Winter in Carthage

I

IT was not only the absence of commotion which woke me earlier than usual that morning at the end of September: it was a stillness that waited for something. I let myself out softly on to the terrace so as not to awaken the household. The sun was pouring a flood of gold across the Gulf of Tunis, but though the white houses of Carthage were brilliant in its light there appeared behind them, over the Cathedral hill, a pile of dark blue clouds. Dust whirled up from the fields, which thirsted for rain after five months of drought.

‘C’est la fin de l’été, Madame,’ Maria said, when she came to do the washing. ‘The season of rain begins. We must be quick to get the clothes hung out to catch the morning sun. The clouds are coming up in the west.’ She went up to the buanderie on the housetop with the basket of soiled linen.

‘Madame,’ she called back from the top stair, ‘I have six eggs in my bag.

I brought them in case you needed them.’

‘Very well,’ I said. Rain was certainly at hand. It was the expectation of it that made the difference. There was a cool undercurrent of autumn in the westerly wind. But the rumbling that came to my ears was not thunder yet: the children were merely playing their favorite game of rolling the stone cannon balls that flanked our garden path. The ammunition of ancient wars, dug up from the ruined fortifications, is now used to ornament modern villas in Carthage.

‘Madame!’ It was my Arab neighbor this time, holding a couple of large white eggs over the fence. They were beauties, and I took them, though she charged a little more than others did. They were still warm, and I decided to give them to the children for lunch. I had scarcely put them into the ice box before I heard the musical cry ‘Les ceufs frais!’ coming from the corner of the street. A handsome old Arab in a blue smocked coat, with a straw hat perched upon his turban, appeared at the garden gate. This was Mohammed.

‘Madame!’ he called in a courteous tone, and then in a high, singing voice after jangling the bell, ‘Les œufs frais!’ I looked through the vines.

‘Not to-day!’ I answered.

‘But I shall not be around tomorrow. They are only four francs fifty a dozen to-day,’ he said, nodding persuasively, and squatting down to unpack the eggs from his basket. He laid them in rows in the dust. The two children left the stone balls and began to climb the gate. I hurried forward to rescue the eggs from the baby, and Mohammed went on with his argument. ‘I always give you the market price. Last time it was five francs sixty. Why should it change so?’

‘You should know,’ I retorted.

‘The summer crowds are gone,’ he said, handing me the eggs through the bars of the gate. Reflecting that I might bake some cakes, I accepted them.

When I returned to pay him Mohammed asked me if I had any need of vegetables. I answered that we bought them from the peddlers who came round.

‘Ah, but it is the end of the season,’ he said. ‘There will not be any marchands de legumes after the end of September. My son will come here with his cart. Madame has seen my son? No? Ah, il est ires beau! Tres blanc! Madame verra!’ Exacting from me a promise that I would examine his son’s merchandise, the old Arab went on his way, his musical cry growing fainter in the distance.

It certainly was the end of the season. The marchand de glace, the facteur, the epicier, and the boucher all called unusually early. They explained that there was no one left at the plage. The little boucherie would close at the end of the week. The ice would stop in a few days, and the train service connecting Carthage with Tunis would change to the half-hourly one of the winter.

On our morning walk we saw that most of the houses were already shuttered and barred for the winter. Only in the grottoes and caves formed by the ruins of the ancient fortifications of Carthage along the sea front still lingered the campers and squatters, the very poorest of summer visitors, who had escaped to the seaside from the terrible heat of Tunis town. With a few cases and old curtains they had contrived furniture and privacy for themselves and their enormous families of children. To-day we saw them moving uneasily about as if they were undecided whether to pack up and depart or to risk a few more days before the rain came.

On the way home we were joined by Jean, Maria’s husband, who worked in our garden. ‘Madame must buy seeds for the winter vegetables,’ he said. ‘There is no need to disburse much money on what one can grow for oneself.’ He was unusually emphatic, and I supposed he had heard of Mohammed’s new venture into provision selling. ‘If Madame would advance me a month’s salary I might become a merchant myself, with profit to both of us,’ he suggested. I pointed out that I had already advanced two weeks’ wages, and he should settle up before asking for more.

A group of Bedouin girls were at the gate with kerchiefs full of eggs. ‘Not now — next week,’ I said. Certainly we need not worry about such provisions as long as we were the only inhabitants of the beach. They went away with reluctance. I was sorry, for they were pretty, gay children. The tallest one was a beautiful creature with tawny hair, brown eyes, and a dimpled face. Unlike the Arabs of the towns, they go unveiled, and enjoy almost full freedom.

II

The next day a storm of unusual fury burst on Carthage, and for forty-eight hours it raged. The noise was deafening: the crash of sea on the beach, the thrashing of wind through the palms and eucalyptus trees, and the beating of rain. Every time the rain slackened for a few minutes we hoped that the storm had passed, but another clap of thunder announced its return.

Every path on the steep Byrsa hill was a brown torrent cutting through the gravel and sand that overspread the mass of ruin on which the modern villas here are built. Such quantities of rubbish were brought down that the approach to our gate was endangered, and Jean had to keep clearing out the wayside ditch. The flat roof, cracked by the summer sun, leaked in every room.

During a lull on the second afternoon I went down the garden path and saw a jerboa standing on its stilt-like legs, scraping with its short front paws at the wire fence. One seldom sees these shy creatures, though the fields are riddled with their holes. Its burrow beneath the garden must have been filled with water.

The evening saw the end of the storm, and we went out to find what damage had been done. Boys were walking in the watercourses, with eyes fixed on the mud to pick up small treasures winnowed by the storm from the debris of ancient civilizations. Coins, bits of pottery, and chips of carved marble are washed from the ruins by every rain. The Arab goatherds and guides waded knee-deep on the beach searching for Roman and Punic remains scoured from the rubble cliffs.

The squatters in the ruins on the beach were gone. They had been washed and blown from their crevices, and had made the best of their way back to their winter quarters in the slums of Tunis. The storm had cleaned the shore of the disagreeable mess of summer. A layer of clean sand and shells lay over the beach, piled around the base of the ruined sea wall. The day was crisp — exhilarating after months of heat. The Mediterranean lay without a wrinkle, and the arid mountains across the gulf cut the blue sky with their saw-like ridges. It was a day that filled the mind with joy. It was while standing looking rapturously at this scene that we found on the sleek sands, glistening from the retreating wave, a smooth, round piece of rosy marble. It was a weight, perfect and clear-cut as if only yesterday the Phoenician peddler had used it to weigh out his precious stock of herbs.

With it safely in my pocket I packed the children back into the pram and started home, noting as I went how the sun shone red on the ruins up on the hill facing the gulf.

At our gate a small gray donkey stood, pulling a queer contraption of uneven wheels and rough planks which held, at great hazard, a load of vegetables. It belonged to Abdullah, the son of Mohammed. He was, as his proud father had said, extremely handsome, with a pale skin and finely shaped Turkish eyes. His stock, however, was poor. It looked as though he had swept up stale vegetables from the market of the day before. However, as I am weak enough to dislike causing disappointment, I bought some potatoes. He could not change ten francs.

‘Ça ne fait rien!’ he cried nonchalantly. ‘Papa viendra! Payez Papa!‘ As he went off I noticed that he limped.

‘Ah!’ said the delighted Mohammed when he came to bring me a chicken a day or two later. ‘Madame has seen my son? You think he is beautiful, hein? Is he not white, as I said?’

‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘he is a fine boy. But what is the matter with his foot? He had a dirty rag tied around it, and could not walk well.’

‘It is of no importance,’ he said. ‘He scratched his ankle while descending from his cart one evening.’

‘Tell him to go to the pharmacie and ask for some iodine,’ I said. ‘His foot may become poisoned.’

‘N’imported,’ he answered with a shrug that left this contingency to Allah. ‘I shall come on Tuesday with eggs.’

‘I doubt whether I shall need them,’ I warned him. The whole neighborhood was bent on making us eat eggs.

III

Jean, Maria’s husband, was a Maltese — that is, he was of the Phoenician stock, well mixed with Italian and Arab blood, that since the time of Dido has lived on the island, which is the remains of the land bridge between Europe and Africa at this point. As for Mohammed, he was like a bronzed gypsy, being a Berber. The North African Arabs vary greatly. There are those of purely Oriental physique like Mat, the shopkeeper at the corner, with the sallow skin, flat face, and almond eyes of the Mongol. Then there is the curly-haired, somewhat Turkish type, like Abdullah; and lastly the fair or red-headed ones with white skin and gray eyes, like the husband of my neighbor.

I thought as I walked on the terrace in the morning, looking out over the Gulf of Tunis, of the pirate fleets that had lurked here, bringing back their cargoes of Christian slaves from all parts of Europe. I thought of the little Irish fishing village of Baltimore, awakened one dark night by a band of pirates who seized every man, woman, and child, and carried them off to be sold as slaves in North Africa. Unwary fishing boats and coastal vessels were captured off the coasts of England and France, even up in the North Sea. The slave markets of Tangiers, Algiers, and Tunis received the hapless survivors of the Children’s Crusade, tricked on board slave ships at Marseilles. Then a coal-black Mohammedan merchant might choose white girls for his harems on the Coasts of High Barbary. Only within the last hundred years have the greatest powers of Europe ceased to pay ransom to the Arab pirates. Everywhere one sees evidences of this infusion of white blood.

A train stopped at the station of Carthage, higher on the hill. My neighbor looked across from her roof-top, recognized someone coming down from the platform, and descended in haste. A few minutes later her husband passed outside my fence. He gave me dignified greeting, and entered his house. Soon I heard his voice raised in prayer from the corner of his courtyard. I never saw him without a puzzled feeling that I had seen him in a more familiar place. His red fez sat oddly above his thin, ruddy face with its blue eyes and sandy moustache. It struck me suddenly that he was the image of a highland gamekeeper I had known on an estate in Scotland. With that face and build he ought to be in a kilt, and raise his voice in a Presbyterian kirk. His wife was the fat, large-eyed type, with the opaque skin of the Semite, but his little boy was made in his image, with gray eyes and sandy hair.

IV

It was only rarely now that the small donkey cart drew up to our blue gate. Abdullah’s wares were so bad that I refused to buy them.

Eh bienl’ he would cry jauntily. ‘Au ’voir!‘ He was the idol of his papa, and had grown overbearing. However, I observed that he still limped and that the dirty rag was still on his leg. I spoke of it again to Mohammed when he next appeared, but he shrugged the matter aside.

‘Monsieur likes melons,’ he said. ‘Alors, I have brought him a couple. These are what we call winter melons. Though small, this one will be like honey, I swear.’

We parted with mutual compliments, and I took the path across the fields which border the beach in Carthage, up over the shoulder of the hill to Ste. Monique, stopping now and then to trace the line of the ancient town from the huge blocks of stone and rubble raised over two thousand years ago by the hands of slaves. The sea front is rough with masses of masonry undermined and tipped out of line by the waves. Farther back are arches and floors from which the ornamental stone has been stripped. It is a dangerous playground. We had seen the bodies of dogs and even kids at the bottom of deep underground storage pits into which they had fallen. Often there is nothing to guard these holes. In one ruin the circular mouth of a deep pit fills the space between the doorposts. But deep as those subterranean chambers were, they were not as dangerous as the narrow shafts, sometimes twenty yards deep, which are said to be the openings to Punic tombs. These one may find particularly on the hill of Ste. Monique, overlooking Carthage.

At one point halfway up the hill our path led between two such deep shafts. On the left the corner of a mosaic pavement had broken off, and what remained overhung a great cavity. On the right a shaft plunged straight down without warning. A wet day or an overclouded evening might lead to a tragedy here. As we approached, the donkey cart of Abdullah appeared over the brow of the hill, with the young owner dangling his legs over the front. He still wore his bandage. The track was scarcely wide enough to take the wheels between the holes, and it gave me a grue to watch the cart bouncing down between them. Perhaps because he wanted to show off, the lad touched the little donkey with his stick as they passed. We had stepped up on one side to let the cart go by, and I held my breath as the wheels scraped the edges.

Attention!’ I cried involuntarily.

Abdullah shrugged, grinned at our concern, and touched the donkey again.

‘I pass here every day,’ he cried, and went on singing at the top of his voice.

V

As autumn led into winter the weather grew changeable. Sometimes for a week we would have rain every day, with thunder, strong wind, and black clouds. It was impossible to count on the wind. At breakfast it might be howling from the west, driving the rain through the vines of the pergola. Before lunch it would whistle round to the east, and send the water from the terrace in little tides under the front door. The sea was tempestuous, wild and brown and foaming near the shore, with a line of green toward the middle of the gulf. The waves leapfrogged toward the shore, one after the other, climbing up on each other’s backs to dash higher and higher on the ruined sea wall, while the foam streamed back like hair. The flat plains which had been desert sands during the summer months began to show green. Grass grew lush, starved goats and donkeys and camels became fatter every day. Up on the slopes asphodel and lilies pushed out their long green leaves. Between storms we had days of magnificent weather, so calm that the sea was sleek with a certain glossiness that made all the clouds reflected in it look like scarcely moving icebergs. The waves hardly rippled on the shore. Dawn and evening were crisp, though clear, and noon pleasantly warm. We shortened our daily swim to a quick plunge, though the water was warmer than the air. Those were marvelous days on the beaches, which had long forgotten the filth of summer, when the twin peaks of Boukornine across the gulf were lovely in pale gray, and the little white villages on the opposite shore caught the afternoon sunlight in the folds of the wine-dark hills.

I was awakened one midnight toward the end of November by the beating of a drum out in the road. The noise went into the distance, rousing dogs, until I could hear it no more. Then it returned on a higher level, growing fainter and louder as the drummer walked around the circular roads of the hill of Carthage. A door slammed near by, and I began to hear the voices of our Arab neighbors in the courtyard. There was the sound of a small drum, and an excited chattering. Thus began Ramadan, the month when Mohammedans fast by day and have to endure disturbed nights, when their meals are prepared and eaten.

As the month drew to its close, night after night of restlessness began to have its effect on the Arab community. Even in Carthage we felt the general uneasiness. One evening I was standing on the terrace. The sea was olive green, and the sky full of soft clouds. Across the bay the hills were violet, and along the shore the empty villas stood peacefully. Nothing seemed to justify my disquiet. Then all of a sudden Mohammed appeared around the corner — but he was silent. Behind him walked a group of ragged, crying children.

I had not seen the marchand for some time, and was startled at his appearance. He was dressed in a dark camel-hair burnous and close-fitting turban, and looked ill. He answered my greeting in a hoarse voice so unlike his usual one that I was not surprised to see the tears streaming out of his eyes when he raised his face to tell me the price of eggs.

‘What is the matter with you?’ I asked.

‘ It is my son! ’ he groaned.

I had a horrible swift vision of the boy falling headlong down a Punic burial shaft from his cart.

‘An accident?’ I gasped.

‘No, it was his leg,’ he sobbed. ‘It swelled up like this, and the doctor said it must be cut off.’

‘I told you to be careful!’ I said involuntarily, and then, ‘Is he in the hospital?’

‘No, no! I would not allow them to cut it off. I sent him down to the island of Djerba to be with his grandfather. My wife took him. I thought he would get well there. But now the news comes that he is dead. Oh, mon fils, mon fils! How white he was, and how beautiful! Madame knows!’

‘It is very sad,’ I said, vexed at the unnecessary tragedy, and reproaching myself for not having insisted on the iodine.

‘Here, Madame,’ Mohammed said, with a dreary gesture toward the small ragged children huddling behind him, ‘are the rest of my children. I wish to give them to Madame. Let them become English. Send them to an English school, and allow my sons to serve their military duty in England. I myself will go on pilgrimage to Mecca.’

I was so taken aback that for a time I could only stutter about there being no military service in England, such as there was in France, and that the initial difficulties of entering British territory because of immigration laws were not easily overcome. Mohammed heard me decline the gift of his family in silence, his eyes fixed on the ground. Then he sighed. ‘It is fate. . . . Madame owes me for a dozen eggs,’ he said mournfully. I could not argue prices with him at this distressing time, and when I had paid him he stalked off with his head sunk between his shoulders, the children shuffling behind him.

‘Those Arabs!’ Joan exclaimed. He was tying up chrysanthemums in the garden, and had remained silent during this conversation. ‘ A visit to a pharmacie, and he would have saved his son. But no, he must neglect it. Neglect! It is the same with everything they do. They take a European villa, and they let it fall to pieces. They do not paint it. They let the roof leak. It is always thus. Madame, they are a people essentially nomadic. We Europeans,’ he finished impressively, ‘plan for the future. We are not fatalists. We consider ways and means — we do not neglect opportunities.’

Seeming to consider that he had said enough for one day, he went on with his work.

VI

January was the coldest within living memory. Jean was outraged by it, as he had been telling us how delightful winter was. Though it never actually snowed, the air smelt like snow. Rain fell heavily, and the wind blew fiercely for days together. Sometimes, while struggling on my daily walk around the Cathedral, I would look down at the low-lying peninsula between the gulf and the salt lake, and wonder why the heavy waves did not wash the villages away. But at the end of February the intense cold came to an end. The sun shone gloriously day after day, and the sea was deeply blue. The mountains almost disappeared in calm mists, and Salammbo Point seemed like a floating promontory in a fairy tale. Now the hillsides were magnificent with wild fennel, the pale green stalks crowned with a spread of yellow flowers. Stock, carnations, violets, freesias, cyclamens, and hyacinths bloomed in the gardens, but outside the fields outdid the gardens in color. Mustard, beans, colchicums, and marguerites flowered, and the ruins were gay with daisies, scarlet poppies, and marigolds.

The year had turned. From hour to hour, as the weeks fled along and the sun swung back from his winter orbit, Carthage and the adjoining villages began to wake up. Behind the iron fences the chiens de garde stretched restlessly and poked their noses between the bars. Cats, thin as witches after their winter vagabondage, dropped from the cornices of flat roofs to sniff hopefully at dustbins. Every fine weekend brought the propriétaires from Tunis to see after their property. Masons and painters carried their ladders and buckets through the lanes. The elderly house owners, or mothers of families too young for school, settled into their villas on the beach, working among the roses, geraniums, and honeysuckle of their formal gardens, where their birdcages hung in the shade of bougainvillæas. And then one morning we heard the melancholy cry of ‘Charbon! Charbon!’ and saw the first Arab charcoal peddler of the season jogging down the narrow street on his quick-stepping donkey, while in front of him his laden camels stirred the ankle-deep dust which showed that the rains were over. Here was a true harbinger of summer.

Maria had grown more and more silent, and Jean spent less and less time in our garden. He was feverishly busy elsewhere, and one day he announced his new plans.

‘There is room in one of these villages for a cinema,’ he said. ‘There is no such place of amusement between La Goulette and La Marsa. I have already chosen a suitable place, and am now prepared to offer shares to raise the capital for the enterprise.’

Pained though he was by our refusal to lend him money, Jean was not to be discouraged, and gave us a week’s notice.

‘I will continue to come daily, Madame,’ Maria said quietly. ‘He is sure that we shall become rich soon, but I prefer to know that my children will have their daily food.’ Maria was also glad to see the houses being prepared for the summer influx. ‘It will be more gay,’ she said, ‘especially for the children.’

‘But what of a gardener for us?’ I asked.

‘Why not call Mohammed?’ Jean suggested unexpectedly.

‘I have not seen him for a long time,’ I said.

‘ He went to the island of Djerba with his family,’ Jean said with a sardonic smile. ‘That was after his son’s death, you will remember. There he stayed for some time. Then he left his old wife and the children. He returned here, acquired a young new wife, and will doubtless be starting a new family.’

‘Another wife?’ I said in amazement.

‘He is a Mohammedan,’ Jean said, and departed whistling.

‘You remember the eldest Bédouine who used to bring eggs from the gourbi where the camels were?’ Maria asked. ‘The pretty one with the curly hair and dimples? That is Mohammed’s new wife.’

‘Good heavens!’ I exclaimed. ‘She is a child! He is an old man!’

‘She is sixteen, they say,’ Maria answered. ‘If Madame will come up the hill with me we shall find his new abode and ask his wife for eggs. You have noticed that they are becoming scarce again. We can also leave a message for Mohammed.’

It was a magnificent morning. The grain was ripe, and rippled in golden waves on the hillside. Our path led to a Roman cistern which had been newly thatched with weeds and fenced about with a thorn hedge. Outside, at a circular clay oven, the handsome young Bédouine was working. She recognized us, smiled, and beckoned. We asked her to let us watch.

Upon a wooden tray by her side were five uncooked loaves. Within the hollow oven was a fire of coals. The girl took each loaf, flattened it first on the palm of her hand, and then pressed it on the wooden platter until it was about half an inch thick and nearly a foot across. This done, she dipped her left hand into a tin of water, moistened the dough, and ran the water up over her arm so that it might not be scorched. Then, having transferred the dough adroitly on to her palm, she introduced it into the oven, slapping it on to the sloping surface of hot clay, where it stuck. She smoothed it quickly once or twice, and gave it a parting poke with one finger in the middle. By the time the fifth was in place the first was browning, and she laid stones over the coal beneath it, that it might not cook too fast. Her gestures were sure and deft, as if she were a bird making its nest, or a wasp building its cell.

‘Les œufs frais!’ sounded suddenly in our ears, and there was Mohammed coming down over the brow of the hill. I could scarcely believe my eyes. It was not so much a resurrection as a rebirth. Here was a young, beaming, handsome Mohammed in a new burnous and a crisp straw hat trimmed with marigolds — a bridegroom indeed! ‘Ah, Madame,’ he cried, ‘the summer begins! Soon all will be en train again in Carthage.’

We explained our business, and his young wife continued steadfastly with her baking, not looking up until her lord and master bade her go in and find us some eggs. As I watched her stepping gracefully along I thought of the half-dozen ragged urchins whom Mohammed had tried to give me as a present, out of sight in Djerba with the worn-out wife. Life had began anew for Mohammed.

As we walked back to our gate we saw ass carts full of broken furniture jolting over the fields toward the ruins. The first squatters were arriving. As we entered I was startled by the opening of the grilled window next door. A woman with a head of marmaladecolored curls leaned out to spit some seeds into the gutter.

Bonjour, Madame!’ she called. It needed the presence of her little son Ahmadi to assure me that this was my neighbor. Her great brown eyes looked almost colorless beneath her brilliant hair, and her skin, which had seemed so white, now appeared olive in tint. However, her satisfaction was unbounded. Perhaps she had feared that her husband might transfer his affections to some young rival. No, she had no eggs to sell. Summer scarcity had begun. She beamed with satisfaction, and waved her hand to include the awakening villages. ‘Now for, some gayety,’ she seemed to say. ‘The long, monotonous winter in Carthage is over.’