I was not the only passenger aboard the S.S. Mandalay who perceived the disturbance and wondered what it might portend and from whence proceed. A goodly number of passengers were joining the ship at Port Said. I was lounging against the rail, pipe in mouth, lazily wondering, with a large vagueness.
What a heterogeneous rabble it was!—a brightly coloured rabble, but the colours all were dirty, like the town and the canal. Only the sky was clean; the sky and the hard, merciless sunlight which spared nothing of the uncleanness, and defied one even to think of the term dear to tourists, “picturesque.” I was in that kind of mood. All the natives appeared to be pockmarked; all the Europeans greasy with perspiration.
But what was the stir about?
I turned to the dark, bespectacled young man who leaned upon the rail beside me. From the first I had taken to Mr. Ahmad Ahmadeen.
“There is some kind of undercurrent of excitement among the natives,” I said, “a sort of subdued Greek chorus is audible. What’s it all about?”
Mr. Ahmadeen smiled. After a gaunt fashion, he was a handsome man and had a pleasant smile.
“Probably,” he replied, “some local celebrity is joining the ship.”
I stared at him curiously.
“Any idea who he is?” (The soul of the copyhunter is a restless soul.)
A group of men dressed in semi-European fashion—that is, in European fashion save for their turbans, which were green—passed close to us along the deck.
Ahmadeen appeared not to have heard the question.
The disturbance, which could only be defined as a subdued uproar, but could be traced to no particular individual or group, grew momentarily louder—and died away. It was only when it had completely ceased that one realized how pronounced it had been —how altogether peculiar, secret; like that incomprehensible murmuring in a bazaar when, unknown to the insular visitor, a reputed saint is present.
Then it happened; the inexplicable incident which, though I knew it not, heralded the coming of strange things, and the dawn of a new power; which should set up its secret standards in England, which should flood Europe and the civilized world with wonder.
A shrill scream marked the overture—a scream of fear and of pain, which dropped to a groan, and moaned out into the silence of which it was the cause.
“My God! what’s that?”
I started forward. There was a general crowding rush, and a darkly tanned and bearded man came on board, carrying a brown leather case. Behind him surged those who bore the victim.
“It’s one of the lascars!”
“It was a porter—?”
“What is it—?”
“Someone been stabbed!”
“Where’s the doctor?”
“Stand away there, if you please!”