“Sahib, there is always—work for real soldiers!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
WHERE TWO OR THREE
Oh, all the world is sick with hate,
And who shall heal it, friend o’ mine?
And who is friend?
And who shall stand
Since hireling tongue and alien hand
Kill nobleness in all this land?
Judas and Pharisee combine
To plunder and proclaim it Fate.
Days when the upright dared be few
Are they departed, friend o’ mine?
Are bribery and rich largesse
Fair props for fat forgetfulness,
Or anodynous of distress?
Oh, would the world were drunk with wine
And not this last besotting brew!
Oh, for the wonderful again—
The greatly daring, friend o’ mine!
The simply gallant blade unbought,
The soul compassionate, unsought,
With no price but the priceless thought
Nor purpose than the brave design
Of giving that the world may gain!
So we took two rooms at the Yeni Khan instead of one, not being minded to sleep as closely as the gentry of Asia Minor like to. Will hurried us down there for a look at the gipsy girl. But the tent was gone and the gipsies with it, and when we asked questions about them people spat.
Your good Moslem—and a Moslem is good in those parts who makes a mountain of observances, regarding mole-hills of mere morals not at all—affects to despise all giaours; but a giaour, like a gipsy, who has no obvious religion of any kind, he ranks below the pig in order of reverence. It did not redound to our credit that we showed interest in the movements of such people.
Monty brought an enormous can of bug-powder with him, and restored our popularity by lending generously after he had treated our quarters sufficiently for three days’ stay. Fred did nothing to our quarters—stirred no finger, claiming convalescence with his tongue in his cheek, and strolling about until he fell utterly in love with the khan and its crowd, and the khan with him.
That very first night he brought out his concertina on the balcony, and yowled songs to its clamor; and whether or not the various crowd agreed on naming the noise music, all were delighted with the friendliness.
Fred talks more languages fluently than he can count on the fingers of both hands. He began to tell tales in a sing-song eastern snarl—a tale in Persian, then in Turkish, and the night grew breathless, full of listening, until pent-up interest at intervals burst bonds and there were “Ahs” and “Ohs” all amid the dark, like little breaths of night wind among trees.
He found small time for sleep, and when dawn came, and four Zeitoonli servants according to Kagig’s promise, they still swarmed around him begging for more. He went off to eat breakfast with a khan from Bokhara, sitting on a bale of nearly priceless carpets to drink overland tea made in a thing like a samovar.
All the rest of that day, and the next, sleeping only at intervals, while Monty and Will and I helped the Zeitoonli servants get our loads in shape, Fred sharpened his wonder-gift of tongues on the fascinated men of many nations, giving them London ditties and tales from the Thousand Nights and a Night in exchange for their news of caravan routes. He left them well pleased with their bargain.
Monty went off alone the second day to see about mules. The Turk with a trade to make believes that of several partners one is always “easier” than the rest; consequently, one man can bring him to see swifter reason than a number can. He came back that evening with twelve good mules and four attendants.
“One apiece to ride, and two apiece to carry everything. Not another mule to be had. Unpack the loads again and make them smaller!”
Fred came and sat with us that night before the charcoal brazier in his and Monty’s room.
“They all talk of robbers on the road,” he said. “Northward, through the Circassian Gates, or eastward it’s all the same. There’s a man in a room across the way who was stripped stark naked and beaten because they thought he might have money in his clothes. When he reached this place without a stitch on him he still had all his money in his clenched fists! Quite a sportsman—what? Imagine his juggling with it while they whipped him with knotted cords!”
“What have you heard about Kagig?”
“Nothing. But a lot about vukuart1. It’s vague, but there’s something in the air. You’ll notice the Turkish muleteers are having nothing whatever to say to our Zeitoonli, although they’ve accepted the same service. Moslems are keeping together, and Armenians are getting the silence cure. Armenians are even shy of speaking to one another. I’ve tried listening, and I’ve tried asking questions, although that was risky. I can’t get a word of explanation. I’ve noticed, though, that the ugly mood is broadening. They’ve been polite to me, but I’ve heard the word shapkali applied more than once to you fellows. Means hatted man, you know. Not a serious insult, but implies contempt.”
Nothing but comfort and respectability ever seemed able to make Fred gloomy. He discussed our present prospects with the air of an epicure ordering dinner. And Monty listened with his dark, delightful smile—the kindliest smile in all the world. I have seen unthoughtful men mistake it for a sign of weakness.
I have never known him to argue. Nor did he then, but strode straight down into the khan yard, we sitting on the balcony to watch. He visited our string of mules first for an excuse, and invited a Kurdish chieftain (all Kurds are chieftains away from home) to inspect a swollen fetlock. With that subtle flattery he unlocked the man’s reserve, passed on from chance remark to frank, good-humored questions, and within an hour had talked with twenty men. At last he called to one of the Zeitoonli to come and scrape the yard dung from his boots, climbed the stairs leisurely, and sat beside us.
“You’re quite right, Fred,” he said quietly.
Then there came suddenly from out the darkness a yell for help in English that brought three of us to our feet. Fred brushed his fierce mustaches upward with an air of satisfaction, and sat still.
“There’s somebody down there quite wrong, and in line at last to find out why!” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this. Sit down.”
We obeyed him, though the yells continued. There came blows suggestive of a woman on the housetops beating carpets.
“D’you recollect the man I mentioned at the consulate—the biped Peter Measel, missionary on his own account, who keeps a diary and libels ladies in it? Well, he’s foul of a thalukdar2 from Rajputana, and of a Prussian contractor, recruiting men for work on the Baghdad railway. I wasn’t allowed to murder him. I see why now—finger of justice—I’d have been too quick. Sit down, you idiots! You’ve no idea what he wrote about Miss Vanderman. Let him scream, I like it!”
“Come along,” said Monty. “If he were a bad-house keeper he has had enough!”
But Will had gone before us, headlong down the stairs with the speed off the mark that they taught him on the playing field at Bowdoin. When we caught up he was standing astride a prostrate being who sobbed like a cow with its throat cut, and a Rajput and a German, either of them six feet tall, were considering whether or not to resent the violence of his interference. The German was disposed to yield to numbers. The Rajput not so.
“Why are you beating him?” asked Monty.
“Gott in Hinimel, who would not! He wrote of me in his diary—der Liminel!—that I shanghai laborers.”
“Do you, or don’t you?” asked Monty sweetly.
“Kreutz-blitzen! What is that to do with you—or with him? What right had he to write that people in France should pray for me in church?”
The Rajput all this while was standing simmering, as ready as a boar at bay to fight the lot of us, yet I thought with an air about him, too, of half-conscious surprise. Several times he took a half-pace forward to assert his right of chastisement, looked hard at Monty, and checked mid-stride.
“You’ve done enough,” said Monty.
“Who are you that says so?” the German retorted.
“He—who—will—attend—to—it—that—you—do—no—more!” Monty’s smooth voce had become without inflection.
“Bah! That is easy, isn’t it? You are four to one!”
“Five to one!”
The Rajput’s gruff throat thrilled with a new emotion. He sprang suddenly past me, and thrust himself between Monty and the German, who took advantage of the opportunity to walk away.
“Lord Montdidier, colonel sahib bahadur, burra salaam!”
He made no obeisance, but stood facing Monty eye to eye. The words, as be roiled them out, were like an order given to a thousand men. One almost heard the swish of sabers as the squadrons came to the general salute.
“I knew you, Rustum Khan, the minute I set eyes on you. Why were you beating this man?”
“Sahib bahadur, because he wrote in his book that people in France should pray for me in church, naming my honorable name, because, says he—but I will not repeat what he says. It is not seemly.”
“How do you know what is in his diary?” Monty asked.
“That German read it out to me. We were sitting, he and I, discussing how the Turks intend to butcher the Armenians, as all the world knows is written. They say it shall happen soon. Said he to me—the German said to me—’I know another,’ said he, ‘who if I had my way should suffer first in that event.’ Saying which he showed the written book that he had found, and read me parts of it. The German was for denouncing the fellow as a friend of Armenians, but I was for beating him at once, and I had my way.”
“Where is the book?” demanded Monty.
“The German has it.”
“The German has no right to it.”
“I will bring it.”
Rustum Khan strode off into the night, and Monty bent over the sobbing form of the self-appointed missionary. We were all alone in the midst of the courtyard, not even watched from behind the wheels of arabas, for a fight or a thrashing in the khans of Asia Minor is strictly the affair of him who gets the worst of it.
“Will you burn that book of yours, Measel, if we protect you from further assault?”
The man sobbed that he would do anything, but Monty held him to the point, and at last procured a specific affirmative. Then Rustum Khan came back with the offending tome. It was bulky enough to contain an account of the sins of Asia Minor.
Fred and I picked the poor fellow up and led him to where the cooking places stood in one long row. Will carried the book, and Rustum Khan stole wood from other folks’ piles, and fanned a fire. We watched the unhappy Peter Measel put the book on the flames with his own hands.
“You’re old enough to have known better than keep such a diary!” said Monty, stirring the charred pages.
“I am at any rate a martyr!” Measel answered.
The man could walk by that time—he was presumably abstemious and recovered from shock quickly. Monty sent me to see him to his room, which turned out to be next the German’s, and until Will came over from our quarters with first-aid stuff from our chest I spent the minutes telling the German what should happen to him in case he should so far forget discretion as to resume the offensive. He said nothing in reply, but sat in his doorway looking up at me with an expression intended to make me feel nervous of reprisals without committing him to deeds.
Later, when we had done our best for “the martyred biped Measel,” as Fred described him, Will and I found Rustum Khan with Fred and Monty seated around the charcoal brazier in Monty’s room, deep in the valley of reminiscences. Our entry rather broke the spell, but Rustum Khan was not to be denied.
“You used to tell in those days, Colonel sahib bahadur,” he said, addressing Monty with that full-measured compliment that the chivalrous, old East still cherishes, “of a castle of your ancestors in these parts. Do you remember, when I showed you the ruins of my family place in Rajputana, how you stood beside me on the heights, sahib, and vowed some day to hunt for that Crusaders’ nest, as you called it?”
“That is the immediate purpose of this trip of ours,” said Monty.
“Ah!” said the Rajput, and was silent for about a minute. Fred Oakes began to hum through his nose. He has a ridiculous belief that doing that throws keen inquirers off a scent.
“Colonel sahib, since I was a little butcha not as high as your knee I have spoken English and sat at the feet of British officers. Little enough I know, but by the beard of God’s prophet I know this: when a British colonel sahib speaks of ‘immediate purposes,’ there are hidden purposes of greater importance!”
“That well may be,” said Monty gravely. “I remember you always were a student of significant details, Rustum Khan.”
“There was a time when I was in your honor’s confidence.”
“That was years ago. What are you doing here, Rustum Khan?”
“A fair enough question! I hang my head. As you know, sahib, I am a rangar. My people were all Sikhs for several generations back. We converts to Islam are usually more thorough-going than born Moslems are. I started to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, riding overland alone by way of Persia. As I came, missing few opportunities to talk with men, who should have been the lights of my religion, I have felt enthusiasm waning. These weeks past I have contemplated return without visiting Mecca at all. I have wandered to and fro, hoping for the fervor back again, yet finding none. And now, sahib, I find you—I, Rustum Khan, at a loose end for lack of inspiration. I have prayed. Colonel sahib bahadur, I believe thou art the gift of God!”’
Monty sought our eyes in turn in the lantern-lit darkness. We made no sign. None of us but he knew the Rajput, so it was plainly his affair.
“Suit yourself,” said Will, and the rest of us nodded.
“We are traveling into the interior,” said Monty, “in the rather doubtful hope that our absence from a coast city may in some way help Armenians, Rustum Khan.”
The Rajput jumped to his feet that instant, and came to the salute.
“I might have known as much. Colonel Lord Montdidier sahib, I offer fealty! My blood be thine to spill in thy cause! Thy life on my head—thine honor on my life—thy way my way, and God be my witness!”
“Don’t be rash, Rustum Khan. Our likeliest fate is to be taken prisoner by men of your religion, who will call you a renegade if you defend Armenians. And what are Armenians to you?”
“Ah, sahib! You drive a sharp spur into an open sore! I have seen too much of ill-faith—cruelty—robbery—torture—rapine—butchery, all in the name of God! It is this last threat to the Armenians that is the final straw! I took the pilgrimage in search of grace. The nearer I came to the place they tell me is on earth the home of grace, the more unfaith I see! Three nights ago in another place I was led aside and offered the third of the wealth of a fat Armenian if I would lend my sword to slit helpless throats—in the name of God, the compassionate, be merciful! My temper was about spoilt forever when that young idiot over the way described me in his book as—never mind how he described me—he paid the price! Sahib bahadur, I take my stand with the defenseless, where I know thou and thy friends will surely be! I am thy man!”
“It is not included in our plans to fight,” said Monty.
“Sahib, there is always work for real soldiers!”
“What do you fellows say? Shall we let him come with us?”
“I travel at my own charges, sahib. I am well mounted and well armed.”
“Sure, let him come with us!” said Will. “I like the man.”
“He has my leave to come along to England afterward,” said Fred, “if he’ll guarantee to address me as the ‘gift of God’ in public!”
I left them talking and returned to see whether the “martyred biped Measel” needed further help. He was asleep, and as I listened to his breathing I heard voices in the next room. The German was talking in English, that being often the only tongue that ten men have in common. Through the partly opened door I could see that his room was crammed with men.
“They are spies, every one of them!” I heard him say. “The man I thrashed is of their party. You yourselves saw how they came to his rescue, and seduced the Indian by means of threats. This is the way of the English. (“Curse them!” said a voice.) They write notes in a book, and when that offense is detected they burn the book in a corner, as ye saw them do. I saw the book before they burned it. I thrashed the spy who wrote in the book because he had written in it reports on what it is proposed to do to infidels at the time ye know about. I tell you those men are all spies—one is as bad as the other. They work on behalf of Armenians, to bring about interference from abroad.”
That he had already produced an atmosphere of danger to us I had immediate proof, for as I crossed the yard again I dodged behind an araba in the nick of time to avoid a blow aimed at me with a sword by a man I could not see.
“All your charming is undone!” I told Fred, bursting in on our party by the charcoal brazier. Almost breathless I reeled off what I had overheard. “They’ll be here to murder us by dawn!” I said.
“Will they?” said Monty.
We were up and away two hours before dawn, to the huge delight of our Turkish muleteers, who consider a dawn start late, yet not too early for the servants of the khan, who knew enough European manners to stand about the gate and beg for tips. Nor were we quite too early for the enemy, who came out into the open and pelted us with clods of dung, the German encouraging from the roof. Fred caught him unaware full in the face with a well-aimed piece of offal. Then the khan keeper slammed the gate behind us and we rode into the unknown.