The African Coast
SHE is the steamship Celestine, and she is but a little lady. The barometer has fallen, and the wind has risen to hunt the rain. I do not know where Celestine is going, and, what is better, do not care. This is December and this is Algiers, and I am tired of white glare and dust. The trees have slept all day. They have hardly turned a leaf. All day the sky was without a flaw, and the summer silence outside the town, where the dry road goes between hedges of arid prickly pears, was not reticence but vacuity. But I sail to-night, and so the barometer is falling, and I do not know where Celestine will take me. I do not care where I go with one whose god-parents looked at her and called her that.
There is one place called Jidjelli we shall see, and there is another called Collo; and there are many others, whose names I shall never learn, tucked away in the folds of the North African hills where they come down to the sea between Algiers and Carthage. They will reveal themselves as I find my way to Tripoli of Barbary. I am bound for Tripoli, without any reason except that I like the name and admire Celestine, who is going part of the journey.
But the barometer, wherever I am, seems to know when I embark. It falls. When I went aboard the wind was howling through the shipping in the harbour of Algiers. And again, Celestine is French, and so we can do little more than smile at each other to make visible the friendship of our two great nations. A cable is clanking slowly, and sailors run and shout in great excitement, doing, things I can see no reason for, because it is as dark and stormy as the forty days.
Algiers is a formless cluster of lower stars, and presently those stars begin to revolve about us as though the wind really had got the sky loose. The Celestine is turning her head for the sea. The stars then speed by our masts and funnel till the last is gone. Good-bye, Algiers!
Celestine begins to curtsy, and at last becomes somewhat hysterical. At night, in a high wind, she seems but a poor little body to be out alone, with me. Tripoli becomes more remote than I thought it to be in the early afternoon, when the French sailor talked to me in a café while he drank something so innocently pink that it could not account altogether for his dark vivacity and sudden open friendship for a shy alien. He wanted me to elope with Celestine. He wanted to show me his African shore, to see his true Mediterranean I had travelled from Morocco to Algiers, and was tired of tourist trains, historic ruins, hotels, Arabs selling picture-postcards and worse, and girls dancing the dance of the Ouled-Nails to the privileged who had paid a few francs to see them do it. I had observed that tranquil sea; and in places, as at Oran, had seen in the distance terraces of coloured rock poised in enchantment between a blue ceiling and a floor of malachite.
That sea is now on our port beam. It goes before an inshore gale, and lifts us high, turns us giddy with a sudden betrayal and descent; and does it again, and again. Africa has vanished. Where Algiers probably was there are but several frail stars far away in the dark that soar in a hurry, and then collapse into the deep and are doused.
But here is le Capitaine. There is no need, of course, to be anxious for Celestine. If her master is not a sailor, then all the signs are wrong. He looks at me roguishly. Ah! His ship rolls. But the mistake, it is not his. What would I have? She was built in England. Voilà!
He is a little dark man, with quick, questioning eyes, and hair like a clothes-brush. His short alert hair, his raised and querulous eyebrows, his taut moustaches, and a bit of beard that hangs like a dagger from his under lip, give him the appearance of constant surprise and fretfulness. When he is talking to me he is embarrassingly playful--but I shall show him presently, with fair luck, that my inelastic Saxon putty can transmute itself, can also volatilise in abandonment to sparkling nonsense; yet not to-night--not to-night, monsieur. He is so gay and friendly to me whenever he sees me. But when one of the staff does that which is not down in the book, I become alarmed. Monsieur bangs the table till the cruet-stoppers leap out, and his eyes are unpleasant. Yes, he is the master. He rises, and shakes his forefinger at the unfortunate till his hand is a quivering haze and his speech a blast. "Ou--e--e--eh" cries the skipper at last, when the unfortunate is on the run.
He has an idea I cannot read the menu, so when an omelette is served he informs me, in case I should suppose it is a salad. He makes helpful farmyard noises. There is no mistaking eggs. There is no mistaking pork. But I think he has the wrong pantomime for the ship's beef, unless French horses have the same music as English cows. After the first dinner, I was indiscreet enough to refuse the cognac with the coffee. "Ah!" he chided, smiling with craft, and shaking a knowing finger at me. He could read my native weakness. I was discovered. "Viskee You 'ave my viskee!" A dreadful doubt seized me, and I would have refused, but repressed my panic, and pretended he had found my heart.
He rose, and shouted a peremptory order. A little private cabinet was opened. A curious bottle was produced, having a deadly label in red, white, and green. "Viskee!" cried the captain in exultation. (My God!) "Aha!" said the reader of my hidden desire, pouring out the tipple for which he imagines I am perishing in stoic British silence. "Viskee! " I drain off, with simulated delight, my large dose of methylated spirit. Not for worlds would I undeceive the good fellow, not if this were train-oil. He laughs aloud at our secret insular weakness. He knows it. But he is our very good friend.
All is not finished with the whisky. Out comes the master's English Grammar, for he is wishful to know us better before I leave him. And he shall. To this Frenchman I determine to be nobler than I was made. I think I would teach him English all the way to Cochin-China. He writes in his notebook, very slowly, while his tongue comes out to look on, a sentence like this "The nombres Française, they are most easy that the English language." Then I put him right; and then he rises, reaches his hands up to my shoulders, looks earnestly in my eyes, and la-las my National Anthem. It may please God not to let me look so foolish as I feel while I wait for the end of that tune; but I doubt that it does.
Early next morning we arrived at Bougie, to get an hour's peace with the arm of the harbour thrown about my poor Celestine. The deck of a Grimsby trawler discharging fish in the Humber on a wet December morning is no more desolating than was the look of Celestine under the mountains of Bougie; and Bougie, if you have a memory for the coloured posters, is in the blue Mediterranean. But do I grumble? I do not. With all the world but slops, cold iron, and squalls of sleet, I prefer Celestine to Algiers.
Most likely you have never heard of the black Mediterranean. It is usual to go there in winter, and write about it with a date-palm in every paragraph, till you have got all the health and enjoyment there is in the satisfaction of telling others that while they are choosing cough cures you are under a sunshade on the coral strand. The truth is, the Middle Sea in December can be as ugly as the Dogger Bank. There were some Arab deck passengers on our coaster. One of them sat looking at a deck rivet as motionless as a fakir, and his face had the complexion of a half-ripe watermelon. His fellow-sufferers were only heaps of wet and dirty linen dumped in the lee alley-way. It was bad enough in a bunk, where you could brace your knees against the side, and keep moderately still till you dozed off, when naturally you were shot out sprawling into the lost drainage wandering on the erratic floor. What those Arabs suffered on deck I cannot tell you. I never went up to find out. At Bougie they seemed to have left it all to Allah, with the usual result. It was clear, from a glance at those piles of rags, that the Arab is no more native to Algeria than the Esquimaux. I was much nearer home than the Arabs. That shining coast which occasionally I had surprised from Oran, which seemed afloat on the sea, was no longer a vision of magic, the unsubstantial work of Iris, an illusionary cloud of coral, amber, and amethyst. It was the bare bones of this old earth, as sombre and foreboding as any ruin of granite under the wrack of the bleak north.
As for Bougie, these African villages are built but for bright sunlight. They change to miserable and filthy ruins in the rain, their white walls blotched and scabrous, and their paths mud tracks between the styes. Their lissom and statuesque inhabitants become softened and bent, and pad dejectedly through the muck as though the were ashamed to live, but had to go on with it. The palms which look so well in sunny pictures are besoms up-ended in a drizzle. They have not that equality with the storm which makes the Sussex beech and oak, heavily based and strong-armed, stand with a look of might and roar at the charges of the Channel gale. By this you will see that Bougie must wait until I call that way again. From the look of the sky, too, there is no doubt we are in for a spell of the kind of weather I never expected to meet in Africa. I was a stranger there, but I knew the language of those squadrons of dark clouds driving into the bay.
The northern sky was full of their gloomy keels. There were intervals when the full expanse of Bougie Bay became visible, with its gloomy concourse of mountains crowded to the shore. At the base of the dark declivities the combers were bursting, and the spume towered on the gale like grey smoke. Out of the foam rose harsh rubble and screes to incline against broken precipices, and those stark walls were interrupted by mid-air slopes of grass which appeared ready to avalanche into the tumult below, but remained, livid areas of a dim mass which rose into dizzy pinnacles and domes, increasing the tumbling menace of the sky. A fleet of clouds of deep draught ran into Africa from the north; went aground on those crags, were wrecked and burst, their contents streaming from them and hiding the aerial reef on which they had struck. The land vanished, till only Bougie and its quay and the Celestine remained, with one last detached fragment of mountain high over us. That, too, dissolved. There was only our steamer and the quay at last.
I thought our master would not dare to put out from there, but he cared as little for the storm as for the steward. His last bales were no sooner in the lighters than he made for Jidjelli. But Jidjelli daunted even him. The nearer we got, the worse it looked. My own feeling was that the gathering seas had taken charge of our scallop, a cork in the surf, and were pitching her, helpless, towards terrible walls built of night out of a base of thunder and bursting waters. I gripped a rail, and saw a vague range of summits appear above the nearing walls and steadily develop towards distinction. Then the howling gale began to scream, the ceiling lowered and darkened, and merged with the rocks, reducing the world but to our Celestine in the midst of near flashes of white in an uproar. When presently a little daylight came into chaos to give it shape again, there was an inch of hail on our deck, and the mountains had been changed to white marble. We saw a red light burn low in the place where Jidjelli ought to be, a signal that it was impossible to enter. Our skipper put about.
That is all I know of Jidjelli, and all I wanted to know on such an evening. The sound of the surf on the rocks was better to hear when it was not so close. We followed that coast all night while I lay awake, shaking to the racing of the propeller; and I blessed the unknown engineers of the North Country who took forethought of nights of that kind when doing their best for Celestine; for, though bruised, I still loved her above Algiers and Timgad. She had character, she had set her course, and she was holding steadily to it, and did not pray the uncompassionate to change its face.
For more than a week we washed about in the surf of a high, dark coast towards Tunis. We might have been on the windward side of Ultima Thule. Supposing you could have been taken miraculously from your fogs and midday lamps of London, and put with me in the Celestine, and told that that sullen land looming through the murk could be yours, if you could guess its name, then you would have guessed nothing below the fortieth parallel.
No matter; when you were told, you would have laughed at your loss. Now you understood why it was called the Dark Continent. It looked the home of slavery, murder, rhinoceroses, the Congo, war, human sacrifices, and gorillas. It had the forefront of the world of skulls and horrors, ultimatums, mining concessions, chains, and development. Its rulers would be throned on bone-heaps. You will say (of course you will say) that I saw Africa like that because I was weary of the place. Not at all. I was merely looking at it. The feeling had been growing on me since first I saw Africa at Oran, where I landed. The longer I stay, the more depressed I get.
This has nothing to do with the storm. This African shadow does not chill you because you wish you were home, and home is far away. It does not come of your rare and lucky idleness, in which you have to do nothing but enjoy yourself; generally a sufficient reason for melancholy, though rarely so in my own case. No, Africa itself is the reason. There is an invisible emanation from its soil, the dark aura of evil in antiquity. You cannot see it, at first you are unaware it is there, and cannot know, therefore, what is the matter with you. This haunting premonition is different from mere wearying and boredom. It gets worse, the longer you stay; it goes deeper than sadness, it descends into a conviction of something that is without hope, that is bad in its nature, and unrepentant in its arrogant heart. When you have got so far down you have had time to discover what that is which has put you so low. The day may be radiant, the sky just what you had hoped to find in Africa, and the people in the market-place a lively and chromatic jangle; but the shadow of what we call inhumanity (when we are trying to persuade ourselves that humanity is something very different) chills and darkens the heart.
Yet the common sky of North Africa might be the heaven of the first morning, innocent of knowledge that night is to come. It is not a hard blue roof; your sight is lost in the atmosphere which is azure. The sun more than shines; his beams ring on the rocks, and glance in colours from the hills. From a distance the flowers on a hill slope will pour down to the sea in such a torrent of hues that you might think the arch of the rainbow you saw there had collapsed in the sun and was now rills and cascades. The grove of palms holding their plumes above a white village might be delicate pencillings on the yellow sheet of desert. The heat is a balm. The shadows are stains of indigo on the roads and pale walls.
One day we found Sfax. I went ashore at Sfax, interested in a name quite new to me. The guide-book did not even mention it; perhaps it was not worth while; no ruins, mummies, trains or hotels there, of course. Maybe it was only the name of a man, or a grass, or a sort of phosphate. Sfax! Well, anyhow, I had long wished for Africa, anywhere in Africa, and here I was, not eager to get home again, but not disinclined. What I had seen of it so far was a rather too frequented highway opposite the coast of Europe--a complementary establishment. Progress had macadamised it. Commerce and its wars had graded and uniformed and drilled its life. Its silent people marched in ranks, as it were, along mapped roads foredoomed, and its mills went round. Its life was expressed for export. It was on the way to Manchester and success. Of all the infernal uses to which a country can be put there is none like development. Let every good savage make incantation against it, or, if to some extent he has been developed, cross himself against the fructification of the evil. As for us whites, we are eternally damned, for we cannot escape the consequences of our past cleverness. The Devil has us on a complexity of strings, and some day will pull the whole lot tight. But Sfax! Had I escaped? Was there a chance?
I found a city wall, a huge battlement, ancient and weathered, like an unscalable cliff, and going through its gate was entering the shadows of a cave. Out of the glare of the sun I went into the gloom of deep, narrow, and mysterious passages. The sun was only on the parapets and casements, which leaned towards each other confidentially, and left only a ragged line of light above. These alley-ways were crowded with camels, asses, and strange men. An understanding and sneering camel in a narrow passage will force you to take what chance there is of escape in desecrating a mosque, while Moslems watch you as the only Christian there, or of going under its slobbering mouth and splay feet. It does not care which.
It was market-day in Sfax. There were little piles of vivid fruit beside white walls where a broad ray of sunlight found them. There were silversmiths at work, tent-makers, and the makers of camel harness. The tanners had laid skins for us to walk over. There were exotic smells. I went exploring the crooked turnings with an indifference which was studied. I was getting an interesting time, but was distinctly conscious of eyes, a ceaseless stream of eyes that floated by, watchful though making no sign. Several times I found myself jostled with some roughness. It occurred to me that I had heard on the ship that Sfax was the only town which had offered resistance to the French; its men have a fine reputation throughout Tunisia, which they do something now and then to maintain, in consequence. They certainly appeared a sturdy and virile lot. They were not listless, like the Arabs of Algeria, who have nothing to show for themselves but the haughty and aloof bearing of the proud but beaten.
Having discovered that the enemy was vulnerable though strong, the men of Sfax go through the day now with the directed activity of those who once had got the worst of it, but have a hope of doing better next time. They gave me a lively and adventurous scene. They moved with silent and stealthy quickness. Their eyes glanced sideways from under their cowls. Their hands were hidden under their jibbahs. A few of them stared with the hate of the bereft. It is not possible to face everybody in a press which moves in all directions, and I was the only European who was there.
Passing a mosque, where I noticed the Moslems had attempted, but had not completed, the obliteration of some representations of birds,--so the mosque was once, evidently, a place where other gods had been worshipped,--I hesitated, wishing to look closer into this curiosity, but recollected myself, and was passing on. An Arab in the turban of one who had been to Mecca was squatting cross-legged on the old marble pavement outside the mosque, and I just took in that he was a fine venerable fellow with an important beard, with a look of wisdom and experience in his steady glance from under the strong arches of his eyebrows that made me wish I knew Arabic, and could squat beside him, and gossip of the wide world. As I turned he said quietly, "Good day!"
Now I thought perhaps I was bewitched, but turned and looked at him. "How are you?" he asked. At that moment, when his eyes looking upward had a smile of understanding mischief, and in such an alien city as Sfax, I was prepared to declare there is but one God, and Mahomet is His prophet. For that sort of thing comes easy to me; and would have been quite true, as far as it went. Then I went back to him, and fearing that after all I might be addressing but the parrot which had already exhausted its vocabulary, I tried it on him: "Shall I take my boots off here, father, or may I sit down with you?"
"Sit down," he said.
He was a man of medicine. He sold there prophylactics against small-pox, adultery, blindness, the evil eye, sterility, or any other trouble which you thought threatened you. If a man feared for the faithfulness of his spouse, it seems Father the Hadj could secure it with a charm, and so allow him to spend the night elsewhere in perfect enjoyment and content. That is what the quiet old cynic told me, and invited me to inspect his display of amulets and fetishes, coloured glass tablets with Arabic inscriptions, and a deal of stuff which looked unreasonable to me, articles the holy man either could not or would not resolve into sense.
His English, which he had learned as a shipping agent for the pilgrim traffic, soon reached its narrow limits, to my sorrow. When it left common objects and we wished to compare our world (for there is no doubt he was an experienced and understanding elder who knew to within a little what he might expect of his God and of his fellows), we were left smiling at each other, and had to guess the rest. Yet at least the bazaar could witness this good Moslem of age and admitted wisdom sitting opposite a dubious Christian in a companionable manner; and there was that testimony to my advantage. They even watched him draw his finger across his throat in serious and energetic pantomime, and saw me nod in grave appreciation, when he was trying to make me understand what was his sympathy for the Christian conquerors of Sfax.
I went outside the landward gate of the city, and looked out over the level of brilliant sand which stretched out from there to Lake Tchad. What a voyage! What a lure! Perhaps there is no more perilous journey on earth than that, and if a traveller would vanish into the past, into such Oriental countries as the voyagers of Hakluyt saw with wonder, then to leave Sfax, and go across country to the Niger, would equal what once came of fooling with the arcana of the Djinn. Though, after all, one would like to emerge again, to tell the tale to the children; and the whole dubiety of it is in that last difficulty. It is almost certain the magic would be too powerful.
About the bright yellow sea of the desert which came up to the high cliffs of the town, the squatting camels made dark hummocks. Strings of donkeys converged on the city gate bearing water-pots and baskets of charcoal. Sometimes a line of camels swayed outwards through the crowd, disappeared among the shrines, going south. Watching such a caravan go was the same as watching a ship leave port.
By the wayside was a huckster. He banged a tomtom till he had gathered a crowd from the loose concourse of men who had come long journeys with esparto grass, or gums and ostrich plumes, and much else from the secret region inland. He was selling cotton shirts, and was an entertaining villain. By the corners of his mouth his humour was leery. He did not laugh, but his grimaces were funny. The variegated crowd and that huckster was too enticing, and forgetting I had not seen one of my own kind since leaving the ship, and that my face among those black and brown masks was as loud as the tomtom, I mingled my outrageous tourist tweeds with the graceful folds of the robes. The huckster kept glancing at me, and from grave sidelong glances that crowd of men went to the extraordinary length of grim smiles. Suddenly I recognised the trick of that Arab cheapjack. It may be seen at work in Crisp St. Poplar, when a curious and innocent Chinaman joins the group about the fluent quack.
As soon as dignity permitted I passed on, and my dignity did not keep me waiting for any length of time.
Uncertain, and not a little nervous, I wandered among some plantations of olives and false peppers, where the domes of the tombs floated like white bubbles on the foliage. Here an Arab beckoned to me, and told me he had been watching me for some time--for he was an English medical missionary in disguise--and warned me that these gardens and shrines were quite the wrong place to wander in alone. It appears that only a few days since the flame of insurrection flashed down the bazaar, licked up a few French soldiers who happened to be there, and had almost got a hold before the garrison appeared and doused it. He took me to his house, with its windows heavily barred, for there his predecessor had been murdered. (If this could happen at the starting-place for Lake Tchad, then let the idea go.)
From the flat roof of the doctor's house I smelt the dung of ages, fought with legions of flies, and looked down on a large quadrangle of hay and stable muck, where camels had carefully folded themselves on the ground, and chewed reflectively, their eyes half closed; and large drowsy asses mechanically fanned their ears at the loathly swarms. The missionary surmised that the caravanserai below was the perfect reflection of one we had heard more about, which once was at Bethlehem. The square was enclosed with flat-roofed stables, and it being a busy time they were all occupied. The first one, immediately below us, was filled with a family of Kabyles, which consisted chiefly of a magnificent virago of a wife, tattooed, with a fine gold ring in her nostrils, who seemed to have a trying life with her mild and contemplative old husband. She had more children than one could count without giving the matter that close attention which might be misinterpreted. She cradled them in the manger every night. Loud as her voice was, though, I could almost hear the old man smile as he walked away from her. They had two contemptuous camels who never lifted an eyelid when she raised her voice to them, but chewed calmly on, with faces turned impassively towards the New Jerusalem of camels, where viragoes are not; and several resigned asses who appeared to have handed their souls back to their Maker, because souls are but extra trammels in this place of sorrow.
Next door to them was a regular tenant who bred goats, and fed them out of British biscuit-tins. Beyond them the stable was occupied by a party of swarthy ruffians who had arrived with a cargo of esparto grass. In the far corner, a family, crowded out, had been living for weeks under a structure of horrible rags. Smoke, issuing from a dozen seams, gave their home the look of a smouldering haycock.
You probably know there are place-names which, when whispered privately, have the unreasonable power of translating the spirit east of the sun and west of the moon. They cannot be seen in print without a thrill. The names in the atlas which do that for me are a motley lot, and you, who see no magic in them, but have your own lunacy in another phase, would laugh at mine. Celebes, Acapulco, Para, Port Royal, Cartagena, the Marquesas, Panama, the Mackenzie River, Tripoli of Barbary. They are some of mine. Rome should be there, I know, and Athens, and Byzantium. But they are not, and that is all I can say about it.
Why give reasons for our preferences? How often have our preferences any reason? Maybe some old scoundrel of an ancestor who made a fortune (all lost since) as a thief on the Spanish main, whispers Panama to me when my mind is tired. Others may make magic with Ostend, Biarritz, or Ancoats; and they are just as lucky as the man who obtains the spell by looking at the Dry Tortugas on the map.
When I set out from Newport on this voyage, I did not expect to see Tripoli of Barbary. We have never considered the possibility that our favourite place-names really do stand for stones that have veritable shapes and smells under a sun which comes and goes daily. Nor was my steamer exactly the sort of craft which could, by the look of her, ever attain to the coast of Barbary. What would a steamer know about it? She would never fetch the landfall of a dream. I was not surprised, therefore, when she fetched Tripoli quite wrong; not the place at all for which I was looking on the southern horizon. But then, she was but taking crockery there, in crates and crockery is less vulnerable, is rough freight, compared to a fancy. The crockery, however, got to its Tripoli quite safely.
We anchored; and there was Tripoli, standing round a little bay, with its buildings, variously coloured, crowded to the west, and slender minarets standing as masts over the flat decks of the houses. I landed at a narrow water-gate, and the Turkish officials regarded me as though I had come to remove the country. When I wished to embark again, these curious people in uniform were even more serious than when I arrived. After a long hesitation, permission was given me niggardly to leave Tripoli, and my ship's boatmen pointed out the urgent need to supply a certain rowboat in the bay with that morsel of paper. To lose that tiny document would have a shocking result, for a warship was in the bay to support the rowboat. We passed that warship. Some day a hilarious traveller will tear his document into fragments, and that warship will fire at him, and sink. The system here, a mere tabulation of fear and suspicion, those reflexes of evildoers who have the best of reasons to be jealous of their neighbours, is protective exclusiveness in its perfect flower, and perhaps it would be better to be really dead than to live under it as a warm, law-abiding corpse.
I should guess that, with a slight magnification to make the object plainer, there are three soldiers to each worker in North Africa. On from Oran the gaudy fellow in uniform has been very conspicuous, the most leisured and prosperous of the inhabitants, and one came unwillingly to the conclusion that it is more profitable to smoke cigarettes in a country than to grow corn in it. As for Tripoli, its uniformed protectors hide the protected; but perhaps its natives have learned how to live by killing one another. It is possible I have not divined the more subtle ways of God's providence.
Tripoli, like other towns on these shores, looks as though it were sloughing away. Where stones fall, there they lie, In the centre of the town is a marble triumphal arch in honour of Marcus Aurelius. Age would account for much of its ruin, but not all; yet it still stands cold, haughty, austere, though decrepit, in Tripolitan mud, with mean stucco and plaster buildings about it. The arch itself is filled in, and is used as a dwelling. Its tenant is a green-grocer, and the monument to Marcus Aurelius has an odour of garlic; but it need not be supposed that that was specially repugnant to me. How could the white marble of Marcus, to say nothing of a warmer philosophy no less austere, be acceptable to our senses unless translated, with a familiar odour of garlic, by modern greengrocers? I shall think more of Tripoli of Barbary in future, when looking back at it through a middle-aged pipe, when the chains have got me at last.