CHAPTER XXIII - SUEZ TO GAZA
THE route over the Desert from Suez to Gaza is not frequented by merchants, and is seldom passed by a traveller. This part of the country is less uniformly barren than the tracts of shifting sand that lie on the El Arish route. The shrubs on which the camel feeds are more frequent, and in many spots the sand is mingled with so much of productive soil, as to admit the growth of corn. The Bedouins are driven out of this district during the summer by the total want of water, but before the time for their forced departure arrives they succeed in raising little crops of barley from these comparatively fertile patches of ground. They bury the fruit of their labours, leaving marks by which, upon their return, they may be able to recognise the spot. The warm, dry sand stands them for a safe granary. The country at the time I passed it (in the month of April) was pretty thickly sprinkled with Bedouins expecting their harvest. Several times my tent was pitched alongside of their encampments. I have told you already what the impressions were which these people produced upon my mind.
I saw several creatures of the antelope kind in this part of the Desert, and one day my Arabs surprised in her sleep a young gazelle (for so I called her), and took the darling prisoner. I carried her before me on my camel for the rest of the day, and kept her in my tent all night. I did all I could to coax her, but the trembling beauty refused to touch food, and would not be comforted. Whenever she had a seeming opportunity of escaping she struggled with a violence so painfully disproportioned to her fine, delicate limbs, that I could not continue the cruel attempt to make her my own. In the morning, therefore, I set her free, anticipating some pleasure from seeing the joyous bound with which, as I thought, she would return to her native freedom. She had been so stupefied, however, by the exciting events of the preceding day and night, and was so puzzled as to the road she should take, that she went off very deliberately, and with an uncertain step. She went away quite sound in limb, but her intellect may have been upset. Never in all likelihood had she seen the form of a human being until the dreadful moment when she woke from her sleep and found herself in the grip of an Arab. Then her pitching and tossing journey on the back of a camel, and lastly, a SOIREE with me by candlelight! I should have been glad to know, if I could, that her heart was not utterly broken.
My Arabs were somewhat excited one day by discovering the fresh print of a foot - the foot, as they said, of a lion. I had no conception that the lord of the forest (better known as a crest) ever stalked away from his jungles to make inglorious war in these smooth plains against antelopes and gazelles. I supposed that there must have been some error of interpretation, and that the Arabs meant to speak of a tiger. It appeared, however, that this was not the case. Either the Arabs were mistaken, or the noble brute, uncooped and unchained, had but lately crossed my path.
The camels with which I traversed this part of the Desert were very different in their ways and habits from those that you get on a frequented route. They were never led. There was not the slightest sign of a track in this part of the Desert, but the camels never failed to choose the right line. By the direction taken at starting they knew, I suppose, the point (some encampment) for which they were to make. There is always a leading camel (generally, I believe, the eldest), who marches foremost, and determines the path for the whole party. If it happens that no one of the camels has been accustomed to lead the others, there is very great difficulty in making a start. If you force your beast forward for a moment, he will contrive to wheel and draw back, at the same time looking at one of the other camels with an expression and gesture exactly equivalent to APRES VOUS. The responsibility of finding the way is evidently assumed very unwillingly. After some time, however, it becomes understood that one of the beasts has reluctantly consented to take the lead, and he accordingly advances for that purpose. For a minute or two he goes on with much indecision, taking first one line and then another, but soon by the aid of some mysterious sense he discovers the true direction, and follows it steadily from morning to night. When once the leadership is established, you cannot by any persuasion, and can scarcely by any force, induce a junior camel to walk one single step in advance of the chosen guide.
On the fifth day I came to an oasis, called the Wady el Arish, a ravine, or rather a gully, through which during a part of the year there runs a stream of water. On the sides of the gully there were a number of those graceful trees which the Arabs call TARFA. The channel of the stream was quite dry in the part at which we arrived, but at about half a mile off some water was found, which, though very muddy, was tolerably sweet. This was a happy discovery, for all the water that we had brought from the neighbourhood of Suez was rapidly putrefying.