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Mahmoud the Syce by Sara Keables Hunt



One of the most novel and interesting sights which attracts the traveller's attention when he first arrives in Egypt is the syce running before the horses as they go through the narrow, closely packed streets. How the crowd scatters, and the donkey-boys hustle their meek property out of the way as one of those runners comes bounding along, shouting, in the strange Arabic tongue, "Clear the way!" The sun shines upon his velvet vest, glittering with its spangled trimmings, the breeze fills the large floating sleeves till they wave backward like white wings. Then on dash the spirited horses, dogs bark, children squeal, beggars dodge, men swear, and women, holding their face-veil closer, ejaculate fiercely.

On springs the syce; what cares he for man or beast? while proudly following rolls the rich equipage, or prances the Arab steed with its turbaned rider and Oriental robes.

Mahmoud, the subject of this little sketch, was the syce of a rich Pasha in Cairo; he was a favorite with his master, and everybody loved him—even the horses would neigh joyfully at his approach, and eat from his hand as gently as a dog. His life was an easy one, for, being a favorite, no arduous duties were placed upon him, and his strength was encouraged and sustained by the master for the swift running which commands so much admiration. So agile did he become, that no name among the syce of Egypt was more renowned than that of Mahmoud. Often at the latticed windows bright eyes of hidden beauties followed him through the narrow streets, and watched for his coming as he led the way for his master each morning in his rides. Sometimes they threaded their way through the crowded bazars amid scenes of the Arabian Nights, breathing wonderful Eastern perfumes, gazing on rare gems and exquisite embroideries; and again, down the road to the Pyramids, with the soft air blowing in his face, trees waving overhead, and birds singing merrily; or, in the blood-red sunset, passing down the Choubra Road, the fashionable drive of Cairo, with its shade of gnarled old sycamores, and crowded with conveyances of every description. Sometimes he led the way for the harem carriage, very proud of the honor.

One morning the Pasha sat in his garden under the blossoming orange-tree, smoking his chibouque, and talking with his friend the Bey from Alexandria, whose horse stood in the path champing impatiently at his bit, and held by his syce, Abdullah, in his gay costume. They talked of politics, the condition of the country, its financial troubles; they spoke of their religion and their mosque, of the Suez Canal, the improvements of the city, the Khedive's new palace, their own dwelling-places. By-and-by the conversation ran upon their horses and their favorite syce.

"Abdullah can outrun them all," said the Bey.

"Not so," replied the Pasha; "my Mahmoud is the finest runner in Cairo—ay, in all Egpyt."

"Sayest thou so?" cried the Bey. "Come and let us test their skill."

"Most surely," answered the Pasha, "and I will give a prize to the boy who wins."

The news soon spread over Cairo that Mahmoud and Abdullah were to run a race, the winner to receive a costly girdle of rich embroidery, finished with a clasp set with gems. Great was the interest, and on the day appointed crowds assembled to see the race, gathering long before the competitors appeared.

What a motley group there was! Camels with their riders, stylish carriages with pretty French children, rosy-cheeked English girls, Italian singers, American officers and tourists, English lords, wild desert Arabs, swarthy-faced fellaheen, pistachio and pea-nut dealers, donkey-boys, beggars, and peddlers. A Turkish band played a quick reveille. Here they come! The crowd cheers—the signal is given—they are off! The general sympathy is with Mahmoud, but Abdullah is a strong fellow, of tremendous muscle, more experience, and mighty will, so that little Mahmoud has a rival of no mean powers.

Every eye is fixed upon those two figures, side by side, leaping onward in graceful bounds. Forward they fly, past the cotton field, around the curved path; but look!— Abdullah is ahead; Mahmoud seems far behind. The band plays quicker. Abdullah is flying; he will win; he— But no; Mahmoud is gaining; he nears his rival. Abdullah sees and strains every nerve, but in vain. Mahmoud swings his light wand over his head, and shoots by like an arrow. It is over; the goal is reached. Mahmoud has won, and amid the loud cheers of the crowd the Pasha descends from his carriage, and places the glittering sash around the victor's waist. Abdullah approaches, gives his successful rival a hearty salam, which awakens fresh applause. Somebody scatters a shower of gold coins over them, and the crowd disperses.