“America’s way with a woman is beyond belief!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
Did caution keep the gates of Greece,
Ye saints of “safety first!”
Twixt Thessaly and Locris when
Leonidas’ thousand men
Died scornful of the proffered peace
Of Xerxes the accurst?
Watch ye have kept, ward ye have kept,
But watch and ward were vain
If love and gratitude have slept
While ye stood guard for gain.
Or ye, who count the niggard cost
In time and coin and gear
Of succoring the under-dog,
How often have ye seen a hog,
Establishing his glutton boast,
Survive a famine year?
Fast ye have kept, feast ye have made;
Vain were the deeds and doles
If it was fear that ye obeyed
To save your coward souls.
Ye banish beauty to the stews
For lack of eyes that see,
And stifle joy with deadly rote
As empty as the texts ye quote,
The while forgiveness ye refuse
Lest wrath dishonored be.
Gray are your days, drab are your ways,
Strong are your fashioned bars,
But, ye who ask if service pays—
Who polishes the stars?
Spring in Armenia is almost as much like heaven as heaven itself could be, if it were not for the unspeakable Turk, but his blight rests on everything. I could have kept awake that morning without Fred’s irreverent music, simply for sake of the scenery, if its freshness had been untainted. But there hung a sickly, faint pall of smoke that robbed the green landscape of all liveliness. One breathed weariness instead of wine.
We could not possibly have lost the way, because our crawling column had left a swath behind it of trampled grass and trodden crossing-places where the track wound and rewound in a game of hide-and-seek with tinkling streams. But we began to wonder, nevertheless, why we caught up with nobody.
It was drawing on to ten in the morning, and I had dozed off for about the dozenth time, with my horse in pretty much the same condition, when I heard Will’s voice at last, and looked up. He was standing alone on a ledge overlooking the track, but I could see the ends of rifles sticking up close by. If we had been an enemy, we should have stood small chance against him.
“Where are the rest of you?” I asked, and he laughed!
“Women, kids and wounded all swore a pitched battle was raging behind them. Most of them wanted to turn back and lend a hand. I thought you guys mighty cruel to put all that scare into a crowd in their condition—but I see—”
“Guests, America! My country’s at peace with Turkey! Where shall we stow our guests?”
“There’s a village below here.”
He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. But behind him was the apex of a spur thrust out in midcurve of the mountainside, and one could not see around that. We had emerged out of the straggling outposts of the forest high above the plain, and to our right the whole panorama lay snoozing in haze. The path by which we had turned our backs on Monty and Kagig went winding away and away below, here and there an infinitesimal thin line of slightly lighter color, but more often suggested by the contour of the hills. Our Zeitoonli in their zeal to return to their leader had been evidently cutting corners. If the smudge of smoke to the right front overhung Marash, then we were probably already nearer Zeitoon than when we and Kagig parted company.
“Come up and see for yourselves,” said Will.
Fred passed the line that held his prisoners in tow to an Armenian, and we climbed up together on foot. Around the corner of the spur, within fifty feet of where Will stood, was an almost sheer escarpment, and at the foot of that, a thousand feet below us, with ramparts of living rock on all four sides, crouched a little village fondled in the bosom of the mountains.
“They’ve piled down there and made ‘emselves at home. The place was deserted, prob’ly because it ‘ud be too easy to roll rocks down into it. But I can’t make ‘em listen. Ours is a pretty chesty lot, with guts, and our taking part with ‘em has stiffened their courage. They claim they’re goin’ to hold this rats’ nest against all the Turks and Kurds in Asia Minor!”
“That’s where the rest of us are,” said Will.
“Where’s Miss Vanderman?”
“Asleep—down in the village. The’re all asleep. You guys go down there and sleep, too. I’ll follow, soon as I’ve posted these men on watch. That small square hut next the big one in the middle is ours. She’s in the big one with a crowd of women. Now don’t make a fool row and wake her! Tie your horses in the shade where you see the others standing in line; there’s a little corn for them, and a lot of hay that the owners left behind.”
So we undertook not to wake the lady, and left Will there carefully choosing places, in which the men fell fast asleep almost the minute his back was turned. Sleep was in the air that morning—not mere weariness of mind and limb that a man could overcome, but inexplicable coma. Whole armies are affected that way on occasion. There was a man once named Sennacherib.
“Sleepy hollow!” said Fred, and as he spoke his horse pitched forward, almost spilling him; the rope that held the prisoners in tow was all that saved the lot of them from rolling down-hill. Fred dismounted, and drove the horse in front of him with a slap on the rump, but the beast was almost too sleepy to make the effort to descend.
There was no taint of gas or poison fumes. The air tasted fresh except for the faint smoke, and the birds were all in full song. Yet we all had to dismount, and to let the prisoners walk, too, because the horses were too drowsy to be trusted. The path that zigzagged downward to the village was dangerous enough without added risk, and the eight Armenian riflemen refused point-blank to lead the way unless they might drive the animals ahead of them.
Even so, neither we nor they were properly awake, when we reached the village. We tied up the horses in a sort of dream—fed them from instinct and habit—and made our way to the hut Will had pointed out like men who walked in sleep.
Nobody was keeping watch. Nobody noticed our arrival. Men and women were sleeping in the streets and under the eaves of the little houses. Nothing seemed awake but the stray dogs nosing at men’s feet and hunting hopelessly among the bundles.
The little house Will had reserved for our use contained a stool and a string-cot. On the stool was food—cheese and very dry bread; and because even in that waking dream we were conscious of hunger, we ate a little of it. Then we lay down on the floor and fell asleep—we, and the prisoners, and the eight Armenian riflemen. Within a quarter of an hour Will followed us into the house, but we knew nothing about that. Then he, too, fell asleep, and until two or three hours after dark we were a village of the dead.
To this day there is no explaining it. Certainly no human watch or ward saved us from destruction at the hands of roving enemies. I was awakened at last by a brilliant light, and the effort made by our two prisoners, still tied together, to crawl across my body. I threw them off me, and sat up, rubbing my eyes and wondering where I was.
In the door stood Kagig, with a lantern in his right hand thrust forward into the room. His eyes were ablaze with excitement, and between black beard and mustache his teeth showed in a grin mixed of scorn and amusement.
Next I beard Will’s voice: “Jimminy!” and Will sat up. Then Fred gave tongue:
“That you, Kagig? Where’s Monty? Where’s Lord Montdidier?”
Kagig strode into the room, set the lantern on the floor, struck the remnants of the food from off the little stool, and sat down. I could see now that he was deathly tired.
“He is in Zeitoon,” he answered.
Noises from outside began then to assert themselves in demonstration that the village was awake at last—also that the population had swollen while we slept. I could hear the restless movement of more than twice the number of horses we had had with us.
Kagig began to laugh—a sort of dry cackle that included wonder as well as rebuke. He threw both hands outward, palms upward, in a gesture that complemented the motion of shoulders shrugged up to his ears.
“All around—high hills! From every side from fifty places rocks could have been rolled upon you! So—and so you sleep!”
“I set guards!” Will exploded.
“Eleven guards I found—all together in one place—fast asleep!”
He showed his splendid teeth and the palms of his hands again in actual enjoyment of the situation. For the first time then I saw there was wet blood on his goat-skin coat.
He made a gesture of impatience.
“It is nothing—nothing. My servant has attended to it.”
So Kagig had a servant. I felt glad of that. It meant a rise from vagabondage to position among his people.
Of all earthly attainments, the first and most desirable and last to let go of is an honest servant—unless it be a friend. (But the difference is not so distinct as it sounds.)
A huge fear suddenly seized Fred Oakes.
“You said Monty is in Zeitoon—alive or dead? Quick, man! Answer!”
“Should I leave Zeitoon,” Kagig answered slowly, unless I left a better man in charge behind me? He is alive in Zeitoon—alive—alive! He is my brother! He and I love one purpose with a strong love that shall conquer! You speak to me of Lord what-is-it? Hah! To me forever he is Monty, my brother—my—”
“Where’s Miss Vanderman?” I interrupted.
“Here!” she said quietly, and I turned my head to discover her sitting beside Will in the shadow cast by Kagig’s lantern. She must have entered ahead of Kagig or close behind him, unseen because of his bulk and the tricky light that he swung in his right hand.
Kagig went on as if he had not heard me.
“There is a castle—I think I told you?—perched on a crag in the forest beside Zeitoon. My men have cut a passage to it through the trees, for it had stood forgotten for God knows how long. Later you shall understand. There came Arabaiji, riding a mule to death, saying you and this lady are in danger of life at the hands of my nation. I did not believe that, but Monty—he believed it.”
“And I’ll wager you found him a hot handful!” laughed Fred. “Not so hot. Not so hot. But very determined. Later you shall understand. He and I drove a bargain.”
“Dammit!” Fred rose to his feet. “D’you mean you used our predicament as a club to drive him with?”
Kagig laughed dryly.
“Do you know your friend so little, and think so ill of me? He named terms, and I agreed to them. I took a hundred mounted men to find you and bring you to Zeitoon, spreading them out like a fan, to scour the country. Some fell in with a thing the Turks call a hamidieh regiment; that is a rabble of Kurds under the command of Tenekelis.”
“What are they?”
“Tenekelis? The word means ‘tin-plate men.’ We call them that because of the tin badges given them to wear in their head-dress. In no other way do they resemble officers. They are brigands favored by official recognition, that is all. Their purpose is to pillage Armenians. While you slept in this village, and your watchmen slept up above there, that whole rabble of bandits with their tin-plate officers passed within half a mile, following along the track by which you came! If you had been awake—and cooking—or singing—or making any sort of noise they must have heard you! Instead, they turned down toward the plain a little short distance too soon—and my men met them—and there was a skirmish—and I rallied my other men, and attacked them suddenly. We accounted for two of the tin-plate men, and so many of the thing they call a regiment that the others took to flight. Jannam! (My soul!) But you are paragons of sleepers!”
“Do you never sleep?” I asked him.
“Shall a man keep watch over a nation, and sleep?” he answered. “Aye—here a little, there a little, I snatch sleep when I can. My heart burns in me. I shall sleep on my horse on the way back to Zeitoon, but the burning within will waken me by fits and starts.”
He got up and stood very politely in front of Gloria Vanderman, removing his cossack kalpak for the first time and holding it with a peculiar suggestion of humility.
“You shall be put to no indignity at the hands of my people,” he said. “They are not bad people, but they have suffered, and some have been made afraid. They would have kept you safe. But now you shall have twenty men if you wish, and they shall deliver you safely into Tarsus. If you wish it, I will send one of these gentlemen with you to keep you in countenance before my men; they are foreigners to you, and no one could blame you for fearing them. The gentleman would not wish to go, but I would send him!”
She shook her head, pretty merrily for a girl in her predicament.
“I was curious to meet you, Mr. Kagig, but that’s nothing to the attraction that draws me now. I must meet the other man—is it Monty you all call him—or never know a moment’s peace!”
“You mean you will not go to Tarsus?”
“Of course I won’t!”
“Of course!” laughed Fred. “Any young woman—”
“Of course?” Kagig repeated the extravagant gesture of shrugged shoulders and up-turned palms. “Ah, well. You are American. I will not argue. What would be the use?”
He turned his back on us and strode out with that air that not even the great stage-actors can ever acquire, of becoming suddenly and utterly oblivious of present company in the consciousness of deeds that need attention. Generals of command, great captains of industry, and a few rare statesmen have it; but the statesmen are most rare, because they are trained to pretend, and therefore unconvincing. The generals and captains are detested for it by all who have never humbled themselves to the point where they can think, and be unselfishly absorbed. Kagig stepped out of one zone of thought into the next, and shut the door behind him.
A minute later we heard his voice uplifted in command, and the business of shepherding those women and children was taken out of our hands by a man who understood the business. The intoxicating sounds that armed men make as they evolve formation out of chaos in the darkness came in through open door and windows, and in another moment Kagig was back again with a hand on each door-post.
“You have brought all those cartridges!”
He thrust out both hands in front of him, and made the knuckles of every finger crack like castanets. In another second he was gone again. But we knew we were now forgiven all our sins of omission.
Somewhere about midnight, with a nearly full moon rising in a golden dream above the rim of the ravine, we started. And no wheeled vehicle could have followed by the track we took. It was no mean task for men on foot, and our burdened animals had to be given time. Whether or not Kagig slept, as he had said he would, on horse-back, he kept himself and our prisoners out of sight somewhere in the van; and this time the rear was brought up by a squadron of ragged irregular horse that would have made any old campaigner choke with joy to look at them.
Drill those men knew very little of—only sufficient to make it possible to lead them. No two men were dressed alike, and some were not even armed alike, although stolen Turkish government rifles far predominated. But they wore unanimously that dare-devil air, not swaggering because there is no need, that has been the key to most of the sublime surprises of all war. The commander, whose men sit that way in the saddle and toss those jokes shoulder over shoulder down the line, dare tackle forlorn hopes that would seem sheer leap-year lunacy to the martinet with twenty times their number.
“Who’d have thought it?” said Fred. “We’ve all heard the Turk was a first-class fighting man, but I’d rather command fifty of these, than any five hundred Turks I ever saw.
There was no gainsaying that. Whoever had seen armies with an understanding eye must have agreed.
“Turks don’t hate Armenians for their faults,” I answered. “From what I know of the Turk he likes sin, and prefers it cardinal. If Armenians were mere degenerates, or murdering ruffians like the Kurds, the Turk would like them.”
“Then if a Turk liked me, you’d doubt my social fitness?”
“Sure I would, if he liked you well enough to attract attention. The fact that the Turk hates Armenians is the best advertisement Armenians have got.”
We were entering the heart of savage hills that tossed themselves in ever increasing grandeur up toward the mist-draped crags of Kara Dagh, following a trail that was mostly watercourse. The simple savagery of the mountains laid naked to view in the liquid golden light stirred the Armenians behind us to the depths of thought; and theirs is a consciousness of warring history; of dominion long since taken from them, and debauched like pearls by swine; of hope, eternally upwelling, born of love of their trampled fatherland. They began to sing, and the weft and woof of their songs were grief for all those things and a cherished, secret promise that a limit had been set to their nation’s agony.
In his own way, with his chosen, unchaste instrument Fred is a musician of parts. He can pick out the spirit of old songs, even when, as then, he hears them for the first time, and make his concertina interpret them to wood and wind and sky. Indoors he is a mere accompanist, and in polite society his muse is dumb. But in the open, given fair excuse and the opportunity, he can make such music as compels men’s ears and binds their hearts with his in common understanding.
Because of Fred’s concertina, quite without knowing it, those Armenians opened their hearts to us that night, so that when a day of testing came they regarded us unconsciously as friends. Taught by the atrocity of cruel centuries to mistrust even one another, they would surely have doubted us otherwise, when crisis came. Nobody knows better than the Turk how to corrupt morality and friendship, and Armenia is honeycombed with the rust of mutual suspicion. But real music is magic stuff. No Turk knows any magic.
At dawn, twisting and zigzagging in among the ribs of rock-bound hills, we sighted the summit of Beirut Dagh all wreathed in jeweled mist. Then the only life in sight except ourselves was eagles, nervously obsessed with goings-on on the horizon. I counted as many as a dozen at one time, wheeling swiftly, and circling higher for a wider view, but not one swooped to strike.
Once, as we turned into a track that they told us led to El Oghlu, we saw on a hill to our left a small square building, gutted by fire. Twenty yards away from it, on top of the same round hill, strange fruit was hanging from a larger oak than any we had seen thereabouts—fruit that swung unseemly in the tainted wind.
“Turks!” announced one of Kagig’s men, riding up to brag to us. “That square building is the guard-house for the zaptieh, put there by the government to keep check on robbers. They are the worst robbers!”
The man spoke English with the usual mission-school air suggestive of underdone pie. As a rule they go to school at such great sacrifice, and then so limited for funds, that they have to get by heart three times the amount an ordinary, undriven youth can learn in the allotted time. But by heart they have it. And like the pie they call to mind, only the surface of their talk is pale. Because their heart is in the thing, they under-stand.
“By hanging Turkish police,” said Fred, “you only give the Turks a good excuse for murdering your friends.”
“Come!” said the man of Zeitoon. “See.”
He led the way down a path between young trees to a clearing where a swift stream gamboled in the sun. Down at the end of it, where the grass sloped gently upward toward the flanks of a great rock was a little row of graves with a cross made of sticks at the head of each—clearly not Turkish graves.
“Three men—eleven women,” our guide said simply.
“You mean that the Turkish police—”
“There were fifteen on their way to Zeitoon. One survived, and reached Zeitoon, and told. Then he died, and we rode down to avenge them all. The Turks took the three men and beat them on the feet with sticks until the soles of their feet swelled up and burst. Then they made them walk on their tortured feet. Then they beat them to death. Shall I say what they did to the women?”
“What did you do to the Turks?” said I.
“Hanged them. We are not animals—we simply, hanged them.”
Somewhere about noon we rode down a gorge into the village of El Oghlu. It was a miserable place, with a miserable, tiny kahveh in the midst of it, and Kagig set that alight before our end of the column came within a quarter of a mile of it. We burned the rest of the village, for he sent back Ephraim to order no shelter left for the regiments that would surely come and hunt us down. But the business took time, and we were farther than ever behind Kagig when the last wooden roof began to cockle and crack in the heat.
Will and Gloria were somewhere on in front, and Fred and I began to put on speed to try to overtake them. But from the time of leaving the burned village of El Oghlu there began to be a new impediment.
“We are not taking the shortest way,” said Ephraim. “The shortest way is too narrow—good for one or two men in a hurry, but not for all of us.”
We were gaining no speed by taking the easier road. There began to be vultures in evidence, mostly half-gorged, flopping about from one orgy to the next. And out from among the rocks and bushes there came fugitive Armenians—famished and wounded men and women, clinging to our stirrups and begging for a lift on the way to Zeitoon. Zeitoon was their one hope. They were all headed that way.
Fred detached a dozen mounted men to linger behind on guard against pursuit, and the rest of us overloaded our horses with women and children, giving up all hope of overtaking Gloria and Will, forgetting that they had come first on the scene. In my mind I imagined them riding side by side, Will with his easy cowboy seat, and Gloria looking like a boy except for the chestnut hair. But that imagination went the way of other vanities.
There was neither pleasure nor advantage in striding slowly beside my laboring horse, nor any hope of mounting him again myself. So I walked ahead and, being now horseless, ceased to be mobbed by fugitives. At the end of an hour I overtook two horses loaded with little children; but there was no sign of Gloria and Will, and losing zest for the pursuit as the sun grew stronger I sat down by the ways-side on a fallen tree.
It was then that I heard voices that I recognized. The first was a woman’s.
“I’m simply crazy to know him.”
A man’s, that I could not mistake even amid the roar of a city, answered her.
“You’ve a treat in store. Monty is my idea of a regular he-man.”
“Is he good-looking?”
“Yes. Stands and looks like a soldier. I’ve seen a plainsman in Wyoming who’d have matched him to a T all except the parted hair and the mustache.”
“I like a mustache on a tall man.”
“It suits Monty. The first idea you get of him is strength—strength and gentleness; and it grows on you as you know him better. It’s not just muscles, nor yet will-power, but strength that makes your heart flutter, and you know for a moment how a woman must feel when a fellow asks her to be his wife. That’s Monty.”
I got up and retraced a quarter of a mile, to wait for Fred where I could not accuse myself of “listening in.”
“Fred,” I said, when he overtook me at last and we strode along side by side, “you were right. America’s way with a woman is beyond belief!”
I told him what I had heard, and he thought a while.
“How about Maga Jhaere’s way, when she and Will and the Vanderman meet?” he said at last, smiling grimly.