On a Man who was Protected by Another Man by Hilaire Belloc (1907)

There was once a man called Mahmoud. He had other names, such as Ali, Akbar, and Shmaeil, and so forth, with which I will not trouble you, because in very short stories it is important not to confuse the mind. I have been assured of this by many authorities, some of whom make a great deal of money by short stories, and all of whom know a great deal about the way in which they ought to be written.

Now I come to think of it, I very much doubt whether this is a short story at all, for it has no plot so far and I do not see any plot developing. No matter. The thing is to say what one has to say humbly but fully. Providence will look after the rest.

So, as I was saying, there was a man called Mahmoud. He lived in a country entirely made of sand. There were hills which on the maps were called mountains, but when you came to look at them they were only a lot more sand, and there was nothing about them except an aspect of sand heaped up. You may say, "How, then, did Mahmoud build a house?" He did not. He lived in a tent. "But," you continue, "what did he do about drinking?" Well, it was Mahmoud's habit to go to a place where he knew that by scratching a little he would find bad water, and there he would scratch a little and find it, and, being an abstemious man, he needed but a drop.

The sun in Mahmoud's country was extremely hot. It stood right up above one's head and looked like the little thing that you get in the focus of a burning glass. The sun made it almost impossible to move, except in the early morning or at evening, and even during the night it was not particularly cool. It never rained in this place.

There were no rivers and no trees. There was no grass, and the only animal was a camel. The camel was content to eat a kind of scrub that grew here and there on the sand, and it drank the little water Mahmoud could afford it, and was permanently happy. So was Mahmoud. Beneath him the sand sloped down until it met the sea, which was tepid on account of the great heat, and in which were a lot of fish, pearls, and other things. Every now and then Mahmoud would force a son or domestic of his to go down and hoick out a pearl, and this pearl he would exchange for something that he absolutely needed, such as a new tent or a new camel, and then he went on living the way he had been living before.

Now, one day there came to this part of the world a man called Smith. He was dressed as you and I are, in trousers and a coat and boots, and he had a billycock hat on. He had a foolish, anxious face. He did not keep his word particularly; and he was exceedingly fond of money. He had spent most of his life accumulating all sorts of wealth in a great bag, and he landed with this bag in Mahmoud's country, and Mahmoud was as polite to him as the heat would allow. Then Mahmoud said to him:

"You appear to be a very rich man."
And Smith said:

"I am," and opened his bag and showed a great quantity of things. So Mahmoud was pleased and astonished, and fussed a good deal considering the climate, and got quite a quantity of pearls out of the sea, and gave them to Smith, who let him have a gun, but a bad one; and he, Smith, retained a good rifle. Then Smith sat down and waited for about six months, living on the provisions he had brought in his bag, until Mahmoud said to him:
"What have you come to do here?"
And Smith said:
"Why, to tell you the honest truth, I have come to protect you."
So Mahmoud thought a long time, smoking a pipe, because he did not understand a word of what Smith had said. Then Mahmoud said:
"All right, protect away," and after that there was a silence for about another six months, and nothing had happened.

Mahmoud did not mind being protected, because it made no difference to him, and after a certain time he had got all he wanted out of Smith, and was tired of bothering about the pearls. So he and Smith just lived side by side doing nothing in particular, except that Smith went on protecting and that Mahmoud went on being protected. But while Mahmoud was perfectly content to be protected till Doomsday, being an easy-going kind of fellow, Smith was more and more put out. He was a trifle irritable by nature. The climate did not suit him. He drank beer and whisky and other things quite dangerous under such a sun, and he came out all over like the measles. He tried to pass the time riding on a camel. At first he thought it great sport, but after a little he got tired of that also. He began to write poetry, all about Mahmoud, and as Mahmoud could not read it did not much matter. Then he wrote poetry about himself making out Mahmoud to be excessively fond of him, and this poetry he read to himself, and it calmed him; but as Mahmoud did not know about this poetry, Smith got bored with it, and, his irritation increasing, he wrote more poetry, showing Mahmoud to be a villain and a serf, and showing himself, Smith, to be under a divine mission.

Now, just when things had come to this unpleasant state Mahmoud got up and shook himself and began skipping and dancing outside the door of his tent and running round and round it very fast, and waving his hands in the air, and shouting incongruous things.

Smith was exceedingly annoyed by this. He had never gone on like that himself, and he did not see why Mahmoud should. But Mahmoud had lived there a good deal longer than Smith had, and he knew that it was absolutely necessary. There were stories of people in the past who had felt inclined to go on like this and had restrained themselves with terrible consequences. So Mahmoud went on worse than ever, running as fast as he could out into the sand, shouting, leaping into the air, and then running back again as fast as he could, and firing off his gun and calling upon his god.

Smith, whose nerves were at the last stretch, asked Mahmoud savagely what he was about. To this Mahmoud gave no reply, save to twirl round rapidly upon one foot and to fall down foaming at the mouth. Smith, therefore, losing all patience, said to Mahmoud:

"If you do not stop I will shoot you by way of protecting you against yourself."
Mahmoud did not know what the word protected meant, but he understood the word shoot, and shouting with joy, he blew off Smith's hat with his gun, and said:
"A fight! a fight!"
For he loved fighting when he was in this mood, while Smith detested it.

Smith, however, remembered that he had come there to protect Mahmoud; he set his teeth, aimed with his rifle, fired at Mahmoud, and missed.

Mahmoud was so surprised at this that he ran at Smith, and rolled him over and over on the ground. Then they unclenched, both very much out of breath, and Smith said:

"Will you or will you not be protected?"
Mahmoud said he should be delighted. Moreover, he said that he had given his word that he would be protected, and that he was not a man to break his word.

After that he took Smith by the hand and shook it up and down for about five minutes, until Smith was grievously put out.

When they were friends again, Smith said to Mahmoud:

"Will you not go down into the sea and get me some more pearls?"
"No," said Mahmoud, "I am always very exhausted after these attacks."

Then Smith sat down by the seashore and began to cry, thinking of his home and of the green trees and of the North, and he wrote another poem about the burden that he had borne, and of what a great man he was and how he went all over the world protecting people, and how brave he was, and how Mahmoud also was very brave, but how he was much braver than Mahmoud. Then he said:

"Mahmoud, I am going away back to my distant home, unless you will get me more pearls."
But Mahmoud said:
"I cannot get you any more pearls because it is too hot, and if only you will stop you can go on doing some protecting, which, upon my soul, I do like better than anything in the world."
And even as he said this he began jumping about and shouting strange things and waving his gun, and Smith at once went away.

Then Mahmoud sat down sadly by the sea, and thought of how Smith had protected him, and how now all that was passed and the old monotonous life would begin again. But Smith went home, and all his neighbours asked how it was that he protected so well, and he wrote a book to enlighten them, called How I Protected Mahmoud. Then all his neighbours read this book and went out in a great boat to do something of the same kind. And Smith could not refrain from smiling.

Mahmoud, however, by his lonely shore, regretted more and more this episode in his dull life, and he wept when he remembered the fantastic Smith, who had such an enormous number of things in his bag and who had protected him ; and he also wrote a poem, which is rather difficult to understand in connection with the business, but which to him exactly described it. And the poem went like this; having no metre and no rhyming, and being sung to three notes and a quarter in a kind of wail:

"When the jackal and the lion meet it is full moon; it is full moon and the gazelles are abroad."

"Why are the gazelles abroad when the jackal and the lion meet: when it is full moon in the desert and there is no wind?"

"There is no wind because the gazelles are abroad, the moon is at the full, and the lion and the jackal are together."

"Where is he that protected me and where is the great battle and the shouts and the feasting afterwards, and where is that bag?"

"But we dwell in the desert always, and men do not visit us, and the lion and the jackal have met, and it is full moon, O gazelles!"

Mahmoud was so pleased with this song that he wrote it down, a thing he only did with one song out of several thousands, for he wrote with difficulty, but I think it a most ridiculous song, and I far prefer Smith's, though you would never know it had to do with the same business.

by Hilaire Belloc from On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, (1907)