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The time of times to approach Port Said is just at the fall of dusk. Then the sea lies in opalescent patches, and the low shores fade away into the gathering night. The slanting masts and yards of the dhows silhouette against a sky of the deepest translucent green; and the heroic statue of De Lesseps, standing for ever at the Gateway he opened, points always to the mysterious East.
The rhythmical, accustomed chug of the engines had fallen to quarter speed, leaving an uncanny stillness throughout the ship. Silently we slipped between the long piers, drew up on the waterside town, seized the buoy, and came to rest. All around us lay other ships of all sizes, motionless on the inky water. The reflections from their lights seemed to be thrust into the depths, like stilts; and the few lights from the town reflected shiveringly across. Along the water-front all was dark and silent. We caught the loom of buildings; and behind them a dull glow as from a fire, and guessed tall minarets, and heard the rising and falling of chanting. Numerous small boats hovered near, floating in and out of the patches of light we ourselves cast, waiting for permission to swarm at the gang-plank for our patronage.
We went ashore, passed through a wicket gate, and across the dark buildings to the heart of the town, whence came the dull glow and the sounds of people.
Here were two streets running across one another, both brilliantly lighted, both thronged, both lined with little shops. In the latter one could buy anything, in any language, with any money. In them we saw cheap straw hats made in Germany hung side by side with gorgeous and beautiful stuffs from the Orient; shoddy European garments and Eastern jewels; cheap celluloid combs and curious embroideries. The crowd of passers-by in the streets were compounded in the same curiously mixed fashion; a few Europeans, generally in white, and then a variety of Arabs, Egyptians, Somalis, Berbers, East Indians and the like, each in his own gaudy or graceful costume. It speaks well for the accuracy of feeling, anyway, of our various "Midways," "Pikes," and the like of our world's expositions that the streets of Port Said looked like Midways raised to the nth power. Along them we sauntered with a pleasing feeling of self-importance. On all sides we were gently and humbly besought--by the shopkeepers, by the sidewalk vendors, by would-be guides, by fortune-tellers, by jugglers, by magicians; all soft-voiced and respectful; all yielding as water to rebuff, but as quick as water to glide back again. The vendors were of the colours of the rainbow, and were heavily hung with long necklaces of coral or amber, with scarves, with strings of silver coins, with sequinned veils and silks, girt with many dirks and knives, furnished out in concealed pockets with scarabs, bracelets, sandalwood boxes or anything else under the broad canopy of heaven one might or might not desire. Their voices were soft and pleasing, their eyes had the beseeching quality of a good dog's, their anxious and deprecating faces were ready at the slightest encouragement to break out into the friendliest and most intimate of smiles. Wherever we went we were accompanied by a retinue straight out of the Arabian Nights, patiently awaiting the moment when we should tire; should seek out the table of a sidewalk café; and should, in our relaxed mood, be ready to unbend to our royal purchases.
At that moment we were too much interested in the town itself. The tiny shops, with their smiling and insinuating Oriental keepers, were fascinating in their displays of carved woods, jewellery, perfumes, silks, tapestries, silversmiths' work, ostrich feathers, and the like. To either side the main street lay long narrow dark alleys, in which flared single lights, across which flitted mysterious long-robed figures, from which floated stray snatches of music either palpitatingly barbaric or ridiculously modern. There the authority of the straight, soldierly-looking Soudanese policemen ceased, and it was not safe to wander unarmed or alone.
Besides these motley variegations of the East and West, the main feature of the town was the street car. It was an open-air structure of spacious dimensions, as though benches and a canopy had been erected rather haphazard on a small dancing platform. The track is absurdly narrow in gauge; and as a consequence the edifice swayed and swung from side to side. A single mule was attached to it loosely by about ten feet of rope. It was driven by a gaudy ragamuffin in a turban. Various other gaudy ragamuffins lounged largely and picturesquely on the widely spaced benches. Whence it came or whither it went I do not know. Its orbit swung into the main street, turned a corner, and disappeared. Apparently Europeans did not patronize this picturesque wreck, but drove elegantly but mysteriously in small open cabs conducted by totally incongruous turbaned drivers.
We ended finally at an imposing corner hotel, where we dined by an open window just above the level of the street. A dozen upturned faces besought us silently during the meal. At a glance of even the mildest interest a dozen long brown arms thrust the spoils of the East upon our consideration. With us sat a large benign Swedish professor whose erudition was encyclopaedic, but whose kindly humanity was greater. Uttering deep, cavernous chuckles, the professor bargained. A red coral necklace for the moment was the matter of interest. The professor inspected it carefully, and handed it back.
"I doubt if id iss coral," said he simply.
The present owner of the beads went frantic with rapid-fire proof and vociferation. With the swiftness and precision of much repetition he fished out a match, struck it, applied the flame to the alleged coral, and blew out the match; cast the necklace on the pavement, produced mysteriously a small hammer, and with it proceeded frantically to pound the beads. Evidently he was accustomed to being doubted, and carried his materials for proof around with him. Then, in one motion, the hammer disappeared, the beads were snatched up, and again offered, unharmed, for inspection.
"Are those good tests for genuineness?" we asked the professor, aside.
"As to that," he replied regretfully, "I do not know. I know of coral only that is the hard calcareous skeleton of the marine coelenterate polyps; and that this red coral iss called of a sclerobasic group; and other facts of the kind; but I do not know if it iss supposed to resist impact and heat. Possibly," he ended shrewdly, "it is the common imitation which does not resist impact and heat. At any rate they are pretty. How much?" he demanded of the vendor, a bright-eyed Egyptian waiting patiently until our conference should cease.
"Twenty shillings," he replied promptly.
The professor shook with one of his cavernous chuckles.
"Too much," he observed, and handed the necklace back through the window.
The Egyptian would by no means receive it.
"Keep! keep!" he implored, thrusting the mass of red upon the professor with both hands. "How much you give?"
"One shilling," announced the professor firmly.
The coral necklace lay on the edge of the table throughout most of our leisurely meal. The vendor argued, pleaded, gave it up, disappeared in the crowd, returned dramatically after an interval. The professor ate calmly, chuckled much, and from time to time repeated firmly the words, "One shilling." Finally, at the cheese, he reached out, swept the coral into his pocket, and laid down two shillings. The Egyptian deftly gathered the coin, smiled cheerfully, and produced a glittering veil, in which he tried in vain to enlist Billy's interest.
For coffee and cigars we moved to the terrace outside. Here an orchestra played, the peoples of many nations sat at little tables, the peddlers, fakirs, jugglers, and fortune-tellers swarmed. A half-dozen postal cards seemed sufficient to set a small boy up in trade, and to imbue him with all the importance and insistence of a merchant with jewels. Other ten-year-old ragamuffins tried to call our attention to some sort of sleight-of-hand with poor downy little chickens. Grave, turbaned, and polite Indians squatted cross-legged at our feet, begging to give us a look into the future by means of the only genuine hall-marked Yogi-ism; a troupe of acrobats went energetically and hopefully through quite a meritorious performance a few feet away; a deftly triumphant juggler did very easily, and directly beneath our watchful eyes, some really wonderful tricks. A butterfly-gorgeous swarm of insinuating smiling peddlers of small things dangled and spread their wares where they thought themselves most sure of attention. Beyond our own little group we saw slowly passing in the lighted street outside the portico the variegated and picturesque loungers. Across the way a phonograph bawled; our stringed orchestra played "The Dollar Princess;" from somewhere over in the dark and mysterious alleyways came the regular beating of a tom-tom. The magnificent and picturesque town car with its gaudy ragamuffins swayed by in train of its diminutive mule.
Suddenly our persistent and amusing entourage vanished in all directions. Standing idly at the portico was a very straight, black Soudanese. On his head was the usual red fez; his clothing was of trim khaki; his knees and feet were bare, with blue puttees between; and around his middle was drawn close and smooth a blood-red sash at least a foot and a half in breadth. He made a fine upstanding Egyptian figure, and was armed with pride, a short sheathed club, and a great scorn. No word spoke he, nor command; but merely jerked a thumb towards the darkness, and into the darkness our many-hued horde melted away. We were left feeling rather lonesome!
Near midnight we sauntered down the street to the quay, whence we were rowed to the ship by another turbaned, long-robed figure, who sweetly begged just a copper or so "for poor boatman."
We found the ship in the process of coaling, every porthole and doorway closed, and heavy canvas hung to protect as far as possible the clean decks. Two barges were moored alongside. Two blazing braziers lighted them with weird red and flickering flames. In their depths, cast in black and red shadows, toiled half-guessed figures; from their depths, mounting a single steep plank, came an unbroken procession of natives, naked save for a wisp of cloth around the loins. They trod closely on each other's heels, carrying each his basket atop his head or on one shoulder, mounted a gang-plank, discharged their loads into the side of the ship, and descended again to the depths by way of another plank. The lights flickered across their dark faces, their gleaming teeth and eyes. Somehow the work demanded a heap of screeching, shouting, and gesticulation; but somehow also it went forward rapidly. Dozens of unattached natives lounged about the gunwales with apparently nothing to do but to look picturesque. Shore boats moved into the narrow circle of light, drifted to our gangway, and discharged huge crates of vegetables, sacks of unknown stuffs, and returning passengers. A vigilant police boat hovered near to settle disputes, generally with the blade of an oar. For a long time we leaned over the rail watching them, and the various reflected lights in the water, and the very clear, unwavering stars. Then, the coaling finished, and the portholes once more opened, we turned in.
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