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rocks were mastabas; they were only nature's mastabas, though there were plenty of skeletons about_let us hope of animals—which had perished by the way.
This desert is the most deserted thing I ever saw-it is just sand and white stones and baby kopjes. The stones are as sharp as the rocks, which strew the site of ancient Syracuse,
Nearly half our journey was performed, and we had not seen an animal, married or single, because they would have nothing to live on unless they were cannibals.
At the second stop Mohammed made us leave the observation car and get into the saloon–he thought we should be more comfortable there for lunch, because it had nice leather-cushioned chairs and blue windows, like the train from Wady Halfa to Khartum.
The purchase of the lunch had been entrusted to him, and he had weird ideas about the sort of things that would appeal to English people with the thermometer at a hundred in the shade, just as he had very weird ideas about drinks, in which uncooled beer took the first place, and soda-water was hardly considered. But he meant well, and he had a smile like a piano.
Perhaps he had the beer to make us feel homey. If it had only been iced it would have been divine : how one resents not having ice in the desert!
While we were at lunch the ticket-collector called, an Arab in a miscellaneous dress-a sort of art-indigo robe and a white turban. He had beautiful and humble manners.
After lunch we passed a line of snow-white rocks which looked as though they had just been turned out in moulds like blancmange. They gave way to wide plains of hard gravel strewn with round stones like Dutch cheeses, which, in their turn, gave way to drifted hills of golden sand.
Towards three o'clock the reputation of the desert was saved by the appearance of a gazelle, which fled away rapidly to the horizon.
Then we went through gorge after gorge with magnificent precipices of golden sandstone, castellated like the Valley of the Kings, but with waves of sand threatening to overwhelm
them. It was such a wild sea of sand; or perhaps I should rather compare it to the dry bed of a lake surrounded by foot hills in benches like you get in the Rocky Mountains.
The benches gave way to what looked like a lava field of Etna. There were long stretches of piled-up black boulders, as barren as Dore's illustrations of Milton. We were quite disappointed that the W.O.R. time-table insisted that the blackness of these rocks was due to water and iron, not to fire. It must have been prehistoric water, for there has never been any here since Egyptian history began about 7,000 years ago. It was nearly as disappointing as the discovery of how well the desert does without human beings.
One thing attracted our notice very much-the number of cairns, not heaps of stones, but one, two, or three stones piled upon the point of a rock. Mohammed said they marked the road. They would have sent me crazy if I had been trying to go by them, for they branched off in any direction. When we arrived at headquarters Johnson Pasha supplied the solution. In the Roman times this district was full of valuable mines; the triangles of cairns marked the way to them. They are all deserted now.
A book inight be written on the imitativeness of the desert with its mirages. These are the real castles in the air. Its powers are unlimited, it can do a great deal even with rocks and sand. Cheops, for instance, would never have gone to the trouble of building his Great Pyramid if he had visited the Sudan and seen nature's admirable imitations of the Pyramid on the road to Khartum. Just here the desert was sometimes imitating the mastabas of Ghizeh, sometimes the houses in an Arab village, with their roofs battlemented with dung, like you have at the Memphis landing. Then we passed into a snow-white gorge of the same material, I believe, as the white walls of old England. The character of the rocks was for ever changing, especially now when we had crossed the water-shed (a beautiful expression for a plateau where rain has never fallen in all the centuries of the local history), and were commencing the descent, in which the engine shuts off steam and toboggans.
It is no wonder that Egyptians refuse to be driven by a fellow-countryman on this line. What Egyptian would ever remember the right place for shutting off steam, or would have the presence of mind to be firm with an engine that had made up its mind to run away. The only thing that he would remember would be the softest place for jumping off.
But with a good safe Scotchman at the helm, if one may apply such a term to an engine, the pleasure of the traindescent was delirious. We whirled past the most wonderful combinations of rocks: we were about to debouch on a glorious stretch of golden sand, a piece of desert as beautiful as the green plains of Catania and Kyoto-those oases of islands which have mountains for their wildernesses.
There were mountains here, too, ringing the plain majestically, with little hills in front, like the tented field of an army.
Just as we were running down to that golden plain, I thought I saw a mirage—this is one's first thought when one sees trees bordering the desert—but those trees were not a mirage, for suddenly I saw before me, as at our very feet, a long soft stretch of green, and running water.
There were people again, and asses, and the straw shelters inhabited by human beings.
A few minutes later we pulled up at Meherique Station, and even the engine had a good drink.
We were in the oasis, in the middle of it; for the train line goes straight to its heart. And here, at our first greeting, was one of these life-giving Artesian wells which are the dispensations of Providence for the wilderness. What was it like? It reminded me of a knight's helmet with a river running out of its vizor-such a hurly-burly of water.
Soon we got to the headquarters station, and were received by the genius who has restored its waters to the oasis, and A., the Austrian, who was officially the analyst, but who was practically the factotum.
In Egypt the darkness falls quickly. So it was night when we drew up, and we had no chance of viewing our surroundings. The usual mysterious Arabs seized our baggage and took it
somewhere, the Pasha and A. showed us our rooms, spacious and delightfully cool rooms, in which the candles lost themselves. We were, of course, pressed to partake of all sorts of refreshments with true Anglo-Egyptian hospitality. But we begged to be abandoned to Mohammed, who boasted that dinner would be ready for us as soon as we had washed our hands.
I thought I knew better. I entered the large and long dining-hall of the rest house with much the same feeling, as I used to go into the dining-room of the Palace Hotel at San Francisco, knowing that the waiter, of some cheap foreign nationality, would make a great parade of bringing us iced water at once (though we never used it), and nothing else for about an hour. Even this was not so bad as trying to get waited on at a German beer-hall, where the waiter brings you pepper and salt directly you arrive and refrains from looking at you for the next half-hour-at afternoon tea-time. We had, however, good easy chairs and two extra good duplex lamps to comfort us, and some one had thoughtfully provided The Strand Magazine,
I gave Mohammed a chance for half an hour, and then I yelled to him. An answering shout came from the back : "Coming, sir.” As he did not come, I went to look for the shout. By the light of the brilliant Egyptian moon I found myself on a broad square of sand chopped off from the desert.
On the far side was a low black line of outhouses, in one of which I could see a spark. I made for that will-o'-the-wisp, filling my slippers with the deep soft sand, so soft and clean that you could almost have bathed in it. When I got to the far side I found Mohammed and another native. They appeared to be making eggs. Two poor little charcoal embers were staring at them reproachfully, but they took no notice-natives have to incubate before they can do anything.
" Mohammed," I said, “ have you taken in the dinner ?"
“ Mohammed,” I said, “I think I should like to see you cooking the dinner."
I was not sure when he would begin unless I did.
Thus encouraged, he and the other native fanned the embers with a palm-leaf. Then I saw that Mohammed was still in his black frock-coat and trousers, but he had taken off his tennis-shoes and socks, which may have troubled him. There weren't many inches between the tail of his frockcoat and the sand when his boots were off.
I thought I should have died of suppressed laughter while he was cooking that dinner; it was all so like the performance of the Indian conjuror with the London Dolly-Hyde Park Dolly, who goes round the Cairo hotels and says tout alors every minute.
He produced unsuspected pans, and put unsuspected stores into them, and stirred and smelt the spoon : this was politeness, he would have licked it, if I had not been there.
After awhile I got tired of watching the two conspirators, and returned to the dining-hall. When Mohammed did follow me, long afterwards, with great parade, he only brought the bread. I suppose he was afraid that we should eat it all if he had put it on the table while he was laying it. Or did they have white ants in the oasis, which would have carried it off from under our noses ?
Between nine and ten the dinner came in. Mohammed put on his mangled tennis-shoes again to wait, or perhaps to cross that desert backyard.
Then I thought our troubles were over, for the dinner was really admirable. He gave us delicious soup, an entrée, a joint, poultry, a sweet and cheese. And, of course, biscuits. Biscuits are the staff of life in Egypt. Everything was well cooked and appetisingly served, but he had quaint ideas about drinks. He had forgotten the soda-water, and a thermometer standing in the beer might have registered ninety. I entreated him for the future to keep the beer (in its bottles : I had to mention this) in the bedroom jugs—which he did with good results. Wine without soda-water, or cold water, was too heating