“Such drilling as they have had—such little drilling!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
Is honor out of fashion and the men she named
Fit only to be buried and defamed
Who dared hold service was true nobleness
And graced their service in a fitting dress?
Are manners out of date because the scullions scoff
At whosoever shuns the common trough
Liking dry bread better than the garbled stew
Nor praising greed because the style is new?
Let go the ancient orders if so be their ways
Are trespassing on decency these days.
So I go, rather than accept the trampled spoil
Or gamble for what great men earned by toil.
For rather than trade honor for a mob’s foul praise
I’ll keep full fealty to the ancient ways
And, hoisting my forebear’s banner in the face of hell,
Will die beneath it, knowing I die well!
Fifteen minutes after Gloria Vanderman left us I saw a banner go jerkily mounting up the newly placed flag-pole on the keep. A man blew a bugle hoarsely by way of a salute. I raised my hat. Monty raised his. In a moment we were all standing bare-headed, and the great square piece of cloth caught the wind that whistled between two crags of Beirut Dagh.
Fred, our arch-iconoclast, stood uncovered longest.
“Who the devil made it for you?” he inquired.
Stitched on the banner in colored cloth were the two wheat-sheaves and two ships of the Montdidiers, and a scroll stretched its length across the bottom, with the motto doubtless, although in the wind one could not read it.
“The women. Good of ‘em, what? Miss Vanderman drew it on paper. They cut it out, and sat up last night sewing it.”
“I suppose you know that’s filibustering, to fly your private banner on foreign soil?”
“They may call it what they please,” said Monty. “I can’t well fly the flag of England, and Armenia has none yet. Let’s go below, Fred, and see if there’s any news.”
“Yes, there is news,” said Kagig, leading the way down. “I did not say it before the lady. It is not good news.”
“That’s the only kind that won’t keep. Spit it out!” said Will.
Kagig faced us on the stable roof, and his finger-joints cracked again.
“It is the worst! They have sent Mahmoud Bey, against us. I would rather any six other Turks. Mahmoud Bey is not a fool. He is a young successful man, who looks to this campaign to bolster his ambition. He is a ruthless brute!”
“Which Turk isn’t?” asked Will.
“This one is most ruthless. This Mahmoud is the one who in the massacres of five years ago caused Armenian prisoners to have horse-shoes nailed to their naked feet, in order, he said, that they might march without hurt. He will waste no time about preliminaries!”
Kagig was entirely right. Mahmoud Bey began the overture that very instant with artillery fire directed at the hidden defenses flanking the clay ramp. Next we caught the stuttering chorus of his machine guns, and the intermittent answer of Kagig’s riflemen.
“Now, effendim, one of you down to the defenses, please! There is risk my men may use too many cartridges. Talk to them—restrain them. They might listen to me, but—” His long fingers suggested unhappy fragments of past history.
“You, Fred!” said Monty, and Fred hitched his concertina to a more comfortable angle.
Fred was the obvious choice. His gift of tongues would enable him better than any of us to persuade, and if need were, compel. We had left our rifles leaning by the wall at the castle entrance, and in his cartridge bag was my oil-can and rag-bag. I asked him for them, and he threw them to me rather clumsily. Trying to catch them I twisted for the second time the ankle I had hurt that morning. Fred mounted and rode out through the echoing entrance without a backward glance, and I sat down and pulled my boot off, for the agony was almost unendurable.
“That settles your task for to-day,” laughed Monty. “Help him back to the top of the tower, Will. Keep me informed of everything you see. Will—you go with Kagig after you’ve helped him up there.”
“All right,” said Will. “Where’s Kagig bound for?”
“Round behind Beirut Dagh,” Kagig announced grimly. “That’s our danger-point. If the Turks force their way round the mountain—” He shrugged his expressive shoulders. Only he of all of us seemed to view the situation seriously. I think we others felt a thrill rather of sport than of danger.
I might have been inclined to resent the inactivity assigned to me, only that it gave me a better chance than I had hoped for of watching for signs of Maga Jhaere’s promised treachery. Will helped me up and made the perch comfortable; then he and Kagig rode away together. Presently Monty, too, mounted a mule, and rode out under the arch, and fifteen minutes later fifty men marched in by twos, laughing and joking, and went to saddling the horses in the semicircular stable below me. After that all the world seemed to grow still for a while, except for the eagles, the distant rag-slitting rattle of rifle-fire, and the occasional bursting of a shell. Most of the shells were falling on the clay ramp, and seemed to be doing no harm whatever.
Away in the distance down the pass, out of range of the fire of our men, but also incapable of harm themselves until they should advance into the open jaws below the clay ramp, I could see the Turks massing in that sort of dense formation that the Germans teach. Even through the glasses it was not possible to guess their numbers, because the angle of vision was narrow and cut off their flanks to right and left; but I sent word down to Monty that a frontal attack in force seemed to be already beginning.
For an hour after that, while the artillery fire increased but our rifle-fire seemed to dwindle under Fred’s persuasive tongue, I watched Monty mustering reenforcements in the gorge below the town. He overcame some of the women’s prejudice, for it was a force made up of men and women that he presently led away. I was rather surprised to see Rustum Khan, after a talk with Monty, return to his squadron and remain inactive under cover of the hill; that fire-eater was the last man one would expect to remain willingly out of action. However, twenty minutes later, Rustum Khan appeared beside me, breathing rather hard. He begged the glasses of me, and spent five minutes studying the firing-line minutely before returning them.
“The lord sahib has more faith in these undrilled folk than I have!” he grumbled at last. “Observe: he goes with that bullet-food of men and women mixed, to hide them in reserve behind the narrow gut at the head of the ramp. The Turks are fools, as Kagig said, and their general is also a fool, in spite of Kagig. They propose to force that ramp. You see that by Frredd sahib’s orders the firing on our side has grown greatly less. That is to draw the Turks on. See! It has drawn them! They are coming! The lord sahib will send for Frredd sahib to take command of that reserve, to man the top of the ramp in case the Turks succeed in climbing too far up it. Then he himself will gallop back to take charge of my squadron below there; and I take charge of his squadron up here. He and I are interchangeable, I having drilled all the men in any case—such drilling as they have had—such little, little drilling!”
The Turks began their advance into the jaws of that defile with a confidence that made my heart turn cold. What did they know? What were they depending on in addition to their weight of numbers? Mahmoud Bey had evidently hurried up almost his whole division, and was driving them forward into our trap as if he knew he could swallow trap and all. Not even foolish generals act that way. It needs a madman. Kagig had said nothing about Mahmoud being mad.
“Listen, Rustum Khan!” I said. “Go with a message to Lord Montdidier. Tell him the whole Turkish force is in motion and coming on as if their general knows something for certain that we don’t know at all. Tell him that I suspect treachery at our rear, and have good reason for it!”
Rustum Khan eyed me for a minute as if he would read the very middle of my heart.
“Can you ride?” he asked.
“Of course,” I answered. “It’s only walking that I can’t do.”
“Then leave those glasses with me, and go yourself!”
“Why won’t you go?” I asked.
“Because here are fifty men who would lack a leader in that case.”
The answer was honest enough, yet I had my qualms about leaving the post Monty had assigned to me. The thought that finally decided me was that I would have opportunity to gallop past the hospital, two hundred yards over the bridge on the Zeitoon side, and make sure that Gloria was safe.
“Have you seen Maga Jhaere anywhere?” I asked.
“No,” said the Rajput, swearing under his breath at the mere mention of her name.
“Then help me down from here. I’ll go.”
He muttered to himself, and I think he thought I was off to make love to the woman; but I was past caring about any one’s opinion on that score. Five minutes later I was trotting a good horse slowly down the upper, steeper portion of the track toward Zeitoon, swearing to myself, and dreading the smoother going where I should feel compelled to gallop whether my ankle hurt or not. As a matter of fact I began to suspect a broken bone or ligament, for the agonizing pain increased and made me sit awkwardly on the horse, thus causing him to change his pace at odd intervals and give me more pain yet. However, gallop I had to, and I reached the bridge going at top speed, only to be forced to rein in, chattering with agony, by a man on foot who raced to reach the bridge ahead of me, and made unmistakable signals of having an important message to deliver.
He proved to be from Kagig, with orders to say that every man at his disposal was engaged by a very strong body of Turks who had spent the night creeping up close to their first objective, and had rushed it with the bayonet shortly after dawn.
“Order the women to stand ready by the bridge!” were the last words (the man had the whole by heart), and then there was a scribbled note from Will by way of make-weight.
“This end of the action looks pretty serious to me. We’re badly outnumbered. The men are fighting gamely, but—tell Gloria for God’s sake to look out after herself!”
I could hear no firing from that direction, for the great bulk of Beirut Dagh shut it off.
“How far away is the fighting?” I demanded.
“Oh, a long way yet.”
I motioned to him to return to Kagig, and sent my horse across the bridge, catching sight of Gloria outside the hospital directly after I had crossed it. She waved her hand to me; so, seeing she was safe for the present, I let the message to her wait and started down the valley toward Monty as fast as the horse could go. I had my work cut out to drive him into the din of firing, for it was evidently his first experience of bursting shells, and even at half-a-mile distance he reared and plunged, driving me nearly crazy with pain. I found Monty shepherding the reserves he had brought down, watching through glasses from over the top of the spur that formed the left-hand wall of the gut of the pass.
“I left Rustum Khan in my place,” I began, expecting to be damned at once for absenting without leave.
“Glad you came,” he said, without turning his head.
I gave him my message, he listening while he watched the pass and the oncoming enemy.
“I tried to warn you of treachery this morning!” I said hotly. Pain and memory did nothing toward keeping down choler. “Where’s Peter Measel? Seen him anywhere? Where’s Maga Jhaere? Seen her, either? Those Turks are coming on into what they must know is a trap, with the confidence that proves their leaders have special information! Look at them! They can see this pass is lined, with our riflemen, yet on they come! They must suspect we’ve a surprise in store—yet look at them!”
They were coming on line after line, although Fred had turned the ammunition loose, and the rifle-fire of our well-hidden men was playing havoc. Monty seemed to me to look more puzzled than afraid. I went on telling him of the message Kagig had sent, and offered him Will’s note, but he did not even look at it.
“Ah!” he said suddenly. “Now I understand! Yes, it’s treachery. I beg your pardon for my thoughts this morning.”
“Granted,” said I, “but what next?”
“Look!” he said simply.
There were two sudden developments. What was left of the first advancing company of Turks halted below the ramp, and with sublime effrontery, born no doubt of knowledge that we had no artillery, proceeded to dig themselves a shallow trench. The Zeitoonli were making splendid shooting, but it was only a question of minutes until the shelter would be high enough for crouching men.
The second disturbing factor was that in a long line extending up the flank of the mountain, roughly parallel to the lower end of the track that Monty had caused to be cut from the castle, the trees were coming down as if struck by a cyclone! There must have been more than a regiment armed with axes, cutting a swath through the forest to take our secret road in flank!
That meant two things clearly. Some one had told Mahmoud of our plan to charge down from the height and surprise him, thus robbing us of all the benefit of unexpectedness; and, when the charge should take place, our men would have to ride down four abreast through ambush. And, if Mahmoud had merely intended placing a few men to trap our horsemen, he would never have troubled to cut down the forest. Plainly, he meant to destroy our mounted men at point-blank range, and then march a large force up the horse-track, so turning the tables on us. Considering the overwhelming numbers he had at his disposal, the game to me looked almost over.
Not so, however, to Monty. He glanced over his shoulder once at the men and women waiting for his orders, and I saw the women begin inspiriting their men. Then he turned on me.
“Now damn your ankle,” he said. “Try to forget it! Climb up there and tell Fred to choose a hundred men and bring them down himself to oppose the enemy in front if he comes over the top of that ditch. Then you gallop back and get word to Rustum Khan to bring both squadrons down here. Tell him to stay by Fred and hold his horses until the last minute. Then you get all the women you can persuade to follow you, and man the castle walls! Hurry, now—that’s all!”
There was a man holding my horse. I tied the horse securely to a tree instead, and told the man to help me climb, little suspecting what a Samson I had happened on. He laughed, seized me in his arms, and proceeded to carry me like a baby up the goat-track leading to the hidden rifle-pits and trenches. I persuaded him to let me get up on his shoulders, and in that way I had a view of most of what was happening.
Monty led his men and women at a run across the top of the ramp flanked by the full fire of the entrenched company below; and his action was so unexpected that the Turks fired like beginners. There were not many bodies lying quiet, nor writhing either when the last woman had disappeared among the trees on the far side. Those that did writhe were very swiftly caused to cease by volleys aimed at them in obedience to officers’ orders. It began to look as if Gloria’s hospital would not be over-worked.
The tables were now turned on the Turks, except in regard to numbers. In the first place, as soon as Monty’s command had penetrated downward through the trees parallel with the side of the ramp, he had the entrenched company in flank. It did not seem to me that he left more than ten or fifteen men to make that trench untenable, but the Turks were out of it within five minutes and in full retreat under a hot fire from Fred’s men.
Then Monty pushed on to the far side of the castle road and held the remaining fringe of trees in such fashion that the Turks could not guess his exact whereabouts nor what number he had with him. Cutting down trees in a hurry is one thing, but cutting them down in face of hidden rifle-fire is most decidedly another, especially when the axmen have been promised there will be no reprisals.
The tree-felling suddenly ceased, and there began a close-quarters battle in the woods, in which numbers had less effect than knowledge of the ground and bravery. The Turk is a brave enough fighter, but not to be compared with mountain-Armenians fighting for their home, and it was easy to judge which held the upper hand.
I found Fred smoking his pipe and enjoying himself hugely, with half a dozen runners ready to carry word to whichever section of the defenses seemed to him to need counsel. He could see what Monty had done, and was in great spirits in consequence.
“I’ve bagged two Turk officers to my own gun,” he announced. “Murder suits me to a T.”
I gave him the message.
“Piffle!” he answered. “They can never take the ramp by frontal attack! The right thing to do is hold the flanks, and wither ‘em as they cone!”
“Monty’s orders!” I said, “and I’ve got to be going.”
“Damn that fellow Didums!” he grumbled. “All right. But it’s my belief he’s turning a classy little engagement into a bloody brawl! Cut along! I’ll pick my hundred and climb down there.”
Cutting along was not so easy. My magnificent human mount was hit by a bullet—a stray one, probably, shot at a hazard at long range. He fell and threw me head-long; and the agony of that experience pretty nearly rendered me unconscious. However, he was not hit badly, and essayed to pick me up again. I refused that, but he held on to me and, both of us being hurt in the leg on the same side, we staggered together down the goat-track.
Down below we found the horse plunging in a frenzy of fear, and he nearly succeeded in breaking away from both of us, dragging us out into full view of the enemy, who volleyed us at long range. Fortunately they made rotten shooting, and one ill-directed hail of lead screamed on the far side, causing the horse to plunge toward me. The Armenian took me by the uninjured foot and flung me into the saddle, and I left up-pass with a parting volley scattering all around, and both hands locked into the horse’s mane. He needed neither whip nor spur, but went for Zeitoon like the devil with his tail on fire.
I suppose one never grows really used to pain, but from use it becomes endurable. When Anna ran out to stop me by the great rock on which the lowest Zeitoon houses stand, and seized me by the foot, partly to show deference, partly in token that she was suppliant, and also partly because she was utterly distracted, I was able to rein the horse and listen to her without swearing.
“She is gone!” she shouted. “Gone, I tell you! Gloria is gone! Six men, they come and take her! She is resisting, oh, so hard—and they throw a sack over her—and she is gone, I tell you! She is gone!”
“Where is Maga?”
“In which direction did they take Miss Gloria?”
“I do not know!”
I rode on. There were crowds of women near the bridge, all armed with rifles, and I hurried toward them.
But they refused to believe that any one in Zeitoon would do such a thing as kidnap Gloria, and while I waited for Anna to come and convince them a man forced himself toward me through the crowd. He was out of breath. One arm was in a bloody bandage, but in the other hand he held a stained and crumpled letter.
It proved to be from Will, addressed to all or any of us.
“Kagig is a wonder!” it ran, “He has put new life into these men and we’ve thrashed the Turk soundly. How’s Gloria? Kagig says, ‘Can you send us reenforcements?’ If so we can follow up and do some real damage. Send ‘em quick! Make Gloria keep cover!