"I don't know why not!" Ticknor retorted. "Wasn't she in here when those three murderers came to finish the lot of us? If Yussuf Dakmar makes any report at all he'll surely say he traced the letter to this house."
"Yussuf Dakmar came no nearer than the street," Grim answered. "He has no notion who is in here. His three friends are in jail under lock and key, where he can't get at them. How long have you had this house? Since yesterday, isn't it? D'you kid yourself that Yussuf Dakmar knows who lives here?"
"I can get leave of absence. Suppose I go in Mabel's place?" suggested Ticknor, visibly worried.
"The mere fact that she goes, while you stay here, will be presumptive evidence that she isn't on a dangerous mission," Grim answered. "No. It has got to be a woman. If Mabel won't go I'll find someone else."
You could tell by Mabel's eyes and attitude that she was what the salesmen call "sold" already; but you didn't need a magnifying glass to detect that Ticknor wasn't. Men of his wandering habit know too well what a brave, good-tempered wife means to encourage her to take long chances; for although there are lots of women who would like to wander and accept the world's pot luck, there are precious few capable of doing it without doubling a fellow's trouble; when they know how to halve the trouble and double the fun they're priceless.
Grim played his usual game, which is to spank down his ace of trumps face upward on the table. Most of us forget what are trumps in a crisis.
"I guess it's up to you, doc," he said, turning toward Ticknor. "There's nothing in it for you. Feisul isn't on the make; I don't believe he cares ten cents who is to be the nominal ruler of the Arabs, provided they get their promised independence. He'd rather retire and live privately. But he only considers himself in so far as he can serve the Arab cause. Now, you've risked Mabel's life a score of times in order to help sick men in mining camps, and malaria victims and Lord knows what else. Here's a chance to do the biggest thing of all—"
"Of course, if you put it that way..." said Ticknor, hesitating.
"Just your style too. Nobody will know. No bouquets. You won't have to stammer a speech at any dinner given in your honor."
"D'you want to do it, Mabel?" asked Ticknor, looking at her keenly across the table.
"Of course I do!"
"All right, girl. Only, hurry back."
He looked hard at Grim again, then into my eyes and then Jeremy's.
"She's in your hands. I don't want to see any of you three chaps alive again unless she comes back safe. Is that clear?"
"Clear and clean!" exploded Jeremy. "It's a bet, doc. Half a mo', you chaps; that's my mine at Abu Kem, isn't it? I've agreed to give the thing to Feisul and make what terms I can with him. Jim and Rammy divvy up with me on my end, if any. That right? I say; let the doc and Mabel have a half-share each of anything our end amounts to."
Well, it took about as long to settle that business as you'd expect. The doctor and Mabel protested, but it's easier to give away a fortune that is still in prospect than a small sum that is really tangible—I mean between folk who stand on their own feet. It doesn't seem to deprive the giver of much, or to strain the pride of the recipient unduly.
I've been given shares in unproven El Doradoes times out of number, and could paper the wall of, say, a good-sized bathroom with the stock certificates—may do it some day if I ever settle down. But the only gift of that sort that I ever knew to pay dividends, except to the printer of the gilt-edged scrip, is Jeremy's gold mine; and you'll look in vain for any mention of that in the stock exchange lists. The time to get in on that good thing was that night by Mabel Ticknor's teapot in Jerusalem.
It was nearly midnight before we had everything settled, and there was still a lot to do before we could catch the morning train. One thing that Grim did was to take gum and paper and contrive an envelope that looked in the dark sufficiently like the alleged Feisul letter; and he carried that in his hand as he took to the street, with Narayan Singh following among the shadows within hail. Jeremy and I kept Narayan Singh in sight, for it was possible that Yussuf Dakmar had gathered a gang to waylay whoever might emerge from the house.
But he seemed to have had enough of bungling accomplices that night. Grim hadn't gone fifty paces, keeping well in the middle of the road, when a solitary shadow began stalking him, and doing it so cautiously that though he had to cross the circles of street lamplight now and then neither Jeremy nor I could have identified him afterward.
Narayan Singh had orders not to do anything but guard Grim against assault, for Grim judged it wise to leave Yussuf Dakmar at large than to precipitate a climax by arresting him. He had the names of most of the local conspirators, and if the leader were seized too soon the equally dangerous rank and file might scatter and escape.
Down inside the Jaffa Gate, in a dark alley beside the Grand Hotel, there are usually two or three cabs standing at any hour of the night ready to care for belated Christian gentlemen who have looked on the wine when it was any colour that it chanced to be. There were three there, and Grim took the first one, flourishing his envelope carelessly under the corner lamp.
Yussuf Dakmar took the next in line, and ordered the driver to follow Grim. So we naturally took the last one, all three of us crowding on to the rear seat in order to watch the cabs in front. But as soon as we had driven back outside the city gate Yussuf Dakmar looked behind him and, growing suspicious of us, ordered his driver to let us pass.
It would have been too obvious if we had stopped too, so we hid our faces as we passed, and then put Jeremy on the front seat, he looking like an Arab and being most unrecognizable. Yussuf Dakmar followed us at long range, and as the lean horses toiled slowly up the Mount of Olives to headquarters the interval between the cabs grew greater. By the time we reached the guard-house and answered the Sikh sentry's challenge there was no sign of Grim in front, and we could only hear in the distance behind us the occasional click of a loose shoe to tell that Yussuf Dakmar was still following.
"Better the evil that we know..."
Yussuf Dakmar had his nerve with him that night, or possibly desperation robbed him of discretion. He may have been a more than usually daring man with his wits about him, but you'd have to hunt down the valley of death before you could bring the psychoanalytic guns to bear on him for what they're worth. I can only tell you what he did, not why he did it.
The great hospice that the German nation built on the crown of the Mount of Olives to glorify their Kaiser stood like a shadow among shadows in its compound, surrounded by a fairly high wall. There was a pretty strong' guard under an Indian officer in the guard-house at the arched main gate where the sentry challenged us.
A sentry stood at the foot of the steps under the portico at the main entrance, and there was another armed man on duty patrolling the grounds. But there were one or two other entrances, locked, though quite easy to negotiate, which the sentry could only observe while he marched toward them; for five minutes at a time, while his back was turned, at least two gates leading to official residences offered opportunity to an active man.
One lone light at a window on the top floor suggested that the officer of the night might be awake, but what with the screeching of owls and a wind that sighed among the shrubs, headquarters looked and sounded more like a deserted ancient castle than the cranium and brain-cells of Administration.
We heard Yussuf Dakmar stop his cab two hundred yards away. The cabman turned his horses and drove back toward Jerusalem without calling on Allah to witness that his fare should have been twice what he received; he didn't even lash the horses savagely; so we supposed that he hadn't been paid, and went on to deduce from that that Yussuf Dakmar had driven away again, after satisfying himself that the Feisul letter had reached headquarters. It was lazy, bad reasoning—the sort of superficial, smart stuff that has cost the lives of thousands of good men times out of number—four o'clock o' the morning intelligence that, like the courage of that hour, needs priming by the foreman, or the sergeant-major, or the bosun as the case may be.
The sentry turned out the guard, who let us through the gate after a word with Narayan Singh; and the man who leaned on his bayonet under the portico at the end of the drive admitted us without any argument at all.
I suppose he thought that having come that far we must be people in authority. Ever since then I have believed all the stories told me about spies who walked where they chose unchallenged during wartime; for we three—a Sikh enlisted man, an Australian disguised as an Arab, and an American in civilian clothes—entered unannounced and unwatched the building where every secret of the Near East was pigeonholed.
We walked about the corridors and up and downstairs for ten minutes, looking in vain for Grim. Here and there a servant snored on a mat in a corner, and once a big dog came and sniffed at us without making any further comment. Jeremy kicked one man awake, who, mistaking him for an Arab, cursed him in three languages, in the name of three separate gods, and promptly went to sleep again. The sensation was like being turned loose in the strong-room of a national treasury with nobody watching if you should choose to help yourself. There are acres of floor in that building. We walked twice the whole circuit of the upper and lower corridors, knocking on dozens of doors but getting no answer and finally brought up in the entrance hall.
Then it occurred to me that Grim might have gone into the building by some private entrance, perhaps round on the eastern side, so we set out to look for one.
We had just reached the northwest angle of the building, when Narayan Singh, who was walking a pace in front, stopped suddenly and held up both hands for silence. Whoever he could see among the shadows must have heard us, but it was no rare thing for officers to come roistering down those front steps and along the drive hours after midnight, and our sudden silence was more likely to give alarm than the noise had been. I began talking again in a normal voice, saying anything at all, peering about into the shadows meanwhile. But it was several seconds before I made out what the Sikh's keener eyes had detected instantly, and Jeremy saw it before I did.
There was a magnolia shrub about ten paces away from us, casting a shadow so deep that the ground it covered looked like a bottomless abyss. But nevertheless, something bright moved in it—perhaps the sheen of that lone light in an upper window reflected on a knife-hilt or a button—something that moved in time to a man's breathing.
If there was a certainty in the world it was that somebody who had no right to be there was lurking in that shadow, and he was presumably up to mischief. On the other hand, I had absolutely no right in that place either. Jeremy and Narayan Singh, being both in the British Army, were liable to be disciplined, and I might be requested to leave the country, if we should happen to blunder and tree the wrong 'possum, revenge being more than usually sweet to the official disturbed in the pursuit of unauthorized "diplomacy." It might even be some clandestine love affair.
So I took each of my companions by the arm, gripping Jeremy's particularly tightly, and started forward, whispering an explanation after we had turned the corner of the building. "Let one of us go and warn the guard," I suggested. "If we should draw that cover and start a shindy, we're more likely to get shot by the guard than thanked."
So Narayan Singh started off for the guard-house, he being the one most capable of explaining matters to the Sikh officer, and Jeremy and I crept back through the shadows to within earshot of the dark magnolia tree, choosing a point from which we could see if anybody bolted.
You know how some uncatalogued sense informs you in the dark of the movement of the man beside you? I looked suddenly sideways toward Jeremy, knowing, although I couldn't see him, that his eyes were seeking mine. It is only the animals who omit in the darkness those instinctive daylight movements; men don't have sufficient control of themselves. We had both heard Grim's voice at the same instant, speaking Arabic but unmistakable.
There were three men there. Grim was talking to the other two.
"Keep your hands on each other's shoulders! Don't move! I'm going to search all your pockets again. Now, Mr. Charkian. Ah! That feels like quite a pretty little weapon; mother o' pearl on the butt? Have you a permit? Never mind; not having the weapon you won't need a permit, will you? And papers—Mashallah! What a lot of documents; they must be highly important ones since you hide them under your shirt. I expect you planned to sell them, eh? Too bad! Too bad!
"You keep your hands on Mr. Charkian's shoulders, Yussuf Dakmar, or I'll have to use violence! I'm not sure, Mr. Charkian, that it wouldn't be kinder to society to send you to jail after all; you need a bath so badly. It seems a pity that a chief clerk to the Administration shouldn't have a chance to wash himself, doesn't it? Well, I'll have to read these papers afterward—after we've usurped the prerogative of Destiny and mapped out a little of the future. Now—are you both listening? Do you know who I am?"
There was no answer. "You, Mr. Charkian?"
"I think you are Major Grim."
"Ah! You wish to flatter me, don't you? Never mind; let us pretend I'm Major Grim disguised as an Arab; only, I'm afraid we must continue the conversation in Arabic; I might disillusion you if I tried to talk English. We'll say then that I'm Major Grim, disguised. Let's see now... What would he do in the circumstances? Here's Yussuf Dakmar, wanted for murder in the city and known to be plotting a massacre, seen climbing a wall when the sentry's back was turned, and caught in conference with Mr. Charkian, confidential clerk to the Administration. I'm sorry I didn't hear all that was said at your conference, for that might have made it easier to guess what Major Grim would do."
"Don't play with us like a cat playing with a mouse!" snarled somebody. "Tell us what you want. If you were Major Grim you'd have handed us over to those officers who passed just now. You're just as much irregular as we are. Hurry up and make your bargain, or the guard may come and arrest us all!"
"Yes, hurry up!" complained the other man. "I don't want to be caught here; and as for those papers you have taken, if we are caught I shall say you stole them from the office—you and Yussuf Dakmar, and that I followed you to recover them, and you both attacked me!"
"Very well," said Grim's voice pleasantly. "I'll let you go. I think you're dangerous. You'd better be quick, because I think I hear the guard coming!"
"Give me back the papers, then!"
"Aha! Will you wait and discuss them with the guard, or go at once?"
The Armenian clerk didn't answer, but got up and slunk away.
"Why did you let that fool go?" demanded Yussuf Dakmar. "Now he will awaken some officer and start hue and cry with a story that we robbed him. Listen! There comes the guard! We had better both run!"
"Not so fast!" Grim answered.
And then he raised his voice perceptibly, as if he wished to be overheard:
"I think those men who passed just now were not officers at all. Perhaps they were strangers. It may be that one of them is confused, and is leading the guard in the wrong direction!"
"Don't make so much noise then!" retorted Yussuf Dakmar. Jeremy, who thinks habitually about ten times as fast as I do, slipped away at once into the shadows to find Narayan Singh and decoy the guard elsewhere. I didn't envy him the job, for Sikhs use cold steel first and argue afterward when on the qui vive in the dark. However, he accomplished his purpose. Narayan Singh saved his life, and the guard arrested him on general principles. You could hear both Jeremy and Narayan Singh using Grim's name freely. Yussuf Dakmar wasn't deaf. He gave tongue:
"There! Did you hear that? They are speaking of Major Grim. You are a fool if you wait here any longer. That fellow Grim is a devil, I tell you. If he finds us we are both lost!"
"We have to be found first," Grim answered, and you could almost hear him smile.
"Quick then! What do you want?" snapped Yussuf Dakmar. Grim's answer was the real surprise of the evening. It bewildered me as much as it astonished Yussuf Dakmar.
"I want that letter that came from the Emir Feisul!"
"I haven't got it! I swear I haven't!"
"I know that already, for I searched you. Where is it?"
"Ask Allah! It was stolen by a Sikh, who delivered it to someone in a house near the military hospital, who in turn gave it to an Arab, who brought it here. I hoped that fellow Charkian might steal it back again, but you have spoiled everything. Charkian will turn against me now to save himself. What do you want with the letter?"
"I must have it!" Grim answered. "The French agent—"
"What—Sidi Said? You know him?"
"Surely. He would pay me a thousand pounds for it."
"May Allah change his face! He only offered me five hundred!"
"You have seen him already, then?" Grim asked. "I don't believe you! When did you see him?"
"On the way up here. He stopped my cab to speak to me at the foot of the hill."
I began to see the drift of Grim's purpose. He had established the fact that the French secret agent was already on the track of the letter, and that in turn explained why he had not seized Yussuf Dakmar and put him in jail. It was better to use the man, as the sequel proved. And Yussuf Dakmar walked straight into Grim's trap.
"What is your name?" he demanded.
"Call me Omar," said Grim.
"A Turk, are you? Well, Omar, let us help each other to get that letter, and divide the reward. Sidi Said told me that the British are sure to confront Feisul with it, and to do it secretly if they can. They will try to send it to Damascus. Let us two find out who takes it, and waylay him."
"Why should I divide with you?" demanded Grim, who is much too good an actor to pretend to agree without bargaining.
"Because otherwise you will not succeed. I was afraid of you when you first surprised me with Charkian. But now that I know you for a spy in the pay of the French I am not afraid of you, even though you have my revolver and dagger. You dare not kill me, for I would shout for help and the guard would come. You are in danger as much as I am. So you may either agree to work with me, sharing the reward, or you may work alone and have nothing for your pains; for I shall bring accomplices to help me take the letter from you after you have stolen it!"
Well, I suppose that anyone with criminal intentions could submit gracefully to that much blackmail. Besides, Grim was rather pressed for time and couldn't afford to prolong the argument.
"I see you are a determined man," he answered. "Your demand is unreasonable, but I must agree to it."
"Then give me back my pistol!"
"No. I need it. I lent mine this evening to another man, who has not yet returned it. That was a piece of wood with which I held you up just now. You must get yourself another."
"They are hard to come by in Jerusalem. Give me mine back."
"No. I shall keep it to protect myself against you."
"Why? You have no need to fear me if we work together."
"Because I intend to tell you what I know; and I may find it convenient to shoot you if you betray the information."
"Oh! Well, tell away."
"I have been cleverer than you," Grim announced blandly. "I knew who had given the order to the Sikh to steal that letter from you, and I was concealed in his house when the letter was brought to him. I heard the conference that followed, so I know what is going to be done about it."
"Oh! That was very smart. Well, tell me."
"Three men are going to take the letter to Damascus, but I don't know which of them will have it on his person. One is an Arab. One is an American. The third is that same Sikh who took the letter from you. They will take the train from Ludd, and I have engaged myself as servant to the American."
"Now that was extremely clever of, you!" said Yussuf Dakmar.
"Yes," Grim agreed. "But perhaps it will be as well to have an accomplice after all, and you will do as well as any. If I steal the letter they may accuse me; but if I can pass it to you, then I can submit to a search and oblige them to apologize."
"True! True! That will be excellent."
"So you had better take the morning train for Damascus," Grim continued. "But understand: If you bring others with you I shall suspect you of intending to play a trick on me. In that event I shall shoot you with your own pistol, and take my chance of escaping afterward. In fact, you are a dead man, Yussuf Dakmar, the minute I suspect you of playing me false."
"The same to you likewise!" Yussuf Dakmar answered fervently.
"Then we understand each other," said Grim. "The best thing you can do between now and train-time is to see the French agent again."
"What good will that do? He is irritable—nervous; he will only ask a thousand questions."
"Then your visit will do all the more good. You can calm him. We don't want a horde of fools interfering with us on the journey. We want to work quietly, and to share the reward between us. Therefore, you should tell him that you are confident of getting the letter if he will only leave the business to you alone. Give him every assurance, and explain to him that interference may mean failure. Now, I have done much the greater part so far; let this be your share to balance the account between us; you go to Sidi Said, the French agent, and make sure that he doesn't hinder us by trying to help."
"Very well, I will do that. And I shall meet you at the station in the morning?"
"No. My party will go as far as Ludd by motor. You will see us join the train there. Go now, while the guard is out of the way."
I could not see, but I heard Yussuf Dakmar get up and go. He had hardly time to get out of earshot when Grim's voice broke the silence again:
"You there, Ramsden?"
Instead of answering I approached.
"Did you hear what was said?" he asked.
"Yes. Why didn't you arrest both the blackguards and have done with it?"
"Better the evil that we know..." he answered, with the familiar smile in his voice. "The important thing is to sidetrack the French agent, who could put fifty ruffians on our trail instead of one."
"Why not send a provost-marshal's guard to the French agent, then?"
"Can't do that. France and Great Britain are allies. Besides, they might retaliate by spiflicating our agent in Damascus. Wise folk who live in glass-houses don't throw stones. What I think has been accomplished is to reduce our probable risk down to Yussuf Dakmar, who's a mean squib at best; and I think we've drawn suspicion clear away from Mabel Ticknor. All that remains is for me to go to that room where you see the light burning and discuss matters with the chief."
"If he's awake he's lonely!" said I; and I told Grim of our experience inside the building.
"Yes," he said. "Governments are all like that. They talk glibly of the ship of state; but a ship run in the same way would pile up or sink the first night out. You'd better go home and get an hour's sleep; I'll call you at seven."
"We'll take turns sleeping on the train," I answered. "Come first and rescue Jeremy. I think the guard pinched him. Say, did you intend one of us to go and decoy the guard away that time you raised your voice?"
"Sure. Recognized your voices—yours especially—when you passed, and heard you breathe as you crept back. You nearly spoilt the game by turning out the guard, but you saved it again handsomely."
"It's a marvel those Sikhs didn't shoot Jeremy in the dark," I answered.
"You bet it is," said Grim. "I guess he's too useful to be allowed to die just now."
He hung his head, thinking, as we walked side by side. "That was a close shave—too close! Well, as you say, let's go and rescue him."
"You talk like a madman!"
Grim changed the plan a little at the last minute. Mabel Ticknor left Jerusalem by train, as agreed, but Narayan Singh was sent that way too, to keep an eye on her. He being a Sikh, could sit in the corridor without exciting comment, and being dressed for the part of a more or less prosperous trader, he could travel first class without having to answer questions or allay suspicion.
Grim, Jeremy and I drove to Ludd in a hired auto, Grim and Jeremy both in Arab costume, and I trying to look like a tourist. Jeremy was supposed to be a travelled Arab intent on guiding me about Damascus for the usual consideration.
The platform was crowded, and we secured a compartment in the train without calling much attention to ourselves. There were British officers of all ranks, Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, refugee Armenians, Maltese, Kurds, a Turk or two, Circassians, men from as far off as Bokhara, Turkomans, Indians of all sorts, a sprinkling of Bedouins looking not quite so at home as in their native desert, and local Arabs by the score. About half of them were in a panic, encouraged to it by their shrill women-folk, fighting in a swarm for tickets at one small window, where an insolent Levantine demonstrated his capacity for self-determination by making as many people as possible miss the train. I caught sight of Mabel Ticknor in the front compartment of our car, and Grim pointed out Yussuf Dakmar leaning through a window of the car behind. His face was fat, unwholesome, with small, cold eyes, an immoral nose, and a small mouth with pouting lips. The tarboosh he wore tilted at an angle heightened the general effect of arrogant self-esteem. He was an illustration of the ancient mystery—how is it that a man with such a face, and such insolence written all over him, can become a leader of other men and persuade them to hatch the eggs of treachery that he lays like a cuckoo in their nests?
He smirked at Grim suggestively as we went by, and Grim, of course, smirked back, with a sidewise inclination of the head in my direction, whereat Yussuf Dakmar withdrew himself, apparently satisfied.
"Now he'll waste a lot of time investigating you," said Grim in an undertone. "We'd better keep awake in turns, or he'll knife you."
"The toe of my boot to him!" I retorted. "One clean kick might solve this international affair!"
"Steady!" Grim answered. "We need him until after leaving Haifa. The French agent wired, and they'll have a gang at Haifa ready for us; but Yussuf Dakmar will warn them off if we keep him hoping."
So we settled down into our compartment after a glance to make sure that Mabel was all right, and for about two minutes I imagined we were in for a lazy journey. Narayan Singh was on a camp-stool in the corridor, snoozing with one eye open like a faithful sheep-dog. It didn't seem possible for a creature like Yussuf Dakmar to make trouble for us, and I proposed that we should match coins for the first turn to go to sleep.
We had just pulled our coins out, and the engineer was backing the train in order to get her started, when Yussuf Dakmar arrived at our door, carrying his belongings, and claimed a seat on the strength of a lie about there being no room elsewhere.
There's something about a compartment on a train that makes whoever gets in first regard the rest of the world as intruders. Nobody would have been welcome, but we would have preferred a pig to Yussuf Dakmar. Jeremy, democrat of democrats, who had slept without complaining between the legs of a dead horse on a rain-swept battlefield, with a lousy Turkish prisoner hugging him close to share the blanket, was up in arms at once.
"Imshi!" he ordered bluntly.
But Yussuf Dakmar was delighted. The reception convinced him, if anything were needed to do that, that one of us really was guarding the secret letter; and he was one of those hogs, anyhow, who glory in snouting in where they are plainly not wanted. He took the corner seat opposite Jeremy, tucked his legs up under him, produced a cigarette and smiled offensively. I'll concede this, though: I think the smile was meant to be ingratiating.
He pulled out a package wrapped in newspaper and began to eat before the train had run a mile. And, you know, more men get killed because of how they eat than by the stuff they devour. If you don't believe that, try living in camp for a week or two with a man who chews meat with his mouth open. You'll feel the promptings of a murderer. I know a scientist who swears that the real secret of the Cain and Abel story is that Abel sucked his gums at mealtime.
"You ought to be buried up to the neck and fed with a shovel!" Jeremy informed him in blunt English after listening to the solo for a while.
"Aha! That is the way they used to treat criminals in Persia," he answered pleasantly, with his mouth full of goat's milk cheese. "Only they put plaster of Paris in the hole, and when it rained the wretched man was squeezed until the blood came out of his mouth and eyes, and he died in agony. But how comes it that you speak to me in English? If we are both Arabs, why not talk the mother tongue?"
"My rump is my rump and the land is its rulers," Jeremy answered in Arabic, quoting the rudest proverb he could think of on the spur of the moment.
"Ah! And who is its ruler? Who is to be its ruler?"
Yussuf Dakmar made a surreptitious face at Grim, and his little cold eyes shone like a hungry pariah dog's. It began to be interesting to watch his opening gambit.
"I have heard tales," he went on, "of a new ruler for this country. What do you think of Feisul's chance?"
As he said that he eyed me sideways swiftly and keenly. Grim sat back in his own corner and folded up his legs, watching the game contentedly. Jeremy, intercepting Yussuf Dakmar's glance, put his own construction on it. He is a long, lean man, but like the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers he likes to make your flesh creep, and humor, to have full zest for him, has to be mischievous.
So he commenced by pulling out his weapons one by one. The first was a razor, which he sharpened, tested with his thumb suggestively, and then placed in his sock, studying Yussuf Dakmar's throat for a minute or so after that, as if expecting to have to use the razor on it presently.
As the effect of that wore off he pulled out a pistol. It was one of the kind that won't go off unless you pull the Hammer back, but Yussuf Dakmar didn't know that, and if he had flesh and blood capable of creeping it's a safe assertion that they crept. Jeremy acted as if he didn't understand the weapon, and for fifteen minutes did more stunts with it than a puppy can do with a ball of twine. One of them that interested Yussuf Dakmar awfully was to point the pistol straight ahead, half-cocked, and try to get the hammer down by slapping it with the palm of his hand.
Most of our baggage was on the floor, but one fairly heavy valise was in the rack over Yussuf Dakmar's head. Jeremy got up to examine it when the pistol had ceased to amuse him, and taking advantage of a jerk as the train slowed down, contrived to drop it into the Syrian's lap; who rather naturally swore; whereat Jeremy took offence, and accused him of being a descendant of Hanna, son of Manna, who lived for a thousand and one years and never enjoyed himself.
It was our turn to eat sandwiches after that, while Yussuf Dakmar recovered from his disgruntlement. But just before the meal was finished Jeremy revived the game by asking suddenly in an awestruck whisper where "it" was. He slapped himself all over in a hurry, feeling for hidden pockets, and then came over and pretended to search me. There wasn't anything to do but fall in with his mood, so I resisted, searched my own pockets reluctantly, and said that we might as well take the next train back, since we had lost the important document.
Before we started we had put into a wallet the fake envelope that Grim had carried in his hand the previous night, and had entrusted the wallet to Jeremy in order to have an alibi ready for Mabel in case of need. Grim took up the cudgels now and reminded me respectfully, as a servant should when speaking to his master, that I had taken all proper precautions and could not be blamed in any event.
"But I think it will be found," he said hopefully. "Inshallah, it is not lost, but in the wallet in the pocket of that hare-brained friend of yours."
So Jeremy went back to his corner, searched for the wallet, found it after pretty nearly, standing on his head to shake his clothes, examined it excitedly, and produced the fake envelope, flourishing it so violently that nobody, even with eyes like a hawk's, could have identified it with certainty.
Then he dropped it in among the baggage on the floor, and went down on his knees to pick it up again. There is no more finished expert at sleight of hand than he, so it vanished, and he swore he couldn't find it. In a well-simulated agony of nervousness he called on Yussuf Dakmar to get down and help him search, and the Syrian hadn't enough self-command left to pretend to hesitate; his cold eyes were nearly popping from his head as he knelt and groped. The chief subject of interest to me just then was how he proposed to retain the letter in the unlikely event of his finding it first.
It was a ridiculous search, because there wasn't really anywhere to look. After three bags had been lifted and their bottoms scrutinized the whole floor of the compartment lay naked to the eye, except where my feet rested. Jeremy insisted on my raising them, to the accompaniment of what he considered suitable comment on their size, turning his "behind end" meanwhile toward Yussuf Dakmar.
Grim chuckled and caught my eye. Yussuf Dakmar had walked straight into temptation, and was trying to search Jeremy's pockets from the rear—no easy matter, for he had to discover them first in the loose folds of the Arab costume.
Suddenly Jeremy's mood changed. He became suspicious, stood up, resumed his seat—and glared at Yussuf Dakmar, who retired into his corner and tried to seem unconscious of the game.
"I believe you are a thief—one of those light-fingered devils from El-Kalil!" said Jeremy suddenly, after about three minutes' silence. "I believe you have stolen my letter! Like the saint's ass, you are a clever devil, aren't you? Nevertheless, you are like a man without fingernails, whose scratching does him no good! Your labour was in vain. Give me back the letter, or by Allah I will turn you upside down!"
Yussuf Dakmar denied the accusation with all the fervour that a blackguard generally does use when, for once, he is consciously innocent.
"By the Beard of the Prophet and on my honor I swear to you that I haven't touched your letter! I don't know where it is."
"Show me the Prophet's beard!" commanded Jeremy. "Show me your honor!"
"You talk like a madman! How can I show either?"
"Then how can you swear by them? Father of easy words and evil deeds, give me the letter back!"
Yussuf Dakmar appealed to me as presumably responsible for Jeremy.
"You saw, effendi, didn't you? I tried to help him. But he who plays with the cat must suffer her claws, so now he accuses me of stealing. I call you to witness that I took nothing."
"You must excuse him," I answered. "That is a highly important letter. If it isn't found the consequences may be disastrous."
"By Allah, it shall be found!" exploded Jeremy, glaring harder than ever at Yussuf Dakmar. "Look at his face! Look at his evil eyes! He came in here on purpose to spy on us and steal that letter! It is time to use my razor on him! I swear not by the Prophet's beard or anybody's honor, but by the razor in my sock that he has the letter and that I will have it back!" Well, that was a challenge there was no side-stepping. Sure of being able to prove innocence, Yussuf Dakmar decided that a bold course was the best. He proceeded to empty his own pocket, laying the contents on the seat before Jeremy's eyes. And Jeremy watched like a puzzled puppy with his brow wrinkled. The process took time, because he was wearing one of those imitation Western suits, of prehistoric cut but up-to-date with every imaginable pocket that a tailor could invent. Their contents included a dagger and a clasp-knife with a long blade sharpened on both edges, but no pistol.
"Now are you satisfied?" he demanded, after turning inside-out the two "secret" pockets in the lining of his vest.
"Less than ever!" Jeremy retorted. "Until I see you naked I will not believe you!"
Yussuf Dakmar turned to me again. He was a patient spy, if ever there was one.
"Do you think I should be put to that indignity?" he asked. "Shall I undress myself?"
"By Allah, unless you do it I will cut your clothes off with my razor!" Jeremy announced.
We drew up at a station then, and had to wait until the train went on again. By that time Yussuf Dakmar had made up his mind. He slipped off his jacket and vest and began to unfasten his collar-button as the train gained speed.
Everything went smoothly until he stood up to remove his pants. He had the top of them in both hands when Jeremy seized him suddenly by the elbows and spun him face about. And there the letter lay, face downward on the seat he had just left, bent and a little crinkled in proof that he had been sitting on it for some minutes past.
Now it doesn't make any difference whether a man meant to take off his trousers or not. In a crisis, if they are unfastened, he will hold them up. It's like catching a monkey; you put corn into a narrow-necked basket. The monkey inserts his arm, fills his hand with corn, and tries to pull it out, but can't unless he lets go of the corn, which he won't do. So you catch him. Yussuf Dakmar held up his pants with one hand, and tried to free himself from Jeremy with the other. If he had let go his pants he might have seized the envelope and discovered what a fake it was; but he wouldn't do that. It was I who pounced on it and stowed it away carefully in my inner pocket.
Yussuf Dakmar's emotions were poignant and mixed, but he was no quitter. He thought he knew definitely where the letter was now, and the wolf glance with which he favoured me changed swiftly to a smile of ingratiating politeness.
"I am glad you have recovered what you lost," he said, smiling, as he fastened up his pants and resumed his coat. "This friend of yours—or is he your servant?—made me nervous with his threats, or I should certainly have found it for you sooner."
And now Grim resumed a hand. The last thing he wished was that Yussuf Dakmar should consider his quest too difficult, for then he would probably summon assistance at Haifa. Encouragement was the proper cue, now that Jeremy had tantalized him with a glimpse of the bait. We had nothing to fear from him unless he should lose heart.
"The value of a sum lies in the answer," he said, quoting one of those copybook proverbs with which all Syrians love to clinch an argument.
"The letter is in its owner's pocket. The accuser should now apologize, and we can spend the rest of the journey pleasantly."
Jeremy proceeded to apologize:
"So you're not such a thief as you looks."
Then he provided entertainment. He drew out the razor and did stunts with it, juggling it with open blade from hand to hand—pretending to drop it and always catching it again within a fraction of an inch of Yussuf Dakmar's person. By and by he juggled with coins, match-box, cigars, razor and anything he could lay his hands on.
"Mashallah!" exclaimed the Syrian at last, his face all sweaty with excitement as he shrank back to avoid the spinning razor. "Where did you learn such accomplishments?"
"Learn them?" answered Jeremy, still juggling. "I am a dervaish. I was born, not taught. I can ride through the air on cannon-balls, and whatever I wish for is mine the next minute. Look, I have one piastre. I wish for twenty. What do I do? I spin it in the air—catch it—d'you hear them? There you are—twenty! Count 'em if you like."
"A dervaish? A holy person? You? Where do you come from?"
"I was born in the belly of the South Wind," answered Jeremy. "Where I come from, every shell-fish has a pearl in it and gold is so common that the cattle wear it in their teeth. I can talk three languages at once and swear in six, use sulphur for tobacco, eat sardines without opening the can, and flavour my food for choice with gun-powder.
"I've been everywhere, seen everything, heard all the lies, and I found that big effendi in Jerusalem. I saw him first. He calls himself Ramsden, which is derived from the name of a creature bearing wool, which in turn is a synonym for money. He's on his way to supply Feisul with money, and I'm going to show him the streets of Damascus. Anything else you want to know?"
"Supply Feisul with money? That is interesting. American money perhaps? An American banker by any chance?"
"Nothing to do with chance. He's a father of certainties. Didn't he give me that letter to keep, and didn't I find a safe place for it between you and the cushions? Yes, I put it there. I'm an honest man, but I have my reasonable doubts about this other fellow. Ramsden effendi found him somewhere, and engaged him as a servant without asking me. Perhaps he's honest. Only Allah knows men's hearts. But he hasn't got an honest face like yours, and when pay-day comes I shall hide my money."
"So you know Damascus?" answered Yussuf Dakmar. "I hope you will come and see me in Damascus. I will give you my address. If Ramsden effendi has only engaged you temporarily, perhaps I can show you a way to make money with those accomplishments of yours."
"Make money?" answered Jeremy, prattling away like a madman. "I am weary of the stuff. I'm hunting the world over, in search of a friend. Nobody loves me. I want to find someone who'll believe the lies I tell him without expecting me to believe the truth he tries to foist on me. I want to find a man as tricky with his brains as I am with my hands. He must be a politician and a spy, because I love excitement. That's why I called you a spy. If you were one, you might have admitted it, and then we could have been friends, like two yolks in one eggshell. But I see you're only a shell without a yolk in it. Who cleaned you?"
"How long have you been in the service of Ramsden effendi?" Yussuf Dakmar asked him.
"Not long, and I am tired of it. He is strong, and his fist is heavy. When he gets drunk he is difficult to carry upstairs to bed, and if I am also drunk the feat is still more difficult. It is a mystery how such a man as he should be entrusted with a secret mission, for he drinks with anyone. Aha! He scowls at me because I tell the truth about him, but if I had a bottle of whisky to offer him he would soon look pleasant again, and would give me a drink too, when he had swallowed all he could hold."
If he had really been my servant I would naturally have kicked him off the train for a fraction of such impudence. I didn't exactly know what to do. There is a thoughtful motive behind every apparently random absurdity that Jeremy gets off, but I was uncomfortably conscious of the fact that my wits don't work fast enough to follow such volatile manoeuvres. Perhaps it's the Scotian blood in me. I can follow a practical argument fast enough, when the axioms' are all laid down and we're agreed on the subject.
However, Grim came to my rescue. He had his pencil out, and contrived to flick a piece of paper into my lap unseen by Yussuf Dakmar.
Jeremy's cue is good [the note ran]. Dismiss him for talking about you to a stranger. Trust him to do the rest.
So I acted the part of an habitually heavy drinker in a fit of sudden rage, and dismissed Jeremy from my service on the spot.
"Very well," he answered blandly. "Allah makes all things easy. Let us hope that other fellow finds it easy to put you to bed tonight! Allah is likewise good, for I have my ticket to Damascus, and all I need to beg for is a bed and food at Haifa."
I muttered something in reply about his impudence, and the conversation ceased abruptly. But at the end of ten minutes or so Yussuf Dakmar went out into the corridor, signaling to Jeremy to follow him.
"He'll forgive anyone who brings him whiskey."
You remember, of course, that line that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Puck? "What fools these mortals be!" The biggest fools are the extra smart ones, whose pride and peculiar joy it is to "beat the game."
Yussuf Dakmar assessed all other humans as grist for his mill. Character to him was expressed in degrees of folly and sheer badness. Virtue existed only as a weakness to be exploited. The question that always exercised him was, wherein does the other fellow's weakness lie? It's a form of madness. Where a sane man looks for strength and honesty that he can yoke up with, a Yussuf Dakmar spies out human failings; and whereas most of us in our day have mistaken pyrites for fine gold, which did not hurt more than was good for us, he ends by mistaking gold for dross.
You can persuade such a man without the slightest difficulty that you are a fool and a crook. Jeremy had turned the trick for his own amusement as much as anything, although his natural vein of shrewdness probably suggested the idea. Yussuf Dakmar, ready to believe all evil and no good of anyone, was convinced that he had to deal with a scatter- brained Arab who could be used for almost any purpose, and Jeremy's riotous bent for jumping from one thing to another fixed the delusion still more firmly.
But Lord, he had caught a Tartar! Outside at the end of the corridor, in full view, but out of earshot, of Narayan Singh, Yussuf Dakmar made a proposal to Jeremy that was almost perfect in its naive obliquity. There was nothing original or even unusual about it, except the circumstances, time and place. Green-goods men and blue-sky stock salesmen, race-course touts and sure-thing politicians get away with the same proposition in the U.S. every day of the week, and pocket millions by it. Only, just as happens to all such gentry on occasion, Yussuf Dakmar had the wrong fish in his net.
He jerked his head toward where Narayan Singh sat stolid and sleepy- looking on a camp-stool with his curly black beard resting on the heel of one hand.
"Do you know that man?" he asked.
"Wallah! How should I know him?" Jeremy answered. "He looks like a Hindu thinking of reincarnation. Inshallah, he will turn into a tiger presently!"
"Beware of him! He is an Administration spy. He is watching me talk to you, and perhaps he will ask you afterward what I have said. You must be very careful how you answer him."
"I will tell him you asked me for a love-potion for the engine-driver's wife," Jeremy answered.
"I am listening. What is it you are really going to say?"
"That master of yours—that Ramsden, who dismissed you so tyrannically just now—"
"That drunkard? There is nothing interesting to be said about him," Jeremy answered. "He is a fool who has paid my fare as far as Damascus. May Allah reward him for it!"
"Are you telling me the truth?" demanded Yussuf Dakmar, fixing his eyes sternly on Jeremy's.
Your con man never overlooks a chance to put his intended victim on the defensive at an early stage in the proceedings. "How can he have paid your fare as far as Damascus? This line only goes to Haifa, where you have to change trains and buy another ticket."
"I see you are a clever devil," Jeremy retorted. "May Allah give you a belly ache, if that is where you keep your brains! It was I who bought the tickets. The fool gave me sufficient money for three first-class fares all the way to Damascus, and I have the change. He forgot that when he dismissed me."
"Then you won't need to beg board and lodging in Haifa?"
"Oh, yes. I need my money for another matter. It is high time I married, and a fellow without money has to put up with any toothless
that nobody else will take."
"So you hope to find a wife in Damascus?"
"Inshallah," Jeremy answered piously.
"Well, I will find you a good-looking girl for wife, provided you first prove that you will make a good son-in-law. I take men as I find them, not as they represent themselves. He who wishes for the fire must first chop wood. You understand me?"
"Wallah! I can chop wood like an axe with two heads. Is the woman your daughter?"
"That is as may be. Let us talk business. I reward my friends, but woe betide the fool who betrays my confidence!" said Yussuf Dakmar darkly.
"I see you are a man after my own heart," answered Jeremy; "a thorough fellow who stops at nothing! Good! Allah must have brought us two together for an evil purpose, being doubtless weary of the League of Nations; Unbosom! I am like a well, into which men drop things and never see them any more."
"You are a fine rascal, I can see that clearly! So you think that Allah is cooking up evil, do you? Tee-hee! That is an original idea, and there may be something in it. Let us hope there is something in it for us two, at all events. Now, as to that fellow Ramsden—"
"Avoid him unless he is drunk," advised Jeremy. "The weight of his fist would drive a man like you like a nail into a tree."
"Who fears such an ox?" the Syrian retorted. "A fly can sting him; a little knife can bleed him; a red rag can enrage him; and the crows who devour that sort of meat won't worry as to whether he was killed according to ritual! He has money for Feisul, has he? Well, never mind. He has a letter as well, and that is what I want. Will you get it for me?"
"Do you need it badly?"
"By Allah, I must have it!"
"By Allah, then I am in good luck, for that makes me indispensable, doesn't it? And an indispensable man can demand what he pleases!"
"Not at all," Yussuf Dakmar answered, frowning. "I have taken a fancy to you, or I would see you to the devil. When we reach Haifa, ten or even twenty men will present themselves to do this business for me. Or, if I choose, I can use that fellow Omar who is travelling with Ramsden; he would like to be my accomplice, but I don't trust him very much."
"In that you are perfectly right," answered Jeremy. "He is not at all the sort of man for you to trust. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he has warned Ramsden against you already! Better beware of him!"
According to Jeremy's account of the conversation afterward, it was not until that moment that he saw clearly how to prevent Yussuf Dakmar from calling in thugs to attack me either at Haifa or at some point between there and Damascus. Until then he had been feeling his way along— "spieling," as he calls it—keeping his man interested while he made all ready for the next trick.
"To tell you the truth," he went on, "Omar isn't that fellow's real name. He is a sharp one, and he is after the letter every bit as much as you are."
"How do you know that?"
"Wallah, how not? because he himself told me! just like you, he tried to get me into partnership. He offered me a big reward, but he's not like you, so I didn't believe him; and he has no daughter; I've no use for a man who hasn't a good-looking daughter. What he's afraid of is that someone else may get the letter first. And he's a desperate fellow. He told me his intentions and whether you believe me or not, they're worthy of a wolf!"
"I'm glad I resolved to take you into my confidence," said Yussuf Dakmar, nodding. "Go on; I'm listening. Tell me what he told you."
"He plans to get hold of the letter between Haifa and Damascus. He thinks that's safest, because it's over the border and there won't be any British officers to interfere. Somewhere up the Lebanon Valley, after most of the passengers have left the train, looks good to him. But I think he knows who you are."
"Yes, he knows me. Go on."
"And He's afraid you'll get help and forestall him. So he's going to watch Ramsden like a cat watching a mouse-hole, and he's going to watch you too. And if anybody tries to interfere at Haifa, or if men get on the train between Haifa and Damascus who look like being accomplices of yours, he's going to murder Ramsden there and then, seize the letter, and make a jump for it! You see, he's one of those mean fellows—a regular dog-in-the-manger; he'd rather get caught by the police and hanged for murder than let anybody else get what he's after. Oh, believe me, I didn't trust him! I laughed when he made his proposal to me."
"Now that is very interesting," said Yussuf Dakmar. "To tell you the truth I had a little experience with him last night myself. He came on me by accident in a certain place, and we conversed. I pretended to agree with him for the sake of appearances, but I formed a very poor opinion of him. Well, suppose we put him out of the way first; how would that be? You look like a strong man. Suppose you watch for an opportunity to push him off the train?"
"Oh, that would never do!" Jeremy answered, shaking his head from side to side. "You mustn't forget that Indian who sits in the corridor. It was you yourself who told me he is an Administration spy. If he suspects you already, he will suspect me for having talked with you, and will watch me; and if I try to push that fellow Omar off the train, he will come to the rescue. Surely you don't expect me to fight both of them at once! Besides, you must consider Ramsden.
"That fellow Ramsden is big and strong, but he is a nervous wreck. Give him the least excuse and he will yell for the police like a baby crying for its mother! He looks on Omar as his bodyguard now that he has dismissed me; and if Omar should get killed, or disappear between here and Haifa, Ramsden would demand an escort of police. In fact, I think he'd lose courage altogether and put that letter in a strong-room in the Haifa bank. What is the letter, anyway? What's in it? How much will you pay me if I get it for you?"
"Never mind what's in it. Will you get it, that's the point—will you get it and bring it to me?"
"That isn't the point at all," answered Jeremy. "The point is how much will you pay me if I do that?"
"Very well, I will pay you fifty pounds."
"Mashallah! You must need it awfully badly. I could have been hired for fifty shillings to do a much more dangerous thing!"
"Well, twenty-five pounds ought to be enough. I will pay you twenty- five."
"Nothing less than fifty!" Jeremy retorted. "I always get fifty of everything. Fifty lashes in the jail—fifty beans at meal-time—fifty pairs of boots to clean for Ramsden—fifty is my lucky number. I have made forty-nine attempts to get married, and the next time I shall succeed. If it isn't the woman's lucky number too, that's her affair. Show me the fifty pounds."
"I haven't that much with me," answered Yussuf Dakmar. "I will pay you in Damascus."
"All right. Then I will give you the letter in Damascus."
"No, no! Get it as soon as possible."
"And give it to me immediately. Then if you like you can stay close to me until I pay you in Damascus."
"'The ass is invited to a wedding to carry wood and water, and they beat him with one of the sticks he carried,'" Jeremy quoted. "No, no, no! I will get the letter, for I know how. After I have it you may keep close to me until we reach Damascus. I will show it to you, but I won't give it to you until after I get the fifty pounds."
"Very well, since you are so untrustful."
"Untrustful? I am possessed by a demon of mistrust! Why? Because I know I am not the worst person in the world, and what I can think of, another might do. Now, if you were I and I were you, which God forbid, because I am a happy fellow and you look bilious, and you stole the letter for me because I promised to pay you in Damascus, but wouldn't give me the letter until I paid you, do you know what I would think of doing? I would promise a few tough fellows ten pounds among them to murder you. Thus I would get the letter and save forty pounds."
"Ah? But I am not that kind of man," said Yussuf Dakmar.
"Well, you will learn what kind of man you are in the next world when you reach the Judgment Seat. What is most interesting now is the kind of fellow I am. I will steal the letter from Ramsden, and keep it until you pay me in Damascus. But I shan't sleep, and I shall watch you; and if I suspect you of making plans to have me robbed or murdered I shall make such a noise that everybody will come running, and then I shall be a celebrity but they'll put you in jail."
"Very well; you steal the letter, and I'll keep close to you," said Yussuf Dakmar. "But how are you going to do it, now that Ramsden has dismissed you from his service?"
"Oh, that's easy. You get me some whisky and I'll take it to him for a peace offering. He'll forgive anyone who brings him whisky."
"Tee-hee! That is quite an idea. Yes. Now—how can I get whisky on the train? If only I could get some! I have a little soporific in a paper packet that could be mixed with the whisky to make him sleep soundly. Wait here while I walk down the train and see what I can find."
Yussuf Dakmar was gone twenty minutes, and whether he begged, bought or stole did not transpire, but he returned with a pint flask containing stuff that looked and smelt enough like whisky to get by if there had been a label on the bottle. He poured a powder into it in Jeremy's presence, the two of them squatting on the floor of the corridor with the bottle between them so that no one else might see what was taking place.
"Now, you would better get rid of that fellow Omar while you attend to this," Yussuf Dakmar cautioned him. "Can you think of any way of doing that?"
"Oh, easily!" Jeremy answered. "He is a great one for the women. I will tell him there is a pretty Armenian girl in the car behind. He will run like any other Turk to have a good look at her."
"Very well. I will wait here. But understand now; I am a dangerous man. You have fortune in one hand, but destruction in the other!"
"Very well; but this may take me an hour, and if you grow impatient, and that Indian sees you peering into the compartment after having watched you and me talking all this time, he'll grow suspicious."
"All right; I'll go to the car behind. As soon as you have the letter, come and tell me."
So Jeremy came back and entertained Grim and me with a burlesque account of the interview, after whispering to Narayan Singh to give the alarm in the event of Yussuf Dakmar returning forward to spy on us. Grim put the doped whisky into his valise after a sniff at it, instead of throwing it out of the window at my suggestion; and after a suitable interval he went out in the part of the Turk to look for the imaginary beautiful Armenian. Then I gave Jeremy the fake letter back, and went to sleep.
So it's no use asking me what the country looks like between Ludd and Haifa. I didn't even wake up to see the Lake of Tiberias, Sea of Galilee, or Bahr Tubariya, as it is variously called. A rather common sickness is what Sir Richard Burton called Holylanditis and I've had it, as well as the croup and measles in my youth. Some folk never recover from it, and to them a rather ordinary sheet of water and ugly modern villages built on ruins look like the pictures that an opium smoker sees.
The ruins and the history do interest me, but you can't see them from the train, and after a night without sleep there seemed to me something more profitable in view than to hang from a window and buy fish that undoubtedly had once swum in Galilee water, but that cost a most unrighteous price and stank as if straight from a garbage heap.
The whole train reeked of putrid fish when we reached Haifa in the evening, in time to watch the sun go down across the really glorious Bay of Acre.
"The rest will be simple!"
Haifa was crowded with Syrians of all sorts, and there were two or three staff officers in the uniform of Feisul's army lounging on the platform, who conned new arrivals with a sort of childlike solicitude, as if by looking in a man's face they could judge whether he was friendly to their cause or not. Mabel had wired to her friend, and was met at the station, so we had nothing to worry over for the present on her score. Our own troubles began when we reached the only hotel and found it crowded. The proprietor, a little wizened, pockmarked Arab in a black alpaca jacket and yellow pants, with a tarboosh balanced forward at a pessimistic angle, suggested that there might be guests in the hotel who would let us share their beds...
"Although there will be no reduction of the price to either party in that event," he hastened to explain.
It was a wonder of an hotel. You could smell the bugs and the sanitary arrangements from the front-door step, and although the whole place had been lime-washed, dirt from all over the Near East was accumulating on the dead white, making it look leprous and depressing.
The place fronted on a main street, with its back toward the Bay of Acre at a point where scavengers used the beach for a dumping place. There was a hostel of British officers about a mile away, where Grim might have been able to procure beds for the whole party; but I noticed no less than five men who followed us up from the station and seemed to be keeping a watchful eye on Yussuf Dakmar and it was a sure bet that if we should show our hands so far as to mess with British officers, the train next day would be packed with men to whom murder would be simple amusement.
Yet Grim and Jeremy needed sleep and so did Narayan Singh. We offered to rent an outhouse for the night—a cellar—the roof, but there was nothing doing, and it was Yussuf Dakmar at last who solved the problem for us.
He found a crony of his, who had occupied for several days a room containing two beds. With unheard-of generosity, accompanied, however, by a peculiar display of yellow teeth and more of the jaundiced whites of his eyes than I cared to see, this individual offered to go elsewhere for the night and to place the room at my disposal.
"But there is this about it," he explained. "Where I am going there is no room for my friend Yussuf Dakmar Bey, so I must ask you to let him share this with you. You and he could each have a bed, of course, but it seems to me that your servants look wearier than you do. I suggest then that you take one bed, effendi, and share it with my friend Yussuf Dakmar Bey, leaving the other to your servants, who I hope will be suitably grateful for the consideration shown them."
Grim nodded to me from behind the Syrians' backs, and I jumped at the offer. Payment was refused. The man explained that he had the room by the week and the loan of it to me for one night would cost him nothing. In fact, he acted courteously and with considerable evidence of breeding, merely requesting my permission to lock the big closet where he kept his personal belongings and to take the key away with him. Even if we had been in a mood to cavil it would have been difficult to find fault, for it was a spacious, clean and airy room—three characteristics each of which is as scarce as the other in that part of the world.
The beds stood foot to foot along the right wall as you entered. Against the opposite wall was a cheap wooden wash-stand and an enormous closet built of olive wood sunk into a deep recess. The thing was about eight feet wide and reached to the ceiling; you couldn't tell the depth because he locked it at once and pocketed the key, and it fitted into the recess so neatly that a knife-blade would hardly have gone into the crack.
Outside the bedroom door, in a lobby furnished with odds and ends, was a wickerwork sofa that would do finely for Narayan Singh, and that old soldier didn't need to have it pointed out to him. Without word or sign from us he threw his kit on the floor, unrolled his blankets, removed his boots, curled up on the sofa, and if he didn't go to sleep at once, gave such a perfect imitation of it that somebody's fox terrier came and sniffed him, and, recognizing a campaigner after his own wandering heart, jumped on his chest and settled down to sleep too.
As soon as our host had left the room, all bows and toothy smiles, Jeremy with his back to me drew from one pocket the letter he was supposed to have stolen from me, flourished it in Yussuf Dakmar's face, and concealed it carefully in another. Then a new humorous notion occurred to him. He pulled it out again, folded it in the pocket wallet in which he had carried it from the first, wrapped the whole in a handkerchief, which he knotted carefully and then handed it to me.
"Effendi," he said, "you are a fierce master and a mighty drunkard, but a man without guile. Keep that till the morning. Then, if Omar wants to steal it he will have to murder you instead of me, and I would rather sleep than die. But you must give it back at dawn, because the prayers are in it that a very holy ma'lim wrote for me, and unless I read those prayers properly tomorrow's train will come to grief before we reach Damascus."
He acted the part perfectly of one of those half-witted, wholly shrewd mountebanks, who pick up a living by taking advantage of tolerance and good nature. You've all seen the type. It's commonest at race-meetings but you'll find it anywhere in the world where vagrant men of means foregather.
Again Yussuf Dakmar's face became a picture of suppressed emotion. I pocketed the wallet with the same matter-of-fact air with which I have accepted a servant's money to keep safe for him scores of times. He believed me to be a drunkard, who had been thoroughly doped that day and would probably drink hard that night to drown the after-taste. It ought to be easy to rob me while I slept. Any fool could have read his thoughts.
He came down and ate supper with us at a trestle table in the dimly lighted dining-room, and I encouraged his new-born optimism by ordering two bottles of whisky to take upstairs. Jeremy, who can't be happy unless playing his part for all it's worth, became devoutly religious and made a tremendous fuss because ham was put on the table. He accused the proprietor of using pig's fat to smear all the cooking utensils, demanded to see the kitchen, and finally refused to eat anything but leban, which is a sort of curds. If Yussuf Dakmar had entertained suspicions of Jeremy's real nationality they were all resolved by the time that meal was finished.
But the five' men who had followed us from the station sat in the dark at a table in the far corner of the room and watched every move we made. When the coffee was brought I sat smoking and surly over it, as if my head ached from the day's drink; Grim and Jeremy, aching for sleep but refusing like good artists to neglect a detail of their part, went to another table and played backgammon, betting quarrelsomely; and at last one of the five men walked over and touched Yussuf Dakmar's shoulder. At once he followed all five of them out of the room, whereat Grim and Jeremy promptly went to bed. It was so obviously my turn to stay awake that Grim didn't even trouble to remind me of it.
So I took the whisky upstairs, noticed that Narayan Singh was missing from the couch where he had gone to sleep, although the fox-terrier was snoring so loud in his blankets that I had to look twice in the dim light. I mentioned that fact to Grim who merely smiled as he got between the sheets. Then I went down to the street to get exercise and fresh air. I didn't go far, but strode up and down in front of the hotel a quarter of a mile or so in each direction, keeping in the middle of the street.
I had made the fourth or fifth turn when Narayan Singh came out and accosted me under the lamplight.
"Pardon," he called aloud in English, "does the sahib know where I can find a druggist's open at this hour? I have a toothache and need medicine."
"Come and I'll show you a place," said I with the patronizing air of a tourist showing off his knowledge, and we strode along together down the street, he holding one hand to his jaw.
"Thus and so it happened, sahib," he began as soon as we had gone a safe distance. "I lay sleeping, having kept my belly empty that I might wake easily. There came Yussuf Dakmar and five men brushing by me, and they all went into a room four doors beyond the sahib's. The room next beyond that one is occupied by an officer sahib, who fought at El-Arish alongside my battalion. Between him and me is a certain understanding based on past happenings in which we both had a hand. He is not as some other sahibs, but a man who opens both ears and his heart, and when I knocked on his door he opened it and recognized me.
"'Well?' said he. 'Why not come and see me in the morning?
"'Sahib,' said I, 'for the sake of El-Arish, let me in quickly, and close the door!'
"So he did, wondering and not pleased to be disturbed by a Sikh at such an hour. And I said to him:
"'Sahib,' said I, 'am I a badmash? A scoundrel?'
"'No,' said he, 'not unless you changed your morals when you left the service.'
"Said I, 'I am still in the service.'
"'Good,' said he. 'What then?'
"'I go listening again in no-man's land,' said I, and he whistled softly. 'Is there not a roof below your window?' I asked him, and he nodded.
"'Then let me use it, sahib, and return the same way presently.'
"So he threw back the shutter, asking no more questions, and I climbed out. The window of the room where Yussuf Dakmar and the five were stood open, but the lattice shutter was closed tight, so that I could stand up on the flat roof of the kitchen and listen without being seen. And, sahib, I could recognize the snarl of Yussuf Dakmar's voice even before my ear was laid to the open lattice. He was like a dog at bay. The other five were angry with him. They were accusing him of playing false. They swore that a great sum could be had for that letter, which they should share between them. Said a voice I did not recognize: 'If the French will pay one price they will pay another; what does money matter to them, if they can make out a case against Feisul? Will they not have Syria? The thing is simple as twice two,' said he. 'The huntsman urges on the hounds, but unless he is cleverer than they, who eats the meat? The French regard us as animals, I tell you! Very well; let us live up to the part and hunt like animals, since he who has the name should have the game as well; and when we have done the work and they want booty let them be made aware that animals must eat! We will set our own price on that document.'
"'And as for this Yussuf Dakmar,' said another man, 'let him take a back seat unless he is willing to share and share alike with us. He is not difficult to kill!'
"And at that, sahib, Yussuf Dakmar flew into a great rage and called them fools of complicated kinds.
"'Like hounds without a huntsman, ye will overrun the scent!' said he; and he spoke more like a man than any of them, although not as a man to be liked or trusted. 'Who are ye to clap your fat noses on the scent I found and tell me the how and whither of it? It may be that I can get that letter tonight. Surely I can get it between this place and Damascus; and no one can do that, for I, and I only, know where it is. Nor will I tell!' And they answered all together, 'We will make you tell!'
"But he said, 'All that ye five fools can do is to interfere. Easy to kill me, is it? Well, perhaps. It has been tried. But, if so, then though ye are jackals, kites and vultures all in one with the skill of chemists added, ye can never extract secret knowledge from a dead man's brain. Then that letter will reach Feisul tomorrow night; and the French, who speak of you now as of animals, will call you what? Princes? Noblemen?'
"I suppose they saw the point of that, sahib, for they changed their tone without, however, becoming friendly to Yussuf Dakmar. Thieves of that sort know one another, and trust none, and it is all a lie, sahib, about there being any honor among them. Fear is the only tie that binds thieves, and they proceeded to make Yussuf Dakmar afraid.
"There seems to be one among them, sahib, who is leader. He has a thin voice like a eunuch's, and unlike the others swears seldom.
"This father of a thin voice accepted the situation. He said: "'Well and good. Let Yussuf Dakmar do the hunting for us. It is sufficient that we hunt Yussuf Dakmar. Two of us occupy the room next to Ramsden's. If Yussuf Dakmar needs aid in the night, let him summon us by scratching with his nails on the closet door. The rest will be simple. There are four in this besides us five; so if we count Yussuf Dakmar that makes ten who share the reward. Shall Yussuf Dakmar grow fat, while nine of us starve? I think not! Let him get the letter, and give it to me. We will hide it, and I will deal with the French. If he fails tonight, let him try again tomorrow on the train. But we five will also take that train to Damascus, and unless that letter is in my hands before the journey's end, then Yussuf Dakmar dies. Is that agreed?'
"All except Yussuf Dakmar agreed to it. He was very angry and called them leeches, whereat they laughed, saying that leeches only suck enough and then fall off, whereas they would take all or kill. They made him understand it, taking a great oath together to slay him without mercy unless he should get the letter and give it to them before the train reaches Damascus tomorrow evening.
"Well, sahib, he agreed presently, not with any effort at good grace, but cursing while he yielded.
"In truth, sahib, it is less fear than lack of sleep that Yussuf Dakmar feels. I could hear him yawn through the window lattice. Now a man in that condition is likely to act early in the night for fear that sleep may otherwise get the better of him, and the sahib will do well to be keenly alert from the first. I shall be asleep on that couch outside the door and will come if called, so the sahib would better not lock the door but should call loud in case of need, because I also have been long awake and may sleep heavily."
"Suppose I walk the streets all night?" said I. "Wouldn't that foil them?"
"Nay, sahib, but the reverse; for if Yussuf Dakmar should miss you after midnight he would go in search of you, with those five in turn tracking him. And as for finding you, that would be a simple matter, for every night thief and beggar waiting for the dawn would give attention to such a big man as you and would report your movements. All six would come on you in the dark and would kill you surely. Then, as if that were not bad enough, having searched you they would learn that the letter in your possession is not the right one; and the trail of the right one would be that much easier to detect."
"Then come with me," said I, "and we'll make a night of it together. You and I can defend ourselves against those six."
"Doubtless, sahib. But my place is within hail of Jimgrim. No, it is best that you see this matter through tonight between four walls. Only remember, sahib, that though a man on duty may feign sleep, it is wiser not to, because sleep steals on us unawares!"
So I returned to the bedroom where Grim and Jeremy were snoring a halleluja chorus; but Yussuf Dakmar hadn't returned yet. I took advantage of the Syrian's absence to open Grim's valise, remove the bottle of doped whisky and set it on the table close to the window beside the two bottles that I had bought downstairs—one of which, for the sake of appearances, I opened just as Yussuf Dakmar entered, smiling to conceal anxiety.
"You made a bad break that time"
Grim was in Mephistophelian humor. He can sleep cat-fashion, for sixty seconds at a time, with all his wits about him in the intervals, and likes to feel in the crook of his own forefinger the hidden hair-trigger of events. I don't think Jeremy was awake when I first entered the room, although it suited Grim's humor that he should be presently; but you would have sworn they were both unconscious, judging by the see-saw, bass and baritone snoring.
I poured out whisky, drank a little of it grouchily, and watched Yussuf Dakmar into bed. He didn't take many of his clothes off and even by candle-light you could see the shape of the knife concealed under his shirt. He sat cross-legged on the bed, presumably praying, and as I didn't like the look of him I blew out the candle.
Instantly, pinched and prompted by James Schuyler Grim, Jeremy sat up and yammered profanely at the darkness, vowing he couldn't see to sleep without a light in the room. I tinkled a tumbler against a whisky bottle, and Jeremy instantly swore that he heard burglars. Sitting up and whirling his pillow he knocked Yussuf Dakmar off the bed on to the floor.
So I lit the candle again, after emptying my glass of whisky into a spittoon; whereat Jeremy quoted the Koran about the fate of drunkards and, getting out of bed, apologized to Yussuf Dakmar like a courtier doing homage to a king.
"Your honor was born under a lucky star," he assured him. "I usually shoot or stab, but the pillow was the first thing handy."
The Syrian had hard work to keep his temper, for he had fallen on the haft of the hidden knife and it hurt him between two ribs, where a poorly conditioned man is extra sensitive. However, he mumbled something and crawled between the sheets.
Then Grim vowed that he couldn't sleep with a light so I blew out the candle, and in about two minutes the steady seesaw snoring resumed. I took the opportunity to empty half the contents of a whisky bottle into the spittoon, and after lighting a pipe proceeded to clink a tumbler at steady intervals as evidence of debauch well under way.
Except for the clink and bump of the tumbler, and once when I filled and relit the pipe, all was quiet for half an hour, when Yussuf Dakmar piped up suddenly and asked me whether I didn't intend to come to bed.
"I will not trouble you, effendi. I will keep over to my side. There is plenty of room in the bed for the two of us."
As he spoke I heard a movement of the bedclothes as Grim pinched Jeremy awake again. I answered before Jeremy could horn in.
"Hic! You 'spect me 'nto bed full o' snakes? Never sleep 'slong as venomous reptiles waiting! Hic! You stay 'n bed an keep 'em 'way from me!"
Well, Jeremy didn't want any better cue than that. He got up, lit the candle and explained to me with great wealth of Arabic theosophy that the snakes I saw were mere delusions because Allah never made them; and I tried to look utterly drunk, staring at him with dropped jaw and droopy eyelids, knocking an empty bottle over with my elbow by way of calling attention to it.
"Get into bed, effendi," Jeremy advised me, feeding the cue back, since I was in the middle of the stage.
"Not into that bed!" I answered, shaking my head solemnly. "That f'ler put snakes in on purpose. Why's he sober when I'm drunk? I won't sleep in bed with sober man. Let him get drun' too, an' both see snakes. Then I'll sleep with him!"
Jeremy's roving eye fell on the small doped bottle that I had taken from Grim's valise. Looking preternaturally wise, he walked over to Yussuf Dakmar's bed, sat down on it with his back toward me and proceeded to unfold a plan.
"Allah makes all things easy," he began. "It is lawful to take all precautions to confound the infidel. We shall never get that drunkard to bed as long as there's any whisky, so let's encourage him to drink it all. When it's gone he'll sleep on the floor and we'll get some peace. It's a good chance for us to drink whisky without committing sin! We needn't take much—just one drink each, and then he'll swallow the rest like a hog to prevent our getting any more. You look as if a glass of whisky would do you good. That fellow Omar is asleep and won't see us, so nobody can tell tales afterwards. It's a good opportunity. Come on!"
I had sat so that Yussuf Dakmar couldn't see what I was doing and poured out the liquor in advance, arranging the glasses so that Yussuf Dakmar would take the doped stuff—a perfectly un-Christian proceeding, I admit. Christians are scarce when you get right down to cases. Most of us in extremity prefer Shakespeare's adage about hoisting engineers. It gets results so much more quickly than turning the other cheek. At any rate, I own up.
Yussuf Dakmar, smirking in anticipation of an easy victory, took the nearest tumbler and tossed off the contents in imitation of Jeremy's free and easy air; and the drug acted as swiftly as the famous "knock- out-drops" they used to administer in the New York Tenderloin.
He knew what had happened before he lost consciousness, for he tried to give the alarm to his friends. He lay on the floor opening and shutting his mouth, and I think he believed he was shouting for help; but after a minute or two you could hardly detect his breathing, and his face changed colour as if he had been poisoned.
Grim didn't even trouble to get out of bed, but listened without comment to my version of Narayan Singh's report, and Jeremy went back to sleep chuckling; so I held a silent wake over Yussuf Dakmar, keeping some more of the doped whisky ready in case he should look like recovering too soon. I even searched him, finding nothing worthy of note, except that he had remarkably little money. I expect the poor devil was a penny ante villain scheming for a thousand-dollar jackpot. I felt really sorry for him and turned him over with my boot to let him breathe better.
A little before dawn I awakened Grim and Jeremy and we left the room quietly after I had scratched on the closet door with my fingernails. Pausing outside to listen, we heard the closet door being opened stealthily from the far side. I caught Grim's eye, thinking he would smile back, but he looked as deadly serious as I have ever seen him.
"You made a bad break that time," he said when we had gone downstairs. "Never give away information unless you're getting a return for it! If you'd left Yussuf Dakmar to scratch that door after he recovered consciousness, he'd have invented a pack of lies to tell his friends, and they'd have been no wiser than before. Now they'll know he never scratched it. They'll deduce, unless they're lunatics, that someone overheard their conference last night and knew the signal. That'll make them desperate. They'll waste no more time on finesse. They'll use violence at the first chance after the train leaves Haifa."
"Rammy's like me; he hates not to have an audience for his tricks," put in Jeremy by way of consolation.
"We've got to stage a new play, that's all," said Grim. "I'd have the lot of them arrested, but all the good that would do would be to inform the man higher up, who'd tip off another gang by wire to wait for us over the border. Say, suppose we all three bear this in mind: No play to the gallery! That's where secret service differs from other business. Applause means failure. The better the work you do, the less you can afford to admit you did it. You mustn't even smile at a man you've scored off. Half the game is to leave him guessing who it was that tripped him up. The safest course is to see that someone else gets credit for everything you do."
"Consume your own smoke, eh?" suggested Jeremy.
"That and more," Grim answered. "You've got to work like Bell for what'll do you no good, because the moment it brings you recognition it destroys your usefulness. You mayn't even amuse yourself; you have to let the game amuse you, without turning one trick for the sake of an extra smile; most of the humor comes in anyhow, from knowing more than the other fellow thinks you do. The more a man lies the less you want to contradict him, because if you do he'll know that you know he's lying and that's giving away information, which is the unforgivable sin."
"Golly!" exclaimed Jeremy. "Your trade wouldn't suit me, Jim! When doing tricks, it's good to watch folks' eyes pop open. What tickles my wish-bone is what I can see for myself on their silly faces, half of 'em trying to look as if they know how it's done and the other half all grins. I did tricks for a Scotchman once, who got so angry I thought he'd hit me; he said, what I did was impossible, so I did it again and he still said it was impossible, and he ended by calling me a 'puir dementit men.' That was my apogee; I've never reached that height since, not even when I first made a camel say prayers at Abu Keen and the Arabs hailed me as a prophet! Bread's good, but it's better with the butter on it right side up!"