Oasis of Waiting Lovers

Desert romance, the spell of the East and a modern miracle


Oasis of Waiting Lovers

Desert romance, the spell of the East and a modern miracle


Oasis of Waiting Lovers


Desert romance, the spell of the East and a modern miracle


JAN KROMHOUT, the big Dutch naturalist, had received some copies of the Haagsche Post that had been dropped into the mail at The Hague eight weeks before the Dyak carrier brought them to the lonely bungalow in the jungle. The Dutchman grunted from time to time as he found items that interested him. The journals were a link with the Netherlands that he loved; their arrival wiped out for an hour the ten thousand miles that separated him from home.

He was devouring the last copy when a louder grunt proclaimed a discovery of importance. “Gott!” he cried, “Hammersley is dead !”

“Hammersley?” 1 repeated vaguely.

“Jason Hammersley!” snapped Kromhout. “The millionaire! He and his wife have been drowned at Flushing. Their boat capsized as they were going out to their yacht.”

Slowly, in the silence that followed, I assembled the meagre facts known to me concerning Jason Hammersley of New York. He was a Wall Street operator who had graduated into the millionaire class. I recalled that there had been an unfortunate romance. His fiancée had been lost overboard in the Mediterranean, and, to the great astonishment of the world at large, she had been found under extraordinary circumstances years later. The finding had caused a considerable amount of gossip, which so annoyed Hammersley that he spent most of his time cruising around Europe in his big yacht.

“Did you know him?” I asked.

Jan Kromhout dropped the copy of the Haagsche Post, poured himself a glass of schnapps, listened for a minute to the sounds made by some imprisoned animals and reptiles that he kept within the bungalow, then spoke slowly.

“I found his fiancée,” he said. "Neen, I helped to find her after she had been lost for nine years. Not lost, but dead ! Dead for nine years. A long time, is it not? He was pleased with my help. He made me a present of two thousand dollars. Are you sleepy? No? Then I will tell you a story. A strange story.

T MET Jason Hammersley at Marseilles some five years

ago. We were at the same hotel, the Grand Hôtel Noailles on the Cannebière, and we were waiting for the same boat to take us to the East. I was on my way back from Amsterdam. I had been on a visit to my sister who lives in the Stadhouders-Kade, which is quite close to the Ryks Museum.

“Jason Hammersley was wandering around the world trying to forget his sorrow. His great sorrow. Nine years before I met him, a girl that he loved had gone on a trip to Europe. He was to marry her when she came back to New York. They loved each other a lot. Ja, quite a lot. She went aboard the ship at Trieste, and two nights before the steamer arrived at Algiers she disappeared. Someone had passed her on the boatdeck alone near midnight, and that was the last seen of her. She had left no message. Nothing. Poof, she had gone.

“Hammersley came over from New York to make a search. He could not believe that she was dead. He had thousands of dollars, and he hired a dozen boats to comb the coast of Algeria. People tried to convince him that there was no hoi>e for her if she fed overboard in the middle of the Mediterranean, but he damned them when they spoke to him. He was the victim of a crazy belief. He was sure that she was alive. Alive and waiting for him to find her. He searched for three months, then he went back, but year after year he came over from New York and spent some weeks hunting for her along the coast of North Africa.

“He told me all this while we were at the hotel. He wished to get my opinion. I thought he was a little mad to think she was still alive, but I did not say so. I just shook my head and said it was sad. If he was getting some pleasure out of thinking her alive it was not my business to convince him she was dead. Some foolish beliefs are pleasant.”

Jan Kromhout paused and listened to the angry barking of a waiv-waw within the bungalow. The tvau'-waw had a baby and she protested continuously against the near presence of a middle-sized python that she suspected of having designs on her infant.

“Jason Hammersley and I became friends,” continued Kromhout. “On the steamer we talked a lot about this thing and that, and when we came to Port Said we went ashore together. We drank many drinks, and then, just when it was about time to go back to the boat we met an Arab storyteller.

“There are men who can put words together so that they

flow into your ears like this glass of schnapps flows into my stomach. So! You cannot see the spaces between the words because they are joined together so nicely. It is in those spaces that doubt hides. This man—this Arab storyteller—told a tale that was like the pouring of honey from a pot. Just a stream of sweetness that ran into the ears of Jason Hammersley and drugged his brain. He told us the story of the Oasis of Waiting Lovers. Ja! The Oasis of Waiting Lovers. It was funny that he picked that tale to tell Hammersley.

“Those old stories that roll down the centuries are the work of a thousand liars. More ! Ten thousand liars ! They were planned in dark bazaars where the odor of musk and jasmine and ambergris makes the imagination leap and jump. They were tongue-polished as they went from stall to stall. The carpet vendor, the oil seller, and the sandalmaker added a lick here and there, filling up the little crevices into which doubt could crawl. Rubbing the words smoother so that the tale flowed.

“Old greybeards tested them against the shrewd eyes of their customers as they sipped black coffee and sucked at the hookah. It was a business—a community business— making a yarn that was full of belief. Not a one-man game as it is today. The whole bazaar helped. Changing a word here and a word there. Pushing the tale closer to the line of probability till at last it made Belief show on the face of the listener. Belief of the moist eyes and the parted lips. For the great story, my friend, must be ribbed with belief. If it is, it will never die.

“That story of the Oasis of Waiting Lovers runs back into the mists of time. For centuries men have whispered it. The sailors in the quinqueremes plunging up to Tyre spoke of it. The black horsemen that rode with Tamerlane roared chants woven about it. The first pilgrims that ever

tramped the white roads that run like milk-snakes toward Mecca chattered of it between prayers. It is a splendid story, so polished by cunning tongues that it kills doubt like the juice of the poppy kills sorrow.

“It is the primitive dream of primitive man. There is, so says the story, a place hidden in the wastes where the first love of every man awaits his coming. The first woman that made the blood leap in his heart. The first girl whose beauty brought dreams that roared through his foolish brain in the hot nights after he had looked at her. It is a nice idea, is it not? If he loses her she is there in the Oasis of Waiting Lovers, just as fair as she was on the day he first set eyes on her. With eyes bright and lips smiling. His first love. His first love that he cannot forget. It is a nice thought. Ja, it is.

THAT STORY took Hammersley by the back of the neck and shook him. It held him like a python holds a muntjak-deer. Words are terrible things. It is not swords that have brought trouble to the world; it is the words that forced men to draw the swords. The cunning words of poets and storytellers. All the wars of the world have been made by the poets and the storytellers. They stir the foolish fighters.

“Hammersley screamed questions at that Arab. ‘Where is this oasis?’ he shouted.

“ ‘It is far, my lord,’ answered the Arab.

“ ‘How far?’ asked Hammersley.

“ ‘They say it is in the heart of the Sahara,’ whispered the storyteller. ‘Beyond Ouargla and beyond In Salah. Men say that it sits in the Desert of Tidikelt which is the Land of Fear. The Land of the Abandoned of Allah. I have spoken to men who know. Fifteen days journey from the City of Scorpions on the fastest camels.’ ”

Again the big Dutchman paused, then went on:

“We did not go back to the steamer.” said Kromhout quietly. “That story was a loop of color that got into the brain of Jason Hammersley and made him mad. It was a tale that tramped around in his head. Ja! It called to him like silver bugles. He saw himself surging down into the desert and finding that girl of long ago—that Dolores Radcliffe who had fallen into the Mediterranean—waiting for him under a palm tree. It was a fine tale for a man who was nursing a love for a girl who had been lost to him.

“When I told Hammersley that the yarn was a silly yarn, that Arab slammed one of those bits from the Koran at my head. A nice bit. I will always remember it. He said: 'Should the sea become ink to write the words of Allah. the sea would surely Jail ere the words of Allah would fail, though we brought its like in aid.' He had lots of pieces like that. Hundreds of them.

“I did not blame Hammersley. There was a pretty thought in that story. It made me think of a girl with long plaits of yellow hair that I used to meet in Vondel Park in Amsterdam when I was a boy of seventeen. She had a tiny mole on her cheek that made me crazy. I have dreamed of it for years. Just a little mole. I would like to think that I could see her again.

"Jason Hammersley had a million of fine American dollars. That night he made me a proposition and I accepted. We would go and find the Oasis of Waiting Lovers where he thought Dolores Radcliffe was resting till he came searching for her. And Hammersley made an offer to the storyteller which he jumped at, because, like lots of poets, he hadn’t a piastre in his pockets. Poor devil.

"Hammersley wanted to hear that story every day so that his faith would not weaken. And the more he heard it. the more he believed. At times—in the evenings when

the world was still—it smashed a lot of doubts in my mind so that 1 nearly believed.

\A 7L TOOK a steamer to Algiers. And from Algiers we * * went to Biskra, and from Biskra by a little white train that runs three times a week down to Touggourt, where it meets the desert and stops in fear of the big dunes. We three—Hammersley, the Arab whose name was I lamud. and myself. And the winds came off the sands and helped the Arab in the telling of that story. Ach, they did. And whenever he saw the flicker of doubt in my eyes he hit it with a verse from the Koran. There is music in that stuff. There was a bit from one of the chapters called the Saba. It is fine poetry. 'And unto Solomon did We subject the wind, which travelled in the morning a month’s journey, and a month's journey in the evening, and we made a fountain of molten brass to flow for him.’

“Those sand dunes helped the Arab. They were like big grey elephants. Two thousand miles of them running southward to Lake Chad. And when the wind tickled their backs it made the dry grains whisjxr of things that were a little frightening. Those dunes are the homes of all kinds of devils—the djinns, afrits, and shetans of the desert dwellers —and in the night they put cold fingers of fear into the hearts of those that go wandering among them.

“Hammersley did not mind the dunes. He was crazed with the words of the story. He had no doubts.

“ T know she is there. Kromhout !’ he would say again and again to me. ‘I know !’

“ ‘But it is foolish to believe too hard,’ I would say to him. ‘If everything is not as the Arab speaks, you will lx greatly disapixinted.’

“ ‘You silly Dutchman!’ he would snap, ‘I can feel in my bones that she is alive ! I know ! 1 have always known !’

“We outfitted in Touggourt. We hired five Arabs who knew the desert. They had worked for the French, carrying supplies down to Djanet and Tamanrasset and Agades. One of them was a mehariste who had been with the party that found General Laperrine and his companions in the wastes. The general was dead, and his last words were, T thought I knew the Sallara.’ Ach, no one knows the Sahara! It is God’s mystery box. He has given man the world, but He keeps the Sahara as a prison for the small devils that He lias to deal with.

“Hammersley bought eleven of the finest camels tliat could be found. And we bought supplies. Flour and sugar, and coffee and tins of beef and biscuits and water-skins. And he bought special things that were not for himself or for me or the Arabs. Do you know who they were for? They were for her! For Dolores Radcliffe! Ja. ja! There was a camp bed for her, and a camp chair, and there were chocolates and jars of jam. All packed on a sjxcial camel, with orders that they were not to be touched. I think he would have killed anyone who touched those things that he bought for her. I am sure he would.

“We loaded up on the market place of Touggourt, with hundreds of Arabs running around us. That storyteller had told the tale. Those Arabs knew. They whispered to each other and stared pop-eyed at Hammersley. The big American was going to find the Oasis of Waiting Lovers. To find his first love . . .

“That was romance to them. Fine romance. The Arab is a passionate lover, and when we started out, with the mehariste at the head of the column, men and women ran beside us to the edge of the desert, shouting prayers and clapping their hands. I liad to pinch myself to make sure that it was not a dream. A foolish dream. We were going out to search for a woman that liad dropjxd overboard from a steamer in the middle of the Mediterranean nine years before. It was madness. But the yelping of those dirty Arabs pleased Hammersley.

“ ‘Their looks and shouts give me faith,’ he said.

“ ‘They have been filled up with the talk of Hamud,’ I said. ‘He has been telling that tale every night on the place and in the little cafés.’

“ ‘To me,’ said Hammersley, ‘it is the truest story that ever was told. I have no doubts at all.’

SO WITH THAT story pulling us by the nose, we rode into the Kingdom of the Sand. That desert is not nice. I am a Dutchman, and like all Dutchmen I have a thirst, and those miles and miles of sand made that thirst say things to me at times. It called me names. The jungle is cool and green, with lots of nice shade, but in tlx Sahara the sun runs after you and you cannot get away from him.

“That desert was the friend of the Arab storyteller. It gave color to his words. Each evening when we made camp he would recite the story for Jason Hammersley, and when he had finished we would all turn our heads and look southward as if we expected to see that Oasis of Waiting Lovers in the blue-black night that sat upon the sands. Never have I heard a story like that. I fought to get away from it, but in the nights I would find bits of it trickling through my mind. Bits that were crimson and gold and purple. Bits that laughed at me when I tried to throw them out of my head. They whispered of that girl with the yellow plaits and the little mole that I used to meet in Vondel

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Oasis of Waiting Lovers

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Park in Amsterdam. They said ‘Kromhout, you stupid Dutchman, wouldn’t it be nice to think that the girl you first loved is waiting for you?’ They made me crazy, those dreams that came from listening to that story.

“We left a trail of wonder behind us. Great wonder. At Ouargla the Arab told that story to the French soldiers while the officers were entertaining Hammersley at the cercle, and although those soldiers tried to laugh they could not. Each of them remembered a girl that he had left behind at Rouen or Bordeaux or Dieppe, and it was nice for each to think that he would meet her again.

“The vanity of men is terrible. I watched those poor devils as the Arab told the tale and I saw their eyes get moist and their lips quiver. Love is a big thing, my friend. The biggest thing in the world. And that place Ouargla, that was dry and barren and had no nice girls, was a good spot to tell that story in. They searched the pockets of their jeans for sous for the Arab, hut he would not accept them. Jason Hammersley was paying him for that story. Paying him high.

“We left Ouargla with those boys staring after us. We were Romance. We had brought dreams to lile. At least the Arab had. He looked from the silent légionaires to me and he said, ‘Allah has loosened the knot from my tongue so that they understand my speech.’ He was clever. Ja, he was very clever. He had spun a web of sorcery around Hammersley. A fine web.

“At In Salah it was the same. He had more magic than ever. A tirailleur, after listening to that story, wanted to come with us. He wept as we rode southward. He was a tough, hard-bitten fellow, and if his first love was silly enough to he waiting anywhere for him I thought Hammersley had a chance. A big chance.

“We passed the bones of a thousand camels. We passed places that the Arabs said were haunted by evil spirits. All day long the mirages danced before us. In the hot air they rose up. Cities with high towers and harbors and palm trees. And in the nights the jackals of the wastes howled at us. And with every step of the camels that story of Hamud became more jxxssible, more believable. The heat and the silence and the leagues of sand made a fever in our heads.

“The camel-men believed, Hammersley

believed, and at last I thought that there might be a place called the Oasis of Waiting Lovers. The Sahara is a great place to fatten belief. The Almighty has you in a bare ring in the Sahara. You are very little in those sands. Very little indeed. In New York or London or Amsterdam you get courage because you see around you a lot of little humans like yourself, but you only see the bones of camels and the mirages in the desert. And the sun is so fierce that it eats your shadow.

THAT BELIEF bred by the Arab made us hurry. We mounted our camels at daybreak and we rode till the night came down. We wolfed our food, with our eyes turned southward.

“We left the piste that runs from In Salah to Tamanrasset. We swung westward into the Tidikelt. Into the Land of Fear. The mehariste protested, but the storyteller whispered to him and he shrugged his shoulders and led us on. And Hammersley said nothing, and I said nothing, and the camel-men said nothing.

“We were mad. We went plunging on across the wastes, our ears sucking in the stuff that Arab was reciting to us. The story of the Oasis, which had become a terrible true story, and those words from the Koran which smashed doubt.

“We passed nomads who stared at us, thinking us insane. And they thought right. Every one of us. I, Jan Kromhout, repeated the words that storyteller shouted into the silence. They are in my head now. They will always be there, because the heat and the silence scratched them on my brain.

“A camel went mad and ran away. One of the camel-men chased it and did not come back. We did not care. We went on, the storyteller shouting his words. Bismillahi ’rahhmani ’rrahheem! Praise be to Allah. Lord of the worlds!’ And I shouted with him. Shouted those words. So did Hammersley and the others.

“It was on the evening of the fifteenth day after leaving In Salah that we came to the little lost oasis. Came to it in the dusk. A bald-faced moon came up out ol the sand and stared at us. And there was a silence that was brother to death. A terrible silence. It was like the uplifted linger of a giant.

“We rode down on the little clump of straggly palms. We slipped from our

camels and stood together, looking at the shadows beneath the trees. And we were frightened. Ja, we were all frightened. The silence was like acid that bit into the marrow of our bones. It stopped the mouth of that storyteller for the first time since we had met him at Port Said. The quiet of that place cooled the fever that was in his silly head.

“I sat with Hammersley staring at the wastes. We did not speak. We sat on the :amel saddles, looking at the sands that were whitened by the moon. That place was like the skeleton of a world. The white skeleton of a dead planet from which the jackals had torn the flesh. The camel-men and the storyteller had wrapped themselves in their dirty rags and stretched themselves on the sand. I do not think they were asleep. They were listening. Listening to the cursed quiet of the place. A quiet that was alive.

“It was just on midnight when Hammersley sprang to his feet and stood staring toward the south. 1 looked in the same direction but I could see nothing. Nothing at all. But Hammersley was taut like a pointer dog, and, suddenly, he gave a choked cry and started running out across the sand. I was all gooseílesh as I started after him. I was scared.

“He was a good runner. Ile was fast. I could not keep up with him. He was twenty yards or more ahead of me. running toward a big dune, the top of which shone in the light of the moon so that it looked like a big cream puff. I thought he had gone mad. I was certain he was mad.

“Hammersley ran around the shoulder of the dune. I followed him. He let out another cry, and then I thought I had gone crazy, too. You bet I did. Staggering toward that American was a woman. A white woman ! And I was sure that there was no white woman within five hundred miles of that place. Not one !

“Hammersley was running toward her. Running with his arms outstretched and shouting a name. The name of that girl that had been lost in the Mediterranean from the steamer that was taking her to New York ! In that silence you could hear his voice ten miles away. ‘Dolores!’ he screamed. ‘Dolores!’

THAT WOMAN rushed into his arms and he clutched her to his breast. I stumbled, fell on my face, picked myself up and stared at them. I thought—I thought that I was looking at something that I should not look at. Something that was in the way of a miracle. A big miracle! Something that had upon it the imprint of the finger of the Almighty !

“Mouth open, I stared and listened. Hammersley was crying her name. Babbling it like a child. ‘Dolores! Dolores! He was beside himself.

“I helped him get that woman back to the camp. She was very weak from want of food. She was not herself. Her eyes were big with terror, and she listened to Hammersley without saying one word. He was telling her how he had suffered during the long years. Telling her how he had searched the coasts looking for her. He was really mad then. Mad with delight because—well, because he had found her!

“He was saying her name over and over as if he had a belief that she had forgotten it. And she was listening as if she were not quite sure it was her name. I was watching her. Ja, I was watching and listening, trying to understand. I have


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seen many things but I had never seen anything that puzzled me like that. Neen.

“She was about thirty years of age. and that would have been the age of Dolores Raddiffe if Dolores Raddiffe was alive. And she was a brunette, just as Hammersley had described his fiancée to me. And she was slim and good to look at, as he had pictured his girl. But finding her was a miracle, and there are not many miracles. Not many at all. That business stuck in my throat. 1 could not believe such a thing could happen, but it had happened.

“We started northward next morning. The woman was still in a daze. She seemed puzzled. She said ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but nothing else, and she listened to Hammersley. Hammersley telling of his sufferings and sorrows during the time she had been away. At times his sobs choked him. He would weep and kiss her hands.

“We had luck on that return journey. We fell in with a detachment of meharistes of the Saharan Camel Patrol, and with them we came to In Salah, their eyes big with the wonder that they heard from that storyteller and the Arabs. They watched the woman and whispered to each other, and the woman sat silent and listened to Hammersley. Listened to him as if she was in a dream. Five score times I wanted to ask her if she was really Dolores Raddiffe, but Hammersley rode by her side and no one could speak to her. He was excited, much excited. He cried and he laughed, and he babbled away about the things they would do now that she had come back to him.

“At In Salah Hammersley hired an automobile to take himself and the lady to Touggourt. We stayed with the camels. He was very generous. He paid me a fine bonus and he thanked me with tears in his eyes. And he gave presents to Hamud the storyteller and the camel-men. He lifted the woman into the car and he got in beside her. She still had that puzzled look on her face. That look that you see on the face of a person who has been hit on the head very hard. Always I will remember how she looked. Always.”

TAN KROMHOUT lifted himself from his J big chair. The protests of the waw-waw were louder than ever. It was plain that there would be no sleep around the bungalow till she and her precious baby were placed at some distance from the caged python.

Wondering about the story, I sat and listened to the noise made by the big Dutchman as he changed the quarters of the ape. The wild chattering died down; Kromhout returned to his chair.

I screamed the question at him. “Who the devil was she?” I cried. “What— what is the explanation?”

Without hurry the naturalist poured himself a glass of schnapps. “When I got to Algiers,” he said, “I found a paragraph in the Dépêche d’Algérie that puzzled me. It told of the landing at Tunis of an Englishwoman who was trying to fly across the Sahara to Timbuktu. She had kept her mouth shut when she was questioned. She snapped at a fool reporter who tried to find out who she was. He said it would be nice to tell her friends in England that she had landed safely, but she said she had no friends or family, that she never expected to see England again. What she was doing was secret and her own business. She would not tell her name, but he found some scrap of paper after she took off. On it was the name ‘Eileen Lancaster.’

“When I read that. I went to the British Consul and told my story. He was polite in the way that consuls are polite. M hen I had finished he said; ‘I know nothing of the matter. It is certain that she had no family or friends. If she had, they would not have let her make a fool attempt to fly the Desert of Sahara. 1 f I get any enquiries I will report everything you have told me.”

“And did he?” I asked. “I mean, were there any enquiries from London?”

Kromhout chuckled. “There must have

been one at least,” he said. “Hammersley married that woman and took her to London. They were at the Savoy. One day a man called on them and said. ‘Hello. Eileen! I’ve had the devil’s own job hunting you up. Got a crazy story from a consul in Algiers. Said you were found by a Mr. Hammersley. Why. why, what's up?'

“Mrs. Hammersley gave that fellow what you call the icy mitten. Ja! She said site did not know him. She said she had never seen him before. There was quite a row. Jason Hammersley had him put out of the hotel. The fellow would not apologize. He said he knew her well. He hit a policeman who told him to go away, and he was fined three pounds for doing it. I le was very mad.

“There was some talk in the pajrers then. They are bright hoys, those paper boys. They came to the hotel and started to question Hammersley and his wife. Hammersley swore at them. That was when he bought his big yacht. He did not like London any more. He went cruising around Europe. To little ports where there were no newspaper boys, and no one who could come up to his wife and say, ‘Hello, Eileen.’ ”

“And -and do you think he knew?” I stammered. ‘‘Knew that she was not his sweetheart who was drowned years before?”

“That is a question that I cannot answer,” said Jan Kromhout. “In the desert he seemed to think that she was his lost sweetheart. Ja, he did so. It is a great puzzle to me. Perhaps that woman, filled with much sympathy for him. might have permitted Hammersley to believe that she was Dolores Radcliffe up to a point when it would have been cruelty to disillusion him. Do you understand? Then, again, both might have known the truth and kept up the pretense.

“What did it matter? In most marriages the man and the woman are marrying a dream person that they have set up in their own minds. A dream mate like Hammersley found. It is very nice if they never find out that they have been fooled. If I had married that girl with the yellow hair and the little mole on her cheek that I used to meet in Vondel Park in Amsterdam I might have found out that she was not — Ach! what nonsense I am talking! I will have another glass of schnapps and go to bed. That waw-waw is quiet now.”