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Chapter 15

Palgrave’s Travels—His Escape to the Eastern Coast

“For a foreigner to enter Ri’ad is not always easy, but to get away from it is harder still; Reynard himself would have been justly shy of venturing on this royal cave.  There exists in the capital of Nedjed two approved means of barring the exit against those on whom mistrust may have fallen.  The first and readiest is that of which it has been emphatically said, Stone-dead hath no fellow.  But should circumstances render the bonds of death inexpedient, the bonds of Hymen and a Ri’ad establishment may and occasionally do supply their office.  By this latter proceeding, the more amiable of the two, Abdallah resolved to enchain us.

“Accordingly, one morning arrived at our dwelling an attendant of the palace, with a smiling face, presage of some good in reserve, and many fair speeches.  After inquiries about our health, comfort, well-being, etc., he added that Abdallah thought we might be desirous of purchasing this or that, and begged us to accept of a small present.  It was a fair sum of money, just twice so much as the ordinary token of good-will, namely, four rials in place of two.  After which the messenger took his leave.  Aboo-’Eysa had been present at the interview: ‘Be on the look-out,’ said he, ‘there is something wrong.’

“That very afternoon Abdallah sent for me, and with abundance of encomiums and of promises, declared that he could not think of letting Ri’ad lose so valuable a physician, that I must accordingly take up a permanent abode in the capital, where I might rely on his patronage, and on all good things; that he had already resolved on giving me a house and a garden, specifying them, with a suitable household, and a fair face to keep me company; he concluded by inviting me to go without delay and see whether the new abode fitted me, and take possession.

“Much and long did I fight off; talked about a winter visit to the coast, and coming back in the spring; tried first one pretext and then another; but none would avail, and Abdallah continued to insist.  To quiet him, I consented to go and see the house.  For the intended Calypso, I had ready an argument derived from Mahometan law, which put her out of the question, but its explanation would require more space than these pages can afford.

“The winter season was now setting in; it was the third week in November; and a thunder-storm, the first we had witnessed in Central Arabia, ushered in a marked change for cold in the temperature of Wady Haneefah.  Rain fell abundantly, and sent torrents down the dry watercourses of the valley, changing its large hollows into temporary tanks.  None of the streams showed, however, any disposition to reach the sea, nor indeed could they, for this part of Nedjed is entirely hemmed in to the east by the Toweyk range.  The inhabitants welcomed the copious showers, pledges of fertility for the coming year, while at ’Oneyzah the same rains produced at least one excellent effect, but which I may well defy my readers to guess.  The hostile armies, commanded by Zamil and Mohammed-ebn-Sa’ood, were drawn up in face of each other, and on the point of fierce conflict, when the storm burst on them, and by putting out the lighted matchlocks of either party, prevented the discharge of bullets and the effusion of blood.”

Abdallah, who hated his second brother, Sa’ood, and had many other fierce enmities in the capital, then accidentally learned that Palgrave had employed a deadly poison (strychnine) in making a remarkable cure.  Thenceforth all his powers of persuasion were employed in endeavoring to procure some of the drug; but Palgrave, suspecting his real design, positively refused to let him have any.  His rage was suddenly and strongly expressed on his countenance, foreboding no good to the traveller, who took the first opportunity of returning to his house.

“There Aboo-’Eysa, Barakat, and myself,” he says, “immediately held council to consider what was now to be done.  That an outbreak must shortly take place seemed certain; to await it was dangerous, yet we could not safely leave the town in an over-precipitate manner, nor without some kind of permission.  We resolved together to go on in quiet and caution a few days more, to sound the court, make our adieus at Feysul’s palace, get a good word from Mahboob (no difficult matter), and then slip off without attracting too much notice.  But our destiny was not to run so smoothly.”

Late in the evening of November 21st, Palgrave was summoned to Abdallah’s palace.  The messenger refused to allow Barakat or Aboo-’Eysa to accompany him.  The occasion seemed portentous, but disobedience was out of the question.  Palgrave followed the messenger.  On entering the reception-room, he found Abdallah, Abd-el-Lateef, the successor of the Wahabee, Mahboob, and a few others.  All were silent, and none returned his first salutation.  “I saluted Abdallah,” says Palgrave, “who replied in an undertone, and gave me a signal to sit down at a little distance from him, but on the same side of the divan.  My readers may suppose that I was not at the moment ambitious of too intimate a vicinity.

“After an interval of silence, Abdallah turned half round toward me, and with his blackest look and a deep voice said, ‘I now know perfectly well what you are; you are no doctors, you are Christians, spies, and revolutionists, come hither to ruin our religion and state in behalf of those who sent you.  The penalty for such as you is death, that you know, and I am determined to inflict it without delay.’

“‘Threatened folks live long,’ thought I, and had no difficulty in showing the calm which I really felt.  So looking him coolly in the face, I replied, ‘Istagh-fir Allah,’ literally, ‘Ask pardon of God.’  This is the phrase commonly addressed to one who has said something extremely out of place.

“The answer was unexpected: he started, and said, ‘Why so?’

“‘Because,’ I rejoined, ‘you have just now uttered a sheer absurdity.  “Christians,” be it so; but “spies,” “revolutionists”—as if we were not known by everybody in your town for quiet doctors, neither more nor less!  And then to talk about putting me to death!  You cannot, and you dare not.’

“‘But I can and dare,’ answered Abdallah, ‘and who shall prevent me?  You shall soon learn that to your cost.’

“‘Neither can nor dare,’ repeated I.  ‘We are here your father’s guests, and yours for a month and more, known as such, received as such.  What have we done to justify a breach of the laws of hospitality in Nedjed?  It is impossible for you to do what you say,’ continued I, thinking the while that it was a great deal too possible, after all; ‘the obloquy of the deed would be too much for you.’

“He remained a moment thoughtful, then said, ‘As if anyone need know who did it.  I have the means, and can dispose of you without talk or rumor.  Those who are at my bidding can take a suitable time and place for that, without my name being ever mentioned in the affair.’

“The advantage was now evidently on my side; I followed it up, and said with a quiet laugh, ‘Neither is that within your power.  Am I not known to your father, to all in his palace? to your own brother Sa’ood among the rest?  Is not the fact of this my actual visit to you known without your gates?  Or is there no one here?’ added I, with a glance at Mahboob, ‘who can report elsewhere what you have just now said?  Better for you to leave off this nonsense; do you take me for a child of four days old?’

“He muttered a repetition of his threat.  ‘Bear witness, all here present,’ said I, raising my voice so as to be heard from one end of the room to the other, ‘that if any mishap befalls my companion or myself from Ri’ad to the shores of the Persian Gulf, it is all Abdallah’s doing.  And the consequences shall be on his head, worse consequences than he expects or dreams.’

“The prince made no reply.  All were silent; Mahboob kept his eyes steadily fixed on the fireplace; ’Abd-el-Lateef looked much and said nothing.

“‘Bring coffee,’ called out Abdallah to the servants.  Before a minute had elapsed, a black slave approached with one, and only one, coffee-cup in his hand.  At a second sign from his master he came before me and presented it.

“Of course the worst might be conjectured of so unusual and solitary a draught.  But I thought it highly improbable that matters should have been so accurately prepared; besides, his main cause of anger was precisely the refusal of poisons, a fact which implied that he had none by him ready for use.  So I said ‘Bismillah,’ took the cup, looked very hard at Abdallah, drank it off, and then said to the slave, ‘Pour me out a second.’  This he did; I swallowed it, and said, ‘Now you may take the cup away.’

“The desired effect was fully attained.  Abdallah’s face announced defeat, while the rest of the assembly whispered together.  The prince turned to ’Abd-el-Lateef and began talking about the dangers to which the land was exposed from spies, and the wicked designs of infidels for ruining the kingdom of the Muslims.  The Kadee and his companions chimed in, and the story of a pseudo-Darweesh traveller killed at Derey’eeyah, and of another (but who he was I cannot fancy; perhaps a Persian, who had, said Abdallah, been also recognized for an intriguer, but had escaped to Muscat, and thus baffled the penalty due to his crimes), were now brought forward and commented on.  Mahboob now at last spoke, but it was to ridicule such apprehensions.  ‘The thing is in itself unlikely,’ said he, ‘and were it so, what harm could they do?’ alluding to my companion and myself.

“On this I took up the word, and a general conversation ensued, in which I did my best to explode the idea of spies and spymanship, appealed to our own quiet and inoffensive conduct, got into a virtuous indignation against such a requital of evil for good after all the services which we had rendered court and town, and quoted verses of the Koran regarding the wickedness of ungrounded suspicion, and the obligation of not judging ill without clear evidence.  Abdallah made no direct answer, and the others, whatever they may have thought, could not support a charge abandoned by their master.

“What amused me not a little was that the Wahabee prince had after all very nearly hit the right nail on the head, and that I was snubbing him only for having guessed too well.  But there was no help for it, and I had the pleasure of seeing that, though at heart unchanged in his opinion about us, he was yet sufficiently cowed to render a respite certain, and our escape thereby practicable.

“This kind of talk continued a while, and I purposely kept my seat, to show the unconcern of innocence, till Mahboob made me a sign that I might safely retire.  On this I took leave of Abdallah and quitted the palace unaccompanied.  It was now near midnight, not a light to be seen in the houses, not a sound to be heard in the streets; the sky too was dark and overcast, till, for the first time, a feeling of lonely dread came over me, and I confess that more than once I turned my head to look and see if no one was following with ‘evil,’ as Arabs say, in his hand.  But there was none, and I reached the quiet alley and low door where a gleam through the chinks announced the anxious watch of my companions, who now opened the entrance, overjoyed at seeing me back sound and safe from so critical a parley.

“Our plan for the future was soon formed.  A day or two we were yet to remain in Ri’ad, lest haste should seem to imply fear, and thereby encourage pursuit.  But during that period we would avoid the palace, out-walks in gardens or after nightfall, and keep at home as much as possible.  Meanwhile Aboo-’Eysa was to get his dromedaries ready, and put them in a courtyard immediately adjoining the house, to be laden at a moment’s notice.

“A band of travellers was to leave Ri’ad for Hasa a few days later.  Aboo-’Eysa gave out publicly that he would accompany them to Hofhoof, while we were supposed to intend following the northern or Sedeyr track, by which the Na’ib, after many reciprocal farewells and assurances of lasting friendship, should we ever meet again, had lately departed.  Mobeyreek, a black servant in Aboo-’Eysa’s pay, occupied himself diligently in feeding up the camels for their long march with clover and vetches, both abundant here; and we continued our medical avocations, but quietly, and without much leaving the house.

“During the afternoon of the 24th we brought three of Aboo-’Eysa’s camels into our courtyard, shut the outer door, packed, and laded.  We then awaited the moment of evening prayer; it came, and the voice of the Mu’eddineen summoned all good Wahabees, the men of the town-guard not excepted, to the different mosques.  When about ten minutes had gone by, and all might be supposed at their prayers, we opened our door.  Mobeyreek gave a glance up and down the street to ascertain that no one was in sight, and we led out the camels.  Aboo-’Eysa accompanied us.  Avoiding the larger thoroughfares, we took our way by by-lanes and side-passages toward a small town-gate, the nearest to our house, and opening on the north.  A late comer fell in with us on his way to the Mesjid, and as he passed summoned us also to the public service.  But Aboo-’Eysa unhesitatingly replied, ‘We have this moment come from prayers,’ and our interlocutor, fearing to be himself too late and thus to fall under reprehension and punishment, rushed off to the nearest oratory, leaving the road clear.  Nobody was in watch at the gate.  We crossed its threshold, turned southeast, and under the rapid twilight reached a range of small hillocks, behind which we sheltered ourselves till the stars came out, and the ‘wing of night,’ to quote Arab poets, spread black over town and country.

“So far so good.  But further difficulties remained before us.  It was now more than ever absolutely essential to get clear of Nedjed unobserved, to put the desert between us and the Wahabee court and capital; and no less necessary was it that Aboo-’Eysa, so closely connected as he was with Ri’ad and its government, should seem nohow implicated in our unceremonious departure, nor any way concerned with our onward movements.  In a word, an apparent separation of paths between him and us was necessary before we could again come together and complete the remainder of our explorations.

“In order to manage this, and while ensuring our own safety to throw a little dust in Wahabee eyes, it was agreed that before next morning’s sunrise Aboo-’Eysa should return to the town, and to his dwelling, as though nothing had occurred, and should there await the departure of the great merchant caravan, mentioned previously, and composed mainly of men from Hasa and Kateef, now bound for Hofhoof.  This assemblage was expected to start within three days at latest.  Meanwhile our friend should take care to show himself openly in the palaces of Feysul and Abdallah, and if asked about us should answer vaguely, with the off-hand air of one who had no further care regarding us.  We ourselves should in the interim make the best of our way, with Mobeyreek for guide, to Wady Soley’, and there remain concealed in a given spot, till Aboo-’Eysa should come and pick us up.

“All this was arranged; at break of dawn, Aboo-’Eysa took his leave, and Barakat, Mobeyreek, and myself were once more high-perched on our dromedaries, their heads turned to the southeast, keeping the hillock range between us and Ri’ad, which we saw no more.  Our path led us over low undulating ground, a continuation of Wady Haneefah, till after about four hours’ march we were before the gates of Manfoohah, a considerable town, surrounded by gardens nothing inferior in extent and fertility to those of Ri’ad; but its fortifications, once strong, have long since been dismantled and broken down by the jealousy of the neighboring capital.

“After winding here and there, we reached the spot assigned by Aboo-’Eysa for our hiding-place.  It was a small sandy depth, lying some way off the beaten track, amid hillocks and brushwood, and without water; of this latter article we had taken enough in the goat-skins to last us for three days.  Here we halted, and made up our minds to patience and expectation.

“Two days passed drearily enough.  We could not but long for our guide’s arrival, nor be wholly without fear on more than one score.  Once or twice a stray peasant stumbled on us, and was much surprised at our encampment in so droughty a locality.  So the hours went by, till the third day brought closer expectation and anxiety, still increasing while the sun declined, and at last went down; yet nobody appeared.  But just as darkness closed in, and we were sitting in a dispirited group beside our little fire, for the night air blew chill, Aboo-’Eysa came suddenly up, and all was changed for question and answer, for cheerfulness and laughter.

“Early on November 28th we resumed our march through a light valley-mist, and soon fell in with our companions of the road.

“Next morning the whole country, hill and dale, trees and bushes, was wrapped in a thick blanket of mist, fitter for Surrey than for Arabia.  So dense was the milky fog, that we fairly lost our way, and went on at random, shouting and hallooing, driving our beasts now here, now there, over broken ground and amid tangling shrubs, till the sun gained strength and the vapor cleared off, showing us the path at some distance on our right.  Before we had followed it far, we saw a black mass advancing from the east to meet us.  It was the first division of the Hasa troops on their way to Ri’ad; they were not less than four or five hundred in number.  Like true Arabs, they marched with a noble contempt of order and discipline—walking, galloping, ambling, singing, shouting, alone or in bands, as fancy led.  We interchanged a few words of greeting with these brisk boys, who avowed, without hesitation or shame, that they should much have preferred to stay at home, and that enforced necessity, not any military or religious ardor, was taking them to the field.  We laughed, and wished them Zamil’s head, or him theirs, whereon they laughed also, shouted, and passed on.

“On we went, but through a country of much more varied scenery than what we had traversed the day before, enjoying the ‘pleasure situate in hill and dale,’ till we arrived at the foot of a high white cliff, almost like that of Dover; but these crags, instead of having the sea at their foot, overlooked a wide valley full of trees, and bearing traces of many violent winter torrents from east to west; none were now flowing.  Here we halted, and passed an indifferent night, much annoyed by ‘chill November’s surly blast,’ hardly less ungenial here than on the banks of Ayr, though sweeping over a latitude of 25°, not 56°.

“Before the starlight had faded from the cold morning sky, we were up and in movement, for a long march was before us.  At sunrise we stood on the last, and here the highest, ledge of Toweyk, that long chalky wall which bounds and backs up Nedjed on the east; beyond is the desert, and then the coast.

“After about three hours of level route we began to descend, not rapidly, but by degrees, and at noon we reached a singular depression, a huge natural basin, hollowed out in the limestone rock, with tracks resembling deep trenches leading to it from every side.  At the bottom of this crater-like valley were a dozen or more wells, so abundant in their supply that they not unfrequently overflow the whole space, and form a small lake; the water is clear and good, but no other is to be met with on the entire line hence to Hasa.

“For the rest of the day we continued steadily to descend the broad even slope, whose extreme barrenness and inanimate monotony reminded me of the pebbly uplands near Ma’an on the opposite side of the peninsula, traversed by us exactly seven months before.  The sun set, night came on, and many of the travellers would gladly have halted, but Aboo-’Eysa insisted on continuing the march.  We were now many hundred feet lower than the crest behind us, and the air felt warm and heavy, when we noticed that the ground, hitherto hard beneath our feet, was changing step by step into a light sand, that seemed to encroach on the rocky soil.  It was at first a shallow ripple, then deepened, and before long presented the well-known ridges and undulations characteristic of the land ocean when several fathoms in depth.  Our beasts ploughed laboriously on through the yielding surface; the night was dark, but starry, and we could just discern amid the shade a white glimmer of spectral sand-hills, rising around us on every side, but no track or indication of a route.

“It was the great Dahna, or ‘Red Desert,’ the bugbear of even the wandering Bedouin, and never traversed by ordinary wayfarers without an apprehension which has too often been justified by fatal incidents.  So light are the sands, so capricious the breezes that shape and reshape them daily into unstable hills and valleys, that no traces of preceding travellers remain to those who follow; while intense heat and glaring light reflected on all sides combine with drought and weariness to confuse and bewilder the adventurer, till he loses his compass and wanders up and down at random amid a waste solitude which soon becomes his grave.  Many have thus perished; even whole caravans have been known to disappear in the Dahna without a vestige, till the wild Arab tales of demons carrying off wanderers, or ghouls devouring them, obtain a half credit among many accustomed elsewhere to laugh at such fictions.

“For, after about three hours of night travelling, or rather wading, among the sand-waves, till men and beasts alike were ready to sink for weariness, a sharp altercation arose between Aboo-’Eysa and El-Ghannam, each proposing a different direction of march.  We all halted a moment, and raised our eyes, heavy with drowsiness and fatigue, as if to see which of the contending parties was in the right.  It will be long before I forget the impression of that moment.  Above us was the deep black sky, spangled with huge stars of a brilliancy denied to all but an Arab gaze, while what is elsewhere a ray of the third magnitude becomes here of the first amid the pure vacuum of a mistless, vaporless air; around us loomed high ridges, shutting us in before and behind with their white, ghost-like outlines; below our feet the lifeless sand, and everywhere a silence that seemed to belong to some strange and dreamy world where man might not venture.

“When not far from the midmost of the Dahna, we fell in with a few Bedouins, belonging to the Aal-Morrah clan, sole tenants of this desert.  They were leading their goats to little spots of scattered herbage and shrubs which here and there fix a precarious existence in the hollows of the sands.

“Theirs is the great desert from Nedjed to Hadramaut.  Not that they actually cover this immense space, a good fourth of the peninsula, but that they have the free and undisputed range of the oases which it occasionally offers, where herbs, shrubs, and dwarf-palms cluster round some well of scant and briny water.  These oases are sufficiently numerous to preserve a stray Bedouin or two from perishing, though not enough so to become landmarks for any regular route across the central Dahna, from the main body of which runs out the long and broad arm which we were now traversing.

“Another night’s bivouac, and then again over the white down-sloping plain.

“It was now three days and a half since our last supply of water, and Aboo-’Eysa was anxious to reach the journey’s end without delay.  As darkness closed around we reached the farthermost heights of the coast-range of Hasa.  Hence we overlooked the plains of Hasa, but could distinguish nothing through the deceptive rays of the rising moon; we seemed to gaze into a vast milky ocean.  After an hour’s halt for supper we wandered on, now up, now down, over pass and crag, till a long, corkscrew descent down the precipitous sea-side of the mountain, for a thousand feet or near it, placed us fairly upon the low level of Hasa, and within the warm, damp air of the sea-coast.

“The ground glimmered white to the moon, and gave a firm footing to our dromedaries, who, by their renewed agility, seemed to partake in the joy of their riders, and to understand that rest was near.  We were, in fact, all so eager to find ourselves at home and homestead, that although the town of Hofhoof, our destined goal, was yet full fifteen miles to the northeast, we pressed on for the capital.  And there, in fact, we should have all arrived in a body before day-dawn, had not a singular occurrence retarded by far the greater number of our companions.

“Soon after, the crags in our rear had shut out, perhaps for years, perhaps forever, the desert and Central Arabia from our view, while before and around us lay the indistinct undulations and uncertain breaks of the great Hasa plain, when on a sloping bank at a short distance in front we discerned certain large black patches, in strong contrast with the white glister of the soil around, and at the same time our attention was attracted by a strange whizzing like that of a flight of hornets, close along the ground, while our dromedaries capered and started as though struck with sudden insanity.  The cause of all this was a vast swarm of locusts, here alighted in their northerly wanderings from their birthplace in the Dahna; their camp extended far and wide, and we had already disturbed their outposts.  These insects are wont to settle on the ground after sunset, and there, half stupefied by the night chill, to await the morning rays, which warm them once more into life and movement.  This time our dromedaries did the work of the sun, and it would be hard to say which of the two were the most frightened, they or the locusts.  It was truly laughable to see so huge a beast lose his wits for fear at the flight of a harmless, stingless insect; of all timid creatures none equals the ‘ship of the desert’ for cowardice.

“The swarm now before us was a thorough godsend for our Arabs, on no account to be neglected.  Thirst, weariness, all was forgotten, and down the riders leapt from their starting camels; this one spread out a cloak, that one a saddle-bag, a third his shirt, over the unlucky creatures destined for the morrow’s meal.  Some flew away whirring across our feet, others were caught and tied up in cloths and sacks.  Cornish wreckers at work about a shattered East Indiaman would be beaten by Ghannam and his companions with the locusts.  However, Barakat and myself felt no special interest in the chase, nor had we much desire to turn our dress and accoutrements into receptacles for living game.  Luckily Aboo-’Eysa still retained enough of his North Syrian education to be of our mind also.  Accordingly we left our associates hard at work, turned our startled and still unruly dromedaries in the direction of Hofhoof, and set off full speed over the plain.

“It was not till near morning that we saw before us in indistinct row the long black lines of the immense date-groves that surround Hofhoof.  Then, winding on amid rice-grounds and cornfields, we left on our right an isolated fort (to be described by daylight), passed some scattered villas, with their gardens, approached the ruined town walls, and entered the southern gate, now open and unguarded.  Farther on a few streets brought us before the door of Aboo-’Eysa’s house, our desired resting-place.

“It was still night.  All was silent in the street and house, at the entrance of which we now stood; indeed, none but the master of a domicile could think of knocking at such an hour, nor was Aboo-’Eysa expected at that precise moment.  With much difficulty he contrived to awake the tenants; next the shrill voice of the lady was heard within in accents of joy and welcome; the door at last opened, and Aboo-’Eysa invited us into a dark passage, where a gas-light would have been a remarkable improvement, and by this ushered us into the k’hawah.  Here we lighted a fire, and after a hasty refreshment all lay down to sleep, nor awoke till the following forenoon.”

Bayard Taylor

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