Affair in Araby
“You talk like a madman!”
Grim changed the plan a little at the last minute. Mabel Ticknor left Jerusalem by train, as agreed, but Narayan Singh was sent that way too, to keep an eye on her. He being a Sikh, could sit in the corridor without exciting comment, and being dressed for the part of a more or less prosperous trader, he could travel first class without having to answer questions or allay suspicion.
Grim, Jeremy and I drove to Ludd in a hired auto, Grim and Jeremy both in Arab costume, and I trying to look like a tourist. Jeremy was supposed to be a travelled Arab intent on guiding me about Damascus for the usual consideration.
The platform was crowded, and we secured a compartment in the train without calling much attention to ourselves. There were British officers of all ranks, Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, refugee Armenians, Maltese, Kurds, a Turk or two, Circassians, men from as far off as Bokhara, Turkomans, Indians of all sorts, a sprinkling of Bedouins looking not quite so at home as in their native desert, and local Arabs by the score. About half of them were in a panic, encouraged to it by their shrill women-folk, fighting in a swarm for tickets at one small window, where an insolent Levantine demonstrated his capacity for self-determination by making as many people as possible miss the train. I caught sight of Mabel Ticknor in the front compartment of our car, and Grim pointed out Yussuf Dakmar leaning through a window of the car behind. His face was fat, unwholesome, with small, cold eyes, an immoral nose, and a small mouth with pouting lips. The tarboosh he wore tilted at an angle heightened the general effect of arrogant self-esteem. He was an illustration of the ancient mystery--how is it that a man with such a face, and such insolence written all over him, can become a leader of other men and persuade them to hatch the eggs of treachery that he lays like a cuckoo in their nests?
He smirked at Grim suggestively as we went by, and Grim, of course, smirked back, with a sidewise inclination of the head in my direction, whereat Yussuf Dakmar withdrew himself, apparently satisfied.
“Now he’ll waste a lot of time investigating you,” said Grim in an undertone. “We’d better keep awake in turns, or he’ll knife you.”
“The toe of my boot to him!” I retorted. “One clean kick might solve this international affair!”
“Steady!” Grim answered. “We need him until after leaving Haifa. The French agent wired, and they’ll have a gang at Haifa ready for us; but Yussuf Dakmar will warn them off if we keep him hoping.”
So we settled down into our compartment after a glance to make sure that Mabel was all right, and for about two minutes I imagined we were in for a lazy journey. Narayan Singh was on a camp-stool in the corridor, snoozing with one eye open like a faithful sheep-dog. It didn’t seem possible for a creature like Yussuf Dakmar to make trouble for us, and I proposed that we should match coins for the first turn to go to sleep.
We had just pulled our coins out, and the engineer was backing the train in order to get her started, when Yussuf Dakmar arrived at our door, carrying his belongings, and claimed a seat on the strength of a lie about there being no room elsewhere.
There’s something about a compartment on a train that makes whoever gets in first regard the rest of the world as intruders. Nobody would have been welcome, but we would have preferred a pig to Yussuf Dakmar. Jeremy, democrat of democrats, who had slept without complaining between the legs of a dead horse on a rain-swept battlefield, with a lousy Turkish prisoner hugging him close to share the blanket, was up in arms at once.
“Imshi!” he ordered bluntly.
But Yussuf Dakmar was delighted. The reception convinced him, if anything were needed to do that, that one of us really was guarding the secret letter; and he was one of those hogs, anyhow, who glory in snouting in where they are plainly not wanted. He took the corner seat opposite Jeremy, tucked his legs up under him, produced a cigarette and smiled offensively. I’ll concede this, though: I think the smile was meant to be ingratiating.
He pulled out a package wrapped in newspaper and began to eat before the train had run a mile. And, you know, more men get killed because of how they eat than by the stuff they devour. If you don’t believe that, try living in camp for a week or two with a man who chews meat with his mouth open. You’ll feel the promptings of a murderer. I know a scientist who swears that the real secret of the Cain and Abel story is that Abel sucked his gums at mealtime.
“You ought to be buried up to the neck and fed with a shovel!” Jeremy informed him in blunt English after listening to the solo for a while.
“Aha! That is the way they used to treat criminals in Persia,” he answered pleasantly, with his mouth full of goat’s milk cheese. “Only they put plaster of Paris in the hole, and when it rained the wretched man was squeezed until the blood came out of his mouth and eyes, and he died in agony. But how comes it that you speak to me in English? If we are both Arabs, why not talk the mother tongue?”
“My rump is my rump and the land is its rulers,” Jeremy answered in Arabic, quoting the rudest proverb he could think of on the spur of the moment.
“Ah! And who is its ruler? Who is to be its ruler?”
Yussuf Dakmar made a surreptitious face at Grim, and his little cold eyes shone like a hungry pariah dog’s. It began to be interesting to watch his opening gambit.
“I have heard tales,” he went on, “of a new ruler for this country. What do you think of Feisul’s chance?”
As he said that he eyed me sideways swiftly and keenly. Grim sat back in his own corner and folded up his legs, watching the game contentedly. Jeremy, intercepting Yussuf Dakmar’s glance, put his own construction on it. He is a long, lean man, but like the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers he likes to make your flesh creep, and humor, to have full zest for him, has to be mischievous.
So he commenced by pulling out his weapons one by one. The first was a razor, which he sharpened, tested with his thumb suggestively, and then placed in his sock, studying Yussuf Dakmar’s throat for a minute or so after that, as if expecting to have to use the razor on it presently.
As the effect of that wore off he pulled out a pistol. It was one of the kind that won’t go off unless you pull the Hammer back, but Yussuf Dakmar didn’t know that, and if he had flesh and blood capable of creeping it’s a safe assertion that they crept. Jeremy acted as if he didn’t understand the weapon, and for fifteen minutes did more stunts with it than a puppy can do with a ball of twine. One of them that interested Yussuf Dakmar awfully was to point the pistol straight ahead, half-cocked, and try to get the hammer down by slapping it with the palm of his hand.
Most of our baggage was on the floor, but one fairly heavy valise was in the rack over Yussuf Dakmar’s head. Jeremy got up to examine it when the pistol had ceased to amuse him, and taking advantage of a jerk as the train slowed down, contrived to drop it into the Syrian’s lap; who rather naturally swore; whereat Jeremy took offence, and accused him of being a descendant of Hanna, son of Manna, who lived for a thousand and one years and never enjoyed himself.
It was our turn to eat sandwiches after that, while Yussuf Dakmar recovered from his disgruntlement. But just before the meal was finished Jeremy revived the game by asking suddenly in an awestruck whisper where “it” was. He slapped himself all over in a hurry, feeling for hidden pockets, and then came over and pretended to search me. There wasn’t anything to do but fall in with his mood, so I resisted, searched my own pockets reluctantly, and said that we might as well take the next train back, since we had lost the important document.
Before we started we had put into a wallet the fake envelope that Grim had carried in his hand the previous night, and had entrusted the wallet to Jeremy in order to have an alibi ready for Mabel in case of need. Grim took up the cudgels now and reminded me respectfully, as a servant should when speaking to his master, that I had taken all proper precautions and could not be blamed in any event.
“But I think it will be found,” he said hopefully. “Inshallah, it is not lost, but in the wallet in the pocket of that hare-brained friend of yours.”
So Jeremy went back to his corner, searched for the wallet, found it after pretty nearly, standing on his head to shake his clothes, examined it excitedly, and produced the fake envelope, flourishing it so violently that nobody, even with eyes like a hawk’s, could have identified it with certainty.
Then he dropped it in among the baggage on the floor, and went down on his knees to pick it up again. There is no more finished expert at sleight of hand than he, so it vanished, and he swore he couldn’t find it. In a well-simulated agony of nervousness he called on Yussuf Dakmar to get down and help him search, and the Syrian hadn’t enough self-command left to pretend to hesitate; his cold eyes were nearly popping from his head as he knelt and groped. The chief subject of interest to me just then was how he proposed to retain the letter in the unlikely event of his finding it first.
It was a ridiculous search, because there wasn’t really anywhere to look. After three bags had been lifted and their bottoms scrutinized the whole floor of the compartment lay naked to the eye, except where my feet rested. Jeremy insisted on my raising them, to the accompaniment of what he considered suitable comment on their size, turning his “behind end” meanwhile toward Yussuf Dakmar.
Grim chuckled and caught my eye. Yussuf Dakmar had walked straight into temptation, and was trying to search Jeremy’s pockets from the rear--no easy matter, for he had to discover them first in the loose folds of the Arab costume.
Suddenly Jeremy’s mood changed. He became suspicious, stood up, resumed his seat--and glared at Yussuf Dakmar, who retired into his corner and tried to seem unconscious of the game.
“I believe you are a thief--one of those light-fingered devils from El-Kalil!” said Jeremy suddenly, after about three minutes’ silence. “I believe you have stolen my letter! Like the saint’s ass, you are a clever devil, aren’t you? Nevertheless, you are like a man without fingernails, whose scratching does him no good! Your labour was in vain. Give me back the letter, or by Allah I will turn you upside down!”
Yussuf Dakmar denied the accusation with all the fervour that a blackguard generally does use when, for once, he is consciously innocent.
“By the Beard of the Prophet and on my honor I swear to you that I haven’t touched your letter! I don’t know where it is.”
“Show me the Prophet’s beard!” commanded Jeremy. “Show me your honor!”
“You talk like a madman! How can I show either?”
“Then how can you swear by them? Father of easy words and evil deeds, give me the letter back!”
Yussuf Dakmar appealed to me as presumably responsible for Jeremy.
“You saw, effendi, didn’t you? I tried to help him. But he who plays with the cat must suffer her claws, so now he accuses me of stealing. I call you to witness that I took nothing.”
“You must excuse him,” I answered. “That is a highly important letter. If it isn’t found the consequences may be disastrous.”