eBooks Cube
 
BOOK FIRST



CHAPTER I



The Jebel es Zubleh is a mountain fifty miles and more in length,
and so narrow that its tracery on the map gives it a likeness to
a caterpillar crawling from the south to the north. Standing on
its red-and-white cliffs, and looking off under the path of the
rising sun, one sees only the Desert of Arabia, where the east
winds, so hateful to vinegrowers of Jericho, have kept their
playgrounds since the beginning. Its feet are well covered by
sands tossed from the Euphrates, there to lie, for the mountain
is a wall to the pasture-lands of Moab and Ammon on the west--lands
which else had been of the desert a part.

The Arab has impressed his language upon everything south and
east of Judea, so, in his tongue, the old Jebel is the parent of
numberless wadies which, intersecting the Roman road--now a dim
suggestion of what once it was, a dusty path for Syrian pilgrims
to and from Mecca--run their furrows, deepening as they go, to
pass the torrents of the rainy season into the Jordan, or their
last receptacle, the Dead Sea. Out of one of these wadies--or,
more particularly, out of that one which rises at the extreme end
of the Jebel, and, extending east of north, becomes at length
the bed of the Jabbok River--a traveller passed, going to the
table-lands of the desert. To this person the attention of the
reader is first besought.

Judged by his appearance, he was quite forty-five years old.
His beard, once of the deepest black, flowing broadly over his
breast, was streaked with white. His face was brown as a parched
coffee-berry, and so hidden by a red kufiyeh (as the kerchief of
the head is at this day called by the children of the desert)
as to be but in part visible. Now and then he raised his eyes,
and they were large and dark. He was clad in the flowing garments
so universal in the East; but their style may not be described
more particularly, for he sat under a miniature tent, and rode
a great white dromedary.

It may be doubted if the people of the West ever overcome the impression
made upon them by the first view of a camel equipped and loaded for
the desert. Custom, so fatal to other novelties, affects this feeling
but little. At the end of long journeys with caravans, after years of
residence with the Bedawin, the Western-born, wherever they may be,
will stop and wait the passing of the stately brute. The charm is
not in the figure, which not even love can make beautiful; nor in
the movement, the noiseless stepping, or the broad careen. As is
the kindness of the sea to a ship, so that of the desert to its
creature. It clothes him with all its mysteries; in such manner,
too, that while we are looking at him we are thinking of them:
therein is the wonder. The animal which now came out of the wady
might well have claimed the customary homage. Its color and height;
its breadth of foot; its bulk of body, not fat, but overlaid with
muscle; its long, slender neck, of swanlike curvature; the head,
wide between the eyes, and tapering to a muzzle which a lady's
bracelet might have almost clasped; its motion, step long and elastic,
tread sure and soundless--all certified its Syrian blood, old as the
days of Cyrus, and absolutely priceless. There was the usual bridle,
covering the forehead with scarlet fringe, and garnishing the throat
with pendent brazen chains, each ending with a tinkling silver bell;
but to the bridle there was neither rein for the rider nor strap
for a driver. The furniture perched on the back was an invention
which with any other people than of the East would have made the
inventor renowned. It consisted of two wooden boxes, scarce four
feet in length, balanced so that one hung at each side; the inner
space, softly lined and carpeted, was arranged to allow the master
to sit or lie half reclined; over it all was stretched a green
awning. Broad back and breast straps, and girths, secured with
countless knots and ties, held the device in place. In such manner
the ingenious sons of Cush had contrived to make comfortable the
sunburnt ways of the wilderness, along which lay their duty as
often as their pleasure.

When the dromedary lifted itself out of the last break of the wady,
the traveller had passed the boundary of El Belka, the ancient
Ammon. It was morning-time. Before him was the sun, half curtained
in fleecy mist; before him also spread the desert; not the realm
of drifting sands, which was farther on, but the region where the
herbage began to dwarf; where the surface is strewn with boulders
of granite, and gray and brown stones, interspersed with languishing
acacias and tufts of camel-grass. The oak, bramble, and arbutus
lay behind, as if they had come to a line, looked over into the
well-less waste and crouched with fear.

And now there was an end of path or road. More than ever the camel
seemed insensibly driven; it lengthened and quickened its pace, its
head pointed straight towards the horizon; through the wide nostrils
it drank the wind in great draughts. The litter swayed, and rose
and fell like a boat in the waves. Dried leaves in occasional beds
rustled underfoot. Sometimes a perfume like absinthe sweetened all
the air. Lark and chat and rock-swallow leaped to wing, and white
partridges ran whistling and clucking out of the way. More rarely
a fox or a hyena quickened his gallop, to study the intruders at
a safe distance. Off to the right rose the hills of the Jebel,
the pearl-gray veil resting upon them changing momentarily into
a purple which the sun would make matchless a little later.
Over their highest peaks a vulture sailed on broad wings into
widening circles. But of all these things the tenant under the
green tent saw nothing, or, at least, made no sign of recognition.
His eyes were fixed and dreamy. The going of the man, like that of
the animal, was as one being led.

For two hours the dromedary swung forward, keeping the trot
steadily and the line due east. In that time the traveller never
changed his position, nor looked to the right or left. On the
desert, distance is not measured by miles or leagues, but by the
saat, or hour, and the manzil, or halt: three and a half leagues
fill the former, fifteen or twenty-five the latter; but they are
the rates for the common camel. A carrier of the genuine Syrian
stock can make three leagues easily. At full speed he overtakes
the ordinary winds. As one of the results of the rapid advance,
the face of the landscape underwent a change. The Jebel stretched
along the western horizon, like a pale-blue ribbon. A tell, or hummock
of clay and cemented sand, arose here and there. Now and then basaltic
stones lifted their round crowns, outposts of the mountain against the
forces of the plain; all else, however, was sand, sometimes smooth as
the beaten beach, then heaped in rolling ridges; here chopped waves,
there long swells. So, too, the condition of the atmosphere changed.
The sun, high risen, had drunk his fill of dew and mist, and warmed
the breeze that kissed the wanderer under the awning; far and near
he was tinting the earth with faint milk-whiteness, and shimmering
all the sky.

Two hours more passed without rest or deviation from the course.
Vegetation entirely ceased. The sand, so crusted on the surface
that it broke into rattling flakes at every step, held undisputed
sway. The Jebel was out of view, and there was no landmark visible.
The shadow that before followed had now shifted to the north, and was
keeping even race with the objects which cast it; and as there was
no sign of halting, the conduct of the traveller became each moment
more strange.

No one, be it remembered, seeks the desert for a pleasure-ground.
Life and business traverse it by paths along which the bones of things
dead are strewn as so many blazons. Such are the roads from well to
well, from pasture to pasture. The heart of the most veteran sheik
beats quicker when he finds himself alone in the pathless tracts.
So the man with whom we are dealing could not have been in search
of pleasure; neither was his manner that of a fugitive; not once
did he look behind him. In such situations fear and curiosity are
the most common sensations; he was not moved by them. When men are
lonely, they stoop to any companionship; the dog becomes a comrade,
the horse a friend, and it is no shame to shower them with caresses
and speeches of love. The camel received no such token, not a touch,
not a word.

Exactly at noon the dromedary, of its own will, stopped, and uttered
the cry or moan, peculiarly piteous, by which its kind always protest
against an overload, and sometimes crave attention and rest. The master
thereupon bestirred himself, waking, as it were, from sleep. He threw
the curtains of the houdah up, looked at the sun, surveyed the country
on every side long and carefully, as if to identify an appointed place.
Satisfied with the inspection, he drew a deep breath and nodded,
much as to say, "At last, at last!" A moment after, he crossed
his hands upon his breast, bowed his head, and prayed silently.
The pious duty done, he prepared to dismount. From his throat
proceeded the sound heard doubtless by the favorite camels of
Job--Ikh! ikh!--the signal to kneel. Slowly the animal obeyed,
grunting the while. The rider then put his foot upon the slender
neck, and stepped upon the sand.





Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Category:
General Fiction
Nabou.com: the big site