A few miles across a stretch of gravelly river-bottom, interspersed with scattering patches of cultivation, brings us to a hamlet of some twenty mud dwellings. The houses are small, circular structures, unattached, and each one removed some dozen paces from its neighbor; they are built of mud with the roof flat, as in Asia Minor. The sun is setting as we reach this little Harood hamlet, and, as Ghalakua is some three farsakhs distant, we decide to remain here for the night. We pitch our camp on a smooth threshing-floor in the centre of the village, and the headman brings pieces of carpet for me to recline on, together with a sort of a carpet bolster for a pillow.
The khan impresses upon these simple-minded, out-of-the-world people a due sense of my importance as the guest of his master, the Ameer of Seistan, and they skirmish around in the liveliest manner to provide what creature comforts their meagre resources are equal to. The best they can provide in the way of eatables is bread and eggs, and muscal, but they make full amends for the absence of variety by bestowing upon us a superabundance of what they have, and no slaves of Oriental despot ever displayed more eager haste to anticipate their ruler's wants than do these, my first acquaintances among the Afghan tillers of the soil, to wait upon us. All the evening long no female ventures anywhere near our alfresco quarters; the rigid exclusion of the female sex in this conservative Mohammedan territory forbids them making any visible show of interest in the affairs of men whatsoever. When the hour arrives for the preparation of the evening meal, closely shrouded figures flit hastily through the dusk from house to house, bearing camel-thorn torches. They are women who have been to their neighbors to obtain a light for their own fire. From the number of these it is plainly evident that the housewives of the entire village light their fires from one original kindling. The shrouds of the women are red and black plaid; the men wear overshirts of coarse white; material that reach to their knees, pointed shoes that turn up at the toes, white Turkish trousers, and the regulation Afghan turban. The night is most lovely, and frogs innumerable are in the lowlands round about us, croaking their appreciation of the mellow moonlight, the balmy air, and the overflowing waters of the river. For hours they favor us with a musical melange, embracing everything between the hoarse bass croak of the full-blown bull-frog, to the tuneful "p-r" of the little green tree-frogs ensconced in the clumps of dwarf-willow hard by. Soothed by the music of the frogs I spend a restful night beneath the blue, calm dome of the Afghan sky, though awakened once or twice by the sowars' horses breaking loose and fighting.
There are no geldings to speak of in Central Asia, and unless eternal vigilance is maintained and the horses picketed very carefully, a fight or two is sure to occur among them during the night. As it seems impossible for semi-civilized people to exercise forethought in small matters of this kind, a night without being disturbed by a horse-fight is a very rare occurrence, when several are travelling together.
The morning opens as lovely as the close of evening yesterday; a sturdy villager carries me and the bicycle through a small tributary of the Harood. He shakes his head when I offer him a present. How strange that an imaginary boundary-line between two countries should make so much difference in the people! One thinks of next to nothing but money, the other refuses to take it when offered.
The sowars are in high glee at having escaped what seems to me the imaginary terrors of the passage across the Dasht-i-na-oomid, and as we ride along toward Ghalakua their exuberant animal spirits find expression in song. Few things are more harrowing and depressing to the unappreciative Ferenghi ear than Persian sowars singing, and three most unmelodious specimens of their kind at it all at once are something horrible.
The country hereabouts is a level plain, extending eastward to the Furrah Rood; within the first few miles adjacent to the Harood are seen the crenellated walls of several villages and the crumbling ruins of as many more. Clumps of palm-trees and fields of alfalfa and green young wheat environ the villages, and help to render the dull gray ruins picturesque. The atmosphere seems phenomenally transparent, and the trees and ruins and crenellated walls, rising above the level plain, are outlined clear and distinct against the sky.
In the distance, at all points of the compass, rocky mountains rise sheer from the dead level of the plain, looking singularly like giant cliffs rising abruptly from the bed of some inland sea. One of these may be thirty miles away, yet the wondrous clearness of the air renders apparent distances so deceptive that it looks not more than one-third the distance. It is a strikingly interesting country, and its inhabitants are a no less strikingly interesting people.
A farsakh from our Harood-side camping-place, we halt to obtain refreshments at a few rude tents pitched beneath the walls of a little village. The owners of the tents are busy milking their flocks of goats. It is an animated scene. No amount of handling, nor years of human association, seems capable of curbing the refractory and restless spirit of a goat. The matronly dams that are being subjected to the milking process this morning have, no doubt, been milked regularly for years; yet they have to be caught and held firmly by the horns by one person, while another robs them of what they seem reluctant enough to give up.
The sun grows uncomfortably warm, and myriads of flies buzz hungrily about our morning repast. Before we resume our journey a little damsel, in flaming red skirt and big silver nose-ring, enters the garden and plucks several roses, which she brings to me on a pewter salver. These people are Eliautes, and the women are less fearful of showing themselves than at the village where we passed the night. Several of them apply to me for medical assistance. The chief trouble is chronic ophthalmia; nearly all the children are afflicted with this disease, and at the eyes of each poor helpless babe are a mass of hungry flies. The wonder is, not that ophthalmia runs amuck among these people, but rather, that any of the children escape total blindness.
Several villages are passed through en route to Ghalakua; the people turn out en masse and indulge in uproarious demonstrations at the advent of the Ferenghi and the bicycle. These people seem as incapable of controlling their emotions and their voices as so many wild animals; they shout and gesticulate excitedly, and run about like people bereft of their senses. The uncivilization crops out of these obscure Harood villagers far plainer than it does in the tents of the wandering tribes. They are noisier and more boisterous than the nomads, who, as a matter of fact, are sober-sided and sedate in their deportment.
No women appear among the crowd on the street, but a carefully covered head is occasionally caught peeping furtively from behind a chimney on the roof of a house, or around some corner. A glance from me, and the head is withdrawn as rapidly as if one were taking hostile aim at it with a rifle.
Fine large irrigating ditches traverse this partially cultivable area, and in them are an abundance of fish. In one ditch I catch sight of a splendid specimen of the speckled trout, that must have been three feet long. Travelling leisurely next morning, we arrive at Ghalakua in the middle of the forenoon; quarters are assigned us by Aminulah Khan, the Chief of the Ghalakua villages and tributary territory. In appearance he is a typical Oriental official, his fluffy, sensuous countenance bearing traces of such excesses as voluptuous Easterns are wont to indulge in, and this morning he is suffering with an attack of "tab" (fever). Wrapped in a heavy fur-lined over-coat, he is found seated on the front platform of a inenzil beneath the arched village gateway, smoking cigarettes; in his hand is a bouquet of roses, and numerous others are scattered about his feet. Dancing attendance upon him is a smart-looking little fellow in a sheepskin busby almost as bulky in proportion as his whole body, and which renders his appearance grotesque in the extreme. His keen black eyes sparkle brightly through the long wool of his remarkable headgear, the ends of which dangle over his eyes like an overgrown and wayward bang. The bravery of his attire is measurably enhanced by a cavalry sword, long enough and heavy enough for a six-foot dragoon, a green kammerbund, and top-boots of red leather. This person stands by the side of Aminulah Khan, watches keenly everything that is being said and done, receives orders from his master, and transmits them to the various subordinates lounging about. He looks the soul of honesty and watchfullness, his appearance and demeanor naturally conjuring up reflections of faithful servitors about the persons of knights and nobles of old; he is apparently the Khan of Ghalakua's confidential retainer and general supervisor of affairs about his person and headquarters.
Our quarters are in the bala-khana of a small half-ruined konak outside the village, and shortly after retiring thither the khan's sprightly little retainer brings in tea and fried eggs, besides pomegranates and roses for myself. A new departure makes its appearance in the shape of sugar sprinkled over the eggs. While we are discussing these refreshments our attendant stands in the doorway and addresses the sowars at some length in Persian. He is apparently delivering instructions received from his master; whatever it is all about, he delivers it with the air of an orator addressing an audience, and he supplements his remarks with gestures that would do credit to a professional elocutionist. He is as agreeable as he is picturesque; he and I seem to fall en rapport at once, as against the untrustworthiness of the remainder of our company. As his keen, honest eyes scrutinize the countenances of the sowars, and then seek my own face, I feel instinctively that he has sized my escort up correctly, and that their innate rascality is as well revealed to him as if he had accompanied us across the desert.
Several visitors drop in to pay their respects; they salaam respectfully to me, and greet the sowars as "bur-raa-thers," and kiss, their hands. One simple, unsophisticated mortal, who in his isolated life has never had the opportunity of discriminating between a Mussulman and a Ferenghi, addresses me also as "bur-raa-ther," and favors my palm with the regulation osculatory greeting. The Afghans present view this extraordinary proceeding with dignified silence, and if moved in any manner by the spectacle, manage to conceal their emotions beneath a stolid exterior. The risibilities of the sowars, however, are stirred to their deepest depths, and they nearly choke themselves in desperate efforts to keep from laughing outright.
Offerings of roses are brought into our quarters by the various visitors, and boys and men toss others in through door and windows, until our room is gratefully perfumed and roses are literally carpeting the floor. One might well imagine the place to be Gulistan itself; every person is carrying bunches of roses in his hands, smelling of them, and wearing them in his turban and kammerbund. The people seem to be fairly revelling in the delights of these choicest gems from Flora's evidently overflowing storehouse. The men average tall and handsome; they look like veritable warrior-priests in their flowing white costumes, and they make a strange picture of mingled barbarism and aestheticism as they loaf in lazy magnificence about the tumble-down ruins of the konak, toying with their roses in silence. They seem contented and happy in their isolation from the great busy outer world, and, impressed by their universal appreciation of a flower, it occurs to me, on the impulse of ocular evidence, that it would be the greatest pity to disturb and corrupt these people by attempting to thrust upon them our Western civilization--they seem far happier than a civilized community.
The khan obtains his receipt for my delivery, and by and by Aminulah Khan sends his man to request the favor of a tomasha. Leaving my other effects behind in charge of the sowars, I take the bicycle and favor him with a few turns in front of the village gate. Among the various contents of my leathern case is a bag of kerans; but, although the case is not locked, it is provided with a peculiar fastening which I fondly imagine to be beyond the ingenuity of the khan to open. So that, while well enough aware of that guileful individual's uncontrollable avarice in general, and his deep, dark designs on my money in particular, I think little of leaving it with him for the few minutes I expect to be absent. It strikes me as a trifle suspicious, however, upon discovering that while everybody else comes to see the tomasha, all three of the sowars remain behind.
Instinctively I arrive at the conclusion that with these three worthy kleptomaniacs left alone in a room with some other person's portable property, something is pretty sure to happen to the property; so, excusing myself as quickly as courtesy will permit, I hasten back to our quarters. The mudbake is found posted at the outer gate of the konak. He is keeping watch while his delectable comrades search the package in which they sagaciously locate the silver lucre they so much covet. Seeing me approaching, he makes a trumpet of his hands and sings out warningly to his accomplices that I am coming back. Taking no more notice of him than usual, I pass inside and repair at once to the bala-khana, to find that the khan and the mirza have disappeared. The mudbake follows me in to watch my movements. In the simplicity of his semi-civilized understanding he is wondering within himself whether or no I entertain suspicions of anything being wrong, and he is watching me closely to find out. In his dense ignorance he imagines the khan and the mirza artful almost beyond human comprehension, and in thinking this he no doubt merely supplements the sentiments of these two wily individuals themselves. Time and again on the journey from Tabbas has he joined them in chuckling with ghoulish glee over some self-laudatory exposition of their own deep, deep, cunning. They well know themselves to be unfathomably cute beside the simple-hearted and honest ryots and nomads with whom they are wont to compare themselves, and from these standards they confidently judge the world at large. The mudbake colors up like a guilty school-boy upon seeing me proceed without delay to examine the leathern case. The erstwhile orderly arranged contents are found tumbled about in dire confusion. My bag of about one hundred kerans have dwindled nearly half that number as the result of being in their custody ten minutes.
"Some of you pedar sags have stolen my money; who is it? where's the khan?" I inquire, addressing the guilty-looking mud-bake. He is now shivering visibly with fright, but makes a ludicrous effort to put a bold face on the matter, and brazenly asks, "Chand pool" (How much is missing?). "Khylie! where is the khan and the inirza? I will take you all to Aminulah Khan and have you bastinadoed!" The poor mudbake turns pale at the bare suggestion of the bastinado, and stoutly maintains his own innocence. He would no doubt as stoutly proclaim the guilt of his comrades if by so doing he could escape punishment himself. Nor is this so surprising, when one reflects that either of these worthies would, without a moment's hesitation, perform the same office for him or for each other.
Without wasting time in bandying arguments with the mudbake, I sally forth in search of the others, and meet them just outside the gate; they are returning from hiding the money in the ruins. The crimson flood of guilt overspreads their faces as I raise my finger and shake it at them by way of admonition. With them following behind with all the meekness of discovered guilt, I lead the way back up into the bala-khana. Arriving there, both of them wilt so utterly and completely, and proceed to plead for mercy with such ludicrous promptness, that my sense of the ridiculous outweighs all other considerations, and I regard their demonstrations of remorse with a broad smile of amusement. It is anything but a laughing matter from their own standpoint, however; the mudbake warns them forthwith that I have threatened to have them bastinadoed, and they fairly writhe and groan in an agony of apprehension. The khan, owing to his more sanguine temperament, and a lively conception that the heaviest burden of guilt and accompanying punishment would naturally fall on his own shoulders as the chief of my escort, removes his turban and then lies down on the floor and grovels at my feet.
All the hair he possesses is a little tuft or two left on his otherwise smoothly shaven pate, by which he confidently expects at his demise to be tenderly lifted up into Paradise by the Prophet Mohammed. After kissing most of the dust off my geivehs, and banging his head violently against the floor, he signifies his willingness to relinquish all anticipations of eternal happiness, black-eyed houris and the like, by attempting to yank out even this Celestial hand-hold, hoping that the woeful depth of his anguish and the sincerity of his repentance may prove the means of escaping present punishment. His eyes roll wildly about in their sockets, and in a voice choking with emotion he begs me pathetically to keep the matter a secret from the Khan of Ghalakua. "O Sahib, Sahib! Hoikim no, hoikim no!" he pleads, and the anguish-stricken khan accompanies these pleadings with a look of unutterable agony, and furthermore indulges in the pantomime of sawing off his ears and his hands with his forefinger. This latter tragic demonstration is to let me know that the result of exposure would be to have the former, and perhaps the latter, of these useful members cut off, after the cruel and summary justice of this country. The mirza and mudbake cluster around and supplement their superior's pathetic pleadings with deep-drawn groans of "Allah, Allah!" and sundry prostrations toward Mecca.
It is a ludicrous and yet a strangely touching spectacle to see these three poor devils grovelling and pleading before me, and at the same time praying to Allah for protection in the little bala-khana, hoping thereby to save themselves from cruel mutilation and lifelong disgrace. A watchful eye is kept outside by the mirza, who does his groaning and praying near the door, and the sight of an Afghan approaching is the signal for a mute appeal for mercy from all three, and a transformation to ordinary attitudes and vocations, the completeness of which would do credit to professional comedians.
When a favorable opportunity presents, with much peering about to make sure of being unobserved, his comrades lower the khan down over the rear wall of the bala-khana, and a minute later they hoist him up again with the same show of caution.
Producing from his kammerbund a red handkerchief containing the stolen kerans, he advances and humbly lays it at my feet, at the same time kneeling down and implanting yet another osculatory favor on my geivehs. Joyful at seeing my readiness to second them in keeping the matter hidden from stray Afghans that come dropping in, the guilty sowars are still fearful lest they have not yet secured my complete forgiveness. Consequently, the khan repeatedly appeals to me as "bur-raa-ther," lays his forefingers together, and enlarges upon the fact that we have passed through the dangers and difficulties of the Dasht-i-na-oomid together. The dread spectre of possible mutilation and disgrace as the consequence of their misdeeds pursues these guileful, grown-up children even in their dreams. All through the night they are moaning and muttering uneasily in their sleep, and tossing restlessly about; and long before daybreak are they up, prostrating themselves and filling the room with rapidly muttered prayers, The khan comes over to my corner and peers anxiously down into my face. Finding me awake, he renews his plea for mercy and forgiveness, calling me "bur-raa-ther" and pleading earnestly "Hoikim no, hoikim no!"
The sharp-eyed wearer of the big busby, the cavalry sword, and red jack-boots turns up early next morning. He dropped in once or twice yesterday, and being possessed of more brains than the three sowars put together, he gathered from appearances, and his general estimation of their character, that all is not right. These suspicions he promptly communicated to his master. Aminulah Khan is only too well acquainted with the weakest side of the Persian character, and at once jumps to the conclusion that the sowars have stolen my money. Sending for me and summoning the sowars to his presence, without preliminary palaver he accuses them of robbing me of "pool." Addressing himself to me, he inquires: "Sahib, Parses namifami?" (Do you understand Persian?) "Kam Kam" (a little), I reply. "Sowari pool f pool koob; rupee-rupee Jcoob?" "O, O, pool koob; rupee koob; sowari neis, sowari khylie koob adam." In this brief interchange of disconnected Persian the khan has asked me whether the sowars have stolen money from me, and I have answered that they have not, but that, on the contrary, they are most excellent men, both "trustie and true." May the recording angel enter my answer down with a recommendation for mercy! During this examination the little busby-wearer stands and closely scrutinizes the changeful countenances of the accused. He thoroughly understands that I am mercifully shielding them from what he considers their just deserts, and he chips in a word occasionally to Aminulah Khan, aside, like a sharp lawyer watching the progress of a cross-examination. The chief himself, though ostensibly accepting my statement, has his own suspicions to the same purpose, and before dismissing them he shakes his finger menacingly at the sowars and significantly touches the hilt of his sword. The three culprits look guilty enough to satisfy the most merciful of judges, but, relying on my operation to shield them, they stoutly maintain their innocence.
Some little delay occurs about starting for Furrah, my next objective point on the road to India; the khan explains that all of his sowars have been sent off to help garrison Herat; that the best he can provide in the form of a mounted escort is an elderly little man whom he points out, with an evident doubt as to my probable appreciation.
The man looks more like a Persian than an Afghan, which he probably is, as the population of these borderland districts is much mixed. Nothing would have pleased me better than to have had Aminulah Khan bid me go ahead without any escort whatever, but next to nobody at all, the most satisfactory arrangement is the harmless-looking old fellow in the Persian lamb's-wool hat. Telling him that he has done well in sending his sowars to Herat, and that the old fellow will answer very well as guide, I prepare to take my departure. My guide disappears, and shortly returns mounted on a powerful and spirited gray. Aminulah Khan gives him a letter, and after mutual salaams, and "good ahfis," the old sowar leads the way at a pace which shows him to be filled with exaggerated ideas about my speediness.
Irrigating ditches and fields characterize the way for some few miles, after which we emerge upon a level desert whose hard gravel surface is ridable in any direction without regard to beaten trails. Numerous lizards of a peculiar spotted variety are observed scuttling about on this gravelly plain as we ride along. The sun grows hot, but the way is level and smooth, and about ten o'clock we arrive at the oasis of Mahmoudabad, five farsakhs from Ghalakua. Mahmoudabad consists of a few mud dwellings surrounded by a strong wall, and a number of tents. Water is brought in a ditch from some distant source, and my faculty of astonishment is once again assailed by the sight of flourishing little patches of "Windsor beans." This is the first growth of these particular legumes that have come beneath my notice in Asia; dropping on them in the little oasis of Mahmoudabad is something of a surprise, to say the least.
The men of Mahmoudabad wear bracelets and ankle-ornaments of thick copper wire, and necklaces of beads. Nothing whatever is seen of the women; so far as ocular evidence is concerned, Mahmoudabad might be a community of men and boys exclusively. The plain continues level and gravelly, and pretty soon it becomes thinly covered with green young camel-thorn. The widely scattered shrubs fail to cover up much of the desert's nakedness at close quarters, but a wider view gives a pleasant green plain, out of which the dark, massive mountains rise abrupt with striking effect.
Late in the afternoon the hard surface of the desert gives place to the loose adobe soil of the Furi-ah Eooi bottom-lands. For some distance this is so loose and soft that one sinks in shoe-top deep at every step, and the path becomes a mere trail through dense thickets of reeds that wave high above one's head. Beyond this is a narrow area of cultivation and several walled villages, most of which are distinguished by one or two palms. Arriving at one of these villages, an hour before sunset, the old guide advocates remaining for the night. In obedience to his orders the headman brings out a carpet and spreads it beneath the shadow of the wall, and pointing to it, says, "Sahib, bismillah!" Taking the proffered seat, I inquire of him the distance to Furrah. Ho says it is across the Furrah Rood, and distant one farsakh. "Kishtee ass?" "O, Idshtee" Turning to the guide, I suggest: "Bismillah Furrah." The old fellow looks disappointed at the idea of going on, but he replies, "Bismillah." The carpet is taken away again, and the village headman sends a younger man to guide us through the fields and gardens to the river.
The Furrah Rood is broader and swifter here than the Harood, and when at sunset we reach the ferry, it is to find that the boat is on the other side and the ferrymen gone to their homes for the night. Several hundred yards back from the river the city of Furrah reveals itself in the shape of a sombre-looking high mud wall, forming a solid parallelogram, I should judge a third of a mile long and of slightly less width. The walls are crenellated, and strengthened by numerous buttresses. It occupies slightly rising ground, and nothing is visible from without but the walls. The old guide shouts lustily at a couple of men visible on the opposite bank; but he only gets shouted back at for his pains.
Darkness is rapidly settling down upon us, and I begin to realize my mistake in not abiding by the guide's judgment and stopping at the village. Another village is seen a couple of miles across the reedy lowland to our rear, and thitherward we shape our course. The intervening space is found to consist largely of tall reeds, swampy or overflowed areas, and irrigating ditches. Many of the latter are too deep to ford, and darkness overtakes us long before the village is reached. Finding it impossible to do anything with the bicycle, I remove my packages and lay the naked wheel on top of a conspicuous place on the bank of a ditch, where it may be readily found in the morning.
For some reason unintelligible to me accommodation is refused us at the village. The old guide addresses the people in tones loud and authoritative, but all to no purpose--they refuse to let us remain. While hesitating about what course to pursue, one of the men comes out and volunteers to guide us to a camp of nomads not far away. Following his guidance, a camp of a dozen tents is shortly reached, and in their hospitable midst we spend the night on a piece of carpet beneath the sky. The usual simple refreshments are provided, as also quilts for covering. Upon waking in the morning I am surprised to find the bicycle lying close to my head. The hospitable nomads, having heard the story of its abandonment from the guide, have been out in the night and found it and brought it in.
The same friendly person who brought us to the camp turns up at daybreak and voluntarily guides us through the area of ditches and impenetrable reed-patches to the river. Several people are squatting on the bank watching a crew of half-naked men tugging a rude but strong ferryboat up-stream toward them. The boat is built of heavy hewn timber, and capable of ferrying fifty passengers.
The Furrah Rood, at the ferry, is about two hundred yards wide, and with a current of perhaps five miles an hour. A dozen stalwart men with rude, heavy sweeps propel the boat across; but at every passage the swift current takes it down-stream twice as far as the river's width. After disembarking the passengers, the boatmen have to tow it this distance up-stream again before making the next crossing. The boatmen wear a single garment of blue cotton that in shape resembles a plain loose shirt. When nearing the shore, three or four of them deftly slip their arms out of the sleeves, bunch the whole garment up around their necks, and spring overboard. Swimming to shallow water with a rope, they brace themselves to stay the down-stream career of the boat.
A small gathering of wild-looking men are collected at the landing-place, and my astonishment is awakened by the familiar figure of a Celestial among the crowd. He is a veritable John Chinaman--beardless face, queue, almond eyes, and everything complete. The superior thriftiness of the Chinaman over the Afghans needs no further demonstration than the ocular evidence that among them all he wears by far the best and the tidiest clothes. In this, not less than in the strong Mongolian type of face, is he a striking figure among the people.
John Chinaman is a very familiar figure to me, and I regard this strange specimen with almost as great interest as if I had thus unexpectedly met a European. His grotesque figure and dress, representing, so it seems to me at the moment, a speck of civilization among the barbarousness of my surroundings, is quite a relief to the senses. A closer investigation, however, on the bank, while waiting for the guide's horse, reveals the fact that he is far from being the John Chinaman of Chinatown, San Francisco. Instead of hailing from the rice-fields of Quangtung, this fellow is a native of Kashga-ria, a country almost as wild as Afghanistan. A moment's scrutiny of his face removes him as far from the civilized seaboard Celestials of our acquaintance as is the Zulu warrior from the plantation-darky of the South. Except for the above-mentioned comparative neatness of appearance, it is very evident that the Mongolian is every bit as wild as the Afghans about him.
The people regard me with a deep and peculiar interest; very few remarks are made among themselves, and no one puts a single question to me or ventures upon any remarks. All this is in strange contrast to the everlasting gabble and the noisy and persistent importunities of the Persians. The Afghans are plainly full of speculations concerning my mission, who I am, and what I am doing in their country; although they regard the bicycle with great curiosity, the machine is evidently a matter of secondary importance. Like the Eimuck chieftain on the Dasht-i several of these men change countenance when I favor them with a glance. Whether this peculiar reddening of the face among the Afghans comes of embarrassment, or what it is, it always impresses me as much like the "perturbation of a wild animal at finding himself suddenly confronted with a human being."
Hiding part way to the city gate, I send the guide ahead to notify the governor of my arrival, and to present the letter from Aininulah Khan. He is absent what appears to me an unnecessarily long time, and I determine to follow him in and take my chances on the tide of circumstances, as in the cities of Persia. It is not without certain lively apprehensions of possible adventure, however, that I approach the little arched gateway of this gray-walled Afghan city, conscious of its being filled with the most fanatical population in the world. In addition to this knowledge is the disquieting reflection of being a trespasser on forbidden territory, and therefore outside the pale of governmental sympathy should I get into trouble.
The fascination of penetrating the strange little world within those high walls, however, ill brooks these retrospective reflections, or thoughts of unpleasant consequences, and I make no hesitation about riding up to the gate. A sharp, short turn and abrupt rise in the road occurs at the gate, necessitating a dismount and a trundle of about thirty yards, when I suddenly find myself confronting a couple of sentries beneath the archway of the gate. The sensation of surprise seems quite in order of late, and these sentries furnish yet another sensation, for they are wearing the red jackets of British infantrymen and the natty peaked caps of the Royal Artillery. The same crimson flush of embarrassment--or whatever it may be--that was observed in the countenance of the Eimuck chief, overspreads their faces, and they seem overcome with confusion and astonishment; but they both salute mechanically as I pass in. Fifty yards of open waste ground enables me to mount and ride into the entrance of the principal street. I have precious little time to look about me, and no opportunity to discover what the result of my temerity would be after the people had recovered from their amazement, for hardly have I gotten fairly into the street when I am met by my old guide, conducting a guard of twelve soldiers who have been sent to bring me in.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005