Roy Glashan's Library
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The Sydney Mail, Australia, 3 June 1931

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He approached warily, and then, halting within a few feet, flung
out a shrivelled arm at the disappearing Lessinger. "He hath lied
to thee, effendi. I was a listener. He told but half the story."

THE mystery of Myra Gaylen! Sydney remembered her long after the last Anzac battalion had returned from Palestine. A lovely woman is more interesting than an army. Armies are masses of bone and steel, guns, and ugly field equipment. The memory of Myra's slenderly beautiful figure haunted people years after the war. Her home at Darling Point was the last word in modern architecture and dignity. 'Jimmy' Gaylen, the man she had married in Bathurst, was rich enough to indulge her slightest whim.

The mystery of her disappearance began when he took her to Palestine on a pleasure trip, and returned without her. That was all Sydney knew of its one-time hostess queen, the woman who had received State Governors, visiting admirals, and ambassadors at her unforgettable house-parties. Nina, her only daughter, stayed at home while her mother did the Holy Land from Beersheba to Dan. Nina had all her mother's fragrant loveliness, the soft dreaming eyes, the shyness and reserve that people often mistook for pride and vanity.

During 1925 the business of a great newspaper carried me over the time-honoured trails of our vanished armies to Kut and Nazareth, and into the oil country of Shat el Arab. I had lived too long in Sydney not to have heard of Myra Gaylen and her easy- going husband. I was stationed at Sareeb, where the desert dogs follow the big camel trains from Korassan. Pulsebeats of hot air came in from the moonlit sands. The smell of the desert by night is like burnt metal on the palate.

In El Sareeb, if you are patient, you may hear other voices than the pariah at night. A hundred yards from the inn where I stayed I heard Lessinger calling me by name. There was wisdom but little poetry in his greeting, "Whisky is the antidote for Palestine pip. Come into Plotski's and get humanised."

Plotski ran a cafe opposite the red sandstone mosque of Omar. Inside were gathered a dozen sleek-haired oil whisperers from Bokhara, who had come to Sareeb to buy what the Yanks had overlooked in the way of grease territory. A Cossack from the starvation steppes sat cheek-by-jowl with a balloon-hipped Dutchman. The pair soaked raw spirit from the same lip-polished yak-horn. In a cypress-sheltered alcove a Kurd woman strummed a zither.

Lessinger was a student of Omar and oil. He represented some Melbourne interests in Sareeb, and knew more of Arab prayers and Arab duplicity than any man south of Teheran. Also, he was in complete possession of the much-hushed Gaylen affair.

Plotski made obeisance before Lessinger; he also deposited a tin pail containing several bottles of champagne on our table before he withdrew. Lessinger popped a cork, filled my glass, and waved his own in the air dramatically.

"To...." he began, and paused for a name.

"Nina Gaylen," I suggested meekly, and then, as I caught the bleak, unresponsive look in his eyes, my glass went back to the table untouched.

Lessinger's smiling mouth grew tight, ugly, it seemed to me, as he put aside the champagne. "If you're going to worry me about the Gaylens, Druit, I shall go back to my grease books," he intimated after a while. "Can't we let the whole preposterous story die?"

"It's too clean a story to die," I protested. "Why should the flame of a woman's spirituality perish because a lot of heathens like you are scared of a moment's publicity?"

He stood up, his hand gripping my shoulder almost fiercely.

"I have never sneered at the spiritual side of things. In Melbourne a man can laugh at the follies of the desert, with its praying mats and muezzins. But not out here—not out here, boy."

The balloon-hipped Dutchie was whispering something in the Cossack's ear; the Kurd woman had ceased strumming. Sobbing wind noises stole in from the desert outside, where a pierrot moon lay half-canted over the tamarisks. Again I heard the voices of the unutterable ages whispering back from the dawn of things human and divine.

The stormy red had vanished from Lessinger's face. He sat down again, and in silence emptied his glass of wine.

"You come here, Druit, combing the desert and tombs for stories. Forget your beastly job for once. Let's play at shut up."

"The Gaylen yarn shall be protected," I promised without a blush. "Locking the door of one's mind is the first step to an infirmary, Les. Don't play the shut-up game with pals."

Again the bitter grin. It seemed a long time before he spoke. "I owe you something for pressagenting my affairs when the war was beating the oil game out here. Still...."

"You knew the Gaylens," I insisted. "In the bazaars one hears nothing but lies. And I once flattered myself that Nina had accepted me for a friend."

"A lad named Noel Eastwin gained her friendship and love while you were chasing stunts for your people. He helped to fight the tragedy of her young life when she needed help. Eastwin is an artist and a gentleman."

I felt that silence was golden.

"You see," Lessinger went on, with half a glance at the prowling cafe proprietor, "Nina's father and mother came to Sareeb long before the oil rush. Nina, as you know, stayed at home. In Sydney her mother cut the fashion in Oriental creeds and beliefs. She subscribed to various Mahatma and Hindu spook funds. She gave five hundred pounds towards the suppression of vestalism and priestcraft in India. She would have given old Jimmy himself if it would have protected Hindu widows against the burning ghats.

"But if you are blindly sincere, as Myra was, nobody laughs. The white fires of sincerity will stand against ridicule. When I see a good woman writhing and twisting in these religious tangles I just take off my hat and pass on.

"People had been telling her that El Sareeb was the cradle of the human race. Maybe it was a flourishing spot before the Flood. It certainly produced inspired men long before our aboriginal had learned to shape his boomerang and mix his paint. El Sareeb has a shrine on every hill. There's a line of temples from here to the Red Sea. You can't get away from these holy places.

"Myra Gaylen had never been here before. When she got well into the desert the history and incense of the temples struck her like an organ blast with all the stops out.

"Every minaret and dome helped along the trick. And somehow the priests in the hills seemed to sense her desires. Jimmy Gaylen didn't seem to mind her wandering among the Koran-shouters in the bazaars. But he didn't want to live with donkeyboys and pariahs for ever. He wanted Sydney with the telephone at his elbow, his morning paper, his car, and the theatres. He kept on saying he wanted to go home.

"Then Myra told him point-blank that she wasn't returning to his machine-made civilisation, his trams and ferries and music blown out of a can. Jimmy responded by saying that the sight of so many dirty Arabs and dogs made him sick.

"Jimmy got it, then, about the crowds of commercial hyenas she had spent her life in entertaining, the bands of cackling, cant- ridden society women who had made her life a hell. She told him about the churches that were but empty echoes of the true faith. She gave him all that, and more, until he tried to impress upon her that Nina was worth living for.

"That's where her tragedy came in. She was fond of the child, but when a woman is soul-starved and is worked up to a pitch of fanaticism she is apt to trample her better self underfoot.

"On Mahomet's Hill, six miles from here by the donkeyman's reckoning, she had discovered the Shrine of the Seven Lamps, a kind of Moorish mosque with an acre or so of garden, a wonderful window, some real nightingales, and a tradition.

"Remember, Druit, I got all this from Eastwin only the other day. The shrine had an Omar Khayyam garden and a fountain of singing water surrounded by genuine Lebanon palms. There was a Circassian priestess and no men hogs about the place. The window of this particular shrine is one of the wonders of Moorish architecture, and is known as the Window of Allah.

"Eastwin is an artist, but he shut down when I asked him to describe it. What I got from him was that it was crescent-shaped and chiselled from the solid porphyry. Spread across it is a fine screen of gold. From this window the Prophet is said to have received his direct inspirations. The Circassian priestess must have led her to this window, and from the moment she glimpsed it Nina and her husband were practically forgotten.

"He missed her the first night, and pelted round the town like a madman. He went to the Consul and demanded his wife. The Consul sent messengers to all the places of worship in the district, warning priests and temple guardians against the crime of sheltering Australian women.

"Nothing happened, and old Gaylen started to camp on the whisky jar and insult the Government officials wherever he met them.

"A month after Myra's disappearance he received a package containing the jewellery she had been wearing, together with some money and a note. The note informed him that she had grown weary of society, and had decided to seek sanctuary where he would never find her.

"This put the theory he had formed, of blackmail, right into the freezing pan. He had figured that, sooner or later, a syndicate of Arab woman-stealers would hit him for a ransom. It did not occur to him that her past donations to certain Mohammedan funds had caused her name to be venerated throughout the East, and that a hundred shrines were ready to offer her religious seclusion for the rest of her life.

"Her disappearance angered and puzzled Gaylen. In his unimaginative way he loved his wife. He realised that his future without her would be joyless and empty. He stayed here in Sareeb, hoping she would see the folly of her action. Then he went to Cairo and became ill. Later his doctors sent him back to Sydney.

"The storm waited for him there. Press and public wanted to know why Myra, the adorable, had not returned with him. Where was Myra? And so on.

"He told them there had been a quarrel, and that she had gone to live with some relatives in London. As no one could contradict this Jimmy was allowed to get well and continue his colourless way in the world of stocks and shares, while Nina grew to womanhood, a neglected and strangely wistful creature from a social point of view.

"Jimmy lost and made money in the usual way. He also drank, and became foolish and maudlin at times. But in his weakest hour no hint of the El Sareeb story ever escaped him, not even to Nina. If ever she questioned him direct she was met with the almost savage retort that no mother was worth remembering who voluntarily abandoned husband and child.

"This talk did not appease the mother-hunger in Nina. You may still it in a boy, but in girls like Nina Gaylen it's got to be fed or killed. Nina remembered her mother, remembered the sad, tormented look that often came into her eyes, the insatiable craving for light and truth. Oh, we're not laughing, Druit; a man who sees woman as the bearer of the human race doesn't sharpen his wit at the expense of her spiritual agonies. That kind of humour belongs to the Stone Age.

"At womanhood Nina missed her mother more than as a child. She wanted her for a hundred reasons every hour of her life. Then Noel Eastwin met Nina at an exhibition of pictures somewhere in Pitt-street. Eastwin is in his twenty-fifth year. He is the maddest and most splendid artist of our particular crowd. To us he is what Von Gogh and Augustus John are to the Europeans. He makes money, too.

"He painted Nina Gaylen, and at first everybody criticised the work as a bit of kybosh and a pair of dark eyes. Later on our hidebound critics got the habit of looking hard at the Kybosh Girl, as they called Nina's picture. They began to see things in it that worried and yet fascinated them.

"One lot averred that Nina was crying, in spite of the red- lipped laugh Eastwin had given her. They wrote to the art magazines and to Eastwin asking for explanations, until Dan Werner, the cattle king, bought the picture for two thousand pounds and put it in his private collection.

"Jimmy Gaylen liked Eastwin. He confided to him the story of Myra's desertion, and begged him, some day, to visit El Sareeb and glean something of his unhappy wife. His own health prevented him travelling so far. El Sareeb is not a bad place for an artist. Some of the shrines would surprise him. Those alabaster arches, now; the blue lustre tiles and the queer dresses of the Kurd women. There were any number of naked babies and camels for the painting. He also assured Noel that the sea at Shat el Arab was a fiery purple against the sun-baked beaches and palms.

"Noel persuaded his well-to-do aunt to accompany him. Nina, who had never heard of El Sareeb, went with them. They spent a whole month in Egypt before the little French steamer Gambetta took them to Jaffa. At Sareeb Nina and her chaperon made wonder trips among the tombs and native vilayets, while Noel and his donkeyman tramped through the hills, carrying brushes and canvas, until they came to the Shrine of the Seven Lamps.

"The beauty of it touched him like an opiate. All though it lacked the splendour of the Taj Mahal or the pagan grandeur of the Hafiz Tomb, its spirit of ineffable tranquillity sobered his quick-blooded impulses.

"He was not allowed to glut his colour sense unmolested. A voice from the inner court warned him that he was a trespasser on hallowed ground. Eastwin stood back in the shade of a Lebanon palm, his head uncovered, his face to the voice. He explained that his one intention was to paint the shrine. There was no mockery intended; there would be no violation of sanctified spaces.

"As no further objections to his presence were audible Noel started a canvas, and became deeply absorbed in the crescent- shaped window of Moorish design. The fine screen of gold across the inside allowed only a suggestion of the chaste interior to greet his eye.

"At first he painted erratically, and with a blind sense of his own futility in the matter of even faintly reproducing its maddening colour tones and architectural subtleties.

"The sun flared down from a cobalt sky and smote his neck like the hand of a devil. The hush of the shrine was broken by the peculiar sound of water falling into fluted pipes. Eastwin painted hard, and the great crescent-shaped window began to take form on the canvas. Then he became aware of something moving behind the gold mesh.

"He stopped painting and listened, and then went on again. For the first time in his life he was engulfed in a silence as terrible as it was profound. His brain and heart seemed out of place in such an atmosphere. In the silence he heard the gold mesh tremble. Something resembling a long-drawn sigh followed.

"Then, unsuspected as a thunderbolt, a thin, silvery voice came from the interior of the great window.

"'Who are you?' it asked. 'What has moved you to come here?'

"The sun slanted over the high dome of the shrine, and Eastwin experienced a sudden relief from the awful glare. Behind the gold mesh he made out the slim, stooping figure of a woman. Her face he could not see, but he was conscious of the eyes searching the uttermost depths of his soul.

"'My name is Eastwin,' he said. 'I have come to El Sareeb with the woman who is to be my wife. Her name is Nina Gaylen, of Sydney, Australia.'

"He stippled three flakes of ultramarine into the canvas, straightened his shoulders, and took measure of the shadows in the foreground.

"'And your name?' he asked, with scarcely a lift in his voice.

"He saw the thin white hand close on the gold mesh; he heard a sound that was like the stifled breath of a patient under an anaesthetic. Then another silence, while he painted on with apparent unconcern. 'It seemed a long, long time before the thin, silvery voice reached him again.

"'Names are nothing, Mr. Eastwin. It was written that you should come here. In ten years I have burnt all memories of the flesh. For me there is no return to earthly things. I have climbed too high, and to be near the stars one must climb alone.'

"Eastwin looked hard and quick at the shadowy outline inside the great window. It seemed to be stooping, clutching with thin, transparent hands for support. After a while he made out the bloodless cheeks pressed against the gold mesh. The burning eyes searched through and beyond him until he flinched as though from a touch of steel.

"'When do you leave here, Eastwin?' she asked.

"He painted on for several seconds, and then looked up at the mesh-shadowed face.

"'In a month I return to the land of hustle and sin,' he said with a smile. 'Perhaps,' he added, 'you would like to see Nina, unless you have climbed too high for that kind of folly?'

"He knew by the dumb beating of his own heart that he had struck at her naked flesh. The hands at the window went up, while the face receded farther into the shadow.

"Eastwin felt the cold moisture on his brow. He was thinking of Nina, the years of her neglected childhood. He held no balance of praise or blame for this spirit-ravaged woman at the window. He could only wonder vaguely what the end would be like.

"Down the long alcove a bird was piping madly; some tame doves fluttered from the shrine eaves, where the copper dome had become a furnace of molten green against the westering sun. The face at the screen was raised slightly; the transparent hands were flat on the casement, the fingers slightly in-turned.

"'I, too, shall go away,' she whispered. 'Are you listening, Eastwin? But before going I would like to look upon this —child, Nina.'

"'Your daughter,' he corrected. 'Think, Myra Gaylen, of her life, and what it has been without you.'

"'I have climbed too high to come down again, Eastwin. The white spaces of God are attained only through savage denials and conquest over this!' She struck her breast with clenched hands.

"He bent his head. 'Then to-morrow, Eastwin, you may bring her here. Let there be no speech between us, no harkening back to the dead past. I shall be content to look but once on this child of my yesterdays—once, just once, before I go.'

"Eastwin was standing in the cypress shade, a brooding, irresolute figure, until a footstep in his rear swung him round. Nina, in her big, pink sun-bonnet was standing almost beside him. The sun had given her a golden tan; the supple movements of her young body was as a tonic in the swooning silence. 'Who is inside that window?' she asked. 'I heard you talking to someone as I came up the path. I got tired of waiting, dear, and your aunt was getting nervous about you.'

"Noel folded the easel and put away the canvas.

"'I've been warned not to trespass,' he told her evasively. 'And just when the colour of those old stones was running into my brush!'

"The straying sunbeams burned in Nina's lovely hair, showed up the red, laughing mouth Eastwin had once painted from his own crying heart. The beauty of her presence struck like an organ note in that cloistered space. She stooped in the path to a heat- scorched flower and touched the drooping petals tenderly. Then, 'We'd better be going, dear,' she urged. 'We must respect the feelings of these good Mahommedans. Come along.'

"She had reached the iron gate at the shrine entrance, and was standing with hand beckoning in his direction. Eastwin made a step forward, the canvas gripped under his arm. He saw the thin shadow slant across the window, and then the curve of the head that showed she was listening.

"'You have seen,' he said almost doggedly. 'Shall I bring her here again? Think, for God's sake.'

"The voice that answered was like a child's that had cried too long. 'Yes, I have seen her, Eastwin. It is the will of God!'

"'May we come again?' Eastwin clutched at this last straw.

"There was a silence, and the long, transparent fingers were bruised against the screen until she answered.

"'Watch to-night, Eastwin, and if a star leaps and dies in the north you may come with her.'


"'At dusk, the evening after the star falls. Go!'

"He returned to the hotel with Nina. Long after she had retired he kept watch at the window, until it seemed to him that no star in the East ever planed through space. It happened at last, when his own heart was tired and sick—a white stream of fire shooting due north. Then he went to bed, satisfied that Nina would at last behold the mother of her dreams.

"An hour before dusk the following day he asked Nina to go with him to the Shrine of the Seven Lamps. He told her he was anxious to glimpse the atmosphere just before moonrise. Nina put on her hat cheerfully and led the way.

"A donkeyman took them into the hills, and, at Eastwin's bidding, waited near a cypress grove, where the track ran white as salt to the gates of the Mahommedan shrine.

"It was almost dark. Eastwin counted six lamps burning inside the great arched window. He figured out that something had gone wrong with the seventh. Nina was full of curiosity, her tense expectations were sharpened by the throbbing of a stringed instrument within the shrine.

"They waited in the gateway until the doors of the alcove opened, allowing six draped figures bearing a pall-covered bier to pass out. Eastwin caught his breath sharply, and then mechanically uncovered his head.

"A cowled figure walked ahead of the procession, but did not look up until the bier had reached Nina and Eastwin. At a signal the bearers halted to take breath. The artist braced himself suddenly and addressed the leader of the procession.

"'There was one who promised to meet me here to-night,' he said respectfully, as his glance wandered over the six bearers. 'I do not see her,' he confessed under his breath.

"The leader with the covered face tightened the robe about her age-worn body and spoke with head averted. 'It was her night to pass, effendi. She has kept her word.'

"Eastwin looked once more at the bier and understood.

"'Allah be merciful!' he said, and took Nina back to El Sareeb."

LESSINGER rose from the table and stepped out into the hot night. I followed, a trifle dismayed at the story he had told.

"But Eastwin did not keep the truth from Nina?" I protested, for it seemed to me she had not been treated fairly.

Lessinger stumbled over a pariah skulking in the warm sandy road and swore gently.

"Eastwin," he said, recovering himself, "preferred to marry Nina Gaylen. He is now in a position to tell her any lie he thinks fit. But before Allah and all the wild asses of the desert he will never tell her the truth. Good-night, Druit. Keep sober and forget it."

He seemed to reel blindly through the sands towards his lodgings. Turning in the direction of the cafe lights, I became conscious of a limping, undersized Arab approaching me from the doorway. I had noticed him squatting among the crowd of Bokhara men. At first he had taken no heed of Lessinger, but when the Melbourneite began to speak his curiosity became noticeable. He approached warily, and then, halting within a few feet, flung out a shrivelled arm at the disappearing Lessinger.


He seemed to reel blindly through the sands towards his lodgings.

"He hath lied to thee, effendi. I was a listener. He told but half the story."

"There have been many," I retorted. "You have another?"

He salaamed, and his ragged vestments opened, revealing his semi-starved body.

"Listen, effendi. I will not tire thee. The Australian woman, Gaylen, who came here many years ago, was buried a little while since, just as Lessinger hath said. Yet the truth is hidden among lies. Neither hath Eastwin, whose canvas I once carried into the hills, revealed the whole truth. In the name of Allah, effendi, why are they afraid?" he demanded passionately.

"The truth lieth in what the woman Gaylen sought," he went on, "when she transgressed the laws of the Prophet. She wandered into unbidden places; she entered the forbidden Shrine of the Seven Lamps.

"It was this climbing in at the Window of Allah that was her undoing. The shame of it! Shefket, the Koran reader in the Imaun bazaar, will bear the truth of my words, effendi. This woman Gaylen climbed up the window; she broke with her hands the gold mesh of the Holy Arch to sate her wicked curiosity.

"With her hands and feet she climbed in. But in her blindness and haste she touched the swinging Seventh Lamp and broke the gold chain holding it to the roof."

"And then?" I asked impatiently.

"The oil from the Seventh Lamp poured down in a burning flame upon her head and face. And so she burned and screamed, effendi, a long while before the people of the shrine heard. And when they came it was to discover that the lamp of the Prophet had left only a little of her faces for them to see."

"And she remained all those years in the shrine?" I questioned doubtfully.

The Arab cringed to his knees. "The fires of a lamp purify, effendi; they do not beautify. A man would have faced his friends afterwards, maybe; but a woman! Eio!"

He stretched out his withered hands to the stars. I retreated slowly in the direction of the inn, leaving some silver in the sand at his fest.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.