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   Chapter 3 THE CHILDHOOD OF NAOMI

The Scapegoat By Sir Hall Caine Characters: 19755

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


Throughout Tetuan and the country round about Israel was now an object of contempt. God had declared against him, God had brought him low, God Himself had filled him with confusion. Then why should man show him mercy?

But if he was despised he was still powerful. None dare openly insult him. And, between their fear and their scorn of him, the shifts of the rabble to give vent to their contempt were often ludicrous enough. Thus, they would call their dogs and their asses by his name, and the dogs would be the scabbiest in the streets, and the asses the laziest in the market.

He would be caught in the crush of the traffic at the town gate or at the gate of the Mellah, and while he stood aside to allow a line of pack-mules to pass he would hear a voice from behind him crying huskily, "Accursed old Israel! Get on home to your mother!" Then, turning quickly round, he would find that close at his heels a negro of most innocent countenance was cudgelling his donkey by that title.

He would go past the Saints' Houses in the public ways, and at the sound of his footsteps the bleached and eyeless lepers who sat under the white walls crying "Allah! Allah! Allah!" would suddenly change their cry to "Arrah! Arrah! Arrah!" "Go on! Go on! Go on!"

He would walk across the Sok on Fridays, and hear shrieks and peals of laughter, and see grinning faces with gleaming white teeth turned in his direction, and he would know that the story-tellers were mimicking his voice and the jugglers imitating his gestures.

His prosperity counted for nothing against the open brand of God's displeasure. The veriest muck-worm in the market-place spat out at sight of him. Moor and Jew, Arab and Berber-they all despised him!

Nevertheless, the disaster which had befallen his house had not crushed him. It had brought out every fibre of his being, every muscle of his soul. He had quarrelled with God by reason of it, and his quarrel with God had made his quarrel with his fellow-man the fiercer.

There was just one man in the town who found no offence in either form of warfare. The more wicked the one and the more outrageous the other, the better for his person.

It was the Governor of Tetuan. His name was El Arby, but he was known as Ben Aboo, the son of his father. That father had been none other than the late Sultan. Therefore Ben Aboo was a brother of Abd er-Rahman, though by another mother, a negro slave. To be a Sultan's brother in Morocco is not to be a Sultan's favourite, but a possible aspirant to his throne. Nevertheless Ben Aboo had been made a Kaid, a chief, in the Sultan's army, and eventually a commander-in-chief of his cavalry. In that capacity he had led a raid for arrears of tribute on the Beni Hasan, the Beni Idar, and the Wad Ras These rebellious tribes inhabit the country near to Tetuan, and hence Ben Aboo's attention had been first directed to that town. When he had returned from his expedition he offered the Sultan fifteen thousand dollars for the place of its Basha or Governor, and promised him thirty thousand dollars a year as tribute. The Sultan took his money, and accepted his promise. There was a Basha at Tetuan already, but that was a trifling difficulty. The good man was summoned to the Sultan's presence, accused of appropriating the Shereefian tributes, stripped of all he had, and cast into prison.

That was how Ben Aboo had become Governor of Tetuan, and the story of how Israel had become his informal Administrator of Affairs is no less curious. At first Ben Aboo seemed likely to lose by his dubious transaction. His new function was partly military and partly civil. He was a valiant soldier-the black blood of his slave-mother had counted for so much; but he was a bad administrator-he could neither read nor write nor reckon figures. In this dilemma his natural colleague would have been his Khaleefa, his deputy, Ali bin Jillool, but because this man had been the deputy of his predecessor also, he could not trust him. He had two other immediate subordinates, his Commander of Artillery and his Commander of Infantry, but neither of them could spell the letters of his name. Then there was his Taleb the Adel, his scribe the notary, Hosain ben Hashem, styled Haj, because he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, but he was also the Imam, or head of the Mosque, and the wily Ben Aboo foresaw the danger of some day coming into collision with the religious sentiment of his people. Finally, there was the Kadi, Mohammed ben Arby, but the judge was an official outside his jurisdiction, and he wanted a man who should be under his hand. That was the combination of circumstances whereby Israel came to Tetuan.

Israel's first years in his strange office had satisfied his master entirely. He had carried the Basha's seal and acted for him in all affairs of money. The revenues had risen to fifty thousand dollars, so that the Basha had twenty thousand to the good. Then Ben Aboo's ambition began to override itself. He started an oil-mill, and wanted Israel to select a hundred houses owned by rich men, that he might compel each house to take ten kollahs of oil-an extravagant quantity, at seven dollars for each kollah-an exorbitant price. Israel had refused. "It is not just," he had said.

Other expedients for enlarging his revenue Ben Aboo had suggested, but Israel had steadfastly resisted all of them. Sometimes the Governor had pretended that he had received an order from the Sultan to impose a gross and wicked tax, but Israel's answer had been the same. "There is no evil in the world but injustice," he had said. "Do justice, and you do all that God can ask or man expect."

For such opposition to the will of the Basha any other person would have been cast into a damp dungeon at night, and chained in the hot sun by day. Israel was still necessary. So Ben Aboo merely longed for the dawn of that day whereon he should need him no more.

But since the disaster which had befallen Israel's house everything had undergone a change. It was now Israel himself who suggested dubious means of revenue. There was no device of a crafty brain for turning the very air itself into money-ransoms, promissory notes, and false judgments-but Israel thought of it. Thus he persuaded the Governor to send his small currency to the Jewish shops to be changed into silver dollars at the rate of nine ducats to the dollar, when a dollar was worth ten in currency. And after certain of the shopkeepers, having changed fifty thousand dollars at that rate, fled to the Sultan to complain, Israel advised that their debtors should be called together, their debts purchased, and bonds drawn up and certified for ten times the amounts of them. Thus a few were banished from their homes in fear of imprisonment, many were sorely harassed, and some were entirely ruined.

It was a strange spectacle. He whom the rabble gibed at in the public streets held the fate of every man of them in his hand. Their dogs and their asses might bear his name, but their own lives and liberty must answer to it.

Israel looked on at all with an equal mind, neither flinching at his indignities nor glorying in his power. He beheld the wreck of families without remorse, and heard the wail of women and the cry of children without a qualm. Neither did he delight in the sufferings of them that had derided him. His evil impulse was a higher matter-his faith in justice had been broken up. He had been wrong. There was no such thing as justice in the world, and there could, therefore, be no such thing as injustice. There was no thing but the blind swirl of chance, and the wild scramble for life. The man had quarrelled with God.

But Israel's heart was not yet dead. There was one place, where he who bore himself with such austerity towards the world was a man of great tenderness. That place was his own home. What he saw there was enough to stir the fountains of his being-nay, to exhaust them, and to send him abroad as a river-bed that is dry.

In that first hour of his abasement, after he had been confounded before the enemies whom he had expected to confound, Israel had thought of himself, but Ruth's unselfish heart had even then thought only of the babe.

The child was born blind and dumb and deaf. At the feast of life there was no place left for it. So Ruth turned her face from it to the wall, and called on God to take it.

"Take it!" she cried-"take it! Make haste, O God, make haste and take it!"

But the child did not die. It lived and grew strong. Ruth herself suckled it, and as she nourished it in her bosom her heart yearned over it, and she forgot the prayer she had prayed concerning it. So, little by little, her spirit returned to her, and day by day her soul deceived her, and hour by hour an angel out of heaven seemed to come to her side and whisper "Take heart of hope, O Ruth! God does not afflict willingly. Perhaps the child is not blind, perhaps it is not deaf, perhaps it is not dumb. Who shall ye say? Wait and see!"

And, during the first few months of its life, Ruth could see no difference in her child from the children of other women. Sometimes she would kneel by its cradle and gaze into the flower-cup of its eye, an the eye was blue and beautiful, and there was nothing to say that the little cup was broken, and the little chamber dark. And sometimes she would look at the pretty shell of its ear, and the ear was round and full as a shell on the shore, and nothing told her that the voice of the sea was not heard in it, and that all within was silence.

So Ruth cherished her hope in secret, and whispered her heart and said, "It is well, all is well with the child. She will look upon my face and see it, and listen to my voice and hear it, and her own little tongue will yet speak to me, and make me very glad." And then an ineffable serenity would sprea

d over her face and transfigure it.

But when the time was come that a child's eyes, having grown familiar with the light, should look on its little hands, and stare at its little fingers, and clutch at its cradle, and gaze about in a peaceful perplexity at everything, still the eyes of Ruth's child did not open in seeing, but lay idle and empty. And when the time was ripe that a child's ears should hear from hour to hour the sweet babble of a mother's love, and its tongue begin to give back the words in lisping sounds, the ear of Ruth's child heard nothing, and its tongue was mute.

Then Ruth's spirit sank, but still the angel out of heaven seemed to come to her, and find her a thousand excuses, and say, "Wait, Ruth; only wait, only a little longer."

So Ruth held back her tears, and bent above her babe again, and watched for its smile that should answer to her smile, and listened for the prattle of its little lips. But never a sound as of speech seemed to break the silence between the words that trembled from her own tongue, and never once across her baby's face passed the light of her tearful smile. It was a pitiful thing to see her wasted pains, and most pitiful of all for the pains she was at to conceal them. Thus, every day at midday she would carry her little one into the patio, and watch if its eyes should blink in the sunshine; but if Israel chanced to come upon her then, she would drop her head and say, "How sweet the air is to-day, and how pleasant to sit in the sun!"

"So it is," he would answer, "so it is."

Thus, too, when a bird was singing from the fig-tree that grew in the court, she would catch up her child and carry it close, and watch if its ears should hear; but if Israel saw her, she would laugh-a little shrill laugh like a cry-and cover her face in confusion.

"How merry you are, sweetheart," he would say, and then pass into the house.

For a time Israel tried to humour her, seeming not to see what he saw, and pretending not to hear what he heard. But every day his heart bled at sight of her, and one day he could bear up no longer, for his very soul had sickened, and he cried, "Have done, Ruth!-for mercy's sake, have done! The child is a soul in chains, and a spirit in prison. Her eyes are darkness, like the tomb's, and her ears are silence, like the grave's. Never will she smile to her mother's smile, or answer to her father's speech. The first sound she will hear will be the last trump, and the first face she will see will be the face of God."

At that, Ruth flung herself down and burst into a flood of tears. The hope that she had cherished was dead. Israel could comfort her no longer. The fountain of his own heart was dry. He drew a long breath, and went away to his bad work at the Kasbah.

The child lived and thrived. They had called her Naomi, as they had agreed to do before she was born, though no name she knew of herself, and a mockery it seemed to name her. At four years of age she was a creature of the most delicate beauty. Notwithstanding her Jewish parentage, she was fair as the day and fresh as the dawn. And if her eyes were darkness, there was light within her soul; and if her ears were silence, there was music within her heart. She was brighter than the sun which she could not see, and sweeter than the songs which she could not hear. She was joyous as a bird in its narrow cage, and never did she fret at the bars which bound her. And, like the bird that sings at midnight, her cheery soul sang in its darkness.

Only one sound seemed ever to come from her little lips, and it was the sound of laughter. With this she lay down to sleep at night, and rose again in the morning. She laughed as she combed her hair, and laughed again as she came dancing out of her chamber at dawn.

She had only one sentinel on the outpost of her spirit, and that was the sense of touch and feeling. With this she seemed to know the day from the night, and when the sun was shining and when the sky was dark. She knew her mother, too, by the touch of her fingers, and her father by the brushing of his beard. She knew the flowers that grew in the fields outside the gate of the town, and she would gather them in her lap, as other children did, and bring them home with her in her hands. She seemed almost to know their colours also, for the flowers which she would twine in her hair were red, and the white were those which she would lay on her bosom. And truly a flower she was of herself, whereto the wind alone could whisper, and only the sun could speak aloud.

Sweet and touching were the efforts she sometimes made to cling to them that were about her. Thus her heart was the heart of a child, and she knew no delight like to that of playing with other children. But her father's house was under a ban; no child of any neighbour in Tetuan was allowed to cross its threshold, and, save for the children whom she met in the fields when she walked there by her mother's hand, no child did she ever meet.

Ruth saw this, and then, for the first time, she became conscious of the isolation in which she had lived since her marriage with Israel. She herself had her husband for companion and comrade, but her little Naomi was doubly and trebly alone-first, alone as a child that is the only child of her parents; again, alone as a child whose parents are cut off from the parents of other children; and yet again, once more, alone as a child that is blind and dumb.

But Israel saw it also, and one day he brought home with him from the Kasbah a little black boy with a sweet round face and big innocent white eyes which might have been the eyes of an angel. The boy's name was Ali, and he was four years old. His father had killed his mother for infidelity and neglect of their child, and, having no one to buy him out of prison, he had that day been executed. Then little Ali had been left alone in the world, and so Israel had taken him.

Ruth welcomed the boy, and adopted him. He had been born a Mohammedan, but secretly she brought him up as a Jew. And for some years thereafter no difference did she make between him and her own child that other eyes could see. They ate together, they walked abroad together, they played together, they slept together, and the little black head of the boy lay with the fair head of the girl on the same white pillow.

Strange and pathetic were the relations between these little exiles of humanity I One knew not whether to laugh or cry at them. First, on Ali's part, a blank wonderment that when he cried to Naomi, "Come!" she did not hear, when he asked "Why?" she did not answer; and when he said "Look!" she did not see, though her blue eyes seemed to gaze full into his face. Then, a sort of amused bewilderment that her little nervous fingers were always touching his arms and his hands, and his neck and his throat. But long before he had come to know that Naomi was not as he was, that Nature had not given her eyes to see as he saw, and ears to hear as he heard, and a tongue to speak as he spoke, Nature herself had overstepped the barriers that divided her from him. He found that Naomi had come to understand him, whatever in his little way he did, and almost whatever in his little way he said. So he played with her as he would have played with any other playmate, laughing with her, calling to her, and going through his foolish little boyish antics before her. Nevertheless, by some mysterious knowledge of Nature's own teaching, he seemed to realise that it was his duty to take care of her. And when the spirit and the mischief in his little manly heart would prompt him to steal out of the house, and adventure into the streets with Naomi by his side, he would be found in the thick of the throng perhaps at the heels of the mules and asses, with Naomi's hand locked in his hand, trying to push the great creatures of the crowd from before her, and crying in his brave little treble, "Arrah!" "Ar-rah!" "Ar-r-rah!"

As for Naomi, the coming of little black Ali was a wild delight to her. Whatever Ali did, that would she do also. If he ran she would run; if he sat she would sit; and meanwhile she would laugh with a heart of glee, though she heard not what he said, and saw not what he did, and knew not what he meant. At the time of the harvest, when Ruth took them out into the fields, she would ride on Ali's back, and snatch at the ears of barley and leap in her seat and laugh, yet nothing would she see of the yellow corn, and nothing would she hear of the song of the reapers, and nothing would she know of the cries of Ali, who shouted to her while he ran, forgetting in his playing that she heard him not. And at night, when Ruth put them to bed in their little chamber, and Ali knelt with his face towards Jerusalem, Naomi would kneel beside him with a reverent air, and all her laughter would be gone. Then, as he prayed his prayer, her little lips would move as if she were praying too, and her little hands would be clasped together, and her little eyes would be upraised.

"God bless father, and mother, and Naomi, and everybody," the black boy would say.

And the little maid would touch his hands and hi throat, and pass her fingers over his face from his eyelids to his lips, and then do as he did, and in her silence seem to echo him.

Pretty and piteous sights! Who could look on them without tears? One thing at least was clear if the soul of this child was in prison, nevertheless it was alive; and if it was in chains, nevertheless it could not die, but was immortal and unmaimed and waited only for the hour when it should be linked to other souls, soul to soul in the chains of speech. But the years went on, and Naomi grew in beauty and increased in sweetness, but no angel came down to open the darkened windows of her eyes, and draw aside the heavy curtains of her ears.

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