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Chapter 6

ADEN.

It was cooler; and for a change we had turned into our bunks, when B. pounded on our stateroom door.

"In the name of the Eternal East," said he, "come on deck!"

We slipped on kimonos, and joined the row of scantily draped and interested figures along the rail.

The ship lay quite still on a perfect sea of moonlight, bordered by a low flat distant shore on one side, and nearer mountains on the other. A strong flare, centred from two ship reflectors overside, made a focus of illumination that subdued, but could not quench, the soft moonlight with which all outside was silvered. A dozen boats, striving against a current or clinging as best they could to the ship's side, glided into the light and became real and solid; or dropped back into the ghostly white unsubstantiality of the moon. They were long, narrow boats, with small flush decks fore and aft. We looked down on them from almost directly above, so that we saw the thwarts and the ribs and the things they contained.

Astern in each stood men, bending gracefully against the thrust of long sweeps. About their waists were squares of cloth, wrapped twice and tucked in. Otherwise they were naked, and the long smooth muscles of their slender bodies rippled under the skin. The latter was of a beautiful fine texture, and chocolate brown. These men had keen, intelligent, clear-cut faces, of the Greek order, as though the statues of a garden had been stained brown and had come to life. They leaned on their sweeps, thrusting slowly but strongly against the little wind and current that would drift them back.

In the body of the boats crouched, sat, or lay a picturesque mob. Some pulled spasmodically on the very long limber oars; others squatted doing nothing; some, huddled shapelessly underneath white cloths that completely covered them, slept soundly in the bottom. We took these for merchandise until one of them suddenly threw aside his covering and sat up. Others, again, poised in proud and graceful attitudes on the extreme prows of their bobbing craft. Especially decorative were two, clad only in immense white turbans and white cloths about the waist. An old Arab with a white beard stood midships in one boat, quite motionless, except for the slight swaying necessary to preserve his equilibrium, his voluminous white draperies fluttering in the wind, his dark face just distinguishable under his burnouse. Most of the men were Somalis, however. Their keen small faces, slender but graceful necks, slim, well-formed torsos bending to every movement of the boat, and the white or gaudy draped nether garments were as decorative as the figures on an Egyptian tomb. One or two of the more barbaric had made neat headdresses of white clay plastered in the form of a skull-cap.

After an interval a small and fussy tugboat steamed around our stern and drew alongside the gangway. Three passengers disembarked from her and made their way aboard. The main deck of the craft under an awning was heavily encumbered with trunks, tin boxes, hand baggage, tin bath-tubs, gun cases, and all sorts of impedimenta. The tugboat moored itself to us fore and aft, and proceeded to think about discharging. Perhaps twenty men in accurate replica of those in the small boats had charge of the job. They had their own methods. After a long interval devoted strictly to nothing, some unfathomable impulse would incite one or two or three of the natives to tackle a trunk. At it they tugged and heaved and pushed in the manner of ants making off with a particularly large fly or other treasure trove, tossing it up the steep gangway to the level of our decks. The trunks once safely bestowed, all interest, all industry, died. We thought that finished it, and wondered why the tug did not pull out of the way. But always, after an interval, another bright idea would strike another native or natives. He--or they--would disappear beneath the canvas awning over the tug's deck, to emerge shortly, carrying almost anything, from a parasol to a heavy chest.

On close inspection they proved to be a very small people. The impression of graceful height had come from the slenderness and justness of their proportions, the smallness of their bones, and the upright grace of their carriage. After standing alongside one, we acquired a fine respect for their ability to handle those trunks at all.

Moored to the other side of the ship we found two huge lighters, from which bales of goods were being hoisted aboard. Two camels and a dozen diminutive mules stood in the waist of one of these craft. The camels were as sniffy and supercilious and scornful as camels always are; and everybody promptly hated them with the hatred of the abysmally inferior spirit for something that scorns it, as is the usual attitude of the human mind towards camels. We waited for upwards of an hour, in the hope of seeing those camels hoisted aboard; but in vain. While we were so waiting one of the deck passengers below us, a Somali in white clothes and a gorgeous cerise turban, decided to turn in. He spread a square of thin matting atop one of the hatches, and began to unwind yards and yards of the fine silk turban. He came to the end of it--whisk! he sank to the deck; the turban, spread open by the resistance of the air, fluttered down to cover him from head to foot. Apparently he fell asleep at once, for he did not again move nor alter his position. He, as well as an astonishingly large proportion of the other Somalis and Abyssinians we saw, carried a queer, well-defined, triangular wound in his head. It had long since healed, was an inch or so across, and looked as though a piece of the skull had been removed. If a conscientious enemy had leisure and an icepick he would do just about that sort of a job. How its recipient had escaped instant death is a mystery.

At length, about three o'clock, despairing of the camels, we turned in.

After three hours' sleep we were again on deck. Aden by daylight seemed to be several sections of a town tucked into pockets in bold, raw, lava mountains that came down fairly to the water's edge. Between these pockets ran a narrow shore road; and along the road paced haughty camels hitched to diminutive carts. On contracted round bluffs towards the sea were various low bungalow buildings which, we were informed, comprised the military and civil officers' quarters. The real Aden has been built inland a short distance at the bottom of a cup in the mountains. Elaborate stone reservoirs have been constructed to catch rain water, as there is no other natural water supply whatever. The only difficulty is that it practically never rains; so the reservoirs stand empty, the water is distilled from the sea, and the haughty camels and the little carts do the distributing.

The lava mountains occupy one side of the spacious bay or gulf. The foot of the bay and the other side are flat, with one or two very distant white villages, and many heaps of glittering salt as big as houses.

We waited patiently at the rail for an hour more to see the camels slung aboard by the crane. It was worth the wait. They lost their impassive and immemorial dignity completely, sprawling, groaning, positively shrieking in dismay. When the solid deck rose to them, and the sling had been loosened, however, they regained their poise instantaneously. Their noses went up in the air, and they looked about them with a challenging, unsmiling superiority, as though to dare any one of us to laugh. Their native attendants immediately squatted down in front of them, and began to feed them with convenient lengths of what looked like our common marsh cat-tails. The camels did not even then manifest the slightest interest in the proceedings. Indeed, they would not condescend to reach out three inches for the most luscious tit-bit held that far from their aristocratic noses. The attendants had actually to thrust the fodder between their jaws. I am glad to say they condescended to chew.


Stewart Edward White

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