CHAPTER VI. THE DESERT.
Having made a slight refection on the road, of hard-boiled eggs, bread, grapes, and apples, we came up at mid-day to a rest-house, where it was determined we should remain for an hour or two, to water the donkeys, and afford them needful repose, while we enjoyed a more substantial luncheon. Our companions were so well satisfied with the management of Mohammed, who conducted the whole line of march, that they sent their Egyptian servant forward to order our dinner at the resting-place for the night. We found, however, that advantage had been taken of Mohammed's absence the preceding evening, and of the hurry of the morning's departure, to send back some of the animals we had engaged and paid for, and to substitute others so weak as to be perfectly useless. We were likewise cheated with regard to the water; we were told that the camel bearing the skins, for which we had paid at Cairo, had been taken by mistake by two gentlemen travelling in advance, and as we could not allow the poor animals to suffer, we of course purchased water for them. This was no doubt an imposition, but one for which, under the circumstances, we had no remedy.
Upon reaching the bungalow, we again came up with the kafila that we had seen twice before; the wife of the governor of Jiddah, with her women, vacated the apartment into which we were shown, when we arrived; but her husband sent a message, requesting that we would permit her to occupy another, which was empty. We were but too happy to comply, and should have been glad to have obtained a personal interview; but having no interpreter excepting Mohammed, who would not have been admitted to the conference, we did not like to make the attempt. From the glance which we obtained of the lady, she seemed to be very diminutive; nothing beyond height and size could be distinguishable under the blue envelope she wore, in common with her women: some of the latter occasionally unveiled their faces, which were certainly not very attractive; but others, probably those who were younger and handsomer, kept their features closely shrouded.
Again betaking ourselves to our conveyances, we launched forth into the desert, enjoying it as much the second day as we had done the first. I entertained a hope of seeing some of the beautiful gazelles, for which Arabia is famous; but not one appeared. A pair of birds occasionally skimmed over the desert, at a short distance from its surface; but those were the only specimens of wild animals we encountered. The skeletons of camels occurred as frequently as before; many nearly entire, others with their bones scattered abroad, but whether borne by the winds, or by some savage beast, we could not learn. Neither could we discover whether the deaths of these poor animals had been recent or not; for so short a time only is required in Eastern countries for the insects to anatomize any animal that may fall in their way, that even supposing that jackalls and hyaenas should not be attracted to the spot, the ants would make quick work even of so large a creature as a camel.
There were hills in the back ground, which might probably shelter vultures, kites, and the family of quadrupeds that feed upon offal, and much did I desire to mount a high trotting camel, and take a scamper amongst these hills - obliged to content myself with jogging soberly on with my party, I was fain to find amusement in the contemplation of a cavalcade, the like of which will probably not be often seen again. Our five vehicles sometimes trotted abreast, affording us an opportunity of conversing with each other; but more frequently they would spread themselves all over the plain, the guides allowing their beasts to take their own way, provided they moved straight forward. Occasionally, a spare donkey, or one carrying the baggage, would stray off in an oblique direction, and then the drivers were compelled to make a wide detour to bring them in again. Once or twice, the ropes slipped, and my chair came to the ground; fortunately, it had not to fall far; or a donkey would stumble and fall, but no serious accident occurred; and though one of the party, being behind, and unable to procure assistance in righting the carriage, was obliged to walk a mile or two, we were all speedily in proper trim again. Towards evening, the easy motion of the chair, and the inclination I felt to close my eyes, after staring about all day, caused me to fall asleep; and again, much sooner than I had expected, I found myself at the place of our destination.
Either owing to a want of funds, or to some misunderstanding, the bungalow at this place, which is considered to be nearly midway across the desert, had only been raised a few inches from the ground; there were tents, however, for the accommodation of travellers, which we infinitely preferred. The one we occupied was of sufficient size to admit the whole party - that is, the four ladies, the baby, and its female attendant. There were divans on either side, to spread the beds upon, and the openings at each end made the whole delightfully cool.
We found Ali, the servant sent on in the morning, very busy superintending the cookery for dinner, which was performed in the open air. The share of bread and apples given to me upon the road I now bestowed upon my donkeys, not having reflected at the time that the drivers would be glad of it; so the next day, when the usual distributions were made, I gave the grapes, &c. to the donkey-men, who stuffed them into their usual repository, the bosoms of their blue shirts, and seemed very well pleased to get them.