Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter XIII

The Dead Sea

The grey light of the morning showed us for the first time the ground which we had chosen for our resting-place. We found that we had bivouacked upon a little patch of barley plainly belonging to the men of the caves. The dead bushes which we found so happily placed in readiness for our fire had been strewn as a fence for the protection of the little crop. This was the only cultivated spot of ground which we had seen for many a league, and I was rather sorry to find that our night fire and our cattle had spread so much ruin upon this poor solitary slip of corn-land.

The saddling and loading of our beasts was a work which generally took nearly an hour, and before this was half over daylight came. We could now see the men of the caves. They collected in a body, amounting, I should think, to nearly fifty, and rushed down towards our quarters with fierce shouts and yells. But the nearer they got the slower they went; their shouts grew less resolute in tone, and soon ceased altogether. The fellows, however, advanced to a thicket within thirty yards of us, and behind this “took up their position.” My men without premeditation did exactly that which was best; they kept steadily to their work of loading the beasts without fuss or hurry; and whether it was that they instinctively felt the wisdom of keeping quiet, or that they merely obeyed the natural inclination to silence which one feels in the early morning, I cannot tell, but I know that, except when they exchanged a syllable or two relative to the work they were about, not a word was said. I now believe that this quietness of our party created an undefined terror in the minds of the cave-holders and scared them from coming on; it gave them a notion that we were relying on some resources which they knew not of. Several times the fellows tried to lash themselves into a state of excitement which might do instead of pluck. They would raise a great shout and sway forward in a dense body from behind the thicket; but when they saw that their bravery thus gathered to a head did not even suspend the strapping of a portmanteau or the tying of a hatbox, their shout lost its spirit, and the whole mass was irresistibly drawn back like a wave receding from the shore.

These attempts at an onset were repeated several times, but always with the same result. I remained under the apprehension of an attack for more than half-an-hour, and it seemed to me that the work of packing and loading had never been done so slowly. I felt inclined to tell my fellows to make their best speed, but just as I was going to speak I observed that every one was doing his duty already; I therefore held my peace and said not a word, till at last Mysseri led up my horse and asked me if I were ready to mount.

We all marched off without hindrance.

After some time we came across a party of Ibrahim’s cavalry, which had bivouacked at no great distance from us. The knowledge that such a force was in the neighbourhood may have conduced to the forbearance of the cave-holders.

We saw a scraggy-looking fellow nearly black, and wearing nothing but a cloth round the loins; he was tending flocks. Afterwards I came up with another of these goatherds, whose helpmate was with him. They gave us some goat’s milk, a welcome present. I pitied the poor devil of a goatherd for having such a very plain wife. I spend an enormous quantity of pity upon that particular form of human misery.

About midday I began to examine my map and to question my guide, who at last fell on his knees and confessed that he knew nothing of the country in which we were. I was thus thrown upon my own resources, and calculating that on the preceding day we had nearly performed a two days’ journey, I concluded that the Dead Sea must be near. In this I was right, for at about three or four o’clock in the afternoon I caught a first sight of its dismal face.

I went on and came near to those waters of death. They stretched deeply into the southern desert, and before me, and all around, as far away as the eye could follow, blank hills piled high over hills, pale, yellow, and naked, walled up in her tomb for ever the dead and damned Gomorrah. There was no fly that hummed in the forbidden air, but instead a deep stillness; no grass grew from the earth, no weed peered through the void sand; but in mockery of all life there were trees borne down by Jordan in some ancient flood, and these, grotesquely planted upon the forlorn shore, spread out their grim skeleton arms, all scorched and charred to blackness by the heats of the long silent years.

I now struck off towards the debouchure of the river; but I found that the country, though seemingly quite flat, was intersected by deep ravines, which did not show themselves until nearly approached. For some time my progress was much obstructed; but at last I came across a track which led towards the river, and which might, as I hoped, bring me to a ford. I found, in fact, when I came to the river’s side that the track reappeared upon the opposite bank, plainly showing that the stream had been fordable at this place. Now, however, in consequence of the late rains the river was quite impracticable for baggage-horses. A body of waters about equal to the Thames at Eton, but confined to a narrower channel, poured down in a current so swift and heavy, that the idea of passing with laden baggage-horses was utterly forbidden. I could have swum across myself, and I might, perhaps, have succeeded in swimming a horse over; but this would have been useless, because in such case I must have abandoned not only my baggage, but all my attendants, for none of them were able to swim, and without that resource it would have been madness for them to rely upon the swimming of their beasts across such a powerful stream. I still hoped, however, that there might be a chance of passing the river at the point of its actual junction with the Dead Sea, and I therefore went on in that direction.

Night came upon us whilst labouring across gullies and sandy mounds, and we were obliged to come to a stand-still quite suddenly upon the very edge of a precipitous descent. Every step towards the Dead Sea had brought us into a country more and more dreary; and this sand-hill, which we were forced to choose for our resting-place, was dismal enough. A few slender blades of grass, which here and there singly pierced the sand, mocked bitterly the hunger of our jaded beasts, and with our small remaining fragment of goat’s-milk rock by way of supper, we were not much better off than our horses. We wanted, too, the great requisite of a cheery bivouac — fire. Moreover, the spot on which we had been so suddenly brought to a standstill was relatively high and unsheltered, and the night wind blew swiftly and cold.

The next morning I reached the debouchure of the Jordan, where I had hoped to find a bar of sand that might render its passage possible. The river, however, rolled its eddying waters fast down to the “sea” in a strong, deep stream that shut out all hope of crossing.

It now seemed necessary either to construct a raft of some kind, or else to retrace my steps and remount the banks of the Jordan. I had once happened to give some attention to the subject of military bridges — a branch of military science which includes the construction of rafts and contrivances of the like sort — and I should have been very proud indeed if I could have carried my party and my baggage across by dint of any idea gathered from Sir Howard Douglas or Robinson Crusoe. But we were all faint and languid from want of food, and besides, there were no materials. Higher up the river there were bushes and river plants, but nothing like timber; and the cord with which my baggage was tied to the pack-saddles amounted altogether to a very small quantity, not nearly enough to haul any sort of craft across the stream.

And now it was, if I remember rightly, that Dthemetri submitted to me a plan for putting to death the Nazarene, whose misguidance had been the cause of our difficulties. There was something fascinating in this suggestion, for the slaying of the guide was of course easy enough, and would look like an act of what politicians call “vigour.” If it were only to become known to my friends in England that I had calmly killed a fellow-creature for taking me out of my way, I might remain perfectly quiet and tranquil for all the rest of my days, quite free from the danger of being considered “slow”; I might ever after live on upon my reputation, like “single-speech Hamilton” in the last century, or “single sin — ” in this, without being obliged to take the trouble of doing any more harm in the world. This was a great temptation to an indolent person, but the motive was not strengthened by any sincere feeling of anger with the Nazarene. Whilst the question of his life and death was debated he was riding in front of our party, and there was something in the anxious writhing of his supple limbs that seemed to express a sense of his false position, and struck me as highly comic. I had no crotchet at that time against the punishment of death, but I was unused to blood, and the proposed victim looked so thoroughly capable of enjoying life (if he could only get to the other side of the river), that I thought it would be hard for him to die merely in order to give me a character for energy. Acting on the result of these considerations, and reserving to myself a free and unfettered discretion to have the poor villain shot at any future moment, I magnanimously decided that for the present he should live, and not die.

I bathed in the Dead Sea. The ground covered by the water sloped so gradually, that I was not only forced to “sneak in,” but to walk through the water nearly a quarter of a mile before I could get out of my depth. When at last I was able to attempt to dive, the salts held in solution made my eyes smart so sharply, that the pain which I thus suffered, together with the weakness occasioned by want of food, made me giddy and faint for some moments, but I soon grew better. I knew beforehand the impossibility of sinking in this buoyant water, but I was surprised to find that I could not swim at my accustomed pace; my legs and feet were lifted so high and dry out of the lake, that my stroke was baffled, and I found myself kicking against the thin air instead of the dense fluid upon which I was swimming. The water is perfectly bright and clear; its taste detestable. After finishing my attempts at swimming and diving, I took some time in regaining the shore, and before I began to dress I found that the sun had already evaporated the water which clung to me, and that my skin was thickly encrusted with salts.

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