UP THE RIVER
Once upon a time there was a murderer who got off with a life-sentence.
What impressed him most, when he had time to think, was the frank
boredom of all who took part in the ritual.
'It was just like going to a doctor or a dentist,' he explained. '_You_
come to 'em very full of your affairs, and then you discover that it's
only part of their daily work to _them_. I expect,' he added, 'I should
have found it the same if--er--I'd gone on to the finish.'
He would have. Break into any new Hell or Heaven and you will be met at
its well-worn threshold by the bored experts in attendance.
For three weeks we sat on copiously chaired and carpeted decks,
carefully isolated from everything that had anything to do with Egypt,
under chaperonage of a properly orientalised dragoman. Twice or thrice
daily, our steamer drew up at a mud-bank covered with donkeys. Saddles
were hauled out of a hatch in our bows; the donkeys were dressed, dealt
round like cards: we rode off through crops or desert, as the case might
be, were introduced in ringing tones to a temple, and were then duly
returned to our bridge and our Baedekers. For sheer comfort, not to say
padded sloth, the life was unequalled, and since the bulk of our
passengers were citizens of the United States--Egypt in winter ought to
be admitted into the Union as a temporary territory--there was no lack
of interest. They were overwhelmingly women, with here and there a
placid nose-led husband or father, visibly suffering from congestion of
information about his native city. I had the joy of seeing two such men
meet. They turned their backs resolutely on the River, bit and lit
cigars, and for one hour and a quarter ceased not to emit statistics of
the industries, commerce, manufacture, transport, and journalism of
their towns;--Los Angeles, let us say, and Rochester, N.Y. It sounded
like a duel between two cash-registers.
One forgot, of course, that all the dreary figures were alive to them,
and as Los Angeles spoke Rochester visualised. Next day I met an
Englishman from the Soudan end of things, very full of a little-known
railway which had been laid down in what had looked like raw desert, and
therefore had turned out to be full of paying freight. He was in the
full-tide of it when Los Angeles ranged alongside and cast anchor,
fascinated by the mere roll of numbers.
'Haow's that?' he cut in sharply at a pause.
He was told how, and went on to drain my friend dry concerning that
railroad, out of sheer fraternal interest, as he explained, in 'any
darn' thing that's being made anywheres,'
'So you see,' my friend went on, 'we shall be bringing Abyssinian cattle
'On the hoof?' One quick glance at the Desert ranges.
'No, no! By rail and River. And after _that_ we're going to grow cotton
between the Blue and the White Nile and knock spots out of the States.'
'This way.' The speaker spread his first and second fingers fanwise
under the big, interested beak. 'That's the Blue Nile. And that's the
White. There's a difference of so many feet between 'em, an' in that
fork here, 'tween my fingers, we shall--'
'_I_ see. Irrigate on the strength of the little difference in the
levels. How many acres?'
Again Los Angeles was told. He expanded like a frog in a shower. 'An' I
thought,' he murmured, 'Egypt was all mummies and the Bible! _I_ used to
know something about cotton. Now we'll talk.'
All that day the two paced the deck with the absorbed insolente of
lovers; and, lover-like, each would steal away and tell me what a
splendid soul was his companion.
That was one type; but there were others--professional men who did not
make or sell things--and these the hand of an all-exacting Democracy
seemed to have run into one mould. They 'were not reticent, but no
matter whence they hailed, their talk was as standardised as the
fittings of a Pullman.
I hinted something of this to a woman aboard who was learned in their
sermons of either language.
'I think,' she began, 'that the staleness you complain of--'
'I never said "staleness,"' I protested.
'But you thought it. The staleness you noticed is due to our men being
so largely educated by old women--old maids. Practically till he goes to
College, and not always then, a boy can't get away from them.'
'Then what happens?'
'The natural result. A man's instinct is to teach a boy to think for
himself. If a woman can't make a boy think _as_ she thinks, she sits
down and cries. A man hasn't any standards. He makes 'em. A woman's the
most standardised being in the world. She has to be. _Now_ d'you see?'
'Well, our trouble in America is that we're being school-marmed to
death. You can see it in any paper you pick up. What were those men
talking about just now?'
'Food adulteration, police-reform, and beautifying waste-lots in towns,'
I replied promptly.
She threw up her hands. 'I knew it!' she cried. 'Our great National
Policy of co-educational housekeeping! Ham-frills and pillow-shams. Did
you ever know a man get a woman's respect by parading around creation
with a dish-clout pinned to his coat-tails?'
'But if his woman ord----told him to do it?' I suggested.
'Then she'd despise him the more for doing it. _You_ needn't laugh.
'You're coming to the same sort of thing in England.'
I returned to the little gathering. A woman was talking to them as one
accustomed to talk from birth. They listened with the rigid attention of
men early trained to listen to, but not to talk with, women. She was, to
put it mildly, the mother of all she-bores, but when she moved on, no
man ventured to say as much.
'That's what I mean by being school-manned to death,' said my
acquaintance wickedly. 'Why, she bored 'em stiff; but they are so well
brought up, they didn't even know they were bored. Some day the American
Man is going to revolt.'
'And what'll the American Woman do?'
'She'll sit and cry--and it'll do her good.'
Later on, I met a woman from a certain Western State seeing God's great,
happy, inattentive world for the first time, and rather distressed that
it was not like hers. She had always understood that the English were
brutal to their wives--the papers of her State said so. (If you only
knew the papers of her State I) But she had not noticed any scandalous
treatment so far, and Englishwomen, whom she admitted she would never
understand, seemed to enjoy a certain specious liberty and equality;
while Englishmen were distinctly kind to girls in difficulties over
their baggage and tickets on strange railways. Quite a nice people, she
concluded, but without much sense of humour. One day, she showed me
what looked like a fashion-paper print of a dress-stuff--a pretty oval
medallion of stars on a striped grenadine background that somehow seemed
'How nice! What is it?' I asked.
'Our National Flag,' she replied.
'Indeed. But it doesn't look quite----'
'No. This is a new design for arranging the stars so that they shall be
easier to count and more decorative in effect. We're going to take a
vote on it in our State, where _we_ have the franchise. I shall cast my
vote when I get home.'
'Really! And how will you vote?'
'I'm just thinking that out.' She spread the picture on her knee and
considered it, head to one side, as though it were indeed dress
All this while the land of Egypt marched solemnly beside us on either
hand. The river being low, we saw it from the boat as one long plinth,
twelve to twenty feet high of brownish, purplish mud, visibly upheld
every hundred yards or so by glistening copper caryatides in the shape
of naked men baling water up to the crops above. Behind that bright
emerald line ran the fawn-or tiger-coloured background of desert, and a
pale blue sky closed all. There was Egypt even as the Pharaohs, their
engineers and architects, had seen it--land to cultivate, folk and
cattle for the work, and outside that work no distraction nor allurement
of any kind whatever, save when the dead were taken to their place
beyond the limits of cultivation. When the banks grew lower, one looked
across as much as two miles of green-stuff packed like a toy Noah's-ark
with people, camels, sheep, goats, oxen, buffaloes, and an occasional
horse. The beasts stood as still, too, as the toys, because they were
tethered or hobbled each to his own half-circle of clover, and moved
forward when that was eaten. Only the very little kids were loose, and
these played on the flat mud roofs like kittens.
No wonder 'every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.' The
dusty, naked-footed field-tracks are cut down to the last centimetre of
grudged width; the main roads are lifted high on the flanks of the
canals, unless the permanent-way of some light railroad can be pressed
to do duty for them. The wheat, the pale ripened tufted sugar-cane, the
millet, the barley, the onions, the fringed castor-oil bushes jostle
each other for foothold, since the Desert will not give them room; and
men chase the falling Nile inch by inch, each dawn, with new furrowed
melon-beds on the still dripping mud-banks.
Administratively, such a land ought to be a joy. The people do not
emigrate; all their resources are in plain sight; they are as accustomed
as their cattle to being led about. All they desire, and it has been
given them, is freedom from murder and mutilation, rape and robbery. The
rest they can attend to in their silent palm-shaded villages where the
pigeons coo and the little children play in the dust.
But Western civilisation is a devastating and a selfish game. Like the
young woman from 'our State,' it says in effect: 'I am rich. I've
nothing to do. I _must_ do something. I shall take up social reform.'
Just now there is a little social reform in Egypt which is rather
amusing. The Egyptian cultivator borrows money; as all farmers must.
This land without hedge or wild-flower is his passion by age-long
inheritance and suffering, by, in and for which he lives. He borrows to
develop it and to buy more at from £30 to £200 per acre, the profit on
which, when all is paid, works out at between £5 to £10 per acre.
Formerly, he borrowed from the local money-lenders, mostly Greeks, at 30
per cent per annum and over. This rate is not excessive, so long as
public opinion allows the borrower from time to time to slay the lender;
but modern administration calls that riot and murder. Some years ago,
therefore, there was established a State-guaranteed Bank which lent to
the cultivators at eight per cent, and the cultivator zealously availed
himself of that privilege. He did not default more than in reason, but
being a farmer, he naturally did not pay up till threatened with being
sold up. So he prospered and bought more land, which was his heart's
desire. This year--1913--the administration issued sudden orders that no
man owning less than five acres could borrow on security of his land.
The matter interested me directly, because I held five hundred pounds
worth of shares in that State-guaranteed Bank, and more than half our
clients were small men of less than five acres. So I made inquiries in
quarters that seemed to possess information, and was told that the new
law was precisely on all-fours with the Homestead Act or the United
States and France, and the intentions of Divine Providence--or words to
'But,' I asked, 'won't this limitation of credit prevent the men with
less than five acres from borrowing more to buy more land and getting on
in the world?'
'Yes,' was the answer, 'of course it will. That's just what we want to
prevent. Half these fellows ruin themselves trying to buy more land.
We've got to protect them against themselves.'
That, alas! is the one enemy against which no law can protect any son of
Adam; since the real reasons that make or break a man are too absurd or
too obscene to be reached from outside. Then I cast about in other
quarters to discover what the cultivator was going to do about it.
'Oh, him?' said one of my many informants. '_He's_ all right. There are
about six ways of evading the Act that, _I_ know of. The fellah probably
knows another six. He has been trained to look after himself since the
days of Rameses. He can forge land-transfers for one thing; borrow land
enough to make his holding more than five acres for as long as it takes
to register a loan; get money from his own women (yes, that's one result
of modern progress in this land!) or go back to his old friend the Greek
at 30 per cent.'
'Then the Greek will sell him up, and that will be against the law,
won't it?' I said.
'Don't you worry about the Greek. He can get through any law ever made
if there's five piastres on the other side of it.'
'Maybe; but _was_ the Agricultural Bank selling the cultivators up too
'Not in the least. The number of small holdings is on the increase, if
anything. Most cultivators won't pay a loan until you point a
judgment-summons at their head. They think that shows they're men of
consequence. This swells the number of judgment-summonses issued, but it
doesn't mean a land-sale for each summons. Another fact is that in real
life some men don't get on as well as others. Either they don't farm
well enough, or they take to hashish, or go crazy about a girl and
borrow money for her, or--er--something of that kind, and they are sold
up. You may have noticed that.'
'I have. And meantime, what is the fellah doing?'
'Meantime, the fellah has misread the Act--as usual. He thinks it's
retrospective, and that he needn't pay past debts. They may make
trouble, but I fancy your Bank will keep quiet.'
'Keep quiet! With the bottom knocked out of two-thirds of its business
and--and my five hundred pounds involved!'
'Is that your trouble? I don't think your shares will rise in a hurry;
but if you want some fun, go and talk to the French about it,'
This seemed as good a way as any of getting a little interest. The
Frenchman that I went to spoke with a certain knowledge of finance and
politics and the natural malice of a logical race against an illogical
'Yes,' he said. 'The idea of limiting credit under these circumstances
is absurd. But that is not all. People are not frightened, business is
not upset by one absurd idea, but by the possibilities of more,'
'Are there any more ideas, then, that are going to be tried on this
'Two or three,' he replied placidly. 'They are all generous; but they
are all ridiculous. Egypt is not a place where one should promulgate
'But my shares--my shares!' I cried. 'They have already dropped several
'It is possible. They will drop more. Then they will rise.'
'Thank you. But why?'
'Because the idea is fundamentally absurd. That will never be admitted
by your people, but there will be arrangements, accommodations,
adjustments, till it is all the same as it used to be. It will be the
concern of the Permanent Official--poor devil!--to pull it straight. It
is always his concern. Meantime, prices will rise for all things.'
'Because the land is the chief security in Egypt. If a man cannot borrow
on that security, the rates of interest will increase on whatever other
security he offers. That will affect all work and wages and Government
He put it so convincingly and with so many historical illustrations
that I saw whole perspectives of the old energetic Pharaohs, masters of
life and death along the River, checked in mid-career by cold-blooded
accountants chanting that not even the Gods themselves can make two plus
two more than four. And the vision ran down through the ages to one
little earnest head on a Cook's steamer, bent sideways over the vital
problem of rearranging 'our National Flag' so that it should be 'easier
to count the stars.'
For the thousandth time: Praised be Allah for the diversity of His