Letter to Laura Lafargue, April 13, 1882

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To Laura Lafargue in London

Darling Cacadou,

I reproach myself for not having written to you again until now, not that there’s anything special to report from here. How often do I not think of you – at Eastbourne, beside my Jenny’s sick-bed, and during your faithful daily visits so cheering to that crosspatch, Old Nick. But you should know, dear child, that this week and last were Fermé’s Easter vacation; he lives in the rue Michelet (as part of the route Mustapha supérieur is called) at the foot of the hill from which the Hotel Victoria looks down. It’s only a stone’s throw away for him, although he has to ‘clamber’ since there’s no proper path leading up to it. And in fact he has latterly been visiting me assiduously, thus frustrating the best of resolutions in regard to afternoon letter-writing. – Otherwise not an unwelcome guest, Mr. Fermé, nor devoid of humour. After I had given him some Citoyens and Égalités to read, he arrived chuckling not a little over Guesde’s ‘terrorism of the future’ [which is to go on] until – this anticipated in heavy type – the last bourgeois oppressor has been guillotined out of existence. Fermé is not fond of Algiers whose climate doesn’t suit either him or his family (often visited by fever, etc.) although its members are all of them ‘des indigenès’ à commencer par Madame l’épouse. Above all, however, his salary as a judge is hardly sufficient for even the most modest way of life. Living in a colonial capital is always expensive. But one thing he does admit – in no town elsewhere, which is at the same time the seat of the central government, is there such laisser faire, laisser passer; police reduced to a bare minimum; unprecedented public sans gêne; the Moorish element is responsible for this. For Mussulmans there is no such thing as subordination; they are neither ‘subjects’ nor ‘administrés’; no authority, save in politica, something which Europeans have totally failed to understand. Few police in Algiers, and such as there are for the most part indigenès. And yet, with such a medley of national elements and unscrupulous characters, frequent clashes are inevitable, and it is here that the Catalonians live up to their old reputation; the white or red belts they wear, like the Moors, etc., outside their coats and not, like the French, beneath their clothing, often conceal ‘bodkins’ – long stilettos which these sons of Catalonia are not slow to ‘employ’ with equal impartiality against Italians, Frenchmen, etc., and natives alike. Incidentally, a few days ago a gang of forgers was apprehended in the province of Oran, amongst them their chief, a former Spanish officer; their European agency, it now transpires, is in the capital of Catalonia – Barcelona! Some of the laddies were not arrested and escaped to Spain. This piece of news, and others of a similar kind, derives from Fermé. The latter has received 2 advantageous offers from the French government; firstly, a transfer to New Caledonia where he would, at the same time, be responsible for introducing a new legal system, salary 10,000 frs (he and family to travel there gratis and, on arrival, be given free official accommodation); or, secondly, to Tunis, where he would likewise occupy a higher magisterial rank than here, and under far more favourable conditions. He has been given a certain period in which to make up his mind; will accept one or the other.

From Mr Fermé to the weather is a natural transition, since he freely heaps imprecations on the same. – Since Easter Monday (incl.) I have not missed a single morning stroll, although only yesterday (12th) and today have been spared the caprices of April. Yesterday, bien que nous subissions le léger siroco et, par conséquent, quelques coups de vent, ce fut le maximum du beau temps: à 9 heures le matin (le 12) le temperature à l’ombre fut de 19.5°, et celle au soleil, de 35°. In spite of having gone for a walk in the morning (12 April), I visited Algiers in the afternoon in order to take a look at the Russian ironclad, Peter the Great, which had arrived in the harbour there a few days before.

The official meteorological office has forecast intense atmospheric disturbances for 15-16 April (when there’ll be orage), 19, 21, 25, 27, 29 and 30 April; nevertheless, the weather during the remainder of April will on the whole be fine at the same time it is feared that in May, to make up for the absence of a true Algerian spring (which did not begin till yesterday), summer will arrive all at once and with it unbearable heat. However that may be, I do not, as corpus vile feel inclined to serve as an experimental station for the weather. In view of the altogether abnormal character of the past 4½ months, God knows what Algeria may have in store. Large numbers of shrewd folk (amongst them l’illustre ‘Ranc’) departed from the African shore day before yesterday. I shall only stay until Dr Stephann has declared my left side to be in good order again, apart, of course, from the scar well known to the doctissimi Drs Donkin and Hume, left by an earlier attack of pleurisy. What has been tiresome here so far is the constant recurrence of my cough, even if within moderate limits; withal, much boredom.

Interruption of the most agreeable kind: knocks at the door; Entrez! Madame Rosalie (one of the serving spirits) brings me a letter from you, dear Cacadou, and, from the good Gasçon, a long letter of which the paper, like the envelope, already bears the official stamp: ‘L’Union Nationale’. This time he seems to have pulled it off! Ce n’est pas une de ces entreprises patronées par Mr Ch. Hirsch! On the other hand, to be sure, the prospect of my Cacadou’s departure looms closer! But not just yet, I trust. Also, I regard it as some compensation that Aunty Cacadou should represent so great a gain to Jennychen and her children; anyway, with Paris so close, there’s no need to spend the whole year in London. – Apropos. Has Lafargue sent the next instalment of the article to Petersburg? (I don’t know what became of the first consignment.) It’s most important not to lose the vantage point of Petersburg; it will gain in importance daily! Also for anyone who sends despatches there.

Second interruption: It is 1 o’clock p.m., and I have promised to visit the ‘Jardin du Hamma’ ou ‘Jardin d’Essai’ with Madame Casthelaz, son fils, and one of our other fellow pensionnaires, Madame Claude (of Neufchâtel). We have to be back before dinner (6 o’clock p.m.), later than which every effort at writing never as yet dared upon by me. So no more till tomorrow. Simply by way of a supplement * to the useful knowledge of Cacadou I allow myself to remark, that on that very Hamma took place the landing of 24,000 soldiers under the commandment of Charles V, emperor, (or Carlos I, according to the Spaniards) on 23 October 1541, 8 days later he had to ship the * beaux restes de son armée détruite sur les vaisseaux échappes à la tempete du 26, et ralliés a grand peine par Doria, à Matifou. Ce dernier lieu ou finit la baie d’Alger c. à. d.- le cap Matifouopposite, on the East, to Algiers, is to be espied, par des bonnes lunettes, by myself from Hôtel Victorias Gallery.

Vendredi, 14 April

*I commence this letter at the moment when I have a few lines to be added to the foregoing, that is to say at about 1 o’clock p.m. The day ended yesterday as fine as that of the 12th. Both the evenings 12 and 13 (about 8 hours p. m.) were warm – quite exceptional this – but cool (relatively) at the same time, hence really delightful. This morning the warmth a little more ‘heavy’, and just since two hours the wind blows violently, probably the ‘orage’ predicted yesterday from 14-15.

Yesterday at 1 o’clock p. m. we went down to Inferior Mustapha whence the tram brought us to Jardin Hamma or Jardin d’Essai, which is used for ‘Promenade Publique’ with occasional military music, as ‘pépinière’ for the production and diffusion of the indigenous vegetables, at last for the purpose of scientific botanical experiments and as a garden of ‘acclimatation’. – This all encloses a very large ground, part of which is mountainous, the other belonging to the plain. In order to see more minutely, you would want at least a whole day, and beside being somebody with you a connaisseur, f. i. like M. Fermé’s friend and old Fourieriste, M. Durando, professor of botanics, who is the leader of a section of the ‘Club Alpin Français’ on its regular Sunday excursions. (I very much regretted that my bodily circumstances and the Dr. Stephann’s strict prohibition till now did not yet allow me to share in these excursions, having 3 times [been] invited thereto.)

Well, before entering the Jardin d’Essai’ we took coffee, of course in the free air, a Mauresque ‘café’. The Maure prepared it excellently, we were on a bank. On a rough table, in inclined positions, their legs crossed, half a dozen Maure visitors were delighted in their small ‘cafetières,’ (everyone gets one of his own) and together playing at cards (a conquest this on them of civilisation). Most striking this spectacle: Some of these Maures were dressed pretentiously, even richly, others in, for once I dare call it blouses, sometime of white woollen appearance, now in rags and tatters – but in the eyes of a true Musulman such accidents, good or bad luck, do not distinguish Mahomet’s children. Absolute equality in their social intercourse, not affected; on the contrary, only when demoralized, they become aware of it; as to the hatred against Christians and the hope of an ultimate victory over these infidels, their politicians justly consider this same feeling and practice of absolute equality (not of wealth or position but of personality) a guarantee of keeping up the one, of not giving up the latter.* (Nevertheless, they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement.)

*In regard to the plain part of the Jardin d’Essai I remark only: It is cut by three great longitudinal ‘allées’ of a wonderful beauty; opposite to the principal entry is the ‘alléeof the platenes [platanes] ; then the ‘allée des palmiers’, ended by an oasis of immense 72 ‘palmiers’, limited by the railway and the sea; at last the ‘allée’ of the magnolia and a sort of figues (ficus roxburghi). These three great ‘allées’ are themselves cut by many others crossing them, such as the long ‘allée des bambous’ astonishing, the ‘alléeof ‘palmiers à chanvre’, the ‘dragon[n]iers’, the ‘eucalyptus’ (blue gum of Tasmania), etc., (the latter are of an extraordinarily quick vegetation).

Of course, these sorts of* allées cannot be reproduced in European ‘Jardins d’acclimatation’.

During the afternoon there was a concert of military music in a large open space encircled by plane trees; the conductor, a noncommissioned officer, wore ordinary French uniform, whereas the musicians (common soldiers) wore red, baggy trousers (of oriental cut), white felt boots buttoning up to the bottom of the baggy trousers; on their heads a red fez.

While on the subject of the garden, I did not mention (though some of these were very pleasing to the nose) orange trees, lemon – ditto, almond trees, olive trees, etc.; nor, for that matter, cactuses and aloes which also grow wild (as do wild olives and almonds) in the rough country where we have our abode.

Much though this garden delighted me, I must observe that what is abominable about this and similar excursions is the ubiquitous chalky dust; though I felt well in the afternoon and after coming home and during the night, my cough was nonetheless rather troublesome, thanks to the irritation caused by the dust.

I am expecting Dr Stephann today, but as I cannot put off the despatch of this missive, I will send a report to Fred, later on.

Finally, as Mayer of Swabia used to say, let us take a little look at things from a higher historical perspective. Our nomadic Arabs (who have, in many respects, gone very much to seed while retaining, as a result of their struggle for existence, a number of sterling qualities) have memories of having once produced great philosophers, scholars, etc., which, they think, is why Europeans now despise them for their present ignorance. Hence the following little fable, typical of Arab folklore.

A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. There ensues the following dialogue:

Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life!
And again: The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics?
Ferryman: No!
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life.

Hardly were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth when the wind capsized the boat, precipitating both ferryman and philosopher into the water. Whereupon,

Ferryman shouts: Can you swim?
Philosopher: No!
Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life.

That will tickle your appetite for things Arabic.

With much love and many kisses.

Old Nick
(best compliments to all)