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.