The Tragedy of the Korosko, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Chapter 2

The young American hesitated for a little, debating in his mind whether he should not go down and post up the daily record of his impressions which he kept for his home-staying sister. But the cigars of Colonel Cochrane and of Cecil Brown were still twinkling in the far corner of the deck, and the student was acquisitive in the search of information. He did not quite know how to lead up to the matter, but the Colonel very soon did it for him.

“Come on, Headingly,” said he, pushing a camp-stool in his direction. “This is the place for an antidote. I see that Fardet has been pouring politics into your ear.”

“I can always recognise the confidential stoop of his shoulders when he discusses la haute politique” said the dandy diplomatist. “But what a sacrilege upon a night like this! What a nocturne in blue and silver might be suggested by that moon rising above the desert. There is a movement in one of Mendelssohn’s songs which seems to embody it all,— a sense of vastness, of repetition, the cry of the wind over an interminable expanse. The subtler emotions which cannot be translated into words are still to be hinted at by chords and harmonies.”

“It seems wilder and more savage than ever to-night,” remarked the American. “It gives me the same feeling of pitiless force that the Atlantic does upon a cold, dark, winter day. Perhaps it is the knowledge that we are right there on the very edge of any kind of law and order. How far do you suppose that we are from any Dervishes, Colonel Cochrane?”

“Well, on the Arabian side,” said the Colonel, “we have the Egyptian fortified camp of Sarras about forty miles to the south of us. Beyond that are sixty miles of very wild country before you would come to the Dervish post at Akasheh. On this other side, however, there is nothing between us and them.”

“Abousir is on this side, is it not?”

“Yes. That is why the excursion to the Abousir Rock has been forbidden for the last year. But things are quieter now.”

“What is to prevent them from coming down on that side?”

“Absolutely nothing,” said Cecil Brown, in his listless voice.

“Nothing, except their fears. The coming, of course, would be absolutely simple. The difficulty would lie in the return. They might find it hard to get back if their camels were spent and the Haifa garrison with their beasts fresh got on their track. They know it as well as we do, and it has kept them from trying.”

“It isn’t safe to reckon upon a Dervish’s fears,” remarked Brown. “We must always bear in mind that they are not amenable to the same motives as other people. Many of them are anxious to meet death, and all of them are absolute, uncompromising believers in destiny. They exist as a reductio ad absurdum of all bigotry,— a proof of how surely it leads towards blank barbarism.”

“You think these people are a real menace to Egypt?” asked the American. “There seems from what I have heard to be some difference of opinion about it. Monsieur Fardet, for example, does not seem to think that the danger is a very pressing one.”

“I am not a rich man,” Colonel Cochrane answered, after a little pause, “but I am prepared to lay all I am worth that within three years of the British officers being withdrawn, the Dervishes would be upon the Mediterranean. Where would the civilisation of Egypt be? where would the hundreds of millions be which have been invested in this country? where the monuments which all nations look upon as most precious memorials of the past?”

“Come now, Colonel,” cried Headingly, laughing, “surely you don’t mean that they would shift the pyramids?”

“You cannot foretell what they would do. There is no iconoclast in the world like an extreme Mohammedan. Last time they overran this country they burned the Alexandrian library. You know that all representations of the human features are against the letter of the Koran. A statue is always an irreligious object in their eyes. What do these fellows care for the sentiment of Europe? The more they could offend it the more delighted they would be. Down would go the Sphinx, the Colossi, the Statues of Abou-Simbel,— as the saints went down in England before Cromwell’s troopers.”

“Well now,” said Headingly, in his slow, thoughtful fashion, “suppose I grant you that the Dervishes could overrun Egypt, and suppose also that you English are holding them out, what I’m never done asking is, what reason have you for spending all these millions of dollars and the lives of so many of your men? What do you get out of it, more than France gets, or Germany, or any other country, that runs no risk and never lays out a cent?”

“There are a good many Englishmen who are asking themselves that question,” remarked Cecil Brown. “It’s my opinion that we have been the policemen of the world long enough. We policed the seas for pirates and slavers. Now we police the land for Dervishes and brigands and every sort of danger to civilisation. There is never a mad priest or a witch doctor, or a firebrand of any sort on this planet, who does not report his appearance by sniping the nearest British officer. One tires of it at last. If a Kurd breaks loose in Asia Minor, the world wants to know why Great Britain does not keep him in order. If there is a military mutiny in Egypt, or a Jehad in the Soudan, it is still Great Britain who has to set it right. And all to an accompaniment of curses such as the policeman gets when he seizes a ruffian among his pals. We get hard knocks and no thanks, and why should we do it? Let Europe do its own dirty work.”

“Well,” said Colonel Cochrane, crossing his legs and leaning forward with the decision of a man who has definite opinions, “I don’t at all agree with you, Brown, and I think that to advocate such a course is to take a very limited view of our national duties. I think that behind national interests and diplomacy and all that there lies a great guiding force,— a Providence, in fact,— which is for ever getting the best out of each nation and using it for the good of the whole. When a nation ceases to respond, it is time that she went into hospital for a few centuries, like Spain or Greece,— the virtue has gone out of her. A man or a nation is not here upon this earth merely to do what is pleasant and profitable. It is often called upon to carry out what is unpleasant and unprofitable; but if it is obviously right, it is mere shirking not to undertake it.”

Headingly nodded approvingly.

“Each has its own mission. Germany is predominant in abstract thought; France in literature, art, and grace. But we and you,— for the English-speakers are all in the same boat, however much the New York Sun may scream over it,— we and you have among our best men a higher conception of moral sense and public duty than is to be found in any other people. Now, these are the two qualities which are needed for directing a weaker race. You can’t help them by abstract thought or by graceful art, but only by that moral sense which will hold the scales of Justice even, and keep itself free from every taint of corruption. That is how we rule India. We came there by a kind of natural law, like air rushing into a vacuum. All over the world, against our direct interests and our deliberate intentions, we are drawn into the same thing. And it will happen to you also. The pressure of destiny will force you to administer the whole of America from Mexico to the Horn.”

Headingly whistled.

“Our Jingoes would be pleased to hear you, Colonel Cochrane,” said he. “They’d vote you into our Senate and make you one of the Committee on Foreign Relations.”

“The world is small, and it grows smaller every day. It’s a single organic body, and one spot of gangrene is enough to vitiate the whole. There’s no room upon it for dishonest, defaulting, tyrannical, irresponsible Governments. As long as they exist they will always be centres of trouble and of danger. But there are many races which appear to be so incapable of improvement that we can never hope to get a good Government out of them. What is to be done, then? The former device of Providence in such a case was extermination by some more virile stock. An Attila or a Tamerlane pruned off the weaker branch. Now, we have a more merciful substitution of rulers, or even of mere advice from a more advanced race. That is the case with the Central Asian Khanates and with the protected States of India. If the work has to be done, and if we are the best fitted for the work, then I think that it would be a cowardice and a crime to shirk it.”

“But who is to decide whether it is a fitting case for your interference?” objected the American. “A predatory country could grab every other land in the world upon such a pretext.”

“Events — inexorable, inevitable events — will decide it. Take this Egyptian business as an example. In 1881 there was nothing in this world further from the minds of our people than any interference with Egypt; and yet 1882 left us in possession of the country. There was never any choice in the chain of events. A massacre in the streets of Alexandria, and the mounting of guns to drive out our fleet — which was there, you understand, in fulfilment of solemn treaty obligations — led to the bombardment. The bombardment led to a landing to save the city from destruction. The landing caused an extension of operations — and here we are, with the country upon our hands. At the time of trouble we begged and implored the French or any one else to come and help us to set the thing to rights, but they all deserted us when there was work to be done, though they are ready enough to scold and to impede us now. When we tried to get out of it, up came this wild Dervish movement, and we had to sit tighter than ever. We never wanted the task; but, now that it has come, we must put it through in a workmanlike manner. We’ve brought justice into the country, and purity of administration, and protection for the poor man. It has made more advance in the last twelve years than since the Moslem invasion in the seventh century. Except the pay of a couple of hundred men, who spend their money in the country, England has neither directly nor indirectly made a shilling out of it, and I don’t believe you will find in history a more successful and more disinterested bit of work.”

Headingly puffed thoughtfully at his cigarette.

“There is a house near ours, down on the Back Bay at Boston, which just ruins the whole prospect,” said he. “It has old chairs littered about the stoop, and the shingles are loose, and the garden runs wild; but I don’t know that the neighbours are exactly justified in rushing in, and stamping around, and running the thing on their own lines.”

“Not if it were on fire?” asked the Colonel.

Headingly laughed, and rose from his camp-stool.

“Well, it doesn’t come within the provisions of the Monroe Doctrine, Colonel,” said he. “I’m beginning to think, that modern Egypt is every bit as interesting as ancient, and that Rameses the Second wasn’t the last live man in the country.”

The two Englishmen rose and yawned.

“Yes, it’s a whimsical freak of fortune which has sent men from a little island in the Atlantic to administer the land of the Pharaohs. We shall pass away and never leave a trace among the successive races who have held the country, for it is an Anglo-Saxon custom to write their deeds upon rocks. I dare say that the remains of a Cairo drainage system will be our most permanent record, unless they prove a thousand years hence that it was the work of the Hyksos kings,” remarked Cecil Brown. “But here is the shore party come back.”

Down below they could hear the mellow Irish accents of Mrs. Belmont and the deep voice of her husband, the iron-grey rifleshot. Mr. Stuart, the fat Birmingham clergyman, was thrashing out a question of piastres with a noisy donkey-boy, and the others were joining in with chaff and advice. Then the hubbub died away, the party from above came down the ladder, there were “good-nights,” the shutting of doors, and the little steamer lay silent, dark, and motionless in the shadow of the high Haifa bank. And beyond this one point of civilisation and of comfort there lay the limitless, savage, unchangeable desert, straw-coloured and dream-like in the moonlight, mottled over with the black shadows of the hills.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33