CHAPTER VIII. ACROSS THE "DESERT OF DESPAIR."
Wending our way thither we find a large camp of about fifty tents occupying a level stretch of clean gravelly ground, slightly elevated above the mud-flats. The tents are of brownish-black goat-hair, similar in material to the tents of Koords and Eliautes; in size and structure they are larger and finer than those of the Eliautes, but inferior to the splendid tent-palaces of Koordistan. A couple of hundred yards from the tents is a small spring of water, enclosed within a rude wall of loosely-piled stone; the water is allowed to trickle through this wall and accumulate in a basin outside. Here, as we ride up, are several women filling goat-skin vessels to carry to the tents.
The tent of the chief stands out conspicuously from the others, and the khan, desirous of giving his "bur-raa-ther," as he now terms the Eimuck chieftain, a surprise, suggests that I ride ahead of the horsemen and dismount before his tent. This capital little arrangement is somewhat interfered with by the fact that a goodly proportion of the male population present have already become cognizant of our presence, and are standing in white-robed groups about their tents trying with hand-shaded eyes to penetrate the secret of my strange appearance. Nevertheless, I ride ahead and alight at the entrance to the chief's tent. The chief is a middle-aged man of medium height and inclined to obesity. He and all the men are arrayed in garments of coarse white cotton stuff throughout, loose pantaloons, bound at the ankles, and an over-garment of a pattern very much like a night-shirt; on their heads are the regulation Afghan turbans, with long, dangling ends, and their feet are incased in rude moccasins with upturned toes. As I dismount, and the chief fully realizes that I am a Ferenghi, his face turns red with embarrassment. Instead of the smiles or the grave kindliness of a Koordish sheikh, or the simple, childlike greeting of an Eliaute, the Eimuck chief motions me into his tent in a brusque, offish manner, his countenance all aglow with the redness of what almost looks like a guilty conscience.
With the intuition that comes of long and changeful association with strange peoples, the changing countenance of the Afghan chief impresses me at once as the fiery signal of inbred Mussulman fanaticism, lighting up spontaneously at the unexpected and unannounced arrival of a lone Ferenghi in his presence. It savors somewhat of bearding a dangerous lion in his own den. He certainly betrays deep embarrassment at my appearance; which, however, may partly result from not yet knowing the character of my companions, or the wherefore of this strange visitation. When my escort rides up his whole demeanor instantly undergoes a change; the cloud of embarrassment lifts from his face, he and the khan recognize and greet each other cordially as "bur-raa-ther," and kiss each-other's hands; some of his men standing by exchange similar brotherly greetings with the mirza and the mudbake.
After duly refreshing and invigorating ourselves with sundry bowls of doke, the inevitable tomasha is given, and the chief asks the khan to get me to ride up before one row of tents and down the other for the edification of the women and children, curious groups of whom are gathered at every door. The ground between the two long, even rows of tents resembles a macadam boulevard for width and smoothness, and I give the wild Eimuck tribes-people a ten minutes' exhibition of circling, speeding, and riding with hands off handles. A strange and novel experience, surely, this latest triumph of high Western civilization, invading the isolated nomad camp on the Dasht-i-na-oomid and disporting for the amusement of the women and children. Some of the women are attired in quite fanciful colors; Turkish pantaloons of bright blue and jackets of equally bright red render them highly picturesque, and they wear a profusion of bead necklaces and the multifarious gewgaws of semi-civilization. The younger girls wear nose-rings of silver in the left nostril, with a cluster of tiny beads or stones decorating the side of the nose. The wrists of most of the men are adorned with bracelets of plain copper wire about the size of ordinary telegraph wire; they average large and well-proportioned, and seem intellectually superior to the Eliautes. A very striking peculiarity of the people in this particular camp is a sort of lisping, hissing accent to their speech. When first addressed by the chief, I fancied it simply an individual case of lisping; but every person in the camp does likewise. Another peculiarity of expression, that, while not peculiar to this particular camp, is made striking by reason of its novelty to me at this time, the use of the expression "O" as a term of assent, in lieu of the Persian "balli." The sowars, from their proximity to the frontier, have sometimes used this expression, but here, in the Eimuck camp, I come suddenly upon a people who use it to the total exclusion of the Persian word. The change from the "balli sahib" of the Tabbas villagers to the "O, O, O" of the Afghan nomads is novel and entertaining in the extreme, and I sit and listen with no small interest to the edifying conversation of the khan, the mirza, and the mudbake on the one side, and the Eimuck chieftain and prominent members of the tribe on the other.