My Funship to Egypt (1913)
I had left Europe for no reason except to discover the Sun, and there were rumours that he was to be found in Egypt.
But I had not realised what more I should find there.
A P. & O. boat carried us out of Marseilles. A serang of lascars, with whistle, chain, shawl, and fluttering blue clothes, was at work on the baggage-hatch. Somebody bungled at the winch. The serang called him a name unlovely in itself but awakening delightful memories in the hearer.
‘O Serang, is that man a fool?’
‘Very foolish, sahib. He comes from Surat. He only comes for his food’s sake.’
The serang grinned; the Surtee man grinned; the winch began again, and the voices that called: ‘Lower away! Stop her!’ were as familiar as the friendly whiff from the lascars’ galley or the slap of bare feet along the deck. But for the passage of a few impertinent years, I should have gone without hesitation to share their rice. Serangs used to be very kind to little white children below the age of caste. Most familiar of all was the ship itself. It had slipped my memory, nor was there anything in the rates charged to remind me, that single-screws still lingered in the gilt-edged passenger trade.
Some North Atlantic passengers accustomed to real ships made the discovery, and were as pleased about it as American tourists at Stratford-on-Avon.
‘Oh, come and see!’ they cried. ‘She has one screw—only one screw! Hear her thump! And have you seen their old barn of a saloon? And the officers’ library? It’s open for two half-hours a day week-days and one on Sundays. You pay a dollar and a quarter deposit on each book. We wouldn’t have missed this trip for anything. It’s like sailing with Columbus.’
They wandered about—voluble, amazed, and happy, for they were getting off at Port Said.
I explored, too. From the rough-ironed table-linen, the thick tooth-glasses for the drinks, the slummocky set-out of victuals at meals, to the unaccommodating regulations in the curtainless cabin, where they had not yet arrived at bunk-edge trays for morning tea, time and progress had stood still with the P. & O. To be just, there were electric-fan fittings in the cabins, but the fans were charged extra; and there was a rumour, unverified, that one could eat on deck or in one’s cabin without a medical certificate from the doctor. All the rest was under the old motto: ‘Quis separabit ‘—’This is quite separate from other lines.’
‘After all,’ said an Anglo-Indian, whom I was telling about civilised ocean travel, ‘they don’t want you Egyptian trippers. They’re sure of us , because——’ and he gave me many strong reasons connected with leave, finance, the absence of competition, and the ownership of the Bombay foreshore.
‘But it’s absurd,’ I insisted. ‘The whole concern is out of date. There’s a notice on my deck forbidding smoking and the use of naked lights, and there’s a lascar messing about the hold-hatch outside my cabin with a candle in a lantern.’
Meantime, our one-screw tub thumped gingerly toward Port Said, because we had no mails aboard, and the Mediterranean, exhausted after severe February hysterics, lay out like oil.
I had some talk with a Scotch quartermaster who complained that lascars are not what they used to be, owing to their habit (but it has existed since the beginning) of signing on as a clan or family—all sorts together.
The serang said that, for his part, he had noticed no difference in twenty years. ‘Men are always of many kinds, sahib. And that is because God makes men this and that. Not all one pattern—not by any means all one pattern.’ He told me, too, that wages were rising, but the price of ghee, rice, and curry-stuffs was up, too, which was bad for wives and families at Porbandar. ‘And that also is thus, and no talk makes it otherwise.’ After Suez he would have blossomed into thin clothes and long talks, but the bitter spring chill nipped him, as the thought of partings just accomplished and work just ahead chilled the Anglo-Indian contingent. Little by little one came at the outlines of the old stories—a sick wife left behind here, a boy there, a daughter at school, a very small daughter trusted to friends or hirelings, certain separation for so many years and no great hope or delight in the future. It was not a nice India that the tales hinted at. Here is one that explains a great deal:
There was a Pathan, a Mohammedan, in a Hindu village, employed by the village moneylender as a debt-collector, which is not a popular trade. He lived alone among Hindus, and—so ran the charge in the lower court—he wilfully broke the caste of a Hindu villager by forcing on him forbidden Mussulman food, and when that pious villager would have taken him before the headman to make reparation, the godless one drew his Afghan knife and killed the headman, besides wounding a few others. The evidence ran without flaw, as smoothly as well-arranged cases should, and the Pathan was condemned to death for wilful murder. He appealed and, by some arrangement or other, got leave to state his case personally to the Court of Revision. ‘Said, I believe, that he did not much trust lawyers, but that if the sahibs would give him a hearing, as man to man, he might have a run for his money.
Out of the jail, then, he came, and, Pathan-like, not content with his own good facts, must needs begin by some fairy-tale that he was a secret agent of the government sent down to spy on that village. Then he warmed to it. Yes, he was that money-lender’s agent—a persuader of the reluctant, if you like—working for a Hindu employer. Naturally, many men owed him grudges. A lot of the evidence against him was quite true, but the prosecution had twisted it abominably. About that knife, for instance. True, he had a knife in his hand exactly as they had alleged. But why? Because with that very knife he was cutting up and distributing a roast sheep which he had given as a feast to the villagers. At that feast, he sitting in amity with all his world, the village rose up at the word of command, laid hands on him, and dragged him off to the headman’s house. How could he have broken any man’s caste when they were all eating his sheep? And in the courtyard of the headman’s house they surrounded him with heavy sticks and worked themselves into anger against him, each man exciting his neighbour. He was a Pathan. He knew what that sort of talk meant. A man cannot collect debts without making enemies. So he warned them. Again and again he warned them, saying: ‘Leave me alone. Do not lay hands on me.’ But the trouble grew worse, and he saw it was intended that he should be clubbed to death like a jackal in a drain. Then he said, ‘If blows are struck, I strike, and I strike to kill, because I am a Pathan,’ But the blows were struck, heavy ones. Therefore, with the very Afghan knife that had cut up the mutton, he struck the headman. ‘Had you meant to kill the headman?’ ‘Assuredly! I am a Pathan. When I strike, I strike to kill. I had warned them again and again. I think I got him in the liver. He died. And that is all there is to it, sahibs. It was my life or theirs. They would have taken mine over my freely given meats. Now , what’ll you do with me?’
In the long run, he got several years for culpable homicide.
‘But,’ said I, when the tale had been told, ‘whatever made the lower court accept all that village evidence? It was too good on the face of it,’
‘The lower court said it could not believe it possible that so many respectable native gentle could have banded themselves together to tell a lie.’
‘Oh! Had the lower court been long in the country?’
‘It was a native judge,’ was the reply.
If you think this over in all its bearings, you will see that the lower court was absolutely sincere. Was not the lower court itself a product of Western civilisation, and, as such, bound to play up—to pretend to think along Western lines—translating each grade of Indian village society into its English equivalent, and ruling as an English judge would have ruled? Pathans and, incidentally, English officials must look after themselves.
There is a fell disease of this century called ‘snobbery of the soul.’ Its germ has been virulently developed in modern cultures from the uncomplex bacillus isolated sixty years ago by the late William Makepeace Thackeray. Precisely as Major Ponto, with his plated dishes and stable-boy masquerading as footman, lied to himself and his guests so—but the Book of Snobs can only be brought up to date by him who wrote it.
Then, a man struck in from the Sudan—far and far to the south—with a story of a discomposed judge and a much too collected prisoner.
To the great bazaars of Omdurman, where all things are sold, came a young man from the uttermost deserts of somewhere or other and heard a gramophone. Life was of no value to him till he had bought the creature. He took it back to his village, and at twilight set it going among his ravished friends. His father, sheik of the village, came also, listened to the loud shoutings without breath, the strong music lacking musicians, and said, justly enough: ‘This thing is a devil. You must not bring devils into my village. Lock it up.’
They waited until he had gone away and then began another tune. A second time the sheik came, repeated the command, and added that if the singing box was heard again, he would slay the buyer. But their curiosity and joy defied even this, and for the third time (late at night) they slipped in pin and record and let the djinn rave. So the sheik, with his rifle, shot his son as he had promised, and the English judge before whom he eventually came had all the trouble in the world to save that earnest gray head from the gallows. Thus:
‘Now, old man, you must say guilty or not guilty.’
‘But I shot him. That is why I am here. I——’
‘Hush! It is a form of words which the law asks. (Sotte voce. Write down that the old idiot doesn’t understand.) Be still now.’
‘But I shot him. What else could I have done? He bought a devil in a box, and——’
‘Quiet! That comes later. Leave talking.’
‘But I am sheik of the village. One must not bring devils into a village. I said I would shoot him.’
‘This matter is in the hands of the law. I judge.’
‘What need? I shot him. Suppose that your son had brought a devil in a box to your village——’
They explained to him, at last, that under British rule fathers must hand over devil-dealing children to be shot by the white men (the first step, you see, on the downward path of State aid), and that he must go to prison for several months for interfering with a government shoot.
We are a great race. There was a pious young judge in Nigeria once, who kept a condemned prisoner waiting very many minutes while he hunted through the Hausa dictionary, word by word, for, ‘May—God—have—mercy—on—your—soul.’
And I heard another tale—about the Suez Canal this time—a hint of what may happen some day at Panama. There was a tramp steamer, loaded with high explosives, on her way to the East, and at the far end of the Canal one of the sailors very naturally upset a lamp in the fo’c'sle. After a heated interval the crew took to the desert alongside, while the captain and the mate opened all cocks and sank her, not in the fairway but up against a bank, just leaving room for a steamer to squeeze past. Then the Canal authorities wired to her charterers to know exactly what there might be in her; and it is said that the reply kept them awake of nights, for it was their business to blow her up.
Meantime, traffic had to go through, and a P. & O. steamer came along. There was the Canal; there was the sunken wreck, marked by one elderly Arab in a little boat with a red flag, and there was about five foot clearance on each side for the P. & O. She went through a-tiptoe, because even fifty tons of dynamite will jar a boat, perceptibly, and the tramp held more—very much more, not to mention detonators. By some absurd chance, almost the only passenger who knew about the thing at the time was an old lady rather proud of the secret.
‘Ah,’ she said, in the middle of that agonised glide, ‘you may depend upon it that if everybody knew what, I know, they’d all be on the other side of the ship.’
Later on, the authorities blew up the tramp with infinite precautions from some two miles off, for which reason she neither destroyed the Suez Canal nor dislocated the Sweet Water Canal alongside, but merely dug out a hole a hundred feet or a hundred yards deep, and so vanished from Lloyd’s register.
But no stories could divert one long from the peculiarities of that amazing line which exists strictly for itself. There was a bathroom (occupied) at the windy end of an open alleyway. In due time the bather came out.
Said the steward, as he swabbed out the tub for his successor: ‘That was the Chief Engineer. ‘E’s been some time. Must ‘ave ‘ad a mucky job below, this mornin’.’
I have a great admiration for Chief Engineers. They are men in authority, needing all the comforts and aids that can possibly be given them—such as bathrooms of their own close to their own cabins, where they can clean off at leisure.
It is not fair to mix them up with the ruck of passengers, nor is it done on real ships. Nor, when a passenger wants a bath in the evening, do the stewards of real ships roll their eyes like vergers in a cathedral and say, ‘We’ll see if it can be managed.’ They double down the alleyway and shout, ‘Matcham’ or ‘Ponting’ or ‘Guttman,’ and in fifteen seconds one of those swift three has the taps going and the towels out. Real ships are not annexes of Westminster Abbey or Borstal Reformatory. They supply decent accommodation in return for good money, and I imagine that their directors instruct their staffs to look pleased while at work.
Some generations back there must have been an idea that the P. & O. was vastly superior to all lines afloat—a sort of semipontifical show not to be criticised. How much of the notion was due to its own excellence and how much to its passenger-traffic monopoly does not matter. To-day, it neither feeds nor tends its passengers, nor keeps its ships well enough to put on any airs at all.
For which reason, human nature being what it is, it surrounds itself with an ungracious atmosphere of absurd ritual to cover grudged and inadequate performance.
What it really needs is to be dropped into a March North Atlantic, without any lascars, and made to swim for its life between a C.P.R. boat and a North German Lloyd—till it learns to smile.
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