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Chapter 16 The Battered Caravanserai

  • Two days later, in the evening, we came to Angora, the first stage in ou_ourney.
  • The passports had arrived next morning, as Frau von Einem had promised, an_ith them a plan of our journey. More, one of the Companions, who spoke _ittle English, was detailed to accompany us - a wise precaution, for no on_f us had a word of Turkish. These were the sum of our instructions. I hear_othing more of Sandy or Greenmantle or the lady. We were meant to travel i_ur own party.
  • We had the railway to Angora, a very comfortable German Schlafwagen, tacked t_he end of a troop-train. There wasn't much to be seen of the country, fo_fter we left the Bosporus we ran into scuds of snow, and except that w_eemed to be climbing on to a big plateau I had no notion of the landscape. I_as a marvel that we made such good time, for that line was congested beyon_nything I have ever seen. The place was crawling with the Gallipoli troops, and every siding was packed with supply trucks. When we stopped - which we di_n an average about once an hour - you could see vast camps on both sides o_he line, and often we struck regiments on the march along the railway track.
  • They looked a fine, hardy lot of ruffians, but many were deplorably ragged, and I didn't think much of their boots. I wondered how they would do the fiv_undred miles of road to Erzerum.
  • Blenkiron played Patience, and Peter and I took a hand at picquet, but mostl_e smoked and yarned. Getting away from that infernal city had cheered us u_onderfully. Now we were out on the open road, moving to the sound of th_uns. At the worst, we should not perish like rats in a sewer. We would be al_ogether, too, and that was a comfort. I think we felt the relief which a ma_ho has been on a lonely outpost feels when he is brought back to hi_attalion. Besides, the thing had gone clean beyond our power to direct. I_as no good planning and scheming, for none of us had a notion what the nex_tep might be. We were fatalists now, believing in Kismet, and that is _omfortable faith.
  • All but Blenkiron. The coming of Hilda von Einem into the business had put _ery ugly complexion on it for him. It was curious to see how she affected th_ifferent members of our gang. Peter did not care a rush: man, woman, an_ippogriff were the same to him; he met it all as calmly as if he were makin_lans to round up an old lion in a patch of bush, taking the facts as the_ame and working at them as if they were a sum in arithmetic. Sandy and I wer_mpressed - it's no good denying it: horribly impressed - but we were to_nterested to be scared, and we weren't a bit fascinated. We hated her to_uch for that. But she fairly struck Blenkiron dumb. He said himself it wa_ust like a rattlesnake and a bird.
  • I made him talk about her, for if he sat and brooded he would get worse. I_as a strange thing that this man, the most imperturbable and, I think, abou_he most courageous I have ever met, should be paralysed by a slim woman.
  • There was no doubt about it. The thought of her made the future to him a_lack as a thunder cloud. It took the power out of his joints, and if she wa_oing to be much around, it looked as if Blenkiron might be counted out.
  • I suggested that he was in love with her, but this he vehemently denied.
  • 'No, Sir; I haven't got no sort of affection for the lady. My trouble is tha_he puts me out of countenance, and I can't fit her in as an antagonist. _uess we Americans haven't got the right poise for dealing with that kind o_emale. We've exalted our womenfolk into little tin gods, and at the same tim_eft them out of the real business of life. Consequently, when we strike on_laying the biggest kind of man's game we can't place her. We aren't used t_egarding them as anything except angels and children. I wish I had had yo_oys' upbringing.'
  • Angora was like my notion of some place such as Amiens in the retreat fro_ons. It was one mass of troops and transport - the neck of the bottle, fo_ore arrived every hour, and the only outlet was the single eastern road. Th_own was pandemonium into which distracted German officers were trying t_ntroduce some order. They didn't worry much about us, for the heart o_natolia wasn't a likely hunting-ground for suspicious characters. We took ou_assport to the commandant, who visaed them readily, and told us he'd do hi_est to get us transport. We spent the night in a sort of hotel, where al_our crowded into one little bedroom, and next morning I had my work cut ou_etting a motor-car. It took four hours, and the use of every great name i_he Turkish Empire, to raise a dingy sort of Studebaker, and another two t_et the petrol and spare tyres. As for a chauffeur, love or money couldn'_ind him, and I was compelled to drive the thing myself.
  • We left just after midday and swung out into bare bleak downs patched wit_crubby woodlands. There was no snow here, but a wind was blowing from th_ast which searched the marrow. Presently we climbed up into hills, and th_oad, though not badly engineered to begin with, grew as rough as the channe_f a stream. No wonder, for the traffic was like what one saw on that awfu_tretch between Cassel and Ypres, and there were no gangs of Belgia_oadmakers to mend it up. We found troops by the thousands striding along wit_heir impassive Turkish faces, ox convoys, mule convoys, wagons drawn b_turdy little Anatolian horses, and, coming in the contrary direction, man_habby Red Crescent cars and wagons of the wounded. We had to crawl for hour_n end, till we got past a block. Just before the darkening we seemed t_utstrip the first press, and had a clear run for about ten miles over a lo_ass in the hills. I began to get anxious about the car, for it was a poor on_t the best, and the road was guaranteed sooner or later to knock even _olls-Royce into scrap iron.
  • All the same it was glorious to be out in the open again. Peter's face wore _ew look, and he sniffed the bitter air like a stag. There floated up fro_ittle wayside camps the odour of wood-smoke and dung-fires. That, and th_urious acrid winter smell of great wind- blown spaces, will always come to m_emory as I think of that day. Every hour brought me peace of mind an_esolution. I felt as I had felt when the battalion first marched from Air_owards the firing-line, a kind of keying-up and wild expectation. I'm no_sed to cities, and lounging about Constantinople had slackened my fibre. Now, as the sharp wind buffeted us, I felt braced to any kind of risk. We were o_he great road to the east and the border hills, and soon we should stand upo_he farthest battle-front of the war. This was no commonplace intelligenc_ob. That was all over, and we were going into the firing-zone, going to tak_art in what might be the downfall of our enemies. I didn't reflect that w_ere among those enemies, and would probably share their downfall if we wer_ot shot earlier. The truth is, I had got out of the way of regarding th_hing as a struggle between armies and nations. I hardly bothered to thin_here my sympathies lay. First and foremost it was a contest between the fou_f us and a crazy woman, and this personal antagonism made the strife o_rmies only a dimly-felt background.
  • We slept that night like logs on the floor of a dirty khan, and started nex_orning in a powder of snow. We were getting very high up now, and it wa_erishing cold. The Companion - his name sounded like Hussin - had travelle_he road before and told me what the places were, but they conveyed nothing t_e. All morning we wriggled through a big lot of troops, a brigade at least, who swung along at a great pace with a fine free stride that I don't think _ave ever seen bettered. I must say I took a fancy to the Turkish fightin_an: I remembered the testimonial our fellows gave him as a clean fighter, an_ felt very bitter that Germany should have lugged him into this dirt_usiness. They halted for a meal, and we stopped, too, and lunched off som_rown bread and dried figs and a flask of very sour wine. I had a few word_ith one of the officers who spoke a little German. He told me they wer_arching straight for Russia, since there had been a great Turkish victory i_he Caucasus. 'We have beaten the French and the British, and now it i_ussia's turn,' he said stolidly, as if repeating a lesson. But he added tha_e was mortally sick of war.
  • In the afternoon we cleared the column and had an open road for some hours.
  • The land now had a tilt eastward, as if we were moving towards the valley of _reat river. Soon we began to meet little parties of men coming from the eas_ith a new look in their faces. The first lots of wounded had been th_rdinary thing you see on every front, and there had been some pretence a_rganization. But these new lots were very weary and broken; they were ofte_arefoot, and they seemed to have lost their transport and to be starving. Yo_ould find a group stretched by the roadside in the last stages of exhaustion.
  • Then would come a party limping along, so tired that they never turned thei_eads to look at us. Almost all were wounded, some badly, and most wer_orribly thin. I wondered how my Turkish friend behind would explain the sigh_o his men, if he believed in a great victory. They had not the air of th_ackwash of a conquering army.
  • Even Blenkiron, who was no soldier, noticed it.
  • 'These boys look mighty bad,' he observed. 'We've got to hustle, Major, i_e're going to get seats for the last act.'
  • That was my own feeling. The sight made me mad to get on faster, for I sa_hat big things were happening in the East. I had reckoned that four day_ould take us from Angora to Erzerum, but here was the second nearly over an_e were not yet a third of the way. I pressed on recklessly, and that hurr_as our undoing.
  • I have said that the Studebaker was a rotten old car. Its steering-gear wa_retty dicky, and the bad surface and continual hairpin bends of the roa_idn't improve it. Soon we came into snow lying fairly deep, frozen hard an_utted by the big transport-wagons. We bumped and bounced horribly, and wer_haken about like peas in a bladder. I began to be acutely anxious about th_ld boneshaker, the more as we seemed a long way short of the village I ha_roposed to spend the night in. Twilight was falling and we were still in a_nfeatured waste, crossing the shallow glen of a stream. There was a bridge a_he bottom of a slope - a bridge of logs and earth which had apparently bee_reshly strengthened for heavy traffic. As we approached it at a good pace th_ar ceased to answer to the wheel.
  • I struggled desperately to keep it straight, but it swerved to the left and w_lunged over a bank into a marshy hollow. There was a sickening bump as w_truck the lower ground, and the whole party were shot out into the froze_lush. I don't yet know how I escaped, for the car turned over and by rights _hould have had my back broken. But no one was hurt. Peter was laughing, an_lenkiron, after shaking the snow out of his hair, joined him. For myself _as feverishly examining the machine. It was about as ugly as it could be, fo_he front axle was broken.
  • Here was a piece of hopeless bad luck. We were stuck in the middle of Asi_inor with no means of conveyance, for to get a new axle there was as likel_s to find snowballs on the Congo. It was all but dark and there was no tim_o lose. I got out the petrol tins and spare tyres and cached them among som_ocks on the hillside. Then we collected our scanty baggage from the derelic_tudebaker. Our only hope was Hussin. He had got to find us some lodging fo_he night, and next day we would have a try for horses or a lift in som_assing wagon. I had no hope of another car. Every automobile in Anatoli_ould now be at a premium.
  • It was so disgusting a mishap that we all took it quietly. It was too bad t_e helped by hard swearing. Hussin and Peter set off on different sides of th_oad to prospect for a house, and Blenkiron and I sheltered under the neares_ock and smoked savagely.
  • Hussin was the first to strike oil. He came back in twenty minutes with new_f some kind of dwelling a couple of miles up the stream. He went off t_ollect Peter, and, humping our baggage, Blenkiron and I plodded up th_aterside. Darkness had fallen thick by this time, and we took some bad tosse_mong the bogs. When Hussin and Peter overtook us they found a better road, and presently we saw a light twinkle in the hollow ahead.
  • It proved to be a wretched tumble-down farm in a grove of poplars - a foul- smelling, muddy yard, a two-roomed hovel of a house, and a barn which wa_olerably dry and which we selected for our sleeping-place. The owner was _roken old fellow whose sons were all at the war, and he received us with th_rofound calm of one who expects nothing but unpleasantness from life.
  • By this time we had recovered our tempers, and I was trying hard to put my ne_ismet philosophy into practice. I reckoned that if risks were foreordained, so were difficulties, and both must be taken as part of the day's work. Wit_he remains of our provisions and some curdled milk we satisfied our hunge_nd curled ourselves up among the pease straw of the barn. Blenkiron announce_ith a happy sigh that he had now been for two days quit of his dyspepsia.
  • That night, I remember, I had a queer dream. I seemed to be in a wild plac_mong mountains, and I was being hunted, though who was after me I couldn'_ell. I remember sweating with fright, for I seemed to be quite alone and th_error that was pursuing me was more than human. The place was horribly quie_nd still, and there was deep snow lying everywhere, so that each step I too_as heavy as lead. A very ordinary sort of nightmare, you will say. Yes, bu_here was one strange feature in this one. The night was pitch dark, but ahea_f me in the throat of the pass there was one patch of light, and it showed _um little hill with a rocky top: what we call in South Africa a castrol o_aucepan. I had a notion that if I could get to that castrol I should be safe, and I panted through the drifts towards it with the avenger of blood at m_eels. I woke, gasping, to find the winter morning struggling through th_racked rafters, and to hear Blenkiron say cheerily that his duodenum ha_ehaved all night like a gentleman. I lay still for a bit trying to fix th_ream, but it all dissolved into haze except the picture of the little hill, which was quite clear in every detail. I told myself it was a reminiscence o_he veld, some spot down in the Wakkerstroom country, though for the life o_e I couldn't place it.
  • I pass over the next three days, for they were one uninterrupted series o_eart-breaks. Hussin and Peter scoured the country for horses, Blenkiron sa_n the barn and played Patience, while I haunted the roadside near the bridg_n the hope of picking up some kind of conveyance. My task was perfectl_utile. The columns passed, casting wondering eyes on the wrecked car amon_he frozen rushes, but they could offer no help. My friend the Turkish office_romised to wire to Angora from some place or other for a fresh car, but, remembering the state of affairs at Angora, I had no hope from that quarter.
  • Cars passed, plenty of them, packed with staff-officers, Turkish and German, but they were in far too big a hurry even to stop and speak. The onl_onclusion I reached from my roadside vigil was that things were getting ver_arm in the neighbourhood of Erzerum. Everybody on that road seemed to be i_ad haste either to get there or to get away.
  • Hussin was the best chance, for, as I have said, the Companions had a ver_pecial and peculiar graft throughout the Turkish Empire. But the first day h_ame back empty-handed. All the horses had been commandeered for the war, h_aid; and though he was certain that some had been kept back and hidden away, he could not get on their track. The second day he returned with two - miserable screws and deplorably short in the wind from a diet of beans. Ther_as no decent corn or hay left in the countryside. The third day he picked u_ nice little Arab stallion: in poor condition, it is true, but perfectl_ound. For these beasts we paid good money, for Blenkiron was well supplie_nd we had no time to spare for the interminable Oriental bargaining.
  • Hussin said he had cleaned up the countryside, and I believed him. I dared no_elay another day, even though it meant leaving him behind. But he had n_otion of doing anything of the kind. He was a good runner, he said, and coul_eep up with such horses as ours for ever. If this was the manner of ou_rogress, I reckoned we would be weeks in getting to Erzerum.
  • We started at dawn on the morning of the fourth day, after the old farmer ha_lessed us and sold us some stale rye-bread. Blenkiron bestrode the Arab, being the heaviest, and Peter and I had the screws. My worst forebodings wer_oon realized, and Hussin, loping along at my side, had an easy job to keep u_ith us. We were about as slow as an ox-wagon. The brutes were unshod, an_ith the rough roads I saw that their feet would very soon go to pieces. W_ogged along like a tinker's caravan, about five miles to the hour, a_eckless a party as ever disgraced a highroad.
  • The weather was now a drizzle, which increased my depression. Cars passed u_nd disappeared in the mist, going at thirty miles an hour to mock ou_lowness. None of us spoke, for the futility of the business clogged ou_pirits. I bit hard on my lip to curb my restlessness, and I think I woul_ave sold my soul there and then for anything that could move fast. I don'_now any sorer trial than to be mad for speed and have to crawl at a snail'_ace. I was getting ripe for any kind of desperate venture.
  • About midday we descended on a wide plain full of the marks of ric_ultivation. Villages became frequent, and the land was studded with oliv_roves and scarred with water furrows. From what I remembered of the map _udged that we were coming to that champagne country near Siwas, which is th_ranary of Turkey, and the home of the true Osmanli stock.
  • Then at the turning of the road we came to the caravanserai.
  • It was a dingy, battered place, with the pink plaster falling in patches fro_ts walls. There was a courtyard abutting on the road, and a flat-topped hous_ith a big hole in its side. It was a long way from any battle-ground, and _uessed that some explosion had wrought the damage. Behind it, a few hundre_ards off, a detachment of cavalry were encamped beside a stream, with thei_orses tied up in long lines of pickets.
  • And by the roadside, quite alone and deserted, stood a large new motor-car.
  • In all the road before and behind there was no man to be seen except th_roops by the stream. The owners, whoever they were, must be inside th_aravanserai.
  • I have said I was in the mood for some desperate deed, and lo and behol_rovidence had given me the chance! I coveted that car as I have never covete_nything on earth. At the moment all my plans had narrowed down to a feveris_assion to get to the battle- field. We had to find Greenmantle at Erzerum, and once there we should have Hilda von Einem's protection. It was a time o_ar, and a front of brass was the surest safety. But, indeed, I could no_igure out any plan worth speaking of. I saw only one thing - a fast car whic_ight be ours.
  • I said a word to the others, and we dismounted and tethered our horses at th_ear end of the courtyard. I heard the low hum of voices from the cavalryme_y the stream, but they were three hundred yards off and could not see us.
  • Peter was sent forward to scout in the courtyard. In the building itself ther_as but one window looking on the road, and that was in the upper floor.
  • Meantime I crawled along beside the wall to where the car stood, and had _ook at it. It was a splendid six-cylinder affair, brand new, with the tyre_ittle worn. There were seven tins of petrol stacked behind as well as spar_yres, and, looking in, I saw map- cases and field-glasses strewn on the seat_s if the owners had only got out for a minute to stretch their legs.
  • Peter came back and reported that the courtyard was empty.
  • 'There are men in the upper room,' he said; 'more than one, for I heard thei_oices. They are moving about restlessly, and may soon be coming out.'
  • I reckoned that there was no time to be lost, so I told the others to sli_own the road fifty yards beyond the caravanserai and be ready to climb in a_ passed. I had to start the infernal thing, and there might be shooting.
  • I waited by the car till I saw them reach the right distance. I could hea_oices from the second floor of the house and footsteps moving up and down. _as in a fever of anxiety, for any moment a man might come to the window. The_ flung myself on the starting handle and worked like a demon.
  • The cold made the job difficult, and my heart was in my mouth, for the nois_n that quiet place must have woke the dead. Then, by the mercy of Heaven, th_ngine started, and I sprang to the driving seat, released the clutch, an_pened the throttle. The great car shot forward, and I seemed to hear behin_e shrill voices. A pistol bullet bored through my hat, and another burie_tself in a cushion beside me.
  • In a second I was clear of the place and the rest of the party were embarking.
  • Blenkiron got on the step and rolled himself like a sack of coals into th_onneau. Peter nipped up beside me, and Hussin scrambled in from the back ove_he folds of the hood. We had our baggage in our pockets and had nothing t_arry.
  • Bullets dropped round us, but did no harm. Then I heard a report at my ear, and out of a corner of my eye saw Peter lower his pistol. Presently we wer_ut of range, and, looking back, I saw three men gesticulating in the middl_f the road.
  • 'May the devil fly away with this pistol,' said Peter ruefully. 'I never coul_ake good shooting with a little gun. Had I had my rifle … '
  • 'What did you shoot for?' I asked in amazement. 'We've got the fellows' car, and we don't want to do them any harm.'
  • 'It would have saved trouble had I had my rifle,' said Peter, quietly. 'Th_ittle man you call Rasta was there, and he knew you. I heard him cry you_ame. He is an angry little man, and I observe that on this road there is _elegraph.'