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it could not start without us, we inspected these finds, and the engine-sheds and the repairing shops; this little railway knows the importance of being independent in Egypt, where a man once attempted to charge me twenty-five shillings for putting a spring into a type-writer.
Outside the shed was a mysterious-looking object which may make the fortune of the inventive manager, or give him the fame of a Blériot-a desert ship, something on the lines of an ice-ship, with which he had already made flights with some success on the smooth desert, up and down the strong north wind. It would come in handy for the fly-district the tsetse-fly district--if the winds reach far enough and his success develops.
At last the train started. The time seemed long because we had been up so early, not because the train was late. The last thing we saw before we left the comparative civilisation of the base was a native cemetery. The next thing we saw was a mirage which gave us mountains. We were travelling in the manager's observation car, built up out of the centre of a carriage platform, as one of Gordon's gunboats was built up out of a penny steamer. It had an open sort of verandah at each end, and a dust-proof cabin in the centre, provided with tables and easy chairs.
The desert at first was flat and strewn with Aints, but soon changed into low parallel valleys.
Suddenly we heard yells, and the Arab signalman at the back of the train began to swarm along the outside of our carriage like a monkey. In another second half the thirdclass passengers were out on the steps of their carriages. What was it all about? In any case the train stopped. We looked' up and down the track, which was as straight as a Roman road. What was the matter ? we asked the man in a scarlet sweater with W.O.R. on it, the thing most like an official which we carried on the train. He said the thief had jumped off. We wondered who the thief was, and why they had not tried to stop him, instead of gesticulating like maniacs. The man had got nearly half an hour's start by the time that they had tapped the wire and sent a field
telegram at the telegraph-post, which represented the twentyfourth kilometer. The train did not wait for the operator ; he had to run after it and jump on while it was in motion. We got most of our information from Mohammed, our dragoman, who had not introduced himself to us before. We thought he would be there all right because the manager said he would. For this desert journey, on which he was to be our cook and general servant, he came dressed in a black frock-coat and trousers, a tarboosh, and tattered white tennis shoes—a costume which he doubtless considered gave him an official appearance. He was a Berberine with an eternal smile, and he mentioned that he had lunch for us. The disappearance of the thief, he said, was not important; he had only stolen himself from his family; he was, moreover, the Omdeh's nephew, and he thought the people in the train would be glad of the disappointment to the Omdeh. He knew nothing whatever about the country through which we were passing, and appeared to be inclined to talk about general subjects. So we told him to bring the drinks at once, and the rest of the lunch the first time the train stopped after one o'clock. There did not seem any reason why the train should stop anywhere. There is not a human habitation between the base and the oasis, except a cabin at intervals on the line, in which two unlucky signalmen pass their lives, with nothing to break the monotony except two trains a week each way. But they have a telephone, and probably carry on a conversation with the outer world by that from time to time, though if they are fellahin they would be content to have a spot of shade to sleep in, and no one to kick them up and make them work. There is a proverb to that effect in Egypt.
After the Nunc dimittis of the thief, the railway passed through a sort of Valley of the Kings, planed down, and probably most of the planing was natural, as the line was laid at the rate of nine kilometers a day. We were now deep into a most unredeemed desert, which never had had anything in it since the days of the Romans, except the caravans-chiefly slave caravans before the English came, which crossed it from the oasis to Assyut and less favourite places. In the future there will be hardly any caravans, slave or otherwise. Few people would go by camel across a desert when they could go by train-natives always seem to have money for trains and trams. But this abandoned desert did not look any worse than the surroundings of Helwân. Our understanding of the desert was interfered with by the grey morning. It looks such a very mild-mannered affair in grey weather, though here and there you saw the bones of a camel bleached by the sun.
We were able to get out very often, because the train was always stopping. The ground was hard enough for a motor to work on here. We wondered if the oasis trains were like motors and suffered from punctures, or whether our engine was merely suffering from the fire-boxes getting overheated, like the Sudan engines. Arabs are always finding new games for trains and motors. As there did not seem to be any European in charge, there seemed no reason why the train should arrive at all. I attacked Mohammed, our smiling and frock-coated Berberine, on the subject. He said that the engine-driver was a Scotchman, or undoubtedly the train never would arrive. He added that it would have been impossible to get the natives to go in it if they had thought that the engineer was an Egyptian: this was a length to which their Nationalist aspirations would never take them.
The stations on this line are very fine. We expected them to be something belonging to the Stone Age to suit the scenery, but they were rather attractive-looking reed shelters. When we got to the first, the official with a red jersey marked W.O.R. put a hose into one of the huge water tanks, which accompanied us on goods cars, and watered first the Mohammedan passengers and then the engine. And it is not so easy as one would think to fill water-bottles with an engine-hose. This individual spent most of his time in climbing round the train like a monkey, while it was in motion.
Soon the scene changed, and everything turned as white as snow with salt crystals. You could have sworn that the 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 might 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.