The Diamond of the Desert
THE Knight of the Couchant Leopard, who had just emerged from a handsome copy of The Talisman, was again approaching that delightful oasis wherein bubbles the bright spring known to the Arabs as the Diamond of the Desert. He was, as usual, heavily armored, and bestrode a noble steed.
On this occasion he felt a slight uneasiness. Where was the Saracen? He was not wont to be late; yet no glimpse of his well-known green caftan could yet be seen.
Though unprepared to deal with this emergency, Sir Kenneth kept on his way. As he drew near the cluster of palm trees, a sound of hoarse singing arose therefrom: —
I don’t wanna go to the trenches no more.’
‘An intruder!’ said the knight to himself, with justifiable anger. Dismounting, he made his way toward the source of these strange sounds.
Presently he perceived, sitting on the grass, a stocky unshaven young man in a close garb the color of earth. He wore upon his head a shallow, basinlike helmet, tilted over one eye. He suspended his song as Sir Kenneth approached.
‘Who art thou, stranger?’ shouted the Leopard Knight. ‘How dost thou presume to desecrate with thy uncouth presence this place of rest and refuge? And where is Sheerkohf, the Lion of the Mountain?’
‘That guy? He’s gone,’ said the young man. ‘I told him he was a fake, and he could go’ — he mentioned a destination with the idea of which he appeared to be obsessed, as, later, he uttered its name at short intervals in an entirely irrelevant manner.
‘I do not altogether understand thy language, discourteous pilgrim, if pilgrim thou art,’ said the Leopard Knight, ‘though it seems to bear some resemblance to my own.’
‘Your own! Nobody speaks that now. Life is too short,’ said the rude young man. ‘Don’t you call me a pilgrim. I’m a crusader — or I Was in the beginning; but that was a long time ago.’ He grinned sardonically. ‘Look here, let me get it over to you that you’re a fake, as well as What’s-HisName of the Mountain, and can just fade out. You and alt your Cceur-deLion crow d are old models, Tin Lizzies, see? You’ve done a lot of harm in your time. I came here to tell you so. Can’t stay. There’s a string of publishers in line waiting for me; and some chaps from the book clubs, too.’ Glancing at his wrist watch, he rose to his feet.
Sir Kenneth gasped. ‘Art thou an emanation of these desert regions?’ he asked. ‘Hast thou an earthly being and a name?’
‘My buddies call me Baby,’ said the young man. ‘You can bet I’m real, and that’s what you are not and never were. So, as I said before —’
‘Let us sit down,’ said the knight in a choking voice, ‘and drink of the water of this crystal spring, and endeavor to understand each other.’
‘Water!’ grunted the young man. But he seated himself upon the turf, as Sir Kenneth had suggested, and lighted a cigarette. . . .
In the conference which followed, Sir Baby, as the Leopard Knight with scrupulous courtesy persisted in calling him, curtly set forth the actualities of modern warfare. Sir Kenneth, who had removed his helmet and bathed his brow, listened politely, and stared a little stupidly.
‘I cannot imagine,’ said he, ‘what might be the result of the conditions thou hast described. They may explain thy somewhat repellent manner. But to thy demand that I retire forever, — nay, thou needest not again specify the place of exile, — and that this pleasant oasis be removed from the face of the earth by newly invented explosives, I must return a firm refusal.’
‘You and your gang,’ insisted the surly young man, ‘have spread a false notion of this business of fighting and killing that’s as bad as poison gas. You don’t like my ways. Well, I won’t change ’em. The folks that keep the home fires burning, and sit beside ’em all nice and comfortable reading books, may as well know what war’s really like. They’d never learn that out of the choice sets of Complete Works, with illustrations and gilt tops. There ain’t no such animal as the True Romance. Blood is real and mud is real and brutality is real; but as for Glory and Chivalry and The-SternJoy-That-Warriors-Feel — pah!’
Sir Kenneth considered him curiously. ‘Sir Baby,’ said he, ‘maugre thy boldness, I conceive that thou thyself dost not altogether smack of reality.’
‘ What! Me not real! GREAT SCOTT ! ’ The young man, touched in his tenderest point by this insinuation, was so startled that he unconsciously reverted to the innocent ejaculation of his boyhood.
His cry of injury produced unexpected results. A sturdy figure, hitherto unseen, advanced from an adjacent group of palms. The newcomer was a man of middle age, dressed as a substantial country gent leman of the early nineteenth century. He wore a green coat and a large black neckcloth, and resembled a Raeburn portrait. He limped slightly, and leaned on a stout stick.
Exchanging a look of recognition with Sir Kenneth, he addressed himself directly to the young man in khaki.
‘I understand you to invoke me, sir,’ said he, ‘and I therefore think no shame to present myself. I have heard something of your dispute. Would you accept the mediation of an elder? I come to you from a sphere where the life of man is looked upon with a larger and calmer vision; and the word “reality,” which seems to trouble you, has there a somewhat wider significance. Why disturb yourselves about it? Shakespeare has said that the best, in your kind, are but shadows. — I apprehend, sir, that you exist to enlighten your readers in regard to certain painful facts; and it is indeed a worthy object. Not but that there’s a decency to be observed —’ He looked doubtful.
‘It was n’t observed,’ said the young man.
The Unknown sighed. ‘Eh, this fighting, I’m told, has gotten to be a bitter business, and’t is laid upon us to put an end to ’t, once and for all. You have a grand mission, man, and I wish you joy of it.’
‘Small joy,’ said the young man grimly. ‘It’s no pleasure to me.’
‘And, of course, not exactly what you may call a pleasure to others,’ said the Unknown, nodding his high silvered head. ‘Have you ever reflected, lad, what you will do when your mission is accomplished — when the world is converted to peace? I doubt but ye’ll be unemployed.’
‘At present,’ said Sir Kenneth with a melancholy smile, ‘that is my own position. Ivanhoe and I are sleeping down cellar under a bookshop; we spend the day in old gentlemen’s libraries and secondary schools. He might join us: but it would not be agreeable to me — nor, methinks, to Wilfred.’
‘It is not an immediate crisis, as far as he is concerned,’ said the Unknown shrewdly. ‘But you perceive that all this comes about because men are not now seeking pleasure, but rather a certain sad knowledge. By and by they will have supped full with horrors; and then no reader will wish to visit those ugly regions of the past. But there will remain all the pleasances of romance, in which the soul may wander — green oases in the glare of life, springs of refreshment pure as this irrepressible Diamond of the Desert. Ah, let them never be destroyed by any newfangled contrivance of the Devil!’
The young man in khaki uttered his favorite expletive, shrugged his shoulders, and turned his back. When he reached the world of so-called reality, he found the publishers still awaiting him, as he had foreseen.