TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY
THE DUNEDIN PRESS LIMITED, EDINBURGH
In your voyage down the west coast of Africa,after passing the southern extremity of Morocco,you sail for days and nights together past theshores of a never-ending land of desolation. It isthe Sahara, “the great sea without water,” to whichthe Moors have given also the name of “Bled-el-Ateuch,”the land of thirst.
These desert shores stretch for five hundred leagueswithout one port of call for the passing vessel, withoutone blade of grass, one sign of life.
Solitude succeeds solitude with mournful monotony;shifting sandhills, vague horizons—and theheat grows each day more intense.
At last there comes in sight over the sands an oldcity, white, with yellow palm trees set here andthere—it is St Louis on the Senegal, the capital ofSenegambia.
A church, a mosque, a tower, houses built inMoorish style—the whole seems asleep under theburning sun, like those Portuguese towns, St Pauland St Philip of Benguela, that once flourished onthe banks of the Congo.
As one draws nearer one sees with surprise that thistown is not built on the shore, that it has not even aport, nor any direct means of communication withthe outer world. The flat, unbroken coast line is asinhospitable as that of the Sahara, and a ridge ofbreakers forever prevents the approach of ships.
Another feature, not visible from a distance, nowpresents itself in the vast human ant heaps on theshore, thousands and thousands of thatched huts,lilliputian dwellings with pointed roofs, and teemingwith a grotesque population of negroes. These arethe two large Yolof towns, Guet n’dar andN’dar-toute, which lie between St Louis and the sea.
If your ship lies to awhile off this country, longpirogues with pointed bows like fish-heads, and bodiesshaped like sharks, are soon seen approaching. Theyare manned by negroes, who row standing. Thesepirogue men are tall and lean, of Herculean proportions,admirable build and muscular development,and their faces are those of gorillas. They havecapsized ten times at least while crossing the breakers.With negro perseverance, with the agility andstrength of acrobats, ten times in succession havethey righted their pirogue and made a fresh start.Sweat and sea water trickle from their bare skins,which gleam like polished ebony.
Here they are in spite of all, smiling with an airof triumph, and displaying their magnificent whiteteeth. Their costume consists of an amulet and abead necklet, their cargo of a carefully sealed leadenbox, which contains the mails.
In this box also are orders from the governor forthe newly arrived ship, and in it, too, are depositedpapers addressed to members of the colony.
A man in a hurry can safely entrust himself tothese boatmen, secure in the knowledge that he willbe fished out of the sea as often as necessary with theutmost care, and that eventually he will be depositedon the beach.
But it is more comfortable to continue one’s voyageas far south as the mouth of the Senegal, where flat-bottomedboats take off the passengers and conveythem smoothly by river to St Louis.
This isolation from the sea is one of the chiefcauses of the stagnation and dreariness of thiscountry. St Louis cannot serve as a port of call tomail-steamers or merchantmen on their way to thesouthern hemisphere. One goes to St Louis if onemust, and this gives one the feeling of being aprisoner cut off from the rest of the world.
In the northern quarter of St Louis, near themosque, there stood a little solitary house belongingto one Samba-Hamet, trader on the upper river. Itwas a lime-washed house. The cracks of its brickwalls, the crevices in its heat-shrunken wood-workharboured legions of white ants and blue lizards.Two marabout cranes haunted its roof, clackingtheir beaks in the sunshine, and solemnly stretchingout their featherless necks when anyone chanced topass along the straight, unfrequented street.
O the dreariness of this land of Africa!
The slight shadow of a frail thorn palm moved inits slow daily course along the whole length of theheated wall; the palm was the only tree in thequarter, where no green thing refreshed the eye. Onits yellowed fronds flights of those tiny blue or pinkbirds, called in France bengalis, would often comeand perch. But all around lay sand, sand, nothingbut sand. Never a tuft of moss, never a fresh bladeof grass grew on the soil, parched by the burningbreath of the Sahara.
On the ground floor dwelt a horrible old negresscalled Coura n’diaye, once the favourite of a greatnegro monarch. There she had her collection ofgrotesque tatters, her little slave girls, decked withbeads of blue glass, her goats, her big-horned sheep,her half-starved, yellow curs.
In the upper storey there was a large, lofty room,square in shape, to which an outside staircase ofworm-eaten wood gave access.
Every evening at sunset, a man in a red jacket,with a Mussulman fez on his head—in a word, aspahi—entered Samba-Hamet’s house. Coura n’diaye’stwo marabout cranes used to watch himfrom a distance as he approached. From thefarther end of the dead-alive town they would recognisehis gait, his step, the striking colours of hisuniform, and would show no nervousness at his entry—solong had they known him.
He was a tall man, of proud, erect carriage; he wasof pure European race, although the African sun hadalready deeply embrowned his face and chest. Thisspahi was a remarkably fine-looking man, a grave andmanly type of beauty, with large clear eyes, almond-shapedlike an Arab’s. From under his fez, whichwas pushed to the back of his head, a lock of brownhair had escaped and hung in disorder over his broad,unsullied brow.
The red jacket was admirably becoming to hiswell-moulded figure, and his whole build was a compoundof litheness and muscular strength.
As a rule he was serious and thoughtful, but hissmile had a seductive charm, and gave a glimpse ofteeth of remarkable whiteness.
One evening, the man in the red jacket could beseen climbing Samba-Hamet’s wooden staircasewith more than his customary air of abstraction.
He entered the lofty chamber, his own, and seemedsurprised at finding no one in it.
It was a curious place, this lodging of the spahi’s.It was a bare room, furnished with mat-coveredbenches. Strips of parchment, written upon by thepriests of Maghreb, and talismans of various kindshung from the ceiling.
He went to a large casket, raised on feet, ornamentedwith strips of copper and variegated withbrilliant colours, a box such as is used by the Yolofsfor locking up their valuables. He tried it and foundit locked.
Thereupon he lay down on a tara, a kind of sofamade of light laths, the work of negroes of theGambia shore. Then he took from his pocket aletter, and began to read it, first kissing the cornerwith the signature.
It was without doubt a love-letter, written bysome fair one—an elegant Parisienne, perhaps, orpossibly a romantic senora—to this handsome spahid’Afrique, who seems of the very mould for playingleading rôles as the lover in melodrama.
This letter will perchance furnish us with the clueto some highly dramatic adventure, which will serveas prelude to our tale.
The letter, which the spahi had touched with hislips, bore the postmark of a village hidden away inthe Cevennes. It was written by a poor old hand,trembling and unpractised. Its lines overlapped,and it was not free from mistakes.
The letter said:—
My dear son,—The present is to give you news of ourhealth, which is pretty good just now; we thank the goodGod for it. But your father says he feels himself growingold, and as his eyes are failing a good deal, it is your oldmother who is taking up the pen to talk to you aboutourselves. You will forgive me, knowing that I cannotwrite any better.
My dear son, I have to tell you that we have been ingreat trouble for some time. Since you left us three yearsago, nothing has gone well with us. Good fortune, aswell as happiness, left us when you did. It has been abad year on account of a heavy hailstorm which fell onthe field and destroyed nearly everything except at theside of the road. Our cow went sick, and it cost us a lotof money to have her attended to. Your father’s wagesare sometimes short, since he came back to this countryof young men, who work faster than he. Besides thiswe have had to have part of our roof repaired, as itthreatened to fall in with the heavy rains. I know thatsoldiers haven’t much to spare, but your father says thatif you can send us what you promised without stintingyourself, it will be very useful to us.
The Mérys, who have plenty of money, could easilylend us some, but we don’t like asking them, especially aswe do not want them to think us poor people. We oftensee your cousin, Jeanne Méry; she grows prettier everyday. Her chief joy is to come and see us, and to talkabout you. She says she would ask nothing better thanto be your wife, my dear Jean. But her father will nothear of the marriage, because he says we are poor, andalso that you have been a bit of a scapegrace in yourday. I think, however, that if you were to get yourquartermaster’s stripes, and if we could see you cominghome in your fine uniform, he would perhaps end byconsenting after all. I could die happy if I saw youmarried to her. You would build a house near ours,which would no longer be fine enough for you. Weoften make plans about it together with Peyral in theevenings.
My dear son, send us a little money without fail, forI assure you that we are in great trouble. We have notbeen able to manage this year, as I told you, because ofthat hailstorm and the cow. I see your father worryinghimself terribly, and at night I often see him, instead ofsleeping, thinking about it and turning from side to side.If you cannot send us the whole amount, send what youcan.
Good-bye, my dear son; the village folk often ask afteryou, and want to know when you are coming back. Theneighbours send hearty greetings. As for me, you knowthat I have had no joy in life since you went away.
I enclose my letter, embracing you, and Peyral doeslikewise.
Your loving old mother,
... Jean leaning on his elbow at the window fellinto a reverie, looking absently at the wide prospectof African scenery stretched out before him—thepointed outlines of the Yolof huts, grouped byhundreds at his feet—in the distance the troubled seaand the ceaseless onset of the African breakers; theyellow sun about to set, still shedding upon thedesert, further than the eye could see, its wanradiance; sand interminable; a distant caravan ofMoors; flights of birds of prey swooping through theair; and yonder, a point on which he fixed his eyes,the cemetery of Sorr, whither he had already escortedsome of his comrades, mountain-bred like himself,who had died of fever in that accursed climate.
O to return home to his aged parents, to live in alittle house with Jeanne Méry, quite close to thehumble paternal roof. Why had he been exiled tothis land of Africa? What had he in common withthis country? As for this uniform and this Arab fezin which they had dressed him up, and which, for allthat, gave him so grand an air, what