Louisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. Wilkins.

By desert ways to Baghdad online

. (page 9 of 18)
Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 9 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

We went into the sleeping-hut to ascertain the
length of its possibilities. Boards had been nailed
across the poles to form a floor, and on this was
spread a thick native felt mat. Dwellers on land
little know the feeling of luxury recalled to my mind
in writing these words : — the luxury of being able
to drop all the things addicted to dropping, especially
when dressing, with the knowledge that they would
not disappear for ever in the depths of the Tigris
waters ; the luxury of being able to walk in the
ordinary biped method of placing one foot in front
of the other.

This was not the case in the open part of the
raft, where the floor, formed of poles and sacks,
exhibited a network of rounded interstices. The
water gurgled and spluttered, below them : one's foot
invariably slipped into them when cautiously manipu-


lating a journey across the raft by hopping from a
slippery pole to a sliding sack; and unattached articles
dropped through them on to the skins below, and
were occasionally rescued in a dripping condition be-
fore they were washed away altogether. The water
showed spiteful discrimination in its washing-away
proclivities. I recall certain chinks in the more
roughly boarded floor of the hut where we had
our meals, through which the cook had a habit of
brushing his cooking refuse, and where, if one was
rash enough to look, there could be seen an accu-
mulation of tea-leaves and bones and bits of decaying
delicacies which one associated with meals of past

The felt walls of the hut were lined on the inside
with white cotton tacked on the poles. There were
two small glazed windows, one of which opened.
The door was a single width of felt tied with tape.
There was just room inside for our two camp-beds —
with a space between, which would admit of one
of us occupying it at a time. At the foot of each
bed stood our two Eastern sacks, which contained
all our worldly goods. I feel constrained, on
mentioning this form of luggage, to say a word
of warning concerning it. In one sense it is easy
to pack, because you need not fold anything up,
but can simply stuff it in and give the bag a shake ;
and it is easy to unpack, if you do it in a whole-
hearted manner — standing in the centre of a larofe
room or a vast desert where you can turn it upside
down and spill everything out on the ground.
But under ordinary circumstances the bundle of



hay with the needle in it is nothing to this sack
with your clean handkerchief in it. X and I had
a mutual understanding, owing to which we never
attacked a sack while the other was within hearing ;
but whenever she appeared in a half-fainting condition
and asked the cook why on earth tea was so late,
I knew what she had been doing. She had asked
me, as a personal favour (the only one I've ever known
her ask) not to attack my sack in the morning,
because it was a pity to have the whole day spoilt,
and if I did it in the evening to go to bed before
she did.

But to return from this digression. Having-
examined our quarters, I arranged a rug on the
open part of the raft and sat down to take in the

Arten was unpacking cooking-pots in the second
hut, and the other men sat about on the sacks
smoking silently. The boatmen sat on a pile of
sacks in the middle and manipulated the oars which
served to steer the raft and keep it in the fast part
of the current. The oars consisted of single young
willow-trees, with short strips of split willow bound
on one end with twigs, forming the blade ; they were
tied on to rough rowlocks made of twisted withies
wound round heavily weighted sacks. The Tigris
at this point is singularly hideous. There was not
a single blade of vegetation to be seen anywhere;
the country was a stretch of mud hills and stony desert,
and the mud banks of the river were only relieved
by the hosts of water-birds that darted in and out
or waded in the shallows. The high black escarpment,



Thk Tigris ai Diarbi kr

To fa< i


crowned by the massive black walls of Diarbekr,
and fringed by a swampy tract of willow gardens,
rose up sharply above the mud flats. As we were
carried along the winding" course of the sluggish river
a higher mud bank shut it altogether from our view,
and I felt we had severed that link with the world
which one feels so strongly on arriving in any town
of a distant uncivilised land, where a European mail
occasionally arrives and a telegraph wire eliminates
the isolation of its natural position.

We were drifting into an unknown world at the
mercy of these unknown Kurds. We were alone
with the birds and the mud banks and the rippling



THE snow-capped mountains of Kurdistan were
just visible on the horizon line ; toward them
rolled wave after wave of low brown tracts of land,
utterly destitute of any form or sign of life. Behind,
as in front, like the coils of a shining serpent, wound
the thin white line of the Tigris bed, the one response
to the light overhead, imparting a sense of weary
pursuit in its never-ending course. Fresh coils
unwound themselves ahead as we toiled after new
yet familiar spots on a never changing horizon.
Now and then the raftsmen dipped their oars quietly
into the water, and with a few strokes twisted the
raft into the straightest part of the river ; otherwise,
we were helpless, in the hands of an arbitrary current
which made us bide its time as it slunk pensively
round unsuggesting corners, or sped us faster when
it gurgled impatiently over a long reach, where grey
rock vied momentarily with the endless grey mud.
We had given ourselves up completely to Time, and
sat all day contemplating one stretch of bank after
another as we swirled along. The ripple of the
water, the intermittent splash of the oars, the croon-
ing songs of the raftsmen all added to the sense of



drowsy contemplation already established by the
surrounding view. Everything was in contemplative
harmony ; isolated herons fished from slippery stones,
gazing with such intentness into the passing water
that they hardly deigned to raise their heads towards
us, and, if they ever deemed it wiser to move out
of our way, they would do so by a very deliberate
walk on to the shore, after fixing a resentful, half-
wondering stare upon us. Flocks of black ducks,
suddenly disturbed round a corner, would rise in
silent indignation, and with a sharp whirr would pass
over our heads and drop quietly down on to the waters
behind, smoothing out their ruffled plumage. Fat,
ungainly penguins, sitting in white rows, like surpliced
choirs, on the shallow shore, would scuttle further
back along the mud flat, and taking up attitudes of
doubtful interrogation would stare us out of coun-
tenance. One and all they condescended to no notes
of fright or alarm, and where any sound was uttered
it impressed us only with a sense of resentful in-
dignation or of mocking inquiry. We were intruders
in specially reserved spots, and could only offer
apologies to our unwilling hosts by showing our
appreciation of their mode of life in a respectful
silence ; indeed, to have uttered any sound in such
places would have seemed a crime against Nature.
So we floated on, casually returning the stares of the
would-be enemy, while we listened with lazy in-
difference to their taunts and threats. At times,
when there was complete absence of life on the
shore, we confined our attention to more personal


We were a strange assortment of human beino-s,
whom accident had thrown together to live the
same life for an allotted time in such close companion-
ship on a small space. Here sat the Moslem in
friendly relation with us, Western Christian infidels ;
the Armenian broke bread with the hated oppressor
of his race and religion, while the Turk, on his side,
had to endure the presence of his despised enemy.
The Arab Zaptiehs and the Kurdish boatmen repre-
sented tribes whose traditions told of constant deadly
feuds and warfare. The whim of one among: us had
gathered us together. What casual observer would
realise what we had in common ? For difference
of language, custom and appearance counts for little
when all are equally exposed to the chance of
circumstance ; and the bonds that united us all with
a common feeling were the hardships we endured
alike from hunger, cold, and danger. We shivered
together in wind and rain, and basked in the sun
together ; we suffered pangs of hunger together, and
rejoiced together over a meal ; we faced the same
perils with the same chances of escape or annihi-
lation. Whomsoever Fortune had chosen for her
favourites in the ordinary run of life stood here
on the same level as their less fortunate companions,
to take their chance under the same conditions.

We each had our several occupations when we
felt that it was possible to snatch any time from
contemplation. Hassan would retire into the hut
at one end of the raft, and, sitting cross-legged on
the floor, would chop up tobacco ; whilst one of the
Zaptiehs, seated at the door, would roll up the


cigarettes. Now and then he would reach out one
to me. — " Will you smoke, Effendi ? " — and the
other Zaptieh, seated outside, would strike me a

Arten might easily have worked all day, but he
seemed to spend most of his time contemplating
the brazier on which he occasionally cooked some-
thing. At intervals he blew up the live charcoal with
measured puffs ; or he would sit perilously near the
extreme edge of the raft contemplating the sky, with
the tails of his dirty black overcoat dangling in the
water, holding the dishes in the river until most
signs of the last meal were removed from them.
Bein^ an Armenian he was endowed with a more
restless nature, and the apparent contemplation in
his demeanour was but the dejection resulting from
a broken spirit. When not engaged in his own
pursuits he would break in on the silence by pointing
out what he considered objects of interest.

" Look! look! there is a bird," he would say ; and
the true Easterns would gaze on without moving
a muscle, neither looking at him nor the bird. Arten
would look nervously round, knowing from long habit
that he was being despised, but unable to understand
the grating, silencing effect of allusions to the obvious
at the moment when the obvious is being most
thoroughly appreciated.

The two raftsmen were obliged to concentrate a
certain amount of attention on the business of navi-
gation, but they seized every moment they could spare
from the task of guiding the raft, and, leaning on
their oars, would devote it to contemplation. They


too pointed out objects of interest, but only in their
capacity as local guides, and in a monosyllabic manner
in complete harmony with the occasion.

" Christian village," they would say, without
looking round, pointing a thumb over their shoulders
in the direction of a group of mud huts ; or " Arab "
when an encampment of black tents appeared on the
bank. Hassan and the soldiers would respond by
slowly turning their eyes in the particular direction ;
perhaps even going so far as to give vent to a sudden,
sharp "Ha!" if the occasion was one of particular
moment. Arten, however, would jump about the

" A Christian village ! Look, it is there ; do you
see, did you hear ? A Christian village."

No one would answer him.

" Did you hear, Hassan ? "

A minute of absolute stillness, and then Hassan's
deep, deliberate voice, with no suggestion of im-

" I heard."

But we did not always drift along in a smooth and
idle manner ; the mud banks gave way at times to
steep, rocky sides, between which the waters flowed
more rapidly, and careful steering with the oars was
required to avoid rocks and whirlpools. And here
there were not infrequent signs of life : rock-tombs
were cut in the walls of the rock, and we would have
liked to stop and examine them further, but it was
impossible to land the raft at such places, and the
current hurried us on almost before we were aware
of their existence. There was a certain relentlessness


about the way we were torn past all objects of interest ;
it was like dealing with Time. We were conscious
that things passed now were passed for ever, and that
we should never have another opportunity for realising
them. Evidences of ancient civilisation, episodes in
the everyday life of the present tribes, all seemed
to sweep past in bewildering, incredible swiftness ;
we found it hard sitting there to believe that it was
we who swept past them. Now we would catch sight
of a wedding procession on the bank ; — the bride,
plastered with feathers and ornaments, being escorted
to the bridegroom's village amid a din of music and
shouting, the sound of which would follow us long
after they were lost to view. Now it would be a group
of women washing their clothes at the river's edge,
beating them on large, flat stones. Now a solitary
horseman would stand motionless on the cliff above,
his coloured cloak flowing over his horse's back,
barely concealing the brilliant hues of his embroidered
saddle ; he would watch us out of sight and then turn
and pursue his lonely road. Now a shepherd boy
would be driving in the flocks of sheep and goats
at sundown ; and his weird calls, and the answering
bleat of the animals, would echo and re-echo right
away across the distant hills. Men and women on
the bank hailed us as we passed ; we could only cast
one look at them and wave back a hurried and kindly
greeting ; they knew we must not stop and talk ; we
came out of a different world from theirs, and they
paused for a moment to gaze at us and then returned,
forgetful of the fleeting vision, to their own pursuits.
Meditative oxen, chewing their cud, surveyed us


wonderingly from the shore. "Why in such a
hurry? " they seemed to say, and we answered, "We
are not in a hurry, but we have no power to stop."
And the eagles overhead peered in contemptuous
security at us, vaunting with arrogant flaps the great
wings with which they flew whither they listed, while
we were being swept along uncertain currents. A
hidden bird would pour forth his sweet song to
cheer us on our way, and the owls utter a dismal
note of warning as of unknown dangers yet to

And there was some possibility of danger, for we
were still in the land of the Sultan's irregular troops —
the Hamidieh. Our friends, however, had been
decidedly encouraging as we bade them goodbye.
"You will probably meet with Kurds," they said,
" but if they do shoot at you it will only be for
the fun of sinking the raft ; they may rob you and
strip you, but if you don't resist they won't kill you."
We had felt distinctly elated. We still clung to ideas
of life ; our clothes and provisions were a convenience,
but no doubt sheepskins and rice would be always
forthcoming if the worst happened. " What would
you mind losing most," I said to X, on the third
day, as we lay on our backs on the raft, the muddy
water rippling very close to our ears and the muddy
banks swinging round as the current changed. " My
hot-water bottle," answered X reflectively ; " and
you ? " " My camera first," I said, after a pause,
during which I had pictured X alone with the hot-
water bottle, "and then my stylo." "Yes," said X
sympathetically, " I really don't see how you could


get on without them ; but perhaps," she added
consolingly, "if you persuaded the men that there
was an evil spirit inside they would let you keep
them." This was a decided inspiration. I booked
it for possible contingencies ; a hot-water bottle and
a camera were obvious resting-places for the
evil eye.

We drifted on ; the whirls of a slight rapid caught
us — the top end of the raft where we lay dived
suddenly into the water and then rose again, the
bottom end followed suit, we became bowed for a
second, then we were flat once more, and loose things
which had started jumping about, lay still. I shook
the water off my sleeve ; X stretched out a hand,
without turning her head, to feel whether the " Oxford
Book of English Verse " had been washed away.
" Mashallah, the Pashas like water," volunteered one
of the kalekjis, a little, round-faced Kurd in a
brightly striped coat. "The Pashas are English,"
answered Hassan, in a tone of dignified rebuke.
" The English fear nothing ; why should they fear
water ? " The kalekji paused in his work ; he was
plying the two poplar poles, with which he guided
the raft past shingles and kept it in the open part
of the river. He started rolling up a cigarette. " May
it please Allah to spare us from an attack from
Ibrahim Pasha," he said devoutly, "or even these
Pashas may have cause to fear. 1 ' Hassan looked
at him sternly and with some contempt. "The
Pashas are English," he repeated, "and the Pashas
are not afraid of Ibrahim Pasha." Reasons are
superfluous to the Oriental mind ; statements are


conclusive ; the kalekji lit his cigarette and resumed
his task. The two Zaptiehs, AH and Achmet, who
had been aroused to a slight attention during the
conversation, became listless as before and puffed
away in silence after a simultaneous murmuring
of "Aha, aha, Ibrahim Pasha." The remaining
occupant of the raft, Arten, alone looked disturbed
and uncomfortable. He was continually scouting
the horizon, and retired behind the door of the
hut whenever a black spot was visible. He burst
into roars of forced merriment, "Ibrahim Pasha!
who is afraid of Ibrahim Pasha ? Let him come,
and we shall give him a warm welcome ! " His
companions gazed in front of them in stolid, silent

Silence reigned again — only the splash of the
oars was heard and the beating of the water against
the skins. Nothing broke the monotony ; the river
wound its way slowly in and out round mud banks ;
the country as far as one could see was unbroken,
endless mud ; the water one drank and washed in
and floated on was diluted mud ; the occasional village
on the banks was built of mud, the inhabitants were
mud colour ; the very sky gave one a feeling of mud.
It was time for a diversion. Away in the distance,
since early morning, there had been a black smudge
on the horizon which was slowly taking more definite
shape as we followed the course of the shiny loops
of the river, the one break in this endless, monotonous
waste. We had lazily fixed our eyes in its direction.
Almost imperceptibly it had evolved itself into great
masses of solid, black, limestone rock ; a few more


turns of the river and we shot right under them
and were suddenly shut inside a narrow black gorge.
Bare walls of rock rose straight up on either side, and
above a narrow stretch of sky-line, with its broken
edges formed by the turreted ends of rock, and in
a row, on every point, silent, motionless, awe-inspir-
ing, sat peering down at us, like sentinels on guard,
great brown vultures of the desert. I fidgeted
uneasily ; an armed brigand flesh and blood could
stand, but this penetrating, undivulging, inhospitable
gaze was too uncanny. To appear unconcerned I
took out my field-glasses and stared back ; with
deliberate scorn, and of one accord, they slowly
spread out their great wings, shook them, and soared
up in the air, dropped down the other side of the
rocks, or took up a fresh standpoint a little further
removed from the intruders.

We floated rapidly through the gorge. Already,
on one side, the rocks were giving way to mud banks,
though on the right bank the sides rose steeply
in high, jagged cliffs. I lay back with a sense of
enjoyment of life and peace ; my thoughts had strayed
to Western scenes. We turned a sharp bend in the
river, and I vaguely noticed a native woman carrying
a child in her arms. All of a sudden the atmosphere
seemed disquieted, the two Zaptiehs had seized their
riiles and dropped on one knee as if marking prey ;
even the imperturbable Hassan was handling a
dangerous and antiquated looking weapon. There
were men on the shore hailing us, and our boatman
was shouting back vociferously. " Pashas," said
Hassan in a solemn voice, " put on your hats." I


slowly woke to the situation as I obediently donned
the insignia of our nationality. There were men each
side the bank ; they were armed men, and their arms
were pointed at us. " Why, X," I exclaimed ecstati-
cally, "we're held up!" X looked at me with a
pitying expression. " You've been rather a long
time taking that in," she said. This was not the
moment for feeling snubbed ; I wished to show that I
was now acting with cool deliberation. "X," I said,
" before leaving England we took some trouble with
revolver practice ; with much inconvenience we
conscientiously wore our revolvers all through the
wilds of Mesopotamia and Armenia ; for some weeks
we slept with them, loaded, under our pillows in the
Taurus Mountains; they are now hanging discarded on
the walls of the hut. Do you not think the moment has
arrived for giving ourselves some little return for
all the bother they have been ? " " They have been
a bore," assented X ; " perhaps it is our duty to have
them now." I went and fetched them and solemnly
handed X hers. " They are loaded," I said, " but
they seem rather sticky and rusty ; I wonder if they
will go off." " Please point the other way if you
are going to try," said X. I could not allow this
challenge to my want of knowledge in firearms to
pass, and replied with dignity, " Remember to aim at
the middle of the man — then if you miss his heart
you have a chance either way at his head or his legs."
" I do not think I shall fire," said X, " because I
cannot do it without shutting my eyes. I will just

The river had become very narrow, though the


current was slow ; the men could keep pace with us
at a walk ; they were masters of the situation. I
gathered my wits together and debated our chances ;
the Kurds did not alarm me, but I cast nervous
glances at Hassan. " X," I said at last, " if Hassan
fires that blunderbuss, he cannot fail to hit either
you or me." X surveyed the situation critically.
" I don't think it will fire," she said ; " he was trying
to shoot with it one day and it would not go off."
I breathed more freely. " Effendi," said one of the
soldiers to Hassan, " tell the ladies to go into the hut."
"Pasha," said Hassan, "you would be more out of
the way in the hut." X laughed, Hassan laughed,
the Zaptiehs laughed, we all laughed, except Arten,
he did not laugh — yet. Meanwhile, the Zaptiehs and
the boatmen had been yelling and shouting at the
brigands as they kept pace with us on the shore.
As they spoke Kurdish we were unable to know what
negotiations were going on, and could only await
developments. They were a fine set of men, dark,
handsome, well set-up, their long, black, curly hair
worn down to the collar. They were dressed in
bright colours, and armed to the teeth with long
knives and pistols, besides the rities they were

" There do not seem any villages near," said X.
"We shall be very cold if they take our clothes and
we cannot get sheepskins." "Yes," I said, "and
very hungry if we can get no rice. We have longed
for this moment, but there do seem to be incon-
veniences connected with it." My heart suddenly
warmed within me. "X," I said, "isn't this a


splendid piece of luck!" "Glorious!" said X; and
we gave ourselves up to the full enjoyment of the

We had got into a faster bit of current, and the
men had to run to keep up with us. They seemed to
be yielding to the importunities of our escort ; one
by one they dropped behind, and finally, with a few
parting yells, stood and gazed at us as we floated on.
Indignation swelled in my veins. "X," I said, in a
voice struggling with emotion, "they are letting us go! "
X's face reflected my disappointment and disgust.
11 And they did not even fire one little shot!" she said
bitterly. "Or try to burst our skins," I gulped.
X tried to take a cheerful view of the situation.
"Never mind," she said, "cheer up, we may have
another chance ; we are not out of their country yet."
But I was not so easily comforted ; I wanted some
outlet for my rage and disappointment, and seizing
my revolver I fired six shots up into the air and flung
the weapon across the raft. The reports rang out

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryLouisa (Jebb) Mrs. Roland Wilkins. WilkinsBy desert ways to Baghdad → online text (page 9 of 18)