CHAPTER VIII. ACROSS THE "DESERT OF DESPAIR."
And so this lively and eventful afternoon passes away, and about five o'clock we round the base of a conglomerate hill that has been shutting out the prospect ahead, cross a small spring freshet, and emerge upon an extensive gravelly plain stretching away eastward to the horizon. It is the central plain of the Dasht-i-na-oomid, the heart of the desert, of which the wild, heterogeneous territory traversed since morning forms the setting. So far as the utility of the bicycle and the horses is concerned, the change is decidedly for the better, even more so for the former than for the latter. The gravelly plain presents very good wheeling surface, and I forge ahead of my escort, following a trail so faint that it is barely distinguishable from the general surface. Shortly after leaving the mountainous country the three sowars hip their horses into a smart canter to overtake the bicycle. As they come clattering up, the khan shouts loudly for me to stop, and the mirza and mudbake supplement his vocal exertions by gesticulating to the same purpose. Dismounting, and allowing them to approach, in reply to my query of "Chi mi khoi?" the khan's knavish countenance becomes overspread with a ridiculously thin and transparent assumption of seriousness and importance, and pointing to an imaginary boundary-line at his horse's feet he says: "Bur-raa (brother), Afghanistan." "Khylie koob, Afghanistan inja-koob, hoob, sowari." (Very good, I understand, we are entering Afghanistan; all right, ride on.) "Sowari neis," replies the khan; and he tries hard to impress upon me that our crossing the Afghan frontier is a momentous occasion, and not to be lightly regarded. Several times during the day has my delectable escort endeavored to fathom the extent of my courage by impressing upon me the danger to be apprehended in Afghanistan by a Ferenghi. Not less than half a dozen times have they indulged in the grim pantomime of cutting their own throats, and telling me that this is the tragic fate that would await me in Afghanistan without their valuable protection. And now, as we stand on the boundary line, their bronzed and bared throats are again subjected to this highly expressive treatment; and transfixing me with a penetrating stare, as though eager to read in my face some responsive sign of fear or apprehension, the khan repeats with emphasis: "Bur-raa-ther, Afghanistan." Seeing me still inclined to make light of the matter, he turns to his comrades for confirmation. "O, bur-raa-ther, Afghanistan," assents the mirza; and the mudbake chimes in with the same words. "Well, yes, I understand; Afghanistan - what of it?" I inquire, amused at this theatrical display of their childish knavery.
For answer they start to loading up their guns and pistols, which up to now they have neglected to do; and they examine, with a ludicrous show of importance, the edges of their swords and the points of their daggers, staring the while at me to see what kind of an impression all this is making. Their scrutiny of my countenance brings them small satisfaction, methinks, for so ludicrous seems the scene, and so transparent the motives of this warlike movement, that no room is there for aught but a genuine expression of amusement.
Having loaded up their imposing array of firearms, the khan gives the word to advance, with as much show of solemnity as though leading a forlorn hope on some desperate undertaking, and he impresses upon me the importance of keeping as close to then as possible, instead of riding ahead. All around us is the unto-habited plain; not a living thing or sign of human being anywhere; but when I point this out, and picking up a stone, ask the khan if it is these that are dangerous, he replies, as before: "Bur-raa-ther, Afghanistan," and significantly taps his weapons. As we advance the level plain becomes covered with a growth of wild thyme and camel-thorn, the former permeating the desert air with its agreeable perfume. The evening air is soft and balmy I as we halt in the dusk of the evening to camp alongside the trail; each sowar has a large leathern water-bottle swinging from his stirrup-strap filled at the little freshet above mentioned, and for food we have bread and the remains of the cold kid. The horses are fastened to stout shrubs, and a fire is kindled with dried camel-thorn collected by the mudbake. Not a sound breaks the stillness of the evening as we squat around the fire and eat our frugal supper - all about us is the oppressive silence and solitude of the desert Away off in the dim distance to the northeast can be seen a single speck of light - the camp-fire of some wandering Afghan tribe.