Affair in Araby
“You’ll be a virgin Victim!”
Feisul was interested; he couldn’t help being. And he was utterly convinced of Grim’s sincerity. But he wasn’t moved from his purpose, and not even Jeremy’s account of the gold-mine, or my professional opinion of its value, had the least effect toward cancelling the plans he had in mind. He was deeply affected by the offer, but that was all.
“Good heavens, man!” Grim exploded suddenly. “Surely you won’t throw the whole world into war again! You know what it will mean if the French kill or imprison you. There isn’t a Moslem of all the millions in Asia who won’t swear vengeance against the West--you know that! A direct descendant of Mohammed, and the first outstanding, conquering Moslem since Saladin--”
“The Allies should have thought of that before they broke promises,” said Feisul.
“Never mind them. Damn them!” answered Grim. “It’s up to you! The future of civilization is in your lap this minute! Can’t you see that if you lose you’ll be a martyr, and Islam will rise to avenge you?”
“Inshallah,” said Feisul, nodding.
“But that if you let pride go by the board, and seem to run away, there’ll be a breathing spell? Asia would wonder for a few months, and do nothing, until it began to dawn on them that you had acted wisely and had a better plan in view.”
“I am not proud, except of my nation,” Feisul answered. “I would not let pride interfere with policy. But it is too late to talk of this.”
“Which is better?” Grin demanded. “A martyr, the very mention of whose name means war, or a living power for peace under a temporary cloud?”
“I am afraid I am a poor host. Forgive me,” Feisul answered. “Dinner has been waiting all this while, and you have a lady with you. This is disgraceful.”
He rose and led the way into another room, closing the discussion. We ate an ordinary meal in an ordinary dining room, Feisul presiding and talking trivialities with Mabel and Hadad. There was an occasional boisterous interlude by Jeremy, but even he with his tales of unknown Arabia couldn’t lift the load of depression. Grim and I sat silent through the meal. I experienced the sensation that you get when an expedition proves a failure and you’ve got to go home again with nothing done--all dreary emptiness; but Grim was hatching something, as you could tell by the far-away expression and the glowering light in his eyes. He looked about ready for murder.
Narayan Singh’s face all through the meal was a picture--delight and pride at dining with a king, amazement at his karma that had brought a sepoy of the line to hear such confidences first hand, chagrin over Grim’s apparent failure and desire to be inconspicuous controlled his expression in turn. Once or twice he tried to make conversation with me, but I was in no mood for it, being a grouchy old bear on occasion without decent manners.
Feisul excused himself the minute the meal was over, saying he had a conference to attend, and we all went back into the sitting-room, where Grim took the chair he occupied before and marshalled us into a row on the seat in front of him. He was back again in form--electric--and self-controlled.
“Have you folk got the hang of this?” he asked. “Do you realize what it means if Feisul goes out and gets scuppered?”
We thought we did, even if we didn’t. I don’t suppose anyone except the few who, like Grim, have made a life-study of the problem of Islam in all its bearings could quite have grasped it. Mabel had a viewpoint that served Grim’s purpose as well as any at the moment.
“That man’s too good, and much too good-looking to be wasted!” she said emphatically. “D’you suppose that if Colonel Lawrence were really here--”
“Half a minute,” said Grim, “and I’ll come to that. How about you, Hadad? How far would you go to save Feisul from this Waterloo?”
“I would go a long way,” he answered cautiously. “What do you intend?”
“To appear near the firing-line, for one thing, with somebody who looks like Colonel Lawrence, and somebody else who looks enough like Feisul in one of Feisul’s cars, and give the French a run for it in one direction while Feisul escapes in the other.”
“Wallahi! But what if Feisul won’t go?”
“He’ll get helped! Did you ever hear what they did to Napoleon at Waterloo? Seized his bridle and galloped away with him.”
“You mean I’m to act Lawrence again?” asked Mabel, looking deathly white.
“Who’s cast for Feisul?” Jeremy inquired.
“You are. You’re the only trained stage-actor in the bunch. You’re his height--not unlike his figure--”
“I resemble him as much as a kangaroo looks like an ostrich!” laughed Jeremy. “You’re talking wild, Jim. What have you had to drink?”
“How about you, Ramsden? Will you see this through?”
Jeremy shook his head at me. I believe he thought for the moment that Grim had gone mad. He hadn’t the experience of Grim that I had, and consequently not the same confidence in Grim’s ability to dream, catch the essence of the dream, pin it down and make a fact of it.
“I’ll go the limit,” said I.
“Well, I’ll be damned” laughed Jeremy. “All right; same here. I stake a gold-mine and Rammy raises me. Fetch your crown and sceptre and I’ll play king to Jim’s ace in a royal straight flush. Mabel’s queen. Hadad’s a knave. He looks it! Keep smiling, Hadad, old top, and I’ll let you forgive me. Rammy’s the ten-spot--tentative--tenacious--ten aces up his sleeve--and packs a ten-ton wallop when you get him going. What’s Narayan Singh? The deuce?”
“The joker,” answered Grim. “Are you in on this?”
“Sahib, there was no need to ask. What your honor finds good enough-- your honor’s order--”
“Orders have nothing to do with it. We’re not in British territory. This in unofficial. I’ve no right to give you orders,” said Grim. “You’re free to refuse. I’m likely to lose my job over this and so are you if you take part in it.”
Narayan Singh grinned hugely.
“Hah! A sepoy’s position is a smaller stake than a major’s commission or a gold-mine, but I likewise have a life to lose, and I play too!”
Grim nodded curtly. It was no time for returning compliments.
“How about you, Mabel? We can manage this without you, and you’ve a husband to think of--”
“If he were here he’d hate it, but he’d give permission.”
“All right. Now, Hadad. What about it?”
“Am I to obey you absolutely, not knowing what the--”
Grim interrupted him:
“The proposal’s fair. Either you withdraw now and hold your tongue, or come in with us. If you’re in I’ll tell the details; if not, there’s no need.”
“Wallahi! What a sword-blade you are, Jimgrim! If I say ‘yes,’ I risk my future on your backgammon board; if I say ‘no,’ my life is worth a millieme, for you will tell that Sikh you call the ‘joker’ to attend to me!”
“Not so,” Grim answered. “If you don’t like the plan, I’ll trust you to fall out and keep the secret.”
“Oh, in that case,” answered Hadad, hesitating. “Since you put it that way ... well, it is lose all or perhaps win something--half-measures are no good--the alternative is ruin of the Arab cause--it is a forlorn hope--well, one throw of the dice, eh?--and all our fortunes on the table!--one little mistake and helas--finish! Never mind. Yes, I will play too. I will play this to the end with you.”
“So we’re all set,” remarked Grim with a sigh of relief. Instantly he threw his shoulders back and began to set his pieces for the game. And you know, there’s a world of difference between the captain of a side who doesn’t worry until the game begins and Grim’s sort, who do their worrying beforehand and then play, and make the whole side play for every ounce that’s in them.
“Mabel, you’re Lawrence. Keep silent, be shy, avoid encounters--act like a man who’s not supposed to be here, but who came to help Feisul contrary to express commands laid on him by the Foreign Office. Get that? Lawrence is a shy man, anyway--hates publicity, rank, anything that calls attention to himself. The more shy you are, the easier you’ll get away with it. Feisul must help pretend you’re Lawrence. The presence of Lawrence would add to his prestige incalculably, and I think he’ll see that, but if not, never mind, we’ll manage. Any questions? Quick!”
You can’t ask questions when you’re given that sort of opportunity. The right ones don’t occur to you and the others seem absurd. Grim knew that, of course, but when you’re dealing with a woman there’s just one chance in a hundred that she may think of something vital that hasn’t occurred to anybody else. Most women aren’t practical; but it’s the impractical things that happen.
“Suppose we’re captured by the French?” she suggested. “That’s what’s going to happen,” he answered. “When they’ve got you, then you’re Mrs. Mabel Ticknor, who never saw Lawrence and wouldn’t recognize him if you did.”
“They’ll ask why I’m wearing man’s clothes, and masquerading as an Arab.”
“Well, you’re a woman, aren’t you? You answer with another question-- ask them just how safe a woman would be! They may claim that their Algerians are baby-lambs, but they can’t blame you for not believing it! Anything else?”
She shook her head, and he turned on Hadad.
“Hadad, lose no opportunity of whispering that Lawrence is with Feisul. Add that Lawrence doesn’t want his presence known. Hunt out two or three loyal Arabs on the staff and tell them the plan is to kidnap Feisul and carry him to safety across the border; but don’t do it too soon; wait until the debacle begins, and then persuade a few of them-- old Ali, for instance, and Osman--choose the old guard--you and they bolt with him to Haifa. The Syrians have been thoroughly undermined by propaganda; gas will do the rest, and as soon as the Arabs see the Syrians run they’ll listen to reason. They know you, and know you’re on the level. Do you understand? Will you do that?”
“I will try. I see many a chance of spilling before this cup comes to the drinking, Jimgrim!”
“Then carry it carefully!” Grim answered. “Ramsden, take that car you came in. Find that banker. He’s the boy who has bought Feisul’s staff, or I’m much mistaken. Bring him here.” “Suppose he won’t come?”
“Bring him. Take Jeremy with you. Try diplomacy first. Tell him that a plot to kidnap Feisul has been discovered at the last minute, but give him to understand that no suspicion rests on him. Get him, if you can, to send a message to the French General Staff, warning them to watch for Feisul and two civilians and Lawrence in an auto. After that bring him if you have to put him in a sack.”
“What’s his name, and where does he live?”
“Adolphe Rene. Everybody knows his house. Jeremy, look as unlike Feisul as you can until the time comes, but study the part and be ready to jump into his clothes. Narayan Singh, stay with me. You and I will do the dirty work. Get busy, Ramsden.”
Circumstances work clock-fashion, wheel fitting into wheel, when those tides that Shakespeare spoke of are at flood. Disregarding all the theory and argument about human will as opposed to cosmic law I say this, without any care at all who contradicts me:
That whoever is near the hub of happenings is the agent of Universal Law, and can no more help himself than can the watch that tells the hour. The men who believe that they make history should really make a thoughtful fellow laugh. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on”; the old tentmaker Omar knew the truth of it. You could almost hear the balance-wheel of Progress click as the door opened before Grim had finished speaking, and a staff officer appeared to invite him to be present at Feisul’s conference.
Grim asked at once for the auto for me (I couldn’t have had it otherwise), and a moment later Jeremy and I were scooting into darkness through narrow streets and driving rain, with the hubs of the wheels awash in places and “shipping it green” over the floor when we dipped and pitched over a cross-street gutter. The Arab driver knew the way, from which I take it he had a compass in his head as well as a charm against accidents and a spirit of recklessness that put faith in worn-out springs. There wasn’t room for more than one set of wheels at a time in most of the streets we tore through, but a camel tried to share one fairway with us and had the worst of it; he cannoned off into an alley ‘himd end first, and we could hear him bellowing with rage a block away.
And our manner of stopping was like our progress, prompt. The brake- bands went on with a shriek and Jeremy and I pitched forward as the car brought up against the kerb in front of an enormous door, whose brass knocker shone like gold in the rays of our headlights. We told the Arab to wait for us and stepped knee-deep into a pool invisible, stumbled and nearly fell over a great stone set to bridge the flood between street and door, then proceeded to use the knocker importunately, thunderously, angrily, as men with wet feet and bruised toes likely will, whatever the custom of the country.
We went on knocking, taking turns, until the door opened at last and the banker’s servant peered at us with a candle in his hand, demanding to know in the name of the thousand and one devils whom Solomon boiled in oil what impudent scavengers were making all that noise. But the banker himself was in the background, thinking perhaps that the French had come already, on the lookout over the servant’s shoulder for a glimpse of a kepi. So we put our shoulders to the door, thrust by the servant, and walked in.
“Take care! I have a pistol in my hand!” said the banker’s voice.
“Three shots for a shilling at me then!” retorted Jeremy.
“Who are you?”
“Tell that shivering fool to bring the candle, and you’ll see!”
“Oh, you, is it! I told you to come in the morning. I can’t see you now.”
“Can’t see me, eh? Come in here and peel your eyes, cocky! Sit down and look at us. There, take a pew. Wonder where I learned such good English? Well, I used to shine the toenails of the Prince o’ Wales, and you have to pass a Civil Service examination before they give you that good job. I talk any language except French and Jewish, but this master of mine turns out to be a Jew who talks French, and not a prizefighter after all.
“What did I tell you this evening? Said he was a spy for the French, didn’t I? I tell you, I’m a dependable man. What I say you can bet on till you’ve lost all your money. Here he is, spying to beat the promised-landers--just had tea with Feisul and learned all the inside facts--offered me a pound to come and find you, but I charged him two and got the money in advance.
“You ought to pay me a commission, too, and then I’ll get married if there’s an honest woman left in Damascus. If either of you want my advice, you won’t believe a word the other says, but I expect you’re both too wilful to be guided. Anyhow, you’ll have to talk in front of me, because my master is afraid of being murdered; he isn’t afraid of ghosts or bad smells, but the sight of a long knife turns his heart to water and sets him to praying so loud that you can’t get a word in edgewise. Go on, both of you--yalla! Talk!”
Does it begin to be obvious why kings used to employ court jesters? The modern cabinets should have them--men like Jeremy (though they’d be hard to find) to break the crust of situations. Suspicion weakens in the presence of incongruity.
“This fellow seems less than half-witted,” I said, “but he’s shrewd, and I’ve found him useful. Unfortunately he has picked up a lot of information, so we’ll have to keep an eye on him. My business is to communicate with the French General Staff and I’m told you know how to manage it.”
“Huh-huh? Who told you that?”
“Those who gave me my instructions. If you don’t know who they are without my telling you, you’re the wrong man and I’ll not waste time with you.”
“Let us suppose that I know then. Proceed.”
“Your name was given to me as that of a man who can be trusted to take necessary action in the interests of ... er ... you understand?”
“The plot for Feisul to be kidnapped by some Syrian members of his staff has been discovered at the last minute,” I said, looking hard at him; and he winced palpably.
“Mon Dieu! You mean--”
“That it is not too late to save the situation. You have not been accused of connection with it. I came here in pursuance of a different plan to kidnap him--a sort of reserve plan, to be employed in case other means should fail. All arrangements are in working order except the one item of communicating with the French General Staff. I require you to accompany me for that purpose, and to send off to them immediately a message at my dictation.”
“Tschaa! Suppose you show me your authority?”
“Certainly!” I answered.
Realizing that he wasn’t in immediate danger of life he had returned his own pistol to his pocket. So I showed him the muzzle of mine, and he divined without a sermon on the subject that it would go off and shoot accurately unless he showed discretion. He didn’t offer to move when Jeremy’s agile fingers found his pocket and flicked out the mother-of- pearl-handled, rim-fire thing with which he had previously kept his courage warm.
“I was told not to trust you too far,” I explained. “I was warned in advance that you might question my credentials. You are said to be jealous of interference. As a precaution against miscarriage of this plan through jealousy on your part, I was ordered to oblige you to obey me.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Your widow will then be the individual most concerned. Be good enough to take pen and paper, and write a letter to my dictation.”
Jeremy went to the door, which was partly open, made sure that the servant was out of earshot, and slammed it tight. Rene the banker went to his escritoire, took paper, and shook his fountain pen.
“How shall I commence the letter?” he asked me with a dry, sly smile.
He thought he had me there. There are doubtless proper forms of address that serve to establish the genuineness of letters written by a spy.