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Affair in Araby
by Talbot Mundy
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I remained in the car with the banker and sent Jeremy to report our doings to Grim. Presently I could see him standing under the porch lamp with a hand on Grim's shoulder, and I leaned out over the auto door to watch; but Rene the banker leaned back, snuggled up in his overcoat, liking neither to be seen nor to get his skin wet. I expected to see the three staff officers Daulch, Hattin and Aubek arrested there and then; but nothing happened, except that Feisul suddenly drove away with Mabel and Grim in the same car with him.

There followed a rush for the other cars, and the whole line started forward, Jeremy jumping in as our car passed the porch. "Daulch, Hattin and Aubek are at the front," he said, and began humming to himself.

"At the front?" demanded Rene, sitting upright suddenly. "At the front, you say? When did they leave for the front?"

"This evening," answered Jeremy.

You couldn't see his face in the dark, but I think he was chuckling.

"Strange!" said the banker. "Yet you say they have been betrayed—their plan is known—yet they left for the front this evening?"

It was pitch-dark inside the car, for the rain swished down in torrents and Jeremy fastened the flaps after he got in. Rene's change of expression was a thing that you could feel, not see. He kept perfect silence for about two minutes, while the car skidded and bumped at the rear of the procession. Then:

"You tell me that Feisul knows, and yet..."

"Oh, I didn't tell you that," laughed Jeremy. "It was this other man who said so. I never deceived anyone; I'm an honest fellow, I am. Remember, I warned you against him when we talked in the hotel; you can't blame me. I told you he was up to mischief. I advised you to keep a careful eye on him and to look twice at his paper! Wallah! You must be a lamb in foxskin. My master is a wolf in a woolly overcoat! Wait till you've seen him eat that chicken that you brought, and then you'll know what kind of a man he is!

"You see, you should have given me money when I asked you for it. I'm a fellow with a price, I am. Whoever pays my price gets his money's worth. If you'd had the sense to pay me more than this man does, I'd have helped you trick him instead of helping him trick you; but he gave me my wages before dinner and you gave me nothing, so here you are, and I wouldn't like to be keeping your pair of trousers warm! I tell you, this Ramsden effendi is an awful fellow, who will stick at nothing, and I'm worse because I'm honest and do what I'm paid to do!"

I took the precaution of putting my arm around Rene, for it was likely that he had another weapon hidden somewhere, and the obvious thing for him to do was to shoot the two of us and make a bolt for it. For a second I thought I felt his hand moving; but it was Jeremy's, searching all his pockets and feeling for hidden steel. So I pulled out a cigar and lit a match.

Of course, anyone's face looks ghastly by that sort of sudden light; but Rene's was a picture of hate, rage, baffled cunning and fear, such as I had never seen; his eyes looked like an animal's at bay, and the way his lips parted from his teeth conveyed the impression that he was searching his mind wildly for a desperate remedy that would ruin all concerned except himself.

But it was only a stale old recourse that he had. In a man's extremity he turns by instinct to his own tin gods for help, and you may read his whole heart and religion then.

"Very well; very well," he said, as if he were on the rack, speaking hurriedly to get it over with. "I make the sacrifice. You will find my money in an inner vest pocket underneath my vest. It is a life's savings. Take it, and let me go. It is not much—only a little—I am not a rich man—I had hoped to be, but it would mean a fortune to you no doubt. Take it and be merciful; give me back the smaller packet of the two, keep the larger, and let me go."

Out of curiosity I reached inside his vest and pulled out both packets. Jeremy struck a match. The smaller packet contained a draft on Paris for a quarter of a million francs. The larger held nothing but correspondence. I returned them to him.

"Listen!" I said. "I've never yet murdered a man, so if you provide me with another excuse for murdering you, you'll be a virgin victim. Keep that in mind!"



CHAPTER XV

"Catch the Alfies napping and kick hell out of 'em!"

You're no doubt familiar with the fact that the accounts given by two men who have witnessed a battle from the same angle will differ widely, not only in minor detail but in fundamentals; so you won't look to me for confirmation of any one of the countless stories that have seen the light of print, pretending to explain how the French won Damascus so easily and unexpectedly. I was only on the inside, looking outward as it were; the fellows on the outside, looking in, would naturally give a different explanation.

Then you must bear in mind that this is a day of "official" accounts that would make a limping dog of Ananias. When the General Staff of an invading army controls all the wires and all lines of communication you may believe what they choose to tell you, if you wish. But you don't have to, as they say in Maine. And I admit that all I saw was from a curtained auto as we swayed and bumped over broken roads, with an occasional interlude when Jeremy and I got out to lend our shoulders and help the Arab driver heave the car out of a slough.

My clearest memory is of that Arab—silent, stolid, staring like an owl straight forward most of the time—but a perfect marvel in emergencies, when he would suddenly spring to life, swear a living streak of brimstone blasphemy in high falsetto, and perform a driver's miracle.

By two flours after midnight we were running on four flat tires; and I've got the name of the maker of those wheels for future reference and use. One spring broke, but we went forward sailor-fashion, with a jury- rig of chain and rope, after getting more gas from some Christian monks, who swore they hadn't any and wept when one of Feisul's officers demonstrated that they lead. You couldn't see any monastery; I don't even know that there was one—nothing but lean faces with tonsured tops that nodded in unison and lied fearfully.

The gunfire began to be heavy about that time, although nothing like the thousand-throated bedlam of Flanders. As neither side could see the other and neither had any ranges marked, my guess is that the French were advertising their advance—doing a little propaganda that was cheap for all concerned except the tax-payers. And the Syrian army was shooting back crazily, sending over long shots on the off chance, more to encourage themselves than for any other reason.

The sensation was rather like riding in an ambulance away from the battle instead of toward it, for you couldn't see anything and you had a sense of helpless detachment from it all, as if a power you couldn't control were carrying you away from a familiar destiny to one that you couldn't imagine. It wasn't so much like a dream as like a different, real existence that you couldn't understand because it bore no kind of relation to anything in the past.

Anyhow, we bumped and blundered on until dawn came, streaked with wonderful rolling mist, and gave a glimpse at intervals of a wide plain sloping toward the west, with long lines of infantry and here and there guns extended across it in parallels drawn north and south.

The rifle firing started ten minutes after dawn, and it was all over in less than half an hour; but I can't describe exactly how the finish came, because the wind was toward us and the morning mist blew along in blanketing white masses that only allowed you a momentary glimpse and then shut off the view.

We were about a mile behind the firing-line and I couldn't see Feisul's car or any of the others. For the moment there was just one clear line of vision, straight from where I sat to the nearest infantry. I could see about fifty yards of the line and perhaps that many men; and they were blazing away furiously over a low earthwork, although I couldn't see a sign of the French. There was hardly any artillery firing at that time.

Suddenly without any obvious reason the men whose backs I was watching broke and ran. The mist obscured them instantly and the line of vision shifted, so that bit by bit I saw I dare say a mile of the firing line. The whole lot were running for their lives and, look where I would, there wasn't a sign of a Frenchman anywhere.

I should say it took about ten minutes for the first of them to reach the dirt road, where our autos stood hub-deep in mud, and by that time we had shoved and pulley-hauled them into movement, our engines making as much row as a nest of machine-guns as they struggled against the strain. We didn't want to be swamped under that tide of fugitives.

But they took no notice of us. They had thrown away their weapons and were running for home with eyes distended and nothing in mind but to put distance between there and the enemy. I jumped out of the car and seized one man.

"What are you running from? What has happened?" I demanded, holding him harder the more he struggled.

"Poison gas!" he gasped, and I let him go.

I thought I caught a whiff of the darned stuff then, but that may have been imagination.

"Poison gas!" I said, returning to the car, and Rene made a fine exhibition of himself, smothering his head under the foxlined overcoat and screaming.

He got right down on the floor of the car and lay there huddled and gasping—which may have been a sensible precaution; I don't know. There was no time just then to bother with him.

The flukey morning breeze shifted several points. The mist curled suddenly and began to flow diagonally across our line of cars instead of toward us, and from one moment to the next you could see straight along the road for maybe a mile or more. There was a sight worth seeing— Feisul's cavalry in full rout—running away from ghosts by the look of it—their formation hardly yet broken, horse and man racing with the wind and a scattering of unhorsed fugitives streaming behind like a comet's tail.

According to Grim, who should know, that cavalry division was the kingpin of Feisul's plan. He had intended to lead a raid in person, swooping down the French flank to their rear; but the three staff traitors, Daulch, Hattin and Aubck, sent forward the previous evening to place the division and hold it ready, had simply tipped the French off to the whole plan and at the critical moment of Feisul's arrival on the scene had ordered the sauve-qui-peut. I don't believe the French used more than a can or two of gas. I don't believe they had more than a few cans of it so far advanced.

But the sauve-qui-peut might have been useless without Feisul's capture, for he was just the man to rally a routed army and snatch victory out of a defeat. Nobody knew better than Feisul the weakness of the French communications, and the work of those three traitors was only half done when the cavalry took to its heels. The one man who could possibly save the day had to be bagged and handed over.

I didn't realize all that, of course, in the twinkling of an eye, as they say you do in a climax. Maybe I've never faced a climax. I'm no psychologist and not at all given to review of sudden situations in the abstract.

There was a fight, or a riot, or something like it going on near the head of our line of autos. The first two or three had come to a standstill; several in the middle of the line were trying to wheel outward and bolt for it behind the fleeing cavalry, and those at the tail end were blocked by one that had broken down. Of course everybody was yelling at the top of his lungs and the hurrying shreds of blown mist further confounded the confusion.

So Jeremy and I ran forward, plunging through the mud and knocking over whoever blocked our way. It was rather fun—like the football field at school. But one man—a Syrian officer—stood near the last of the forward cars with the evident purpose of standing off interference. He took careful aim at me with a revolver, fired point-blank, and missed.

I forgot all about my own pistol and went for him with a laugh and a yell of sheer exhilaration. There's an eighth of a ton of me, mostly bone and muscle, so it isn't a sinecure to have to stop my fist when the rest of the bulk is under way behind it. I landed so hard on his nose, and with such tremendous impetus, that he hadn't enough initial stability to take the impact and bring me up on my feet. He went down like a ninepin, I on top of him, laughing with mud in my teeth, and Jeremy landed on top of the two of us, holding the skirts of his cloak in both hands as he jumped.

Jeremy picked up the fellow's revolver and threw it out of sight, and the two of us ran on again—too late by now to help in the emergency, but in time for the next event.

Grim had managed everything, although he was bleeding, and smiling serenely through the blood. Hadad was there, not smiling at all, but bleached white with excitement; he had brought a number of Arab officers with him, six or seven of whom were standing on the running- board of the front car and all arguing with Feisul, who sat back with his feet and hands tied, guarded by Narayan Singh.

At Grim's feet—dead, with bullets through their heads—were three Syrian staff officers. They were the traitors Daulch, Hattin and Aubek. Grim's pistol was in his right hand and had been used.

There had been a first-class fight, all over in two minutes; for the traitors hadn't arrived on the scene without assistants. Unfortunately for them, Hadad had turned up at the same moment with his loyalists. Narayan Singh had jumped from the car behind and seized Feisul, thrown him to the floor out of the path of bullets, and tied his arms. It was actually Mabel, hardly realizing what she was doing but obeying the Sikh's orders yelled in her ear as he struggled to keep his wiry prisoner down, who tied the king's feet, using her Arab girdle.

Feisul, of course, was all for dying at the head of a remnant of his men. That would be the first impulse of any decent leader in like circumstance. But his loyal friends, eager to die with him if they must, but unwilling to die at all if there were an alternative, were overwhelming him with streams of words and promises. Suddenly two of them jumped into the car and began to untie his arms and feet. Grim, looking swiftly to right and left, saw Jeremy and pounced on him so fiercely that an onlooker might have guessed another fight to the death was under way. Too excited to say what he had in mind, he tugged at Jeremy's clothes.

"I get you, Jim—I get you!" Jeremy laughed gaily, and in ten seconds had stripped himself down to his underwear.

Hadad must have been discussing details of the plan with Grim along the road; for he got busy at the same time, persuading Feisul to part with his garments—not that his consent really mattered at the moment; they were pulled off him by half a dozen hands at once, and Jeremy had the best of that bargain all right, for in addition to silk headdress and a fine black Arab full-dress coat, there was linen of a sort you can't buy—better stuff than bishops wear and clean, which Jeremy's own wasn't.

The time it takes to read this gives a totally false impression of the speed. The whole thing took place, I should say, within two minutes from the time when I punched that Syrian's nose until Mabel and Narayan Singh stood beside me watching Hadad, two more Arabs and Feisul drive away, with a second car crowded full of loyalists in close attendance.

By that time Jeremy was dressed in Feisul's clothes; and though he didn't look a bit like Feisul from a yard away, in the mist at ten yards, provided you were looking for Feisul, you'd have taken your Bible oath he was the man; for he had the gesture and mannerism copied to perfection.

However, standing there wasn't going to increase the real Feisul's chance of escaping. The sooner we got caught, the quicker the French would discover that our man had given them the slip. Our business was to give the French a long chase in the wrong direction, and those bogged autos weren't ideal for the purpose.

But they were the only means in sight just then, and we had to bear in mind that message I had made Rene send, warning the French to look out for an auto with a white flag and two civilians together with Feisul and Lawrence. So we picked out the two best that remained, pitched Rene and his basket of provisions into the front one with Mabel and Jeremy, piled Narayan Singh in after them to take my place as the second civilian, and started them off straight forward, Grim and I following in a second car after I had paid our former Arab driver handsomely and sent him off grinning to give a lift to as many runaways as the car would hold.

We learned afterward that the rascal made a fortune, charging as much as fifty pounds sterling for the trip halfway back to Damascus, at which point the car collapsed. They say he carried eleven officers that far, bought two wives with the proceeds and escaped all the way to a village near Mecca, where his home was.

You know how bewildering and tricky those early mists are when they start to roll up before the wind. We had hardly got going when the whole mass seemed to shift in one great cloud, covering the fleeing troops and incidentally Feisul, but leaving us in our two autos high and dry, as it were, in full view of the French. And they were advancing by that time.

I couldn't see more than a division of them that we would have to reckon with—nearly all Algerians—and they looked dead-weary. I guess they had forced the pace in advance of the main body in order to take advantage of the treason of Feisul's officers. They came slouching forward with their rifles at the trail and a screen of skirmishers thrown out a quarter of a mile or so ahead.

There were cavalry and guns far off on their right, evidently trying to work around to the flank of the fleeing array, but those were much too far away to trouble us and were going in the wrong direction. Rolling banks of mist shut off the farther view to westward and there was no guessing where the main French force might be, and for all I know it hadn't started from the coast yet.

Fortune came to our rescue with one riderless horse, a splendid Arab gelding tied by the bridle to the wheel of a water-cart and left behind in the stampede. Jeremy appropriated it, riding Arab fashion with short stirrups, and I wouldn't have blamed Feisul's own brother for falsely identifying him at ten yards. He was born mischievous and he caricatured Feisul on horseback as if he were acting for the movies.

I guess the French officers had good glasses with them, for Jeremy had hardly mounted when the advancing Algerians opened a hot fire on us. The whole division surely wouldn't have blazed away, with machine-guns and all, at two cars and a man on horseback unless someone had passed the word along that Feisul was in full view.

So Grim and I abandoned our car, driver and all, and jumped into Jeremy's place. It wasn't more than two hundred yards to the top of a gentle rise, over which we disappeared from view; and just as we bumped over it I wrenched out the white tablecloth in which Rene's chicken and stuff was wrapped and waved it violently.

Then, Lord, what a sight! Below us, sheltered between two flanking hillocks, was about a division of Feisul's Arab infantry, packing up sulkily, preparing to follow the retreat. It was a safe bet the French didn't know they were there, and I dare say the same thought occurred to every one of us the same instant. Mabel thought of it. I know I did. But Jeremy voiced it first, heeling his horse up beside us.

"What do you say, Jim? I bet you I can rally that gang. Shall I lead 'em and lick hell out of the Algies?"

But Grim shook his head.

"You might, but the game is to pull the plug properly. Get this lot on the run. The less fighting, the less risk of drasticism when the French get to Damascus. Chase 'em off home!"

So Jeremy did it; and that, I believe, accounts for a story that got in the newspapers about Feisul trying to spring a surprise on the French at the last minute. Some French officers in armored cars came over the brow of the hill in pursuit of us—three cars, three officers, three machine-guns, and about a dozen men. One car quit on the hill-top, so I suppose it broke down, but its occupants must have seen Jeremy careering up and down the line encouraging those sulky Arabs to get a move on, and I suppose they told tales afterwards to a newspaper correspondent at the base.

Anyhow, the two pursuing armored cars didn't dare come near enough to be dangerous until we had followed the retreating Arab regiments for about a mile, and the Algerians appeared over the hill-top, coming very slowly. A long-range rifle-fire commenced, the Arabs returning it scrappily as they retreated; and we made believe there were other regiments to be shepherded, steering a northward course downhill toward broken ground that couldn't have suited our purpose better. By the way those armored cars came after us, keeping their distance, it was clear enough that they suspected an ambush.

So we had a clear start and led them a dance in and out among boulders and the branches of a watercourse, Jeremy galloping ahead to spy a course out. Whenever they came in view we acted a little piece for them, making Rene wave the white cloth while I protected him and held off Mabel and Grim, who went through the motions of trying to brain me with pistol butts.

Two or three times they opened fire, more by way of forcing a surrender, I think, than with any intention of hitting us; they wanted to take Feisul alive. It was like a game of fox and geese, and with Jeremy scouting ahead we could have kept them dodging us for hours if we hadn't run out of gas.

Then we abandoned the car and took refuge in a cave that stank as if it had been a tomb for generations. The French drew up their cars fifty yards away with machine-guns covering the cave mouth; and after we were sure they weren't going to squirt a stream of lead at us, I went out with the tablecloth to negotiate terms.

I didn't want to go, but Grim seemed to think they'd understand my French.

Of course, there wasn't anything really to argue about, but I played for time, because every minute was of value to the real Feisul, speeding on his way to British territory. The French officer who did the talking for his side—a little squat, pale, pug-faced fellow, who gave the impression of having risen from the ranks without learning polite manners on the way, agreed to accept our surrender and spare our lives for the time being; and by that time the smell in the cave had nearly overcome our party, so they all marched out.

And Lord! The French captain was spiteful when he discovered that Jeremy wasn't Feisul after all. He swore like a wet cat, accused Mabel of being a spy, took away our basket of provisions, and I think would have shot Jeremy out of hand if Jeremy hadn't started clowning and made the other Frenchmen laugh.

Laughter and murder no more mix than oil and water. He did what he called a harem dance for them, misusing his stomach outrageously, and the incongruity of that by a descendant of the Prophet took all the sting out of the situation. But they burned our abandoned car in sheer ill temper before crowding us into their own. And they shot the good horse.

The joy-ride that followed was rather like the kind they give pigs on the way to the sausage shop—hurried and not intended to be mirthful.

"What's the use of losing tempers?" I asked Captain Jacques Daudet, who had captured us.

He sat on my knees, with his pistol pressed against my chest. "Why not regard the whole thing as a joke? You've done your best and nobody can blame you. Besides, what can possibly happen? What do you suppose they'll do to us?"

He shrugged his shoulders and his little cold blue eyes met mine.

"You will all be shot, of course," he answered. "After that..."

He shrugged his shoulders again. But he cast no gloom; for Jeremy kept the lot of us, French too, excepting Daudet, in roars of laughter for ten miles until we reached temporary headquarters, where a born gentleman in a peaked red cap with gold on it sat on a camp-stool directing things.

He recognized Grim at the first glance and knew him for an American in British service. He looked Grim in the eye and smiled. We told our story in turns, interrupting one another and being interrupted by Rene. The officer turned on the banker savagely, ordered him sent to the rear, and smiled at Grim again.

Then he picked up the banker's belongings, including the two packages, and tossed them after him with an air of utter contempt.

Whereat he smiled at all of us.

"And you are quite sure that the Emir Feisul has escaped?" he asked.

"Well, there are those whom the news will annoy, which is too bad, but can't be helped. For myself, I cannot say that I shall shed tears. Madame..." He looked straight at Mabel. "Major..." He met Grim's eyes and smiled. "Messieurs ..." It was my turn, and Narayan Singh's; his steady stare was good and made you feel like shaking hands with him. "Monsieur Scapin (Clown)..." That was meant for Jeremy, and they both laughed. "You have been adroit, but do you think I could depend on your discretion?"

We did our best to look discreet.

"You see, Madame et Messieurs, this is not warfare. We desire to accomplish a definite object with as little unpleasantness as possible. I shall regret the necessity of sending you to Beirut, but that is for your safety. An additional and very sound precaution which you yourselves might take would be to preserve complete silence regarding the events of the last two days. Subject to that condition, you will be given facilities for leaving Beirut by sea in any direction you may wish. Do we understand one another? Good! Now, let me see whether I have your names correctly."

He carefully wrote them down all wrong, described us as noncombatants, who should be allowed to leave the country, warned Jeremy that in a king's clothes he looked too "intriguing," provided plain clothes for him, returned our belongings (except the basket of provisions, which he kept) and sent us off in an ambulance on the first leg of the journey to Beirut, whence we got away in a coastwise steamer within the week. "Not all the French are swabs!" said Jeremy grievously as we took our leave of him.

Grim agreed.

"Not all of 'em. Let's see—there was the Marne, the Aisne, the Somme, Verdun..."

The End

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