“That man’s dose is death, and he dies unshriven!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
“MALE AND FEMALE CREATED HE THEM”
The ancient orders pass. The fetters fall.
All-potent inspiration stirs dead peoples to new birth.
And over bloodied fields a new, clear call
Rings kindlier on deadened ears of earth.
Indoctrinated, flattered, by himself betrayed
And all-betraying since with idiot word
He bade his woman bear and be afraid,
Awakes to see delusion of the past
Unmourned along with all injustice die,
Himself by woman wisdom blessed at last
And her unchallenged right the reason why.
Now for a moment I became the unwilling vortex of that mob of anxious men and women—I who by, my own confession knew Kagig, I who had sent Kagig a message, I who five minutes ago was on the verge of being hanged in the greasy noose that still swung above the ladder through the hole in the roof—I who therefore ought to be thoroughly plastic-minded and obedient to demands.
The place had become as evil smelling as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Everybody was sweating, and they shoved and milled murderously in the effort to get near me and learn, each with his own ears from my lips, just when Kagig might be expected. Ephraim, their presumptive leader, got shuffled to the outside of the pack—the only silent man between the four walls, watchful for new opportunity.
With my clothing nearly torn off and cars in agony from bellowed questions, the only remedy I could think of was to yell to Fred to start up a tune on his concertina; I had seen him change a crowd’s temper many a time in just that way. But even supposing my advice had been good, he could not get his arms free, and it was Gloria Vanderman who saved that day.
Whoever has tried to write down the quality that makes the college girl, United States or English, what she is has failed, just as whoever has tried to muzzle or discredit her has failed. She is something new that has happened to the world, not because of men and women and the priests and pundits, but in spite of them. Part of the reason can be given by him who knows history enough, and commands almost unlimited leisure and page; but that would only be the uninteresting part that we could easily dispense with. The college girl has happened to the world, as light did in Genesis 1:3.
Gloria Vanderman, with her back against the wall, struggled and contrived to get her foot on Will’s bent knee. Another struggle sent her breast-high above the sea of sweating faces. There was fitful light enough to see her by, because the man who held a pine torch was privileged. If there had not been hot sparks scattering from the thing doubtless they would have closed in on him and crushed it down, and out, but he had elbow-room, and accordingly Gloria’s face glowed golden in its frame of disordered chestnut hair. One heard her voice because it was clear, and sweet with reasonableness, so that it vibrated in an unobstructed orbit.
“Surely you are not cowards?” she began, and they grew silent, because that idea called for consideration.
“Kagig is a patriot. Kagig is fighting for all Armenia. Surely you are not the men to let brave Kagig be tempted away from his post of danger at Zeitoon? If I know you men and women you will hasten to meet Kagig, taking your food, and weapons, and children with you. You will hurry—hurry—hurry to meet him—to meet him as near Zeitoon as possible, so as to turn him back to his post of duty!”
Then Ephraim saw his chance. Some whisperer translated to him and he owned a voice that was worth gold for political purposes.
He took up the tale in Armenian, working himself up into a splendid fervor, and so amplifying the argument that he could almost fairly claim it as his own before he was half-done. She had introduced the light, but he exploited it, and he knew his nation—knew the tricks of speech most likely to spur them into action.
Within five minutes they were shoving the stones off the trap at imminent risk of anybody’s legs, and the ladder bent groaning under the weight of twice as many as it ought to bear, as half of them essayed the short cut over the roof. A blast of sweet air through the opened trap ejected most of the smoky ten-times-breathed stuff out with the climbers; and as the room emptied and we wiped the grimy sweat from our faces I heard Will talking to Gloria Vanderman in a new tongue—new, that is to say, to the old world.
“Good goods! Stampeded ‘em! They’ll vote for you for any office—your pick! If that guy Ephraim plans buttering the slide we’ll set him on it—watch!”
“You bet,” she answered sentimentally. “I wasn’t cheer leader for nothing. Besides, I delivered the valedictory—say, what are we waiting here for?”
“Come on, then!” I urged her. “We’ll leave our mule-load behind in case they’ve eaten your horse. Come with us to the stables and—”
But she interrupted me.
“You men go down and get the horses. Do what you can with the crowd. I’ll get the women into something like order if that’s possible, and we’ll all meet wherever there’s open ground and moonlight at the foot of the hill.”
“I’ll come with you,” Will proposed. “You’ll need—”
“No you won’t! The women are easy. They’ve been taught to obey orders! It’ll take all the wit you three men own between you to get the men in line! Let’s get busy!”
The men had treated the hanging blankets with the respect the ancient Jews accorded to the veil of the Holy of Holies. (We learned afterward that there was an Armenian man of the party who had followed a circus one summer all across the States, and had brought that sensible precaution home with him as rule number one for successful management of mixed assemblies.) Gloria Vanderman made a run for the curtain and dived behind it. We heard the women welcome her.
“Let’s go!” said Will.
Will had ever been our ladies’ man in all our wanderings, because women could never resist his unaffected comradeship. Even among Americans he was rare in his gift of according to women equality not only of liberty, but of understanding and good sense, and it went like wine to the heads of some we had met, so that Will was seldom without a sex-problem on his hands and ours. But Will was too good a comrade to be surrendered to any woman lightly.
“Damn that chicken!” murmured Fred by way of praying fervently, pausing in the breach in the wall to rub his shin. “Feel that bruise, will you! No young woman ever brought me luck yet!”
“What are you waiting for?” complained a voice from outer darkness. “Come on, you rummies!”
Fred sat down on the protruding stone that had injured his shin, and detained me with his arm across the opening.
“Mark my words! In order that that young woman may be educated to consider Will Yerkes a paragon of unimaginable virtues, we—you and I—are going to have to do what he calls ‘hustle.’ We’re going to see speed, and we’re going to sweat, trying to catch up. There isn’t a scatterbrained adventure conceivable that we’re not going to be forced into, nor an imaginable peril that we’re not going to have to pull him out of. We’re going to be cursed for our trouble, and ridiculed to make amusement for her majesty. And at the end of it all we’re going to be patronized for a couple of ignorant damned fools who don’t know better than be bachelors. What’s worse, we’re going to submit tamely. What is infinitely worse, we’re going to like it! There are times when I doubt the sanity of my whole sex!”
“Have you guys taken root?” demanded the familiar voice and we heard Will’s returning footsteps.
“No, America. But I have to sit down when my shin hurts and I’m seized with the gift of prophecy.”
“Huh! We’ll find Miss Vanderman tired of waiting for us with the women. Since when has a crack on the shin made a baby of you? You used to be tough enough!”
“D’you get the idea?” chuckled Fred. “We’re coming, Will, we’re coming.”
Perfectly unconsciously Will took the lead, and most outrageously he drove us. Not that his driving was not shrewd, for his usually practical and quick mind seemed to take on added brilliancy. And since we first joined partnership—he and Monty and Fred and I—we had always been contented to follow the lead of whichever held it at the moment. But there was new efficiency, and impatience of a brand-new kind that would not rest until every man and animal had been rummaged in darkness out of that old ruin, and men, horses, cows, goats, bags of grain, and fifty cases of cartridges were driven down through the forest like water forced through a sieve, and were gathered in the only open space discoverable.
There we cooled our heels, fearful and full of vague imaginings until Miss Vanderman should bring the women, not at all encouraged by shouts in the distance that well might be the exulting of plundering Kurds, nor by occasional rifle-shots that sounded continually nearer, nor by the angry crimson glow of burning roofs that lighted half the horizon.
We waited an hour, Will objecting whenever either of us proposed to return and speed Miss Vanderman.
“Aw, what’s the use? D’you suppose she doesn’t know we’re waiting?”
At last Fred proposed that Will himself go and investigate. He went through the form of demurring, but yielded gracefully.
“The spirit,” Fred chuckled, “is weak, and the flesh is willing!”
Will handed his mule’s reins to an Armenian and started alone up-hill through the pitch-dark forest; and because the world is mixed of unexpectedness and grim jest in fairly equal proportions, five minutes after he left us Gloria Vanderman came leading the women by another path.
To avoid confusion with our part, and for sake of silence, she had led them a circuit, and except for the occasional wail of a child and a little low talking that blended like the hum of insects with the night, they made very little noise. The rear was brought up by the strongest women carrying the sick and wounded on litters that had been improvised in a hurry, and like most things of the sort were much too heavy.
“Your mule is ready,” said I. But she shook her head.
“You gentlemen must give your mules up to the sick and wounded. We well ones can walk.”
I did not know how to answer her, although I knew she was wrong. The way to organize a marching column is not to level down to the ability of the weakest, although the pace of the weakest may have to be the measure of speed. We, who had to protect the column and shepherd it, would need our mounts; without them we should all be at the mercy of any enemy, with no corresponding gain to any one except the litter-bearers. All the same, I did not care to take issue with that capable young woman then and there. She would have put me in the wrong and left me speechless and indignant, after the fashion that is older than poor Shylock’s tale.
But Fred is made of sterner stuff than I, and was never above amusing himself at the expense of anybody’s dignity.
“Will is the youngest,” he answered. “Besides, he’s keeping us all waiting with his love-affairs! He ought to be made to walk!”
“He went into the woods to see a woman,” Fred answered imperturbably. “Let him forfeit his mule. Here he comes. Did you find her, America?”
Will emerged out of gloom with a grin on his face.
“Just my luck!” he said simply. “What are we waiting for? I can hear the Kurds. Let’s start.”
At that Gloria got excited.
“D’you mean you’re willing to leave a woman behind alone in that forest?” she demanded, and Will’s jaw dropped.
Fred nudged my ribs.
“Come on! We’ve given ‘em a ground for their first quarrel. They’ll never thank us if we wait a week. Mount! Walk—ride!”
We sent our two Zeitoonli in advance to show the way. True to his word, Arabaiji had left us, mule and all, and we missed him as we strove to get the unwieldy column marshaled and moving in line. We did not see Will and Gloria again that night, except when they passed between us, walking, arguing—Will explaining—we sitting on our mules on either side of the track until the last of the swarm tailed by. Then we brought up the rear together, to drive the stragglers and look out for pursuit.
“Not that I know what the devil we’ll do if the Kurds get after us!” said Fred.
“Let’s hope they make for the castle to-night, and waste time plundering that.”
“Piffle!” he answered.
“Because, you ass, if they get to the place and find if empty they’ll deduce, being less than idiots, that we’re not far off and that we’re at their mercy in the open! Let’s hope to God they funk attacking in the dark, and wait out of range of the walls until daylight. In that case we’ve a chance. Otherwise—I’ve still got six rifle cartridges, and four for my pistol. How many have you?”
“Six of each.”
“Then you owe me one for my pistol.”
I passed it to him.
“So. Now we’re good for exactly twenty-two Kurds between us. If we’re pursued I propose to give those two young lovers a chance by making every cartridge count from behind cover.”
“They’d hear the shooting and—”
“Not if we drop far enough behind.”
“They’d hear shooting and Will, at any rate, would ride back.”
“He couldn’t! He’d have to look after the girl and the column.”
“All the same—Will’s—”
“I know he is. Very well. I’ll arrange it another way. You wait behind here.”
So I rode along slowly, and he spurred his horse to a trot. But he did not hold the trot long. I could hear him objurgating, coaxing, encouraging, explaining, and the shrill voices of women answering, as he tried at one and the same time to pass the unfortunates in the dark and to make them see the grim necessity for speed. Soon I grew as busy as he, bullying litter-bearers and mothers burdened with crying babies. In times of massacre and war, survivors are not necessarily those who enjoyed the best of it. Nearly-drowned men brought to life again would forego the process if the choice were theirs, and there were nearly twenty women who would have preferred death to that night’s march. But I did not dare load my horse with babies, since it would likely be needed before dawn for sterner work.
It was more than an hour before Fred loomed in sight again, standing beside his horse in wait for me. He, too, had resisted the temptation to relieve mothers of their living loads (not that they ever expected it).
“How did you manage?” I asked, for I could tell by his air that the errand had been successful.
“I lied to him.”
“Of course. What did you say?”
“Said if the straggling got bad you and I might fall a long way behind and fire our pistols, so as to give the impression Kurds are in pursuit. That would tickle up the rear-end to a run!”
“And he believed that?” Will knew as well as I Fred’s not exactly subtle way of maneuvering to get the post of greatest danger for himself.
“He’d have believed anything! He’s head-, heart-and heels-over-end in love with the girl, and she’s as bad as he is. They’re talking political economy and international jurisprudence. When I reached ‘em they’d just arrived at the conclusion that the United States can save the world, maybe—maybe not, but nothing else can. I was decidedly de trop. They’re pretty to watch. No, he hasn’t kissed her yet—you could tell that even in the dark. It’s my belief he won’t for a long time; America’s way with women is beyond belief. They’re telling each other all they know, and like, and dislike, and believe, and hope. It ‘ud take a bullet to divide their destinies. I delivered my message, and they were so devilish polite you’d think I was the parson come to marry ‘em. They’d forgotten my very existence. When it dawned on ‘em who I was they were so keen to be rid of me they’d have agreed to anything at all. So it was easy.”
“No, it’s bad. Will’s a friend of mine. I hate to see him squandered on a woman. However, I did better than that.”
As I spoke there loomed out of the darkness just ahead of us eight men surrounding something on the track, their rifles sticking up above their shoulders.
“I’ve found eight men with rifles all alike that fit the ammunition in the boxes. It’s stolen Turkish government ammunition, by the way. The rifles come from the same source. The point is that a man caught with a stolen government rifle and ammunition in his possession would be tortured. Incidentally the men seem game. Therefore, if we have to fight a rear-guard action we can reasonably count on them. Haide!” he called to the eight men, and they picked up the case of cartridges, and resumed the march just ahead of us.
Fred lit his pipe contentedly, as he always is contented when he can make satisfactory arrangements to sacrifice himself unselfishly and pretend to himself he is a cynic. Whether because the armed guard of their own people put new courage in them, or because rifles at their rear made them more afraid, the stragglers gave less trouble for the next few hours. Perhaps they were growing more used to the march, and some of them were numb with anxiety, while not so weary yet that feet would not carry them forward.
Somewhere in advance a man with a high tenor voice began to sing a wild folk-song, of the sort that is common to all countries whose heritage is hope unstrangled. He and others like him with love and music in their brave hearts sang the tortured column through its night of agony, keeping alive faint hope that hell must have an end. Dawn broke sweet and calm. For it makes no matter if a nation writhes in agony, or man wreaks hate on man, the wind and the sky still whisper and smile; and the scent of wild flowers is not canceled by the stench of tired humanity.
Fred knocked his pipe out and rode to the top of shoulder of rock beside the track, beckoning to me to follow. We could see our column, astonishingly long drawn, winding like a line of ants in and out and over, following the leaders in a dream because there seemed nothing else to do or dream about. Once I thought I caught sight of Will on his horse, passing between trees, but I was not sure. Fred turned his horse about and looked in the direction we had come from. Presently, he nudged me.
“That smoke might be the castle we were in last night. See—it’s red underneath. What’ll you bet me Kurds don’t show up in pursuit before the day’s an hour old?”
That was nothing to bet about, and that kind of dawn is not the hour for roseate optimism.
“If they come,” said I, “I hope I don’t live to see what they’ll do to the women.”
Fred met my eyes and laughed.
“That’s all right,” he said. “You ride on. This rock commands the track. I’ll follow later when pursuit’s called off.”
“Ride on yourself!” I answered, and he chuckled as he lighted his pipe again.
One of the men had a kerosene can filled with odds and ends of personal belongings. I turned them out in a hollow of the rock, and sent him to fill the can with drinking water at a spring. Then Fred and I chose stations, and Fred went to vast pains lecturing every one of us on how to keep cover. We had nothing to eat, and therefore no notion of putting up anything but a short fight. Our best point was the surprise that unexpected, organized resistance would be likely to produce on plundering Kurds.
It was pleasant enough where we lay, and reminded both of us of far less strenuous days. The little animals that are always curious to the point of their undoing came out and investigated our tracks as soon as the noise of the stragglers had ceased. The Armenians took no notice of the wild life; persecuted people seldom do, having their own hard case too much in mind; but Fred knew the name of nearly every bird and animal that showed itself, and even ceased smoking as his interest increased.
“Ever go fishing as a boy?” he asked.
“Get up before daylight and escape from the house by the back way—”
“Stealing bread and cheese from the pantry on the way out—”
“And stopping where the grass was long near the watering place to dig worms—”
“And unchain the dog with frantic efforts to keep him from barking—”
“Yes, but the rascal always would do it—bark and wake everybody! Lucky if nobody saw you as you slipped through the gate into the fields!”
“Ah! But then what a time the dog had—it was almost as good fun as the fishing to watch him scamper. And how hungry he got—and he ate more than his share of the bread and cheese, so that you’d have had to go home early because of the aching void if it hadn’t been for the cottage where they gave a fellow milk out of a brown dish.”
“Yumm! Didn’t that country milk taste good! Snff—snff—they were mornings just like this at home when I went fishing. Cool and sweet and full of scent. Snff—snff!”
We sat still behind the ledge and let the air and scenery revive kind memories. The only noise was what our horses made cropping the grass in a hollow behind us, for the Armenians were well content to ruminate. Most likely they would have fallen asleep if we had not been there to keep an eye on them, for prolonged subjection to too much fear is soporific, so that tortured poor wretches sleep on the tightened rack.
I was very nearly asleep myself, having had practically none of it for two nights in succession, and had taken to watching the horses to keep my mind busy, when the movement of my horse’s ears struck me as peculiar. Presently he ceased grazing and raised his head. I thought he was going to whinny, and turned to see Fred squinting down his rifle at something that was not in the range of my vision.
“Here they come!” he whispered.
As he spoke a Kurd stepped out from between the trees, and we could see that he had tied his horse to a branch in the gloom behind him. He had the long sleeves reaching nearly to the ground peculiar to his race, and the unmistakable sheeny nose and cruel lips. From the rifle that he carried cavalierly over his shoulder hung a woman’s undergarment, with a dark stain on it that looked suspiciously like blood. My horse whinnied then, and his beast answered. At that he brought his rifle to the “ready” and nearly jumped out of his skin.
“I’m judge, jury, witness, prosecutor and executioner!” Fred whispered. “That man’s dose is death, and he dies unshriven!”
Then he fired, and Fred could not miss at that range if he tried. The Kurd clapped a hand to his throat and fell backward, and one of our Armenians ran before we could stop him to seize the tied horse, and any other plunder. One of the things he brought back with him, besides the horse and rifle and ammunition belt, was a woman’s finger with the ring not yet removed. He said he found it in the cartridge pouch.
In proof that organized defense was the last thing they reckoned on, nine more Kurds came galloping down the track pell-mell toward the place where they had heard the solitary rifle-shot, doubtless supposing their own man had come upon the quarry. We fired too fast, for the Armenians were not drilled men, but we dropped two horses and five Kurds, and the remaining four fled, with the riderless animals stampeding in their wake.
“What next?”’ said I, as Fred wiped out his rifle-barrel.
“They’ll return in greater force. We’d better change ground. D’you notice how this rock is covered by that other one a quarter of a mile to the right? Higher ground, too, and the last place they’ll look—come on!”
The man with the water-can spilled it all, for the sake of his medley of possessions, and I had to send him all the way back for more. But we took up our new stand at last with the horses well hidden and enough to drink to last the day out, and then had to wait half an hour before any Kurds came back to the attack.
They came on the second time with infinite precaution, lurking among the trees on the outskirts of the clearing and firing several random shots at our old position in the hope of drawing our fire. Finally, they emerged from the forest thirty strong and rushed our supposed hiding-place at full gallop.
They were not even out of pistol range. Fred used the Mauser rifle taken from the dead Kurd, and then we both emptied our pistols at the fools, the Armenians meanwhile keeping up a savage independent fire so ragged and rapid that it might have been the battle of Waterloo.
The Kurds never knew whether or not we were another party or the first one. They never discovered whether our former post was deserted or not. We never knew how many of them we hit, for after about a dozen had tumbled out of the saddle the remainder galloped for their lives. For minutes afterward we heard them crashing and pounding away in the distance to find their friends.
Our loot consisted of two wounded prisoners and four good horses, in addition to rifles and cartridges. We let the dead lie where they were for a warning to other scoundrels, and we looked on while our Armenians searched the bodies for anything likely to be of slightest use. They found almost nothing originally Kurdish, but more Armenian trinkets than would have stocked a traveling merchant’s show-case, including necklaces and earrings.
Fred took the two prisoners aside and in Persian, which every Kurd can understand and speak after a fashion, offered them their choice between telling the whole truth or being handed over to Armenians. And as there isn’t a bloody rascal in the world but suspects his intended victims of worse hankerings than his own, they loosed their tongues and told more than the truth, adding whatever they thought likely to please Fred.
“They say there were only about fifty of them in this raiding party to begin with, and several came to trouble before they met us. Seems there are Armenians hidden here and there who are able to give an account of themselves. Ten or twelve elected to stay near the castle we were in last night. They’ve burned it, but they have some captured women and propose to enjoy themselves. Shall we ride back and break in on the party?”
He meant what he said, but it was out of the question. “The party we’ve just trounced will give the alarm,” I objected. “We’d only ride into a trap. Besides, you’ve no proof these prisoners are not lying to you.”
“They say their raiding party is the only one within thirty miles. They rode ahead of the regiments to get first picking.”
“We’re none of us fit for anything but food and sleep,” said I, and Fred had to concede the point.
Fortunately the food problem was solved for the moment by the Kurds, who had a sort of cheese with them whose awful taste deprived one of further appetite. We ate, and tied our two wounded prisoners on one horse; and as we had nothing to treat their wounds with except water they finished their trip in exquisite discomfort. Surprise that we should attend to their wounds at all, added to their despondency after they had time to consider what it meant. There was only one burden to their lamentation:
“What are you going to do with us? We will tell what we know! We will name names! We are your slaves! We kiss feet! Ask, and we will answer!”
They thought they were being kept alive for torture, and we let them keep on thinking it. Fred tied their horse to his own saddle and towed them along, singing at the top of his lungs to keep the rest of us awake; and for all his noise I fell asleep until he reached for his concertina and, the humor of the situation dawning on him, commenced a classic of his own composition, causing the morning to re-echo with irreverence, and making all of us except the prisoners aware of the fact that life is not to be taken seriously, even in Armenia. The prisoners intuitively guessed that the song had reference to ways and means they would rather have forgotten.
“Ow! My name it is ‘orrible ‘Enery ‘Emms, And I ‘ails from a ‘ell of a ‘ole! The things I ‘ave thought an’ the deeds I ‘ave did Are remarkable lawless an’ better kep’ hid, So if Morgan you think of, an’ Sharkey an’ Kidd, Forget ‘em! To name such beginners as them’s An insult, so shivver my soul! Yow! In every port o’ the whole seven seas I ‘ave two or three wives on the rates, For I’m free wi’ my fancy an’ fly wi’ my picks, And I’ve promised ‘em plenty, an’ given ‘em nix, But have left ev’ry one in a ‘ell of a fix! ‘Ooever said Bluebeard was brother to me’s Either jealous or misunderstates!
“Wow! For awful atrocity, murder an’ theft, For battery, arson and hate, From breakin’ the Sabbath to coveting cows, An’ false affidavits an’ perjurin’ vows, I’m adept at whatever the law disallows, And the gallowsmen gape at the noose that I left, For I flit while the bally fools wait!”
Fred kept us awake all right. Like most of his original songs, that one had sixty or seventy verses.