Affair in Araby
“The rest will be simple!”
Haifa was crowded with Syrians of all sorts, and there were two or three staff officers in the uniform of Feisul’s army lounging on the platform, who conned new arrivals with a sort of childlike solicitude, as if by looking in a man’s face they could judge whether he was friendly to their cause or not. Mabel had wired to her friend, and was met at the station, so we had nothing to worry over for the present on her score. Our own troubles began when we reached the only hotel and found it crowded. The proprietor, a little wizened, pockmarked Arab in a black alpaca jacket and yellow pants, with a tarboosh balanced forward at a pessimistic angle, suggested that there might be guests in the hotel who would let us share their beds...
“Although there will be no reduction of the price to either party in that event,” he hastened to explain.
It was a wonder of an hotel. You could smell the bugs and the sanitary arrangements from the front-door step, and although the whole place had been lime-washed, dirt from all over the Near East was accumulating on the dead white, making it look leprous and depressing.
The place fronted on a main street, with its back toward the Bay of Acre at a point where scavengers used the beach for a dumping place. There was a hostel of British officers about a mile away, where Grim might have been able to procure beds for the whole party; but I noticed no less than five men who followed us up from the station and seemed to be keeping a watchful eye on Yussuf Dakmar and it was a sure bet that if we should show our hands so far as to mess with British officers, the train next day would be packed with men to whom murder would be simple amusement.
Yet Grim and Jeremy needed sleep and so did Narayan Singh. We offered to rent an outhouse for the night--a cellar--the roof, but there was nothing doing, and it was Yussuf Dakmar at last who solved the problem for us.
He found a crony of his, who had occupied for several days a room containing two beds. With unheard-of generosity, accompanied, however, by a peculiar display of yellow teeth and more of the jaundiced whites of his eyes than I cared to see, this individual offered to go elsewhere for the night and to place the room at my disposal.
“But there is this about it,” he explained. “Where I am going there is no room for my friend Yussuf Dakmar Bey, so I must ask you to let him share this with you. You and he could each have a bed, of course, but it seems to me that your servants look wearier than you do. I suggest then that you take one bed, effendi, and share it with my friend Yussuf Dakmar Bey, leaving the other to your servants, who I hope will be suitably grateful for the consideration shown them.”
Grim nodded to me from behind the Syrians’ backs, and I jumped at the offer. Payment was refused. The man explained that he had the room by the week and the loan of it to me for one night would cost him nothing. In fact, he acted courteously and with considerable evidence of breeding, merely requesting my permission to lock the big closet where he kept his personal belongings and to take the key away with him. Even if we had been in a mood to cavil it would have been difficult to find fault, for it was a spacious, clean and airy room--three characteristics each of which is as scarce as the other in that part of the world.
The beds stood foot to foot along the right wall as you entered. Against the opposite wall was a cheap wooden wash-stand and an enormous closet built of olive wood sunk into a deep recess. The thing was about eight feet wide and reached to the ceiling; you couldn’t tell the depth because he locked it at once and pocketed the key, and it fitted into the recess so neatly that a knife-blade would hardly have gone into the crack.
Outside the bedroom door, in a lobby furnished with odds and ends, was a wickerwork sofa that would do finely for Narayan Singh, and that old soldier didn’t need to have it pointed out to him. Without word or sign from us he threw his kit on the floor, unrolled his blankets, removed his boots, curled up on the sofa, and if he didn’t go to sleep at once, gave such a perfect imitation of it that somebody’s fox terrier came and sniffed him, and, recognizing a campaigner after his own wandering heart, jumped on his chest and settled down to sleep too.
As soon as our host had left the room, all bows and toothy smiles, Jeremy with his back to me drew from one pocket the letter he was supposed to have stolen from me, flourished it in Yussuf Dakmar’s face, and concealed it carefully in another. Then a new humorous notion occurred to him. He pulled it out again, folded it in the pocket wallet in which he had carried it from the first, wrapped the whole in a handkerchief, which he knotted carefully and then handed it to me.
“Effendi,” he said, “you are a fierce master and a mighty drunkard, but a man without guile. Keep that till the morning. Then, if Omar wants to steal it he will have to murder you instead of me, and I would rather sleep than die. But you must give it back at dawn, because the prayers are in it that a very holy ma’lim wrote for me, and unless I read those prayers properly tomorrow’s train will come to grief before we reach Damascus.”
He acted the part perfectly of one of those half-witted, wholly shrewd mountebanks, who pick up a living by taking advantage of tolerance and good nature. You’ve all seen the type. It’s commonest at race-meetings but you’ll find it anywhere in the world where vagrant men of means foregather.
Again Yussuf Dakmar’s face became a picture of suppressed emotion. I pocketed the wallet with the same matter-of-fact air with which I have accepted a servant’s money to keep safe for him scores of times. He believed me to be a drunkard, who had been thoroughly doped that day and would probably drink hard that night to drown the after-taste. It ought to be easy to rob me while I slept. Any fool could have read his thoughts.
He came down and ate supper with us at a trestle table in the dimly lighted dining-room, and I encouraged his new-born optimism by ordering two bottles of whisky to take upstairs. Jeremy, who can’t be happy unless playing his part for all it’s worth, became devoutly religious and made a tremendous fuss because ham was put on the table. He accused the proprietor of using pig’s fat to smear all the cooking utensils, demanded to see the kitchen, and finally refused to eat anything but leban, which is a sort of curds. If Yussuf Dakmar had entertained suspicions of Jeremy’s real nationality they were all resolved by the time that meal was finished.
But the five’ men who had followed us from the station sat in the dark at a table in the far corner of the room and watched every move we made. When the coffee was brought I sat smoking and surly over it, as if my head ached from the day’s drink; Grim and Jeremy, aching for sleep but refusing like good artists to neglect a detail of their part, went to another table and played backgammon, betting quarrelsomely; and at last one of the five men walked over and touched Yussuf Dakmar’s shoulder. At once he followed all five of them out of the room, whereat Grim and Jeremy promptly went to bed. It was so obviously my turn to stay awake that Grim didn’t even trouble to remind me of it.
So I took the whisky upstairs, noticed that Narayan Singh was missing from the couch where he had gone to sleep, although the fox-terrier was snoring so loud in his blankets that I had to look twice in the dim light. I mentioned that fact to Grim who merely smiled as he got between the sheets. Then I went down to the street to get exercise and fresh air. I didn’t go far, but strode up and down in front of the hotel a quarter of a mile or so in each direction, keeping in the middle of the street.
I had made the fourth or fifth turn when Narayan Singh came out and accosted me under the lamplight.
“Pardon,” he called aloud in English, “does the sahib know where I can find a druggist’s open at this hour? I have a toothache and need medicine.”
“Come and I’ll show you a place,” said I with the patronizing air of a tourist showing off his knowledge, and we strode along together down the street, he holding one hand to his jaw.
“Thus and so it happened, sahib,” he began as soon as we had gone a safe distance. “I lay sleeping, having kept my belly empty that I might wake easily. There came Yussuf Dakmar and five men brushing by me, and they all went into a room four doors beyond the sahib’s. The room next beyond that one is occupied by an officer sahib, who fought at El-Arish alongside my battalion. Between him and me is a certain understanding based on past happenings in which we both had a hand. He is not as some other sahibs, but a man who opens both ears and his heart, and when I knocked on his door he opened it and recognized me.
“‘Well?’ said he. ‘Why not come and see me in the morning?
“‘Sahib,’ said I, ‘for the sake of El-Arish, let me in quickly, and close the door!’
“So he did, wondering and not pleased to be disturbed by a Sikh at such an hour. And I said to him:
“‘Sahib,’ said I, ‘am I a badmash? A scoundrel?’
“‘No,’ said he, ‘not unless you changed your morals when you left the service.’
“Said I, ‘I am still in the service.’
“‘Good,’ said he. ‘What then?’