Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  A Syrian Adventure

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Syrian Adventure

By Julia Constance Fletcher (George Fleming) (1858–1938)

[Mirage. By George Fleming. 1878.]

OF the two there was one who would have given much to have escaped the necessity of any interview. Naturally enough, this one was the first to speak.

“I am afraid we have been very selfish, Tom and I,” she says, with a slight increase of color on her cheeks; “Fanny seems so tired. But these people are interesting. I think this is a delightful place—don’t you?”

“I think so—now,” says Mr. Stuart.

Some men passing along the road turn again to stare at the strangers, and Mr. Stuart returns their glances with a little of that abounding contempt we instinctively exhibit towards people who, in all probability, will never be in any fashion connected with ourselves.

“It is so seldom Tom can be got to talk. Tom is something like an Englishman in that respect. Did you never notice how an American will invariably endeavor to be interesting at any cost—either to others or to himself? Now an Englishman has the courage to be dull.”

“Some of us are dull enough without that,” says Jack, moodily.

The Arabs are still standing watching him. They whisper together. As the young man brushes by them there is a hoarse cry of “Backshish!” and then an insolent laugh. It is only a trifling annoyance, but it comes charged with the weight of the morning’s exasperation, and sends the hot blood flushing to his forehead. He turns upon Constance with that sudden, irrational resentment of an unpleasant impression which is, perhaps, at the bottom of half the follies of life.

“Don’t you think these small travelling-parties are a mistake?” he says, with an air of elaborate impartiality. “One sees the same people so continuously that—in fact, you see the same people so much.”

Miss Varley is entirely of his opinion. She says so, and then bends down and busies herself with the folds of her habit to conceal a most unequivocal smile.

“Yes, I am tired of it,” says Mr. Stuart.


“I am tired of the whole thing. You treat me like a boy. You laugh at me. You—you attempt to—to patronize me, by Jove!” cries the young man, turning very red. “I don’t like it. I don’t think you are treating me fairly, Constance,” he says, with sudden firmness, with an assertion of mastery in his voice that she has never heard before.

Miss Varley draws herself up and turns her face full upon him, and all the light and animation have gone out of that face.

“You are probably not aware of what you are saying. You will excuse me if I fail to understand”—she begins very coldly; and then there comes a sudden look of kindness in her eyes. “What is the use of quarrelling, Jack? You know you are talking nonsense. When have I ever done anything purposely to vex you?” she says very gently.

A group of fair-haired Nablous children are standing in a doorway. At the sight of the strange faces approaching them they dart away like frightened birds, all but one, a little boy of two or three, who stands in the middle of the street and contemplates them meditatively. Such a flower-face as it is! with the beautiful, open look of a peach-blossom overblown. “Come here, you delightful little creature, and get some backshish,” says Miss Varley, and holds up a tempting silver coin. There is a moment’s hesitation, and then the baby comes forward a few steps, stops, stares about him. “Poor little thing!” says Constance, and stoops to pick him up. To her surprise the child resists her with sudden, shrill cries of alarm.

“Oh, put him down, do!” says Jack, hastily. There is quite a crowd around them by this time.

“Poor little thing! You don’t suppose it was afraid I had the evil eye?” begins the girl; and at the same moment a woman, veiled and shapeless in her cotton gown, breaks through the ring, seizes the sobbing child in her arms, and turns and addresses the crowd in high-pitched Arabic.

“Come on!” says Mr. Stuart again, and this time with even stronger emphasis. “Let that little wretch alone; it doesn’t want your money. Here, let’s get out of this.”

But this is not so easily done. It is true the crowd parts before them, but only to close about on every side. “Backshish!” yells a tall, one-eyed lad in a tattered gown, who has followed them persistently since they entered the bazaar. “Backshish!” calls out a man, putting a hand on Miss Varley’s shoulder and stooping to look into her face. “Back—” A vigorous push sends him staggering against the wall.

“Take my arm; don’t be frightened,” says Jack, cheerfully. “If we can only get through this infernal bazaar”— A shove from the yellow fanatic on the outside of the ring sends the nearest beggar upon him. He turns, and a shove from the other side flings Constance against his shoulder. No sound; but the double movement meant mischief.

“Oh, what shall we do?” says Miss Varley, turning pale.

To her dying day she will never forget what takes place within the next few minutes.

He took her hands in his; he looked at her with a sort of despairing tenderness.

“Don’t be frightened,” he says; “there is going to be a row. Here, stand back under that arch, and don’t move, whatever happens. Don’t be frightened, and don’t cry. Don’t cry, my darling, I’ll take care of you.”

As luck will have it, the arch of which he speaks is the gaudy-painted doorway of the mosque. A savage howl of execration runs through the crowd at sight of this new outrage. They press forward, stop, waver; and then Jack turns and faces them and draws his pistol from his belt.

“Come on, then! Why don’t you come on, you blackguards!” he calls out, in English; and, as by the breaking of a spell, the sound of his voice evokes a very storm of frenzy and abuse. With every moment the tumult increases. A piece of mud knocks off his hat; in an instant it is seized and torn to shreds; and the sight of his blond Saxon face is the signal for a new outbreak of impotent rage. Twice already the jeering, hissing mass of infuriated men has pushed and swayed up to the very limit of the steps, and twice the sight of his steady, unblenching face has swept them back again with a sound as of the surf grinding upon the shore. And each time they have lessened the distance between them.

He took three steps forward, paused, then deliberately drew a deep line with the heel of his boot in the dust. “We’ll see who crosses that, my men!” he says, significantly. A long howl of defiance is the instant answer. And now, with one common impulse, the mob hurls itself forward and stands straining and foaming like a pack of craven, white-toothed pariah dogs on the farther side of the barrier.

“Don’t be frightened, my darling,” says Jack; his own face is deathly pale, and great beads of moisture are standing on his forehead.

There is a scuffle, a push; one of the foremost assailants, a half-grown lad in a long, blue caftan, is sent staggering across the mark: he falls heavily on his face and is dragged back by his nearest neighbors. And then comes an ominous pause.

From his vantage-ground on the mosque-steps Stuart overlooks the street; and at this moment he is aware of a disturbance in the spirit of the mob—some new object is drawing their attention. There is a cry of “Allah!” the sound of a low, wailing, inarticulate chant, a sudden falling asunder of the close-packed men; in the centre of this space, advancing slowly towards him, is a creature—a man. It has the figure of a man—but whether young or old it is impossible to say. A strip of sheepskin is slung about its waist, a long string of coarse amulets dangles from its neck and down upon the naked breast, covered with hair like the breast of an animal. On his head is a fantastic crown of iron spikes, from under which long and matted locks stream down over his thick arms, his naked, shining shoulders, his fixed and vacant eyes. He comes slowly forward, rolling from side to side in his walk, keeping time to the monotonous, lolling chant. The crowd have fallen respectfully back; he stands alone in the centre of an open space, looking at Stuart with a dull, malignant smile.

“My God! what shall I do?” thought Stuart, clinching his teeth. He moves, and the dervish catches sight of Constance. A sudden, furious gleam of insanity transfigures the livid face. He turns, with a wild gesture of exhortation—he turns and harangues the mob. He turns again—he walks deliberately forward. Jack raises the revolver slowly to a level.

And then a murderous silence falls upon the crowd. The dervish comes steadily forward; his foot is on the line; he looks up at Stuart with an idiotic laugh, and then, like a mockery from heaven, they hear through the intense silence the innocent, bubbling laughter of a child.

The dervish passes the line. Constance springs forward with a cry. The next sound is the click of the trigger settling back in its lock.

“Jack!” She springs forward and clutches him by the arm. “Don’t fire! Hassan!” she says wildly, with white, breathless lips; “Hassan—Hassan”——

And even as she speaks there is a clattering charge of mounted men, a swinging of sabres, a slashing of whips, a cheer. The surging mob sweeps back against the steps. In a moment the dervish is seized, surrounded, forced bodily into the shelter of the mosque. Major Thayer springs from his saddle. The Turkish soldiers clear the piazza of the last terrified stragglers. The dragoman rushes forward flourishing his koorbash.

“Thank God!” says Stuart, seizing Constance by the hand. And then, for the first time, Miss Varley breaks down.

“Take me home—take me home, Tom, to Fanny,” she says piteously.

“Will you ride?”

“No; I don’t know: take me home,” she says, and walks on blindly, clinging to his arm, the centre of an excited, questioning, explaining group.

In three or four minutes they have reached the camp. As they enter the tent Miss Varley turns to Stuart:

“I haven’t thanked you. But—you know,” she says brokenly. She gives him both her hands. Then she sits down on a chair in a corner and begins to cry.

Mr. Stuart, too, sits down. He looks about him with a bewildered air.

“Good heavens! Jack, are you hurt? Will you have some brandy? some water? Your face is as white as a sheet! O Tom, why don’t you do something? Don’t you see that Jack”——

“I’m not hurt, Fanny. I’ve been badly frightened. I never knew what it was like before,” says Mr. Stuart, simply; “but I had Constance to take care of, you know, and—Look here!”

He threw his revolver down upon the table. Major Thayer picks it up curiously, examines it, starts, and throws it down again with an oath.

“I let Hassan have it for that salute. I had forgotten all about it. You see—it wasn’t loaded!” says Jack.