AT HALFA one feels the first breath of a frontier. Here the Egyptian Government retires into the background, and even the Cook steamer does not draw up in the exact centre of the postcard. At the telegraph-office, too, there are traces, diluted but quite recognisable, of military administration. Nor does the town, in any way or place whatever, smell—which is proof that it is not looked after on popular lines. There is nothing to see in it any more than there is in Hulk C. 60, late of her Majesty’s troopship Himalaya, now a coal-hulk in the Hamoaze at Plymouth. A river front, a narrow terraced river-walk of semi-oriental houses, barracks, a mosque, and half-a-dozen streets at right angles, the Desert racing up to the end of each, make all the town. A mile or so up stream under palm trees are bungalows of what must have been cantonments, some machinery repair-shops, and odds and ends of railway track. It is all as paltry a collection of whitewashed houses, pitiful gardens, dead walls, and trodden waste spaces as one would wish to find anywhere; and every bit of it quivers with the remembered life of armies and river-fleets, as the finger-bowl rings when the rubbing finger is lifted. The most unlikely men have done time there; stores by the thousand ton have been rolled and pushed and hauled up the banks by tens of thousands of scattered hands; hospitals have pitched themselves there, expanded enormously, shrivelled up and drifted away with the drifting regiments; railway sidings by the mile have been laid down and ripped up again, as need changed, and utterly wiped out by the sands.
Halfa has been the rail-head, Army Headquarters, and hub of the universe—the one place where a man could make sure of buying tobacco and sardines, or could hope for letters for himself and medical attendance for his friend. Now she is a little shrunken shell of a town without a proper hotel, where tourists hurry up from the river to buy complete sets of Soudan stamps at the Post Office.
I went for a purposeless walk from one end of the place to the other, and found a crowd of native boys playing football on what might have been a parade-ground of old days.
“And what school is that?” I asked in English of a small, eager youth.
“Madrissah,” said he most intelligently, which being translated means just “school.”
“Yes, but what school?”
“Yes, Madrissah, school, sir,” and he tagged after to see what else the imbecile wanted.
A line of railway track, that must have fed big workshops in its time, led me between big-roomed houses and offices labelled departmentally, with here and there a clerk at work. I was directed and re-directed by polite Egyptian officials (I wished to get at a white officer if possible, but there wasn’t one about); was turned out of a garden which belonged to an Authority; hung round the gate of a bungalow with an old-established compound and two white men sitting in chairs on a verandah; wandered down towards the river under the palm trees, where the last red light came through; lost myself among rusty boilers and balks of timber; and at last loafed back in the twilight escorted by the small boy and an entire brigade of ghosts, not one of whom I had ever met before, but all of whom I knew most intimately. They said it was the evenings that used to depress them most, too; so they all came back after dinner and bore me company, while I went to meet a friend arriving by the night train from Khartoum.
She was an hour late, and we spent it, the ghosts and I, in a brick-walled, tin-roofed shed, warm with the day’s heat; a crowd of natives laughing and talking somewhere behind in the darkness. We knew each other so well by that time, that we had finished discussing every conceivable topic of conversation—the whereabouts of the Mahdi’s head, for instance—work, reward, despair, acknowledgment, flat failure, all the real motives that had driven us to do anything, and all our other longings. So we sat still and let the stars move, as men must do when they meet this kind of train.
Presently I asked: “What is the name of the next station out from here?”
“Station Number One,” said a ghost.
“And the next?”
“Station Number Two, and so on to Eight, I think.”
“And wasn’t it worth while to name even one of these stations from some man, living or dead, who had something to do with making the line?”
“Well, they didn’t, anyhow,” said another ghost. “I suppose they didn’t think it worth while. Why? What do you think?”
“I think, I replied, “it is the sort of snobbery that nations go to Hades for.”
Her headlight showed at last, an immense distance off; the economic electrics were turned up, the ghosts vanished, the dragomans of the various steamers flowed forward in beautiful garments to meet their passengers who had booked passages in the Cook boats, and the Khartoum train decanted a joyous collection of folk, all decorated with horns, hoofs, skins, hides, knives, and assegais, which they had been buying at Omdurman. And when the porters laid hold upon their bristling bundles, it was like MacNeill’s Zareba without the camels.
Two young men in tarboushes were the only people who had no part in the riot. Said one of them to the other:
Said the other: “Hullo!”
They grunted together for a while. Then one pleasantly:
“Oh, I’m sorry for that! I thought I was going to have you under me for a bit. Then you’ll use the rest-house there?”
“I suppose so,” said the other. “Do you happen to know if the roof’s on?”
Here a woman wailed aloud for her dervish spear which had gone adrift, and I shall never know, except from the back pages of the Soudan Almanack, what state that rest-house there is in.
The Soudan Administration, by the little I heard, is a queer service. It extends itself in silence from the edges of Abyssinia to the swamps of the Equator at an average pressure of one white man to several thousand square miles. It legislates according to the custom of the tribe where possible, and on the common sense of the moment when there is no precedent. It is recruited almost wholly from the army, armed chiefly with binoculars, and enjoys a death-rate a little lower than its own reputation. It is said to be the only service in which a man taking leave is explicitly recommended to get out of the country and rest himself that he may return the more fit to his job. A high standard of intelligence is required, and lapses are not overlooked. For instance, one man on leave in London took the wrong train from Boulogne, and instead of going to Paris, which, of course, he had intended, found himself at a station called Kirk Kilissie or Adrianople West, where he stayed for some weeks. It was a mistake that might have happened to any one on a dark night after a stormy passage, but the authorities would not believe it, and when I left Egypt were busily engaged in boiling him in hot oil. They are grossly respectable in the Soudan now.
Long and long ago, before even the Philippines were taken, a friend of mine was reprimanded by a British Member of Parliament, first for the sin of blood-guiltiness because he was by trade a soldier, next for murder because he had fought in great battles, and lastly, and most important, because he and his fellow-braves had saddled the British taxpayer with the expense of the Soudan. My friend explained that all the Soudan had ever cost the British taxpayer was the price of about one dozen of regulation Union Jacks—one for each province. “That,” said the M.P. triumphantly, “is all it will ever be worth.” He went on to justify himself, and the Soudan went on also. To-day it has taken its place as one of those accepted miracles which are worked without heat or headlines by men who do the job nearest their hand and seldom fuss about their reputations.
But less than sixteen years ago the length and breadth of it was one crazy hell of murder, torture, and lust, where every man who had a sword used it till he met a stronger and became a slave. It was—men say who remember it—a hysteria of blood and fanaticism; and precisely as an hysterical woman is called to her senses by a dash of cold water, so at the battle of Omdurman the land was reduced to sanity by applied death on such a scale as the murderers and the torturers at their most unbridled could scarcely have dreamed. In a day and a night all who had power and authority were wiped out and put under till, as the old song says, no chief remained to ask after any follower. They had all charged into Paradise. The people who were left looked for renewed massacres of the sort they had been accustomed to, and when these did not come, they said helplessly: “We have nothing. We are nothing. Will you sell us into slavery among the Egyptians?” The men who remember the old days of the Reconstruction—which deserves an epic of its own—say that there was nothing left to build on, not even wreckage. Knowledge, decency, kinship, property, tide, sense of possession had all gone. The people were told they were to sit still and obey orders; and they stared and fumbled like dazed crowds after an explosion. Bit by bit, however, they were fed and watered and marshalled into some sort of order; set to tasks they never dreamed to see the end of; and, almost by physical force, pushed and hauled along the ways of mere life. They came to understand presently that they might reap what they had sown, and that man, even a woman, might walk for a day’s journey with two goats and a native bedstead and live undespoiled. But they had to be taught kindergarten-fashion.
And little by little, as they realised that the new order was sure and that their ancient oppressors were quite dead, there returned not only cultivators, craftsmen, and artisans, but outlandish men of war, scarred with old wounds and the generous dimples that the Martini-Henry bullet used to deal—fighting men on the lookout for new employ. They would hang about, first on one leg, then on the other, proud or uneasily friendly, till some white officer circulated near by. And at his fourth or fifth passing, brown and white having approved each other by eye, the talk—so men say—would run something like this:
OFFICER (with air of sudden discovery). Oh, you by the hut, there, what is your business?
WARRIOR (at “attention” complicated by attempt to salute). I am So-and-So, son of So-and-So, from such and such a place.
OFFICER. I hear. And . . . ?
WARRIOR (repeating salute). And a fighting man also.
OFFICER (impersonally to horizon). But they all say that nowadays.
WARRIOR (very loudly). But there is a man in one of your battalions who can testify to it. He is the grandson of my father’s uncle.
OFFICER (confidentially to his boots). Hell is quite full of such grandsons of just such father’s uncles; and how do I know if Private So-and-So speaks the truth about his family? (Makes to go.)
WARRIOR (swiftly removing necessary garments). Perhaps. But these don’t lie. Look! I got this ten, twelve years ago when I was quite a lad, close to the old Border, Yes, Halfa. It was a true Snider bullet. Feel it! This little one on the leg I got at the big fight that finished it all last year. But I am not lame (violent leg-exercise), not in the least lame. See! I run. I jump. I kick. Praised be Allah!
OFFICER. Praised be Allah! And then?
WARRIOR (coquettishly). Then, I shoot. I am not a common spear-man. (Lapse into English.) Yeh, dam goo’ shot! (pumps lever of imaginary Martini).
OFFICER (unmoved). I see. And then?
WARRIOR (indignantly). I am come here—after many days’ marching. (Change to childlike wheedle.) Are all the regiments full?
At this point the relative, in uniform, generally discovered himself, and if the officer liked the cut of his jib, another “old Mahdi’s man” would be added to the machine that made itself as it rolled along. They dealt with situations in those days by the unclouded light of reason and a certain high and holy audacity.
There is a tale of two Sheikhs shortly after the Reconstruction began. One of them, Abdullah of the River, prudent and the son of a slave-woman, professed loyalty to the English very early in the day, and used that loyalty as a cloak to lift camels from another Sheikh, Farid of the Desert, still at war with the English, but a perfect gentleman, which Abdullah was not. Naturally, Farid raided back on Abdullah’s kine, Abdullah complained to the authorities, and the Border fermented. To Farid in his desert camp with a clutch of Abdullah’s cattle round him, entered, alone and unarmed, the officer responsible for the peace of those parts. After compliments, for they had had dealings with each other before: “You’ve been driving Abdullah’s stock again,” said the Englishman.
“I should think I had!” was the hot answer. “He lifts my camels and scuttles back into your territory, where he knows I can’t follow him for the life; and when I try to get a bit of my own back, he whines to you. He’s a cad—an utter cad.”
“At any rate, he is loyal. If you’d only come in and be loyal too, you’d both be on the same footing, and then if he stole from you, he’d catch it!”
“He’d never dare to steal except under your protection. Give him what he’d have got in the Mahdi’s time—a first-class flogging. You know he deserves it!”
“I’m afraid that isn’t allowed. You have to let me shift all those bullocks of his back again.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then, I shall have to ride back and collect all my men and begin war against you.”
“But what prevents my cutting your throat where you sit?
“For one thing, you aren’t Abdullah, and——”
“There! You confess he’s a cad!”
“And for another, the Government would only send another officer who didn’t understand your ways, and then there would be war, and no one would score except Abdullah. He’d steal your camels and get credit for it.”
“So he would, the scoundrel! This is a hard world for honest men. Now, you admit Abdullah is a cad. Listen to me, and I’ll tell you a few more things about him. He was, etc., etc. He is, etc., etc.”
“You’re perfectly right, Sheikh, but don’t you see I can’t tell him what I think of him so long as he’s loyal and you’re out against us? Now, if you come in I promise you that I’ll give Abdullah a telling-off—yes, in your presence—that will do you good to listen to.”
“No! I won’t come in! But—I tell you what I will do. I’ll accompany you to-morrow as your guest, understand, to your camp. Then you send for Abdullah, and if I judge that his fat face has been sufficiently blackened in my presence, I’ll think about coming in later.”
So it was arranged, and they slept out the rest of the night, side by side, and in the morning they gathered up and returned all Abdullah’s cattle, and in the evening, in Farid’s presence, Abdullah got the tongue-lashing of his wicked old life, and Farid of the Desert laughed and came in; and they all lived happy ever afterwards.
Somewhere or other in the nearer provinces the old heady game must be going on still, but the Soudan proper has settled to civilisation of the brick-bungalow and bougainvillea sort, and there is a huge technical college where the young men are trained to become fitters, surveyors, draftsmen, and telegraph employees at fabulous wages. In due time, they will forget how warily their fathers had to walk in the Mahdi’s time to secure even half a bellyful; then, as has happened elsewhere. They will honestly believe that they themselves originally created and since then have upheld the easy life into which they were bought at so heavy a price. Then the demand will go up for “extension of local government,” “Soudan for the Soudanese,” and so on till the whole cycle has to be retrodden. It is a hard law but an old one—Rome died learning it, as our western civilisation may die—that if you give any man anything that he has not painfully earned for himself, you infallibly make him or his descendants your devoted enemies.