Chapter 20 | The Ancient Dwellings | Yussuf the Guide

Chapter Twenty.

“Look here; stop a minute,” said Mr Burne; “if we’ve got to climb up that break-neck place, hadn’t we better leave these guns and things at the bottom, so as to have our hands clear?”

“No—no—no,” exclaimed Yussuf impatiently; “a man in this country should never leave his weapons out of his reach.”

“Bah! what nonsense, sir! Anyone would think we were at sea again, or in a country where there are no laws.”

“There are plenty of laws, Burne,” said the professor, “but we are getting out of their reach.”

“Highwaymen and footpads about, I suppose?” said the old lawyer mockingly. “My dear sir, don’t put such romantic notions into the boy’s head. This is not Hounslow Heath. I suppose you will want to make me believe next that there are bands of robbers close at hand, with a captain whose belt is stuck full of pistols—eh, Yussuf?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” said their guide quietly. “I should not be surprised. There are plenty of brigands in the mountains.”

“Rubbish, sir; stuff, sir; nonsense, sir!”

“It is true, sir,” replied Yussuf sturdily.

“Then what do you mean, sir, if it is true, by bringing us into such a place as this?”

Yussuf stared at him wonderingly; and Lawrence burst into a hearty fit of laughter.

“Come, come, Burne,” cried the professor; “if anyone is to blame, it is I. Of course, this country is in a very lawless state, but all we have to do is to preserve a bold front. Come along; we are wasting time.”

Yussuf smiled and nodded, and led the way up over the crumbling stones, climbing and pointing out the easiest paths, till they were at the first ledge, and were able to inspect the first group of cliff-dwellings, which proved to be strongly built roofless places, evidently of vast antiquity, and everywhere suggesting that the people who had dwelt in them had been those who lived in very troublous times, when one of the first things to think about in a home was safety, for enemies must have abounded on every side.

For about a couple of hours the professor examined, and climbed, and turned over stones, finding here and there rough fragments of pottery, while Mr Burne settled himself down in a shady corner and had a nap.

Yussuf was indefatigable, moving fragments of rock and trying to contrive ways off the giddy slope to another group of the strange old edifices, to which in due time, and not without some risk, the professor and Lawrence climbed. But there was nothing more to reward them than they had found below, only that the wisdom of the choice of the old occupants was evident, for just as the professor had come to the conclusion that the people who made these their strongholds must have been at the mercy of the enemies who seized upon the spring down below in the ravine, they came upon proof that there was plenty of foresight exercised, and that these ancient inhabitants had arranged so as not to be forced to surrender from thirst.

It was Lawrence who made the discovery, for having climbed a little higher up the cliff face to a fresh ledge, he called to the professor to follow, and upon his reaching the spot, a great niche right in the cliff, deep and completely hidden, there were the remains of a roughly-made tank or reservoir, formed by simply building a low wall of stones and cement across the mouth, when it was evident that the water that came down from above in rainy weather would be caught and preserved for use.

It was all intensely interesting to everyone but Mr Burne, who could not get up any enthusiasm on the subject of whom these people were, and excused himself from climbing higher on account of his back.

They descended at length, and Mr Burne sighed with satisfaction; but Yussuf had more wonders of the past to show the travellers, pointing out a narrow path that ran diagonally up the side of the gully, and assuring the party that if they only made up their minds to ascend bravely there was no danger.

Again it was suggested that Mr Burne should sit down and wait; but the only effect of this was to make him obstinate; and he started forward and followed Yussuf up the steep path.

It was decidedly dangerous in places where the stones had crumbled away, and a slip must have resulted in a terrible fall; but all got well over the perilous parts, and at last they climbed to a platform on the side of the huge rocky mass, where the low crumbling walls showed where a kind of temple had once stood. Here they had an opportunity of gazing down into a valley that was one mass of glorious verdure, through which dashed a torrent, whose waters flashed and glittered where the sunbeams pierced the overhanging trees, and made the scene one of the most beautiful they had seen.

There were more wonders yet, for the face of the rock was honey-combed with caverns which ran in a great distance, forming passages and chambers connected one with the other.

These had evidently been inhabited, for there were marks of tools showing how they had been enlarged, and curious well-like arrangements which suggested tanks; but Yussuf assured the travellers that these holes in the natural rock were used as stores for grain, this being the manner in which it was stored or buried to the present day.

“There,” cried Mr Burne, as they came out of the last cave, and stood once more upon the platform of rock by the ruins, and had a glorious panorama of the defile below—“there, I’ve been as patient as can be with you, but now it’s my turn. What I say is, that we must go back to camp at once, and have a rest and a good lunch.”

“Agreed,” said Mr Preston. “You have been patient. What is it, Yussuf?” he cried suddenly, as he saw the guide gazing intently down at something about half a mile away, far along the winding defile.

“Travellers,” said Yussuf; and in that wild, almost uninhabited region, the appearance of fellow-creatures excited curiosity.

They were only seen for a few minutes before the party of mounted and unmounted men with their baggage were seen to curve round a bold mass of rock, and disappear into a narrow valley that turned off almost at right angles to that by which they had come.

The descent proved more difficult than the ascent, and Mr Burne made several attempts to plunge down or slide amongst the débris instead of trusting to his feet; but these accidents were foreseen, and checked by Yussuf, who went in front, and at the first sound of a slip threw himself down and clung to the rock, making himself a check or drag upon the old lawyer’s progress.

They reached the bottom at last safely, but heated and weary with the long and arduous descent.

Once on tolerably level ground in the bottom of the defile, however, their progress was easy, and, with the anticipation of long hearty drinks at the clear spring, and a good meal from the store on the pack-horses’ backs, they strode on bravely in spite of the heat. The track up to the cliff-dwellings was passed; but now that they were weary, the way seemed to be twice as far as when they were going in the morning, and the defile looked so different upon the return journey that at last Lawrence asked with a wistful look whether they had missed the spring.

Yussuf smiled and replied that it was below, and not far distant now, and a few minutes later they turned an angle in the defile, and came in full view of the patch of verdure that marked its presence in the sterile stony gorge.

“Hah!” ejaculated Mr Burne, “it makes one know the value of water, travelling in a land like this. Only fancy how clear and cold and refreshing it will be.”

He nodded and smiled, for it was his custom after having been in any way unamiable to try and make up for it by pleasant remarks and jocularity.

“Yes,” said Mr Preston; “it does indeed. This mountain air, too, gives one an appetite—eh, Lawrence?”

“Is that curious feeling one has appetite?” said the lad. “I fancied that I was not well.”

“But you feel as if you could eat?”

“Oh, yes; a great deal,” cried the boy, “and I shall be glad to begin.”

“Then it is hunger,” said the professor laughing. “Eh, what?”

This last was in answer to some words uttered loudly by Yussuf, who had walked swiftly on, and entered the little depression where they had left the man with the horses.

“Gone, excellency, gone!” he cried excitedly, for the place was empty; the six horses and the man were not visible.

The little party stood gazing wonderingly at each other.

The water was there, gushing with great force from beneath the towering mass of rock; but their supply of food, their means of progression, the man whom they had engaged—where were they?

Yussuf stood with his hands clenched, and his brow contracted, gazing down at the ground.

Mr Preston looked down the valley in the direction by which they had come that morning.

Mr Burne took out his box, partook of a large pinch of snuff, and blew his nose violently.

Lawrence walked to the spring, stooped down, and began drinking, dipping up a little water at a time in the hollow of his hand.

Then there was a few moments’ silence, and the professor spoke.

“It is very vexatious, just when we were so hungry, but it is plain enough. Something has startled the horses. Your Ali Baba, Lawrence, has been biting them, and they have all gone off back, and Hamed has followed to catch them. There, let’s have a draught of spring water and trudge back.”

“Humph! yes,” said Mr Burne hopefully. “We may meet them coming back before long.”

They each drank and rose refreshed.

“Come, Yussuf,” said the professor. “This way.”

“No, effendi,” he exclaimed sharply; “not that way, but this.”

“What do you mean?” cried Mr Preston, for the guide pointed up the ravine instead of down.

“The horses have not been frightened, but have been stolen—carried off.”

“Nonsense, man!” cried Mr Burne.

“See!” said Yussuf, pointing to the soil moistened by the stream that ran from the source, “the horses have gone along this little valley by the side of the stream—here are their hoof-marks—and come out again higher up beyond this ridge of the mountain. Yes: I know. The valleys join again there beyond where we were to-day, and I ought to have known it,” he cried, stamping his foot.

“Known? Known what, man?” cried Mr Burne angrily.

“That those men, who I said were travellers, were the robbers, who have seized our horses, and carried everything off into the hills.”