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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE SHAWL WITH POCKETS

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As published in The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, 31 May 1931

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-18
Produced by Terry Walker, Gary Meller and Roy Glashan

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HAREM shawls! A gay display within Dan Merriman's palm-shadowed trade-room. The colour and fragrance of a sultan's courtyard lay in the carefully folded bundle at the end of the counter.

Teddy Craig, Merriman's white assistant, had bought them at the sale of Ras Tandra's household goods. Tandra's army of creditors had forced the auction, and Teddy had got the six blue and gold embroidered shawls for the price of one dinner at the Hotel Casablanca.

Ras Tandra had disappeared, leaving his retinue of frightened servants to face the gangs of in-storming creditors and police agents. And those poor, half-demented ladies of the harem! He had seen them peering down from the shuttered windows into the courtyard below, at the rabble of negroes and Arabs gathered about the chattels of their runaway lord.

"You'll get used to these harem auction sales, Teddy," Dan Merriman predicted from his desk by the open window of the trade-room. "Rough on those ladies, no doubt, to be cast adrift in North Africa, after a sheltered life inside the palace walls."

Craig, as usual, was silent. Perhaps he was ashamed of his weakness, displayed in his bitter indignation at the conduct of the native police and agents, during the sale of Ras Tandra's goods. The rooms of the women and children had been stripped bare, the weeping women and little ones cast adrift with ruthless jibes.

Well, he had stood it for a while, and then, in the face of the Government agents, had handed an Ethiopian trooper one on the jaw for luck. The jar of that one smash on the jaw was still in his long left arm. And he had been joyously ready for more if any of those other Algerian skunks had stepped out.

Old man Merriman was speaking again from his desk. "You don't get anywhere in this country, Ted, for slamming yourself at these black soldiers. They don't understand an Englishman stepping out to protect Ras Tandra's rag-bag crown of women and kids."

Another silence. June Merriman had entered the trade-room to inspect the harem shawls. June was Dan's only child, and was engaged to marry Preston Lancing, the junior partner in the firm. Lancing had been absent on a business trip for nearly a year. When he returned old Dan would turn over the business to him, and take a rest.

Merriman had made money in Bourazai when the caravans halted under the red walls of the desert town. Those shouting Algerian cameleers and horse-men fairly yelped for his cotton goods and cutlery. Now they asked for petrol, and parked their big, smelly waggons in the very shadow of the old sultans' courtyards.

"Nice lot of shawls, June!" he called to his daughter. "Belonged to Tandra's women-folk. Nobody in Tangier wanted 'em. They're supposed to be unlucky."

June was fingering one of orange and purple silk, embroidered with ivory-tinted lace, a priceless thing that had taken years to complete. The fragrance of bergamot and oleanders greeted the touch of her caressing hand.

Craig, in his shirt sleeves, his young athletic body, bent over a crate of imported hardware, was guilty of a shy glance at her slender, lovely figure beside him. Only for an instant did their eyes meet. Craig went on busily with the unpacking.

"American tourists buy these harem shawls," she intoned almost sadly. "A hundred dollars each, eh, Dad?" she added, with the ghost of a smile. "The price of some little slave mother's tragedy!"

Craig bent tower over the heap of brassware. The day was insufferably hot; the voices of the donkey boys and cameleers, bivouacked within the trade-house gateway, threatened to become irksome.

The price of some little slave mother's tragedy! How well June summarised things! Teddy's fists bunched again when he recalled the sneers and insults aimed at the little group of forlorn women at Ras Tandra's.

Dan Merriman had met him on a West Coast tramp steamer, and had brought him to the store at Bourazai. Craig liked the work and the red-tiled bungalow in the nest of slanted palms, facing the Tangier road. Dan had given him the bungalow to live in.

The trade-house needed more help. For this reason Dan had grown impatient of Preston Lancing's protracted business tour. Preston's failing lay in the belief that fortunes were to be made within the Arab towns of the Algerian Sahara. Gold, silver, jade, and amber. The lure of it kept him from his proper place in the trade room.

Yet old Dan had faith in Lancing. The man had imagination and energy. He could handle refractory Mohammedans with the tact of a Lawrence or a Kitchener.

"Lancing will do things, Teddy," Dan declared when June had left the trade-room. "He knows the Sahara from Chad to El Rif. He'd go anywhere on a blind camel and get business where another man would only make trouble. Strikes the right note everywhere."

It may have been that Lancing stood for all that Dan had missed in youth, the joy of boundless adventure in a land where romance still flaunted her scarlet cloaks and blades.

"One of these days," Dan concluded from his desk, "Preston Lancing is going to bring the bacon home. Then maybe, I'll take a spell at Brighton or Torquay. June and Preston can carry on over here with the niggers and the nightingales."

Often, in the silence of his bungalow. Craig wondered whether lucky Preston Lancing would ever return. June was difficult to read, and always busy with her own tasks. Lancing's name never came to her lips, although Dan never allowed it to be forgotten. It was a name to make history in North Africa. Every servant and porter within the trade-house was made aware of the fact.

Night brought a red moon that floated like a huge lantern out over the sands. A lone jackal fluted eerily beyond the cactus-covered drifts. The sound of the brass hammerers in the distant village beat on the sultry air.

The light in June's window had gone out; but there came a fragrant drift of air from the dark Algerian roses beneath her casement, to ease his troubled mind.

In a little while the gay adventurer Lancing would carry her away to one of the picturesque Mediterranean towns, Cannes, Nice, or Monaco. Craig was sure that Preston would never remain at Bourazai among the sand-dunes. Preston had spoken of buying a yacht for June, the moment his plans matured: a yacht and a garden, among the wistaria-covered slopes of the French Riviera.

Lucky Lancing! Teddy Craig tossed restlessly on his camp bed. Nothing seemed to come out of his own hard work in the factory and trade-house. All Dan's thoughts were centred on the man who had gone forth to grapple with fortune and bring her to heel.

Yet Teddy was glad he had met June Merriman, glad he had experienced the dizzy pleasure of escorting her through the village under the envious glances of stately Arab horsemen and military patrols.

The soft grunt of a camel under the palms, outside, woke Craig from his troubled sleep. With his hand on the door he stared across the moonlit compound, at a shape moving towards the bungalow. For an instant the shape halted in the dazzling white light of the desert moon, his face upturned to June's window. But only for a moment; the next saw him blundering, muttering under his breath, to the bungalow verandah.

Here he swayed, pitching to his knees before the dumbfounded Craig.

"Lancing!" Teddy stooped over the sprawled-out figure, raising him with almost womanly tenderness into an upright position. Preston's fingers tightened about his arm.

"Thanks, Craig." His voice seemed to come from unutterable depths. In the brilliant moon glow his face was a twisted agony. "Let me spell here, awhile. Craig!" he begged. "I'm at the end of my work. Just a couple of hours rest, before I move out again!"

With astonishing ease Craig raised him from the verandah and bore him to the camp bed inside the bungalow. The Merriman household was deep in slumber, and the sound of Preston's camel, munching bersim within the open stalls across the compound, told him that jaded beast was attending to its own dire needs.

Craig lit an old lamp, drew the curtains of the windows closer, for it was evident that Lancing wished his return to remain a secret from old Dan and June. He had once envied Lancing's debonair appearance, his flashing wit and handsome bearing. He found himself looking down at a desert-blanched, food-starved ruin of a man, a gray spectre from the living hells of the Algerian Sahara.

For a moment he held a flask to the clenched teeth of the trembling man on the camp bed, and then, gently forcing him back to the pillow, waited for him to speak.

It was not long. Lancing shivered, wiped the dew of agony from his brow as he lay breathing like a spent animal.

"I thought I'd return to Dan and June with banners flying," he almost choked. "If Dan hadn't been a dreamer, too, I might have nailed myself to my job in the warehouse and piled up a fortune. I wanted easy money. Craig. I wanted it in the shape of tusk ivory, Arab silver, mines and land concessions from the chiefs. I thought my arm was strong enough to make my dreams come true."

Again he huddled back on the shaking camp bed, his blanched lips quivering in the effort of speech. It seemed a long time before he spoke again.

"It doesn't take the Arabs long to size up a man," he went on at last. "In a month they had plucked my thoughts and jeered at my ambitions. They told me frankly I would never find power through them. But they found a use for me."

"A use, Lancing?"

"I was offered two things; and if I refused they promised to feed my carcase to the jackals. One of the jobs was to run drugs from the nearest port to a rendezvous in the Air Mountains." Preston paused to fetch another heart-shaking breath into his lungs. "The other commission, was slave running in the interests of Central African planters and traders."

Instinctively Craig shrank from the camp bed, from the tortured soul-racked adventurer, who had pitted muscle and brain against the cunning of Africa.

"To save your own skin, Preston, you struck at the lives of others!" he declared bitterly, for he was thinking of June and the old man who had pinned faith in Lancing's ability to run honest and play the game.

Lancing wriggled on the camp bed like a man with invisible irons about his waist and ankles. He spoke again with less difficulty.

"Luring hunky niggers from their idle lives in the jungle, and putting them to useful work on the rivers and fields, didn't, I confess, appear so much of a crime as it is represented. I was promised a huge fortune if I succeeded in carrying on, for they realised my value in the matter of bluffing white District Commissioners and getting by with my black battues.

"So you see, Craig, how my romance got mushed up? A romance that turned to the rounding up of niggers for the slave warrens of El Marut and Dingaan."

"There was work here in the trade house," Craig reminded him sadly.

A silence followed in which Lancing appeared to be fighting an unseen adversary. It seemed ages to the watching Teddy before he spoke.

"Ras Tandra was our agent in Tangier for the dope traffic. He got the stuff through Egypt and Other places. We passed it on by camel into the interior. Ras is now on the run. Our supplies cut off. I came up from Fezzan to see him. Unluckily for me the police picked up a letter I wrote him a month ago, concerning a big packet of heroin and cocaine. The police have, therefore, transferred their affections to me. To save my name, also June's and Dan's, I must get back to my Arab stronghold. Will you do me a last favour before I go, Craig?"

"What is it?"

"Go to Ibrahim, in the Street of the Cobbler, and ask him to give you the musical box addressed to me, I must have it."

Craig hesitated awhile, then, with scarcely a sound, passed out to the sleeping village at the end of the sandstone road. He was back in half an hour after a brisk and lively interview with the angry, sleepy-eyed Ibrahim.

"You got it?" Lancing asked hoarsely from the camp bed.

"After threatening to clip his whiskers and ears if he didn't open the door and hand over the goods," Craig told him.

Preston took the box of sandalwood, inset with tortoise shell, and in his eagerness to open it tore away the gimcrack handle attached to a bogus musical cylinder inside.

A single glance at the contents within almost blanched his eyes. "Only six shots!" he gasped. "The miserable hound! He's stolen half my ammunition."

"He said it was all he'd received," the puzzled Craig informed him.

Lancing suppressed a savage outburst as he drew the box on to the bed. Then he sighed wearily to the expectant Teddy.

"Let me sleep here for one hour, Craig." he begged. "I'll ask no further favour. At dawn I'll go my way."

Teddy hesitated before leaving the room. "Why did you come here?" he asked without heat.

"The camel had to be fed and watered," was the snapped-out retort. "And then I was going to ask old Dan to lend me fifty pounds. Ras Tandra ran off with a packet of stuff that was worth a fortune to me. I go back to the Arabs empty-handed. The stuff Tandra took was the key to the Arab's heaven. And now it's all gone."

Teddy withdrew to an outer room disconsolately. From his coign of vision he observed Lancing sit up and draw a small brass lamp from the sandalwood box, a couple of brushes, two long needles and a metal rod. Lying back on the camp bed he dipped the end of the rod into a black tarry compound, held it over the brass lamp until it sizzled. Plugging the fuming drug into the pipe and holding the cup-like bowl of the pipe to the flame of the lamp, he inhaled deeply, greedily, filling the pipe a second time until he had smoked a mace.

Then Lancing fell back on the camp bed murmuring softly, hands stretched out to an invisible shape that floated down from invisible heights.

"June!" His voice cracked horribly. "I want to make it all come true."


THE desert moon had crossed the palms when Lancing woke. Craig was beside him with a cup of black coffee. A faint sob broke from the man who had inhaled the dragon's breath. He reached for the coffee hungrily.

A few gulps seemed to revive him. Crawling from the camp-bed he stared from the open door to the ghostly camel, standing in the grey dawn light. Then his smoke-blanched eyes turned to June's window.

"Wasn't she worth striving for?" Craig asked bitterly.

Lancing made a terrible gesture as he staggered towards the camel. "June is always in my dreams. Craig. But I like now for—"

"The pipe?"

Lancing squirmed as he climbed into the saddle of the kneeling camel.

"I've lost touch with realities, old man. Africa makes a quick kill of her victims, I'm only fit for the lotus gardens of the south. The thought of ledgers and trade-rooms is like poison to me."

In the saddle he fingered the sandalwood box uneasily. "Only five shots left," he grumbled. "Six might have seen me through my journey."

"Six smokes, Preston?"

"Six breaths of Paradise to carry me over six stages of hell. Craig, I can't do it on five," he quavered. One shot more would have made it safe. Just one more shot!"

"Don't go!" broke from Teddy. "I'll hide you until I can get you out of the country."

But the camel had lurched forward to the road that stretched like a drawn line to the desert. Craig followed clutching desperately at the driving rein. In the drawn light Lancing was holding up a small red button of the Legion.

"If I don't reach Marut, Craig, the camel will find its way back here. It's June's animal. Every bedouin in the Sahara knows the beast. They will send it home. This red button will be in its headstall if—if I can't get through. Tell June I missed the trail."

The Camel raced forward into the deep drifts with its drug-shaken rider. Craig returned to the bungalow.

June was in the trade-room before her father had finished breakfast. Craig found her inspecting one of the harem shawls lying at the bottom of the pack. A slight frown touched her brow as she weighed it on her arm.

"Too heavy," she sighed, returning it to the counter. "And the others are so light."

Craig's expert fingers closed about the richly embroidered shawl, and, without ado, disclosed a belt like pocket sewn through the whole length of the material. A pair of scissors opened it, allowing a stream of tar-like pellets to fall to the counter. In a corner of the pocket was a note addressed to Lancing. June read it eagerly over Craig's shoulder.


Allah be with thee, effendi! Here you will find medicine for sick Ameers and slaves. With it you will buy camels and land, many wives and much ivory. By our agreement, effendi Lancing, I take half.

Ras Tandra.


"Just a wicked consignment of opium!" Dan Merriman had entered the trade-room unnoticed and had taken the letter from the unresisting June. He crushed it fiercely in his palm and stumbled to his desk as one whose hopes had been blasted by the stroke of an Arab's pen.


A BLACK sandstorm had raged for days. Craig was staring from the trade-room window at a solitary camel staggering in from the wind-swept road. Before he could reach the door June had crossed the compound and was leading the weary beast by its rein. When she entered the trade room she was holding a small red button between her finger and thumb.

"I know all about these little symbols," she began, with slightly paling lips. "Mother Sahara has taken our Preston!"'

Craig was manipulating a heavy bale of silk in the passage. He was silent.

"The trouble was," June went on steadily, "Dad thought he'd discovered a commercial genius in Lancing. I could have told him that poor Preston was just a modern Aladdin looking for somebody's lamp to rub. Was I right, Teddy Craig?"

Not for naught had Craig suffered loneliness and disappointment in Dan Merriman's trade-house. Hurling the huge bale of silk into its place he met June's straight glances.

"I shall not need a lamp to win the woman I want," he said with desperate courage. "Dear June," he had taken her in his arms, "a man who cannot afford even a lamp will marry you. All he possesses is strength and a wish to work for you until he dies."

June's cheek was against his lips, her hands resting on his strong breast. But there was a flash of tears in her young eyes.

"I'll marry that man, Teddy, dear, to show Dad that romance did not perish in the desert with Preston Lancing!"

And June Merriman kept her word.


THE END


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.