George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life



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Satisfied with his inspection, he at last made the ascent, coming up a nearly perpendicular shaft, worked by water-power, in the large and dirty basket in which the ore is lifted to the surface. He then proceeded to the smelting-houses, where the quicksilver is extracted from the ore. These were about a mile from the town; but the furnaces were not at work at that time of year – October – on account of the fumes thrown off being so extremely deleterious to vegetation and to the cattle which fed upon it, as in grazing they, of course, took up a certain amount of the mercury deposited upon the herbage.

The smelting, or, as it might more properly be called, the distilling, of the mercury is only carried on in winter, when the fumes that escape from the furnaces fall upon the surface of the snow, which in that mountainous country covers the earth, and are washed away when the thaw comes in the spring. The poorer ores are crushed under stamps, and the mineral is separated by dressing and shaking tables. The richer stuff is at once carried to the furnaces, where it is roasted, and the mercurial fumes which are evolved by this process are collected in adjoining chambers. Henty goes on, like a mining expert, to criticise the imperfect way in which the processes are carried out, adjudging that under better management the fumes which spread over the surrounding country would be far less noxious.

The total amount of quicksilver produced by this one mine annually is about two thousand five hundred pounds, and this is exported in iron bottles for the use of the gold and silver mines of Mexico, Peru, and Brazil.

Surprise was expressed at the commencement of this chapter that literature had not lost her able writer for boys by his being absorbed by the mining profession. His remarks concerning miners gained from his own observation pretty well justify this comment, for, moralising upon the people under observation at the quicksilver mines of Idria, he says that among no class of the population of various countries is there so great a resemblance as between miners. However the peasantry in general may attire themselves, the miner wears a universal garb. He shaves closely, so that the dust and dirt, which his occupation involves, may be the more readily removed when he returns to the upper air; and if the workers in the lead-mines of the island of Sardinia (where he had been, to study them), the Slav from Illyria, the Frenchman, the Belgian, the Cornish, Welsh and Newcastle miner, with all of whom he had made acquaintance, were massed together, the shrewdest observer would be puzzled to separate the men belonging to the different nationalities. They wear the same coarse flannel attire; they have the same loosely-hung limbs, the same muscular development about the shoulders, and the same weakness of leg; their faces are uniformly pale and sallow from working in places where daylight never penetrates; they are hard drinkers, strong in their likes and dislikes, very independent, and great sticklers for their rights.

Certainly, he continues, these Idrian miners are more fortunate in many respects than their fellows, for their houses are singularly large, clean, and commodious.

Their government lays a considerable extra tax upon wine, because its use is very hurtful to the men engaged in the mercury works, but its price does not prevent the miners from partaking of it freely.

Henty slept in Idria but one night, and he found it very late before the little town settled into tranquillity. Every time he closed his eyes and endeavoured to go to sleep, a burst of discordant singing from parties returning from wine-shops reminded him unpleasantly that miners will be miners all the world over.

The next morning he left for Italy, and he amusingly describes his experiences of travel in a primitive conveyance hung very low, without any springs whatever. This should have been drawn by a pair of horses, but was actually only drawn by a single beast trotting upon one side of the pole. The shaking upon the rough road traversed was something terrible, and in the course of a six hours’ journey he was rather glad of a rest of half an hour and a relief from the shaking.

As the village inns were all alike, he describes one as a sample, in which he partook of some very weak, warm stuff which they called broth. The room set apart for the meal was low and whitewashed, crossed by the rough beams which supported the room above. In one corner was an immense stove, five feet high and six feet square, covered with green-glazed earthenware tiles. A seat ran round this, and upon the top a layer of maize was spread out to dry. In another corner was a small cupboard. But even there art was represented by roughly-coloured prints dealing with the Prodigal Son, in the attire of a Venetian senator of the Middle Ages. There was a crucifix with a small lamp upon it, a great clock like those seen in English country cottages, with a preternaturally loud tick, and there was a strange-looking table, which he found upon examination was a paste-board and flour-bin combined. Three puppies and two kittens scampered and played about upon the floor, which was of stone, but beautifully clean.

Reader, do you like struddle? Most probably you are quite ignorant of what the question means. Henty was in precisely the same mental condition when, after eating his soup, his hostess asked him if he would like some struddle.

Henty assented, without having the slightest idea of what struddle might be, and the hostess brought in a plate of what resembled boiled three-corner puffs; but, though sweet, they were not triangular jam tarts, for the contents were principally onions and parsley, and quite uneatable.

Chapter Fourteen.
The Abyssinian Campaign

Henty was not one who, during a long life, indited many letters dealing with his ordinary social communings with his friends, from which chapters might be extracted concerning his thoughts upon political or social subjects, his leanings towards life in general, or his interest in some special subject. He rarely wrote home save, as has been before said, to tell of the state of his health, referring those he loved to his long professional letters in the columns of the journal he represented. But in justice to one of the most industrious of men, his family fared, as far as interesting and descriptive matter was concerned, much better than those connected with the most chatty of correspondents, who scatter manuscript as opposed to his print.

Autobiographies are few. There are plenty of the young and enthusiastic who begin life by writing a journal, but those who keep it up to the end are very, very rare. Unconsciously, however, George Alfred Henty pretty well passed his days in writing his own life, and, as fate would have it, a life of the most stirring kind.

The letters he did write to his colleagues upon business, those of a social nature, or on matters connected with some literary transaction to a fellow club member, as well as those between editor and contributor, or with the positions reversed, were always the same – written in a minute neat hand upon small note-paper and in violet ink. But of the many possessed by the writer not one seems to contain material that would be interesting to the general reader. Owing, perhaps, to their want of egotism, they do not tell their own tale of the man’s nature one half so well as the columns he wrote during his long connection with the newspaper press.

And thus it is that through his early manhood onward, through maturity to his thoroughly vigorous old age – if it can be termed old age when a man is robust and virile till beyond three-score years and ten – Henty’s life formed so many chapters of energetic and active career, marked, as it were, by passages generally warlike, connected with the warfare of nations.

At the time of which one is writing, that is, the year following the freeing of Italy, he spent much of his time making tentative unofficial efforts with his pen; but this was prior to the commencement of the long series of novels and stories written especially for the youth of England. For the next year he began to devote considerable attention to his little yacht, finding exercise and refreshing peaceful life afloat. Yachting was the one hobby of his manhood, and a recreation in which he indulged himself at every opportunity, even to the very last. In this way he recouped himself, and made up for the worry and excitement such as falls to the lot of a war correspondent, who is never free from the strain of thinking out what will be the most interesting thing to record among the many incidents occurring around him. There is invariably anxiety about how to write and where to write, and when the account is written the additional worry of how to get in touch with the post and make sure that you have done everything possible to ensure the matter reaching its destination safely and expeditiously.

The year’s comparative rest that followed the adventures in Italy was needed, for Henty was awaking fully to the fact that a war correspondent’s life makes a heavy drain upon the stored-up forces of the Bank of Life; and it must not be forgotten that his health exchequer in youth was at a very low ebb.

It may have been instinct – the natural desire of the weak to gain strength – that induced Henty to direct his attention so much to the sea; and without doubt this favourite pursuit of yachting, which took him away from town life, from the strain of mind and the weary hours at the desk, to where he could breathe the free air of heaven and cast off care, strengthened him and prepared him for the next bout of duty that he would be called upon to undertake.

It was just a year after the conclusion of the Italian war when he was called upon to gird himself for another period of active service, and leave civilised Europe for the heats and colds of semi-barbarous mountainous Africa. The cry of the sufferers had awakened patient Britain to the fact that she could no longer stop her ears to the piteous plaint of the captives, no longer suffer the mocking insolence of the defiant ignorant ruler, King Theodore of Abyssinia; and Sir Robert Napier was preparing his forces for the invasion of that comparatively unknown and warlike land.

All this is well-recorded history. Henty’s adventures begin with his start for the front, after reaching Bombay, where his first troubles commenced with the choice of attendants. Servants swarmed, but experience seemed to show that it was considered the correct thing to hire oneself out to a master bound for Abyssinia, and, just before he left, to disappear with his purse and any handy portable property.

Henty’s first experience was with a mild Hindoo, who directly after fell sick, while this man’s brother, engaged by a colleague, was at the last moment melted by the tears of an aged and despairing mother, and the two rogues decamped laden with plunder.

This difficulty got over, necessaries were packed, and a vessel was chosen in which Henty and a friend were to sail in company with some of the troops. They were a little disturbed, though, when they discovered that the only available bath below had to be removed to make room for three and a half tons of gunpowder. It was a change which by no means added to their comfort or to their feelings of security.

However, in spite of hindrances and delays, he, a brother special, and three officers made their start, choosing by preference to sleep on deck, partly because the nights al fresco were delightful, though rather cold, but more on account of the imaginary dangers that might arise from the monsters which haunted the berths below. It may have been the effect of imagination and extreme terror, but these creatures appeared to be as large as cats, and much quicker footed, probably from having more legs. Their horns resembled those of bullocks, and in their utter fearlessness of man they attacked him ferociously. Henty christens them vampires, though he does not record that they practised the bloodthirsty habits of those creatures, and then he comes down to plain fact and explains that his b?tes noires answered to the common name of cockroach.

One of his first experiences of sleeping on deck with his comrades was to be awakened by a splash of water in his face, and as the vessel was given to rolling he attributed this to spray; but only for an instant, for down came a rush of water as if emptied from a bucket. In a moment he was upon his feet to begin dragging his bed over to leeward. Then came a rude awakening to the fact that the splash and the bucketing were caused by rain, which raged down as if pumped by a hundred steam fire-engines. There was nothing for it but to laugh, as the party gained the cabin floor drenched, and with their silken pyjamas clinging to their skins.

The customary troubles on board the small vessel, laden to a great extent with heterogeneous stores, came to an end, but not without incident, for navigation in the Red Sea is a most intricate and dangerous business, as its western shore is studded with islands and coral reefs.

The vessel was running along with a favourable breeze, and Henty had been watching the low shore with its stunted bushes and strange conical hills bearing a fantastic resemblance to hay-cocks, while a mighty range of mountains loomed up in the distance. The outlook was interesting enough, for this was his first sight of Abyssinia; but then came a very narrow escape. They were sauntering about, watching the land and listening to the calls of the sailor heaving the lead in the chains. First it was ten fathoms, then two minutes elapsed and the man cried five fathoms, whereupon a shout came from the captain: “Stop her! Turn her astern!” In the momentary pause of the beat of the screw the sailor’s voice came again: “Two fathoms!” – a dire warning to those on board the steamer.

But the screw had been reversed, and the yellow water was foaming round them, showing that the sand at the bottom of the shallow water was being churned up as the steamer, still forging more and more slowly ahead, came to a standstill. Then the fact was patent that they were ashore; while thoughts of shipwreck began to be busy in the brain.

The customary business of trying to get the vessel off ensued; orders flew about; the vessel was driven ahead, then astern; but she remained fast, and seemed to be moving only on a pivot.

The troops and crew were ordered up and tramped here and there – marching aft, then forward, but without result. They were run in a body from side to side, to give the vessel a rolling motion. Still no result. Then another plan was tried, so as to loosen the craft from the clinging sand and work out a sort of channel; and this was managed by the soldiers running to one side and then jumping together, then back across the deck and jumping again, the effort being made by every active person on board, till it seemed as if all were engaged in a frantic war-dance.

After this anchors were got out, and the men set to work at the capstan, the only result being that they seemed to be fishing for coral, pieces of which were dragged up looking ominously suggestive of what would happen if some of the glistening white dead rock pierced the vessel’s skin.

There seemed at last to be no chance of getting off unless a portion of the cargo were discharged. Accordingly when an Arab dhow came into sight and dropped anchor, a bargain was made with the sheich, her captain, for him to come alongside and lighten the steamer by taking on board a portion of the cargo and the whole of the troops. This, Eastern fashion, took an enormous amount of talking, and when all was settled it was found that the water was too shallow for the big dhow to come alongside, with the result that this expedient was given up.

Then another dhow came and anchored at a short distance, presenting something novel to the traveller. This vessel proved to be bound for their own port, namely, Annesley Bay, and it was laden with a portion of the transport that was to help the expedition across the wild country towards Magdala, to wit, a herd of no fewer than twenty-two camels. The poor animals, the so-called ships of the desert, were packed together in a boat that did not look large enough to hold half that number.

At last real help came within signalling distance, and this proved to be one of the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s big steamers. She had half of one of our regiments on board, and was towing a consort with the remaining half of the 33rd Regiment from Karachi.

A boat was sent from the great steamer, and an officer came on board to examine the state of affairs. He very soon came to the decision that the water was too shallow for his vessel, the Salsette, to come within towing distance. As the grounded ship was in no danger, he was obliged to leave it to its fate; but to the great satisfaction of Henty and his colleague, on ascertaining their destination he offered them a passage for the rest of the way. In due course they arrived very comfortably at the starting-point for the expedition.

Chapter Fifteen.
Incidents of Transport

There was plenty to see at the far-from-cheerful place which was to become the depot of troops and stores. A pier was being run up for landing purposes, and vessels were discharging slowly, with the promise of a deadlock unless more convenience for landing the contents of the vessels that were lying idle was provided.

To all intents and purposes they were at the edge of a desert, and here everything that was necessary for the expedition had to be landed. An enclosure was filled with stacks of pressed hay for the mules and piles of grain and rice – goods that would be easily damaged, but were fairly safe, nevertheless, owing to being in a hot and comparatively rainless district.

Besides the regular labourers that had been engaged, brightly clothed women, looking particularly picturesque, had been sent over from India on purpose to grind the corn for the troops. Tents had arisen, forming quite a canvas town; and storehouses were being constructed by Chinese carpenters, so that the place was rapidly becoming busily populous. In addition to those at the landing-place, clusters of tents were scattered within a circle of a mile, while the main camp of the expedition was a mile and a half inland, consequent upon the scarcity of water. For at the beginning all living things, men and beasts, had to depend for the principal life-sustainer, water, on the supply obtained from the ships. Consequently every steamer in the harbour was at work night and day condensing, at a cost of twopence halfpenny a gallon for the coal consumed in the process.

Henty’s senses of sight and smell were offended as they had not been since the Crimea. Dead mules, camels, and oxen lay everywhere about the shore, and attempts were being made to get rid of the offence by burning the carcasses. Wherever the poor brutes were lately dead, vultures were congregated, many so gorged with flesh that they could hardly rise when approached, while others, where some poor beast had lately expired, were walking about at a distance, as if not quite certain that the animal was dead.

It was a doleful picture – one of the accessories of the glories of war. Here and there half-starved mules were wandering about, their heads down, their ears drooping, and their eyes growing dim with the approach of death; others staggered down to where the sea rippled on the sands, and tasted again and again the briny water; while others still, half-maddened by the heat and thirst, drank copiously, to drop dead where they stood, or crawl away to die miserably in the low desolate-looking scrub.

A man with a great love for domestic animals, Henty generally had about half-a-dozen dogs of the Scotch terrier and other breeds to share with him the quiet of his home study, supplemented by two or three cats which lived in fairly good harmony; the sight of these suffering dumb creatures therefore strongly moved his sympathies.

Before his landing, his attention had been attracted by the cruel way in which the wretched, doleful camels were packed in the dhow, and the sight of these beasts of burden being disembarked drew his attention at once.

The native boats could not get nearer than two or three hundred yards from the shore, for the water was not more than three or four feet deep, and into these shallows the poor brutes were dragged and thrust, when, dazed by the novel position, they for the most part lay down, their long necks raising their curious heads just above the surface, while they made no attempt to make for the land. Some never did make any effort, and later their bodies would be seen drifting here and there, growing more buoyant under the hot sun as decomposition set in. Others, however, struggled to within fifty yards of the shore before lying down, to look, with their erect necks and partly submerged bodies, just like gigantic waterfowl. As for those that were driven ashore, want of food and the evil treatment received during their transit had reduced them to the most miserable plight. Their bones were almost starting through their skins; and while at the best of times, when well fed and watered, a camel in its utterances is a most doleful, murmurous creature, these poor brutes lay as if dead upon the sand, uttering feebly the almost human moaning and complainings peculiar to their race.



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