Page images

work ceiling which had had measures taken for its preservation. The best part of the house was its back, where there was a delightful porch in the Sicilian style (with mastabas broad Arab lounges-on each side, and terraced steps, with an antique iron gateway such as our own eighteenth-century mansions have to their high-walled gardens), commanding a view of the sunset, and the masts of old coasting craft outlined against it, and the palm groves across the Nile. “Damietta is the shape of an Arab ‘n,'” said the very rich young man with the squint, which the Arabs call “ The eye of the needle." The Arab “n" is nearly a crescent. The gate was artistically set just at the water-line.

We had already settled the question of the champagne dinner (goodness knows where we could have had it at Damietta except at the Governor's house), and the exchange of photographs which the ladies were unable to effect. Just as we were leaving, the very rich young man wanted to know of a magazine which arranges exchanges of postcards, while the police-captain murmured that the admired one was not like an English woman at all. She was a Greuze. It was no wonder that the Governor, as will be seen, prevented him from meeting us again. “That young man is becoming too forward," said the Governor of Damietta.

We looked about in vain for a place where we could get any kind of a dinner, till our dragoman, who had been rather shy of the police-captain, turned up and took us to a Greek restaurant. The proprietor, who was also the cook, could only speak Greek and Arab. His uncooked viands reposed in a sort of showcase containing tinned apricots, pâté de fois gras, sardines, cherry-brandy, cognac, Greek wine, and Levantine whisky. The meat looked so like leather imitations of itself that we were afraid to eat any. We ordered soup and spaghetti. There were so many mang cats about scratching for food that we could hardly eat our broth-too many cats spoil the broth; but presently some Arabs came in, and the cats, despising the frugality of our meal, deserted to them. They were desert Arabs with striped head-shawls. We wondered what they would order—they went in for stuffed

tomatoes and tomato salad, and all dipped their bread into the salad. Then two Egyptians arrived in tarbooshes and frock-coats. One dined off sliced fennel and bread, and the other off sliced cream cheese. Then more Arabs came in -not in the desert dress--and ate mysterious things besides macaroni. We could not find anything further that invited our stomachs except mandarin oranges-I wished that I had brought my tin of potted meat with me. Our dragoman waited upon us with impressive politeness. I did wish that we could do something more worthy of his attentions. The restaurant itself was like the passage under Clapham Junction. It was imperfectly lighted, but had portraits of the Greek and Russian royal families and the allegorical Hellas. There was quite a nice-looking restaurant opposite, an upstairs affair consisting of a balcony with bamboos in pots, but the dragoman said that they never had any food there. It was like the hotel.

At eight-thirty we went back to the Governor to get the police-captain's answer. We supposed that he had given his orderly, who spoke no English, instructions. At all events, the orderly received us smilingly, and conducted us to a sort of selamlik, with pale green panelling and broad mastabas, luxuriously cushioned, all round it, and here we sat, and sat, but no police-captain came. Finally, however, a very dignified man, between forty and fifty, in a fine silk dressinggown like a Norwich muffler, arrived. He spoke French and a little English, and invited us to sit down, and asked us what we would take, but seemed entirely at sea as to what we wanted. We concluded that he was the real policecaptain, and that the young man was only the lieutenant.

At that moment one of the most extraordinary individuals I ever ran across turned up. He was a Corsican, the son of some fancy kind of bishop in Constantinople, who had ended up with being an American Protestant missionary. He told us that he spoke fourteen languages with equal fluency. We wondered if he spoke them all with as strong an American accent as he spoke English. He was apparently the chief agent of the Standard Oil Company in Egypt, and was

astonishingly obliging and agreeable. He detected at once that we were talking at cross-purposes, and asked, “Well, what is it you want?" I replied, “I want the police-captain to... He said, “But this is not the police-captain—this is the Governor of Damietta.” We made profuse apologies, with the fancy bishop's son interpreting, and explained that we had only asked the police-captain whether we ought to go to the mouth of the Nile by land or water, and to fix the price for us with the dry or wet equipage, because the man we employed would be certain not to know any language we spoke.

The Governor said, “ That is all right; I shall take you in my launch. I will send round now to see what time it will be ready.” We protested that we did not want to trouble him. “Trouble?” he said ; "I wish all English tourists who come here to be my guests. I wish English tourists to see my beautiful city and province, and they never come. While you are here you are my guests."

In the interval, what would we take? “Brandy-and-soda, whisky-and-soda, champagne, cigars, cigarettes ?" Knowing that we must take something, we said, “Only a cigarette, thank you; we have just dined.” We had already had coffee-the servants brought this directly we came in. But the Governor did not intend to be balked in that way. As we refused everything, he said something to the servant in Arabic, and the servant came back with various boxes of wonderful Egyptian cigarettes, which do not come into the market, and champagne. The Governor continued his protestations of welcome with beautiful Arab politeness. The fancy bishop's son translated their flowers, and presently the servant came in and said that the launch would be ready at nine. We then rose to say good-bye with renewed thanks. But the Governor said, “Why good-bye? You will stay at the Governorat while you are in Damietta? Where will my servants find your baggage?” We had, however, unpacked our kit, when we went to the hotel to freshen ourselves up for dinner, and did not feel equal to the exertion of going to put our things in again and return to the Governorat, so

we excused ourselves and said good-night. But the Governor would not release us until we had promised to lunch with him on our return from the mouth of Nile.

When we got back to the hotel we wished that we had accepted the Governor's hospitality, whatever effort it had cost us to go back and repack. It was fairly simple to find the Hôtel de France, even in a town lit like Damietta, for it was just round the corner from the Governorat. But, when we got there, it was painful finding our way up the dark sort of ladder at the back of the donkey stable, and when at length we got into the selamlik it was only lit by a single, horribly smelly, sputtery, little benzine lamp; and various uncouth forms were lying about on the mastabas. Then a better-class sort of woman than we had yet seentall and dark and without a face-veil, though she drew her head-veil together in front of her face while she was talking to us—came forward and produced candlesticks and accompanied us to our rooms to see that we had what we wanted. We entered our beds, which looked like cages, with some trepidation, but there were no insects in the cages, and we soon left off hearing each other in those funny little wooden cubicles, which reminded us of the divisions of an egg-box.

We had to be up betimes, and I forget how we achieved it, for we had promised to meet the Governor at the quay at nine; and we had to go out for breakfast, because our hotel had stipulated that we were not to have anything to eat or drink there, and our restaurant of the previous night did not get up till lunch-time. Our dragoman was of course waiting in the selamlik when we got out of our rooms.

He had been there since six, and he knew of a café where we could get coffee, which is something at Damietta. He could buy bread for us, and we had brought a pot of potted meat in case there was nothing but bread to tempt a Christian in Damietta.

He led the way to a place which took our fancy very much. It was on the bank of the Nile at the end of the reach which is so like the Grand Canal. It had a terrace of soft yellow sand, overhanging the water like a Japanese tea-house,

decorated with a row of green tubs, in which oleanders, caneas, and sickly castor-oil plants were being coaxed to continue their existence. The crumbling balustrade was of a simple, Jappy kind.

There was coffee, but it was only black till the dragoman borrowed the tea-pot to go and fetch some milk. While he was away we revelled in the view. Damietta in misty morning lights looked so charmingly Venetian: there was even a man in a fantastic boat doing the gondolier stroke. The near bank looked more than ever Venetian, with its curved sweep of old mansions and campanile-like minarets. The opposite bank was lined with drunken schooners careened upon the mud. In front, lying out in the broad bend, were the launch that was to take us, a new gyassa, whose suntwood sides were still yellow, and schooners heeling over, with their masts at lazing angles.

All through that simple breakfast we sat and gazed at the long line of palaces against the grey Canaletti sky, making a broken outline with the crumbling Arab buildings in between. The lattices all along made blue vertical dashes, and the fine crazy minarets spaced it out with charming irregularity.

As we still had some time before we were to start, we wandered about looking at the old houses near the quay. The bishop's son joined us. The very rich young man who squinted had joined us at breakfast ; the police-captain was not there: the interdict must have fallen on him. They showed us some beautiful carved woodwork and palm tracery in various houses that were coming down for rebuilding, or by accident. There was one exquisite courtyard which we never should have seen if they had not told us to go in. In its centre was an old carved dikka, with a young man on it saying his prayers. Its graceful columns had light surface carvings on their capitals and a sort of meshrebiya storey atove ; it had a splendid old carved door like a mosque, and the ceiling resting on brackets under one of its projecting windows was the handsomest piece of the famous Damietta woodwork which we saw.

« PreviousContinue »