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Authors: Geoffrey Household


BOOK: Arabesque
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Geoffrey Household



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen



The four graceful ships steamed out of Beirut harbour in line ahead, their holds and cabins packed with the French Army of the Orient. Thin across the water travelled the music
of the bands, as the convoy glided away from the clamourous docks away into the profound summer sleep of the Mediterranean, until the troops who lined the rails to look their last on the Syrian
coast showed only as streaks of brown between the white tiers of the decks.

It was the final convoy. Every week for six weeks past four ships had arrived from France and left for France, loaded with colonial troops, their wives, their daughters, even their
mistresses—if long alliance could be covered by any charitable formula—and the mountains of neat crates that contained their baggage.

The transports were a link between Europe and the besieged of the Middle East: a reminder that Europe was still real. For the men who remained on the quays of Beirut there was in the departure
of the ships a sadness deeper than the normal and momentary desolation experienced by those who turn away from empty rails or water. Regret, too, they felt at the loss of so friendly an enemy, of a
gallant army which should have stayed and fought instead of ailing away, bewildered, by courtesy of the British Army and the German Admiralty, to a lost country. The departure was irrevocable. Few
of these men who had made their homes in gay and lovely Lebanon would ever return. A little world, full of grace, for all its corruption, and of delicacy, for all its naked power, had ended. The
British and their slender contingents of allies were alone. In that summer of 1941, though the lands which they garrisoned were immense, they felt the close comradeship and isolation of an invested

Armande Herne stood at the window of her hotel bedroom, watching the ships as they passed beyond the horns of the bay and gathered speed upon their calm and inviting path to France. She was
still and silent, but the tears streamed down her cheeks. They seemed non-struggling issue from her body, impersonal and inconvenient as raindrops dripping from her head.

A middle-aged French major stepped out on to the adjoining balcony, and returned immediately and tactfully to his room. The slight movement brought back Armande to consciousness of herself. She
had not been thinking at all, and was faintly disgusted to feel the wetness of her neck and dress. Such an ecstasy of unanalysable misery she had not known since she was a young girl.

She entered the cool shade of her room, and washed and changed. Then, drawn to see the last of the ships before they should disappear over the horizon, she returned to her balcony.

The Vichy major was staring after the convoy, his arms tense, his hands gripping the rail of the balcony as if locked around the last pulsation of a feebly resistant throat. He too, it was
evident, had not been afraid to weep.

“You are not leaving,
mon commandant
?” asked Armande.

“Yes. But I shall go on a last boat. A few of us must stay some days yet to tidy up loose ends for the English and”—he spat the word—“these so-called Free

Armande did not answer. To her the Free French were the flower of their nation. True, they were difficult and touchy, but what other manners could one expect from an adventurous little band who
had insisted on accompanying the British in a war against their own countrymen? Their officers, in response to her sympathy, made no secret of a belief that only their wits and intransigence could
prevent the annexation of Syria by the British. That belief was logical; it was founded on an accurate reading of history; it was precise, closed, French and unanswerable; but to Armande, brought
up between the two wars and sharing the spirit and hopes of her generation, it was manifestly and tragically wrong. Little wonder that the Free French had the impatience of trapped men worrying to
free themselves from a subtle, imperial plot, so misty that it did not exist at all!

“I am glad of this opportunity,” said Major Loujon, “to offer Madame my apologies.”

“There is no need. It was your duty, I suppose. And you were always most polite.”

“One does not like interrogating a woman of beauty and character. And then—it is so useless.”

“Useless?” she asked.

“Yes, for such a woman is above all the stupidities of war. There is nothing to be gained. Even if you had talked, it would have been on quite a different plane to that of my
interrogation. I should have known as I wrote down your answers that they did not mean what they said.”

“I had nothing to talk about,” said Armande, smiling. “I was never a British agent. I might have been, if anyone had asked me. But nobody did.”

“That was stupid of them!”

“Perhaps. But they never came across me. And I am easily forgotten.”

“Never, Madame!” protested Loujon sincerely.

“Yes, if I wish to be. It’s true, I hope, that when people remember me, they like the memory. But I am not—aggressive.”

“That is sad, Madame, for you yourself remember”—Loujon waved a hand towards the smudges of smoke on the horizon—“too keenly.”

“No,” said Armande simply, “there was no one person. It was just that I died a little death. One dies many times,
mon commandant

“Then why
you stay in Syria?” Loujon asked, showing his professional curiosity.

“I hadn’t any really good reason for being here. So I should have been a very bad agent.”

“That’s true.”

“You see?”

“Madame, let me give you some advice,” said Loujon earnestly. “Get yourself something to do. Listen—we are all the same, we policemen. If a woman is not living with a
husband or a lover and if she hasn’t a source of income that all can see, she is suspect. And—if you really are not working for the British—you will be just as suspect to them as
you were to me.”

“Oh, no!” Armande protested, incredulous and horrified.

“It is certain. They will not believe you are a German agent, for a woman like you does not work for the Boche. I cannot tell you how one knows it. It would be against the whole current of
life. But they will wonder whether you are working for us or for the Russians perhaps. Madame, I beg you—get yourself a job and be as everyone. In war one must disappear into the

“I ask nothing better.”

“Then you will pardon my advice and—forgive me for the past?”

“It is easy to forgive you,
mon commandant
,” said Armande graciously. “You are so intelligent.”

She was weary of him. She recognised that she had been treated correctly and courteously both under interrogation and in the internment camp where he had sent her; but Loujon and his camp were
all unreal. It was so incredible that she, Armande Herne, whose conscience was tranquil, should have been ignominiously driven away from her flat at dawn in an army lorry with an expressionless
Indo-Chinese driver, and deposited in a hut behind a barbed-wire fence. This, in true enemy territory, could have been accepted as the fortune of war; but to be treated as a suspect enemy of
France, that is to say, of Europe, had been a nightmare.

The ships vanished. She tried to drug her melancholy by the beauty of Lebanon. Across the bay the mountains rose from the still sea, each peak so long a sanctuary for lonely thoughts that were
not, she admitted, very different from Phoenician worship. The great foothills, rounded and green with orchards, were the many breasts of Earth, the peace of the tiller and his villages spreading
down their slopes. One mountain was of the Huntress, split by gorges and lifted with thickets where, for thousands of years, the silent arrow or cheap Belgian gun had brought down the game for
Beirut tables; another she imagined as the High Place of Astarte—a gable of rock, terrible and exquisite, which towered over the pine forest with the delicacy of a cathedral roof. Above them
all was the merciless golden ridge of Sannine, forehead of the Sun, shimmering like a vertical desert.

Lebanon was so rich, so eminently habitable. The white-walled, red-roofed villages stood on the crests of the hills, compact and poised in air as Dürer’s castles. In such villages
there was store of food and wine, a church, a friendly inn; they belonged to the Mediterranean, not to the ascetic desert. It was to this landscape—or rather to all the civilised implications
of the landscape—that for more than a year she had turned for comfort.

Though to the eye no loveliness was lost, sea and mountain now held no more inspiration for her than the back yard of a familiar flat. One could look no longer at the hills without remembering
all the alien activity hidden in their folds. The olive groves were full of tents, the inns taken over by the staffs of corps and divisions. Upon the country roads were no longer solitude nor,
agreeably to break it, the cars of French officers with their decorative girl friends. The convoys rumbled up and down the mountains; the motorcycles wove in and out between them; and the Lebanese
taxi drivers killed or were killed with impartial good humour. The landscape was too full of men who were rootless: British and Australians longing to be elsewhere, displaced villagers longing for
them to be gone.

For all her pity of the troops, Armande envied them. They, at least, knew why they were in this fortress of the Middle East, and their lives were rendered tolerable by the round of duty, by
comradeship and by the romance of the East. All of them hotly denied that they found any romance whatever. That, she had discovered, was because romance meant to them either Arab warfare in the
style of Lawrence or Arab pleasure as it might be known to the very dissolute son of a very rich Damascus merchant. Yet of the true and sunlit Levant, its ships and its costumes, its dawns and its
distances, they were appreciative, though sometimes resentful, as if it were disloyalty, of their own appreciation.

BOOK: Arabesque
3.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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