JIMGRIM AND ALLAH'S PEACE
by Talbot Mundy
To Jimgrim: whose real name, rank, and military distinctions, I promised never to make public.
I. "Look for a man named Grim." II. "No objection; Only a stipulation." III. "Do whatever the leader of the escort tells you." IV. "I am willing to use all means—all methods." V. "D'you mind if I use you?" VI. "That man will repay study." VII. "Who gives orders to me?" VIII. "He will say next that it was he who set the stars in the sky over El-Kerak, and makes the moon rise!" IX. "Feet downwards, too afraid to yell"— X. "Money doesn't weigh much!" XI. "And the rest of the acts of Ahaziah—" XII. "You know you'll get scuppered if you're found out!" XIII. "You may now be unsafe and an outlaw and enjoy yourself!" XIV. "Windy bellies without hearts in them." XV. "I'll have nothing to do with it!" XVI. "The enemy is nearly always useful if you leave him free to make mistakes." XVII. "Poor old Scharnhoff's in the soup." XVIII. "But we're ready for them." XIX. "Dead or Alive, Sahib." XX. "All men are equal in the dark." ——————
"Look for a man named Grim."
There is a beautiful belief that journalists may do exactly as they please, and whenever they please. Pleasure with violet eyes was in Chicago. My passport describes me as a journalist. My employer said: "Go to Jerusalem." I went, that was in 1920.
I had been there a couple of times before the World War, when the Turks were in full control. So I knew about the bedbugs and the stench of the citadel moat; the pre-war price of camels; enough Arabic to misunderstand it when spoken fluently, and enough of the Old Testament and the Koran to guess at Arabian motives, which are important, whereas words are usually such stuff as lies are made of.
El Kudz, as Arabs call Jerusalem, is, from a certain distance, as they also call it, shellabi kabir. Extremely beautiful. Beautiful upon a mountain. El Kudz means The City, and in a certain sense it is that, to unnumbered millions of people. Ludicrous, uproarious, dignified, pious, sinful, naively confidential, secretive, altruistic, realistic. Hoary-ancient and ultra-modern. Very, very proud of its name Jerusalem, which means City of Peace. Full to the brim with the malice of certainly fifty religions, fifty races, and five hundred thousand curious political chicaneries disguised as plans to save our souls from hell and fill some fellow's purse. The jails are full.
"Look for a man named Grim," said my employer. "James Schuyler Grim, American, aged thirty-four or so. I've heard he knows the ropes."
The ropes, when I was in Jerusalem before the war, were principally used for hanging people at the Jaffa Gate, after they had been well beaten on the soles of their feet to compel them to tell where their money was hidden. The Turks entirely understood the arts of suppression and extortion, which they defined as government. The British, on the other hand, subject their normal human impulse to be greedy, and their educated craving to be gentlemanly white man's burden-bearers, to a process of compromise. Perhaps that isn't government. But it works. They even carry compromise to the point of not hanging even their critics if they can possibly avoid doing it. They had not yet, but they were about to receive a brand-new mandate from a brand-new League of Nations, awkwardly qualified by Mr. Balfour's post-Armistice promise to the Zionists to give the country to the Jews, and by a war-time promise, in which the French had joined, to create an Arab kingdom for the Arabs.
So there was lots of compromising being done, and hell to pay, with no one paying, except, of course, the guests in the hotels, at New York prices. The Zionist Jews were arriving in droves. The Arabs, who owned most of the land, were threatening to cut all the Jews' throats as soon as they could first get all their money. Feisal, a descendant of the Prophet, who had fought gloriously against the Turks, was romantically getting ready in Damascus to be crowned King of Syria. The French, who pride themselves on being realistic, were getting ready to go after Feisal with bayonets and poison-gas, as they eventually did.
In Jerusalem the Bolsheviks, astonishingly credulous of "secret" news from Moscow, and skeptical of every one's opinion but their own, were bolsheviking Marxian Utopia beneath a screen of such arrogant innocence that even the streetcorner police constables suspected them. And Mustapha Kemal, in Anatolia, was rumoured to be preparing a holy war. It was known as a Ghazi in those days. He had not yet scrapped religion. He was contemplating, so said rumour, a genuine old-fashioned moslem jihad, with modern trimmings.
A few enthusiasts astonishingly still laboured for an American mandate. At the Holy Sepulchre a British soldier stood on guard with bayonet and bullets to prevent the priests of rival creeds from murdering one another. The sun shone and so did the stars. General Bols reopened Pontius Pilate's water-works. The learned monks in convents argued about facts and theories denied by archaeologists. Old-fashioned Jews wailed at the Wailing Wall. Tommy Atkins blasphemously dug corpses of donkeys and dogs from the Citadel moat.
I arrived in the midst of all that, and spent a couple of months trying to make head or tail of it, and wondering, if that was peace, what war is? They say that wherever a man was ever slain in Palestine a flower grows. So one gets a fair idea of the country's mass-experience without much difficulty. For three months of the year, from end to end, the whole landscape is carpeted with flowers so close together that, except where beasts and men have trodden winding tracks, one can hardly walk without crushing an anemone or wild chrysanthemum. There are more battle-fields in that small land than all Europe can show. There are streams everywhere that historians assert repeatedly "ran blood for days."
Five thousand years of bloody terrorism, intermingling of races, piety, plunder, politics and pilgrims, have produced a self- consciousness as concentrated as liquid poison-gas. The laughter is sarcastic, the humour sardonic, and the credulity beyond analysis. For instance, when I got there, I heard the British being accused of "imperialistic savagery" because they had removed the leprous beggars from the streets into a clean place where they could receive medical treatment.
It was difficult to find one line of observation. Whatever anybody told you, was reversed entirely by the next man. The throat-distorting obligation to study Arabic called for rather intimate association with educated Arabs, whose main obsession was fear of the Zionist Jews. The things they said against the Jews turned me pro-Zionist. So I cautiously made the acquaintance of some gentlemen with gold-rimmed spectacles, and the things they said about the Arabs set me to sympathizing with the sons of Ishmael again.
In the midst of that predicament I met Jimgrim—Major James Schuyler Grim, to give him his full title, although hardly any one ever called him by it. After that, bewilderment began to cease as, under his amused, painstaking fingers, thread after thread of the involved gnarl of plots and politics betrayed its course.
However, first I must tell how I met him. There is an American Colony in Jerusalem—a community concern that runs a one-price store, and is even more savagely criticized than the British Administration, as is only natural. The story of what they did in the war is a three-year epic. You can't be "epic" and not make enemies.
A Chicago Jew assured me they were swine and horse-thieves. But I learned that the Yemen Jews prayed for them—first prayer— every Sabbath of the year, calling down blessings on their heads for charitable service rendered.
One hardly goes all the way to Palestine to meet Americans; but a journalist can't afford to be wilfully ignorant. A British official assured me they were "good blokes" and an Armenian told me they could skin fleas for their hides and tallow; but the Armenian was wearing a good suit, and eating good food, which he admitted had been given to him by the American Colony. He was bitter with them because they had refused to cash a draft on Mosul, drawn on a bank that had ceased to exist.
It seemed a good idea to call on the American Colony, at their store near the Jaffa Gate, and it turned out to be a very clean spot in a dirty city. I taxed their generosity, and sat for hours on a ten-thousand-dollar pile of Asian rugs behind the store; and, whatever I have missed and lost, or squandered, at least I know their story and can keep it until the proper time.
Of course, you have to allow for point of view, just as the mariner allows for variation and deviation; but when they inferred that most of the constructive good that has come to the Near East in the last fifty years has been American, they spoke with the authority of men who have lived on the spot and watched it happen.
"You see, the Americans who have come here haven't set up governments. They've opened schools and colleges. They've poured in education, and taken nothing. Then there are thousands of Arabs, living in hovels because there's nothing better, who have been to America and brought back memories with them. All that accounts for the desire for an American mandate—which would be a very bad thing, though, because the moment we set up a government we would lose our chance to be disinterested. The country is better off under any other mandate, provided it gives Americans the right to teach without ruling. America's mission is educational. There's an American, though, who might seem to prove the contrary. Do you see him?"
There were two Arabs in the room, talking in low tones over by the window. I could imagine the smaller of the two as a peddler of lace and filigree-silver in the States, who had taken out papers for the sake of privilege and returned full of notions to exploit his motherland. But the tall one—never. He was a Bedouin, if ever a son of the desert breathed. If he had visited the States, then he had come back as unchanged as gold out of an acid bath; and as for being born there—
"That little beady-eyed, rat-faced fellow may be an American," I said. "In fact, of course he is, since you say so. But as for being up to any good—"
"You're mistaken. You're looking at the wrong man. Observe the other one."
I was more than ever sure I was not mistaken. Stately gesture, dignity, complexion, attitude—to say nothing of his Bedouin array and the steadiness with which he kept his dark eyes fixed on the smaller man he was talking to, had laid the stamp of the desert on the taller man from head to heel.
"That tall man is an American officer in the British army. Doesn't look the part, eh? They say he was the first American to be granted a commission without any pretense of his being a Canadian. They accepted him as an American. It was a case of that or nothing. Lived here for years, and knew the country so well that they felt they had to have him on his own terms."
You can believe anything in Jerusalem after you have been in the place a week or two, so, seeing who my informant was, I swallowed the fact. But it was a marvel. It seemed even greater when the man strolled out, pausing to salute my host with the solemn politeness that warfare with the desert breeds. You could not imagine that at Ellis Island, or on Broadway—even on the stage. It was too untheatrical to be acting; too individual to be imitation; to unself-conscious to have been acquired. I hazarded a guess.
"A red man, then. Carlisle for education. Swallowed again by the first desert he stayed in for more than a week."
"Wrong. His name is Grim. Sounds like Scandinavian ancestry, on one side. James Schuyler Grim—Dutch, then, on the other; and some English. Ten generations in the States at any rate. He can tell you all about this country. Why not call on him?"
It did not need much intelligence to agree to that suggestion; but the British military take their code with them to the uttermost ends of earth, behind which they wonder why so many folks with different codes, or none, dislike them.
"Write me an introduction," I said.
"You won't need one. Just call on him. He lives at a place they call the junior Staff Officers' Mess—up beyond the Russian Convent and below the Zionist Hospital."
So I went that evening, finding the way with difficulty because they talk at least eighteen languages in Jerusalem and, with the exception of official residences, no names were posted anywhere. That was not an official residence. It was a sort of communal boarding-house improvised by a dozen or so officers in preference to the bug-laden inconvenience of tents—in a German-owned (therefore enemy property) stone house at the end of an alley, in a garden full of blooming pomegranates.
I sent my card in by a flat-footed old Russian female, who ran down passages and round corners like a wet hen, trying to find a man-servant. The place seemed deserted, but presently she came on her quarry in the back yard, and a very small boy in a tarboosh and knickerbockers carried the card on a tray into a room on the left. Through the open door I could hear one quiet question and a high-pitched disclaimer of all knowledge; then an order, sounding like a grumble, and the small boy returned to the hall to invite me in, in reasonably good English, of which he seemed prouder than I of my Arabic.
So I went into the room on the left, with that Bedouin still in mind. There was only one man in there, who got out of a deep armchair as I entered, marking his place in a book with a Damascus dagger. He did not look much more than middle height, nor more than medium dark complexioned, and he wore a major's khaki uniform.
"Beg pardon," I said. "I've disturbed the wrong man. I came to call on an American named Major Grim."
"Must be a mistake, though. The man I'm looking for is taller than you—very dark—looks, walks, speaks and acts like a Bedouin. I saw him this afternoon in Bedouin costume in the American Colony store."
"Yes, I noticed you. Sit down, won't you? Yes, I'm he—the Bedouin abayi* seems to add to a man's height. Soap and water account for the rest of it. These cigars are from the States." [*Long-sleeved outer cloak.]
It was hard to believe, even on the strength of his straight statement—he talking undisguised American, and smiling at me, no doubt vastly pleased with my incredulity.
"Are you a case of Jekyll and Hyde?" I asked.
"No. I'm more like both sides of a sandwich with some army mule- meat in the middle. But I won't be interviewed. I hate it. Besides, it's against the regulations."
His voice was not quite so harshly nasal as those of the Middle West, but he had not picked up the ultra-English drawl and clipped-off consonants that so many Americans affect abroad and overdo.
I don't think a wise crook would have chosen him as a subject for experiments. He had dark eyes with noticeably long lashes; heavy eyebrows; what the army examination-sheets describe as a medium chin; rather large hands with long, straight fingers; and feet such as an athlete stands on, fully big for his size, but well shaped. He was young for a major—somewhere between thirty and thirty-five.
Once he was satisfied that I would not write him up for the newspapers he showed no disinclination to talk, although it was difficult to keep him on the subject of himself, and easy to let him lose you in a maze of tribal history. He seemed to know the ins and outs of every blood-feud from Beersheba to Damascus, and warmed to his subject as you listened.
"You see," he said, by way of apology when I laughed at a string of names that to me conjured up only confusion, "my beat is all the way from Cairo to Aleppo—both sides of the Jordan. I'm not on the regular strength, but attached to the Intelligence—no, not permanent—don't know what the future has in store—that probably depends on whether or not the Zionists get full control, and how soon. Meanwhile, I'm my own boss more or less—report direct to the Administrator, and he's one of those men who allows you lots of scope."
That was the sort of occasional glimpse he gave of himself, and then switched off into straight statements about the Zionist problem. All his statements were unqualified, and given with the air of knowing all about it right from the beginning.
"There's nothing here that really matters outside the Zionist- Arab problem. But that's a big one. People don't realize it— even on the spot—but it's a world movement with ramifications everywhere. All the other politics of the Near East hinge on it, even when it doesn't appear so on the surface. You see, the Jews have international affiliations through banks and commerce. They have blood-relations everywhere. A ripple here may mean there's a wave in Russia, or London, or New York. I've known at least one Arab blood-feud over here that began with a quarrel between a Jew and a Christian in Chicago."
"Are the Zionists as dangerous as the Arabs seem to think?" I asked.
"Yes and no. Depends what you call danger. They're like an incoming tide. All you can do is accept the fact and ride on top of it, move away in front of it, or go under. The Arabs want to push it back with sword-blades. Can't be done!"
"Speaking as a mere onlooker, I feel sorry for the Arabs," I said. "It has been their country for several hundred years. They didn't even drive the Jews out of it; the Romans attended to that, after the Assyrians and Babylonians had cleaned up nine-tenths of the population. And at that, the Jews were invaders themselves."
"Sure," Grim answered. "But you can't argue with tides. The Arabs are sore, and nobody has any right to blame them. The English betrayed the Arabs—I don't mean the fellows out here, but the gang at the Foreign Office."
I glanced at his uniform. That was a strange statement coming from a man who wore it. He understood, and laughed.
"Oh, the men out here all admit it. They're as sore as the Arabs are themselves."
"Then you're on the wrong side, and you know it?" I suggested.
"The meat," he said, "is in the middle of the sandwich. In a small way you might say I'm a doctor, staying on after a riot to stitch up cuts. The quarrel was none of my making, although I was in it and did what I could to help against the Turks. Like everybody else who knows them, I admire the Turks and hate what they stand for—hate their cruelty. I was with Lawrence across the Jordan—went all the way to Damascus with him—saw the war through to a finish—in case you choose to call it finished."
Vainly I tried to pin him down to personal reminiscences. He was not interested in his own story.
"The British promised old King Hussein of Mecca that if he'd raise an Arab army to use against the Turks, there should be a united Arab kingdom afterward under a ruler of their own choosing. The kingdom was to include Syria, Arabia and Palestine. The French agreed. Well, the Arabs raised the army; Emir Feisul, King Hussein's third son, commanded it; Lawrence did so well that he became a legend. The result was, Allenby could concentrate his army on this side of the Jordan and clean up. He made a good job of it. The Arabs were naturally cock-a-hoop."
I suggested that the Arabs with that great army could have enforced the contract, but he laughed again.
"They were being paid in gold by the British, and had Lawrence to hold them together. The flow of gold stopped, and Lawrence was sent home. Somebody at the Foreign Office had changed his mind. You see, they were all taken by surprise at the speed of Allenby's campaign. The Zionists saw their chance, and claimed Palestine. No doubt they had money and influence. Perhaps it was Jewish gold that had paid the wages of the Arab army. Anyhow, the French laid claim to Syria. By the time the war was over the Zionists had a hard-and-fast guarantee, the French claim to Syria had been admitted, and there wasn't any country left except some Arabian desert to let the Arabs have. That's the situation. Feisul is in Damascus, going through the farce of being proclaimed king, with the French holding the sea-ports and getting ready to oust him. The Zionists are in Jerusalem, working like beavers, and the British are getting ready to pull out as much as possible and leave the Zionists to do their own worrying. Mesopotamia is in a state of more or less anarchy. Egypt is like a hot-box full of explosive—may go off any minute. The Arabs would like to challenge the world to mortal combat, and then fight one another while the rest of the world pays the bill—"
"The French, for instance. Their army is weak at the moment. They've neither men nor money—only a hunger to own Syria. They don't play what the English call 'on side.' They play a mean game. The French General Staff figure that if Feisul should attack them now he might beat them. So they've conceived the brilliant idea of spreading sedition and every kind of political discontent into Palestine and across the Jordan, so that if the Arabs make an effort they'll make it simultaneously in both countries. Then the British, being in the same mess with the French, would have to take the French side and make a joint campaign of it."
"But don't the British know this?"
"You bet they know it. What's the Intelligence for? The French are hiring all the Arab newspapers to preach against the British. A child could see it with his eyes shut."
"Then why in thunder don't the British have a showdown?"
"That's where the joker comes in. The French know there's a sort of diplomatic credo at the London Foreign Office to the general effect that England and France have got to stand together or Europe will go to pieces. The French are realists. They bank on that. They tread on British corns, out here, all they want to, while they toss bouquets, backed by airplanes, across the English Channel."
"Then the war didn't end the old diplomacy?"
"What a question! But I haven't more than scratched the Near East surface for you yet. There's Mustapha Kemal in Anatolia, leader of the Turkish Nationalists, no more dead or incapacitated than a possum. He's playing for his own hand—Kaiser Willy stuff—studying Trotzky and Lenin, and flirting with Feisul's party on the side. Then there's a Bolshevist element among the Zionists—got teeth, too. There's an effort being made from India to intrigue among the Sikh troops employed in Palestine. There's a very strong party yelling for an American mandate. The Armenians, poor devils, are pulling any string they can get hold of, in the hope that anything at all may happen. The orthodox Jews are against the Zionists; the Arabs are against them both, and furious with one another. There's a pan-Islam movement on foot, and a pan-Turanian—both different, and opposed. About 75 per cent of the British are as pro-Arab as they dare be, but the rest are strong for the Zionists. And the Administrator's neutral!—strong for law and order but taking no sides."
"I'm one of the men who is trying to keep the peace."
He invited me to stay to dinner. The other members of the mess were trooping in, all his juniors, all obviously fond of him and boisterously irreverent of his rank. Dinner under his chairmanship was a sort of school for repartee. It was utterly unlike the usual British mess dinner. If you shut your eyes for a minute you couldn't believe that any one present had ever worn a uniform. I learned afterward that there was quite a little competition to get into that mess.
After dinner most of them trooped out again, to dance with Zionist ladies at an institute affair. But he and I stayed, and talked until midnight. Before I left, the key of Palestine and Syria was in my hands.
"You seem interested," he said, coming with me to the door. "If you don't mind rough spots now and then, I'll try to show you a few things at first hand."
"No objection; only a stipulation."
The showmanship began much sooner than I hoped. The following day was Sunday, and I had an invitation to a sort of semi-public tea given by the American Colony after their afternoon religious service.
They received their guests in a huge, well-furnished room on the upper floor of a stone house built around a courtyard filled with flowers. I think they were a little proud of the number of fierce-looking Arabs, who had traveled long distances in order to be present. Ten Arab chieftains in full costume, with fifteen or twenty of their followers, all there at great expense of trouble, time and money, for friends sake, were, after all, something to feel a bit chesty about. Every member of the Colony seemed able to talk Arabic like a native and, as they used to say in the up- state papers, a good time was being had by all. The Near East adores ice-cream, and there was lots of it.
Two of the Arab chiefs were Christians; the rest were not. The peace and war record of the Colony was what had brought them all there. Hardly an Arab in the country was not the Colony's debtor for disinterested help, direct or indirect, at some time in some way. The American Colony was the one place in the country where a man of any creed could go and be sure that whatever he might say would not be used against him. So they were talking their heads off. Hot air and Arab politics have quite a lot in common. But there was a broad desert-breath about it all. It wasn't like the little gusty yaps you hear in the city coffee-shops. A lot of the talk was foolish, but it was all magnificent.
There was one sheikh named Mustapha ben Nasir dressed in a blue serge suit and patent-leather boots, with nothing to show his nationality except a striped silk head-dress with the camel-hair band around the forehead. He was a handsome fellow, with a black beard trimmed to a point, and perfect manners, polished no doubt in a dozen countries, but still Eastern in slow, deferential dignity. He could talk good French. I fell in conversation with him.
The frankness with which treason is mooted, admitted and discussed in the Near East is one of the first things that amaze you. They are so open about it that nobody takes them seriously. Apparently it is only when they don't talk treason openly that the ruling authorities get curious and make arrests. To me, a total stranger, with nothing to recommend me but that for an hour or two that afternoon I was a guest of the American Colony, Mustapha ben Nasir made no bones whatever about the fact that the was being paid by the French to stir up feeling over Jordan against the British.
"I receive a monthly salary," he boasted. "I am just from Damascus, where the French Liaison-officer paid me and gave me some instructions."
"Where is your home?" I asked him.
"At El-Kerak, in the mountains of Moab, across the Dead Sea. I start this evening. Will you come with me?"
"Je m'en bien garderai!"
He smiled. "Myself, I am in favor of the British. The French pay my expenses, that is all. What we all want is an independent Arab government—some say kingdom, some say republic. If it is not time for that yet, then we would choose an American mandate. But America has deserted us. Failing America, we prefer the English for the present. Anything except France! We do not want to become a new Algeria."
"What is the condition now at El-Kerak?"
"Condition? There is none. There is chaos. You see, the British say their authority ceases at the River Jordan and at a line drawn down the middle of the Dead Sea. That leaves us with a choice between two other governments—King Hussein's government of Mecca, and Feisul's in Syria. But Hussein's arm is not long enough to reach us from the South, and Feisul's is not nearly strong enough to interfere from the North. So there is no government, and each man is keeping the peace with his own sword."
"You mean; each man on his own account?"
"Yes. So there is peace. Five—fifteen—thirty throats are cut daily; and if you go down to the Jordan and listen, you will hear the shots being fired from ambush any day."
"And you invite me to make the trip with you?"
"Oh, that is nothing. In the first place, you are American. Nobody will interfere with an American. They are welcome. In the second place, there is a good reason for bringing you; we all want an American school at El-Kerak."
"But I am no teacher."
"But you will be returning to America? It is enough, then, that you look the situation over, and tell what you know on your return. We will provide a building, a proper salary, and guarantee the teacher's life. We would prefer a woman, but it would be wisest to send a man."
"How so? The woman might not shoot straight? I've some of our Western women do tricks with a gun that would—"
"There would be no need. She would have our word of honour. But every sheikh who has only three wives would want to make her his fourth. A man would be best. Will you come with me?"
"On your single undertaking to protect me? Are you king of all that countryside?"
"If you will come, you shall have an escort, every man of whom will die before he would let you be killed. And if they, and you, should all be killed, their sons and grandsons would avenge you to the third generation of your murderers."
"That's undoubtedly handsome, but—"
"Believe me, effendi," he urged, "many a soul has been consoled in hell-fire by the knowledge that his adversaries would be cut off in their prime by friends who are true to their given word."
Meaning to back out politely, I assured him I would think the offer over.
"Well and good," he answered. "You have my promise. Should you decide to come, leave word here with the American Colony. They will get word to me. Then I will send for you, and the escort shall meet you at the Dead Sea."
I talked it over with two or three members of the Colony, and they assured me the promise could be depended on. One of them added:
"Besides, you ought to see El-Kerak. It's an old crusader city, rather ruined, but more or less the way the crusaders left it. And that craving of theirs for a school is worth doing something about, if you ever have an opportunity. They say they have too much religion already, and no enlightenment at all. A teacher who knew Arabic would have a first-class time, and would be well paid and protected, if he could keep his hands off politics. Why not talk with Major Grim?"
It was a half-hour's walk to Grim's place, but I had the good fortune to catch him in again. He was sitting in the same chair, studying the same book, and this time I saw the title of it— Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean—a strange book for a soldier to be reading, and cutting its pages with an inlaid dagger, in a Jerusalem semi-military boarding-house. But he was a man of unexpectedly assorted moods.
He laughed when I told of ben Nasir. He looked serious when I mooted El-Kerak—serious, then interested, them speculative. From where I sat I could watch the changes in his eyes.
"What would the escort amount to?" I asked him.
"And what's this bunk about Americans being welcome anywhere?"
"Perfectly true. All the way from Aleppo down to Beersheba. Men like Dr. Bliss* have made such an impression that an occasional rotter might easily take advantage of it. Americans in this country—so far—stand for altruism without ulterior motive. If we'd accepted the mandate they might have found us out! Meanwhile, an American is safe." [*President of the American College at Beirut. Died 1920, probably more respected throughout the Near East than any ten men of any other nationality.]
"Then I think I'll go to El-Kerak."
Again his eyes grew speculative. I could not tell whether he was considering me or some problem of his own.
"Speaking unofficially," he said, "there are two possibilities. You might go without permission—easy enough, provided you don't talk beforehand. In that case, you'd get there and back; after which, the Administration would label and index you. The remainder of your stay in Palestine would be about as exciting as pushing a perambulator in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. You'd be canned."
"I'd rather be killed. What's the alternative?"
"Get permission. I shall be at El-Kerak myself within the next few days. I think it can be arranged."
"D'you mean I can go with you?" I asked, as eager as a schoolboy for the circus.
"Not on your life! I don't go as an American."
Recalling the first time I had seen him, I sat still and tried to look like a person who was not thrilled in the least by seeing secrets from the inside.
"Well," I said, "I'm in your hands."
I think he rather liked that. As I came to know him more intimately later on he revealed an iron delight in being trusted. But he did not say another word for several minutes, as if there were maps in his mind that he was conning before reaching a decision. Then he spoke suddenly.
"Are you busy?" he asked. "Then come with me."
He phoned to some place or other for a staff automobile, and the man was there with it within three minutes. We piled in and drove at totally unholy speed down narrow streets between walls, around blind right-angle turns where Arab policemen stood waving unintelligible signals, and up the Mount of Olives, past the British military grave-yard, to the place they call OETA.* The Kaiser had it built to command every view of the countryside and be seen from everywhere, as a monument to his own greatness—the biggest, lordliest, most expensive hospice that his architects could fashion, with pictures in mosaic on the walls and ceilings of the Kaiser and his ancestors in league with the Almighty. But the British had adopted it as Administration Headquarters. [*Headquarters: Occupied Enemy Territory Administration.]
All the way up, behind and in front and on either hand, there were views that millions* would give years of their lives to see; and they would get good value for their bargain. Behind us, the sky-line was a panorama of the Holy City, domes, minarets and curved stone roofs rising irregularly above gray battlemented walls. Down on the right was the ghastly valley of Jehoshaphat, treeless, dry, and crowded with white tombs—"dry bones in the valley of death." To the left were everlasting limestone hills, one of them topped by the ruined reputed tomb of Samuel—all trenched, cross-trenched and war-scarred, but covered now in a Joseph's coat of flowers, blue, blood-red, yellow and white. [* This is no exaggeration. There are actually millions, and on more than one continent, whose dearest wish, could they have it, would be to see Jerusalem before they die.]
There were lines of camels sauntering majestically along three hill-tops, making time, and the speed of the car we rode in, seem utterly unreal. And as we topped the hill the Dead Sea lay below us, like a polished turquoise set in the yellow gold of the barren Moab Mountains. That view made you gasp. Even Grim, who was used to it, could not turn his eyes away.
We whirled past saluting Sikhs at the pompous Kaiserish entrance gate, and got out on to front steps that brought to mind one of those glittering hotels at German cure-resorts—bad art, bad taste, bad amusements and a big bill.
But inside, in the echoing stone corridors that opened through Gothic windows on a courtyard, in which statues of German super- people stared with blind eyes, there was nothing now but bald military neatness and economy. Hurrying up an uncarpeted stone stairway (Grim seemed to be a speed-demon once his mind was set) we followed a corridor around two sides of the square, past dozens of closed doors bearing department names, to the Administrator's quarters at the far end. There, on a bare bench in a barren ante-room, Grim left me to cool my heels. He knocked, and entered a door marked "private."
It was fully half an hour before the door opened again and I was beckoned in. Grim was alone in the room with the Administrator, a rather small, lean, rigidly set up man, with merry fire in his eye, and an instantly obvious gift for being obeyed. He sat at an enormous desk, but would have looked more at ease in a tent, or on horseback. The three long rows of campaign ribbons looked incongruous beside the bunch of flowers that somebody had crammed into a Damascus vase on the desk, with the estimable military notion of making the utmost use of space.
Sir Louis was certainly in an excellent temper. He offered me a chair, and looked at me with a sort of practical good-humour that seemed to say, "Well, here he is; now how shall we handle him?" I was minded to ask outright for what I wanted, but something in his attitude revealed that he knew all that already and would prefer to come at the problem in his own way. It was clear, without a word being said, that he proposed to make some sort of use of me without being so indiscreet as to admit it. He reminded me rather of Julius Caesar, who was also a little man, considering the probable qualifications of some minor spoke in a prodigious wheel of plans.
"I understand you want to go to El-Kerak?" he said, smiling as if all life were an amusing game.
I admitted the impeachment. Grim was standing, some little way behind me and to one side; I did not turn my head to look at him, for that might have given a false impression that he and I were in league together, but I was somehow aware that with folded arms he was studying me minutely.
"Well," said Sir Louis, "there's no objection; only a stipulation: We wouldn't let an Englishman go, because of the risk—not to him, but to us. Any fool has a right to get killed, but not to obligate his government. All the missionaries were called in from those outlying districts long ago. We don't want to be held liable for damages for failure to protect. Such things have happened. You see, the idea is, we assume no responsibility for what takes place beyond the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Now, if you'd like to sign a letter waiving any claim against us for protection, that would remove any obstacle to your going. But, if you think that unreasonable, the alternative is safe. You can, stay in Jerusalem. Quite simple."
That had the merit of frankness. It sounded fair enough. Nevertheless, he was certainly not being perfectly frank. The merriment in his eyes meant something more than mere amusement. It occurred to me that his frankness took the extreme form of not concealing that he had something important in reserve. I rather liked him for it. His attitude seemed to be that if I wanted to take a chance, I might on my own responsibility, but that if my doing so should happen to suit his plans, that was his affair. Grim was still watching me the way a cat watches a mouse.
"I'll sign such a letter," said I.
"Good. Here are pen and paper. Let's have it all in your handwriting. I'll call a clerk to witness the signature."
I wrote down the simple statement that I wished to go to El-Kerak for personal reasons, and that I waived all claim against the British Administration for personal protection, whether there or en route. A clerk, who looked as if he could not have been hired to know, or understand, or remember anything without permission, came in answer to the bell. I signed. He witnessed.
Sir Louis put the letter in a drawer, and the clerk went out again.
"How soon will you go?"
I told about the promised escort, and that a day or two would be needed to get word to ben Nasir. I forgot that ben Nasir would not start before moonrise. It appeared that Sir Louis knew more than he cared to admit.
"Can't we get word to ben Nasir for him, Grim?"
Grim nodded. So did Sir Louis:
"Good. There'll be no need, then, for you to take any one into confidence," he said, turning to me again. "As a rule it isn't well to talk about these things, because people get wrong ideas. There are others in Jerusalem who would like permission to go to El-Kerak."
"I'll tell nobody."
He nodded again. He was still considering things in the back of his mind, while those intelligent, bright eyes smiled so disarmingly.
"How do you propose to reach the Dead Sea?" he asked. "Ben Nasir's escort will probably meet you on the shore on this side."
"Oh, hire some sort of conveyance, I suppose."
"Couldn't we lend him one of our cars, Grim?"
Grim nodded again.
"We'll do that. Grim, can you get word to ben Nasir so that when the escort is ready he may send a messenger straight to the hotel with the information? D'you get my meaning?"
"Sure," said Grim, "nobody else need know then."
"Very well," said Sir Louis. He rose from his chair to intimate that the precise moment had arrived when I might leave without indiscretion. It was not until I was outside the door that I realized that my permission was simply verbal, and that the only document that had changed hands had been signed by me. Grim followed me into the ante-room after a minute.
"Hadn't I better go back and ask for something in writing from him?" I suggested.
"You wouldn't get it. Anyhow, you're dealing with a gentleman. You needn't worry. I was afraid once or twice you might be going to ask him questions. He'd have canned you if you had. Why didn't you?"
I was not going to help Grim dissect my mental processes.
"There's a delightful air of mystery," I said, "I'd hate to spoil it!"
"Come up on the tower," he said. "There's just time before sunset. If you've good eyes, I'll show you El-Kerak."
It is an enormous tower. The wireless apparatus connected with it can talk with Paris and Calcutta. From the top you feel as if you were seeing "all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time." There are no other buildings to cut off the view or tamper with perspective. The Dead Sea was growing dark. The Moab Hills beyond it looked lonely and savage in silhouette.
"Down there on your left is Jericho," said Grim. "That winding creek beyond it is the Jordan. As far eastward as that there's some peace. Beyond that, there is hardly a rock that isn't used for ambush regularly. Let your eye travel along the top of the hills—nearly as far as the end of the Dead Sea. Now—d'you see where a touch of sunlight glints on something? That's the top of the castle-wall of El-Kerak. Judge what strategists those old crusaders were. That site commands the ancient high road from Egypt. They could sit up there and take toll to their hearts' content. The Turks quartered troops in the castle and did the same thing. But the Turks overdid it, like everything else. They ruined the trade. No road there nowadays that amounts to anything."
"It looks about ten miles away."
"More than eighty."
The sun went down behind us while we watched, and here and there the little scattered lights came out among the silent hills in proof that there were humans who thought of them in terms of home.
Venus and Mars shone forth, yellow and red jewels; then the moon, rising like a stage effect, too big, too strongly lighted to seem real, peering inch by inch above the hills and ushering in silence. We could hear one muezzin in Jerusalem wailing that God is God.
"That over yonder is savage country," Grim remarked. "I think maybe you'll like it. Time to go now."
He said nothing more until we were scooting downhill in the car in the midst of a cloud of dust.
"You won't see me again," he said then, "until you get to El- Kerak. There are just one or two points to bear in mind. D'you care if I lecture?"
"I wish you would."
"When the messenger comes from ben Nasir, go to the Governorate, just outside the Damascus Gate, phone OETA, say who you are, and ask for the car. Travel light. The less you take with you, the less temptation there'll be to steal and that much less danger for your escort. I always take nothing, and get shaved by a murderer at the nearest village. If you wash too much, or change your shirt too often, they suspect you of putting on airs. Can't travel too light. Use the car as far as Jericho, or thereabouts, and send it back when the messenger says he's through with it. After that, do whatever the leader of the escort tells you, and you'll be all right."
"How do I cross the Dead Sea?"
"That's ben Nasir's business. There's another point I'll ask you to bear in mind. When you see me at El-Kerak, be sure not to make the slightest sign of recognition, unless and until you get word from me. Act as if you'd never seen me in your life before."
I felt like an arch-conspirator, and there is no other sensation half so thrilling. The flattery of being let in, as it were, through a secret door was like strong wine.
"Is your memory good?" Grim asked me. "If you make notes, be sure you let everybody see them; you'll find more than one of them can read English. If you should see or overhear anything that you'd particularly like to remember because it might prove useful to me, note it down by making faint dots under the letters of words you've already written; or—better yet—take along a pocket Bible; they're all religious and respect the Bible. Make faint pencil lines underneath words or letters, and they'll think you're more than extra devout. There's nothing special to watch out for; just keep your ears and eyes open. Well, here's your hotel. See you again soon. So long."
I got out of the car and went to get ready for a Christian dinner served by Moslems, feeling like a person out of the Arabian Nights, who had just met the owner of a magic carpet on which one only had to sit in order to be wafted by invisible forces into unimaginable realms of mystery.
"Do whatever the leader of the escort tells you."
I never learned exactly how Jim Grim got word to ben Nasir. My suspicion is that he took the simple course of getting the American Colony to send one of their men; but as they never referred to it afterwards, and might have their own reasons for keeping silence, I took care not to ask them. We have most of us seen harm done by noisy gratitude for kindness, better covered up.
I kept close to the hotel for three days, studying Arabic. By the fourth afternoon discouragement set in. I began to believe that the whole affair had petered out; perhaps on reflection the Administrator had decided I was not a proper person to be turned loose out of bounds, and nobody could have blamed him for that, for he knew next to nothing about me. Or Grim might have been called off for some other important business. The chances seemed all against my going after all.
But on the fourth evening, just at sunset, when the sandwiches I had ordered in advance were all thoroughly stale and I had almost decided to unpack the small hand-grip and try to forget the whole affair, I noticed an Arab standing in the door of the hotel scrutinizing every one who passed him. I watched him for five minutes. He paid no attention to officers in uniform. I left my chair in the lobby and walked past him twice.
He had one eye, like a gimlet on a universal joint; he turned it this and that way without any corresponding movement of his head. It penetrated. You felt he could have seen you with it in the dark.
I started to pass him a third time. He held his hand out and thrust a small, soiled piece of paper into mine. The writing on it was in Arabic, so I went back to the seat in the far corner, to puzzle it out, he standing meanwhile in the doorway and continuing to quiz people as if I had meant nothing in his life. The message was short enough:
Bearer will accompany you to a place where the escort will be in readiness. God give your honour a good journey. Mustapha Ben Nasir.
I went to the Governorate and phoned for the car to come and pick me up outside the Jaffa Gate. The Arab followed me, and he and I were both searched at the gate for weapons, by a Sikh who knew nothing and cared less about Near East politics. His orders were to search thoroughly. He did it. The man whose turn was next ahead of mine was a Russian priest, whose long black cloak did not save him from painstaking suspicion. He was still indignantly refusing to take down his pants and prove that the hard lump on his thigh was really an amulet against sciatica, when the car came for me.
It was an ordinary Ford car, and the driver was not in uniform. He, too, had only one eye in full commission, for the other was bruised and father swollen. I got in beside him and let the Arab have the rear seat to himself, reflecting that I would be able to smell all the Arab sweat I cared to in the days to come.
We are governed much more by our noses than we are often aware of, and I believe that many people—in the East especially—use scent because intuition warns them that their true smell would arouse unconscious antagonism. Dogs, as well as most wild animals, fight at the suggestion of a smell. Humans only differ from the animals, much, when they are being self-consciously human. Then they forget what they really know and tumble headlong into trouble.
The driver seemed to know which road to take, and to be in no particular hurry, perhaps on account of his injured eye. He was an ex-soldier, of course: one of those under-sized Cockneys with the Whitechapel pallor overlying a pugnacious instinct, who make such astonishing fighting-men in the intervals between sulking and a sort of half-affectionate abuse of everything in sight. Being impatient to begin the adventure, I suggested more speed.
"Oh!" he answered. "So you're another o' these people in an 'urry to get to Jericho! It's strynge. The last one was a Harab. Tyke it from me, gov'nor, I've driven the very last Harab as gets more than twenty-five miles an hour out o' me, so 'elp me—"
He tooled the car out on to the road toward Bethany, and down the steep hill that passes under the Garden of Gethsemane, before vouchsafing another word. Then, as we started to climb the hill ahead, he jerked his chin in the direction of the sharp turn we had just passed in the bottom of the valley. "Took that corner las' time on one wheel!"
"For the Arab?"
"Aye. Taught me a lesson. Never agayn! I ain't no Arabian Night. Nor yet no self-immolatin' 'Indoo invitin' no juggernauts to make no pancykes out o' me. 'Enceforth, I drives reasonable. All Harabs may go to 'ell for all o' me."
He was itching to tell his story. He was likely to tell it quicker for not being questioned; your Cockney dislikes anything he can construe into inquisition. I remarked that the road didn't seem made for speed—too narrow and too rough—and let it go at that.
He said no more until we reached the village of Bethany, and drew abreast of Lazarus' reputed tomb, where a pack of scavenger-dogs awoke and yelped around the wheels. He did his best to run over one of them, but missed. Then he could not hold his story any longer.
"Two nights ago," he said, "they gives me orders to take a Harab to a point near Jericho. After dark, I starts off, 'im on the back seat; engine ain't warm yet, so we goes slow. He leans forward after a couple o' minutes, an says 'Yalla kawam'!" * So I thinks to myself I'll show the blighter a thing or two, me not bein' used to takin' orders from no Harabs. Soon as the engine's 'ot I lets rip, an' you know now what the road's like. When we gets to the top o' that 'ill above Gethsemane I lets extry special rip. Thinks I, if you can stand what I can, my son, you've guts. [*Hurry up.]
"Well, we 'its all the 'igh places, and lands on a bit o' level road just often enough to pick up more speed—comes round that sharp bend on 'alf a wheel, syme as I told you—kills three pye- dogs for sure, an' maybe others, but I don't dare look round— misses a camel in the dark that close that the 'air on my arms an' legs fair crawled up an' down me—'it's a lump o' rock that comes near tippin' us into the ditch—an' carries on faster an' ever. By the time we gets 'ere to Bethany, thinks I, it's time to take a look an' see if my passenger's still in the bloomin' car. So I slows down.
"The minute I turns my 'ead to 'ave a peer at 'im. 'Kawam!' 'e says. 'Quick! Quick!'
"So it strikes me I weren't in no such 'urry after all. Why 'urry for a Harab? The car's been rattlin' worse 'n a tinker's basket. I gets down to lave a look—lights a gasper*—an' takes my bloomin' time about it. You seen them yellow curs there by Lazarus' tomb? Well, they come for me, yappin' an' snarlin' to beat 'ell. I'm pickin' up stones to break their 'eads with—good stones ain't such easy findin' in the dark, an' every time I stoops 'alf a dozen curs makes a rush for me—when what d'you suppose? That bloomin' Harab passenger o' mine vaults over into my seat, an' afore I could say ''ell's bells' 'e's off. I'd left the engine runnin'. By the luck o' the Lord I 'angs on, an' scrambles in—back seat. [*Anglice—canteen cigarette.]
"I thought at first I'd reach over an' get a half-nelson on 'im from behind. But, strike me blind! I didn't dare!
"Look where we are now. Can you see the 'air-pin turn at the bottom of this 'ill, with a ditch, beyond it? Well, we takes that turn in pitch-dark shadow with all four wheels in the air, an' you'd 'a thought we was a blinkin' airplane a doin' stunts. But 'e's a hexpert, 'e is, an' we 'olds the road. From there on we goes in one 'oly murderin' streak to a point about 'alf-way up the 'ill where the Inn of the Good Samaritan stands on top. There we 'as two blow-outs simultaneous, an' thinks I, now, my son, I've got you! I gets out.
"'You can drive,' I says, 'like Jehu son o' Nimshi what made Israel to sin. Let's see you make bricks now without no bleedin' straw'! I knew there weren't no tools under the seat—there never are in this 'ere country if you've left your car out o' your sight for five minutes. 'You take off them two back tires,' I says, 'while I sit 'ere an meditate on the ways of Harabs! Maybe you're Moses,' I says, 'an know 'ow to work a miracle.'
"But the only miracle about that bloke's 'is nerve. 'E gets out, 'an begins to walk straight on up'ill without as much as a by- your-leave. I shouts to 'im to come back. But 'e walks on. So I picks up a stone off the pile I was sittin' on, an' I plugs 'im good—'its 'im fair between the shoulder-blades. You'd think, if 'e was a Harab, that'ud bring 'im to 'is senses, wouldn't you? But what d'you suppose the blighter did?
"Did you notice my left eye when you got in the car? 'E turns back, an' thinks I, 'e's goin' to knife me. But that sport could use 'is fists, an' believe me, 'e done it! I can use 'em a bit myself, an' I starts in to knock 'is block off, but 'e puts it all over me—weight, reach an' science. Mind you, science! First Arab ever I see what 'ad science; an' I don't more than 'alf believe it now!
"Got to 'and it to 'im. 'E was merciful. 'E let up on me the minute 'e see I'd 'ad enough. 'E starts off up'ill again. I sits where 'e'd knocked me on to a stone pile, wishin' like 'ell for a drink. It was full moonlight, an' you could see for miles. After about fifteen minutes, me still meditatin' murder an' considerin' my thirst I seen 'em fetch a camel out o' the khan at the Inn o' the Good Samaritan; an' next thing you know, 'e's out o' sight. Thinks I, that's the last of 'im, an' good riddance! But not a bit of it!
"The men what fetched the camel for 'im comes down to me an' says the sheikh 'as left word I'm to be fed an' looked after. They fixes me up at the inn with a cot an' blankets an' a supper o' sorts, an' I lies awake listenin' to 'em talkin' Arabic, understandin' maybe one word out of six or seven. From what I can make o' their conjecturin', they think 'e ain't no sheikh at all, but a bloomin' British officer in disguise!
"Soon as morning comes I jump a passing commissariat lorry. As soon as I gets to Jerusalem I reports that sheikh for arson, theft, felo de se, busting a gov'ment car, usin' 'is fists when by right 'e should ha' knifed me, an' every other crime I could think of. An' all I gets is laughed at! What d'you make of it? Think 'e was a Harab?"
I wondered whether he was Jimgrim, but did not say so. Grim had not appeared to me like a man who would use his fists at all readily; but he was such an unusual individual that it was useless trying to outline what he might or might not do. It was also quite likely that the chauffeur had omitted mention of, say, nine-tenths of the provocation he gave his passenger. What interested me most was the thought that, if that really was Jimgrim, he must have been in a prodigious hurry about something; and that most likely meant excitement, if not danger across the Dead Sea.
We caught sight of the Dead Sea presently, bowling past the Inn of the Good Samaritan and beginning to descend into the valley, twelve hundred feet below sea level, that separates Palestine from Moab. The moon shone full on the water, and it looked more wan and wild than an illustration out of Dante's Inferno. There was no doubt how the legends sprang up about birds falling dead as they flew across it. It was difficult to believe that anything could be there and not die. It was a vision of the land of death made beautiful.
But the one-eyed Arab on the rear seat began to sing. To him that view meant "home, sweet home." His song was all about his village and how he loved it—what a pearl it was—how sweeter than all cities.
"'Ark at 'im!" The driver stopped the car to fill his pipe. "You'd think 'e lived in 'eaven! I've fought over every hinch o' this perishin' country, an' tyke it from me, guv'nor, there ain't a village in it but what's composed of 'ovels wi' thatched roofs, an' 'eaps o' dung so you can't walk between 'em! Any one as wants my share o' Palestine can 'ave it!"
We bumped on again down a road so lonely that it would have felt good to see a wild beast, or an armed man lurking in wait for us. But the British had accomplished the impossible: They had so laid the fear of law along those roads that, though there might be murders to the right and left of them, the passer-by who kept to the road was safe, for the first time since the Romans now and then imposed a temporary peace.
At last, like two yellow streams glistening in moonlight, the road forked—one way toward Jericho. The other way appeared to run more or less parallel with the Dead Sea. At that point the one-eyed Arab left off singing at last and clutched the driver's shoulder.
"All right! All right!" he answered impatiently, and stopped. "Out you get, then!"
He did not expect the tip I gave him. He seemed to think it placed him under obligation to wait there and talk for a few minutes. But my one-eyed guide waved him away disgustedly with the hand that did not hold my bag, and we stood in the road watching until he vanished up-hill out of sight. Then the guide plucked my sleeve and I followed him along the righthand road. We walked half a mile as fast as he could set foot to the ground.
At last we reached a pretense of a village—a little cluster of half-a-dozen thatched stone huts enclosed within one fence of thorn and cactus. Everything showed up as clearly in the moonlight as if painted with phosphorus. The heavy shadows only made the high lights seem more luminous. A man and two donkeys were waiting for us outside the thorn hedge. The man made no remark. My guide and I mounted and rode on.
Presently we turned down a track toward the Dead Sea, riding among huge shadows cast by the hills on our right hand. The little jackals they call foxes crossed our path at intervals. Owls the size of a robin, only vastly fluffier, screamed from the rocks as we passed them. Otherwise, it was like a soul's last journey, eerie, lonely and awful, down toward River Styx.
Long before we caught sight of the water again, through a ragged gap between high limestone rocks, I could smell a village. The guide approached it cautiously, stopping every minute or so to listen. When we came on it at last it was down below us in abysmal darkness, one light shining through a window two feet square in proof we were not hesitating on the verge of the infinite pit.
The donkeys knew the way. They trod daintily, like little ladies, along a circling track that goats made and men had certainly done nothing to improve. We made an almost complete ellipse around and down, and rode at last over dry dung at the bottom, into which the donkeys' feet sank as into a three-pile carpet. You could see the stars overhead, but nothing, where we were, except that window and a shaft of yellow light with hundreds of moths dazzled in it.
We must have made some noise in spite of the donkeys' vetvet foot-fall. As we crossed the shaft of light a door opened within six feet of the window. A man in Arab deshabille with a red tarboosh awry, thrust out his head and drew it in again quickly.
"Is that the American?" he asked. He held the door so that he could slam it in our faces if required.
The guide made no answer. I gave my name. The man opened the door wider.
"Lailtak sa'idi, effendi! Hishkur Allah! Come in, mister!" The guide led the donkeys away to some invisible place. I crossed the threshold, my host holding his tin lantern carefully to show the two steps leading down to a flag-stone floor. He bolted the door the moment I was inside. He seemed in a great state of excitement, and afraid to make any noise. Even when he shot the bolt he did it silently.
It was a square room, moderately clean, furnished only with a table and two chairs. There were other rooms leading off it, but the stone partitions did not reach as high as the thatch and I could hear rustling, and some one snoring. I sat on one of the chairs at his invitation, and rather hoped for supper, having had none. But supper was not in his mind; it seemed he had too much else to worry him. He looked like a man who worried easily, and likely enough with good reason, for his long nose and narrow eyes did not suggest honesty.
"There was to be an escort to meet me here," I said.
"Yes, yes. Thank God, mister, you have come at last. If you had only come at sunset! Ali has gone to bring them now."
"Who is Ali?"
"He with one eye. He who brought you. Your escort came at sunset. Because I am Christian they would not listen to me or wait for you in my house. There are twenty of them, led by Anazeh, who is a bad rascal. They have gone to raid the villages. There has been trouble. I have heard two shots fired. Now they will come back to my house, and if the Sikh patrol is after them they will be caught here, and I shall be accused of helping them. May the fires of their lying Prophet's Eblis burn Anazeh and his men forever and ever, Amen! May God curse their religion!"
That was a nice state of affairs. I did not want to be caught there by a lot of truculent Sikhs under one of those jocularly incredulous young British subalterns that Sikhs adore. In the first place, I had nothing whatever in writing to prove my innocence. The least that was likely to happen would be an ignominious return to Jerusalem, after a night in a guard-house, should there be a guard-house; failing that, a night in the open within easy reach of Sikh's bayonets. In Jerusalem, no doubt, Sir Louis would order me released immediately. But it began to look as if the whole mystery after all was nothing but a well- staged decoy, using me for bait. Not even tadpoles enjoy being used for live-bait without being consulted first. I began to spear about for remedies.
"If you're an honest man," I said, "you'd better simply deny all connection with the raid."
He shrugged his shoulders. He did not look like an honest man. He wasn't one. He knew it. He retorted gloomily:
"Anazeh's scoundrels will have raided sheep, and perhaps cattle. If any one has resisted them, there will be wailing widows crying out for vengeance. They will put the sheep and cattle in their boats in which they came over the sea this afternoon. The boats will be found by the Sikhs, hauled up on the sand-pit just below my house, with my motor-boat beside them. I am ruined!"
Well, my own predicament was better than that. Nobody was likely to accuse me of having stolen sheep. But I could not feel sorry for my host, because he was so sorry for himself. He was one of those unfortunates who carry the conviction of their own guilt in their faces. I gave up all idea of relying on him in case the Sikhs should come.
My next idea was to ask for the loan of one of the donkeys, and to start back toward Jerusalem. But I had not more than thought of it when men's footsteps pattered on the yard dung, and an indubitable rifle-butt beat on the wooden door.
"For God's sake!" hissed the owner of the place. He ran to the door to open it as the thumping grew louder. As he drew the bolt somebody kicked the door open, sending him reeling backwards. For a second I thought the Sikhs had come.
But he was nothing like a Sikh who strode in, with a dozen ruffians at his tail and one-eyed Ali bringing up the rear. He was one of the finest-looking Arabs I had ever seen, although considerably past fifty and wrinkled so that his face was a net- work of fine lines, out of which his big, dark eyes shone with unaged intelligence. He was magnificently dressed, perhaps in order to do me honour. Except for the fact that he carried a modern military rifle on his elbow, in place of a shepherd's crook or a spear, he looked like one of those historic worthies who stalk through the pages of the Pentateuch. The dignity and charm with which he bowed to me were inimitable—unconveyable. But he turned on my Christian host like a prophet of old rebuking blasphemy.
Arabic when the right man uses it sounds like tooth-for-a-tooth law being laid down. Hebrew is all music and soft vowels; Arabic all guttural consonants. The Sheikh Anazeh (there was no doubt of his identity; they all kept calling him by name) fulminated. The other bleated at him. I learned his name at last. Ali of the one eye pressed forward, took him by the sleeve, and called him Ahmed. Ali seemed to be adding persuasion to Anazeh's threats. Whatever it was they were driving at, Ahmed began to look like yielding. So, as I could not untangle more than one brief sentence at a time from all those galloping arguments, I pulled Ahmed away into a corner.
"What do they all want?" I asked him. "Tell me in ten words." But he was not a brief man.
"They say the Sikhs are after them. They have put the stolen sheep into their boats, as I told you they would, mister. Now they order me to tow them with my motor-boat. But it cannot be done, mister, it cannot be done! I tell them there is government launch near Jericho that the Sikh patrol can use to overtake us. I have a swift boat, but if I take in tow two other loaded boats we shall be caught; and then who will save everything I have from confiscation?"
"How close are the Sikhs?" I asked.
"God knows, mister! They can come fast. Unless I consent to let them use my boat, Anazeh will order his men to kill me, and then they will take the boat in any case! There is only one thing: they must leave the sheep behind and all crowd into my boat, but I cannot persuade them!"
At that moment another of Anazeh's party burst in through the door. He evidently bore bad news. Catching sight of me, he lowered his voice to a whisper, and, whatever he said, Anazeh nodded gravely. Then the old sheikh gave an order, and four of his men came without further ado to seize Ahmed.
"Bear me witness!" the wretched man called back to me as they dragged him off. "I go under protest—most unwillingly!"
Somebody struck him with a butt-end. A woman's head appeared over the top of the partition, and began to jabber noisily. Several of Anazeh's men hurled jests: the highest compliment they paid her was to call her Um-Kulsum, the mother of sin. Anazeh beckoned to me. He did not seem to doubt for an instant that I would follow him.
I was in no mind to wait there and be arrested by the Sikh patrol. I wondered whether they were coming in open order, combing the countryside, or heading all together straight for a known objective; and whether in either case I could give them the slip and head back toward Jerusalem. In that minute I recalled Grim's advice:
"Do whatever the leader of the escort tells you and you'll be all right. You needn't be afraid to trust him."
That settled it. I did not suppose for a minute that Grim had contemplated any such contingency as this; but he had volunteered the advice, so the consequences would be his affair. I followed Anazeh into outer darkness, and one of his men pulled the door to after me.
There was something very like a panic down by the waterside, three hundred yards away from the house. It needed all Anazeh's authority to straighten matters out. There were divided counsels; and the raiders were working at a disadvantage in total darkness; the shadow of the hills fell just beyond the stern of the boats as they lay with their bows ashore.
They had already forced Ahmed into his own motor-boat, where he was struggling vainly to crank a cold engine. Some of the others were trying to push off a boat full of bleating sheep. One man was carrying a fat sheep in his arms toward the motor-boat, splashing knee-deep in the water and shouting advice to everybody else, and in the end that was the only piece of plunder they got away with. Suddenly one man, who had been left behind to keep a look-out, came leaping like a ghost among the shadows, shouting the one word "askeri!" (Soldiers!) He jumped straight into the motor-boat. Anazeh bullied all the rest in after him. I climbed in over the bow. By that time you could not have crowded in one more passenger with the aid of a battering ram.
"Yalla!" barked Anazeh. But the engine would not start. Blood- curdling threats were hurled at the unhappy Ahmed. Some e of the men got into the water and began to shove off, as if the engine could be encouraged by collaboration.
I was just as keen to escape as any one. I could not imagine a Sikh or subaltern stupid enough to believe me innocent. It was a military government. Soldiers have a drum-head method of leaving nothing to discuss except where the corpse is to be buried.
I forced my way aft—got some gasoline out of the tank into a tin cup—thrust aside Ahmed and two other men—and primed the engine liberally. The engine coughed next time they moved the wheel, and in thirty seconds more we had it going. Ahmed came in for a volley of mockery for having to be shown the way to start his engine; but from the sour way he looked at me I was nearly sure he had stalled deliberately.
We backed away from shore, and Anazeh steered the boat's nose eastward. Then somebody at the reversing lever threw it forward too suddenly, and the still chilled engine stopped. It took about another minute to restart it. We were just beginning to gain speed when some one shouted. All eyes turned toward the shore, the overloaded boat rocking dangerously as the crowd bent their bodies all in one direction together.
Down near the shore-line an electric torch flashed on the uniforms of half-a-dozen Sikhs, and we could hear an unmistakably British voice shouting an order.
We were out in the moonlight now, a perfect target. Bullets chanced at us could hardly fail to hit somebody. Two or three well-placed shots might sink us. But Anazeh had presence of mind. He changed helm, so as to present us end-on to the shore. Low in the water though the boat was, we were beginning to make good headway.
The Sikhs lost no time. Shots began to whizz overhead and to splash the water around us. But the boat was painted gray; as we increased the distance we must have looked like a moving patch of darker water with a puzzling wake behind us. The sea was still. The stars were reflected in it in unsteady dots and streaks. The moon cast a silver patch of light that shimmered, and confused the eye. Sikhs are not by any means all marksmen. At any rate, the shots all missed. Though some of our party, Anazeh included, returned the fire, none boasted of having hit any one. And an Arab boasts at the least excuse.
In a few minutes we were out of range and, since there was no pursuing launch in sight, could afford to jeer at the Sikhs in chorus. There were things said about their habits and their ancestry that it is to be hoped they did not hear, or at any rate understand, for the sake of any Arab prisoners they might take in future. It always struck me as a fool game to mock your enemy. If you fall in his power at any time he would be almost more than human if he did not remember it. It seemed to me unlikely that those Sikhs would forget to avenge the Arab compliments that must have sizzled in ears across that star-lit sea. After that the only immediate danger was from the wind that sometimes blows down in sudden gusts from between the mountain-tops. It would have needed only half a sea to swamp us. But the Dead Sea was living up to its reputation, quiet, inert, like a mercury mirror for the stars—a brooding place of silence.
The Arabs' spirits rose as we chugged toward their savage hills. They began to sing glorious songs about women and mares and camels. Presently Anazeh improvised an epic about the night's raid, abortive though it had been. He left out all the disappointing part. He sang first of the three shore-dwelling fools whose boats they had stolen. Then of the baffled rage of those same fools when they should learn their property was lost forever. Presently, as he warmed to the spirit of the thing, he sang about the wails of the frightened villagers from whom they had plundered sheep and goats; and of the skill and resourcefulness with which the party had escaped pursuit under his leadership, Allah favoring, "and blessed be His Prophet!"
Last, he sang about me, the honoured stranger, for whom they had dared everything and conquered, and whom they were taking to El- Kerak. He described me as a prince from a far country, the son of a hundred kings.
It was a good song. I got Ahmed to translate it to me afterwards. But I suspect that Ahmed toned it down in deference to what he may have thought might be my modesty and moralistic scruples.
"I am willing to use all means—all methods."
Ahmed knew the Dead Sea. He knew its moods and a few of its tricks, so he was suitably scared. He was more of raid of the treacherous sea than of his captors. They weren't treacherous in the least. They were frankly disobedient of any law except their own; respectful of nothing but bullets, brains and their own interpretation of the Will of Allah. They showed sublime indifference to danger that always comes of ignorance. Ahmed was for running straight across to cut the voyage short, because of the wind that sometimes blows from the south at dawn. He said it might kick up a sea that would roll us over, for the weight of the Dead Sea waves in a blow is prodigious.
They overruled his protest with loud-lunged unanimity and lots of abuse. Anazeh continued to steer a diagonal course for a notch in the Moab Hills that look, until you get quite close to them, as if they rose sheer out of the sea. The old chief was pretty amateurish at the helm, whatever his other attainments. Our wake was like a drunkard's.
What with the danger in that overcrowded boat, and the manifestly compromising fact that I had now become one of a gang who boasted of the murder they had done that night, I did some speculation that seems ridiculous now, at this distance, after a lapse of time. It occurred to me that Grim might be disguised as a member of Anazeh's party. As far as possible in the dark I thoroughly scrutinized each individual. It is easy to laugh about it now, but I actually made my way to Anazeh's side and tried to discover whether the old Sheikh's wrinkles and gray-shot beard were not a very skillfully done make-up. At any rate, I got from that absurd investigation the sure knowledge that Grim was not in the boat with us.
I could not talk with Anazeh very well, because when he tried to understand my amateurish Arabic and to modify his flow of stately speech to meet my needs, he always put his head down, and the helm with it. It seemed wisest to let him do one unaccustomed thing at a time. I did not care to try to talk with any of his men, because that might possibly have been a breach of etiquette. Arab jealousy is about as quick as fulminate of mercury: as unreasonable, from a western viewpoint, as a love-sick woman's.
But there did not seem any objection to talking with Ahmed. He was at least in theory my co-religionist, and not a person any Moslem in that boat was likely to be jealous of. He jumped at the notion of making friends with me. He made no secret of the reason.
"You are safe, effendi. They will neither rob you, nor kill you, nor let you get killed. You are their guest. But as for me, they would cut my throat as readily as that sheep's, more especially since they have discovered that you know how to start the engine. My best chance was to make them believe that the engine is difficult to understand. Because of your knowledge they now feel independent of me. So I must yield to them in everything. And if they force me to swear on a Bible, and on my father's honour, and in the name of God, that I will not give evidence against them, I shall have to swear."
"An oath given under compulsion—" I began. But he laughed cynically.
"Ah! You do not know this land—these folk, effendi. If I were to break such an oath as that, they would burn my house, steal my cattle, ravish my wife, and hunt me to the death. If I ran away to America, Arabs in Chicago and New York would continue the hunt. This is a land where an oath is binding, unless you are the stronger. I am weak—an unimportant person."
"What is your business?" I asked.
"There is no business for a man like me. The regulations forbid commerce in the only goods for which there is a real demand among Bedouins."
"So you're a smuggler, eh?"
He laughed, between pride and caution, and changed the subject.
"I shall do what they order me, effendi. I think they will keep my boat over there to bring you back again. But when I get back the Sikhs will arrest me. So I ask you to bear me witness that I was compelled by threats and force to go with these people. In that way, with a little ingenuity—that is to say, the ingenious use of piastras—perhaps I can contrive to get out of the difficulty without being punished by both Arabs and British."
I promised to tell no more than I had seen and heard. On the strength of that we became as fast friends as suspicion permitted. We trusted each other, because we more or less had to, like a couple of thieves "on the lam." It suited me. He was a very good interpreter and slavishly anxious to please. But I lived to regret it later. When my evidence had cleared him of collusion in the raid, he chose on the strength of that to claim me as his friend for life. He turned up in the United States and tried to live on his wits. I had to pay a lawyer to defend him in Federal Court. He writes me piously pathetic letters from Leavenworth Penitentiary. And when he gets out I suppose I shall have to befriend him again. However, at the moment, he was useful.
It was just dawn when old Anazeh ran the launch into a cove between high rocks. Ahmed let out a shriek of anguish at the violence done the hull. They pitched the sheep overboard to wade ashore without remembering to untie its legs; it was almost drowned before it occurred to any one to rescue it. Perhaps it was dead. I don't know. Anyhow, one fellow prayed in a hurry while his companion cut the sheep's throat to make it lawful meat.
"God is good," old Anazeh remarked to me, "and blessed be His Prophet, who forbade us faithful, even though we hunger, to defile ourselves with the flesh of creatures whose blood did not flow from the knife of the slayer."
After that they all prayed, going first into the oily-feeling, asphaltic water for the ceremonial washing. They were quite particular about it. Then they spread prayer-mats, facing Mecca. Every single cut-throat had brought along his prayer-mat, and had treasured it as carefully as his rifle.
Ahmed and I sat on a rock and watched them. Ahmed pretended he wanted to pray, too. To impress me, he said he was a very devout Christian and that nothing should prevent the practice of his religion. But he was very quick to take my advice not to start anything that might bring on a breach of the peace. Old Anazeh's short preliminary sermon to his followers, about the need of always keeping God in mind, was not addressed to us.
Prayers finished, they proceeded to cut up and cook the sheep. Ahmed and I subdued the voice of conscience without noticeable effort and ate our share of the stolen goods. Ahmed said that, seeing how little was left for him when the rest had all been served, he sinned only in small degree, but that my share, as an honoured guest, was huge, and the sin proportionate. So I gave him some of my meat, and he ate it, and we were equally sinful— one more bond cementing an "eternal friendship!"
We had hardly finished eating when an Arab on a gray horse came riding furiously down a ravine that looked like a dry water- course. He was brought up all-standing fifty yards away. Every man in the party leveled a rifle at him. Anazeh beckoned me to come and get behind him for protection. He was very angry when I refused. He cursed the language and religion of whatever fool had taught me manners in a land where pigs are lawful food. However, after they had all had a good look at the horseman they let him draw near, and there followed a noisy conference, the man on the horse calling on Allah repeatedly with emphasis, and Anazeh and his followers all doing the same thing, but from an opposing viewpoint. I persuaded Ahmed to go up close and listen.
"The man is from El-Kerak," he said presently, while they all still fought with words, using tremendous oaths by way of artillery. "A council of the tribes has been summoned, to meet at El-Kerak, but each sheikh is only to take two men with him, because of the risk of fighting among themselves. Anazeh says there can be no proper council without his being present, and that he will attend the council; but as for taking only two men, he has pledged his word to escort you with twenty men to El- Kerak. He swears that he will carry out that pledge, even should he have to fight the whole way there and back again!"
Anazeh suddenly cut short the war of words. His gesture suggested that of Joshua who made the sun stand still. He tossed a curt order to one of his men, who went off at a run toward a village, whose morning smoke rose blue over a spur of the range a mile away. Then Anazeh sat down to await events, and took no more notice of the horseman's arguments. That did not worry the horseman much. He kept on arguing. Every few minutes one of Anazeh's men would go to him and repeat some tid-bit, as if the old sheikh had not heard it; but all he got for his pains was a gesture of contemptuous dismissal.
Ahmed kept growing more and more uncomfortable all the time. He had attended to his boat, making it properly fast and covering the engine, under the eyes of four men who were at pains to see that he did not crank up and desert. Now he was back beside me, trying to bolster up his own courage by making me afraid.
"They have determined to take me along with them to prevent me from escaping," he complained. "That man on the horse is saying that if more men go with Anazeh than you and two others, there will certainly be fighting. And Anazeh answers, he has pledged his word. Can you not say something to persuade Anazeh?"
I would rather have tried to persuade a tiger. Short of knocking the old raider on the head and standing off his twenty ruffians, I could not imagine a way of turning him from his set purpose. And at that, I had not a weapon of any kind. I was the goods, and the game old sportsman intended to deliver me, right side up, perhaps, but all in one piece and to the proper consignee.
"I don't see anything to worry about," said I.
"Wait till you hear the bullets!" Ahmed answered. Nevertheless, bullets or no bullets, I did not see what I could do about it. Again I remembered Grim's advice: "Do what the leader of the escort tells you." I had begun to feel sorry for Ahmed in spite of his self-pity, but his fear wasn't contagious and his advice wasn't worth listening to.
"Effendi, you are Anazeh's guest. He must do as you demand, if you ask in the Name of the Most High. Tell him, therefore, that you have an urgent business in El-Kudz. Demand that he send you back, with me, in my boat!"
"You are not his guest. He would simply shoot you and destroy the boat," I answered.
It was not more than half-an-hour before I saw horses coming in our direction from the village. At sight of them the man on the gray horse lost heart. With a final burst of eloquence, in which he spread his breast to heaven and shook both fists in witness that he was absolved and no blood-guilt could rest on his head, he rode away at top speed straight up the ravine down which he originally came.
The horses proved to be a very mixed lot—some good, some very bad, and some indifferent. But again they treated me as honoured guest and provided me a mare with four sound legs and nothing much the matter except vice. She came at me with open teeth when I tried to mount, but four men held her and I climbed aboard, somehow or other. As a horseman, I am a pretty good sack of potatoes.
That was the worst saddle I ever sat in—and Anazeh's second- best! The stirrups swung amidships, so to speak, and whenever you tried to rest your weight on them for a moment they described an arc toward the rear. Moreover, you could not sit well back on the saddle to balance matters, because of the high cantle. The result, whether you did with stirrups or without them, was torture, for anybody but an Arab, who has notions of comfort all his own.
They put Ahmed on a wall-eyed scrub that looked unfit to walk, but proved well able to gallop under his light weight. One of Anazeh's men took my bag, with a nod to reassure me, and without a word we were off full-pelt, Anazeh leading with four stalwarts who looked almost as hard-bitten as himself, six men crowding me closely, and the remainder bringing up the rear.