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Our Visit to the Desert by J. P.


One of the most interesting and amusing episodes in our many Mediterranean and North African wanderings was a visit to the Sahara. Although we penetrated but a short distance into the Great Desert, we were there introduced to aspects of Nature and to phases of life wholly new and strange to us.

We had been spending the winter in Algiers, and were unwilling to return to Europe without seeing something more of the African continent. When, therefore, the sunny winter gave place to still more sunny spring, we set out upon our travels—first, eastward by sea to Philippeville, and then southward to the desert.

The French colony of Algeria, as every one knows, stretches along the African coast from Morocco to Tunis, and from the Mediterranean southward to the desert. It is divided into three provinces—Oran, Algiers and Constantine, the central one being the most important and that from which the whole country takes its name. From either of these provinces it is possible to penetrate inland to the Sahara, but this is done most easily from the eastern settlement, Constantine. We therefore made choice of this route, and on a bright morning early in April started from Algiers for Philippeville. The voyage along the coast affords some glimpses of fine scenery. The Bay of Bougie especially, surrounded as it is by lofty mountains, part of the Atlas range, is extremely picturesque. As the steamers, however, only remain a few hours at each of the stopping-places, there is scarcely time fully to enjoy the varied and charming views. It seemed to us as if a vast diorama had passed before us, leaving on the mind not an indelible picture, but a mere shadowy outline of headlands and bays, rocky promontories and sunny sloping shores. With the exception of the port of Algiers, there is, properly speaking, no harbor on this part of the African coast: there are only open roadsteads, where, exposed to the full roll of the sea, vessels ride uncomfortably at anchor. The journey is in consequence rather trying: nevertheless, we had not long reached terra firma before we acknowledged ourselves amply compensated for the fatigues and little unpleasant accompaniments of the sea-voyage.

Philippeville offers to the traveller no great attractions. Its situation is pretty, and it possesses some Roman remains, the examination of which may occupy pleasantly and profitably enough the unavoidable interval between the landing and the start for the South. After resting but one night, we set out for Constantine, the capital of the province of that name. There is nothing whatever of interest between the sea and the city—nothing till you arrive within sight of Constantine itself. Then, indeed, when from the plain below you get your first view of the town, perched like an eagle's nest upon its rocky height, you can at once realize the appropriateness of its singular name—"the City in the Air." It is so high above you it seems midway between earth and heaven. Its situation is indeed unique and most strangely picturesque. Security must have been the chief motive for the selection of such a site, and certainly few cities present more formidable barriers to the advance of a foe. The plateau of rock upon which the town is built forms a kind of peninsula, inaccessible on all sides except one, and there the ascent is long and steep, as we found to our cost each time we descended to the level of the valley. This plateau is joined to the rest of the table-land as by an isthmus: at all other points it is surrounded by a profound chasm, through which flows the river Roumel—a chasm so deep and narrow that it is only when quite near it you become aware of its existence. For the sake of internal safety a wall has been built round the top of the precipice, and at certain points you may look over this parapet, sheer down some ten or twelve hundred feet, into an abyss fit only to be the habitation of the owls, bats, and birds of prey which frequent its solitudes. There seems no resting-place for any wingless creature: thus the strange birds which haunt the wild recesses of the rocks do so in perfect security, and their varied cries, along with the roar of the water, are the only sounds that issue from below. The mysterious gloom is indescribable, and the look down into the depths fills one with awe; and yet this singular view is obtained from the very town itself, from the courts and windows of the houses.

If, however, you would see this wonderful gorge to perfection, you must go down into it and find your way to the little path which skirts the stream along a portion of its course. First, descend to the foot of the rock, where the river rushes out of the ravine with a mighty leap, forming a cascade some four hundred feet in height, and you are at once overwhelmed by the grandeur of the scene, and all the poetry in your nature is stirred. From this point you may proceed for some distance along the water-side above the fall. Below you roars the foaming cataract, thundering downward and filling the whole air with its white spray. Above, on either side, are lofty, precipitous rocks, the crests of which are crowned by buildings. This is the town as seen from beneath. No wonder it is called "the City in the Air."

As you advance the chasm narrows. You must walk with caution, stepping lightly from rock to rock, till presently you come in sight of a lofty arch, which, spanning the river from side to side, forms a gigantic natural bridge joining the opposite sides of the gorge. Nothing in Nature ever moved me more than the first view of that magnificent arch. With something of the proportions of a cathedral roof it rises above you in massive grandeur, showing beyond, through the opening, a line of sky, and then another cavern-like arch. We could not penetrate farther, and no daylight issued from this second opening. It looked like the mysterious entrance into an underground world, the portal of Hades, and in the excitement produced by the novelty of the scene our surprise could scarcely have been increased had some of the shades from the realms of darkness glided out from amid the gloom, or if Charon's boat had appeared to row us over the ferry. Overhead the hawks and eagles circled round, and with hoarse cries appeared to express their anger at the intrusion of man into these wilds sacred to them. Altogether, the scene is full of strange, awe-inspiring beauty. In the Alps and elsewhere we have, perhaps, beheld grander scenery, but never more impressive.

The town of Constantine has not much to commend it as a place of residence. It is neither clean nor well built, while sights and smells the reverse of agreeable are constantly distressing the optic and olfactory nerves. And yet there are perhaps few places where an artist could find more charming subjects for his pencil—curious bits of architecture mingling with Nature in its most beautiful and grandest aspects, fine touches of brilliant color, and quaint winding streets and bazaars,—everywhere the picturesque. Filth and confusion, indeed, but still it is the very confusion that an artist loves.

The people are a mixture of French, Arabs and Jews. Of the first nothing need be said: they are the same everywhere. The second are similar in type to the Arabs and Moors of the capital; but the last, the Jews, do not at all resemble the specimens of the favored race we have been accustomed to meet with in Europe. They are mostly handsome, many of them fair, the women being particularly gay and picturesque in costume, wearing, when in gala-dress, bright-colored, gold-bespangled scarfs hanging over their heads and shoulders. Altogether, we thought it the brightest and most graceful female attire we had ever seen. But the most charming of all are the children. We saw groups of a perfectly ideal beauty playing upon the doorsteps and dust-heaps—little rosy-cheeked, fair or auburn-haired things, a striking contrast to the sallow Arab races. In thus seeing that fair and auburn hair is not at all uncommon among the Jews of the East, we for the first time understood why the old masters gave to Christ the complexion generally found in their paintings. Certainly, the Jewish children of Constantine would make most lovely studies for the genre painter, and we all regretted that we could not carry away with us some enduring souvenir of that which had charmed us so much.

But, however picturesque the country, and however interesting the town and people, we cannot always linger here. Our destination is the desert. Thus, therefore, after a few days spent in alternate wonder and admiration, we once again set out on our southward course, resolved to indemnify ourselves on our return journey by making a longer stay amidst the beautiful and extremely singular scenery of the Roumel.

Our next resting-place was Batna, a small French town situated on the elevated ground—nearly four thousand feet above the level of the sea—between the Mediterranean and the Sahara. We had to make the journey thither by diligence and by night, and we were surprised to find how cold an African night can be even in April. There was a hard frost, and just before entering Batna we passed under an aqueduct from which hung down a fringe of enormous icicles. The following day, on the still higher ground at the celebrated cedar forest, which forms an interesting excursion from Batna, we found deep snow. During the day the sun shone out bright and powerful, but the nights continued to hold the forest frost-bound.

At Batna we met with a party of gentlemen, one of whom we had known slightly in Algiers; and they, like ourselves, were bound for Biskra. This complicated matters, as it was understood that the accommodation at the oasis was of a somewhat scanty description. They were three, and we were four—altogether, a party of six gentlemen and one lady. We telegraphed from Batna to ascertain whether or not we could all get rooms. Our despair may be imagined when we received the answer: one of the little hotels was closed, and the other could only offer us two rooms. Two rooms for seven people! What was to be done? We could not—or rather would not—retrace our steps at this stage, and thus give up the very object of our journey; so we resolved to go on at all risks and take our chance.

The evening before we started on our somewhat adventurous journey, as we sat chatting round the fire, I could not help giving vent to my feelings. The desert! Was it possible? I felt myself on the eve of something momentous. It was an event in my life, a something never to be forgotten. A smile played upon the faces of my companions, and next day, when, utterly worn and weary, I could with difficulty take an interest in anything around me, they were very ready to banter me about "the event in my life."

It was not without serious misgivings that we took our places in the great lumbering vehicle which travels twice a week between Batna and the oasis. Nothing but a heavy, strongly-built conveyance could stand the jolting of such a journey; and in order to accomplish it at all within the day it is necessary to start between two and three o'clock in the morning. Now, if there is one thing more than another likely to damp one's enthusiasm, it is turning out at such an untimely hour. We all felt this as we wended our way through the cold, dark streets to the diligence-office; and as we were trundled down the steep hill leading out of the town, bumping from side to side, it was some time before we could recover our spirits or stir up again an excitement worthy of the occasion.

On the route between Batna and El Kantra—"the Mouth of the Desert"—there is little of interest. It is a weary journey, over roads either badly made or not made at all, through a bare, barren, bleak, uncultivated country. One wonders, in passing through such an inhospitable region, at finding so many remains of the Roman occupation. What could have induced such a people to penetrate so far into the wilds of Africa? There is no evidence of the land ever having been more productive or more attractive than it is at present; and yet at Lambessa, a few miles from Batna, you find the ruins of a once great and magnificent Roman city, while even as far south as Biskra itself there are still to be seen relics of this great conquering nation of antiquity.

But to return to El Kantra. Here we found a little hotel kept by French people, and here the diligence stopped for breakfast. It was about ten o'clock, and what a change! The heat was broiling, and the dry, arid rocks told of an approach to the desert. In effect, the Pass of El Kantra is the entrance to what is called "the Little Desert;" hence its name, "Mouth of the Desert."

At this point the valley seems completely shut in by a mountainous barrier of rugged rock. On advancing, however, a few steps farther, the great jagged rocks, which appeared a compact mass, divide, and, like the transformation-scene in a pantomime, the oasis of El Kantra, which is situated immediately south of the pass, lies before you. The opening is so narrow that it affords but room for the road and the stream, which is crossed by a bridge of Roman construction, restored by the late emperor Napoleon. It is therefore only when close upon it, when actually within the pass, that you become aware of the singularly beautiful scene beyond.


On each side the great mountain-masses rise, picturesque, even fantastic, in outline. The heights are inaccessible to any foot but those of the goat and goatherd. We were astonished at seeing a troop of goats wending their way upward, for to our eyes there seemed not even the remotest trace of vegetation upon the rocks; and indeed the poor things looked as if with them existence were truly "a struggle," out of which little could be gained by natural selection.

Hungry as we were on arriving at El Kantra after our long ride, we could scarcely take time to breakfast, but hurried on in advance of the diligence to get our first view of the mysterious land beyond the mountain-range. The stream which here descends from the hills to the plain causes the desert, if not "to blossom like a rose," to become at this point a rich and beautiful oasis. Here, for the first time, we saw the date-palm in full luxuriance. In the neighborhood of Algiers there are many fine trees, but the fruit never thoroughly ripens there.

For upward of a mile after passing through the mountain-gorge we skirted the oasis. It is surrounded by a mud-built wall, and half hidden among the palms we could discern the mud-built cottages and mosque belonging to the Arab village. On the other side of our route we observed a forest of upright stones, rough and unhewn. This was the last resting-place of the people of the desert, and a sad and lonely sight an Arab burial-place is, dreary even amid the utter desolation around.

Now and then as we advanced we met troops of camels with their owners going north ward to the Tell, or cultivated lands, carrying with them their wives and other goods and chattels. Or, again, we would come upon the huge bleached carcass of one of those all-important beasts of burden, which had fallen on one of its weary journeys and left its bones to whiten upon the sand. Or we would see in the distance a hyena or jackal prowling about in search of more recent dead.

Everything was so novel and strange to us that for a long time pleasure and excitement prevented our yielding to, or even feeling, fatigue. As, however, the day advanced and the heat became more and more intolerable, as the glare blinded us and the dust half smothered us, again our spirits sank and the pleasure of "this event in life" assumed a doubtful hue. Even when the spirit is willing the flesh is weak, and we were beginning to feel thoroughly worn out when the diligence pulled up on the top of the range of hills which divides the Little Desert from the Sahara proper.

At last we beheld it—the Great Desert! "The sea! how like the sea!" we all exclaimed; and indeed there it lay like a vast expanse of calm ocean. The slopes of the hills upon which we stood appeared like the shore, and those distant black-gray spots surrounded by a seeming blue, so wonderfully like islands in the ocean, were the oases of the Ziban, encircled by the great sea of sand, the desert. It is a view never to be forgotten—such light! such color! such calm loveliness!

Fatigue, discomfort, difficulties, all alike were forgotten; self seemed lost in the magic of the scene; and it was with straining eyes and beating hearts that we rattled down the declivity to Biskra, the largest, richest and most important of this group of oases. But here again our troubles commenced. This journey seemed fated to be, like the journey of life itself, a series of ups and downs, calculated to fully exercise all our strength and philosophy. It was no joke to find ourselves in the desert, after a drive of fifteen hours, without a resting-place for our wearied bodies or a dinner to restore our failing strength and spirits. One hotel, we found, was indeed shut up, and in the other they had only two close, wretched-looking rooms to offer us—one with two, and one with three, beds. We were very reluctant to accept these; and, after all, how could seven persons, a lady and six gentlemen, be thus accommodated? Mr. M—— and I determined to lay siege to the closed hotel and try if we could not find an "open sesame" to unclose its portals.


Monsieur and Madame Bourguignon, the landlord and landlady, were the sole occupants of the hotel. It was impossible, they said: they dared not admit us, as in consequence of a quarrel with the authorities their license had been taken from them. At last our importunity triumphed. On appealing to their humanity in our most pathetic and touching French, they said if we could get a written permission from the commandant-supérieur for them to open their hotel, they would do the best they could for us. We had no resource but to beat up the officer's quarters, which, under the conduct of an Arab guide, we soon reached. The servant who answered our summons said, "Monsieur le Commandant was at dinner." Politeness, however, was at this stage of the proceedings out of the question; so we coolly replied that he must leave his dinner and come to speak with a lady. We were not long kept waiting, and were most kindly and pleasantly received, the commandant giving us at once a note to M. Bourguignon requesting him, as a personal favor, to do all he could to make us comfortable, adding, with true French politeness, that he only regretted that in his bachelor quarters he had not himself accommodation to offer us.

Thus, one more of our troubles was happily ended, and in a wonderfully short space of time we found ourselves refreshing exhausted Nature with an excellent dinner, waited upon by our jolly landlord, who constantly assured us that we should be very comfortable, "car on mange très bien à Biskra."

It is only on becoming acquainted with scenes and people which we have been in the habit of picturing to ourselves that we realize how feeble a power is the imagination. We found here everything so different from the creations of our fancy. My idea of an oasis, for example, had been a clump of trees, a spring of water and a little verdure. Here we found one several miles in length, and with sixty thousand palm trees, a considerable population, a market and a fort. Biskra is, however, the largest and finest of the group of oases which stud this part of the desert. It is the place of residence of the caid and the chief seat of Arab commerce.

By the time we had dined it was already too dark to commence explorations. It was only the next morning, when we rose refreshed and rested, that we began to take in the various details of the new and singular life to which we were being introduced.

First, as to our hotel. It consisted of a row of small, self-contained houses forming two sides of a square. One of these little dwellings was the dining-room, another the kitchen, and the others respectively the guests' sleeping-chambers, a separate house being allotted to each. In the centre of the square there was a charming garden, where roses, sweet-peas and most of our summer flowers were blooming in full luxuriance. Then, in the early season, when the springs give out their fertilizing moisture and the sun has not yet attained its full scorching power, the garden is one mass of beauty and blossom: later in the year everything becomes parched and dried up, scarcely a blade remaining. In the middle of the garden there was a bower overgrown with creepers and shaded by a thick matting. This formed our saloon and reception-room, and here we took our coffee, the gentlemen smoked their cigars and we chatted over our adventures and prospects. Our rooms, or little houses, all opened on the garden; and never can we forget the charm of unclosing our door in the early morning. What a flood of light and freshness and fragrance rushed in upon us while we dressed and prepared for the business of the day! Our apartment had a bare stone floor, its furniture consisted of two beds, two chairs and a deal table—nothing could have been more simple—yet this little nest in the desert appeared to us about the nearest imaginable approach to an earthly paradise. How we congratulated ourselves upon having had the courage to leave the dingy rooms at the other hotel to our travelling companions, and to force an entrance into this sweet spot! Our hosts, too, seemed delighted and most happy at having guests in their house once more.


Every morning we rose at five, took tea in our arbor before six, and then sallied out to explore and photograph till ten, when we returned to breakfast. Then we retired either to our own apartments, or, if not too hot, to the shade of the garden, and did the dolce far niente till the sun had passed the zenith and had begun to sink in the west. Then, again, on foot or donkey-back, we visited the different parts of the oasis, returning in time for a six-o'clock dinner; after which, the room usually becoming insufferably hot, we once more sought our open-air drawing-room and took our evening coffee by the light of the stars.

Mere existence in such an atmosphere is bliss. One does not seem to breathe, as at home, machine-like, just what is necessary for the maintenance of life, but, exhilarated with the pureness and freshness, one drinks in long breaths of pleasure. It would be difficult to give an idea of the charm of our morning and evening rambles—the delicious shade, the beautiful light and shadow, the sweet wafts of warm aromatic fragrance, the refreshing murmur of the numberless runlets of water—everything so calm, so full of dreamy beauty.

What the Nile is to Egypt, the stream which flows here is to Biskra. By considerable labor it has been made to meander among the palms in numerous tiny canals, thus by an elaborate system of irrigation causing the barren soil of the desert to become fertile and bring forth fruit. Everywhere the little runlets are led round the very roots of the trees, for the palm, it is said, loves to have its head in the fire and its feet in the water. Here and there even a few cereals are extracted from the unwilling soil. At the time of our visit, in April, it was harvest-time, and the husbandman was busy gathering in his little store. The date-harvest, which constitutes the chief wealth of the district, does not take place till October.

Besides the town proper and the fort, there is at Biskra a negro village, while scattered throughout the oasis there are numerous mud-built mosques and cottages, which contrast charmingly with the tropical vegetation and add greatly to the picturesque beauty of the scene. In addition to these abodes of the settled population, there are also groups of real black Arab tents, which form the habitations of the more nomadic races. These are here to-day and away to-morrow, carrying all their possessions with them. The troops of Arabs we had met en route belonged to these wandering tribes, and were going to the Tell country for summer pasturage. While we were at Biskra there was a wedding in one of these dingy black tents, and a very queer place it seemed to us to bring a bride to; nevertheless, she was conducted thither in triumph, riding upon a mule, while the Arabs in front of the tent fired feu-de-joie amid the most noisy demonstrations of welcome and rejoicing.

Within the town there are several streets, some large open places, and a covered market-hall, where a brisk trade is daily carried on, large quantities of dates, small quantities of grain, cutlery—knives and daggers with roughly-hewn wooden sheaths—primitive musical instruments, embroidered leather caps, straps, tobacco-pouches, etc., being exposed in the various stalls. Altogether, a singular medley, and quite unlike any European market.

The wild music of the tom-tom, a primitive Arab drum, seemed to us never to cease at Biskra. At night, when we retired to rest, it was drumming in our ears, and in the morning, when we awoke, its monotonous tones still floated on the air. At all hours of the day and night the cafés are frequented by pleasure-seekers. Hence the incessant drumming, as the music of the tom-tom seems to be an indispensable adjunct to Arab enjoyment.

Once or twice we made a round of the cafés, and very grim and solemn the entertainment appeared to us. In one, for example, which was crowded with tall grave men calmly puffing at their pipes and sipping their coffee, we found a danseuse performing—a tall female figure, who glided and swayed about in the mazes of a strange dance, while the musician sat cross-legged in a corner of the room playing the inevitable tom-tom. This Arab danseuse was as unlike our performers of the ballet as she well could be. Her clothing was a loose flowing drapery, which fell from her shoulders to her heels, while instead of agility of motion or sprightliness there was nothing but a dreamy gliding, a kind of somnambulistic movement, apparently without plan or purpose, but not without a certain grace. In another café two children were pulling each other about in a less graceful and equally meaningless dance; while in a third we found a professional story-teller holding forth in earnest tones to a group gathered closely round him. From the looks of the spectators it was impossible to say whether or not they took pleasure in the various performances. During the time we remained we beheld not a movement of applause: not a smile relaxed the grave, stolid features; there was but a calm gazing and a quiet puffing of smoke from mouth and nostrils.

A day or two after our arrival we deemed it our duty to call upon the commandant to thank him for his politeness, and to tell him how well satisfied we were with our quarters at the Hôtel Bourguignon. Seated with him we found the great man of the district, the caid, making a morning call. It was our first introduction to a real Arab gentleman, and we regretted exceedingly that we could not converse with him in his own language, the more especially as he was a travelled man. He had been to Paris, had been received at the Tuileries by the emperor Napoleon, and had made the grand Mohammedan pilgrimage to Mecca. But as a conversation with Arabs, conducted as ours was through the medium of a French interpreter, is necessarily restricted, we had little opportunity of judging whether or not the mind of the caid corresponded with his handsome exterior.


On my mentioning that I had a great desire to try a camel-ride, the caid volunteered to send camels for our party, and to see that mine was properly caparisoned for the comfort and accommodation of a lady; and also to send his son to attend to my safety. Of course we accepted his polite offer, and the afternoon of the same day was fixed for the expedition. Never can we forget the sight which presented itself to our astonished eyes when we went to our hotel-door at the appointed hour. There was the lady's camel, with a howdah on its back hung with curtains of damask and gold. There were the camels for the gentlemen, each led by its swarthy driver, while alongside a young Arab gentleman careered upon a white charger with crimson and gold saddle and trappings, followed by a mounted attendant almost equally magnificent. To crown the whole, or at least give it state, there were some two or three hundred Arab spectators. Only once before had such a scene been witnessed in Biskra, when some years previously the wife of a French general had visited the oasis.

It was not without considerable difficulty that we got started. The camels are made to kneel, and thus it is easy enough to mount, but then begins the ordeal. While the huge beast raises itself on its double-jointed limbs you undergo a series of painful jerks which nothing but the most undaunted courage enables you to endure. Determination, however, overcomes all difficulties, and at last our cortége was en route. The mounted attendant acted as outrider to clear the way, while he of the milk-white steed, the caid's son, rode gallantly by my side.

I could have fancied myself a queen of Sheba or some Eastern houri screened by silken curtains from the vulgar gaze. What extravagances my imagination in its pride might have led me into it is impossible to say, but for the bodily discomfort. The camel is called the "ship of the desert," but surely no ship ever pitched and rolled so unmercifully. The howdah too, which was loosely slung upon the creature's back, only added to the naturally uncomfortable motion. In fact, this cage-like erection was only kept in its place by ropes attached to it which were held by two men who walked one on each side. As the thing swung one way, the man opposite pulled it back, and vice versâ, altogether regardless of my feelings in the matter.

We have since found out, by experience in Egypt, that these camels were of what may be called the cart-horse breed, and there is about as much difference in riding such a one and a properly-trained dromedary as there is between a dray-horse and a thoroughbred. Thus, if we were proud of our exaltation, we paid dearly for our pride, and when we returned from our excursion it was with a feeling of every limb being out of joint. It was days before we had completely recovered from the effects of this our first and, as I devoutly hoped, our last camel-ride. From this time forward the caid's son, who spoke French tolerably well, paid us almost daily visits, and although he had never been beyond the bounds of the desert, we have never met with more pleasing, gentlemanly manners than those of this young Arab.

One afternoon he invited me to pay a visit to the ladies of his family. These poor creatures are never allowed to go out except into their high-walled garden, and no male eyes but those of near relatives are ever allowed to gaze upon them. They do not even take their meals with their husbands and sons, this being contrary to Arab ideas of propriety. Thus, while they have no outdoor life, they have no indoor social life either. There is nothing for them but to be drudges and mothers, to bear and to bring up children. It is therefore not surprising that the first question Arab women ask is, "Have you any children?" or that they should entertain the profoundest pity for those of their sisterhood who are not thus blessed. To them motherhood is the one thing worth living for: all else is denied to them by the barbarous customs of their country.

In the course of our travels we have met with one educated Arab lady, and, singular to say, both she and her husband objected to educating their daughters. Probably she felt that in the life to which she was by Arab custom condemned education did not add to her own happiness—that it was fitted, indeed, only to raise aspirations and desires which could never be realized.

The house of the caid was clean and airy, and characterized by a certain barbaric taste. There were arms suspended upon the walls, Persian rugs laid upon the floors and divans placed around the rooms. The large garden was pleasant, being beautifully shaded by palms and orange and lemon trees. In it there was a summer-house, where it was the custom of the gentlemen of the family to dine and take their coffee. Everywhere there was an air of wealth and comfort, but yet to an English eye there was a want of neatness and trimness in all the arrangements, both of house and garden.

I saw only one of the ladies, the wife of the caid, the last survivor out of some five or six. She was elderly and not beautiful, her dress gay rather than tasteful, and upon the whole less rich than I expected, considering the immense wealth of her husband. We were assured he possessed four thousand camels, besides boundless wealth in date-palms, etc. Through my young Arab friend, who acted as interpreter, she told me I was welcome, and then as soon as we were seated she began an examination of my dress and ornaments. She seemed, indeed, in mind a perfect child, incapable of taking an interest in anything higher than dress and trinkets. To her, the great world without was a complete blank, a sealed book: the field of her observations was bounded by the four walls of her own abode, while books and society were alike forbidden. Certainly, if the fruit of the tree of knowledge be evil, then Arab women should be virtuous indeed, from them it is so well guarded. Taking my cue from my hostess, and supposing it Arab politeness, I also made an inspection of her dress, and especially of her earrings, which had at once attracted my attention on account of their great size. They were gold hoops of from two to three inches in diameter, thick and heavy, and set with a mass of stones and pearls. It seemed marvellous how any human ears could support such pendants. In effect, I found that they did not do so. The earrings were only sham, for in reality they were fixed to her head-dress, and were only so arranged as to appear suspended from the ears.

As a contrast to this visit, Madame Bourguignon asked me if I should like to see an Arab mènage of the humbler order. The family to whose house she conducted me were neighbors and protégés of hers. From the outside, this house, like most Arab houses, presented a dead wall broken only by a doorway. Through this we entered into an unpaved court, where the family was assembled. The owner or master of the establishment was squatted upon the dry sandy ground, with three or four young children sprawling round him, while his four wives were occupied with their respective duties. Two were suckling babies, one was weaving a kind of coarse striped material in a primitive loom, while the fourth was apparently attending to the business of housekeeping. In addition to these, there were several older children playing among the sand: the grown-up members of the family were out, I was informed, begging, working, or perhaps stealing, as they might happen to find opportunity.

The man was not bad-looking, and one or two of the children were almost pretty, notwithstanding the dirt and swarms of flies that half concealed their features; but the women! Well, most men would have thought one such wife enough. I certainly marvelled at any one choosing four, and also that a man in such circumstances should be able to support so many. On expressing my surprise to Madame Bourguignon, she exclaimed, "He does not support them: it is they who support him." Thus the smaller a man's means and the greater his wants the more wives he needs.

We had ample proof that these wretched women are often treated as little better than beasts of burden. Nearer the "Mouth of the Desert" we saw troops of women carrying enormous burdens of sticks upon their backs, which they had collected somewhere north of the mountains, while their lords and masters strutted along unencumbered at their sides, acting the part of slave-drivers. Even among the wealthy Arabs it is common for the wives to be employed in the most menial household work; and Madame Bourguignon assured me that had I been behind the scenes I should probably have found some of the ladies of the caid's family thus engaged.

But to return to the house. The open court into which we entered, and where we found the family assembled, was evidently their living-room during the day. Four small apartments opened out of it. First, the kitchen, the whole furnishing of which consisted of a few fire-bricks, one or two vessels for cooking and a skin for holding water. The other three apartments were respectively the sleeping-room of the master of the house, that of the women and that of the elder children; and, literally, the only furniture of these was a piece of boarding covered with matting. There was no bedding, no bed-clothing, no attempt at comfort of any kind. It is certainly not an expensive matter to set up house at Biskra, the climate of the desert making one independent of everything except a shade from the sun and a little food to sustain life. From the court a stair led up to the flat roof which covered in the four apartments, and this upper story formed the receptacle for all the filth of the family. The scene was disgusting in the extreme. In any other climate it must have bred a pestilence. Here, no doubt, this dire result is prevented by the extreme dryness of the atmosphere. After this visit I quite appreciated our good landlady's horror of the Arabs. "You see now," said she, "how it is I cannot bear even to buy fowls fed by such people."

During the time we remained at Biskra we only twice made excursions beyond the limits of the oasis—once to some hot sulphur springs a few miles out in the desert—springs of such wonderful efficacy in all rheumatic affections that were they in Europe they would speedily make the fortune of any watering-place. Here they are little known: however, a bath has been formed and roofed in, and our gentlemen enjoyed a dip in the warm water after their ride across the desert. From this bath one of them dated the cure of a severe pain in the leg which had caused him much inconvenience during the journey. Our other excursion was to the neighboring oasis of Sidi Okba, the ecclesiastical, as Biskra is the commercial, capital of the Ziban. Judging by appearances, one would say that commerce must be a much more thriving thing than religion, for Sidi Okba is in every way inferior to Biskra. The people are more squalid, the houses more wretched: the very mosque itself is in a dirty, tumble-down condition. Here we found no Arabs who could speak French; and at one time, having lost our way among the palms, we were very much at a loss to know what to do. For some time we tried in vain to catch a glimpse of the mosque, thinking that it, beacon-like, would guide us back to the town. Equally in vain we interrogated all the Arabs we met in all the languages at our command, and it was only at last, inspired by desperation, that we hit upon the expedient of signs. Assuming the attitude of prayer, we called out, "Allah! Allah!" An Arab at once answered "Marabout! marabout!" and then we remembered that this was the name for mosque, and nodded, "Yes, marabout." He seemed delighted at having understood us at last, and soon led us to the mosque, from whence we knew our way to the place where we had left our luncheon. We had crossed the desert in the early morning, and were obliged to seek a resting-place in the shade during the hot hours of the day. This we found in a house belonging to a son of the caid of Biskra. There we ate the luncheon we had brought with us, and then we reclined upon the Persian carpets and rested till the hour arrived when we could safely undertake the return journey.

The day after our visit to Sidi Okba was our last at Biskra. We bade adieu to it with regret, and we shall always remember the time spent in this oasis of Sahara as among the white days in our calendar.