Seven Pillars of Wisdom – Day 40 of 240

‘I’ve lost Britain, and I’ve lost Gaul, I’ve lost Rome, and, worst of all, I’ve lost Lalage–’

only it was Nejd they had lost, and the women of the Maabda, and their future lay from Jidda towards Suez. Yet it was a good song, with a rhythmical beat which the camels loved, so that they put down their heads, stretched their necks out far and with lengthened pace shuffled forward musingly while it lasted.

Our road to-day was easy for them, since it was over firm sand slopes, long, slowly-rising waves of dunes, bare-backed, but for scrub in the folds, or barren palm-trees solitary in the moist depressions. Afterwards in a broad flat, two horsemen came cantering across from the left to greet Feisal. I knew the first one, dirty old blear-eyed Mohammed Ali el Beidawi, Emir of the Juheina: but the second looked strange. When he came nearer I saw he was in khaki uniform, with a cloak to cover it and a silk head-cloth and head-rope, much awry. He looked up, and there was Newcombe’s red and peeling face, with straining eyes and vehement mouth, a strong, humorous grin between the jaws. He had arrived at Um Lejj this morning, and hearing we were only just off, had seized Sheikh Yu-suf’s fastest horse and galloped after us.

I offered him my spare camel and an introduction to Feisal, whom he greeted like an old school-friend; and at once they plunged into the midst of things, suggesting, debating, planning at lightning speed. Newcombe’s initial velocity was enormous, and the freshness of the day and the life and happiness of the Army gave inspiration to the march and brought the future bubbling out of us without pain.

We passed Ghowashia, a ragged grove of palms, and marched over a lava-field easily, its roughnesses being drowned in sand just deep enough to smooth them, but not deep enough to be too soft. The tops of the highest lava-piles showed through. An hour later we came suddenly to a crest which dropped as a sand slope, abrupt and swept and straight enough to be called a sand-cliff, into a broad splendid valley of rounded pebbles. This was Semna, and our road went down the steep, through terraces of palms.

The wind had been following our march, and so it was very still and warm at bottom of the valley in lee of the great bank of sand. Here was our water, and here we would halt till the scouts returned from seeking rain-pools in front of us; for so Abd el Kerim, our chief guide, had advised. We rode the four hundred yards across the valley and up the further slopes till we were safe from floods, and there Feisal tapped his camel lightly on the neck till she sank to her knees with a scrape of shingle pushed aside, and settled herself. Hejris spread the carpet for us, and with the other Sherifs we sat and jested while the coffee was made hot.

I maintained against Feisal the greatness of Ibrahim Pasha, leader of Milli-Kurds, in North Mesopotamia. When he was to march, his women rose before dawn, and footing noiselessly overhead on the taut tentcloth, unskewered the strips of it, while others beneath held and removed the poles till all was struck and divided into camel-loads, and loaded. Then they drove off, so that the Pasha awoke alone on his pallet in the open air where at night he had lain down in the rich inner compartment of his palace-tent.

He would get up at leisure and drink coffee on his carpet: and afterwards the horses would be brought, and they would ride towards the new camping ground. But if on his way he thirsted he would crisp his fingers to the servants, and the coffee man would ride up beside him with his pots ready and his brazier burning on a copper bracket of the saddle, to serve the cup on the march without breaking stride; and at sunset they would find the women waiting in the erected tent, as it had been on the evening before.

To-day had a grey weather, so strange after the many thronging suns, that Newcombe and I walked stooping to look where our shadows had gone, as we talked of what I hoped, and of what he wanted.

They were the same thing, so we had brain-leisure to note Semna and its fine groves of cared-for palms between little hedges of dead thorn; with here and there huts of reed and palm-rib, to shelter the owners and their families at times of fertilization and harvest. In the lowest gardens and in the valley bed were the shallow wood-lined wells, whose water was, they said, fairly sweet and never-failing: but so little fluent that to water our host of camels took the night.

Feisal wrote letters from Semna to twenty-five leaders of the Billi and Howeitat and Beni Atiyeh, saying that he with his army would be instantly in Wejh and they must see to it. Mohammed Ali bestirred himself, and since almost all our men were of his tribe, was useful in arranging the detachments and detailing them their routes for the morrow. Our water-scouts had come in, to report shallow pools at two points well-spaced on the coast road. After cross-questioning them we decided to send four sections that way, and the other five by the hills: in such a fashion we thought we should arrive soonest and safest at Abu Zereibat.

The route was not easy to decide with the poor help of the Musa Juheina, our informants. They seemed to have no unit of time smaller than the half-day, or of distance between the span and the stage; and a stage might be from six to sixteen hours according to the man’s will and camel. Intercommunication between our units was hindered because often there was no one who could read or write, in either. Delay, confusion, hunger and thirst marred this expedition. These might have been avoided had time let us examine the route beforehand. The animals were without food for nearly three days, and the men marched the last fifty miles on half a gallon of water, with nothing to eat. It did not in any way dim their spirit, and they trotted into Wejh gaily enough, hoarsely singing, and executing mock charges: but Feisal said that another hot and barren midday would have broken both their speed and their energy.

When business ended, Newcombe and I went off to sleep in the tent Feisal had lent us as a special luxury. Baggage conditions were so hard and important for us that we rich took pride in faring like the men, who could not transport unnecessary things: and never before had I had a tent of my own. We pitched it at the very edge of a bluff of the foothills; a bluff no wider than the tent and rounded, so that the slope went straight down from the pegs of the door-flap. There we found sitting and waiting for us Abd el Kerim, the young Beidawi Sherif, wrapped up to the eyes in his head-cloth and cloak, since the evening was chill and threatened rain. He had come to ask me for a mule, with saddle and bridle. The smart appearance of Maulud’s little company in breeches and puttees, and their fine new animals in the market at Um Lejj, had roused his desire.

I played with his eagerness, and put him off, advancing a condition that he should ask me after our successful arrival at Wejh; and with this he was content. We hungered for sleep, and at last he rose to go, but, chancing to look across the valley, saw the hollows beneath and about us winking with the faint camp-fires of the scattered contingents. He called me out to look, and swept his arm round, saying half-sadly, ‘We are no longer Arabs but a People’.

He was half-proud too, for the advance on Wejh was their biggest effort; the first time in memory that the manhood of a tribe, with transport, arms, and food for two hundred miles, had left its district and marched into another’s territory without the hope of plunder or the stimulus of blood feud. Abd el Kerim was glad that his tribe had shown this new spirit of service, but also sorry; for to him the joys of life were a fast camel, the best weapons, and a short sharp raid against his neighbour’s herd: and the gradual achievement of Feisal’s ambition was making such joys less and less easy for the responsible.

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