AFFAIR IN ARABY
by Talbot Mundy
"I'll make one to give this Feisul boy a hoist"
Whoever invented chess understood the world's works as some men know clocks and watches. He recognized a fact and based a game on it, with the result that his game endures. And what he clearly recognized was this: That no king matters much as long as your side is playing a winning game. You can leave your king in his corner then to amuse himself in dignified unimportance. But the minute you begin to lose, your king becomes a source of anxiety.
In what is called real life (which is only a great game, although a mighty good one) it makes no difference what you call your king. Call him Pope if you want to, or President, or Chairman. He grows in importance in proportion as the other side develops the attack. You've got to keep your symbol of authority protected or you lose.
Nevertheless, your game is not lost as long as your king can move. That's why the men who want to hurry up and start a new political era imprison kings and cut their heads off. With no head on his shoulders your king can only move in the direction of the cemetery, which is over the line and doesn't count.
I love a good fight, and have been told I ought to be ashamed of it. I've noticed, though, that the folk who propose to elevate my morals fight just as hard, and less cleanly, with their tongue than some of us do with our fists and sinews. I'm told, too, quite frequently that as an American I ought to be ashamed of fighting for a king. Dear old ladies of both sexes have assured me that it isn't moral to give aid and comfort to a gallant gentleman—a godless Mohammedan, too; which makes it much worse—who is striving gamely and without malice to keep his given word and save his country.
But if you've got all you want, do you know of any better fun than lending a hand while some man you happen to like gets his? I don't. Of course, some fellows want too much, and it's bad manners as well as waste of time to inflict your opinion on them. But given a reasonable purpose and a friend who needs your assistance, is there any better sport on earth than risking your own neck to help him put it over?
Walk wide of the man and particularly of the woman, who makes a noise about lining your pocket or improving your condition. An altruist is my friend James Schuyler Grim, but he makes less noise than a panther on a dark night; and I never knew a man less given to persuading you. He has one purpose, but almost never talks about it. It's a sure bet that if we hadn't struck up a close friendship, sounding each other out carefully as opportunity occurred, I would have been in the dark about it until this minute.
All the news of Asia from Alexandretta to the Persian Gulf and from Northern Turkestan to South Arabia reaches Grim's ears sooner or later. He earns his bread and butter knitting all that mess of cross-grained information into one intelligible pattern; after which he interprets it and acts suddenly without advance notices.
Time and again, lone-handed, he has done better than an army corps, by playing chief against chief in a land where the only law is individual interpretation of the Koran.
But it wasn't until our rescue of Jeremy Ross from near Abu Kem, that I ever heard Grim come out openly and admit that he was working to establish Feisul, third son of the King of Mecca, as king of just as many Arabs as might care to have him over them. That was the cat he had been keeping in a bag for seven years.
Right down to the minute when Grim, Jeremy and I sat down with Ben Saoud the Avenger on a stricken field at Abu Kem, and Grim and Jeremy played their hands so cleverly that the Avenger was made, unwitting guardian of Jeremy's secret gold-mine, and Feisul's open and sworn supporter in the bargain, the heart of Grim's purpose continued to be a mystery even to me; and I have been as intimate with him as any man.
He doles out what he has in mind as grudgingly as any Scot spends the shillings in his purse. But the Scots are generous when they have to be, and so is Grim. There being nothing else for it on that occasion, he spilled the beans, the whole beans, and nothing but the beans. Having admitted us two to his secret, he dilated on it all the way back to Jerusalem, telling us all he knew of Feisul (which would fill a book), and growing almost lyrical at times as he related incidents in proof of his contention that Feisul, lineal descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, is the "whitest" Arab and most gallant leader of his race since Saladin.
Knowing Grim and how carefully suppressed his enthusiasm usually is, I couldn't help being fired by all he said on that occasion.
And as for Jeremy, well—it was like meat and drink to him. You meet men more or less like Jeremy Ross in any of earth's wild places, although you rarely meet his equal for audacity, irreverence and riotous good-fellowship. He isn't the only Australian by a long shot who upholds Australia by fist and boast and astounding gallantry, yet stays away from home. You couldn't fix Jeremy with concrete; he'd find some means of bursting any mould.
He had been too long lost in the heart of Arabia for anything except the thought of Sydney Bluffs and the homesteads that lie beyond to tempt him for the first few days.
"You fellers come with me," he insisted. "You chuck the Army, Grim, and I'll show you a country where the cows have to bend their backs to let the sun go down. Ha-ha! Show you women too—red-lipped girls in sunbonnets, that'll look good after the splay-footed crows you see out here. Tell you what: We'll pick up the Orient boat at Port Said—no P. and O. for me; I'm a passenger aboard ship, not a horrible example!— and make a wake for the Bull's Kid. Murder! Won't the scoff taste good!
"We'll hit the Bull's Kid hard for about a week—mix it with the fellers in from way back—you know—dry-blowers, pearlers, spending it easy— handing their money to Bessie behind the bar and restless because she makes it last too long; watch them a while and get in touch with all that's happening; then flit out of Sydney like bats out of—and hump blue—eh?"
"Something'll turn up; it always does. I've got money in the bank— about, two thousand here in gold dust with me,—and if what you say's true, Grim, about me still being a trooper, then the Army owes me three years' back pay, and I'll have it or go to Buckingham Palace and tear off a piece of the King! We're capitalists, by Jupiter! Besides, you fellers agreed that if I shut down the mine at Abu Kem you'd join me and we'd be Grim, Ramsden and Ross."
"I'll keep the bargain if you hold me to it when the time comes," Grim answered.
"You bet I'll hold you to it! Rammy here, and you and I could trade the chosen people off the map between us. We're a combination. What's time got to do with it?"
"We've got to use your mine," Grim answered.
"I'm game. But let's see Australia first."
"Suppose we fix up your discharge, and you go home," Grim suggested. "Come back when you've had a vacation, and by that time Ramsden and I will have done what's possible for Feisul. He's in Damascus now, but the French have got him backed into a corner. No money—not much ammunition—French propaganda undermining the allegiance of his men— time working against him, and nothing to do but wait."
"What in hell have the French got to do with it?"
"They want Syria. They've got the coast towns now. They mean to have Damascus; and if they can catch Feisul and jail him to keep him out of mischief they will."
"But damn it! Didn't they promise the Arabs that Feisul should be King of Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and all that?"
"They did. The Allies all promised, France included. But since the Armistice the British have made a present of Palestine to the Jews, and the French have demanded Syria for themselves. The British are pro-Feisul, but the French don't want him anywhere except dead or in jail. They know they've given him and the Arabs a raw deal; and they seem to think the simplest way out is to blacken Feisul's character and ditch him. If the French once catch him in Damascus he's done for and the Arab cause is lost."
"Why lost?" demanded Jeremy. "There are plenty more Arabs."
"But only one Feisul. He's the only man who can unite them all."
"I know a chance for him," said Jeremy. "Let him come with us three to Australia. There are thousands of fellers there who fought alongside him and don't care a damn for the French. They'll raise all the hell there is before they'll see him ditched."
"Uh-huh! London's the place for him," Grim answered. "The British like him, and they're ashamed of the way he's been treated. They'll give him Mesopotamia. Baghdad's the old Arab capital, and that'll do for a beginning; after that it's up to the Arabs themselves."
"Well? Where does my gold mine come in?" Jeremy asked.
"Feisul has no money. If it was made clear to him that he could serve the Arabs best by going to London, he'd consider it. The objection would be, though, that he'd have to make terms in advance with hog-financiers, who'd work through the Foreign Office to tie up all the oil and mine and irrigation concessions. If we tell him privately about your gold mine at Abu Kem he can laugh at financiers."
"All right," said Jeremy, "I'll give him the gold mine. Let him erect a modern plant and he'll have millions!"
"Uh-huh! Keep the mine secret. Let him go to London and arrange about Mespot. Just at present High Finance could find a hundred ways of disputing his title to the mine, but once he's king with the Arabs all rooting for him things'll be different. He'll treat you right when that time comes, don't worry."
"Worry? Me?" said Jeremy. "All that worries me is having to see this business through before we can make a wake for Sydney. I'm homesick. But never mind. All right, you fellers, I'll make one to give this Feisul boy a hoist!"
"Atcha, Jimgrim sahib! Atcha!"
That conversation and Jeremy's conversion to the big idea took place on the way across the desert to Jerusalem—a journey that took us a week on camel-back—a rowdy, hot journey with the stifling simoom blowing grit into our followers' throats, who sang and argued alternately nevertheless. For, besides our old Ali Baba and his sixteen sons and grandsons, there were Jeremy's ten pickups from Arabia's byways, whom he couldn't leave behind because they knew the secret of his gold-mine.
Grim's authority is always at its height on the outbound trail, for then everybody knows that success, and even safety, depends on his swift thinking; on the way home afterward reaction sets in sometimes, because Arabs are made light-headed by success, and it isn't a simple matter to discipline free men when you have no obvious hold over them.
But that was where Jeremy came in. Jeremy could do tricks, and the Arabs were like children when he performed for them. They would be good if he would make one live chicken into two live ones by pulling it apart. They would pitch the tents without fighting if he would swallow a dozen eggs and produce them presently from under a camel's tail. If he would turn on his ventriloquism and make a camel say its prayers, they were willing to forgive—for the moment anyhow—even their nearest enemies.
So we became a sort of travelling sideshow, with Jeremy ballyhooing for himself in an amazing flow of colloquial Arabic, and hardly ever repeating the same trick.
All of which was very good for our crowd and convenient at the moment, but hardly so good for Jeremy's equilibrium. He is one of those handsome, perpetually youthful fellows, whose heads have been a wee mite turned by the sunshine of the world's warm smile. I don't mean by that that he isn't a tophole man, or a thorough-going friend with guts and gumption, who would chance his neck for anyone he likes without a second's hesitation, for he's every bit of that. He has horse sense, too, and isn't fooled by the sort of flattery that women lavish on men who have laughing eyes and a little dark moustache.
But he hasn't been yet in a predicament that he couldn't laugh or fight his way out of; he has never yet found a job that he cared to stick at for more than a year or two, and seldom one that could hold him for six months.
He jumps from one thing to another, finding all the world so interesting and amusing, and most folk so ready to make friends with him, that he always feels sure of landing softly somewhere over the horizon.
So by the time we reached Jerusalem friend Jeremy was ripe for almost anything except the plan we had agreed on. Having talked that over pretty steadily most of the way from Abu Kem, it seemed already about as stale and unattractive to him as some of his oldest tricks. And Jerusalem provided plenty of distraction. We hadn't been in Grim's quarters half an hour when Jeremy was up to his ears in a dispute that looked like separating us.
Grim, who wears his Arab clothes from preference and never gets into uniform if he can help it, went straight to the telephone to report briefly to headquarters. I took Jeremy upstairs to discard my Indian disguise and hunt out clothes for Jeremy that would fit him, but found none, I being nearly as heavy as Grim and Jeremy together. He had finished clowning in the kit I offered him, and had got back into his Arab things while I was shaving off the black whiskers with which Nature adorns my face whenever I neglect the razor for a few days, when an auto came tooting and roaring down the narrow street, and a moment later three staff officers took the stairs at a run. So far, good; that was unofficial, good-natured, human and entirely decent. The three of them burst through the bed room door, all grins, and took turns pumping with Jeremy's right arm—glad to see him—proud to know him—pleased to see him looking fit and well, and all that kind of thing. Even men who had fought all through the war had forgotten some of its red tape by that time, and Jeremy not being in uniform they treated him like a fellow human being. And he reciprocated, Australian fashion, free and easy, throwing up his long legs on my bed and yelling for somebody to bring drinks for the crowd, while they showered questions on him.
It wasn't until Jeremy turned the tables and began to question them that the first cloud showed itself.
"Say, old top," he demanded of a man who wore the crossed swords of a brigadier. "Grim tells me I'm a trooper. When can I get my discharge?"
The effect was instantaneous. You would have thought they had touched a leper by the way they drew themselves up and changed face.
"Never thought of that. Oh, I say—this is a complication. You mean...?"
"I mean this," Jeremy answered dryly, because nobody could have helped notice their change of attitude: "I was made prisoner by Arabs and carried off. That's more than three years ago. The war's over. Grim tells me all Australians have been sent home and discharged. What about me?"
"Um-m-m! Ah! This will have to be considered. Let's see; to whom did you surrender?"
"Damn you, I didn't surrender! I met Grim in the desert, and reported to him for duty."
"Met Major Grim, eh?"
"Yes," said Grim, appearing in the door. "I came across him in the desert; he reported for duty; I gave him an order, and he obeyed it. Everything's regular."
"Um-m-m! How'd you make that out—regular? Have you any proof he wasn't a deserter? He'll have to be charged with desertion and tried by court martial, I'm afraid. Possibly a mere formality, but it'll have to be done, you know, before he can be given a clear discharge. If he can't be proved guilty of desertion he'll be cleared."
"How long will that take?" Jeremy demanded.
His voice rang sharp with the challenge note that means debate has ceased and quarrel started. It isn't the right note for dissolving difficulties.
"Couldn't tell you," said the brigadier. "My advice to you is to keep yourself as inconspicuous as possible until the administrator gets back."
It was good advice, but Grim, standing behind the brigadier, made signals to Jeremy in vain. Few Australians talk peace when there is no peace, and when there's a fight in prospect they like to get it over.
"I remember you," said Jeremy, speaking rather, slowly, and throwing in a little catchy laugh that was like a war-cry heard through a microphone. "You were the Fusileer major they lent to the Jordan Highlanders—fine force that—no advance without security—lost two men, if I remember—snakebite one; the other shot for looting. Am I right? So they've made you a brigadier! Aren't you the staff officer they sent to strafe a regiment of Anzacs for going into action without orders? We chased you to cover! I can see you now running for fear we'd shoot you! Hah!"
Grim took the only course possible in the circumstances. The brigadier's neck was crimson, and Jeremy had to be saved somehow.
"Touch of sun, sir—that and hardship have unhinged him a bit. Suffers from delusions. Suppose I keep him here until the doctor sees him?"
"Um-m-m! Ah! Yes, you'd better. See he gets no whisky, will you? Too bad! Too bad! What a pity!"
Our three visitors left in a hurry, contriving to look devilish important. Grim followed them out.
"Rammy, old cock," said Jeremy, sprawling on the bed again and laughing, "don't look all that serious. Bring back your brigadier and I'll kiss him on both cheeks while you hold him! But say; suppose that doctor's one of these swabs who serve out number nine pills for shell-shock, broken leg, dyspepsia, housemaid's knee and the creeping itch? Suppose he swears I'm luny? What then?"
"Grim will find somebody to swear to anything once," I answered. "But you look altogether too dashed healthy—got to give the doctor-man a chance—here, get between the sheets and kid that something hurts you."
"Get out! The doe 'ud put a cast-iron splint on it, and order me into a hospital. How about toothache? That do? Do they give you bread and water for it?"
So toothache was selected as an alibi, and Jeremy wrapped his jaw in a towel, after jabbing his cheek with a pin so as to remember on which side the pain should be. But it was artifice wasted, for Grim had turned a better trick. He had found an Australian doctor in the hospital for Sikhs—the only other Australian in Jerusalem just then— and brought him cooee-ing upstairs in a way that proved he knew the whole story already.
The autopsy, as he called it, was a riot. We didn't talk of anything but fights at Gaza—the surprise at Nazareth, when the German General Staff fled up the road on foot in its pyjamas—the three-day scrap at Nebi Samwil, when Australians and Turks took and retook the same hill half a dozen times, and parched enemies took turns drinking from one flask while the shells of both sides burst above them. It seems to have been almost like old-fashioned war in Palestine from their account of it, either side conceding that the other played the game.
When they had thrashed the whole campaign over from start to finish, making maps on my bed with hair brushes, razors and things, they got to talking of Australia; and that was all about fighting too: dog fights, fist fights between bullockies on the long road from Northern Queensland, riots in Perth when the pearlers came in off the Barrier Reef to spend their pay, rows in the big shearing sheds when the Union men objected to unskilled labour—you'd have thought Australia was one big battlefield, with nothing else but fights worth talking of from dawn till dark.
The doctor was one of those tightly-knit, dark-complexioned little men with large freckles and brown eyes, who surprise you with a mixture of intense domestic virtue and a capacity, that shouldn't mix with it at all, for turning up in all the unexpected places. You meet his sort everywhere, and they always have a wife along, who worships them and makes a home out of tin cans and packing-cases that would put the stay-at-home housekeepers to shame. They always have a picture on the wall of cows standing knee-deep in the water, and no matter what their circumstances are, there's always something in reserve, for guests, offered frankly without apology. Never hesitate with those folk, but don't let them go too far, for they'll beggar themselves to help you in a tight place, if you'll let them. Ticknor his name was. He's a good man.
"Say, Grim, there's a case in the Sikh hospital that ought to interest you," he said at last. "Fellow from Damascus—Arab—one of Feisul's crowd. He wouldn't let them take him to the Zionist hospital—swore a Jew knifed him and that the others would finish the job if they got half a chance. They'd have been arguing yet, and he dead and buried, if I hadn't gone shopping with Mabel. She saw the crowd first (I was in Noureddin's store) and jabbed her way in with her umbrella—she yelled to me and I bucked the line.
"The Jews wanted to tell me I had no right to take that chap to the Sikh hospital, and no more had I; so I plugged him up a bit, and put him in a cab, and let him take himself there, Mabel and me beside him. Seeing I was paying for the cab, I didn't see why Mabel should walk. Of course, once we had him in there he was too sick to be moved; but the Army won't pay for him, so I sent a bill to the Zionists, and they returned it with a rude remark on the margin. Maybe I can get the money out of Feisul some day; otherwise I'm stuck."
"I'll settle that," said Grim. "What's the tune he plays?"
"Utter mystery. Swears a Jew stabbed him, but that Damascus outfit blame the Jews for everything. He's only just down from Damascus. I think he's one of Feisul's officers, although he's not in uniform— prob'ly on a secret mission. Suppose you go and see him? But say, watch out for the doc on duty—he's a meddler. Tell him nothing!"
"Sure. How about Jeremy? What's the verdict?"
"What do you want done with him?"
"I want him out of reach of trouble here pending his discharge. No need to certify him mad, is there?"
"Mad? All Australians are mad. None of us need a certificate for that. Have you arrested him?"
"Then you're too late! He's suffering from bad food and exposure. The air of Jerusalem's bad for him, and he's liable to get pugnacious if argued with. That runs in the blood. I order him off duty, and shall recommend him within twenty minutes to the P.M.O. for leave of absence at his own expense. If you know of any general who dares override the P.M.O. I'll show you a brass hat in the wind. Come on; d'you want to bet on it?"
"Will the P.M.O. fall?" asked Grim.
"Like a new chum off a brumby. Signs anything I shove under his nose. Comes round to our house to eat Mabel's damper and syrup three nights a week. You bet he'll sign it: Besides, he's white; pulled out of the firing-line by an Australian at Gaza, and hasn't forgotten it. He'd sign anything but checks to help an Anzac. I'll be going.
"You trot up to the slaughter-shop, Grim, and interview that Arab—Sidi bin Something-or-Other—forget his name—he lies in number nineteen cot on the left-hand side of the long ward, next to a Pathan who's shy both legs. You can't mistake him. I'll write out a medical certificate for Jeremy and follow. And say; wait a minute! What price the lot of you eating Mabel's chow tonight at our house? We don't keep a cook, so you won't get poisoned. That's settled; I'll tell Mabel you're coming. Tootleloo!"
But there was a chance that the brigadier might carry resentment to the point of sending up a provost-marshal's guard to arrest Jeremy on the well-known principle that a bird in the hand can be strafed more easily than one with a medical certificate. The bush was the place for our bird until such time as the P.M.O.'s signature should adorn the necessary piece of paper; so we three rode up in a cab together to the Sikh hospital, and had a rare time trying to get in.
You see, there was a Sikh on guard outside, who respected nothing under heaven but his orders. He wouldn't have known Grim in any event, being only recently from India; Grim's uniform would have passed him in, but he and Jeremy were still arrayed as Arabs, and my civilian clothes entitled me in the sentry's opinion to protection lest I commit the heinous sin of impertinence. An Arab in his eyes was as an insect, and a white man, who consorted with such creatures, not a person to be taken seriously.
But our friend Narayan Singh was in the hospital, enjoying the wise veteran's prerogative of resting on full pay after his strenuous adventures along with us at Abu Kem. There was nothing whatever the matter with him. He recognized Grim's voice and emerged through the front door with a milk-white smile flashing in the midst of newly-curled black hair—dignified, immense, and full of instant understanding.
Grim said a few words to Narayan Singh in Arabic, which so far as the sentry was concerned wasn't a language, but Narayan Singh spoke in turn in Punjabi, and the man just out from India began to droop like Jonah's gourd under the old soldier's scorn.
In consequence we got a full salute with arms presented, and walked in without having to trouble anybody in authority, Narayan Singh leading with the air of an old-time butler showing royalty to their rooms. He even ascertained in an aside, that the doctor of the day was busy operating, and broke that good news with consummate tact:
"The sahibs' lightest wish is law, but if they should wish to speak with the doctor sahib, it would be necessary to call him forth from the surgery, where he works behind locked doors. Is it desired that I should summon him?"
"Operation serious?" asked Grim, and neither man smiled. It was perfect acting.
"Very, sahib. He removes the half of a sepoy's liver."
"Uh! Couldn't think of interrupting him. Too bad! Lead the way."
But we didn't enter the ward until Narayan Singh and an orderly had placed two screens around number nineteen cot, in the way they do when a man is dying, and had placed three chairs at the bedside contrary to the regulations printed on the wall. Then Narayan Singh stood on guard outside the screens, but didn't miss much of the conversation, I believe.
The man in bed was wounded badly, but not fatally, and though his eyes blazed with fever he seemed to have some of his wits about him. He recognized Grim after staring hard at him for about a minute.
"Sidi bin Tagim, isn't it? Well, well I thought it might be you," said Grim, speaking the northern dialect of Arabic, which differs quite a bit from that spoken around Jerusalem.
"Who are these?" asked the man in bed, speaking hoarsely as he stared first at Jeremy and then at me.
"Jmil Ras, a friend of mine," Grim answered.
"And that one?"
He didn't like the look of me at all. Western clothes and a shaven face spell nothing reassuring to the Arab when in trouble; he has been "helped" by the foreigner a time or two too often.
"An American named Ramsden. Also a friend of mine."
"Oh! An Amirikani? A hakim?"
"No. Not a doctor. Not a man to fear. He is a friend of Feisul."
"On whose word?"
"Mine," Grim answered.
Sidi bin Tagim nodded. He seemed willing to take Grim's word for anything.
"Why did you say a Jew stabbed you?" Grim asked suddenly.
"So that they might hang a Jew or two. Wallah! Are the Jews not at the bottom of all trouble? If a Greek should kill a Maltese it would be a Jew who planned it! May the curse of Allah change their faces and the fire of Eblis consume them!"
"Did you see the man who stabbed you?"
And was he a Jew?"
"Jimgrim, you know better than to ask that! A Jew always hires another to do the killing. He who struck me was a hireling, who shall die by my hand, as Allah is my witness. But may Allah do more to me and bring me down into the dust unburied unless I make ten Jews pay for this!"
"Any one Jew in particular?" Grim asked, and the man in bed closed up like a clam that has been touched.
He was a strange-looking fellow—rather like one of those lean Spaniards whom Goya used to paint, with a scant beard turning grey, and hollow cheeks. He had thrown off the grey army blanket because fever burned him, and his lean, hard muscles stood out as if cast in bronze.
"But for the Jews, Feisul would be king of all this land this minute!" he said suddenly, and closed up tight again.
Grim smiled. He nearly always does smile when apparently at a loose end. At moments when most cross-examiners would browbeat he grows sympathetic—humours his man, and, by following whatever detour offers, gets back on the trail again.
"How about the French?" he asked.
"May Allah smite them! They are all in the pay of Jews!"
"Can you prove it?"
"Wallah! That I can!"
Grim looked incredulous. Those baffling eyes of his twinkled with quiet amusement, and the man in bed resented it.
"You laugh, Jimgrim, but if you would listen I might tell you something."
But Grim only smiled more broadly than ever.
"Sidi bin Tagim, you're one of those fanatics who think the world is all leagued against you. Why should the Jews think you sufficiently important to be murdered?"
"Wallah! There are few who hold the reins of happenings as I do."
"If they'd killed you they'd have stopped the clock, eh?"
"That is as Allah may determine. I am not dead."
"Have you friends in Jerusalem?"
"Strange that they haven't been to see you."
"Wallah! Not strange at all."
"I see. They regard you as a man without authority, who might make trouble and leave other men to face it, eh?"
"Who says I have no authority?"
"Well, if you could prove you have—"
"What then?" the man in bed demanded, trying to sit up. "Feisul, for instance, is a friend of mine, and these men with me are his friends too. You have no letter, of course, for that would be dangerous..."
"Jimgrim, in the name of the Most High, I swear I had a letter! He who stabbed me took it. I—"
"Was the letter from Feisul?"
"Malaish—no matter. It was sealed, and bore a number for the signature. If you can get that letter for me, Jimgrim—but what is the use! You are a servant of the British."
"Tell me who stabbed you and I'll get you the letter."
"No, for you are clever. You would learn too much. Better tell the doctor of this place to hurry up and heal me; then I will attend to my own affairs."
"I'd like to keep you out of jail, if that's possible," Grim answered. "You and I are old acquaintances, Sidi bin Tagim. But of course, if you're here to sow sedition, and should there be a document at large in proof of it, which document should fall into the hands of the police— well, I couldn't do much for you then. You'd better tell me who stabbed you, and I'll get after him."
"Ah! But if you get the letter?"
"I shall read it, of course."
"But to whom will you show it?"
"Perhaps to my friends here."
"Are they bound by your honour?"
"I shall hold them so."
There was the glint in Grim's eye now that should warn anyone who knew him that the scent was hot; added to the fact that the rest of his expression suggested waning interest, that look of his forebode fine hunting.
"There's one other I might consult," he admitted casually. "On my way here I saw one of Feisul's staff captains driving in a cab toward the Jaffa Gate."
The instant effect of that remark was to throw the wounded man into a paroxysm of mingled rage and fear. He almost threw a fit. His already bloodless face grew ashy grey and livid blue alternately, and he would have screamed at Grim if the cough that began to rack his whole body would have let him. As it was, he gasped out unintelligible words and sought to make Grim understand by signs. And Grim apparently did understand.
"Very well," he laughed, "tell me who stabbed you and I won't mention your name to Staff-Captain Abd el Kadir."
"And these men? Will they say nothing?"
"Not a word. Who stabbed you?"
"Yussuf Dakmar! May Allah cut him off from love and mercy!"
"Golly!" exploded Jeremy, forgetting not to talk English. "There's a swine for you! Yussuf Dakmar's the son of a sea-cook who used to sell sheep to the Army four times over—drive 'em into camp and get a receipt—drive 'em out again next night—bring 'em back in the morning— get a receipt again—drive 'em off—bring 'em back—us chaps too busy shifting brother Turk to cotton on. He'll be the boy I kicked out of camp once. Maybe remembers it too. I'll bet his backbone's twanging yet! Lead me to him, Grim, old cock, I'd like another piece of him!"
But Grim was humming to himself, playing piano on the bed-sheet with his fingers.
"Is that man not an Arab?" asked the fellow in bed, taking alarm all over again.
"Arab your aunt!" laughed Jeremy: "I eat Arabs! I'm the only original genuine woolly bad man from way back! I'm the plumber who pulled the plug out of Arabia! You know English? Good! You know what a dose of salts is then? You've seen it work? Experienced it, maybe? Hah! You'll understand me. I'm a grain of the Epsom Salt that went through Beersheba, time the Turks had all the booze in sight and we were thirsty. Muddy booze it was too—oozy booze—not fit for washing hogs! Ever heard of Anzacs? Well, I'm one of 'em. Now you know what the scorpion who stung you's up against! You lie there and think about it, cocky; I'll show you his shirt tomorrow morning."
"Suppose we go now," suggested Grim. "I've got the drift of this thing. Get the rest elsewhere."
"You can fan that Joskins for a lot more yet," Jeremy objected. "The plug's pulled. He'll flow if you let him."
"Sure he would. Don't want too much from him. Don't want to have to arrest him. Get me?"
"Come on then," answered Jeremy, "I've promised him a shirt!"
Beyond the screen Narayan Singh stood like a statue, deaf, dumb, immovable. Even his eyes were fixed with a blank stare on the wall opposite.
"How much did you hear?" Grim asked him.
"I, sahib? I am a sick man. I have been asleep."
"As your honour pleases!"
"Hospital's stuffy, isn't it? Think you could recover health more rapidly outdoors? Sick-leave continued of course, but—how about a little exercise?"
The Sikh's eyes twinkled.
"Sahib, you know I need exercise!"
"I'll speak to the doctor for you. In case he signs a new certificate, report to me tonight."
"Atcha, Jimgrim sahib! Atcha!"
"Hum Dekta hai"
Like most of the quarters occupied by British officers, the house occupied by Major Roger Ticknor and his wife Mabel was "enemy property," and its only virtue consisted in its being rent free. Grim, Jeremy, little Ticknor and his smaller wife, and I sat facing across a small deal table with a stuttering oil-lamp between us. In a house not far away some Orthodox Jews, arrayed in purple and green and orange, with fox-fur around the edges of their hats, were drunk and celebrating noisily the Feast of Esther; so you can work out the exact date if you're curious enough. The time was nine p.m. We had talked the Anzac hurricane-drive through Palestine all over again from the beginning, taking world-known names in vain and doing honour to others that will stay unsung for lack of recognition, when one of those unaccountable pauses came, and for the sake of breaking silence, Mabel Ticknor asked a question. She was a little, plucky, pale-faced thing whom you called instinctively by her first name at the end of half an hour—a sort of little mother of loose-ended men, who can make silk purses out of sows' ears, and wouldn't know how to brag if she were tempted.
"Say, Jim," she asked, turning her head quickly like a bird toward Grim on my left, "what's your verdict about that man from Syria that Roger took in a cab to the Sikh hospital? I'm out a new pair of riding breeches if Roger has to pay the bill for him. I want my money's worth. Tell me his story."
"Go ahead and buy the breeches, Mabel. I'll settle that bill," he answered.
"No, you won't, Jim! You're always squandering money. Half your pay goes to the scallywags you've landed in jail. This one's up to Roger and me; we found him."
"I can charge his keep under the head of 'information paid for.' I shall sign the voucher without a qualm."
"You'd get blood out of a stone, Jim! Go on, tell us!"
"I'm hired to keep secrets as well as discover them," Grim answered, smiling broadly.
"Of course you are," she retorted. "But I know all Roger's secrets, and he's a doctor, mind you! Am I right, Roger? Come along! There are no servants—no eavesdroppers. Wait. I'll put tea on the table, and then we'll all listen."
She made tea Australian fashion in a billy, which is quick and simple, but causes alleged dyspepsia cures to sell well all the way from Adelaide to the Gulf of Carpentraia.
"You'll have to tell her, Jim," said Jeremy.
"Mabel's safe as an iron roof," put in her husband. "Noisy in the rain, but doesn't leak."
But neither man nor woman could have extracted a story from James Schuyler Grim unless it suited him to tell it. Mabel Ticknor is one of those honest little women who carry men's secrets with them up and down the world. Being confided in by nearly every man who met her was a habit. But Grim tells only when the telling may accomplish something, and I wondered, as he laid his elbow on the table to begin, just what use he meant to make of Mabel Ticknor. He uses what he knows as other level-headed men use coin, spending thriftily for fair advantage.
"That is secret," he began, as soon as Mabel had dumped the contents of the billy into a huge brown teapot. "I expect Narayan Singh here presently. He'll have a letter with him, taken from the Syrian who stabbed that man in the hospital."
"Whoa, hoss!" Jeremy interrupted. "You mean you've sent that Sikh to get the shirt of Yussuf Dakmar?"
"That was my job," Jeremy objected.
"Whoa, hoss, yourself, Jeremy!" Grim answered. "You'd have gone down into the bazaar like a bull into a china-shop. Narayan Singh knows where to find him. If he shows fight, he'll be simply handed over to the Sikh patrol for attacking a man in uniform, and by the time he reaches the lock-up that letter will be here on the table between us."
"All the same, that's a lark you've done me out of," Jeremy insisted. "That Yussuf Dakmar's a stinker. I know all about him. Two whole squadrons had to eat lousy biscuit for a week because that swab sold the same meat five times over. But I'll get him yet!"
"Well, as I was saying," Grim resumed, "there's a letter in Jerusalem that's supposed to be from Feisul. But when Feisul writes anything he signs his name to it, whereas a number is the signature on this. Now that fellow Sidi bin Tagim in the hospital is an honest old kite in his way. He's a great rooter for Feisul. And the only easy way to ditch a man like Feisul, who's as honest as the day is long, and no man's fool, is to convince his fanatical admirers that for his own sake he ought to be forced along a certain course. The game's as old as Adam. You fill up a man like Sidi bin Tagim with tales about Jews—convince him that Jews stand between Feisul and a kingdom—and he'll lend a hand in any scheme ostensibly directed against Jews. Get me?"
"So would I!" swore Jeremy. "I'm against 'em too! I camped alongside the Jordan Highlanders one time when—"
But we had had that story twice that evening with variations. He was balancing his chair on two legs, so I pushed him over backward, and before he could pick himself up again Grim resumed.
"Feisul is in Damascus, and the Syrian Convention has proclaimed him king. That don't suit the French, who detest him. The feeling's mutual. When Feisul went to Paris for the Peace Conference, the French imagined he was easy. They thought, here's another of these Eastern princes who can be taken in the old trap. So they staged a special performance at the Opera for him, and invited him to supper afterward behind the scenes with the usual sort of ladies in full war-paint in attendance."
"Shall we cut that too?" suggested Mabel.
"Sure. Feisul did! He's not that kind of moth. Ever since then the French have declared he's a hypocrite; and because he won't yield his rights they've been busy inventing wrongs of their own and insisting on immediate adjustment. The French haven't left one stone unturned that could irritate Feisul into making a false move."
"To hell with them!" suggested Jeremy, reaching for more tea.
"But Feisul's not easy to irritate," Grim went on. "He's one of those rare men, who get born once in an epoch, who force you to believe that virtue isn't extinct. He's almost like a child in some things—like a good woman in others—and a man of iron courage all the time, who can fire Arabs in the same way Saladin did five centuries ago."
"He looks like a saint," said Jeremy. "I've seen him."
"But he's no soft liver," continued Grim. "He was brought up in the desert among Bedouins, and has their stoical endurance with a sort of religious patience added. Gets that maybe from being a descendant of the Prophet."
"Awful sort to have to fight, that kind are," said Jeremy. "They wear you down!"
"So the French decided some time ago to persuade Feisul's intimates to make a bad break which he couldn't repudiate."
"Why don't he cut loose with forty or fifty thousand men and boot the French into the sea?" demanded Jeremy. "I'll make one to help him! I knew a Frenchman once, who—"
"We'll come to that presently," said Grim. "I dare say you didn't hear of Verdun."
"Objection sustained. Hand it to 'em. They've got guts," grinned Jeremy. "Fire away, old top."
"Well, they ran foul of an awkward predicament, which is that there are some darned decent fellows among the officers of their army of occupation. There's more than a scattering of decent gentlemen who don't like dirt. I won't say they tell Feisul secrets, or disobey orders; but if you want to give a man a square deal there are ways of doing it without sending him telegrams."
Mabel put the tea back on the kerosene stove to stew, with an extra handful of black leaves in it. Grim continued:
"Another thing: The French are half afraid that if they take the field against Feisul on some trumped-up pretext, he'll get assistance from the British. They could send him things he needs more than money, and can't get. Ninety-nine per cent of the British are pro-Feisul. Some of them would risk their jobs to help him in a pinch. The French have got to stall those men before they can attack Feisul safely."
"How d'you mean—stall 'em?" demanded Jeremy. "Not all the British are fools—only their statesmen, and generals, and sixty percent of the junior officers and rank and file. The rest don't have to be fed pap from a bottle; they're good men. Takes more than talk to stall that kind off a man they like."
"You've got the idea, Jeremy. You have to show them. Well, why not stir up revolution here in Palestine in Feisul's name? Why not get the malcontents to murder Jews wholesale, with propaganda blowing full blast to make it look as if Feisul's hand is directing it all? It's as simple as falling off a log. French agents who look like honest Arabs approach the most hairbrained zealots who happen to be on the inside with Feisul, and suggest to them that the French and British are allies; therefore the only way to keep the British from helping the French will be to start red-hot trouble in Palestine that will keep the British busy protecting themselves and the Jews.
"The secret agents point out that although Feisul is against anything of the sort, he must be committed to it for his own sake. And they make great capital out of Feisul's promise that he will protect the Jews if recognized as king of independent Syria. Kill all the Jews beforehand, so there won't be any for him to protect when the time comes—that's the argument."
"Haven't you warned Feisul?"
She had both elbows on the table and her chin between her hands, and I dare say she had listened in just that attitude to fifty inside stories that the newspapers would scatter gold in vain to get.
"I sure did. And he has sent one of his staff down here to keep an eye on things. I saw him this afternoon riding in a cab toward the Jaffa Gate. I said as much to that fellow in the hospital, and he was scared stiff at the idea of my recovering the supposed Feisul letter and showing it to an officer who is really in Feisul's confidence. That—I mean the man's fear—linked everything up."
"You talk like Sherlock Holmes," laughed Jeremy. "I'll bet you a new hat nothing comes of it."
"That bet's on," Grim answered. "It's to be a female hat, and Mabel gets it. Order an expensive one from Paris, Mabel; Jeremy shall pay. We've lots of other information. The troops here have been warned of an intended massacre of Jews. The arrival of this letter probably puts a date to it.
"But it puts a date to something else on which the whole future of the Near East hangs; and that means the future of half the world, and maybe the whole of it, because about three hundred million Mohammedans are watching Feisul and will govern themselves accordingly. India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, all Northern Africa—there's almost no limit to what depends on Feisul's safety; and the French can't or won't understand that."
There came the sound of heavy ammunition boots outside on the stone step, followed by a cough that I believe I could recognize among a thousand. Narayan Singh coughs either of two ways—once, deep bass, for all's well; twice, almost falsetto, for a hint of danger. This time it was the single deep bass cough. But it was followed after half a minute by the two high-pitched barks, and Grim held up a hand for silence. At the end of perhaps a minute there came from the veranda a perfect imitation of the lascar's ungrammatical, whining singsong from a fo'castle-head:
"Hum dekta hai!—I'm on the watch."
Grim nodded—to himself, I suppose, for none had spoken to him.
"Do you mind stepping out and getting that letter from him, Ramsden? Keep in the shadow, please, and give him this pistol; he may need it."
So I slipped out through the screen door and spent a minute looking for Narayan Singh. I'm an old hunter, but it wasn't until Narayan Singh deliberately moved a hand to call attention to himself that I discovered him within ten feet of me.
The risk of being seen from the street in case some spy were lurking out there was obvious. So I walked all the way round the house, and came and stood below him on his left hand where the house cast impenetrable shadow; but though I took my time and moved stealthily he heard me and passed me a letter through the veranda rails, accepting the pistol in exchange without comment.
I could see him distinctly from that angle. His uniform on one side was torn almost into rags, and his turban was all awry, as if he had lost it in a scuffle and hadn't spared time to rewind it properly—a sure sign of desperate haste; for a male tiger in the spring-time is no more careful of his whiskers than a Sikh is of the thirty yards of cloth he winds around his head.
As he didn't speak or make any more movement than was necessary to pass me the letter and take the pistol, I returned the way I had come, entered by the back door, tossed the letter to Grim, and crept back again to bear a hand in case of need. Grim said nothing, but Jeremy followed me, and two minutes later the Australian and I were crouching in darkness below the veranda. This time I don't think Narayan Singh was aware of friends at hand.
His eyes were fixed on the slightly lighter gap in a dark wall that was the garden gate but looked more like a dim hole leading into a cave. There being no other entrance that we knew of, Jeremy and I doubled up on the same job, and a rat couldn't have come through without one of the three of us detecting him. If we had had our senses with us we might have realized that Narayan Singh was perfectly capable of watching that single narrow space, and have used our own eyes to better advantage. However, we're all three alive today, and two of us learned a lesson.
It wasn't long—perhaps five minutes—before a man showed himself outside the gate, like a spectre dodging this and that way in response to unearthly impulse. Once or twice he started forward, as if on the point of sneaking in, but thought better of it and retreated. Once his attitude suggested that he might be taking aim with a pistol; but if that was so, he chose not to waste a shot or start an alarm by firing at a mark he couldn't see. What he did accomplish was to keep six keen eyes fixed on him.
And that gave three other men their chance to gain an entrance at the rear of the wall in the garden, and creep up unawares. It was probably sheer accident that led all three of them along the far side of the house, but it was fortunate for Jeremy and me, for otherwise cold steel between our shoulder-blades would likely have been our first intimation of their presence.
We never suspected their existence until they gained the veranda by the end opposite to where we waited; and I think they would have done their murder if the man outside the gate hadn't lost his head from excitement, or some similar emotion and tried to make a signal to them. All three had brought up against the end window, where a shade torn in two places provided a good view into the room in which Grim, Mabel and the doctor were still sitting. Each of them had a pistol, and their intention didn't admit of doubt.
"Are you there, sahib?" Narayan Singh whispered.
But Jeremy and I were aware of them almost as soon as he, and rather than make a noise by vaulting the veranda rail, we took the longer route by way of the front steps. Jeremy, who was wearing sandals, kicked them off and not having to creep so carefully, moved faster.
Of course, the obvious question is, why didn't Narayan Singh shoot? I had a pistol too; why didn't I use it? Well, I'll tell you. None but the irresponsible criminal shoots a man except in obedience to orders or in self-defence.
You may argue that those three night-prowlers might have shot Ticknor and his wife and Grim through the window while we aired our superior virtue. The answer to that is, that they didn't, although that was their intention. Narayan Singh, already once that night in danger of his life, and a "godless, heathen Sikh," as I have heard a missionary call him, pocketed the pistol I had given him before proceeding to engage, he being also a white man by the proper way of estimating such things.
Jeremy was first on the scene of action, with Narayan Singh close behind him, and I was quite a bit behind, for I tripped against the top step in my hurry. The noise I made gave the alarm, and the three Arabs twisted round like cornered scorpions. I guess they couldn't see us well at first, having been staring through the torn shade into the lighted room.
Their pistols were cocked, but Jeremy's fist landed in the nearest man's face before he could shoot, and he went crashing backwards into his friend behind, whose head disappeared for a moment through the window-pane, and the only blood shed on that occasion came from the first man's nose and the back of the second man's neck where the smashed glass slit a gash in it.
The third man fired wildly at me, and missed, a fraction of a second before Narayan Singh landed on him with hands and feet; whereat the man in the street emptied his pistol at me and ran away. I was in two minds whether to give chase to him, but made the wrong decision, being heavy on my feet and none too fond of running, so the big fish got away.
But even with my help added, the three less important fish still gave a lot of trouble, for they fought like wild cats, using teeth and finger- nails; and the doctor and his wife and Grim were all out lending a hand before we had them finally convinced that the game was up. Mabel trussed up the worst man with a clothes line, while I sat on him.
I expected to see a crowd around the house by that time, but Jerusalem works otherwise than some cities. The sound of a pistol-shot sends everybody hurrying for cover, lest some enemy accuse them afterwards of having had a hand in the disturbance. And the nearest police post was a mile away. So we had our little outrage all to ourselves, although strange tales went the rounds of the Holy City that night, and two weeks later several European newspapers printed a beautiful account of a midnight massacre of Jews.
We dragged our prisoners into the sitting-room, and stood them up in front of Grim after the doctor and Mabel had attended to their hurts, which weren't especially serious; although nobody need expect to get in the way of Jeremy's fist and feel comfortable for several hours afterwards. The cut made in the second man's neck by broken glass needed several stitches, but the third man was only winded from having been sat on, and of course he was much more sorry for himself than either of the other two—a fact that Grim noted.
There was another noticeable circumstance that shed light on human nature and Grim's knowledge of it. They were all three eager to tell their story, although not necessarily the same story; whereas Narayan Singh, who knew that every word he might say would be believed implicitly, was in no hurry to tell his at all.
Now when you're dealing with Eastern and near-Eastern people of the sort who lie instinctively (and it may be that this applies to the West as well) it's a good plan to establish, if you can, a basis of truth for them to build their tale on; because the truth acts like acid on untruth. They're going to lie in any case; but lies told without any reference to truth knit better than when invented at a moment's notice to explain away another's straightforward statement. There's a plausible theory that culprits taken in the act are best examined in secret, one by one, in ignorance of all the evidence against them.
The wise method is to let them hear the evidence against themselves. Nine times out of ten they will accept that as unanswerable, and strive to twist its meaning or smother it under a mass of lies. But the truth they have accepted, as I have said, works just like acid and destroys their argument almost as fast as they build it up. In the few cases when that doesn't happen, they break down altogether and confess.
Anyhow, Grim, who taught me what I have just written, refused to listen to their bleating until Narayan Singh first told in their hearing all that he knew about the night's events. They were forced to sit down on the floor and listen to him like three coffee-shop loungers being told a story; and I don't doubt that the effect was strengthened by the Sikh's standing facing them, for the contrast was as between jackals and a lion.
Not that they were small men, for they weren't, or mere ten-dollar assassins picked up in the suk. They looked well fed, and wore fine linen, whereas Narayan Singh was in rags and had lost weight in our recent desert marching, so that his cheek-bones stood out and he looked superficially much more like a man at bay than they did.
But their well-cared-for faces were lean in the wrong place, and puffy under the eyes. In place of courage they flaunted an insolent leer, and the smile intended to convey self-confidence betrayed to a close observer anxiety bordering on panic.
The most offensive part about them really was their feet, which are indices of character too often overlooked. They had come to their task in slippers, which they had kicked off before reaching the veranda, and instead of the firm, tough feet that a real man stands on, what they displayed as they squatted were subtle, soft things, not exactly flabby, but even more suggestive of treachery than their thin beaks and shifty eyes.
To sum them up, they were dandies, of the kind who join the Young Turk Party and believe the New Era can be distilled of talk and tricks; and they looked like mean animals compared to that staunch conservative Narayan Singh, who, nevertheless, is not without his own degree of subtlety.
"I call this awful!"
Sahib, in accordance with instructions I proceeded to Christian Street to the place you spoke of, where I found Yussuf Dakmar drinking coffee and smoking in company with these men and others. They did not see me in the beginning, because I entered by the door of a house threescore and five paces farther down the street; and having by that means gained the roof I descended to a gallery built of stone above one end of the coffee-shop, and there lay concealed among evil-smelling bags.
"They conversed in Arabic; and presently when other men had entered, some of whose names I overheard and wrote down on this slip of paper, Yussuf Dakmar locked the outer door, turning the great key twice and setting a chain in place as well. Then he stood on a red stool having four short legs, with his back to the door that he had locked, and spoke in the manner of one who stirs a multitude, gesticulating greatly.
"The argument he made was thus: He said that Jerusalem is a holy city, and Palestine a holy land; and that promises are all the more sacred if given in connection with religious matters; whereat they all applauded greatly. Nevertheless, a little later on he mocked at all religion, and they applauded that too. He said that the Allies, persuaded thereto by the British, had made a promise to the Emir Feisul on the strength of which the Arabs made common war with the Allies against the Turks and Germans, losing of their own a hundred thousand men and untold money.
"So, sahib. Next he asked them how much of that promise made by the Allies to Emir Feisul as the leader of the Arabs had been kept, or was likely to be kept; and they answered in one voice, 'None of it!' Whereat he nodded, as a teacher nods gravely when the pupils have their lesson well by heart, and said presently in a voice like that of a Guru denouncing sin: 'A woman's promise is a little matter; who believes it? When it is broken all men laugh. A promise extorted under threat or torture is not binding, since he who made the promise was not free to govern his own conduct; that is law. A promise made in business,' said he, 'is a contract contingent on circumstances and subject to litigation. But a promise made in wartime by a nation is a pledge set down in letters of blood. Whoever breaks it is guilty of blood; and whoever fails to smite dead the breaker of that oath, commits treason against Allah!'
"They applauded that speech greatly, sahib, and when they grew silent he bade them look about and judge for themselves at whose door the breaking of that sacred promise really lay. 'Show me,' said he, 'one trace of Arab government in all Palestine. Who owns the land?' he asked them. 'Arabs!' said they. 'Yet to whom has the country been given?' he shouted. 'To the Jews!' they answered; and he grew silent for a while, like a teacher whose class has only given half the answer to a question until presently one man growled out, 'To the sword with the Jews in the name of Allah!' and the others echoed that which satisfied him, for he smiled, nevertheless not using those words himself. And presently he continued:
"'We in this room are men of enlightenment. We are satisfied to leave past and future to speculations of idle dreamers. For us the present. So we attach no value to the fact that Feisul is descended in a straight line from the founder of the Moslem faith; for that is a superstition as foolish in its way as Christianity or any other creed. But who is there like Feisul who can unite all Arabs under one banner?'
"They answered, sahib, that Feisul is the only living man who can accomplish that, making many assertions in his praise, Yussuf Dakmar nodding approval as each spoke. 'Yet,' said he when they had finished, 'Feisul is also fallible. In certain ways he is a fool, and principally in this: That he insists on keeping his own promises to men who have broken their own promises to him.' And like pupils in a class who recite their lesson, they all murmured that such a course as that is madness.
"'So,' said he, 'we are clear on that point. We are not altruists, nor religious fanatics, nor slaves, but men of common sense who have a business in view. We are not Feisul's servants, but he ours. We make use of him, not he of us. If he persists in a wrong course, we must force him into the right one, for the day of autocratic government is past and the hour has come when those who truly represent the people have the first right to direct all policy. If the right is still withheld from them, they must take it. And it is we in this room who truly represent the Arab cause, on whom lies the responsibility of forcing Feisul's hand!'
"Well, sahib, these three prisoners who sit here offered, at once to go to Damascus and kill the men who are advising Feisul wrongly. They said that if they were given money they could easily hire Damascenes to do the dagger work, there being, as the sahib doubtless knows, a common saying in these parts about Damascus folk and sharp steel. Whereat Yussuf Dakmar suddenly assumed a sneering tone of voice, saying that he preferred men for his part with spunk enough to do such work themselves, and there was an argument, they protesting and he mocking them, until at last this man, whose neck the glass cut, demanded of him whether he, Yussuf Dakmar, was not in truth an empty boaster who would flinch at bloodshed.
"He seemed to have been waiting for just that, sahib, for he smirked and threw a chest. 'I am a man,' said he, 'of example as well as precept. I have done what I saw fit to do! I make no boasts,' said he, 'for a man who talks about himself sets others talking, and there are deeds creditable to the doer that are best not spoken of. But I will tell you other things, and you may draw your own conclusions.
"'Because Feisul refuses to attack the French, having promised those promise-breakers that he will not; and because Feisul has promised to protect the Jews and is likely to try to keep that promise to the promise-breaking English, certain of his intimates in Damascus, in whose confidence I am, have determined to force both issues, taking steps in his name that will commit him finally. Feisul's army of fifty thousand men is as ready as it will ever be. There is no money in the Damascus treasury, and therefore every moment of delay is now a moment lost. The time has come for action!'"
Our three prisoners were listening to the recitation spellbound, and so were we all for that matter. The mere memory feat was amazing enough. Few men could listen in hiding to a stranger's words, and report them exactly after an interval of more than an hour; but Narayan Singh did better than that, for he reproduced the speaker's gesture and inflexion, so that we had a mental picture of the scene that he described. Mabel offered him stewed tannic acid in the name of tea, and Ticknor suggested a chair, but he waved both offers aside and continued as if the picture before his mind and the words he was remembering might escape him if he took things easy.
"Sahib, they were very much excited when he spoke of action. First one man and then another stood up and boasted of having made all things ready; how this one had supervised the hiding of sharp swords; how another had kept men at work collecting cartridges on battlefields; how this and that one had continued spreading talk against the Jews, so that they swore that at least ten thousand Moslems in Jerusalem are fretting to begin a massacre. 'Let Feisul only strike the first blow from Damascus,' said they, 'and Palestine will run blood instantly!'"
"And we sit here drinking tea," exclaimed Mabel, "while up at headquarters they're dancing and playing bridge! I call this awful! We all ought to be..."
Grim smiled and shook his head for silence.
"We've known all this for some time," he said. "Don't worry. There'll be no massacre; the troops are sleeping by their arms, and every possible contingency has been provided for. Go on, Narayan Singh."
"Well, sahib; when they had done babbling and boasting this Yussuf Dakmar got back on his stool and spoke sternly, as one who gives final judgment and intends to be obeyed. 'It is we who must make the first move,' said he; 'and we shall force Feisul to move after us by moving in his name.' Whereat this man here, whose nose was broken on the fist of Jeremy sahib, said that a letter bearing Feisul's seal would make the matter easier. 'For the men,' said he, 'who are to slit Jews' throats will ask first for proof of our authority to bid them begin the business.'
"And at that speech Yussuf Dakmar laughed with great delight. 'Better late than never!' said he. 'Better to think of a wise precaution now than not at all! But oh, ye are an empty-headed crew!' he told them. 'I pity the conspiracy that had no better planning than ye would make for it without my fore thought! I thought of this long ago! I sent a message to Damascus, begging that a date be set and just such a letter sent to us. Feisul, I knew, would sign no such letter; but the paper he uses lies on an open desk, and there are men about him who have access to his seal. And because my appeal was well-timed it met with approval. A letter such as I asked for was written on Feisul's paper, sealed with his seal, and sent!'
"'But does it bear his signature?' a man asked.
"'How could it, since he never saw the letter?' Yussuf Dakmar answered.
"'Then few will pay heed to it,' said the other.
"'Perhaps if we were all such fools as you that might be so,' Yussuf Dakmar retorted. 'However, fortunately the rest of us have readier wits! This letter is signed with a number, and the number is that of Feisul's generation in descent from the Prophet Mohammed. Let men be told that this is his secret signature, and when they see his seal beside it, will they not believe? Every hour in Jerusalem, and in all the world, men believe things less credible than that!'
"But at that, sahib, another man asked him how they might know that the letter really came from Damascus. 'It well might be,' said that one, 'a forgery contrived by Yussuf Dakmar himself, in which case though they might stir many Moslems into action by showing it, the men in Damascus would fail to follow up the massacre by striking at the French. And if they do not strike at the French,' said he, 'the French will not appeal to the British for aid; and so the British troops will be free to protect the Jews and butcher us, by which means we shall be worse off than before.'
"Whereat Yussuf Dakmar laughed again. 'If ye will go to the Sikh hospital,' said he, 'ye will find there the man who brought the letter. He lies in a cot in the upper storey with a knife-wound between his shoulder-blades. It was a mistaken accident unfortunate for him; the letter was intended for me, but I did not know that. What does the life of one fool matter? He gave out that Jews stabbed him, and it may be he believes that; yet I have the letter in my pocket here!' And he touched with one hand the portion of his coat beneath which was the pocket that contained the letter. I was watching, sahib, from where I lay hidden.
"He was about, I think, to show them the letter, when another thought occurred to him. He wrinkled his brow, as if seeking words in which to make his meaning clear, and they seemed willing enough to wait for him, but not so I, for I now knew where the letter was. So I sprang into their midst, falling less dangerously than I might have done by reason of a man's shoulders that served for a cushion. It may be that his bones broke under my weight. I can give no accurate report as to that, for I was in great haste. But as he gave way under me, I pitched forward, and, kicking Yussuf Dakmar in the belly with my boot, I fell on him, they falling on me in turn and we all writhing together in one mass on the floor. So I secured the letter."
"Good man!" Grim nodded.
"Wish I'd been there!" mourned Jeremy.
"And, having what I came for, I broke free; and taking the red stool I hurled it at the lamp, so that we were in total darkness, which made it a simple matter to unlock the door, and proceed about my business. Nevertheless, I heard them strike matches behind me, and it seemed unwise to take to my heels at once, it being easy to pursue a man who runs.
"As the sahib doubtless remembers, between that coffee shop and the next house is a stone buttress jutting out into the street, forming on its side farthest from the coffee-shop a dark corner, for whose filth and stink the street cleaners ought to be punished. Therein I lurked, while those who pursued ran past me up the street, I counting them; and among them I did not count Yussuf Dakmar and three more. It happened that a man was running up the street and the pursuers supposed him to be me. So I was left with only four to deal with; and it entered my head that no doubt Jimgrim sahib would be pleased to interview Yussuf Dakmar.
"And after a few moments Yussuf Dakmar came forth, and I heard him speak to these three fellows.
"'Those fools,' said he, 'hunt like street dogs at the sound of rubbish tossed out of a window. But I think that Indian soldier is less foolish than they. If I were he,' said Yussuf Dakmar, 'I think I wouldn't run far, with all these shadows to right and left and all the hours from now until dawn in which to act the fox. I suspect he is not far away at this minute. Nevertheless,' said he, 'those Indians are dangerous fellows. It is highly important that we get that letter from him; but it is almost equally important that we stop his mouth, which would be impossible if he should escape alive. If we wait here,' said he, 'we shall see him emerge from a shadow, if I am not much mistaken.'
"So they waited, sahib. And after a few minutes, when my breath had returned to me, I let him have credit as a wise one by emerging as he had said. And those four stalked me through the streets, not daring to come close until I should lead them to a lonely place; and I led them with discretion to this house, where happened what the sahib knows.
"That is all I know about this matter, except that being absent from duty on sick-leave there may be difficulty in the matter of my tunic, which is badly torn."
Having finished his story Narayan Singh stood at attention like one of those wooden images they used to keep on the sidewalk outside tobacco stores.
Grim smiled at the prisoners and asked whether they had any remarks to make—a totally lawless proceeding, for he did not caution them, and had no jurisdiction as a magistrate. They were three men caught red-handed attempting murder and burglary, and entitled accordingly to protection that the law doesn't always accord to honest men. But, as I have said, a true tale in the ears of criminals acts like a chemical reagent. It sets them to work lying, and the lie burns off, disclosing naked truth again. But, mother of me, they were daring liars! The fellow who had come out of the scrap more or less unscathed piped up for the three, the other two nodding and prompting him in whispers.
"What that Indian says in the main is true. He did jump down from the gallery and surprise a meeting summoned by Yussuf Dakmar. And it is true that Yussuf Dakmar's purpose is to bring about a massacre of Jews, which is to be simultaneous with an attack by Feisul's forces on the French in Syria. But we three men are not in favour of it. We have had no part in the preparations, although we know all details. We are honest men, who have the public interest at heart, and accordingly we have spied on Yussuf Dakmar, purposing to expose all his plans to the authorities."
Jeremy began humming to himself. Mabel tittered, and little Doctor Ticknor swore under his breath. But Grim looked as if he believed them —looked pleasantly surprised—and nodded gravely.
"But that hardly explains your following this Indian through the streets and attacking him on the veranda," he suggested, as if sure they could explain that too—as sure enough they did.
"We did not attack him. He attacked us. It was obvious to us from the first that he must be an agent of the Government. So when Yussuf Dakmar told us to follow and murder him we decided it was time to expose Yussuf Dakmar, and that this was our opportunity. We knew surely that this Indian would take that letter straight to some official of the Government; it was only necessary to pretend to hunt him and in that manner inveigle Yussuf Dakmar into the toils.
"But when we reached this house Yussuf Dakmar was afraid and refused to approach nearer than the street. He insisted on keeping watch outside the garden gate while we should draw near and shoot everyone who might be in the house and recover the letter. He is a coward, and we could not persuade him.
"So we decided to pretend to do his bidding, and to whisper through the window to the people within to pass out to the street by some back way and capture him, after which we would give all our evidence to the authorities.
"It was while we were looking through the window, seeking to call the attention of those within for that purpose and no other, that we were attacked and submitted to much unnecessary violence. That is the whole truth, as Allah is our witness! We are honest men, who seek to uphold the law, and we claim the protection of the Government. We are ready to tell all we know, including the names of those connected with this plot."
"Nobody will know, no bouquets"
There followed a tedious hour or two, during which Grim cross-examined the three "honest men," and took down lists of names from their dictation, getting Doctor Ticknor meanwhile to go for the police because Yussuf Dakmar might still be lurking in the neighbourhood for a chance to murder Narayan Singh. It was only after the police had carried off the prisoners to jail (where they repudiated their entire confession next morning) that Grim showed us the letter which, like a spark, had fired a powder magazine—although a smaller one than its writer intended.
"It isn't in Feisul's handwriting," he said, holding the feathery Arab script up to the lamplight; "and it's no more like his phraseology than a camel resembles a locomotive. Listen to this:
To the Pan-Arab Committee in Jerusalem, by favour of Yussuf Dakmar Bey its District President, Greeting in the name of God:
Ye know that on former occasions the foes of our land and race were overwhelmed when, relying on the aid of the Most High, and raising the green banner of the Prophet—on whom be peace—we launched our squadrons in a cause held sacred by us all.
Ye know that in that fashion, and not otherwise, the accursed conquerors were driven forth and our sacred banner was set on high over the Damascus roofs, where by Allah's blessing may it wave for ever!
Ye know how those who claimed to be our friends have since proven themselves foes, so that the independent state for which we fought is held today in ignominious subjection by aliens, who deny the true Faith and hold their promises as nothing.
Ye know how Damascus is beset by the French, and Palestine is held by the British who, notwithstanding the oath they swore to us, are daily betraying us Arabs to the Jews.
Know now, then, that the hour has struck when, again in the name of Allah, we must finish what we formerly began and with our true swords force these infidels to yield our country to us. Nor on this occasion shall we sheathe our swords until from end to end our land is free and united under one government of our own choosing.
Know that this time there shall be no half-measures nor any compromise. It is written, Ye shall show no quarter to the infidel. Let no Jew live to boast that he has footing in the land of our ancestors. Leave ye no root of them in the earth nor seedling that can spring into a tree! Smite, and smite swiftly in the name of Him who never sleeps, who keeps all promises, whose almighty hand is ready to preserve the Faithful.
Whereunto ye are bidden to take courage. Whereunto our army of Syria stands ready. Whereunto the day has been appointed.
Know ye that the tenth day from the sending of this letter, and at dawn, is the appointed time. Therefore let all make common cause for the favour of the Most High which awaits the Faithful.
In the name of God and Mohammed the Prophet of God, on whom be blessings."
There followed the Moslem date and the numerical signature over Feisul's indubitable seal. Grim figured a moment and worked out the corresponding date according to our western calendar.
"Leaves six days," he said pleasantly. "It means the French intend to attack Damascus seven days from now."
"Let 'em!" Jeremy exploded. "Feisul'll give 'em ——! All they've got are Algerians."
"The French have poison gas," Grim answered dourly. "Feisul's men have no masks."
"Get 'em some!"
That was Jeremy again. Grim didn't answer, but went on talking:
"They're going to get Damascus. All they've waited for was poison gas, and now there's no stopping 'em. They forged this letter after the gas arrived. Now if they catch Feisul in Damascus they'll put him on trial for his life, and they probably hope to get this letter back somehow to use as evidence against him."
"Go slow, Jim!" Mabel objected. "Where's your proof that the French are jockeying this? Isn't that Feisul's seal?"
"Yes, and it's his paper. But not his handwriting."
"He might have dictated it, mightn't he?"
"Never in those words. Feisul don't talk or write that way. The letter's a manifest forgery, as I'll prove by confronting Feisul with it. But there's a little oversight that should convince you it's a forgery. Have you a magnifying glass, doc?"
Ticknor produced one in a minute, and Grim held the letter under the lamp. On the rather wide margin, carefully rubbed out, but not so carefully that the indentation did not show, was the French word magnifique that had been written with a rather heavy hand and one of those hard pencils supplied to colonial governments by exporters from stocks that can't be sold at home.
"That proves nothing," Mabel insisted. "All educated Arabs talk French. Somebody on Feisul's staff was asked for an opinion on the letter before it went. My husband's Arab orderly told me only yesterday that a sling I made for a man in the hospital was magnifique."
The objection was well enough taken, because it was the sort the forger of the letter would be likely to raise if brought to book. But Grim's argument was not exhausted.
"There are other points, Mabel. For one thing, it's blue metallic ink. Feisul's private letters are all written with indelible black stuff made from pellets that I gave him; they're imported from the States."
"But if Feisul wanted to prove an alibi, he naturally wouldn't use his special private ink," objected Mabel.
"Then why his seal, and his special private notepaper? However, there's another point. Feisul writes the purest kind of Arabic, and this isn't that sort of Arabic. It was written by a foreigner—perhaps a Frenchman—possibly an Armenian—most likely a Turk—certainly one of the outer ring of politicians who have access to Feisul and seek to control him, but are not really in his confidence. Damascus is simply a network of spies of that kind—men who attached themselves to the Arab cause when it looked like winning and are now busy transferring their allegiance.
"I think I could name the man who wrote this; I think I know the man who wrote that magnifique. If I'm right, Yussuf Dakmar will notify the French tonight through their agents in Jerusalem. The man who wrote that magnifique will know before morning that the letter's missing; and it doesn't matter how careful I may be, it'll be known as soon as I start for Damascus.
"They'll dope out that our obvious course would be to confront Feisul with this letter. The only way to travel is by train; the roads are rotten—in fact, no auto could get through; they'd tip off the Bedouins, who'd murder everybody.
"So they'll watch the trains and especially Haifa, where everyone going north has to spend the night; and they'll stop at nothing to get the letter back, for two reasons; as long as it's in our hands it can be used to establish proof of the plot against Feisul; once it's back in theirs, they can keep it in their secret dossier to use against Feisul if they ever catch him and bring him to trial. You remember the Dreyfus case?
"I shall start for Damascus by the early train—probably take an auto as far as Ludd. If I want to live until I reach Damascus I shall have to prove conclusively that I haven't that letter with me. Anyone known to be in British service is going to be suspected and, if not murdered, robbed. Ramsden has been seen about too much with me. Jeremy might juggle by but he's already notorious, and these people are shrewd. Better hold Jeremy in reserve, and the same with Narayan Singh. A woman's best. How about you, Mabel?"
"What d'you mean, Jim?"
"Do you know a woman in Haifa?"
"Of course I do."
"Well enough to expect a bed for the night at a moment's notice?"
Mabel's eyes were growing very bright indeed. It was her husband who looked alarmed.
"Well, now, here's the point."
Grim leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette, not looking at anybody, stating his case impersonally, as it were, which is much the shrewdest way of being personal.
"Feisul's up against it, and he's the best man in all this land, bar none. They've dealt to him from a cold deck, and he's bound to lose this hand whichever way he plays it. To put it differently, he's in check, but not checkmated. He'll be checkmated, though, if the French ever lay hands on him, and then good-bye to the Arab's chance for twenty years.
"I propose to save him for another effort, and the only way to do that is to convince him. The best way to convince him is to show him that letter, which can't be done if Feisul's enemies discover who carries it. If Ramsden, Jeremy, Narayan Singh and I start for Damascus, pretending that one or other of us has the letter concealed on his person, and if a woman really carries it, we'll manage. Is Mabel Ticknor going to be the woman? That's the point."
"Too dangerous, Jim! Too dangerous!" Ticknor put in nervously.
"Pardon me, old man. The danger is for us four, who pretend we've got the thing."
"There are lots of other women and I've only got one wife!" objected Ticknor.
"We're pressed for time," Grim answered. "You see, Ticknor, old man, you're a Cornstalk and therefore an outsider—just a medico, who saws bones for a living, satisfied to keep your body out of the poorhouse, your soul out of hell, and your name out of the newspapers. Your wife is presumably more so. There are several officials' wives who would jump at the chance to be useful; but a sudden trip toward Damascus just now would cause any one of them to be suspected, whereas Mabel wouldn't be."