The Powder Play

by A. J. Dawson
Illustrated by Warwick Goble

Rather than rehash the material that appears extensively on the Internet, we open our introduction to A. J. Dawson with a reprint of an article that appeared in the January, 1901 issue of The Bookman in the “Chronicle and Comment” section:

A. J. Dawson’s Growing Popularity.English critics and readers are beginning to realise that in Mr. A. J. Dawson, whose African Nights’ Entertainments was reviewed in The Bookman two months ago, they have a writer who may at any time leap into the very first rank of novelists. His books have hitherto not been generally popular books, and in consequence he is still regarded as an author whose work will be very important to a comparatively small circle of discriminating readers. But it must be remembered that no less shrewd and experienced a literary prophet than Mr. Andrew Lang once expressed the opinion that Mr. Rudyard Kipling would always be caviare to the general. Mr. Dawson is so young—he was born in London in 1870—and the life he has led has been so strenuous and full of variety and incident, that with his extraordinary talent and facility he seems certain ultimately to win a wide audience both in England and in this country.


Mr. Dawson’s Adventurous Career.Mr. Dawson left school at an age when many boys begin their book education, and went to sea to learn life in another and more strenuous manner. After three years as apprentice to a Glasgow shipping company he ran away from his ship in Melbourne, a crisis brought about mainly by what he grimly calls “the really rather extraordinary brutality of a Peterhead second mate.” Those who have read Daniel Whyte will remember that it contains many reminiscences of the exciting experiences of this escape and of the chase across the Yarra Swamps. In Australia Mr. Dawson played many parts, from cow-milking and tramping on the Wallaby to editing a daily paper, The Bathurst National Advocate, with only one assistant on the literary staff. “Journalists,” says Mr. Dawson, “do work in Australia. I averaged myself about three-and-a-half hours sleep per night during the year at Bathurst.” Those who have been interested and amused by the account of the Werrylong Advocate in Ronald Kestrel will like to know that the picture of colonial journalism is not a fancy one, but drawn from intimate personal experience.

Mr. A. J. Dawson and Haj Absalam
Mr. A. J. Dawson and Haj Absalam.

Haj Absalam is Mr. Dawson’s trusty man who has stuck to him through thick and thin, and has saved his life in many a tight corner. He figures in the “African Nights” stories.

At the beginning of the nineties many things occurred to change Mr. Dawson’s way of life. There was a death, a bank smash, a panic. Mr. Dawson sold out his current account, his all, at a sixty per cent. loss, and from that moment lost, he confesses, the practical ambition which bids a man work for money. He began to wander. His wanderings took him through parts of India, Ceylon, Mauritius, the South Sea Islands. New Zealand. South America, West Africa, all over Australia, Spain, the Canaries, Morocco, and into almost every nook and cranny of Europe. In 1894 he settled down to short-story writing in London. That and the succeeding year were good years for short-story writers, and Mr. Dawson’s contributions appeared in almost every important magazine in London. In 1895 he wrote his first long novel, calling it The Beachcomber, but the title had already been used, and the book was eventually known as Middle Greyness. It was politely declined by two publishers, and Mr. Dawson put the manuscript sorrowfully away, to go on with short stories. A friend, however, laid hands on it and it was then accepted by a publisher, who, at the same time, arranged to issue a volume of Mr. Dawson’s short stories, called Mere Sentiment. But the delays were infinite; and before the books were issued Mr. Dawson had completed another novel called Leeway, which was published under the pen name of Howard Kerr. Its reception was not encouraging. ”The Scottish papers.“ says Mr. Dawson, ”nearly killed me by the way they treated that book. They could not make head or tail of it. and their reviews simply laid me out. This is no exaggeration. They prostrated me physically. This seems quaint to me as I recall it now, at a time when 1 think no reviewer could upset me for more than ten minutes at a stretch. But it was deadly serious then. A few papers praised Leeway warmly, but the majority wounded me to the quick by ignoring it or slating it, as I think and thought, without understanding. Middle Greyness was much bigger and broader, not nearly so well written, containing more story, more traditional and conventional in method and manner, a tremendous lot of work, clumsily, wastefully put together; a book that pleased and interested all my friends and relatives, or the best of them, but did not earn the praises of literary critics, and that for reasons I freely admit to be sound and can well understand.”

Shortly afterward appeared In the Bight of Benin, a collection of West African stories full of life and colour and adventure. They were received with a good deal of praise from the critics, and earned their author many interesting letters from travellers and writers whose names were unknown to him. Mr. Dawson’s next book was God’s Foundling, a very clever piece of character study, and the first book to draw the serious attention of the public to his work. Then, after a long journey in Morocco, where Mr. Dawson lived in native fashion, hobnobbing a good deal with murder and sudden death, he finished Bismillah. The book, one of the most truly Oriental stories published for many years, a story literally soaked in Eastern sunshine and full of breathless adventure, was popular with the critics and the public. In writing it Mr. Dawson lived for four months entirely on the Koran and the Old Testament and Burton, reading not a single line of anything else. Then came Daniel Whyte, and this year African Nights' Entertainments, representing the Morocco story-work of three years. The work on The Story of Ronald Kestrel was spread over the past two years, but the story was practically finished before Daniel Whyte. Mr. Dawson has just completed a new novel, The Half Caste, which will be published early next year.

Alec John Dawson
Alec John Dawson
circa 1908

At the time the above article was printed, Alec John Dawson was living in England with his wife of three years, the former Elizabeth Drummond. The couple soon settled in Sussex where Dawson continued to write books, stories and articles. He also traveled extensively, particularly to Morroco, both in his capacity as an author and as an editor and writer for a number of periodicals—both in Great Britain and Canada. Amongst all this writing and travel, Dawson also found time to raise Bloodhounds and Irish Wolfhounds and he incorporated his love of dogs into what is probably his most reprinted novel, Finn the Wolfhound (1908).

With the advent of World War I, Dawson, who had long expressed concern about war with Germany, found his worst fears realized. He first became involved through his efforts to encourage military recruitment and then enlisted himself at some point in 1914. By 1915, he had become a Captain and served in the trenches of France until he was injured, possibly in a gas attack, and discharged from active service. Within less than a year, he began working for British Military Intelligence and was soon writing propaganda pieces for the new MI7 section, eventually being promoted to the rank of Major: a title he continued to use throughout the remainder of his life.

After serving in a number of government appointments overseas, Dawson returned to England, and Sussex, in 1921, where he spent the remainder of his life. His later writings were mostly concerned with his love of dogs—both in fictional and non-fictional settings—but he did produce a few novels and short stories along with journalistic articles on various topics. He also returned to military service during Word War II as part of the Sussex Home Guard. He died at his home in Sussex in 1951.

“The Powder Play” is most likely one of the many stories Dawson penned as the the result of his stay in Morocco (mentioned in the Bookman article reprinted above). While the middle eastern lover, later popularized by Rudolph Valentino and others, was not wholly original, Dawson seems to take a more sympathetic approach to the customs and people of the middle east than many of his contemporaries, although this respect of the native population is undercut by the opening line of the story. There are also parts of the story that are based, partially, in fact.

There are vague references from the era of British occupation of the middle eastern countries of European women being kidnapped for ransom, but there are no primary accounts that our research has been able to discover. Although such events may have occurred, it could simply be that these kidnappings were more urban legend than fact. The Powder Play described in the story was not an invention of Dawson, but can be found briefly mentioned in a number of sources. A demonstration of horsemanship, weapon skills and outright machismo, the most common Powder Play consisted of a group of riders circling around a single figure, who juggled a knife or gun. The riders discharged their weapons, tossed their rifles into the air, swung swords and daggers about, continually shouting all the while—the Powder aspect of the proceedings coming from the cloud of black powder smoke caused by the firing of the rifles and pistols. Other variations apparently existed, some of which mimicked the battle between two opposing forces (one would hope with no bullets involved).

Lastly, some readers who have encountered Dawson in the past may find that they’ve read “The Powder Play” before. This is because the story, after its initial magazine publication, was included in Dawson’s collection African Nights Entertainment (1900) under the title, “Ben Hamed El Askar.”

Our source for this reprinting comes from the January, 1898 issue of Pearson’s Magazine (UK). We hope you enjoy it.

Bob Gay
August, 2015
Introduction © 2015 by Bob Gay


YOU WILL SAY, of course, that a man has no right to admit natives on terms of friendly intercourse into his household. The repetition of axioms so undeniable is tiresome. And, whether justified by the case of Miss Mayburn or not, the laying down of this general rule does not alter the fact that she ought never to have been engaged to a man like Taunton. Or, if, as rumour said, family misfortunes demanded the engagement, then by all the canons of eternal fitness, Clare Mayburn should never have been allowed to visit Tangier; least of all in the way she did visit it—bereft of the milk-and-water, blood-thinning influences of Mr. Algernon Taunton.

Morocco was a revelation to Miss Mayburn. She was a girl, the vivid and intense half of whose nature had been always its latent half; the dream side of her, and something never to be shown or spoken of in the quiet, every-day life of her home in Wiltshire. Herself, perhaps, believed this part of her to be a thing unreal, and the product merely of dream fancies.

Then came her visit to Morocco. She opened her full-lidded violet eyes, and doubtless it seemed to her that she had found flesh and blood, living reality of the dream side of herself. All the vague and hazy ideals which the white light of her English up-bringing had relegated to dreamland, and dismissed as the idle fancies of summer-tide dolce far niente, rose up before her here in the glare of African sunlight—alive, tangible, unashamed; the things that were, not the things that might be. Here was the vivid colouring, the hot crowding, the stately men and veiled women, the despotism and stoicism, the unchanging picturesqueness of the Thousand and One Nights, the dramatic inevitability of the Old Testament.

And her uncle’s diplomatic rank placed Tangier at Clare Mayburn’s feet—a fiery-blooded, brilliantly striped tiger cat, with claws sheathed in velvet, and teeth hidden, that the English girl might feel safe in playing with it.

Had Algernon Taunton been beside her, with his impossible check knickerbockers his Chippendale legs, his conventional one view of life, and his little remarks about “Oriental effects,” “That funny old chap in the green turban,” “A pretty bit of colour,” and the like; then, no doubt, Miss Mayburn would have approached Tangier as a tourist. She would have smiled and yawned, made a little comment, and finally have reached the safe stage of yawning without smiling. But Algernon Taunton was busy “doing ” the East. He would not reach Tangier for three months, and so, in her first converse with Morocco, Clare Mayburn was not interrupted. Her soul’s screen swung back, and she approached the land of the Moor with the rapt enthusiasm of a novice in a nunnery.

Then, too, Sir John, her uncle, a worthy man who was swathed from his stiff collar to his buckskin shoes in the red tape of Downing Street; Sir John regarded young ladies as a fixed quantity, just as he regarded British subjects, Spaniards, Moors, and Jews, as so many evenly divided sections of his world’s populace. He accepted his niece as one of a certain slice of the community who always acted and thought in a certain way, and refrained from acting and thinking in certain other ways.

Miss Mayburn arrived in Tangier, with a maid and Sir John’s spinster sister, at four o’clock on a spring afternoon. She rode up through the town from the beach, in a chair seat on the back of Sir John’s famous white mule.

Then came the hot crowding, the jostling among mules and Moorish women, camels and Soos country water-carriers, donkeys, and charcoal heaps, in the grand or outer Soko—the marketplace. Then a great, shadowy bedroom with a tiled floor and closed jalousies, in Sir John’s white-walled house.

Haji, with a stately deference, appointed himself
her guide

IN THE VERY EARLY MORNING of the following day, when the light which bathed Tangier was mauve in hue, and so soft that it seemed liquid, Clare Mayburn woke, in her big, cool room, with its walls of Dutch pink, and, dressing without disturbing anyone, walked out on to the terrace. This was before morning coffee had been served.

At one end of the terrace. Miss Mayburn came upon Haji Salaam, Sir John’s soldier and gate-keeper. Haji was at his morning prayers, and for a few moments the English girl stood silently watching, while the Moor on his grass mat, slipperless and bareheaded, swayed his body to and fro, touching the pavement of the terrace with his forehead, and calling upon Allah and His one Prophet, with all the fervour of the true-believer. Then Haji rose and saluted the daughter of another race.

“ Good morning,” replied the girl, feeling vaguely and quite seriously that she was in some way Haji’s social inferior. He was so very fine. So was the curved dagger in his sash. And so also was his coal black beard and moustache.

Then the girl walked down the terrace steps, and out among the giant geraniums and flowering shrubs of the garden, to the gate and the Soko beyond. Haji raised his bushy eyebrows and followed his master’s niece respectfully. Haji was in some respects a better protector than England could have supplied. Realising after a few moments that the girl wished to go for a walk, Haji, with a stately deference, appointed himself her guide, and, walking a few paces before her, led Miss Mayburn through the beautiful Bab el Faches, the principal outer gate of the city, past the garden of the German Legation, and over the hill to the Marshan.

While she stood there, watching and thinking, there appeared at the far end of the Marshan a magnificent black horse, a pure Barb, ridden by a Moor. By the side of the horse, with one raised hand holding its bridle close up to the bit, a man in European dress was walking. The horse was a fiery youngster, and evidently no more than half broken.

Suddenly the black Barb reared slightly, pawing with its fore feet, as a hawk flew past him in a sweeping semi-circle. Then with head tossed high, and tail out-curving on the breeze, the beautiful, petulant animal started off at a plunging gallop in Miss Mayburn’s direction. The Moor seemed to have temporarily lost control of his mount; one of his stirrups was flying loose. Clare Mayburn noticed the glint upon it of the morning sun.

Within a score yards of where the English girl stood, the Barb was reigned in roughly, and almost flung upon its haunches. The Moor's teeth were set hard, and he struck the black horse viciously with a stick he carried. The Barb stood stock still for a moment, trembling with nervous excitement. Then, rising almost erect on its hind legs, the animal snorted, almost cried out in its rage, and pawed furiously in mid-air.

Then, rising almost erect on its hind legs,
the animal pawed furiously in mid-air.

Meantime, the English girl, too full of interest and admiration for the horse to be afraid, noticed that the man in European dress was running towards her, over the rising ground of the Marshan. The Moor on the black horse seemed to be losing his head, and was working his animal into a frenzy by jagging heavily at a mouth all unused to bits of any sort. The horse pawed violently within two yards of Miss Mayburn, just as the man dressed like a European reached her side.

“I am so sorry. Please to pardon him. I beg you not to be afraid.”

The man stood bowing before her, and holding his crimson fez low in one hand. He was breathless, but his voice was low and very full of music. His tone implied deference which bordered upon a sort of reverential gallantry. The English girl thought this was the most perfectly handsome man she had ever seen. He still stood with head slightly bowed before her, and the sun glanced along one side of his face and his full, round throat, making his damp skin to gleam like beaten gold.

“I am not at all afraid," she said with a smile, and then, as his eyes were raised, hers fell, and she added, in a lower tone, “I have been accustomed to horses all my life—take care!”

The Barb’s haunches were dangerously near to the man on foot. With a little glance as of request for permission, the man with the fez wheeled round towards the still rearing horse, and addressed its rider, in Arabic, in a voice which could have been heard from end to end of the Marshan:

“Come thou down, useless son of water-carriers! child of streets and towns! Come down, and ride thy Tangier mules and asses. Take thy poor hand from a free horse’s rein, or, by Allah, he will eat thee.”

As he spoke, the man walked up to the trembling horse’s head, catching the animal by the nose with one hand, and holding its bridle lightly with the other. The Moor was slow and sulky in dismounting. The man at the horse’s head turned again, and his words cut the air like shot from a gun. “Down, down, thou dog, and away with thee! Out of my sight!” The man bowed his head submissively, and slunk away. The Barb stood, trembling still, and with nostrils agape, but obedient to its master’s touch, and soothed by it. “Sh—sh," murmured the man, “thou lovest not that thing of the town, eh? Sh—sh, my lord of the hills, take thou me now.”

The man turned again to where Clare Mayburn stood. “I beg you to forgive my horse, and to think no harm of him. His is the soul of a king—a free horse of the hills and the desert. His was not the fault, but his rider’s, the man with the soul of a Soko dog. My horse is as gentle—as gentle as you.” Again the man bowed, with head uncovered. “Look at him, I beg you,” he added, and, lightly stroking the Barb’s curved neck, he vaulted into the saddle and walked the horse, like a courtly lady in a minuet, round, and round, and round again, the little grassy mound upon which the English girl stood with her uncle’s man. The Barb seemed to realise that its reputation was at stake.

“You will forgive my horse?” asked its rider again, with a smile of glad confidence.

“Oh, yes; but he needs no forgiveness— he is too beautiful.”

“Ah, that is kind of you. Bow now, worthless one. Bow, my lord, bow," he whispered over the Barb's ears. And as though in answer to him—perhaps heel and rein had something to do with it—the beautiful beast lowered its glistening neck and pawed the grass softly, like a cat, before the English girl. Clare Mayburn laughed aloud, and happily. The man’s musical, deep voice blended with hers, and they laughed together. “Now I am happy, indeed,” he said; “for I know that my lord and his poor rider are both forgiven.”

Wheeling round then, he bowed low over the Barb’s mane, and, with loose rein, and rhythmically swaying body, galloped away in the morning sunlight.

As the girl turned to walk back to her uncle's house, she pointed in the direction taken by the man on the black horse, and then nodded questioningly to Haji, the soldier.

“Ben Hamed el Askar,” replied Haji, with an informing wave of his brown hand, which spoke volumes as to the esteem in which Ben Hamed was held.

“What a beautiful name,” murmured the girl to herself. “Ben Hamed el Askar—el Askar, and the enchanted horse. Ah!”

AND THIS WAS THE WAY of the first meeting between Mr. Algernon Taunton’s betrothed and Hamed, son of Chief Mahomet Ali el Askar of Seshawn. Of all that followed, what time Mr. Algernon Taunton was being escorted through the East on the strength of quite unimpeachable letters of introduction, it would be hard to talk in detail. To describe it all in writing would be impossible. It would be like an attempt to demonstrate Shelley by algebra, or to explain Keats to Mr. Podsnap. But there are those who will affirm that Shelley never dreamed, and that the creator of St. Agnes’ Eve never conceived anything more delicately beautiful, anything more ideally natural and spontaneous, than was the gradual drawing near, each to each, of these socially divided twain.

Had Ben Hamed’s standing in relation to Europeans been anything at all like that of any other Moor in Tangier, the matter would have ended with that chance meeting on the Marshan. Or, rather, it would never have gone even so far, for there was no other Moor in the town who dressed like an European, and no other who was educated in French and English. Occupying the unique position that Ben Hamed occupied—for the old chief, Mohamet Ali el Askar, Ben Hamed’s father, was said to be prodigiously wealthy, and to own half the Seshawn; and the son had rendered many valuable services to the Sultan from time to time—the following up of this chance acquaintance was an easy matter enough.

Few men in Tangier, not excepting the Sultan’s representative, the Basha, or the representatives of the different European powers, would have cared to offend or to make an enemy of a man whose influence, though but little understood, was so great and so far reaching as was Ben Hameds. And, then, again, there was probably no single man in the town who did not admire and like the Seshawnee Chief’s son. There was certainly no house in Tangier the doors of which were closed to him.

TWO DAYS after Miss Mayburn’s arrival, I had occasion to make a call at Sir John’s house. I found De Ligny, of the French Legation, and another man, there, and, after a few moments, we all adjourned, at the invitation of Miss Grantham, Sir John’s sister, to the terrace, where afternoon tea was served. I was in the act of explaining some Moorish custom to Miss Mayburn, whilst telling myself that she was a very charming girl, when Sir John's English servant stepped on to the terrace, and announced: “Ben Hamed el Askar.”

I had just time to notice the vivid lighting up of Clare Mayburn’s fair face, and to wonder a little at its slightly heightened colour, when Ben Hamed, having shaken hands with Sir John and Miss Grantham, was formally presented to her by the head of the house.

We all talked, and De Ligny and his artist friend, being the younger men, addressed their remarks chiefly to Miss Mayburn. For myself, I said as little as need be, for racial studies always interest me, and that presented by the English girl’s demeanour towards these three young men, who were presumably trying to win her favour, was the most fascinating which had ever come in my way.

De Ligny, whilst being nothing over the average in point of good looks, was of good Parisian family, a perfect master of Miss Mayburn’s language, a society man and a deft conversationalist. Layton, the English artist, was a fine type of manly Saxon beauty, a sportsman, an average talker, and in all other respects a very presentable young man. They were both good fellows, and both friends of Ben Hamed; but for the life of them these two could not resist adopting, in Miss Mayburn’s presence, an air of patronage to the chief’s son. That he recognised this I am convinced; that he did not in any way show that he recognised it was something, at all events, to his credit. Though, to be sure he may have assumed that the English girl noticed it, and if so he must have also recognised, and carefully preserved, the undoubted advantage which her ready perception gave him.

At the end of ten minutes—a vague desire to prevent any interference with the subject of my racial study had led me to engage Sir John and Miss Grantham in conversation—Clare Mayburn and Ben Hamed were standing together at the point at which the terrace parapet overhangs the Soko; and De Ligny with his friend Layton was hovering about behind them, in a manner which suggested rather obvious vexation.

I heard Miss Mayburn asking why the group of men before her in the Soko, who were tending their camels, looked so much stronger, so much more finely developed than the other Moors she had seen about Tangier. Then I heard Ben Hamed’s low musical laugh, I saw his black eyes glisten with pleasure, and as I glanced round at his backward-tossed, small head, I knew without looking what must be the expression on the girl’s face.

“Ah, Miss Mayburn,” I heard him say, “those men were not bred in yard-wide streets, and houses huddled heap on heap. They do not live— Bah! you have seen how the poor Moors live, here in Tangier. These men were many of them born under the open sky, in the mountains where the winds are always cool; where men are brave and women strong, and each one holds what each one wins by the strength of his arm—and his heart. They know only one Master, only one King, Miss Mayburn.” Ben Hamed pointed upward to the cloudless sky. “They are Seshawnee men, and have travelled here, I think, at least, from within a few miles of my father’s home.”

He turned to one of the camel drivers, all of whom were facing away from the terrace.

“Ho, Abdul Shawnee,” he cried in the Seshawnee vernacular, “is thy Chief’s son a water carrier, then, that thy ugly back is turned towards him?”

The man sprang round as though in pain, and, leaping on the ledge outside the terrace, touched with one hand the hand which Ben Hamed held out to him, and raised his fingers with lingering devotion to his lips.

No actor could have planned an incident more calculated to impress the English girl. Ben Hamed had played no part. He was simply himself; but that did not prevent his recognising and understanding the warm glow of admiring sympathy which shone in Clare Mayburn’s eyes. And, perhaps, because of that, he took her hand then, and said, simply: “Good-bye.”

It struck me. that that “Good-bye” conveyed a great deal more than did “Good-afternoon, Miss Mayburn.” But then the latter phrase was mine merely; the former, Ben Hamed’s.

“Oh, uncle,” said the girl, as we were leaving Sir John’s, “I want to learn to speak Arabic. You don’t mind, do you? And Mr.—and—— ”

“I have offered to try and teach Miss Mayburn,” said Ben Hamed.

Sir John smiled, a little stiffly I thought. “That’s very kind of you,” he said.

“I should like to share the lessons,” added elderly Miss Grantham.

Ben Hamed bowed without speaking, and, as he walked off the terrace with me, I saw a look, which spoke plainly of gratitude, pass from Clare Mayburn to Miss Grantham.

TWO DAYS afterwards I was obliged to leave Tangier, and was away in Europe for almost two months. When I returned Miss Mayburn laughingly addressed me in Arabic, and I found that to all intents and purposes she could make herself generally understood in that language. For several years I had endeavoured, in a desultory way, to pick up something of Arabic. In these two months Miss Mayburn had learned considerably more than I knew.

“Mischievous young woman,” muttered Sir John. “I believe she actually makes fun of me to my own servants now, in their own ridiculous language.”

“Indeed, uncle,” laughed the young girl, “I only try to inspire them with a proper veneration for you. It is only when you swear at them that——”

“I swear? Pooh, pooh, nothing of the sort, naughty girl. Run away, puss. I want to talk business.”

Evidently, I thought. Sir John is skillfully managed and—likes it.

As I left the house, half-an-hour later, I met Ben Hamed, beaming like a sun-god, stepping out springily like a well-trained racehorse, looking his sunny world in the face and smiling at it radiantly. I was feeling limp and pasty after four breathless days in Gibraltar.

“Ah, Ben Hamed," I said, holding out my hand. “How do you manage to look so cool and well?"

“We have a saying in my home," said Ben Hamed, “which in English means—but, forgive me, my friend, your language has no pictures, only words. How can I say it? It means: ‘When the heart of a man springs within him, his body leaps to join it.’ That is not as we say it, but—Que voulez vous? And you, my friend?”

“Oh, I am all right, in my little way, you know; only I suppose my heart doesn't spring much, and so mv body gets lazy. I want spurs, Ben Hamed. You—you don’t. Lucky man. Good-bye.”

ALMOST A MONTH PASSED, and then I was startled by a question put to me carelessly enough, by a friend who stopped me outside the Bazar Español.

“Have you seen Miss Mayburn's fiancé?”

“Eh? Who? No.”

“Funny little chap in knickerbockers. Landed from the 'Gibel Musa’ this morning. Somebody's nose will be rather out of joint. Eh?”

My friend's slang jarred upon me unaccountably, and, making some rather short reply, I turned and left him.

“Clare Mayburns's fiancé." So she really was to marry an Englishman; “a funny little chap in knickerbockers.” I felt personally injured by the suggestion. That beautiful, dreamy-eyed girl, with her heavy coils of red-gold hair! I remembered the rapt, waiting look, which had struck me when I first met her; and, again, the unflecked joyousness which had shone out of her fair face when I had last seen her, a few days since. I had no desire to meet the man. A “funny little chap"—it was ridiculous. A globe-trotting Englishman. And, in any case, whoever and whatever he might be—and then I met Ben Hamed. He almost brushed me aside in passing. But I did not stop him, or speak as he passed me.

Ben Hamed was striding along
the narrow, crowded street
like a man possessed.

Ben Hamed was striding along the narrow, crowded street like a man possessed. A wounded lion he looked, and the flash glimpse I had of his eyes as he passed me, was a thing which will always be fresh in my recollection.

Two great shining tears hung balanced between his eyelids, but the light which blazed through them contained no particle of sadness. It was only passionate wrath, and almost savage anger. His thin brown hands were clenched, and the Moors and Jews in the street swept back before him as he walked, as a crowd divides before a galloping horse.

“Bismillah,” I heard a Moor beside me murmur; “for someone. Allah is preparing great trouble.”

“A funny little chap in knickerbockers!” Still that wretched phrase ran in and out of my mind. I went home, feeling thoroughly miserable.

ON THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON something impelled me to make a call at Sir John’s, that I might see what things were happening there. After two minutes spent in Sir John’s drawing-room, I fervently cursed the curiosity which had taken me there.

I was introduced to Mr. Algernon Taunton; and the remark of the friend I had met outside the Bazar Español seemed justified. I may have been prejudiced. The man’s insignificance came upon me as a personal affront. And then, too, Ben Hamed was in the room, and Mr. Taunton seemed to me to be strutting about before my friend—between my friend and Miss Mayburn; who looked pale, almost lifeless, I thought, by comparison with her appearance of a few days before.

Mr. Algernon Taunton was a finicking little man, who appeared to venerate but one thing on the whole brown old earth—the conventions of polite and unquestionably good society. He was an enthusiastic photographer, believed firmly that he could paint, and talked pompously about art. He spoke of himself in my hearing as “an artist and a man of the world, you know!”

Ben Hamed sat like a man frozen, his eyes fixed on Miss Mayburn; save during the odd moments in which Mr. Taunton’s grotesque little figure interrupted his gaze. And in those moments Ben Hamed’s eyes gleamed, cold and ominous. The tension of the atmosphere in that drawing-room was very painful. Breaking an awkward silence. I said :

“There’s to be a show of some sort in the Soko, I believe, this evening.”

“Oh, indeed,” replied Mr. Taunton encouragingly. “A—er—show, did you say?”

“A powder play, I believe. I suppose you have already seen a powder play, Miss Mayburn?”

The girl turned her eyes towards me. Sad, colourless, half frightened, and wholly regretful, I thought her face looked.

“No, I have never seen a powder play. What is it?”

“Oh, nothing very elaborate, but an institution of the country, you know. Half a dozen men on war-horses gallop along together, firing their long guns in all positions and directions as they gallop.”

“By Jove, very typical, I should think; very typical. Must certainly have my camera out. I might get the scheme of a good picture. Will it be—er—far away from here?”

“The men will gallop past the corner of the terrace here, where it hangs over the Soko road, Mr. Taunton. They——” Ben Hamed was speaking, and his voice seemed to have lost all its melody and scope. He paused abruptly, and the light of a sudden reckless resolution seemed to flash out of his black eyes. He rose, and some elementary instinct made the naturally irrepressible Mr. Taunton draw aside, as Ben Hamed stepped up to Miss Mayburn, where she sat beside the window. His fearless, great eyes looked straight down into hers, moist and shadow-fringed. And for the time the room belonged to these two.

“You have never seen a powder play, Miss Mayburn?” The words he spoke seemed an unnecessary adjunct to what I had said.


“Then you shall see one to-day. I will ride in it myself, on my black horse, as my father’s people ride, in the mountains of my home. I will wear the dress of my people, and I will show you how my people win—what they ride for. I will ride my black Barb, close past where you—you will all stand; the corner which dips low over the Soko road. Shall I, Miss Mayburn?”

Never in my life have I heard a question put, in which the words used played so small a part, and the voice and expression so large an one. And her answer, low and vibratile as a ’cello’s dying note, was one heart’s answer to another.


Then Mr. Algernon Taunton spoke. In that atmosphere the action seemed to savour of positive indecency; his voice to jar on every nerve in my body. Ben Hamed tossed his head, as one to whom physical pain is nothing.

“Yes, by Jove. Do!” said the little man. “It will give us all no end of added interest in the show, to feel that we know one—one of the performers, you know. And shall you really put on one of those weird cloaks, and all that?”

Ben Hamed laughed aloud, as he turned to leave the room. Mr. Taunton's eyebrows expressed polite surprise.

“Yes, it will give you added interest. You will enjoy the powder play, because the powder play is like life, you know—the race is to the swift, the victory to the strongest.” Ben Hamed turned again to the girl. “You will look out?” he asked, and again the words were a small part of the question.

“Yes—I will look out,” she said slowly. And so Ben Hamed left us. Shortly afterwards I walked out on to the terrace, wondering greatly.

IN LESS THAN AN HOUR, I saw from the manner in which the crowd in the Soko was distributing itself, that the time for the powder play had arrived. Just then Miss Mayburn walked out on to the terrace, closely followed by Mr. Algernon Taunton. She was dressed in pure white, and, as I thought, with unusual care. She was very pale, and her face seemed to me to express nothing else so noticeably, as indecision and hesitation. I felt exactly as I remembered feeling on an occasion when I was obliged to attend a military execution. Sir John and Miss Grantham joined us on the terrace, and I placed a chair for Miss Mayburn in the corner which Ben Hamed had referred to, where the edge of the parapet was within five feet of the ground outside.

“We shall be pretty well able to touch them, if they happen to take the path here,” said Sir John.

His niece looked at the baronet, and murmured a remark which I did not catch.

The five gave a masterly exhibition
of horsemanship.

Suddenly there came a blare of drums and pipes from the arch of the Bab el Faches, and we could see five horsemen gallop out from the gateway, their line spreading out slightly, fan-wise, as they reached the open Soko. The five were magnificently mounted, their chargers covered in flying trappings, themselves seated on high Moorish saddles.

I was easily able to make out that the rider at the end of the line nearest to Sir John’s party; was Ben Hamed, on his black horse. Miss Mayburn, too, recognised our friend, and the crowd cheered him wildly.

For a few minutes he played his part as one of the five, who gave a masterly exhibition of horsemanship, and wrapped themselves in a cloud of gunpowder smoke.

Then someone in the crowd shouted to Ben Hamed by name, and the black Barb darted forward from the line, its rein flying loose. On came Ben Hamed to within thirty yards of Sir John’s terrace. Wheeling then, he flung his handkerchief to the ground, only to pluck it from the dust a minute later at the gallop. He fired his long Riff gun in every conceivable position, and once, half kneeling on his saddle, he levelled the weapon deliberately at Mr. Algernon Taunton. That gentleman tried to smile, but his attempt was not a pleasant thing to witness.

Then we heard Ben Hamed laugh aloud, as one who had played his little part to please the crowd, and meant now to retire. As a fact, for a few minutes, his horsemanship had been more recklessly wonderful than any I had ever seen.

Whilst the crowd in the Soko shouted their approval, I saw Ben Hamed raise aloft his gun, and wave his hand in our direction. Then, shortening his rein, and bending low over the Barb’s head, he galloped straight towards the corner of the terrace, at which Miss Mayburn stood.

I have often longed to be able to paint, though only for once in my life, that I might try to convey to canvas some conception of that scene with its one grand figure—Ben Hamed, in his Moorish dress and jewelled weapons; the Barb apparently part of the man.

Opposite the place at which we stood, the black horse was reined on to its haunches, and I saw that Ben Hamed’s saddle was almost on a level with the parapet. For just one instant I caught the look between the two—Ben Hamed, an Arab now to his delicate finger tips, and the English girl. Then I heard his rich voice murmur four words in Arabic: “Come to me. Beloved!”

The black Barb’s mane absolutely fell across the parapet, and, before us all—Sir John and Miss Grantham standing open-mouthed ten yards away, myself very certain not to interfere, and Mr. Algernon Taunton looking on in gasping uncertainty as to what form of joke this might be—Clare Mayburn stepped from the parapet to the Barb’s saddle, and was clasped to Ben Hamed’s breast.

Then Mr. Algernon Taunton sprang forward, and laid one hand in timid daring on Ben Hamed’s shoulder. Again the Arab laughed aloud, and, as his left arm leaped backward and upward, I saw Mr. Taunton stretch his length on the tiles of the terrace, whilst a look of sublimely contemptuous defiance spread over Ben Hamed’s face.

He shouted “Good-bye” to me, calling me by name. And then, before one word of protest had been uttered, he cried aloud to the Barb, in Arabic, and with flying rein—Ben Hamed’s arms were occupied then—he galloped off into the evening, the light of which was fast disappearing.


THUS MUCH everyone in Tangier knows. More will not, I think, be ever known to people generally. I have heard once from the son of the old Seshawnee Chief, and I know that the English girl is not unhappy, whatever home shelters her among the hills of Seshawn. One day, I still believe, a messenger from Ben Hamed will come to me with saddled horses. Then I shall ride with that messenger, and I—shall see what things Allah wills that I shall see.

Of course there was talk of indemnity and an armed expedition; but, if force was used in the carrying off of the English girl, it was but the force of a strong man’s strong love for a grown woman.

Anyhow, no European has ever, since the evening of the powder play—of which, by the way, Mr. Algernon Taunton took a very fair photograph—set eyes upon Ben Hamed, or upon the English girl who rode away from out her own world, for love of the man who rode with her.

But in Tangier, you say, the European powers are represented. There is consular authority, and the Moorish government. True. And, in Seshawn there is Chief Mahomet Ali el Askar; and there is Ben Hamed el Askar, his son.


Famous (and forgotten) Fiction
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