The Veiled Manby William Le Queux / Actions & Adventure
Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England
The Veiled ManBeing an Account of the Risks and Adventures of Sidi Ahamadou, Sheikh ofthe Azjar Marauders of the Great SaharaBy William Le QueuxIllustrations by Alfred Pearce
The Veiled Man, by William Le Queux.
________________________________________________________________________THE VEILED MAN, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.
The remarkable adventures of the notorious robber-sheikh Ahamadou, theAbandoned of Allah, once the terror of the Areg Desert, but nowfriendly to the French, were collected during a journey across the GreatSahara. In the belief that some description of the wild life of theDesert, with its romance and mystery, told by one upon whose head aprice was set for twelve years, and who a dozen times narrowly escapedcapture, may interest those fond of adventure, I have translated,edited, and presented these reminiscences in their present form.
THE CITY OF THE SEVEN SHADOWS.
During half a century of constant wandering over the silent sunlitsands, of tribal feuds, of revolts, battle and pillage, of bitterpersistent hatreds, of exploit, foray, and fierce resistance against thelounging Spahis, cigarette-smoking Zouaves, black-faced Turcos, andswaggering Chasseurs of the French, I have met with some curiousadventures, and have witnessed wonders more remarkable, perhaps, thanmany of the romances related by the Arab story-tellers. They mostlyoccurred before I was chosen sheikh of the Azjar; when I was simply oneof a band of desert-pirates, whose only possessions were a long steellance, a keen, finely-tempered poignard, and a white stallion, the speedof which was unequalled by those of my companions. A thief I was bybirth; a scholar I had become by studying the _Tarik_, the _Miraz_, the_Ibtihadj_, and the Koran, under the Marabut Essoyouti in Algiers; aphilosopher I fain would be. When riding over the great limitlessred-brown sands, I was apt to forget the race whence I sprang, thelearning that had made me wise, the logical reasonings of awell-schooled brain, and give myself up with all the rapture of anintense enthusiasm to the emotion of the hour. It was the same always.Essoyouti, a scholar renowned throughout Tripoli and Tunis, had versedme in legendary lore, until I had become full of glowing fancies andunutterable longing to penetrate the entrancing mysteries to which hehad so often referred as problems that could never be solved.
I am a Veiled Man. Openly, I confess myself a vagabond and a brigand.Living here, in the heart of the Great Desert, six moons march fromAlgiers, and a thousand miles beyond the French outposts, theft is, withmy nomadic tribe, their natural industry--a branch of education, infact. We augment the meagreness of our herds by extorting ransoms fromsome of our neighbours, and completely despoiling others. Mention ofthe name of Ahamadou causes the face of the traveller on any of thecaravan routes between the Atlas mountains and Lake Tsad to pale beneathits bronze, for as sheikh of the most powerful piratical tribe in theSahara, I have earned an unenviable notoriety as leader of The Breathof the Wind, while the Arabs themselves have bestowed upon my peoplethree epithets which epitomise their psychology: Thieves, Hyenas, andAbandoned of Allah.
The only law recognised by my race, the Touaregs, is the right of thestrongest. We wear the black _litham_ wrapped about our faces, leavingonly our noses and eyes visible, and never removing it, even atmeal-times. It becomes so much a part of us that any one being deprivedof his veil is unrecognisable to friends or relatives. If one of ournumber is killed, and divested of his veil, no one can identify himuntil it has been restored to its place. We are therefore known anddreaded as The Veiled Men.
My first journey by paths untrodden resulted strangely.
For two whole moons a party of us, numbering nearly three hundred, allwell-armed and desperate, had been lurking in a narrow ravine in the farSouth, known as the Gueden, close to the point where it is crossed bythe route taken by the caravans from Lake Tsad to El Aghouat in Algeria.News travels fast in the desert. We had received word that a caravanladen with ivory and gold-dust was on its way from Kuka to Timissao, andwere awaiting it, with the intention either of levying toll, orattacking it with a view to plunder. In our sombre robes of dark bluekano cloth and black veils, we were a mysterious, forbidding-lookingrabble. As day succeeded day, and we remained inactive, with scoutsever vigilant for the approach of our prey, I recollected that in thevicinity were some curious rocks, with inscriptions recording theMussulman conquest, and one morning, mounting my _meheri_, or swiftcamel, rode out to inspect them.
The sun rose, and beneath its furnace heat I pushed on into the greatwaterless wilderness of Tasili, the true extent of which is unknown evento us Children of the Desert, for the utter dearth of water thererenders a journey of many days impossible. Until the _maghrib_ hour Iremained in the saddle, then dismounting, faced towards the Holy Ca'aba,recited my _fatihat_, ate a handful of dates, and squatted to smoke andwatch the fading of the blood-red afterglow. On the next day, and thenext, I journeyed forward over the wide monotonous plain, where thepoison-wind fanned my brow like a breath from an oven, and nothing metthe aching eye but glaring sand and far-off horizon, until, when myshadow lengthened on the sixth day after parting with my companions, Ifound myself within sight of a range of high hills, looming darklyagainst the brilliant sunset.
Well acquainted as I was with the geography of my native sands, I hadnever heard mention of these hills, and was therefore convinced that Ihad mistaken the route to the great black rock whereon the inscriptionswere engraved, and was now approaching a region unexplored. On manyoccasions I had traversed the caravan route to Timissao, and crossed therocky ravine where my companions were now in ambush; but none of us hadever before left that track, clearly defined by its bleaching bones, forto the solitary traveller in that inhospitable region a prickedwater-skin or a lame camel means death. With irrepressible awe I gazedupon the hills, clothed in the deep purple light of the descending sun,because of one strange thing my eyes had detected. I saw, above theserrated line, two cone-like peaks, rising close to one another, inmajesty solemn and sublime, and recognised in them a scene exactly asdescribed by my master Essoyouti, in one of the curious romances he wasfond of relating. I stood recalling every detail of the scene, just asI had imagined it when, seated under the vine, in the cool patio of hishouse, in the ancient Kasbah at Algiers, he had told me a story thatheld me breathless and entranced.
Worn with fatigue, exhausted and feverish from long exposure to thefiery sun, half stifled by the sand-laden wind, and riding a camelscarcely less jaded than myself, I confess that, despite my love ofadventure, and by reason of the strangeness of the story I had heard, Icontemplated with no little dread the prospect of passing that nightalone within sight of those twin mountain-crests. Twilight is brief inthe desert, and soon the moon, having risen from behind a bank of cloud,afforded an uncertain light, which partly illuminated the prospect, andI sat hugging my knees and thinking deeply until sleep closed my eyes.
Before the appearance of the first saffron streak that heralds the sun'scoming, I had recited a _sura_ and mounted, with my face set resolutelytowards the unknown range. In the skin across my saddle I had only justsufficient water to enable me to return to our ambush, therefore I brokenot my fast, determined to hoard up my frugal store. The sand was softand treacherous. At every step my camel's spongy feet sank deeper anddeeper, until, after a toilsome ride of three hours, we arrived near thefoot of the two dark, ominous-looking mountains. Then I pulled up,fearing to proceed further lest we should be overwhelmed by thequicksands.
Near me was a narrow pass between the two mountains, and shading my eyeswith my hand, I was startled at beholding two gigantic figures standingon either side of the entrance. The sight of them confirmed mysuspicion that I had approached the Unknown, and with curiosity aroused,I urged my _meheri_ still forward, coming at last close up to thecolossal figures. They were fashioned from enormous blocks of dark greystone, ten times the height of a human being. One, carved to representa beautiful woman, had her right hand lifted towards the sky, while theother, a forbidding-looking hag, with chipped, time-worn face stillwearing a repulsive expression, pointed downward. Between thesecolossal figures was a space of about thirty paces. According to thelegend related by the sage Essoyouti, and told by our story-tellersthrough ages, there existed beyond a land forbidden.
I held my breath. I was about to view a country that had not beenviewed; the ravine known in story as the Valley of the Ants. Ineagerness I pressed onward, leading my camel, and passing up the stonyvalley until at length I came to a second and more fertile space of vastextent, covered entirely by the colossal ruins of a