Egypt of the Magicians VI

The Face of the Desert

by Rudyard Kipling

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.