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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Desert
By Alexander William Kinglake (1809–1891)
 
From ‘Eothen’

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 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 labors 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 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 hastens, and clings to his side.  1
  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 which was allowed them out of our stores….  2
  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 hearth-rug. 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.  3
  By-and-by there was brought to me the fragrant tea, and big masses of scorched and scorching toast, that minded me of old Eton days, 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.  4
  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 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.  5
  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….  6
  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 in 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 travelers 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.  7
  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 grisly 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 bailing 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 traveled 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 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.  8
  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 as chatty as I could be, according to my nature, but still I could not think of anything in particular that I had to say to him. Of course among civilized 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 traveler 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 of 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 daresay 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.  9
 
 
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