“And you left your friend to help me?”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
WITH NEW TONGUES
Oh, bard of Avon, thou whose measured muse
Most sweetly sings Elizabethan views
To shame ungentle smiths of journalese
With thy sublimest verse, what words are these
That shine amid the lines like jewels set
But ere thine hour no bard had chosen yet?
Didst thou in masterly disdain of too much law
Not only limn the truths no others saw
But also, lord not slave of written word,
Lend ear to what no other poet heard
And, liberal minded on the Mermaid bench
With bow for blade and chaff for serving wench
Await from overseas slang-slinging Jack
Who brought the new vocabulary back?
So we three stood still in a row disconsolate, with three ragged men of Zeitoon holding our horses and theirs, and watched Monty ride away in the midst of Kagig’s motley command, he not turning to wave back to us because he did not like the parting any better than we did, although he had pretended to be all in favor of it.
Kagig had left us one mule for our luggage, and the beast was unlikely to be overburdened, for at the last minute he had turned surly, and as he sat like a general of division to watch his patch-and-string command go by he showed how Eye of Zeitoon only failed him for a title in giving his other eye—the one he kept on us—too little credit. It was a good-looking crowd of irregulars that he reviewed, and every bearded, goat-skin clad veteran in it had a word to say to him, and he an answer—sometimes a sermon by way of answer. But he saw every item that we removed from the common packs, and sternly reproved us when we tried to exceed what he considered reasonable. At that he based our probable requirements on what would have been surfeit of encumbrance for himself.
“Empty your pockets, effendim!” he ordered at last. “Six cartridges each for rifle, and six each for pistol must be all. Your cartridges I know they are. But my people are in extremity!”
When he rode away at last, sitting his horse in the fashion of a Don Cossack and shepherding Maga in front of him because she kept checking her gray stallion for another look at Will, he left us no alternative than to take to the mountains swiftly unless we cared to starve. We watched Monty’s back disappear over a rise, with Rustum Khan close behind, and then Fred signed to one of the three Zeitoonli to lead on.
All three of the men Kagig had left with us were surly, mainly, no doubt, because they disliked separation from their friends. But there was fear, too, expressed in their manner of riding close together, and in the fidgety way in which they watched the smoke of burning Armenian villages that smudged the sky to our left.
“If they try to bolt after Kagig and leave us in the lurch I’m going to waste exactly one cartridge as a warning,” Fred announced. “After that—!”
“Probably Kagig ‘ud skin them if they turned up without us,” remarked Will.
There was something in that theory, for we learned later what Kagig’s ferocity could be when driven hard enough. But from first to last those men of Zeitoon never showed a symptom of treachery, although their resentment at having to turn their backs toward home appeared to deepen hourly.
With strange unreason they made no haste, whereas we were in a frenzy of impatience; and when Fred sought to improve their temper by singing the songs that had hitherto acted like charms on Kagig’s whole command, they turned in their saddles and cursed him for calling attention to us.
“Inch goozek?” demanded one of them (What would you like?), and with a gesture that made the blood run cold he suggested the choice between hanging and disembowelment.
Will solved the speed problem by striving to push past them along the narrow track; and they were so determined to keep in front of us that within half an hour from the start our horses were sweating freely. Then we began to climb, dismounting presently to lead our horses, and all notions of speed went the way of other vanity.
Several times looking back toward our right hand we caught sight of Kagig’s string threading its way over a rise, or passing like a line of ants under the brow of a gravel bank. But they were too far away to discern which of the moving specks might be Monty, although Kagig was now and then unmistakable, his air of authority growing on him and distinguishing him as long as he kept in sight.
We saw nothing of the footprints in soft earth that Maga had read so offhandedly. In fact we took another way, less cluttered up with roots and bushes, that led not straight, but persistently toward an up-towering crag like an eye-tooth. Below it was thick forest, shaped like a shovel beard, and the crag stuck above the beard like an old man’s last tooth.
But mountains have a discouraging way of folding and refolding so that the air-line from point to point bears no relation to the length of the trail. The last kites were drooping lazily toward their perches for the night when we drew near the edge of the forest at last, and were suddenly brought to a halt by a challenge from overhead. We could see nobody. Only a hoarse voice warned us that it was death to advance another yard, and our tired animals needed no persuasion to stand still.
There, under a protruding lock as it were of the beard, we waited in shadow while an invisible somebody, whose rifle scraped rather noisily against a branch, eyed every inch of us at his leisure.
“Who are you?” he demanded at last in Armenian, and one of our three men enlightened him in long-drawn detail.
The explanation did not satisfy. We were told to remain exactly where we were until somebody else was fetched. After twenty minutes, when it was already pitch-dark, we heard the breaking of twigs, and low voices as three or four men descended together among the trees. Then we were examined again from close quarters in the dark, and there are few less agreeable sensations. The goose-flesh rises and the clammy cold sweat takes all the comfort out of waning courage.
But somebody among the shadowy tree-trunks at last seemed to think he recognized familiar attitudes, and asked again who we might be. And, weary of explanations that only achieved delay our man lumped us all in one invoice and snarled irritably:
“These are Americans!”
The famous “Open sesame” that unlocked Ali Baba’s cave never worked swifter then. Reckless of possible traps no less than five men flung themselves out of Cimmerian gloom and seized us in welcoming arms. I was lifted from the saddle by a man six inches shorter than myself, whose arms could have crushed me like an insect.
“We might have known Americans would bring us help!” he panted in my ear. His breath came short not from effort, but excitement.
Fred was in like predicament. I could just see his shadow struggling in the embrace of an enthusiastic host, and somewhere out of sight Will was answering in nasal indubitable Yankee the questions of three other men.
“This way! Come this way! Bring the horses, oh, Zeitoonli! Americans! Americans! God heard us—there have come Americans!”
Threading this and that way among tree-trunks that to our unaccustomed eyes were simply slightly denser blots on blackness, Will managed to get between Fred and me.
“We’re all of us Yankees this trip!” he whispered, and I knew he was grinning, enjoying it hugely. So often he had been taken for an Englishman because of partnership with us that he had almost ceased to mind; but he spared himself none of the amusement to be drawn out of the new turn of affairs, nor us any of the chaff that we had never spared him.
“Take my advice,” he said, “and try to act you’re Yanks for all you’ve got. If you can make blind men believe it, you may get out of this with whole skins!”
I expected the retort discourteous to that from Fred, who was between Will and me, shepherded like us by hard-breathing, unseen men. But he was much too subtly skilful in piercing the chain-mail of Will’s humor—even in that hour.
“Sure!” he answered. “I guess any gosh-durned rube in these parts ‘ll know without being told what neck o’ the woods I hail from. Schenectady’s my middle name! I’m—”
“Oh, my God!” groaned Will. “We don’t talk that way in the States. The missionaries—”
“I’m the guy who put the ‘oh!’ in Ohio!” continued Fred. “I’m running mate to Colonel Cody, and I’ve ridden herd on half the cows in Hocuspocus County, Wis.! I can sing The Star-Spangled Banner with my head under water, and eat a chain of frankforts two links a minute! I’m the riproaring original two-gun man from Tabascoville, and any gink who doubts it has no time to say his prayers!”
There were paragraphs more of it, delivered at uneven intervals between deep gasps for breath as we made unsteady progress up-hill among roots and rocks left purposely for the confusion of an enemy. At first it filled Will with despair that set me laughing at him. Then Will threw seriousness to the winds and laughed too, so that the spell of impending evil, caused as much as anything by forced separation from Monty, was broken.
But it did better than put us in rising spirits. It convinced the Armenians! That foolish jargon, picked up from comic papers and the penny dreadfuls, convince more firmly than any written proof the products of the mission schools, whose one ambition was to be American themselves, and whose one pathetic peak of humor was the occasional glimpse of United States slang dropped for their edification by missionary teachers!
“By jimminy!” remarked an Armenian near me.
“Gosh-all-hemlocks!” said another.
Thenceforward nothing undermined their faith in us. Plenty of amused repudiation was very soon forthcoming from another source, but it passed over their heads. Fred and I, because we used fool expressions without relation to the context or proportion, were established as the genuine article; Will, perhaps a rather doubtful quantity with his conservative grammar and quiet speech, was accepted for our sakes. They took an arm on either side of us to help us up the hill, and in proof of heart-to-heart esteem shouted “Oopsidaisy!” when we stumbled in the pitchy dark. When we were brought to a stand at last by a snarled challenge and the click of rifles overhead, they answered with the chorus of Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, a classic that ought to have died an unnatural death almost a quarter of a century before.
Suddenly we smelt Standard oil, and a man emerged through a gap in ancient masonry less than six feet away carrying a battered, cheap “hurricane” lantern whose cracked glass had been reenforced with patches of brown paper. He was armed to the teeth—literally. He had a long knife in his mouth, a pistol in his left hand, and a rifle slung behind him, but after one long look at us, holding the lantern to each face in turn, he suddenly discarded all appearances of ferocity.
“You know about pistols?” he demanded of me in English, because I was nearest, and thrust his Mauser repeater under my nose. “Why won’t this one work? I have tried it every way.”
“Lordy!” remarked Will.
“Lead on in!” I suggested. Then, remembering my new part, “It’ll have to be some defect if one of us can’t fix it!”
The gap-guard purred approval and swung his lantern by way of invitation to follow him as he turned on a naked heel and led the way. We entered one at a time through a hole in the wall of what looked like the dungeon of an ancient castle, and followed him presently up the narrow stone steps leading to a trap-door in the floor above. The trap-door was made of odds and ends of planking held in place by weights. When he knocked on it with the muzzle of his rifle we could hear men lifting things before they could open it.
When a gap appeared overhead at last there was no blaze of light to make us blink, but a row of heads at each edge of the hole with nothing but another lantern somewhere in the gloom behind them. One by one we went up and they made way for us, closing in each time to scan the next-comer’s face; and when we were all up they laid the planks again, and piled heavy stones in place. Then an old man lighted another lantern, using no match, although there was a box of them beside him on the floor, but transferring flame patiently with a blade of dry grass. Somebody else lit a torch of resinous wood that gave a good blaze but smoked abominably.
“What has become of our horses?” demanded Fred, looking swiftly about him.
We were in a great, dim stone-walled room whose roof showed a corner of star-lit sky in one place. There were twenty men surrounding us, but no woman. Two trade-blankets sewn together with string hanging over an opening in the wall at the far end of the room suggested, nevertheless, that the other sex might be within ear-shot.
“The horses?” Fred demanded again, a bit peremptorily.
One of the men who had met us smirked and made apologetic motions with his hands.
“They will be attended to, effendi—”
“I know it! I guarantee it! By the ace of brute force, if a horse is missing—! Arabaiji!”
One of our three Zeitoonli stepped forward.
“Take the other two men, Arabaiji, and go down to the horses. Groom them. Feed them. If any one prevents you, return and tell me.” Then he turned to our hosts. “Some natives of Somaliland once ate my horse for supper, but I learned that lesson. So did they! I trust I needn’t be severe with you!”
There was no furniture in the room, except a mat at one corner. They were standing all about us, and perfectly able to murder us if so disposed, but none made any effort to restrain our Zeitoonli.
“Now we’re three to their twenty!” I whispered, and Will nodded. But Fred carried matters with a high hand.
“Send a man down with them to show them where the horses are, please!”
There seemed to be nobody in command, but evidently one man was least of all, for they all began at once to order him below, and he went, grumbling.
“You see, effendi, we have no meat at all,” said the man who had spoken first.
“But you don’t look hungry,” asserted Fred.
They were a ragged crowd, unshaven and not too clean, with the usual air of men whose only clothes are on their backs and have been there for a week past. All sorts of clothes they wore—odds and ends for the most part, probably snatched and pulled on in the first moment of a night alarm.
“Not yet, effendi. But we have no meat, and soon we shall have eaten all the grain.”
“Well,” said Fred, “if you need horse-meat, gosh durn you, take it from the Turks!”
“Gosh durn you!” grinned three or four men, nudging one another.
They were lost between a furtive habit born of hiding for dear life, a desire to be extremely friendly, and a new suspicion of Fred’s high hand. Fred’s next words added disconcertment.
“Where is Miss Vanderman?” he demanded, suddenly.
Before any one had time to answer Will made a swift move to the wall, and took his stand where nobody could get behind him. He did not produce his pistol, but there was that in his eye that suggested it. I followed suit, so that in the event of trouble we stood a fair chance of protecting Fred.
“What do you mean?” asked three Armenians together.
“Did you never see men try to cover a secret before?” Will whispered.
“Or give it away?” I added. Six of the men placed themselves between Fred and the opening where the blankets hung, ostentatiously not looking at the blankets.
“Have you an American lady with you?” Fred asked, and as he spoke he reached a hand behind him. But it was not his pistol that he drew. He carries his concertina slung to him by a strap with the care that some men lavish on a camera. He took it in both hands, and loosed the catch.
“Have you an American lady named Miss Vanderman with you?” he repeated.
“Effendi, we do not understand.”
He repeated in Armenian, and then in Turkish, but they shook their heads.
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll soon find out. A mission-school pupil might sing My Country, ‘Tis of Thee or Suwannee River or Poor Blind Joe. You know Poor Blind Joe, eh? Sung it in school? I thought so. I’ll bet you don’t know this one.”
He filled his impudent instrument with wind and forthwith the belly of that ancient castle rang to the strains of a tune no missionaries sing, although no doubt the missionary ladies are familiar with it yet from where the Arctic night shuts down on Behring Sea to the Solomon Islands and beyond—a song that achieved popularity by lacking national significance, and won a war by imparting recklessness to typhus camps. I was certain then, and still dare bet to-day that those ruined castle walls re-echoed for the first time that evening to the clamor of ‘—a hot time in the old town to-night!”
Seeing the point in a flash, we three roared the song together, and then again, and then once more for interest, the Armenians eying us spell-bound, at a loss to explain the madness. Then there began to be unexplained movements behind the blanket hanging; and a minute later a woman broke through—an unmistakable Armenian, still good-looking but a little past the prime of life, and very obviously mentally distressed. She scarcely took notice of us, but poured forth a long flow of rhetoric interspersed with sobs for breath. I could see Fred chuckling as he listened. All the facial warnings that a dozen men could make at the woman from behind Fred’s back could not check her from telling all she knew.
Nor were Will and I, who knew no Armenian, kept in doubt very long as to the nature of her trouble. We heard another woman’s voice, behind two or three sets of curtains by the sound of it, that came rapidly nearer; and there were sounds of scuffling. Then we heard words.
“Please play that tune again, whoever you are! Do you hear me? Do you understand?”
“Boston!” announced Will, diagnosing accents.
“You bet your life I understand!” Fred shouted, and clanged through half a dozen bars again.
That seemed satisfactory to the owner of the voice. The scuffling was renewed, and in a moment she had burst through the crude curtains with two women clinging to her, and stood there with her brown hair falling on her shoulders and her dress all disarrayed but looking simply serene in contrast to the women who tried to restrain her. They tried once or twice to thrust her back through the curtain, although clearly determined to do her no injury; but she held her ground easily. At a rough guess it was tennis and boating that had done more for her muscles than ever strenuous housework did for the Armenians.
“Who are you?” she asked, and Will laughed with delight.
“I reckon you’ll be Miss Vanderman?’ suggested Fred in outrageous Yankee accent. She stared hard at him.
“I am Miss Vanderman. Who are you, please.
I sat down on the great stone they had rolled over the trap, for even in that flickering, smoky light I could see that this young woman was incarnate loveliness as well as health and strength. Will was our only ladies’ man (for Fred is no more than random troubadour, decamping before any love-affair gets serious). The thought conjured visions of Maga, and what she might do. For about ten seconds my head swam, and I could hardly keep my feet.
Will left the opening bars of the overture to Fred, with rather the air of a man who lets a trout have line. And Fred blundered in contentedly.
“I’ll allow my name is Oakes—Fred Oakes,” he said.
“Please explain!” She looked from one to the other of us.
“We three are American towerists, going the grand trip.” (Remember, a score of Armenians were listening. Fred’s intention was at least as much to continue their contentment as to extract humor from the situation.) “You being reported missing we allowed to pick you up and run you in to Tarsus. Air you agreeable?”
The women were still clinging to her as if their whole future depended on keeping her prisoner, yet without hurt. She looked down at them pathetically, and then at the men, who were showing no disposition to order her release.
“I don’t understand in the least yet. I find you bewildering. Can you contrive to let us talk for a few minutes alone?”
“You bet your young life I can!”
Fred stepped to the wall beside us, but we none of us drew pistol yet. We had no right to presume we were not among friends.
“Thirty minutes interlude!” he announced. “The man who stands in this room one minute from now, or who comes back to the room without my leave, is not my friend, and shall learn what that means!”
He repeated the soft insinuation in Armenian, and then in Turkish because he knows that language best. There is not an Armenian who has not been compelled to learn Turkish for all official purposes, and unconsciously they gave obedience to the hated conquerors’ tongue, repressing the desire to argue that wells perennially in Armenian breasts. They had not been long enough enjoying stolen liberty to overcome yet the full effects of Turkish rule.
“And oblige me by leaving that lady alone with us!” Fred continued. “Let those dames fall away!”
Somebody said something to the women. Another Armenian remarked more or less casually that we should be unable to escape from the room in any case. The others rolled the great stone from the trap and shoved the smaller stones aside, and then they all filed down the stone stairs, leaving us alone—although by the trembling blankets it was easy to tell that the women had not gone far. The last man who went below handed the spluttering torch to Miss Vanderman, as if she might need it to defend herself, and she stood there shaking it to try and make it smoke less until the planks were back in place. She was totally unconscious of it, but with the torch-light gleaming on her hair and reflected in her blue eyes she looked like the spirit of old romance come forth to start a holy war.
“Now please explain!” she begged, when I had pushed the last stone in place. “First, what kind of Americans can you possibly be? Do you all use such extraordinary accents, and such expressions?”
“Don’t I talk American to beat the band?” objected Fred. “Sit down on this rock a while, and I’ll convince you.”
She sat on the rock, and we gathered round her. She was not more than twenty-two or three, but as perfectly assured and fearless as only a well-bred woman can be in the presence of unshaven men she does not know. Fred would have continued the tomfoolery, but Will oared in.
“I’m Will Yerkes, Miss Vanderman.”
“I know Nurse Vanderman at the mission.”
“Yes, she spoke of you.”
“Fred Oakes here is—”
“Is English as they make them, yes, I know! Why the amazing efforts to—”
“I stand abashed, like the leopard with the spots unchangeable!” said Fred, and grinned most unashamedly.
“They’re both English.”
“Yes, I see, but why—”
“It’s only as good Americans that we three could hope to enter here alive. They’re death on all other sorts of non-Armenians now they’ve taken to the woods. We supposed you were here, and of course we had to come and get you.”
She nodded. “Of course. But how did you know?”
“That’s a long story. Tell us first why you’re here, and why you’re a prisoner.”
“I was going to the mission at Marash—to stay a year there and help, before returning to the States. They warned me in Tarsus that the trip might be dangerous, but I know how short-handed they are at Marash, and I wouldn’t listen. Besides, they picked the best men they could find to bring me on the way, and I started. I had a Turkish permit to travel—a teskere they call it—see, I have it here. It was perfectly ridiculous to think of my not going.”
“Perfectly!” Fred agreed. “Any young woman in your place would have come away!”
She laughed, and colored a trifle. “Women and men are equals in the States, Mr. Oakes.”
“And the Turk ought to know that! I get you, Miss Vanderman! I see the point exactly!”
“At any rate, I started. And we slept at night in the houses of Armenians whom my guides knew, so that the journey wasn’t bad at all. Everything was going splendidly until we reached a sort of crossroads—if you can call those goat-tracks roads without stretching truth too far—and there three men came galloping toward us on blown horses from the direction of Marash. We could hardly get them to stop and tell us what the trouble was, they were in such a hurry, but I set my horse across the path and we held them up.”
“As any young lady would have done!” Fred murmured.
“Never mind. I did it! They told us, when they could get their breath and quit looking behind them like men afraid of ghosts, that the Turks in Marash—which by all accounts is a very fanatical place—had started to murder Armenians. They yelled at me to turn and run.
“’Run where?’ I asked them. ‘The Turks won’t murder me!’
“That seemed to make them think, and they and my six men all talked together in Armenian much too fast for me to understand a word of it. Then they pointed to some smoke on the sky-line that they said was from burning Armenian homes in Marash.
“s’Why didn’t you take refuge in the mission?’ I asked them. And they answered that it was because the mission grounds were already full of refugees.
“Well, if that were true—and mind you, I didn’t believe it—it was a good reason why I should hurry there and help. If the mission staff was overworked before that they would be simply overwhelmed now. So I told them to turn round and come to Marash with me and my six men.”
“And what did they say?” we demanded together.
“They laughed. They said nothing at all to me. Perhaps they thought I was mad. They talked together for five minutes, and then without consulting me they seized my bridle and galloped up a goat-path that led after a most interminable ride to this place.”
“Where they hold you to ransom?”
“Not at all. They’ve been very kind to me. I think that at the bottom of their thoughts there may be some idea of exchanging me for some of their own women whom the Turks have made away with. But a stronger motive than that is the determination to keep me safe and be able to produce me afterward in proof of their bona fides. They’ve got me here as witness, for another thing. And then, I’ve started a sort of hospital in this old keep. There are literally hundreds of men and women hiding in these hills, and the women are beginning to come to me for advice, and to talk with me. I’m pretty nearly as useful here as I would be at Marash.”
“And you’re—let’s see—nineteen-twenty—one—two—not more than twenty-two,” suggested Fred.
“Is intelligence governed by age and sex in England.” she retorted, and Fred smiled in confession of a hit.
“Go on,” said Will. “Tell us.”
“There’s nothing more to tell. When I started to run toward the—ah—music, the women tried to prevent me. They knew Americans had come, and they feared you might take me away.”
“They were guessing good!” grinned Will.
She shook her head, and the loosened coils of hair fell lower. One could hardly have blamed a man who had desired her in that lawless land and sought to carry her off. The Armenian men must have been temptation proof, or else there had been safety in numbers.
“I shall stay here. How could I leave them? The women need me. There are babies—daily—almost hourly—here in these lean hills, and no organized help of any kind until I came.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Nearly two days. Wait till I’ve been here a week and you’ll see.”
“We can’t wait to see!” Will answered. “We’ve a friend of our own in a tight place. The best we can do is to rescue you—”
“I don’t need to be rescued!”
“—to rescue you—take you back to Tarsus, where you’ll be safe until the trouble’s over—and then hurry to the help of our own man.”
“Who is your own man? Tell me about him.”
“He’s a prince.”
“No, really an earl—Earl of Montdidier. White. White all through to the wish-bone. Whitest man I ever camped with. He’s the goods.”
“If you’d said less I’d have skinned you for an ingrate!” Fred announced. “Monty is a man men love.”
Miss Vanderman nodded. “Where is he?”
“On the way to a place called Zeitoon,” answered Will.
“He’s a hostage, held by Armenians in the hope of putting pressure on the Turks. Kagig—the Armenians, that’s to say—let us go to rescue you, knowing that he was sufficiently important for their purpose.”
“And you left your friend to help me?”
“Of course. What do you suppose?”
“And if I were to go with you to Tarsus, what then?”
“He says we’re to ride herd on the consulate and argue.”
“Sure we’ll argue. We’ll raise particular young hell. Then back we go to Zeitoon to join him!”
“Would you have gone to Tarsus except on my account?”
“No. I see. Of course you wouldn’t. Well. What do you take me for? You did not know me then. You do now. Do you think I’d consent to your leaving your fine friend in pawn while you dance attendance on me? Thank you kindly for your offer, but go back to him! If you don’t I’ll never speak to one of you again!”