Eothen: Traces of Travel in the East - A. W. Kinglake

Surprise of Satalieh

[Illustration] from Eothen - Travel in the East by A. W. Kinglake

Whilst I was remaining upon the coast of Syria I had the good fortune to become acquainted with the Russian Sataliefsky, a general officer, who in his youth had fought and bled at Borodino, but was now better known among diplomats by the important trust committed to him at a period highly critical for the affairs of Eastern Europe. I must not tell you his family name; my mention of his title can do him no harm, for it is I, and I only, who have conferred it, in consideration of the military and diplomatic services performed under my own eyes.

The General as well as I was bound for Smyrna, and we agreed to sail together in an Ionian brigantine. We did not charter the vessel, but we made our arrangement with the captain upon such terms that we could be put ashore upon any part of the coast that we might choose. We sailed, and day after day the vessel lay dawdling on the sea with calms and feeble breezes for her portion. I myself was well repaid for the painful restlessness occasioned by slow weather because I gained from my companion a little of that vast fund of interesting knowledge with which he was stored, knowledge a thousand times the more highly to be prized since it was not of the sort that is to be gathered from books, but only from the lips of those who have acted a part in the world. When after nine days of sailing, or trying to sail, we found ourselves still hanging by the mainland to the north of the isle of Cyprus, we determined to disembark at Satalieh, and to go on thence by land. A light breeze favoured our purpose, and it was with great delight that we neared the fragrant land, and saw our anchor go down in the bay of Satalieh, within two or three hundred yards of the shore.

The town of Satalieh is the chief place of the Pashalic in which it is situate, and its citadel is the residence of the Pasha. We had scarcely dropped our anchor when a boat from the shore came alongside with officers on board, who announced that the strictest orders had been received for maintaining a quarantine of three weeks against all vessels coming from Syria, and directed accordingly that no one from the vessel should disembark. In reply we sent a message to the Pasha, setting forth the rank and titles of the General, and requiring permission to go ashore. After a while the boat came again alongside, and the officers declaring that the orders received from Constantinople were imperative and unexceptional, formally enjoined us in the name of the Pasha to abstain from any attempt to land.

I had been hitherto much less impatient of our slow voyage than my gallant friend, but this opposition made the smooth sea seem to me like a prison, from which I must and would break out. I had an unbounded faith in the feebleness of Asiatic potentates, and I proposed that we should set the Pasha at defiance. The General had been worked up to a state of most painful agitation by the idea of being driven from the shore which smiled so pleasantly before his eyes, and he adopted my suggestion with rapture.

We determined to land.

To approach the sweet shore after a tedious voyage, and then to be suddenly and unexpectedly prohibited from landing—this is so maddening to the temper, that no one who had ever experienced the trial would say that even the most violent impatience of such restraint is wholly inexcusable. I am not going to pretend, however, that the course which we chose to adopt on the occasion can be perfectly justified. The impropriety of a traveller's setting at naught the regulations of a foreign State is clear enough, and the bad taste of compassing such a purpose by mere gasconading is still more glaringly plain. I knew perfectly well that if the Pasha understood his duty, and had energy enough to perform it, he would order out a file of soldiers the moment we landed, and cause us both to be shot upon the beach, without allowing more contact than might be absolutely necessary for the purpose of making us stand fire; but I also firmly believed that the Pasha would not see the befitting line of conduct nearly so well as I did, and that even if he did know his duty, he would hardly succeed in finding resolution enough to perform it.

We ordered the boat to be got in readiness, and the officers on shore seeing these preparations, gathered together a number of guards, who assembled upon the sands. We saw that great excitement prevailed, and that messengers were continually going to and fro between the shore and the citadel.

Our captain, out of compliment to his Excellency, had provided the vessel with a Russian war-flag, which he had hoisted alternately with the Union Jack, and we agreed that we would attempt our disembarkation under this, the Russian standard! I was glad when we came to that resolution, for I should have been sorry to engage the honoured flag of England in such an affair as that which we were undertaking. The Russian ensign was therefore committed to one of the sailors, who took his station at the stern of the boat. We gave particular instructions to the captain of the brigantine, and when all was ready, the General and I, with our respective servants, got into the boat, and were slowly rowed towards the shore. The guards gathered together at the point for which we were making, but when they saw that our boat went on without altering her course, they ceased to stand very still;  none of them ran away, or even shrank back, but they looked as if the pack were being shuffled, every man seeming desirous to change places with his neighbour. They were still at their post, however, when our oars went in, and the bow of our boat ran up—well up upon the beach.

The General was lame by an honourable wound received at Borodino, and could not without some assistance get out of the boat; I, therefore, landed the first. My instructions to the captain were attended to with the most perfect accuracy, for scarcely had my foot indented the sand when the four six-pounders of the brigantine quite gravely rolled out their brute thunder. Precisely as I had expected, the guards and all the people who had gathered about them gave way under the shock produced by the mere sound of guns, and we were all allowed to disembark with the least molestation.

We immediately formed a little column, or rather, as I should have called it, a procession, for we had no fighting aptitude in us, and were only trying, as it were, how far we could go in frightening full-grown children. First marched the sailor with the Russian flag of war bravely flying in the breeze, then came the general and I, then our servants, and lastly, if I rightly recollect, two more of the brigantine's crew. Our flag-bearer so exulted in his honourable office, and bore the colours aloft with so much of pomp and dignity, that I found it exceedingly hard to keep a grave countenance. We advanced towards the castle, but the people had now had time to recover from the effect of the six-pounders (only of course loaded with powder), and they could not help seeing not only the numerical weakness of our party, but the very slight amount of wealth and resource which it seemed to imply. They began to hang round us more closely, and just as this reaction was beginning the General, who was perfectly unacquainted with the Asiatic character, thoughtlessly turned round in order to speak to one of the servants. The effect of this slight move was magical. The people thought we were going to give way, and instantly closed round us. In two words, and with one touch, I showed my comrade the danger he was running, and in the next instant we were both advancing more pompously than ever. Some minutes afterwards there was a second appearance of reaction, followed again by wavering and indecision on the part of the Pasha's people, but at length it seemed to be understood that we should go unmolested into the audience hall.

Constant communication had been going on between the receding crowd and the Pasha, and so when we reached the gates of the citadel we saw that preparations were made for giving us an awe-striking reception. Parting at once from the sailors and our servants, the General and I were conducted into the audience hall; and there at least I suppose the Pasha hoped that he would confound us by his greatness. The hall was nothing more than a large whitewashed room. Oriental potentates have a pride in that sort of simplicity, when they can contrast it with the exhibition of power, and this the Pasha was able to do, for the lower end of the hall was filled with his officers. These men, of whom I thought there were about fifty or sixty, were all handsomely, though plainly, dressed in the military frockcoats of Europe; they stood in mass and so as to present a hollow semicircular front towards the upper end of the hall at which the Pasha sat; they opened a narrow lane for us when we entered, and as soon as we had passed they again closed up their ranks. An attempt was made to induce us to remain at a respectful distance from his mightiness. To have yielded in this point would have have been fatal to our success, perhaps to our lives; but the General and I had already determined upon the place which we should take, and we rudely pushed on towards the upper end of the hall.

Upon the divan, and close up against the right-hand corner of the room, there sat the Pasha, his limbs gathered in, the whole creature coiled up like an adder. His cheeks were deadly pale, and his lips perhaps had turned white, for without moving a muscle the man impressed me with an immense idea of the wrath within him. He kept his eyes inexorably fixed as if upon vacancy, and with the look of a man accustomed to refuse the prayers of those who sue for life. We soon discomposed him, however, from this studied fixity of feature, for we marched straight up to the divan and sat down, the Russian close to the Pasha, and I by the side of the Russian. This act astonished the attendants, and plainly disconcerted the Pasha. He could no longer maintain the glassy stillness of the eyes which he had affected, and evidently became much agitated. At the feet of the satrap there stood a trembling Italian.

This man was a sort of medico in the potentate's service, and now in the absence of our attendants he was to act as interpreter. The Pasha caused him to tell us that we had openly defied his authority, and had forced our way on shore in the teeth of his own officers.

Up to this time I had been the planner of the enterprise, but now that the moment had come when all would depend upon able and earnest speechifying, I felt at once the immense superiority of my gallant friend, and gladly left to him the whole conduct of this discussion. Indeed he had vast advantages over me, not only by his superior command of language and his far more spirited style of address, but also in his consciousness of a good cause; for whilst I felt myself completely in the wrong, his Excellency had really worked himself up to believe that the Pasha's refusal to permit our landing was a gross outrage and insult. Therefore, without deigning to defend our conduct he at once commenced a spirited attack upon the Pasha. The poor Italian doctor translated one or two sentences to the Pasha, but he evidently mitigated their import. The Russian, growing warm, insisted upon his attack with redoubled energy and spirit; but the medico, instead of translating, began to shake violently with terror, and at last he came out with his "non ardisco," and fairly confessed that he dared not interpret fierce words to his master.

Now then, at a time when everything seemed to depend upon the effect of speech, we were left without an interpreter.

But this very circumstance, which at first appeared so unfavourable, turned out to be advantageous. The General, finding that he could not have his words translated, ceased to speak in Italian, and recurred to his accustomed French; he became eloquent. No one present except myself understood one syllable of what he was saying, but he had drawn forth his passport, and the energy and violence with which, as he spoke, he pointed to the graven Eagle of all the Russias, began to make an impression. The Pasha saw at his side a man not only free from every the least pang of fear, but raging, as it seemed, with just indignation, and thenceforward he plainly began to think that, in some way or other (he could not tell how) he must certainly have been in the wrong. In a little time he was so much shaken that the Italian ventured to resume his interpretation, and my comrade had again the opportunity of pressing his attack upon the Pasha. His argument, if I rightly recollect its import, was to this effect: "If the vilest Jews were to come into the harbour, you would but forbid them to land, and force them to perform quarantine; yet this is the very course, O Pasha, which your rash officers dared to think of adopting with US!—those mad and reckless men would have actually dealt towards a Russian general officer and an English gentleman as if they had been wretched Israelites! Never—never will we submit to such an indignity. His Imperial Majesty knows how to protect his nobles from insult, and would never endure that a General of his army should be treated in matter of quarantine as though he were a mere Eastern Jew!" This argument told with great effect. The Pasha fairly admitted that he felt its weight, and he now only struggled to obtain such a compromise as might partly save his dignity. He wanted us to perform a quarantine of one day for form's sake, and in order to show his people that he was not utterly defied; but finding that we were inexorable, he not only abandoned his attempt, but promised to supply us with horses.

When the discussion had arrived at this happy conclusion tchibouques and coffee were brought, and we passed, I think, nearly an hour in friendly conversation. The Pasha, it now appeared, had once been a prisoner of war in Russia, and a conviction of the Emperor's vast power, necessarily acquired during this captivity, made him perhaps more alive than an untravelled Turk would have been to the force of my comrade's eloquence.

The Pasha now gave us a generous feast. Our promised horses were brought without much delay. I gained my loved saddle once more, and when the moon got up and touched the heights of Taurus, we were joyfully winding our way through the first of his rugged defiles.