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THE SMILE OF THE SPHINX
THERE was not much left of the afternoon when
we reached Cairo, but some of us wandered off here and there to get the habit of the place, as it were. Laura and I came to a trolley-line presently, and found that it ran out to the Pyramids and Sphinx. We were rather shocked at the thought, but recovered and decided to steal a march on the others by slipping out there and having those old wonders all to ourselves, at sunset.
It is a long way. You pass through streets of many kinds and by houses of many sorts, and you cross the Nile and glide down an avenue of palms where there are glimpses of water—the infinite desert stretching away into the evening. Long before we reached them we saw the outlines of the three pyramids against the sky, and then we made out the Sphinx—that old group which is perhaps the most familiar picture that children know.
Yet, somehow, it could not be true that this was the reality of the pictures we had seen. The likeness was very great, certainly, but those pictures had represented something in a realm of books and romance—the unattainable land—while these were here; we were actually going to them, and in a trolley-car! It required all the spell of Egypt then
-the palms, the desert, and the evening sky—to fit the reality into its old place in the hall of dreams.
We had thought to have a quiet view, but this was a miscalculation. There is no such thing as a quiet view of the Pyramids. At any hour of the day or night you are immediately beset by beggars and fortune - tellers and would - be guides, and you are pulled and dragged and distracted by their importunities until you have lost all interest in your original purpose in a general desire to start a plague or a massacre that will wipe out the whole pestiferous crew. There is no hope, except in the employment of one or two of the guides—the strongest-looking ones, who will in a certain measure keep off the others—and you will have to engage donkeys, and perhaps have your fortune told. Otherwise these creatures will follow you and surround you, insisting that they want no money; that they only love you; that it makes them happy even to be near you; that they love all Americans; that, in short, for a shilling, just a shilling, and a baksheesh (a piastre), one little baksheesh, they will become your guide, your slave, the dirt under your feet—“Ah, mister-ze Sphinkis, ze Pyramid, aevry-zing!" It is a disgrace to Egypt, and to England who is in charge here now, that such persecution is permitted in the shadow of one of the world's most revered and imposing ruins.
We engaged donkeys, at last, after there had been several fights over us, and set out up the road to the Great Pyramid, assailed every little way by bandits lying in wait. The Great Pyramid does not improve with close acquaintance. It has been too much
damaged by time and criminal assault. It loses its clean-cut outlines as you come near and becomes little more than a stupendous heap of stones. I think we were a trifle disappointed with a close inspection, to tell the truth, for even the largest pictures do not give one quite the impression of the reality. It was as if we had been gazing at some marvellous painting, and then had walked up very near to see how the work was done.
The charm came back as we rode off a little and turned to view it now and again in the evening light. The irregularities disappeared; the outlines became clean against the sky; I was no longer disappointed in that giant of architecture whose shadow (it lay now just at our feet) began marking time at a period when the world had no recorded history.
Yet in one or two respects the reality differed from the dream. Usually stone grows gray with age and takes on moss and lichen—the mould of time. The Pyramids are entirely bare, and they are not gray. The stones might have been laid up yesterday so far as any vegetable increment is concerned, and their color is a tawny gold-luminous gold in the sunset, like the barren hills beyond. The daily sandblast of the desert will level these monuments in time, no doubt, but the last fragment in that remote age will still be bare and in color unchanged.
As with the Pyramids, our first impression of the Sphinx was one of disappointment. It seemed small to us. It is small compared with a pyramid, while the photographs give one another idea. The photographs are made with the Sphinkis (Sphinx, I mean-one falls so easily into the native speech) in the foreground, looking fully as big as the secondsize pyramid and quite able to have the third-size pyramid for breakfast. Figures mean nothing in the face of a picture like that; you comprehend them, but you do not realize them—visualize them, perhaps I ought to say.
So the Sphinx seemed small to us as we approached, and even when we were on the immediate brink of sand, gazing down upon it, its sixty-five feet of stature seemed reduced from the image in our minds.
But the Sphinx grows on one. As the light faded and the shadows softened its scarred features there came also a dignity and with it a feeling of immensity, of grandeur, a vast indifference to all puny things. And then-perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was because I stood at a particular angle, but certainlystanding just there, at that moment, I saw, or fancied I saw, about its serene lips the suggestion or beginning of a smile. The more I looked, the more certain of it I became, and when I spoke of it to Laura, she saw it, too. Yes, undoubtedly we had caught the Sphinx smiling—not outwardly, at least not openly, but quietly, quizzically-smiling inside as one might say. I could not understand it then, but later it came to me.
Back at the hotel, to-night, I thought it out. I remembered that the Sphinx had been there a long time; nobody knows how long, but a very long time indeed. I remembered that it had seen a number of