Lord Stanley uncurled his body, struggled to his feet, brushed his face, and hurled insults after the cloud of red sand that danced off into the desert, swaying and thrashing, just like a living thing. The sandstorm suitably chastised, he plodded on, alone, into the endlessly unfolding plateau that was the Sahara, its vastness broken only by solitary shrubs that shimmered in the heat, like wrecks in an evaporated sea.
The expedition had been a complete disaster. On the third day, his horse finally gave up and died from fever – it had probably been diseased when he bought it, thought Lord Stanley. The natives had used the death of the horse to try and bleed more money from him. They said the expedition was cursed, that they wanted at least double the rate to continue on. Lord Stanley had laughed and called them “greedy, superstitious, robbing swindlers”; he told them that they would not see another coin unless they completed the journey. The ultimatum did not have the desired effect and the following night they began to trickle away. The trickle became a stream and soon the English aristocrat was left with only the educated native, whose name he could not remember, that functioned as his guide and interpreter. This man proved himself just as untrustworthy and perhaps his education simply emboldened him to increase the scope of his treachery. Four days ago he had disappeared into the desert, taking with him all the remaining camels and supplies.
Lord Stanley tipped his head back and shook his water canteen over his mouth, but it had given up its last drop this morning. Somewhere behind Lord Stanley, arrayed like a trail of breadcrumbs baking in the frizzling sand, were the heavy expedition items he had unburdened himself of. He kept only an empty notebook, to record his findings; a map, useless in this featureless, burning plain; a revolver, the spare ammunition since discarded, and a handful of gold sovereigns.
The vindictive sun smote down on Stanley’s head, sending its burning rays through his helmet to heat his scalp. His brain felt thick and inflamed; his lips and tongue were swollen and studded with grit that he had no spittle to clear; there was a hollow sound in his ears, and black dots flickered on the edge of his vision. He thought that this place, without shelter and exposed to the unremitting sun, was the worst possible place for a human being to be, and he cursed the cowardly natives who had deserted him.
As the afternoon wore on, he noticed that one particular black speck, larger than the others, did not flicker and jump around the edge of his vision. It was stationary. At first he feared it was a symptom of lasting damage, of permanent injury to his sight, but then the speck began to take shape. It was no longer a black dot; it became a distant cone, with a squirming shape by its side. With renewed vigour, Lord Stanley headed straight for it, and by the evening his efforts were rewarded, as he came to a small herd of camels that rested outside a lone tent. He laughed in relief, lifted the flap of the tent, and ducked inside.
He was greeted by the surprised faces of four Bedouins, who immediately ceased their foreign chatter and looked up from where they sat to study the intruder.
“I need water!” exclaimed Lord Stanley. The men looked at him blankly. Stanley cursed silently and turned to the man opposite him, who seemed older than the rest, though it was hard to tell, for these Bedouin folk were always stooped and dishevelled, and looked twenty years older than they actually were.
“Wa-ter! Wa-ter!” he tried again, miming the action of drinking from a cup as he spoke.
“We speak English,” replied the elder Bedouin, flatly.
“Well why did you not say so!” huffed Stanley. “Instead you let me wave my hands around like a damn fool! Nevermind. I am Lord Stanley and I have been lost in this godforsaken desert for four days now! I was betrayed by gang of robbing heathens I had the misfortune to hire – but let us not worry about that. You there, pass me that water, for my throat is well and truly parched!” Stanley extended his arm out to receive the canteen, but the man did not move, he simply turned his head leftwards and gave the elder Bedouin a querying glance.
“Of course you may have some water, My Lord,” announced the elder Bedouin. “But first, let us discuss the matter of payment. An uncomfortable formality, I’m afraid, but nevertheless necessary – as I’m sure you can appreciate. What will you give us in trade, My Lord?”
“In trade?” stammered Lord Stanley. “Are you serious? Why...you insolent rascal! Is this how you treat a guest? Stop your nonsense, and have your fellow pass me that water!”
“A guest, My Lord? Forgive me, for I was under the impression you simply burst into our home without invitation.” At this, the elder man pretended to be confused, and his three companions smiled mockingly, flashing incomplete sets of yellow-black teeth.
“Stop your foolishness man!”
“But it is not foolishness, My Lord”, interrupted the Bedouin. “Water is precious to us, and we cannot simply give it away. What about that revolver on your hip? Surely you no longer need it, for you have no enemies here.”
Lord Stanley fumed, but he needed water desperately, and so he threw the revolver at man with the water canteen. “Take it, you swine,” he added disgustedly. Lord Stanley sat and gulped from the canteen, as the Bedouins passed the revolver amongst them and chatted excitedly in Arabic, twisting and fondling the weapon in appreciation. Stanley shook his head at the simplicity of these peasants.
“Some of that bread, too.” He clicked his fingers in irritation. “And pass me a bowl of those dates. Quickly now, for I have not eaten a morsel in days.”
The elder Bedouin looked up. “And what will you give us in trade, My Lord?”
The desert had taken its toll on Stanley’s body but at this latest insult, he found the energy to turn red with fury. “You impudent peasant! I have already paid you – at a ridiculous cost, I might add! I am starving!”
“You paid us for the water, My Lord. Food is precious to us, and we cannot simply give it away. How about those tall boots you are wearing? Unless, of course, you intend to trek further into the desert?”
“Do not be ridiculous! You cannot have my boots! I need them!”
To this the man did not reply, and he turned back to his companion, resuming their conversation. Lord Stanley stared in frustration at the Bedouins, but they picked absently at a communal bowl of dates, seemingly oblivious to his presence. The elder man said something in Arabic, and his companions laughed, glancing over at Stanley. It seemed he was the subject of the joke.
Lord Stanley removed his boots and tossed them angrily into the centre of the tent. The elder Bedouin leaned forward, grabbed them, and made an approving inspection. “These are fine boots, My Lord. They will make an excellent present for my son.” He smiled in appreciation. “Karim, pass his Lordship a bowl of dates. Oh, give him more than that. He has been most generous and no doubt has travelled far.”
Stanley frowned but accepted the food with a nod. The dates were delicious, and he could feel his strength returning slowly. The Bedouins, watched him eat for a moment, and then resumed their conversation. When Lord Stanley had eaten his fill, they rose and moved to the edges of the tent and began to unroll rugs and lay out blankets.
“What are you doing?” demanded Stanley.
“We must rest now,” replied the elder Bedouin. “It will be dark soon and tomorrow we leave at first light.”
“I am tired also. I think I will join you. Tell me, where do I sleep?”
“That is entirely up to you, My Lord. You can stay here for the night if you wish, but we will require payment, for this tent is small and there is barely room for the four of us.”
“But of course I’m staying here for the night!” blasted Lord Stanley. “Where else would I stay, you fool? Out in the damn desert? And you can forget that talk of payment, you thieving swindler. I have given you far too much already!”
“Then I am afraid you must leave, My Lord. I wish you a pleasant onward journey.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, man! Where else am I to stay?”
The elder Bedouin shrugged, and continued adjusting his blankets. “Alright then,” relented Stanley. “Give me some of that bedding. I’ll use this space over here. What do you want in trade?”
“How much is in your purse, My Lord? Shall we say...three sovereigns – for the night?”
“Three!” roared Stanley, startling the other Bedouins who were now resting in their beds. “I could rent the finest room in Cairo at that price!”
“But we are not in Cairo, My Lord,” pointed out the Bedouin. “Still, I will accept two sovereigns, for we are not greedy folk. Is that agreeable to you?”
Stanley stomped in frustration and exhaled angrily, but nevertheless handed over the two sovereigns. The Bedouin took them without comment and crawled beneath his blankets. Stanley snorted once more, but no-one paid him any attention, and so he retreated across the tent and set up his own bed.
Lord Stanley awoke to the familiar blazing sun, though it was not as intolerably hot as usual. It was just after sunrise, but the tent already seemed to have been dissembled around him. He must have been exhausted, he thought – for he had not woken once during the night yet the Bedouins had packed all their belongings onto the groaning camels. He stood; frowning in annoyance as one of the Bedouin rudely snatched his blankets away, carrying them to a particularly heavily-laden camel and adding them to its burden. With the bedding secured, the Bedouin began to mount their camels and Lord Stanley shouted in alarm:
“Hey there! Where are you fellows going?”
The elder Bedouin, who was seated on the first camel, turned and yelled over his shoulder in reply:
“We go on to Cairo! Good day, My Lord!”
“Wait for me! Look, you have a free camel!” Lord Stanley waved at the fifth camel in the herd, the heavily-laden beast that was tied at the rear of the train.
The elder Bedouin chuckled, “Oh no, My Lord, that camel is not free! Look how much he carries! He carries our tent!” The other Bedouins laughed, and nudged their camels after their leader. Upon seeing the Bedouins ride off, and realising that they intended to leave him here, Lord Stanley flew into a rage and charged at the fifth camel. He grasped the lashings that held the tent to the camel’s back and tried to pull himself up, but the beast kicked and struggled, throwing Lord Stanley unceremoniously into the sand. He rose to find a group of stony-faced Bedouins, one of whom fixed a revolver at Lord Stanley’s chest. Lord Stanley paused, raised his hands, and backed away uncertainly. The Bedouin lowered the revolver, replaced it in a bag around his waist, and pressed his camel onwards to catch his companions - who had already started off into the desert. Lord Stanley stood in disbelief, and then kicked the ground in frustration, sending plumes of sand to chase the receding camel train. He shouted after them, but the camels did not turn back, the Bedouins apparently deaf to his insults.
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