On The Road To Hebron
( Originally Published 1908 )
WE ate our lunch at Bethlehem in a curiosity-shop. The table was spread at the back of the room by the open window. All around us were hanging innumerable chaplets and rosaries of mother-of-pearl, of carnelian, of carved olive-stones, of glass beads; trinkets and souvenirs of all imaginable kinds, tiny sheep-bells and inlaid boxes and carved fans filled the cases and cabinets. Through the window came the noise of people busy at Bethlehem's chief industry, the cutting and polishing of mother-of-pearl for mementoes. The jingling bells of our pack-train, passing the open door, reminded us that our camp was to be pitched miles away on the road to Hebron.
We called for the horses and rode on through the town. Very beautiful and peaceful was the view from the southern hill, looking down upon the pastures of Bethlehem where "shepherds watched their flocks by night," and the field of Boaz where Ruth followed the reapers among the corn.
Down dale and up hill we journeyed; bright green of almond-trees, dark green of carob-trees, snowy blossoms of apricot-trees, rosy blossoms of peach-trees, argent verdure of olive-trees, adorning the valleys. Then out over the wilder, rockier heights; and past the great empty Pools of Solomon, lying at the head of the Wadi Artas, watched by a square ruined castle; and up the winding road and along the lofty flower-sprinkled ridges; and at last we came to our tents, pitched in the wide, green Wadi el-`Arrűb, beside the bridge.
Springs gushed out of the hillside here and ran down in a little laughing brook through lawns full of tiny pink and white daisies, and broad fields of tangled weeds and flowers, red anemones, blue iris, purple mallows, scarlet adonis, with here and there a strip of cultivated ground shimmering with silky leeks or dotted with young cucumbers. There was a broken aqueduct cut in the rock at the side of the valley, and the brook slipped by a large ruined reservoir.
"George," said I to the Bethlehemite, as he sat meditating on the edge of the dry pool, "what do you think of this valley ? "
"I think," said George, "that if I had a few thou-sand dollars to buy the land, with all this runaway water I could make it blossom like a peach-tree."
The cold, green sunset behind the western hills darkened into night. The air grew chilly, dropping nearly to the point of frost. We missed the blazing camp-fire of the Canadian forests, and went to bed early, tucking in the hot-water bags at our feet and piling on the blankets and rugs. All through the night we could hear the passers-by shouting and singing along the Hebron road. There was one un-known traveller whose high-pitched, quavering Arab song rose far away, and grew louder as he approached, and passed us in a whirlwind of lugubrious music, and tapered slowly off into distance and silence—a chant a mile long.
The morning broke through flying clouds, with a bitter, wet, west wind rasping the bleak highlands. There were spiteful showers with intervals of mocking sunshine; it was a mischievous and prankish bit of weather, no day for riding. But the Lady was indomitable, so we left the Patriarch in his tent, wrapped ourselves in garments of mackintosh and took the road again.
The country, at first, was wild and barren, a wilderness of rocks and thorn bushes and stunted scrub oaks. Now and then a Greek partridge, in its beautiful plumage of fawn-gray, marked with red and black about the head, clucked like a hen on the stony hillside, or whirred away in low, straight flight over the bushes. Flocks of black and brown goats, with pendulous ears, skipped up and down the steep ridges, standing up on their hind legs to browse the foliage of the little oak shrubs, or showing themselves off in a butting-match on top of a big rock. Marching on the highroad they seemed sedate, despondent, pattering along soberly with flapping ears. In the midst of one flock I saw a fierce-looking tattered pastor tenderly carrying a little black kid in his bosom—as tenderly as if it were a lamb. It seemed like an illustration of a picture that I saw long ago in the Catacombs, in which the infant church of Christ silently expressed the richness of her love, the breadth of her hope:
"On those walls subterranean, where she hid
As we drew nearer to Hebron the region appeared more fertile, and the landscape smiled a little under the gleams of wintry sunshine. There were many vineyards; in most of them the vines trailed along the ground, but in some they were propped up on sticks, like old men leaning on crutches. Almond and apricot-trees flourished. The mulberries, the olives, the sycamores were abundant. Peasants were ploughing the fields with their crooked sticks shod with a long iron point. When a man puts his hand to such a plough he dares not look back, else it will surely go aside. It makes a scratch, not a furrow. (I saw a man in the hospital at Nazareth who had his thigh pierced clear through by one of these dagger-like iron plough points.)
Children were gathering roots and thorn branches for firewood. Women were carrying huge bundles on their heads. Donkey-boys were urging their heavy-laden animals along the road, and cameleers led their deliberate strings of ungainly beasts by a rope or a light chain reaching from one nodding head to another.
A camel's load never looks as large as a donkey's, but no doubt he often finds it heavy, and he always looks displeased with it. There is something about the droop of a camel's lower lip which seems to express unalterable disgust with the universe. But the rest of the world around Hebron appeared to be reasonably happy. In spite of weather and poverty and hard work the ploughmen sang in the fields, the children skipped and whistled at their tasks, the passers-by on the road shouted greetings to the labourers in the gardens and vineyards. Somewhere round about here is supposed to lie the Valley of Eshcol from which the Hebrew spies brought back the monstrous bunch of grapes, a cluster that reached from the height of a man's shoulder to the ground.