CHAPTER VI. THE DESERT.
I happened to be in advance of the party, under the conduct of one of the gentlemen who had joined us on the preceding evening; I therefore directed Mohammed to go forward, to announce our approach; and either the sight of the Red Sea, or their eagerness to reach a well-known spring of water, induced my donkeys to gallop along the road with me; a fortunate circumstance, as the day was beginning to be very sultry, and I felt that I should enjoy the shelter and repose of a habitation. As we went along, indications of the new power, which had already effected the easy transit of the desert, were visible in small patches of coal, scattered upon the sand; presently we saw a dark nondescript object, that did not look at all like the abode of men, civilized or uncivilized; and yet, from the group hovering about an aperture, seemed to be tenanted by human beings. This proved to be an old boiler, formerly belonging to a steam-vessel, and appearing, indeed, as if some black and shapeless hulk had been cast on shore. The well, which had attracted my donkeys, was very picturesque; the water flowed into a large stone trough, or rather basin, beneath the walls of a castellated edifice, pierced with many small windows, and apparently in a very dilapidated state. Those melancholy memento moris, which had tracked our whole progress through the desert, were to be seen in the immediate vicinity of this well. The skeletons of five or six camels lay in a group within a few yards of the haven which they had doubtless toiled anxiously, though so vainly, to reach. I never could look upon the bones of these poor animals without a painful feeling, and in the hope that European skill and science may yet bring forward those hidden waters which would disarm the desert of its terrors. It is said that the experiment of boring has been tried, and failed, between Suez and Cairo, but that it succeeded in the great desert; some other method, perhaps, may be found, if the project of bringing water from the hills, by means of aqueducts, should be too expensive. We heard this plan talked of at the bungalow, but I fear that, in the present state of Egypt, it is very chimerical.
This was now our fourth day upon the desert, and we had not sustained the smallest inconvenience; the heat, even at noon, being very bearable, and the sand not in the least degree troublesome. Doubtless, at a less favourable period of the year, both would prove difficult to bear. The wind, we were told, frequently raised the sand in clouds; and though the danger of being buried beneath the tombs thus made, we had reason to believe, was greatly exaggerated, yet the plague of sand is certainly an evil to be dreaded, and travellers will do well to avoid the season in which it prevails. The speed of my donkeys increasing, rather than diminishing, after we left the well, for they seemed to know that Suez would terminate their journey, I crossed the intervening three miles very quickly, and was soon at the walls of the town.
Distance lends no enchantment to the view of Suez. It is difficult to fancy that the few miserable buildings, appearing upon the margin of the sea, actually constitute a town; and the heart sinks at the approach to a place so barren and desolate. My donkeys carried me through a gap in the wall, which answered all the purposes of a gateway, and we passed along broken ground and among wretched habitations, more fit for the abode of savage beasts than men. Even the superior description of houses bore so forlorn and dilapidated an appearance, that I actually trembled as I approached them, fearing that my guide would stop, and tell me that, my journey was at an end.
Before I had time to make any observations upon the place to which I was conducted, I found myself at the foot of a flight of steps, and reaching a landing place, saw another above, and Mohammed descending to meet me. I followed him to the top, and crossing a large apartment, which served as dining and drawing room, entered a passage which led to a light and certainly airy bed-chamber; for half the front wall, and a portion of one of the sides, were entirely formed of wooden trellice, which admitted, with the utmost freedom, all the winds of heaven, the sun, and also the dust. There was a mat upon the floor, and the apartment was whitewashed to the rafters, which were in good condition; and upon Mohammed's declaration that it was free from rats, I felt an assurance of a share of comfort which I had dared not expect before. There were two neat beds, with musquito-curtains, two tables, and washing apparatus, but no looking-glass; an omission which I could supply, though we had dispensed with such a piece of luxury altogether in the desert. Well supplied with hot and cold water, I had enjoyed the refreshment of plenteous ablutions, and nearly completed my toilet, before the arrival of the friends I had so completely distanced. I made an attempt to sit down to my desk, but was unable to write a line, and throwing myself on my bed full dressed, I fell asleep in a moment, and enjoyed the deepest repose for an hour, or perhaps longer.