Adapted from the translation of Emily Mary Waller and Louise Paul found in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1905. For educational use only.
On the 21st of May, 18—, we returned to Tlemeen. The expedition had been a fortunate one: we brought back oxen, sheep, goats, prisoners and hostages.
After a thirty-seven days’ campaign, or rather of incessant hunt, our horses were thin and lean-ribbed, but their eyes were still lively and full of fire; not one was saddle-galled. We men were bronzed by the sun, our hair was long, our cross-belts were dirty, and our waistcoats were worn to threads; we all presented that appearance of indifference to danger and hardship which characterizes the true soldier.
What general would not have chosen our light cavalry for a battle-charge rather than the smartest of squadrons all decked out in new clothes?
Since morning I had thought of all the little pleasures that awaited me.
Now I should sleep in my iron bedstead, after having slept for thirty-seven nights on a square of oilcloth. I should sit on a chair to take my dinner, and should have as much soft bread and salt as I liked. Next I wondered to myself whether Mademoiselle Coucha would wear a pomegranate flower or jessamine in her hair, and if she had kept the vows made when I left; but, faithful or inconstant, I knew she could reckon on the great depth of tenderness that a man brings home from the wilds. There was not anyone in our squadron who had not made plans for the evening.
The colonel received us in a most fatherly manner, and even told us he was satisfied with us; then he took our commanding officer aside and for five minutes, and in low tones, communicated to him some not very agreeable intelligence, so far as we could judge from their expressions.
We noticed the movements of the colonel’s moustaches, which rose up to his eyebrows, whilst those of the commandant fell, piteously out of curl, almost on to his breast. A young trooper whom I pretended not to hear, maintained that the commandant’s nose stretched as far as one could see; but very soon ours lengthened too, for the commandant came to tell us to “Go and feed your horses, and be ready to set off at sunset! The officers will dine with the colonel at five o’clock, in the open; the horses must be mounted after the coffee. . . . Is it possible that you are not pleased at this, gentlemen! . . .”
It did not suit us, and we saluted in silence, inwardly sending him to all the devils we could think of, and the colonel into the bargain.
We had very little time in which to make our small preparations. I hurried to change my dress, and, when I had done this, I was wise enough not to sit in my easy-chair, for fear I should fall asleep.
At five o’clock I went to the colonel’s. He lived in a large Moorish house. I found the open court filled with French and natives, all crowding round a band of pilgrims or mountebanks who had come from the South.
An old man conducted the performance; he was as ugly as a monkey and half naked, under his burnous, which was full of holes. His skin was the colour of chocolate made of water; he was tattooed all over with scars; his hair was frizzy and so matted that from a distance one might have thought he had a bearskin cap on his head; and his beard was white and bristly. He was reputed to be a great saint and a great wizard.
In front of him an orchestra, composed of two flutes and three tambourines, made an infernal din, worthy of the performance about to be played. He said that he had received complete sway over demons and wild beasts from a famous Mahomedan priest, and, after some compliments addressed to the colonel and the élite audience, he went off into a sort of prayer or incantation, accompanied by his orchestra, whilst the actors danced to his command, turned on one foot, and struck their breasts heavy blows with their fists.
Meanwhile the tambourines and flutes increased their din and played faster and faster. When exhaustion and giddiness had made these people lose what few brains they had, the chief sorcerer drew several scorpions and serpents from some baskets round him, and, after showing that they were full of life, he threw them to his jesters, who fell upon them like dogs on a bone, and tore them to pieces with their teeth, if you please!
We looked down on this extraordinary spectacle from a high gallery; no doubt the colonel treated us to it to give us a good appetite for our dinner. As for myself, I turned my eyes away from these beasts, who disgusted me, and amused myself by staring at a pretty girl of thirteen or fourteen years of age, who had threaded through the crowd to get nearer to the performance.
She had the most beautiful eyes imaginable, and her hair fell on her shoulders in fine tresses; these ended in small pieces of silver, which made a tinkling sound as she moved her head gracefully about. She was dressed with more taste than most of the girls of that country; she had a kerchief of silk and gold on her head, a bodice of embroidered velvet, and short pantaloons of blue satin, showing her bare legs encircled with silver anklets. There was not a vestige of veil over her face. Was she a Jewess or a heathen or did she perhaps belong to those wandering tribes of unknown origins who never trouble themselves with religious prejudice?
Whilst I followed her every movement with so much interest she had arrived at the first row of the circle where the fanatics carried on their exercises.
While she was trying to get still nearer she knocked over a narrow-bottomed basket that had not been opened. Almost at the same time the sorcerer and the child both uttered a terrible cry, and there was a great commotion in the ring, everyone recoiling with horror.
A very big snake had escaped from the basket and the little girl had trodden on it. In an instant the reptile had curled itself around her leg and I saw several drops of blood ooze from under the ring that she wore around her ankle. She fell down backwards, crying, and grinding her teeth, while her lips were covered with a white foam, and she rolled in the dust.
“Run! run, doctor!” I cried out to our surgeon-major; “for the love of Heaven save the poor child.”
“Greenhorn!” the major replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Do you not see that it is part of the programme? Moreover, my trade is to cut off your arms and legs. It is the business of my colleague down below there to cure girls who are bitten by snakes.” In the meantime the old wizard had run up, and his first care was to posses himself of the snake.
“Djoûmane! Djoûmane!” he said to it in a tone of friendly reproach. The serpent uncoiled itself, quitted its prey, and started to crawl away. The sorcerer nimbly seized it by the end of its tail, and, holding it at arm’s length, he went around the circle exhibiting the reptile, which bit and hissed without being able to stand erect.
You know that a snake held by his tail does not know in the least what to do with himself. He can only raise himself a quarter of his length, and can not therefore bite the hand of the person who seizes him.
The next minute the serpent was put back in his basket and the lid firmly tied down. The magician then turned his attention to the little girl, who shrieked and kicked about all the time. He put a pinch of white powder, which he drew from his girdle, on the wound, and whispered an incantation in the child’s ear, with unexpected results. The convulsions ceased; the little girl wiped her mouth, picked up her silk handkerchief, shook the dust off it, put it on her head again, rose up, and soon after went away.
Shortly after she came up to our gallery to collect money, and we fastened on her forehead and shoulders many fifty-centime coins.
This ended the performance, and we sat down to dinner.
I was very hungry, and was preparing to do justice to a splendid Tartary eel, when our doctor, by whom I sat, said that he recognised the snake of the preceding moment. That made it quite impossible for me to touch a mouthful.
At first making great fun of my fastidiousness the doctor annexed my share of the eel, and declared that snake tasted delicious.
“Those brutes you saw just now,” he said to me, “are connoisseurs. They live in caverns with their serpents as the Troglodytes do; their girls are pretty—witness the little girl in blue knickerbockers. No one knows what their religion is, but they are a cunning lot, and I should like to make the acquaintance of their sheik.”
We learnt during dinner why we were to recommence the campaign. Sidi-Lala, hotly pursued by Colonel R—, was trying to reach the mountains of Morocco.
There was choice of two routes: one to the south of Tlemcen, fording the Moulaïa, at the only place not rendered inaccessible by rocks; the other by the plain, to the north of our cantonment; where we should find our colonel and the bulk of the regiment.
Our squadron was ordered to stop him at the river crossing if he attempted it, but this was scarcely likely.
You know that the Maulaïa flows between two walls of rock, and there is but a single point, like a kind of very narrow breach, where horses can ford it. I knew the place well, and I did not understand why a blockhouse had not been raised there before. At all events, the colonel had every chance of encountering the enemy, and we of making a useless journey. Before the conclusion of dinner several orderlies from Maghzen had brought despatches from Colonel R—. The enemy had made a stand, and seemed to want to fight. They had lost time. Colonel R—’s infantry had come up and routed them.
But where had they escaped to? We knew nothing at all, and must decide which of the two routes to take. I have not mentioned the last resource that could be taken, viz. to drive them into the desert, where his herds and camp would very soon die of hunger and thirst. Signals were agreed upon to warn us of the enemy’s movements.
Three cannon-shots from Tlemcen would tell us that Sidi-Lala was visible in the plain, and we should carry rockets with us in case we had to let them know that we needed reinforcements. In all probability the enemy could not show itself before daybreak, and our two columns had several hours’ start. Night had fallen by the time we got to horse. I commanded the advance guard platoon. I felt tired and cold; I put on my cloak, turned up the collar, thrust my feet far into my stirrups, and rode quietly to my mare’s long-striding walk, listening absently to Quartermaster Wagner’s stories about his love affairs, which unluckily ended by the flight of an infidel, who had run off with not only his heart, but a silver watch and a pair of new boots. I had heard this history before, and it appeared even longer than usual.
The moon rose as we started on our way. The sky was clear, but a light, white mist had come up since sundown, and skimmed the ground, which looked as though it were covered with down. On this white background the moon threw long shadows, and everything took on a fantastic air. Very soon I thought I saw Arab mounted sentries. As I came nearer I found they were tamarisks in flower. Presently I stopped short, for I thought I heard the cannon-shot signal. Wagner told me it was the sound of a horse galloping.
We reached the fort and the commandant made his preparations.
The place was very easy to defend, and our squadron would have been sufficient to hold back a considerable force. Complete solitude reigned on the other side of the river.
After a pretty long wait, we heard the gallop of a horse, and soon an Arab came in sight mounted on a magnificent animal and riding towards us. By his straw hat crowned with ostrich plumes, and by his embroidered saddle from which hung a gebira ornamented with coral and chased with gold flowers, we recognised that he was a chief; our guide told us it was Sidi-Lala himself. He was a fine-looking and well-built young man, who managed his horse admirably. He put it at a gallop, threw his long gun up in the air and caught it again, shouting at us unintelligible terms of defiance.
The days of chivalry are over, and Wagner called for a gun to take the marabout down a peg, as he called it; but I objected, yet, so that it should not be said that the French refused to fight at close quarters with an Arab, I asked the commandant for leave to go through the ford and cross swords with Sidi-Lala. Permission was granted me, and I was soon over the river where the enemy’s chief was trotting a little way off, and taking stock of things. Directly he saw I was across he ran upon me and aimed with his gun.
“Take care!” cried Wagner.
I am rarely afraid of a horseman’s shot, and after the tricks he had just played with it I thought that Sidi-Lala’s gun could not be in a condition to fire. And in fact he pulled the trigger when he was only three paces from me, but the gun missed fire, as I had expected. Soon he turned his horse round so rapidly that instead of planting my saber in his breast I only caught his floating burnous.
But I pressed him close, keeping him always on my right and beating him back, whether he was willing or not, towards the steep declivities which edged the river. He tried in vain to turn aside, but I pressed him closer and closer. After several moments of frantic effort, suddenly I saw his horse rear and the rider drew rein with both hands. Without stopping to ask myself why he made such a strange movement I was on him like a shot, and I pierced him with my blade, right in the centre of his back, my horse’s roof striking his left thigh at the same time. Man and horse disappeared, and my mare and I fell after them.
Without perceiving it we had reached the edge of the precipice and were hurled over it. . . . While I was yet in the air—so rapid is thought!—I remembered that the body of the Arab would break my fall. I could distinctly see under me a white burnous with a large red patch on it, and I should fall on it, head or tail.
It was not such a terrible leap as I feared, thanks to the water being high; I went in over head and ears and sputtered for an instant quite stunned, and I do not know quite how I found myself standing in the middle of the tall reeds at the river’s edge.
I knew nothing of what had become of Sidi-Lala and the horses. I was dripping and shivering in the mud, between two walls of rock. I took a few steps forward, hoping to find a place where the declivity was less steep; but the further I advanced the more abrupt and inaccessible it looked.
Suddenly I heard above my head the sound of horses’ hoofs and the jangling of sabers against stirrups and spurs; it was evidently our squadron. I wanted to cry out, but not a sound would come out of my throat; I must in my fall have broken my ribs.
Imagine the situation I was in. I heard the voices of our men and recognised them, and I could not call them to my aid.
“If he had let me do that,” old Wagner was saying, “he would have lived to be made colonel.” The sound soon lessened and died away, and I heard it no more.
Above my head hung a great branch, and I hoped by seizing this to hoist myself up above the banks of the river. With a desperate effort I sprang up, and . . . crack! . . . the branch twisted and escaped from my hands with a frightful hissing. . . . It was an enormous snake. . . .
I fell into the water; the serpent glided between my legs and shot into the river, where it seemed to leave a trail of fire. . . .
A moment later I had regained my sang-froid and the fire-light had not disappeared: it still trembled on the water. I saw it was the reflection from a torch. A score of steps from me a woman was filling a pitcher at the river with one hand, and in the other she held a lighted piece of resined wood. She had no idea I was there; she placed the pitcher coolly upon her head and, torch in hand, disappeared among the rushes. I followed her and found I was at the entrance to a cave.
The woman advanced very quietly and mounted a very steep incline; it was a sort of staircase cut out of the face of an immense hall. By torchlight I saw the threshold of this great hall, which did not quite reach the level of the river; but I could not judge of its full extent. Without quite knowing what I did, I entered the slope after the young woman who carried the torch, and followed her at a distance. Now and again her light disappeared behind some cavity of the rocks, but I soon found her again.
I thought I could make out, too, the gloomy openings of great galleries leading into the principal room. It looked like a subterranean town with streets and squares. I stopped short, deeming it dangerous to venture alone into that vast labyrinth.
Suddenly one of the galleries below me was lit up brilliantly, and I saw a great number of torches, which appeared to come out of the sides of the rocks as though they formed a great procession. At the same time a monotonous chanting rose up, which recalled the singing of the Arabs as they recited their prayers. Soon I could distinguish a vast multitude advancing slowly. At their head stepped a black man, almost naked, his head covered with an enormous mass of stubbly hair. His white beard fell on his breast, and contrasted with the brown colour of his chest, which was gashed with bluish-tinted tattooing. I quickly recognised the sorcerer of the previous evening, and, soon after, saw the little girl near him who had played the part of Eurydice, with her fine eyes, and her silk pantaloons, and the embroidered handkerchief on her head.
Women and children and men of all ages followed them, all holding torches, all dressed in strange costumes of vivid colour, with trailing skirts and high caps, some made of metal, which reflected the light from the torches on all sides.
The old sorcerer stopped exactly below me, and the whole procession with him. The silence was profound. I was twenty feet above him, protected by great stones, from behind which I hoped to see everything without being perceived. At the feet of the old man I noticed a large slab of stone, almost round, with an iron ring in the centre.
He pronounced some words in a tongue unknown to me, which I felt sure was neither Arabic nor Kabylic. A rope and pulleys, hung from somewhere, fell at his feet; several of the assistants attached it to the ring, and at a given signal twenty stalwart arms all pulled at the stone simultaneously. It seemed of great weight, but they raised it and put it to one side.
I then saw what looked like the opening down a well, the water of which was at least a yard from the top. Water, did I say? I do not know what the frightful liquid was; it was covered over with an iridescent film, disturbed and broken in places, and showing a hideous black mud beneath.
The sorcerer stood in the midst of the gathered crowd, near the kerbstone which surrounded the well, his left hand on the little girl’s head; with his right he made strange gestures, whilst uttering a kind of incantation.
From time to time he raised his voice as though he were calling someone. “Djoûmane! Djoûmane!” he cried; but no one came. None the less he went on making raucous cries which did not seem to come from a human throat, and rolled his eyes and ground his teeth. The mummeries of this old rascal incensed and filled me with indignation; I felt tempted to hurl a stone at his head that I had ready to hand. When he had yelled the name of Djoûmane for the thirtieth time or more, I saw the iridescent film over the well shake, and at this sign the whole crowd flung itself back; the old man and the little girl alone remained by the side of the hole.
Suddenly there was a great bubbling of the bluish mud from the well, and out of this mud came the head of an enormous snake, of livid grey colour, with phosphorescent eyes. . . .
Involuntarily I leapt backwards. I heard a little cry and the sound of some heavy body falling into the water. . . .
When perhaps a tenth of a second later I again looked below I saw the sorcerer stood alone by the well-side; the water was still bubbling, and in the middle of what remained of the iridescent scum there floated the kerchief which had covered the little girl’s hair. . . .
Already the stone was being moved, and it glided into its place over the aperture of the horrible gulf. Then all the torches were simultaneously extinguished, and I remained in the darkness in the midst of such a profound silence that I could distinctly hear my own heart beat. . . .
When I had recovered a little from this ghastly scene I wanted to quit the cavern, vowing that if I succeeded in rejoining my comrades, I would return to exterminate the abominable denizens of those quarters, men and serpents.
But the pressing question was how to find my way out. I had come, I believed, a hundred feet into the cave, keeping the rock wall on my right.
I turned half round, but saw no light which might indicate the entrance to the cavern; furthermore, it did not extend in a straight line, and, besides, I had climbed up all the time from the river’s edge. I groped along the rock with my left hand, and sounded the ground with the sword which I held in my right, advancing slowly and cautiously. For a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes . . . possibly for half an hour, I walked without being able to find the way I came in.
I was seized with apprehension. Had I entered unconsciously some side gallery instead of returning the way I had at first taken? . . .
I went on all the time groping along the rock, when in place of the cold stone I felt a curtain, which yielded to my touch and let out a ray of light. Redoubling my precaution, I drew the curtain noiselessly aside and found myself in a little passage which led to a well-lighted room. The door was open, and I saw that the room was hung with silk tapestry, embroidered with flowers and gold. I noticed a Turkey carpet and the end of a velvet-covered divan. On the carpet was a narghile of silver and several perfume-burners. In short, it was an apartment sumptuously furnished in Arabian taste.
I approached with stealthy tread till I reached the door; a young woman squatted on the divan, and near her was a little low table of inlaid wood, which held a large silver-gilt tray full of cups and flagons and bouquets of flowers.
On entering this subterranean boudoir I felt quite intoxicated by the most exquisite perfume.
Everything in this retreat breathed voluptuousness; on every side I saw the glitter of gold and sumptuous materials, and varied colourings and rare flowers. The young woman did not notice me at first; she held her head down and fingered the yellow amber beads of a long necklace, absorbed in meditation. She was divinely beautiful. Her features were like those of the unfortunate child I had just seen, but more finely formed, more regular and more voluptuous. As black as a raven’s wing, her hair was
It fell over her shoulders to the divan and almost to the carpet under her feet. A gown of transparent silk in broad stripes showed her splendid arms and neck. A bodice of velvet braided with gold enclosed her figure, and her short blue satin knickerbockers revealed a marvellously tiny foot, from which hung a gold-worked Turkish slipper which she danced up and down gracefully and whimsically.
My boots creaked, and she raised her head and saw me.
Without being disturbed or showing the least surprise at seeing a stranger with a sword in his hand in her room, she clapped her hands gleefully and beckoned me to come nearer. I saluted her by placing my hand first on my heart and then on my head to show her I was acquainted with Mahomedan etiquette. She smiled, and with both hands she put aside her hair which covered the divan—this was to tell me to take a seat by her side. I thought all the spices of Araby pervaded those beautiful locks.
I modestly seated myself at the extreme end of the divan, inwardly vowing I would very soon go much nearer to her. She took a cup from the tray, and holding it by the filigree handle she poured out some frothed coffee, and after touching it lightly with her lips she offered it to me.
“Ah, Roumi! Roumi! . . .” she said. “Shall we not kill the vermin, lieutenant? . . .”
At these words I opened my eyes as wide as saucers. This young lady had an enormous mustache, and was the living image of Quartermaster Wagner. . . . And it was indeed Wagner who stood over me with a cup of coffee, whilst, pillowed on my horse’s neck, I stared at him wildly.
“It appears we have had a nap, all the same, lieutenant. We are at the ford, and the coffee is boiling.”