He who travels à force de bras may regulate his sight-seeing as exactly
as the moneyed tourist by clinging to one fixed plan—to fall penniless
and be forced to seek employment only in those cities with which he
would become well acquainted. In all north Africa no spot offered more
attractions for an extended stay than Cairo. Once arrived there,
whatever the fates had in store for me, I should be on chosen ground. At
all hazards I must reach Cairo before I “went broke.”
On my second morning in Alexandria, I repaired to the railway station,
only to find that I had delayed my departure a bit too long. The
third-class fare to the capital was low, but, unfortunately, just three
piastres more than I possessed. Should I take train as far as possible
and finish the journey on foot and penniless, or should I save the money
on hand for food en route and tramp the entire distance?
Pondering the question, I dropped into a bench on the Place Mohammed
Ali, and fell to whittling a stick. A countryman, strolling by, paused
to stare, and sitting down on the far end of the bench, watched me
intently. Now a Frank is no more of a novelty in Alexandria than in
Kansas City, even though in ragged garb; for, given a great port
anywhere on the earth’s surface, you will find Jack Tar, at least,
rambling penniless and forlorn through her streets. Either the native
was astonished to see a man work, even with his hands, when he was not
paid to do so, or the knife had attracted his attention. Inch by inch,
he slid along the bench.
“Very good knife, kwice cateer,” he murmured.
Two months in the Arab world had given me vocabulary enough for simple
conversations. “Aywa,” I answered, tossing away the stick and closing
The fellah gave a gasp of delight.
“But it shuts up, like a door,” he cried.
I opened and closed it several times for his edification; then slid down
in my seat, my thoughts elsewhere.
“You sell it?” grinned the Arab.
“Eh!” I gasped, straightening up in astonishment, “you—”
“I’ll give you five piastres,” wheedled the peasant, “gkamsa tarifa.”
“Take it!” I cried, and, grasping the coin he held out to me, I dashed
away to the station.
A half-hour later I was speeding southward across the fertile delta of
the Nile. What a contrast was this land to that I had so lately left
behind! Every few miles the train halted at a bustling city; between
them mound-like fellaheen villages and well-cultivated fields raced
northward. Inside the car—of American pattern—prosperous, well-groomed
natives perused the latest newspapers and smoked world-famous cigarettes
with the blasé air of Parisian commuters. Even the half-blind victims of
ophthalmia leaned back in their seats in the perfect contentment of
well-fed creatures. An eyeless pre-adamite in one corner roared with
laughter at the sallies of his companions. Far more at ease was he, for
all his affliction, than I, with neither friend nor acquaintance in the
length and breadth of the continent.
The Oriental panorama grew dim. One could with difficulty distinguish in
this ultra-flat country, where every object stood out sharply against
the horizon, between a distant village and a reclining water-buffalo,
nearer at hand. The western sky turned ruddy a moment, dulled to a
brown, and the darkness that falls so quickly in tropical countries left
me to stare at my own face beyond the window. An impressive reflection
indeed! A figure to inspire prospective employers with confidence! The
lights that were springing up across the plain were of no village where
inhabitants welcomed strangers with open arms. Every click of the wheels
brought me nearer the metropolis of Africa, a great city, of which I
knew little more than the name, and where I should soon be set adrift in
the darkness with the ludicrous sum of ten cents in my pocket! Perhaps
in all Cairo there was not another penniless adventurer of my race? Even
if there were, and a “vagabond’s retreat” somewhere among these long
rows of streets that flashed by as those of London in approaching St.
Pancras, small chance had I of finding it. For, were my Arabic as fluent
as my English, no policeman could direct me to so unconventional a
The train halted in a vast, domed station. A mighty press of humanity
swept me through the waiting-rooms and out upon a brightly-lighted
square. There the screaming throng of hackmen, porters, donkey boys, and
hotel runners drove me to take refuge behind a station pillar. I swung
my knapsack over my shoulder and gazed, utterly undecided, across the
Suddenly a voice sounded above the roar:—“Heh! Landsmann, wohin?” I
stared eagerly about me, for this simple greeting, properly accented, is
the password of the German tramp wherever he wanders. Under a
neighboring arc-light stood a young man of ruddy, sunburned countenance,
in a stout, if somewhat ragged, suit and a cloth cap. At my sign of
recognition, he dived into the crowd and fought his way to my side.
“Ah!” he shouted, in German, “I knew only one of the boys would blow in
with a knapsack and a corduroy suit! Where are you turning up from? Just
got in from Zagazig myself. Been down there grubbing up some cash. How
long have you been away? Business any good down at the coast? Don’t
believe it is. Cairo’s the place for easy winnings. Bet you blew in
without a piastre? Give ’em the stony face on the train? I did, though a
fellow down in Zagazig ticketed me. Gave me the cash, the wise one, and
of course I planted it and stared them off.”
Had I not already served an apprenticeship in German slang, I should
have come off with a very indistinct notion of the recent activities of
my new acquaintance. I broke in as soon as possible to assure him that I
had never dared to hope that civilization was so up-to-date in Egypt
that one could “beat his way” on the railroads, and to protest that I
could doubly deny his charge of having “eingeblasen” without a piastre.
“It’s my first trip to Cairo,” I concluded. “I bought my own ticket—”
“What!” roared the German, “Ticketed yourself! Lieber Gott, aber du bist
roh! Tick—But then,” he continued, in a hushed voice, “now I think of
it, so did I! Schafskopf, ja! I paid good money to come to Cairo the
first time! Höllespein, what a greenhorn I was!”
As he talked, we had left behind the howling throng. No need to ask
where he was leading me.
“There’s an Asile in Cairo,” he put in, “but you’re too late to-night.
You’ll meet all die Kamaraden where we’re going, for they’re most of
them ausgespielt with the churchman and can’t talk the Asile tickets out
We crossed a rectangular square where street cars clanged their way
through a multitude, and turned down a street flanked by
[Illustration: A winged dahabiyeh of the Nile]
[Illustration: Sais or carriage runners of Cairo, clearing the streets
for their master]
“It’s the Moosky,” said the German. “Good old lane. Many a piastre I’ve
picked up in her.”
He dodged into a side alley, jogged over a street, and entered the
headquarters of “die Kameraden.” It was a wine shop with connecting
kitchen, on the lower floor of a four-story building; just such a
rendezvous as one finds in Germany. A shuffling Jew was drawing beer and
wine for several groups of noisy faranchees at the tables, to the
accompaniment of a continual jabber in Yiddish to which the tipplers
replied, now and then, in German. A long-unwashed female wandered in
from the back room with a steaming plate of meat and potatoes.
“Der Jude has lodgings,” said my companion, pointing at the ceiling.
“Three small piastres. You can still eat a small piastre worth.”
Great impression two and a half cents would have made on an all-day
appetite! Almost before I realized it, I had called for a supper that
took my last copper.
By the time I finished eating, the “comrades” were demanding the
biography of “der Ankömmling.” As all the party spoke German, I gave an
abbreviated account of myself in that language.
“And what countryman are you?” asked a youth at a neighboring table.
“Ich bin Amerikaner.”
The entire party, the Jew included, burst into uproarious laughter so
suddenly that two black urchins, peering in upon us, took to their
“Amerikaner! Ja! Ja!” shrieked the merrymakers, “Freilich! We are all
Americans. But what are you when you tell the truth to your good
comrades? Amerikaner! Ha! Ha!—”
The cane of the first speaker beat a tattoo on the table and the mirth
subsided. Plainly, he was a man of authority in the gathering.
“Now, then,” he cried, as though I were entitled by the rules of “the
union” to enter two answers, “what country _are_ you from?”
I repeated my first assertion.
“So you are an American, rheally?” he demanded, suddenly, in clear
English, though with a marked accent.
A long reply in my own tongue upset his conviction that I should not be
able to understand him. The others, however, grinned skeptically and
fell to chattering again, glancing up from time to time to mutter,
“Amerikaner! Ja, gewiss.” I scraped up a half-pipe of tobacco from the
corners of a pocket, and fell asleep over the fumes.
A whining voice sounded in my ear:—“H’raus, Hop! Will mich
einschliessen!” I opened my eyes to find the Jew bending over me. The
room was nearly empty. Of the few “comrades” who remained one was the
youth who had addressed me in English. I caught up my bundle and turned
towards the door.
“Du bist, aber, ganz kaput?” demanded the young man, “have you no
He rose and followed after me.
“If you are ein richtiger Amerikaner,” he said, “I can show you where to
pick up the price of a lodging.”
I nodded. The youth called to the Hebrew to leave his door unlocked, and
led the way down the Moosky, across the square, and along a street that
flanked a wooded park.
“Esbekieh Gardens, those,” he said. “I’m taking you to the American
Mission Hospital. There are eight American preachers there, but your
best chance now is Reverend ——. He lives in the third story, first door
to the right of the stairway. You will find him studying. He studies
until two in the morning. Knock on the door once. He won’t answer; but
push it open and begin a hard-luck story right away. Now don’t tell him
that you’ve just come to Egypt, nor that you’re a sailor; and, if he
asks you if you speak German, say no. Tell him you are a civil engineer,
or a plate-layer, or a mason, and that you’ve just walked down from
Central Africa—your clothes fit that—and that you could get no work
there, or—or that you got sick; yes, that’s better, for he’s an old wise
one and knows there’s plenty of work up the river. Tell him you speak
only English and that you are an American—that is if you _are_—and he
will give you ten piastres. If you’re not sure you can talk English
without a foreign accent—I can’t tell whether you do or not—well, I
wouldn’t disturb the old man. He doesn’t like Germans.”
The youth pointed out a door of the Mission and slipped into the blacker
night of one of her pillars. I stepped inside, and, mounting to the
first landing, sat down to think matters over. The night air of January
was too cold to sleep out of doors even should I succeed in hiding where
the patrol could not rout me out. But to come at midnight to disturb an
aged missionary with a stereotyped tale of woe! Yet I knew the bitter
hopelessness of looking for work after a night in the streets, and “a
deep breath for breakfast.” Work? Why, of course! Just the point! I must
find work before I left Cairo; why could I not ask for a small loan and
pay it back?
I continued up the stairs and knocked on the door that had been
indicated. There was no response, but a tiny thread of light showed on
the threshold. I stepped inside. In the far corner of a small room, a
white-haired man closed, over a finger, the book he was reading, and
turned the light of a student lamp full upon me. I began my story—not
the one the German had plotted—and stated my case briefly. To my dismay,
the word “borrow” fell flat.
“I rarely,” said the old man, in a voice that would have chorded well
with the last key of a piano, “I rarely give money to a man who has just
come to the country. What business has he here without sufficient funds
to establish himself? I have never given money to sailors. I know their
ways too well. But after long months of daily visits from ‘Americans’
who speak English as if they had learned it in the slums of Berlin, I am
glad to see a real American again; though sorry to find that he is
without money, and still more so that he is a sailor. Here is a
half-dollar”—handing me a ten-piastre piece—“I hope you will not drink
quite all of it up. What state are you from?”
“Michigan. You understand I am only borrowing this until I can find
“Young man,” said the missionary, rising to his feet, “you already have
the money—the amount I give, if I give at all. No additions to your tale
will cause me to offer more. Why, then, attempt to raise false hopes
within my breast? So you are from Michigan? I am from Pittsburg. Good
night,” and without giving me time for reply, he sat down and lost
himself in the pages of his book.
“You were gone a long time,” said the German, as I emerged from the
doorway. “You couldn’t show _him_ you were an American?”
I held out the coin in my hand.
“Ei! Gott!” cried my companion, “you got it? You are an American, then,
a genuine American! It’s the test I always apply. He can tell an
American at his first three words.”
“But why didn’t the crowd believe me?” I demanded.
“Ach!” burst out the youth, “Here in Cairo all the boys are Americans.
We have Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Norwegians, all sorts in
the union, and everyone is an ‘American’—except among the comrades. And
not three of them ever saw the United States! It is because, of all the
foreigners in Egypt, the Americans are the easiest and the most
generous. Then you know what a bad reputation Germans have as
beggars—all turning out on their Wanderjahre? The Germans here will help
us. Yes! But how? By giving us a loaf of bread, or an old pair of shoes,
or two piastres. Bah! But the Americans! They give pounds and whole
suits, and they don’t ask to hear the whole story of your past life.
Americans? Why, there are dozens of American missionaries, judges,
merchants, engineers, and ei! Gott! the tourists! There’s your rich
harvest, mein Freund! Why, a year I’ve been in Cairo learning English
and picking the roosters. I’ve been up to see that greybeard four times!
I dressed differently every time and practised every story for weeks
until I got the accent right. Three times I got ten piastres, but the
fourth he asked me questions, and, as I hadn’t practised the answers, I
talked wild English and tangled myself up. Then I tried to get out of it
by saying I was a Pennsylvania Dutchman. The old man started in on
geography, and when I told him Pennsylvania was on the Gulf of Mexico he
took his cane and chased me out. I’ve studied maps of the United States
since then, though. He couldn’t catch me again. I know every city.”
“Yes,” he went on, as we turned into the now deserted Moosky, “all die
Kunde try to be Americans. Aber Gott! The fools! They are too pig-headed
ever to learn to talk English with an American accent. But you! Du
glücklicher Kerl! You can live in Cairo until you grow a beard!”
I paid my lodging and followed the German up a narrow, winding stairway
at the back of the shop. On the third story he pushed open a door much
like the drop of a home-made rabbit trap, which gave admittance to a
small room where four of six beds were already occupied. It needed only
one long-drawn breath to prove that the “bedclothes” had not seen the
washtub during several generations of “the boys,” and that a can of
insect powder could be used to great advantage. But he who is both
penniless and hypercritical should remain at home. I took the bed beside
that of the German and was soon asleep.
I awoke next morning to find my guide of the night before sitting on his
bed at a dry-goods box before the single window, sipping black coffee
from a tin can and eating a boiled egg and a slab of bread with one
hand, and slowly penning a letter with the other. Having seen enough of
him already to be convinced that he was a man of considerable education,
I was surprised to find that he wielded a pen with such apparent
“It’s this English script that troubles me,” he remarked, as if in
answer to my unexpressed question. “When you have written all your life
in German script, it is hard to change.”
“Then you’re writing English?” I cried.
He motioned to the letter before him as he swallowed the last of the
coffee:—“Of course! A man can’t eat if he doesn’t work. There’s a New
York millionaire just come to town. His name is Leigh Hunt, and I’m
writing to ask him for employment. He won’t have any, of course, but he
may send me a pound or two. I found it too hard to learn to speak
English without a foreign accent, so I write instead.”
He reached inside the box that served as table and tossed a dozen
unstamped letters on my bed. All were addressed to Englishmen or
Americans, among them people of international reputation.
“Read them according to the dates,” said the youth, “and see if my
English hasn’t improved. I copied them all and sent out the copies. All
but two sent me money. One wrote me to come and see him to-day. The
other I haven’t heard from. You don’t spell ‘poverty’ with a capital, do
As he had spoken but one sentence in English since our meeting, I was
surprised to note the fluent use of that language in his letters. None
of them contained actual errors; and only a peculiar turning of a
phrase, here and there, which a reader off his guard might easily have
overlooked, betrayed the nationality of the writer. The stories they
told were proof of an inventive imagination. A dozen “hard-luck tales,”
no one of which resembled the others, were all signed by different
Americanized names, over different addresses. Here a youth from
Baltimore, who had come to Egypt to open a store, had been robbed of all
he possessed. There a civil engineer from New York had been forced to
leave his work on the Berber-Suakim line and hasten down to Cairo to
attend a sick wife and four small children. An aged stone mason, who had
been injured while working on the barrage at Assuan, prayed for
assistance to get back to his home in Cincinnati. A California
prospector, just returned from an unsuccessful expedition into the
Uganda protectorate, was lying ill and penniless in a miserable
Nor did the resourceful German confine himself to his own sex. The last
letter was an appeal to a well-known American lady from a young girl who
had come from Boston to act as stenographer to a tourist firm that had
not materialized, and who sought assistance before starvation should
drive her to ruin.
“How about this Boston story?” I asked.
“Best of the lot,” replied the youth. “Sent me two pounds and a letter
full of wise advice—for females.”
“But didn’t she ask to see you?”
“Bah! Most of them are too busy enjoying themselves. They prefer to send
a bank note and forget the matter. Once in a while, one of them sends
for me and, if I think he is not too clever—most millionaires aren’t,
you know—I go to see him, and generally get something on the
Pennsylvania Dutch story.”
“Where do you get the names?”
“Mostly from this,” said the youth, reaching into the box once more and
pulling out a Paris edition of the New York Herald. “If a millionaire
starts for Egypt, or lands here, or catches cold, or bruises his toe,
the Herald knows it—and never forgets the address. Then there is a
society paper published here in Cairo—”
“Do you write German letters, too?”
“Not many. I used to, when I first came to Africa, but it’s a poor game.
I began to study English when I came to Cairo, a year ago. My first
letters must have been bad, for I got no answers. But they make me a
living now, and an occasional spree.”
“How much time does your letter writing take?”
“Four hours. I used to write at all times. Then I read of an author who
wrote, rain or shine, from nine till one, and I find it a good idea. But
to-day I’m going to break the rule and show you where you can talk the
pounds out of some rich Americans. Why,” he cried, enthusiastically,
“there hasn’t been a real American working the crowd since I’ve been
here. We’ll go into partnership. I know all the ropes and you can do the
writing and interviewing; and, when we get Cairo pumped out, we’ll go up
the Nile! I know every white man from here to Cape Town. I’ve covered
Africa from one end to the other—with an American partner, too. But he
was a real Pennsylvania Dutchman and had a little accent. You’ll do much
better. Africa’s all good; though Cairo’s the best, for there’s no
vagrancy law here. We’ll make an easy living together or my name isn’t
“Ever think of going to America?”
[Illustration: An Arab gardener on the estate of the American consul of
Cairo, for whom I worked two weeks]
[Illustration: Otto Pia, the German beggar-letter writer of Cairo]
“Never,” he cried, “unless I was drunk. Never again a white man’s
country for me! Here, a white wanderer is an isolated case of
misfortune, far from his native shore. At home, he is only a common
tramp, one among thousands, and the man who would give him pounds here
would give him to the police there. That’s why few of die Kunde who come
here—if they have brains enough to weave Märchen—ever go back. Do you
know the secret of getting the sympathy of the rich? It’s to make them
think we’re much worse off here than at home and to keep before them the
idea that we cannot find work. For that reason I am a plate-layer in
Cairo; for plate-layers are only needed far up the Nile. If I’m up the
Nile, I’m a stenographer, or a waiter, or anything else that there is
sure to be no work for. No, mein Freund, never your United States for
me! And you’ll not go back either, when I’ve showed you how easy it is
to pick the roosters here. A tramp, you know, is like a prophet—’er gilt
nichts in seinem Vaterlande.’”
“While you’re dressing and thinking up a few good Märchen,” he went on,
turning to his writing, “I’ll copy this letter. Then I’ll show you a few
of the easiest marks.”
I protested, however, that I had come to Cairo to work rather than to
weave “fairy tales.”
“Work?” he shouted, throwing aside his pen and springing to his feet, “A
fellow who can write and talk English—and German, too, wants to _work_
in Cairo? Why, mein lieber Kerl, you—you—” but the words stuck in his
I descended to the street and set out to visit such European contractors
as I could locate. Long after dark, foot-sore and half-famished, covered
with the dust of Cairo, I returned to the rendezvous and sat down at one
of the tables. It was quite evident that die Kunde were neither
foot-sore nor hungry, and their garments were as immaculate as
second-hand garments can be made. The “wise ones” had loafed in the
cafés and gardens, had written a letter or told a hard-luck story
somewhere, and turned up at night with money enough to make merry
through the whole evening. I, having tramped all day, from one address
to another, turned up with—an appetite.
Otto Pia watched me, with a half-smile on his countenance, for some time
after I had entered. Then he raised his cane and rapped on the table for
“Ei! Gute Kamaraden!” he cried, “I have something to show you! Guk’ mal!
Here is a comrade who is an American—do you hear—a real American, not a
patched-up one; and this real American—in Cairo—wants to _work_!”
“_Work?_” roared the chorus, “_Work_ in Cairo—and a real American—Lieber
Gott—Ist’s denn ein Esel?—”
I ate a meager supper and crawled away to bed. On the following day, I
tramped even greater distances, and returned to the wine shop with only
the price of a lodging left from the missionary’s donation. Pia rose and
took a seat beside me.
“Lot of work you found, eh?” he began. “Didn’t any of them offer you
“Most of them,” I answered.
“And you didn’t take it?” cried the German, “Why, you—you—you’re a
disgrace to the union.
“I know how you feel though,” he went on, “I was the same once. When I
ran away from Germany—to escape the army—I wouldn’t take a cent I hadn’t
earned; and I starved a month in Pietermaritzburg, looking for work as
you are here, before I got over my silly notions. Ach! I was an ass! I
tell you it’s no use. You won’t find work—especially in those rags. If
you _will_ work, let me take you where you can get some clothes first.”
It was all too evident that he was right. Weather-beaten garments might
pass muster in the wilderness of Palestine, but they were wholly out of
place in the Paris of Africa. Twice that day, those who had refused me
employment had offered to fit me out in their cast-off clothing. I
concluded to profit by the experience of Pia.
The German abandoned the composition of pathetic short stories for an
hour next morning to conduct me to the Secretary of the “Cairo Aid
Society,” a minister of the Church of England. Having pointed out the
rectory, he left me without a sign of recognition, and marched
unfalteringly down the street until he vanished behind the next row of
houses. I mounted the broad steps and pressed the electric button. A
jet-black Arab opened the door.
“I want to see the Reverend ——,” I began.
“Very sorry, but Reverend —— not in,” replied the servant, with a flash
of ivory teeth in a very friendly smile.
“When will he be in?”
“Ah! Reverend —— gone to Iskanderia. No can tell. Come back maybe three
day, maybe week,” and the black face grew so sorrowful with pity that I
hastened to leave, lest tears should begin to flow.
The German was awaiting me about four steps from the spot where he had
disappeared at a brisk walk.
“You’re back soon,” he said, “what luck?”
“He is not in.”
“Not in? Höllespein! Certainly he’s in! He never goes out before noon.
Do you think I’m a bungler at my profession? I know the hours of every
padre in Cairo, exactly, always! Who told you he was not in?”
“Was! Ein verdammter Schwartze? Herr Gott, aber du bist roh! Two days
looking for work, and you don’t know yet that every nigger servant will
tell you his master is out? Not in!”—and he burst forth in his
peculiarly silent, yet uproarious laughter.
A new light had broken in upon me. This, then, was the reason that of
some forty white men whom I had called on for employment, a bare dozen
had been at home? I left my companion to conquer his risibility alone,
and, hastening back to the rectory, brought the servant to the door with
a vicious ring.
“I’ve heard the Reverend —— _is_ in. I want to see him.”
There was no smile on the ebony face now. Even through the mask of black
skin one could see anger welling up, the blind rage of the Mussulman
against the hated unbeliever.
“I say Reverend —— not in!” snarled the servant, in hoarse sotto voce,
With a string of English oaths that spoke better of his linguistic
abilities than the influence of his master, he shut the door, quickly,
I pressed a finger against the electric button and kept it there. A
quick muffled patter of footsteps sounded inside, a whispered
imprecation came through the keyhole. My finger was growing numb. I
relieved it with a thumb without breaking the circuit.
“Go away,” growled the servant, fiercely, half opening the door, “go
way, damn you, I cut your neck”—and his speech did not end there. I
relieved my thumb with another finger. The murderous gleam in the Arab’s
eyes blazed forth more fiercely, then by a stern command of the will
changed to an appeal.
“My God, stop!” he begged.
“Is your master in Iskanderia?”
A cry of rage trembled on his lips and was forced back.
“No,” he snapped, throwing open the door.
I stepped inside and followed him along the hall. At the entrance to a
well-stocked library he turned to me with a hoarse whisper:—“Damn you!
Why for you ring bell? I make you full of holes—”
A light step sounded in the passage and a grey-haired English lady
stepped towards us.
“Yes, sir,” continued the Arab, without a pause, “master see you right
away, sir. Step inside, please, sir.”
“Maghmoód,” said the lady, “who was ringing the door bell so long?”
“Think button get stuck, lady, when gentleman push,” replied the Arab,
beaming upon me, “Shall I bring chocolate, lady?”
I sat down in the library and was joined almost at once by a sturdy,
well-groomed old gentleman—a Briton by every token.
“Have trouble in getting in?” he demanded abruptly, before I had spoken.
“Why—er—the servant thought at first you were not in,” I admitted.
“That rascal!” cried the minister, “I have dismissed ten servants since
I became secretary of the Society, for no other fault. Maghmoód knows
that it is my duty to keep open house during the morning; yet for some
reason I cannot fathom, an Arab domestic cannot bear the thought of
seeing his master give assistance of any kind to Europeans in
unfortunate circumstances. It is a servant problem that has often been
discussed among English residents; yet even the plumber and the
carpenter continue to be shut out from houses where they have been sent
for, unless they are well acquainted with native tricks.
“Now as to your case”—he needed no enlightenment as to my errand,
evidently—“you need clothes, of course. Ordinarily, I have several suits
on hand, sent by Englishmen in the city; but there has been such a run
of German tramps that I have nothing left. I shall have something before
long, surely. Meanwhile, I will give you a four-day ticket to the Asile
Rudolph, our Society building. What is your trade?”
“I have worked as carpenter, mason, blacksmith, stevedore—”
“Good! Good!” said the rector. “You should find work easily. If you
don’t, come back when your ticket runs out. I shall call Maghmoód up on
the carpet. Good-day, my man.”
I hastened to join the German.
“That’s good as a beginning,” he said, as I displayed the ticket, “It
shows you are on the trail, and you can work him for tickets for two or
three weeks. But I must get back to my desk. Follow this avenue to the
parade grounds; where you saw the Khedive’s guard drilling, you know.
The Asile is close by.”
[Illustration: An Arab café in Old Cairo]
In a side street in which sprawled and squalled native infants
uncountable, I tugged at a bell rope protruding from a stern brick wall,
and was admitted by a bare-legged Arab to the courtyard of the Asile
Rudolph. The superintendent, seated before the “office,” called for my
ticket. He was a sprightly Englishman, in the autumn of life, long a
captain in the Black Sea service, and still known to all as “Cap
Stevenson.” Around two sides of the court were the kitchen and
sleeping-rooms of the male inmates. Opposite the entrance towered the
Women’s Asile, a blank wall except for one window opening, through which
the English matron thrust her head at frequent intervals to berate the
captain, in a caustic falsetto, for the hilarity of his charges.
Among my new companions, some two score of ragged, care-free fellows who
had already gathered around the tables in the open air dining-room, the
German vagabond predominated. The French, Italian, and Greek tongues
were frequently heard, there were two or three castaways from the
British Isles; but as long as I remained at the Asile I was the sole
representative of the western hemisphere.
An Arab servant bawled out from the depths of the kitchen, and, as we
filed by the door, handed each of us a bowl of steaming soup and an
ample slab of bread. There was no French parsimoniousness about the
Asile Rudolph. Each bowl held a liberal quart—of something more than
discolored dishwater, too—and down at the bottom were three cubes of
meat. Never did a bowl appear during all the days that I wondered at the
audacity of the society’s butcher without exactly three such cubes, of
exactly the same size. To my companions they were the daintiest of
morsels. The best-dressed vagabond never dreamed of tasting his soup
until he had fished out this basic flesh and laid it on the table before
him to gloat over until he had finished his liquid refreshment. Once
gorged with soup, he sliced the cubes carefully, dipped the strips in
rock salt, and slowly munched them, one by one, in his eyes the far-away
look of keen enjoyment. As for myself, when I attempted to cut up my
first cube, it bounded away over my head and before I could turn around
to follow its flight had disappeared into the pocket of some
quicker-witted guest. I dismembered the second morsel with the
assistance of a fellow-boarder, and inflicted upon my teeth a piece of
convenient size. An hour later, I deposited the still undamaged delicacy
outside a factory gate at the further end of the city. When I turned out
to renew my search it was gone.
Thoughtful guests of the Society made provision during the noon-hour of
plenty for the twenty-four hours to come; for morning and evening
brought only coffee or tea, and bread. There was, however, something
more than bed and board in store for the lucky possessor of one of the
Reverend ——’s tickets—a shower bath! It was closed during the day, but I
was by no means the last to finish the evening meal, and, once inside
the wooden closet, it was only the protest that the stream could be used
to even better advantage among my companions that saved me from a watery
I began my fourth day’s search by applying at the office of the chief
owners of modern Egypt—Thomas Cook and Son. There is hardly a walk in
life, from the architect to the donkey-boy, that is not represented
among the employees of that great tourist agency. Somewhere in those
cosmopolitan ranks, I might find my place. I proffered my services to
the company as a sailor on their Nile steamers, as an unskilled workman
in any of their enterprises, as a man with a trade in the Bulak factory
where their floating palaces are constructed. Nothing came of it. In
desperation, I struck out in a struggle directly against the economic
law of labor, and, instead of dropping lower with each refusal, sought
to climb higher.
It was true, admitted the manager, that the company was in need of
clerks. It was still more in need of interpreters, and, to all
appearance, I was qualified for either position. “But—but—I’m sorry, old
chap,” and he looked sternly at my heelless slippers and ragged
corduroys, “but really, you won’t do, don’t you know. I can give you a
note to a well-known contractor—”
I accepted it with pleasure; for the name of Cook and Son, embossed at
the top of a letter of introduction, has great weight in Egypt. The
contractor to whom the note was addressed gave me—another. The addressee
of the second gave me a third. Two, three, four days, I spent in
delivering notes to the European residents of Cairo and waging battle
against her Islamite servant body. Night after night I returned to the
Asile with one stereotyped answer in my head:—
“I really haven’t anything I can put you at now. I’ll give you a letter
to ——. Are you on the rocks? Well, here, perhaps this dollar will help
you out. You don’t want it? Well, I’ll keep you in mind.”
The employers were divided into two classes: those who offered money as
the easiest means of getting rid of an unwelcome visitor, and those who
had been “on the rocks” themselves and protested against my refusal to
accept alms in the words of the water-works superintendent:—“Take it,
man, there is no harder work than looking for work; why not be paid for
it?” The strangest fact of all, one that impresses itself on the
out-of-work the world over, was the conviction of each that I should
easily find employment. “Why, to be sure,” exclaimed a superintendent of
shops in Bulak, “_we_ haven’t anything to offer just now; but a man with
your list of trades will certainly find work in Cairo in a few hours,
without the slightest trouble.” It would have been hard to convince him
that I had heard that same statement in a half-dozen languages a score
of times a day for a week past. Gradually the assertion of “the
comrades,” that he who would work in the Egyptian capital was an ass,
took on new force.
Rich or penniless, however, he who does not enjoy the winter season in
Cairo must be either an invalid, a prisoner, or an incurable pessimist.
Here one does not need to add to every projected plan, “weather
permitting.” The sojourner in the land of Egypt knows, as he goes to his
rest at night, that, whatever misfortune to-morrow may bring, it will be
lightened by joyous sunshine. Nor need the sans-sous lack entertainment
in this city of the Nile. One had but to stroll to the vicinity of the
Esbekieh Gardens to hear a band concert, to see some quaint native
performance, or to find some excitement afoot. At all hours of the day
those fortunate beings whose names graced the pages of Pia’s society
papers displayed their charms to the watching throng. At frequent
intervals the Khedive and his bodyguard thundered by. Now and then the
bellow of Cairo’s champion saïs heralded the approach of the Khedive’s
master, Lord Cromer. Nay, entertainment there was never lacking—merely
When my ticket ran out on the morning of the fourth day, I did not apply
at once for another. The evening before, the Greek proprietor of a
famous cigarette factory had promised me a position, had even explained
to me my probable duties as general porter in the establishment. But
when I had inveigled my way into the inner sanctum for the second time,
it was only to learn that a compatriot of the proprietor had applied
earlier in the morning, and was already at work. Not to be outdone by
his fellow-faranchees, the Greek offered me—a letter of introduction.
The hour of public audiences at the rectory was passed. The day,
moreover, was Saturday, a half-holiday among contractors. In the hope of
earning a night’s lodging by some errand, I joined the howling mob of
guides, interpreters, street-hawkers, and fakirs, before Shepherd’s
Hotel. I was the sole Frank in the gathering. Die Kameraden, whatever
their nationality, would have been transfixed with horror had they seen
one of their own patrician class competing with “niggers” for
employment. As a last resort, had “the business” been utterly outrooted
in Cairo, the members of “the union” might have consented to busy
themselves with some genteel occupation; but had gaunt starvation
squatted on his haunches in their path, they would never have stooped to
the work of natives.
My presence was soon noised through all the screaming multitude, and I
was cleverly “pocketed” by a dozen snake swallowers and sword jugglers,
and gradually forced towards the outskirts of the crowd. When I resorted
to force and beat my way to the front rank, I was little better off than
before. For two hours I watched the natives about me selling, begging,
running errands, or marching away to guide a tourist party through the
city; without once seeing a beckoning finger in answer to my own offers
of service. At frequent intervals, a lady appeared on the hotel piazza,
ran her eyes slowly over the front ranks, stared at me a moment, and,
summoning some one-eyed rascal beside me, sent him across the city with
a perfumed note. The ladies, certainly, were not to be blamed. It was so
much more romantic; there was so much more local color in one’s doings,
don’t you know, if one’s errands were run by a Cairene in flowing robes,
rather than by a tramp such as one could see at home any day in St.
Charles or Madison Square! What if one paid an exorbitant price for such
services? It was to a picturesque figure, don’t you know, whose English
was excruciatingly funny.
It is half disgusting, half pathetic, this ebb and flow of the
population of Egypt at the crook of a tourist finger. From the door, on
which every eye was fixed, emerged the blatant figure of a pompous
pork-packer, or the half-baked offspring of a self-made ancestry. With a
wild howl the mob rose en masse and surged forward, threatening to break
my ribs against the foot of the piazza. If the pork packer scowled, the
throng fell back like a receding tide. If the half-baked offspring
raised an eyebrow, the multitude swept on, tossing me far up the steps
into the arms of “buttons,” on guard against the besiegers below.
He was a coarse-grained cockney, this “buttons,” and, in carrying out
his orders to repel boarders, he was neither a respecter of persons nor
of his mother tongue. A score of times I was pushed down the steps I had
not chosen to ascend, with a violence and profanity out of all keeping
with racial brotherhood.
[Illustration: An abandoned mosque outside the walls of Cairo, and a
caravan off for Suez across the desert]
But every dog has his day. A sallow youth issued from the hotel and
called for a man to carry a letter. “Buttons” was already raising a hand
to point out a pock-marked Arab who had departed on four commissions
since my arrival, when the tidal wave of humanity set me on the piazza.
I shouted to the sallow youth just as “buttons” fell upon me. The youth
nodded. It was a long-sought opportunity. I reversed rôles with the
cockney and landed him in a picturesque spread-eagle on the heads of the
backsheesh-seeking multitude. Had he not been wont to use his influence
in favor of a very limited number of the throng, he would have been more
immaculate in appearance, when he was dug out by his pock-marked
confederate and restored to his coign of vantage. Meanwhile I had
received the letter and a five piastre piece in payment, and had
departed on my errand.
The coin paid my evening meal and a lodging for two nights in “the
union,” and left me coppers enough for a native breakfast. Sunday was no
time either to “forage,” or to visit rectors of the church of England.
In company with Pia, who would under no circumstances use his inventive
pen on the Sabbath, I visited those few corners of Cairo to which my
search had not yet led me; the Mohammedan University of El Azkar, the
citadel, and the ruined mosques beyond the walls.
When all other resources fail him, the Anglo-Saxon wanderer has one
unfailing friend in the East—Tommy Atkins. However penniless and
forlorn he may be, the glimpse of a red jacket and a monkey cap on a
lithe, erect figure, hurrying through the foreign throng, is certain
to give him new heart. Thomas has become a familiar sight in Cairo
since the days of the Arabi rebellion. Down by the Kasr-el-Nil bridge,
out in the shadows of the pencil-like minarets of Mohammed Ali’s
mosque, in parade grounds scattered through the city, he may be found
any afternoon perspiringly chasing a football or setting up his
wickets in the screaming sunlight, to the astonishment and delight of
a never-failing audience of apathetic natives. He doesn’t pose as a
philanthropist—simple T. Atkins—nor as a man of iron-bound
morality—rather prides himself, in fact, on his incorrigible
wickedness. But the case has yet to be recorded in which he has not
given up his last shilling more whole heartedly than the smug tourist
would part with his cigar band.
Thomas, however, has no overwhelming love for “furriners—Dutchmen,
dagoes, and such like.” It would be out of keeping with his profession.
That was why Pia, after pointing out to me the least public entrance to
the cavalry barracks, on this Sunday noon, strolled on down the street.
The officers’ dinner was already steaming when I was welcomed by the six
privates of that day’s mess squad. By the time it had been served, I was
lending the cooks able assistance in disposing of the plentiful
remnants, amid the stories and laughter of a red-coats’ messroom. Even
the bulging pockets with which I departed were less cheering than the
last bellow from the barrack’s kitchen:—“Drop in to mess any day, Yank,
till you land something. No bloody need to let your belly cave in while
there’s a khaki suit in Cairo.”
I was admitted to the library of the Reverend —— the following morning
without so much as a hinted challenge from Maghmoód. The good rector was
more distressed than surprised that I had not yet found work.
“The difficulty is right here,” he cried, as he made out a second Asile
ticket. “No one will hire you in those rags, if you have a dozen trades.
I must pick you up something that looks less disreputable. Come on
Wednesday. I shall surely have something to offer.”
I fished out the note of the Greek cigarette maker and bore greetings
from one European resident to another for two days more. On the third, I
returned to the rectory and received a bundle of astonishing bulk.
“These things may not all fit you,” said the rector, “but it is all we
have been able to collect.”
Red-eyed with hope, I hurried back to the Asile and opened the package.
Just what I should have represented in the garments that came to view I
have not yet concluded. On top was a pair of trousers, in excellent
condition, but of that screaming pattern of unabashed checks in which
our cartoonists are accustomed to garb bookmakers and Tammany
politicians. In texture, they were just the thing—for Arctic explorers,
and they resigned in despair some four inches above my Nazarene
slippers. Next came a white shirt, with a mighty expanse of board-like
bosom—and without a single button; then the low-cut vest of a dress
suit, and, lastly, a minister’s long frock coat, with wide, silk-faced
The first shock over, I bore the treasure back to the rectory. But the
good padre refused to unburden me. “Oh, I don’t want them around the
house!” he protested, “If you can’t wear them, sell them.” Even the
proprietor of “the union,” however, refused to come to my rescue. With
much cajoling, I lured an unsophisticated newcomer at the Asile inside
the vest and trousers, and intrusted the other garments to the
safe-keeping of Cap Stevenson.
The endless stream of notes, having its source at the office of Cook and
Son, flowed on unchecked. If my object had been merely to gain intimate
acquaintance with the Cairenes of all classes, I could not have chosen a
better method. No tourist, with his howling bodyguard of guides and
dragomans, ever peeped into half the strange corners to which my
wanderings led me. My command of Arabic, too, increased by leaps and
bounds; for the necessity of giving expression of my innermost thoughts
to the servant body of Cairo required an ever-increasing vocabulary.
The two-hundredth letter of introduction—if my count be not at
fault—took me to that ultra-fashionable world across the Nile. The
director of the Jockey Club read the latest epistle carefully, and, with
sportsman-like fairness, gave me another. The delivery thereof required
my presence in the great Gezireh Hotel. For once I was not even
challenged by the army of servants; the very audacity of my entrance
into those Elysian Fields left the astonished domestics standing in
petrified rows behind me. The superintendent was most kind. He gave me,
even without the asking, a letter of introduction! The curse of Cain on
him who invented the written character! My entire Cairene experience had
been bounded by this endless chain of notes through all the cycle of her
The new missive carried me back to Shepherd’s Hotel, and for once I
escaped employment by a hair’s breadth. The portly Swiss manager was
inclined to overlook the shortcomings in my attire. He needed a cellar
boy, could use another porter, or “you may do as a bell-boy,” he mused,
with half-closed eyes, “if—”
What vision was this? Might I aspire even to displace mine ancient
enemy, in all the splendor of two close rows of bright, brass buttons,
and pace majestically back and forth with the sang-froid of a lion
tamer, above the common horde I had so lately quitted? What folly to
keep silent concerning those acquirements that especially fitted me to
serve a cosmopolitan clientèle, while fickle fortune was holding forth
this golden prize! I broke in upon the manager’s brown study with a
deluge of German. He opened wide his eyes. I addressed him in French. He
sputtered with astonishment. I continued in Italian. He waved his hands
above his head like a swimmer about to go down for the third time. I
added a savoring of Spanish and Arabic for good measure, and he clutched
weakly at a hotel pillar.
Gradually, strength returned to his trembling limbs. He rubbed his
astonished gorge with a ham-like hand and dislodged an imprisoned
shriek:—“Aber, mein lieber Kerl! Speaking all those langvages and out of
a job—and in rhags! Why—you—you—you must haf been up to some crhooked
business, yes?” He glanced fearfully about him at the silver ornaments
of the office. “I—I—I am very sorry, we haf not now a single vacancy.
But—but you vill not haf the least trouble—mit so viel’ Sprachen—in
getting a position, not the slightest! I gif you a note—to Cook and
I wandered sadly away across the city and stumbled upon the American
legation. Long battle won me admittance to the office of the secretary.
Beyond that I could not force my way. The secretary heard my case, and,
eager to be off to some afternoon function, thrust an official sheet
into his typewriter and set forth in a “to-whom-it-may-concern” the
half-dozen trades I mentioned; and several others to which I had never
aspired. A second sheet he ruined with a score of addresses, and bade me
be gone. If there was any corner of Cairo from Heliopolis to Masr el
Attika which I had not already visited, these documents soon repaired
the oversight. Two days the new task required, and it brought no reward,
save one. The head of the Egyptian railway system promised me a pass to
the coast when I chose to leave the country. I did not choose at once,
and, returning on the third day to the legation, fought my way into the
sanctum of the consul-general himself.
“If you are looking for work of a specific character,” said that
gentleman, “I can do no more than has already been done—give you more
addresses. If you are merely looking for _work_, I can give you
employment at once.”
I pleaded indifference to qualifying adjectives.
The consul chose a card from his case, turned it over, and wrote on the
back:—“Tom;—Let Franck do it.”
“Take this,” he said, “to my residence; it is opposite that of Lord
Cromer, near the Nile, and give it to my butler.”
“Tom,” the commander-in-chief of the servant body of a vast
establishment, proved to be a young American of the pleasantest type. I
came upon him dancing blindly around the ballroom of Mr. Morgan’s
residence, and shouting himself hoarse with the Arabic variation of “Get
a move on!” The consul, it transpired, was to give a dinner, with
dancing, to the lights of society wintering in the city. In the two days
that remained before the eventful evening the ballroom floor must be
properly waxed. Twelve native workmen, lured thither by the
extraordinary wage of twenty-five cents a day, had been holding down the
aforementioned floor since early morning. About them was spread powdered
wax. In their hands were long bottles. Above them towered the dancing
“Put some strength into it,” he bellowed, by way of variation, as I
stepped across the room towards him. For the three succeeding strokes,
the dozen bottles, moving in unison, to the chant of a thirteenth
“workman” who had been hired to squat in a far corner and furnish vocal
inspiration, nearly crushed the powdered wax under them. But this
unseemly display of energy was of short duration.
I delivered the cabalistic message. The Arabs bounded half across the
room at sound of the shriek emitted by its addressee:—“I’ll fire ’em!”
bellowed Tom. “I’ll fire ’em _now_. An American? I’m delighted, old man!
Get on the job while I kick these niggers down the stairs. Had any
experience at this game?”
I recalled a far-off college gymnasium, and nodded.
“Take you’re own gait, only so you get it done,” cried the butler,
charging the fleeing Arabs.
I discarded the bottle process and rigged up an apparatus after the
fashion of a handled holly-stone. By evening, the polishing was half
completed. When I turned my attention to the dust-streaked windows, late
the next afternoon, the ballroom floor was in a condition that boded ill
for any but sure-footed dancers. The outbreak of festivities found me
general assistant to the culinary department, separated only by a
Japanese screen from the contrasting class of society; represented by
such guests as Lord Cromer and his youthful Lady, the ex-Empress
Eugenie, the Crown Prince of Sweden, and the brother of the Khedive.
Deeply did I regret the lack of inventiveness that forced me to report
to the sleepless inmates of the Asile to which Cap Stevenson admitted me
long after closing hours, that the conversation of so distinguished a
gathering had been commonplace, the dancing unanimated, and the flirting
By arrangement with Tom, I continued to “do it” long after the day of
the ball. The fare at the servants’ table was beyond criticism, but I
declined a blanket and a straw-strewn stall in the consul’s stable, and
retained my cot at the Asile at a daily cost of two piastres. As my
earnings grew, I repaired, one night, to the American Mission Hospital,
mounted to the third story, knocked on the first door to the right,
pushed it open, and astonished an aged missionary from Pittsburg out of
a night’s labor. One idle hour, too, I examined again the garments I had
left with Cap Stevenson and found them less useless than I had once
imagined. The shirt, being tied together, front and back, with string,
awoke the envy of all the “comrades.” For the bosom was of many layers,
and, as each one became soiled, I had but to strip it off, and behold!—a
clean shirt. When I had laid the bundle away again, it contained only
the minister’s frock coat.
Cap Stevenson had made a scientific study of the genus vagabundus that
enabled him to gauge with surprising precision the demands that would be
made on the Asile from day to day. There fell into my hands, one
evening, a Cairo newspaper, containing the following item:—
SUEZ, _February 2d, 1905_.
The French troop-ship ——, outward bound to Madagascar with five
hundred recruits, reports that while midway between Port Saïd and
Ismaïlia, in her passage of the canal, five recruits who had been
standing at the rail suddenly sprang overboard and swam for the
shore. One was carried under and crushed by the ship’s screw. The
others landed and were last seen hurrying away into the desert. All
concerned were Germans.
I entered the office to point out the item to the superintendent.
“Aye,” said Cap, “I’ve seen it. That’s common enough. They’ll be here
for dinner day after to-morrow.”
They arrived exactly at the hour named, the four of them, weather-beaten
and bedraggled from their swim and the tramp across the desert, but
supplied with the Reverend ——’s tickets. Two of the quartet were very
engaging fellows with whom I was soon on intimate terms. One of this
pair had spent some months in Egypt years before, after using the same
means to make the passage from Europe.
On the Friday after their arrival, this man of experience met me at the
gate of the Asile as I returned from my day’s labor.
“Heh! Amerikaner,” he began, “do you get a half holiday to-morrow?”
“Sure,” I answered.
“I’m going to take Hans out for a moonlight view of the Pyramids. It’s
full moon and all the tourist companies are sending out tally-ho
parties. Want to go along?”
I did, of course. The next afternoon I left the Asile in company with
the pair. At the door of the office, I halted to pay my night’s lodging.
[Illustration: Spinners in the sun outside the walls of Cairo]
[Illustration: Guests of the Asile Rudolph, Cairo. François, champion
beggar, in the center, in the cape he wore as part of his “system”]
“Never mind that,” said Adolph, the man of experience, “we’ll sleep out
“Eh?” cried Hans and I.
Adolph pushed open the outer gate, and we followed.
“Suppose you’ll pay our lodging at the Mena House?” grinned Hans, as we
crossed the Kasr-el-Nil bridge.
“Don’t worry,” replied Adolph.
We pushed through the throng of donkey boys beyond the bridge and,
ignoring the electric line that connects Cairo with the pyramids of
Gizeh, covered the eight miles on foot. Darkness fell soon after our
arrival, and with it rose an unveiled moon. The tourists were out in
force. Adolph led the way in and out among the ancient monuments and
pointed out the most charming views with the discernment of an
antiquarian. The desert night soon turned cold. The tourist parties
strolled away to the great hotel below the hill, and Hans fell to
“Where’s this fine lodging you’re telling about?” he chattered.
“Komm’ mal her,” said Adolph.
He picked his way over the tumbled blocks towards the third pyramid,
climbed a few feet up its northern face, and disappeared in a black
hole. We followed, and, doubled up like balls, slid down, down, down a
sharply inclined tunnel, some three feet square, into utter darkness. As
our feet touched a stone floor, Adolph struck a match. The flame showed
two small vaults and several huge stone sarcophagi.
“Beds waiting for us, you see?” said Adolph. “Probably you’ve chatted
with the fellows who used to sleep here? They’re in the British Museum,
He dropped the match and climbed into one of the coffins. I chose
another and found it as comfortable as a stone bed can be, though a bit
short. Our sleeping chamber was warm, somewhat too warm in fact, and
Hans, given to snoring, awoke echoes that resounded through the vaults
like the beating of forty drums. But the night passed quickly, and, when
our sense of time told us that morning had come, we crawled upward on
hands and knees through the tunnel and out into a sunlight that left us
blinking painfully for several moments.
A throng of tourists and Arabian rascals was surging about the
monuments. A quartet of khaki-clad Britishers kicked their heels on the
forehead of the Sphinx, puffing at their pipes as they exchanged the
latest garrison jokes. We fought our way through the clinging Arabs,
climbed to the summit of the pyramid of Cheops, took in the regulation
“sights,” and strolled back to Cairo.
Many a strange bit of human driftwood floated ashore in the Asile
Rudolph, but their stories would take too long in the telling. Yet no
account of that winter season in Cairo would be complete without mention
of “François.” François was, of course, a Frenchman, a Parisian, in
fact, and, contrary to the usual rule, it was he, and not a German, who
won and still holds the mendicant championship of Egypt. To all who
spoke French, he was known as the most loquacious and jolly lodger at
the Asile. The Reverend —— had long since turned him away from the door
of the rectory; but François would not be driven from his accustomed
bed, and paid his two piastres nightly.
As a young man the Frenchman had worked faithfully at his trade; he
admitted it with shame. Three years in the army, however, had awakened
within him an uncontrollable Wanderlust, and during the twenty-three
years since his discharge, he had tramped through every country of
Europe. He was a man of meager education and by no means the native
ability of Pia and many of the German colony. But long years before his
arrival in Egypt, he had evolved “un système” to which his fame as a
mendicant was due. The first part of this system concerned his personal
appearance. He was pale of complexion, though in reality very robust,
and he had trained his shoulders into a droop that suggested the last
stages of consumption. His garb, in general, was that of a French
workman, but over this he wore a cloak with a long cape that gave him an
aspect not unlike a monk, and, combined with his drooping shoulders and
sallow, long-drawn face, created a figure so forlorn as to attract
attention in any clime. Nothing, François asserted, had contributed so
much to his success as this cloak. Rain or shine, from the Highlands of
Scotland to the shores of the Black Sea, in the depth of winter or in
midsummer, he had clung to this garb for twenty years, replacing in that
time a dozen cloaks by others of identical design. Even in Egypt he
refused to appear in public without this superfluous outer garment, and,
though the African sun had turned the threadbare cape almost as yellow
as the desert sands, he was not to be separated from it until he had
picked up another in some charitable institution of the city.
The second part of François’s system was extremely simple. The method
which Pia so successfully manipulated was too complicated for a man of
little schooling; yet François rarely made a verbal appeal for alms. On
a score of cards, which he carried ever ready in a pocket of his cloak,
was written in as many languages this petition:—
“I am ill and in misery. Please help me.”
The French card was his own production. The others he had collected from
time to time as he made friends in the various countries he had visited.
For, with all his wanderings, François knew hardly a word of any
language but his own.
I set out with the French champion, one Sunday afternoon, to visit the
mosque of Sultan Hassan. Not far from the Asile gate, he caught sight of
a well-dressed man, whose appearance stamped him as a German. François
shuffled his cards with a hasty hand, chose the one in the corner of
which was written, in tiny letters, the word “allemand,” and set off at
a trot. Arrived within a few paces of his intended victim, he fell into
a measured tread, thrust out the card, and waited with sorrowful face
and hanging head. The German returned the card with a five-piastre
Cairo is nothing if not cosmopolitan, and it is doubtful if every one of
the cards did not make its appearance at least once during the
afternoon. American tourists, English officers, French entrepreneurs,
Greek priests, Italian merchants, Turkish clerks, Indian travelers, even
the Arab scribes sitting imperturbable beside their umbrella-shaded
stands,—all had the misery of François called to their attention.
Whether it was out of gratitude for a sight of the familiar words of his
native tongue, or out of pity for the abject creature who coughed so
distressingly and pointed to his ears like a deaf mute whenever a
question was put to him, rare was the man who did not give something.
François collected more than a hundred piastres during that single
promenade. Yet before we set out he had called me aside and drawn from
an inner pocket a purse that contained twenty-six English sovereigns in
But it was his method of dispensing his income that made the Frenchman
an enigma to his confidants. François neither drank nor smoked; he
rarely, if ever, indulged even in the mildest dissipation. Not far from
the Asile, he stopped at a café for his petit déjeuner of chocolate and
rolls and his morning paper; and, had he met the Khedive himself out for
a stroll, François would not have appealed to him before that breakfast
was over. He was strictly a union man, was François, in his hours of
But his daily expenditures were for bed and breakfast only. There were
scores of French chefs in Cairo, ever ready to welcome whomever knew the
kitchen door and the language of the cuisine. If his shoes wore out,
there were several French shops in the vicinity of the Esbekieh Gardens.
If he were in need of nothing more costly than a bar of soap, François
begged one of the first druggist he came upon. The sovereigns which
cosmopolitan Cairo thrust upon him were spent almost entirely for
souvenirs for his relatives in Paris. The most costly albums of Cairene
views, fine brass ware, dainty ornaments of native manufacturer were
packed in the bazaars and shipped away to those fortunate brothers,
sisters, and cousins of François in the French capital. Only once in
twenty-three years had he visited them, but few were the towns and
cities of all Europe the arts and manufactures of which were not
represented in that Parisian household. As a supplement to his gifts,
there came semi-annually a letter from François, announcing some new
success in his career as a traveling salesman.
One fine morning, some two weeks after my introduction to Tom, I vacated
my post in the consul’s household and set about laying plans for a
journey up the Nile. My wages had not been reckoned on the American
scale, but for all that I was a man of comparative affluence when I
turned off the Moosky for my last visit to the headquarters of “the
The German is nothing if not systematic, be he prime minister or errant
adventurer. The Teutonic tramp does not wander at random through lands
of which his knowledge is chaotic or nil. He profits by the experience
of his fellow-ramblers. If he covers an unknown route, he returns with a
notebook full of information for his fellows. Thanks to this method, the
German beggar colony of Cairo had long contained a bureau of information
to which many a vagabond of other nationality bewailed his linguistic
inability to gain access. The archives of “the union” were particularly
rich in Egyptian lore. For there is but one route in Egypt. He who has
once journeyed up or down the Nile, with open eyes, is an authority on
the whole country.
Several of die Kunde were romping about on as many vermin colonies when
I entered, on this February afternoon, the room in which Pia was
accustomed to pen his eleemosynary masterpieces. It was an informal and
chance gathering that included nearly every authority in “the union” on
the territory beyond the Tombs of the Mamelukes. My projected journey
awakened great interest in all the group.
“As for myself,” said Pia, “I can’t see why you go. Most of the comrades
do, of course, but they will make the journey worth while. As for a man
who will only work! Pah! You will starve and die in the sands up there.”
The emaciated door was kicked open and a burly young man entered and
threw himself across the foot of one of the cots.
“Ah, now,” Pia went on, “there is Heinrich. He is going up the Nile too,
in a few days. He’s been up six times already. Why don’t you go up with
him? He knows all the ropes and you, being an American—”
“Was!” roared the newcomer, “Ein Amerikaner? Going up the river? Shake,
mein lieber! We go up together! We’ll do more business—”
“But if I go up, I’ll spend considerable time sight-seeing—”
“Sights? There’s something I never could understand. All the tourists go
up to see _sights_! Thank the Lord they do; what would the business be
without them? But what the devil do they see? Hundreds of miles of dry,
choking sand, with nothing but dirty Nile water to wash it off your face
and out of your throat! A lot of smashed-up rocks, covered with pictures
of hens and roosters, all red hot under the cursed sun that never stops
blazing. And besides that, niggers—millions of dirty niggers, blind
niggers, and half-blind niggers who do nothing but crawl around after
decent white men and beg. That’s all there is in Egypt, if you go up the
Nile, till you come to the sudd-fields of Uganda.”
“Well what do you go up for?” I asked. Even this brief acquaintance with
Heinrich convinced me that he would die the death of a martyr rather
than disgrace die Kamaraden by working.
“What for? Why so I won’t starve, to be sure. If I could wiggle the
feather and paint like Otto there, I’d see hell freeze over before I’d
move a mile south of Cairo. But I can’t, so I must go over the
soft-hearted ones again. I’ve worked ’em pretty hard the last two years,
but the game’s good yet. I’ve grown this beard since the last trip, and
got a new story all bolstered up. I’m a civil engineer this time, with a
wife and three children here in Cairo. Going up, I’ll be making for the
Berber-Suakim line, after spending all I had on the kid’s doctor bills.
Coming down, it’s the fever story—that’s always good—or my wife is dying
and, if we can get her back to Hamburg before she croaks, she’ll get an
inheritance her uncle just left her. Pretty neat that, eh?” grinned
Heinrich, turning to his admiring mates. “Thought that out one night
when I couldn’t sleep. Brand new, isn’t it? Aber, Gott, mein lieber,” he
addressed me once more, “if you’ll only come along! I can’t speak
English, and most of the soft ones know my face. But I’ll point out
everyone of them from here to Assuan. I’ll lay low and we’ll share
[Illustration: A woman of Alexandria, Egypt, carrying two bushels of
oranges. Even barefooted market-women wear the veil required by the
[Illustration: On the top of the largest pyramid. From the ground it
looks as sharply pointed as the others]
I declined to enter into an offensive alliance against the “soft ones,”
however, and turned to Pia for the information which he had once
promised to give me. While he talked, every other lounger in the room
added his voice from time to time; and from deep wells of experience I
gleaned a long list of names, flanked by biographical details, as we
journeyed mentally up the river. This vagabond’s edition of “Who’s Who
in Egypt” completed, Pia laid down several rules of the road.
“I don’t see why you go up,” he began. “You can make a fortune right
here. If you are determined to go, get a good story and always stick to
it, changing it enough to fit different cases. Some, it will pay you to
ask for work—you know the breed; others, just ask for money. Take
anything they give you. You can sell it if you don’t want it. Always see
the big men long before train time. They will often offer to buy you a
ticket to wherever you want to go; and, if the train is soon due, they
may go to the station and buy it. But if you touch them long before
train time, they may give you the money and go back to business. Then
you can spend a couple of piastres to the next station and work that the
same way. The sugar factories are all good—they’ll even give you work,
perhaps, if you are fool enough to take it. Always hit the young
Englishmen. They’re almost all of them adventurers with nothing much to
do with their money. When you catch a missionary, make him take up a
collection for you among the native Christians. He must do it, by the
rules of the Board of Missions.
“The ticket game is always best. If you get three or four men in each
town to give you the price to Assiut or Assuan, you can make the trip in
a month and pick up good money. When you get a lot of silver, change it
at any of Cook’s offices into gold sovereigns and sew them up in your
clothes. Be sure not to let any money rattle when you’re spinning a
hard-luck yarn. And don’t be a fool, like some of the comrades who have
gone up for one trip. They pump a town dry, and, not satisfied to wait
until they hit Cairo again, go on a blow-out and lie around drunk for a
week where those who gave them ticket money can see them. That queers
the burg for the next six months. Of course you know enough to be of the
same church, and very pious, when you hit a missionary, and to be from
the same state when you touch an American? Above all never let a boat
load of tourists go by without touching them. Always go down to the dock
and make enough noise so that they all hear you. Some of the boys who
are good at it throw a fit when they get in a crowd of rich ones. But as
you talk English, a good tale of woe will do as well. When you get well
up the river, and a good tan, and a couple of weeks’ beard, spring the
old yarn of ‘lost my job and must get down to Cairo.’ And always wait
for a train. You’ll miss the whole game if you walk; and you’ll die of
In the face of Pia’s warning, I left Cairo on foot the next morning,
and, crossing the Nile, turned southward along a ridge of shifting sand
beyond the village of Gizeh. Along an irrigating ditch, that flanked the
ridge, scores of _shadufs_, those human paradigms of perpetual motion,
were ceaselessly dipping, dipping, the water that gives life to the
fields of Egypt. Between the canal and the sparkling Nile, groups of
fellahs, deaf to the blatant sunshine, set out sugar cane or clawed the
soil of the arid plain. On the desert wind rode the never-ceasing squawk
of the _sakka_, or Egyptian water-wheel.
Beyond the pyramids of Sakkara, I sought shelter in the palm groves that
cover the site of ancient Memphis, and took my siesta on the recumbent
statue of Rameses. A backsheesh-thirsty village rose up to cut off my
return to the sandy road, and forced me to run a gauntlet of
out-stretched hands. ’Tis the national anthem of Egypt, this cry of
backsheesh. Workmen at their labor, women bound for market, children
rooting in the streets, drop all else to surge after the faranchee who
may be induced to “sprinkle iron” among them. Even the unclothed infant
astride a mother’s shoulder thrusts forth a dimpled hand to the passing
white man with a gurgle of “sheesh.”
As darkness came on I reached the railway station of Mazgoona, some
thirty miles from Cairo. The village lay far off to the eastward; but
the station master invited me to supper and spread a quilt bed in the
A biting wind blew from the north when I set out again in the morning. A
hundred yards from the station, a cry of “monsoor” was borne to my ears,
and a servant summoned me back to his master’s office.
“I have just received a wire,” said the latter, “from the division
superintendent. He is coming on the next train. Wait and ask him for a
A half-hour later there stepped from the north-bound express, not the
grey-haired man I had expected, but a beardless English youth who could
not have been a day over twenty. It was a new experience to apply for
work to a man younger than myself, but I respectfully stated my case.
“I haven’t a vacancy on my division just at present,” said the boy.
“There is plenty of work in Assiut, though. Want to go that far south?”
[Illustration: “Along the way shadoofs were ceaselessly dipping up the
water that gives life to the fields of Egypt”]
[Illustration: The “Tombs of the Kings” from the top of the Libyan
range, to which I climbed above the plain of Thebes]
“Yes,” I answered.
He drew a card from his pocket and scribbled on it two fantastic Arabic
“Take the third-class coach,” he said, handing me the pass. “This covers
my division; but you might drop off in Beni Suef and look about.”
Following his advice, I halted near noonday at that wind-swept village.
There was no need to make inquiry for the European residents; they were
all duly recorded in the “comrades’ Baedeker.” As in Cairo, however,
they offered money in lieu of work, and clutched weakly at the nearest
support when I refused it. A young Englishman, inscribed in my notes as
“Bromley, Pasha, Inspector of Irrigation; quite easy,” gave me evening
rendezvous on the bank of the canal beyond the village. Long after dark
he appeared on horseback, attended by two natives with flaming torches,
and, being ferried across the canal, led the way towards his _dahabeah_,
anchored at the shore of the Nile.
“I fancied I’d find something to put you at,” he explained, as he turned
his horse over to a jet-black groom who popped up out of the darkness,
“but I didn’t, and the last train’s gone. I’ll buy you a ticket to
Assiut in the morning.”
“I have a pass,” I put in.
“Oh,” said the Englishman, “well, you’ll put up with me here to-night,
He led the way across the gangplank. The change from the bleak wastes of
African sand to this floating palace was as startling as if Bromley,
Pasha, had been possessor of Aladdin’s lamp. Richly-turbaned servants,
in spotless white gowns, sprang forward to greet their master; to place
a chair for him; to pull off his riding boots and replace them with
slippers; to slip the Cairo daily into his hands; and sped noiselessly
away to finish the preparation of the evening meal. Had Bromley, Pasha,
been a fellow countryman, I might have enjoyed the pleasure of his
company instead of dining alone in the richly-furnished anteroom. But
Englishmen of the “upper classes” are not noted for their democratic
spirit, and the good inspector, no doubt, dreaded the uncouth table
manners of a plebeian from half-civilized America.
Breakfast over, next morning, I returned to the village and departed on
the south-bound express. The third-class coach was densely packed with
huddled natives and their unwieldy cargo; all, that is, except the bench
around the sides, on which a trio of gloomy Arabs, denied the privilege
of squatting on the floor, perched like fowls on a roost. The air that
swept through the open car was as wintry as the Egyptian is wont to
experience. Only the faces of the males were uncovered. The women,
wrapped like mummies in fold after fold of black gowns, crouched utterly
motionless, well-nigh indistinguishable from the bundles of baggage.
Even the guard, wading through the throng, brought no sign of life from
the prostrate females; for their tickets were invariably produced by a
The congestion was somewhat relieved at the junction of the Fayoum
branch. The men who had reached their destination rose to their feet,
struggled to extricate their much-tied bundles, and rolled them over
their fellow travelers and down the steps. Not a female stirred during
this unwonted activity of her lord and master. When he had safely
deposited his more valuable chattels on the platform, he returned to
grasp her by the hand and drag her unceremoniously out the door.
Around the train swarmed hawkers of food. Dates, boiled eggs, baked
fish, oranges, and soggy bread-cakes, in quantity sufficient to have
supplied an army, were thrust upon whomever ventured to peer outside.
From the neighboring fields came workmen laden down with freshly cut
bundles of sugar cane, to give the throng the appearance of a forest in
motion. Three great canes, as long and unwieldy as bamboo fish rods,
sold at a small piastre, and hardly a native in the car purchased less
than a half-dozen. By the time we were off again, the coach had been
converted into a fodder bin.
The canes were broken into two-foot lengths, and each purchaser,
grasping a section in his hands, bit into it, and, jerking his head from
side to side like a bulldog, tore off a strip. Then with a sucking that
was heard above the roar of the train, he extracted the juice and cast
the pulp on the floor about him. At each station, new arrivals squatted
on the festive remnants left by their predecessors and spat
industriously at the valleys which marked the resting places of the
departed. The pulp dried rapidly, and by noonday the floor of the car
was carpeted with a sugar-cane mat several inches thick.
My pass ran out in the early afternoon, and I set off to canvass the
metropolis of upper Egypt. Several Europeans had already expressed their
regrets when, towards evening, I caught sight of the stars and stripes
waving over an unusually large building. I turned in at the gate and
made inquiry of a native grubbing in the yard.
“Thees house?” he cried, “you not know what thees is? Thees American
I drew out my notes. Beneath the name of the hospital appeared this
entry:—“Dr. Henry and Dr. Bullock, Americans; easy marks; very
“Come and see house,” invited the native. “Very beeg.”
He led the way to one side of the building, where nearly a hundred
natives, suffering with every small ailment from festered legs to
toothache, were huddled disconsolately about the office stairway.
“Thees man come get cured,” said my guide. “Thees not sick nuff go bed.
American Doctors very good, except”—and his voice dropped to a
whisper—“wants all to be Christian.”
The patients filed into the office, emerged with cards in their hands,
and crowded about the door of the dispensary. As the last emaciated
wretch limped away, a slender, middle-aged white man descended the
“Thees Dr. Henry,” whispered the native. “Doctor, thees man be
I tendered my letter of introduction from the American consulate.
“A mechanical engineer!” cried the doctor. “Fine! Just the man we are
looking for. Come with me.”
An engineer I was not—of any species. That profession had been forced
upon me by the carelessness of Mr. Morgan’s secretary. But there flashed
suddenly across my mind the saying of an erstwhile employer in
California:—“When you’re looking for work, never admit there’s anything
you can’t do.” I followed after the doctor.
At the rear of the establishment, Dr. Bullock and a well-dressed native
were superintending the labors of a band of Egyptians, grubbing about
the edge of a large reservoir.
“Now, here is the problem,” said the older man, when he had introduced
me to his colleague. “This reservoir is our water supply. It is filled
by the inundations of the Nile. But towards the end of the dry season
the water gets so low that our force-pump will not raise it. The native
engineer whom we have called in is a graduate of the best technical
school in Cairo. But—ah—er”—his voice fell low—“you know what natives
are? Now what do _you_ suggest?”
Compelled to spar for wind, I asked to be shown the pump and to have the
reservoir sounded. The native engineer hung on our heels, listening for
any words of wisdom that might fall from my lips. Fortunately, I had
once seen a similar difficulty righted.
“There are two possible solutions of the trouble,” I began, in an
authoritative voice, swinging round until the native appeared on the
edge of my field of vision. “The first is to buy a much more powerful
pump”—the native scowled blackly—“the second is to build a smaller
reservoir halfway up, get another small pump, and—er—relay the water to
the top.” The engineer was smiling blandly at the doctors’ backs. “Now
the first would be costly. The second requires only a few yards of pipe,
a cheap pump, and a bit of excavating.”
“Ah!” cried the native, rushing forward, “That is my idea exactly, only
I did not wish to say—”
“Bah!” interrupted Dr. Henry, “Your idea! Why don’t you fellows ever
have an idea until someone else gives you one? I’m glad. Dr. Bullock,
that we’ve got a man at last who—”
“Yes,” I repeated, “I should put in two pumps, by all means.”
“I’ll send in the order to Cairo to-night,” said the doctor. “Bring your
men in the morning, efendee, and set them to digging the reservoir. You
don’t need another man to help you on that, I hope?”
“You will find little work in Assiut, just now,” he went on, as we
entered the hospital. “By all means go to Assuan. There is employment
for every class of mechanic on the barrage. I suppose two dollars will
about cover your fee?” He dropped four ten-piastre pieces into my hand.
“But you must stay to supper with us. We have one bed unoccupied, too;
but three men have died in it in the past month, and if you are
“Not in the least,” I protested.
I rose long before daylight next morning, and groped my way to the
station. A ticket to Luxor took barely half my fee as consulting
engineer. At break of day, the railway crossed to the eastern bank, and
at the next station the train stood motionless while driver, trainmen,
and passengers executed their morning prayers in the desert sand.
Beyond, the chimneys of great sugar refineries belched forth dense
clouds of smoke, and at every halt shivering urchins offered for sale
the crude product of the factories, cone-shaped lumps, dark-brown in
The voice of the south spoke more distinctly with every mile. We were
approaching, now, the district where rain and dew are utterly unknown.
The desert grew more arid, the whirling sand finer, more penetrating.
The natives, already of darker hue than the cinnamon-colored Cairene,
grew blacker and blacker. The chilling wind of two days past turned
tepid, then piping hot, and, ere we drew into Luxor, Egypt lay, as of
old, under her mantle of densest sunshine.
[Illustration: A water-carrier of Luxor. A goatskin full costs one cent]
The tourist colony of Luxor, housed in two great faranchee hotels, would
be incomplete without a rendezvous for “the comrades.” Close by the
station squats a tumble-down shack, styled the “Hotel Economica,”
wherein, dreaming away his old age over a cigarette, sits Pietro
Saggharia. Pietro was a “comrade” once. His tales of “the road,” gleaned
in forty years of errant residence in Africa, and couched in almost any
tongue the listener may choose, are to be had for a kind word, even
while the exiled Greek is serving the forbidden liquor to backsliding
Mohammedans and the white wanderers who take shelter beneath his roof.
I left my knapsack in Pietro’s keeping and struck off for the great
ruins of Karnak. The society intrusted with the preservation of the
monuments of upper Egypt has put each important ruin in charge of a
guardian, and denies admittance to all who leave Cairo without a ticket
issued by the society. The price thereof is little short of a vagabond’s
fortune. I journeyed to Karnak, therefore, resolved to be content with a
view of her row of sphinxes and a circuit of her outer walls.
About the approach to the ancient palaces the seekers after backsheesh
held high court. Before I had shaken off the last screeching youth, I
came upon a great iron gate that shut out the unticketed, and paused to
peer through the bars for a glimpse of the much-heralded interior. On
the ground before the barrier squatted a sleek, well-fed native. He rose
and announced himself as the guard; but made no attempt to drive me off.
“You don’t see much from here,” he said, in Arabic, as I turned away.
“Have you already seen the temple? Or perhaps you have no ticket?”
“La, ma feesh,” I replied; “therefore I must stay outside.”
“Ah! Then you are no tourist?” smiled the native. “Are you English?”
“Aywa,” I answered, for the Arabic term “inglesi” covers all who speak
that tongue, “but no tourist, merely a workingman.”
“Ah,” sighed the guard, “too bad you are an inglesi then; for if you
spoke French, the superintendent of the excavations is a good friend of
workingmen. But he speaks no English.”
“Where shall I find him?”
“In the office just over the hill, there.”
I took the direction indicated, and came upon a temporary structure,
before which an aged European sat motionless in a rocking chair. About
him was scattered a miscellaneous collection of statues, broken and
“Are you the superintendent, sir?” I asked, in French.
The octogenarian frowned, but answered not a word. I repeated the
question in a louder voice.
“Va t’en!” shrieked the old man, grasping a heavy cane that leaned
against his chair and shaking it feebly at me. “Go away! You’re a
beggar. I know you are.”
Evidently the fourth layer of shirt bosom, uncovered specially for the
occasion, had failed in its mission. I pleaded a case of mistaken
identity. The aged Frenchman watched me with the half-closed eyes of a
cat, clinging to his stick.
“Why do you want to see the superintendent?” he demanded.
“To work, if he has any. If not, to see the temple.”
“You will not ask him for money?”
“By no means.”
“Bien! En ce cas—Maghmoód,” he coughed.
A native appeared at the door of the shanty.
“My son is the superintendent,” said the old man, displaying a grotesque
pattern of wrinkles that was meant for a smile. “Follow Maghmoód.”
The son, an affable young Frenchman attired in the thinnest of white
trousers and an open shirt, was bowed over a small stone covered with
hieroglyphics. I made known my errand.
“Work?” he replied, “No. Unfortunately the society allows us to hire
only natives. I wish I might have a few Europeans to superintend the
excavations. But I am always pleased to find a workman interested in the
antiquities. You are as free to go inside as if you had a ticket. But it
is midday now. How do you escape a sunstroke with only that cap? You had
better sit here in the shade until the heat dies down a bit.”
I assured him that the Egyptian sun had no evil effects upon me and he
stepped to the door to shout an order to the sleek gatekeeper just out
of sight over the hill. That official grinned knowingly as I appeared,
unlocked the gate, and, fending off with one hand several elusive
urchins, admitted me to the noonday solitude of the forest of pillars.
As the shadows began to lengthen, a flock of “Cookies” invaded the
sacred precincts, and, stumbling through the ruins in pursuit of their
shepherds, two dragomans of phonographical erudition, awoke the dormant
echoes with their bleating. With their departure, came less precipitous
mortals, weighed down under cameras and notebooks. Interest centered in
one animated corner of the enclosure. There, in the latest excavation,
an army of men and boys toiled at the shadufs that raised the sand and
the water which the sluiceways poured into the pit to loosen the soil.
Other natives, naked but for a loin-cloth, groped in the mud at the
bottom, eager to win the small reward offered to the discoverer of each
One such prize was captured during the afternoon. A small boy, half
buried in the ooze, suddenly ceased his wallowing with a shrill shriek
of triumph; and came perilously near being trampled out of sight by his
fellow-workmen. In a twinkling, half the band, amid a mighty uproar of
shouting and splashing, was tugging at some heavy object still hidden
They raised it at last,—a female figure in blue stone, some four feet in
length, which had suffered downfall, burial, and the onslaughts of the
Arab horde without apparent injury. The news of the discovery was
quickly carried to the shanty on the hill. In a great pith helmet that
gave him a striking resemblance to a walking toadstool, the
superintendent hurried down to the edge of the pit and gave orders that
the statue be carried to a level space, about which a throng of excited
tourists lay in wait with open notebooks. There it was carefully washed
with sponges, gloated over by the aforementioned tourists, and placed on
a car of the tiny railway system laid through the ruins. Natives, in
number sufficient to have moved one of Karnak’s mighty pillars, tailed
out on the rope attached to the car, and, moving to the rhythm of a
weird Arabic song of rejoicing, dragged the new find through the temple
and deposited it at the feet of the aged Frenchman.
As evening fell, I turned back to the Hotel Economica. Several
“comrades” had gathered, but neither they nor Pietro could give me
information concerning the land across the Nile, which I proposed to
visit next day. The Greek knew naught of the ruins of Thebes, save the
anecdote of a former guest, who had attempted the excursion and returned
wild with thirst, mumbling an incoherent tale of having floundered in
seas of sand.
“For our betters,” said Pietro, in the softened Italian in which he
chose to address me. “For the rich ladies and gentlemen who can ride on
donkeys and be guarded by many dragomans, a visit to Thebes is very
well. But common folk like you and I! Bah! We are not wanted there. They
would send no army to look for _us_ if we disappeared in the desert.
Besides, you must have a ticket to see anything.”
I drew from my pocket the folders of the Egyptian tourist companies. A
party from the Anglo-Saxon steamer, tied up before the temple of Luxor,
was scheduled to leave for an excursion to Thebes in the morning. What
easier plan than to shadow these more fortunate nomads?
Fearful of being left behind, I rose at dawn and hastened away to the
bazaars to make provision for the day—bread-cakes for hunger and oranges
for thirst. A native boatman, denied a fee of ten piastres, accepted
one, and set me down on the western bank. The shrill screams of a troop
of donkey boys, embarking their animals below the temple, greeted the
rising sun. Not long after their landing a vanguard of three veiled and
helmeted tourists stepped ashore, and, mounting as many animals, sped
away into the trackless desert. I followed them as swiftly as was
consistent with faranchee dignity until the last resounding whack of a
donkey boy’s stave came faintly to my ear; then sat down to await the
next section. The inhabitants of a mud village swooped down upon me,
and, convinced that I had fallen from my donkey, sought to force upon me
a score of wabbly-kneed beasts. My refusal to choose one of these “ver’
cheap, ver’ fine” animals was taken as an attempt at facetiousness,
which it was to their interests as prospective beneficiaries to roar at
with delight. When the supposed canard waxed serious, their mirth turned
to virulence, and I was in a fair way to be mounted by force when the
steamer party rode down upon us.
’Twas an inspiring sight. The half-mile train of donkeys that trailed
off across the desert was bestridden by every condition of Anglo-Saxon
from raw-boned scientists and diaphanous maidens to the corpulent
matrons and mighty masses of self-made men whose incessantly belabored
animals brought up the rear. I kept pace with the band and even
outstripped the stragglers. After an hour’s swift march, that left me
dripping with perspiration, the party dismounted to inspect a temple.
Gates were there none, and what two guardians could examine the tickets
of such a band all at once? I had satisfied my antiquarian tastes before
an observant dragoman pointed me out to the officials, and my consequent
exit gave me just the time needed to empty the sand from my slippers
before the cavalcade set off again.
[Illustration: The main entrance to the ruins of Karnak]
The sharp ascent to the Tombs of the Kings was more irksome to an
over-burdened ass than to a pedestrian. Even though the jeering donkey
boys succeeded in pocketing me in the narrow gorges, it was I who
carried news of the advancing throng to the gate of the mausoleum. A
native lieutenant of police was on hand to offer assistance to the
keeper against the unticketed. But the lieutenant spoke Italian, and was
so delighted to find that he could hold converse with me without being
understood by the surrounding rabble, that he gave me permission to
enter, in face of the gate tender’s protest.
Sufficiently orientated now to find my way alone, I took silent leave of
the party and struck southward towards a precipitous cliff of stone and
sand. To pass this barrier the bedonkeyed must make a circuit of many
miles. Clinging to crack and crevice, I began the ascent. Halfway up, a
roar of voices sounded from the plain below. I groped for a safer hand
hold and looked down. About the lieutenant at the foot of the cliff was
grouped the official party, gazing upward, confirmed now, no doubt, in
their earlier suspicion that I was some madman at large. Before their
circuit of the mountain had well begun, I had reached the summit above
the goal from which they were separated by many a weary mile.
The view that spread out from the rarely visited spot might well have
awakened the envy of the tourists below. North and south, unadorned by a
vestige of verdure, stretched the Lybian range, deep vermilion in the
valleys, the salient peaks splashed blood-red by the homicidal sunshine.
Below bourgeoned the plain of Thebes, its thick green carpet weighted
down by a few fellaheen villages and the ponderous playthings of an
ancient civilization. As the eye wandered, a primeval saying took on new
meaning:—“Egypt is the Nile.” Tightly to the life-giving river,
distinctly visible in this marvelous atmosphere for a hundred miles,
clung the slender land of Egypt, a spotless ribbon of richest green,
following every contour of the Father of Waters. All else was but a
limitless sea of yellow, choking sand.
I descended to the Tomb of Queen Hatasu and spent the afternoon among
the ruins on the edge of the plain. Arriving alone and unannounced, I
had little difficulty in entering where I chose. For were the guardian
not asleep, I had only to refuse to understand his Arabic and his
excited gestures, until I had examined each monument to my heart’s
content. I had passed the Colossi of Memnon before the tourists, jaded
and drooping from a day in the saddle, overtook me, and I made headway
against them to the bank of the river. There they shook me off, however.
The dragomans in charge of the party snarled in anger when I offered to
pay for the privilege of embarking in the company boat. There was
nothing else to do, much as I rebelled against the recrimination, but to
be ferried over with the donkeys.
I departed, next day, by the narrow-gauge railway to Assuan, and reached
that watering place of the first cataract in time to grace the afternoon
concert. Pietro’s retreat is the last of the chain. Nearly six hundred
miles, now, from the headquarters of die Kunde, I was reduced again to a
native inn and the companionship of a half-barbaric horde. It was no
such palace as housed my fellow-countrymen on Elephantine Island; but
the bedroom on the roof was airy, and the bawling of a muezzin in the
minaret above summoned forth no other faranchee to witness the gorgeous
birth of a new day.
Some miles beyond Assuan lay the new barrage, where work was plentiful.
Just how far, I could not know; still less that it was connected with
the village by rail. From morning until high noon, I clawed my way along
the ragged cliffs overhanging the impoverished cataract, ere I came in
sight of the vast barrier that has robbed it of its waters. Among the
rocks of what was once the bed of the Nile, sat a dozen wooden shanties.
From the largest, housing the superintendent, came sounds of revelry out
of all keeping with the gigantic task at hand. It transpired, however,
that this was no ordinary dinner-hour festival. I had arrived, as so
often before, mal à propos.
“Work?” gurgled the superintendent, handing back my papers, “The bloody
work is off the slate, Yank.”
Was it the Egyptian sun that had made him so merry? Perhaps. But there
was more than one bottle, blown with the name of Rheims, scattered in
the sand before the hut.
“Yesh,” confided the Englishman, “she’s all over, old cock. We’re goin’
down in the morning. A few dago masons and the coolies will mess about a
few weeks more; but all these lads are, hick—‘Sailin’ ’ome to merry
England; never more to roam,’” and his voiced pitched and stumbled over
the well-known melody. “But the man that comes up to work in this
murderin’ sun should be paid for it, boys, even if it’s only a bloomin’
intention. ’Ere, lads, pass the ’at for the Yank. ’E can’t go ’ome
to-mor—” but I was gone.
I was still the proud possessor of fifty piastres. That sum could not
carry me down to the Mediterranean; for the fare by train to Cairo was
sixty-five, and the steamer rate of forty-five did not include food.
Moreover, ’tis the true vagabond spirit to push on until the last
resource is exhausted; and what a reputation I might win among the Kunde
by outstripping the best weaver of Märchen among them!
The railway was ended, but steamers departed twice a week from Shellal,
above the barrage. At the landing a swarm of natives were loading a
dilapidated barge, and a native agent was dozing behind the bars of a
home-made ticket office.
“Yes,” he yawned, in answer to my query, “there is to-night leaving
steamer. Soon be here. The fare is two hundred and fifty piastres.”
“Two hun—” I gasped. “Why, that must be first-class.”
“Yes, very first class. But gentleman not wish travel second class?”
“Certainly not. Give me a third-class ticket.”
The Egyptian fell on his feet and stared at me through the grill.
“What say gentleman? Third-class! No! No! Not go third-class.
Second-class one hundred and eighty piastres, very poor.”
“But there _is_ a third-class, isn’t there?”
“Third-class go. Forty piastres. But only for Arabs. White man never go
third-class. Not give food, not give sleep, not ride on steamer; ride on
barge there, tied with steamer with string. All gentlemen telling me
must have European food. Gentlemen not sleep with boxes and horses on
barge? Very Arab; very stink—”
“Yes, I know; but give me a third-class ticket,” I interrupted, counting
out forty piastres.
The native blinked, sat down dejectedly on his stool, and, with a sigh
of resignation, reached for a ticket. Suddenly his face lighted up and
he pushed my money back to me.
“If white man go third-class,” he crowed, “must have pass of Soudan
gover’ment. Not can sell ticket without.”
“But how can I get a pass before I am in the Soudan?”
“There is living English colonel with fort, far side Assuan.”
I hurried away to the railway station. The fare to Assuan was a few
cents, and one train ran each way during the afternoon. But it made the
up-trip first! I struck out on the railroad, raced through Assuan, and
tore my way through the jungle to the fort, three miles below the
village. A squad of khaki-clad black men flourished their bayonets
uncomfortably near my ribs. I bawled out my errand in Arabic, and an
officer waved the sentinels aside.
“The colonel is sleeping now,” he said; “come this evening.”
“But I want a pass for this evening’s steamer.”
“We cannot wake the colonel.”
“Is there no one else who can sign the order?”
“Only the colonel. Come this evening.”
Order or no order, I would not be red-taped out of a journey into the
Soudan. I readjusted my knapsack and pranced off for the third time on
the ten-mile course between Assuan and Shellal. Night was falling as I
sped through the larger village. When I stepped aside for the
down-train, my legs wobbled under me like two pneumatic supports from
which half the air had escaped. The screech of a steamboat whistle
resounded through the Nile valley as I came in sight of the lights of
Shellal. I broke into a run, falling, now and then, on the uneven
ground. The sky was clear, but there was no moon and the night was black
despite the stars. The deck hands were already casting off the shore
lines of the barge, and the steamer was churning the shallow water. I
pulled off my coat, threw it over my head, after the fashion in which
the fellah wears his gown after nightfall, and, thus slightly disguised,
dashed towards the ticket office.
“A ticket to Wady Haifa,” I gasped in Arabic, striving to imitate the
apologetic tone of an Egyptian peasant. For once I saw a native move
with something like haste. The agent glanced at the money, snatched a
ticket, and thrust it through the bars, crying: “Hurry up, the boat is
go—” but the white hand that clutched the ticket betrayed me. The agent
sprang to the door with a howl, “Stop! It’s the faranchee! Come back—”
I caught up my knapsack as I ran, made a flying leap at the slowly
receding barge, and landed on all fours under the feet of a troop of
The Arab who stood grinning at me as I picked myself up was evidently
the only man on the craft who had witnessed my hurried embarkation. He
was dressed in native garb, save for a tightly buttoned khaki jacket.
His legs were bare, his feet thrust into low, red slippers. About his
head was wound an ample turban of red and white checks, on either cheek
were the scars of three long parallel gashes, and in the top of his
right ear hung a large silver ring.
[Illustration: The Egyptian fellah dwells in a hut of reeds and mud]
The scars and ring announced him a Nubian; the jacket, a corporal of
cavalry; the bridle in his hand, custodian of the horses; and any
blockhead must have known that he answered to the name of Maghmoód. We
became boon companions, Maghmoód and I, before the journey ended. By
night we shared the same blanket; by day he would have divided the
contents of his saddlebags with me, had not the black men who trooped
down to each landing with baskets of native food made that sacrifice
unnecessary. He spun tales of his campaigns with Kitchener in a
clear-cut Arabic that even a faranchee must have understood, and, save
for the five periods each day when he stood barefooted at his prayers,
was as pleasant a companion as any denizen of the western world could
When morning broke I climbed a rickety ladder to the upper deck. It was
so densely packed from rail to rail with huddled Arabs that a poodle
could not have found room to sit on his haunches. I mounted still higher
and came out upon the roof of the barge, an uncumbered promenade from
which I could survey the vast panorama of the Nile.
Its banks were barren, now. The fertile strips of green, fed by the
shaduf and the sakka, had been left behind with the land of Egypt.
Except for a few tiny oases, the aggressive desert had pushed its way to
the very water’s edge, here sloping down in beaches of softest sand,
there falling sheer into the stream in rugged, verdureless cliffs. Yet
somewhere in this yellow wilderness a hardy people found sustenance. Now
and then a peasant waved a hand or a tattered flag from the shore, and
the steamer ran her nose high up on the beach to pick up the bale of
produce he had rolled down the slope. With every landing a group of
tawny barbarians sprang up from a sandy nowhere to slash from the
gorgeous sunlight fantastic shadows as black as their own leathery
On the level with my promenade deck was that of the first-class
passengers. There were no English-speaking travelers among them. Half
the party were priests of the Eastern Church, phlegmatic, robust men in
long black gowns and a headdress like an inverted “stovepipe,” beneath
which a tangled thicket of hair and beard left barely more than nose and
eyes visible. The laymen, evidently, were of the same faith. They took
part in the religious services, and their speech was redundant with the
softened S of modern Greek.
Maghmoód, perhaps, betrayed my confidences. At any rate, the
oily-skinned Armenian who accosted me from the steamer in execrable
French knew more of my affairs than I had told to anyone but the
“My friends have been wondering,” he began, abruptly, “how you will find
work in the Soudan if you have not money enough to go to Khartum, where
the work is? We are all going to Khartum. The venerable patriarch there,
with the longest beard, is the head of our church in Africa, going there
to look after the Greeks. You should come too.”
Several times during the afternoon, he returned to ply me with
questions. As we halted before the cliff-hewn temple of Abu Simbel, I
descended to the lower deck to pose Maghmoód for a picture. He had just
called up Mecca, however, and before he deigned to notice my existence,
a voice sounded above me:—“Faranchee, taala hena.” I looked up to see
the servant of the Armenian beckoning to me from the upper deck.
“All the cabin passengers have been saying,” maundered the master, when
I reached the roof of the barge, “that you must get to Khartum. We were
about to take up a collection to buy you a ticket when the venerable
patriarch showed us a better plan. He is in need of a servant who can
write English and French. Of course, he is very rich, like all the head
patriarchs, and he will, perhaps, pay you much. If he does not need you
when he gets to Khartum, there is plenty of work there. Come with me to
The “venerable patriarch” spoke only his native tongue. One of his
attendant priests, however, was well versed in Italian, and through him
his chief dictated a letter to the English mudir of Wady Halfa, and a
second to the French consul at Assiut. Neither epistle contained matter
of international importance. I half suspected that my employment was
little more than charity in disguise; yet the Greek assured me that my
services were indispensable. Who knows? But for the force of
circumstances, I might still be gracing the suite of the patriarch of
We tied up at Wady Halfa after nightfall. The first man to cross the
gang plank was an English officer bearing an order forbidding any one to
land. A telegram from Assuan announced the outbreak of the plague, and
the steamer was to be held in quarantine.
A loud-voiced protest rose from the Greeks. The train to Khartum was to
depart soon, and the service is not hourly in the Soudan. A swift
correspondence took place between the steamer and the mudiria. The
priests were permitted to disembark. The laymen revolted against such
discrimination and were soon released. Within a half-hour, the
second-class passengers followed after them; and, with no man of
influence left on board, the steamer slipped her moorings and tied up in
the middle of the river at the foot of the second cataract.
We were landed early next morning and the Armenian, in company with
three Greek residents, met me at the top of the bank.
“The patriarch has made this man your guardian,” he explained, pointing
to one of his companions. “He is keeper of the Hotel Tewfekieh. He has
your third-class ticket to Khartum, and you will live with him until you
It was then Thursday morning. The next train was scheduled to leave on
Saturday night. In two days I had more than exhausted the sights of Wady
Halfa, and time hung heavily on my hands. Until my meeting with the
Greeks, I had never dreamed of proceeding beyond the second cataract.
The sun-baked city of Omdurman teemed with interest, perhaps; but a
sweltering two-day journey across the desert was no pleasant
anticipation. Moreover, half my allotted time had already passed, and my
trip around the globe was by no means half completed. Unfortunately, my
worldly wealth, if it was my own, was tied up in a bit of cardboard in
the possession of my host. It was a small fortune, too, more than ten
dollars. Had I been the possessor of half that amount, I should have
turned back to Port Saïd forthwith. The good patriarch, certainly, would
shed no tears of regret if I failed to appear before him on Tuesday
morning. My “guardian,” too, always spoke of the ticket as _my_
property, and would, no doubt, relinquish it if I could offer a
reasonable excuse for turning back. But I could not, and who should say
that the railway company would refund the money if I could.
I had, therefore, resolved to carry out the plan as first proposed,
when, one afternoon, a native soldier broke in on my musing and summoned
me to the office of the commissioner of customs.
“I hear you’re going to Khartum,” said that official. “You know you must
have a pass from the mudir. Thought I’d tell you so you wouldn’t get
held up at the last moment. The mudiria is closed now, but as soon as it
opens, you can get a pass all right.”
“Hope not,” I muttered, as I turned away.
The next morning a servant in a turban of daring color-scheme ushered me
into the office of Governor Parsons, Pasha, raised his palms to his
forehead, and withdrew. The mudir was a slight, yet sturdy Englishman of
that frank, energetic type which the British government seems singularly
fortunate in choosing as rulers of her dependencies abroad. My
application for a pass awakened within him no suspicion of my real
desire. He jotted down my answers on the official blank before him as if
this granting of permission to ragged adventurers to enter a territory
so lately pacified were but a part of his daily routine.
“Name? Birthplace? Nationality? Age? Profession?” He read the questions
in a dispassionate voice that quickly dispelled my hope of having the
official ban raised against me. “Purpose in going to Khartum? Probable
length of stay?”
Oh, well, it did not matter. There would be a satisfaction in having
penetrated so far into Africa, and I could trust to fortune to bring me
“I see no reason to refuse you a passport,” said the mudir, in his
deliberate, clear-cut enunciation. “By the way, one other question which
the law requires me to ask. Of course you have sufficient means to
support yourself in Khartum, or to pay your way down again?”
“I’ve got three piastres,” I answered, striving to conceal the joy
“What! No more?”
He turned the paper meditatively in his fingers.
“As a rule, we do not grant passports to those who may by any chance
find themselves unprovided for. It is a precaution necessary for the
protection of the individual, for Khartum is a far-call from
civilization. But then, I am not going to keep you back if you wish to
go. I have an infinite faith, justified by years of observation, in the
ability of a sailor, especially a young chap, to take care of himself.”
He pressed his official seal on a red pad and examined it intently.
Fate, evidently, was bent on sending me to Khartum. I resolved to take a
more active hand in the game.
“Well, a couple of chaps I was talkin’ with in Wady give the place a
tough name, too, sir,” I began. “You see, I didn’t know that when I was
down below, and since then I’ve been thinkin’, sir, that it would be a
bad port to get on the beach in.”
“And these Greeks, are you certain they will employ you? Did they give
“They didn’t give no address, sir, only said they was goin’ to Khartum.
I was thinkin’ it would be better to get down to Port Saïd and ship out,
instead of goin’ up. But the ticket’s already bought, sir, an’—”
[Illustration: Arab passengers on the Nile steamer. Except for their
prayers, they scarcely move once a day]
[Illustration: The Greek patriarch whose secretary I became—temporarily]
“Oh,” smiled the mudir, “that will offer no difficulty. It is a
government railway and I can give you a note to the A. T. M., requesting
him to refund you the price of the ticket. On the whole, after what you
have said, I think I had better refuse you a pass.”
He tore up the blank slowly and, pulling out an official pad, wrote an
order to the railway official. I tucked it in my pocket and returned to
“What’s the matter?” cried the Armenian, as I sat down with sorrowful
face in a corner of the pool room.
“The mudir has refused me a pass to Khartum,” I sighed.
“Refused you a pass?” echoed the Armenian, turning to the Greeks that
had gathered around us.
Cries of sympathy sounded on all sides.
“Never mind,” purred the interpreter, patting me on the shoulder,
“Khartum isn’t much and the patriarch will get along somehow without
“Yes, but there’s no work here to earn my fare down the river.”
The remark precipitated a long debate. At last, the interpreter turned
to me with a smiling face.
“We have it!” he cried. “As the mudir has refused you permission,
perhaps he will refund you the price of the ticket if you go and ask
him? That will be enough—”
“But the ticket isn’t mine,” I protested.
“Not yours?” cried the Armenian, “what nonsense! Of course it’s yours.
Whose else is it? The patriarch didn’t pay you anything else for your
work! Certainly, it’s your ticket.”
He took it from the sad-eyed hotel keeper and thrust it into my hand.
“Now run over to the mudiria and ask the governor if he can’t fix it so
you can get the money back.”
I ran—past the mudir’s office and into that of the traffic manager. He
was a young Englishman of the type of those who, according to Pia, “have
nothing much to do with their money.”
“Do you think,” he asked, as he handed me the price of the ticket, “that
two quid will carry you down to Port Saïd?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“I’m afraid it won’t,” he went on; “better have another quid.”
He thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out a handful of gold.
“No, I’m fixed all right,” I protested.
“Go ahead, man; take it,” he insisted, holding out a sovereign. “Many a
one I’ve had shoved on me when I was down and out.”
“No, I’m all right,” I repeated.
“Well, here,” said the manager; “I’m going to make you out a check on my
bank in Cairo for a couple of quid. I think you’ll need it. If you
don’t, chuck it in the canal and no harm done. We chaps never want to
see a man on the rocks, you know.”
He filled out the check as he talked, and, in spite of my protest,
tucked it into one of my pockets. I acknowledged my thanks; but months
afterward I scattered the pieces of that bit of paper on the highway of
Late that night I departed from Wady Halfa, reaching Assuan on Monday
morning. On the following day I boarded the steamer _Cleopatra_, of the
Cook Line, as a deck passenger, and drifted lazily down the Nile for
five days, landing here and there with the tourists of the upper deck to
visit a temple or a mud village. At the Asile Rudolph, Cap Stevenson
welcomed me with open arms, but “the union” was wrapped in mourning.
Pia, the erudite, had departed, no man knew when nor whither. The end of
the Cairo season was at hand. All its social favorites were turning
their faces towards other lands. I called on the superintendent of
railways to remind him of his promise, and, armed with a pass to Port
Saïd, bade the capital farewell.
As the American “hobo” studies the folders of the railway lines, so the
vagrant beyond seas scans the posters of the steamship companies. Few
were the ships plying to the Far East whose movements I had not followed
during that Cairene month of February. On the journey from Ismaïlia to
the coast we passed four leviathans, gliding southward through the canal
so close that we could read from the windows of the train the books in
the hands of the passengers under the awnings. The names on every bow I
knew well. Had I not, indeed, watched the departure of two of these same
ships from the breakwater of Marseilles? Yet what a gulf intervened
between me, crawling along the edge of the desert, and those fortunate
mortals, already eastward bound! Gladly would I have exchanged places
with the most begrimed stoker on board.
Had I been permitted to choose my next port, it should have been Bombay.
He who is stranded at the mouth of the Suez Canal, however, talks not of
choice. He clutches desperately at any chance of escape, and is content
to be gone, be it east or west, on any craft that floats. Not that ships
are lacking. They pass the canal in hundreds every week. But their crews
are yellow men, or brown; and their anchorage well out in the stream,
where plain Jack Tar may not come to plead his cause.
All this I recalled, and more, as I crawled through the African desert
behind a wheezing locomotive. But one solemn oath I swore, ere the first
hovel bobbed up across the sand—that, be it on coal barge or raft, I
should escape from this canalside halting-place before her streets and
alleys became such eyesores as had once those of Marseilles.
It was high noon when we drew into Port Saïd, and I hurried at once to
the compound behind the Catholic monastery. I was just in time. Even as
I laid my knapsack on the ground and lined up with the rest, the Arab
servant issued from the kitchen with those same battered tins in which
he had served us months before. Barely had he disappeared again when
three of the company swooped down upon me. One I had known at the Asile
Rudolph. The second—cheering prospect!—was that identical sun-bleached
Boer who had squatted against the wall of the “Home” on the early
December morning of my first Egyptian day; in those identical
weather-beaten garments which he still inhabited. The third I did not
recognize. He was a portly German whose outward appearance stamped him
as a successful weaver of Märchen, and he spread his squat legs and
gazed at me for some time with what appeared to be an admiring grin
before he spoke.
“Sie sprechen Deutsch, nicht wahr?” he began. “You, perhaps, haven’t
seen me, but I saw you in Jerusalem. You were making pictures with a
photograph machine.” A roar of laughter set his fat sides to shaking.
“Donner und Blitzen! I have been on the road a good twenty years; I know
about every game die Kunde play. But that certainly is the best I ever
fell upon. Ach, what a story! I’ve been telling them of the comrade with
the photograph machine ever since, die Kunde, and it’s a tale they never
try to beat. Herr Allah, dass ist, aber, gut!” and he bellowed with
mirth until the Arab servant, to whom hilarity in one accepting alms was
the height of impudence, threatened to summon the black policeman
outside the gate.
The dinner over, I left my bundle with the Maltese youth and hurried
away to the shipping quarter. As I anticipated, the demand for sailors
was nil. The situation was most graphically described, perhaps, by the
“A man on the beach in this garbage heap,” he testified, “is down and
out. He had better be sitting with the penguins on the coast of
Patagonia. We haven’t signed on a sailor since I was dumped here. If you
ever make a get-away, it will be by stowing away. I can’t advise you to
do it, of course; but if I was in your shoes, I’d stick away on the
first packet homeward bound, and do it quick, before summer comes along
and sends you to the hospital. The skippers are tickled to death to get
a white sailor, anyway, for these niggers are not worth the rice the
company feeds ’em. You’re welcome to tumble up these office stairs every
morning, if you like, but I’m not going to promise to look out for
anything for you. I’d only lose my lamps a’ doing it.”
I returned to the Home at nightfall, and shared the kitchen—but not the
cupboard—with the Boer. Early the next morning, I reached the
water-front in time to see a great steamer nosing her way through the
small craft that swarmed about the mouth of the canal. Her lines looked
strangely familiar. Had I not known that the _Warwickshire_ was due in
Liverpool on this first day of March, I should have expected to see my
former messmates peering over the rail of the new arrival. I made out
the name on her bow as she dropped anchor opposite the main street, and
turned for information to a nearby poster.
[Illustration: S.S. _Worcestershire_ of the Bibby Line, on which I
stowed away after taking this picture]
[Illustration: Oriental travelers at Port Saïd]
“Bibby Line,” ran the notice, “_S. S. Worcestershire_. Recently
launched. Largest, best equipped, fastest steamer plying between England
and British Burma. First-class passengers only. Fare to Colombo,
A sister ship of the vessel that had rescued me from Marseilles! The
very sight of her was reminiscent of the prime roasts we had been wont
to serve the fishes of the Mediterranean. I hastened to the landing
stage and accosted the officers as they disembarked, with the tourists,
for a run ashore.
“Full up, Jack,” answered one of them.
I recalled the advice of the American consul. A better craft to “stick
away on” would never drop anchor in the canal. Bah! How ludicrous the
notion sounded! The Khedive himself could not even have boarded such a
vessel, in sun-bleached corduroys and Nazarene slippers. By night, with
no moon? The blackest night could not hide such rags! Besides, the
steamer was sure to coal and be gone within a couple of hours. I trained
my kodak upon her, and turned sorrowfully away.
A native fair was in full swing at the far end of the town. Amid the
snake-charmers and shameless dancers, the incident of the morning was
soon forgotten. Darkness was falling when I strolled back towards the
harbor. At the shop where spitted mutton sold cheaply, I halted for
supper; but the keeper had put up his shutters. No doubt he was sowing
his year’s earnings among the gamblers at the fair. Hungrily I wandered
on, turned into the main street of the European section, and stopped
stock still, dumb with astonishment. The vista beyond the canal was
still cut off by the vast bulk of the _Worcestershire_!
What an opportunity—if once I could get on board! Perhaps I might! In
the terms of the paddock, it was “a hundred-to-one shot;” but who could
say when better odds would be chalked up? A quartermaster was almost
sure to halt me at the gang plank. Some palpable excuse I must offer him
for being rowed out to the steamer. If only I had something to be
delivered on board, a basket of fruit, or—shades of Cairo!—of course—a
letter of introduction!
Breathlessly, I dashed into the Home, snatched a sheet of paper and an
envelope from the Maltese youth, and scribbled an appeal for employment,
in any capacity. Having sealed the envelope against the prying eyes of
subordinates, I addressed it in a flourishing hand to the chief steward.
But my knapsack? Certainly I could not carry that on board! I dumped the
contents on the floor and thrust the kodak and my papers into an inside
pocket. There was nothing else—but hold! That bundle at the bottom? The
minister’s frock coat, of broadcloth, with wide, silk-faced lapels! What
kind fairy had gainsaid my reiterated threats to throw away that useless
garment? Eagerly I slipped into it. The very thing! With my unshaven
face and bleached legs in the shadow, I could rival Beau Brummel
himself. Many an English lord, touring in the East, wears a cap after
“Scrape that stuff together for me,” I bawled, springing past the
Maltese youth. “If I don’t turn up within a week, give ’em to the
The _Worcestershire_ was still at anchor. Two Arab boatmen squatted
under a torch on one corner of the landing stage. The legal fare was six
pence. I had three. It cost me some precious moments to beat down one of
the watermen. He stepped into his felucca at last and pushed off
cautiously towards the rows of lighted portholes.
As we neared the steamer, I made out a figure in uniform on the lowest
step of the ship’s ladder. The game was lost! I might have talked my way
by a quartermaster, but I certainly could not pass this bridge officer.
The boatman swung his craft against the ladder with a sweep of the oar.
I held up the note:
“Will you kindly deliver this to the chief steward? The writer wants an
answer before the ship leaves.”
“I really haven’t time,” apologized the mate. “I’ve an errand ashore and
we leave in fifteen minutes. You can run up with it yourself, though.
Here, boatman, row me over to the custom wharf.”
I sprang up the ladder. Except for several sahib-respecting Lascars, who
jumped aside as I appeared, the promenade deck was deserted. From
somewhere below came the sound of waltz music and the laughter of merry
people. I strolled leisurely around to the port side and walked aft in
the shadow of the upper cabins. For some moments I stood alone in the
darkness, gazing at the reflection of the lower portholes in the canal.
Then, a step sounded at the door of the saloon behind me, a heavy
British step that advanced several paces and halted. One could almost
feel the authority in that step; one could certainly hear it in the
gruff “ahem” with which the newcomer cleared his throat. An officer, no
doubt, about to order me ashore! I waited in literal fear and trembling.
A minute passed, then another. I turned my head, inch by inch, and
peered over my shoulder. In the shaft of light stood a man in faultless
evening attire, gazing at me through the intervening darkness. His dress
suggested a passenger; but the very set of his feet on the deck proved
him no landsman. The skipper himself, surely! What under officer would
dare appear out of uniform during a voyage?
I turned my head away again, determined to bear the impending blow with
fortitude. The dreaded being cleared his throat once more, stepped
nearer, and stood for a moment without speaking. Then a hand touched me
lightly on the sleeve.
“Beg pahdon, sir,” murmured an apologetic voice; “beg pahdon, sir, but
’ave you ’ad dinner yet? The other gentlemen’s h’all been served, sir.”
I swallowed my throat and turned around, laying a hand over the place
where my necktie should have been.
“I am not a passenger, my man,” I replied haughtily; “I have a
communication for the chief steward.”
The flunky stretched out his hand.
“Oh, I cawn’t send it, you know,” I protested. “I must deliver it in
person, for it requires an answer before the ship leaves.”
“Lord, you can’t see _’im_,” gasped the Briton; “we’re givin’ a ball and
’e’s in the drawrin’-room.”
The sound of our voices had attracted the quartermaster on duty. Behind
him appeared a young steward.
“You’d best get ashore quick,” said the sailor; “we’re only waitin’ the
fourth mite. Best call a boatman or you’ll get carried off.”
“Really!” I cried, looking anxiously about me, “But I must have an
answer, you know.”
“I couldn’t disturb _’im_,” wheezed the older steward.
“Well, show me where he is,” I protested.
“Now we’re off in a couple o’ winks,” warned the quartermaster.
“’Ere, mite,” said the youth; “I’ll take you down.”
I followed him to the deck below and along a lighted passageway. My
disguise would never stand the glare of a drawing-room. I thrust the
note into the hands of my guide.
“Be sure to bring me the answer,” I cautioned.
He pushed his way through a throng of his messmates and disappeared into
the drawing-room. A moment later he returned with the answer I had
“So you’re on the beach?” he grinned, “you sure did get it on Clarence,
all right. ’Ard luck. The chief says the force is full an’ the company
rules don’t allow ’im to tyke on a man to work ’is passage. Sye, you’ve
slipped your cayble, anyway, ayn’t you? We’re not ’ome-ward bound; we’re
going out. You’d best rustle it an’ get ashore.”
He turned into the galley. Never had I ventured to hope that he would
let me out of his sight before he had turned me over to the
quartermaster. His carelessness was due, no doubt, to his certainty that
I had “slipped my cayble.” I dashed out of the passageway as if fearful
of being carried off; but, once shrouded in the kindly night, paused to
peer about me.
There were a score of places that offered a temporary hiding; but a
stowaway through the Suez Canal must be more than temporarily hidden. I
ran over in my mind the favorite lurking places on ocean liners. Inside
a mattress in the steerage? First-class only. In the hold? Hatches all
battened down. On the fidleys or in the coal bunkers? Very well in the
depth of winter, but sure death in this climate. In the forecastle?
Indian crew. In the rubbish under the forecastle head? Sure to be found
in a few hours by tattle-tale natives. In the chain locker? The anchor
might be dropped anywhere in the canal, and I should be dragged
piecemeal through the hawse-hole.
Still pondering, I climbed to the spot where I had first been accosted.
From the starboard side, forward, came the voice of the fourth mate,
clambering on board. In a few moments officers and men would be flocking
up from below. Noiselessly, I sprang up the ladder to the hurricane
deck. That and the bridge were still deserted. I crept to the nearest
lifeboat and dragged myself along the edge that hung well out over the
canal. The canvas cover was held in place by a cord that ran alternately
through eyeholes in the cloth and around iron pins under the gunwale. I
tugged at the cord for a minute that seemed a century before I succeeded
in pulling it over the first pin. After that, all went easily. With the
cover loosened for a space of four feet, I thrust my head through the
opening. Before my shoulders were inside my feet no longer reached the
ship’s rail. I squirmed in, inch by inch, after the fashion of a
swimmer, fearful of making the slightest noise. Only my feet remained
outside when my hand struck an oar inside the boat. Its rattle could
have been heard in Cairo. Drenched with perspiration, I listened for my
discoverer. The festive music, evidently, engrossed the attention of the
entire ship’s company. I drew in my feet by doubling up like a
pocketknife, and, thrusting a hand through the opening, fastened the
cord over all but one pin.
The space inside was more than limited. Seats, casks, oars, and
boat-hooks left me barely room to stretch out on my back without
touching the canvas above me. Two officers brushed by, and mounting to
the bridge, called out their orders within six feet of me. The rattle of
the anchor chain announced that the long passage of the canal had begun.
When I could breathe without opening my mouth at every gasp, I was
reminded that the shop where spitted mutton sold cheaply had been
closed. Within an hour, that misfortune was forgotten. The sharp edge of
the water cask under my back, the oars that supported my hips, the seat
that my shoulders barely reached, began to cut into my flesh, sending
sharp pains through every limb. The slightest movement might send some
unseen article clattering. Worst of all, there was just space sufficient
for my head while I kept my neck strained to the utmost. The tip of my
nose touched the canvas. To have stirred that ever so slightly would
have sent me packing at the first canal station.
The position grew more painful hour by hour, but with the beginning of
the “graveyard” watch my body grew numb and I sank into a half-comatose
state that was not sleeping.
Daylight brought no relief, though the sunshine, filtering through the
canvas, disclosed the objects about me. There came the jabbering of
strange tongues as the crew quarreled over their work about the deck.
Now and then, a shout from a canal station marked our progress.
Passengers mounting to the upper deck brushed against the lifeboat in
their promenading. From time to time confidential chats sounded in my
All save the officers soon retreated to the shade below. In the arid
desert through which we were steaming that day must certainly have been
calorific. But there, at least, a breeze was stirring. By four bells,
the Egyptian sun, pouring down upon the canvas, had turned my hiding
place into an oven. By noon, it resembled nothing so cool and
refreshing. A raging thirst had long since put hunger to flight. In the
early afternoon, as I lay motionless on my grill, there sounded the
splash of water, close at hand. Two natives had been sent to wash the
lifeboat. For an hour they dashed bucketful after bucketful against it,
splashing, now and then, even the canvas over my head.
The gong had just sounded for afternoon tea when the ship began to rock
slightly. A faint sound of waves breaking on the bow succeeded. A light
breeze moved the canvas ever so little and the throb of the engines
increased. Had we passed out of the canal? My first impulse was to tear
at the canvas and bellow for water. But had we left Suez behind? This,
perhaps, was only the Bitter Lakes? Or, if we had reached the Red Sea,
the pilot might still be on board! To be set ashore now was a fate far
more to be dreaded than during the first hours of my torture, for it
meant an endless tramp through the burning desert, back to Port Saïd.
I held my peace and listened intently for any word that might indicate
our whereabouts. None came, but the setting sun brought relief, and
falling darkness found my thirst somewhat abated. The motion of the ship
lacked the pitch of the open sea. I resolved to take no chances with
victory so close at hand.
With night came the passengers, to lean against the boat and pour out
confidences. How easily I might have posed as a fortune-teller among
them during the rest of the voyage! A dozen schemes, ranging from an
enthusiastic project for the immediate evangelization of all the Indias
to the arrangement of a tiger-hunt in the Assam hills, were planned
within my hearing during that motionless evening. But the sound of music
below left the deck deserted, and I settled down to the less humiliating
occupation of listening to the faint tread of the second mate, who paced
the bridge above me.
An hour passed. Other thoughts drove from my memory the secrets that had
been forced upon me. Suddenly, there sounded a light step and a
frou-frou of skirts, suggestive of ballroom scenes. Behind came a
heavier tread, a hurried word, and a ripple of laughter. Shades of the
prophet! Why must every pair on board choose that particular spot to
pour out their secrets? Because a man and a maid chanced to pause where
I could hear their lightest whisper, was I to shout a warning and tramp
back to starve in the alleyways of Port Saïd? I refused the sacrifice,
and for my refusal, heard many words—and other sounds. The moon was
beautiful that night—I know, though I did not see it. A young English
commissioner had left his island home two weeks before, resolved to
dwell among the hills of India in a bungalow alone—that, too, I know,
though I saw him not. Yet he landed with other plans, plans drawn up and
sealed on the hurricane deck of the _Worcestershire_ in the waning hours
of the second of March; amid many words—and other sounds.
The night wore on. Less fearful, now, of discovery, I moved, for the
first time in thirty hours, and, rolling slowly on my side, fell asleep.
It was broad daylight when I awoke to the sounding of two bells. The
ship was rolling in no uncertain manner. I tugged at the cord that bound
down the boat cover and peered out. For some moments barely a muscle of
my body responded to the command of the will. Even when I had wormed
myself out I came near losing my grip on the edge of the boat before my
feet touched the rail. Once on deck, I waited to be discovered. The
frock coat lay in the lifeboat. No landlubber could have mistaken me for
a passenger now.
Calmly, I walked aft and descended to the promenade deck. A score of
bare-legged Lascars were “washing down.” Near them, the sarang, in all
the glory of embroidered jacket and rubber boots, strutted back and
forth, fumbling at the silver chain about his neck. I strolled by them.
The low-caste fellows sprang out of my way like startled cats. Their
superior gazed at me with a half-friendly, half-fawning smile. If they
were surprised, they did not show it. Probably they were not. What was
it to them, if a sahib chose to turn out in a ragged hunting-costume for
an early promenade? Stranger things than that they had seen among these
enigmatical beings with white skins. Unfortunately the _Worcestershire_
was a bit too cumbersome or I might have carried it off before my
presence on board was suspected.
Some time I paced the deck with majestic tread without catching sight of
a white face. At last a diminutive son of Britain clambered unsteadily
up the companionway, clinging tenaciously to a pot of tea. “Here, boy,”
I called; “who’s on the bridge, the mate?”
“Yes, sir,” stammered the boy, sidling away; “the mite, sir.”
“Well, tell him there’s a stowaway on board.”
“Wat’s that, sir? You see, sir, I’m a new cabin boy, on me first trip—”
“And you don’t know what a stowaway is, eh?”
“If you’ll run along and tell the mate, you’ll find out soon enough.”
The boy made his way aft, clutching, now and then, at the rail, and
mounted to the upper deck. Judging from the grin on his face as he came
running back, he had added a new word to his vocabulary.
“The mite says for you to come up on the bridge, quick. ’E’s bloody
I climbed again to the hurricane deck. The mate’s sanguinary choler had
so overcome him that he had deserted his post and waited for me at the
foot of the bridge ladder. He was burly and lantern-jawed, clad in the
négligé of early morning in the tropical seas; bareheaded, barefooted,
his hairy chest agap, his duck trousers rolled up to his knees, and a
thick tangle of dishevelled hair waving in the wind. With the ferocious
mien of an executioner, he glared at me in utter silence.
“I’m a sailor, sir,” I began; “I was on the beach in Port Saïd. I’m
sorry, sir, but I had to get away—”
The mate gave no other sign of having heard than to push his massive jaw
“There was no chance to sign on there, sir. Not a man shipped in months,
sir, and it’s a tough place to be on the beach—”
“What the holy hell has that got to do with me and my ship!” roared the
officer, springing several yards into the air and descending to shake
his sledge-hammer fist under my nose. “You —— ——, I’ll give you six
months for this directly we get to Colombo. You’ll stow away on my ship,
will you? Get to hell down off this deck before I brain you with this
bucket, you —— ——,” but his subsequent remarks, like his attire, were
for early morning use, and would have created a even greater furor in
that vicinity, a few hours later, than his bare legs.
Not certain to what quarter of the _Worcestershire_ the nautical term
applied, I started forward. Another bellow brought me to a halt.
“You —,” but never mind the details. The new order, expurgated, amounted
to the information that I was to wait in the waist until the captain had
I descended, snatched a draught of tepid water at the pump, and leaned
against the port bulwarks. Too hungry to be greatly terrified, I had
really taken new heart at the mate’s threat. “Colombo” he had said.
Until then I had feared the _Worcestershire_, like most East-Indiamen,
would put in at Aden; and unwelcome passengers, turned over to the
British governor there, were invariably packed off on the first steamer
to Port Saïd.
An hour, two hours, three hours, I stood in the waist, returning the
stares of every member of the ship’s company, Hindu or English, whose
duties or curiosity brought him to that quarter. With the sounding of
eight bells a steward returned from the galley with a can of coffee.
Once started, an endless procession of bacon, steaks, and ragoûts filed
by under my nose. To snatch at one of the pans would have been my
undoing. I thrust my head over the bulwarks, where sea breezes blew, and
stared at the sand billows of the Arabian coast. Not until the denizens
of the “glory-hole” had returned to their duties did I venture to turn
around once more. “Peggy,” the stewards’ steward, peered furtively out
“Eh! Mite,” he whispered; “’ad anythink to eat yet?”
“Well, come inside. There’s a pan o’ scow left to dump.”
Very little of it was dumped that morning.
I had barely returned to my place when four officers descended the
starboard ladder to the waist. They were led by the mate, immaculate
now, as the rest, in a snow-white uniform. His vocabulary, too, had
improved. A “sir,” falling from his lips, singled out the captain. My
hopes rose at once. The commander was the exact antithesis of his first
officer. Small, dapper, almost dainty of figure and movement, his
iron-gray hair gave setting to a face in which neither toleration nor
authority had gained the mastery.
With never a sign of having seen me, the officers mounted the poop
ladder and strolled slowly aft, examining as they went. “Peggy” appeared
at the door of the “glory-hole” with a dish cloth in his hands.
“Morning h’inspection,” he explained, in a husky whisper; “they’ll be
back on the port side directly they’ve h’inspected the poop. The little
cuss’s the old man, Cap Harris, commodore in the Nyval Reserve. ’E’s all
“Hope he lives out the voyage,” I muttered.
“The fat, jolly chap’s the chief steward,” went on “Peggy.” “Best man on
the ship. The long un’s the doctor.”
A stowaway takes no precedence over any other apparatus on board ship
that needs regulating. After their reappearance in the waist the
officers halted several times within a few feet of me to scrutinize some
article of the steamer’s equipment. When the scuppers had been ordered
cleaned and the pump had been pronounced in proper sanitary condition,
the mate turned to the captain and pointed an accusing finger at me:—
“There he is, sir.”
“Ah,” said the skipper. “What was your object, my man, in stowing
yourself away on this vessel?”
I began the story I had attempted to tell the first officer. The captain
heard it all without interruption.
“Yes, I know,” he mused, when I had finished. “Port Saïd is a very
unfortunate place to be left without funds. But why did you not come on
board and ask permission to work your passage?”
What stowaway has not heard that formula, even though the inquirer has
refused that permission a dozen times during the voyage?
“I did, sir!” I cried, “That’s just what I did! I brought a letter to
the chief steward. That’s how I come on board, sir.”
“That’s so!” put in the “fat jolly chap” eagerly; “he sent a note to me
in the drawing-room the night of the ball. But I sent back word that my
force was full.”
“I see,” pondered the captain. “You’re the first man that ever stowed
away on a vessel under my command,” he went on, almost sadly; “you make
yourself liable to severe punishment, you know?”
“I’d put him in irons and send him up, sir,” burst out the mate.
“N-no,” returned the skipper, “that wouldn’t be just, Dick. You know
Port Saïd. But you know you will have to work on the voyage,” he added,
turning to me.
“Why, certainly, sir,” I cried, suddenly assailed with the fear that he
might see, through my coat, the kodak that contained a likeness of his
“You told the chief officer you were a sailor, I believe?”
“A. B., sir—and steward.”
“Have you anything you can put him at, Chester?”
“I’ve more than I can use now,” replied the heavy-weight.
“Beg pardon, sir,” put in the mate, “but the chief engineer says he can
use an extra man down below.”
He was a kindly fellow, was the mate. Not only was the stoke hole an
inferno in that latitude, but the Hindu firemen would never have ceased
gloating over the sahib who had been sentenced to the degradation of
working among them.
“No! No!” answered the commander; “The man is a sailor and a steward. He
is not a stoker. You had better take him on deck with you, Dick.”
He started up the ladder; but the mate loathed to acknowledge himself
defeated. He made a sign to the doctor.
“Stick out your tongue,” commanded Sangrado, suddenly.
“Does that look as if he had been without food for forty-eight hours?”
demanded the mate.
What he hoped to prove by the question I could not fathom. It would
never do to incriminate “Peggy,” and I kept silent. The leech shrugged
“Huh,” muttered the mate, “I know what I’d do with him if I was in
“Take him on deck with you, Dick,” repeated the captain, from above.
“And his accommodation?” put in the chief steward.
“There are a few berths unoccupied in the quarters of your men, are
“Two or three, I believe.”
“Give him one of those and increase the mess allowance by one. Get
something to eat now, my man, and report to the chief officer, forward,
when you have finished.”
“I’ll send you down a couple of cotton suits,” whispered the chief
steward, as he labored up the ladder; “you’ll die of the plague with
that outfit on.”
I lingered in the “glory-hole” long enough to have eaten breakfast and
hurried forward. The mate, scowling, began a rapid-fire of questions, in
the hope of tangling me up in a contradictory story. The attempt failed.
“Box the compass,” he snarled, suddenly.
I did so. For an hour he subjected me to a severe nautical examination
without any startling satisfaction.
“Umph!” he growled at last, “Take that holly-stone with the handle”—it
weighed a good thirty pounds—“and go to polishing the poop. You’ll work
every day from six in the morning until seven at night, with a half-hour
off for your mess. From four to six in the morning and from eight to ten
at night, you’ll stand look-out in the crow’s-nest and save us two
Lascars. On Sunday you’ll stand look-out from four to eight, nine to
twelve, two to seven, and eight to ten. Look lively, now, and see that
the poop deck begins to shine when I come aft.”
Without a break, I continued this régime as long as the voyage lasted.
Having once imposed his sentence upon me, the mate rarely gave me a
word. Less from fear of his wrath than of a leer of satisfaction on his
rough-hewn face, I toiled steadily at the task he had assigned. The
holly-stone took on great weight, but the privilege of viewing every
tropical sunrise and sunset from the crow’s-nest I would not have
exchanged for a seat at the captain’s table. My messmates were
good-hearted, their chief ever eager to do me a kindly service. The
Hindu crew took vast joy in my fancied degradation, and those intervals
were rare when a group of the brown rascals were not hovering over me,
chattering like apes in the forest, and grinning derisively. But the
proudest man on board was the sarang; for it was through him that the
mate sent me his mandates. Since the days when he rolled naked and
unashamed on the sand floor of his natal hut on the banks of the Hoogly,
the native boatswain had dreamed of no greater bliss than to issue
commands to a sahib.
Ten days the _Worcestershire_ steamed on through a motionless sea, under
a sun that waxed more torrid every hour. The “glory-hole” became
uninhabitable. Men who had waded through the snow on the docks of
Liverpool two weeks before took to sleeping on the deck of the poop, in
the thinnest of garb. With the smell of land in our nostrils, the
good-night chorus was sung more than once on the eleventh evening, and
our sleep was brief. Before darkness fled I had climbed again to my
coign of vantage on the foremast. The first gray of dawn revealed the
dim outline of a low mountain range, tinged with color by the unborn
sunrise behind it. Slowly the mountains faded from view as the lowlands
rose up to greet us. By eight bells we were within hailing distance of a
score of brown-black islanders, unburdened with clothing, who paddled
boldly seaward in their outrigger canoes. The _Worcestershire_ found
entrance to a far-reaching breakwater, and, escorted by a great school
of small craft, rode to an anchorage in the center of the harbor. A
multitude swarmed on board, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and in the
resulting overthrow of discipline I left my stone where the mess-call
had found it, and hurried below to make up my “shore bundle.” By the
kindness of the chief steward, I was amply supplied with cotton suits.
The frock coat, still in the lifeboat, I willed to “Peggy,” and reported
to the captain. His permission granted, I tossed my bundle into the
company launch, and, with one English half-penny jingle-less in my
pocket, set foot on the verdant island of Ceylon.
Difficult, indeed, would it be to choose a more striking introduction to
the wonderland of the Far East than that egg-shaped remnant left over
from the building of India. How incomplete and lusterless seems the
picture drawn by the anticipating imagination when one stands at last in
the midst of its prolific, kaleidoscopic life! Sharp and vivid are the
impressions that come crowding on the traveler in jumbled, disordered
succession, and he experiences a confusion such as comes with the first
glance at a great painting. He must look again and again before the
underlying conception stands out clearly through the mass of unfamiliar
It would have been strange if the white man of peripatetic mood had not
found his way to this Eden of the eastern seas. Within ten minutes of my
landing I was greeted by a score of “beachcombers” gathered in the black
shade under the portico of a large government building. In garb, they
were men of means. It costs nothing worth mentioning to keep spotless
the jacket and trousers of thinnest cotton that make up the wardrobe of
the Indias. More than their sun-baked faces, their listless movements
and ingrown indolence betrayed them as “vags.” Those of the band who
were not stretched out at full length on the flagging of the veranda
dangled their feet from the encircling railing or leaned against the
massive pillars, puffing lazily at pipe or cigarette. On the greensward
below, two natives sat on their heels before portable stands, rising now
and then to pour out a glass of tea for the “comber” who tossed a Ceylon
cent at their feet.
Theoretically, the party had gathered to seek employment. The morning
hour, since time immemorial, had called the exiles together in the shade
of the shipping office to lay in wait for any stranger, the “cut of
whose jib” stamped him as a captain. “Shipping,” however, was dull.
Imbued with the habit, “the boys” continued to gather, but into their
drowsy yarning rarely intruded the fear of being driven forth from this
Now and again some energetic member of the band rose to peer through the
open door of the shipping office; yet retreated hastily, for a roar as
of an angry bull was the invariable greeting from within. When courage
came, I ventured to glance inside. A burly Englishman, as nearly naked
as a mild sense of propriety permitted, lay on his back in a reclining
chair, on the arm of which he threw a mass of typewritten sheets every
half-minute, to mop up the perspiration that poured down his rotund face
and hairy chest in spite of the heavy velvet _punkahs_ that swung slowly
back and forth above him.
“Shippin’ master,” volunteered a recumbent Irishman behind me. “But
divil a man dast disturb ’im. If you valy your loife, kape out of ’is
At noonday the office closed. The beachcombers wandered languidly away
to some other shaded spot, and seeking refuge from the equatorial sun in
a neighboring park, I dreamed away my first day’s freedom from the
holly-stone. A native runner roused me towards nightfall and thrust into
my hands a card setting forth the virtues of “The Original and
Well-Recognized Sailors’ Boarding House of Colombo, under Proprietorship
of C. D. Almeida.” It was a two-story building in the native quarter of
Pettah, of stone floor, but otherwise of the lightest wooden material.
The dining-room, in the center of the establishment, boasted no roof.
Narrow, windowless chambers of the second story, facing this open space,
housed the seafaring guests.
Almeida, the proprietor, was a Singhalese of purest caste. His white
silk jacket was modestly decorated with red braid and glistening brass
buttons. Beneath the folds of a skirt of gayest plaid peeped feet that
had never known the restraint of shoes, the toes of which stood out
staunchly independent one from another. For all his occupation he clung
stoutly to the symbols of his social superiority—tiny pearl earrings and
a huge circle comb of celluloid. Fate had been unkind to Almeida. Though
his fellow-countrymen, with rarely an exception, boasted thick tresses
of long, raven-tinted hair, the boarding master was well nigh bald. His
gray and scanty locks did little more than streak his black scalp, and
the art of a lifetime of hair dressing could not make the knob at the
back of his head larger than a hickory nut. Obviously no circle comb
could sit in position so insecure; at intervals as regular as the
ticking of his great silver watch, that of Almeida dropped on the ground
behind him. Wherever he moved, there slunk at his heels a native urchin
who had known no other task in many a month than that of restoring to
its place the ornament of caste.
[Illustration: An outrigger canoe and an outdoor laundry in Colombo,
[Illustration: Road-repairers of Ceylon. Highway between Colombo and
The simple formality of signing a promise-to-pay made me a guest. Four
white men and as many black leaned their elbows on the unplaned table,
awaiting the evening meal. In an adjoining grotto, two natives were
stumbling over each other around a kettle and a fire of fagots. Both
were clothed in the scantiest of breechclouts. Now and then they
squatted on their smoothly polished heels, scratched savagely at some
portion of their scrawny bodies, and sprang up again to plunge both
hands into the kettle.
In due time the mess grew too hot for stirring. The pair resumed their
squat and burst forth in a dreadful chatter of falsetto voices. Then
fell ominous silence. Suddenly the cooks dashed into the smoke that
veiled the entrance to the cave, and, flinging themselves upon the
caldron, dragged it forth into the dining-room. The senior scooped out
handfuls of steaming rice and filled our plates. The younger returned to
the smoky cavern and laid hold on a smaller pot that contained a curry
of chopped fish. Besides these two delicacies, there were bananas in
abundance and a chettie of water, brackish, discolored and lukewarm.
Having distributed heavy pewter spoons among the guests, the cooks
filled a battered basin with rice and, dropping on their haunches,
thrust the food into their mouths with both hands. The blazing fagots
turned to dying embers, the wick that floated in a bottle of oil lighted
up a bare corner of the table, and the rising moon, falling upon the
naked figures, cast weird shadows across the uneven floor.
Almeida took his leave. The dropping of his comb sounded twice or thrice
between the dining-room and the street, and the patter of his bare feet
mingled with the whisper of the night outside. I laid my head on a hand
as a sign of sleepiness, and a cook led the way to the second story and
into one of the narrow rooms. It was furnished with three wooden tables
of Dachshund legs. From two pegs in the wall hung several diaphanous
tropical garments, the property of my unknown roommates. I inquired for
my bed; but the cook spoke no English, and I sat down on the nearest
table to await a more communicative mortal.
A long hour afterward two white men stumbled up the stairs, the first
carrying a candle high above his head. He was lean and sallow,
gray-haired and clean shaven, with something in his manner that spoke of
better days. His companion was a burly, tow-headed Swede.
“Oho! Ole,” grinned the older man; “here’s a new bunkie. Why don’t you
turn in, mate?”
“Haven’t found my bed yet,” I answered.
“Your bed!” cried the newcomer, “Why, damn it, man, you’re sitting on
I followed the example of the pair in reducing my attire to the
regulation coolie costume and, turning my bundled clothing into a
pillow, sweated out the night.
Over the tea, bananas, and cakes of ground cocoanut that made up the
Almeida breakfast, I exchanged yarns with my companions of the night.
The Swede was merely a sailor; the older man a less commonplace being.
He was an Irishman named John Askins, a master of arts of Dublin
University and a civil engineer by profession. Twenty years before, an
encroaching asthma had driven him from his native island. In his
wanderings through every tropical country under British rule, he had
picked up a fluent use of half the dialects of the east, from the
clicking Kaffir to the guttural tongue of Kabul. Not by choice was
Askins, M. A., a vagabond. Periodically, however, employment failed him
and he fell, as now, into the ranks of those who listened
open-mouthed—when he chose to abandon the slang of “the road” and the
forecastle—to his professorial diction.
Brief as was my acquaintance with Ceylon, I had already discovered two
possible openings to the wage-earning class. The first was to join the
police force. Half the European officers of Colombo had once been
beachcombers. Between them and our band existed a liaison so close that
the misdemeanors of “the boys” were rarely punished, and more than one
white castaway was housed surreptitiously in the barracks on Slave
Island. I had no hesitancy, therefore, in applying for information to
the Irishman whose beat embraced the cricket-ground separating Pettah
from the European quarter.
He painted the life in uniform in glowing colors. His salary was fifty
rupees a month. No princely income, surely, for bear in mind that it
takes three rupees to make a dollar. The “graft,” too, he admitted
sadly, was next to nothing. Yet he supported a wife—a white one, at
that, strange to say—and three children, kept several servants, owned a
house of his own, and increased his bank account on every pay day.
Ludicrous, you know, is the cost of living in Ceylon.
I hurried eagerly away to the office of the superintendent of police. An
awkward squad of white recruits was sprinkling with perspiration the
green before the government bungalow, from which a servant emerged to
inquire my errand. The alacrity with which I was admitted to the inner
sanctum aroused within me visions of myself in uniform that were by no
means dispelled by the hasty examination to which the superintendent
“Yes! Yes!” he broke in, before I had answered his last question; “I
think we can take you on all right. By the way, what part of the country
are you from? You’ll be from Yorkshire side, I take it?”
“A-oh! You don’t say so? An American! Really, you don’t look it, you
know. What a shame! Had a beat all picked out for you. But as an
American you’d better go to the Philippines and apply on the force
there. We can’t give you anything in Ceylon or India, don’t you know.
Awfully sorry. Good day.”
None but a man ignorant of the ways of the Far East could have conceived
my second scheme in one sleepless night. It was suggested by the fact
that, in earlier years, I had, as the Englishman puts it, “gone in for”
cross-country running. Returning to Almeida’s, I soon picked up a
partner for the projected enterprise. He was a young and lanky
Englishman, who, though he had never indulged in athletic sports, was
certain that in eluding for a decade the police of four continents he
had developed a record-breaking stride.
In a shady corner of Gordon Gardens we arranged the details of our plan,
which was—why not admit it at once?—to become ’rickshaw runners. The
hollow-chested natives who plied this equestrian vocation leased their
vehicles from the American consul. That official surely would be glad to
rent the two fine, new carriages that stood idle in his establishment.
The license would cost little. Cloth slippers that sold for a few cents
in the bazaars would render us as light-footed as our competitors. We
could not, of course, offer indiscriminate service. Half the population
of Colombo would have swept down upon us, clamoring for the unheard-of
honor of riding behind a sahib. But nothing would be easier than to hang
above our licenses the announcement, “for white men only.”
“By thunder,” enthused the Briton, as we turned out into the sunlight
once more, “it’s a new scheme all right, absolutely unique. It’s sure to
attract attention mighty quick.”
It did. So quickly, in fact, that had there been a white policeman
within call when we broached the subject to the American consul, we
should have found lodging at once in two nicely padded chambers of the
“Did you two lunatics,” shrieked my fellow-countryman, from behind the
protecting bulwark of his desk, “ever hear of Caste? Would the Europeans
patronize you? You bet they would—with a fine coat of tar and feathers!
You’d need it, too, for those long, slim knives the runners carry. Of
all the idiotic schemes! Why, you—you—don’t you know that’s a crime—or,
if it isn’t, the governor would make it one in about ten minutes. Go lie
in the shade somewhere until you get your senses—if you’ve got one!”
Years ago, I came to the conclusion that the day of the enterprising
young man is past. But it was cruel of the consul to put the matter so
baldly. Luckily, the Englishman possessed four cents or we should have
been denied the bitter joy of drowning our grief and dissolving our
partnership in a glass of arrack.
From the distance of the western world the rate in Almeida’s boarding
house—a half rupee a day—does not seem exorbitant. It was, however. In
the native restaurants that abounded in Colombo, one could live on half
that amount; and as for lodging—what utter foolishness to pay for the
privilege of sleeping on a short-legged table when the ground was so
much softer? No sooner, therefore, had a pawnbroker of Pettah appraised
my useless winter garments at two rupees than I paid my bill at the
“Original Boarding House” and became resident at large.
On the edge of the native section stood an eating shop that had won the
patronage of half the beachcombers in the city. It was a low, thatched
shanty, constructed, like its neighbors, chiefly of bamboo. The front
wall—unless the canvas curtain that warded off the blazing sunshine be
reckoned such—was all doorway, before which stood a platform heaped high
with multicolored tropical fruits.
A dozen white men bawled out a greeting as I pushed aside the curtain
and crowded into a place on one of the creaking benches around the
table. At the entrance stood the proprietor, guarding a home-made safe,
and smiling so vociferously upon whomever added to its contents that his
circle comb rose and fell with the exertion. Plainly in sight of the
yawning customers, in a smoke-choked back room, two chocolate-colored
cooks, who had evidently divided between them a garment as large as a
lady’s handkerchief, toiled over a long row of kettles.
The dinner was table d’hôte, and cost four cents. A naked boy set before
me a heaping plate of rice, four bananas, a glass of tea, and six small
dishes of curried vegetables, meat, and shrimps. The time had come when
I must learn, like my companions, to dispense with table utensils. I
began the first lesson by following the movements of my fellow-guests.
Each dug in the center of his mound of rice a hole of the size of a
coffee-cup. Into this he dumped the curries one after another and buried
them by pushing in the sides of the excavation. The interment finished,
he fell upon the mess with both hands, and mixed the ingredients as the
“board-bucker” mixes concrete—by shoveling it over and over.
Let no one fancy that the Far East has no etiquette of the table. It was
the height of ill-breeding, for example, to grasp a handful of food and
eat it from the open palm. Obviously, the Englishman beside me had
received careful Singhalese training. Without bending a joint of his
hand, he plunged it into the mixture before him, drew his fingers
closely together, and, thrusting his hand to the base of the thumb into
his mouth, sucked off the food by taking a long, quick breath.
I imitated him, gasped, choked, and clutched at the bench with both
hands, while the tears ran in rivulets down my cheeks. ’Twas my
introduction to the curries of Ceylon. A mouthful of cayenne pepper
would have tasted like ice cream in comparison. The stuff was so
calorific—in chillies, not in temperature—that it burned my fingers.
“Hot, Yank?” grinned the Englishman. “That’s what all the lads finds ’em
when they first get out here. In a week they’ll be just right. In a
month you’ll be longin’ for Madras where they make ’em ’otter.”
The dinner over, the guests threw under their feet the food that
remained; washed their fingers, surreptitiously, of course, in a chettie
of drinking water; and sauntered out into the starlit night. Across the
way lay the cricket ground of Colombo, a twelve-acre field, silent and
deserted. While the policeman yawned at the far end of his beat, I
scrambled over the bamboo fence, and, choosing a spot where the grass
was not entirely worn off, went to bed. The proverbial white elephant
was never more of a burden than my kodak had become. Hitherto, I had
easily concealed it in a pocket of my corduroy coat. Now my entire
wardrobe could have been packed inside the apparatus, and wherever I
wandered I was forced to lug the thing under one arm, like a pet poodle,
wrapped in a ragged cover that deceived the covetous as to its real
value. By night it served as pillow, and so fixed a habit had its
possession become, that I ran no more risk of leaving it behind than of
going away without my cap.
The grassy slope was as soft as a mattress, the tepid night breeze just
the right covering. I quickly fell asleep. A feeling, as of someone
close at hand, aroused me. Slowly I opened my eyes. Within a foot of me,
his naked body glistening in the moonlight, crouched a coolie. I bounded
to my feet. But the native was quicker than I. With a leap that would
have done credit to a kangaroo, he shot suddenly into the air, landed
noiselessly on his bare feet some three yards away, and, before I could
take a step in his direction, was gone.
Midnight, certainly, had passed. The flanking streets were utterly
deserted. Not a light shone in the long rows of shops. Only the
ceaseless chanting of myriads of insects tempered the stillness of the
night. I drew a cord from my pocket, tied one end to the kodak and
another to a wrist, and lay down again. The precaution was wisely taken.
A tug at my arm awakened me a second time and, as I started up, a black
rascal, closely resembling my first visitor, scampered away across the
playground. Dawn was drawing a thin gray line on the black canvas of
night. I left my bed unmade and wandered away into the city.
Before the sun was high I had found employment. A resident in the
Cinnamon Gardens had advertised for a carpenter, and for the three days
following I superintended the labors of a band of coolies in laying a
hardwood floor in his bungalow. During that period, a rumor, spreading
among the beachcombers, aroused them to new wakefulness. Colombo was
soon to be visited by a circus! It was not that the mixed odor of
sawdust and pink lemonade appealed greatly to “the boys.” But tradition
whispered that the annual show would bring employment to more than one
whose curry and rice advanced with laggard steps.
Dropping in at Almeida’s when my task was ended, I found Askins agog
with news of the coming spectacle.
“She’ll be here in a week or ten days,” he cried, gayly. “That means a
few dibs a day for some of us. For circuses must have white men. Niggers
won’t do. That’s our game, Franck. Just lay low and when she blows in,
we’ll swoop down on the supe and get our cognoms on the pay roll.
“Or say!” he went on, in more excited tones. “Better still! You won’t
need to lie idle meantime, either. An idea strikes me. Remember the
arrack shop where the two stokers set us up a bottle of fire-water the
other day? Well, just across the street is the Salvation Army. Now you
waltz down to the meeting there to-night and get converted. They’ll hand
you down a swell white uniform, put you right in a good hash-house, and
throw a few odd grafts in your way. All you’ll have to do’ll be to baste
a drum or something of the kind twice a day, and you can have quite a
few chips tucked away by the time the circus comes.”
“Good scheme,” I answered, “but I’ve got a few chips tucked away now,
and if she isn’t due for ten days that will give me time for a jaunt
into the interior of the island.”
“Well, it’s a ramble worth making,” admitted the Irishman, “but look out
for the sun, and be sure you’re on hand again for the big show.”
The city of Colombo is well spread out. Though I set off early next
morning, it was nearly noon when I crossed the Victoria bridge at Grand
Pass and struck the open country. Great was the contrast between the
Ceylon of my imagination and the reality. A riot of tropical vegetation
spread out on every hand; in the dense shadows swarmed naked humans
uncountable. But jungle was there none, neither wild men, nor savage
beasts. Every acre was producing for the use of man. The highway was
wide, well-built as in Europe, close flanked on either side by thick
forests of towering palm trees. Here and there, bands of coolies
repaired the roadway, or fought back the aggressive vegetation with
ax-like knives. Clumsy, broad-wheeled bullock carts, in appearance like
our “prairie schooners,” creaked by behind humped oxen ambling seaward
at a snail’s pace. Under his protecting roof, made, not of canvas, as
the first glimpse suggested, but of thousands of leaves sewn together,
the scrawny driver grinned cheerily and mumbled some strange word of
greeting. Even the heat was less infernal than I had anticipated. The
glare of sunshine was dazzling; a wrist uncovered for a moment was
burned red as with a branding-iron; my face shown browner in the mirror
of each passing stream; but often are the sun’s rays more debilitating
on a summer day at home.
In the forest the slim bamboo and the broad-leafed banana tree abounded;
but the cocoanut palm predominated. In every grove, prehensile coolies,
armed with heavy knives, walked up the slender trunks, and, hiding
themselves in the tuft of leaves sixty feet above, chopped off the nuts
in clusters of three. One could have recited a poem between the moment
of their launching and the time when they struck the soft, spongy earth,
to rebound high into the air. ’Tis a national music, the dull, muffled
thump of cocoanuts, as reminiscent, ever after, of dense, tropical
forests as the tinkle of the donkey bell of Spain, or the squawk of the
water wheel of Egypt.
I stepped aside from the highway in the mid-afternoon, and lay down on a
grassy slope under shielding palms. A crackling of twigs drew my
attention, and, catching sight of a pair of eyes filled with mute
wonder, I nodded reassuringly. A native, dressed in a ribbon and a
tangle of oily hair, stepped from behind a great drooping banana leaf
and advanced with faltering steps. Behind him emerged a score of men and
boys, as heavily clothed as the leader; and the band, smiling like a
company of ballet dancers en scène, moved forward hesitatingly, halting
frequently to exchange signs of mutual encouragement. Their timidity was
in strange contrast to the boisterous or menacing attitude of the Arab.
One felt that a harsh word or a gesture of annoyance would have sent
these deferential country-folk scampering away through the forest. A
white man, whatever his station in life, is a tin god in Ceylon.
With a simultaneous gurgle of greeting, the natives squatted in a
semicircle at the foot of the knoll on which I lay, as obsequious in
manner as loyal subjects come to do homage to their cannibal king. We
chatted, intelligibly if not glibly, in the language of signs. My pipe
aroused great curiosity. When it had burned out, I turned it over to the
leader. He passed it on to his companions, each and all of whom, to my
horror, tested the strange thing by thrusting the stem halfway down his
throat and sucking fiercely at it. Even when they had examined every
other article in my knapsack, my visitors were not content, and implored
me with tears in their eyes to give them leave to open my kodak. I
distracted their attention by a careful inspection of their tools and
betel-nut pouches. With truly Spanish generosity they insisted on
presenting me with every article that I asked to see; and then sneaked
round behind me to carry off the gift while I was examining another.
I rose to continue my way, but the natives burst out in vigorous
protest, and, despatching three youths on some unknown errand, dropped
again on their haunches and fell to preparing new chews of betel-nut.
The emissaries soon returned, one carrying a jack-fruit, another a bunch
of bananas, and the third swinging three green cocoanuts by the
rope-like stem. The leader laid the gifts, one after another, at my
feet. Two men armed with jungle knives sprang forward, and while one
hacked at the adamantine jack-fruit, the other caught up a cocoanut,
chopped off the top with one stroke, and invited me to drink. The
milk—the national beverage of Ceylon—was cool and refreshing, but the
meat of the green nut as inedible as a leather strap. The jack-fruit, of
the size and appearance of a water melon, was split at last into
longitudinal slices. These, in turn, split sidewise into dozens of
segments not unlike those of the orange, each one containing a large,
kidney-shaped stone. The meat itself was white, coarse-grained, and
rather tasteless. The bananas were smaller, but more savory than those
of the West Indies. When I had sampled each of the gifts, I distributed
them among the donators, and turned down to the highway.
It is easy to account for the vagabond’s fondness for tropical lands. He
loves to strut about among reverential black men in all the glory of a
white skin; it flatters him astonishingly to have native policemen and
soldiers draw up at attention and salute as he passes; he adores, of
course, the lazy indolence of the East. But all these things are as
nothing compared with his one great advantage over his brother in
northern lands. He escapes the terror of the coming night. Only he who
has roamed penniless through a colder world can know this dread; how,
like an oppressive cloud, rising on the horizon of each new day, it
casts its gloom over every niggardly atom of good fortune. In the north
one must have shelter. Other things which the world calls necessities
the vagrant may do without, but the night will not be put off like
hunger and thirst. In the tropics? In Ceylon? Bah! What is night but a
more comfortable day? If it grows too dark for tramping, one lies down
in the bed under his feet and rises, refreshed, with the new dawn.
From my forest lodging bordering the twenty-first mile post, I set out
on the second day’s tramp before the country people were astir. The
highway, bursting forth from the encircling palm trees now and then,
stalked across a small, rolling plain. Villages rose with every mile,
rambling, two-row hamlets of bamboo, where elbow room was ample. Between
them, isolated thatched cottages peeped from beneath the trees. Here
were none of the densely-packed collections of human stys so general in
Italy and the land of the Arab; for Ceylon, four centuries tributary to
Europe, knows not the fear of marauding bands.
As the sun climbed higher, grinning groups of rustics pattered by, the
men beclouted, the women clad in a short skirt and a shorter waist,
between which glistened ten inches or more of velvety brown skin. Hunger
and thirst come often in the tropics, but never was highway more
liberally stocked with food and drink. Half the houses displayed for
sale the fruits of the surrounding forest, and tea and cocoanut cakes
could be had anywhere. On a bamboo pedestal before every hovel, however
wretched, stood an earthenware _chettie_ of water, beside which hung as
a drinking-vessel the half of a cocoanut-shell; commonly slimy and
moss-grown. Great was the joy of every family whose hut I entered—silent
joy, generally, for the unhoped-for honor of welcoming a white man left
one and all, from the half-naked wife to the babe in arms—no household
lacked the latter—speechless with awe and veneration. They are charming
children, these smiling brown people, and industrious, though moving
always after the languid manner of the tropical zone.
Bathing is the national hobby of Ceylon. Never a stream crawling under
the highway but was alive with splashing natives. Mothers, plodding
along the route, halted at every rivulet to roll a banana leaf into a
cone-shaped bucket and pour uncounted gallons of water on their
sputtering infants, crouched naked on the bank of the stream. Travelers
on foot or by bullock cart took hourly dips en route. The husbandman
abandoned his tilling at frequent intervals to plunge into the nearest
water hole. His wife, instead of calling on her neighbors, met them at
the brook and, turned mermaid, gossiped in cool and comfort. The men,
subjected only to a loin cloth, gave no heed to their clothing. The
women, wound from knees to armpits in gossamer-like sheets of snowy
white, emerged from their aquatic couches and, turning themselves round
and round in the blazing sunshine like spitted fowls over a fire,
marched homeward in dry garments.
With the third day the landscape changed. The slightly rolling lowlands
of the coast gave way to tea-clad foothills, heralding the mountains of
the interior. The highway, mounting languidly, offered noonday vista of
the ranges that have won for Ceylon the title of “Switzerland of the
tropics.” Here were none of the rugged peaks and crags of the Alps nor
the barren wilderness of Palestine. Endless, to the north and south,
hovering in a sea-blue haze, stretched rolling mountains, thick clothed
in prolific vegetation. Unaggressive, effeminate they seemed, compared
with northern highlands; summits and slopes a succession of graceful
curves, with never an angular stroke, hills plump of contour, like
[Illustration: Singhalese ladies wear only a skirt and a short waist,
between which several inches of brown skin are visible]
[Illustration: A Singhalese woman rarely misses an opportunity to give
her children a bath]
Try as I would, I had not succeeded in making my daily expenditures
since leaving the coast more than ten cents. Near the summit of the
route I paused at an amateur shop by the wayside. It was a pathetic
little hovel, built of rubbish picked up in the forest. A board,
stretched like a counter across the open doorway, was heavily laden with
bananas. Near at hand a plump, brown matron, in abbreviated skirt and a
waist little more than neckerchief, was spreading out grain—with her
feet—on a long grass mat. Unfortunately, the list of Singhalese words
that I had jotted down at the dictation of Askins lacked the
all-important term “how much.” I pointed at the fruit and tossed a coin
on the counter. It was a copper piece, worth one and three-fourths
cents; enough, surely, for the purchase of a half-dozen bananas. The
matron approached, picked up the coin gingerly, and, turning it over and
over in her hand, stared at me with wide-open eyes. Had I been niggardly
in my offer? I was thrusting a hand into my pocket for another copper,
when the female, motioning to me to open my knapsack, dropped into it
three dozen bananas, hesitated, and, assuming the air of one whose
conscience is master of his cupidity, added a fourth cluster.
A furlong beyond, in a shaded elbow of the route, I turned to the task
of lightening my burden. Small success would have crowned my efforts but
for the arrival of a fellow-wayfarer. He was a man of fifty or sixty,
blacker of skin than the Singhalese. A ten-yard strip of cloth, of a
pattern in which two-inch stripes of white and brilliant red alternated,
was wrapped round his waist and fell to his knees. Over his head was
folded a sheet of orange hue. In either hand he carried a bundle,
wrapped in cloth and tied with green vines. The upper half of his face
was that of meekness personified; the rest was covered with such a beard
as one might swear by, deeply streaked with gray.
Painfully he limped to the roadside, and squatted on his heels in the
edge of the shade. By every token he was “on the road.”
“Have a bite, Jack?” I invited, pushing the fruit towards him.
A child’s voice squeaked within him. Gravely he rose to his feet to
express his gratitude in every known posture of the human figure except
that of standing on his head. That formality over, he fell to with a
will—and both hands—so willingly in fact that, with never a pause nor a
choke, he made way with twenty-eight bananas. Small wonder if he would
have slept a while in the edge of the shade after so noteworthy a feat.
I rose to plod on, however, and he would not be left behind,—far behind,
that is. Reiterated solicitations could not induce him to walk beside
me; he pattered always two paces in the rear, too mindful of his own
inferiority to march abreast with a sahib. From the gestures and gasps
that my questions drew forth, I gathered that he was a _yogi_, a holy
man—temporarily at least—bound on a pilgrimage to some shrine in the
mountains. Two hours beyond our meeting, he halted at a branch road,
knelt in the highway, and, ere I had divined his intention, imprinted a
sonorous kiss on the top of one of my Nazarene slippers. Only my
dexterity saved the other. He stood up slowly, almost sadly, as one
grieved to part from good company—or bananas, shook the dust of the
route from his beard, and, turning into the forest-throttled byway, was
Night, striding over the mountains in the seven-league boots he wears in
the tropics, playfully laid hand on me just at the entrance to the inn
of the Sign of the Palm Tree. The landlord demanded no fee; the far-off
howling of dogs lulled me to sleep. With dawn, I was off once more.
Sunrise waved his greeting over the leafy crests of the Peradiniya
Gardens, and her European residents, lolling in their church-bound
’rickshaws, stared at my entrance into the ancient city of Kandy.
Centuries ago, this mountain-girdled metropolis of the interior was the
seat of the native king. To-day, the monarch of Ceylon is a bluff
Englishman, housed within sight of the harbor of Colombo in a stone
mansion more appropriate to Regent’s Row than to this land of swaying
palm trees. The descendant of the native dynasty still holds his mock
court in the capital of his forefathers, struggling against the
encroachment of trousers and cravats and the wiles of courtiers
stoop-shouldered with the wisdom of Oxford and Cambridge. But his duties
have narrowed down to that of upholding the ancestral religion. For
Kandy is a holy city. Buddhists, not merely of Ceylon but of India and
the equatorial islands, make pilgrimage to its ancient shrine. Long
before the coming of the Nazarene, tradition whispers, there was found
in Burma one of the teeth of Gautama, the Enlightened One. How it came
to be picked up thus far from the burial place of the Wandering Prince
is as inexplicable as the discovery of splinters of the true Cross in
strange and sundry regions far distant from Calvary. Be that as it may,
a rich embassy from the king of Burma bore the relic to this egg-shaped
island, and over it was erected the celebrated “Temple of the Tooth.”
[Illustration: The woman who sold me the bananas]
[Illustration: The thatch roof at the roadside, under which I slept on
the second night of my tramp to Kandy]
It is a time-worn structure of gray stone, simple in architecture from
the view point of the Orient, set in a lotus grove on the shores of a
crystal-clear lake. Mindful of the assaults that I had more than once
provoked by entering a house of worship in the East, I contented myself
with a circuit of its double, crenelated walls and a peep up the broad
steps that led to the interior.
The keeper of the inn to which fate assigned me had two sons, who,
thanks to the local mission-school, spoke fluent English. The older was
a youth of fifteen. In the West he would have been rated a child. Here
he was accepted as a man, to whom the problems of life had already taken
form. Our conversation turned naturally to the subject of religion;
naturally, because that subject is always first and foremost in the
East. His religion sets for the Oriental his place in the community; it
tells him what work he shall do all the days of his life, what his
children and his children’s children shall do. According to the dictates
of his faith he eats or refrains from eating, he seeks repose or watches
out the night, he greets his fellow-beings or shuns them like dogs.
Society is honey-combed with sects and creeds and castes. Every man
wears some visible symbol of his religion, and before all else he
scrutinizes the sign of caste of any stranger with whom he comes in
contact. No secondary matter, nor something to be aired once a week, is
a man’s religion in the East. It stalks at his heels as relentlessly as
his shadow at noonday.
“I suppose,” I was saying, soon after the son of the innkeeper had
broached this unavoidable topic, “I suppose that, as you have been
educated in a Protestant school, you are a Christian?”
The youth eyed me for a moment with noncommittal gravity.
“May I know,” he asked in reply—to change the subject, I
fancied—“whether you are a missionary?”
“On the contrary,” I protested, “I am a sailor.”
“Because,” he went on, “one must know to whom one speaks. I am a
Christian always—when I am in school or talking to missionaries.
“There are many religions in the world, and surely that of the white man
is a good religion. We learn much more that is useful in the schools of
the Christians than in our own. But, my friend,” he leaned forward with
the earnestness of one who is about to disclose a great secret, “there
is but one true religion. He who is seeking the true religion—if _you_
are seeking the true religion, you will find it right here in our island
It comes ever back to that. Hordes of missionaries may flock to the
“heathen” lands, bulky reports anent the thousands who have been
“gathered into the fold” may rouse the charity of the pious at home; yet
in moments of sober earnest, when, in the words of Askins, “it comes to
a show-down,” the convert beyond seas is a stout champion of the faith
of his ancestors.
“Many people,” continued my informant, “nearly all the people of Ceylon
who would learn from the Christians, who are hungry and poor, or who
would have work, pretend the religion of the white man. For we receive
more, the teachers are our better friends if we tell them we are
Christians. And surely we do the right in saying so? We wish all to
please the missionaries and we have no other way to do; for it gives
them much pleasure to have many converts. Have you, I wonder,” he
concluded, “visited our Temple of the Tooth.”
“Outside,” I answered. “Are sahibs allowed to enter?”
“Surely!” cried the youth, “The Buddhists have not exclusion. We are
joyed to have white men in our temples. To-night, we are having a
service very important in the Temple of the Tooth. With my uncle, who
keeps the cloth-shop across the way, I shall go. Will you not forget
your religion and honor us by coming?”
“Certainly,” I answered.
Two flaring torches threw fantastic shadows over the chattering throng
of Singhalese that bore us bodily up the broad stairway to the sacred
shrine. In the outer temple, at the top of the flight, surged a maudlin
multitude around a dozen booths devoted to the sale of candles, bits of
cardboard, and the white lotus-flower sacred to Gautama, the Buddha.
Above the sharp-pitched roar of the faithful sounded the incessant
rattle of copper coins. The smallest child, the most ragged mendicant,
struggled against the human stream that would have swept him into the
inner temple, until he had bought or begged a taper or flower to lay in
the lap of his favorite statue. From every nook and corner, the effigy
of the Enlightened One, defying in posture the laws of anatomy, surveyed
the scene with sad serenity.
[Illustration: Singhalese infants are very sturdy during the first
[Illustration: The yogi who ate twenty-eight of the bananas at a
Of all the throng, I alone was shod. I dropped my slippers at the
landing, and, half expecting a stern command to remove my socks,
advanced into the brighter light of the interior. A whisper rose beside
me and swelled in volume as it passed quickly from mouth to
mouth:—“Sahib! sahib!” I had dreaded lest my coming should precipitate a
riot, but Buddha himself, arriving thus unannounced, could not have won
more boisterous welcome. The worshipers swept down upon me, shrieking
their hospitality. Several thrust into my hands newly purchased
blossoms, another—strange action, it seemed then, in a house of
worship—pressed upon me a badly-rolled cigar of native make; from every
side came candles and matches. At the tinkle of a far-off bell the
natives fell back, leaving a lane for our passing. Two saffron-robed
priests, smiling and salaaming at every step, advanced to meet me and
led the way to a balcony overlooking the lake.
In the semi-darkness of a corner squatted, in scanty breechclouts and
ample turbans, three natives,—low-caste coolies, no doubt, to whom fell
the menial tasks within the temple inclosure; for before each sat what
appeared to be a large basket. I took station near them with my
attendant priests, and awaited “the service very important.”
Suddenly the cornered trio, each grasping in either hand a weapon
reminiscent of a footpad’s billy, stretched their hands high above their
heads and brought them down with a crash that would have startled a less
phlegmatic sahib out of all sanity. What I had taken for baskets were
tom-toms! Without losing a single beat, the drummers began, with the
third or fourth stroke, to blow lustily on long pipes from which issued
a plaintive wailing. I spoke no more with my interpreter. For the
“musicians,” having pressed into service every soundwave lingering in
the vicinity, monopolized them during the ensuing two hours. Two simple
rules govern the production of Singhalese music: first, make as much
noise as possible all the time; second, to heighten the effect, make
Puffing serenely at my stogie, I marched with the officiating monks, who
had given me place of honor in their ranks, from one shrine to another.
Behind us surged a murmuring, self-prostrating multitude. No one sat
during the service, and there was nothing resembling a sermon. The
priests addressed themselves only to the dreamy-eyed Buddhas, and craved
boons or chanted their gratitude for former favors in a rising and
falling monotone in which I caught, now and then, the rhythm and rhyme
It was late when the service ended. The boiler-factory music ceased as
suddenly as it had begun, the worshipers poured forth into the soft
night, and I was left alone with my guides and a dozen priests.
“See,” whispered the intermittent Christian. “You are honored. The head
man of the temple comes.”
An aged friar, emerging from an inner shrine, drew near slowly. In
outward appearance, he was an exact replica of the surrounding priests.
A brilliant yellow robe was his only garment. His head was shaven; his
arms, right shoulder and feet, bare.
Having joined the group, he studied me a moment in silence, then
addressed me in the native tongue.
“He is asking,” explained my interpreter, “if you are liking to see the
I bowed my thanks. The high priest led the way to the innermost shrine
of the temple, a chamber in arrangement not unlike the holy sepulchre in
the church of that name in Jerusalem. In the center of the vault he
halted, and, imitated in every movement by the attendant priests and my
guide, fell on his knees, and, muttering a prayer each time, touched his
forehead to the pavement thrice.
Erect once more, he drew from the tabernacle before him a gold casket of
the size of a ditty-box. From it he took a second, a bit smaller, and
handed the first to one of his companions. From the second he drew a
third, from the third a fourth. The process was repeated until nearly
every subordinate priest held a coffer, some fantastically wrought, some
inlaid with precious stones. With the opening of every third box all
those not already burdened fell on their knees and repeated their first
genuflections. There appeared at last the innermost receptacle, not over
an inch each way, and set with diamonds and rubies. Its sanctity
required more than the usual number of prostrations and murmured
incantations. Carefully the superior opened it, and disclosed to view a
tooth, yellow with age, which, assuredly, never grew in any human mouth.
Each of the party admired the molar in turn, but even the high priest
took care not to touch it. The fitting together of the box of boxes
required as much mummery as its disintegration.
The ceremony was ended at last, the tabernacle locked, and we passed on
to inspect other places of interest. Among them was the temple library,
famous throughout the island. It contained four books. Two of these—and
they were thumb-worn—were in English,—recent works of Theosophists. For
the priests of Buddha, far from being the ignorant and superstitious
creatures of Western fancy, are often liberal-minded students of every
phase of the world’s religions. Printed volumes, however, did not
constitute the real library. On the shelves around the walls were
thousands of metal tablets, two feet long, a fourth as wide, and an inch
thick, covered on both sides with the hieroglyphics of Ceylon. When I
had handled several of these, and heard a priest read one in a mournful,
sing-song chant, like the falling of water at a distance, I acknowledged
myself content and turned with my guides toward the door.
[Illustration: Central Ceylon. Making roof-tiles. The sun is the only
[Illustration: The priests of the “Temple of the Tooth” in Kandy, who
were my guides during my stay in the city]
The high priest followed us into the outer temple. During all the
evening he had addressed me only through an interpreter. As I paused to
pick up my slippers, however, he salaamed gravely and spoke once more,
this time, to my utter amazement, in faultless English.
“White men,” ran his speech, “often join the true religion. There are
many who are priests of Buddha in Burma, and some in Ceylon. They are
“You see,” explained the son of the innkeeper, as we wended our way
through the silent bazaars, “he did not wish that you should at first
know that he speaks English. He has done you great honor by asking you
to become a priest; for so he meant. But often come white men to the
temple and mock all that is brought to see, making, many times, very
cruel jokes, and he who is close to Buddha waited to see. You have not
done so. Therefore are you honored.”
We mounted to the second story of the inn and, stripped naked, lay down
on our _charpoys_—native beds consisting of a strip of canvas stretched
on a frame. But it was long before I fell asleep; for the youth, seeing
it his clear duty, harangued me long and ungrammatically from the
neighboring darkness on the virtues of the “true religion.”
Somehow the impression gained ground rapidly among the residents of
Kandy that the white man who had attended the Sunday evening service
contemplated joining the yellow-robed ascetics at the Temple of the
Tooth. Just where the rumor had its birth I know not. Belike the mere
fact that I had turned none of the rites to jest had won me favor. Or
was it that my garb marked me as one more likely to attain Nirvana than
the bestarched Europeans whose levity so grieved him who was “close to
At any rate, the rumor grew like the cornstalk in Kansas. With the
morning sun came pious shopkeepers to fawn upon me. Before I had
breakfasted, two temple priests, their newly-shaven heads and faces
shining under their brightly-colored parasols like polished brass,
called at the inn and invited me to a stroll through the market place.
Never an excursion did I make in Kandy or its environs without at least
a pair of saffron-garbed companions. That I should find a ready welcome
in the temple a hundred natives assured me, the priests by veiled hints,
the laymen more openly. They were moved, perhaps, by a no more
altruistic motive than a desire to have on exhibition in the local
monastery a white priest. But to their credit be it said that no
suggestion of a material inducement crept into their arguments.
“Buddhism,” ran their plea, “is the true religion. The mere fact that it
has many more followers than any other religion proves that, does it
not? And the doctrine of the Enlightened One embraces every anomaly of
humanity—even white men. Only those who accept it can hope for future
happiness. Even if you are not yet convinced of its truth, why not
accept it now and run no risk of future perdition?”
Surely, the most conscientious of Christian missionaries never attempted
proselytism less underhandedly.
My escape from Kandy savored of strategy, but I reached the station
unchallenged, and, exchanging my last two rupees for a ticket to
Colombo, established myself in a third-class compartment. It was already
occupied by a native couple more gifted with offspring than attire.
Barely had I settled down to study Singhalese domestic life at close
range, however, when a mighty uproar burst out near at hand. A
half-breed in the uniform of a guard raced across the platform, and,
thrusting his head into the compartment, poured forth on my apparently
unoffending companions a torrent of incomprehensible words. Had he
denounced me as a victim of the plague? Plainly the family was greatly
frightened. The father sprang wildly to his feet and attempted to clutch
a half-dozen unwieldy bundles in a painfully inadequate number of hands.
The wife, no less terrified, raked together from floor and benches as
many naked urchins, in assorted sizes, but entangled, in her haste, the
legs of her lord and master, and sent him sprawling among his howling
descendants. With a sizzling oath, the trainman snatched open the door
and, springing inside, tumbled baggage, infants, and parents
unceremoniously out upon the platform. Still bellowing, he drove the
trembling wretches to another compartment; a party of well-dressed
natives took possession of the recently vacated benches; and we were
That self-congratulatory attitude common to traveling salesmen the world
over betrayed the caste of my new companions. All of them spoke English,
and, eager to air their accomplishments, lost no time in engaging me in
conversation. Marvelous was the information and the variations of my
mother tongue that assailed me from all sides. It is with difficulty
that one refrains from “stuffing” these vainglorious, yet childish
fellows and it was evident that some other European had already yielded
to the temptation. But my astonishment at the treatment of the exiled
family had by no means subsided.
“Will some of you chaps tell me,” I interrupted, “why the guard ordered
those other natives out of here, and then let you in?”
The drummers glared at me a moment in silence, looked at each other, and
turned to stare out of the windows. Most grossly, evidently, had I
insulted them. But even an insult cannot keep an Oriental long silent.
The travelers fidgeted in their seats, nudged each other, and focused
their stare once more upon me.
“Know you, sir,” said the most portly of the group, with severe
countenance, “know you that those were base coolies, who are not allowed
to ride in the same compartment with white gentlemen. We,” and the brass
buttons of his embroidered jacket struggled to perform their office,
“are high-caste Singhalese, sir. Therefore may we ride with sahibs.”