Book received at the Visitation of Le Mans by Marie Martin
as 1st Prize in Handicraft, August 4, 1872.
by Ernest Fouinet
Tours: Alfred Mame et fils, editors, 1870. 4e edition
I: THE ABANDONED CAMP
The sun had just risen on the horizon of an immense plain of sand, on which one could only see the star, whose rays were already burning, and two shadows, the only ones it projected far away on the surface. of this desert, which did not cover the slightest vegetation. These shadows were therefore neither those of date palms or palm trees, nor those of shrubs or shrubs, but indeed the giant silhouettes of two men who, coming from two opposite points, stopped at the same time at the same place and soon found themselves very close to each other, face to face, in front of a mound which extended on the sand a shadow double their own. Both were mounted on camels, both wrapped in a large white woolen coat, both wearing a hood, portable shelter, permanent parasol, already very necessary against the sun, whose ardor grew with the rapidity of its ascent above the flaming horizon. These two men, were they Bedouins? were they monks? One could ask oneself this question, because the costume had an astonishing analogy, and it would be enough to see the caban and the Arab burnous to recognize in the scapular, the frock, the cowl of our monks, the historical fact of the oriental origin. monastic life, cenobitic life. Bedouins or cenobites, inhabitants of the scorched solitudes of Thebaid, Palestine and Mesopotamia, they had the same life, the same habits, the same needs, the same clothes.
Our scene is Arab Iraq and the desert of Aljirich; these men can therefore also be two monks or two Arabs from the banks of the Euphrates. They descend from their mounts, they remain motionless, looking at the rocky ground and the sand. What are they doing? what are they thinking? Let us examine them, let us listen to their words.
One of the two travelers, holding in one hand the rope of his camel, and in the other a high stick on which he leans while walking painfully and with his back bent, advances on the small mound of sand, and after carefully looking around him, at his feet, as if looking for some lost object, pushes aside the stones and pebbles with his stick.
"It's good here," he said to himself, "here are the traces of a camp, of a tent."
"It's good here," repeats the other traveler, who with a quick, quick step, like a young, strong man, has approached the same place, and, like the old man, has searched the sandy ground, not with a stick, but with the foot of a high spear. “Here are the channels that were used to drain the water; it is there that they placed, on these blackened stones, the boiling cauldron.
- Where the stable was, where the camel and the mare left traces of their litter. »
Up to now the old man had thus spoken only to himself or to solitude; but finally he threw back his hood, which revealed a beautiful and excellent face, whose forehead was lined with wrinkles, whose cheeks and chin disappeared under a thick white beard wavy like moire; then he addressed the young man, evidently a Bedouin, since he carried a spear.
"Salvation be upon you," he said to her in a voice quivering with emotion no less than old age, "salvation be upon you!"
"Blessings on you," replied the Bedouin, revealing in his turn a beautiful head, a brown, lively face, with twinkling eyes, a black, curly beard, "blessings on you!"
"Wasn't it here," resumed the old man, "that Hantalah-ben-Thai had his tent?"
'Right here, I have at last recognized the place of his encampment: I was passing by, and I would have wished with all my soul to see him again; He did me such a favor once!
— What sweet hours we passed here, at the door of the tent, when my hermitage was not far from here, and when Hantalah liked to talk with me about the Christian religion, which I had taught him. .
- What ! it is you who are Father Arsenios, of whom he often spoke to me with happiness, with admiration!
- With affection above all: it is a feeling that I deserved to inspire in him.
"He was so hospitable!"
"So good a Christian!"
"So good a Christian!"
"So loyal!" so faithful to his word, so willing to help his fellow man!
- Oh! yes, Hantalah was a true Christian, an example of charity and devotion.
"Who knows better than me?" Without him, without his help and his arms, I perished six years ago, the victim of a formidable enemy. He almost sacrificed himself for me.
“So you are Korad-ben-Adjdaa. His good deed towards you was revealed to me, not by him, he was too modest to boast of the good he was doing; but his wife, his son, betrayed him...
— Noble Hantalah! what would I not have done for him, for his wife, his child... where to find them?... where are they?... dead?...
"Dead!" replied a voice very distinctly; and the monk, the Bedouin, turned round with a sharp start, and looked with terrified eyes for a long time to see if they saw anyone.
"It's the owl of death!" said Korad sadly, turning to Arsenios after his taciturn examination... It's the owl Seda!
Arsenios was for the first time struck by the thought that this word, which serves to designate this pretended owl, also signifies echo. This reflection led him to explain himself and to explain quite naturally to Korad what had at first seemed to them a miracle, the sinister repetition of their last word. It was the mound of sand that had produced that mysterious voice.
“Echo! the echo! may Heaven! Inshallah! answered Korad; but it is indeed the owl of death that we heard, father Arsenios... Why was I not there, at least, to pay the last visit to the brave Hantalah-ben-Thai, and then immolate on his grave my most precious horse and my best camel!
Why was I not there to pray on his deathbed, and, at the hour of his departure, to give him the powerful viaticum of solemn prayers pronounced by a friend for his friend, by an affectionate master for his pious disciple? ! It would have been a more precious provision for the eternal journey than the superstitious sacrifice of your horse, your camel.
“He used his fast mount so well, to fly into battle, to the aid of a brother, or whenever there was a service to render. What would he do in the other world if he had neither camel nor horse? »
The monk Arsenios, seeing that the Arab idolater was so deeply convinced of his foolish but touching opinion, and knowing that Korad, a good and excellent man, would not be accessible to any reasoning, charged him to tell Hantalah, if he still lived , or to someone of his family, if he discovered the trace of his wife or his child, that Father Arsenios was currently living in a hermitage a few days from Kufa, in the mountain of the desert.
“Then you are not going back there; for, when you stopped face to face with me, you were going to the opposite side, it seems to me.
- You saw well. I am going where ancient Nineveh was, to visit some of our brothers whose retreats are in the ruins of the dazzling city of Nimrod, of Ninus... And you, where are you going, Korad-ben-Ajdaa?
— Neither in the desert, nor in a ruined city, but in the most magnificent city of Iraq, at the residence of King Noman, at Hira.
'To Hira, no doubt... So why ask this question with such eagerness, interest, even concern, it would seem?
"You don't know what happened there." A long time ago, however.
'I haven't been there for a long time too; three to four years at least... Oh! yes, because this camel I'm riding was only six months old when I went to Hira for the last time. No wonder I don't know anything about this town. So what is it? Has Emperor Herkel stopped protecting King Noman? Has the Shahinshah (King of Persia) taken over his kingdom?
"Why ask me for news of this world, I who live far from it?"
'And yet, father, you know, you say, what happened at Hira.
"What I heard said in the desert, what I am going to tell you."
- I listen. »
The sun, still quite low above the horizon, cast a few feet of shadow on the sand. This was enough to half protect the travelers from the sun, who stretched out on the already very hot ground; Father Arsenios then told Korad the story of what he had learned while going to visit one of his brothers, a neighbor of Hira.
"One day, about two years ago, King Nôman, ignorant and fierce, after an orgy of brutes, in which he had gotten drunk with two of his favorites to the point of losing the little reason with which he was endowed, seeing his unfortunate companions of debauchery, deeply plunged in the ignoble sleep of the most complete brutalization, had conceived while laughing, I was told, the most barbarous idea, the most appalling, the most stupid at the same time. time: "If I set fire to their clothes! From thought to execution is not far in this country, where slave servants are always ready to serve the despot. A torch was therefore brought to him at once: he lit the dreadful conflagration, and before he had finished drinking his last cup of wine, the unfortunates were no more than a heap of ashes, near which he fell into a drunkenness similar to death.
“No one would have dared to wake him, even if the flame that consumed the remains of his friends reached him. Who knows even if his courtiers would not have seen this event with a secret pleasure? It would have been a very ferocious feeling, no doubt; but ferocity attracts ferocity. He was therefore not woken up, and he remained eight hours in this disgusting torpor in which the wine kept him annihilated.
" - What is it? what is it? he cried at last when he came to himself; the casseroles, let's light the casseroles! Incense, perfumes! We are suffocating here... it is a suffocating air!... This black mass... which is there... at my feet: they are like the remains of clenched hands... of hideous faces... By Latou Ozza! so what happened? let me be answered. »
"Then one of the cupbearers asked him with respect mixed with fear if he had forgotten the orders given by him a few hours earlier... And the favorite hesitated to continue.
“—What orders?... say, I order you.”
“Then the cupbearer, tempering his expressions of horror, told Nôman the dreadful scene that had happened. Suddenly, tearing his cloak and his turban, the king immediately swore a solemn expiation, an expiation no less ferocious than the crime.
"How did he swear?" asked Korad with interest, abruptly interrupting Arsenios: no doubt he took the oath of blood, a formidable oath!
'I don't know all the superstitions of these deserts; but surely it was indeed a blood oath!
“The next day, the architects of the palace were commissioned to build two monuments in memory of the two favorites who were so horribly put to death... These monuments, Nôman named them the Ghorebaïn!
The Two Ravens, repeated Korad. For what? have two of these birds of bad omen been represented on these tombs?
- I do not know ; but the omen attached to these monuments is grim indeed; for there is a day in the year when a man must be sacrificed in the presence of the king between one and the other tomb, and this man is the stranger whom his unfortunate fate brings before Noman on the morning of this fatal day. Worthy penance of a barbarian! an anniversary no less criminal than the crime, for which blind idolatry hopes to obtain forgiveness in this way.
"And what is this fatal day?" asked Korad, who had listened intently.
"What day is it?" I don't know; but I wanted to warn you, Koradben Ajdaa, against the fatal outcome that your trip to Hira could have. Before setting foot there, find out what you ask me in vain. »
Korad reflects for a moment, then raising his hand with the gesture that indicates the side one is taking: "It doesn't matter, I'll go... Mashallah!" mashallah! what God wills!
"Do you believe, then, that this is the Will of God, my son?" No no; he does not want us to run in front of the whims of a bloodthirsty tyrant, whom he has undoubtedly sent as a scourge to punish a country. Take advantage of my warning, Korad!
Mashallah! mashallah! repeated the idolater with an almost stupid obstinacy, as far removed from sublime resignation as reason is from unreason and madness. Resignation is virtuous submission to an inevitable misfortune, but against which we have made the efforts that God commands us to oppose to misfortune and trials. Fatalism, on the contrary, a blind sentiment which Korad was obeying at this moment, is an outrage made to the Divinity, which has deprived us of reason in order to discern good from evil, to distinguish what can be useful to us from what can harm. He therefore who, without the need to defend his homeland or an attacked friend, ran towards certain peril, and would say, before a hail of arrows needlessly confronted, mashallah, as Korad has just said; he who would repeat this word instead of taking advantage of advice which can save an exposed life without profit for his brothers; that one would not be resigned, but stupid, guilty, impious. Fatalism is blind obedience to no less blind chance. Resignation is enlightened submission to Him who sees, who knows, who can do anything. The man who refuses to cure the disease for which God has created remedies dies a fatalist; the man who has exhausted all the resources to continue living, and finally lies on the deathbed saying what God wants! this man dies resigned.
For the third time repeating mâchal-ah, Korad rose, for the rising sun had gradually stripped the chest and face of Father Arsenios and Korad of all shadow. It would have been impossible to remain motionless under this furnace without perishing from suffocation. Father Arsenios therefore imitated Korad, not without reiterating his prudent advice. What did the Bedouin say? The word he uttered was lost in the hood of his coat, which he drew over his head; the monk veiled himself in the same way with his frock; but nevertheless one could have seen in the shadow of the frock or the cowl gleaming abundant tears.
“May the spring and summer rains water the remnants of Hantalah? Korad said.
"May God," said Arsenios, "give his soul eternal peace and eternal happiness!" And they resumed their journey towards the two opposite points of the horizon.
The pagan and the Christian, each according to the degree of elevation of their belief, had expressed wishes: the first, for the body; the second, for the spirit, for the soul; but the mute expression of their regrets for their friend Hantalah was the same, equally sincere, equally pathetic, a long tribute of tears.
II: TALK IN FRONT OF THE TENT
The cry of the death owl was really nothing more than an echo. Hantâlah and his wife Hobeïbeb are still living; here they are in front of their tent: they breathe in the fresh air of a delightful evening which follows a scorching day during which the husband and wife have worked, under the heat of the sun, in fields which are not theirs; for Hantalah is poor: he was rich four years ago. The very place where the monk Arsenios and Korad sadly greeted the abandoned camp, was, in fact, their tent, near a vast bouquet thrown by the Creator in the middle of the arid plain, a fertile island of greenery on the immense sands that the Arabs poetically call a sea without water. There was water, however, a clear stream of water, a fresh wady in this verdant place, which gave rich pasture to a large herd whose produce Hantalah sold profitably to the city, after having lived abundantly on it.
Alas! a blow of that fatal wind, the simoun, destroyed everything! He covered with a thick shroud of sand the fresh brook, the meadows which it watered, finally the Wady-Hantalah. Then the unhappy family, after vain efforts to throw off the sterile cloak which covered their domain, so formerly smiling, resigned themselves courageously, and said to this corner of earth, so long loved, which so long was to be missed, a long and harsh farewell! Oh ! Korad and Father Arsenios were not entirely mistaken; for the farewell said to the hearth of the family, to the fatherland, to all that one has held dear, is indeed really a death, and a death perhaps as cruel as the other: it allows people to live in order to suffer. Hantalah, Hobeïbeh and their only son, Amrou-Abd-al-Messih, aged twelve at that time, therefore moved away, heartbroken, to head towards the neighboring countryside of Koufah. Of their herds, which they could no longer feed in the bad seasons, they kept only Rebreba, a camel born on the same day that Amrou was born; Djin, the mare who carried Hantalah so many times into battle before he became a Christian; Djin, illustrious for her kinship, for she was of the same race as Jahmoum, the swift courier of Nôman. King of Hira; and finally Nabbah, the devoted, faithful dog, the dog with whom the poor man shares his last bite.
Arrived at the place where they were to establish themselves in the service of a rich owner of herds, living between Hirah and Koufah, they begged him to receive, as his own, in his stables and stables, Rebreba and Djin, with the favor reserved for Hobeïbeh to take care of the camel, to take her to pasture, just as Hantalah asked for the grace to always be, if not the master of Djin, at least his affectionate servant. The rich man to whom Hantalah and his family sold their services in order to live was of a coarse and rough character; but there are few hearts hard enough to be impenetrable to certain feelings of attachment and tenderness. Those just testified by Hantalah and his wife were of this number; their master understood them, and granted them what they asked for.
Such was the subject of the talks exchanged on the threshold of the tent, lit by a moon as fresh as it was splendid, Hantalah and Hobeibeh. Melancholy and sad memories of a happier past, it seemed to them, by giving themselves up to it in front of such a beautiful sky, so serene, so calm, that they also calmed down and regained all their serenity: had they, moreover, never lost that which gives the consciousness of having always lived well?
To the reminiscences of this Wady-Hantalah in which they had had so much happiness, quite naturally came those of the friends who contributed to make complete this lost happiness.
“And our good father Arsenios! the one who communicated to us this faith without which we would have succumbed to our misfortune, Father Arsenios, what has become of him? said Hobeibeh.
This question that we ask ourselves, answered Hantalah, he may have addressed it himself to Heaven when, on his return from the long pilgrimage for which he left five years ago, in order to visit his brothers in the Syria and Egypt, he will no longer have found his dear Wady-Hantalah.
"And that tent before which, on evenings as beautiful as this, he taught us the true religion, spoke in a respectful voice of the life of the Lord, or told us of the days spent by the hermits in the desert." The marvelous stories of their fights with Satan and the demons, these frightening beings whom we called sheitan, ghouls or afrites, how beautiful they were, weren't they?
— Yes, they reminded me of those tales of times of ignorance by which our nights were more than once shortened.
"Evening tales in front of the tent?" said Hobeibeh; It's true. When I was a young girl, my father and my mother dazzled me with these adventures. The peris and the djins sometimes raised crystal palaces, in which shone thousands of scented candles, sometimes dug terrible caves where eyes of dark fire gleamed in the darkness, where tenebrous flames burned like those of Djehennem. ; but Father Arsenios' hell and paradise were much more filled with terror or bliss when he painted for us at the same time the tortures of remorse, the bliss of a good conscience. Then, how more terrible were the demons he cast on the culprits! how much more beautiful were the seraphim whose white wings he spread to wrap good and pure souls like wraps of light!
"You say well, Hobeibeh, and you can see that you are a poet."
— Less a poet, however, than the wife of Korad-ben-Adjdaa.
"Another friend we have lost!"
"No doubt, passing near Wady-Hantalah, he will have sought it in vain, as well as its sad owners, and, finding nothing more than sand, he will have prayed for us. »
At this moment one saw on the plain extending a human shadow, of the most gigantic size and ever increasing. That of the palm tree drawn in black by the splendid ray of the moon did not grow, and had no other movement than the undulation impressed on the green parasols by the evening breeze; but this shadow which came towards the tent, it was a giant which always rose, and after the recollections that Hobeïbeh had had of the Thousand and One Nights, it could have remembered these djins with bodies formed of vapor, rising from the bottom from the sea, rising, rising to the clouds. However, as Nabbah rushed with a joyful bark towards the apparition, one can believe that she was not annoying.
“Well, Amrou! for this giant was none other than little Amrou-Abd-al-Messih, behind whom shone the moon on the horizon; well, my child, said Hobeïbeh to him, is Rebreba asleep in her stable, after a good stay at the watering-place?
And does Djin have his feeder full? Hantalah asked.
Don't worry, my father and my mother are both fine, as is Ghemen the sheep, who is sleeping peacefully in her ordinary corner, next to the tent.
"So we can enjoy this cool and pure evening in peace," said Hobeibeh.
'It won't be for long,' said Hantalah after looking at all the points on the horizon; we will soon have a storm, a furious wind, a simoun.
“How, my father! said Amrou, in this fine weather! See how bright the moon is!
— But see how all the points of the horizon are cloudy and greyish. The moon, still so splendid, is the present; but we must also look to the future. But the future is those dark nights over there. Trust my experience; I have experienced these storms sadly enough to know their symptoms. »
At this moment bells are ringing, the bells of camels and cows returning from the watering hole.
- Good evening, good night, Hantalah, said the herdsmen and the camel drivers, who hastened their steps pushing their herds. Good evening ; we hurry, for it is still a long way from here to our tents, and the storm is approaching. »
Amrou still saw nothing in the sky, and he made fun, like an inexperienced young man, of these old pastors, whom he regarded as timid and even cowardly, because they were prudent.
Their prediction was not long in coming true, and Amrou-Abd-al-Messih recognized the wrong in rejecting the opinions of men aged in experience and by experience. The silvery azure of the sky, so pure a moment ago, was veiled in vapors less and less transparent, thicker and thicker, and the moon surrounded itself with this crown which is called halo, and this halo, at first a fairly light grey, became tawny, coppery, pitch black. Instead of the cool breeze of just now, a violent wind blew from various points on the horizon, and this wind was as hot as the breath of a furnace. The furnace was already almost the whole sky, which was set ablaze by an immense and continuous lightning, which was shaken by one of those formidable and imposing thunders of the East, which made the Arabs say: The thunder sings the praises of God. in the clouds.
"Let's go home, let's go home, it's time," said Hantalah. You see, Amrou, that I was not mistaken. »
Amrou, begging his father to forgive him, returned behind him and his mother. Nabbah followed them; but he was quite different from the alert and frolicsome Nabbah of just now. Mute, head lowered, tail hanging down, crawling rather than walking, he went to bed in his accustomed place, and Hantalah, Hobeïbeh, began to serve the poor piece of sheep's cheese with the few dates which were to form the frugal evening meal; and he, by the light of a small lamp, he began to have Amrou read a short catechism written by Father Arsenios and given by him to his disciple Hantalah. We should not be surprised to see this Arab, as well as his wife, endowed with a rather rare education. While the idolatrous Arabs of Hira, even the most considerable, could not decipher a word, the Christian Arabs almost all knew the art of reading. A religion which elevates the soul can only extend and develop the intelligences, and the superiority which their science gave them placed the Christians, although slaves, above their ignorant masters.
"Quick, quick, let's saddle Yahmoum!" I heard that on the edge of the desert in Iraq we saw a herd of wild donkeys. I want to go after them; on the spot, on the spot, do you hear? »
To hear is to obey. Only an absolute master could speak thus. It was, indeed, from the mouth of Nôman, king of Hira, that this order came so suddenly: in the twinkling of an eye Yahmoum was saddled, bridled, the dogs ready to leave; the king's numerous retinue surrounded him.
All this done in a flash, as if by magic! How precious a will so marvelously obeyed, with the rapidity of an enchantment, both for him who conceives it and for those who experience its effects, if these effects were always to be good! But man is too weak for such power to be prudently devolved to him; it needs limits, for this being already limited by its nature. Limitless power can belong with security only to the Creator, to the Eternal, to the infinite, to God.
We have already seen how cruelly Nôman had used his unbridled will. At least today he had exercised it only for an innocent purpose, and the onagers alone were to suffer from it. So he rushed forward; on Yahmoum as the magnificent sun waned on that day destined to end in the horrible storm that brought Hantalali's family back into their tent.
Barely in the saddle, Nôman had only to say a word, and Yahmoum left faster than an arrow. Soon the royal hunter, detaching himself from his retinue, pursued the tracks of a wild ass of the tallest stature and of the finest species. The more Yahmoum, pushed by the hand, the voice, the spur of his master, and above all by the ardor which swelled his nostrils and his chest, the faster Yahmoum flew, and, according to the oriental expression, swam through the space, the more the indefatigable onager fled in a race whose speed always redoubled. It was no longer steps, it was a flight; it was no longer an animal running, it was a wave of dust driven by the wind.
And in the same way one no longer saw Yahmoum except the cloud of dust raised around him by his four feet, nothing more than the burning vapor from his sides, from his nostrils, from his foaming mouth. He had been aptly named Yahmoum, meaning he smokes. His whole body was no more than thick smoke like that thrown out by a boiling boiler.
For a long time Nôman found wild pleasure in this frantic race in the footsteps of the onager.
“Courage, Yahmoum! goes! goes ! courage ! I want this prey, I need it. Fly, son of the wind! »
And by dint of exciting, of irritating Yahmoum, this fiery steed was seized with a real intoxication. He no longer knew his master's voice, nor the bit, nor the reins... No matter how much Nôman did, how much he shouted, how much he threatened, how much he flattered, he was now the slave of this unbridled animal. Tyrant of Hira, you should then have understood how much to be pitied are men delivered up to the whim of a man without reason!
It was all over, all was vain; Yahmoum crossed in his irresistible dash rocks, valleys, woods, turning to the right, to the left, carrying his master where the dizziness drove him.
And the night had come, dark, thick; the moon had disappeared under heavy clouds or the whirlwinds of dust raised by the wind of the simoun. Not a starlight, only that of lightning which blinded horse and rider.
The frantic gallop of Yahmoum in this darkness was frightening.
IV: THE AWAKENED SHEEP
While Nôman, lost in the middle of this dreadful night, no longer knew where Yahmoum was taking him, Hantalah, Hobeïbeh and their beloved Amrou were preparing to give themselves up to rest after having said the common prayer. There is no storm that can keep the man endowed with a pure conscience, whose whole day has been taken up with hard and incessant work, from sleeping.
With each flash that shone through the canvas or the cracks of the tent, with each new rumbling that followed him, Amrou made the sign of the cross; but it was not a symptom of fear, it was a response to the beautiful words I quoted above: "The thunder sings the praises of God in the clouds." »
And Hantalah, admiring this poetic expression which attests to the deepest sentiment of one of the greatest effects of nature, did not fail to place it in the middle of the prayer which he read aloud in the catechism of Father Arsenios. Each phrase of this prayer was then repeated by two gentle voices, that of Hobeibeh, that of Amrou, which nevertheless began to take on a male and sonorous accent. However, he tempered it, and murmured almost in a low voice the evening prayer before the crucifix given by Arsenios to his father. How imposing, solemn was this calm scene, in the midst of the solemn and imposing tumult outside!
The prayer over, Hantalah dipped his fingers in the stoup, moistened with holy water the fingers that Hobeïbeh and Amrou held out to him, and he began to raise his hand to his forehead to cross himself, when Nabbah suddenly stood up on his four legs with two or three hurried barks that could sound like so many howls.
“He was afraid of this gust of wind, of this clap of thunder!... What, Nabbah, are you afraid, and are you frightening the others?... See your friend Amrou, how he started! »
Hantalah had not finished these words when Nabbah had sprang forward with both paws on the door of the tent, and at a new bark, longer and deeper still, answered a neigh which resembled a cry of horror.
A man's voice, an altered, breathless voice, followed this whinny.
Hantalah hastened to open the door, and to dismount the guest who had come to him from God, following the holy expression of the hospitable Orient.
The horse that Hantalah tied as much as possible to the shelter, on the side where the wind beat the tent the least, was Yahmoum.
The exhausted, dejected man, worn out with fatigue, whom he had seated in the noblest part of the tent, was the king of Hira, it was Nôman.
But how could he have recognized the sovereign? His hair, his beard, his face, his turban, were covered with dust, as well as the silk embroidery of his rich garments. All their shine had disappeared under the layer of gravel and patches of dirt that the rain had stuck to it. Hantalah therefore took him for a poor lost traveller, and only received him with still more eagerness. Amrou and Hobeïbeh piously seconded the head of the family in his care.
- “You are thirsty, you are hungry, my host: wait, wait for me a moment, you will be quenched first, because you seem to be dying of thirst. »
Indeed, Nôman was in an unspeakable state of agitation. Feeling himself thus irresistibly dragged by Yahmoum towards precipices, perhaps he had felt a sharp terror and a violent anger against his favorite horse. He would have strangled him if he had had the strength. Even still, in this shelter where his courier had finally brought him, even in this hospitable asylum, he cursed Yahmoum, exposed outside to the storm which always continued; he promised her the most cruel punishment for the next day: brute, he would fly into a rage against a brute!
Now, while he gave himself up to this inner rage, or while he was thinking of her suite, of the anxiety and the very fear that she must have experienced at this moment, which made him smile in the midst of his fit of anger, Hantalah had gone to the corner where the sheep was sleeping the deepest sleep. This sleep was so calm, so calm, and heaved the flanks of the poor animal with such harmonious regularity, that her master looked at her for a moment with an eye of compassion, as if he had suffered at the thought of waking her.
“It must however, the host is thirsty. Hantalah therefore took an earthen vessel, and very gently placed his hand on the sheep's head; then she turned to her master, looked at him tenderly with her half-open eyes, let out a half-bleat, and closed her eyes again as if to go back to sleep.
"No, no," Hantalah told him; and he began to milk, and filled the vessel with foaming milk, which he carried before his guest. “Drink, my host, drink. And he returned to the lair of the sheep.
The gentle animal, after letting its milk be taken, had just stretched out again, and again sleep returned to it as quickly as to an innocent creature, sheep or child. Hantalah still remained in suspense before this suave picture; he seemed to be struggling with poignant emotions: his strained features bore witness to this.
"My host is hungry," he said almost in a tone of despair, "and we have nothing!" and we must honor him! »
Then with a convulsive hand he took a knife, let it fall, took it up with a sigh, and, being careful not to wake the beloved sheep this time, he rested his eyes on her for just a moment, turned them away, and at the same time, suddenly, made her pass from a few hours' sleep to an eternal sleep.
Nabbah, feeling the blow that had just struck his companion, let out a long moan.
“What is the matter with you, Nabbah? so what do you have? it no longer thunders; the storm has passed...
"Yes, what's the matter, my poor Nabbah?" said Amrou, caressing him, half asleep, for it was already quite late in the night; what have you to complain about, my good beast? »
What Nabbah's instinct had known first, Hobeïbeh's eyes wet with tears understood as soon as she saw Hantalah appear carrying the skinned and half-carved sheep. He had at first planned to entrust his wife with the task of preparing this cruel dish; but he had not the courage to impose this test on him, seeing his eyelids reddened and swollen with tears, from the midst of which an expression of reproach reached him.
But to this look he replied with a stern look, the first that since their union he had cast on his dear Hobeibeh, the little darling, as the Arabic name means.
Amrou was even less reserved than his mother in his grief, and sobbing he exclaimed: “My sheep! my poor sheep!
— Silence, Amrou! said Hantalab in an imposing voice; silence ! the guest comes from God! we must therefore honor it and sacrifice everything to holy hospitality. »
He then put the poor sheep on the fire.
“What is your name? asked Noman of Hantalah, who had been careful not to ask his host about his name; for he would have feared to appear thus to place a reserve on his hospitality, whereas this virtue must be exercised with complete abandon, and towards every man, every brother, whoever he may be. Nôman did not have the same scruple to observe; he therefore renewed his question.
“My name is Hantalah-ben-Thai,” he replied.
- Well! you are indeed worthy to be of the tribe of Thai and of the generous Hatem, replied Nôman. Hatem-Thai is among the Arabs the most complete type of generosity, hospitality and grandeur. »
Soon the same calm settled in the tent that had reigned outside for an hour. Hantalah and Noman maintained that grave taciturnity which characterizes Orientals; As for Amrou, he was sleeping soundly in a corner of the tent, and Hobeïbeh, overwhelmed by the day's work and an already prolonged vigil, was dozing off, and his head floated, following the expression of the desert, like the head of the palm tree swaying in the breeze.
“Lie down, woman,” said Hantalah. The host will permit it; go lie down on the bed. As for the host and me, we go in front of the tent to enjoy the beauty of the night, which has become calm and luminous again. »
Indeed, while Hobeïbeh withdrew behind the curtain which made two parts of the tent, Hantalah and Nôman came and sat down on the threshold, to the long neigh of joy of Yahmoum. He was thus saluting the master who would have crushed him, had he been able, and trampled underfoot a few hours earlier.
“You have a fine horse there, my host; handsome and purebred. I recognize him by his neigh. I, too, once had a mare of illustrious blood, when I was rich. which might cause him affliction: he judged the hearts of others by his own. He therefore immediately changed the subject of conversation, sometimes making his host admire, and admiring, like the shepherds of Chaldea his ancestors, the stars whose twinklings were half veiled by the splendor of the moon, then of equal purity and freshness; sometimes enumerating to him the riches of the country, those of his master, and the camels, the camels, and the superb horses which peopled his stables and stables; or else he interrupted this story to go and see if the host's nocturnal meal was cooking, to excite the hearth if he found it languishing, and then to revive it by throwing dry thorns into it; then he would return, and to make his guest be patient, he would speak to him of the inhabitants of the country, of the poor, of the rich, of the abuses committed by the nobles and the governors.
Was Noman willing to take advantage of this information thus obtained in a completely natural way? One might have thought so, seeing how carefully he took care not to reply to the declaration made to him of his name Hantalah-ben-Thai, by a similar declaration; but we would have been mistaken in supposing him to have some good intention. If he insisted on keeping the mask behind which he hid so carefully, it was only out of curiosity, vain curiosity, and perhaps because the aspect of embarrassment and distress had to be for him, back in his palace, not commiseration and sympathy, but a selfish enjoyment of pride.
There was still another pleasure which he promised himself would not be known: it was the amazement that Hantalah would experience, if the hunters, by dint of running from all sides in the footsteps of the lost sovereign, finally arrived at the tent of Hantalah-ben-Thai. In what confusion would this poor man look like these courtiers, in their splendid costumes, all prostrating themselves before their master! How Hantalah would then also prostrate himself at the feet of his host! And Nôman's pride delighted in this image; he swelled his heart to the full. Also, every time that, from the threshold of the tent where he was chatting with Hantalah, he saw the floating shadow of a palm tree, traced by the moon on the undulating harvests; if he heard a distant sound, that of the wind in the hollows of the rocks or the tall foliage of the palm trees and the willows, he rejoiced at the thought that it was his retinue which was coming. He was about to be hailed king before the humble Hantalah: he was drunk with vain joy; but until now it had only been an illusion.
Finally the sheep was cooked, and Hantalah came to warn his host that the meal he so badly needed was waiting for him. Nôman did honor to this dish, the fruit of such a painful sacrifice. As for Hantalah, before this smoking flesh, he pictured to himself his poor sleeping ewe, waking up, giving his milk for the guest, then his blood, then his life. If it had not been a question of hospitality, how he would have cursed himself from the bottom of his heart! how many times he would have called himself cruel! The host comes from God! he said to himself in his anguish to calm down a little; but he dared not fix his gaze on those almost quivering limbs; still less could he have brought to his lips a piece of that charming and gentle creature with whom his son Amrou had enjoyed so many hours of play.
V: IN THE MORNING
Noman was at the end of his meal when suddenly Yahmoum, still tied to the door of the tent, uttered a long whinny similar to a laugh, and redoubled his feet, beating the earth with his four feet, which he made each paw.
“What is Yahmoum? what does his neighing mean? Nôman said as he rushed out of the tent. Hantalah followed him. They both saw with astonishment that the eastern horizon was already bordered by the white band of dawn, that first messenger of day and sun.
But they discovered nothing else, and yet Yahmoum stamped and neighed louder and louder.
And behold, against the whiteness of the sky, which was already mingled with a slight rosy tint, stands out a horseman, two, three, four, a whole troop running at full gallop.
“The Bedouins coming to attack us! said Hantalah; and he went and took his broad sword, his bow and his arrows.
And the riders were still approaching, uttering frightening cries.
Hantalah was getting ready; he bent his bow and gave his host his sharp Damascus-finished sword.
But Nôman took this weapon with a malicious laugh, such as the one he let wander on his lips when he imagined the terror with which the people of his retinue approached him, from whom they had had the misfortune to be separated. . It was not their fault; but in the eyes of Nôman the most involuntary act is a crime when it offends him. The victims of this accident, impossible to foresee, to repel, know that they will have to suffer from it as if they had brought it about: Nôman thought that his courtiers must be in mortal terror after the fatal event of the night, and it was this idea which rejoiced his evil heart when he recognized in the horsemen who were coming, not Bedouins, but the men of his escort.
On their side, they had seen their king. So, scarcely were they a few steps from the tent, than they rushed from their horses, and came and fell prostrate before Nôman, lavishing on him the most humble epithets, the most supplicating too, for they saw in his hand the saber. of Hantalah, and he, enjoying their fright, he amused himself brandishing this weapon, while their eyebrows brushed the dust, according to the servile expression of the Persians.
“King merciful! merciful king! righteous king! said the frightened courtiers to him; and they repeated these words with all the more emphatic emotion, as they knew that in the heart of their prince one did not easily call for clemency, mercy, justice. His soul contained only one virtue, an unshakeable faith in his word; but this virtue became a vice when applied to a promise of an evil nature or to an engagement entered into to commit cruelty. Thus, for example, he would have for nothing in the world violated the oath he had made to sacrifice on the Ghorebaïn the first foreigner whom he should see on the day fixed for the pretended expiation. The madman regarded this bloody fidelity as an act of religion! No one in the world, not even his mother Maessema, so named, Calf of Heaven, because of her kindness, had been able to obtain from him a generous forgetfulness of this implacable oath.
It was only after enjoying the terror of the men in his suite long enough that Nôman told them to get up; but, before pronouncing this word, he had taken care to turn towards Hantalah, as if to say to him: Look how tall I am!... Nôman's surprise was not small when, instead of seeing him prostrate more than the others, he found that he was only inclined. As for Hobeïbeh and Amrou, up with the day, and whom the noise of this scene had drawn to the threshold of the tent, they gave all the signs of extreme astonishment.
“How wonderful, my mother! said Amrou, raising his hands to heaven: “Is this an apparition like those of which you sometimes spoke to me to put me to sleep, when you told me the beautiful tales of the East; we saw troops of men covered with gold and embroidery throwing themselves at the feet of another man dressed almost like us..."
And speaking like this, there was nothing low about Amrou's demeanor, nothing servile. Amru had only learned to prostrate his forehead before God.
There was, as a contrast, in King Nôman's suite an adolescent of about fourteen or fifteen years old, who really crawled at the feet of the sovereign. This young man was not, however, like Amrou, the son of a poor herdsman, of a miserable Arab cameleer, but indeed one of the children of the king of Persia. The one who reigned then had, according to long-established custom, sent Ferid to the court of the king of Hira, so that he might give him the rough and masculine education of the Arabs of the desert of Iraq. The kings of Persia, living in softness and a luxury to effeminate the strongest and most heroic souls, had had a wise thought in sending their future successors to learn to be men among men. Unfortunately, this virile education under the tent of the Bedouin was quickly forgotten under the canopy of cloth of gold and precious stones of the chachinchah.
Amrou looked at Ferid with astonishment mixed with contempt; but when the young prince got up, he could not help giving her a caressing smile. He was so beautiful, and beauty is so powerful on souls accustomed to living only for all that is beautiful, the sky, the sun, the flowering earth covered with harvests, the stars, the clouds, so marvelously colored by dawn or dusk, and finally this image of infinity, the sea of sand, the desert. He also looked so open, so good, young Ferid, that Amrou liked him just to see him for a moment, and it was with regret that he watched him mount his horse and follow King Nôman. , who was about to set out to return to Hira, after having departed from it a day's journey in the ardent pursuit of the onager.
So he rushed on Yahmoum, against whom he was no longer angry, and after a rather benevolent wave of the hand addressed to Hantalah, he gave the signal to start by putting his horse at full gallop. It was certainly a beautiful sight, this sparkling cavalcade of gold, silver and jeweled embroidery, running under the radiant rising sun. To see the movements of this troop lit by these beautiful rays, one remembered the waves of the sea, rising, falling, rising to fall again, to the resplendent brightness of the star whose fires undulate with the waves. .
Hantalah, Hobeibeh, especially their son, were gazing with admiration at this look, when Amrou uttered a loud cry and departed as swiftly as an arrow. Young Ferid's untamed horse had suddenly stopped, refusing to obey his master; he reared up, he turned thus on himself, and Ferid made vain efforts to overcome him and hold himself in the saddle; and finally, when Amrou joined him, Ferid had just been thrown to the ground. The king and his retinue were already far away. The fall, without being fatal, had been hard, and the young Persian prince could only get up with the help of the young Arab, who then, catching up with the horse, which was very ready to take advantage of his freedom, leapt on him, and, the hugging with his nervous hocks, pushed him into fields prepared to receive the seeds. There he compelled him to gallop several times from one end to the other of these patches of land, whose loose, uneven ground gave way under the foot which sank with each step. It took a few moments of this exercise for the horse, breathless, panting, covered with sweat, to be supple and docile like the tame fawn of a gazelle. So Amrou made Ferid go back on the courier, who no longer had the slightest desire to rebel against his master.
Hantalah and Hobeïbeh, remaining on the threshold of the tent, had proudly followed all the movements of their son, and they rejoiced to see his courage, his address, his coolness, his devotion, qualities and virtues with which they gave him moreover the continual example. His mother, however, was a little worried when she saw him handed over to the blind force of a fiery animal; but she would have taken good care not to show this anxiety, which Hantalah himself perhaps felt without realizing it. However, when they saw him return, they experienced a feeling which they did not try to hide, a feeling of security, of well-being, of contentment too, and, embracing him effusively, they said to him by this silent but eloquent language how happy and proud they were to have such a worthy son.
And he was no less happy, since he saw his parents smiling at him, since he had performed an act of devotion to one of his brothers, saved by him perhaps. Amrou, while embracing his father and mother, proudly showed them a ring adorned with diamonds which Ferid had given him, telling him to keep it for his sake, and, if he ever found himself in trouble, to come and present it to him, as an appeal for his help, either at the court of Hira, or at that of Ispahan, where he would see him always ready to testify his gratitude to him.
Amrou did not dream of keeping this precious ring on his finger to go and tend the camels and oxen to pasture. He gave it to his mother to hug, and she placed it in a little chest with the amulets that her heathen mother had hung around her neck when she was a child, to keep her from certain early evils, and near a blessed crucifix which Father Arsenios had given her the day she was baptized.
VI: FATHER ARSENIOS
The good monk was returning to Iraq, returning from the long pilgrimage which we saw him about to end, and his hermitage, which had been closed for so long, had just reopened not only to nocturnal meditations, to hard manual labor , useful rest from the lofty occupations of the soul, but also and above all to the unfortunate, whom he relieved by his advice, his consolations, his tears mingled with theirs. Many times, in the solitudes of Egypt or Palestine, he was urged by the abbots of the monastery where he was staying to remain permanently in their cloisters; but, while admiring this life of renunciation and abnegation, he thought that he could make his days more useful for his well-being and that of others by not condemning himself never to return to the world and among brothers who could need a helping, compassionate, devoted hand. The rest of this account will prove that it was a good inspiration that he had obeyed.
As has been said above, his retreat was on the edge of the lands of the kingdom of Hira, about twenty miles from Koufah, in the middle of a desert about six hours' journey. So, to get there, we had to cross arid sands for three hours; then, at the end of this rough journey, we found ourselves in a place that was very wild, very rustic, but no less green and pleasant: thickets of palm trees, nourished and quenched by streams which descended from the mountain, at the slope of which was the hermitage of the good monk.
After five armies of complete abandonment, he must have expected to find the approaches to his retreat well encumbered by the abundant vegetation of these climates; indeed, the palm trees, the cacti, the enormous thorns growing in complete freedom had formed impenetrable intertwinings. However, he saw with a surprise that was not without some anxiety a kind of path traced very recently through this thicket of greenery. Barely broken branches in the morning, freshly uprooted shrubs, the earth trodden here and there, announced the passage of living beings, animals or men. Perhaps some tribe of looting Arabs had chosen this pious asylum for the lair from which it would spring unexpectedly upon the cafilas, and where it could then return and share the prey in complete safety.
Father Arsenios made all these reflections; then, arming himself with the sign of the cross, as the old legends say, he entered the copse by the same path he had just observed, and crossed the stream on the same stone which he had thrown as a bridge. on this limpid stream. He plunged his hand into it, just as one extends it to a friend whom one sees again after a long absence, and drank with delight a few mouthfuls of this salutary drink which so long quenched his thirst, which was to quench him still for so long; for the sober life he led ensured him the existence of a patriarch.
Beyond the bridge he found the little garden planted and enclosed by him with a living bay, no less bushy and bristling than the bush which closely surrounded it. The shrubs that he once took pleasure in pruning, pruning, directing their growth, had their branches so intertwined that they looked like tightly woven hurdles; and the little vine of which he took such assiduous care was like a forest of lianas, so long and thick were its tendrils of vine branches tied together in knots doubled and redoubled. While considering how much he would have to do to restore order to this small estate, he noticed that the trace which had frightened him at first existed only in the garden; however the shrubs and the pressed herbs which surrounded them with their high stems were separated, in the upper part only, as by the leap of a quadruped, stag, doe or gazelle. The rushes which surrounded the reservoir dug by the hands of the monk to collect the water necessary for the care of the garden were also trampled and discarded as by a wild animal which would have rushed there to quench its thirst.
After climbing another hundred paces, always across the path opened by unknown footsteps, he finally acquired the certainty that these steps were not those of men, and of looting and rapacious men. The door of his little hut had not been opened, and the heavy stone he had placed on the threshold was in some way sealed there, both by the earth that had piled up there from the rains or the gusts of wind, as well as by the thick grass that had accumulated there. It was a real cement that he had to pull out to open his hermitage. He fell on his knees, on entering it, in front of the crucifix at the foot of which he was working weaving rushes into baskets, baskets, making his gardening tools, or, better still, preparing, while praying, beneficial herbs for the diseases of the poor.
After having greeted with a joyful glance all the objects contained in his pious work-room, the bench, the table, the stepladder manufactured by him, he went out, eager as he was to see his whole dwelling again as soon as possible, for so long abandoned. Almost at the top of the mountain there was a cave naturally dug into the rock, a cell of which the door alone was of human construction. It was there that, when he wished to rest from the active life by contemplation, and to give the soul a free career far beyond the cares and troubles of the body, he ascended by a rather perilous winding path to to climb, even when the path of the rapid and narrow spiral was not, as today, invaded by cacti, aloes, and all the shrubs most armed with thorns.
He soon realized that he could not reach the upper cell, the mount of contemplation, without having recourse to the axe. So he took this utensil, made by his hands like all his other tools, and began to clear his way; and, while working there, he conceived, he doubtless commented on this thought, that it is only by rough and rugged roads that one rises to perfection, of which his retreat from above was the pure emblem.
The animal which had passed through this thorny encumbrance, for it was an animal, there was no longer any doubt about it, must have torn itself cruelly: this is what the good monk said to himself as he climbed , ax in hand. At the same moment he heard a plaintive voice coming from above, a groan like the tender and almost painful cry uttered by a gazelle.
How he wished he could hasten his pace to see what was happening towards the top of his mountain! but there was no hurry, and the work of the ax was slow and difficult.
However, he was hurrying as much as he could, and he was coming to the last bend in the winding road, he was only a few steps from his cell, when he saw in the air a vulture of immense wingspan. , which was gliding straight towards the top of the rock, on the side of the cave.
And again the plaintive voice rose; but this time it was a cry of pain, distress, terror.
A creature of God is calling me, Father Arsenios thought. From then on no obstacle stopped him, and, without worrying about the stings of the aloes and the snowshoes which tore him, he rushed forward, at the risk of falling from the summit of the mountain below.
And what does he live? a charming gazelle, crouched in the corner of the grotto door, shivering from head to foot, and turning her beautiful black eyes here and there, as if to seek help.
She needed it; for the vulture whose broad flapping of wings Father Arsenios had heard, the formidable bird of prey which he had seen swoop down on the side of the grotto, it was the gazelle he had come there to look for, and already , claws horribly stretched, he fell on the poor unarmed animal, when Arsenios, appearing unexpectedly, made this threatening enemy flee.
Immediately the gazelle, who had seen death so close, breathed deeply as if relieved from a suffocating peril, and, instead of trying to escape, came almost crawling to lie down at the monk's feet, raised her head towards he as if to receive a caress which he gave her, and then she made her soft voice heard again; but it was no longer a complaint, it was a thank you, a caress too, and (who knows what the animals mean?) perhaps a promise never to leave him again. Indeed, she remained from then on his companion as the most faithful dog.
How had this gazelle been led to sink into the mountain of Father Arsenios?... No doubt, he thought, pursued by the hunters, she had taken refuge in the thickets of cacti, wild fig trees and palm trees, where dogs had followed her; the disorder that the monk had noticed in these masses of vegetation, so to speak virgin, proved that there had been an ardent pursuit, that the gazelle had deceived by crossing with an enormous leap the kind of forest which covered the garden. . She thought she was finally delivered, and yet, still tormented, she climbed the winding path of the grotto, when, poor harmless being, she found herself face to face with a still more formidable enemy. If Arsenios had been superstitious like the Arabs, he would have seen in this circumstance a presage of something unfortunate.
But he saw, on the contrary, only happiness: a poor creature saved! Then, pushing aside the simple wooden peg which had kept the door of the cell closed for five years, he entered it, and, as in the lower opening, he fell on his knees in this other opening, that of thought. raising to heaven... With what joy he then saw again the Bible which he had written and illuminated with his hands in this high place, after having, in the lower hermitage, made with these same hands a spade or a rake!
The gazelle followed him in his smallest movements, and when he came out of the cave she came out with him, then preceded him, leaping joyfully here and there: she had suddenly been tamed by recognition. The sun was at its decline, and illuminated with its sweetest light a horizon as pure as it was limitless. However, on one of its most extreme points shone in its rays the golden domes or the white terraces of a city.
"There then," said Arsenios, gazing at this sparkling glance, "here is the abode of this sumptuous and cruel king Nôman!" Who will tell me if this brave Arab Korad-bel-Adjdaa took advantage of my warning and if he avoided the fatal death promised to the Ghorebaïn? Who will tell me if he met my noble and good Hantalah in the desert, and if he informed him of my new retreat?
VII: THE GHOREBAINS
On the same day when Father Arsenios, quietly, without pomp, but with a heart filled with sweet peace, returned to his pious solitude, Nôman returned with all his retinue to his pompous city of Hira, to the cheers of the crowd, hypocritical cheers; for if he had not returned from the hunt after which everyone had believed him dead, there was no one in his capital who would not have rejoiced; but he lived, he could still cause heads to be struck down, and they bowed before him in terror masked with joy.
Arsenios had been right when he attributed the arrival of his gazelle to the pursuit of hunters. Leaving his refuge at Hantalah, Nôman had wanted to spend part of the day still exploring the desert, and it was in front of his dogs that Zebou (the monk thus named his companion) finally found in the hermitage a refuge that failed him. to be so fatal.
Followed by his courtiers, laden with the remains of the desert and the plain, gazelles, deer, wild donkeys, the King of Hira returned with great pomp to his palaces of Sedir and Kaouanak, monuments of splendid architecture, to which , as in memory of all the kings of Hira, something wild and barbaric. Sannamar, the builder of these sumptuous edifices, as soon as he had finished them, was thrown from the summit of the highest of the three domes which crowned them, by the order of King Nôman-el-Ahwel, that is to say, say the Louche, tenth ruler of Hira.
The use of human sacrifice on the Ghorebaïn, and the horrible motive for this supposed expiation, prove that our Nôman had not degenerated, and that he was indeed the barbarian successor of barbarian ancestors.
And he was born of the best mother, Maessema, who, as we have said, had been nicknamed Calf of the sky by those populations always burned with thirst, who know nothing sweeter, more precious than the rain or the dew. Maessema was the most accomplished of all women, good, charitable, devoted, compassionate. How much she must have suffered, then, to have a son of such implacable cruelty! How many times had she been caught weeping in her splendid apartments! How often did you hear her deplore her misfortune in being the mother of such a ferocious man! What a curse these tears and complaints are for a child!
Yet she loved him as much as ever loved the tenderest mother, and she was all the more unhappy for it. Also, when she did not see him come back from the hunt, and one of the hunters came to the palace in the night terrified to find out if the king had not returned, she was in a terrible state of anxiety, sent purposely on purpose at all points to try to find out what had become of her son, and the longer the night went on without bringing him back, the more she was prey to a devouring fever. Her anxieties only ceased when, in the middle of the day, she saw the cavalcade coming at full gallop from the top of the dome, and Ferid, going ahead of the king to come and reassure Maessema, whom he loved as much as his mother, threw himself into the his arms, announcing that Nôman was following him closely.
She therefore ran to meet her son as far as the first gate of the palace of Sedir, covered him with caresses, lavished on him the most tender expressions of her past anxiety, of her present joy, and, seeing him a little moved by the emotion that she felt and testified so vividly, she asked him if, to celebrate such a moment of happiness after such anguish, he would not show himself grateful to Heaven, and if, to her, he would not grant her a thanks to her, to her mother!
" Which? he asked her with embarrassment; for a secret instinct made him somehow guess what she was going to ask him. Which ?" he asked coldly, almost harshly, instead of exclaiming, ashamed to hear his mother ask him for a favour: You, my mother, solicit a favor from your son! Isn't it up to him, on the contrary, to beg you to accept whatever he can do in order to satisfy you, to make you happy? Speak ! speak ! Order, and do not ask! Such would have been the language of a pious child; but how could Noman have had this virtue with such terrible vices?
" Which? repeated Noman; for her mother, dismayed by this question, and especially by her accent, hadn't had the strength to answer anything, she was so suffocated. Finally she repressed her sighs, and taking Noman by both hands: "My child!" my child! For two years already you have been guilty of a frightful injustice and have killed the innocent, whose voice, you know, penetrates the heavens. This is a crime you are committing, and me, your mother, it is as if I were committing it too, me your milk, your blood, your flesh, your heart, your soul; for the heart, the soul of a son and a mother are one. Oh! please, stop making me feel criminal and have to blame myself for acts of cruelty that seem to me to be mine as soon as they come from you, my child! See how you make me suffer and how unhappy you make me. The closer the day of the Ghorebaïn sacrifice approaches, the more I am oppressed, overwhelmed with insomnia and also with remorse... Here is another month of frightful and ever-increasing tortures that I will have to undergo, if you do not tell me that you renounce this murder every year. Oh ! I beseech you, pronounce this word, and I will forget that you have ever caused me sorrow, for loving you without mixture, without reserve, in total abandonment, like the mother of a good and tender. »
To these prayers, to these supplications, Nôman remained mute, gloomy, inflexible: his mother noticed this by the movement with which he withdrew his hands which she pressed, and by a frown, a purse of the lips that he tried to hide: but can there be something going on in us that our mother does not see and feel? She was on the point of bursting into reproaches and tears; she was able to restrain them, however, and repeated her entreaties with the accent of the liveliest tenderness, asking him to renounce the murder of the Ghorebaïn and this bloody cult of what he called the bad day.
“A bad day, indeed, when my child commits a crime which stigmatizes me, defiles me at the same time as he does, and sheds blood which reflects on both of us. Once again, thanks! thank you! pronounce forgiveness, have pity on the stranger whom you lured that day into an infamous trap; have pity on yourself, have pity on your mother!
- Mashallah! mashallah! replied Nôman with an accent of stupid harshness; and Maessema fell drenched in tears and tearing her hair on her sofa, which she beat with her hands clenched in pain.
“Unhappy mother! she exclaimed in the midst of her sobs, unhappy mother! During this time Nôman listened, while drinking long drafts of a golden-colored wine, to the songs of the court poet who celebrated his return, his greatness, his generosity, and, instead of using his powerful art to warn, flattered and begged basely in verse.
VIII: THE BAD DAY
Scarcely twenty times had the sun reappeared on the horizon since the scenes we have just described, when a bad day began for Hantalah-ben-Thai, who had already had such bad ones. He hoped to be able to become again, if not rich as before, at least happy and above all independent: that is the happiness of the inhabitant of the desert. Loved as much as esteemed by his master, the latter assured him in all his benefices a share which was to be for the family of Hantalah the source of a future and future well-being, when a new plague came to assail him and strike down again.
And it was not this time neither the storm, nor the simoun, nor the sandstorms that ruined it; it was another scourge at least as formidable, the criminal cupidity of men.
One evening, Hobeïbeh, Amrou and the head of the family were reunited in this same tent, a very humble but very peaceful dwelling, the interior of which we saw the night when Nôman found refuge there. The common prayer had just been finished, and, the lamp extinguished, the father, the mother, the son, began to enjoy a sleep legitimately acquired by long hours of work.
The tent was therefore in complete darkness, when suddenly it is filled with a bright reddish reflection which dazzles through their eyelids the man, the woman, the child, already almost asleep, and, with one and the same cry of fright, they snap out of their slumber. Immediately they are on the threshold of the tent.
What show ! the whole horizon is on fire! the harvests already harvested, those awaiting the scythe, the hay piled up to feed the herds, everything was just an immense blaze, and this fire could not be attributed to an accident, but to the hand of men. . Formidable cries, battle cries were heard mingled with the dull, deep sound of galloping cavalry.
“A ghrazia! it's a ghrazia! said with the rough and guttural Arab plumpness. Hantalah and Amrou. They are the BenouGhazieh (they had been so named probably because of their penchant for incursions and looting)! they are the Benou-Ghazieh! I recognized their battle cry. To arms! to arms! they're probably looting the stables, the stables, and Djin, and Rebreba, they're going to take them away... we won't see them again! »
Amrou and Hantalah, each armed with a spear, rushed through the flames fanned by the wind, to the buildings in which the horses and camels were. The first care of the son as of the father was to run towards the place where Rebreba and Djin were, more especially entrusted to their guard.
It was time for them to arrive; because two Benou-Ghazieh were quarreling and fighting for the exclusive possession of the beautiful camel, the magnificent mare. Without this circumstance, these two precious beasts were kidnapped like all the rest of the many cattle of the master of Hantalah, and he would never have seen his two favorites again.
They proliferate from the struggle of the two looters to set off, the father on Djin, the son on Rebreba, each no less rapid than the other. It was useless to try to save anything else; for the fire was ardent, irresistible, and when they arrived at the tent where Hobeibeh was waiting for them in devouring anxiety, the horizon had no other light than that of the still burning smoke; then this light died out little by little, and the darkness was just as complete as before. But sleep did not return to the tent. Again Hantalah found herself in the most absolute destitution; for his master could no longer keep him any longer, since he himself was reduced to distress as a result of the devastating incursion of the Benou-Ghazieh, and the whole night passed for Hobeïbeh and her husband talking about these sad things. and wondering what would become of them.
“What you will become! cried Amrou with sparkling eyes, after having listened to them. I'm not worried about it. Don't you have the ring given to me the other day by that young lord who followed the king? He told me to go find him when I was in trouble. Am I not in trouble, my father, my mother, since you are so unhappy? Oh! I want to run to Hira!
- To Hira! repeated Hobeibeh with an accent, if not of joy, at least of the liveliest hope. To Hira! But above all, it is to the king himself that we must have recourse, my dear Hantalah. He cannot forget that barely twenty days ago you opened your tent to him during a terrible stormy night, and that he ate your bread and your salt. You must go to Hira, and certainly King Nôman will come to your rescue. »
Hantalah found the idea of Hobeibeh quite acceptable, and promised him that in the evening he would leave for Hira, in order to travel during the cool hours of a night lit by a splendid moon, and to arrive well before daybreak in the capital. As soon as the sun shone, he therefore hastened to go to his master, who stood in dismay, annihilated, in the midst of the smoky ruins of everything he owned. He beat his forehead with his clenched fists, tore his hair, tore his clothes and gave all the marks of the most violent despair.
" I'm lost! he cried. I have nothing left but death to await, to summon. I have nothing more in the world.
- Courage ! courage ! No despair, answered Hantalah! you still have more than me. »
And he presented him at the same time with Djin and Rebreba, his mare, his camel, which he had saved, and which their new master regarded as kidnapped with the rest. Hantalah, if he had not been the man of loyalty and faith, might have believed that he had redeemed them well by saving them at the peril of his life; but when he acted thus, it was as a servant of this man yesterday so opulent, today so poor, and he handed over to him the property he had been able to keep for him. And yet his dear Djin, he had to say an eternal farewell, no doubt, unless his visit to Hira had results that he dared not hope for. This thought which had occurred to him made him impatient to leave for the city, and as soon as the day fell he made his preparations.
Now the next day was precisely the day of the Ghorebaïn, this bad day against which Father Arsenios had warned Korad-ben-Adjdaa. Besides, it was not this man who should have been the victim, since, since half a month after arriving in Hira, he had held a rather important position. As he excelled in all the exercises of the rough and warlike life of the desert, he had been commissioned to teach them to the young Persian prince Ferid, who had immediately taken Korad into a very great friendship. What had earned him his call to these functions was his celebrity as a Bedouin hero, and also his wife's talent for poetry. She had, as soon as they arrived at the court of Hira, addressed verses to King Nôman, and this man, insensitive to the inspirations of mercy, to the compassionate entreaties of a mother, had felt moved by the rhythm and the rhyme of a desert song. It is true that it was a flattery, and is there a heart armored with a hard enough bark to remain impenetrable to words of adulation?
There were contradictions in Nôman's character which, moreover, many souls contain: he loved singing, the melody of verses and flowers, a simple and naive passion, which presupposes a heart accessible to the sweetest emotions, to most pious homage to the Creator; he possessed it to the highest degree, and his favorite flowers were called Chekaik-an-Noman, whose French name anemone has some resemblance to the Arabic appellation. The anemone grew on all sides under Nôman's eyes, and even, in front of the Ghorebaïn, the double funeral monument was going to be the scene of a human sacrifice for him, a vast field of anemones displayed the most dazzling colors.
They were always in full bloom for this fatal time, and this contrast of smiling objects near a place of death had inspired horror in Maessema for these flowers, which she loved at first as much as her son loved them. . The crimson or crimson with which their corollas are tinted seemed to him so many drops of blood.
This is what she repeated to her son on the eve of the bad day, reiterating with more force and energy than the other time her entreaties which were however badly received; but should we get tired of trying to do good? Is there a welcome, however harsh it may be, for which the happiness of having succeeded in obtaining the favor for which one was asking does not finally compensate? Maessema said this to herself to support herself against the bitter humiliations she felt at seeing herself rejected by her child. However, she had to resign herself to the king's iron will; but it was not without cursing him with reproaches which would have broken the heart of anyone but him. He was even a little touched by it; something moving, which seemed like the echo of a heartbeat, penetrated his voice when he exclaimed: “What can I, my mother? Did I not swear by blood at the hands of this venerable Hakim here, my first vizier? have I not sworn this oath, the most formidable of all? Can I break my word? Say... say... my mother... You are an Arab... Has an Arab ever broken an oath? »
And he moved away, as if fleeing the effect of Maessema's more pressing and longer solicitations.
She, on her side, withdrew much challenged, but resolved not to abandon the work of salvation which she had undertaken; and, not being able to accomplish it openly and by the right way, she imagined a ruse, a praiseworthy and pious ruse, if there ever was one. She said to herself: The victim doomed to the Ghorebaïn is the first foreigner who strikes the eyes of the king: if no foreigner comes to present himself before him, there is no means of executing the odious sentence; an innocent man is saved, my son is delivered from a crime, and I am no longer unhappy.
From thought to execution, not an hour passed; she summoned before her the most devoted of the guards attached to her person, and ordered them to post themselves at daybreak at the various entrances to the city, to warn any stranger who presented himself at the gates of the danger to which he would expose himself in danger. crossing the threshold. She was not satisfied with this order given in the evening: she did not sleep, and at daybreak she went out in disguise to go and make sure that what she had ordered was obeyed punctually; and it was not until she was sure that no stranger could enter Hira that she fell into a quiet sleep.
IX: THE ANEMONES FLOOR
From the morning of the bad day, all the troops forming the king's guard assembled in the square of the Sadir palace, to the sound of the lugubrious tom-toms, to the groaning of the trumpets, and also to the lamentable cries uttered by the people of the court. All the cavalry deployed in triple rank in front of the facade of the royal residence, and soon there arose new funeral cries, new sobs uttered by the trumpets with the long brass tube: the king was leaving the palace.
Clothes in disorder, torn across his chest, beard and hair unkempt, he advanced, followed by his officers, his viziers, and Ferid, accompanied by Korad-ben-Ajdaa. From his pale, defeated face, from his haggard eyes, from his desolate bearing on his noble Yahmoum, whose bridle he seemed to barely hold, one would have thought he was overwhelmed with deep and sincere grief. Oh ! if it had been so, would he have thought of committing a new crime in reparation for the first? Wouldn't he rather have thought of a more effective remedy, the forgetting of a cruel and superstitious oath, submission to the compassionate desires of a mother? Noman's affliction was nothing but empty ceremony and hypocritical parade. He only took the sworn atonement seriously.
One might have thought, however, that he had undergone, unwittingly, the influence of his mother's prayers; for, while traversing with his cavalcade all the inner circumference of the city, he barely looked for any stranger who might be in his path: he seemed above all to avoid stopping, as before, in front of the gates of Hira. Was he afraid to fix his eyes on a victim? Perhaps he was whispering to fate for the favor of not meeting the man who was destined for the sacrifice, and thus being saved from a terrible ordeal. Had Maessema's good thought resounded in her son's heart?
When he arrived at the gate near which the Ghorabains were, he saw no stranger enter the city, and thanked chance. He was far from thinking that this fact was not the result of blind fate, but of the care of Providence, represented here below near him by Maessema, by his mother. It is very often thus that we calumniate Providence by calling it chance.
Besides, only an hour had elapsed since sunrise, and for another eleven a stranger could appear. Obviously Nôman was far from desiring this fatal circumstance; but he was still determined to keep his word, if Heaven willed it, he said with superstitious impiety: Mashallah!
Such were his reflections, when his little army lined up before the Ghorebaïn. As we have heard Korad-ben-Adjdaa suppose, a raven was represented on each of these two sinister monuments, which rose in pyramids on either side of an esplanade. It was there that the work of blood vowed by Nôman was accomplished in an hour of intoxication. Opposite this double sepulcher stretched, as we know, a wide and long parterre of anemones, of which the most vividly colored Persian carpet was only a very dull imitation. Nothing resplendent like the King of Hira's guard. It was a glittering profusion of gilded helmets, silver-white cuirasses, lances waving in the sun as the horsemen moved, plumes of every hue rippling over the lines of war.
But among all stood out Korad-ben-Adjdaa, the hero of the desert. His white burnous, of fine wool, revealed, when opened, an undergarment of the greatest richness, and weapons of perfect perfection filled his belt. It was beautiful to see him seated on his fiery horse, with the ease of a soft sultana stretched out on her divan. That this almost untamed steed stampeded, leapt, reared up on his hind legs, quivering under the yoke that revolted him, Korad was not shaken for a moment; the powerful animal had to submit: skill had to overcome force. Certainly, such a master was soon to make a man out of young Ferid, and guarantee him against any recurrence of the accident from which he had had to suffer, blushing, before young Amrou-Abd-al-Messih.
Nôman was admiring his cavalry, and was listening to the verses that the court poet whispered in his ear on his greatness and magnificence, when a man coming out of a small wood, inside the walls, ran towards the king, and bowed to his horse.
"Do you recognize me?" I am the one with whom you have found shelter against the storm; do you recognize me? »
Noman had recognized him at first, but a mortal pallor covering his face showed what violent emotion he was seized with; his lips quivered, his chest heaved with the rapid beating of his heart, he could not utter a word. What! to be forced to hand over to death his host, the one who had sacrificed his last resource to him, his foster sheep, the animal he loved; deliver him to death, this generous man! However hard Nôman's heart was, he felt it constrict and bleed at the thought, and yet it had to. He had sworn on the bones of his friends, it was a solemn, inviolable imperative oath. What a terrible struggle in his soul! one can imagine that he must have quivered, turned pale, been dumb, appalled, appalled!
Hantalah was therefore obliged to repeat his question a third time.
"Certainly I recognize you," Nôman finally replied in a dark, veiled, almost failing voice.
- Well ! so you must come to my aid, I need your help.
"Help me!" Nôman repeated with an expression impossible to express in words.... You have come to ask me for help!... my help!..."
Hantalah felt humiliated to be obliged to solicit support so legitimately acquired, however, by his noble hospitality. He therefore hastened to free himself from what had cost him so much to say, by recounting in a few words his misfortune to Nôman, distracted and inattentive during his story, and we know why; but Hantalah, who was far from suspecting the cause of the king's troubled state, was taken aback on seeing him remain silent, motionless, and he was perhaps about to let out some bitter words, when Nôman finally exclaimed: - Unhappy ! you ask for my help! Couldn't you come yesterday, tomorrow? Don't you know that this day is fatal, and that I have sworn, solemnly sworn, to sacrifice to the friends covered by these funerary monuments the first stranger who would present himself to me on this day of mourning?... I solemnly swore it, Hantalah!
“And you always have to keep your promise,” Hantalah replied calmly.
"Keep my promise!... Hantalah!... But you are the first foreigner I have seen up to this hour."
“King Nôman, I know that a promise is sacred.
"I know it... I know it too, Hantaltah... I cannot rape her... Unhappy that we are!... why did you come to Hira today?... why must I that I saw you? And yet it is impossible for me to betray my oath... I must... I must... I must..."
Nôman, so inflexible, so implacable at the thought of the sacrifice of the bad day, as long as he could think that fate would only bring before his eyes an unknown, an indifferent person, as if for the man another man was not a brother; Nôman was deeply moved when he saw that the victim promised in advance to the Ghorebaïn was Hantalah, his host! So he was seized with a clearly visible anguish on his face, and the words he was about to pronounce died on his lips in a long sigh...
- " Well ! King Nôman... do we have to...?
"You must..." resumed the king in a voice so muffled that you could hardly hear him, "this stranger must perish... you..." he resumed after a pause during which he seemed to be choking. ... that you... you... you perish... you must! »
He uttered these last words with such an effort and so low, however, that one would have thought he was dying, and that his two pages, still on horseback beside him, seeing him stagger on the alimoum, supported him, believing that he was going to fall. Hantalah, a thousand times less disturbed than he, in appearance at least, received this declaration with admirable firmness.
"Nôman," he said to her, "since nothing can exempt us from fulfilling a word, since it's me it strikes, since you have to make me die, I'll die!... But my poor family is in distress; deprived of me, she will fall into it even more deeply... Allow me to return to the tribe to take care of the future of my wife, of my child, and help me to ensure their existence.
"Their existence!" said the king, she is assured from now on against necessity. I want it to be beautiful, rich, abundant... Give five hundred camels to Hantalah-ben-Thai. »
One of the officers to whom Noman had just transmitted this order left immediately to carry it out no less quickly. While awaiting his return, Hantalah, after having thanked the king for this magnificent gift, asked him for the favor of remaining long enough with his people to see them in a secure position, and which would allow him to die peacefully. Hantalah's request seemed to relieve Noman. He said to himself that the angel of death could not be irritated by a breach of his promise which was really not one, since the expiatory sacrifice would always be guaranteed to him, to be consummated only in a more or less long time. . But how long should this delay be? The king collected himself for a moment, as if waiting for an inspiration.
- " Well! he finally said to Hantalah, go back to your tribe, and come back in a year, in a year, day for day...
— In a year, so be it!... I swear it, answered Hantalah... I'll be here even when this bed of anemones is in bloom like today... count on my word! »
Nôman must have counted on it, according to what he knew of Hantalah-ben-Thai's character. However, was it the fear of irritating his divinities and the angel of death by appearing to neglect every precaution which was to assure them of their prey? Nôman no doubt gave in to this apprehension when he demanded that Hantalah post a surety to answer for his return.
The faithful Arab, hurt by this request which seemed to show a lack of confidence in his loyalty, frowned, and perhaps he was going to say indignantly to King Nôman: "Let me be led to death! .. Suddenly, from the midst of the ranks pressed around the king, a horseman rushes forward in front of the front of the battle where Hantalah was standing.
“O king, cries this horseman... I answer for this man!... I guarantee his return. »
It was Korad-ben-Adjdaa who had uttered these noble words, and at the same time he embraced Hantalah and covered him with his tears, to which Hantalah mingled his own: tears of gratitude, of admiration, of happiness even, one can to say, in spite of the sinister circumstances, he felt so happy to find his friend, whom he believed to be dead. These close embraces, these tender shaking hands, equally affectionate on both sides, were indeed the most solemn of all engagements: but the devoted fidelity of each of the two friends wanted to give itself the guarantee consecrated by an immemorial custom, the blood oath.
"And who will be our mediator, our witness"
Korad and Hantalah had barely uttered these words, as if in one voice, when a deep voice answered them: “Me! »
It was the vizier Hakim who advanced towards them, the same old man who had received the blood oath two years previously from the king of Hira, on the place where the Ghorebaïn were to rise. Hantalah and Korad having accepted Hakim's offer, the latter picked up seven stones at the foot of the funeral monuments and brought them before the two friends; then, making them each stretch out their right hands: "Swear," he said to them.
"I swear," cried Hantalah solemnly, "to be here in a year to save my friend's head."
"I swear," said Korad in his turn, "to present my head to the sword in a year's time which will spare my absent friend." »
During these words, Hakim had made, between the first two fingers of one and the other of these heroic contractors, a deep incision, from which blood spurted out in considerable abundance. This blood he bathed in two tufts of wool torn from their burnous, he rubbed the seven stones with it, threw three before the Ghorebaïn, gave one to the king, kept another, and the last two he divided between Hantalah and Korad.
The act of alliance and engagement was accomplished, and Nôman replied that he accepted Korad's bail, when the sound of the bells announced the arrival of the five hundred camels offered to Hantalah by the king. It was a magnificent herd divided into bands of twenty heads, and each of these bands was led by a chanel-master. Men and animals were also given freehold to Hantalah. Hateful state of societies where rational, intelligent beings, made in the image of God, are treated like brute creatures, inaccessible to the feeling of Divinity, and whose intelligent brows are always bent towards the earth!
Noman placed Hantalah in possession of his opulent property in the presence of his whole army, who were instructed in the hospitality so complete which the noble Bedouin had given to the king; then, on a signal, the horsemen defiled before the Ghorebaïn, lowering their lances, uttering lamentable welwalechs, groans, as the very word suggests; and Nôman, after descending from Yahmoum, and having prostrated himself before the sepulcher of the two friends, remounted his horse, and made a gesture to Hantalah which the latter understood. “In a year you will see me again, O king! Korad-ben-Adjdaa was obliged to follow the procession; he therefore had only time to say a few words to Hantalah, and among other things to discharge the commission of Father Arsenios, and to inform him of the present retirement of the good monk. Then Hantalah and Korad pressed their hands: it was an even more inviolable engagement than the most solidly cemented contract.
“At one year! at one year! And at a gallop Korad had rejoined the royal cavalry, and Hantalah immediately set out for his tent.
X: JOY AT THE RETURN
What was Maessema's painful astonishment when she learned that a stranger had entered the city despite the excessive precautions she had taken! She summoned the guards charged with the execution of her orders, and addressed them with reproaches which they were far from deserving, for the vigilance had been extreme. This is what they affirmed with oath to Maessema, and she believed it, but feeling no less than them a surprise which we do not share, we who have known for a long time that Hantalah had left his tent in the evening at sunset. , to travel in the cool of the night, and arrive at Hira well before daylight. This he had done, and having entered the town at about two o'clock in the morning, he had spent the rest of the night in the little wood from which we saw him running towards Nôman.
Moreover, he did not leave the capital as he had entered it, furtively and noiselessly. Honored with the generosity of the king, he walked preceded by officers of the court, and each bowed to his passage almost as to that of the sovereign, whose reflection he carried in a way in the brilliance that the royal benefactions shed on him. . Who would not remember, on seeing this sort of triumph of Hantalah, the crowns of flowers with which the pagans adorned the forehead of the holocausts?
Moreover, Noman did not allow the Arab to leave his city without a splendid meal having been served to him in one of his palaces located at the main gate of Hira, and Hantalah did not set out again until the ardent heat of the day had passed. The night was admirable, and there was a connection of infinite charm between the serenity of the moon and the peace of the desert, animated only by the almost calm sound, so melodious and cadenced, of the camel bells. How the same peace could not be in the heart of Hantalah! But a dreadful ordeal had just begun for him, and for several hours he had been in the dreadful position that Providence wanted to save man, that of a wretch who would know the precise, unmistakable hour of his death. This hour is decided and resolved in the mind of God; but he hides it from man, and this is one of his greatest benefits to his chosen creature.
And this benefit, Nôman had just stolen it from Hantalah. How would he live henceforth between his wife and his son, who were going to be so happy to see him, and whom he was going to see again with such sorry eyes! However, he would have to hide from them his grief, his torment, the tears that would come to his eyelids at the incessant thought that he was condemned to part from them. Soon these reflections and the innumerable ones which came to be attached to them preoccupied him during the whole night, unless, to escape from the veritable vertigo which they gave him, he engaged from time to time in conversation with the camel-drivers; but these necessarily very empty, very indifferent talks too quickly gave way to new and even more heartbreaking preoccupations.
His tortures grew worse as the growing light of the dawning day dawned on him as he recognized that he was approaching his tent. Yesterday, these remarks which announced to him his approaching return to his family would have filled his soul with joy; this morning it was painful. As for Hobeïbeh and Amrou, not knowing whether they should experience pain or joy, for they wondered if King Nôman had given Hantalah the help without which they were lost, they awaited him with the greatest impatience. It increased when the sun had already been above the horizon for more than three hours.
" He is not coming !
"Don't worry, mother, perhaps the king will have kept him to give him hospitality for hospitality."
"If he's on his way in this heat, how he must be suffering!"
- See then! see, mother! and he pointed, as he spoke, to the horizon at Hobeibeh. See then!
- It's a mirage.
'I know it, mother, it's the serab; but how beautiful this one is! I remember having passed, as a child, when we changed station one day, on the banks of a great river... Alforat, the Euphrates..., I believe. Well! would it not be like seeing such an expanse of water, on whose waves the sun would shine?
— Yes, said Hobeïbeh, but it is a lie, this appearance of water which deceives the thirsty traveller; it is a cruel illusion which does all the harm of a disappointed hope.
"But... listen, mother!... Aren't those camel bells in the distance?"
— Wait... Amrou... Yes... No doubt some caravan coming from Hira and going to Baghdad or Mosul.
- Oh ! yes, of course, it is a caravan. We hear the bells more and more distinctly; and in the mirage, as through a transparent veil or a cloud of dust lit by the sun, do you see... do you see the first camels that appear like shadows?
- Yes, here they are advancing. What a queue! but... they're coming right at us, we'd really believe it. Hobeibeh had scarcely finished this observation when Nabbah darted at a single bound twenty paces from the tent, with that bark well known to the family, which meant: My master! my teacher ! Rabbi! rabbi!
Amrou and Hobeïbeh did not know what to think. It was possible, however, that Hantalah returned with this caravan, and the son and the mother ran to meet the numerous herd of camels, the first of which was at most twenty paces from the tent. And Nabbah, who had rushed much further than his mistress and his young master, uttered ever more joyful cries through the veil of vapor which was still a remnant of the mirage; they saw the faithful dog throwing itself lovingly on a man who was descending from on top of one of the most beautiful dromedaries.
Hobeibeh and Amrou soon recognized Hantalah, and both fell into his arms as he ordered the camel drivers to stop.
" How ! exclaimed Hobeibeh, with equally inexpressible astonishment and joy; how ! all these camels are yours!... Oh! see what a good thought I had when I advised you to go and find the king. Could he, indeed, not be grateful? could he let us perish for lack of help, after the hospitality you had shown so devoted to him?... However, I would never have hoped for such magnificent presents. So go back into the tent, you're burned, you must be dying of thirst... We can see it clearly, your features are contracted, your looks downcast... and. however your eyes, your mouth, your forehead, all should express in you only rapture. .. But you are tired, I see it; come then, come to the shelter, and when you are rested, you will tell me the marvelous story of your journey, the results of which are so beautiful. »
The transports which Hobeïbeh expressed with so much energy, and of which Amrou was the joyful echo, redoubled the secret anguish of Hantalah, and although he possessed, like any strong man, a powerful empire over his emotions, he had many the trouble of responding with a smile to the attentions and caresses of his family. Hobeibeh, still attributing (and it was natural that she had not the slightest suspicion) his gravity and his silence to the weariness with which he was overwhelmed, made him drink some milk which she had procured for his return, and a few balls of flour diluted in a little water became, in an instant, a very comforting soup.
When he had eaten and drunk to satisfy his hunger and thirst, but without that real appetite which excites desire, Hobeibeh and Ajmrou asked him for details of his visit to the king of Hira.
“How glad he must have been to see you, my father!
— His rich presents prove it, added Hobeibeh: how many camels are there? Their line stretches to the horizon.
“Five hundred,” Hantalah replied.
- Five hundred ! exclaims Hobeïbeh, dazzled by so much wealth; five hundred ! We will no longer say, Hantalah, that Heaven is testing us. »
Hantalah sighed, and his wife having asked him the reason for this sigh which had escaped her as if to repress the abandon with which she gave herself up with so much security to what seemed to her such complete happiness, he answered her that sometimes the Heaven tried us by sending us abundant goods from here below; then, resuming his former serenity, he occupied himself with the care to be taken so that each of the cameleers established his camp in the midst of the camels entrusted to his care. King Nôman's gift had been made with all the necessary foresight so that a poor man, suddenly placed in possession of such wealth, would not be in the greatest embarrassment to dispose of it and enjoy it. Among the camels, some were carrying tents of goat's hair, stakes, ropes, stakes, and all the paraphernalia of a camp; the others were laden with abundant provisions for the food of animals and men for several months. While unloading the camel that Hantalah was riding, Amrou and Hobeïbeh, who helped him, found in the middle of the sacks of wheat and barley a big purse full of dinars. . “See, see, Hantalah,” Hobeïbeh said to him, bringing him this gold, “see how generous King Nôman is and how grateful he is for your hospitality! »
Hantalah, in order to escape the painful embarrassment in which his wife's transports placed him, transports to which it was impossible for him to respond with the accent of joy and gratitude which she gave to her expressions, redoubled her activity to the establishment of his camp, which covered a vast expanse of land. It was then a movement full of life in the midst of this solitude. The Arab and Nubian camel drivers, with black, olive or copper complexions, came, came, ran at the slightest orders from Hantalah, planting stakes for the cattle, pitching their tents, digging around small canals for the flow of the rare waters of storm or those that the household uses, and meanwhile Amrou amused himself by leaping, without worrying about the absence of a stirrup, on the high back of each camel, each camel.
“Here is one that will be fast and tireless in the race!
"This one will be a good milkmaid," remarked Hobeibeh, reviewing the herd; then she sighed. “Oh! she said to Hantalah, I would give twenty-five to have our good Rebreba!
"And Djin!" added Amrou, who had heard what his mother had just said; and Djin!... Wouldn't you give twenty-five camels to have Djin? say, my father? »
Mother and son did not need me to repeat their questions. Hantalah had taken the thought of both of them as an excellent idea. Thus he could find his mare, his favorite camel, and at the same time, by means of this exchange, restore to his master, who had been so good to him, a small part of the wealth which the fire had taken from him.
“You are right, woman, child! it is an inspiration that has come to you from above! I obey it without delay. »
In an instant he was at the door of the half-burnt tent under which Adim, yesterday the opulent owner of such immense herds of camels and buffaloes, gave himself up to the deepest grief. He was far, very far from the resignation of his ancient compatriot of the desert, the Arab Ayyoub, the patriarch Job, in whom the Orientals venerate the virtue par excellence, theirs, patience, the most touching submission under the blows of which fortune overwhelms them.
The day before, at the moment of the disaster, Hantalah had found this rich man, who had become poor in the twinkling of an eye, abandoned to an affliction that went as far as despair, tearing his hair, his beard, tearing his clothes, covering their shreds of dust or ashes that the fire alone had left him: the same he found.
It is true that at the very moment of the catastrophe there could still be some hope in the depths of his desolation: perhaps all his flocks, all his buildings, all his abundant granaries had not been the prey of this double scourge, fire and pillage; but a painful examination had shown him that his loss was immense, complete, and, his heart broken by the cruel certainty, he had just returned to his tent as appalled as one is after twenty-four hours of great calamity, separation or death, when reflection has brought to light its full extent, all its poignant perspectives.
The appearance of such desolation, which was caused only by material misfortunes reparable with courage and perseverance, would have sufficed to give Hantalah double strength against this irreparable misfortune with which he was not threatened, but certain. . He felt, seeing the annihilation of his former master, a feeling which was painful to him with regard to a man to whom he had vowed all gratitude (he was going to give him the proof of it); but how he would have liked to find him upright, his head held high in the face of adversity!
After having contemplated Adim's pain for a moment, so absorbed that he had not heard, that he did not see Hantalah, the latter spoke:
“Come, master Adim, raise your head, look with gratitude at Heaven, which has had pity on us. Fortune has returned to me, that is to say that it returns to you too. I offer you an exchange: give me back Djin and Rebreba, and I will give you twenty-five strong camels, twenty-five beautiful dairy camels. »
Adin had indeed raised his head at Hantalah's first words; but it was only to turn to him a look of amazement, the expression of which only increased when he spoke to him of the gift of twenty-five camels, of twenty-five camels.
“Grief makes us lose our minds, my poor Hantalah. You dream ! but I cannot, alas! share your beautiful dreams in the midst of these ruins. »
However, the sound of the bells soon announced to Adim the arrival of the herd of which Hantalah had spoken to him, and after a few minutes the camels arrived led by Amrou, the camels led by Kafour, a fifteen-year-old Nubian, one of the camel drivers whom Nôman had given to Hantalah. This young Kafour was indeed a charming creature; so he was already the favorite of Amrou, of Hantalah and of Hobeïbeh. His face, of an ebony black (and it is because of this circumstance that, by a rather usual joke in the East, the Nubian slave had been named Kafour, a word which means camphor, and one knows that camphor is perfectly white); his ebony face betrayed all the qualities most precious to others and to himself: the eagerness to be useful, courage, devotion, but above all a cheerfulness which radiated ceaselessly in his two twinkling eyes and on the double row of his teeth white, like the snow, smiling like the dawning day. More than once the poets of the court of Hira had painted Kafour by this image, and they added that his eyes, sparkling on his black forehead, on his cheeks black as night, shone as brightly as two stars in the midst of darkness.
Scarcely had he seen Hantalah than he uttered the cry of joy of his country, leapt from the back of the camel he was riding at the head of his herd and ran all smiles towards his master, presenting him with the bridle of his high frame. Amrou, for his part, had done the same maneuver, and during this time Adim was watching with a dumbfounded eye what was happening. He believed himself to be a prey to the hallucinations of the burning fever caused by the blow with which he had been struck. It is, he said to himself, the dreams of delirium which make appear before me, as a reality, a faint memory of my lost fortune. And he was about to fall back into his annihilation, when Hantalah called him back to him.
" Well ! master, come on! do you want to make the exchange that I propose to you? Here is the herd that I offered you: count. There are indeed fifty superb beasts there which will soon give you a rich herd. Come check them out. »
Adim had all the trouble in the world to leave the mat on which he was stretched out, so much lack of courage had plunged him into a listless numbness, so contrary to the reestablishment of his affairs. No doubt he had said to himself, like Korad at the beginning of this book, the stupid mashallah under which the fatalist collapses, crawls and dies before the order of God. Hantalah, however, by his resolute words, somewhat enlivened this mortal indolence, and Adim, emerging at last from his tent, reviewed with Hantalah the object of exchange, or rather the gift which the latter offered him. He understood it and felt it so.
“In exchange, Hantalah! Fifty heads of this magnificent cattle for a mare and a camel which are already half yours, since without you Djin and Rebreba would have been kidnapped by the looters. You call that an exchange! say it's a present...almost the present of a king!
“A king, you said,” replied Hantalah; and he told him briefly how, on the account of the fire and the pillage of the Benou-Ghazieh, Nôman, the king of Hira, had made him a sumptuous gift; but he was careful not to add what had been the principal motive for this liberality.
“So you can see, Adim, that this part of the king's munificence belongs to you, since his compassionate generosity was moved by the picture of the disaster of which you were the first victim. However, I could have kept everything for myself, many would say so, I know; but I do not think so, and above my rights I place the feeling of justice and duty. Well then, it is justice, it is a duty that I accomplish by showing you my gratitude; it is even a favor that I ask of you, since I beg you to give me Djin and Rebreba in exchange. »
Hantalah's words, as noble as they were simple, had worked on Adim far more powerfully than the certainty of fortune returning to him. He was moved to tears; or rather the tears he had just shed cowardly over his lost possessions were actually drawn to him by a great, lofty emotion, an admiration that came from the depths of his soul. Pressing Hantalah's hands, unable to speak to him, so many words flowed to his heart, he thanked him with expressive glances sparkling through his tears; and the eyes of Kafour, that excellent creature accessible to all lively impressions, cast, as if by reflection, moist rays from the depths of their dark orbits, so moved was he by this scene.
As for Amrou, he joined his father in asking for Djin and Rebreba; he was even going to fall at the knees of Adim, whose silence he took for hesitation, and ask him to have his favorites returned to him; but there was no longer any need for prayers near Adim; running towards the tent which served as their cowshed and stable, this man untied the mare and the camel, which he led in, holding them on a leash with each hand. Amrou had not waited until they had arrived in front of the tent where Hantalah and Kafour were. As soon as he had seen Djin, he had rushed on the chest of the noble horse, and, hanging on her elegant neck, he covered him with kisses, as well as his cheeks with their hair lustrous like silk.
“My good Djin, my friend, you will always be with us, you will never leave us again, my beautiful... Come, come... your master Hantalah is waiting for you... you will see Hobeïbeh again... you will see Nabbah again, the good dog you loved so much. »
This is how Amrou never stopped talking and caressing Djin, who responded to these words and caresses with clear, joyful little whinnies, of good friendship, genuine accents of happiness; he never stopped chatting with Djin only to pounce on Rebreba, also saying a thousand kind words to her about the warm welcome his mistress Hobeibeh was going to give him, and Nabbah again, that other favorite of the family.
And Djin, as soon as she saw Hantalah, uttered an even clearer, more sonorous, more resounding neigh; her slender and delicate feet rising gently, in turn, it seemed as if she wanted to hold them out to Hantalah's hand, who stroked her vines and her chest, in which ran a quivering caused by an emotion of contentment. And you could see in Kafour's twinkling eyes that he aspired to no other post than that which would charge him with taking care of Djin; but Hantalah and Amrou were already fighting over this happiness.
Finally the exchange took place, and Hantalah regained possession of Djin by launching himself on his broad and polished back. As for Rebreba, Amrou, seated on his wooden saddle, made her hear a particular sound of the tongue to excite her to run, and, in fact, she left with as much speed as Djin. Hantalah and her son were already far away when, in response to their thanks and their selam aleik, Adim's selam aleik and thanksgiving reached their ears.
As for Kafour, agile as a fawn, he followed closely, he even often outstripped Djin and Rebreba, and, thanks to the incredible speed of his running, he was able to arrive first towards Hobeïbeh to announce the arrival of his favorites.
XI: PERSPECTIVE OF A NEW ESTABLISHMENT
Hobeïbeh welcomed with joy, as we imagine, his good Rebreba. She herself wanted to prepare the thickest, most select litter for her, and not in the vast tents which served as stables for the other camels, but in a small separate tent, close to that of the family. Djin was lodged in the same way by the care of Hantalah and Amrou, to the great chagrin of Kafour, who had hoped to be entrusted with the care of the beautiful mare.
All the rest of the day was taken up in camp work, which was finished by the light of a splendid moon; then everyone, masters and servants, withdrew to give themselves up to rest, and rest soon closed the eyelids of the camel drivers, of Kafour, of Amrou, of Hobeibeh. Hantalah also was not long in falling into a deep sleep: the twenty-four hours which had just elapsed had been for him so full of troubles, agitations, various movements, as much of body as of soul! It was this mixture of emotions which plunged him into the heaviest slumber that extreme fatigue can cause, but at the same time made appear before his thoughts that admirable portion of our being, which is always watching like the God from whom it emanates, a dream as restless as the day had been. A veiled reflection of the images and actions whose resonance was still within him, they appeared a little confused (as the hills and mounds of sand show through the network of the mirage which ends), blurred and uncertain, but also more imposing. , larger in this wave.
Noman stood before him like a fearsome giant; the many herds he had given him seemed to him bands of monstrous creatures; the bed of scarlet and purple anemones that his last eyes were to see again in bloom spread out before him like a field bristling with thorny shrubs laden with blood. The longer the dream lasted, the more Hantalah felt a weight growing on his chest, and this weight was the small stone of the oath: he was suffocating, he was suffocating under this enormous burden, and when he heard the words of Nôman: “In a year, Hantalah! he awoke struggling, his brow covered with a cold sweat, and exclaimed in despair: 'My wife! my child ! Fortunately, both of them were sound asleep, and Hantalah's voice, which was low and muffled, did not rouse them from their calm slumber. Alas! he had to come too quickly on the day when their peace would be destroyed!... frightful nightmare, the demon Kotroub, and came to himself only by listening to the clear, pure, rhythmic breathing of Amrou and Hobeïbeh, or else the muffled sound of the beaten earth either by the elegant hoof of Djin, or by the firm footing of Rebreba, both of whom, as we know, lodged in the vicinity of the family tent. Nabbah was the only one who heard him stir, and he ran to his bed, and, rising on his paws, licked his master's hanging hands.
Hantalah answered him with a few caresses, and these sweet interior scenes having restored his calm, he increased it still further by thinking of the good he had done for Adim, of the good he could now do.
"If my days are numbered," he said to himself, "may at least everyone be employed to ensure the happiness of my family and the relief of the unfortunate." Preparing today the harvest that I must not gather, isn't that extending, in a way, beyond the tomb, my concern for those I love and for all my fellow men? because, I want it, no unfortunate will approach my tent without receiving all the consolations that we can give him. »
Then, this thought of charity being connected with the memory of living charity, Father Arsenios, he reproached himself sharply for not having yet thought of this pious man, whose home Korad-ben-Adjdaa had made known to him. To make up for this fault, he promised himself (and we know what Hantalah's promises were worth), he promised himself to go find him the very next day, and, forming this project, he gently fell asleep again.
Hobeïbeh and Amrou were up at the first light of day, and believed, instead of waking up, to fall into a beautiful and happy dream on seeing their present riches again. Already the camel drivers, under the orders of their chief, all actively engaged in their various labors, formed, over the vast expanse which the encampment occupied, an incessant, varied, picturesque movement. There were men of all hues, from copper or bronze to the purest, most gleaming ebony black. Kafour was gifted par excellence with this complexion of the night, and his eyes sparkled more dazzlingly than ever on this dark skin; for Hantalah, after having said hello to his wife and son as calmly as if he had not passed under the hurricane of a horrible nightmare, had ordered the young Nubian to saddle Djin for him, Hantalah, and to prepare for him, Kafour, another horse which was not a kohlani like Djin, a noble animal whose genealogy has been preserved in tradition for two thousand years.
"We are going a few miles from here, Kafour," he told him; you must be ready in a quarter of an hour.
"Before, if you wish, master!" replied Kafour, with a playful and resolute vivacity which alone would have made him loved at first sight.
Hantalah had just learned at Hobeibeh that the object of his little trip was to visit Father Arsenios, whose present abode had been taught to him by Korad-ben-Adjdaa; and Hobeïbeh, rejoicing at the thought that she might one day see the good hermit again, regretted not being able to accompany her husband. Amrou, too, all chagrin that his father was not taking him, told him almost with tears in his eyes the pain he felt; but Hantalah consoled him, giving him a reason which must have flattered him all the more because it was just.
“My child, aren't you in a condition to replace me? Shouldn't we henceforth constantly extend the eye of the master over what we possess? You can already exercise this direction and this supervision in my place: learn now to be self-sufficient, my good Amrou, and to be your mother's help and support. »
Amrou bowed, unusually grave, to the grave and slow words that Hantalah had just spoken. For the rest, the noble Bedouin, perceiving that he had still given way to lugubrious preoccupations with the future, ran towards Hobeïbeh, who, laughing and happy, and singing a beloved air, was milking in this moment his dear Rebreba.
" Bye! see you today, before the end of the day! Goodbye ! he said to her several times, as if dreaming of the day when he would not be able to bid her this farewell full of hope. Bye! We are leaving, Kafour! »
Immediately Djin was in front of his master, celebrating him with his eyes, the dancing movements of his delicate feet, a little whinnying that was worth the good morning; and how the mare leaps for joy on feeling her master press her flanks! Kafour rushed at the same time, without a stirrup, on his horse, which he rode bareback, and Hantalah was on his way.
For quite a long time Hantalah and Kafour galloped in silence, raising around them a cloud of dust colored in burnished gold by the rays of the dawning sun; but the road had become hilly and difficult. Besides Hantalah, no doubt wanting to escape the obsession of his thoughts (and the strong will can silence those inner voices of sorrow or of the worried future which afflict and torment us), Hantalah slows down, to the great displeasure from the fiery horse, the race of Djin; and Kafour imitated his master, with that sudden precision one admires in the pause of the Arabian horse launched at the fastest gallop.
“Look, Kafour, tell me about your short life, and how, beyond the land of Habech or Noubeh...
“From Noubeh, master.
“Well, so be it; Nubia is closer to us than Abyssinia, no doubt; but nevertheless it is still very far away. How then, from your distant country, did you find yourself transported to the service of the King of Hira, to the lands of Iraq? »
Kafour sighed for a few minutes; her eyes, so dazzling, no longer shone except through tears, just as one sees the stars half shining under the damp and diaphanous veil of a rainy cloud.
" Oh ! my master, he said at last, when last night your son Amrou was reading in that big book, you know? sadness. I seemed to hear my story.
"Which one was it?"
— The one who tells how the beautiful and wise Youcef was sold by his brothers to Egyptian merchants, who in turn sold him, while his father was looking for him, asking for him from all the echoes of the mounds of sand, and wept night and day . Oh! yes, he wept night and day, as my father and mother wept when they no longer found me guarding our buffaloes a few hours from our tent, much closer to Ibrim than to Dongolah. I don't know if I say it as it should be said; but these names, I have heard them repeated so often, that I like to repeat them as the names of my country, of my country from which I was kidnapped by Arabs from the Red Sea, who sold to Egyptians, and these to slave traders from Syria, who brought me to Hira. Poor father! poor mother! they will no longer have found the little flock which made them live, nor the shepherd who lived only to love them! Oh! of course I was sobbing and crying softly, while Sidy-Amrou was telling the story of the wise Youcef!
"And how long have you been separated from that poor father, that unhappy mother?" »
Hantalah addressed this question to Kafour, while the poor child, so joyous, so petulant, so radiant as usual, maintained a pensive and very sad silence.
“I couldn't tell. I am not very good at measuring how time passes; but it seems to me that since the day I was carried off (and I vigorously defended myself, master, although I was very small, he said, resuming his accent of energetic resolution); well! I seem to remember that since that day I have seen four times the surface of the wells harden in the desert, and the sand, as well as the thorny shrubs, covered in the morning like a silver cloth which melted in the morning. sun.... Four times that, it's been four years... Isn't it, master?
"And I'll never see them again, my poor mother and my poor father!"
- Never ! must one ever despair of anything?... Never!... unless they are dead. »
At these last words, Kafour burst into tears as profuse as the sparks of joy ordinarily flashed from his eyes, and Hantalah repented well of his words.
“Courage, my child! of hope! you will find them... They will find you; for they are certainly looking for you... I have never heard of a father, of a mother who had lost their child, and did not spend very long days, what am I saying? all their life to the de-
pray to earth and heaven. Hope Kafour! good hope! »
He spoke at this moment of hope, as if, on his own account, he had some in his heart; but he had the kindness which makes one forget oneself in order to console others; and one is often rewarded for this good deed, for this devotion, by consoling oneself at the same time.
" Oh ! if only I could see them again! if you were telling the truth, master, I would love you even more than today. I wouldn't want to leave you anymore... nor would they want to leave you anymore, you who would have consoled and supported their child! O my master, my good master! »
And Kafour's gaze having resumed, at the idea of seeing his parents again, all its silver brilliance under the beautiful blackness of his forehead: “Look! see! over there, on this mountain... this man who has a big robe, a long white beard and a hood like that of a burnous... This coat
is brown, he is not an Arab sheik... oh! no.-- I saw some like that while crossing Egypt with my merchants...”
Hantalah had raised his eyes at Kafour's first words, and, thanks to the penetrating vision which the desert inhabitant maintains and further increases the habit, the need to pierce immense expanses with his gaze, he immediately had recognized Father Arsenios, coming down from his cell, the mount of contemplation. So he suddenly launched Djin at his fullest gallop, and Kafour did as his master did; but Zebou, the gazelle which, it will be remembered, the monk had saved from the claws of the vulture, Zebou, hospitable like his master, had descended the mountain with all his speed, and we know what it is that the flight of the gazelle; then, having arrived at the enclosing wall of the mountain-hermitage, she had jumped over it, and had come to greet Hantalah with her gaze, her gesture, and all the graceful movements of her body, as he arrived. not far from the door. She seemed like a smart and loyal dog, having guessed a friend from her master.
Friends very dear indeed to each other, judging by the close embraces which intertwined more than once Hantalah, who had leaped from above Djin; Arsenios, who was following from afar, but finally following the course of the gazelle, had been able, by hastening his step, to arrive at the door which closed the path of the mountain, to come and throw himself on the neck of his pupil, his disciple. the most learned and the most pious.
After a fairly long silence caused by the shock of surprise and joy, for Arsenios no longer hoped that Hantalah was alive:
“You are still on earth...you are still alive. .. God be praised! What happy voice has sent to you, my child, said the monk, the knowledge of my new retreat?
__ Korad-ben-Adjdaa, Hantalah replied to his master's question.
"Korad-ben-Adjdaa?" Ah! Yes! I remember him... an Arab whom I met in the midst of the debris of a camp covered in sand, and where we both thought we recognized the Wady-Hantalah. »
Hantalah couldn't help but sigh at this dear memory.
“But let us enter my mountain,” said Arsenios; leave your horse to keep to this young Nubian, and we will talk freely about so many days passed in absence. »
This is what Hantalah did; and Kafour, holding Djin's bridle in one hand, his horse's in the other, remained at the door while his master crossed the threshold of the hermitage. It was not, however, without addressing this recommendation to the slave:
- Take care around you; beware of the Bedouins; they could take you and the horses.
- Oh ! don't be afraid, master; I would know how to save myself more quickly than they would pursue me; and then I would come back for you; keep calm ! »
Hantalah smiled contentedly seeing the fearlessness of her little Kafour, who had regained all his native animation in the hope given to him by his master - that he would find his parents. He already loved Hantalah so much, that he had faith in even his most vague words; friendship and confidence are the complete abandonment of the soul, of the heart, of the thought, to the one whom one believes in or whom one loves. Hantalah, his eyesight scorched by the desert sand, his chest set ablaze by the already suffocating air lit by the sun there, drank happily, from a wooden cup that Arsenios always carried in his belt, a few long sips of the clear water from the spring. She would have made anyone not thirsty want to drink and would have seen her meandering under the palm trees, green under this green veil, except here and there where the sun piercing the foliage sowed there bits of gold which, the surface, would shine down to the pebbles at the bottom. This is what Arsenios, proud owner (and this pride was very innocent), made Hantalah admire, while they crossed the little wooden bridge which led to the garden.
The clump of palms and cacti, thinned out by the monk, who had found them in the state we know of, bushy to the point of being impenetrable; the wooden bridge over the stream repaired by his hands: nothing testified to the industrious work of the good monk so much as the garden, in which he cultivated the most useful plants alongside the tastiest fruits. Sitting in the shade of a sycamore tree, he shared with Hantalah an exquisite bunch of grapes, a true biblical bunch, the Canaan bunch. While they rested and refreshed themselves, Father Arsenios asked Hantalah a thousand questions about the disaster which had driven them, he and his dear Hobeïbeh, and his little Amrou, from the verdant Wady-Hantalah.
“And how, my son, did you live after this ruin? Oh ! this thought haunted me every day during my long pilgrimage. This Nubian slave who follows you proves that you are no longer in misfortune... How did you get out of it? I know you are active, intelligent; but I also know how much effort it takes to recover from misfortune. »
Hantalah told him about his life with Adim, how he and Hobeibeh had given hospitality to King Nôman; he painted for him the nocturnal attack and the conflagration which had reduced his master, and therefore him, to misery; and finally, arrived at his visit to the court of the king of Hira...
“I see, I see,” interrupted Arsenios, “he will have rewarded your welcome with generosity; for, if he is hard and cruel... they say so... at least, they add, he is generous and sumptuous in his rewards. »
Father Arsenios' interruption greatly embarrassed the Arab, who, indeed, could recognize Nôman's generosity: this is what he did by repeating the monk's words; but he was careful not to reveal to her the circumstance which threw a thick veil of mourning over all this happiness. He was so happy to see Arsenios again, he saw Arsenios so happy to have found him again, that he would never have wanted to disturb this mutual contentment with a funereal thought. To cause grief, and deep grief to him who received him with so much joy, would have seemed to him cruel ingratitude.
"But, good father Arsenios," he said to him eagerly, "what is this winding path which starts from the end of the garden and has for border, on each side, this thick hedge of cactus and aloes?"
— It is the path of what I have called the mount of contemplation; but before going up there, come and visit my cell for both work and prayer. »
They then entered the pious workshop that we know, and Hantalah lives there with a complete edification of the medicines prepared for the sick who came from afar to find the holy hermit, alongside the tools of the gardener, the carpenter; and between all this, wide open, a book, the Bible written by the monk himself in the mount of contemplation.
“We are going up there now, my son Hantalah; but the path is rough, the heat fiery, it takes courage.
"Shouldn't man always have some, father?" and besides, won't we find the sycamore and the trellis in the garden?
— You're right, my son, God always puts the reward at the end of the work, and in a year the trellis will give us even more beautiful fruits, the tree a thicker shade. »
Hantalah noticed these words well, in a year, and pressing the hand of the monk with a force which the latter took for the expression of a lively friendship, he said to him with a gaiety a little affected perhaps:
" Well! Father, I believe you are afraid of facing the sun and the steep path! Should I show you the way? »
Immediately Hantalah began to climb with a strange haste, which was soon tempered, moreover, both by the roughness of the road and above all by the need to follow the footsteps of Arsenios, who, leaning on a high stick, climbed quite slowly. . Finally they both arrived at the top of the mountain, in front of the meditation cell. Hantalah was in a hurry to go inside to get some coolness and some shade; but Father Arsenios stopped him on the threshold of the stone door, to make him admire the immense horizon which the limpid atmosphere revealed in the distance.
"Look, my son, over there, those cupolas that shine in the sun, those towers that rise in the air straight like the trunks of palm trees: it is Koufah, the city of the famous grammarians, the kings of your Arabic language, vast as your deserts; and... turn around: here, on the horizon, these three domes that you see, it is the famous palace of Sadir, which the poets of all the tribes have sung about... But you must know it, since you have been close to King Nôman?...”
If Arsenios had looked at Hantalah at that moment, he would have seen under her swarthy skin and in her masculine features an expression which would have surprised him.
"It's Hira," continued the monk. "Hira!" When I met Korad-ben-Adjdaa on the ruins of your camp, he was going straight there; and I, informed by rumors reaching me of the human sacrifice that Nôman makes on certain bad days, he said, I had begged your friend, the one you saved, not to enter the city without knowing what was that grim day. I feared Korad was coming to be the victim. God be praised! you have seen it since then! we are sure that the disastrous fate has not fallen on him. How many times have I prayed to obtain this grace! With what fervor you would have shared my prayers, you who love him as one loves a man who has been rescued from death! . "Let's go, let's go into your cell, father," said Hantalah with troubled haste.
Arsenios opened the door to his visitor, not without telling him of the adventure of the vulture and the gazelle.
“But where is Zebou, she who usually follows me step by step, moderating, so as not to overtake me, the impulses of her legs of the wind, as you would say in the desert? Where is Zebou?...' She remained at the door, playing sometimes with Kafour, sometimes with Djin. Abusing her freedom, she frolicked and took immense leaps in front of the mare held by the bridle; she seemed to provoke her into a running struggle: Kafour understood her.
" Bah! Bah ! you may have slender legs: if I didn't have two horses to keep, you'd see how I would launch Djin at a gallop, and you wouldn't overtake her, our good Djin; for her forefeet are wings, and she flies; its hind feet fins, and it swims in the waterless sea (the desert), like the fastest fish in the Red Sea. »
While Kafour was making these naive remarks of a proud groom of the horse in his care, a more serious conversation was taking place in the upper cell. A small window with a few climbing plants for a curtain lit up the pious retreat with a veiled green light, and at the same time allowed the eye to discover a horizon which seemed infinite. However Hantalah, with his penetrating vision of a man of the desert, had discovered a marker there, a black point like a thick clump of trees, and Arsenios, questioned by him, had just informed him that, according to the stories of the desert, this green place was a wady, abandoned because of some superstitious tale of gouls, peris, bad angels.
"I fear neither goul nor perish," said Hantalah; I only fear God. I want to transport my camp to this place, which from here seems so fertile in greenery, and consequently in water: if it still seems so big to us in the distance where it is, it must be vast enough and beyond. .. And then, I will be close to you, Father Arsenios; you will send me all the unfortunates who will need help; my tents will be your hospice, your place of refuge for the lost; you will be the hand with which I give alms, and it will double in price.
- What a good, what a beautiful thought my son!
"What a consolation above all!" Hantalah added; and drawing from the richly embroidered sash that his aba covered, the long purse that Orientals hang there, he plunged his swarthy hand into it:
"And from today," he said while emptying his portable treasure, "I want you to have some of my gold to give to those who will need help." Charity does so much good to the heart! it seems to give life beyond the grave, and the life of those whose existence has been assured. »
And he poured into Arsenios's hand all that his purse contained; but the good monk found not only between his fingers a rich handful of gold coins, but also the stone of Hira's oath, which Hantalah always carried with him, so that his wife and son would not see it.
"What is that, my son?" asked Arsenios of Hantalah, after having examined this stone, and fixing on his disciple an austere gaze which troubled the brave Arab to the bottom of his soul. This one wanted carefully to hide his misfortune from all those he loved, for fear of causing them affliction: he thought himself exposed, and stammered a painful and confused answer, for he had a horror of the slightest lie, and he suffered. to be compelled to make one, however laudable his intentions. Fortunately, the manner in which the monk renewed his question proved to him that he knew nothing of what this stone meant.
- “What is that, my child? Some childish condom, some amulet, some superstition of your idolatry, of your ancient faith?
— O my father, it's neither an amulet nor a condom... it's a memory of an act of faith, of fidelity to my word. I have seen you sometimes place in a box, in a pocket of your clothes, a piece of parchment, a seed that escaped your rosary, a fragment of cloth, and when I questioned you, you answered me that it was a memory. , to remind you of a work of devotion and charity that you wanted to accomplish. Well! this stone is there to always represent in my memory something that I solemnly promised. O my father, believe that it is only a question of good! Give me back my memory; give this gold to those who will need it, and tell them to pray for me with you. »
Hantalah put the stone of the oath back into his empty purse, pressed the hands of the good monk, who had led him to the threshold of his hermitage, and Arsenios having gone up with Zebou, who this time was frolicking in front of him, to the summit from the mountain to see his dear Hantalah leave, he saw only a thick cloud of fast dust running over the desert, and, a gust of wind
having thinned out this cloud a little, he recognized Hantalah and Kafour who were heading towards the wady they had just been discussing.
XII: THE NEW WADY-HANTALAH
The sun was setting when Hantalah returned to her tent, and for several hours Hobeïbeh had been in such great anxiety that she would have given up all her new wealth, which she was very happy about, not to endure this torment. What was his joy and that of Amru when this cloud of dust which Arsenios had seen dyed with the most ardent gold of the noonday sun appeared to them impregnated with the suave shades of burnished gold of the setting sun, and that, in a wink, Kafour was in front of them, jumped off his horse, and held the bit of the impatient Djin, who was not tired of her long day, while Hantalah jumped down.
“Hello, woman! hello, son! I have seen our good father Arsenios, said Hantalah after the embraces of the return; I saw him, still the same, still just as healthy, still just as good, still just as charitable.
"And his new hermitage?" asked Hobeibeh.
"It's a place worthy of envy: palm trees, fresh, clear water, a fertile garden which he cultivates while praying: nice manner, isn't it?" to adore the Creator of the earth, than to have filial care for his work. But we will be in his vicinity. Barely an hour from Djin's canter, I found in the desert where Father Arsenios lives a rather vast wady, watered with clear water which nourishes abundant pastures and precious shade, all the more that they will not be barren and that they will give us dates and various fruits in abundance. »
He was talking about the harvest to come! In his joy he forgot his inevitable fate. Hobeibeh's joy was no less lively, for their present encampment was arid, burnt, and the mere thought of shade and fresh greenery ravished her with happiness. She already felt in her imagination the freshness of the new Wady-Hantalah; for that is how she immediately named this place, as if by inspiration, after the description her husband had given her.
“The new Wady-Hantalah, so be it,” he replied; you had a good idea there for which I thank you: it's a very sweet memory for...” He was about to say: for the last moments of my life; but he stopped, and finished in a way that could in no way suggest Hobeibeh.
But nothing equaled Kafour's transports: he thought he had found in the new Wady-Hantalah everything that his child's eyes had seen in Nubia, the same trees, the same waters, the same aspects, and these memories of the country. native, so vividly awakened in him, also redoubled in his hopes the thought that he would one day see his parents again: his good master Hantalah had told him so, and he believed the one he loved.
They were therefore not long in making the preparations for the departure for the new encampment, and the very next day they bent the tents at daybreak, and loaded them with the camels. Hantalah rode Djin, and Kafour, now attached exclusively to the person of Hantalah, stood behind him, mounted on his ordinary horse. As for Amrou, mounted on the most powerful camel of the four hundred and fifty that remained in Hantalah after the exchange made with Adim, he commanded the march, regulated in sub-order by the twenty-four camel drivers that Nôman had joined to his rich presents. : and Hobeïbeh was carried by Rebreba, in those kinds of saddles veiled against the heat of the sun, which are called kaoudjà.
And soon the veil was not useless; for the sun, an hour after the departure of the little tribe, whose march was necessarily very slow, began to strike with ardor the sand, and to raise a mirage through which the travelers passing afar in the desert, and seeing these great shadows of camels and the tents placed on their lofty backs, could imagine, like the poets of their countries, a fleet of ships sailing on a misty ocean.
Father Arsenios did not have the same illusion. As the march approached the wady, to the cheers of all, he was in his upper cell, praying, after a long labor in his downstairs workroom: he had just finished, when his eyes looked through the little window the immense horizon, and he saw the long file of camels heading for the wady which two days before Hantalah had contemplated with so much attention, testifying to the plan to pitch his tents there. This little caravan could only be his family and the many herds of which he was master today, Arsenios told himself. The superstitious terror caused by the cursed well which was in this place of enchantment, in the middle of the desert, would have driven away any other than Hantalah, hardened against superstition by a pure faith.
The good monk soon made up his mind to join his disciple; and, at the very moment when Hantalah and his retinue arrived at the wady, Arsenios mounted the good and swift camel on which we saw him at the beginning of this narrative, and departed, preceded by Zebou, who, bounding to and fro, seemed to find that the camel was walking too slowly; Quick as he was, in fact, he could not compete with a light gazelle, and he continued none the less to keep his solemn and even bearing.
Arsenios was about halfway there, when he was very worried about the fate of his dear Zebou, for he was very attached to her: she had completely disappeared, and was not coming back. The monk was sorry to have lost his companion, and his eyes wandered, from the height of his camel, over all the points of the horizon; but it was in vain, he saw nothing, nothing but the wady in the distance veiled in a luminous mist. Finally he no longer hoped to find Zebou, when, behind a mound of sand, he saw a herd of gazelles with their fawns, and Zebou, in the midst of his fellows, frolicking and grazing the rare grasses which grew between some thorny shrubs, like produces the desert; but as soon as she saw her master, she sprang towards him with a single leap, with that melodious cry, plaintive and caressing at the same time, which the Arab poets praise endlessly in this animal: she forgot her instinct. for loyalty and recognition.
At the moment when this scene was taking place, Hantalah and his troop entered the wady by a narrow defile formed of high mounds of reddish sand, laden with thorny shrubs, cacti, aloes; but as we advanced, everyone uttered acclamations of joy at the sight of charming shrubs bathed and fertilized by a fairly wide trickle of crystal clear water: they were oleanders, lentisks, tamarinds, above which rose palms and fig trees. From distance to distance, there were clearings between this precious vegetation, as if nature had arranged this place for a delicious camp where the tents would each have their smiling surroundings of verdure. In the very center of this little Eden, a clearing more extensive than the others seemed destined to receive the tents of a head of family, a sheik. Also, as soon as Hobeïbeh saw this vast verdant enclosure bounded by trees on all sides: "It is here," she said, "that we are going to pitch our tents, aren't we, Hantalah?" This place is so fresh and so charming! »
Hantalah had had the same thought: his answer was therefore such as Hobeïbeh desired, and Kafour was delighted: this place reminded him completely, as much at least as childhood memories are faithful, of the place where the hut in which he had opened his eyes and seen the beautiful sky of his country.
The little caravan had halted in this clearing, the camel drivers had dismounted in front of their respective herds, and already Hantalah, assisted by Amrou, was beginning to occupy himself with distributing the land of the new Wady-Hantalah among each of the camel drivers, while these sturdy men planted the nine tall poles which were to support the master's tent. Suddenly Nabbah, the faithful dog of whom we have not spoken for a long time, sprang with a long bark towards the belt of palms and fig trees which formed the most picturesque surroundings for the clearing.
At the same time Hobeibeh, who was watching the work of erecting the tent while her husband and son walked through the wady, Hobeibeh heard a soft, frightened, plaintive, caressing cry, and she saw a terrified gazelle fleeing through the foliage. .
- “So don't be afraid like that, Zebou; come, come, our friend Nabbah will not harm you. »
Zebou obeyed the voice of Father Arsenios, that venerable voice which we have recognized, and entered beside his master the enclosure in the middle of which the vast tent was erected. Already the black skins were stretched out on the tall posts, and the central one, higher than the others, formed an elegant point below which the nomadic dwelling was rounded.
What was the delight of Hobeïbeh when he saw Father Arsenios appear! She prostrated herself before him, kissing his hands, and those hands, always ready to do good or to bless, deserved such homage. Then Hobeïbeh hastened to send Kafour to call Amrou and Hantalah, who, knowing why they were being called, ran to Arsenios' feet.
The good hermit had known the new Wady-Hantalali for a long time. In his visits to the rare tents which dotted this desert, he had visited this wady, and would have come to establish himself there if he had not been in possession of his dear mountain; he therefore proposed to Hantalah to show him, very close to this clearing where he had established his residence, a place quite favorable for the establishment of a garden. Gardening was Arsenios's only and gentle worldly passion; and, accompanied by the family, and moreover by Zebou, who was now playing without the slightest fear with Nabbah, he led them into a veritable enclosure formed by mounds which surrounded it like a wall and protected it from the winds.
"You see," said Arsenios, "here is the site of a ready-made garden, and it is I who charge me to plant it, do you hear? In a few days I will bring you child fruit trees, vines... This is where we will put the fig trees; here, along this rock, exposed to the sun, a trellis which will become magnificent.
- Oh ! how lovely it will be! exclaimed Hobeibeh.
"And then here," continued Arsenios, "instead of the useless or harmful herbs that this land produces in abundance, we will make it produce vegetables... flowers too."
"But for watering?" said Amrou,
"Isn't there water from the spring that runs through the wady, and that can be brought into the garden?"
"Ali! ... besides," continued Amrou, "here's a well ... but it's filled up!"
'That well,' said Arsenios, turning towards Hantalah, 'is the object of the superstition of which I spoke to you, and which has always kept away those whom the beauty of these places would have tempted to fix their stay there.
- What do you mean? answered Hantalah; what is the story of this well?
"It is the cursed well: I will tell you one day what I have heard about it from the inhabitants of this desert who have come to visit my mountain, and whom I have questioned since you chose this place to stay there. establish. But now the sun is approaching its decline; I must return to my retirement. Soon, in a few days, you will see the hermit coming with all the gardener's utensils.
"And you will tell us the story of the cursed well," cried Amrou, who had heard
the promise of the good monk: is it not, good Father Arsenios, that you will tell us this story? “Yes, my child, yes. After these words he kissed her, shook Hantalah's hand, said a cordial good-bye to Hobeïbeh, and set off, lying too much on his camel, which Zebou only left by a few steps.
XIII: IN A YEAR
Barely two days had elapsed, and the Hantalah camp was completely finished. Near the tents of each camel driver, long and spacious stables, made up of stakes covered with canvas, had already received the herd entrusted to their care; and as for Kafour, he had, as the favorite of the family, the exclusive custody of Djin, of the other horses without name, without celebrity, without pedigree, and of the good camel Rebreba, whom Hobeïbeh came to milk every day with his own hands. . To say the elected functions that Kafour exercised is to say that he had his tent near the family, a small, slender, graceful tent, much more elegant than that of the other camel drivers. As for Amrou, Hantalah had delegated to him the supervision of the whole establishment of the new Wady-Hantalah. He wanted to make him fully capable of being his mother's strong and skilful support.
And she, Hobeïbeh, day by day she enjoyed her present happiness more keenly; for there was not only wealth, there was happiness. Almost every morning, before the heat of the day, she liked to walk, and take Hantalah with her, through the stables enveloped in cheerful groves of date palms, fig trees, and rosemary.
“Look, my friend,” she would say to him with delight, “our herd will be doubled in about a year; in a year, these young fig trees will be covered with fruit as well as these date palms. Oh! how much happier we will be in a year! »
Despite his strength of soul, Hantalah felt compelled by an inner impulse to go away and walk alone and taciturn through the new wady, full of such cheerful hopes for all but himself. Then, wanting to distract himself with a charitable thought, the only consolation in overwhelming afflictions, he commissioned Amru to build at various points which were not absolutely necessary for the exploitation, a score of huts covered with rush mats, supported strong branches of date palms and terminated in a circle at the top. These are similar huts inhabited by the Arabs who are fixed on the banks of the Euphrates. These small dwellings were intended to receive the poor without asylum and who, sent by Arsenios, would become part of his small tribe. He had enough milk and cheese in abundance to be able to feed them until the little camel he would give them enabled them either to earn a living by renting to caravans or to isolated travelers their camel to carry their luggage. to the next town, or by selling their camel's milk and butter to nearby markets.
And to achieve this goal, what was needed? A year and more.
Hantalah, carried away by the ardor of his charity, did not make this reflection. He no longer thought of anything except to depict to himself the happiness of these families, destitute, wandering, miserable, to whom he would give food, shelter, a peaceful and happy existence. He was drawing this picture in vivid colors, such as the Arabs always have on that magical and inexhaustible palette called the imagination, when Nabbah, the faithful family dog (well named really, because nabbah means barker), made Hantalah start in the midst of his benevolent reveries, with a prolonged howl; not a howl of worry and fear, but a howl of joy that had something of a laugh about it; then a moment later a charming, savage couple sprang forward, a couple of agile and cheerful inhabitants of the desert: Kafour struggling in speed with Zebou, the gazelle.
It was the announcement of the arrival of Arsenios, which Kafour confirmed to his master with the most playful air that had ever sparkled on his features, in his white eyes framed in black, on his white teeth framed in rose. He loved Arsenios by virtue of that immutable law that every good man, charitable, gentle with everyone, is loved by everyone, for he is lovable, that is to say, worthy of being loved. Now Kafour, that almost savage child, had loved Arsenios. However, he hadn't seen him do any good deeds yet; but the good deeds, her instinct saw them in those tender eyes always smiling with kindness, in that mouth which had taken on the expression of the good and consoling words which she unceasingly spoke, in those very wrinkles which were like the annals of a calm and serene life.
This suave figure was not long in showing itself: Father Arsenios kept his word, and had brought on his camel all the instruments necessary for gardening, all the plants with which he wanted to form the garden he was about to create.
“O good Father Arsenios, how timely you have come! You know that not long ago I promised you to make your hand a chaplain par excellence. Well! I have just given the orders for the realization of this project. Twenty cabins will be at your disposal in a few days to send the unfortunate poor and homeless. I will lodge them, I will clothe them, I will feed them; and it is to you that I will owe so much happiness... O Father Arsenios! it will be doubled by this thought. »
Arsenios, with tears in his eyes, could only squeeze Hantalah's hand, saying in an undertone:
“Good, good, my friend! It is to make a noble use of the riches that God has placed in your hand, to share them with those who suffer. »
The master and the disciple were in equal emotion, when Hobeïbeh, singing some air of childhood, ran up, and was a little confused to appear so frivolous in front of the austere father Arsenios; but he himself changed the smiling air to the serious expression he had just had, and charged the housekeeper of the vast establishment to procure for him, among her servants, the most intelligent to help him in the work. which he was about to undertake, and which was to occupy him for several days. Several days!... So we would see Father Arsenios for several days, and that was a promise of happiness for the whole family.
Kafour was undoubtedly the smartest; Hantalah and Hobeïbeh added four other camel drivers whom they had recognized to be more active and more skilful than the others.
"Let's start right away, then," said Arsenios. At work ! at work ! The sooner we have entrusted to the earth the seeds and the plants which will find life in its bosom, the sooner we shall enjoy its products. And you too, Hobeïbeh, will join us. »
Hantalah also demanded his share of the work; and Arsenios, having loaded the workmen with his utensils, his new-born trees, his young vines, led the whole troop of workers into this natural enclosure which we have sought to paint.
To create a garden in a place where there grow abundantly herbs useless to the food of man, and to replace this vain and often harmful fertility by an orderly, regulated vegetation, good either for food or for the innocent pleasures of the creature, it is to pay homage to the Creator; it is to carry the salutary instrument of the pruner into an uncultivated mind, encumbered with a thousand thoughts heaped up pell-mell, false, useless or fatal, but whose very heaping together proves that the soil is good. So the spade, the axe, the sickle do a good job there. Here the good or bad ideas, the confusion of which troubled and overwhelmed the mind, are replaced by notions, knowledge, thoughts, images wisely arranged, and which, developing in an ever more perfect order, demonstrate the fertility of the ground for good and for evil. — It is education: there a skilful horticulturist causes the most exquisite fruits, the most brilliant or the most fragrant flowers, to succeed to the thorns, the brambles, the crawling cacti which tear, the nettles which burn the hand. who approaches. — The garden is the cultivated mind; gardening is the education of the earth.
Thus, while Father Arsenios was drawing on a sheet of parchment the alleys and the parterres, his active workmen, in spite of the heat of the day, had entirely cleared the ground of the vegetation which encumbered it. Nabbah and Zebou, who had become the best comrades, played while we worked; and Kafour did from time to time, it must be admitted, leave his pickaxe or his spade to cast a look of complacency, even envy, on this couple of players who were as lively as they were graceful.
When night came, Arsenios did not speak of returning to his mountain; he had arranged to stay at the new Wady-Hantalah until the work on the garden was finished. Then Amrou, who had spent the whole day directing the charitable constructions of which his father had had the idea, begged, in spite of his fatigue, Father Arsenios to tell them the tradition of the accursed well. Even Hantalah and Hobeibeh, as well as Kafour, joined Amru in appealing to Arsenios; but he was overwhelmed with weariness and only asked for rest. So he retired to his bed, promising his story for the hottest moment of one of their working days; and everyone understood like him how much charm she would have after an active labor, in the shade of an enormous wild fig tree which had grown in one of the angles of the enclosure where the hermit gardener had begun his creation.
The next day, at dawn cool and serene, Arsenios and his workmen were at work. In the evening, the best exposed side of the enclosure was planted with vigorous vines; and when Hantalah, accompanied by Hobeïbeh, came to visit the workers:
“Hantalah, you have a trellis there which will give you the finest grapes in a year.
"In a year," Hobeibeh repeated with his accustomed accent of playfulness, "in a year everything will be more beautiful."
- In a year ! whispered Hantalah in a low voice; he tried in vain to drive away this thought, which everything incessantly reminded him of.
- Yes, in a year, resumed Arsenios, you will have the finest and most exquisite grapes to refresh yourself at the burning noon hour.
"And the sun was burning at noon, Father Arsenios," said Kafour, "and you haven't told us the story of the cursed well yet."
"Soon...when our work is nearing completion, maybe tomorrow." »
And as soon as day broke, each was at his post; and Arsenios, after having lined the beds with dwarf apple trees and various fruit trees which the fecundity of the climate must have caused to grow visibly, set about planting flowers of all kinds.
“What are you putting here, good father Arsenios? asked Hantalah, who had come to visit him alone; for the burning heat had kept Hobeibeh in his tent.
'Here... spring, as you say, you Arabs, reveals the secrets of the earth... Well! you will know what is here in a year... And I want to tell you: you will then see here a magnificent bed of anemones... God is immutable in the hour of all his creations, be it a world or a flower; and these varied anemones that I plant today, they will delight your sight in a year. »
In a year!... anemones!... the flowers of the King of Hira, those which he had designated at Hantalah as being to be in all their splendor at the hour when he was to die! Hantalah felt all this very keenly; but he had the strength to conceal his emotion.
" In a year ! he said in a tone almost smiling to Father Arsenios, in a year's time, I want people to see on this habitation a more touching and sweeter spectacle than that of the anemones you promise me: I want my twenty cabins to be inhabited by the poor chosen by you. Do you hear, my good father? all those who come to your hermitage, send them to me. It will be enough, so that I know that they come from you, that they present me a parchment carrying of your handwriting this only word wefcu (faith), and I will welcome them with happiness. That's it, that's the most beautiful thing we'll see here in a year. »
Excellent man! he knew that in a year he would have ceased to exist, and he wanted to live with happy families through him. Arsenios promised him to do what he asked; he even thanked him profusely for it, as for the greatest of benefits, the faculty of bestowing good upon the unfortunate. But Hobeïbeh came to interrupt this talk of charity by reminding Father Arsenios that he owed her and all the workers, when the garden was completed, the story of the cursed well, which Kafour and his comrades, exhausted by the heat of noon, were indeed waiting impatiently, both as a rest and as a curious desire to know.
Then Arsenios, sitting under the vast fig tree whose outstretched branches laden with large leaves were a parasol as immense as it was impenetrable to the sun, gathered around him Hobeïbeh, Amrou, Hantalah, Kafour and those of the camel drivers who understood Arabic. ; it was in this language that Arsenios always expressed himself, and with a rare perfection which would never have led to the belief that his native idiom was Greek; for he was a native of Asia Minor.
So he began, to the full attention of all his audience.
XIV: THE CURSED WELL
“It was in the early days of creation, before the flood. God, angry with the sins of men, was tempted for a moment to bring down in their midst the terrible angel Israfil, the messenger of death, with his innumerable heads and his no less numerous hands which hold the sword; but the Lord had not yet exhausted the infinite treasury of his mercy, and held back with his mighty hands the flood which was to renew the human race and the face of the earth. He first wanted to mix among men, both as advisers of good and as observers, two angels, Arout and Marout, who, by the order of the Almighty, left heaven to hover above the earth and s to shoot down where they would see the most confusion and harm, in order to warn and threaten as needed.
Arout and Marout, extending their great white wings in the air which envelops us, looked for a long time from above at what was passing among the creatures, and finally, folding their wings by degrees, like butterflies who want to stop on a flower, they let themselves slide towards this country, which was then beautiful, and flowery, and without desert. It was at the beginning of the night that they descended, and the pastors, who gazed with delight at the splendidly starry sky, were amazed when they saw what they took for two magnificent shooting stars.
“Now, these shooting stars, the next morning it was heard throughout the country that they were two angels of the Lord; but they were not good angels, and by their hypocrisy they had deceived God, as before did Iblis and Gheisan. So, instead of going from land to land, from house to house, giving salutary advice, urging the inhabitants to a more pious conduct before God, from whose hands they had still so recently emerged, they went to a famous woman who had left the peristan to come a little closer to Jehovah's creation. The enchantments, the magic, the charms of her land of fairyland seemed to her to form an abode of perdition, and she aspired to ascend to paradise.
“Arout and Marout had the opposite desire, and they aspired only to rise towards the peristan, whose enchantments had seduced them since they had heard the corrupt inhabitants of the earth paint a picture of it all the more dazzling. , that they had never been able to approach this place, which had been represented to them as so full of delights. The peristan was, if not hell, at least an intermediate place between this place of damnation and the earth.
“Arout and Marout therefore had no other intention, when they went down to the peri, than to learn from her the means of reaching the peristan.
'Yes,' she said to them, 'I will teach you; but in exchange (she had well recognized them to be angels of the Lord), in exchange you will teach me how one can ascend to heaven. »
“Arout and Marout reflected for a long time, because, although evil angels, they felt that they were going to commit a desecration; they were, however, so violently possessed by the desire to know the peristan, that they made up their minds.
" - Well! either ; what must be done beautiful perished, to reach your kingdom?
“You must put on my wings: I have two pairs, here they are; and, at sunset, climb the highest hill to take your momentum towards its last rays: that's all.
“And I, how shall I go to heaven?
"Similarly, by putting on our wings and launching yourself into the air, from the top of a hill, at the hour when the sun shows its first rays. »
The exchange took place immediately; and Arout and Marout laid down their great white wings to attach to their shoulders, barely covered, the little bluish wings of the peri. The latter, on the contrary, enveloped herself in the double pair of wings of the angels, and as it was the end of the night, she separated herself from Arout and Marout.
And as soon as the first ray crimsoned the hills, it took flight from the rosy summit on which it impatiently awaited this hour of light, and soon there it was lost in the beautiful clouds of the east, through the aurora and golden gauze, from which one could saw the half-gleaming white wings of angels, as the moon appears under the luminous transparency of the end of a fine day.
“As I have already told you in a few words, this peri was a good creature. She had only been thrown into the peristan by family alliances. Your Arabs told me that she descended from Djan-ben-Djin, whom God created from the fire of the simoun, and that Maredja, the first to perish, was her great-grandmother. She had to live in the country of her ancestors; but it was only with reluctance, and most of the time she was on earth seeking the unfortunate to comfort them with her wealth; the sad, to calm them with his sweet and melodious voice; new-born children, to wish them happiness here below; the dying, to wish them happiness on high, not in the peristan, but in the sky.
“So the double wings of the evil angels carried her towards these holy regions with a rapidity which proved that, by the goodness of her soul, she was worthy to enter them.
“As he approached the first veils of gold which extend, like majestic doors, at the entrance to the blessed stay, the immense concert of harps rose with the melodious choruses of angelic voices, and the peri flapped its wings , so much joy did she feel at this presage of good reception.
“And in the evening, the Chaldean shepherds, watching with happiness the rebirth of the stars whose places in the firmament they knew so well, fell into amazement and delight when they saw suddenly hatch a radiant star, sparkling, admirable of pure clarity.
“O marvel! they said to each other, pointing to the sky, see what a splendid star God has just created! »
“This star was the peri. God had received her into heaven because of his goodness.
"And Arout and Marout," asked all the listeners, with an interest in which there was certainly some superstitious terror, "what became of them?"
— That same evening when the pastors of Chaldea were admiring the splendor of the new star, one of them turned his eyes towards the other point of the horizon: and what did he see? two reddish flames which swirled as they descended towards the earth and which were half surrounded by a bluish light: they called to each other to look at what they believed to be a meteor.
"And these were the two angels smitten by the hand of God, and rolling...
- In the djehennum, the hell of the proud, or leza, place of torture for the hypocrites?
- Not ; but at the bottom of a dry well, where they are, so the credulous say, bound by a double chain of iron; and this well..."
Each of those who listened to Father Arsenios was more or less shaken by the absurd legend, and the camel drivers, especially Kafour, hardly dared to look at the filled well which was a few paces from them, and which they remembered vividly. well, the hermit had shown them to be the cursed well.
“And this well? everyone asked with anxious eagerness.
— This well, here it is under this date palm which is on my right. »
At these words, all eyes turned towards the point designated by Father Arsenios, and, by an involuntary and unanimous movement, each of the assistants took a step to get away from the accursed place, so much influence does superstition have over the ignorant minds.
“But you are afraid of it, I see it, and yet I need water to water my garden; it is necessary to remove from this well the sand and the rocks which encumber it, and that this work be done before the end of the day. »
Despite the submission of the Easterners, there was hesitation and fear among the workers. Hantalah had to raise his voice to get us to work; but with each blow of the pickaxe, with each blow of the shovel which brought back gravel, rock or sand, and emptied the well by the same amount, the workers, pale and haggard, looked at each other with visible dread, as if they were about to see Arout appear. and Marout; the more the work progressed and the more the well became empty, the more their terror increased. There was a moment when their iron instruments having clashed together, they thought they heard the sound of chains.
Oh ! for once they couldn't stand it any longer, and, terrified, backed away in all directions, pointing with a clenched finger to the accursed well.
“Fools! said Arsenios to them, approaching them, on the contrary, and looking at the bottom, come and help me to water; come and draw the pure and limpid water that you have found. See what superstition is! For thousands of years people have been fleeing this place so beautiful and so fertile, for fear of two so-called angels, Arout and Marout, who are only in the minds of fools, while in the place they were given , here is a fresh and very precious water in this garden. Lets go ! let's water! I begin. »
Following this lesson, Arsenios took a bucket, drew the finest water, drank a few good sips to reassure the most fearful, and the rest he watered the flowers and especially the sinister bed of anemones.
The action of Father Arsenios banished all superstition, and henceforth the garden had an inexhaustible well, and in which one was not afraid to look for fear of seeing the angels Arout and Marout. If sometimes, in the serene evenings of the East, one cast a glance into its deeply framed mirror, one saw there only a brightness, a white and pure brightness, the ray of the star of the good perished.
The garden being finished, Arsenios bade farewell to the family; but before letting him get back on his camel, Hantalah once again took both his hands, reminding him of his promise: el wefa, faith.
“Always,” answered Arsenios, “count on me: soon your little colony will be inhabited, there is no shortage of unfortunates. I'm sure it will be quite populated in a year. »
And the camel of Arsenios set off at its quickest pace; but Zebou took a hundred paces for a single one of the useful vessel of the desert, and it was not until night that the monk arrived at the mountain.
XV: IN A MONTH
While the work in the garden was being carried out, the other workmen were completing, under the direction of Amrou, the construction of the twenty hospital huts, and all the moments that Kafour had free, he employed them in going to contemplate these huts, which recalled the one in which he had been brought up: it was indeed these walls of intertwined palm trunks, the rounded roof under which he had received his father's first caresses and mother's milk, that exquisite caress that God gives to little children. These were thoughts that made him sigh, gay as he was; but how he would have welcomed them with joy, if he had been able to guess what was passing at that moment!
His father and his mother, after having suffered for a long time from his disappearance, after having devoted entire years to depriving themselves of everything in order to amass a nest egg which enabled them to set out in the footsteps of Kafour, guided by a presentiment came from Heaven, descended from Nubia through Upper Egypt, and headed very slowly, it is believed, towards Lower Egypt. They had hardly reached the first cataract when Kafour conceived new hopes at the sight of these huts which had so many good memories for him. His recollections and also his hopes, he communicated them to Hantalah with all the vivacity that we know from him, when his master came to examine the work of which Amrou had been the director. He was happy with it, not only by the thought that, thanks to these refuges, he could do good for many years, he who had so little time to live, but also because he saw that Amru could be useful. to his widowed mother.
Father Arsenios wasted no time in sending to Hantalah, with the hospitable parchment, el wefa, a poor man without an asylum; and it was a very fine day for Ben-Thai; it seemed to him that he would henceforth live many days to witness the happiness which this unfortunate man expressed with the most touching gratitude, in receiving from Hantalah not only the hut furnished with all the necessary utensils, but also a camel abundant in milk. Hobeibeh shared her husband's contentment at the spectacle of their host's joy; but it was an unalloyed rapture: instead of which Hantalah often said to himself, staring sadly at the five or six huts already inhabited:
"I won't be seeing this sweet family again in nine months, in six months!" »
Not a fortnight passed without Hantalah receiving from Arsenios one of these new gifts of charity, and it was with both very sweet and very bitter reflections. These good people, in their gratitude, had greeted Hantalah with the title of sheik, with the name of father, and, having collected a rather handsome sum by their savings on the sale of their milk and their cheese, they promised themselves to give in a month a feast to their benefactor. The camel drivers, skilled in the exercises of the spear or the djerid, were to assist them, and Kafour promised himself to be the most ardent in celebrating his master.
To celebrate ! that was it; because at the end of the month fell the day of the birth of Hantalah, and... also that of his death! What sinister rejoicing! Hobeïbeh and Amrou, whom we had taken into our confidence, were not alive, so happy were they.
An unforeseen circumstance added to their happiness, while redoubling Hantalah's trouble. One day he was in his garden, and, whatever strength of soul he possessed, he was gazing thoughtfully at the buds of the anemones which were beginning to sprout, when he heard cries of delight outside: it was the voice of Hobeibeh. He recognized her, and ran in the direction from which these exclamations came. At this moment Hobeïbeh was milking Rebreba, when she suddenly left her favorite to rush towards a horseman followed by a young man of about fifteen. The man apologized because his horse had dragged him, despite his efforts, into this smiling wady...
"But it's Korad-ben-Adjdaa!" exclaimed Hobeibeh in a tone of delight. Korad-ben-Adjdaa then recognized her.
“Myself, Hobeibeh! and by what happy chance did I meet you here? To see this camp, if it belongs to you, you are rich... What happiness has fallen to you from the sky?
"An unexpected happiness, Korad!" The King of Hira, the generous Nôman..."
Suddenly Korad's features darkened: the contentment he had felt had made him forget for a moment the funereal pact made between him and his friend; but everything was recalled to him by these few words.
It was at this moment that Hantalah, attracted by the exclamations of his wife, had arrived. He was seized no less keenly than his friend. Indeed, what an interview! Two men, one surety for the death of the other! Hobeibeh was telling Korad what, alas! he knew better than she, the magnificent present given by Nôman to Hantalah, but of which she was unaware of the condition, when Amrou ran up with Ferid, the young Persian prince whom we remember, and for whom Amrou had been taken with a sudden friendship, which had been no less suddenly answered. Ferid's arrival gave Korad the opportunity to divert the conversation from a subject so cruel to him, especially to his friend. He told his friends that as a teacher for the military exercises of the prince, whom he was responsible for training in the harsh life of the desert and the tent, he took him on daily excursions, at full gallop, across the ocean of sand, and these plains where there is no longer any question of canopies enamelled with pearls and precious stones or carpets strewn with flowers. One of these races had taken him to the new Wady-Hantalah; and such was the cause of his unexpected visit.
“Well, added Hobeïbeh, you are always welcome, but even more so today. I have something to tell you, Korad, something that will make you happy, I'm sure. »
Then she leaned close to his ear and whispered to him, smiling, two or three words which made Korad's swarthy brow pale.
She did not notice it, so delighted was she with the approaching prospect she had just told Korad about; and then a powerful diversion was the struggle which took place between Amrou, mounted on Djin, and Ferid, on his fiery Persian steed, at the warlike game which is called the game of the djerid. This entertainment consists of throwing two long stalks of palm trees, as its name suggests, recalling this region of Africa the beledulgerid (the country of palm trees). Korad, entirely devoted to his favorite occupations, no longer thought of anything but imparting his warlike teachings to his pupil, who profited by them quite well.
But what amazed Hantalah and Hobeïbeh was the skill that Amrou showed at this game, of which his father had given him only a few lessons, in better days. No doubt he had practiced very often, and it was marvelous to see him, galloping at the fullest gallop, seizing the stick again, when you thought he was going to reach Ferid.
Korad, like Hobeïbeh, took great pleasure in watching for a few hours the prowess of this son of whom she felt proud. Finally the Bedouin spoke of returning to the capital of Nôman, for it was already late; then Hobeibeh took him aside. ; "Like I told you, Korad, one month, one month away!" with this young man, do you hear?..."
Amrou and Ferid resumed their struggle; and Amrou, who had heard what his mother had said, was overjoyed, as was Kafour, whose eyes never sparkled more vividly than at this moment.
" In a month ! Oh ! in a month! repeated Amrou in Korad's ear; you will see how beautiful it will be; don't miss it!
- In a month ! said Hantalah to Korad, squeezing his hand forcefully; in a month, I will not miss it! »
And the two friends, bound by such a fatal contract, parted, giving each other a long look.
On his return, Ferid described to Nôman, with all the vivacity of his colorful mind, the encounter he had had with the Wady-Hantalah; how Hantalah had known how to employ, so usefully for the happiness of his fellows, the wealth which he held from the king. He also told her about the party to which Amrou's trust had initiated him, at the same time as his friendship invited him to it.
And Nôman could not help shuddering at the thought of the deferred sacrifice, the moment of which was approaching!... Wasn't he going to strike the whole tribe all at once! and how many more tears were he going to shed!... But soon the superstition of childhood getting the better of him, he swore to himself not to spare the victim, whoever it was. .
As the return of the fatal day approached, that excellent Maessema, the water of heaven, the unhappy mother of Nôman the Cruel, suffered more and more at the thought of the sacrifice of the Ghorebaïn. She was so deeply affected by it that a month before the arrival of this sinister day she became quite ill. Nôman, seeing her seriously attacked, summoned doctors from all countries, an Arab, a Persian, a Jew, a Greek; and all were of opinion that a great moral suffering kept her in this state of ever increasing illness. Maessema took advantage of this declaration, made in front of her son, to renew the supplications she had addressed to him the previous year so that he would renounce what she regarded as murder; and it was with such a touching, so pathetic tone, that Nôman remained for some minutes pensive, visibly moved, his eyelids full of tears, at the bedside of his mother's bed; then, as if enlightened by a sudden inspiration, he threw himself into her arms, covering her with kisses mingled with tears:
"Do you really think, my mother," he said to her with a moved voice, "of the request you make of me?" Don't you feel, on the contrary, what I have just been informed of by a movement from up there? it's that if you're suffering, if you're in danger, you have to blame it on my lack of faith last year. It is a crime against Heaven that I have committed. Although I have repented of it many times since that time, he wants to punish me for it. Oh ! I beg you, my mother, out of love for you, out of love for me, do not urge me any more to betray a sacred oath! »
And, after tenderly squeezing and kissing her hands, he left her almost in tears. This superstitious blindness had irritated Maessema twelve months before; this time she was touched to see the good faith with which Nôman gave himself up to it by begging her to let him perform a religious act. No doubt she shared her son's beliefs; but the goodness of Maessema revolted against this effusion of blood, even dedicated to the divinities and the stars. Breaking an oath was a crime, she believed; but the murder of an innocent man seemed to him a still greater crime, and the instinct of his heart told him that Heaven would rather forgive a failure in the first than the accomplishment of the second. Her painful anxiety was therefore very great, and her illness grew more and more with her.
More and more also Nôman decided on the expiatory sacrifice which he regarded as a sure means of cure for his mother. Strange combination, this alliance of tenderness and cruelty!
Meanwhile Kafour's parents approached. They had long since passed Wady-Seboua (the valley of the Lion), in lower Nubia; then Aswan (Syene); then, having entered Upper Egypt, they had crossed the Pyramids; and, after skirting the Mediterranean, they crossed Palestine, the country of the Saviour, not guided by chance, it must be believed, but by the miraculous hand of Providence. For his part, Kafour, each day more preoccupied with the hope that his master had given him of seeing his parents again, warned by one of those interior movements which operate mysteriously in us and which are called presentiments, Kafour had never been so cheerful, so playful, so lively.
" Oh ! my master, he said to Hantalah with the accent of the most assured hope, you have promised me my parents, and from day to day this hope fills and occupies my heart more; also, how angry I would be if I were to die, or how happy I would be to die if I had to give up trying to find them again! How could such a thought come into the mind of such a cheerful teenager? It was because he was afraid of remaining an orphan forever; and Hantalah, who was to leave an orphan, a widow, how poignant these words were to him!
Hobeibeh, on the contrary, and Amrou were more and more happy. Prosperity was in the camp. Almost every day a young camel was born, an additional source of wealth or benefit; for each of the refugees sent by Father Arsenios was in possession of his camel, his cow or his buffalo. There was only one hut left to occupy, and the whole tribe wished that good Arsenios would complete the most united family that ever was.
In the meantime, day succeeded day, and to arrive at the sinister hour only eight days had to pass; eight times twenty-four hours, and Hantalah would go to the capital of King Nôman to release his word and his friend.
No hope!... not the slightest hope! Noman was more determined than ever for the promised atonement. Maessema felt his illness getting worse; and her son, without suspecting that this increase of evil came from the approach of the fatal moment, persisted, in his superstitious faith, in regarding the peril into which his mother was visibly falling as a solemn warning of what he must do. Soon he was still more firm, if possible, in his resolution. Hakim, that old vizier in whose hands the oath on the seven stones had been sworn, Hakim fell ill and died. The king seemed to see in this catastrophe and this end of the dying vizier another advice from on high; but what struck him most vividly and irrevocably decided the execution of what he regarded as an act of faith, were redoubled family misfortunes. The youngest of his sons was taken, four days before the anniversary, by a sudden illness, the nature of which no one could guess. He was a charming child who was the delight of the women's apartment; so it was who would urge the king to sacrifice to the Ghorebaïn.
He swore it once again over the head of his dying mother, while in a faint and inarticulate voice she begged for mercy for the victim! Finally she completely lost her speech, her knowledge, fell into the arms of her son, and, showing him the sky, expired, no doubt invoking his mercy. Overwhelmed, annihilated by such a blow, perhaps he would have understood that this solemn sign, the last, was the will of a dying woman, of a dying mother; sacred will which ordered him to renounce his sinister vow, and to replace by an action of true piety an act of blind belief.
A final misfortune (supreme misfortune for a father, for a king) struck him and made him say: "Hantalah must be sacrificed!" »
The malady with which her youngest son had been struck was the plague (mysterious disease before which the East has, for many centuries, bowed its head as before an irresistible will from on high). Well ! this scourge came to reach the eldest son of Nôman, his only heir henceforth, the sole support of his name. This thunderbolt fell on the throne the very morning of the eve of the sinister day. The bed of anemones was all in bloom in Hantalah's garden; it was to be the same with that of Nôman. We had to think about leaving.
What, after the sorrow of saying goodbye forever to Amrou and Hobeibeh, most worried the noble sheik, was the inexplicable movement that was passing around him; his wife and son whispered to each other, went from one tent to another, were silent or turned away when they saw Hantalah coming. Did we discover something? He would have feared it if he hadn't seen a smile on every face. The camel drivers looked at him with even more happiness than usual, his guests with more gratitude; and Kafour cast upon him, from the depths of his eyes, more radiant than ever, true flashes of gaiety. He even heard her pronounce the words party, tomorrow. What a party, great God! that tomorrow!
XVII: THE EVE
He was, however, approaching that terrible morrow! The details which we have just related, as well on the court of Hira as on the encampment, passed the morning of the sinister day before, and from hour to hour Hantalah was preparing, by more fervent prayers, for the supreme moment. Hobeïbeh, having entered the tent unexpectedly, saw him not only on his knees, but completely prostrate before the crucifix, a gift from Father Arsenios. He thanks Heaven for having given birth to him so that he can finally enjoy happiness and rest.
This is what Hobeïbeh said to himself, and she withdrew without disturbing him. However, he got up after a long meditation, during which all the inhabitants of the tribe made preparations for what is called a fantasia, a cavalcade animated by the game of the djerid. A seat was already erected on a small eminence, and sheltered by a kind of canopy on which the women of the little tribe had worked with envy, and which supported four stalks of palm worked with the greatest care by the most skilful hands. : Kafour had been one of the workers par excellence.
At last evening came, and the rejoicings of the morrow were to begin at that moment. Hobeïbeh, delighted as she was, was nevertheless given over to visible agitation. Finally she made known the cause.
'My friend,' she said to Hantalah, 'I don't see Korad coming: he had however promised, a month ago, to be here day for day, and here is the end. Who can hold it?
"Woman, a graver word, a more imposing promise no doubt."
"What graver word, what more imposing promise than that made to a friend?" replied Hobeibeh.
This interview, so painful for Hantalah, was interrupted by the arrival of the women of the tribe of the new Wady-Hantalah, each carrying in their hands a chosen bouquet which they offered, one after the other, to their beloved sheik. ; and in all these flowers Hantalah noticed with emotion an abundance of anemones; then, filing past him, these women sang, or, to put it better, intoned the following words, in that melancholy and plaintive mode which characterizes the airs of savage or semi-civilized peoples:
- Master ! to you this homage, to you who under the tent; Like a palm tree, shelter our misfortunes: Master! to you this bouquet that my hand presents to you. From King Nôman these are the flowers. These are the flowers of the all-powerful, magnanimous king, Who chose you to wipe away our tears: This is how Heaven, by water that revives, De Nôman reopened the flowers. Generous Hantalah, may your beautiful days Reflect the colors of these bouquets, And, for the good of all, last as many years As flowers will be born from Nôman!
Hantalah was deeply touched by this song with its sad rhythm, with graceful thoughts intended for those who made it heard, and so terrible for him with these wishes of long life. He strained himself to thank them with a faint smile. On the contrary, Hobeïbeh was delighted, and it was said everywhere that the words and the music were hers. This noise having reached Hantalah, he almost succumbed to a movement of despair: his wife, his poor wife, expressing these wishes for him at the very moment when he had to leave her to go to his death!
He had barely recovered from this poignant emotion when he heard a hasty gallop, followed by the long and rapid step of the camels: it was the fantasia, led by Amrou, spear in hand, and which, stopping his noble horse Djin in front of the embankment on which his father was sitting, began a mock fight with the camel drivers. Kafour showed himself to be the most skilful in these warlike exercises. Nothing was elegant like the young and bold Nubian, throwing the djerid with a hand sure enough to deal violent blows to his fellow combatants. Only Amrou could compete with him in grace and strength. After this desert tournament, the combatants marched past Hantalah singing the following air in a male voice, which will seem to be the virile and warlike repetition of that which the women had chanted. Also, just as this one was attributed to Hobeibeh, so the one we are about to repeat was said to have been composed by his son:
— Generous Hantalah! may these games of the spear rejoice your eyes, O you our sultan! You whose courage soars in the wake of King Nôman. He pours blessings into your benevolent hand, Who spreads them over us like the Ocean, Whose strength is all-powerful. Glory to you! Glory to King Noman! May you long days, as one splits the wave, Split the waves of sand, as well as the hurricane. And, for the happiness of this world, live as much as King Nôman!
Again these wishes for a long and happy life! it was enough to fill the soul with the bitterest pain and an irresistible despair: the sun, the last of Hantalah, was setting, and he had to hear those words of hope, those wishes that could not be accomplish ! He was plunged into such dejection that he did not see, on the side of the plain, taking shape on the purple horizon of the evening a man, a woman whose miserable dress and harassed gait could be distinguished despite the distance. The man, leaning on a stick, supported the woman with his other arm, who dragged herself along languidly. Both came straight to the new Wady-Hantalah; and when they approached the first trees which separated them from the arid solitude, the man drew from the rags which formed his belt a roll of parchment.
It was then that Hantalah was torn from his thoughts by a sharp cry, not of pain, but of joy; and at the same time Kafour, who had pushed him, jumped off his horse to run towards the two travellers.
" My father ! my mother ! my father ! my mother ! Oh ! how happy I am! What happiness, Sheik Hantalah! they are the ones! it is my mother ! This is my father ! You predicted it well! be blessed, sheik Hantalah! And each of these words was interrupted by an embrace given and drunkenly returned.
This scene of ecstasy lasted a long time; and Amrou, Hobeïbeh took part in it with all their soul, pressing in their arms the child, the father and the mother. Hantalah himself, somehow forgetting, at the sight of the happiness of this reunion, the eternal separation to which he was condemned for the next day, Hantalah rushed down from his seat to come and embrace Kafour.
“How happy I am! Kafour kept repeating. O my master! my good master! my good sheik Hantalah!
"So you are Sheik Hantalah," said Father Kafour, presenting him with his parchment. Here is what a good monk, Father Arsenios, asked us to give you.
'God be praised,' said Hantalah, 'there is still a free cabin. »
And, having unrolled the parchment, he read on it the agreed words el wefa (faith). He did not need, as we see, anything to remind him of this duty.
He immediately charged Kafour with a pleasant commission, that of installing his parents in the vacant dwelling; and Kafour, adding his blessings to those of his father and mother:
“O master! he would say to her gratefully, thanks to you, I am going to live henceforth between my father and my mother! what happiness! How sorry I would be to die now! How we will bless you and how we will ask God for a long life for you! »
All these words of gratitude were uttered sometimes by Kafour, sometimes by his father and his mother; or else they merged into a concert of praise and sincere thanks.
Hantalah could only respond with deep sighs, looking with a tender and sorry eye at Hobeïbeh and Amrou.
Kafour, overwhelmed with delight, had soon installed his father and mother in their hospitable abode. Nevertheless night had fallen during this scene, and, overwhelmed by such a long journey, the two Nubians threw themselves on their beds. But it was not to taste a long sleep: they were so agitated by the emotion of this evening, that they woke up very quickly. Kafour, hearing them moving and whispering, he who had not closed his eyes for a single moment, so delighted was he to be between his father and his mother, immediately began a conversation with them which became more and more lively. more. It was about the country of their birth, the concerns that Kafour's disappearance had given them; and then he answered them by telling them the details of his captivity, the hardships and anguish of the journey. Then his parents told him of the dangers they had run in the great desert of Nubia, in Wady-Siboua, the Valley of the Lion, and among the Ababdes; but anguish, danger, terror, nothing had stopped them, and all was forgotten as soon as they held their child in their arms.
This scene of tenderness and delight lasted until daybreak.
And what a contrast in the master's tent, only a few paces from that of the slave! Hantalah, lying but not asleep on the bed where he was to spend his supreme night, was in a torture a hundred times worse than the torture that awaited him. Beside him, Hobeïbeh and Amrou slept peacefully, while Kafour conversed, full of love, with his father and his mother. And he, he struggled against sleep: he was so afraid that a cry, uttered in a bad dream, would come to inform his wife and his son of the catastrophe of the next day! He conceived this terror even more vivid, hearing Hobeïbeh express in a laughing dream, the full extent of his happiness, and softly murmur the song in which the day before they had wished Hantalah long days.
"My dear Hantalah," she said in a low voice, "how proud you make me, and what happiness to live near you, so good, so generous and so charitable!" She thus reminded him of all that could attach him to life, of all that he had to leave when leaving it. Then he was seized with an ineffable thrill when Hobeïbeh, still in that veiled accent of dreams, called Amrou: he thought for a moment that she was waking up, and he, who wanted to escape her morning embraces, which were to be eternal, he got up hastily. Already we saw the dawn of day!
XVIII: THE FATAL DAY
Hantalah got ready to leave the tent very slowly; after having brought the lips close to the cheeks of his wife and his son, without putting them down, he contemplated in inexpressible anguish these two calm faces, which still reflected the smiling dreams, echoes of the preceding day; and he could not help shedding tears at the thought of the happiness in which Hobeïbeh and Amrou had fallen asleep. Oh the deep pain that was to follow the awakening!... The unfortunate sheik remained there in an immobility which he had not the courage to break to bid them an eternal and mute farewell!
Meanwhile, the dawn was making the thick canvas of the tent red, and casting a rosy light on Amrou's fresh face. They will wake up! said the wretched father to himself, and tearing himself from his posture of despair, after making an imperious gesture to Nabbah which commanded silence, he gently opened the door and went out to go to the stable of Djin, and run, before anyone in the camp was still up, at the hermitage of Father Arsenios.
The confidence that until then he had refused to tell the good monk, so much was he afraid of upsetting him too soon, he wanted to tell him now, in order to have him close to him when he needed help. a hand that pressed his, with a mouth that spoke to him for the last time of religion, of heaven, of God. He also wanted to recommend Hobeibeh and Amrou to him....
But no sooner had he crossed the threshold than a great noise of drums, cymbals and trumpets arose, mingled with acclamations of joy and welcome. All the men of the tribe had been gathered since dawn around the master's tent, to greet him as soon as he appeared, and to give the signal for the feast of the day.
This agreement of voices and instruments, more noisy than harmonious, awoke Amrou and Hobeibeh, and they were soon outside the tent, near Hantalah, who, while they showered him with caresses, was in a terrible agony. How to tear oneself away from these embraces? how to escape? He was surrounded by all those he could call his subjects: they were subjected to him by the sweetest of all yokes, that of gratitude. Kafour above all could not tire of thanking him, of blessing him, telling him what a happy night he had spent between his father and his mother who were also trying to show their gratitude to Hantalah.
What happiness he would have felt if he had had before him a long life to enjoy this happiness he had created; but, terrible martyrdom! he had to run to his death, and they kept him in the middle of the preparations for the feasts! And Korad, what must he be thinking?
At this very hour they were to make preparations for his execution; Korad was waiting for him... couldn't every moment of delay cast doubt on his faith?... Hantalah felt inexpressible anguish... Korad appeared to him at this moment lying on the leather carpet, under the saber of the executioner: and all his blood rushed to his heart.
Korad was not yet undergoing the ordeal to which he had given himself up in place of his friend; but the execution was already preparing. All the troops were assembled on a vast esplanade, in the center of which rose the Ghorebaïn, and King Nôman had just arrived overwhelmed under the weight of the sacrifice he was about to order; he could not, in his firm belief, escape this obligation, which, we know, he regarded as more imposing and more sacred than ever since the death of his mother, of his son, of his minister, and when his last child had just been stricken with that dreadful illness which claimed so many victims: the plague!
He therefore had Korad-ben-Adjdaa brought before him, and presented him with the stone of the oath, in exchange for which Korad gave his to the king.
Then the cymbals, mingling their slow tinkling with the long rolls of the drums, rose in a sinister signal, when Prince Ferid, to whom Noman was deeply attached, rushed from his horse and fell before Yahmoum, raising his hands towards the king. attached:
" Oh! I beg you, he cried with tears in his eyes, I implore you, wait for the sun to show itself above that hill over there; Hantalah-ben-Thai is unable to break his promise: wait..."
And just as the previous year we had waited for the victim to whom we had spared life for a year, so we were still waiting for him, but this time to be implacable.
All eyes were fixed, either on the summit of the hill, which was already beginning to light up with the rays rising to the opposite slope, or on the road which was to bring Hantalah. Ferid especially, who kept squeezing the hand of his favorite master Korad, never took his eyes off this point on the horizon. He was in a very cruel situation: forced to wish the death of Amrou's father, whom he had taken in a deep affection; but he liked Korad even better. So the unfortunate young man ran to the highest point of the fortress of Kawarnak to look there on all sides of the horizon; but he saw nothing on the plain. Nothing!... not a man, a horse, a camel, a whirlwind of dust.
This will be explained. Hantalah, increasingly tortured by the thought that Korad was exposed to dying for him by accusing him of lack of faith, quivered with impatience and anxiety, when Amrou pulled from his stable Djin to join the cavalcade that 'we were about to execute in front of the sheik, with spear, javelin and djerid. Hantalah did not hesitate a moment, and rushed like the most skilful rider on the back of the rapid animal, spurring both.
He waved his hand, and disappeared like lightning in a cloud. And when Ferid ascended the tower of Kawarnak, Hantalah had already entered the hermitage of the monk Arsenios. He ran like a madman towards the workroom below, repeating: "My father!" my father ! »
He received no response.
The workroom was empty, and a basket of rushes was there, half finished: "My father!" my father! Hantalah renewed her pleas; but there was no more response.
"My God! he exclaimed in the liveliest anguish, if he was going to be absent! I who need his last support so much! »
And, saying this, he rushed on the winding path which climbed steeply to the cell hewn in the rock, and on the threshold of which he found the charming gazelle stretched out like a dog. She greeted him with her pretty little cry, and he rushed into the cave.
Arsenios was there absorbed in front of a crucifix by a deep prayer, a prayer evidently so fervent, that a cause so holy and so pressing was needed for Hantalah to dare to withdraw him from this meditation. But time was running out: what if Korad was going to die!... Hantalah had only one thought left, Korad's salvation and sworn faith.
The monk raised his head, then his hood, which had fallen over his eyes, and turning them around him, he recognized Hantalah on his knees.
“O my father! oh my father! he said to her, squeezing her hands; come ! you must follow me immediately, you must... you must...
"What's so urgent, my son?"
"Someone needs your help!"
"A dying man?"
- A dying man.
"On your house?"
"No, no... come!... come, hurry, I beg you, hurry... You will find out as you go along..."
And, during this hurried dialogue, Hantalah dragged the monk down the steep slope in the rock, with a step that the old man only followed from a distance and with the greatest difficulty.
“O my father! let's hurry!. .. When you know what it's all about...”
Arrived on the threshold of the hermitage, Hantalah took Arsenios between his nervous arms, placed him on Djin, and, jumping behind him, he gave the runaway a new impetus; and soon the monk learned from his disciple which was the dying person to whom he was to devote his supreme care, while the rapid animal was heading, at its most frantic gallop, towards the capital of King Nôman.
All this had happened in a few moments, and Ferid, still on the high tower of Kawarnak at this moment, saw at last, with ever increasing anxiety, a whirlwind of dust running over the plain with the rapidity of a waterspout. raised by the simoun. His heart beat violently: was this finally the salvation of Korad, of his beloved master?
But the whirlwind kept growing as it approached: for Ferid, there was no longer any doubt, and, quivering with a poignant emotion, he ran into the square to meet the king. Nôman, sad and worried, for he also loved Korad, looked alternately at the emir and at the top of the mountain where the disc of the sun was beginning to show itself. Making an effort on himself, he was about to give the signal for execution, when Ferid, all out of breath, appeared before the king crying:
“Stop! stop! here is the victim!..."
All eyes then turned to the road that Ferid was showing, and where nothing was yet to be seen.
"What's the use of waiting? said Noman; Hantalah, become rich, husband of a beloved wife, father of an adored son, surrounded by the blessings of all, how could he voluntarily renounce life? No, no, Hantalah will not come, and my oath must be fulfilled. »
Korad, impassive before the preparations for execution, had not for a moment doubted his friend's faith; but he wondered and wondered what invincible obstacle could have stopped him. It had been only a month since he had left her. The Wady-Hantalali was then an earthly paradise for all, except for the one who spread there the treasures of his ardent charity.
Suddenly, in the midst of the anxious silence which had followed the king's words, the sound of a horse galloping was heard, and in a moment quicker than thought, Djin appeared to the silent crowd was open to give him a passage. With a single leap she found herself in the center of the esplanade, and one could then see, in the midst of the clouds of vapor which enveloped this sudden apparition, the venerable figure of Father Arsenios, whom Hantalah, already on the ground, was helping to dismount from his mount.
Almost immediately Hantalah hugged his friend, while Arsenios, trembling with emotion, staggered towards the king. At the sight of this noble face which told of all the days of a holy life, Nôman, struck with an involuntary respect, turned towards the officers who surrounded him, as if to ask who this old man was.
Father Arsenios was known to many of the inhabitants of Hira: all those who had gone to find him on the day of affliction had never left him without bringing back consolations and relief. For those who suffered from poverty, he opened his generous hand which had collected alms. For the sufferings of the body, he had remedies also, because he had studied medicine and knew simple ones which could cure; finally, for the sufferings of the soul, Arsenios had words full of sweetness and kindness, words which are the alms of the heart, and whose source is inexhaustible.
His name began to circulate in the crowd, and it reached the ears of the king, to whom he was not unknown. At the same time as the venerable old man, Hantalah and Korad, holding each other in embrace, also approached Nôman, and bowed before him.
It had been a little over a year since Arsenios and Korad had met in search of Hantalah, and today the three of them met again at that supreme hour when the superstition of Korad-ben-Adj-daa reminded him of the cry he had heard in the desert: the cry of the death owl!...
XIX: TROUBLE AND DESOLATION IN WADY-HANTALAH
The moment Hantalah lunged at Djin, all eyes turned to him and followed him with powerful interest. Each believed that he wanted to show the entire colony that he could still trump in strength, agility, and skill the most dexterous, nimble, and strongest.
But when he was seen leaving the wady, disappearing and never coming back, anxiety soon succeeded to astonishment and seized all hearts... What could have happened to the revered sheik that each member of the tribe loved like a father?...
In a moment trouble had taken the place of joy, the more timid looked questioningly at each other, while the others were already running towards the point where Hantalah had disappeared to try to see him again; it was in vain that the practiced eyes of the Arabs wandered over the sea of sand; and, like Ferid on the tower of Kawarnak, they saw nothing: not a man, a horse, a camel, a whirlwind of dust, nothing but the sun rising on the horizon; and when they re-entered the wady, consternation was painted on all faces.
Hobeibeh was the first to be surprised and worried when she saw her husband disappear and never return. Soon this anxiety knew no bounds; his heartbeat was suspended; all that remained of life in her had gone into her thoughts... An idea had just seized her!... Korad's absence, the sadness she would have noticed on her husband's face, had she had thought it possible, the gesture he had made on leaving, everything that had eluded him up to then came back to her at that hour of anguish, and revealed to her a mystery... In a month, had they they both said... What had happened between the two friends?... And when, the day before, Hobeibeh had expressed to Hantalah his astonishment at not seeing Korad, he had replied that a more solemn promise doubtless held him back... And Hantalah had left... to join him perhaps?...
But Hantalah had never had a secret from Hobeibeh... he filled her soul with terror and despair, and she had fallen on her knees, lifting up her joined hands to the Almighty, and praying to him with her heart, for her trembling lips could no longer articulate a word, to divert from her the unhappiness she felt without being able to measure its scope. And this mute pain of Hobeibeh had only increased the general anxiety.
Meanwhile Amrou and Kafour, who first, and followed by the faithful Nabbah, had rushed to the edge of the wady, plunged their eagle gazes into space; but they too saw nothing! ... The wind, blowing its breath over the desert sand, had promptly erased the traces of Djin's rapid passage.
" Where is the master? where is the master, Nabbah? look for! look for ! cried Amrou in the most emotional voice.
The faithful animal looked at Amrou, as if he understood and shared his concern; he began to lengthen his muzzle in all directions. A moment is enough for his instinct to make him discover the route followed by Hantalah and Djin. He jumped after the two young people, as if to attract their attention, and, turning his eyes alternately towards them and in the direction of the hermitage of Father Arsenios, he began to run and gambol happily, then returning towards them, as if to invite them to follow him.
Amrou and Kafour interpreted this language well, they did not hesitate; they returned to seek mounts, and, preceded by their intelligent and affectionate guide, they traversed like an arrow the distance which separated them from the hermitage. Nabbah, still ahead, entered it first; but, while Amrou and Kafour tied up their horses, Nabbah reappeared without showing any sign of the joy he would have shown if he had found his master.
Nevertheless Amrou and Kafour entered in their turn the hermitage; they called, as Hantalah had done a few moments before. Like him, they saw the rush basket which bore witness to the monk's recent presence in the cave; but we know that no voice could answer them, since Arsenios and Hantalah were at that very moment before Nôman.
Zebou alone, still lying at the entrance to the cave, greeted them with her soft and graceful cry.
" Oh ! my God ! Oh ! my God ! where can my father be? cried Amrou, his hands clasped and in an accent of despair. Will I have to go back to my mother without him? »
Amrou was torn between the thought of his absent father and his mother whom he had left in such deep pain. What to do? What to solve? what to say to Hobeibeh, whom he had seen so unhappy, and whose anxiety he was going to increase by reappearing before her without a single consoling clue?
Despair was about to penetrate that young heart, when Amrou's eyes fell on the crucifix of Father Arsenios; he fell on his knees, and Kafour, who was also a Christian (his name says it), Kafour imitated his young master; both addressed a fervent prayer to God, and both arose strengthened. It was Kafour who was the first to break the silence, in this sanctuary which inspired the two young people with holy respect.
“Master,” he said, “God, who gave me back my father and my mother, will not take away our beloved sheik; let's go back to Hobeibeh; she must not be deprived of both her husband and her son at the same time!... Who would be there to console her?... No, no, let's go back to the wady... and then, who knows? ... perhaps the sheik has returned there?... Let's all leave, and if Hantalah has not returned, Kafour swears to it, he will not reappear before you until he has found his master!»
The two young people again prostrated themselves before the sign of our redemption, and, after having crossed the deserted hermitage in pious silence, resumed the road to the wady; but Nabbab only seemed to follow them reluctantly, and he always looked back.
XX: THE CONVERSION
While Amrou and Kafour sadly resume the road to the wady, a scene full of grandeur and emotion takes place on the Place des Ghorebaïn, and the crowd itself, by its attitude, testifies to its anxiety. Hantalah and Korad are there before the king.
“O king! said Hantalah, here I am; I come to free my friend's word, I bring you my head! »
But Arsenios, who had also approached the king, stretching out his hand as if to push Hantalah aside, made a sign that he wanted to speak.
“Old man, what do you want from me? said Noman; the reputation of your virtue and your benefits has come to me, my ear is ready to hear you. Speak: what can I do for you? »
Arsenios bowed to the king.
“O king! he said with a voice trembling with emotion; I come to ask you for the life of this man: let Hantalah live, give him back to his wife, to his son, to the tribe of which he is the father. I ask you this in the name of divine mercy, which we all need. »
Nôman was visibly moved; his heart was beginning to soften, struck as he had been so recently in everything he held dear. Nevertheless his emotion was so strongly combated by the superstitions of his childhood and of his whole life, that he overcame it.
“Old man, what are you asking me? he said to Arsenios; don't you know that an oath is a sacred thing? Already, for having delayed fulfilling my promise, the vengeance of Heaven has weighed down on me. It was she who took away my mother and my youngest son; it is she who took from me the firmest support of my throne, the wise Hakim; and, at this hour, my youngest son, the heir to the throne, is himself afflicted with a dreadful illness... At this hour I may no longer have a son!...
“O king! resumed Arsenios with the persuasive sweetness which flowed from his lips and had its ineffable source in his heart and in his faith, do you think of warding off the blows of divine justice by committing a new crime? And don't you know that the clouds from which lightning comes are formed from the tears of the innocent?
"Old man, I told you, I swore by blood!"
"And you could keep that horrible oath!" and you could lay your hand on your guest!... Such an oath is sacrilege, it outrages the Almighty... Renounce such a cruel error, open your eyes to true faith!... It commands you to clemency, and here it is not even clemency, but justice... O my God! said the holy monk, raising his eyes to heaven, in which shone a tear, oh my God! inspire me; teach me the words that will touch the king's heart. »
Then addressing Nôman:
“Who is the god you serve to offer him such gifts! Forsake a lying cult, pay homage to our God. The God of Christians is a God of love and mercy, he gave his blood to redeem our souls; the abode of his grace is everywhere, and its doors are open to all; he will forgive your repentance; the tears of repentance are the only sacrifice pleasing in his eyes. »
Nôman's face alternately expressed doubt, irresolution and tenderness; he was overwhelmed by the words of the holy monk. Was the light beginning to penetrate his heart? Arsenios hoped so; and encouraged by the king's silence, exalted by his charity, he dared to go still further:
“You mourn the death of your mother! you accuse celestial vengeance; but if you looked within yourself, you would perhaps find that it was you who killed her by the incessant wounds you made in her heart. How many prayers she has addressed to you in vain! how many tears she shed over this cruel oath which could still urge you today to lay your hand on an innocent!...on your guest!...Your son, you say, is stricken with a dreadful and incomprehensible; before abandoning him to fate, which is only the impotence of ignorance, let me see him; I will try to cure him... If my efforts are sterile, bend your forehead under divine justice. »
But the king still remained silent.
“And if I could not touch your heart with my prayers and save you from a new, horrible crime, if you absolutely need a victim, take my life and spare Hantalah's. I am nearing the end of my career; by hitting me, you will only hit me; by striking Hantalah, you reach an entire tribe.
"What are you saying, father?" cried Hantalah, placing herself in front of Arsenios, as if to cover him with her body. No, no, my father, your precious life must be preserved for the service of God and the salvation of souls; it is I who am the victim devoted to the sacrifice... King Nôman, order my execution, I am ready to die. »
But Arsenios still insisted on dying instead of Hantalah. It was then that Nôman, unable to resist this generous combat, and driven by an invincible drive, exclaimed:
“You conquered me, old man, by so much virtue and generosity! Yes, I swear it, your God will be my God, your law will be my law; I am Christian ! Not only do I grant you the life of Hantalah; but I place mine in your hands. Keep enlightening my heart; you will not have a more fervent disciple than me. To expiate my crimes I will follow you in your desert; I for ever abandon the throne and its greatness. »
So speaking, Nôman stripped himself of the scepter and the crown; he sprang from his horse and fell at the knees of the holy monk, who poured the water of baptism on the king's forehead.
While Arsenios, moved to tears, had sought in his heart the words that could soften the king's heart, in the mute and attentive crowd all the souls seemed to hang on the lips of the holy man, and to aspire that divine faith that the venerable Arsenios had spread throughout the country. At that moment his noble face had something more than human: faith, hope and charity were depicted there with such infectious and stirring energy, that at the moment when Nôman uttered these words: "I am Christian! all prostrated themselves at the same time and repeated: "I am a Christian!" »
What a victory for the good monk! with what tenderness he called Nôman: my son, and clasped him in his arms! It was not only the life of Hantalah that he had obtained, he had just conquered a large number of souls for heaven! At this blessed hour he reaped the fruit of his gentle and persevering virtues, and the harvest was still more abundant, not that he had desired it, but that he could ever hope for it. Arsenios recognized here as everywhere the divine grace which had led and supported him, and with what fervor he thanked the Almighty!
For Hantalah, his ardent charity played such a large part in this immense conversion that he almost forgot that he could still hug his wife, his son, that he could see his dear wady again, and continue to spread the lights of faith on all those whom he had gathered there. Nothing can give an idea of the touching spectacle offered at this hour by the Place des Ghorebaïn, a few moments before destined for such a horrible sacrifice. Arsenios kissed Hantalah and Korad; he blessed the crowd which pressed on his steps; he had sweet words for all, and his noble face shone with holy joy, while Nôman, entirely devoted to his new faith, returned to his palace for the last time.
After kissing Arsenios again, who promised to see him again soon, Hantalah, accompanied by Korad-ben-Adjdaa, prepared to leave Hira. He was in a hurry to see Hobeibeh, whose uneasiness he imagined. Poor Hobeibeh! he said to himself, what must she not have suffered during this inexplicable absence for her! But also how happy the whole tribe would be when they learned of the danger Hantalah had just escaped!
The two friends, preoccupied with the same thoughts, braved the heat of the day which changed the sea of sand into a furnace, and both, without losing a moment, regained the wady, and arrived there at the very moment when Kafour was about to start looking for of his beloved sheik. His father and his mother showered him with caresses and benedictions: this new separation was very painful to them; but gratitude made it a law for them to suffer it, and they did not even dream of complaining about it. They too had only one thought, and this thought was in everyone's heart: to know what had become of Hantalah and to see him again.
Amrou would have liked to accompany Kafour; but he could not leave his mother, and Kafour, trusting in the divine goodness, which he had experienced so much; was about to leave with a heart full of hope and courage, when a cry of joy flew from mouth to mouth:
" It's him! here it is! it's the sheik! God be praised and blessed! There he is, our good sheik! Hantalah is back! »
Kafour jumped and frolicked, kissed his master's hands, and exclaimed, addressing Hobeïbeh and Amrou:
" Oh ! I told you that God would give it back to us! »
What expressions could paint the joy and the religious tenderness which filled the soul of Hantalah, at this hour when he clasped in his arms Hobeïbeh and Amrou, whom he did not think he would see again! He enjoyed an unalloyed happiness that he hadn't known for a long time. Hobeibeh, forgetting the habitual calm and dignity of the Arabs, was wild with joy; she kissed her husband, and while pressing him with questions to find out how he had left without saying a word, how he had come back at this time of day, covered in sweat and dust, she invited the two friends to come and rest in the tent. and to take the refreshments they so badly needed. Korad's presence showed her that she hadn't been mistaken in assuming a date; but why this mystery which had plunged them all into such cruel anxiety?
"Woman," said Hantalah finally, "let us begin by thanking the Almighty, who showered us with his graces and who allows me to come back to you today!" »
At these words Hobeïbeh and Amrou understood that a great danger had threatened Hantalah; they prostrated themselves to pray with him; and when they arose, Hobeïbeh learned what frightful misfortune she had escaped, thanks to God and to Father Arsenios; his heart beat so violently that it seemed on the point of escaping from his chest; tears of dread flooded her face, and she began to hug Hantalah again, as if still afraid of losing him; then she also began again to address her thanksgiving to the Almighty, as she had addressed her prayers to him in affliction.
Korad-ben-Adjdaa, who was laughing today at the cry of the death owl in the desert, then proposed to continue the interrupted party, and, when the sun went down behind the palm trees which extended their shadow over the wady , she was taken up again with a joy and enthusiasm all the greater as the anxiety had been more cruel.
This time Hantalah listened with a happiness exempt from any sinister thought the couplets made by Hobeïbeh, and all these wishes of long life repeated with the accent of the heart by the whole tribe. Only one person was missing from the party to make it complete: it was Father Arsenios.
Arsenios had not wanted to leave his new disciple; he wished to see the son of Noman, to try to cure him, and to defend the king against influences which might have shaken his holy resolution; but nothing of the sort was to be feared for Nôman, his fervor was far from slowing down; at the moment when faith had illumined his soul, he had been seized with an immense repentance, and with an equal desire to make reparation, as much as possible, and to expiate his crimes. So, the day after this memorable day, he assembled the officers of his household, and having had his treasure, which was considerable, brought to him, he poured it all out on the poor, having made a vow of poverty for him. Then he regulated with the greatest care all the affairs of the kingdom; and, having had the joy of seeing his son reborn to health, he gave him the crown in the presence of the whole army and all the nobles of Hira.
After having thus provided for all that could ensure the peace and security of the country, he took the pilgrim's staff; and one could then have seen him who for so long had dazzled by the brilliance of his power, and made all those who approached him tremble by the violence of his passions, alone and humbly dressed, leave the palace before daybreak. and proceed through the city.
When he arrived at this place of Ghorebaïn, where the bed of anemones shone more brightly than ever under the first rays of a rising sun, Nôman stopped and contemplated with tears these monuments which remained standing as if to eternalize the memory. of his crimes!... But, confident in his new faith, he knelt down, prayed with all the fervor of his soul, and, having risen, he took a last look at the city he was abandoning forever. ; he left it by the same door by which Hantalah had entered it, and plunged into the desert.