Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XXI

Cairo to Suez

The “dromedary” of Egypt and Syria is not the two-humped animal described by that name in books of natural history, but is, in fact, of the same family as the camel, to which it stands in about the same relation as a racer to a cart-horse. The fleetness and endurance of this creature are extraordinary. It is not usual to force him into a gallop, and I fancy from his make that it would be quite impossible for him to maintain that pace for any length of time; but the animal is on so large a scale, that the jog-trot at which he is generally ridden implies a progress of perhaps ten or twelve miles an hour, and this pace, it is said, he can keep up incessantly, without food, or water, or rest, for three whole days and nights.

Of the two dromedaries which I had obtained for this journey, I mounted one myself, and put Dthemetri on the other. My plan was to ride on with Dthemetri to Suez as rapidly as the fleetness of the beasts would allow, and to let Myserri (who was still weak from the effects of his late illness) come quietly on with the camels and baggage.

The trot of the dromedary is a pace terribly disagreeable to the rider, until he becomes a little accustomed to it; but after the first half-hour I so far schooled myself to this new exercise, that I felt capable of keeping it up (though not without aching limbs) for several hours together. Now, therefore, I was anxious to dart forward, and annihilate at once the whole space that divided me from the Red Sea. Dthemetri, however, could not get on at all. Every attempt which he made to trot seemed to threaten the utter dislocation of his whole frame, and indeed I doubt whether any one of Dthemetri’s age (nearly forty, I think), and unaccustomed to such exercise, could have borne it at all easily; besides, the dromedary which fell to his lot was evidently a very bad one; he every now and then came to a dead stop, and coolly knelt down, as though suggesting that the rider had better get off at once and abandon the attempt as one that was utterly hopeless.

When for the third or fourth time I saw Dthemetri thus planted, I lost my patience, and went on without him. For about two hours, I think, I advanced without once looking behind me. I then paused, and cast my eyes back to the western horizon. There was no sign of Dthemetri, nor of any other living creature. This I expected, for I knew that I must have far out-distanced all my followers. I had ridden away from my party merely by way of gratifying my impatience, and with the intention of stopping as soon as I felt tired, until I was overtaken. I now observed, however (this I had not been able to do whilst advancing so rapidly), that the track which I had been following was seemingly the track of only one or two camels. I did not fear that I had diverged very largely from the true route, but still I could not feel any reasonable certainty that my party would follow any line of march within sight of me.

I had to consider, therefore, whether I should remain where I was, upon the chance of seeing my people come up, or whether I would push on alone, and find my way to Suez. I had now learned that I could not rely upon the continued guidance of any track, but I knew that (if maps were right) the point for which I was bound bore just due east of Cairo, and I thought that, although I might miss the line leading most directly to Suez, I could not well fail to find my way sooner or later to the Red Sea. The worst of it was that I had no provision of food or water with me, and already I was beginning to feel thirst. I deliberated for a minute, and then determined that I would abandon all hope of seeing my party again, in the Desert, and would push forward as rapidly as possible towards Suez.

It was not, I confess, without a sensation of awe that I swept with my sight the vacant round of the horizon, and remembered that I was all alone, and unprovisioned in the midst of the arid waste; but this very awe gave tone and zest to the exultation with which I felt myself launched. Hitherto, in all my wandering, I had been under the care of other people — sailors, Tatars, guides, and dragomen had watched over my welfare, but now at last I was here in this African desert, and I MYSELF, AND NO OTHER, HAD CHARGE OF MY LIFE. I liked the office well. I had the greasiest part of the day before me, a very fair dromedary, a fur pelisse, and a brace of pistols, but no bread and no water; for that I must ride — and ride I did.

For several hours I urged forward my beast at a rapid though steady pace, but now the pangs of thirst began to torment me. I did not relax my pace, however, and I had not suffered long when a moving object appeared in the distance before me. The intervening space was soon traversed, and I found myself approaching a Bedouin Arab mounted on a camel, attended by another Bedouin on foot. They stopped. I saw that, as usual, there hung from the pack-saddle of the camel a large skin water-flask, which seemed to be well filled. I steered my dromedary close up alongside of the mounted Bedouin, caused my beast to kneel down, then alighted, and keeping the end of the halter in my hand, went up to the mounted Bedouin without speaking, took hold of his water-flask, opened it, and drank long and deep from its leathern lips. Both of the Bedouins stood fast in amazement and mute horror; and really, if they had never happened to see an European before, the apparition was enough to startle them. To see for the first time a coat and a waistcoat, with the semblance of a white human head at the top, and for this ghastly figure to come swiftly out of the horizon upon a fleet dromedary, approach them silently and with a demoniacal smile, and drink a deep draught from their water-flask — this was enough to make the Bedouins stare a little; they, in fact, stared a great deal — not as Europeans stare, with a restless and puzzled expression of countenance, but with features all fixed and rigid, and with still, glassy eyes. Before they had time to get decomposed from their state of petrifaction I had remounted my dromedary, and was darting away towards the east.

Without pause or remission of pace I continued to press forward, but after a while I found to my confusion that the slight track which had hitherto guided me now failed altogether. I began to fear that I must have been all along following the course of some wandering Bedouins, and I felt that if this were the case, my fate was a little uncertain.

I had no compass with me, but I determined upon the eastern point of the horizon as accurately as I could by reference to the sun, and so laid down for myself a way over the pathless sands.

But now my poor dromedary, by whose life and strength I held my own, began to show signs of distress: a thick, clammy, and glutinous kind of foam gathered about her lips, and piteous sobs burst from her bosom in the tones of human misery. I doubted for a moment whether I would give her a little rest, a relaxation of pace, but I decided that I would not, and continued to push forward as steadily as before.

The character of the country became changed. I had ridden away from the level tracts, and before me now, and on either side, there were vast hills of sand and calcined rocks, that interrupted my progress and baffled my doubtful road, but I did my best. With rapid steps I swept round the base of the hills, threaded the winding hollows, and at last, as I rose in my swift course to the crest of a lofty ridge, Thalatta! Thalatta! by Jove! I saw the sea!

My tongue can tell where to find a clue to many an old pagan creed, because that (distinctly from all mere admiration of the beauty belonging to nature’s works) I acknowledge a sense of mystical reverence when first I look, to see some illustrious feature of the globe — some coast-line of ocean, some mighty river or dreary mountain range, the ancient barrier of kingdoms. But the Red Sea! It might well claim my earnest gaze by force of the great Jewish migration which connects it with the history of our own religion. From this very ridge, it is likely enough, the panting Israelites first saw that shining inlet of the sea. Ay! ay! but moreover, and best of all, that beckoning sea assured my eyes, and proved how well I had marked out the east for my path, and gave me good promise that sooner or later the time would come for me to rest and drink. It was distant, the sea, but I felt my own strength, and I had HEARD of the strength of dromedaries. I pushed forward as eagerly as though I had spoiled the Egyptians and were flying from Pharaoh’s police.

I had not yet been able to discover any symptoms of Suez, but after a while I descried in the distance a large, blank, isolated building. I made towards this, and in time got down to it. The building was a fort, and had been built there for the protection of a well which it contained within its precincts. A cluster of small huts adhered to the fort, and in a short time I was receiving the hospitality of the inhabitants, who were grouped upon the sands near their hamlet. To quench the fires of my throat with about a gallon of muddy water, and to swallow a little of the food placed before me, was the work of few minutes, and before the astonishment of my hosts had even begun to subside, I was pursuing my onward journey. Suez, I found, was still three hours distant, and the sun going down in the west warned me that I must find some other guide to keep me in the right direction. This guide I found in the most fickle and uncertain of the elements. For some hours the wind had been freshening, and it now blew a violent gale; it blew not fitfully and in squalls, but with such remarkable steadiness, that I felt convinced it would blow from the same quarter for several hours. When the sun set, therefore, I carefully looked for the point from which the wind was blowing, and found that it came from the very west, and was blowing exactly in the direction of my route. I had nothing to do therefore but to go straight to leeward; and this was not difficult, for the gale blew with such immense force, that if I diverged at all from its line I instantly felt the pressure of the blast on the side towards which I was deviating. Very soon after sunset there came on complete darkness, but the strong wind guided me well, and sped me, too, on my way.

I had pushed on for about, I think, a couple of hours after nightfall when I saw the glimmer of a light in the distance, and this I ventured to hope must be Suez. Upon approaching it, however, I found that it was only a solitary fort, and I passed on without stopping.

On I went, still riding down the wind, when an unlucky accident occurred, for which, if you like, you can have your laugh against me. I have told you already what sort of lodging it is that you have upon the back of a camel. You ride the dromedary in the same fashion; you are perched rather than seated on a bunch of carpets or quilts upon the summit of the hump. It happened that my dromedary veered rather suddenly from her onward course. Meeting the movement, I mechanically turned my left wrist as though I were holding a bridle rein, for the complete darkness prevented my eyes from reminding me that I had nothing but a halter in my hand. The expected resistance failed, for the halter was hanging upon that side of the dromedary’s neck towards which I was slightly leaning. I toppled over, head foremost, and then went falling and falling through air, till my crown came whang against the ground. And the ground too was perfectly hard (compacted sand), but the thickly wadded headgear which I wore for protection against the sun saved my life. The notion of my being able to get up again after falling head-foremost from such an immense height seemed to me at first too paradoxical to be acted upon, but I soon found that I was not a bit hurt. My dromedary utterly vanished. I looked round me, and saw the glimmer of a light in the fort which I had lately passed, and I began to work my way back in that direction. The violence of the gale made it hard for me to force my way towards the west, but I succeeded at last in regaining the fort. To this, as to the other fort which I had passed, there was attached a cluster of huts, and I soon found myself surrounded by a group of villainous, gloomy-looking fellows. It was a horrid bore for me to have to swagger and look big at a time when I felt so particularly small on account of my tumble and my lost dromedary; but there was no help for it; I had no Dthemetri now to “strike terror” for me. I knew hardly one word of Arabic, but somehow or other I contrived to announce it as my absolute will and pleasure that these fellows should find me the means of gaining Suez. They acceded, and having a donkey, they saddled it for me, and appointed one of their number to attend me on foot.

I afterwards found that these fellows were not Arabs, but Algerine refugees, and that they bore the character of being sad scoundrels. They justified this imputation to some extent on the following day. They allowed Mysseri with my baggage and the camels to pass unmolested, but an Arab lad belonging to the party happened to lag a little way in the rear, and him (if they were not maligned) these rascals stripped and robbed. Low indeed is the state of bandit morality when men will allow the sleek traveller with well-laden camels to pass in quiet, reserving their spirit of enterprise for the tattered turban of a miserable boy.

I reached Suez at last. The British agent, though roused from his midnight sleep, received me in his home with the utmost kindness and hospitality. Oh! by Jove, how delightful it was to lie on fair sheets, and to dally with sleep, and to wake, and to sleep, and to wake once more, for the sake of sleeping again!

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