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By Mary Roberts Rinehart
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1926 George H. Doran Company
All rights reserved.
My first view of her was under rather flattering conditions. First, it was moonlight; one of those clear white moons of Egypt which was undoubtedly responsible for the madness of Anthony over Cleopatra, since one has only to see divers reliefs of that well-known lady to realize that it was madness. And in this moonlight certain austerities and angularities of her outline merged softly into the desert sands and were there lost.
Second, there was a good breeze going, and in this breeze a certain rather overpowering easternliness about her was attenuated to a faint and merely suggestive scent, which was dissipated in the general direction of the Pyramids.
And, third, she offered locomotion. Had she not turned up, I might still be, like the Sphinx, a fixture in the desert sands, facing the rising sun and being photographed with tourists grouped about me, and my age a matter of public comment and published in Baedeker.
Briefly, I came out of a tent, and there she was. Dressed in her best, jingling with small bells and various necklaces to keep off the evil eye, prone, acquiescent and mild, there she was. I got on her, the two shadowy figures who had been standing on her doubled-up fore legs stepped off, her rear shot up into the air, her forward portion followed suit, another notch let out behind and another in front, and she was up.
So was I.
Far below me were the sands of the Libyan desert; the tall Bedouins had shrunk to insignificance. And Dahabeah turned her long neck and gave me a glance of concentrated hatred.
Dahabeah was a camel.
The Head of the Family, having watched me up, was mounting also.
"How do you like it?" I inquired nervously, when he had described the necessary number of arcs in the air.
"Fine!" he replied in a hollow tone, and turned his head to see if his neck was still working properly.
The nautch girl had twisted up her skirts and mounted a donkey; the musicians were trudging along on foot, pipes and ancient drum under their arms. The camel boys, each with what I hoped was a death grip on the rein, began to move, and so did the camels.
"You look great," our host called encouragingly, from the tent. "Like a pair of blooming Arabs! How does it go?"
"Simply wonderful," I returned feebly, and gave my entire and concentrated attention to my mount.
Had any one told me during that first five minutes that I would before long travel a hundred miles on that camel, I would have laughed. Or no, I would not have laughed; one does not laugh during the first few minutes. One is too high for one thing and too busy waiting to see from whence the next jerk is coming. And then there is the strange discovery that neither in front of the saddle nor behind it is there anything whatever. It is like sitting on an Alp.
Added to all this, also, is the circus feeling, and with it a bit of unreality.
Who has not stood on the curbstone and waited for that great moment when, the horsemen and the vans having passed, the cry goes up: "The camels are coming" ? And seen the great beasts, nostrils dilated and haughty heads thrust forward, padding down the street? A bit of another world, brought to us for our admiration and wonder.
And to be for even a moment a portion of this strange world carries a thrill of its own.
But the emotion, in my case, was entirely one-sided. Dahabeah moved off, indeed, at the insistence of a small stick from behind, but neither then nor at any time later did she reveal the smallest interest in me. Later on I was doomed to search in vain for some indication that she so much as knew me; to long to scratch her ears, to rub that sensitive portion of her six-foot neck which seemed forever itchy, and yet forever beyond the reach of her hind foot. But never did I break through her impenetrable reserve.
Indeed, one of my earliest overtures settled an argument between the Head and myself forever. He had said that camels have teeth only in the lower jaw: I had disagreed, largely for controversial purposes. It was then that I approached Dahabeah, and that the dispute was ended.
She snarled, lifted her hare-lip, and revealed both upper and lower sets, in good condition and immediately ready for business.
But that night I was not interested in Dahabeah's teeth. The procession moved off, the nautch girl on her donkey, the musicians afoot, and then ourselves. The Arab gentleman who had been hastily drawing my horoscope in the sand was left behind; the tent flap dropped, and underneath me a sort of localized earthquake was taking place. We were on our way.
"You like drive her yourself?" asked my camel boy.
"Not just yet," I said firmly and with dignity.
But the ice was broken. From that time on the caravan trip into the desert, which Assour had assured us would make me as "strong as a lions," was a settled thing.CHAPTER 2
Now as long ago as last Christmas the Head and I had had Egypt in mind. And with Egypt, a camel caravan. It was, indeed, from a welter of tissue paper, ribbons and cards that I looked up one day from my wrapping and said:
"What does one wear on a camel?"
And the Head, who was trying to remember where he had hidden some gift or other, said:
"Any camel," I said largely. "We'll have to make up our minds what to take."
"Judging by the pictures, a sheet and pillowslip would answer," he said. "But anyhow, why worry? We don't have to ride a camel."
But seeing that I felt strongly about it, he suggested a golf suit for himself. And being a consistent person, a golf suit he took and a golf suit later on he wore. But my problem was not so simple.
There is something infuriating to the average woman about the competence of a man's wardrobe. The only anxiety he ever knows is whether it is to be dinner jacket or tail coat. He can pack a suit-case and be prepared to mount a camel or to meet a king. The matter of riding a cross-saddle on a donkey, in a short tight skirt, never sends a blush to his face, nor does he hobble across sandy wastes in low pumps because he hasn't the strength of mind to wear proper shoes.
No. The Head packed his golf suit, thus tacitly acquiescing in the camel idea, and let it go at that. But I—!
Personally I had had an idea that while men on camels rode between humps, as it were, women were luxuriously housed in a curtained and boxlike arrangement, from which ever and anon they peered out, or waved a white and surreptitious hand to some passing gallant. And Assour had fathered this delusion.
"If we do go, Assour," I said one day, "we must be comfortable. Why can't I dress like a Bedouin woman, in something soft and loose? And the doctor the same way?"
"You like go in native costumes?" he said, his eyes brightening. "Sure, madams. Very fine, very comfortable. You make fine Bedouin lady."
It is true that so far all the Bedouin ladies we had seen had been wrapped in a black cloth, generally trailing in the dirt behind and covering them from head to foot. But this had not daunted us, and to the bazaars under Assour's guidance we went and made our purchases. Then we carried them back to the hotel and put them on!
Over a striped green and white robe the Head wore a brown camel's hair aba or cloak, heavily embroidered in gold thread. The under-robe was girt with a sash of many colors. On his head was a white turban, and over that a gorgeous and brilliantly colored silk scarf, hung with tassels and held in place by a gold cord.
I myself was modestly attired in a gold-colored slip and over it a cloak or aba of turquoise blue silk shot with gold. My head scarf was a brilliant piece of work, and over my nose and extending downward was a thick white veil, which I inhaled and exhaled with each passing breath.
With a single voice we shouted with laughter.
"Any camel," said the Head, "would run a mile at the sight of you."
"And any woman would run a mile at the sight of you," I retorted pleasantly.
We took them off and put them away, and on the ship coming back they served very well as fancy dress costumes. They stood out like sore thumbs, as a matter of fact. But as costumes for a hard desert trip in a matter-of-fact world they were a failure.
Even then, however, the desert trip still remained in abeyance. True, Assour now and then mentioned it; about three times a day or thereabouts.
"If madams," he would say in his soft Arab voice, "if madams will but sleep one night in the desert, she will be strong as a lions. The desert, it healthy, very healthy, madams."
"It looks healthy," the Head would say, gazing out from the Pyramids or some kindred spot over interminable sand dunes. "But what about us? Will we be healthy?"
And in the meantime kindly friends were advising us not to go. Some of them were quite certain that the Egyptians were intending to rise and drive out the British, and that in the ensuing massacres the Americans would suffer as well. While others told us intriguing stories of various desert fauna.
There was, for instance, the scorpion, an unpleasant insect resembling a crayfish in general outline, and which grasps one with its claws and then brings a stinging tail up over its back and down in front with extremely disagreeable results. The cobra, too, was mentioned, and the sand adder, an interesting viper which buries all but its poisonous horns in the ground, and you do not know it is there until you sit on it.
The net result of which was that we were considering taking a boat up the Nile, when we received an invitation to a party.
"We are camping in the desert three miles from the Pyramids," it said. "And please come out to dinner. Camels will meet you at the corner of Sphinx Avenue and Cheops Street."
Or words to that effect.
So we went. They say that in Abyssinia, where there are no roads for vehicles, English men go to dinner parties in full evening dress on the upper portions of their bodies, and riding breeches and puttes below. Seated at the table they must be rather impressive, but standing—
However, we ourselves affected no such compromise. I wore, among other things, I remember, a pair of white slippers. And then we found no camels waiting, and after taking our motor as far into the desert as the driver would be coaxed, we started to walk. We walked and walked, ever and anon pausing to empty the desert out of our shoes. Down in low valleys, where the sand gave way like fresh wet snow, again climbing ridges in the black dark, slipping back a foot for each foot gained, while time passed and dinner receded. And the Pyramids were just as close as ever. But at last we found the camp, and later on the camels, and with these two discoveries our last doubts faded.
We too would start on such a pilgrimage. Let the scorpions perform their acrobatic feats, let the cobras swell their necks and spit their venom, let the sand adders bury themselves, all but their horns. We would stand up, if necessary.
But we too would be served by turbaned, bowing Arabs, in tents of green and red and yellow and blue. We too would sit in chairs, and for the clapping of our hands have nautch girls dance and ancient pipers play. We too would rise at dawn to see the desert turn from rose to gold and hear the camels grumble near at hand.
In short, we were going to do the thing, or die trying.
Exactly one week later we were in camp on that identical spot, ready for the next day's move,CHAPTER 3
Now for a number of years it has been our custom to spend a certain portion of the open season under canvas. A part of the upper floor of the garage at home has been taken up in the intervals by great bedding rolls, carefully strapped in their tarpaulin covers, and a certain cedar chest has contained such necessities as wading boots, rubber coats, folding lanterns in which to burn a candle, collapsible canvas basins and what not.
We had hitherto, one perceives, carried with us all the necessities, but none of the luxuries. Food and a camp stove, tin or granite-ware dishes, a minimum of necessary extra clothing packed in a canvas duffle bag, and sufficient tentage to shut out mountain winds and—less effectively—rain, has been the limit of our equipment. A bottle of aspirin, one of iodine, some bandages and adhesive tape have largely constituted our medicine chest, and I well remember the year we encountered an outfit in the mountains which carried with it a folding canvas chair, and the scorn with which we surveyed it.
"If one is going camping," we said among ourselves, "one camps. If one is going to be as luxurious as that, why not stay at home?"
In view of all this, I rather hesitate to describe the way in which we camped in the Libyan desert. It may show a weakening of fiber, a slackening. When I say that instead of one chair we carried eight, and that four of them were steamer chairs—!
Let me, rather, describe a typical day in the desert with the camp at the end of it.
In the morning our breakfast tray has been brought to the sleeping tent, and the other tents have been taken down. The grumbling, snarling male camels which carry the enormous burden of our equipment are being packed, and our gentler and softer-gaited riding animals are kneeling ready for us.
We mount, and Assour on his little gray donkey leads off. Gazelle is this donkey's name, and he has been neatly shorn to a dull white, save where on his legs are left various ornamentations. Thus one fore leg boasts the Pyramids, and one rear one a garter. His footprints in the sand are no larger than a dog's, and from morning to night he carries Assour at a tireless little trot.
He leads the camels, Assour's long legs almost touch the ground, but he manages to convey an air of dignity, even when the wind catches his cloak and the two together resemble a very small craft carrying an immense head of sail.
Behind him come the two riding camels. Dahabeah and Missouri, with their great soft saddles, and stirrups, and their swinging ornaments and harness. And falling in at the last the lumbering pack camels, drooling at the mouth, clumsy and complaining. Enormous beasts, these, and slow, so that before long we have left them behind and are swinging along side by side, our camel boys plodding at the rear.
By noon we are very weary. The camels begin to drag along at two and one half miles an hour; and now and then, by kicking them and hissing through our teeth, we rouse them to a bit of a trot, and Smedi and Abdul Baggi lope behind, their bare feet slipping and sliding in the sand. The motion has become fairly intolerable. Forward and back, side to side, up and down, there are six different and distinct jerks, twists and contortions for every four feet of advance we make.
The Head rouses from a sort of lethargy of discomfort.
"Now I know how they train the nautch girls," he says. "They put 'em on camels."
Were it not a matter of pride, I would trade with Assour, on Gazelle. The little white donkey trots along, its back as level as a floor. It is the test of a good donkey that one be able to drink a cup of Turkish coffee while he trots, without spilling it.
But I have set out to ride a camel and I will not weaken.
At noon we halt. Sometimes we have found a rock; again it is only a cup-shaped depression in the sand, and every small breeze sets up a tiny sand storm and fills our food with grit. The Bedouins eat, and then covering their heads from the wind, lie out in the sun and sleep. The Head dozes, and I sit and watch some desert beetle digging out a home.
He is working frantically with his forelegs, and as the sand moves back, his rear feet catch it and throw it further still. There is a colony of them, and all about appear these mysterious, geyser-like eruptions of sand.
The camels are squatted in the sand, a rope around their doubled knees. They cannot move, except now and then to lower their heads and scratch the under parts of their long sensitive necks on the ground. Their eyes half-closed, they too doze and rest.
Old training asserts itself and I want to clean up the camp before leaving. But Assour prevents it. He rolls up the bits of bread and meat and leaves them by the wayside.
"Somebody he come along," he says. "Maybe hungry. We leave this, eh?"
And of course we leave it. The food for the hungry, in this empty desert land, and the tin cans to serve who knows what use, where in the remote places almost all the tin-ware is made of American tin cans, and where a Standard oil can is a priceless treasure.
Perhaps we are still close to the Nile, on this specimen day of ours. Then luncheon may be curtailed a trifle, and the siesta also, and Assour will come to us with the light of determination in his eyes.
"We go on now, please," he will say. "We see very fine tomb today."
"Not another tomb, Assour!" I plead.
"Very fine tomb," he says firmly. "Easy. No walking. Just go in, see, come out again."
And of course we see the tomb, or tombs. Assour has a mania for them; we stoop and slide and crawl down into strange and often beautiful depths, and gaze by the light of burning magnesium wire, which usually goes out just as our eyes grow accustomed to the glare; and then we climb and pant and struggle out again.
"Now, was it fine tomb, madams?" Assour demands, with the light of his mania in his eyes. "You like it?"
Excerpted from Nomad's Land by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1926 George H. Doran Company. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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