Note the advantages of a half ignorance. From early childhood we had thought of Arabia as the “burning desert”—flat, of course—and of the Red Sea as bordered by “shifting sands” alone. If we had known the truth—if we had not been half ignorant—we would have missed the profound surprise of discovering that in reality the Red Sea is bordered by high and rugged mountains, leaving just space enough between themselves and the shore for a sloping plain on which our glasses could make out occasional palms. Perhaps the “shifting sands of the burning desert” lie somewhere beyond; but somebody might have mentioned these great mountains! After examining them attentively we had to confess that if this sort of thing continued farther north the children of Israel must have had a very hard time of it. Mocha shone white, glittering, and low, with the red and white spire of a mosque rising brilliantly above it.
It was cooler; and for a change we had turned into our bunks, when B. pounded on our stateroom door.
“In the name of the Eternal East,” said he, “come on deck!”
We slipped on kimonos, and joined the row of scantily draped and interested figures along the rail.
The ship lay quite still on a perfect sea of moonlight, bordered by a low flat distant shore on one side, and nearer mountains on the other. A strong flare, centred from two ship reflectors overside, made a focus of illumination that subdued, but could not quench, the soft moonlight with which all outside was silvered. A dozen boats, striving against a current or clinging as best they could to the ship’s side, glided into the light and became real and solid; or dropped back into the ghostly white unsubstantiality of the moon. They were long, narrow boats, with small flush decks fore and aft. We looked down on them from almost directly above, so that we saw the thwarts and the ribs and the things they contained.
Astern in each stood men, bending gracefully against the thrust of long sweeps. About their waists were squares of cloth, wrapped twice and tucked in. Otherwise they were naked, and the long smooth muscles of their slender bodies rippled under the skin. The latter was of a beautiful fine texture, and chocolate brown. These men had keen, intelligent, clear-cut faces, of the Greek order, as though the statues of a garden had been stained brown and had come to life. They leaned on their sweeps, thrusting slowly but strongly against the little wind and current that would drift them back.