In two or three hours our party was ready; the servants, the Tatar, the mounted Suridgees, and the baggage-horses, altogether made up a strong cavalcade. The accomplished Mysseri, of whom you have heard me speak so often, and who served me so faithfully throughout my Oriental journeys, acted as our interpreter, and was, in fact, the brain of our corps. The Tatar, you know, is a government courier properly employed in carrying despatches, but also sent with travellers to speed them on their way, and answer with his head for their safety. The man whose head was thus pledged for our precious lives was a glorious-looking fellow, with the regular and handsome cast of countenance which is now characteristic of the Ottoman race. His features displayed a good deal of serene pride, self-respect, fortitude, a kind of ingenuous sensuality, and something of instinctive wisdom, without any sharpness of intellect. He had been a Janissary (as I afterwards found), and kept up the odd strut of his old corps, which used to affright the Christians in former times—that rolling gait so comically pompous, that a close imitation of it, even in the broadest farce, would be looked upon as a very rough over-acting of the character. It is occasioned in part by dress and accoutrements. The weighty bundle of weapons carried upon the chest throws back the body so as to give it a wonderful portliness, and moreover, the immense masses of clothes that swathe his limbs force the wearer in walking to swing himself heavily round from left to right, and from right to left. In truth, this great edifice of woollen, and cotton, and silk, and silver, and brass, and steel is not at all fitted for moving on foot; it cannot even walk without frightfully discomposing its fair proportions; and as to running—our Tatar ran once (it was in order to pick up a partridge that Methley had winged with a pistol-shot), and really the attempt was one of the funniest misdirections of human energy that wondering man ever saw. But put him in his stirrups, and then is the Tatar himself again: there he lives at his pleasure, reposing in the tranquillity of that true home (the home of his ancestors) which the saddle seems to afford him, and drawing from his pipe the calm pleasures of his "own fireside," or else dashing sudden over the earth, as though for a moment he felt the mouth of a Turcoman steed, and saw his own Scythian plains lying boundless and open before him.
It was not till his subordinates had nearly completed their preparations for their march that our Tatar, "commanding the forces," arrived; he came sleek and fresh from the bath (for so is the custom of the Ottomans when they start upon a journey), and was carefully accoutred at every point. From his thigh to his throat he was loaded with arms and other implements of a campaigning life. There is no scarcity of water along the whole road from Belgrade to Stamboul, but the habits of our Tatar were formed by his ancestors and not by himself, so he took good care to see that his leathern water-flask was amply charged and properly strapped to the saddle, along with his blessed tchibouque. And now at last he has cursed the Suridgees in all proper figures of speech, and is ready for a ride of a thousand miles; but before he comforts his soul in the marble baths of Stamboul he will be another and a lesser man; his sense of responsibility, his too strict abstemiousness, and his restless energy, disdainful of sleep, will have worn him down to a fraction of the sleek Moostapha that now leads out our party from the gates of Belgrade.
The Suridgees are the men employed to lead the baggage-horses. They are most of them gipsies. Their lot is a sad one: they are the last of the human race, and all the sins of their superiors (including the horses) can safely be visited on them. But the wretched look often more picturesque than their betters; and though all the world despise these poor Suridgees, their tawny skins and their grisly beards will gain them honourable standing in the foreground of a landscape. We had a couple of these fellows with us, each leading a baggage-horse, to the tail of which last another baggage-horse was attached. There was a world of trouble in persuading the stiff angular portmanteaus of Europe to adapt themselves to their new condition and sit quietly on pack-saddles, but all was right at last, and it gladdened my eyes to see our little troop file off through the winding lanes of the city, and show down brightly in the plain beneath. The one of our party that seemed to be most out of keeping with the rest of the scene was Methley's Yorkshire servant, who always rode doggedly on in his pantry jacket, looking out for "gentlemen's seats."
Methley and I had English saddles, but I think we should have done just as well (I should certainly have seen more of the country) if we had adopted saddles like that of our Tatar, who towered so loftily over the scraggy little beast that carried him. In taking thought for the East, whilst in England, I had made one capital hit which you must not forget—I had brought with me a pair of common spurs. These were a great comfort to me throughout my horseback travels, by keeping up the cheerfulness of the many unhappy nags that I had to bestride; the angle of the Oriental stirrup is a very poor substitute for spurs.
The Ottoman horseman, raised by his saddle to a great height above the humble level of the back that he bestrides, and using an awfully sharp bit, is able to lift the crest of his nag, and force him into a strangely fast shuffling walk, the orthodox pace for the journey. My comrade and I, using English saddles, could not easily keep our beasts up to this peculiar amble; besides, we thought it a bore to be followed by our attendants for a thousand miles, and we generally, therefore, did duty as the rearguard of our "grand army"; we used to walk our horses till the party in front had got into the distance, and then retrieve the lost ground by a gallop.
We had ridden on for some two or three hours; the stir and bustle of our commencing journey had ceased, the liveliness of our little troop had worn off with the declining day, and the night closed in as we entered the great Servian forest. Through this our road was to last for more than a hundred miles. Endless, and endless now on either side, the tall oaks closed in their ranks and stood gloomily lowering over us, as grim as an army of giants with a thousand years' pay in arrear. One strived with listening ear to catch some tidings of that forest world within—some stirring of beasts, some night-bird's scream, but all was quite hushed, except the voice of the cicalas that peopled every bough, and filled the depths of the forest through and through, with one same hum everlasting—more stifling than very silence.
At first our way was in darkness, but after a while the moon got up, and touched the glittering arms and tawny faces of our men with light so pale and mystic, that the watchful Tatar felt bound to look out for demons, and take proper means for keeping them off: forthwith he determined that the duty of frightening away our ghostly enemies (like every other troublesome work) should fall upon the poor Suridgees, who accordingly lifted up their voices, and burst upon the dreadful stillness of the forest with shrieks and dismal howls. These precautions were kept up incessantly, and were followed by the most complete success, for not one demon came near us.
Long before midnight we reached the hamlet in which we were to rest for the night; it was made up of about a dozen clay huts, standing upon a small tract of ground hardly won from the forest. The peasants that lived there spoke a Slavonic dialect, and Mysseri's knowledge of the Russian tongue enabled him to talk with them freely. We took up our quarters in a square room with white walls and an earthen floor, quite bare of furniture, and utterly void of women. They told us, however, that these Servian villagers lived in happy abundance, but that they were careful to conceal their riches, as well as their wives.
The burthens unstrapped from the pack-saddles very quickly furnished our den: a couple of quilts spread upon the floor, with a carpet-bag at the head of each, became capital sofas—portmanteaus, and hat-boxes, and writing-cases, and books, and maps, and gleaming arms soon lay strewed around us in pleasant confusion. Mysseri's canteen too began to yield up its treasures, but we relied upon finding some provisions in the village. At first the natives declared that their hens were mere old maids and all their cows unmarried, but our Tatar swore such a grand sonorous oath, and fingered the hilt of his yataghan with such persuasive touch, that the land soon flowed with milk, and mountains of eggs arose.
And soon there was tea before us, with all its unspeakable fragrance, and as we reclined on the floor, we found that a portmanteau was just the right height for a table; the duty of candlesticks was ably performed by a couple of intelligent natives; the rest of the villagers stood by the open doorway at the lower end of the room, and watched our banqueting with grave and devout attention.
The first night of your first campaign (though you be but a mere peaceful campaigner) is a glorious time in your life. It is so sweet to find one's self free from the stale civilisation of Europe! Oh my dear ally, when first you spread your carpet in the midst of these Eastern scenes, do think for a moment of those your fellow-creatures, that dwell in squares, and streets, and even (for such is the fate of many!) in actual country houses; think of the people that are "presenting their compliments," and "requesting the honour," and "much regretting,"—of those that are pinioned at dinner-tables; or stuck up in ballrooms, or cruelly planted in pews—ay, think of these, and so remembering how many poor devils are living in a state of utter respectability, you will glory the more in your own delightful escape.
I am bound to confess, however, that with all its charms a mud floor (like a mercenary match) does certainly promote early rising. Long before daybreak we were up, and had breakfasted; after this there was nearly a whole tedious hour to endure whilst the horses were laden by torch-light; but this had an end, and at last we went on once more. Cloaked, and sombre, at first we made our sullen way through the darkness, with scarcely one barter of words, but soon the genial morn burst down from heaven, and stirred the blood so gladly through our veins, that the very Suridgees, with all their troubles, could now look up for an instant, and almost seem to believe in the temporary goodness of God.
The actual movement from one place to another, in Europeanised countries, is a process so temporary—it occupies, I mean, so small a proportion of the traveller's entire time—that his mind remains unsettled, so long as the wheels are going; he may be alive enough to external objects of interest, and to the crowding ideas which are often invited by the excitement of a changing scene, but he is still conscious of being in a provisional state, and his mind is constantly recurring to the expected end of his journey; his ordinary ways of thought have been interrupted, and before any new mental habits can be formed he is quietly fixed in his hotel. It will be otherwise with you when you journey in the East. Day after day, perhaps week after week and month after month, your foot is in the stirrup. To taste the cold breath of the earliest morn, and to lead, or follow, your bright cavalcade till sunset through forests and mountain passes, through valleys and desolate plains, all this becomes your mode of life , and you ride, eat, drink, and curse the mosquitoes as systematically as your friends in England eat, drink, and sleep. If you are wise, you will not look upon the long period of time thus occupied in actual movement as the mere gulf dividing you from the end of your journey, but rather as one of those rare and plastic seasons of your life from which, perhaps, in after times you may love to date the moulding of your character—that is, your very identity. Once feel this, and you will soon grow happy and contented in your saddle-home. As for me and my comrade, however, in this part of our journey we often forgot Stamboul, forgot all the Ottoman Empire, and only remembered old times. We went back, loitering on the banks of Thames—not grim old Thames of "after life," that washes the Parliament Houses, and drowns despairing girls—but Thames, the "old Eton fellow," that wrestled with us in our boyhood till he taught us to be stronger than he. We bullied Keate, and scoffed at Larrey Miller, and Okes; we rode along loudly laughing, and talked to the grave Servian forest as though it were the "Brocas clump."
Our pace was commonly very slow, for the baggage-horses served us for a drag, and kept us to a rate of little more than five miles in the hour, but now and then, and chiefly at night, a spirit of movement would suddenly animate the whole party; the baggage-horses would be teased into a gallop, and when once this was done, there would be such a banging of portmanteaus, and such convulsions of carpet-bags upon their panting sides, and the Suridgees would follow them up with such a hurricane of blows, and screams, and curses, that stopping or relaxing was scarcely possible; then the rest of us would put our horses into a gallop, and so all shouting cheerily, would hunt, and drive the sumpter beasts like a flock of goats, up hill and down dale, right on to the end of their journey.
The distances at which we got relays of horses varied greatly; some were not more than fifteen or twenty miles, but twice, I think, we performed a whole day's journey of more than sixty miles with the same beasts.
When at last we came out from the forest our road lay through scenes like those of an English park. The green sward unfenced, and left to the free pasture of cattle, was dotted with groups of stately trees, and here and there darkened over with larger masses of wood, that seemed gathered together for bounding the domain, and shutting out some "infernal" fellow-creature in the shape of a newly made squire; in one or two spots the hanging copses looked down upon a lawn below with such sheltering mien, that seeing the like in England you would have been tempted almost to ask the name of the spend-thrift, or the madman who had dared to pull down "the old hall."
There are few countries less infested by "lions" than the provinces on this part of your route. You are not called upon to "drop a tear" over the tomb of "the once brilliant" anybody, or to pay your "tribute of respect" to anything dead or alive. There are no Servian or Bulgarian litterateurs with whom it would be positively disgraceful not to form an acquaintance; you have no staring, no praising to get through; the only public building of any interest that lies on the road is of modern date, but is said to be a good specimen of Oriental architecture; it is of a pyramidical shape, and is made up of thirty thousand skulls, contributed by the rebellious Servians in the early part (I believe) of this century: I am not at all sure of my date, but I fancy it was in the year 1806 that the first skull was laid. I am ashamed to say that in the darkness of the early morning we unknowingly went by the neighbourhood of this triumph of art, and so basely got off from admiring "the simple grandeur of the architect's conception," and "the exquisite beauty of the fretwork."
There being no "lions," we ought at least to have met with a few perils, but the only robbers we saw anything of had been long since dead and gone. The poor fellows had been impaled upon high poles, and so propped up by the transverse spokes beneath them, that their skeletons, clothed with some white, wax-like remains of flesh, still sat up lolling in the sunshine, and listlessly stared without eyes.
One day it seemed to me that our path was a little more rugged than usual, and I found that I was deserving for myself the title of Sabalkansky, or "Transcender of the Balcan." The truth is, that, as a military barrier, the Balcan is a fabulous mountain. Such seems to be the view of Major Keppell, who looked on it towards the east with the eye of a soldier, and certainly in the Sophia Pass, which I followed, there is no narrow defile, and no ascent sufficiently difficult to stop, or delay for long time, a train of siege artillery.
Before we reached Adrianople, Methley had been seized with we knew not what ailment, and when we had taken up our quarters in the city he was cast to the very earth by sickness. Adrianople enjoyed an English consul, and I felt sure that, in Eastern phrase, his house would cease to be his house, and would become the house of my sick comrade. I should have judged rightly under ordinary circumstances, but the levelling plague was abroad, and the dread of it had dominion over the consular mind. So now (whether dying or not, one could hardly tell), upon a quilt stretched out along the floor, there lay the best hope of an ancient line, without the material aids to comfort of even the humblest sort, and (sad to say) without the consolation of a friend, or even a comrade worth having. I have a notion that tenderness and pity are affections occasioned in some measure by living within doors; certainly, at the time I speak of, the open-air life which I have been leading, or the wayfaring hardships of the journey, had so strangely blunted me, that I felt intolerant of illness, and looked down upon my companion as if the poor fellow in falling ill had betrayed a want of spirit. I entertained too a most absurd idea—an idea that his illness was partly affected. You see that I have made a confession: this I hope—that I may always hereafter look charitably upon the hard, savage acts of peasants, and the cruelties of a "brutal" soldiery. God knows that I strived to melt myself into common charity, and to put on a gentleness which I could not feel, but this attempt did not cheat the keenness of the sufferer; he could not have felt the less deserted because that I was with him.
We called to aid a solemn Armenian (I think he was) half soothsayer, half hakim, or doctor, who, all the while counting his beads, fixed his eyes steadily upon the patient, and then suddenly dealt him a violent blow on the chest. Methley bravely dissembled his pain, for he fancied that the blow was meant to try whether or not the plague were on him.
Here was really a sad embarrassment—no bed; nothing to offer the invalid in the shape of food save a piece of thin, tough, flexible, drab-coloured cloth, made of flour and mill-stones in equal proportions, and called by the name of "bread"; then the patient, of course, had no "confidence in his medical man," and on the whole, the best chance of saving my comrade seemed to lie in taking him out of the reach of his doctor, and bearing him away to the neighbourhood of some more genial consul. But how was this to be done? Methley was much too ill to be kept in his saddle, and wheel carriages, as means of travelling, were unknown. There is, however, such a thing as an "araba," a vehicle drawn by oxen, in which the wives of a rich man are sometimes dragged four or five miles over the grass by way of recreation. The carriage is rudely framed, but you recognise in the simple grandeur of its design a likeness to things majestic; in short, if your carpenter's son were to make a "Lord Mayor's coach" for little Amy, he would build a carriage very much in the style of a Turkish araba. No one had ever heard of horses being used for drawing a carriage in this part of the world, but necessity is the mother of innovation as well as of invention. I was fully justified, I think, in arguing that there were numerous instances of horses being used for that purpose in our own country—that the laws of nature are uniform in their operation over all the world (except Ireland)—that that which was true in Piccadilly, must be true in Adrianople—that the matter could not fairly be treated as an ecclesiastical question, for that the circumstance of Methley's going on to Stamboul in an araba drawn by horses, when calmly and dispassionately considered, would appear to be perfectly consistent with the maintenance of the Mahometan religion as by law established. Thus poor, dear, patient Reason would have fought her slow battle against Asiatic prejudice, and I am convinced that she would have established the possibility (and perhaps even the propriety) of harnessing horses in a hundred and fifty years; but in the meantime Mysseri, well seconded by our Tatar, put a very quick end to the controversy by having the horses put to.
It was a sore thing for me to see my poor comrade brought to this, for young though he was, he was a veteran in travel. When scarcely yet of age he had invaded India from the frontiers of Russia, and that so swiftly, that measuring by the time of his flight the broad dominions of the king of kings were shrivelled up to a dukedom and now, poor fellow, he was to be poked into an araba: like a Georgian girl! He suffered greatly, for there were no springs for the carriage, and no road for the wheels; and so the concern jolted on over the open country with such twists, and jerks, and jumps, as might almost dislocate the supple tongue of Satan.
All day the patient kept himself shut up within the lattice-work of the araba, and I could hardly know how he was faring until the end of the day's journey, when I found that he was not worse, and was buoyed up with the hope of some day reaching Constantinople.
I was always conning over my maps, and fancied that I knew pretty well my line, but after Adrianople I had made more southing than I knew for, and it was with unbelieving wonder, and delight, that I came suddenly upon the shore of the sea. A little while, and its gentle billows were flowing beneath the hoofs of my beast, but the hearing of the ripple was not enough communion, and the seeing of the blue Propontis was not to know and possess it—I must needs plunge into its depth and quench my longing love in the palpable waves; and so when old Moostapha (defender against demons) looked round for his charge, he saw with horror and dismay that he for whose life his own life stood pledged was possessed of some devil who had driven him down into the sea—that the rider and the steed had vanished from earth, and that out among the waves was the gasping crest of a post-horse, and the ghostly head of the Englishman moving upon the face of the waters.
We started very early indeed on the last day of our journey, and from the moment of being off until we gained the shelter of the imperial walls we were struggling face to face with an icy storm that swept right down from the steppes of Tartary, keen, fierce, and steady as a northern conqueror. Methley's servant, who was the greatest sufferer, kept his saddle until we reached Stamboul, but was then found to be quite benumbed in limbs, and his brain was so much affected, that when he was lifted from his horse he fell away in a state of unconsciousness, the first stage of a dangerous fever.
Our Tatar, worn down by care and toil, and carrying seven heavens full of water in his manifold jackets and shawls, was a mere weak and vapid dilution of the sleek Moostapha, who scarce more than one fortnight before came out like a bridegroom from his chamber to take the command of our party.
Mysseri seemed somewhat over-wearied, but he had lost none of his strangely quiet energy. He wore a grave look, however, for he now had learnt that the plague was prevailing at Constantinople, and he was fearing that our two sick men, and the miserable looks of our whole party, might make us unwelcome at Pera.
We crossed the Golden Horn in a caique. As soon as we had landed, some woebegone looking fellows were got together and laden with our baggage. Then on we went, dripping, and sloshing, and looking very like men that had been turned back by the Royal Humane Society as being incurably drowned. Supporting our sick, we climbed up shelving steps and threaded many windings, and at last came up into the main street of Pera, humbly hoping that we might not be judged guilty of plague, and so be cast back with horror from the doors of the shuddering Christians.
Such was the condition of our party, which fifteen days before had filed away so gaily from the gates of Belgrade. A couple of fevers and a north-easterly storm had thoroughly spoiled our looks.
The interest of Mysseri with the house of Giuseppini was too powerful to be denied, and at once, though not without fear and trembling, we were admitted as guests.