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Chapter 17 Trouble by The Waters of Babylon

  • From that moment I date the beginning of my madness. Suddenly I forgot al_ares and difficulties of the present and future and became foolishly light- hearted. We were rushing towards the great battle where men were busy at m_roper trade. I realized how much I had loathed the lonely days in Germany, and still more the dawdling week in Constantinople. Now I was clear of it all, and bound for the clash of armies. It didn't trouble me that we were on th_rong side of the battle line. I had a sort of instinct that the darker an_ilder things grew the better chance for us.
  • 'Seems to me,' said Blenkiron, bending over me, 'that this joy- ride is goin_o come to an untimely end pretty soon. Peter's right. That young man will se_he telegraph going, and we'll be held up at the next township.'
  • 'He's got to get to a telegraph office first,' I answered. 'That's where w_ave the pull on him. He's welcome to the screws we left behind, and if h_inds an operator before the evening I'm the worst kind of a Dutchman. I'_oing to break all the rules and bucket this car for what she's worth. Don'_ou see that the nearer we get to Erzerum the safer we are?'
  • 'I don't follow,' he said slowly. 'At Erzerum I reckon they'll be waiting fo_s with the handcuffs. Why in thunder couldn't those hairy ragamuffins kee_he little cuss safe? Your record's a bit too precipitous, Major, for the mos_nnocent-minded military boss.'
  • 'Do you remember what you said about the Germans being open to bluff? Well, I'm going to put up the steepest sort of bluff. Of course they'll stop us.
  • Rasta will do his damnedest. But remember that he and his friends are not ver_opular with the Germans, and Madame von Einem is. We're her proteges, and th_igger the German swell I get before the safer I'll feel. We've got ou_assports and our orders, and he'll be a bold man that will stop us once w_et into the German zone. Therefore I'm going to hurry as fast as God will le_e.'
  • It was a ride that deserved to have an epic written about it. The car wa_ood, and I handled her well, though I say it who shouldn't. The road in tha_ig central plain was fair, and often I knocked fifty miles an hour out o_er. We passed troops by a circuit over the veld, where we took some awfu_isks, and once we skidded by some transport with our off wheels almost ove_he lip of a ravine. We went through the narrow streets of Siwas like a fire- engine, while I shouted out in German that we carried despatches fo_eadquarters. We shot out of drizzling rain into brief spells of winte_unshine, and then into a snow blizzard which all but whipped the skin fro_ur faces. And always before us the long road unrolled, with somewhere at th_nd of it two armies clinched in a death-grapple.
  • That night we looked for no lodging. We ate a sort of meal in the car with th_ood up, and felt our way on in the darkness, for the headlights were i_erfect order. Then we turned off the road for four hours' sleep, and I had _o at the map. Before dawn we started again, and came over a pass into th_ale of a big river. The winter dawn showed its gleaming stretches, ice-boun_mong the sprinkled meadows. I called to Blenkiron:
  • 'I believe that river is the Euphrates,' I said. 'So,' he said, acutel_nterested. 'Then that's the waters of Babylon. Great snakes, that I shoul_ave lived to see the fields where King Nebuchadnezzar grazed! Do you know th_ame of that big hill, Major?'
  • 'Ararat, as like as not,' I cried, and he believed me.
  • We were among the hills now, great, rocky, black slopes, and, seen throug_ide glens, a hinterland of snowy peaks. I remember I kept looking for th_astrol I had seen in my dream. The thing had never left off haunting me, an_ was pretty clear now that it did not belong to my South African memories. _m not a superstitious man, but the way that little kranz clung to my min_ade me think it was a warning sent by Providence. I was pretty certain tha_hen I clapped eyes on it I would be in for bad trouble.
  • All morning we travelled up that broad vale, and just before noon it sprea_ut wider, the road dipped to the water's edge, and I saw before me the whit_oofs of a town. The snow was deep now, and lay down to the riverside, but th_ky had cleared, and against a space of blue heaven some peaks to the sout_ose glittering like jewels. The arches of a bridge, spanning two forks of th_tream, showed in front, and as I slowed down at the bend a sentry's challeng_ang out from a block-house. We had reached the fortress of Erzingjan, th_eadquarters of a Turkish corps and the gate of Armenia.
  • I showed the man our passports, but he did not salute and let us move on. H_alled another fellow from the guardhouse, who motioned us to keep pace wit_im as he stumped down a side lane. At the other end was a big barracks wit_entries outside. The man spoke to us in Turkish, which Hussin interpreted.
  • There was somebody in that barracks who wanted badly to see us.
  • 'By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,' quoted Blenkiron softly. '_ear, Major, we'll soon be remembering Zion.'
  • I tried to persuade myself that this was merely the red tape of a frontie_ortress, but I had an instinct that difficulties were in store for us. I_asta had started wiring I was prepared to put up the brazenest bluff, for w_ere still eighty miles from Erzerum, and at all costs we were going to b_anded there before night.
  • A fussy staff-officer met us at the door. At the sight of us he cried to _riend to come and look.
  • 'Here are the birds safe. A fat man and two lean ones and a savage who look_ike a Kurd. Call the guard and march them off. There's no doubt about thei_dentity.'
  • 'Pardon me, Sir,' I said, 'but we have no time to spare and we'd like to be i_rzerum before the dark. I would beg you to get through any formalities a_oon as possible. This man,' and I pointed to the sentry, 'has our passports.'
  • 'Compose yourself,' he said impudently; 'you're not going on just yet, an_hen you do it won't be in a stolen car.' He took the passports and fingere_hem casually. Then something he saw there made him cock his eyebrows.
  • 'Where did you steal these?' he asked, but with less assurance in his tone.
  • I spoke very gently. 'You seem to be the victim of a mistake, sir. These ar_ur papers. We are under orders to report ourselves at Erzerum without a_our's delay. Whoever hinders us will have to answer to General von Liman. W_ill be obliged if you will conduct us at once to the Governor.'
  • 'You can't see General Posselt,' he said; 'this is my business. I have a wir_rom Siwas that four men stole a car belonging to one of Enver Damad's staff.
  • It describes you all, and says that two of you are notorious spies wanted b_he Imperial Government. What have you to say to that?'
  • 'Only that it is rubbish. My good Sir, you have seen our passes. Our errand i_ot to be cried on the housetops, but five minutes with General Posselt wil_ake things clear. You will be exceedingly sorry for it if you delay anothe_inute.'
  • He was impressed in spite of himself, and after pulling his moustache turne_n his heel and left us. Presently he came back and said very gruffly that th_overnor would see us. We followed him along a corridor into a big roo_ooking out on the river, where an oldish fellow sat in an arm-chair by _tove, writing letters with a fountain pen.
  • This was Posselt, who had been Governor of Erzerum till he fell sick and Ahme_evzi took his place. He had a peevish mouth and big blue pouches below hi_yes. He was supposed to be a good engineer and to have made Erzeru_mpregnable, but the look on his face gave me the impression that hi_eputation at the moment was a bit unstable.
  • The staff-officer spoke to him in an undertone.
  • 'Yes, yes, I know,' he said testily. 'Are these the men? They look a prett_ot of scoundrels. What's that you say? They deny it. But they've got the car.
  • They can't deny that. Here, you,' and he fixed on Blenkiron, 'who the devi_re you?'
  • Blenkiron smiled sleepily at him, not understanding one word, and I took u_he parable.
  • 'Our passports, Sir, give our credentials,' I said. He glanced through them, and his face lengthened.
  • 'They're right enough. But what about this story of stealing a car?'
  • 'It is quite true,' I said, 'but I would prefer to use a pleasanter word. Yo_ill see from our papers that every authority on the road is directed to giv_s the best transport. Our own car broke down, and after a long delay we go_ome wretched horses. It is vitally important that we should be in Erzeru_ithout delay, so I took the liberty of appropriating an empty car we foun_utside an inn. I am sorry for the discomfort of the owners, but our busines_as too grave to wait.'
  • 'But the telegram says you are notorious spies!'
  • I smiled. 'Who sent the telegram?'
  • 'I see no reason why I shouldn't give you his name. It was Rasta Bey. You'v_icked an awkward fellow to make an enemy of.'
  • I did not smile but laughed. 'Rasta!' I cried. 'He's one of Enver'_atellites. That explains many things. I should like a word with you alone, Sir.'
  • He nodded to the staff-officer, and when he had gone I put on my most Bibl_ace and looked as important as a provincial mayor at a royal visit.
  • 'I can speak freely,' I said, 'for I am speaking to a soldier of Germany.
  • There is no love lost between Enver and those I serve. I need not tell yo_hat. This Rasta thought he had found a chance of delaying us, so he invent_his trash about spies. Those Comitadjis have spies on the brain … Especiall_e hates Frau von Einem.'
  • He jumped at the name.
  • 'You have orders from her?' he asked, in a respectful tone.
  • 'Why, yes,' I answered, 'and those orders will not wait.'
  • He got up and walked to a table, whence he turned a puzzled face on me. 'I'_orn in two between the Turks and my own countrymen. If I please one I offen_he other, and the result is a damnable confusion. You can go on to Erzerum, but I shall send a man with you to see that you report to headquarters there.
  • I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I'm obliged to take no chances in this business.
  • Rasta's got a grievance against you, but you can easily hide behind the lady'_kirts. She passed through this town two days ago.'
  • Ten minutes later we were coasting through the slush of the narrow street_ith a stolid German lieutenant sitting beside Me.
  • The afternoon was one of those rare days when in the pauses of snow you have _pell of weather as mild as May. I remembered several like it during ou_inter's training in Hampshire. The road was a fine one, well engineered, an_ell kept too, considering the amount of traffic. We were little delayed, fo_t was sufficiently broad to let us pass troops and transport withou_lackening pace. The fellow at my side was good-humoured enough, but hi_resence naturally put the lid on our conversation. I didn't want to talk, however. I was trying to piece together a plan, and making very little of it, for I had nothing to go upon. We must find Hilda von Einem and Sandy, an_etween us we must wreck the Greenmantle business. That done, it didn't matte_o much what happened to us. As I reasoned it out, the Turks must be in a ba_ay, and, unless they got a fillip from Greenmantle, would crumple up befor_he Russians. In the rout I hoped we might get a chance to change our sides.
  • But it was no good looking so far forward; the first thing was to get t_andy.
  • Now I was still in the mood of reckless bravado which I had got from baggin_he car. I did not realize how thin our story was, and how easily Rasta migh_ave a big graft at headquarters. If I had, I would have shot out the Germa_ieutenant long before we got to Erzerum, and found some way of getting mixe_p in the ruck of the population. Hussin could have helped me to that. I wa_etting so confident since our interview with Posselt that I thought I coul_luff the whole outfit.
  • But my main business that afternoon was pure nonsense. I was trying to find m_ittle hill. At every turn of the road I expected to see the castrol befor_s. You must know that ever since I could stand I have been crazy about hig_ountains. My father took me to Basutoland when I was a boy, and I reckon _ave scrambled over almost every bit of upland south of the Zambesi, from th_ottentots Holland to the Zoutpansberg, and from the ugly yellow kopjes o_amaraland to the noble cliffs of Mont aux Sources. One of the things I ha_ooked forward to in coming home was the chance of climbing the Alps. But no_ was among peaks that I fancied were bigger than the Alps, and I could hardl_eep my eyes on the road. I was pretty certain that my castrol was among them, for that dream had taken an almighty hold on my mind. Funnily enough, I wa_easing to think it a place of evil omen, for one soon forgets the atmospher_f nightmare. But I was convinced that it was a thing I was destined to see, and to see pretty soon.
  • Darkness fell when we were some miles short of the city, and the last part wa_ifficult driving. On both sides of the road transport and engineers' store_ere parked, and some of it strayed into the highway. I noticed lots of smal_etails - machine-gun detachments, signalling parties, squads of stretcher- bearers - which mean the fringe of an army, and as soon as the night began th_hite fingers of searchlights began to grope in the skies.
  • And then, above the hum of the roadside, rose the voice of the great guns. Th_hells were bursting four or five miles away, and the guns must have been a_any more distant. But in that upland pocket of plain in the frosty night the_ounded most intimately near. They kept up their solemn litany, with _inute's interval between each - no rafale which rumbles like a drum, but th_teady persistence of artillery exactly ranged on a target. I judged they mus_e bombarding the outer forts, and once there came a loud explosion and a re_lare as if a magazine had suffered.
  • It was a sound I had not heard for five months, and it fairly crazed me. _emembered how I had first heard it on the ridge before Laventie. Then I ha_een half-afraid, half-solemnized, but every nerve had been quickened. Then i_ad been the new thing in my life that held me breathless with anticipation; now it was the old thing, the thing I had shared with so many good fellows, m_roper work, and the only task for a man. At the sound of the guns I felt tha_ was moving in natural air once more. I felt that I was coming home.
  • We were stopped at a long line of ramparts, and a German sergeant stared at u_ill he saw the lieutenant beside me, when he saluted and we passed on. Almos_t once we dipped into narrow twisting streets, choked with soldiers, where i_as hard business to steer. There were few lights - only now and then th_lare of a torch which showed the grey stone houses, with every windo_atticed and shuttered. I had put out my headlights and had only side lamps, so we had to pick our way gingerly through the labyrinth. I hoped we woul_trike Sandy's quarters soon, for we were all pretty empty, and a frost ha_et in which made our thick coats seem as thin as paper.
  • The lieutenant did the guiding. We had to present our passports, and _nticipated no more difficulty than in landing from the boat at Boulogne. Bu_ wanted to get it over, for my hunger pinched me and it was fearsome cold.
  • Still the guns went on, like hounds baying before a quarry. The city was ou_f range, but there were strange lights on the ridge to the east.
  • At last we reached our goal and marched through a fine old carved archway int_ courtyard, and thence into a draughty hall.
  • 'You must see the Sektionschef,' said our guide. I looked round to see if w_ere all there, and noticed that Hussin had disappeared. It did not matter, for he was not on the passports.
  • We followed as we were directed through an open door. There was a man standin_ith his back towards us looking at a wall map, a very big man with a nec_hat bulged over his collar. I would have known that neck among a million. A_he sight of it I made a half-turn to bolt back. It was too late, for the doo_ad closed behind us and there were two armed sentries beside it.
  • The man slewed round and looked into my eyes. I had a despairing hope that _ight bluff it out, for I was in different clothes and had shaved my beard.
  • But you cannot spend ten minutes in a death- grapple without your adversar_etting to know you.
  • He went very pale, then recollected himself and twisted his features into th_ld grin.
  • 'So,' he said, 'the little Dutchmen! We meet after many days.'
  • It was no good lying or saying anything. I shut my teeth and waited.
  • 'And you, Herr Blenkiron? I never liked the look of you. You babbled too much, like all your damned Americans.'
  • 'I guess your personal dislikes haven't got anything to do with the matter,'
  • said Blenkiron, calmly. 'If you're the boss here, I'll thank you to cast you_ye over these passports, for we can't stand waiting for ever.'
  • This fairly angered him. 'I'll teach you manners,' he cried, and took a ste_orward to reach for Blenkiron's shoulder - the game he had twice played wit_e.
  • Blenkiron never took his hands from his coat pockets. 'Keep your distance,' h_rawled in a new voice. 'I've got you covered, and I'll make a hole in you_ullet head if you lay a hand on me.'
  • With an effort Stumm recovered himself. He rang a bell and fell to smiling. A_rderly appeared to whom he spoke in Turkish, and presently a file of soldier_ntered the room.
  • 'I'm going to have you disarmed, gentlemen,' he said. 'We can conduct ou_onversation more pleasantly without pistols.'
  • It was idle to resist. We surrendered our arms, Peter almost in tears wit_exation. Stumm swung his legs over a chair, rested his chin on the back an_ooked at me.
  • 'Your game is up, you know,' he said. 'These fools of Turkish police said th_utchmen were dead, but I had the happier inspiration. I believed the good Go_ad spared them for me. When I got Rasta's telegram I was certain, for you_oings reminded me of a little trick you once played me on the Schwandor_oad. But I didn't think to find this plump old partridge,' and he smiled a_lenkiron. 'Two eminent American engineers and their servant bound fo_esopotamia on business of high Government importance! It was a good lie; bu_f I had been in Constantinople it would have had a short life. Rasta and hi_riends are no concern of mine. You can trick them as you please. But you hav_ttempted to win the confidence of a certain lady, and her interests are mine.
  • Likewise you have offended me, and I do not forgive. By God,' he cried, hi_oice growing shrill with passion, 'by the time I have done with you you_others in their graves will weep that they ever bore you!'
  • It was Blenkiron who spoke. His voice was as level as the chairman's of _ogus company, and it fell on that turbid atmosphere like acid on grease.
  • 'I don't take no stock in high-falutin'. If you're trying to scare me by tha_ime-novel talk I guess you've hit the wrong man. You're like the sweep tha_tuck in the chimney, a bit too big for your job. I reckon you've a talent fo_omance that's just wasted in soldiering. But if you're going to play any ugl_ames on me I'd like you to know that I'm an American citizen, and pretty wel_onsidered in my own country and in yours, and you'll sweat blood for i_ater. That's a fair warning, Colonel Stumm.'
  • I don't know what Stumm's plans were, but that speech of Blenkiron's put int_is mind just the needed amount of uncertainty. You see, he had Peter and m_ight enough, but he hadn't properly connected Blenkiron with us, and wa_fraid either to hit out at all three, or to let Blenkiron go. It was luck_or us that the American had cut such a dash in the Fatherland.
  • 'There is no hurry,' he said blandly. 'We shall have long happy hour_ogether. I'm going to take you all home with me, for I am a hospitable soul.
  • You will be safer with me than in the town gaol, for it's a trifle draughty.
  • It lets things in, and it might let things out.'
  • Again he gave an order, and we were marched out, each with a soldier at hi_lbow. The three of us were bundled into the back seat of the car, while tw_en sat before us with their rifles between their knees, one got up behind o_he baggage rack, and one sat beside Stumm's chauffeur. Packed like sardine_e moved into the bleak streets, above which the stars twinkled in ribbons o_ky.
  • Hussin had disappeared from the face of the earth, and quite right too. He wa_ good fellow, but he had no call to mix himself up in our troubles.