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The Captive Missionary
Being an Account of the Country and People of Abyssinia.

By the Rev. Henry A. Stern.

London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1868.

Chapter XI

Departure of the King--Seeking for Truth--Opposition of the Priests--Triumphs of Truth--Death in Prison--Small-pox--Sympathy Unappreciated--Chains Tightened--The Young Pilgrim--Brief Career--Mournful Funeral--Considerate Guards--Nightly Torments--Incipient Sickness--Colocynth Pills--Sickness Forestalled--Kerans a Dentist--Makerer an Oculist.

ASHAMED of his inactivity, and the unchecked progress of the insurrection, which spread like wildfire from province to province, the great king, to the secret delight of the captive and the free, buckled on his sword, and, with his army, crossed the Beshilo. The departure of the tyrant removed the shades that had rested on each brow, and brought contentment, if not comfort, to the heavy heart. We had now visitors every day. Some came to hear what we had to say about our religion; others wanted an explanation of a Scripture passage; and not a few, among whom were the royal scribes, wished to obtain an intelligent knowledge of that Grospel in which they professed to believe. The guards did not approve of these visits, but by coaxing and cups of strong coffee they were won over to our [230/231] side; and almost every day my lair was crowded to suffocation by three, four, and sometimes more, honest and candid inquirers after the truth. Our fellow-captives, provoked to emulation by what they witnessed, also began to inquire into the great and overwhelming question which had excited general attention. A vast majority, of course, could not read, but they were so earnest, that many an old man began to study the alphabet; and very often for hours and hours these illiterate disciples drove one mad with their loud, monotonous chants of hissing consonants and deafening vowels.

The light of truth kindled in the hearts of a few soldiers and captives soon communicated itself to kindred spirits and congenial minds. The priests observed this movement, and clamorously raised their voices to check its onward progress. Their opposition stirred up stagnant superstition, and won fresh supporters to the cause of the Gospel. There were meetings and public disputations, warm debates and sharp threats. The champions of truth appealed to the Bible; and the defenders of error to saints and legends of the Church. These contests, which exhibited the worthlessness of monkish puerilities, and brought out in bold relief the pure and soul-saving declarations of Scripture, invariably proved disastrous to the cause of the Church and its untutored champions. [231/232] Several of the latter, prompted by a solemn conviction that their creed was not in harmony with the Word of God, seceded from their own ranks and joined the number of their opponents, whose very life proclaimed the pure and ennobling doctrines of their faith. What influence these bands of believers may yet exert on their unhappy country it is impossible to prognosticate. They may, to escape the moral pollution of the world in which they live, seek the retirement of the isolated village and solitary mountain range; and they may also, prompted by a holy and divine impulse, like the messengers of glad tidings who in times of yore planted the standard of the cross on the Abyssinian Alps, go forth, in the full ardour of their young love and zeal, to spread far and wide, over scenes of sin and vice, superstition and ignorance, the saving and enlightening knowledge of the Gospel.

Death, the dreaded enemy of the happy and gay, and the friend of the sorrowful and sad, almost disdained the putrescent gaol, where his visits, if not courted, would not have been unwelcome. We had a little sickness, and a few deaths; but each one, wrapt in profound reflection on his own woes, almost unconsciously became indifferent to the woes of others. Each week, perhaps, one died. The funeral obsequies occupied very little time, and excited very little attention. Freed from the toils and troubles of a [232/233] harrowing life, the miserable sufferer had scarcely gasped forth his last breath, when half-a-dozen of his fellow-captives lifted up his shackled and still quivering corpse, and laid it on the bare ground under the prison eaves. The same kind hands, guarded by gaolers, dug, at some distance from the prison-compound, a hurried grave, whilst others wrenched the fetters from the stiffening and iron-wasted limbs. In about an hour all was over. One or two, to whom the departed was dear, shed a silent tear over his mortal remains, and then, without a ministering priest to say, in solemn voice, "dust to dust, and ashes to ashes," the corpse was put into the ground, the clods were rolled over it, and he had ceased to be numbered among the victims of King Theodore's tyranny.

A sudden outbreak of an epidemic, which prostrated its scores, unlike an isolated death, produced a solemnising, but not, what might have been expected, a desponding effect. Death to most had lost its sting, and his approach was regarded with sullen indifference, if not with gloomy satisfaction. In autumn, 1865, numbers of our fellow-prisoners were attacked by that terrible scourge, the small-pox. The groans, shrieks, and lamentations of the sick and dying "wrung every heart with anguish and grief. Removed from friends and relations, whose tender care and assiduity might have assuaged the pangs of disease [233/234] and the agonies of dissolution, the shackled and afflicted sufferers without exception refused to accept the sympathy and attention which charity proffered; and, in mournful and pleading accents, they entreated to be allowed to have a peaceable, and not, as they prophetically anticipated, a forcible exit out of this world.

The scourge, which had for many weeks lingered in and around our prison, gradually abated. A healthier atmosphere was again breathed, and more animation and cheerfulness displayed. No longer was every countenance wrapt in thoughtfulness, and every eye dull and lustreless. There were loud and secret speculations on the tenure of the king's power, and the chances of each rebel's future greatness and success. Whether these unguarded hallucinations were reported to the king by his spies, who infested our prison, or whether they were merely surmises of the suspicious tyrant, this is certain, that some cause of irritation must have occurred, for, quite unexpectedly, all the better class of prisoners had their upper garments, the only dress they could wear, torn in pieces, and their chains more tightly riveted. We were exempted from this penalty--a kindness for which we were indebted to the guards, and not to the king, who was then at Wadela. Grateful that we were left in possession of our scanty wardrobes, and the little money which served to supply our daily [234/235] wants, our eventless weeks rolled on, undisturbed by incidents that could either elate or depress.

It was at this very period, when our prison-life was so even and uniform, that death entered our small circle, and created a painful gap. Little Henry Rosenthal, endeared to every one on account of his innocence, infantine beauty, and sweet disposition, suddenly quitted the narrow confines of an African prison for the glorious mansions of the redeemed. The young pilgrim, whose short sojourn in this lower world had been fraught with trials which, happily, seldom fall to the lot even of the beloved ones of missionaries in the most unexplored and ungenial climes, seemed destined to brighten for a short period the dismal life of his father and mother, and then departed for ever.

Born a few months before his parents' imprisonment, the tender creature just began to be conscious of a mother's loving smile, when, driven from house and home, he had to feed on tears, and to repose on a bosom often, very often, throbbing with the anguish of a breaking heart. Like some tender plant, he gathered strength during an interval of calm, and pined whenever there was a storm.

After the departure of the king from Magdala, all the prisoners began to breathe a freer and more invigorating atmosphere. Little Henry, in the placid countenance of an affectionate mother, intuitively [235/236] perceived that something auspicious had occurred Better clad, better fed, more of cheerfulness and less of sadness around him, like a bird released from a cruel cage, he was always in motion, running, unhindered by guards, from one white prisoner to another, with a gaiety and playfulness as if he had suddenly been transported from the land where the eye is never dry to a scene where weeping is unknown. Shy, and possessing an innate repugnance towards natives, he yet soon became reconciled to the youthful criminals, who, in the absence of other play-companions, led him round the prison inclosure, rolling about a worsted ball, or plaiting stray grasses, which sprang up here and there despite the tramp of countless feet. Several times he also moved beyond the limits of our gaol, and, by special request, visited the mother of Ras Ali, the late ruler of the Amhara country, and also Aboona Salama. The latter, to win the affections of his youthful visitor, offered him glittering watches, crosses, and a variety of attractive objects; but he gazed upon all with an indifferent glance, as if those gaudy trinkets were unsuited to the child of imprisoned parents. The kind-hearted bishop, on observing this unusual indifference to all these gay and fascinating articles, remarked to his guide, a soldier, and a sincere Christian man: "This child bears the impress of heaven, and will not continue long upon earth."

[237] About the beginning of December, 1865, his rosy cheeks began to pale, and a sombre shade, the herald of death, overspread his ever-beaming countenance. He now no longer quitted the tent, or enlivened by his merry laughter the gloomy court of our prison. Two days before his decease, just as a few of us had finished our usual morning devotion, a piercing shriek summoned me to the abode of my fellow-captive. The infant sufferer was then panting and gasping for breath, whilst his deep blue eyes, in mournful glances, wandered from one to the other, as if imploring help and relief. I prayed, with the deeply-afflicted parents, that if the beloved object of their affection was to be removed, the struggle might be short. That prayer, like many others, as perhaps eternity will reveal, which was sighed out in agonies and tears in that doleful spot by one and the other of the sorely-tried white prisoners, was heard, and the spasms that tore and racked that frail frame ceased. In the evening, as was his custom, he folded his tiny hands together, and, raising his eyes solemnly to that spirit-land where the songs of infinite love, and not the clang of fetters, are heard, he devoutly followed every word, as if he understood the import of that prayer in which a mother's grief-wrung heart sought comfort and support. The next day he appeared more animated, but during the night he had a relapse, and ere the morning dawned [237/238] his eyes were closed to earth and earth's pains and woes.

The bereaved parents, deprived of all that had tempered the severity of their misery, lay forlorn and desolate on the hard ground of their prison, bemoaning the loss of their first-born. With our left hands (the right being manacled), McKelvey and myself dressed the corpse in white; and, with the aid of some native fellow-prisoners, made a small coffin of reeds, which the bishop kindly sent us. The grave was dug on an acclivity close to our gaol, and to this spot with tottering steps we followed the first and youngest victim of our captivity to his final resting-place. All the guards, and scores of women, had assembled around the grave; and, amidst the wails and sobs of the multitude, to whom the sweet child had endeared himself, I performed, crippled and bent double by heavy shackles, the touching funeral service of our Church. A month later a fresh tomb had to be raised by the side of the departed for his little sister; and once more, midst the rattle of chains and the prayer of hope, was the earth heaped over the second white child's grave on this sterile and isolated Amba.

The spot where the two children lie interred is marked by a tombstone, two feet high, with the inscription: "Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."

[239] The crippled posture to which we were condemned, the putrescent atmosphere in which we moved, and the bad food which we ate, visibly sapped our health and energies. Some of our party manfully struggled against their hard fate; others, on the contrary, allowed the cruel iron to pierce their soul, till the very excess of their agony brought on a frenzied insensibility. The pain in the spine, of which Consul Cameron and myself suffered most, was very irksome. Happily, we were enabled to open the wrist-rings by night, otherwise we might never again have recovered an upright and erect attitude. Our guards knew the trick we practised, but, as they got now and then a trifling present, they closed their eyes to our nocturnal proceeding. In the day-time, or evening, we could not have ventured to do so, as one or another of the chiefs made a tour of inspection, and the faintest suspicion might have been severely rued. Once I neglected the precaution, and with unfettered hands performed my ablutions. One of the guards at that very moment happened to gaze over the piece of black sergo that shrouded my lair from public scrutiny. He noticed my confusion, and, as if undecided what to do, he glanced at my face, then at my hands, and, at last, like a good man, walked away. I never again violated the prison-law during the day. It was a curious coincidence, that during the whole of our captivity I should have had [239/240] the heaviest shackles on the legs, and the lightest and most easy to open round the wrists. On the day that the latter were fastened on, Kerans, McKelvie, and Rosenthal, all requested to get those that were reserved for me. The guard who had them in his keeping was inflexible, and no persuasion could induce him to part with the easy fetters he had selected for his friend Cocab. I owed this special favour to a copy of the Amharic Gospel, which I had given him a month before.

But it was not the chains alone; there were many other daily trials that tended to brim the cup of gall we had to empty. The days were still endurable, and glided away in converse with follow-prisoners, soldiers, and guards. Most of my companions, immediately after sunrise, sought the shelter of their, huts outside the prison-fence. I never erected one of those tenements, and generally remained within the compound, where scores of criminals did not allow time to hang heavy upon me. The nights were terrible beyond expression. The damp ground, saturated with every kind of fetid and decayed matter, bred, fed, and multiplied all that crept, leaped, and crawled. Torpid and innocuous during the day, they were the more lively and active by night. The weary captive, anxious to seek forgetfulness in sleep, had no sooner wrapt himself in his shama than stings and bites, as if he was in a bee-hive, made him [240/241] convulsively jump and start. To attempt the destruction of the intruders was perfectly ludicrous. Like a stream, they poured down the walls, bubbled up from the stagnant pools, and tumbled from the putrid roof of thatch. Towards dawn, they were either satiated or exhausted from their toils, and then, if the troops of rats, that disputed every inch of ground with their tinier but more lusty rivals, were considerate, one could get an hour's rest, and if not, one had to fight, kick, and beat, a labour not easy for crippled lumps of humanity, till morning came to the relief. Sometimes, I determined to triumph over these malicious midnight bacchanals, and, for a brief half-hour, succeeded. The shama, in which I was enveloped like a mummy, after that interval, would become too close, and, by some unconscious movement of my hand, it exposed the face, and then unbared the left arm. The villainous rats, attracted by the warmth, would instantly stop their open-air gymnastics, and, with a dash that made the blood run cold in the veins, seek to take forcible possession of the warm folds of the covering. Two or three it was easy to dislodge; but a whole family, with their numerous progeny of children and grandchildren, cousins and nieces, extorted shouts of distress that afforded general merriment.

Sickness, too, began to prostrate our party. Every one had bad eyes: the consul and Mr. [241/242] Rosenthal most seriously. I was exempted from this evil, but afflicted with others. We had a few trifling medicines, and these we husbanded most carefully. My own laboratory contained paste of colocynth, opium, and tartar emetic. The selection, if not very choice, was, at least, very potent. Not accustomed to dabble in the healing art, I made experiments on myself ere I tried to tamper with the health of others. My colocynth pills obtained a fame at Magdala that Morison and Holloway might have envied. In-door and out-door patients applied for that wonderful specific against all diseases. I had no objection to part with my pills, but a decided objection to manufacture them. Kerans, who, I believe, had imbibed a profound knowledge of the pill-manipulating process beneath the parental roof, occasionally came to my help, and after we had fabricated two or three dozens, which took about an hour, our hands, and sometimes our faces too, looked frightfully impressed with our profession.

Aboona Salama, much as I liked the kind man as a friend, I dreaded as a patient. Unable to stir out of his house, subjected to a variety of petty annoyances, and stung to the very quick by the perfidy and ingratitude of the tyrant, whom, if he had possessed more sagacity and foresight, he might have chained on that very rock where he was now a prisoner, the poor man, in his despairing ruminations, which [242/243] keenly affected his bodily health, sought solace in my pills, like a drunkard in his bottle, or the miser in his gold. One day he accidentally heard that I had cured an obstinate case of dysentery with my colocynth and opium. Instantly he despatched his boy with a note to the prison, entreating me not to waste my medicine on bad natives. His missive made us laugh heartily. But, if the worthy Aboona was a little selfish in the matter of my pills, he had imitators in the prison--a spot where charity should have expanded and become diffusive. A certain lady, the wife of an imprisoned chief, who had been long subject to a disagreeable disorder, was happily cured by my uniform specific. Grateful for the blessing I had conferred on the partner of his life and the comforter of his captivity, the affectionate husband came to me, and, in a whisper, assured me that he was a very great man, and would ever be grateful to me if I gave an extra dose of medicine to his wife to forestall a relapse of her malady. This exhausted my patience, and I gave him a long, but I fear unprofitable, lecture on "Charity."

If I devoted myself to the healing of internal complaints, Kerans applied himself to alleviate external pains. The Abyssinians, although favoured with good grinders, are not entirely exempt from tooth-ache. Many constantly applied to us for relief. At first we were nervous in our practice, as we had [243/244] no royal diploma, and without such a high sanction it was not advisable to incur the risk of a misrepresentation, which a disappointed patient might perchance fabricate against us. This diffidence speedily wore away, and, encouraged by a few incipient successes, we unflaggingly pursued our healing art. Kerans and his forceps, Makerer and his sulphate of zinc, and myself with the eternal colocynth, were inseparables. My pills, as already stated, did wonders; but they were altogether eclipsed by the miracles performed by my two companions. Fellows with eyes glued together as if they were hermetically sealed, had only to submit to Makerer's potent phial, and in three or four days they were cured. Others, with faces swollen, swathed, and dreadfully woe-begone, needed only a touch of Kerans' forceps, then there was a loud crack, a gory tooth, a stream of blood, a polite prostration, and, what was most welcome, a farewell to pain. They had all implicit faith in the skill of the dentist, and no one, that I recollect, would ever push away his arm, or hoist him down from the heaving chest, till the operation was accomplished. These acts of kindness procured us friends, and we enjoyed privileges which, during our second captivity, when we were in what the king termed his elfin, or harem, handsome largesses could not purchase.

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