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Presently His Excellency made his appearance in a spruce blue serge suit, white buckskin boots pipeclayed to perfection, and the pale lemon-coloured gloves of the newest vogue. We steamed down the river past those Venetian-looking steps and palaces. The Damietta boats in the distance have the effect of steeples.
In a very few minutes we were away from the town, passing magnificent palm-groves, the finest we have seen on the Nile, with masts silhouetted against them. Here there were palm-groves stretching away like lawns, without any intervening mudbank. There were stray perishing schooners all along, and Egyptian sea-going feluccas. The Governor, who had stepped on board with a gold-headed cane and an Arab newspaper, pointed out things to the ladies with charming politeness, while I talked to the fancy bishop's son engaged in Standard oil. It was a grey-mirror day of perfect reflections. The water seemed painted with palm-trees and the white wings of boats, all the way down. The Governor was saying that Damietta could be a seaport now if they dredged the bar at the mouth of the Nile. Inside " the water is fifty feet deep. Unfortunately, no one wants Damietta to be a port; it can do its own commerce as it is; and for the rest, ships go to Alexandria or Port Said,”
It was easy to see that Damietta had known better days, for there was an old yellow fort abandoned to a few coastguardsmen. Once upon a time there was a large Egyptian town here-quite a city with mosques. The English dismantled it at the time of Arabi Pasha, and now there is only a bank of reeds. The desolation
The desolation of Damietta can best be imagined when one knows that it is used for political prisoners. One of its peculiarities is that in summer every one of any importance goes into a sort of summer camp near the Nile mouth, called Ras-el-Bar. In the winter Ras-el-Bar is only a shoal two kilometres long, with some sand-hummocks and old forts behind. In summer the Governor has a hut put up, and so do the police-station and the post-office. There are twelve hotels or huts, mostly made of matting. Three parts of the officials of Damietta were here in the
summer, the Governor informed us. I wondered what sort of officials they were. He spoke of them as if there were hundreds. He pointed out a fort. It had guns, he said, but no men. Ras-el-Bar, from his descriptions, must look something like Bisley during its fortnight. The only dignified things about it were the great three-masted, sea-going feluccas, regular towers of canvas when they were coming towards you, bows on.
The Governor said that they were just colliers from Port Said. He was a good sailor, for he took us right out to sea, and it was rather rough. We had to come in because the launch shipped too much water.
We did not find the Damietta mouth of the Nile very imposing. It was only a narrow stream of pale blue water running out between shoals. But in the distance in the palm groves there was a nice old town with an elegant mosque.
When we turned round and went up-stream again, first the innumerable palm groves with their fringe of masts, then the bold sweep of palaces backed by domes and minarets, gave a most romantic and Oriental effect.
As we were standing up the river feasting our eyes on the horizon, one of the sailors suddenly grew excited, and came and said something to the Governor : "Do you know what he said to His Excellency?" asked the fancy bishop's son. Of course we didn't. "He said, big fish standing in front of the boat. Go and see.” We went forward. A pair of dolphins were crossing the bow. I had never seen them so well before—this boat was so low in the water. They were pied black and silver, and as smooth as a shaved donkey. We could see their beaks distinctly; they looked like representations of themselves in Venetian glass; they had such silvery bellies. Sometimes they crossed our bows in the act of turning on their backs; their somersaults were most graceful ; they were as fond of doing trick dives as American swimming-master. For half an hour or more they were almost touching the boat in their friendly gambols. It was doubtless their habit of showing off to human beings which makes them come so much into classical legend.
“Why do you take the huts of Ras-el-Bar down in winter ?" I asked the Governor. “Is the place flooded ?" “ Sometimes," he said. “But it is more on account of
the sun. Everything would crack if it were up for a year.”
As we approached the city, which in her decay looks like a warning to Venice, we could hear the muezzin going at all the minarets in Damietta. “What a very religious place!" I said. But the fancy bishop's son replied, “Damietta is not more religious than other places, but more deserted; therefore you hear all the muezzins." He himself, he said, had been awake nearly all night with the muezzin of the mosquito. He was a very strange man. He had spent three whole months in Mecca, staying with the Shereef, who took him there. Having been born and brought up in Constantinople, his Turkish accent was perfect, and he knew all the habits of the Turkish Moslems perfectly. It doubtless prevented inconvenient curiosity and inquiries that the Shereef of Mecca had him in his house, and knew that he was a Christian. He did not speak of Mecca as a very interesting place ; but I think that he was a little censorious on the subject of Moslems, for he said that the only way in which the upper-class Egyptians keep Ramadan is by not offering you the customary cigarette.
The Governor had ordered lunch for twelve because our train went at two. But he generally had it at two, so he mistrusted his cook. He carried his good nature and politeness to his guests so far that he sat in his kitchen with, I suppose, more or less of a staff, seeing that the lunch really was being prepared—I am sure without the least loss of dignity. He informed us of this as an excuse for his absence when he returned to us about one. In the interval the fancy bishop's son enlarged upon the subject of Mecca and Moslem institutions. But he did not say one thing about Mecca which brought it distinctly before my eyes. He had not noticed the things that matter. Some years before, I had been told of an American in the employ of the Standard Oil Company having visited Mecca, and did not believe it. I expect that he was the man. But
it had not been in connection with his business, as I used to be told.
After we had waited for an hour in the square drawing. room, with mastabas all round it, lunch was announced. The Governor had been reading lhis letters. One of them, which seemed to interest him very much, contained the catalogue of the sale of Harrod's models. He handed it to us.
When lunch did come it was worthy of the Carlton, so was the waiting. We had no meal like it all the time we were in Egypt; it was so delightfully cooked, and the Governor's plate and linen were irreproachable. The menu he had ordered for us consisted, except the wine, entirely of local dainties. He wished to show us what Damietta could do, as a reproach to the Cairo and Luxor hotels, who order all their food from Austria. The menu was as follows: 1. Damietta rice served with chicken, liver, and curried pigeon. 2. Rodas, a toothsome Nile fish, served with new potatoes and a mayonaise as thick as butter, which would have secured its maker a handsome salary at the Ritz. 3. Damietta steak and green peas. 4. A cauliflower cooked to perfection in a wonderful creamy white sauce. 5. Damietta ducklings. 6. Blancmange with guava jelly (made from Damietta guavas), pistachios, and candied cherries. 7. Jaffa oranges, Yusuf effendis, and local blood-oranges, shaped like lemons, with juice as dark as burgundy; Damietta bananas.
All through the meal the wine flowed profusely-champagne, chablis, choice claret, and excellent burgundy. The appointments were French, except a rather English-looking sideboard. The Governor is one of those Moslems who do not consider that champagne is wine. I forget what he thought about chablis.
At the conclusion of the meal, at which he had been very witty, and showed many charming little politenesses, he washed his hands after the manner of the Arabian Nightsa gold bowl was brought in and held under his hands by one attendant, while another poured rose-water over them
from a gold igreek. Perhaps they were only silver gilt, but they were beautiful pieces of plate. Just as the cigarettes were brought he suddenly discovered that we must start at that moment if we wished to catch our train. Fortunately his launch was there to take us across to the station. And so we left Damietta, as in a dream.
P.S.-We thought we had left Damietta, but the very rich young man with a squint was at the railway station, with a bundle of his own photographs.