Historical Reprints History American Egypt

American Egypt

American Egypt
Catalog # SKU3797
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name Channing Arnold, Frederick J. Tabor Frost
ISBN 10: 0000000000
ISBN 13: 0000000000000


American Egypt

A Record of Travel in Yucatan

Channing Arnold
Frederick J. Tabor Frost

Most of us want to do what we are not doing. In the majority of human hearts, deep down, is an intangible tormenting wish to go somewhere, to see some land, to do something which is not in the programme drawn up for us by the inexorable fate of birth and circumstance. Usually the longing is crushed out by the juggernaut wheels of life's ponderous Car of Necessity, which drives us all forward towards the Unknown in a set groove from which the most desperate efforts never extricate us.


We steam out into the still night air, the heavy train bumping and jolting over level-crossings where stand groups of Mexican poor, children, and dogs; past rows of adobe huts, palm-thatched, and frowsy little tiendas (general shops), where glimpses are caught in the oil-flare of trays of unspeakable eatables. It is stifling in the carriages, and we throw up the windows. The moon is rising, the night air is warm and scented-scented with a strange pungent, spicy scent-an indescribable perfume-the smell of the tropics.

The train rolls heavily on between dark masses of bush and stunted cactus, topped by waving palm-leaves, and here and there banana plantations, heavy with the grass-green fruit. This is the tierra-caliente, "the hot-lands," the great belt of steaming miasmic country stretching some fifty miles ere we begin the climb up to the highlands of Central Mexico. It is hard to see much, but that long slope of undulating ground out there to the left is a coffee plantation, the dark-green bushes dotting the rounded hillside like tufts of wool on a Bushman's head. Now the train crawls, as a fly on the edge of a teacup, round a fertile crater-like valley. You can look right down into its green glories, where mid the leaves the moonlight touches into quicksilver the boisterous river which bubbles and froths like a Scotch stream in spate. Now we pass through acres of forest banking up each side so high that it is all blackness; while every few miles the mournful tolling of the engine bell heralds us into a wayside village, the lights streaming through the doors of whitewashed huts, and Indians, muffled to their eyes in blankets, standing in silent groups by the railside.

At Rio Blanco we rattle past a great cotton factory, its myriad lights twinkling into such a confusion of illumination that it looks like a swarm of fireflies hovering amid the darkened houses and huts of the town. For hours afterwards we are to see those twinkling lights, thousands of feet below us in the valley, ever shifting their position as the train winds its way round and again round the vast wooded sides of the mountain range. This factory at Rio Blanco is one of the largest cotton factories in Mexico, and during a recent winter was the scene of one of those terrible "incidents" which prove how really superficial is the civilisation of Mexico. The Company objected to their workmen buying their provisions at the ordinary town stores and started a tienda of their own, where the goods sold were both more expensive and of inferior quality. An order was issued that in future the "hands" must deal at the Company's store. The men objected and went on strike. From the capital comes down General Martinez, Vice-Secretary for War, thenceforward to be known as "the Mexican Trepoff," and in one morning his troops shoot down in cold blood 214 men loitering in the streets of Rio Blanco. Enough that the "Iron Master" ordered it. No one disputes the yea or the nay of Porfirio Diaz, maker of Modern Mexico. So the strike is over: labour is scarce in Rio Blanco for a week or so; and Trepoff-Martinez travels back to the capital to ride his fine Arab in Chapultepec Park and spend his evenings at cards in the Jockey Club.

But for the time we lose sight of the factory. We are nearing the limits of the hot-lands, and as you stare out into the night, barrener hills and mounds, stone-speckled, are closing in on each side. Beyond them and above them, blacker distant masses climb into the moonlit sky, ringing round the landscape ahead till it looks as if our train, landlocked, will soon have to come to a standstill. The plains, rich with their harvests of cotton and coffee, of fruits, sugar-cane and olives, have given place all round to mountains; and as we wind forward, heights, rising mysterious, magical, wall us in from the rear till we seem as if we were caught in a black devil's-punch-bowl. And then, like the fitting knell to the apprehensive traveller's thoughts, the doleful engine bell clangs sorrowfully backwards and forwards, and the great train rolls into the station of Orizaba. Here in a bare stone-floored barn-room a grossly obese Mexican (like the camel, he seems to have two or three stomachs, his striped leather-belted cotton vest shows such huge undulations of adipose tissue), assisted by a sickly yellow Indian lad, swaddled in a red and white striped blanket, serves coffee, good coffee too, and pan dulce, sweet bread, crusted with caraway seeds. And here, too, the great climbing engines are awaiting us, snorting and blowing off steam like angered bulls eager to charge the toreador-hills which blot out the world ahead of us. We need both, for the train is to be cut into two-one engine will not carry us safely up the perilous slope-and the Pullman carriages in a few minutes rumble out ahead of us.

We have struck up a friendship with the car-conductor-a half-blood nigger from Cuba, and a delightful companion, who speaks English well and has already told us more about Mexico than a dozen encyclopedia articles, and as, munching a last mouthful of roll, we climb into our car, he gives us a friendly warning to be on the look-out in some fifteen minutes for a queer sight, the Pullman half of the train climbing the mountains above us. If you think of a mountain and then draw round it in your mind a spiral line as if it was a vast cone-shaped screw, you will gain an idea of what the two trains were going to do. They were going to wind up from the valley round and round the scalped faces of the mountains to a height of 8,000 feet above sea-level. Six thousand feet of this alpine work is done in fifteen miles of rail after leaving Orizaba Station during a space of two hours! A gradient of one in thirteen and a fifth! It is pleasant to remember that this miracle of engineering skill was achieved by Englishmen, and that in the long years since, so perfect was their work, no serious accident has ever occurred.

The engine soon gets to grips with its titan task. Over us on the right we see the vast mountains close,-towering upward as a huge wave looms above the swimmer sunk in its trough,-those eternal hills up to the barren fastnesses of which the gallant Cortes and his five hundred climbed four centuries ago, after he had destroyed his boats at Vera Cruz that there might be no looking backward. Slowly we wind round the base of the mountain, then we bend back again on a new spiral till the lights of Orizaba Station twinkle ahead of us instead of behind us. Once more round and the cars tilt outward, outward, till it seems we are at an impossible angle if we are to keep the metals.

Two or three more spirals, and we have won this first hill, and here is our next monster; and as we bend round the last of the conquered one you look right across the valley, hundreds of feet deep, to where absolutely opposite is the meagre metal band running round the face of the still higher hill. Talk of horse-shoe curves! So acute seems the bend that one wonders how the most perfect bogey-wheels can take it. But we do take it, till we in the front cars seem to be looking right into the hinder ones where huddle in the dim light Indians as tightly packed as sardines in a tin. The grinding of the brakes; the short sharp pants of the engine, the fierce glare from its opened furnace, the figures of the stokers silhouetted ink-black against the flame-red; the slow creak-creak as the wheels turn and turn again to an ever new curve, make a scene unparalleled. Every few minutes sinister figures, slouch-hatted, scarlet blankets thrown round them to chin-height, men who in the dim light look terrifyingly brigand-like, pass through the cars, in their hands swinging lamps. These are the brake-men-two to a car-upon whose untiring nerve the safety of the train largely hangs.

And now as we enter upon a new curve, sure enough right above, like some giant glow-worm creeping sluggish up the hill, is the Pullman half of our train. We have just caught sight of it, and it twinkles on the curve ahead and twists and contorts itself round the hill till it seems to be doubling back upon us. At one moment we are on the same curve, and not a quarter of a mile separates the two trains. What if the Pullman brakes gave? And then it has twisted itself out of our sight, only to reappear a moving gleam of light in the black woodlands overhead. But look eastward! What a sight! We have climbed over two thousand feet now, and far below us stretch limitless the moonlit hot-lands. It is all black, that distance, save where, a bed of light, the cotton factory of Rio Blanco steals into view beneath that hill on the right. Now it twinkles ahead, now behind us. Now we seem running past it again, but infinitely far away; and then we lose it altogether and bend into a dark curve between two hills. As we lean out of the windows the car tilts till we see no permanent way beneath us.

We look sheer down into a gorge which cannot be less than five hundred feet deep. Away down there we see what are huge trees: they look shrubs; a wide river which seems a brook, broken here and there by waterfalls over rocks, as large as houses, which look mere pebbles. Against the silvered sky rise, jagged-toothed, line upon line of hills, roughly pointed, the cone shape of volcanoes, and as we twist out of the black gorge-greatest sight of all!-rises the vast apex of Orizaba, dwarfing the meaner masses around, her snowy peak silvered by the moon into a diamond-brightness. Looking out across that world of hills upon that queenly height one understands why men have worshipped mountains.

But while we have been dodging from window to window like village schoolboys on a treat-day, the lamps of the car have been shrouded in green-baize hoods, and our Mexican fellow-travellers, indifferent to Orizaba's majesty and the angle of the carriages, have stretched themselves into all sorts of uneasy attitudes on the Procrustean seats, and sleep. Even our good conductor, weary of cigarettes, has turned up his collar, and with folded arms nods his peak-capped head till he is to be roused by the jolting of the train into Esperanza. And it is getting cold. Blasť with the wonders of the climb, we close the windows and, unbuckling portmanteaux, gratefully wrap ourselves into rugs and ulsters. But our companions are not all sleeping. There are two of them very wide awake, and they have much reason to be. The prisoner and his guard face each other, smoking cigarettes, while the odd detective sleeps on the next seat, his head pillowed on a thick hooded cloak rolled military fashion. It is an armed peace between the guarded and the guardian, and it is presently to develop into almost open war. But first a little of the prisoner's history, and then for a look at him.

Vera Cruz State is rich in criminals, and you can get yourself murdered very cheaply round about there. This fellow would have done it for you for the ridiculous sum of two shillings (a dollar); but he can't oblige you now, for he is going up to Mexico City to be shot. He is only twenty-eight, yet he has committed six murders "on his own," and has had as his accomplice in other crimes an older man, already in the hands of the authorities, who is credited with twenty! This latter criminal, long "wanted," was locally known as El Tigre (The Tiger), and, cornered at last, he suspected, as such knaves will, that his young friend had given him away. So he gave as good as he thought he had got-such information to the police as has resulted in that queerly small delicate hand over there being anchored by nasty cold steel to the iron seat.

464 pages - 7 x 8½ softcover
Perfect-Bound - 12 point font