Ever since the Poet had married Sultana he had never drunk wine until these last few days. And even in that remote past he had been rather an abstemious drinker. Now, the recent events had made an addict of him. He had suddenly realized that thinking and puzzling too much would lead him nowhere; so he had better not think altogether. Then how could he otherwise deal with such a big puzzle as Haroon’s absence for four successive days? Even Sarah had told him this morning that they were both “in a bit of a spot.”
The fifth day came and Haroon was still away. Probably the rain was too heavy for making a long journey. (It had been raining all night long and even far into the day.) But Sarah saw the reason somewhere else. “Let’s run for our lives!” she merely commanded the Poet, after a long hesitation. They were lying side by side on the Poet’s bed, some time around midnight. The rain was falling steadily outside. “I know you’re a coward,” Sarah said, “but you are a man, after all. What do you say to that, Salman?”
“My darling!” replied the Poet in a tremulous voice. “You know I love you. I know you’re married. But believe me, I love you now as much as I did my wife before. What’s good for you is obviously good for me. I too want to run away. Only I don’t want to risk my life for nothing.”
“See?” said Sarah in a gentle voice. “I said you’re a coward. Why not try?”
The Poet kept quiet and thought for a while. Sarah seemed to be willing to give him this chance to ponder. Then, suddenly, the Poet burst out:
“I swear by Almighty Allah that if Haroon doesn’t come tomorrow afternoon I’ll take you with me and go away, whatever it costs!”
Sarah smiled and pressed the Poet’s hand. It was hot and trembling. Sarah lifted it to her mouth and kissed it gently. Then she met the Poet’s eyes and said:
“I too love you, Salman.”
The Poet smiled broadly, sighed and said:
“My dream now is to marry you.”
Sarah smiled and said: “Let’s sleep!”
And they slept.
Haroon came back in the afternoon the next day. He looked strikingly cheerful and relaxed. The basket he brought with him was full and heavy. As he handed it to the Poet he said:
“How are you, Salman?”
“I’m fine, Master,” replied the Poet; “only your long absence has cost me sleepless nights!”
Haroon laughed quietly and said as he stepped into the house:
“Don’t worry. Take the horse into the stable and go to your work.”
As the evening drew near, Sarah too looked less anxious than before. But when she gave the Poet his dinner later on she confided to him that she was not yet relieved. “Haroon still looks engrossed in some thought or other,” she said.
The next two days were peaceful. Sarah swung and her husband read in the orchard. And both smiled gently to the Poet, who spent the mornings in the house and the afternoons in the fields. Haroon too went on tour round his lands. On the second day he came across Marqus’ master and they had quite a long chat. The Poet saw them even laughing uproariously. And yet mirth simply refused to settle in the Poet’s heart. He could no longer trust these unearthly bouts of glee and gloom on the part of Haroon. Sometimes he looked as happy as a lark and other times he looked as if he had lost all his family in a fire.
Sarah seemed to share in the Poet’s incomprehension. “I no longer understand anything,” she said to the Poet as she handed him his breakfast on the third day. “If you saw me laughing, that’s only to please him. I really can’t unravel these mysteries. But don’t be afraid. Pay attention and keep cool!” Sarah could say all this to the Poet in the courtyard because her husband had left home immediately after breakfast. He had told her that he was only going downtown. That was why he had gone on foot. Besides, the weather was fine and the landscape a sight for sore eyes.
At lunchtime Haroon was at home. Soon afterwards, he left. “He’s gone back downtown,” Sarah said. The Poet found that quite normal.
Shortly after sunset, someone stroke the bell. Sarah called the Poet, who was in his room, and asked him to see who was at the entry door. The Poet headed calmly toward the entry door and found there a young man, a stranger. He wore Arab clothes and spoke Arabic.
“Is your master in?” asked the stranger.
“No. But he’ll be back in a moment. Why?”
“Where can I find him?”
“I don’t know. But I think he’s somewhere downtown.”
“Is his wife in?”
“Call her to me.”
The Poet stepped back into the house and went to tell Sarah that the stranger wanted to see her. Sarah, who was standing by the kitchen-door, braced herself, adjusted her shawl and gown, and walked respectfully over to the entry door. The stranger looked a shade dazzled by her beauty as she looked straight towards him.
“Where’s your husband?” the stranger asked in a rather unsteady voice.
“I don’t exactly know. But he told me he’d go downtown Tlemsen. Why? Is there any problem?”
“I want to see him.”
“Well, you can wait for him somewhere on the way from town.”
The stranger glanced back at his horse, which he had left at the end of the alley, and turned toward Sarah. Then he looked at the ground, thinking. After a moment, he raised his eyes, and said, drawing a rolled letter out of his clothes:
“Take. This is a message for Mr Haroon.”
And before Sarah could touch the letter, the stranger insisted:
“I shall consider this as handed to Mr Haroon in person. Mind that no one else will open it. Thank you.”
Sarah took the letter with a trembling hand and whispered: “Thank you!” The stranger bowed slightly and turned to go. Sarah waited until he disappeared in the distance, then she turned to the Poet, who was standing a little way behind, and gasped:
“My heart tells me that either you or I won’t last until tomorrow. I will go and put this stuff on his table in the room. Then I’ll try to keep away.”
The Poet remained sullen and silent. Sarah sighed and went into the house. And as the Poet followed her closely, she muttered:
“Stay on the alert! If there are any black tidings Haroon won’t be able to hear it! I know him. He often complains about his heart. So pay attention and take care of me!”
The Poet found no words to speak. What Sarah had said was utterly abstruse to him. So he just bowed and went up to his room. And there he lay on his bed and thought. He thought deeply but could not puzzle out what that message was about. Soon afterwards, Haroon’s voice gave him a jump. He had called his wife. The Poet could not stay on the bed. He rushed out of the room barefooted and crept toward the balcony-wall. Then he rose slightly and tried to glance furtively onto the courtyard. At first he found it hard to do so. So he crept along the wall toward a safer place, the right corner of the balcony, where he could hide behind a pillar. And thus he could see Haroon and Sarah talk in whispers by the fountain. Then Haroon went into his room and Sarah into the kitchen.
The Poet remained rooted to the spot. His heart throbbed.
Darkness was already falling, and it was becoming cold. So the Poet stayed there like a cock perching on an unsteady twig and waited. Suddenly, Haroon uttered a scream fit to terrify a lion. In no time Sarah rushed out of the kitchen and flew toward the fountain, and stood cowering there. The Poet was immobilized with terror. Haroon let out another scream, louder than the first and more terrifying. Immediately afterwards he rushed out of his room and tore after Sarah, with a knife in his right hand. Sarah shrieked with terror and flew toward the corridor. On an impulse, the Poet reaed his head like a snake and bawled, “Hey!” Then he cried and cried till Haroon halted half-way between the fountain and the entry door, and shouted back and turned to run toward the stairs. The Poet collected all his powers and raced toward the back-stairs with lightening speed. He tore down the back-stairs and pulled the rear door open and took to his heels. He flung open the door in the rear outside wall and flew across the fields, glancing back now and then to see how far he had gone from the master. Suddenly, Haroon fell full length. And yet the Poet could not stop running until he could see no more but a small, motionless body lying on the ground. Haroon had fallen a good distance away from his house. The Poet stopped far away and lay his back against the trunk of a small tree and stood panting.
After a brief respite, during which he thought and took a decision, the Poet pulled himself together and flew to Marqus. He found him sitting by the door of his room.
“What’s the matter?” asked Marqus coolly as he scrutinized the Poet’s care-worn face and then glanced at his muddy, bare feet.
“Please come and save us!” the Poet beseeched, crouching before his former teacher.
“Save you? From what?” asked Marqus in the same cool, confident voice.
“Haroon has had some shocking news and he’s tried to kill his wife and me. Please come and do something for us!”
“That’s your problem,” replied Marqus, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s no skin off my nose. Go away!”
“Please!” the Poet implored. “I’ll kiss your hands and feet; please do something for us!”
Marqus let him stew in his own juice for a few moments. Then he said, half-interested and half-reluctant:
“And what do you suggest?”
“Please come and save the woman! As to the Jew, I’ll help you to fetter him with a rope and we’ll throw him into the hen-house. Then we’ll take the woman and flee away!”
Marqus reflected for a while. Then he said, always coolly:
“I shall go with you only on one condition. If all goes well, the woman will be mine!”
The Poet was deeply shocked to hear this. But he accepted.
“So go now!” Marqus said sternly. “I’ll see how to be there in a moment!”
The Poet rose up and trotted back towards Haroon’s house. He dared not enter it. He went instead toward the rubbish-place and looked in the direction of the place where Haroon had fallen. He strained his eyes but could see nothing in the darkness. So he hastened to go back to the other side of the house to see whether Marqus had arrived. He went there and waited a moment in the midst of the trees, then Marqus appeared. He flew to him, and begged:
“Please be quick! I beg you!”
“Where’s he now?” Marqus whispered, showing some interest. He was holding a long knife in his hand.
“I had left him far on the other side of the house,” the Poet muttered. “But I don’t know where he’s now.”
Marqus pondered. Then he said:
The Poet followed him. Both went into the house, through the entry door. The dogs barked. Both men looked constantly right and left. Once in the courtyard, Marqus asked where the kitchen was. The Poet pointed at its door, with a trembling hand. Then, Marqus handed his knife to the Poet and commanded him to stay by the kitchen-door. Marqus rushed into the kitchen and returned with a long knife.
“Now show me his room,” Marqus commanded.
The Poet pointed at its door. Marqus went there and asked the Poet to stand on guard by the door. The Poet held his breath as Marqus went into Haroon’s room. To his surprise, Marqus came back whole, with a sword in his left hand.
“Now don’t be afraid,” Marqus reassured the Poet. “Since you want to fetter your master, then get me a strong, long rope! And be quick.”
The Poet rushed into the kitchen and returned with the rope which Sarah had used as a swing.
“And now, let’s go!” Marqus commanded, brandishing the sword and the knife. “Show me where you left him.”
“Oh please!” the Poet implored. “Save the woman first!”
“I am the commander. Do what I bid you!”
The Poet bowed slightly and signed Marqus to follow him. They went upstairs, then down into the backyard. They found nobody on their way. The Poet’s heart throbbed fast. They left the house in a flash, looking warily in every direction. After a moment, they caught sight of Haroon, still lying on the ground.
“Please don’t kill him!” the Poet whispered, almost to himself. “The woman would be shocked if you did.”
“Come along!” Marqus commanded, as he crawled cautiously toward the motionless body. The Poet crawled after him, feeling weak in the knees. As they moved forward they heard a faint groan. In no time they were standing by the body, ready to attack. Marqus signed to the Poet to go and stand on Haroon’s left, himself being standing on his right. Haroon stirred, and tried to rise. But Marqus, who was eyeing him attentively, all but shouted:
“Stay where you are and put down the knife or we’ll kill you!”
The Poet stood speechless, roving his eyes from Marqus to Haroon and then to Marqus. His trembling right hand held the knife at the ready and with the left he carried the rope. Haroon rose and tried to sit upright.
“Do as I bid!” Marqus shouted.
Haroon, who looked quite unruffled for a while, managed to rise even higher and stood up, holding the knife in his right hand. Marqus and the Poet darted a little way backward, brandishing their arms.
“What do you want?” Haroon moaned.
“Throw down your arm!” Marqus barked. “Throw it immediately!”
“And what if I did not?” Haroon challenged, looking from one face to another.
“We shall kill you, then!” Marqus shouted again, making one step forward.
“And why on earth do you want to kill me?” Haroon asked in a quite moving voice. “Don’t you see-”
Nobody spoke next.
Haroon turned quickly toward the Poet and made as if to talk to him and raised his knife suddenly and hit at him. But the Poet dodged just in time and crouched to avoid the blow. And before Haroon could turn around Marqus rushed at him and cut off the hand which held the knife. Haroon howled with pain but struggled to stay standing upright. Marqus shouted to the Poet to fetter the injured master. But he could not. Marqus understood. So he drew the point of his sword close to Haroon’s throat and barked at him to lie on the ground. Haroon, always howling, obeyed and lay wretchedly on the ground, the blood welling out from his right side. The Poet dropped the knife and bent down to fasten the rope round the body of his moaning master. Marqus too laid down his arms suddenly and knelt to help with fettering the master. Then the Poet and his companion struggled to carry the fettered body to the deserted house. Haroon was enjoined to be quiet under the threat of cutting his throat. At last, he was thrown into a corner inside the barn. Then Marqus commanded the Poet to bury the hand and fetch the arms and hide them somewhere in the house, and to look for the mistress and do what he could for her. Marqus then left, saying he would be back some time before midnight. The Poet obeyed without a murmur.
Time seemed to stand still. The Poet turned to look about him, and trudged toward the place where lay the arms and the hand. The Poet was appalled as he remembered the scene. He still remembered how Marqus had cut off not only the hand but actually the whole right forearm of Haroon. He sighed. And he suddenly quickened his pace and in a moment he was on the spot where blood had been shed. He stood looking down at the forearm lying still on the ground. He bent down and picked up the sword and the three knives and wiped them on his jellaba. But for a short span of time he hesitated and could not touch the forearm. All of a sudden he bent down again, quickly, and picked up the cold forearm. He carried it in one hand and the arms in the other and moved back to the house, with a beating heart.
On the way, he thought. Where should he bury this burden in his right hand? What would be the reaction of the people who would rise in the morning and find blood on the ground and unaccountable foot-tracks across their lands? What to do with Yamna? Where to go? What would Marqus do next?...
As he approached the house, the Poet quickened his pace. He rushed through the door in the rear outside wall and turned right, toward the cooking-house. Suddenly his eyes fell on Yamna lying still on the ground between the block of rooms and the sheep-and-goat shed. In a flash he was squatting close to her. She was lying on her back, her head leaning on one side and her arms and feet stretched out. The Poet was horrified. After a brief moment’s hesitation he sprang to his feet and rushed to the cooking-house, where he hid the arms in the piles of firewood. Then he fetched an axe and ran toward the orchard. He had no time to fetch a mattock. So he hastened to make a hole in the vegetable-plot and he buried the forearm. Then he flew back toward Yamna.
What could he do? Tears filled his eyes. It occurred to him to carry her on his back to his room. But he hesitated. He touched her face with his trembling fingers. It was cold. He turned her face on the other side. She did not stir. He put his ear against her chest and felt her faint breathing. Tears rolled down his hollow cheeks and watered his beard. And he sobbed. He raised his hands and muttered prayers, then he buried his face in his hands and sobbed.
After a moment the Poet bared his face and gazed steadily at the body lying before him. “If all goes well, the woman will be mine!” That’s what Marqus had said. Oh, what a profiteering price he had to pay for his freedom! Marqus had asked nothing less than the Poet’s soul. The Poet sighed. What’s the use of saving a woman who would not be his? This woman was not like any other one. He loved her. And somebody else would come and take her away from him. He sighed again. One mind said to him: “Strangle her with your own hands and you’ll be relieved!” But he could not. Suddenly he bent over her and tried to lift her off the ground. At this moment he heard a faint voice calling for him. He recognized the voice easily. “I am here!” he cried, with little hesitation. “I am here!” In no time Marqus appeared on his right, coming from the direction of the well.
“Why do you look at me as though I were your father’s killer?” Marqus chuckled as he squatted close to the body. The Poet lowered his eyes and said nothing.
“Is she still alive?” Marqus asked, resting his hand on the woman’s heart. The Poet kept quiet.
Marqus glanced at his companion’s gloomy face and said:
“Leave her to me!”
Then, Marqus lifted the body off the ground and stood up. The Poet rose reluctantly and mumbled:
“What should I do now?”
“Fetch the sword and a knife and follow me. I’ll take the woman into some room in the house.”
The Poet fetched the sword and a knife and went back into the house. He found Marqus waiting for him in the courtyard carrying the woman in his arms.
“Where do you suggest I take the woman?” Marqus inquired calmly.
“Take her into my room, upstairs,” replied the Poet mournfully.
“Where is it? Show me the way!”
The Poet went upstairs and Marqus followed him at a distance. The woman was placed gently on the Poet’s bed. The Poet’s face fell. And he felt an appalling pang of anguish.
“Stay here!” said Marqus peacefully. “Give me the sword. I’ll go out to reconnoiter the ground and I’ll be back! Don’t touch the woman!”
Then Marqus took the sword and left. The Poet sat on the mat, holding the knife in right hand, and mused… The first likes of him –poets- were held in high esteem, everywhere. The other likes of him –cowards– were laughed to scorn, everywhere. Oh what’s in him that made him so different from other men? Why shouldn’t he be like Marqus, a brave man making snap decisions and acting unflinchingly on the spur of the moment? Why had he rushed to beseech a man like himself?... He felt deeply humiliated… He was now but a helpless, hopeless servant guarding his beloved, the beloved who –who knows? – might soon become the wife, or the maid, of another man –Marqus? O how painful!...
Marqus returned with an oil-lamp in one hand and a small reed basket in the other. The Poet raised his eyes and looked up at him. Marqus looked like one who wanted to conceal his glee.
“Now take my sword and go out,” Marqus said to the Poet, calmly. “Keep a sharp ear and a sharp eye. Don’t stay in one place. Go around, from time to time!”
The Poet sighed, rose reluctantly, took the sword from Marqus, picked up his shoes and left the room. He went straight to the well. He placed the sword on the coping and drew water from the well. He washed his face and his feet up to the knees. Then he sat on the coping of the well, beside the sword, and mused… He had never had a bath for months now. He, who had once been always spick and span, had now turned into a verminous, dirty creature. His clothes –the jellaba and the trousers– were nasty enough to attract all kinds of vermin. And yet, and yet… –he sighed painfully– and yet Yamna had slept with him!...
The Poet put on his shoes, picked up the sword and began to stroll round this dark compound. He went from one corner to another, his arms crossed behind his loins. Now and then the point of the sword touched this calf or the other. The Poet was very tired. So tired that he did not hesitate to stop and sit on the edge of the fountain. Soon he dozed off in the darkness.
Suddenly, Marqus came downstairs, with the lamp in his right hand. As he approached, the Poet awoke, alarmed.
“That’s what I was expecting!” Marqus said in a loud whisper, as he stood in front of the Poet. “Get up now! Get up!”
The Poet stood up and asked in a mournful tone:
“How’s the woman now?”
“The woman?” Marqus chuckled. “Ah! By the way, where did the Jew place his medicines?”
“Come along with me,” replied the Poet, moving on. Then he showed Marqus where Haroon placed all the things that Yamna had mentioned the other time. Marqus was entranced, so entranced that he planted a very warm kiss on the Poet’s forehead. “You’re a good friend!” Marqus exclaimed happily. “I’ll never fail you! I give you my word for it! Now please do keep watch on the house while I help the woman recover.”
“Right,” gasped the Poet, as he turned around and headed towards the entry door. He left the house, but did not go far. He waited until the dogs calmed down, and then he moved toward the trees on the left. He sat under a tree and tried to sleep. He was too weary to care about anything.
Dog-tired though he was, the Poet could not sleep. After vain attempts to close his lids, he raised his head and stayed gazing vacantly into space, thinking. Soon his thoughts took shape and grew clearer, and horrifying. It was now clear that he would not stay here, in this land, until sunrise. Surely Marqus would run away. But… would Marqus take him along with him? And what about Yamna? What if she did not recover?...
The Poet’s thoughts shifted. Marqus was now alone with Yamna in that room upstairs. This was the last thing the Poet would have ever imagined. But what to do now? That was the price to pay for freedom: a woman with an unsung beauty. An unfortunate woman. An unforgettable woman. Tears stood in the Poet’s eyes. One sigh flowed another…
After a while, the Poet stood up and began to stroll around the compound. Now and then he stopped to look about him. And all the while he thought. There was more jealousy than fear in his heart now. Yamna was a woman a man should die for. Already there was in the Poet’s heart a quenchless flame, all that remained of a thwarted love. So far he resisted the impulse to swear. He could die for her if he swore. But had he not promised Marqus, that if all went well, the woman would be his? This was a question of principle. And he must keep his word…
As the time passed the Poet began to feel fear seizing hold of his heart. When he could not wait any longer he headed straight toward the entry door. And as he looked through it and saw Haroon at the door of his room, terror glued him to the spot. Fortunately, the man whom the Poet had mistaken for Haroon glanced back at the entry door, chuckled and cried:
“Is it you? Come here!”
It took a while before the Poet could collect his wits.
“Come over here! Don’t you hear me?” Marqus cried.
Yes, the man was but Marqus. The Poet, numbed with fright, stood speechless for a long while. At long last he moved on.
“How do I look?” Marqus asked, glancing at the clothes he was wearing (Haroon’s purple robe and white turban).
“You frightened me,” the Poet replied as he stood in front of his companion.
“Ah! Frightened. Possibly, for a man with a bird’s heart.”
“How’s the woman?” asked the Poet, to change the topic.
“She’s not gone yet. She’s breathing. And that’s enough for us. We shall not stay here until sunrise. We’ve got to go away, now.”
“Now?” the Poet asked, half-alarmed.
“Yes, now,” replied Marqus sternly. “You’ve got to wear some of the Jew’s clothes, just like me. But before that, go and prepare two horses. You’ll find the clothes in your room, I mean upstairs. Right?”
The Poet could not reply. He merely handed the sword to Marqus and turned to go in the direction of the stable.