George Walker at Suez

  • 10 Oct - 16 Oct, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I had just made up my mind that I would go round to the front and penetrate this mystery, when, on turning, I saw approaching to me a man dressed at any rate like an English gentleman. As he came near to me, he raised his hat, and accosted me in our own language. "Mr George Walker, I believe?" said he. "Yes," said I, with some little attempt at a high demeanour, –"of the firm of Grimes, Walker, and Judkins, Friday Street, London." "A most respectable house, I am sure," said he. "I am afraid there has been a little mistake here." "No mistake as to the respectability of that house," said I. I felt that I was again alone in the world, and that it was necessary that I should support myself.

Nevertheless there was something very pleasing in the whole ceremony, and at last I began to find myself more at home with my pipe. When Mahmoud had exhausted his tobacco, and perceived that I also had ceased to puff forth smoke, he spoke in Italian to the interpreter, and the interpreter forthwith proceeded to explain to me the purport of this visit. This was done with much difficulty, for the interpreter's stock of English was very scanty but after awhile I understood, or thought I understood, as follows: At some previous period of my existence I had done some deed which had given infinite satisfaction to Mahmoud al Akbar. Whether, however, I had done it myself, or whether my father had done it, was not quite clear to me. My father, then some time deceased, had been a wharfing at Liverpool, and it was quite possible that Mahmoud might have found himself at that port. Mahmoud had heard of my arrival in Egypt, and had been given to understand that I was coming to Suez to carry myself away in the ship, as the interpreter phrased it. This I could not understand, but I let it pass.

Mahmoud al Ackbar had separated himself from me forever. Of that I had no longer a doubt. "Oh, none at all," said he. "But about this little expedition over the water;" and he pointed contemptuously to the boat. "There has been a mistake about that, Mr. Walker; I happen to be the English Vice–Consul here." I took off my hat and bowed. It was the first time I had ever been addressed civilly by any English consular authority. "And they have made me get out of bed to come down here and explain all this to you." "All what?" said I. "You are a man of the world, I know, and I'll just tell it you plainly. My old friend, Mahmoud al Ackbar, has mistaken you for Sir George Walker, the new Lieutenant–Governor of Pegu. Sir George Walker is here now; he has come this morning; and Mahmoud is ashamed to face you after what has occurred.

Nothing could sound more pleasant than such a plan; and knowing as I did that the hampers of provisions had already been sent over, I did not doubt that the table arrangements would be excellent. Even now, standing at my window, I could see a basket laden with long–necked bottles going into the boat, and became aware that we should not depend altogether for our morning repast on that gritty coffee which my friend Mahmoud's followers prepared. I had promised to be ready at six, and having carefully completed my toilet, and put a clean collar and comb into my pocket ready for dinner, I descended to the great gateway and walked slowly round to the quay. As I passed out, the porter greeted me with a low obeisance, and walking on, I felt that I stepped the ground with a sort of dignity of which I had before been ignorant.

If you won't object to withdraw with me into the hotel, I'll explain it all." I felt as though a thunderbolt had fallen; and I must say, that even up to this day I think that the Consul might have been a little less abrupt. "We can get in here," said he, evidently in hurry, and pointing to a small door which opened out from one corner of the house to the quay. What could I do but follow him? I did follow him, and in a few words learned the remainder of the story. When he had once withdrawn me from the public walk he seemed but little anxious about the rest, and soon left me again alone. The facts, as far as I could learn them, were simply these.

Sir George Walker, who was now going out to Pegu as Governor, had been in India before, commanding an army there. I had never heard of him before, and had made no attempt to pass myself off as his relative. Nobody could have been more innocent than I was or have received worse usage. I have as much right to the name as he has. Well; when he was in India before, he had taken the city of Begum after a terrible siege – Begum, I think the Consul called it; and Mahmoud had been there, having been, it seems, a great man at Begum, and Sir George had spared him and his money; and in this way the whole thing had come to pass. There was no further explanation than that. The rest of it was all transparent. Mahmoud, having heard my name from the porter, had hurried down to invite me to his party. So far so good.

But why had he been afraid to face me in the morning? And, seeing that the fault had all been his, why had he not asked me to join the expedition? Sir George and I may, after all, be cousins. But, coward as he was, he had been afraid of me. When they found that I was on the quay, they had been afraid of me, not knowing how to get rid of me. I wish that I had kept the quay all day, and stared them down one by one as they entered the boat. But I was down and when the Consul left me, I crept wearily back to my bedroom. And the Consul did leave me almost immediately. A faint hope had, at one time, come upon me that he would have asked me to breakfast. Had he done so, I should have felt it as a full compensation for all that I had suffered. I am not an exacting man, but I own that I like civility. In Friday Street I can command it, and in Friday Street for the rest of my life will I remain.

From this Consul I received no civility. As soon as he had got me out of the way and spoken the few words which he had to say, he again raised his hat and left me. I also again raised mine, and then crept up to my bed– room. From my window, standing a little behind the white curtain, I could see the whole embarkation. There was Mahmoud al Akbar, looking indeed a little hot, but still going through his work with all that excellence of deportment which had graced him on the preceding evening. Had his foot slipped, and had he fallen backwards into that shallow water, my spirit would, I confess, have been relieved. But, on the contrary, everything went well with him. There was the real Sir George, my namesake and perhaps my cousin, as fresh as paint, cool from the bath which he had been taking while I had been walking on that terrace. How is it that these governors and commanders–in–chief go through such a deal of work without fagging?

It was not yet two hours since he was jolting about in that omnibus– box, and there he had been all night. I could not have gone off to the Well of Moses immediately on my arrival. It's the dignity of the position that does it. I have long known that the head of a firm must never count on a mere clerk to get through as much work as he could do himself. It's the interest in the matter that supports the man. They went, and Sir George, as I was well assured, had never heard a word about me. Had he done so, is it probable that he would have requested my attendance? But Mahmoud and his followers no doubt kept their own counsel as to that little mistake. There they went, and the gentle rippling breeze filled their sail pleasantly, as the boat moved away into the bay.

I felt no spite against any of them but Mahmoud. Why had he avoided me with such cowardice? I could still see them when the morning tchibouk was handed to Sir George; and, though I wished him no harm, I did envy him as he lay there reclining luxuriously upon the cushions.

A more wretched day than that I never spent in my life. As I went in and out, the porter at the gate absolutely scoffed at me. Once I made up my mind to complain within the house. They would have told me that it was his religion, or a national observance, or meant for a courtesy. What can a man do, in a strange country, when he is told that a native spits in his face by way of civility? I bore it, I bore it like a man; and sighed for the comforts of Friday Street. As to one matter, I made up my mind on that day, and I fully carried out my purpose on the next: I would go across to the Well of Moses in a boat. I would visit the coasts of Asia. And I would ride back into Africa on a camel. Though I did it alone, I would have my day's pleasuring. I had money in my pocket, and, though it might cost me 20 pounds, I would see all that my namesake had seen. It did cost me the best part of 20 pounds; and as for the pleasuring, I cannot say much for it.

I went to bed early in order to escape the returning party, and was again on the quay at six the next morning. On this occasion, I stepped boldly into the boat the very moment that I came along the shore. There is nothing in the world like paying for what you use. The long stick might do very well for a Governor of Pegu, but would be highly inconvenient in Friday Street. Well, I am not going to give an account of my day's journey here, though perhaps I may do so some day. I did go to the Well of Moses– –if a small dirty pool of salt water, lying high above the sands, can be called a well; I did eat my dinner in the miserable ruined cottage which they graced by the name of a pavilion; and, alas for my poor bones! I did ride home upon a camel. If Sir George did so early, and started for Pegu the next morning and I was informed such was the fact – he must have been made of iron. I lay in bed the whole day suffering grievously; but I was told that on such a journey I should have slackened my throat with oranges. I survived those four terrible days which remained to me at Suez, and after another month was once again in Friday Street.

I suffered greatly on the occasion; but it is some consolation to me to reflect that I smoked a pipe of peace with Mahmoud al Akbar; that I saw the hero of Begum while journeying out to new triumphs at Pegu; that I sailed into Asia in my own yacht – hired for the occasion; and that I rode back into Africa on a camel. Nor can Judkins, with all his ill–nature, rob me of these remembrances.