THE DHOW THRUST HER SNOUT round the rocky cape and lurched easily into the next bay. She had come, by Allah’s guidance, her skipper’s hereditary instincts, and the strength of her own double skin, from Jask via Muscat, a many days ago. In due season, if Allah saw fit, she would reach her various destinations up the Red Sea. Meantime, she sidled along the south end of the great Arabian desert — that most utterly empty land, precisely as she had done every year of the last seven-and-thirty. That there was no officially recognised port for a few hundred miles before her and behind her did not trouble her. She preferred the near bleak outlines and strange coloured hills to the uncharted blue of the Indian Ocean, and, so far from avoiding that coast, edged in with the contempt born of several generations’ familiarity. Navigation, as her skipper understood it, did not begin till much nearer Aden.
Her crew sprawled on the high poop, making up rope from piles of raw bast, or searching their blue-and-white garments; for an old dhow is a nest of life. The rudely battered hold between the poop and foc’sle deck was empty, except for a layer of bales of dates, these last punched and trodden hard as concrete by the unshod hoofs of horses that had made one of her recent cargoes. A score of very lean and very bright-eyed men lay among the bales, their heads pillowed on little gay-coloured bundles. Some of them had thrust faded sprigs of mignonette or a bunch of roses behind their ears. Others bent earnestly over ancient weapons
which they whetted with small pieces of pumice, first on one side then on the other, with many squintings and balancings, and as they worked they chewed dry leaves, camel-fashion. All bore themselves with the dignity of a thousand Mohammedan years. A few planks laid on cross-beams served the crew as a fore-and-aft gangway above them. The great lateen sail, full of holes and ridged with taut ropes at every cloth, made the wind trill and drum down the long hollow of it. The spliced and dancing yard, the forward-raking mast, the halyard running through its tremendous three-and four-sheave wooden blocks, the salted and sun-roughened decks and gunnels, the scrape of pumice stone on metal, each added its own note to the ship-music, which, heard through shut eyes, resembled a barbaric native band coming and going round distant street-corners. The under note of all was the rend and tear of the waves before the long grab-bow that lunged through them like a well-employed knife.
The wind dropped a little with the sun, and the dhow changed tack to avoid some long spine of a reef. The skipper, calling on many saints, put the helm hard up and wore round, letting the sail all fly out forward in such confusion as a man might try to imitate by clawing a wet shirt off his head. With a surge and a jar the yard came over the masthead, while the sheet, thoughtfully spliced into the clew of the sail to prevent it getting adrift, whipped air and ocean, till some one caught it and hauled it in. Round flew the dhow’s high stern, and before a stray shark could well make up his mind what was happening, the wind had her on the other quarter, and she stood away for the night.
Dawn, white and breathless, saw her loafing in a long slant shoreward once more, her crew and passengers busy at morning prayers, while she, for all airs of loose-ended sloth, slung them along at something close upon eight knots. She seemed to be interested in a tiny patch of cultivation beneath the flank of a huge slope, where men with camels waited. And so she went on her unhurried ways.
A week later, a double-awninged steam-launch raced out from under the lee of a promontory, and bade her lie to. In other days, with other cares, she would, on such a wind, have taken her foot in hand and removed herself; for all launches are an abomination to all dhows. This time she awaited her pursuer with a clean conscience, and her hold full (her skipper said so) of pilgrims for Jeddah.
‘No guns, no slave, sar, this time. Mine all firsh-class passenger, sar,’ he cried proudly.
The launch’s officer was a little disappointed. The most tender imagination could not conceive those shining-eyed loungers on the date-bags, unarmed though they were, as being taken anywhere against their large and silent wills.
‘I see,’ he said at last. ‘Where did you pick them up, Ishmail?’
The skipper pointed largely over the quarter towards desolate Hadramaut.
‘There, sar,’ said he. ‘Kishin, Sihut, Mukalla — all those places, sar. They very good pilgrims, sar. You want any frankincense, sar? Any real attar of roses? You got any newspapers, sar? Very long time out, sar. No news at all. Any Aden papers? Angleesch papers?’
A bundle of old journals was hove aboard. The skipper acknowledged it with a handful of dried khat leaves, which, being chewed, miraculously relieve weariness; and, when the launch retired, spread the latest paper on the tiller and translated extracts in a loud voice to his passengers among the date-bales.
‘But,’ a voice called up, ‘is it written there what is the price of the guns in the place to which we go; or is that all a fable of Tasm?’
‘The price is nothing,’ the skipper returned. ‘It is no more than a half-hour’s risk of a life — such risk as we who use the sea accept daily. And the reward is that with two guns or three a man becomes a chief in his own country. Now we will pump again. She does not leak. She has never leaked, but, lying on this tack, she admits as it were a few drops of wetness.’
‘She leaks. She leaks continually. She is older than Add. It is no concern of an unmixed Arab of the Arabs to do women’s work.’ This was a passenger whom they had picked up not five days before from a white-walled town in the crack of a dry foot-hill.
‘There is no impediment,’ said the skipper. ‘But if through lack of pumping she admits too much water, she will descend into the sea among hungry fish, and thus those who cannot swim will not only lose the cheap rifles which await them, and the maids and the camels which await the possessors of weapons, but also their certainty of Paradise. Myself I am old and have seen Mecca, and do not desire women. My salvation is assured. But you are young.’
Two, or it may have been three, weeks later, the dhow lay in soft moonlight off the jetty of a most insignificant village far up the Red Sea. Her sides were scraped and gashed with coral; she leaked noticeably from collisions with the reefs and shoals of that infamous and at present unlighted stretch of water. It would cost at least twenty-two rupees for overhaul and refit, but the skipper, counting his passage-monies, did not grudge it. She had dropped many of her passengers at various places on the way. There remained only the last and most luxurious batch of millionaires.
‘Up and out, brothers,’ said the skipper. ‘Here begins the little land journey.’
‘Is it far?’ a man enquired, and bandaged a boil on his knee which had been a little chafed by the voyage. ‘God is good. Perhaps a month. Perhaps two. But the rifles are certain, and so are the plentiful strings of ammunition.’
Man after man yawned, shook himself, gathered up his bundle and stepped out on the warm beach. When all were assembled, some one asked: ‘By which road do we go?’
Voices round them in the shadow of huts laughed encouragingly. ‘There is but one road,’ they cried. ‘It cannot be missed. Hold that star in the north-west. Afterwards, any babe will show.’
‘We wait, then. We have come from far off. It is a strange country to cross at night.’ They sat down where they were and rubbed their stiff limbs, till an old, old man among them began to recite the Suratu ‘n Nas — the Chapter of Help from the Koran.
Then the dawn broke, and it was time for morning prayer, in which, after pointing them towards Mecca across the pale sea, the dhow’s skipper joined.
A man with some most desirable planks of teak, a piece of sheet lead, copper nails, and two pots of real paint, squatted by his side, ready to open trade on the last word of the supplication.
‘By no means can aught befall us except what God has destined for us,’ the skipper concluded, and in the same breath, ‘Seeing that that stuff has, of course, been robbed from a steamboat.’
‘It went ashore, Hajji. At great risk was it recovered from out of the jaws of sharks. Do not cheapen the life of a man,’ the dealer snapped.
They rolled up their prayer-mats and settled to business.
‘We go,’ said the oldest of the passengers presently. ‘In peace and health and with the blessing of God,’ the skipper answered over his shoulder.
The little company moved off as the low sun stung them on the neck and ear.
‘Good!’ said one of them, breathing deeply and staring around. ‘Here is land-hills, sand, rock, camels, and goats. All one with our place! God is great.’
They melted into the dancing haze with a swift motion almost like that of trout turned down into waters which exactly suit their needs.
In time, in due time, they hoped to reach a place called Tripoli, where, they understood, breech-loading rifles were to be had for the taking by men who were not afraid of war.