Two years ago I was travelling by diligence in the Sahara Desert on the great caravan route, which starts from Beni-Mora and ends, they say, at Tombouctou. For fourteen hours each day we were on the road, and each evening about nine o'clock we stopped at a Bordj, or Travellers' House, ate a hasty meal, threw ourselves down on our gaudy Arab rugs, and slept heavily till the hour before dawn, drugged by fatigue, and by the strong air of the desert. In the late afternoon of the third day of our journeying we drove into a sandstorm. A great wind arose, carrying with it innumerable multitudes of sand grains, which whirled about the diligence and the struggling horses, blotting out the desert as completely as a London fog blots out the street on a November day. The cold became intense, and very soon I began to long for the next halting-place.
"Where do we stop to-night?" I shouted to the French driver, who, with his yellow toque pulled down over his ears, was chirping encouragement to his horses.
"Sidi-Hamdane," he answered, without turning his head. "At the inn of 'Fin Tireur.'"
Three hours later we drew up before a low building, from which a light shone kindly, and I scrambled down stiffly, and lurched into the longed-for shelter.
There was a man in the doorway, a short, sturdy, middle-aged Frenchman, with strong features, a tuft of grey beard, heavy eyebrows, and dark, prominent eyes, with a hot, shining look in them.
"Bon soir, m'sieu," he said.
"Bon soir!," I answered.
This was my host, the innkeeper whom the driver had called "Fin Tireur."
I found out afterwards that he was not only landlord of the desolate inn, but cook, garçon; in fact, the whole personnel. He lived there absolutely alone, and was the only European in this Arab village lost in the great spaces of the Sahara. This information I drew from him while he waited upon me at dinner, which I ate in solitude. My companions of the diligence were Arabs, who had melted away like ghosts into the desolation so soon as the diligence had rolled into the paved courtyard round which the one-storied house was built.
When I had finished dinner I lit a cigar. I was now quite alone in the bare salle-à-manger. The storm was at its height; the sand was driven like hail against the wooden shutters of the windows, and I felt dreary enough. The French driver was no doubt supping in the kitchen with the landlord, perhaps beside a fire, I began to long for company, for warmth, and I resolved to join them. I opened the door, therefore, and peered out into the passage. There was no sound of voices; but I saw a light at a little distance, went towards it, and found myself in a small kitchen, where the landlord was sitting alone by a red wood fire in the midst of his pots and pans, smoking a thin black cigar, and reading a dirty number of the Journal Anti-Juif of Algiers. He put it down politely as I came in.
"You're alone, monsieur," I said.
"Yes, m'sieu. The driver has gone to see to the horses."
I offered him one of my Havanas, which he accepted with alacrity, and drew up with him before the fire.
"You have been living here long, monsieur?"
"Twenty years, m'sieu."
"Twenty years alone in this desert place!"
"Nineteen years alone, m'sieu. Before that I had my little Marie."
"My child, m'sieu. She is buried in the sand behind the inn."
I looked at him in silence. His brown, wrinkled face was calm, but in his prominent eyes there was still the hot shining look I had observed in them when I arrived.
"The palms begin there," he added. "Year by year I have saved what I could, and now I have bought all the palm-trees near where she lies."
He puffed away at his Havana.
"You come from France?" I asked presently.
"From the Midi—I was born at Cassis, near Marseille."
"Don't you ever intend to go back there?"
"Never, m'sieu. Would you have me desert my child?"
"But," I said gently, "she is dead."
"Yes; but I have promised her that her bon papa will lie with her presently for company....