Through the Red Sea to Aden
( Originally Published 1903 )
OUR last day in the City of the Caliphs passed all too soon, and the hour drew near for us to leave for Ismailia. I dreaded the return to the dreary transport, and felt as if we were going back to prison. It had been so delightful in Cairo, so pleasant to go and come as I pleased, without being ordered about by several different officers. It was a real temptation for me to remain in Cairo and go from there to London, instead of continuing my trip around the world, but I knew if I yielded to this desire I would probably be sorry for it afterward. I had promised Captain Logan that I'd certainly be back, and it would be dishonorable not to keep my word.
Howard and Kenneth and I went to see the Englishmen who had taken us to the pyramids before we left, and they accompanied us to the train. We were truly sorry to say good-bye to them, for they had been good to three boys about whom they knew nothing, and had done much to make our stay in Cairo delightful. We gave them our addresses in the hope that they might some time visit America, and they in turn wrote down their addresses in England. We sent them either a letter or postcard from every port we visited during the remainder of the trip, and it is not impossible that we will all meet again some time in some remote corner of the earth.
After nearly three days of Cairo life, none of us were anxious to return to the monotony of existence on shipboard, and the ride to Ismailia on the railway was anything but cheerful. Most of it was accomplished after nightfall, so that we didn't have a view of the scenery, but the crowds at the different stations were larger than they had been on the daylight ride, and we boys had a lot of fun with some of the natives. We were careful not to drink any of the canal water which was offered us in earthen bottles, but a couple of Scotchmen who rode in our compartment were not so particular. At one station they not only drank the water which was offered, but they carried off the water-bottle, and paid the poor native girl not a cent for it. We didn't admire this proceeding, and Kenneth expressed his opinion of it in rather forcible terms, so that ft looked as if there would be a fight at close quarters. I did my best to stop the fuss, because I didn't want to begin my work as master-at-arms any sooner than I could help, and after a while the Scotchmen quieted down. They seemed to think it permissible to treat the natives as mean as possible, and didn't relish any criticism of their way of doing it.
Home Again to the Ship
When we arrived at Ismailia we boys walked down to the wharf, and there the transport launch was waiting for the party. We were soon on our way to the McClellan, and reached the boat about ten o'clock. All the soldiers and sailors were lined up to see us pass up the gangway, and when I found myself on the for-ward deck I was immediately surrounded by an eager crowd. Everyone wanted to know what I had seen and done in Cairo, and I lectured about my experiences there for nearly an hour. Timmie and Mr. Casey were interested listeners, and I felt glad to be back among such good friends, even if I didn't relish my work as master-at-arms. I offered to go on watch in Timmie's place from midnight till four in the morning, but he wouldn't hear of my doing it. "Why," he said, "you're more tired than if you'd been up for three watches in succession here. I know from experience that sightseeing is hard work, and you'll be good and ready for bed by this time." So I went to my little bunk and turned in. The mattress was a little hard, and the bunk itself was narrow, after the luxurious hotel bed in Cairo ; but I slept soundly until five in the morning, at which hour we were to continue our journey through the Suez Canal.
We lifted anchor promptly on time, and started for Suez. It was interesting to pass along the narrow waterway by daylight, and there seemed to be more life on the banks as we went along. Several black men from the desert followed us, diving for money and yelling like mad. The soldiers thought them exceedingly funny and made some queer remarks regarding their appearance. We passed only two vessels passing north, and it was now their turn to tie up for us. One of them was a British liner homeward bound with passengers from India, and we exchanged hearty cheers and friendly remarks as the two ships were abreast in the canal.
Before noon we anchored off the town of Suez. It looked to be only a small place, and everyone said there was nothing worth seeing, even if we went ashore. One of the Congressmen said that it was supposed that the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea somewhere near Suez, but of course there was no telling the exact spot. Captain Logan had telegraphed for ice to be brought aboard at this port, and we all looked forward to having cold water to drink. It seemed that the supply of ice was so nearly exhausted that the soldiers and crew had not been favored with ice-water for several days. The supply which was offered at Suez angered the Quartermaster so that he refused to accept it at all. He said we would have to get along until we reached Aden, for he wasn't going to pay a high price for ice which was broken into slivers. We admired his economical spirit, but couldn't help wishing that he'd exercise it in some other place than the Red Sea, and in some other way than by stinting our use of ice. We knew full well that our condition would be sufficiently uncomfortable, even with plenty of cold water to drink.
Red Hot Weather in the Red Sea
When I mentioned my plan of going around the world, several of my friends had said that I'd regret having passed through the Red Sea in the month of August. They said it was by far the hottest body of water in the world, and that August was one of the worst months in which to make the passage. But I looked at the sea on the map, and decided that such a large body of water couldn't be so awfully hot, and that there must be a breeze of some sort. But the after-noon after we left Suez on our way south taught me that my friends had not exaggerated conditions in the least. The sun beat down from a burnished sky, and it wasn't possible to find a cool spot in the transport. I had considered myself too slender to perspire much, but I sat under the awning on the forward deck and the sweat rolled off me in great drops. Mr. Casey said that I needn't expect any cooler weather until we arrived at Aden, and we might not find it even then. " But won't there be a breeze? " I said. " Yes," he replied, " there may be a breeze, but it will come from the Arabian desert on one side, or from the Sahara on the other, and you will be more uncomfortable with the breeze than without it." This wasn't very encouraging, but Mr. Casey, as usual, was right.
When night came our little hole next the engine-room was like an oven, so Timmie and I decided to sleep on deck. I took just a blanket and a pillow and lay down on the hard wood. It seemed that there was no breath of air stirring, and not even the motion of the ship created a refreshing breeze. The soldiers and sailors were lying everywhere on the forward deck and the fo'c'stle head, so that I could hardly go about on patrol without stepping on some one. The passengers were fortunate in having cots which were attached to the ship's railing, and on them they were able to get some rest. I think that I had only three hours' sleep altogether, and Timmie said he had no more.
The next day was a " regular scorcher," as old Dan Driscoll expressed it. The sun was even hotter than after we left Suez, and we hadn't so much vitality to resist the heat. The sailors of the deck department worked in the open air, and could at least breathe freely, but the poor firemen and the engineer's department suffered terribly. They said it was almost impossible to get air into the engine-room, and they came up at noon and night looking almost suffocated. On the third day two men had to enter the hospital, and on the fourth there were three more laid up, and if the voyage had lasted much longer, there would have been no stokers left to shovel coal. Mr. Casey said that when the great ocean grey-hounds steam through the Red Sea one or two firemen are always sure to die, for they cannot stand the hard work without sufficient air to breathe. This statement seemed horrible to Timmie and I. It is, of course, a great saving of time and money to go through the Suez Canal, but if valuable lives are to be sacrificed, it would surely be as well for the ships to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.
Dull Days for Sailors and Passengers
During part of our trip through the Red Sea we were in sight of land, but there was nothing but barren rocks, colored a dark red, as if they were burnt by the scorching sun. Occasionally we passed some small, rocky islets, and they looked dreary, indeed. There seemed to be no life anywhere about, and we wondered whether we would ever see the green, pleasant earth again.
The hot days passed slowly on board the transport. It was my week with the midnight watch, and as it was quite impossible to sleep during the day, I didn't get much rest at all. It was too uncomfortably warm to read or write, and all there was to do was to visit with the sailors in the fo'c'stle, and with old Frenchy, the bridge quartermaster. Frenchy had served a long term in the American navy, and knew innumerable tales of the service. I often felt that if I could take down his narratives just as he told them to Timmie and me, my fortune as an author would be made. Everyone on board the ship went about wearing as few clothes as possible. Some of the soldiers sat on the fo'c'stle head with nothing on but trousers, and Captain Linder went after them in his usual forceful manner. After that they were careful to keep in their quarters down below. The recruits had what was a really unpleasant time, because they had no regular work to do. I often thought that my life would be miserable if I didn't have to stand watch eight hours a day, and when I was off watch I was glad to be occupied with washing clothes or doing almost anything to keep me busy. The soldiers had nothing much to do except to play cards and think of home. Most of them suffered terribly from homesickness, and said over and over again that they would never have enlisted in the army if they had known what transports are like.
There is an end to everything, and on the fifth day our voyage through the Red (hot) Sea terminated at Aden, in Arabia. We knew that we were near some port long before we cast anchor off the town, because we saw so many rocks projecting out of the water and such a number of fishing boats. The town of Aden appeared to be built on rocky land, as barren as any we had seen during the voyage, and from the water it looked to be anything but interesting. This was a mistaken view, as I found on going ashore that afternoon.