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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 Night Ride in the Desert
By William Gifford Palgrave (1826–1888)
 
        
From ‘Hermann Agha’
  
  [Hermann Agha, the narrator and hero of Palgrave’s dramatic love story of Arabia, has learned that his affianced wife Zahra is being carried away into a distant part of the desert country by the Emeer Daghfel, who has the consent of Zahra’s parents to a marriage with the young girl. Hermann, his friends Moharib, Aman, and Modarrib, and others, make up a small troop and hurry to overtake the bridal train. The following admirable descriptive episode is part of the chapter setting forth their romantic pursuit.]

WE all left the garden together; there was plenty of occupation for every one in getting himself, his horse, his weapons, and his traveling-gear, ready for the night and the morrow. Our gathering-place was behind a dense palm grove that cut us off from the view and observation of the village; there our comrades arrived, one after another, all fully equipped, till the whole band of twelve had reassembled. The cry of the night prayers, proclaimed from the mosque roof, had long died away into silence; the last doubtful streak of sunset faded from the west, accompanied by the thin white crescent of the young moon; night still cloudless, and studded with innumerable stars, depth over depth, reigned alone. Without a word we set forth into what seemed the trackless expanse of desert, our faces between west and south,—the direction across which the Emeer Daghfel and his caravan were expected to pass.  1
  More than ever did the caution now manifested by my companions, who were better versed than myself in adventures of the kind, impress me with a sense, not precisely of the danger, but of the seriousness of the undertaking. Two of the Benoo-Riah,—Harith and Modarrib,—whom the tacit consent of the rest designated for that duty, took the advance as scouts, riding far out ahead into the darkness, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, in order that timely notice might be given to the rest of us should any chance meeting or suspicious obstacle occur on the way. A third, Ja’ad es-Sabāsib himself, acted, as beseemed his name, for guide; he rode immediately in front of our main body. The rest of us held close together, at a brisk walking pace, from which we seldom allowed our beasts to vary; indeed, the horses themselves, trained to the work, seemed to comprehend the necessity of cautiousness, and stepped on warily and noiselessly.  2
  Every man in the band was dressed alike. Though I retained, I had carefully concealed my pistols; the litham disguised my foreign features, and to any superficial observer, especially at night, I was merely a Bedouin of the tribe, with my sword at my side, and my lance couched, Benoo-Riah fashion, alongside of my horse’s right ear. Not a single word was uttered by any one of the band, as following Ja’ad’s guidance—who knew every inch of the ground, to my eyes utterly unmeaning and undistinguishable—we glided over the dry plain. At another time I might perhaps have been inclined to ask questions; but now the nearness of expectation left no room for speech. Besides, I had been long enough among the men of the desert to have learnt from them their habit of invariable silence when journeying by night. Talkative at other times, they then become absolutely mute. Nor is this silence of theirs merely a precaution due to the insecurity of the road, which renders it unadvisable for the wayfarer to give any superfluous token of his presence: it is quite as much the result of a powerful, though it may well be most often an unconscious, sympathy with the silence of nature around.  3
  Silent overhead, the bright stars, moving on, moving upwards from the east, constellation after constellation, the Twins and the Pleiads, Aldebaran and Orion, the Spread and the Perching Eagle, the Balance, the once worshiped Dog Star, and beautiful Canopus. I look at them till they waver before my fixed gaze; and looking, calculate by their position how many hours of our long night march have already gone by, and how many yet remain before daybreak: till the spaces between them show preternaturally dark; and on the horizon below, a false eye-begotten shimmer gives a delusive semblance of dawn, then vanishes.  4
  Silent: not the silence of voices alone, but the silence of meaning change, dead midnight. The Wolf’s Tail has not yet shot up its first slant harbinger of day in the east; the quiet progress of the black spangled heavens is monotonous as mechanism; no life is there. Silence; above, around, no sound, no speech. The very cry of a jackal, the howl of a wolf, would come friendly to the ear, but none is heard; as though all life had disappeared forever from the face of the land. Silent everywhere. A dark line stretches thwart before us: you might take it for a ledge, a trench, a precipice—what you will. It is none of these: it is only a broad streak of brown withered herb, drawn across the faintly gleaming flat. Far off on the dim right rises something like a black giant wall. It is not that: it is a thick-planted grove of palms; silent they also, and motionless in the night. On the left glimmers a range of white ghost-like shapes: they are the rapid slopes of sand-hills shelving off into the plain; no life is there.  5
  Some men are silenced by entering a place of worship, a grave-yard, a large and lonely hall, a deep forest; and in each and all of these there is what brings silence, though from different motives, varying in the influence they exert over the mind. But that man must be strangely destitute of the sympathies which link the microcosm of our individual existence with the macrocosm around us, who can find heart for a word more than needful, were it only a passing word, in the desert at night.  6
  Silent we go on; the eyes and thoughts of the Bedouins are fixed, now on the tracks,—for there are many, barely distinguishable to a few yards before them through the gloom,—now on the pebble-strewn surface beneath their horses’ hoofs; at times on some bright particular star near the horizon; while occasionally they turn an uneasy glance to right or left, as though half anticipating some unfriendly figure about to start out of the gloom. Moharib rode generally alongside of Ja’ad, with whom he exchanged, but not often, signs or low whispers; Aman kept close to me. I, who had long before made a separate astral calculation for each successive night of the year (a useful amusement in my frequent journeys), and for whom almost every star has a tale to tell of so many hours elapsed since sunset, so many remaining to the dawn, continue gazing on the vault above, also thinking. Our horses’ pace never varies; no new object breaks the monotonous gloom of our narrow horizon; the night seems as though it had no end; we all grow drowsy, and go on as if in an evil dream.  7
  Aman draws forth from the loose breast-folds of his dress a small clay pipe. The elegant workmanship of the bowl, and the blue ornaments of its rim, declare it to be of Mosool manufacture. Aided more by feeling than by sight, he proceeds deliberately to fill it from a large tobacco pouch, made of cloth, once gayly embroidered, now sadly stained and tarnished; carefully arranging the yellow ’Irak tobacco (the only quality obtainable south of Bagdad, and of which we had laid in the necessary store at Showey’rat) with the coarse broken stalks undermost, and the fine dust-like leaf particles for a covering above. Next, with a single blow on the flint, he strikes a light, lays it delicately on the top, replaces the wire-work cupola over the pipe’s mouth, and smokes like a man who intends to make the most of his enjoyment, and who economizes his pleasure that it may last the longer.  8
  He is not long alone in this proceeding; for whether seeking a remedy against sleepiness, or ennui, or perhaps both, Musa’ab quickens his pace a little, and bringing his horse alongside of Aman’s, asks for a light in his turn. But his pipe is not all for himself, Howeyrith claiming a share in it; whilst the negro, Shebeeb, considers his complexion sufficient warrant for taking a pull in company with Aman. I myself, though a minute before absent, or nearly so, from everything around in thought, am aroused from my revery by the pleasant smell of the smoke, and ask also for a light, which Aman gives me. All the others, Ja’ad and Moharib alone excepted, follow the example.  9
  The night air freshens, it blows from the east. Looking round somewhat backward on our left, we see a faint yellow gauze of light, a spear-shaped ray; it is the zodiacal harbinger of the sun. It widens, it deepens,—for brighten that dull ray does not,—and the hope it permits of a nearer halt arouses us one and all from our still recurring torpor. The air grows cooler yet; the kaffeeyehs are rearranged around each chin, and the mantles—some black, some striped, some dusky red—are wrapt closer to every form.  10
  Suddenly, almost startling in that suddenness, the morning-star flashes up, exactly in the central base of the dim eastern pyramid of nebulous outline. Sa’ad, Doheym, Musa’ab, myself—all of us instinctively look first at the pure silver drop, glistening over the dark desert marge; and then at Ja’ad, as though entreating him to notice it also, and to take the hint it gives. He rides on and makes no sign. Yet half an hour more of march; during which time the planet of my love has risen higher and higher, with a rapidity seemingly disproportionate to the other stars; and through the doubtful twilight I see Harith and Modarrib, our night-long outriders, nearing and falling in with the rest of our party. They know we have not much farther to go. Before us a low range of sand-heaps, already tinged above with something of a reddish reflect, on which the feathery ghada grows in large dusky patches, points out the spot where Ja’ad had determined hours before should be our brief morning rest. Once arrived among the hillocks, Ja’ad reconnoitres them closely, then draws rein and dismounts; we all do the same; I, mechanically.  11
  The horses are soon picketed, one close by the other; there is no fear of vicious kicking or biting among these high-bred animals. Next, leaving only the cloths that have served for saddles on their backs, we lighten them of their remaining loads: an easy task; for except two pair of small water-skins, and a few almost empty saddle-bags, more tassel than contents, there is not much to relieve them of.  12
  Aman, thoroughly tired with the night’s march, and little troubled by cares either for the future or the present, had quickly scooped away the soft cool sand into a comfortable hollow, arranged a heap of it for a pillow, and in half a minute lay there asleep and motionless like one dead. The other Benoo-Riahees did the same. Ja’ad and Moharib first made up for their previous abstinence by smoking each a half-filled pipe, then followed the general example. For a few minutes longer I sat, the unbidden watchman of the party, looking at them; sighed; looked again; soon I felt my ideas growing confused, and hastily clearing away in my turn somewhat of the sand, took my saddle-bags, folded them, laid them under my head, and almost instantly fell into dreamless slumber.  13
  My sleep could not have lasted a full hour when with a shiver, so freshly blew the easterly breeze of the morning, I awoke. Rising I drew round me the woolen cloak which had fallen away on one side, leaving me partly uncovered in my uneasy though heavy sleep, and sat up. I looked about me, first at my comrades: they all lay yet slumbering, every one his spear stuck into the sand at his head, rolled up in their cloaks, some one way, some another; then at the narrow belt of sand-hills, among which he had alighted in the gloaming. They circled us in at forty or fifty yards distant on every side. The clear rays of the early sun entered the hollow here and there through gaps between the hillocks; but on most points they were still shut out, and the level light silvered rather than gilded the sand margin around. Except my own, not an eye was open, not a limb stirred; the very horses were silent and motionless as their masters.  14
  “Am I nearer to or further than ever from my hopes?” said I to myself, as I gazed at the pure blue sky above me, the heaped-up sand below, the tufted ghada on the slopes, the sleeping men, and the patient, drooping horses; “and to what purpose is all this? Fool! and a fool’s errand! No: anyhow, love is love, and life life; better to attempt and lose than never to attempt at all. Poor Moharib, too! on a venture not his own. I wonder what his presentiments betoken; I feel none. No hint of to-day’s future or to-morrow’s. And she meanwhile—where is she at this very moment? near or far? and does she expect me now? Has she any information of our intent? any guess? and how shall I find her when we meet? But shall we indeed meet? and how? If this attempt fail, what remains? Lucky fellows,” thought I, with a look on the heavy-breathing Aman and Harith where they lay side by side. “They at least have all the excitement of the enterprise without any of the distressful anxieties; or rather, without that one great, miserable anxiety, What is the end?”  15
 
 
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