A Passion in the Desert

A Passion in the Desert

A PASSION IN THE DESERT HONORE DE BALZAC Translated By Ernest Dowson "The whole show is dreadful" she cried coming out of the menagerie of M. Martin. She had just been looking at that daring speculator "working with his hyena"--to speak in the style of the programme. "By what means" she continued "can he have tamed these animals to such a point as to be certain of their affection for----" "What seems to you a problem" said I interrupting "is really quite natural." "Oh!" she cried letting an incredulous smile wander over her lips. "You think that beasts are wholly without passions?" I asked her. "Quite the reverse; we can communicate to them all the vices arising in our own state of civilization." She looked at me with an air of astonishment. "But" I continued "the first time I saw M. Martin I admit like you I did give vent to an exclamation of surprise. I found myself next to an old soldier with the right leg amputated who had come in with me. His face had struck me. He had one of those heroic heads stamped with the seal of warfare and on which the battles of Napoleon are written. Besides he had that frank good-humored expression which always impresses me favorably. He was without doubt one of those troopers who are surprised at nothing who find matter for laughter in the contortions of a dying comrade who bury or plunder him quite light-heartedly who stand intrepidly in the way of bullets;--in fact one of those men who waste no time in deliberation and would not hesitate to make friends with the devil himself. After looking very attentively at the proprietor of the menagerie getting out of his box my companion pursed up his lips with an air of mockery and contempt with that peculiar and expressive twist which superior people assume to show they are not taken in. Then when I was expatiating on the courage of M. Martin he smiled shook his head knowingly and said 'Well known.' " 'How "well known"?' I said. 'If you would only explain me the mystery I should be vastly obliged.' "After a few minutes during which we made acquaintance we went to dine at the first restauranteur's whose shop caught our eye. At dessert a bottle of champagne completely refreshed and brightened up the memories of this odd old soldier. He told me his story and I saw that he was right when he exclaimed 'Well known.' " When she got home she teased me to that extent was so charming and made so many promises that I consented to communicate to her the confidences of the old soldier. Next day she received the following episode of an epic which one might call "The French in Egypt." During the expedition in Upper Egypt under General Desaix a Provencal soldier fell into the hands of the Maugrabins and was taken by these Arabs into the deserts beyond the falls of the Nile. In order to place a sufficient distance between themselves and the French army the Maugrabins made forced marches and only halted when night was upon them. They camped round a well overshadowed by palm trees under which they had previously concealed a store of provisions. Not surmising that the notion of flight would occur to their prisoner they contented themselves with binding his hands and after eating a few dates and giving provender to their horses went to sleep. When the brave Provencal saw that his enemies were no longer watching him he made use of his teeth to steal a scimiter fixed the blade between his knees and cut the cords which prevented him from using his hands; in a moment he was free. He at once seized a rifle and a dagger then taking the precautions to provide himself with a sack of dried dates oats and powder and shot and to fasten a scimiter to his waist he leaped on to a horse and spurred on vigorously in the direction where he thought to find the French army. So impatient was he to see a bivouac again that he pressed on the already tired courser at such speed that its flanks were lacerated with his spurs and at last the poor animal died leaving the Frenchman alone in the desert. After walking some time in the sand with all the courage of an escaped convict the soldier was obliged to stop as the day had already ended. In spite of the beauty of an Oriental sky at night he felt he had not strength enough to go on. Fortunately he had been able to find a small hill on the summit of which a few palm trees shot up into the air; it was their verdure seen from afar which had brought hope and consolation to his heart. His fatigue was so great that he lay down upon a rock of granite capriciously cut out like a camp-bed; there he fell asleep without taking any precaution to defend himself while he slept. He had made the sacrifice of his life. His last thought was one of regret. He repented having left the Maugrabins whose nomadic life seemed to smile upon him now that he was far from them and without help. He was awakened by the sun whose pitiless rays fell with all their force on the granite and produced an intolerable heat--for he had had the stupidity to place himself adversely to the shadow thrown by the verdant majestic heads of the palm trees. He looked at the solitary trees and shuddered--they reminded him of the graceful shafts crowned with foliage which characterize the Saracen columns in the cathedral of Arles. But when after counting the palm trees he cast his eyes around him the most horrible despair was infused into his soul. Before him stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread further than eye could reach in every direction and glittered like steel struck with bright light. It might have been a sea of looking- glass or lakes melted together in a mirror. A fiery vapor carried up in surging waves made a perpetual whirlwind over the quivering land. The sky was lit with an Oriental splendor of insupportable purity leaving naught for the imagination to desire. Heaven and earth were on fire. The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity immensity closed in upon the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the sky not a breath in the air not a flaw on the bosom of the sand ever moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a clear day with one line of light definite as the cut of a sword. The Provencal threw his arms round the trunk of one of the palm trees as though it were the body of a friend and then in the shelter of the thin straight shadow that the palm cast upon the granite he wept. Then sitting down he remained as he was contemplating with profound sadness the implacable scene which was all he had to look upon. He cried aloud to measure the solitude. His voice lost in the hollows of the hill sounded faintly and aroused no echo--the echo was in his own heart. The Provencal was twenty-two years old:--he loaded his carbine. "There'll be time enough" he said to himself laying on the ground the weapon which alone could bring him deliverance. Viewing alternately the dark expanse of the desert and the blue expanse of the sky the soldier dreamed of France--he smelled with delight the gutters of Paris--he remembered the towns through which he had passed the faces of his comrades the most minute details of his life. His Southern fancy soon showed him the stones of his beloved Provence in the play of the heat which undulated above the wide expanse of the desert. Realizing the danger of this cruel mirage he went down the opposite side of the hill to that by which he had come up the day before. The remains of a rug showed that this place of refuge had at one time been inhabited; at a short distance he saw some palm trees full of dates. Then the instinct which binds us to life awoke again in his heart. He hoped to live long enough to await the passing of some Maugrabins or perhaps he might hear the sound of cannon; for at this time Bonaparte was traversing Egypt. This thought gave him new life. The palm tree seemed to bend with the weight of the ripe fruit. He shook some of it down. When he tasted this unhoped-for manna he felt sure that the palms had been cultivated by a former inhabitant--the savory fresh meat of the dates were proof of the care of his predecessor. He passed suddenly from dark despair to an almost insane joy. He went up again to the top of the hill and spent the rest of the day in cutting down one of the sterile palm trees which the night before had served him for shelter. A vague memory made him think of the animals of the desert; and in case they might come to drink at the spring visible from the base of the rocks but lost further down he resolved to guard himself from their visits by placing a barrier at the entrance of his hermitage. In spite of his diligence and the strength which the fear of being devoured asleep gave him he was unable to cut the palm in pieces though he succeeded in cutting it down. At eventide the king of the desert fell; the sound of its fall resounded far and wide like a sigh in the solitude; the soldier shuddered as though he had heard some voice predicting woe. But like an heir who does not long bewail a deceased relative he tore off from this beautiful tree the tall broad green leaves which are its poetic adornment and used them to mend the mat on which he was to sleep. Fatigued by the heat and his work he fell asleep under the red curtains of his wet cave. In the middle of the night his sleep was troubled by an extraordinary noise; he sat up and the deep silence around allowed him to distinguish the alternative accents of a respiration whose savage energy could not belong to a human creature. A profound terror increased still further by the darkness the silence and his waking images froze his heart within him. He almost felt his hair stand on end when by straining his eyes to their utmost he perceived through the shadow two faint yellow lights. At first he attributed these lights to the reflections of his own pupils but soon the vivid brilliance of the night aided him gradually to distinguish the objects around him in the cave and he beheld a huge animal lying but two steps from him. Was it a lion a tiger or a crocodile? The Provencal was not sufficiently educated to know under what species his enemy ought to be classed; but his fright was all the greater as his ignorance led him to imagine all terrors at once; he endured a cruel torture noting every variation of the breathing close to him without daring to make the slightest movement. An odor pungent like that of a fox but more penetrating more profound--so to speak-- filled the cave and when the Provencal became sensible of this his terror reached its height for he could no longer doubt the proximity of a terrible companion whose royal dwelling served him for a shelter. Presently the reflection of the moon descending on the horizon lit up the den rendering gradually visible and resplendent the spotted skin of a panther. This lion of Egypt slept curled up like a big dog the peaceful possessor of a sumptuous niche at the gate of an hotel; its eyes opened for a moment and closed again; its face was turned towards the man. A thousand confused thoughts passed through the Frenchman's mind; first he thought of killing it with a bullet from his gun but he saw there was not enough distance between them for him to take proper aim --the shot would miss the mark. And if it were to wake!--the thought made his limbs rigid. He listened to his own heart beating in the midst of the silence and cursed the too violent pulsations which the flow of blood brought on fearing to disturb that sleep which allowed him time to think of some means of escape. Twice he placed his hand on his scimiter intending to cut off the head of his enemy; but the difficulty of cutting the stiff short hair compelled him to abandon this daring project. To miss would be to die for CERTAIN he thought; he preferred the chances of fair fight and made up his mind to wait till morning; the morning did not leave him long to wait. He could now examine the panther at ease; its muzzle was smeared with blood. "She's had a good dinner" he thought without troubling himself as to ...