He didn’t know when exactly it was that he learnt how to slip from a mode of emotional involvement into one of impassive observation. It was an ability he had somehow picked up, and though it was far from perfected he was pleased to see how he was generally able to remain outside of the events that at an earlier time in his life would have entirely engulfed him. These past few weeks had been like reading a novel, which, to his great satisfaction, he found he could step out of almost whenever he wished.
The sun was high now, and the thick mist that had moved up the valley had already dissipated against the sides of the hill. The men had gone up an hour ago, and Robert had remained behind to finish his drawings. Now he could hear them clearly although they were some distance away at the far end of the castle. Every now and then came a shout or the heavy thump and roar as a load of rock and soil was tipped over the mountainside and clattered down the slope. He put his drawings into a file, lifted up the tent flap to put it on the foldaway desk, placing on it the heavy piece of carved marble that Riley had given him to use as a paperweight, and then stepped out again into the bright day. The camp-boy, Salah, was sitting on a crate by the edge of the camp. He waved to him and the boy stood up.
“Should I make coffee?” he asked.
“No need. I’m off.”
“I’m going up.”
Robert pushed his hat on. He could see Riley climbing up onto a wall at the very edge of the hill.
“I’ll see you later.”
The boy sat back down on the crate and pulled out of his pocket a tin box of cigarettes. Robert walked up the track from the encampment, skirting the outer enceinte of the castle almost hidden in the rampant spring growth of sage and small trees. On the side of the track, he saw a discarded whisky bottle. He shook his head as he climbed on up to the top of the track. When he reached the rickety ladder below the upper wall Walker popped his head over the edge above.
“There you are old boy. Thought you were taking the day off.”
Robert clambered up the ladder taking Walker’s outstretched hand as he reached the top and swung himself onto the smooth stone step that had once been the threshold of a gate into the central ward, but now gave onto mid-air. He could smell the whisky on Walker’s breath.
“I’ve been working,” he answered. “You might try it yourself sometime,” but his voice was drowned under the crash of another pile of earth and rock tipped over the edge of the hill.
“Don’t take offence.”
“I never do,” said Robert. “Where’s Riley?”
“In the keep. Give him my best,” said Walker with no attempt to hide his sarcasm. He moved his thin, lanky body aside as Robert passed and climbed the stairs. At the top he found Riley lying on a piece of canvass on the dusty floor of the keep, peering down through the opening of a cistern into the darkness.
“Anything to see?”
Riley raised his head and looked at him
“I think I can see vault ribs.”
“Really! Let’s have a look.”
He lay beside him and gazed down into the square opening and shaft that vanished below into a black void. It took nearly a minute before he could make anything out. At first the vague form of stones on a wall gradually emerged in the darkness, then the angle of a corner and another wall. And then he thought he could see a corbel and the stone rib springing from it, and it became clear and he could follow it up till where it was hidden behind the sharp rectangle of the opening shaft.
“I see it,” he exclaimed. “What do you think? Rather unusual roofing for a cistern?”
“Yes.” Riley pulled himself up on his knees and dusted himself off and Robert pushed up with his arms into a sitting position beside him. “Usually they’re just barrel-vaulted.”
A slight breeze ran over the floor shifting the thin film of dust that had settled there.
“What are you going to do about Walker?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ll have to deal with him sooner or later. You do realise that?”
“Yes, I know,” Riley answered. He sounded exasperated.
The two men stood. Riley was so thin he looked as if he might blow off the side of the castle if the wind picked up. With the exception of his prominent nose, which had grown increasingly red in the sun, his complexion was notably pale. He was, as always, immaculately dressed - remarkable in this rough setting. Whereas Robert wore quasi-military dress, Riley was inevitably decked out in two of the three pieces of a fine, grey woollen suit and a thin grey tie, his only concessions to the field conditions being rather higher laced shoes than he wore at home, the pith helmet that he was somewhat shyly proud of, a gesture he had made to the romantic nature of his current employment and location, and of course the fact that the third piece of his suit he had left hanging on a chairback beside his camp bed.
Riley picked up his cane, and they walked across the ruined keep to the surviving inner face of its western wall. This fragment of massive stonework indicated the monumental size of what had once been the castle’s stronghold. It rose to about twelve feet and was formed of enormous buff-coloured ashlars that had turned grey where they had been longest exposed. They were perfectly tooled and joined and were stacked up like a giant’s toy building blocks. There was almost no mortar left between the stones, and you could see right through the vertical spaces across the rest of the castle and the green hills beyond where they rolled westward towards the coast. To the left and right the steep valleys fell away, and far below on the south-west in a clearing was the small camp of four white canvas tents. To the north, at the foot of the valley was the stream. Plane trees grew along its edges, taller than the other trees and a paler shade of green; a touch of European forest in a Mediterranean landscape. Further west the stream curved, vanished, re-emerged and ran through the valley to the sea. Riley sat down, leaning his back against the cold stone and Robert sat beside him, took off his hat and ran his hands through his thick hair.
“He’s been drinking again,” he said.
“Yes. Well, there’s not much I can do about it.”
“You should warn him.”
“I might… I will if it gets any worse.” They sat on for a few minutes in silence. Then Riley reached for his cane and pulled himself up. “We’d better set a good example,” he said, “I’m going to work on the eastern vault again today. What are your plans?”
“I was thinking I would like to get that drawing of the hall done, as you asked. I should start now before there is too much light on the wall.” He got up and walked to the staircase. A sparrowhawk was circling high above the keep. Robert descended into the central part of the castle. Walker was now directing a group of men who were attempting to lift a large stone onto a barrow. Robert walked past them to the far end, clambering up makeshift steps of wooden planking and passed through an opening in a massive wall that divided what had once been the domestic part of the castle from the western hall. He stepped out into a space like a stage hanging in the air, high against the jade backdrop of forest. An enormous stone column stood at the centre of a broad platform that had been part of the floor of the great ceremonial hall. It was formed of three monolithic, octagonal segments and rose to the springing level from where the vanished vaulting had once arched up, supported on broad ribs like a great fountain of stone. The only wall still standing was the twenty-foot-high mass of rubble and mortar with two large openings through one of which he had come. Nothing remained of the other walls to suggest what they had been like, but he imagined that they would have had large arched windows overlooking the sweep of hills that cascaded from high above on either side of the two converging valleys.
Against the column were a battered leather satchel and a board. He went over and picked them up. He found himself a position on the edge of the platform, took a sheet of paper from the satchel, taped it to the board and taking out a pencil began to sketch the scene.
The long morning passed with nothing of remark. After lunch he walked down into the valley to the ruined mill. At the bottom of the valley near the stream the path turned muddy and narrowed, almost vanished in a thick mass of blackberry canes. He walked in the shade of the plane trees along the edges of the stream and then into the cool shadow cast by the high façade of the mill. The building seemed almost intact although a large tree grew almost horizontally from high on the wall, its roots having bulged the stonework as they fingered their way within. On its trunk, a family of conies scrambled to safety in a gap in the wall, then reappeared, warily eyeing the intruder.
He peered inside the doorway. The mill had occupied the ground floor of the building. The walls were so thick that only a single thin shaft of light cut through the darkness from one of the windows. He took a few tentative steps. It was as cool as a cave. Perhaps it was his movements that caused minute fragments of lime mortar from between the stones in the vault above to drop into the thin shaft of light. He saw the particles fall silently, in their path a fine trail of dust that hovered for a few moments and settled. He heard the drone of unseen flies circling and, as his eyes grew accustomed, he could make out the form of the interior. The workings of the mill; the great wooden cogwheels and the millstones that had once turned in the flow of water from three chutes on the south wall; were long gone. There was nothing in the chamber but the soft dust covering the floor. A partition wall crossed about two thirds of the way down.
Stepping back out into the light he walked down the slope, crossed the stream at its shallowest, on flat stones that moved underfoot so that he almost lost his footing, and found himself a shaded position against the remains of the old dam wall where he sat to sketch the ruin. It was an ideal spot; the imposing façade of the mill, hall and tower against the wooded hill rising steeply behind, and the walls of the castle far above. As he worked, he listened to the soft rill of water in the stream as it came up against the stones of the ford.
He spent the early afternoon at his drawing, and then crossed back to the mill and took out a small hammer from his satchel and a short metal rod, which he hammered into the high ground at the eastern end of the wall. He slipped the ring of the tape-measure over the rod and wheeled out the thin white strip of numbered cloth tape, walking as far as the near side of the door, holding it high to adjust for the slope of the ground. He made some notes in a little book, then hammered in a new stake and continued the process along the front of the building. Without light there was no means of measuring the interior, and he determined to return with a lamp. He took up his satchel and drawing board and skirted the building on its eastern side, clambering up between the trees and fallen stones and entered the largely collapsed upper storey of the building. It was the first time he had seen these vaults. This level had once been a long gothic hall with four rib-vaulted bays ending in the west with a two-storey tower. Only a single bay of the hall was still standing, but it was overgrown and crumbling, with small trees and bushes growing out of the walls and roof. The other bays had long ago collapsed onto the floor. He estimated that he was about eight feet above the original floor level, and the collapsed debris rose nearly twice that height at the eastern and western extensions of the hall. The front and back walls, however, were standing to nearly their full original height. It occurred to him that this would make a very promising excavation, although it would be necessary to support the walls and the surviving bay. It was quite easy for him to reconstruct in his mind how the hall would have appeared when it was still intact. This was an exercise he liked to do. Huge stones that had fallen from the castle keep lay in the rubble, and he realised that this building must have collapsed when the Mamluks dismantled the castle on the hill high above it. He could imagine the thundering of these enormous stones rolling down the mountainside, shattering anything in their path and crashing onto the roof of the hall, so that the destruction of the castle above was echoed by destruction of this hall in the valley below.
As his thoughts were reflecting on these matters, he heard a rustling sound behind him and turning around saw Ra’ed the foreman, approaching.
“Ra’ed. Am I needed?”
“No, sir. Mr. Riley said I might check if you are in need of any help?”
“That was thoughtful of him, but I’m pretty much finished here.”
“Have you walked along the valley Mr. Palmer?”
“Would you like to see the spring? It is very beautiful.”
“Well, yes. I would.”
The two men set off following the narrow path and made their way up-stream. The path ran close to the water, weaving in where it was deeper in the rock, out again where the valley broadened. Abandoned mills stood in ruin along the north bank, damp walls gradually sinking under fallen branches, moss and maidenhair. The woods were thick around the stream; tall oriental plane trees that reached up high, their pale foliage awakening fresh in the spring warmth. On the lower slopes above and all the way up, the walls of the valley were crowded with the smaller evergreens; bay, Syrian maple, Palestine oak, wild olives, and along the path were stands of yellow Spanish broom that honeyed the air. In the grass were purple and yellow vetchling and grey-leafed red cudweed with tight burgundy heads, and at the edges grew the tiny blue pimpernel. The path and all the ground on the slopes were covered with a constantly thickening layer of fallen leaves from the evergreens, and all the time scattered bursts of brown leaves rained down from the canopying trees together with dry, worm-like flower-heads that fell, and here and there caught at the end of hanging cobwebs, swaying then gently like tiny, silent wind chimes. The hills rose high, scarred with cave-ridden cliffs.
“That is Shqīf Abū-Shibān,” said Ra’ed, pointing to a high forested peak to the right.
“What does the name mean?”
“Mountain of the Father of Shiba.”
“Father of Shiba?”
“Shiba is that feathery grey plant. You see, on the slope?” he pointed to lower on the hillside which was bearded with Artemisia.
“Your English is very good, Ra’ed. Where did you pick it up?”
“My father was a soap merchant. He made a lot of money in trade with Egypt. The Egyptians favour the soap from Nablus, Haifa, and Jaffa because it contains no animal fats. When I was twelve, my father sent me to stay with his brother who ran the business in Egypt. I was there for two years and went to school at the English school in Cairo. That is where I learnt my English and a bit of French.”
Further on they passed another hill that rose high against the blue. “That is Shqīf en-Nsūra, “Mountain of the Eagles.” As if to prove the aptness of its name, two large birds were circling near the peak.
They walked on, bending under arched branches, maneuvering rocks wrapped in thick, damp roots, the path sometimes breaking up and vanishing, Ra’ed leading and Robert close behind. They continued talking as they walked:
“You must know this area well.”
“I spent all my time here as a child. I know every tree, every stone. I think I could walk this blindfolded. I slipped on a rock once crossing the stream and came home limping and wounded. My uncle saw me coming into the village and asked me what had happened. I told him and he said someone must have put the rock there.”
The path twisted back by the stream and they saw the schools of tiger-patterned fish among the rocks jumping like salmon at a waterfall but without a salmon’s talent to overcome the pull of the earth. In a wild rush the stream had slowly cut through platforms of rock forming deep crevasses and small pools, isolated after the winter rains, in which were fat black tadpoles and masses of mosquito larvae that looped their way to the surface to breathe and then darted back down to a murky refuge. Occasionally there was the squelchy croak of an unseen frog followed by a small splash as it plunged into a pool. Dragonflies, turquoise or blood red, with cellophane wings half-dipped in black, darted and hovered, leveling out to grasp the ends of reeds.
Riley was waiting when Robert and Ra’ed climbed back up. The sun had already dropped quite low in the west, and the men had packed their tools. Riley showed Robert a fine carved, stone boss that they had unearthed, a rosette formed of oak leaves that had somehow survived unscathed where it had fallen from one of the collapsed vaults of the upper storey. He showed him also a handful of bronze coins adhering to one another in a thick layer of green corrosion, their design still vaguely discernable. Walker was sitting on one side on a fallen ashlar, writing in the field diary. At five o’clock the workers lined up and, after pressing their finger onto an inkpad and then against their names on the payroll chart, they set out on their long walk uphill through the forest back to the village. The three men then headed down to the camp. Halfway down they could already smell the smoke of Abdul’s fire and the meat he was preparing for their dinner. Salah was digging a drainage trench. The sun touched the crest of a hill to the west, and the castle began to take on a warm golden glow against the sky darkening behind them. Robert bent over at the edge of the path and picked up a tiny leaf-green creature, a chameleon. Its bright skin was formed of perfect minute scales like the careful artistry of an expert jeweller. It clung to his finger, rotated a conical eye in its hooded head, frowning with a grim, old man’s mouth, its tail a tight wound spring.