Letters of Travel (1892-1913)
Part 3 out of 4
politicians think. Myself, I believe if a man stood up to Labour--not
that I've any feeling against Labour--and just talked sense, a lot of
people would follow him--quietly, of course. I believe he could even get
white immigration after a while. He'd lose the first election, of
course, but in the long run.... We're about sick of Labour. I wanted you
to know the truth.'
'Thank you. And you don't think any attempt to bring in white
immigration would succeed?'
'Not if it didn't suit Labour. You can try it if you like, and see what
On that hint I made an experiment in another city. There were three men
of position, and importance, and affluence, each keenly interested in
the development of their land, each asserting that what the land needed
was white immigrants. And we four talked for two hours on the matter--up
and down and in circles. The one point on which those three men were
unanimous was, that whatever steps were taken to bring people into
British Columbia from England, by private recruiting or otherwise,
should be taken secretly. Otherwise the business of the people concerned
in the scheme would suffer.
At which point I dropped the Great Question of Asiatic Exclusion which
is Agitating all our Community; and I leave it to you, especially in
Australia and the Cape, to draw your own conclusions.
Externally, British Columbia appears to be the richest and the loveliest
section of the Continent. Over and above her own resources she has a
fair chance to secure an immense Asiatic trade, which she urgently
desires. Her land, in many places over large areas, is peculiarly fitted
for the small former and fruit-grower, who can send his truck to the
cities. On every hand I heard a demand for labour of all kinds. At the
same time, in no other part of the Continent did I meet so many men who
insistently decried the value and possibilities of their country, or who
dwelt more fluently on the hardships and privations to be endured by the
white immigrant. I believe that one or two gentlemen have gone to
England to explain the drawbacks _viva voce_. It is possible that they
incur a great responsibility in the present, and even a terrible one for
THE FORTUNATE TOWNS
After Politics, let us return to the Prairie which is the High Veldt,
plus Hope, Activity, and Reward. Winnipeg is the door to it--a great
city in a great plain, comparing herself, innocently enough, to other
cities of her acquaintance, but quite unlike any other city.
When one meets, in her own house, a woman not seen since girlhood she is
all a stranger till some remembered tone or gesture links up to the
past, and one cries: 'It _is_ you after all.' But, indeed, the child has
gone; the woman with her influences has taken her place. I tried vainly
to recover the gawky, graceless city I had known, so unformed and so
insistent on her shy self. I even ventured to remind a man of it. 'I
remember,' he said, smiling, 'but we were young then. This thing,'
indicating an immense perspective of asphalted avenue that dipped under
thirty railway tracks, 'only came up in the last ten years--practically
the last five. We've had to enlarge all those warehouses yonder by
adding two or three stories to 'em, and we've hardly begun to go ahead
yet. We're just beginning.'
Warehouses, railway-sidings, and such are only counters in the White
Man's Game, which can be swept up and re-dealt as the play varies. It
was the spirit in the thin dancing air--the new spirit of the new
city--which rejoiced me. Winnipeg has Things in abundance, but has
learned to put them beneath her feet, not on top of her mind, and so is
older than many cities. None the less the Things had to be shown--for
what shopping is to the woman showing off his town is to the
right-minded man. First came the suburbs--miles on miles of the dainty,
clean-outlined, wooden-built houses, where one can be so happy and so
warm, each unjealously divided from its neighbour by the lightest of
boundaries. One could date them by their architecture, year after year,
back to the Early 'Nineties, which is when civilisation began; could
guess within a few score dollars at their cost and the incomes of their
owners, and could ask questions about the new domestic appliances of
'Asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks came up a few years ago,' said
our host as we trotted over miles of it. 'We found it the only way to
fight the prairie mud. Look!' Where the daring road ended, there lay
unsubdued, level with the pale asphalt, the tenacious prairie, over
which civilisation fought her hub-deep way to the West. And with asphalt
and concrete they fight the prairie back every building season. Next
came the show-houses, built by rich men with an eye to the honour and
glory of their city, which is the first obligation of wealth in a new
We twisted and turned among broad, clean, tree-lined, sunlit boulevards
and avenues, all sluiced down with an air that forbade any thought of
fatigue, and talked of city government and municipal taxation, till, in
a certain silence, we were shown a suburb of uncared-for houses, shops,
and banks, whose sides and corners were rubbed greasy by the shoulders
of loafers. Dirt and tin cans lay about the street. Yet it was not the
squalor of poverty so much as the lack of instinct to keep clean. One
race prefers to inhabit there.
Next a glimpse of a cold, white cathedral, red-brick schools almost as
big (thank goodness!) as some convents; hospitals, institutions, a mile
or so of shops, and then a most familiar-feeling lunch at a Club which
would have amazed my Englishman at Montreal, where men, not yet old,
talked of Fort Garry as they remembered it, and tales of the founding of
the city, of early administrative shifts and accidents, mingled with the
younger men's prophecies and frivolities.
There are a few places still left where men can handle big things with a
light touch, and take more for granted in five minutes than an
Englishman at home could puzzle out in a year. But one would not meet
many English at a lunch in a London club who took the contract for
building London Wall or helped bully King John into signing Magna
I had two views of the city--one on a gray day from the roof of a
monster building, whence it seemed to overflow and fill with noises the
whole vast cup of the horizon; and still, all round its edge, jets of
steam and the impatient cries of machinery showed it was eating out into
the Prairie like a smothered fire.
The other picture was a silhouette of the city's flank, mysterious as a
line of unexplored cliffs, under a sky crimson--barred from the zenith
to the ground, where it lay, pale emerald behind the uneven ramparts. As
our train halted in the last of the dusk, and the rails glowed dull red,
I caught the deep surge of it, and seven miles across the purple levels
saw the low, restless aurora of its lights. It is rather an awesome
thing to listen to a vanguard of civilisation talking to itself in the
night in the same tone as a thousand-year-old city.
All the country hereabouts is riddled with railways for business and
pleasure undreamed of fifteen years ago, and it was a long time before
we reached the clear prairie of air and space and open land. The air is
different from any air that ever blew; the space is ampler than most
spaces, because it runs back to the unhampered Pole, and the open land
keeps the secret of its magic as closely as the sea or the desert.
People here do not stumble against each other around corners, but see
largely and tranquilly from a long way off what they desire, or wish to
avoid, and they shape their path accordingly across the waves, and
troughs, and tongues, and dips and fans of the land.
When mere space and the stoop of the high sky begin to overwhelm, earth
provides little ponds and lakes, lying in soft-flanked hollows, where
people can step down out of the floods of air, and delight themselves
with small and known distances. Most of the women I saw about the houses
were down in the hollows, and most of the men were on the crests and the
flats. Once, while we halted a woman drove straight down at us from the
sky-line, along a golden path between black ploughed lands. When the
horse, who managed affairs, stopped at the cars, she nodded
mysteriously, and showed us a very small baby in the hollow of her arm.
Doubtless she was some exiled Queen flying North to found a dynasty and
establish a country. The Prairie makes everything wonderful.
They were threshing the wheat on both sides or the track as far as the
eye could see. The smoke of the machines went up in orderly perspective
alongside the mounds of chaff--thus: a machine, a house, a mound of
chaff, a stretch of wheat in stocks--and then repeat the pattern over
the next few degrees of longitude. We ran through strings of nearly
touching little towns, where I remembered an occasional shack; and
through big towns once represented by a name-board, a siding, and two
troopers of the North-West Police. In those days men proved that Wheat
would not grow north of some fool's line, or other, or, if it did, that
no one would grow it. And now the Wheat was marching with us as far as
the eye could reach; the railways were out, two, three hundred miles
north, peopling a new wheat country; and north of that again the Grand
Trunk was laying down a suburban extension of a few thousand miles
across the Continent, with branches perhaps to Dawson City, certainly to
'Come north and look!' cried the Afrites of the Railway. 'You're only on
the fringe of it here.' I preferred to keep the old road, and to gape at
miracles accomplished since my day. The old, false-fronted,
hollow-stomached Western hotels were gone; their places filled by
five-storey brick or stone ones, with Post Offices to match.
Occasionally some overlooked fragment of the past still cleaved to a
town, and marked it for an old acquaintance, but often one had to get a
mile away and look back on a place--as one holds a palimpsest up against
the light--to identify the long overlaid lines of the beginnings. Each
town supplied the big farming country behind it, and each town school
carried the Union Jack on a flagstaff in its playground. So far as one
could understand, the scholars are taught neither to hate, nor despise,
nor beg from, their own country.
I whispered to a man that I was a little tired of a three days' tyranny
of Wheat, besides being shocked at farmers who used clean bright straw
for fuel, and made bonfires of their chaff-hills. 'You're 'way behind
the times,' said he. 'There's fruit and dairying and any quantity of
mixed farming going forward all around--let alone irrigation further
West. Wheat's not our only king by a long sight. Wait till you strike
such and such a place.' It was there I met a prophet and a preacher in
the shape of a Commissioner of the Local Board of Trade (all towns have
them), who firmly showed me the vegetables which his district produced.
They _were_ vegetables too--all neatly staged in a little kiosk near the
I think the pious Thomas Tusser would have loved that man. 'Providence,'
said he, shedding pamphlets at every gesture, 'did not intend
everlasting Wheat in this section. No, sir! Our business is to keep
ahead of Providence--to meet her with mixed farming. Are you interested
in mixed farming? Psha! Too bad you missed our fruit and vegetable show.
It draws people together, mixed farming does. I don't say Wheat is
narrowing to the outlook, but I claim there's more sociability and money
in mixed farming. We've been hypnotised by Wheat and Cattle. Now--the
cars won't start yet awhile--I'll just tell you my ideas.'
For fifteen glorious minutes he gave me condensed essence of mixed
farming, with excursions into sugar-beet (did you know they are making
sugar in Alberta?), and he talked of farmyard muck, our dark mother of
all things, with proper devotion.
'What we want now,' he cried in farewell, 'is men--more men. Yes, and
They need women sorely for domestic help, to meet the mad rush of work
at harvest time--maids who will help in house, dairy, and chicken-run
till they are married.
A steady tide sets that way already; one contented settler recruiting
others from England; but if a tenth of that energy wasted on 'social
reform' could be diverted to decently thought out and supervised
emigration work ('Labour' does not yet object to people working on the
land) we might do something worth talking about. The races which work
and do not form Committees are going into the country at least as fast
as ours. It makes one jealous and afraid to watch aliens taking, and
taking honestly, so much of this treasure of good fortune and sane
There was a town down the road which I had first heard discussed nigh
twenty years ago by a broken-down prospector in a box-car. 'Young
feller,' said he, after he had made a professional prophecy,' you'll
hear of that town if you live. She's born lucky.'
I saw the town later--it was a siding by a trestle bridge where Indians
sold beadwork--and as years passed I gathered that the old tramp's
prophecy had come true, and that Luck of some kind had struck the little
town by the big river. So, this trip, I stopped to make sure. It was a
beautiful town of six thousand people, and a railway junction, beside a
high-girdered iron bridge; there was a public garden with trees at the
station. A company of joyous men and women, whom that air and that
light, and their own goodwill, made our brothers and sisters, came along
in motors, and gave us such a day as never was.
'What about the Luck?' I asked.
'Heavens!' said one. 'Haven't you heard about our natural gas--the
greatest natural gas in the world? Oh, come and see!'
I was whirled off to a roundhouse full of engines and machinery-shops,
worked by natural gas which comes out of the earth, smelling slightly of
fried onions, at a pressure of six hundred pounds, and by valves and
taps is reduced to four pounds. There was Luck enough to make a
metropolis. Imagine a city's heating and light--to say nothing of
power--laid on at no greater expense than that of piping!
'Are there any limits to the possibilities of it?' I demanded.
'Who knows? We're only at the beginning. We'll show you a brick-making
plant, out on the prairie, run by gas. But just now we want to show you
one of our pet farms.'
Away swooped the motors, like swallows, over roads any width you please,
and up on to what looked like the High Veldt itself. A Major of the
Mounted Police, who had done a year at the (Boer) war, told us how the
ostrich-farm fencing and the little meercats sitting up and racing about
South Africa had made him homesick for the sight of the gophers by the
wayside, and the endless panels of wire fencing along which we rushed.
(The Prairie has nothing to learn from the Veldt about fencing, or
'After all,' said the Major, 'there's no country to touch this. I've had
thirty years of it--from one end to the other.'
Then they pointed out all the quarters of the horizon--say, fifty miles
wherever you turned--and gave them names.
The show farmer had taken his folk to church, but we friendly slipped
through his gates and reached the silent, spick-and-span house, with its
trim barn, and a vast mound of copper-coloured wheat, piled in the sun
between two mounds of golden chaff. Every one thumbed a sample of it and
passed judgment--it must have been worth a few hundred golden sovereigns
as it lay, out on the veldt--and we sat around, on the farm machinery,
and, in the hush that a shut-up house always imposes, we seemed to hear
the lavish earth getting ready for new harvests. There was no true wind,
but a push, as it were, of the whole crystal atmosphere.
'Now for the brickfield!' they cried. It was many miles off. The road
fed by a never-to-be-forgotten drop, to a river broad as the Orange at
Norval's Pont, rustling between mud hills. An old Scotchman, in the very
likeness of Charon, with big hip boots, controlled a pontoon, which
sagged back and forth by current on a wire rope. The reckless motors
bumped on to this ferry through a foot of water, and Charon, who never
relaxed, bore us statelily across the dark, broad river to the further
bank, where we all turned to look at the lucky little town, and discuss
'I think you can see it best from here,' said one.
'No, from here,' said another, and their voices softened on the very
name of it.
Then for an hour we raced over true prairie, great yellow-green plains
crossed by old buffalo trails, which do not improve motor springs, till
a single chimney broke the horizon like a mast at sea; and thereby were
more light-hearted men and women, a shed and a tent or two for workmen,
the ribs and frames of the brick-making mechanism, a fifteen foot square
shaft sunk, sixty foot down to the clay, and, stark and black, the pipe
of a natural-gas well. The rest was Prairie--the mere curve of the
earth--with little grey birds calling.
I thought it could not have been simpler, more audacious or more
impressive, till I saw some women in pretty frocks go up and peer at the
'We fancied that it might amuse you,' said all those merry people, and
between laughter and digressions they talked over projects for building,
first their own, and next other cities, in brick of all sorts; giving
figures of output and expenses of plant that made one gasp. To the eye
the affair was no more than a novel or delicious picnic. What it
actually meant was a committee to change the material of civilisation
for a hundred miles around. I felt as though I were assisting at the
planning of Nineveh; and whatever of good comes to the little town that
was born lucky I shall always claim a share.
But there is no space to tell how we fed, with a prairie appetite, in
the men's quarters, on a meal prepared by an artist; how we raced home
at speeds no child could ever hear of, and no grown-up should attempt;
how the motors squattered at the ford, and took pot-shots at the pontoon
till even Charon smiled; how great horses hauled the motors up the
gravelly bank into the town; how there we met people in their Sunday
best, walking and driving, and pulled ourselves together, and looked
virtuous; and how the merry company suddenly and quietly evanished
because they thought that their guests might be tired. I can give you no
notion of the pure, irresponsible frolic of it--of the almost
affectionate kindness, the gay and inventive hospitality that so
delicately controlled the whole affair--any more than I can describe a
certain quiet half-hour in the dusk just before we left, when the
company gathered to say good-bye, while young couples walked in the
street, and the glare of the never-extinguished natural-gas lamps
coloured the leaves of the trees a stage green.
It was a woman, speaking out of the shadow, who said, what we all felt,
'You see, we just love our town,'
'So do we,' I said, and it slid behind us.
MOUNTAINS AND THE PACIFIC
The Prairie proper ends at Calgary, among the cattle-ranches, mills,
breweries, and three million acre irrigation works. The river that
floats timber to the town from the mountains does not slide nor rustle
like Prairie rivers, but brawls across bars of blue pebbles, and a
greenish tinge in its water hints of the snows.
What I saw of Calgary was crowded into one lively half-hour (motors were
invented to run about new cities). What I heard I picked up, oddly
enough, weeks later, from a young Dane in the North Sea. He was
qualmish, but his Saga of triumph upheld him.
'Three years ago I come to Canada by steerage--third class. _And_ I have
the language to learn. Look at me! I have now my own dairy business, in
Calgary, and--look at me!--my own half section, that is, three hundred
and twenty acres. All my land which is mine! And now I come home, first
class, for Christmas here in Denmark, and I shall take out back with me,
some friends of mine which are farmers, to farm on those irrigated lands
near by Calgary. Oh, I tell you there is nothing wrong with Canada for a
man which works.'
'And will your friends go?' I inquired.
'You bet they will. It is all arranged already. I bet they get ready to
go now already; and in three years they will come back for Christmas
here in Denmark, first class like me.'
'Then you think Calgary is going ahead?'
'You bet! We are only at the beginning of things. Look at me! Chickens?
I raise chickens also in Calgary,' etc., etc.
After all this pageant of unrelieved material prosperity, it was a rest
to get to the stillness of the big foothills, though they, too, had been
in-spanned for the work of civilisation. The timber off their sides was
ducking and pitch-poling down their swift streams, to be sawn into
house-stuff for all the world. The woodwork of a purely English villa
may come from as many Imperial sources as its owner's income.
The train crept, whistling to keep its heart up, through the winding
gateways of the hills, till it presented itself, very humbly, before the
true mountains, the not so Little Brothers to the Himalayas. Mountains
of the pine-cloaked, snow-capped breed are unchristian things.
Men mine into the flanks of some of them, and trust to modern science to
pull them through. Not long ago, a mountain kneeled on a little mining
village as an angry elephant kneels; but it did not get up again, and
the half of that camp was no more seen on earth. The other half still
stands--uninhabited. The 'heathen in his blindness' would have made
arrangements with the Genius of the Place before he ever drove a pick
there. 'As a learned scholar of a little-known university once observed
to an engineer officer on the Himalaya-Tibet Road--'You white men gain
nothing by not noticing what you cannot see. You fall off the road, or
the road falls on you, and you die, and you think it all an accident.
How much wiser it was when we were allowed to sacrifice a man
officially, sir, before making bridges or other public works. Then the
local gods were officially recognised, sir, and did not give any more
trouble, and the local workmen, sir, were much pleased with these
There are many local gods on the road through the Rockies: old bald
mountains that have parted with every shred of verdure and stand wrapped
in sheets of wrinkled silver rock, over which the sight travels slowly
as in delirium; mad, horned mountains, wreathed with dancing mists;
low-browed and bent-shouldered faquirs of the wayside, sitting in
meditation beneath a burden of glacier-ice that thickens every year; and
mountains of fair aspect on one side, but on the other seamed with
hollow sunless clefts, where last year's snow is blackened with this
year's dirt and smoke of forest-fires. The drip from it seeps away
through slopes of unstable gravel and dirt, till, at the appointed
season, the whole half-mile of undermined talus slips and roars into the
The railway winds in and out among them with little inexplicable
deviations and side-twists, much as a buck walks through a forest-glade,
sidling and crossing uneasily in what appears to be a plain way. Only
when the track has rounded another shoulder or two, a backward and
upward glance at some menacing slope shows why the train did not take
the easier-looking road on the other side of the gorge.
From time to time the mountains lean apart, and nurse between them some
golden valley of slow streams, fat pastures, and park-like uplands, with
a little town, and cow bells tinkling among berry bushes; and children
who have never seen the sun rise or set, shouting at the trains; and
real gardens round the houses.
At Calgary it was a frost, and the dahlias were dead. A day later
nasturtiums bloomed untouched beside the station platforms, and the air
was heavy and liquid with the breath of the Pacific. One felt the spirit
of the land change with the changing outline of the hills till, on the
lower levels by the Fraser, it seemed that even the Sussex Downs must be
nearer at heart to the Prairie than British Columbia. The Prairie people
notice the difference, and the Hill people, unwisely, I think, insist on
it. Perhaps the magic may lie in the scent of strange evergreens and
mosses not known outside the ranges: or it may strike from wall to wall
of timeless rifts and gorges, but it seemed to me to draw out of the
great sea that washes further Asia--the Asia of allied mountains, mines,
We rested one day high up in the Rockies, to visit a lake carved out of
pure jade, whose property is to colour every reflection on its bosom to
its own tint. A belt of brown dead timber on a gravel scar, showed,
upside down, like sombre cypresses rising from green turf and the
reflected snows were pale green. In summer many tourists go there, but
we saw nothing except the wonderworking lake lying mute in its circle of
forest, where red and orange lichens grew among grey and blue moss, and
we heard nothing except the noise of its outfall hurrying through a jam
of bone-white logs. The thing might have belonged to Tibet or some
unexplored valley behind Kin-chinjunga. It had no concern with the West.
As we drove along the narrow hill-road a piebald pack-pony with a
china-blue eye came round a bend, followed by two women, black-haired,
bare-headed, wearing beadwork squaw-jackets, and riding straddle. A
string of pack-ponies trotted through the pines behind them.
'Indians on the move?' said I. 'How characteristic!'
As the women jolted by, one of them very slightly turned her eyes, and
they were, past any doubt, the comprehending equal eyes of the civilised
white woman which moved in that berry-brown face.
'Yes,' said our driver, when the cavalcade had navigated the next
curve,' that'll be Mrs. So-and-So and Miss So-and-So. They mostly camp
hereabout for three months every year. I reckon they're coming in to the
railroad before the snow falls.'
'And whereabout do they go?' I asked.
'Oh, all about anywheres. If you mean where they come from just
now--that's the trail yonder.'
He pointed to a hair-crack across the face of a mountain, and I took
his word for it that it was a safe pony-trail. The same evening, at an
hotel of all the luxuries, a slight woman in a very pretty evening frock
was turning over photographs, and the eyes beneath the strictly-arranged
hair were the eyes of the woman in the beadwork jacket who had quirted
the piebald pack-pony past our buggy.
Praised be Allah for the diversity of His creatures! But do you know any
other country where two women could go out for a three months' trek and
shoot in perfect comfort and safety?
These mountains are only ten days from London, and people more and more
use them for pleasure-grounds. Other and most unthought-of persons buy
little fruit-farms in British Columbia as an excuse for a yearly visit
to the beautiful land, and they tempt yet more people from England. This
is apart from the regular tide of emigration, and serves to make the
land known. If you asked a State-owned railway to gamble on the chance
of drawing tourists, the Commissioner of Railways would prove to you
that the experiment could never succeed, and that it was wrong to risk
the taxpayers' money in erecting first-class hotels. Yet South Africa
could, even now, be made a tourists' place--if only the railroads and
steamship lines had faith.
On thinking things over I suspect I was not intended to appreciate the
merits of British Columbia too highly. Maybe I misjudged; maybe she was
purposely misrepresented; but I seemed to hear more about 'problems'
and 'crises' and 'situations' in her borders than anywhere else. So far
as eye or ear could gather, the one urgent problem was to find enough
men and women to do the work in hand.
Lumber, coal, minerals, fisheries, fit soil for fruit, dairy, and
poultry farms are all there in a superb climate. The natural beauty of
earth and sky match these lavish gifts; to which are added thousands of
miles of safe and sheltered waterways for coastal trade; deep harbours
that need no dredge; the ground-works of immense and ice-free ports--all
the title-deeds to half the trade of Asia. For the people's pleasure and
good disport salmon, trout, quail, and pheasant play in front of and
through the suburbs of her capitals. A little axe-work and
road-metalling gives a city one of the loveliest water-girt parks that
we have outside the tropics. Another town is presented with a hundred
islands, knolls, wooded coves, stretches of beach, and dingles, laid
down as expressly for camp-life, picnics, and boating parties, beneath
skies never too hot and rarely too cold. If they care to lift up their
eyes from their almost subtropical gardens they can behold snowy peaks
across blue bays, which must be good for the soul. Though they face a
sea out of which any portent may arise, they are not forced to protect
or even to police its waters. They are as ignorant of drouth, murrain,
pestilence locusts, and blight, as they are of the true meaning of want
Such a land is good for an energetic man. It is also not so bad for the
loafer. I was, as I have told you, instructed on its, drawbacks. I was
to understand that there was no certainty in any employment; and that a
man who earned immense wages for six months of the year would have to be
kept by the community if he fell out of work for the other six. I was
not to be deceived by golden pictures set before me by interested
parties (that is to say, by almost every one I met), and I was to give
due weight to the difficulties and discouragements that beset the
intending immigrant. Were I an intending immigrant I would risk a good
deal of discomfort to get on to the land in British Columbia; and were I
rich, with no attachments outside England, I would swiftly buy me a farm
or a house in that country for the mere joy of it.
I forgot those doleful and unhumorous conspirators among people who
fervently believed in the place; but afterwards the memory left a bad
taste in my mouth. Cities, like women, cannot be too careful what sort
of men they allow to talk about them.
Time had changed Vancouver literally out of all knowledge. From the
station to the suburbs, and back to the wharves, every step was strange,
and where I remembered open spaces and still untouched timber, the
tramcars were fleeting people out to a lacrosse game. Vancouver is an
aged city, for only a few days previous to my arrival the Vancouver
Baby--_i.e._ the first child born in Vancouver--had been married.
A steamer--once familiar in Table Bay--had landed a few hundred Sikhs
and Punjabi Jats--to each man his bundle--and the little groups walked
uneasy alone, keeping, for many of them had been soldiers, to the
military step. Yes, they said they had come to this country to get work.
News had reached their villages that work at great wages was to be had
in this country. Their brethren who had gone before had sent them the
news. Yes, and sometimes the money for the passage out. The money would
be paid back from the so-great wages to come. With interest? Assuredly
with interest.. Did men lend money for nothing in _any_ country? They
were waiting for their brethren to come and show them where to eat, and
later, how to work. Meanwhile this was a new country. How could they say
anything about it? No, it was not like Gurgaon or Shahpur or Jullundur.
The Sickness (plague) had come to all these places. It had come into the
Punjab by every road, and many--many--many had died. The crops, too, had
failed in some districts. Hearing the news about these so-great wages
they had taken ship for the belly's sake--for the money's sake--for the
'Would they go back again?'
They grinned as they nudged each other. The Sahib had not quite
understood. They had come over for the sake of the money--the rupees,
no, the dollars. The Punjab was their home where their villages lay,
where their people were waiting. Without doubt--without doubt--they
would go back. Then came the brethren already working in the
mills--cosmopolitans dressed in ready-made clothes, and smoking
'This way, O you people,' they cried. The bundles were reshouldered and
the turbaned knots melted away. The last words I caught were true Sikh
talk: 'But what about the money, O my brother?'
Some Punjabis have found out that money can be too dearly bought.
There was a Sikh in a sawmill, had been driver in a mountain battery at
home. Himself he was from Amritsar. (Oh, pleasant as cold water in a
thirsty land is the sound of a familiar name in a fair country!)
'But you had your pension. Why did you come here?'
'Heaven-born, because my sense was little. And there was also the
Sickness at Amritsar.'
(The historian a hundred years hence will be able to write a book on
economic changes brought about by pestilence. There is a very
interesting study somewhere of the social and commercial effects of the
Black Death in England.)
On a wharf, waiting for a steamer, some thirty Sikhs, many of them
wearing their old uniforms (which should not be allowed) were talking at
the tops of their voices, so that the shed rang like an Indian railway
station. A suggestion that if they spoke lower life would be easier was
instantly adopted. Then a senior officer with a British India medal
asked hopefully: 'Has the Sahib any orders where we are to go?'
Alas he had none--nothing but goodwill and greetings for the sons of
the Khalsa, and they tramped off in fours.
It is said that when the little riot broke out in Vancouver these
'heathen' were invited by other Asiatics to join in defending themselves
against the white man. They refused on the ground that they were
subjects of the King. I wonder what tales they sent back to their
villages, and where, and how fully, every detail of the affair was
talked over. White men forget that no part of the Empire can live or die
Here is a rather comic illustration of this on the material side. The
wonderful waters between Vancouver and Victoria are full of whales,
leaping and rejoicing in the strong blue all about the steamer. There
is, therefore, a whalery on an island near by, and I had the luck to
travel with one of the shareholders.
'Whales are beautiful beasts,' he said affectionately. 'We've a contract
with a Scotch firm for every barrel of oil we can deliver for years
ahead. It's reckoned the best for harness-dressing.'
He went on to tell me how a swift ship goes hunting whales with a
bomb-gun and explodes shells into their insides so that they perish at
'All the old harpoon and boat business would take till the cows come
home. We kill 'em right off.'
'And how d'you strip 'em?'
It seemed that the expeditious ship carried also a large air-pump, and
pumped up the carcass to float roundly till she could attend to it. At
the end of her day's kill she would return, towing sometimes as many as
four inflated whales to the whalery, which is a factory full of modern
appliances. The whales are hauled up inclined planes like logs to a
sawmill, and as much of them as will not make oil for the Scotch
leather-dresser, or cannot be dried for the Japanese market, is
converted into potent manure.
'No manure can touch ours,' said the shareholder. 'It's so rich in bone,
d'you see. The only thing that has beat us up to date is their hides;
but we've fixed up a patent process now for turning 'em into floorcloth.
Yes, they're beautiful beasts. That fellow,' he pointed to a black hump
in a wreath of spray, 'would cut up a miracle.'
'If you go on like this you won't have any whales left,' I said.
'That is so. But the concern pays thirty per cent, and--a few years
back, no one believed in it.'
I forgave him everything for the last sentence.
Canada possesses two pillars of Strength and Beauty in Quebec and
Victoria. The former ranks by herself among those Mother-cities of whom
none can say 'This reminds me.' To realise Victoria you must take all
that the eye admires most in Bournemouth, Torquay, the Isle of Wight,
the Happy Valley at Hong-Kong, the Doon, Sorrento, and Camps Bay; add
reminiscences of the Thousand Islands, and arrange the whole round the
Bay of Naples, with some Himalayas for the background.
Real estate agents recommend it as a little piece of England--the island
on which it stands is about the size of Great Britain--but no England is
set in any such seas or so fully charged with the mystery of the larger
ocean beyond. The high, still twilights along the beaches are out of the
old East just under the curve of the world, and even in October the sun
rises warm from the first. Earth, sky, and water wait outside every
man's door to drag him out to play if he looks up from his work; and,
though some other cities in the Dominion do not quite understand this
immoral mood of Nature, men who have made their money in them go off to
Victoria, and with the zeal of converts preach and preserve its
We went to look at a marine junk-store which had once been Esquimalt, a
station of the British Navy. It was reached through winding roads,
lovelier than English lanes, along watersides and parkways any one of
which would have made the fortune of a town.
'Most cities,' a man said, suddenly, 'lay out their roads at right
angles. We do in the business quarters. What d'you think?'
'I fancy some of those big cities will have to spend millions on curved
roads some day for the sake of a change,' I said. 'You've got what no
money can buy.'
'That's what the men tell us who come to live in Victoria. And they've
It is pleasant to think of the Western millionaire, hot from some
gridiron of rectangular civilisation, confirming good Victorians in the
policy of changing vistas and restful curves.
There is a view, when the morning mists peel off the harbour where the
steamers tie up, or the Houses of Parliament on one hand, and a huge
hotel on the other, which as an example of cunningly-fitted-in
water-fronts and facades is worth a very long journey. The hotel was
just being finished. The ladies' drawing-room, perhaps a hundred feet by
forty, carried an arched and superbly enriched plaster ceiling of knops
and arabesques and interlacings, which somehow seemed familiar.
'We saw a photo of it in _Country Life_,' the contractor explained. 'It
seemed just what the room needed, so one of our plasterers, a
Frenchman--that's him--took and copied it. It comes in all right,
About the time the noble original was put up in England Drake might have
been sailing somewhere off this very coast. So, you see, Victoria
lawfully holds the copyright.
I tried honestly to render something of the colour, the gaiety, and the
graciousness of the town and the island, but only found myself piling up
unbelievable adjectives, and so let it go with a hundred other wonders
and repented that I had wasted my time and yours on the anxious-eyed
gentlemen who talked of 'drawbacks.' A verse cut out of a newspaper
seems to sum up their attitude:
As the Land of Little Leisure
Is the place where things are done,
So the Land of Scanty Pleasure
Is the place for lots of fun.
In the Land of Plenty Trouble
People laugh as people should,
But there's some one always kicking
In the Land of Heap Too Good!
At every step of my journey people assured me that I had seen nothing of
Canada. Silent mining men from the North; fruit-farmers from the
Okanagan Valley; foremen of railway gangs, not so long from English
public schools; the oldest inhabitant of the town of Villeneuve, aged
twenty-eight; certain English who lived on the prairie and contrived to
get fun and good fellowship as well as money; the single-minded
wheat-growers and cattle-men; election agents; police troopers
expansive in the dusk of wayside halts; officials dependent on the
popular will, who talked as delicately as they walked; and queer souls
who did not speak English, and said so loudly in the dining-car--each,
in his or her own way, gave me to understand this. My excursion bore the
same relation to their country as a 'bus-ride down the Strand bears to
London, so I knew how they felt.
The excuse is that our own flesh and blood are more interesting than
anybody else, and I held by birth the same right in them and their lives
as they held in any other part of the Empire. Because they had become a
people within the Empire my right was admitted and no word spoken; which
would not have been the case a few years ago. One may mistake many signs
on the road, but there is no mistaking the spirit of sane and realised
nationality, which fills the land from end to end precisely as the
joyous hum of a big dynamo well settled to its load makes a background
to all the other shop noises. For many reasons that Spirit came late,
but since it has come after the day of little things, doubts, and open
or veiled contempts, there is less danger that it will go astray among
the boundless wealth and luxury that await it. The people, the schools,
the churches, the Press in its degree, and, above all, the women,
understand without manifestoes that their land must now as always abide
under the Law in deed and in word and in thought. This is their
caste-mark, the ark of their covenant, their reason for being what they
are. In the big cities, with their village-like lists of police court
offences; in the wide-open little Western towns where the present is as
free as the lives and the future as safe as the property of their
inhabitants; in the coast cities galled and humiliated at their one
night's riot ('It's not our habit, Sir! It's not our habit!'); up among
the mountains where the officers of the law track and carefully bring
into justice the astounded malefactor; and behind the orderly prairies
to the barren grounds, as far as a single white man can walk, the
relentless spirit of the breed follows up, and oversees, and controls.
It does not much express itself in words, but sometimes, in intimate
discussion, one is privileged to catch a glimpse of the inner fires.
They burn hotly.
'_We_ do not mean to be de-civilised,' said the first man with whom I
talked about it.
That was the answer throughout--the keynote and the explanation.
Otherwise the Canadians are as human as the rest of us to evade or deny
a plain issue. The duty of developing their country is always present,
but when it comes to taking thought, better thought, for her defence,
they refuge behind loose words and childish anticipations of
miracles--quite in the best Imperial manner. All admit that Canada is
wealthy; few that she is weak; still fewer that, unsupported, she would
very soon cease to exist as a nation. The anxious inquirer is told that
she does her duty towards England by developing her resources; that
wages are so high a paid army is out of the question; that she is
really maturing splendid defence schemes, but must not be hurried or
dictated to; that a little wise diplomacy is all that will ever be
needed in this so civilised era; that when the evil day comes something
will happen (it certainly will), the whole concluding, very often, with
a fervent essay on the immorality of war, all about as much to the point
as carrying a dove through the streets to allay pestilence.
The question before Canada is not what she thinks or pays, but what an
enemy may think it necessary to make her pay. If she continues wealthy
and remains weak she will surely be attacked under one pretext or
another. Then she will go under, and her spirit will return to the dust
with her flag as it slides down the halliards.
'That is absurd,' is always the quick answer. 'In her own interests
England could never permit it. What you speak of presupposes the fall of
Not necessarily. Nothing worse than a stumble by the way; but when
England stumbles the Empire shakes. Canada's weakness is lack of men.
England's weakness is an excess of voters who propose to live at the
expense of the State. These loudly resent that any money should be
diverted from themselves; and since money is spent on fleets and armies
to protect the Empire while it is consolidating, they argue that if the
Empire ceased to exist armaments would cease too, and the money so saved
could be spent on their creature comforts. They pride themselves on
being an avowed and organised enemy of the Empire which, as others see
it, waits only to give them health, prosperity, and power beyond
anything their votes could win them in England. But their leaders need
their votes in England, as they need their outcries and discomforts to
help them in their municipal and Parliamentary careers. No engineer
lowers steam in his own boilers.
So they are told little except evil of the great heritage outside, and
are kept compounded in cities under promise of free rations and
amusements. If the Empire were threatened they would not, in their own
interests, urge England to spend men and money on it. Consequently it
might be well if the nations within the Empire were strong enough to
endure a little battering unaided at the first outset--till such time,
that is, as England were permitted to move to their help.
For this end an influx of good men is needed more urgently every year
during which peace holds--men loyal, clean, and experienced in
citizenship, with women not ignorant of sacrifice.
Here the gentlemen who propose to be kept by their neighbours are our
helpful allies. They have succeeded in making uneasy the class
immediately above them, which is the English working class, as yet
undebauched by the temptation of State-aided idleness or
State-guaranteed irresponsibility. England has millions of such silent
careful folk accustomed, even yet, to provide for their own offspring,
to bring them up in a resolute fear of God, and to desire no more than
the reward of their own labours. A few years ago this class would not
have cared to shift; now they feel the general disquiet. They live close
to it. Tea-and-sugar borrowing friends have told them jocularly, or with
threats, of a good time coming when things will go hard with the
uncheerful giver. The prospect appeals neither to their reason nor to
their Savings Bank books. They hear--they do not need to read--the
speeches delivered in their streets on a Sunday morning. It is one of
their pre-occupations to send their children to Sunday School by
roundabout roads, lest they should pick up abominable blasphemies. When
the tills of the little shops are raided, or when the family
ne'er-do-well levies on his women with more than usual brutality, they
know, because they suffer, what principles are being put into practice.
If these people could quietly be shown a quiet way out of it all, very
many of them would call in their savings (they are richer than they
look), and slip quietly away. In the English country, as well as in the
towns, there is a feeling--not yet panic, but the dull edge of it--that
the future will be none too rosy for such as are working, or are in the
habit of working. This is all to our advantage.
Canada can best serve her own interests and those of the Empire by
systematically exploiting this new recruiting-ground. Now that South
Africa, with the exception of Rhodesia, has been paralysed, and
Australia has not yet learned the things which belong to her peace,
Canada has the chance of the century to attract good men and capital
into the Dominion. But the men are much more important than the money.
They may not at first be as clever with the hoe as the Bessarabian or
the Bokhariot, or whatever the fashionable breed is, but they have
qualities of pluck, good humour, and a certain well-wearing virtue which
are not altogether bad. They will not hold aloof from the life of the
land, nor pray in unknown tongues to Byzantine saints; while the very
tenacity and caution which made them cleave to England this long, help
them to root deeply elsewhere. They are more likely to bring their women
than other classes, and those women will make sacred and individual
homes. A little-regarded Crown Colony has a proverb that no district can
be called settled till there are pots of musk in the house-windows--sure
sign that an English family has come to stay. It is not certain how much
of the present steamer-dumped foreign population has any such idea. We
have seen a financial panic in one country send whole army corps of
aliens kiting back to the lands whose allegiance they forswore. What
would they or their likes do in time of real stress, since no instinct
in their bodies or their souls would call them to stand by till the
storm were over?
Surely the conclusion of the whole matter throughout the whole Empire
must be men and women of our own stock, habits, language, and hopes
brought in by every possible means under a well-settled policy? Time
will not be allowed us to multiply to unquestionable peace, but by
drawing upon England we can swiftly transfuse what we need of her
strength into her veins, and by that operation bleed her into health and
sanity Meantime, the only serious enemy to the Empire, within or
without, is that very Democracy which depends on the Empire for its
proper comforts, and in whose behalf these things are urged.
EGYPT OF THE MAGICIANS
A RETURN TO THE EAST.
A SERPENT OF OLD NILE.
UP THE RIVER.
THE FACE OF THE DESERT.
THE RIDDLE OF EMPIRE.
_And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments_.--EXODUS
I had left Europe for no reason except to discover the Sun, and there
were rumours that he was to be found in Egypt.
But I had not realised what more I should find there.
A P. & O. boat carried us out of Marseilles. A serang of lascars, with
whistle, chain, shawl, and fluttering blue clothes, was at work on the
baggage-hatch. Somebody bungled at the winch. The serang called him a
name unlovely in itself but awakening delightful memories in the hearer.
'O Serang, is that man a fool?'
'Very foolish, sahib. He comes from Surat. He only comes for his food's
The serang grinned; the Surtee man grinned; the winch began again, and
the voices that called: 'Lower away! Stop her!' were as familiar as the
friendly whiff from the lascars' galley or the slap of bare feet along
the deck. But for the passage of a few impertinent years, I should have
gone without hesitation to share their rice. Serangs used to be very
kind to little white children below the age of caste. Most familiar of
all was the ship itself. It had slipped my memory, nor was there
anything in the rates charged to remind me, that single-screws still
lingered in the gilt-edged passenger trade.
Some North Atlantic passengers accustomed to real ships made the
discovery, and were as pleased about it as American tourists at
'Oh, come and see!' they cried. 'She has _one_ screw--only one screw!
Hear her thump! And _have_ you seen their old barn of a saloon? _And_
the officers' library? It's open for two half-hours a day week-days and
one on Sundays. You pay a dollar and a quarter deposit on each book. We
wouldn't have missed this trip for anything. It's like sailing with
They wandered about--voluble, amazed, and happy, for they were getting
off at Port Said.
I explored, too. From the rough-ironed table-linen, the thick
tooth-glasses for the drinks, the slummocky set-out of victuals at
meals, to the unaccommodating regulations in the curtainless cabin,
where they had not yet arrived at bunk-edge trays for morning tea, time
and progress had stood still with the P. & O. To be just, there were
electric-fan fittings in the cabins, but the fans were charged extra;
and there was a rumour, unverified, that one could eat on deck or in
one's cabin without a medical certificate from the doctor. All the rest
was under the old motto: '_Quis separabit_'--'This is quite separate
from other lines.'
'After all,' said an Anglo-Indian, whom I was telling about civilised
ocean travel, 'they don't want you Egyptian trippers. They're sure of
_us_, because----' and he gave me many strong reasons connected with
leave, finance, the absence of competition, and the ownership of the
'But it's absurd,' I insisted. 'The whole concern is out of date.
There's a notice on my deck forbidding smoking and the use of naked
lights, and there's a lascar messing about the hold-hatch outside my
cabin with a candle in a lantern.'
Meantime, our one-screw tub thumped gingerly toward Port Said, because
we had no mails aboard, and the Mediterranean, exhausted after severe
February hysterics, lay out like oil.
I had some talk with a Scotch quartermaster who complained that lascars
are not what they used to be, owing to their habit (but it has existed
since the beginning) of signing on as a clan or family--all sorts
The serang said that, for _his_ part, he had noticed no difference in
twenty years. 'Men are always of many kinds, sahib. And that is because
God makes men this and that. Not all one pattern--not by any means all
one pattern.' He told me, too, that wages were rising, but the price of
ghee, rice, and curry-stuffs was up, too, which was bad for wives and
families at Porbandar. 'And that also is thus, and no talk makes it
otherwise.' After Suez he would have blossomed into thin clothes and
long talks, but the bitter spring chill nipped him, as the thought of
partings just accomplished and work just ahead chilled the Anglo-Indian
contingent. Little by little one came at the outlines of the old
stories--a sick wife left behind here, a boy there, a daughter at
school, a very small daughter trusted to friends or hirelings, certain
separation for so many years and no great hope or delight in the future.
It was not a nice India that the tales hinted at. Here is one that
explains a great deal:
There was a Pathan, a Mohammedan, in a Hindu village, employed by the
village moneylender as a debt-collector, which is not a popular trade.
He lived alone among Hindus, and--so ran the charge in the lower
court--he wilfully broke the caste of a Hindu villager by forcing on him
forbidden Mussulman food, and when that pious villager would have taken
him before the headman to make reparation, the godless one drew his
Afghan knife and killed the headman, besides wounding a few others. The
evidence ran without flaw, as smoothly as well-arranged cases should,
and the Pathan was condemned to death for wilful murder. He appealed
and, by some arrangement or other, got leave to state his case
personally to the Court of Revision. 'Said, I believe, that he did not
much trust lawyers, but that if the sahibs would give him a hearing, as
man to man, he might have a run for his money.
Out of the jail, then, he came, and, Pathan-like, not content with his
own good facts, must needs begin by some fairy-tale that he was a secret
agent of the government sent down to spy on that village. Then he warmed
to it. Yes, he _was_ that money-lender's agent--a persuader of the
reluctant, if you like--working for a Hindu employer. Naturally, many
men owed him grudges. A lot of the evidence against him was quite true,
but the prosecution had twisted it abominably. About that knife, for
instance. True, he had a knife in his hand exactly as they had alleged.
But why? Because with that very knife he was cutting up and distributing
a roast sheep which he had given as a feast to the villagers. At that
feast, he sitting in amity with all his world, the village rose up at
the word of command, laid hands on him, and dragged him off to the
headman's house. How could he have broken _any_ man's caste when they
were all eating his sheep? And in the courtyard of the headman's house
they surrounded him with heavy sticks and worked themselves into anger
against him, each man exciting his neighbour. He was a Pathan. He knew
what that sort of talk meant. A man cannot collect debts without making
enemies. So he warned them. Again and again he warned them, saying:
'Leave me alone. Do not lay hands on me.' But the trouble grew worse,
and he saw it was intended that he should be clubbed to death like a
jackal in a drain. Then he said, 'If blows are struck, I strike, and _I_
strike to kill, because I am a Pathan,' But the blows were struck, heavy
ones. Therefore, with the very Afghan knife that had cut up the mutton,
he struck the headman. 'Had you meant to kill the headman?' 'Assuredly!
I am a Pathan. When I strike, I strike to kill. I had warned them again
and again. I think I got him in the liver. He died. And that is all
there is to it, sahibs. It was my life or theirs. They would have taken
mine over my freely given meats. _Now_, what'll you do with me?'
In the long run, he got several years for culpable homicide.
'But,' said I, when the tale had been told, 'whatever made the lower
court accept all that village evidence? It was too good on the face of
'The lower court said it could not believe it possible that so many
respectable native gentle could have banded themselves together to tell
'Oh! Had the lower court been long in the country?'
'It was a native judge,' was the reply.
If you think this over in all its bearings, you will see that the lower
court was absolutely sincere. Was not the lower court itself a product
of Western civilisation, and, as such, bound to play up--to pretend to
think along Western lines--translating each grade of Indian village
society into its English equivalent, and ruling as an English judge
would have ruled? Pathans and, incidentally, English officials must look
There is a fell disease of this century called 'snobbery of the soul.'
Its germ has been virulently developed in modern cultures from the
uncomplex bacillus isolated sixty years ago by the late William
Makepeace Thackeray. Precisely as Major Ponto, with his plated dishes
and stable-boy masquerading as footman, lied to himself and his guests
so--but the _Book of Snobs_ can only be brought up to date by him who
Then, a man struck in from the Sudan--far and far to the south--with a
story of a discomposed judge and a much too collected prisoner.
To the great bazaars of Omdurman, where all things are sold, came a
young man from the uttermost deserts of somewhere or other and heard a
gramophone. Life was of no value to him till he had bought the creature.
He took it back to his village, and at twilight set it going among his
ravished friends. His father, sheik of the village, came also, listened
to the loud shoutings without breath, the strong music lacking
musicians, and said, justly enough: 'This thing is a devil. You must not
bring devils into my village. Lock it up.'
They waited until he had gone away and then began another tune. A second
time the sheik came, repeated the command, and added that if the singing
box was heard again, he would slay the buyer. But their curiosity and
joy defied even this, and for the third time (late at night) they
slipped in pin and record and let the djinn rave. So the sheik, with his
rifle, shot his son as he had promised, and the English judge before
whom he eventually came had all the trouble in the world to save that
earnest gray head from the gallows. Thus:
'Now, old man, you must say guilty or not guilty.'
'But I shot him. That is why I am here. I----'
'Hush! It is a form of words which the law asks. _(Sotte voce_. Write
down that the old idiot doesn't understand.) Be still now.'
'But I shot him. What else could I have done? He bought a devil in a
'Quiet! That comes later. Leave talking.'
'But I am sheik of the village. One must not bring devils into a
village. I _said_ I would shoot him.'
'This matter is in the hands of the law. _I_ judge.'
'What need? I shot him. Suppose that _your_ son had brought a devil in a
box to _your_ village----'
They explained to him, at last, that under British rule fathers must
hand over devil-dealing children to be shot by the white men (the first
step, you see, on the downward path of State aid), and that he must go
to prison for several months for interfering with a government shoot.
We are a great race. There was a pious young judge in Nigeria once,
who kept a condemned prisoner waiting very many minutes while he
hunted through the Hausa dictionary, word by word, for,
And I heard another tale--about the Suez Canal this time--a hint of what
may happen some day at Panama. There was a tramp steamer, loaded with
high explosives, on her way to the East, and at the far end of the Canal
one of the sailors very naturally upset a lamp in the fo'c'sle. After a
heated interval the crew took to the desert alongside, while the captain
and the mate opened all cocks and sank her, not in the fairway but up
against a bank, just leaving room for a steamer to squeeze past. Then
the Canal authorities wired to her charterers to know exactly what there
might be in her; and it is said that the reply kept them awake of
nights, for it was their business to blow her up.
Meantime, traffic had to go through, and a P. & O. steamer came along.
There was the Canal; there was the sunken wreck, marked by one elderly
Arab in a little boat with a red flag, and there was about five foot
clearance on each side for the P. & O. She went through a-tiptoe,
because even fifty tons of dynamite will jar a boat, perceptibly, and
the tramp held more--very much more, not to mention detonators. By some
absurd chance, almost the only passenger who knew about the thing at the
time was an old lady rather proud of the secret.
'Ah,' she said, in the middle of that agonised glide, 'you may depend
upon it that if everybody knew what, I know, they'd all be on the other
side of the ship.'
Later on, the authorities blew up the tramp with infinite precautions
from some two miles off, for which reason she neither destroyed the Suez
Canal nor dislocated the Sweet Water Canal alongside, but merely dug out
a hole a hundred feet or a hundred yards deep, and so vanished from
But no stories could divert one long from the peculiarities of that
amazing line which exists strictly for itself. There was a bathroom
(occupied) at the windy end of an open alleyway. In due time the bather
Said the steward, as he swabbed out the tub for his successor: 'That was
the Chief Engineer. 'E's been some time. Must 'ave 'ad a mucky job
below, this mornin'.'
I have a great admiration for Chief Engineers. They are men in
authority, needing all the comforts and aids that can possibly be given
them--such as bathrooms of their own close to their own cabins, where
they can clean off at leisure.
It is not fair to mix them up with the ruck of passengers, nor is it
done on real ships. Nor, when a passenger wants a bath in the evening,
do the stewards of real ships roll their eyes like vergers in a
cathedral and say, 'We'll see if it can be managed.' They double down
the alleyway and shout, 'Matcham' or 'Ponting' or 'Guttman,' and in
fifteen seconds one of those swift three has the taps going and the
towels out. Real ships are not annexes of Westminster Abbey or Borstal
Reformatory. They supply decent accommodation in return for good money,
and I imagine that their directors instruct their staffs to look pleased
while at work.
Some generations back there must have been an idea that the P. & O. was
vastly superior to all lines afloat--a sort of semipontifical show not
to be criticised. How much of the notion was due to its own excellence
and how much to its passenger-traffic monopoly does not matter. To-day,
it neither feeds nor tends its passengers, nor keeps its ships well
enough to put on any airs at all.
For which reason, human nature being what it is, it surrounds itself
with an ungracious atmosphere of absurd ritual to cover grudged and
What it really needs is to be dropped into a March North Atlantic,
without any lascars, and made to swim for its life between a C.P.R. boat
and a North German Lloyd--till it learns to smile.
A RETURN TO THE EAST
The East is a much larger slice of the world than Europeans care to
admit. Some say it begins at St. Gothard, where the smells of two
continents meet and fight all through that terrible restaurant-car
dinner in the tunnel. Others have found it at Venice on warm April
mornings. But the East is wherever one sees the lateen sail--that
shark's fin of a rig which for hundreds of years has dogged all white
bathers round the Mediterranean. There is still a suggestion of menace,
a hint of piracy, in the blood whenever the lateen goes by, fishing or
fruiting or coasting.
'This is _not_ my ancestral trade,' she whispers to the accomplice sea.
'If everybody had their rights I should be doing something quite
different; for my father, he was the Junk, and my mother, she was the
Dhow, and between the two of 'em they made Asia.' Then she tacks,
disorderly but deadly quick, and shuffles past the unimaginative
steam-packet with her hat over one eye and a knife, as it were, up her
Even the stone-boats at Port Said, busied on jetty extensions, show
their untamed descent beneath their loaded clumsiness. They are all
children of the camel-nosed dhow, who is the mother of mischief; but it
was very good to meet them again in raw sunshine, unchanged in any rope
Old Port Said had disappeared beneath acres of new buildings where one
could walk at leisure without being turned back by soldiers.
Two or three landmarks remained; two or three were reported as still in
existence, and one Face showed itself after many years--ravaged but
'Yes,' said the Face, 'I have been here all the time. But I have made
money, and when I die I am going home to be buried.'
'Why not go home before you are buried, O Face?'
'Because I have lived here _so_ long. Home is only good to be buried
'And what do you do, nowadays?'
'Nothing now. I live on my _rentes_--my income.'
Think of it! To live icily in a perpetual cinematograph show of excited,
uneasy travellers; to watch huge steamers, sliding in and out all day
and all night like railway trucks, unknowing and unsought by a single
soul aboard; to talk five or six tongues indifferently, but to have no
country--no interest in any earth except one reservation in a
It was a cold evening after heavy rain and the half-flooded streets
reeked. But we undefeated tourists ran about in droves and saw all that
could be seen before train-time. We missed, most of us, the Canal
Company's garden, which happens to mark a certain dreadful and exact
division between East and West.
Up to that point--it is a fringe of palms, stiff against the sky--the
impetus of home memories and the echo of home interests carry the young
man along very comfortably on his first journey. But at Suez one must
face things. People, generally the most sympathetic, leave the boat
there; the older men who are going on have discovered each other and
begun to talk shop; no newspapers come aboard, only clipped Reuter
telegrams; the world seems cruelly large and self-absorbed. One goes for
a walk and finds this little bit of kept ground, with comfortable
garden-gated houses on either side of the path. Then one begins to
wonder--in the twilight, for choice--when one will see those palms again
from the other side. Then the black hour of homesickness, vain regrets,
foolish promises, and weak despair shuts down with the smell of strange
earth and the cadence of strange tongues.
Cross-roads and halting-places in the desert are always favoured by
djinns and afrits. The young man will find them waiting for him in the
Canal Company's garden at Port Said.
On the other hand, if he is fortunate enough to have won the East by
inheritance, as there are families who served her for five or six
generations, he will meet no ghouls in that garden, but a free and a
friendly and an ample welcome from good spirits of the East that awaits
him. The voices of the gardeners and the watchmen will be as the
greetings of his father's servants in his father's house; the evening
smells and the sight of the hibiscus and poinsettia will unlock his
tongue in words and sentences that he thought he had clean forgotten,
and he will go back to the ship (I have seen) as a prince entering on
There was a man in our company--a young Englishman--who had just been
granted his heart's desire in the shape of some raw district south of
everything southerly in the Sudan, where, on two-thirds of a member of
Parliament's wage, under conditions of life that would horrify a
self-respecting operative, he will see perhaps some dozen white men in a
year, and will certainly pick up two sorts of fever. He had been moved
to work very hard for this billet by the representations of a friend in
the same service, who said that it was a 'rather decent sort of
service,' and he was all of a heat to reach Khartum, report for duty,
and fall to. If he is lucky, he may get a district where the people are
so virtuous that they do not know how to wear any clothes at all, and so
ignorant that they have never yet come across strong drink.
The train that took us to Cairo was own sister in looks and fittings to
any South African train--for which I loved her--but she was a trial to
some citizens of the United States, who, being used to the Pullman, did
not understand the side-corridored, solid-compartment idea. The trouble
with a standardised democracy seems to be that, once they break loose
from their standards, they have no props. People are _not_ left behind
and luggage is rarely mislaid on the railroads of the older world. There
is an ordained ritual for the handling of all things, to which if a man
will only conform and keep quiet, he and his will be attended to with
the rest. The people that I watched would not believe this. They charged
about futilely and wasted themselves in trying to get ahead of their
Here is a fragment from the restaurant-car: 'Look at here! Me and some
friends of mine are going to dine at this table. We don't want to be
'You 'ave your number for the service, sar?' 'Number? What number? We
want to dine _here_, I tell you.'
'You shall get your number, sar, for the first service?'
'Haow's that? Where in thunder do we _get_ the numbers, anyway?'
'I will give you the number, sar, at the time--for places at the first
'Yes, but we want to dine together here--right _now._'
'The service is not yet ready, sar.'
And so on--and so on; with marchings and counter-marchings, and every
word nervously italicised. In the end they dined precisely where there
was room for them in that new world which they had strayed into.
On one side our windows looked out on darkness of the waste; on the
other at the black Canal, all spaced with monstrous headlights of the
night-running steamers. Then came towns, lighted with electricity,
governed by mixed commissions, and dealing in cotton. Such a town, for
instance, as Zagazig, last seen by a very small boy who was lifted out
of a railway-carriage and set down beneath a whitewashed wall under
naked stars in an illimitable emptiness because, they told him, the
train was on fire. Childlike, this did not worry him. What stuck in his
sleepy mind was the absurd name of the place and his father's prophecy
that when he grew up he would 'come that way in a big steamer.'
So all his life, the word 'Zagazig' carried memories of a brick shed,
the flicker of an oil-lamp's floating wick, a sky full of eyes, and an
engine coughing in a desert at the world's end; which memories returned
in a restaurant-car jolting through what seemed to be miles of
brilliantly lighted streets and factories. No one at the table had even
turned his head for the battlefields of Kassassin and Tel-el-Kebir.
After all, why should they? That work is done, and children are getting
ready to be born who will say: '_I_ can remember Gondokoro (or El-Obeid
or some undreamed of Clapham Junction, Abyssinia-way) before a single
factory was started--before the overhead traffic began. Yes, when there
was a fever--actually fever--in the city itself!'
The gap is no greater than that between to-day's and t'other day's
Zagazig--between the horsed vans of the Overland Route in Lieutenant
Waghorn's time and the shining motor that flashed us to our Cairo hotel
through what looked like the suburbs of Marseilles or Rome.
Always keep a new city till morning, 'In the daytime,' as it is written
in the Perspicuous Book, 'thou hast long occupation,' Our window gave
on to the river, but before one moved toward it one heard the thrilling
squeal of the kites--those same thievish Companions of the Road who, at
that hour, were watching every Englishman's breakfast in every compound
and camp from Cairo to Calcutta.
[Footnote 6: The Koran.]
Voices rose from below--unintelligible words in maddeningly familiar
accents. A black boy in one blue garment climbed, using his toes as
fingers, the tipped mainyard of a Nile boat and framed himself in the
window. Then, because he felt happy, he sang, all among the wheeling
kites. And beneath our balcony rolled very Nile Himself, golden in
sunshine, wrinkled under strong breezes, with a crowd of creaking
cargo-boats waiting for a bridge to be opened.
On the cut-stone quay above, a line of cab drivers--a _ticca-gharri_
stand, nothing less--lolled and chaffed and tinkered with their
harnesses in every beautiful attitude of the ungirt East. All the ground
about was spotted with chewed sugarcane--first sign of the hot weather
all the world over.
Troops with startlingly pink faces (one would not have noticed this
yesterday) rolled over the girder bridge between churning motors and
bubbling camels, and the whole long-coated loose-sleeved Moslem world
was awake and about its business, as befits sensible people who pray at
I made haste to cross the bridge and to hear the palms in the wind on
the far side. They sang as nobly as though they had been true coconuts,
and the thrust of the north wind behind them was almost as open-handed
as the thrust of the Trades. Then came a funeral--the sheeted corpse on
the shallow cot, the brisk-pacing bearers (if he was good, the sooner he
is buried the sooner in heaven; if bad, bury him swiftly for the sake of
the household--either way, as the Prophet says, do not let the mourners
go too long weeping and hungry)--the women behind, tossing their arms
and lamenting, and men and boys chanting low and high.
They might have come forth from the Taksali Gate in the city of Lahore
on just such a cold weather morning as this, on their way to the
Mohammedan burial-grounds by the river. And the veiled countrywomen,
shuffling side by side, elbow pressed to hip, and eloquent right hand
pivoting round, palm uppermost, to give value to each shrill phrase,
might have been the wives of so many Punjabi cultivators but that they
wore another type of bangle and slipper. A knotty-kneed youth sitting
high on a donkey, both amuleted against the evil eye, chewed three
purplish-feet of sugar-cane, which made one envious as well as
voluptuously homesick, though the sugar-cane of Egypt is not to be
compared with that of Bombay.
Hans Breitmann writes somewhere:
Oh, if you live in Leyden town
You'll meet, if troot be told,
Der forms of all der freunds dot tied
When du werst six years old.
And they were all there under the chanting palms--saices, orderlies,
pedlars, water-carriers, street-cleaners, chicken-sellers and the
slate-coloured buffalo with the china-blue eyes being talked to by a
little girl with the big stick. Behind the hedges of well-kept gardens
squatted the brown gardener, making trenches indifferently with a hoe or
a toe, and under the municipal lamp-post lounged the bronze policeman--a
touch of Arab about mouth and lean nostril--quite unconcerned with a
ferocious row between two donkey-men. They were fighting across the body
of a Nubian who had chosen to sleep in that place. Presently, one of
them stepped back on the sleeper's stomach. The Nubian grunted, elbowed
himself up, rolled his eyes, and pronounced a few utterly dispassionate
words. The warriors stopped, settled their headgear, and went away as
quickly as the Nubian went to sleep again. This was life, the real,
unpolluted stuff--worth a desert-full of mummies. And right through the
middle of it--hooting and kicking up the Nile--passed a Cook's steamer
all ready to take tourists to Assuan. From the Nubian's point of view
she, and not himself, was the wonder--as great as the Swiss-controlled,
Swiss-staffed hotel behind her, whose lift, maybe, the Nubian helped to
run. Marids, and afrits, guardians of hidden gold, who choke or crush
the rash seeker; encounters with the long-buried dead in a Cairo
back-alley; undreamed-of promotions, and suddenly lit loves are the
stuff of any respectable person's daily life; but the white man from
across the water, arriving in hundreds with his unveiled womenfolk, who
builds himself flying-rooms and talks along wires, who flees up and down
the river, mad to sit upon camels and asses, constrained to throw down
silver from both hands--at once a child and a warlock--this thing must
come to the Nubian sheer out of the _Thousand and One Nights_. At any
rate, the Nubian was perfectly sane. Having eaten, he slept in God's own
sunlight, and I left him, to visit the fortunate and guarded and
desirable city of Cairo, to whose people, male and female, Allah has
given subtlety in abundance. Their jesters are known to have surpassed
in refinement the jesters of Damascus, as did their twelve police
captains the hardiest and most corrupt of Bagdad in the tolerant days of
Harun-al-Raschid; while their old women, not to mention their young
wives, could deceive the Father of Lies himself. Delhi is a great
place--most bazaar storytellers in India make their villain hail from
there; but when the agony and intrigue are piled highest and the tale
halts till the very last breathless sprinkle of cowries has ceased to
fall on his mat, why then, with wagging head and hooked forefinger, the
storyteller goes on:
'_But_ there was a man from Cairo, an Egyptian of the Egyptians,
who'--and all the crowd knows that a bit of real metropolitan devilry is
A SERPENT OF OLD NILE
Modern Cairo is an unkempt place. The streets are dirty and
ill-constructed, the pavements unswept and often broken, the tramways
thrown, rather than laid, down, the gutters neglected. One expects
better than this in a city where the tourist spends so much every
season. Granted that the tourist is a dog, he comes at least with a bone
in his mouth, and a bone that many people pick. He should have a cleaner
kennel. The official answer is that the tourist-traffic is a flea-bite
compared with the cotton industry. Even so, land in Cairo city must be
too valuable to be used for cotton growing. It might just as well be
paved or swept. There is some sort of authority supposed to be in charge
of municipal matters, but its work is crippled by what is called 'The
Capitulations.' It was told to me that every one in Cairo except the
English, who appear to be the mean whites of these parts, has the
privilege of appealing to his consul on every conceivable subject from
the disposal of a garbage-can to that of a corpse. As almost every one
with claims to respectability, and certainly every one without any,
keeps a consul, it follows that there is one consul per superficial
meter, arshin, or cubit of Ezekiel within the city. And since every
consul is zealous for the honour of his country and not at all above
annoying the English on general principles, municipal progress is slow.
Cairo strikes one as unventilated and unsterilised, even when the sun
and wind are scouring it together. The tourist talks a good deal, as you
may see here, but the permanent European resident does not open his
mouth more than is necessary--sound travels so far across flat water.
Besides, the whole position of things, politically and administratively,
is essentially false.
Here is a country which is not a country but a longish strip of
market-garden, nominally in charge of a government which is not a
government but the disconnected satrapy of a half-dead empire,
controlled pecksniffingly by a Power which is not a Power but an Agency,
which Agency has been tied up by years, custom, and blackmail into all
sorts of intimate relations with six or seven European Powers, all with
rights and perquisites, none of whose subjects seem directly amenable to
any Power which at first, second, or third hand is supposed to be
responsible. That is the barest outline. To fill in the details (if any
living man knows them) would be as easy as to explain baseball to an
Englishman or the Eton Wall game to a citizen of the United States. But
it is a fascinating play. There are Frenchmen in it, whose logical mind
it offends, and they revenge themselves by printing the finance-reports
and the catalogue of the Bulak Museum in pure French. There are Germans
in it, whose demands must be carefully weighed--not that they can by any
means be satisfied, but they serve to block other people's. There are
Russians in it, who do not very much matter at present but will be heard
from later. There are Italians and Greeks in it (both rather pleased
with themselves just now), full of the higher finance and the finer
emotions. There are Egyptian pashas in it, who come back from Paris at
intervals and ask plaintively to whom they are supposed to belong. There
is His Highness, the Khedive, in it, and _he_ must be considered not a
little, and there are women in it, up to their eyes. And there are great
English cotton and sugar interests, and angry English importers
clamouring to know why they cannot do business on rational lines or get
into the Sudan, which they hold is ripe for development if the
administration there would only see reason. Among these conflicting
interests and amusements sits and perspires the English official, whose
job is irrigating or draining or reclaiming land on behalf of a trifle
of ten million people, and he finds himself tripped up by skeins of
intrigue and bafflement which may ramify through half a dozen harems and
four consulates. All this makes for suavity, toleration, and the blessed
habit of not being surprised at anything whatever.
Or, so it seemed to me, watching a big dance at one of the hotels. Every
European race and breed, and half of the United States were
represented, but I fancied I could make out three distinct groupings.
The tourists with the steamer-trunk creases still across their dear,
excited backs; the military and the officials sure of their partners
beforehand, and saying clearly what ought to be said; and a third
contingent, lower-voiced, softer-footed, and keener-eyed than the other
two, at ease, as gipsies are on their own ground, flinging half-words in
local _argot_ over shoulders at their friends, understanding on the nod
and moved by springs common to their clan only. For example, a woman was
talking flawless English to her partner, an English officer. Just before
the next dance began, another woman beckoned to her, Eastern fashion,
all four fingers flicking downward. The first woman crossed to a potted
palm; the second moved toward it also, till the two drew, up, not
looking at each other, the plant between them. Then she who had beckoned
spoke in a strange tongue _at_ the palm. The first woman, still looking
away, answered in the same fashion with a rush of words that rattled
like buckshot through the stiff fronds. Her tone had nothing to do with
that in which she greeted her new partner, who came up as the music
began. The one was a delicious drawl; the other had been the guttural
rasp and click of the kitchen and the bazaar. So she moved off, and, in
a little, the second woman disappeared into the crowd. Most likely it
was no more than some question of the programme or dress, but the
prompt, feline stealth and coolness of it, the lightning-quick return to
and from world-apart civilisations stuck in my memory.
So did the bloodless face of a very old Turk, fresh from some horror of
assassination in Constantinople in which he, too, had been nearly
pistolled, but, they said, he had argued quietly over the body of a late
colleague, as one to whom death was of no moment, until the hysterical
Young Turks were abashed and let him get away--to the lights and music
of this elegantly appointed hotel.
These modern 'Arabian Nights' are too hectic for quiet folk. I declined
upon a more rational Cairo--the Arab city where everything is as it was
when Maruf the Cobbler fled from Fatima-el-Orra and met the djinn in the
Adelia Musjid. The craftsmen and merchants sat on their shop-boards, a
rich mystery of darkness behind them, and the narrow gullies were
polished to shoulder-height by the mere flux of people. Shod white men,
unless they are agriculturists, touch lightly, with their hands at most,
in passing. Easterns lean and loll and squat and sidle against things as
they daunder along. When the feet are bare, the whole body thinks.
Moreover, it is unseemly to buy or to do aught and be done with it. Only
people with tight-fitting clothes that need no attention have time for
that. So we of the loose skirt and flowing trousers and slack slipper
make full and ample salutations to our friends, and redouble them toward
our ill-wishers, and if it be a question of purchase, the stuff must be
fingered and appraised with a proverb or so, and if it be a
fool-tourist who thinks that he cannot be cheated, O true believers!
draw near and witness how we shall loot him.
But I bought nothing. The city thrust more treasure upon me than I could
carry away. It came out of dark alleyways on tawny camels loaded with
pots; on pattering asses half buried under nets of cut clover; in the
exquisitely modelled hands of little children scurrying home from the
cookshop with the evening meal, chin pressed against the platter's edge
and eyes round with responsibility above the pile; in the broken lights
from jutting rooms overhead, where the women lie, chin between palms,
looking out of windows not a foot from the floor; in every glimpse into
every courtyard, where the men smoke by the tank; in the heaps of
rubbish and rotten bricks that flanked newly painted houses, waiting to
be built, some day, into houses once more; in the slap and slide or the
heelless red-and-yellow slippers all around, and, above all, in the
mixed delicious smells of frying butter, Mohammedan bread, kababs,
leather, cooking-smoke, assafetida, peppers, and turmeric. Devils cannot
abide the smell of burning turmeric, but the right-minded man loves it.
It stands for evening that brings all home, the evening meal, the
dipping of friendly hands in the dish, the one face, the dropped veil,
and the big, guttering pipe afterward.
Praised be Allah for the diversity of His creatures and for the Five
Advantages of Travel and for the glories of the Cities of the Earth!
Harun-al-Raschid, in roaring Bagdad of old, never delighted himself to
the limits of such a delight as was mine, that afternoon. It is true
that the call to prayer, the cadence of some of the street-cries, and
the cut of some of the garments differed a little from what I had been
brought up to; but for the rest, the shadow on the dial had turned back
twenty degrees for me, and I found myself saying, as perhaps the dead
say when they have recovered their wits, 'This is my real world again,'
Some men are Mohammedan by birth, some by training, and some by fate,
but I have never met an Englishman yet who hated Islam and its people as
I have met Englishmen who hated some other faiths. _Musalmani awadani_,
as the saying goes--where there are Mohammedans, there is a
Then we came upon a deserted mosque of pitted brick colonnades round a
vast courtyard open to the pale sky. It was utterly empty except for its
own proper spirit, and that caught one by the throat as one entered.
Christian churches may compromise with images and side-chapels where the
unworthy or abashed can traffic with accessible saints. Islam has but
one pulpit and one stark affirmation--living or dying, one only--and
where men have repeated that in red-hot belief through centuries, the
air still shakes to it.
Some say now that Islam is dying and that nobody cares; others that, if
she withers in Europe and Asia, she will renew herself in Africa and
will return--terrible--after certain years, at the head of all the nine
sons of Ham; others dream that the English understand Islam as no one
else does, and, in years to be, Islam will admit this and the world will
be changed. If you go to the mosque Al Azhar--the thousand-year-old
University of Cairo--you will be able to decide for yourself. There is
nothing to see except many courts, cool in hot weather, surrounded by
cliff-like brick walls. Men come and go through dark doorways, giving on
to yet darker cloisters, as freely as though the place was a bazaar.
There are no aggressive educational appliances. The students sit on the
ground, and their teachers instruct them, mostly by word of mouth, in
grammar, syntax, logic; _al-hisab_, which is arithmetic; _al-jab'r w'al
muqabalah_, which is algebra; _at-tafsir,_ commentaries on the Koran,
and last and most troublesome, _al-ahadis,_ traditions, and yet more
commentaries on the law of Islam, which leads back, like everything, to
the Koran once again. (For it is written, 'Truly the Quran is none other
than a revelation.') It is a very comprehensive curriculum. No man can
master it entirely, but any can stay there as long as he pleases. The
university provides commons--twenty-five thousand loaves a day, I
believe,--and there is always a place to lie down in for such as do not
desire a shut room and a bed. Nothing could be more simple or, given
certain conditions, more effective. Close upon six hundred professors,
who represent officially or unofficially every school or thought, teach
ten or twelve thousand students, who draw from every Mohammedan
community, west and east between Manila and Morocco, north and south
between Kamchatka and the Malay mosque at Cape Town. These drift off to
become teachers of little schools, preachers at mosques, students of the
Law known to millions (but rarely to Europeans), dreamers, devotees, or
miracle-workers in all the ends of the earth. The man who interested me
most was a red-bearded, sunk-eyed mullah from the Indian frontier, not
likely to be last at any distribution of food, who stood up like a lean
wolfhound among collies in a little assembly at a doorway.
And there was another mosque, sumptuously carpeted and lighted (which
the Prophet does not approve of), where men prayed in the dull mutter
that, at times, mounts and increases under the domes like the boom of
drums or the surge of a hot hive before the swarm flings out. And round
the corner of it, one almost ran into Our inconspicuous and wholly
detached Private of Infantry, his tunic open, his cigarette alight,
leaning against some railings and considering the city below. Men in
forts and citadels and garrisons all the world over go up at twilight as
automatically as sheep at sundown, to have a last look round. They say
little and return as silently across the crunching gravel, detested by
bare feet, to their whitewashed rooms and regulated lives. One of the
men told me he thought well of Cairo. It was interesting. 'Take it from
me,' he said, 'there's a lot in seeing places, because you can remember
He was very right. The purple and lemon-coloured hazes of dusk and
reflected day spread over the throbbing, twinkling streets, masked the
great outline of the citadel and the desert hills, and conspired to
confuse and suggest and evoke memories, till Cairo the Sorceress cast
her proper shape and danced before me in the heartbreaking likeness of
every city I had known and loved, a little farther up the road.
It was a cruel double-magic. For in the very hour that my homesick soul
had surrendered itself to the dream of the shadow that had turned back
on the dial, I realised all the desolate days and homesickness of all
the men penned in far-off places among strange sounds and smells.
UP THE RIVER
Once upon a time there was a murderer who got off with a life-sentence.
What impressed him most, when he had time to think, was the frank
boredom of all who took part in the ritual.
'It was just like going to a doctor or a dentist,' he explained. '_You_
come to 'em very full of your affairs, and then you discover that it's
only part of their daily work to _them_. I expect,' he added, 'I should
have found it the same if--er--I'd gone on to the finish.'
He would have. Break into any new Hell or Heaven and you will be met at
its well-worn threshold by the bored experts in attendance.
For three weeks we sat on copiously chaired and carpeted decks,
carefully isolated from everything that had anything to do with Egypt,
under chaperonage of a properly orientalised dragoman. Twice or thrice
daily, our steamer drew up at a mud-bank covered with donkeys. Saddles
were hauled out of a hatch in our bows; the donkeys were dressed, dealt
round like cards: we rode off through crops or desert, as the case might
be, were introduced in ringing tones to a temple, and were then duly
returned to our bridge and our Baedekers. For sheer comfort, not to say
padded sloth, the life was unequalled, and since the bulk of our
passengers were citizens of the United States--Egypt in winter ought to
be admitted into the Union as a temporary territory--there was no lack
of interest. They were overwhelmingly women, with here and there a
placid nose-led husband or father, visibly suffering from congestion of
information about his native city. I had the joy of seeing two such men
meet. They turned their backs resolutely on the River, bit and lit
cigars, and for one hour and a quarter ceased not to emit statistics of
the industries, commerce, manufacture, transport, and journalism of
their towns;--Los Angeles, let us say, and Rochester, N.Y. It sounded
like a duel between two cash-registers.
One forgot, of course, that all the dreary figures were alive to them,
and as Los Angeles spoke Rochester visualised. Next day I met an
Englishman from the Soudan end of things, very full of a little-known
railway which had been laid down in what had looked like raw desert, and
therefore had turned out to be full of paying freight. He was in the
full-tide of it when Los Angeles ranged alongside and cast anchor,
fascinated by the mere roll of numbers.
'Haow's that?' he cut in sharply at a pause.
He was told how, and went on to drain my friend dry concerning that
railroad, out of sheer fraternal interest, as he explained, in 'any
darn' thing that's being made anywheres,'
'So you see,' my friend went on, 'we shall be bringing Abyssinian cattle
'On the hoof?' One quick glance at the Desert ranges.
'No, no! By rail and River. And after _that_ we're going to grow cotton
between the Blue and the White Nile and knock spots out of the States.'
'This way.' The speaker spread his first and second fingers fanwise
under the big, interested beak. 'That's the Blue Nile. And that's the
White. There's a difference of so many feet between 'em, an' in that
fork here, 'tween my fingers, we shall--'
'_I_ see. Irrigate on the strength of the little difference in the
levels. How many acres?'
Again Los Angeles was told. He expanded like a frog in a shower. 'An' I
thought,' he murmured, 'Egypt was all mummies and the Bible! _I_ used to
know something about cotton. Now we'll talk.'
All that day the two paced the deck with the absorbed insolente of
lovers; and, lover-like, each would steal away and tell me what a
splendid soul was his companion.
That was one type; but there were others--professional men who did not
make or sell things--and these the hand of an all-exacting Democracy
seemed to have run into one mould. They 'were not reticent, but no
matter whence they hailed, their talk was as standardised as the
fittings of a Pullman.
I hinted something of this to a woman aboard who was learned in their
sermons of either language.
'I think,' she began, 'that the staleness you complain of--'
'I never said "staleness,"' I protested.
'But you thought it. The staleness you noticed is due to our men being
so largely educated by old women--old maids. Practically till he goes to
College, and not always then, a boy can't get away from them.'
'Then what happens?'
'The natural result. A man's instinct is to teach a boy to think for
himself. If a woman can't make a boy think _as_ she thinks, she sits
down and cries. A man hasn't any standards. He makes 'em. A woman's the
most standardised being in the world. She has to be. _Now_ d'you see?'
'Well, our trouble in America is that we're being school-marmed to
death. You can see it in any paper you pick up. What were those men
talking about just now?'
'Food adulteration, police-reform, and beautifying waste-lots in towns,'
I replied promptly.
She threw up her hands. 'I knew it!' she cried. 'Our great National
Policy of co-educational housekeeping! Ham-frills and pillow-shams. Did
you ever know a man get a woman's respect by parading around creation
with a dish-clout pinned to his coat-tails?'
'But if his woman ord----told him to do it?' I suggested.
'Then she'd despise him the more for doing it. _You_ needn't laugh.
'You're coming to the same sort of thing in England.'
I returned to the little gathering. A woman was talking to them as one
accustomed to talk from birth. They listened with the rigid attention of
men early trained to listen to, but not to talk with, women. She was, to
put it mildly, the mother of all she-bores, but when she moved on, no
man ventured to say as much.
'That's what I mean by being school-manned to death,' said my
acquaintance wickedly. 'Why, she bored 'em stiff; but they are so well
brought up, they didn't even know they were bored. Some day the American
Man is going to revolt.'
'And what'll the American Woman do?'
'She'll sit and cry--and it'll do her good.'
Later on, I met a woman from a certain Western State seeing God's great,
happy, inattentive world for the first time, and rather distressed that
it was not like hers. She had always understood that the English were
brutal to their wives--the papers of her State said so. (If you only
knew the papers of her State I) But she had not noticed any scandalous
treatment so far, and Englishwomen, whom she admitted she would never
understand, seemed to enjoy a certain specious liberty and equality;
while Englishmen were distinctly kind to girls in difficulties over
their baggage and tickets on strange railways. Quite a nice people, she
concluded, but without much sense of humour. One day, she showed me
what looked like a fashion-paper print of a dress-stuff--a pretty oval
medallion of stars on a striped grenadine background that somehow seemed
'How nice! What is it?' I asked.
'Our National Flag,' she replied.
'Indeed. But it doesn't look quite----'
'No. This is a new design for arranging the stars so that they shall be
easier to count and more decorative in effect. We're going to take a
vote on it in our State, where _we_ have the franchise. I shall cast my
vote when I get home.'
'Really! And how will you vote?'
'I'm just thinking that out.' She spread the picture on her knee and
considered it, head to one side, as though it were indeed dress
All this while the land of Egypt marched solemnly beside us on either
hand. The river being low, we saw it from the boat as one long plinth,
twelve to twenty feet high of brownish, purplish mud, visibly upheld
every hundred yards or so by glistening copper caryatides in the shape
of naked men baling water up to the crops above. Behind that bright
emerald line ran the fawn-or tiger-coloured background of desert, and a
pale blue sky closed all. There was Egypt even as the Pharaohs, their
engineers and architects, had seen it--land to cultivate, folk and
cattle for the work, and outside that work no distraction nor allurement
of any kind whatever, save when the dead were taken to their place
beyond the limits of cultivation. When the banks grew lower, one looked
across as much as two miles of green-stuff packed like a toy Noah's-ark
with people, camels, sheep, goats, oxen, buffaloes, and an occasional
horse. The beasts stood as still, too, as the toys, because they were
tethered or hobbled each to his own half-circle of clover, and moved
forward when that was eaten. Only the very little kids were loose, and
these played on the flat mud roofs like kittens.
No wonder 'every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.' The
dusty, naked-footed field-tracks are cut down to the last centimetre of
grudged width; the main roads are lifted high on the flanks of the
canals, unless the permanent-way of some light railroad can be pressed
to do duty for them. The wheat, the pale ripened tufted sugar-cane, the
millet, the barley, the onions, the fringed castor-oil bushes jostle
each other for foothold, since the Desert will not give them room; and
men chase the falling Nile inch by inch, each dawn, with new furrowed
melon-beds on the still dripping mud-banks.
Administratively, such a land ought to be a joy. The people do not
emigrate; all their resources are in plain sight; they are as accustomed
as their cattle to being led about. All they desire, and it has been
given them, is freedom from murder and mutilation, rape and robbery. The
rest they can attend to in their silent palm-shaded villages where the
pigeons coo and the little children play in the dust.
But Western civilisation is a devastating and a selfish game. Like the
young woman from 'our State,' it says in effect: 'I am rich. I've
nothing to do. I _must_ do something. I shall take up social reform.'
Just now there is a little social reform in Egypt which is rather
amusing. The Egyptian cultivator borrows money; as all farmers must.
This land without hedge or wild-flower is his passion by age-long
inheritance and suffering, by, in and for which he lives. He borrows to
develop it and to buy more at from L30 to L200 per acre, the profit on
which, when all is paid, works out at between L5 to L10 per acre.
Formerly, he borrowed from the local money-lenders, mostly Greeks, at 30
per cent per annum and over. This rate is not excessive, so long as
public opinion allows the borrower from time to time to slay the lender;
but modern administration calls that riot and murder. Some years ago,
therefore, there was established a State-guaranteed Bank which lent to
the cultivators at eight per cent, and the cultivator zealously availed
himself of that privilege. He did not default more than in reason, but
being a farmer, he naturally did not pay up till threatened with being
sold up. So he prospered and bought more land, which was his heart's
desire. This year--1913--the administration issued sudden orders that no
man owning less than five acres could borrow on security of his land.
The matter interested me directly, because I held five hundred pounds
worth of shares in that State-guaranteed Bank, and more than half our
clients were small men of less than five acres. So I made inquiries in
quarters that seemed to possess information, and was told that the new
law was precisely on all-fours with the Homestead Act or the United
States and France, and the intentions of Divine Providence--or words to
'But,' I asked, 'won't this limitation of credit prevent the men with
less than five acres from borrowing more to buy more land and getting on
in the world?'
'Yes,' was the answer, 'of course it will. That's just what we want to
prevent. Half these fellows ruin themselves trying to buy more land.
We've got to protect them against themselves.'
That, alas! is the one enemy against which no law can protect any son of
Adam; since the real reasons that make or break a man are too absurd or
too obscene to be reached from outside. Then I cast about in other
quarters to discover what the cultivator was going to do about it.
'Oh, him?' said one of my many informants. '_He's_ all right. There are
about six ways of evading the Act that, _I_ know of. The fellah probably
knows another six. He has been trained to look after himself since the
days of Rameses. He can forge land-transfers for one thing; borrow land
enough to make his holding more than five acres for as long as it takes
to register a loan; get money from his own women (yes, that's one result
of modern progress in this land!) or go back to his old friend the Greek
at 30 per cent.'
'Then the Greek will sell him up, and that will be against the law,
won't it?' I said.
'Don't you worry about the Greek. He can get through any law ever made
if there's five piastres on the other side of it.'
'Maybe; but _was_ the Agricultural Bank selling the cultivators up too
'Not in the least. The number of small holdings is on the increase, if
anything. Most cultivators won't pay a loan until you point a
judgment-summons at their head. They think that shows they're men of
consequence. This swells the number of judgment-summonses issued, but it
doesn't mean a land-sale for each summons. Another fact is that in real
life some men don't get on as well as others. Either they don't farm
well enough, or they take to hashish, or go crazy about a girl and
borrow money for her, or--er--something of that kind, and they are sold
up. You may have noticed that.'
'I have. And meantime, what is the fellah doing?'
'Meantime, the fellah has misread the Act--as usual. He thinks it's
retrospective, and that he needn't pay past debts. They may make
trouble, but I fancy your Bank will keep quiet.'
'Keep quiet! With the bottom knocked out of two-thirds of its business
and--and my five hundred pounds involved!'
'Is that your trouble? I don't think your shares will rise in a hurry;
but if you want some fun, go and talk to the French about it,'
This seemed as good a way as any of getting a little interest. The
Frenchman that I went to spoke with a certain knowledge of finance and
politics and the natural malice of a logical race against an illogical
'Yes,' he said. 'The idea of limiting credit under these circumstances
is absurd. But that is not all. People are not frightened, business is
not upset by one absurd idea, but by the possibilities of more,'
'Are there any more ideas, then, that are going to be tried on this
Back to Full Books