Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of William Charles Scully > Text of Aiala

A short story by William Charles Scully


Title:     Aiala
Author: William Charles Scully [More Titles by Scully]


I promised Lourens Brand not to tell the tale of his strange adventure and its stranger consequences until at least ten years should have elapsed from the date of his departure from South Africa, and the promise has been kept in the spirit if not in the letter. Poor Brand never left South Africa--in the flesh, at least. His bones lie buried in an unfenced graveyard, near the deserted site of an old mining camp in the north of the Transvaal, where he died of fever in 1885.

Brand was a Dutchman; his family established itself generations back in Java, and several of his ancestors were prominent officials under the old Dutch East India Company. He had a dash of Malay blood in his veins--his great-grandfather having married the daughter of one of the Singapore rajahs in the last century. This, however, one would never have suspected from his appearance, for he was tall and blonde, with blue eyes, and the presence and bearing of a sea-king. His disposition was diffident and somewhat retiring, and his Eastern blood showed itself in a certain dreaminess and a tendency to dwell rather on the occult than the obvious properties and relations of the things around him. He was a mechanical engineer by profession.

Brand landed in Cape Town in the early autumn of 188--, and took lodgings in the house where I was boarding. This was on the Sir Lowry road, not far from the Castle. We struck up an intimacy almost immediately. He had been educated at Leyden, and had returned to Java, meaning to practise his profession there, but the scope was too small for a man of his energetic disposition, so he came to South Africa in the hope of obtaining employment in some mine. He spoke the Malay language perfectly, and could quote copiously from the Malay version of the Koran.

One thing must, for the adequate understanding of this tale, be laid stress on. Brand, although twenty-six years of age, had never strayed in the fields where the wild oats grow. His nature was passionate in its depths, but the passion still slept. It was probably an innate fastidiousness combined with a strong sense of shame that kept his feet in the path of purity. Be this as it may, the fact remains that although he had lived in the East, where, they tell us, Galahads are uncommon, Brand had never kissed a woman except his mother and sisters. As regards religion, he was what is known as an agnostic.

It was on the second day after arriving in Cape Town that Brand went down to the docks to see about the landing of some of his effects from the steamer. As it happened, another steamer had just arrived from the east coast ports, bringing a cargo of Malay pilgrims on their return journey from Mecca, and a lot of the pilgrims' friends had come to meet and greet them. A number of cabs with Malay drivers were standing about on the wharf, and in one of these Brand noticed, sitting by herself, a young Malay girl of such rare beauty that it could not be concealed by the formless hideousness of the local Malay garb. The driver had gone on board the steamer to greet some of his friends, and left the cab to take care of itself.

The cab was close to the rail-track, and as Brand stood looking at the girl he heard the warning whistle of a dock-engine which was rapidly approaching. The startled horse moved a few paces forward and again stood, this time right on the rail-track. Nothing could now save the cab, but Brand sprang forward, lifted the girl in his arms, and sprang with her out of danger just an instant before the vehicle and the hapless horse were crushed into a mass of hopeless ruin.

The girl was, of course, terribly frightened, and she clung convulsively to her preserver. He spoke to her reassuringly in the Malay language, which, strange to say, she appeared to understand perfectly. With the exception of the priests, very few of the Cape Town Malays understand the Malay tongue, they having adopted a very corrupt dialect of Dutch. He was more than ever struck by her beauty. Her figure was effectually concealed by her dress, but she was tall, and her head, which had become freed from the head-dress when she was being dragged out of the cab, was small, delicately moulded, and gracefully poised over a pair of shapely shoulders, on a neck like the stem of an asphodel. Her colour was very light, her face was a pure oval, and between her shaded eyelids lurked the most wonderful depths of dark, liquid brown that ever drowned the reason of a man.

After being effusively thanked by the girl's friends, who had now come with a swarm of others from the steamer, Brand took his leave of her with a certain twinge of regret. The girl's eyes were to him henceforth an abiding remembrance.

It was about a month after the rescue of the girl that Brand's strange adventure took place.

It was now winter of the year of the small-pox epidemic. The streets of Cape Town at the lower levels were slushy as only Cape Town streets can be, for the rain had been falling steadily for ten days. Then followed a day and a night of absolutely cloudless and unseasonably warm weather, and it was on the night in question that Brand took the walk which had such remarkable consequences.

Brand, another man, and I dined together at the club. The other man had arrived by the last mail steamer from England, and he and I had booked to start by the up-country train at half-past ten. Our luggage was safe at the railway-station, and having nothing to do for the moment, it was suggested that we might take a walk to some of the higher levels where we would be comparatively free of the mud, and from where we might obtain a good view of Table Mountain and the city lights. We accordingly lit our pipes and wandered forth.

There is always much to fascinate in the streets of a strange city, and the Cape Town streets at night, filled as they are with men and women of all shades of colour, garbed variously and speaking divers tongues, are especially interesting--at all events to any one with an imagination.

On this night the streets possessed an unusual attraction of a weird and impressive kind, for the small-pox epidemic was at its greatest height, and a brooding terror overshadowed the stricken city. Every one abroad seemed to have a furtive look. When two met near a lamp-post startled glances were exchanged, and in hurrying along the pavements the passers sheered off to avoid one another. Every now and then an empty coffin would be seen being hurried along the middle of the street upon men's shoulders. The few cabs on the almost deserted stands looked like hearses, their occupation was almost gone for the time being, for hardly a soul would venture into a cab for fear of infection.

We strolled down Adderley Street for some distance, and then, turning to the left, went up Long Market Street, across Saint George's and Long Streets, and on until we found ourselves in the Malay quarter on the slope at the base of the Lion's Rump. Here silence and desolation reigned supreme. The moon had now arisen, so on reaching half-way up the ascent we paused to examine the view and to take breath. Looking back we saw the gleaming city stretched like a vast necropolis under the crags of the great mountain, which gleamed silvery in the moonlight. To our left opened the glassy expanse of Table Bay, with the breakwater lights glinting on the water. From the Malay graveyard on the hill-side above us came the shrill howls of the mourners. There was not a breath of wind. Owing to the comparative suspension of traffic the city seemed silent as the grave.

We retraced our steps for a short distance, and then, turning to the right, walked along a deserted street of white, flat-topped, sepulchre-like houses. All at once we became aware of a sound of loud wailing going on in a house to our left. We stood still for a space and listened. The shrill treble of a woman's cry could be distinguished, and also the quavering tones of an old man's voice, full of the deepest agony. We drew near the house very softly. The windows were covered by dark Venetian shutters, between the slats of which a dim light could be discerned. The house was one of a row all more or less similar in size and shape, and built touching each other. Each house had a paved "stoep" in front, with a masoned seat at either end. Against the house next to the one in which the wailing was going on, was standing a ladder which just reached the top of the parapet.

After listening for a few moments we moved quietly away and continued our course along the street. Soon we turned again to the right, and afterwards to the left. Eventually we found that we had lost ourselves. We wandered about helplessly for some time, getting into blind alleys and streets that led nowhere, and thus having to retrace our steps over and over again. Quarter by quarter the hour was chimed from the belfry tower of the far-away Dutch church, and when ten o'clock struck, and we were still lost, the situation looked serious for us who required to catch the train in half-an-hour.

Just after this, however, we found ourselves in the street where we had listened to the wailing, and soon the rumbling of an approaching cab was heard. After being hailed, the driver, an Irishman of even more than average volubility, swore with fervour that his cab had never, since it was turned out with its first coat of varnish from the very best workshop in the whole of South Africa, had a "dirty Malay" sitting across its axle (it was from Malays that the infection was mostly dreaded); that the vehicle was known throughout the length and breadth of Cape Town as "the white man's cab"; that if we weren't too proud to take a look at the panel, we would find the cab's name, "The Blanche," in "purty gould letthers." Of course "ivry wan" who was educated knew that to mean just "white," and nothing else in the English language.

So we bade Brand farewell and were driven, smoking germicidically, to the railway-station, which we reached just in time to catch the train.



Brand strolled slowly down the street and again stopped before the house of sorrow, where the wailing had now ceased. Yielding to a reprehensible impulse of morbid curiosity he approached the shuttered window, where light still faintly gleamed, and endeavoured to find an aperture through which he could see into the house. By looking upwards between the diagonally-fixed slats he could see the ceiling, but the lower areas of the chamber were quite out of the range of his vision. Listening carefully, he seemed to hear a smothered sob and then a sigh. One of those unaccountable impulses that grip men by the throat sometimes, and make them do to their own undoing things which under ordinary circumstances they would never dream of attempting, then overcame him, and he felt that, come what may, he must see the inside of that room. He caught hold of the shutter and gently tried to open it, but the outside leaf was firmly bolted to the window-sill, and could not be moved. However, in passing his hand over the slats he found that one was slightly loose and yielded to pressure. He pressed this slat and it slid upwards and inwards, leaving a space of about an inch and a half in width through which he could look.

The room was one of medium size, with a fireplace at one end. A lamp hung from the ceiling and distributed a dim light. The papered walls were of a deep crimson hue, and the floor was covered with Indian mats. A very large cushioned divan draped with dark green silk stood before a curtained recess in the opposite wall, and a large open volume lay upon a Koran stand of black wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A number of feminine garments, principally of silk, lay about the room in disorder.

Sitting on the divan and facing the window was a young girl, apparently a Malay; and although her face was partly covered by her hands, Brand could see that she was very lovely. Judging by her figure she looked to be about seventeen years of age. She was bent forward with her elbows resting on her knees, and her long black hair hung down in a rolled sheaf over one side of her bosom. Her neck, arms, and legs below the knees were bare, and of the most delicate symmetry. Her only clothing appeared to be a short petticoat and bodice, both of red silk delicately embroidered with white, and a pair of richly-worked sandals. Her skin was even lighter than that delicate, slightly dusky tint usually only found in pure-bred Malay girls and young boys.

Brand withdrew from the window with a flush of shame at his dishonourable conduct, and stood in the middle of the street. The huge bulk of Table Mountain loomed sheer before him, transfigured by the white splendour of the moonlight,--a faint film of mist hanging motionless over its highest western buttress. A gentle breeze was now streaming from the south-east. This, flowing over the city, bore to his ear a low and confused murmur of belated life. From the graveyard high on the hill-side above him still pierced the shrill cadences of the mourners. Then an indescribable feeling of oppression came over him, a sort of hopeless sense of the mystery overshadowing Man and his destinies--Death, the falling of the awful veil that men, since the beginning of Time, had been trying to pierce with their agonised prayers. The God who dwelt behind it and made no sign--what did it matter what He were called--Jehovah or Allah--whether the favoured interpreter of His laws to men were called Christ or Mahomet, or whether the broken heart sobbed out its yearning appeal from the church pew, or from the carpet on the pavement of a mosque?

Did men tell truth when they declared that they could realise His existence with absolute certainty? Where in this world of shows and shadows might a humble seeker happily find--not Him--that were too much to hope for--but some sacred, authentic shred from the hem of His divine robe? Just then from the tower of the adjacent mosque pealed out the clear voice of a priest calling the faithful to prayer. Brand smiled wearily--prayer, in the sense of communion with the object prayed to, was as unintelligible to him as colour to one born blind.

These impassive house-fronts that he passed in his slow, absorbed stroll--what a dark, persistent stream of life trickled from eternity to eternity behind them. These Malays of the Cape, although they had shed their language like an outworn garment on the wayside, and had adapted an alien tongue to their needs, had they not kept their previously adopted faith, their customs, and their prejudices intact? What strange quality was it in Mahometanism that rendered it so easy to grasp and so difficult to let go? What curiosity was aroused in respect of the family life of the Malay, which he has guarded so jealously from the ken of the European who rules him from the next street. Yet, as Brand knew, the dwellers in these tomb-like houses hoped and feared very much on the same lines as did the other children of men. And how much alike was not all human nature after all? The scene he had just witnessed, was it not thoroughly and ordinarily feminine in all its detail--from the careful manner in which the sheaf of opulent hair was rolled and tied to prevent it tangling, to the petulant tap of the sandalled foot on the floor, and the way the girl threw herself on the divan? Yes, the great beginning and the great end, with the devious way and the changeful weather between--the way so smooth for some and so rough for others, but with the one splendid flower blooming for all by the wayside--the triple mystery of birth and love and death--was it not all common to him and to the alien dwellers in these silent streets? Then the present terror of the pestilence made manifest in the solitude by the wails of the mourners smote him to the heart with a sense of exalted sympathy, and a deep pity for the stricken people came home to him.

Brand, absorbed in his reflections, had unwittingly wandered back some distance down the deserted street, and he now turned back with the intention of returning to his lodgings. As he drew near the house of sorrow for the third time, he again noticed the ladder leaning against the parapet next, door, and the impulse seized him to climb to the top and see what the city looked like from there. This impulse he immediately and unthinkingly yielded to. Stepping from the ladder he stood for a space on the flat roof of mason-work behind the parapet. Then he walked softly towards the back and looked down into the yards behind the row. Here, as in the street, everything seemed to be frozen into white silence.

The roof of the house next to Brand on his left was about three feet higher than the one he was standing on, and was separated from it by a parapet rising a foot higher still. He vaulted over the latter and walked on for some yards; then he again stood still and regarded the view. After a pause of a few moments he turned and retraced his steps, meaning now to descend and return to his lodgings without further delay. When, however, he reached the place where he had ascended he found to his alarm and perplexity that the ladder had disappeared.

It seemed most extraordinary. He had not heard a sound or seen a living soul. He glanced up and down the street; all was vacant and as still as death. Then the awkwardness and danger of his situation came home to him in full force. What was he to do? The descent to the street was nearly twenty feet, that into the back-yard rather more, but might be broken by taking advantage of a sort of out-house built as a lean-to against the main building. But in the yard he would be like a rat in a trap. The yards at each side appeared to be all more or less constructed on the same principle. His position was truly a desperate one, and he knew this perfectly well. Most unfounded accusations had been made against the Malays, to the effect that they were maliciously endeavouring to spread the disease among the Europeans by means of infected clothing. Indignation on this account ran high, and would no doubt be ruthlessly vented on any European found in such an extremely equivocal position as he was now in. Inwardly cursing his folly, he took off his boots, remounted the roof to his left, and began walking along the tops of the houses in the hope of discovering some means of escape.

After passing over the roofs of four houses he noticed that there seemed to be a considerable drop to the roof of the next. He approached this, and to his horror there arose before him from behind the parapet, the dark, bearded face of a man who held a gleaming knife in his teeth.

Brand turned and fled just as the man sprang over the parapet. As he did so he heard a rough, guttural exclamation behind him, and the sound of pursuing footsteps. As he sprang down to the roof of the house he had ascended at, he heard his pursuer fall with a heavy thud on the hard mason-work.

Brand rushed on, and when he reached the roof of the next house he noticed a curious cowl-shaped wooden structure, something like that which covers the approach to the forecastle ladder on the deck of a ship. He quickly turned and took refuge in this on the chance of his pursuer, who had not yet reappeared, and who was most probably lying stunned from his fall, going past it. When, however, he entered the cowl the floor gave way almost noiselessly beneath him, and he fell through nearly twenty feet of space, with a thud on what seemed to be a pile of tumbled clothing. He lay half stunned for a few seconds, and then sat up. He found himself in complete darkness. A sound of low muttering reached his ear, but from what direction it came he could not tell, and a strange smell suggestive somewhat of incense was strongly perceptible.

Searching in his pockets Brand managed to find a match, which he struck on his boot. He found himself in a small room out of which one doorway led. On the floor, which was of clay, was a heap of clothing of all sorts, interspersed with bedding and mats, all thrown together in the greatest confusion. He made for the door and turned the handle softly. The leaf swung towards him. Passing into the doorway with his hands outstretched, he groped forward and came in contact with the heavy folds of a curtain, which he gently drew aside.

A blaze of white light nearly blinded him. He found himself on the threshold of a room about twenty feet square. From the ceiling a large brazen lamp hung, and other lamps with burnished reflectors shone from each of the four walls. On a low bier in the centre of the room lay the dead body of a young man clad in green robes, his face frightfully disfigured from the effects of small-pox. At the head and foot of the bier stood braziers on which scented woods were burning, and the almost invisible fumes which arose caused the smell which he had perceived.

Crouching on the ground at the foot of the bier was an old man clad in a cassock-like garment of dingy green alpaca. He was bent and decrepit-looking, and he swayed slowly from side to side repeating some words softly in a high-pitched, quavering tone. His long, white beard and bald head were plentifully strewn with ashes, and his disordered turban of green silk was thrown upon the floor next to him.

Brand gazed spell-bound for a moment at the strange spectacle. The old man's profile was towards him. Then words in an unknown dialect were hoarsely shouted by some one on the roof, evidently at the aperture through which Brand had made his entrance. The old man slowly turned his head in the direction of the curtained door, and Brand then saw that he was stone blind.

At the opposite side of the room was another door also curtained, so Brand, hearing a sound as though some one was descending through the aperture by means of a ladder, crossed the room, stepping noiselessly upon the soft carpet. He passed close to the head of the bier, pushed the curtain to one side, opened the door, and entered the room into which he had been looking from the street.

The girl started up from the divan with a smothered cry and gazed wildly at the intruder. To his intense surprise he recognised in her the one whose life he had saved on the wharf.

The girl evidently recognised him as well, for she checked the cry upon her lips, and the terror faded out of her face. Brand closed the door softly behind him, and then advanced towards her, his hands stretched out with a gesture of appeal. As he did this he whispered in the Malay tongue:

"Save me, for God's sake; they want to kill me."

Just then a movement was heard in the next room, and immediately afterwards could be distinguished the hoarse, guttural tones which Brand associated with the bearded man who carried the knife between his teeth, and whose pursuit had filled him with such terror. The eyes of the girl softened; she hesitated for a second, and then hurriedly motioned to Brand to hide himself in the recess next to the divan. When he had effected this she laid herself down in her former position.

No sooner had this happened than the door opened, and some one, from the voice evidently a woman, entered the room. After discussing rapidly for a few seconds in Dutch so corrupt that Brand could barely understand a word here and there, this person left, closing the door behind her. Then a noise as of many people moving about on the roof, the pavement, and at the back of the premises arose. This, however, soon died down, and dead silence, only broken from time to time by a groan or a cry from the old mourner, again reigned.

After an interval the girl arose, turned the lamp down low, and whispered to Brand to emerge from his concealment. He had now completely regained his self-possession, and he fully expected to be able to escape from the house with the girl's assistance, without much difficulty or delay. She had now put on a loose skirt, and wrapped a white, silken shawl over her shoulders and bosom.

Brand told her the exact truth as to the circumstances under which he had entered the room, and the girl evidently believed him. He thanked her warmly for what she had done, and begged of her to show him a way by which he might make his escape. This, however, she declared, to his horror, she was absolutely unable to do. The window was, she assured him, fastened down with nails, and the only other way of possible exit lay through the room in which the corpse was lying, and thence through a passage to the front door. This course was obviously impossible under the circumstances, so there was nothing for it but for him to remain where he was until the following morning, and then take advantage of circumstances as they might arise.

The recess in the wall was about two feet deep, and in this the girl made a sort of a couch for her uninvited and unwilling guest, who lay awake throughout the whole of the long July night, cursing his folly, and wondering as to what the end of his adventure was to be. The girl lay on the divan close to him, and although she hardly moved, Brand could tell from her breathing that she was as sleepless as himself.

Soon after daybreak the girl arose and, speaking softly, told Brand to lie quietly where he was whilst she went out to see if the coast were clear. Soon after this the sounds of people moving about the house could be heard, and then a deadly feeling of being trapped took possession of the concealed man. Had it not been for the certainty of compromising the girl he would have risked the worst and burst his way through the window. He felt, of course, that after her heroic conduct in shielding him at terrible risk to herself, such a course would be unpardonable, and he dismissed the idea at once. By and by the noise in the next room increased; the heavy, shuffling tread of several men could be heard, and the wailing of the old mourner rose to a high pitch. Then came stillness. The body of the dead hadji had been carried away to be prepared for burial.

After another interval the girl returned, and in a whisper told Brand to follow her. Then she sped swiftly through the curtained room and into a passage to the left; then down this passage to the right, and out into a small courtyard, on the opposite side of which a detached building stood. This building was double-storied at one end. The girl darted across the yard into the detached building, and Brand followed her through the half-opened door. He found himself in a sort of lumber store, which contained, amongst other things, a large number of packing-cases piled one over the other. In obedience to a gesture on the part of the girl, Brand entered a second room through a doorway standing open just in front of him. Here he found himself in semi-darkness. The girl closed the door behind him, and then ran quickly back across the yard to the house.

Brand's eyes soon accustomed themselves to the gloom, and then he began to examine his prison. He found here also a number of packing-cases, some apparently full of merchandise and others containing bound volumes of the Koran in the Malay tongue. In the corner of the room stood a ladder, and immediately above it an open trap-door, evidently leading to an upper chamber. He mounted the ladder and soon found himself in a small, cheerful-looking room with a window at either side. It contained a small table, a chair, and a bracket which hung in one of the corners. A thick, new carpet was on the floor, and on one side were heaped a number of rich rugs which had evidently not been woven in Western looms. On the bracket stood a jug of water, a loaf of bread, some baked meat, and a small quantity of fruit. Brand closed the trap-door, took a long drink of water,--which he had been longing for,--and flung himself down upon the pile of rugs.

The morning was for Brand one deadly monotony of apprehension. Once only did he hear any evidence of movement below, and then it was the sound of a footstep followed by the light click of some metal utensil being placed on the floor. Just afterwards he cautiously lifted the trap-door and looked down. He saw a bucket containing water, a rough towel, and a piece of soap. He had heard the sound of the key being turned in the door, so he descended and had a refreshing wash. After this he re-ascended to the upper room, taking a copy of the Koran with him. What he saw when he looked out of the windows was not reassuring. The building stood at one side of a closed yard of small size but with very high walls. It was quite certain that there was no means of exit except through the house. Even could he cross these walls he knew from his recollection of what he had seen from the roof that his position would be no better. The trapped feeling overcame him again, and he threw himself on the floor in despair.

Early in the afternoon he heard the door below opened softly, and just afterwards the girl ascended through the trap-door. She brought some food,--a few hard-boiled eggs, a dish of meat cooked after the Malay fashion in a paste, and some dates. Brands first question was as to the practicability of his escaping, but the girl strongly negatived the idea of any attempt in that direction being made for the present. The house was, she said, so arranged that until some occasion arose upon which all the dwellers except the old priest were absent, he could not possibly get away without being discovered. She seated herself on the rug next to him and they talked together like old friends. He ascertained from her that he was on the premises of a very celebrated Malay priest,--the girl's grandfather. This was a wealthy man, who combined commerce with the practice of official religious functions. Two of his sons had managed his business concerns, which had principally to do with the importation of silken fabrics from the East. One of the sons had died of the pest, and the other was away on a trading trip to Madagascar. The dead body which Brand had seen was that of the old priest's youngest and favourite son, a promising young hadji of highly reputed sanctity, who had returned but a few weeks previously from Mecca, only to be smitten by small-pox in its deadliest form. Altogether four members of the family had died,--one an elderly widowed daughter of the old priest, and the other a female servant.

Brand also learned her own history, which was peculiar and interesting. Her name was Aiala. Her father had been an Englishman who, on being converted to Islam, had married a daughter of the old priest. This accounted for her knowledge of European ways and her sympathetic apprehension of European modes of thought, both of which had puzzled Brand extremely. After her fathers death, two years previously, she had left Java and had come to Cape Town to join her grandfather. She had been very unhappy in her new surroundings; the local peculiarities of the Malays were distasteful to her; she could hardly understand anything of their speech. They, divining her contempt for them, and recognising her superiority, disliked her intensely. She made no friends, and the only one who had treated her with sympathy or kindness was the young hadji who was now dead. To him she had been much attached. She had recently been promised in marriage to a man for whom she had no regard of any kind, and who was much older than she was.

Before leaving, the girl made Brand solemnly promise, with his hand on the Koran, that he would make no attempt to escape without her co-operation. She reminded him of the terrible risk she ran in thus hiding him, and that discovery would undoubtedly result in his death and her ruin. His disappearance was, she said, a mystery to the whole neighbourhood. He had been seen by others on the roof, and an organised hunt had accordingly taken place. The black-bearded man was continually on the watch, and had sworn, if he could find him, to have the stranger's life. Brand, after some hesitation which she overcame by falling at his feet in tears, made the promise she demanded, and regretted having done so immediately afterwards.

Aiala returned late that night and sat in the chair before the window, with the moonlight shining on her beautiful face, and flashing back in softened and enriched splendour from the depths of her glorious eyes. Her proximity began to engender strange emotions in Brand, and to make some unsuspected springs stir in the depths of his being. Perhaps it was that the Malay strain in his blood had given a certain fibre to his heartstrings, which required some such influence as this to draw it to vibrating tension.

After pressing his hand in silence to her breast, Aiala stole softly away, leaving Brand to dream till dawn of her loveliness. She returned early next morning, bringing food, clean linen, and other things conducive to his comfort. The rain had again set in, and the prospect which Brand regarded from the windows of his prison was the most cheerless imaginable,--just dingy, yellow walls streaming with water. He again besought the girl to try and arrange for his escape, and after a few moments of deep thought she promised to let him out, irrespective of risks, on the following day. It had hitherto struck Brand as extremely strange that she should have consistently placed obstacles in the way of every project for escaping which he suggested.

All day long Aiala kept flitting up and down the ladder. She was dressed in the most splendid attire. After the death of her uncle the more valuable of the contents of the shop had been removed for safe-keeping to the old priest's dwelling-house, and the girl thus had access to a quantity of gorgeous Eastern finery, and in this she now revelled to the utmost. The intimacy between her and Brand made rapid progress. She was radiant with smiles so long as he avoided the subject of his departure. When, however, he made any allusion to his wish to escape, she wept bitterly, and begged of him not to be her undoing.

They talked of the scenes of their childhood in far-off Java,--of how the children used to go forth in troops in the early morning from the "kampong," the village built of bamboo, to gather into baskets the "melatti" flowers that had fallen during the night from the trees, until the ground was covered as with a white carpet; of how they would weave the blossoms into garlands and long festoons, wherewith all, even the criminal going to suffer on the gallows, would be decked. From thus talking over scenes which they both knew and loved, they attained to a strange intuitive understanding of each other. Aiala had been her father's favourite child, and he, without teaching her his own tongue, had developed her mind to a degree almost unknown among women of her mother's race. Her finely-moulded head contained a strange farrago of fantastic and poetical notions, and for one so illiterate she had a wonderful gift of language. Her memory was very retentive, especially for poetry and passages from the Koran, which she would repeat with a remarkable faculty of original expression, while her sensitive face reflected the spirit of the words.

Brand, however, did not even remotely suspect what was the true state of the case,--that the girl loved him with the full strength of her passionate nature. The man who had appeared twice in her life, each time in a great crisis, had stamped himself indelibly on the untouched wax of her heart, and she felt, without even defining the feeling to herself, that her love and her life had become one and the same. From the day when he lifted her from the cab in his arms she had tenderly cherished the memory of the strong, tall, blue-eyed stranger who had rescued her from a terrible death, and who looked like a god among the uncouth, patois-jabbering crowd, from the like of which her only acquaintance was drawn. Moreover, was he not of the race of the dead father whom she had loved so well? And when he rushed into her presence, a hunted fugitive, had she not--after the first shock of surprise was over--been filled with exalted joy at the thought that this man of men was hers to save or to slay with a word? And whilst he cowered until dawn behind the curtain within a yard of where she lay, outwardly composed, but inwardly seething as though with the thunder and the tumult of the sea pent within her breast, throughout the long night made splendid by starry, sleepless dreams, had her very soul not melted in the ardent crucible of her burning hopes and re-formed in the mould of the man whose personality was a revelation to her, far nobler than her highest ideal?

Aiala had hitherto been loverless; now passion awoke in her torrid, Eastern nature like a summer tempest on an Indian Sea, and its waves' resistless strength undermined what had hitherto been the impregnable rock of Brand's insensibility. All the untaught wiles which are as instinctive to the natural woman in her youth as is preening its feathers to a bird in the spring-time, were lavished on him, and long before he even suspected it, Aiala had filled his heart as completely as he filled hers.

She bade him farewell in the dusk, promising to return as soon as ever she could manage again to escape. When the weary, leaden-footed hours dragged past and yet she did not come, Brand was in despair. He thought something had happened to prevent her coming at all that night, and the agony of longing which he underwent taught him unmistakably that the love he had dreamt of, but never before experienced, had at length made its home in his heart.

A sound in the room below threw him into an ecstasy of expectation, and just afterwards the trap-door was lifted with the usual creaking sound which he had come to regard as sweeter than the sweetest music. It was absolutely dark; the moon had not yet arisen, and the wind-driven rain hissed against the streaming window-panes.

Brand came forward to the corner where the trap-door was, and his outstretched hands came in contact with Aiala, who was shivering, apparently with cold, beneath a heavy, wet cloak. She slid from his attempted embrace with a low breath of laughter, and when he followed her she again eluded him. This, acting on his over-wrought mind and his inexperience, vexed him sorely, and he sat down on the chair in silence and weary perplexity.

After a few moments she startled him by striking a match and lighting a small lamp, which she then placed on the bracket. Brand then noticed that she had hung dark cloths across the windows.

He stood up and looked at her in wonderment. A thick, dark cloak covered her from head to foot and, being drawn in around her throat with a string, formed a hood which quite hid her face. When she lifted the lighted lamp to the bracket he saw with a thrill that her arms were bare from firm, round wrist to shapely shoulder. Then she slowly turned towards him and gazed fixedly into his eyes from the darkness of her hood. Lifting her hands slowly to her throat she untied the string, and then made a sudden, backward movement with her head. The cloak slid down behind her to the floor.

She was clad after the fashion of her native land in a "kabaai," or robe of delicate, fawn-coloured silk, and a "sarong" or skirt of the same material, cerise-coloured. Her thick, glossy, black hair hung loosely over her shoulders; her throat, arms, and ankles were bare, and her feet were covered by delicate sandals of crimson silk. In her hair and around her bosom were garlanded white blossoms of a kind that Brand was unacquainted with, strung together after the manner of the "melatti" flowers, and emitting a very sweet and pungent scent.

They stood, hardly a pace apart, and gazed at each other, the girl with parted lips and heaving breast, and Brand awed to a statue before her beauty and the spell of her eyes. Then she said in a steady voice:

"I have come to bid you farewell. To-morrow morning the doors will be opened to you, and you can go forth; then I shall die."

She spoke with a calmness that carried conviction. Brand's love had become as necessary to her untutored heart, with its wild, elemental promptings, as the air to her nostrils; and he, with his perceptions rendered acute by emotional stress, knew that she spoke but the truth.

Then Aiala's strength seemed suddenly to give way; she covered her face with her hands, swayed like a lily in the wind, and faltered to the ground at Brand's feet.

The spell was broken; the love in the rising stream of which he had unwittingly been standing overwhelmed and bore Brand away in its resistless course. He bent down to Aiala and clasped her to his breast. She nestled to him with low murmurs of blissful content, and wound her soft arms about his neck.

As their lips met for the first time, the sordid world rolled away and was forgotten, and they seemed to rest on some palm-shaded isle in a sea of infinite delight, where the waves sang around them strong songs of peace and joy.


Thus love grew, burgeoned, and flowered between these two thus strangely thrown together in the house of pestilence and death, like some rich, exotic plant. Brand no longer thought of departing. To him had come the end of Time, and the realisation of Eternity through infinity of joy. The ever-present danger of discovery, the inevitable consequence of which would have been death, added ardour to their bliss even as wind causes glowing embers to flush and glow more hotly. Their short meetings were full of rapture, and the hours they spent apart were long, delicious trances of remembrance and anticipation. Time was like a golden chain studded here and there at uncertain intervals with fire-hearted rubies.

The rainy, tempestuous weather continued, but the lovers did not miss the sun by day nor the stars by night. Safe in their warm nest they would listen to the muffled roar of the rain on the masoned roof, thrilling with a delicious realisation of the contrast between the cold and darkness outside, and the love and light which filled their little chamber. Under the influence of fulfilled love Aiala became a new being, developing fresh and wonderful qualities every day. To her lover she was a perpetually unfolding rose of wonder and sweetness. Once, in the midst of a spring-day noon of changing moods she burst into tears, flung herself at Brand's feet, and confessed that she had all along deceived him as to the difficulty of escaping; that on any of the nights of his imprisonment she could, without much danger, have guided him through the almost deserted house and into the silent street. Would he forgive her for having thus deceived him? He only found in what she told him a reason for loving her the more, if that were possible.

One morning, after Aiala had left him, Brand heard the sound of footsteps and voices in the lower chamber. Then followed silence. After some little time he lifted the trap-door and looked down. He saw, lying upon trestles, the hideous corpse of an old woman,--another victim of the scourge. When Aiala came again she did not mention the circumstance, and when Brand asked her about it she appeared to consider it not worth regarding. The body was that of the last of the original domestic servants, who had died during the previous night. It was removed for burial after dark.

Now and then Brand thought carelessly of the possibility of either Aiala or himself taking the disease, but familiarity had, as is usual, bred contempt for the danger. Moreover, Brand was strongly imbued with fatalism, absorbed insensibly from the people among whom so much of his life had been spent. Once when he alluded to the danger, Aiala mocked lightly at the notion, and he felt reassured. The superabundant vitality with which she thrilled seemed as though it were sufficient to defy any form of disease, if not death itself.

Aiala took the greatest delight in ministering to the wants of her lover. She brought him food in delicate variety, and changes of wearing apparel. He now dressed like a Malay of superior rank, in loose, white trousers, long smock, short, sleeveless jacket of velvet, pointed sandals, and silken turban. The latter she would over and over again skilfully roll for him, place upon his head, and immediately disarrange with an embrace.

Seven golden days dawned under a pall of tempest and drenching rain, each with a brimming cup of delight for their unsated lips. Seven nights of fierce storm curtained them away from a world of shifting shadows with a rich fabric woven in the golden loom of happy dreams. Death was busy all around them, but they heeded him not, and he forebore to smite. Perhaps the genius of happiness that guested with them for a little time shielded their nest with a wing which even the Destroyers dart could not pierce.

The eighth morning brought a cloudless sun, before the garish face of which their bliss melted like a snow-flake on the lips of a rose.

When Brand looked out into the bright, bracing morning he awoke from his trance and again yearned for freedom. The whole man in him revolted against this hiding like a mole in the earth. The sunshine and the cool, moist air seemed to call him forth in tones of imperative command. His love for Aiala had not in the slightest degree diminished, but a horror at his situation, which was accentuated by the pure, blue sky, fell upon him when he realised the nature of his surroundings. A longing to lave in the cold, cleansing sea came over him, and he felt that he must go forth, taking Aiala with him. He was prepared to acknowledge her as his wife in the face of the world, and in all his plans for the future she was inextricably woven.

Aiala had slipped away from his side before dawn while he was yet sleeping, and it was the middle of the forenoon before she was able to return. She found him pacing to and fro like a caged lion raging for its freedom.

Brand clasped her in his arms and poured out his trouble in a torrent of passionate words. She freed herself gently from his embrace and knelt before him with her head bowed in token of submission. She had understood in a flash the state of her lover's mind, and the strength of his longing to go forth, and she submitted to the inevitable. One of the most marked effects which their mutual, virginal passion had upon these two was, that they became one in a very real sense. Aiala, as a woman, naturally absorbed more of Brand than he did of her, and it was the intuitive perception of his thoughts, his hopes, and his needs manifested by Aiala which struck her lover with a sense of wonder and almost with fear. It sometimes felt as though he had recreated her in his own mental and spiritual image and likeness.

It was decided that Brand was to make his escape just before midnight, Aiala guiding him through the front door into the street. He was to dress as a Malay, leaving his own clothes to be disposed of by Aiala amongst the lumber in the lower room. He was to return forty-eight hours later, and these two meant then to wander forth together into the wide world.

The last few hours of companionship which remained to them seemed to be blighted by the shadow of impending woe. After they had arranged the preliminaries regarding Brand's departure they hardly spoke again to each other, but sat locked in a silent, close embrace. The vivid colour and the ethereal, bliss-born light had faded out of Aiala's lovely face, and given place to a shaded pallor. Her eyes were more wonderful than ever; the pupils having dilated to such an extent that the irises were completely absorbed.

It was at about eleven o'clock that Aiala ascended the ladder for the last time, for the purpose of leading her lover forth. She hung around his neck a thin gold chain with a large pearl clasped by a rough, gold band attached to it. They bade each other a silent, tearless, passionate farewell, and then went forth, down the ladder and across the yard, Aiala leading and Brand following with steps that faltered now that the parting was so near. Had Aiala asked him to stay now at the last moment he would have done so without hesitation, but although the word was probably upon her lips, for she always divined Brand's moods, she did not speak it.

Once they paused in going along the passage to the front door, and Aiala lifted a curtain that hung before a doorway. Brand looked and saw the old priest sitting on the floor in mourning garb, still with ashes strewn upon his head. A dim light shone upon the pain-worn face, the sightless eyes, and the trembling lips that moved in prayer to the God whom the Great Prophet of Islam had always called "the compassionate-- the merciful." On the floor near the mourner lay the green robe and the turban of his dead son.

Brand walked down the street with a heart like lead in his breast, and a sense as of one who, having died and reached Paradise, and again come to life, knows that henceforth he must be a stranger among the sons of men.


Brand arrived at his lodgings just before midnight, and went up-stairs quietly to his room. The front door of the house had been left open for some of the lodgers who were still out. To his relief he met no one on the stairs or in the passages; otherwise he would have had some difficulty in accounting for his being in Malay garb.

Upon awaking in the morning he had some difficulty in persuading himself that he had been away for ten days,--or indeed at all. The last week seemed now a fevered dream of terror and delight. Was it real? His hand accidentally touched Aiala's pearl which hung from his neck, and his doubts vanished. He sprang out of bed, dressed as quickly as he could, and hurried down to the sea to have the swim he so longed for. The cold southern current was sweeping into Table Bay. Brand plunged into the surf, and swam out beyond the line of breakers. He felt the clean, stinging water dissipating the fantasies which were woven around him, and Aiala's image rose clear over the mists that had clouded his understanding, like the sun over a huddled mass of dissolving, wind-driven clouds.

After his swim Brand walked slowly back to his lodgings, thinking over the strange problem set before him for solution, and wondering as to what the outcome of the matter would be. As to Aiala, his intentions were clear and distinct up to a certain point. He meant to take her away at once from the house of pestilence, and eventually to marry her, but he knew enough of law to be quite sure that, she being under age, he could not marry her without the consent of her guardians, and he knew enough of Mahometan prejudice to be certain that such consent he would never obtain.

What in the mean time was he to do? He could not bring Aiala to the lodging-house--that was quite certain. His means, moreover, were very limited. He had been waiting in Cape Town in the hope of obtaining employment from a certain mining-syndicate there being formed, but as yet no definite offer had been made him. However, Aiala must, under any circumstances, be at his side from and after the second midnight following--that was the only certain and important thing; all the rest was mere detail.

Brand's landlady was much astonished when he put in an appearance at breakfast, but he silenced all inquiries on the subject of his absence by stating that he had been called suddenly away, and that he supposed his letter explaining his absence had miscarried.

After breakfast he went to his room, and, feeling unwell, threw himself on the bed, and fell asleep. It was late in the afternoon when he awoke with a violent headache, a feverish skin, and a burning thirst. In the evening delirium set in and a doctor was sent for. He pronounced the malady to be small-pox, so next morning Brand was removed to the lazaretto.

In spite of the fact that Brand had recently been vaccinated the attack was a severe one. When he regained his senses at the cessation of the fever he wanted, weak as he was, to rush out and go to Aiala, but this, of course, the attendants prevented him from doing. Afterwards he resigned himself quietly to his fate, and remained at the lazaretto until discharged as cured.

He took a cab and returned to his lodgings, where he found, to his relief, that the disease had not been communicated to any of the other inmates. As the day wore on he watched the slowly-sinking sun with chafing impatience, longing for the hour when he could go to Aiala, clasp her to his heart, and explain his absence.

At length the hour of eleven was slowly struck from the belfry tower, and Brand hurried to the nearest cab-stand. He hired a cab to convey him in the direction of the silent street, and discharged it some little distance from his destination. He went forward on foot, and when he got close to the house he knew so well, he noticed a small crowd of people congregated before the door. They were all Malays. He moved in among them and listened to their conversation. He heard one man relating to another, evidently a stranger, how every member of the old priest's family had been carried off by the scourge, and how the young girl, his grand-daughter, whose body they were now about to bury, had almost recovered, but had died of weakness through refusing to take nourishment after her convalescence had set in.

Then the door opened, and the body, wrapped in white linen, was carried out and borne onward upon a bier by four men. The little crowd of people formed a procession behind it. Brand, with a heart of frozen stone in his desolated breast, followed after the others.

The cortege wended slowly to the Malay burial-ground high on the mountain-side, and here Brand stood among the tinselled tombs and saw Aiala's body lowered into the dark grave. He listened in dread for the first sound of the earth falling upon the flesh that he loved, and that had thrilled to his kisses, but found to his surprise that it had little or no effect upon his feelings. The funeral was hurriedly and unceremoniously conducted, so in a very few minutes the grave was filled in, and those who gathered round it dispersed.

Brand threw himself upon the new-made grave. As yet no wailing mourners had come to desecrate the spot. All around him the weird howls arose, but they smote unheeded on his ear. He was just stupidly trying to recall Aiala's face, and finding to his annoyance that he could not do so clearly. Then he began to murmur her name over and over to himself softly, in different cadences.

An old man, probably a priest, came quietly up and bent over him. Brand had kept on repeating Aiala's name. The old man laid a kindly hand on his shoulder and reminded him in the Malay tongue of the Prophet's words of consolation to mourners, and promises to such as die in the faith. Brand listened without being able to understand a word of what he was saying for some time; but an expression that Aiala had been in the habit of using in her poetical moods fell from the old man's lips, and startled the stunned hearer into momentary animation. The passage where the expression occurs is at the beginning of that chapter of the Koran known as "The Rending Asunder." Brand interrupted the garrulous flow of the old man's talk by continuing the passage which he had unconsciously quoted:

"When the seas are let loose, and when the tombs are turned upside down, the soul shall know what it hath done and left undone."

The old man stood up and moved quietly away.

[The end]
William Charles Scully's short story: Aiala