SHIPS OF THE DESERT

By Lillian M. Gask

"I wonder where I shall find a Camel," said Phil to himself. Not even the Arab Horses, far-famed and lovely as they were, could for him compare in interest with the "ships of the desert," without whose aid, Nature had told him the burning sands would be more impassable than tractless seas. He had seen a Camel once in a travelling menagerie; a depressed and shaggy Camel, with dim, lack-lustre eyes and a rough coat. He wondered if the Camels in Arabia would look like that.

There was no breeze now, and the thin blue smoke that rose above the chimneys of the distant houses hung lazily in the sky. Phil had walked far since he left the mountain, and although a tawny Butterfly with an oblique white bar across the tip of her forewings had stayed her flight in passing, it had only been to wish him a pleasant journey. The sands of the desert plains stretched far to left and right in the broiling sunshine, looking like tracts of gold. Phil's eyes were dazzled by the glare; he sought the shade of a palm tree and leant against its slender trunk.

Presently he became aware that something was watching him from a sandy bank not far away. It was a Lizard—surely the queerest Lizard that Nature had ever made. His body was covered with shining scales, like those of most of his kindred, but his fat tail, ringed with thorn-like spines, was very curious, and his big teeth, set far apart in his funny mouth, were too large for his small round head.

He gazed at Phil in quizzical amusement, and asked him what he wanted in Arabia.

"To see a Camel," Phil replied, and the Lizard gave a dry little chuckle.

"You will have to go down to the plains for that," he said, "and the wind will blow the sand into your eyes. Better stay here with me. The shade is pleasant, and dates are sweet."

Phil shook his head.

"I have come a long way to see the Camel," he persisted. "Have I far to go before I shall find him?"

The Thorny-tailed Lizard—for this was he—blinked several times before he spoke again.

"Not far for you," he said at last, "for Nature has given you invisible wings to your feet. Before you go have a look at my burrow. It is a simple little affair, but very comfortable, and when I tuck my head and body inside it I am quite safe. If the Arabs, who find me as dainty eating as they do Locusts, try to pull me out by my tail, it comes off in their hands, and I grow another. He! he! he!"

The Lizard was quite a character in his way, and Phil spent a pleasant half-hour with him. His burrow, though only a deep long hole in the sand-bank, was very cosy, and Mrs. Thorny-tail was most intelligent. She had a great deal to say to Phil about a demure Red Locust who showed some inclination, to bite him as he bade her farewell at the entrance to the burrow.

"He belongs to the same family as the Grasshoppers," she remarked, as, much discomfited at what she said to him, the Locust flew away. "But instead of leaping through the air as they do, he uses his strong wings, which carry him very far."

"He scarcely looks large enough to do all the harm they say," said Phil, who had heard of him from the Butterfly. "I should have thought him quite a harmless creature if I had not known."

"A swarm of his family can make a green land desolate," returned the Lizard. "Small things can do much mischief, as you will learn when you grow older. There is nothing safe from Locusts. They have even been known in the Strait of Ormuz to settle on a ship, and, by devouring the sails and cordage, oblige the captain to stay his course. What? You are still thinking about your Camels? Well, ask for 'Maherry' when you reach the Arabs' dwellings. He is the fleetest Heirie in Arabia."

"Is a 'Heirie' the same as a Camel?" Phil inquired. But the Thorny-tailed Lizard had already tucked her head into her burrow, and soon was lost to sight.

A Weaver Bird fluttered from the palm tree in a state of wild alarm.

"There's a Viper under that stone," she cried, "Do send him off. He makes my heart beat so that I can scarcely hear myself twitter."

Phil turned it over, and a Snake wriggled away as if he had no wish that Phil should see his face. The Weaver Bird thanked Phil with many words.

"He has been watching me all the morning," she said, "with those dreadful eyes of his. I am thankful that he has gone, though my young ones have flown now, and my mind is at peace. Won't you stay and look at my nest? We made it all ourselves, I and my mate, and it is quite worth seeing."

It hung from a fairly high branch, and could only be reached by means of a long narrow entrance, most elaborately woven of grass and twigs, somewhat in the shape of an old-fashioned netted purse. This, she told him, was to keep away poisonous Snakes and mischievous Monkeys, who would otherwise have helped themselves to her eggs, or feasted upon her fledglings.

"We had to keep a sharp look out, their father and I," she added, putting her small black head pensively on one side as she thought of the troubles of married life, "for Birds have many enemies here. Sometimes we hang our nests from the boughs of trees on the bank of a stream or river, but then there are Water Rats as well as Snakes, and it is wonderful how far they can jump."

And on she chattered, giving Phil her history from the day of her birth, and confiding to him how grieved her mate had been in spring because he could not sing.

"But when we began to build our nest," she went on happily, "he was too busy to think about such nonsense, and there is no good in crying for what you cannot have! If you will wait a little while you will see him. Are you going far?—'To find Maherry?' Why, you are almost there. Just go straight on until you come to a house with a white mark over the lintel. He lives in the shed beside it."

Following her directions, Phil steered his course by the blue smoke that he had seen in the distance, and presently found the house that she had described. It was roughly built and very old; it looked as if it had been there for centuries. The door of the shed was open, and Phil slipped quietly in. A slender Camel, resting on the ground in a kneeling position, looked solemnly up at him from beneath his long thick lashes, and waited for him to speak.

"Are you Maherry?" he said, touching the reddish-grey coat that for all its thickness was as soft as silk.

"I am Maherry," the Camel answered, stirring a little so that Phil might find room beside him on his couch of date leaves. "I have just come a long journey across the desert, and my limbs are weary, or I would rise."

"Why do they call you the Heirie? You look just like the one-humped
Camel I saw in my picture book, and he was a Dromedary."

Maherry raised his head.

"I am sometimes called that too. Dromedaries or Heiries are one and the same animal. Heiries are more slenderly built and far more fleet than ordinary Camels, whether they are one-humped and Arabian, or Bactrian, with two humps. To an Arab 'Fleet as the Heirie' means 'fleet as the wind.' We are the Camels of Oman, and can travel through the desert without stopping for several days and nights. Thus we reach the end of our journeys quickly, and our masters cry: 'It is well!' In days of old the Arabs said: 'When thou shalt meet a Heirie and say to the rider 'Peace be between us,' ere he shall have answered 'There is peace between us,' he will be far off, for his swiftness is like the wind.'"

"Are they kind to you, these masters of yours, Maherry?"

The Heirie laughed softly.

"Ay," he said, "or we should not serve them half so well. The service of love is swifter than the service of fear; the Turks, who treat their Camels more as you do the Ass in England, find them neither so willing nor so tractable, though all Camels are by nature patient, and strong to endure. Here in Arabia a young Camel is fondled as if it were a baby. 'A child is born to us,' cry our master's family; and silver charms are hung on our heads and about our necks, while we are encouraged to take our first steps by music and song."

The Heirie paused. The tinkling of bells came softly through the open door, and Phil, looking eagerly round it, saw a long procession of Camels wending its way through the town. They were heavily laden, and trod as if they were very tired. As they reached an open space behind the market their masters called a halt.

"It is four o'clock, and the end of one stage of their journey," said Maherry. "Go you and watch them; and do not give too much heed if they dispute with each other when they are unloaded. It is the end of the day, and their burdens were heavy."

Phil drew the door of the Heirie's shed quickly behind him, and hastened through the market place, where another time he would have wished to linger. Pink and white sweetmeats were spread out temptingly; luscious black figs, and grapes and peaches covered the low stalls; sweet-smelling spices and aromatic herbs made the air fragrant, and dark-skinned Arabs showed weapons and ornaments, cunningly wrought in precious metals. But it was only the Camels Phil wanted to see just then, and he did not stop until he had reached them.

They were much larger than the Heirie; most of them were brown, but some light grey, and one, who bore the heaviest load of all, a snowy white. His master called him "Aleppo," and chided him gently for his weariness. Phil made himself known to him as he knelt to be unloaded, throwing the weight of his body on the thick elastic pads that Nature had given him on his broad chest and on each elbow and knee of his fore-limbs. These elastic cushions, Phil saw, were on the front of his hind knees too, and smaller ones upon his hocks.

"This is so that in kneeling, our natural position of rest, wherever the weight of our bodies is thrown, our shins are protected," said Aleppo. "I am hungry and thirsty now, but presently we will talk."

The unloading of the Camels took some time. As they were released from their burdens they rose to their feet again, and the way in which some of them scuffled and kicked their neighbours reminded Phil of Maherry's words. It was strange to see them wrestling together, now and then giving each other an apparently savage bite, and Phil was glad when the Arabs brought them their evening meal—date leaves and thorny shrubs, with leaves and branches of the tamarisk tree, and some dry black beans that looked as hard as stones. But the Camels, kneeling round the baggage, scrunched them thankfully, their strong teeth making this an easy matter, and drew in leaves and branches with their cleft lips. Ere long Aleppo, declaring himself refreshed, suggested that Phil should come close beside him, so that they could talk more easily.

As Phil leant comfortably against his hump he was struck with its ungainliness, and asked:

"Don't you wish you hadn't a hump, Aleppo?"

Aleppo nearly upset him by the sudden start he gave.

"Why, my hump is my greatest treasure," he replied. "But for that, I should have often dropped from starvation when provisions ran short in the desert. When a Camel once falls it seldom rises to its feet again, and the Vultures claim it as their own. The first thing an Arab does when he is starting on a journey is to look to his animal's hump, for without the nourishment stored up for him in this, the Camel would often be in a bad way. Once our humps are exhausted, it takes three or four months of rest and good feeding to bring them up again."

"But how do you 'feed' on them, Aleppo?"

"We absorb the fat of which they are composed into our system," said Aleppo, "just as, in colder regions of the earth, the Bears, during their long winter sleep live on the thick layer of fat stored up for them during the autumn beneath their skins."

"Is there water in your hump, too?" asked Phil. "I often used to wonder when I heard about you how you can go as many days without it as they say you do when you are crossing the desert."

"No," said Aleppo, with a wide grin. "We hold our stores of water in what you might call a 'reservoir' of deep honeycomb cells inside our paunch. These cells hold altogether as much as six quarts of fluid, and when we have taken a long drink the mouth of each cell contracts, so that the water is prevented from mixing with our food.

"Some Camels can go longer without drinking than others. This is because they can dilate these cells, and so carry a larger supply of water. It is said"—his voice became very mournful, and he stopped scrunching the dry jeans—"that rather than die of thirst the Arabs have been known to kill us in the wilderness, that they might steal the water yet remaining in our cells! But I can scarcely, believe it!"

Phil was deeply impressed.

"Is there any other animal in the world so wonderfully made as you are?" he asked.

Aleppo looked at him with a kind smile, for he, in common with every living creature, was glad to be appreciated.

"There are many just as wonderful in their own way," he said, "but the only other animal I know of who has this 'reservoir' inside him is the Llama. In the mountainous regions of Chili and Peru he fills our place as servant to man."

Phil waited to hear more, but Aleppo was trapped in thought.

The dusk had gathered; the sellers from the market place had gone away, and as the brilliant stars flamed in the heavens one by one, a hush fell over the scene. Suddenly Aleppo raised his head; from afar off came the jangling of many bells, the sound of flutes and flageolets, of the beating of drums and of shouts of exultation.

"It is a caravan of pilgrims," said Aleppo, "on their way to the Holy City, where, enthroned upon a Camel, Mohammed gave the law. The pilgrims travel by night; they started only a few hours since, and this is not one of their halting places, so you will see them pass."

The cavalcade came nearer. Phil could see now the lighted torches that the pilgrims waved; their yellow flames lit up the scene, and shone on the silver trappings of the foremost Camels. Streamers of coloured silk floated above their heads or trailed behind them; the saddles of the Heiries were of the richest velvet, purple and blue, and necklaces of coral and amber hung below their bridles. The swarthy faces of their riders shone with fervour as they played their flutes, or sang their hymns of praise, and the satin-skinned Arab Horses, who formed a minor part of the cavalcade, pranced and curveted as the torch light gleamed on their polished sides.

"Poor things," said Aleppo with a pitying look. "When the fierce rays of the sun stream down upon them, and their hoofs sink deeply into the shifting sands, they will suffer tortures. Many die on these pilgrimages before the journey is half over, for Nature has not fitted them, as she has us, to cross the desert."

"Tell me about them!" entreated Phil, as the beautiful creatures still came on, their eyes flashing with pride of race, and every line of their slender bodies a thing of beauty.

"They are famous all the world over," said Aleppo; "so famous that it is difficult now for even an Arab Sheik to increase his stud. To be accounted of pure lineage, an Arab Horse must belong to one of the five breeds which are said to be descended from King Solomon's favourite mares! Their pedigrees are written in parchment; they are contained in the little pouches their masters hang round their necks. Arab Horses do not know the meaning of a blow, and because they have never been roughly treated they are as gentle as they are brave. They neither jib nor rear, and in spite of their small size are full of fire and courage."

The Arab Horses passed, and yet the cavalcade streamed on. Now there were Camels again, still more resplendent in their trappings than those that had gone before. Embroideries of gold and silver bedecked their saddles, and glittered beneath the robes of flowing white which are the Arabs' native dress. One pure grey Heirie was decked with ostrich feathers, and had his bridle studded with rubies and emeralds, and gleaming topaz. His master was the Emir Hadgi, the commander of the pilgrimage.

"I once took part in a pilgrimage myself," said Aleppo reflectively, when the last of the cavalcade was out of sight. "Even for me, trained as I was to go long distances, it was a hard struggle to endure to the end. There was a terrible sand storm, and water failed; the wells, when we reached them, were all dried up, and but few of the pilgrims survived."

Aleppo paused. He was thinking of the strange fascination of the desert in spite of all its terrors, and of the wonderful pictures he had seen in the desert sky that men called "mirages." They were of shady groves and flowing rivers, and many a time had Aleppo seen them as he pressed on through the sands, with head held high, so that he might scan the horizon for the longed-for oasis. He turned to speak of these to Phil; but his little companion, he saw, had meantime drifted off to dreamland.