Henryk Sienkiewicz.

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Produced by Daniel Fromont

[Transcriber's note: Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), _In Desert and
Wilderness_ (1910), 1917 edition. The original title is: W pustyni
i w puszczy. There was also a French edition: Le gouffre noir.]











_Copyright_, 1912,


_All rights reserved_






"Do you know, Nell," said Stas Tarkowski to his friend, a little
English girl, "that yesterday the police came and arrested the wife of
Smain, the overseer, and her three children, - that Fatma who several
times called at the office to see your father and mine."

And little Nell, resembling a beautiful picture, raised her greenish
eyes to Stas and asked with mingled surprise and fright:

"Did they take her to prison?"

"No, but they will not let her go to the Sudân and an official has
arrived who will see that she does not move a step out of Port Said."


Stas, who was fourteen years old and who loved his eight-year-old
companion very much, but looked upon her as a mere child, said with a
conceited air:

"When you reach my age, you will know everything which happens, not
only along the Canal from Port Said to Suez, but in all Egypt. Have you
ever heard of the Mahdi?"

"I heard that he is ugly and naughty."

The boy smiled compassionately.

"I do not know whether he is ugly. The Sudânese claim that he is
handsome. But the word 'naughty' about a man who has murdered so many
people, could be used only by a little girl, eight years old, in
dresses - oh - reaching the knees."

"Papa told me so and papa knows best."

"He told you so because otherwise you would not understand. He would
not express himself to me in that way. The Mahdi is worse than a whole
shoal of crocodiles. Do you understand? That is a nice expression for
me. 'Naughty!' They talk that way to babes."

But, observing the little girl's clouded face, he became silent and
afterwards said:

"Nell, you know I did not want to cause you any unpleasantness. The
time will come when you will be fourteen. I certainly promise you that."

"Aha!" she replied with a worried look, "but if before that time the
Mahdi should dash into Port Said and eat me."

"The Mahdi is not a cannibal, so he does not eat people. He only kills
them. He will not dash into Port Said, but even if he did and wanted to
murder you, he would first have to do with me."

This declaration with the sniff with which Stas inhaled the air through
his nose, did not bode any good for the Mahdi and considerably quieted
Nell as to her own person.

"I know," she answered, "you would not let him harm me. But why do they
not allow Fatma to leave Port Said?"

"Because Fatma is a cousin of the Mahdi. Her husband, Smain, made an
offer to the Egyptian Government at Cairo to go to the Sudân, where the
Mahdi is staying, and secure the liberty of all Europeans who have
fallen into his hands."

"Then Smain is a good man?"

"Wait! Your papa and my papa, who knew Smain thoroughly, did not have
any confidence in him and warned Nubar Pasha not to trust him. But the
Government agreed to send Smain and Smain remained over half a year
with the Mahdi. The prisoners not only did not return, but news has
come from Khartûm that the Mahdists are treating them more and more
cruelly, and that Smain, having taken money from the Government, has
become a traitor. He joined the Mahdi's army and has been appointed an
emir. The people say that in that terrible battle in which General
Hicks fell, Smain commanded the Mahdi's artillery and that he probably
taught the Mahdists how to handle the cannon, which before that time
they, as savage people, could not do. But now Smain is anxious to get
his wife and children out of Egypt. So when Fatma, who evidently knew
in advance what Smain was going to do, wanted secretly to leave Port
Said, the Government arrested her with the children."

"But what good are Fatma and her children to the Government?"

"The Government will say to the Mahdi, - 'Give us the prisoners and we
will surrender Fatma' - "

For the time the conversation was interrupted because the attention of
Stas was attracted by birds flying from the direction of Echtum om
Farag towards Lake Menzaleh. They flew quite low and in the clear
atmosphere could be plainly seen some pelicans with curved napes,
slowly moving immense wings. Stas at once began to imitate their
flight. So with head upraised, he ran a score of paces along the dyke,
waving his outstretched arms.

"Look!" suddenly exclaimed Nell. "Flamingoes are also flying."

Stas stood still in a moment, as actually behind the pelicans, but
somewhat higher, could be seen, suspended in the sky, two great red and
purple flowers, as it were.

"Flamingoes! flamingoes! Before night they return to their haunts on
the little islands," the boy said. "Oh, if I only had a rifle!"

"Why should you want to shoot at them?"

"Girls don't understand such things. But let us go farther; we may see
more of them."

Saying this he took the girl's hand and together they strolled towards
the first wharf beyond Port Said. Dinah, a negress and at one time
nurse of little Nell, closely followed them. They walked on the
embankment which separated the waters of Lake Menzaleh from the Canal,
through which at that time a big English steamer, in charge of a pilot,
floated. The night was approaching. The sun still stood quite high but
was rolling in the direction of the lake. The salty waters of the
latter began to glitter with gold and throb with the reflection of
peacock feathers. On the Arabian bank as far as the eye could reach,
stretched a tawny, sandy desert - dull, portentous, lifeless. Between
the glassy, as if half-dead, heaven and the immense, wrinkled sands
there was not a trace of a living being. While on the Canal life
seethed, boats bustled about, the whistles of steamers resounded, and
above Menzaleh flocks of mews and wild ducks scintillated in the
sunlight, yonder, on the Arabian bank, it appeared as if it were the
region of death. Only in proportion as the sun, descending, became
ruddier and ruddier did the sands begin to assume that lily hue which
the heath in Polish forests has in autumn.

The children, walking towards the wharf, saw a few more flamingoes,
which pleased their eyes. After this Dinah announced that Nell must
return home. In Egypt, after days which even in winter are often
scorching, very cold nights follow, and as Nell's health demanded great
care, her father, Mr. Rawlinson, would not allow her to be near the
water after sunset. They, therefore, returned to the city, on the
outskirts of which, near the Canal, stood Mr. Rawlinson's villa, and by
the time the sun plunged into the sea they were in the house. Soon, the
engineer Tarkowski, Stas' father, who was invited to dinner arrived,
and the whole company, together with a French lady, Nell's teacher,
Madame Olivier, sat at the table.

Mr. Rawlinson, one of the directors of the Suez Canal Company, and
Ladislaus Tarkowski, senior engineer of the same company, lived for
many years upon terms of the closest intimacy. Both were widowers, but
Pani Tarkowski, by birth a French lady, died at the time Stas came into
the world, while Nell's mother died of consumption in Helwan when the
girl was three years old. Both widowers lived in neighboring houses in
Port Said, and owing to their duties met daily. A common misfortune
drew them still closer to each other and strengthened the ties of
friendship previously formed. Mr. Rawlinson loved Stas as his own son,
while Pan Tarkowski would have jumped into fire and water for little
Nell. After finishing their daily work the most agreeable recreation
for them was to talk about the children, their education and future.
During such conversations it frequently happened that Mr. Rawlinson
would praise the ability, energy, and bravery of Stas and Pan Tarkowski
would grow enthusiastic over the sweetness and angelic countenance of
Nell. And the one and the other spoke the truth. Stas was a trifle
conceited and a trifle boastful, but diligent in his lessons, and the
teachers in the English school in Port Said, which he attended,
credited him with uncommon abilities. As to courage and
resourcefulness, he inherited them from his father, for Pan Tarkowski
possessed these qualities in an eminent degree and in a large measure
owed to them his present position.

In the year 1863 he fought for eleven months without cessation.
Afterwards, wounded, taken into captivity, and condemned to Siberia, he
escaped from the interior of Russia and made his way to foreign lands.
Before he entered into the insurrection he was a qualified engineer;
nevertheless he devoted a year to the study of hydraulics. Later he
secured a position at the Canal and in the course of a few years, when
his expert knowledge, energy, and industry became known, he assumed the
important position of senior engineer.

Stas was born, bred, and reached his fourteenth year in Port Said on
the Canal; in consequence of which the engineers called him the child
of the desert. At a later period, when he was attending school, he
sometimes, during the vacation season and holidays, accompanied his
father or Mr. Rawlinson on trips, which their duty required them to
make from Port Said to Suez to inspect the work on the embankment or
the dredging of the channel of the Canal. He knew everybody - the
engineers and custom-house officials as well as the laborers, Arabs and
negroes. He bustled about and insinuated himself everywhere, appearing
where least expected; he made long excursions on the embankment, rowed
in a boat over Menzaleh, venturing at times far and wide. He crossed
over to the Arabian bank and mounting the first horse he met, or in the
absence of a horse, a camel, or even a donkey, he would imitate Farys*
[* Farys, the hero of Adam Mickiewicz's Oriental poem of the same
name. - _Translator's note_.] on the desert; in a word, as Pan Tarkowski
expressed it, "he was always popping up somewhere," and every moment
free from his studies he passed on the water.

His father did not oppose this, as he knew that rowing, horseback
riding, and continual life in the fresh air strengthened his health and
developed resourcefulness within him. In fact, Stas was taller and
stronger than most boys of his age. It was enough to glance at his eyes
to surmise that in case of any adventure he would sin more from too
much audacity than from timidity. In his fourteenth year, he was one of
the best swimmers in Port Said, which meant not a little, for the
Arabs and negroes swim like fishes. Shooting from carbines of a small
caliber, and only with cartridges, for wild ducks and Egyptian geese,
he acquired an unerring eye and steady hand. His dream was to hunt the
big animals sometime in Central Africa. He therefore eagerly listened
to the narratives of the Sudânese working on the Canal, who in their
native land had encountered big, thick-skinned, and rapacious beasts.

This also had its advantage, for at the same time he learned their
languages. It was not enough to excavate the Suez Canal; it was
necessary also to maintain it, as otherwise the sands of the deserts,
lying on both banks, would fill it up in the course of a year. The
grand work of De Lesseps demands continual labor and vigilance. So,
too, at the present day, powerful machines, under the supervision of
skilled engineers, and thousands of laborers are at work, dredging the
channel. At the excavation of the Canal, twenty-five thousand men
labored. To-day, owing to the completion of the work and improved new
machinery, considerably less are required. Nevertheless, the number is
great. Among them the natives of the locality predominate. There is
not, however, a lack of Nubians, Sudânese, Somalis, and various negroes
coming from the White and Blue Niles, that is, from the region which
previous to the Mahdi's insurrection was occupied by the Egyptian
Government. Stas lived with all on intimate terms and having, as is
usual with Poles, an extraordinary aptitude for languages he became, he
himself not knowing how and when, acquainted with many of their
dialects. Born in Egypt, he spoke Arabian like an Arab. From the
natives of Zanzibar, many of whom worked as firemen on the steam
dredges, he learned Kiswahili, a language widely prevalent all over
Central Africa. He could even converse with the negroes of the Dinka
and Shilluk tribes, residing on the Nile below Fashoda. Besides this,
he spoke fluently English, French, and also Polish, for his father, an
ardent patriot, was greatly concerned that his son should know the
language of his forefathers. Stas in reality regarded this language as
the most beautiful in the world and taught it, not without some
success, to little Nell. One thing only he could not accomplish, that
she should pronounce his name Stas, and not "Stes." Sometimes, on
account of this, a misunderstanding arose between them, which continued
until small tears began to glisten in the eyes of the girl. Then "Stes"
would beg her pardon and became angry at himself.

He had, however, an annoying habit of speaking slightingly of her eight
years and citing by way of contrast his own grave age and experience.
He contended that a boy who is finishing his fourteenth year, if he is
not fully matured, at least is not a mere child, but on the contrary,
is capable of performing all kinds of heroic deeds, especially if he
has Polish and French blood. He craved most ardently that sometime an
opportunity would occur for such deeds, particularly in defense of
Nell. Both invented various dangers and Stas was compelled to answer
her questions as to what he would do if, for instance, a crocodile, ten
yards long, or a scorpion as big as a dog, should crawl through the
window of her home. To both it never occurred for a moment that
impending reality would surpass all their fantastic suppositions.


In the meantime, in the house, good news awaited them during the
dinner. Messrs. Rawlinson and Tarkowski, as skilled engineers, had been
invited a few weeks before, to examine and appraise the work carried on
in connection with the whole net-work of canals in the Province of
El-Fayûm, in the vicinity of the city of Medinet near Lake Karûn, as
well as along the Yûsuf and Nile rivers. They were to stay there for
about a month and secured furloughs from their company. As the
Christmas holidays were approaching, both gentlemen, not desiring to be
separated from the children, decided that Stas and Nell should also go
to Medinet. Hearing this news the children almost leaped out of their
skins from joy. They had already visited the cities lying along the
Canal, particularly Ismailia and Suez, and while outside the Canal,
Alexandria and Cairo, near which they viewed the great pyramids and the
Sphinx. But these were short trips, while the expedition to Medinet
el-Fayûm required a whole day's travel by railway, southward along the
Nile and then westward from El-Wasta towards the Libyan Desert. Stas
knew Medinet from the narratives of younger engineers and tourists who
went there to hunt for various kinds of water-fowls as well as desert
wolves and hyenas. He knew that it was a separate, great oasis lying
off the west bank of the Nile but not dependent upon its inundations
and having its water system formed by Lake Karûn through Bahr Yûsuf and
a whole chain of small canals. Those who had seen this oasis said that
although that region belonged to Egypt, nevertheless, being separated
from it by a desert, it formed a distinct whole. Only the Yûsuf River
connects, one might say with a thin blue thread, that locality with the
valley of the Nile. The great abundance of water, fertility of soil,
and luxuriant vegetation made an earthly paradise of it, while the
extensive ruins of the city of Crocodilopolis drew thither hundreds of
curious tourists. Stas, however, was attracted mainly by the shores of
Lake Karûn, with its swarms of birds and its wolf-hunts on the desert
hills of Gebel el-Sedment.

But his vacation began a few days later, and as the inspection of the
work on the canals was an urgent matter and the gentlemen could not
lose any time, it was arranged that they should leave without delay,
while the children, with Madame Olivier, were to depart a week later.
Nell and Stas had a desire to leave at once, but Stas did not dare to
make the request. Instead they began to ask questions about various
matters relative to the journey, and with new outbursts of joy received
the news that they would not live in uncomfortable hotels kept by
Greeks, but in tents furnished by the Cook Tourists' Agency. This is
the customary arrangement of tourists who leave Cairo for a lengthy
stay at Medinet. Cook furnishes tents, servants, cooks, supplies of
provisions, horses, donkeys, camels, and guides; so the tourist does
not have to bother about anything. This, indeed, is quite an expensive
mode of traveling; but Messrs. Tarkowski and Rawlinson did not have to
take that into account as all expenses were borne by the Egyptian
Government, which invited them, as experts, to inspect and appraise the
work on the canals. Nell, who, above everything in the world, loved
riding on a camel, obtained a promise from her father that she should
have a separate "hump-backed saddle horse" on which, together with
Madame Olivier, or Dinah, and sometimes with Stas, she could
participate in the excursions to the nearer localities of the desert
and to Karun. Pan Tarkowski promised Stas that he would allow him some
nights to go after wolves, and if he brought a good report from school
he would get a genuine English short rifle and the necessary equipment
for a hunter. As Stas was confident that he would succeed, he at once
began to regard himself as the owner of a short rifle and promised
himself to perform various astonishing and immortal feats with it.

On such projects and conversation the dinner passed for the overjoyed
children. But somewhat less eagerness for the contemplated journey was
displayed by Madame Olivier who was loath to leave the comfortable
villa in Port Said and who was frightened at the thought of living for
several weeks in a tent, and particularly at the plan of excursions on
camel-back. It happened that she had already tried this mode of riding
several times and these attempts ended unfortunately. Once the camel
rose too soon, before she was well seated in the saddle, and as a
result she rolled off his back onto the ground. Another time, the
dromedary, not belonging to the light-footed variety, jolted her so
that two days elapsed before she recovered; in a word, although Nell,
after two or three pleasure-rides which Mr. Rawlinson permitted her to
take, declared that there was nothing more delightful in the world, in
the same measure only painful recollections remained for Madame
Olivier. She said that this was good enough for Arabs or for a chit
like Nell, who could not be jolted any more than a fly which should
alight upon a camel's hump, but not for persons dignified, and not too
light, and having at the same time a certain proneness to unbearable

But as to Medinet el-Fayûm she had other fears. Now in Port Said as
well as in Alexandria, Cairo, and in the whole of Egypt nothing was the
subject of more discussion than the Mahdi's insurrection and the
cruelties of the dervishes. Madame Olivier, not knowing exactly where
Medinet was situated, became alarmed as to whether it was not too near
the Mahdists, and finally began to question Mr. Rawlinson about it.

But he only smiled and said:

"The Mahdi at this moment is besieging Khartûm in which General Gordon
is defending himself. Does Madame know how far it is from Medinet to

"I have no idea."

"About as far as from here to Sicily," explained Pan Tarkowski.

"Just about," corroborated Stas. "Khartûm lies where the White and Blue
Niles meet and form one river. We are separated from it by the immense
expanse of Egypt and the whole of Nubia."

Afterwards he wanted to add that even if Medinet should be closer to
the regions overrun by the insurgents, he, of course, would be there
with his short rifle; but recalling that for similar bragging he
sometimes received a sharp reproof from his father, he became silent.

The older members of the party, however, began to talk of the Mahdi and
the insurrection, for this was the most important matter affecting
Egypt. The news from Khartûm was bad. The wild hordes already had been
besieging the city for a month and a half and the Egyptian and English
governments were acting slowly. The relief expedition had barely
started and it was generally feared that notwithstanding the fame,
bravery, and ability of Gordon this important city would fall into the
hands of the barbarians. This was the opinion of Pan Tarkowski, who
suspected that England in her soul desired that the Mahdi should wrest
it from Egypt in order to retake it later from him and make this vast
region an English possession. He did not, however, share this suspicion
with Mr. Rawlinson as he did not want to offend his patriotic feelings.

Towards the close of the dinner Stas began to ask why the Egyptian
Government had annexed all the country lying south of Nubia,
particularly Kordofân, Darfur, and the Sudân as far as Lake Albert
Nyanza and deprived the natives there of their liberty. Mr. Rawlinson
explained that whatever was done by the Egyptian Government was done at
the request of England which extended a protectorate over Egypt and in
reality ruled her as Egypt herself desired.

"The Egyptian Government did not deprive anybody of his liberty," he
said, "but restored it to hundreds of thousands and perhaps to millions
of people. In Kordofân, in Darfur and in the Sudân there were not
during the past years any independent States. Only here and there some
petty ruler laid claim to some lands and took possession of them by
force in spite of the will of the residents. They were mainly inhabited
by independent Arab-negro tribes, that is, by people having the blood
of both races. These tribes lived in a state of incessant warfare. They
attacked each other and seized horses, camels, cattle, and, above all,
slaves; besides, they perpetrated numerous atrocities. But the worst
were the ivory and slave hunters. They formed a separate class, to
which belonged nearly all the chiefs of the tribes and the richer
traders. They made armed expeditions into the interior of Africa,
appropriating everywhere ivory tusks, and carried away thousands of
people: men, women, and children. In addition they destroyed villages
and settlements, devastated fields, shed streams of blood, and
slaughtered without pity all who resisted. In the southern portion of
the Sudân, Darfur, and Kordofân, as well as the region beyond the Upper
Nile as far as the lake they depopulated some localities entirely. But
the Arabian bands made their incursions farther and farther so that
Central Africa became a land of tears and blood. Now England which, as
you know, pursues slave-dealers all over the world, consented that the
Egyptian Government should annex Kordofân, Darfur, and the Sudân. This
was the only method to compel these pillagers to abandon their
abominable trade and the only way to hold them in restraint. The
unfortunate negroes breathed more freely; the depredations ceased and
the people began to live under tolerable laws. But such a state of
affairs did not please the traders, so when Mohammed Ahmed, known
to-day as 'the Mahdi,' appeared among them and proclaimed a holy war on
the pretext that the true faith of Mahomet was perishing, all rushed
like one man to arms; and so that terrible war has been kindled in
which thus far the Egyptians have met with such poor success. The Mahdi
has defeated the forces of the Government in every battle. He has
occupied Kordofân, Darfur, and the Sudân; his hordes at present are
laying a siege to Khartûm and are advancing to the north as far as the
frontiers of Nubia."

"Can they advance as far as Egypt?" asked Stas.

"No," answered Mr. Rawlinson. "The Mahdi announces, indeed, that he
will conquer the whole world, but he is a wild man who has no

Online LibraryHenryk SienkiewiczIn desert and wilderness → online text (page 1 of 29)