The Figure In The Mirage
by Robert Hichens
THE FIGURE IN THE MIRAGE
By Robert Hichens
Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers
On a windy night of Spring I sat by a great fire that had been built
by Moors on a plain of Morocco under the shadow of a white city, and
talked with a fellow-countryman, stranger to me till that day. We had
met in the morning in a filthy alley of the town, and had forgathered.
He was a wanderer for pleasure like myself, and, learning that he was
staying in a dreary hostelry haunted by fever, I invited him to dine in
my camp, and to pass the night in one of the small peaked tents that
served me and my Moorish attendants as home. He consented gladly.
Dinner was overno bad one, for Moors can cook, can even make
delicious caramel pudding in desert placesand Mohammed, my stalwart
valet de chambre, had given us most excellent coffee. Now we smoked
by the great fire, looked up at the marvellously bright stars, and
told, as is the way of travellers, tales of our wanderings. My
companion, whom I took at first to be a rather ironic, sceptical, and
by nature unimaginative globe-trotterhe was a hard-looking,
iron-grey man of middle-agerelated the usual tiger story, the
time-honoured elephant anecdote, and a couple of snake yarns of no
special value, and I was beginning to fear that I should get little
entertainment from so prosaic a sportsman, when I chanced to mention
Ah! said my guest, taking his pipe from his mouth, the desert is
the strangest thing in nature, as woman is the strangest thing in human
nature. And when you get them togetherdesert and womanby Jove!
He paused, then he shot a keen glance at me.
Ever been in the Sahara? he said.
I replied in the affirmative, but added that I had as yet only seen
the fringe of it.
Biskra, I suppose, he rejoined, and the nearest oasis, Sidi-Okba,
and so on?
I nodded. I saw I was in for another tale, and anticipated some
history of shooting exploits under the salt mountain of El Outaya.
Well, he continued, I know the Sahara pretty fairly, and about
the oddest thing I ever could believe in I heard of and believed in
Something about gazelle? I queried.
Gazelle? Noa woman! he replied..
As he spoke a Moor glided out of the windy darkness, and threw an
armful of dry reeds on the fire. The flames flared up vehemently, and I
saw that the face of my companion had changed. The hardness of it was
smoothed away. Some memory, that held its romance, sat with him.
A woman, he repeated, knocking the ashes out of his pipe almost
sentimentallymore than that, a French woman of Paris, with the
nameless charm, the chic, theBut I'll tell you. Some years
ago three Parisiansa man, his wife, and her unmarried sister, a girl
of eighteen, with an angel and a devil in her dark beautycame to a
great resolve. They decided that they were tired of the Français, sick
of the Bois, bored to death with the boulevards, that they wanted to
see for themselves the famous French colonies which were for ever being
talked about in the Chamber. They determined to travel. No sooner was
the determination come to than they were off. Hôtel des Colonies,
Marseilles; steamboat, Le Général Chanzy; five o'clock on a
splendid, sunny afternoonAlgiers, with its terraces, its white
villas, its palms, trees, and its Spahis!
But I began.
He foresaw my objection.
There were Spahis, and that's a point of my story. Some fête was on
in the town while our Parisians were there. All the African troops were
outZouaves, chasseurs, tirailleurs. The Governor went in procession
to perform some ceremony, and in front of his carriage rode sixteen
Spahisprobably got in from that desert camp of theirs near El Outaya.
All this was long before the Tsar visited Paris, and our Parisians had
never before seen the dashing Spahis, had only heard of them, of their
magnificent horses, their turbans and flowing Arab robes, their
gorgeous figures, lustrous eyes, and diabolic horsemanship. You know
how they ride? No cavalry to touch themnot even the Cossacks! Well,
our French friends were struck. The unmarried sister, more especially,
was bouleversée by these glorious demons. As they caracoled
beneath the balcony on which she was leaning she clapped her little
hands, in their white kid gloves, and threw down a shower of roses. The
falling flowers frightened the horses. They pranced, bucked, reared.
One Spahia great fellow, eyes like a desert eagle, grand aquiline
profileon whom three roses had dropped, looked up, saw
mademoisellecall her Valériegazing down with her great, bright
eyesthey were deuced fine eyes, by Jove!
You've seen her? I asked.
and flashed a smile at her with his white teeth. It was his last
day in the service. He was in grand spirits. 'Mem Dieu! Mais quelles
dents!' she sang out. Her people laughed at her. The Spahi looked at
her again not smiling. She shrank back on the balcony. Then his place
was taken by the Governorsmall imperial, chapeau de forme,
evening dress, landau and pair. Mademoiselle was désolée. Why
couldn't civilised men look like Spahis? Why were all Parisians
commonplace? Whywhy? Her sister and brother-in-law called her the
savage worshipper, and took her down to the café on the terrace to
dine. And all through dinner mademoiselle talked of the beaux
Spahisin the plural, with a secret reservation in her heart. After
Algiers our Parisians went by way of Constantine to Biskra. Now they
saw desert for the first timethe curious iron-grey, velvety-brown,
and rose-pink mountains; the nomadic Arabs camping in their
earth-coloured tents patched with rags; the camels against the skyline;
the everlasting sands, broken here and there by the deep green shadows
of distant oases, where the close-growing palms, seen from far off,
give to the desert almost the effect that clouds give to Cornish
waters. At Biskra mademoiselleoh! what she must have looked like
under the mimosa-trees before the Hôtel de l'Oasis!
Then you've seen her, I began.
mademoiselle became enthusiastic again, and, almost before they
knew it, her sister and brother-in-law were committed to a desert
expedition, were fitted out with a dragoman, tents, mulesthe whole
show, in factand one blazing hot day found themselves out in that
sunshineyou know itwith Biskra a green shadow on that sea, the
mountains behind the sulphur springs turning from bronze to black-brown
in the distance, and the table flatness of the desert stretching ahead
of them to the limits of the world and the judgment day.
My companion paused, took a flaming reed from the fire, put it to
his pipe bowl, pulled hard at his pipeall the time staring straight
before him, as if, among the glowing logs, he saw the caravan of the
Parisians winding onward across the desert sands. Then he turned to me,
sighed, and said:
You've seen mirage?
Yes, I answered.
Have you noticed that in mirage the things one fancies one sees
generally appear in large numbersbuildings crowded as in towns, trees
growing together as in woods, men shoulder to shoulder in large
My experience of mirage in the desert was so, and I acknowledged it.
Have you ever seen in a mirage a solitary figure? he continued.
I thought for a moment. Then I replied in the negative.
No more have I, he said. And I believe it's a very rare
occurrence. Now mark the mirage that showed itself to mademoiselle on
the first day of the desert journey of the Parisians. She saw it on the
northern verge of the oasis of Sidi-Okba, late in the afternoon. As
they journeyed Tahar, their dragomanhe had applied for the post, and
got it by the desire of mademoiselle, who admired his lithe bearing and
gorgeous aplombTahar suddenly pulled up his mule, pointed with his
brown hand to the horizon, and said in French:
'There is mirage! Look! There is the mirage of the great desert!'
Our Parisians, filled with excitement, gazed above the pointed ears
of their beasts, over the shimmering waste. There, beyond the palms of
the oasis, wrapped in a mysterious haze, lay the mirage. They looked at
it in silence. Then Mademoiselle cried, in her little bird's clear
'Mirage! But surely he's real?'
'What does mademoiselle see?' asked Tahar quickly.
'Why, a sort of faint landscape, through which a manan Arab, I
supposeis riding, towards Sidiwhat is it?Sidi-Okba! He's got
something in front of him, hanging across his saddle.'
Her relations looked at her in amazement.
'I only see houses standing on the edge of water,' said her sister.
'And I!' cried the husband.
'Houses and water,' assented Tahar. 'It is always so in the mirage
'I see no houses, no water,' cried mademoiselle, straining her
eyes. 'The Arab rides fast, like the wind. He is in a hurry. One would
think he was being pursued. Why, now he's gone!'
She turned to her companions. They saw still the fairy houses of
the mirage standing in the haze on the edge of the fairy water.
'But,' mademoiselle said impatiently, 'there's nothing at all
'Mademoiselle dreams,' said Tahar. 'The mirage is always there.'
They rode forward. That night they camped near Sidi-Okba. At
dinner, while the stars came out, they talked of the mirage, and
mademoiselle still insisted that it was a mirage of a horseman bearing
something before him on his saddle-bow, and riding as if for life. And
Tahar said again:
As he spoke he looked at her with a mysterious intentness, which
she noticed. That night, in her little camp-bed, round which the desert
winds blew mildly, she did indeed dream. And her dream was of the magic
forms that ride on magic horses through mirage.
The next day, at dawn, the caravan of the Parisians went on its
way, winding farther into the desert. In leaving Sidi-Okba they left
behind them the last traces of civilisationthe French man and woman
who keep the auberge in the orange garden there. To-day, as they
journeyed, a sense of deep mystery flowed upon the heart of
mademoiselle. She felt that she was a little cockle-shell of a boat
which, accustomed hitherto only to the Seine, now set sail upon a
mighty ocean. The fear of the Sahara came upon her.
My companion paused. His face was grave, almost stern.
And her relations? I asked. Did they feel
Haven't an idea what they felt, he answered curtly.
But how do you know that mademoiselle
You'll understand at the end of the story. As they journeyed in the
sun across the endless flatsfor the mountains had vanished now, and
nothing broke the level of the sandmademoiselle's gaiety went from
her. Silent was the lively, chattering tongue that knew the jargon of
cities, the gossip of the Plage. She was oppressed. Tahar rode close at
her side. He seemed to have taken her under his special protection. Far
before them rode the attendants, chanting deep love songs in the sun.
The sound of those songs seemed like the sound of the great desert
singing of its wild and savage love to the heart of mademoiselle. At
first her brother-in-law and sister bantered her on her silence, but
Tahar stopped them, with a curious authority.
'The desert speaks to mademoiselle,' he said in her hearing. 'Let
He watched her continually with his huge eyes, and she did not mind
his glance, though she began to feel irritated and restless under the
observation of her relations.
Towards noon Tahar again described mirage. As he pointed it out he
stared fixedly at mademoiselle.
The two other Parisians exclaimed that they saw forest trees, a
running stream, a veritable oasis, where they longed to rest and eat
'And mademoiselle?' said Tahar. 'What does she see?'
She was gazing into the distance. Her face was very pale, and for a
moment she did not answer. Then she said:
'I see again the Arab bearing the burden before him on the saddle.
He is much clearer than yesterday. I can almost see his face'
She paused. She was trembling.
'But I cannot see what he carries. It seems to float on the wind,
like a robe, or a woman's dress. Ah! mon Dieu! how fast he
She stared before her as if fascinated, and following with her eyes
some rapidly-moving object. Suddenly she shut her eyes.
'He's gone!' she said.
'And nowmademoiselle sees?' said Tahar.
She opened her eyes.
'Yet the mirage is still there,' he said.
'Valérie,' cried her sister, 'are you mad that you see what no one
else can see, and cannot see what all else see?
'Am I mad, Tahar?' she said gravely, almost timidly, to the
And the fear of the Sahara came again upon her.
'Mademoiselle sees what she must,' he answered. 'The desert speaks
to the heart of mademoiselle.'
That night there was moon. Mademoiselle could not sleep. She lay in
her narrow bed and thought of the figure in the mirage, while the
moonbeams stole in between the tent pegs to keep her company. She
thought of second sight, of phantoms, and of wraiths. Was this riding
Arab, whom she alone could see, a phantom of the Sahara, mysteriously
accompanying the caravan, and revealing himself to her through the
medium of the mirage as if in a magic mirror? She turned restlessly
upon her pillow, saw the naughty moonbeams, got up, and went softly to
the tent door. All the desert was bathed in light. She gazed out as a
mariner gazes out over the sea. She heard jackals yelping in the
distance, peevish in their insomnia, and fancied their voices were the
voices of desert demons. As she stood there she thought of the figure
in the mirage, and wondered if mirage ever rises at nightif, by
chance, she might see it now. And, while she stood wondering, far away
across the sand there floated up a silvery haze, like a veil of
spangled tissueexquisite for a ball robe, she said long after!and
in this haze she saw again the phantom Arab galloping upon his horse.
But now he was clear in the moon. Furiously he rode, like a thing
demented in a dream, and as he rode he looked back over his shoulder,
as if he feared pursuit. Mademoiselle could see his fierce eyes, like
the eyes of a desert eagle that stares unwinking at the glaring African
sun. He urged on his fleet horse. She could hear now the ceaseless thud
of its hoofs upon the hard sand as it drew nearer and nearer. She could
see the white foam upon its steaming flanks, and now at last she knew
that the burden which the Arab bore across his saddle and supported
with his arms was a woman. Her robe flew out upon the wind; her dark,
loose hair streamed over the breast of the horseman; her face was
hidden against his heart; but mademoiselle saw his face, uttered a cry,
and shrank back against the canvas of the tent.
For it was the face of the Spahi who had ridden in the procession
of the Governorof the Spahi to whom she had thrown the roses from the
balcony of Algiers.
As she cried out the mirage faded, the Arab vanished, the thud of
the horse's hoofs died in her ears, and Tahar, the dragoman, glided
round the tent, and stood before her. His eyes gleamed in the moonlight
like ebon jewels.
'Hush!' he whispered, 'mademoiselle sees the mirage?'
Mademoiselle could not speak. She stared into the eyes of Tahar,
and hers were dilated with wonder.
He drew nearer to her.
'Mademoiselle has seen again the horseman and his burden.'
She bowed her head. All things seemed dream-like to her. Tahar's
voice was low and monotonous, and sounded far away.
'It is fate,' he said. He paused, gazing upon her.
'In the tents they all sleep,' he murmured. 'Even the watchman
sleeps, for I have given him a powder of hashish, and hashish gives
long dreamslong dreams.'
From beneath his robe he drew a small box, opened it, and showed to
mademoiselle a dark brown powder, which he shook into a tiny cup of
'Mademoiselle shall drink, as the watchman has drunk,' he
said'shall drink and dream.'
He held the cup to her lips, and she, fascinated by his eyes, as by
the eyes of a mesmerist, could not disobey him. She swallowed the
hashish, swayed, and fell forward into his arms.
A moment later, across the spaces of the desert, whitened by the
moon, rode the figure mademoiselle had seen in the mirage. Upon his
saddle he bore a dreaming woman. And in the ears of the woman through
all the night beat the thunderous music of a horse's hoofs spurning the
desert sand. Mademoiselle had taken her place in the vision which she
no longer saw.
My companion paused. His pipe had gone out. He did not relight it,
but sat looking at me in silence.
The Spahi? I asked.
Had claimed the giver of the roses.
The shots he fired after the Spahi missed fire. Yet Tahar was a
A strange tale, I said. How did you come to hear it?
A year ago I penetrated very far into the Sahara on a sporting
expedition. One day I came upon an encampment of nomads. The story was
told me by one of them as we sat in the low doorway of an
earth-coloured tent and watched the sun go down.
Told you by an Arab?
He shook his head.
By whom, then?
By a woman with a clear little bird's voice, with an angel and a
devil in her dark beauty, a woman with the gesture of Paristhe grace,
the diablerie of Paris.
Light broke on me.
By mademoiselle! I exclaimed.
Pardon, he answered; by madame.
She was married?
To the figure in the mirage; and she was content.
Content! I cried.
Content with her two little dark children dancing before her in the
twilight, content when the figure of the mirage galloped at evening
across the plain, shouting an Eastern love song, with a
gazelleinstead of a womanslung across his saddle-bow. Did I not say
that, as the desert is the strangest thing in nature, so a woman is the
strangest thing in human nature? Which heart is most mysterious?
Its heart? I said.
Or the heart of mademoiselle?
I give the palm to the latter.
And I, he answered, taking off his wide-brimmed hatI gave it
when I saluted her as madame before the tent door, out there in the