“I knew what to expect of the women!”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
“AND DELILAH SAID—”
Always at fault is the fellow betrayed
(Majorities murder to prove it!)
As Samson discovered, Delilah lies,
The stigma’s stuck on by the cynical wise,
And nothing can ever remove it.
We’ll cast out Delilah and spit on her dead,
(That revenge is remarkably human),
And pity the victim of underhand tricks
So be that it’s moral (the sexes don’t mix);
But, oh, think what the cynical wise would have said
If Judas were only a woman!
We slept until Monty called us, two hours before dawn, although I was conscious most of the night of stealthy men and women who stepped over me to get at Kagig and whisper to him. His marvelous spy system was working full blast, and he seemed to run no risks by letting the spies report to any one but himself. Fred, who slept more lightly than I did, told me afterward that the women principally brought him particulars of the workings of local politics; the men detailed news of the oncoming concrete enemy.
There was breakfast served by Maga in the dark—hot milk, and a strange mess of eggs and meat. For some reason no one thought of relighting the fire, and although the ashes glowed we shivered until the food put warmth in us.
By the light of the smoky lamp I thought that Monty wore a strangely divided air, between gloom and exultation. Fred had been wide awake and talking with him since long before first cock-crow and was obviously out of sorts, shaking his head at intervals and unwilling more than to poke at his food with a fork. I crossed the room to sit beside them, and came in for the tail end of the conversation.
“I might have known it, Didums, when I let you go on alone. I’ll never forgive myself. I had a premonition and disobeyed it. You pose as a cast-iron materialist with no more ambition than money enough to retrieve your damned estates, and all the while you’re the most romantic ass who ever wore out saddle-leather! Found it, have you? Then God help us all! I know what’s coming! You’re about to ‘vert back to Crusader days, and try to do damsilly deeds of chivalry without the war-horse or the suit of mail!”
“No need for you to join me, Fred. You take charge of the others and get them away to safety.”
“Take charge of hornets! I’d leave you, of course, like a shot! But can you see Will Yerkes, for instance, riding off and leaving you to play Don Quixote? Damn you, Didums, can’t you see—?”
“Destiny, Fred. Manifest destiny.”
“Can’t you see crusading is dead as a dead horse?”
“So am I, old man. I’m no use but to do this very thing. I can serve these people. If I’m killed, there’ll be a howl in the papers. If I’m taken, there’ll be a row in parliament.”
“You don’t intend to be taken—I know you!”
“Honest, Fred, I—”
“Have I known you all these years to be fooled now? Smelling rats ‘ud be subtle to it—I can feel the air bristling! You mean to raise the Montdidier banner and die under it, last of your race. But you’re not last, you bally ass!”
“Last in the direct line, Fred.”
“Yes, but there’s that rotter Charles ready to inherit! If you’re bent on suicide—”
“I’m not. You know I’m not.”
“—you might have the decency to kill that miserable cousin first and bring the line to an end in common honor! He’ll survive you, and as sure as I sit here and swear at you, he’ll bring the Montdidier name into worse disgrace than Judas Iscariot’s!”
“I’ve no intention of suicide, Fred. I assure you—”
But Fred waved the argument aside contemptuously, and stood up to gather our attention.
“Listen!” He thrust forward his Van Dyke beard that valiantly strove to hide a chin like a piece of flint. “Monty has found the robbers’ nest that used to belong to his infernal ancestors. I charge any of you who count yourselves his friends to help me prevent him from behaving like an idiot!”
“That’ll do, Fred!” said Monty, pressing him back against the wall. “The fact is,” he twisted at his black mustache and eyed us each for a second in turn, looking as handsome as the devil, “that I have found what I originally set out to look for. It overlooks Zeitoon, hidden among trees. I propose to use it. As for quixotism—is there any one here not willing to fight in the last ditch to help Kagig and these Armenians?”
“I’m with you!” laughed Gloria, and she and Will had a scuffle over near the fireplace.
“I knew what to expect of the women,” said Monty rather bitterly. “I’m speaking to Fred and the men!”
“Where’s Peter Measel?” I asked. But the others did not see the connection.
“Come along,” said Monty. “Seems to me we’re wasting time,” and he strode out through the window on to the roof of the house below—usually the shortest way from point to point in Zeitoon. Kagig followed him, and then Rustum Khan. The stars were no longer shining in the pale sky overhead, but it was dark where we were because of the mountains that shut out the dawn. Fred came last, grumbling and stumbling, too disturbed to look where he was going.
“Fancy me acting Cassandra at my time of life and none to believe me!” he muttered. Then, louder: “I warn you all! I know that fellow Monty. If he comes out of this alive it’ll be because we haul him out by the hair! Won’t you listen?”
Outside the window I remembered the field-glasses I had laid down in a corner, and returned to get them. In the room were Maga and the woman Anna, who had appointed herself Gloria Vanderman’s maid; they were apparently about to sweep the floor and tidy the place, but as I crossed the room an older gipsy woman entered by the door, and she and Maga promptly drove Anna out through the window after my party. Then the old woman came close to me, her beady bright eyes fixed on mine, and went through the suggestive gipsy motions that invite the crossing of a palm with silver.
There seemed at first no excuse for listening to her. Every gipsy will beg, whether there is need or not, and knowledge of their habits did not make me less short-tempered; besides I had no silver within reach, nor time to waste.
“Not now!” I said, pushing her aside.
But Maga came to her rescue, and clutched my arm.
“See!” she said, and took a Maria Theresa dollar from some hiding-place in her skirt. “I give silver for you. So.” The old hag pouched the coin with exactly the same avidity with which she would have taken it from me. “Now she will make magic. Then I see. Then I tell you something. You listen!”
It began to dawn on me that I would better listen after all. Every human is superstitious, whether or not he admits if to himself; but the particular fraud of pretending to tell fortunes never did happen to find the joint in my own armor. It seemed likely these two women had some plan that included the preliminary deception of myself, and the sooner I knew something about it the better. So I sat down on Kagig’s stool, to give them a better opinion of their advantage over me, there being nothing like making the enemy too confident. Then I held out the palm of my hand for inspection and tried to look like a man pretending he does not believe in magic. Whatever Maga thought, the old hag was delighted. She began to croak an incantation, shuffling first with one foot, then with the other, and finally with both together in a weird dance that almost shook her old frame apart. Then she went through a pantomime of finger-pointing, as if transferring from herself to Maga the gift of divining about me.
Presently, standing a little to one side of me, with eyes on the old hag’s and my hand held between her two, Maga began chanting in English. The fact that her voice was musical and low where the bag’s had been high-pitched and rasping heightened interest, if nothing else.
“You now four men,” she began, with a little pause, and something like a swallow between each sentence. “You all love one another ver’ much. You all like Kagig. Kagig is liking you. But Turks are coming presently, and they keel Kagig—keel heem, you understan’? That man Monty is also keel—keel dead. That man Fred—I not know—I not see. You I see——you I see two ways. First way, you marry that woman Gloria—you go away—all well—all good. Second way—you not marry her. Then you all die—dam’ quick—Monty, Fred, Will, you, Gloria, everybody—an’ Zeitoon is all burn’ up by bloody Turks!”
She paused and looked at me sidewise under lowered eyelids. I stared straight in front of me, as if in the state of self-hypnotism that is the fortune-teller’s happy hunting-ground.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I see. But how shall I marry Miss Gloria? Suppose she does not want me?”
“You must! Never mind what she want! Listen! This is only way to save your frien’s and Zeitoon! I am giving men—four—five—six men. They are seizing Gloria. You go with them. They take you safe away. Then Zeitoon is also safe, an’ your frien’s are also safe.”
“Monty, too?” I asked.
“Yes, then he is also safe.” But—I felt her hands tremble slightly as she said that.
“Do you mean I should leave him?” I asked.
“You must! You must!” She almost screamed at me, and shook my hand between her two palms as if by that means to drive the fact into my consciousness. The old hag had her eyes fixed on my right temple as if she would burn a hole there, and between them they were making a better than amateur effort to control me by suggestion. It seemed wise to help them deceive themselves. Maga let go my hand gently, and began passing her ten fingers very softly through my hair, and there are other men who will bear me witness that there exists sensation less appealing than when a pretty girt does that.
“You must!” she said again more quietly. “That is the only way to save Zeitoon. God is angry.”
“What do you know about God?” I asked unguardedly, knowing well that whatever their open pretenses, gipsies despise all religion except diabolism. They study creeds for the sake of plunder, just as hunters study the habits of the wild.
“Maybe nothing—maybe much! Peter Measel, he say—”
She paused, as if in doubt whether she was using the right argument. And in that moment I recalled what Rustum Khan had once said about her being no true gipsy.
“Go on,” I urged her. “Peter Measel is an expert. He’s a high priest. He knows it all.”
“Peter Measel is saying, God is ver’ angry with Zeitoon and is sending to destroy such bloody people what plan fighting and rebellion.”
“I’ll think it over,” I said, moving to get up. But independent thinking was the last thing that Maga intended to permit me.
“No, no! No, no, no! You must dee-cide now—at once! There is no time. Now—now I give you five—six mens—now they seize that woman Gloria—now you carry ‘er away into the mountains—now you make ‘er yours—your own, you understan’, so as she is ashamed to deny it afterward—yes?—you see?”
“Where are the men?” I demanded.
“I fetch them quick!”
I could see the hilt of her knife, and the bulge of her repeating pistol, but I could also feel the weight of my own loaded Colt against my hip. I did not doubt I could escape before her men could arrive on the scene, but that would have been to leave some secret only part uncovered. There was obviously more behind this scheme than met the ear. It is my experience that if we throw fear to the winds, and are willing to wait in tight places for the necessary inspiration, then we get it.
“Very well,” I said. “I agree. Bring your men.”
“You wait. I get ‘em.”
I nodded, and she said something in the gipsy language to the old hag, who went out through the door in a hurry. Alone with Maga I felt less than half as safe as I had been. She proceeded to make use of every moment in the manner they say makes millionaires.
“Gloria, she is ver’ nice girl!” She made a wonderful gesture of both hands that limned in empty air the curves of her detested rival. “You will love her. By-and-by she love you—also ver’ much.”
The thought flashed through my head again that I ought to escape whole while I had the chance; but the answer to that was the certainty that she would thence-forward be on guard against me without having given me any real information. I was perfectly convinced there was a deep plot underlying the foolishness she had proposed. The fact that she considered me so venial and so gullible was no proof that the hidden purpose was not dangerous. The mystery was how to seem to be fooled by her and yet get in touch with my friends. Then suddenly I recalled that she and the hag had been trying to use the gipsy’s black art. Unless they can trick their victim into a mental condition in which innate superstition becomes uppermost, players of that dark game are helpless.
Yet gipsies are more superstitious than any one else. Hanging to her neck by a skein of plaited horse-hair was the polished shell of a minute turtle—smaller than a dollar piece.
“Give me that,” I said, “for luck,” and she jumped at the idea.
“Yes, yes—that is to bring you luck—ver’ much luck!”
She snatched it off and hung it around my neck, pushing the turtle-shell down under my collar out of sight.
“That is love-token!” she whispered. “Now she love you immediate’! Now you ‘ave ver’ much luck!”
The last part of her prophecy was true. The luck seemed to change. That instant the key was given me to escape without making her my relentless enemy, a voice that I would know among a million began shouting for me petulantly from somewhere half a dozen roofs away.
“What in hell’s keeping you, man? Here’s Monty getting up a tourist party to his damned ancestral nest and you’re delaying the whole shebang! Good lord alive! Have you fallen in love with a woman, or taken the belly-ache, or fallen down a well, or gone to sleep again, or all of them, or what?”
“Coming, Fred!” I shouted. “Coming!”
He began playing cat-calls on his concertina—imitation bugle-calls, and fragments of serenades. For a second Maga looked reckless—then suspicious—then, as it began to dawn on her from studying my face that I, too, was afraid of Fred, relieved.
“Does he know anything?” I asked her.
“He? That Fred? No! No, no, no! An’ you no tell ‘im. You ‘ear me? You no tell ‘im! You go now—go to ‘im, or else ‘e is get suspicious—understan’? My men—they go an’ get that woman. When they finish getting that woman, then I send for you an’ you come quick—understan’?”
“Listen! If you tell your frien’s—if you tell that Frrred, or those others—then I not only keel you, but my men put out your eyes first an’ then pull off your toes an’ fingers—understan’?”
I shrugged my shoulders, suggesting an attempt to seem at ease.
“Besides—I warn you! You tell Kagig anything against me an’ Kagig is at once your enemy!”
I nodded, and tried to look afraid. Perhaps the speculation that the last boast started in my mind helped give me a look that convinced her.
Fred began calling again.
“You go!” she ordered imperiously, with a last effort to impress me with her mental predominance. “Go quickly!”
I made motions of hand and face as nearly suggestive of underhanded cunning as I could compass, and climbed out through the window without further invitation. Seeing me emerge, Fred beckoned from fifty yards away and turned his back. Morning was just beginning to descend into the valley, suddenly bright from having finished all the dawn delays among the crags higher up; but there were deep shadows here and especially where one roof overhung another.
Jumping from roof to roof to follow Fred, I was suddenly brought up short by a figure in shadow that gesticulated wildly without speaking. It was below me, in a narrow, shallow runway between two houses, and I had been so impressed by my interview with Maga that assassination was the first thought ready to mind. I sprang aside and tried to check myself, missed footing, and fell into the very runway I had tried to avoid.
A friend unmistakable, Anna—Gloria’s self-constituted maid—ran out of the darkest shadow and kept me from scrambling to my feet.
“Wait!” she whispered. “Don’t be seen talking to me. Listen!”
My ankle pained considerably and I was out of breath. I was willing enough to lie there.
“Maga has made a plot to betray Zeitoon! She has been talking with that Turkish colonel who was captured. I don’t know what the plot is, but I listened through a chink in the wall of the prison, and I heard him promise that she should have Will Yerkes!”
“What else did you hear?”
“Nothing else. There was wind whistling, and the straw made a noise.”
At that moment Fred chose to turn his head to see whether I was following. Not seeing me, he came back over the roofs, shouting to know what had happened. I got to my feet but, although he hardly looks the part, he is as active as a boy, and he had scrambled to a higher roof that commanded a view of my runway before my twisted ankle would permit me to escape.
“So that’s it, eh? A woman!”
“Keep an eye on Miss Gloria!” I whispered to Anna, and she ducked and ran.
If I had had presence of mind I would have accepted the insinuation, and turned the joke on Fred. Instead, I denied it hotly like a fool, and nothing could have fed the fires of his spirit of raillery more surely.
“I’ve unearthed a plot,” I began, limping along beside him.
“No, sir! It was I who unearthed the two of you!”
“See here, Fred—”
“Look? I’d be ashamed! No, no—I wasn’t looking!”
“Fred, I’m serious!”
“Entanglements with women are always serious!”
“I tell you, that girl Maga—”
“Two of ‘em, eh? Worser and worser! You’ll have Will jealous into the bargain!”
“Have it your own way, then!” I said, savage with pain (and the reasons he did not hesitate to assign to my strained ankle were simply scandalous). “I’ll wait until I find a man with honest ears.”
“Try Kagig!” he advised me dryly.
And Kagig I did try. We came on him at our end of the bridge that overhung the Jihun River. Our party were waiting on the far side, and Fred hurried over to join them. Kagig was listening to the reports of a dozen men, and while I waited to get his ear I could see Fred telling his great joke to the party. It was easy to see that Gloria Vanderman did not enjoy the joke; nor did I blame her. I did not blame her for sending word there and then to Anna that her services would not be required any more.
As soon as Kagig saw me he dismissed the other men in various directions and made to start across the bridge. I called to him to wait, and walked beside him.
“I’ve uncovered a plot, Kagig,” I began. “Maga Jhaere has been talking with the Turkish prisoner.”
“I know it. I sent her to talk with him!”
“She has bargained with him to betray Zeitoon!”
For answer to that Kagig turned his head and stared sharply at me—then went off into peals of diabolic laughter. He had not a word to offer. He simply utterly, absolutely, unqualifiedly disbelieved me—or else chose to have it appear so.