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COLOMBO
A port crowded with steamers taking in coal, and very light barks high out of the water, kept in equilibrium by parallel outriggers at the ends of two flexible spars. These crank boats, made of[Pg 124] planks that scarcely overlap, were piled with luggage, and the boatmen jostle and turn and skim close under the fast-steaming transatlantic liners, amid a bewildering babel of shouts and oaths, under a sun hot enough to melt lead.

On the landing-stage we read in large letters: "Beware of sunstroke," and lower down, "Avoid it by buying the best umbrellas and the best pith helmets of John Dash." The streets are the commonplace highways of a commercial town; the houses tall, with shops below. Dust and light alike were blinding; jinrickshaws were passing to and fro, drawn by almost naked coolies running as fast as horses.

The Cingalese women, of languid gait, wear a long dark robe clinging about their legs and reaching to the ground. The poorer women have only a scanty saree to complete the costume; the more wealthy display stockings and boots; a white bodice cut low, with open sleeves and no basque leaves a roll of skin visible between the skirt and the bodice. The men wear a long loin-cloth of English trouser-stuff, a white jacket buttoned over the bare skin, and a twist of back hair like a woman's, in which they stick a celluloid comb, coronet-fashion—such a comb as is used in Europe[Pg 125] to keep the hair back from a child's forehead. And all the race are too slender, too pliant, their eyes too long and slightly darkened with kohl; the boys especially have an unpleasant, ambiguous look.

In every shop of the High Street jewellers are on the look-out for customers, hale them in, tease them to buy, and open for inspection little bags or cardboard boxes kept in safes, and containing the finest sapphires in the world. The day slips by in bargaining for the gems, in endless discussions and feigned departures. The indefatigable vendors return to the charge, run after the customer, wait for him at the door of a rival dealer, and drag him back again. Then there is a fresh dispute over prices, till irresistible argument at last brings down the estimates to a third or a quarter of what they were at starting.


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