A town at last—its nearness announced by the multiplied ruts of the trail, the cactus hedges, the fig-trees weighed down by dust leaning over ruinous earthen walls. And here are the first houses of the European El-Ksar—neat white Spanish houses on the slope outside the old Arab settlement. Of the Arab town itself, above reed stockades and brown walls, only a minaret and a few flat roofs are visible. Under the walls drowse the usual gregarious Lazaruses; others, temporarily resuscitated, trail their grave-clothes after a line of camels and donkeys toward the olive-gardens outside the town.
The way to Rabat is long and difficult, and there is no time to visit El-Ksar, though its minaret beckons so alluringly above the fruit-orchards; so we stop for luncheon outside the walls, at a canteen with a corrugated iron roof where skinny Spaniards are serving thick purple wine and eggs fried in oil to a party of French soldiers. The heat has suddenly become intolerable, and a flaming wind straight from the south brings in at the door, with a cloud of blue flies, the smell of camels and trampled herbs and the strong spices of the bazaars.
Luncheon over, we hurry on between the cactus hedges, and then plunge back into the waste. Beyond El-Ksar the last hills of the Rif die away, and there is a stretch of wilderness without an outline till the Lesser Atlas begins to rise in the east. Once in the French protectorate the trail improves, but there are still difficult bits; and finally, on a high plateau, the chauffeur stops in a web of criss-cross trails, throws up his hands, and confesses that he has lost his way. The heat is mortal at the moment. For the last hour the red breath of the sirocco has risen from every hollow into which we dipped, now it hangs about us in the open, as if we had caught it in our wheels and it had to pause above us when we paused.
All around is the featureless wild land, palmetto scrub stretching away into eternity. A few yards off rises the inevitable ruined koubba[A] with its fig-tree: in the shade under its crumbling wall the buzz of the flies is like the sound of frying. Farther off, we discern a cluster of huts, and presently some Arab boys and a tall pensive shepherd come hurrying across the scrub. They are full of good-will, and no doubt of information; but our chauffeur speaks no Arabic and the talk dies down into shrugs and head-shakings. The Arabs retire to the shade of the wall, and we decide to start—for anywhere....
[Footnote A: Saint’s tomb. The saint himself is called a marabout.]
The chauffeur turns the crank, but there is no responding quiver. Something has gone wrong; we can’t move, and it is not much comfort to remember that, if we could, we should not know where to go. At least we should be cooler in motion than sitting still under the blinding sky.