CHAPTER I - OVER THE BORDER
AT Semlin I still was encompassed by the scenes and the sounds of familiar life; the din of a busy world still vexed and cheered me; the unveiled faces of women still shone in the light of day. Yet, whenever I chose to look southward, I saw the Ottoman's fortress - austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube - historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East.
The two frontier towns are less than a cannon-shot distant, and yet their people hold no communion. The Hungarian on the north, and the Turk and Servian on the southern side of the Save are as much asunder as though there were fifty broad provinces that lay in the path between them. Of the men that bustled around me in the streets of Semlin there was not, perhaps, one who had ever gone down to look upon the stranger race dwelling under the walls of that opposite castle. It is the plague, and the dread of the plague, that divide the one people from the other. All coming and going stands forbidden by the terrors of the yellow flag. If you dare to break the laws of the quarantine, you will be tried with military haste; the court will scream out your sentence to you from a tribunal some fifty yards off; the priest, instead of gently whispering to you the sweet hopes of religion, will console you at duelling distance; and after that you will find yourself carefully shot, and carelessly buried in the ground of the lazaretto.
When all was in order for our departure we walked down to the precincts of the quarantine establishment, and here awaited us a "compromised" * officer of the Austrian Government, who lives in a state of perpetual excommunication. The boats, with their "compromised" rowers, were also in readiness.
* A "compromised" person is one who has been in contact with people or things supposed to be capable of conveying infection. As a general rule the whole Ottoman Empire lies constantly under this terrible ban. The "yellow flag" is the ensign of the quarantine establishment.
After coming in contact with any creature or thing belonging to the Ottoman Empire it would be impossible for us to return to the Austrian territory without undergoing an imprisonment of fourteen days in the odious lazaretto. We felt, therefore, that before we committed ourselves it was important to take care that none of the arrangements necessary for the journey had been forgotten; and in our anxiety to avoid such a misfortune, we managed the work of departure from Semlin with nearly as much solemnity as if we had been departing this life. Some obliging persons, from whom we had received civilities during our short stay in the place, came down to say their farewell at the river's side; and now, as we stood with them at the distance of three or four yards from the "compromised" officer, they asked if we were perfectly certain that we had wound up all our affairs in Christendom, and whether we had no parting requests to make. We repeated the caution to our servants, and took anxious thought lest by any possibility we might be cut off from some cherished object of affection:- were they quite sure that nothing had been forgotten - that there was no fragrant dressing-case with its gold-compelling letters of credit from which we might be parting for ever? - No; all our treasures lay safely stowed in the boat, and we were ready to follow them to the ends of the earth. Now, therefore, we shook hands with our Semlin friends, who immediately retreated for three or four paces, so as to leave us in the centre of a space between them and the "compromised" officer. The latter then advanced, and asking once more if we had done with the civilised world, held forth his hand. I met it with mine, and there was an end to Christendom for many a day to come.
We soon neared the southern bank of the river, but no sounds came down from the blank walls above, and there was no living thing that we could yet see, except one great hovering bird of the vulture race, flying low, and intent, and wheeling round and round over the pest-accursed city.
But presently there issued from the postern a group of human beings - beings with immortal souls, and possibly some reasoning faculties; but to me the grand point was this, that they had real, substantial, and incontrovertible turbans. They made for the point towards which we were steering, and when at last I sprang upon the shore, I heard, and saw myself now first surrounded by men of Asiatic blood. I have since ridden through the land of the Osmanlees, from the Servian border to the Golden Horn - from the Gulf of Satalieh to the tomb of Achilles; but never have I seen such ultra-Turkish looking fellows as those who received me on the banks of the Save. They were men in the humblest order of life, having come to meet our boat in the hope of earning something by carrying our luggage up to the city; but poor though they were, it was plain that they were Turks of the proud old school, and had not yet forgotten the fierce, careless bearing of their once victorious race.