Title


PALMYRA AND ZENOBIA. CHAPTER 19.

CEILING OF TOMB TOWER
CEILING OF TOMB TOWER

CHAPTER XIX.

We continued our unmolested, at a slow gallop, and did not pause till it was broad day. Then we dismounted, and walked by our mares for a mile or so.

The Bedawi encampment was at least twenty miles to the rear. The Arabs were in motion, swarming up the high ground towards the fountain of the Ibexes ('Ain el-Wu'ul). We saw them rolling up the hill like a cloud-shadow, and disappearing into the mountain gorge, and we knew that the way would be safe for our friends and their escort, coming behind.

That was a very charming desert morning. First the eastern horizon became saffron, then it passed through all shades of orange, and the mountain tops glowed with a roseate hue, and the light poured in great streams into the plain, and objects were seen detaching themselves from the darkness, till every mountain base, and every deep ravine, and every dark crevasse was filled with [205] living light, and colours, from lightest pink to deepest indigo, tinged and tinted the mountains, that stood like high walls on either side of the plain down which we sped as if fleeing for our lives before the avenger.

Shortly after the day was established, four horsemen coming from the hills appeared, bearing down on us on our right. They had long spears, and clubs hung to their saddles, and little arsenals of flint pistols and daggers in their belts. They were really small fry in our eyes after what we had passed through, and we looked carefully to see if there was a larger force be-hind them. We continued to gallop, and they doubtless thought we were afraid of them, and trying to escape, and they made a tremendous effort to cut our path, and intercept us.

It was a pretty sight to see the four sons of the desert hearing down upon us. At first their pace was the ordinary ambling or desert jog-trot, for which I know no English name. We have nothing that corresponds to it. It seems slow and sly, but it gets over the ground fast. Greater speed, however, was necessary to catch us though we did not press our weary horses. When we first saw them they were ten or twelve miles distant; but they struck straight for our path, and as they came nearer to it, they galloped as fast as they could to get before us. The horses were at full stretch, and the riders, with their short stirrups and high saddles, seemed to sit on the tops of their horses as if on seats, ready to spring. [206]

They reached the road about four hundred yards in front of us, reined up their horses, and planted themselves right in our way. We brought our horses to a walking pace, and prepared for the worst. They shook their spears, and leaned forward on their saddles, as if about to charge; but they saw our shining weapons, and paused.

We approached till we were within eighty yards of the enemy, and halted. I said,

"Who are you, and what do you want?"

One of them replied with a sharp bark. "You are trespassers on our land, and by Allah we will make you repent, you sons of dogs."

I said, repeating one of their own proverbs, "Violent language never yet tore a shirt. I can shoot the four of you through the heads in four seconds, and if you move one step towards us, I till shoot your four horses to begin with."

They did not like the prospect, and after exchanging words among themselves, one of them said: "No man has ever presumed to pass through our territory without leave; but if you surrender the horse you are riding, we will let you pass."

I replied: "Let there be no fouling. Since the day that Abraham your father, of blessed memory, passed down this same road, till this day, the way has been open. We are here to injure no man, not even the road; but if you attempt to stop us, your blood be upon your own heads."

My companion said, "Let me empty two of their saddles." [207]

He had once tied with Sir Henry Halford for the Queen's cup.

I said, "No; if they attack us, we will shoot their horses first."

One of them said, "We belong to the great Anazi tribe, which makes pashas tremble, and we cannot let you pass."

I replied: "Your sheikh and I are friends, and I know his brother who spends much time in Damascus. I have just established a school at Karyetein, and I am only anxious to befriend the Bedawin; but either you must give way, or we must give way. My friend wants to shoot two of you to begin with. We are the stronger, but I am loath to harm you. I now give you five minutes to make up your minds, and if you do not move off in that time, may Allah he merciful to you."

I said to my friend: "Be ready, but keep cool; they may make a dash at us. You had better alight, as your horse is restive."

He slipped from the saddle, and stood with his fowling-piece ready. I sat in the saddle, with my watch in my hand. "Four minutes are now gone." I said, and the fifth is half sped.' A few seconds later, I put my watch into my pocket, and as I lifted my gun to my shoulder they turned and fled before us, hurling a volley of imprecations at us as they went.

They galloped along the path before us, and we gal-loped after as if in pursuit. There were about four hundred yards between us. Several times they turned, [208] and waited as if to stop us; but we galloped straight at them, putting up our gulls to our shoulders, and when we neared them they broke and hurried away. We thought they might be playing at delay, till a larger force should arrive, but we could hardly take our eyes off them, to look back to see if others were coming.

My companion at last lost patience. This thing," he said, "must come to an end, one way or another."

I called on them to halt, and then I told them that my friend had not so much consideration for them as I had, and that they must leave us altogether, or I could not restrain him from shooting them.

They then galloped off iii a wide circle, riding round us at a respectful distance, for some time, and finally took up their position at a little hill on the left near our path. As we came near, they rode round the hill, out of sight; but one of them appeared suddenly from behind the hill, and discharging his blunderbuss at me, fled at full gallop with his companions, and disappeared among the hills.

We hurried as quickly as our horses could take us to the spot from which the shot had come; but the four horse-men were already a quarter of a mile away, and going at a tremendous pace. My companion dismounted and sent half a dozen bullets after them, but the distance was too great for effective shooting. He was very vexed that we had let them of, especially when he knew that I had been hit.

I had had a marvellous escape. A perfect storm of [209] slugs and pellets seemed to have swept me and my mare. The gun fired was a short, wide-mouth blunderbuss, such as several of our four escort carried. Such guns are charged with a quarter of a pound of powder and a pound and a half of pellets, slugs. nails, bits of iron, and split bullets. It is a most deadly weapon in a crowd.

The report of the shot was very loud, and the discharge tore up the ground round us, and it seemed to sweep my mare almost off her feet. She had received only a few scratches. I was not quite so fortunate. I had a slight wound in the left hand, and two in the breast. One of the pellets that struck my breast had passed through a thick part of my Norfolk jacket, and, being spent, only penetrated beneath the skin, and I was able to remove it with my penknife. The other buried itself out of sight in my left breast. It did not bleed much externally. It was painful at times, but I did not take any measures to have it extracted, and after a lapse of thirteen years it grew out and was removed without pain. It proved to be a little drop of lead, about the size of No. 1 shot.

This adventure was all over in less time than it takes to read the account of it, and we continued our journey in the increasing heat, and alighted at the new school iii Karyetein at eleven o'clock, having ridden the whole distance from Palmyra in a little over twelve hours, including interruptions.

My first care on reaching Karyetein was to have my mare sponged down with soap and tepid water, and her back well washed with native wine. Then she was rubbed [210] with a flannel cloth till she was perfectly dry-, and her hoofs were anointed with olive oil. All this time she was feeding from her nose-bag, and gently moving about. By one o'clock we were ready to continue our journey; but it soon became apparent that I must continue it alone, for my friend and his steed were both thoroughly exhausted. I suggested that it would be a kind act for him to wait and escort the ladies past danger, during the remainder of the journey, and my friend acquiesced; and so, after the formidable formalities of leave-taking, the sheikhs and local functionaries, mounted on horses with gay trappings, accompanied me as I cantered out of Karyetein, at four minutes past one on Friday.

For the first hour I met several parties of mounted travellers, hut in the baking heat we scarcely exchanged words. On the hill-sides there were flocks of goats, with tinkling bells, and here and there foul vultures were engaged in gorging themselves on the carrion of animals that had fallen by the way. A few pin-tailed grouse flew out of our way, and here and there I saw Persian larks: but the way became fearfully dreary, and as monotonous as the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes I felt as if I were derelict in the middle of a vast sea. There was no trace of human beings, or indeed of any beings, and no help could have come to me from man, had I needed help.

At four o'clock I met a wild-looking caravan of about fifty camels. Far down the plain before me I had seen them resting during the fierce heat, but they met me in motion about a mile and a half from their resting-place. [211] They had with them some women and children, but they were a most filthy, cut-throat-looking party. I saluted them, but they scowled at me and did not return my salutation. We passed, however, without damage given or received.

When I approached the resting-place of the caravan, I saw a striking illustration of the eagles gathering to their prey. The surly-looking party had left behind them a dying or dead camel. It was a bright Syrian day, and there was not a speck on the sky from horizon to horizon. But soon a vulture appeared, so high up in the blue vault that it did not seem bigger than a lark. Whether guided by scent or by sight, it came without delay, and with unerring precision steered its course to the dead camel. A veritable bolt from the blue, it dropped on its victim.

But the feast was not to be a solitary affair. Soon the air became filled Nvitlr vultures, screaming and hastening to their prey, and, foul iii talon and red in beak, they greedily settled on their victim. I allowed my mare to walk while watching the guests assembling, and when I passed the meeting-place the great birds were feeding as eagerly as if they, had been at the Lord Mayor's banquet or a Corporation dinner.

It was pleasant to reflect during the remainder of the journey, when I saw vultures watching me from the cliffs, that a fatal accident to either myself or mare would not pass unappreciated. In fact, the vultures of the desert are as eager to take advantage of a passing misfortune or calamity, as are the vultures and sharks in civilized society. [212] And have they not their uses, in helping kindly nature to bury dead things out of sight?

In another hour I passed the foundation of a ruin, near which we had an interesting adventure, a few days before, on our way to Palmyra. Our ladies were riding about a mile ahead. We were all fresh, and ready for any adventures that might turn up.

Suddenly we saw our ladies leave the beaten track, and gallop off to the left into the desert at a splendid pace, with a tally-ho! We all put spurs to our horses and gal-loped furiously after them. The ladies stopped shyly at a little hollow, beside something that seemed to be moving. When we arrived we saw a sad object, not, however, wanting in a comic element.

Our ladies had actually discovered a naked man. He was a soldier, and had been carrying a government message from Jerud to Karyetein; but some Bedawin had taken his arms, mule, and clothes, and left him like Adam in innocence, before he bethought him of the fig-leaves.

What were we to do with this derelict waif of humanity? It was suggested that the ladies who had found him should cast lots for him; hut it was a matter for something beyond jesting. Our native escort was disposed to leave him where he was, to feed the vultures, a score of which were soaring around.

Fortunately I had taken a waterproof coat with me, which I was not likely to require, and it served him for a complete suit. I happened also to have taken a half loaf [213] in my pocket, at luncheon time, to feed my mare with when walking beside her, as was my wont.

The poor fellow was weak with hunger, and unable to walk; but, clothed in my waterproof, with my mare's luncheon in his hand, he was hoisted on to one of the baggage mules, and carried into Kary etein. His gratitude knew no bounds, but our sense of satisfaction at acting the Good Samaritan was an exceeding great reward. We received no official thanks for rescuing the soldier.

SOFFIT OF SIDE DOUR OF THE TEMPLE.
SOFFIT OF SIDE DOUR OF THE TEMPLE.

[214]


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