An Embarrassed Toilet
I was soaked to the bone, and while Peter set off to look for dinner I went to my room to change. I had a rubdown and then got into pyjamas for some dumb-bell exercises with two chairs, for that long wet ride had stiffened my arm and shoulder muscles. They were a vulgar suit of primitive blue, which Blenkiron had looted from my London wardrobe. As Cornelis Brandt I had sported a flannel nightgown.
My bedroom opened off the sitting-room, and while I was busy with my gymnastics I heard the door open. I thought at first it was Blenkiron, but the briskness of the tread was unlike his measured gait. I had left the light burning there, and the visitor, whoever he was, had made himself at home. I slipped on a green dressing-gown Blenkiron had lent me, and sallied forth to investigate.
My friend Rasta was standing by the table, on which he had laid an envelope. He looked round at my entrance and saluted.
'I come from the Minister of War, sir,' he said, 'and bring you your passports for tomorrow. You will travel by ...' And then his voice tailed away and his black eyes narrowed to slits. He had seen something which switched him off the metals.
At that moment I saw it too. There was a mirror on the wall behind him, and as I faced him I could not help seeing my reflection. It was the exact image of the engineer on the Danube boat—blue jeans, loden cloak, and all. The accursed mischance of my costume had given him the clue to an identity which was otherwise buried deep in the Bosporus.
I am bound to say for Rasta that he was a man of quick action. In a trice he had whipped round to the other side of the table between me and the door, where he stood regarding me wickedly.
By this time I was at the table and stretched out a hand for the envelope. My one hope was nonchalance.
'Sit down, sir,' I said, 'and have a drink. It's a filthy night to move about in.'
'Thank you, no, Herr Brandt,' he said. 'You may burn these passports for they will not be used.'
'Whatever's the matter with you?' I cried. 'You've mistaken the house, my lad. I'm called Hanau—Richard Hanau—and my partner's Mr John S. Blenkiron. He'll be here presently. Never knew anyone of the name of Brandt, barring a tobacconist in Denver City.'
'You have never been to Rustchuk?' he said with a sneer.
'Not that I know of. But, pardon me, Sir, if I ask your name and your business here. I'm darned if I'm accustomed to be called by Dutch names or have my word doubted. In my country we consider that impolite as between gentlemen.'
I could see that my bluff was having its effect. His stare began to waver, and when he next spoke it was in a more civil tone.
'I will ask pardon if I'm mistaken, Sir, but you're the image of a man who a week ago was at Rustchuk, a man much wanted by the Imperial Government.'
'A week ago I was tossing in a dirty little hooker coming from Constanza. Unless Rustchuk's in the middle of the Black Sea I've never visited the township. I guess you're barking up the wrong tree. Come to think of it, I was expecting passports. Say, do you come from Enver Damad?'
'I have that honour,' he said.
'Well, Enver is a very good friend of mine. He's the brightest citizen I've struck this side of the Atlantic.'
The man was calming down, and in another minute his suspicions would have gone. But at that moment, by the crookedest kind of luck, Peter entered with a tray of dishes. He did not notice Rasta, and walked straight to the table and plumped down his burden on it. The Turk had stepped aside at his entrance, and I saw by the look in his eyes that his suspicions had become a certainty. For Peter, stripped to shirt and breeches, was the identical shabby little companion of the Rustchuk meeting.
I had never doubted Rasta's pluck. He jumped for the door and had a pistol out in a trice pointing at my head.
'Bonne fortune,' he cried. 'Both the birds at one shot.' His hand was on the latch, and his mouth was open to cry. I guessed there was an orderly waiting on the stairs.
He had what you call the strategic advantage, for he was at the door while I was at the other end of the table and Peter at the side of it at least two yards from him. The road was clear before him, and neither of us was armed. I made a despairing step forward, not knowing what I meant to do, for I saw no light. But Peter was before me.
He had never let go of the tray, and now, as a boy skims a stone on a pond, he skimmed it with its contents at Rasta's head. The man was opening the door with one hand while he kept me covered with the other, and he got the contrivance fairly in the face. A pistol shot cracked out, and the bullet went through the tray, but the noise was drowned in the crash of glasses and crockery. The next second Peter had wrenched the pistol from Rasta's hand and had gripped his throat.
A dandified Young Turk, brought up in Paris and finished in Berlin, may be as brave as a lion, but he cannot stand in a rough-and-tumble against a backveld hunter, though more than double his age. There was no need for me to help him. Peter had his own way, learned in a wild school, of knocking the sense out of a foe. He gagged him scientifically, and trussed him up with his own belt and two straps from a trunk in my bedroom.
'This man is too dangerous to let go,' he said, as if his procedure were the most ordinary thing in the world. 'He will be quiet now till we have time to make a plan.'
At that moment there came a knocking at the door. That is the sort of thing that happens in melodrama, just when the villain has finished off his job neatly. The correct thing to do is to pale to the teeth, and with a rolling, conscience-stricken eye glare round the horizon. But that was not Peter's way.
'We'd better tidy up if we're to have visitors,' he said calmly.
Now there was one of those big oak German cupboards against the wall which must have been brought in in sections, for complete it would never have got through the door. It was empty now, but for Blenkiron's hatbox. In it he deposited the unconscious Rasta, and turned the key. 'There's enough ventilation through the top,' he observed, 'to keep the air good.' Then he opened the door. A magnificent kavass in blue and silver stood outside. He saluted and proffered a card on which was written in pencil, 'Hilda von Einem'.
I would have begged for time to change my clothes, but the lady was behind him. I saw the black mantilla and the rich sable furs. Peter vanished through my bedroom and I was left to receive my guest in a room littered with broken glass and a senseless man in the cupboard.
There are some situations so crazily extravagant that they key up the spirit to meet them. I was almost laughing when that stately lady stepped over my threshold.
'Madam,' I said, with a bow that shamed my old dressing-gown and strident pyjamas. 'You find me at a disadvantage. I came home soaking from my ride, and was in the act of changing. My servant has just upset a tray of crockery, and I fear this room's no fit place for a lady. Allow me three minutes to make myself presentable.'
She inclined her head gravely and took a seat by the fire. I went into my bedroom, and as I expected found Peter lurking by the other door. In a hectic sentence I bade him get Rasta's orderly out of the place on any pretext, and tell him his master would return later. Then I hurried into decent garments, and came out to find my visitor in a brown study.
At the sound of my entrance she started from her dream and stood up on the hearthrug, slipping the long robe of fur from her slim body.
'We are alone?' she said. 'We will not be disturbed?'
Then an inspiration came to me. I remembered that Frau von Einem, according to Blenkiron, did not see eye to eye with the Young Turks; and I had a queer instinct that Rasta could not be to her liking. So I spoke the truth.
'I must tell you that there's another guest here tonight. I reckon he's feeling pretty uncomfortable. At present he's trussed up on a shelf in that cupboard.'
She did not trouble to look round.
'Is he dead?' she asked calmly.
'By no means,' I said, 'but he's fixed so he can't speak, and I guess he can't hear much.'
'He was the man who brought you this?' she asked, pointing to the envelope on the table which bore the big blue stamp of the Ministry of War.
'The same,' I said. 'I'm not perfectly sure of his name, but I think they call him Rasta.'
Not a flicker of a smile crossed her face, but I had a feeling that the news pleased her.
'Did he thwart you?' she asked.
'Why, yes. He thwarted me some. His head is a bit swelled, and an hour or two on the shelf will do him good.'
'He is a powerful man,' she said, 'a jackal of Enver's. You have made a dangerous enemy.'
'I don't value him at two cents,' said I, though I thought grimly that as far as I could see the value of him was likely to be about the price of my neck.
'Perhaps you are right,' she said with serious eyes. 'In these days no enemy is dangerous to a bold man. I have come tonight, Mr Hanau, to talk business with you, as they say in your country. I have heard well of you, and today I have seen you. I may have need of you, and you assuredly will have need of me. ...'
She broke off, and again her strange potent eyes fell on my face. They were like a burning searchlight which showed up every cranny and crack of the soul. I felt it was going to be horribly difficult to act a part under that compelling gaze. She could not mesmerize me, but she could strip me of my fancy dress and set me naked in the masquerade.
'What came you forth to seek?' she asked. 'You are not like the stout American Blenkiron, a lover of shoddy power and a devotee of a feeble science. There is something more than that in your face. You are on our side, but you are not of the Germans with their hankerings for a rococo Empire. You come from America, the land of pious follies, where men worship gold and words. I ask, what came you forth to seek?'
As she spoke I seemed to get a vision of a figure, like one of the old gods looking down on human nature from a great height, a figure disdainful and passionless, but with its own magnificence. It kindled my imagination, and I answered with the stuff I had often cogitated when I had tried to explain to myself just how a case could be made out against the Allied cause.
'I will tell you, Madam,' I said. 'I am a man who has followed a science, but I have followed it in wild places, and I have gone through it and come out at the other side. The world, as I see it, had become too easy and cushioned. Men had forgotten their manhood in soft speech, and imagined that the rules of their smug civilization were the laws of the universe. But that is not the teaching of science, and it is not the teaching of life. We have forgotten the greater virtues, and we were becoming emasculated humbugs whose gods were our own weaknesses. Then came war, and the air was cleared. Germany, in spite of her blunders and her grossness, stood forth as the scourge of cant. She had the courage to cut through the bonds of humbug and to laugh at the fetishes of the herd. Therefore I am on Germany's side. But I came here for another reason. I know nothing of the East, but as I read history it is from the desert that the purification comes. When mankind is smothered with shams and phrases and painted idols a wind blows out of the wild to cleanse and simplify life. The world needs space and fresh air. The civilization we have boasted of is a toy-shop and a blind alley, and I hanker for the open country.'
This confounded nonsense was well received. Her pale eyes had the cold light of the fanatic. With her bright hair and the long exquisite oval of her face she looked like some destroying fury of a Norse legend. At that moment I think I first really feared her; before I had half-hated and half-admired. Thank Heaven, in her absorption she did not notice that I had forgotten the speech of Cleveland, Ohio.
'You are of the Household of Faith,' she said. 'You will presently learn many things, for the Faith marches to victory. Meantime I have one word for you. You and your companion travel eastward.'
'We go to Mesopotamia,' I said. 'I reckon these are our passports,' and I pointed to the envelope.
She picked it up, opened it, and then tore it in pieces and tossed it in the fire.
'The orders are countermanded,' she said. 'I have need of you and you go with me. Not to the flats of the Tigris, but to the great hills. Tomorrow you will receive new passports.'
She gave me her hand and turned to go. At the threshold she paused, and looked towards the oak cupboard. 'Tomorrow I will relieve you of your prisoner. He will be safer in my hands.'
She left me in a condition of pretty blank bewilderment. We were to be tied to the chariot-wheels of this fury, and started on an enterprise compared to which fighting against our friends at Kut seemed tame and reasonable. On the other hand, I had been spotted by Rasta, and had got the envoy of the most powerful man in Constantinople locked in a cupboard. At all costs we had to keep Rasta safe, but I was very determined that he should not be handed over to the lady. I was going to be no party to cold-blooded murder, which I judged to be her expedient. It was a pretty kettle of fish, but in the meantime I must have food, for I had eaten nothing for nine hours. So I went in search of Peter.
I had scarcely begun my long deferred meal when Sandy entered. He was before his time, and he looked as solemn as a sick owl. I seized on him as a drowning man clutches a spar.
He heard my story of Rasta with a lengthening face.
'That's bad,' he said. 'You say he spotted you, and your subsequent doings of course would not disillusion him. It's an infernal nuisance, but there's only one way out of it. I must put him in charge of my own people. They will keep him safe and sound till he's wanted. Only he mustn't see me.' And he went out in a hurry.
I fetched Rasta from his prison. He had come to his senses by this time, and lay regarding me with stony, malevolent eyes.
'I'm very sorry, Sir,' I said, 'for what has happened. But you left me no alternative. I've got a big job on hand and I can't have it interfered with by you or anyone. You're paying the price of a suspicious nature. When you know a little more you'll want to apologize to me. I'm going to see that you are kept quiet and comfortable for a day or two. You've no cause to worry, for you'll suffer no harm. I give you my word of honour as an American citizen.'
Two of Sandy's miscreants came in and bore him off, and presently Sandy himself returned. When I asked him where he was being taken, Sandy said he didn't know. 'They've got their orders, and they'll carry them out to the letter. There's a big unknown area in Constantinople to hide a man, into which the Khafiyeh never enter.'
Then he flung himself in a chair and lit his old pipe.
'Dick,' he said, 'this job is getting very difficult and very dark. But my knowledge has grown in the last few days. I've found out the meaning of the second word that Harry Bullivant scribbled.'
'Cancer?' I asked.
'Yes. It means just what it reads and no more. Greenmantle is dying—has been dying for months. This afternoon they brought a German doctor to see him, and the man gave him a few hours of life. By now he may be dead.'
The news was a staggerer. For a moment I thought it cleared up things. 'Then that busts the show,' I said. 'You can't have a crusade without a prophet.'
'I wish I thought it did. It's the end of one stage, but the start of a new and blacker one. Do you think that woman will be beaten by such a small thing as the death of her prophet? She'll find a substitute—one of the four Ministers, or someone else. She's a devil incarnate, but she has the soul of a Napoleon. The big danger is only beginning.'
Then he told me the story of his recent doings. He had found out the house of Frau von Einem without much trouble, and had performed with his ragamuffins in the servants' quarters. The prophet had a large retinue, and the fame of his minstrels—for the Companions were known far and wide in the land of Islam—came speedily to the ears of the Holy Ones. Sandy, a leader in this most orthodox coterie, was taken into favour and brought to the notice of the four Ministers. He and his half-dozen retainers became inmates of the villa, and Sandy, from his knowledge of Islamic lore and his ostentatious piety, was admitted to the confidence of the household. Frau von Einem welcomed him as an ally, for the Companions had been the most devoted propagandists of the new revelation.
As he described it, it was a strange business. Greenmantle was dying and often in great pain, but he struggled to meet the demands of his protectress. The four Ministers, as Sandy saw them, were unworldly ascetics; the prophet himself was a saint, though a practical saint with some notions of policy; but the controlling brain and will were those of the lady. Sandy seemed to have won his favour, even his affection. He spoke of him with a kind of desperate pity.
'I never saw such a man. He is the greatest gentleman you can picture, with a dignity like a high mountain. He is a dreamer and a poet, too—a genius if I can judge these things. I think I can assess him rightly, for I know something of the soul of the East, but it would be too long a story to tell now. The West knows nothing of the true Oriental. It pictures him as lapped in colour and idleness and luxury and gorgeous dreams. But it is all wrong. The Kaf he yearns for is an austere thing. It is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror ... It always wants the same things at the back of its head. The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by the by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft. They want to prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert. Remember, it is always the empty desert and the empty sky that cast their spell over them—these, and the hot, strong, antiseptic sunlight which burns up all rot and decay. It isn't inhuman. It's the humanity of one part of the human race. It isn't ours, it isn't as good as ours, but it's jolly good all the same. There are times when it grips me so hard that I'm inclined to forswear the gods of my fathers!
'Well, Greenmantle is the prophet of this great simplicity. He speaks straight to the heart of Islam, and it's an honourable message. But for our sins it's been twisted into part of that damned German propaganda. His unworldliness has been used for a cunning political move, and his creed of space and simplicity for the furtherance of the last word in human degeneracy. My God, Dick, it's like seeing St Francis run by Messalina.'
'The woman has been here tonight,' I said. 'She asked me what I stood for, and I invented some infernal nonsense which she approved of. But I can see one thing. She and her prophet may run for different stakes, but it's the same course.'
Sandy started. 'She has been here!' he cried. 'Tell me, Dick, what do you think of her?'
'I thought she was about two parts mad, but the third part was uncommon like inspiration.'
'That's about right,' he said. 'I was wrong in comparing her to Messalina. She's something a dashed sight more complicated. She runs the prophet just because she shares his belief. Only what in him is sane and fine, in her is mad and horrible. You see, Germany also wants to simplify life.'
'I know,' I said. 'I told her that an hour ago, when I talked more rot to the second than any normal man ever achieved. It will come between me and my sleep for the rest of my days.'
'Germany's simplicity is that of the neurotic, not the primitive. It is megalomania and egotism and the pride of the man in the Bible that waxed fat and kicked. But the results are the same. She wants to destroy and simplify; but it isn't the simplicity of the ascetic, which is of the spirit, but the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilization to a featureless monotony. The prophet wants to save the souls of his people; Germany wants to rule the inanimate corpse of the world. But you can get the same language to cover both. And so you have the partnership of St Francis and Messalina. Dick, did you ever hear of a thing called the Superman?'
'There was a time when the papers were full of nothing else,' I answered. 'I gather it was invented by a sportsman called Nietzsche.'
'Maybe,' said Sandy. 'Old Nietzsche has been blamed for a great deal of rubbish he would have died rather than acknowledge. But it's a craze of the new, fatted Germany. It's a fancy type which could never really exist, any more than the Economic Man of the politicians. Mankind has a sense of humour which stops short of the final absurdity. There never has been, and there never could be a real Superman ... But there might be a Superwoman.'
'You'll get into trouble, my lad, if you talk like that,' I said.
'It's true all the same. Women have got a perilous logic which we never have, and some of the best of them don't see the joke of life like the ordinary man. They can be far greater than men, for they can go straight to the heart of things. There never was a man so near the divine as Joan of Arc. But I think, too, they can be more entirely damnable than anything that ever was breeched, for they don't stop still now and then and laugh at themselves ... There is no Superman. The poor old donkeys that fancy themselves in the part are either crackbrained professors who couldn't rule a Sunday-school class, or bristling soldiers with pint-pot heads who imagine that the shooting of a Duc d'Enghien made a Napoleon. But there is a Superwoman, and her name's Hilda von Einem.'
'I thought our job was nearly over,' I groaned, 'and now it looks as if it hadn't well started. Bullivant said that all we had to do was to find out the truth.'
'Bullivant didn't know. No man knows except you and me. I tell you, the woman has immense power. The Germans have trusted her with their trump card, and she's going to play it for all she is worth. There's no crime that will stand in her way. She has set the ball rolling, and if need be she'll cut all her prophets' throats and run the show herself ... I don't know about your job, for honestly I can't quite see what you and Blenkiron are going to do. But I'm very clear about my own duty. She's let me into the business, and I'm going to stick to it in the hope that I'll find a chance of wrecking it ... We're moving eastward tomorrow—with a new prophet if the old one is dead.'
'Where are you going?' I asked.
'I don't know. But I gather it's a long journey, judging by the preparations. And it must be to a cold country, judging by the clothes provided.'
'Well, wherever it is, we're going with you. You haven't heard the end of our yarn. Blenkiron and I have been moving in the best circles as skilled American engineers who are going to play Old Harry with the British on the Tigris. I'm a pal of Enver's now, and he has offered me his protection. The lamented Rasta brought our passports for the journey to Mesopotamia tomorrow, but an hour ago your lady tore them up and put them in the fire. We are going with her, and she vouchsafed the information that it was towards the great hills.'
Sandy whistled long and low. 'I wonder what the deuce she wants with you? This thing is getting dashed complicated, Dick ... Where, more by token, is Blenkiron? He's the fellow to know about high politics.'
The missing Blenkiron, as Sandy spoke, entered the room with his slow, quiet step. I could see by his carriage that for once he had no dyspepsia, and by his eyes that he was excited.
'Say, boys,' he said, 'I've got something pretty considerable in the way of noos. There's been big fighting on the Eastern border, and the Buzzards have taken a bad knock.'
His hands were full of papers, from which he selected a map and spread it on the table.
'They keep mum about this thing in the capital, but I've been piecing the story together these last days and I think I've got it straight. A fortnight ago old man Nicholas descended from his mountains and scuppered his enemies there—at Kuprikeui, where the main road eastwards crosses the Araxes. That was only the beginning of the stunt, for he pressed on on a broad front, and the gentleman called Kiamil, who commands in those parts, was not up to the job of holding him. The Buzzards were shepherded in from north and east and south, and now the Muscovite is sitting down outside the forts of Erzerum. I can tell you they're pretty miserable about the situation in the highest quarters ... Enver is sweating blood to get fresh divisions to Erzerum from Gally-poly, but it's a long road and it looks as if they would be too late for the fair ... You and I, Major, start for Mesopotamy tomorrow, and that's about the meanest bit of bad luck that ever happened to John S. We're missing the chance of seeing the goriest fight of this campaign.'
I picked up the map and pocketed it. Maps were my business, and I had been looking for one.
'We're not going to Mesopotamia,' I said. 'Our orders have been cancelled.'
'But I've just seen Enver, and he said he had sent round our passports.'
'They're in the fire,' I said. 'The right ones will come along tomorrow morning.'
Sandy broke in, his eyes bright with excitement.
'The great hills! ... We're going to Erzerum ... Don't you see that the Germans are playing their big card? They're sending Greenmantle to the point of danger in the hope that his coming will rally the Turkish defence. Things are beginning to move, Dick, old man. No more kicking the heels for us. We're going to be in it up to the neck, and Heaven help the best man ... I must be off now, for I've a lot to do. Au revoir. We meet some time in the hills.'
Blenkiron still looked puzzled, till I told him the story of that night's doings. As he listened, all the satisfaction went out of his face, and that funny, childish air of bewilderment crept in.
'It's not for me to complain, for it's in the straight line of our dooty, but I reckon there's going to be big trouble ahead of this caravan. It's Kismet, and we've got to bow. But I won't pretend that I'm not considerable scared at the prospect.'
'Oh, so am I,' I said. 'The woman frightens me into fits. We're up against it this time all right. All the same I'm glad we're to be let into the real star metropolitan performance. I didn't relish the idea of touring the provinces.'
'I guess that's correct. But I could wish that the good God would see fit to take that lovely lady to Himself. She's too much for a quiet man at my time of life. When she invites us to go in on the ground-floor I feel like taking the elevator to the roof-garden.'