“We hold you to your word!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
LIBERA NOS, DOMINE!
A priest, a statesman, and a soldier stood
Hand in each other’s hand, by ruin faced,
Consulting to find succor if they could,
Till soon the lesser ones themselves abased,
Their sword and parchment on an altar laid
In deep humility the while the priest he prayed.
He prayed first for his church, that it might be
Upholden and acknowledged and revered,
And in its opal twilight men might see
Salvation if in truth enough they feared,
And if enough acknowledgment they gave
To ritual, and rosary, and creed that save.
Then prayed he for the state, that it should wean
Well-tutored counselors to do their part
Full profit and prosperity to glean
With dignity, although with contrite heart
And wisdom that Tradition wisdom ranks,
That church and state might stand and men give thanks.
Last prayed he for the soldier—longest, too,
That all the honor and the aims of war
Subserving him might carry wrath and rue
Unto repentance, and in trembling awe
The enemy at length should fault confess
And yield, to crave a peace of righteousness.
Behind them stood a patriot unbowed,
Not arrogant in gilt or goodly cloth,
Nor mincing meek, and yet not poorly proud;
With eyes afire that glittered not with wrath;
Aware of evil hours, and undismayed
Because he loved too well. He also prayed.
“Oh, Thou, who gavest, may I also give,
Withholding not—accepting no reward;
For I die gladly if the least ones live.
Twice righteous and two-edged be the sword,
‘Neath freedom’s banner drawn to prove
Thy word And smite me if I’m false!” His prayer was heard.
The remainder of that night was nightmare pure and simple—mules and horses squealing in instinctive fear of action they felt impending—gipsies and Armenians dragging packs out on the floor, to repack everything a dozen times for some utterly godless reason—Rustum Khan seizing each fugitive Armenian in turn to question him, alternating fierce threats with persuasion—Kagig striding up and down with hands behind him and his scraggly black beard pressed down on his chest—and the great fire blazing with reports like cannon shots as one of the Turk’s sons piled on fuel and the resinous wet wood caught.
The Turk and his other six sons ran away and hid themselves as a precaution against our taking vengeance on them. With situations reversed a Turk would have taken unbelievable toll in blood and agony from any Armenian he could find, and they reasoned we were probably no better than themselves. The marvel was that they left one son to wait on us, and take the money for room and horse-feed.
“Remember!” warned Monty, as we four sidled close together with our backs against the wall. “Until we’re in actual personal danger this trouble is the affair of Kagig and his men!”
“I get you. If we horn in before we have to we’ll do more harm than good. Give the Turks an excuse to call us outlaws and shoot instead of rescue us. Sure. But what about Miss Vanderman?” said Will.
“I foresee she’s doomed!” Fred stared straight in front of him. “It looks as if we’ll lose our little Willy too! One woman at a time, especially when the lady totes a mother-o’-pearl revolver and about a dozen knives! If you come out of this alive, Bill, you’ll be wiser!”
“Fond of bull, aren’t you! You’d jest on an ant-heap.”
“There’s nothing to discuss,” said I. “If there’s a lady in danger somewhere ahead, we all know what we’re going to do about it.”
“If we can find her and get word to the consul, that ‘ud be one more lever for him to pull on.”
“D’you suppose they’d dare molest an Englishwoman?” I asked, with the sudden goose-flesh rising all over me.
“She’s American,” said Will between purposely set lips. But I did not see that that qualified the unpleasantness by much.
One of the Armenians, whom Rustum Khan had finished questioning, went and stood in Kagig’s way, intercepting his everlasting sentry-go.
“What is it, Eflaton?”
“My wife, Kagig!”
“Ah! I remember your wife. She fed me often.”
“You must come with me and find her, Kagig—my wife and two daughters, who fed you often!”
“The daughters were pretty,” said Kagig. “So was the wife. A young woman yet. A brave, good woman. Always she agreed with me, I remember. Often I heard her urge you men to follow me to Zeitoon and help to fortify the place!”
“Will you leave a good woman in the hands of Turks, Kagig? Come—come to the rescue!”
“It is too bad,” said Kagig simply. “Such women suffer more terribly than the hags who merely die by the sword. Ten times by the count—during ten succeeding massacres I have seen the Turks sell Armenian wives and daughters at auction. I am sorry, Eflaton.”
“My God!” groaned Will. “How long are we four loafers going to sit here and leave a white woman in danger on the road ahead?” He got up and began folding his blankets.
The Armenian whom Kagig had called Eflaton threw himself to the floor and shrieked in agony of misery. Rustum Khan stepped over him and came and stood in front of Monty.
“These men are fools,” he said. “They know exactly what the Turks will do. They have all seen massacres before. Yet not one of them was ready when the hour set for this one came. They say—and they say the truth, that the Turks will murder all Europeans they catch outside the mission stations, lest there be true witnesses afterward whom the world will believe.”
“But a woman—scarcely a white woman?” This from Will, with the tips of his ears red and the rest of his face a deathly white.
“Depending on the woman,” answered Rustum Khan. “Old—unpleasing—” He made an upward gesture with his thumb, and a noise between his teeth suggestive of a severed wind-pipe. “If she were good-looking—I have heard say they pay high prices in the interior, say at Kaisarieh or Mosul. Once in a harem, who would ever know? The road ahead is worse than dangerous. Whoever wishes to save his life would do best to turn back now and try to ride through to Tarsus.”
“Try it, then, if you’re afraid!” sneered Will, and for a moment I thought the Rajput would draw steel.
“I know what this lord sahib and I will do,” he said, darkening three or four shades under his black beard. “It was for men bewitched by gipsy-women that I feared!”
Will was standing. Nothing but Monty’s voice prevented blows. He rapped out a string of sudden rhetoric in the Rajput’s own guttural tongue, and Rustum Khan drew back four paces.
“Send him back, Colonel sahib!” he urged. “Send that one back! He and Umm Kulsum will be the death of us!”
Fred went off into a peal of laughter that did nothing to calm the Rajput’s ruffled temper.
“Who was Umm Kulsum?” I asked him, divining the cause.
“The most immoral hag in Asian legend! The aggregated essence of all female evil personified in one procuress!”
“Say, I’ll have to teach that gink—”
Monty got up and stood between them, but it was a new alarm that prevented blows. A fist-blow in the Rajput’s face would have meant a blood-feud that nothing less than a man’s life could settle, and Monty looked worried. There came a new thundering on the door that brought everybody to his feet as if murder were the least of the charges against us. Only Kagig appeared at ease and unconcerned.
“Open to them!” he shouted, and resumed his pacing to and fro.
Our Armenian servants ran to the door, and in a minute returned to say that fifty mounted men from Zeitoon were drawn up outside. Kagig gave a curt laugh and strode across to us.
“I said you Eenglis sportmen should see good sport.”
Monty nodded, with a hand held out behind him to warn us to keep still.
“I said you shall shoot many pigs!”
“Lead on, then.”
“Turks are pigs!”
Monty did not answer. To have disagreed would have been like flapping a red cloth at a tiger. Yet to have agreed with him at once might have made him jump to false conclusions. The consul’s last words to us had been insistent on the unwisdom of posing as anything but hunters, legitimately entitled to protection from the Turkish government.
“I would like you gentlemen for allies!”
“You are our servant at present.”
“Would you think of holding me to that?” demanded Kagig with a gesture of extreme irritation. It is only the West that can joke at itself in the face of crisis.
“If not to that,” said Monty blandly, “then what agreements do you keep?”
Kagig saw the point. He drew a deep impatient breath and drove it out again hissing through his teeth. Then he took grim hold of himself.
“Effendi,” he said, addressing himself to Monty, but including all of us with eyes that seemed to search our hearts, “you are a lord, a friend of the King of Eengland. If I were less than a man of my word I could make you prisoner and oblige your friend the King of Eengland to squeeze these cursed Turks!”
Rustum Khan heard what he said, and made noise enough drawing his saber to be heard outside the kahveh, but Kagig did not turn his head. Three gipsies attended to Rustum Khan, slipping between him and their master, and our four Zeitoonli servants cautiously approached the Rajput from behind.
“Peace!” ordered Monty. “Continue, Kagig.”
Kagig held both hands toward Monty, palms upward, as if he were offering the keys of Hell and Heaven.
“You are sportmen, all of you. Shall I keep my word to you? Or shall I serve my nation in its agony?”
Monty glanced swiftly at us, but we made no sign. Will actually looked away. It was a rule we four had to leave the playing of a hand to whichever member of the partnership was first engaged; and we never regretted it, although it often called for faith in one another to the thirty-third degree. The next hand might fall to any other of us, but for the present it was Monty’s play.
“We hold you to your word!” said Monty.
Kagig gasped. “But my people!”
“Keep your word to them too! Surely you haven’t promised them to make us prisoner?”
“But if I am your servant—if I must obey you for two piasters a day, how shall I serve my nation?”
“Wait and see!” suggested Monty blandly.
Kagig bowed stiffly, from the neck.
“It would surprise you, effendi,” he said grimly, “to know how many long years I have waited, in order that I may see what other men will do!”
Monty never answered that remark. There came a yell of “Fire!” and in less than ten seconds flames began to burst through the door that shut off the Turks’ private quarters, and to lick and roar among the roof beams. The animals at the other end of the room went crazy, and there was instant panic, the Armenians outside trying to get in to help, and fighting with the men and animals and women and children who choked the way. Then the hay in the upper story caught alight, and the heat below became intolerable. Monty saw and instantly pounced on an ax and two crow-bars in the corner.
“Through the wall!” he ordered.
Fred, Will and I did that work, he and Kagig looking on. It was much easier than at first seemed likely. Most of the stones were stuck with mud, not plaster, and when the first three or four were out the rest came easily. In almost no time we had a great gap ready, and the extra draft we made increased the holocaust, but seemed to lift the heat higher. Then some of the Zeitoonli saw the gap, and began to hurry blindfolded horses through it and in a very little while the place seemed empty. I saw the Turkish owner and several of his sons looking on in fatalistic calm at about the outside edge of the ring of light, and it occurred to me to ask a question.
“Hasn’t that Turk a harem?” I asked.
In another second we four were hurrying around the building, and Will and I burst in the door at the rear with our crow-bars. Monty and Fred rushed past us, and before I could get the smoke out of my eyes and throat they were hurrying out again with two old women in their arms—the women screaming, and they laughing and coughing so that they could hardly run. Then Will made my blood run cold with a new alarm.
“The biped!” he shouted. “The Measel in the corn-bin!”
They dropped the old ladies, and all four of us raced back to our hole in the wall—plunged into the hell-hot building, pulled the lid off the corn-bin (it was fastened like an ancient Egyptian coffin-lid with several stout Wooden pegs), dragged Measel out, and frog-marched him, kicking and yelling, to the open, where Fred collapsed.
“Measel,” said Will, stooping to feel Fred’s heart, “if you’re the cause of my friend Oakes’ death, Lord pity you!”
Fred sat up, not that he wished to save the “biped” any anguish, but the wise man vomits comfortably when he can, the necessity being bad enough without additional torment.
“See!” said a voice out of darkness. “He empties himself! That is well. It is only the end of the fever. Now he will be a man again. But the sahibs should have left that writer of characters in the corn-bin, where he could have shared the fate of his master without troubling us again!”
Rustum Khan strode into the light, with half his fierce beard burned away from having been the last to leave by the front entrance, and a decided limp from having been kicked by a frantic mule.
“What have you done with the German?” demanded Monty.
“I, sahib? Nothing. In truth nothing. It was the seven sons of the Turk—abetted I should say by gipsies. It was the German who set the place alight. The girl, Maga Jhaere they call her, saw him do it. She watched like a cat, the fool, hoping to amuse herself, while he burned off his ropes with a brand that fell his way out of the fire. When another brand jumped half across the room he set the place alight with it, tossing it over the party wall. He was an able rascal, sahib.”
“Was?” demanded Monty.
“Aye, sahib, was! In another second he released the Turkish lieutenant and shouted in his ear to escape and say that Armenians burned this kahveh! Gregor Jhaere slew the Turk, however. And Maga followed the German into the open, where she denounced him to some of the Zeitoonli who recently arrived. They took him and threw him back into the fire—where he remained. I begin to like these Zeitoonli. I even like the gipsies more than formerly. They are men of some discernment, and of action!”
“Man of blood!” growled Monty. “What of the Turkish owner and his seven sons?”
“They shall burn, too, if the sahib say so!”
“If they burn, so shall you! Where is Kagig?”
“Seeing that the sahibs’ horses are packed and saddled. I came to find the sahibs. According to Kagig it is time to go, before Turks come to take vengeance for a burned road-house. They will surely say Armenians burned it, whether or not there is a German to support their accusation!”
Then we heard Kagig’s high-pitched “Haide—chabuk!” and picked up Peter Measel, and ran around the building to where the horses were already saddled, and squealing in fear of the flames. We left the Turk, and his wives and seven sons, to tell what tale they pleased.