THE RIDDLE OF EMPIRE
At Halfa one feels the first breath of a frontier. Here the Egyptian
Government retires into the background, and even the Cook steamer does not
draw up in the exact centre of the postcard. At the telegraph-office, too,
there are traces, diluted but quite recognisable, of military
administration. Nor does the town, in any way or place whatever,
smell--which is proof that it is not looked after on popular lines. There
is nothing to see in it any more than there is in Hulk C. 60, late of her
Majesty's troopship _Himalaya_, now a coal-hulk in the Hamoaze at
Plymouth. A river front, a narrow terraced river-walk of semi-oriental
houses, barracks, a mosque, and half-a-dozen streets at right angles, the
Desert racing up to the end of each, make all the town. A mile or so up
stream under palm trees are bungalows of what must have been cantonments,
some machinery repair-shops, and odds and ends of railway track. It is all
as paltry a collection of whitewashed houses, pitiful gardens, dead walls,
and trodden waste spaces as one would wish to find anywhere; and every bit
of it quivers with the remembered life of armies and river-fleets, as the
finger-bowl rings when the rubbing finger is lifted. The most unlikely men
have done time there; stores by the thousand ton have been rolled and
pushed and hauled up the banks by tens of thousands of scattered hands;
hospitals have pitched themselves there, expanded enormously, shrivelled
up and drifted away with the drifting regiments; railway sidings by the
mile have been laid down and ripped up again, as need changed, and utterly
wiped out by the sands.
Halfa has been the rail-head, Army Headquarters, and hub of the
universe--the one place where a man could make sure of buying tobacco
and sardines, or could hope for letters for himself and medical
attendance for his friend. Now she is a little shrunken shell of a town
without a proper hotel, where tourists hurry up from the river to buy
complete sets of Soudan stamps at the Post Office.
I went for a purposeless walk from one end of the place to the other,
and found a crowd of native boys playing football on what might have
been a parade-ground of old days.
'And what school is that?' I asked in English of a small, eager youth.
'Madrissah,' said he most intelligently, which being translated means
'Yes, but _what_ school?'
'Yes, Madrissah, school, sir,' and he tagged after to see what else the
A line of railway track, that must have fed big workshops in its time,
led me between big-roomed houses and offices labelled departmentally,
with here and there a clerk at work. I was directed and re-directed by
polite Egyptian officials (I wished to get at a white officer if
possible, but there wasn't one about); was turned out of a garden which
belonged to an Authority; hung round the gate of a bungalow with an
old-established compound and two white men sitting in chairs on a
verandah; wandered down towards the river under the palm trees, where
the last red light came through; lost myself among rusty boilers and
balks of timber; and at last loafed back in the twilight escorted by the
small boy and an entire brigade of ghosts, not one of whom I had ever
met before, but all of whom I knew most intimately. They said it was the
evenings that used to depress _them_ most, too; so they all came back
after dinner and bore me company, while I went to meet a friend arriving
by the night train from Khartoum.
She was an hour late, and we spent it, the ghosts and I, in a
brick-walled, tin-roofed shed, warm with the day's heat; a crowd of
natives laughing and talking somewhere behind in the darkness. We knew
each other so well by that time, that we had finished discussing every
conceivable topic of conversation--the whereabouts of the Mahdi's head,
for instance--work, reward, despair, acknowledgment, flat failure, all
the real motives that had driven us to do anything, and all our other
longings. So we sat still and let the stars move, as men must do when
they meet this kind of train.
Presently I asked: 'What is the name of the next station out from
'Station Number One,' said a ghost.
'And the next?'
'Station Number Two, and so on to Eight, I think.'
'And wasn't it worth while to name even _one_ of these stations from
some man, living or dead, who had something to do with making the line?'
'Well, they didn't, anyhow,' said another ghost. 'I suppose they didn't
think it worth while. Why? What do _you_ think?'
'I think, I replied, 'it is the sort of snobbery that nations go to
Her headlight showed at last, an immense distance off; the economic
electrics were turned up, the ghosts vanished, the dragomans of the
various steamers flowed forward in beautiful garments to meet their
passengers who had booked passages in the Cook boats, and the Khartoum
train decanted a joyous collection of folk, all decorated with horns,
hoofs, skins, hides, knives, and assegais, which they had been buying at
Omdurman. And when the porters laid hold upon their bristling bundles,
it was like MacNeill's Zareba without the camels.
Two young men in tarboushes were the only people who had no part in the
riot. Said one of them to the other:
Said the other: 'Hullo!'
They grunted together for a while. Then one pleasantly:
'Oh, I'm sorry for _that_! I thought I was going to have you under me
for a bit. Then you'll use the rest-house there?'
'I suppose so,' said the other. 'Do you happen to know if the roof's
Here a woman wailed aloud for her dervish spear which had gone adrift,
and I shall never know, except from the back pages of the Soudan
Almanack, what state that rest-house there is in.
The Soudan Administration, by the little I heard, is a queer service. It
extends itself in silence from the edges of Abyssinia to the swamps of
the Equator at an average pressure of one white man to several thousand
square miles. It legislates according to the custom of the tribe where
possible, and on the common sense of the moment when there is no
precedent. It is recruited almost wholly from the army, armed chiefly
with binoculars, and enjoys a death-rate a little lower than its own
reputation. It is said to be the only service in which a man taking
leave is explicitly recommended to get out of the country and rest
himself that he may return the more fit to his job. A high standard of
intelligence is required, and lapses are not overlooked. For instance,
one man on leave in London took the wrong train from Boulogne, and
instead of going to Paris, which, of course, he had intended, found
himself at a station called Kirk Kilissie or Adrianople West, where he
stayed for some weeks. It was a mistake that might have happened to any
one on a dark night after a stormy passage, but the authorities would
not believe it, and when I left Egypt were busily engaged in boiling
him in hot oil. They are grossly respectable in the Soudan now.
Long and long ago, before even the Philippines were taken, a friend of
mine was reprimanded by a British Member of Parliament, first for the
sin of blood-guiltiness because he was by trade a soldier, next for
murder because he had fought in great battles, and lastly, and most
important, because he and his fellow-braves had saddled the British
taxpayer with the expense of the Soudan. My friend explained that all
the Soudan had ever cost the British taxpayer was the price of about one
dozen of regulation Union Jacks--one for each province. 'That,' said the
M.P. triumphantly, 'is all it will ever be worth.' He went on to justify
himself, and the Soudan went on also. To-day it has taken its place as
one of those accepted miracles which are worked without heat or
headlines by men who do the job nearest their hand and seldom fuss about
But less than sixteen years ago the length and breadth of it was one
crazy hell of murder, torture, and lust, where every man who had a sword
used it till he met a stronger and became a slave. It was--men say who
remember it--a hysteria of blood and fanaticism; and precisely as an
hysterical woman is called to her senses by a dash of cold water, so at
the battle of Omdurman the land was reduced to sanity by applied death
on such a scale as the murderers and the torturers at their most
unbridled could scarcely have dreamed. In a day and a night all who had
power and authority were wiped out and put under till, as the old song
says, no chief remained to ask after any follower. They had all charged
into Paradise. The people who were left looked for renewed massacres of
the sort they had been accustomed to, and when these did not come, they
said helplessly: 'We have nothing. We are nothing. Will you sell us into
slavery among the Egyptians?' The men who remember the old days of the
Reconstruction--which deserves an epic of its own--say that there was
nothing left to build on, not even wreckage. Knowledge, decency,
kinship, property, tide, sense of possession had all gone. The people
were told they were to sit still and obey orders; and they stared and
fumbled like dazed crowds after an explosion. Bit by bit, however, they
were fed and watered and marshalled into some sort of order; set to
tasks they never dreamed to see the end of; and, almost by physical
force, pushed and hauled along the ways of mere life. They came to
understand presently that they might reap what they had sown, and that
man, even a woman, might walk for a day's journey with two goats and a
native bedstead and live undespoiled. But they had to be taught
And little by little, as they realised that the new order was sure and
that their ancient oppressors were quite dead, there returned not only
cultivators, craftsmen, and artisans, but outlandish men of war, scarred
with old wounds and the generous dimples that the Martini-Henry bullet
used to deal--fighting men on the lookout for new employ. They would
hang about, first on one leg, then on the other, proud or uneasily
friendly, till some white officer circulated near by. And at his fourth
or fifth passing, brown and white having approved each other by eye, the
talk--so men say--would run something like this:
OFFICER (_with air of sudden discovery_). Oh, you by the hut, there,
what is your business?
WARRIOR (_at 'attention' complicated by attempt to salute_). I am
So-and-So, son of So-and-So, from such and such a place.
OFFICER. I hear. And ...?
WARRIOR (_repeating salute_). And a fighting man also.
OFFICER (_impersonally to horizon_). But they _all_ say that nowadays.
WARRIOR (_very loudly_). But there is a man in one of your battalions
who can testify to it. He is the grandson of my father's uncle.
OFFICER (_confidentially to his boots_). Hell is _quite_ full of such
grandsons of just such father's uncles; and how do I know if Private
So-and-So speaks the truth about his family? (_Makes to go._)
WARRIOR (_swiftly removing necessary garments_). Perhaps. But _these_
don't lie. Look! I got this ten, twelve years ago when I was quite a
lad, close to the old Border, Yes, Halfa. It was a true Snider bullet.
Feel it! This little one on the leg I got at the big fight that finished
it all last year. But I am not lame (_violent leg-exercise_), not in
the least lame. See! I run. I jump. I kick. Praised be Allah!
OFFICER. Praised be Allah! And then?
WARRIOR (_coquettishly_). Then, I shoot. I am not a common spear-man.
(_Lapse into English._) Yeh, dam goo' shot! (_pumps lever of imaginary
OFFICER (_unmoved_). I see. And then?
WARRIOR (_indignantly_). _I_ am come here--after many days' marching.
(_Change to childlike wheedle_.) Are _all_ the regiments full?
At this point the relative, in uniform, generally discovered himself,
and if the officer liked the cut of his jib, another 'old Mahdi's man'
would be added to the machine that made itself as it rolled along. They
dealt with situations in those days by the unclouded light of reason and
a certain high and holy audacity.
There is a tale of two Sheikhs shortly after the Reconstruction began.
One of them, Abdullah of the River, prudent and the son of a
slave-woman, professed loyalty to the English very early in the day, and
used that loyalty as a cloak to lift camels from another Sheikh, Farid
of the Desert, still at war with the English, but a perfect gentleman,
which Abdullah was not. Naturally, Farid raided back on Abdullah's kine,
Abdullah complained to the authorities, and the Border fermented. To
Farid in his desert camp with a clutch of Abdullah's cattle round him,
entered, alone and unarmed, the officer responsible for the peace of
those parts. After compliments, for they had had dealings with each
other before: 'You've been driving Abdullah's stock again,' said the
'I should think I had!' was the hot answer. 'He lifts my camels and
scuttles back into your territory, where he knows I can't follow him for
the life; and when I try to get a bit of my own back, he whines to you.
He's a cad--an utter cad.'
'At any rate, he is loyal. If you'd only come in and be loyal too, you'd
both be on the same footing, and then if he stole from you, he'd catch
'He'd never dare to steal except under your protection. Give him what
he'd have got in the Mahdi's time--a first-class flogging. _You_ know he
'I'm afraid that isn't allowed. You have to let me shift all those
bullocks of his back again.'
'And if I don't?'
'Then, I shall have to ride back and collect all my men and begin war
'But what prevents my cutting your throat where you sit?
'For one thing, you aren't Abdullah, and----'
'There! You confess he's a cad!'
'And for another, the Government would only send another officer who
didn't understand your ways, and then there _would_ be war, and no one
would score except Abdullah. He'd steal your camels and get credit for
'So he would, the scoundrel! This is a hard world for honest men. Now,
you admit Abdullah is a cad. Listen to me, and I'll tell you a few more
things about him. He was, etc., etc. He is, etc., etc.'
'You're perfectly right, Sheikh, but don't you see I can't tell him what
I think of him so long as he's loyal and you're out against us? Now, if
_you_ come in I promise you that I'll give Abdullah a telling-off--yes,
in your presence--that will do you good to listen to.'
'No! I won't come in! But--I tell you what I will do. I'll accompany you
to-morrow as your guest, understand, to your camp. Then you send for
Abdullah, and _if_ I judge that his fat face has been sufficiently
blackened in my presence, I'll think about coming in later.'
So it was arranged, and they slept out the rest of the night, side by
side, and in the morning they gathered up and returned all Abdullah's
cattle, and in the evening, in Farid's presence, Abdullah got the
tongue-lashing of his wicked old life, and Farid of the Desert laughed
and came in; and they all lived happy ever afterwards.
Somewhere or other in the nearer provinces the old heady game must be
going on still, but the Soudan proper has settled to civilisation of the
brick-bungalow and bougainvillea sort, and there is a huge technical
college where the young men are trained to become fitters, surveyors,
draftsmen, and telegraph employees at fabulous wages. In due time, they
will forget how warily their fathers had to walk in the Mahdi's time to
secure even half a bellyful; then, as has happened elsewhere. They will
honestly believe that they themselves originally created and since then
have upheld the easy life into which they were bought at so heavy a
price. Then the demand will go up for 'extension of local government,'
'Soudan for the Soudanese,' and so on till the whole cycle has to be
retrodden. It is a hard law but an old one--Rome died learning it, as
our western civilisation may die--that if you give any man anything that
he has not painfully earned for himself, you infallibly make him or his
descendants your devoted enemies.