replied, severely.
"I think we can do both," hastened the Illustrator, who was much braver in the disciplining of Cassy when he was alone with me.
"Buy a rug," outlined the child, "sit on it, and be pulled to these mosques."
Her flippancy ended the matter, for the frivolous always gain their point.
It was after arriving in Kairouan that we had agreed upon the second conclusion of the Professor's love affair. Since he was not going to fall out of love with her, he was going to have his heart broken instead—and that soon. A more adept man in the business could have delayed a proposal of marriage for months of exquisite uncertainty, but we were sure that the end was near, and looked forward gloomily to hours of silent motoring to the troglodytes and back. What the Illustrator called the "acid test" was applied to the Professor's love in Kairouan, and he stood it, and this was what carried us into the second conviction.
The mosques, we will acknowledge, made some impression on Cassy. She loved beauty, and besides, in the Great Mosque there were two engaging marble pillars set closely together, which, if we women were to see heaven, must be passed successfully. My consort was but mildly interested in my attaining this altitude, but Gregory urged his plump little lady through the heavenly gates, so slightly ajar, and Cassy twisted like a dancing-girl of the Ouled Naïl, while her hair fell down delightfully. Near by, upon the carpet of the Faithful, a student squatted opposite his instructor, a blind old priest who chanted the Koran with him. The old man's face remained impassive, but the young student laid down his tablets of wood, and his voice faltered, as though for a moment the saying of the Prophet had small place on the page of life.
After that, by agreement, there was some mighty bargaining for rugs in the Souk. Cassy, pale with excitement, named her price and remained firm, the merchant lifted his hands to Allah, and cried, with Shylock, "What these Christians are!" The venders in the adjoining stalls flapped dusty antiques up and down alluringly; we parted from the merchant; he was hurt; we were hurt. We withdrew to a near-by Café Maure—according to custom. He folded his hands and awaited our return—according to custom.
Some musicians were playing their strange lament in the coffee-house; various Arabs were engaged in the jeux des dames; a dervish who was studying the refinements of self-torture in the mosques offered to entertain us, and we, with our coffee-cups before us, permitted him to show his strange rites. His painful accomplishments were not new to us, yet never quite old, and always dismaying to the Western mind. And when, in a greedy rapture, he offered to "eat the serpent," we found that there were chills of horror remaining in our spine. Cassy was tranquil. "Do you know," she said, above the screeching of the flutes, "I don't think that's expensive for the rug?"
Yet that night Gregory asked her to marry him. It took place on the long veranda that connected the windows of all the apartments. And Cassy said she couldn't dream of it. Then we waited in the darkness for the snapping of Gregory's heart, but the noise was not audible. He was always surprising in the making of sounds.
"I am not asking you to dream. I am asking you to live," he replied, passionately. With this he went away, and after a long while she crept into her room.
Our third and fourth final conclusions of the whole matter developed so rapidly that it is hard to say which came before the other. Possibly the next in order was my insistence that a girl who a man thought was good enough for him generally was—the mere fact of his wanting her defined the man himself—and I was inclined to insist that she was generally better, but the Illustrator induced me to retract this. Besides, my dormant sympathy had gone out to the Cassy who had crept to her room, and who, in the warm blackness of the desert night found herself softly weeping from an experience which was the inevitable portion of her charming womanhood. So I went over to her side. It was my intention to sit on the back seat and protect her in case she really had no place for a biologist in her family, and it was this attempt which caused us to arrive at the fourth conclusion. We expressed the development only by the rolling of eyes at first, for the Professor would not permit me the back seat, would not permit me Cassy at all, and gave every indication that it was his plan to win her by the well-applied forces of his intelligence.
"She still buys curios—awful ones," I confided to the Illustrator at Sfax, forgetting the while to drive away the Arabs who gathered about the sketching one.
"I've great faith in the intellect," he replied.
"But it will be breaking a butterfly."
"Not at all," very coolly, as though he had done the same thing once himself. "It takes mind to know how to reach her type. It takes mind to do anything—to drive away these pestering Moors, for instance," looking at me reproachfully.
I charged at the mob, and as they cleared, the young couple were discovered on the outskirts of the crowd, she very happy, and he as happy as one could be who was staggering under the weight of a large hat-rack painted green. I endeavored to flash a triumphant glance at the Illustrator, who refused to see it, for it would seem that Gregory had not as yet applied his mind to breaking up her curio habit, and I had a notion that her little heart was well wrapped in the mysterious delights of the bazaar.
It was at Matmata that Cassy saw a silver anklet on the brown leg of a troglodyte. She bought it because it was the only thing among these curious people that she could buy, and having one, she was mad for the other; but the girl who wore it said that could never be.
The girl rose to dramatic heights—for a troglodyte—as she described the finding of the anklet. We stood within the center of a hill which had been hollowed out like a bear-pit into a court, and her husband's relatives were gathered about her, for each headman owned a hill, and all his people lived in separate rooms which were burrowed off this court. It was not a wise way of living. They did not protect the brow of the hill after it was hollowed out, and an enemy could throw things down on them if he became sufficiently heated, or the householder himself might fall a victim to his own architecture by tumbling in should he come home late. Still, their forefathers had lived this way from the time they swung down out of the trees and began to use their forelegs for arms; and when the girl's husband, with his family, decided to build a new house, they continued conservative.
The one tremendous advantage in this new home was the unearthing of Cassy's anklet. It was a Roman anklet, related the daughter of the most primitive of races, a Roman anklet of great antiquity, worth much money; but the mate—ah, where was it? The husband's family shook their heads sorrowfully, yet dug a little with their toes into the ground, as though such precious ore might yet be discovered. And Cassy clasped her trophy to her breast, imploring the biologist to encourage her in the belief that she might somewhere find a fitting match for it.
She had developed a way of asking advice of the Professor and not of us, which was a little trying, and caused me to ask tartly why she needed two anklets, anyway. But she was ready for this, and replied with the air of one who had recently been introduced by a crafty being, like Gregory, into the precepts of William Morris: "Now if I had two anklets I could shir a piece of tapestry around them, making a bag, and go out shopping with the silver handles on my arm. It is perfectly simple, but with only one—" Her lip quivered; she wanted so fearfully to have the other.
I looked at the biologist. I had expected to find him a mass of sympathetic jelly, but there was that in his eyes which must have smoldered in Napoleon's when he planned conquering the world.
We left Matmata and its village of mounds, and journeyed back, over twisted, tortured roads and the gravel-beds of streams long since dry, to the highway, and on to more strange peoples. The next day saw us at Medenine, the end of the French road, the end of the long, creeping arm of the French protectorate, the end of the French soldier's ambition—it must be—for it must die in this vast solitude and inactivity.
A mile from the fort another curious tribe had scorned an earthworm existence, and had built rooms of clay one above the other which were reached by rough outside steps. They were poor beyond description, yet with camels in the market-place and trafficking in the shops. Cassy hurled herself upon the inhabitants and demanded anklets.
Professor George, speaking Arabic, aided her in the search. And yet, did Professor George do that? We have only his word for it. But he is a good man, and Cassy is now happy—let us doubt not. Only—there were no Roman anklets to be found; only—he talked apart with a vender who had sought to show his wares, and was hindered; only—when the sun was setting and the bugles at the caserne were playing it to sleep he slipped away from all of us; only—when we met at dinner he had found an anklet that was the mate to Cassy's. Only—(and this is the last only of them all)—when he refused to sell his trophy, we recognized his Gargantuan use of Cassy's weakness. To quote the Illustrator's pitiable summary: as Gregory's bangle was the sole mate to the other, so was he Cassy's soul-mate.
Cassy ate her dinner with a shock of fair hair over her eyes, peering at him through the meshes. She sang little songs that delighted us; she slipped her own anklet over her pretty foot and danced before the king; took little walks with the biologist and returned exasperated; took little walks with me and cried. At midnight, although the moon was pleading, I summoned her from my window. We were to leave at daybreak on a mighty run to Tunis, yet she came in unwillingly, and the battle was still waging. I peeped through the persiennes, conscienceless; her anklet was on her arm, his on his. He bent to kiss her hand, and Cassy softly permitted the caress, and sighed as she went lingeringly within. Yet the hidden sorrow was not suggestive of the sad merchant whose day had been profitless, but rather the expression of a joy that was so exquisite it became a grief.
At four the faint cry of bugles brought to my consciousness a world so lovely that I thought even the banished officer may find consolation in his daily awakening as his proud ambitions die. The vast parade-ground stretched quietly before me, the sky was of the gentlest early green; one star hung low like a huge tear, as though, by its own weight, it must soon roll down the cheek of the heavens and splash upon the earth.
A lonely Moor, wrapped in his burnoose, stalked majestically across the waste, and took up a place beside the gates of the hotel. There was no other life until that moment when Cassy stepped from her long window upon the terrace, and at that same moment Gregory joined her. The beauty of the scene was in their faces. He stretched out his arms, and Cassy slipped into their shelter; a tinkling sound of clashing silver reached my ears.
An hour later we were in the car and ready for the start. They had tried to tell us their great secret, but, failing, we had told them instead, and the Illustrator was heard to boast that he had planned it from the first. As Professor George tucked the rug around his prize, the majestic Moor of the earlier morning tugged at his sleeve. Cassy was intent upon wedging in her curios, the driver was running up the spark, but Gregory and I turned to the man, who suddenly presented a long arm hung with fine, new Roman antiques such as the simple troglodyte had dug out of his house, and greeting the wily lover as an old friend, besought him to buy "more"!
It was a perilous moment, but the mind of Gregory was equal to it. At the flinging of a five-franc piece behind us on the road, the Medenine merchant of yesterday turned his back upon us, and in that swift moment we rushed on toward Tunis.
The biologist looked imploringly at me, I looked compassionately at Cassy, but she was looking blissfully at her anklets. So I let the matter rest forever.