By WILBUR DANIEL STEELE
Kairwan the Holy lay asleep, pent in its thick walls. The moon had sunk at midnight, but the chill light seemed scarcely to have diminished; only the limewashed city had become a marble city, and all the towers turned fabulous in the fierce, dry, needle rain of the stars that burn over the desert of mid-Tunisia.
In the street Bab Djedid the nailed boots of the watch passed from west to east. When their thin racket had turned out and died in the dust of the market, Habib ben Habib emerged from the shadow of a door arch and, putting a foot on the tiled ledge of Bou-Kedj’s fry shop, swung up by cranny and gutter till he stood on the plain of the housetops.
Now he looked about him, for on this dim tableland he walked with his life in his hands. He looked to the west, toward the gate, to the south, to the northeast through the ghostly wood of minarets. Then, perceiving nothing that stirred, he went on moving without sound in the camel-skin slippers he had taken from his father’s court.
In the uncertain light, but for those slippers and the long-tasselled chechia on his head, one would not have taken him for anything but a European and a stranger. And one would have been right, almost. In the city of his birth and rearing, and of the birth and rearing of his Arab fathers generations dead, Habib ben Habib bel-Kalfate looked upon himself in the rebellious, romantic light of a prisoner in exile—exile from the streets of Paris where, in his four years, he had tasted the strange delights of the Christian—exile from the university where he had dabbled with his keen, light-ballasted mind in the learning of the conqueror.
Sometimes, in the month since he had come home, he had shaken himself and wondered aloud, “Where am I?” with the least little hint, perhaps, of melodrama. Sometimes in the French cafe outside the walls, among the officers of the garrison, a bantering perversity drove him on to chant the old glories of Islam, the poets of Andalusia, and the bombastic histories of the saints; and in the midst of it, his face pink with the Frenchmen’s wine and his own bitter, half-frightened mockery, he would break off suddenly, “Voila, Messieurs! you will see that I am the best of Mussulmans!” He would laugh then in a key so high and restless that the commandant, shaking his head, would murmur to the lieutenant beside him, “One day, Genet, we must be on the alert for a dagger in that quarter there, eh?”
And Genet, who knew almost as much of the character of the university Arab as the commandant himself, would nod his head.
When Habib had laughed for a moment he would grow silent. Presently he would go out into the ugly dark of the foreign quarter, followed very often by Raoul Genet. He had known Raoul most casually in Paris. Here in the Tunisian bled, when Raoul held out his hand to say good-night under the gate lamp at the Bab Djelladin, the troubled fellow clung to it. The smell of the African city, coming under the great brick arch, reached out and closed around him like a hand—a hand bigger than Raoul’s.