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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Last Meeting
By William Gifford Palgrave (1826–1888)
 
        
From ‘Hermann Agha’
  
  [The pursuit accomplished, Hermann Agha reaches at night the encampment of his rival, who is carrying away Zahra. As Hermann and his followers purpose an immediate attack and rescue, the young lover audaciously decides to steal to the tent in which his betrothed is lodged, to have a first interview with her, and perhaps to bring about by stealth an immediate flight, to the avoidance of a battle.]

WE reached the hollow. Not a sound was heard. Had the encampment been twenty miles away the quiet could not have been more complete. Softly we dismounted,—Moharib, Harith, Aman, and I; gave our horses and our spears in charge of Doheym and Ja’ad; took off our cloaks and laid them on the sand; and in our undergarments, with no arms but sword and knife, prepared ourselves for the decisive attempt.  1
  I did not think, I had no leisure to think, as we clambered up the loose bank, half earth, half sand; the position required the fullest attention every moment: an incautious movement, a slip, a sound, and the whole encampment would be on foot, to the forfeit not of my life, not of all our lives only,—that I should have reckoned a light thing,—but of my love also. One by one we reached the summit: before us stood the tents, just visible in dark outline; all around was open shadow; no moving figure broke its stillness, no voice or cry anywhere; nor did any light appear at first in the tents. The entire absence of precaution showed how unexpected was our visit: so far was well; my courage rose, my hope also.  2
  Following the plan we had agreed on, we laid ourselves flat on the sand, and so dragged ourselves forward on and on, hardly lifting our heads a little to look round from time to time, till we found ourselves near the front tent furthest on the left. No one had stirred without, and the tent itself was silent as a grave. Round it, and round the tent that stood next behind it, we crawled slowly on, stopping now and then, and carefully avoiding the getting entangled among the pegs and outstretched ropes. Above all, we gave the widest berth possible to what appeared in the darkness like four or five blackish mounds on the sand, and which were in fact guards, wrapped up in their cloaks; and fortunately for us, fast asleep.  3
  When he had arrived at the outside corner of the encampment, Harith stopped, and remained crouched on the ground where the shade was deepest; it was his place of watch. Twenty or twenty-five paces further on, Aman at my order did the same. Moharib accompanied me till, having fairly turned the camp, we came close behind Zahra’s tent, in which I now observed for the first time that a light was burning. Here Moharib also stretched himself flat on his face, to await me when I should issue forth from among the curtains.  4
  And now, as if on purpose to second our undertaking, arrived unsought-for the most efficacious help that we could have desired to our concealment. While crossing the sandy patch, I had felt on my face a light puff of air, unusually damp and chill. Looking up, I perceived a vapory wreath, as of thin smoke, blown along the ground. It was the mist; and accustomed to the desert and its phenomena, I knew that in less than half an hour more the dense autumn fog would have set in, veiling earth and everything on it till sunrise. This time, however, the change in the atmosphere was quicker than usual; so that before I had got behind the tent range, the thickness of the air would hardly have allowed any object to be seen at a few yards’ distance, even had it been daylight. As it was, the darkness was complete.  5
  Creeping forward, I gradually loosened one of the side pegs that made the tent-wall between the ropes fast to the ground. Through the opened chink a yellow ray of light shot forth into the fog; the whole tent seemed to be lighted up within. Hastily I reclosed the space, while a sudden thrill of dread ran through me: some maid, some slave might be watching. Or what if I had been mistaken in the tent itself? What if not she but others were there? Still there was no help for it now; the time of deliberation had gone by: proceed I must and I would, whatever the consequences.  6
  Once more I raised the goat’s-hair hangings, and peeped in. I could see the light itself, a lamp placed on the floor in front, and burning: but nothing moved; no sound was heard. I crawled further on my hands and knees, till the whole interior of the tent came into view. It was partly covered with red strips of curtain, and the ground itself was covered with carpets. Near the light a low couch, formed by two mattresses one upon the other, had been spread; some one lay on it;—O God! she lay there!  7
  The stillness of the night, the hour, the tent, of her sleep, her presence, her very unconsciousness, awed, overpowered me. For a moment I forgot my own purpose, everything. To venture in seemed profanation; to arouse her, brutal, impious. Yet how had I come, and for what? Then in sudden view all that had been since that last night of meeting at Diar-Bekr stood distinct before me; more yet, I saw my comrades on their watch outside, the horses in the hollow; I saw the morrow’s sun shine bright on our haven of refuge, on our security of happiness. Self-possessed and resolute again, I armed myself with the conscience of pure love, with the memory and assurance of hers, and entered.  8
  Letting the hangings drop behind me, I rose to my feet; my sword was unsheathed, my knife and dagger were ready in my belt; my pistols, more likely to prove dangerous than useful at this stage of the enterprise, I had left below with my horse. Then, barefoot and on tiptoe, I gently approached the mattress couch. It was covered all over with a thin sheet of silken gauze; upon this a second somewhat thicker covering, also of silk, had been cast: and there, her head on a silken rose-colored pillow, she lay, quiet as a child.  9
  I can see her now,—thus continued Hermann, gazing fixedly on the air before him, and speaking not as though to his friend but to some one far off,—I can see her even now. She was robed from head to foot in a light white dress, part silk, part cotton, and ungirdled; she rested half turning to her right side; her long black hair, loosened from its bands, spread in heavy masses of glossy waviness, some on her pillow, some on her naked arm and shoulder, ebony on ivory; one arm was folded under her head, the other hung loosely over the edge of the mattress, till the finger-tips almost touched the carpet. Her face was pale,—paler, I thought, than before; but her breathing came low, calm, and even, and she smiled in her sleep.  10
  Standing thus by her side, I remained awhile without movement, and almost without breath. I could have been happy so to remain for ever. To be with her, even though she neither stirred nor spoke, was Paradise: I needed neither sign nor speech to tell me her thoughts; I knew them to be all of love for me,—love not rash nor hasty, but pure, deep, unaltered, unalterable as the stars in heaven. It was enough: could this last, I had no more to seek. But a slight noise outside the tent, as if of some one walking about the camp, roused me to the sense of where I was, and what was next to be done. I must awaken her; yet how could I do so without startling or alarming her?  11
  Kneeling softly by the couch, I took in mine the hand that even in sleep seemed as if offered to me, gently raised it to my lips, and kissed it. She slumbered quietly on. I pressed her fingers, and kissed them again and yet again with increasing warmth and earnestness. Then at last becoming conscious, she made a slight movement, opened her eyes, and awoke.  12
  “What! you, Ahmed!” she said, half rising from the bed: “I was just now dreaming about you. Is it really you? and how came you here?—who is with you?—are you alone?” These words she accompanied with a look of love full as intense as my own; but not unmixed with anxiety, as she glanced quickly round the tent.  13
  “Dearest Zahra! sister! my heart! my life!” I whispered, and at once caught her in my arms. For a moment she rested in my embrace; then recollecting herself, the place, the time, drew herself free again.  14
  “Did you not expect me, Zahra?” I added; “had you no foreknowledge, no anticipation, of this meeting? or could you think that I should so easily resign you to another?”  15
  The tears stood in her eyes. “Not so,” she answered; “but I thought, I had intended, that the risk should be all my own. I knew you were on our track, but did not imagine you so near; none else in the caravan guessed anything. You have anticipated me by a night, one night only; and—O God!—at what peril to yourself! Are you aware that sixty chosen swordsmen of Benoo-Sheyban are at this moment around the tent? O Ahmed! O my brother! What have you ventured? Where are you come?”  16
  In a few words, as few as possible, I strove to allay her fears. I explained all to her: told her of the measures we had taken, the preparations we had made, the horse waiting, the arms ready to escort and defend her; and implored her to avail herself of them without delay.  17
  Calmly she listened; then, blushing deeply, “It is well, my brother,” she said; “I am ready.” Thus saying, she caught up her girdle from the couch, and began to gather her loosened garments about her, and to fasten them for the journey. No sign of hesitation now appeared, hardly even of haste. Her eye was bright, but steady; her color heightened; her hand free from tremor.  18
  But even as she stooped to gather up her veil from the pillow on which she had laid it, and prepared to cast it over her head, she suddenly started, hearkened, raised herself upright, stood still an instant, and then, putting her hand on my arm, whispered, “We are betrayed: listen!”  19
  Before she had finished speaking I heard a rustle outside, a sound of steps, as of three or four persons, barefoot and cautious in their advance, coming towards the front of the tent. I looked at Zahra: she had now turned deadly pale; her eyes were fixed on the curtained entrance: yet in her look I read no fear, only settled, almost desperate resolution. My face was, I do not doubt, paler even than hers; my blood chilled in my veins. Instinctively we each made to the other a sign for silence—a sign indeed superfluous in such circumstances—and remained attentive to the noise without. The steps drew nearer; we could even distinguish the murmur of voices, apparently as of several people talking together in an undertone, though not the words themselves. When just before the entrance of the tent, the footfall ceased; silence followed. The curtains which formed the door were drawn together, one a little overlapping the other, so as to preclude all view from the outside; but they were in no way fastened within; and to have attempted thus to close them at that moment would have been worse than useless.  20
  Zahra and I threw our arms, she round me, I round her; and our lips met in the mute assurance that whatever was to be the fate of one should also be the fate of the other. But she blushed more deeply than ever, crimson-red. I could see that by the light of the lamp which we longed to, but at that moment dared not, extinguish. Its ray fell on the door-hangings, outside which stood those whom their entire silence, more eloquent then than words, proclaimed to be listeners and spies. Who they were, and what precisely had brought them there, and with what intent they waited, we could not tell.  21
  Half a minute—it could not have been more—passed thus in breathless stillness; it was a long half-minute to Zahra and me. At last we heard a sort of movement taking place in the group without: it seemed as though they first made a step or two forwards; then returned again, talking all the while among themselves in the same undertone; then slowly moved away towards the line of tents in front. No further sound was heard: all was hushed. Zahra and I loosed our hold, and stood looking at each other. How much had been guessed, how much actually detected, I could not tell; she however knew.  22
  “Fly, Ahmed,” she whispered; “fly! That was the Emeer himself. They are on the alert: you are almost discovered; in a few minutes more the alarm will be given throughout the camp. For your life, fly!”  23
  I stood there like one entranced; the horror of that moment had numbed me, brain and limb. And how could I go? Her voice, her face, her presence were, God knows, all on earth to me. How then could I leave them to save a life valueless to me without them?  24
  “In God’s name,” she urged, “haste. Your only hope, brother, lies in getting away from here quickly and unperceived; in the darkness you can yet manage it: tell me, how is it outside?”  25
  “Thick mist,” I answered: “it was coming on before I reached the tent.”  26
  “Thank God!” she said with a half-sob of relief, and a tone the like of which I never heard before or after: “that it is has saved you; that has prevented your companions from being discovered. Dearest Ahmed,” she continued, kissing me in her earnestness, “as you love me, for my sake, for your own sake, for both of us, fly,—it is the only chance left.”  27
  “Fly, Zahra! Zahra, my life!” I answered, almost with a laugh; “fly, and leave you here behind? Never!”  28
  “As you have any love for me, Ahmed,” she replied in a low, hurried, choking voice; “as you would not expose me to certain dishonor and death; as you hope ever to meet me again;—O Ahmed! my brother, my only love! it is their reluctance alone to shame me by their haste while yet a doubt remains, that has screened you thus far; but they will return. Alone, I shall be able to extricate myself; I shall have time and means: but you—oh, save yourself, my love—save me!”  29
  “Dearest Zahra,” replied I, pressing her to my breast, “and you—what will you do?”  30
  “Fear not for me,” she answered, her eye sparkling as she spoke. “I am Sheykh Asa’ad’s daughter; and all the Emeers in Arabia, with all Sheyban to aid, cannot detain me a prisoner, or put force on my will. God lives, and we shall meet again; till then take and keep this token.” She drew a ring from her finger, and gave it to me. “By this ring, and God to witness, I am yours, Ahmed, yours only, yours forever. Now ask no more: fly.”  31
  “One kiss, Zahra.” One—many; she was in tears; then, forcing a smile to give me courage,—“Under the protection of the best Protector,” she said, “to Him I commit you in pledge: Ahmed, brother, love, go in safety.”  32
  What could I do but obey? As I slipped out between the curtains, I gave one backward look: I saw her face turned towards me, her eye fixed on me with an expression that not even in death can I forget; it was love stronger than any death. An instant more, and I was without the tent. That moment the light within it disappeared.  33
 
  Hermann dropped his voice, and put his hand up to his face. As he did so, the moonlight glittered on an emerald, set in a gold ring, on the little finger. Tantawee looked at it.  34
  “That is the ring, I suppose, Ahmed Beg,” he said. “I have often noticed it before; and she, I hope, will see it yet again one day, and know it for your sake; so take heart, brother,—perhaps the day is nearer than you think.”  35
  “She will recognize it on me,” answered Hermann in a low sad voice, “either alive or dead; it will remain with me to the last, though if there be hope in it, I know not.” Then he added, “She has no like token from me: I did not then think of offering any; nor did she ask; there was no need.”  36
 
  Issuing from the tent, I came at once into the dense mist; through its pitchy darkness no shape could be discerned at ten yards of distance. Instinctively, for I was scarcely aware of my own movements, I crept to where Moharib lay crouched on the ground, and touched him; he looked up, half rose, and followed. Passing Aman and Harith, we roused them too in their turn; there was no time for question or explanation then; all knew that something had gone wrong, but no one said a word. Nor was there yet any sign around us that our attempt had been perceived; no one seemed to be on the alert or moving. I began almost to hope that the sounds heard while in the tent might have been imaginary, or at least that suspicion, if awakened, had by this time been quieted again.  37
  But only a few paces before we reached the brink of the hollow, something dark started up between it and us, and I felt myself touched by a hand. I leaped to my feet; and while I did so a blow was aimed at me, I think with a knife. It missed its intent, but ripped my sleeve open from shoulder to elbow, and slightly scratched my arm. At the same moment Harith’s sword came down on the head of the figure now close beside me; it uttered a cry and fell.  38
  Instantly that cry was repeated and echoed on every side, as if the whole night had burst out at once into voice and fury. We ran towards the hollow. When on its verge, I turned to look back a moment; and even through the thick mist could see the hurry and confusion of dark shapes; while the shout, “Sheyban!” “Help, Sheyban!” “Help, Rabee’ah!” rose behind, around, coming nearer and nearer, mixed with the tramp of feet. “Quick! quick!” exclaimed Harith: we rolled down rather than descended into the hollow; there stood Ja’ad and Doheym, ready by the horses, who, conscious of danger, neighed and stamped violently; but before we could mount and ride, the enemy was upon us.  39
 
 
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