Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIV. An Effort for Freedom.
Two or three nights afterwards the old woman again came to Cuthbert, and asked him, in her mistress's name, if in any way he could suggest a method of lightening his captivity, as his extreme youth, and bravery of demeanour, had greatly pleased her.
Cuthbert replied that nothing but freedom could satisfy his longings; that he was comfortable and not overworked, but that he pined to be back again with his friends.
The old woman brought him on the following night a message to the effect that his mistress would willingly grant him his liberty, but as he was sent to her husband by the sultan, it would be impossible to free him openly.
"From what she said," the old woman continued, "if you could see some plan of making your escape, she would in no way throw difficulties in your path; but it must not be known that the harem in any way connived at your escape, for my lord's wrath would be terrible, and he is not a man to be trifled with."
Looking round at the high walls that surrounded the garden, Cuthbert said that he could think of no plan whatever for escaping from such a place; that he had often thought it over, but that it appeared to him to be hopeless. Even should he manage to scale these walls, he would only find himself in the town beyond, and his escape from that would be altogether hopeless. "Only," he said, "if I were transported to some country palace of the governor could I ever hope to make my escape." The next night the messenger brought him the news that his mistress was disposed to favour his escape in the way he had pointed out, and that she would in two or three days ask the governor for permission to pay a visit to their palace beyond the walls, and that with her she would take a number of gardeners--among them Cuthbert--to beautify the place. Cuthbert returned the most lively and hearty thanks to his patroness for her kind intentions, and hope began to rise rapidly in his heart.
It is probable, however, that the black guards of the harem heard something of the intentions of their mistress, and that they feared the anger of the governor should Cuthbert make his escape, and should it be discovered that this was the result of her connivance. Either through this or through some other source the governor obtained an inkling that the white slave sent by the sultan was receiving unusual kindness from the ladies of the harem.
Two nights after Cuthbert had begun to entertain bright hopes of his liberty, the door of the cell was softly opened. He was seized by four slaves, gagged, tied hand and foot, covered with a thick burnous, and carried out from his cell. By the sound of their feet he heard that they were passing into the open air, and guessed that he was being carried through the garden; then a door opened and was closed after them; he was flung across a horse like a bale of goods, a rope or two were placed around him to keep him in that position, and then he felt the animal put in motion, and heard by the trampling of feet that a considerable number of horsemen were around him. For some time they passed over the rough, uneven streets of the city; then there was a pause and exchange of watchword and countersign, a creaking of doors, and a lowering of a drawbridge, and the party issued out into the open country. Not for very long did they continue their way; a halt was called, and Cuthbert was taken off his horse.
On looking round, he found that he was in the middle of a considerable group of men. Those who had brought him were a party of the governor's guards; but he was now delivered over to a large band of Arabs, all of whom were mounted on camels. One of these creatures he was ordered to mount, the bonds being loosed from his arms and feet. An Arab driver, with lance, bows, and arrows, and other weapons, took his seat on the neck of the animal, and then with scarcely a word the caravan marched off, with noiseless step, and with their faces turned southwards.
It seemed to Cuthbert almost as a dream. A few hours before he had been exalted with the hope of freedom; now he was being taken away to a slavery which would probably end but with his life. Although he could not understand any of his captors, the repetition of a name led him to believe that he was being sent to Egypt as a present to some man in high authority there; and he doubted not that the Governor of Jerusalem, fearing that he might escape, and dreading the wrath of the sultan, should he do so, had determined to transfer the troublesome captive to a more secure position and to safer hands.
For three days the journey continued; they had now left the fertile lowlands of Palestine, and their faces were turned west. They were entering upon that sandy waste which stretches between the southern corner of Palestine and the land of Egypt, a distance which can be travelled by camels in three days, but which occupied the Children of Israel forty years.
At first the watch had been very sharply kept over the captive; but now that they had entered the desert the Arabs appeared to consider that there was no chance of an attempt to escape. Cuthbert had in every way endeavoured to ingratiate himself with his guard. He had most willingly obeyed their smallest orders, had shown himself pleased and grateful for the dates which formed the staple of their repasts. He had assumed so innocent and quiet an appearance that the Arabs had marvelled much among themselves, and had concluded that there must have been some mistake in the assertion of the governor's guard who had handed the prisoner over to them, that he was one of the terrible knights of King Richard's army.
Cuthbert's heart had not fallen for a moment. He knew well that if he once reached Cairo all hope of escape was at an end; and it was before reaching that point that he determined if possible to make an effort for freedom. He had noticed particularly the camel which appeared to be the fleetest of the band; it was of lighter build than the rest, and it was with difficulty that its rider had compelled it to accommodate itself to the pace of the others. It was clear from the pains he took with it, by the constant patting and the care bestowed upon its watering and feeding, that its rider was extremely proud of it; and Cuthbert concluded that if an escape was to be made, this was the animal on which he must accomplish it.
Upon arriving at the end of each day's journey the camels were allowed to browse at will, a short cord being tied between one of their hind and one of their fore feet. The Arabs then set to work to collect sticks and to make a fire--not for cooking, for their only food was dried dates and some black bread, which they brought with them--but for warmth, as the nights were damp and somewhat chilly, as they sat round the fire, talked, and told stories. Before finally going off to rest, each went out into the bushes and brought in his camel; these were then arranged in a circle around the Arabs, one of the latter being mounted as sentry to prevent any sudden surprise--not indeed that they had the smallest fear of the Christians, who were far distant; but then, as now, the Arabs of the desert were a plundering race, and were ever ready to drive off each other's camels or horses. Cuthbert determined that if flight was possible it must be undertaken during the interval after the arrival at the halting-place and before the bringing in of the camels. Therefore, each day upon the halt he had pretended great fatigue from the rough motion of the camel, and had, after hastily eating the dates handed to him, thrown himself down, covered himself with his Arab robe, and feigned instant sleep. Thus they had in the three days from starting come to look upon his presence sleeping close to them as a matter of course.
The second day after entering the desert, however, Cuthbert threw himself down by the side of an uprooted shrub of small size and about his own length. He covered himself as usual with his long, dark-blue robe, and pretended to go to sleep. He kept his eyes, however, on the alert through an aperture beneath his cloth, and observed particularly the direction in which the camel upon which he had set his mind wandered into the bushes. The darkness came on a very few minutes after they had halted, and when the Arabs had once settled round their fire, Cuthbert very quietly shifted the robe from himself to the long low bush near him, and then crawled stealthily off into the darkness.
He had no fear of his footfall being heard upon the soft sand, and was soon on his feet, looking for the camels. He was not long in finding them, or in picking out the one which he had selected. The bushes were succulent, and close to the camping ground; indeed, it was for this that the halting-places were always chosen. It was not so easy, however, to climb into the high wooden saddle, and Cuthbert tried several times in vain. Then he repeated in a sharp tone the words which he had heard the Arabs use to order their camels to kneel, striking the animal at the same moment behind the fore-legs with a small switch. The camel immediately obeyed the order to which he was accustomed, and knelt down, making, however, as he did so, the angry grumble which those creatures appear to consider it indispensable to raise when ordered to do anything. Fortunately this noise is so frequently made, and the camels are so given to quarrel among themselves, that although in the still air it might have been heard by the Arabs sitting a short hundred yards away, it attracted no notice, and Cuthbert, climbing into the seat, shook the cord that served as a rein, and the animal, rising, set off at a smooth, steady swing in the direction in which his head was turned--that from which they had that day arrived.
Once fairly away from the camping-ground, Cuthbert, with blows of his stick, increased the speed of the camel to a long shuffling trot, and the fire in the distance soon faded out into the darkness.
Cuthbert trusted to the stars as guides. He was not unarmed, for as he crawled away from his resting-place, he had picked up one of the Arabs' spears and bow and arrows, and a large bag of dates from the spot where they had been placed when their owner dismounted. He was already clad in Eastern garb, and was so sun-burnt and tanned that he had no fear whatever of any one at a distance detecting that he was a white man.
Steering his course by the stars, he rode all night without stopping. He doubted not that he would have at least three hours' start, for the Arabs were sure to have sat that time round the fires before going out to bring in their camels. Even then they would suppose for some time that the animal upon which he was seated had strayed, and no pursuit would be attempted until it was discovered that he himself had made his escape, which might not be for a long time, as the Arabs would not think of looking under the cloth to see if he were there. He hoped, therefore, that he would reach the cultivated land long before he was overtaken. He had little fear but that he should then be able to journey onward without attracting attention.
A solitary Arab when travelling rides straight, and his communications to those whom he meets are confined to the set form of two or three words, "May Allah protect you!" the regular greeting of Moslems when they meet.
When morning broke Cuthbert, even when ascending to the top of a somewhat lofty mound, could see no signs of pursuers in the vast stretch of desert behind him. In front, the ground was already becoming dotted here and there with vegetation, and he doubted not that after a few hours' ride he should be fairly in the confines of cultivated country. He gave his camel a meal of dates, and having eaten some himself, again set the creature in motion. These camels, especially those of good breed, will go on for three or four days with scarcely a halt; and there was no fear of that on which he rode breaking down from fatigue, for the journeys hitherto had been comparatively short.
By mid-day Cuthbert had reached the cultivated lands of Palestine. Here and there over the plain, villages were dotted, and parties of men and camels were to be seen. Cuthbert now arranged his robes carefully in Arab fashion, slung the long spear across his shoulders, and went boldly forward at a slinging trot, having little fear that a passer-by would have any suspicion whatever as to his being other than an Arab bent upon some rapid journey. He soon found that his hopes were justified. Several times he came upon parties of men whom he passed with the salute, and who scarcely raised their eyes as he trotted by them. The plain was an open one, and though cultivated here and there, there were large tracts lying unworked. There was no occasion therefore to keep to the road; so riding across country, and avoiding the villages as far as possible, stopping only at a stream to give his camel water, Cuthbert rode without ceasing until nightfall. Then he halted his camel near a wood, turned it in to feed on the young foliage, and wrapping himself in his burnous was soon asleep, for he ached from head to foot with the jolting motion which had now been continued for so many hours without an interval. He had little fear of being overtaken by the party he had left behind; they would, he was convinced, be many hours behind, and it was extremely improbable that they would hit upon the exact line which he had followed, so that even if they succeeded in coming up to him, they would probably pass him a few miles either to the right or left.
So fatigued was he with his long journey, that the next day he slept until after the sun had risen. He was awakened suddenly by being seized by a party of Arabs, who, roughly shaking him, questioned him as to where he came from, and what he was doing there. He saw at a glance that they were not with the party from which he had escaped, and he pointed to his lips to make signs that he was dumb. The Arabs evidently suspected that something was wrong. They examined the camel, and then the person of their captive. The whiteness of his skin at once showed them that he was a Frank in disguise, and without more ado or questioning, they tied him hand and foot, flung him across the camel, and, mounting their own animals, rode rapidly away.
From the position of the sun, Cuthbert saw that they were making their course nearly due east, and therefore that it could not be their intention to take him to Jerusalem, which was to the north of the line they were following. A long day's journeying, which to Cuthbert seemed interminable, found them on the low spit of sand which runs along by the side of the Dead Sea. Behind, lofty rocks rose almost precipitously, but through a cleft in these the Arabs had made their way. Cuthbert saw at once that they belonged to some desert tribe over whom the authority of Suleiman was but nominal. When summoned for any great effort, these children of the desert would rally to his armies and fight for a short time; but at the first disaster, or whenever they became tired of the discipline and regularity of the army, they would mount their camels and return to the desert, generally managing on the way to abstract from the farms of those on their route either a horse, cattle, or some other objects which would pay them for the labours they had undergone.
They were now near the confines of their own country, and apparently had no fear whatever of pursuit. They soon gathered some of the dead wood cast on the shores of the sea, and with these a fire was speedily lighted, and an earthenware pot was taken down from among their baggage: it was filled with water from a skin, and then grain having been placed in it, it was put among the wood ashes. Cuthbert, who was weary and aching in every limb from the position in which he had been placed on the camel, asked them by signs for permission to bathe in the lake. This was given, principally apparently from curiosity, for but very few Arabs were able to swim; indeed, as a people they object so utterly to water, that the idea of any one bathing for his amusement was to them a matter of ridicule.
Cuthbert, who had never heard of the properties of the Dead Sea, was perfectly astonished upon entering the water to find that instead of wading in it up to the neck before starting-to swim, as he was accustomed to do at home, the water soon after he got waist-deep took him off his feet, and a cry of astonishment burst from him as he found himself on rather than in the fluid. The position was so strange and unnatural that with a cry of alarm he scrambled over on to his feet, and made the best of his way to shore, the Arabs indulging in shouts of laughter at his astonishment and alarm. Cuthbert was utterly unable to account for the strange sensations he had experienced; he perceived that the water was horribly salt, and that which had got into his mouth almost choked him. He was, however, unaware that saltness adds to the weight of water, and so to the buoyancy of objects cast into it. The saltness of the fluid he was moreover painfully conscious of by the smarting of the places on his wrists and ankles where the cords had been bound that fastened him to the camel. Goaded, however, by the laughter of the Arabs, he determined once more to try the experiment of entering this strange sheet of water, which from some unaccountable cause appeared to him to refuse to allow anybody to sink in it. This time he swam about for some time, and felt a little refreshed. When he returned to the shore he soon re-attired himself in his Bedouin dress, and seated himself a little distance from his captors, who were now engaged in discussing the materials prepared by themselves. They made signs to Cuthbert that he might partake of their leavings, for which he was not a little grateful, for he felt utterly exhausted and worn out with his cruel ride and prolonged fasting.
The Arabs soon wrapped themselves in their burnouses, and feeling confident that their captive would not attempt to escape from them, in a place where subsistence would be impossible, paid no further attention to him beyond motioning to him to lie down at their side.
Cuthbert, however, determined to make another effort to escape; for although he was utterly ignorant of the place in which he found himself, or of the way back, he thought that anything would be better than to be carried into helpless slavery into the savage country beyond the Jordan. An hour, therefore, after his captors were asleep he stole to his feet, and fearing to arouse them by exciting the wrath of one of the camels by attempting to mount him, he struck up into the hills on foot. All night he wandered, and in the morning found himself at the edge of a strange precipice falling abruptly down to a river, which, some fifty feet wide, ran at its foot. Upon the opposite side the bank rose with equal rapidity, and to Cuthbert's astonishment he saw that the cliffs were honeycombed by caves.
Keeping along the edge for a considerable distance, he came to a spot where it was passable, and made his way down to the river bank. Here he indulged in a long drink of fresh water, and then began to examine the caves which perforated the rocks. These caves Cuthbert knew had formerly been the abode of hermits. It was supposed to be an essentially sacred locality, and between the third and fourth centuries of Christianity some 20,000 monks had lived solitary lives on the banks of that river. Far away he saw the ruins of a great monastery, called Mar Saba, which had for a long time been the abode of a religious community, and which at the present day is still tenanted by a body of monks. Cuthbert made up his mind at once to take refuge in these caves. He speedily picked out one some fifty feet up the face of the rock, and approachable only with the greatest difficulty and by a sure foot. First he made the ascent to discover the size of the grotto, and found that although the entrance was but four feet high and two feet wide, it opened into an area of considerable dimensions. Far in the corner, when his eyes became accustomed to the light, he discovered a circle of ashes, and his conjectures that these caves had been the abode of men were therefore verified. He again descended, and collected a large bundle of grass and rushes for his bed. He discovered growing among the rocks many edible plants, whose seeds were probably sown there centuries before, and gathering some of these he made his way back to the cavern. The grass furnished him with an excellent bed, and he was soon asleep.