The Rock Whence Ye Were Hewn

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The Rock Whence Ye Were Hewn  (1915) 
by Achmed Abdullah

Extracted from Lippincott's magazine, 1915 Feb, pp. 63–70.

The Rock Whence
Ye Were Hewn

by Achmed Abdullah

Author of “The Infidel”

SHE noticed him first when the big liner swung away from the pier. Everybody was crowding to the side of the ship. There was a fluttering of handkerchiefs, a waving of hats. Eyes were strained to catch a last glimpse of a beloved face.

But he stood as a thing apart. He looked straight ahead. But for the gleam in his cutting, purple-black eyes he could have passed for a latter-day Buddha.

She knew men. For three years she had gone the fashionable round from Newport to Paris, from Palm Beach to the Adirondacks. Many men had spoken to her of love, love reinforced with wedding-ring and diamonds and high-power motorcar. But she had remained a cool, slim, unconquerable virgin, savage in the consciousness of it. All her life she had been expecting a fine, irresistible, mediaeval passion to carry her off her feet. And so she said to herself that she was keeping herself for that one supreme moment of life.

When she followed the steward to her cabin she saw him again. His profile was turned to her, and it was as clear-cut as an engraved medal. Her father noticed him, too.

“See that man, Marie? I wonder what nationality he is. Dresses like an American, walks like an Englishman, and looks as self-centered as an Egyptian mummy.” He laughed. “Well, an ocean liner is like a middle-class boarding-house. We'll find out about him in a day or two.” And Ronaldshay went to his cabin to dress and to have another look at the blue-prints of the engineering project which was taking him abroad.

At dinner they sat across from the stranger. The captain seemed to know him. He addressed him as Mr. Laveda.

“A Spaniard,” thought the girl.

But his English was perfect, and when, just to test her theory, she used a Spanish quotation which demanded an answer, he smiled.

“I'm rather stupid at languages. Just English and a smattering of French, and perhaps a few out-of-the-way dialects the very names of which would mean nothing to you.”

That night in her cabin she was disturbed. All her life she had been frank with herself. Always she had tried to analyze her own soul. But to-night she was afraid to do so. Love at first sight? Impossible and very ridiculous—she laughed at the thought. But it was a thin, half-hearted laugh. It was not that she thought love as such a shameful thing. But perhaps she was not the descendant of Puritans for nothing. And so the first discovery of love seemed to her wrong and unreal.

But then she was a modern woman, and her mind proceeded in a modern way, upon flashes and sparks, by leaps and intuition, and not by reasoning. When moved by her own soul she could conceive anything. It had been so at school. Her teachers could never order her to think. She could only think when she was moved from within.

And to-night she thought. The personality of the stranger seemed to surround her. She seemed to drown in it. And when she finally fell asleep, she saw in her last half-waking moment his purple-black eyes and his hands, which were strong and hairy, with broad, determined-looking thumbs and the high blue veins of a thoroughbred horse.

The friendship increased every day with the quick, human intimacy of ocean voyages. Laveda was soon a favorite with all the passengers. His ready wit, his Eighteenth Century manners, his interesting talk, and his great, tender kindness to the children on board endeared him to the women. The judgment of the strictly masculine smoking-room was the same. He was a Man's man. Therefore women liked him.

Even her father, absorbed in the one topic which was his life, sang his praises. Ronaldshay was an engineer, and so he was of course an idealist of the purest water. His mind conceived gigantic plans: the irrigation of Mesapotamia, the coming of the crop-bringing waters into the Western hollow of the Sahara, the digging of canals and subsequent greening of yellow sage lands in Idaho and Southern Utah. And with that cold, gray enthusiasm of his he told his daughter that the stranger understood, that he talked as a man and a craftsman of the blessings of the waters, of huge stretches of land in Central Asia which waited for the coming of the master and the clanking song of pick and shovel.

And Marie was busy weaving her dreams. She tried to read meaning into the purple-black eyes which haunted her nights. But she did not succeed. There was always a ready answer on the stranger's lips. There was once in a while an intimate note in his words. But his eyes were the eyes of a sphinx, unchanged and unchangeable, deep, inscrutable, and very, very old. Yes, that was it, she said to herself: they were old, those eyes, not with the age of years, but with the age of a race, the age of centuries of thinking and suffering.

But she could not read the hidden meaning. She could not understand. Once she made a half-hearted remark. And only hours later did she understand his slow, deep-voiced answer.

“You speak of mystery, Miss Ronaldshay. Don't you think it a very good thing? It is the unsaid thing which makes friendship and”—he looked straight at her—“love. A complete opening of the heart and mind makes of it a useless thing ... like a book which has been read or a grape which has been pressed...”

And another time he made a similar, strikingly un-American remark.

“Never give all the heart. For only the dust of the rose petal remains to the seller of perfume.”

It was on the fifth day out that that happened which made the crossing one to be remembered of all the passengers.

It was a still, calm day, the sea like a pane of glass. There was hardly a ripple. The ship cut through the water as a sharp sword cuts through thin silk. There were the usual deck-games, the usual port-to-port flirtations, the usual high-souled talk of school-ma'ams discussing what they would see and learn on three dollars per day.

Then a shrill agonized shriek which tore the white peace of the afternoon. A little child had been playing on top-deck. She had come too near the railing. A sailor's warning had come too late. And the little body shot overboard with the stark, weighty straightness of an iron bolt.

Afterwards nobody knew exactly how it had all happened. But suddenly Laveda was in the water, swimming with powerful, overhand strokes. Then there came a sharp command. A clanging of bells, a whirring of tackle, a straining of ropes, a hurrying of feet—and a boat shot away from the side of the vessel.

Two minutes later the child was hugged in the embrace of a hysterical mother, and Laveda was swiftly off to his cabin.

That night, under the stars, Marie talked with him for hours. She did not speak of the brave deed which she had witnessed in the afternoon. It was too recent, too sudden, too big. She knew that a trivial word of congratulation and admiration would defile the greatness of the thing. But there was a message in her trembling voice, in her moist eyes, in the quivering of her red lips.

He held her hand in his for a long time when he said good night. Her soft white hand answered the quivering question of his strong fingers. There was the same mute question in his sharp, staccato breath. And she waited, waited for his words. But suddenly she looked into his eyes. They were as she had seen them five days before, black and deep with the sufferings of centuries. And she suddenly understood that he would not speak, that there was a barrier. A barrier—good God, but of what? she asked herself.

The next day the ship made port. There was the customary hustle, exchange of names and addresses, jovial farewells, promises to write, trivial friendships, broken by the whistle of the ship and the racket of landing.

Laveda stood by her side as the white houses of Cherbourg jumped away from the stark background of blue and gray.

“Off to Paris, I suppose?” he asked.

“Only for a few days. We're going on a long journey. Didn't father tell you?”

“No.”

“We are going to Bokhara.”

“What? To Central Asia ... to Bokhara?” There was a hoarse trembling in his voice, rapidly suppressed.

“Yes. It does seem like the end of the world, doesn't it? But father's firm got a large concession there from the Russian Government. An irrigation scheme, I believe. And I made him take me with him.”

Suddenly she looked up at him. She had a momentary, mad hallucination that an utter stranger was standing next to her, dressed in turban and flowing Oriental robes. But the vision was gone as suddenly as it had come. And Laveda bent over her hand, kissing it in the Viennese fashion, and bade her farewell.

“You will see an interesting old town, Miss Ronaldshay. I do hope that you will have a ripping trip.”

And he was gone.


II.

Marie Ronaldshay knew the Orient of the tourist—Tangier, Algiers, and Cairo.

She knew the Orient of crooked streets, of shouting donkey-boys, of grated windows and bearded patriarchs. She knew the Orient which is dazzling white and electric blue, picked out with rose-madder and tawny orange, and flecked with purple and golden sunspots. And so, when she saw Bokhara, when she saw the Orient which is the womb of Eternal Asia, the sight of it came to her as a grim revelation.

Here there were no yelling multitudes, no wheedling Levantine dragomans, no ragged urchins begging for baksheesh, no blotches of crude, naked color. This was a different land, cold, gray, cruel and—yes, she said to herself—contemptuous and sneering.

She and her father were comfortably installed in a clean hotel owned and managed by a Dane, the Swiss of Eastern Russia and Central Asia. The rooms were well furnished. The Tartar waiters reminded her of slumming parties to the East-end of New York. The food was the usual entente cordiale mixture of French cuisine and British grill.

But when she stepped to the window, when she looked at the gray, sinister houses, the knowledge of where she was came to her with a flash and a jerk.

She saw narrow-hipped, heavy-shouldered Sarts, broad-faced, brooding Uzbegs, ruffianly Afghans from beyond the passes, their beards dyed crimson with henna, wide-stepping, rough-mannered Khivans and Bokhariots, and here and there a gray-coated officer of the Tsar, and a Hindu Bunya oily with ghee.

The sight of it all frightened and fascinated her.

“You will find it an interesting old town,” Laveda had said.

He had been right. She found it as interesting as the first shiver of torture and death. And her feminine curiosity was morbidly aroused. She wanted to see it all, all. She wanted to understand this strange, sinister land.

The call to prayer droned from a distant mosque.

“Allah akbar, Allah akbar! Ill 'ullah Mohammed rasoul Allah! Heyya alfalla, heyya alsaluto! Allah akbar, akbar!”

She shivered. Historical lessons, learned and forgotten during her school years, came back to her. She thought of the grim centuries which had passed, of Asiatic conquerors of the long ago, of Attila, Timoor and Ghengiz, of the Golden Horde and the Tartar Khans.

“Allah akbar, Allah akbar!”

She felt impatient and nervous. There was something calling, calling to her in that gray, brooding town of Bokhara. She must go and see. But she must go alone.

Her father was busy all day with blue-prints and long pages covered with figures and interminable interviews with suave Russian officials. The officers of the Russian garrison treated her with true Slav hospitality and politeness. They tried to turn her every day into a fête. They took her for long, wild drives. They arranged polo matches in her honor. They showed her the palace and the gardens of the Ameer. They bade her watch the reckless horsemanship of the Buriat Cossacks.

But she was tired of it all. She was tired of their purring French, their exaggerated, barbarous politeness, their flowery compliments, their eternal solicitude.

She wanted to obey the voice which was calling her. She wanted to see for herself. And so one morning she donned heavy English walking-boots and sweater-coat and tweed skirt, and walked out into the waiting streets of Bokhara.

She walked at a rapid pace. She passed the old disused fort of the Bokhara Ameers, with its high walls pierced for muskets and surmounted by long, slim bronze cannon. She came near the great Mosque of the Sweetmeat-Seller, and out into the soko—and there were the strumming of the tom-toms, the wailing of the flutes, and the singing of high-pitched voices, for it was a feast-day, the Feast of the Birthday of the Prophet.

She passed through the bazaar of the perfume-sellers and left the street of the spice-sellers on her left. The little shops were empty. The faithful were at their devotions. Further up the street she saw garden patches red with pomegranate and peach and apricot and then the houses of the nobles, strong houses of gray stone built for defense, the upper stories gay with glazed Persian tiles, with little iron-barred windows, and doors carved and studded with iron bosses and furnished with great hinges and locks.

In the distance she saw brown, crumbling walls. They seemed to draw her on. She approached them rapidly, eagerly. Then she remembered. A Russian officer had told her of them with a metallic laugh: this was the Mellah, the walled-in quarter of the Jews. She hesitated at the entrance. Then she walked on, picking her way carefully. For the streets of the Mellah were a foot deep in miry muck.

There was no feast and no music in the Jewish quarter. Business went on as usual. The Jews walked about buying and selling, and always, always giving way with a servile bow when a Mahommedan passed by. If the Jew did not step aside quick enough there was a sharp curse, a blow or a kick. And the jeering, contemptuous Muslim passed on while the Jew bowed more deeply than ever.

They were dressed in the traditional costume of the Oriental Jew, long gowns of dark cloth, little skull-caps, and now and then a black or yellow turban. Unlike the European Jews, they were fine, tall, straight, broad-shouldered men, with the hook-nose, the fierce eyes, and the fighters' chin of the Bedawin. But always they gave way before the conquering race, always they bowed deeply before the Muslim.

Once or twice she turned, and she imagined that a tall Jew was following her at a respectful distance, keeping in the shadows of the houses. When she stopped at a shop to look at embroideries he walked past her, and she thought that he was drawing the loose sleeve of his gaberdine across his face to hide it. But she paid no attention to it. She made her small purchase and walked on.

It was near noon. The religious service in the mosques was over, and the streets and bazaars were filling rapidly. And suddenly she felt alone. She felt—she thought somehow—as a Chinaman would feel in the midst of a noisy Coney Island crowd—hated, a foreigner, an outcast.

Nervousness overcame her, and quickly she retraced her steps. She looked for a friendly Russian uniform. But there was none in sight. The Bokhariots stared at her, the Jews leered, the Bunyas grinned, and everywhere, as she walked, she was followed by a score of laughing, joking boys. The women, through their thin, coarse veils, stared as sharply as the men.

She had left the Mellah and she neared again the Mosque of the Sweetmeat-Seller. At its great central door she passed a beggar whose right eye had been destroyed by a hot iron for some crime. He was calling upon the passers-by for alms, in the name of Allah the All-Merciful, the King of the Day of Judgment. She gave, and when she would not give more, he clutched at her skirt and spat at her and cursed her for a Christian, an infidel, a shameless and unveiled woman.

She screamed and tried to tear herself loose. But the beggar's grip was like steel. And the heat of the gathering day was beginning to tell on her. Little black spots danced before her eyes, and she thought she was going to faint.

For a moment she must have lost consciousness, and afterwards she could not remember how it had all happened. But suddenly the tall Jew who had followed her through the Mellah stood between her and the beggar whom he was holding off with one arm.

He spoke rapidly and in English.

“Quick! Up the street and to the right. Your hotel is right there.”

She obeyed mechanically. She ran up the street. At the corner she turned and looked. And the sight which she saw froze her into rigidity.

The beggar had risen. He looked at the Jew for a slow, hateful moment. Then he struck him with all his strength and spat twice into his face. And the Jew never lifted his hand to defend himself, to avenge the insult. He bowed deeply before the Muslim, beggar though he was, and turned to walk away, wiping his face with his long, loose sleeve.

Then, suddenly, she saw his face. That clean-cut, high-bred profile, the thin lips, the deep, purple-black eyes—but no, no—it was impossible. This was a despised, cowardly Jew who took blow and insult as a matter of course. And the other, Laveda, was a brave man. She knew. She remembered the afternoon when he had saved the little child's life at the risk of his own.

Back in her room she laughed at herself for a hysterical little fool who saw visions in broad daylight.


{c|III.{}} It was winter. Ronaldshay had finished his work in Bokhara, and now he and his daughter were back again in New York.

Marie was in the music-room when the maid brought in a visitor's card.

“Mr. J. S. Laveda.”

A moment later he walked into the room, with his quick step, his deep bow, his immaculate clothes. His right hand was extended.

But the girl did not take it. She stood rigid, contemptuous. She spoke harshly.

“It was you—that day in Bokhara—now I know it was you.”

“Yes. It was I.”

Again he tried to take her hand, but she drew it away with a quick, cruel jerk. Her blue eyes were blazing.

“I thought you a brave man—that day on board ship. And you—you let that begger insult you—you did not raise a hand to defend yourself. Oh, I despise you—go—go, you coward.” And she pointed to the door.

Laveda stood as straight as a lance at rest. He looked at her, and in his eyes there was that same age-old riddle, the hard stamp of centuries of thinking and suffering, centuries of infinite patience.

He spoke slowly and quietly.

“I shall go after I have said what I came here to say.”

There was dead silence for a few seconds. Then he continued.

“Am I a coward?—I don't know.” He laughed. “I am a Bokharan Jew. That much you know. Also you know what it means to be a Bokharan Jew—a man in the likeness of a man, with the strength of a man, and the solemn pride of an ancient, one-God faith in the depths of his heart. And yet...” He hesitated for a moment. “But you know. You have seen the Mellah. You have seen the crowded, evil-smelling streets, the nauseating, acrid bazaars. You have seen how we cringe and bow before our Muslim masters ... You have seen how that beggar struck me and spat in my face...” he laughed “... and how I bowed and wiped my face and walked away.”

The girl looked at him impatiently.

“Go ... go ... leave me ...”

And he continued imperturbably.

“A coward indeed? Again I say that I don't know. But I remember the dead years, the years back there in the Mellah of Bokhara when I was a child, the sufferings, the indignities. Then came men from Syria, men of our own people. They spoke of a great land beyond the sea where no man fears the slipper and the dagger of Muslim masters, where everybody has a chance, where even the Jew is allowed to worship his God and live his life without the fear of blows and tortures and persecution.... And when I heard the tale of the men from Syria, the tale of the strange land, I thought of the Messiah. And perhaps I wept.”

Marie looked at him. He stood near her, immaculate, clean, scrupulously clothed, an American in everything. And he spoke of the grime and dirt and sufferings of his former life without shame, without rancor, without impatience. He seemed steeped in his own thoughts, with his head sunk upon his chest. Then suddenly he seemed to become once more aware of her presence, and he continued.

“I ran away. I was only a child, twelve years old. But somehow I reached this land. I was alone, quite alone. I went to the Jews. But they wanted nought of me. Their ways were not my ways. Their speech was not my speech. They spoke German, Russian, Yiddish. To them I was a foreigner, an Oriental. So I started life alone, by myself. And I discovered that the men from Syria had spoken the truth. Here I was free, free!” He spoke with a gentle, low voice. “But you never lived in the Mellah of Bokhara. You never knew what it means to find freedom ... to find it suddenly ... as something concrete, something existing, something pulsating and breathing.... And I worked at many things. I worked with my hands and with my brain. I learned. Always did I learn. And I made my way. I accumulated wealth. I became an American ... yes ... I became an American gentleman, clean, educated, cultured. And I was proud. I forgot my land and my ancient God, the God of Jacob and Abraham.”

His voice rose with the dull throb of an inspired visionary.

“Then one night a voice spoke to me. I shall never forget the words: Remember the tents of Israel! Remember the pit whence ye were digged, the rock whence ye were hewn! And the thought came to me of mine own people, their sufferings, their ignorance, their black misery, their rank squalor. So I returned to them. Year after year I returned to them. For the length of a month every year I dropped my American clothes, and dressed once more in skull-cap and gaberdine. Once more I submitted to the indignities of the men of Bokhara. But I tried to help my people ... a little, oh just a little. And it was slow work. ... Last summer I met you. I loved you from the first. And I thought that you loved me. But I did not say a word. For there was a barrier ... there was the Mellah, the persecutions, the indignities. I came to Bokhara. Then that happened which you saw...”

The girl whispered.

“But why? why?... You were so brave on board the ship ... and there ... in Bokhara....”

He interrupted her gently.

“It would have been an easy matter to strike the beggar, even to kill him. But what would have happened afterwards?... The Muslim would have swept through the Mellah with the fierceness of a desert storm. They would have killed a thousand men. They would have enslaved a thousand women. They would have defiled the synagogues. Mine own people, the people I love, would have paid for the deed of my arm. They would have paid a high price in suffering, in tears, and in blood.” He smiled grimly. “I took the blow. I accepted the insult. I bowed to the ground and wiped my face. I am a coward.”

The girl rushed up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. “No! I see now. You were brave, brave. Never was there a braver man than you!”

He was silent. She waited for him to speak. But he bowed deeply and walked to the door. Then words came back to her.

“Will you not tell me once more that you love me? Will you not ask me to be your wife?”

He turned at the door. He walked up to her, and looked at her, sternly, searchingly.

“Love is friendship. But it is more than friendship. Love is kisses. But it is more than kisses. Love is passion. But it is more than passion. Friendship and kisses and passion. Yes!—But love is also respect. Without it the friendship turns to contempt, the kisses to gall, and the passion to hatred...”

She looked at him. She did not understand what he meant.

“Respect?... Why, yes of course ...”

He continued in a hard voice.

“I am of Bokhara. I am of the people of the Mellah. I am a Jew. Every year I return to my own people, to help ... every year for a month. The woman I love must be a strong woman. The woman I love must have respect for what is close to my heart. She must not sneer at the things which once were my life ... before I became an American, a clean, educated gentleman. The woman I love must follow where I go. She must help where I help ... even in the Mellah, even in the dirt and squalor of the walled-in quarter of the Jews.”

And the girl lifted her lips to his.

“Yes. I shall follow. Year after year shall I follow ... even to Bokhara ... even to the dirt and squalor of the Mellah. For I love you, dear, I love you so...”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.


The author died in 1945, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 77 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.