The Truants

Chapter XXVII


A.E.W. Mason

THERE ARE two cities of Fez. One is the city of the narrow, crowded streets, where the cry, “Balak! Balak!”1 resounds all day. Streets, one terms them, since they are the main thoroughfares through which all the merchandise of Morocco passes out to the four quarters of the compass; but they are no wider than the alley-ways of an English village, and in many places a man may stand in the centre and touch the wall on either side. These streets are paved with big cobblestones, but the stones are broken and displaced by the tramp of centuries. If mended at all, they are mended with a millstone or any chance slab of rock; but for the most part they are left unmended altogether. For that is the fashion in Morocco. There they build and make, and they do both things beautifully and well. But they seldom finish; in a house, dainty with fountains and arabesques and coloured tiles, you will still find a corner uncompleted, a pillar which lacks the delicate fluting of the other pillars, an embrasure for a clock half ornamented with gold filagree, and half left plain. And if they seldom finish, they never by any chance repair. The mansion is built and decorated within; artists fit the tiles together in a mosaic of cool colours, and carve, and gild, and paint the little pieces of cedar-wood, and glue them into the light and pointed arches; the rich curtains are hung, and the master enters into his possession. There follows the procession of the generations. The tiles crack, the woodwork of the arches splits and falls, and the walls break and crumble. The householder sits indifferent, and the whole house corrodes. So, in the narrow streets, holes gape, and the water wears a channel where it wills, and the mud lies thick and slippery on the rounded stones; the streets ran steeply up and down the hills, wind abruptly round corners, dive into tunnels. Yet men gallop about them on their sure-footed horses, stumbling, slipping, but seldom falling. “Balak!” they cry. “Balak!” and the man on foot is flung against the wall or jostled out of the way. No one protests or resents.

A file of donkeys, laden with wood or with grain, so fixed upon their backs that the load grazes each street wall, blocks the way. “Balak!” shouts the donkey-driver. And perhaps some nobleman of Fez, soft and fat and indolent, in his blue cloak, who comes pacing on a mule no less fat, preceded by his servants, must turn or huddle himself into an embrasure. There are no social distinctions in the alley-ways of Fez. It may be that one of those donkeys will fall then and there beneath his load, and refuse to rise. His load will be taken from his back, and if he still refuse, he will be left just where he fell, to die. His owner walks on. It is no one’s business to remove the animal. There he lies in the middle of the street, and to him “Balak” will be called in vain.

A mounted troop of wild Berbers from the hills, with their long, brass-bound guns slung across their backs, and gaudy handkerchiefs about their heads, will ride through the bazaars, ragged of dress and no less ragged in the harness of their horses. “Balak!” Very swiftly way is made for them. Balak, indeed, is the word most often heard in the streets of Fez.

Those streets wind at times between the walls of gardens, and if the walls are broken, as surely at some point they will be, a plot of grass, a grove of orange trees hung with ruddy fruit, and a clump of asphodel will shine upon the eyes in that brown and windowless city like a rare jewel. At times, too, they pass beneath some spacious arch into a place of width, or cross a bridge where one of the many streams of the river Fez boils for a moment into the open, and then swirls away again beneath the houses. But, chiefly, they run deep beneath the towering walls of houses, and little of the sunlight visits them; so that you may know a man of Fez, even though he be absent from his town, by the pallor of his face. A householder, moreover, may build over the street, if he can come to an agreement with his neighbour on the opposite side, and then the alleys suddenly become tunnels, and turn upon themselves in the dark. Or the walls so lean together at the top that barely a finger’s breadth of sky is visible as from the bottom of a well.

Into this city of dark streets Warrisden came upon an evening of gloom. The night before he had camped on the slope of a hill by the village of Segota. Never had he seen a spot more beautiful. He had looked across the deep valley at his feet to the great buttress of Jebel Zarhon, on a dark shoulder of which mountain one small, round, white town was perched. A long, high range of grey hills—the last barrier between him and Fez—cleft at one point by the road, rose on the far side of the valley; and those hills and the fields beneath, and the solitary crumbling castle which stood in the bottom amongst the fields, were all magnified and made beautiful by the mists of evening. The stars had come out overhead, behind him the lights shone in his tent, and a cheerful fire crackled in the open near the door. He had come up quickly from Tangier, and without hindrance, in spite of warnings that the road was not safe. The next morning he would be in Fez. It had seemed to him, then, that fortune was on his side. He drew an augury of success from the clean briskness of the air. And that confidence had remained with him in the morning. He had crossed the valley early, and riding over the long pass on the other side, had seen at last the snow-crowned spur of the Atlas on the further side of the plain of Fez. He had descended into the plain, which perpetually rose and fell like the billows of an ocean; and in the afternoon, from the summit of one of these billows, he had suddenly seen, not an hour’s journey off, the great city of Fez, with its crenelated walls and high minarets, a mass of grey and brown, with here and there a splash of white, and here and there a single palm-tree, straggling formlessly across the green plain. The sky had clouded over; the track was now thronged with caravans of camels, and mules, and donkeys, and wayfarers on foot going to and coming from the town; and before the Bab Sagma, the great gate looking towards Mikkes, was reached, the rain was falling.

Warrisden had sent on the soldier who had ridden with him from Tangier, to deliver a note to the Consul, and he waited with his animals and his men for the soldier’s return. The man came towards dusk with word that a house had been secured in the town, and Warrisden passed through the gate and down between the high battlements of the Bugilud into the old town. And as he passed through the covered bazaars and the narrow streets, in the gloom of the evening, while the rain fell drearily from a sullen sky, his confidence of the morning departed from him, and a great depression chilled him to the heart. The high, cracked, bulging walls of the houses, towering up without a window, the shrouded figures of the passers-by, the falling light, the neglect as of a city of immemorial age crumbling in decay, made of Fez to him that night a place of gloom and forbidding mystery. He was in a mood to doubt whether ever he would look on Tony Stretton’s face again.

In the narrowest of the alleys, where each of his stirrups touched a wall, his guide stopped. It was almost pitch-dark here. By throwing back his head, Warrisden could just see, far above him, a little slit of light. His guide groped his way down a passage on the right, and at the end opened with a key a ponderous black door. Warrisden stepped over the sill, and found himself in a tiled court of which the roof was open to the sky. On the first floor there was a gallery, and on each of the four sides a long, narrow room, lofty, and closed with great folding doors, opened on to the gallery. In one of these rooms Warrisden had his bed set up. He sat there trying to read by the light of a single candle, and listening to the drip of the rain.

When he left Tangier, he had twenty-one days before he need be at Roquebrune in answer to Pamela’s summons. He had looked up the steamers before he started. Four of those days would be needed to carry them from Tangier to Roquebrune. He had reached Fez in five, and he thus had twelve days left. In other words, if Stretton came to Fez within a week, there should still be time, provided, of course, the road to the coast was not for the moment cut by rebellious tribes. That was the danger, as Warrisden’s journey had told him. He discounted the timorous statements of his dragoman, Ibrahim, but one who knew had warned him at El Ksar. There was a risk.

The night was cold. Warrisden wrapped himself in a Moorish jellaba of fine, white wool, but he could not put on with it the Moorish patience and indifference. The rain dripped upon the tiles of the court. Where was Stretton, he wondered?

He went to bed, and waked up in the middle of the night. He had left the great doors of his bedroom open; the rain had stopped; and in the stillness of the night he heard one loud voice, of an exquisite beauty, vibrating over the roofs of the sleeping city, as though it spoke from heaven itself. Warrisden lay listening to it, and interpreting the words from the modulation of the voice which uttered them. Now it rang out imperious as a summons, dropping down through the open roofs to wake the sleepers in their beds. Now it rose, lyrical and glorious, in a high chant of praise. Now it became wistful, and trembled away pleading, yet with a passion of longing in the plea. Warrisden could look upwards from his bed through the open roof. The sky was clear again. Overhead were the bright stars, and this solitary voice, most musical and strange, ringing out through the silence.

It was the mueddhin on the tower of the Karueein Mosque. For five hours before the dawn the praises of Allah are sung from the summit of the mosque’s minaret. There are ten mueddhins to whom the service is entrusted, and each sends out his chant above the sleeping city for half an hour. But in the voice of this, one of the ten whom Warrisden heard on the first night when he slept in Fez, there was a particular quality. He listened for it during the nights which followed; expected it, and welcomed its first note as one welcomes the coming of a friend. It seemed to him that all the East was in that cry.

It brought back to him sunsets when his camp was pitched by some little village of tents or thatched mud-houses surrounded by hedges of aloes and prickly pears—at Karia Ben Ouder, at Djouma—villages where there was no mosque at all, but whence none the less the voice of a priest dispersed its plaintive cry across the empty country of marigolds and asphodels, startling the white cow-birds and the storks.

Warrisden fell to thinking of Tony Stretton. He struck a match, and looked at his watch. It was close upon the hour of dawn. Perhaps, just at this moment, by some village in that wild, dark, mountain country to the south-east, Stretton stirred in his sleep, and waked to hear some such summons chanted about the village. Perhaps he was even now loading his mule, and setting forth by the glimmer of the starlight upon his dangerous road. Warrisden fell asleep again with that picture in his mind, and woke to find the sunlight pouring through the square opening of the roof. He drank his coffee, and mounting a little winding stairway of broken steps, came out into that other city of Fez, the city of the roof-tops.

Fez is built upon the slope of a hill, and upon some of the flat roofs Warrisden looked down and through the dark square holes of the openings; to the parapets of others he looked up. Upon some there were gardens planted—so, he thought, must have looked the hanging gardens of Babylon; on others, linen was strung out to dry as in some backyard of England; the minarets, here inlaid with white and green tiles, there built simply of bricks and brown plaster, rose high into the limpid air. And on the towers were the great nests of storks.

Warrisden looked abroad, and in the sunlight his hopes revived. It seemed that it must have been into another town that he had entered last night. Nowhere could he see the gash of a street in that plateau of roof-tops—so narrow they were; and no noise rose at all, they were so deep. Here the only sound audible was the chattering of women’s voices—for the roofs are the playgrounds of the women, and Warrisden could see them in their coloured handkerchiefs and robes clustered together, climbing from one house to another with the help of ladders, visiting their friends. But of all the clamour which must needs be resounding in those crowded streets, not even one stray cry of “Balak!” reached to this upper air. Lower down the hill to the east, Warrisden could see the city wall and the gate through which Stretton must pass when he came. And he might come to-day!

That was Warrisden’s thought. He went down the stairs, had his horse brought into the dark street before the door, and, accompanied by his mehazni, that old soldier who had ridden with him from Tangier, went out of the city over the plain towards Sefru. For through that small town of gardens and fruit at the base of the Atlas spur, Stretton would come. But he did not come on that day, nor on the next. But, on the other hand, Ibrahim, Warrisden’s guide, brought bad news.

He mounted to the roof in the morning, while Warrisden sat there after his breakfast, and crouched down behind the parapet so that he might not be seen. For the men leave the roof-tops to their women-folk, and do not trespass there themselves.

“Sir,” said he, “the road between Djebel Silfat and Djebel Zarbon is cut. Word has come into Fez this morning. The Z’mur have come down from the hills, and sit across the road, stopping and robbing every one.”

Warrisden sat up.

“Are you sure?” he asked. He was, as he knew, in a country of liars. Ibrahim, in addition, was a coward in the country districts, though the best of braggarts at Tangier. He had ridden on his mule slung about with weapons—a Spanish rifle on his back, a revolver in his belt, and a Winchester in his hands; while between the fingers of his left hand he carried ready four cartridges—but he was none the less afraid. However, Warrisden remembered that mountain pass which led from the plain of the Sebou up to Segota. It was very lonely, it was narrow, the road looped perpetually round the bases of the round buttresses of Djebel Silfat. It would certainly be an awkward place wherein to be entrapped.

“Yes, yes, I am sure,” replied Ibrahim, “the Z’mur are bad men. They might capture you and hold you to ransom.”

Warrisden was inclined to discount Ibrahim’s terror of the Z’mur. The lawless deeds of that wild and fanatical tribe had been dinned into his ears ever since he had crossed the Sebou; until he had come to make light of them. But there was no doubt they terrorised the people; in the villages where Warrisden had camped, they were spoken of with a dread hardly less than that which Ibrahim betrayed. It would certainly never do to be taken by the Z’mur. They would be released, no doubt; but time would be wasted. They might be kept for weeks in the forest of Marmura. They would reach Roquebrune too late.

Warrisden had brought with him, as a servant, one of the men who had been with him to Ain-Sefra, and descending the stairs he called him, and spoke, bidding Ibrahim interpret.

“Do you remember the mule which I gave away at Ain-Sefra?” he asked. And the man answered, “Yes!”

“You would know it again?”

The man was sure upon that point. He described the marks by which he would recognise the beast.

“Very well,” said Warrisden. “Go out to the west of Fez, and watch the road to Sefru. If you see a Jew come towards Fez driving the mule, lead him at once to this house. Watch all day until the gate is closed.”

The man went off upon his errand, and Warrisden betook himself to the vice-consulate. On his return he summoned Ibrahim, and said—

We must travel by Mequinez and Mediyah. A letter will be given to us, passing us on from governor to governor. We can reach Larache, travelling hard, in five days. We may find a steamer there for Gibraltar. If not, we must go on, in one more day, to Tangier.

Ibrahim bowed his head and made no further protest. In the evening Warrisden’s servant came back from the gate; his watch had been fruitless. Thus three days had passed. Warrisden became anxious again, and restless. The seven days which Tony Stretton could take, and still reach Roquebrune by the date on which Pamela insisted, were now curtailed. Six days formed the limit, and even that limit implied that the journey should be of the swiftest. Of those six days, three had gone.

The fourth came, and passed. Warrisden rode out upon the track to Sefru in vain. Even the promised letter did not come. Warrisden made inquiries. It would come, he was told. There was no doubt upon that score. But a Government letter takes a long time in the writing in Morocco. It was not until the fifth evening that a messenger from the Palace knocked upon the door. These were the days when Mulai-el-Hassan ruled in Morocco, and was on the march against his rebellious tribes for nine months out of the twelve. Mulai-el-Hassan, at this particular time, was far away to the south in the Sus country, and therefore the mountain pass to the north was dangerous.

Warrisden had his letter, however, sealed with the Viceroy’s seal. But he gazed out over the city as it lay, warm and ruddy in the sunset, and wondered whether it would avail at all. His servant had come back from the gate with his familiar answer. No Jew had driven the mule down the road into Fez that day. And there was only one more day.

Warrisden descended the stairs to the gallery on the first floor, and as he came out upon it, he heard voices in the courtyard below. He looked over the balustrade and saw a man standing amongst his muleteers and servants. Warrisden could not see his face. He was dressed in rags, but the rags were the remnants of a black gabardine, and he wore a black skull-cap upon his head.

It is likely that Warrisden would have taken no further notice of the man, but that he cringed a little in his manner as though he was afraid. Then he spoke in Arabic, and the voice was timorous and apologetic. Warrisden, however, knew it none the less. He leaned over the balustrade—

“Stretton!” he cried out in a burst of joy.

The man in the courtyard looked up. Warrisden would never have known him but for his voice. A ragged beard stubbled his cheeks and chin; he was disfigured with dirt and bruises; he was lean with hunger; his face was drawn and hollow from lack of sleep. But there was something more, a wider difference between this ragged Stretton in the courtyard and the Stretton Warrisden had known than mere looks explained. The man who had looked up when he heard his voice loudly and suddenly pronounced had been startled—nay, more than startled. He had raised an arm as though to ward off a blow. He had shrunk back. He had been afraid. Even now, when he looked at Warrisden, and knew that he was here in a house of safety, he stood drawing deep breaths, and trembling like one who has received a shock. His appearance told Warrisden much of the dangers of the journey from Ain-Sefra through the hills to Fez.

“Yes,” said Tony, “I am here. Am I in time?”

“Just in time,” cried Warrisden. “Oh, but I thought you never would come!”

He ran down the steps into the courtyard.

“Balak!” cried Stretton, with a laugh. “Wait till I have had a bath, and got these clothes burnt.”

In such guise, Tony Stretton came to Fez. He had gone straight to the vice-consulate, and thence had been directed to Warrisden’s house. When, an hour later, he came up on to the gallery and sat down to dinner, he was wearing the clothes of a European, and the look of fear had gone from his face, the servility from his manner. But Warrisden could not forget either the one or the other. Tony Stretton had come through the mountains—yes. But the way had not been smooth.

1.    Take care!    [back]

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