Easter Day--An Ambiguous Compliment--Contemptible Trickery--The sullen Agha Faree--Delightful Ride Unappreciated Attentions--Royal Missive--Confiscation of Valuables--Uncomfortable Position--Conflicting Rumours--Comfortless Lodging--Voyage across the Tzana--The Royal Robber--The Mission Arrested--Diplomacy Foiled--Grand Court--Meekness and Rage--Diplomatic Manoeuvre--The Christian Diplomatist--Gymnastic Performances--Sworn Friendship.
LENT was now drawing to a close, and the long season of abstinence was about to be followed by days of revel and debauch. Our friends at Magdala, when they heard of Mr. Rassam's arrival, congratulated us on the auspicious circumstance that he reached the camp when the king was the greater part of the day sober and amenable to reason, and not, as at other times, drunk and crazy. Unfortunately, incidents, over which we had no control, protracted our stay, and at last the dreaded weeks of festive hilarity and drunken riots, to our dismay, closed in upon us. Our own Easter fell on April 1st, and that of the Abyssinians--who pretend to follow the oriental churches in their computation--the Sunday following. We had on that occasion, for the first time, [262/263] Divine worship in the envoy's tent, which the European colony completely filled. Some of us, after service, commemorated the dying love of the Saviour, a privilege we had not enjoyed for nearly three years. It was a sad and mournful band that gathered around the table of the Lord on that distant and inhospitable shore, and in the emblems of a Saviour's suffering compassion sought calmness, strength, and support for their ruffled and fainting hearts.
Easter brought felicitations and compliments, sheep and cows in regal profusion. The released prisoners did not share in these tokens of royal favour. They were still in the shade, and only brought prominently forward when the despot by reproaches and insults wanted to indemnify himself for his condescension towards the envoy. Thus, in an interview with Samuel during the Abyssinian Passion-week, he told that worthy that he wished to see the captives--the word Magdalash was again in abeyance. Samuel, who had changed his tactics since the advent of the envoy, whom he hoped to accompany down to the coast, where he knew good dollars abounded, promptly rejoined: "Has your Majesty not dirt enough, that you want more?" The compliment was rather ambiguous. Samuel, however, meant it kindly. He was tired of his falling master. He had performed many a dirty [263/264] trick, had betrayed many an innocent man, pressed hot tears out of many an eye, and all that he received in return consisted in cuffs, abuse, and empty promises. Contempt and disgust for the tyrant, together with an alarm for his own life, wonderfully stimulated his desire to win the good graces of Mr. Rassam, and, as this could only be done by accelerating our departure, he exerted himself most laudably to effect this object.
It is said that a ripple on the ocean warns the expert mariner of the impending storm, and this certainly was the case with us at this critical juncture of our captivity. All sorts of sinister and well-founded rumours reached us. It was said that the king had enclosed an empty space with a high fence, that he talked very often about kasa (compensation), that he stood in communication with certain spies, and that he was undecided whether he should be kind or severe, pleased or angry, with the Frendjoj. It was at this time that a packet for the coast, containing letters about our release, was twice seized by the king's people, and brought back to the royal camp, from whence it was despatched to Mr. Rassam. This was not only mean, but base and contemptible. He had himself sanctioned the despatch of those letters, and ordered the Governor of Quarata to send one of his own people to accompany the messenger; so that he had not even the shadow of an apology for [264/265] his dishonourable proceedings. It proved, however, that he was anxious to pick up a quarrel; and, to effect this, he became indifferent to that pride and dignity of which, when it suited him, he knew well enough how to brag.
Our anxiety increased in intensity as the days multiplied. At length, on the morning of April 11th, Agha Farce Gholam; Lidj Abitou, a Belessa chief; Kasai, his friend; and a few other stars of lesser magnitude, made their appearance in the mission camp with orders for our departure. This was the most surprising and agreeable intelligence we had received since our misfortunes. With alacrity we hastened to make the few necessary preparations for our journey. Mr. Rassam and his two companions were not to start with us. They were the dear friends of the king, and, as such, the Negoos could not allow them to leave without a parting interview. The rest, as Samuel designated them, were "dirt," and not worthy to behold the glorious countenance of his Majesty, a privation for which we knew how to console ourselves. Agha Faree Grholam, our uncouth, semi-negro friend, did not share in the satisfaction which prevailed in our small camp. There was a forbidding leer in that one glittering eye, which the small-pox had most ungenerously left him, to fill up, I presume, the black catalogue of pillage [265/266] and murder entrusted to him by his worthy master, that caused me a pang whenever I glanced at him. He had swallowed down substantial pieces of quivering broundo, drained many a berrile of potent arackee and tedj, and still his spirits, were below zero. It could not be an evil conscience that was at work within him; for a man like him, whose very garments were drenched in blood, could not have much of a conscience, and even if he had, it was torpid, or altogether in abeyance. I had no tedj or arackee to offer him; but, instead of these delicacies, for which most Abyssinians will sell their souls, I almost drowned him in excellent coffee. The genial beverage did not melt the ice of his soul, or loose the strings of his tongue. He was sullen, morose, and unsociable. There was something on his heart which evidently troubled and perplexed him. He had a kind of doggish affection for some of us, partly on account of the presents he had received, and also partly on account of the kindness and courtesy he had invariably experienced, and this rendered his taciturnity still more suspicious. Several times I tried to worm out the secret, by questioning him, in a most coaxing tone, about our journey; but, like one of those ugly, squatting, Indian idols, he sat motionless and mute. Once only, in reply to a dubious wish that he might be the chief of our escort, did he yawn forth, in croaking accents, "Koi, [266/267] Koi" (wait, wait). He knew that a detachment of royal troops was on the road to seize us, and very likely the secret would not have remained enshrined in his black bosom, had he not justly dreaded the consequences it might involve. In the afternoon, a grand council was convoked at Quarata, which was attended by all the magnates of the place. Samuel was one of the wise men who constituted that conclave, and it does not reflect much credit on the ungrateful courtier, that a cowardly fear deterred him from warning his new master, Mr. Rassam, of our coming troubles.
The following morning, which was to consummate our Abyssinian exodus, we hailed with joy and delight. Mr. Rassam, his companions, and the European workmen, at sunrise embarked in a small fleet of bullrush boats for the royal camp, and about two hours afterwards the late Magdala captives, the three missionaries, and two hunters on parole at Gaffat, in high glee sprang on their saddles and trotted away. [Mr. Flad was an agent of the London Jews' Society; Messrs. Staiger and Brandeis agents of the Scotch Church; and Messrs. Schiller and Essler were hunters in connection with several German museums. They were not allowed to leave the country, but were not chained up in prison.] Our road lay across rough and uneven paths lined with stinging nettles, and broken by dried-up canals and deep ruts. This, however, we did not notice, our excited imaginations tinted [267/268] every object with lovely colours, and we stumbled over holes and ditches, brushed along weeds and bushes in the delirium of a most ecstatic dream. Our guards never flagged in their vigilance. They were in the rear and in the front, on the right and the left; in fact, wherever we wandered there they hovered around us.
After all, we had misunderstood Theodorus. Did not the very attentions of the guards prove that the reconciliation, at least on his part, was quite sincere? Did not those watchful eyes, that gleamed on us whenever in our rapture we deviated from the right path, show how precious we were to his heart? Did not the solicitude which every soldier manifested for our safety demonstrate how tenderly his late prisoners had entwined themselves around his deepest and best affections? Smite on your breasts, prostrate yourselves on the ground, and acknowledge that Theodore is a grossly injured monarch, and a most amiable and forgiving Christian. Such, perhaps, were the thoughts that floated through the mind of one or the other on that short hour's travel. At the village where we alighted, a whole detachment of troops, without lance or sword, probably in order not to awaken any suspicion, sat basking in the sun's mild rays. We wanted to encamp outside the fence that encircled the fragile tenements of the district governor's
abode, but were solemnly assured that this was impossible. "You," we were told, "are friends of the king, and we cannot allow you to camp in the open air where hyaenas, leopards, and lions may disturb your nocturnal slumbers." This was kind, provident, and considerate; and, with all our disgust for enclosures which we had imbibed at Magdala, we readily yielded to the commands of these cautious men. When our tents were all pitched, Lidj Abitou and his friend Kasai paid me a visit. I ordered some coffee, but he refused to drink any as he was so very busy in attending to our rations. En, passant, he enquired whether I or any of my companions had fire-arms. I told him that I had none, and the majority of my companions were also unprovided with arms, swords, or weapons of defence. He chuckled on hearing this, and then walked away, evidently pleased with the idea that the capture of the white men could be effected without any serious resistance. Late at noon we were all summoned into a hut to hear a letter read which it was pretended had that moment arrived from the king. We all thought that it was a parting epistle, embodying the following or similar contents: "I am well, and hope you are well. I love you, and want you also to love me. Send me cannon and gun makers to chastise my bad people, who advised me to chain you. By your [269/270] favour, and the power of ... I shall send their bodies to the grave and their souls to hell. Farewell."
The haystack-shaped cabin, on our entering, to our surprise, was closely lined by well-armed troops. We did not exhibit any fear; but, placing ourselves in front of the compact mass of sentinels, with some internal trepidation awaited the issue of these strange and mysterious proceedings. Beitwodet Tadlo, a chief of some note, who perished a year later under the executioner's knife, after putting some questions to his subordinates about our numbers, and whether all were present, unfolded a paper, and, lifting it on high, inquired whether we knew the seal. "Yes, it is the king's," was the simultaneous response. "Guards, seize them!" and instantly each one was in the iron grasp of two or three ruffians. The blow was so sudden that we had no time to reflect or make any conjecture. One or two ejaculated "Are these villains going to murder us?" Quiet and order being restored, the royal epistle was next read. It began, as usual, in the name of the Trinity--the blasphemous despot had learnt to interlard his abominable effusions with Scripture sentences--it then adverted to the friendly feeling that had always subsisted between the king and Mr. Rassam; touched in ambiguous language on an unhappy quarrel [270/271] that had marred their attachment; and finally closed with an injunction to put us in chains, but not to maltreat us by any other infliction of suffering. Fetters--the heaviest I had yet seen--were soon hammered around the well-trained right and left wrists of each pair, and thus linked together we were driven, well watched, into prison. The two ladies and their children were exempted from this rigorous guardianship, and they had a quiet but sad night in a tent that was assigned for their sole occupation. Our luggage was, of course, strictly-examined, and all money and valuables confiscated for the royal treasury. Most of us had some papers and notes we were anxious to destroy. I had nothing that could compromise me, except a few cash accounts from the bishop, to which his seal. was attached. I was, however, anxious to consign to the flames every vestige of written paper in my possession, and to do this I got the basket which contained them, and whilst Kerans--my companion--was eating, I consigned one after 'the other to the flames of the flickering taper I held under the folds of my shama. So long as Kerans' appetite lasted I knew that I was safe, but I dreaded lest he should stop before I had finished. [Abyssinians never look at a man whilst he is taking his meals, as they dread the influence of an evil eve.] He had certainly already swallowed bread and pepper enough [271/272] to cloy the appetite of any reasonable being, and still there I was toiling and sweating over my candle and basket. "Do finish, Mr. Stern, or the guards will see you, for I cannot eat any more," his plaintive voice whispered in my ears. "Take one piece more," I persuasively rejoined, "and then I have done." Again there was a pause for a few seconds, when once more, with a jerk that made the chains rattle, my companion, in louder and less gentle accents exclaimed, "Hang the Aboon and his accounts. I won't eat any more, for I shall get sick." "Don't be churlish, my good fellow," was the rejoinder, "there is no necessity that you should cat to surfeit; chew a rag, and no one will suspect your digestive faculties." During this colloquy my papers disappeared, and I had one care less on my shoulders.
Early next morning we retraced our steps to Quarata. On the road our servants hunted in all directions for news. The reports they brought to us were most conflicting. One had heard that Mr. Rassam was restored to the royal favour; another that he was in chains; and a third that he and his companions had been executed. Judging from the tyrant's vicious temper, the latter story appeared most probable. But what could have induced him to perpetrate such an outrage? Mr. Rassam, we knew, had not offended him; and against the old [272/273] prisoners, we were certain, he had not any fresh causes of complaint. Our speculations were most painful, and, at the same time most unsatisfactory. Death had lost all its terrors; life alone was fraught with troubles and cares. The executioner's sword would have been merciful compared to the horrid suspense we had to endure. At sunset we were marched into Quarata, and lodged in two separate houses. We had no bedding, not even a hide to sleep on. Our luggage was in charge of guards, and those dastardly poltroons would not allow us a rag without the royal sanction. Condemned to a captivity that appeared destined to last as long as the tyrant's reign, the mind almost revolted from conjectures, and if now and then faith portrayed to the imagination happier scenes than a dungeon and chains, one shrank from the ever-disappointing vision, as the sensitive plant from the finger's touch.
The weary night at last waned, and the grey light of dawn began to be visible through the chinks and holes of our prison. The clanking of chains and the sound of steps roused the snoring guards, who would gladly have slept half an hour more, had their restless charge been a little more considerate. By the time our braves had girded on their unwieldy swords, swathed themselves in their bulky belts, and removed the barricades that [273/274] protected the doors, orders came that we should proceed to the lake, where boats were ready to convey us to the royal camp.
On our arrival at the beach, we found our acquaintance, Agha Faree Grholam, the "negad ras" (chief of the merchants), and a few other distinguished and exalted personages. Mrs. Waldemeier, daughter of the late Mr. Bell, by his first native wife, was also there. She could not give us any positive news, except that the king was angry because Mr. Rassam had despatched the Magdala prisoners without a personal interview and reconciliation with him. Samuel and Cantiba Hailu, whom she did not particularly admire, she further told us, were in disgrace, and that probably they would have to bear the brunt of their master's ire. The springs of my belief in the king and every one, directly or indirectly, connected with him were, however, dried up, and nothing remained but an unfeigned trust in the promises of Him who could save and deliver his ill-used and maltreated servants.
The voyage across the lake in fragile boats, and in couples closely chained, was not very agreeable. Agha Faree Gholam called Kerans and myself several times along his boat to partake of some of the luxuries with which he had provided himself. Despite the splashing oars, broiling sun, and swollen [274/275] wrists, we had a good appetite, and the good cheer of our chief was highly appreciated. The most woe-begone of our party were the Indian servants of the mission. Boola, Mr. Rassam's valet, consoled himself in his fetters by a vague Moslem belief in adamantine decrees; but Francis, the Goa Portuguese, who had no such consolation, was pale and livid with contending passions. His whole frame quivered as he held up to our gaze the fetters in which he was tied, whilst his voluble tongue poured forth incoherent English and Hindostanee abuse on the king and everyone else whom he disliked. "Very good king," he shouted across to us. "Plenty dollars--ten thousand to ambassador--fine country--much execution--king fine gentleman, very fine," and then there would follow an outburst in Hindostanee, that must have been unique, for it made even the sedate Boola roar with laughter.
Mid-day we reached Zeghee. Several of the European workmen on our arrival came out of the royal enclosure, but they took no notice of us, cor even sent a servant to inquire after the welfare of their brethren, of whom three were in our party. They were certainly slaves, or, as the king used to style them, most servile and subservient slaves. In getting out of the boats each one was searched, to see if he had any money about his person. This [275/276] act was not dictated by hostile feeling towards us, but by pressing want. The soldiers were starving, the loyal provinces impoverished, and the exchequer drained and empty. These were contingencies that weighed heavily on his Majesty's mind; and as the wretched Frendjoj had a few dollars, the unscrupulous son of Solomon, who was never particular about the tuum, thought he might as well appropriate them to his own use. He had plundered me before of more than two hundred pounds in cash, besides a valuable collection of manuscripts, a watch, clothing, photographic apparatus, &c. I pardoned him those robberies, as he had at least some extenuation in the custom of the country, but to deprive a number of pardoned prisoners of a few paltry dollars was an act worthy of a mean thief, and not of a mighty king.
The "stand and deliver" business over, we were led into the ready-prepared fence, to which I have before alluded, where a small tent was erected for our accommodation. We were scarcely settled in our new home, when bread, pepper, tedj, and cows came pouring into our fence. The royal purveyor who accompanied these bounties, with a glow of pride, told us that he was the slave of his Majesty, and had a message for his children. "Janehoi," quoth the modest slave, who might have spared himself the trouble to announce his character, which [276/277] was legibly written on every line of his grim face, "has charged me to tell you that he hopes you are all well. He has sent you so much bread, pepper, &c, &c, which you will eat and be merry. May God soon release you." We made a most humble obeisance, and then the whole procession whirled round, and, headed by the big man, the royal slave, marched off.
We had not yet seen any one of the mission, but we got all the particulars of their seizure, maltreatment, and arrest. It did not take so much time, nor were there so many precautions adopted, as with the less dignified and more desperate old criminals. They were conducted to the audience hall, an oblong cabin; asked a few questions about the whereabouts of the prisoners; why they had not come to Zeghee, and who had given them leave to depart; and then three ruffians rushed on each, and declared them prisoners. A whole string of questions were put to Mr. Rassam, to which he gave firm and decisive replies. He particularly insisted that the prisoners had started with his Majesty's sanction, and under the charge of an escort provided by him, and he might have added, that had he brought them to Zeghee, the king would have subjected him to still coarser severity because he had done so. The shameless braggart actually--at the very moment that he informed Mr. Rassam that he [277/278] had intended to give us mules and money--at that very moment his banditti were rummaging our poverty-stricken luggage bags, to rob us of the little cash in our possession. His Majesty, during the whole of the proceeding, was invisible. This did him credit, as it showed that he was not yet what he subsequently became--lost to all shame.
The following morning there was a grand court within the royal enclosure, to try the prisoners. It was a meagre and beggarly affair compared to the imposing spectacle presented on a similar occasion, a little more than two years before at Gondar. The tyrant himself, if he cast a retrospective glance at the past, must have felt the contrast most dire and rueful. He was then in the zenith of his power. Success everywhere attended his arms, and in the flush of glory the infatuated man really began to think that he was the Theodorus of prophecy. All was now reversed. His army had dwindled down from 150,000 warriors to about 05,000 ruffians. His extensive realm had shrivelled into a few provinces, and his schemes of foreign aggrandisement had become confined to a desperate struggle with home rebels. Had he reflected, he might have remembered that his power began to wane from the very hour that a scarred, lacerated, and bleeding missionary lay insensible at his feet; but he had sold himself to work evil till [278/279] the bolt of justice put an end to his desolating career.
Driven along like a gang of galley slaves, we hurriedly traversed the camp, from whence, through a wide passage in the royal fence, we were ushered into the presence of the judge, jury, and audience. His Majesty was on an alga or divan; the members of the mission on his right, about ten yards in front; the European workmen about double the distance in the same line; and the rest, consisting of military chiefs, officers, and priests, were ranged in a semicircle, according to their rank. We were placed in a row at the farthest end of the assemblage, opposite the alga. His Majesty asked us a few questions about our health and welfare, which we acknowledged in prostrations so exact and uniform as to do credit to our long training. Consul Cameron, in whose behalf, it was said by high and low, soldier and chief, the mission had visited Abyssinia--a report not at all creditable to those who spread it--was ordered to be released of his chains, and placed near his brother officers. M. Bardel, probably on account of some special service, had the same honour assigned to him; and the rest, who had neither merit nor official position, were obliged to gratify, in their humiliating fetters, the gaze of the assembled multitude. The questions propounded were of the old stereotyped stamp, with, a few [279/280] embellishments to heighten their effect. We were, of course, all meekness and submission. The fiendish malice in the tyrant's eye, even more than words, expressed his disappointment with our conduct. He wanted to find an excuse for his vile treachery and base designs, in the boldness of the captives, or in their defence of paltry charges preferred against them. His scheme failed, and he had to seek some other subterfuge to palliate his past proceedings, and to throw a veil over his well-matured, nefarious projects. "My children," he then said to his workmen, who were called before him, "is it right that I should ask for Kasa" (compensation)? Waldemeier and Zander, in their excitement, said loudly, "Kasa is very good." Perhaps if they had remembered that so many ears were listening with intense interest to every word they uttered, they would have expressed their opinion sotto voce, for they were both expert Abyssinian courtiers of the real, genuine, and unmistakable type. The rest were more politic, except Saalmiiller, who said distinctly, "No, Kasa is bad." These, then, were the men who, a few days before, had boldly requested the king to sanction our departure? The story is true, but the motives by which they were actuated will remain a mystery. It is most likely that the bold straightforwardness of the native chiefs excited their emulation--an indiscretion for which some at least atoned [280/281] by a diplomatic manoeuvre, that screened them from his Majesty's displeasure.
Before the court was dissolved Mr. Rassam and his party were ordered to rise.
The compressed thin lips and spasmodic contortions of the king's bloated face indicated something boisterous, but he restrained himself, and merely said, "Why did you send the prisoners away before I was reconciled with them? Are you my masters? I want England to be my friend, for we two can make a hedge around Senaar. [Senaar, the former capital of the Soudan, for centuries paid tribute to Abyssinia. This had been stopped since its annexation to Egypt--an insult which rankled deeply in the tyrant's heart.] Now you remain with me; and wherever I go, you will go; and wherever I stay, you will stay." Mr. Rassam, undaunted by royal rhetoric, like a Christian and a gentleman, in becoming terms, requested our release. His Majesty grinned, and then rejoined, "Enough for to-day."
On the ensuing morning our fetters were taken off, and a treaty of peace, amity, and eternal love concluded between Theodore, Consul Cameron, Cocab, Roos, and all the late captives. The ceremony required a fearful amount of prostration--a task which we performed with wonted credit. Consul Cameron alone made a mess of it. His spine or knees were evidently out of working order, for he [281/282] neither toppled down nor rose up in conformity with the prescribed court etiquette. The masters of the ceremony were quite in distress, and they had to do their utmost to get him through the ordeal. After we had performed our gymnastic feats, the king played his part in the comedy. He was perfect in the art of dissimulation. There the great Negoos lay on the ground, mild, gentle, and penitent, imploring, in language the most tender and solemn, the forgiveness of those whom he had, under mistaken impressions, wronged and injured. It was a performance no Othello ever rivalled. We would gladly have clapped our hands, and applauded the histrionic artist, but as this was unbecoming in. a royal theatre, we contented ourselves by repeated entreaties that the actor should rise. The farce over, we were told to sit down, whilst several documents were read to us for our edification. Our relatives' mournful and affecting petition made us forget the nonsensical ceremony in which we had taken such an active share, and with thrilling emotions we listened to every word of that tender appeal. The tyrant himself, as he said, when he received it about a month before, was deeply touched on perusing its contents, and the seriousness he evinced when it was read to us in English, a language of which he understood not a word, showed that the impression was not entirely effaced.
Harmony and peace being restored, the king dictated two letters--one for her Majesty the Queen, and another for our relations, which were to be conveyed to England by Mr. Flad, who, as he had a wife and three children to leave as hostages, was selected for that post. The one to our friends contained the tidings that for the sake of the Queen of England he had given us over to Mr. Rassam, the other to her Majesty, this significant phrase: "We, the people of Ethiopia, are blind, and we beg your Majesty that you should give light to our eyes;" or in plain language, "we want some more hostages, and then we shall seek to enforce our conditions."