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AN ADVENTURE IN THE DESERT
"The editor has a sort of notion, Mr. Munchausen," said Ananias, as he settled down in the big arm-chair before the fire in the Baron's library, "that he'd like to have a story about a giraffe. Public taste has a necky quality about it of late."
"What do you say to that, Sapphira?" asked the Baron, politely turning to Mrs. Ananias, who had called with her husband. "Are you interested in giraffes?"
"I like lions better," said Sapphira. "They roar louder and bite more fiercely."
"Well, suppose we compromise," said the Baron, "and have a story about a poodle dog. Poodle dogs sometimes look like lions, and as a rule they are as gentle as giraffes."
"I know a better scheme than that," put in Ananias. "Tell us a story about a lion and a giraffe, and if you feel disposed throw in a few poodles for good measure. I'm writing on space this year."
"That's so," said Sapphira, wearily. "I could say it was a story about a lion and Ananias could call it a giraffe story, and we'd each be right."
"Very well," said the Baron, "it shall be a story of each, only I must have a cigar before I begin. Cigars help me to think, and the adventure I had in the Desert of Sahara with a lion, a giraffe, and a slippery elm tree was so long ago that I shall have to do a great deal of thinking in order to recall it."
So the Baron went for a cigar, while Ananias and Sapphira winked enviously at each other and lamented their lost glory. In a minute the Baron returned with the weed, and after lighting it, began his story.
"I was about twenty years old when this thing happened to me," said he. "I had gone to Africa to investigate the sand in the Desert of Sahara for a Sand Company in America. As you may already have heard, sand is a very useful thing in a great many ways, more particularly however in the building trades. The Sand Company was formed for the purpose of supplying sand to everybody that wanted it, but land in America at that time was so very expensive that there was very little profit in the business. People who owned sand banks and sand lots asked outrageous prices for their property; and the sea-shore people were not willing to part with any of theirs because they needed it in their hotel business. The great attraction of a seaside hotel is the sand on the beach, and of course the proprietors weren't going to sell that. They might better even sell their brass bands. So the Sand Company thought it might be well to build some steam-ships, load them with oysters, or mowing machines, or historical novels, or anything else that is produced in the United States, and in demand elsewhere; send them to Egypt, sell the oysters, or mowing machines, or historical novels, and then have the ships fill up with sand from the Sahara, which they could get for nothing, and bring it back in ballast to the United States."
"It must have cost a lot!" said Ananias.
"Not at all," returned the Baron. "The profits on the oysters and mowing machines and historical novels were so large that all expenses both ways were more than paid, so that when it was delivered in America the sand had really cost less than nothing. We could have thrown it all overboard and still have a profit left. It was I who suggested the idea to the President of the Sand Company — his name was Bartlett, or — ah — Mulligan — or some similar well-known American name, I can't exactly recall it now. However, Mr. Bartlett, or Mr. Mulligan, or whoever it was, was very much pleased with the idea and asked me if I wouldn't go to the Sahara, investigate the quality of the sand, and report; and as I was temporarily out of employment I accepted the commission. Six weeks later I arrived in Cairo and set out immediately on a tour of the desert. I went alone because I preferred not to take any one into my confidence, and besides one can always be more independent when he has only his own wishes to consult. I also went on foot, for the reason that camels need a great deal of care — at least mine would have, if I'd had one, because I always like to have my steeds well groomed whether there is any one to see them or not. So to save myself trouble I started off alone on foot. In twenty-four hours I travelled over a hundred miles of the desert, and the night of the second day found me resting in the shade of a slippery elm tree in the middle of an oasis, which after much suffering and anxiety I had discovered. It was a beautiful moonlight night and I was enjoying it hugely. There were no mosquitoes or insects of any kind to interfere with my comfort. No insects could have flown so far across the sands. I have no doubt that many of them have tried to get there, but up to the time of my arrival none had succeeded, and I felt as happy as though I were in Paradise.
"After eating my supper and taking a draught of the delicious spring water that purled up in the middle of the oasis, I threw myself down under the elm tree, and began to play my violin, without which in those days I never went anywhere."
"I didn't know you played the violin," said Sapphira. "I thought your instrument was the trombone — plenty of blow and a mighty stretch."
"I don't — now," said the Baron, ignoring the sarcasm. "I gave it up ten years ago — but that's a different story. How long I played that night I don't know, but I do know that lulled by the delicious strains of the music and soothed by the soft sweetness of the atmosphere I soon dropped off to sleep. Suddenly I was awakened by what I thought to be the distant roar of thunder. 'Humph!' I said to myself. 'This is something new. A thunder storm in the Desert of Sahara is a thing I never expected to see, particularly on a beautifully clear moonlight night' — for the moon was still shining like a great silver ball in the heavens, and not a cloud was anywhere to be seen. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I had been dreaming, so I turned over to go to sleep again. Hardly had I closed my eyes when a second ear-splitting roar came bounding over the sands, and I knew that it was no dream, but an actual sound that I heard. I sprang to my feet and looked about the horizon and there, a mere speck in the distance, was something — for the moment I thought a cloud, but in another instant I changed my mind, for glancing through my telescope I perceived it was not a cloud but a huge lion with the glitter of hunger in his eye. What I had mistaken for the thunder was the roar of this savage beast. I seized my gun and felt for my cartridge box only to discover that I had lost my ammunition and was there alone, unarmed, in the great desert, at the mercy of that savage creature, who was drawing nearer and nearer every minute and giving forth the most fearful roars you ever heard. It was a terrible moment and I was in despair.
"'It's all up with you, Baron,' I said to myself, and then I caught sight of the tree. It seemed my only chance. I must climb that. I tried, but alas! As I have told you it was a slippery elm tree, and I might as well have tried to climb a greased pole. Despite my frantic efforts to get a grip upon the trunk I could not climb more than two feet without slipping back. It was impossible. Nothing was left for me to do but to take to my legs, and I took to them as well as I knew how. My, what a run it was, and how hopeless. The beast was gaining on me every second, and before me lay mile after mile of desert. 'Better give up and treat the beast to a breakfast, Baron,' I moaned to myself. 'When there's only one thing to do, you might as well do it and be done with it. Your misery will be over the more quickly if you stop right here.' As I spoke these words, I slowed up a little, but the frightful roaring of the lion unnerved me for an instant, or rather nerved me on to a spurt, which left the lion slightly more to the rear — and which resulted in the saving of my life; for as I ran on, what should I see about a mile ahead but another slippery elm tree, and under it stood a giraffe who had apparently fallen asleep while browsing among its upper branches, and filling its stomach with its cooling cocoanuts. The giraffe had its back to me, and as I sped on I formed my plan. I would grab hold of the giraffe's tail; haul myself up onto his back; climb up his neck into the tree, and then give my benefactor a blow between the eyes which would send him flying across the desert before the lion could come along and get up into the tree the same way I did. The agony of fear I went through as I approached the long-necked creature was something dreadful. Suppose the giraffe should be awakened by the roaring of the lion before I got there and should rush off himself to escape the fate that awaited me? I nearly dropped, I was so nervous, and the lion was now not more than a hundred yards away. I could hear his breath as he came panting on. I redoubled my speed; his pants came closer, closer, until at length after what seemed a year, I reached the giraffe, caught his tail, raised myself up to his back, crawled along his neck and dropped fainting into the tree just as the lion sprang upon the giraffe's back and came on toward me. What happened then I don't know, for as I have told you I swooned away; but I do know that when I came to, the giraffe had disappeared and the lion lay at the foot of the tree dead from a broken neck."
"A broken neck?" demanded Sapphira.
"Yes," returned the Baron. "A broken neck! From which I concluded that as the lion reached the nape of the giraffe's neck, the giraffe had waked up and bent his head toward the earth, thus causing the lion to fall head first to the ground instead of landing as he had expected in the tree with me."
"It was wonderful," said Sapphira, scornfully.
"Yes," said Ananias, "but I shouldn't think a lion could break his neck falling off a giraffe. Perhaps it was one of the slippery elm cocoanuts that fell on him."
"Well, of course," said the Baron, rising, "that would all depend upon the height of the giraffe. Mine was the tallest one I ever saw."
"About how tall?" asked Ananias.
"Well," returned the Baron, thoughtfully, as if calculating, "did you ever see the Eiffel Tower?"
"Yes," said Ananias.
"Well," observed the Baron, "I don't think my giraffe was more than half as tall as that."
With which estimate the Baron bowed his guests out of the room, and with a placid smile on his face, shook hands with himself.
"Mr. and Mrs. Ananias are charming people," he chuckled, "but amateurs both — deadly amateurs."
"I reached the giraffe, raised myself to his back, crawled along his neck and dropped fainting into the tree."