The Project Gutenberg eBook, Veiled Women, by Marmaduke William Pickthall
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Title: Veiled Women
Author: Marmaduke William Pickthall
Release Date: June 9, 2018 [eBook #57297]
Character set encoding: UTF-8
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK VEILED WOMEN***
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AUTHOR OF “SAÏD THE FISHERMAN,” ETC.
At the corner of a lofty housetop overlooking agreat part of Cairo, a woman stood with armsuplifted and solemnly addressed a crow whichseemed about to settle. The bird, as if the meaningof the chant had reached him, turned in the airwith clumsy flapping, and withdrew, rising to jointhe hundreds of his kind which circled high abovethe city bathed in early sunlight. The womanshook her fist at his receding shape, glass braceletstinkling on her strong brown arm. She sighed,“The curse of God on thy religion, O thou faithlessmessenger!” then, with a laugh, turned round tojoin the group of slave-girls, her companions, sentup to lay out herbs to dry upon the roof. Thesehad watched her invocation of the crow with knowinggrins. But one, a young Circassian, who satwatching while the others worked, betrayed surpriseand asked the meaning of the little ceremony.
At that there was much giggling.
“Knowest thou not, O flower? It is the woman’ssecret!”
“Secret of secrets, all unknown of men!”
“By Allah, men know nothing of it. In sh´Allah,they will be astonished some day!”
“O Hind, relate the story! Our honey, ourgazelle, Gulbeyzah, has not heard it.”
Thus urged, the one who had adjured the crow,a free servant of the house, obsequious towardsthe slaves, its pampered children, explained as sheknelt down again to work:
“In the name of Allah, thus it is related: Know,O my sweet, that, in the days of our lord Noah(may God bless him), after the flood, the men andwomen were in equal numbers and on equal terms.What then? Why, naturally they began disputingwhich should have the right to choose inmarriage and, as the race increased, enjoy moremates than one. The men gave judgment on theirown behalf, as usual; and when the women madepolite objection, turned and beat them. Whatwas to be done? The case was thus: the menwere stronger than the women, but there exists Onestronger than the men—Allah Most High. Thewomen sought recourse to Allah’s judgment; but—Ocalamity!—by ill advice they made the crowtheir messenger. The crow flew off towardsHeaven, carrying their dear petition in his claws,and from that day to this he brings no answer.But God is everliving and most merciful; a thou[Pg 7]sandyears with Him seem but an hour. PerhapsHe does but hold our favour over, as might a sonof Adam, till the evening for reflection, to grantit at the last. In sh´Allah!”
“In sh´Allah!” came the chorus of a dozenvoices; followed by a general laugh when Gulbeyzah,the Circassian, yawned and sighed, “Fourgoodly husbands all my own! O Lord, givequickly!”
“That is the reason,” Hind concluded, “whygood women have a word to say to crows who seekto settle. Any one of them may be the bearer ofthe blessed edict. The reason as related—Allahknows!”
“Good news and hopeful, by my maidenhood!—thebest I ever heard!” chuckled Gulbeyzah,reposing with her back against the parapet. Shethen remained a long while silent, lost in day-dreams.
The hour was after sunrise of a spring morningin the twelve hundred and eightieth year of theHegirah, the second of the reign of Ismaîl. Thehouse was that of Muhammad Pasha Sâlih, aTurk by origin but born and bred in Egypt, whoheld a high position in the government. The girls,their task accomplished, sat down on their heels,each with her tray of basketwork before her, andsniffed the breeze, in no haste to return indoors.
“Praise to Allah,” one exclaimed with fervour,“we escape for an hour from that Gehennum there[Pg 8]below. Never have I seen the lady Fitnah so enraged.Her wrath is not so much because herson desires the English governess, as because thePasha sees no hindrance to the match. I trembleevery time I have to go to her, lest in her fury sheshould damage my desirability.”
“Praise be to Allah, I am not her property,”replied another, “but that of her durrah, the greatlady. Yet I know her for a good and pious creature,not likely to be so enraged without rare cause.They say this foreign teacher has bewitched theyoung man. He is mad. He flung himself beforeher in the passage as she came from driving. Shespurned him, and they bore him, senseless, to hischamber, where for two days he weeps and moans,refusing nourishment. It is enchantment, evidently,for the girl is ugly.”
“Nay, by Allah, she is white and nicely rounded.But shameless! But an infidel!”
“She can change her faith.”
“As easily as dung can change its odour!”
“Gulbeyzah here is whiter and more appetizing.”
“Well, God alone knows what she is or is not.This is sure: I have no itching to go down into thehouse while Fitnah Khânum rages.”
“Nor I!” “Nor I!” exclaimed the rest withfeeling.
The morning clamour of the city came up tothem as a soothing murmur. Minarets dreamedround them in the sun-haze which was rosy at its[Pg 9]heart but in the distance pearly with a tinge ofbrown. On one hand open country might be seen,green fields and palm trees crowding to the desertwave on which three pyramids stood out, minuteas ciphers; on the other, ending the long ridgeof the Mucattam Hill, arose the Citadel in smokyshadow, its Turkish dome and minarets, its towersand ramparts, appearing like a city of the sky.Here and there among the housetops a small cloudof doves went up, fluttered a moment and subsidedpeacefully. Kites hovered, crows were circling,in the upper air. Gulbeyzah watched theirevolutions dreamily.
“Allah defend us from the liberty of Frankishwomen!” she remarked at length. “I could notbear it. To meet the stare of all men were toodreadful. My maidenhood would flush my brainand kill me. O pure shame! And yet they choosewhat men they like, the fact is known. In sh´Allah,the great favour, when the crow does bring it, willnot destroy our blessed privacy.”
“In sh´Allah, truly!” answered Hind, withvehemence. “Fear nothing, O beloved; God isgreatest! Their freedom is from Satan, their liegelord—the curse of Allah on him! It is a travestyof God’s work, like all he does. Is it not knownwhen Allah made the cow, he tried his best to dothe same, but got no farther than the water-buffalo?All Heaven mocked him. Our charter, when itcomes, will be perfection.”
“Talking of foreign women makes me curiousto know how things are going, down below. Hasthe governess consented to give life to Yûsuf?Has the Pasha quieted the lady Fitnah?”
“Nothing could quiet her, unless it were thequick expulsion of the Englishwoman. Why didshe ever have her children taught the lore ofinfidels? The fault is hers! She hoped to keepthe Bey from honourable marriage, chaining hisfancy with some slave-girl, her own creature.”
“With me, say plainly!” laughed Gulbeyzah,with a yawn. “I was brought into the housewith that intention. Yet not her creature, forMurjânah Khânum is my mistress, and she wouldhave seen to it that I was well respected. If thegoverness has pity on him—which I think notlikely—as soon would the wild serpent wed thedove—my lady must provide me with a properhusband. I have no mind to wither as a fruituntasted.” She yawned again. “Will no onego into the house and bring me news?”
Up leapt a little Galla girl, a child as yet unveiled,all eyes and teeth with glee in the adventure.
“I go, O lady! I am not afraid. I will evenenter the selamlik. I will find out everything.”
“Be very careful, O Fatûmah, lest old Fitnahseize thee. She would rip up thy belly and pluckout thy entrails did she catch thee spying!”
The little black girl laughed and made animpudent grimace.
“And then the eunuchs! They will surely beatthee.”
“By Allah, they must catch me first. Sawwâbadores me, and the others are too slow.”
“Good. Run, ere curiosity consume me!”
The little negress shot off like an arrow. Downdark, malodorous stairs, through empty corridors,she glanced, incarnate mischief. In a pleasurecourt of the harîm, where orange trees in tubsgrew round a pool, she stopped to listen for thevoice of Fitnah. It came from an apartment onher right. Straight forward, where she wished togo, the coast seemed clear. Springing on tiptoe,she plucked a spray of blossom from the nearesttree; then ran on down a passage through theornate screen, the boundary of the women’squarters, where a eunuch tried in fun to stop her;and in sight of a great hall where men werelounging, knocked at a door.
The word had scarce been given ere she glidedin and held out the sprig of orange-blossom to theEnglish governess, with every muscle of her bodyfawning, smiling. Without a look, she read thestranger’s face, perceived she had been cryinglately but now looked exultant, observed theorder of the room, the foreign furniture; andthen, before the Englishwoman could find words tothank her for the pretty offering, kissed a whitehand which proved as hot as fire, and darted outas noiselessly as she had entered.
As she was flitting back across the garden-court,she heard a male voice cry:
“Be silent, woman; or, by the Prophet, Ishall have to beat thee!”
Crouching behind a tub, she listened eagerly.But though a wrangle was in progress not far offbetween the Pasha and his wife, the lady Fitnah,she could glean no more than the main tenor of itfrom the voices, of which the man’s was irritatedand the woman’s mad.
At last the Pasha shouted:
“It is finished. No word more. I go straightto the Consul. Appeal to the Câdi,