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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


Little streets, quite white, which climb up to clay-formed hills deeply furrowed by the heavy winter rains; between the double row of houses, brilliant in the morning sun, glimpses of sky of a very tender blue; here and there, in the strip of deep shade which lies along the thresholds, white figures crouched upon rush-mats -- indolent outlines, draped with bright colours, or muffled in rough and sombre wool-stuffs; a horseman who passes, bent almost in two in his saddle, the big hat of the South flung back over his shoulders, and encouraging with his heel the graceful trot of his horse -- such is Thagaste as we see it to-day, and such undoubtedly it appeared to the traveller in the days of Augustin.

Like the French town built upon its ruins, the African free-city lay in a sort of plain taken between three round hills. One of them, the highest one, which is now protected by a bordj, must have been defended in old days by a castellum. Full-flowing waters moisten the land. To those coming from the stony regions about Constantine and Setif, or the vast bare plain of the Medjerda, Thagaste gives an impression of freshness and cool. It is a laughing place, full of greenery and running water. To the Africans it offers a picture of those northern countries which they have never seen, with its wooded mountains covered by pines and cork trees and ilex. It presents itself as a land of mountain and forest -- especially forest. It is a hunter's country. Game is plentiful there -- boar, hare, redwing, quail, partridge. In Augustin's time, wild beasts were apparently more numerous in the district than they are to-day. When he compares his adversaries, the Donatists, to roaring lions, he speaks like a man who knows what a lion is.

To the east and west, wide stretches of woodland, rounded hill-summits, streams and torrents which pour through the valleys and glens -- there you have Thagaste and the country round about -- the world, in fact, as it revealed itself to the eyes of the child Augustin. But towards the south the verdure grows sparse; arid mountain-tops appear, crushed down as blunted cones, or jutted in slim Tables of the Law; the sterility of the desert becomes perceptible amid the wealth of vegetation. This full-foliaged land has its harsh and stern localities. The African light, however, softens all that. The deep green of the oaks and pines runs into waves of warm and ever-altering tints which are a caress and a delight for the eye. A man has it thoroughly brought home to him that he is in a land of the sun.

To say the least, it is a country of strongly marked features which affords the strangest contrast with the surrounding districts. This wooded Numidia, with its flowing brooks, its fields where the cattle graze, differs in the highest degree from the Numidia towards Setif -- a wide, desolate plain, where the stubble of the wheat-fields, the sandy steppes, roll away in monotonous undulations to the cloudy barrier of Mount Atlas which closes the horizon. And this rough and melancholy plain in its turn offers a striking contrast with the coast region of Boujeiah and Hippo, which is not unlike the Italian Campania in its mellowness and gaiety. Such clear-cut differences between the various parts of the same province doubtless explain the essential peculiarities of the Numidian character. The bishop Augustin, who carried his pastoral cross from one end to the other of this country, and was its acting and thinking soul, may perhaps have owed to it the contrasts and many-sidedness of his own rich nature.

Of course, Thagaste did not pretend to be a capital. It was a free-town of the second or third order; but its distance from the great centres gave it a certain importance. The neighbouring free-towns, Thubursicum, Thagura, were small. Madaura and Theveste, rather larger, had not perhaps the same commercial importance. Thagaste was placed at the junction of many Roman roads. There the little Augustin, with other children of his age, would have a chance to admire the out-riders and equipages of the Imperial Mail, halted before the inns of the town. What we can be sure of is that Thagaste, then as now, was a town of passage and of traffic, a half-way stopping-place for the southern and coast towns, as well as for those of the Proconsulate and Numidia. And like the present Souk-Ahras, Thagaste must have been above all a market. Bread-stuffs and Numidian wines were bartered for the flocks of the Aures, leather, dates, and the esparto basket-work of the regions of Sahara. The marbles of Simitthu, the citron-wood of which they made precious tables, were doubtless handled there. The neighbouring forests could furnish building materials to the whole country. Thagaste was the great mart of woodland Numidia, the warehouse and the bazaar, where to this day the nomad comes to lay in a stock of provisions, and stares with childish delight at the fine things produced by the inventive talent of the workers who live in towns.

Thus images of plenty and joy surrounded the cradle of Augustin. The smile of Latin beauty welcomed him also from his earliest steps. It is true that Thagaste was not what is called a fine city. The fragments of antiquity which have been unearthed there are of rather inferior workmanship. But how little is needed to give wings to the imagination of an intelligent child! At all events, Thagaste had a bathing-hall paved with mosaics and perhaps ornamented with statues; Augustin used to bathe there with his father. And again, it is probable that, like the neighbouring Thubursicum and other free-cities of the same level, it had its theatre, its forum, its nymph-fountains, perhaps even its amphitheatre. Of all that nothing has been found. Certain inscribed stone tablets, capitals and shafts of columns, a stone with an inscription which belonged to a Catholic church -- that is all which has been discovered up to this present time.

Let us not ask for the impossible. Thagaste had columns -- nay, perhaps a whole street between a double range of columns, as at Thimgad. That would be quite enough to delight the eyes of a little wondering boy. A column, even injured, or scarcely cleansed from wrack and rubbish, has about it something impressive. It is like a free melody singing among the heavy masses of the building. To this hour, in our Algerian villages, the mere sight of a broken column entrances and cheers us -- a white ghost of beauty streaming up from the ruins among the modern hovels.

There were columns at Thagaste.

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