We reached Rustchuk on January 10th, but by no means landed on that day.
Something had gone wrong with the unloading arrangements, or more likely wit_he railway behind them, and we were kept swinging all day well out in th_urbid river. On the top of this Captain Schenk got an ague, and by tha_vening was a blue and shivering wreck. He had done me well, and I reckoned _ould stand by him. So I got his ship's papers, and the manifests of cargo, and undertook to see to the trans-shipment. It wasn't the first time I ha_ackled that kind of business, and I hadn't much to learn about steam cranes.
I told him I was going on to Constantinople and would take Peter with me, an_e was agreeable. He would have to wait at Rustchuk to get his return cargo, and could easily inspan a fresh engineer.
I worked about the hardest twenty-four hours of my life getting the stuf_shore. The landing officer was a Bulgarian, quite a competent man if he coul_ave made the railways give him the trucks he needed. There was a collectio_f hungry German transport officers always putting in their oars, and bein_nfernally insolent to everybody. I took the high and mighty line with them; and, as I had the Bulgarian commandant on my side, after about two hours'
blasphemy got them quieted.
But the big trouble came the next morning when I had got nearly all the stuf_board the trucks.
A young officer in what I took to be a Turkish uniform rode up with an aide- de-camp. I noticed the German guards saluting him, so I judged he was rather _well. He came up to me and asked me very civilly in German for the way-bills.
I gave him them and he looked carefully through them, marking certain item_ith a blue pencil. Then he coolly handed them to his aide-de-camp and spok_o him in Turkish.
'Look here, I want these back,' I said. 'I can't do without them, and we've n_ime to waste.'
'Presently,' he said, smiling, and went off.
I said nothing, reflecting that the stuff was for the Turks and they naturall_ad to have some say in its handling. The loading was practically finishe_hen my gentleman returned. He handed me a neatly typed new set of way-bills.
One glance at them showed that some of the big items had been left out.
'Here, this won't do,' I cried. 'Give me back the right set. This thing's n_ood to me.'
For answer he winked gently, smiled like a dusky seraph, and held out hi_and. In it I saw a roll of money.
'For yourself,' he said. 'It is the usual custom.'
It was the first time anyone had ever tried to bribe me, and it made me boi_p like a geyser. I saw his game clearly enough. Turkey would pay for the lo_o Germany: probably had already paid the bill: but she would pay double fo_he things not on the way-bills, and pay to this fellow and his friends. Thi_truck me as rather steep even for Oriental methods of doing business.
'Now look here, Sir,' I said, 'I don't stir from this place till I get th_orrect way-bills. If you won't give me them, I will have every item out o_he trucks and make a new list. But a correct list I have, or the stuff stay_ere till Doomsday.'
He was a slim, foppish fellow, and he looked more puzzled than angry.
'I offer you enough,' he said, again stretching out his hand.
At that I fairly roared. 'If you try to bribe me, you infernal littl_aberdasher, I'll have you off that horse and chuck you in the river.'
He no longer misunderstood me. He began to curse and threaten, but I cut hi_hort.
'Come along to the commandant, my boy,' I said, and I marched away, tearing u_is typewritten sheets as I went and strewing them behind me like a pape_hase.
We had a fine old racket in the commandant's office. I said it was m_usiness, as representing the German Government, to see the stuff delivered t_he consignee at Constantinople ship-shape and Bristol-fashion. I told him i_asn't my habit to proceed with cooked documents. He couldn't but agree wit_e, but there was that wrathful Oriental with his face as fixed as a Buddha.
'I am sorry, Rasta Bey,' he said; 'but this man is in the right.' 'I hav_uthority from the Committee to receive the stores,' he said sullenly.
'Those are not my instructions,' was the answer. 'They are consigned to th_rtillery commandant at Chataldja, General von Oesterzee.'
The man shrugged his shoulders. 'Very well. I will have a word to say t_eneral von Oesterzee, and many to this fellow who flouts the Committee.' An_e strode away like an impudent boy.
The harassed commandant grinned. 'You've offended his Lordship, and he is _ad enemy. All those damned Comitadjis are. You would be well advised not t_o on to Constantinople.' 'And have that blighter in the red hat loot th_rucks on the road? No, thank you. I am going to see them safe at Chataldja, or whatever they call the artillery depot.'
I said a good deal more, but that is an abbreviated translation of my remarks.
My word for 'blighter' was trottel, but I used some other expressions whic_ould have ravished my Young Turk friend to hear. Looking back, it seem_retty ridiculous to have made all this fuss about guns which were going to b_sed against my own people. But I didn't see that at the time. My professiona_ride was up in arms, and I couldn't bear to have a hand in a crooked deal.
'Well, I advise you to go armed,' said the commandant. 'You will have a guar_or the trucks, of course, and I will pick you good men. They may hold you u_ll the same. I can't help you once you are past the frontier, but I'll send _ire to Oesterzee and he'll make trouble if anything goes wrong. I still thin_ou would have been wiser to humour Rasta Bey.'
As I was leaving he gave me a telegram. 'Here's a wire for your Captai_chenk.' I slipped the envelope in my pocket and went Out.
Schenk was pretty sick, so I left a note for him. At one o'clock I got th_rain started, with a couple of German Landwehr in each truck and Peter and _n a horse-box. Presently I remembered Schenk's telegram, which still repose_n my pocket. I took it out and opened it, meaning to wire it from the firs_tation we stopped at. But I changed my mind when I read it. It was from som_fficial at Regensburg, asking him to put under arrest and send back by th_irst boat a man called Brandt, who was believed to have come aboard a_bsthafen on the 30th of December.
I whistled and showed it to Peter. The sooner we were at Constantinople th_etter, and I prayed we would get there before the fellow who sent this wir_epeated it and got the commandant to send on the message and have us held u_t Chataldja. For my back had fairly got stiffened about these munitions, an_ was going to take any risk to see them safely delivered to their prope_wner. Peter couldn't understand me at all. He still hankered after a gran_estruction of the lot somewhere down the railway. But then, this wasn't th_ine of Peter's profession, and his pride was not at stake. We had a mortall_low journey. It was bad enough in Bulgaria, but when we crossed the frontie_t a place called Mustafa Pasha we struck the real supineness of the East.
Happily I found a German officer there who had some notion of hustling, and, after all, it was his interest to get the stuff moved. It was the morning o_he 16th, after Peter and I had been living like pigs on black bread an_ondemned tin stuff, that we came in sight of a blue sea on our right hand an_new we couldn't be very far from the end.
It was jolly near the end in another sense. We stopped at a station and wer_tretching our legs on the platform when I saw a familiar figure approaching.
It was Rasta, with half a dozen Turkish gendarmes.
I called Peter, and we clambered into the truck next our horse- box. I ha_een half expecting some move like this and had made a plan.
The Turk swaggered up and addressed us. 'You can get back to Rustchuk,' h_aid. 'I take over from you here. Hand me the papers.'
'Is this Chataldja?' I asked innocently.
'It is the end of your affair,' he said haughtily. 'Quick, or it will be th_orse for you.'
'Now, look here, my son,' I said; 'you're a kid and know nothing. I hand ove_o General von Oesterzee and to no one else.'
'You are in Turkey,' he cried, 'and will obey the Turkish Government.'
'I'll obey the Government right enough,' I said; 'but if you're the Governmen_ could make a better one with a bib and a rattle.'
He said something to his men, who unslung their rifles.
'Please don't begin shooting,' I said. 'There are twelve armed guards in thi_rain who will take their orders from me. Besides, I and my friend can shoot _it.'
'Fool!' he cried, getting very angry. 'I can order up a regiment in fiv_inutes.'
'Maybe you can,' I said; 'but observe the situation. I am sitting on enoug_oluol to blow up this countryside. If you dare to come aboard I will shoo_ou. If you call in your regiment I will tell you what I'll do. I'll fire thi_tuff, and I reckon they'll be picking up the bits of you and your regimen_ff the Gallipoli Peninsula.'
He had put up a bluff - a poor one - and I had called it. He saw I meant wha_ said, and became silken.
'Good-bye, Sir,' he said. 'You have had a fair chance and rejected it. W_hall meet again soon, and you will be sorry for your insolence.'
He strutted away and it was all I could do to keep from running after him. _anted to lay him over my knee and spank him.
We got safely to Chataldja, and were received by von Oesterzee like long-los_rothers. He was the regular gunner-officer, not thinking about anythin_xcept his guns and shells. I had to wait about three hours while he wa_hecking the stuff with the invoices, and then he gave me a receipt which _till possess. I told him about Rasta, and he agreed that I had done right. I_idn't make him as mad as I expected, because, you see, he got his stuff saf_n any case. It was only that the wretched Turks had to pay twice for the lo_f it.
He gave Peter and me luncheon, and was altogether very civil and inclined t_alk about the war. I would have liked to hear what he had to say, for i_ould have been something to get the inside view of Germany's Easter_ampaign, but I did not dare to wait. Any moment there might arrive a_ncriminating wire from Rustchuk. Finally he lent us a car to take us the fe_iles to the city.
So it came about that at five past three on the 16th day of January, with onl_he clothes we stood up in, Peter and I entered Constantinople.
I was in considerable spirits, for I had got the final lap successfully over, and I was looking forward madly to meeting my friends; but, all the same, th_irst sight was a mighty disappointment. I don't quite know what I ha_xpected - a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten tha_inter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with _outh- east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The firs_art I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb - wooden houses an_orrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children. There was _emetery, I remember, with Turks' caps stuck at the head of each grave. The_e got into narrow steep streets which descended to a kind of big canal. I sa_hat I took to be mosques and minarets, and they were about as impressive a_actory chimneys. By and by we crossed a bridge, and paid a penny for th_rivilege. If I had known it was the famous Golden Horn I would have looked a_t with more interest, but I saw nothing save a lot of moth-eaten barges an_ome queer little boats like gondolas. Then we came into busier streets, wher_amshackle cabs drawn by lean horses spluttered through the mud. I saw one ol_ellow who looked like my notion of a Turk, but most of the population had th_ppearance of London old-clothes men. All but the soldiers, Turk and German, who seemed well-set-up fellows.
Peter had paddled along at my side like a faithful dog, not saying a word, bu_learly not approving of this wet and dirty metropolis.
'Do you know that we are being followed, Cornelis?' he said suddenly, 'eve_ince we came into this evil-smelling dorp.'
Peter was infallible in a thing like that. The news scared me badly, for _eared that the telegram had come to Chataldja. Then I thought it couldn't b_hat, for if von Oesterzee had wanted me he wouldn't have taken the trouble t_talk me. It was more likely my friend Rasta.
I found the ferry of Ratchik by asking a soldier and a German sailor ther_old me where the Kurdish Bazaar was. He pointed up a steep street which ra_ast a high block of warehouses with every window broken. Sandy had said th_eft-hand side coming down, so it must be the right-hand side going up. W_lunged into it, and it was the filthiest place of all. The wind whistled u_t and stirred the garbage. It seemed densely inhabited, for at all the door_here were groups of people squatting, with their heads covered, thoug_carcely a window showed in the blank walls.
The street corkscrewed endlessly. Sometimes it seemed to stop; then it found _ole in the opposing masonry and edged its way in. Often it was almost pitc_ark; then would come a greyish twilight where it opened out to the width of _ecent lane. To find a house in that murk was no easy job, and by the time w_ad gone a quarter of a mile I began to fear we had missed it. It was no goo_sking any of the crowd we met. They didn't look as if they understood an_ivilized tongue.
At last we stumbled on it - a tumble-down coffee house, with A. Kuprasso abov_he door in queer amateur lettering. There was a lamp burning inside, and tw_r three men smoking at small wooden tables.
We ordered coffee, thick black stuff like treacle, which Peter anathematized.
A negro brought it, and I told him in German I wanted to speak to Mr Kuprasso.
He paid no attention, so I shouted louder at him, and the noise brought a ma_ut of the back parts.
He was a fat, oldish fellow with a long nose, very like the Greek traders yo_ee on the Zanzibar coast. I beckoned to him and he waddled forward, smilin_ilily. Then I asked him what he would take, and he replied, in very haltin_erman, that he would have a sirop.
'You are Mr Kuprasso,' I said. 'I wanted to show this place to my friend. H_as heard of your garden-house and the fun there.'
'The Signor is mistaken. I have no garden-house.'
'Rot,' I said; 'I've been here before, my boy. I recall your shanty at th_ack and many merry nights there. What was it you called it? Oh, I remember - the Garden-House of Suliman the Red.'
He put his finger to his lip and looked incredibly sly. 'The Signor remember_hat. But that was in the old happy days before war came. The place is lon_ince shut. The people here are too poor to dance and sing.'
'All the same I would like to have another look at it,' I said, and I slippe_n English sovereign into his hand.
He glanced at it in surprise and his manner changed. 'The Signor is a Prince, and I will do his will.' He clapped his hands and the negro appeared, and a_is nod took his place behind a little side-counter.
'Follow me,' he said, and led us through a long, noisome passage, which wa_itch dark and very unevenly paved. Then he unlocked a door and with a swir_he wind caught it and blew it back on us.
We were looking into a mean little yard, with on one side a high curving wall, evidently of great age, with bushes growing in the cracks of it. Some scragg_yrtles stood in broken pots, and nettles flourished in a corner. At one en_as a wooden building like a dissenting chapel, but painted a dingy scarlet.
Its windows and skylights were black with dirt, and its door, tied up wit_ope, flapped in the wind.
'Behold the Pavilion,' Kuprasso said proudly.
'That is the old place,' I observed with feeling. 'What times I've seen there!
Tell me, Mr Kuprasso, do you ever open it now?'
He put his thick lips to my ear.
'If the Signor will be silent I will tell him. It is sometimes open - no_ften. Men must amuse themselves even in war. Some of the German officers com_ere for their pleasure, and but last week we had the ballet of Mademoisell_ici. The police approve - but not often, for this is no time for too muc_aiety. I will tell you a secret. Tomorrow afternoon there will be dancing - wonderful dancing! Only a few of my patrons know. Who, think you, will b_ere?'
He bent his head closer and said in a whisper -
'The Compagnie des Heures Roses.'
'Oh, indeed,' I said with a proper tone of respect, though I hadn't a notio_hat he meant.
'Will the Signor wish to come?'
'Sure,' I said. 'Both of us. We're all for the rosy hours.'
'Then the fourth hour after midday. Walk straight through the cafe and on_ill be there to unlock the door. You are new-comers here? Take the advice o_ngelo Kuprasso and avoid the streets after nightfall. Stamboul is no saf_lace nowadays for quiet men.' I asked him to name a hotel, and he rattled of_ list from which I chose one that sounded modest and in keeping with our get- up. It was not far off, only a hundred yards to the right at the top of th_ill.
When we left his door the night had begun to drop. We hadn't gone twenty yard_efore Peter drew very near to me and kept turning his head like a hunte_tag.
'We are being followed close, Cornelis,' he said calmly.
Another ten yards and we were at a cross-roads, where a little place faced _iggish mosque. I could see in the waning light a crowd of people who seeme_o be moving towards us. I heard a high-pitched voice cry out a jabber o_xcited words, and it seemed to me that I had heard the voice before.