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Jane Andrews

What was Gemila Doing All This Time?

WE have been wandering through strange, wild lands. Come with me now to a great city. But I doubt if you feel more at home in it than you did on Agoonack's ice island or Manenko's long journey, for it is not at all like any city you have ever seen—not like Boston or New York, not like St. Louis or Chicago.

Let us stand still for a minute, if we can find a quiet spot in this narrow, crowded street, and see what it is like. It is Sunday afternoon, but we hear no church bells, and all the business seems to be going on just the same as on a week day.

"Don't these people have any Sunday?" asks Dadie.

Oh, yes! But their Sunday is Friday. On Friday they will go to their churches, and have their services; but to-day is their market day, and, in almost all the towns we may visit in this country, we shall find a Sunday market.

We are close beside a shop now, but, oh! what a funny shop! hardly bigger than a cupboard; and the whole side towards the street is open. Will you buy some of these sugared almonds, or a few delicious golden dates, of that turbaned man who sits so quietly in the corner, and doesn't seem to care whether we buy or not? If we want either dates or almonds, we must take a piastre out of our pockets to pay for them, for a bright silver dime or a five-cent piece would be something so new and strange to our shopkeeper, that he would shake his head and hand it back to you.

But we mustn't spend too much time buying dates. There is something better to do in this wonderful city, where even the houses are curious enough to make us stop and gaze at them. See the pretty balconies built out around the windows and sheltered by screens or shutters of beautifully carved wood. I fancy we can catch a glimpse of some bright eyes peeping out at us through the delicate latticework, for all the ladies of this city sit with their little daughters all day long in these balconies, and look out through the screens on the streets below them, and on the passers-by. And the flocks of pretty ring doves sit cooing about them, and the swallows fly in and out, and sometimes even the vultures alight there for a moment, and no one drives them away; for what would become of the people and the city if the faithful vultures did not clean the streets every day?

But, quick, we must crowd ourselves close to the wall, and keep out of the way of the tall, brown camel that paces up the street so silently that we heard no footfall, and did not know he was coming until his long shadow fell across us from behind. He moves up the narrow lane as if the whole of it belonged to him, for he has come from the desert, where there is plenty of room, and he has no idea of being crowded; and those donkeys, with their wild-looking little drivers, must get out of his way as best they can. How they scramble, and how the boys shout to them! But the silent camel moves on towards the fountain in the next square, and takes no notice at all of their noise. He is loaded with great bales of gum, and his master is going to sell them to the gum merchant at the corner of the square.

I wonder if you will remember the master, this gray-faced man, with his white turban and loose cotton dress. It is really Abdel Hassan, but you didn't expect to meet him in a city, did you? Little Gemila is with him, too; that is, she is in the camp outside the city gates (for this city has walls and gates, and is shut up every night), and to-morrow she will come into the strange streets with her little brother Alee and one of the servants, to look about her, as we were doing just now when we had to start aside and make way for her father's camel.

I wish we could take little Gemila's hand and walk with her through the city to-morrow, and see how wonderful it would all be to her.

The donkeys with their high-cushioned red saddles, and the camels with their noiseless tread, the red fez caps and turbans, and the women with long veils, and bright eyes peering through the little slit that is left open for them—these would not be strange to her. But the many beautiful fountains meeting you at every corner with a refreshing drink, that is something to astonish our little desert maiden, who generally has drunk water only from leathern bags or desert springs. And the houses that crowd so close on both sides of the street, and shut out the sky, so that she sees only one narrow strip of blue instead of her wide desert dome; and the bazaars, where people are hustling each other, and shouting and bargaining for shawls and slippers, gold lace, and silk embroideries—these are things almost unheard of to the little girl, whose only garment has been the brown cotton dress.


There is one thing, however, at which Gemila is never tired of looking; she could sit and watch it from morning till night, so strange, so wonderful, does it seem to her. This is not her first sight of it, as you will presently learn. But so strange a sight does not lose its newness very soon, and so it is that whenever, in looking down a street, she sees at the end the broad river sparkling in the sunshine, she leaves every other sight for that. She runs to sit beside it and see the ripples dance along, and the boats with their pointed blue-and-white sails, and the sailors rowing and singing to keep time for their oars.

But you will want to know how it happened that Gemila left her desert home, and surprised us by appearing in the streets of Cairo; and I must go back two or three months and tell you all about it. Like Manenko, she, too, has taken a long and wonderful journey—at least, it seems wonderful to you and me, for we are not so accustomed to travelling as she is.

I think it was about Christmas time, a hot desert Christmas, remember, that Abdel Hassan was journeying as usual from one part of his wide desert home to another, when he met the caravan from Kordofan, with thirty camel loads of gum, on its way to the great city of Cairo.

I know you must have seen the gum that oozes out from the peach and plum trees in such clear, sticky drops; or, at any rate, if you don't know that, you have seen gum arabic, which you can buy at the druggist's. Now, on the borders of the desert a great many gum trees grow. The great, clear drops of gum ooze out of them, as they do from the peach tree—only there is much more of it, so that it lies on the ground in little lumps, under the trees—and children as young as Gemila and Alee go out to help gather it. The men pack it in great bags, and load the camels with it, and set out on a long desert march of many, many miles, to sell it in the distant city, and to buy, in return, cloth and guns, shawls and turbans—just as the Sheik Hassein did whom Abdel Hassan met one day long ago, you remember. The Kordofan sheik meets Abdel Hassan gladly, and, dismounting from his horse, sits beside him on a mat, and tells him that to see him is like the blessing of a new moon. And an Arab can hardly express greater pleasure than that. Then they smoke their long pipes and drink coffee together, and finally the sheik explains that he wants more camels to help carry the gum, and, after much talk, he agrees to buy two camels of Abdel Hassan and to pay him with bales of gum. Abdel Hassan, to whom one part of the world is as much home as another, decides to journey himself to Cairo, and sell the gum. And, since he goes, his whole family will go too.

So the next day they turn their faces northward, and travel towards Cairo, having first asked the Kordofan merchants how far it is to the next spring.

Their question is answered in a curious way, for, as these people have not many words, they make one answer the purpose of two or three. Let me show you how they do it. If the spring had been very near, they would have answered, "Henak," but as it is a very, long distance away they make the word very long and say, "Hen-a-a-a-a-ak," and it isn't so poor a way of telling distance after all, is it?

You know so well what Gemila's journeys generally are that I will not tell you much about this, excepting the one or two unusual events of it. The first of these happened on New Year's Day, and made it anything but a happy new year. It wasn't a snowstorm; but it was a sand storm. The air was hot and hazy; you could scarcely see the sun, although there were no clouds to hide him, and presently all this sultry air began to stir, and whistle, and rush, and whirl. The light, dry sand was caught up by it, blown into drifts as high as a tall man, driven into every fold of the dress or turban, into every eye and ear and nostril, with a cutting, stinging keenness such as we might feel in a fierce, wild snowstorm in one of our bitter winter days, only it is hot and tingling, instead of cold and tingling.

You could perhaps bear this for a few minutes, but not longer; and this terrible storm lasted two hours. At first the men only unfolded the cloth of their turbans so as to wrap it round the face and ears, and the women and children drew veils over their heads; but it was impossible to continue to travel in such a storm. And when they saw a great rock not far away, standing like a tall, black tower or fortress in the yellow sand, Abdel Hassan was not slow in leaping from his black horse and planting his spear, as a sign that they should encamp in this welcome shelter.

Here they lay, and heard the great whistling wind drive through every cranny and crevice; and at last they saw a tall pillar of sand whirled up by the wind until it seemed to reach the sky. It moved along in a stately sort of waltz, round and round, and still advancing over the burning sands, and presently it was joined by another and another, and the strange monsters moved on like a party of giants pleasing themselves by a wild desert dance. It was well for little Gemila that the wind carried them away from, instead of towards, her sheltering rock, for who would have been able to stand against those terrible, strong, blinding whirls of sand that the fierce wind had raised?

When at last the sun could be seen again, and the wind slowly died away, our poor travellers lay tired and feverish, and as little able to proceed on their way as if they had been ill for many days.

But a cool and quiet night refreshed them, and early in the morning they are up and away. The only signs that the sand storm had left behind were great yellow drifts, some of them as high as a house, that hid the track, and confused even Abdel Hassan himself as to which direction he should take to reach the bitter wells, their next drinking place. And so it happened that they rode doubtfully on during all that morning, and, after the noonday rest, changed their line of march a little more towards the north, and looked eagerly forward for the first distant glimpse of the tufted top of a palm tree.

And Gemila is the first to clap her hands, and shout, "Look, look!" while she points towards the distant horizon; and there against the blue sky stand clusters of feathery palms beside a pretty pond of water, that looks like a bit of the sky itself dropped down to rest upon the yellow sands. In the water's edge tall reeds are growing, and on the farther shore stand black rocks overhanging their black reflections in the water. Oh, what a lovely little place!—the prettiest spring that the child has ever seen. But although she claps her hands and shouts for joy, her father shows no signs of pleasure, and the camel drivers only shake their heads and look sober; and neither do the camels nor horses hasten forward, as they usually do when they smell the fresh water from afar.

"See," says old Achmet to the little girl, "see, it is not a true spring; those are not real palm trees. Watch them, and you will know that I tell you the truth."

And Gemila watched; and presently some of the trees seemed to be standing on their heads, and the pretty blue pond ran into the sky, as if there were no line between; and Achmet said to her: "If it were real water it would look darker than the sky, but this is just the same color." And, as she watched, a silvery blur came over it all, and she rubbed her eyes to see more plainly; but when she looked again, it was all gone, and the desolate waste of yellow sand lay before them. It was only a beautiful air picture, which is called a mirage, and wise desert travellers like Abdel Hassan and Achmet know it well; but strangers or children are deceived by it and wander out of their way to find the refreshing place, which vanishes into silver mist and leaves them to turn back disappointed, if indeed they are able to find the path at all.

You will be glad to know that before sunset they did reach a real spring or well of bitter water, not very good, but better than nothing; and the camels drank, and the water bags were filled, and they went on as before.

And now every day they see something new. There are valleys walled in by black rocks, and strange caves, where they sometimes camp at night. And at last, one day, they see before them everywhere groves of trees—date, lemon, citron, and acacia, and many others—and as they turn out of the rocky valley the men raise a great shout, "El bahr, el bahr!" (The river, the river!) The broad, blue, rolling water lies before them; and this is Gemila's first sight of the river. Now it will keep them company for days and days as they journey along its banks, and drink of its waters, and hear its rippling waves at night as they lie in the caves along its shores, and feel its cool breeze refreshing them after the terrible desert heat.

One night they reach a great rock filled with caves like little rooms of a house, and all the walls inside are painted with strange pictures.

You know we sometimes take a picture and make up a story about it, telling what we think this or that person is doing or where he is going; but these pictures tell stories themselves—that is what they were painted there for—and there is a long, hard name for them, which means something like picture writing.

Gemila sees one wall all marked out in bright colors—red, blue, green, and yellow pictures—telling how a family had visitors to dine, and how the cooks prepared the dishes, and how the baby sat in his mother's lap and watched the guests, and how the cats and dogs lived and played with them just as they do with you to-day,—only nobody in all those pictures was ever seen to hurt or trouble any animal. And when I tell you that the people who painted them lived thousands of years ago you will wonder, as I do, that we can still see them so plainly. I think they had very good paints, don't you? They couldn't write as we do now, and they wanted all the story of their lives—what they did, and where they went, and what little children they had to love and take care of—to be remembered. So they had it all painted on these hard rocks, that would not wear out as the leaves of books do; and there you and I could see it this very day, just as Gemila does when she wakes at early morning and creeps up over the steep rocks and looks at the pictures, where the long rays of the rising sun shine far into the caves. There is a red man with a green head, driving four horses harnessed to a chariot; and a little blue girl is feeding the pigeons, just as we should want to feed the living pigeons that flutter in such great flocks around every village, and sleep in the funny tall pigeon houses made of earthen jars, on the top of almost every house.

You see, now that they have reached the river, they find villages all along its banks; and, for the first time in her life, Gemila learns what houses are, and thinks that she likes a tent better. And she sees waving fields of golden wheat, and the rice growing in the low meadows, and she tastes the gingerbread that grows on the dôm-palm tree. She watches the brown ibis and the stork and vulture busy at their work of cleaning the village streets, picking up and eating up all the dirty and disagreeable things that the careless people have thrown there, which would otherwise soon decay and cause sickness.

Our little girl has hardly time to sleep, there is so much to see. The children, too, are so different in some ways from herself! Here is one little girl buttering her hair with a thick layer of not very sweet butter, and another has all her braids soaked in castor oil, and thinks it charming. They can swim, too, and you may very well know that Gemila, who has never before seen a river, or even a lake, has never learned to swim; and when she sees the girls and boys splashing in the water she laughs and shouts with delight. One little boy sits astride a round log for a boat, and steers himself across the stream. How she wishes she could do the same!

But if I stop to tell you all the wonders of the way, we shall never reach Cairo. So let us hurry on, past the great stone pyramids standing so grand in the desert, and past the wonderful stone image with head like a person and fore paws like a lion, and all the rest of its body buried in sand, that looked so grand and solemn in the moonlight as they met it suddenly on their march the last evening before reaching Cairo. The great solemn face, ten yards in length, looking out over the desert sands, seemed to have a thousand wonderful stories to tell of all that it had seen since the men of ages ago carved it out of the great rock. But it told none of them to the little awe-struck Arab girl, nor to the camel drivers, who hastened to pitch the red-and-black striped tent and unload their camels for the night, as if the great face were not watching them all the while.

Very early in the morning, while sky and sand are covered with rosy light, Gemila is wandering among the strange, great rocks, watching the lizards' little red or blue tails disappearing through the cracks as they glide away from her, and the little jerboas sitting outside their sand houses. But already the camels are loaded, and the tents are struck, and today she will see the gates of Cairo.

I wish I had time to tell you of all that may be seen in that city, but we are leading an Arab life now, and do not stop long in any one place. And so it is that one day, when the Khamaseen wind begins to blow, Abdel Hassan is reminded of the desert; the old wandering feeling comes over him, and he says he will stay no longer in Cairo.

But perhaps you do not know why the Khamaseen wind should remind him of the desert. It has come from the desert, and it fills all the air with a fine yellow dust that is borrowed from the yellow sand on the way. They call it Khamaseen, because, in the language of that country, Khamaseen means fifty, and for fifty days this hot wind blows most of the time. It has reminded Abdel Hassan of his old home, and he must begin to think of his return.

But he has sold his camels, as well as his gum; and what is an Arab without camels? True, he has money enough to buy more than he has ever owned before, but he will buy them better from the desert tribes than here in Cairo; and so it happens that a new way of life offers itself for him and his family. They will go in a Nile boat as far as Korosko, and there, where the river makes a great curve like the letter C, and half encircles a desert, they will leave it and begin again their life among the rocks and sand.

This is a delightful journey to Gemila and Alee; they are learning to love the river, and to know what a mighty friend it is to all the country. We who live by a river can tell how useful it is in many ways to our own country; but this great river Nile is more useful to its country than any of our rivers are to us. Before Gemila reaches her desert home she will see a very remarkable change in it. Now its waters roll quietly on in a narrow channel, but in a few weeks they will rise and rise, higher and higher every day, and presently all the country on both sides will be flooded like a great lake. "Ah!" you say, "what will become of all the poor people and the houses?"

Do not be anxious about them, for they have seen the river behave in this way every year since they were born, and they have built all their houses on high land for safety; and they watch the rising of the water with delight, for it comes as a messenger of good will to tell them of fruitful fields and fine harvests, since it waters for them the fields on which no rain ever falls. Only think of that; Gemila has never seen rain! I have heard it said that there is a great shower in the desert, perhaps once in ten or twenty years, but our little girl is only nine years old, and it hasn't come in her time. Think how dry and desolate the whole country would be if it were not that this good friend, the river, gathers all the rains and melted snows from the mountain countries far away, even as far as those hills towards which Manenko travelled, and pours them down through hundreds of miles to bless and refresh this thirsty land.

In our country we have four seasons. When the snow is all gone, and the birds begin to come, and the farmers prepare to plant their seeds, we call it spring; summer brings the flowers and fruits, and autumn is harvest time; then comes winter, which Dossie and Edith like best of all. But in this land where Gemila is travelling, the river alone decides what the seasons shall be.

When the water begins to rise it is like a promise of spring to the farmer; and so regularly does it rise and fall that he knows well that, when November comes, he must have his seed ready for planting, for the river will have fallen, and the rich, damp slime will be left by its waters upon the fields; so we may call November his spring-time. And when the wheat and rice are well grown in the damp fields, and need only a greater heat to ripen them, then comes the Khamaseen wind and hastens the harvest; and that must bring autumn. And, after autumn, do you think they expect snow? Oh, no, indeed! They have never seen snow, and only once in a while a little ice. But a dry, hot time comes, when nothing will grow, and the river has shrunk away again into its old narrow bed; and you may call the season by what name you like, only the people are very glad when it ends, and the friendly river begins to rise again; and that is about the last of June.

But all this while the river has been floating our travellers down to Korosko; and here Abdel Hassan buys his camels, and among them one beautiful milk-white dromedary, a camel with one hump on its back instead of two. This gentle creature trots and runs with so easy and steady a motion, that its rider might drink a cup of milk while going at a full trot, and not spill a single drop. Wouldn't you like to have that dromedary to ride on, little Georgie? Do you think Gemila will ride it? Oh, no! it is to have quite a different rider. In this little town by the river an English gentleman and his wife are waiting for guides and camels to cross the desert to Abou Hammed, and when this gentleman sees the gentle white dromedary, he thinks that nothing could be more easy and comfortable for his wife's riding on this hard journey, so he hires both Abdel Hassan and his camels to cross the desert with him.

Six months ago little Gemila would have been lost in wonder at seeing the white people; but in Cairo she saw, every day, people from Europe and from America, and she recognizes them at once and stretches out her little brown hand for backsheesh (a present), feeling pretty sure that they will give it.

And now there are great preparations for this desert journey. The women have made crisp abreys, baked in the sun, and plenty of kisras of durra flour. New water bags are made of gazelle skins, and a whole sheep is roasted. Just before they are ready to start, the women of the village hurry into camp with baskets of milk to sell. The heat will soon turn it sour, but in that country sour milk is thought an excellent drink.

This is a part of the desert quite new to Gemila, but her father travelled there many years ago and knows it well. The sand is gray instead of yellow, and there are all sorts of odd round stones strewn everywhere, as if some giants had been playing a game of ball, and had neglected to put away their playthings. If we should break open one of these black balls, we should find it hollow and filled with bright red sand, though how the sand came there or the pebbles either, I am at a loss to tell you.

Presently one of the camels runs his head into a kittar bush for a mouthful of its spiny leaves. And since you know Manenko's wait-a-bit thorn, I will also introduce you to this kittar bush, which is its own cousin, only twice as strong, and it clutches with such a hold that it ought to have a name meaning, "stop entirely." Many is the long tear in dress or turban that the kittar bushes give them before they reach the end of their journey.

Gemila also makes the acquaintance of some monkeys that are found one day, poor, thirsty creatures, digging wells for themselves in the sand. Only think how wise they are. And she sees the tall milk-weed plants, with their pretty, silvery fish for seeds; but old Achmet tells her not to touch them, for they are very poisonous, and only the goats can eat them with safety.

They are coming now to the land of wild asses and of guinea hens. Who was it that had guinea hens for dinner whenever there was nothing else to be had? Do you think we are near Manenko's country? And after three weary weeks they come, one beautiful evening, again in sight of the river and the villages; and an old sheik hastens out to meet them and says, "Salaam aleikum" (Peace be with you) and welcomes them to his hut.

I said they had reached the land of guinea hens; it also begins to be the land of round houses with pointed roofs, but the houses are of stone, and the roofs only of reeds and straw. A change, too, has come in the weather—a very remarkable change for our desert people. There is going to be a rainy season! When the first shower comes our foolish little Gemila stands still in wonder, gets wet through, and the next day lies on her little mat, and begins to feel very ill—so ill that her mother goes to the fakir for some medicine.

Now we all know that medicine is disagreeable enough to take, but any one of you will take it for the sake of getting well; and you will be interested to know what Gemila's medicine is, and how she takes it.

The old fakir listens to her mother's account of the child's illness, and then he takes down a little board which hangs beside his door, plasters it over with lime, and writes upon it some words from the Koran, which is the Arab's Bible. When all is finished, he washes it off, plaster, ink, and all, into a gourd cup; and that is the medicine. Very disagreeable indeed, I think; and, what is worse, I am afraid it won't make her well. I wish she had one of those bitter white powders that Bazungu gave to Manenko. Perhaps the English lady, who always has been kind to the little girl, will be able to help her.

When the mother has waited three days for the fakir's medicine to cure her sick little daughter, and each day she has grown worse instead of better, she goes to the tent outside the village, where the English people are living, and tells the "sity," as she calls her, that poor little Gemila will die if she cannot have some medicine to make her better. And, only think, the "sity" has some of those same bitter powders. She comes herself to give one to the child, and leaves another to be taken nest day; and, although it is a very long time before Gemila can run and play as usual, she begins slowly to recover. In a week or two she is able to sit by the river and watch the boys floating on their rafts of ambatch wood, which is a very safe plaything in the water, for it is lighter than cork. And in the early morning she creeps out to see the beautiful lotus flowers flash open to the sunlight.

One day a white man's caravan comes into the village; there are camels and donkeys, and men from the far south, the mountain country where the great river gathers its waters. The white man's face is as brown as an Arab's, he has travelled so long in the hot sunshine. His men have woolly hair, strangely plaited and matted together, and dressed in such a way as to look like high helmets of thick felt. They are smeared with grease and adorned with cowrie shells and bracelets of ivory; and among them is Zungo, the brother of Manenko. You remember a white man came and took him on a journey; and here we find him beside the river Nile, and our little Gemila is looking up at him, and wondering if he has a little sister at home with woolly hair like his own. Of course she never knew anything about Manenko; but it happens that at this place Zungo's master is to leave him, or rather send him back to his home, and the English gentleman, who will go southward next month, is very glad to engage him as a servant and interpreter. And now he, for the first time in his life, is paid for his services with money.

You remember what the Bazungu paid him for cutting the wood and making the fires, and afterwards he had a yard of cloth a day when he travelled as interpreter. Now the English gentleman shows him a large round silver piece of money. A picture of a lady's head is on one side, and some figures on the other. What it is worth he doesn't know at all, but you and I would call it a dollar. When Zungo wants a name for it he calls it, as the other men do, "the father of buttons"; and when the new master promises to pay him with just such silver pieces, he soon learns that here at Abou Hammed they will buy food and clothes, and anything else that he wants, provided only that he has enough of them. He stays a month in the village, for it is not best to start until the heaviest rains are over, and he becomes good friends with Gemila and Alee, as well as with their father.

When the day arrives for the English gentleman's caravan to depart for the south, little Gemila, who is now quite well, and will start with her father to-morrow for her old desert home, brings a big bead, such as the Arabs call a pigeon's egg, and sends it as a present to Manenko, the little sister that she has never seen.