Hope Deferred--Embarrassing Negotiations--Approach of Mr. Rassam--The Artisans' Disappointment--Delightful Message--Removal of Fetters--Strange Sensation--Departure from Magdala--Ominous Intelligence--Arrival at Gaffat--Camp of Mr. Rassam--Order of March--Samuel's Kiss--Theodore's Dissimulations--Malicious Charges--New Garments--Sham Trial--Alleged Offences--Forced Admission--Royal Satisfaction--Solomon's Seal--Suspicious Intimations.
"Hope deferred makes the heart sick." The truth of this aphorism of Israel's wise king we had experienced in its fullest latitude. For months and months we had yearningly waited for the letter from her Majesty the Queen, which we all believed would decide our doom. Time, precious above computation, glided by, and still that document, which we regarded as the charter of our liberty, did not make its appearance. Secret factions in the royal camp, numerous desertions from the ranks, and a general disposition to revolt throughout the whole land, all prognosticated a revolution which would inflict a terrible retributive lesson on relentless despotism, and entail countless sufferings on the tyrant's hapless victims. Delays became every moment more dangerous. The crafty tyrant, in the zenith of his [245/246] glory, wanted to make capital out of his foreign captives, and, now that rebellion was accelerating his fall, we felt sure that he would either drag us with him into ruin, or seek, by our instrumentality, to raise a barrier between his throne and an enraged people. Mr. Rassam, we knew, had been more than a year in Massowah, waiting most anxiously for permission to enter Abyssinia. He had already written twice to the king, without receiving a reply, and the third letter, to which an answer was tendered, we heard from the royal scribes, was so rude, coarse, and uncivil, that we felt sure it would abruptly suspend all further negotiations.
Political sagacity and diplomatic skill, which hitherto had certainly not improved our position, now threatened to aggravate it. Prom Gaffat, where the European workmen resided, there sounded the ominous alarm: "If Mr. Rassam does not come you will be lost first, then ourselves." On the Amba the expressions were less emphatic, but the gestures more significant. Dejatch Mered, a Tigré prisoner of note, who was in many of our secrets, as he aided us in keeping up communication with our friends on the coast, repeatedly assured me, that if Mr. Rassam did not comply with the king's request, the fate of the murdered Gallas would be our own. In this critical emergency Consul Cameron wrote to Mr. Rassam, and urged him to [246/247] come. I also sent him a few lines, which are published in the Blue Book of 1846-1868, but as I was no official, and the causes of my captivity were erroneously, or, perhaps, designedly attributed to sins that would never have caused the chains to rattle around my limbs, I merely told him that if he ventured into Abyssinia, the enterprise was laudable, and God would also bless it.
In November, 1865, tidings reached us that Mr. Rassam was on his march, and would probably reach the royal camp in December. The intelligence thrilled our hearts with delight. In the joy inspired by the faint hope of liberty, some of us did not forget that human efforts, unaccompanied by the Divine blessing, would be unavailing to effect this end. This gave fresh fervency to our prayers, and seldom did humble faith and anxious fear waft a sweeter incense to heaven than ascended in those days from the narrow confines of our Magdala prison.
At Gaffat, among the royal workmen, the approaching advent of the British envoy suggested a variety of speculations. They were all positive that no one would be liberated without their previous advice and assent. This conviction had taken such firm hold on their minds that Waldemeier wrote me a long letter in which he informed me that neither himself nor his brethren would intercede [247/248] for my release if I had, since my captivity, written against them. [This charge referred to an article in the Egyptian, on the "marriages and lives of these men. The report, it was alleged, emanated from me, and though I repudiated it again and again, they pertinaciously insisted that I was the author.] To their vexation and disappointment Mr. Rassam was summoned to the royal camp at Damot, and there and then, without any Gaffat council, the order was issued for the liberation of the captives. [The king was informed, whether directly or indirectly, that his white workmen were offended that they had not been consulted on the subject of our liberation. His Majesty forwarded them the following message: "My children, the great Queen of England has sent me a very great man, and I have released the prisoners."]
On the morning of February 24th, 1866, Agha Faree Grholam, and another inferior messenger, arrived at Magdala. With the rapidity of lightning the report spread that he had come to release us. All were instantly in a state of feverish exultation. Many of our friends amongst the guards caught a kind of sympathetic hilarity from their captives, and though they did not display it openly in vehement expressions, one could read in their very looks a contentment and joy that needed no utterance. About four o'clock Consul Cameron, myself, and afterwards the rest, according to royal orders, received a summons to come outside the prison. Most of the Amba chiefs were seated on the south-eastern slope fronting the prison, chatting, laughing, and criticising the fortunes of the Frendjoj. [248/249] The appearance of the royal messenger put a stop to all talk and merriment. "Consul, Cocab, Rosenthal, &c," began the subordinate messenger: "The king, nay master, has charged me to inform you that he has received a letter from your Queen, through her envoy, Mr. Rassam, and that in conformity with the request embodied in the same, he has been pleased to order your liberation." Painful and inconvenient as it was to prostrate ourselves in hand and foot chains, we managed most gracelessly to tumble down in token of gratitude for the Royal favour. Poles, ropes, and wedges to wrench off the fetters, were quickly supplied by the Amba chiefs. The clumsy operation, as usual, inflicted many a gory scratch and wound, but who cared for physical pain when the illusive visions of liberty, friends and home, floated before the enraptured eye. Our gait on the removal of the manacles resembled that of a thoroughly drunken man. We staggered, reeled, and sank down. All was swimming before the eyes or moving beneath the feet. To make a regular firm step was beyond the reach of possibility. We walked on air. Each one, as the shackles dropped from his limbs, was gently supported by two or three kind friends, but notwithstanding every effort, the frame was too light and the head too giddy to maintain the equilibrium, and we rolled towards Ras Gedana Miriam's house [249/250] more like revellers from a scene of debauch than prisoners released from their manacles. In the Amba commandant's house we met Agha Faree Gholam who reiterated the royal message, and then all squatted down to partake of a liberal Lenten repast. The same evening we were to have quitted the Amba for Salamege, but as this would have involved much inconvenience and great fatigue we requested to postpone our departure till next morning, a favour which was readily granted. Most of us did not sleep, nor attempt to sleep, that night. A mingled feeling of happiness on account of our deliverance, and of secret surmises about future consequences, kept us in a state of tumultuous agitation. With daylight we repaired to Salamege, and there we encamped. On the 27th, Agha Faree Gholam made his appearance at the head of a considerable division of the Magdala garrison, who, as the roads were infested with bands of rebels, had orders to escort us down the Djiddah. Our daily stages were long and fatiguing, but what did we care for exhausting marches when we knew that each step diminished the distance that lay between us and those dear faces, in whose smiles, chains and captivity, Theodore and Abyssinia, would be forgotten.
On approaching Graffat the ardour of our spirits sustained a terrible check. We had received a variety [250/251] of conflicting news. One day a royal messenger brought tidings to the chief of our escort that we were to hurry on, as the king wanted to expedite our departure before the rainy season came on; the next, that we were to proceed slowly, as the exertion of fast travelling after the long confinement might prove injurious to our health; and then again, that we were not to leave till the rains were over. [On the whole march we were always surrounded by two or three hundred soldiers, or armed peasants, who watched us with lynx eyes by day and by night. It was pretended that this precaution was requisite, as the country was disturbed; but I believe the precaution was dictated by a suspicious fear that we might distrust the king, and decamp.] Flad, Staiger, Brandeis, Essler, and Schiller, the only Europeans at Gaffat, as the rest, consisting of workmen, had all been ordered to Quarata, the temporary home of the British envoy, wrote to us several times on passing events. Their last missives, however, contained the startling intelligence that his Majesty, under the superintendence of Mr. Rassam, was going to build a fleet to navigate the Tzana, and that we would all have to fell trees, chop wood, and make ourselves useful in the ship-building line. [Mr. Rassam was asked some questions about ship-building, but he shirked the question by pleading, what was wise and prudent, utter ignorance of the art.] Staiger, in a letter to Consul Cameron, reminded the latter that if he complied with the Negoos' wishes he had a splendid opportunity to regain his forfeited good graces. Our chief, the Agha [251/252] Faree, got similar tidings. He understood the import of the message, and with an honesty that was a perfect libel on his character, he assured us that we would not leave Abyssinia so very soon.
On the 7th we reached Graffat. The five Europeans located there met us at some distance from their homes. Our conversation naturally centred on the ship-building question. They could give us no further information beyond that which we had already obtained. It was a shameful mockery of the tyrant to deceive us with promises of freedom, when in reality he only designed to protract our captivity. I tried, and tried hard, to shake off those gloomy fears that obscured with their troubled shadows the bright vista of my future. The effort was unsuccessful, and neither converse nor travel could dispel the vague presentiment of a renewed captivity.
Near Quarata, where Mr. Rassam and his two companions were encamped, messenger after messenger came, in rapid succession, with commands of a very questionable character. All, I believe, issued from Samuel, who, as baldaraba of the envoy, sought to enhance his master's greatness in the eyes of the Abyssinians by imperious commands to his friends or guests. We were to come in European clothing, stockings and boots, and, if my memory is correct, with our faces washed. We were not to ride on pell-mell, but in regular order. Cameron [252/253] was to lead the procession; close on his heels was to come Cocab--i.e., myself--then Rosenthal, Flad, Kerans, &c. Some strictly conformed to all these behests, and others disregarded them all. I certainly washed my face, but coat, stockings, and European trousers were articles to which for months and years I was a perfect stranger. Two or three hundred yards from the envoy's camp we were met by Samuel, all radiant and beaming. Like, I wanted to say, Judas--no, like the penitent prodigal, he fell round the neck of each, and imprinted a kiss of fraternal affection. The kissing business over, he conducted us, in a stately procession, into the tent of Mr. Rassam, where we met with a sincere, cordial, and hearty welcome. Mr. Rassam did not share my own and Consul Cameron's apprehensions about the successful issue of his dangerous mission. He had hitherto only seen the tyrant in his good and gracious humour, which had imposed on more than one foreign representative.
Theodore was a consummate adept in dissimulation. He had deceived the Copt Patriarch; his successor, Abdul Rachman Bey; the French Consul, Mons. Lejean; the Nayeeb of Arkiko; Consul Cameron; and last, though not least, Mr. Rassam. Flattered by a mission from one of the greatest sovereigns of the universe, it is possible that his intentions on his arrival were more honest than the [253/254] freaks of fancy or the insinuations of malice allowed him afterwards to adopt. This is certain, that Mr. Rassam met with a reception the most flattering ever accorded to a foreigner in Abyssinia. Not only was Theodore himself all condescension, but his courtiers and people were strictly enjoined to follow the royal example. Every wish of the ambassador's was to be gratified, and every request in her Majesty's letter was to be granted. The captives, or, as the artful despot, in deference to the envoy's sensibilities, courteously styled them, "the Magdalodj," were to be released; the mission was to be treated with royal honours; not the most trivial whim that could minister to their gratification was to be denied to the distinguished guests. Damot, on the borders of Godjani, where "the great men" first witnessed the full blaze of Theodore's magnificence, was, in token of gratitude for their safe advent, or some other equally plausible pretext, plundered of more than 80,000 heads of cattle to furnish broundo for the royal table; and the Island of Dek, according to Dr. Blanc, had to fork out 10,000 dollars--all their earthly possession--to fill the ambassador's money bags.
These acts did more than counterbalance the atrocities of the tyrant towards his unfortunate prisoners, whom he styled ill-tempered, ill-humoured, and mad. lie was right; some, perhaps, were mad, [254/255] but it was the long period of unparallelled misery and torment to which he subjected them that produced it. Mr. Rassam was, however, enchanted with Theodore, and if a suspicion now and then arose in his mind, he did not in word or look betray his surmises. Some of the workmen who were in the royal confidence acted their part well in this horrid farce, which wrung tears of blood from the eyes of the captives, their kindred, and friends.
Our friend Mr. Rassam kindly supplied us with the most needful garments. He had charitably provided himself with a stock of shirts, stockings, handkerchiefs, and shoes, which he generously divided among the prisoners. Coats and trousers were at a premium. Consul Cameron and myself got each a coat from Mr. Rassam. Mine was a little narrow and short, as I am about half a foot taller than Mr. Rassam, but still it was a better fit than Consul Cameron's, who outtopped his brother officer by a foot. Kerans, with the aid of a native tailor, stitched together a few pieces of red merino, and though it did not bear a full resemblance to an over-coat, frock-coat, or hunting jacket, it was nevertheless gorgeous, and he swaggered about in all the terrors of a flame-wrapt spirit. The rest, by a fortunate accident, had either preserved some remains of their former wealth, or they were too fondly attached to the native fashion [255/256] to adopt so easily another and less convenient mode.
On the 15th, three days after our arrival at Quarata, a grand sham trial of the prisoners was instituted in Mr. Rassam's tent. The officials in their military and diplomatic uniforms formed a striking contrast to the prisoners in their quaint garbs, the white workmen in their flaring silks, and the royal delegates--of whom Waleda Gaber, formerly a servant of M. Barroni, who was a servant of Consul Plowden, a rascal of no mean degree, was the chief--formed altogether a group worthy the pencil of a Rembrandt. When all were in proper trim, Alaga Engeda, the chief royal scribe, read the charges. He commenced with Consul Cameron, against whom a long indictment was preferred. His most grievous offences were that he had neglected the king's letter and gone to his enemies the Turks, where, he was informed, he had lowered and insulted him. On his return, to use the official language of the protocol, "I (the king) asked him, 'Where is the answer to the friendly letter I intrusted you with; what have you come back for?' He said to me, 'I do not know.' I said to him, 'You are not the servant of my friend the Queen, as you had represented yourself to be;' and by the power of my Creator I imprisoned him."
The next charge was against M. Bardel on [256/257] the subject of his mission to France, and the last against all the other prisoners, myself included, was, that instead of defending him against the aspersions of his enemies we had joined in abusing him.
We all, as strictly enjoined by Mr. Rassam, acknowledged our offences and humbly craved the royal clemency. This admission was not a matter of choice, but sheer necessity. On my first trial at Gondar I defended myself boldly. This, the European workmen subsequently alleged, closed their lips and neutralised their influence with the king in my behalf. At Zeghee, on the fifth or sixth trial of the unfortunate captives, less than a month after the above judicial mockery, I was the impersonation of humility, and then these very men who, two years before found a plea for their indifference to the cruel position of a fellow creature in his pride, discovered an apposite pretext for a similar unconcern in his own and his companions' excessive humility. Mr. Rassam's presence gave quite a new phase to our affairs. It was henceforth no longer the prisoner's lives alone that hung on a slender thread, but in their fate was bound up the fate of the envoy and his companions. The king was most anxious for a pretext to stir up fresh complications, and nothing would have more delighted his unprincipled spies than to construe [257/258] a word or gesture into an accusation to effect this object. The prisoners--I mean the principal prisoners--penetrated the designs of the worthy Negoos, and had he charged them with murder sacrilege, or any other revolting crime, I believe they would, without wasting their breath, have all most tacitly listened to the indictment.
His Majesty pretended to be delighted with the result of the trial, and compliments the most exaggerated and fulsome were exchanged between the camp of the king on the southern extremity of the Lake Tzana and that of the British envoy on the eastern shore. "My children," was one, "I am full of gratitude for what you have done: come to me, I will kiss your hands and feet."
Solomon's seal, with which the members of the mission were to be decorated, now progressed most admirably, at an inverted ratio. The artist who was intrusted with the workmanship was coaxed and flattered, lauded and admired, to accelerate, if possible, the movement of his tools on the flattened precious plate. The Abyssinian lion, I believe, had claws; but, oh! the inscriptions--they were most provokingly slow in starting into existence. I took the most lively interest in the operations going on in the workshop of Zander, one of the king's European employés, and although I never went there myself, I heard enough from all the [258/259] other visitors to make me conjecture that the elaborate decorations would not obtain the finishing touch before the Greek Kalends.
Wearily glided the sluggish hours into days, days into weeks, and at last the welcome intelligence reached the mission camp that saddles, swords, and other trinkets which were to form a part of the presents for the embassy, had arrived from Debra Tabor. They were blessed tidings. No more delays--no more trials--no more chains. The very thought sent the blood in delicious glow through the throbbing veins. Alas! short is the happiness of frail humanity. The seals, those abominable seals, they were still in embryo, and far, far from completion! I always, notwithstanding his faults, admired the inspired writer of the matchless Book of Proverbs, but regard and veneration were now scattered to the winds, and the wise monarch rose before my mind like a ghastly unsightly spectre. Whether Zander's fingers were palsied, or whether an ominous warning checked the progress of the work is, and probably will continue, a secret to the end of time.
The Solomonic decorations, his Majesty at last declared, were not to protract our stay. Unfinished, unadorned, and unembellished, they were to be suspended round the necks of the honoured ambassador, his two companions, and--if Dr. Blanc is right--[259/260] the worthy Bappoo. [This excellent personage was Mr. Rassam's Indian butler. He had already received a silken shirt, which raised him to the rank of noble, and though he bore this dignity with becoming meekness, I question whether the seal of Solomon glittering on his breast would not have produced an opposite effect.] We received portentous hints about workmen, compensation, hostages, and other equally significant and vexatious matters. The distrustful prisoners trembled, the less suspicious mission hoped. Theodore had convoked a great council, and debated the question of our departure. The concentrated wisdom of the nation was for our exit, his Majesty against it. The European workmen, whose opinion was also consulted, chimed in with the voice of the multitude. Zander, who had that morning evidently fortified himself with a few extra glasses of potent tedj, proved the adage, in vino veritas. He reproached the king with his cruelties and the outrageous tortures inflicted on the white prisoners. "You say these men are badalanyodj" (transgressors) continued the elated orator; "no, you are a badalanyo. You have ruined your country, drenched it with blood, and closed it permanently against all Europeans." The great Negoos, who was also in his cups, retorted: "Let good men only come [He forgot that he had Mr. Rassam, whom he styled a good, sweet, dear man.] and I will treat them well--not men like Cameron, who, to my question replies by pulling his beard; [260/261] or that French Consul, who made his appearance on a donkey like a beggar, with a paper in his hand written by a scribe (the French minister); or that man Cocab, the ally of my enemy and traducer the Aboon. Let good men only visit my country, and I will show that I know how to appreciate them."