“Now, Ann, what would you like to do this afternoon?” I once heard an Englishwoman say to her young daughter, as they came slowly down the stairs of a Paris hotel. “Would you like to go to the Louvre, the Luxembourg, or the Salon?” To which the girl replied, with wistful candor. “If you don’t really mind, mamma, I should like to go and shop.”
That child’s sentiments were my own when Christmas Eve found us at Assuân, within a stone’s throw of the most interesting bazaars on the Nile. In vain our dragoman suggested a second trip to Philæ, and the really intelligent sightseers of the party reminded me severely that i had not examined half the inscriptions on my previous day’s visit. In vain the conscientious members urged that we had never been to the island of Elephantine at all, the sacred island where the god of the cataracts dwelt in his hidden shrine. In vain a few adventurous spirits urged us to ride to a Nubian village amid the sandhills and see a sword-dance, — “the real thing this time, and no mistake.” It was Christmas Eve. Shopping was the legitimate employment of the day. I thought of the English girl, and her fine rejection of the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the Salon, gathered a few unintelligent unconscientious, and unadventurous idlers around me, and started for the bazaars.
Now, shopping on the Nile is a very different matter from shopping on Chestnut Street or Broadway. In the first place, it is not a question of buying what you want, but of buying what you see. In the second place, it is not a question of paying what is asked, but of paying what you please, — provided only that you can get the merchant to agree with you. He begins by asking five times, ten times, twenty times the worth of the article, in hopes that your bid will be correspondingly high. If you are an old and wary bargainer, this false start fails to daunt you; but as it is hard to discover the real market value of a thing, or rather as nothing has a market value, there is no estimate save that of your own desires. How much is it worth to you? I have known a first-class dealer in Cairo to demand forty pounds for an antique basin and ever of Persian enameled copper, and to end by selling it for fifteen, and he was presumed to be a reliable merchant. The wary Egyptian who stands behind his tiny counter at Assuân is prepared for greater falls than this. One swarthy and excitable person, from whom I wished to purchase a small blue stone toad, fresh from the factory of Luxor, assured me its “last price” was a sovereign. On my hinting as gently as I could that a shilling would be rather too dear, he flung out his arms with a noble dramatic gesture, and called Heaven to witness that he could get a sovereign for it any day he pleased; many people would be glad to pay that price for such a curious and beautiful antique. We said that he would do well to keep it for these generous customers, and were passing on, when he slipped out of his bazaar, and caught my gown with one hand, while he held up the little monster alluringly with the other. “A pound is cheap—cheap!” he protested. “What then does madame expect to give, if she desires to possess such a treasure?” Madame intimated her willingness to pay sixpence, and no more; whereupon, like Lady Clare’s lover,
He laughed a laugh of merry scorn
and swept the toad so swiftly up his sleeve that for one brief moment I was beguiled into believing the thing really had some mysterious value, and that i had betrayed my ignorance by the modesty of my bid. But five minutes later, as we were bargaining at another bazaar for a Soudanese battle-axe, I felt a hand laid persuasively on my arm, and there stood my friend with the toad, more reproachful and more dramatic than ever. The price had fallen now to fifteen shillings. He was downcast, but resigned. Since the rich American lady was unwilling to give more, the poor Egyptian must be content to lose. “Take it for fifteen shillings and good-by.” The rich American lady explained that sixpence was her final offer, and continued her negotiations for the axe. It took a long time for this weapon to fall, by slow degrees, from thirty shillings to eight, at which price it was finally purchased, and I had forgotten all about my toad in this new excitement, when a voice whispered mournfully in my ear, “What you like to give, then? Twenty shillings?” I shook my head. The Egyptian seemed pained. He looked at me as if I had gone back on my promised word. I moved away. He followed me from stall to stall, and the shillings dropped off at every step, like leaves from a tree in autumn. Nine—eight—seven—six—five—four—three—two—one—then a long, incredulous pause. “Madame will not give one shilling for a stone two thousand years old? Take it for sixpence!” The toad was thrust into my hand, and its former proprietor withdrew, no longer melancholy, but wreathed with smiles, and plainly well pleased with his bargain.