Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Charmer of Snakes by Robert Smythe Hichens

I

The petulant whining of the jackals prevented Renfrew from sleeping. At first he lay still on his camp bed, staring at the orifice of the bell tent, which was only partially covered by the canvas flap let down by Mohammed, after he had bidden his master good-night. Behind the tent the fettered mules stamped on the rough, dry ground, and now and then the heavy rustling of a wild boar could be heard, as it shuffled through the scrub towards the water that lay in the hollow beyond the camp. The wayward songs of the Moorish attendants had died into silence. They slept, huddled together and shrouded in their djelabes. But their wailing rapture of those old triumphant days when on the heights above Granada, beneath the eternal snows, their brethren walked as conquerors, had been succeeded by the cries of the uneasy beasts that throng the mountains between Tangier and Tetuan. And Renfrew said to himself that the jackals kept him from sleeping. He lay still and wondered if Claire were awake in her tent close by. If so, if her dark eyes were unclouded, what journeys must her imagination be making! She was so sensitive to sound of any kind. A cry moved her sometimes with a swift violence that alarmed those around her. The message of a note of music shut one door on her soul, opened another, and let her in to strange regions in which she chose to be lonely.

How amazing it was to think that Claire, with all her serpentine beauty, all her celebrity, all the legends that clung to her fame, all the wild caprices of which two worlds had talked for years,—that Claire was hidden away three feet off, beneath the canvas shield that looked like a moderate-sized mushroom from the Kasbar on the hill. How amazing to think she was no longer Claire Duvigne, but Claire Renfrew. Her cheated audiences sighed in London in which a week ago she was acting. And while they sighed, she slept in this wild valley of Morocco, or lay awake and heard the jackals whining among the dwarf palms. And she was his. She belonged to him. He had the right to hold her—this thin, pale wonder of night and of fame—in his arms, and to kiss the lips from which came at will the coo of a dove or the snarl of a tigress. Although Renfrew could not sleep, he fell into a dream. Indeed, ever since he had married Claire, a week ago, his life had been a dream. When the goddess suddenly bends down to the worshipper, and says: “Don't pray to me any more—sit on my throne by my side!”—the worshipper exchanges one form of devotion for another, so deep and so different that for a while his ordinary faculties seem frozen, his life goes in shadowy places. Renfrew was not a man of deep imagination, but he had enough of the dangerous and dear quality to make him full of interest in Claire's bonfires of the mind. He sunned himself in the sparks which flew from her, even as the phlegmatic man in the pit bathes in the fury of some queen of the stage. He adored partly because he scarcely understood.

And then, at this moment, he was in the throes of a most unexpected honeymoon. Claire, after refusing to have anything to do with him for two years or more, had suddenly married him in such a hurry that, though London gasped, Renfrew gasped still more. She had sent for him one night, from her dressing-room, between the third act and the fourth of an angry drama of passion. He came in and found her sitting in an arm-chair by a table, on which lay a note containing his last proposal, and a dagger with which she was about to commit a stage murder that had carried her glory to the four quarters of the universe. Her face was covered with powder, and in her long white dress she looked like a phantom. As she spoke to him, she ran her thin fingers mechanically up and down the blade of the dagger. When Renfrew was in the room, and the door shut, she looked up at him and said:—

“Desmond, I'm going to frighten you more than I shall frighten the audience out there.”

And she pointed towards the hidden stage.

“How?” he said, looking at her hand and at the dagger.

“I'm going to marry you.”

Renfrew turned paler than she was.

“Ah!” she cried. “You go white?”

“No, no,” he murmured. “But—but I can't believe it.”

“I will marry you when you like, to-morrow, whenever you can get a licence.”

“Oh, Claire!”

Suddenly she got up.

“Take me away from here,” she said. “From this heat and noise. Take me to some place where it is wild and desolate. I want to be in starlight, with people who know nothing of me, and my trumpery talent. O God, Desmond, you don't know how a woman can get to hate being famous! I should like to act to-night to a circle of savages who had never heard of me and of my glory.”

“Curtain's up!” sang a shrill voice outside.

Claire picked up the dagger.

“Well?” she said. “Shall it be—?”

“Ah, yes—yes!” Renfrew answered in a choked voice.

She smiled and glided out, like a white snake, he thought.

And now—yes, those were really jackals whining, and Claire slept, surrounded by a circle of Moors under the stars of Morocco.

Renfrew trembled at the astounding surprises of life. Now the devil of the night—thought—had filled his veins with fever. He got up softly, drew on his clothes, unfastened the canvas flap, and emerged, like a shadow, from the mouth of the tent. The night was dewy and cool. All the heaven was full of eyes. The line of tethered mules looked like a black hedge in whose shelter the group of tents was pitched. A low fire, held in a cup of earth, was dying down in the distance, and as Renfrew came out a lanky dog slunk off among the bushes that clothed the low hills on every side.

Renfrew stood quite still. He was bare-headed, and the breeze caught at his thick brown hair, and seemed to tug it like a rough child at play with a kindly elder. His eyes were turned towards the tiny peaked tent which shrouded Claire. A small moon half way up the sky sent out a beam which faintly illuminated this home of a wanderer, and Renfrew thought the beam was like a silver finger pointing at this wonderful creature whom glory had so long attended. Such beings must walk in light. Nature herself protests against their endeavours to shroud themselves even for a moment in darkness. He drew close to the tent, and listened for Claire's low breathing. But he could not hear it. Perhaps she was awake then.

“Claire!” he called, in a low voice.

There was no answer. Renfrew hesitated and glanced round the little camp. It was just then that he noticed the absence of two figures which had been standing like statues near his tent when he went to bed. These were soldiers sent from the nearest village to guard the camp from marauders during the night. Clad in earth-coloured rags, shrouded in loose robes that looked like musty dressing-gowns, with fez on head, and musket in hand, they had seemed devoutly intent on doing their duty then. But now—where were they? Renfrew strolled among the tents, expecting to find them squatting near the fire smoking cigarettes, or playing some Spanish game of cards. But they had vanished. He returned, and posted himself again by the door of Claire's rude bed-room, saying to himself that he would be her guard. Those Moorish vagabonds had deserted her. They cared nothing for the safety of this jewel, whom the whole civilised world cherished. But in his heart glowed a passion of protection for her. And then he gazed again at the impenetrable canvas wall that divided him from her. Only two hours ago he had held her in his arms and kissed her lips, yet already he felt as if a river of years flowed between them. He began to torture himself deliberately, as lovers will, by the imagination of non-existent evils. Suppose Claire possessed the power of a fairy, and could evaporate at will into the spaces of the air, leaving no trace behind. She might then have departed, have faded into the scented silence and darkness of this land so strange and desolate. Renfrew supposed the departure an actual fact. What a loneliness would fill his night then; if that little tent stood empty, if that slim sleeper were removed from the camp round which the jackals sat on their tiny haunches, whining like peevish spirits. He trembled beneath the weight of this absurd supposition, revelling in the intolerable with the folly of worship. Gradually he forced himself on step by step along the fanciful path till he had assured his imagination that Claire was really gone, and that he was just such a travelling Englishman as may come alone across the Straits, take out a camp, and spend his days in stalking wild boar, or shooting duck, his nights in the heavy slumber of complete weariness. And, at length, having gained a ghastly summit of imaginative despair, he suddenly stretched forth his hand, unhooked the canvas that shrouded Claire's tent door, and peeped cautiously in, courting the delicious revulsion of feeling which he would secure when he saw her half defined form in the shadow of the leaning roof that hid her from the stars.

He bent forward with greedy anxiety. But the pale and tragic face he looked for, did not greet his eyes. The tent was empty.

Renfrew stood for a moment holding back the canvas flap with one hand. This denial calmly offered to his expectation bewildered him. He was confused, and for a moment scarcely thought at all. Then his mind broke away with the violence of a dog unleashed, and ran a wild course of surmises. He thought first of rousing the camp and organising an immediate search. Then he remembered the absence of the two soldiers who ought to be guarding the tents and the mules. Claire gone, those soldiers absent! He linked the two facts together, and turned white and sick. But he did not rouse the camp. Indeed, he thanked God that all the men were sleeping. He sprang softly back from the tent, turned on his heel, and stole out of the camp so silently that he scarcely seemed a living thing. The ground towards the water was boggy and spongy, and the scent of the thickly growing myrtles was heavy in the air. Renfrew brushed through them swiftly. He heard the harsh snuffling of a boar, and the tread of its feet in the mud at the water-side. And these sounds filled the night with a sense of unknown dangers. Darkness, a wild country, wild men, wild beasts, and his beautiful Claire out somewhere alone, near him, perhaps, yet hidden behind the impenetrable veil of darkness. He saw her fainting, struggling, crying out for him. He saw her silent and dead, and frenzy seized him. She was not here by the water. And with a gesture of despair he turned back. Low and rounded hills faced him on all sides, covered with a dense undergrowth of palms and close-growing shrubs that looked almost like black velvet in the night. On one, the highest, was perched the native village from which the soldiers had come. Dogs were barking in it incessantly. It seemed to Renfrew that Claire might have been conveyed there by these ruffians; and he began hastily to ascend in the direction of the dogs' acute voices. He stumbled among the palms at first; but, mounting higher, he came into the eye of the moon, and was swallowed up in a shrouded silver radiance. The camp faded away below him, and he felt the breeze with greater force. Yet its breath was warm. Could Claire feel it? Did she see the moon? Now the dogs were evidently close by. The village must be behind that big clump of trees. Renfrew sprang upward, passed through them, suddenly drew a great breath and stood still.

Beyond the trees there was a small clearing that almost corresponded to our English notion of a village green. On the near side of it was the clump of trees in whose shadow Renfrew now stood. On the far side of it was the Moorish village, a minute collection of low huts like hovels, featureless and filthy. The moon streamed over the clearing and lit up faintly a cluster of seated figures that formed a good-sized circle. The figures looked broad and almost shapeless, for they were all smothered in long, voluminous robes, and over all the heads great hoods were drawn which hid the faces of the wearers. They were absolutely motionless, and differed little from the more distant clumps of dwarf palms that grew everywhere among the huts. Only they possessed the curiously sullen aspect of things alive but entirely motionless. It was not this living Stonehenge of Morocco, however, which caused Renfrew to catch his breath and rooted him in the shadow. In the centre of the circle, lit up by the moon, there stood something that might have been a phantom, it was so thin, so tall, so white-faced, so strange in its movements. It was a woman, and long black hair flowed down to its waist,—night standing back from that moon, vague and spectral, the face. In this human night and moon, great sombre eyes gleamed with a sort of fatigued beauty. This spectre stretched out its long arms in weird gesticulations and sometimes swayed its body as if it moved to music. And from its lips came a soft and liquid stream of golden words that mingled with the acid barking of the dogs, some of which crept furtively about on the outskirts of the serene hooded circle of the listeners. This murmuring spectre was Claire. She was girt about with silently staring Moors. And she was in the act of delivering one of her most famous recitations, which she had last given at a monster morning performance before Royalties in London, on a sultry day of the season. As this fact broke upon Renfrew's mind, he seemed for a moment to be back in the hot dressing-room in which Claire had said: “I will marry you.” He seemed to hear her passionate exclamation: “I should like to act to-night to a circle of savages!” The hill men of this part of Morocco may not be savages, but they are fierce and wild and ruthless. And now they hung upon the lips that had spoken to London, Paris, Vienna, New York—but never before to such an audience as this. The recitation was a description of the performance of a snake-charmer, his harangue to his reptiles and to the crowd watching him, and his departure into the solitude of the great desert, there to obtain, in communion with its spirit, the power to work greater miracles, and to charm not alone the serpents that dwell among the rocks and in the forests, but also men, women, little children,—the power to thrust a human world into a kennel of plaited straw, to take it out in sections at pleasure, and to make it dance, pose, and posture, like a viper tamed into a species of ballet-dancer. In this recitation the peculiar and almost serpentine fascination of Claire had full liberty. She represented the snake-charmer as a being who through long and intimate association with snakes had become like them, lithe, fantastic, and unexpected, soft and deadly, by turns sleepy and violent, a coil of glistening velvet and a length of cast-iron, tipped with a poisoned fang and the music of a hiss. His fanaticism, his greed for money, the passionate prayer to Sidi Mahomet that flowed from his lips while his terrible eyes searched an imaginary crowd in search of the richest man or the most excited woman in it, his bursts of dancing humour, his deadly stillness, his playful familiarity with his dangerous captives, his mesmeric anger when they were sullen and recalcitrant, his relapse into the savage churchwarden with the collecting box when his “show” was at an end,—every side, every subtlety of such a creature Claire could give with the certainty of genius. As you watched her, you beheld the snakes, you beheld their master. Even at the end you almost saw the vast and trackless desert open its haggard arms to receive its child, who passed from the crowd to the silence in which alone he could learn to fascinate the crowd. At the great morning performance in London, a prince who knew the East had said to Claire, “Miss Duvigne, you must have lived with snake-charmers. You must have studied them for months.”

“I never saw one in my life,” she answered truthfully.

And now she gave her performance to those who, in the dingy market squares of their white-walled cities, had seen the snakes dance and had heard the prayer to Sidi Mahomet. And they squatted in the moonbeams, immobile as goblins carved in dusky oak. Yet they inspired Claire. From his hiding place Renfrew could note this. She had let her genius loose upon them, as she had let her cloud of hair loose upon her shoulders. The frosty touch of smart conventionality bewilders and half paralyses the utterly unconventional. Often Renfrew had heard Claire curse the smiling and self-contented Londoners who thronged the stalls of her theatre. She felt, with the swiftness of genius, the retarding hand they laid upon her winged talents. She had no inclination to curse these hooded figures gathered round her in the night, staring upon her with the fixed concentration of children who behold, rather than hear, a fairy tale, they paid her the fine compliment of an undivided attention. It was a curious scene and one that stirred in Renfrew a deep excitement. He watched it with a double sense, of living keenly and of dreaming deeply. Claire gave to him the first sense, the moon and the motionless Moors the second. But presently one of the hooded statues stirred and swayed, and there mingled with the voice of Claire a twisted melody, so thin and wandering that it was like a thread binding a bundle of gold. It pierced the night, and enclosed the words of the reciter, one sound prisoned by another lighter and less than itself. The dogs had ceased to bark now, and only the voice that told of the snake-charmer's journey into the desert, and this whispering Moorish tune, plucked by dark fingers from the strings of a rough lute, moved in the night, till Claire ceased. The lute continued for a few bars, like the symphony that closes a song, and then it too ceased abruptly on a note that brought no feeling of finale to modern ears. For an instant Claire stood motionless in the centre of the human circle. Then her arms fell to her sides. She moved swiftly towards the trees in whose shadow Renfrew was watching. The Moors made a gap, and as she passed out all the shapeless figures were suddenly elongated and crowded together upon her footsteps. As Claire came into the blackness of the trees, Renfrew stretched out his hand and clasped her arm. She stopped with no tremor, and faced him.

“Claire!”

“What, it is you, Desmond! I thought you were asleep.”

“When you were awake? You have given me a fright. I came to your tent; I found it empty. The soldiers were gone.”

“They were guarding me up the hill. I could not sleep. I wandered out. How hot your hand is!”

Renfrew released her. All the Moors had gathered round them like enormous shadows.

“My audience has come to the stage door!” Claire said.

Her eyes were gleaming with excitement.

“They are a beautiful audience,” she added; “and the orchestra, the soft music—that was better than London fiddles.”

“Come back to the camp, Claire.”

“Very well.”

He drew her arm through his, and led her out into the moonlight and down the hill. Two shadows detached themselves from the silent assembly and followed them, barefooted, over the dewy grass. They were the soldiers. Claire looked back and saw them.

“I shall give those men a handful of pesetas, to-morrow,” she said.

They reached the camp and sat down on two folding chairs in the shadow of Claire's tent. The soldiers stood near, gazing intently at them. Claire sat in a curved attitude. She had drawn a dark veil over her hair, and her enormous and tragic eyes were turned sombrely on Renfrew. She looked fatigued, as she often did after acting a long and passionate part. To Renfrew she seemed more wonderful than ever. He could scarcely believe that he was her husband.

“You have had your circle of savages,” he said.

“Yes.”

“And you liked them?”

“Do you think they liked me? I wonder if there was a snake-charmer among them. When I came to Sidi Mahomet I thought perhaps they would kill me. That thought made me pray better than I can in London.”

“You could charm snakes more certainly than any Arab,” Renfrew said.

“I daresay. Perhaps I shall try at Tetuan. Good-night, Desmond.”

She vanished into the tent. It seemed that she evaporated as Sarah Bernhardt evaporates in the fourth act of “La Tosca.”

II

On the following day they rode across the mountain to Tetuan. They started in the dawn. Claire's eyes were heavy. She came languidly out from the tent door to mount her horse, and when she touched Renfrew he felt that her hand was cold like an icicle. He looked at her anxiously.

“Are you ill?” he asked.

“No, Desmond.”

He lifted her into the saddle.

“You haven't slept,” he said.

She looked down at him as she slowly gathered up her reins.

“Unfortunately, I have,” she replied.

Before Renfrew had time to express surprise at this unexpected rejoinder, she had struck her horse with the whip, and trotted off over the grass in the direction of the white Kasbar that gleamed on the hill under the kiss of the rising sun. He leaped into the saddle, and followed her. The path into which they came was narrow, winding through wild fig-trees and olives, and constantly ascending. Claire did not turn her head, and Renfrew could not ride by her side. He watched her thin and sinuous figure swaying slightly in obedience to the motion of her horse, which scrambled over the rough path with the activity of a wild cat. In front of her their personal attendant, Mohammed, rode on a huge grey mule, and sang to himself incessantly in a deep and murmuring voice. Once or twice Renfrew spoke to Claire, but she did not seem to hear him. He resolved to ask about her sleep when they gained some plateau on which they could rest for a moment. At present it was necessary to concentrate his attention on his horse and on the dangers of the road.

When the sun was high in the heavens, and they were high on the mountain, above a gorge in which the scrub grew densely, and great bushes starred with yellow and white flowers hid the rocks and made a home for birds, Mohammed called a halt. Renfrew lifted Claire to the ground. The men passed on towards Tetuan with their camp, and Claire sank down on a gay rug beneath the shade of a huge white umbrella, which was pitched on a square of level ground and circled with luxuriant vegetation. Renfrew lay at her feet and lit his pipe, while Mohammed, the dragoman, and one of the porters squatted at a little distance, and began to play cards in a cloud of keef. Claire was fanning herself slowly with an enormous Spanish fan in which all gay colours met. She still looked very tired. The shuffle of the descending mules died away down the mountain, and a silence, through which the butterflies flitted, fell round them.

“Is this journey too much for you, Claire?” Renfrew asked.

“No. I can rehearse for six hours in London, surely I can ride for six here.”

“But you look tired.”

“Because, as I told you, I slept too much last night.”

“What does that mean?”

She stretched herself on the rug with the easy grace of a woman who has trained her body to carry to the eyes of others, as a message, all the moods of passion and of peace. Then she leaned her cheek on her hand.

“In the darkness of the tent, Desmond, I slept and did not know it. I believed that I lay awake. I thought I still could hear the jackals, and the stamping of the mules. But, really, I slept.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because of what I am going to tell you. The wind blew about the canvas door, and when it bulged outwards I could see on each side of it a tiny section of the night outside, a bit of a bush, blades of short grass moving, a ray of the moon, the slinking shadow of one of the dogs from the village.”

“Yes.”

“Presently there came, I thought, a stronger gust than usual. It tore the canvas flap from the pegs, and the whole thing blew up, leaving the entrance quite open. Then it blew down again. It was only up for a minute. During that minute I had seen that a very tall man was standing outside the tent.”

“One of the soldiers.”

“If I had been awake it might have been.”

“You mean that all this was a dream?”

“I mean that I slept last night, and that I wish I hadn't.”

She turned her great eyes on Renfrew, holding the red, green, and yellow fan so that it concealed the lower part of her face. And he looked at her, staring at him like some tragic stranger above the rampart of an unknown city, and wondered whether she was acting to him in the sun. On the forefinger of the hand that held up the fan a huge black pearl perched in a circle of gold. Renfrew had often noticed it on the stage, when Claire lifted the silver dagger to kill the man who loved her in the play.

“The door of your tent was securely closed when I got up and came out this morning,” he said.

“Oh, yes.”

She spoke with the utmost indifference. Then she added more sharply:—

“Desmond, has it ever occurred to you that I am serpentine?”

He was startled and made no answer.

“Well—has it?”

“Yes,” he said truthfully.

“Why?”

“Every one thinks so. You are so thin. You move so silently. Your body is so elastic and controlled. You always look as if you could glide into places where other women could never go, and be at home in attitudes they could never assume.”

“But I'm an actress—my body is trained, you know, to lie, to fall, as I choose.”

“Other actresses don't give one the same impression.”

“No,” she said thoughtfully. “My peculiar physique has a great deal to do with it.”

“Of course, and there's something more than that, something mental.”

Claire's heavy eyes grew more thoughtful. The white lids fluttered lower over them till they looked like the eyes of one half asleep. She lay in silence, plunged in a reverie that was deep and dark. In this reverie she forgot to move her fan, which dropped from her hand and fell softly upon the rug. Renfrew did not interrupt her. His worship had learned to wait upon her moods. A huge dragon-fly passed on its journey towards the far blue range of the Atlas Mountains. It whirred in its haste, and its burnished body shone in the sunshine between its gleaming wings. Claire snatched at it with her hand, but missed it.

“I should like to wear it as a jewel,” she said.

Then she turned slowly again towards Renfrew, and continued her nocturne as if it had never been broken off.

“The canvas flap fell down again over the doorway, Desmond, and it seemed that just then the breeze died away, expiring in that angry gust. I could not see anything but the interior of the tent, and only that very dimly. But this man outside. I wanted to see him.”

“Did you recognise that he was not one of the soldiers, then?”

“Perfectly. He was not dressed as they are. They were entirely muffled up with hoods drawn forward above their faces. And in their hands one could see their guns. This man was bareheaded, and looked half naked. And in his hands—”

She stopped meditatively.

“Was there anything in his hands?”

“Well—yes, there was.”

“What?”

“I wanted to know what it was. But at first I only lay quite still and wished the wind would come again and blow the flap up so that I could see out. But it had quite gone down. The canvas did not even quiver.”

“Was it near dawn?”

“I haven't an idea. Does the breeze sink then?”

“Very often.”

“Ah! Perhaps it was then. Oh, but you'll see in a minute what nonsense it is to think about that. I lay still, as I said, for some time, waiting for the breeze. And when it wouldn't come, I made up my mind that I must arrive at a decision either to turn my face on the pillow and go to sleep, or else to get up, go to the tent door, and look out.”

“To see this man?”

“Exactly.”

“Which did you do?”

“Turned my face on the pillow.”

“And went off to sleep?”

“No, grew most intensely awake—as I supposed. The pillow was like fire against my cheek. It burnt me. With the departure of the breeze the night had become suddenly most intolerably hot. I turned over on my back and lay like that. Then I felt as if there was sand on the sheets.”

“Sand! Impossible! We aren't in the desert.”

“No. But it seemed as if I lay in hot sand. I shifted my position, but it made no difference. I sat up. The tent door was still closed. I listened. All those dogs had ceased to bark. There wasn't a sound. Even the jackals had left off whining. Then I slipped out of bed and threw that rose-coloured Moorish cloak over me. It rustled just like a thing rustles in grass, Desmond.”

She looked at him with a sort of peculiar significance, and as if she expected him to gather something definite from the remark.

“A thing in grass,” he repeated, wondering. “What sort of thing?”

But Claire avoided the question. She had taken up the fan again, and was opening and shutting it with a quiet and careful sort of precision, as she went on in a low and even voice:—

“I disliked this rustling, and held the cloak tightly together with my hands. I felt as if the man outside the tent had been waiting to hear that very little noise.”

“The rustling?”

“Yes. And that when he heard it he smiled to himself. I didn't intend he should hear it again though, and as I glided towards the tent door, I held the cloak very tight and away from my body. And I don't think I can have made any noise. You know how softly I can move when I choose?”

“Yes.”

“When I got to the door, I waited. I couldn't hear the man; but I felt that he was still there, just on the other side of the flap.”

Renfrew leaned forward on the rug. He felt deeply interested, perhaps only because Claire was the narrator. She held him much as she could hold an audience in a theatre, by her pose, her hands, her pale, almost weary face, her heavy sombre eyes, even more than by any words she chanced to be uttering. She could make anything seem vitally important if she chose, simply by her manner. Renfrew's pipe had gone out; but he did not know it, and still kept it between his lips.

“I waited for some time by the flap,” Claire continued calmly. “I was going to lift it presently, I knew; but I could not do it at once. The man and I were standing, I suppose, for full five minutes only divided by that strip of canvas. I tried not to breathe audibly, and I could not hear him breathe. At last I resolved to see him, and considered how I should do so. If I remained standing and looked out, I should have to push the flap quite away and my eyes would be nearly on a level with his. He would certainly see me. I didn't wish that. I didn't intend at all that he should see me. Therefore I resolved to lie down.”

“On the ground?”

“Yes, quite flat, and to raise the bottom of the flap gently an inch or two. This would enable me to see him without being seen, if I did it without noise. I dropped down quite softly. Do you remember my death in 'Camille'?”

Renfrew nodded.

“Almost like that. But the rose-coloured stuff rustled again. I wished I hadn't put it on. I raised the flap very slightly and peeped out. Do you know what I felt like just then, Desmond?”

“What?”

“Just like a snake in ambush. When my cloak rustled, it was the grass against my body. I lay in cover, and could see my enemy like a creature in a forest, or a reptile in scrub.”

She glanced round at the bushes and the densely growing palms.

“Yes, I lay there like a snake in the grass.”

She stretched herself out on the rug as she spoke, with her head towards Renfrew and her eyes fastened on his.

“I saw first the feet of the man close to my eyes. His feet were almost black and bare. His legs were bare. My glance travelled up him, and I saw that his chest and his arms were bare too. He was clothed in a sort of loose rough garment, the colour of sacking, that fell into a kind of hood behind; and he looked enormously powerful. That struck me very much—his power.”

“Did you see his face?”

“Quite well. It was the face of a man watching and listening with the closest attention. He was smiling slightly, too, as if something that had just happened had satisfied him. I knew he had heard the rustle of my robe as I slipped to the ground.”

“But why should that please him?”

“It told him that I was there, that I was attentive too.”

Renfrew's face slightly darkened.

“As I looked, I saw what he was holding in his hands.”

“What was it—a dagger—a staff?”

“A serpent.”

Renfrew could not repress an exclamation.

“Very large and striped. Its skin was like shot silk in the moonlight. It writhed softly between his hands, and turned its flat head from side to side. It seemed to be trying to bend down towards where I lay. Its tongue shot out like a length of riband out of one of those wooden winders that you buy in cheap shops. I should think its body was quite five feet long, and its colour seemed to change as it turned about. Sometimes it was pink, then it looked dull green and almost black. Once it wriggled down so near to the ground that I could see two fangs in its open mouth like hooks, and the roof of its mouth was flesh colour.”

“How abominable!” said Renfrew, softly.

“I didn't feel it so at all,” Claire said. “I wanted it to come to me,—back into the grass where such things are safe. But the man wouldn't let it go. He thrust it into his breast. He wanted to have his hands free.”

“Good God, Claire—what for? Did he—?”

She smiled at his sudden violence, which showed his interest.

“When the snake was safe, he drew out, still smiling and listening, a little pipe that looked as if it were made of straw, very common and dirty. He held it up to his black lips, and began to play very softly and sleepily. Desmond, the tune he played was charmed. It was a tune composed—for—for—”

She broke off.

“You know the Pied Piper had his tune,” she said; “the rats had to follow it. Well, this tune was for the serpents.”

“To charm them you mean?”

“Wisely—dangerously—almost irresistibly, perhaps in time, Desmond, quite, quite irresistibly. There is a music for all creatures, all reptiles, birds,—everything that lives; this was for the snakes.”

“Well, but, Claire, how did you know that?”

She looked at him with a sort of dull amusement and pity in her half-shut eyes.

“Shall I tell you?”

“Yes.”

“I knew it, because the tune charmed me, Desmond.”

“Ah, you are acting! I half suspected it from the first,” Renfrew exclaimed almost roughly.

He sat up as a man who has been lying under a spell stirs when the spell is broken. Now he knew that his pipe was out, and he felt for his match-box. But Claire still kept her eyes fixed on him, and laid her hand on his arm gently.

“No, I am not acting,” she said. “The tune charmed me. You see I am a woman; and there are many women who feel at moments that what attracts some special creature, thing, of the so-called world without a soul, attracts them too. Some men can whistle a woman as they would a dog, can't they?”

“Perhaps.”

“Yes, and some men can charm a woman as they could charm a serpent.”

“I don't understand you, Claire.”

“You don't choose to. The animal is in us all, hidden deftly by Nature, the artful dodger of the scheme of creation, Desmond; and we know it when the right tune is played to summon it from its slumber in the nest of the human body. Only the right tune can waken it.”

“The animal! But—”

“Or the reptile, perhaps. What does it matter? This was the right tune for me. I lay there like a snake in the grass and it thrilled me! And all the time the black man smiled and listened for the rustling at his feet. You look black, Desmond! How absurd of you to be angry!”

And she closed her fingers over his hand till the frown died out of his face.

“The tune seemed to draw me to the man. I understood just how he had captured the serpent that lay hidden in his bosom. It had once lain in ambush as I lay now, long ago perhaps, in the desert among the rocks, on the sand, Desmond.”

“Ah, the sand!” he said, remembering suddenly the strange feeling Claire had described as coming upon her when she was trying to sleep.

“Yes. And he had drawn it from the sand to the oasis among the palms where he stood playing, till he heard its rustling in the grass about his feet, as it glided nearer to him, and nearer, and nearer, till at last it reared up its body, and wound up him and round him, and laid its flat head between his great hands. Yes, that was how it came.”

“You fancy.”

“I know. But I would not go. I determined that I would not, and I lay perfectly still. But all the time I longed to go. I had an almost irresistible passion for movement towards that tune. It seemed to me a stream of music into which I yearned to plunge, and drown and die. And it flowed up there at the man's lips! The longing increased as he piped the tune, over and over and over again, almost under his breath. I was sick with it, and it hurt me because I resisted it. And at last I knew that resisting it would kill me. I must either go, or not go, and die. There was no alternative. That music simply claimed me. It had the right to. And if I denied that right I should cease. I did deny it.”

She shuddered in the sun, then added, almost harshly:—

“Like a fool.”

“And then, Claire, then—?”

“It seemed to me that I died in most horrible pain. I lived once more when you said, outside my tent, 'Claire, time to get up.' You see, I slept too much last night.”

And again she shuddered. A look of relief shot into Renfrew's face.

“All this came from your mad performance to those Moors,” he said. “You impersonate so vividly that even sleep cannot release your genius, and bring it out from the world which you have deliberately forced it to enter.”

“But, Desmond, I impersonated the charmer of the snake, not the snake itself.”

“Oh, in a dream the mind always wanders a little from the event that has caused the dream. It is like a faulty mimic who strives to reproduce with exactitude and slightly fails. Time to go, Absalem?”

The dragoman had come up.

As they rode down the mountain a strange thing occurred, strange at least in connection with Claire's narrative of the night. Mohammed, who was riding just in front of them, pulled up his mule beside a thicket at the wayside, and, turning his head, signed to them to be silent. Then, pursing his lips, he whistled a shrill little tune. In a moment an answer came from the thicket; Claire glanced at Renfrew with a slight smile. Here was a sort of side light of reality thrown upon her dream and upon their conversation. Mohammed whistled again. The echo followed. And then suddenly a bird flew out, almost into his face, and, startled, swerved and darted away across the gorge into the dense woods beyond.

“A charm of birds,” Claire murmured to Renfrew, as they rode on. “The summoning tune—what can resist it?”

“Claire,” he said, almost reproachfully, “you speak like a fatalist.”

“And I believe I am one,” she answered. “Destiny is not only a phantom but also a fact. Mine is marked out for me and known—”

“To whom? Not to yourself?”

“Oh, no!”

“To whom then?”

“To the hidden force that directs all things.”

“I am your destiny.”

“Ah, Desmond—or Morocco. I feel to-day as if I shall never see England again, or a civilised audience such as I have known.”

And then she seemed to fall into a waking dream. Even Renfrew felt drowsy, the air was so intensely hot and the motion of the horses so monotonous. And Mohammed's deep voice was never silent. It buzzed like a bourdon in the glare of the noontide, till, far away on the hill-side, they saw white Tetuan facing the plain, the river moving stagnantly towards the sea, the great fields of corn in which strange flowers grew, and the giant range of shaggy mountains, swimming in a mist of gold that looked like spangled tissue.

III

The camp was pitched beyond the city in the green plain that lies between Tetuan and the sea. From the tents Renfrew and Claire saw the trains of camels and donkeys passing slowly along the high road towards the steep and stony hill that leads up to the lower city gate, the white-washed summer palaces of the wealthy Moors, nestling in gardens, among green fields and groves of acacias, olives and almond trees, the far-off line of blue water on the one hand and the fairy-like and ivory town upon the other. Clouds of brown dust flew up in the air, and the hoarse cry of “Balak! Balak!” made a perpetual and distant music. Far more strange and barbarous was this city than Tangier. All traces of Europe had faded away. Thousands of years seemed now to stand like a wall between the Continents, and the hordes of dark and fanatical Moslems gazed upon the great actress and her husband as we gaze at wild animals whose aspects and whose habits are strange to us.

“I know now what it is to feel like an unclean dog,” Claire said, as they sat at dinner under the stars that night, after their halting progress through the filthy alleys of the white fairyland on the hill-side. “It is a grand sensation. I suppose children enjoy it, too. That must be why they like making mud-pies.”

“To-morrow is market-day, Absalem tells me,” Renfrew said. “We will spend it in the town, and you can feel unclean to your heart's content—you!”

He looked at her and laughed low, with the pride of a lover in a beautiful woman who is his own.

“They ought to fall down and worship you,” he said.

“Moors worship a woman! Desmond, you are mad!”

“No, they are—they are. See, Claire, the moon is coming up already. Can it be shining on Piccadilly too, and on the façade of the theatre?”

“The theatre! I can't believe I shall ever see it again.”

“Nonsense!”

“Is it? This wild country seems to have swallowed me up, and I don't feel as if it will ever disgorge me again. Desmond, perhaps there are some lands that certain people ought never to visit. For those lands love them, and, once they have seized their prey, they will never yield it up again. Poor men must often feel that when they are dying in foreign places. It is the land which has taken them to itself as an octopus takes a drifting boat in a lonely sea. Africa!”

She had risen from her seat and moved out into the vague plain. Renfrew followed her.

“I wonder in which direction the desert lies nearest,” she said. “All the strange people come in from the desert, as the strange things of life come in from the future, only one so seldom hears the tinkling bells of those deadly silent caravans in which they travel. If we could hear and see them coming, what emotions we should have!”

“There are premonitions, some men say,” Renfrew answered.

“The faint bells of the caravans ringing,—do you ever hear them?”

“No, Claire—never. And you?”

“I half thought I did once.”

“When was that?”

“Last night. Hark! The men have finished supper and are beginning to sing. That's a song about dancing.”

“To-morrow we are going to feast the soldiers, and have an African fire.”

“Splendid! I think I will leap through the flames.”

Renfrew put his arm round her.

“No, no. They might singe your beauty. And yet, you are a flame too. You have burnt your name, yourself, like a brand upon my heart.”

The dancing song rang up in the moonlight like the wailing of dead masqueraders. All Moorish songs are sad and thrilling, fateful and pregnant with unrest and with forebodings.

With the daylight the Jews came, in their long and morose garments and black skull-caps, bearing bales of embroideries, slippers, and uncut jewels. When they saw the wonderful black pearl upon Claire's finger their huge eyes flamed with an avarice so fierce and open that Renfrew instinctively moved between them and Claire, as if to guard her from assault.

But the wonderful pearl was not for them.

The sun blazed furiously when they got upon their horses to ride to the Soko. Each day the season was growing hotter, and Absalem told them that there were no English in Tetuan. Nor did they set eyes on a European woman until that day when Renfrew rode back, crouching along his horse, to the villas of Tangier.

Tetuan has more than one open mouth, and when it swallows you the contemplation of a fairyland is immediately exchanged for a desperate reality of populous filth, stentorian uproar, uneven boulders, beggars, bazaars like rabbit hutches, men and children pitted with small-pox till they appear scarcely human, lepers, Jews, pirates from the Riff Mountains, fanatics from the Ape's Hill, water-carriers, veiled, waddling women, dogs like sharp shadows, and monkeys that appear and vanish in sinister doorways with the rapidity and gestures of demons. On a market-day the city is so full that it seems as if the circling and irregular white walls must burst and disgorge the clamouring and gesticulating inhabitants into the tranquil plain below. Claire surveyed this blanched hell with a still serenity, as she had often surveyed an applauding audience at the close of her evening's task, ere she thanked them with the curious gesture, that was almost a salaam, in which humility and a remote pride mingled. Noise generally gave her calm; and when passion broke from her she taught the world to be intensely silent. These alleys became like a dream to her, and the tiny interiors of the bazaars were little histories of visionary lives, some, but only a few, mysteriously beautiful. One, in a very dark place where, for some unknown cause, all voices died away till the hot air was full of a whispering stillness, brought slow tears to Claire's eyes. In the Street of the Slippers she passed a cupboard of wood raised high from the pavement, with low roof, leaning walls, and, in front, a little bar like that which fences an English baby in its chair before the fire. In this cupboard squatted two tiny Moorish infants, sole occupants of the cupboard, with solemn faces, bending to ply their trade of pricking patterns upon rose-coloured Morocco leather. There was no beauty in the cupboard, sweetness of light, or ease. And the faces of the little boys were sad and elderly. But, placed carefully between them, was an ugly three-legged stool, on which stood two dwarf earthen jars containing two sprigs of orange flower, and, as Claire looked, one of the babes laid down his leather, lifted his jar, sniffed, with a sort of gentle resignation, at his flower, and then resumed his diligent labours, refreshed perhaps, and strengthened. In the action Claire seemed to catch sight of a little pallid soul striving to exist feebly among the slippers.

“Did you see?” she cried to Renfrew, when the baby shoemakers were lost to sight.

He nodded.

“I wish I were a Moorish woman, Desmond.”

“Good Heaven! Why!”

“So that I could kiss the infant who smelt the orange flower in his own language. Little artist!”

Her sudden blaze of enthusiasm was checked by the infernal Soko into which they now entered. In this unpaved square, upon which the pitiless sun beat, the earth seemed to have come alive, to have formed itself into a thousand vague semblances of human figures, and to be shrieking, moving, twisting, gesticulating, as if striving to impart a thousand abominable secrets till now hidden from the world that walks upon its surface. As snow-men resemble the snow, so did these bargainers, these buyers, sellers, barterers, pedlars, resemble the baked earth on which they squatted. Shrouded in earth-coloured garments, they shrieked, strove, rang their bells, kicked their donkeys, elbowed their rivals, pommelled their camels, recited the Koran, or testified with frenzy, the terrific honesty of all their dealings. Here and there tents made of mud-coloured rags cast a grotesque shadow, in which broad women, hidden by veils like sacks, and dominated by straw hats a yard wide, sat huddled together and pecked at by wandering fowls. Jew boys, with long and expressive faces, their black hair plastered upon their foreheads in fringes that touched their eyes, strolled through the mob in batches, some of them reading in little books. Soudanese slave girls carried bouquets of orange flowers. In a corner some Hawadji were leaping monotonously to the thunder of a Moorish drum made of baked earth and of parchment. A sheep, escaped from the slaughterer, tumbled with piteous bleatings into a group of half breeds, Spanish Moors, who were playing cards near a stall covered with raw meat and great lumps of some substance that looked like lard. On a huge heap of rotten oranges and decaying fish, over which millions of flies swarmed, a number of children in close white caps were moving in some mysterious game in which two prowling cats occasionally took an unintentional part. Some Riff Arabs, fierce as tigers, tall and half-naked, stalked feverishly towards a water-carrier whose lean form, tottering with age, was almost eclipsed beneath the monstrous bladder he bore incessantly through the multitude. The horses of Renfrew and of Claire could scarcely plant their hoofs on anything that was not moving, crying, panting, or cursing; and they pulled up, and prepared to descend into this human ocean of which all the waves roared in their deafened ears. As Claire leant to Renfrew, who stretched his arms to help her, she said to him:—

“Can you swim? If not, you will certainly be drowned.”

“You must not be. Cling to my arm.”

They sank together to their necks in the sea. In whatever direction they looked, they saw a mass of heads, an infinite expanse of shouting mouths. But suddenly the pressure became extraordinary, the uproar ear-splitting. And with the voices there mingled a piercing music like a continuous screech. People began to run, to trample in one direction. The drum of the leaping Hawadji was drowned by a louder drumming that came from the centre of the square. Children squeaked with excitement. The Riffians forgot to drink, and slid forward with the cushioned feet of animals in a jungle. A tempest arose, and in it a whirlpool formed. It seemed that Renfrew and Claire must be torn in pieces.

“What on earth is happening?” Renfrew exclaimed to Absalem, with the English anger our countrymen always display when trodden by a foreign element.

Absalem smiled with airy dignity, and moved forward, beckoning them to follow.

“Miracle man, all want see him,” he remarked. “Great miracle man.”

With consummate adroitness he drew them with him to the edge of the whirlpool. As they reached it, Renfrew felt that Claire's hand suddenly tightened upon his arm until his flesh puckered between her fingers as the flesh of a rabbit puckers in a trap. He glanced at her in astonishment. Her eyes were fixed on something, or some one, beyond them, even beyond Absalem, who was forcing people out of their way with his powerful arms and back. Renfrew followed her eyes, and saw the centre of the whirlpool.

This mass of humanity had now assumed the form of a rough circus, the ring of which was kept clear. And in this ring a strange figure had just appeared with upraised arms, and a manner of wild, even of frantic, authority. This was a gigantic man, almost black, half-naked, with long arms, furious eyes, and legs which, though muscular, tapered at the ankles like the legs of a finely bred race-horse. His head was shaved in front; but at the back the black hair grew in a long and waving lock, and his features, magnificently cut, might have been those of a grand European of some headstrong and high-couraged race. Upon this man Claire's eyes were fixed, with an expression so strange and knowing that Renfrew turned on her with a sharp exclamation.

“Claire! Claire!”

She slowly withdrew her eyes.

“Yes, Desmond.”

A question stammered on his lips; but as she smiled at him, he felt the mad absurdity of it, and was silent.

“Well, Desmond, what is it?”

“Nothing,” he answered.

Absalem now claimed their attention. He was determined that they should be in the front of the crowd, and ruthlessly pushed away the Moors who had obtained the best places, pointing at Claire and Renfrew, and wildly vociferating their mighty rank and enormous wealth. The staring mob gave way; and in a moment Claire and the miracle man stood face to face. His frenzied eyes had no sooner seen her than he too fell upon the surrounding natives, thrusting them violently to one side, and cursing them for daring to draw near to the great English gentleman and lady. In the whole mighty mob these two were the only Europeans, and they attracted as universal an attention as two Aztecs would in a Bank Holiday gathering at the Crystal Palace. Renfrew could now see that the screeching music came from one side of the ring, where a couple of men, clothed in filthy rags, were sitting on the ground, one playing a long pipe of straw, the other beating an enormous drum. Immediately behind them a very old man, evidently a maniac, swayed his body violently backwards and forwards, and at regular intervals uttered a loud and chuckling cry that might have been the ejaculation of a tipsy school-boy, and came strangely from withered lips hanging loose with weakness and with age. This dancing Methuselah caught Renfrew's attention; and, for the moment, he forgot to look at the miracle man. A general outcry from the multitude made him turn his head. He saw then that the miracle man held in his huge hands a sort of kennel of straw, the mouth of which was closed with a movable flap. Lifting this aloft, he sprang wildly round the ring, vociferating some words at the top of his voice; then, suddenly casting it down, he flung himself upon the ground, which he beat with his forehead, while he shrieked out a prayer to his patron saint for protection in the great miracle which he was about to perform.

“What is he doing?” Renfrew asked of Absalem.

“Don't you know?” Claire said.

Her eyes were gleaming with excitement as they stared at the salaaming figure that grovelled at their feet.

“No. How should I?”

“He is praying to Sidi Mahomet,” she said.

And then she looked at Renfrew. He understood. At that moment, despite the excessive heat engendered by the blazing sun and the pressure of the crowd, he turned very cold, as if his body was plunged in glacier water. He thought of the tall figure that had stood before Claire's tent door in the moonbeams, the lips that had coaxed from the pipe the tune that charmed all serpents,—that right tune that they must follow, which drew them from the desert sands to the grass of the oasis, till they wound up the body of this gaunt and tremendous savage, and hid themselves in his hairy bosom. This miracle man, then, was a snake-charmer, and Claire had divined it at once. How? Renfrew put the question quickly.

“How did I know? He is the man who played outside my tent in the night, Desmond.”

“The very man! Impossible.”

“The very man.”

“Then you were not asleep, not dreaming?”

“How can one tell? Hush!”

She spoke in the low voice of one whose attention is becoming concentrated, and who cannot endure the interruption. The charmer had now finished his petition to his god, and, standing up, thrust into his mouth a handful of some green herb, which he chewed and swallowed. Then his whole manner abruptly changed. The frenzy died out of his eyes. A calm suffused his tall and muscular body till it became strangely statuesque. His lips slowly smiled, and he raised his hands towards the glaring sky with a sublime gesture of gratitude.

“What an actor!” Renfrew heard Claire murmur softly.

He, too, had become intensely engrossed by this man in whom he, from this moment, began to see Claire: the exquisite woman whom the civilised world worshipped in the mighty savage who came from the remote depths of Morocco; the white being who played with the minds of the capitals of Europe, in the black being who played with the reptiles of the desert and of the jungle. For Claire, guided by the spirit that ever goes before genius bearing the torch, had instinctively divined what she had never known. In London it seemed that she had entered into the very soul of this man who now stood before her. She had caught the wild graces of his bearing. She had reproduced his smile, so full of secrets and of power. She had moved as he did. She had been motionless as now he was motionless. In the sun she stood at this moment and beheld the reality of which she had been the magnificent reflection. And Renfrew felt his heart oppressed, as if clouds were closing round him.

Now the snake-charmer looked slowly all round the great circle of watching faces until his eyes rested on Claire. He had taken the straw kennel into his hands, and he softly lifted the flap, and turned it flat upon the top of the kennel, leaving the mouth open. Then he thrust one hand into this mouth, and withdrew it, holding a writhing snake whose striped satin skin changed colour in the sunshine, turning from pink to green, from green to black.

“It is the snake I saw,” Claire whispered to Renfrew.

He did not reply. He seemed fascinated by the savage and the serpent. Holding the snake at arm's length, the charmer walked softly round the circle, collecting money from the crowd. He stopped in front of Claire. The snake thrust out its flat head towards her. She did not shrink from it; and the charmer cried aloud some words that seemed like praise of her beauty and of her composure. She gave him a piece of gold. Renfrew gave him nothing.

Then, standing once more in the centre of the circle, he burst into a frantic incantation, while the musicians redoubled their efforts, and the old maniac in the corner gave forth his chuckling cry with greater force, and swayed his trembling body more vehemently to and fro. The snake, suddenly brought from the darkness of the kennel to the light of day, was torpid and weary. It drooped between the charmer's hands. He shook it, called on it, caught up a stick and struck it. Then, forcing its mouth wide open, he barred its pink throat with the stick, on which he made it fix its two fangs, which were like two sharp hooks. Holding the end of the stick, he came again to Claire, to whom his whole performance was now exclusively devoted; and, approaching the hanging reptile close to her eyes, he jumped it up and down to the sound of the drum and pipe.

“You see,” Claire said to Renfrew, “the roof of its mouth is flesh-colour.”

He did not answer. Why did all this mean so much to him? Why did the clouds grow darker? The music and the cries of the old maniac perturbed him and bewildered his brain. And he wanted to be calm, and to watch Claire and this savage with a cool and undivided attention. By this time the snake was growing irritated. It agitated its long body furiously; and when the charmer unhooked its fangs from the stick, it turned its head towards him and made a sudden dart at his face. He opened his mouth wide, thrust the snake into it, and let the creature fasten on his tongue, from which blood began to flow. Still bleeding, and with the snake fixed on his tongue, he danced and sprang into the air. His eyes grew wild. Foam ran from his mouth, and his whole appearance became demoniacal. Yet his eyes still fastened themselves upon Claire. In his most frantic moments his attention was never entirely distracted from the spot where she was standing. He tore the snake from his tongue and buried its fangs in the flesh of his left wrist. Cries broke from the crowd. The sight of the blood had excited them, for these people love blood as the toper loves wine. They urged the charmer on to fresh exertions with furious screams of encouragement. The maniac bent his body like a dervish in the last exercises of his religion, and the ragged musicians forced a more extreme uproar from their instruments. The charmer caught the snake by the tail, and strove to pull it backwards off his wrist. But the reptile's fangs were firmly fastened. It held on with a terrible tenacity, and a struggle ensued between it and its master. When at length it gave way, it was streaked with blood, and now at last thoroughly aroused. The charmer scraped his tongue with a straw; then, casting himself again upon the earth, he prayed once more with fury to Sidi Mahomet. Claire watched him always, with that pale and exquisite attention which one genius gives to the performance of another. Her face was white and still. Her body never moved. But her eyes blazed with life, and with the fires of a violent soul completely awake. Having finished his prayer, which ended in a cry so poignant that it might have burst from the lips of that world on which the flood came, the charmer remained upon the ground in a sitting posture, laid the snake in his lap, and drew from the inside of his ragged robe a Moorish lute made of a bladder, bamboo, and two strings, and coloured a pale yellowish-green. He plucked the strings gently, and played the fragment of a wild tune. Then, suddenly catching up the snake, and thrusting his tongue far out of his mouth, he poised the snake upon it, rose to his feet and stood at his full height in front of Claire, fixing his eyes upon her with a glance that seemed to claim from her both wonder and worship. The snake reared itself up higher and higher upon the quivering tongue; and the charmer, extending his long arms, whirled slowly round as if poised upon a movable platform, while a terrific clamour broke from the Moors, who seemed to be roused by this feat to the highest pitch of excitement. Still turning and turning, the charmer drew from his bosom a second snake that was black and larger than the first, and coiled it round his sinewy neck like a gigantic necklace, the darting head in front, resting, a sort of monstrous pendant, upon his uncovered chest. To Renfrew he looked like some hateful grotesque in a nightmare, inhuman, endowed with attributes of a devil. The serpents were part of him, growths of his body, visible signs of some terrible disease in which he gloried and of which he made a show. The creature was intolerable. His exhibition had suddenly become to Renfrew unfit for the eyes of any woman; and, without a word, he took hold of Claire and pulled her almost violently away from the circle on which the fascinated mob was beginning to encroach. She resisted him.

“Desmond!” she exclaimed, “what are you doing?”

“Claire—come. I insist upon it!”

Already the Moors had thronged the place which they had left vacant. She turned a white face on him. There was in her eyes the hideous expression of a sleep-walker suddenly awakened, and she trembled in every limb. She swung round from Renfrew, and, above the intercepting Moors, high in the air, she saw the snake, which seemed climbing to heaven. While she looked, a huge hand closed upon it and took it out of sight. The charmer, observing the departure of his distinguished patrons, had abruptly stopped his performance. Claire made no further resistance. Without a word, she permitted Renfrew to lead her to the horses and help her into the saddle. They rode down the hill to the camp without exchanging a word.

When Claire had dismounted, she stood for a moment twisting her whip in her hands. Then she said:—

“Desmond, I must ask you never to startle me again as you did to-day, by sudden action. You can't understand how such an interruption hurts a nature like mine. I would rather you had struck me. That would only have wounded my body.”

She turned and went into her tent, leaving Renfrew in an agony of penitence and self-reproach. All the rest of the afternoon she was very cold and silent, rather dreamy than sullen, but obviously disinclined for conversation, and still more obviously unwilling to endure even the slightest demonstration of affection on the part of Renfrew. When the sheep which were to be slaughtered for the soldiers' feast were driven bleating into the camp, she retired into her tent, and remained there, resting, until the sun was low in the heavens, and the porters and mule-drivers went gaily out to search for the materials of the African fire with which the night was to be celebrated. They returned, singing the Moorish conquest of Granada, with their strong arms full of canes, dry and brittle branches of trees, logs that looked like whole trunks, and huge shrubs, green and sweet-smelling. Hearing their song, Claire came out of her tent. The sky was red, and, in the southwest, turrets of vapour rose and streamed out, assuming mysterious and thin shapes in the gathering dimness. A great flock of birds, flying very high, and forming a definite and beautiful pattern, passed slowly on the wing towards the kingdom of the storks, that lies near the sand banks of Ceuta. They moved in silence, and faded away in the twilight stealthily, like things full of quiet intention and governed by some furtive, but inexorable, desire. Renfrew, who was wandering rather miserably near the camp, watching descending pilgrims from the city melt into the vast bosom of the plain, saw Claire's white figure in the tent door, half hidden in a soft rosy mist which stole from the lips of evening as scent steals from the lips of a flower. He felt afraid to go to her. He possessed her; and yet it seemed to him now that he scarcely knew her. He was only an ordinary man. She was a strange woman; not merely because of her womanhood, as all women are to all men, but strange in that which lay beyond and beneath her womanhood, in her genius, and in the dull or ardent moods that stood round it, one, and yet not one, with it. In the tent door she leaned like a spirit born of the evening, a child of fading things, dying lights, fainting colours, retreating sounds,—a spirit waiting for the coming of the stars, and the rising of the moon, and the mysteries of the night, and the subtle odours that the winds of Northern Africa bring with them over the mountains and down the lonely valleys, when the sun descends. And as a spirit may listen to the songs of men, with the melancholy of a thing apart, she listened to the songs of the Moors, until at length they seemed to be in her own heart that evening, as if they were songs of her own country. And these dark men with wild eyes who sang them, while they flung upon the grass their burdens from the thickets, and from the hedgeless and wide fields, were no longer alien to her. She stood in the tent door, and, without any conscious effort of the imagination, became their fancied mate,—a woman sprung from the same soil, or come in—like the strange people—from the deserts of their country. Only she was not as one of their women, mindless, patient, and concealed; but as their women should be, strong, hot-blooded, brave, serene, and looked upon by a world without reproach.

Absalem came up to her to tell her some details of the night's festivity. Before he spoke she said to him:—

“Where does the desert lie?”

He told her.

“Does the miracle man come from there?”

Absalem answered that no one knew. He had been much in Wasan, the sacred city of Morocco; but none knew his birthplace, his tribe, his name. Often he disappeared, no man could tell whither. But, doubtless, he made vast journeys. Some said that he had exhibited his snakes on the banks of the Nile, that he had gone with the pilgrim trains to Mecca, that he knew Khartoum as he knew Marakesh, and that he never ceased from wandering.

“What is his age?” Claire asked.

Absalem answered that he must be old, but that Time had no power over him.

“He miracle man; he live long as he wish.”

Last she asked when he would leave Tetuan.

“Perhaps this night. Perhaps to-morrow night, perhaps never. Perhaps he go already.”

“Already!”

Suddenly Claire moved out from the tent, and joined Renfrew, who was still watching her, and weaving lover's fancies about her white figure.

“Have you been here long, Desmond?” she asked.

“Very long, dearest. Are you rested?”

“Quite. From here you can see all the people travelling away from the city towards the sea?”

“Yes.”

“Have you been watching them?”

“Yes, indeed; for half the afternoon.”

She turned her great eyes on him searchingly, and seemed as if she checked a question which was almost on her lips.

“They must have been a strange multitude,” she said at length. “I wonder where they are all going?”

“Some to the villages in the plain, some to the coast. I saw the Riffs who were in the Soko pass by. I suppose they were returning to the caverns from which they plunder becalmed vessels, Spanish and Portuguese.”

“The Riffs—yes?”

Her intonation suggested that she was waiting for some further information. Renfrew's curiosity was aroused.

“Why do you look at me like that?” he asked. “What do you want to know?”

“Nothing, Desmond. How dark it is getting! There is Mohammed ringing the bell. And look, those must be the soldiers. They are just marching in from the city.”

With the coming of night a wind arose, blowing towards the sea from the mountains; and with it came up a troop of clouds which blotted out stars and moon, and plunged the plain into a gulf of darkness. Tetuan does not gleam with lamps at night like a European city, and all the distant villas of the Moors were closely shuttered. So the wind, warm and scented and strong, swept over a black land, deserted and vacant. Only in the camp was there movement, music, and an illumination that strove up in the night, as if it would climb to the clouds. Scarcely had Claire and Renfrew finished dinner, when Absalem and Mohammed ceremoniously appeared to conduct them out to the bare space before the tents on which the African fire had been carefully built. Absalem carried a lamp which swung in the wind, and, behind, there appeared from the kitchen tent some of the porters, bearing burning brands, the flames of which were at right angles to the wood from which they sprung. The guard of soldiers, one dozen in all, armed with immense guns and wrapped in hooded cloaks, were already crouched in a silent mass before the lifeless and portentous erection which came out of the darkness, as Absalem swung forward the lamp, like the skeleton of a monster. They turned their shadowy faces on Claire, and stared with eyes intent and unself-conscious as those of an animal. The porters flung their brands on to the mountain of twigs, and instantaneously a huge sheet of livid gold sprang up against the black background of the night, as if it had been shaken out on the wind by invisible hands. This sheet expanded, swayed, fluttered in ragged edges, and cast forth a cloud of sparks which were carried away into the air and vanished in the sky. The shrubs caught fire and crackled furiously, and finally the foundation of gigantic logs began to glow steadily, and to fill the wind with a scorching heat. The camp was gradually defined, at first vaguely and in sections,—the peak of a tent, the head of a mule, a startled pariah dog, a Moor set in the eye of the flames; then clearly, as the buildings one may see in a furnace, complete and glowing. The faces of the soldiers were barred with flickering orange, and red lights played in their huge and staring eyeballs. The horses and mules could be counted. Before the kitchen tent the sacrifice of sheep was visible, stewing in enormous pans upon red embers in a trench of earth. And the grave cook, who was distinguished by a white turban, shone like a pantomime magician at the mouth of an enchanted cave. Warmth, light, life poured upon the night, and the voices of men began to mingle with the continuous voice of this superb fire. The Moors, soldiers, servants, porters, kindled into furious gaiety with the swiftness of the canes and olive boughs. They sprang up from the ground, pulled the shrouding hoods from their faces, tossed away their djelabes, and began, with shouts and ejaculations, to dance up and down before the golden sheet, spreading their hands to it with the glee of children. A sudden joy beamed in the dusky and solemn faces, twinkled in the sombre eyes. One man flung away his fez, another dashed his turban to the ground. Round, shaven heads, bare arms, brown legs, half concealed by fluttering linen knickerbockers, lithe bodies emerged with eager haste into the light. Shadows became abruptly men, formless humps athletes. Mutes sent out great voices to startle the sweeping bats. Mourners turned into maniacs. It was a fantasia that exploded into life like a rocket, shedding a stream of vivid human fire. Mohammed drew away from the flames, taking a dozen swift footsteps to the rear. Then, with a shout, he dashed forward, bounded into the golden sheet, and disappeared as a clown disappears through a paper hoop. Only the paper closed up behind him. He leaped through light to darkness, pursued by a thousand eager sparks. One soldier followed him, then another, and another. The porters, linking hands, leaped in twos and threes. Even the cook, old, and serious with a weight of savoury knowledge, tottered to the edge of the fire, which was now becoming a furnace, and took it as an Irish horse takes a stone wall, striking the topmost branches with his bare feet amid a chorus of yells.

Claire watched the darting figures with a silent gravity. She did not seem to be stirred by the fantasia of the firelight, or to catch any gaiety or life from the boisterous activity of those about her. The flames lit up the whiteness of her face, and showed Renfrew that she was looking gloomy and even despairing.

“Is anything the matter, Claire?” he asked anxiously.

“No. How could there be?”

The wind, which was increasing in violence, blew her thin dress forward, and she shivered. Absalem noticed it.

“Wear djelabe, lady,” he said.

And in a moment he had taken his off, and was carefully wrapping Claire in it. She seemed glad of it, thanked him, and, with a quick gesture that hurt Renfrew, pulled the big brown hood up over her head, so that her face was entirely concealed from view. She now looked exactly like a Moor, and might have been mistaken for one of the soldiers before the fire was lit and all impeding garments were thrown aside.

Renfrew, uneasy, and wondering what conduct on his part would best suit her mysterious mood, after one or two remarks to which she barely replied, drew away a little, and gave his attention to the antics of the soldiers. Some of them were already resuming their djelabes, in preparation for the feast, which they sniffed even through the odour of burning wood and leaves. The cook, after his emotional and acrobatic outburst, had returned to his pans, which he was stirring tenderly with a stick. When Renfrew again looked towards Claire, he found it impossible to tell which cloak shrouded her from his sight. Four or five hooded figures stood near the fire. She must be one of them. He approached the group, but found, to his surprise, that all the members of it were soldiers. Claire had moved away. Renfrew stood for a few minutes with the men, till they were summoned to their feast, which, strangely enough, was to take place away from the fire in the dense darkness behind the tents. Then he was left alone by the huge mass of flame, which roared hoarsely in the wind. Where could Claire be? On any ordinary occasion Renfrew would certainly have sought for her, but to-night something held him back. He knew very well that she wished to be alone, that something was closely occupying her mind. Whether she was still brooding over the event of the afternoon, when he had forcibly led her away in the very crisis of the snake-charmer's performance, he could not tell. To an ordinary woman such a matter would have been a trifle; but Renfrew understood that Claire felt it more deeply. Her mind appeared to be mysteriously moved and awakened by this savage from the depths of Morocco. Various circumstances combined to render him more interesting to her than he could possibly be to any ordinary traveller. Renfrew recognised that fully and quietly. The genius of Claire had enabled her to realise in London all the wildly picturesque idiosyncrasies of a man whom she had never seen or heard of. Suddenly fate had led her to him, and she had beheld her own performance, the original of her imitation. As Renfrew stood by the fire, he began to feel the folly of his proceeding of the afternoon, and to imagine more clearly than before the condition into which it had thrown Claire. It is a sin to disturb the contemplations of genius. It is sacrilege. And then Renfrew had been moved to his act by a preposterous access of jealousy. He acknowledged this to himself. He had been jealous of Claire's interest in this man's performance, jealous perhaps even of her dream among the hills in the midnight camp, where the man stood before her sleeping eyes, and played with his visionary serpent. How mad can a lover be? He resolved to go to Claire, and ask her pardon. This resolve thrilled him. To carry it out, he would have to draw very near to Claire, to unpack his heart to her. After all, she had given herself to him. But he had appreciated the wonder of his rôle as possessor so keenly, that he had waited upon her moods with an almost trembling awe. Now, in asking pardon, he would show that in his passion he could be strong. Women want to see the man in the lover, as well as the devotee. Renfrew, in acknowledging his jealousy of a black savage, meant to clasp Claire with the arms of a whirlwind.

Meanwhile she was hidden from him. The wind blew strongly. The sparks leaped away in clouds toward the sea. From the dense darkness behind him came a sound of music. The soldiers were feasting. The porters were striking the lute, and singing songs of the dance and of love and of victory. It was a night of comradeship and of rejoicing. Yet he stood alone; and the turmoil of his heart was unheeded. He tried to explore the blackness of the night which stood round the golden fire with his eyes. Claire must be in that blackness close to him. Doubtless she saw him, a red and yellow creature, painted into fictitious brilliance by the illumination which was shed upon him. She saw him and kept from him. Renfrew resolved to be patient. When her mood of reserve died she would come to him, in her dress of a Moor, and he would kiss the white face beneath the hood, and put his arms round the thin figure that was lost in the djelabe of brawny Absalem, and tell her the true story of his heart, never fully told to her yet. He squatted down before the fire, lit his pipe, shrugged his shoulders against the tempest from the mountains, and waited, listening to the weird music that swept by him like a hidden bird on the wind.

And Claire—where was she? When Absalem wrapped her in the huge djelabe it seemed to Claire that he had divined her secret longing to be in hiding. She disappeared into the mighty hood of the garment as into a cave. Its shadow concealed her from the watching eyes of Renfrew. There was warmth in it and a beautiful darkness. She desired both. She saw Renfrew turn to watch the leaping soldiers, and stole away out of the illuminated circle formed by the glow from the fire, into the night beyond. She did not go far, only into the nearest shadow. And there she sat down on the short dry grass, and forgot Renfrew, the roaring flames, the wind that felt incessantly at her robe, the shouting guard, the radiant and dancing attendants. She forgot them all as completely as if they had never been in her life; for the strangeness of certain incidents preoccupied her, to the exclusion of everything else. In the double existence of a really great actress there are many moments in which the truths of the imagination seem more important than the truths of physical phenomena of things seen by the eye, of sounds received and appreciated by the ear. In these moments, genius usurps the throne of reason, and the mind beholds fancies as sunlit gods, facts as timid and scarcely defined shadows. So it was with Claire now. Even the snake-charmer, as he gave his performance in the Soko, was a shadow in comparison with that man who summoned her to the tent door in the solitary encampment. And behind and beyond both these figures of truth and dreaming stood a third, created for herself by Claire in London, that figure into whom she had poured her soul as into a mould, when she charmed imaginary serpents, and prayed to the god in whom, for a moment, she believed with the passion of the perfect mime. This trio Claire placed in line, and reviewed: charmer of her imagination, of her dream, of the Soko.

They were the same, and yet not the same. For the first was dominated, even was created by her. The second stood above her, like some magician, and summoned her as one possessing a right. The third—what of him? He was a wild creature of blood and foam, crafty, a player like herself, a maker of money, a savage in sacking, and almost nothing to her now. Out of the desert he came. Into the desert he was, perhaps, even now, returning, with his snakes sleeping in his bosom, and the money of the Tetuan Moors jingling in his pouch.

Yes, she saw him, travelling like a shadow in the night, one of those grotesques which leap on bedroom walls when a lamp flares in the wind that sighs through an open casement. He was going; but the man of the dream remained. The dream man had come up out of the world that is vaguer to us than the desert when we wake, and clearer to us than the desert when we sleep. Claire saw him still, and, while the wonderful mountebank of the Soko passed, he stood in the tent door like a statue of ebony, a rooted reality. And the snake was in his bosom; and the pipe was at his lips; and the power was in his heart. And as he played, Claire thought beneath the djelabe of Absalem, there came to him, with the faltering steps of a thing irresistibly charmed, that third man whose soul she had seen in London, like approaching like, with the manner of a slave and the glance of the conquered. And her soul was still within that charmed figure. She could not rescue it now from the place where she had put it. And the statue at the tent door played the irresistible melody until his wild and cringing double stole to his very feet, and nearer and nearer, till they melted together, and where two men had been, there was only one. He smiled with a subtle triumph, laid down his pipe, stretched out his arms and vanished. But within him now was the soul of Claire, borne wherever he should go, his captive, his possession for all eternity.

Behind her, in the cloudy darkness, Claire heard a movement, and the gliding of soft feet on grass. She did not turn her head, supposing that one of the soldiers was keeping his guard. The movement ceased. But the little noise had broken the thread on which her fancies were strung. They were scattered like beads. She found herself feeling quite ordinary, and listening with an urging attention for a renewal of the trifling noise behind her. In the distance she could see Renfrew, now crouching before the fire, which poured colour and a piercing vitality upon him. She heard also, and for the first time, the sound of the porters' music, which had been audible in the night all through her reverie, though she was entirely unaware of the fact. She realised that the soldiers were devouring the stew of mutton, and that she was in a gay camp, full of human beings in a state of unusual satisfaction. One of these human beings must be close to her. She turned her head. But she was sitting in the darkness beyond the illumination of the fire, and beyond her the night was like a black wall. Whatever had moved there was invisible to her. She had not heard the gliding step go away, and she felt that she was not alone. This feeling began to render her uneasy. She got up, with the intention of returning to the firelight and to Renfrew. Indeed she had taken a step or two in his direction, when she was checked by an unreasonable desire to see who had come so close to her, who had broken her reverie. Acting upon the sudden impulse, she turned swiftly and came on into the darkness. Almost instantly she stood before the dim outline of a man, and paused. Here in the night it was very lonely, even though the illuminated camp was so near. Claire hesitated to approach this man who seemed to be on watch and who was perfectly motionless. She waited a moment, wishing that he would come to her in order that she might see what he was like, whether he carried a gun and was a soldier. But it was soon evident that he did not mean to move. Then Claire went up so close to him that his coarse garment rubbed against her djelabe and his eyes stared right down into hers. And she saw that it was the snake-charmer from the Soko, who was looking into her face with the very smile of the man in her dream. Round his bare throat one of his snakes was twined, and he held its neck between the fingers of his left hand. The wind tossed his short and ragged cloak wildly to and fro, and whirled the long lock of hair at the back of his shaven head about, and made it dance like a living thing. When Claire came up to him, he never said a word, or moved at all. It seemed to her that his face was that of some dark and triumphant being, waiting immovably for something that was certain to come to him, and to come so close that he need not even stretch out his hand to take it as his possession. What was the thing he waited for? She looked at his black face and at the snake which moved slowly, trying to thrust its way downward into the warmth of his bosom, out of the reach of the wind and of the night. And, when the man's fingers unclosed to release it, and it slid away and softly disappeared beneath his garment, Claire shuddered under the influence of a sensation that was surely mad. For she felt that she envied the snake, and that the charmer was waiting there in the darkness for her. As the snake vanished, Claire recoiled towards the fire. The charmer did not attempt to follow her, and his huge and watchful figure quickly faded from Claire's eyes till his blackness had become one with the blackness of the night.

IV

Renfrew, as he crouched before the fire, felt a light touch on his shoulder. He looked up, saw Claire's white face peering down on him, and sprang to his feet.

“I thought you were never coming, that you had deserted me altogether, and left me lonely in the midst of the fantasia,” he cried, seizing her hands.

“I am cold,” she said; “horribly cold. Let me sit beside you, close to the fire.”

She sat down on the ground, almost touching the roaring flames.

“Where have you been?”

“Sitting in the dark. The soldiers are feasting?”

“Yes, and the camp fellows are all singing and playing. Don't you hear them? We are quite alone. That's all I want, all I care for. Claire, when you go away like this, and leave me, even for a few minutes, Morocco is the most desolate place in all the world, and I'm the most desolate vagabond in it.”

He put his arm round her. The terrific glow from the fire played over her face, danced in the deep folds of her djelabe, shone in her eyes, showered a cloud of gold and red about her hair. For she had let her hood fall down on her shoulders. She attained to that fine and almost demoniacal picturesqueness which glorifies even the most commonplace smith when you see him in his forge by night. Her cheeks were suffused with scarlet, as if she had suddenly painted them to go on the stage. Yet she shivered again as Renfrew spoke.

“You should not have left the fire,” he said. “And yet the wind is warm.”

“It can't be. But it's not the wind, it's the darkness that has chilled me.”

“Or is it the loneliness?” he asked, tenderly. “For you have been alone as well as I, and nothing on earth makes one so cold as solitude.”

“I scarcely ever feel alone, Desmond,” she said.

And, as she spoke, she cast a glance behind her into the darkness from which she had just come. Renfrew noticed it.

“You have been alone?” he asked hastily. Then he checked himself with an ashamed laugh.

“What a fool I am,” he exclaimed.

He clasped her more closely.

“A fool, because I'm so desperately in love with you, Claire,” he said, rushing on his confession with the swiftness of alarmed bravery. “Look here, I want to tell you something. You must put everything I do, everything I am, down to the account of my love,—shyness, anger, abruptness, violence,—everything, Claire. My love's responsible. It does play the devil with an ordinary man when he's given his very soul to—to a woman like you, to a great woman. It keeps him back when he ought to go on, and sends him on when he ought to stay quiet, and makes him jealous of stones and—and savages.”

“Savages, Desmond?”

Renfrew's face was scarlet. He put up his hand before it and muttered:—

“This fire's scorching. Yes, Claire, of savages. Didn't you find that out this afternoon, when we were in Tetuan? But of course you couldn't. You couldn't know you'd married such an infernal lunatic.”

He broke off. She was watching him with a close attention, and her body had ceased to tremble under his arm.

“Go on, Desmond.”

“You want me to tell you the sort of man you've married?”

“I want you to tell me what you mean.”

“Then I will. Claire, this afternoon I took you away from that snake-charming chap because—well, because you watched him as if he fascinated you.”

“Oh!”

“Of course I knew why. His performance was clever, and he was picturesque in his way, although, to be sure, it was all put on, as far as that goes.”

“Like my stage performances, Desmond.”

“Claire,” he said hotly. “How can you?”

“That man acts far better than I do—if he acts at all.”

“Was that why he interested you so much?”

“In what other way could he interest me?”

Renfrew kicked at one of the blazing logs and sent up a shower of red-hot flakes.

“Well, there was your dream, Claire.”

“Yes, there was that.”

“It was curious, coming just before we saw the fellow. And you say the two men were alike.”

“I did not say alike. I said the same.”

“How could that be?”

“How can a thousand things be? Yet we cannot deny them when they are, any more than we can deny that we feel an earthly immortality within us and yet crumble into dust. In sleep I saw that man. I saw his snake. I heard him play.”

“Yes, Claire, I know. It's damned strange.”

Renfrew's forehead was wrinkled in a meditative frown.

“But, after all, what's a dream?” he exclaimed. “A vagary of a sleeping brain. And in your dream you wouldn't go to that beggar, Claire.”

“No. I wouldn't go, and so I died.”

“It all means nothing—nothing at all.”

She looked at him gravely.

“I wonder whether there are things in life that we are compelled to do, Desmond,” she said. “I sometimes think there must be. How otherwise can a thousand strange events be accounted for, especially things that women do?”

“I don't know,” he muttered, staring at her anxiously in the firelight.

“Every one acknowledges the irresistible power of physical force over physical weakness. Some day, perhaps, when the world has grown a little older, we shall all understand that the power of mental force is precisely similar, and can as little be resisted. What's that?”

Renfrew felt that she was suddenly alert. Her thin form grew hard and quivering, like the body of a greyhound about to be let loose on a hare. He heard nothing except a sound of music from the darkness, and the gentle rustle of the wind.

“I hear nothing,” he said. “What was it—a cry?”

“No, no!”

“What then?”

“Oh, Desmond—hush!”

He was obedient, and strained his ears, wondering what Claire had heard. The fire was at last beginning to die down, for the flames had devoured the masses of dry twigs, and had now nothing to feed upon except the heavy logs. So the darkness drew a little closer round the camp, as if the night expanded noiselessly. One of the porters, or, perhaps, one of the soldiers, was playing a queer little air upon a pipe over and over again. It was plaintive and very soft. But the tone of the instrument was strangely penetrating, and the wind carried it along over the plain, as if anxious to bear it to the sea, that the cave men might hear it, and the sailors bearing up for the Spanish coast. Was Claire listening to this odd little tune? Renfrew wondered. There seemed no other sound. She was moving uneasily now, as if an intense restlessness had taken hold of her. And she turned her head away from him and gazed into the night.

Presently she put her hand on Renfrew's arm, which was still round her waist, and tried to remove it. But he would not yield to her desire. He only held her closer, and again—he could not tell why—the smouldering jealousy began to flare up in his heart.

“No, Claire,” he said, in answer to her movement, “you are mine. You have given yourself to me. I alone have the right to keep you, to hold you close—close to my heart.”

“Can you keep me always, Desmond?” she said, suddenly turning on him with a sort of fierce excitement.

She looked into his eyes as if she would search the very depths of his soul for strength, for power.

“You have the right. Yes; but that is nothing—nothing.”

“Nothing, Claire?”

“You must have the strength, Desmond. That is everything.”

There was a look almost of despair in her face. She threw herself against him as if moved by a sudden yearning for protection, and put her arms round his shoulders.

The hidden Moor was still playing the same monotonous little tune, an African aria, as wild as a bird that flies over the desert, or a cloud that is driven across the sky above a dangerous sea. It was imaginative, and, as all tunes seem to have a shape, this melody was misshapen and yet delicious, like a twisted tangled creature that has the smile of a sweet woman, or the eyes of an alluring child. In its plaintiveness there was the atmosphere of solitary places. And there was a sound of love in it, too, but of a love so uncivilised as to be almost monstrous. Some earth man of a dead age might have sung it to his mate in a land where the sun looked down on things primeval. It might have caught the heart of maidens very long ago, before they learned to think of passion as the twin of law, and to regard a kiss as the seal set upon the tape of matrimony. The queer sorrow of it could hardly have moved any eyes to tears. Yet few women could have heard it without a sense of desolation. It ran through the darkness as cold water runs in the black shadow of a forest, a trickle of sound as thin and persistent as the cry of a wild creature in the night.

Renfrew thrilled under the touch of Claire's hand.

“You can give me the strength every woman seeks in the man she yields herself up to,” he said.

“How?”

“By loving me.”

“Ah, yes. But the strength must not come, however subtly, from the woman. No—no.”

Again she leaned away from him, with her face turned towards the darkness. Tremors ran through her, and her hands dropped almost feebly from Renfrew's shoulders, as the hands of an invalid fall away, and down, after an embrace.

“Oh, no,” she reiterated, and her voice was almost a wail. “It must be there, in the man, part of him, whether he is with the woman in the night, or alone—far off—in the jungle, or in the—the desert. He must have the strange strength that comes from solitude. Where can the men of our country find that now?”

“They find strength in the clash of wills, Claire, and in the battles of love.”

“Most of them never find it at all,” she said, with a sort of sullen resignation. “And most of the women do not want it, or ask for it, or know what it is. The danger is when some accident or some fate teaches them what it is. Then—then—”

She stopped, and glanced at Renfrew suspiciously, as if she had so nearly betrayed a secret that he might, nay, must have guessed it.

“What do you mean? Then they seek it away from—?”

“Where they know they will find it,” she said, almost defiantly.

Renfrew's face grew cold and rigid.

“What are you saying to me, Claire?”

“What is true of some women, Desmond.”

He was silent. Pain and fear invaded his heart; and, by degrees, the little tune played by the Moor seemed to approach him, very quietly, and to become one with this slow agony. Music, among its many and terrible powers, numbers one that is scarcely possessed as forcibly by any other art. It can glide into a man and direct his emotions as irresistibly as science can direct the flow of a stream. It can penetrate as a thing seen cannot penetrate. For that which is invisible is that which is invincible. And this tune of the Moor, while it added to Renfrew's distress, touched his distress with confusion and bewilderment. At first he did not realise that the music had anything to do with his state of mind, or with the growing turmoil of his heart and brain; but he felt that something was becoming intolerable to him, and pushing him on in a dangerous path. He thought it was the statement of Claire; and, for the first time in his life, he was stirred by an anger against her that was horrible to him. He released her from his arm.

“How dare you say that to me?” he asked. “Do you understand what your words imply, that—Good God!—that women are like animals, creatures without souls, running to the feet of the master who has the whip with the longest, the most stinging lash? Why, such a creed as yours would keep men savages, and kill all gentleness out of the world. Curse that chap! That hideous music of his—”

He had suddenly become aware that the Moor's melody added something to his torment. At his last exclamation, the sullen look in Claire's pale face gave way to an expression of fear and of startling solicitude.

“Desmond, you are putting a wrong interpretation on what I said,” she began hastily.

But he was excited, and could not endure any interruption.

“And you imply a degrading immorality as a prevailing characteristic of women too,” he went on, “that they should leave their homes, deny their obligations, because they find elsewhere—away, out in some dark place with a blackguard—a powerful will to curb them and keep them down, like—why, like these wretched women all round us here in this country,—the women we saw in Tetuan only to-day, veiled, hidden, loaded with burdens, worse off than animals, because their masters doubt them, and would not dream of trusting them. Claire, there's something barbarous about you.”

He spoke the words with the intonation of one who thinks he is uttering an insult. But she smiled.

“It's the something barbarous about me that has placed me where I am,” she said, with a cold pride. “It is that which civilisation worships in me, that which has set me above the other women of my time. It is even that which has made you love me, Desmond, whether you know it or not.”

He looked at her like a man half dazed.

“I frighten the dove-cotes. I can make men tremble by my outbursts of passion, and women faint because I am sad; and even the stony-hearted sob when I die. And I can make you love me, Desmond. Yes, perhaps I am more barbarous than other women. But do you think I am sorry for it? No.”

“Some day you may be, Claire.”

He spoke more gently. The wonder and worship he had for this woman stirred in him again. While she had been speaking, she had instinctively risen to her feet, and she stood in the dull red glow of the waning fire, looking down at him as if he were a creature in a lower world than the one in which she could walk at will.

“I shall never choose to be sorry,” she said, “whatever my fate may be. To be sorry is to be feeble, and to be feeble is to be unfit to live, and unfit to die. Never, never think of me as being sorry for anything I have done, or may do. Never deceive yourself about me.”

A great log, eaten through by a flame at its heart, broke gently asunder on the summit of the heaped wood. One half of it, red-hot, and alive with multitudes of flickering fires, gold, primrose, steel-blue, and deep purple, dropped and fell at Claire's feet. She glanced down at it, and at Renfrew.

“My deeds may burn me up,” she said, “as those coloured fires burn up that wood, until it is no longer wood but fire itself. They shall never drench me with wretched, contemptible tears.”

He got up; and, when he was on his feet, he seemed to hear the incessant music more clearly, blending with the words of Claire. The notes were like hot sparks falling on him. He winced under them, and looked round almost wildly. Then, without speaking, he hurried away in the darkness to the place where the soldiers were feasting, and the men of the camp were holding their fantasia. Claire divined why he went. She started a step forward as if to try and stop him; but his movement had been so abrupt that she was too late. She had to let him go. Her hands fell at her sides, and she waited by the dying fire in the attitude of one who listens intently. The soft melody of that hidden and persistent musician wailed in her ears, on and on. It came again and again, never ceasing, never altering in time. And its influence upon Claire was terrible as the influence of the dream music in the valley beneath the Kasbar. She longed to go to it. She seemed to belong to it,—to be its possession, and to have erred when she separated herself from it. In the darkness it was awaiting her, and it sent out its crying voice in the night as a message, as a summons soft, clear, and quietly determined. She clenched her hands as she stood by the fire. She strove to root her feet in the ground. If there had been anything to cling to just then, she would have stretched forth her arms and clung to it, resisting what she loved from fear of the future. But there was nothing. And she thought of the children and of the Pied Piper. But they were legendary beings of a fable long ago. And she thought of Renfrew and of his love. But that seemed nothing. That could not keep her. He was a pale phantom, and her career was a handful of dust, and her name was as the name graven upon a tomb, and her life was but as a gift to be offered to an unknown destiny,—while that melody called to her. Had any one seen her then in the glow of the firelight, she would have seemed to him terrible. For suddenly she let the djelabe of Absalem slip from her shoulders to the ground. And, in the fiercely flickering light, that makes all things and people assume unearthly aspects, her thin figure in its white robe looked like the white body of a serpent, erect and trembling, under the influence of the charmer. But the melody grew softer and softer, more faint, more dreamy in the darkness. Presently it ceased. As it did so, Claire drew a deep breath, lifted her head like one released from a thraldom, and turned her face towards the camp.

Almost directly she saw Renfrew returning towards her. He looked puzzled.

“It wasn't any of the men playing,” he said to her.

“No?”

Claire bent, caught up the djelabe and drew it over her.

“I went to them, and found them listening to some story Absalem was telling. They were all gathered close round him, huddled up together in the dark. And the piping came from quite another direction—not from the soldiers either. It must have been some vagabond out of Tetuan. I was just going to make a search for him, when the noise stopped. He must have heard me coming.”

He still looked disturbed and angry, and this break in their conversation was final. It seemed impossible to take up the thread of it again. They stood together watching the fire fade away till it was a faint glow almost level with the ground. Then at last Renfrew spoke, in a voice that was almost timid.

“Claire,” he said.

“Yes,” she answered out of the dull twilight that would soon be darkness.

“If I have said anything to-night to hurt you, don't think of it, don't remember it. I don't know—I don't seem to have been like myself to-night. I believe that cursed music irritated me, so ugly, and so monotonous; it got right on my nerves, I think.”

“Did it?”

“Without my knowing it.”

He felt for one of her hands and clasped it.

“Yes, dear. We both said more than we meant. Didn't we?”

Claire did not assent; but she let her hand lie in his. That satisfied him then, although afterwards he remembered her silence. Soon the fire was dead; and they said good-night in the wind, which seemed colder because there was no more light.

       * * * * *

Renfrew went to his tent, undressed, and got into bed. The wind roared against the canvas. But the pegs had been driven stoutly into the ground by the porters, and held the cords fast. He felt very tired and depressed, and thought he would not fall asleep quickly. But he soon began to be drowsy, and to have a sense of dropping into the very arms of the tempest, lulled by its noise. He slept for a time. Presently, however, and while it was still quite dark, he woke up. He heard the wind as before, but was troubled by an idea that some other sound was mingling with it, some murmur so indistinct that he could not decide what it was, although he was aware of it. He sat up and strained his ears, and wished the wind would lull, if only for a moment, or that this other sound—which had surely been the cause of his waking—would increase, and stand out distinctly in the night. And, at last, by dint of listening with all his force, Renfrew seemed to himself to compel the sound to greater clearness. Then he knew that somewhere, far off perhaps in the wind, the player on the pipe reiterated his soft and stealthy music. It was swept on the tempest like a drowning thing caught in a whirlpool. It was so faint as to be almost inaudible. But in all its weakness it retained most completely its character, and made the same impression upon Renfrew as when it was near and distinct. It irritated and it repelled him. And, with an angry exclamation, he flung himself down and buried his head in the pillow, stopping his ears with his hands.

       * * * * *

With daylight the camp was in a turmoil. Claire was gone. Her bed had not been slept in. She had not undressed. She had not even taken off Absalem's djelabe. At least it could not be found. Renfrew, frantic, almost mad with anxiety, explored the plain, rode at a gallop to the gate of the city, called upon the Governor of Tetuan to help him in his search, and summoned the Consul to his aid in his despair. Every effort was made to find the missing woman; but no success crowned the quest, either at that time, or afterwards, when weeks became months, and months grew into years. A great actress was lost to the world. His world was lost to Renfrew. He rode back at last one day to the villas of Tangier, bent down upon his horse, broken, alone. In his despair he cursed himself. He accused himself of cruelty to Claire that night beside the African fire, when he had been roused to a momentary anger against her. He even told himself that he had driven her away from him. But other men, who had known Claire and the strangeness of her caprices, said to each other that she had got tired of Renfrew and given him the slip, wandering away disguised in the djelabe of a Moor, and that some fine day she would turn up again, and re-appear upon the stage that had seen her glory.

Later on, when Renfrew at last, after long searching, came hopelessly back to England, so changed that his friends scarcely recognised him, he was sometimes seized with strange and terrible thoughts as he sat brooding over the wreck of his love. He seemed to see, as in a pale vision of flame and darkness, a little dusky Moorish boy bending to smell at a withered sprig of orange flower, and to remember that once—how long ago it seemed—Claire had wished to kiss that boy as a Moorish woman might have kissed him. And then he saw a veiled figure, that he seemed to know even in its deceitful robe, bend down to the boy. And the vision faded. At another time he would hear the little tune that had persecuted him in the night. And then he recalled the music of Claire's dream, and the melody that charmed the snakes; and he shuddered. For the miracle man had never been seen in Tetuan since the day when Claire had watched him in the Soko. Nor could Renfrew ever find out whither he had wandered.

       * * * * *

Very long afterwards, however,—although this fact was never known to Renfrew,—two Russian travellers in the Great Sahara desert witnessed one evening, as they sat in their tent door, the performance of a savage charmer of snakes who carried upon his body three serpents,—one striped, one black, one white. And the younger of them noticed, and remarked to the other, that the charmer wore half-way up the little finger of his left hand a thin gold circle in which there was set a magnificent black pearl.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page