Travellers in the Desert

While Marron and Elisande travel by their own route, Julianne rides with Rudel and Jemel on camels across the sands of the desert.

Now, though, she felt the sun's weight on the back of her neck, and all but buckled under it. This was the true Sands, the Sands that Jemel had promised her, and Elisande also; the heat lay on the land as fire lies on coals, a thing in itself and almost tangible.

This is not a landscape much changed by the passage of time. In 1835 a young Englishman called Alexander Kinglake completed his education by undertaking a grand tour which took him beyond the usual classical sites of Europe. Here he describes the journey across the desert to Cairo.

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 mid-day, or soon after, Mysseri used to bring up his camel alongside of mine and supply me with a piece of the dried bread softened in water, and also (so 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 dug out by the last week's storm,— 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 sense of sky. You look to the sun, for he is your taskmaster, 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, 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 for 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 comes and clings to his side.

Then begins your season of rest. 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 has been fixed upon and we come 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 sank under me, till she brought hcr 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 zny 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 round 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 a very home that had sprung up for me in the midst of these solitudes. My Arabs were busy with their bread— Mysseri rattIing 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— a look like "the own arm-chair" of our lyrist's "sweet Lady Anne."

Sometimes in the earlier part 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 hearth-rug. The first night, I remember, with my books and maps about me, I wanted a 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 loath to give back to the waste this little spot of ground that had glowed for a while vith 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 encroachmg 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.

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The full text of Kinglake's Eothen, his description of his travels in the East, is available on the internet, or in book form from Amazon.