The Eye of Zeitoon/Chapter 21
"Those who survive this night shall have brave memories!"
LOOKING back after this lapse of time there seems little difference between the disordered dreams of unconsciousness and the actual waking turmoil of that night. At first as I came slowly to my senses there seemed only a sea of voices all about me, and a constant thumping, as of falling weights.
There were great pine torches set in the rusty old rings on the wall, and by their fitful light I saw that I lay on a cot in the castle keep. Monty, Fred, Will, Kagig and Rustum Khan were conversing at a table. Gloria sat on an up-ended pine log near me. A dozen Armenians, including the "elders" who had disagreed with Kagig, stood arguing rather noisily near the door.
"What is the thumping?" I asked, and Gloria hurried to the cot-side. But I managed to sit up, and after she had given me a drink I found that my foot was still the most injured part of me. It was swollen unbelievably, whereas my bandaged head felt little the worse for wear, and the knife-wound did not hurt much.
"They're bringing in wood," she answered.
"Why all that quantity?"
The thumping was continuous, not unlike the noise good stevedores make when loading against time.
"To burn the castle!"
At that moment Rustum Khan left the table, and seeing me sitting up strode over.
"Good-by, sahib!" he said, reaching out for my hand. "The lord sahib has given me a post of honor and I go to hold it. Those who survive this night shall have brave memories!"
I got to my feet to shake hands with him, and I think he appreciated the courtesy, for his stern eyes softened for a moment. He saluted Gloria rather perfunctorily as became his attitude toward women, and strode away to a point half-way between the door and Monty. There he turned, facing the table.
"Lord sahib bahadur!" he said sonorously.
Monty got up and stood facing him.
"Salaam, Rustum Khan!" Monty answered, returning the salute, and the others got to their feet in a hurry, and stood at attention.
Then the Rajput faced about and went striding through the doorless opening into the black night—the last I was destined to see of him alive.
"May we all prove as faithful and brave as that man!" said Monty, sitting down again, and Kagig cracked his knuckles.
Gloria and I went over and sat at the table, and seeing me in a state to understand things Monty gave me a precis of the situation.
"We're making a great beacon of this castle," he said. "Three hundred men and women are piling in the felled logs and trees and down-wood—everything that will burn. We shall need light on the scene. Rustum Khan has gone to hold the clay ramp and make sure the Turks turn up this castle road. Fred is to hold the corner; we've fortified the Zeitoon side of the road, and Fred and his men are to make sure the Turks don't spread out through the trees. Kagig, Will and I, with twenty-five very fully picked men for each of us, wait for the Turks at the bottom of the road and put up a feint of resistance. Our business will be to make it look as little like a trap and as much like a desperate defense as possible. We hope to make it seem we're caught napping and fighting in the last ditch."
"Last ditch is true enough!" Fred commented cheerfully. Fred was obviously in his best humor, faced by a situation that needed no cynicism to discolor it—full of fight and perfectly contented.
"Practically all of the rest of the men and women who are not watching the enemy on the other side of Beirut Dagh," Monty went on, "are hidden, or will be hidden in the timber on either side of the road. We're hoping to God they'll have sense enough to keep silent until the beacon is lighted. You're to light the beacon, since you're recovering so finely—you and Miss Vanderman."
"Yes, but when?" said I.
"When the bugles blow. We've got six bugles—"
"Only two of them are cornets and one's a trombone," Fred put in.
"And when they all sound together, then set the castle alight and kill any one you see who isn't an Armenian!"
"Or us!" said Fred. "You're asked not to kill one of us!"
"As a matter of fact," said Monty, "I rather expect to be near you by that time, because we don't want to give the signal until as many Turks as possible are caught in the road like rats. At the signal we close the road at both ends; Rustum Khan and Fred from the bottom end, and we at the top."
"Most of the murder," Fred explained cheerfully, "will be done by the women hidden in the trees on either flank. As long as they don't shoot across the road and kill one another it'll be a picnic!"
"How do you know the Turks will walk into the trap?" I asked.
"Ten 'traitors,'" said Monty, "have let themselves get caught at intervals since noon. One of Kagig's spies has got across to us with news that Mahmoud means to finish the hash of Zeitoon to-night. His men have been promised all the loot and all the women."
"Except one!" Fred added with a glance at Gloria.
"Two! Except two!" remarked Kagig with a glance at the door. We looked, and held our breath.
Maga Jhaere stood there, with a hand on the masonry on each side!
"You fool, Kagig, what you fill this castle full of wood for?" she demanded.
Kagig beckoned to her.
"To burn little traitoresses!" he answered tenderly. "Come here!"
She walked over to him, and he put his arm around her waist, looking up from his seat into her face as if studying it almost for the first time. She began running her fingers through his hair.
"Is she not beautiful?" he asked us naively. Then, not waiting for an answer: "She is my wife, effendim. You would not have me be revengeful—not toward my wife, I think?"
"Your wife? Why didn't you tell us that before?"
Gloria seemed the most surprised, as well as the most amused, although we were all astonished.
"Not tell you before? Oh—do you remember Abraham—in the Bible—yes? She has been my best spy now and then. As Kagig's wife what good would she be? Yet, had I not married her, I should have lost the services of most of my best spies—Gregor Jhaere for one. He is not her father, no. They call her their queen. She is daughter of another gipsy and of an Armenian lady of very good family. She has always hoped to see me a monarch!"
He laughed, and cracked his finger-joints.
"To make of me a monarch, and to reign beside me! Ha-ha-ha! I did those gipsies a favor by marrying her, for she was something of a problem to them, no gipsy being good enough in her eyes, and no busné (Gentile) caring for the honor until I saw and fell in love! Oh, yes, I fell in love! I, Kagig, the old adventurer, I fell in love!"
He drew her down and kissed her as tenderly as if she were a little child; then rose to his feet.
"You forgive her, effendim?" he asked. "You forgive her for my sake?"
None answered him. Perhaps he asked too much.
"Never mind me, then, effendim. Not for my sake, but for the good work she has so often done, and for the work she shall do—you forgive her?"
We all looked toward Gloria. It was her prerogative. Gloria took Maga's left hand in her right.
"I don't blame you," she said, "for coveting Will. I've coveted him myself! But you needn't have let your men handle me so roughly!"
"No?" said Maga blandly. "Then why did you 'urt two of them so badly that they run away? Did not you shoot that other one? So—I give 'im to you. I give you that Will Yerkees—"
"Thanks!" put in Will, but Maga ignored the interruption.
"—not because you are cleverer than me—or more beautiful. You are uglee! You can not dance, and as for fighting, I could keel you with one 'and! But because I like Kagig better after all!"
At that Kagig suddenly dismissed all such trivialities as treachery and matrimony from his mind with one of his Napoleonic gestures.
"It is time, effendim, to be moving!" He led the way out without another word, I limping along last and the Armenian "elders" following me.
It was pitchy dark in the castle courtyard, and without the light from numerous kerosene lanterns it would not have been possible to find the way between the heaped-up logs. There was only a crooked, very narrow passage left between the keep and the outer gate, and they had long ago left off using the gate for the lumber, but were hoisting it over the wall with ropes. One improvised derrick squealed in the darkness, and the logs came in by twos and tens and dozens. No sooner were we out of the keep than women came and tossed in logs through the door and windows, until presently that building, too, contained fuel enough to decompose the stone. And over the whole of it, here, there and everywhere, men were pouring cans and cans of kerosene, while other men were setting dry tinder in strategic places.
There was no moon that night. Or if there was a moon, then the dark clouds hid it. No doubt Mahmoud thought he had a night after his own heart for the purpose of overwhelming our little force; for how should he know that we were ready for the massed battalions forming to storm the gorge again.
At a little after eight o'clock Mahmoud resumed the offensive with his artillery, and a messenger that Monty sent down to watch returned and reported the shells all bursting wild, with Rustum Khan's men taking careful cover in the ditches they had zigzagged down the whole face of the ramp.
An hour later the Turk's infantry was reported moving, and shortly before ten o'clock we heard the opening rattle of Rustum Khan's stinging defense. There was intended to be no deception about that part of our arrangements; nor was there. The oncoming enemy was met with a hail of destruction that checked and withered his ranks, and made the succeeding companies only too willing to turn at the castle road instead of struggling straight forward.
Nor was the turn accomplished without further loss; for our Zeitoonli, still entrenched on the flank of the pass, loosed a murderous storm of lead through the dark that swept every inch of the open castle road, and the turn became a shambles.
But Mahmoud had reckoned the cost and decided to pay it. Company after company poured up the gorge in the rear of the front ones, and turned with a roar up the road, butchered and bewildered, but ever adding to the total that gained shelter beyond the first turn in the road.
Those, however, had to deal at once with Monty, Will and Kagig, who opened on them guerrilla warfare from behind trees—never opposing them sufficiently to check them altogether, but leading them steadily forward into the two-mile trap. From where I stood on the top of the castle wall I could judge pretty accurately how the fight went; and I marveled at the skill of our men that they should retire up the road so slowly, and make such a perfect impression of desperate defense. Gloria refused from the first to remain inactive beside me, but went through the trees down the line of the road, crossing at intervals from side to side, urging and begging our ambushed people to be patient and reserve their fire until the chorus of bugles should blow.
About eleven o'clock a breathless messenger came to say that the Turks had renewed the attack on the other side of Beirut Dagh; but I did not even send him on to Kagig. If the attack was a feint, as was probable, intended to distract us from the main battle, then there were men enough there to deal with it. If, on the other hand, Mahmoud had divided forces and sent a formidable number around the mountain, then our only chance was nevertheless to concentrate on our great effort, and defeat the nearest first. There was not the slightest wisdom in sending down a message likely to distract Monty or Will or Kagig from their immediate task.
The women kept piling in the pine trees, until I thought the very weight of lumber might defeat our purpose by delaying the blaze too long. But Kagig had requisitioned every drop of kerosene in Zeitoon, and the stuff was splashed on with the recklessness that comes of throwing parsimony to the winds. Then I grew afraid lest they should fire the stuff too soon, or lest some stray spark from a man's pipe or an overturned lantern should do the work. Every imaginable fear presented itself, because, having no active part in the fighting, I had nothing to distract me from self-criticism. It became almost a foregone conclusion after a while that the night's work was destined to be spoiled entirely by some oversight or stupidity of mine.
The battle down in the valley dinned and screamed like the end of the world, although the Turks could not use their artillery for fear of slaughtering their own men, I could hear Fred hotly engaged, holding the corner of the turn where the Turks were seeking in vain to widen it. Probably the Turks supposed he was put there with a hundred men to defend the road, instead of to drive their thinned battalions up it.
In the end it was an accident that set the bugles blowing, and probably that accident saved our fortunes. Monty shouted to a man to run and ask for news of the fighting below. Mistaking the words in the din, the messenger ran to the rock in the clearing on which the musicians waited, and a minute later the first bars of the Marseillaise rang clearly through the trees.
The almost instant answer was a volley from each side of the road that sounded like the explosion of the whole world. And the Turks hardly half into the trap yet! Monty and Will and Kagig brought their men back up the road at the double, as the only way to escape the fire of our ambushed friends. I was two minutes fumbling with matches in the wind before I could light the kindling set ready in the entrance arch; and it was about three minutes more before the first long flame shot skyward and the beacon we had set began to do its appointed work.
Then, though, that castle proved to be a very Vesuvius, for the draught poured in through the doorless arch and hurried the hot flames skyward to be mushroomed roaring against the belly of black clouds. None of us knew then where Mahmoud was, nor that he had given the order that minute to his trapped battalions to halt, face the trees on either side, and advance in either direction in order to widen their front.
The firing of the castle, for some mad reason of the sort that mothers every catastrophe, caused them to disobey that order and, instead, to charge forward at the double. In a moment the new fury (for it was not panic, nor yet exactly the reverse) communicated itself all along the road, and the regiments at the rear, in spite of the murderous fire from our ambush, yelled and milled to drive the men in front more swiftly.
Then Fred saw the castle flames, and led his men forward to plug up the lower end of the road. Next Rustum Khan saw it, and advanced three hundred down the ramp to hold the ditch at the bottom and prevent reserves from coming to the rescue.
It was then, so he told us afterward, that Fred realized who was the person in authority who had sought to change the line of battle at the critical moment. Mahmoud himself, surrounded by his staff, had ridden forward to see what the true nature of the difficulty might be, and had got caught in the trap when Fred closed it and Rustum Khan cut off the flow of men!
Fred did his best by rapid fire to put an end to Mahmoud, staff and all. But the light from the castle did not reach down in among the trees, and when he told the nearest men who the target was that only made the shooting wilder.
Nor was Mahmoud a man without decision. Realizing that he was trapped, at any rate from behind, he galloped forward with his staff, scattering bewildered men to right and left of him, to find out whether the trap could not be forced from the upper end, knowing that there were plenty of men on the road already to account for any possible total we could bring against them, if only they could be led forward and deployed.
So it came about that Mahmoud on a splendid war-horse, and five of his mounted staff, arrived at the head of the oncoming column; and Kagig saw them in a moment when the flare from the castle roared like a rocket hundreds of feet high and scattered all the shadows on that section of the road. Kagig passed the word along, but it was Monty who devised the instant plan, and one of Will's men who came running to find me.
So I forgot pain and disability in the excitement of having a part to play, Gloria had found her way back to the castle, and it was she who rallied all the men and women who had worked at piling fuel, and brought them to where I lay. Then I begged her to get back somewhere and hide, but she laughed at me.
Our business was to hurry down the road and plug it against Mahmoud and his men, while Kagig got behind him by sheer hand-to-hand fighting, and Monty and Will approached him from the flanks. We had to be cautious about shooting, because of Kagig, for one thing, but for another, Will had sent the message, "Don't kill Mahmoud." And that, of course, was obvious. Mahmoud alive would be worth a thousand to us of any Mahmoud dead.
Gloria ran down the road beside me, and Will caught sight of her in the dancing light. I heard him shout something in United States English about women and hell-fire and burned fingers, but beyond that it was not polite, and was intended for me as much as for Gloria, I did not get the gist of it. Then the battle closed up around us, and we all fought hand to hand—women harder than the men—to close in on Mahmoud and drag him from his horse.
Three times in the fitful dark and even more deceptive dancing light we almost had him. But the first time he fought free, and his war-horse kicked a clear way for him for a few yards through the scrimmage. Then Kagig closed in on him from the rear. But three of the staff engaged Kagig alone, and twenty or thirty of Mahmoud's infantry drove Kagig's men back on the still advancing column. Kagig went down, fighting and shouting like a Berserker, and Monty let Mahmoud go to run to Kagig's rescue.
Monty did not go alone, for his men leapt after him like hounds. But he fought his way in the lead with a clubbed rifle, and stood over Kagig's body working the weapon like a flail. That was all I saw of that encounter, for Mahmoud decided to attempt escape by the upper way again, and it was I who captured him. I landed on him through the darkness with my clenched fist under the low hung angle of his jaw and, seizing his leg, threw him out of the saddle. There Gloria helped me sit on him; and the greater part of what we had to do was to keep the women from tearing him to pieces.
At last Gloria and I, with a dozen of them, took Mahmoud up-hill and made him sit down in full firelight with his back against a rock. He had nothing to say for himself, but stared at Gloria with eyes that explained the whole philosophy of all the Turks; and she, for sake of the decency that was her birthright, went and stood on the far side of the rock and kept the bulge of it between them.
Then I sent for Kagig, and Monty, and Will; and after they had seen to the barricading of the upper end of the road with fallen trees and a fairly wide ditch, Kagig and Will came, followed by half a dozen of the elders, who had been lending a stout hand during that part of the night's work. Kagig was out of breath, but apparently not hurt much.
They came so slowly that I wondered. Gloria, who could see much farther through the dark than I, gave a little scream and ran forward. I saw then by a sudden burst of flame from the castle that they were carrying something heavy, and I guessed what it was although my heart rebelled against belief; but I did not dare leave Mahmoud, who seemed inclined to take advantage of the first stray opportunity. I stuck my pistol into his ear and dared him to move hand or foot.
Gloria came back in tears, and took Mahmoud's cape and my jacket, and spread them on the ground. On these they laid Monty very tenderly, Kagig looking on with cracking finger-joints that I could hear quite plainly in spite of the awful rage of battle that thundered and crashed and screamed among the woods. It was as one sometimes hears the ticking of a watch beneath the pillow in a nightmare.
Monty was alive, but in spite of what Gloria could do the dark blood was welling out from a sword gash on his right side, and we had not a surgeon within miles of us. From somewhere out of the darkness Maga appeared, bringing water, her face all black with the filth of fighting among trees, and her eyes on fire.
Monty seemed to be listening to the noise of battle—Kagig to think of nothing but his loss. He pointed at Mahmoud, who was eying Monty curiously.
"See the prisoner!" he said. "Ha! I would give a hundred of him a hundred times for Monty, my brother!"
Monty turned his head to see Mahmoud, and appeared partly satisfied.
"You hold the key," he said painfully. "Mahmoud will make terms. But it will take time to stop the fighting. You must send down reserves to Fred and Rustum Khan—that is where the strain is—you must see that surely—the enemy from below will be trying to come forward, and those in the trap to return. Fred and Rustum Khan are bearing all the brunt. Relieve them!"
It did not look good to me that Will should leave Gloria again; and Kagig must surely stay there to do the bargaining. So I took Monty's hand to bid him good-by, and limped off through the dark to try to find men who would come with me to the shambles below. It was Kagig and Will together who overtook me, picked me off my feet, and dragged me back, and Will went down alone, with a wave of the hand to Gloria, and a laugh that might have made the devil think he liked it.
Then began the conference, I holding a mere watching brief with a pistol reasonably close to Mahmoud's ear. And for a time, while Monty lived, the elders supported Kagig and insisted on the full concession of his demands. But Monty, with his head on Gloria's lap, died midway of the proceedings; and after that the elders' suspicion of Kagig reawoke, so that Mahmoud took courage and grew more obstinate. Kagig called them aside repeatedly to make them listen to his views.
"You fools!" he swore at them, cracking his knuckles and twisting at his beard alternately. "Do you not realize that Mahmoud is ambitious! Do you not understand that he must yield all, if you insist! Otherwise we hang him here to a tree in sight of the burning castle and his own men! No ambitious rascal is ever willing to be hanged! Insist! Insist!"
"Ah, Kagig!" one of them answered. "Speak for yourself. You would not like to be hanged perhaps! But we must concede him something, or how shall he satisfy ambition? He must be able to go back with something to his credit in order to satisfy the politicians."
"Oh, my people! Oh, my people!" grumbled Kagig. "Can you never see?"
But they went back to Mahmoud with a fresh proposal, milder than the first; and eventually, after yielding point by point, until Kagig begged them kindly to blow his brains out and bury him with Monty, they reached a basis on which Mahmoud was willing to capitulate—or to oblige them, as he expressed it.
He won his main point: Zeitoon was to accept a Turkish governor. They won theirs, that the governor was to bring no troops with him, but to be contented with a body-guard of Zeitoonli. For the rest: Mahmoud was to go free, taking his wounded with him, but surrendering all the uninjured Turkish soldiers in the trap as hostages for the release of all Armenian prisoners taken anywhere between Tarsus and Zeitoon. It was agreed there were to be no subsequent reprisals by either side, and that hostages were not to be released until after Mahmoud's army corps should have returned to whence it came.
Kagig wrote the terms in Turkish by the light of the holocaust in Monty's ancestral keep, and Mahmoud signed the paper in the presence of ten witnesses. Rut whether he, or his brother Turks, have kept, for instance, the last clause of the agreement, history can answer.
First of the Christian nations; the first of us all to feel
The fire of infidel hatred, the weight of the pagan heel;
Faithfullest down the ages tending the light that burned,
Tortured and trodden therefore, spat on and slain and spurned;
Branded for others' vices, robbed of your rightful fame.
Clinging to Truth in a truthless land in the name of the ancient Name;
Generous, courteous, gentle, patient under the yoke.
Decent (hemmed in a harem land ye were ever a one-wife folk);
Royal and brave and ancient—haply an hour has struck
When the new fad-fangled peoples shall weary of raking muck,
And turning from coward counsels and loathing the parish lies.
In shame and sackcloth offer up the only sacrifice.
Then thou who hast been neglected, who hast called o'er a world in vain
To the deaf deceitful traders' ears in tune to the voice of gain.
Thou Cinderella nation, starved that our appetites might live,
When we come with a hand outstretched at last—accept it, and forgive!