EGYPT OF THE MAGICIANS
I had left Europe for no reason except to discover the Sun, and there
were rumours that he was to be found in Egypt.
But I had not realised what more I should find there.
A P. & O. boat carried us out of Marseilles. A serang of lascars, with
whistle, chain, shawl, and fluttering blue clothes, was at work on the
baggage-hatch. Somebody bungled at the winch. The serang called him a
name unlovely in itself but awakening delightful memories in the hearer.
'O Serang, is that man a fool?'
'Very foolish, sahib. He comes from Surat. He only comes for his food's
The serang grinned; the Surtee man grinned; the winch began again, and
the voices that called: 'Lower away! Stop her!' were as familiar as the
friendly whiff from the lascars' galley or the slap of bare feet along
the deck. But for the passage of a few impertinent years, I should have
gone without hesitation to share their rice. Serangs used to be very
kind to little white children below the age of caste. Most familiar of
all was the ship itself. It had slipped my memory, nor was there
anything in the rates charged to remind me, that single-screws still
lingered in the gilt-edged passenger trade.
Some North Atlantic passengers accustomed to real ships made the
discovery, and were as pleased about it as American tourists at
'Oh, come and see!' they cried. 'She has _one_ screw--only one screw!
Hear her thump! And _have_ you seen their old barn of a saloon? _And_
the officers' library? It's open for two half-hours a day week-days and
one on Sundays. You pay a dollar and a quarter deposit on each book. We
wouldn't have missed this trip for anything. It's like sailing with
They wandered about--voluble, amazed, and happy, for they were getting
off at Port Said.
I explored, too. From the rough-ironed table-linen, the thick
tooth-glasses for the drinks, the slummocky set-out of victuals at
meals, to the unaccommodating regulations in the curtainless cabin,
where they had not yet arrived at bunk-edge trays for morning tea, time
and progress had stood still with the P. & O. To be just, there were
electric-fan fittings in the cabins, but the fans were charged extra;
and there was a rumour, unverified, that one could eat on deck or in
one's cabin without a medical certificate from the doctor. All the rest
was under the old motto: '_Quis separabit_'--'This is quite separate
from other lines.'
'After all,' said an Anglo-Indian, whom I was telling about civilised
ocean travel, 'they don't want you Egyptian trippers. They're sure of
_us_, because----' and he gave me many strong reasons connected with
leave, finance, the absence of competition, and the ownership of the
'But it's absurd,' I insisted. 'The whole concern is out of date.
There's a notice on my deck forbidding smoking and the use of naked
lights, and there's a lascar messing about the hold-hatch outside my
cabin with a candle in a lantern.'
Meantime, our one-screw tub thumped gingerly toward Port Said, because
we had no mails aboard, and the Mediterranean, exhausted after severe
February hysterics, lay out like oil.
I had some talk with a Scotch quartermaster who complained that lascars
are not what they used to be, owing to their habit (but it has existed
since the beginning) of signing on as a clan or family--all sorts
The serang said that, for _his_ part, he had noticed no difference in
twenty years. 'Men are always of many kinds, sahib. And that is because
God makes men this and that. Not all one pattern--not by any means all
one pattern.' He told me, too, that wages were rising, but the price of
ghee, rice, and curry-stuffs was up, too, which was bad for wives and
families at Porbandar. 'And that also is thus, and no talk makes it
otherwise.' After Suez he would have blossomed into thin clothes and
long talks, but the bitter spring chill nipped him, as the thought of
partings just accomplished and work just ahead chilled the Anglo-Indian
contingent. Little by little one came at the outlines of the old
stories--a sick wife left behind here, a boy there, a daughter at
school, a very small daughter trusted to friends or hirelings, certain
separation for so many years and no great hope or delight in the future.
It was not a nice India that the tales hinted at. Here is one that
explains a great deal:
There was a Pathan, a Mohammedan, in a Hindu village, employed by the
village moneylender as a debt-collector, which is not a popular trade.
He lived alone among Hindus, and--so ran the charge in the lower
court--he wilfully broke the caste of a Hindu villager by forcing on him
forbidden Mussulman food, and when that pious villager would have taken
him before the headman to make reparation, the godless one drew his
Afghan knife and killed the headman, besides wounding a few others. The
evidence ran without flaw, as smoothly as well-arranged cases should,
and the Pathan was condemned to death for wilful murder. He appealed
and, by some arrangement or other, got leave to state his case
personally to the Court of Revision. 'Said, I believe, that he did not
much trust lawyers, but that if the sahibs would give him a hearing, as
man to man, he might have a run for his money.
Out of the jail, then, he came, and, Pathan-like, not content with his
own good facts, must needs begin by some fairy-tale that he was a secret
agent of the government sent down to spy on that village. Then he warmed
to it. Yes, he _was_ that money-lender's agent--a persuader of the
reluctant, if you like--working for a Hindu employer. Naturally, many
men owed him grudges. A lot of the evidence against him was quite true,
but the prosecution had twisted it abominably. About that knife, for
instance. True, he had a knife in his hand exactly as they had alleged.
But why? Because with that very knife he was cutting up and distributing
a roast sheep which he had given as a feast to the villagers. At that
feast, he sitting in amity with all his world, the village rose up at
the word of command, laid hands on him, and dragged him off to the
headman's house. How could he have broken _any_ man's caste when they
were all eating his sheep? And in the courtyard of the headman's house
they surrounded him with heavy sticks and worked themselves into anger
against him, each man exciting his neighbour. He was a Pathan. He knew
what that sort of talk meant. A man cannot collect debts without making
enemies. So he warned them. Again and again he warned them, saying:
'Leave me alone. Do not lay hands on me.' But the trouble grew worse,
and he saw it was intended that he should be clubbed to death like a
jackal in a drain. Then he said, 'If blows are struck, I strike, and _I_
strike to kill, because I am a Pathan,' But the blows were struck, heavy
ones. Therefore, with the very Afghan knife that had cut up the mutton,
he struck the headman. 'Had you meant to kill the headman?' 'Assuredly!
I am a Pathan. When I strike, I strike to kill. I had warned them again
and again. I think I got him in the liver. He died. And that is all
there is to it, sahibs. It was my life or theirs. They would have taken
mine over my freely given meats. _Now_, what'll you do with me?'
In the long run, he got several years for culpable homicide.
'But,' said I, when the tale had been told, 'whatever made the lower
court accept all that village evidence? It was too good on the face of
'The lower court said it could not believe it possible that so many
respectable native gentle could have banded themselves together to tell
'Oh! Had the lower court been long in the country?'
'It was a native judge,' was the reply.
If you think this over in all its bearings, you will see that the lower
court was absolutely sincere. Was not the lower court itself a product
of Western civilisation, and, as such, bound to play up--to pretend to
think along Western lines--translating each grade of Indian village
society into its English equivalent, and ruling as an English judge
would have ruled? Pathans and, incidentally, English officials must look
There is a fell disease of this century called 'snobbery of the soul.'
Its germ has been virulently developed in modern cultures from the
uncomplex bacillus isolated sixty years ago by the late William
Makepeace Thackeray. Precisely as Major Ponto, with his plated dishes
and stable-boy masquerading as footman, lied to himself and his guests
so--but the _Book of Snobs_ can only be brought up to date by him who
Then, a man struck in from the Sudan--far and far to the south--with a
story of a discomposed judge and a much too collected prisoner.
To the great bazaars of Omdurman, where all things are sold, came a
young man from the uttermost deserts of somewhere or other and heard a
gramophone. Life was of no value to him till he had bought the creature.
He took it back to his village, and at twilight set it going among his
ravished friends. His father, sheik of the village, came also, listened
to the loud shoutings without breath, the strong music lacking
musicians, and said, justly enough: 'This thing is a devil. You must not
bring devils into my village. Lock it up.'
They waited until he had gone away and then began another tune. A second
time the sheik came, repeated the command, and added that if the singing
box was heard again, he would slay the buyer. But their curiosity and
joy defied even this, and for the third time (late at night) they
slipped in pin and record and let the djinn rave. So the sheik, with his
rifle, shot his son as he had promised, and the English judge before
whom he eventually came had all the trouble in the world to save that
earnest gray head from the gallows. Thus:
'Now, old man, you must say guilty or not guilty.'
'But I shot him. That is why I am here. I----'
'Hush! It is a form of words which the law asks. _(Sotte voce_. Write
down that the old idiot doesn't understand.) Be still now.'
'But I shot him. What else could I have done? He bought a devil in a
'Quiet! That comes later. Leave talking.'
'But I am sheik of the village. One must not bring devils into a
village. I _said_ I would shoot him.'
'This matter is in the hands of the law. _I_ judge.'
'What need? I shot him. Suppose that _your_ son had brought a devil in a
box to _your_ village----'
They explained to him, at last, that under British rule fathers must
hand over devil-dealing children to be shot by the white men (the first
step, you see, on the downward path of State aid), and that he must go
to prison for several months for interfering with a government shoot.
We are a great race. There was a pious young judge in Nigeria once,
who kept a condemned prisoner waiting very many minutes while he
hunted through the Hausa dictionary, word by word, for,
And I heard another tale--about the Suez Canal this time--a hint of what
may happen some day at Panama. There was a tramp steamer, loaded with
high explosives, on her way to the East, and at the far end of the Canal
one of the sailors very naturally upset a lamp in the fo'c'sle. After a
heated interval the crew took to the desert alongside, while the captain
and the mate opened all cocks and sank her, not in the fairway but up
against a bank, just leaving room for a steamer to squeeze past. Then
the Canal authorities wired to her charterers to know exactly what there
might be in her; and it is said that the reply kept them awake of
nights, for it was their business to blow her up.
Meantime, traffic had to go through, and a P. & O. steamer came along.
There was the Canal; there was the sunken wreck, marked by one elderly
Arab in a little boat with a red flag, and there was about five foot
clearance on each side for the P. & O. She went through a-tiptoe,
because even fifty tons of dynamite will jar a boat, perceptibly, and
the tramp held more--very much more, not to mention detonators. By some
absurd chance, almost the only passenger who knew about the thing at the
time was an old lady rather proud of the secret.
'Ah,' she said, in the middle of that agonised glide, 'you may depend
upon it that if everybody knew what, I know, they'd all be on the other
side of the ship.'
Later on, the authorities blew up the tramp with infinite precautions
from some two miles off, for which reason she neither destroyed the Suez
Canal nor dislocated the Sweet Water Canal alongside, but merely dug out
a hole a hundred feet or a hundred yards deep, and so vanished from
But no stories could divert one long from the peculiarities of that
amazing line which exists strictly for itself. There was a bathroom
(occupied) at the windy end of an open alleyway. In due time the bather
Said the steward, as he swabbed out the tub for his successor: 'That was
the Chief Engineer. 'E's been some time. Must 'ave 'ad a mucky job
below, this mornin'.'
I have a great admiration for Chief Engineers. They are men in
authority, needing all the comforts and aids that can possibly be given
them--such as bathrooms of their own close to their own cabins, where
they can clean off at leisure.
It is not fair to mix them up with the ruck of passengers, nor is it
done on real ships. Nor, when a passenger wants a bath in the evening,
do the stewards of real ships roll their eyes like vergers in a
cathedral and say, 'We'll see if it can be managed.' They double down
the alleyway and shout, 'Matcham' or 'Ponting' or 'Guttman,' and in
fifteen seconds one of those swift three has the taps going and the
towels out. Real ships are not annexes of Westminster Abbey or Borstal
Reformatory. They supply decent accommodation in return for good money,
and I imagine that their directors instruct their staffs to look pleased
while at work.
Some generations back there must have been an idea that the P. & O. was
vastly superior to all lines afloat--a sort of semipontifical show not
to be criticised. How much of the notion was due to its own excellence
and how much to its passenger-traffic monopoly does not matter. To-day,
it neither feeds nor tends its passengers, nor keeps its ships well
enough to put on any airs at all.
For which reason, human nature being what it is, it surrounds itself
with an ungracious atmosphere of absurd ritual to cover grudged and
What it really needs is to be dropped into a March North Atlantic,
without any lascars, and made to swim for its life between a C.P.R. boat
and a North German Lloyd--till it learns to smile.