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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
An Idyl in Kabylia
By William Edward Norris (1847–1925)
 
From ‘Mademoiselle de Mersac’

IN the first days of June, when the Hôtel d’Orient and the Hôtel de la Régence had bidden adieu to the last of their winter guests; when the Governor-General had migrated from the town to his fairy-like palace on the leafy heights of Mustapha; when the smaller fry of officials were, in imitation of him and in preparation for the hot season, transplanting themselves and their families to the coolest attainable villas; when the aloes were in flower and the air was full of a hundred faint scents, and the corn and barley fields were very nearly ripe for the sickle,—at the time of year, in short, when the luxuriant life and rich beauty of Algeria were at their climax,—it occurred to Léon that it would be a good thing to make a journey into Kabylia. For in the grassy plains of that region, near the first spurs of the great Djurdjura range, dwelt one Señor Lopez, a Spanish colonist and a breeder of horses, who was generally open to a deal, and who, at this particular time, had a nice lot of foals on hand, out of some of which a discriminating young man might see his way to make honest profit. But as few people, be they never so self-confident, like to rely upon their own judgment alone in so delicate a matter as the purchase of a foal, Léon conceived it to be a sine quâ non that his sister should accompany him. And then M. de Saint-Luc, hearing of the projected expedition, must needs declare that he could not possibly leave Algeria without revisiting the scene of his former campaigns, and that the opportunity of doing so in congenial society was one that he would not miss for any imaginable consideration. After which, oddly enough, Mr. Barrington too found out that to make acquaintance with the mountain scenery of Kabylia had always been one of his fondest dreams; and added—Why not push on a little farther, and see some of the hill villages and the famous Fort Napoléon?  1
  Neither Léon nor Jeanne offered any objection to this plan; but when it was communicated to the duchess, she held up her hands in horror and amazement.  2
  “And your chaperon, mademoiselle?” she ejaculated. And the truth is that both the young folks had overlooked this necessary addition to their party.  3
  Now, as the duchess herself would no more have thought of undertaking a weary drive of three or four days’ duration over stony places than of ordering a fiery chariot to drive her straight to heaven, and as no other available lady of advanced years could be discovered, it seemed for a time as if either Mademoiselle de Mersac or her two admirers would have to remain in Algiers; but at the last moment a deus ex machinâ was found in the person of M. de Fontvieille, who announced his willingness to join the party, and who, as Léon politely remarked when he was out of earshot, was to all intents and purposes as good as any old woman.  4
  Poor old M. de Fontvieille! Nobody thanked him for what was an act of pure good-nature and self-sacrifice—nobody at least except Jeanne, who, by way of testifying her gratitude, spent a long morning with him, examining his collection of gems and listening to the oft-told tale of their several acquisitions, and at the end presented him with an exquisite Marshal Niel rosebud for his button-hole.  5
  “Ah, mademoiselle,” said he, as he pinned the flower into his coat, “you do well to reserve your roses for old men, who appreciate such gifts at their right value. Give none to the young fellows: it would only increase their vanity, which is great enough already.”  6
  “I never give roses to anybody,” said Jeanne.  7
  “So much the better. Continue, my child, to observe that wise rule. And remember that if the Lily of France is a stiffer flower than the Rose of England, it is still our own, and Frenchwomen ought to love it best.”  8
  “What do you mean?” asked Jeanne, who objected to insinuations.  9
  “I mean nothing, my dear: lilies, I am aware, are out of fashion; choose violets if you prefer them,” answered the old gentleman with a chuckle.  10
  And Jeanne, having no rejoinder ready, took up her sunshade in dignified silence, and went home….  11
  An hour later, she and Barrington were seated opposite to one another in the dilapidated wagonette which Léon used for country journeys. It was an ancient vehicle, with patched cushions and travel-stained leather roof and curtains; but its springs were strong, and it had outlived the jolts and shocks of many an unmetaled road and stony watercourse. Jeanne loved it for association’s sake; and Barrington, in his then state of mind, would not have changed it for the car of Aurora.  12
  It is nine years or more since Mr. Barrington was borne swiftly along the dusty road which leads eastward from Algiers in that shabby old shandrydan; and in nine years, the doctors tell us, our whole outer man has been renewed, so that the being which calls itself I to-day inhabits a changed prison from that which it dwelt in a hundred and eight months ago, and will, if it survive, occupy a hundred and eight months hence. Mental statistics are less easy to arrive at, and it may be that our minds are not as subject to the inexorable law of change as our bodies. Barrington, at all events, whose views upon more subjects than one have unquestionably become modified by the lapse of nine years, still asserts, in confidential moments, that he looks back upon that drive into Kabylia as the happiest episode in his existence. “Life,” he says, in that melancholy tone which perfectly prosperous men have a trick of assuming, “is a dull enough business, take it all in all; but it has its good days here and there.” And then he sighs, and puffs silently at his cigar for a minute or two. “Old De Fontvieille sat on the box,” he goes on presently, “and talked to the driver. Young De Mersac had ridden ahead, and she and I were as completely alone together as if we had been upon a desert island. It was a situation in which human nature instinctively shakes itself free of commonplace conventionality. We did not flirt,—thank Heaven, we were neither of us so vulgar as to think of flirting!—but we talked together as freely and naturally as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” And then he generally heaves another sigh, and rhapsodizes on and on, till, patient as one is, one has to remind him that it is long past bedtime.  13
  As (to use a hackneyed illustration) the traveler looks back upon distant purple mountains, forgetting, as he contemplates their soft beauty, the roughness of the track by which he crossed them, so Barrington recalls the happy bygone days of his Kabylian journey, and ignores the petty annoyances which somewhat marred his enjoyment of it while it lasted. To hear him talk you would think that the sun had never been too hot, nor the roads too dusty, during that memorable excursion; that good food was obtainable at every halting-place, and that he had never had cause to complain of the accommodation provided for him for the night. Time has blotted out from his mental vision all retrospect of dirt, bad food, and the virulent attacks of the African flea—a most malignant insect; impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer; an animal who dies as hard as a rhinoceros, and is scarcely less venomous than a mosquito. He dwells not now upon the horrors of his first night at Bon-Douaou, during which he sat up in bed, through long wakeful hours, doggedly scattering insecticide among his savage assailants, and producing about as much effect thereby as a man slinging stones at an iron-clad might do. The place where there was nothing but briny bacon to eat, the place where there was nothing but a broken-down billiard-table and a rug to sleep upon, and the place where there was nothing to drink except bad absinthe,—all these have faded out of his recollection. But in truth, these small discomforts were soon forgotten, even at the time….  14
  When Thomas of Ercildoune took his famous ride with the Queen of the Fairies, and reached a region unknown to man, it will be remembered that the fair lady drew rein for a few minutes, and indicated to her companion the various paths that lay before them. There was the thorny way of righteousness and the broad road of iniquity,—neither of which have ever been found entirely free from drawbacks by mortals,—but besides these there was a third path:—
  “Oh, see ye not that bonny road,
  That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
  Where thou and I this night maun gae.”
And Thomas seems to have offered no objection to his leader’s choice.
  15
  Even so Barrington, though capable of distinguishing between broad and narrow paths and their respective goals, capable also—which is perhaps more to the purpose—of forecasting the results of prudence and folly, chose at this time to close his eyes, and wander with Jeanne into that fairy-land of which every man gets a glimpse in his time, though few have the good fortune to linger within its precincts as long as did Thomas the Rhymer.  16
  And so there came to him five days of which he will probably never see the like again. Five days of glowing sunshine; five luminous, starlit nights—eighty hours, more or less (making deductions for sleeping-time) of unreasoning, unthinking, unmixed happiness: such was Barrington’s share of Fairyland—and a very fair share too, as the world goes. He would be puzzled now—and indeed, for that matter, he would have been puzzled a week after the excursion—to give any accurate description of the country between Algiers and Fort Napoléon. The sum of his reminiscences was, that in the dewy mornings and the cool evenings he drove through a wooded, hilly country with Jeanne; that he rested in the noonday heat at spacious whitewashed caravanserais or small wayside taverns, and talked to Jeanne; that her tall, graceful figure was the first sight he saw in the morning and the last at night; that he never left her side for more than ten minutes at a time; that he discovered some fresh charm in her with each succeeding hour; and that when he arrived at Fort Napoléon, and the limit of his wanderings, he was as completely and irretrievably in love as ever man was.  17
  In truth, the incidents of the journey were well calculated to enhance the mixture of admiration and reverence with which Barrington had regarded Mademoiselle de Mersac from the moment of his first meeting with her. Her progress through Kabylia was like that of a gracious queen among her subjects. The swarthy Kabyle women, to whom she spoke in their own language, and for the benefit of whose ragged children she had provided herself with a multitude of toys, broke into shrill cries of welcome when they recognized her; the sparse French colonists at whose farms she stopped came out to greet her with smiles upon their careworn faces; at the caravanserai of the Issers, where some hundreds of Arabs were assembled for the weekly market, the Caïd of the tribe, a stately gray-bearded patriarch, who wore the star of the Legion of Honor upon his white burnous, stepped out from his tent as she approached, and bowing profoundly, took her hand and raised it to his forehead; even the villainous, low-browed, thin-lipped Spanish countenance of Señor Lopez assumed an expression of deprecating amiability when she addressed him; he faltered in the tremendous lies which from mere force of habit he felt constrained to utter about the pedigree of his colts; his sly little beady eyes dropped before her great grave ones, he listened silently while she pointed out the inconsistencies of his statements, and finally made a far worse bargain with M. Léon than he had expected or intended to do.  18
  And if anything more had been needed to complete Barrington’s subjugation, the want would have been supplied by Jeanne’s demeanor towards himself. Up to the time of this memorable journey she had treated him with a perceptible measure of caprice, being kind or cold as the humor took her: sometimes receiving him as an old friend, sometimes as a complete stranger, and even snubbing him without mercy upon one or two occasions. It was her way to behave so towards all men, and she had not seen fit to exempt Mr. Barrington altogether from the common lot of his fellows. But now—perhaps because she had escaped from the petty trammels and irritations of every-day life, perhaps because the free air of the mountains which she loved disposed her to cast aside formality, or perhaps from causes unacknowledged by herself—her intercourse with the Englishman assumed a wholly new character. She wandered willingly with him into those quaint Kabyle villages which stand each perched upon the apex of a conical hill—villages which took a deal of fighting to capture, and might have to be taken all over again, so Léon predicted, one fine day; she stood behind him and looked over his shoulder while he dashed off hasty likenesses of such of the natives as he could induce, by means of bribes, to overcome their strong natural aversion to having their portraits taken; she never seemed to weary of his company; and if there was still an occasional touch of condescension in her manner, it is probable that Barrington, feeling as he then did, held such manifestations to be only fitting and natural as coming from her to him.  19
  And then, by degrees, there sprang up between them a kind of natural understanding, an intuitive perception of each other’s thoughts and wishes, and a habit of covertly alluding to small matters and small jokes unknown to either of their companions. And sometimes their eyes met for a second, and often an unintelligible smile appeared upon the lips of the one, to be instantaneously reflected upon those of the other. All of which things were perceived by the observant M. de Fontvieille, and caused him to remark aloud every night, in the solitude of his own chamber, before going to bed: “Madame, I was not the instigator of this expedition; on the contrary, I warned you against it. I had no power and no authority to prevent its consequences, and I wash my hands of them.”  20
  The truth is that the poor old gentleman was looking forward with some trepidation to an interview with the duchess, which his prophetic soul saw looming in the future.  21
  Fort Napoléon, frowning down from its rocky eminence upon subjugated Kabylia, is the most important fortress of that once turbulent country, and is rather a military post than a town or village. It has however a modicum of civilian inhabitants, dwelling in neat little white houses on either side of a broad street, and at the eastern end of the street a small church has been erected. Thither Jeanne betook herself one evening at the hour of the Ave Maria, as her custom was….  22
  The door swung back on its hinges, and Jeanne emerged from the gloom of the church and met the dazzling blaze of the sunset, which streamed full upon her, making her cast her eyes upon the ground.  23
  She paused for a moment upon the threshold; and as she stood there with her pale face, her drooped eyelids, and a sweet grave smile upon her lips—Barrington, whose imagination was for ever playing him tricks, mentally likened her to one of Fra Angelico’s angels. She did not in reality resemble one of those ethereal beings much more than she did the heathen goddess to whom he had once before compared her; but something of the sanctity of the church seemed to cling about her, and that, together with the tranquillity of the hour, kept Barrington silent for a few minutes after they had walked away side by side. It was not until they had reached the western ramparts, and leaning over them, were gazing down into purple valleys lying in deep shade beneath the glowing hill-tops, that he opened his lips.  24
  “So we really go back again to-morrow,” he sighed.  25
  “Yes, to-morrow,” she answered absently.  26
  “Back to civilization—back to the dull, monotonous world. What a bore it all is! I wish I could stay here for ever!”  27
  “What! You would like to spend the rest of your life at Fort Napoléon?” said Jeanne with a smile. “How long would it take you to tire of Kabylia? A week—two weeks? Not perhaps so much.”  28
  “Of what does not one tire in time?” he answered. “I have tried most things, and have found them all tolerably wearisome in the end. But there is one thing of which I could never tire.”  29
  “And that—?” inquired Jeanne, facing him with raised eyebrows of calm interrogation.  30
  He had been going to say “Your society”; but somehow he felt ashamed to utter so feeble a commonplace, and substituted for it, rather tamely, “My friends.”  31
  “Ah! there are many people who tire of them also, after a time,” remarked Jeanne. “As for me, I have so few friends,” she added a little sadly.  32
  “I hope you will always think of me as one of those few,” said Barrington.  33
  “You? Oh yes, if you wish it,” she answered rather hurriedly. Then, as if desiring to change the subject, “How quiet everything is!” she exclaimed. “Quite in the distance I can hear that there is somebody riding up the hill from Tizi-Ouzou; listen!”  34
  Barrington bent his ear forward, and managed just to distinguish the faint ringing of a horse’s hoofs upon the road far below. Presently even this scarcely perceptible sound died away, and a universal hush brooded over the earth and air. Then for a long time neither of them spoke again,—Jeanne because her thoughts were wandering; Barrington because he was half afraid of what he might say if he trusted himself to open his lips.  35
 
 
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