« PreviousContinue »
sunset; the afterglow which must have suggested the Hebrew conception of the jewelled floor of heaven that we have in the Bible; and the night sunsets-the fires which kept the sky red long after the blackness had fallen upon the earth. I suppose that the reason why Egypt has such gorgeous sunsets is because it is such a dusty country. The particles of dust in the air give the sinking sun the same chance as the moisture in the air of Wales.
But there was one attitude of adoration which I found difficult to adopt-the laying the head over sideways to get new colours on the water, when you had exhausted your first fine careless rapture with your head in the ordinary biped's position. It is a fact that it makes the water look azure instead of silver. I did it for half a minute one afternoon, when every one was making a fool of himself to amuse the company; and I think that if I could have had the loggia entirely to myself I should have lain down on the floor with my right cheek on the tiles looking through the balcony railings, to see if the sky was as amenable to scientific observation as the tourist-ridden Nile.
I suspect that the best hotel at Assuan for humours was the Pension-de-Famille kept by the sister of Charles Neufeldt, the prisoner of the Mahdi. Neufeldt is said to be a Mohammedan; -if he is, it is to his credit that he adheres to the creed which he had adopted to save his life-and the hotel has a nice quiet back looking out on the Bishareen Bazar, where fuzzy-wuzzy sits on the ground between tall heaps of gaily coloured grain, under sheds of African thatch.
Both Khartům and Luxor are richer in hotel humours than Assuan. The Grand Hotel at Khartum has distinct idiosyncrasies. To begin with, there are rikshas, though there are never any men to pull them, and a donkey has to be outspanned from the blue sheepskin mat which does duty for a saddle in the Sudan. All the rikshas belong to the Grand Hotel, and as drawn by donkeys cost more than Khartûm's one cab, in the use of which tourists are handicapped by the cabman's being unable to speak a word of any European language. The Grand Hotel has verandahs, and, in theory,
a garden all round it; but the garden was still in the making when we were there, and I don't suppose that it is ready yet, because I never saw the gardeners doing anything but saying their prayers. The native servants inside the house hardly ever did anything except have their ears boxed by the proprietor's pretty young Dutch wife. The bedrooms were all built in pairs. This has its advantages for husbands and wives who do not wish to be quite inseparable and can afford the extra room, but it is awkward when the pair is occupied by people of opposite sexes who have no connection with each other. Miss Ireland, for instance, occupied the same bivalve as a witty old Cincinnati Dutchman. Nothing would induce the native servant not to bring her hot water through the Dutchman's bedroom in the morning. And during the day, if neither of them was in, the servants opened the folding doors between the two rooms as wide as they would go. It gave him a familiarity, which he may not have previously enjoyed, with the daintinesses of a particular woman's bedroom and attire, but unfortunately he carried all his travelling belongings in a Gladstone bag and mistrusted the servants, so her opportunities were not the same. The Sudan prides itself on its honesty and freedom from mosquitoes. The servants always left all the bedroom doors wide open to let the breezes of the Blue Nile blow through ; and to ask for a mosquito net brought down a torrent of defence of the Government, which claims to have eradicated the fever-inventive mosquito. But if there is as effective a substitute for dishonesty as there is for mosquitoes, the Sudan might do itself very well; the mosquito is nothing to the local harvester, which makes little ridges like hard, itching blisters all over the unexposed parts of your body.
I really think the Sudanese must be honest, since the standard story there is that nobody will take a servant who has not been in prison, because none of the others have been taught to work, and most of the prisoners are living at the expense of their country only “because they have hit somebody rather hard on the head.” That is the definition.
The chief merit of the hotel in Khartûm was the verandah
as wide as a drawing-room outside your bedroom, where you could sit and look at the Blue Nile over an avenue of trees with flaming blossoms and tropical birds. Or if you happened to be up at two-thirty in the morning you could see the Southern Cross, a diamond-shaped constellation of stars that flash like diamonds, rising up from the horizon like an aeroplane.
I always thought that the Sudan Government did not show quite its usual sagacity in abandoning travellers to the Grand Hotel, which was costly if clean, and for twenty-five shillings a day gave you nothing that a mess-sergeant could not have given you. As they are so anxious for people to see the Sudan, and invest in it, they ought to start a sort of club for both sexes like the Albemarle, with plenty of bedrooms and a fixed moderate tariff. Quite rich people are deterred from going to Khartům by the cost of the trip. It costs more than Assuan, apart from the expense of the journey, and they say: "At Assuan we know that we shall have a jolly good time and be done thoroughly well; so we don't grudge the money. But what is there to take us to Khartûm ? "
They would not take the same pleasure as I did in the fact that the doorkeeper, even in the middle of the winter, slept under a tree by the gate-on an angarib, of course. Going to bed is such a simple thing for an Egyptian (he was an Egyptian), who never takes his clothes off for any. thing except to have a bath, and hasn't much clothes for that.
In Egypt the real porter, that is to say, the doorkeeper, never has a proper place to sit or sleep in. He sits outside the door all day, and generally puts up his bed just inside it. If you come home late from a dance you have to squeeze past a man in bed. To be allowed to sleep under a staircase is a luxury for him; it is almost like having a bedroom.
Flora at the Luxor Hotel-I call her Flora because her appearance suggested a cornucopia—was very autocratic. Her husband, her Dalmatian maid, and all her staff of Arab servants, were expected to accept her decisions without question,
The day that I rode home from Thebes, remounting at the Luxor landing, with the head of a priestess of Der-elBahari, which is one of my greatest treasures, I wanted a safe place to keep it uninjured, being the most beautiful mummy head I ever saw out of a museum. I asked Flora if she could keep it for me safely. “Sicuro, Signore.” She was delighted. I had visions of it occupying a shelf in one of her store-cupboards. She was great on locking things up, which was doubtless very necessary, and she had keys enough for a jailor. I thought no more about it till I heard the Dalmatian chambermaid expostulating with her, on the next morning And then I discovered that her idea of putting it away in a safe place was to tell the chambermaid to keep it in her bedroom. The poor chambermaid was terrified, as any properly constituted Italian woman would be, although she had wrapped it up in a discarded chemise, so that she could not see it. I said to Flora that if the head was only going to rest on the top of a wardrobe it might just as well rest on the top of my wardrobe as Calfurnia's, and again thought no more about it till I went to bed, and found it still with Calfurnia's chemise wrapped neatly round it. Calfurnia was quite willing to sacrifice that privy garment if the priestess was to go with it. I think my wife gave her a new one instead. The head, which we honour so, came home in the gift of Calfurnia, which, I believe, is still in the beautiful Esna basket which we bought to carry the head in while we were travelling. The head has since been pronounced by a prominent Egyptologist to be probably the head of a priestess of Derel-Bahari “in the spacious times of the great Elizabeth of Egypt”-Queen Hatasu. The incident is significant of the reign of Flora.
In point of comfort we were not often better off than we were at Flora's. It was not greatly less luxurious or more simple than the Grand Hotel at Khartům, and the food was very much better and more plentiful. Flora herself, when she chose, could make exquisite Italian shortbread, less rich than the Scotch, as delicately flavoured as pastilles de
gimauve. She presented me with tins and tins of it, which we used for dessert and afternoon tea, because I was the only guest in the hotel who could rattle on gossip in Italian. The others were all severely English or American, except a forlorn French couple, who sat and sighed for the coffeepots of the Parisian Boulevards. We liked Flora very much for her genuine Italian goodness of heart. She always wanted to be told about Italy, which I knew much better than she did, for she was an Alexandrian Italian, who had only paid visits to Hesperia. She was always dreaming of the actual gardens of Hesperia. Egypt does not rival Italy in gardens.
That hotel was remarkably rich in humours outside, for there was a donkey-boys' stand opposite, and camels often used to stand there, and the law-court was just up the road, and the high road from Karnak entered Luxor at this point. You had only to sit on a chair on the verandah to take notes and photographs of the preposterosities of native life all day long. The propinquity of the camels to the court often made me think of magistrates--the camel is so like a magistrate in his expression. He has a sententious mouth and a withering stare, and I wonder that no caricaturist has ever drawn him with spectacles. Donkey-boys on a stand are more amusing to watch than monkeys. The donkeys look as if they despised them so. I had often wished to know what donkey-doys did with themselves when at leisure, but nothing they ever did was quite so funny as the habit of the people who had business in the law-court. They used to come hours before they were wanted ; some came at daylight, and sat in the dust outside, mostly hunched up, holding their knees until they were wanted. I have seen a queue of them two hundred yards long. Perhaps the Coptic clerks, scribbling at green baize tables just outside the court-house gate, were engaged in determining the order of precedence; or they may have been there to take down dictation of anything that had to be in writing, because so few of the applicants could read or write. Of course it is rather a gamble as to when your case will come on, if people who know that their case will go