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The Figure In The Mirage
by [?]

On a windy night of Spring I sat by a great fire that had been built by Moors on a plain of Morocco under the shadow of a white city, and talked with a fellow-countryman, stranger to me till that day. We had met in the morning in a filthy alley of the town, and had forgathered. He was a wanderer for pleasure like myself, and, learning that he was staying in a dreary hostelry haunted by fever, I invited him to dine in my camp, and to pass the night in one of the small peaked tents that served me and my Moorish attendants as home. He consented gladly. Dinner was over–no bad one, for Moors can cook, can even make delicious caramel pudding in desert places–and Mohammed, my stalwart valet de chambre, had given us most excellent coffee. Now we smoked by the great fire, looked up at the marvellously bright stars, and told, as is the way of travellers, tales of our wanderings. My companion, whom I took at first to be a rather ironic, sceptical, and by nature “unimaginative globe-trotter–he was a hard-looking, iron-grey man of middle-age–related the usual tiger story, the time-honoured elephant anecdote, and a couple of snake yarns of no special value, and I was beginning to fear that I should get little entertainment from so prosaic a sportsman, when I chanced to mention the desert.

“Ah!” said my guest, taking his pipe from his mouth, “the desert is the strangest thing in nature, as woman is the strangest thing in human nature. And when you get them together–desert and woman–by Jove!”

He paused, then he shot a keen glance at me.

“Ever been in the Sahara?” he said.

I replied in the affirmative, but added that I had as yet only seen the fringe of it.

“Biskra, I suppose,” he rejoined, “and the nearest oasis, Sidi-Okba, and so on?”

I nodded. I saw I was in for another tale, and anticipated some history of shooting exploits under the salt mountain of El Outaya.

“Well,” he continued, “I know the Sahara pretty fairly, and about the oddest thing I ever could believe in I heard of and believed in there.”

“Something about gazelle?” I queried.

“Gazelle? No–a woman!” he replied..

As he spoke a Moor glided out of the windy darkness, and threw an armful of dry reeds on the fire. The flames flared up vehemently, and I saw that the face of my companion had changed. The hardness of it was smoothed away. Some memory, that held its romance, sat with him.

“A woman,” he repeated, knocking the ashes out of his pipe almost sentimentally–“more than that, a French woman of Paris, with the nameless charm, the chic, the—- But I’ll tell you. Some years ago three Parisians–a man, his wife, and her unmarried sister, a girl of eighteen, with an angel and a devil in her dark beauty–came to a great resolve. They decided that they were tired of the Francais, sick of the Bois, bored to death with the boulevards, that they wanted to see for themselves the famous French colonies which were for ever being talked about in the Chamber. They determined to travel. No sooner was the determination come to than they were off. Hotel des Colonies, Marseilles; steamboat, Le General Chanzy; five o’clock on a splendid, sunny afternoon–Algiers, with its terraces, its white villas, its palms, trees, and its Spahis!”

“But—-” I began.

He foresaw my objection.

“There were Spahis, and that’s a point of my story. Some fete was on in the town while our Parisians were there. All the African troops were out–Zouaves, chasseurs, tirailleurs. The Governor went in procession to perform some ceremony, and in front of his carriage rode sixteen Spahis–probably got in from that desert camp of theirs near El Outaya. All this was long before the Tsar visited Paris, and our Parisians had never before seen the dashing Spahis, had only heard of them, of their magnificent horses, their turbans and flowing Arab robes, their gorgeous figures, lustrous eyes, and diabolic horsemanship. You know how they ride? No cavalry to touch them–not even the Cossacks! Well, our French friends were struck. The unmarried sister, more especially, was bouleversee by these glorious demons. As they caracoled beneath the balcony on which she was leaning she clapped her little hands, in their white kid gloves, and threw down a shower of roses. The falling flowers frightened the horses. They pranced, bucked, reared. One Spahi–a great fellow, eyes like a desert eagle, grand aquiline profile–on whom three roses had dropped, looked up, saw mademoiselle–call her Valerie–gazing down with her great, bright eyes–they were deuced fine eyes, by Jove!—-“