George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life

Whether from mismanagement or callous brutality, the treatment of the unfortunate mules and camels landed on these desolate shores was painful in the extreme, and droves of hundreds untended were wandering about, striving for a few days existence by plucking scanty shoots, previous to sickening and dying.

The scenes, Henty says, were frightful everywhere, but worst of all at the water-troughs, where the half-mad animals, especially the mules, struggled for a drink at a time when water was almost worth its weight in gold. They fought wildly for a draught of that for which they were dying, biting and kicking till many of them in their weakness were knocked down and trampled to death, a fate which at least saved them from perishing miserably under their burdens upon the road.

Thoroughly angered by the neglect, and in accordance with the intense desire of the practical man to have everything done orderly and well, Henty busied himself and inquired why these scattered mules were left untended, to learn that nearly the whole of the mule and camel drivers had deserted. In fact, at the beginning of the arrangements in connection with the transport, everything seemed to have gone wrong. The mules and camels were dying of thirst and neglect; consequently the advance brigade could not be supplied with food. Someone was in fault, but, as is often the case, the mistakes of one are visited upon no one knows how many. But there, it is easy to find fault.

It must have seemed almost bliss to get away from the misery and confusion in the neighbourhood of Annesley Bay. At least there was the hope of ceasing to be tormented by the flies that were increasing and multiplying, as they did farther north in the old Pharaonic days. There was the prospect of a weary desert journey over sand and rock, with a pause here and there where wells existed with their scanty supply of water, or others were being dug, but there was the promise of a pleasanter existence afterwards, since the camp station was nearly five hundred feet above sea-level, with a likelihood of comparative coolness.

It was a long and dreary ride, with nature apparently against the intruders. As a consequence, with animals as well as with man everything seemed to go wrong. One of Hentys principal complaints was still of the flies, which he considered to be, up to the present, the greatest nuisance he had met with in Abyssinia. He declared them to be as numerous and as irritating as they were in Egypt; but he consoled himself with the fact that they went to sleep when the sun set, and as there were no mosquitoes to take their place, he was able to sleep in tranquillity, that is to say, to lie down in the sand. Water, of course, was too scarce for a wash; but here again there was consolation a good shake on rising, and the dry clean sand all fell away.

Still, there was a fresh anxiety for him in connection with the travellers greatest worry, that is, luggage. He was much troubled by the fact that the troop of mules which bore the officers necessaries had not turned up, and one of the missing animals was the carrier of his own luggage and stores.

On this march Henty had his first experience of the desert wells.

These wells were dug in the bed of what in the rainy season must have been a mighty torrent fifty yards wide. He states that he had seen many singular scenes, but this was the strangest. The wells were six in number, about a dozen feet across and as many deep. All the water had to be raised in buckets by men standing upon wooden platforms who passed the full buckets from hand to hand. The water was then emptied into earthen troughs, which soon became mud basins, and from these the animals were allowed to drink to the tune of a perpetual chant kept up by the natives, without which the latter seemed unable to work.

Round the wells was a vast crowd of animals flocks of goats and small sheep, strings of draught bullocks, mules, ponies, horses, and camels, and about them stood the regular inhabitants of the country in their scanty attire, armed with spears, swords like reaping-hooks, and heavy clubs. The women among them were either draped in calico or picturesquely clothed in leather, and plentifully adorned with necklaces of seeds or shells.

Here, too, the trouble with the thirsty animals was often terrible, the camels being especially unmanageable. One of them, for instance, because its pack had slipped beneath it, began to utter strange uncouth cries, kicking and plunging wildly, until it started a stampede among the mules, many of which had probably never seen any of these ungainly beasts before.

When matters settled down, the little party made for the commissariat tent to draw their rations, and here a religious trouble arose among some of the Parsee clerks of one of the departments. They complained bitterly that there was no mutton, and that it was contrary to their religion to eat beef. The commissariat officer regretted the circumstances, but pointed out that at present no sheep had been landed, while the small ovine animals of the country were mere skin and bone.

Henty closes this little scene with the moral that Parsees should not go to war in a country where mutton is scarce, and he wonders how the Hindoo soldiers will manage to preserve their caste intact.

Chapter Sixteen.
En Route for Magdala

The famous march to Magdala had now begun, and Hentys recorded recollections are full of interest and observation.

At one time he came upon a party of excited soldiers who had suddenly disturbed a troop of the great baboons which haunt the stony mountains, and, with visions of specimens flashing across his mind, he joined in the chase, revolver in hand, racing and climbing among impeding thorns, compared to which an English quickset hedge was nothing at all. After a couple of hours hunt, followed out as eagerly as when he was a boy, he found that the quarry was quite at home and that he was not, with the result that he thought he lost pounds in weight by his exertions, but that the toil did him good.

Before the starting of the expedition, the press had been full of the predictions of the busybodies who know all about everything, and had prophesied that those who went were to die of fever, malaria, sunstroke, tsetse fly, guinea worm, tape-worm, and other maladies. It was soon found, however, that everybody enjoyed vigorous health, and that though the army was in expectation of being hindered by, and of having to fight their way through, the forces of the petty kings or chiefs through whose countries they passed, very little of a serious nature occurred to hinder the advance to the stronghold of the stubborn monarch of Abyssinia.

Nothing seems to have been too small for Hentys observation, and his letters to the journal he represented teem with references to the various objects that caught his eye. At one time he was describing the appearance, uniforms, and physique of the Indian troops, the Beloochs, or the manners and customs of the scoundrelly camp-followers. Then he would descend directly afterwards to such minor matters in natural history as the feeding habits of the sheep ticks, which in places swarmed. In another place he discourses in a much more interesting fashion than a scientific student (for he omits the hard technical names) of the vegetation seen around, such as gigantic tulip trees, and a shrub of whose name he confesses his ignorance, though he considers it notable from the sprays resembling asparagus. He is attracted by plants of the cactus tribe, particularly by one that spreads out a number of arms pointing upwards, making it resemble a gigantic cauliflower. Then, evidently feeling doubtful about the suitability of so matter-of-fact a description, he makes a brave shot at the Latin name almost the only one he records the scientific italics, Euphorbia candalabriensis, looking novel and strange. Later, with a frank display of doubt, he declares that he does not vouch for the correctness of this name.

Onward still, hour by hour and day by day, we follow him, noting how eager and fresh he is in the morning, and how weary as the days march approaches its end. At these times we find him recording the unpleasantnesses of the route, such as the influence upon the atmosphere of the dead carcasses of the worn-out animals, from whose neighbourhood the great vultures rose lazily and wheel away.

The heat of the sun was at times intense, but the nights were sometimes bitterly cold, too cold to sleep, and when at last sleep came, again and again the weary travellers were disturbed by the antics of one of the beasts that bear about the worst character of any that have been brought into domestic use, and whose obstinacy has become a proverb. One of these mules would break loose from its head ropes, and, as if urged on by some malignant spirit of mischief, would nearly upset the tent by stumbling over the pegs and getting itself involved amongst the ropes, when, as if bitterly resenting the presence of their mischievous distant relative, the horses would seem perfectly savage, and threaten to break loose and stampede. Four or five times in a night Henty or one of his colleagues would have to get up and go out in the cold to stone the brute, while the grooms, who were sleeping for mutual protection close to the horses heads, and who were rolled up in their rugs, wonderful to state, heard nothing.

But this was not the only manner in which the calm of the nights rest would be disturbed, for the black followers who acted as servants to the group of war correspondents seemed to have a natural proclivity for quarrelling among themselves, often rousing up their masters in alarm to find out what some outburst might mean. Long after his return from Abyssinia, Henty would amuse his literary friends by chatting over these troubles of the night.

As a change from this we find Henty noticing the beauty of the country, the picturesqueness of the narrow gorges through which they passed, and the profusion of wild figs, golden-blossomed laburnum, and acacias, the last white-flowered and with pods of the clearest carmine. Getting now upon colour, he describes the beauty of the numerous humming-birds (query, sun-birds) and the gorgeous plumage of others of larger size that, startled by the strangeness of their visitors, perched at a short distance from the path. Again, the descriptions of the brilliant butterflies which flitted here and there among the flowers are strongly suggestive of the observant boy longing for a net and a few cardboard boxes and pins.

These charming rides had to give way to work of a very different nature, which included dismounting, leading their ponies, and preparing to ascend the mountain side; for the valleys and ravines gave way to steep tracks covered with boulders, the tropical valley with its beautiful foliage was succeeded by stunted pines, and the sappers were set busily at work forming a track of zigzags for the force to ascend.

At times the store and ammunition-bearing mules had to ascend places as steep as flights of stairs, with the steps as much as three feet high; but, nothing daunted, the force pressed on.

Later, an ambassador from one of the local kings, whose country was being traversed, met the advancing force, and it was considered an act of wisdom to give him a sample of what our well-drilled troops could do, in the way of a little sham-fight. The display was so effectively carried out that this monarch considered it good policy not to support King Theodore with his army of seven thousand men.

At the first camp among the mountains the native Abyssinians, led by curiosity, or possibly with other intentions if opportunity served, swarmed around, exciting Hentys interest in their swords and spears. Certain specimens he managed to secure (not those of the poorer classes, but those of costly silver), and these he afterwards hung upon the walls of his study at home.

As compared with the slight bayonet of our men, fixed to the rifle barrel, the Abyssinians spears were formidable weapons, from six to ten feet long, and weighted at the butt. Their bearers could throw them over thirty yards with great force and with no little accuracy, while in a hand-to-hand fight, or when offering resistance to a charge, they were dangerous weapons in the grasp of an active man.

At one time Henty records an unpleasant check to his proceedings in the shape of an order being promulgated that no correspondents were to accompany the expedition; but when another general took over the command, this embargo was removed, and we find him at the front again, after a long weary pause which had forced him into inactivity at the base.

In spite of obstacles upon obstacles the troops were progressing. The heavy guns surmounted the rugged mountain-paths, and the savage cruel tyrant passed from mocking defiance to alarm, as his scouts brought him tidings of the slow and determined march, higher and higher towards his stronghold, of the punitive force which conquered slowly and steadily every physical difficulty.

Then there were rumours that King Theodore was beginning to repent, and that he was ready to give up his many prisoners, releasing them from their long captivity. But the expedition still rolled onwards and upwards cavalry, infantry, and the heavy and light mountain guns ready to carry Magdala by coup de main if it were feasible, or bring the tyrant into submission by a prolonged siege.

Though everything seemed to be done very deliberately, the advance never stayed, with the troops still healthy and well, the losses only occurring among the transport animals as the result of accident, hard usage, and disease. It was a varied little army which composed this expedition, horse and foot light-mounted Hussars, sturdy infantry, and dark-browed men of India in their picturesque uniform, green frocks, red sashes, and scarlet turbans. The picturesque was not lacking, either, in the work of surmounting the stern rugged passes, where the engineer officers with their sappers cleverly and speedily constructed bridges over gully and gash.

The progress by this time had become steady and methodical. The losses were terrible, but fresh animals arrived to take the place of those which were swept away by disease. The chief halts were made at the stations formed at the wells, many of the latter being constructed on the new ingenious principle which came into note at that time. These wells were afterwards familiar at home as Abyssinian wells. Thus slowly, but steadily, our lightly burdened troops continued on their way, each day bringing them nearer to where Theodore had gathered his forces in the mountain aerie, which he had believed impregnable.

Chapter Seventeen.
Jottings by the Way

During the advance Henty relates that three of the officers of the 4th Regiment of Foot were witnesses of a horribly barbarous custom practised among the natives of Abyssinia, a custom which shows the callousness of the natives to the sufferings of the animals in domestic use. The practice was recorded by James Bruce as witnessed by him during his travels in Abyssinia, towards the end of the eighteenth century, in connection with his attempts to discover the sources of the Nile. Upon his return, when he described the manners and customs of the people of Abyssinia, his narratives were received with mingled incredulity and ridicule, and the practice now in question was treated as an outrageous travellers tale. Certainly the problem whether nature would readily heal the wound described gave some excuse for want of faith in what approaches the marvellous.

The operation described by Bruce, but which has been denied by all subsequent travellers, and by the Abyssinians themselves, probably through some feeling of shame at their own barbarity, was that of cutting a steak from the body of a living ox. Our officers came upon the natives just as they were engaged in the act. The unfortunate bullock was thrown down, and its four legs were tied together. The operator then cut an incision near the spine, just behind the hip joint. Next, separating the skin from the flesh, he cut two other incisions at right angles to the first, this enabling him to lift up a flap of skin four or five inches square. After this, by cutting with his knife diagonally, so as to pass the keen instrument partly under the skin, he cut out a lump of flesh larger in length and width than the flap of skin. The hole made was then filled with a particular preparation, and the flap of skin was replaced and plastered over with mud. Finally, the feet of the poor animal, which had kept up a low moaning while the operation was going on, were untied, and it was given a kick to make it get up. It should be mentioned that the operator cut two or three gashes in the neighbourhood of the wound, apparently as a sign to show that the animal had been operated upon in that part. The officers observed that several of the other cattle of the same herd were marked in a precisely similar manner. It was remarked, too, that during the operation the poor animal bled very little, and half an hour afterwards was found walking about and feeding quietly.

Anatomists have denied, Henty continues, the possibility of an animal being able to walk after such treatment; but here was the indisputable fact. There is the possibility that the antiseptic nature of the huge plaster, used to fill up the vacancy from which the piece of flesh had been cut, was sufficient to make it heal in the pure clear air of mountain Africa.

Fortunately, from our few losses unfortunately, from a scientific point of view we have no record of how clean-cut wounds in the human being fared in Abyssinia. On the other hand, the rapid healing of flesh and muscle on the lofty tablelands of the Transvaal during the Boer War was almost marvellous.

Everywhere on his way to the front Henty found something fresh to describe. One day there was to be rocket practice, the operators being the Naval Brigade, with its frank-looking, free-and-easy Jacks, who were anxious to be ready to astonish the natives with their singular missiles. There was not room in the valley where they were in camp, so the plan was tried of drawing the tubes up one hill and firing across to the next hill, about two thousand yards away.

There were twelve mules, each with a tube and a supply of ninety rockets. There were four men to each tube, besides the one who led the bearer. At the word Unload! the tubes, each about three feet in length, were taken off the mules and arranged in line upon a sort of stand, with an elevator, which could be adjusted to any required angle.

The order first given was to try ten degrees of elevation, and at the command Fire! a stickless rocket rushed from the tube like a firework, and buzzed through the air to the opposite hill. Three rockets were fired at this elevation, and then three from an elevation of five degrees, all apparently passing to their mark in a way likely to strike terror into the hearts of the defenders of Magdala.

These men of the Naval Rocket Brigade, who had come up to join the military, proved to be an admirable body of men, ready to endure fatigue and hardship with the good temper peculiar to sailors. Contrary to what might have been expected, seeing how little marching a man-of-wars man is accustomed to get, they marched better than soldiers, and never fell out, even on the most fatiguing journeys. Their quaint humour provided great amusement to the troops, and the way in which they talked to their mules, which they persisted in treating as ships, was irresistibly comic.

Henty mentions one sailor who was leading a mule with a messmate walking behind, when they came to where a body of soldiers was stationed. This did not seem to concern the sailors, who had been given orders to carry out, and so they went straight on. Hallo, Jack! cried one of the soldiers good-humouredly. Where are you coming to?

Coming? said Jack. I aint a-coming anywheres. I am only towing the craft. Its the chap behind who does the steering. Ask him. It was always the same with the tars. The mules halter was either the tow-rope or the painter. They starboarded or ported their helm, tacked through a crowd, or wore the ship round, in a most amusing way. On one occasion an officer called out: Sergeant-major! There was no answer. Sergeant-major! (louder). Still no reply. A third and still louder hail produced no response. Boatswain, I say, where are you?

Ay, ay, sir! was the instant answer from the man who was close by, but who had quite forgotten that in the service ashore of the Rocket Brigade he took the new rank of Sergeant-major.

The Jacks made curious friendships during the advance, and a good deal of comradeship soon existed between them and the Punjabis, although neither understood a word of the others language. During a halt the cheerful sailors would sometimes get up a dance to the music of the band of the soldiers from the Five Rivers Region. The band played well, seated in a circle and looking extremely grave, while the sailors would stand up in couples or octettes and solemnly execute quadrilles, waltzes, and polkas, to the great astonishment of the natives, who crowded round looking on in wonder at what to them seemed a profound mystery.

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