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Chapter 23


THE FACE OF THE DESERT

Going up the Nile is like running the gauntlet before Eternity. Till one
has seen it, one does not realise the amazing thinness of that little
damp trickle of life that steals along undefeated through the jaws of
established death. A rifle-shot would cover the widest limits of
cultivation, a bow-shot would reach the narrower. Once beyond them a man
may carry his next drink with him till he reaches Cape Blanco on the
west (where he may signal for one from a passing Union Castle boat) or
the Karachi Club on the east. Say four thousand dry miles to the left
hand and three thousand to the right.

The weight of the Desert is on one, every day and every hour. At
morning, when the cavalcade tramps along in the rear of the tulip-like
dragoman, She says: 'I am here----just beyond that ridge of pink sand
that you are admiring. Come along, pretty gentleman, and I'll tell you
your fortune.' But the dragoman says very clearly: 'Please, sar, do not
separate yourself at _all_ from the main body,' which, the Desert knows
well, you had no thought of doing. At noon, when the stewards rummage
out lunch-drinks from the dewy ice-chest, the Desert whines louder than
the well-wheels on the bank: 'I am here, only a quarter of a mile away.
For mercy's sake, pretty gentleman, spare a mouthful of that prickly
whisky-and-soda you are lifting to your lips. There's a white man a few
hundred miles off, dying on my lap of thirst--thirst that you cure with
a rag dipped in lukewarm water while you hold him down with the one
hand, and he thinks he is cursing you aloud, but he isn't, because his
tongue is outside his mouth and he can't get it back. Thank _you_, my
noble captain!' For naturally one tips half the drink over the rail with
the ancient prayer: 'May it reach him who needs it,' and turns one's
back on the pulsing ridges and fluid horizons that are beginning their
mid-day mirage-dance.

At evening the Desert obtrudes again--tricked out as a Nautch girl in
veils of purple, saffron, gold-tinsel, and grass-green. She postures
shamelessly before the delighted tourists with woven skeins of
homeward-flying pelicans, fringes of wild duck, black spotted on
crimson, and cheap jewellery of opal clouds. 'Notice Me!' She cries,
like any other worthless woman. 'Admire the play of My mobile
features--the revelations of My multi-coloured soul! Observe My
allurements and potentialities. Thrill while I stir you!' So She floats
through all Her changes and retires upstage into the arms of the dusk.
But at midnight She drops all pretence and bears down in Her natural
shape, which depends upon the conscience of the beholder and his
distance from the next white man.

You will observe in the _Benedicite Omnia Opera_ that the Desert is the
sole thing not enjoined to 'bless the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him
for ever.' This is because when our illustrious father, the Lord Adam,
and his august consort, the Lady Eve, were expelled from Eden, Eblis the
Accursed, fearful lest mankind should return ultimately to the favour of
Allah, set himself to burn and lay waste all the lands east and west of
Eden.

Oddly enough, the Garden of Eden is almost the exact centre of all the
world's deserts, counting from Gobi to Timbuctoo; and all that land
_qua_ land is 'dismissed from the mercy of God.' Those who use it do so
at their own risk. Consequently the Desert produces her own type of man
exactly as the sea does. I was fortunate enough to meet one sample, aged
perhaps twenty-five. His work took him along the edge of the Red Sea,
where men on swift camels come to smuggle hashish, and sometimes guns,
from dhows that put in to any convenient beach. These smugglers must be
chased on still swifter camels, and since the wells are few and known,
the game is to get ahead of them and occupy their drinking-places.

But they may skip a well or so, and do several days' march in one. Then
their pursuer must take e'en greater risks and make crueller marches
that the Law may be upheld. The one thing in the Law's favour is that
_hashish_ smells abominably--worse than a heated camel--so, when they
range alongside, no time is lost in listening to lies. It was not told
to me how they navigate themselves across the broken wastes, or by what
arts they keep alive in the dust-storms and heat. That was taken for
granted, and the man who took it so considered himself the most
commonplace of mortals. He was deeply moved by the account of a new
aerial route which the French are laying out somewhere in the Sahara
over a waterless stretch of four hundred miles, where if the aeroplane
is disabled between stations the pilot will most likely die and dry up
beside it. To do the Desert justice, she rarely bothers to wipe out
evidence of a kill. There are places in the Desert, men say, where even
now you come across the dead of old battles, all as light as last year's
wasps' nests, laid down in swaths or strung out in flight, with, here
and there, the little sparkling lines of the emptied cartridge-cases
that dropped them.

There are valleys and ravines that the craziest smugglers do not care to
refuge in at certain times of the year; as there are rest-houses where
one's native servants will not stay because they are challenged on their
way to the kitchen by sentries of old Soudanese regiments which have
long gone over to Paradise. And of voices and warnings and outcries
behind rocks there is no end. These last arise from the fact that men
very rarely live in a spot so utterly still that they can hear the
murmuring race of the blood over their own ear-drums. Neither ship,
prairie, nor forest gives that silence. I went out to find it once, when
our steamer tied up and the rest of them had gone to see a sight, but I
never dared venture more than a mile from our funnel-smoke. At that
point I came upon a hill honey-combed with graves that held a multitude
of paper-white skulls, all grinning cheerfully like ambassadors of the
Desert. But I did not accept their invitation. They had told me that all
the little devils learn to draw in the Desert, which explains the
elaborate and purposeless detail that fills it. None but devils could
think of etching every rock outcrop with wind-lines, or skinning it down
to its glistening nerves with sand-blasts; of arranging hills in the
likeness of pyramids and sphinxes and wrecked town-suburbs; of covering
the space of half an English county with sepia studies of interlacing
and recrossing ravines, dongas, and nullahs, each an exposition of much
too clever perspective; and of wiping out the half-finished work with a
wash of sand in three tints, only to pick it up again in silver-point on
the horizon's edge. This they do in order to make lost travellers think
they can recognise landmarks and run about identifying them till the
madness comes. The Desert is all devil-device--as you might say 'blasted
cleverness'--crammed with futile works, always promising something fresh
round the next corner, always leading out through heaped decoration and
over-insistent design into equal barrenness.

There was a morning of mornings when we lay opposite the rock-hewn
Temple of Abu Simbel, where four great figures, each sixty feet high,
sit with their hands on their knees waiting for Judgment Day. At their
feet is a little breadth of blue-green crop; they seem to hold back all
the weight of the Desert behind them, which, none the less, lips over at
one side in a cataract of vividest orange sand. The tourist is
recommended to see the sunrise here, either from within the temple where
it falls on a certain altar erected by Rameses in his own honour, or
from without where another Power takes charge.

The stars had paled when we began our watch; the river birds were just
whispering over their toilettes in the uncertain purplish light. Then
the river dimmered up like pewter; the line of the ridge behind the
Temple showed itself against a milkiness in the sky; one felt rather
than saw that there were four figures in the pit of gloom below it.
These blocked themselves out, huge enough, but without any special
terror, while the glorious ritual of the Eastern dawn went forward. Some
reed of the bank revealed itself by reflection, black on silver; arched
wings flapped and jarred the still water to splintered glass; the desert
ridge turned to topaz, and the four figures stood clear, yet without
shadowing, from their background. The stronger light flooded them red
from head to foot, and they became alive--as horridly and tensely yet
blindly alive as pinioned men in the death-chair before the current is
switched on. One felt that if by any miracle the dawn could be delayed a
second longer, they would tear themselves free, and leap forth to
heaven knows what sort of vengeance. But that instant the full sun
pinned them in their places--nothing more than statues slashed with
light and shadow--and another day got to work.

A few yards to the left of the great images, close to the statue of an
Egyptian princess, whose face was the very face of 'She,' there was a
marble slab over the grave of an English officer killed in a fight
against dervishes nearly a generation ago.

From Abu Simbel to Wady Halfa the river, escaped from the domination of
the Pharaohs, begins to talk about dead white men. Thirty years ago,
young English officers in India lied and intrigued furiously that they
might be attached to expeditions whose bases were sometimes at Suakim,
sometimes quite in the desert air, but all of whose deeds are now quite
forgotten. Occasionally the dragoman, waving a smooth hand east or
south-easterly, will speak of some fight. Then every one murmurs: 'Oh
yes. That was Gordon, of course,' or 'Was that before or after
Omdurman?' But the river is much more precise. As the boat quarters
the falling stream like a puzzled hound, all the old names spurt
up again under the paddle-wheels--'Hicks' army--Val Baker--El
Teb--Tokar--Tamai--Tamanieb and Osman Digna!' Her head swings round
for another slant: '_We cannot land English or Indian troops: if
consulted, recommend abandonment of the Soudan within certain limits._'
That was my Lord Granville chirruping to the advisers of His Highness
the Khedive, and the sentence comes back as crisp as when it first
shocked one in '84. Next--here is a long reach between flooded palm
trees--next, of course, comes Gordon--and a delightfully mad Irish
war correspondent who was locked up with him in Khartoum.
Gordon--Eighty-four--Eighty-five--the Suakim-Berber Railway really begun
and quite as really abandoned. Korti--Abu Klea--the Desert Column--a
steamer called the _Safieh_ not the _Condor_, which rescued two other
steamers wrecked on their way back from a Khartoum in the red hands of
the Mahdi of those days. Then--the smooth glide over deep water
continues--another Suakim expedition with a great deal of Osman Digna
and renewed attempts to build the Suakim-Berber Railway. 'Hashin,' say
the paddle-wheels, slowing all of a sudden--'MacNeill's Zareba--the 15th
Sikhs and another native regiment--Osman Digna in great pride and power,
and Wady Halfa a frontier town. Tamai, once more; another siege of
Suakim: Gemaiza; Handub; Trinkitat, and Tokar--1887.'

The river recalls the names; the mind at once brings up the face and
every trick of speech of some youth met for a few hours, maybe, in a
train on the way to Egypt of the old days. Both name and face had
utterly vanished from one's memory till then.

It was another generation that picked up the ball ten years later and
touched down in Khartoum. Several people aboard the Cook boat had been
to that city. They all agreed that the hotel charges were very high, but
that you could buy the most delightful curiosities in the native
bazaar. But I do not like bazaars of the Egyptian kind, since a
discovery I made at Assouan. There was an old man--a Mussulman--who
pressed me to buy some truck or other, but not with the villainous
camaraderie that generations of low-caste tourists have taught the
people, nor yet with the cosmopolitan light-handedness of appeal which
the town-bred Egyptian picks up much too quickly; but with a certain
desperate zeal, foreign to his whole creed and nature. He fingered, he
implored, he fawned with an unsteady eye, and while I wondered I saw
behind him the puffy pink face of a fezzed Jew, watching him as a stoat
watches a rabbit. When he moved the Jew followed and took position at a
commanding angle. The old man glanced from me to him and renewed his
solicitations. So one could imagine an elderly hare thumping wildly on a
tambourine with the stoat behind him. They told me afterwards that Jews
own most of the stalls in Assouan bazaar, the Mussulmans working for
them, since tourists need Oriental colour. Never having seen or imagined
a Jew coercing a Mussulman, this colour was new and displeasing to me.

Rudyard Kipling

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