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Chapter 5

THE RED SEA.

Suez is indeed the gateway to the East. In the Mediterranean often the sea is rough, the winds cold, passengers are not yet acquainted, and hug the saloons or the leeward side of the deck. Once through the canal and all is changed by magic. The air is hot and languid; the ship's company down to the very scullions appear in immaculate white; the saloon chairs and transoms even are put in white coverings; electric fans hum everywhere; the run on lemon squashes begins; and many quaint and curious customs of the tropics obtain.

For example: it is etiquette that before eight o'clock one may wander the decks at will in one's pyjamas, converse affably with fair ladies in pigtail and kimono, and be not abashed. But on the stroke of eight bells it is also etiquette to disappear very promptly and to array one's self for the day; and it is very improper indeed to see or be seen after that hour in the rather extreme negligée of the early morning. Also it becomes the universal custom, or perhaps I should say the necessity, to slumber for an hour after the noon meal. Certainly sleep descending on the tropical traveller is armed with a bludgeon. Passengers, crew, steerage, "deck," animal, and bird fall down then in an enchantment. I have often wondered who navigates the ship during that sacred hour, or, indeed, if anybody navigates it at all. Perhaps that time is sacred to the genii of the old East, who close all prying mortal eyes, but in return lend a guiding hand to the most pressing of mortal affairs. The deck of the ship is a curious sight between the hours of half-past one and three. The tropical siesta requires no couching of the form. You sit down in your chair, with a book--you fade slowly into a deep, restful slumber. And yet it is a slumber wherein certain small pleasant things persist from the world outside. You remain dimly conscious of the rhythmic throbbing of the engines, of the beat of soft, warm air on your cheek.

At three o'clock or thereabout you rise as gently back to life, and sit erect in your chair without a stretch or a yawn in your whole anatomy. Then is the one time of day for a display of energy--if you have any to display. Ship games, walks--fairly brisk--explorations to the forecastle, a watch for flying fish or Arab dhows, anything until tea-time. Then the glowing sunset; the opalescent sea, and the soft afterglow of the sky--and the bugle summoning you to dress. That is a mean job. Nothing could possibly swelter worse than the tiny cabin. The electric fan is an aggravation. You reappear in your fresh "whites" somewhat warm and flustered in both mind and body. A turn around the deck cools you off; and dinner restores your equanimity--dinner with the soft, warm tropic air breathing through all the wide-open ports; the electric fans drumming busily; the men all in clean white; the ladies, the very few precious ladies, in soft, low gowns. After dinner the deck, as near cool as it will be, and heads bare to the breeze of our progress, and glowing cigars. At ten or eleven o'clock the groups begin to break up, the canvas chairs to empty. Soon reappears a pyjamaed figure followed by a steward carrying a mattress. This is spread, under its owner's direction, in a dark corner forward. With a sigh you in your turn plunge down into the sweltering inferno of your cabin, only to reappear likewise with a steward and a mattress. The latter, if you are wise, you spread where the wind of the ship's going will be full upon you. It is a strong wind and blows upon you heavily, so that the sleeves and legs of your pyjamas flop, but it is a soft, warm wind, and beats you as with muffled fingers. In no temperate clime can you ever enjoy this peculiar effect of a strong breeze on your naked skin without even the faintest surface chilly sensation. So habituated has one become to feeling cooler in a draught that the absence of chill lends the night an unaccustomedness, the more weird in that it is unanalyzed, so that one feels definitely that one is in a strange, far country. This is intensified by the fact that in these latitudes the moon, the great, glorious, calm tropical moon, is directly overhead--follows the centre line of the zenith--instead of being, as with us in our temperate zone, always more or less declined to the horizon. This, too, lends the night an exotic quality, the more effective in that at first the reason for it is not apprehended.

A night in the tropics is always more or less broken. One awakens, and sleeps again. Motionless white-clad figures, cigarettes glowing, are lounging against the rail looking out over a molten sea. The moonlight lies in patterns across the deck, shivering slightly under the throb of the engines, or occasionally swaying slowly forward or slowly back as the ship's course changes, but otherwise motionless, for here the sea is always calm. You raise your head, look about, sprawl in a new position on your mattress, fall asleep. On one of these occasions you find unexpectedly that the velvet-gray night has become steel-gray dawn, and that the kindly old quartermaster is bending over you. Sleepily, very sleepily, you stagger to your feet and collapse into the nearest chair. Then to the swish of water, as the sailors sluice the decks all around and under you, you fall into a really deep sleep.

At six o'clock this is broken by chota-hazri, another tropical institution, consisting merely of clear tea and biscuits. I never could get to care for it, but nowhere in the tropics could I head it off. No matter how tired I was or how dead sleepy, I had to receive that confounded chota-hazri. Throwing things at the native who brought it did no good at all. He merely dodged. Admonition did no good, nor prohibition in strong terms. I was but one white man of the whole white race; and I had no right to possess idiosyncrasies running counter to dastur, the custom. However, as the early hours are profitable hours in the tropics, it did not drive me to homicide.

The ship's company now developed. Our two prize members, fortunately for us, sat at our table. The first was the Swedish professor aforementioned. He was large, benign, paternal, broad in mind, thoroughly human and beloved, and yet profoundly erudite. He was our iconoclast in the way of food; for he performed small but illuminating dissections on his plate, and announced triumphantly results that were not a bit in accordance with the menu. A single bone was sufficient to take the pretension out of any fish. Our other particular friend was C., with whom later we travelled in the interior of Africa. C. is a very celebrated hunter and explorer, an old Africander, his face seamed and tanned by many years in a hard climate. For several days we did not recognize him, although he sat fairly alongside, but put him down as a shy man, and let it go at that. He never stayed for the long table d'hôte dinners, but fell upon the first solid course and made a complete meal from that. When he had quite finished eating all he could, he drank all he could; then he departed from the table, and took up a remote and inaccessible position in the corner of the smoking-room. He was engaged in growing the beard he customarily wore in the jungle--a most fierce outstanding Mohammedan-looking beard that terrified the intrusive into submission. And yet Bwana C. possesses the kindest blue eyes in the world, full of quiet patience, great understanding, and infinite gentleness. His manner was abrupt and uncompromising, but he would do anything in the world for one who stood in need of him. From women he fled; yet Billy won him with infinite patience, and in the event they became the closest of friends. Withal he possessed a pair of the most powerful shoulders I have ever seen on a man of his frame; and in the depths of his mild blue eyes flickered a flame of resolution that I could well imagine flaring up to something formidable. Slow to make friends, but staunch and loyal; gentle and forbearing, but fierce and implacable in action; at once loved and most terribly feared; shy as a wild animal, but straightforward and undeviating in his human relations; most remarkably quiet and unassuming, but with tremendous vital force in his deep eyes and forward-thrust jaw; informed with the widest and most understanding humanity, but unforgiving of evildoers; and with the most direct and absolute courage, Bwana C. was to me the most interesting man I met in Africa, and became the best of my friends.

The only other man at our table happened to be, for our sins, the young Englishman mentioned as throwing the first coin to the old woman on the pier at Marseilles. We will call him Brown, and, because he represents a type, he is worth looking upon for a moment.

He was of the super-enthusiastic sort; bubbling over with vitality, in and out of everything; bounding up at odd and languid moments. To an extraordinary extent he was afflicted with the spiritual blindness of his class. Quite genuinely, quite seriously, he was unconscious of the human significance of beings and institutions belonging to a foreign country or even to a class other than his own. His own kind he treated as complete and understandable human creatures. All others were merely objective. As we, to a certain extent, happened to fall in the former category, he was as pleasant to us as possible--that is, he was pleasant to us in his way, but had not insight enough to guess at how to be pleasant to us in our way. But as soon as he got out of his own class, or what he conceived to be such, he considered all people as "outsiders." He did not credit them with prejudices to rub, with feelings to hurt, indeed hardly with ears to overhear. Provided his subject was an "outsider," he had not the slightest hesitancy in saying exactly what he thought about any one, anywhere, always in his high clear English voice, no matter what the time or occasion. As a natural corollary he always rebuffed beggars and the like brutally, and was always quite sublimely doing little things that thoroughly shocked our sense of the other fellow's rights as a human being. In all this he did not mean to be cruel or inconsiderate. It was just the way he was built; and it never entered his head that "such people" had ears and brains.

In the rest of the ship's company were a dozen or so other Englishmen of the upper classes, either army men on shooting trips, or youths going out with some idea of settling in the country. They were a clean-built, pleasant lot; good people to know anywhere, but of no unusual interest. It was only when one went abroad into the other nations that inscribable human interest could be found.

There was the Greek, Scutari, and his bride, a languorous rather opulent beauty, with large dark eyes for all men, and a luxurious manner of lying back and fanning herself. She talked, soft-voiced, in half a dozen languages, changing from one to the other without a break in either her fluency or her thought. Her little lithe, active husband sat around and adored her. He was apparently a very able citizen indeed, for he was going out to take charge of the construction work on a German railway. To have filched so important a job from the Germans themselves shows that he must have had ability. With them were a middle-aged Holland couple, engaged conscientiously in travelling over the globe. They had been everywhere--the two American hemispheres, from one Arctic Sea to another, Siberia, China, the Malay Archipelago, this, that, and the other odd corner of the world. Always they sat placidly side by side, either in the saloon or on deck, smiling benignly, and conversing in spaced, comfortable syllables with everybody who happened along. Mrs. Breemen worked industriously on some kind of feminine gear, and explained to all and sundry that she travelled "to see de sceenery wid my hoos-band."

Also in this group was a small wiry German doctor, who had lived for many years in the far interior of Africa, and was now returning after his vacation. He was a little man, bright-eyed and keen, with a clear complexion and hard flesh, in striking and agreeable contrast to most of his compatriots. The latter were trying to drink all the beer on the ship; but as she had been stocked for an eighty-day voyage, of which this was but the second week, they were not making noticeable headway. However, they did not seem to be easily discouraged. The Herr Doktor was most polite and attentive, but as we did not talk German nor much Swahili, and he had neither English nor much French, we had our difficulties. I have heard Billy in talking to him scatter fragments of these four languages through a single sentence!

For several days we drifted down a warm flat sea. Then one morning we came on deck to find ourselves close aboard a number of volcanic islands. They were composed entirely of red and dark purple lava blocks, rugged, quite without vegetation save for occasional patches of stringy green in a gully; and uninhabited except for a lighthouse on one, and a fishing shanty near the shores of another. The high mournful mountains, with their dark shadows, seemed to brood over hot desolation. The rusted and battered stern of a wrecked steamer stuck up at an acute angle from the surges. Shortly after we picked up the shores of Arabia.

Note the advantages of a half ignorance. From early childhood we had thought of Arabia as the "burning desert"--flat, of course--and of the Red Sea as bordered by "shifting sands" alone. If we had known the truth--if we had not been half ignorant--we would have missed the profound surprise of discovering that in reality the Red Sea is bordered by high and rugged mountains, leaving just space enough between themselves and the shore for a sloping plain on which our glasses could make out occasional palms. Perhaps the "shifting sands of the burning desert" lie somewhere beyond; but somebody might have mentioned these great mountains! After examining them attentively we had to confess that if this sort of thing continued farther north the children of Israel must have had a very hard time of it. Mocha shone white, glittering, and low, with the red and white spire of a mosque rising brilliantly above it.


Stewart Edward White

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