Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XVII

The Desert

Gaza is upon the verge of the Desert, to which it stands in the same relation as a seaport to the sea. It is there that you CHARTER your camels (“the ships of the Desert”), and lay in your stores for the voyage.

These preparations kept me in the town for some days. Disliking restraint, I declined making myself the guest of the Governor (as it is usual and proper to do), but took up my quarters at the caravanserai, or “khan,” as they call it in that part of Asia.

Dthemetri had to make the arrangements for my journey, and in order to arm himself with sufficient authority for doing all that was required, he found it necessary to put himself in communication with the Governor. The result of this diplomatic intercourse was that the Governor, with his train of attendants, came to me one day at my caravanserai, and formally complained that Dthemetri had grossly insulted him. I was shocked at this, for the man was always attentive and civil to me, and I was disgusted at the idea of his having been rewarded with insult. Dthemetri was present when the complaint was made, and I angrily asked him whether it was true that he had really insulted the Governor, and what the deuce he meant by it. This I asked with the full certainty that Dthemetri, as a matter of course, would deny the charge, would swear that a “wrong construction had been put upon his words, and that nothing was further from his thoughts,” &c. &c., after the manner of the parliamentary people, but to my surprise he very plainly answered that he certainly HAD insulted the Governor, and that rather grossly, but, he said, it was quite necessary to do this in order to “strike terror and inspire respect.” “Terror and respect! What on earth do you mean by that nonsense?” — “Yes, but without striking terror and inspiring respect, he (Dthemetri) would never be able to force on the arrangements for my journey, and vossignoria would be kept at Gaza for a month!” This would have been awkward, and certainly I could not deny that poor Dthemetri had succeeded in his odd plan of inspiring respect, for at the very time that this explanation was going on in Italian the Governor seemed more than ever, and more anxiously, disposed to overwhelm me with assurances of goodwill, and proffers of his best services. All this kindness, or promise of kindness, I naturally received with courtesy — a courtesy that greatly perturbed Dthemetri, for he evidently feared that my civility would undo all the good that his insults had achieved.

You will find, I think, that one of the greatest draw-backs to the pleasure of travelling in Asia is the being obliged, more or less, to make your way by bullying. It is true that your own lips are not soiled by the utterance of all the mean words that are spoken for you, and that you don’t even know of the sham threats, and the false promises, and the vainglorious boasts, put forth by your dragoman; but now and then there happens some incident of the sort which I have just been mentioning, which forces you to believe, or suspect, that your dragoman is habitually fighting your battles for you in a way that you can hardly bear to think of.

A caravanserai is not ill adapted to the purposes for which it is meant. It forms the four sides of a large quadrangular court. The ground floor is used for warehouses, the first floor for guests, and the open court for the temporary reception of the camels, as well as for the loading and unloading of their burthens, and the transaction of mercantile business generally. The apartments used for the guests are small cells opening into a corridor, which runs round the four sides of the court.

Whilst I lay near the opening of my cell looking down into the court below, there arrived from the Desert a caravan, that is, a large assemblage of travellers. It consisted chiefly of Moldavian pilgrims, who to make their good work even more than complete had begun by visiting the shrine of the Virgin in Egypt, and were now going on to Jerusalem. They had been overtaken in the Desert by a gale of wind, which so drove the sand and raised up such mountains before them, that their journey had been terribly perplexed and obstructed, and their provisions (including water, the most precious of all) had been exhausted long before they reached the end of their toilsome march. They were sadly wayworn. The arrival of the caravan drew many and various groups into the court. There was the Moldavian pilgrim with his sable dress and cap of fur and heavy masses of bushy hair; the Turk, with his various and brilliant garments; the Arab, superbly stalking under his striped blanket, that hung like royalty upon his stately form; the jetty Ethiopian in his slavish frock; the sleek, smooth-faced scribe with his comely pelisse, and his silver ink-box stuck in like a dagger at his girdle. And mingled with these were the camels, some standing, some kneeling and being unladen, some twisting round their long necks, and gently stealing the straw from out of their own pack-saddles.

In a couple of days I was ready to start. The way of providing for the passage of the Desert is this: there is an agent in the town who keeps himself in communication with some of the desert Arabs that are hovering within a day’s journey of the place. A party of these upon being guaranteed against seizure or other ill-treatment at the hands of the Governor come into the town, bringing with them the number of camels which you require, and then they stipulate for a certain sum to take you to the place of your destination in a given time. The agreement which they thus enter into includes a safe conduct through their country as well as the hire of the camels. According to the contract made with me I was to reach Cairo within ten days from the commencement of the journey. I had four camels, one for my baggage, one for each of my servants, and one for myself. Four Arabs, the owners of the camels, came with me on foot. My stores were a small soldier’s tent, two bags of dried bread brought from the convent at Jerusalem, and a couple of bottles of wine from the same source, two goat-skins filled with water, tea, sugar, a cold tongue, and (of all things in the world) a jar of Irish butter which Mysseri had purchased from some merchant. There was also a small sack of charcoal, for the greater part of the Desert through which we were to pass is destitute of fuel.

The camel kneels to receive her load, and for a while she will allow the packing to go on with silent resignation; but when she begins to suspect that her master is putting more than a just burthen upon her poor hump she turns round her supple neck and looks sadly upon the increasing load, and then gently remonstrates against the wrong with the sigh of a patient wife. If sighs will not move you, she can weep. You soon learn to pity, and soon to love, her for the sake of her gentle and womanish ways.

You cannot, of course, put an English or any other riding saddle upon the back of the camel, but your quilt or carpet, or whatever you carry for the purpose of lying on at night, is folded and fastened on to the pack-saddle upon the top of the hump, and on this you ride, or rather sit. You sit as a man sits on a chair when he sits astride and faces the back of it. I made an improvement on this plan. I had my English stirrups strapped on to the cross-bars of the pack-saddle, and thus by gaining rest for my dangling legs, and gaining too the power of varying my position more easily than I could otherwise have done, I added very much to my comfort. Don’t forget to do as I did.

The camel, like the elephant, is one of the old-fashioned sort of animals that still walk along upon the (now nearly exploded) plan of the ancient beasts that lived before the Flood. She moves forward both her near legs at the same time, and then awkwardly swings round her off shoulder and haunch so as to repeat the manoeuvre on that side. Her pace, therefore, is an odd, disjointed and disjoining, sort of movement that is rather disagreeable at first, but you soon grow reconciled to it. The height to which you are raised is of great advantage to you in passing the burning sands of the Desert, for the air at such a distance from the ground is much cooler and more lively than that which circulates beneath.

For several miles beyond Gaza the land, which had been plentifully watered by the rains of the last week, was covered with rich verdure, and thickly jewelled with meadow flowers so fresh and fragrant, that I began to grow almost uneasy, to fancy that the very Desert was receding before me, and that the long-desired adventure of passing its “burning sands” was to end in a mere ride across a field. But as I advanced the true character of the country began to display itself with sufficient clearness to dispel my apprehensions, and before the close of my first day’s journey I had the gratification of finding that I was surrounded on all sides by a tract of real sand, and had nothing at all to complain of except that there peeped forth at intervals a few isolated blades of grass, and many of those stunted shrubs which are the accustomed food of the camel.

Before sunset I came up with an encampment of Arabs (the encampment from which my camels had been brought), and my tent was pitched amongst theirs. I was now amongst the true Bedouins. Almost every man of this race closely resembles his brethren. Almost every man has large and finely-formed features; but his face is so thoroughly stripped of flesh, and the white folds from his headgear fall down by his haggard cheeks so much in the burial fashion, that he looks quite sad and ghastly. His large dark orbs roll slowly and solemnly over the white of his deep-set eyes; his countenance shows painful thought and long-suffering, the suffering of one fallen from a high estate. His gait is strangely majestic, and he marches along with his simple blanket as though he were wearing the purple. His common talk is a series of piercing screams and cries, 29 more painful to the ear than the most excruciating fine music that I ever endured.

The Bedouin women are not treasured up like the wives and daughters of other Orientals, and indeed they seemed almost entirely free from the restraints imposed by jealousy. The feint which they made of concealing their faces from me was always slight. They never, I think, wore the yashmak properly fixed. When they first saw me they used to hold up a part of their drapery with one hand across their faces, but they seldom persevered very steadily in subjecting me to this privation. Unhappy beings! they were sadly plain. The awful haggardness that gave something of character to the faces of the men was sheer ugliness in the poor women. It is a great shame, but the truth is that, except when we refer to the beautiful devotion of the mother to her child, all the fine things we say and think about woman apply only to those who are tolerably good-looking or graceful. These Arab women were so plain and clumsy, that they seemed to me to be fit for nothing but another and a better world. They may have been good women enough so far as relates to the exercise of the minor virtues, but they had so grossly neglected the prime duty of looking pretty in this transitory life, that I could not at all forgive them. They seemed to feel the weight of their guilt, and to be truly and humbly penitent. I had the complete command of their affections, for at any moment I could make their young hearts bound and their old hearts jump by offering a handful of tobacco, and yet, believe me, it was not in the first soiree that my store of Latakia was exhausted.

The Bedouin women have no religion. This is partly the cause of their clumsiness. Perhaps if from Christian girls they would learn how to pray, their souls might become more gentle, and their limbs be clothed with grace. You who are going into their country have a direct personal interest in knowing something about “Arab hospitality”; but the deuce of it is, that the poor fellows with whom I have happened to pitch my tent were scarcely ever in a condition to exercise that magnanimous virtue with much eclat. Indeed, Mysseri’s canteen generally enabled me to outdo my hosts in the matter of entertainment. They were always courteous, however, and were never backward in offering me the youart, a kind of whey, which is the principal delicacy to be found amongst the wandering tribes.

Practically, I think, Childe Harold would have found it a dreadful bore to make “the Desert his dwelling-place,” for at all events, if he adopted the life of the Arabs he would have tasted no solitude. The tents are partitioned, not so as to divide the Childe and the “fair spirit” who is his “minister” from the rest of the world, but so as to separate the twenty or thirty brown men that sit screaming in the one compartment from the fifty or sixty brown women and children that scream and squeak in the other. If you adopt the Arab life for the sake of seclusion you will be horribly disappointed, for you will find yourself in perpetual contact with a mass of hot fellow-creatures. It is true that all who are inmates of the same tent are related to each other, but I am not quite sure that that circumstance adds much to the charm of such a life. At all events, before you finally determine to become an Arab try a gentle experiment. Take one of those small, shabby houses in May Fair, and shut yourself up in it with forty or fifty shrill cousins for a couple of weeks in July.

In passing the Desert you will find your Arabs wanting to start and to rest at all sorts of odd times. They like, for instance, to be off at one in the morning, and to rest during the whole of the afternoon. You must not give way to their wishes in this respect. I tried their plan once, and found it very harassing and unwholesome. An ordinary tent can give you very little protection against heat, for the fire strikes fiercely through single canvas, and you soon find that whilst you lie crouching and striving to hide yourself from the blazing face of the sun, his power is harder to bear than it is where you boldly defy him from the airy heights of your camel.

It had been arranged with my Arabs that they were to bring with them all the food which they would want for themselves during the passage of the Desert, but as we rested at the end of the first day’s journey by the side of an Arab encampment, my camel men found all that they required for that night in the tents of their own brethren. On the evening of the second day, however, just before we encamped for the night, my four Arabs came to Dthemetri, and formally announced that they had not brought with them one atom of food, and that they looked entirely to my supplies for their daily bread. This was awkward intelligence. We were now just two days deep in the Desert, and I had brought with me no more bread than might be reasonably required for myself and my European attendants. I believed at the moment (for it seemed likely enough) that the men had really mistaken the terms of the arrangement, and feeling that the bore of being put upon half-rations would be a less evil (and even to myself a less inconvenience) than the starvation of my Arabs, I at once told Dthemetri to assure them that my bread should be equally shared with all. Dthemetri, however, did not approve of this concession; he assured me quite positively that the Arabs thoroughly understood the agreement, and that if they were now without food they had wilfully brought themselves into this strait for the wretched purpose of bettering their bargain by the value of a few paras’ worth of bread. This suggestion made me look at the affair in a new light. I should have been glad enough to put up with the slight privation to which my concession would subject me, and could have borne to witness the semi-starvation of poor Dthemetri with a fine, philosophical calm, but it seemed to me that the scheme, if scheme it were, had something of audacity in it, and was well enough calculated to try the extent of my softness. I well knew the danger of allowing such a trial to result in a conclusion that I was one who might be easily managed; and therefore, after thoroughly satisfying myself from Dthemetri’s clear and repeated assertions that the Arabs had really understood the arrangement, I determined that they should not now violate it by taking advantage of my position in the midst of their big Desert, so I desired Dthemetri to tell them that they should touch no bread of mine. We stopped, and the tent was pitched. The Arabs came to me, and prayed loudly for bread. I refused them.

“Then we die!”

“God’s will be done!”

I gave the Arabs to understand that I regretted their perishing by hunger, but that I should bear this calmly, like any other misfortune not my own, that, in short, I was happily resigned to THEIR fate. The men would have talked a great deal, but they were under the disadvantage of addressing me through a hostile interpreter; they looked hard upon my face, but they found no hope there; so at last they retired as they pretended, to lay them down and die.

In about ten minutes from this time I found that the Arabs were busily cooking their bread! Their pretence of having brought no food was false, and was only invented for the purpose of saving it. They had a good bag of meal, which they had contrived to stow away under the baggage upon one of the camels in such a way as to escape notice. In Europe the detection of a scheme like this would have occasioned a disagreeable feeling between the master and the delinquent, but you would no more recoil from an Oriental on account of a matter of this sort, than in England you would reject a horse that had tried, and failed, to throw you. Indeed, I felt quite good-humouredly towards my Arabs, because they had so woefully failed in their wretched attempt, and because, as it turned out, I had done what was right. They too, poor fellows, evidently began to like me immensely, on account of the hard-heartedness which had enabled me to baffle their scheme.

The Arabs adhere to those ancestral principles of bread-baking which have been sanctioned by the experience of ages. The very first baker of bread that ever lived must have done his work exactly as the Arab does at this day. He takes some meal and holds it out in the hollow of his hands, whilst his comrade pours over it a few drops of water; he then mashes up the moistened flour into a paste, which he pulls into small pieces, and thrusts into the embers. His way of baking exactly resembles the craft or mystery of roasting chestnuts as practised by children; there is the same prudence and circumspection in choosing a good berth for the morsel, the same enterprise and self-sacrificing valour in pulling it out with the fingers.

The manner of my daily march was this. At about an hour before dawn I rose and made the most of about a pint of water, which I allowed myself for washing. Then I breakfasted upon tea and bread. As soon as the beasts were loaded I mounted my camel and pressed forward. My poor Arabs, being on foot, would sometimes moan with fatigue and pray for rest; but I was anxious to enable them to perform their contract for bringing me to Cairo within the stipulated time, and I did not therefore allow a halt until the evening came. About midday, or soon after, Mysseri used to bring up his camel alongside of mine, and supply me with a piece of bread softened in water (for it was dried hard like board), and also (as long as it lasted) with a piece of the tongue; after this there came into my hand (how well I remember it) the little tin cup half-filled with wine and water.

As long as you are journeying in the interior of the Desert you have no particular point to make for as your resting-place. The endless sands yield nothing but small stunted shrubs; even these fail after the first two or three days, and from that time you pass over broad plains, you pass over newly-reared hills, you pass through valleys that the storm of the last week has dug, and the hills and the valleys are sand, sand, sand, still sand, and only sand, and sand and sand again. The earth is so samely that your eyes turn towards heaven — towards heaven, I mean, in the sense of sky. You look to the sun, for he is your task-master, and by him you know the measure of the work that you have done, and the measure of the work that remains for you to do. He comes when you strike your tent in the early morning, and then, for the first hour of the day as you move forward on your camel, he stands at your near side and makes you know that the whole day’s toil is before you; then for a while, and a long while, you see him no more, for you are veiled and shrouded, and dare not look upon the greatness of his glory, but you know where he strides overhead by the touch of his flaming sword. No words are spoken, but your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, your skin glows, your shoulders ache, and for sights you see the pattern and the web of the silk that veils your eyes and the glare of the outer light. Time labours on; your skin glows and your shoulders ache, your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, and you see the same pattern in the silk, and the same glare of light beyond, but conquering Time marches on, and by-and-by the descending sun has compassed the heaven, and now softly touches your right arm, and throws your lank shadow over the sand right along on the way to Persia. Then again you look upon his face, for his power is all veiled in his beauty, and the redness of flames has become the redness of roses; the fair, wavy cloud that fled in the morning now comes to his sight once more, comes blushing, yet still comes on, comes burning with blushes, yet hastens and clings to his side.

Then arrives your time for resting. The world about you is all your own, and there, where you will, you pitch your solitary tent; there is no living thing to dispute your choice. When at last the spot had been fixed upon and we came to a halt, one of the Arabs would touch the chest of my camel and utter at the same time a peculiar gurgling sound. The beast instantly understood and obeyed the sign, and slowly sunk under me till she brought her body to a level with the ground, then gladly enough I alighted. The rest of the camels were unloaded and turned loose to browse upon the shrubs of the desert, where shrubs there were, or where these failed, to wait for the small quantity of food that was allowed them out of our stores.

My servants, helped by the Arabs, busied themselves in pitching the tent and kindling the fire. Whilst this was doing I used to walk away towards the east, confiding in the print of my foot as a guide for my return. Apart from the cheering voices of my attendants I could better know and feel the loneliness of the Desert. The influence of such scenes, however, was not of a softening kind, but filled me rather with a sort of childish exultation in the self-sufficiency which enabled me to stand thus alone in the wideness of Asia — a short-lived pride, for wherever man wanders he still remains tethered by the chain that links him to his kind; and so when the night closed around me I began to return, to return, as it were, to my own gate. Reaching at last some high ground I could see, and see with delight, the fire of our small encampment, and when at last I regained the spot it seemed to me a very home that had sprung up for me in the midst of these solitudes. My Arabs were busy with their bread; Mysseri rattling tea-cups; the little kettle, with her odd old-maidish looks, sat humming away old songs about England; and two or three yards from the fire my tent stood prim and tight, with open portal, and with welcoming look, like “the old arm-chair” of our lyrist’s “sweet Lady Anne.”

At the beginning of my journey the night breeze blew coldly; when that happened, the dry sand was heaped up outside round the skirts of the tent, and so the wind, that everywhere else could sweep as he listed along those dreary plains, was forced to turn aside in his course and make way, as he ought, for the Englishman. Then within my tent there were heaps of luxuries — dining-rooms, dressing-rooms, libraries, bedrooms, drawing-rooms, oratories, all crowded into the space of a hearthrug. The first night, I remember, with my books and maps about me, I wanted light; they brought me a taper, and immediately from out of the silent Desert there rushed in a flood of life unseen before. Monsters of moths, of all shapes and hues, that never before perhaps had looked upon the shining of a flame, now madly thronged into my tent, and dashed through the fire of the candle till they fairly extinguished it with their burning limbs. Those who had failed in attaining this martyrdom suddenly became serious, and clung despondingly to the canvas.

By-and-by there was brought to me the fragrant tea and big masses of scorched and scorching toast, and the butter that had come all the way to me in this Desert of Asia from out of that poor, dear, starving Ireland. I feasted like a king, like four kings, like a boy in the fourth form.

When the cold, sullen morning dawned, and my people began to load the camels, I always felt loth to give back to the waste this little spot of ground that had glowed for a while with the cheerfulness of a human dwelling. One by one the cloaks, the saddles, the baggage, the hundred things that strewed the ground and made it look so familiar — all these were taken away and laid upon the camels. A speck in the broad tracts of Asia remained still impressed with the mark of patent portmanteaus and the heels of London boots; the embers of the fire lay black and cold upon the sand, and these were the signs we left.

My tent was spared to the last, but when all else was ready for the start then came its fall; the pegs were drawn, the canvas shivered, and in less than a minute there was nothing that remained of my genial home but only a pole and a bundle. The encroaching Englishman was off, and instant upon the fall of the canvas, like an owner who had waited and watched, the genius of the Desert stalked in.

To servants, as I suppose of any other Europeans not much accustomed to amuse themselves by fancy or memory, it often happens that after a few days journeying the loneliness of the Desert will become frightfully oppressive. Upon my poor fellows the access of melancholy came heavy, and all at once, as a blow from above; they bent their necks, and bore it as best they could, but their joy was great on the fifth day when we came to an oasis called Gatieh, for here we found encamped a caravan (that is, an assemblage of travellers) from Cairo. The Orientals living in cities never pass the Desert except in this way; many will wait for weeks, and even for months, until a sufficient number of persons can be found ready to undertake the journey at the same time — until the flock of sheep is big enough to fancy itself a match for wolves. They could not, I think, really secure themselves against any serious danger by this contrivance, for though they have arms, they are so little accustomed to use them, and so utterly unorganised, that they never could make good their resistance to robbers of the slightest respectability. It is not of the Bedouins that such travellers are afraid, for the safe conduct granted by the chief of the ruling tribe is never, I believe, violated, but it is said that there are deserters and scamps of various sorts who hover about the skirts of the Desert, particularly on the Cairo side, and are anxious to succeed to the property of any poor devils whom they may find more weak and defenceless than themselves.

These people from Cairo professed to be amazed at the ludicrous disproportion between their numerical forces and mine. They could not understand, and they wanted to know, by what strange privilege it is that an Englishman with a brace of pistols and a couple of servants rides safely across the Desert, whilst they, the natives of the neighbouring cities, are forced to travel in troops, or rather in herds. One of them got a few minutes of private conversation with Dthemetri, and ventured to ask him anxiously whether the English did not travel under the protection of evil demons. I had previously known (from Methley, I think, who had travelled in Persia) that this notion, so conducive to the safety of our countrymen, is generally prevalent amongst Orientals. It owes its origin, partly to the strong wilfulness of the English gentleman (which not being backed by any visible authority, either civil or military, seems perfectly superhuman to the soft Asiatic), but partly too to the magic of the banking system, by force of which the wealthy traveller will make all his journeys without carrying a handful of coin, and yet when he arrives at a city will rain down showers of gold. The theory is, that the English traveller has committed some sin against God and his conscience, and that for this the evil spirit has hold of him, and drives him from his home like a victim of the old Grecian furies, and forces him to travel over countries far and strange, and most chiefly over deserts and desolate places, and to stand upon the sites of cities that once were and are now no more, and to grope among the tombs of dead men. Often enough there is something of truth in this notion; often enough the wandering Englishman is guilty (if guilt it be) of some pride or ambition, big or small, imperial or parochial, which being offended has made the lone place more tolerable than ballrooms to him, a sinner.

I can understand the sort of amazement of the Orientals at the scantiness of the retinue with which an Englishman passes the Desert, for I was somewhat struck myself when I saw one of my countrymen making his way across the wilderness in this simple style. At first there was a mere moving speck on the horizon. My party of course became all alive with excitement, and there were many surmises. Soon it appeared that three laden camels were approaching, and that two of them carried riders. In a little while we saw that one of the riders wore the European dress, and at last the travellers were pronounced to be an English gentleman and his servant. By their side there were a couple, I think, of Arabs on foot, and this was the whole party.

You, you love sailing; in returning from a cruise to the English coast you see often enough a fisherman’s humble boat far away from all shores, with an ugly black sky above and an angry sea beneath. You watch the grizzly old man at the helm carrying his craft with strange skill through the turmoil of waters, and the boy, supple-limbed, yet weather-worn already, and with steady eyes that look through the blast, you see him understanding commandments from the jerk of his father’s white eyebrow, now belaying and now letting go, now scrunching himself down into mere ballast, or baling out death with a pipkin. Stale enough is the sight, and yet when I see it I always stare anew, and with a kind of Titanic exultation, because that a poor boat with the brain of a man and the hands of a boy on board can match herself so bravely against black heaven and ocean. Well, so when you have travelled for days and days over an Eastern desert without meeting the likeness of a human being, and then at last see an English shooting-jacket and his servant come listlessly slouching along from out of the forward horizon, you stare at the wide unproportion between this slender company and the boundless plains of sand through which they are keeping their way.

This Englishman, as I afterwards found, was a military man returning to his country from India, and crossing the Desert at this part in order to go through Palestine. As for me, I had come pretty straight from England, and so here we met in the wilderness at about half-way from our respective starting-points. As we approached each other it became with me a question whether we should speak. I thought it likely that the stranger would accost me, and in the event of his doing so I was quite ready to be as sociable and chatty as I could be according to my nature; but still I could not think of anything particular that I had to say to him. Of course, among civilised people the not having anything to say is no excuse at all for not speaking, but I was shy and indolent, and I felt no great wish to stop and talk like a morning visitor in the midst of those broad solitudes. The traveller perhaps felt as I did, for except that we lifted our hands to our caps and waved our arms in courtesy, we passed each other as if we had passed in Bond Street. Our attendants, however, were not to be cheated of the delight that they felt in speaking to new listeners and hearing fresh voices once more. The masters, therefore, had no sooner passed each other than their respective servants quietly stopped and entered into conversation. As soon as my camel found that her companions were not following her she caught the social feeling and refused to go on. I felt the absurdity of the situation, and determined to accost the stranger if only to avoid the awkwardness of remaining stuck fast in the Desert whilst our servants were amusing themselves. When with this intent I turned round my camel I found that the gallant officer who had passed me by about thirty or forty yards was exactly in the same predicament as myself. I put my now willing camel in motion and rode up towards the stranger, who seeing this followed my example and came forward to meet me. He was the first to speak. He was much too courteous to address me as if he admitted the possibility of my wishing to accost him from any feeling of mere sociability or civilian-like love of vain talk. On the contrary, he at once attributed my advances to a laudable wish of acquiring statistical information, and accordingly, when we got within speaking distance, he said, “I dare say you wish to know how the plague is going on at Cairo?” And then he went on to say, he regretted that his information did not enable him to give me in numbers a perfectly accurate statement of the daily deaths. He afterwards talked pleasantly enough upon other and less ghastly subjects. I thought him manly and intelligent, a worthy one of the few thousand strong Englishmen to whom the empire of India is committed.

The night after the meeting with the people of the caravan, Dthemetri, alarmed by their warnings, took upon himself to keep watch all night in the tent. No robbers came except a jackal, that poked his nose into my tent from some motive of rational curiosity. Dthemetri did not shoot him for fear of waking me. These brutes swarm in every part of Syria, and there were many of them even in the midst of the void sands, that would seem to give such poor promise of food. I can hardly tell what prey they could be hoping for, unless it were that they might find now and then the carcass of some camel that had died on the journey. They do not marshal themselves into great packs like the wild dogs of Eastern cities, but follow their prey in families, like the place-hunters of Europe. Their voices are frightfully like to the shouts and cries of human beings. If you lie awake in your tent at night you are almost continually hearing some hungry family as it sweeps along in full cry. You hear the exulting scream with which the sagacious dam first winds the carrion, and the shrill response of the unanimous cubs as they sniff the tainted air, “Wha! wha! wha! wha! wha! wha! Whose gift is it in, mamma?”

Once during this passage my Arabs lost their way among the hills of loose sand that surrounded us, but after a while we were lucky enough to recover our right line of march. The same day we fell in with a Sheik, the head of a family, that actually dwells at no great distance from this part of the Desert during nine months of the year. The man carried a matchlock, of which he was very proud. We stopped and sat down and rested awhile for the sake of a little talk. There was much that I should have liked to ask this man, but he could not understand Dthemetri’s language, and the process of getting at his knowledge by double interpretation through my Arabs was unsatisfactory. I discovered, however (and my Arabs knew of that fact), that this man and his family lived habitually for nine months of the year without touching or seeing either bread or water. The stunted shrub growing at intervals through the sand in this part of the Desert enables the camel mares to yield a little milk, which furnishes the sole food and drink of their owner and his people. During the other three months (the hottest of the months, I suppose) even this resource fails, and then the Sheik and his people are forced to pass into another district. You would ask me why the man should not remain always in that district which supplies him with water during three months of the year, but I don’t know enough of Arab politics to answer the question. The Sheik was not a good specimen of the effect produced by the diet to which he is subjected. He was very small, very spare, and sadly shrivelled, a poor, over-roasted snipe, a mere cinder of a man. I made him sit down by my side, and gave him a piece of bread and a cup of water from out of my goat-skins. This was not very tempting drink to look at, for it had become turbid, and was deeply reddened by some colouring matter contained in the skins, but it kept its sweetness, and tasted like a strong decoction of russia leather. The Sheik sipped this, drop by drop, with ineffable relish, and rolled his eyes solemnly round between every draught, as though the drink were the drink of the Prophet, and had come from the seventh heaven.

An inquiry about distances led to the discovery that this Sheik had never heard of the division of time into hours; my Arabs themselves, I think, were rather surprised at this.

About this part of my journey I saw the likeness of a fresh-water lake. I saw, as it seemed, a broad sheet of calm water, that stretched far and fair towards the south, stretching deep into winding creeks, and hemmed in by jutting promontories, and shelving smooth off towards the shallow side. On its bosom the reflected fire of the sun lay playing, and seeming to float upon waters deep and still.

Though I knew of the cheat, it was not till the spongy foot of my camel had almost trodden in the seeming waters that I could undeceive my eyes, for the shore-line was quite true and natural. I soon saw the cause of the phantasm. A sheet of water heavily impregnated with salts had filled this great hollow, and when dried up by evaporation had left a white saline deposit, that exactly marked the space which the waters had covered, and thus sketched a good shore-line. The minute crystals of the salt sparkled in the sun, and so looked like the face of a lake that is calm and smooth.

The pace of the camel is irksome, and makes your shoulders and loins ache from the peculiar way in which you are obliged to suit yourself to the movements of the beast, but you soon of course become inured to this, and after the first two days this way of travelling became so familiar to me, that (poor sleeper as I am) I now and then slumbered for some moments together on the back of my camel. On the fifth day of my journey the air above lay dead, and all the whole earth that I could reach with my utmost sight and keenest listening was still and lifeless as some dispeopled and forgotten world that rolls round and round in the heavens through wasted floods of light. The sun growing fiercer and fiercer shone down more mightily now than ever on me he shone before, and as I dropped my head under his fire, and closed my eyes against the glare that surrounded me, I slowly fell asleep, for how many minutes or moments I cannot tell, but after a while I was gently awakened by a peal of church bells, my native bells, the innocent bells of Marlen, that never before sent forth their music beyond the Blaygon hills! My first idea naturally was, that I still remained fast under the power of a dream. I roused myself and drew aside the silk that covered my eyes, and plunged my bare face into the light. Then at least I was well enough wakened, but still those old Marlen bells rung on, not ringing for joy, but properly, prosily, steadily, merrily ringing “for church.” After a while the sound died away slowly. It happened that neither I nor any of my party had a watch by which to measure the exact time of its lasting, but it seemed to me that about ten minutes had passed before the bells ceased. I attributed the effect to the great heat of the sun, the perfect dryness of the clear air through which I moved, and the deep stillness of all around me. It seemed to me that these causes, by occasioning a great tension, and consequent susceptibility, of the hearing organs had rendered them liable to tingle under the passing touch of some mere memory that must have swept across my brain in a moment of sleep. Since my return to England it has been told me that like sounds have been heard at sea, and that the sailor becalmed under a vertical sun in the midst of the wide ocean has listened in trembling wonder to the chime of his own village bells.

At this time I kept a poor shabby pretence of a journal, which just enabled me to know the day of the month and the week according to the European calendar, and when in my tent at night I got out my pocket-book I found that the day was Sunday, and roughly allowing for the difference of time in this longitude, I concluded that at the moment of my hearing that strange peal the church-going bells of Marlen must have been actually calling the prim congregation of the parish to morning prayer. The coincidence amused me faintly, but I could not pluck up the least hope that the effect which I had experienced was anything other than an illusion, an illusion liable to be explained (as every illusion is in these days) by some of the philosophers who guess at Nature’s riddles. It would have been sweeter to believe that my kneeling mother by some pious enchantment had asked, and found, this spell to rouse me from my scandalous forgetfulness of God’s holy day, but my fancy was too weak to carry a faith like that. Indeed, the vale through which the bells of Marlen send their song is a highly respectable vale, and its people (save one, two, or three) are wholly unaddicted to the practice of magical arts.

After the fifth day of my journey I no longer travelled over shifting hills, but came upon a dead level, a dead level bed of sand, quite hard, and studded with small shining pebbles.

The heat grew fierce; there was no valley nor hollow, no hill, no mound, no shadow of hill nor of mound, by which I could mark the way I was making. Hour by hour I advanced, and saw no change — I was still the very centre of a round horizon; hour by hour I advanced, and still there was the same, and the same, and the same — the same circle of flaming sky — the same circle of sand still glaring with light and fire. Over all the heaven above, over all the earth beneath, there was no visible power that could balk the fierce will of the sun: “he rejoiced as a strong man to run a race; his going forth was from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it; and there was nothing hid from the heat thereof.” From pole to pole, and from the east to the west, he brandished his fiery sceptre as though he had usurped all heaven and earth. As he bid the soft Persian in ancient times, so now, and fiercely too, he bid me bow down and worship him; so now in his pride he seemed to command me, and say, “Thou shalt have none other gods but me.” I was all alone before him. There were these two pitted together, and face to face — the mighty sun for one, and for the other this poor, pale, solitary self of mine, that I always carry about with me.

But on the eighth day, and before I had yet turned away from Jehovah for the glittering god of the Persians, there appeared a dark line upon the edge of the forward horizon, and soon the line deepened into a delicate fringe, that sparkled here and there as though it were sewn with diamonds. There, then, before me were the gardens and the minarets of Egypt and the mighty works of the Nile, and I (the eternal Ego that I am!) — I had lived to see, and I saw them.

When evening came I was still within the confines of the Desert, and my tent was pitched as usual; but one of my Arabs stalked away rapidly towards the west, without telling me of the errand on which he was bent. After a while he returned; he had toiled on a graceful service; he had travelled all the way on to the border of the living world, and brought me back for token an ear of rice, full, fresh, and green.

The next day I entered upon Egypt, and floated along (for the delight was as the delight of bathing) through green wavy fields of rice, and pastures fresh and plentiful, and dived into the cold verdure of groves and gardens, and quenched my hot eyes in shade, as though in deep, rushing waters.

29 Milnes cleverly goes to the French for the exact word which conveys the impression produced by the voice of the Arabs, and calls them “un peuple criard.”


Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44