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Smaïn; and Safti's Summer Day 1905   By: (1864-1950)

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By Robert Hichens

Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers

Copyright, 1905

" When the African is in love he plays upon the pipe. "

Sahara Saying.


Far away in the desert I heard the sound of a flute, pure sound in the pure air, delicate, sometimes almost comic with the comicality of a child who bends women to kisses and to nonsense words. We had passed through the sandstorm, Safti and I, over the wastes of saltpetre, and come into a land of palm gardens where there was almost breathless calm. The feet of the camels paddled over the soft brown earth of the narrow alleys between the brown earth walls, and we looked down to right and left into the shady enclosed spaces, seamed with water rills, dotted with little pools of pale yellow water, and saw always giant palms, with wrinkled trunks and tufted, deep green foliage, brooding in their squadrons over the dimness they had made. The activity of man might be discerned here in the regularity of the artificial rills, the ordered placing of the trees, each of which, too, stood on its oval hump. But no man was seen; no flat roofed huts appeared; no robe, pale blue or white, fluttered among the shadows; no dog blinked in the golden patches of the sun only the sound of the flute came to us from some hidden place ceaselessly, wild and romantic, full of an odd coquetry, and of an absurdity that was both uncivilised and touching.

I stopped to listen, and looked round, searching the vistas between the palms.

"Where does it come from?" I asked of Safti.

His one eye blinked languidly.

"From some gardener among the trees. All who dwell in Sidi Matou are gardeners."

The persistent flute gave forth a shower of notes that were like drops of water flung softly in our faces.

"He is in love," added Safti with a slight yawn.

"How do you know?"

"When the African is in love he plays upon the pipe. That is what they say in the Sahara."

"And you think he is alone under some palm tree playing for himself?"

"Yes; he is quite alone. If he is much in love he will play all day, and, perhaps, all night too."

"But she cannot hear him."

"That does not matter. He plays for his own heart, and his own heart can hear."

I listened. Since Safti had spoken the music meant more to me. I tried to read the player's heart in the endless song it made. Trills, twitterings, grace notes, little runs upward ending in the air surely it was a boy's heart, and not unhappy.

"It is coming nearer," I said.

"Yes. Ah, it is Smaïn!"

Safti's one eye is sharp. I had seen no one. But as he spoke a tall youth in a single white garment glided into my view, his eyes bent down, his brown fingers fluttering on a long reed flute covered with red arabesques. His feet were bare, and he moved slowly.

Safti hailed him with the accented violence peculiar to the Arabs. He stopped playing, looked, and smiled all over his young face. In a moment he was on our side of the earth wall, and talking busily, staring at me the while with unabashed curiosity. For few strangers come to Sidi Amrane, and Smaïn had never wandered far.

"What does he say?" I asked of Safti.

"I tell him we shall be at Touggourt tomorrow night, and shall stay there a week. He answers that his heart is there with Oreïda."

"What! Does his lady love live at Touggourt?"

"Yes; she is a dancer."

Smaïn smiled. He did not understand French, but he knew we were speaking of his love affair, and he was not afflicted with shyness. As he accompanied us to the village he played again, and I read his nature in the soft sounds of his flute.

All that day he stayed with us, and nearly all that day he played. Even when he guided me through the village, where, between terraced houses, pretty children the girls in deep purple, with yellow flowers stuck in their left nostrils, the boys in white danced with a boisterous grace round brushwood fires, his flute was at his lips, and his fingers fluttered ceaselessly... Continue reading book >>

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