“Rajput, I shall hang you if you make more trouble!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
“LO, THIS IS THE MAN—”
Choose, ye forefathers of to-morrow, choose!
These easy ways there be
Uncluttered by the wrongs each other bears,
And warmly we shall walk who can not see
How thin some other fellow’s garment wears,
Nor need to notice whose.
Choose, ye stock-owners in to-morrow, choose!
The road these others tread
Is littered deep with jetsam and the bones
Of their dishonored dead.
What altruism for defeat atones?
Have ye not much to lose?
Choose, ye inheritors of ages, choose!
What owe ye to the past?
The burly men who Magna Charta wrung
From tyranny entrenched would stand aghast
To see the ripples from that stone they flung,
They, too, had selfish views.
Choose, ye investors in the future, choose!
Ye need pick cautious odds;
To-morrow’s fruit is seeded down to-day,
And unwise purpose like the unknown gods
Tempts on a wasteful way.
Ware well what guide ye use!
We went and bivouacked by the brawling Jihun under a roof of thatch, whose walls were represented by more or less upright wooden posts and debris; for Kagig would not permit anything to stand even for an hour that Turks could come and fortify. None of us believed that the repulse of that handful of Kurdish plunderers and the capture of a Turkish colonel would be the end of hostilities—rather the beginning.
Kagig, when Gloria asked him what he proposed to do with Rustum Khan’s prisoner, smiled cynically and ordered him searched by two of the Zeitoonli standing guard. Rustum Khan was standing just out of low ear-shot absorbed in contemplation of the lie of the country. I noticed that Fred began to look nervous, but he did not say anything. Will was too busy fussing with Gloria’s wound, making a new bandage for it and going through the quite unnecessary motions of keeping up her spirits, to observe any other phenomena. An Armenian woman named Anna, who had attached herself to Gloria because, she said, her husband and children had been killed and she might as well serve as weep, sat watching the two of them with quiet amusement.
The Turk offered no further objection than a shrug of his fatalist shoulders and a muttered remark about Ermenie and bandits. Even when the mountaineers laughed at the chink of stolen money in all his pockets he did not exhibit a trace of shame. They shook him, and pawed him, and poured out gold in little heaps on the ground (out of the magnanimity of his official heart he had doubtless left all silver coin for his hamidieh to pouch); but Kagig only had eyes for the papers they pulled out of his inner pocket and tossed away. He pounced on them.
“Hah!” he laughed. “There! Did I tell you? These are his orders—signed by a governor’s secretary—countersigned by the governor himself—to ‘set forth with his troops and rescue Armenians in the Zeitoon district.’ Rescue them! Have you seen? Did you observe his noble rescue work? Here—see the orders for yourselves! Observe how the Stamboulis propose to prove their innocence after the event!”
Since they were written in Turkish they were of no conceivable use to any one but Fred and Rustum Khan. Fred glanced over them, and shouted to Rustum Khan to come and look. That was a mistake, for it called the Rajput’s attention to what had been happening to his prisoner. He came striding toward us with his black beard bristling and eyes blazing with anger.
“Who searched him?” he demanded.
“He was searched by my order,” Kagig answered in the calm level voice that in a man of such spirit was prophetic of explosion.
“Who gave thee leave to order him searched, Armenian?”
“I left you his money,” Kagig answered with biting scorn, pointing to the little heaps of gold coin on the ground.
I had no means of knowing what peaks of friction had already been attained between the two, and it was not likely that I should instantly choose sides against the man who within the hour had saved my life at peril of his own. But Will saw matters in another light, and Fred began humming through his nose. Will left Gloria and walked straight up to Rustum Khan. He had managed to shave himself with cold Jihun water and some laundry soap, and his clean jaw suggested standards set up and sworn to since ever they gave the name of Yankee to men possessed by certain high ideals.
“Kagig needs no leave from any one to order prisoners searched!” he said, shaping each word distinctly.
Rustum Khan spluttered, and kicked at a heap of coin.
“Perhaps you have bargained for your share of all loot? I have heard that in America men—”
‘Rajput!” said Kagig, looking down on him from slightly higher ground, “I will hang you if you make more trouble!”
At that I interfered. I was not the only one in Rustum Khan’s debt; it was likely his brilliant effort at the critical moment had saved our whole fighting line. Besides, I saw the Turk grinning to himself with satisfaction at the rift in our good will.
“Suppose we refer this dispute to Monty,” I proposed, reasoning that if it should ever get as far as Monty, tempers would have died away meanwhile. Not that Monty could not have handled the problem, tempers and all.
“I refer no points of honor,” growled the Rajput. “I have been insulted.”
“Rot!” exclaimed Fred, getting to his feet. When his usually neat beard has not been trimmed for a day or two he looks more truculent than he really is. “I’ve been listening. The insolence was on the other side.”
“Do you deny Kagig’s right to question prisoners?” I asked, thinking I saw a way out of the mess.
“Can I not question him?” Rustum Khan turned on me with a gesture that made it clear he held me to no friendship on account of service rendered.
He strode toward his prisoner, with heaven knows what notion in his head, but Fred interposed himself. The likeliest thing at that moment was a blow by one or the other that would have banished any chance of a returning reign of reason. Rustum Khan turned his back to the Turk and thrust out his chest toward Fred as if daring him to strike. Even the kites seemed to expect bloodshed and circled nearer.
It was Gloria who cut the Gordian knot. It was her unwounded hand, not Fred’s, that touched the Rangar’s breast.
“Rustum Khan,” she said, “I think better of you than to believe you would take advantage of our ignorance. You’re a soldier. We are only civilians trying to help a tortured nation. We know nothing of Rajput customs. Won’t you go to Lord Montdidier and tell him about it, and ask him to decide? We’ll all obey Monty, you know.”
Rustum Khan looked down at her bandaged wrist, and then into violet eyes that were not in the least degree afraid of him but only looking diligently for the honor he so boasted.
“Who can refuse a beautiful young woman?” he said, beginning to melt. But he refused to meet her eyes again, or even to acknowledge our existence.
“I give you the prisoner!” He made her a motion of arrogant extravagance with his right hand as if performing the act of transfer. Then he turned on his heel with a little simultaneous mock salute, and striding to his bay mare, mounted and rode away.
Kagig took over the prisoner at once without comment and began to question him under a tree twenty yards away, paying no attention to the riflemen who matched one another, laughing, for the plundered money. We four went back to the shelter of the thatch roof, for the plan was to remain behind with the company of Zeitoonli whom Kagig had placed carefully at vantage points, and give stragglers a chance to save themselves before we resumed the journey to Zeitoon.
Naturally enough, Rustum Khan and his fiery unreason was the subject we discussed, and Fred laid law down as to how he should be dealt with whenever the chance should come to bring him to book. But Rustum Khan was a bagatelle compared to what was coming, if we had only known it. While we talked I saw Gregor Jhaere, the attaman of gipsies, ride down the track on a brown mule and dismount within ten yards of Kagig. He hobbled his mule, and went and sat close by Kagig and the Turk, engaging in a three-cornered talk with them. Kagig seemed to have expected him, for there was no sign of greeting or surprise.
There was nothing disturbing about Gregor’s arrival on the scene; he was evidently helping Kagig to cross-examine the Turk and check up facts. Within their limits gipsies are about the best spies obtainable because of their ability to take advantage of credulity and their own immeasurable unbelief in protest or appearances. It was the individual who followed Gregor at a distance, and dismounted from a gray stallion quite a long way off in order not to draw attention to herself, who made my blood turn cold. I caught sight of Maga Jhaere first because the others had their backs toward her. Then the expression of my face brought Fred to his feet. By that time Magi had vanished out of view unaware that any one had seen her, creeping like a pantheress from rock to rock.
“What’s the matter?” Fred demanded, sitting down again, ill-tempered with himself for being startled.
“How exciting!” said Gloria. “I’m crazy to meet her.”
But Will looked less excited and more anxious than I had ever seen him, and we all three laughed.
“All right!” he said. “I tell you it’s no joke. That woman believes she’s got her hooks in.”
We tried to go on talking naturally, but lapsed into uncomfortable silence as the minutes dragged by and no Maga put in her appearance. Fred began humming through his nose again in that ridiculous way that he thinks seems unconcerned, but that makes his best friends yearn to smite him hip and thigh.
“I guess you were mistaken,” Will said at last, spreading out his shoulders with relief at the mere suggestion. But I was facing the direction of Zeitoon, as he was not, and again the expression of my face betrayed the facts.
There were two large stones leaning together, with a small triangular gap between them, less than thirty feet from where we sat. In that gap I could see a pair of eyes, and nothing else. They had almost exactly the expression of a panther’s that is stalking, not its quarry, but its mortal foe. In spite of having seen Maga approaching, I would have believed them an animal’s eyes, only that from experience I knew an animal’s eyes betray fear and anger without reason, whereas these blazed with the desperate reasoning that holds fear in contempt. Panthers can hate, be afraid, sweep fear aside with anger, and plan painstakingly for murderous attack; but it is only behind human eyes that one may recognize the murder—purpose based on argument.
“I see her,” I said. “I suspect she’s got a pistol, and—”
I had not known until that moment that the short hair was standing up the back of my head, but I felt it go down with a creepy cold chill as I spoke. Then once more it rose. Knowing she was seen and recognized, Maga got to her feet and stood on the larger of the two stones, looking down on us. Her hands were on her hips, and I could see no weapon, but her lips moved in voiceless imprecation.
“Are you Maga Jhaere?” asked Gloria, first of us all to recover some measure of self-command.
Maga nodded. She was barefooted, clothed only in bodice and leather jacket and a rather short ochre-colored skirt that blew in the gaining wind and showed the outline of her lithe young figure. Her long black hair billowed and galloped in the wind behind her.
“I am Maga Jhaere,” she said slowly, addressing Gloria. “Who are you?”
“My name is Gloria Vanderman.”
“And that man beside you—who is he?”
Gloria did not answer. Will looked more embarrassed than the devil caught in daylight, and Fred recovered his mental equilibrium sufficiently to chuckle.
“Is he your husband?”
“Then what you want with ‘im?”
No one said a word. Only, Fred made a movement with his hand behind him that Maga noticed and spurned with a toss of her chin.
“You coming to Zeitoon?”
Gloria nodded. Glancing over toward Kagig I saw that he was aware of Maga and was watching her out of the corner of his eye while he talked with Gregor and the Turk. They were both getting angry with the Turk and using gestures suggestive of impending agony by way of emphasis. The Turk was growing fidgety.
Maga spread her arms out as if she were embracing all the universe and called it hers.
“Then—if you ar-re coming to Zeitoon—you choose first a ‘usband. There are—many ‘usbands. Some ‘ave lost a wife—some ‘ave sick wife—some not yet never ‘ad no wife. Plenty Armenians—also two other men there—but you let that one—Will—alone! Choose a ‘usband—marry,’im—then you come to Zeitoon! If you come without a ‘usband—I will keel you—do you understand?”
“Now then, America!” grinned Fred in a stage aside that Maga could hear as clearly as if it had been intended for her. “Let’s see the eagle scream for liberty!”
“Eagle scream?” said Maga, almost screaming herself. “What you know about eagles? You ol’ fool! That man Will is thinking you ar-re ‘is frien’. You ar-re not ‘is frien’! Let ‘im come with me, an’ I will show ‘im what ar-re eagles—what is freedom—what is knowledge—what is life! I know. You ol’ fool, you not know! You ol’ fool, you marry that woman—then you can bring ‘er to Zeitoon an’ she is safe! Otherwise—”
She reached in the bosom of her blouse and drew out, not the mother-o’-pearl-plated pistol that I feared, but a knife with an eighteen-inch blade of glittering steel. Instantly Fred covered her with his own repeater, but she laughed in his face.
“You ol’ fool, you ar-re afraid to shoot me!”
If she meant that Fred would feel squeamish about shooting before she hurled the knife, then she was certainly right. But she knew better than to make one preliminary motion. And Kagig knew better than to permit further pleasantries. I saw him whisper to Gregor, and the gipsy attaman started on hands and knees to creep round behind her. But Maga’s eyes were practised like those of all other wild creatures in detecting movement behind her as well as in front. She spat, and gave vent to a final ultimatum.
“You ‘ave ‘eard. I said—you let that man Will Yerr-kees alone! An’ don’t you dare come to Zeitoon without a ‘usband!”
Then she turned and dodged Gregor, and ran for her gray stallion—mounted the savage brute with a leap from six feet away, and rode like the wind toward the gut of the pass that shut off Zeitoon from our view. A minute later a shell from a small-bore cannon screamed overhead, and burst a hundred yards beyond us on a sheet of rock.
“Not bad for a ranging shot!” said Fred, suddenly as self-possessed as if the world never held such a thing as an untamed woman.
“Observe, you sportmen all!” Kagig exclaimed, getting to his feet. “The Turkish nobility are proceeding to rescue poor Armenians. Behold, their charity comes even from the cannon’s mouth! It is time to go now, lest it overtake us! No cannon can come in sight of Zeitoon. Follow me.”
With his usual sudden oblivion of everything but the main objective Kagig mounted and rode away, followed by Gregor in charge of the prisoner, and by a squadron or so of mounted Zeitoonli who attempted no formation but came cantering as each detachment realized that their leader was on the move. We found ourselves last, without an armed man between us and the enemy, although without a doubt there were still dozens of fugitive poor wretches who had not had the courage or perhaps the strength to overtake us yet.
Kagig had had the forethought to leave comparatively fresh mules for us to ride, and there was not any particular reason for hurry. Will went ahead, with Gloria and Anna beside him on one mule—Gloria laughing him out of countenance because of his nervousness on her account, but he insistent on the danger in case of repeated gun-fire. Fred rode slowly beside me in the rear, for we still hoped to encourage a few stray fugitives to come out of their hiding holes and follow us to safety.
A second cannon shot, not nearly so well aimed as the first had been, went screaming over toward our left and landed without bursting among low bushes. A third and a fourth followed it, and the last one did explode. That was plainly too much for some one who had dodged into hiding when the second shot fell; we saw him come rushing out from cover like a lunatic, unconscious of direction and only intent on shielding the top of his head with his hands.
“Is the poor devil hurt?” I said, wondering. But Fred broke into a roar of laughter; and he is not a heartless man—merely gifted more than usual with the hunter’s eye that recognizes sex and species of birds and animals at long range. I can see farther than Fred can, but at recognizing details swiftly I am a blind bat compared to him.
“The martyred biped!” he laughed. “Peter Measel by the God of happenings!”
We rode over toward him, and Peter it was, running with his eyes shut. He screamed when we stopped him, and sobbed instead of talking when we pulled him in between our mules and offered him two stirrup leathers to hold. He seemed to think that standing between the mules would protect him from the artillery fire, and as we were not in any hurry we took advantage of that delusion to let him recover a modicum of nerve.
And the moment that began to happen he was the same sweet Peter Measel with the same assurance of every other body’s wickedness and his own divinity, only with something new in his young life to add poignancy.
“What were you doing there?” demanded Fred, as we got him to towing along between us at last.
“I was looking for her.”
“For Maga Jhaere.”
Fred allowed his ribs to shake in silent laughter that annoyed the mule, and we had to catch Measel all over again because the beast’s crude objections filled the martyred biped full of the desire to run.
“Somebody must save that girl!” he panted. “And who else can do it? Who else is there?”
“There’s only you!” Fred agreed, choking down his mirth.
“I’m glad you agree with me. At least you have that much blessedness, Mr. Fred. D’you know that girl was willing to be a murderess? Yes! She tried to murder Rustum Khan. Rustum Khan ought to be hanged, for he is a villain—a black villain! But she must not have blood on her hands—no, no!”
“Why didn’t she murder him?” demanded Fred. “Qualms at the last moment?”
“No. I’m sorry to say no. She has no God-likeness yet. But that will come. She will repent. I shall see to that. It was I who prevented her, and she all but murdered me! She would have murdered me, but Kagig held her wrist; and to punish her he gave an order that I should preach to her morning, afternoon, and evening—three times a day. So I had my opportunity. There was a guard of gipsy women set to see that she obeyed.”
“Continue,” said Fred. “What happened?”
“She broke away, and came down to see the fighting.”
“Why did you follow her? Weren’t you afraid?”
“Oh, Mr. Fred, if you only knew! Yet I felt impelled to find her. I could not trust her out of sight.”
“Why not? She seems fairly well able to look after herself.”
“Oh, I can not allow wickedness. I must make it to cease! It entered my head that she intended to find Kagig!”
“Well? Why not?”
“Oh, Mr. Fred—tell me! You may know—you perhaps as well as any one, for you are such an ungodly man! What are her relations with Kagig? Does he—is he—is there wickedness between them?”
“Dashed if I know. She’s a gipsy. He’s a fine half-savage. Why should it concern you?”
“Oh, I could not endure it! It would break my heart to believe it!”
“Then why think about it?”
“How can I help it? I love her! Oh, I love her, Mr. Fred! I never loved a woman in all my life before. It would break my heart if she were to be betrayed into open sin by Kagig! Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do? I love her! What shall I do?”
“Do?” said Fred, looking forward in imagination to new worlds of humor, “why—make love, if you love her! Make hot love and strong!”
“Will you help me, Mr. Fred?” the biped stammered. “You see, she’s rather wild—a little unconventional—and I’ve never made love even to a sempstress. Will you help me?”
“Certainly!” Fred chuckled. “Certainly. I’ll guarantee to marry her to you if you’ll dig up the courage. Have you a ring?”
Peter Measel produced a near-gold ring with a smirk almost of recklessness, a plain gold ring whose worn appearance called to mind the finger taken from a dead Kurd’s cartridge pouch. It may be that Measel bought it, but neither Fred nor I spoke to him again, for half an hour.