Affair in Araby
“Bismillah! What a mercy that I met you!”
While the fireman scraped the iron floor for his last two shovelfuls of coal-dust and the train wheezed wearily into the dark station, Grim began to busy himself in mysterious ways. Part of his own costume consisted of a short, curved scimitar attached to an embroidered belt-- the sort of thing that Arabs wear for ornament rather than use. He took it off and, groping in the dark, helped Mabel put it on, without a word of explanation.
Then, instead of putting on his own Moslem over-cloak he threw that over her shoulders and, digging down into his bag for a spare head-dress, snatched her hat off and bound on the white kerchief in its place with the usual double, gold-covered cord of camel-hair.
Then came my friend the train conductor and addressed me as Colonel, offering to carry out the bags. The moment he had grabbed his load and gone Grim broke silence:
“Call her Colonel and me Grim. Don’t forget how!”
We became aware of faces under helmets peering through the window- officers of Feisul’s army on the watch for unwelcome visitors. From behind them came the conductor’s voice again, airing his English:
“Any more bags inside there, Colonel?”
“Get out quick, Jeremy, and make a fuss about the Colonel coming!” ordered Grim.
Jeremy suddenly became the arch-efficient servitor, establishing importance for his chief, and never a newly made millionaire or modern demagog had such skillful advertisement. The Shereefian officers stood back at a respectful distance, ready to salute when the personage should deign to alight.
“What shall be done with the memsahib’s hat?” demanded Narayan Singh.
You could only see the whites of his eyes, but he shook something in his right hand.
“Eat it!” Grim answered.
“Heavens! That’s my best hat!” objected Mabel. “Give it here. I’ll carry it under the cloak.”
“Get rid of it!” Grim ordered; and Narayan Singh strode off to contribute yellow Leghorn straw and poppies to the engine furnace.
I gave him ten piastres to fee the engineer, and five for the fireman, so you might say that was high-priced fuel.
“What kind of bunk are you throwing this time?” I asked Grim.
He didn’t answer, but gave orders to Mabel in short, crisp syllables.
“You’re Colonel Lawrence. Answer no questions. If anyone salutes, just move your hand and bow your head a bit. You’re just his height. Look straight in front of you and take long strides. Bend your head forward a little; there, that’s it.”
“I’m scared!” announced Mabel, by way of asking for more particulars.
She wasn’t scared in the least.
“Piffle!” Grim answered. “Remember you’re Lawrence, that’s all. They’d give you Damascus if you asked for it. Follow Jeremy, and leave the rest to us.”
I don’t doubt that Grim had been turning over the whole plan in his mind for hours past, but when I taxed him with it afterward his reply was characteristic:
“If we’d rehearsed it, Mabel and Hadad would both have been self-conscious. The game is to study your man--or woman, as the case may be--and sometimes drill ‘em, sometimes spring it on ‘em, according to circumstances. The only rule is to study people; there are no two quite alike.”
Hadad was surprised into silence, too thoughtful a man to do anything except hold his tongue until the next move should throw more light on the situation. He followed us out of the car, saying nothing; and being recognized by the light of one dim lantern as an intimate friend of Feisul, he accomplished all that Grim could have asked of him.
He was known to have been in Europe until recently. Rumours about Lawrence had been tossed from mouth to mouth for days past, and here was somebody who looked like Lawrence in the dark, followed by Grim and Hadad and addressed as “Colonel.” Why shouldn’t those three Shereefian officers jump to conclusions, salute like automatons and grin like loyal men who have surprised a secret and won’t tell anyone but their bosom friends? It was all over Damascus within the hour that Lawrence had come from England to stand by Feisul in the last ditch. The secret was kept perfectly!
We let Mabel walk ahead of us, and there was no trouble at the customs barrier, where normally every piastre that could be wrung from protesting passengers were mulcted to support a starving treasury; for the officers strode behind us, and trade signs to the customs clerk, who immediately swore at everyone in sight and sent all his minions to yell for the best cabs in Damascus.
Narayan Singh distributed largesse to about a hundred touts and hangers-on and we splashed off toward the hotel in two open landaus, through streets six inches deep in water except at the cross-gutters, where the horses jumped for fear of losing soundings. Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, were in flood as usual at that time of year, and the scavenging street curs had to swim from one garbage heap to the next. There was a gorgeous battle going on opposite the hotel door, where half a dozen white-ivoried mongrels with their backs to a heap of kitchen leavings held a ford against a dozen others, each beast that made good his passage joining with the defenders to fight off the rest. I stood on the hotel steps and watched the war for several minutes, while Grim went in with the others and registered as “Rupert Ramsden of Chicago, U.S.A., and party.”
The flood, and darkness owing to the lack of fuel, were all in our favour, for such folk as were abroad were hardly of the sort whose gossip would carry weight; nevertheless, we hadn’t been in the hotel twenty minutes before an agent of the bank put in his appearance, speaking French volubly. Seeing my name on the register, he made the mistake of confining his attention to me, which enabled Grim to get Mabel safely away into a big room on the second floor.
The Frenchman (if he was one--he had a Hebrew nose) made bold to corner me on a seat near the dining-room door. He was nervous rather than affable--a little pompous, as behooved the representative of money power--and evidently used to having his impertinences answered humbly.
“You are from the South? Did you have a good journey? Was the train attacked? Did you hear any interesting rumors on the way?”
Those were all preliminary questions, thrown out at random to break ice. As he sat down beside me you could feel the next one coming just as easily as see that he wasn’t interested in the answers to the first.
“You are here on business? What business?”
“Private business,” said I, with an eye on Jeremy just coming down the stairs. “You talk Arabic?”
He nodded, eyeing me keenly.
“That man is my servant and knows my affairs. I’m too tired to talk after the journey. Suppose you ask him.”
So Jeremy came and sat beside us, and threw the cow’s husband around as blithely as he juggles billiard balls. I wasn’t supposed to understand what he was saying.
“The big effendi is a prizefighter, who has heard there is money to be made at Feisul’s court. At least, that is what he says. Between you and me, I think he is a spy for the French Government, because when he engaged me in Jerusalem he gave me a fist-full of paper francs with which to send a telegram to Paris. What was in the telegram? I don’t know; it was a mass of figures, and I mixed them up on purpose, being an honest fellow averse to spy’s work. Oh, I’ve kept an eye on him, believe me! Ever since he killed a Syrian in the train I’ve had my doubts of him. Mashallah, what a murderous disposition the fellow has! Kill a man as soon as look at him--indeed he would. Are you a prince in these parts?”
“Bismillah! What a mercy that I met you! I overheard him say that he will visit the bank tomorrow morning to cash a draft for fifty thousand francs. I’d examine the draft carefully if I were you. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn it was stolen or forged. Is there any other bank that he could go to?”
“No, only mine; the others have suspended business on account of the crisis.”
“Then, in the name of Allah don’t forget me! You ought to give me a thousand francs for the information. I am a poor man, but honest. At what time shall I come for the money in the morning? Perhaps you could give me a little on account at once, for my wages are due tonight and I’m not at all certain of getting them.”
“Well, see me in the morning,” said the banker.
He got up and left us at once, hardly troubling to excuse himself; and Grim heard him tell the hotel proprietor that our whole party would be locked up in jail before midnight. That rumour went the rounds like wild-fire, so that we were given a wide berth and had a table all to ourselves in the darkest corner of the big dim dining-room.
There were more than a hundred people eating dinner, and Narayan Singh, Hadad and I were the only ones in western clothes. Every seat at the other tables was occupied by some Syrian dignitary in flowing robes-- rows and rows of stately looking notables, scant of speech and noisy at their food. Many of them seemed hardly to know the use of knife and fork, but they could all look as dignified as owls, even when crowding in spaghetti with their fingers.
We provided them with a sensation before the second course was finished. A fine-looking Syrian officer in khaki, with the usual cloth flap behind his helmet that forms a compromise between western smartness and eastern comfort, strode into the room and bore down on us. He invited us out into the corridor with an air that suggested we would better not refuse, and we filed out after him in an atmosphere of frigid disapproval.
Mabel was honestly scared half out of her wits now. Not even the smiles of the hotel proprietor in the doorway reassured her, nor his deep bow as she passed. She was even more scared, if that were possible, when two officers, obviously of high rank, came forward in the hall to greet her, and one addressed her in Arabic as Colonel Lawrence. Luckily one oil lamp per wall was doing duty in place of electric light, or there might have been an awkward incident. She had presence of mind enough to disguise her alarm by a fit of coughing, bending nearly double and covering the lower part of her face with the ends of the headdress folded over.
The officers had no time to waste and gave their message to Grim instead.
“The Emir Feisul is astonished, Jimgrim, that Colonel Lawrence and you should visit Damascus without claiming his hospitality. We have two autos waiting to take you to the palace.”
Well, the luggage didn’t amount to much; Narayan Singh brought that down in a jiffy; and when I went to settle with the hotel-keeper one of the Syrian officers interfered.
“These are guests of the Emir Feisul,” he announced. “Send the bill to me.”
We were piled into the waiting autos. Mabel, Grim and I rode in the first one, with the Syrian officers up beside the driver; Jeremy, Narayan Singh and Hadad followed; and we went through the dark streets like sea-monsters splashing over shoals, unseen I think--certainly unrecognized.
The streets were almost deserted and I didn’t catch sight of one armed man, which was a thing to marvel at when you consider that fifty thousand or so were supposed to be concentrated in the neighbourhood, with conscription working full-blast and the foreign consuls solely occupied in procuring exemption for their nationals.
It wasn’t my first visit to a reigning prince, for if you travel much in India you’re bound to come in contact with numbers of them; so I naturally formed a mental picture of what was in store for us, made up from a mixture of memories of Gwalior, Baroda, Bikanir, Hyderabad, Poona and Baghdad of the Arabian-Nights. It just as naturally vanished in presence of the quiet, latter-day dignity of the real thing.
The palace turned out to be a villa on the outskirts of the city, no bigger and hardly more pretentious than a well-to-do commuter’s place at Bronxville or Mount Vernon. There was a short semi-circular drive in front, with one sentry and one small lantern burning at each gate; but their khaki uniforms and puttees didn’t disguise the fact that the sentries were dark, dyed-in-wool Arabs from the desert country, and though they presented arms, they did it as men who make concessions without pretending to admire such foolishness. I wouldn’t have given ten cents for an unescorted stranger’s chance of getting by them, whatever his nationality.
Surely there was never less formality in a king’s house since the world began. We were ushered straight into a narrow, rather ordinary hall, and through that into a sitting-room about twenty feet square. The light was from oil lamps hanging by brass chains from the curved beams; but the only other Oriental suggestions were the cushioned seats in each corner, small octagonal tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and a mighty good Persian carpet.
Narayan Singh and Jeremy, supposedly being servants, offered to stay in the hall, but were told that Feisul wouldn’t approve of that.
“Whatever they shouldn’t hear can be said in another room,” was the explanation.
So we all sat down together on one of the corner seats, and were kept waiting about sixty seconds until Feisul entered by a door in the far corner. And when he came he took your breath away.
It always prejudices me against a man to be told that he is dignified and stately. Those adjectives smack of too much self-esteem and of a claim to be made of different clay from most of us. He was both, yet he wasn’t either. And he didn’t look like a priest, although if ever integrity and righteousness shone from a man, with their effect heightened by the severely simple Arab robes, I swear that man was he.
Just about Jeremy’s height and build--rather tall and thin that is--with a slight stoop forward from the shoulders due to thoughtfulness and camel-riding and a genuine intention not to hold his head too high, he looked like a shepherd in a Bible picture, only with good humour added, that brought him forward out of a world of dreams on to the same plane with you, face to face--understanding meeting understanding--man to man.
I wish I could describe his smile as he entered, believing he was coming to meet Lawrence, but it can’t be done. Maybe you can imagine it if you bear in mind that this man was captain of a cause as good as lost, hedged about by treason and well aware of it; and that Colonel Lawrence was the one man in the world who had proved himself capable of bridging the division between East and West and making possible the Arab dream of independence.
But unhappily it’s easier to record unpleasant things. He knew at the first glance--even before she drew back the kuffiyi--that Mabel wasn’t Lawrence, and I’ve never seen a man more disappointed in all my wanderings. The smile didn’t vanish; he had too much pluck and self-control for that; but you might say that iron entered into it, as if for a second he was mocking destiny, willing to face all odds alone since he couldn’t have his friend.
And he threw off disappointment like a man--dismissed it as a rock sheds water, coming forward briskly to shake hands with Grim and bowing as Grim introduced us.
“At least here are two good friends,” he said in Arabic, sitting down between Grim and Hadad. “Tell me what this means, and why you deceived us about Lawrence.”
“We’ve something to show you,” Grim answered. “Mrs. Ticknor brought it; otherwise it might have been seen by the wrong people.”