Affair in Araby
“They are all right!”
There was no competition for seats on the Damascus train that morning. Several of the window-panes were smashed, there were bullet-marks and splinters on the woodwork everywhere--no need to ask questions. But I found time on the platform to chat with some British officers while keeping an eye lifting for Yussuf Dakmar and his friends.
“Damascus, eh? You’ll have a fine journey if you get through alive. Nine passengers were shot dead in the last train down.”
“No law up there, you know. Feisul’s army’s all concentrated for a crack at the French (good luck to ‘em! No, I’m not wishing the French any particular luck this trip). Nobody to watch the Bedouins, so they take pot shots at every train that passes, just for the fun of it.”
“May be war, you know, at any minute. The French are sure to make a drive for the railway line--you’ll be hung up indefinitely--commandeered for an ambulance train--shot for the sake of argument--anything at all, in fact. They say those Algerian troops are getting out of hand--paid in depreciated francs and up against the high cost of debauchery. You’re taking a chance.”
“Wish I could go. Haven’t seen a healthy scrap sinze Zeitun Ridge. Hey! Hullo! What’s this? Lovely woman! Well, I’ll be!”
It was Mabel Ticknor, followed by the six men I was watching for, Yussuf Dakmar looking sulky and discouraged in their midst, almost like a prisoner, and the other five wearing palpably innocent expressions.
“Lord!” remarked the officer nearest me. “That gang’s got the wind up! Look at the color of their gills! Booked through, I’ll bet you, and been listening to tales all night!”
The gang drew abreast just as another officer gave tongue to his opinion. They couldn’t help hearing what he said; he had one of those voices that can carry on conversation in a boiler foundry.
“There’s more in this than meets the eye! She’s not a nurse. She don’t walk like a missionary. I heard her buy a ticket for Aleppo. Can you imagine a lone, good-looking woman going to Aleppo by that train unless she had a laissez passe from the French? She’s wearing French heels. I’ll bet she’s carrying secret information. Look! D’you see those two Arabs in the train?” He pointed out Grim and Jeremy, who were leaning from a window. “They tipped her off to get into the compartment next ahead of them. D’you see? There she goes. She was for getting into the coach ahead. They called her back.”
Almost all the other cars were empty except that one, but, whether because humans are like sheep and herd together instinctively when afraid, or because the train crew ordered it, all six compartments of the middle first-class car were now occupied, with Mabel Ticknor alone in the front one. Nevertheless, Yussuf Dakmar and four of his companions started to climb in by the rear door. The sixth man lingered within earshot of the officers, presumably to pick up further suggestions.
So I got in at the front end and met them halfway down the corridor.
“Plenty of room in the car behind,” I said abruptly.
They were five to one, but Yussuf Dakmar was in front, and he merely got in the way of the wolves behind him. The sixth man, who had lingered near the officers, now entered by the front end as I had done and called out that there was plenty of room in the front compartment.
“There’s only a woman in here,” he said in Arabic.
And he set the example by taking the seat opposite to Mabel.
It would have been easy enough to get him out again, of course. Not even the polyglot train crew would have allowed Arabs to trespass without her invitation.
The trouble was that Jeremy, Grim, Narayan Singh and I all rushed to her rescue at the same minute, which let the cat out of the bag. It was Doctor Ticknor’s statement in Jerusalem about not wanting to see any of us alive again if we failed to bring his wife back safe that turned the trick and caused even Grim to lose his head for a moment. When a Sikh, two obvious Arabs and an American all rush to a woman’s assistance before she calls for help, there is evidence of collusion somewhere which you could hardly expect a trained spy to overlook or fail to draw conclusions from.
It was all over in a minute. The rascal left the compartment, muttering to himself in Arabic sotto voce. I caught one word; but he looked so diabolically pleased with himself that it didn’t really need that to stir me into action. I take twelves in boots, with a rather broad toe, and he stopped the full heft of the hardest kick I could let loose. It put him out of action for half a day, and remains one of my pleasantest memories.
His companions had to gather him up and help him pulley-hauley fashion into the car ahead, while an officious ticket-taker demanded my name and address. I found in my wallet the card of a U.S. senator and gave him that, whereat he apologized profoundly and addressed me as “Colonel”--a title with which he continued to flatter me all the rest of the journey except once, when he changed it to “Admiral” by mistake.
Grim went back into our compartment and laughed; and none of the essays I have read on laughter--not even the famous dissertation by Josh Billings--throw light on how to describe the tantalizing manner of it. He laughs several different ways: heartily at times, as men of my temperament mostly do; boisterously on occasion, after Jeremy’s fashion; now and then cryptically, using laughter as a mask; then he owns a smile that suggests nothing more nor less than kindness based on understanding of human nature.
But that other is a devil of a laugh, mostly made of chuckles that seem to bubble off a Hell-brew of disillusionment, and you get the impression that he is laughing at himself--cynically laying bare the vanity and fallibility of his own mental processes--and forecasting self-discipline.
There is no mirth in it, although there is amusement; no anger, although immeasurable scorn. I should say it’s a good safe laugh to indulge in, for I think it is based on ability to see himself and his own mistakes more clearly than anybody else can, and there is no note of defeat in it. But it is full of a cruel irony that brings to mind a vision of one of those old medieval flagellant priests reviewing his sins before thrashing his own body with a wire whip.
“So that ends that,” he said at last, with the gesture of a man who sweeps the pieces from a board, to set them up anew and start again. “Luckily we’re not the only fools in Asia. Those six rascals know now that Mabel and we are one party.”
“Pooh!” sneered Jeremy. “What can the devils do?”
“Not much this side of the border at Deraa,” Grim answered. “After Deraa pretty well what they’re minded. They could have us pinched on some trumped-up charge, in which case we’d be searched, Mabel included. No. We’ve played too long on the defensive. Deraa is the danger-point. The telegraph line is cut there, and all messages going north or south have to be carried by hand across the border. The French have an agent there who censors everything. He’s the boy we’ve got to fool. If they appeal to him this train will go on without us.
“Ramsden, you and Narayan Singh go and sit with Mabel in her compartment. Jeremy, you go forward and bring Yussuf Dakmar back here to me; we’ll let him have that fake letter just before we reach Deraa, taking care somehow to let the other five know he has it. They won’t discover it’s a fake until after leaving Deraa--”
“Why not?” I interrupted. “What’s to prevent their opening it at once?”
“Two good reasons: for one, we’ll have Narayan Singh keep a careful eye on them, and they’ll keep it hidden as long as he snoops around; for another, they’ll be delighted not to have to let the French agent at Deraa into the secret, because of the higher price they hope to get by holding on. They’ll smuggle it over the border and not open it until they feel safe.”
“Yes, but when they do look at it...” said I.
“We’ll be over the border, and they can’t send telegrams to anywhere.”
“An Arab government precaution. If station agents all along the line were allowed to send telegrams every seditious upstart would take advantage of it and they’d have more trouble than they’ve got now. But I warn you fellows, after Deraa--somewhere between the border and Damascus--there’ll be a fight. The minute they discover that the letter is a fake they’ll come for the real one like cats after a canary.”
“Let ‘em come!” smiled Jeremy, but Grim shook his head. “I’ve been making that mistake too long,” he answered. “No defensive tactics after we leave Deraa! We’ll start the trouble ourselves. You watch, after Deraa the train crew will play cards in the caboose and leave Allah to care for the passengers.”