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Chapter 4


Some time during the night we must have started, but so gently had we slid along it fractional speed that until I raised my head and looked out I had not realized the fact. I saw a high sandbank. This glided monotonously by until I grew tired of looking at it and got up.

After breakfast, however, I found that the sandbank had various attractions all of its own. Three camels laden with stone and in convoy of white-clad figures shuffled down the slope at a picturesque angle. Two cowled women in black, veiled to the eyes in gauze heavily sewn with sequins, barefooted, with massive silver anklets, watched us pass. Hindu workmen in turban and loin-cloth furnished a picturesque note, but did not seem to be injuring themselves by over-exertion. Naked small boys raced us for a short distance. The banks glided by very slowly and very evenly, the wash sucked after us like water in a slough after a duck boat, and the sky above the yellow sand looked extremely blue.

At short and regular intervals, half-way up the miniature sandhills, heavy piles or snubbing-posts had been planted. For these we at first could guess no reason. Soon, however, we had to pass another ship; and then we saw that one of us must tie up to avoid being drawn irresistibly by suction into collision with the other. The craft sidled by, separated by only a few feet, so that we could look across to each other's decks and exchange greetings. As the day grew this interest grew likewise. Dredgers in the canal; rusty tramps flying unfamiliar flags of strange tiny countries; big freighters, often with Greek or Turkish characters on their sterns; small dirty steamers of suspicious business; passenger ships like our own, returning from the tropics, with white-clad, languid figures reclining in canvas chairs; gunboats of this or that nation bound on mysterious affairs; once a P. & O. converted into a troopship, from whose every available porthole, hatch, deck, and shroud laughing, brown, English faces shouted chaff at our German decks--all these either tied up for us, or were tied up for by us. The only craft that received no consideration on our part were the various picturesque Arab dhows, with their single masts and the long yards slanting across them. Since these were very small, our suction dragged at them cruelly. As a usual thing four vociferous figures clung desperately to a rope passed around one of the snubbing-posts ashore, while an old man shrieked syllables at them from the dhow itself. As they never by any chance thought of mooring her both stem and stern, the dhow generally changed ends rapidly, shipping considerable water in the process. It must be very trying to get so excited in a hot climate.

The high sandbanks of the early part of the day soon dropped lower to afford us a wider view. In its broad, general features the country was, quite simply, the desert of Arizona over again. There were the same high, distant, and brittle-looking mountains, fragile and pearly; the same low, broken half-distances; the same wide sweeps; the same wonderful changing effects of light, colour, shadow, and mirage; the same occasional strips of green marking the watercourses and oases. As to smaller detail, we saw many interesting divergences. In the foreground constantly recurred the Bedouin brush shelters, each with its picturesque figure or so in flowing robes, and its grumpy camels. Twice we saw travelling caravans, exactly like the Bible pictures. At one place a single burnoused Arab, leaning on his elbows, reclined full length on the sky-line of a clean-cut sandhill. Glittering in the mirage, half-guessed, half-seen, we made out distant little white towns with slender palm trees. At places the water from the canal had overflowed wide tracts of country. Here, along the shore, we saw thousands of the water-fowl already familiar to us, as well as such strangers as gaudy kingfishers, ibises, and rosy flamingoes.

The canal itself seemed to be in a continual state of repair. Dredgers were everywhere; some of the ordinary shovel type, others working by suction, and discharging far inland by means of weird huge pipes that apparently meandered at will over the face of nature. The control stations were beautifully French and neat, painted yellow, each with its gorgeous bougainvilleas in flower, its square-rigged signal masts, its brightly painted extra buoys standing in a row, its wharf--and its impassive Arab fishermen thereon. We reclined in our canvas chairs, had lemon squashes brought to us, and watched the entertainment steadily and slowly unrolled before us.

We reached the end of the canal about three o'clock of the afternoon, and dropped anchor off the low-lying shores. Our binoculars showed us white houses in apparently single rank along a far-reaching narrow sand spit, with sparse trees and a railroad line. That was the town of Suez, and seemed so little interesting that we were not particularly sorry that we could not go ashore. Far in the distance were mountains; and the water all about us was the light, clear green of the sky at sunset.

Innumerable dhows and row-boats swarmed down, filled with eager salesmen of curios and ostrich plumes. They had not much time in which to bargain, so they made it up in rapid-fire vociferation. One very tall and dignified Arab had as sailor of his craft the most extraordinary creature, just above the lower limit of the human race. He was of a dull coal black, without a single high light on him anywhere, as though he had been sand-papered, had prominent teeth, like those of a baboon, in a wrinkled, wizened monkey face, across which were three tattooed bands, and possessed a little, long-armed, spare figure, bent and wiry. He clambered up and down his mast, fetching things at his master's behest; leapt nonchalantly for our rail or his own spar, as the case might be, across the staggering abyss; clung so well with his toes that he might almost have been classified with the quadrumana; and between times squatted humped over on the rail, watching us with bright, elfish, alien eyes.

At last the big German sailors bundled the whole variegated horde overside. It was time to go, and our anchor chain was already rumbling in the hawse pipes. They tumbled hastily into their boats; and at once swarmed up their masts, whence they feverishly continued their interrupted bargaining. In fact, so fully embarked on the tides of commerce were they, that they failed to notice the tides of nature widening between us. One old man, in especial, at the very top of his mast, jerked hither and thither by the sea, continued imploringly to offer an utterly ridiculous carved wooden camel long after it was impossible to have completed the transaction should anybody have been moonstruck enough to have desired it. Our ship's prow swung; and just at sunset, as the lights of Suez were twinkling out one by one, we headed down the Red Sea.

Stewart Edward White

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