My life in Balaclava could not but be a rough one. The exposure by day was enough to try any woman’s strength; and at night one was not always certain of repose. Nor was it the easiest thing to clamber up the steep sides of the “Medora;” and more than once I narrowly escaped a sousing in the harbour. Why it should be so difficult to climb a ship’s side, when a few more staves in the ladder, and those a little broader, would make it so easy, I have never been able to guess. And once on board the “Medora,” my berth would not altogether have suited a delicate female with weak nerves. It was an ammunition ship, and we slept over barrels of gunpowder and tons of cartridges, with the by no means impossible contingency of their prematurely igniting, and giving us no time to say our prayers before launching us into eternity. Great care was enjoined, and at eight o’clock every evening Captain S—— would come down, and order all lights out for the night. But I used to put my lantern into a deep basin, behind some boxes, and so evaded the regulation. I felt rather ashamed of this breach of discipline one [Pg 103]night, when another ammunition ship caught fire in the crowded harbour, and threatened us all with speedy destruction. We all knew, if they failed in extinguishing the fire pretty quickly, what our chances of life were worth, and I think the bravest drew his breath heavily at the thought of our danger. Fortunately, they succeeded in extinguishing the firebrand before any mischief was done; but I do not think the crew of the “Medora” slept very comfortably that night. It was said that the Russians had employed an incendiary; but it would have been strange if in that densely crowded harbour some accidents had not happened without their agency.
Harassing work, indeed, was the getting our stores on shore, with the aid of the Greek and Maltese boatmen, whose profession is thievery. Not only did they demand exorbitant sums for the carriage, but they contrived to rob us by the way in the most ingenious manner. Thus many things of value were lost in the little journey from the “Albatross” and “Nonpareil” to the shore, which had made the long voyage from England safely. Keep as sharp a look out as I might, some package or box would be tipped overboard by the sudden swaying of the boat, or passing by of one of the boatmen—of course, accidentally—and no words could induce the rascals, in their feigned ignorance of my language, to stop; and, looking back at the helpless waif, it was not altogether consolatory to see another boat dart from between some shipping, where it had been waiting, as accidentally, ready to pounce upon any such wind or waterfalls.
Still more harassing work was it to keep the things together on the shore: often in the open light of day, [Pg 104]while I sat there (after my duties on the sick-wharf were over) selling stores, or administering medicine to the men of the Land Transport and Army Works Corps, and others, who soon found out my skill, valuable things would be abstracted; while there was no limit to the depredations by night. Of course we hired men to watch; but our choice of servants was very limited, and very often those we employed not only shut their eyes to the plunder of their companions, but helped themselves freely. The adage, “set a thief to catch a thief,” answered very badly in Balaclava.
Sometimes Jew Johnny would volunteer to watch for the night; and glad I was when I knew that the honest lynx-eyed fellow was there. One night he caught a great-limbed Turk making off with a firkin of butter and some other things. The fellow broke away from Johnny’s grasp with the butter, but the lad marked him down to his wretched den, behind the engineers’ quarters, and, on the following morning, quietly introduced me to the lazy culprit, who was making up for the partial loss of his night’s rest among as evil-looking a set of comrades as I have ever seen. There was a great row, and much indignation shown at the purpose of my visit; but I considered myself justified in calling in the aid of one of the Provost marshal’s officers, and, in the presence of this most invaluable official, a confession was soon made. Beneath the fellow’s dirty bed, the butter was found buried; and, in its company, a two-dozen case of sherry, which the rogue had, in flagrant defiance of the Prophet’s injunction, stolen for his own private drinking, a few nights previously.
The thievery in this little out-of-the way port was [Pg 105]something marvellous; and the skill and ingenuity of the operators would have reflected credit upon the élite of their profession practising in the most civilized city of Europe. Nor was the thievery confined altogether to the professionals, who had crowded to this scene of action from the cities and islands of the Mediterranean. They robbed us, the Turks, and one another; but a stronger hand was sometimes laid on them. The Turk, however, was sure to be the victim, let who might be the oppressor.
In this predatory warfare, as in more honourable service, the Zouaves particularly distinguished themselves. These undoubtedly gallant little fellows, always restless for action, of some sort, would, when the luxury of a brash with the Russians was occasionally denied them, come down to Balaclava, in search of opportunities of waging war against society at large. Their complete and utter absence of conscientious scruples as to the rights of property was most amusing. To see a Zouave gravely cheat a Turk, or trip up a Greek street-merchant, or Maltese fruit-seller, and scud away with the spoil, cleverly stowed in his roomy red pantaloons, was an operation, for its coolness, expedition, and perfectness, well worth seeing. And, to a great extent, they escaped scatheless, for the English Provost marshal’s department was rather chary of interfering with the eccentricities of our gallant allies; while if the French had taken close cognizance of the Zouaves’ amusements out of school, one-half of the regiments would have been always engaged punishing the other half.
The poor Turk! it is lamentable to think how he was robbed, abused, and bullied by his friends. Why didn’t [Pg 106]he show a little pluck? There wasn’t a rough sailor, or shrewd boy—the English boy, in all his impudence and prejudice, flourished in Balaclava—who would not gladly have patted him upon the back if he would but have held up his head, and shown ever so little spirit. But the Englishman cannot understand a coward—will scarcely take the trouble to pity him; and even the craven Greek could lord it over the degenerate descendants of the fierce Arabs, who—so they told me on the spot—had wrested Constantinople from the Christians, in those old times of which I know so little. Very often an injured Turk would run up to where I sat, and stand there, wildly telegraphing his complaints against some villainous-looking Greek, or Italian, whom a stout English lad would have shaken out of his dirty skin in five minutes.
Once, however, I saw the tables turned. As the anecdote will help to illustrate the relative positions of the predatory tribes of Balaclava, I will narrate it. Hearing one morning a louder hubbub than was usual upon the completion of a bargain, and the inevitable quarrelling that always followed, I went up to where I saw an excited crowd collected around a Turk, in whose hands a Greek was struggling vainly. This Greek had, it seemed, robbed his enemy, but the Turk was master this time, and had, in order to force from the robber a confession of the place where the stolen things were deposited (like dogs, as they were, these fellows were fond of burying their plunder), resorted to torture. This was effected most ingeniously and simply by means of some packthread, which, bound round the Greek’s two thumbs, was tightened on the tourniquet [Pg 107]principle, until the pain elicited a confession. But the Turk, stimulated to retaliation by his triumph, bagged the Greek’s basket, which contained amongst other things two watches, which their present owner had no doubt stolen. Driven to the most ludicrous show of despair, the Greek was about to attempt another desperate struggle for the recovery of his goods, when two Zouaves elbowed their small persons upon the crowded stage, and were eagerly referred to by all the parties concerned in the squabble. How they contrived it, I cannot say, so prompt were their movements; but, in a very few minutes, the watches were in their possession, and going much faster than was agreeable either to Turk or Greek, who both combined to arrest this new movement, and thereby added a sharp thrashing to their other injuries. The Zouaves effected their escape safely, while the Greek, with a despair that had in it an equal share of the ludicrous and the tragic, threw himself upon the dusty ground, and tore his thin hair out by handfuls. I believe that the poor wretch, whom we could not help pitying, journeyed to Kamiesch, to discover his oppressors; but I fear he didn’t gain much information there.
Had it not been for the unremitting activity of the authorities, no life would have been safe in Balaclava, with its population of villains of every nation. As it was, murder was sometimes added to robbery, and many of the rascals themselves died suspicious deaths, with the particulars of which the authorities did not trouble themselves. But the officials worked hard, both in the harbour and on shore, to keep order; few men could have worked harder. I often saw the old grey-haired Admiral about before the [Pg 108]sun had fairly shown itself; and those of his subordinates must have been somewhat heavy sleepers who could play the sluggard then.
At length the necessary preparations to establish our store were made. We hit upon a spot about two miles from Balaclava, in advance of Kadikoi, close to where the railway engines were stationed, and within a mile of head-quarters. Leave having been obtained to erect buildings here, we set to work briskly, and soon altered the appearance of Spring Hill—so we christened our new home. Sometimes on horseback, sometimes getting a lift on the commissariat carts, and occasionally on the ammunition railway-waggons, I managed to visit Spring Hill daily, and very soon fitted up a shed sufficiently large to take up my abode in. But the difficulty of building our store was immense. To obtain material was next to impossible; but that collected (not a little was, by leave of the Admiral, gleaned from the floating rubbish in the harbour), to find workmen to make use of it was still more difficult. I spent days going round the shipping, offering great wages, even, for an invalid able to handle saw and hammer, however roughly, and many a long ride through the camps did I take on the same errand. At length, by dint of hard canvassing, we obtained the aid of two English sailors, whom I nicknamed “Big and Little Chips,” and some Turks, and set to work in good earnest.
I procured the Turks from the Pacha who commanded the division encamped in the neighbourhood of Spring Hill. It was decided that we should apply to him for help, and accordingly I became ambassadress on this delicate mission, and rode over to the Pacha’s quarters, [Pg 109]Jew Johnny attending me as interpreter. I was received by the Pacha with considerable kindness and no trifling amount of formality, and after taking coffee I proceeded, through Jew Johnny, to explain the object of my visit, while his Excellency, a tall man, with a dark pleasing face, smoked gravely, and took my request into his gracious consideration.
On the following day came the answer to my request, in the persons of two curious Turkish carpenters, who were placed at our orders. After a little while, too, a Turkish officer, whom I christened Captain Ali Baba, took so great an interest in our labours that he would work like any carpenter, and with a delight and zeal that were astonishing. To see him fall back, and look smilingly at every piece of his workmanship, was a sight to restore the most severely tried temper. I really think that the good-hearted fellow thought it splendid fun, and never wearied of it. But for him I do not know how we should have managed with our other Turkish “chips”—chips of the true old Turkish block they were—deliberate, slow, and indolent, breaking off into endless interruptions for the sacred duties of eating and praying, and getting into out-of-the-way corners at all times of the day to smoke themselves to sleep.
In the midst of our work a calamity occurred, which was very nearly becoming a catastrophe. By the giving way of a dam, after some heavy rains, the little stream which threaded its silvery way past Spring Hill swelled without any warning into a torrent, which, sweeping through my temporary hut, very nearly carried us all away, and destroyed stores of between one and two hundred pounds in value. This calamity might have had a tragical issue for [Pg 110]me, for seeing a little box which contained some things, valuable as relics of the past, being carried away, I plunged in after it, and losing my balance, was rolled over and over by the stream, and with some difficulty reached the shore. Some of Lord Raglan’s staff passing our wreck on the following day, made inquiries respecting the loss we had sustained, and a messenger was sent from head-quarters, who made many purchases, in token of their sympathy.
My visit to the Turkish Pacha laid the foundation of a lasting friendship. He soon found his way to Spring Hill, and before long became one of my best customers and most frequent visitors. It was astonishing to note how completely, now that he was in the land of the Giaours, he adapted himself to the tastes and habits of the infidels. Like a Scotch Presbyterian, on the Continent for a holiday, he threw aside all the prejudices of his education, and drank bottled beer, sherry, and champagne with an appreciation of their qualities that no thirsty-souled Christian could have expressed more gratefully. He was very affable with us all, and would sometimes keep Jew Johnny away from his work for hours, chatting with us or the English officers who would lounge into our as yet unfinished store. Sometimes he would come down to breakfast, and spend the greater part of the day at Spring Hill. Indeed, the wits of Spring Hill used to laugh, and say that the crafty Pacha was throwing his pocket-handkerchief at Madame Seacole, widow; but as the honest fellow candidly confessed he had three wives already at home, I acquit him of any desire to add to their number.
The Pacha’s great ambition was to be familiar with [Pg 111]the English language, and at last nothing would do but he must take lessons of me. So he would come down, and sitting in my store, with a Turk or so at his feet, to attend to his most important pipe, by inserting little red-hot pieces of charcoal at intervals, would try hard to sow a few English sentences in his treacherous memory. He never got beyond half a dozen; and I think if we had continued in the relation of pupil and mistress until now, the number would not have been increased greatly. “Madame Seacole,” “Gentlemen, good morning,” and “More champagne,” with each syllable much dwelt upon, were his favourite sentences. It was capital fun to hear him, when I was called away suddenly to attend to a customer, or to give a sick man medicine, repeating gravely the sentence we had been studying, until I passed him, and started him with another.
Very frequently he would compliment me by ordering his band down to Spring Hill for my amusement. They played excellently well, and I used to think that I preferred their music to that of the French and English regimental bands. I laughed heartily one day, when, in compliance with the kind-hearted Anglo-Turkish Pacha’s orders, they came out with a grand new tune, in which I with difficulty recognised a very distant resemblance to “God save the Queen.”
Altogether he was a capital neighbour, and gave such strict orders to his men to respect our property that we rarely lost anything. On the whole, the Turks were the most honest of the nations there (I except the English and the Sardinians), and the most tractable. But the Greeks hated them, and showed their hate in every way. In [Pg 112]bringing up things for the Pacha’s use they would let the mules down, and smash their loads most relentlessly. Now and then they suffered, as was the case one day when I passed through the camp and saw my friend superintending the correction of a Greek who was being bastinadoed. It seemed a painful punishment.
I was sorry, therefore, when my friend’s division was ordered to Kamara, and we lost our neighbours. But my pupil did not forget his schoolmistress. A few days after they had left the neighbourhood of Spring Hill came a messenger, with a present of lambs, poultry, and eggs, and a letter, which I could not decipher, as many of the interpreters could speak English far better than they could write it. But we discovered that the letter contained an invitation, to Mr. Day and myself, to go over to Kamara, and select from the spoil of the village anything that might be useful in our new buildings. And a few days later came over a large araba, drawn by four mules, and laden with a pair of glass-doors, and some window-frames, which the thoughtful kind Pacha had judged—and judged rightly—would be a very acceptable present. And very often the good-natured fellow would ride over from Kamara, and resume his acquaintance with myself and my champagne, and practise his English sentences.
We felt the loss of our Turkish neighbours in more ways than one. The neighbourhood, after their departure, was left lonely and unprotected, and it was not until a division of the Land Transport Corps came and took up their quarters near us, that I felt at all secure of personal safety. Mr. Day rarely returned to Spring Hill until nightfall relieved him from his many duties, and I [Pg 113]depended chiefly upon two sailors, both of questionable character, two black servants, Jew Johnny, and my own reputation for determination and courage—a poor delusion, which I took care to heighten by the judicious display of a double-barrelled pistol, lent me for the purpose by Mr. Day, and which I couldn’t have loaded to save my life.