Affair in Araby
“Catch the Alfies napping and kick hell out of ‘em!”
You’re no doubt familiar with the fact that the accounts given by two men who have witnessed a battle from the same angle will differ widely, not only in minor detail but in fundamentals; so you won’t look to me for confirmation of any one of the countless stories that have seen the light of print, pretending to explain how the French won Damascus so easily and unexpectedly. I was only on the inside, looking outward as it were; the fellows on the outside, looking in, would naturally give a different explanation.
Then you must bear in mind that this is a day of “official” accounts that would make a limping dog of Ananias. When the General Staff of an invading army controls all the wires and all lines of communication you may believe what they choose to tell you, if you wish. But you don’t have to, as they say in Maine. And I admit that all I saw was from a curtained auto as we swayed and bumped over broken roads, with an occasional interlude when Jeremy and I got out to lend our shoulders and help the Arab driver heave the car out of a slough.
My clearest memory is of that Arab--silent, stolid, staring like an owl straight forward most of the time--but a perfect marvel in emergencies, when he would suddenly spring to life, swear a living streak of brimstone blasphemy in high falsetto, and perform a driver’s miracle.
By two hours after midnight we were running on four flat tires; and I’ve got the name of the maker of those wheels for future reference and use. One spring broke, but we went forward sailor-fashion, with a jury- rig of chain and rope, after getting more gas from some Christian monks, who swore they hadn’t any and wept when one of Feisul’s officers demonstrated that they had. You couldn’t see any monastery; I don’t even know that there was one--nothing but lean faces with tonsured tops that nodded in unison and lied fearfully.
The gunfire began to be heavy about that time, although nothing like the thousand-throated bedlam of Flanders. As neither side could see the other and neither had any ranges marked, my guess is that the French were advertising their advance--doing a little propaganda that was cheap for all concerned except the tax-payers. And the Syrian army was shooting back crazily, sending over long shots on the off chance, more to encourage themselves than for any other reason.
The sensation was rather like riding in an ambulance away from the battle instead of toward it, for you couldn’t see anything and you had a sense of helpless detachment from it all, as if a power you couldn’t control were carrying you away from a familiar destiny to one that you couldn’t imagine. It wasn’t so much like a dream as like a different, real existence that you couldn’t understand because it bore no kind of relation to anything in the past.
Anyhow, we bumped and blundered on until dawn came, streaked with wonderful rolling mist, and gave a glimpse at intervals of a wide plain sloping toward the west, with long lines of infantry and here and there guns extended across it in parallels drawn north and south.
The rifle firing started ten minutes after dawn, and it was all over in less than half an hour; but I can’t describe exactly how the finish came, because the wind was toward us and the morning mist blew along in blanketing white masses that only allowed you a momentary glimpse and then shut off the view.
We were about a mile behind the firing-line and I couldn’t see Feisul’s car or any of the others. For the moment there was just one clear line of vision, straight from where I sat to the nearest infantry. I could see about fifty yards of the line and perhaps that many men; and they were blazing away furiously over a low earthwork, although I couldn’t see a sign of the French. There was hardly any artillery firing at that time.
Suddenly without any obvious reason the men whose backs I was watching broke and ran. The mist obscured them instantly and the line of vision shifted, so that bit by bit I saw I dare say a mile of the firing line. The whole lot were running for their lives and, look where I would, there wasn’t a sign of a Frenchman anywhere.
I should say it took about ten minutes for the first of them to reach the dirt road, where our autos stood hub-deep in mud, and by that time we had shoved and pulley-hauled them into movement, our engines making as much row as a nest of machine-guns as they struggled against the strain. We didn’t want to be swamped under that tide of fugitives.
But they took no notice of us. They had thrown away their weapons and were running for home with eyes distended and nothing in mind but to put distance between there and the enemy. I jumped out of the car and seized one man.
“What are you running from? What has happened?” I demanded, holding him harder the more he struggled.
“Poison gas!” he gasped, and I let him go.
I thought I caught a whiff of the darned stuff then, but that may have been imagination.
“Poison gas!” I said, returning to the car, and Rene made a fine exhibition of himself, smothering his head under the foxlined overcoat and screaming.
He got right down on the floor of the car and lay there huddled and gasping--which may have been a sensible precaution; I don’t know. There was no time just then to bother with him.
The flukey morning breeze shifted several points. The mist curled suddenly and began to flow diagonally across our line of cars instead of toward us, and from one moment to the next you could see straight along the road for maybe a mile or more. There was a sight worth seeing-- Feisul’s cavalry in full rout--running away from ghosts by the look of it--their formation hardly yet broken, horse and man racing with the wind and a scattering of unhorsed fugitives streaming behind like a comet’s tail.
According to Grim, who should know, that cavalry division was the kingpin of Feisul’s plan. He had intended to lead a raid in person, swooping down the French flank to their rear; but the three staff traitors, Daulch, Hattin and Aubck, sent forward the previous evening to place the division and hold it ready, had simply tipped the French off to the whole plan and at the critical moment of Feisul’s arrival on the scene had ordered the sauve-qui-peut. I don’t believe the French used more than a can or two of gas. I don’t believe they had more than a few cans of it so far advanced.
But the sauve-qui-peut might have been useless without Feisul’s capture, for he was just the man to rally a routed army and snatch victory out of a defeat. Nobody knew better than Feisul the weakness of the French communications, and the work of those three traitors was only half done when the cavalry took to its heels. The one man who could possibly save the day had to be bagged and handed over.
I didn’t realize all that, of course, in the twinkling of an eye, as they say you do in a climax. Maybe I’ve never faced a climax. I’m no psychologist and not at all given to review of sudden situations in the abstract.
There was a fight, or a riot, or something like it going on near the head of our line of autos. The first two or three had come to a standstill; several in the middle of the line were trying to wheel outward and bolt for it behind the fleeing cavalry, and those at the tail end were blocked by one that had broken down. Of course everybody was yelling at the top of his lungs and the hurrying shreds of blown mist further confounded the confusion.
So Jeremy and I ran forward, plunging through the mud and knocking over whoever blocked our way. It was rather fun--like the football field at school. But one man--a Syrian officer--stood near the last of the forward cars with the evident purpose of standing off interference. He took careful aim at me with a revolver, fired point-blank, and missed.
I forgot all about my own pistol and went for him with a laugh and a yell of sheer exhilaration. There’s an eighth of a ton of me, mostly bone and muscle, so it isn’t a sinecure to have to stop my fist when the rest of the bulk is under way behind it. I landed so hard on his nose, and with such tremendous impetus, that he hadn’t enough initial stability to take the impact and bring me up on my feet. He went down like a ninepin, I on top of him, laughing with mud in my teeth, and Jeremy landed on top of the two of us, holding the skirts of his cloak in both hands as he jumped.
Jeremy picked up the fellow’s revolver and threw it out of sight, and the two of us ran on again--too late by now to help in the emergency, but in time for the next event.
Grim had managed everything, although he was bleeding, and smiling serenely through the blood. Hadad was there, not smiling at all, but bleached white with excitement; he had brought a number of Arab officers with him, six or seven of whom were standing on the running- board of the front car and all arguing with Feisul, who sat back with his feet and hands tied, guarded by Narayan Singh.
At Grim’s feet--dead, with bullets through their heads--were three Syrian staff officers. They were the traitors Daulch, Hattin and Aubek. Grim’s pistol was in his right hand and had been used.
There had been a first-class fight, all over in two minutes; for the traitors hadn’t arrived on the scene without assistants. Unfortunately for them, Hadad had turned up at the same moment with his loyalists. Narayan Singh had jumped from the car behind and seized Feisul, thrown him to the floor out of the path of bullets, and tied his arms. It was actually Mabel, hardly realizing what she was doing but obeying the Sikh’s orders yelled in her ear as he struggled to keep his wiry prisoner down, who tied the king’s feet, using her Arab girdle.
Feisul, of course, was all for dying at the head of a remnant of his men. That would be the first impulse of any decent leader in like circumstance. But his loyal friends, eager to die with him if they must, but unwilling to die at all if there were an alternative, were overwhelming him with streams of words and promises. Suddenly two of them jumped into the car and began to untie his arms and feet. Grim, looking swiftly to right and left, saw Jeremy and pounced on him so fiercely that an onlooker might have guessed another fight to the death was under way. Too excited to say what he had in mind, he tugged at Jeremy’s clothes.
“I get you, Jim--I get you!” Jeremy laughed gaily, and in ten seconds had stripped himself down to his underwear.
Hadad must have been discussing details of the plan with Grim along the road; for he got busy at the same time, persuading Feisul to part with his garments--not that his consent really mattered at the moment; they were pulled off him by half a dozen hands at once, and Jeremy had the best of that bargain all right, for in addition to silk headdress and a fine black Arab full-dress coat, there was linen of a sort you can’t buy--better stuff than bishops wear and clean, which Jeremy’s own wasn’t.
The time it takes to read this gives a totally false impression of the speed. The whole thing took place, I should say, within two minutes from the time when I punched that Syrian’s nose until Mabel and Narayan Singh stood beside me watching Hadad, two more Arabs and Feisul drive away, with a second car crowded full of loyalists in close attendance.
By that time Jeremy was dressed in Feisul’s clothes; and though he didn’t look a bit like Feisul from a yard away, in the mist at ten yards, provided you were looking for Feisul, you’d have taken your Bible oath he was the man; for he had the gesture and mannerism copied to perfection.
However, standing there wasn’t going to increase the real Feisul’s chance of escaping. The sooner we got caught, the quicker the French would discover that our man had given them the slip. Our business was to give the French a long chase in the wrong direction, and those bogged autos weren’t ideal for the purpose.
But they were the only means in sight just then, and we had to bear in mind that message I had made Rene send, warning the French to look out for an auto with a white flag and two civilians together with Feisul and Lawrence. So we picked out the two best that remained, pitched Rene and his basket of provisions into the front one with Mabel and Jeremy, piled Narayan Singh in after them to take my place as the second civilian, and started them off straight forward, Grim and I following in a second car after I had paid our former Arab driver handsomely and sent him off grinning to give a lift to as many runaways as the car would hold.
We learned afterward that the rascal made a fortune, charging as much as fifty pounds sterling for the trip halfway back to Damascus, at which point the car collapsed. They say he carried eleven officers that far, bought two wives with the proceeds and escaped all the way to a village near Mecca, where his home was.
You know how bewildering and tricky those early mists are when they start to roll up before the wind. We had hardly got going when the whole mass seemed to shift in one great cloud, covering the fleeing troops and incidentally Feisul, but leaving us in our two autos high and dry, as it were, in full view of the French. And they were advancing by that time.