'As he raised it, the cup was jerked from Farragut's fingers to break in pieces on the deck. The entire ship trembled from keel to masthead, from quarterdeck to forecastle. Everything groaned with a dying shudder. Steel plates were bending and falling apart from the cohesion that made of them one single piece. Screws and rivets sprang from their sockets.
"There!" cried Farragut. His keen seaman's eyes had caught the outline of a periscope....'
Suddenly, as I read, a violent impact made the liner quiver and lurch. And then, to the rolling augmenting crash of all objects on board unsecured, the cabin floor became vertical. Lilies from the table by her bed were showered upon Alice. Awakening, the sight of these flowers of death piled on her breast momentarily paralyzed her. Dead she must be, the cabin a mortuary chamber! Mare Nostrum, Ibañez' novel of the war at sea, was jerked from my hands—as the cup from Farragut's—to break its binding against the bulkhead. Clutching at everything stable I dragged myself up the floor and grabbed the life-jackets from their racks....
For sixteen hours the S.S. Leviathan had been hove-to in mid-ocean, riding the worst Atlantic storm in a decade. When the mountainous seas had subsided enough for Captain Hartley to come about on his course he did so; but during the manoeuvre a fiftyfoot wall of water caught the liner broadside on, sweeping the after-deck clear, rail-twisting, door-breaking, cabin-flooding from stem to bow, causing her to list 37° to port, starboard bilgekeel out of water....Nothing could have done more to heighten the drama of written words than this wave did to stress the realism of Ibañez' description of war at sea. It struck as I reached the point where the first torpedo from the German U-boat crashed through the plates of the mailpacket, Mare Nostrum.
From the bows of the venerable S.S. Lamoriciere I was getting my first glimpse of the North African coastline and the snow-capped peaks of the Grande Kabylie. As we drew near the port of Algiera a bearded négociant joined me. He pointed out the old Admiralty light-house and Notre-Dame d'Afrique and, very white in the sunlight, the Moorish citadel, the Kasbah. Below us, in the waist of the ship, Spahis, a draft of colonial light infantry-Les Bats d'Af', and Légionnaires were grouped around the cargo holds eating, playing craps or asleep. As we drew nearer the wharves, Arab dockworkers, homebound from the port of Marseille, tossed their 'infidel' headgear overboard, replacing it with the red chéchia of Islam and a few twists of turban. A skyblue general was on the dock, état-major in attendance—evidently expecting an arrival of ministerial rank; behind him, huddled together, a flock of bearded clerics—we had a bishop on board.
"Why beards on all the priests?" I asked my négociant.
"Ah," he exclaimed, "Lavigerie—type épatant!...You see, when he come first to Africa he shave the faces of the missionaires smooth comme...comme les fesses d'une jeune fille
"He was a barber, you mean?" I broke in.
"Bon Dien, non! Lavigerie—Cardinal Lavigerie?"
I shook my head.
"It is like this," he said, "When the great cardinal first come to Africa he have always with him a young priest without beard, his secrétaire—you understand? Eh, bien, the Arabs, when they see them together say: 'Here come the French saint with his wife'. So, so, naturellement, the cardinal, he make all priests push the beard after that."
High above the town of Algiers (Alger in French, Al-Djezair in Arabic) rises the native quarter, the Kasbah, ancient stronghold of Barbary corsairs. In spite of a girdle of modern buildings that has crept in between it and its equally ancient port, now the quartier-maritime, the Kasbah is still unique, and will so remain until the municipality can raise enough by taxation to raze it, and upon its site erect an art-nouveau quarter as incongruous as the European town that yearly encroaches on it. For this proposed quarter plans have been prepared, Algeria having no Maréchal Lyautey to protect its monuments from politician-promoters. At the moment war-preoccupation and lack of funds are holding up the execution of these plans, but if you would see this fortress-city to whose galleys Spain, England and France dipped ensign for three centuries, take advantage of the first opportunity, for the like of it you will not find if you search from Syrian Tripoli to Agadir: it is still the Kasbah of Pierre Loti; its streets are ladders of uneven steps, and no wider than the span of outstretched arms. They wind upward between tiers of dwellings that lean together overhead with the intimacy of ancient neighborship, their outjutting stories supported by rows of untrimmed struts that suggest the cords of an outlandish African lute. And as you mount, through furtive doorways you may catch glimpses of colonnaded courts, of fountains that drip softly upon faience and blossoming waterlilies, courts verdant with the varying greens of banana palm, of cypress and perennial figtree; courts upon which has fallen the mantle of Cheriffian mystery, the mystery of an Islam of crumbling monuments and expanding faith, an Islam that contemplates progress without emotion from behind latticed musharabiah and cryptic veil. And when the moon is high above the Kasbah and night has softened its shadows and blurred the squalor of it, turn into the quarter of the lupanares—step cautiously, for a stream of sewage trickles underfoot between the cobbles—and presently you will see them, these vestals of an Islamic Aphrodite, each in her doorway, each painted mask blue-tattooed with tribal markings and signs against the Evil Eye. And if you are so inclined, you will find men's men in other doorways, painted too, but seldom tattooed; and farther on, French women and Italians and Spanish women from Oran, and Jewesses who will do you a danse-du-ventre for five francs, music and coffee thrown in. You may see the smokers of hachiche as well, but make sure it is hachiche they are smoking.
In the day time you may visit the hanging pavillion where a Dey of Algiers fly-swatted the consul of France, thereby giving the French Government a welcome excuse to withhold due payments on Algerian wheat already delivered, and a pretext to land an army in North Africa and annex Algeria to France.
These days it is possible to drive from Algiers to the oases of Bou-Saada and Biskra without encountering a solitary pack-camel, for autobus has replaced caravan as motor highway has superseded piste. Then, the roads were pretty bad. More than once, after a blowout, we envied the passing caravans, wondering if they would not reach their destination, which was our own, before we did.
In the polygot town of Biskra and in the dusty shrubbery beyond it where, along ago, Robert Hichens wrote The Garden of Allah, disillusionment awaits. The Garden of Allah has moved farther south, moves farther south each year. It must now be sought at Nefta or El-Oued or El Golea. Today the air of Biskra has a gasoline taint to it, and if you would fill your lungs with sweet dry and invigorating desert air, you must leave the beaten track.
I write of these things and places that later came to mean so much to me, because it was at this time I received my first impressions of them. We hear of travelers having found such happiness in some world corner that the fear of disillusionment has prevented their return. But each time I go back to North Africa I find new things to hold me there. When blèd has superseded pavement I begin to feel at home, whether in Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia. Perhaps, like Loti, by some freak of distant atavism, there is something in me that is half Arab. As with him, the music of desert flute and tambour found a response in my nature never aroused by classic harmonies. I sometimes wonder if this Saharan blèd should not be scientifically classified and tabulated under the heading of Tropical Diseases, for once the germs of it have been assimilated, the blèd becomes as necessary to a state of well-being as those alphabetical vitamins we read about. For my part it gave me a new lease on life. Already in Algiers I had begun to feel the change. I had landed there the nervous wreck that Hollywood's film makers become after three or four years of taking their careers and selves too seriously, but from the moment I stepped off the gangplank of the Lamoriciere the incessant torture of gas pressure on the stomach—due to my Hollywood, or ulcereted duodenum—began to ease up. To my new surroundings, to the Berbers and Arabs, with their poise, unconcern and unquestioning acceptance of destiny I reacted as to a Scotch highball after a hard day's work.
When an Arab personage invites you to dine, failure to eat what he sets before you is an unpardonable effront.
Still on the milk régime prescribed by my doctor, I figured the end had come when the Cheikh, who was supplying our bedouin horsemen for the filming of The Arab, thrust an arm in to the roasted carcass of a barbecued sheep, hauled out a kidney and thrust it into my mouth. I chewed on it with stoicism and relish, and duly swallowed it. After which I sat still, awaiting, with Saharan fatalism, the ensuing torture of gas pressure—which did not ensue. I waited again after cleaning-up a bowl of cous-cous garnished with dried raisins and concealing chunks of stewed gazelle, mutton and chicken, to say nothing of vegetables, chiefly of the pepper variety, and smothered with a fiery sauce. Again nothing happened. Encouraged, I went on with the next course: heavily spiced pastry....
Until midnight I paced the floor of the bordj in Tunisian Gabes, waiting for the retarded symptoms. By 2:00 a.m. they had not arrived. I was profoundly worried. Something was wrong. With misgivings I rolled myself in a blanket and fell asleep...
By noon next day I found out what was wrong: a phenomenon that often follows close association with things Islamic: complete nervous relaxation.