“Passing the buck to Allah!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
So now the awaited ripe reward—
Your cactus crown!
Since I have urged
“Get ready for the untoward”
Ye bid me reap the wrath I dirged;
And I must show the darkened way,
Who beckoned vainly in the light! I’ll lead.
But salt of Dead Sea spray
Were sweeter on my lips to-night!
Oh, days of aching sinews, when I trod the choking dust
With feet afire that could not tire, atremble with the trust
More mighty in my inner man than fear of men without,
The word I heard on Kara Dagh and did not dare to doubt—
Timely warning, clear to me as starlight after rain
When, sleepless on eternal hills, I saw the purpose plain
And left, swift-foot at dawn, obedient, to break
The news ye said was no avail—advice ye would not take!
Oh,—nights of tireless talking by the hearth of hidden fires—
On roofs, behind the trade-bales—among oxen in the byres—
Out in rain between the godowns, where the splashing puddles warn
Of tiptoeing informers; when I faced the freezing dawn
With set price on my head, but still the set resolve untamed,
Not melted by the mockery, by no suspicion shamed,
To hide by day in holes, abiding dark and wind and rain
That loosed me straining to the task ye ridiculed again!
Oh, weeks of empty waiting, while the enemy designed
In detail how to loot the stuff ye would not leave behind!
Worse weeks of empty agony when, helpless and alone,
I watched in hiding for the crops from that seed I had sown;
For dust-clouds that should prove at last Armenia awake—
A nation up and coming! I had labored for your sake,
I had hungered, I had suffered. Ye had well rewarded then
If ye had come, and hanged me just to prove that ye were men!
But all the pride was promises, the criticism jeers;
Ye had no heart for sacrifice, and I no time for tears.
I offered—nay, I gave! I squandered body and breath and soul,
I bared the need, I showed the way, I preached a goodly goal,
I urged you choose a leader, since your faith in me was dim,
I swore to serve the chief ye chose, and teach my lore to him,
So he should reap where I had sown. And yet ye bade me wait—
And waited till, awake at last, ye bid me lead too late!
And so, in place of ripe reward, Your cactus crown!
And I, who urged “Get ready for the untoward”
Must drink the dregs of wrath I dirged!
Ye bid me set time’s finger back!
And stage anew the opened fight!
I’ll lead. But slime of Dead Sea wrack
Were sweeter on my lips this night!
The first thought that occurred to each of us four was that Kagig had probably lied, or that he had merely voiced his private opinion, based on expectation. The glare in the distance seemed too big and solid to be caused by burning houses, even supposing a whole village were in flames. Yet there was not any other explanation we could offer. A distant cloud of black smoke with bulging red under-belly rolled away through the darkness like a tremendous mountain range.
We stood in silence trying to judge how far away the thing might be, Kagig standing alone with his foot on the parapet, his goat-skin coat hanging like a hussar’s dolman, and Monty pacing up and down along the roof behind us all. The gipsies seemed able to converse by nods and nudges, with now and then one word whispered. After a little while Maga whispered in Will’s ear, and he went below with her. All the gipsies promptly followed. Otherwise in the darkness we might not have noticed where Will went.
“That proves she is no gipsy!” vowed Rustum Khan, standing between Fred and me. “They, would have trusted one of their own kind.”
“They call her Maga Jhaere,” said I. “The attaman’s name is Jhaere. Don’t you suppose he’s her father?”
“If he were her father he would have no fear,” the Rajput answered. “All gipsies are alike. Their women will dance the nautch, and promise unchastity as if that were a little matter. But when it comes to performance of promises the gitana1 is true to the Rom2. It is because she is no gipsy that they follow her now to watch. And it is because men say that Americans are Mormons and polygamous, and very swift in the use of revolvers, that all follow instead of one or two!”
“Go down then, and make sure they don’t murder him!” commanded Monty, and Rustum Khan turned to obey with rather ill grace. He contrived to convey by his manner that he would do anything for Monty, even to the extent of saving the life of a man he disliked. At the moment when he turned there came the sound of a troop of horses galloping toward us.
“I will first see who comes,” he said.
“The blood of Yerkes sahib on your head, Rustum Khan!” Monty answered. At that he went below.
But neither were we destined to remain up there very long. We heard colossal thumping in the kahveh beneath us and presently the Rajput’s head reappeared through the opening in the roof.
“The fools are barricading the door,” he shouted. “They make sure that an enemy outside could burn us inside without hindrance!”
At that Kagig came along the roof to our corner and looked into Monty’s eyes. Fred and I stood between the two of them and the parapet, because for the first few seconds we were not sure the Armenian did not mean murder. His eyes glittered, and his teeth gleamed. It was not possible to guess whether or not the hand under his goat-skin coat clutched a weapon.
“It is now that you Eenglis sportmen shall endure a test!” he remarked.
Exactly as in the Yeni Khan in Tarsus when we first met him there was a moment now of intense repulsion, entirely unaccountable, succeeded instantly by a wave of sympathy. I laughed aloud, remembering how strange dogs meeting in the street to smell each other are swept by unexplainable antipathies and equally swift comradeship. He thought I laughed at him.
“Neye geldin?” he growled in Turkish. “Wherefore didst thou come? To cackle like a barren hen that sees another laying? Nichevo,” he added, turning his back on me. And that was insolence in Russian, meaning that nobody and nothing could possibly be of less importance. He seemed to keep a separate language for each set of thoughts. “Let us go below. Let us stop these fools from making too much trouble,” he added in English. “One man ought to stay on the roof. One ought to be sufficient.”
Since he had said I did not matter, I remained, and it was therefore I who shouted down a challenge presently in round English at a party who clattered to the door on blown horses, and thundered on it as if they had been shatirs3 hurrying to herald the arrival of the sultan himself. There was nothing furtive about their address to the decrepit door, nor anything meek. Accordingly I couched the challenge in terms of unmistakable affront, repeating it at intervals until the leader of the new arrivals chose to identify himself.
“I am Hans von Quedlinburg!” he shouted. But I did not remember the name.
“Only a thief would come riding in such a hurry through the night!” said I. “Who is with you?”
Another voice shouted very fast and furiously in Turkish, but I could not make head or tail of the words. Then the German resumed the song and dance.
“Are you the party who talked with me at my construction camp?”
“We talk most of the time. We eat food. We whistle. We drink. We laugh!” said I.
“Because I think you are the people I am seeking. These are Turkish officials with me. I have authority to modify their orders, only let me in!”
“How many of you?” I asked. I was leaning over at risk of my life, for any fool could have seen my head to shoot at it against the luminous dark sky; but I could not see to count them.
“Never mind how many! Let us in! I am Hans von Quedlinburg. My name is sufficient.”
So I lied, emphatically and in thoughtful detail.
“You are covered,” I said, “by five rifles from this roof. If you don’t believe it, try something. You’d better wait there while I wake my chief.”
“Only be quick!” said the German, and I saw him light a cigarette, whether to convince me he felt confident or because he did feel so I could not say. I went below, and found Monty and Kagig standing together close to the outer door. They had not heard the whole of the conversation because of the noise the owner’s sons had made removing, at their orders, the obstructions they had piled against the door in their first panic. Every one else had returned to the sleeping platforms, except the Turkish owner, who looked awake at last, and was hovering here and there in ecstasies of nervousness.
I repeated what the German had said, rather expecting that Kagig at any rate would counsel defiance. It was he, however, who beckoned the Turk and bade him open the door.
“Chabuk! Quickly, I said!”
“Che arz kunam?” the Turk answered meekly, meaning “What petition shall I make?” the inference being that all was in the hands of Allah.
“Of ten men nine are women!” sneered Kagig irritably, and led the way to our place beside the fire. The Turk fumbled interminably with the door fastenings, and we were comfortably settled in our places before the new arrivals rode in, bringing a blast of cold air with them that set the smoke billowing about the room and made every man draw up his blankets.
“Shut that door behind them!” thundered Kagig. “If they come too slowly, shut the laggards out!”
“Who is this who is arrogant?” the German demanded in English.
He was a fine-looking man, dressed in civilian clothes cut as nearly to the military pattern as the tailor could contrive without transgressing law, but with a too small fez perched on his capable-looking head in the manner of the Prussian who would like to make the Turks believe he loves them. Rustum Khan cursed with keen attention to detail at sight of him. The man who had entered with him became busy in the shadows trying to find room to stall their horses, but Von Quedlinburg gave his reins to an attendant, and stood alone, akimbo, with the firelight displaying him in half relief.
“I am a man who knows, among other things, the name of him who bribed the kaimakam4 on Chakallu,” Kagig answered slowly, also in English.
The German laughed.
“Then you know without further argument that I am not to be denied!” he answered. “What I say to-night the government officials will confirm to-morrow! Are you Kagig, whom they call the Eye of Zeitoon?”
“I am no jackal,” said Kagig dryly, punning on the name Chakallu, which means “place of jackals.”
The German coughed, set one foot forward, and folded both arms on his breast. He looked capable and bold in that attitude, and knew it. I knew at last who he was, and wondered why I had not recognized him sooner—the contractor who had questioned us near the railway encampment along the way, and had offered us directions; but his manner was as different now from then as a bully’s in and out of school. Then he had sought to placate, and had almost cringed to Monty. Everything about him now proclaimed the ungloved upper hand.
His party, finding no room to stall their horses, had begun to turn ours loose, and there was uproar along the gipsy side of the room—no action yet, but a threatening snarl that promised plenty of it. Will was half on his feet to interfere, but Monty signed to him to keep cool; and it was Monty’s aggravatingly well-modulated voice that laid the law down.
“Will you be good enough,” he asked blandly, “to call off your men from meddling with our mounts?” He could not be properly said to drawl, because there was a positive subacid crispness in his voice that not even a Prussian or a Turk on a dark night could have over-looked.
The German laughed again.
“Perhaps you did not hear my name,” he said. “I am Hans von Quedlinburg. As over-contractor on the Baghdad railway I have the privilege of prior accommodation at all road-houses in this province—for myself and my attendants. And in addition there are with me certain Turkish officers, whose rights I dare say you will not dispute.”
Monty did not laugh, although Fred was chuckling in confident enjoyment of the situation.
“You need a lesson in manners,” said Monty.
“What do you mean?” demanded Hans von Quedlinburg.
Monty rose to his feet without a single unnecessary motion.
“I mean that unless you call off your men—at once this minute from interfering with our animals I shall give you the lesson you need.”
The German saluted in mock respect. Then he patted his breast-pocket so as to show the outline of a large repeating pistol. Monty took two steps forward. The German drew the pistol with an oath. Will Yerkes, beyond Fred and slightly behind the German, coughed meaningly. The German turned his head, to find that he was covered by a pistol as large as his own.
“Oh, very well,” he said, “what is the use of making a scene?” He thrust his pistol back under cover and shouted an order in Turkish. Monty returned to his place and sat down. The newcomers at the rear of the room tied their horses together by the bridles, and Hans von Quedlinburg resumed his well-fed smile.
“Let it be clearly understood,” he said, “that you have interfered with official privilege.”
“As long as you do your best in the way of manners you may go on with your errand,” said Monty.
Suddenly Fred laughed aloud.
“The martyred biped!” he yelped.
He was right. Peter Measel, missionary on his own account, and sometime keeper of most libelous accounts, stepped out from the shadows and essayed to warm himself, walking past the German with a sort of mincing gait not calculated to assert his manliness. Hans von Quedlinburg stretched out a strong arm and hurled him back again into the darkness at the rear.
“Tchuk-tchuk! Zuruck!” he muttered.
It clearly disconcerted him to have his inferiors in rank assert themselves. That accounted, no doubt, for the meek self-effacement of the Turks who had come with him. Peter Measel did not appear to mind being rebuked. He crossed to the other side of the room, and proceeded to look the gipsies over with the air of a learned ethnologist.
“You speak of my errand,” said Hans von Quedlinburg, “as if you imagine I come seeking favors. I am here incidentally to rescue you and your party from the clutches of an outlaw. The Turkish officials who are with me have authority to arrest everybody in this place, yourselves included. Fortunately I am able to modify that. Kagig—that rascal beside you—is a well-known agitator. He is a criminal. His arrest and trial have been ordered on the charge, among other things, of stirring up discontent among the Armenian laborers on the railway work. These gipsies are all his agents. They are all under arrest. You yourselves will be escorted to safety at the coast.”
“Why should we need an escort to safety?” Monty demanded.
“Were you on the roof?” the German answered. “And is it possible you did not see the conflagration? An Armenian insurrection has been nipped in the bud. Several villages are burning. The other inhabitants are very much incensed, and all foreigners are in danger—yourselves especially, since you have seen fit to travel in company with such a person as Kagig.”
“What has Peter Measel got to do with it?” demanded Fred. “Has he been writing down all our sins in a new book?”
“He will identify you. He will also identify Kagig’s agents. He brings a personal charge against a man named Rustum Khan, who must return to Tarsus to answer it. The charge is robbery with violence.”
Rustum Khan snorted.
“The violence was only too gentle, and too soon ended. As for robbery, if I have robbed him of a little self-conceit, I will answer to God for that when my hour shall come! How is it your affair to drag that whimpering fool through Asia at your tail—you a German and he English?”
The German had a hot answer ready for that, but the Turks had discovered Maga Jhaere in hiding in the shadows between two old women. She screamed as they tried to drag her forth, and the scream brought us all to our feet. But this time it was Kagig who was swiftest, and we got our first proof of the man’s enormous strength. Fred, Will and I charged together round behind the newcomers’ horses, in order to make sure of cutting off retreat as well as rescuing Maga. Monty leveled a pistol at the German’s head. But Kagig did not waste a fraction of a second on side-issues of any sort. He flew at the German’s throat like a wolf at a bullock. The German fired at him, missed, and before he could fire again he was caught in a grip he could not break, and fighting for breath, balance and something more.
One of the gipsies, who had not seen the need of hurrying to Maga’s aid, now proved the soundness of his judgment by divining Kagig’s purpose and tossing several new faggots on the already prodigious fire.
“Good!” barked Kagig, bending the struggling German this and that way as it pleased him.
Seeing our man with the upper hand, Monty and Rustum Khan now hurried into the melee, where two Turkish officers and eight zaptieh were fighting to keep Maga from four gipsies and us three. Nobody had seen fit to shoot, but there was a glimmering of cold steel among the shadows like lightning before a thunder-storm. Monty used his fists. Rustum Khan used the flat of a Rajput saber. Maga, leaving most of her clothing in the Turk’s hands, struggled free and in another second the Turks were on the defensive. Rustum Khan knocked the revolver out of an officer’s hand, and the rest of them were struggling to use their rifles, when the German shrieked. All fights are full of pauses, when either side could snatch sudden victory if alert enough. We stopped, and turned to look, as if our own lives were not in danger.
Kagig had the German off his feet, face toward the flames, kicking and screaming like a madman. He whirled him twice—shouted a sort of war-cry—hove him high with every sinew in his tough frame cracking—and hurled him head-foremost into the fire.
The Turks took the cue to haul off and stand staring at us. We all withdrew to easier pistol range, for contrary to general belief, close quarters almost never help straight aim, especially when in a hurry. There is a shooting as well as a camera focus, and each man has his own.
Pretty badly burnt about the face and fingers, Hans von Quedlinburg crawled backward out of the fire, smelling like the devil, of singed wool. Kagig closed on him, and hurled him back again. This time the German plunged through the fire, and out beyond it to a space between the flames and the back wall, where it must have been hot enough to make the fat run. He stood with a forearm covering his face, while Kagig thundered at him voluminous abuse in Turkish. I wondered, first, why the German did not shoot, and then why his loaded pistol did not blow up in the heat, until I saw that in further proof of strength Kagig had looted his pistol and was standing with one foot on it.
Finally, when the beautiful smooth cloth of which his coat was made bad taken on a stinking overlay of crackled black, the German chose to obey Kagig and came leaping back through the fire, and lay groaning on the floor, where the kahveh’s owner’s seven sons poured water on him by Kagig’s order. His burns were evidently painful, but not nearly so serious as I expected. I got out the first-aid stuff from our medicine bag, and Will, who was our self-constituted doctor on the strength of having once attended an autopsy, disguised as a reporter, in the morgue at the back of Bellevue Hospital in New York City, beckoned a gipsy woman, and proceeded to instruct her what to do.
However, Hans von Quedlinburg was no nervous weakling. He snatched the pot of grease from the woman’s hands, daubed gobs of the stuff liberally on his face and hands, and sat up—resembling an unknown kind of angry animal with his eyebrows and mustache burned off except for a stray, outstanding whisker here and there. In a voice like a bull’s at the smell of blood he reversed what he had shouted through the flames, and commanded his Turks to arrest the lot of us.
Kagig laughed at that, and spoke to him in English, I suppose in order that we, too, might understand.
“Those Turks are my prisoners!” he said. “And so are you!”
It was true about the Turks. They had not given up their weapons yet, but the gipsies were between them and the door, and even the gipsy women were armed to the teeth and willing to do battle. I caught sight of Maga’s mother-o’-pearl plated revolver, and the Turkish officer at whom she had it leveled did not look inclined to dispute the upper hand.
“You Germans are all alike,” sneered Kagig. “A dog could read your reasoning. You thought these foreigners would turn against me. It never entered your thick skull that they might rather defy you than see me made prisoner. Fool! Did men name me Eye of Zeitoon for nothing? Have I watched for nothing! Did I know the very wording of the letters in your private box for nothing? Are you the only spy in Asia? Am I Kagig, and do I not know who advised dismissing all Armenians from the railway work? Am I Kagig, and do I not know why? Kopek! (Dog!) You would beggar my people, in order to curry favor with the Turk. You seek to take me because I know your ways! Two months ago you knew to within a day or two when these new massacres would begin. One month, three weeks, and four days ago you ordered men to dig my grave, and swore to bury me alive in it! What shall hinder me from burning you alive this minute?”
There were five good hindrances, for I think that Rustum Khan would have objected to that cruelty, even had he been alone. Kagig caught Monty’s eye and laughed.
“Korkakma!” he jeered. “Do not be afraid!” Then he glanced swiftly at the Turks, and at Peter Measel, who was staring all-eyes at Maga on the far side of the room.
“Order your pigs of zaptieh to throw their arms down!”
Instead, the German shouted to them to fire volleys at us. He was not without a certain stormy courage, whatever Kagig’s knowledge of his treachery.
But the Turks did not fire, and it was perfectly plain that we four were the reason of it. They had been promised an easy prey—captured women—loot—and the remunerative task of escorting us to safety. Doubtless Von Quedlinburg had promised them our consul would be lavish with rewards on our account. Therefore there was added reason why they should not fire on Englishmen and an American. We had not made a move since the first scuffle when we rescued Maga, but the Turkish lieutenant had taken our measure. Perhaps he had whispered to his men. Perhaps they reached their own conclusions. The effect was the same in either case.
“Order them to throw their weapons down!” commanded Kagig, kicking the German in the ribs. And his coat had been so scorched in the fierce heat that the whole of one side of it broke off, like a cinder slab.
This time Hans von Quedlinburg obeyed. For one thing the pain of his burns was beginning to tell on him, but he could see, too, that he had lost prestige with his party.
“Throw down your weapons!” he ordered savagely.
But he had lost more prestige than he knew, or else he had less in the beginning than be counted on. The Turkish lieutenant—a man of about forty with the evidence of all the sensual appetites very plainly marked on his face—laughed and brought his men to attention. Then he made a kind of half-military motion with his hand toward each of us in turn, ignoring Kagig but intending to convey that we at any rate need not feel anxious.
It was Maga Jhaere who solved the riddle of that impasse. She was hardly in condition to appear before a crowd of men, for the Turks bad torn off most of her clothes, and she had not troubled to find others. She was unashamed, and as beautiful and angry as a panther. With panther suddenness she snatched the lieutenant’s sword and pistol.
It suited neither his national pride nor religious prejudices to be disarmed by a gipsy woman; but the Turk is an amazing fatalist, and unexpectedness is his peculiar quality.
“Che arz kunam?” he muttered—the perennial comment of the Turk who has failed, that always made Kagig bare his teeth in a spasm of contempt. “Passing the buck to Allah,” as Will construed it.
But disarming the mere conscript soldiers was not quite so simple, although Maga managed it. They had less regard for their own skins than handicapped their officer, and yet more than his contempt for the female of any human breed.
They refused point-blank to throw their rifles down, bringing a laugh and a shout of encouragement from the German. But she screwed the muzzle of her pistol into the lieutenant’s ear, and bade him enforce her orders, the gipsy women applauding with a chorus of “Ohs” and “Ahs.” The lieutenant succumbed to force majeure, and his men, who were inclined to die rather than take orders from a woman, obeyed him readily enough. They laid their rifles down carefully, without a suggestion of resentment.
“So. The women of Zeitoon are good!” said Kagig with a curt nod of approval, and Maga tossed him a smile fit for the instigation of another siege of Troy.
The gipsy women picked the rifles up, and Maga went to hunt through the mule-packs for clothing. Then Kagig turned on us, motioning with his toe toward Hans von Quedlinburg, who continued to treat himself extravagantly from our jar of ointment.
“You do not know yet the depths of this man’s infamy!” he said. “The world professes to loathe Turks who rob, sell and murder women and children. What of a German—a foreigner in Turkey, who instigates the murder—and the robbery—and the burning—and the butchery—for his own ends, or for his bloody country’s ends? This man is an instigator!”
“You lie!” snarled Von Quedlinburg. “You dog of an Armenian, you lie!” Kagig ignored him.
“This is the German sportman who tried once to go to Zeitoon to shoot bears, as he said. But I knew he was a spy. I am not the Eye of Zeitoon merely because that title rolls nicely on the tongue. He has—perhaps he has it in his pocket now—a concession from the politicians in Stamboul, granting him the right to exploit Zeitoon—a place he has never seen! He has encouraged this present butchery in order that Turkish soldiers may have excuse to penetrate to Zeitoon that he covets. He wants you Eenglis sportmen out of the way. You were to be sent safely back to Tarsus, lest you should be witnesses of what must happen. Perhaps you do not believe all this?”’
He stooped down and searched the German’s coat pockets with impatient fingers that tugged and jerked, tossing out handkerchief and wallet, cigars, matches that by a miracle had not caught in the heat, and considerable money to the floor. He took no notice of the money, but one of the old gipsy women crept out and annexed it, and Kagig made no comment.
“He has not his concession with him. I can prove nothing to-night. I said you shall stand a test. You must choose. This German and those Turks are my prisoners. You have nothing to do with it. You may go back to Tarsus if you wish, and tell the Turks that Kagig defies them! You shall have an escort as far as the nearest garrison. You shall have fifty men to take you back by dawn to-morrow.”
At that Rustum Khan turned several shades darker and glared truculently.
“Who art thou, Armenian, to frame a test for thy betters?” he demanded, throwing a very military chest. And Will promptly bridled at the Rajput’s attitude.
“You’ve no call to make yourself out any better than he is!” he interrupted. And at that Maga Jhaere threw a kiss from across the room, but one could not tell whether her own dislike of Rustum Khan, or her approval of Will’s support of Kagig was the motive.
Fred began humming in the ridiculous way he has when he thinks that an air of unconcern may ease a situation, and of course Rustum Khan mistook the nasal noises for intentional insult. He turned on the unsuspecting Fred like a tiger. Monty’s quick wit and level voice alone saved open rupture.
“What I imagine Rustum Khan means is this, Kagig: My friends and I have engaged you as guide for a hunting trip. We propose to hold you strictly to the contract.”
Kagig looked keenly at each of us and nodded.
“In my day I have seen the hunters hunted!” he said darkly.
“In my day I have seen an upstart punished!” growled the Rajput, and sat down, back to the wall.
“Castles, and bears!” smiled Monty.
“What if I propose a different quarry?”
“Propose and see!” Monty was on the alert, and therefore to all outward appearance in a sort of well-fed, catlike, dallying mood.
“This dog,” said Kagig, and he kicked the German’s ribs again, “has said nothing of any other person he must rescue. Bear me witness.”
We murmured admission of the truth of that.
“Yet I am the Eye of Zeitoon, and I know. His purpose was to leave his prisoners here and hurry on to overtake a lady—a certain Miss Vanderman, who he thinks is on her way to the mission at Marash. He desired the credit for her rescue in order better to blind the world to his misdeeds! Nevertheless, now that she can be no more use to him, observe his chivalry! He does not even mention her!”
The German shrugged his shoulders, implying that to argue with such a savage was waste of breath.
“What do you know of Miss Vanderman’s where-abouts?” demanded Will, and Maga Jhaere, at the sound of another woman’s name, sat bolt upright between two other women whose bright eyes peeped out from under blankets.
“I had word of her an hour before you came, effendi,” Kagig answered. “She and her party took fright this afternoon, and have taken to the hills. They are farther ahead than this pig dreamed”—once more he kicked Von Quedlinburg—”more than a day’s march ahead from here.”
“Then we’ll hunt for her first,” said Monty, and the rest of us nodded assent.
“You shall find her. You shall see a castle. In the castle where you find her you shall choose again! It is agreed, effendi!”
Then he ordered his prisoners made fast, and the gipsies and our Zeitoonli servants attended to it, he himself, however, binding the German’s hands and feet. Will went and put bandages on the man’s burns, I standing by, to help. But we got no thanks.
“Ihr seit verruckt!” he sneered. “You take the side of bandits. Passt mal auf—there will be punishment!”
The Zeitoonli were going to tie Peter Measel, but he set up such a howl that Kagig at last took notice of him and ordered him flung, unbound, into the great wooden bin in which the horse-feed was kept for sale to wayfarers. There he lay, and slept and snored for the rest of that session, with his mouth close to a mouse-hole.
Then Kagig ordered our Zeitoonli to the roof on guard, and bade us sleep with a patriarchal air of authority.
“There is no knowing when I shall decide to march,” he explained.
Given enough fatigue, and warmth, and quietness, a man will sleep under almost any set of circumstances. The great fire blazed, and flickered, and finally died down to a bed of crimson. The prisoners were most likely all awake, for their bonds were tight, but only Kagig remained seated in the midst of his mess of blankets by the hearth; and I think he slept in that position, and that I was the last to doze off. But none of us slept very long.
There came a shout from the roof again, and once again a thundering on the door. The move—unanimous—that the gipsies’ right hands made to clutch their weapons resembled the jump from surprise into stillness when the jungle is caught unawares. A second later when somebody tossed dry fagots on the fire the blaze betrayed no other expression on their faces than the stock-in-trade stolidity. Even the women looked as if thundering on a kahveh door at night was nothing to be noticed. Kagig did not move, but I could see that he was breathing faster than the normal, and he, too, clutched a weapon. Von Quedlinburg began shouting for help alternately in Turkish and in German, and the owner of the place produced a gun—a long, bright, steel-barreled affair of the vintage of the Comitajes and the First Greek War. He and his sons ran to the door to barricade it.
“Yavash!” ordered Kagig. The word means slowly, as applied to all the human processes. In that instance it meant “Go slow with your noise!” and mine host so understood it.
But the thundering on the great door never ceased, and the kahveh was too full of the noise of that for us to hear what the Zeitoonli called down from the roof. Kagig arose and stood in the middle of the room with the firelight behind him. He listened for two minutes, standing stock-still, a thin smile flickering across his lean face, and the sharp satyr-like tops of his ears seeming to prick outward in the act of intelligence.
“Open and let them in!” he commanded at last.
“I will not!” roared the owner of the place. “I shall be tortured, and all my house!”
“Open, I said!”
“But they will make us prisoner!”
Kagig made a sign with his right hand. Gregor Jhaere rose and whispered. One by one the remaining gipsies followed him into the shadows, and there came a noise of scuffling, and of oaths and blows. As Gregor Jhaere had mentioned earlier, they did obey Kagig now and then. The Turks came back looking crestfallen, and the fastenings creaked. Then the door burst open with a blast of icy air, and there poured in nineteen armed men who blinked at the firelight helplessly.
“Kagig—where is Kagig?”
“You cursed fools, where should I be!”
“Kagig? Is it truly you?” Their eyes were still blinded by the blaze.
“Shut that door again, and bolt it! Aye—Kagig, Kagig, is it you!”
“It is Kagig! Behold him! Look!”
They clustered close to see, smelling infernally of sweaty garments and of the mud from unholy lurking places.
“Kagig it is! And has all happened as I, Kagig, warned you it would happen?”
“Aye. All. More. Worse!”
“Had you acted beforehand in the manner I advised?”
“No, Kagig. We put it off. We talked, and disagreed. And then it was too late to agree. They were cutting throats while we still argued. When we ran into the street to take the offensive they were already shooting from the roofs!”
That bitter dry expletive, coughed out between set teeth, could not be named a laugh.
“Aye! Now it is ‘Kagig, listen!’ But a little while ago it was I who was sayin ‘Listen!’ I walked myself lame, and talked myself hoarse. Who listened to me? Why should I listen to you?”
“But, Kagig, my wife is gone!”
“My daughter, Kagig!”
A third man thrust himself forward and thumped the butt of a long rifle on the floor.
“They took my wife and two daughters before my very eyes, Kagig! It is no time for talking now—you have talked already too much, Kagi,—now prove yourself a man of deeds! With these eyes I saw them dragged by the hair down street! Oh, would God that I had put my eyes out first, then had I never seen it! Kagig—”
“You shall not sneer at me! I shot one Turk, and ten more pounced on them. They screamed to me. They called to me to rescue. What could I do? I shot, and I shot until the rifle barrel burned my fingers. Then those cursed Turks set the house on fire behind me, and my companions dragged me away to come and find others to unite with us and make a stand! We found no others! Kagig—I tell you—those bloody Turks are auctioning our wives and daughters in the village church! It is time to act!”
“Hah! Who was it urged you in season and out of season—day and night—month in, month out—to come to Zeitoon and help me fortify the place? Who urged you to send your women there long ago?”
“But Kagig, you do not appreciate. To you it is nothing not to have women near you. We have mothers, sisters, wives—”
“Nothing to me, is it? These eyes have seen my mother, ravished by a Kurd in a Turkish uniform!”
“Well, that only proves you are one with us after all! That only proves—”
“One with you! Why did you not act, then, when I risked life and limb a thousand times to urge you?”
“We could not, Kagig. That would have precipitated—”
He interrupted the man with an oath like the aggregate of bitterness.
“Precipitated? Did waiting for the massacre like chickens waiting for the ax delay the massacres a day? But now it is ‘Come and lead us, Kagig!’ How many of you are there left to lead?”
“Who knows? We are nineteen—”
“Hah! And I am to run with nineteen men to the rape of Tarsus and Adana?”
“Our people will rally to you, Kagig!”
“They shall rally at Zeitoon!”
“Oh, Kagig—how shall they reich Zeitoon? The cursed Turks have ordered out the soldiers and are sending regiments—”
“I warned they would!”
“The cavalry are hunting down fugitives along the roads!”
“As I foretold a hundred times!”
“They were sent to protect Armenians—”
“That is always the excuse!”
“And they kill—kill—kill! A dozen of them hunted me for two miles, until I hid in a watercourse! Look at us! Look at our clothes! We are wet to the skin—tired—starving! Kagig, be a man!”
He went back to his mess of blankets and sat down on it, too bitter at heart for words. They reproached him in chorus, coming nearer to the fire to let the fierce heat draw the stink out of their clothes.
“Aye, Kagig, you must not forget your race. You must not forget the past, Kagig. Once Armenia was great, remember that! You must not only talk to us, you must act at last! We summon you to be our leader, Kagig, son of Kagig of Zeitoon!”
He stared back at them with burning eyes—raised both bands to beat his temples—and then suddenly turned the palms of his hands toward the roof in a gesture of utter misery.
“Oh, my people!”
That glimpse he betrayed of his agony was but a moment long. The fingers closed suddenly, and the palms that had risen in helplessness descended to his knees clenched fists, heavy with the weight of purpose.
“What have you done with the ammunition?” he demanded.
“We had it in the manure under John Zimisces’ cattle.”
“I know that. Where is it now?”
“The Turks discovered it at dawn to-day. Some one had told. They burned Zimisces and his wife and sons alive in the straw!”
“You fools! They knew where the stuff was a week ago! A month ago I warned you to send it to Zeitoon, but somebody told you I was treacherous, and you fools listened! How much ammunition have you left now?”
“Just what we have with us. I have a dozen rounds.”
Each man had a handful, or two handfuls at the most. Kagig observed their contributions to the common fund with scorn too deep for expression. It was as if the very springs of speech were frozen.
“We summon you to lead us, Kagig!”
Words came to him again.
“You summon me to lead? I will! From now I lead! By the God who gave my fathers bread among the mountains, I will, moreover, be obeyed! Either my word is law—”
“Kagig, it is law!”
“Or back you shall go to where the Turks are wearing white, and the gutters bubble red, and the beams are black against the sky! You shall obey me in future on the instant that I speak, or run back to the Turks for mercy from my hand! I have listened to enough talk!”
“Spoken like a man!” said Monty, and stood up.
We all stood up; even Rustum Khan, who did not pretend to like him, saluted the old warrior who could announce his purpose so magnificently. Maga Jhaere stood up, and sought Will’s eyes from across the room. Fred, almost too sleepy to know what he was doing (for the tail end of the fever is a yearning for early bed) undid the catch of his beloved instrument, and made the rafters ring. In a minute we four were singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” and Kagig stood up, looking like Robinson Crusoe in his goat-skins, to acknowledge the compliment.
The noise awoke Peter Measel, and when we had finished making fools of ourselves I walked over to discover what he was saying. He was praying aloud—nasally—through the mouse-hole—for us, not himself. I looked at my watch. It was two hours past midnight.
“You fellows,” I said, “it’s Sunday. The martyred biped has just waked up and remembered it. He is praying that we may be forgiven for polluting the Sabbath stillness with immoral tunes!”
My words had a strange effect. Monty, and Fred, and Will laughed. Rustum Khan laughed savagely. But all the Armenians, including Kagig, knelt promptly on the floor and prayed, the gipsies looking on in mild amusement tempered by discretion. And out of the mouse-hole in the horse-feed bin came Peter Measel’s sonorous, overriding periods:
“And, O Lord, let them not be smitten by Thine anger. Let them not be cut down in Thy wrath! Let them not be cast into hell! Give them another chance, O Lord! Let the Ten Commandments be written on their hearts in letters of fire, but let not their souls be damned for ever more! If they did not know it was the Sabbath Day, O Lord, forgive them! Amen!”
It was a most amazing night.