Louisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. Wilkins.

By desert ways to Baghdad online

. (page 4 of 18)
Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 4 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the English tongue fell upon our ears. The new-
comer was Dr. Nakashian, an Armenian doctor living
in Konia.

He at once acted as interpreter. Officialdom for
once put no obstacles in the way, and an escort was
promised us for the journey. The Vekil inquired
whether we should like to see the sights of Konia ;
and on our replying in the affirmative, he arranged
that we should be taken round that afternoon ; Dr.
Nakashian also promised to accompany us.

Accordingly we sallied out later on horseback with
Hassan. Dr. Nakashian was mounted on a splendid
Arab mare. The Government Protection, in the shape
of two Zaptiehs and a captain, followed in a close
carriage. We started off very decorously, but the
Arab mare became excited and plunged and galloped
down the street ; our horses caught the infection, and



DAWN OF THE BAGHDAD RAILWAY 61

we followed hard ; the Government Protection put
its head out of each window and shouted ; the driver
lashed his jaded horse, and the rickety carriage
lurched after us in a cloud of dust. The natives
lining the streets shouted encouragingly ; finally we
landed at the Dervish mosque. Dervishes are strong
in Konia. Their founder is buried here, and his tomb
is an object of pilgrimage. The chief feature of the
mosque is its wonderful polished floor, where the
dancing ceremonies take place.

At Konia, perhaps more than at Eskishehr, one is
struck with the railway's influence in the passing
order of things. There are many fine buildings in the
last stages of decay in this ancient city of the Seljuk
Turks ; the palace, with its one remaining tower, the
fragments of the old Seljuk walls found here and
there in the middle of the modern town, the mosques
lined with faience, beautiful even in its fragments.
Contrast with this the squalor and the dirt of the
present Turkish streets, the earth and wood houses,
enclosed in walls of earth, the apathetic natives, and
the general feeling of stagnation and decay.

Then, outside the town, the railway appears ;
modern European houses spring up round it — offices
for the Company and an hotel. A whiff of stir and
bustle brought in along the iron fangs of the Monster
brings a sense of fresh life to these people, whose
existence seemed one long decay of better things, like
that of the ruins amongst which they spend their days.

And everywhere there was a whisper of yet closer
touch with civilisation. The Anatolian Railway stops
at Konia, but its continuation under the name of the



62 BY DESERT WAYS TO BAGHDAD

Baghdad Railway was everywhere in the air. 1 No one
spoke openly about it ; its coming seemed enveloped
in such a shroud of mystery that one felt there was a
sort of halo around its birth. At first one mentioned
it baldly by name ; and at once the official would put
on his most discreet and impressive manner and refer
to the will of Allah ; the merchant would nod
mysteriously and then wink with evident satisfaction.
" It comes! oh yes, it comes ! but it is better not to
talk of it yet." And the Zaptieh would sigh heavily,
thinking of his unpaid wages, and say, " Please God,
it comes," and then look hastily round to see who
had overheard him.

And so at last we also learnt to speak of the Coming
of the Monster with bated breath and lowered tones,
and were duly infected with the impressiveness of his
arrival — the arrival of the Beinsf whose touch was to
bring new life into this dead land.



II.

It was on the morning of the third day after our
arrival at Konia that we made the plunge into the
great plain from the spot where the Monster had left
us. We collected in the square in front of the Konak.
There were two covered arabas to convey the
baggage, and in one of these Constantin and Hassan
also rode ; X and I rode horses and had saddle-bags
slung under our saddles. Our escort consisted of

1 The Baghdad Railway is now running as far as Bulgurlu, a
point some seven miles beyond Eregli.



DAWN OF THE BAGHDAD RAILWAY 63

three Zaptiehs, a Lieutenant, Rejeb, and an ancient
Sergeant, Mustapha.

The head of the police accompanied us a few miles
out of the town.

Slowly, riding at a foot's pace, we left it all behind,
the squalid streets, the modern houses, the scraggy-
little trees ; the lumpy road became a deeply rutted
track bordering stubble fields ; lumbering carts passed
us, squeaking terribly as the wheels lurched out of the
ruts to make way for us. The track became an ill-
defined path, along which heavily laden pack-animals
slowly toiled, raising clouds of dust. Turning in our
saddles, all we could see of Konia was the minarets of
its mosques standing above a confused blur on the
horizon line.

There is a strange fascination in watching the slow
disappearance of any object on the horizon, when that
horizon is visible at every point round you. The
exact moment never comes when you can state the
actual disappearance of the object. You think it is
still there, and then you slowly realise that it is not.
And when you have realised this, you turn round
again in the saddle once for all, and set your face
steadily towards the horizon in front of you, which for
so many hours on end has nothing to show and
nothing to tell you, and yet whose very emptiness is
so full of secret possibilities and hidden wonder.



We had got beyond the point where one met
others on the road ; we had now become our own
world, a self-contained planet travelling with the sun



64 BY DESERT WAYS TO BAGHDAD

through space. When he disappeared over the
horizon line we pitched our camp and waited for his
reappearance on the opposite side. At the first
glimmer announcing his arrival the tents were hauled
down, the arabas loaded up, and by the time his face
peeped over the line we were in our saddles, ready
once more to follow him to his journey's end.

It is a great half-desert plain, this part of Anatolia ;
desert only where it is waterless, and very fertile
where irrigation is possible. In places it seemed to
form one huge grazing ground ; now it would be
herds of black cattle munching its coarse, dried-up
herbage ; now flocks of mohair goats, now sheep,
herded by boys in white sheepskin coats, tended by
yellow dogs. Then we knew that a village would be
somewhere about, although we did not always see it ;
for here too the villages are the colour of the sur-
rounding country and perhaps only visible in very
clear sunlight.

Or it might be that we would ride slowly through
a cluster of mud huts, and the yellow dogs would
rush out and bark furiously at us, while the men
and children stared silently, too listless even to
wonder. At times we would stop in a village for
our midday meal, sitting in the shade of its yellow
mud walls. The Zaptiehs would stand round us
and keep off the dogs until some of the village men
would appear and call them away with a half-scared
look — for the Zaptieh is the tax-collector, and they
suffer from extortion at his hands.

We visited the women in their houses, and found
them always interested and friendly. Turkish was



DAWN OF THE BAGHDAD RAILWAY 65

becoming more intelligible to us, and the conversation
usually took the same form : —

" Who is your father ? "

" He is a Pasha in a far country."

" Where are your husbands ? "

"We have no husbands."

" How is that?"

" In our country the women are better than the
men, and the men are afraid of us."

Then our clothes are fingered all over and the cost
of every thing on us is asked. We rise to go, and
they hang on to us and implore us to come again.
But the sun has already begun to dip on his down-
ward course, and we must hurry after him.

Then would follow hours when no attempt at
cultivation, or sign of herds and flocks, would be
visible, and the desert country was only relieved
by wonderful effects of mirage, in which we would'
chase elusive pictures of mountains and lakes and
streams.

One had time to take it all in : the wonderful
exhilarating air, the silent stretches, the long,
monotonous days of the shepherd boys, marked only
by the gathering in of their flocks at night.

How will it be when the Monster comes, roaring
and snorting through these silent plains, polluting
this clear air with his dust and smoke ? At first
these haughty, resentful shepherds will stand aloof
from the invasion, the yellow dogs will bark in vain
at the intrusion. Then slowly its daily appearance
will come to them as the sun comes in the morning
and the stars at night. Unconsciously it also will

5



66 BY DESERT WAYS TO BAGHDAD

become a part of the routine of their lives. They
will not cease to look at it with wonder, for they have
never wondered. They will accept it, as they accept
everything else. But use it ? That is a different
tale. It will be a long fight ; but the Monster has
always conquered in the end.

On the third day we rode into Karaman. A
medieval castle crowns the town, and is visible
at some little distance across the plain.

The old sergeant, Mustapha, startled us by suddenly
greeting it from afar : —

" Ah, Karaman, you beautiful Karaman, city of
peace and plenty. Ah, Karaman, beloved Kara-
man."

And the Zaptiehs, taking up the refrain, made the
silent plains ring with " Karaman ! beautiful Kara-
man !

We pitched our tents on a grass plot in the
centre of the town. Constantin began preparing the
evening meal, and the natives hung round in groups
staring at us, or bringing in supplies of fuel and
milk and eggs. A seedy-looking European pushed
his way up to our tent and began storming at us
in French.

11 But it is impossible for you to camp here — it
is not allowable ; you must come at once to my house.
There is nothing to say."

X and I tried to rouse our bewildered minds out
of the Eastern sense of repose into which they had



DAWN OF THE BAGHDAD RAILWAY 67

sunk through all these days. We concluded that
Karaman must possess an urban district council,
and that we were breaking some law of the
town.

We pressed for further enlightenment.

" But do you not see all these people looking at
you? It is not for you to camp here. My house
is ready for you. There are good beds and it is
dry, but this ..." and he waved his hand at our
preparations. "It is not possible ; there is nothing
to say."

By this time Hassan and Rejeb, into whose hands
we had been entrusted for protection, came up and
stood over us, looking threateningly at our gesticu-
lating, excited friend.

11 I do not understand," I said. " Who says that
we may not camp here ? "

" But it is I that say it ; it is not possible. My
house is ready ; there is nothing to say."

11 Who are you ? " I said.

" I am an Austrian," he answered. Then he
lowered his voice, in that mysterious manner which
we associated with the coming of the Monster. " I
am here," he said, in an undertone, " as agent
commercial du chemin de fer Ottoman."

"Very good," I answered; "and now tell us why
we cannot camp here."

" But it is damp," he said ; " look at the
mud."

"Oh, is that all?" I said. "We are much obliged
to you for the offer of your house, but we always
sleep out."



68 BY DESERT WAYS TO BAGHDAD

" But I have good beds," he said, " and a dry
room at your service. There is nothing to say."

At this point Rejeb could contain himself no longer.
He spoke sternly to the Austrian in Turkish.

"What do you want?" he said. "These ladies
are under my protection. What are you saying to
them ? "

The man poured out volumes of Turkish ; Rejeb
and he had a violent altercation, which seemed to
be ending in blows.

"Come, come," I said to the man, "enough of
this. We are much obliged to you for your offer of
hospitality, but we prefer to remain outside."

He seemed totally unable to understand that
this could be the case. "If it is myself you do not
care about," he said, in a crestfallen manner, " I can
easily move from the house. The beds are clean and
they are dry."

We finally consented to spend the evening at his
house, and accompanied him through the streets,
Rejeb and Hassan following closely on our heels.
He showed us into a stuffy little sitting-room. Every
corner was crammed with gimcracks ; the whole place
reeked of musty wool chairbacks.

Then we followed him upstairs ; we must at any
rate "look at the beds" — he evidently thought the
sight of them would prove irresistible.

On calmer reflection the beds were, doubtless, no
worse than the ordinary type to be found in com-
mercial country inns ; but to us, coming out of the
sweet and wholesome atmosphere of the yet untainted
plain, they seemed to be the very embodiment of



DAWN OF THE BAGHDAD RAILWAY 69

stuffiness and discomfort. The windows, which had
evidently not been opened for some time, were heavily
draped, so as to effectually exclude all light and air
even when open.

"There, now do you see? It is clean, it is
dry. There is nothing humid here ; but out there
it is exposed, it is damp, it is not allowable."

We waived the question for the moment, reserving
our forces for a later attack, and returned to the
sitting-room, where a native woman was preparing
the evening meal. We questioned our host on the
arrival of the railway. He admitted being there to
tout for trade in case it came ; but who could tell, in a
country like this, what would happen? Mon Dieu !
it was a God-forsaken country, and all the inhabitants
were canaille ; there was no one he could associate
with. He counted the days till his return. "When
would that be?" "Ah," then he became mysterious
once more and looked round at the door and
window : " Ah, God knows ; might it come soon ! "

The serving-woman appeared and said that our
men wished to see us ; they had been sitting on the
doorstep ever since we entered the house and refused
to go away. The Austrian went out to them ; high
words ensued, and we looked through the door. The
Austrian, crimson with rage, was gesticulating
violently and pouring out torrents of unintelligible
Turkish. Rejeb stood in front of him, hitting his
long riding-boot with his whip and answering with
some heat. Above him towered Hassan, very calm
and very quiet, slowly rolling up a cigarette and now
and then putting in a single word in support of Rejeb.



70 BY DESERT WAYS TO BAGHDAD

The Austrian turned to us. M Can you not send
these men away, ladies? It is an impertinence. They
refuse to leave you here unless they themselves sleep
in the house. They say they have orders never to
leave you, but surely they can see what I am ? "

We calmed him down as best we could, and insisted
on our intention of returning to our tents. He could
not understand it, and I should think never will. But
we got away, Rejeb and Hassan one on each side
of us. When we were out on the road in cover
of darkness both men burst into loud roars 01
laughter.

" Have we not done well, Effendi ? " they said.
" We have rescued you from the mad little man. The
great doctor in London, has he not said ' You shall
sleep in the tent every night ' ? "

And, gathering round our camp-fire in the damp
and the mud, we rejoiced with Hassan and Rejeb
over their gallant assault and our fortunate escape.

Two days' further ride brought us to Eregli. We
approached it in the dusk, riding during the last hour
through what appeared to be low copse wood. The
place seemed low and damp ; we rode past the door
of the khan, and the men besought us to go there
instead of camping outside. Constantin said he was
ill, the arabajis said their horses would be ill. But
Rejeb and Hassan took our side and we had the
tents pitched on a spot which seemed dry in the
darkness. Next morning we awoke to find ourselves
encircled by a loop of the river and in a dense white
mist. It was so cold that the milk froze as we




*



In I I! B MlNASIAN.



r


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 4 of 18)