A two day's struggle over
the treacherous trails in a well-intentioned but short-winded
"flivver", and a ride of two more on a hired mount of
unamiable temper, had disposed young Medford, of the American School
of Archaeology at Athens, to wonder why his queer English friend,
Henry Almodham, had chosen to live in the desert.
Now he understood.
He was leaning against the
roof parapet of the old building, half Christian fortress, half Arab
palace, which had been Almodham's pretext; or one of them. Below, in
an inner court, a little wind, rising as the sun sank, sent through a
knot of palms the rain-like rattle so cooling to the pilgrims of the
desert. An ancient fig tree, enormous, exuberant, writhed over a
whitewashed well-head, sucking life from what appeared to be the only
source of moisture within the walls. Beyond these, on every side,
stretched away the mystery of the sands, all golden with promise, all
livid with menace, as the sun alternately touched or abandoned them.
Young Medford, somewhat
weary after his journey from the coast, and awed by his first
intimate sense of the omnipresence of the desert, shivered and drew
back. Undoubtedly, for a scholar and a misogynist, it was a wonderful
refuge; but one would have to be, incurably, both.
"Let's take a look at
the house," Medford said to himself, as if speedy contact with
man's handiwork were necessary to his reassurance.
The house, he already
knew, was empty save for the quick cosmopolitan man-servant, who
spoke a sort of palimpsest Cockney lined with Mediterranean tongues
and desert dialects—English, Italian or Greek, which was he?—and
two or three burnoused underlings who, having carried Medford's bags
to his room, had relieved the palace of their gliding presences. Mr.
Almodham, the servant told him, was away; suddenly summoned by a
friendly chief to visit some unexplored ruins to the south, he had
ridden off at dawn, too hurriedly to write, but leaving messages of
excuse and regret. That evening late he might be back, or next
morning. Meanwhile Mr. Medford was to make himself at home.
Almodham, as young Medford
knew, was always making these archaeological explorations; they had
been his ostensible reason for settling in that remote place, and his
desultory search had already resulted in the discovery of several
early Christian ruins of great interest.
Medford was glad that his
host had not stood on ceremony, and rather relieved, on the whole, to
have the next few hours to himself. He had had a malarial fever the
previous summer, and in spite of his cork helmet he had probably
caught a touch of the sun; he felt curiously, helplessly tired, yet
And what a place it was to
rest in! The silence, the remoteness, the illimitable air! And in the
heart of the wilderness green leafage, water, comfort—he had
already caught a glimpse of wide wicker chairs under the palms—a
humane and welcoming habitation. Yes, he began to understand
Almodham. To anyone sick of the Western fret and fever the very walls
of this desert fortress exuded peace.
As his foot was on the
ladder-like stair leading down from the roof, Medford saw the
man-servant's head rising toward him. It rose slowly and Medford had
time to remark that it was sallow, bald on the top, diagonally dented
with a long white scar, and ringed with thick ash-blond hair.
Hitherto Medford had noticed only the man's face—youngish, but
sallow also—and been chiefly struck by its wearing an odd
expression which could best be defined as surprise.
The servant, moving aside,
looked up, and Medford perceived that his air of surprise was
produced by the fact that his intensely blue eyes were rather wider
open than most eyes, and fringed with thick ash-blond lashes;
otherwise there was nothing noticeable about him.
"Just to ask—what
wine for dinner, sir? Champagne, or—"
"No wine, thanks."
The man's disciplined lips
were played over by a faint flicker of deprecation or irony, or both.
"Not any at all,
Medford smiled back. "It's
not out of respect for Prohibition." He was sure that the man,
of whatever nationality, would understand that; and he did.
"Oh, I didn't
"Well, no; but I've
been rather seedy, and wine's forbidden."
The servant remained
incredulous. "Just a little light Moselle, though, to colour the
"No wine at all,"
said Medford, growing bored. He was still in the stage of
convalescence when it is irritating to be argued with about one's
name, by the way?" he added, to soften the curtness of his
the other unexpectedly, though Medford didn't in the least know what
he had expected him to be called.
"Oh, yes, sir."
"You've been in these
parts a good many years, though?"