"Not in this game, it isn't," answered Grim. "If your bread seems smeared with butter that's a sure sign it's dangerous. For God's sake, as long as you stay in the game with me don't play to the gallery, either of you! Let's order breakfast."
It was the longest lecture and expression of opinion I had ever listened to from James Schuyler Grim, and though I've turned it over in my mind a great deal since, I can't discover anything but wisdom in it. I believe he told Jeremy and me the secret of power that morning.
"They are all right!"
There was no competition for seats on the Damascus train that morning. Several of the window-panes were smashed, there were bullet-marks and splinters on the woodwork everywhere—no need to ask questions. But I found time on the platform to chat with some British officers while keeping an eye lifting for Yussuf Dakmar and his friends.
"Damascus, eh? You'll have a fine journey if you get through alive. Nine passengers were shot dead in the last train down."
"No law up there, you know. Feisul's army's all concentrated for a crack at the French (good luck to 'em! No, I'm not wishing the French any particular luck this trip). Nobody to watch the Bedouins, so they take pot shots at every train that passes, just for the fun of it."
"May be war, you know, at any minute. The French are sure to make a drive for the railway line—you'll be hung up indefinitely—commandeered for an ambulance train—shot for the sake of argument—anything at all, in fact. They say those Algerian troops are getting out of hand—paid in depreciated francs and up against the high cost of debauchery. You're taking a chance."
"Wish I could go. Haven't seen a healthy scrap sinze Zeitun Ridge. Hey! Hullo! What's this? Lovely woman! Well, I'll be!"
It was Mabel Ticknor, followed by the six men I was watching for, Yussuf Dakmar looking sulky and discouraged in their midst, almost like a prisoner, and the other five wearing palpably innocent expressions.
"Lord!" remarked the officer nearest me. "That gang's got the wind up! Look at the color of their gills! Booked through, I'll bet you, and been listening to tales all night!"
The gang drew abreast just as another officer gave tongue to his opinion. They couldn't help hearing what he said; he had one of those voices that can carry on conversation in a boiler foundry.
"There's more in this than meets the eye! She's not a nurse. She don't walk like a missionary. I heard her buy a ticket for Aleppo. Can you imagine a lone, good-looking woman going to Aleppo by that train unless she had a laissez passe from the French? She's wearing French heels. I'll bet she's carrying secret information. Look! D'you see those two Arabs in the train?" He pointed out Grim and Jeremy, who were leaning from a window. "They tipped her off to get into the compartment next ahead of them. D'you see? There she goes. She was for getting into the coach ahead. They called her back."
Almost all the other cars were empty except that one, but, whether because humans are like sheep and herd together instinctively when afraid, or because the train crew ordered it, all six compartments of the middle first-class car were now occupied, with Mabel Ticknor alone in the front one. Nevertheless, Yussuf Dakmar and four of his companions started to climb in by the rear door. The sixth man lingered within earshot of the officers, presumably to pick up further suggestions.
So I got in at the front end and met them halfway down the corridor.
"Plenty of room in the car behind," I said abruptly.
They were five to one, but Yussuf Dakmar was in front, and he merely got in the way of the wolves behind him. The sixth man, who had lingered near the officers, now entered by the front end as I had done and called out that there was plenty of room in the front compartment.
"There's only a woman in here," he said in Arabic.
And he set the example by taking the seat opposite to Mabel.
It would have been easy enough to get him out again, of course. Not even the polyglot train crew would have allowed Arabs to trespass without her invitation.
The trouble was that Jeremy, Grim, Narayan Singh and I all rushed to her rescue at the same minute, which let the cat out of the bag. It was Doctor Ticknor's statement in Jerusalem about not wanting to see any of us alive again if we failed to bring his wife back safe that turned the trick and caused even Grim to lose his head for a moment. When a Sikh, two obvious Arabs and an American all rush to a woman's assistance before she calls for help, there is evidence of collusion somewhere which you could hardly expect a trained spy to overlook or fail to draw conclusions from.
It was all over in a minute. The rascal left the compartment, muttering to himself in Arabic sotto voce. I caught one word; but he looked so diabolically pleased with himself that it didn't really need that to stir me into action. I take twelves in boots, with a rather broad toe, and he stopped the full heft of the hardest kick I could let loose. It put him out of action for half a day, and remains one of my pleasantest memories.
His companions had to gather him up and help him pulley-hauley fashion into the car ahead, while an officious ticket-taker demanded my name and address. I found in my wallet the card of a U.S. senator and gave him that, whereat he apologized profoundly and addressed me as "Colonel"—a title with which he continued to flatter me all the rest of the journey except once, when he changed it to "Admiral" by mistake.
Grim went back into our compartment and laughed; and none of the essays I have read on laughter—not even the famous dissertation by Josh Billings—throw light on how to describe the tantalizing manner of it. He laughs several different ways: heartily at times, as men of my temperament mostly do; boisterously on occasion, after Jeremy's fashion; now and then cryptically, using laughter as a mask; then he owns a smile that suggests nothing more nor less than kindness based on understanding of human nature.
But that other is a devil of a laugh, mostly made of chuckles that seem to bubble off a Bell-brew of disillusionment, and you get the impression that he is laughing at himself—cynically laying bare the vanity and fallibility of his own mental processes—and forecasting self-discipline.
There is no mirth in it, although there is amusement; no anger, although immeasurable scorn. I should say it's a good safe laugh to indulge in, for I think it is based on ability to see himself and his own mistakes more clearly than anybody else can, and there is no note of defeat in it. But it is full of a cruel irony that brings to mind a vision of one of those old medieval flagellant priests reviewing his sins before thrashing his own body with a wire whip.
"So that ends that," he said at last, with the gesture of a man who sweeps the pieces from a board, to set them up anew and start again. "Luckily we're not the only fools in Asia. Those six rascals know now that Mabel and we are one party."
"Pooh!" sneered Jeremy. "What can the devils do?"
"Not much this side of the border at Deraa," Grim answered. "After Deraa pretty well what they're minded. They could have us pinched on some trumped-up charge, in which case we'd be searched, Mabel included. No. We've played too long on the defensive. Deraa is the danger-point. The telegraph line is cut there, and all messages going north or south have to be carried by hand across the border. The French have an agent there who censors everything. He's the boy we've got to fool. If they appeal to him this train will go on without us.
"Ramsden, you and Narayan Singh go and sit with Mabel in her compartment. Jeremy, you go forward and bring Yussuf Dakmar back here to me; we'll let him have that fake letter just before we reach Deraa, taking care somehow to let the other five know he has it. They won't discover it's a fake until after leaving Deraa—"
"Why not?" I interrupted. "What's to prevent their opening it at once?"
"Two good reasons: for one, we'll have Narayan Singh keep a careful eye on them, and they'll keep it hidden as long as he snoops around; for another, they'll be delighted not to have to let the French agent at Deraa into the secret, because of the higher price they hope to get by holding on. They'll smuggle it over the border and not open it until they feel safe."
"Yes, but when they do look at it ..." said I.
"We'll be over the border, and they can't send telegrams to anywhere."
"An Arab government precaution. If station agents all along the line were allowed to send telegrams every seditious upstart would take advantage of it and they'd have more trouble than they've got now. But I warn you fellows, after Deraa—somewhere between the border and Damascus—there'll be a fight. The minute they discover that the letter is a fake they'll come for the real one like cats after a canary."
"Let 'em come!" smiled Jeremy, but Grim shook his head. "I've been making that mistake too long," he answered. "No defensive tactics after we leave Deraa! We'll start the trouble ourselves. You watch, after Deraa the train crew will play cards in the caboose and leave Allah to care for the passengers."
"There's only one thing troubles me," said Jeremy.
"Narayan Singh got Yussuf Dakmar's shirt night before last. I've had it in for Yussuf ever since we Anzacs went hungry on account of him. Anyone who scuppers him has got me to beat to him. He's my meat, and I give you all notice!"
It isn't good to stand between an Anzac and the punishment he thinks an enemy deserves.
"All the same," Grim answered, smiling, "I'll bet you don't get him, Jeremy."
"I'll bet you. How much?"
"Mind you, when the game begins, you have a free hand," Grim went on.
"All right," answered Jeremy, who loves freak bets, ''if I get him you quit the Army soon as this job's done, and join up with Rammy and me: if I don't I'll stay and help you on the next job."
"That's a bet," said Grim promptly.
So Jeremy went forward to play at being traitor, while Narayan Singh and I kept Mabel company. She fired questions at us right and left for twenty minutes, which we had to answer in detail instead of straining our cars to catch what Grim and Jeremy might be saying to Yussuf Dakmar in the next compartment.
Whatever they did say, they managed to prolong the interview until within ten minutes of Deraa, when the Syrian returned to his companions smiling smugly and Narayan Singh strode after him, to stand in the corridor and by ostentatiously watching them prevent their examining the letter.
Grim and Jeremy, all grins, joined us at once in Mabel's compartment.
"Did you see the devil smirk as he went off with it?" asked Jeremy. "Golly, he thinks we're fools! The theory is that we two had betrayed you, Rammy, and swapped the letter against his bare promise to pay us in Damascus. He chucked in a little blackmail about sicking his mates on to murder us if we didn't come across, and I tell you we fairly love him! Lordy, here's Deraa! If they open the thing before the train leaves, Grim says the lot of us are to bolt back across the border, send Mabel home to her husband, and continue the journey by camel. That right, Grim?"
Grim nodded. It was Mabel who objected.
"I'm going to see this through," she answered. "Guess again, boys! My hair's gone gray. You owe me a real adventure now, and I won't give up the letter till you've paid!"
We had one first-class scare when the train drew up in the squalid station, where the branch line to Haifa meets the main Hedjaz railway and the two together touch a mean town at a tangent; for a French officer in uniform boarded the train and stalked down the corridors staring hard at everyone. He asked me for a passport, which was sheer bluff, so I asked him in turn for his own authority. He smiled and produced a rubber stamp, saying that if I wished to visit Beirut or Aleppo I must get a vise from him.
"Je m'em been garderai!" I answered. "I'm going to see my aunt at Damascus."
"And this lady? Is she your wife?"
I laughed aloud—couldn't help it. All the Old Testament stories keep forcing themselves on your memory in that land, and the legend of Abraham trying to pass his wife off as his sister and the three-cornered drama that came of it cropped up as fresh as yesterday. There was no need that I could see to repeat the patriarch's mistake, any more than there was reasonable basis for the Frenchman's impertinence.
"Is that your business?" I asked him.
"Because," he went on, smiling meanly, "you speak with an American accent. It is against the law to carry gold across the border, and Americans have to submit to personal search, because they always carry it."
"Show me your authority!" I retorted angrily.
"Oh, as for that, there is a customs official here who has full authority. He is a Syrian. It occurred to me that you might prefer to be searched by a European."
"Call his bluff!" Grim whispered behind his sleeve, but I intended to do that, anyway.
"Bring along your Syrian," said I, and off he went to do it, treating me to a backward glance over his shoulder that conveyed more than words could have done.
"He'll bluff sky-high," said Grim, "but keep on calling him."
"I've been searched at six frontiers," said Mabel. "If it's a Syrian I don't much mind; you boys all come along, and he'll behave himself. They're much worse in France and Italy. Hadn't one of you better take the letter, though? No! I was forgetting already! I won't part with it. I'll take my chance with the Syrian; he'll only ask me to empty my pockets and prove that I haven't a bag full of gold under my skirt. Sit tight, all, here he comes!"
The Frenchman returned with a smiling, olive-complexioned Syrian in tow —a round-faced fellow with blue jaws as dark as his serge uniform. The Frenchman stood aside and the Syrian announced rather awkwardly that regulations compelled him to submit Mabel and me to the inconvenience of search.
"For what?" said I.
"For gold," he answered. "It is against the law to smuggle it across the border."
"I've only one gold coin," I said, showing him a U.S. twenty-dollar piece, and his yellow eyes shone at sight of it. "If it will save trouble you may have it."
I put it into his open palm with the Frenchman looking on, and it was immediately clear that that particular Syrian official was no longer amenable to international intrigue. He was bought and sold—oozy with gratitude—incapable of anything but wild enthusiasm for the U.S.A. for several hours to come.
"I have searched them!" said he to the French officer. "They have no gold, and they are all right."
The French have faults like the rest of us, but they are quicker than most men to recognize logic. The man with crimson pants and sabre grinned cynically, shrugged his shoulders, and passed on to annoy somebody easier.
"Start something before they're ready for it!"
Just before the train started, a handsome fellow with short black beard trimmed into a point and wearing a well-cut European blue serge suit, but none the less obviously an Arab, came to the door of our compartment and stared steadily at Grim. He stood like a fighting man, as if every muscle of his body was under command, and the suggestion was strengthened by what might be a bullet scar over one eye.
If that fellow had asked me for a loan on the spot, or for help against his enemies, he would have received both or either. Moreover, if he had never paid me back I would still believe in him, and would bet on him again.
However, after one swift glance at him, Grim took no notice until the train was under way—not even then in fact, until the man in blue serge spoke first.
"Oh, Jimgrim!" he said suddenly in a voice like a tenor bell.
"Come in, Hadad," Grim answered, hardly glancing at him. "Make yourself at home."
He tossed a valise into the rack, and I gave up the corner seat so that he might sit facing Grim, he acknowledging the courtesy with a smile like the whicker of a sword-blade, wasting no time on foolish protest. He knew what he wanted—knew enough to take it when invited—understood me, and expected me to understand him—a first-class fellow. He sat leaning a little forward, his back not touching the cushion, with the palms of both hands resting on his knees and strong fingers motionless. He eyed Mabel Ticknor, not exactly nervously but with caution.
"Any news?" asked Grim.
"Jimgrim, the world is full of it!" he answered in English with a laugh. "But who are these?"
"Your intimate friends?" Grim nodded.
"The lady as well?" Grim nodded again.
"That is very strong recommendation, Jimgrim!"
Grim introduced us, giving Jeremy's name as Jmil Ras.
"Hah! I have heard of you," said Hadad, staring at him. "The Australian who wandered all over Arabia? I am probably the only Arab who knew what you really were. Do you recall that time at Wady Hafiz when a local priest denounced you and a Sheik in a yellow kuffiyi told the crowd that he knew you for a prophet? I am the same Sheik. I liked your pluck. I often wondered what became of you."
"Put it here!" said Jeremy, and they shook hands.
For twenty minutes after that Hadad and Jeremy swapped reminiscences in quick staccato time. It was like two Gatling guns playing a duet, and the score was about equally intelligible to anyone unfamiliar with Arabia's hinterland—which is to say to all except about one person in ten million. It was most of it Greek to me, but Grim listened like an operator to the ticking of the Morse code. It was Hadad who cut it short; Jeremy would have talked all the way to Damascus.
"And so, Jimgrim, do the kites foregather? Or are we a forlorn hope? Do we go to bury Feisul or to crown him king?"
"How much do you know?" Grim answered.
"Hah! More than you, my friend! I come from Europe—London—Paris— Rome. I stopped off in Deraa to listen a while, where the tide of rumour flows back and forth across the border. The English are in favour of Feisul, and would help him if they could. The French are against him and would rather have him a dead saint than a living nuisance. The most disturbing rumour I have heard was here in Deraa, to the effect that Feisul sent a letter to Jerusalem calling on all Moslems to rise and massacre the Jews. That does not sound like Feisul, but the French agent in Deraa assured me that he will have the original letter in his hands within a day or two."
Grim smiled over at Mabel.
"You might show him the letter?" he suggested.
So Mabel dug down into the mysteries beneath her shirtwaist and produced the document wrapped in a medical bandage of oiled silk. Hadad unwrapped it, read it carefully, and handed it to Grim.
"Are you deceived by that?" he asked. "Does Feisul speak like that, or write like that? Since when has he turned coward that he should sign his name with a number?"
"What do you make of it?" asked Grim.
"Hah! It is as plain as the ink on the paper. It is intended for use against Feisul, first by making the British suspicious of him, second by providing the French with an excuse to attack him, third by convicting him of treachery, for which he can be jailed or executed after he is caught. What do you propose to do with it, Jimgrim?"
"I'm going to show it to Feisul."
"Good! I, too, am on my way to see Feisul. Perhaps the two of us together can convince him what is best."
"If we two first agree," Grim answered with a dry smile.
"Do you agree that two and two make four? This is just as simple, Jimgrim. Feisul cannot contend with the French. The financiers have spread their net for Syria, Feisul has no artillery worth speaking of— no gas—no masks against gas, and the French have plenty of everything except money. Syria has been undermined by propaganda and corruption. Let Feisul go to British territory and thence to Europe, where his friends may have a chance to work for him. The British will give him Mesopotamia, and after that it will be up to us Arabs to prove we are a nation. That is my argument. Are we agreed?"
"If that's your plan, Hadad, I'm with you!" Grim answered.
"Then I also am with you! Let us shake hands."
"Shwai shwai!" (Go slow!) said Grim. "Better join up with me in Damascus. There are six men in the car ahead who'll try to murder us all presently. They've got a letter that they think is that one. The minute they find out we've fooled them there'll be ructions."
"I am good at ructions!" Hadad answered.
"My friend Narayan Singh is forward watching them," said Grim. "What they'll probably try when they make the discovery will be to have the lot of us arrested at some wayside station. I propose to forestall them."
"I am good at forestalling!" said Hadad.
"Then don't you forestall me!" laughed Jeremy. "The fellow with a face like a pig's stern is Yussuf Dakmar, and he's my special preserve."
"I am a good Moslem. I refuse to lay hand on pig," said Hadad, smiling.
We discussed Feisul and the Arab cause.
"Oh, if we had Lawrence with us!" exclaimed Hadad excitedly at last. "A little, little man—hardly any larger than Mrs. Ticknor—but a David against Goliath! And would you believe it?—there is an idiotic rumour that Lawrence has returned and is hiding in Damascus! The French are really disturbed about it. They have cabled their Foreign Office and received an official denial of the rumour; but official denials carry no weight nowadays. Out of ten Frenchmen in Syria, five believe that Lawrence is with Feisul and if they can catch him he will get short shrift. But, oh, Jimgrim—oh, if it were true! Wallahi!"
Grim didn't answer, but I saw him look long at Jeremy, and then for about thirty seconds steadily at Mabel Ticknor. After that he stared out of the window for a long time, not even moving his head when a crowd of Bedouins galloped to within fifty yards of the train and volleyed at it from horseback "merely out of devilment," as Hadad hastened to assure us.
We were winding up the Lebanon Valley by that time. Carpets of flowers; green grass; waterfalls; a thatched hut to the twenty square miles, with a scattering of mean black tents between; every stone building in ruins; goats where fat kine ought to be; and a more or less modern railway screeching across the landscape, short of fuel and oil. That's Lebanon.
We grew depressed. Then silent. Our meditations were interrupted by the sudden arrival of Narayan Singh in the door of the compartment, grinning full of news.
"They have opened the letter, sahib! They accuse Yussuf Dakmar of deceiving them. They threaten him with death. Shall I interfere?"
"Any sign of the train crew?" Grim asked.
"Nay, they are gambling in the brake-van."
Grim looked sharply at Hadad.
"What authority have you got?"
"None. I am a personal friend of Feisul, that is all."
"Well, we'll pretend you've power to arrest them. Ramsden, you've suddenly missed your letter. You've accused Jeremy of stealing it. He has confessed to selling it to Yussuf Dakmar. Go forward in a rage and demand the letter back. Start something before they're ready for it! We'll be just behind you."
"Leave Yussuf Dakmar to me!" insisted Jeremy. "I pay the debt of an Anzac division!"
I hope I've never hurt a man who didn't deserve it, or who wasn't fit to fight; but I have to admit that Grim didn't need to repeat the invitation. I started forward in a hurry, and Jeremy elbowed Narayan Singh aside in order to follow next, Australians being notoriously unlady-like performers when anybody's hat is in the ring.
By the time I reached the car ahead the train had entered a wild gorge circle by one of those astonishing hairpin curves with which engineers defeat Nature. The panting engine slowed almost to a snail's pace, having only a scant fuel ration with which to negotiate curve and grade combined. To our right there was a nearly sheer drop of four hundred feet, with a stream at the bottom boiling among limestone boulders.
But there was no time to study scenery. From the middle compartment of the car there came yells for help and the peculiar noise of thump and scuffle that can't be mistaken. Men fight in various ways, Lord knows, and the worst are the said-to-be civilized; but from Nome to Cape Town and all the way from China to Peru the veriest tenderfoot can tell in the dark the difference between fight and horseplay.
I reached the door of the compartment in time to see three of them (two bleeding from knife-wounds in the face) force Yussuf Dakmar backward toward the window, the whole lot stabbing frantically as they milled and swayed. The fifth man was holding on to the scrimmage with his left hand and reaching round with his right, trying to stick a knife into Yussuf Dakmar's ribs without endangering his own hide.
But the sixth man was the rascal I had kicked. He had no room—perhaps no inclination—to get into the scrimmage; so he saw me first, and he needed no spur to his enmity. With a movement as quick as a cat's and presence of mind that accounted for his being leader of the gang, he seized the fifth man by the neck and spun him round to call his attention; and the two came for me together like devils out of a spring-trap.
Now the narrow door of a compartment on a train isn't any kind of easy place to fight in, but I vow and declare that Jeremy and I both did our best for Yussuf Dakmar. That's a remarkable thing if you come to think of it. As a dirty murderer—thief—liar—traitor—spy, he hadn't much claim on our affections and Jeremy cherished a war-grudge against him on top of it all. What is it that makes us side with the bottom dog regardless of pros and cons?
It was a nasty mix-up, because they used knives and we relied on hands and fists. I've used a pick-handle on occasion and a gun when I've had to, but speaking generally it seems to me to demean a white man to use weapons in a row like that, and I find that most fellows who have walked the earth much agree with me.
We tried to go in like a typhoon, shock-troop style, but it didn't work. Another man let go of Yussuf Dakmar, who was growing weak and too short of wind to yell, and in a moment there were five of us struggling on the floor between the seats, one man under me with my forearm across his throat and another alongside me, stabbing savagely at a leather valise under the impression that he was carving up my ribs. On top of that mess Narayan Singh pounced like a tiger, wrenching at arms and legs until I struggled to my feet again—only to be thrust aside by Jeremy as he rose and rushed at Yussuf Dakmar's two assailants.
But with all his speed Jeremy was a tenth of a tick too late. The wretch was already helpless, and I dare say they broke his back as they leaned their combined weight on him and forced him backward and head-first through the window. Jeremy made a grab for his foot, but missed it, and a knife-blade already wet with Yussuf Dakmar's blood whipped out and stung him in the thigh. That, of course, was sheer ignorance. You should never sting an Australian. Kill him or let him alone. Better yet, make friends with him or surrender; but, above all, do nothing by halves. They're a race of whole-hoggers, equally ready to force their only shirt on you or fight you to a finish.
So Jeremy finished the business at the window. He took a neck in each hand and cracked their skulls together until the whack-whack-whack of it was like the exhaust of a Ford with loose piston rings; and when they fell from his grip, unconscious, he came to my rescue. Believe me, I needed it.
They were as strong and lithe as wildcats, those Syrians, and fully awake to the advantage that the narrow door gave them. One man struggled with Narayan Singh and kept him busy with his bulk so wedged across the opening that Grim and Hadad were as good as demobilized out in the corridor; and the other two tackled me like a pair of butchers hacking at a maddened bull. I landed with my fists, but each time at the cost of a flesh-wound; and though I got one knife-hand by the wrist and hung on, wrenching and screwing to throw the fellow off his feet, the other man's right was free and the eighteen-inch Erzeram dagger that he held danced this and that way for an opening underneath my guard.
Jeremy's left fist landed under the peak of his jaw exactly at the moment when he stiffened to launch his thrust. He fell as if pole-axed and the blade missed my stomach by six inches, but the combined force of thrust and blow was great enough to drive the weapon into the wooden partition, where it stayed until I pulled it out to keep as a souvenir.
There wasn't much trouble after that. Grim and Hadad came in and we tore strips from the Syrians' clothing to tie their hands and feet with. Hadad went to the rear of the train, climbing along the footboard of the third-class cars to the caboose to throw some sort of bluff to the conductor, who came forward—called me "Colonel" and Hadad "Excellency" —looked our prisoners over—recognized no friends—and said that everything was "quite all right." He said he knew exactly what to do; but we left Narayan Singh on watch, lest that knowledge should prove too original which, however, it turned out not to be. It was bromidian—as old as history. Narayan Singh came back and told us.
"Lo, sahib; he went through their clothes as an ape for fleas, I watching. And when he had all their valuables he laid them on the footboard, and then, as we passed some Bedouin tents, he kicked them off. But he seems an honest fellow, for he gave them back some small change to buy food with, should any be obtainable."
After that he stood flashing his white teeth for half an hour watching Mabel bandage Jeremy and me, for it always amuses a Sikh to watch a white man eat punishment. Sikhs are a fine race—but curious— distinctly curious and given to unusual amusement. When Mabel had finished with me at last I stuck a needle into him, and he laughed, accepting the stab as a compliment.
A strange thing is how men settle down after excitement. Birds do the same thing. A hawk swoops down on a hedgerow; there is a great flutter, followed by sudden silence. A minute later the chattering begins again, without any reference to one of their number being torn in the plunderer's beak. And so we; even Grim loosened up and gossiped about Feisul and the already ancient days when Feisul was the up-to-date Saladin leading Arab hosts to victory.
But there was an even stranger circumstance than that. We weren't the only people in the train; our car, for instance, was fairly well occupied by Armenians, Arabs, and folk whose vague nationality came under the general heading of Levantine. The car ahead where the fight took place, though not crowded, wasn't vacant, and there were others in the car behind. Yet not one of them made a move to interfere. They minded their own business, which proves, I think, that manners are based mainly on discretion.
As the train gasped slowly up the grade and rolled bumpily at last along the fertile, neglected Syrian highland, all the Armenians on the train removed their hats and substituted the red tarboosh, preferring the headgear of a convert rather than be the target of every Bedouin with a rifle in his hand.
The whole journey was a mix-up of things to wonder at—not least of them the matter-of-fact confidence with which the train proceeded along a single track, whose condition left you wondering at each bump whether the next wouldn't be the journey's violent end. There were lamps, but no oil for light when evening came. Once, when we bumped over a shaky culvert and a bushel or two of coal-dust fell from the rusty tender, the engineer stopped the train and his assistant went back with a shovel and piece of sacking to gather up the precious stuff.
There was nothing but squalid villages and ruins, goats and an occasional rare camel to be seen through the window—not a tree anywhere, the German General Staff having attended to that job thoroughly. There is honey in the country and it's plentiful as well as good, because bees are not easy property to raid and make away with; but the milk is from goats, and as for overflowing, I would hate to have to punish the dugs of a score of the brutes to get a jugful for dinner. Syria's wealth is of the past and the future.
Long before it grew too dark to watch the landscape we were wholly converted to Grim's argument that Syria was no place for a man of Feisul's calibre. The Arab owners of the land are plundered to the bone; the men with money are foreigners, whose only care is for a government that will favour this religion and that breed. To set up a kingdom there would be like preaching a new religion in Hester Street; you could hand out text, soup and blankets, but you'd need a whale's supply of faith to carry on, and the offertories wouldn't begin to meet expenses.
Until that journey finally convinced me, I had been wondering all the while in the back of my head whether Grim wasn't intending an impertinence. It hasn't been my province hitherto to give advice to kings; for one thing, they haven't asked me for it. If I were asked, I think I'd take the problem pretty seriously and hesitate before suggesting to a man on whom the hope of fifty million people rests that he'd better pull up stakes and eat crow in exile for the present. I'd naturally hate to be a king, but if I were one I don't think quitting would look good, and I think I'd feel like kicking the fellow who suggested it.
But the view from the train, and Grim's talk with Hadad put me in a mood in which Syria didn't seem good enough for a soap-box politician, let alone a man of Feisul's fame and character. And when at last a few lights in a cluster down the track proclaimed that we were drawing near Damascus, I was ready to advise everybody, Feisul included, to get out in a hurry while a chance remained.
"Bismillah! What a mercy that I met you!"
While the fireman scraped the iron floor for his last two shovelfuls of coal-dust and the train wheezed wearily into the dark station, Grim began to busy himself in mysterious ways. Part of his own costume consisted of a short, curved scimitar attached to an embroidered belt— the sort of thing that Arabs wear for ornament rather than use. He took it off and, groping in the dark, helped Mabel put it on, without a word of explanation.
Then, instead of putting on his own Moslem over-cloak he threw that over her shoulders and, digging down into his bag for a spare head-dress, snatched her hat off and bound on the white kerchief in its place with the usual double, gold-covered cord of camel-hair.
Then came my friend the train conductor and addressed me as Colonel, offering to carry out the bags. The moment he had grabbed his load and gone Grim broke silence:
"Call her Colonel and me Grim. Don't forget how!"
We became aware of faces under helmets peering through the window- officers of Feisul's army on the watch for unwelcome visitors. From behind them came the conductor's voice again, airing his English:
"Any more bags inside there, Colonel?"
"Get out quick, Jeremy, and make a fuss about the Colonel coming!" ordered Grim.
Jeremy suddenly became the arch-efficient servitor, establishing importance for his chief, and never a newly made millionaire or modern demagog had such skillful advertisement. The Shereefian officers stood back at a respectful distance, ready to salute when the personage should deign to alight.
"What shall be done with the memsahib's hat?" demanded Narayan Singh.
You could only see the whites of his eyes, but he shook something in his right hand.
"Eat it!" Grim answered.
"Heavens! That's my best hat!" objected Mabel. "Give it here. I'll carry it under the cloak."
"Get rid of it!" Grim ordered; and Narayan Singh strode off to contribute yellow Leghorn straw and poppies to the engine furnace.
I gave him ten piastres to fee the engineer, and five for the fireman, so you might say that was high-priced fuel.
"What kind of bunk are you throwing this time?" I asked Grim.
He didn't answer, but gave orders to Mabel in short, crisp syllables.
"You're Colonel Lawrence. Answer no questions. If anyone salutes, just move your hand and bow your head a bit. You're just his height. Look straight in front of you and take long strides. Bend your head forward a little; there, that's it."
"I'm scared!" announced Mabel, by way of asking for more particulars.
She wasn't scared in the least.
"Piffle!" Grim answered. "Remember you're Lawrence, that's all. They'd give you Damascus if you asked for it. Follow Jeremy, and leave the rest to us."
I don't doubt that Grim had been turning over the whole plan in his mind for hours past, but when I taxed him with it afterward his reply was characteristic:
"If we'd rehearsed it, Mabel and Hadad would both have been self-conscious. The game is to study your man—or woman, as the case may be—and sometimes drill 'em, sometimes spring it on 'em, according to circumstances. The only rule is to study people; there are no two quite alike."
Hadad was surprised into silence, too thoughtful a man to do anything except hold his tongue until the next move should throw more light on the situation. He followed us out of the car, saying nothing; and being recognized by the light of one dim lantern as an intimate friend of Feisul, he accomplished all that Grim could have asked of him.
He was known to have been in Europe until recently. Rumours about Lawrence had been tossed from mouth to mouth for days past, and here was somebody who looked like Lawrence in the dark, followed by Grim and Hadad and addressed as "Colonel." Why shouldn't those three Shereefian officers jump to conclusions, salute like automatons and grin like loyal men who have surprised a secret and won't tell anyone but their bosom friends? It was all over Damascus within the hour that Lawrence had come from England to stand by Feisul in the last ditch. The secret was kept perfectly!
We let Mabel walk ahead of us, and there was no trouble at the customs barrier, where normally every piastre that could be wrung from protesting passengers were mulcted to support a starving treasury; for the officers strode behind us, and trade signs to the customs clerk, who immediately swore at everyone in sight and sent all his minions to yell for the best cabs in Damascus.
Narayan Singh distributed largesse to about a hundred touts and hangers-on and we splashed off toward the hotel in two open landaus, through streets six inches deep in water except at the cross-gutters, where the horses jumped for fear of losing soundings. Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, were in flood as usual at that time of year, and the scavenging street curs had to swim from one garbage heap to the next. There was a gorgeous battle going on opposite the hotel door, where half a dozen white-ivoried mongrels with their backs to a heap of kitchen leavings held a ford against a dozen others, each beast that made good his passage joining with the defenders to fight off the rest. I stood on the hotel steps and watched the war for several minutes, while Grim went in with the others and registered as "Rupert Ramsden of Chicago, U.S.A., and party."
The flood, and darkness owing to the lack of fuel, were all in our favour, for such folk as were abroad were hardly of the sort whose gossip would carry weight; nevertheless, we hadn't been in the hotel twenty minutes before an agent of the bank put in his appearance, speaking French volubly. Seeing my name on the register, he made the mistake of confining his attention to me, which enabled Grim to get Mabel safely away into a big room on the second floor.
The Frenchman (if he was one—he had a Hebrew nose) made bold to corner me on a seat near the dining-room door. He was nervous rather than affable—a little pompous, as behooved the representative of money power—and evidently used to having his impertinences answered humbly.
"You are from the South? Did you have a good journey? Was the train attacked? Did you hear any interesting rumors on the way?"
Those were all preliminary questions, thrown out at random to break ice. As he sat down beside me you could feel the next one coming just as easily as see that he wasn't interested in the answers to the first.
"You are here on business? What business?"
"Private business," said I, with an eye on Jeremy just coming down the stairs. "You talk Arabic?"
He nodded, eyeing me keenly.
"That man is my servant and knows my affairs. I'm too tired to talk after the journey. Suppose you ask him."
So Jeremy came and sat beside us, and threw the cow's husband around as blithely as he juggles billiard balls. I wasn't supposed to understand what he was saying.
"The big effendi is a prizefighter, who has heard there is money to be made at Feisul's court. At least, that is what he says. Between you and me, I think he is a spy for the French Government, because when he engaged me in Jerusalem he gave me a fist-full of paper francs with which to send a telegram to Paris. What was in the telegram? I don't know; it was a mass of figures, and I mixed them up on purpose, being an honest fellow averse to spy's work. Oh, I've kept an eye on him, believe me! Ever since he killed a Syrian in the train I've had my doubts of him. Mashallah, what a murderous disposition the fellow has! Kill a man as soon as look at him—indeed he would. Are you a prince in these parts?"
"Bismillah! What a mercy that I met you! I overheard him say that he will visit the bank tomorrow morning to cash a draft for fifty thousand francs. I'd examine the draft carefully if I were you. It wouldn't surprise me to learn it was stolen or forged. Is there any other bank that he could go to?"
"No, only mine; the others have suspended business on account of the crisis."
"Then, in the name of Allah don't forget me! You ought to give me a thousand francs for the information. I am a poor man, but honest. At what time shall I come for the money in the morning? Perhaps you could give me a little on account at once, for my wages are due tonight and I'm not at all certain of getting them."
"Well, see me in the morning," said the banker.
He got up and left us at once, hardly troubling to excuse himself; and Grim heard him tell the hotel proprietor that our whole party would be locked up in jail before midnight. That rumour went the rounds like wild-fire, so that we were given a wide berth and had a table all to ourselves in the darkest corner of the big dim dining-room.
There were more than a hundred people eating dinner, and Narayan Singh, Hadad and I were the only ones in western clothes. Every seat at the other tables was occupied by some Syrian dignitary in flowing robes— rows and rows of stately looking notables, scant of speech and noisy at their food. Many of them seemed hardly to know the use of knife and fork, but they could all look as dignified as owls, even when crowding in spaghetti with their fingers.
We provided them with a sensation before the second course was finished. A fine-looking Syrian officer in khaki, with the usual cloth flap behind his helmet that forms a compromise between western smartness and eastern comfort, strode into the room and bore down on us. He invited us out into the corridor with an air that suggested we would better not refuse, and we filed out after him in an atmosphere of frigid disapproval.
Mabel was honestly scared half out of her wits now. Not even the smiles of the hotel proprietor in the doorway reassured her, nor his deep bow as she passed. She was even more scared, if that were possible, when two officers, obviously of high rank, came forward in the hall to greet her, and one addressed her in Arabic as Colonel Lawrence. Luckily one oil lamp per wall was doing duty in place of electric light, or there might have been an awkward incident. She had presence of mind enough to disguise her alarm by a fit of coughing, bending nearly double and covering the lower part of her face with the ends of the headdress folded over.
The officers had no time to waste and gave their message to Grim instead.
"The Emir Feisul is astonished, Jimgrim, that Colonel Lawrence and you should visit Damascus without claiming his hospitality. We have two autos waiting to take you to the palace."
Well, the luggage didn't amount to much; Narayan Singh brought that down in a jiffy; and when I went to settle with the hotel-keeper one of the Syrian officers interfered.
"These are guests of the Emir Feisul," he announced. "Send the bill to me."
We were piled into the waiting autos. Mabel, Grim and I rode in the first one, with the Syrian officers up beside the driver; Jeremy, Narayan Singh and Hadad followed; and we went through the dark streets like sea-monsters splashing over shoals, unseen I think—certainly unrecognized.
The streets were almost deserted and I didn't catch sight of one armed man, which was a thing to marvel at when you consider that fifty thousand or so were supposed to be concentrated in the neighbourhood, with conscription working full-blast and the foreign consuls solely occupied in procuring exemption for their nationals.
It wasn't my first visit to a reigning prince, for if you travel much in India you're bound to come in contact with numbers of them; so I naturally formed a mental picture of what was in store for us, made up from a mixture of memories of Gwalior, Baroda, Bikanir, Hyderabad, Poona and Baghdad of the Arabian-Nights. It just as naturally vanished in presence of the quiet, latter-day dignity of the real thing.
The palace turned out to be a villa on the outskirts of the city, no bigger and hardly more pretentious than a well-to-do commuter's place at Bronxville or Mount Vernon. There was a short semi-circular drive in front, with one sentry and one small lantern burning at each gate; but their khaki uniforms and puttees didn't disguise the fact that the sentries were dark, dyed-in-wool Arabs from the desert country, and though they presented arms, they did it as men who make concessions without pretending to admire such foolishness. I wouldn't have given ten cents for an unescorted stranger's chance of getting by them, whatever his nationality.
Surely there was never less formality in a king's house since the world began. We were ushered straight into a narrow, rather ordinary hall, and through that into a sitting-room about twenty feet square. The light was from oil lamps hanging by brass chains from the curved beams; but the only other Oriental suggestions were the cushioned seats in each corner, small octagonal tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and a mighty good Persian carpet.
Narayan Singh and Jeremy, supposedly being servants, offered to stay in the hall, but were told that Feisul wouldn't approve of that.
"Whatever they shouldn't hear can be said in another room," was the explanation.
So we all sat down together on one of the corner seats, and were kept waiting about sixty seconds until Feisul entered by a door in the far corner. And when he came he took your breath away.
It always prejudices me against a man to be told that he is dignified and stately. Those adjectives smack of too much self-esteem and of a claim to be made of different clay from most of us. He was both, yet he wasn't either. And he didn't look like a priest, although if ever integrity and righteousness shone from a man, with their effect heightened by the severely simple Arab robes, I swear that man was he.
Just about Jeremy's height and build—rather tall and thin that is—with a slight stoop forward from the shoulders due to thoughtfulness and camel-riding and a genuine intention not to hold his head too high, he looked like a shepherd in a Bible picture, only with good humour added, that brought him forward out of a world of dreams on to the same plane with you, face to face—understanding meeting understanding—man to man.
I wish I could describe his smile as he entered, believing he was coming to meet Lawrence, but it can't be done. Maybe you can imagine it if you bear in mind that this man was captain of a cause as good as lost, hedged about by treason and well aware of it; and that Colonel Lawrence was the one man in the world who had proved himself capable of bridging the division between East and West and making possible the Arab dream of independence.
But unhappily it's easier to record unpleasant things. He knew at the first glance—even before she drew back the kuffiyi—that Mabel wasn't Lawrence, and I've never seen a man more disappointed in all my wanderings. The smile didn't vanish; he had too much pluck and self-control for that; but you might say that iron entered into it, as if for a second he was mocking destiny, willing to face all odds alone since he couldn't have his friend.
And he threw off disappointment like a man—dismissed it as a rock sheds water, coming forward briskly to shake hands with Grim and bowing as Grim introduced us.
"At least here are two good friends," he said in Arabic, sitting down between Grim and Hadad. "Tell me what this means, and why you deceived us about Lawrence."
"We've something to show you," Grim answered. "Mrs. Ticknor brought it; otherwise it might have been seen by the wrong people."
Feisul took the hint and dismissed the Syrian officers, calling them by their first names as he gave them "leave to go." Then Mabel produced the letter and Feisul read it, crossing one thin leg over the other and leaning back easily. But he sat forward again and laughed bitterly when he had read it twice over.
"I didn't write this. I never saw it before, or heard of it," he said simply.
"I know that," said Grim. "But we thought you'd better look at it."
Feisul laid the letter across his knee and paused to light a cigarette. I thought he was going to do what nine men out of ten in a tight place would certainly have done; but he blew out the match, and went on smoking.
"You mean your government has seen the thing, and sent you to confront me with it?"
It was Grim's turn to laugh, and he was jubilant without a trace of bitterness.
"No. The chief and I have risked our jobs by not reporting it. This visit is strictly unofficial."
Feisul handed the letter back to him, and it was Grim who struck a match and burned it, after tearing off the seal for a memento.
"You know what it means, of course?" Grim trod the ash into the carpet. "If the French could have come by that letter in Jerusalem, they'd have Dreyfussed you—put you on trial for your life on trumped-up evidence. They'd send a sworn copy of it to the British to keep them from taking your part."
"I am grateful to you for burning it," Feisul answered.
He didn't look helpless, hopeless, or bewildered, but dumb and clinging on; like a man who holds an insecure footing against a hurricane.
"It means that the men all about you are traitors—" Grim went on.
"Not all of them," Feisul interrupted.
"But many of them," answered Grim. "Your Arabs are loyal hot-heads; some of your Syrians are dogs whom anyone can hire."
It was straight speaking. From a major in foreign service, uninvited, to a king, it sounded near the knuckle. Feisul took it quite pleasantly.
"I know one from the other, Jimgrim."
Grim got up and took a chair opposite Feisul. He was all worked up and sweating at self-mastery, hotter under the collar than I had ever seen him.
"It means," he went on, with a hand on each knee and his strange eyes fixed steadily on Feisul's, "that the French are ready to attack you. It means they're sure of capturing your person—and bent on seeing your finish. They'll give you a drumhead court martial and make excuses afterward."
"Inshallah," Feisul answered, meaning "If Allah permits it."
"That is exactly the right word!" Grim exploded; and Lord, he was hard put to it to keep excitement within bounds.
I could see his neck trembling, and there were little beads of sweat on his temple. It was Grim at last without the mask on. "Allah marks the destiny of all of us. Do you suppose we're here for nothing—at this time?"
"I am glad to see you," he said simply.
"Are you planning to fight the French?" Grim asked him suddenly, in the sort of way that a man at close quarters lets rip an upper-cut.
"I must fight or yield. They have sent an ultimatum, but delayed it so as not to permit me time to answer. It has expired already. They are probably advancing."
"And you intend to sit here and wait for them?"
"I shall be at the front."
"You know you haven't a chance!"
"My advisers think that my presence at the front will encourage our men sufficiently to win the day."
"Have you a charm against mustard gas?"
"That is our weakness. No, we have no masks."
"And the wind setting up from the sea at this time of year! Your army is going straight into a trap, and you along with it. Half of the men who advise you to go to the front will fight like lions against a net, and the other half will sell you to the French! Your fifty thousand men will melt like butter in the sun and your Arab cause will be left without a leader!"
Feisul pondered that for about a minute, leaning back and watching Grim's face.
"We held a council of war, Jimgrim," he said at last. "It was the unanimous opinion of the staff that we ought to fight and the cabinet upheld them. I couldn't cancel the order if I wished. What would you think of a king who left his army in the lurch?"
"Nobody will ever accuse you of cowardice," Grim answered. "You're a proven brave man if ever there was one. The point is, do you want all your bravery and hard work for the Arab cause to go for nothing? Do you want the prospect of Arab independence to go up in smoke on a gas-swept battlefield?"
"It would break my heart," said Feisul, "although one heart hardly matters."
"It would break more hearts than yours," Grim retorted. "There are millions looking to you for leadership. Leave me out of it. Leave Lawrence out of it, and all the other non-Moslems who have done their bit for you. Leave most of these Syrians out of it; for they're simply politicians making use of you—a mess of breeds and creeds so mixed and corrupted that they don't know which end up they stand! If the Syrians had guts they'd have rallied so hard to you long ago that no outsider would have had a chance."
"What do you mean? What are you proposing?" Feisul asked quietly.
"Baghdad is your place, not Damascus!"
"But here I am in Damascus," Feisul retorted; and for the first time there was a note of impatience in his voice. "I came here at the request of the Allies, on the strength of their promises. I did not ask to be king. I would rather not be. Let any man be ruler whom the Arabs choose, and I will work for him loyally. But the Arabs chose me and the Allies consented. It was only after they had won their war with our help that the French began raising objections and, the British deserted me. It is too late to talk of Baghdad now."
"It isn't! It's too soon!" Grim answered, bringing down a clenched fist on his knee, and Feisul laughed in spite of himself.
"You talk like a prophet, Jimgrim, but let me tell you something. It is mainly a question of money after all. The British paid us a subsidy until they withdrew from Syria. They did their best for us even then, for they left behind guns, ammunition, wagons and supplies. When the French seized the ports they promised to continue the subsidy, because they are collecting the customs dues and we have no other revenue worth mentioning. But rather than send us money the French have told our people not to pay taxes; so our treasury is empty. Nevertheless, we contrived by one means and another. We arranged a bank credit, and ordered supplies from abroad. The supplies have reached Beirut, but the French have ordered the bank to cancel the credit, and until we pay for the supplies they are withheld."
"Any gas masks among the supplies you ordered?" Grim asked him; and Feisul nodded.
"That banker has played fast and loose with us until the last minute. Relying on our undertaking not to molest foreigners he has resided in Damascus, making promises one day and breaking them the next, keeping his funds in Beirut and his agency here, draining money out of the country all the while."
"Why didn't you arrest him?"
"We gave our word to the French that he should have complete protection and immunity. It seemed a good thing to us to have such an influential banker here; he has international connections. As recently as yesterday, twenty minutes before that ultimatum came, he was in this room assuring me that he would be able to solve the credit difficulty within a day or two."
"Would you like to send for him now?" suggested Grim.
"I doubt if he would come."
"Well, have him fetched!"
Feisul shook his head.
"If other people break their promises, that is no reason why we should break ours. If we can defeat the French and force them to make other terms, then we will expel him from Syria. I leave at midnight, Jimgrim."
"To defeat the French? You go to your Waterloo! You're in check with only one move possible, and I'm here to make you realize it. You're a man after my own heart, Feisul, but you and your Arabs are children at dealing with these foreign exploiters!
"They can beat you at every game but honesty. And listen: If you did defeat the French—if you drove them into the sea tomorrow, they'd get away with all the money in Beirut and you'd still be at the mercy of foreign capitalists! Instead of an independent Arab kingdom here you'd have a mixture of peoples and religions all plotting against one another and you, with capitulations and foreign consuls getting in the way, and bond-holding bankers sitting on top of it all like the Old Man of the Sea in the story of Sindbad the Sailor!
"Leave that to the French! Let them have all Syria to stew in! Go to England where your friends are. Let the politicians alone. Meet real folk and talk with them. Tell them the truth; for they don't know it! Talk with the men and women who haven't got political jobs to lose—with the fellows who did the fighting—with the men and women who have votes. They'll believe you. They've given up believing politicians, and they're learning how to twist the politicians' tails. You'll find yourself in Baghdad within a year or two, with all Mesopotamia to make a garden of and none but Arabs to deal with. That's your field!"
Feisul smiled with the air of a man who recognizes but is unconvinced.
"There are always things that might have been," he answered. "As it is, I cannot desert the army."
"We'll save what we can of the army," Grim answered. "Your Syrians will save their own skins; it's only the Arabs we've got to look out for—a line of retreat for the Arab regiments, and another for you. It's not too late, and you know I'm right! Come on; let's get busy and do it!"
Feisul's smile was all affection and approval, but he shook his head.
"If what you say is true, I should only have the same problem in Mesopotamia—foreign financiers," he answered.
"That's exactly where you're wrong!" Grim retorted triumphantly.
He stood up, and pointed at Jeremy.
"Here's a man who owns a gold-mine. It lies between Mesopotamia and your father's kingdom of the Hedjaz, and its exact whereabouts is a secret. He's here tonight to make you a pres ent of the mine! And here's another man,"—he pointed at me—"a mining expert, who'll tell you what the thing's worth. It's yours, if you'll agree to abandon Syria and lay a course for Baghdad!"
"You'll be a virgin Victim!"
Feisul was interested; he couldn't help being. And he was utterly convinced of Grim's sincerity. But he wasn't moved from his purpose, and not even Jeremy's account of the gold-mine, or my professional opinion of its value, had the least effect toward cancelling the plans he had in mind. He was deeply affected by the offer, but that was all.
"Good heavens, man!" Grim exploded suddenly. "Surely you won't throw the whole world into war again! You know what it will mean if the French kill or imprison you. There isn't a Moslem of all the millions in Asia who won't swear vengeance against the West—you know that! A direct descendant of Mohammed, and the first outstanding, conquering Moslem since Saladin—"
"The Allies should have thought of that before they broke promises," said Feisul.
"Never mind them. Damn them!" answered Grim. "It's up to you! The future of civilization is in your lap this minute! Can't you see that if you lose you'll be a martyr, and Islam will rise to avenge you?"
"Inshallah," said Feisul, nodding.
"But that if you let pride go by the board, and seem to run away, there'll be a breathing spell? Asia would wonder for a few months, and do nothing, until it began to dawn on them that you had acted wisely and had a better plan in view."
"I am not proud, except of my nation," Feisul answered. "I would not let pride interfere with policy. But it is too late to talk of this."
"Which is better?" Grin demanded. "A martyr, the very mention of whose name means war, or a living power for peace under a temporary cloud?"
"I am afraid I am a poor host. Forgive me," Feisul answered. "Dinner has been waiting all this while, and you have a lady with you. This is disgraceful."
He rose and led the way into another room, closing the discussion. We ate an ordinary meal in an ordinary dining room, Feisul presiding and talking trivialities with Mabel and Hadad. There was an occasional boisterous interlude by Jeremy, but even he with his tales of unknown Arabia couldn't lift the load of depression. Grim and I sat silent through the meal. I experienced the sensation that you get when an expedition proves a failure and you've got to go home again with nothing done—all dreary emptiness; but Grim was hatching something, as you could tell by the far-away expression and the glowering light in his eyes. He looked about ready for murder.
Narayan Singh's face all through the meal was a picture—delight and pride at dining with a king, amazement at his karma that had brought a sepoy of the line to hear such confidences first hand, chagrin over Grim's apparent failure and desire to be inconspicuous controlled his expression in turn. Once or twice he tried to make conversation with me, but I was in no mood for it, being a grouchy old bear on occasion without decent manners.
Feisul excused himself the minute the meal was over, saying he had a conference to attend, and we all went back into the sitting-room, where Grim took the chair he occupied before and marshalled us into a row on the seat in front of him. He was back again in form—electric—and self-controlled.
"Have you folk got the hang of this?" he asked. "Do you realize what it means if Feisul goes out and gets scuppered?"
We thought we did, even if we didn't. I don't suppose anyone except the few who, like Grim, have made a life-study of the problem of Islam in all its bearings could quite have grasped it. Mabel had a viewpoint that served Grim's purpose as well as any at the moment.
"That man's too good, and much too good-looking to be wasted!" she said emphatically. "D'you suppose that if Colonel Lawrence were really here—"
"Half a minute," said Grim, "and I'll come to that. How about you, Hadad? How far would you go to save Feisul from this Waterloo?"
"I would go a long way," he answered cautiously. "What do you intend?"
"To appear near the firing-line, for one thing, with somebody who looks like Colonel Lawrence, and somebody else who looks enough like Feisul in one of Feisul's cars, and give the French a run for it in one direction while Feisul escapes in the other."
"Wallahi! But what if Feisul won't go?"
"He'll get helped! Did you ever hear what they did to Napoleon at Waterloo? Seized his bridle and galloped away with him."
"You mean I'm to act Lawrence again?" asked Mabel, looking deathly white.
"Who's cast for Feisul?" Jeremy inquired.
"You are. You're the only trained stage-actor in the bunch. You're his height—not unlike his figure—"
"I resemble him as much as a kangaroo looks like an ostrich!" laughed Jeremy. "You're talking wild, Jim. What have you had to drink?"
"How about you, Ramsden? Will you see this through?"
Jeremy shook his head at me. I believe he thought for the moment that Grim had gone mad. He hadn't the experience of Grim that I had, and consequently not the same confidence in Grim's ability to dream, catch the essence of the dream, pin it down and make a fact of it.
"I'll go the limit," said I.
"Well, I'll be damned" laughed Jeremy. "All right; same here. I stake a gold-mine and Rammy raises me. Fetch your crown and sceptre and I'll play king to Jim's ace in a royal straight flush. Mabel's queen. Hadad's a knave. He looks it! Keep smiling, Hadad, old top, and I'll let you forgive me. Rammy's the ten-spot—tentative—tenacious—ten aces up his sleeve—and packs a ten-ton wallop when you get him going. What's Narayan Singh? The deuce?"
"The joker," answered Grim. "Are you in on this?"
"Sahib, there was no need to ask. What your honor finds good enough— your honor's order—"
"Orders have nothing to do with it. We're not in British territory. This in unofficial. I've no right to give you orders," said Grim. "You're free to refuse. I'm likely to lose my job over this and so are you if you take part in it."
Narayan Singh grinned hugely.
"Hah! A sepoy's position is a smaller stake than a major's commission or a gold-mine, but I likewise have a life to lose, and I play too!"
Grim nodded curtly. It was no time for returning compliments.
"How about you, Mabel? We can manage this without you, and you've a husband to think of—"
"If he were here he'd hate it, but he'd give permission."
"All right. Now, Hadad. What about it?"
"Am I to obey you absolutely, not knowing what the—"
Grim interrupted him:
"The proposal's fair. Either you withdraw now and hold your tongue, or come in with us. If you're in I'll tell the details; if not, there's no need."
"Wallahi! What a sword-blade you are, Jimgrim! If I say 'yes,' I risk my future on your backgammon board; if I say 'no,' my life is worth a millieme, for you will tell that Sikh you call the 'joker' to attend to me!"
"Not so," Grim answered. "If you don't like the plan, I'll trust you to fall out and keep the secret."
"Oh, in that case," answered Hadad, hesitating. "Since you put it that way... well, it is lose all or perhaps win something—half-measures are no good—the alternative is ruin of the Arab cause—it is a forlorn hope—well, one throw of the dice, eh?—and all our fortunes on the table!—one little mistake and helas—finish! Never mind. Yes, I will play too. I will play this to the end with you."
"So we're all set," remarked Grim with a sigh of relief. Instantly he threw his shoulders back and began to set his pieces for the game. And you know, there's a world of difference between the captain of a side who doesn't worry until the game begins and Grim's sort, who do their worrying beforehand and then play, and make the whole side play for every ounce that's in them.
"Mabel, you're Lawrence. Keep silent, be shy, avoid encounters—act like a man who's not supposed to be here, but who came to help Feisul contrary to express commands laid on him by the Foreign Office. Get that? Lawrence is a shy man, anyway—hates publicity, rank, anything that calls attention to himself. The more shy you are, the easier you'll get away with it. Feisul must help pretend you're Lawrence. The presence of Lawrence would add to his prestige incalculably, and I think he'll see that, but if not, never mind, we'll manage. Any questions? Quick!"
You can't ask questions when you're given that sort of opportunity. The right ones don't occur to you and the others seem absurd. Grim knew that, of course, but when you're dealing with a woman there's just one chance in a hundred that she may think of something vital that hasn't occurred to anybody else. Most women aren't practical; but it's the impractical things that happen.
"Suppose we're captured by the French?" she suggested. "That's what's going to happen," he answered. "When they've got you, then you're Mrs. Mabel Ticknor, who never saw Lawrence and wouldn't recognize him if you did."
"They'll ask why I'm wearing man's clothes, and masquerading as an Arab."
"Well, you're a woman, aren't you? You answer with another question— ask them just how safe a woman would be! They may claim that their Algerians are baby-lambs, but they can't blame you for not believing it! Anything else?"
She shook her head, and he turned on Hadad.
"Hadad, lose no opportunity of whispering that Lawrence is with Feisul. Add that Lawrence doesn't want his presence known. Hunt out two or three loyal Arabs on the staff and tell them the plan is to kidnap Feisul and carry him to safety across the border; but don't do it too soon; wait until the debacle begins, and then persuade a few of them— old Ali, for instance, and Osman—choose the old guard—you and they bolt with him to Haifa. The Syrians have been thoroughly undermined by propaganda; gas will do the rest, and as soon as the Arabs see the Syrians run they'll listen to reason. They know you, and know you're on the level. Do you understand? Will you do that?"
"I will try. I see many a chance of spilling before this cup comes to the drinking, Jimgrim!"
"Then carry it carefully!" Grim answered. "Ramsden, take that car you came in. Find that banker. He's the boy who has bought Feisul's staff, or I'm much mistaken. Bring him here." "Suppose he won't come?"
"Bring him. Take Jeremy with you. Try diplomacy first. Tell him that a plot to kidnap Feisul has been discovered at the last minute, but give him to understand that no suspicion rests on him. Get him, if you can, to send a message to the French General Staff, warning them to watch for Feisul and two civilians and Lawrence in an auto. After that bring him if you have to put him in a sack."
"What's his name, and where does he live?"
"Adolphe Rene. Everybody knows his house. Jeremy, look as unlike Feisul as you can until the time comes, but study the part and be ready to jump into his clothes. Narayan Singh, stay with me. You and I will do the dirty work. Get busy, Ramsden."
Circumstances work clock-fashion, wheel fitting into wheel, when those tides that Shakespeare spoke of are at flood. Disregarding all the theory and argument about human will as opposed to cosmic law I say this, without any care at all who contradicts me:
That whoever is near the hub of happenings is the agent of Universal Law, and can no more help himself than can the watch that tells the hour. The men who believe that they make history should really make a thoughtful fellow laugh. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on"; the old tentmaker Omar knew the truth of it. You could almost hear the balance-wheel of Progress click as the door opened before Grim had finished speaking, and a staff officer appeared to invite him to be present at Feisul's conference.
Grim asked at once for the auto for me (I couldn't have had it otherwise), and a moment later Jeremy and I were scooting into darkness through narrow streets and driving rain, with the hubs of the wheels awash in places and "shipping it green" over the floor when we dipped and pitched over a cross-street gutter. The Arab driver knew the way, from which I take it he had a compass in his head as well as a charm against accidents and a spirit of recklessness that put faith in worn-out springs. There wasn't room for more than one set of wheels at a time in most of the streets we tore through, but a camel tried to share one fairway with us and had the worst of it; he cannoned off into an alley 'hime end first, and we could hear him bellowing with rage a block away.
And our manner of stopping was like our progress, prompt. The brake- bands went on with a shriek and Jeremy and I pitched forward as the car brought up against the kerb in front of an enormous door, whose brass knocker shone like gold in the rays of our headlights. We told the Arab to wait for us and stepped knee-deep into a pool invisible, stumbled and nearly fell over a great stone set to bridge the flood between street and door, then proceeded to use the knocker importunately, thunderously, angrily, as men with wet feet and bruised toes likely will, whatever the custom of the country.
We went on knocking, taking turns, until the door opened at last and the banker's servant peered at us with a candle in his hand, demanding to know in the name of the thousand and one devils whom Solomon boiled in oil what impudent scavengers were making all that noise. But the banker himself was in the background, thinking perhaps that the French had come already, on the lookout over the servant's shoulder for a glimpse of a kepi. So we put our shoulders to the door, thrust by the servant, and walked in.
"Take care! I have a pistol in my hand!" said the banker's voice.
"Three shots for a shilling at me then!" retorted Jeremy.
"Who are you?"
"Tell that shivering fool to bring the candle, and you'll see!"
"Oh, you, is it! I told you to come in the morning. I can't see you now."
"Can't see me, eh? Come in here and peel your eyes, cocky! Sit down and look at us. There, take a pew. Wonder where I learned such good English? Well, I used to shine the toenails of the Prince o' Wales, and you have to pass a Civil Service examination before they give you that good job. I talk any language except French and Jewish, but this master of mine turns out to be a Jew who talks French, and not a prizefighter after all.
"What did I tell you this evening? Said he was a spy for the French, didn't I? I tell you, I'm a dependable man. What I say you can bet on till you've lost all your money. Here he is, spying to beat the promised-landers—just had tea with Feisul and learned all the inside facts—offered me a pound to come and find you, but I charged him two and got the money in advance.
"You ought to pay me a commission, too, and then I'll get married if there's an honest woman left in Damascus. If either of you want my advice, you won't believe a word the other says, but I expect you're both too wilful to be guided. Anyhow, you'll have to talk in front of me, because my master is afraid of being murdered; he isn't afraid of ghosts or bad smells, but the sight of a long knife turns his heart to water and sets him to praying so loud that you can't get a word in edgewise. Go on, both of you—yalla! Talk!"
Does it begin to be obvious why kings used to employ court jesters? The modern cabinets should have them—men like Jeremy (though they'd be hard to find) to break the crust of situations. Suspicion weakens in the presence of incongruity.
"This fellow seems less than half-witted," I said, "but he's shrewd, and I've found him useful. Unfortunately he has picked up a lot of information, so we'll have to keep an eye on him. My business is to communicate with the French General Staff and I'm told you know how to manage it."
"Huh-huh? Who told you that?"
"Those who gave me my instructions. If you don't know who they are without my telling you, you're the wrong man and I'll not waste time with you."
"Let us suppose that I know then. Proceed."
"Your name was given to me as that of a man who can be trusted to take necessary action in the interests of ... er ... you understand?"
"The plot for Feisul to be kidnapped by some Syrian members of his staff has been discovered at the last minute," I said, looking hard at him; and he winced palpably.
"Mon Dieu! You mean—"
"That it is not too late to save the situation. You have not been accused of connection with it. I came here in pursuance of a different plan to kidnap him—a sort of reserve plan, to be employed in case other means should fail. All arrangements are in working order except the one item of communicating with the French General Staff. I require you to accompany me for that purpose, and to send off to them immediately a message at my dictation."
"Tschaa! Suppose you show me your authority?"
"Certainly!" I answered.
Realizing that he wasn't in immediate danger of life he had returned his own pistol to his pocket. So I showed him the muzzle of mine, and he divined without a sermon on the subject that it would go off and shoot accurately unless he showed discretion. He didn't offer to move when Jeremy's agile fingers found his pocket and flicked out the mother-of- pearl-handled, rim-fire thing with which he had previously kept his courage warm.
"I was told not to trust you too far," I explained. "I was warned in advance that you might question my credentials. You are said to be jealous of interference. As a precaution against miscarriage of this plan through jealousy on your part, I was ordered to oblige you to obey me."
"And if I refuse?"
"Your widow will then be the individual most concerned. Be good enough to take pen and paper, and write a letter to my dictation."
Jeremy went to the door, which was partly open, made sure that the servant was out of earshot, and slammed it tight. Rene the banker went to his escritoire, took paper, and shook his fountain pen.
"How shall I commence the letter?" he asked me with a dry, sly smile.
He thought he had me there. There are doubtless proper forms of address that serve to establish the genuineness of letters written by a spy.
"Commence half-way down the page," I answered. "We'll insert the address afterwards. Write in French:"
"I shall accompany the Emir Feisul and Colonel Lawrence to the front tonight, former plan having miscarried. When Syrian retreat begins look out for automobile containing Feisul and Lawrence, which may be recognized easily as it will also contain myself and another civilian in plain clothes. At the psychological moment a white flag will be shown from it, waved perhaps surreptitiously by one of the civilians. In the event of breakdown of the automobile a horsed vehicle will be used and the same signal will apply. For the sake of myself and the other civilian, please instruct all officers to keep a sharp lookout and protect the party from being fired on."
"There," I said, "sign that and address it."
He hesitated. He couldn't doubt that his own arrangements with traitors on the staff to kidnap Feisul had gone amiss, else how should I be aware of them at all—I, who had only arrived that evening in Damascus? But it puzzled him to know why I should make him write the letter, or, since his plan must have failed, why I should let him share in the kidnapping. He smelt the obvious rat. Why didn't I sign the letter myself, and get all the credit afterward, as any other spy would do?
"You sign it," he said, pushing the letter toward me; and I got one of those sudden inspirations that there is no explaining—the right idea for handling fox Rene the banker.
"So you're afraid to sign that, are you? All right; give it here, I'll sign it; pass me your pen. But you'll come along with me tonight, my lad, and make your explanations to the French in the morning!"
Looking back, I can see how the accusation worked, although it was an arrow shot at a venture. His greasy, sly, fox face with its touch of bold impudence betrayed him for a man who would habitually hedge his bets. Feisul's safe-conduct had protected him from official interference, but it had needed more than that to preserve him from unofficial murder, and beyond a doubt he had betrayed the French in minor ways whenever that course looked profitable. Now in a crisis he had small choice but to establish himself as loyal to the stronger side. He hurriedly wrote a number at the bottom of the letter, and another followed by three capitals and three more figures at the top.
"Seal it up and send it—quick!" I ordered him.
He obeyed and Jeremy called the servant.
"Summon Francois," said the banker, and the servant disappeared again.
Francois must remain a mystery. He was insoluble. Dressed in a pair of baggy Turkish pants, with a red sash round his middle, knotted loosely over a woollen jersey that had wide horizontal black and yellow strips, with a grey woollen shawl over the lot, and a new tarboosh a size or two too small for him perched at an angle on his head, he stood shifting from one bare foot to the other and moved a toothless gap in his lower face in what was presumably a smile.
He had no nose that you could recognize, although there were two blow- holes in place of nostrils with a hideous long scar above them. One ear was missing. He had no eyebrows. But the remaining ear was pointed at the top like a satyr's, and his little beady eyes were as black as a bird's and inhumanly bright.
The banker spoke to him in the voice you would use to a rather spoilt child when obedience was all-important, using Arabic with a few French words thrown in.
"Ah, here is Francois. Good Francois! Francois, mon brave, here is a letter, eh? You know where to take it—eh? Ha-ha! Francois knows, doesn't he! Francois doesn't talk; he tells nobody; he's wise, is Francois! He runs, eh? He runs through the rain and the night; and he hides so that nobody can see him; and he delivers the letter; and somebody gives Francois money and tobacco and a little rum; and Francois comes running back to the nice little, dark little hole where he sleeps. Plenty to eat, eh, Francois? Nice soft food that needs no chewing! Nothing to do but run with a letter now and then, eh? A brave fellow is Francois—a clever fellow—a trustworthy fellow—a dependable, willing fellow, always ready to please! Ready to go?
"Well, there's the letter; be careful with it, and run-run-run like a good boy! A whole bottle of rum when you come back—think of it! A whole bottle of nice brown rum to yourself in that nice little room where your bed is! There, goodbye!"
The creature addressed as Francois vanished, with a snort and a sort of squeal that may have been meant for speech. "That is the best messenger in Syria," said Rene. "He is priceless—incorruptible, silent, and as sure as Destiny! The French General Staff will have that letter before dawn. Now—what next?"
"You come with me," I answered.
He felt better now that the message was on its way; second thought convinced him of my connection with the French. There is no more profitless delusion than to suppose that a country's secret agents are always its own nationals. They are almost always not.
If the French used only Frenchmen, Germany used none but Germans, Great Britain only Englishmen, and so on, it might be prettier and easier for the police, but intelligence departments would starve. So there was nothing about an obvious American doing spy-work for the French that should stick in his craw; and that being so, the more cheerfully he aided me the better it would likely be for him.
So he called for the servant again, and proved himself a good campaigner by superintending the packing of a big basket with provisions—bread and butter, cold chicken, wine, olives, and hot coffee in a thermos bottle.
"The French will be in Damascus by noon tomorrow," he said. "Ha-ha! Those French and their hungry Algerians! We do well to take a good provision with us—enough for two days at least. We shall enter with them, I suppose, or at least behind them, and of course my house here will receive consideration; but—ha-ha!—how many chickens do you believe will be purchasable in Damascus one hour after the first Algerians get here? Eh? Put in another chicken, Hassan, mon brave. Eh bien, oui—pack the basket full; put in more of everything!"
At last he got into an overcoat lined with fox-pelt, for the night air was chilly and an overcoat is less trouble than blankets if you expect to spend a night on the move. We hove the huge basket into the waiting auto, slammed the front door of the house behind us, piled into the back seat and were off.
"I shall be glad when this business is over," said Rene, with a sigh of satisfaction. "I am a banker by profession. For me the ebb and flow of trade, with its certainties and its discretions. But what would you? Trade must be prepared for; doors that will not open must be forced; those who stand in the way must be thrust aside. This Feisul is an impossible fellow. He is a hypocrite, I tell you—one of those praters about righteousness who won't understand that the church and the mosque are the places for that sort of thing. Eh? You follow me? But tell me, what has been done to Daulch, Hattin and Aubek? Were they backed against a wall and shot? Who betrayed them? Too bad that such a plan should fail, for it was perfect."
"Far from perfect," I answered; for that one piece of strategy I have by heart—the way to make a man tell all he knows is to pretend to superior knowledge.
"Heh? How could you improve on it? Three members of the staff to order sauve-qui-peut unexpectedly, seize Feisul, and deliver him dead or alive? What is better than that? But what has been done to the three?"
"Nothing," I answered.
"Just like him! just like him! I tell you, that man Feisul would rather be a martyr than succeed at his proper business." We reached the palace just as Feisul was leaving it. Several members of his staff were hard on his heels in the porch and our party was behind them again, with Mabel last of all. There was a line of waiting autos nearly long enough to fill the drive, but an utter absence of military fuss, and no shouting or hurry. It looked in the dark more like a funeral than the departure of a king to join his army at the front.