Affair in Araby
“Hum Dekta hai”
Like most of the quarters occupied by British officers, the house occupied by Major Roger Ticknor and his wife Mabel was “enemy property,” and its only virtue consisted in its being rent free. Grim, Jeremy, little Ticknor and his smaller wife, and I sat facing across a small deal table with a stuttering oil-lamp between us. In a house not far away some Orthodox Jews, arrayed in purple and green and orange, with fox-fur around the edges of their hats, were drunk and celebrating noisily the Feast of Esther; so you can work out the exact date if you’re curious enough. The time was nine p.m. We had talked the Anzac hurricane-drive through Palestine all over again from the beginning, taking world-known names in vain and doing honour to others that will stay unsung for lack of recognition, when one of those unaccountable pauses came, and for the sake of breaking silence, Mabel Ticknor asked a question. She was a little, plucky, pale-faced thing whom you called instinctively by her first name at the end of half an hour--a sort of little mother of loose-ended men, who can make silk purses out of sows’ ears, and wouldn’t know how to brag if she were tempted.
“Say, Jim,” she asked, turning her head quickly like a bird toward Grim on my left, “what’s your verdict about that man from Syria that Roger took in a cab to the Sikh hospital? I’m out a new pair of riding breeches if Roger has to pay the bill for him. I want my money’s worth. Tell me his story.”
“Go ahead and buy the breeches, Mabel. I’ll settle that bill,” he answered.
“No, you won’t, Jim! You’re always squandering money. Half your pay goes to the scallywags you’ve landed in jail. This one’s up to Roger and me; we found him.”
“I can charge his keep under the head of ‘information paid for.’ I shall sign the voucher without a qualm.”
“You’d get blood out of a stone, Jim! Go on, tell us!”
“I’m hired to keep secrets as well as discover them,” Grim answered, smiling broadly.
“Of course you are,” she retorted. “But I know all Roger’s secrets, and he’s a doctor, mind you! Am I right, Roger? Come along! There are no servants--no eavesdroppers. Wait. I’ll put tea on the table, and then we’ll all listen.”
She made tea Australian fashion in a billy, which is quick and simple, but causes alleged dyspepsia cures to sell well all the way from Adelaide to the Gulf of Carpentraia.
“You’ll have to tell her, Jim,” said Jeremy.
“Mabel’s safe as an iron roof,” put in her husband. “Noisy in the rain, but doesn’t leak.”
But neither man nor woman could have extracted a story from James Schuyler Grim unless it suited him to tell it. Mabel Ticknor is one of those honest little women who carry men’s secrets with them up and down the world. Being confided in by nearly every man who met her was a habit. But Grim tells only when the telling may accomplish something, and I wondered, as he laid his elbow on the table to begin, just what use he meant to make of Mabel Ticknor. He uses what he knows as other level-headed men use coin, spending thriftily for fair advantage.
“That is secret,” he began, as soon as Mabel had dumped the contents of the billy into a huge brown teapot. “I expect Narayan Singh here presently. He’ll have a letter with him, taken from the Syrian who stabbed that man in the hospital.”
“Whoa, hoss!” Jeremy interrupted. “You mean you’ve sent that Sikh to get the shirt of Yussuf Dakmar?”
“That was my job,” Jeremy objected.
“Whoa, hoss, yourself, Jeremy!” Grim answered. “You’d have gone down into the bazaar like a bull into a china-shop. Narayan Singh knows where to find him. If he shows fight, he’ll be simply handed over to the Sikh patrol for attacking a man in uniform, and by the time he reaches the lock-up that letter will be here on the table between us.”
“All the same, that’s a lark you’ve done me out of,” Jeremy insisted. “That Yussuf Dakmar’s a stinker. I know all about him. Two whole squadrons had to eat lousy biscuit for a week because that swab sold the same meat five times over. But I’ll get him yet!”
“Well, as I was saying,” Grim resumed, “there’s a letter in Jerusalem that’s supposed to be from Feisul. But when Feisul writes anything he signs his name to it, whereas a number is the signature on this. Now that fellow Sidi bin Tagim in the hospital is an honest old kite in his way. He’s a great rooter for Feisul. And the only easy way to ditch a man like Feisul, who’s as honest as the day is long, and no man’s fool, is to convince his fanatical admirers that for his own sake he ought to be forced along a certain course. The game’s as old as Adam. You fill up a man like Sidi bin Tagim with tales about Jews--convince him that Jews stand between Feisul and a kingdom--and he’ll lend a hand in any scheme ostensibly directed against Jews. Get me?”
“So would I!” swore Jeremy. “I’m against ‘em too! I camped alongside the Jordan Highlanders one time when--”
But we had had that story twice that evening with variations. He was balancing his chair on two legs, so I pushed him over backward, and before he could pick himself up again Grim resumed.
“Feisul is in Damascus, and the Syrian Convention has proclaimed him king. That don’t suit the French, who detest him. The feeling’s mutual. When Feisul went to Paris for the Peace Conference, the French imagined he was easy. They thought, here’s another of these Eastern princes who can be taken in the old trap. So they staged a special performance at the Opera for him, and invited him to supper afterward behind the scenes with the usual sort of ladies in full war-paint in attendance.”
“Shall we cut that too?” suggested Mabel.
“Sure. Feisul did! He’s not that kind of moth. Ever since then the French have declared he’s a hypocrite; and because he won’t yield his rights they’ve been busy inventing wrongs of their own and insisting on immediate adjustment. The French haven’t left one stone unturned that could irritate Feisul into making a false move.”
“To hell with them!” suggested Jeremy, reaching for more tea.
“But Feisul’s not easy to irritate,” Grim went on. “He’s one of those rare men, who get born once in an epoch, who force you to believe that virtue isn’t extinct. He’s almost like a child in some things--like a good woman in others--and a man of iron courage all the time, who can fire Arabs in the same way Saladin did five centuries ago.”
“He looks like a saint,” said Jeremy. “I’ve seen him.”
“But he’s no soft liver,” continued Grim. “He was brought up in the desert among Bedouins, and has their stoical endurance with a sort of religious patience added. Gets that maybe from being a descendant of the Prophet.”
“Awful sort to have to fight, that kind are,” said Jeremy. “They wear you down!”
“So the French decided some time ago to persuade Feisul’s intimates to make a bad break which he couldn’t repudiate.”
“Why don’t he cut loose with forty or fifty thousand men and boot the French into the sea?” demanded Jeremy. “I’ll make one to help him! I knew a Frenchman once, who--”
“We’ll come to that presently,” said Grim. “I dare say you didn’t hear of Verdun.”
“Objection sustained. Hand it to ‘em. They’ve got guts,” grinned Jeremy. “Fire away, old top.”
“Well, they ran foul of an awkward predicament, which is that there are some darned decent fellows among the officers of their army of occupation. There’s more than a scattering of decent gentlemen who don’t like dirt. I won’t say they tell Feisul secrets, or disobey orders; but if you want to give a man a square deal there are ways of doing it without sending him telegrams.”
Mabel put the tea back on the kerosene stove to stew, with an extra handful of black leaves in it. Grim continued:
“Another thing: The French are half afraid that if they take the field against Feisul on some trumped-up pretext, he’ll get assistance from the British. They could send him things he needs more than money, and can’t get. Ninety-nine per cent of the British are pro-Feisul. Some of them would risk their jobs to help him in a pinch. The French have got to stall those men before they can attack Feisul safely.”
“How d’you mean--stall ‘em?” demanded Jeremy. “Not all the British are fools--only their statesmen, and generals, and sixty percent of the junior officers and rank and file. The rest don’t have to be fed pap from a bottle; they’re good men. Takes more than talk to stall that kind off a man they like.”
“You’ve got the idea, Jeremy. You have to show them. Well, why not stir up revolution here in Palestine in Feisul’s name? Why not get the malcontents to murder Jews wholesale, with propaganda blowing full blast to make it look as if Feisul’s hand is directing it all? It’s as simple as falling off a log. French agents who look like honest Arabs approach the most hairbrained zealots who happen to be on the inside with Feisul, and suggest to them that the French and British are allies; therefore the only way to keep the British from helping the French will be to start red-hot trouble in Palestine that will keep the British busy protecting themselves and the Jews.
“The secret agents point out that although Feisul is against anything of the sort, he must be committed to it for his own sake. And they make great capital out of Feisul’s promise that he will protect the Jews if recognized as king of independent Syria. Kill all the Jews beforehand, so there won’t be any for him to protect when the time comes--that’s the argument.”
“Haven’t you warned Feisul?”
She had both elbows on the table and her chin between her hands, and I dare say she had listened in just that attitude to fifty inside stories that the newspapers would scatter gold in vain to get.
“I sure did. And he has sent one of his staff down here to keep an eye on things. I saw him this afternoon riding in a cab toward the Jaffa Gate. I said as much to that fellow in the hospital, and he was scared stiff at the idea of my recovering the supposed Feisul letter and showing it to an officer who is really in Feisul’s confidence. That--I mean the man’s fear--linked everything up.”
“You talk like Sherlock Holmes,” laughed Jeremy. “I’ll bet you a new hat nothing comes of it.”
“That bet’s on,” Grim answered. “It’s to be a female hat, and Mabel gets it. Order an expensive one from Paris, Mabel; Jeremy shall pay. We’ve lots of other information. The troops here have been warned of an intended massacre of Jews. The arrival of this letter probably puts a date to it.
“But it puts a date to something else on which the whole future of the Near East hangs; and that means the future of half the world, and maybe the whole of it, because about three hundred million Mohammedans are watching Feisul and will govern themselves accordingly. India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, all Northern Africa--there’s almost no limit to what depends on Feisul’s safety; and the French can’t or won’t understand that.”
There came the sound of heavy ammunition boots outside on the stone step, followed by a cough that I believe I could recognize among a thousand. Narayan Singh coughs either of two ways--once, deep bass, for all’s well; twice, almost falsetto, for a hint of danger. This time it was the single deep bass cough. But it was followed after half a minute by the two high-pitched barks, and Grim held up a hand for silence. At the end of perhaps a minute there came from the veranda a perfect imitation of the lascar’s ungrammatical, whining singsong from a fo’castle-head:
“Hum dekta hai!--I’m on the watch.”
Grim nodded--to himself, I suppose, for none had spoken to him.
“Do you mind stepping out and getting that letter from him, Ramsden? Keep in the shadow, please, and give him this pistol; he may need it.”
So I slipped out through the screen door and spent a minute looking for Narayan Singh. I’m an old hunter, but it wasn’t until Narayan Singh deliberately moved a hand to call attention to himself that I discovered him within ten feet of me.
The risk of being seen from the street in case some spy were lurking out there was obvious. So I walked all the way round the house, and came and stood below him on his left hand where the house cast impenetrable shadow; but though I took my time and moved stealthily he heard me and passed me a letter through the veranda rails, accepting the pistol in exchange without comment.
I could see him distinctly from that angle. His uniform on one side was torn almost into rags, and his turban was all awry, as if he had lost it in a scuffle and hadn’t spared time to rewind it properly--a sure sign of desperate haste; for a male tiger in the spring-time is no more careful of his whiskers than a Sikh is of the thirty yards of cloth he winds around his head.