Chapter 30 | A Terror of the Country | Yussuf the Guide

Chapter Thirty.

It was now evening, but instead of the air becoming cooler with the wind that blew from the mountains, a peculiar hot breath seemed to be exhaled from the earth. The stones which had been baking in the sun all day gave out the heat they had taken in, and a curious sombre stillness was over everything.

“Are we going to have a storm, Yussuf?” said Mr Burne, as he looked round at the lurid brassy aspect of the heavens, and the wild reflections upon the mountains.

“No, excellency, I think not; and the people here seem to think the same.”

“Why? They don’t say anything.”

“No, excellency, but if they felt a storm coming they would have long ago hurried back to their houses instead of sitting here so contentedly waiting to see the effendi dig out his treasure.”

For the people had not budged an inch, but patiently watched every movement made by the travellers, crouching as it were, ready to spring forward, and see the first great find.

But the professor made no great discovery. He was evidently right about the building having been a temple, and it seemed as if an altar must have stood there, bearing a figure of which he picked up several pieces beautifully sculptured, but nothing that could be restored by piecing together; and when, wearied out, he turned to examine some other parts of the old temple, the most interesting thing that he found was a piece of column, nearly buried, and remarkable for containing two of the rounds or drums secured together by means of molten lead poured through suitable holes cut in the stones.

“There,” he said at last, “I have been so deeply interested in what I have seen here, that I owe you plenty of apologies, Burne, and you too, Lawrence.”

“Humph!” grunted the old lawyer, “you owe me nothing. I would as soon stop here and look about at the mountains, as go on somewhere else. My word, though, what a shame it seems that these pigs of people should have such a glorious country to live in, while we have nothing better than poor old England, with its fogs and cold east winds.”

“But this peace is not perfect,” said the professor. “And now, look here; we had better go back to our last night’s lodgings. We can get a good meal there and rest.”

“The very thing I was going to propose,” said Mr Burne quickly. “Depend upon it that man will give us a pilaf for supper.”

“And without Yussuf’s stick,” said the professor smiling. “But come along. Let’s look at the horses.”

The horses were in good plight, for Yussuf and Hamed had watered them, and they had made a good meal off the grass and shoots which grew amongst the ruins.

They were now busily finishing a few handfuls of barley which had been poured for them in an old ruined trough, close to some half dozen broken pillars and a piece of stone wall that had been beautifully built; and, as soon as the patient beasts had finished, they were bridled and led out to where the professor and his friends were standing looking wonderingly round at the peculiar glare over the landscape.

“Just look at those people,” cried Lawrence suddenly; and the scene below them caught their eye. For, no sooner had the professor and his companions left the coast clear than these people made a rush for the hole, which they seemed to have looked upon as a veritable gold mine, and in and about this they were digging and tearing out the earth, quarrelling, pushing and lighting one with the other for the best places.

“How absurd!” exclaimed the professor. “I did not think of that. I ought to have paid them, and made them with their tools do all the work, while I looked on and examined all they turned up.”

“It would have been useless, effendi,” said Yussuf. “Unless you had brought an order to the pasha of the district, and these people had been forced to work, they would not have stirred. Ah!”

Yussuf uttered a peculiar cry, and the men who were digging below them gave vent to a shrill howl, and leaped out of the pit they were digging to run shrieking back towards the village on the other slope.

For all at once it seemed to Lawrence that he was back on shipboard, with the vessel rising beneath his feet and the first symptoms of sea-sickness coming on.

Then close at hand, where the horses had so short a time before been feeding, the piece of well-built wall toppled over, and three of the broken columns fell with a crash, while a huge cloud of dust rose from the earth.

The horses snorted and trembled, and again there came that sensation of the earth heaving up, just as if it were being made to undulate like the waves at sea.

Lawrence threw himself down, while Yussuf clung to the horses’ bridles, as if to guard against a stampede, and the driver stood calmly in the attitude of prayer.

Then again and again the whole of the mountain side shook and undulated, waving up and down till the sensation of sickness became intolerable, and all the while there was the dull roar of falling stones above, below, away to the left and right. Now some huge mass seemed to drop on to the earth with a dull thud, another fell upon other stones, and seemed to be broken to atoms, and again and again others seemed to slip from their foundations, and go rolling down like an avalanche, and once more all was still.

“Is it an earthquake?” said Lawrence at last in a low awe-stricken tone.

“Seems like a dozen earthquakes,” said the old lawyer. “My goodness me! What a place for a town!”

And as they all stood there trembling and expecting the next shock, not knowing but the earth might open a vast cavity into which the whole mountain would plunge, a huge cloud of dust arose, shutting out everything that was half a dozen yards away, and the heated air grew more and more suffocating.

It was plain enough to understand now why it was that in the course of time this beautiful city should have been destroyed. The first disaster might have been caused by war, but it was evident that this was a region where earth disturbance was a frequent occurrence, and as time rolled by, every shock would tear down more and more of the place.

Very little was said, for though no great shock came now, there were every few minutes little vibrations beneath their feet, as if the earth was trembling from the effect of the violent efforts it had made.

Now and then they held their breath as a stronger agitation came, and once this ended with what seemed to be a throb or a sound as if the earth had parted and then closed up again.

Then came a lapse, during which the travellers sat in the midst of the thick mist of dust waiting, waiting for the next great throb, feeling that perhaps these were only the preliminaries to some awful catastrophe.

No one spoke, and the silence was absolutely profound. They were surrounded by groves where the birds as a rule piped and sang loudly; but everything was hushed as if the thick dust-cloud had shut in all sound.

And what a cloud of dust! The dust of a buried city, of a people who had lived when the earth was a couple of thousand years or more younger, when western Europe was the home of barbarians. The dust of buildings that had been erected by the most civilised peoples then dwelling in the world, and this now rising in the thick dense cloud which seemed as if it would never pass.

An hour must have gone by, and they were conscious as they stood there in a group that the mist looked blacker, and by this they felt that the night must be coming on. For some time now there had not been the slightest quiver of the ground, and in place of the horses standing with their legs spread wide and heads low, staring wildly, and snorting with dread, they had gathered themselves together again, and were beginning to crop the herbage here and there, but blowing over it and letting it fall from their lips again as if in disgust.

And no wonder, for every blade and leaf was covered with a fine impalpable powder, while, as the perspiration dried upon the exposed parts of the travellers, their skins seemed to be stiff and caked with the dust.

“I think the earthquake is over, excellencies,” said Yussuf calmly. “I could not be sure, but the look of the sky this evening was strange.”

“I had read of earthquakes out here,” said the professor, who was gaining confidence now; “but you do not often have such shocks as these?”

“Oh, yes, effendi; it is not an unusual thing. Much more terrible than this; whole towns are sometimes swallowed up. Hundreds of lives are lost, and hundreds left homeless.”

“Then you call this a slight earthquake?” said Mr Burne.

“Certainly, excellency, here,” was the reply. “It may have been very terrible elsewhere. Terrible to us if we had been standing beside those stones which fell. It would have been awful enough if all these ruins had been, as they once were, grandly built houses and temples.”

“And I was grumbling about poor dear old sooty, foggy England,” said Mr Burne. “Dear, dear, dear, what foolish things one says!”

“Is not the dust settling down?” said the professor just then.

“A little, your excellency; but it is so fine that unless we have a breeze it may be hours before it is gone.”

“Then what do you propose to do?” asked Mr Burne.

“What can I do, excellency, but try to keep you out of danger?”

“Yes, but how?”

“We must stay here.”

“Stay here? when that village is so near at hand?”

Yussuf paused for a few minutes and then said slowly, as if the question had just been asked:

“How do we know that the village is near at hand?”

“Ah!” ejaculated the professor, startled by the man’s tone.

“It was not more than two of your English miles from here, excellency, when we left the place this morning, but with such a shock there may be only ruins from which the people who were spared have fled.”

“How horrible!” exclaimed Lawrence.

“Let us hope that I am wrong, effendi,” said Yussuf hastily. “I only speak.”

“But we cannot stay here for the night,” said Mr Burne impatiently.

“Excellency, we must stay here,” said the Turk firmly. “I am your guide, and where I know the land I will lead you. I knew this country this morning, but how can I know it now? Great chasms may lie between us and the village—deep rifts, into which in the dust and darkness we may walk. You know what vast gorges and valleys lie between the hills.”

“Yes,” replied Mr Preston.

“Some of these have been worn down by the torrents and streams from the mountains, others have been made in a moment by such shocks as these. I would gladly say, ‘come on; I will lead you back to the head-man’s house,’ but, excellencies, I do not dare.”

“He is quite right, Burne,” said the professor gravely.

“Oh, yes, confound him: he always is right,” cried Mr Burne. “I wish sometimes he were not. Fancy camping out here for the night in this horrible dust and with the air growing cold. It will be icy here by and by.”

“Yes, excellency, it will be cold. We are high up, and the snow mountains are not far away.”

“We must make the best of it, Lawrence, my boy,” said the professor cheerily. “Then I suppose the next thing is to select a camp. But, Yussuf, this is rather risky. What about the asps?”

“And the ants,” cried Mr Burne with a groan. “I can’t sleep with such bed-fellows as these.”

“And the djins and evil spirits,” cried Lawrence.

“Ah, I don’t think they will hurt us much, my boy,” said the professor.

“And there is one comfort,” added Mr Burne; “we have left the cemetery behind. I do protest against camping there.”

“A cemetery of two thousand years ago,” said the professor quietly. “Ah, Burne, we need not make that an objection. But come, what is to be done?”

Yussuf answered the question by calling Hamed to come and help unpack the horses, and all then set to work to prepare to pass the night in the midst of the ruins, and without much prospect of a fire being made.