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PALMYRA AND ZENOBIA. CHAPTER 18.

CHAPTER XVIII.

During my first visit to Palmyra, in 1872, I spent four days from dawn to dusk in incessant exploration. One of my companions, a wealthy banker, began with great zeal to collect curios. By the end of the first day his money had set the whole population in motion, to sift the sands, and rifle the tombs. Ile returned to the tent at night laden with a miscellaneous assortment of old Tadmor odds and ends.

He had handfuls of the beautiful little coins that are found in the sand, boxes of terra-cotta tablets with Palmyra inscriptions and figures, Roman lamps, inscribed gems, and a heap of skulls and limbs of mummies. The lower extremities of one of the mummies he inserted into a pair of his own under-drawers, the better to preserve them.

There is perhaps no pursuit that so quickly grows to a passion as the search for antiquities. The searcher is always finding something unique, and in Palmyra every [194] glass bead is associated with the Sitt Zenobia. My friend had secured several objects of great interest, among which were real coins of Wahballath, one of Zenobia's sons.

The collector's passion soon culminates in fever. I had gone over the heaps of coins, gems, lamps, and tesserae with my friend before going to bed, pointing out the archaeological value of some of his discoveries. Ile spent a sleepless and restless night, tossing to and fro, and hinging for the dawn. He woke me up in the night to tell him the name of Zenobia's son whose name was on the coins.

As soon as the day began to break he slipped from the tent, and gathering around him the entire population of Tadmor resumed his researches among the ruins.

I had ridden out early to the quarries from which the great stones and columns of Palmyra had been taken. We again met at nine o'clock, at breakfast, and I found his cup of satisfaction was full to overflowing. It is not easy to carry the full cup with dignity. He had no eyes for my bag of partridges, or ears for my story of the wondrous quarries.

When breakfast was over, he drew from his pocket a red silk handkerchief, and, calling us around, began very mysteriously and deliberately to unfold it!

"There," said he, disclosing a little ivory figure, "look at that. It is pure Grecian, of the best period. See the expression, the feeling, the spirituality of that idol. I leave little doubt that it once belonged to Zenobia, and one cannot wonder that the lovely woman worshipped -so lovely an object." [195]

Our ladies thronged round the fortunate finder, to examine the beautiful idol. I was waiting for my turn to get a sight of the wonderful work of art, when my niece exclaimed:

"Why, you goose, it's the head of your own umbrella."

He turned on her with a look of scorn, and I thought he would have struck her to the ground. Then a most unsympathetic laugh burst from the whole party. He became ashy pale, as if he were about to faint. Before the laughter ceased, he had scattered all his collection on the sand, kicking the things about. Then lie rushed out of the tent without speaking a word, and disappeared among the ruins.

The demand for antiquities had stimulated the supply. The Palmyrans, aided, I believe, by my friend's dragoman, had stolen the handle of his umbrella, and sold it to him for ten times its weight in gold. That transaction completely cured him of the archaeological fever. He bought no more antiques, and declined to look at those purchased by us, or offered for sale by the natives, and he took no further interest in our explorations. His one and only desire seemed to be to get away from Palmyra.

For three days he urged me incessantly to leave the "God-forsaken place." Morning, noon, and night, at all our meals, and whenever we met in the ruins, he urged his one plea, that we should retrace our steps to Damascus. I reminded him that all our plans were laid to spend a week at Palmyra, that our contracts were made on that basis, that we were never likely to visit [196] the place again, and that it would be a calamity to leave the place half explored.

As the week advanced, his complainings became harder to bear. They began to take the form of taunts and challenges. If I had any one who could ride to accompany me," he would say,"I would return straight to Damascus, without spending four days dawdling by the way." He did not wish to ride back with a parcel of girls; though, as a matter of fact, the girls were the liveliest riders of the party.

On Thursday night I told him I would ride back to Damascus with him as quickly as he pleased. I had had a very hard day climbing the ladders to inscriptions and investigating subterranean chambers. We threw ourselves down for a brief sleep, and started a little before midnight.

I hoped to accompany our party well clear of Palmyra, and to leave them to follow the beaten track with their escort, while I pushed forward with my friend.

Noiselessly we stole out of the ruins, which are more impressive at night than by day. We swept silently down the plain, lighted on our way by the stars. The air was fresh and balmy, and quite exhilarating after the broiling heat of the day.

I was riding well ahead, when I saw our way blocked by an encampment about a mile in front of us. I stopped and called up our guard, and tried to get them well together so as to be ready for all emergencies.

As soon as my Bashi-bazooks saw the encampment, they [197] dashed forward with a wild yell, and charged down the plain. I was better mounted than they, and I got before them, and with my whip tried to restrain their impetuosity; but a wild spirit had taken possession of the whole party.

My cook rode past me on a baggage mule, brandishing an old pistol that would have endangered somebody's life if it had gone off; but so great was the general madness that seized our party, that a young and cool-headed friend, a distinguished metaphysician and gold medallist, who had been riding behind with the ladies, left his charge, and galloped furiously past me, holding his revolver in front of him, at arm's length, and shouting the one good Arabic phrase which he had at command, Clear the way."

Our gallant charge was akin to panic, and would, I knew, in case of a real enemy, be equally disastrous.

It was for me one of the most anxious moments of my life. If we were in for a battle, I knew that my breech-loader and revolver, as they were both of the best, would be of service; but our ladies were behind in the darkness. I therefore rode to the rear, when I was needed in front, and my arrival was most opportune.

The ladies, one of whom was sister to the metaphysican with the revolver, had also charged when they heard of an enemy on the path; but one of the saddles had turned round in the confusion, and the rider's foot having caught in the stirrup, she was being dragged along the ground. In less than a minute she was again in the saddle, and we [198] were all galloping towards the enemy-. We heard a few sputtering shots and cries, and prepared for the worst; but when we arrived, we found the camp was only a caravan of Damascus merchants, and that the cries and shots were only let off for joy on the meeting of old friends.

My reception, as I brought up the rear, was far from flattering. I heard one of our escort saying, "The Khowajah was the best mounted and best armed of the whole party-, but when the supreme moment came, he rode to the rear, and took his place among the women."

The Arab is a game-cock, and a fight is as popular in the desert as anywhere else; but I have an impression that when my escort gallantly bore down on the caravan of peaceful merchants, they knew that they were likely to be rewarded with brandy and tobacco.

Leaving our party on the march, my friend and I set out for our long ride to Damascus. The night had become piercingly cold, and we seemed to be always riding against a ridge about ten yards ahead; but we pressed forward for a couple of hours, without drawing rein. We were both well mounted. My companion rode a large-boned, serviceable chestnut of the Kadisheh, or plebeian, order. I rode a blood-mare (Asileh) of the Siklaweh-Jidran breed. She was a beautiful bay, with deep chest, large soft eyes, cup-like feet and long pas-terns, and springy step, and an unwritten pedigree stretching in point of time as far back as the bluest blood in England.

I was once able to render an important service to a [199] family of Arabs, who were being ruined by Russian Jews under English protection, at Damascus. I fell in love with one of their mares. They saw me fondling her, and giving her bits of sugar and biscuit, and, believing that l would be kind to her, they sold her to inc. in defiance of their custom. She brought me safely out of many a scrape in the desert, and we became fast friends. She would stand stone still, if she saw me putting up my gun to fire, so that from the saddle I could shoot birds on the wing: and when I wanted to mount her she would come at my call, and stand rubbing her head against me, till I got into the saddle. She was larger than the ordinary desert blood-mare, and carried easily a weight of thirteen and a half stones.

When we had got opposite the 'Ain el-Wu'ul fountain, we found our way blocked by an Arab encampment. The twinkling lights seemed to fill the whole plain. All appeared to be fast asleep, but we knew that if one of the BedawÓn saw us, we should soon have the whole hornet's nest after us.

As the wind was coming from the fountain-side, we resolved to try- to get round the other side of the encampment. We alighted, and, slinging the nose-bags on our horses, carefully led them as we moved round the Arab flank in the darkness.

It was an anxious time; for, had our horses whinnied, or a desert dog discovered us, we should certainly at least have been deprived of our horses.

By making a circuit of a mile or more, we got past [200] the northern flank of the sleeping host. A strong wind was blowing from the camp, laden with the odour of camels and camp-fires. Our mares, we knew, would not neigh like horses, and betray us; but lest they might be tempted to act contrary to their natures, we let them feed from their nose-bags as they walked silently and docilely by our sides.

As soon as we thought we had got past the Arabs, we worked our way back to the direct path, and started for karyetein at a pace of twelve miles an hour. The track was hard, and the noise of our cantering horses roused the camp, which was nearer to us than we had supposed, judging from the glimmer of the camp-fires, which seemed in the darkness farther away than they really were. An alarm shot was fired, and then there arose a babel of sounds, in which the braying of asses, and barking of dogs, and shouting of men were mingled.

We kept steadily on our way, but we did not seem to be getting much further from the noises. When we had ridden for about an hour, we suddenly became aware that we were being pursued. The night had become very dark, and we could see nothing but the camp-fires in the distance, but we could distinctly hear the clatter of horses' feet, and even the hard breathing of horses which were being driven furiously.

Three courses were open to us. Either to stand and fight, or to race for our lives, or to give our pursuers the slip. There was little time for coming to an agreement, but my companion said, as we galloped side by side, "Take [201] any course you wish. I ant responsible for our difficulties, and I will do whatever you do."

To have fought would have been simple madness, for, from the noise our pursuers made, there seemed to be hundreds of them. It was doubtful if we could have escaped by hard riding, for our steeds were jaded, while theirs were fresh. I might have escaped on my Asileh, at the best, but my companion's kadisheh would certainly have been overtaken. The darkness favoured the third plan.

We were then passing over rough ground, and having reached a sell, or the dry bed of a river, we turned up it at right angles to the path. In a few seconds we were quite out of sight, among the hills. We again hung the nose-bags on our horses' heads, and set them to feed, and I left both with my friend, and crawled back to a little hill by the side of the path.

I had scarcely got to the top of the hill, and peeped over, lying flat on the ground, when the troop swept past. There seemed to be about a dozen horses, and as many dromedaries, and as each dromedary carried two men, there may have been thirty or forty all told. There may not have been a score, for, with the greatest desire to be accurate, the conditions were such as to lead to exaggeration.

We now knew that we had no reasonable cause for fear. We both had breech-loaders and revolvers of the newest patterns, and w e should have been able, if the worst came, to fire forty shots between us in a minute. [202] Our double-barrelled guns were charged with shot cartridges, and, barring accidents, we felt that we could run away from spears, and clubs, and empty saddles at our leisure. My companion, an old Wimbledon crack shot, was anxious to begin at once; but I was determined to avoid bloodshed if possible, and he took his orders from me.

We immediately- mounted, and followed the BedawÓn who thought they were following us. There was less than half a mile between us. We could hear them distinctly; but if they heard us, they must have thought we were some of their own party. When we had followed them for an hour or so, and they seemed to be getting further and further ahead of us, it became necessary to shake them off in some way or other, as we knew that the dawn would very soon reveal us.

My companion carried a little flask of brandy suspended by straps, as au ornament. I induced him to give it to me. We then rode into the desert to the left, and I took the muslin which was fixed on my helmet as a protection against the sun, saturated it with the brandy, and set fire to it on a heap of brushwood.

The dame rose suddenly, and the brushwood caught fire, and continued the blaze. I fired two or three shots, sending the bullets whistling after our pursuers. At the same time we walked our horses between them and the fire, and danced round it, so that we might seem more numerous than we were. Then we galloped back in the darkness to the road, and crossed out into the desert on the other side. [203]

The ruse succeeded splendidly. The fire burnt itself out quickly, but the BedawÓn hurried back to the spot where they had seen it. We heard them leaving the road, and passing back, with much noise, through the brushwood. Knowing that our path was free, we returned to it, and sped as fast as we could on our way to Karyetein.

We were both profoundly thankful that we had escaped a real danger, and that we had not been obliged to shed the blood of even desert cut-throats.

It was a strange but intensely enjoyable adventure. I do not think we were afraid, but there were times, especially when I was lying on the hill as our pursuers rode past, when I could distinctly hear the beating of my heart so loud that I feared others might hear the throbs.

Our horses seemed to understand the position, and played their part well.

TESSERAE FROM PALMYRA
TESSERAE FROM PALMYRA

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