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Title: Halima And The Scorpions - 1905
Author: Hichens, Robert Smythe, 1864-1950
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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HALIMA AND THE SCORPIONS

By Robert Hichens

Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers

Copyright, 1905


In travelling about the world one collects a number of those trifles of
all sorts, usually named "curiosities," many of them worthless if it
were not for the memories they recall. The other day I was clearing out
a bureau before going abroad, and in one of the drawers I came across a
hedgehog's foot, set in silver, and hung upon a tarnished silver chain.
I picked it up in the Sahara, and here is its history.

*****

Mohammed El Aïd Ben Ali Tidjani, marabout of Tamacine, is a great man in
the Sahara Desert. His reputation for piety reaches as far as Tunis
and Algiers, to the north of Africa, and to the uttermost parts of the
Southern Desert, even to the land of the Touaregs. He dwells in a sacred
village of dried mud and brick, surrounded by a high wall, pierced with
loopholes, and ornamented with gates made of palm wood, and covered with
sheets of iron. In his mansion, above the entrance of which is written
"L'Entrée de Sidi Laïd," are clocks innumerable, musical boxes, tables,
chairs, sofas, and even framed photographs. Negro servants bow before
him, wives, brothers, children, and obsequious hangers-on of various
nationalities, black, bronze, and _café au lait_ in colour, offer him
perpetual incense. Rich worshippers of the Prophet and the Prophet's
priests send him presents from afar; camels laden with barley, donkeys
staggering beneath sacks of grain, ostrich plumes, silver ornaments,
perfumes, red-eyed doves, gazelles whose tiny hoofs are decorated with
gold-leaf or painted in bright colours. The tributes laid before the
tomb of Cheikh Sidi El Hadj Ali ben Sidi El Hadj Aïssa are, doubtless,
his perquisites as guardian of the saint. He dresses in silks of the
tints of the autumn leaf, and carries in his mighty hand a staff hung
with apple-green ribbons. And his smile is as the smile of the rising
sun in an oleograph.

This personage one day blessed the hedgehog's foot I at present possess,
and endowed it solemnly with miraculous curative properties. It would
cure, he declared, all the physical ills that can beset a woman. Then
he gave it into the hands of a great Agha, who was about to take a wife,
accepted a tribute of dates, a grandfather's clock from Paris, and a
grinding organ of Barbary as a small acknowledgment of his generosity,
and probably thought very little more about the matter.

Now, in the course of time, it happened that the hedgehog's foot came
into the possession of a dancing-girl of Touggourt, called Halima. How
Halima got hold of it I cannot say, nor does anyone in Touggourt exactly
know, so far as I am aware. But, alas! even Aghas are sometimes human,
and play pitch and toss with magical things. As Grand Dukes who go to
disport themselves in Paris sometimes hie them incognito to the "Café
de la Sorcière," so do Aghas flit occasionally to Touggourt, and appear
upon the high benches of the great dancing-house of the Ouled Nails in
the outskirts of the city. And Halima was young and beautiful. Her
eyes were large, and she wore a golden crown ornamented with very tall
feathers. And she danced the dance of the hands and the dance of the
fainting fit with great perfection. And the wives of Aghas have to put
up with a good deal. However it was, one evening Halima danced with the
hedgehog's foot that had been blessed dangling from her jewelled girdle.
And there was a great scandal in the city.

For in the four quarters of Touggourt, the quarter of the Jews, of the
foreigners, of the freed negroes, and of the citizens proper, it was
known that the hedgehog's foot had been blessed and endowed with magical
powers by the mighty marabout of Tamacine.

Halima herself affirmed it, standing at the front door of her terraced
dwelling in the court, while the other dancers gathered round, looking
like a troop of macaws in their feathers and their finery. With a brazen
pride she boasted that she possessed something worth more than uncut
rubies, carpets from Bagdad, and silken petticoats sewn with sequins.
And the Ouled Naïls could not gainsay her. Indeed, they turned their
huge, kohl-tinted eyes upon the relic with envy, and stretched their
painted hands towards it as if to a god in prayer. But Halima would let
no one touch it, and presently, taking from her bosom her immense door
key, she retired to enshrine the foot in her box, studded with huge
brass nails, such as stands by each dancer's bed.

And the scandal was very great in the city that such a precious thing
should be between the hands of an Ouled Naïl, a girl of no repute, come
thither in a palanquin on camel-back to earn her dowry, and who would
depart into the sands of the south, laden with the gold wrung from the
pockets of loose livers.

Only Ben-Abid smiled gently when he heard of the matter.

Ben-Abid belonged to the _Tribu des blancs_, and was the singer attached
to the café of the smokers of the hashish. He it was who struck each
evening a guitar made of goatskin backed by sand tortoise, and lifted up
his voice in the song "Lalia":

   "Ladham Pacha who has left the heart of his enemies
      trembling--
         O Lalia! O Lalia!
   The love of women is no more sweet to me after thy love.

   Thy hand is white, and thy bracelets are of the purest
      silver--
   And I, Ladham Pacha, love thee, without thought of
      what will come.
         O Lalia! O Lalia!"

The assembled smokers breathed out under the black ceiling their deep
refrain of "Wur-ra-Wurra!" and Larbi, in his Zouave jacket and his
tight, pleated skirt, threw back his small head, exposing his long brown
throat, and danced like a tired phantom in a dream.

Ben-Abid smiled, showing two rows of lustrous teeth.

"Should Halima fall ill, the foot will not avail to cure her," he
murmured. "Ben Ali Tidjani's blessing could never rest on an Ouled
Naïl, who, like a little viper of the sand, has stolen into the Agha's
bosom, and filled his veins with subtle poison. She deems she has a
treasure; but let her beware: that which would protect a woman who
wears the veil will do naught for a creature who shows her face to the
stranger, and dances by night for the Zouaves and for the Spahis who
patrol the dunes."

And he struck his long fingers upon the goatskin of his instrument,
while Kouïdah, the boy who played upon the little glasses and shook the
tambourine of reeds, slipped forth to tell in the city what Ben-Abid had
spoken.

Halima was enraged when she heard of it, more especially as there were
found many to believe Ben-Abid's words. She stood before her room upon
the terrace, where Zouaves were playing cards with the dancers in
the sun, and she cursed him in a shrill voice, calling him son of a
scorpion, and requesting that Allah would send great troubles upon
his relations, even upon his aged grandmother. That the miraculous
reputation of her treasure should be thus scouted, and herself insulted,
vexed her to the soul.

"Let the son of a camel with a swollen tongue dare to come to me and
repeat what he has said!" she cried. "Let him come out from his lair in
the café of the hashish smokers, and, as Allah is great, I will spit
in his face. The reviler of women! The son of a scorpion! Cursed be
his------"

And then once more she desired evil to the grandmother of Ben-Abid, and
to all his family. And the Zouaves and the dancers laughed over their
card games. Indeed, the other dancers were merry, and not ill-pleased
with Ben-Abid's words. For even in the Sahara the women do not care that
one of them should be exalted above the rest.

Now, in Touggourt gossip is carried from house to house, as the sand
grains are carried on the wind. Within an hour Ben-Abid heard that his
grandmother had been cursed, and himself called son of a scorpion, by
Halima. Kouïdah, the boy, ran on naked feet to tell him in the café of
the hashish smokers. When he heard he smiled.

"To-night I will go to the dancing-house, and speak with Halima," he
murmured. And then he plucked the guitar of goatskin that was ever in
his hands, and sang softly of the joys of Ladham Pacha, half closing his
eyes, and swaying his head from side to side.

And Kouïdah, the boy, ran back across the camel market to tell in the
court of the dancers the words of Ben-Abid.

That night, when the nomads lit their brushwood fires in the market;
when the Kabyle bakers, in their striped turbans and their close-fitting
jerseys of yellow and of red, ran to and fro bearing the trays of flat,
new-made loaves; when the dwarfs beat on the ground with their staffs to
summon the mob to watch their antics; and the story-tellers put on their
glasses, and sat them down at their boards between the candles; Ben-Abid
went forth secretly from the hashish café wrapped in his burnous. He
sought out in the quarter of the freed negroes a certain man called
Sadok, who dwelt alone.

This Sadok was lean as a spectre, and had a skin like parchment. He was
a renowned plunger in desert wells, and could remain beneath the water,
men said, for a space of four minutes. But he could also do another
thing. He could eat scorpions. And this he would do for a small sum
of money. Only, during the fast of Ramadan, between the rising and the
going down of the sun, so long as a white thread could be distinguished
from a black, he would not eat even a scorpion, because the tasting of
food by day in that time is forbidden by the Prophet.

When Ben-Abid struck on his door Sadok came forth, gibbering in his
tangled beard, and half naked.

"Oh, brother!" said Ben-Abid. "Here is money if thou canst find me three
scorpions. One of them must be a black scorpion."

Sadok shot out his filthy claw, and there was fire in his eyes. But
Ben-Abid's fingers closed round the money paper.

"First thou must find the scorpions, and then thou must carry them with
thee to the court of the dancers, walking at my side. For, as Allah
lives, I will not touch them. Afterwards thou shalt have the money."

Sadok's soul drew the shutters across his eyes. Then he led the way by
tortuous alleys to an old and ruined wall of a _zgag_, in which there
were as many holes as there are in a honeycomb. Here, as he knew,
the scorpions loved to sleep. Thrusting his fingers here and there he
presently drew forth three writhing reptiles. And one of them was black.
He held them out, with a cry, to Ben-Abid.

"The money! The money!" he shrieked.

But Ben-Abid shrank back, shuddering.

"Thou must bring them to the dancers' court. Hide them well in thy
garments that none may see them. Then thou shalt have the money."

Sadok hid the scorpions upon his shaven head beneath his turban, and
they went by the dunes and the lonely ways to the café of the dancers.

Already the pipers were playing, and many were assembled to see the
women dance; but Ben-Abid and Sadok pushed through the throng, and
passed across the café to the inner court, which is open to the air, and
surrounded with earthen terraces on which, in tiers, open the rooms of
the dancers, each with its own front door. This court is as a mighty
rabbit warren, peopled with women instead of rabbits. Pale lights
gleamed in many doorways, for the dancers were dressing and painting
themselves for the dances of the body, of the hands, of the poignard,
and of the handkerchief. Their shrill voices cried one to another, their
heavy bracelets and necklets jingled, and the monstrous shadows of
their crowned and feathered heads leaped and wavered on the yellow
patches of light that lay before their doors.

"Where is Halima?" cried Ben-Abid in a loud voice. "Let Halima come
forth and spit in my face!"

At the sound of his call many women ran to their doors, some half
dressed, some fully attired, like Jezebels of the great desert.

"It is Ben-Abid!" went up the cry of many voices. "It is Ben-Abid, who
laughs to scorn the power of the hedgehog's foot. It is the son of the
camel with the swollen tongue. Halima, Halima, the child of the scorpion
calls thee!"

Kouïdah, the boy, who was ever about, ran barefoot from the court into
the café to tell of the doings of Ben-Abid, and in a moment the people
crowded in, Zouaves and Spahis, Arabs and negroes, nomads from the
south, gipsies, jugglers, and Jews. There were, too, some from Tamacine,
and these were of all the most intent.

"Where is Halima?" went up the cry. "Where is Halima?"

"Who calls me?" exclaimed the voice of a girl.

And Halima came out of her door on the first terrace at the left,
splendidly dressed for the dance in scarlet and gold, carrying two
scarlet handkerchiefs in her hands, and with the hedgehog's foot
dangling from her girdle of thin gold, studded with turquoises.

Ben-Abid stood below in the court with Sadok by his side. The crowd
pressed about him from behind.

"Thou hast called me the son of a scorpion, Halima," he said, in a loud
voice. "Is it not true?"

"It is true," she answered, with a venomous smile of hatred. "And thou
hast said that the hedgehog's foot, blessed by the great marabout
of Tamacine, would avail naught against the deadly sickness of a
dancing-girl. Is it not true?"

"It is true," answered Ben-Abid.

"Thou art a liar!" cried Halima.

"And so art thou!" said Ben-Abid slowly.

A deep murmur rose from the crowd, which pressed more closely beneath
the terrace, staring up at the scarlet figure upon it.

"If I am a liar thou canst not prove it!" cried Halima furiously. "I
spit upon thee! I spit upon thee!"

And she bent down her feathered head from the terrace and spat
passionately in his face.

Ben-Abid only laughed aloud.

"I can prove that I have spoken the truth," he said. "But if I am
indeed the son of a scorpion, as thou sayest, let my brothers speak for
me. Let my brothers declare to all the Sahara that the truth is in my
mouth. Sadok, remove thy turban!"

The plunger of the wells, with a frantic gesture, lifted his turban and
discovered the three scorpions writhing upon his shaven head. Another,
and longer, murmur went up from the crowd. But some shrank back and
trembled, for the desert Arabs are much afraid of scorpions, which cause
many deaths in the Sahara.

"What is this?" cried Halima. "How can the scorpions speak for thee?"

"They shall speak well," said Ben-Abid. "Their voices cannot lie. Sleep
to-night in thy room with these my brothers. Irena and Boria, the Golden
Date and the Lotus Flower, shall watch beside thee. Guard in thy hand,
or in thy breast, the hedgehog's foot that thou sayest can preserve
from every ill. If, in the evening of to-morrow, thou dancest before the
soldiers, I will give thee fifty golden coins. But, if thou dancest not,
the city shall know whether Ben-Abid is a truth-teller, and whether the
blessings of the great marabout can rest upon such a woman as thou art.
If thou refusest thou art afraid, and thy fear proveth that thou hast no
faith in the magic treasure that dangles at thy girdle."

There was a moment of deep silence. Then, from the crowd burst forth the
cry of many voices:

"Put it to the proof! Ben-Abid speaks well. Put it to the proof, and may
Allah judge between them."

Beneath the caked pigments on her face Halima had gone pale.

"I will not," she began.

But the cries rose up again, and with them the shrill, twittering
laughter of her envious rivals.

"She has no faith in the marabout!" squawked one, who had a nose like an
eagle's beak.

"She is a liar!" piped another, shaking out her silken petticoats as a
bird shakes out its plumes.

And then the twitter of fierce laughter rose, shriek on shriek, and was
echoed more deeply by the crowd of watching men.

"Give me the scorpions!" cried Halima passionately. "I am not afraid!"

Her desert blood was up. Her fatalism--even in the women of the Sahara
it lurks--was awake. In that moment she was ready to die, to silence
the bitter laughter of her rivals. It sank away as Sadok grasped the
scorpions in his filthy claw, and leaped, gibbering in his beard, upon
the terrace.

"Wait!" cried Halima, as he came upon her, holding forth his handful of
writhing poison.

Her bosom heaved. Her lustrous eyes, heavy with kohl, shone like those
of a beast at bay.

Sadok stood still, with his naked arm outstretched.

"How shall I know that the son of a scorpion will pay me the fifty
golden coins? He is poor, though he speaks bravely. He is but a singer
in the café of the smokers of the hashish, and cannot buy even a new
garment for the close of the feast of Ramadan. How, then, shall I know
that the gold will hang from my breasts when to-morrow, at the falling
of the sun, I dance before the men of Toug--"

Ben-Abid put his hand beneath his burnous, and brought forth a bag tied
at the mouth with cord.

"They are here!" he said.

"The Jews! He has been to the Jews!" cried the desert men.

"Bring a lamp!" said Ben-Abid.

And while Irena and Boria, the Golden Date and the Lotus Flower, held
the lights, and the desert men crowded about him with the eyes of wolves
that are near to starving, he counted forth the money on the terrace at
Halima's feet. And she gazed down at the glittering pieces as one that
gazes upon a black fate.

"And now set my brothers upon the maiden," Ben-Abid said to Sadok,
gathering up the money, and casting it again into the bag, which he tied
once more with the cord.

Halima did not move, but she looked upon the scorpion that was black,
and her red lips trembled. Then she closed her hand upon the hedgehog's
foot that hung from her golden girdle, and shut her eyes beneath her
ebon eyebrows.

"Set my brothers upon her!" said Ben-Abid.

The plunger of the wells sprang upon Halima, opened her scarlet
bodice roughly, plunged his claw into her swelling bosom, and withdrew
it--empty.

"Kiss her close, my brothers!" whispered Ben-Abid.

A long murmur, like the growl of the tide upon a shingly beach, arose
once more from the crowd. Halima turned about, and went slowly in at her
lighted doorway, followed by Irena and Boria. The heavy door of palm was
shut behind them. The light was hidden. There was a great silence. It
was broken by Sadok's voice screaming in his beard to Ben-Abid, "My
money! Give me my money!"

He snatched it with a howl, and went capering forth into the darkness.

*****

When the next night fell upon the desert there was a great crowd
assembled in the café of the dancers. The pipers blew into their pipes,
and swayed upon their haunches, turning their glittering eyes to and
fro to see what man had a mind to press a piece of money upon their well
greased foreheads. The dancers came and went, promenading arm in arm
upon the earthen floor, or leaping with hands outstretched and fingers
fluttering. The Kabyle attendant slipped here and there with the coffee
cups, and the wreaths of smoke curled lightly upward towards the wooden
roof.

But Halima came not through the open doorway holding the scarlet
handkerchiefs above her head.

And presently, late in the night, they laid her body in a palanquin, and
set the palanquin upon a running camel, and, while the dancers shrilled
their lament amid the sands, they bore her away into the darkness of the
dunes towards the south and the tents of her own people.

The jackals laughed as she went by.

But the hedgehog's foot was left lying upon the floor of her chamber.
Not one of the dancers would touch it.

That night I was in the café, and, hearing of all these things from
Kouïdah, the boy, I went into the court, and gathered up the trinket
which had brought a woman to the great silence. Next day I rode on
horseback to Tamacine, asked to see the marabout and told him all the
story.

He listened, smiling like the rising sun in an oleograph, and twisting
in his huge hands, that were tinted with the henna, the staff with the
apple-green ribbons.

When I came to the end I said:

"O, holy marabout, tell me one thing."

"Allah is just. I listen."

"If the scorpions had slept with a veiled woman who held the hedgehog's
foot, how would it have been? Would the woman have died or lived?"

The marabout did not answer. He looked at me calmly, as at a child
who asks questions about the mysteries of life which only the old can
understand.

"These things," he said at length, "are hidden from the unbeliever. You
are a Roumi. How, then, should you learn such matters?"

"But even the Roumi----"

"In the desert there are mysteries," continued the marabout, "which
even the faithful must not seek to penetrate."

"Then it is useless to----"

"It is very useless. It is as useless as to try to count the grains of
the sand."

I said no more.

Mohammed El Aïd Ben Ali Tidjani smiled once more, and beckoned to a
negro attendant, who ran with a musical box, one of the gifts of the
faithful.

"This comes from Paris," he said, with a spreading complacence.

Then there was within the box a sounding click, and there stole forth a
tinkling of Auber's music to _Masaniello_, "Come o'er the moonlit sea!"





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