domingo, 11 de marzo de 2012


And now, with that irrepressible instinct of rivalry that flesh – especially flesh on the Nile – is heir to, we quickly turn our good going into a trial of speed. It is no longer a mere business-like devotion to the matter in hand. It is a contest for glory. It is the Philæ against the Fostât, and the Bagstones against both. In plain English, it is a race. The two leading dahabeeyahs are pretty equally matched. The Philæ is larger than the Fostât ; but the Fostât has a bigger mainsail. On the other hand, the Fostât is an iron boat ; whereas the Philæ, being wooden-built, is easier to pole off a sandbank, and lighter in hand. The Bagstones carries a capital mainsail, and can go as fast as either upon occasion. Meanwhile, the race is one of perpetually varying fortunes. Now the Fostât shoots ahead ; now the Philæ. We pass and re-pass ; take the wind out of one another's sails ; economise every curve ; hoist every stitch of canvas ; and, having identified ourselves with our boats, are as eager to win as if a great prize depended on it. Under these circumstances, to dine is difficult – to go to bed superfluous – to sleep impossible. As to mooring for the night, it is not to be thought of for a moment. Having begun the contest, we can no more help going than the wind can help blowing ; and our crew are as keen about winning as ourselves.
As night advances, the wind continues to rise, and our excitement with it. Still the boats chase each other along the dark river, scattering spray from their bows and flinging out broad foam-tracks behind them. Their cabin-windows, all alight within, cast flickering flames upon the waves below. The coloured lanterns at their mast-heads, orange, purple, and crimson, burn through the dusk like jewels. Presently the mist blows off ; the sky clears ; the stars come out ; the wind howls ; the casements rattle ; the tiller scroops ; the sailors shout, and race, and bang the ropes about overhead ; while we, sitting up in our narrow berths, spend half the night watching from our respective windows.
In this way some hours go by. Then, about three in the morning, with a shock, a recoil, a yell, and a scuffle, we all three rush headlong upon a sandbank! The men fly to the rigging, and furl the flapping sail. Some seize punting poles. Others, looking like full-grown imps of darkness, leap overboard and set their shoulders to the work. A strophe and antistrophe of grunts are kept up between those on deck and those in the water. Finally, after some ten minutes' frantic struggle, the Philæ slips off, leaving the other two aground in the middle of the river.
Towards morning, the noisy night having worn itself away, we all fall asleep – only to be roused again by Talmany's voice at seven, proclaiming aloud that the Bagstones and Fostât are once more close upon our heels ; that Silsilis and Kom Ombo are passed and left behind ; that we have already put forty-six miles between ourselves and Edfû ; and that the good wind is still blowing.
We are now within fifteen miles of Assûan. The Nile is narrow here, and the character of the scenery has quite changed. Our view is bounded on the Arabian side by a near range of black granitic mountains ; while on the Libyan side lies a chain of lofty sand-hills, each curiously capped by a crown of dark boulders. On both banks the river is thickly fringed with palms.
Meanwhile the race goes on. Last night it was sport ; to-day it is earnest. Last night we raced for glory ; to-day we race for a stake.
"A guinée for Reïs Hassan, if we get first to Assûan!"
Reïs Hassan's eyes glisten. No need to call up the dragoman to interpret between us. The look, the tone, are as intelligible to him as the choicest Arabic ; and the magical word 'guinée' stands for a sovereign now, as it stood for one pound one in the days of Nelson and Abercrombie. He touches his head and breast ; casts a backward glance at the pursuing dahabeeyahs, a forward glance in the direction of Assûan ; kicks off his shoes ; ties a handkerchief about his waist ; and stations himself at the top of the steps leading to the upper deck. By the light in his eye and the set look about his mouth, Reïs Hassan means winning.
Now to be first in Assûan means to be first on the governor's list, and first up the Cataract. And as the passage of the Cataract is some two or three days' work, this little question of priority is by no means unimportant. Not for five times the promised 'guinée' would we have the Fostât slip in first, and so be kept waiting our turn on the wrong side of the frontier.
And now, as the sun rises higher, so the race waxes hotter. At breakfast time, we were fifteen miles from Assûan. Now the fifteen miles have gone down to ten ; and when we reach yonder headland, they will have dwindled to seven. It is plain to see, however, that as the distance decreases between ourselves and Assûan, so also it decreases between ourselves and the Fostât. Reïs Hassan knows it. I see him measuring the space by his eye. I see the frown settling on his brow. He is calculating how much the Fostât gains in every quarter of an hour, and how many quarters we are yet distant from the goal. For no Arab sailor counts by miles. He counts by time, and by the reaches in the river ; and these may be taken at a rough average of three miles each. When, therefore, our captain, in reply to an oft-repeated question, says we have yet two bends to make, we know that we are about six miles from our destination.
Six miles – and the Fostât creeping closer every minute! Just now we were all talking eagerly ; but as the end draws near, even the sailors are silent. Reïs Hassan stands motionless at his post, on the lookout for shallows. The words "Shamàl – Yemîn" (left – right), delivered in a short, sharp tone, are the only sounds he utters. The steersman, all eye and ear, obeys him like his hand. The sailors squat in their places, quiet and alert as cats.
And now it is no longer six miles but five – no longer five, but four. The Fostât, thanks to her bigger sail, has well-nigh overtaken us ; and the Bagstones is not more than a hundred yards behind the Fostât. On we go, however, past palm-woods of nobler growth than any we have yet seen ; past forlorn homeward-bound dahabeeyahs lying-to against the wind ; past native boats, and river-side huts, and clouds of driving sand ; till the corner is turned, and the last reach gained, and the minarets of Assûan are seen as through a shifting fog in the distance. The ruined tower crowning yonder promontory stands over against the town ; and those black specks midway in the bed of the river are the first outlying rocks of the Cataract. The channel there is hemmed in between reefs and sandbanks, and to steer it is difficult in even the calmest weather. Still our canvas strains to the wind, and the Philæ rushes on full-tilt, like a racer at the hurdles.
Every eye now is turned upon Reïs Hassan ; and Reïs Hassan stands rigid, like a man of stone. The rocks are close ahead – so close that we can see the breakers pouring over them, and the swirling eddies between. Our way lies through an opening between the boulders. Beyond that opening, the channel turns off sharply to the left. It is a point at which everything will depend on the shifting of the sail. If done too soon, we miss the mark ; if too late, we strike upon the rocks.
Suddenly our Captain flings up his hand, takes the stairs at a bound, and flies to the prow. The sailors spring to their feet, gathering some round the shoghool, and some round the end of the yard. The Fostât is up beside us. The moment for winning or losing is come.
And now, for a couple of breathless seconds, the two dahabeeyahs plunge onward side by side, making for that narrow passage which is only wide enough for one. Then the iron boat, shaving the sandbank to get a wider berth, shifts her sail first, and shifts it clumsily, breaking or letting go her shoghool. We see the sail flap, and the rope fly, and all hands rushing to retrieve it.
In that moment Reïs Hassan gives the word. The Philæ bounds forward – takes the channel from under the very bows of the Fostât – changes her sail without a hitch – and dips right away down the deep water, leaving her rival hard and fast among the shallows.
The rest of the way is short and open. In less than five minutes we have taken in our sail, paid Reïs Hassan his well-earned guinée, and found a snug corner to moor in. And so ends our memorable race of nearly sixty-eight miles from Edfû to Assûan.

Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards Capter XI . A Thousand Miles up Nile

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario