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“[A] ripping good yarn.”—Harper’s Magazine
"The revival for the French father of science fiction . . . continues with the first English translation of this short novel, the last Verne published during his lifetime . . . Journalistic explorations of North Africa and wide-eyed discourse about technology are paced with action scenes . . . Clear, readable translation of a minor but prescient adventure novel, with useful annotations, a brief Verne biography, and 44 b&w illustrations from the original French edition." —Kirkus
The Oasis of Gabès
"How much do you know?"
"I know what I heard in the port."
"Were people talking about the ship that's coming to get—coming to take Hadjar away?"
"Yes, to Tunis, where he will go on trial."
"And be sentenced to death?"
"And be sentenced to death."
"Allah will not allow that to happen, Sohar! No! He won't allow it!"
"Sh!" said Sohar suddenly, listening intently as if he heard footsteps on the sand.
Without standing up, he crawled to the entrance of the abandoned marabout in which this conversation was taking place. It was still daylight, but the sun would soon disappear behind the dunes bordering this side of the coast of the Gulf of Gabès. At the beginning of March, twilight does not last long on the thirty-fourth parallel of the northern hemisphere. The solar orb does not approach the horizon obliquely, but appears to fall vertically, like a body obeying the law of gravity.
Sohar stopped, rose, and took a few steps through the doorway, which was scorched by the heat of the sun's rays. In one brief glance he took in the surrounding plain.
To the north, a kilometer and a half away, swelled the verdant treetops of an oasis. To the south stretched the endless band of yellowish shoreline, fringed with foam flung up by the backwash of the risingtide. To the west, a group of dunes stood out against the sky. To the east was the broad expanse of the sea that forms the Gulf of Gabès and that washes the Tunisian coast as it curves south toward Tripolitania.
The light westerly breeze that had cooled the atmosphere during the day had died down as evening fell. No sound came to Sohar's ears. He had thought he heard someone walking near the marabout, a square structure of old white masonry sheltered by an ancient palm tree, but realized he had been mistaken. There was no one, either in the direction of the dunes or in the direction of the beach. He walked all around the little building. There was no one, and no footprints in the sand, except for the ones he and his mother had left in front of the entrance.
Barely a minute had elapsed after Sohar went out when Djemma appeared at the door, worried because she did not see her son coming back. As he came around the corner of the marabout, he waved to her reassuringly.
Djemma was an African woman of the Tuareg tribe, more than sixty-years old, but tall, strong, energetic, and erect in bearing. There was a proud and passionate look in her eyes, which, like those of all women of her ethnic background, were blue. Her white skin appeared yellow under the ochre dye covering her forehead and cheeks. She wore dark clothing, a loose-fitting haik made of wool abundantly provided by the flocks kept by the Hammâma who lived near the sebkha (salt marshes) and chotts (salt lakes) of lower Tunisia. A wide hood covered her thick head of hair, which was only now beginning to turn grey.
Djemma stayed where she was, without moving, until her son joined her. He had seen nothing suspicious nearby, and the silence was broken only by the plaintive song of a few pairs of bouhabibi, or Djerid sparrows, flitting about near the dunes.
Djemma and Sohar went back into the marabout to wait for nightfall, when they would be able to reach Gabès without attracting attention.
The conversation continued.
"Has the ship left La Goulette?"
"Yes, mother. It rounded Cap Bon this morning. It's the cruiser Chanzy."
"Will it get here tonight?"
"Yes, unless it puts in at Sfax. But it will more likely come and anchor off Gabès, where your son—my brother—will be taken aboard."
"Hadjar, Hadjar," murmured the old woman.
Shaking violently with anger and grief, she cried out, "My son, my son! Those foreigners will kill him, and I'll never see him again. And he'll no longer be here to lead the Tuareg in our holy war. No, no, Allah will not allow this to happen!"
As if exhausted by this outburst, Djemma dropped to her knees in a corner of the small room and fell silent.
Sohar had come back and taken up his position at the door, leaning against its frame. He was as still as if he had been made of stone, like one of those statues that sometimes decorate the entrance to a marabout. Not a sound disturbed his immobility. The shadows of the dunes gradually lengthened eastward, as the sun sank lower on the western horizon. To the east of the Gulf of Gabès the first stars were coming out. The slender crescent of the lunar disk, at the beginning of its first quarter, had just slipped behind the last mists of sunset. It would be a calm night, and dark, too, for a curtain of light vapor would hide the stars.
A little after seven, Sohar went back to his mother. "It's time," he said.
"Yes," replied Djemma, "and it's time for Hadjar to be snatched from the hands of those foreigners. He must be out of Gabès prison before sunrise. Tomorrow it will be too late."
"Everything is ready, mother," replied Sohar. "Our comrades are waiting for us. Those in Gabès have planned the escape. Those in the Djerid will act as Hadjar's escort, and before another day dawns they'll be far away in the desert."
"And I'll be with them," declared Djemma. "I won't abandon my son."
"And I'll be with you too," added Sohar. "I won't abandon my brother—or my mother."
Djemma drew him to her and held him close in her arms. Then, adjusting the hood of her haik, she went out.
On their way to Gabès, Sohar walked a few steps ahead of his mother. Instead of following the shoreline, along the swath of sea plants left on the beach by the receding tide, they followed the base of the dunes, where they hoped to cover the kilometer and a half with less likelihood of being seen. The clump of trees at the oasis, almost lost in the deepening gloom, could be seen only vaguely. Not a light shone through the darkness. In those windowless Arab houses, only the inner courtyards receive any daylight, and after nightfall no light escapes from them.
Soon, however, a point of light appeared above the dim silhouette of the town. It was fairly intense, and must have come from the upper part of Gabès, perhaps from the minaret of a mosque, perhaps from the castle that overlooked the town.
But Sohar knew it was coming from the fort. Pointing to the light, he whispered, "The bordj (the fort)."
"Is that the place, Sohar?"
"Yes, mother. That's where they've confined him."
The old woman had stopped. It seemed as if the light had established some kind of communication between her and her son. Perhaps it did not come from the very cell where Hadjar was imprisoned, but it certainly came from the fort to which he had been taken. Djemma had not seen her son since the fearsome leader had fallen into the hands of French soldiers, and she would never see him again unless he escaped that very night from the fate that military justice had in store for him. She stood on the spot as if transfixed, and Sohar had to urge her twice, "Come on, mother. Come on."
They went on their way, along the base of the dunes, which curved around toward the oasis of Gabès with its cluster of villages and houses, the largest settlement on the shore of the gulf. Sohar headed for the part that the soldiers called Coquinville, or Roguetown, a collection of wooden huts inhabited by bazaar merchants (hence its well-deserved name). The village was located near the entrance to the wadi, a stream that winds this way and that through the oasis, in the shade of the palm trees. There stood the bordj, Fort Neuf, from which Hadjar would not emerge until the time came for him to be transferred to prison in Tunis.
It was from this fort that his comrades, after taking every precaution and making every preparation for escape, hoped to free him that night. They had gathered together in the huts of Coquinville, and were waiting for Djemma and her son. But extreme caution was called for, and it was better to avoid meeting anyone as they approached the village.
How anxiously they turned their eyes out to sea, fearful that the cruiser would arrive that evening and take the prisoner aboard before the escape could be carried out. They looked to see whether any white smoke was visible in the gulf, listening for the whinnying sound of a ship's steam engine or the shrill wail of a siren which might mean a ship was coming in to dock. But they saw only the lights of the fishing boats reflected in the Tunisian waters, and no ship's whistle rent the air.
It was not yet eight o'clock when Djemma and her son reached the bank of the wadi. Ten more minutes would bring them to the rendezvous point.
Just as they were about to start out along the right bank, a man, crouching behind the cactuses on the bank, half stood up and asked, "Sohar?"
"Is that you, Ahmet?"
"Yes. And your mother?"
"She's right behind me."
"And we'll follow you," said Djemma.
"Any news?" asked Sohar.
"Nothing," replied Ahmet.
"Are our friends here?"
"They're waiting for you."
"Does anyone in the bordj suspect anything?"
"Not a soul."
"Is Hadjar ready?"
"How did they get to see him?"
"Through Harrig, who was released this morning. He's with our comrades now."
"Let's go," said the old woman, and all three walked up the wadi along its bank.
The direction they were now following made it impossible for them to see the dark mass of the fort through the thick foliage, for the oasis of Gabès is really only a very large palm grove.
Ahmet walked along the path confidently and unerringly. First they would have to pass through Djara, which lies on both sides of the wadi. In this formerly fortified village, which had been in turn Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab, was located the main market of Gabès. At this hour it would still be crowded with people, and Djemma and her son might have some difficulty getting through unnoticed. On the other hand, the streets of these Tunisian oases were not yet lighted by electricity or even by gas. So, except in the vicinity of a few cafés, they would be shrouded in darkness.
Nevertheless, Ahmet was very cautious and circumspect, and he continually reminded Sohar that they could not be too careful. There was a possibility that the prisoner's mother might be known in Gabès, and that her presence might lead to increased vigilance around the fort. Although planned far in advance, carrying out this escape would be difficult, and it was important that nothing arouse the guards' suspicions. For this reason, Ahmet chose to follow roads leading to the area adjacent to the bordj.
Further, there was a great deal of activity in the central part of the oasis as this Sunday evening was drawing to a close. In Africa, as in Europe, the last day of the week is usually a holiday in garrison towns, and especially in French garrison towns. The soldiers are given leave, sit around in the cafés, and return to their barracks late at night. The local inhabitants take part in the general hustle and bustle, especially around the bazaar with its mixture of Italian and Jewish merchants. And this hubbub goes on far into the night.
It was possible, then, that Djemma might not be unknown to the authorities in Gabès. Indeed, since her son's arrest, she had ventured near the bordj more than once, risking her liberty and perhaps even her life. It was well known that she had had a strong influence on Hadjar, the maternal influence being so strong among the Tuareg people. Since she had urged him to revolt, she was quite capable of touching off another rebellion, either to free the prisoner or to avenge him if the military council sent him to his death. Yes, there was every reason to fear that all the tribes would rise at her call and follow her in a holy war. All attempts to find and capture her had failed, as had the many expeditions sent out through this land of sebkha and chotts. With the protection of her devoted people, Djemma had escaped all attempts to put her in prison along with her son.
And yet, here she was in the middle of this oasis, with so many dangers threatening her. She had insisted on joining her comrades who had met in Gabès to carry out the escape plan. If Hadjar managed to elude his watchful guards and get outside the walls of the fort, he and his mother would go back along the road to the marabout. About a kilometer from there, in the densest part of a palm grove, the fugitive would find horses on which to make good his escape. He would be free again, and—who knows?—perhaps make another attempt to lead an uprising against French rule.
Among the groups of Frenchmen and Arabs that they encountered from time to time as they continued toward the bordj, no one had recognized Hadjar's mother under the haik she was wearing. Moreover, Ahmet did his best to warn them when someone was coming, and all three crouched in some dark corner, behind an isolated hut, or under cover of the trees, and went on again after the passersby had gone.
They were no more than three or four steps from the meeting place when a Targui who seemed to be awaiting someone suddenly rushed up to them.
The street (or rather, the road) that angled off toward the bordj was deserted at this moment, and Djemma and her comrades had only to follow it for a few minutes and go up a narrow side street to reach the gourbi, or shack, that was their destination.
The man went straight up to Ahmet and held up his hand to stop them.
"Don't go any farther," he said.
"What's the matter, Horeb?" asked Ahmet, who had recognized the newcomer as a member of his Tuareg tribe.
"Our comrades have left the gourbi."
The old mother stopped, and in a voice filled with anxiety and anger she asked Horeb, "Do those Frenchie dogs suspect something?"
"No, Djemma," he replied, "and neither do the guards at the bordj."
"Then why aren't our comrades still at the gourbi?"
"Because some soldiers on leave came and asked for something to drink, and we didn't want to stay with them. One of them was Nicol, the cavalry sergeant. He knows you, Djemma."
"Yes," she muttered. "He saw me there, at our camp, when my son was captured by his captain. Ah! That captain! If I ever ..."
And from her throat came a sound like the roar of a wild beast.
"Where will we find our comrades?" asked Ahmet.
"Come with me," replied Horeb. Taking the lead, he slipped through a little palm grove and headed toward the fort.
This thicket was deserted at that hour and came to life only on the days when the main market in Gabès was open. There was every chance, then, that they would not meet anyone else between there and the fort, which of course would be impossible to enter. The fact that members of the garrison had been granted Sunday leave was no reason to assume that there would be no one on sentry duty.
In fact, security would be all the tighter while the rebel Hadjar was a prisoner in the fort and until he had been transferred to the cruiser and handed over to military justice.
Walking under cover of the trees, the little group came to the edge of the palm grove.
There was a cluster of some twenty huts at that spot, and a few beams of night were filtering through their narrow openings. The rendezvous point was now no more than a gunshot away.
But hardly had Horeb started along a winding little street when the sound of footsteps and voices made him stop. A dozen soldiers—spahis—were coming toward them, singing and shouting under the influence of the libations of which they had been partaking, too freely perhaps, in the nearby cabarets.
Ahmet thought it best to avoid meeting them, and drew back with the others into a dark recess near the French-Arab school to let them go past.
There was a well there, with a wooden framework over it to hold the winch that raised and lowered the bucket.
In an instant they had all taken refuge behind the coping of the well, which was high enough to hide them completely.
The soldiers kept coming on, then stopped, and one of them shouted, "My God, I'm thirsty."
"Have a drink, then. There's a well here," said Sergeant Nicol.
"What? Water, Sergeant?" exclaimed Corporal Pistache.
"Pray to Mohammed. Perhaps he'll turn the water into wine."
"Ah! If I could be sure of that!"
"You'd convert to Islam?"
"No, Sergeant, of course not. Anyway, since Allah forbids his followers to drink wine, he would never agree to perform a miracle like that for nonbelievers."
"That's logical, Pistache," said the sergeant. "Now, let's get back to our post."
But just as the soldiers were about to follow him, he stopped them.
Two men were coming up the street, and the sergeant recognized them as a captain and a lieutenant from his own regiment.
"Halt," he ordered, and his men raised their hands to their fezes in a salute.
"Well," said the captain, "if it isn't Nicol."
"Captain Hardigan?" replied the sergeant, with a trace of surprise in his voice.
"It is indeed."
"We've just come from Tunis," added Lieutenant Villette.
"We're leaving shortly on an expedition, and you'll be coming with us, Nicol."
"At your service, sir," replied the sergeant, "and ready to follow you wherever you go."
"Of course, of course," said Captain Hardigan. "And how is your old brother?"
"Just fine. Still walking on his four legs, and I make sure they don't have a chance to get rusty."
"Good for you, Nicol. And how about Ace-of-Hearts? Is he still your brother's friend?"
"As much as ever, sir. I wouldn't be surprised if they were twins."
"That would be strange, a dog and a horse!" replied the officer with a laugh. "But don't worry, Nicol, we won't separate them when we leave."
"It would certainly be the death of them if you did, sir."
Just then, there was the sound of a loud gunshot off shore.
"What was that?" asked Lieutenant Villette.
"Probably a canon from the cruiser anchoring in the gulf."
"Coming to get that rogue Hadjar," added the sergeant. "You really got a prize when you captured him, sir."
"You mean when we all captured him," said Captain Hardigan.
"Yes, and the old brother, and Ace-of-Hearts too," exclaimed the sergeant.
Then the two officers continued their way up toward the fort, while Sergeant Nicol and his men went back down toward the lower town of Gabès.
Excerpted from INVASION OF THE SEA by JULES VERNE. Copyright © 2001 by Arthur B. Evans. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Invasion of the Sea,||3|
|Jules Gabriel Verne: A Biography,||251|