Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, January 26, 2021


 "The Red Face of Feerish Ali" by James Francis Dwyer (from Collier's, March 9, 1912; reprinted in Dwyer's collection Breath of the Jungle, 1915)

A tale of legendary treasure and an unlucky adventurer, whose ship went down in the deep waters off the coast of Somaliland.  After three hours lone at sea, our exhausted narrator finds himself on a small hump of a sandbar some distance from the coastline, knowing that soon he would have to get the strength to swim the final distance before an incoming tide washes his shelter away.  Before he able to get his breath back, though, he spies several ships coming from the mainland to where he is sheltered.  Afraid of who or what they may carry, he buries himself under some seaweed and watches what happens.  A huge bearded man on the deck of the biggest dahabeah shouted orders to some naked Arabs and they lowered a large, yellow box to the water and then pushed it to the sandbar.  They left it there, returned to the boat, and the boats sailed back to shore.

Although fearful that the box might contain the  body of a plague victim who had been cast there so the tides might wash it out to see, our survivor opens the box.  There, staring up at him "were a pair of topaz eyes that were deeper than the Guinea Basin, and those eyes belonged to a brown woman who was prettier than the houris that wait to open the pearl gates of the seventh heaven."  Quickly, he unbinds the girl realizing that she was probably the wife of the large bearded man who had decided to cast her aside in favor of a younger and prettier bride.

As he cuts her cords, she asks him what are the greatest things in the world.  He can only reply with lines from an old song:

"Four things greater than all things are,/Women and horses and power and war."

She tells him he is wrong.  The greatest things in the world are love and hate.

They make it shore, where she then asks him if he had ever heard of The Red Face of Feerish Ali.

Anyone who had traveled in that part of the world had heard of the legend.  Thirteen centuries before, the Muslim conqueror terrorized all his armies encountered with the blazing Red Face of Ferrish Ali.  Often believed to be a myth, this did not prevent fortune hunters over the ages from seeking the legendary object.  The rescued woman, who remains unnamed thoughout the tale, then sings an ancient song about the artifact.  Somehow this convinced the narrator that she truly knew where the Red Face was hidden, possibly because her traitorous husband had been given charge of the object.  She promised to bring him to the priceless Red Face.

They set off, the woman leading.  After a long journey, they come to a monstrous chasm at least five thousand feet deep (surely an exaggeration, but who can tell?).  The thought of traversing this pit fill him with fear.  They travel song the edge until the come to a spot where the chasm's width is only about thirty feet.  There, across the pit is a thin hemp rope bridge.  After much coaxing she explains that it is only a half hour from there to the "Rocking Stone."  This convinces our hero because legend has it that the Red Face of Ferrish Ali can be found near a legendary Rocking Stone.

The rocking stone is about fifteen feet high and ten feet across.  It is set in a larger stone basin where it is situated so that it cannot fall over, but can be rocked back and forth at a greater and greater arc.  The stone covers a cave entrance and by rocking the stone back and forth, one may be able to enter the cave before the stone rocks back into place.  Timing is critical because the stone can just as easily crush anyone who misjudges its motion.  The girl makes it into the cave and a few minutes later tells out hero to begin rocking the stone again.  She makes it out safely with the Red Face tied to he body with a scarf.

The Red Face of Feerish Ali is a huge golden mask with perhaps the largest ruby in existence imbedded on the forehead, which would have made the enemies of the old conqueror believe he had one fearsome red eye as he attacked.  

The two make ready to leave, but the girl notices a movement in the nearby bushes.  They have been followed.  They run to escape with the bearded giant -- the girl's once-husband -- on their tail.  They make it across the rope bridge and the girl begins to saw some of the cords away.  As their pursuer gains on them, a bit of the center of the rope bridge collapses and he falls thorough, catching himself before a final plummit.  As he struggles to free himself, the girl is torn.  Remember the most powerful things in the world are love and hate.  Her hatred for the man who would have left her to the mercy of the tide suddenly turned into love for the man who is clinging to his life from the bridge.  She rushes to save him.  Our hero grabs the Red Face and runs.  And runs.  And runs.

Tired, he collapses by a cliffside and the Red Face of Feerish Ali slips over the edge, falling out of sight.  He manages to hide in some bushes when the vengeful husband and girl approach.  She notices him but refuses to say anything.  They leave and our hapless hero is free to wander back to what passes for civilization with a tale that no one believes.

James Francis Dwyer (1874-1952) was an Australian writer who had been a postal assistant before being convicted in a fraudulent postal order scheme.  After serving three years of his seven-year prison sentence, he was released and relocated to England and hen America, where he began churning out novels and short stories.  He wrote over a thousand short stories during his career and was the first Australian writer to become a millionaire from his writing.  Although his work reached a wide international audience, he was virtually unknown in his native Australia.  Today he is best remembered for his pulp adventure and quasi-science fictional stories which still have a devoted following.

"The Red Face of Feerish Ali" is available to read online in Breath of the Jungle, the only collection of Dwyer's stories that was published during his lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. I'm convinced you live in the Past when I see these 100+ year old stories you're fond of!