Letters of Travel (1892-1913)
Part 4 out of 4
'Two or three,' he replied placidly. 'They are all generous; but they
are all ridiculous. Egypt is not a place where one should promulgate
'But my shares--my shares!' I cried. 'They have already dropped several
'It is possible. They will drop more. Then they will rise.'
'Thank you. But why?'
'Because the idea is fundamentally absurd. That will never be admitted
by your people, but there will be arrangements, accommodations,
adjustments, till it is all the same as it used to be. It will be the
concern of the Permanent Official--poor devil!--to pull it straight. It
is always his concern. Meantime, prices will rise for all things.'
'Because the land is the chief security in Egypt. If a man cannot borrow
on that security, the rates of interest will increase on whatever other
security he offers. That will affect all work and wages and Government
He put it so convincingly and with so many historical illustrations
that I saw whole perspectives of the old energetic Pharaohs, masters of
life and death along the River, checked in mid-career by cold-blooded
accountants chanting that not even the Gods themselves can make two plus
two more than four. And the vision ran down through the ages to one
little earnest head on a Cook's steamer, bent sideways over the vital
problem of rearranging 'our National Flag' so that it should be 'easier
to count the stars.'
For the thousandth time: Praised be Allah for the diversity of His
The Swiss are the only people who have taken the trouble to master the
art of hotel-keeping. Consequently, in the things that really
matter--beds, baths, and victuals--they control Egypt; and since every
land always throws back to its aboriginal life (which is why the United
States delight in telling aged stories), any ancient Egyptian would at
once understand and join in with the life that roars through the
nickel-plumbed tourist-barracks on the river, where all the world
frolics in the sunshine. At first sight, the show lends itself to cheap
moralising, till one recalls that one only sees busy folk when they are
idle, and rich folk when they have made their money. A citizen of the
United States--his first trip abroad--pointed out a middle-aged
Anglo-Saxon who was relaxing after the manner of several school-boys.
'There's a sample!' said the Son of Hustle scornfully. 'Tell me, _he_
ever did anything in his life?' Unluckily he had pitched upon one who,
when he is in collar, reckons thirteen and a half hours a fairish day's
Among this assembly were men and women burned to an even blue-black
tint--civilised people with bleached hair and sparkling eyes. They
explained themselves as 'diggers'--just diggers--and opened me a new
world. Granted that all Egypt is one big undertaker's emporium, what
could be more fascinating than to get Government leave to rummage in a
corner of it, to form a little company and spend the cold weather trying
to pay dividends in the shape of amethyst necklaces, lapis-lazuli
scarabs, pots of pure gold, and priceless bits of statuary? Or, if one
is rich, what better fun than to grub-stake an expedition on the
supposed site of a dead city and see what turns up? There was a big-game
hunter who had used most of the Continent, quite carried away by this
'I'm going to take shares in a city next year, and watch the digging
myself,' he said. 'It beats elephants to pieces. In _this_ game you're
digging up dead things and making them alive. Aren't you going to have a
He showed me a seductive little prospectus. Myself, I would sooner not
lay hands on a dead man's kit or equipment, especially when he has gone
to his grave in the belief that the trinkets guarantee salvation. Of
course, there is the other argument, put forward by sceptics, that the
Egyptian was a blatant self-advertiser, and that nothing would please
him more than the thought that he was being looked at and admired after
all these years. Still, one might rob some shrinking soul who didn't see
it in that light.
At the end of spring the diggers flock back out of the Desert and
exchange chaff and flews in the gorgeous verandahs. For example, A's
company has made a find of priceless stuff, Heaven knows how old, and
is--not too meek about it. Company B, less fortunate, hints that if only
A knew to what extent their native diggers had been stealing and
disposing of the thefts, under their very archaeological noses, they
would not be so happy.
'Nonsense,' says Company A. 'Our diggers are above suspicion. Besides,
we watched 'em.'
'_Are_ they?' is the reply. 'Well, next time you are in Berlin, go to
the Museum and you'll see what the Germans have got hold of. It must
have come out of your ground. The Dynasty proves it.' So A's cup is
poisoned--till next year.
No collector or curator of a museum should have any moral scruples
whatever; and I have never met one who had; though I have been informed
by deeply-shocked informants of four nationalities that the Germans are
the most flagrant pirates of all.
The business of exploration is about as romantic as earth-work on Indian
railways. There are the same narrow-gauge trams and donkeys, the same
shining gangs in the borrow-pits and the same skirling dark-blue crowds
of women and children with the little earth-baskets. But the hoes are
not driven in, nor the clods jerked aside at random, and when the work
fringes along the base of some mighty wall, men use their hands
carefully. A white man--or he was white at breakfast-time--patrols
through the continually renewed dust-haze. Weeks may pass without a
single bead, but anything may turn up at any moment, and it is his to
answer the shout of discovery.
We had the good fortune to stay a while at the Headquarters of the
Metropolitan Museum (New York) in a valley riddled like a rabbit-warren
with tombs. Their stables, store-houses, and servants' quarters are old
tombs; their talk is of tombs, and their dream (the diggers' dream
always) is to discover a virgin tomb where the untouched dead lie with
their jewels upon them. Four miles away are the wide-winged, rampant
hotels. Here is nothing whatever but the rubbish of death that died
thousands of years ago, on whose grave no green thing has ever grown.
Villages, expert in two hundred generations of grave-robbing, cower
among the mounds of wastage, and whoop at the daily tourist. Paths made
by bare feet run from one half-tomb, half-mud-heap to the next, not much
more distinct than snail smears, but they have been used since....
Time is a dangerous thing to play with. That morning the concierge had
toiled for us among steamer-sailings to see if we could save three days.
That evening we sat with folk for whom Time had stood still since the
Ptolemies. I wondered, at first, how it concerned them or any man if
such and such a Pharaoh had used to his own glory the plinths and
columns of such another Pharaoh before or after Melchizedek. Their
whole background was too inconceivably remote for the mind to work on.
But the next morning we were taken to the painted tomb of a noble--a
Minister of Agriculture--who died four or five thousand years ago. He
said to me, in so many words: 'Observe I was very like your friend, the
late Mr. Samuel Pepys, of your Admiralty. I took an enormous interest in
life, which I most thoroughly enjoyed, on its human and on its spiritual
side. I do not think you will find many departments of State better
managed than mine, or a better-kept house, or a nicer set of young
people ... My daughters! The eldest, as you can see, takes after her
mother. The youngest, my favourite, is supposed to favour me. Now I will
show you all the things that I did, and delighted in, till it was time
for me to present my accounts elsewhere.' And he showed me, detail by
detail, in colour and in drawing, his cattle, his horses, his crops, his
tours in the district, his accountants presenting the revenue returns,
and he himself, busiest of the busy, in the good day.
But when we left that broad, gay ante-room and came to the narrower
passage where once his body had lain and where all his doom was
portrayed, I could not follow him so well. I did not see how he, so
experienced in life, could be cowed by friezes of brute-headed
apparitions or satisfied by files of repeated figures. He explained,
something to this effect:
'We live on the River--a line without breadth or thickness. Behind us
is the Desert, which nothing can affect; wither no man goes till he is
dead, (One does not use good agricultural ground for cemeteries.)
Practically, then, we only move in two dimensions--up stream or down.
Take away the Desert, which we don't consider any more than a healthy
man considers death, and you will see that we have no background
whatever. Our world is all one straight bar of brown or green earth,
and, for some months, mere sky-reflecting water that wipes out
everything You have only to look at the Colossi to realise how
enormously and extravagantly man and his works must scale in such a
country. Remember too, that our crops are sure, and our life is very,
very easy. Above all, we have no neighbours That is to say, we must give
out, for we cannot take in. Now, I put it to you, what is left for a
priest with imagination, except to develop ritual and multiply gods on
friezes? Unlimited leisure, limited space of two dimensions, divided by
the hypnotising line of the River, and bounded by visible, unalterable
death--must, _ipso facto_----'
'Even so,' I interrupted. 'I do not comprehend your Gods--your direct
worship of beasts, for instance?'
'You prefer the indirect? The worship of Humanity with a capital H? My
Gods, or what I saw in them, contented me.'
'What did you see in your Gods as affecting belief and conduct?'
'You know the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx?'
'No,' I murmured. 'What is it?'
'"All sensible men are of the same religion, but no sensible man ever
tells,"' he replied. With that I had to be content, for the passage
ended in solid rock.
There were other tombs in the valley, but the owners were dumb, except
one Pharaoh, who from the highest motives had broken with the creeds and
instincts of his country, and so had all but wrecked it. One of his
discoveries was an artist, who saw men not on one plane but modelled
full or three-quarter face, with limbs suited to their loads and
postures. His vividly realised stuff leaped to the eye out of the
acreage of low-relief in the old convention, and I applauded as a
properly brought-up tourist should.
'Mine was a fatal mistake,' Pharaoh Ahkenaton sighed in my ear,' I
mistook the conventions of life for the realities.'
'Ah, those soul-crippling conventions!' I cried.
'You mistake _me_,' he answered more stiffly. 'I was so sure of their
reality that I thought that they were really lies, whereas they were
only invented to cover the raw facts of life.'
'Ah, those raw facts of life!' I cried, still louder; for it is not
often that one has a chance of impressing a Pharaoh.' We must face them
with open eyes and an open mind! Did _you_?'
'I had no opportunity of avoiding them,' he replied. 'I broke every
convention in my land.'
'Oh, noble! And what happened?'
'What happens when you strip the cover off a hornet's nest? The raw
fact of life is that mankind is just a little lower than the angels, and
the conventions are based on that fact in order that men may become
angels. But if you begin, as I did, by the convention that men are
angels they will assuredly become bigger beasts than ever.'
'That,' I said firmly, 'is altogether out-of-date. You should have
brought a larger mentality, a more vital uplift, and--er--all that sort
of thing, to bear on--all that sort of thing, you know.'
'I did,' said Ahkenaton gloomily. 'It broke me!' And he, too, went dumb
among the ruins.
There is a valley of rocks and stones in every shade of red and brown,
called the Valley of the Kings, where a little oil-engine coughs behind
its hand all day long, grinding electricity to light the faces of dead
Pharaohs a hundred feet underground. All down the valley, during the
tourist season, stand char-a-bancs and donkeys and sand-carts, with here
and there exhausted couples who have dropped out of the processions and
glisten and fan themselves in some scrap of shade. Along the sides of
the valley are the tombs of the kings neatly numbered, as it might be
mining adits with concrete steps leading up to them, and iron grilles
that lock of nights, and doorkeepers of the Department of Antiquities
demanding the proper tickets. One enters, and from deeps below deeps
hears the voices of dragomans booming through the names and titles of
the illustrious and thrice-puissant dead. Rock-cut steps go down into
hot, still darkness, passages-twist and are led over blind pits which,
men say, the wise builders childishly hoped would be taken for the real
tombs by thieves to come. Up and down these alley-ways clatter all the
races of Europe with a solid backing of the United States. Their
footsteps are suddenly blunted on the floor of a hall paved with
immemorial dust that will never dance in any wind. They peer up at the
blazoned ceilings, stoop down to the minutely decorated walls, crane and
follow the sombre splendours of a cornice, draw in their breaths and
climb up again to the fierce sunshine to re-dive into the next adit on
their programme. What they think proper to say, they say aloud--and some
of it is very interesting. What they feel you can guess from a certain
haste in their movements--something between the shrinking modesty of a
man under fire and the Hadn't-we-better-be-getting-on attitude of
visitors to a mine. After all, it is not natural for man to go
underground except for business or for the last time. He is conscious of
the weight of mother-earth overhead, and when to her expectant bulk is
added the whole beaked, horned, winged, and crowned hierarchy of a lost
faith flaming at every turn of his eye, he naturally wishes to move
away. Even the sight of a very great king indeed, sarcophagused under
electric light in a hall full of most fortifying pictures, does not hold
him too long.
Some men assert that the crypt of St. Peter's, with only nineteen
centuries bearing down on the groining, and the tombs of early popes and
kings all about, is more impressive than the Valley of the Kings
because it explains how and out of what an existing creed grew. But the
Valley of the Kings explains nothing except that most terrible line in
To the last syllable of recorded time.
Earth opens her dry lips and says it.
In one of the tombs there is a little chamber whose ceiling, probably
because of a fault in the rock, could not be smoothed off like the
others. So the decorator, very cunningly, covered it with a closely
designed cloth-pattern--just such a chintz-like piece of stuff as, in
real life, one would use to underhang a rough roof with. He did it
perfectly, down there in the dark, and went his way. Thousands of years
later, there was born a man of my acquaintance who, for good and
sufficient reason, had an almost insane horror of anything in the nature
of a ceiling-cloth. He used to make excuses for not going into the dry
goods shops at Christmas, when hastily enlarged annexes are hidden, roof
and sides, with embroideries. Perhaps a snake or a lizard had dropped on
his mother from the roof before he was born; perhaps it was the memory
of some hideous fever-bout in a tent. At any rate, that man's idea of
The Torment was a hot, crowded underground room, underhung with
patterned cloths. Once in his life at a city in the far north, where he
had to make a speech, he met that perfect combination. They led him up
and down narrow, crowded, steam-heated passages, till they planted him
at last in a room without visible windows (by which he knew
he was, underground), and directly beneath a warm-patterned
ceiling-cloth--rather like a tent-lining. And there he had to say his
say, while panic terror sat in his throat. The second time was in the
Valley of the Kings, where very similar passages, crowded with people,
led him into a room cut of rock, fathoms underground, with what looked
like a sagging chintz cloth not three feet above his head. The man I'd
like to catch,' he said when he came outside again, 'is that
decorator-man. D'you suppose he meant to produce that effect?'
Every man has his private terrors, other than those of his own
conscience. From what I saw in the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptians
seem to have known this some time ago. They certainly have impressed it
on most unexpected people. I heard two voices down a passage talking
together as follows:
_She_. I guess we weren't ever meant to see these old tombs from inside,
_He_. How so?
_She_. For one thing, they believe so hard in being dead. Of course,
their outlook on spiritual things wasn't as broad as ours.
_He_. Well, there's no danger of _our_ being led away by it. Did you buy
that alleged scarab off the dragoman this morning?
THE FACE OF THE DESERT
Going up the Nile is like running the gauntlet before Eternity. Till one
has seen it, one does not realise the amazing thinness of that little
damp trickle of life that steals along undefeated through the jaws of
established death. A rifle-shot would cover the widest limits of
cultivation, a bow-shot would reach the narrower. Once beyond them a man
may carry his next drink with him till he reaches Cape Blanco on the
west (where he may signal for one from a passing Union Castle boat) or
the Karachi Club on the east. Say four thousand dry miles to the left
hand and three thousand to the right.
The weight of the Desert is on one, every day and every hour. At
morning, when the cavalcade tramps along in the rear of the tulip-like
dragoman, She says: 'I am here----just beyond that ridge of pink sand
that you are admiring. Come along, pretty gentleman, and I'll tell you
your fortune.' But the dragoman says very clearly: 'Please, sar, do not
separate yourself at _all_ from the main body,' which, the Desert knows
well, you had no thought of doing. At noon, when the stewards rummage
out lunch-drinks from the dewy ice-chest, the Desert whines louder than
the well-wheels on the bank: 'I am here, only a quarter of a mile away.
For mercy's sake, pretty gentleman, spare a mouthful of that prickly
whisky-and-soda you are lifting to your lips. There's a white man a few
hundred miles off, dying on my lap of thirst--thirst that you cure with
a rag dipped in lukewarm water while you hold him down with the one
hand, and he thinks he is cursing you aloud, but he isn't, because his
tongue is outside his mouth and he can't get it back. Thank _you_, my
noble captain!' For naturally one tips half the drink over the rail with
the ancient prayer: 'May it reach him who needs it,' and turns one's
back on the pulsing ridges and fluid horizons that are beginning their
At evening the Desert obtrudes again--tricked out as a Nautch girl in
veils of purple, saffron, gold-tinsel, and grass-green. She postures
shamelessly before the delighted tourists with woven skeins of
homeward-flying pelicans, fringes of wild duck, black spotted on
crimson, and cheap jewellery of opal clouds. 'Notice Me!' She cries,
like any other worthless woman. 'Admire the play of My mobile
features--the revelations of My multi-coloured soul! Observe My
allurements and potentialities. Thrill while I stir you!' So She floats
through all Her changes and retires upstage into the arms of the dusk.
But at midnight She drops all pretence and bears down in Her natural
shape, which depends upon the conscience of the beholder and his
distance from the next white man.
You will observe in the _Benedicite Omnia Opera_ that the Desert is the
sole thing not enjoined to 'bless the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him
for ever.' This is because when our illustrious father, the Lord Adam,
and his august consort, the Lady Eve, were expelled from Eden, Eblis the
Accursed, fearful lest mankind should return ultimately to the favour of
Allah, set himself to burn and lay waste all the lands east and west of
Oddly enough, the Garden of Eden is almost the exact centre of all the
world's deserts, counting from Gobi to Timbuctoo; and all that land
_qua_ land is 'dismissed from the mercy of God.' Those who use it do so
at their own risk. Consequently the Desert produces her own type of man
exactly as the sea does. I was fortunate enough to meet one sample, aged
perhaps twenty-five. His work took him along the edge of the Red Sea,
where men on swift camels come to smuggle hashish, and sometimes guns,
from dhows that put in to any convenient beach. These smugglers must be
chased on still swifter camels, and since the wells are few and known,
the game is to get ahead of them and occupy their drinking-places.
But they may skip a well or so, and do several days' march in one. Then
their pursuer must take e'en greater risks and make crueller marches
that the Law may be upheld. The one thing in the Law's favour is that
_hashish_ smells abominably--worse than a heated camel--so, when they
range alongside, no time is lost in listening to lies. It was not told
to me how they navigate themselves across the broken wastes, or by what
arts they keep alive in the dust-storms and heat. That was taken for
granted, and the man who took it so considered himself the most
commonplace of mortals. He was deeply moved by the account of a new
aerial route which the French are laying out somewhere in the Sahara
over a waterless stretch of four hundred miles, where if the aeroplane
is disabled between stations the pilot will most likely die and dry up
beside it. To do the Desert justice, she rarely bothers to wipe out
evidence of a kill. There are places in the Desert, men say, where even
now you come across the dead of old battles, all as light as last year's
wasps' nests, laid down in swaths or strung out in flight, with, here
and there, the little sparkling lines of the emptied cartridge-cases
that dropped them.
There are valleys and ravines that the craziest smugglers do not care to
refuge in at certain times of the year; as there are rest-houses where
one's native servants will not stay because they are challenged on their
way to the kitchen by sentries of old Soudanese regiments which have
long gone over to Paradise. And of voices and warnings and outcries
behind rocks there is no end. These last arise from the fact that men
very rarely live in a spot so utterly still that they can hear the
murmuring race of the blood over their own ear-drums. Neither ship,
prairie, nor forest gives that silence. I went out to find it once, when
our steamer tied up and the rest of them had gone to see a sight, but I
never dared venture more than a mile from our funnel-smoke. At that
point I came upon a hill honey-combed with graves that held a multitude
of paper-white skulls, all grinning cheerfully like ambassadors of the
Desert. But I did not accept their invitation. They had told me that all
the little devils learn to draw in the Desert, which explains the
elaborate and purposeless detail that fills it. None but devils could
think of etching every rock outcrop with wind-lines, or skinning it down
to its glistening nerves with sand-blasts; of arranging hills in the
likeness of pyramids and sphinxes and wrecked town-suburbs; of covering
the space of half an English county with sepia studies of interlacing
and recrossing ravines, dongas, and nullahs, each an exposition of much
too clever perspective; and of wiping out the half-finished work with a
wash of sand in three tints, only to pick it up again in silver-point on
the horizon's edge. This they do in order to make lost travellers think
they can recognise landmarks and run about identifying them till the
madness comes. The Desert is all devil-device--as you might say 'blasted
cleverness'--crammed with futile works, always promising something fresh
round the next corner, always leading out through heaped decoration and
over-insistent design into equal barrenness.
There was a morning of mornings when we lay opposite the rock-hewn
Temple of Abu Simbel, where four great figures, each sixty feet high,
sit with their hands on their knees waiting for Judgment Day. At their
feet is a little breadth of blue-green crop; they seem to hold back all
the weight of the Desert behind them, which, none the less, lips over at
one side in a cataract of vividest orange sand. The tourist is
recommended to see the sunrise here, either from within the temple where
it falls on a certain altar erected by Rameses in his own honour, or
from without where another Power takes charge.
The stars had paled when we began our watch; the river birds were just
whispering over their toilettes in the uncertain purplish light. Then
the river dimmered up like pewter; the line of the ridge behind the
Temple showed itself against a milkiness in the sky; one felt rather
than saw that there were four figures in the pit of gloom below it.
These blocked themselves out, huge enough, but without any special
terror, while the glorious ritual of the Eastern dawn went forward. Some
reed of the bank revealed itself by reflection, black on silver; arched
wings flapped and jarred the still water to splintered glass; the desert
ridge turned to topaz, and the four figures stood clear, yet without
shadowing, from their background. The stronger light flooded them red
from head to foot, and they became alive--as horridly and tensely yet
blindly alive as pinioned men in the death-chair before the current is
switched on. One felt that if by any miracle the dawn could be delayed a
second longer, they would tear themselves free, and leap forth to
heaven knows what sort of vengeance. But that instant the full sun
pinned them in their places--nothing more than statues slashed with
light and shadow--and another day got to work.
A few yards to the left of the great images, close to the statue of an
Egyptian princess, whose face was the very face of 'She,' there was a
marble slab over the grave of an English officer killed in a fight
against dervishes nearly a generation ago.
From Abu Simbel to Wady Halfa the river, escaped from the domination of
the Pharaohs, begins to talk about dead white men. Thirty years ago,
young English officers in India lied and intrigued furiously that they
might be attached to expeditions whose bases were sometimes at Suakim,
sometimes quite in the desert air, but all of whose deeds are now quite
forgotten. Occasionally the dragoman, waving a smooth hand east or
south-easterly, will speak of some fight. Then every one murmurs: 'Oh
yes. That was Gordon, of course,' or 'Was that before or after
Omdurman?' But the river is much more precise. As the boat quarters
the falling stream like a puzzled hound, all the old names spurt
up again under the paddle-wheels--'Hicks' army--Val Baker--El
Teb--Tokar--Tamai--Tamanieb and Osman Digna!' Her head swings round
for another slant: '_We cannot land English or Indian troops: if
consulted, recommend abandonment of the Soudan within certain limits._'
That was my Lord Granville chirruping to the advisers of His Highness
the Khedive, and the sentence comes back as crisp as when it first
shocked one in '84. Next--here is a long reach between flooded palm
trees--next, of course, comes Gordon--and a delightfully mad Irish
war correspondent who was locked up with him in Khartoum.
Gordon--Eighty-four--Eighty-five--the Suakim-Berber Railway really begun
and quite as really abandoned. Korti--Abu Klea--the Desert Column--a
steamer called the _Safieh_ not the _Condor_, which rescued two other
steamers wrecked on their way back from a Khartoum in the red hands of
the Mahdi of those days. Then--the smooth glide over deep water
continues--another Suakim expedition with a great deal of Osman Digna
and renewed attempts to build the Suakim-Berber Railway. 'Hashin,' say
the paddle-wheels, slowing all of a sudden--'MacNeill's Zareba--the 15th
Sikhs and another native regiment--Osman Digna in great pride and power,
and Wady Halfa a frontier town. Tamai, once more; another siege of
Suakim: Gemaiza; Handub; Trinkitat, and Tokar--1887.'
The river recalls the names; the mind at once brings up the face and
every trick of speech of some youth met for a few hours, maybe, in a
train on the way to Egypt of the old days. Both name and face had
utterly vanished from one's memory till then.
It was another generation that picked up the ball ten years later and
touched down in Khartoum. Several people aboard the Cook boat had been
to that city. They all agreed that the hotel charges were very high, but
that you could buy the most delightful curiosities in the native
bazaar. But I do not like bazaars of the Egyptian kind, since a
discovery I made at Assouan. There was an old man--a Mussulman--who
pressed me to buy some truck or other, but not with the villainous
camaraderie that generations of low-caste tourists have taught the
people, nor yet with the cosmopolitan light-handedness of appeal which
the town-bred Egyptian picks up much too quickly; but with a certain
desperate zeal, foreign to his whole creed and nature. He fingered, he
implored, he fawned with an unsteady eye, and while I wondered I saw
behind him the puffy pink face of a fezzed Jew, watching him as a stoat
watches a rabbit. When he moved the Jew followed and took position at a
commanding angle. The old man glanced from me to him and renewed his
solicitations. So one could imagine an elderly hare thumping wildly on a
tambourine with the stoat behind him. They told me afterwards that Jews
own most of the stalls in Assouan bazaar, the Mussulmans working for
them, since tourists need Oriental colour. Never having seen or imagined
a Jew coercing a Mussulman, this colour was new and displeasing to me.
THE RIDDLE OF EMPIRE
At Halfa one feels the first breath of a frontier. Here the Egyptian
Government retires into the background, and even the Cook steamer does not
draw up in the exact centre of the postcard. At the telegraph-office, too,
there are traces, diluted but quite recognisable, of military
administration. Nor does the town, in any way or place whatever,
smell--which is proof that it is not looked after on popular lines. There
is nothing to see in it any more than there is in Hulk C. 60, late of her
Majesty's troopship _Himalaya_, now a coal-hulk in the Hamoaze at
Plymouth. A river front, a narrow terraced river-walk of semi-oriental
houses, barracks, a mosque, and half-a-dozen streets at right angles, the
Desert racing up to the end of each, make all the town. A mile or so up
stream under palm trees are bungalows of what must have been cantonments,
some machinery repair-shops, and odds and ends of railway track. It is all
as paltry a collection of whitewashed houses, pitiful gardens, dead walls,
and trodden waste spaces as one would wish to find anywhere; and every bit
of it quivers with the remembered life of armies and river-fleets, as the
finger-bowl rings when the rubbing finger is lifted. The most unlikely men
have done time there; stores by the thousand ton have been rolled and
pushed and hauled up the banks by tens of thousands of scattered hands;
hospitals have pitched themselves there, expanded enormously, shrivelled
up and drifted away with the drifting regiments; railway sidings by the
mile have been laid down and ripped up again, as need changed, and utterly
wiped out by the sands.
Halfa has been the rail-head, Army Headquarters, and hub of the
universe--the one place where a man could make sure of buying tobacco
and sardines, or could hope for letters for himself and medical
attendance for his friend. Now she is a little shrunken shell of a town
without a proper hotel, where tourists hurry up from the river to buy
complete sets of Soudan stamps at the Post Office.
I went for a purposeless walk from one end of the place to the other,
and found a crowd of native boys playing football on what might have
been a parade-ground of old days.
'And what school is that?' I asked in English of a small, eager youth.
'Madrissah,' said he most intelligently, which being translated means
'Yes, but _what_ school?'
'Yes, Madrissah, school, sir,' and he tagged after to see what else the
A line of railway track, that must have fed big workshops in its time,
led me between big-roomed houses and offices labelled departmentally,
with here and there a clerk at work. I was directed and re-directed by
polite Egyptian officials (I wished to get at a white officer if
possible, but there wasn't one about); was turned out of a garden which
belonged to an Authority; hung round the gate of a bungalow with an
old-established compound and two white men sitting in chairs on a
verandah; wandered down towards the river under the palm trees, where
the last red light came through; lost myself among rusty boilers and
balks of timber; and at last loafed back in the twilight escorted by the
small boy and an entire brigade of ghosts, not one of whom I had ever
met before, but all of whom I knew most intimately. They said it was the
evenings that used to depress _them_ most, too; so they all came back
after dinner and bore me company, while I went to meet a friend arriving
by the night train from Khartoum.
She was an hour late, and we spent it, the ghosts and I, in a
brick-walled, tin-roofed shed, warm with the day's heat; a crowd of
natives laughing and talking somewhere behind in the darkness. We knew
each other so well by that time, that we had finished discussing every
conceivable topic of conversation--the whereabouts of the Mahdi's head,
for instance--work, reward, despair, acknowledgment, flat failure, all
the real motives that had driven us to do anything, and all our other
longings. So we sat still and let the stars move, as men must do when
they meet this kind of train.
Presently I asked: 'What is the name of the next station out from
'Station Number One,' said a ghost.
'And the next?'
'Station Number Two, and so on to Eight, I think.'
'And wasn't it worth while to name even _one_ of these stations from
some man, living or dead, who had something to do with making the line?'
'Well, they didn't, anyhow,' said another ghost. 'I suppose they didn't
think it worth while. Why? What do _you_ think?'
'I think, I replied, 'it is the sort of snobbery that nations go to
Her headlight showed at last, an immense distance off; the economic
electrics were turned up, the ghosts vanished, the dragomans of the
various steamers flowed forward in beautiful garments to meet their
passengers who had booked passages in the Cook boats, and the Khartoum
train decanted a joyous collection of folk, all decorated with horns,
hoofs, skins, hides, knives, and assegais, which they had been buying at
Omdurman. And when the porters laid hold upon their bristling bundles,
it was like MacNeill's Zareba without the camels.
Two young men in tarboushes were the only people who had no part in the
riot. Said one of them to the other:
Said the other: 'Hullo!'
They grunted together for a while. Then one pleasantly:
'Oh, I'm sorry for _that_! I thought I was going to have you under me
for a bit. Then you'll use the rest-house there?'
'I suppose so,' said the other. 'Do you happen to know if the roof's
Here a woman wailed aloud for her dervish spear which had gone adrift,
and I shall never know, except from the back pages of the Soudan
Almanack, what state that rest-house there is in.
The Soudan Administration, by the little I heard, is a queer service. It
extends itself in silence from the edges of Abyssinia to the swamps of
the Equator at an average pressure of one white man to several thousand
square miles. It legislates according to the custom of the tribe where
possible, and on the common sense of the moment when there is no
precedent. It is recruited almost wholly from the army, armed chiefly
with binoculars, and enjoys a death-rate a little lower than its own
reputation. It is said to be the only service in which a man taking
leave is explicitly recommended to get out of the country and rest
himself that he may return the more fit to his job. A high standard of
intelligence is required, and lapses are not overlooked. For instance,
one man on leave in London took the wrong train from Boulogne, and
instead of going to Paris, which, of course, he had intended, found
himself at a station called Kirk Kilissie or Adrianople West, where he
stayed for some weeks. It was a mistake that might have happened to any
one on a dark night after a stormy passage, but the authorities would
not believe it, and when I left Egypt were busily engaged in boiling
him in hot oil. They are grossly respectable in the Soudan now.
Long and long ago, before even the Philippines were taken, a friend of
mine was reprimanded by a British Member of Parliament, first for the
sin of blood-guiltiness because he was by trade a soldier, next for
murder because he had fought in great battles, and lastly, and most
important, because he and his fellow-braves had saddled the British
taxpayer with the expense of the Soudan. My friend explained that all
the Soudan had ever cost the British taxpayer was the price of about one
dozen of regulation Union Jacks--one for each province. 'That,' said the
M.P. triumphantly, 'is all it will ever be worth.' He went on to justify
himself, and the Soudan went on also. To-day it has taken its place as
one of those accepted miracles which are worked without heat or
headlines by men who do the job nearest their hand and seldom fuss about
But less than sixteen years ago the length and breadth of it was one
crazy hell of murder, torture, and lust, where every man who had a sword
used it till he met a stronger and became a slave. It was--men say who
remember it--a hysteria of blood and fanaticism; and precisely as an
hysterical woman is called to her senses by a dash of cold water, so at
the battle of Omdurman the land was reduced to sanity by applied death
on such a scale as the murderers and the torturers at their most
unbridled could scarcely have dreamed. In a day and a night all who had
power and authority were wiped out and put under till, as the old song
says, no chief remained to ask after any follower. They had all charged
into Paradise. The people who were left looked for renewed massacres of
the sort they had been accustomed to, and when these did not come, they
said helplessly: 'We have nothing. We are nothing. Will you sell us into
slavery among the Egyptians?' The men who remember the old days of the
Reconstruction--which deserves an epic of its own--say that there was
nothing left to build on, not even wreckage. Knowledge, decency,
kinship, property, tide, sense of possession had all gone. The people
were told they were to sit still and obey orders; and they stared and
fumbled like dazed crowds after an explosion. Bit by bit, however, they
were fed and watered and marshalled into some sort of order; set to
tasks they never dreamed to see the end of; and, almost by physical
force, pushed and hauled along the ways of mere life. They came to
understand presently that they might reap what they had sown, and that
man, even a woman, might walk for a day's journey with two goats and a
native bedstead and live undespoiled. But they had to be taught
And little by little, as they realised that the new order was sure and
that their ancient oppressors were quite dead, there returned not only
cultivators, craftsmen, and artisans, but outlandish men of war, scarred
with old wounds and the generous dimples that the Martini-Henry bullet
used to deal--fighting men on the lookout for new employ. They would
hang about, first on one leg, then on the other, proud or uneasily
friendly, till some white officer circulated near by. And at his fourth
or fifth passing, brown and white having approved each other by eye, the
talk--so men say--would run something like this:
OFFICER (_with air of sudden discovery_). Oh, you by the hut, there,
what is your business?
WARRIOR (_at 'attention' complicated by attempt to salute_). I am
So-and-So, son of So-and-So, from such and such a place.
OFFICER. I hear. And ...?
WARRIOR (_repeating salute_). And a fighting man also.
OFFICER (_impersonally to horizon_). But they _all_ say that nowadays.
WARRIOR (_very loudly_). But there is a man in one of your battalions
who can testify to it. He is the grandson of my father's uncle.
OFFICER (_confidentially to his boots_). Hell is _quite_ full of such
grandsons of just such father's uncles; and how do I know if Private
So-and-So speaks the truth about his family? (_Makes to go._)
WARRIOR (_swiftly removing necessary garments_). Perhaps. But _these_
don't lie. Look! I got this ten, twelve years ago when I was quite a
lad, close to the old Border, Yes, Halfa. It was a true Snider bullet.
Feel it! This little one on the leg I got at the big fight that finished
it all last year. But I am not lame (_violent leg-exercise_), not in
the least lame. See! I run. I jump. I kick. Praised be Allah!
OFFICER. Praised be Allah! And then?
WARRIOR (_coquettishly_). Then, I shoot. I am not a common spear-man.
(_Lapse into English._) Yeh, dam goo' shot! (_pumps lever of imaginary
OFFICER (_unmoved_). I see. And then?
WARRIOR (_indignantly_). _I_ am come here--after many days' marching.
(_Change to childlike wheedle_.) Are _all_ the regiments full?
At this point the relative, in uniform, generally discovered himself,
and if the officer liked the cut of his jib, another 'old Mahdi's man'
would be added to the machine that made itself as it rolled along. They
dealt with situations in those days by the unclouded light of reason and
a certain high and holy audacity.
There is a tale of two Sheikhs shortly after the Reconstruction began.
One of them, Abdullah of the River, prudent and the son of a
slave-woman, professed loyalty to the English very early in the day, and
used that loyalty as a cloak to lift camels from another Sheikh, Farid
of the Desert, still at war with the English, but a perfect gentleman,
which Abdullah was not. Naturally, Farid raided back on Abdullah's kine,
Abdullah complained to the authorities, and the Border fermented. To
Farid in his desert camp with a clutch of Abdullah's cattle round him,
entered, alone and unarmed, the officer responsible for the peace of
those parts. After compliments, for they had had dealings with each
other before: 'You've been driving Abdullah's stock again,' said the
'I should think I had!' was the hot answer. 'He lifts my camels and
scuttles back into your territory, where he knows I can't follow him for
the life; and when I try to get a bit of my own back, he whines to you.
He's a cad--an utter cad.'
'At any rate, he is loyal. If you'd only come in and be loyal too, you'd
both be on the same footing, and then if he stole from you, he'd catch
'He'd never dare to steal except under your protection. Give him what
he'd have got in the Mahdi's time--a first-class flogging. _You_ know he
'I'm afraid that isn't allowed. You have to let me shift all those
bullocks of his back again.'
'And if I don't?'
'Then, I shall have to ride back and collect all my men and begin war
'But what prevents my cutting your throat where you sit?
'For one thing, you aren't Abdullah, and----'
'There! You confess he's a cad!'
'And for another, the Government would only send another officer who
didn't understand your ways, and then there _would_ be war, and no one
would score except Abdullah. He'd steal your camels and get credit for
'So he would, the scoundrel! This is a hard world for honest men. Now,
you admit Abdullah is a cad. Listen to me, and I'll tell you a few more
things about him. He was, etc., etc. He is, etc., etc.'
'You're perfectly right, Sheikh, but don't you see I can't tell him what
I think of him so long as he's loyal and you're out against us? Now, if
_you_ come in I promise you that I'll give Abdullah a telling-off--yes,
in your presence--that will do you good to listen to.'
'No! I won't come in! But--I tell you what I will do. I'll accompany you
to-morrow as your guest, understand, to your camp. Then you send for
Abdullah, and _if_ I judge that his fat face has been sufficiently
blackened in my presence, I'll think about coming in later.'
So it was arranged, and they slept out the rest of the night, side by
side, and in the morning they gathered up and returned all Abdullah's
cattle, and in the evening, in Farid's presence, Abdullah got the
tongue-lashing of his wicked old life, and Farid of the Desert laughed
and came in; and they all lived happy ever afterwards.
Somewhere or other in the nearer provinces the old heady game must be
going on still, but the Soudan proper has settled to civilisation of the
brick-bungalow and bougainvillea sort, and there is a huge technical
college where the young men are trained to become fitters, surveyors,
draftsmen, and telegraph employees at fabulous wages. In due time, they
will forget how warily their fathers had to walk in the Mahdi's time to
secure even half a bellyful; then, as has happened elsewhere. They will
honestly believe that they themselves originally created and since then
have upheld the easy life into which they were bought at so heavy a
price. Then the demand will go up for 'extension of local government,'
'Soudan for the Soudanese,' and so on till the whole cycle has to be
retrodden. It is a hard law but an old one--Rome died learning it, as
our western civilisation may die--that if you give any man anything that
he has not painfully earned for himself, you infallibly make him or his
descendants your devoted enemies.
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