In wandering away from the encampment I must
have gone farther than I supposed, for presently I saw I was
alone, with nothing but the wide, sad prospect of Judean Hills
about me. Deep down on the left side the leaden gleam of the
Dead Sea at the base of the mountains of Moab gave the only
relief to the eye in this world of dull gray barrenness. I was
about to return to camp when at a distance of perhaps twenty
yards I saw ashes and refuse marking the spot where some band
of nomads had recently pitched their tents. It was a natural
impulse to go the necessary few steps onward, even though the
ashes and refuse would be the only reward for my curiosity.
This was so nearly the case that after a few
minutes' idle inspection I was turning away, when suddenly my
attention was caught by what I took to be a stone of peculiar
formation. Gray on gray, it lay unobtrusively, a stick of stone,
some eight inches long, and three or four in circumference.
Countless ages of attrition, I was beginning to say to myself,
must have been needed to wear it away to this smoothness and
straightness, till I remembered that here on this hilltop which
the sea had not reached for millions of years, no such attrition
had been possible. To have taken this evenness of form it must
have been worked on by the hand of Moab.
On going down the gentle slope, for it lay
just below me, I saw that it was not a stone, but a leaden cylinder.
Wedged into a seam in the rock it had neither fallen there by
accident nor been cast aside by someone impatient of task of
carrying it about. Looking carefully around me to make sure
I was not the victim of a plot, I dislodged it with some force,
finding it light enough and small enough to go in a large pocket.
Then I went back to camp.
What the cylinder contained I could only guess,
having no immediate opportunity of definitely finding out. In
the camp all my actions were subject to observation of the dragoman
and his servants. If I were seen opening a cylinder obviously
ancient, and not without some value in itself even if it were
empty, I should be suspected. The thing might easily be some
last object of veneration, known throughout the series of tribes
whose relations with one another are always mysterious to outsiders.
At any rate I ran no risk. The cylinder did not leave my person
till I reached the safety of an hotel bedroom in Damascus.
It proved then to contain what I suspected,
a parchment manuscript....