Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XII

My First Bivouac

The course of the Jordan is from the north to the south, and in that direction, with very little of devious winding, it carries the shining waters of Galilee straight down into the solitudes of the Dead Sea. Speaking roughly, the river in that meridian is a boundary between the people living under roofs and the tented tribes that wander on the farther side. And so, as I went down in my way from Tiberias towards Jerusalem, along the western bank of the stream, my thinking all propended to the ancient world of herdsmen and warriors that lay so close over my bridle arm.

If a man, and an Englishman, be not born of his mother with a natural Chiffney-bit in his mouth, there comes to him a time for loathing the wearisome ways of society; a time for not liking tamed people; a time for not dancing quadrilles, not sitting in pews; a time for pretending that Milton and Shelley, and all sorts of mere dead people, were greater in death than the first living Lord of the Treasury; a time, in short, for scoffing and railing, for speaking lightly of the very opera, and all our most cherished institutions. It is from nineteen to two or three and twenty perhaps that this war of the man against men is like to be waged most sullenly. You are yet in this smiling England, but you find yourself wending away to the dark sides of her mountains, climbing the dizzy crags, exulting in the fellowship of mists and clouds, and watching the storms how they gather, or proving the mettle of your mare upon the broad and dreary downs, because that you feel congenially with the yet unparcelled earth. A little while you are free and unlabelled, like the ground that you compass; but civilisation is coming and coming; you and your much-loved waste lands will be surely enclosed, and sooner or later brought down to a state of mere usefulness; the ground will be curiously sliced into acres and roods and perches, and you, for all you sit so smartly in your saddle, you will be caught, you will be taken up from travel as a colt from grass, to be trained and tried, and matched and run. All this in time, but first came Continental tours and the moody longing for Eastern travel. The downs and the moors of England can hold you no longer; with large strides you burst away from these slips and patches of free land; you thread your path through the crowds of Europe, and at last, on the banks of Jordan, you joyfully know that you are upon the very frontier of all accustomed respectabilities. There, on the other side of the river (you can swim it with one arm), there reigns the people that will be like to put you to death for NOT being a vagrant, for NOT being a robber, for NOT being armed and houseless. There is comfort in that — health, comfort, and strength to one who is dying from very weariness of that poor, dear, middle-aged, deserving, accomplished, pedantic, and painstaking governess, Europe.

I had ridden for some hours along the right bank of Jordan when I came to the Djesr el Medjame (an old Roman bridge, I believe), which crossed the river. My Nazarene guide was riding ahead of the party, and now, to my surprise and delight, he turned leftwards, and led on over the bridge. I knew that the true road to Jerusalem must be mainly by the right bank of Jordan, but I supposed that my guide was crossing the bridge at this spot in order to avoid some bend in the river, and that he knew of a ford lower down by which we should regain the western bank. I made no question about the road, for I was but too glad to set my horse’s hoofs upon the land of the wandering tribes. None of my party except the Nazarene knew the country. On we went through rich pastures upon the eastern side of the water. I looked for the expected bend of the river, but far as I could see it kept a straight southerly course; I still left my guide unquestioned.

The Jordan is not a perfectly accurate boundary betwixt roofs and tents, for soon after passing the bridge I came upon a cluster of huts. Some time afterwards the guide, upon being closely questioned by my servants, confessed that the village which we had left behind was the last that we should see, but he declared that he knew a spot at which we should find an encampment of friendly Bedouins, who would receive me with all hospitality. I had long determined not to leave the East without seeing something of the wandering tribes, but I had looked forward to this as a pleasure to be found in the desert between El Arish and Egypt; I had no idea that the Bedouins on the east of Jordan were accessible. My delight was so great at the near prospect of bread and salt in the tent of an Arab warrior, that I wilfully allowed my guide to go on and mislead me. I saw that he was taking me out of the straight route towards Jerusalem, and was drawing me into the midst of the Bedouins; but the idea of his betraying me seemed (I know not why) so utterly absurd, that I could not entertain it for a moment. I fancied it possible that the fellow had taken me out of my route in order to attempt some little mercantile enterprise with the tribe for which he was seeking, and I was glad of the opportunity which I might thus gain of coming in contact with the wanderers.

Not long after passing the village a horseman met us. It appeared that some of the cavalry of Ibrahim Pasha had crossed the river for the sake of the rich pastures on the eastern bank, and that this man was one of the troopers. He stopped and saluted; he was obviously surprised at meeting an unarmed, or half-armed, cavalcade, and at last fairly told us that we were on the wrong side of the river, and that if we proceeded we must lay our account with falling amongst robbers. All this while, and throughout the day, my Nazarene kept well ahead of the party, and was constantly up in his stirrups, straining forward and searching the distance for some objects which still remained unseen.

For the rest of the day we saw no human being; we pushed on eagerly in the hope of coming up with the Bedouins before nightfall. Night came, and we still went on in our way till about ten o’clock. Then the thorough darkness of the night, and the weariness of our beasts (which had already done two good days’ journey in one), forced us to determine upon coming to a standstill. Upon the heights to the eastward we saw lights; these shone from caves on the mountain-side, inhabited, as the Nazarene told us, by rascals of a low sort —— not real Bedouins, men whom we might frighten into harmlessness, but from whom there was no willing hospitality to be expected.

We heard at a little distance the brawling of a rivulet, and on the banks of this it was determined to establish our bivouac. We soon found the stream, and following its course for a few yards, came to a spot which was thought to be fit for our purpose. It was a sharply cold night in February, and when I dismounted I found myself standing upon some wet rank herbage that promised ill for the comfort of our resting-place. I had bad hopes of a fire, for the pitchy darkness of the night was a great obstacle to any successful search for fuel, and besides, the boughs of trees or bushes would be so full of sap in this early spring, that they would not be easily persuaded to burn. However, we were not likely to submit to a dark and cold bivouac without an effort, and my fellows groped forward through the darkness, till after advancing a few paces they were happily stopped by a complete barrier of dead prickly bushes. Before our swords could be drawn to reap this welcome harvest it was found to our surprise that the fuel was already hewn and strewed along the ground in a thick mass. A spot for the fire was found with some difficulty, for the earth was moist and the grass high and rank. At last there was a clicking of flint and steel, and presently there stood out from darkness one of the tawny faces of my muleteers, bent down to near the ground, and suddenly lit up by the glowing of the spark which he courted with careful breath. Before long there was a particle of dry fibre or leaf that kindled to a tiny flame; then another was lit from that, and then another. Then small crisp twigs, little bigger than bodkins, were laid athwart the glowing fire. The swelling cheeks of the muleteer, laid level with the earth, blew tenderly at first and then more boldly upon the young flame, which was daintily nursed and fed, and fed more plentifully when it gained good strength. At last a whole armful of dry bushes was piled up over the fire, and presently, with a loud cheery crackling and crackling, a royal tall blaze shot up from the earth and showed me once more the shapes and faces of my men, and the dim outlines of the horses and mules that stood grazing hard by.

My servants busied themselves in unpacking the baggage as though we had arrived at an hotel — Shereef and his helpers unsaddled their cattle. We had left Tiberias without the slightest idea that we were to make our way to Jerusalem along the desolate side of the Jordan, and my servants (generally provident in those matters) had brought with them only, I think, some unleavened bread and a rocky fragment of goat’s milk cheese. These treasures were produced. Tea and the contrivances for making it were always a standing part of my baggage. My men gathered in circle round the fire. The Nazarene was in a false position from having misled us so strangely, and he would have shrunk back, poor devil, into the cold and outer darkness, but I made him draw near and share the luxuries of the night. My quilt and my pelisse were spread, and the rest of my party had all their capotes or pelisses, or robes of some sort, which furnished their couches. The men gathered in circle, some kneeling, some sitting, some lying reclined around our common hearth. Sometimes on one, sometimes on another, the flickering light would glare more fiercely. Sometimes it was the good Shereef that seemed the foremost, as he sat with venerable beard the image of manly piety — unknowing of all geography, unknowing where he was or whither he might go, but trusting in the goodness of God and the clinching power of fate and the good star of the Englishman. Sometimes, like marble, the classic face of the Greek Mysseri would catch the sudden light, and then again by turns the ever-perturbed Dthemetri, with his old Chinaman’s eye and bristling, terrier-like moustache, shone forth illustrious.

I always liked the men who attended me on these Eastern travels, for they were all of them brave, cheery-hearted fellows; and although their following my career brought upon them a pretty large share of those toils and hardships which are so much more amusing to gentlemen than to servants, yet not one of them ever uttered or hinted a syllable of complaint, or even affected to put on an air of resignation. I always liked them, but never perhaps so much as when they were thus grouped together under the light of the bivouac fire. I felt towards them as my comrades rather than as my servants, and took delight in breaking bread with them, and merrily passing the cup.

The love of tea is a glad source of fellow-feeling between the Englishman and the Asiatic. In Persia it is drunk by all, and although it is a luxury that is rarely within the reach of the Osmanlees, there are few of them who do not know and love the blessed tchai. Our camp-kettle, filled from the brook, hummed doubtfully for a while, then busily bubbled under the sidelong glare of the flames; cups clinked and rattled; the fragrant steam ascended, and soon this little circlet in the wilderness grew warm and genial as my lady’s drawing-room.

And after this there came the tchibouque — great comforter of those that are hungry and wayworn. And it has this virtue — it helps to destroy the gene and awkwardness which one sometimes feels at being in company with one’s dependents; for whilst the amber is at your lips, there is nothing ungracious in your remaining silent, or speaking pithily in short inter-whiff sentences. And for us that night there was pleasant and plentiful matter of talk; for the where we should be on the morrow, and the wherewithal we should be fed, whether by some ford we should regain the western bank of Jordan, or find bread and salt under the tents of a wandering tribe, or whether we should fall into the hands of the Philistines, and so come to see death — the last and greatest of all “the fine sights” that there be — these were questionings not dull nor wearisome to us, for we were all concerned in the answers. And it was not an all-imagined morrow that we probed with our sharp guesses, for the lights of those low Philistines, the men of the caves, still hung over our heads, and we knew by their yells that the fire of our bivouac had shown us.

At length we thought it well to seek for sleep. Our plans were laid for keeping up a good watch through the night. My quilt and my pelisse and my cloak were spread out so that I might lie spokewise, with my feet towards the central fire. I wrapped my limbs daintily round, and gave myself positive orders to sleep like a veteran soldier. But I found that my attempt to sleep upon the earth that God gave me was more new and strange than I had fancied it. I had grown used to the scene which was before me whilst I was sitting or reclining by the side of the fire, but now that I laid myself down at length it was the deep black mystery of the heavens that hung over my eyes — not an earthly thing in the way from my own very forehead right up to the end of all space. I grew proud of my boundless bedchamber. I might have “found sermons” in all this greatness (if I had I should surely have slept), but such was not then my way. If this cherished self of mine had built the universe, I should have dwelt with delight on “the wonders of creation.” As it was, I felt rather the vainglory of my promotion from out of mere rooms and houses into the midst of that grand, dark, infinite palace.

And then, too, my head, far from the fire, was in cold latitudes, and it seemed to me strange that I should be lying so still and passive, whilst the sharp night breeze walked free over my cheek, and the cold damp clung to my hair, as though my face grew in the earth and must bear with the footsteps of the wind and the falling of the dew as meekly as the grass of the field. Besides, I got puzzled and distracted by having to endure heat and cold at the same time, for I was always considering whether my feet were not over-devilled and whether my face was not too well iced. And so when from time to time the watch quietly and gently kept up the languishing fire, he seldom, I think, was unseen to my restless eyes. Yet at last, when they called me and said that the morn would soon be dawning, I rose from a state of half-oblivion not much unlike to sleep, though sharply qualified by a sort of vegetable’s consciousness of having been growing still colder and colder for many and many an hour.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44