THE cry came from the city, where lights shone white in the clear light of the desert night. The call to prayer "Allah Ul Allah "—" No God but one and Mahomet is his prophet." We hastened on at the call, and with beating hearts, wondered where those others were we had left behind, far out in the vague blueness of night in the desert. The camels had given out some miles back, and we two had ridden on the best of them for help, to the town lying in front of us. An unknown city, that yesterday had been but a vague dream to most of us; as we only knew of its existence from the guide, and him we barely trusted. Now it lay in its beauty sleeping before us. The faint cry died away as we jerked our reins, and sailed on our ships of the desert into the track leading to the gate of the city.
A few date palms lined the approach, and tents of a few nomads lay white in the moonlight We en. tered the city by a dark gloomy mud-walled archway, to find a narrow street, filthy and dark. The guide urged his camel on, till we came to about the centre of the town, where we stopped by a low doorway. The door was opened by an old woman, who hastily closed it again, and we were left standing outside. Again the guide knocked, this time giving three peculiar taps. This seemed at first to bring no response, but after waiting about a quarter of an hour the door was again opened by the same old woman. Upput for the night we demanded, and were at once led inside to a great courtyard, empty as far as we could see, save for a few palms in great tubs, and a fountain in the middle. We asked the woman for the master of the house, as we wanted help to bring in our friends and the baggage. She would inquire;—and again she left us. Being lost in the gloom of the courtyard we could not see by which door she had entered the house. The guide and i felt that there was something strange in such a reception at an inn: and i asked him if he were sure that we had come to the right place. " Yes, it was all right." Besides, there were the three knocks to make sure, as without that signal, we knew we could not have got the door opened. The city was a lawless one right in the heart of the desert. A big strapping Arab carrying a lantern came at this time into the courtyard, and behind him a man to whom he at once gave the care of our camels. Help for our friends, we explained, was what we wanted. "Yes, for Bacheesh certainly" came the answer; with a few words to the Arab groom, and a gesture to follow, to ourselves, he led us again out into the narrow street. We followed the landlord some way, till he bade us wait and he would bring men and fresh camels. We had no choice but to trust the man, as we knew of no European Consul or business man in the town, and had not meant to take this town on our route across the desert.
Patiently waiting, with hand alert to find the butt of our revolvers, we stood in the murky stillness of the street, in a silence unbroken, save for the snarling of the dogs scavenging amongst the debris thrown out into the street. Presently we heard the plop plop of the camels' feet on the mud pavements of the roadway, and the Arab appeared with two camels, declaring that only the guide and he should go back for the others as I must be tired out; and besides; the two camels were all he could get at such an hour. There being no choice at that time of night; I was obliged to give all instructions to the guide, and trust to luck that they would all appear safely before morning. The landlord came again, and swinging the lantern high and low, we went back to the inn.
This time as we crossed the courtyard he took me into the interior of the house, evidently a fair sized ordinary Arab inn. The old woman was cooking conscous over a brazier in one corner of the room, in another corner, coarse rugs were spread over cushions to form a bed. They explained that after I had eaten I could sleep here for the night. The conscous was very good, and the old woman made me a cup of Arab coffee, and gave me a handful of dates before leaving me for the night, going out of the room by the door into the courtyard.
Tired with the long day on camel back, soothed with the mystery and silence of the house, which evidently was strongly built with thick mud walls, and which excluded all sounds from the city; I soon lay down. Putting matches and revolver handy to find at an instant's alarm, I took my courage in both hands and simply went to sleep. Waking suddenly I wondered where on earth I was, or if on earth at all, the light was so weird, my surroundings so different from what I expected, that I started up in alarm. The scene was so unusual I just lay down again on the cushions, and looked on in amazement. I could look right out into the desert through the uplifted flap of the tent. The moon was about three quarters full, and the whole world around seemed full of mystic white light. The front of the tent as far as I could see, was thronged with horsemen, hundreds of them, all in the white Arab bur-noose gleaming in the moonlight. Each man's sword was naked in his hand, and the spear carried on the saddle, glanced as its pennon swung in the breeze. Round and round they circled by companies, drifting here and there like snowflakes, in bewildering convolutions before my dazzled eyes. Where had they all come from? And why was i lying idle and unheeded in the tent, feeling more like a disembodied spirit than a dour matter-of-fact Scotsman, in full possession of life and limb? Slowly the light faded, and i was again sleeping in the dark room of Mustapha's old inn.
Presently i felt i must wake; must see what was going on, so cautiously before opening my eyes, i felt for revolver and matches: to my horror they were not there. With a feeling of loss i looked all round, and again i was away out in the desert, again lying on the string-bed in an open tent. This time it was daylight, almost noon, judging from the shadows of the tent, the heat haze in the distance and the full warm light thrown over the gray of the desert sand. Sand dunes to right and left; but in front, a straight track right to the edge of the desert, downward sloping to the sea. There not very far off on the shore, were brown Arab babies fluttering about, plashing and prancing in the shimmering glancing sunshiny sea. How had i got to the sea? The city where i went to sleep that evening, was right in the heart of the desert: miles and miles away from any part of the country that touched on the seaboard. Still there i was, lazily watching a picture not often given to a simple Scotsman, desert air, desert sand, desert sky, and desert bairns, at play on a desert bordered sea.
I never attempted to speak: to get up or ask where i was, i just took it all for granted, and looked at, and thought of it all, as part of the wonderful entertainment perpetually provided by desert travel. By the time my thoughts had reached the point of wondering where i was, already I was back in Mustapha's dark room, and asleep.
Surprised i woke again, this time wide awake at once, or seemingly so, for the experiences were so strange, maybe i dreamt them all.
The desert wind was rising, the sand was curling up in little spirals, all round. The sides of the sand dunes seemed to be shifting: I watching again through the open door of the tent.
The heat haze had given way to clear daylight, rapidly changing under the influence of the wind, to the dark of a sandstorm. Far in the distance the blackness of the storm could be plainly seen, as it approached with rapid strides. The stronger puffs of wind coming first, swallowing up the tiny breaths that blew the sand spirit spirals, up into the air. I lay still, i did not do as i should naturally have done in any other sand storm, sprung to close the tent flap; but idle, lay and watched the oncoming storm of drifting sand, drifting in great clouds nearer and nearer, blotting out the track to the shore, the rocks to the right, and the palm trees on the left. Blotting out the gray angry sea, till nothing seemed left but sand; clouds of dark gritty sand that came down on the tent, like the very essence of the demon of the storm. In an instant I was enveloped in an overwhelming cloud of sand and shrinking back on the string bed, I became unconscious, under the terrible power of the most dreadful of all desert experience. Asleep in the old mud walled town. I woke feeling as though I had indeed been overwhelmed by the maddest spirit of the desert.
Awake again, I wondered if it were morning, and my friends arrived: or was I again awake in the tent out there facing the sea. Looking up with anxious amazement, I noted that it was not the track down to the shore I had seen before, but a small green oasis with a temple, and a well, surrounded by stretch on stretch of desert. Presently the silence was broken by the call to prayer, it echoed and echoed through the trees, beat and beat on the white walls of the temple and re-echoed over the desert, till it beat back on the tent, like some trumpet call of fate.
I felt beaten, stunned, but bound to get up and send out in answer, a counter call, a call that would out-trumpet, beat down, out-sound the call of the Arab Monk, who with tremendous voice sent out over the desert morning air the call, "Allah Ul Allah," " There is no God but God." I felt impelled to strike out against the overpowering force of the old Mohammedan cry; so true and now so false as they add Mahomet is his prophet.
Powerless to utter a sound, I lay and heard the call re-echoing through the desert. Then tired and stunned by a vague powerful emotion I drifted into unconsciousness, and I suppose was carried back to the room in the dark old inn.
Then I woke with a feeling of unreality very strong upon me, to find it all dark and a great knocking at the door.
I felt for the matches and lit one to find the old man's lantern lying by my side; lifting it, I found the catch of the door and opened it just in time to see the Arab guide bringing my friends into the courtyard. It was almost morning before they and our baggage were safely disposed in the room where I slept. With the quick dawn of the east, the bright uprising of the sun, there flashed into my heart the thought, those Christian friends of mine, were the answer to that cry that had rung through the night. They came, and with them the white light of Christ knocking at the door of the temple in the desert, able to give a stronger cry than that of the Arab Muezzin call. Not " Allah Ul Allah and Mahomet is his prophet," but " There is no God but God, the Father; and Jesus is his Son".