I had just finished breakfast and was filling my pipe when I got Bullivant'_elegram. It was at Furling, the big country house in Hampshire where I ha_ome to convalesce after Loos, and Sandy, who was in the same case, wa_unting for the marmalade. I flung him the flimsy with the blue strip paste_own on it, and he whistled.
'Hullo, Dick, you've got the battalion. Or maybe it's a staff billet. You'l_e a blighted brass-hat, coming it heavy over the hard-working regimenta_fficer. And to think of the language you've wasted on brass-hats in you_ime!'
I sat and thought for a bit, for the name 'Bullivant' carried me back eightee_onths to the hot summer before the war. I had not seen the man since, thoug_ had read about him in the papers. For more than a year I had been a bus_attalion officer, with no other thought than to hammer a lot of raw stuf_nto good soldiers. I had succeeded pretty well, and there was no prouder ma_n earth than Richard Hannay when he took his Lennox Highlanders over th_arapets on that glorious and bloody 25th day of September. Loos was n_icnic, and we had had some ugly bits of scrapping before that, but the wors_it of the campaign I had seen was a tea-party to the show I had been in wit_ullivant before the war started. [Major Hannay's narrative of this affair ha_een published under the title of The Thirty-nine Steps.]
The sight of his name on a telegram form seemed to change all my outlook o_ife. I had been hoping for the command of the battalion, and looking forwar_o being in at the finish with Brother Boche. But this message jerked m_houghts on to a new road. There might be other things in the war tha_traightforward fighting. Why on earth should the Foreign Office want to se_n obscure Major of the New Army, and want to see him in double-quick time?
'I'm going up to town by the ten train,' I announced; 'I'll be back in tim_or dinner.'
'Try my tailor,' said Sandy. 'He's got a very nice taste in red tabs. You ca_se my name.'
An idea struck me. 'You're pretty well all right now. If I wire for you, wil_ou pack your own kit and mine and join me?'
'Right-o! I'll accept a job on your staff if they give you a corps. If so b_s you come down tonight, be a good chap and bring a barrel of oysters fro_weeting's.'
I travelled up to London in a regular November drizzle, which cleared up abou_imbledon to watery sunshine. I never could stand London during the war. I_eemed to have lost its bearings and broken out into all manner of badges an_niforms which did not fit in with my notion of it. One felt the war more i_ts streets than in the field, or rather one felt the confusion of war withou_eeling the purpose. I dare say it was all right; but since August 1914 _ever spent a day in town without coming home depressed to my boots.
I took a taxi and drove straight to the Foreign Office. Sir Walter did no_eep me waiting long. But when his secretary took me to his room I would no_ave recognized the man I had known eighteen months before.
His big frame seemed to have dropped flesh and there was a stoop in the squar_houlders. His face had lost its rosiness and was red in patches, like that o_ man who gets too little fresh air. His hair was much greyer and very thi_bout the temples, and there were lines of overwork below the eyes. But th_yes were the same as before, keen and kindly and shrewd, and there was n_hange in the firm set of the jaw.
'We must on no account be disturbed for the next hour,' he told his secretary.
When the young man had gone he went across to both doors and turned the key_n them.
'Well, Major Hannay,' he said, flinging himself into a chair beside the fire.
'How do you like soldiering?'
'Right enough,' I said, 'though this isn't just the kind of war I would hav_icked myself. It's a comfortless, bloody business. But we've got the measur_f the old Boche now, and it's dogged as does it. I count on getting back t_he front in a week or two.'
'Will you get the battalion?' he asked. He seemed to have followed my doing_retty closely.
'I believe I've a good chance. I'm not in this show for honour and glory, though. I want to do the best I can, but I wish to heaven it was over. All _hink of is coming out of it with a whole skin.'
He laughed. 'You do yourself an injustice. What about the forward observatio_ost at the Lone Tree? You forgot about the whole skin then.'
I felt myself getting red. 'That was all rot,' I said, 'and I can't think wh_old you about it. I hated the job, but I had to do it to prevent m_ubalterns going to glory. They were a lot of fire-eating young lunatics. If _ad sent one of them he'd have gone on his knees to Providence and asked fo_rouble.'
Sir Walter was still grinning.
'I'm not questioning your caution. You have the rudiments of it, or ou_riends of the Black Stone would have gathered you in at our last merr_eeting. I would question it as little as your courage. What exercises my min_s whether it is best employed in the trenches.'
'Is the War Office dissatisfied with me?' I asked sharply.
'They are profoundly satisfied. They propose to give you command of you_attalion. Presently, if you escape a stray bullet, you will no doubt be _rigadier. It is a wonderful war for youth and brains. But … I take it you ar_n this business to serve your country, Hannay?'
'I reckon I am,' I said. 'I am certainly not in it for my health.'
He looked at my leg, where the doctors had dug out the shrapnel fragments, an_miled quizzically.
'Pretty fit again?' he asked.
'Tough as a sjambok. I thrive on the racket and eat and sleep like _choolboy.'
He got up and stood with his back to the fire, his eyes staring abstractedl_ut of the window at the wintry park.
'It is a great game, and you are the man for it, no doubt. But there ar_thers who can play it, for soldiering today asks for the average rather tha_he exception in human nature. It is like a big machine where the parts ar_tandardized. You are fighting, not because you are short of a job, bu_ecause you want to help England. How if you could help her better than b_ommanding a battalion - or a brigade - or, if it comes to that, a division?
How if there is a thing which you alone can do? Not some embusque business i_n office, but a thing compared to which your fight at Loos was a Sunday- school picnic. You are not afraid of danger? Well, in this job you would no_e fighting with an army around you, but alone. You are fond of tacklin_ifficulties? Well, I can give you a task which will try all your powers. Hav_ou anything to say?'
My heart was beginning to thump uncomfortably. Sir Walter was not the man t_itch a case too high.
'I am a soldier,' I said, 'and under orders.'
'True; but what I am about to propose does not come by any conceivable stretc_ithin the scope of a soldier's duties. I shall perfectly understand if yo_ecline. You will be acting as I should act myself - as any sane man would. _ould not press you for worlds. If you wish it, I will not even make th_roposal, but let you go here and now, and wish you good luck with you_attalion. I do not wish to perplex a good soldier with impossible decisions.'
This piqued me and put me on my mettle.
'I am not going to run away before the guns fire. Let me hear what yo_ropose.'
Sir Walter crossed to a cabinet, unlocked it with a key from his chain, an_ook a piece of paper from a drawer. It looked like an ordinary half-sheet o_ote-paper.
'I take it,' he said, 'that your travels have not extended to the East.'
'No,' I said, 'barring a shooting trip in East Africa.'
'Have you by any chance been following the present campaign there?'
'I've read the newspapers pretty regularly since I went to hospital. I've go_ome pals in the Mesopotamia show, and of course I'm keen to know what i_oing to happen at Gallipoli and Salonika. I gather that Egypt is prett_afe.'
'If you will give me your attention for ten minutes I will supplement you_ewspaper reading.'
Sir Walter lay back in an arm-chair and spoke to the ceiling. It was the bes_tory, the clearest and the fullest, I had ever got of any bit of the war. H_old me just how and why and when Turkey had left the rails. I heard about he_rievances over our seizure of her ironclads, of the mischief the coming o_he Goeben had wrought, of Enver and his precious Committee and the way the_ad got a cinch on the old Turk. When he had spoken for a bit, he began t_uestion me.
'You are an intelligent fellow, and you will ask how a Polish adventurer, meaning Enver, and a collection of Jews and gipsies should have got control o_ proud race. The ordinary man will tell you that it was German organizatio_acked up with German money and German arms. You will inquire again how, sinc_urkey is primarily a religious power, Islam has played so small a part in i_ll. The Sheikh-ul-Islam is neglected, and though the Kaiser proclaims a Hol_ar and calls himself Hadji Mohammed Guilliamo, and says the Hohenzollerns ar_escended from the Prophet, that seems to have fallen pretty flat. Th_rdinary man again will answer that Islam in Turkey is becoming a back number, and that Krupp guns are the new gods. Yet - I don't know. I do not quit_elieve in Islam becoming a back number.'
'Look at it in another way,' he went on. 'If it were Enver and Germany alon_ragging Turkey into a European war for purposes that no Turk cared a rus_bout, we might expect to find the regular army obedient, and Constantinople.
But in the provinces, where Islam is strong, there would be trouble. Many o_s counted on that. But we have been disappointed. The Syrian army is a_anatical as the hordes of the Mahdi. The Senussi have taken a hand in th_ame. The Persian Moslems are threatening trouble. There is a dry wind blowin_hrough the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark. And that wind i_lowing towards the Indian border. Whence comes that wind, think you?'
Sir Walter had lowered his voice and was speaking very slow and distinct. _ould hear the rain dripping from the eaves of the window, and far off th_oot of taxis in Whitehall.
'Have you an explanation, Hannay?' he asked again.
'It looks as if Islam had a bigger hand in the thing than we thought,' I said.
'I fancy religion is the only thing to knit up such a scattered empire.'
'You are right,' he said. 'You must be right. We have laughed at the Holy War, the jehad that old Von der Goltz prophesied. But I believe that stupid old ma_ith the big spectacles was right. There is a jehad preparing. The questio_s, How?'
'I'm hanged if I know,' I said; 'but I'll bet it won't be done by a pack o_tout German officers in pickelhaubes. I fancy you can't manufacture Holy War_ut of Krupp guns alone and a few staff officers and a battle cruiser with he_oilers burst.'
'Agreed. They are not fools, however much we try to persuade ourselves of th_ontrary. But supposing they had got some tremendous sacred sanction - som_oly thing, some book or gospel or some new prophet from the desert, somethin_hich would cast over the whole ugly mechanism of German war the glamour o_he old torrential raids which crumpled the Byzantine Empire and shook th_alls of Vienna? Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in th_ulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other. Supposin_here is some Ark of the Covenant which will madden the remotest Mosle_easant with dreams of Paradise? What then, my friend?'
'Then there will be hell let loose in those parts pretty soon.'
'Hell which may spread. Beyond Persia, remember, lies India.'
'You keep to suppositions. How much do you know?' I asked.
'Very little, except the fact. But the fact is beyond dispute. I have report_rom agents everywhere - pedlars in South Russia, Afghan horse-dealers, Turcoman merchants, pilgrims on the road to Mecca, sheikhs in North Africa, sailors on the Black Sea coasters, sheep- skinned Mongols, Hindu fakirs, Gree_raders in the Gulf, as well as respectable Consuls who use cyphers. They tel_he same story. The East is waiting for a revelation. It has been promise_ne. Some star - man, prophecy, or trinket - is coming out of the West. Th_ermans know, and that is the card with which they are going to astonish th_orld.'
'And the mission you spoke of for me is to go and find out?'
He nodded gravely. 'That is the crazy and impossible mission.'
'Tell me one thing, Sir Walter,' I said. 'I know it is the fashion in thi_ountry if a man has a special knowledge to set him to some job exactly th_pposite. I know all about Damaraland, but instead of being put on Botha'_taff, as I applied to be, I was kept in Hampshire mud till the campaign i_erman South West Africa was over. I know a man who could pass as an Arab, bu_o you think they would send him to the East? They left him in my battalion - a lucky thing for me, for he saved my life at Loos. I know the fashion, bu_sn't this just carrying it a bit too far? There must be thousands of men wh_ave spent years in the East and talk any language. They're the fellows fo_his job. I never saw a Turk in my life except a chap who did wrestling turn_n a show at Kimberley. You've picked about the most useless man on earth.'
'You've been a mining engineer, Hannay,' Sir Walter said. 'If you wanted a ma_o prospect for gold in Barotseland you would of course like to get one wh_new the country and the people and the language. But the first thing yo_ould require in him would be that he had a nose for finding gold and knew hi_usiness. That is the position now. I believe that you have a nose for findin_ut what our enemies try to hide. I know that you are brave and cool an_esourceful. That is why I tell you the story. Besides … '
He unrolled a big map of Europe on the wall.
'I can't tell you where you'll get on the track of the secret, but I can put _imit to the quest. You won't find it east of the Bosporus - not yet. It i_till in Europe. It may be in Constantinople, or in Thrace. It may be farthe_est. But it is moving eastwards. If you are in time you may cut into it_arch to Constantinople. That much I can tell you. The secret is known i_ermany, too, to those whom it concerns. It is in Europe that the seeker mus_earch - at present.'
'Tell me more,' I said. 'You can give me no details and no instructions.
Obviously you can give me no help if I come to grief.'
He nodded. 'You would be beyond the pale.'
'You give me a free hand.'
'Absolutely. You can have what money you like, and you can get what help yo_ike. You can follow any plan you fancy, and go anywhere you think fruitful.
We can give no directions.'
'One last question. You say it is important. Tell me just how important.'
'It is life and death,' he said solemnly. 'I can put it no higher and n_ower. Once we know what is the menace we can meet it. As long as we are i_he dark it works unchecked and we may be too late. The war must be won o_ost in Europe. Yes; but if the East blazes up, our effort will be distracte_rom Europe and the great coup may fail. The stakes are no less than victor_nd defeat, Hannay.'
I got out of my chair and walked to the window. It was a difficult moment i_y life. I was happy in my soldiering; above all, happy in the company of m_rother officers. I was asked to go off into the enemy's lands on a quest fo_hich I believed I was manifestly unfitted - a business of lonely days an_ights, of nerve- racking strain, of deadly peril shrouding me like a garment.
Looking out on the bleak weather I shivered. It was too grim a business, to_nhuman for flesh and blood. But Sir Walter had called it a matter of life an_eath, and I had told him that I was out to serve my country. He could no_ive me orders, but was I not under orders - higher orders than m_rigadier's? I thought myself incompetent, but cleverer men than me thought m_ompetent, or at least competent enough for a sporting chance. I knew in m_oul that if I declined I should never be quite at peace in the world again.
And yet Sir Walter had called the scheme madness, and said that he himsel_ould never have accepted.
How does one make a great decision? I swear that when I turned round to spea_ meant to refuse. But my answer was Yes, and I had crossed the Rubicon. M_oice sounded cracked and far away.
Sir Walter shook hands with me and his eyes blinked a little.
'I may be sending you to your death, Hannay - Good God, what a damned task- mistress duty is! - If so, I shall be haunted with regrets, but you will neve_epent. Have no fear of that. You have chosen the roughest road, but it goe_traight to the hill-tops.'
He handed me the half-sheet of note-paper. On it were written three words -
'Kasredin,' 'cancer,' and 'v. I.'
'That is the only clue we possess,' he said. 'I cannot construe it, but I ca_ell you the story. We have had our agents working in Persia and Mesopotami_or years - mostly young officers of the Indian Army. They carry their live_n their hands, and now and then one disappears, and the sewers of Baghda_ight tell a tale. But they find out many things, and they count the gam_orth the candle. They have told us of the star rising in the West, but the_ould give us no details. All but one - the best of them. He had been workin_etween Mosul and the Persian frontier as a muleteer, and had been south int_he Bakhtiari hills. He found out something, but his enemies knew that he kne_nd he was pursued. Three months ago, just before Kut, he staggered int_elamain's camp with ten bullet holes in him and a knife slash on hi_orehead. He mumbled his name, but beyond that and the fact that there was _omething coming from the West he told them nothing. He died in ten minutes.
They found this paper on him, and since he cried out the word "Kasredin" i_is last moments, it must have had something to do with his quest. It is fo_ou to find out if it has any meaning.'
I folded it up and placed it in my pocket-book.
'What a great fellow! What was his name?' I asked.
Sir Walter did not answer at once. He was looking out of the window. 'Hi_ame,' he said at last, 'was Harry Bullivant. He was my son. God rest hi_rave soul!'