MY friend, the Architect, who is something of a traveller, was showing us various curios which he had gathered during a visit to the Orient. “Here is something for you,” he said, picking up a small box and turning it over in his hand. “You are a cigarette-smoker; take this home with you. It was given to me in Cairo by a species of fakir, who fancied I had done him a good turn.”
The box was covered with glazed, yellow paper, so skilfully gummed as to appear to be all one piece. It bore no label, no stamp — nothing to indicate its contents.
“How do you know they are cigarettes?” I asked, taking the box and turning it stupidly around as one turns a sealed letter and speculates before opening it.
“I only know what he told me,” replied the Architect, “but it is easy enough to determine the question of his integrity.” He handed me a sharp, pointed paper-cutter, and with it I opened the lid as carefully as possible.
The box contained six cigarettes, evidently hand-made. The wrappers were of pale-yellow paper, and the tobacco was almost the same colour. It was of finer cut than the Turkish or ordinary Egyptian, and threads of it stuck out at either end.
“Will you try one now, Madam?” asked the Architect, offering to strike a match.
“Not now and not here,” I replied, “after the coffee, if you will permit me to slip into your smoking-den. Some of the women here detest the odour of cigarettes.”
The smoking-room lay at the end of a short, curved passage. Its appointments were exclusively oriental. A broad, low window opened out upon a balcony that overhung the garden. From the divan upon which I reclined, only the swaying treetops could be seen. The maple leaves glistened in the afternoon sun. Beside the divan was a low stand which contained the complete paraphernalia of a smoker. I was feeling quite comfortable, and congratulated myself upon having escaped for a while the incessant chatter of the women that reached me faintly.
I took a cigarette and lit it, placing the box upon the stand just as the tiny clock, which was there, chimed in silvery strokes the hour of five.
I took one long inspiration of the Egyptian cigarette. The grey-green smoke arose in a small puffy column that spread and broadened, that seemed to fill the room. I could see the maple leaves dimly, as if they were veiled in a shimmer of moonlight. A subtle, disturbing current passed through my whole body and went to my head like the fumes of disturbing wine. I took another deep inhalation of the cigarette.
“Ah! the sand has blistered my cheek! I have lain here all day with my face in the sand. Tonight, when the everlasting stars are burning, I shall drag myself to the river.”
He will never come back.
Thus far I followed him; with flying feet; with stumbling feet; with hands and knees, crawling; and outstretched arms, and here I have fallen in the sand.
The sand has blistered my cheek; it has blistered all my body, and the sun is crushing me with hot torture. There is shade beneath yonder cluster of palms.
I shall stay here in the sand till the hour and the night comes.
I laughed at the oracles and scoffed at the stars when they told that after the rapture of life I would open my arms inviting death, and the waters would envelop me.
Oh! how the sand blisters my cheek! and I have no tears to quench the fire. The river is cool and the night is not far distant.
I turned from the gods and said: “There is but one; Bardja is my god.” That was when I decked myself with lilies and wove flowers into a garland and held him close in the frail, sweet fetters.
He will never come back. He turned upon his camel as he rode away. He turned and looked at me crouching here and laughed, showing his gleaming white teeth.
Whenever he kissed me and went away he always came back again. Whenever he flamed with fierce anger and left me with stinging words, he always came back. But to day he neither kissed me nor was he angry. He only said:
“Oh! I am tired of fetters, and kisses, and you. I am going away. You will never see me again. I am going to the great city where men swarm like bees. I am going beyond, where the monster stones are rising heavenward in a monument for the unborn ages. Oh! I am tired. You will see me no more.”
And he rode away on his camel. He smiled and showed his cruel white teeth as he turned to look at me crouching here.
How slow the hours drag! It seems to me that I have lain here for days in the sand, feeding upon despair. Despair is bitter and it nourishes resolve.
I hear the wings of a bird flapping above my head, flying low, in circles.
The sun is gone.
The sand has crept between my lips and teeth and under my parched tongue.
If I raise my head, perhaps I shall see the evening star.
Oh! the pain in my arms and legs! My body is sore and bruised as if broken. Why can I not rise and run as I did this morning? Why must I drag myself thus like a wounded serpent, twisting and writhing?
The river is near at hand. I hear it — I see it — Oh! the sand! Oh! the shine! How cool! how cold!
The water! the water! In my eyes, my ears, my throat! It strangles me! Help! will the gods not help me?
Oh! the sweet rapture of rest! There is music in the Temple. And here is fruit to taste. Bardja came with the music — The moon shines and the breeze is soft — A garland of flowers — let us go into the King’s garden and look at the blue lily, Bardja.
The maple leaves looked as if a silvery shimmer enveloped them. The grey-green smoke no longer filled the room. I could hardly lift the lids of my eyes. The weight of centuries seemed to suffocate my soul that struggled to escape, to free itself and breathe.
I had tasted the depths of human despair.
The little clock upon the stand pointed to a quarter past five. The cigarettes still reposed in the yellow box. Only the stub of the one I had smoked remained. I had laid it in the ash tray.
As I looked at the cigarettes in their pale wrappers, I wondered what other visions they might hold for me; what might I not find in their mystic fumes? Perhaps a vision of celestial peace; a dream of hopes fulfilled; a taste of rapture, such as had not entered into my mind to conceive.
I took the cigarettes and crumpled them between my hands. I walked to the window and spread my palms wide. The light breeze caught up the golden threads and bore them writhing and dancing far out among the maple leaves.
My friend, the Architect, lifted the curtain and entered, bringing me a second cup of coffee.
“How pale you are!” he exclaimed, solicitously. “Are you not feeling well?”
“A little the worse for a dream,” I told him.