“Per terram et aquam”
Written by Talbot Mundy and originally published in 1920
AND HE WHO WOULD SAVE HIS LIFE SHALL LOSE IT
The fed fools beat their brazen gong
For gods’ ears dulled by blatant praise,
Awonder why the scented fumes
And surplices at evensong
Avail not as in other days.
Shrunken and mean the spirit fails
Like old snow falling from the crags
And priest and pedagog compete
With nostrums for the age that ails,
But learn not why the spirit lags.
Tuneless and dull the loose lyre thrums
Ill-plucked by fingers strange to skill
That change and change the fever’d chords,
But still no inspiration comes
Though priest and pundit labor still.
Lust-urged the clamoring clans denounce
Whate’er their sires agreed was good,
And swift on faith and fair return
With lies the feud-leaders pounce
Lest Truth deprive them of their food.
Dog eateth dog and none gives thanks;
All crave the fare, but grudge the price
Their nobler forbears proudly paid,
That now for moonstruck madness ranks—
The only true coin—Sacrifice!
The man who is a hero to himself perhaps exists, but the surface indications are no proof of it. I don’t pretend to be satisfied, and made no pretense at the time of being satisfied with my share in Maga’s treachery. But I claim that it was more than human nature could have done, to endure the open disapproval of my friends, begun by Fred’s half-earnest jest, and continued by my own indignation; and at the same time to induce them to take my warning seriously.
Will avoided me, and walked with Gloria, who made no particular secret of her disgust. Fred naturally enough kept the joke going, to save himself from being tripped in his own net. He had probably persuaded himself by that time that the accusation was true, and therefore equally probably regretted having made it; for he would have been the last man in the world to give tongue about an offense that he really believed a friend of his had committed.
Monty, who believed from force of habit every single word Fred said, walked beside me and was good enough to give me fatherly advice.
“Not the time, you know, to fool with women. I don’t pretend, of course, to any right to judge your private conduct, but—you can be so awfully useful, you know, and all that kind of thing, when you’re paying strict attention. Women distract a man.”
All, things considered, I might have done worse than decide to say no more about the plot, but to keep my own eyes wide open. (I was particularly sore with Gloria, and derived much unwise consolation from considering stinging remarks I would make to her when the actual truth should out.)
Monty began making the best of my, in his eyes, damaged character by explaining the general dispositions he and Kagig had made for the defense of Zeitoon.
“According to my view of it,” he said, “this bridge we’ve just crossed is the weakest point—or was. I think we can hold that clay ramp you came up yesterday against all comers. But there’s a way round the back of this mountain that leads to the dismantled fort you see on this side of the river. That is the fort built by the Turkish soldiers whom Kagig told us the women of Zeitoon threw one by one over the bridge.”
He stopped (we had climbed about two hundred feet of a fairly steep track leading up the flank of Beirut Dagh) and let the others gather around us.
“You see, if the enemy can once establish a footing on this hill, they’ll then command the whole of Zeitoon opposite with rifle fire, even if they don’t succeed in bringing artillery round the mountain.”
Between us and Zeitoon there now lay a deep, sheer-sided gash, down at the bottom of which the Jihun brawled and boiled. I did not envy any army faced with the task of crossing it, even supposing the bridge should not be destroyed. But they would not need to cross in order to make the town untenable.
“The Zeitoonli are, you might say, superstitious about that bridge,” Monty went on. “They refuse as much as to consider making arrangements to blow it up in case of need. Another remarkable thing is that the women claim the bridge defense as their privilege. That doesn’t matter. They look like a crowd of last-ditch fighters, and we’re awfully short of men. But we’re almost equally short of ammunition; and if it ever gets to the point where we’re driven in so that we have to hold that bridge, we shall be doling out cartridges one by one to the best shots! I have tried to persuade the women to leave the bridge until there’s need of defending it, and to lend us a hand elsewhere meanwhile; but they’ve always held the bridge, and they propose to do the same again. Even Kagig can’t shift them, although the women have been his chief supporters all along.”
Fred interrupted, pointing toward a few acres of level land to our left, below Zeitoon village but still considerably above the river level.
“Is that Rustum Khan?”
“He it is,” said Kagig. “A devil of a man—a wonder of a devil—no friend of mine, yet I shook hands with him and I salute him! A genius! A cavalryman born. Our people are not cavalrymen. No place for horses, this. Yet, as you have seen, there are some of us who can ride, and that Rustum Khan found many others—refugees from this and that place. See how he drills them yonder—see! It was the gift of God that so many horses fell into our hands. Some of the refugees brought horses along for food. Instead, Rustum Khan took men’s corn away, to feed the hungry horses!”
“We could never have held the place without Rustum Khan,” said Monty. “As it is we’ve a chance. The last thing the Turks will expect from us is mounted tactics. Allowing for plenty of spare horses, we shall have two full squadrons—one under Rustum Khan, and one I’ll lead myself. From all accounts they’re bringing an awful number of men against us, and we expect them to try to force the clay ramp. In that case—but come and see.”
He led on up-hill, and after a few minutes the well-worn track disappeared, giving place to a newly cleared one. Trees had been cut down roughly, leaving stumps in such irregular profusion that, though horses could pass between them easily, no wheeled traffic could have gone that way. The undergrowth and the tree-trunks had been piled along either side, so that the new path was fenced in. It was steep and crooked, every section of it commanded by some other section higher up, with plenty of crags and boulders that afforded even better cover than the trees.
“Discovered this the first day I got here,” said Monty. “Asked about bears, and a man offered to show me where a dozen of them lived. I was curious to see where a ‘dozen bears could live in amity together—didn’t believe a word of it. We set out that afternoon, and didn’t reach the top until midnight. Worst climb I ever experienced. Lost ourselves a hundred times. Next day, however, Kagig agreed to let me have as many men as could be crowded together to work, and I took a hundred and twenty. Set them to cutting this trail and another one. They worked like beavers. But come along and look.”
“How about the bears?” Fred demanded. “Did you get them?”
“Smelt ‘em. Saw one—or saw his shadow, and heard him. Followed him up-hill by the smell, and so found the castle wall. Haven’t seen a bear since.”
“Hssh!” said Kagig, and sprang up-hill ahead of us to take the lead. “There are guards above there, and they are true Zeitoonli—they will shoot dam’ quick!”
They did not shoot, because we all lay in the shadow of a great rock as soon as we could see a ragged stone wall uplifted against the purple sky, and Kagig whistled half a dozen times. We plainly heard the snap of breech-blocks being tested.
“They are weary of talking fight!” Kagig whispered.
But the sixth or seventh whistle was answered by a shout, and we began to climb again. Close to the castle the tree-cutters had been able to follow the line of the original road fairly closely, and there were places underfoot that actually seemed to have been paved. Finally we reached a steep ramp of cemented stone blocks, not one of which was out of place, and went up that toward an arch—clear, unmistakable, round Roman that had once been closed by a portcullis and an oak gate. All of the woodwork had long ago disappeared, but there was little the matter with the masonry.
Under the echoing arch we strode into a shadowy courtyard where the sun had not penetrated long enough to warm the stones. In the midst of it a great stone keep stood as grim and almost as undecayed as when Crusaders last defended it. That castle had never been built by Crusaders; they had found it standing there, and had added to it, Norman on to Roman.
The courtyard was littered with weeds that Kagig’s men had slashed down, and here and there a tree had found root room and forced its way up between the rough-hewn paving stones. Animals had laired in the place, and had left their smell there together with an air of wilderness. But now a new-old smell, and new-old sounds were awakening the past. There were horses again in the stables, whose roof formed the fighting-platform behind the rampart of the outer wall.
Monty led the way to the old arched entrance of the keep, and pointed upward to a spot above the arch where some one had been scraping and scrubbing away the stains of time. There, clean white now in the midst of rusty stonework, was a carved device—shield-shaped—two ships and two wheat-sheaves; and underneath on a scroll the motto in Latin—Per terram et aquam—By land and sea—in token that the old Montdidiers held themselves willing to do duty on either element. The same device and the same motto were on the gold signet ring on Monty’s little finger.
“What’s happening on top of the keep?” demanded Will.
Fred laughed aloud. We could not see up from inside, for at least one of the stone floors remained intact.
“Can’t you guess?” demanded Fred. “Didn’t I tell you the man has ‘verted to Crusader days?”
But Monty explained.
“There’s an old stone socket up there that used to hold the flag-pole. Two or three fellows have been kind enough to haul a tree up there, and they’re trimming it to fit.”
“If we were wise we’d hang you to it, Didums, and save you from a lousy Turkish jail!”
“Thank you, Fred,” Monty answered. “There are capitulations still, I fancy. No Turk can legally try me, or imprison me a minute. I’m answerable to the British consul.”
“They’re fine, legal-minded sticklers for the rules, the Turks are!” Fred retorted.
“But we’ve a net laid for the Turks!” smiled Monty.
Fred shook his head. Monty led the way toward stone steps, whose treads bad been worn into smooth hollows centuries before by the feet of men in armor.
Up above on the outer rampart we could see Kagig’s sentries outlined against the sky, protected against the chilly mountain air by goat-skin outer garments and pointed goat-skin hats. We mounted the stone stair, holding to a baluster worn smooth by the rub of countless forgotten hands, as perfect yet as on the day when the masons pronounced it finished; and emerged on to a wide stone floor above the stables, guarded by a breast-high parapet pierced by slits for archers.
From below the breathing of the pines came up to us, peculiarly audible in spite of the Titan roar of Jihun River. Immediately below us was a ledge of forest-covered rock, and beyond that we could see sheer down the tree-draped flank of Beirut Dagh to the foaming water. We leaned our elbows on the parapet, and stared in silence all in a row, stared at in turn by the more than half-suspicious sentries.
“How does it feel, old man” asked Will at last, “standing on ramparts where your ancestors once ruled the roost?”
“Stranger than perhaps you think,” Monty answered, not looking to right or left, or downward, but away out in front of him toward the sky-line on top of the opposite hills.
“I bet I know,” said Will. “You hate to see the old order passing. You’d like the old times back.”
“You’re wrong for once, America!” Monty turned his back on the parapet and the view, and with hands thrust deep down in his pockets sought for words that could explain a little of his inner man. Fred had perhaps seen that mood before, but none of the rest of us. Usually he would talk of anything except his feelings. He felt the difficulty now, and checked.
“How so?” demanded Will.
“I’ve watched the old order passing. I’m part of it. I’m passing, too.”
Gloria watched him with melting eyes. Fred turned his back and went through the fruitless rigmarole of trying to appear indifferent, going to the usual length at last of humming through his nose.
“That’s what I said. You’d like these castle days back again.”
“You’re wrong, Will. I pray they never may come back. The place is an anachronism. So am I!—useless for most modern purposes. You’d have to tear castle or me so to pieces that we’d be unrecognizable. The world is going forward, and I’m glad of it. It shall have no hindrance at my hands.”
“If men were all like you—” began Gloria, but he checked her with a frown.
“You can call this castle a robbers’ nest, if you like. It’s easy to call names. It stood for the best men knew in those days—protection of the countryside, such law and order as men understood, and the open road. It was built primarily to keep the roads safe. There are lots of things in England and America to-day, Will, that your descendants (being fools) will sneer at, just as it’s the fashion to-day to sneer at relics of the past like this—and me!”
“Who’s sneering? Not I! Not we!”
“This castle was built for the sake of the countryside. I’ve a mind to see it end as it began—that’s all.”
“Aw—what’s eating you, Monty?”
“Shut up croaking, you old raven!” grumbled Fred.
“Show us the view you promised. This isn’t it, for there isn’t a Turk in sight.”
Monty knew better than mistake Fred’s surliness for anything but friendship in distress. Without another word he led the way along the parapet toward a ragged tower at the southern corner. It had been built by Normans, evidently added to the earlier Roman wall.
“Now tell me if the old folk didn’t know their business,” said Monty. “Very careful, all! The steps inside are rough. The roof has fallen in, and the ragged upper edge that’s left probably accounts for the castle remaining undetected from below all these years—looks like fangs of discolored rock.”
We followed him through the doorless gap in the tower wall, and up broken stone stairs littered with fragments of the fallen roof, until we stood at last in a half-circle around the jagged rim, our feet wedged between rotten masonry, breasts against the saw-edge parapet, and heads on a level with the eagles. From that dizzy height we had a full view between the mountains, not only of the immediate environs of Zeitoon, but of most of the pass—up which we ourselves had come, and of some of the open land beyond it.
“D’you see Turks now?”
Monty pointed, but there was no need. Dense masses of men were bivouacked beyond the bottom of the wide clay ramp. Through the glasses I could see artillery and supply wagons. They were coming to make a thorough job of “rescuing” Zeitoon this time! After a while I was able to make out the dark irregular line of Kagig’s men, and here and there the lighter color of freshly dug entrenchments. None of Zeitoon’s defenders appeared to be thrown out beyond the clay ramp, but they evidently flanked it on the side of the pass that was farthest from us.
“Now look this way, and you’ll understand.”
Monty pointed to our right, and the significance of the voices we had heard so close to us when Fred was searching for a path around the clay on the morning of our arrival, was made plain instantly. Down from the ledge on which the castle stood to a point apparently within a few yards of the clay ramp there had been cut a winding swath through the forest, along which four horses abreast could be ridden, or as many men marched.
“How did you do all that in time?” demanded Will. “It looks like one of those contractor’s jobs in the States—put through while you wait and to hell with everything!”
“It follows the old road,” Monty answered. “There was too much cobble-paving for the trees to take hold, and most of what they had to cut was small stuff. That accounts, too, for the freedom from stumps. But, do you get the idea? The trees between the end of the cutting and the clay ramp are cut almost through—ready to fall, in fact. I’m afraid of a wind. If it blows, our screen may fall too soon! But if the Turks try to storm the ramp, we’ll draw them on. Then, hey—presto! Down go the remaining trees, and into the middle of ‘em rides our cavalry!”
“What’s the use of cavalry four abreast?” demanded Fred, in no mood to be satisfied with anything.
“Rustum Khan is concentrating all his energy on teaching that one maneuver,” Monty answered. “We come—”
“Thought it ‘ud be ‘we!’ Your place is at the rear, giving orders!”
“We come down the track at top speed, and the impetus will carry us clear across the ramp. Some of the horses’ll go down, because the slope is slippery. But the remainder will front form squadron, and charge down hill in line. Then watch!”
“All right,” Fred grumbled. “But how about you rear while all that’s going on? The Turk must have worked his way around Beirut Dagh on former occasions—or how else could he ever have built and held that dismantled fort? What’s to stop him from doing it again?”
“It’s a fifteen-mile fight ahead of him,” Monty answered, “with riflemen posted at every vantage-point all the way—”
“Who is in charge of the riflemen?”
Kagig leaned back until he looked in danger of falling, and tapped his breast significantly three times.
“I—I have picked the men who will command those riflemen and women!”
“Well,” Fred grumbled, “what are your plans for us?”
“For the last time, Fred, I want you, old man, to help me to persuade these others to escape into the hills while there’s still a chance, and I want you to go with them.”
“I also!” exclaimed Kagig. “I also desire that!”
“Now you’ve got that off your chest, Didums, suppose you talk sense,” suggested Fred. “What are your plans?”
Monty recognized the unalterable, and set his face.
“You first, Miss Vanderman. There’s one way in which we can always use a gentlewoman’s services.”
“Mayn’t I fight?” she begged, and we all laughed.
“’Fraid not. No. The women have cleared out several houses for a hospital. Please go and superintend.”
“Damn!” exclaimed Gloria, Boston fashion, not in the least under her breath.
“I am sending word,” said Kagig, “that they shall obey you or learn from me!”
“The rest of us,” Monty went on, “will know better what to do when we know what the Turk intends, but I expect to send all of you from time to time to wherever the fighting is thickest. Kagig, of course, will please himself, and my orders are subject to his approval.”
“I’ll go, then,” said Gloria. “Good-by!” And she kissed Will on the mouth in full view of all of us, he blushing furiously, and Kagig cracking all his finger-joints.
“Go with her, Will!” urged Monty, as she disappeared down the steps. “Go and save yourself. You’re young. I’ve notions of my own that I’ve inherited, and the world calls me a back number. You go with Miss Vanderman!”
I seconded that motion.
“Go with her, Will! I’ve warned you she’s unsafe alone! Go and protect her!”
Will grinned, wholly without malice.
“Thanks!” he said. “She’s a back number, too. So’m I! If I left Monty in this pinch she’d never look at me, and I’d not ask her to! Inherited notions about merit and all that kind of thing, don’t you know, by gosh! No, sir! She and I both sat into this game. She and I both stay! Wish Esau would open the ball, though. I’m tired of talking.”