Always wise and prudent, Zobéide cautiously put aside the myrtle branches and peeped through to see who were the persons talking by the fountain in the cool shadow of the pink sandstone wall. And when she saw that it was only the Rev. John Feathercock, her lord and master, discoursing as usual with Mohammed-si-Koualdia, she went toward them frankly but slowly.
When she was quite near she stopped, and from the light that played in her deep black eyes you would have thought that surely she was listening with the deepest attention. But the truth is that with all her little brain, with all her mouth, and with all her stomach, she was craving the yellow and odorous pulp of a melon which had been cut open and put on the table near two tall glasses half filled with snowy sherbet. For Zobéide was a turtle of the ordinary kind found in the grass of all the meadows around the city of Damascus.
As she waited, Mohammed continued his story:
“And, as I tell you, O reverend one abounding in virtues, this lion which still lives near Tabariat, was formerly a strong lion, a wonderful lion, a lion among lions! To-day, even, he can strike a camel dead with one blow of his paw, and then, plunging his fangs into the spine of the dead animal, toss it upon his shoulders with a single movement of his neck. But unfortunately, having one day brought down a goat in the chase by simply blowing upon it the breath of his nostrils, the lion was inflated with pride and cried: ‘There is no god but God, but I am as strong as God. Let him acknowledge it!’ Allah, who heard him, Allah, the All-powerful, said in a loud voice, ‘O lion of Tabariat, try now to carry off thy prey!’ Then the lion planted his great teeth firmly in the spine of the animal, right under the ears, and attempted to throw it on his back. Onallahi! It was as though he had tried to lift Mount Libanus, and his right leg fell lamed to the ground. And the voice of Allah still held him, declaring: ‘Lion, nevermore shalt thou kill a goat!’ And it has remained thus to this day: the lion of Tabariat has still all his old-time power to carry off camels, but he can never do the slightest harm to even a new-born kid. The goats of the flocks dance in front of him at night, deriding him to his face, and always from that moment his right leg has been stiff and lame.”
“Mohammed,” said the Rev. Mr. Feathercock contemptuously, “these are stories fit only for babies.”
“How, then!” replied Mohammed-si-Koualdia. “Do you refuse to believe that God is able to do whatever he may wish, that the world itself is but a perpetual dream of God’s and that, in consequence, God may change this dream at will? Are you a Christian if you deny the power of the All-powerful?”
“I am a Christian,” replied the clergyman with a trace of embarrassment; “but for a long time we have been obliged to admit, we pastors of the civilized Church of the Occident, that God would not be able, without belying himself, to change the order of things which he established when he created the universe. We consider that faith in miracles is a superstition which we must leave to the monks of the Churches of Rome and of Russia, and also to your Mussulmans who live in ignorance of the truth. And it is in order to teach you this truth that I have come here to your country, and at the same time to fight against the pernicious political influence exerted by these same Romish and Greek monks of whom I have just been speaking.”
“By invoking the name of Allah,” responded Mohammed with intense solemnity, “and by virtue of the collar-bone of the mighty Solomon, I can perform great miracles. You see this turtle before us? I shall cause it to grow each day the breadth of a finger!”
In saying these words he made a sudden movement of his foot toward Zobéide, and Zobéide promptly drew her head into her shell.
“You claim to be able to work a miracle like that!” said the clergyman scornfully. “You, Mohammed, a man immersed in sin, a Mussulman whom I have seen drunk!”
“I was drunk,” replied Mohammed calmly, “but not as drunk as others.”
“So you think yourself able to force the power of Allah!” pursued Mr. Feathercock, disdaining the interruption.
“I could do it without a moment’s difficulty,” said Mohammed.
Taking Zobéide in his hand he lifted her to the table. The frightened turtle had again drawn in her head. Nothing could be seen but the black-encircled golden squares of her shell against a background of juicy melon pulp. Mohammed chanted:
“Thou thyself art a miracle, O turtle! For thy head is the head of a serpent, thy tail the tail of a water rat, thy bones are bird’s bones and thy covering is of stone; and yet thou knowest love as it is known by men. And from thy eggs, O turtle of stone, other turtles come forth.
“Thou thyself art a miracle, O turtle! For one would say that thou wert a shell, naught but a shell, and behold! thou art a beast that eats. Eat of this melon, O turtle, and grow this night the length of my nail, if Allah permit!
“And when thou hast grown by the breadth of a finger, O turtle, eat further of this melon, or of its sister, another melon, and grow further by the breadth of a finger until thou hast reached the size of a mosque. Thou thyself art a miracle, O shell endowed with life! Perform still another miracle, if Allah permit, if Allah permit!”
Zobéide, reassured by the monotony of his voice, decided at last to come out of her shell. First she showed the point of her little horny nose, then her black eyes, her flat-pointed tail, and finally her strong little claw-tipped feet. Seeing the melon, she made a gesture of assent, and began to eat.
“Nothing in the world will happen!” remarked the Rev. John Feathercock rather doubtfully.
“Wait and see,” answered Mohammed gravely. “I shall come back to-morrow!”
The next morning he returned, measured Zobéide with his fingers and declared:
“She has grown!”
“Do you imagine you can make me believe such a thing?” cried Mr. Feathercock anxiously.
“It is written in the Koran,” answered Mohammed: “‘I swear by the rosy glow which fills the air when the sun is setting, by the shades of the night, and by the light of the moon, that ye shall all change, in substance and in size!’ Allah has manifested himself; the size of this turtle has changed. It will continue to change. Measure it yourself and you will see.”
Mr. Feathercock did measure Zobéide, and was forced to admit that she had indeed grown the breadth of a finger. He became thoughtful.
Thus day by day Zobéide grew in size, in vigor and in appetite. At first she had only been as big as a saucer, and took each day but a few ounces of nourishment. Then she reached the size of a dessert plate, then of a soup plate. With her strong beak she could split the rind of a melon at a blow; distinctly could be heard the sound of her heavy jaws as she crunched the sweet pulp of the fruits which she loved, and which she devoured in great quantities. In one week she had grown so tremendously that she was as big as a meat platter. The Rev. Mr. Feathercock no longer dared to go near this monster, from whose eyes seemed to glisten a look of deviltry. And, always and forever, apparently devoured by a perpetual hunger, the monster ate.
The members of Mr. Feathercock’s flock came to hear that he was keeping in his house a turtle that had been enchanted in the name of Allah and not by the power of the Occidental Divinity: this proved to be anything but helpful to the evangelical labors of the clergyman. But he himself refused steadily and obstinately to believe in the miracle, although Mohammed-si-Koualdia had never set foot in the house since the day when he had invoked the charm. He remained outside the grounds, seated at the door of a little café, plunged in meditation or in dreams, and consuming hashish in large quantities. At the end of some time Mr. Feathercock succeeded in persuading himself that what he was witnessing was nothing more nor less than a perfectly simple and natural phenomenon, perhaps not well understood hitherto, and due entirely to the extraordinarily favorable action of melon pulp on the physical development of turtles. He decided to cut off Zobéide’s supply of melons.
Finally there came a day when Mohammed, drunk with hashish, saw Hakem, Mr. Feathercock’s valet, returning from market with a large bunch of fresh greens. He rose majestically, though with features distorted by the drug, and followed the boy with hasty steps.
“Miserable one!” cried he to Mr. Feathercock. “Wretched worm, you have tried to break the charm! Rejoice then, for you have succeeded and it is broken. But let despair follow upon the heels of your rapture, for it is broken in a way that you do not dream. Henceforth your turtle shall dwindle away day by day!”
The Rev. Mr. Feathercock tried to laugh, but he did not feel entirely happy. On Sundays, at the services, the few faithful souls who remained in his flock looked upon him with suspicion. At the English consulate they spoke very plainly, telling him unsympathetically that anyone who would make a friend of such a man as Mohammed-si-Koualdia and who would mingle “promiscuously” with such rabble, need look for nothing but harm from it.
Zobéide, when she was first confronted with the fresh, damp greens, showed the most profound contempt for them. Unquestionably she preferred melons. Mr. Feathercock applauded his own acumen. “She was eating too much; that was the whole trouble,” he said to himself. “And that was what made her grow so remarkably. If she eats less she will probably not grow so much. And if she should happen to die, I shall be rid of her. Whatever comes, it will be for the best.”
But the next day Zobéide gave up pouting and began very docilely to eat the greens, and when the boy Hakem carried her next bunch to her he said slyly:
“Effendi, she is growing smaller!”
The clergyman attempted to shrug his shoulders, but it was impossible to disguise the fact from himself—Zobéide had certainly shrunk! And within an hour all Damascus knew that Zobéide had shrunk. When Mr. Feathercock went to the barber shop the Greek barber said to him, “Sir, your turtle is no ordinary turtle!” When he went to call on Mrs. Hollingshead, a lady who was always intensely interested in all subjects that she failed to understand and who discussed them with a beautiful freedom, she said to him: “Dear sir, your turtle. How exciting it must be to watch it shrink! I am certainly coming to see it myself.” When he went to the Anglican Orphanage, all the little Syrians, all the little Arabs, all the little Armenians, all the little Jews, drew turtles in their copy-books, turtles of every size and every description, the big ones walking behind the little ones, the tail of each in the mouth of another, making an interminable line. And in the street the donkey drivers, the water-carriers, the fishmongers, the venders of broiled meats, of baked breads, of beans, of cream, all cried: “Mister Turtle, Mister Turtle! Try our wares. Buy something for your poor stubborn beast that is pining away!”
And, in truth, the turtle continued to shrink. She became again the size of a soup plate, then of a dessert plate, then of a saucer, till finally one morning there was nothing there but a little round thing, tiny, frail, translucent, a spot about as big as a lady’s watch, almost invisible at the base of the fountain. And the next day—ah! the next day there was nothing there, nothing whatever, neither turtle nor the shadow of turtle, or more trace of a turtle than of an elephant in all the grounds!
Mohammed-si-Koualdia had stopped taking hashish, because he was saturated with it. But he remained all day long, huddled in a heap at the door of the little café immediately opposite the clergyman’s house, his eyes enlarged out of all proportion, set in a face the color of death, gave him the look of a veritable sorcerer. At this moment the Rev. Mr. Feathercock was returning from a visit to the English consul who had said to him coldly:
“All that I can tell you is that you have made an ass of yourself or, as a Frenchman would say, played the donkey to hear yourself bray. The best thing you can do is to go and hunt up a congregation somewhere else.”
The Rev. John Feathercock accepted the advice with deference, and took the train for Bayreuth. That same evening Mohammed-si-Koualdia betook himself to the house of one Antonio, interpreter and public scribe, and ordered him to translate into French the following letter, which he dictated in Arabic. Afterwards he carried this letter to Father Stephen, prior to the monastery of the Greek Hicrosolymites:
“May heaven paint your cheeks with the colors of health, most venerable father, and may happiness reign in your heart! I have the honor to inform you that the Rev. John Feathercock has just left for Bayreuth, but that he has had put upon his trunks the address of a city called Liverpool, which, I am informed, is in the kingdom of England; and also, everything points to the belief that he will never return. Therefore, I dare to hope that you will send me the second part of the reward you agreed upon as well as a generous present for Hakem, Mr. Feathercock’s valet, who carried every day a new turtle to the house of the clergyman, and carried away the old one under his cloak.
“I also pray you to tell your friends that I have for sale, at prices exceptionally low, fifty-five turtles, all of different sizes, the last and smallest of which is no larger than the watch of a European houri. I have been at infinite pains to find them, and they have served to prove to me with what exquisite care Allah fashions the members of the least of His creatures and ornaments their bodies with the most delicate designs.”