UNDER ESCORT TO HERAT.
Our party camps near a village not far from the river, but it takes us till after dark to reach the place, owing to ditches and overflow. A few miles of winding trails and intricate paths through the reedy river-bottom next morning, and we emerge upon a flinty upland plain. At first a horseman is required to ride immediately ahead of the bicycle, my untutored escort being evidently suspicious lest I might suddenly forge ahead, and with the swiftness of a bird disappear from their midst.
As this leader, in his ignorance, occasionally stops right in the narrow path, and considers himself in duty bound to limit my speed to that of the walking horses, this arrangement quickly becomes very monotonous. Appealing to Kiftan Sahib, I point out the annoyance of having a horse just in front, and promise not to go too far ahead. He points appealingly to a little leathern pouch attached to his belt. The pouch contains a letter to the Governor of Herat, and he it is whom Mahmoud Yusuph Khan expects to take back a receipt. The chief responsibility for my safe delivery rests upon his shoulders, and he is disposed to be abnormally apprehensive and suspicious.
Reassuring him of my sincerity, he permits the horseman to follow along behind. When the condition of the road admits of my pushing ahead a little, this sowar canters along immediately behind, while the remainder of the party follow more leisurely.
One of the party carries a skin of water, and as the morning grows fearfully hot, frequent halts are made to wait for him and get a drink, otherwise we two are usually some distance ahead. These water-vessels are merely goat-skins, taken off with as little mutilation of the hide as possible; one of the legs serves as a faucet, and the tying or untying of a piece of string opens or closes the "tap." It is the handiest imaginable contrivance for carrying liquids on horseback, the tough, pliant goat-skin resisting any amount of hard usage and accommodating itself readily to the contour of the pack-saddle, or itself forming a soft enough seat to the rider.
Near noon we reach the ruins of Suleimanabad, entirely deserted save by hideous gray lizards a foot long, numbers of which scuttle off into their hiding places at our approach. In the distance ahead are visible the black tents of a nomad camp. The glowing, reflected heat of the stony desert produces an unquenchable thirst, and the generous bowls of cool, acidulous doke obtained in the tents are quaffed most eagerly by the entire party.
The solicitude of Kiftaii Sahib as displayed on my behalf is quite amusing, not to say affecting; while the others are attending to their horses he squats down before me underneath the little goat-hair tent and gazes at me with an attention so close that one might imagine him afraid lest I should mysteriously change into some impalpable spirit and float away.
The nomads themselves appear to be amiably disposed, intent chiefly on supplying our wants and fulfilling the traditions of tented hospitality. They look wild enough, but, withal, pleasant and intelligent. Kiftan Sahib, however, watches every movement of the stalwart nomads with keen interest; and small power of penetration is required to see that apprehension, if not positive suspicion, enters very largely into his thoughts concerning them and myself.
A howling wind and dust-storm comes careering across the plain, creating a wild scene, and black cloud-banks gather and pile up ominously in the west. The threatened rain-storm, however, passes off with a pyrotechnic display of great brilliancy, and the evening air lowers to a refreshing temperature as we stretch ourselves out on nummuds, fifty yards away from the tents. Kiftan Sahib spreads his own couch on the right side of mine and the red-whiskered chief of the sowars occupies the left.
Waking up during the night, I am somewhat taken by surprise at finding one of my escort standing guard over me with fixed bayonet. This extraordinary precaution appears to me at the time as being altogether superfluous; while recognizing these nomads as lawless and fanatical, I should nevertheless have no hesitation in venturing alone among them.
The morning star is just soaring above the eastern horizon, and the feeble rays of Luna's half-averted face are imparting a ghostly glimmer of light, when I am awakened from a sound sleep. The horses have all been saddled and packed, and everybody is ready to start. Daylight comes on apace and, finding the trail hard and reasonably smooth, I am happily able to "sowari," and not only able to ride but to forge right ahead of the party. The country is level and open, and uninhabited, so that Kiftan Sahib is far less apprehensive than he was yesterday.
I am perhaps a couple of miles ahead when I come to a splendid, large, irrigating canal, evidently conveying water from the Harood down across the desert to the low cultivable lands near the Furrah Rood. The water is three feet deep, and I revel in the luxury of a cooling and refreshing bath until overtaken by the escort.
The plain, heretofore hard, now changes into loose sand and gravel, and the trail becomes quite obliterated. In addition to these undesirable changes, the wind commences blowing furiously from the north, making it absolutely impossible to ride. Rounding the base of an abutting mountain, we emerge upon the grassy lowlands of the Harood in the vicinity of Subzowar. Subzowar is a sort of way-station between Furrah and Herat, the only inhabited place, except tents, on the whole journey. It is on the west side of the Harood and the broad, swift stream is full to overflowing, a turgid torrent rushing along at a dangerous pace.
After much shouting and firing of guns, a score of villagers appear on the opposite bank, and several of them come wading and swimming across. They seem veritable amphibians, capable of stemming the tide that well-nigh sweeps strong horses off their feet. The river is fordable by following a zigzag course well known to the local watermen. One of them carries the bicycle safely across on his head, and others lead the sowars' horses by the bridle.
When all the Afghans but Kiftan Sahib have been assisted over, the strongest horse of the party is brought back for my own passage. A dozen natives are made to form a close cordon about me to rescue me in case of misadventure, while one leads the horse by his bridle and another steadies him by holding on to his tail. Kiftan Sahib himself brings up the rear, and, as the rushing waters deepen around us, he abjures me to keep a steady seat and, in a voice that almost degenerates into an apprehensive whine, he mutters: "The receipt, Sahib, the receipt."
A ripple of excitement occurs in the middle of the river by one the men being swept off his feet and carried down stream; and, although he swims like a duck, the treacherous undercurrent sucks him under several times. It looks as though he would be drowned; a number of his comrades race down the bank and plunge in to swim to his rescue, but he finally secures footing on a submerged sand-bank, and after resting a few minutes swims ashore.
The remainder of the day, and the night, are passed in tents near Subzowar, it being very evidently against Afghan social etiquette for strangers to take shelter within the confines of the village itself.
Whether from their knowledge of the unsuitableness of the country ahead, or from a new spasm of apprehension concerning their responsibility, does not appear; but in the morning Kiftan Sahib and the chief of the sowars insist upon me mounting a horse and handing the bicycle over to the tender mercies of the person in charge of the nummud pack-horse. They point in the direction of Herat, and deliver themselves of a marvellous quantity of deprecatory pantomime. My own impression is that, having recrossed the Harood, the only great obstacle in the path of a wheelman between Furrah and Herat, their abnormally suspicious minds imagine that there is now nothing to prevent me taking wings and outdistancing them to the latter place.
Finding them determined, and, moreover, nothing loath to try a horse for a change, on the back-stretch, I take the wheel apart and distribute fork, backbone, and large wheel among the sowars. The only fit place for the latter is on the top of the nummuds and blankets on the spare pack-horse, and, before starting, I see to fastening it securely on top of the load. This pack-horse is a powerful black stallion that puts in a good share of his time trying to attack the other horses. Owing to this uncontrollable pugnacity, he is habitually led along at some considerable distance from the party, generally to the rear.
The person in charge of him is a young negro as black, and proportionately powerful, as himself. Wild and ferocious as is the stallion, he is a civilized and mild-mannered animal compared with his manager. In the matter of facial expression and intellectual development this uncivilized descendant of Ham is first cousin to a wild gorilla, and it is not without certain misgivings that I leave the web-like bicycle-wheel in his charge. He has been a very interesting study of uncivilization all along, and his bump of destructiveness is as large as an orange. The military Afghans, one and all, impress me as being especially created to destroy the fruits of other people's industry and thrift, whether it be in wearing out clothes and shoes made in England, or devouring the substance of the peaceful villagers of their own territory; and this untamed darkey fairly bristles with the evidence of his capacity as a destroyer.
Everything about him is in a dilapidated condition; the leathern scabbard of his sword is split half way up, revealing a badly notched and rusted blade. An orang-outang, fresh from the jungles of Sumatra, could scarcely display less intelligence concerning human handicraft than he; he bubbles over with laughter at seeing anything upset or broken, growls sullenly at receiving uncongenial orders, calls on Allah, and roars threateningly at the stallion, all in the same breath. No wonder I ride ahead, feeling somewhat apprehensive; and yet the wheel looks snug and safe enough on top of the big pile of soft nummuds.
The day's march is long and dreary, through a country of desert wastes and stony hills. The only human habitation seen is a small cluster of tents near some wells of water. The people seem overjoyed at the sight of travellers, and come running to the road with their kammerbunds full of little hard balls of sun-dried mast. We fill our pockets with these and nibble and chew them as we ride along. They are pleasantly sour, containing great thirst-quemhing properties, as well as being very nourishing.
The sun goes down and dusk settles over our trail, and still the chief of the sowars and Kiftan Sahib lead the way. Many of the horses are pretty badly fagged, they have had nothing to eat all day and next to nothing to drink, and the party are straggling along the trail for a couple of miles back. At length lights are observed twinkling in the darkness ahead. Half an hour later we dismount in a nomad camp, and one after another the remainder of the party come straggling in, some of them leading their horses. Both men and animals are well-nigh overcome with fatigue.
The shrill neighing of the ferocious and spirited black stallion is heard as he approaches and realizes that he is coming into camp; he is a glorious specimen of a horse, neither hunger nor thirst can curb his spirit. He is carrying far the heaviest load of the party, yet he comes into camp at ten o'clock, after hustling along over stones and sand since before daylight, without food or water; neighing loudly and ready to fight all the horses within reach. The chief of the sowars goes out to superintend the unloading of the black stallion; and soon I hear him addressing the negro in angry tones, supplementing his reproachful words with several resounding blows of his riding-whip. The wild darkey's disapproval of these proceedings finds expression in a roar of pain and fear that would do justice to a yearling bull being dragged into the shambles.
The cause of this turmoil shortly turns up in the shape of my wheel, with no less than eleven spokes broken, and the rim considerably twisted out of shape. Kiftan Sahib surveys 'the damaged wheel a moment, draws his own rawhide from his kammerbund, and rises to his feet. With a hoarse cry of alarm the negro vanishes into the surrounding gloom; the next moment is heard his eager chuckling laugh, the spontaneous result of his lucky escape from Kiftan Sahib's vengeful rawhide. Kiftan Sahib keeps a desultory lookout for him all the evening, but the wary negro is more eagerly watchful than he, and during supper-time he hovers perpetually about the encircling wall of darkness, ready to vanish into its impenetrable depths at the first aggressive demonstration.
The explanation of the negro is that the black horse laid down with his load. The wheel presents a well-nigh ruined appearance, and I retire to my couch in a most unenviable frame of mind; lying awake for hours, pondering over the probability of being able to fix it up again at Herat.
One of our party of stragglers has failed to come in, and a couple of nomads start out about 2 a.m. to try and find him; but neither absentee nor searchers turn up at daybreak, and so we pull out without him.
The wind blows raw and chilly from the north as we depart at early dawn, and the men muffle themselves up in whatever wraps they happen to have. Unwilling to trust the wheel further in the charge of the negro, I carry it myself, resting it on one stirrup, and securing it with a rope over my shoulder. It is a most awkward thing to carry on horseback; but, unhandy though it be, I regret not having so carried it the whole way from Subzowar.
Our route leads through a dreary country, much the same character as yesterday, but we pass a pool of very good water about mid-day, and meet three men driving laden pack-horses from Herat. They are halted and questioned at great length concerning the contents of their packages, whither they are bound and whence they come; and their firearms are examined and commented upon. The members of our party appear to address them with a very domineering spirit, as though wantonly revelling in the sense of their own numerical superiority. On the other hand, the three honest travellers comport themselves with what looks like an altogether unnecessary amount of humility during the interview, and they seem very thankful and relieved when permitted to take their departure. The significance of all this, I imagine, is that my escort were sorely tempted to overhaul the effects of the weaker party, and see if they had any toothsome eatables from the bazaars of Herat; and the latter, justly apprehensive of these designs on their late purchases, consider themselves fortunate in escaping without being ruthlessly looted.
Toward evening we pass a comparatively new cemetery on a knoll; no signs of human habitation are about, and Kiftan Sahib, in response to my inquiries, explains that it is the graveyard of a battle-field.
Several times during the afternoon we lose the trail; we seem to be going across an almost trailless country, and more than once have to call a halt while men are sent to the summit of some neighboring hill to survey the surrounding country for landmarks.
At dark we pitch our camp in a grassy hollow, where the horses are made happy with heaps of pulled bottom-grass. Neither trees nor houses are anywhere in sight; but the chief of the sowars and another man ride away over the hills, and late at night return with two men carrying bread and mast and fresh goat-milk enough to feed the whole hungry party.
We make a leisurely start next morning, the reason of the dalliance being that we are but a few farsakhs from Herat. The country develops into undulating, grassy upland prairie, the greensward being thickly spangled with yellow flowers. A two flours' ride brings us to a camp of probably not less than one hundred tents. Large herds of camels are peacefully browsing over the prairie, numbers of them being females rejoicing in the possession of woolly youngsters, whose uncouth but tender proportions are swathed in old quilts and nummuds to protect them from the fierce rays of the sun.
Sheep are being sheared and goats milked by men and boys; some of the women are baking bread, some are jerking skin churns, suspended on tripods, vigorously back and forth, and others are preparing balls of mast for drying in the sun. The whole camp presents a scene of picturesque animation.
From the busy nomad camp, the trail seems to make a gradual ascent until, on the morning of April 30th, we arrive at the bluff-like termination of a rolling upland country, and behold! spread out below is the famous valley of Herat. Like a panorama suddenly opened up before me is the charmed stretch of country that has time and again created such a stir in the political and military circles of England and Russia, the famous "gate to India" about which the two greatest empires of the world have sometimes almost come to blows. Several populous villages are scattered about the valley within easy range of human vision; the Heri Rood, now bursting its natural boundaries under the stimulus of the spring floods, glistens broadly at intervals like a chain of small lakes. The fortress of Herat is dimly discernible in the distance beyond the river, probably about twenty miles from our position; it is rendered distinguishable from other masses of mud-brown habitations by a cluster of tall minarets, reminding one of a group of factory chimneys. The whole scene, as viewed from the commanding view of our ridge, embraces perhaps four hundred square miles of territory; about one-tenth of this appears to be under cultivation, the remainder being of the same stony, desert-like character as the average camel-thorn dasht.
Doubtless a good share of this latter might be reclaimed and rendered productive by an extensive system of irrigating canals, but at present no incentive exists for enterprise of this character. In its present state of cultivation the valley provides an abundance of food for the consumption of its inhabitants, and as yet the demand for exportation is limited to the simple requirements of a few thousand tributary nomads. The orchards and green areas about the villages render the whole scene, as usual, beautiful in comparison with the surrounding barrenness, but that is all. Compared with our own green hills and smiling valleys, the Valley of Herat would scarcely seem worth all the noise that has been made about it. There has been a great amount of sentiment wasted in eulogizing its alleged beauty. Of its wealth and commercial importance in the abstract, I should say much exaggeration has been indulged in. Still, there is no gainsaying that it is a most valuable strategical position, which, if held by either England or Russia, would exercise great influence on Central Asian and Indian affairs. Such are my first impressions of the Herat Valley, and a sojourn of some ten days in one of its villages leaves my conjectures about the same.
A few miles along a stony and gradually descending trail, and we are making our way across the usual chequered area of desert, patches, abandoned fields, and old irrigating ditches that so often tell the tale of decay and retrogression in the East. These outlying evidences of decay, however, soon merge into green fields of wheat and barley, poppy gardens, and orchards, and flowing ditches; and two hours after obtaining the first view of Herat finds us camped in a walled apricot garden in the important village of Rosebagh (?).
Overtopping our camping ground are a pair of dilapidated brick minarets, attached to what Kiftan Sahib calls the Jami Mesjid, and which he furthermore volunteers was erected by Ghengis Khan. The minarets are of circular form, and one is broken off fifteen feet shorter than its neighbor. In the days of their glory they were mosaicked with blue, green and yellow glazed tiles; but nothing now remains but a few mournful-looking patches of blue, surviving the ravages of time and decay. Pigeons have from time to time deposited grains of barley on the dome, and finding sustenance from the gathered dirt and the falling rains, they have sprouted and grown, and dotted the grand old mosque with patches of green vegetation.
One corner of the orchard is occupied by a stable, to the flat roof of which I betake myself shortly after our arrival to try and ascertain my bearings, and see something of the village. High walls rise up between the roofs of the houses and divide one garden from another, so that precious little opportunity exists for observation immediately around, and from here not even the tall minarets of Herat are visible.
The adjacent houses are mostly bee-hive roofed, and within the little gardens attached the soil is evidently rich and productive. Pomegranate, almond, and apricot trees abound, and produce a charming contrast to the prevailing crenellated mud walls. A very conspicuous feature of the village is a cluster of some half-dozen venerable cedars.
The stable roof provides sleeping accommodation for the chief of the sowars, Kiftan Sahib, and myself, the remainder of the party curl themselves up beneath the apricot-trees below. During the night one of the sowars, an old fellow whose morose and sulky disposition has had the effect of rendering him socially objectionable to his comrades on the march from Furrah, comes scrambling on the roof, and in loud tones of complaint addresses himself to Kiftan Sahib's peacefully snoozing proportions. His midnight eruption consists of some grievance against his fellows; perhaps some such wanton act of injustice as appropriating his blanket or stealing his "timbakoo" (tobacco).
The only satisfaction he obtains from his superior takes the form of angry upbraidings for daring to disturb our slumbers; and, continuing his complaints, Kiftan. Sahib springs up from beneath his red blanket and administers several resounding cuffs.
Having meted our this summary interpretation of Afghan petty justice, Kiftan Sahib resumes his blanket, and the old sowar comes and squats alongside my own rude couch, and endeavors to heal his wounded spirit by muttering appeals to Allah. His savage groanings render it impossible for me to go to sleep, and several times I motion him away; but he affects not to take any notice.
Determined to drive him away, I rise up hastily as though about to attack him,--a piece of strategy that causes him to scramble off the roof far quicker than he climbed on. His fit of rage lasts through the night, finding vent in mutterings that are heard long after his hurried departure from my vicinity, and in the morning he is seen perched in a corner of the wall by himself, still angry and unappeased.
The rising sun ushers in May-day with unmistakable indications of his growing powers, and when he glares fiercely over the walls of our little orchard retreat, we find it profitable to crouch in the shade. It is already evident that I am not to be permitted to enter Herat proper, or see or learn any more of my surroundings than my keepers can help.
Letters are forwarded to the city immediately upon our arrival, and on the following morning an officer and several soldiers make their appearance, to receive me from Kiftan Sahib and duly receipt for my transfer. The officer announces himself as having once been to Bombay, and proceeds to question me in a mixture of Persian and Hindostani.
Finding me ignorant of the latter language, he openly accuses me of being a Russian, raising his finger and wagging his head in a deprecatory manner. He is a simple-minded individual, however, and open to easy conviction, and moreover inclined to be amiable and courteous. He tells me that Faramorz Khan is "Wall of the soldiers" and Niab Alookimah Khan the "dowleh" (civil governor), and after listening to my explanation of being English and not Russian, he takes upon himself to deliver salaams from them both.
"Merg Sahib," the political agent of the Boundary Commission, he says is at Murghab, and "Ridgeway Sahib" at Maimene. Learning that a courier is to be sent at once to them with letters in regard to myself, I quickly embrace the opportunity of sending a letter to each by the same messenger, explaining the situation, and asking Colonel Ridgeway to try and render me some assistance in getting through to India.
By request of the officer I send the governor of Herat a sketch of the bicycle, to enlighten him somewhat concerning its character and appearance. No doubt, it would be a stretching of his Asiatic dignity as the governor of an important city, to come to Rosebagh on purpose to see it for himself, and on no circumstances can I, an unauthorized Ferenghi invading the country against orders, be permitted to visit Herat.
The transfer having been duly made, I am conducted, a mile or so, to the garden of a gentleman named Mohammed Ahziin Khan, my quarters there being an open bungalow just large enough to stretch out in. Here is provided everything necessary for the rude personal comfort of the country, and such additional luxuries as raisins and pomegranates are at once brought. Here, also, I very promptly make the acquaintance of Moore's famous bul-buls, the "sweet nightingales" of Lalla Eookh. The garden is full of fruit-trees and grape-vines, and here several pairs of bul-buls make their home. They are great pets with the Afghans, and when Mohammed Ahzim Khan calls "bul-bul, bul-bul," they come and alight on the bushes close by the bungalow and perk their heads knowingly, evidently expecting to be favored with tid-bits. They are almost tame enough to take raisins out of the hand, and hesitate not to venture after them when placed close to our feet. It is the first time I have had the opportunity of a close examination of the bul-bul. They are almost the counterpart of the English starling as regards size and shape, but their bodies are of a mousey hue; the head and throat are black, with little white patches on either "cheek;" the tail feathers are black, tipped with white, and on the lower part of the body is a patch of yellow; the feathers of the head form a crest that almost rises to the dignity of a tassel.
While the bul-bul is a companionable little fellow and possessed of a cheery voice, his warble in no respects resembles the charming singing of the nightingale, and why he should be mentioned in connection with the sweet midnight songster of the English woodlands is something of a mystery. His song is a mere "clickety click" repeated rapidly several times. His popularity comes chiefly from his boldness and his companionable associations with mankind. The bul-bul is as much of a favorite in the Herat Valley as is robin red-breast in rural England, or the bobolink in America.
The second day in the garden is remembered as the anniversary of my start from Liverpool, and I have plenty of time for retrospection. It is unnecessary to say that the year has been crowded with strange experiences. Not the least strange of all, perhaps, is my present predicament as a prisoner in the Herat Valley.
In the afternoon there arrives from Herat a Peshawari gentleman named Mirza Gholam Ahmed, who is stationed here in the capacity of native agent for the Indian government. He is an individual possessed of considerable Asiatic astuteness, and his particular mission is very plainly to discover for the governor of Herat whether I am English or Russian. He is a somewhat fleshy, well-favored person, and withal of prepossessing manners. He introduces himself by shaking hands and telling me his name, and forthwith indulges in a pinch of snuff preparatory to his task of interrogation. Accompanying him is the officer who received me from Kiftan Sahib in the apricot garden, and whose suspicions of my being a Russian spy are anything but allayed.
During the interview he squats down on the threshold of the little bungalow, and concentrates his curiosity and suspicion into a protracted penetrating stare, focused steadily at my devoted countenance. Mohammed Ahzim Khan imitates him to perfection, except that his stare contains more curiosity and less suspicion.
Mirza Gholam Ahmed proceeds upon his mission of fathoming the secret of my nationality with extreme wariness, as becomes an Oriental official engaged in a task of significant import, and at first confines himself to the use of Persian and Hindostani. It does not take me long, however, to satisfy the trustworthy old Peshawari that I am not a Muscov, and fifteen minutes after his preliminary pinch of snuff, he is unbosoming himself to me to the extent of letting me know that he served with General Pollock on the Seistan Boundary Commission, that he went with General Pollock to London, and moreover rejoices in the titular distinction of C. I. E. (Companion Indian Empire), bestowed upon him for long and faithful civil and political services. The C. I. E. he designates, with a pardonable smile of self-approval, as "backsheesh" given him, without solicitation, by the government of India; a circumstance that probably appeals to his Oriental conception as a most extraordinary feature in his favor. Bribery, favoritism, and personal influence enter so largely into the preferments and rewards of Oriental governments, that anything obtained on purely meritorious grounds may well be valued highly.
He understands English sufficiently well to comprehend the meaning of my remarks and queries, and even knows a few words himself. From him I learn that I will not be permitted to visit Herat, and that I am to be kept under guard until Faramorz Khan's courier returns from the Boundary Commission Camp with Colonel Ridgeway's answer. He tells me that the fame of the bicycle has long ago been brought to Herat by pilgrims returning from Meshed, and the marvellous stories of my accomplishments are current in the bazaars. Fourteen farsakhs (fifty-six miles) an hour, and nothing said about the condition of the roads, is the average Herati's understanding of it; and many a grave, turbaned merchant in the bazaar, and wild warrior on the ramparts, indulges in day-dreams of an iron horse little less miraculous in its deeds than the winged steed of the air we read of in the Arabian Nights.
The direct results of Mirza Gholam Ahmed's visit and favorable report to the Governor of Herat, are made manifest on the following day by the appearance of his companion of yesterday in charge of two attendants, bringing me boxes of sweetmeats, almonds, raisins, and salted nuts, together with a package of tea and a fifteen-pound cone of loaf-sugar; all backsheesh from the Governor of Herat. Mirza Gholam Ahmed himself contributes a cake of toilet soap, a few envelopes and sheets of paper, and Huntley & Palmer's Beading biscuits. Upon stumbling upon these latter acceptable articles, one naturally falls to wondering whether this world-famed firm of biscuit-makers suspect that their wares sometimes penetrate even inside the battlemented walls of Herat. With them come also three gunsmiths, charged with the duty of assisting in the reparation of the bicycle, badly damaged by the horse, it is remembered, on the way from Furrah.
Their implements consist of a pair of peculiar goat-skin bellows, provided with wooden nozzles tipped with iron. A catgut bowstring drills for boring holes, and screw-drills for cutting threads, hammers, and an anvil. A rude but ingenious forge is constructed out of a few handfuls of stiff mud, and, building a charcoal fire, they spend the evening in sharpening and tempering drills for tomorrow's operations.
Everybody seems more attentive and anxious to contribute to my pleasure, the result, evidently, of orders from Herat. The officer, who but two days ago openly accused me of being a Russian, is to-day obsequious beyond measure, and his efforts to atone for Ma openly assured suspicions are really quite painful and embarrassing; even going the length of begging me to take him with me to London. The supper provided to-day consists of more courses and is better cooked and better served; Mohammed Ahzim Khan himself squats before me, diligently engaged in picking hairs out of the butter, pointing out what he considers the choicest morsels, and otherwise betrays great anxiety to do the agreeable.
The whole of the fifth and sixth days are consumed in the task of repairing the damages to the bicycle, the result being highly satisfactory, considering everything. Six new spokes that I have with me have been inserted, and sundry others stretched and the ends newly threaded. The gunsmiths are quite expert workmen, considering the tools they have to work with, and when they happen to drill a hole a trifle crooked, they are full of apologies, and remind me that this is Afghanistan and not Frangistan. They know and appreciate good material when they see it, and during the process of heating and stretching the spokes, loud and profuse are the praises bestowed upon the quality of the iron. "Koob awhan," they say, "Khylie koob awhan; Ferenghi awhan koob." As artisans, interested in mechanical affairs, the ball-bearings of the pedals, one of which I take apart to show them, excites their profound admiration as evidence of the marvellous skill of the Ferenghis. Much careful work is required to spring the rim of the wheel back into a true circle, every spoke having to be loosened and the whole wheel newly adjusted. Except for the handy little spoke-vice which I very fortunately brought with me, this work of adjustment would have been impossible. As there is probably nothing obtainable in Herat that would have answered the purpose, no alternative would have been left but to have carried the bicycle out of the country on horseback. After the coterie of gunsmiths have exhausted their ingenuity and my own resources have been expended, three spokes are missing entirely, two others are stretched and weakened, and of the six new ones some are forced into holes partially spoiled in the unskillful boring out of broken ends. Yet, with all these defects, so thoroughly has it stood the severest tests of the roads, that I apprehend little or no trouble about breakages.
Day after day passes wearily along; wearily, notwithstanding the kindly efforts of my guardians to make things pleasant and comfortable. From an Asiatic's standpoint, nothing could be more desirable than my present circumstances; with nothing to do but lay around and be waited on, generous meals three times daily, sweetmeats to nibble and tea to drink the whole livelong day; conscious of requiring rest and generous diet--all this, however, is anything but satisfactory in view of the reflection that the fine spring weather is rapidly passing away, and that every day ought to see me forty or fifty miles nearer the Pacific Coast.
Time hangs heavily in the absence of occupation, and I endeavor to relieve the tedium of slowly creeping time by cultivating the friendship of our new-found acquaintances, the bul-buls. My bountiful supply of raisins provides the elements of a genuine bond of sympathy between us, and places us on the most friendly terms imaginable from the beginning. During the day my bungalow is infested with swarms of huge robber ants, that make a most determined onslaught on the raisins and sweetmeats, invading the boxes and lugging them off to their haunts among the grape-vines. A favorite occupation of the bul-buls is sitting on a twig just outside the bungalow and watching for the appearance of these ants dragging away raisins. The bul-bul hops to the ground, seizes the raisin, shakes the ant loose, flies back up in his tree, and swallows the captured raisin, and immediately perks his head in search of another prize.
Among other ideas intended to contribute to my enjoyment, a loud-voiced pee-wit imprisoned in a crape cage is brought and hung up outside the bungalow. At intervals that seem almost as regular as the striking of a clock, this interesting pet stretches itself up at full length and gives utterance to a succession of rasping cries, strangely loud for so small a creature. A horse is likewise brought into the garden, for the pleasure it will presumably afford me to watch it munch bunches of pulled grass, and switch horseflies away with his tail. The horse is tied up about twenty yards from my quarters, but in his laudable zeal to cater to my amusement Mohammed Ahzim Khan volunteers to station it close by if more agreeable.
All these trifling occurrences serve to illustrate the Asiatic's idea of personal enjoyment.
Every day a subordinate called Abdur Rahman Khan rides into Herat to report to the Governor, and Mohammed Ahzim Khan himself keeps watch and ward over my person with faithful vigil. Sometimes I wander about the little garden for exercise, and either he or one of his assistants follows close behind, faithful in their attendance as a shadow. Occasionally I grow careless and indifferent about possible danger, and leave my revolver hanging up in the bungalow; noticing its absence, he bids me buckle it around me, saying warningly, "Afghanistan; Afghanistan;" he also watches me retire at night to make sure that I put it under my pillow.
One day, a visitor appears upon the scene, carrying a walking-cane. Mohammed Ahzim Khan pounces upon him instantly and I grabbing the stick, examines it closely, evidently suspicious lest it should be a sword-stick. He is the most persistent "gazer" I have yet met in Asia; hour after hour he squats on his hams at my feet and stares intently into my face, as though trying hard to read my inmost thoughts. Oriental-like, he is fascinated by the mystery of my appearance here, and there is no such thing as shaking off his silent, wondering gaze for a minute. He is on hand promptly in the morning to watch my rude matinual toilet, and he always watches me retire for the night. Even when I betake myself to a retired part of the garden in the dusk of evening to take a sluice-bath with a bucket of water, his white-robed figure is always loitering near.
Four men are stationed about my bungalow at night; their respective armaments vary from a Martini-Henry rifle attached to a picturesque Asiatic stock, owned by Abdur Rahman Khan, to an immense knobbed cudgel wielded by a titleless youth named Osman.
Osman's sole wardrobe consists of a coarse night-shirt style of garment, that in the early part of its career was probably white, but which is now neither white nor equal to the task of protecting him from the penetrating rays of the summer sun. His occupation appears to be that of all-round utility man for whomsoever cares to order him about. Osman has to bring water and pour it on my hands whenever I want to wash, hie him away to the bazaar to search for dates or anything my epicurean taste demands in addition to what is provided, feed the horse, change the position of the pee-wit to keep it in the shade, sweep out my bungalow, and perform all sorts of menial offices. Every noble loafer about my person seems anxious to have Osman continually employed in contributing to my comfort; Mohammed Ahzim Khan even deprecates the independence displayed in lacing up my own shoes. "Osman," he says, "let Osman do it."
Osman's chief characteristic is a reckless disregard for the conventionalities of social life and religion; he never seems to bother himself about either washing his person or saying his prayers. Somewhere, not far away, every evening the faithful are summoned to prayer by a muezzin with the most musical and pathetic voice I have heard in all Islam. The voice of this muezzin calling "Allah-il-A-l-l-a-h," as it comes floating over the houses and gardens in the calm silence of the summer evenings, is wonderfully impressive. From the pulpits of all Christendom I have yet to hear an utterance so full of pathos and supplication, or that carries with it the impressions of such deep sincerity as the "Allah-il-A-l-l-a-h" of this Afghan muezzin in the Herat Valley. It is a supplication to the throne of grace that rings in my ears even as I write, months after, and it touches the hearts of every Afghan within hearing and taps the fountain of their piety like magic. It calls forth responsive prayers and pious sighings from everybody around my bungalow--everybody except Osman. Osman can scarcely be called imperturbable, for he has his daily and hourly moods, and is of varying temper; but he carries himself always as though conscious of being an outcast, whom nothing can either elevate or defile. When his fellow Mussulmans are piously prostrating themselves and uttering religious sighs sincere as fanaticism can make them, Osman is either curled up beneath a pomegranate bush asleep, feeding the horse, or attending to the pee-wit.
Observing this, I often wonder whether he is considered, or considers himself, too small a potato in this world to hope for any attention from the Prophet in the next. The paradise of the Mohammedans, its shady groves, marble fountains, walled gardens, and cool retreats, its kara ghuz kiz and wealth of material pleasures, no doubt seem to poor Osman, with his one tattered garment and unhappy servility, far beyond the aspirations of such as he. Like the gutter-snipe of London or New York who gazes into the brilliant shop windows, he feels privileged to feast his imagination, perchance, but that is all.
Big bouquets of roses are gathered for me every morning, and when the store in our own little garden is exhausted they are procured from somewhere else. The efforts of those about me to render my forced detention as pleasant as possible is very gratifying, and all the time I am buoyed up by the hope that the Boundary Commissioners will be able to do something to help me get through to India.
The Boundary Commission camp is stationed over two hundred miles from Herat; eight days roll wearily by and my movements are still carefully confined to the little garden, and my person attended by guards day and night. Every day I amuse myself with giving raisins to the robber ants, for the sake of seeing the ever-watchful bul-buls pounce upon them and rob them. Morning and evening the imprisoned pee-wit awakens the echoes with his ratchetty call, and every sunset is commemorated by the sincerely plaintive utterances of the muezzin mentioned above.
Thus the days of my detention pass away, until the ninth day after my arrival here. On the evening of May 8th, the officer who first interviewed me in the apricot orchard comes to my bungalow, and brings salaams from Faramorz Khan. He and Mohammed Ahzim Khan, after a brief discussion between themselves, commence telling me, in the same roundabout manner as the blue-gowned Khan at Furrah, that the Ameer at Cabool has no control over the fanatical nomads of Zemindavar. Mohammed Ahzim Khan draws his finger across his throat, and the officer repeats "Afghan badmash, badmash, b-a-d-m-a-s-h." (desperado).
This parrot-like repetition is uttered in accents so pleaful, and is, withal, accompanied by such a searching stare into my face, that its comicality for the minute overcomes any sense of disappointment at the fall of my hopes. For my experience at Furrah teaches me that this is really the object of their visit.
Another ingenious argument of these polite and, after a certain childish fashion, astute Asiatics, is a direct appeal to my magnaminity. "We know you are brave, and to accomplish your object would even allow the Ghilzais to cut your throat; but the Wali begs you to sacrifice yourself for the reputation of his country, by keeping out of danger," they plead. "If you get killed, Afghanistan will get a bad name."
They are in dead earnest about converting me by argument and pleadings to their view of the case. I point out that, so far as the reputation of Afghanistan is concerned, there can be little difference between forbidding travellers to go through for fear of their getting murdered, and their actual killing. I remind them, too, that I am a "nokshi," and can let the people of Frangistan understand this if I am turned back.
These arguments, of course, avail me nothing; the upshot of instructions received from the Boundary Commission camp, is that I am to be conducted at once back into Persia.
Horses have to be shod, and all sorts of preparations made next morning, and it is near about noon before we are ready to start. Our destination is the Persian frontier village of Karize, about one hundred miles to the west. Everything is finally ready; when it transpires that Mohammed Ahzim Khan's orders are to put me on a horse and carry the bicycle on another. This programme I utterly refuse to sanction, knowing only too well what the result is likely to be to the bicycle. In defence of the arrangement, Mohammed Ahzim Khan argues that, as the bicycle goes fourteen farsakhs an hour, the horses will not be able to keep up; and strict orders are issued from Herat that I am not to separate myself from my escort while on Afghan territory.
Off posts Abdur Kahman Khan, hot haste to Herat, to report the difficulty to the Governor, while we return to the garden. It being too late in the day when he returns, our departure is postponed till morning, and Osman, with his knobbed stick, performs the office of nocturnal guard yet once again.
During the evening Mohammed Ahzim Khan unearths from somewhere a couple of photographs of English ladies. These, he tells me, came into his possession from one of Ayoob Khan's fugitive warriors after their dispersion in the Herat Valley, on their flight before General Roberts' command at Kandahar. They were among the effects gathered up by Ayoob Khan's plundering crew from the disastrous field of Maiwand.
Text, code and images © Ray Schumacher 2005