« PreviousContinue »
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
Sir, no; I am making it.”
“ 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
KHARGA VILLAGE, IN THE GREAT OASIS OF THE LIBYAN DESERT.
Children collected round the village fountain.