V. HAREMS AND CEREMONIES
As in the other harems I had visited, perfect equality seemed to prevail between the ladies, and while they chatted with Mme. de S. whose few words of Arabic had loosed their tongues, I tried to guess which was the favourite, or at least the first in rank. My choice wavered between the pretty pale creature with a ferronniere across her temples and a tea-rose caftan veiled in blue gauze, and the nut-brown beauty in red velvet hung with pearls whose languid attitudes and long-lidded eyes were so like the Keepsake portraits of Byron's Haidee. Or was it perhaps the third, less pretty but more vivid and animated, who sat behind the tea-tray, and mimicked so expressively a soldier shouldering his rifle, and another falling dead, in her effort to ask us "when the dreadful war would be over"? Perhaps ... unless, indeed, it were the handsome octoroon, slightly older than the others, but even more richly dressed, so free and noble in her movements, and treated by the others with such friendly deference.
I was struck by the fact that among them all there was not a child; it was the first harem without babies that I had seen in that prolific land. Presently one of the ladies asked Mme. de S. about her children, in reply, she enquired for the Caid's little boy, the son of his wife who had died. The ladies' faces lit up wistfully, a slave was given an order, and presently a large-eyed ghost of a child was brought into the room.
Instantly all the bracelet-laden arms were held out to the dead woman's son; and as I watched the weak little body hung with amulets and the heavy head covered with thin curls pressed against a brocaded bosom, I was reminded of one of the coral-hung child-Christs of Crivelli, standing livid and waxen on the knee of a splendidly dressed Madonna.
The poor baby on whom such hopes and ambitions hung stared at us with a solemn unamused gaze. Would all his pretty mothers, his eyes seemed to ask, succeed in bringing him to maturity in spite of the parched summers of the south and the stifling existence of the harem? It was evident that no precaution had been neglected to protect him from maleficent influences and the danger that walks by night, for his frail neck and wrists were hung with innumerable charms: Koranic verses, Soudanese incantations, and images of forgotten idols in amber and coral and horn and ambergris. Perhaps they will ward off the powers of evil, and let him grow up to shoulder the burden of the great Caids of the south.