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.