Letters from Egypt. — V. Correspondents and Camels
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Letters from Egypt
V. Correspondents and Camels
BY A. CONAN DOYLE.
I heard a Company officer of the Staffordshires complain that some of his Tommies carried as much luggage to the front as his maiden aunt when she came for a visit. "They have bandboxes and all sorts of games," said he, "while I have only one small valise with a broken handle, and a large tin of Keating's powder." It is possible, however, that the Tommies will be justified of their wisdom, for I have observed that the Anglo-Egyptians, who know best what a Soudanese campaign is, make the deck of a post-boat uninhabitable with their luggage. They know that they have at least one and possibly two years before them, and they have not forgotten the sales of the dead men's kits in the Gordon war, when a celluloid collar fetched a guinea and a pair of boots went cheap at six pounds .... they have not forgotten, either, that the exchange value of a British sovereign was exactly twelve shillings, and if there is no rise in silver it will not be the fault of the Dongola Expedition.
These remarks upon outfit are prompted by the fact that we have ourselves been fitting out a small caravan to take the desert journey from Assouan to Wady Halfa, and that we have had the question of what is necessary and what not forced very prominently upon our attention. As it is 210 miles, and will occupy ten days, during which supplies and even forage may be unattainable, it takes some arranging. We have always the good brown Nile as our water supply. "Full of body — in fact, of bodies," as a newspaper man observed when he tasted it.
There are five of us, including myself and my travelling companion, the three others being nothing less august than the Times, the Daily News, and the Standard — the Times fresh from Madagascar, the Daily News straight from the Armenian atrocities, and the Standard from Constantinople. Now these storm-petrels are all flying south. What men they are, these body-servants of the Press! Here is the Times, tall, straight, and muscular, famous yachtsman and treasure-seeker, traveller, fighter, and scholar. Here, too, is the Daily News, small, compact, mercurial; full of life, fire, and pluck; a man of many campaigns and singular ventures, with that strange combination of ruddy hair and black eye which is the outward sign of the splendid neuro-sanguine blend. And, lastly, the Standard, thin but wiry, with the slightly blasé pince-nez look of the man who has seen much of life; cool, alert; a useful man to have by your side in a tight place. These are our comrades, and could a man wish better?
There are camels to be bought, and it is a study in Eastern ways to see the Daily News buying them. Some men have the gift of pantomime, and some have not. I know by experience that I have not. On the occasion of an eclipse of the moon I endeavoured to explain the cause of it by gesture to an Arab. I pointed to the moon and to the earth. Then I pointed to a horse and to his shadow. Presently the Arab rose and began to examine the horse's hind legs, and I found that I had convinced him that the creature was ill. I have given up gestures since then. But the Daily News has all the Arab's energy of movement, with a good command of abuse, and some powers as a pedestrian. With these gifts, one may buy camels.
Having looked depreciatingly at the beast — and you cannot take a better model than the creature's own expression as it looks at you — you ask how much is wanted for it. The owner says sixteen pounds. You then give a shriek of derision, sweep your arm across as if to wave him and his camel out of your sight for ever, and, turning with a whisk, you set off rapidly in the other direction. How far you go depends upon the price asked. If it is really very high you may not get back for your dinner. But as a rule a hundred yards or so meet the case, and you shape your course so as to reach the camel and its owner. You stop in trout of them and look at them with a disinterested and surprised expression to intimate that you wonder that they should still be loitering there. The Arab asks how much you will give. You answer eight pounds. Then it is his turn to scream, whisk round, and do his hundred yards, his absurd chattel with its hornpipey legs trotting along behind him. But he returns to say that he will take fourteen, and off you go again with a howl and a wave. So the bargaining goes on, the circles continually shortening, until you have settled upon the middle price.
But it is only when you have bought your camel that your troubles begin. It is the strangest and the most deceptive creature in the world. Its appearance is so staid and respectable that you cannot give it credit for the black villainy that lurks within. It approaches you with a mildly interested but superior expression, like a Patrician lady in a Sunday school. You feel that a pair of glasses at the end of a fan is the one thing lacking. Then it puts its lips gently forward, with a far-away look in its eyes, and you have just time to say, "The pretty dear is going to kiss me," when two rows of frightful green teeth clash in trout of you, and you give such a backward jump as you could never have hoped at your age to accomplish. When once the veil is dropped, anything more demoniacal than the face of a camel cannot be conceived. No kindness and no length of ownership seems to make them friendly. And yet you must make allowances for a creature which can carry 600lb. for twenty miles a day, and ask for no water and little food at the end of it.
We have about ten camels, five horses, five donkeys, eleven camp-followers, and a native cook whom the Daily News described as not merely plain but ugly. To-morrow we start off into the desert, and we hope to reach Wady Halfa about April 11. By that time I fear that the time for my own return to Cairo will have come round. Should there be an immediate advance, however, I do not think that I could resist the temptation of going on; but it will be impossible for me to remain waiting for it. In any case, I hope to send you a letter when I arrive in Halfa.
The hotel is still full of the khaki-clad officers hurrying to the front. They go in no vainglorious spirit, for none know better than they the hard work that lies before them. "We must try and get used to lentils," said one. "How full of beans we shall be!" rejoined another. There are men among these youngsters who will make their mark in the world: Maxwell, the big, strong man with the clean-cut face, will be heard of again — it was he who thrashed the Italian price-fighter at the School-of-Arms at Cairo; and Hickman, with his young bronzed face and a line of medals from button to shoulder. Keen little Anley, and McMahon of the Cavalry, and Smythe of the Bays, and the two young Connaughts with their Maxim guns — they are all good men and true. May they all meet again safe and sound in the Assouan hotel when the red flag with the silver crescent is flapping over Dongola!
A. CONAN DOYLE.
Assouan Hotel, April 1.