You ask me, my dear friend, to send you my impressions of Africa, my adventures, and especially an account of my love affairs in this country which has attracted me for so long. You laughed a great deal beforehand at my dusky sweethearts, as you called them, and declared that you could see me returning to France, followed by a tall, ebony-colored woman, with a yellow silk handkerchief round her head, and wearing voluminous bright-colored trousers.
No doubt the Moorish women will have their turn, for I have seen several of them who have made me feel very much inclined to have to fall in love with them; but by way of making a beginning, I came across something better, and very original.
In your last letter to me, you say: “When I know how people love in a country, I know that country well enough to describe it, although I may never have seen it.” Let me tell you, then, that here they love furiously. From the very first moment, one feels a sort of trembling ardor, of constant desire, to the very tips of the fingers, which over-excites our amorous powers, and all our faculties of physical sensation, from the simple contact of the hands, down to that unnamable requirement which makes us commit so many follies.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not know whether you call love of the heart, love of the soul, whether sentimental idealism, Platonic love, in a word, can exist on this earth; I doubt it, myself. But that other love, sensual love, which has something good, a great deal of good about it, is really terrible in this climate. The heat, the burning atmosphere which makes you feverish, those suffocating blasts of wind from the south, those waves of fire which come from the desert which is so near us, that oppressive sirocco, which is more destructive and withering than fire, that perpetual conflagration of an entire continent, that is burnt even to its stones by a fierce and devouring sun, inflame the blood, excite the flesh, and make brutes of us.
But to come to my story, I shall not tell you about the beginning of my stay in Africa. After going to Bona, Constantine, Biskara and Setif, I went to Bougie through the defiles of Chabet, by an excellent road through a large forest, which follows the sea at a height of six hundred feet above it, as far as that wonderful bay of Bougie, which is as beautiful as that of Naples, of Ajaccio, or of Douarnenez, which are the most lovely that I know.
Far away in the distance, before one goes round the large inlet where the water is perfectly calm, one sees the Bougie. It is built on the steep sides of a high hill, which is covered with trees, and forms a white spot on that green slope; it might almost be taken for the foam of a cascade, falling into the sea.
I had no sooner set foot in that delightful, small town, than I knew that I should stay for a long time. In all directions the eye rests on rugged, strangely shaped hill-tops, which are so close together that one can hardly see the open sea, so that the gulf looks like a lake. The blue water is wonderfully transparent, and the azure sky, a deep azure, as if it had received two coats of paint, expands its wonderful beauty above it. They seem to be looking at themselves in a glass, and to be a reflection of each other.
Bougie is a town of ruins, and on the quay, when one arrives, one sees such a magnificent ruin, that one might imagine one was at the opera. It is the old Saracen Gate, overgrown with ivy, and there are ruins in all directions on the hills round the town, fragments of Roman walls, bits of Saracen monuments, the remains of Arabic buildings.
I had taken a small, Moorish house, in the upper town. You know those dwellings, which have been described so often. They have no windows on the outside; but they are lighted from top to bottom, by an inner court. On the first floor, they have a large, cool room, in which one spends the days, and a terrace on the roof, on which one spends the nights.
I at once fell in with the custom of all hot countries, that is to say, of having a siesta after lunch. That is the hottest time in Africa, the time when one can scarcely breathe; when the streets, the fields, and the long, dazzling, white roads are deserted, when everyone is asleep, or at any rate, trying to sleep, attired as scantily as possible.
In my drawing-room, which had columns of Arabic architecture, I had placed a large, soft couch, covered with a carpet from Djebel Amour, very nearly in the costume of Assan, but I could not sleep, as I was tortured by my continence. There are two forms of torture on this earth, which I hope you will never know: the want of water, and the want of women, and I do not know which is the worst. In the desert, men would commit any infamy for the sake of a glass of clean, cold water, and what would one not do in some of the towns of the littoral, for a handsome, fleshy, healthy girl? For there is no lack of girls in Africa; on the contrary, they abound, but to continue my comparison, they are as unwholesome and decayed as the muddy water in the wells of Sahara.
Well, one day when I was feeling more enervated than usual, I was trying in vain to close my eyes. My legs twitched as if they were being pricked, and I tossed about uneasily on my couch, until at last, unable to bear it any longer, I got up and went out. It was a terribly hot day, in the middle of July, and the pavement was hot enough to bake bread on. My shirt, which was soaked with perspiration immediately, clung to my body, and on the horizon there was a slight, white vapor, which seemed to be palpable heat.
I went down to the sea, and going round the port, I went along the shore of the pretty bay where the baths are. There was nobody about, and nothing was stirring; not a sound of bird or of beast was to be heard, the very waves did not lap, and the sea appeared to be asleep in the sun.
Suddenly, behind one of the rocks, which were half covered by the silent water, I heard a slight movement, and on turning round, I saw a tall, naked girl, sitting up to her breasts in the water, taking a bath; no doubt she reckoned on being alone, at that hot period of the day. Her head was turned towards the sea, and she was moving gently up and down, without seeing me.
Nothing could be more surprising than that picture of the beautiful woman in the water, which was as clear as crystal, under a blaze of light. For she was a marvelously beautiful woman, tall, and modeled like a statue. She turned round, uttered a cry, and half swimming, half walking, she went and hid altogether behind her rock; but as she must necessarily come out, I sat down on the beach and waited. Presently, she just showed her head, which was covered with thick black plaits. She had a rather large mouth, with full lips, large, bold eyes, and her skin, which was rather tanned by the climate, looked like a piece of old, hard, polished ivory.
She called out to me: “Go away!” and her full voice, which corresponded to her strong build, had a guttural accent, and as I did not move, she added: “It is not right of you to stop there, monsieur.” I did not move, however, and her head disappeared. Ten minutes passed, and then her hair, then her forehead, and then her eyes reappeared, but slowly and prudently, as if she were playing at hide-and-seek, and were looking to see who was near. This time she was furious, and called out: “You will make me get some illness, and I shall not come out as long as you are there.” Thereupon, I got up and went away, but not without looking round several times. When she thought I was far enough off, she came out of the water; bending down and turning her back to me, she disappeared in a cavity in the rock, behind a petticoat that was hanging up in front of it.
I went back the next day. She was bathing again, but she had a bathing costume, and she began to laugh, and showed her white teeth. A week later we were friends, and in another week we were eager lovers. Her name was Marroca, and she pronounced it as if there were a dozen r’s in it. She was the daughter of Spanish colonists, and had married a Frenchman, whose name was Pontabeze. He was in government employ, though I never exactly knew what his functions were. I found out that he was always very busy, and I did not care for anything else.
She then altered her time for having her bath, and came to my house every day, to have a siesta there. What a siesta! It could scarcely be called reposing! She was a splendid girl, of a somewhat animal, but superb type. Her eyes were always glowing with passion; her half-open mouth, her sharp teeth, and even her smiles, had something ferociously loving about them; and her curious, long and straight breasts, which were as pointed as if they had been pears of flesh, and as elastic as if they contained steel springs, gave her whole body something of the animal, made her a sort of inferior and magnificent being, a creature who was destined for unbridled love, and which roused in me the idea of those ancient deities, who gave expression to their tenderness on the grass and under the trees.
And then, her mind was as simple as two and two are four, and a sonorous laugh served her instead of thought.
Instinctively proud of her beauty, she hated the slightest covering, and ran and frisked about my house with daring and unconscious immodesty. When she was at last overcome and worn out by her cries and movements, she used to sleep soundly and peacefully while the overwhelming heat brought out minute spots of perspiration on her brown skin, and from under her arms.
Sometimes she returned in the evening, when her husband was on duty somewhere, and we used to lie on the terrace, scarcely covered by some fine, gauzy, Oriental fabric. When the full moon lit up the town and the gulf, with its surrounding frame of hills, we saw on all the other terraces what looked like an army of silent phantoms lying, who would occasionally get up, change their places, and lie down again, in the languorous warmths of the starry sky.
But in spite of the brightness of African nights, Marroca would insist on stripping herself almost naked in the clear rays of the moon; she did not trouble herself much about anybody who might see us, and often, in spite of my fears and entreaties, she uttered long, resounding cries, which made the dogs in the distance howl.
One night, when I was sleeping under the starry sky, she came and knelt down on my carpet, and putting her lips, which curled slightly, close to my face, she said: “You must come and stay at my house.” I did not understand her, and asked: “What do you mean?” “Yes, when my husband has gone away; you must come and be with me.”
I could not help laughing, and said: “Why, as you come here?” And she went on almost talking into my mouth, sending her hot breath into my throat, and moistening my moustache with her lips: “I want it as a remembrance.” Still I did not grasp her meaning; she put her arms round my neck. “When you are no longer here, I shall think of it.”
I was touched and amused at the same time, and said: “You must be mad. I would much rather stop here.”
As a matter of fact, I have no liking for assignations under the conjugal roof; they are mouse-traps, in which the unwary are always caught. But she begged and prayed, and even cried, and at last said: “You shall see how I will love you there.” Her wish seemed so strange that I could not explain it to myself; but on thinking it over, I thought I could discern a profound hatred for her husband, the secret vengeance of a woman who takes a pleasure in deceiving him, and who, moreover, wishes to deceive him in his own house.
“Is your husband very unkind to you?” I asked her. She looked vexed, and said: “Oh! No, he is very kind.” “But you are not fond of him?” She looked at me with astonishment in her large eyes. “Indeed, I am very fond of him, very; but not so fond as I am of you.”
I could not understand it all, and while I was trying to get at her meaning, she pressed one of those kisses, whose power she knew so well, onto my lips, and whispered: “But you will come, will you not?” I resisted, however, and so she got up immediately, and went away; nor did she come back for a week. On the eighth day she came back, stopped gravely at the door of my room, and said: “Are you coming to my house to-night? . . . If you refuse, I shall go away.” Eight days is a very long time, my friend, and in Africa those eight days are as good as a month. “Yes,” I said, and opened my arms, and she threw herself into them.
At night she waited for me in a neighboring street, and took me to their house, which was very small, and near the harbor. I first of all went through the kitchen, where they had their meals, and then into a very tidy, whitewashed room, with photographs on the walls, and paper flowers under a glass case. Marroca seemed beside herself with pleasure, and she jumped about, and said: “There, you are at home, now.” And I certainly acted as though I had been, though I felt rather embarrassed and somewhat uneasy.
Suddenly a loud knocking at the door made us start, and a man’s voice called out: “Marroca, it is I.” She started: “My husband! . . . Here, hide under the bed, quickly.” I was distractedly looking for my overcoat, but she gave me a push, and panted out: “Come along, come along.”
I lay down flat on my stomach, and crept under the bed without a word, while she went into the kitchen. I heard her open a cupboard, and then shut it again, and she came back into the room, carrying some object which I could not see, but which she quickly put down; and as her husband was getting impatient, she said, calmly: “I cannot find the matches.” Then suddenly she added: “Oh! Here they are; I will come and let you in.”
The man came in, and I could see nothing of him but his feet, which were enormous. If the rest of him was in proportion, he must have been a giant.
I heard kisses, a little pat on her naked flesh, and a laugh, and he said, in a strong Marseilles accent: “I forgot my purse, so I was obliged to come back; you were sound asleep, I suppose.” He went to the cupboard, and was a long time in finding what he wanted; and as Marocca had thrown herself onto a bed, as if she were tired out, he went up to her, and no doubt tried to caress her, for she flung a volley of angry r’s at him. His feet were so close to me that I felt a stupid, inexplicable longing to catch hold of them, but I restrained myself, and when he saw that he could not succeed in his wish, he got angry, and said: “You are not at all nice, to-night. Good-bye.” I heard another kiss, then the big feet turned, and I saw the nails in the soles of his shoes as he went into the next room, the front door was shut, and I was saved!
I came slowly out of my retreat, feeling rather humiliated, and while Marroca danced a jig round me, shouting with laughter, and clapping her hands, I threw myself heavily into a chair. But I jumped up with a bound, for I had sat down on something cold, and as I was no more dressed than my accomplice was, the contact made me start, and I looked round. I had sat down on a small axe, used for cutting wood, and as sharp as a knife. How had it got there? . . . I had certainly not seen it when I went in; but Marroca seeing me jump up, nearly choked with laughter, and coughed with both hands on her stomach.
I thought her amusement rather out of place; we had risked our lives stupidly, and I still felt a cold shiver down my back, and I was rather hurt at her foolish laughter. “Supposing your husband had seen me?” I said. “There was no danger of that,” she replied. “What do you mean? . . . No danger? That is a good joke! . . . If he had stooped down, he must have seen me.”
She did not laugh any more; she only looked at me with her large eyes, which were bright with merriment. “He would not have stooped.” “Why?” I persisted. “Just suppose that he had let his hat fall, he would have been sure to pick it up, and then . . . I was well prepared to defend myself, in this costume!” She put her two strong, round arms about my neck, and, lowering her voice, as she did when she said: “I adorre you,” she whispered: “Then he would never have got up again.” I did not understand her, and said: “What do you mean?”
She gave me a cunning wink, and put out her hand to the chair on which I had sat down, and her outstretched hands, her smile, her half-open lips, her white, sharp, and ferocious teeth, all drew my attention to the little axe which was used for cutting wood, whose sharp blade was glistening in the candle-light, and while she put out her hand as if she were going to take it, she put her left arm round me, and drawing me to her, and putting her lips against mine, with her right arm she made a motion as if she were cutting off the head of a kneeling man!
This, my friend, is the manner in which people here understand conjugal duties, love, and hospitality!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53