Our route lay along the usual green vale so often described, bounded by barren hills, over which a few inhabitants might occasionally be seen stalking along in their dark-coloured garments, which harmonized with the sombre character of the country. We pitched our tents near the little fort of Māther, about five miles from our last encampment, and situate at the foot of the Kara Kotul, or black pass. Our resting place afforded nothing remarkable; and indeed I feel that some apology is due to my readers for the unavoidable sameness of the details of this part of our journey; but I am in hopes that this very defect, though it render the perusal of my journal still heavier, will assist in conveying an accurate idea of the nature of the country; it is not my fault if we met with no adventures, no hairbreadth escapes, or perilous encounters. I must once more crave indulgence.
The Affghān soldiers of our escort did not much relish the discipline I enforced. A complaint was made to me in the course of the day by a peasant, that these warriors had most unceremoniously broken down hedges, and entering his apricot orchard, had commenced appropriating the fruit, responding to his remonstrances with threats and oaths. I thought this a fine opportunity to read my savages a lecture on the advantages of discipline and regular pay. I asked them whether they were not now much better off than when employed by their own countrymen, and whether they expected to be treated as regular soldiers, and still be allowed to plunder the inoffensive inhabitants? One of the men, who was evidently an orator, listened to me with more attention than the rest, but with a look of evident impatience for the conclusion of my harangue, that he too might show how well he could reason. "My lord," said the man, putting himself into an attitude worthy of the Conciliation-Hall, to say nothing of St. Stephen's, "my lord, on the whole your speech is very excellent: your pay is good—the best, no doubt, and very regular; we have not hitherto been accustomed to such treatment; though you brought the evil the remedy has come with it; your arrival in Cābul has so raised the price of provisions that we could not live on Affghān pay; we have, therefore, entered the service of the foreigner; but had we received the same wages we now get from you, we should in our own service have been gentlemen." Here the orator made a pause, but soon imagining from my silence that his speech was unobjectionable, he boldly continued; "but there is one powerful argument in favour of the Ameer's service, he always allowed us on the line of march to plunder from every one; we have been brought up in this principle(!!) since we were children, and we find it very difficult to refrain from what has so long been an established practice amongst us: we are soldiers, sir, and it is not much each man takes; but the British are so strict, that they will protect a villager or even a stranger:" this last sentence was evidently pronounced under a deep sense of unmerited oppression. "But," continued he, "look at that apricot orchard on the right, how ripe and tempting is the fruit; if we were not under your orders, those trees would in a moment be as bare as the palm of my hand." But I remarked, "would not the owners turn out and have a fight; is it not better to go through a strange country peaceably and making friends?" "They fight," answered my hero; "oh! they are Uzbegs and no men, more like women—one Affghan can beat three Uzbegs." I was not quite satisfied how far the vaunted pay and discipline would prevail over the natural lawless propensities of my army, and in order not to try their insubordination too much, I conceived that a compromise would be the wisest plan, and giving them a few rupees, I desired them to make the most they could out of them. Off they went highly delighted with the results of the interview, clapping their orator on the back, crying out shābash, shābash, bravo, bravo, and evidently believing the gift of the rupees as entirely due to the eloquence of their comrade. They are a simple people with all their savage characteristics, but it is very sad to contemplate a whole nation as a race of systematic plunderers.
In the afternoon the chief of Māther called to pay his respects, bringing a present of fruit and sheep's milk; the latter I found so palatable, that I constantly drank it afterwards; it is considered very nutritious, and is a common beverage in Toorkisthān, where the sheep are milked regularly three times a day. Goats are very scarce, cows not to be seen, but the sheep's milk affords nourishment in various forms, of which the most common is a kind of sour cheese, being little better than curdled milk and salt. Tea is also a favourite drink, but is taken without sugar or milk; the former is too expensive for the poorer classes, and all prefer it without the latter. Sometimes a mixture such as would create dismay at an English tea-table is handed round, consisting principally of tea-leaves, salt, and fat, like very weak and very greasy soup, and to an European palate most nauseous. We could never reconcile our ideas to its being a delicacy. Tea is to be procured in all large towns hereabouts, of all qualities and at every price; at Cābul the highest price for tea is L5 sterling for a couple of pounds' weight; but this is of very rare quality, and the leaf so fine and fragrant that a mere pinch suffices a moderate party.
What would our tea-drinking old ladies say for a few pounds of that delicious treasure? This superfine leaf reaches Cabul from China through Thibet, always maintaining its price; but it is almost impossible to procure it unadulterated, as it is generally mixed by the merchants with the lesser priced kind. The most acceptable present which a traveller could offer in Toorkisthān would be fire-arms or tea; the latter is a luxury they indulge in to excess, taking it after every meal; but they seldom are enabled to procure it without the lawless assistance of the former.
On leaving Māther we commenced the ascent of the Kara Kotul or Black Pass, which lasted for seven long miles and was very fatiguing. The large masses of rock on either side the pathway were of a deep brown colour. From the length and steepness of the ascent, this pass must be higher than any we had hitherto surmounted; the descent on the other side is difficult in proportion. The approach to Doaūb is through one of the most romantic glens conceivable. It is here that the Koollum river takes its rise; it flows due north and soon reaches a mountain meadow, where it unites with another stream coming from the east, whence the name of the Doaūb (two waters) is given to this district. In this defile are scattered huge rocks, which have been dislodged from the overhanging precipices by the effects of frost or convulsions of the elements: in vain do these masses obstruct the progress of the waters of this river. The torrent dashing in cataracts over some of the large boulders and eddying round the base of others, pursues an agitated course until it reaches the desert, through which it glides more calmly, and combines with the Oxus beyond Koollum, whence the confluent waters proceed uninterruptedly to the sea of Aral.
The banks of this river differ from those of the mountain streams in general; they were decked with the most beautiful wild flowers, which bloomed luxuriantly on the bushes, and growing from the deep clefts in the rock, scented the air with their perfume.
The glen is here so filled with large blocks of granite, that to accomplish our passage through it, it was necessary to transfer by manual labour the loads of the baggage animals across the obstructing masses: the difficulties we encountered, and more particularly the romantic scene itself, are still imprinted on my memory.
The wind whistling round the jutting points, the dashing of the waters, and the cries of one of the most timid of our followers, who to save himself from wet feet had mounted an overladen pony, and was now in imminent danger both of Scylla and Charybdis, added to the interest of the picture; but, occasionally, the reverberation caused by the fragments of rock, which, detaching themselves from the upper regions, came tumbling down, not far from where we stood, warned us not to dwell upon the spot. We took the hint, and hastily extricating man and beast, though not until they had experienced a severe ducking, we proceeded onwards to where the waters enclose within their fertilizing arms the grassy fields of the mountain Doaūb. Here it was that we caught the first glimpse of the extensive plains where the Toorkmān mares are turned out to graze; those in foal are left for several months; and after foaling, the animals are put into smaller pastures provided with enclosures, where they are shut up at night. The extent of the larger savannahs is very great, some of them exceeding twenty miles, and the horses that are allowed to range in them become so shy, that their owners only can approach them, and the animals are considered safe from depredators.
As we gradually emerged from the hard bosom of the mountains, we were struck with the simple beauty of this little garden of nature. The vale is triangular, its greatest breadth being about five miles; its whole extent is covered with a rich turf, intermingled by just sufficient cultivated land as to supply the inhabitants with grain. Every wild flower that enlivens our English meads grew here luxuriantly, while the two streams crept along on either side like silver threads bordering a jewelled carpet. This gay and brilliant sight was enhanced by the lofty range of dark frowning hills which encompassed it. It was worthy of being sung as the "Loveliest vale in Toorkisthān."
I have already mentioned that we had received a letter to Shah Pursund Khān, the chief of the Doaūb, who accordingly came out to welcome us to his territory; he embraced us in the Uzbeg fashion, telling us in eastern phraseology "to consider his dominion as our own, and that we might command all he possessed." After many compliments of this nature, he inquired with some bluntness whither we were bound and what our object was? We answered him, that we were proceeding to Koollum, and were anxious to get as much information as he would be good enough to afford us concerning so beautiful a portion of the globe, and we wished to survey its particular features. "Mind," rejoined he, "that the chief of Heibuk and the Meer Walli of Koollum are my enemies, and may be yours." "If," answered Sturt, "we shall meet with the same reception from them as we have hitherto enjoyed from all other chiefs whose possessions we have had occasion to trespass upon during our journeyings, we cannot complain of want of either kindness or hospitality; for as travellers we come, and once eating the 'salt of an Uzbeg,' we know that none would dishonour himself by acting the traitor." "True," retorted the khān, "but he who is your friend while in his dominions will rob you as soon as you set your foot across his frontier." We were not much pleased at this prospect, as we knew he spoke truth when declaring himself at enmity with the surrounding chiefs, but "sufficient for the day is the evil thereof," so we made up our minds to take what advantage we could of his friendly disposition towards us, and trust to our good fortune and the "chapter of accidents" for our future safety. Shah Pursund Khān did not confine his kindness to words, for he sent us an ample supply of flour and clarified butter for our followers, grass and corn for our cattle, and a sheep for ourselves; these sheep are of the Doomba species, with large tails weighing several pounds, which are considered the most delicate part of the animal. He also sent us from his harem an enormous dish of foulādeh, made of wheat boiled to a jelly and strained, and when eaten with sugar and milk palatable and nutritious.
The following morning, as we were preparing to start, I happened to enter into conversation with an aged moollah, the solitary cicerone of the Doaūb, who gave us a brief but very extraordinary account of a cavern about seven miles off; our curiosity was so much excited by the marvellous details we heard, that we determined to delay our departure for the purpose of ascertaining how much of his story was due to the wild imagination of our informant. We accordingly gave orders to unsaddle, and communicated our intentions to the khan. At first he strongly urged us not to put our plan into execution, declaring that the cave was the domicile of the evil one, and that no stranger who had presumed to intrude upon the privacy of the awful inhabitant had ever returned to tell of what he had seen. It will easily be imagined that these warnings only made us more determined upon visiting the spot. At length, finding our resolution immovable, the khān, much to our astonishment, declared that it was not from personal fear, but from anxiety for our safety that he had endeavoured to deter us, but that, as we were obstinate, he would at least afford us the advantage of his protection, and accompany us, I confess we were not sanguine in our expectations that he would keep his word, and were not a little surprised to see him shortly after issue forth from his fort fully armed, and accompanied by his principal followers. We immediately made all necessary preparations, and started on our visit to his satanic majesty.
A bridle-path conducted us for some miles along the edge of a gentle stream, whose banks were clothed with long luxuriant grass extending on either side for a few hundred yards; we proceeded rapidly at first, keeping our horses at a hand gallop, as the path was smooth, and also to escape from the myriads of forest-flies or blood-suckers which were perpetually hovering around us, and irritating our cattle almost to madness whenever we were obliged to slacken our pace; our tormentors, however, did not pursue us beyond the limits of the pasture land, so that we were glad to exchange the beauties of the prairie for the stony barren ground which succeeded it. We soon reached the base of a hill from whence the wished-for cavern was visible, situated about half-way up its face. We were now obliged to dismount, and leaving our horses under the charge of an Uzbeg, who could hardly conceal his delight at being selected for the least dangerous duty, we commenced the ascent.
During our ride I had endeavoured to gather a few more particulars concerning the dreaded cavern, and as might have been expected, the anticipated horrors dwindled away considerably as we approached it; still enough of the marvellous remained to keep my curiosity on the stretch. Shah Pursund Khān confessed that he was not positive that the devil actually lived there, but still, he said, it was very probable; he had first heard of the existence of the cave when he obtained possession of the Doāub twelve years ago, from the very moollah who was our informant. Urged by a curiosity similar to our own, he had ventured some little distance inside, but suddenly he came upon the print of a naked foot, and beside it another extraordinary impression, which he suspected to be from the foot of sheittan (the devil) himself; quite satisfied that he had gone far enough, he retreated precipitately, and from that day to this had never intruded again. He argued that any human being living in the cave would require sustenance, and of course would purchase it at his fort, which was the only one where the necessaries of life could be procured for many miles around; but he knew every one who came to him, and no stranger had ever come on such an errand; he therefore concluded with an appealing look to the moollah who was with us. The moollah, however, had a tale of his own to tell, and seemed to have no great respect for the superstitious fears of his patron. "The name of the cavern is Yeermālik, and the fact of the matter is this," said he, settling himself in his saddle for a long story. "In the time of the invasion, six hundred years ago, of Genghis Khān the Tartar, seven hundred men of the Huzareh tribe, with their wives and families and a stock of provisions, took possession of this cavern, hoping to escape the fury of the ruthless invader, and never stirred beyond its mouth. But the cruel Genghis, after wasting the country with fire and sword, set on foot a strict search for such of the unfortunate inhabitants as had fled from his tyranny. His bloodhounds soon scented the wretched Huzarehs, and a strong party was sent to drive them from their place of refuge. But despair lent to the besieged a courage which was not the characteristic of their tribe, and knowing that, if taken alive, a lingering torture and cruel death would be their fate, they resolved to make good their defence at every hazard. The mouth of the cave was small, and no sooner did the invaders rush in than they were cut down by those inside; in vain were more men thrust in to take the place of those slain; the advantages of position were too great, and they were obliged at length to desist. But Genghis was not to be balked of his victims, and his devilish cunning suggested the expedient of lighting straw at the mouth of the cave to suffocate those inside, but the size of the place prevented his plan from taking effect; so he at last commanded a large fragment of rock to be rolled to the mouth of the cavern, adding another as a support, and having thus effectually barred their exit, he cruelly abandoned them to their fate. Of course the whole party suffered a miserable death, and it is perhaps the spirits of the murdered men that, wandering about and haunting it, have given a suspicious character to the place; but," concluded he, rather dogmatically, "the devil does not live there now—it is too cold!!"[*]
[* Note: Those who have been familiarized to the atrocities perpetrated by the French in Algeria will not feel the horror that the moollah's tale would otherwise have excited; the similarity of these outrages to humanity is so striking, that I quote a passage extracted from the French paper, "The National," which will speak for itself.
"The National gives a frightful picture of Marshal Bugeaud's doings in Africa. According to the accounts published by this paper, fifty prisoners were one day shot in cold blood—thirteen villages burned—the Dahra massacre acted over again, for it appears that a portion of a tribe having hid themselves in a cave, the same means were resorted to exactly as those employed by Colonel Pelissier, and all smoked and baked to death. The Marshal himself is the author of all these horrors—his last triumph was a monster razzia—he has ordered the most strict secresy as to his barbarous proceedings; and the writer of the accounts calls him a second Attila, for he puts all to the sword and fire, sparing only women and children."]
After scrambling over loose stones, climbing up precipices, and crawling round the projecting rocks, which consumed an hour, we found ourselves on a small ledge in front of the outer aperture, which was nearly circular and about fifty feet high. We were now in a cavern apparently of no great extent, and as I could not discover any other passage, I began to fancy that it was for this paltry hole we had undergone so much fatigue, and had had our expectations raised so high. I was about to give utterance to my disappointment, when I perceived the Uzbegs preparing their torches and arranging the line of march, in which it seemed that no one was anxious to take precedence. I now began to look about me, in the hope that there was something more to be seen, and was delighted to observe one adventurous hero with a torch disappear behind some masses of rock. We all followed our leader, and it was with great difficulty that, one by one, we managed to squeeze ourselves through a narrow gap between two jagged rocks, which I presume I am to consider as the identical ones that were rolled to the mouth six hundred years ago at the stern command of the Tartar Attila.
I confess that hitherto I had treated the moollah's account as an idle tale; my unbelief, however, was quickly removed, for just as we entered the narrow passage the light of the torches was for an instant thrown upon a group of human skeletons. I saw them but for an instant, and the sight was quite sufficient to raise my drooping curiosity to its former pitch.
We proceeded down the sloping shaft, occasionally bruising ourselves against its jagged sides, until our leader suddenly came to a dead halt. I was next to him, and coming up as close as I could, I found that one step further would have precipitated the adventurous guide into an abyss, the bottom and sides of which were undistinguishable; after gazing for a moment into this apparently insurmountable obstacle to our further progress, I could just perceive a narrow ledge about sixteen feet below me, that the eye could trace for a few yards only, beyond which it was lost in the deep gloom surrounding us. Our conductor had already made up his mind what to do: he proceeded to unwind his long narrow turban composed of cotton cloth, and called to his comrades to do the same; by joining these together they formed a kind of rope by means of which we gradually lowered each other, till at last a party ten in number were safely landed on the ledge. We left a couple of men to haul us up on our return, and proceeded on our way, groping along the brink of the yawning chasm. Every now and then loose stones set in motion by our feet would slip into this bottomless pit, and we could hear them bounding down from ledge to ledge, smashing themselves into a thousand fragments, till the echoes so often repeated were like the independent file-firing of a battalion of infantry. Sometimes the narrow path would be covered for a distance of many feet with a smooth coat of ice, and then it was indeed dangerous. After moving on in this way for some minutes, the road gradually widened till we found ourselves on the damp and dripping flooring of a chamber of unknown dimensions; the torch light was not strong enough to enable us to conceive the size of this subterraneous hall, but all around us lay scattered melancholy proofs that there was some sad foundation for the moollah's story. Hundreds of human skeletons were strewed around; as far as the eye could penetrate these mournful relics presented themselves; they were very perfect, and had evidently not been disturbed since death; some had more the appearance of the shrivelled-up remains which we find in the Morgue on the road to the Grand St. Bernard, and lay about us in all the varied positions induced by their miserable fate. Here, it seemed that a group had, while sufficient strength yet remained, huddled themselves together, as if to keep up the vital warmth of which death so slowly and yet so surely was depriving them; a little farther on was a figure in a sitting posture, with two infants still clasped in its bony arms; and then again the eye would fall upon some solitary figure with outstretched limbs, as if courting that death which on the instant responded to the call. Involuntarily my thoughts recurred to Dante's beautiful description of the Comte Ugolino's children and their piteous end in the Torre della Fame—but here, a sickening sense of the dreadful reality of the horrors, which it was evident from these mute memorials of man's cruelty to his fellow had been endured, quite oppressed me, and I wished I had never visited the spot. I felt myself so much harrowed by this sad scene, that I endeavoured to distract my attention; but what was my astonishment when my eye fell upon the print of a human naked foot, and beside it the distinct mark of the pointed heel of the Affghān boot!—I hope my reader will give me credit for truth—I can assure him that it was some time before I could believe my own eyes, though I considered that the result of our explorations would explain in part the sight, which appeared to me so extraordinary, and which tallied so strangely with the footprints which had frightened Shah Pursund Khan twelve years ago. I was still absorbed in reflections of no very gay colour, when one of the attendants warned me that if I staid all day amongst the "dead people," there would not be sufficient oil to feed the torches, and we should be unable to visit the Ice Caves. I was immediately roused, and proceeded onwards with the party through several low arches and smaller caves,—suddenly a strange glare spread itself about me, and after a few more steps a magnificent spectacle presented itself.
In the centre of a large cave stood an enormous mass of clear ice, smooth and polished as a mirror, and in the form of a gigantic beehive, with its dome-shaped top just touching the long icicles which depended from the jagged surface of the rock. A small aperture led to the interior of this wonderful congelation, the walls of which were nearly two feet thick—the floor, sides, and roof were smooth and slippery, and our figures were reflected from floor to ceiling and from side to side in endless repetition. The inside of this chilly abode was divided into several compartments of every fantastic shape; in some the glittering icicles hung like curtains from the roof; in others the vault was smooth as glass. Beautifully brilliant were the prismatic colours reflected from the varied surface of the ice, when the torches flashed suddenly upon them as we passed from cave to cave. Around, above, beneath, every thing was of solid ice, and being unable to stand on account of its slippery nature, we slid or rather glided mysteriously along the glassy surface of this hall of spells. In one of the largest compartments the icicles had reached the floor, and gave the idea of pillars supporting the roof. Altogether the sight was to me as novel as it was magnificent, and I only regret that my powers of description are inadequate to do justice to what I saw.
After wandering for some time amongst these extraordinary chambers, we proceeded further to examine the nature of the caverns in which they were formed: these seemed to branch out into innumerable galleries, which again intersected each other. Sometimes they expanded into halls, the dimensions of which our feeble light prevented us from calculating, and anon they contracted into narrow passages, so low that we were obliged to creep along them on our hands and knees. Our party had just emerged from one of these defiles and were standing together on a kind of sloping platform, at which point the declivity seemed to become more precipitous as it receded from our sight, when our attention was suddenly arrested by the reappearance of the mysterious naked footprints which I had before observed in the chamber of skeletons. I examined them minutely, and am certain from the spread of the toes that they belonged to some one who was in the habit of going barefoot. I took a torch, and determined to trace them as far as I could. Had I met with these prints in the open air, I should have decided upon their being quite fresh, but the even temperature and stillness of atmosphere which reigned in these strange regions might account for the tracks retaining that sharpness of outline which denotes a recent impression. The direction I took led me immediately down the slope I have just mentioned, and its increasing steepness caused me some misgivings as to how I should get back, when suddenly a large stone on which I had rested my foot gave way beneath my weight, and down I came, extinguishing my torch in my fall. Luckily I managed to stop myself from rolling down the fearful chasm which yawned beneath, but the heavy rounded fragment of rock rolled onwards, first with a harsh grating sound, as if it reluctantly quitted its resting place, then, gradually acquiring impetus, down it thundered, striking against other rocks and dragging them on with it, till the loud echoes repeated a thousand times from the distant caves mingling with the original sound raised a tumult of noise quite sufficient to scare a braver crew than our party consisted of. The effect of my mishap was instantaneous. Our followers raised an universal shout of Sheitān, Sheitān, (the devil, the devil,) and rushed helter skelter back from the direction of the sound. In the confusion all the torches carried by the natives were extinguished, and had not my friend Sturt displayed the most perfect coolness and self-possession, we should have been in an alarming predicament; for he (uninfluenced by any such supernatural fears as had been excited amongst the runaways by the infernal turmoil produced by my unlucky foot, and though himself ignorant of the cause of it from having been intent upon the footmarks when I slipped), remained perfectly unmoved with his torch, the only one still burning, raised high above his head, waiting patiently till the panic should subside. Order was at length restored in some degree, but the thirst of enterprise was cooled, and the natives loudly declared they would follow the devil no farther, and that we must return forthwith. Shah Pursund Khān, who was just as great a coward as the rest, declared it was no use following the track any more, for it was well known the cavern extended to Cabul!!! Finding it useless endeavouring to revive the broken spirits of these cravens, we reluctantly commenced a retrograde movement, and I was obliged to remain in lasting ignorance of the nature of the mysterious origin of the footprint.
We had considerable difficulty in finding our way back to the ice rooms; the fears of our followers had now completely got the better of them; they lost their presence of mind, and, consequently, their way; and it was not till after we had wandered about for more than an hour that we hit upon the ledge which eventually led us to the drop which we had originally descended by means of the ladder of turbans. At the head of this drop we had left a couple of men to haul us up; as soon as they perceived the light of our expiring torches, they called out loudly to us to make haste and get out of the place, for they had seen the Sheitān, about an hour ago, run along the ledge beneath them, and disappear in the gloom beyond. This information raised the terror of the poor natives to a climax; all made a rush for the rope of turbans, and four or five having clutched hold of it, were in the act of dragging down turban, men, and torches upon our devoted heads, when Sturt interfered, and by his firm remonstrances, aided by the timely fall of a few well-aimed stones upon the heads of the crew, made them relax their grasp and ascend one by one.
The chief, being the lightest, claimed the privilege of being drawn up first, which was readily agreed to; and so in succession each when he had mounted assisted in drawing up his companions, till at last we were all safely landed at the top, out of the reach of any ordinary sized devil. We soon emerged into the open air, covered with dust from head to foot like Indian Faqueers, after having been for nearly four hours wandering in the bowels of the earth. Our followers soon regained their courage now that the danger was past, and each in turn began to boast of his own valour and sneer at the pusillanimity of his comrade; but all agreed that nothing on earth or in heaven should ever tempt them again to visit the ice-caves of Yeermallick.
On the 13th of July we bade adieu to our friend Shah Pursund Khān, who accompanied us a short distance on our way, after in vain endeavouring to induce us to remain with him for some time longer, this we could not accede to, but promised, if our time permitted, to pay him a lengthened visit on our return. We had a long march this day, the distance being nearly eighteen miles; but our beasts of burden were much the better for their day's halt, and, the greater part of the road being a descent, we reached Rhoeh, where we pitched our tents, in very good time. The first few miles were along the delightful valley of the Doaub, which we reluctantly quitted, and after crossing a low ridge descended through broken country till we reached the foot of the hills, where I observed for the first time a genuine Tartar krail, composed of a number of small black blanket tents fastened to a kind of wattle. In the plain of Rhoeh is a small mud fort in a dilapidated state, and uninhabited; the village itself was not of any importance, the habits of the people being evidently migratory.
The Jerboa is a native of this country as well as the steppes of Tartary, where it is most commonly found in the shrubless plains; in form it is a miniature of the kangaroo, to which in some of its peculiarities it bears a close resemblance, though in size it is very little larger than our common English rat. The name of the "Vaulting Rat," by which it is known among naturalists, is very applicable. These little animals burrow deeply in the ground, and the method of dislodging them adopted by us was the pouring a quantity of water into their holes, which causes them to rush out at another aperture, when they commence leaping about in a surprising manner until they observe another burrow and instantly disappear. If chased, they spring from the hind quarters, darting about here and there, and affording great amusement to the pursuers. It is difficult to hold them, as they are rarely grasped without losing a portion of their long and beautiful tails. The forelegs are much shorter than the hind ones, the ears are very large and silky, and the eye surpassingly black and brilliant. It is a harmless animal, and no doubt when tamed would be perfectly domesticated.
Nothing of interest occurred either this day or the next, which brought us, after another dreary march of seventeen miles, to the fort and village of Koorrum. For nearly the whole distance between Rhoeh and Koorrum not a drop of water is procurable; as we had not provided against this contingency, we suffered in proportion. Altogether this part of the road offers considerable obstacles to the progress of an army, from its numerous ravines and steep though short ascents and descents, which would be very difficult for artillery; I should, from a cursory glance at the country, imagine that these steep pitches might be avoided by a more circuitous route, though the one we pursued was the beaten track for the caravans, and they generally find out the most convenient passage. The approach to Koorrum was pretty, but the scenery was of a character with which we were now so familiar that its peculiar beauties did not perhaps impress us as much as when they afforded the additional charm of novelty. A succession of walnut, apricot, mulberry, and apple trees shaded our path, which lay through extensive orchards, carpeted with beautiful turf. The vines clung to the sycamore trees; and where the spade had been at work, corn and artificial grasses grew in abundance. Our next halting place was Sarbagh, where we arrived on the 15th, after marching through a pleasant and fruitful valley, flanked by parallel belts of mountain land, the agreeable verdure relieving the eye from the barrenness of this, I may call it, parietal range. The ornamental trees which fringe the banks of the Koollum river, as it gracefully pursues its course to the Oxus, had altogether a very picturesque appearance.
The son of Baber Beg, the chief of Heibuk, was at this time residing at Sarbagh, and shewed us every possible attention, sending us sheep, fowls, corn, flour, fruit, and every article required for about seventy people. It was very gratifying to us to find that we were treated by the Uzbeg chiefs in so friendly a manner, as we had some misgivings lest our being unprovided with any letters from influential men in Cābul, might create unfavourable surmises amongst a half-savage and naturally suspicious race. Doubtless we gained a large portion of attention and civility from the idea which pervaded all our hosts that we were great hakeems, physicians, and if we chose, could relieve the human body from every illness whether real or imaginary—and I was glad to remark that the latter class of ailment was by far the most common. Still, some diseases were very prevalent, particularly those which may be considered as induced by a total absence of cleanliness. Sore eyes were very common here, as in Affghanistān, and our powers and medicine chest were sometimes rather too severely taxed by importunate applicants, who never would apply the remedy in the manner described, unless it was administered upon principles which they understood, and which was in accordance with their own reasoning. In Cābul, the medical officers were the only class of Europeans allowed an entrance to the harems of the rich, when they were expected after feeling the pulse of some Cashmerian beauty to pronounce her malady, and effect her cure forthwith. The lords of the creation too, debilitated from early dissipation or a life of debauchery, sued for remedies and charms, which, alas! are only to be found in the hundredth edition of a work known by its mysterious advertisement in the columns of a London newspaper.
On the 16th, after a long march of twenty-two miles, we approached Heibuk through the same kind of scenery as the preceding day; on rounding a projecting ledge of rock we saw that fortress in the distance, on an insulated eminence adjacent to a low range of hills. Meer Baber Beg has placed his fortress in a very respectable state of defence, quite adequate to repel the desultory inroads of his predatory neighbours; but commanded by and exposed to enfilade from the hills about it, on one of these hills he has built a tower as a kind of outwork, but it is very weak and of insignificant size.
The only thing worth seeing near Heibuk is the Tukt-i-Rustum or Throne of Hercules, which we accordingly visited, and found it to be a fortification of no very great extent on a most uncommon principle, and of unknown date. The best idea I can convey to the reader of its shape, is by begging him to cut an orange in half, and place its flat surface in a saucer; he will then have a tolerable model of the Tukt-i-Rustum. We entered by a narrow gallery piercing through the solid mass of rock which forms the outer wall or saucer, and leading by an irregular flight of steps to the summit of the orange. I instituted many enquiries concerning the origin of this place, but I could obtain no information; not even a legend beyond that it was holy. We were accompanied by one of the chief's sons, a fat jolly youth of about four-and-twenty, with a countenance that was a type of his good humour—he sat with us for some time whilst we were at our toilette, but affected to be somewhat shocked at the very scanty clothing which we considered sufficient while our Bheesties poured the contents of their mussocks[*] over us. It was rather amusing to hear the remarks of the bystanders, who seemed to view cleanliness as a consideration very secondary to etiquette. It would have been fortunate for us if I could have persuaded our criticising friends to try on their own persons the advantage of a dash of fresh water, for they were without exception the most filthy race it has ever been my misfortune to meet; their garments teem with life, and sometimes, after merely sitting on the same rug placed to receive visitors, I have been under the necessity of making a fresh toilette.
[* Note: Skins of water.]
Meer Baber Beg was a great man in these parts, and kindly sent us three sheep, with fowls, flour, fruits, and grain in abundance, intimating, at the same time, his intention to pay us a visit in the evening. He came accordingly, and favoured us with his presence for a considerable time. He seemed an intelligent man, but in a very infirm state of health, and quite crippled from rheumatism. One would hardly have supposed, while admiring his pleasing features, which expressed so much benignity, that when on the throne of Koollum he had been such a bloody tyrant; yet such was the case;—though the hereditary ruler of Koollum and its dependencies, he had by his brutality made himself so obnoxious, that he was deposed by his own subjects headed by his younger brother, and dare not now shew his face on his paternal estate.
This corpulent son whom I have before mentioned brought a double-barrelled percussion gun for my inspection, and requested that I would test its qualities on some pigeons that were flying about; I was fortunate enough to bring down a couple on the wing, but was somewhat mortified to find that the burst of admiration which followed my feat was entirely confined to the weapon, which, together with the donor, Dr. Lord, was praised to the skies, whilst no kind of credit was given to my skill in using it.
We halted at Heibuk on the 17th, as the Meer requested we would stay a day with him before putting ourselves in the power of the dreaded Meer Walli of Koollum. At first he endeavoured to persuade us to abandon our project of proceeding further, but, finding us determined, he contented himself with relating every possible story he could remember or invent concerning the many acts of cruel treachery which the Meer Walli had perpetrated, and concluded by an eulogium on his own manifold virtues.
During the course of the day a Hindoo from Peshawur peeped cautiously into my tent, and, on my inquiring his business, he approached, and with many salaams, laid a bag of money at my feet; rather astonished at so unusual an offering, I requested to know the cause of this act of generosity, and I was informed that it was a "first offering," or, in other words, a bribe to propitiate me, in the hope that I would use my influence to get the Hindoo out of the clutches of Meer Baber Beg. The story he told me was, that some years back he came to Heibuk to trade, and having made a little money was packing up his property preparatory to his departure, when he was suddenly ordered into the Meer's presence. "Friend," said this benign ruler, "stay here a little longer; it is not right that, having made a sum of money in my country, you should spend it in your own." Since then, he added, he had been ill-treated and robbed several times to satisfy the rapacity of this wicked monster; and then, as if frightened at his own expressions, he peered cautiously round the tent, apparently fancying the Meer himself would start from behind the screen to punish him for his audacity. I returned him his 250 rupees, but told him if his story were true I would use what little influence I possessed to procure his release. When Baber Beg came to pay us his evening visit I broached the subject, and requested as a favour that the Hindoo might be permitted to accompany our party as a guide and interpreter. "If you will take my advice," said he, "you will have nothing to say to the scoundrel, who will come to a bad end: he has been deceiving you; but if, after my warning, you still wish to have him as a guide, take him by all means."
Accordingly I took him, but in justice to the Meer's discrimination of character it must be owned that my protege, as soon as he considered himself safe from the Meer's indignation, proved himself to the full as great a scoundrel as he had been represented. The following morning, before taking our departure, Sturt presented to the Meer's youngest son a handsome pair of percussion pistols, for which the father seemed so very grateful that I could not help suspecting he intended to appropriate them to his own use as soon as we were well away.
On leaving the fortress of Heibuk we passed through a very extensive cultivated district, the principal produce being the grain which in Hindoostan is called jowār. The remaining portion of our journey to Hazree Sooltān, which was a distance of eighteen miles, was nothing but a barren waste with occasional patches of low jungle. We were now evidently on the farthest spur of the Hindoo Khoosh; the hills were low and detached, gradually uniting into the endless plain which bounded the horizon to the north and west. On the road we met a messenger who was on his way to Sir Alexander Burnes at Kābul, having come from Bokhara, bearing a letter from the Vakeel, or native ambassador, whom Sir Alexander had sent some time back to endeavour, by persuasion or stratagem, to effect the release of our unfortunate countryman, Col. Stoddart. The courier, who had received the account from the Vakeel, whether true or false he could not inform us, stated "that Col. Stoddart accompanied the Persian army to Herāt, and finding they could not make the desired impression on the walls, raised the siege, and the Colonel left the army and proceeded across to Bokhara, whether to endeavour to effect the release of the Russian slaves, (there being many in the dominions of the Bokhara King,) or merely for amusement, he could not say; but that the latter was the generally received opinion. On approaching the city of the tyrant king he met a man riding furiously away with a woman, and as she passed, called out to the Colonel Amaun, Amaun! mercy, mercy! whereupon he immediately galloped up to the ravisher, and securing the deliverance of the woman, told her to keep under his protection until he entered the city. On the first day after his arrival the King passed as the Colonel was riding on horseback, and although the latter gave the salute usual in his own country, it did not satisfy the ruler; moreover, he, the Feringhi, was on horseback without permission, and therefore the Khan ordered him the following day into his presence. Messengers the next morning were sent, who abruptly entered the Colonel's house, and finding he would not willingly submit, dragged him before their chief. He was asked, why he had infringed the customs of the country by riding on horseback in the city, and why he did not pay the recognised submission to the ruler of a free country? The reply was, that the same compliment had been paid to the King of Bokhara as was customary in Europe to a crowned head. And why have you presumed to ride on horseback within the city walls, where no Feringhi is allowed? Because I was ignorant of the custom. It's a lie; my messengers ordered you to dismount and you would not. 'Tis true, they did order me and I did not, but I thought they were doing more than their duty. After this the King ordered him into confinement, where he now is."
The courier, after giving us this information, remarked that he was penniless, and that as his business concerned the safety of a countryman, he hoped we would assist him. Though we were not quite satisfied with the man's story, we stood the chance of its being true, and furnished him with funds for the prosecution of his journey, for which, on our return to Cabul, we were kindly thanked by Sir Alexander, who informed us that the note from the Vakeel conveyed the intelligence of the failure of his endeavours, and that he had himself been put in confinement.
At the time of which I am writing both Dost Mahommed Khān and his notorious son Akbar were prisoners at Bokhara; but the means taken by their friends to release them were more successful than those adopted by our politicals at Cabul. It appears that the chief at Shere Subz had for some time been at enmity with his Bokhara neighbour, and, wishing to do Dost Mahommed a good turn, he picked out fifty of the most expert thieves in his dominions—a difficult selection where the claims of all to this bad preeminence were so strong—but the Shere Subz chief was from experience a tolerable judge of the qualifications of an expert rogue, and having pitched upon his men, he promised them valuable presents, provided they effected, by whatever means they might choose to adopt, the release of the Dost; hinting at the same time that if they failed he should be under the necessity of seizing and selling their families. The thieves were successful, and at the expiration of a month the Dost was free.
If we could have interested the chief of Shere Subz in our favour by presents and fair words, might not the same means have been employed for the rescue of poor Stoddart? The only way to deal with a ruffian like him of Bokhara would have been by pitting against him some of his own stamp.
The King of Bokhara has several times endeavoured to coerce the Shere Subz's chief, but the instant a hostile force appears on his frontiers, the latter causes the whole of his country to be inundated, so that the invader is obliged to retire, and is by this stratagem kept at a respectful distance.
Another traveller came across us this day, who had resided for some years at Kokān, and furnished us with some account of the nature of the Chinese garrison of that fort. It is situated on an isolated rock, and every five years relieved with men, provisions, and ammunition; the flanks of the bastions are armed with ponderous wall pieces, requiring three men to work them. Chambers are also bored in the live rock, from whence enormous masses of stone might be discharged on an assailing foe. The Kokānese have often attempted to dislodge the intruders, but owing to the good state of defence in which the fort is kept, and the strong escorts under which the reliefs are regularly forwarded, they have been always repulsed with severe loss. My informant had been in the service of the Kokānese, and was now on his way to Hindoostan; in military notions he must have been of the famous Captain Dugald Dalgetty's school, for I afterwards met him as a non-commissioned officer in Shah Seujah's Goorkah battalion.
A march of eighteen miles brought us on the 19th July to Koollum.
The road continued along the banks of the river, through a wide valley bounded by low distant hills for nearly the whole way. Towards the end of our journey a spur from these hills struck right across the direction of the river, which had forced for itself a passage through the obstacle without deviating much from its rectilinear course, but considerably disturbing its previously placid character, for here it rushed with impetuous violence through the narrow cleft which it had formed, through this, the most advanced outpost of the glorious range of the Hindoo Khoosh. The defile, though short, was difficult of access and capable of being long defended; there is a small tower about the centre, slightly removed from and commanding the road: but a mere handfull of troops stationed on the crags above could, by hurling down the loosened masses of rock which totter on the edge of the cliff, for a time effectually stop the progress of a hostile army from either side. I should imagine, however, that this as well as every other pass I have ever seen except the Khyber and Bolun would be more easily turned than forced.
On emerging from this last defile, a prospect presents itself strongly contrasting with the romantic scenery we had recently been witnessing. Immediately before us lay the populous city of Koollum, the fortress standing on a small isolated eminence, and the dome-shaped houses embosomed in the deep foliage of their gardens and orchards clustered round it for miles on every side. Immediately on the outskirts of the city the desert commences, which, stretching away to Bokhara as far as the eye could reach, formed a melancholy and uninviting background to the busy scene before us. As we approached the city, we had our misgivings as to the nature of our reception by the Meer Walli, as, contrary to the treatment we had invariably experienced from the chiefs of all the considerable places through which we had had occasion to pass since entering Toorkisthān, no one appeared on the part of the Meer to welcome us. At length, after wandering about the suburbs for more than an hour, followed by a crowd of gaping idlers who seemed half disposed to question our right of squatting, we selected an open space and commenced unloading our baggage animals, and prepared to establish ourselves.
Our spirits were raised, however, soon after, by the welcome arrival of an officer of the Meer's household, who was sent by his master to convey us to the caravanserai, where, after a short period, we received three or four sheep with fruit and other provisions of all descriptions, which supply was regularly continued during the whole time we remained at Koollum. Our uneasiness, thus quieted, was soon entirely dispelled by a message announcing that a visit from the great man himself would take place in the evening. We must have been rather difficult to please, however, on this particular day, for after the wished-for visit was over, we both agreed that it had been dreadfully tiresome; to be sure, as fate would have it, we had not had time to eat our dinner before his arrival, and etiquette obliged us to defer eating till after his departure, which did not release us till past midnight, though he made his appearance soon after eight o'clock.
In person the Meer Walli was certainly very prepossessing; his voice was peculiarly musical, and his manner gentlemanly and easy; his face would have been eminently handsome but for a dreadful wound by which he had lost a portion of his nose. At this our first interview nothing relative to our own future proceedings was discussed, though that was the subject uppermost in our own minds, as we could not but feel ourselves entirely at the mercy of a robber prince of notorious character. As it was, the conversation was made up of those compliments and common-places with which the Orientals know so well how to fill up "awkward pauses," when, for reasons of their own, they do not intend talking upon the real business. He very politely acceded to our request of visiting the bazaar the following morning, which being market-day, the influx of strangers from the Tartar encampments at the different oases of the Bokhara Desert, and country people from the Toorkisthān mountains, was very great. One of his household was always in attendance as we passed out of the gate of the caravanserai, where we lodged, to conduct us about, and act in the double capacity of spy and cicerone. The city was crowded, and our appearance excited considerable sensation—much more so in truth than was pleasant, for we were followed wherever we went by a very curious and a very dirty crowd. We had heard a good deal about the Mahommedan college at Koollum, and of course were very anxious to see what comparison existed between it and our own colleges: we could trace none beyond the term of college. The house itself was new and capacious, with clean-looking apartments for the scholars. We entered the halls of study, which were long narrow verandahs, and found several white-bearded and sagacious-looking Moollahs reading out portions of the Korān to their attentive scholars, with a grave countenance and a loud nasal twang, exciting a propensity to laughter which I with difficulty repressed. I do not think the reasoning of the college is very deep, or that the talents of its senior wrangler need be very first-rate, and am inclined to suspect that this pompous reading was got up for the occasion for the purpose of astonishing the weak intellects of the Feringhee strangers.
From the college we proceeded to the slave market, which was well furnished, and chiefly supplied from the ever victimized Huzarehs; the women were generally ill-favoured, but all appeared contented with their lot so that somebody purchased them. After making the tour of the city in search of wonders, we returned home, hot, wearied, and disappointed, for we had found nothing to repay us for the annoyances we had been subjected to from the impertinent curiosity of the filthy multitude. Our own intentions were to get away from Koollum in order to be able to reach Balkh and return to Cābul before the cold weather should set in; but alas! our wishes were not destined to be fulfilled. Our uneasiness concerning the real intentions of the Meer was again excited towards the evening, for one of our followers came to us almost frantic with terror, stammering out as soon as his nervous state permitted him to speak, that he had heard it stated as a notorious fact that we were all to be detained at Koollum—that such was the pleasure of the Meer. The reader will believe that this intelligence was any thing but satisfactory; I could not help conjuring up visions of a long and wearisome captivity—of hope deferred and expectations disappointed—with Stoddart's melancholy situation as a near precedent. I managed to make myself for a short time as thoroughly uncomfortable as if I were already a prisoner, but soon a sense of the great foolishness of indulging in this tone of thought came over me, and making a strong effort to shake off the gloomy shadows of an imaginary future, I betook myself to consider the best means of ascertaining, in the first instance, the truth of the report, which if I had done so at once would have saved me a good deal of painful thought. As a preliminary step I desired a couple of our Affghān escort to proceed, so as not to excite suspicion, to the bourj or watch tower in the centre of the defile by which we had approached Koollum, and through which our only retreat must have been, to ascertain if the post was occupied by any of the Meer's people. They soon brought us the satisfactory intelligence that not a man was to be seen; but the Affghāns qualified their information by persisting in their opinion that some treachery was intended. So strong was this feeling amongst our men that it became imperatively necessary that our doubts should be resolved into certainty one way or the other, and Sturt and I, after a short consultation, determined that at the interview which was to take place next morning we should put the question to the chief categorically. Having come to this conclusion, we were obliged to smoke the "pipe of patience" on the "couch of uncertainty" till the Meer Walli arrived.
The Meer made his appearance the following morning, and, after the usual compliments, to our great astonishment himself touched on the subject. "I have heard," said he, "that you have sent out spies to see if the Bourj in the defile is occupied, and if any of my people are abroad to restrain your movements." This was rather an ominous commencement: "but," continued the old gentleman, "if such had been my intention, could I not have put the whole of you into confinement the moment you arrived? At all events, what could you and your party do against my force?" Sturt glanced his eye at the speaker; for an instant, too, it rested on me, as if to read my opinion; then he boldly answered, "You may outnumber us by thousands, but you will never capture us alive." He said this so calmly, with such politeness of manner, and yet so firmly, that the Meer was evidently taken aback: at length he replied, "But no such piece of villainy has ever entered my head." He then adroitly changed the subject, and shortly after took his leave.
When he was gone we held another council of war. It was by no means clear that the last declaration of the chief was a sincere one; but it might have been a temporizing answer elicited by the perhaps unexpected boldness of Sturt's remark. We determined, at all events, to keep on the alert, guard against any surprise, avoid as much as possible offering any pretext for offence, and, if the worst came to the worst, make as good a resistance as we could.
The next day we received a polite message, requesting an interview, and asking us to visit him in his favourite garden. Under all circumstances we deemed it best to allow it to appear that our suspicions were dissipated, and we accordingly accepted the invitation, and found the Meer seated on the chabooka, or raised platform of masonry, under the shade of some magnificent trees. He immediately commenced saying, "The reason I did not go out to meet you as you approached my city is, that during the warm weather I sleep the greater portion of the day and sit up enjoying the coolness of the night air; but I sent a messenger to escort you in with all care, and unfortunately he missed the way." Such an excuse was possible, but not at all probable. We did not give him credit for telling the truth about the guide, as there was only one road from Heibuk, and the approach of our party to Koollum was known in the city several days before our arrival. It was now evident to us that on our approach the Meer Walli was undecided whether he should treat us as friends or foes; it seemed that for the present he had determined in our favour, but distrusting his capricious disposition we were only the more anxious to get out of his reach, though we both agreed that the wisest and safest plan would be to carry our heads very high and put a bold front upon all our proceedings. This decision we came to whilst sitting in the garden in the presence of the Meer. Suddenly we heard a confused murmur behind us, and the heavy sound of the butt end of several muskets striking the ground as in "ordering arms;" we turned sharply round, and perceived with astonishment, not unmingled with satisfaction, that six or eight of our Affghān guard, notwithstanding the numerous followers round the Meer, had entered the garden of their own accord and placed themselves immediately in our rear with bayonets fixed. The Meer appeared to take no notice of this extraordinary intrusion, and after a few compliments permitted us to withdraw.
On returning to the caravanserai we inquired why the guard had acted thus without orders; they told us they had secretly heard that treachery was intended by the Meer towards us, and that therefore they had deemed it their duty to protect us from any surprise; moreover, that ten more of the guard had been stationed close outside the garden ready to support them at a moment's notice. Our own opinion was that at that time nothing of the kind was in contemplation, but it was satisfactory to view the determined spirit which animated our men. Strange anomaly that these very men who now came voluntarily forward to protect our persons from insult at the imminent risk of their lives, should have been found amongst those who, with their arms and accoutrements, had deserted in a body from the British to the side of the Ex-Ameer at the battle of Bameeān a few months after.
Pursuant to our plan of appearing to have full confidence in the Meer Walli's integrity of purpose, we affected to lay aside all personal precaution and courted his society, of which, to say truth, he seemed disposed to give us plenty. We had several interviews with him,—indeed, hardly a day passed without his sending for and honouring us with his presence for several hours.
During these meetings we used every endeavour to sound the chief as to his intentions with respect to us, without betraying an undue anxiety on the subject, but could make very little out of him.
Our conversation frequently turned on military matter, and many very pertinent questions were put to us relative to our rank, pay, duties, discipline, &c. On Sturt informing him that he was in the engineer department, and that his particular duties were to construct bridges, repair fortifications, superintend mining operations, and furnish plans of attack, he was promptly asked, "In how long a time do you think your army could take my fortress?" In about a quarter of an hour, answered Sturt in his quiet way. "No, no," said the Meer with some indignation, "I am sure you could not do so in so short a time;" and then he paused, evidently making up his mind to tell us a story. After a little, out it came. "That Feringhis should take my fortress, the strongest in the world, in a quarter of an hour is impossible, for it took me, with five hundred horsemen, double that time." Then, apparently forgetting his anger in the anxiety to recount his own exploits, he continued, "when I took possession of this fort I left my army at a little distance, and selecting a few expert warriors, I gallopped up to the gate of the fortress, which I found open. I dashed in before the enemy were alarmed, and immediately proclaimed that the place was taken by the victorious Merr Walli. The fools believed me, and all ran away. By-and-bye my army came up and marched quietly in."
We had heard some time before that Dost Mahommed's eldest son, Meer Ufzul Khan, was in Koollum, and it must be confessed that this circumstance did not much contribute to our sense of security, for we could not but feel that we might fairly expect he would not lose so palpable an opportunity of doing us harm should he be so disposed. One morning he sent us a polite message to request an interview, which of course was readily granted. He came, looking pale and sorrowful, and his tone and manner soon satisfied us that his intentions were peaceable. After the usual compliments he entered on the subject of his father's present position and political prospects; he remarked that our star was too bright, and assured us that his father was anxious to accede to any terms which the British might think fit to impose short of banishing him to India, and strongly urged us to write to our Government to that effect. We explained to Ufzul Khan that we had received no instructions to act in a political capacity, and that any interference on our part with the affairs of the nation might be looked upon by our superiors as an unwarrantable piece of presumption. He seemed much disappointed at the reply, and, at last, Sturt promised to write and mention the conversation to the authorities, which he did. I am not certain whether he wrote to Dr. Lord or Sir William M'Naghten, nor can be positive that his letter ever reached its destination—at all events, it was of no avail. Ufzul Khān endeavoured to persuade us to remain at Koollum till his father should arrive, who, he said, had escaped from his prison at Bokhara by the assistance of the chief of Shere Subz, as I have already noticed, and was now making his way to the territories of the Meer Walli by a circuitous route, so as to elude the vigilance of the king, and frustrate his endeavours to recapture him. We were much pleased to find that Ufzul Khan had no suspicion of our not being free agents, and Sturt answered he regretted much that the shortness of the time we had yet at our disposal would prevent his complying with his request, which, indeed, considering all the circumstances of the case, it would have been an act of most culpable folly to have acceded to. At the conclusion of this interview Sturt presented him with a handsome rifle, which he received with the utmost gratitude, saying that he was now poor and had nothing to offer in return but his thanks, which, however, he hoped we would believe to be sincere.
No sooner had Meer Ufzul taken his leave than the Meer Walli made his appearance with the evident intention of ascertaining the results of our interview, and the part we were disposed to take in any negociation concerning the Dost. The Meer was apparently anxious to remain on good terms with both parties, or, in other words, preferred having two strings to his bow. "Should the Dost claim my protection," said he, "how would you advise me to act?—He is your enemy, yet I must not abandon him, or deliver him into the hands of the British; for, although I do not wish to offend the British Government, I owe my present power to the influence of the Ameer,—he has always been my patron, and I must be his friend. And then, moreover, you are the first British officers I have seen since your army took possession of Affghanistān; no notice has been taken of me, the Meer Walli of Koollum; yet, to the petty chiefs of Bameeān vakeels and friendly messages have been sent, with valuable presents—while, to my repeated letters courting an amicable alliance, not even an answer has been given.—Is it courteous to treat an inferior so?—Is it the conduct generally adopted by the first nation in the world? The doubtful way in which your Government has behaved leaves me uncertain as to how my conduct will be interpreted,—but, if you will represent that the Meer Walli wishes to be on terms of amity, I shall consider you as my best friends. Indeed, I would have it known I wish to remain as neutral as possible in any political struggle that may take place."—Here he paused, as if expecting some answer which would be a guide to him, but, receiving none, he at length continued: "I will receive the Dost and be kind to him until he recovers from the fatigues of his journey, and then will beg him to leave Koollum."—It was obvious enough that a consideration for himself was the only motive which really influenced our worthy guest, who, it was clear, would gladly have betrayed his former patron if he could have induced us to guarantee an adequate reward to himself. Of course we did not feel authorised to hold out any such prospect, and endeavoured to convince him of the truth that we were not employed in any political capacity, and could not possibly interfere without exposing ourselves to severe animadversions from our superiors. I could not but feel the truth of the Meer's remarks on our policy in conciliating the petty chiefs, whilst the friendly overtures of the more powerful were treated almost with insulting neglect.
From the expression of the Meer's sentiments during this interview, we concluded that, however great a rascal his highness might eventually prove, still his present policy was to be on good terms with us, and all anxiety on our part as to being forcibly detained was allayed, so that we began now seriously to determine on our future proceedings. As one of the principal objects I had in view on joining Sturt was to procure coins and those relics of antiquity so abundant in the neighbourhood of Balkh, I was most anxious to prosecute my journey hither, and accordingly took an opportunity of explaining to the Meer my wishes and intentions, requesting him to furnish me with an adequate escort for my protection. He evinced a decided unwillingness to facilitate my advance, treating my anxiety to collect coins as an assumed reason to conceal some other more important motive. This was very provoking, but, by this time, we were so much accustomed to have the true and simple account of our plans and intentions treated with civil incredulity, that we felt almost disposed to allow the frequent insinuations of our concealed political character to remain uncontradicted—so useless were all our endeavours to satisfy the natives as to our real position. In vain I urged upon the Meer the emptiness of all his professions of friendship if he now declined to assist me in the manner I clearly pointed out; all was of no avail; on the contrary, the more urgent I became the more obstinate he grew, and I at last was painfully convinced, not only that he disbelieved me, but that he had not the slightest intention of permitting us to proceed across his frontier in the direction of the territories of the King of Bokhārā. He objected that it was a long journey from Cābul to Balkh merely to pick up "rubbish;" and though the actual danger was only for a short space, yet, if any accident happened, if, as he declared was highly probable, we were seized and carried into slavery, he should have to answer to the British Government. His horsemen too would be an insufficient protection against an attack from the numerous hordes of thieves who infested the desert, and would surely be on the alert to pounce upon so valuable a booty. He continued repeating these arguments till we lost all hope of persuading him, and not deeming it advisable to risk a rupture of our present apparently good understanding, we reluctantly submitted and turned our thoughts homewards.[*]
[* Note: The anxiety I have here shewn to procure the escort from the Meer will perhaps appear uncalled for, but those who delight in numismatological specimens will agree with me that the disappointment was not trifling, as only a few travellers had succeeded in obtaining rare coins, and I had every reason to believe other varieties were to be found.]
No sooner was it rumoured in the bazaar that we were about to return to Cabul, than several Hindoo bankers waited upon us to pay their respects and offer whatever sums of money we might require for the journey. They were all very anxious to lend, and were much dissatisfied at the insignificant amount of the cash we required, though the only security was a written promise that we would pay the amount to a certain banker in Cabul on our return; they offered us as much as ten thousand rupees, and appeared very anxious to avail themselves of the opportunity of sending money to Cabul. At all events their confidence was a gratifying proof of the high estimation in which the British name was held in that remote country.
After a most friendly parting interview with the Meer Walli, when he presented us with a horse and baggage pony, we started from Koollum on the 22nd of July, accompanied, by the Meer's special directions, by one of his confidential servants to act ostensibly as our guide, but who, probably, had also his secret instructions to report on all such of our proceedings as might in any way affect the interests of his master.
We proposed to diverge from the route by which we had advanced, at Heibuk, passing through Ghoree, in the territories of the Koondooz chief, and returning to Badjghār by the Dushti Suffaed pass, which Sturt was very anxious to survey.
Our first day's march brought us to Hazree Sultan, and the next morning we reached Heibuk, where we were cordially welcomed by our old friend Meer Baber Beg, and had again to undergo the infliction of that detestable compound of grease, flour, salt, and tea, which the Meer in his hospitality was always pressing us to swallow.
On our departure the next morning, he sent us a present of a horse; an indifferent one, 'tis true, but, at least, it marked his kindly feeling; he warned us not to delay longer than was absolutely necessary in the country of Meer Moorad Beg, whom he described in no very flattering terms; and he, moreover, cautioned us against the Koondooz fever, which he declared would inevitably attack us if we were not very careful in selecting our encamping ground at a distance from the pestilential marshes which skirted the bases of the hills. We thanked him for his friendly advice, and started for Rhobāt, where we arrived after a dismal ride of twenty-two miles. The country through which we travelled was perhaps the most dreary portion of Toorkisthān; for about twelve miles we traversed a dry low grass jungle of about a foot in height, tenanted by a species of wild goat, several of which we disturbed on our passage through their haunts, but not being prepared for any sport, I did not take advantage of their unwariness.
The road was utterly devoid of water for a space of full sixteen miles, at the end of which we came upon a scanty supply, scarce sufficient for our immediate necessities and utterly inadequate for a force of any magnitude. The pista tree, the fruit of which is carried to the Indian market, was seen here in considerable quantities; it is very similar in its growth and foliage to the Dauk of Hindoostan.
The assa foetida shrub also abounded on the neighbouring hills, and we were almost overpowered by the horrible stench exhaled therefrom. It is collected in its wild state and sent to Cābul and India, yielding a good profit to those who pick it, as it is used very generally throughout the East for kabobs and curries. We also observed, that day, several coveys of chikore.
At Rhobat is an old caravanserai for travellers, the remains of a very fine and extensive building, with accommodation and apartments all round the square of about twenty-four yards. It is said to have been constructed in the time of the famous Abdoollah Khan, and was reduced to its present desolate state by Meer Moorad Beg, the chief of Koondooz, who some years ago ravaged the whole of this district, burning and laying waste whatever he could not carry off.
On the 25th of July we marched to Ghoree, a distance of about 21 miles. As we approached it, we enjoyed a fine prospect of the extensive savannahs of grass so characteristic of Toorkisthān; many horses were feeding in the distance, and the vale, flanked by low hills, was bounded only by the horizon. We were told that it extended in a right line upwards of thirty miles, and that it was frequently used for horse-racing, the customary length of the course being upwards of twenty miles. We were now in the territories of Meer Moorad Beg, a chief of notorious character, but, trusting to the continuance of the good fortune which had hitherto attended us, we did not make ourselves uncomfortable about him. We could not much admire his town of Ghoree, which, with his fort, was situate on the edge of a morass extending from the limits of the savannah to the foot of the hills—I should think that the fever so prevalent in these districts must be in a great degree attributable to the absolute want of drainage and the decomposition of vegetable matter. Its position was most insalubrious, for the marshy swamps commenced at the very base of hills, and thus as it were encircled the savannahs with a belt of miasma.
The ague, which is usually accompanied by fever, is of a kind very difficult to shake off, gradually weakening the sufferer till he sinks under its influence; the natives themselves are by no means free from its strokes, to which attacks every stranger who remains for many days in the vicinity of the marshes is liable. Though a veil of mystery still covers the particulars of poor Moorcroft's fate, it seems more than probable that he fell a victim to the fever of this country, though the seed that was sown did not mature till some time after he had quitted it.
The fort of Ghoree has great strength, being on a level with the adjacent country and surrounded by a wet ditch thirty feet wide and very deep; its stagnant water teemed with fish of a large size, but I had no opportunity of ascertaining their species. There was a rude drawbridge across the moat, and the dwellings around the fort were temporary hovels composed of straw; so suspicious were the occupants of our intentions that they would not allow us access to the interior of the fort. While reposing at the door of my tent on the evening of our arrival at Ghoree, I was accosted by an old man, with the usual request for a little medicine, as one of his family was afflicted with rheumatism; I gave from our now much reduced medicine chest what I thought at least could do no harm, and endeavoured, as was my custom, to engage the old gentleman in conversation. I have before mentioned the propensity of these people for story-telling, and I much fear that when, with their native acuteness in discriminating character, they detect an anxiety on the part of the questioner for old stories, no difficulty exists in the concoction of one for him. In the case now alluded to, I beg to assure my readers that I do not in the slightest degree pledge myself for the veracity of the story which the old man related to me. I should not like even to say that the customs to which he alluded were really "bona fide" the customs of his country; however, I give it as it was related, nothing doubting that it will be received with due caution, and, at all events, though it may not be received as a legend really characteristic of Toorkisthān weddings, it has indisputable claims to illustrate the habits of Toorkisthān story-tellers.
I was remarking to him on the beauty and extent of his savannahs, and, in assenting to what I said, he observed that they were frequently the theatre of wedding races; having soon engaged my attention, he proceeded to narrate the following story, founded perhaps on the numerous outrages of which the despised Huzareh tribe were the victims.
"Far up in one of the numerous valleys of the Yakkoollung country," he commenced, "resided an ancient couple, whose occupation throughout the summer day consisted in storing food for the winter season, and who, when their work was finished, continued mournfully to dwell on the all-absorbing subject of the forcible abduction of their daughter by one of the Uzbeg chiefs.
"Two years and more had now passed since the outrage was perpetrated by a party of Uzbeg horsemen, who, ever bent on plunder and bloodshed, made an incursion into the valley, visiting the different forts at the time when the male inhabitants were employed in the labour of cultivation, and seizing numerous youths and maidens. On the occasion alluded to, among the number of victims was the only daughter of the aged Huzareh peasants, who was considered amongst her tribe as a perfect Peri—'A maid with a face like the moon, scented like musk, a ravisher of hearts, delighting the soul, seducing the senses, and beautiful as the full moon,' She was placed for security behind one of the best mounted of the robbers, whilst the other helpless wretches were driven unresistingly before the horsemen like a flock of sheep, till the abductors reached their own independent territory.
"Before the close of that ill-fated day, the mothers and relations of the stolen were rushing in frantic despair through the fields, announcing to the husbands and fathers the misfortune which had overtaken them.
"The men immediately quitted their work, and armed only with their implements of labour pursued the ravishers for many a mile; but what could they do on foot against so many horsemen? Perhaps it was fortunate for them that they could not overtake the robbers, for they would only have become additional victims. They returned home to bewail their unhappy fate and curse the cruel authors of their misery.
"It happened about a year afterwards that the old man's son returned from Candahār, to enjoy, as he anticipated, a few weeks' happiness with his aged parents and blooming sister; but no sooner had he crossed the threshhold and received the blessing of his trembling parents, than he was made aware of the desolation that had passed over his house. Vowing vengance on the perpetrators of this foul act, and calling down the anger of heaven on all the generation of Uzbegs, the brave Azeem left his home, and abandoning all hopes of repose, busied himself in collecting a band of athletic and desperate young men, who swore on the Korān their determination to have revenge or perish in the attempt. Young Azeem was unanimously chosen commander of the party, and the next morning at break of day, without further preparation beyond taking a small supply of food, they started on their journey. Travelling long days, and resting short nights in the crevices of the mountains, after eighteen days' toil, they at length reached a part of Tartary, distant only two days' march from the fort belonging to the robber Uzbegs who had so cruelly injured them. It now became necessary to advance with more circumspection, as they could no longer depend upon the peasants for protection in the less friendly country they had reached, so separating into several small parties they approached stealthily the Uzbeg fort; some kept the hills on either side, while the rest followed the winding of the grassy plains. Thus proceeding, they formed a kind of circle round the fort, so that they could notice the ingress or departure of its tenants on every side. The fort appeared too strong for an open attack, and when, at night, the leaders of the detached parties assembled to discuss their future plans and to report what they had seen during the day, it was determined to lie in ambush another day for the chance of the main body of the Uzbegs quitting their fort on some foray, so that they would have a better chance, should it become necessary to attack it. Providence seemed to favour their designs, for early next morning considerable parties of Uzbegs were seen issuing from the fort and proceeding towards a large savannah, where some festival was evidently in preparation—for, from the quantity of women and children who accompanied the horsemen, it was clear that fighting was not the business of the day.
"Anxiously did Azeem and his followers watch the movements of their unsuspecting enemy, and soon, from the nature of the preparations going forward, they discovered that a wedding race was about to take place. It was instantly determined to allow the ceremony to proceed, and the capture of the bride was to be the signal for all the Huzarehs to rush in and carry out their object.
"And now the suitors of the maiden, nine in number, appear in the field, all unarmed, but mounted on the best horses they can procure; while the bride herself, on a beautiful Turkoman stallion, surrounded by her relations, anxiously surveys the group of lovers. The conditions of the bridal race were these:—The maiden has a certain start given, which she avails herself of to gain a sufficient distance from the crowd to enable her to manage her steed with freedom, so as to assist in his pursuit the suitor whom she prefers. On a signal from the father all the horsemen gallop after the fair one, and whichever first succeeds in encircling her waist with his arm, no matter whether disagreeable or to her choice, is entitled to claim her as his wife. After the usual delays incident upon such interesting occasions, the maiden quits the circle of her relations, and putting her steed into a hand gallop, darts into the open plain. When satisfied with her position, she turns round to the impatient youths, and stretches out her arms towards them, as if to woo their approach. This is the moment for giving the signal to commence the chace, and each of the impatient youths, dashing his pointed heels into his courser's sides, darts like the unhooded hawk in pursuit of the fugitive dove. The savannah was extensive, full twelve miles long and three in width, and as the horsemen sped across the plain the favoured lover became soon apparent by the efforts of the maiden to avoid all others who might approach her.
"At length, after nearly two hours' racing, the number of pursuers is reduced to four, who are all together, and gradually gaining on the pursued; with them is the favourite, but alas! his horse suddenly fails in his speed, and as she anxiously turns her head she perceives with dismay the hapless position of her lover; each of the more fortunate leaders, eager with anticipated triumph, bending his head on his horse's mane, shouts at the top of his voice, "I come, my Peri; I'm your lover." But she, making a sudden turn, and lashing her horse almost to fury, darts across their path, and makes for that part of the chummun, plain, where her lover was vainly endeavouring to goad on his weary steed.
"The three others instantly check their career, but in the hurry to turn back two of the horses are dashed furiously against each other, so that both steeds and riders roll over on the plain. The maiden laughed, for she well knew she could elude the single horseman, and flew to the point where her lover was. But her only pursuer was rarely mounted and not so easily shaken off; making a last and desperate effort he dashed alongside the maiden, and, stretching out his arm, almost won the unwilling prize; but she, bending her head to her horse's neck, eluded his grasp and wheeled off again. Ere the discomfited horseman could again approach her her lover's arm was around her waist, and amidst the shouts of the spectators they turned towards the fort.
"Alas! this was the agreed signal amongst the Huzarehs, who, screened by the undulations of the savannah or hidden in the watercourses, had been anxiously awaiting the event. With a simultaneous shout they rush in upon the unprepared multitude, and commence an indiscriminate massacre; but short was their success, for a distant party of Uzbegs were observed rapidly gallopping to the scene of action, and the Huzarehs were compelled to retire, their spirit for vengeance yet unslaked. The panic their sudden onslaught had caused was so great that they might all have retired unmolested had not Azeem suddenly recognized his sister amongst a group of females who were being hurried towards the fort. Regardless of the almost certain death that awaited him he rushed to embrace her, but hardly had he clasped her in his arms when the chief of the harem drove his Persian dagger through his back. At sight of this all thoughts of further revenge were abandoned, and the Huzarehs hastily quitting the field made the best of their way home, not without having, though at the expense of the life of their leader, inflicted a severe punishment on the invaders of their peaceful country,"[*]
[* Note: Clark, in his Travels in Russia and Tartary, describes the ceremony of marriage among the Calmucks as performed on horseback.
"The girl is first mounted and rides off at full speed. Her lover pursues, and if he overtakes her she becomes his wife, and the marriage is consummated on the spot; after which she returns with him to his tent. But it sometimes happens that the woman does not wish to marry the person by whom she is pursued, in which case she will not suffer him to overtake her; and we were assured that no instance occurs of a Calmuck girl being caught, unless she has a partiality for her pursuer. If she dislikes him she rides, to use the language of an English sportsman, 'neck or nothing,' until she has completely escaped, or until the pursuer's horse is tired out, leaving her at liberty to return, and to be afterwards chased by some more favourite admirer."]
Such was the old man's tale; whether the offspring of his fertile imagination, or actually founded upon fact, so plausible did it appear, and so much interested was I in his narration, that it became forcibly imprinted on my memory, and I have minutely followed him in its details.
The morning after our arrival at Ghoree several of our followers were taken ill, and as all were in great dread of the Koondooz fever, a considerable alarm prevailed in our small camp. We did not at first think much of the sickness, which we attributed to too free an indulgence in the Koondooz melon, which is of a very large size, and equal in flavour to those of Cabul. We therefore determined to remain a day or two at Ghoree, in the hopes of a favourable change taking place. But on the third day it was evident that the Koondooz fever had really made its appearance, and several of the guard and servants, to the number of twenty and upwards, were so much weakened as to be unable to proceed. In this dilemma we deemed it advisable not to remain any longer in the vicinity of the marshes, and resolved to proceed with such of our men as were still healthy, to survey the Dushti Suffaed Pass, already alluded to. We determined on leaving the sick and the greater portion of our baggage behind, and despatched a letter to Meer Moorad Beg, requesting permission for them to remain at Ghoree till our return, which we hoped would not be delayed beyond a few days. The ruler of Koondooz civilly acceded to our request, and sent us many friendly messages, but hardly sufficient to dispel our uneasiness at leaving even for so short a time such temptation for the gratification of his predatory propensities; but we had the choice of two evils—our time was so short that if we all remained together at Ghoree, not only might the ravages of the fever become more serious, but the opportunity would be lost of examining the pass. Before leaving Ghoree we received a message from the governor of the fort, apologizing for his inability to visit us, with the excuse that there being much treachery and ill will in the neighbourhood, he dare not quit his post, lest he fall under the dreaded displeasure of Meer Moorad Beg.
We now dismissed, with a dress of honour and letter of thanks, the confidential man whom the Meer Walli of Koollum had ordered to accompany us, and leaving the greater part of our medicine chest for the use of the sick, we started on the 28th of August. Before our departure we received a further proof of the friendly disposition of Moorad Beg, in the shape of a beautiful Toorkmān saddle, not larger than an English racing one; the flaps were richly embroidered, and the steel pommel was inlaid with inscription in gold of sentences from the Korān.